In Naples and Syria I have seen more beggarly communities than the South, but never one more bankrupt. Judging from what I learned in my own district I should say that the great majority of planters owed to the full extent of their property, and that, but for stay-laws and stay-orders, all Dixie would have been brought to the hammer without meeting its liabilities. When I left Greenville there were something like a thousand executions awaiting action; and, had the Commanding General allowed their collection, another thousand would have been added to the docket. I have known land to go at auction for a dollar and twelve cents an acre, which before the war was valued, I was told, at seven or eight dollars the acre. Labor was equally depreciated, able-bodied men hiring out at seventy-five cents a day if they found themselves; at twenty-five cents if found by their employers. The great mass of the farmers could not pay even these wretched wages, and were forced to plant upon shares, a system unsuited to a laboring class so ignorant and thoughtless as the negroes.
It seemed unjust that debts should retain their full valuation when all other property was thus depreciated. Yet I doubt the practical wisdom of the stay-orders. I think it would have been better to let the whole row of staggering bricks go over; then every one would have known where he was, and industry would have resumed its life. As it was, there was a prolonged crisis of bankruptcy, in which neither debtor nor creditor dared or could take a step. It was a carnival of Micawberism; hundreds of thousands of people were waiting to see what would turn up; they were living on what remained of their property without working to increase it; why should they accumulate when the creditor might seize the accumulation?
This financial and moral paralysis was fostering dishonesty. People who had in other days been honorable descended to all sorts of trickeries, in the hope of saving property which did not seem to be covered by the stay-orders. I was tensed with applications to use my authority in preventing the collection of debts, the administration of estates, and the levying of taxes. In short, the stay-system was transforming the chivalrous Sonthrons into a race of —Micawbers.
There would have been more hope in the future of my district but for the exhausted soil and the wretched agriculture which had been bequeathed to it by slavery. Land which, under proper cultivation, will produce two generous crops a year, had been reduced, by lack of manure and of management, to one crop, varying from ten to two bushels the acre. The common plow-share of the country is about six inches wide by ten long, and this is used until it is worn into what is called a “bull-tongue,” a phrase which aptly describes its shape and size. This triviality does not turn a furrow; it scratches the earth like harrow.
Here and there, at monstrous intervals, a planter uses Northern plows and manure, gathering his forty and eighty bushels of corn to the acre. His neighbors look on with astonishment, but without imitating him, as if his results were magic, and beyond merely human accomplishment. A German colony, planted at Walhalla, in the northwestern corner of South Carolina, has converted a tract of some thousands of acres into a garden of fertility. Among their Anglo-Saxon neighbors you can not discover a sign of their influence. What is to become of this bull-tongued and bull-headed race? I sometimes thought that there was no hope of the physical regeneration of the South until immigration should have rooted out and replaced its present population.
In this same land numberless water-privileges send their ungathered riches to the sea, and the earth is crowded with underground palaces of mineral wealth. The climate, too, is unrivaled: the summer heat in Greenville was rarely too great for walking, its highest point being usually eighty-four; while the winter brought at the worst two or three falls of snow, which melted in two or three days. Neither in Europe, nor along the shores of the Mediterranean have I found a temperature which, during the year round, was so agreeable and healthful. You can see what it is in the remarkable stature of the men, and in the .height, fullness of form, and beauty of the women. My impression is that the entire Alleghany region, from Maryland down into the north of Georgia, is a paradise for the growth of the human plant. If bodily comforts and intellectual pleasures existed there, I should advise all New England to emigrate to it.
Yet it is poorer than Naples, and before the war it was not richer. So much for the political economy of the chivalrous Sonthron, and so much for his rule-or-ruin statesmanship, and, in one word, so much for slavery!
De Forest, J.W., “Chivalrous and Semi-Chivalrous Southrons” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 38, Issue 225, February 1869; New York: Harper & Bros.
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