Southern aristocracy dazzled ante-bellum Washington

June 18, 2012

Harriet Lane, White House hostess and niece of U.S. President James Buchanan

With the installation of the aging Buchanan as President and the coming of young Lord Napier as British minister, society in Washington had taken on a brilliant luster. The lovely, cultivated Lady Napier was perhaps the most popular foreign hostess the capital had known, while the President’s niece, Harriet Lane, was as competent as any White House mistress since Dolly Madison. Miss Lane’s years in European capitals had given her poise and sophistication….

Under the auspices of the wealthy, aristocratic Napiers, Southern women were uncommonly busy at entertaining. It was almost as if they were having a last fling before the deluge. What Nicolay and Hay speak of as “the blandishments of Southern hospitality” lifted the capital—in Virginia Clay’s estimation—“to the very apex of its social glory.”

Commenting on contemporary American society, the Marquess of Lothian wrote:

“It is only in that part of the Union [the South] that you can find anything approaching to the country gentleman of England. It is only there that you can find families which, holding the same lands generation after generation for a long period of years, have acquired the self-respect, the habits of command, and the elevation of character which arise in a society which has been for some time in the possession of power, and the refinement which generally follows upon the possession of hereditary wealth…. The blood of the old cavaliers of England, coursing in the veins of the Virginians and Carolinians, was as much reproduced in them as that of their opponents, the Puritans, was reproduced in New England….

“Still more powerful was the influence of the Southern ladies…. They bore the bell in grace and refinement, and besides, had about them that air of superiority which may possibly make its possessors detested, but which, when it has anything to rest upon, seldom fails to make itself acknowledged…. Over fashion the South bore almost unquestioned empire.”

Hudson Strode, Jefferson Davis: American patriot, 1808-1861 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955), pp. 316-317.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 187 Editorial comment: —

Aristocracy, lordly bearing, habit of command.
The ante-bellum South developed an agrarian and aristrocratic social model, while Northern society became increasingly  industrialized, finance-oriented and egalitarian.
The Civil War was not just a clash over slavery or states’ rights, but the clash of two worldviews, two concepts of how men should structure themselves in society.


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