Southern Statesmen of the Old Regime
Many history books lead us to believe that antebellum Southerners were either dirt-poor crackers or landed gentry, and the former devoid of any intelligence. Yet except for Washington, early American statesmen were largely drawn from the middle class of the South who rose to prominence at the bar. A strong contrast to the public respect and confidence Southern statesmen commonly received is seen in the immense wartime corruption of Lincoln’s administration, and his successors descent into legendary political scandals.
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Southern Statesmen of the Old Regime:
"A fact of greatest importance is that the profession (of law) corrected certain inevitable tendencies toward aristocracy in the South. The bar was attainable by every aspiring young man, and success waited upon intelligence, probity and industry. The young man of the humblest origin came to the bar and succeeded if he had the capacity…There are no better illustrations of this than Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay.
It was thus very largely to the influence of the bar, that while the South indisputably presented certain features of aristocracy, it was essentially democratic. It is not true, as soon often asserted, that there were two classes of whites in the South—the aristocracy and the "trash." The aristocrats, so named, the old families of large, landed estates, were comparatively few in number, and the "poor white trash" less numerous than is generally believed. The great body of Southern whites did not belong to either class, but were plain average, middle-class people, intelligent, of sound morals, independent and patriotic. There was, probably, no part of the South where this good element of the population was not in the majority. I furnished many of the more prominent lawyers, and by its numerical strength, enforced a regard for itself which sometimes degenerated into demagogy.
Nothing could be more absurd than the conception of the South as the home of a domineering, haughty, slave-holding aristocracy, without any other white population than the "crackers" and the mountaineers, to whom recent fiction has assigned so many and such varieties of uncouth speech. That the rich slaveholders had an influence disproportionate to their numbers, such as wealth always gives, is true, of course, but the middle class of respectable and intelligent whites, often slaveholders to a limited extent but in no degree aristocratic, in fact or in pretense, was everywhere in the majority, and it was from this class that the bar was most largely recruited.
Let us examine the antecedents of a few of the great Southern lawyers and political leaders. If we leave out Washington, the most conspicuous names in the Old South are Jefferson, Clay, Jackson and Calhoun. Not one of these was of Cavalier blood or, strictly speaking, of the aristocratic class. Another fact worthy of mention is the record of Southern statesmen of the old regime. It is enough to say that without exception…the great statesmen of the South before the war were men of unquestioned integrity and of sincere patriotism. By force of intellect and of character they long exerted a controlling influence in affairs and almost, without exception, deserved and received public respect and confidence…they were strong, fearless, capable, honorable men, strenuously and genuinely patriotic, and their long ascendancy in affairs of state was marked by efficiency, honesty, economy, and fidelity to duty."
(History of the Literary and Intellectual Life of the Southern States (Vol. VII), Joshua W. Caldwell, Southern Publication Society, 1909, pp. 347-351)