Though the Old South’s feudal institutions treated slaves as mere property, they lived in and helped create a rapidly modernizing world.
Slavery, Feudal and Industrial
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Two strands of argument dominate much of the historical writing about antebellum southern life—First, there is what we might call the “agrarian thesis” that before twentieth century industrialization, the South was a backward‐looking, overly conservative, and essentially premodern society. At its most extreme, this version of events casts the South as the last great bastion of European feudalism in American life, for better or worse. Then there is the “modernization” faction of historians, who have taken great care over the decades to accumulate evidence of the slaves’ productivity, the planters’ obsessions with business, and the overall industrialization of cotton production over the long term.
The agrarian thesis relies largely on ideas about class—southern life was marked by a fundamental division of rulers and ruled, cemented by a web of reciprocal social obligations joining the interests of lord and serf, king and vassal, master and slave. Every person in society knew their place, their duties, and the proper response to failure. Kings well knew they could only tax their nobles so much before they faced a showdown with rebellious barons; lords knew there was a sweet spot for exploiting serfs which included providing famine relief and physical protection from outsiders. Peasants knew they had the power to rebel, but they also well knew how dependent they were on their own local strongman. Likewise, southern planters fully understood that though the law attempted to render men into property, such a transformation was actually impossible. Planters well knew that their slaves were in fact people fundamentally like themselves, though the state forever relegated them to the status of mere property. No matter how voiceless in the courts, slaves could run away. They could avoid work by overfertilizing fields and killing entire crops—and sometimes they did. More often, they simply worked less than expected of them, they took extra holidays, they cut corners everywhere, and they resisted their position at low levels almost constantly. Slavery was a socially negotiated institution, however clean and simple the law was supposed to make things.
The modernization thesis relies on mountains of empirical and impressionistic evidence about southern capitalism. These historians find class important to the extent that the planters were great capitalists and the slaves were their permanent working class. According to this view, southern planters were closer to northern industrialists than feudal lords, and their society represented at least a mid‐point between feudal agrarianism and industrial capitalism. In some cases, historians have argued that southern plantations steadily became “factories in the fields,” every bit as routinized and mechanized as northern industry with even a greater measure of diversity in the economy than we might think. “King Cotton” certainly ran the South, but throughout the antebellum era southerners increasingly rented out their slaves to industrial or urban craft work, skilled labor, mining, and other forms of non‐agrarian production. For their part, planters were obsessed with minimizing costs and maximizing profits. They voraciously consumed academic journals about agricultural techniques and science, plantation management (including ways to systematically break slaves and make them perform like northern factory workers), and constituted the single most powerful political lobby in the country. They were hardly a bunch of feudal barons lovingly watching over their social charges (bestowed on them by God)—these were some three thousand men at the cutting edge of global, industrial capitalism.
This debate touches virtually everything else in southern history to some degree, and our investigations into the poems of George Moses Horton help show why. Horton lived as a bridge between these two important interpretations of the South. His was a cruel and calculating master, a drunken tobacco dealer who never rose to the ranks of great planters yet showed none of the attention and care we might expect from a humble patriarch. Horton was driven to labor for markets that ultimately extended across the globe, but then so did many late medieval serfs. He would never have learned to read or write if not for his own initiative, but once these secrets were discovered Horton was able to take advantage of technologically extended communications networks and publishing opportunities that did not exist before his lifetime. Horton was the South’s first published black author, the first slave to attain real popular fame and appeal among white people, and he participated in the poetry market both for the profit of himself and his master. His position as a slave rooted him in the romantic world of the past—the laws made absolutely sure that he was shut out from any chance of shaping the future. But the unavoidable facts of his humanity and agency meant he was actually capable of entrepreneurship. America’s feudal heritage called him a slave and demanded that he and his master fulfill certain mutual obligations to one another, but within this fictive framework even slaves were able to transcend their status and shape the world forever in print.
Come, thou queen of every creature, Nature calls thee to her arms; “Love sits gay on every feature, Teeming with a thousand charms.
