“Southern chivalry, you see, Madame,” said Mr. Calhoun Burden, of Greenville, South Carolina, to the wife of a United States surgeon.
Mr. Burden, a stoutish, middle-aged gentleman, richly flavored with Durham tobacco and Pickens whisky, and as proud of himself in his suit of homespun as if it were broadcloth, had called in a reconstructing spirit on the Yankee family, and in the course of conversation had found it desirable to put a question to the colored servant-girl. Making a solemn bow to the mistress of the house, he said, “With your permission, Madame;“ then added, in an impressive parenthesis, “Southern chivalry, you see, Madame;“ then delivered his query.
That no such delicate behavior was known among the Vandals north of Mason and Dixon’s line; that it could not easily be matched in Europe except among the loftiest nobility; that it was especially and eminently Southern chivalry—such was the faith of Mr. Calhoun Burden.
It was a grotesque, and yet not a very exaggerated exhibition of the sectional and personal pride of the Southerner. He never forgets that he represents a high type of humanity, and that it is his duty not to let that type suffer by his representation. In the company of Yankees and foreigners he always bears in mind that he is a triton among minnows, and he endeavors to so carry himself as that the minnows shall take note of the superiority of the triton character. In men of native intelligence and high breeding this self-respect produces a very pleasing manner, an ease which is not assumption, a dignity which is not hauteur, consideration for the vanity of others, grace of hearing, and fluency of speech. In men of inferior quality and finish it results in such farcical pomposities as we have heard from Mr. Calhoun Burden.
“I can’t stand this any longer,” said a young Kentuckian of old Virginian blood, who had tried in vain to habituate himself to New York. “I can’t respect myself when I am run against a dozen times a day by Irishmen, Jews, Yankees, and all kinds of busy people. I am of no consequence here; nobody cares whether I am a gentleman or not—whether I am angry or pleased; nobody values me as I know that I ought to be valued. I must go South again—go where there is more elbow-room—go where I can make myself known. I detest a city where seven hundred thousand people tread on my toes, and haven’t a moment’s leisure to apologize, and don’t even know that my name is Peyton.”
It was indescribably amusing to watch a Charlestonian friend of mine during his first and last visit to New York. Dressed in a full suit of black, and bearing a gold-headed cane in his hand, he walked Broadway at the dignified rate of two and a half miles an hour. Some one brushed against his right elbow: he turned and glared, grasping his cane tightly: the intruder was gone. Some one brushed against his left elbow: another pause, glare, and settling of the cane in the fist: no antagonist visible. Every few steps he felt himself insulted, prepared to vindicate his honor, and failed to discover any one whom he could call to an account. At the end of six blocks, fuming with a consciousness of aggregated injuries, he took a carriage, drove back to the St. Nicholas, drank a mint-julep, seated himself in a window of the reading-room, and stared sullenly at the interminable crowd which hurried by unaware of his existence. He was like a cat who should be hustled and intimidated by a garret-full of scrabbling mice. Within a week he left the city, thoroughly disgusted with its multitudinous bustle, and never returned to it.
If you ever see a tall man in Broadway, standing stock-still, glaring about him, and swearing, you may be sure that he is a Southerner, and that some one whom he can not find has run against him. If you ever see a tall man in Central Park, seeking the loneliest paths, and surveying the mob of pleasure-seekers from a distance, you may pretty safely infer that he also is a Southerner, and that he is mainly happy because he has found a little elbow-room. Should you address either of these bewildered personages respectfully, he will receive you with a cordial smile, cotton to you without difficulty, and presently ask you to take a drink. He feels like a man who has been abused, and who unexpectedly finds sympathy; like a voyager who has been shipwrecked, and who unexpectedly gets food and lodging.
I remember a young Georgian on the Cascine of Florence, who was disturbed in his position near the music by the prancing grays of an English family carriage, and who, refusing to move, called to the coachman, “D—n you, Sir, if you drive one step further I’ll tear you off your box!” When the coachman replied, “I beg your pardon, Sir,” and when the rosy old gentleman and the two handsome girls in the carriage looked respectfully at him, he was instantly appeased, lifted his hat in apology for his objurgation, and made way for the advance of the equipage.
