Virginia Weepers

Judith Shklar

  • The Pursuit of Happiness by Jan Lewis
    Cambridge, 290 pp, £20.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 521 25306 3
  • Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels: ‘The Philosophy of Jesus’ and ‘The Life and Morals of Jesus’ edited by Dickinson Adams
    Princeton, 438 pp, £28.50, September 1983, ISBN 0 691 04699 9

When Thomas Jefferson left the Presidency he wrote to Dupont de Nemours: ‘Never did a prisoner released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power. Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the time in which I have lived, have forced me to take a part in resisting them, and to commit myself to the boisterous ocean of political passion.’ ‘The pursuit of happiness’, which in the Declaration of Independence he had insisted was one of man’s inalienable rights, was at last open to him. To the end of his life he remembered his political career as a perilous voyage and rejoiced in the expectation that his descendants would enjoy ‘the Halcyon calms succeeding the storm’, as he put it to his old fellow-sailor John Adams. Why should the new generation not flourish? To be sure, Jefferson did not believe that we could all be entirely happy, but ‘the deity’ had kindly ‘put it in our powers’ to come quite close to it. All of us have moreover been created in such a way that we are not only compelled to seek our happiness but are bound to look for it in different ways. Because we cannot help having dissimilar beliefs and desires, it was self-evident that nature and nature’s God meant us to pursue our happiness in our own, unique manner. That was the reason for our inalienable right to search or not to search for our salvation here or hereafter as we saw fit. There was much confidence in the future in this, even if the securing of the right could not assure a successful pursuit. One cannot help feeling therefore that Jefferson’s labours were poorly rewarded when one reads about the sad lives of the Virginian gentry to whom he returned so gladly.

The art of life was not the avoidance of pain for these people. On the contrary, they enjoyed contemplating their suffering. At any rate, the stay-at-homes whose domestic life Jan Lewis describes in The Pursuit of Happiness were ‘awash with self-pity’. There were, of course, other gentry Virginians who pursued active and successful political careers in Washington. Virginians had supplied most of the Presidents and many Congressional leaders in the first decades of the Republic. Others went North to go into business, or to get rid of their slaves, and not a few moved West to set up new plantations. Those who remained in the Old Dominion had to settle for an exhausted soil, a depressed tobacco market and slavery, which, as they well knew, the rest of the civilised world regarded as an unacceptable institution. Jefferson’s own children and grandchildren were not able to leave, even though their life was difficult, because he had saddled them with an enormous debt, a fate which they shared with many of their neighbours. Debt and thoroughly unprofitable farming made slaves the most valuable commodity that the gentry possessed, and slave-breeding and selling was one of their very few paying enterprises. That, even though it worked, did not raise their spirits. They knew as well as Tocqueville that they ‘had abolished the principle of slavery’ but did ‘not set their slaves free’. The memory of the Revolution with its limited but vivid rejection of slavery was always there to haunt them. No wonder they had come down with a massive case of post-revolutionary depression.

As one might expect, they looked to religion for consolation, and it was a religiosity very remote from Jefferson’s austere deism. His newly republished ‘The Philosophy of Jesus’ and ‘The Life and Morals of Jesus’ make it clear that nothing could persuade him of the divinity of Jesus, whom he regarded as one of the supreme teachers of ‘the purest’ morals and nothing else. Christianity, like every other doctrine, was to be demythologised and liberated from priestcraft. But even before the Revolution, when many of Jefferson’s Virginian friends clung to reason as firmly as he did, Evangelical religion was bringing its revivals and awakenings and new faiths to the Old South. Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians were swamping the staid Anglican establishment of Virginia. It was not a change that the gentry had welcomed. They had dominated the Established Church, which was served by rather few and not very capable parsons. The laity had obstructed an effort to send out a bishop and generally preferred to run matters themselves. The dispersed and poorer families were often neglected. When the new preachers rode out to them with their emotional sermons full of both hell-fire and grace for all repenters, and hope for those who lived according to the law of God, they were certainly very welcome.

Whatever the term ‘secularisation’ may mean, it did not happen in 19th-century America, an age of enormous religious creativity and affirmation. The separation of church and state, in Virginia and most other States, did not remove religion from people’s daily lives. Indeed, because it allowed the Protestant principle to work out its inner logic freely, as Hegel for one clearly saw, sectarianism flourished. Congregations split and split and split again as each group found its faith in its own way. But each did discover a faith, and it moved them deeply, settling their vocabulary, contouring their family life and, in the North, inspiring vigorous moral reform movements. In the South, slavery inhibited the spread of religious fervour to good works. Only the temperance movement was compatible with slavery: pacifism, education, prison and hospital reform, civic improvement and, of course, abolitionism had no place in Virginia. Nevertheless even the gentry, who remained over-whelmingly in the Episcopal Church, were touched by the new religiosity. Methodism had, after all, begun within Anglicanism and it had left its mark. Wesley’s early followers had been unconditional opponents of slavery when they first took their message to the South. But they soon caved in. At first, believers were forbidden to own slaves, then only to trade in them, and finally nothing was said at all. The excuse given for the change was not unreasonable. If preachers persisted in their radical views, the masters would not allow them to minister to the slaves. A sense of guilt must nevertheless have been planted.

