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Portrait of a Bounder

James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery

by Drew Faust
Louisiana State University Press, 407 pp., $27.50

Antebellum South Carolina was different from the rest of the South. Else-where in the lower South and in Virginia the slaveholders held effective power, exercised impressive hegemony, and determined policy in all matters that concerned the foundation of their property rights in human beings, but they had to struggle constantly to maintain their power under democratic constitutions in states rent by class antagonisms and shifting alliances. Only in South Carolina did the slaveholders, and more specifically the “political class” based on the big planters, come close to maintaining the naked class dictatorship of Leninist theory and myth.

The great John C. Calhoun dominated the state by a combination of extraordinary intellectual power, political skill, moral credibility, and iron will. Never without enemies, rivals, and impatient heirs apparent, he generally got his way. There were internal battles, not between pro- and antislavery forces—nowhere in the lower South was conflict over that issue permitted—but primarily between those who sought safety for slavery in or out of the Union. Calhoun walked that tightrope. He waged a lifelong struggle to build a slaveholders’ party that could control the Union. Within South Carolina he had to fight off challenges both from those who considered his course extreme and a threat to national unity, and from those who scorned his efforts at sectional compromise as giving away too much to dangerous opponents. Those who denounced him as a compromiser feared that he was governed by an overweaning ambition to be president, and kept sniping at him from the right.

Among these, James H. Hammond commands special attention for his unusual personal qualities and for his paradoxical claims to being Calhoun’s heir. Born into a family of modest means, he grew up determined to make it big in the planter class—“The Chivalry,” as the haughty low-country planters styled themselves. Make it he did, however much his success as a planter, a politician, and a master of men, women, and children left him with a mouthful of ashes. Recently Carol Bleser brought him to life in a beautifully edited volume of the Hammond family papers, for which she provided an illuminating biographical introduction.1 Now Drew Faust has written a first-rate biography.

Ms. Faust, a historian and professor of American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, previously published A Sacred Circle, which included an account of Hammond and his relations with other leading southern intellectuals. Subsequently, she edited a valuable collection of antebellum southern writings, suggestively called The Ideology of Slavery, which she introduced with an important essay that marked a long step forward in her thought.2 With this study of Hammond she takes her place in the forefront of historians of the South. She writes clearly and gracefully and her book is a pleasure to read.

Hammond’s father thought him a genius, destined for great things if only he would work hard and learn self-control. Elisha Hammond, as James later recalled, lived through and for his favorite son, and to make sure that all went well, he resorted first to periodic and vigorous floggings and then to harsh rebukes and exhortations. Having begun as a laborer in Massachusetts, Elisha educated himself, became a college teacher in South Carolina, and worked hard, albeit with indifferent results, as a small businessman. Drew Faust describes an aspirant bourgeois who encouraged his son’s acquisitive spirit in a society in which it would have to take other than bourgeois form. For all that, he apparently loved his son and bestowed upon him an affection and sensitivity that James himself would rarely if ever bestow on anyone else. Regrettably, we know little about James’s relations with his mother or about her qualities.

Thanks to parental support and selfsacrifice, James went to college and then into law. He determined early to claw his way to the top of the slaveholding aristocracy, and he had what it took, most notably a cold-blooded attitude toward everyone except himself. And, not surprising in a social climber, he learned to blame everyone and everything else for his own failings, and he developed an almost comical ability to whine at any adversity and to bewail his fate as a misunderstood man.

A quest for control over others, for “despotic sway,” mastered him. Of his ruthlessness there can be no doubt. He courted and married a decent, forbearing, reputedly plain Charleston heiress over the bitter opposition of her relatives, who knew a fortune hunter when they saw one. Like his slaves—actually, the slaves she brought to the marriage—she became in his eyes a piece of property. Even by the standards of male-dominated South Carolina, he behaved abominably toward her, as apparently he behaved toward the other women in his life.

Over men, most noticeably his brothers and sons, all heavily dependent upon him, he also sought the greatest possible dominion. He hectored his brothers in the same way and almost in the same words as his father had hectored him. Nothing his sons ever did was good enough. Ms. Faust guides us through these stormy relations and, in her own way, demonstrates that Hammond’s intense desire for mastery—for order, discipline, control—foundered at the outset on a great if ironical flaw: its very foundation in the ownership of human beings encouraged a catastrophic lack of self-control in the master himself. Yet I suspect she would agree that in this respect he was not so much typical of his class as an extreme manifestation, not to say caricature, of it.

Ms. Faust presents Hammond as slaveholder in two superb chapters that ought to be required reading for those who would understand the world of the great plantation. In rich detail she lays bare the contradictions in the life of a classically paternalistic master and demonstrates the easy coexistence of harshness and cruelty with that special sense of duty and responsibility attendant upon the holding of “property in man.”

