The Hammonds of Redcliffe
edited by Carol Bleser
Oxford University Press, 421 pp., $19.95
The essentials of the family romance, Southern style, are the ancestral house and the founding father—and, of course, in a literal but less important sense, a founding mother. In the instance of the Hammond family of South Carolina, the house seems to have been essential to the romance aspect more than the four generations of inhabitants were, but there is no fiction about either. More improbable than fiction, this collection of family letters and occasional diary excerpts begins in the 1850s and runs for nearly a century. They are selected from huge collections and capably edited and annotated by Professor Carol Bleser of Colgate. She adds much to their intelligibility with her introductions to successive generations and by her brisk rattling of skeletons from family closets. No pussy-footer, Professor Bleser.
The house of the Hammonds did not come first in family chronicles since it was one of the creations of the founding father, James Henry Hammond, in the late 1850s. But it was first in importance, and turned out to be the most durable of his creations and the bond that kept his and future generations together. Set high on a clay bluff over the Savannah River and named Redcliffe, the house commanded a sweeping view of the river and valley from the South Carolina side seven miles from Augusta, Georgia. Built more for comfort and utility than for conformity to the myth of the planter mansion, it was a large white frame building with double-decked verandas on all sides. Yet when the last member of the tribe to own it got the place remodeled and floodlighted for a celebration in 1938 he described it, partly in pride and partly in embarrassment, as “a great white frosted wedding cake or a spectacular movie set.”
Carol Bleser gets right to the point in her own characterization of James Henry Hammond (1807-1864): “He can best be described as a tough son of a bitch.” In public life he is best identified as the author of the slogan, “Cotton is King,” and for his defense of slavery as the “mudsills of society,” the necessary foundations of a great civilization in the South as wage slaves were in the North. He was ready to extend these blessings and American sovereignty from the Isthmus of Panama to the North Pole, or to take the South out of the Union if slavery were threatened. For abolitionists he advocated the death penalty.
It was in private life, however, that Hammond did most to earn his reputation for toughness. In 1830 he paid court to a homely sixteen-year-old heiress, furiously resisted her family’s demand that the fortune hunter renounce her dower, and the next year married her. She brought him a plantation of 7,500 acres and 147 slaves. He exploited her property to the fullest, acting as his own overseer, and in ten years doubled the holdings in land and slaves. His wife also bore him five sons and two daughters, and since her sister …