The religion of the gentry, as Lewis describes it, was not just one of ‘feeling’ but of the most appalling sentimentality. In this these Virginians were scarcely unique. All of Europe had for decades been wallowing in ‘feeling’. There was nothing indigenous to Virginia’s gentry to set them off. They were a literate group and their displays of feeling may well have been inspired by the novels that had made their way across the Atlantic as much as by religion and religiosity. There is no convincing explanation for the cult of sensibility, first in Europe and then in America, but there can be no doubt that it existed. Tears flowed conspicuously and copiously. People congratulated themselves and each other on experiencing sentiments of pain and passion. To be sentimental was a sign of moral elevation.

The first and foremost occasion for the display of sentiment in Virginia, no less than in France, was the death-bed. The Virginia gentry was replaying in miniature the scenario of the France that John McManners has described so well in his Death and the Enlightenment. A Virginian could thus write to his newly-widowed brother: ‘I like you better for the grief that you feel.’ Men and women were told to ‘weep for yourselves’ and to have ‘an affected heart’. The hope of eternal bliss was not, for these gentle believers, balanced by fear of Hell. Survivors spoke of a ‘happy exchange’ since the dead were now in a far better place. It was universally believed that those who were ill-treated or deprived on earth would be compensated in a more equitable life after death. A ‘good death’ was much admired. It was a sign of the good character of the dying, but the melancholy of the survivors was not to abate. God expected the living to suffer their loss and to feel sorry for themselves, and to express their unhappiness and to think about it as often as they could. To feel at all, but especially to feel sadness and deprivation, was treated as a mark of virtue.

One cannot help but share some of Lewis’s impatience as one reads her excerpts from the letters and diaries of these Virginians with their ostentatious suffering. No historian of mentalités, however, should be too hasty in generalising about how parents felt when their children died, in pain and agony. It was of course something that happened frequently. Infant mortality remained very high. One must suppose that some parents were desolate as they saw one child after another die. Others learned to protect themselves against the inevitable and bore it easily. Some people grieved, others did not. The unspoken hero of both Lewis’s and McManners’s books is modern medicine. It has made the death of children so rare that we no longer know what attitudes were like when that was not the case.

Children were said to be the sole comfort of life for their parents. The Virginia gentry had never been English aristocrats and primogeniture had never taken hold. Parents had always been expected to provide for the future of all their children and had always been indulgent toward them. Nevertheless the concentration of feeling on one’s children was part of a new sensibility everywhere. In France we find Marmontel writing in his Memoirs that neither he nor his wife ‘desired any other sight or society in the world’ when they were with their young child. On the evidence of the rest of that fascinating work it is clear that this philosophe had many other interests and occupations, but he still felt obliged to note down this bit of mawkishness. He at least knew who had taught him and his wife to talk that way. It was Rousseau, whom he detested, especially as his wife adored the man who ‘had taught us to be mothers’. And indeed Rousseau’s novel La Nouvelle Héloise was the most effective expression and inspiration of all this family-centred sentimentality. Julie as a mother and on her death-bed was the very epitome of visible familial devotion. Yet in a more sober mood Rousseau was one of the most mordant critics of this very sentimentality. He knew exactly what was wrong with it. It was a cheap substitute for moral action. The audience that weeps in the theatre feels that it has actually performed virtuous deeds, thanks to the purifying experience of identifying with the action on the stage. Noble feelings are a ready replacement for noble actions, or even for common decency. One might, in fact, wonder whether sentimentality does not encourage brutality: for what can a man of feeling, a beautiful soul, not do as long as he can watch his own elevated states of mind? Recent writers on sentimentality have stressed its absolving and self-deceiving effects. And surely sentimentality is the unearned moral income of some of the most horrible people on earth. It is also true that all of us as theatregoers, from time to time at least, do what Rousseau accuses us of doing: ‘In giving our tears to these fictions, we have satisfied all the rights of humanity without having to give anything more of ourselves; whereas unfortunate people in person would require attention from us, relief, consolation and work, which would involve us in their pains and would require at least the sacrifice of our indolence, from all of which we are quite content to be exempt.’

