Title Reviewed:
The Old South. The Founding of American Civilization

Author Reviewed:
Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker

John D. Barnhart


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 39, Issue 3, pp 304-306

Article Type:
Book Review

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The Old South. The Founding of American Civilization. By Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker. (New York: Charles Scribiier's Sons, 1942. Pp. xvi, 364. Illustrations. $3.50.)

This significant volume on the civilization of the South by the eminent authority on colonial Virginia should be read by every student of early American history. The author's early writings have already marked him as one of the leading historians of the United States.

Pointing out the riches bestowed by nature upon the South, Professor Wertenbaker declared them to have become the curse of the region because they led to an extravagant wastage of soil and the introduction of slavery. He described the Old South as made up of five sub-divisions: the tobacco country, the mercantile section, the pine belt, the rice and indigo region, and the back country. Much of the volume, however, is devoted to describing the civilization of the two staple-producing regions and the back country and the conflict that developed between the two major types of life—that of the planter and that of the farmer.

In the Tidewater of Virginia and Maryland there arose the earlier white civilization of the English colonies. Chapters on the intellectual life of the tobacco aristocrat and his architectural activities indicate sources utilized extensively by the author. The colonial aristocracy was not a transplanted one but a product of the plantation, the accumulation of wealth, and the command of servants and slaves. English influence in shaping the intellectual life of the planter was pronounced in education, literature, architecture, arts, and religion; but it was modified by the plantation system and isolation. A highly significant story is told of the development of architecture in the colonial period.

The settlement of the Piedmont produced a new society based upon that of the Tidewater but differing because of isolation and the costs and difficulties of transportation. Soil exhaustion and virgin western soils induced a further westward migration that also lessened the ties with England. A significant clash of cultures occurred west of the Blue Ridge where Cohees, the non-English immigrants coming down the valley, met the Tuckahoes, who were the Virginians from east of the mountains. The Germans in the valley surrendered many customs but adhered tenaciously to their own system of agriculture. The Scotch-Irish, too, gave up much but did not surrender their Presbyterianism. Neither accepted completely the plantation system or its slave labor. The Tuckahoe often gave up his more wasteful agricultural methods.

The lack of a large artisan class was a deterrent to democracy in the South, while the rise of "Mansions on the Ashley" greatly strengthened the aristocracy of the South and also increased the force of English influence. The land system of the Southern colonies was unquestionably "second only to the slave system in building up the aristocratic type of society"; but migration westward seriously interfered with tenantry, one of the features of an unsound system.

The work is attractively printed and bound, but the illustrations must be noted particularly because of the fifty-six beautiful and instructive photographs. Readers may differ on certain controversial points, but errors of fact seem to be unusually few. Samuel Doah (pp. 210, 312) should have been Samuel Doak, but such exceptions are hardly worth noticing. In the earlier volume in this series, the emphasis upon architecture seemed an overemphasis without adequate interpretative connection with the history of the region, but surely this cannot be alleged against the present work—a very significant work.

John D. Barnhart

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.