Southern History Series: Southerners On The Eve Of the American Revolution

I hope you have been enjoying the Southern History Series.

As I promised earlier this month, we’re about to take a deep plunge into the South in the era of the American Revolution. Who were the Southern Founders? What did the Southern Founders actually believe? Why did the South support the American Revolution?

The following excerpts come from John Richard Alden’s book The South in the Revolution, 1763-1789:

“By the end of the Revolutionary epoch, however, the South had emerged as a section and the Southerners as a people different from Northerners. Divergences continued within the region below the Mason-Dixon boundary, but there was when Washington assumed the presidency a South at least loosely united, and one certainly distinct from a North in terms of climate, slavery, economy, social structure, and political viewpoint. As the War of Independence proceeded, the words “South” and “Southern” were increasingly applied only to the area and the people below the Susquehanna. That they were so used more and more commonly was not merely a matter of convenience; conflict appeared during the war between those who lived upon one side of the line and those who dwelt upon the other. In the Federal convention of 1787 accommodation of the jarring interests of South and North offered a perplexing and harassing puzzle, one which required solution if there was to be an American Union. …”

In the South Carolina convention which ratified the Constitution of 1787 Charles Pinckney declared, “When I say Southern, I mean Maryland, and the states to the southward of her.” …”

Yesterday, I reviewed Jack P. Greene’s book Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture. In the book, Greene explores the six cultural hearths of colonial America which he identifies as New England, the Middle Colonies, the Chesapeake, the Lower South, the Atlantic Islands and the West Indies.

According to Greene, the major cultural divide in colonial America was between Puritan New England and all the other colonies. In terms of its cultural development, the “East” or the “navigating states” were the great outlier in the American colonies. The Chesapeake was the mainstream. In fact, Alden explains that as late as the Revolution the “Eastern provinces” referred to New England and the “Southern” provinces referred to all the other mainland colonies including Pennsylvania and New York. This is because the conquest of New York and the westward expansion by Yankees across the rim of the Great Lakes was still in the future. New York was a loyalist stronghold in the American Revolution. It was native Dutch New Yorkers who first gave the New England Yankees their name.

By the end of the American Revolution, the “South” or “Southerner” had come to refer to the states from Maryland to Georgia. The First South emerged in this era in the time of the Southern Founders who had distinct cultural and ideological views from the North. Jefferson describes Northerners as a cool, interested and chicaning people and Southerners as a fiery, generous and candid people.

“Even in the Southern regions long traversed by the English plow there was nowhere a congestion of people, nowhere a district which could be described as thickly populated, except by a Daniel Boone desiring neighbors no nearer than a “whoop and a holler.” In the valley of the James River, where the English had broken the soil six generations earlier, there was far more of woods than there was of tobacco fields. Indeed, it may be said that almost the entire South was a forest, now coniferous, now deciduous, interrupted more or less frequently by small clearings or larger plantations. Save for Charleston, South Carolina, there was not a city in the whole South. The South was rural, its countryside, unspoiled by commerce and industry, in turn fertile and barren, drab and beautiful, rich and poor, tilled and untilled, peopled and empty. …”

Indeed, the South remained that way all the way down until the 1940s when 2/3rds of Southerners still lived in hamlets of less than 2,500 people. It was until the Baby Boomer generation a “predominantly rural region here and there dotted with cities.”

“More than 700,000 persons, not including Indians, lived between the Mason-Dixon boundary and the Altahama in 1763, nearly one half of the population of the Thirteen Colonies. More than one third of the Southerners were to be found in Virginia; there were at least 150,000 Marylanders and as many North Carolinians; somewhat more than 100,000 people resided in South Carolina; Georgia, still almost undeveloped, contained about 13,000. At that time Negroes and mulattoes formed two fifths of Virginia’s population, one third of North Carolina’s and of Maryland’s, towards two thirds of South Carolina’s, and more than one third of Georgia’s.

The Southern whites, then as earlier and later, were basically of British stock. The first settlers in Virginia and Maryland were English by birth, and many later immigrants came from England. By the end of the Seven Years’ War there were many Germans in the colony of the Calverts and in the Old Dominion, pushing into the Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley from Pennsylvania. There were also a few Roman Catholic Irish and Scots in both colonies. Then there were the Scots-Irish, who came with the Germans and who entered the same areas, especially in Virginia. So much felt was the presence of this sturdy, intelligent, courageous, and contentious people that Charles Lee, that English officer who purchased a plantation in the Shenandoah at the beginning of the War of Independence and soon afterward became an American general, said that Virginia was neither an aristocracy or a democracy but a “macrocracy.” The Scots-Irish, chiefly descended from lowland Scots, with minor English and Irish admixtures, added materially, of course, to the British element among the Virginians. Hence it was that the Old Dominion remained very largely British in stock, and especially English. Virginia, except for her Negroes, was almost as overwhelmingly English in background as contemporary New England.

North Carolina was less English than the older colonies on the Chesapeake, but equally British. The first settlers between the Pee Dee and the Dan were English, and those who followed them were frequently emigrants from English towns and fields. Again there were many Germans, who had entered the colony both by way of its low-lying shores and from the north; and again the presence of numerous Scots-Irish moving toward a warmer sun was a remarkable phenomenon. In North Carolina, however, there was a much larger Scottish element than in Virginia, for hundreds of Highlanders sought new homes in that colony after the collapse of the ill-fated rising of 1745.”

Scottish Highlanders settled in North Carolina after their uprising in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie to restore the House of Stuart to the throne of Scotland.

“The white people of South Carolina and Georgia as of 1763 were also of mixed origins, but dominantly English. The first comes to Charleston and its vicinity were English out of the West Indian islands, especially Barbados, and form the mother country directly. Those who followed were often English, from Old and New England and the West Indies. Scottish Highlanders settled in the region of Charleston as early as 1686, and French Protestants even before. Afterward came Swiss and Germans, a few Jews, and just at the beginning of the French and Indian Wars the ubiquitous Scotch-Irish. The French Huguenots had been very quickly assimilated, and South Carolina was conspicuously English in culture. Georgia, still a frontier colony, was not the seat of an advanced civilization. Its Scotch-Irish had not yet arrived in numbers, and it contained no considerable contingent of French Protestants. It was in essence a younger South Carolina.

The Southern whites grew rapidly in numbers during the era of the American Revolution, partly as the result of natural increase – families were so large that we should say, instead, unnatural increase – partly because of continuing immigration from Europe, and also from other colonies to the northward. By 1775 they were hardly fewer than 750,000; by 1790 they numbered more than 1,200,000 persons.”

This was the South on the eve of the American Revolution.

The Atlantic Coastal Plain was heavily English. The Piedmont and the Blue Ridge were filling up with Germans and Scots-Irish. The western Piedmont where Jefferson lived near Charlottesville is where English settlers expanding west from the lowlands mixed the most with Scots-Irish coming down the Great Valley from Pennsylvania. Charleston was a melting pot of ethnicities while most of the south was a great forest dotted by plantations and small farms in the countryside.

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