There is much in Jan Lewis’s book that justifies Rousseau’s sardonic comments. Here we meet a young man protesting that he will not sell an old slave for $350, because ‘I could not forget that he had been raised in my father’s family ... that he had often exhibited evidence of feeling and that he had, I have reason to believe, some attachment toward myself.’ But he did sell him for $400. Such are the uses of sentimentality. At best it encouraged a saccharine paternalism, at worst it made cruelty easy. Nevertheless, there is, and always has been, a purely aesthetic sentimentality which should not be confused with such abuse. There are ways of playing music that destroy the intentions of the composer by rendering it too sentimentally, but some music just is pure schmaltz and there are a lot of decent and kind people who love it. There are also completely immoral people who are refined and discriminating in their musical tastes. The same might be said of religion. Wesley’s sermons cannot be held responsible for providing cover for his followers, who by 1816 found it easy to declare slavery ‘an evil beyond remedy’ and relaxed to endure it. They managed to convince themselves that they, not their slaves, were the real victims, having been burdened with a disagreeable institution by their British ancestors.

The diffuse sentimentality of the Virginia gentry was part of a domestic culture which, quite apart from the wrong of slavery, was deeply debilitating. The indolence and self-indulgence of the masters was proverbial. Jefferson had thought that slavery not only killed industry but also encouraged tyrannical and ‘boisterous’ passions from childhood onward. His daughter lamented the absence of energy in the South, in this respect so unlike the North. And her daughter was even more critical of ‘the rude plenty which gives us habits of waste and disorder’. Young Virginians were ill-prepared to thrive in or plan for a demanding future, in the view of Jefferson’s descendants. Less cosmopolitan Virginians also complained of the ennui and listlessness which beset people who had never had to pick up after themselves or to perform the normal tasks of everyday life. Young Virginians were just as eager to make money as any other Americans. To get ahead by one’s own efforts was something worth doing. But they often gave up too quickly. That was even the case when they tried to take up one of the professions. Successful lawyers and doctors could become slave-owners and prosper. Unfortunately these occupations required hard work and were not rewarding initially. We therefore find sons disappointing their parents, while parents felt that they could not provide sufficiently well for their children to insure their independence. These Southerners were just as anxious to get ahead as their Yankee contemporaries. Their slaves were a commodity, not feudal tenants or retainers, and they were not inhibited by ancestral taboos from making money as best they might. It is possible, following Schumpeter’s view of Europe’s atavistic élites, to say that the planters’ historical function was just like that of the Polish or Prussian latifundi. It also served to squelch any liberal or democratic political impulses and to foster a disastrous military spirit. That this became their role in politics cannot be denied. But their character, aspirations, speech and lives were as remote from the landed classes of Central Europe as they were from the ancient Romans to whom they occasionally compared themselves. In the early years many bored and self-defeated Virginians turned inward to their families and seemed resigned, if not content. By 1830 some of them felt sufficiently threatened by abolitionist movements to go on the offensive. They now claimed to be, not the victims of their institutions, but positive contributors to a good and necessary order. Slavery was not just an unhappy necessity but a wise and admirable system. According to Thomas Dew, a professor at the College of William and Mary, the South had no reason to feel inferior. ‘Abstract justice’ might condemn slavery, but local circumstances and meanings were what really mattered. Jefferson had simply been wrong about its moral effect. Young Virginians were not idle, simply less cold and calculating than Yankees. They possessed noble and elevated sentiments. Master and slave were bound by affectionate family ties. Moreover the independence and equality among whites which slavery permitted made the masters more manly and republican in spirit, as men had been in the old slave societies of Sparta and Rome. Jefferson might have trembled for his country, but not Dew.

Lewis’s story ends before the upsurge of militant pro-slavery arguments. We hear only about those Virginians who, living in a period of local economic decline, were unable to find much personal satisfaction in anything but their own sense of loss. There are many very telling passages drawn from a large number of letters and diaries to reveal their unhappy mood. Nevertheless, there is not enough here to permit convincing general statements about them. We cannot know anything about those members of the gentry class of Virginia who did not put pen to paper. And even among those who wrote we get only the excerpts which illustrate the points Lewis wants to make. We are told far too little about the circumstances in which these mournful letter-writers and diarists lived. They are never compared to their more ebullient and successful fellows, who did after all exist. The effort to prove change over time fails. For a ‘before’ and ‘after’ comparison to be persuasive one would have to know far more about pre-Revolutionary Virginians than Lewis presents here. A few paragraphs from two very rich diarists and from the most brilliant Virginian are too little to tell us anything about any mentalité. Fortunately the narrative that accompanies the original texts throughout most of the book is illuminating and helpful. As is so often the case with the history of popular attitudes, it succeeds as description and evocation but not as explanation.