In 1849 things were good in Beaufort, South Carolina and about to get better. Over the next decade Britain’s demand for Sea Island cotton would go through the roof with prices to suit. From 1850 – 1860 a great many of Beaufort’s grand houses were built as the money flowed in. Though friction with the North was increasing and inflammatory talk about secession was escalating, they were adamant that their way of life was not negotiable. What was just around the corner for the white population of Beaufort—collapse, calamity and ruin--no one saw coming.
The seeds for the Civil War were sown long before 1861. Even our founding fathers knew they’d embedded a desperate conundrum into the Constitution with its express protection of both human rights and slavery in the same document. Benjamin Franklin foresaw much when he said, "Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils." Thomas Jefferson knew trouble lay ahead when he said about slavery, “We have the wolf by the ear and feel the danger of either holding on or letting him loose.” Patrick Henry wrote, "I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we do is to improve it, if it happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot and an abhorrence of slavery."
|The Triumvirate at Work|
Pity their descendants as they might, the problem that was too thorny for these great men to solve was left for a future generation to suffer through. Two economic systems fought for dominance—the South’s agricultural economy made possible by slave labor and the North’s industrial economy with its denser population and huge influx of immigrants. Both wanted to expand into the western territories, the South to preserve the delicate balance of power in Congress, the North to populate the vast plains and the west with their burgeoning population. The entire first half of the 19th century was spent in compromise to prevent these two forces from tearing the country apart. The great triumvirate of Webster, Clay and Calhoun plied their wiles in the Senate year after year to preserve the young nation. But in the end the internal contradictions of the competing ideologies and economic systems were too much. The center could not hold. As Yeats notes so often happens with war, “a blood-dimmed tide” was loosed upon the world.
|The Wages of Rhetoric|
Did antebellum Beaufort have no inkling as events began to spin in an ever-widening gyre? Could they not see that the rhetoric they cheered would turn into fields of blood and mud? Perhaps no one, Northerner or Southerner, could have anticipated half a million lives would be lost. Indeed both sides expected the conflict to end in a matter of months. Perhaps Jefferson was right that both holding on to slavery or letting go involved disaster. But could the South have transitioned away from a slave economy in a way less catastrophic and destructive? Could they have avoided the rough beast slouching towards them? This is what Beaufort 1849 explores.
Those who believe their way of life is not negotiable may find, indeed, that history does not negotiate.
THE SECOND COMING (William Butler Yeats)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?