Yes, it is a sensitive quality, this self-respect which has grown up in the solitude of great plantations and the quiet of small towns; it can not hear the dense crush of a busy world, and is especially hurt by the friction of a hurried democracy. These things rub the down off its wings, and make it sore and angry and miserable. Where it can have consideration it is gentle and charming; where it can not it is pugnacious or sullen, and socially inconvenient. How often, especially in the times before the war, have we encountered Southerners at the North who seemed driven by a mania to prattle perpetually concerning their sectional peculiarities, excusing them, vindicating them, and boasting of them! For instance, slavery: they would insist on touching it off under our noses; they would not see that our chiefest desire concerning it was to ignore it.
An Englishman, sailing from New York to Liverpool, found himself occupying the same state-room with a clergyman from South Carolina, whose everlasting topic was the welfare and felicity of negroes under the patriarchal institution. Parting with him joyfully on landing, he shortly afterward met him again in Oxford at a dinner of the high-mightinesses of the University. The reverend gentleman began a dialogue with his vis-à-vis on the happiness of negro slaves in South Carolina. The subject received some delicate attention, suited to its fastidious nature, and then was dropped. At the first pause in the general conversation our countryman, who meanwhile had said nothing, opened upon the happiness of negro slaves in South Carolina. There was a word of civil response, and again the matter was gently superseded. Presently a change of courses produced another silence, and our friend reintroduced the happiness of negro slaves in South Carolina. Losing patience, the vis-à-vis answered, “My dear Sir, if things are as you say, why not go back to South Carolina and become a slave ?“ Our high-toned and reverend friend flew into a rage upon the spot, and next morning sent his interlocutor a challenge, which was not accepted. It would be safe to wager that he very soon returned to South Carolina, and that he did not attempt to get the Constitution changed so that he might enter into the joys of slavery.
The chivalrous Sonthron is great in his own eyes not only because he is what he is, but because he lives where he lives. In these modern times there is no other civilized creature so local, and, if I may be offensive, so provincial, in sentiments, opinions, prejudices, and vanities, as he. The Turks are hardly more incapable of conceiving that people born afar off may be as good as themselves. At least a part of the contempt of the Southerners for Yankees arises from the fact that the latter drew their first breath several hundred miles from the land of cotton. Imagine the scorn with which they would regard an adventurer from the Milky Way! A friend of mine asserts that, if the South Carolinians should once become satisfied that the New Jerusalem is outside of their State, they would not want to go to it. Let us charitably hope that this is an exaggeration.
“I’ll give you my notion of things,” repeatedly declared a sturdy old planter who bestowed much of his wisdom upon me. “I go first for Greenville, then for Greenville District, then for the up-country, then for South Carolina, then for the South, then for the United States; and after that I don’t go for any thing. I’ve no use for Englishmen, Turks, and Chinese.”
To a Charleston friend, who was wont to boast of the high qualities of the “true Southern gentleman,” I sometimes said, “Oh! you mean Texans and Arkansans, I suppose.”
“Not in the least,” he laughed. “When we speak of the Southern gentleman we mean the product of our city and of the region immediately around it. All else is more or less spurious—a base imitation.”
Of old the contrast between the Southerner’s proud self-assertion and the Northerner’s meeching humility was inexpressibly mortifying to every thoughtful inhabitant of the free States. On a Mississippi River steamboat there was once a little chance party of travelers who met there and then for the first time, and whom iced drinks incited to a temporary boon companionship. After many stories and some singing, the youth who had been chosen president of the conclave, a jolly, gracious, graceful, gigantic Virginian, proposed that each man should toast the State of his nativity. When every Southerner had glorified his own commonwealth to the best of his ability, a Yankee arose and stammered: “Gentlemen, I am ashamed to acknowledge that I was born in the abolitionist State of Massachusetts. I am now, however, a resident of Louisiana, and I beg leave, therefore, to drink to her.”
No sooner had this pitiful recreant taken his seat than the Virginian uplifted his six feet four inches of stature, stood there erect, large-chested, head “full high advanced,” and said: “Gentlemen, no man need be ashamed to come from the State of Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Webster. Gentlemen, I call on you myself to drink to the glorious old Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
If ever a “mean Yankee” felt himself to be distinctly and unequivocally mean it must have been then. Thank God that those shameful days—those days in which our representatives cowered in Congress, and our private citizens ate dirt in every corner of the land—thank God that they have been ended, though at a cost of half a million of lives!
De Forest, J.W., “Chivalrous and Semi-Chivalrous Southrons” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 38, Issue 224, January 1869; New York: Harper & Bros.
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