Meet me mid the wreathing bowers, Greet me in the citron grove, Where I saw the belle of flowers Dealing with the blooms of love.
Hark! the lowly dove of Sharon, Bids thee rise and come away, From a vale both dry and barren, Come to one where life is gay.
Come, thou queen of all the forest, Fair Feronia, mountain glee, Lovelier than the garden florist, Or the goddess of the bee.
Come, Sterculus, and with pleasure, Fertilize the teeming field; From thy straw, dissolved at leisure, Bid the lea her bounty yield.
Come, thou queen of every creature, Nature calls thee to her arms; Love sits gay on every feature, Teeming with a thousand charms.
“Death of Gen. Jackson–An Eulogy.”
Hark! from the mighty Hero’s tomb, I hear a voice proclaim! A sound which fills the world with gloom, But magnifies his name.
His flight from time let braves deplore, And wail from state to state, And sound abroad from shore to shore, The death of one so great!
He scorn’d to live a captured salve, And fought his passage through; He dies, the prince of all the brave, And bids the world adieu!
Sing to the mem’ry of his power, Ye vagrant mountaineers, Ye rustic peasants drop a shower Of love for him in tears.
He wields the glittering sword no more, With that transpiercing eye; Ceases to roam the mountain o’er, And gets him down to die!
Still let the nation spread his fame, While marching from his tomb; Aloud let all the world proclaim, Jackson, forever bloom.
No longer to the world confin’d, He goes down like a star; He sets, and leaves his friends behind To rein the steed of war.
Hark! from the mighty Hero’s tomb, I hear a voice proclaim! A sound which fills the world with gloom, But magnifies his name!
“Mr. Clay’s Reception at Raleigh, April, 1844.”
Salute the august train! a scene so grand, With every tuneful band; The might have, His country bound to save, Extends his aiding hand; For joy his vot’ries hoop and stamp, Excited by the blaze of pomp! Let ev’ry eye The scene descry, The sons of freedom’s land.
The look ten thousand stars! lamp tumbler blaze, To give the Hero praise! Immortal Clay, The cause is to pourtray! Your tuneful voices raise; The lights of our Columbian sun, Break from his patriotic throne; Let all admire The faithful sire, The chief musician plays.
Ye bustling crowds give way, proclaims the drum, And give the Patriot room; The cannon’s sound, The blast of trumpets bound, Be this our father’s home; Now let the best musician play, A skillful tune for Henry Clay! Let every ear With transport hear! The President is come.
Let sister states great the Columbian feast, With each admiring guest; Thou art our choice! Let ev’ry joyful voice, Sound from the east to west; Let haughty Albion’s lion roar, The eagle must prevail to soar; And in lovely form, Above the storm Erect her peaceful nest.
Beyond each proud empire she throws her eye! Which lifted to the sky, No thunders roll, To agitate her soul, Beneath her feet they fly! Let skillful fingers sweep the lyre, Strike ev’ry ear! set hearts on fire! Let monarchs sleep Beyond the deep, And howling faction die.
Now hense forget the scene applauding day; When every heart was gay; The universal swell Rush’d from the loud town bell; In awful, grand array, We see them form the bright parade; And hark, a gladdening march is play’d! Along the street, The theme is sweet, For every voice is Clay.
To the Capitol the low and upland peers Resort with princely fears, And homage pay; A loud huzza for Clay! Falls on our ears; Loud from his lips the thunders roll, And fill with wonder every soul; Round the sire of state All concentrate, And every mortal hears.
‘Tis the hope of the noble defeated; The aim of the marksman is vain; The wish of destruction completed, The soldier eternally slain.
When winter succeeds to the summer, The bird is too chilly to sing; No music is play’d for the drummer, No carol is heard on the wing.
The court of a nation forsaken, An edifice strpp’d of its dome, Its fame from her pinnacle shaken, Like the sigh heaving downfall of Rome.
Fall’n, fall’n is the chief of the witty, The prince of republican power; The star‐crown of Washington City Descends his political tower.
The gold‐plated seat is bespoken, The brave of the west is before; The bowl at the fountain is broken, The music of fame is no more.
