Our Men of the Midi

OUR Southern whites present the only instance in the history of the world of a people mainly English by blood and tradition, who have dwelt continuously for six or eight generations below the 39th parallel. They are essentially a people of what the French call the Midi, and these interrelated facts of race and residence have been too little considered in the examination of their history and the prognostication of their future. Not elsewhere the world over have Englishmen dwelt continuously in large numbers under semi-tropical conditions for so much as three generations. The whites in Australia present the nearest parallel in this regard to our own Southern whites, but the white population of Australia has been considerable for only two generations, and large for hardly more than fifty years; and much of the increase up to very recent times came from immigration. It is fair to say then that only a small part of the whites in Australia are a people dwelling for more than two generations under semi-tropical conditions. They are an English people of the Midi in the making.

The total population of the British North American mainland in 1688, it is estimated, was 200,000. By 1700, it is believed to have grown to 1,850,000, in which latter estimate are probably included about 100,000 whites in the Canadas. Much of this growth came from natural increase, especially in the South, where a considerable part of the gain from immigration must be set down to the importation of African slaves. The first census, that of 1790, showed a population of nearly 4,000,000, almost equally divided between the North and South. Of rather more than 750,000 colored persons enumerated in that census by far the larger part were in the Southern States. As late as 1860 there were only a little more than 226,000 negroes in the North out of more than 4,440,000 in the whole country. Toward the end of the eighteenth century slavery had probably begun to check white immigration to the South; and again, immigration was not large for the whole country during the first forty years under the Federal Constitution.

The number of white immigrants to reach the South after the opening of the nineteenth century must have been comparatively small save in the region immediately bordering upon Mason and Dixon’s Line. From about the middle of the eighteenth century, indeed, the increase in the white population of the older Southern States must have been largely the natural increase in the native population of English descent. There was much intercolonial immigration, but the newer South drew upon Virginia and the Carolinas rather than upon the North. Some thousands of French Huguenots settled in the South between 1670 and the end of the seventeenth century; but these immigrants included many French of the Midi, so that the newcomers tended to intensify characteristics already developing in the native population under climatic influences. About the middle of the eighteenth century there was a movement of Scotch and Scotch-Irish immigration to the South, and nothing in the social history of that region is more instructive than the effect of new conditions, climatic and otherwise, upon these sturdy and impenetrable Protestants. After the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 there was an immigration of Irish and Highland Scotch to America, and part of these immigrants reached the South.

It may be said then that for almost two centuries, or six generations, the Southern whites have been essentially a semitropical people by residence, birth, and ancestry; and that not a few of those who have come to the South since the close of the seventeenth century are descended on one side or the other from earlier immigrants; so that many of the Southern whites are of a race for nearly three centuries exposed to semi-tropical conditions. These people are in large part what we loosely call Anglo-Saxons; for whatever Celtic blood may have come to them from France, from Ireland, and from the Highlands of Scotland, has been in large measure mixed with purely English strains. There is, of course, a large unmixed French element in Louisiana, and a Spanish element not intimately mixed with English in Florida and Texas, besides a German element in Louisiana, in Maryland, in Kentucky, and perhaps elsewhere; while there has been within two decades some Italian immigration to parts of the South. When all these foreign strains have been taken into account, however, the fact remains that between Mason and Dixon’s Line and the Gulf of Mexico there is a larger population of approximately pure English stock than anywhere else on earth outside of Great Britain.

We must bear in mind also, when we think of the Southern white as an Englishman of the Midi, that he and his ancestors have not been merely winter residents here for, say, two-and-a-half centuries, but have steadily made the region their home at all seasons. Englishmen have dwelt under tropical and semitropical conditions in India and elsewhere for a century and a half, but merely as a garrison,military and civil; for adaptable as the Englishman is, he has steadily refused to make India his permanent home. The Southerner’s loyalty to the soil in all seasons seems to have been even more marked in earlier generations than to-day. Even now, however, from the Potomac to the Gulf, we find the Southern white for the most part either living in his accustomed winter home all summer long, or seeking only such relief as the seashore or the mountains of his own latitude afford. Finally, for more than a century and a quarter the people thus subjected to climatic conditions new to the race have been self-dependent, in no measure politically subordinated to the mother country, and singularly free in the matter of local self-government, so that they have developed without serious pressure from their brethren in Europe and America living under different climatic conditions. At the same time, they have preserved the common traditions of the race, and read its common literature.

