Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Major Jones's Courtship

In Parties, Slavery, and the Union in Antebellum Georgia, Anthony Gene Carey refers to a book I'd never heard of, Major Jones's Courtship: Detailed, With Other Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures, in a Series of Letters, by himself (first published Philadelphia, 1840). Prof. Carey describes the author, William Tappan Thompson, as a Georgia “newspaper editor who knew most of the major figures in [Georgia] state politics.” The book consists of a series of purported letters by the title character, Major Joesph Jones, a small planter, reporting on (per Carey) “the latest ridiculous happenings in the imaginary town of Pineville.”

Prof. Carey's reference to the book caught my eye because he describes it as containing “[t]he most vivid surviving account of legislative campaigning in antebellum Georgia.” The portions of the book that Carey quotes are indeed amusing and informative, so I thought I'd relay them.

Thompson describes speeches delivered by local candidates to a group of men assembled for a militia muster. First up on the stump was Ben Ansley:
Bout this time out cum a whole heap of fellers with sum candidates, and wanted I should let 'em address the betallion. I told 'em I didn't care long as they didn't kick up no row. Well, the men wer all high up for hearin the speeches of the candidates, and got round 'em thick as flies round a fat gourd. Ben Ansley – he's the poplarest candidate down here – begun the show by gittin on a stump, and takin his hat off rite in the brilin hot sun.

"Feller-citizens," ses he, "I spose you all know as how my friends is fetched me out to represent this county in the next legislater – I am posed to counterfit money and shinplasters; I am posed to abolition and free niggers, to the morus multicaulis and the Florida war, and all manner of shecoonery whatsumever! If I's lected your respectable representation, I shall go in for good munny, twenty cents for cotton, and no taxes, and shall go for bolishin prisonment for debt and the Central Bank. I hope you'll all cum up to the poles of the lection, and vote like a patriot for your very humble servant – Amen."

Then he jumped down and went round shakin hands. "Hurra for Ben Ansley! Ansley for ever!" shouted every feller. "Down with the cussed bank – devil take the shinplasters and all the rale-roads!" ses Captain Skinner.

Ben Ansley was followed by his adversary, Squire Pettybone:
“Silence for a speech from Squire Pettybone!" "Hurra for Pettybone!"

Squire Pettybone was a little short fat man, what had run afore, and knowed how to talk to the boys.

"Frends and feller-citizens," ses he, "I's once more a candidate for your sufferins, and I want to splain my sentiments to you. You've jest hearn a grate deal bout the Central Bank. I aint no bank man – I'm posed to all banks – but I is a frend to the pore man, and is always reddy to stand up for his constitutional rites. When the Central Bank put out its munny it was good, and rich men got it and made use of it when it was good; but now they want to buy it in for less nor what it's worth to pay ther dets to the bank, and they is tryin to put it down, and make the pore man lose by it. What does they want to put the bank down for, if it aint to cheat the pore man who's got sum of it? If I's lected, I shall go for makin the banks redeem ther munny in silver and gold, or put every devil of 'em into the penitentiary to makin nigger shoes. I's a hard munny man and in favor of the Vetos. I goes for the pore man agin the rich, and if you lect me that's what I mean to do."

Then he begun shakin hands all round. "Hurra for Squire Pettybone! hurra for the bank and the veto!" shouted some of the men – "Hurra for Ansley! d—n the bank!" "Silence for Mr. Johnson's speech!" "Hurra for Harrison!" " Hurra for the Vetos!" " Hurra for Jackson! I can lick any veto on the ground!" "Silence!" "Hurra for Ansley, d—n the bank !" "Whar's them vetos what's agin Ansley – let me at 'em!" "Fight! fight! make a ring! make a ring!" "Whoop!" hollered Bill Sweeny, "I'm the blossom – go it shirttail!" "Hit 'em, Sweeny!"

