A Southern Planter
THOMAS SMITH GREGORY DABNEY, a descendant of the Huguenot D’Aubignés, was the son of a Virginian lawyer. Born in 1798, he spent his early years at home ; was sent to an uncle in New Jersey for his schooling, and afterward, when his uncle was made president of William and Mary College, began, but did not finish, a collegiate course. He was married when twenty-two, and after his wife’s death married again, six years after his first marriage. From 1820 till 1835 he led the life of a Virginian gentleman; but in the latter year he determined to move, with his large family of children and servants, to one of the cotton-planting States, and he selected Mississippi, where he bought about four thousand acres on Tallahala Creek, in Hinds County. Here he built a large family mansion, and led a planter’s life until the war for the Union broke up his home, ruined his property, and made it unsafe for him to live in the country. He went to Mobile and Montgomery, but after the war returned to Burleigh, as he called his place, and tried to pick up the threads of his former existence. His family, however, was now grown; his wife died, and at last, parting with the old place, he went to live with one of his daughters in Baltimore, where he died in 1885, in his eighty-eighth year.
He held no public office of any consequence, though he was socially connected with leading families ; he was not identified with any important movement in politics, education, or religion, though he was the friend of public men, an earnest Whig, an enthusiast in education, and a hearty supporter of the religious institutions in his neighborhood. He never traveled abroad, and, save during his schooldays, seems to have known nothing directly of his country excepting parts of Virginia and Mississippi. He lived on his plantation, brought up a large family, and kept his connection with the rest of the world by entertaining profusely, by abundant correspondence, and by sending his favorite son to get his legal training at Harvard University.
The absence of conditions which determine the value of most biographies renders the memorials 1 which have been gathered of his life peculiarly significant and instructive. Almost for the first time in our literature, we have a tolerably full report, all the more valuable for being artless, of a course of life which once was the normal condition of a large body of our countrymen. The New England farmer, the Western pioneer, the Salem merchant, the New York citizen, the California miner, each of these types has been abundantly presented without undue partiality or bitter prejudice. But the Southern planter has rarely been drawn as he is ; only as he was exaggerated in the eyes of his friends, or vilified by his enemies. He stood too near the centre of a passionate struggle to be seen very clearly, and was too closely connected with a system that was under the severest scrutiny ever bestowed on a social institution to hope to escape an identification with it.
We welcome, therefore, this daughter’s affectionate record of her father’s life, because it contains a picture of society in a Slave State, as seen not merely at its best, but freed from the complicating element of politics. The narrator is in full sympathy with her subject, but she is not a special pleader, and is evidently desirous to tell all that she remembers. The unliterary style of the narrative discloses its veracity. We feel that the writer is a conscientious photographer, who not merely does not touch up her pictures, but is at no pains in the first instance to group her subjects effectively.
Indeed, the character of Mr. Dabney, as it looks forth from the penetrating eyes of the picture fronting the titlepage, and as revealed in the incidents of his life, must have forbidden anything like untruthfulness in one whom he trained. As the eyes of a well-painted portrait follow one about the room, so the characters of some men will not let their biographers escape from a sense of persistent supervision. Mr. Dabney had a nature which was generous to a fault; the fault being a reckless confidence in other men. Through this confiding disposition he lost his property, but the nobility of his nature never showed itself more strikingly than when he set about recovering himself, not to restore his fallen fortune, but to clear away the obligations under which he was buried. The keen sense of honor which possessed him was touched with that quality which we affectionately call quixotic, smiling at exhibitions which do not lessen our admiration of the hero. We cannot refrain from copying the pages in which Mrs. Smedes recounts the tragic experience of the family in its disaster, and the heroism of her father: —
“ And now a great blow fell on Thomas Dabney. Shortly before the war, he had been asked by a trusted friend to put his name as security on some papers for a good many thousand dollars. At the time he was assured that his name would only be wanted to tide over a crisis of two weeks, and that he would never hear of the papers again. It was a trap set, and his unsuspicious nature saw no danger, and he put his name to the papers. Loving tins man, and confiding in his honor as in a son’s, he thought no more of the transaction.
“ It was now the autumn of 1866. One night he walked up-stairs to the room where his children were sitting, with a paper in his hand. 1 My children,’ he said, ‘I am a ruined man. The sheriff is down-stairs. He has served this writ on me. It is for a security debt. I do not even know how many more such papers have my name to them.’ His face was white as he said these words. He was sixty-eight years of age, with a large and helpless family on his hands, and the country in such a condition that young men scarcely knew how to make a livelihood.
