Gleanings From an Old Southern Newspaper
SOME years since, while engaged in researches for a course of lectures on Southern history, I found in the Sewanee library six large volumes containing a file of the Edgefield (South Carolina) Advertiser, from its inception on February 11, 1836, to January 21, 1848. They had been presented to the library by the first editor of the paper, Dr. Maximilian La Borde, afterwards well known for his excellent History of South Carolina College. It was evident that no one had turned their yellow leaves for many years, but this fact did not deter me from the formidable task of examining them thoroughly. I was repaid by the acquisition of much curious information relative to the habits and modes of thought of Southerners, and especially of “ up country ” South Carolinians of “’t is sixty years since,” and I venture to hope that the following excerpts from my voluminous notes may prove to have some present interest for readers who care for the past of our now united country. I may also express the hope that, at no distant day, ante-bellum Southern newspapers representing other localities may be exploited by the increasing band of young men who are being trained by our great universities, and sent back to their Southern homes to investigate the interesting and almost unknown history of their native section. But before beginning my task in earnest I must say a word about the village of Edgefield Court House.
Edgefield is the chief place of the district of the same name, and lies in the southwestern portion of South Carolina, some twenty or more miles from Augusta, Georgia, the commercial centre of the region. At the period with which we shall deal it contained about 800 inhabitants, — the district had 15,069 in 1839, — who, in their manly independence, loyalty to democratic principles, and sound moral qualities, were typical of the up country Carolinians. There were leading families among them, but nothing resembling a hide - bound aristocracy. They were hospitable and simple in their ways, and celebrated May Day and the Fourth of July with enviable heartiness. They might have had better school and postal facilities without great detriment, but they could hardly have been happier or more typically and patriotically American, however much they might insist upon a strict interpretation of the Constitution, and the supremacy of South Carolina over all other sovereignties on the globe. Their ways were not as our ways, — especially with regard to the rather excessive number of duels and other encounters that took place among them, — but at least they had no lynching mobs, and he would be a rash person who should undertake to prove that the Edgefieldian of to-day gets more solid comfort out of life than his grandfather did. And it would be somewhat difficult to prove that the claim so frequently made, that “ there were giants in those days,” is entirely unfounded. Edgefield boasted of a bar of exceptional talents. The redoubtable McDuffie had won his spurs there ; F. W. Pickens practiced there, and represented the district in Congress before he became governor of the state and famous for his demand of the surrender of Fort Sumter. Preston S. Brooks was another Edgefieldian much looked up to by his townspeople, as was also his father, Whitfield Brooks, legislator and Congressman. An antagonist of the younger Brooks, Lewis T. Wigfall carried some of the energy of the district to Texas, and became Senator of both the United States and the Confederacy, and a Confederate general. Two other men born in Edgefield District, although subsequently credited to Alabama, were famous in the early history of Texas : J. B. Bonham, one of the heroes of the Alamo, whose brother, Milledge L. Bonham, won distinction in the civil war; and Colonel William B. Travis, commandant of the fated fortress. Such men made the little town more or less known over the entire South, and gave their compatriots cause for pride. But it is time to turn to our newspaper.
The Advertiser, which I understand is still running, was a weekly sheet, about three fourths the size of the normal daily newspaper of the present. Loyal Edgefieldians were to receive it every Thursday : for $3.00 if they paid in advance, for $3.50 if they paid within six months, for $4.00 if they failed to settle before that time had elapsed. If one may judge from sundry urgent notices to pay up that were inserted before the completion of the first volume, one may infer that the woes of country editors are a pretty constant quantity. Dr. La Borde had special woes of his own, however, for his fellow editor wrote nothing, and the genial doctor was forced to write letters to himself under high-sounding Roman names, and to publish his own poems and tales. He could also fill his columns, as all his confrères used to do, with lists of legislative enactments, clippings from other papers, occasional batches of foreign news, items from the nearest city, hints for farmers and housewives, and the like. The editorial columns did not give him so much trouble, for partisan politics were in their heyday. His political principles are easily determined from the motto of the paper, to which it clung long after he had left it, — a ringing motto taken from some speech of the vehement McDuffie : “ We will cling to the pillars of the temple of our liberties, and if it must fall we will perish amid the ruins.” Not satisfied with this Samsonian affirmation that stared every reader in the face, our editor, in his salutatory remarks, declared : “ We are not ashamed to make the confession that we go for our state against the world, though we may expose ourselves to the imputation of possessing a patriotism selfish and contracted.” Candor compels me to say that the Advertiser held very closely to this definite programme during the first twelve years of its existence.
