Christopher Morris. Becoming Southern: The Evolution of a Way of Life, Warren County and Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1770-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. xix + 258 pp. $52.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-508366-8.
Reviewed by Jeanette Keith (Department of History, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania)
Published on H-South (February, 2001)
Life on the Loosa Chitto
Life on the Loosa Chitto
A few years ago a commentator at an historical convention responded to Christopher Morris's presentation of how Warren County, Mississippi, "became southern" by condemning the question as a waste of time. As Morris recounts in the preface to this book, the commentator said that, "We need to understand Mississippi society during the heyday of slavery and King Cotton -- he scolded me --when it was definitely Southern. How it became Southern is not important; it was inevitable" (p. vii). Morris's disagreement with the concept of historical inevitability forms the motif of this excellent community study. Repeatedly, he reminds us that nothing has to be the way it is, but that contingencies, particularly those produced by the natural world, form the matrix in which human societies develop. By studying the material conditions of life in Warren County, Morris hopes to explain how plantation society developed. In doing so, he almost casually weighs in on most of the debates that have resounded through both southern and rural historiography for the last thirty years.
Morris dismisses as basically irrelevant one of the longest-standing controversies in southern historiography, the perennial debate between the Genovese school (planters-as-aristocrats) and the Oates school (planters-as-capitalists.) Planters in new lands like Mississippi were both, he says, depending on the circumstance. Young men on the make in the 1830s aged into established gentlemen of property by the 1850s. Moreover, men were paternalists in their family circles, but quick-witted entrepreneurs in their dealings in the outside economic world.
He disposes of the rural history controversy about the nature of American farmers' response to the market with equal briskness: Warren County farmers' attitudes toward the market economy were not ideologically driven, he says, but contingent upon the family economy and transportation. Farmers in frontier Mississippi were not capitalists -- they practiced self-sufficiency first, since they were far from markets. But neither were they averse to opportunities to make extra cash. In the next century, the regional move toward cotton production seemed to be most closely related to issues of family labor, not to attitudes toward capitalism.
Finally, Morris has no patience with historical determinism. "Abstractionists," he says, "hold firmly to the assumption that behavior is merely an outward reflection of thought, which they see as the essence of culture." For abstractionists, culture is unchanging, whereas Morris thinks it is dynamic and responsive to material conditions. On the other hand, he notes, "substantialists" look for the roots of southern culture in material conditions (p. xv). While clearly more sympathetic with this position, he criticizes substantialists for their tendency to presume that they already know what the South was like, and to find evidence of material conditions that fit their presuppositions -- or even worse, to force their evidence to fit conclusions that the evidence in fact does not support.
Morris takes his stand for old-fashioned, materially based social history: "The nature of the historical evidence allows us to be more certain of what people did than of what they thought" (p. xvi). To see how the South became the South, he argues, it is useful to watch the process in motion, and on a small scale. Therefore this community study of Warren County from the 1770s through 1860s.
In the 1770s, the land that would become Warren County was a remote outpost of European culture on the very edge of the wilderness. The west side of the Mississippi was nominally possessed by the Spanish, who loosely governed the region from New Orleans, while the east side fell under British control, as part of West Florida. The territory along the Loosa Chitta attracted settlers from the older English colonies on the east coast. Drawn by the possibility of cheap land, early settlers established a precarious existence, only to lose their foothold in Mississippi due to the Revolutionary War. British loyalists, beset by the Spanish, the Choctaw and by Patriot expeditions down the Mississippi, fled back to the east, or to safer homes in the Natchez district. After the war, new settlers moved into the district. These small farmers quickly established the classic southern "hog and hominy" economy, living on pork and corn, but raising large herds of cattle for sale to the Spanish military.
Life on the early Loosa Chitta had an improvised quality. This is most evident in Morris's description of two institutions deemed bulwarks of Old South culture, slavery and the patriarchal family. Since the non-plantation economy had but little and intermittent work for slaves, their masters encouraged them to become day laborers for hire, and allowed them a measure of independence that would be unthinkable by the 1850s. Family life in the region was similarly non-doctrinaire. Husbands and wives split up and remarried. Mistreated wives ran away, but with white women scarce in the district, did not stay lonely long. Morris argues that women in this frontier society had opportunities for autonomy and for power within the family that derived from their usefulness. Since farm women produced goods essential for family survival, wives were valuable supports to their husbands, not dependents who had to be supported.
