The ‘Lost Cause’ Version of Slavery: It’s a Wonderful Life



The Master’s House: Wish you were here.
Source for this and other images: Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War, from the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South website

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The Lost Cause is the name commonly given to a literary and intellectual movement that sought to reconcile the traditional white society of the Southern United States to the defeat of the Confederate States of America in the Civil War of 1861–1865. Those who contributed to the movement tended to portray the Confederacy’s cause as noble and most of the Confederacy’s leaders as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry, defeated by the Union armies not through superior military skill, but by overwhelming force. They also tended to condemn Reconstruction.

Some of the main tenets of the Lost Cause movement were that… Slavery was a benign institution, and the slaves were loyal and faithful to their benevolent masters…
Lost Cause of the Confederacy, Wikipedia
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What is this ‘Lost Cause’ stuff, anyway? Those who are not into the history or historiography of the Civil War might wonder what all of the fuss is about.

The Lost Cause ‘viewpoint’ or ‘interpretation,’ simply put, is a way of looking at things – a pro-Confederate way of looking at history, which glorifies the Confederacy; tends to demonize the Union in general and certain people in the Union in particular; and marginalizes the role of slaves and slavery before and during the Civil War. This view was created after the Civil War, and aspects of it have persisted ever since.

The ways that slaves and slavery have been represented by Lost Causers in art and literature have drawn the interest of historians. In his book The Planter’s Prospect: Privilege & Slavery in Plantation Painting, John Michael Vlach’s comments that prior to the Civil War,

“When planters commissioned paintings… they opted for pictures that confirmed their own centrality and the slaves marginality, works of art that by and large managed to conceal the presence of the black majority [on plantations]. Artists who were aiming to capture the scenic beauties of an agricultural setting found they could simply ignore the armies of enslaved laborers that lived and worked on plantations. Slaves were basically painted out of the picture. What, the artists might have argued, could such a lowly, even barbaric, element contribute? Out in the fields, blacks were controlled with the lash; inside the picture frame, they could be controlled with a paintbrush.

Before the war, slaves were seen as “debased” and “detestable,” “brutish animals” that were “unworthy subject(s) for a work of art,” says Vlach. But after the war, “southern writers concentrated on rehabilitating the reputation of their region. They focused once again on the key elements of the plantation legend: fine houses, courtly white gentlemen, exquisitely gowned white ladies, bountiful harvests, and contented slaves.”

A poster child for this idyllic view of slavery is the 1897 book Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War, written by Thomas Nelson Page, with illustrations by Genevieve Cowles and Maude Cowles. As described by Mary Alice Kirkpatrick in her summary of the book,

Page devotes equal attention to the admirable inhabitants of the mansion, who reflect the moral perfection and godliness that permeate Page’s characterizations of southern aristocratic life. Having already provided a brief account of the external social structure governing the “servants” who, he indicates, are referred to as “slaves” only in legal reports, Page presents the authoritative and devoted “Mammy,” whose importance in running the house cannot be overestimated. Other honored family members include the butler and the carriage driver. These contented servants enjoy happiness and a “singular sweetness” throughout their lives.

The depictions of the “servants” are dignified, admirable and even touching. In the following image, a “mammy” lovingly gazes at the face of her young charge; as the grandfather of a one year old, it kind of got to me. But then I wondered who was raising this woman’s children or grandchildren…

In the next image, the butler is young, stout, and manly in stature, in contrast to the typical Uncle Tom-ish portrayal of butlers as older, submissive, and unintimidating. This butler, we are told, was often “severe” and “to be feared.” But how many slave masters would want their children to be afraid of a slave? Certainly this wasn’t a fear that was based on the threat of physical violence. I wonder how long it would be before the child in the picture would go from looking up at his servant, to looking down on him?

In his book, Page describes how wonderful slave life was:

There are certain other characters without mention of which no picture of the social life of the South would be complete: the old mammies and family servants about the house. These were important, and helped to make the life. The Mammy was the zealous, faithful, and efficient assistant of the mistress in all that pertained to the care and training of the children. Her authority was recognized in all that related to them directly or indirectly, second only to that of the Mistress and Master. She tended them, regulated them, disciplined them: having authority indeed in cases to administer correction; for her affection was undoubted. Her regime extended frequently through two generations, occasionally through three. From their infancy she was the careful and faithful nurse, the affection between her and the children she nursed being often more marked than that between her and her own offspring. She may have been harsh to the latter; she was never anything but tender with the others.

