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
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
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: