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Meaning well but doing ill

8 October 2005

12:00 AM

8 October 2005

12:00 AM

Dwelling Place Erskine Clarke

Yale University Press, pp.601, 19.95

Dwelling Place is the story of a planter family in 19th-century Georgia, and of the slave community which served it. As an insight into the moral dilemmas of a slave-owning society and the local patriotism which sustained the Confederate side in the American civil war, it is one of the more remarkable recent books on the ante-bellum South. It is also refreshingly free from romantic delusions at one extreme or politically correct cant at the other.

The central figure is Charles Colcock Jones, landowner, patriarch and Presbyt- erian minister, who inherited as a young man three cotton plantations and more than 100 slaves in Liberty County, on the Atlantic coast south of Savannah. His was a life of physical comfort, elevated Protestant rectitude, and high mortality in an unhealthy climate where the mosquito was king. Unusually, Jones applied himself, as soon as he took possession of his estates, to the conversion and improvement of the black slaves. He preached to them weekly. He endeavoured to soften the brutality of his fellow planters. His monument is The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States, a handbook for the benefit of others who might be tempted to follow his example. Charles Jones had narrow horizons. He passed most of his life in Liberty County. Two short stints as a teacher in Philadelphia and Columbia only served to show that the North was another country, as so many other Georgians had suspected. In 1863, he died, mourned by a large family and acquaintance and, outwardly at least, by his slaves.

This worthy but obscure life would have passed unnoticed by historians but for two accidental facts. One is that Jones’s Religious Instruction came to the attention of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and one of the most effective opponents of slavery who ever lived. She quoted extensively from it in the volume which she wrote to defend her novel against its noisy southern critics. With the best of intentions, she said, Jones had subverted the message of the gospels and used them as a tool of racial control. He had set out to reconcile slaves to their lot by teaching them that submission and obedience to a wicked system were ordained by God himself. Mrs Stowe did not regard Jones as a hypocrite. The appalling thing, she believed, was that he was sincere. His work showed, she said, how ‘the moral sense of the finest mind may be perverted by constant familiarity with such a system’.

The other accident is the survival of an enormous cache of Jones’s personal papers, including a family correspondence extending over six decades, together with most of the records of the congregation of Midway Church, to which Jones belonged. The more important of these were published in 1972 in a classic book by Robert Manson Myers, Children of Pride. They have proved to be an invaluable source for the social history of the old South, and Erskine Clarke has mined them extensively. They bear out Mrs Stowe’s view of Jones’s basic benevolence. But they also show that he was complacent, parochial and utterly unable to understand any values but his own. The novelist was even more right about Jones than she realised.

At first, he had agonised about slavery, very much as Jefferson had done a generation before. Both men faced the same dilemma. They saw that it was morally indefensible, but they were deeply attached to a society which depended on selling primary commodities produced for export in competition with the subsistence economies of Asia. Writing to his future wife in 1830, Jones wondered whether he could conscientiously continue to own slaves: ‘It is unjust, contrary to nature and religion to hold men enslaved.’ Age and business soon changed his outlook. Was it not better for men to serve as slaves of a benevolent master than to expose themselves to the chilly insecurity of the labour market? Was it not better for their immortal souls that they should live in stable plantation communities, where they could be restrained from indulging the natural tendency of their race to the most frightful vices?

It did sometimes occur to Jones that the slaves might legitimately have their own opinion about these questions. A sermon on the wickedness of Onesimus, the biblical runaway slave, went down badly among his black congregation, some of whom walked out. He did not return to the theme. But it hardly mattered. By this time he had persuaded himself that blacks were not made for freedom, whether they cared to hear it or not. His wife, echoing his views, wrote in her journal:

With their emancipation must come their extermination: all history proves them incapable of self-government; they perish when brought into conflict with the intellectual superiority of the Caucasian race.

Jones died in 1863, only a few months before the closing campaigns of the civil war opened the eyes of a younger generation. His sons, serving in the Confederate armies, experienced defeat and humiliation. Yankee soldiers looted and burned the stores of his house as his daughter-in-law gave birth in a neighbouring room. His slaves threw off their servitude with none of the deference or gratitude that Jones would have expected of them. A world had ended.

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