The Mind of the South     Wilbur J. Cash


See where Bertram Wyatt-Brown writes of W. J. Cash[1] that


The Mind of the South is also notable for unmasking the old myth that only members of the dominant race really know the Negro mind ‘through and through.’ Southern whites, ‘even the most unreflecting,’ Cash writes, ‘must sometimes feel suddenly in dealing with him, that they were looking at a blank wall, that


“behind a grinning face a veil was drawn which no white man might certainly know he had penetrated. … What whispering, stealthy, fateful thing might they be framing out there in the palpitant darkness.’ (p. 319)”




See Wilbur Cash's 'The Mind of the South' for the quote from 'Flush Times' for the Southern trickster's triumph over the Cavalier.[2]



Cash describes how the gentleman planter took the cracker into his confidence as if they shared values of white supremacy. In this way, planters were able to govern the crackers and bend them to their will: “If the common white was scorned, yet that scorn was so attenuated and softened [by the Southern manner] … that it glanced off harmless. … there would nearly always be a fine gentleman to lay a familiar hand on his shoulder, to enquire by name after the members of his family … and to come around eventually to confiding in a hushed voice that that damned nigger-loving scoundrel Garrison, in Boston—in short, to patronize him in such fashion that to his simple eyes he seemed not to be patronized at all but actually deferred to, to send him home, not sullen and vindictive, but glowing with the sense of participation in the common brotherhood of white men.”[3]


43 (lynching mentality)

Violence is a part of all frontier societies but the ingrained tendency to individualism fostered in the South proved to be decisive: “… being what they were—simple, direct, and immensely personal—and their world being what it was—conflict with them could only mean immediate physical clashing, could only mean fisticuffs, the gouging ring, and knife and gun play. … the direct willfulness of his individualism demanded, when confronted by a crime that aroused his anger, was immediate satisfaction for itself—catharsis for personal passion in the spectacle of a body dancing at the end of a rope or writhing in the fire—now, within the hour—and not some ponderous abstract justice in a problematic tomorrow. And so, in this world of ineffective social control, the tradition of vigilante action, which normally lives and dies with the frontier, not only survived but grew so steadily that already long before the Civil War and long before hatred for the black man had begun to play any direct part in the pattern (of more than three hundred persons said to have been hanged or burned by mobs between 1840 and 1860, less than ten percent were Negroes) the South had become peculiarly the home of lynching.”[4]



Wilbur Cash argues, like Rourke, that the God of Anglicanism “ ‘without body parts or passions’ is an abstraction for intellectuals. It is priestly. It politely ignores hell and talks mellifluously of a God of Love. [55] It regards emotion as a kind of moral smallpox.

“What our Southerner required, on the other hand, was a faith as simple and emotional as himself. A faith to draw men together in hordes, to terrify them with Apocalyptic rhetoric, to cast them into the pit, rescue them, and at last bring them shouting into the fold of Grace. A faith, not of liturgy and prayer book, but of primitive frenzy and the blood sacrifice—often of fits and jerks and barks. … From the first great revivals onward, the official moral philosophy of the South moved steadily toward the position of that of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Adherence was demanded … [and ] willingly and even enthusiastically given, to a code that was increasingly Mosaic in its sternness.

“And this, mind, coincidentally with the growth of that curious Southern hedonism which was its antithesis. … The Southerner’s frolic humor, his continual violation of his strict precepts in action, to keep his zest fro absolution always at white heat, to make him humbly amenable to the public proposals of his preachers, acquiescent in their demands for the incessant extension of their rule; his Puritanism might at a pinch move him to outlaw the beloved fiddle from the church as an instrument of Satan, would indeed lead him habitually to regard pleasure as it its very nature verboten. Yet, in the long run, he succeeded in uniting the two incompatible tendencies in his single person, without

“ever allowing them to come into open and decisive contention.

“His Puritanism was no mere mask put on from cold calculation, but as essential a part of him as his hedonism. And his combination of the two was without conscious imposture. One might say with much truth that it proceeded from a fundamental split in his psyche, from a sort of social schizophrenia. One may say more simply and more safely that it was all part and parcel of that naïve capacity for unreality which was characteristic of him.”[5]





The cracker as confidence trickster’s mark: “…the stupid and sequacious masses, the white victims of slavery … believe whatever the slaveholders tell them; and thus are cajoled into the notion that they are the freest, happiest, and most intelligent people in the world,”[6]



The Southern planter’s aristocratic manner “was ultimately not an emanation from the proper substance of the men who wore it, but only a fine garment put on from outside. If they could wrap themselves in it with seeming ease and assurance, if they could convince themselves for conscious purposes that they were in sober fact aristocrats and wore it by right, they nevertheless could not endow their subconsciousness with the aristocrat’s experience – with the calm certainty, bred of that experience, which is the aristocratic manner’s essential warrant. In their inmost being they carried nearly always, I think, an uneasy sensation of inadequacy for their role. And so often the loveliness of their manner was marred by a certain more or less heavy condescension – a too obvious desire … to drive home the perception of their rank and value. And if this condescension was relatively inoffensive at home and among their familiars and loyal admirers, it could be, and often was, overbearing and brutal when confronted by the unknown quantity of a stranger, or by any person who might be suspected of challenging or doubting or even of failing to be sufficiently impressed by their claims.”[7]