All that changed when cotton came in. Morris explains that although small farmers could grow cotton with family labor, they were slow to do so. Cotton production did not interfere with the production of household staples, corn and hogs. But it did take a lot of labor, more than the average farmer wanted to put in, or perhaps more than he could get his sons to do. People who wanted to grow cotton bought or rented slaves for that purpose.
Cotton and slaves made Warren County "southern." Up until the 1830s, Morris's description of Warren County gibes closely with John Mack Faragher's study of Sugar Creek in Illinois. But the farmers of Sugar Creek did not become planters.
Morris ties the decision to take up cotton cultivation to changes in the Loosa Chitta natural environment. Early settlers had lived in part off the region's forests, then had turned to cattle herding, pasturing their herds on the open range. As the population in the region grew, the cattle ranges shrank. Most successful cattle herders already had slaves. They turned their slaves to a new occupation, planting cotton, and used the profits to buy luxuries and to acquire more land. The more cotton planted, the more the free cattle range dwindled. Eventually non-slaveholders found themselves planting cotton out of necessity, to purchase the food that would previously have been acquired through herding and hunting.
Meanwhile, cotton prices boomed, setting off the fabled "flush times" in Mississippi. Land speculators bought huge acreages, put in improvements, sold off farms, laid out towns. Some of these new migrants to the region would go on to become major planters and slaveholders, while others went bust in the 1839 panic.
By the 1850s frontier Warren County had become "old" Warren, one of the longest-settled areas in the state. Cotton planters dominated the county's economy and political system, rivaled only by the growing power of merchants in Vicksburg, a thriving small city of 8,000. In the 1850s the rich got richer. They began to buy out small farmers, and to consolidate lands into ever-larger plantations. Poor men and women, unable to make a living in agriculture, left the county, or drifted into Vicksburg to become day laborers or factory workers. (Vicksburg had one of the first and most successful textile mills in the Old South.)
Having described the material roots of southern plantation culture, Morris devotes careful analysis to the ways that changing material conditions led to changes in power relationships. White wives lost power as they lost productivity, and became wards not only of their husbands but of the entire patriarchal legal system. Slavery lost its fluidity as planters exerted tighter and tighter controls over their labor supply. Planters encouraged slaves to form families, holding that "raising young negroes" was as profitable as cotton farming. They also saw the economic rationality of allowing their slaves to grow their own food and sell surplus produce; this reduced the cost of feeding and maintaining slaves.
This analysis, while solidly based on deep archival research and quantification, tends to confirm what we thought we knew about the maturation of a plantation society. I found nothing really new or striking here, although I am grateful for Morris's careful attention to research into material conditions and his refusal to just assume anything. His analysis of the roots of the southern political system, however, is much more intriguing.
Morris traces the development of extended families in rural Warren County from the early pioneer days to the 1850s. Usually dominated by a patriarch, these families became the nuclei of neighborhoods, then of communities, and by the 1850s of political factions. Morris argues that political ideology had little to do with how people in Warren County voted, at least in local elections. People voted for the family candidate, the local man, and county politics revolved around clashes between rival neighborhoods, not political parties. Stable, conservative, but linked to the developing market economy by their production of cotton, the patriarchs of Warren County voted Whig in national elections, and their family and dependents deferred to their judgment.
Morris contrasts rural stability with urban fluidity in his chapter on the rise of Vicksburg. Although small, Vicksburg had an ethnically diverse population and, as might be expected in a river city, a large contingent of the lawless and landless. The town fathers of Vicksburg formed vigilante groups in the 1830s to drive out gamblers, but soon turned to the classic American solution for creating community among strangers, voluntary associations. By the 1850s the stable population of Vicksburg was firmly organized into different groups, and could ignore the drifters.