When Hammond assumed control of his wife’s plantation in 1831, he found it badly managed and with only marginal returns to show for its 10,800 acres and 147 slaves. He determined to provide leadership and impose discipline, and he did. With hard work and impressive managerial skill he became one of the biggest planters in the South and built a private world over which to rule.

The slaves confronted him with his most severe test. They had worked under apparently inefficient overseers and had obviously produced poorly. To make matters worse, they had bad health as well as what a master would consider bad habits. Hammond immediately set out to show them who was boss. He would not only make them work properly, he would make them live properly: for their own good, of course, as well as his. Throughout, Ms. Faust describes the quintessential paternalist, and at moments she does so brilliantly.

From the first, Hammond believed that both the passion for economic efficiency and the passion for control of other people’s lives required each other. The achievement of the one without the other would have frustrated him. And it did frustrate him, for despite formidable successes, his slaves bent to his will but did not break. In Ms. Faust’s words, “He would eliminate their church, command their labor, regulate their personal relations and even name their children.” He would, that is, if he could. He added the carrot of incentives to the stick of physical punishment. But:

While Hammond may have regarded these rewards as privileges he chose to grant, the slaves themselves increasingly looked upon them as rights. His schemes for total domination quickly proved illusory.

The slaves bent Hammond to their will, much as he bent them to his.

The resulting compromise, while onesided in favor of the master, nonetheless remained a compromise—and that proved enough to drive Hammond to distraction. For what, then, of absolute lordship? Here Ms. Faust writes that Hammond “needed to feel loved, not simply respected or feared; he wanted to be acknowledged as a father to his slave ‘family.”’ But the slaves, like his own children and ultimately even his long-docile wife, cheated him. Ms. Faust expertly draws her account of the struggle between master and slaves, and between aspirant patriarch and siblings, wife, and children, to its conclusion: “Carefully calculated to win acceptance as well as compliance from the bondsmen, his system of management demonstrates how Hammond had allocated to his slaves the power to legitimate his selfimage as benevolent paternalist. He had in important ways become dependent on them.”

Ms. Faust traces Hammond’s work as practical planter and agricultural entrepreneur with authority and sets his accomplishments against the economic problems of antebellum South Carolina. Along the way she provides an engrossing sketch of his relations with neighboring yeomen and other “plain folk.” Here too Hammond sought to play Lord Bountiful. Here too the independent spirit of those who were supposed to be grateful for his largess thwarted him. In one instance he threw a party to which, almost literally, no one came. Yet planter-yeomen relations proved complex and in some ways did succumb to the ethos of plantation paternalism. Future historians of the yeomanry, as well as of the planter class, will have to pay close attention to the story Ms. Faust tells.

As a political man Hammond proved an original of sorts: he worked hard to ruin a brilliant career. He began in more or less loyal, or at any rate tempered, opposition to Calhoun, whose respect and even guarded sponsorship he won. During the tense days of the nullification crisis he emerged as an able spokesman for the Ultras by editing a fiercely partisan newspaper. Afterward, when Calhoun nimbly drifted toward a moderation dictated by a realistic assessment of prospects and by his own presidential ambitions, Hammond cast his lot with those who tried to keep the banner of intransigence high. While Calhoun lived, Hammond tried to stake out an independent position—usually he tacked to Calhoun’s right—as if in controlled rebellion against the man he sought to succeed. Although Ms. Faust does not fully explore this side of Hammond’s relation to Calhoun, the suspicion persists that something went out of Hammond when Calhoun, who appears to have stood as surrogate father to him, died.

The firebrand of the 1830s and early 1840s became a moderate during the 1850s, at least by the wild standards of South Carolina, and, perhaps more to the point, he became indecisive—the “Hamlet of the Old South,” as Clement Eaton dubbed him.3 To be sure, he had suffered political disappointment and been embroiled in personal scandal. He may also have mellowed or grown softer as he grew older, although he ought to have been at the height of his powers. Indeed, years in political exile on his plantation may have occasioned sober reflection on his earlier extremism. All of these possibilities, which Ms. Faust perceptively examines, engage our attention. But some doubts linger.

Ms. Faust, if I read her right, sees Hammond as moving beyond his defiance of Calhoun to identification with Calhoun’s lifelong project of keeping slavery safe within the Union—and of keeping the threat of secession in reserve in case all else failed. She sees Hammond, that is, as Calhoun’s self-conscious if rebellious heir, and much of her analysis is convincing. What troubles me is Hammond’s increasing political ineptness, fuzziness, and wavering. For if, even before Calhoun’s death, Hammond was embracing step by step Calhoun’s tension-ridden political course, he was doing so in a manner that suggests as much crankiness as conviction. While Calhoun lived, Hammond proved himself a tough and generally able politician, notwithstanding periodic manifestations of self-destructiveness. When Calhoun died, and with him the object of Hammond’s adult rebellion-within-deference, Hammond floundered. The Hammond of the 1830s and 1840s, whatever his faults, remains an impressive political figure. The Hammond of the 1850s does not.

