Creating an Old South: Middle Florida's Plantation Frontier before the Civil War.
Ideas have power. The antebellum southern view of the South as a beleaguered bastion of gentility threatened by outsiders whose intent was to strip white southern men of their manhood hindered rational discourse on the subject of slavery and its expansion into the territories by the 1850s. Edward Baptist's contribution to the oft-discussed issues of the white southern mind and the Civil War is to show that this idea was fashioned, at least in one area in the South, not over a long period of time but in a very short time frame with the intent to cover an unappealing past.
Creating an Old South: Middle Florida's Plantation Frontier before the Civil War examines class relationships in frontier Florida from the mid 1820s to the Civil War. Middle Florida, for readers who are not familiar with this regional distinction, refers to a portion of the panhandle area of Florida lying in the northern part of the state and just under Alabama and Georgia. Baptist looks at Jackson County and Leon County, examining the way grasping for wealth and power defined relationships on the frontier. While Baptist plays up the definition of manhood in the often brutal encounters of men within and between classes, this is essentially a story of how frontier conditions start out wild and unruly, and how various pressures work to alter class relationships. The discussion of masculinity was perhaps the least convincing portion of this book, which otherwise does a very good job of showing change over time, and in particular demonstrating how a class of people can alter their history, and then be limited or defined by their own stories.
Baptist does a terrific job of following the early land acquisitions of men like Richard Call or John and Samuel Parkhill to later troubles with the Union Bank of Florida. Speculation in land and slaves, subsidized by loans from the bank, followed by the bank's collapse and subsequent planter indebtedness, resulted in the downsizing of planter ambitions, certainly a curtailment of their means of holding power in the area. Baptist describes the rise of two party politics in which both Whigs and Democrats vied for the votes of yeomen, a class whom planters had earlier ignored and often treated with contempt. The growing strength of yeomen voters in the area did not translate into entrance into planter ranks, but did allow for more equity in obtaining land, holding it, and judging miscreants by their actions rather than their rank.
This story becomes truly fascinating when middling farmers and planters began in the 1840s to structure their history as self-serving myth. The violent and disappointing recent past had little appeal to planters, but the imagined past based on a romantic version of plantation life that had been smoothly transferred from Virginia to Florida held great appeal. Planters and wealthier yeomen could conceive of themselves as following in a line of ancestors who knew how to lightly and masterfully handle the reins of power. Southern history was pictured as being seamless from early colonial times to migration to Florida and the region's economic development. Stability and gentility were played up, while turn, oil and economic loss remained outside the narrative. Local history then became a means of soothing planters who had remained in the area, enabling them to see themselves as calm authoritarians in a paternalist mode. Yeomen farmers and slaves fit into the story as loyal adherents to the social system.
By the 1850s, this story especially had appeal in that planters were increasingly tied to northern moneymen who had financial control over planters' lands and crops. Dependence by planters on northern financiers meant that planters fell far short of the ideal of southern honor, and planters reacted by banding together to portray the North as the new threat to southern honor. Pro- slavery rhetoric in part helped to further cement the idea of the Old South as one that was stable and sound, while northern agitators became the epitome of all that might erode southern tradition.
The success of yeoman farmers in undoing the Union Bank in the 1840s required planters to appeal to yeomen in the future in order to maintain their hold on power. This they did in part by referring to the myth of a stable and old South, one that could turn ugly if northern abolitionists had their way and race relations were equalized between whites and blacks. The oft-present coalition between white classes to maintain control over blacks received a boost from the southern telling of the past. Local differences between classes could then be deferred or managed by referring to the greater alarm in the 1850s as northerners appeared to be encroaching on southern rights.
Creating art Old South adds chapters that describe what slaves and white women may have thought about conditions on the frontier. It was not in slaves' interests to buy into the myth of a stable Old South in which they had somehow benefited from being torn from homes in Virginia or North Carolina to move to the frontier. While some white women opposed the violent nature of early planter and country men's relationships with each other, they accepted the interests of their mates and helped write the history that later distorted the past. This is interesting material, but the story is most compelling when dealing with planters and yeoman farmers.
The illustrations in the book are nicely done. A full map of Florida in the Introduction would help the reader gain a better idea of the territory under discussion. The notes are both helpful and complete. As a whole, Creating an Old South is well worth reading for its take on southern storytelling.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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