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North Carolina Yeoman The Diary of Basil Armstrong Thomasson, 1853-1862 (review)

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 3, Number 3, 1997
pp. 102-104 | 10.1353/scu.1997.0036

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North Carolina Yeoman The Diary ofBasil Armstrong Thomasson, 1853-1862 Edited by Paul D. Escort University of Georgia Press, 1996 Lxvi, 355 pp. Cloth, $50.00 Reviewed by 8. Charles Bolton, professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Litde Rock. He is the author oíSouthernAnglicanism: The Church ofEngland in Colonial South Carolina and Territorial Ambition: 1Mnd and Society in Arkansas, 1800—1840. Basil Armstrong Thomasson, known as Strong to his family, was a remarkable man whose diary is immensely valuable for what it tells us about the lifestyle of soudiern yeomen and equally interesting for what it reveals about Thomasson himself. He spent all of his life in western North Carolina and his adult years in Yadkin and Iredell counties, dying in the latter at the age of thirty-three. This diary covers the last decade ofhis life. It provides plentiful information about his daily activities as a farmer, his behavior and convictions as a deeply religious man, his feelings about his family and his involvement witii the community, his experiences as a school teacher, and his relendess quest for knowledge about matters both practical and metaphysical. A yeoman farmer in the South owned his own land and farmed it; he might have had a hired man or a few slaves, but he was the proprietor ofa family farm rather than a plantation. Thomas Jefferson thought that the country should be peopled with yeomen because their economic independence gave them political independence and made them good citizens. Strong Thomasson was often in debt but never dependent on anyone but his father. This happy circumstance grew out of his constant labor, careful recording-keeping and business management , and an openness to new economic opportunities. The importance of agriculture in his life is reflected in die daily entries that begin with a comment on the weather and go on to record plowing, planting, harvesting, felling trees, chopping firewood, cutting and splitting logs, or building or maintaining some structure or piece ofequipment. The diary includes the details ofhis cash transactions and of the bartering agreements by which he exchanged his own products and labor for those ofhis neighbors. Thomasson engaged in one entrepreneurial venture, setting up a not-very-successful blacksmith shop with a friend. His work as a school 102 Reviews teacher was a natural activity given his love of education, but he found that neither the pupils, nor their parents, nor the legislature of North Carolina valued learning as much as he did. Strong did a good job and earned money but received neither the psychic nor the monetary rewards from teaching that he would have liked. Strong Thomasson was not a typical yeoman. For one tiling, he lamented the existence ofgender inequality, going so far as to suggest that society kept women in a kind ofslavery. He read and learned from Milton's ParadiseLost, and from the works ofAlexander Pope, Oliver Goldsmith, andJohn Bunyan, among other authors . He subscribed to a number ofperiodicals and received free copies ofothers . He also read about geological change and believed that it did not conflict with the Bible. Moreover, Strong was not without his own muse. He wrote a reading book for young students and attempted to publish it in a format similar to Webster 'sSpellingBook. And there were thoughtful diary entries also. On Easter of 1 8 57, Thomasson remembered how he used to color Easter eggs as a child, and diat diought led to one more profound, widi which more than one reader will identify : "We were happy then, but we did not know it. . . . Our childish sports and our egg feasts have long since been done away witii, but our promised future happiness has never yet been realized." Strong's mind ranged widely, but he lived in a narrow world of family. His father , a minister, was a particularly important influence, but he was close to his mother and his brothers and sisters as well. Family visiting was common, and the Thomasson men shared agricultural work on occasion. Strong often wrote about the importance of home: "Home is the best place after all," he wrote in September 1859. "We sometimes desire to go abroad, and take a peep...