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Southern Gentleman

Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter annotated with the assistance of Susan W. Walker)

(with “The Journal of Thomas B. Chaplin, 1822–1890,” edited and, by Theodore Rosengarten
William Morrow, 750 pp., $22.95

Theodore Rosengarten’s talents were well displayed in his prize-winning book, All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, a biography of a twentieth-century Alabama sharecropper. He has repeated that success in Tombee, a study of a nineteenth-century low-country slaveholder. His choice of subject, however, raises the question, Why should anyone wish to read a biography and journal of a feckless cotton planter who knew little about himself and less about the society around him? Thomas B. Chaplin of South Carolina lacks distinction, quite in contrast to the patriarchs and matrons of the Jones, Hammond, and Chesnut clans about whom substantial and well-regarded works have recently appeared.* With enough resilience to start over again in the chaos of postwar life, these families, living not far from Chaplin, had been architects of late slaveholding civilization.

Chaplin, by contrast, laid scarcely a brick in the edifice and accomplished little for its postwar rehabilitation. At forty he had less money and power than he had had at twenty; at fifty, after the war, he was landless and penniless, a condition for which he and not just the invasion of Union forces was chiefly responsible. A brandy sniffer before the war, he became an opium addict afterward. At times Rosengarten himself must have wondered whether so unpromising a specimen deserved much historical attention.

The answer, though, is a resounding yes. Neurotic, self-pitying, yet likeable, Chaplin reminds us that slaveholders were not all Simon Legrees or “upwardly mobile” entrepreneurs in agribusiness, or pious patricians giving out homilies along with the weekly slave rations. These are character types long popular among historians of the South, but Chaplin’s life reveals some of the more Faulknerian aspects of Southern culture. In his deviation from conventional success, Chaplin was a victim of the very social standard by which he judged himself and others, a circumstance which, Rosengarten shows, lends considerable meaning to his experiences.

Unlike most of life’s losers, he had the discipline required for keeping a diary, writing more or less faithfully from 1845 to 1858 and making further commentary in later, much sadder, years. Ideas, however, touched him “lightly,” says Rosengarten, “like the vapors of a glass of brandy.” Moreover, his initial entries were seldom very reflective about his own or anyone else’s role in events. Only on reflection did he find lessons for humility or show a poignant irony. Even the preservation of the diary suggests the artlessness of the document itself. In 1928 a Charleston pawnbroker sold Chaplin’s book to the South Carolina Historical Society for ten dollars. He had received it from a grandson in exchange for “liquor money.”

In 1845, at age twenty-three, Chaplin began his diary in a happy frame of mind. Lacking a critical faculty, he expected it to be both a practical farming log and an entertaining record of a country gentleman’s pleasant life in a plantation community in St. Helena, one of the Carolina Sea Islands, where he and companions like Ned Capers and Captain Dan Jenkins grew cotton and corn, raised families, played billiards, hunted deer, pulled in drum-fish, and ruled in blissful isolation over what they presumed was a kingdom of loyal and loving slaves. We see the charm of that self-image, but as a social account the journal is of value largely in its reflection of the ways slaveholders thought and acted. The rituals and aggressions of low-country planters like Chaplin well suited the family-based, rank-conscious, and deeply conservative ethical scheme to which they all subscribed.

Even his vexations had a Southern accent, so to speak. Chaplin filled the pages of his diary to justify hatreds and put the blame for his mistakes and humiliations upon quirks of God’s providence, to which he was resigned, and upon the treacheries of relations, to which he was not. By no means was he writing a puritan confessional or a journal intime, but rather an old-fashioned chronicle that distantly recalls the diaries of Samuel Pepys or William Byrd II. Those gentlemen, however, were prosperous and almost daily rejoiced in their success. Chaplin, on the other hand, found little to celebrate and much to complain about—for instance, his invalid wife Mary’s craving for tobacco:

Her mouth is full of snuff; should she remain to tea, she retires immediately after, not to bed, to sleep, oh! no, but to put snuff in her mouth, take a novel & lie on her back till twelve or one o’clock at night, unless, per chance, she enacts the vomiting scene over again, & thereby loses her tea.

No doubt his own compulsions encouraged her indulgence. He also moaned about his financial and social movement downward. “All my trouble & expense sacrificed by the sheriff for $820. The billiard table also gone, it once afforded me some gratification,” he wrote in 1848. “Property gone—friends decrease—better for me. They were the friends of my property, not of me.”