Advertisers, the chief props of the modern newspaper, were given moderate rates, and made use of them. Sometimes three columns would be devoted to a patent medicine ; often an equal space was taken by Philadelphia publishers, whose relations with Southern readers and authors would form an interesting topic for an essay. We are more concerned, however, with local advertisements, especially with those throwing light on the condition of education. From the prospectus of the Edgefield Female Academy we learn that students paid $5-00 per quarter for spelling and the three R’s. If they took grammar and geography in addition, they paid $6.50 ; if they went on into natural and moral philosophy, history, chemistry, logic, etc., they paid $8.00. For music they must give $15.00, with an added $3.00 for the use of a piano. If they used maps and globes, they were charged fifty cents, the exact cost of their firewood in winter. They could obtain good board at from $25.00 to $35.00 per quarter. At this period the girls seem to have been the favored sex, for we learn from the issue for January 17, 1837, that the Male Academy has been without a teacher for a year, but will soon start again. It will educate boys in the classics and English branches for $10.00 per quarter. The classics are not mentioned in connection with the girls, nor are the modern languages spoken of at all. Indeed, a neighboring academy, in advertising for a teacher to take charge, stipulates only good qualifications in English. But later advertisements offer fuller courses, and private schools multiply throughout the state. In 1842 four schools are competing for the patronage of Edgefield, and the principal of one of them is advertised as teaching philosophy, chemistry, astronomy, optics, mathematics in all branches, grammar, geography, and history, besides the Greek, Latin, and French languages, “ the latter of which he renders and pronounces with as much facility as any young man in the country.” Having secured the services of such an accomplished teacher, the trustees flattered themselves that they would “ receive the liberal patronage of an enlightened public.”
But, as we learn from a notice in the first number, calling a meeting of the commissioners of free schools for Edgefield District, there was some attempt at a system of popular education. What did it amount to ? This question may be at least partly answered by a quotation from a gubernatorial message, a sort of document which was always a godsend to our editor, and which furnished sources from which I have taken many interesting items for successive years.
In the message of Governor B. K. Hennegan, published in the Advertiser for December 3, 1840, a sixth of the space is given to a discussion of the free school system of the state, in which it would be hard to detect any attempt to gloze over the wretched condition of affairs. His Excellency, after dwelling on the small pay of the teachers and the importance of giving a thorough training in the vernacular, points which scarcely seem to be fifty-nine years old, goes on to ask who are the free school teachers. “ Are they men,” he inquires, “ to whom the legislature can commit with confidence the great business of education ? What is the amount of their literary qualifications, and what the tone of their morality ? It is not my design to indulge in unnecessary remarks upon this subject, but truth requires me to say, as a class they are grossly incompetent to discharge their high functions. So far as my observations extend, with but few exceptions, they are very ignorant, and possess a very easy morality. ... It is now in South Carolina a reproach to be a teacher of a free school, as it is regarded [as] prima facie evidence of a want of qualification.”
The governor then proceeded to comment on the use made of the annual appropriation of $37,000 for public instruction, and declared that the fund set apart for this purpose did not “ answer the end ” for which it was intended. “ In many districts it is drawn and not legitimately appropriated, and in many instances made the object of improper speculation.” He then went on to urge the appointment of a state official, “ with a competent salary, to be called the Superintendent of Public Schools.”
Further quotation is needless. It is quite evident that genuinely public education was almost unknown in South Carolina or anywhere else in the Old South, but it is equally evident that the leading men knew the fact and regretted it. Governor Hennegan, at any rate, deserves to be remembered as an executive who did something besides reply to the historic utterance of his brother governor of North Carolina; for in this very message he had some plain words to say about the increasing evil of buying and selling votes. It is well, however, to notice that at Fairfield there was a manual labor school, which, if one may judge from its long advertisement, was run on excellent principles.