No longer a wonderful story Is told for the brave whig to hear, Whose sun leaves his circuit of glory, Or sinks from the light of his sphere.
“The Happy Bird’s Nest.”
When on my cottage falls the placid shower, When ev’ning calls the labourer home to rest, When glad the bee deserts the humid flower, O then the bird assumes her peaceful nest.
When sable shadows grow unshapely tall, And Sol’s resplendent wheel descends the west, The knell of respiration tolls for all, And Hesper smiles upon the linnet’s nest.
When o’er the mountain bounds the fair gazelle, The night bird tells her day‐departing jest, She gladly leaves her melancholy dell, And spreads her pinions o’er the linnet’s nest.
Then harmless Dian spreads her lucid sail, And glides through ether with her silver crest, Bidding the watchful bird still pour her tale, And cheer the happy linnet on her nest.
Thus may some guardian angel bear her light, And o’er thy tomb, departed genius, rest, Whilst thou shalt take thy long eternal flight, And leave some faithful bird to guard thy nest.
“The Fate of An Innocent Dog.”
When Tiger left his native yard, He did not many ills regard, A fleet and harmless cur; Indeed, he was a trusty dog, And did not through the pastures prog; The grazing flocks to stir, poor dog, The grazing flocks to stir.
He through a field by chance was led, In quest of game not far ahead, And made on active leap; When all at once, alarm’d, he spied, A creature welt’ring on its side, A deadly wounded sheep, alas! A deadly wounded sheep.
He there was fill’d with sudden fear, Apprized of lurking danger near, And there he left his trail; Indeed, he was afraid to yelp, Nor could he grant the creature help, But wheel’d and drop’d his tail, poor dog, But wheel’d and drop’d his tail.
It was his pass‐time, pride and fun, At morn the nimble hare to run, When frost was on the grass; Returning home who should he meet? The weather’s owner, coming fleet, Who scron’d to let him pass, alas! Who scorn’d to let him pass.
Tiger could but his bristles raise, A surly compliment he pays, Insulted shows his wrath; Returns a just defensive growl, And does not turn aside to prowl, But onward keeps the path, poor dog, But onward keep the path.
The raging owner found the brute, But could afford it no recruit, Nor raise it up to stand; ‘Twas mangled by some other dogs, A set of detrimental rogues, Raised up at no command, alas! Raised up at no command.
Sagacious Tiger left his bogs, But bore the blame of other dogs, With powder, fire and ball; They kill’d the poor, unlawful game, And then came back and eat the same; But Tiger paid for all, poor dog, But Tiger paid for all.
Let ev’ry harmless dog beward Lest he be taken in the snare, And scorn such fields to roam; A creature may be fraught with grace, And suffer for the vile and base, By straggling off from home, alas! By straggling off from home.
The blood of creatures oft is split, Who die without a shade of guilt; Look out, or cease to roam; Whilst up and down the world he plays For pleasure, man in danger strays Without a friend from home, alas! Without a friend from home.
“The Tipler to His Bottle.”
What hast thou ever done for me? Defeated every good endeavor; I never can through life agree To place my confidence in thee, Not ever, no, never!
Often have I thy steam admired, Thou nothing hast avail’d me ever; Vain have I thought myself inspired, Say, have I else but pain acquired? Not ever, no, never!
No earthly good, no stream of health, Flows from thy fount, thou cheerful giver; From thee, affluence sinks to stealth, From thee I pluck no bloom of health, Whatever, no, never!
Thou canst impart a noble mind, Power from my tongue flows like a river; The gas flows dead, I’m left behind, To all that’s evil down confined, To flourish more never!
With thee I must through life complain, Thy powers at large will union sever; Disgorge no more thy killing bane, The bird hope flies from thee in pain, To return more never!
“Rosabella–Purity of Heart.”
Though with an angel’s tongue I set on fire the congregations all, ‘Tis but a brazen bell that I have rung, And I to nothing fall; My theme is but an idle air If Rosabella is not there,
Though I in thunders rave, And hurl the blaze of oratoric flowers, Others I move, but fail myself to save With my declaiming powers; I sink, alas! I know not where, If Rosabella is not there.
