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The Causes Of The War

Ideals Of The Old South

By  Rev. Dr. James H. McNeilly, D.D., Nashville, Tenn.

 In it’s zeal for what it calls progress, by higher culture or by material success in business, the present generation in the South tends to ignore and treat with contempt those ideals and principles in which their fathers were trained and for which those fathers were willing to sacrifice comfort and wealth and life itself. Under the specious cry of “Let us turn our faces to the future and cease glorifying the past,” they would have us forget the strenuous days of struggle for constitutional rights and liberty; and they would teach the children that the defeat of the Southern cause by overwhelming forces, drawn from all the world, proves that cause to have been wrong. And so the leader of those world forces is held forth as the martyr, hero, saint, the model for imitation by our youth—a second and greater Washington. In articles in various papers and from writers of Southern birth and sympathies I have seen the question asked, “Who knows what were the real Southern ideals?” as if they were something vague, shadowy and intangible instead of being, as they were, certain definite principles and purposes to guide and develop life and character. Now, without any criticism of Mr. Lincoln’s motives or those of the North in the War Between The States, and giving them credit for conscientiousness and not presuming to say what were their ideals, I propose to set forth briefly the ideals which were distinctive and influential in forming and developing Southern civilization.

1.      There was a keen sense of personal honor, “that chastity of honor that felt a stain like a wound,” which resented any imputation of falsehood or dishonesty by instant punishment. It is true that this sensitiveness was often exaggerated and carried to excess in the code duello. But it is a question whether the code was as evil as the present habit of men to deluge an opponent with the slime of personal abuse, to be answered by an equally offensive torrent of vulgar railing or a resort to the courts in a suit for slander. When a man feels a sense of personal responsibility for his words and actions, it will give dignity to his whole conduct. This quick sense of regard for truth and integrity, this high sense of personal honor, is, next to religion, the strongest force in the formation of high character. It made men immune to the solicitations of bribery and corruption. The charge that any man, even the humblest citizen, had sold his vote or that any man had bribed his voters was resented at once and usually with a blow. The tribute paid by Mr. Blaine to the Southern leaders in his book, “Twenty Years In Congress,” expresses their character: “They were quick to take affront and not infrequently brought needless personal disputation into the discussion of public questions; but they were, almost without exception, men of high integrity, and they were especially and jealously careful of the public money. Too often ruinously lavish in their personal expenditures through the long period of their domination, they guarded the treasury with rigid and unceasing vigilance against every attempt at extravagance and against every form of corruption.” Senator Hoar, of Massachusetts, also in the United States Senate, spoke of the purity and capacity for rule of the Southern character. Perhaps the system of domestic Negro slavery contributed to this attitude of personal dignity. The white man’s color was a badge of superiority, and the presence of an inferior and dependent race gave to his intercourse with all men, of whatever social station, a courtesy and sense of noblesse oblige that lent a charm to Southern society recognized by visitors from other sections. This sense of honor cultivated in all classes an independence of spirit that resented any attempt at dictation from any source. They “knew their rights and, knowing, dared maintain.” To one who knew the spirit of the South, the charge that the war of  1861- 65 was a “slaveholders’ rebellion” and that the masses of the people were driven into it against their will, is simply ridiculous.

2.      A second characteristic of the Old South was its profound veneration for womanhood. It was not merely affection for mother or wife or sister, but it was genuine respect that assigned to woman a sphere important, distinct, honorable; indeed, the highest place in the social order. She was the very heart of the home, as her husband was the head. She was the queen of the social life, to be shielded from wrong or indignity. Every man, by virtue of his manhood, was to be her protector and defender. She was not treated as a doll, to be petted and flattered, but as a companion whose purity and gentleness gave charm and sweetness to life, whose sympathy and tenderness smoothed the harshness of life’s strenuous warfare, whose wise and loving counsel helped to make the way plain through life’s difficulties. And splendidly did she repay this devotion. There has never been in any age a character purer, nobler, more gracious, more intelligent, more helpful than the old-time Southern woman. In the quiet of her home and in the duties of her household, training her children, directing her servants, she wielded an influence that made the men who made the grandest fight in history for right and liberty against overwhelming odds. During that terrible war and amid the ruin of defeat after it was over, she showed a patient heroism, a devotion to her high ideals, a faithfulness in service that were most powerful factors in lifting the South back to her true place in the republic. Our enemies were wont to speak sneeringly of us as “The Chivalry.” One of the great modern English lexicons defines chivalry as “a system marked by the championship of woman and of knightly honor.” Burke, in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” calls it “ the unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise.” It could not tolerate a coward or a crook, and the Southern woman’s influence was strong for courage and honesty.

3.      A third ideal of the Old South was the sacredness of home as the center of the social life. Every man strove to have a home of his own in which to rear his children and to exercise the rites of hospitality to friend and neighbor. The home was his castle into which none might intrude without his permission; but those who entered there met a hospitality that put all its resources at the disposal of the guest. Throughout the South this open-hearted, generous spirit which welcomed and enjoyed companionship with its fellow men was the admiration of all who visited the land from other sections. At the same time, if one presumed on this welcome and abused it by dishonoring or debauching the weaker members of the family, vengeance was swift and relentless. The honor of the home must be guarded, even at the sacrifice of life itself. And so throughout the South there was a multitude of homes, from the stately mansion in the midst of a great plantation to the lowly cottage set in a little farm, where lives of simplicity and domestic happiness were passed, where husbands and wives were joined in love and helpfulness, where children were reared and trained for lives of usefulness, and where the loathsome revelations of the divorce court were unknown.

Another of the high ideals of the Old South was a deep reverence for the Christian religion. Even those who were not members of the Church nor personally religious yet held the Church and its ministers in highest respect and, as they were able, contributed to the support of the ordinances of religion. There was little of the infidelity which denied the divinity of our Lord, Jesus Christ or rejected the Holy Scriptures as a divine revelation. There was none of that blatant godlessness, that defiant atheism which today boasts of its contempt for religion. While there were great evils and often gross wickedness in the lives of individuals, yet public sentiment condemned them, and those who were guilty did not extenuate nor deny that their lives were evil. There was in the South, as in other sections of the country, much practical irreligion, but it was not cloaked under a hypocritical garb of religious profession. In the religious instruction of the Negroes, the Southern Churches made a record in evangelization that was remarkable. In thirty-five years the Methodist Church had led a million Negroes into its communion, the Baptist Church was equally successful, and in these two denominations there were over half a million communicants at the close of the war; while the Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches were faithful and successful in this work. The cost of the work was $4,000,000 to $5,000,000 and was borne by the owners of the slaves, many of whom were not Church members. These are some of the ideals of the Old South—personal honor, veneration for woman, the sacredness of home, reverence for religion. And the people that ignore or despise these ideals will perish and deserve to perish. They are ideals that can never become outworn, although the present generation seems ready to set them aside for material ideals, which are idols of the pit.

(From the April, 1917 number of CONFEDERATE VETERAN)