The muster, which had been none too disciplined before the speeches, descended into chaos:
"Tention, Betallion!" ses I, but it want no use – they was at it rite in the middle and all round the edges, and I know'd the quicker I got out of that bilin the better for my wholsum. Thar they was, up and down, five or six in a heap, rollin over and crawlin out from under, bitin and scratchin, gougin and strikin, kickin and cussin, head and heels all through other, none of 'em knowin who they hurt or who hurt them – all the same whether they hit Ansley or veto, the blossum or Pettybone. The candidates was runnin about pullin and haulin, and tryin ther best to stop it; but you couldn't hear nothin but cussin, and "bank" and "veto," and "let me at' em," "I'm your boy," "let go my eyes!" and sich talk for more'n twenty minits, and then they only kep 'em apart by holdin 'em off like dogs till they got dun pantin.

It want no use to try to get 'em into line agin. Some of 'em had got manuel exercise enuff, and was knocked and twisted out of all caracter, and it would be no use to try to put 'em through the manuel in that situation. Lots of 'em had ther eyes bunged up so they couldn't "eyes right!" to save 'em, so I turned 'em over to ther captains, accordin to law, and aint sponsible for nothin that tuck place after I left.

Prof. Carey comments:
His exaggerations of underlying truths made Thompson's stories hilarious. Militia musters, which typically mixed a little training with a lot of drinking, attracted most of the white men in a district and thus were favorite occasions for campaign speech making. Ben Ansley and Squire Pettybone comically displayed the candidate's knack of supporting what no one opposed and opposing what no one supported – they affirmed white men's values. Neither man had a kind word for banks or worthless paper money; both endorsed “good money” and prosperity. The tellingly named Squire struck a few licks against the rich, and both despised “niggers.” . . . The rusticity of campaign rhetoric clarly stands as the vignette's main theme. Rather than debating issues in fine detail, Ansley and Pettybone appealed to general prejudices and vowed to protect white men from their enemies – a promise that, as William T. Thompson well knew, was the alpha and omega of campaign rhetoric in antebellum Georgia.

Bonus question: Which of the candidates is the Democrat, and which the Whig – and what is the basis for your conclusion?


  1. Anonymous11:00 AM

    Hi Elektratig,

    One thing I have never understood about Professor Carey's book is why there was any need for parties at all if consensus over white men's values marked Georgia politics. Why not simply mirror South Carolina where love of consensus led to a partyless state? To comment your question, I think it is actually far more interesting how the response to the two candidates relates to what Proessors Altschuler and Blumin wrote about politics in "Rude Republic." In that book, ordinary voters simply had no clue what the issues were, much less could articulate "white-mens values" and simply engaged in the hoopla. If you read that passage "Then he begun shakin hands all round," it is less clear that the "voters" exhibit any consensus at all other than a curious tendency to fight each other over supposedly shared values. I am curious whether Professor Carey squares what Thompson satirizes with what the newspaperman publishes in his paper. I suspect that there is a more clear delineation of issues in Thompson's newspaper than he offers in his satire. Just some thoughts...


  2. Sean,

    An absolutely brilliant comment, which has me grinning stupidly because I have no intelligent response.

    Some scattered thoughts. I'm going purely on recollection, so correct me where I'm wrong:

    1. My impression is that South Carolina remained party-less for basically two reasons. First, the towering presence of John C. Calhoun. Second, the electorate voted almost exclusively only for local candidates. The legislature voted both for the governor and the president (and of course senators). As a result, voters were typically selecting between planters in the neighborhood for local office - state representative or senator. Lacy Ford might add a third factor - the solidarity generated by the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33. Do those factors explain it, or was there something else going on?

    2. Prof. Carey suggests that the Whig-Democrat split in Georgia had little or nothing to do with differences we usually think of as dividing the two parties, banks, internal improvements, the American System, and the like. Rather they largely arose, he contends, out of earlier intra-state factions and visceral reactions to Andrew Jackson - the Jackson who cleared the Indians out of NW Georgia securing the allegiance of the folks there, King Andrew, excessive executive power, and his violent reaction to Nullification moving the Black Belt toward the Whigs.

    3. In connection with no. 2 I was thinking of compiling a few excerpts from the book in which Prof. Carey comes close to expressing bewilderment as to why some were Democrats and others were Whigs. You may have motivated me.

    4. But the fact remains that Georgians seem to have been passionate partisans. If we don't understand why, I think your thesis should address and unravel the issue!

    Thanks again for a great, insightful and bewildering comment!



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