In denying personal responsibility or guilt for unpleasant events he mirrored the old habit of scapegoating, a favored means the South used to protect its way. The drive toward secession was propelled by the same fear of lost reputation and moral standing, the same motives to avenge ridicule and vindicate manhood, the same damnation of busybodies with righteousness on their lips and slaughter in their hearts that kept Chaplin at his task. In 1860, pride as well as faith in slavery and the South’s superior family values made a vigorous, military response to the final insult—the election of a “Black Republican” to the presidency—seem unavoidable and divinely sanctioned.

Rosengarten does not make these connections directly, and wisely so. Instead he subtly interweaves an account of the political history, the ecology, and the slave and postwar economy of the Carolina low country with the material about Chaplin’s life he has carefully unearthed. He begins, as one must, with the issue of slavery and its environment. In antebellum St. Helena Parish, for every white resident there were seven blacks, about 8500 in all. Like the British West Indies, from which the first Chaplin and many other seventeenth-century Carolinians had emigrated, the pestilent marshlands near Charleston attracted and held only those hardy souls willing to risk health and life itself for the possible financial rewards to be gained by luck and the hard driving of slaves. With an expert knowledge of local agriculture and slave management, Rosengarten explains how white Carolinians grew rich from such exotic crops as indigo (before the Revolution), rice, and long-staple cotton, which Chaplin chiefly raised. These and such matters as medical conditions, civic and social life, war and confiscation are described in an illuminating and artful way.

Yet the presentation of Chaplin’s troubles intrigues the reader most. Rosengarten could have speculated more freely about Chaplin’s inner life and its relationship to the dynamics of southern culture, though at risk to his well-ordered approach. In any case, he is persuasive about Chaplin’s mediocre performance as a planter, and its consequences. Rosengarten recognizes the social as well as the commercial implications of a planter’s career. Slaveholders, he notes, closely inspected one another’s fields to read the character of the owner as much as to judge the progress of the crop. In their eyes Chaplin fell far short, especially with cotton, the yields and quality of which brought him low returns. Chaplin himself acknowledged the fault but lacked the self-discipline to do better. Especially in his early years, he found excuses—usually social ones—to avoid staying at Tombee, his plantation, to make decisions and supervise the work. His highly skilled black drivers could not compensate for his inattentiveness. Sheriff’s auctions of prime hands settled his debts. Neighbors, however, pitied neither master nor slaves. Chaplin showed his scale of values when he lamented, “People will laugh at your distress—and say it serves you right—you lived beyond your means,” and only made a passing reference to the effect on the parted black families.

In spite of his shortcomings as a cotton grower, Chaplin was no better and no worse handling slaves than most other masters. He held himself aloof from his chattels, though providing occasional prizes or holidays for good work. In showing little understanding of blacks as individuals, Chaplin followed regional custom. To bend too far in sympathy, slaveholders agreed, encouraged “impudence” and presumption. When his wife Mary let the household china, candlesticks, and Chaplin’s own liquor be used for two slave couples’ wedding reception, he was vexed by her indulgence and his own acquiescence for which his neighbors might mock him. Besides, he reasoned, blacks did not understand the sanctity of the marriage vow, no matter how much brandy and “tomfoolery” were supplied. Chaplin did not, though, follow the example of his cousin, “Good Billy” Fripp, who was remembered in the black community for taking the Bible to the fields and “reading ‘Moses’ law and flogging” the hands “accordin’.” Like a good many other masters, Chaplin left spiritual matters to the slaves, doubtless to their relief. Moreover, he accepted, somewhat grudgingly, the common means by which slaves, feigning sickness, sought to control their own time. “Jim and Judge both lying up today,” he wrote in 1857, “they will have their time out.” But he was not completely lacking in feeling. When Anthony, a long-trusted servant, died in 1850, he confessed, “I miss him more than I would any other negro that I own,” then added, “Peace be to his soul.”

With regard to married life, Chaplin was luckier and more conscientious than in plantation management. His first wife loved him. For all his drinking and idleness, and her snuff-chewing, he treated Mary with affection and sincerely mourned her early death in 1851 from too many pregnancies, too many sorrows. He then married her sister Sophy, who had always lived in the household as its steadiest member. Remarriage of this kind was not uncommon at that time.

