Carl Bridenbaugh’s Myths and Realities has a bold title. One supposes that he will seek to reshape everything about the colonial south. He doesn’t. If we view the colonial south as a society of aristocratic-minded men with large social networks, with a mass of underclass and slaves lurking just beneath the surface–well, Bridenbaugh sees the same thing.
But the book shines an unusual and unexpected light on certain aspects of society that surprised me. What he lacks in flash and dash Bridenbaugh makes up for in clear, concise prose. Though he grew up in Philadelphia (and taught at Harvard), he writes with the nonchalance of our picture of a southern gentlemen. It works.
Before I write more I should say that Bridenbaugh deals very little with slavery in this volume. At certain times he acknowledges its obvious impact and the problems it caused. Among a few other things, he briefly seeks to dismantle the myth of the contented rural slave.* Here he focuses, however, on those that shaped the overall culture, which means focusing on whites. Those interested in a much more in-depth look at slavery, at least in Chesapeake society, may wish to go here. Though Bridenbaugh focuses on a variety of issues, his thoughts on education and cultural formation interested me the most.
Myths are not lies per se, and ancient myths reveal many truths. In part, myths serve as a kind of synthesis of accumulated data. Myths might not reveal the whole complete truth but can illumine the important core truths.
I am not anti-myth, any more than I am anti-folklore. Indeed, these are not things one can really be “against”–they just are.
But . . . while myths can reveal truths, at times they can also obscure them, at least partially.
In Classical-Christian education circles, the narrative (or “myth,” if you prefer) at times runs something like this:
- America’s founding fathers were an assemblage of great men who gave us a remarkable political system that is the envy of many around the world.
- The men would not have had the impact they did or been who they were without their educations, which in general were “classical” educations, involving the extensive reading of the classics.
- Pre-Revolutionary America was largely a Christian society, and Christianity obviously shaped this education along with the classics.
- Therefore . . . we should all receive this kind of education to help improve our selves and our country.
There are many truths in the above statements, but is it “True”?
Yes, many of our founders were remarkable and interesting men. Many of them had classical educations. But they represented a very small sliver of the population and we should wonder whether or not their experience can be transferred to the broader public. Bridenbaugh shows that
- Formative elite culture and education had little to do with literacy and
- Little to do with religion, or at least the church
Those that eventually revolted against the British (below the Mason-Dixon line at least) do not quite fit the assumed narrative some have about our past education. But if the vast bulk of the populace lacked a classical education, what kind of education did they have?
Most settlers might have been literate, but they likely did very little reading. A few notables had impressive libraries, like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and a few others. Most other families had a Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, practical farming manuals, and little else. They had nothing against book-learning per se. Part of the reason surely was that books cost a great deal.
But there were other reasons. Frankly, we hear no great laments about the lack of books in colonial America. Those that did write books wrote for a small coterie that would have little application beyond their communities. The lack of books meant they found their education elsewhere, and it seems they liked it that way.
All this made me think about the nature of education, but please consider the following thoughts speculative . . .
Residents in both the mid-atlantic and southern colonies loved visiting, events, and conversation. Bridenbaugh states that they were all, “Eminently endowed with the art of talking.” Dancing had great importance for youngsters, but not just because dancing allowed one to demonstrate aristocratic status. Such an interpretation gives far too much credit to Marx. They genuinely believed that learning the social graces and physical movements improved character. We might suppose that this characater formation had strictly moral applications. But again, this society had a political consciousness high enough to revolt from the British. So either we assume that
- The education of even the upper classes had no real historical content. Then, this means that the American Revolution was not really a popular revolt, but one led primarily by the top crust of societal elites, something akin to Rome’s republican rebellion against their kings, or
- Such an education (in visiting, talking, dancing, etc.) really did give one a distinct set of values that had public and political content.
We should not dismiss the first option out of hand (though the American Revolution, like most any revolution, was too messy to categorize absolutely in any direction). George Washington, for example, had a great fondness for Addison’s play about Cato the Younger, one of the pre-eminent plays of the Enlightenment. Our Constitution very obviosuly borrows from the structures and ethos of the Roman Republic. The Roman aristocracy led the rebellion and formed a government that favored their class. And, we might note that the colonial rebellion started amongst the more egalitarian (and probably more literate) New England colonies.
But I do think the second option more likely. This means we might have to change our view of what consititutes a good education, and helps us get beyond our current model, so heavily influenced by the Industrial Revolution. Bridenbaugh writes that this upbringing did produce “a responsible aristocracy, though not a cultured one.” And of course, one can get “historical content” in many ways apart from books.
The western emphasis on literacy predates the Reformation. The Reformation on the whole certainly stressed it, but they inherited this from the Catholic church. The Church preserved the ancient manuscripts. Up until quite recently, one had to go to the Church to receive an education.
This might lead us to further speculation . . . if the education in the mid-atlantic and southern regions lacked a strong literate foundation, what might have been the state of the church? Indeed, Bridenbaugh cites a variety of examples showing the rather deplorable state of the dominant Anglican church in the south. Among other things, churches could not lead colonial culture because they failed to transcend it. The majority of churches seemed to provide little in the way of spiritual guidance, training, or education.
This in turn leads us to question the role of the Church in the American Revolution. To what extent did it have either a firm Christian foundation, or merely a polite Christian veneer that covered an Enlightenment foundation?
As I mentioned earlier, consider this mostly speculative. But I credit Bridenbaugh with gently encouraging such thoughts.
*Population figures seem to indicate that in rural areas blacks outnumbered whites, who feared rebellion constantly, which does not support the ‘contented’ myth.