However, Morris notes, voluntary associations in Vicksburg did not try to evangelize or moralize to the river rats, as did similar organization in northern cities. Rather, they threatened to revive vigilantism if the lower orders did not behave. Moreover, voluntary associations and ameliorative groups in Vicksburg were composed almost exclusively of men through the 1830s and 1840s, with women only beginning to take a role in the 1850s -- another way in which the southern experience differed from that of the North. Morris attributes this difference to the town leaders' ties to the planters: "They built organizations that worked like extended patriarchal families, marshaling the power of a few on behalf of the many who pledged loyalty in return" (p. 126).
Vicksburg had a much livelier political scene than did the surrounding countryside, perhaps because of the presence in town of immigrant Irish Democrats. However, Morris insists than county politics as a whole revolved around family and neighborhood, not ideological difference.
That being the case, I wish that Morris had done more with the secession crisis in Warren County. Most of the community and state-level studies we have of that critical moment in southern history are about areas dominated by Democrats. In text, and even more in his notes, Morris disagrees with Lacy Ford and J. Mills Thornton as to the origins of the secessionist impulse, which they locate in the desire of white men, especially Democrats, to protect treasured autonomy. In principally Whig Warren County, Morris says, the Vicksburg Democrats who sponsored secession were not worried about too little democracy, but too much: as the lower orders (women, workers, immigrants and slaves) "were all freer in Vicksburg than in the surrounding countryside," established citizens wanted to break away from the Union "so that they might take control of their city and the people in it" (p. 249, note 35).
I do not find this convincing. It seems to me that autonomy of white slave-holding patriarchs depends on other people's lack thereof. So when Vicksburg Democrats worried that a Republican victory would bring disorder to their city, they were in fact defending the right of "the people" (that is, men like themselves) to control their property, particularly women and slaves. In that, they seem to have been very like the Alabamians and upcountry South Carolinians described respectively by Thornton and Ford, or for that matter like the masters described by Stephanie McCurry in her study of the South Carolina Low Country.
The really fascinating story here concerns the rural Whigs. In his short final chapter, Morris explains that most of the local Whigs voted for John Bell in November, 1860, and simply stayed home in December, when the state voted for delegates to a convention charged with considering secession. Far from being fire-eaters, most of the slaveholders of rural Mississippi did not want to leave the Union. Morris concludes, "an active secessionist minority carried the day because a silent majority, hearing no calls from the parties and local leaders that normally commanded them, and in any case confident that their lives would not change significantly, disunion or no, let them. The consequences were war and emancipation, and they changed everyone's lives" (p. 179).
Why did the Whig landowners of Warren County abdicate politics at this critical juncture? Were they intimidated by the secessionists, people they considered rabid and insane? Did they not see how dangerous secession would be to the social order they had created? Morris left me wanting to know more.
Morris has a good, clear expository style, and an excellent eye for the telling detail and the interesting character, from Eleanor Price, a free black woman, who ran a trading post on the Big Black River in the 1770s, to James Allen, Whig planter, who resurrected frontier skills to keep his family fed and clothed during the Civil War. Unlike many social histories, this one is fun to read.
In the end, what readers think about Morris's work is likely to depend on what they think about the intellectual schism whose sides Morris labels "abstractionist" and "substantialist." I do not know why he chose these labels, when older ones would do: idealists versus materialists, for example. (It is pretty clear why Morris does not call these intellectual factions Hegelians and Marxists: he has no intention of taking his materialism down the Marxist road to any kind of in-depth class analysis of Warren County.) Idealists are not going to be convinced by Morris's controlled, intelligent, materially responsive Whig planters, none of whom are ever quoted giving voice to the florid, over-the-top rhetoric about women or slaves or the South that provides fodder for Southern Studies. Morris even manages to make southern honor appear a rational response to material conditions. Those of us, like myself, who tend to the materialist side of the debate will really like this book, while wondering: does the way that people behave really make as much sense in the context of their material world as Morris thinks? Even a materialist may have doubts.
This does not negate Morris's achievement. This is a valuable, solid piece of work, well researched and well-written, a welcome addition to both rural history and the history of the antebellum South.
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Jeanette Keith. Review of Morris, Christopher, Becoming Southern: The Evolution of a Way of Life, Warren County and Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1770-1860.
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