But in the larger family circle, Chaplin had his downfall in what was a more common feature of Southern social life than historians have recognized. Family members relied almost exclusively on one another in the absence of other trust worthy means of help. Chaplin was at least second cousin, if not closer kin, to one hundred of the island’s 250 whites—the intermingled Fripp, Jenkins, and Chaplin clans. As elsewhere in the plantation South, inbreeding when practiced assured all parties that they knew exactly what and whom, in dowries and prospects, they were getting. It also meant, however, steaming competition among the family males over place, property, and power, making their friendships and enmities too volatile for anybody’s good. On this score, Chaplin was a failure.

In struggling against the weight of family pressures, Chaplin had severe handicaps, which Rosengarten describes but does not make central. His father died when he was only six or seven. While his twice-widowed mother Isabella was busy marrying—then burying—yet another rich planter, Thomas, aged eight, was shunted off to a Carolinian boarding school. Just short of his seventeenth birthday in 1839, she got him to marry an heiress aged fifteen or sixteen and settled the couple at Tombee, a handsome property for so young a pair. In 1843, fifty-seven-year-old Isabella married Robert L. Baker, husband four. He was eighteen years her junior. Young Chaplin thus grew up without a father, a mother, a childhood, and, after Baker’s arrival, without unencumbered access to his mother’s gifts and future legacies upon which his solvency so much depended.

In a fashion that Southern women sometimes employed to make up for the limitations imposed on their own power, Isabella, as the diary reveals, used her wealth to manipulate her son. She varied affection and giving with unaccountable fits of pouting and broken promises. Such whimsical behavior may well have unsettled Thomas as a child, and prepared him for the maternal dependency that his journal clearly discloses. In any case these deprivations so diminished his self-esteem that he seemed a victim of what in 1836 Professor Thomas R. Dew of William and Mary College called “the hotbed system.” By that he meant the parental shoving of boys too early into adult responsibilities for which they were emotionally unequipped. It showed up in Chaplin’s youthful party going when work was waiting. Dreading abandonment, he hated to be alone. Sadly he remembered happy times with friends when he wrote in 1848, “The Capt. dined with me—his visits are now rare.” Perhaps one reason why his wife Mary served as a broodmare (when some imperfect means of birth control were known) was a desire to produce family members who could shower upon him the love that had come so inconsistently to him as a child. For the most part his surviving sons, much to his annoyance, failed him in this. Only in the mid-1850s, when he gradually saw the uses of both emotional and physical sobriety, did he gain the self-control to care less about his social standing and start a modest financial recovery, but this was cut short in 1861.

In a fashion all too common in the Old South, Chaplin sought his identity through the approval of his kin and neighbors, a course that led him to subscribe to all the male values and habits they lived by. In some respects, he did well by local standards. In the diary’s most gruesome pages, Chaplin describes how he served on a coroner’s jury meeting over the body of a planter’s crippled slave, Roger, who had been trussed up in a drafty shed overnight. The slave had been threatening and disobedient, said the owner, and Chaplin assented to a verdict of death by accident. Like his neighbors, he believed that whites should countenance no dissent among themselves or in the quarters. Nonetheless, Chaplin was outraged. The master, a leading Baptist, left the community a year later, perhaps because the neighbors shared Chaplin’s sentiments about his morals. After all, he had forced them into a civil hypocrisy they scarcely enjoyed. In the claustrophobic atmosphere of country life, the uppermost concern had to be continuity and neighborliness, not justice or conscience, although Rosengarten interprets the incident somewhat differently. Uncommendable we would say, but Chaplin had done what was expected of him on this occasion and others; he also served bravely in the war.

The squire in his younger days was a good horseman, sharpshooter, huntsman, and dog breeder. Carolinians cared deeply about these companionable skills. Their bartering and lending implied parity of gentlemanly status. Moreover, they made much of gift exchanges because hospitality affirmed social position. Hence Chaplin took his turn at “finding” dinner for the Agricultural Society; he entertained lavishly at home. But he could not afford the expense. In his persistence he was making a claim for greater respect than his resources warranted. Sensing his insecurities, both emotional and financial, his connections drank his wine, borrowed his cow or hunting dogs, took his gift of a slave’s labor, and then casually failed to right the balance. He fumed impotently, his diary serving as a safe outlet. When calamity struck in 1847, and his slaves had to be auctioned, the kinfolk did not rally around. Cut to the quick though he was, Chaplin, a “high-toned gentleman,” knew the rules of his class. Personal authority derived from manly competence and a self-regard based in part upon one’s validation by the community. Low-country gentility required public profession of Christianity, but one’s situation, not New Testament charitableness, often determined public opinion. The tendency was not unknown elsewhere, but it suited especially well a people jealous of their honor and quick to note its absence in others.