In pursuing this subject of education we have wandered far away from the first volume of the Advertiser, to which we may now return in search of a fresh topic. One is easily found in certain political utterances in the early numbers apropos of the reception of abolitionist petitions in Congress. Mr. Henry Laurens Pinckney, the representative of Charleston in Congress, had, in an unwary moment, moved the appointment of a select committee to consider them. He was a descendant of the great Pinckneys of Revolutionary fame, and was far enough from being an abolitionist, but he doubtless believed that the best way to deal with the petitions was to smother them in committee. His compatriots thought that any reception of them was an outrage, and Mr. Pinckney was soon made to understand that the fate of that man is hard who, on vital points, differs in opinion from the people among whom his lot is cast. The Edgefieldians passed stinging resolutions against him ; and if he read the Advertiser, he must have felt little flattered at finding himself made an object of censure along with Jackson and John Quincy Adams. Of the latter statesman the editor had once had a good opinion, but he is now convinced that “ his career for the last year or so would be disgraceful to the lowest village politician. . . . We regard him as one of the merest whipsters in Congress.” Adams, Jackson, and Pinckney, however, were not alone in incurring the editorial wrath. Virginia’s action with regard to the famous Expunging Resolutions filled him with disgust, and he exclaimed, “ That state is now rotten and corrupt beyond all former precedent ! ” Indeed, it is to be feared that about this time most good Carolinians felt that there were few righteous men in Israel besides themselves. And even a Pinckney had fallen by the way.
For a few weeks the unfortunate member from Charleston had some rest, Senator Thomas H. Benton taking his place, and receiving the pleasant appellations of “ monster ” and “ blackguard.” But worse things were in store for Mr. Pinckney. If there was one thing Edgefield was noted for, it was public dinners given on the Fourth of July and at other fitting times. Then, to judge from the meagre accounts preserved, eloquence was placed on tap, and tapped vigorously on one occasion, — a barbecue, not a dinner, — tapped for thirteen regular and twenty-one volunteer toasts. As luck would have it, the True Blues, the volunteer company sent by the district to the Seminole war, returned from Florida about the time of the Pinckney affair, and a dinner was given them. The eleventh toast ran : “ The Traitor of the South. America has known but one Arnold ; may Carolina know but one Pinckney.” This was rather hard on at least two distinguished men of whom any state might be proud, but the toastmaster probably did not quite see the force of the language he employed. At other banquets, given about the same time (June, 1836), the Charleston statesman was similarly honored, one toast running: “ Henry L. Pinckney. The degenerate son of a noble ancestry.” Another : “ H. L. Pinckney. Like an ungrateful reptile, he has inflicted a wound on his benefactors which he will never be able to heal.” Evidently, the first of these toasts did not please every one, for at a subsequent banquet the following toast was framed : “ Henry L. Pinckney. A worse than degenerate son. His conduct is rank treason to his country.” Yet time brings forgetfulness. In the fall of 1836 Hugh S. Legaré won Mr. Pinckney’s seat in Congress, but the following spring saw the latter gentleman safely elected mayor of Charleston. In this honorable position — which he seems to have filled satisfactorily, if we may judge from the few references the Advertiser makes to him — we may now leave him. It is proper, however, to remark that we need not flatter ourselves that the lapse of sixty years has improved our political manners to such an extent that we can afford to smile at these Carolinian amenities of the olden time.
The perennial subject of slavery having now been started in connection with the fury stirred up by the abolitionist petitions, we may as well pursue it for a time through some of its ramifications. Among editorial utterances on the topic we find this concise sentence (February 8, 1838) : “ The world should know that the very instant Congress took upon itself to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, or do anything else affecting the great interest of the South, the Union should be dissolved.'’ An equally concise statement as to the relations between slavery and the cotton plant appears in an anonymous communication in the issue for September 12, 1839, to the effect that a genuine South Carolina slaveholder, if he expects to preserve his institutions, must “ teach his children to hold the cotton plant in one hand, and the sword in the other, ever ready to defend it.” The whole duty of man, politically speaking, was as clearly set forth in a volunteer toast delivered at a dinner given to Congressman Pickens (September, 1836) : “ The State of South Carolina. State sovereignty, state rights, state remedies, and nullification, with a strict adherence to our domestic institutions ; and secession rather than yield in servile submission.”
