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Their Norths: Antebellum Southern Travelers and Sectional Identity
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Their Norths
Antebellum Southern Travelers and Sectional Identity

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Few white southerners spoke out on regional differences in their diaries or private letters without some sort of provocation—more often, dramatic political events like the beating of Senator Charles Sumner or John Brown’s raid. As such, southern travel accounts serve as one of the best barometers for assessing opinions (at least among the white elite) on sectional distinctiveness. Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861–1865, Vol. 1, January 1, 1861–April 11, 1862, Library of Congress.

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There was only “the North and the South,” William L. Yancey declared in 1855. Nullifying all geographical complexities and political nuances, the Alabama radical proclaimed that the single divide superseded “all minor subdivisions.” For American sectionalism was forged by the design of God, the North made into a “region of frost, ribbed with ice and granite,” the South basking in the “generous bosom” of the sun. In Yancey’s mind, it inevitably followed that the regions’ inhabitants should display characteristics reflective of their settings—the northern Yankees being a “cool, calculating, enterprising, selfish, and grasping” people, while southerners were “ardent, brave and magnanimous, more disposed to give than to accumulate.” One year later, a Georgia newspaper editor rehashed Yancey’s dichotomy in even harsher tones, dismissing northern society as a mere conglomerate of “greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists.” Such seemed the crystallizing stereotypes of the Yankee North in southern eyes by the 1850s. As one Georgian stated in 1854, they were a cold, calculating, and fanatical people, their region useful only for the importation of ice to cool southern drinks, with ice serving as a “fit emblem” for northern “hearts and manners.”1

Notions of regional polarization had long festered in American imaginations. In Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1785 letter to the Marquis de Chastellux, he described northerners as “cool, sober, laborious … chicaning, superstitious and hypocritical,” among other things. And such views were not just limited to the South. As political controversies surrounding the War of 1812 and Missouri’s push for statehood with slavery grew in intensity, the image of a country split between Yankees and Cavaliers resonated with increased power for Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. In 1817, for instance, Massachusetts’s Ebenezer Kellogg wrote that he recognized “the fullest specimen of a Carolinian” in a traveler he encountered in New York. He was a man of “genteel manners, good education, and serious sentiment,” Kellogg observed, but also “profane and well versed in the fashionable vices” that included swearing, drinking, and bragging openly of his extramarital liaisons back home. Increasingly in support of the anti-slavery movement by the 1850s, northern writers depicted the slaveholding South to be economically backward and socially barbaric. And with the heart of the nation’s publishing industry fortified in the northeast and Republican dominated state-houses, northerners played a pivotal role in reifying the sectional divide.2

Still, by the 1850s, it was the southern radicals who began pushing the images of sectional polarization toward their logical conclusion: southern independence. Yankee civilization, they claimed, had spawned a society beset by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration—features that whittled away the region’s social cohesion and moral fiber, and unleashed an onslaught of poverty, hunger, and crime. The picture they painted provided a bleak contrast to their bucolic South [End Page 96] of paternalist imagination, with its agrarian plantations, herrenvolk democracy, and humane system of racial hierarchy (a mythical image that attracted many beleaguered northerners along the way). The North, they disdained, was producing all kinds of strange reform movements—from women’s rights, to egalitarian communes, to abolitionism. Worse still, they believed that northerners, particularly the aggressively anti-southern Republican Party, aimed to imperialize the South through misguided schemes. As Virginia’s George Fitzhugh quipped in his 1854 book, subtitled The Failure of Free Society, Yankee reformers and abolitionists sought to “starve our laborers, [and] multiply crime, riots and pauperism, in order … to try the experiment of Mormonism, Socialism, or Communism” in the South. Secessionists thus claimed that it made perfect sense for...