Jacksonian Paternalism In The Extreme

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It’s time for another trip into the wonderful world of antebellum Southern white paternalism.  Today we visit with Thomas Jackson, friend of the black man and uplifter of their souls. 

Richard G. Williams has recently released Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend, which "sheds light on Jackson’s love of God, and his desire to teach God’s word to all his children." Williams writes:

Jackson owned slaves, yet he wanted all people to know God. He asked that his church, Lexington Presbyterian Church, expand by more than 30 seats to accommodate increasing numbers of free blacks and slaves. In 1855 he began a black Sunday school, free for whomever wanted to attend. In violation of Virginia law, he and his wife taught black men, women and children to read, hoping that someday they could read God’s words.

On Sunday evenings, Jackson held prayer sessions with his wife, his slaves and any other black person that wished to partake. He, along with all those in attendance, was breaking the law.

According to Williams, "Jackson believed that for whatever reason, God allowed it (slavery) to happen. It wasn’t his business to thwart the will of God."  "Jackson’s example teaches us," continues Williams "that we cannot always change the difficult circumstances and injustices we see around us, but we can change how we react to them. I think Jackson, like a lot of the Southerners, was uncomfortable with it (slavery)."

First, if we are to follow this logic than what is to stop us from praising all Southern slaveholders who fervently believed that they were acting in a way that was beneficial to their "family members."  Many slaves in the antebellum South were encouraged to practice Christianity, so this doesn’t single Jackson out in any significant way.  And how does a belief that God permitted it to happen help us with any moral assessment of Jackson?  People believe all kinds of nutty things about what God allows and does not allow.  Perhaps Williams explores the rich literature on the complex interactions between slaves and slaveholders.  My guess is that Jackson’s behavior towards his slaves and other free blacks had much to do with the fact that both groups presented themselves in ways that demanded a recognition of their humanity (pace Genovese). 

Williams warns us not to judge Jackson and others through the lens of our 21st century values.  However, the alternative of judging based on mid-nineteenth century values is fraught with difficulties and are clearly exposed in most of these so-called Christian-inspired biographies.  If we are to praise Jackson, Lee and others (typically white Southerners and there is even someone who is going to apply this approach to of all people, Nathan B. Forrest) than what are we to make of those in the abolitionist camp?  Are they less praiseworthy because they mistakenly acknowledged that the Christian God and slavery were incompatible? 

9 comments… add one

  • Stryker Oct 6, 2006

    Kevin,

    I really enjoy reading your thoughts about history, education, and the South. Just wanted to encourage you to keep it up

  • Cash Oct 6, 2006

    Kevin,

    Since I learned Civil War History from James I. Robertson, Jackson will always have a place in my heart. :)

    However, while Mr. Williams is right when he says Jackson taught blacks how to read, stood up for that teaching, and started a Sunday School for blacks, to say he was the black man’s friend is going way overboard. Jackson was doing what he saw as his Christian duty, and for Jackson duty always came first. Mr. Williams took a very large leap in his conclusions, in my view. While Jackson was a kind slaveholder, as slaveholders go, he was still a slaveholder. I don’t see how one can be considered a friend to people one kept enslaved.

    Your headline, by the way, is exactly appropriate. Jackson was paternalistic, and in the extreme.

    Regards,
    Cash

  • Angela Oct 6, 2006

    Kevin-

    Just wanted to let you know that I enjoy your blog. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Michael Aubrecht Oct 8, 2006

    Kevin, I see that you have discovered the wonderful work of my associate, and friend Mr. Williams. I also believe that you are referring to my project on Forrest (I think) without actually mentioning me. As you being one who “appears online” to feel more comfortable in the secular realm, I would not expect you to understand how two Christian writers can successfully publish religious books on Confederate Generals in good conscience. It’s not hard.

    In addition, I always find it interesting how non-practicing folks or non-believers always feel the need to comment on faith-based works. You would be surprised with how unbalanced the positive vs. negative comments that we receive are. For every comment questioning our motive or integrity, we receive ten-times that thanking us for focusing on a subject as Christians. I have even received emails from black people – Yes; African-Americans who actually purchased and read my books, understood my intent, and took the time to thank me for showing them a side of Jackson and Stuart that they were not aware of. Up north, churches in New Hampshire have developed curriculum for Bible Study programs based on “Onward Christian Soldier.” The U.S. Marines at Quantico use “Christian Cavalier” in their fellowship program. Richard is constantly appearing as a guest speaker on the subject of religion and the war.

    So I guess what I am trying to say is that Richard and I have made a career out of this specific genre of CW study and it has been VERY well received by people of all denominations, color, and region. The ONLY people who seem to have a problem with it are non-believers or non-religious people, and to be honest, we didn’t write these books for them at all. I cannot figure out how you could have possibly been hired as a teacher in the Old Dominion with such an openly anti-South, anti-Christian attitude.

    Are you saying the churches in New Hampshire, the U.S. Marines, and southern Christians are all racist if they recognize the positive life-lessons that can be learned by our beloved generals – especially the greatest Christian Soldier of them all… Stonewall?

  • Kevin Levin Oct 9, 2006

    Michael, — I guess I should have expected that you would write in response to this so let me deal briefly with your overly simplistic comments. First, I couldn’t be happier for you that there is an audience out there for studies that masquerade as serious history. One question, when will you be getting around to writing a “study” of a northern “Christian Warrior”? That you assume anything about my religious views suggests that you do not understand any of my comments. However, if it makes you feel better in assuming something fundamental about someone you’ve never met than so be it.

    As to my views of the South I take it for granted that most of my readers assume the opposite from what you conclude. I spend most of my waking hours thinking and teaching the history of the South. Your problem is that you see the history of the South through a very narrow lens as outlined above and in your other comments; anything beyond that is impossible for you to comprehend. Don’t you think it’s better if you don’t comment on this blog anymore?

    As to your notion of a “Christian Warrior” it seems to me that Martin L. King, Mother Theresa, or Ghandi are much better candidates than anyone who has ever waged war. At least that’s what the life of Jesus teaches me.

  • Michael Aubrecht Oct 9, 2006

    You are correct, I won’t be posting here again Kevin and you are certainly entitled to your opinions, but I find it interesting how you have turned your blog into a forum for publicly criticizing people and their work, without ever actually meeting the people, or reading their work. (However, if it makes you feel better in assuming something fundamental about someone you’ve never met than so be it.) And in regards to your comment that you “couldn’t be happier for you that there is an audience out there for studies that masquerade as serious history,” I say that I “couldn’t be happier for you that there is a classroom out there [yours] for studies that masquerade as serious history. I only hope that you aren’t pushing the same liberal ideology that you push here on your impressionable students. And I hope that no one comments on your Petersburg book without ever reading it – like you appear to do with other people’s stuff. It doesn’t feel good when your peers “eat their own”. Shame on you.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 9, 2006

    Michael, — If you read the post carefully you would have noticed that I commented on the news article and not the book. Take care.

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