“ The sheriff came with more writs. Thomas roused himself to meet them all. He determined to pay every dollar. But to do this he must have time. The sale of everything that he owned would not pay all these claims. He put the business in the hands of his lawyer, Mr. John Shelton of Raymond, who was also his intimate friend. Mr. Shelton contested the claims, and this delayed things till Thomas could decide on some way of paying the debts.
“ A gentleman to whom he owed personally several thousand dollars courteously forbore to send in his claim. Thomas was determined that he should not on this account fail to get his money, and wrote urging him to bring a friendly suit, that, if the worst came, he should at least get his proportion. Thus urged, the friendly suit was brought, the man deprecating the proceeding, as looking like pressing a gentleman.
“ And now the judgments, as he knew they would, went against him, one by one. On the 27th of November, 1866, the Burleigh plantation was put up at auction and sold, but the privilege of buying it in a certain time reserved to Thomas. At this time incendiary fires were common. There was not much law in the land. We heard of the gin-houses and cotton-houses that were burned in all directions. One day, as Thomas came back from a business journey, the smouldering ruins of his gin-house met his eye. The building was itself valuable and necessary. All the cotton that he owned was consumed in it. He had not a dollar. He had to borrow the money to buy a postage-stamp, not only during this year, but during many years to come. It was a time of deepest gloom. Thomas had been wounded to the bottom of his affectionate heart by the perfidy of the man who had brought this on his house. In the midst of the grinding poverty that now fell in full force on him, he heard of the reckless extravagance of this man on the money that should have been used to meet these debts. Many honorable men in the South were taking the benefit of the bankrupt law. Thomas’s relations and friends urged him to take the law. It was madness, they said, for a man of his age, in the condition the country was then in, to talk of settling the immense debts that were against him. He refused with scorn to listen to such proposals. But his heart was well - nigh broken. He called his children around him, as he lay in bed, not eating and scarcely sleeping.
“ ‘ My children,’ he said, ‘ I shall have nothing to leave you but a fair name. But you may depend that I shall leave you that. I shall, if I live, pay every dollar that I owe. If I die, I leave these debts to you to discharge. Do not let my name be dishonored. Some men would kill themselves for this. I shall not do that. But I shall die.’
“ The grief of betrayed trust was the bitterest drop in his cup of suffering. But he soon roused himself from this depression, and set about arranging to raise the money needed to buy in the plantation. It could only be done by giving up all the money brought in by the cotton crop for many years. This meant rigid self-denial for himself and his children. He could not bear the thought of seeing his daughters deprived of comforts. He was ready to stand unflinchingly any fate that might be in store for him, but his tenderest feelings were stirred for them. His chivalrous nature had always revolted from the sight of a woman doing hard work. He determined to spare his daughters all such labor as he could perform. General Sherman had said that he would like to bring every Southern woman to the wash-tub. [If General Sherman said this, it may be fairly construed not as malignity, but as a drastic remedy for a society enervated by idleness.] ‘ He shall never bring my daughters to the wash-tub,’ Thomas Dabney said. ‘ I will do the washing myself; ’ and he did it for two years. He was in his seventieth year when he began to do it.
“ This may give some idea of the labors, the privations, the hardships, of those terrible years. The most intimate friends of Thomas — nay, his own children who were not in the daily life at Burleigh — have never known the unprecedented self-denial, carried to the extent of acutest bodily sufferings, which he practiced during this time. A curtain must be drawn over this part of the life of my lion-hearted father. When he grew white and thin, and his frightened daughters prepared a special dish for him, he refused to eat the delicacy. It would choke him, he said, to eat better food than they had, and he yielded only to their earnest solicitations. He would have died rather than ask for it. When the living was so coarse and so ill prepared that he could scarcely eat it, he never failed, on rising from the table, to say earnestly and reverently, as he stood by his chair, ‘ Thank the Lord for this much.’ During a period of eighteen months, no light in summer, and none but a fire in winter, except in some case of necessity, was seen in the house. He was fourteen years in paying these debts that fell on him in his sixty-ninth year. He lived but three years after the last dollar was paid.
“ When he was seventy years of age, he determined to learn to cultivate a garden. He had never performed manual labor, but he now applied himself to learn to hoe as a means of supplying his family with vegetables. With the labor of those aged hands he made a garden that was the best ordered that we had ever seen at Burleigh. He made his garden as he did everything that he undertook, in the most painstaking manner, neglecting nothing that could insure success. The beds and rows and walks in that garden were models of exactness and neatness. It was a quarter of a mile from the house and from water, on the top of a long, high hill, and three quarters of an acre in extent. In a time of drought, or if he had set out anything that needed watering, he toiled up that long, precipitous hill with bucket after bucket of water. ‘ I never look at the clouds ’ had been a saying of his in cultivating his plantation, and he carried it out now. That garden supplied the daily food of his family nearly all the year round. He planted vegetables in such quantities that it was impossible to consume all on the table, and he sold barrels of vegetables of different kinds in New Orleans.