What should we expect of an Englishman, in his own person and through six or eight ancestral generations subjected to conditions such as the race never before knew ? We think we know the English character pretty well. It varies, of course, and within a pretty wide range. There are madly impulsive Englishmen; but the race is phlegmatic rather than the reverse, cool, self-contained, sturdy in maintenance of opinion, steady but not fiery in courage, moderate in love, prone to marry late rather than early, not excitable, distinguished by the occurrence of rarely imaginative individuals, but on the whole prosiac and negligent of the fine arts, and commonly sincere in the ordinary relations of life, however hypocritical in some of its conventions.

The Southern European, on the other hand, is apt to be excitable, fiery in his courage, ardent in love, imaginative, fond of pleasure and sensitive to the fine arts, somewhat effusive in his social relations, almost indecently frank in some matters that English conventional hypocrisy passes by in silence. When we think of these two and of our own Southerner, we easily realize that he is essentially an Englishman of the Midi. His semi-tropical climate has burned into him some of the qualities that we associate with the Southern European, but he has retained also many of his own racial characteristics. He is both fire and snow. He is ardent in love; but he at least equals the Englishman at home in jealous regard for the purity of his women and surpasses him — or any other man — in his romantic devotion to the other sex. His courage has the fire of the Southern European, and the steadiness of the Englishman. He is soft of speech, and amiability itself at ordinary times, but roused to instant anger at the slightest suspicion of an assault upon his honor. Perhaps his most charming characteristic is his delightfully unsuspicious outlook upon the world, his consequent readiness to accept a new acquaintance for what he seems to be, and his open-handed hospitality. In this latter relation he shows the fascinating politeness of the European of the Midi, along with the essential sincerity of the Englishman in every-day social relations. You cannot altogether trust the social effusiveness of the Southern European; you rarely meet with such effusiveness in the Englishman; but if our Southerner invites you to his house after the second casual meeting, be sure that the invitation is given in good faith.

Physically, also, the Southerner is an Englishman of the Midi. He retains the relatively tall stature of his race; but he is apt to be dark and slender, rather than fair and large. He has cared less for systematic athletics than the Englishman at home, but having been mainly a dweller in the country, he has lived much in the open air, and has been handy with weapons, fond of horse and dog. There may have been a suspicion up to the middle of the last century that the Southerners were suffering some physical deterioriation because of the climate to which they and their ancestors had been so long exposed; but the civil war seems abundantly to have demonstrated not only their courage and dash, but as well their endurance of all kinds.

These considerations of the physical and temperamental effects of the Southern climate upon the English race naturally raise the question whether the Southern white has retained the fine qualities of his English ancestors and superimposed upon them the fire and charm of the Southern European; whether he has suffered no serious loss of intellectual and spiritual effectiveness through the climatic conditions to which he has been subjected. It is hardly to be denied that the Southern youth suffered morally from his contact with an enslaved race, and continues to suffer morally from contact with the same race in a state of freedom. Doubtless each race has gained some good of the other; but they have also done much mutual ill. The South and the Southerner wall long bear the marks of the evil institution that they so long cherished.

Every Northerner who is familiar with the South will at once recall squalid Southern villages and slovenly Southern farms as possibly proving the evil effects of an enervating climate upon the civic and domestic ideals of the whites. Schouler, the historian, intimates that the White House and its grounds had fallen into something like shabbiness under a long succession of Southern Presidents, remarking that upon the accession of John Quincy Adams the President’s official residence took on the air of a neat New England homestead. The Southerner, indeed, often submits with apparent unconcern to slovenly surroundings such as would not be tolerated by an equally well placed Englishman, and the contrast between rural conditions in much of the South and in the greater part of New England is notoriously to the advantage of the latter. It would be hard to say how much of Southern slovenliness is due to climatic influence upon the ideals of the whites, and how much to traditions going back to the inefficiency of slave labor. Something also is to be set down to the poverty that immediately followed the war, when the pillaged South was almost perforce content to give all its energies to merely living; when families saw handsome old homesteads fall into ruins, and were meanwhile too poor either to repair them or to rebuild upon a smaller scale. Southern indifference to meticulous neatness, however, antedates the war. The story of the Virginian whose excuse for not mending his fences was that he found it cheaper to station little negroes at the gaps, is perhaps apocryphal, but it has some value as an economic indicator.

