Sunday, November 18, 2012

The First South

In the last historical diversion into the South . . .

As Virginians entered the eighteenth-century, their society had matured into a simplified version of society as they knew it back in England. It was hierarchical and highly stratified, but some elements were missing. At the top were the so-called planter elite, those wealthy families who set the pattern for behavior and who came to dominate the colony's political life. The “middling sort” consisted of small landowners who had to migrate from the Tidewater areas westward into the Piedmont to secure affordable land. Because of the self-sufficiency of the larger plantations, few independent artisans emerged to meet demands for their services. And almost no urban areas developed. Society was bottom heavy with largely illiterate indentured servants who performed labor on the larger farms. With a tradition of weak public institutions, education remained the prerogative of the wealthy. Ominously, in the 1680s planters began importing increasing numbers of slaves to replace those English laborers who left after the completion of their indentures.

Over 60% of the seventeenth-century immigrants that helped Virginia become one of the most populous of the English colonies came from Southern and Western England. They also brought their customs into the New World. As we shall see in future posts, settlers in other parts of North American came from different regions of England. This accounts for the different regional cultures found in the United States then  . . . and today.

A few cultural distinctives from Virginia and the later Southern colonies in general.  First, Virginians transplanted speech patterns from Wessex and Sussex that gave the region its peculiar pronunciation and grammatical characteristics. Such constructions as I be, you be, he ain't, it don't, and using “like” for “as if” were found almost exclusively in the Chesapeake region. Vocabulary such as allowed (permitted), skillet (pan), mighty (very), favor (resemble), right good (very good) persisted in the colony even as it disappeared in England. Hundreds of other example could be noted.

Second, Virginians exhibited an ambivalence about hard work. The affluent planters of course, were above it. By definition, a gentleman was a man who enjoyed the financial independence that freed him from working with his hands. It is difficult, maybe impossible to measure, but one must wonder about the influence of Virginia's cultural elite on the work ethic among the general population. Their aversion and denigration of labor had to contribute in some ways to "the lazy South." Perhaps, too, the fertile soils and warm weather permitted Southerns to produce what they needed with labor much less intense than that required in other regions. Even animals thrived. Instead of mastering the skills of animal husbandry, many Southerners turned their pigs loose to forage for themselves and multiply. When needing meat for the table, the Southern farmer grabbed his musket and went out to find one.

Third, Virginians and the South transplanted the Dorset method of preparing food through simmering or frying in a pan. The use of heavy spices came to characterize the cooking style of the Chesapeake. And the region became known for barbeque.

In short, the beginning of America was also the beginning of the South.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Very nice piece, and nice blog. I appreciate the gently pedagogical tone.