Many other similar toasts might be quoted, but we do not tolerate such things as readily as our hardy ancestors did; hence a brief selection will probably be deemed sufficient. The Fourth of July, 1836, shall furnish us with two: “ Our Slaves. Our right to them is founded in sound morality, and our interest shall not be yielded to foreign or domestic interference.” Again : “ The Abolitionists of the North. Intermeddlers with other people’s matters, prating and writing against the institution of slavery, not knowing that such are rebuked by the Scriptures, and said to be ‘ proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes whereof cometh envy, and destitute of the truth.’ ” The Biblical turn of phrase taken by the latter toast prepares us for one dedicated four years later to John Quincy Adams: “An Imp of his Satanic Majesty. Though his master was an archangel of light, he was hurled from heaven for disobedience ; and he alike fallen, because he cannot be the Dictator of the Federal Government, would destroy the Union.” Two years before, home talents had been celebrated with greater amenity in the following words : “ South Carolina’s Senator, John C. Calhoun. He moves at the bidding of the Goddess of Liberty, and fights his country’s battles with the lance of Minerva.”
But there was a phase of the slave problem far more important than those mentioned by orators at banquets, — a phase that did not indeed escape attention, but that hardly produced the sort of impression it now makes on the student of antebellum Southern history. It is generally known that the slaves were often suspected of being incendiaries, but it takes statistics such as I have collected from the twelve volumes of the Advertiser to make one realize how horrible a menace vindictive slaves were to a people whose houses were usually made of wood. I have not attempted to collect all the references to fires supposed to have been caused by slaves, but I have noted several important cases.
In March, 1836, there were suspicious fires in Augusta and Charleston. At the end of April, 1838, there was a frightful conflagration in Charleston, in which several lives were lost and several hundred houses were destroyed. Mayor Pinckney proclaimed a fast day ; a mass meeting of the citizens insisted that restrictions be placed on the erection of wooden houses; an extra session of the legislature was called to aid the city by $2,000,000 in fire-loan bonds, to be handled by the South Carolina Bank, — an act of paternal legislation that did not escape censure. None could tell how the flames started, but six weeks later several attempts were made to fire the city again, and four blacks were arrested on suspicion. Nor were other cities spared. In March, 1839, a $150,000 fire in Mobile was supposed to have been caused by an incendiary ; in June of the same year the Planters’ Hotel in Augusta was burned under mysterious circumstances. In September Charleston had another considerable fire ; in October, Port Gibson, Mississippi, lost $135,000 by the flames, and Mobile had another tire worth chronicling. At the close of 1842 Charleston was again visited by a great conflagration, which was followed shortly by smaller ones, and by a large one at Columbia. In February, 1843, the Advertiser felt called upon to say that the number of recent fires in Edgefield District, whether accidental or otherwise, had been greater than at any previous period. Not long after, Mercer University, at Penfield, Georgia, was fired by an incendiary, according to current report.
These are but a few cases out of many. While it is, of course, not certain that carelessness was not more responsible for such frequent disasters than incendiary slaves were, it is clear that the belief that slaves would burn houses when they got a chance was widespread, and that the mental effects upon the whites were quite as bad as if the belief had been justified in every instance. When, therefore, we are tempted to wonder at the wrath displayed by the Southern people at the mere mention of abolition, we must always endeavor to remember that they believed they were living upon a powder mine which any chance spark might explode. Such, at least, is the impression I have gathered from the files of the Advertiser and from other sources. It was a fascinating life in many ways that the Southerner led, but he paid dearly for his pleasures, as he is now often willing to admit.
From incendiary fires to militia companies is not a far cry, since both subjects are closely related to slavery ; indeed, nearly every subject in ante-bellum Southern history seems to be. It has long been known that attention was paid in the South to the militia, in view of its possible use in a war of secession ; but one has to make rather minute researches in order to understand what importance was attached to the matter by some people, especially in South Carolina, which had intended to use her troops in the nullification crisis. The Seminole war brought the subject to the front in 1836, and the popularity of the Mexican war in the South had a similar effect. The latter struggle, of course, filled many columns of the Advertiser, especially as the paper had always shown its interest in Texas, and as the Palmetto Regiment of South Carolina displayed conspicuous prowess in the field. Space will not allow us, however, to dwell upon this phase of the subject, and we must content ourselves with noticing some significant editorial and gubernatorial utterances on the relations between the militia system of the state and a possible war of secession.