Intellectually and spiritually, however, the Southerner seems to have suffered not so much by reason of climatic conditions as by reason of his partial isolation, brought upon him in large measure by slavery. The institution to which the Southerner tenaciously clung after it had ceased to be economically profitable — if, indeed, such it ever was —separated him from the great stream of national life; and the race problem left in the train of slavery has sufficed in some measure to perpetuate his isolation. The wen of slavery had grown to be nearly as big as the civic body upon which it was bred, and amputation not only proved almost fatal, but also brought its own enduring evils. The Union is now perhaps politically intact; but it has never been quite intellectually, spiritually, and socially such. The South remains in some measure provincial, and the Southerner, even when intellectually alert, finds it hard not to share the conditions with which he is surrounded. Because the South has escaped some of the worst aspects of Northern commercialism, the Southerner is apt to rejoice in his own provincialism. At the same time the South has shown the supersensitiveness to outside criticism characteristic of an isolated people, and has often responded to such criticism with a heat of provincial patriotic rage such as the Southern European could not excel. Thus things Southern have rarely appeared to the Southerner in their true proportions and relations. In matters of taste, also, the South has remained provincial or archaic. Even now much of the South is in the midst of that “architectural reign of terror” which made hideous the mid-quarters of the last century, but which happily the North seems at length about to emerge from. Again, the South has much of the time abstained from the highest endeavor in the fine arts, in mechanical invention, and in most other fields save those of politics and war.

During the first forty years under the Constitution, for the greater part of which period slavery was only growing its thews, the Union was perhaps nearer intact, not only in form but in spirit, than at any time during the next sixty years. The isolation of the South was less marked during those first forty years than later, and it was precisely then that she contributed her largest share in men and measures to our political progress. Unfortunately for all of us, that region came passionately to the defense of slavery about the time when the protective tariff system began to extend and threatened to be permanent. The South then made the tactical and politico-economic mistake of assuming that protection was good perhaps for one section, but certainly bad for another; whereas it was merely good for a privileged few in any section, and always bad for most of us everywhere. Thus the opposition of the South to the protective system became another source of isolation, another means of excluding her from participation in the stream of national development and from full sympathy with national ideals. In spite of occasional academic arguments for free trade as a universal good, the South by her own neglect was made to appear as selfishly arrayed against a system advocated as a national blessing.

At the same time the necessity that the South felt of fighting for slavery and against protection perpetuated her race of brilliant public men, and made her in politics at least the equal of the North. But after 1832 only one permanently resident Southerner was elected to the presidency. In the only other field of endeavor to which the South has unreservedly given herself, the military field, she has proved also of equal validity with the North, and in both these fields her distinction has often been won by individuals who were typically Englishmen of the Midi.

A few concrete illustrations will serve to enforce the contention of the immediately foregoing paragraph. Let us glance rapidly at some of the men who have conferred distinction upon the South in politics or in war. Washington, to be sure, was mainly an Englishman rather than a man of the Midi. What is true of him is almost equally true of several of his Southern contemporaries. Jefferson had marked traits of the Midi, and so had John Randolph of Roanoke. Calhoun seems almost a dual personality; he was intense and passionate in spirit, but coldly logical in his mental processes, and as conscientious as the sternest Puritan. His paternal family, indeed, came late to the South, though he inherited upon one side old Southern blood. But there is a large group of less conspicuous South Carolinians who signally illustrate the effect of semi-tropical conditions upon the people of that state. Hayne, Rhett, Brooks, Pickens, and others will occur to many, and the temperament of the Midi in an exaggerated form seems to belong to at least one conspicuous South Carolinian of to-day. Henry Clay was typically a man of the Midi, pleasure-loving, eloquent, sympathetic, charming in his personal relations, fiery yet steady in courage, sensitive upon points of honor, —a shining and romantic figure, in the presence of which Puritan virtue as exemplified by John Quincy Adams at his early morning prayers seems a little cold and pale.

Coming farther down, we find in Lincoln marked traits of race, with others that may have been climatic, for he and his had long been men of the Midi. Stonewall Jackson, too, was, so to speak, mingled Covenanter and Provençal, with the Covenanter element in far larger proportion. Lee is perhaps the most conspicuous example that the South has furnished of an almost perfect blend of the Englishman and the man of the Midi. He had the dash and fire of the South with the steady coolness of the Englishman, the social warmth of the Midi with the domestic sincerity of his race. His English military biographer seems occasionally almost aghast at Lee’s apparent rashness even when it was vindicated by success. Beauregard, in character, as in aspect, seems an unmistakable Franco-American of the Midi, and three or four other conspicuous Confederate commanders exhibited traits which may well be set down to climatic influence. It is hard to believe that the amazing exploits of Mosby and other partisan leaders of the border were not in some degree due to the fact that they and their bands were essentially guerrillas of the Midi.