Though I point out the way, And closely circumscribe the path to heaven, And pour my melting prayer without delay, And vow my sins forgiven, I sink into the gloom despair If Rosabella is not there.
Though I may mountains move, And make the vallies vocal with my song, I’m vain without a stream of mystic love, For all my heart is wrong; I’ve laid myself a cruel snare, If Rosabella is not there.
From bibliothic stores, I fly, proclaiming heaven from land to land, Or cross the seas and reach their distant shores, Mid Gothic groups to stand; O, let me of myself beware, If Rosabella is not there.
Our classic books must fail, And with their flowery tongues to ashes burn, And not one groat a mortal wit avail Upon his last return; Be this the creature’s faithful prayer, That Rosabella may be there.
This spotless maid was born The babe of heaven, and cannot be defiled; The soul is dead and in a state forlorn On which she has not smiled; Vain are the virile and the fair, If Rosabella be not there.
When other pleasures tire, And mortal glories fade to glow no more, She with the wing of truth augments her fire, And still prevails to soar; All else must die, the good and wise, But Rosabella never dies.
The poor countryman to a fraudulent lady professing bright chrisianity.
If thou art fair, deal, lady, fair, And let the scales be even; Forbid the poising beam to rear, And pull thee down from heaven.
Dost thou desire to die in peace, For eve’ry sin forgiven, Give back my right, thy weight decrease, And mount like mine to heaven.
Rather give over to the poor, Take ten and give eleven; Or else be fair, I ask no more, ‘Tis all required of heaven.
And when on thee for pay I call, Which is but four for seven, Keep nothing back, but pay it all, It is not hid from heaven.
Remember hence the sentence past, The truth in scripture given, Last shall be first, and first be last, In time, in earth, and heaven.
When auburn Autumn mounts the stage, And Summer fails her charms to yield, Bleak nature turns another page, To light the glories of the field.
At once the vale declines to bloom, The forest smiles no longer gay; Gardens are left without perfume, The rose and lilly pine away.
The orchard bows her fruitless head, As one divested of her store; Or like a queen whose train has fled, And left her sad to smile no more.
That bird which breath’d her vernal song, And hopp’d along the flow’ry spray, Now silent holds her warbling tongue, Which dulcifies the feast of May.
But let each bitter have its sweet, No change of nature is in vain; ‘Tis just alternate cold and heat, For time is pleasure mix’d with pain.
“Reflections from the Flash of a Meteor.”
Psalm xc. 12.
So teach me to regard my day, How small a point my life appears; One gleam to death the whole betrays, A momentary flash of years.
One moment smiles, the scene is past, Life’s gaudy bloom at once we shed, And sink beneath affliction’s blast, Or drop as soon among the dead.
Short is the chain wound up at morn, Which oft runs down and stops at noon; Thus in a moment man is born, And, lo! the creature dies as soon.
Life’s little torch how soon forgot, Dim burning on its dreary shore; Just like that star which downwards shot, It glimmers and is seen no more.
Teach me to draw this transient breath, With conscious awe my end to prove, Early to make my peace with death, As thus in haste from time we move.
O heaven, through this murky vale, Direct me with a burning pen; Thus shall I on a tuneful gale Fleet out my threescore years and ten.
Friendship, thou balm for ev’ry ill, I must aspire to thee; Whose breezes bid the heart be still, And render sweet the patient’s pill, And set the pris’ner free.
Friendship, it is the softest soul Which feels another’s pain; And must with equal sighs condole, While sympathetic streamlets roll, Which nothing can restrain.
Not to be nominated smart, Of mortals to be seen, She does not thus her gifts impart, Her aid is from a feeling heart, A principle within.
When the lone stranger, forced to roam, Comes shiv’ring to her door, At once he finds a welcome home, The torch of grace dispels his gloom, And bids him grope no more.
Friendship was never known to fail The voice of need to hear, When ruthless ills our peace assail, When from our hearts she draws the evil, And drys the falling tear.