Hammond’s acute intelligence, wide reading, oratorical skills, and political shrewdness had made him a prime candidate to succeed Calhoun as South Carolina’s first citizen. Yet at decisive moments, as if by instinct, he wrecked his chances. Elected to Congress in the mid-1830s, he captured the imagination of his state by a ringing defense of slavery and a ferocious attack on its enemies. The road to fame and regional, perhaps national, power lay open. The governorship, the Senate, a place on the national ticket: everything beckoned. Then he fell ill. He resigned his seat in Congress, retired from politics, and took himself, his forlorn and pregnant wife, and his young son off to Europe to recuperate and collect works of art. It seems clear that his illness had roots in a pathological fear of the success he had so frantically been pursuing.

When, years later, he returned to the political wars, won the governorship, and seemed destined for the Senate and national political prominence, he again wrecked his chances, this time by an absurd sexual escapade with his young nieces, an episode to which I shall return. After more than a decade of enforced retirement following that fiasco, he once more found himself politically available. But he made a mess of his participation in the Nashville convention; foolishly called on South Carolina to be in but not of the Union (“Neither war nor peace!” as a later slogan would have it); absurdly tried to place himself above the battle over Bleeding Kansas and thereby drew fire even from his loyal and patient friend, the novelist William Gilmore Simms; trusted people he had reason not to trust; and split with people with whom he could not afford to split. To cap a decade of blunders, he took a reasoned stand against secession and then joined James Chesnut, his senatorial colleague, in resigning from the Senate and aligning with the very secessionists he had been opposing.

Having aroused the distrust of both principled men and opportunists, he found himself a forgotten man in the Confederacy. Naturally, he blamed the dull-wittedness and venality of others. Throughout the war he displayed a bad temper and an appalling lack of loyalty to the Confederacy he had helped to bring about.

The Hammond that emerges from Ms. Faust’s scrupulously told story is the Hammond Ms. Bleser described as—and such words do not come easily to a reserved southern lady—“a tough son of a bitch.” But Ms. Faust demonstrates that a tough guy, especially one who suffered from delusions of power, need not be a strong man. Hammond emerges from this careful biography as a spoiled brat.

Hammond almost ruined his political career—in a sense, despite a comeback of sorts, he did ruin it—by a suicidal adventure that shocked his contemporaries and that, if undertaken by a politician today, might even ruffle the deadened moral sensibilities of modern Americans. While governor, he distracted himself from the burdens of a largely ceremonial office by playing sexual games with his four nieces, aged fifteen to twenty. Probably, as he later claimed, they had initiated the games; at least, the evidence suggests that they willingly participated and behaved shamelessly. By all accounts, Hammond never quite bedded any of them down, but by his own account he did everything else.

I describe as suicidal Hammond’s penchant for inserting his fingers into his nieces’ private parts—I assume that that was what his statements, expressed with customary chivalric delicacy, mean—because his own explanation of lack of self-control and a pardonably hot temperament does not ring true. He had, and seized, many other opportunities to indulge his sexual appetites. Indeed, his long-suffering wife walked out on him when she learned of his dalliance in the slave quarters, or rather, when he refused to give up the liaisons on the grounds that he could not abandon his responsibilities to his mistresses. Yet we know of no other instances in which he displayed a passion for tender young things. Instead he appears to have gone well out of his normally self-indulgent way to court disaster.4

A campaign to ruin him was launched by Wade Hampton, the father of Hammond’s nieces and a political power in the state. Hammond got off easy, much easier than he had expected. While he remained governor he was protected by the dignity of office, which even irate fathers, if southern gentlemen, were bound to honor. But he expected the worst to happen when he left office—if not from Hampton, who had a peculiar aversion to dueling and personal violence, then from Hampton’s relatives or friends, who had a duty, under governing mores, to settle accounts with a bullet or at least a severe caning. Despite the nonviolent outcome, Hammond had to know, when his fingers got itchy, that he was asking for it.

Hampton settled for a gossip campaign, which worked. Hammond went into the political wilderness for a dozen years. Once again, he had created his own disaster. Characteristically, he excused himself of anything more than the commission of a perfectly human peccadillo. It could happen to anyone. Others had done worse. Besides, the girls had been provocative. He was, as usual, a wronged man.