Her authority was, in a measure, recognized through life, for her devotion was unquestionable. The young masters and mistresses were her “children” long after they had children of their own. When they parted from her or met with her again after separation, they embraced her with the same affection as when in childhood she “led them smiling into sleep.” She was worthy of the affection. At all times she was their faithful ally and champion, excusing them, shielding them, petting them, aiding them, yet holding them up too to a certain high accountability. Her influence was always for good. She received, as she gave, an unqualified affection. If she was a slave, she at least was not a servant, but was an honored member of the family, universally beloved, universally cared for – “the Mammy.”

Next to her in importance and rank were the Butler and the Carriage-driver, These with the Mammy were the aristocrats of the family, who trained the children in good manners and other exercises; and uncompromising aristocrats they were. The Butler was apt to be severe, and was feared; the Driver was genial and kindly, and was adored. I recall a butler, “Uncle Tom,” an austere gentleman, who was the terror of the juniors of the connection. One of the children, after watching him furtively as he moved about with grand air, when he had left the room and his footsteps had died away, crept over and asked her grandmother, his mistress, in an awed whisper, “Grandma, are you ‘fraid of Unc’ Tom?”

The [horse coach] Driver was the ally of the boys, the worshipper of the girls, and consequently had an ally in their mother, the mistress. As the head of the stable, he was an important personage. This comradeship was never forgotten; it lasted through life. The years might grow on him, his eyes might become dim; but he was left in command even when he was too feeble to hold the horses; and though he might no longer grasp the reins, he at least held the title, and to the end was always “the Driver of Mistiss’s carriage.”

Other servants too there were with special places and privileges, – gardeners and “boys about the house,” comrades of the boys; and “own maids,” for each girl had her “own maid.” They all formed one great family in the social structure now passed away, a structure incredible by those who knew it not, and now, under new conditions, almost incredible by those who knew it best.

The social life formed of these elements combined was one of singular sweetness and freedom from vice. If it was not filled with excitement, it was replete with happiness and content. It is asserted that it was narrow. Perhaps it was. It was so sweet, so charming, that it is little wonder if it asked nothing more than to be let alone.

One image of interest to me was this depiction of a “Negro wedding.”

As described by Page,

But it was not only in the “great house” that there was Christmas cheer. Every cabin was full of it, and in the wash-house or the carpenter-shop there was preparation for a plantation supper.

At this time, too, there were the negro parties, where the ladies and gentlemen went to look on, the supper having been superintended by the mistresses, and the tables being decorated by their own white hands. There was almost sure to be a negro wedding during the holidays. The ceremony might be performed in the dining-room or in the hall by the master, or in one of the quarters by a colored preacher; but it was a gay occasion, and the dusky bride’s trousseau had been arranged by her young mistress, and the family was on hand to get fun out of the entertainment, and to recognize by their presence the solemnity of the tie.

These images are from the state of Virginia, which was the leading exporter of slaves to other Southern states. How many slave families were broken-up to supply labor to the deep South’s cotton and sugar plantations? The author never asks.

The scenes of slavery in the book are so pleasant, so delightful, so wonderful… it made me ask: if slave life was this good, why don’t we ever see any white slaves? How come whites never availed themselves of this “singular sweetness,” as Page calls it?

At the end of his book, he perhaps offers an answer to this unasked question: “That the social life of the Old South had its faults I am far from denying. What civilization has not? But its virtues far outweighed them; its graces were never equalled. For all its faults, it was, I believe, the purest, sweetest life ever lived… It has maintained the supremacy of the Caucasian race, upon which all civilization seems now to depend.”

Slave life, clearly, was wonderful… for him.


The Slave’s Cabin: Wish you were here?

These images are from an online version of Page’s book at the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South website. It is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which had made it available to be freely used by individuals for research, teaching and personal use.

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One thought on “The ‘Lost Cause’ Version of Slavery: It’s a Wonderful Life

  1. Page was also the author of Marse Chan: Tale of Old Virginia, a very popular short book that fully cemented in literature the notion of the “faithful slave” who follows his master off to war. It was so familiar to Southerners that more that twenty years after it was published, the dedication book for the Confederate Monument at Arlington cited Marse Chan as the literary exemplar of the black body servant depicted in the bronze frieze.

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