“ Oftentimes he was so exhausted, when he came in to dinner, that he could not eat for a while. He had his old bright way of making every one take an interest in his pursuits, — sympathy was as necessary and sweet to him as to a child, — and he showed with pride what he had done by his personal labor in gardening and in washing. He placed the clothes on the line as carefully as if they were meant to hang there always ; and they must be admired, too ! He said, and truly, that he had never seen snowier ones. . . . His hands were much bent with age and gout. No glove could be drawn over them. They had been so soft that a bridle-rein, unless he had his gloves on, chafed them unpleasantly. He expressed thankfulness that the bent fingers and palms did not interfere with his holding either his hoe handle or his pen. He wrote as many letters as ever, and an article for a state newspaper or a Virginia or New Orleans paper occasionally, if interested in anything that was going on. . . . When he spoke of the expense of the postage on his correspondence, he said that he could not maintain himself in his station if he wrote fewer letters.”
We have given this long passage because it lets one into the secret of Mr. Dabney’s character, but its full force can be appreciated only by one who has been witness to the sort of life led at Burleigh, and has seen the prodigality of living, the generous hospitality, and the easy-going habits of a typical Southern household. We ask from these Memorials a disclosure of plantation life, but we get something more valuable in the delineation of a noble character victorious over adverse circumstance. The chivalry of the old man was innate. In his youth, when first engaged, he was a most gallant lover. “ He drove from his home in Gloucester to her father’s home, Mantua, on the Matapony River, in King and Queen County, every two weeks, during his two months’ engagement. He went in his gig, with his body-servant following on horseback. Each time he took a gift, — sometimes handsome jewelry, and at other times volumes of standard English authors. On each alternate week he wrote a letter to her. None of these letters were answered. He looked for no acknowledgment ; his thought was that he was honored sufficiently by her receiving them.”
The relation which Mr. Dabney bore to his negro slaves was so humane, so liberal, and, as Southerners used to be fond of saying, so patriarchal, that the superficial spectators of a system which offends deeper laws than those that relate to personal ease and comfort might easily ride over the stumbling-block. Slavery can never be made to square with eternal justice, but it was not difficult to adjust it to temporal expediency; and the student of American society, when considering the conflict between the invisible law of right and the visible order of things, that never ceases, would err greatly if he shut his eyes to the personal element in the problem of slavery; if he failed to see how the humane relations of master and slave formed the most impregnable defense of the system, and how the results of these relations, the fair order which subsisted, had an inevitable influence upon the moral consciousness of society. In the volume before us, the dusky countenances of faithful slaves look forth placidly; they belong in the family gallery of portraits, and it is no affectation which places them there. One portrait, that of Mammy Harriet, accompanies a chapter of her recollections, and in the course of her talk she resents indignantly the notion that Mr. Dabney’s slaves were treated as cattle.
“ ‘ One ole man say, “ I want a ’oman to live wid.me. Don’t you think your marster would let me have a ’oman or a chile ? I would like to buy you. You seem to be a very Likely ’oman.” Buy who ! buy me ! ’ And as my dear old black mammy recalls this insult to herself and to her honored master, her dim eyes kindle, her voice is full of suppressed feeling, her frame at its height, her manner such as might become an enraged pythoness. ‘ No, not one! Don’t you know marster don’t want to sell none o’ his people ? We are follerin’ our marster. We ain’t no niggertraders. No : when marster sell any o’ his people, ’t is ’cause he is made to do it; ’t is ’cause he cyarn’t do nothin’ wid ’em himself.’ ”
This incident took place when the whole company, family and slaves, was on its way from Virginia to Mississippi. When this migration was decided on. Mr. Dabney called his slaves together, and told them his intentions. He announced that he did not wish to take one unwilling servant with him. His plan was to offer to buy such husbands or wives as were connected with his people, but belonged to other owners, or to sell such as might prefer to remain in the neighborhood with their mates. “ Without an exception,” Mrs. Smedes writes, “the negroes determined to follow their beloved master and mistress. They chose rather to give up the kinspeople and friends of their own race than to leave them.” The Mammy Harriet already quoted is instanced as giving in a sturdy adhesion to her master, with small regard for her ties of marriage. “ My husband b’long to Cappen Edward Tabb, an’ marster went dyar twice to try to buy him. But Cappen Tabb say dat no money could n’t buy him from him. Den Mrs. Tabb say dat she would buy me, an’ two odder people dyar wanted to buy me, too. But I say, ‘ No, indeed ! Go ’long ! I shall foller my marster.’ ”
The whole affair is a singular commentary on the confusion which slavery made in the minds of people. Here was a humane master, buying and selling men and women as so much merchandise, yet consulting them as to their wishes in the matter; and here was a slave, calling herself a wife, resolutely refusing any arrangement which separated her from her owner. The master was ready to recognize in a fashion the marriage tie in his slaves, but how weak this tie became in the eyes of all may be seen by an instance given by Mrs. Smedes. Her father owned a cook, and tried to buy her husband. The purchase was not then effected, but negotiations were kept up. After the family was settled in Mississippi, the cook was wholly indifferent. She had become a belle on the plantation, and a young fellow named Bob struck her fancy. “ She wrote a letter,” says Mrs. Smedes, “ to her husband in Virginia, that quite decided him not to join her. He also, it was said, had been casting his eyes around for a more congenial mate. When Mrs. Chamberlayne spoke to him of going out to Mississippi, he answered that Alcey had given him an account in a letter of the terrible ocean that had to be gone over on the way. Mrs. Chamberlayne said that if a woman could stand the journey a strong man certainly could. ‘ Yes, Miss Marthy, but Alcey know more ’bout dem mysteries dan I does.’ When Alcey was spoken to on the subject, she said, ‘ Tell marster not to bother bout sendin’ for him. He lazy an’ puny, an’ no ’count.’ Bob’s charms had triumphed.”