Among the Southern public men of the mid-century period and earlier, the Breckenridges illustrate that union of logic and passion which marks some other Scotchmen of the Midi. Foote of Mississippi brought to the defense of the Union through many bitter years the same fire that some of his fellows of the Midi showed in their advocacy of secession. As to Jefferson Davis, he was a Southerner of English blood whose racial characteristics seem to have been peculiarly resistant to climatic influences. When he shall cease to be the scapegoat of half a nation, and New England shall regard the Confederate President dispassionately, she may well find in him something very like a Puritan of the South.1

It seems probable then that our Engglishman of the Midi has gained more than he has lost by his six or eight generations in a sub-tropical climate. The Yankee’s energy, persistence, temperance, thrift, and ingenuity have helped to make the people of New England perhaps the richest community in the world; yet they occupy as inhospitable a soil probably as that of any like area with an equal population. Furthermore, New England’s material contribution to our national wealth is but a small part of her total benefaction to mankind. When all this has been acknowledged, however, and as well the steel-like faithfulness of the New England character, one must confess to missing in the Yankee a certain warmth and color which make the Southerner appear as almost of a different race. Falstaff, it will be recalled, could not warm to that “sober-blooded boy,” Prince John of Lancaster, and reflecting upon John’s abstinence from wine, he was led to his famous soliloquy in praise of sack. “So that skill in the weapon,” he reflects, “is nothing without sack;” and the very valor of Prince Hal himself he ascribes to the same agency, saying, “For the cold blood he did naturally inherit from his father, he hath, like lean, sterile, and bare land, manured, husbanded and tilled, with excellent endeavor of drinking good, and good store of fertile sherris, that he has become very hot and valiant.”

What sack did for Prince Hal, the semi-tropical suns below the 39th parallel seem in some measure to have done for the Englishman of the South, so that he has added to the qualities of his race some at least of those that give force and charm to the European of the Midi. Doubtless he has the defects of his acquired qualities; but he is really a new thing in the history of the human race, and, as such, an interesting product, with a possible future that gives matter for speculation.

What is likely to be the future of this man ? It seems, so far as one may judge from the past, that he needs only to break the bonds of isolation, and rid himself of his provincialism, in order to enter into every field of endeavor in friendly competition with his brother of the North for the promotion of national progress. Plainly the old cause of isolation continues in a slightly new form. The South worked through at least two generations of our national life with one hand tied by reason of slavery. Slave labor was uneconomic, in part because the slave labored without hope; and hopeless free labor is likely to be little more effective.

Is the South determined to reduce its laboring population to hopelessness, or will our Man of the Midi solve the race problem rightly and so burst the bonds of his own isolation and emerge into the open ? In spite of recent apparently discouraging events there are signs that he will answer successfully this Sphinx’s riddle of the Occident. Pessimism as to the negro is, indeed, the loudest note now heard from the South, and the colored race has not in years had fewer sanguine friends at the North; but it frequently happens that an evil condition is upon the mend just at the moment when we have our eyes so riveted upon its ill aspects that we fail to note the signs of coming improvement. It is not impossible that such is now the case with the problem of the South; and nothing is so likely to soften Southern public opinion as the knowledge that the North recognizes our national problem as peculiarly a Southern problem, and watches the course of events below Mason and Dixon’s Line in a spirit of broad human sympathy, and not in a spirit of mere arrogant criticism. After all, the Southern white, however he may underestimate the remote possibilities of the negro race, knows better than his Northern critic its immediate condition and capacity; and there is still a deep-seated Southern affection for the negro that will respond to intelligent Northern sentiment.

Patience, patience and charity, then, is surely the counsel that should be addressed to North as well as South, and alike to both races. A gradual diffusion of the colored race, an increase of the whites by immigration and by excess of births until that race shall be everywhere in a substantial majority, and the accompanying material and moral improvement of the negroes (a thing easier of accomplishment when they shall be no longer densely massed in special areas), will give the problem a very different look from that threatening and disheartening one which it now seems to wear.

With this immediately threatening pressure of the race problem relieved, and men’s minds freed for turning to other things, who shall say what our men of the Midi in coming generations may not accomplish in fields of endeavor that they now neglect or cultivate but feebly ? It will be worth much to the Southern white to be drawn into the full stream of national life, to feel himself and his section one with the rest of the Union, not alone politically, but intellectually and spiritually.

With improved economic conditions at home and a less threatening race problem the South will perhaps be no longer subject to that ruinous drain of her energetic and ambitious youth to the cities of the North; and, on the other hand, the South will receive an increasing immigration of young men from the North and West eager to share in her rich but ill-developed natural opportunities.

Finally, if the boast that the AngloSaxon race is peculiarly gifted in the realms of politics and the higher imagination be justified, our Man of the Midi has a great future; for not only is he almost pure Anglo-Saxon, but his race has been warmed by the generous sack of his own semi-tropical sunshine; he is a blend of reason and passion new to the world of endeavor and service.

  1. The present occupant of the White House seems to have inherited a share of temperament from his ancestors of our Midi.