On October 27, 1836, speaking editorially of a recent review of the three infantry regiments of the district by Governor McDuffie, the Advertiser commented on the spirit and intelligence of the militia officers in this way: “ With such feelings and sentiments pervading the whole state, we should predict with confidence the safety of the republic, and laugh to scorn the machinations and threats of fiendish fanaticism.” Two years later, Governor Pierce M. Butler stated in his annual message that he had reviewed every one of the forty-six infantry regiments in the state, and six out of the seven cavalry regiments, and had found them in excellent condition. Especially good results had been obtained from the system of encampments. The guns and ammunition were worthless in the main, but he was taking pains to remedy this. He desired a digest of the military laws, and reminded the legislature of the importance of the whole subject in the following words : “ In the appeal to force, which every state pretending to the character of independence must be prepared to meet, they [the militia] are your only argument, and you must make the most of it.”
Four years later (1842), Governor John P. Richardson, after commenting upon the improved condition of the militia system, which had been building for more than forty years, wrote as follows : “ If, in the absence of all constitutional power to restrain a standing military force, the states of this Union possess no means but that of a polemical argument to maintain their rights as sovereigns, those rights would indeed be found to be vain, shadowy, and unprofitable before the arbitrament of an armed federa potentate. In our late contest with federal power, it was not to the mere efficacy of its laws or the sanctity [of its] ordinances, to the justice of her cause or the strength of her defense, that the state looked at last for protection ; and were the dangers of the past to recur, or the unfavorable forebodings of the future to be realized, it is to the bold hearts and nerved and disciplined patriotism of the militia that South Carolina would again appeal.” The governor went on to say that the state had spent half a million on weapons, ammunition, and arsenals, and was expending $24,000 annually to keep its military supplies and buildings in good order. He wanted no retrenchment in this particular, and in fact desired to develop a system of military education in connection with the arsenals, which, in his opinion, would do far more good than the inefficient free school system then in operation.
Such were the views of a representative Southern governor eighteen years before the civil war ; and yet there were not wanting in 1860 many estimable gentlemen who professed themselves to be willing to drink all the blood that would be spilt should South Carolina secede. In view of the military preparations of his native state, William Gilmore Simms was more justified in his famous remark that, if it came to war, the South could crush the North as easily as he could crush an egg.
But this paper is growing rather long, and slavery and its consequences cannot be said to be altogether the most agreeable of topics. It may be well, therefore, to draw to a conclusion by setting down, in the order preserved in my notes, a few interesting items concerning the blacks that do not fit in with the main divisions I have made of the topic. It is a well-known fact that the negroes furnish a large proportion of the criminal class in the South at the present time, but that before the war each master looked after the punishment of his slaves for minor offenses. Hence we are not greatly surprised to find the Advertiser, on July 14,1836, noting with satisfaction that the jail of Edgefield District (not of the village merely) has had not a single occupant for two months. This is certainly a remarkable showing for a population of fifteen thousand. About a year later, however, complaint is made that there is an unusually large number of criminals in confinement, and one wonders whether the hard times one has been reading about in other columns had affected the district as disastrously as they had the rest of the country. A few months subsequently (October) we learn that, whatever financial distress may have had to do with the matter, the part played by recent abolitionist agitation is unmistakable. The number of offenses against slave property, we are told, is unprecedented. Three capital trials for negro-stealing have taken place, and two men, strangers, have been convicted, We learn soon that Governor Butler refused to pardon one of these men, James Reed, seemingly a Northerner, for whom citizens of Edgefield had petitioned, and that he and his fellow prisoner, Evans, were actually hanged on February 9, 1838.