In fact, Chaplin’s interpretation of the ethic increased his financial troubles and consequent loss of moral standing. Bitterly resentful of Isabella’s husband Baker, Chaplin felt disgraced that a shameless, bankrupt Charleston druggist, a tradesman no less, should control his mother’s property. In her ambiguously worded marriage contract Isabella had both turned over profits from her plantations to Baker and also reserved her right to dispose of her property as she wished. Rather than work out a compromise, Chaplin and his equally truculent adversary struggled through suits and counter-suits that enriched the lawyers and ended up staining Chaplin’s reputation while hardly damaging Baker’s, since he had none. In 1847, a tradition-bound South Carolina court gave common-law partiarchy precedence over feminine autonomy. What Isabella had given Chaplin was seized to pay debts—his, hers, and Baker’s. Chaplin’s crew of field hands was reduced from forty to nine. But also mortifying was the bemusement of his island kinfolk. In his chagrin Chaplin became the fool the neighbors thought he was. At a political barbecue he was so drunkenly boisterous that Doctor Jenkins, his second cousin and “secret enemy,” threatened to throw him out. Understandably Chaplin became reclusive, then learned to like that freedom from constant obligation and prying eyes.

Both the social conventions and Chaplin’s aberrations from them were peculiar neither to his family nor to the low-country South. Litigation to prevent outsiders from gaining family wealth was one form of a common Southern social strain. The corrosive fear was that an alien within—a brother-in-law, uncle by marriage, or stepfather—might grab all he could for himself, his relations, and creditors—exactly Baker’s course. These frustrations could result in murder, feuds, duels, lawsuits, or long-simmering quarrels. In Chaplin’s case, mulish disregard for consequences and vain dreams of retribution came to nothing, just as they did in 1865 for the world he knew. These matters are not spelled out in exactly these terms in Rosengarten’s biography, but they are evident from what he does say.

Even the onset of war and later the surrender changed neither the South’s nor Chaplin’s prejudices and aspirations. Chaplin, though, had never been a political zealot. Partisan meetings before the war, like churchgoing, had been occasions for conviviality and light social rivalry, but little else. But when in their military vulnerability the Sea Islands fell to Yankee guns as early as November 1861, Chaplin, no less than his fire-eating associates, hastily fled to the mainland. When peace returned and permanent dispossession faced the white islanders, Chaplin took cheerless comfort from the fact that his overbearing relations were no better off than he who had fiddled—and sued—a fortune away. His bachelor friend Ned Capers lived with “a colored woman” and ran a little store; his second-cousin enemy, Doctor Jenkins, peddled whiskey. The Federals had seized many of the old plantations and sold modest parcels of some of them to freedmen. Embittered, Chaplin, like other former masters, saw no reason for repentance, felt no guilt for slaveholding, and instead mourned its passing. Reviewing in 1886 an entry about the sale of slaves so many years before, Chaplin noted in the margin that he should not “have felt bad about it, for in truth, the Negroes did not care so much about us as we did for them.” The sour thought consoled a good many other former masters.

For all his postwar cynicism, he had not shaken off the old Carolinian vainglory. Striving to regain the affluence of 1845, he overmortgaged his mother’s estates which fortuitously came into his hands at last (Baker died intestate in 1867), but lost them in 1872 when they were sold at yet another sheriff’s auction. Low-paying jobs followed: teaching at a black school, minding government property, and serving as a local magistrate. After years of bureaucratic appeals and complications, the federal government passed Tombee back into his hands, but he died in 1890 before attempting to return.

In their headlong flight from the Yankees in November 1861, Chaplin’s smug kinfolk had saved their heirlooms, but he had clutched his diaries. As it turned out, Chaplin’s notes, not the jewel boxes and silver, are the better means for remembrance of a vanished age and those who lived in it. Through his own words, Chaplin gained more than he ever imagined: an enviable place in southern social history. In this impressive study, Rosengarten has made the life of a single human being a valuable touchstone for understanding ourselves and our blemished past.

  1. *

    See Robert Manson Myers, ed., Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War (Yale University Press, 1972); Drew Gilpin Faust, James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery (Louisiana State University Press, 1982); Carol Bleser, The Hammonds of Redcliffe (Oxford University Press, 1981); C. Vann Woodward, ed., Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (Yale University Press, 1981).

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