Hammond’s enforced retreat to his plantation gave him more time to reflect on the world. In fact he had solid intellectual qualities, and his proslavery writings stand up well among the best his class had to offer. For the most part he took high ground. If Hammond did not quite echo George Fitzhugh’s insistence that workers everywhere should be enslaved, without regard to race, color, creed, or place of national origin, he came as close as a practical politician dared. He defended republicanism against democracy in a manner reminiscent of John Randolph of Roanoke, but, even more boldly than Calhoun, he viewed slavery as the foundation of the republican edifice: “We would not part with it if we could,” he exclaimed in 1830, “and as it is WE NEVER WILL.” And his declarations of a quartercentury later that “Cotton is King” and that every society must have its “mudsills” (subjugated laboring classes) made him, after a fashion, famous.

Hammond devoted much time and thought to the delineation of a hegemonic slaveholders’ world view. In particular, he made a brave effort to reconcile slave society to what had been rendered irreversible by the industrial revolution. In the end, despite minor intellectual achievements, the greatness he coveted eluded him, and by much. But what can we say about a man who, having been caught feeling up his nieces, retreated to bemoan the injustice of it all and to devote himself to a serious study of moral philosophy?

Throughout his life, Hammond suffered from psychological disorders and periodic physical breakdowns, punctuated by hypochondria. During his last years he experienced considerable pain from a series of maladies. Ms. Faust does some intriguing detective work on his medical history and constructs a convincing case for two theses. First, during the illness that cut short his congressional career, Hammond appears to have begun to use an excessive amount of mercury and inadvertently to have been poisoning himself. Second, Hammond long sought to master his own body, especially his bowels, with which he was obsessed, much as he tried to master his slaves, family, and neighbors. Ms. Faust concludes that he suffered from chronic mercury poisoning and probably died from an unintended overdose. This is as far as she chooses to speculate, and perhaps it is far enough.

Lawrence McDonnell, a gifted young historian at Johns Hopkins University, does not think it is far enough. Although he did not have the benefit of Ms. Faust’s book when he wrote his own essay, his interpretation, based on diligent research in the Hammond papers, explores another possibility.5 It presents Hammond as having waged a lifelong struggle against suicide, to which he finally succumbed. I cannot here do justice to the texture of Mr. McDonnell’s argument and do not subscribe to all of it, but I do think that he offers a way of unraveling one of the few mysteries to outlast Ms. Faust’s conscientious probing.

If Hammond’s death had a suicidal aspect, so, as many proslavery Unionists saw, did the secession of South Carolina. In the closing days of the war, Hammond expressly said that he had not the strength to bear the outcome. In a moving, and perhaps unique, expression of confidence in his sons, he asked that they rally to save as much of the old way of life as possible during what he foresaw as dark and terrible days. Whether, like his friend Edmund Ruffin, he took his own life, must remain a matter of speculation, including speculation on the meaning of a suggestive remark by his son: “Father’s death was largely an act of will.” Hammond himself had said shortly before the end, “It is time for me to die.” Both as man and as symbol, it was. But he was all of fifty-seven years old.

  1. 1

    The Hammonds of Redcliffe (Oxford University Press, 1981), reviewed by C. Vann Woodward in The New York Review, October 22, 1981, pp. 47-48.

  2. 2

    A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977); The Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Antebellum South, 1830-1960 (Louisiana State University Press, 1981).

  3. 3

    Clement Eaton, “James H. Hammond of South Carolina: The Hamlet of the Old South,” in The Mind of the Old South (Louisiana State University Press, 1964), chapter II.

  4. 4

    Hammond’s sexual escapades seem to have extended widely and do not seem to have been entirely heterosexual. Ms. Faust declines to interpret some extraordinary letters from a college friend as evidence of homosexual relations. For another view, also properly tentative, see Martin Bauml Duberman, “‘Writhing Bedfellows’: 1826. Two Young Men from Antebellum South Carolina’s Ruling Elite Share Some ‘Extravagant Delight,”’ Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 6 (1980-1981), pp. 85-101. Mr. Duberman has some interesting reflections on the possible extent of homosexual relations among upper-class Americans and its larger historical significance. He may, however, be missing the point for the Old South since Hammond himself was not raised on a plantation as a “young master.” I cannot prove but have long suspected that black boys, not merely girls, fell prey to the lust of white playmates who learned early of their lordly power over slaves. Gilberto Freyre tells us of such relations on Brazilian plantations, and the deafening silence of the American sources contrasts sharply with hints one may ferret out from the descendants of slaveholders, whose families have their own “oral traditions.”

  5. 5

    Lawrence T. McDonnell, “Struggle Against Suicide: James Henry Hammond and the Secession of South Carolina,” Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South (forth-coming). This journal, by the way, is a breath of fresh air in American historical scholarship. Published by the Southern Studies Institute of Northwestern State University of Louisiana, Natchitoches, Louisiana, it is ably edited by John Price, whose high scholarly standards are matched by his impatience with the stodginess and excessive caution that mark so many of his professional competitors.

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