About this time we notice that proclamations for the arrest of slaves who have committed murders are growing rather numerous. On August 9, 1838, a contributor writes on the subject of the enforcement of statutes against slaves, and declares that negroes are rarely executed for the felonies they commit, since, as the state does not pay for the slaves it executes, it is more profitable to their masters to hide them. Free negroes, however, are frequently mentioned as being more dangerous to the peace of the community than slaves, — a fact which seems to have prompted the Louisiana legislature to decree that persons bringing a free negro into the state should be fined $20.00 per week during their own residence within it, while the negro was liable to one year’s imprisonment at hard labor; and if he did not then depart from the state, to life imprisonment. The same state had shortly after to crush an intended revolt of slaves, who, however, can hardly have wanted to swell the class of free negroes in that vicinity. The Louisianians at least deserve the credit of having tried to rid themselves of suspicious characters by due process of law. Justice was done more expeditiously in the neighboring state of Arkansas, where, according to an account published in the Advertiser for August 26,1841, no less than twenty-three counterfeiters and horse thieves were tied hand and foot and drowned in the Mississippi. This story almost makes one believe a later report, to the effect that there had been a shower of flesh and blood in Tennessee.
That the Southerner had a hard time in looking after his slaves is sufficiently apparent both from numerous advertisements for runaway slaves and from other evidence; yet it would seem that he might at least have hoped to steer clear of a class of individuals who make themselves obnoxious in these days of freedom, — I mean confidence men and bogus advertisers. As a matter of fact, some of these worthies dwelling in the North regarded the Southern slaveholders as legitimate prey. One particularly clever scheme of theirs is exposed in the issue for May 18,1842. A person named Pettis, purporting to be a lawyer in New York city, would inform himself, from advertisements, of the personal descriptions of various runaway negroes, and would then write to their respective owners, saying that he keeps a spy, who has told him of the whereabouts of a negro answering the particular description, who has forged free papers, but who will easily be secured and sent back if the owner will remit twenty dollars to Mr. Pettis, — who, by the way, is a Virginian by birth, — in order to cover expenses. It is needless to add that dollars thus cast upon the waters of Mr. Pettis’s ingenuity did not return to the casters in the persons of recovered slaves.
In a world so leagued against his peace and prosperity, it is not surprising that the Southern planter should frequently have refused to give his negroes any chance of rising from the level of mere brute intelligence; that he should even at times have refused to afford them any religious instruction. In the autumn of 1842, a correspondent of the Advertiser felt obliged to plead for the establishment of Sunday schools among the slaves. He could not reconcile it to his conscience to allow the poor creatures to grow up in ignorance of the fundamentals of religion, but he was forced to admit that his views on the subject were not held by every one. In the same year, Mr. Charles C. Jones, of Georgia, afterwards well known for his history of his native state, felt called upon to publish a book on the duty of his fellow citizens to give religious instruction to their slaves. And to the credit of the South be it said, many planters realized this obligation, and labored faithfully to perform it; the result being evident in the honesty and piety of many of those oldtime darkies who have since furnished Southern writers of fiction with their most interesting pages.
Yes, the fact ought to be recognized by historians, and by all who are interested in ante-bellum Southern life, that when all allowances are made for cruel laws and cruel overseers (who occasionally disappeared mysteriously, suspicion of murder falling on the slaves), and the internal trade in slaves that sometimes separated mother and child, there is still abundant evidence not only that the planters suffered in their turn, but that they were in the main kind-hearted men, who made the best of a bad system handed down to them from an epoch callous to human rights and suffering, and who endeavored to mitigate not merely the condition of the negroes, but also the horrors of the slave code, whenever they could. The more minutely one studies Southern history, the more completely one becomes convinced of this fact. Even the white man who was convicted capitally of inveigling or stealing negroes was punished with great reluctance ; yet, naturally, no crime could have excited more general detestation, since a revolting slave population meant civic destruction.
Yes, they were good people, those Edgefieldians and Carolinians of two generations ago. Their civilization had its weaknesses, — great ones, — but so has ours to-day. The man who plods through a Southern newspaper for the twelve years ending in December, 1899, will surely find, for example, more than one instance of ballot-box stuffing. Yet one instance of it is all I have detected in my examination of the twelve volumes of the Advertiser. In November, 1840, there was declared to be no election to the legislature from Richland District, because more ballots had been found in the box than there were voters entitled to put them there. Treating voters was not unheard of; but, on the whole, the political life of these people was enviably clean ; they showed more sense than we do, in choosing their best men to represent them in public affairs ; their private life was pure and simple, whatever we may think of its narrowness ; and I close my imperfect study of them and their times with genuine feelings of regret.
W. P. Trent.