The Southern Aristocracy of Merit
The gate keeper-historians of Northern mythology are quick to claim that the democracy of their section warred against a landed aristocracy of the antebellum American South. In this they overlook the true workings of politics in the South, as well as their own ruthless machine politics and aristocratic party bosses who controlled elections in the North.
Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
The Southern Aristocracy of Merit:
“[from 1830 to 1861]…There is no era in American history, in relation to the state of culture and the feelings of class consciousness in the South, which has been so misunderstood. One can not wholly blame the romantic novelists for throwing into high focus, if false perspective, the aristocratic and oligarchic features of Southern life—the picturesque and romantic survival upon American soil of a belated feudalism.
These were the beautiful and picturesque phases of Southern life, ready made to the hands of the fictive artist; and it is no wonder that people still innocently think of the War between the States as simply a struggle of Puritan and Cavalier, a clash of ideals of the Lees of Virginia and Adamses of Massachusetts. There is a falsehood—and, I think, vicious falsehood—in this seductive but distorted picture.
Recent economic investigations conclusively demonstrate that life in the rural South in antebellum days was democratic, and that the political leaders owed their selection not to a landed aristocracy but to the great masses of people. There is need for clearer thinking and a truer perspective on this sociological phase of our development. A State which gave two men to the Presidency prior to 1860, one born in a log cabin, the other in a log house, and at the close of the war a third, born in an attic in this town, can not with any semblance of reason preen itself upon the grasping leadership of a landed aristocracy.
The aristocracy of leadership in the South was an aristocracy not of birth but of merit; not of blood, but of sheer, efficient achievement. The truly typical home of the South was not a Monticello or an Arlington, but a simple four room house, the home of a homogeneous and pure blooded people, breeding the democratic ideals of a [Nathaniel] Macon and a [Zebulon] Vance.”
(Democracy and Literature, Archibald Henderson, North Carolina Historical Review, December 1912, pp. 66-67)