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The Literate South: Reading before Emancipation

From: The Journal of the Civil War Era
Volume 3, Number 3, September 2013
pp. 331-359 | 10.1353/cwe.2013.0049

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The Old South had famously few public schools, but it teemed with readers. The archives are stuffed with evidence of them. Historians cannot possibly read all the diaries, letters, half-finished novels, bad poetry, receipts, recipes, lecture notes, speeches, love letters, commonplace books, and essays these readers left behind. They filled newspaper columns with their editorials and letters, magazines with their poetry, pamphlets with their sermons, mail sacks with their letters, court dockets with their opinions, and ledger books with their figures. They have supplied enough raw materials to keep members of the Southern Historical Association occupied for more than three-quarters of a century, to set scholars parsing the eighty-seven North American slave autobiographies written before emancipation, to offer Bell Wiley “amazingly large quantities” of letters written by ordinary soldiers, and to sustain Michael O’Brien for twelve hundred pages. “The South was a place,” he has written, “into which torrents of print poured.”

Like people all over the Western world, people in the southern states learned to read and write in unprecedented numbers by the mid-nineteenth century. By 1850, the region boasted one of the highest rates of literacy in the world. More than 80 percent of free adults in the slave states could read, a rate exceeded only by the free states, Scotland, and Prussia, which had the highest rates in Europe. An estimated 10 percent of slaves and many free blacks could read, although counting them is difficult (see tables 1 and 2). Many of these readers were autodidacts, and many more desired to learn how to read. Anecdotal accounts of these readers abound. Slaves, artisans, Indians, farmers, planters, politicians, and schoolgirls read to make a living, amuse themselves, numb their despair, nurture their spiritual life, or affirm their political views. A growing publishing industry eagerly accommodated their taste for English and American sentimental novels, Bibles, tracts, schoolbooks, technical manuals, almanacs, magazines, newspapers, and poetry. In short, the “Civil War pitted against each other two of the most literate societies on earth.”

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Table 1. 

White Adult Literacy, 1850 U.S. Census

Source: Historical, Demographic, Economic, and Social Data: The United States, 1790–1970. ICPSR00003-v1. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research. doi:10.3886/ICPSR00003.v1.

If the Old South was full of readers, they have been nearly impossible to see. The disdain for reading among ordinary folk in Dixie is legendary. The argument began in the first century of English settlement, when Virginia governor William Berkeley boasted, “I thank God, there are no free schools nor printing … for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!” His words endured to gain a new hearing in the nineteenth century, when they were repeated in scores of publications, including colonial histories. His point seemed self-evident to those who equated the South’s dearth of readers with its surfeit of slaves. “What a terrible overthrow would a good system of common schools, and a free press, among the slaves, do in the slave states! Slavery could not live two generations under such an influence,” Charles Elliott wrote in 1850. Anti-literacy laws in half of the slave states ensured that nine-tenths of all slaves would remain illiterate; local ordinances, custom, or the lash sufficed to discourage slave literacy in the others. Free blacks were repeatedly barred from conducting and attending schools. Law and custom curtailed the freedom of the press and censored the mails to prevent abolitionist materials from circulating. Voices across the region called for free public schooling to correct the “brutish ignorance” of poor white people, but until the 1850s, politicians generally refused their requests. The latest gilt and blue volumes from Boston publisher Ticknor and Fields or copies of the Edinburgh Review seemed to make little impression, leaving intellectuals to draw their chairs into a nervous circle in Charleston parlors. Travelers routinely noted the large number of those they met on the road who could not read. American Tract Society agents penned hundreds of reports conveying their dismay that many families in the...

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