When dogs and devils snarl and fight, She hides and dwells alone; When friends and kindred disunite, With pity she surveys the right, And gives to each his own.
Friendship has not a sister grace Her wonders to exceed; She is the queen of all her race, Whose charms the stoutest must embrace When in the vale of need.
Friendship is but the feeling sigh, The sympathizing tear, Constrain’d to flow till others dry, Nor lets the needy soul pass by, Nor scorns to see or hear.
“On the Conversion of a Sister.”
‘Tis the voice of my sister at home, Resign’d to the treasures above, Inviting the strangers to come, And feast at the banquet of love.
‘Tis a spirit cut loose from its chain, ‘Tis the voice of a culprit forgiven, Restored from a prison of pain, With th’ sound of a concert from heaven.
‘Tis a beam from the regions of light, A touch of beatific fire; A spirit exulting for flight, With a strong and impatient desire.
‘tis a drop from the ocean of love, A foretaste of pleasures to come, Distill’d from the fountain above, The joy which awaits her at home.
“A Billet Doux.”
Dear Miss: Notwithstanding the cloud of doubts which overshadows the mind of adoring fancy, when I trace that vermillion cheek, that sapphire eye of expressive softness, and that symmetrical form of grace, I am constrained to sink into a flood of admiration beneath those heavenly charms. Though, dear Miss, it may be useless to introduce a multiplicity of blandishments, which might either lead you into a field of confusion, or absorb the truth of affection in the gloom of doubts; but the bell of adulation may be told from the distance of its echo, and cannot be heard farther than seen. Dear Miss, whatever may be the final result of my adventurous progress, I now feel a propensity to embark on the ocean of chance, and expand the sail of resolution in quest of the distant shore of connubial happiness with one so truly lovely. Though, my dearest, the thunders of parental aversion may inflect the guardian index of affection from its favorite star, the deviated needle recovers its course, and still points onwards to its native poll. Though the waves of calumny may reverberate the persevering mind of the sailing lover, the morning star of hope directs him through the gloom of trial to the object of his choice.
My brightest hopes are mix’d with tears, Like hues of light and gloom; As when mid sun‐shine rain appears, Love rises with a thousand fears,
To pine and still to bloom. When I have told my last fond tale In lines of song to thee, And for departure spread my sail, Say, lovely princess, wilt thou fail To drop a tear for me?
A princess, should my votie strain Salute they ear no more, Like one deserted on the main, I still shall gaze, alas! But vain, On wedlock’s flow’ry shore.
“Troubled with the Itch, and Rubbing with Sulphur.”
‘Tis bitter, yet ‘tis sweet, Scratching effects but transient ease; Pleasure and pain together meet, And vanish as they please.
My nails, the only balm, To ev’ry bump are often applied, And thus the rage will sweetly calm Which aggravates my hide.
It soon returns again; A frown succeeds to ev’ry smile; Grinning I scratch and curse the pain, But grieve to be so vile.
In fine, I know not which Can play the most deceitful game, The devil, Sulphur, or the itch; The three are but the same.
The devil sows the itch, And Sulphur has a loathsome smell, And with my clothes as black as pitch, I stink where’er I dwell.
Excoriated deep, By friction play’d on ev’ry part, It oft deprives me of my sleep, And plagues me to my heart.
I loved thee from the earliest dawn, When first I saw thy beauty’s ray; And will until life’s eve comes on, And beauty’s blossom fades away; And when all things go well with thee, With smiles or tears remember me.
I’ll love thee when thy morn is past And wheedling gallantry is o’er, When youth is lost in age’s blast, And beauty can ascend no more; And when life’s journey ends with thee, O then look back and think of me.
I’ll love thee with a smile or frown, Mid sorrow’s gloom or pleasure’s light; And when the chain of life runs down, Pursue thy last eternal flight; When thou hast spread thy wing to flee, Still, still a moment wait for me.
I love thee for those sparkling eyes, To which my fondness was betray’d, Bearing the tincture of the skies, To glow when other beauties fade; And when they sink too low to see, Reflect an azure beam on me.