It is clear enough, from this and other passages, that marriage among slaves, though it had the sanction of certain religious forms, had no sacredness in the eyes either of slaves or masters. How could it, when it was wholly subordinated to the interests of the masters ? Nothing, in our judgment, better marks the degradation caused by the system of slavery than this conscienceless indifference to the most sacred of human relations. It intimates how subtle was the influence of one utterly unchristian relation in undermining all others. The slave, robbed of his brotherhood, lost thereby, in the eyes of his master, all real rights to the position of husband and father.
Mrs. Smedes more than once bears testimony to the change which comes over the spirit of man when freedom, with its cares and responsibilities, but also its rights and privileges, takes the place of slavery, with its careless irresponsibility and stagnation. “ With negro slaves,” she writes, “ it seemed impossible for one of them to do a thing, it mattered not how insignificant, without the assistance of one or two others. It was often said, with a laugh, by their owners, that it took two to help one to do nothing. . . . The cook at Burleigh had always a scullion or two to help her, besides a man to cut her wood and put it on the huge andirons.” And then she adds in a foot-note, “ The cook’s husband, who for years had looked on himself as nearly blind, and therefore unable to do more than work about her and put her wood on the fire, sometimes cutting a stick or two, made no less than eighteen good crops for himself, when the war was over. He was one of the best farmers in the country.”
Mr. Dabney had at one time five hundred slaves under his control. He was, like other planters under similar conditions, a petty king; and managing a plantation, as his daughter says, was something like managing a kingdom. Some details of this governing life are given, and many glimpses afforded of the internal economy of the society thus created, but let not one be too much in love with the apparently sunny atmosphere. The life of a truly humane and conscientious planter was anything but serene, and his wife was the veriest slave on earth. “ Now that the institution is swept away,” says Mrs. Smedes, “ I venture to express the conviction that there is not an intelligent white man or woman in the South who would have it recalled, if a wish could do it. Those who suffered and lost most — those who were reduced from a life of affluence to one of grinding poverty — are content to pay the price. Good masters saw the evil that bad masters could do. It is true, a bad master was universally execrated, and no vocation was held so debasing as the negro-trader’s. Every conscientious proprietor felt that these were helpless creatures, whose life and limb were, in a certain sense, under his control. There were others who felt that slavery was a yoke upon the white man’s neck almost as galling as on the slave’s ; and it was a saying that the mistress of a plantation was the most complete slave on it.”
The value of this interesting book, apart from its supreme worth as the record of a truly noble character, is in the constant illustration which it affords of the perpetual conflict going on, within the society based on slavery, between the conscience of man and the coils of the accursed system. It is at once a tribute to Mr. Dabney’s noble nature and a melancholy commentary on the irony of fate, that when, bitterly opposed as he was to disunion, he proposed to sell all his property and remove with his family to England, the thought of his helpless dependents bowed him to the earth ; he sacrificed his own comfort and that of
his family, threw in his fortunes with the Confederacy, and was swept into the fatal current of the war. No one who wishes to study from the inside the social condition of our Southern States should fail to read this instructive book. He will surely have greater charity for the unfortunate men who formed it, and greater detestation for the system in which they were involved.
- Memorials of a Southern Planter. By SUSAN DABNEY SMEDES. Baltimore : Cushing & Bailey. 1887.↩