A Culture of Violence

The Alton Mob attacking Lovejoy's warehouse.

The Alton Mob attacking abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy’s warehouse.

I think I have said all that I want to about Lincoln’s views on mob violence. Though written long ago, the concerns he raises still hold. The man who shot Trayvon Martin did not do it as a part of a mob, but an individual conducting freelance violence differs from a mob doing so only in size. He must have imagined himself in some capacity as an agent of the law, but in doing so he subverted it, denied Trayvon its safeguards, and because of the way Florida law bakes Stand Your Ground into its definition of self-defense and mandatory jury instructions, he got away with murder. The presumption of innocence means that the justice system will regularly release some portion of truly guilty people. We pay that cost for protecting the rights of everyone else, though the Stand Your Ground laws in Florida and elsewhere go beyond that into an enthusiastic endorsement of freelance murder. If you feel threatened, these laws say you no longer have any responsibility to retreat, to defuse the situation, or even use the least amount of force. Rather they authorize and encourage you to draw and shoot to kill at first provocation, because if you leave a witness alive you might get convicted. They would make mobs of us all.

This kind of violence has a long history in the United States, which I have already touched upon. It has, regrettably, not yet left us in any section of the nation. To some degree, one must expect it when civil institutions and legal law enforcement stretch thin on the ground. I don’t say that to defend vigilante violence, by individuals or mobs, as a desirable development, only that it arises from particular circumstances. Periods of civil anarchy and heightened tensions, usually over race, can bring it out anywhere. At some points in American history, vigilantism formed a normal, ordinary part of the social order. The men who posed with their victims after a lynching must have understood themselves as acting in a legitimate role as agents of public safety, for certain sorts of people.

A slave hunt, painted by Thomas Moran

A slave hunt, painted by Thomas Moran

William W. Freehling writes extensively in The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854 on the use of mob violence in the antebellum South. There it served two indispensable roles: mastering slaves to keep them in slavery and mastering whites to maintain their support for slavery. I’ve written before about the first function, which the South enshrined in law in the slave codes and, at times, enforced on the ground with slave patrols. Many Southerners saw that as such an elemental, basic part of the imperative to manage black people that they demanded the North take up the slave patrol as well. The second I have only touched upon and intend to develop over the next few posts.

Whites who did not own slaves had plenty of reasons to throw in with the planter class. They could fear competition from free blacks for the tiny crumbs that the economy allowed them. They also had deep economic and often personal ties with local planters. Freehling describes them:

Commoners relished the master as charismatic egalitarian. It felt ever so good to be treated as The Man’s equal; and in a black-belt neighborhood, non-slaveholders had little economic reason to attack slavery. Rich and poor grew the same crops for the same market. They utilized the same merchant,whether they shipped little or much. Nonslaveholders sold slaveholders extra grain. Slaveholders ginned nonslaveholders’ cotton. Landowners rented landless tenants a few acres. Planters advanced poorer folk a few dollars. Folks were so materialistically intermeshed as to make, at least economically, for one folk neighborhood.

And of course, many had still more personal ties:

The term “folk,” denoting blood relations, was accurate. Nonrelatives in tiny clusters of folk not only cared about each other in the manner of relatives but were often somehow related. Marriage between cousins was ubiquitous. When mothers survived almost yearly childbirths, families were huge. When mothers succumbed, fathers selected a new bride-who produced huge families or succumbed in turn. Between first cousins and second cousins and stepcousins and cousins of stepcousins, a planter had hundreds of relations. Family interconnections so extensive, inside locales of rural intimates so small, created a norm of treating neighbors as if they were, well, folks.

Scholars have a useful label for (white) folks’ political ideal: herrenvolk democracy. Neighborhoods of white folk, committed to treating each other as equals, were equally committed to keeping black folks unequal. The herrenvolk southern neighborhood may have been more passionate about white egalitarianism than the northern. Black-belt whites had before their eyes the essence of deviation from independent equality: black slaves.

The small communities Freehling talks about formed great swaths of the extremely rural, South. Places named Spotsylvania and Appomattox Court House are legacies of that limited urban development: they got the names because the named building, a jail, and a few other buildings could constitute the only town or village in the county. But what happened when those tight networks of kinship, economics, and racial identity frayed, or simply could not reach everyone? In the white belts, in the larger towns, nearer the North, or where just many outsiders mixed the informal networks that kept all whites together in the name of keeping all blacks subjugated had to find other ways to maintain themselves. As they already used violence and the threat of violence to terrorize black people into submission, and Southern policing often amounted to not much more than the local slave patrol with its vigilante remit to begin with, doing the same sorts of things to dangerously nonconformist whites must have seemed very reasonable. After all, they sought to bring decent white folk down to the level of slaves. If they wanted that so much, why not give it to them?

I don’t mean to say that every white man got together at the county seat and spelled these things out. This system of social control rises out of culture and we all learn out culture as children. We, the People, do things this way and not that way. We treat others this way, outsiders this other way. We imbibe our folkways long before we have the tools to critically examine them, and that can challenge us even in far more cosmopolitan times.

I, and I imagine most readers, find the system I’ve described simply horrific. In other eras, if we grew up learning it at our parents’ knees, we might think very differently indeed. Given how these things work, most of us would probably see all the previous as naturally as we today see voting for the president or shopping at the supermarket. Most of us believe much the same things as our parents did, after all. A few would not, but cultures do not long endure when the vast majority of their members reject them. They inevitably then change or perish. The Antebellum South built up a durable, if not invulnerable, social and political culture around slavery. It sustained itself through diverse means, including and especially violence, and showed no signs of collapse as late as 1860.

One comment on “A Culture of Violence

  1. segmation says:

    Nice mention of Thomas Moran!

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