Honor and violence (including duelling and lynching). The Old South’s “concept of honor, of something inviolable and precious in the ego, to be protected against stain at every cost, and imposing definite standards of conduct, drifted down to … the best of the yeomen in a form simpler but not less good … than that in which it was held by the generality of planters; to the poor white in the most indistinct and primitive shape—to draw their pride to a finer point yet, reinforce and complicate such notions of ‘the thing to do’ as they already possessed, and to propel them on their way of posturing and violence.” Violence was “One of the notable results of the spread of the idea of honor … because of the feeling, fixed by social example, that it was only quite correct, the only really decent relief for wounded honor—the only one which did not imply some subtle derogation, some dulling and retracting of the fine edge of pride, some indefinable but intolerable loss of caste and manly face.

… this honor complex and the rising popularity of the duel reacted on law and government … was a strong factor in blocking the normal growth of the police power.”[8] 



Those Southerners who adopted the uplifting qualities of aristocracy—noblesse oblige, chivalry, moral rectitude, fealty to the social good—a “primitive uprightness … which is one of the most pleasant things that ever grew up on American soil … these notions of aristocratic honor … generated in this sort of man [an honourable attitude] toward trade—the repugnance to anything which smacked of deception and chicane” (whereas the dominant theme was of a “narrow and egotistic conception of honor which fitted most easily into the Southern pattern”[9] of a horse-trading trickster mentality).



Southern individualism “was the heritage of the frontier: that individualism which, while willing enough to ameliorate the specific instance, relentlessly laid down as its basic social postulate the doctrine that every man was completely and wholly responsible for himself.”[10]









At Harvard between 1854 and 1858, Henry Adams knew Robert E Lee’s son, Roony, and other Southerners “who are to be taken … as the typical flower of the Old south at its highest and best:

“ ‘Tall, largely built, handsome, genial, with liberal Virginia openness toward all he liked …[Lee] had also the Virginian habit of command. … For a year [he] was the most popular and prominent man in his class, but then seemed slowly to drop into the background. The habit of command was not enough, and the Virginian had little else. He was simple beyond analysis; so simple that even the simple New England student could not realize him.


“ ‘No one knew enough to know how ignorant he was; how child-like; how helpless before the relative complexity of a school. As an animal the Southerner seemed to have every advantage, but even as an animal he steadily lost ground.

“ ‘… Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament. He was not a scholar; he had no intellectual training; he could not analyse an idea, and he could not even conceive of admitting two. … ’

“… It was the total effect of Southern conditions, primary and secondary, to preserve the Southerner’s original simplicity of character as it were in perpetual suspension. From first to last, and whether he was a Virginian or a nouveau, he did not (typically speaking) think; he felt; and discharging his feelings immediately, he developed no need or desire for intellectual culture in its own right—none, at least, powerful enough to drive him past his taboos to its actual achievement.”[11]



Pat Buchanan proudly points out on McLaughlin and elsewhere that Americans have a genius for compromise. Having read the first few pages of Wilbur Cash’s wonderful classic,[12] the realisation came to me that had they not compromised, had they rejected the South’s price for entering the Union, had they refused to listen to that dubious patriot, Patrick Henry, or having let him have his way, had they rejected Henry Clay’s 1820 Compromise, then the South would have been a sorry nation state whose fleeing slave workforce, having escaped over the Ohio to freedom, would have revealed a home-grown feudal order for what it was an rendered the pitiful nation a failed state whose populace would have begged to rejoin the Union without that awful war. So the spirit of compromise is not altogether a civilising influence in the USA but a means of the twins living alongside one another in a paradoxical, mad world.



“… far from having reconstructed the Southern mind in the large and in its essential character, it was [the] Yankee’s fate to have strengthened it almost beyond reckoning, and to have made it one of the least reconstructible ever developed.”[13]



Referring to the 30 year period following the Civil War, the era which he counts as that of Reconstruction [whereas others see it as the decade to 1876], Cash sums up the yawning gap in the South between perception and reality in depth-psychology terms, something which dates and undermines the strength of his otherwise wonderful text: “Finally, and more or less in paradox with these conscious results, the increasing rift between representation and fact acted inevitably to exacerbate that subconscious sense of inadequacy which from the beginning had been the concomitant of the claim to aristocratic grandeur. And this, in turn, issued ultimately in a distinct augmentation of the tendency of the old planter manner to run to heavy patronizing when confronted by anybody who failed to be properly impressed.”[14]



Section 9, dealing with the Democratic Party’s iron grip on the South and the identification of its interest with that of the master class, brings Cash back to the fact that “… as greatly perhaps as violence itself, the long training in fraud and trickery, which, as everyone knows, was a part of the campaign for mastery, acted to call out and develop in the South that most dangerous of philosophies: the philosophy that, if only the end be reckoned good, the most damnable means become justifiable and even glorious.”[15]



Ignorant, evangelical, the post-Civil War South was swollen with pride in the belief that they were “a Chosen People … the last great champion of the true faith in the world which, with this Yankee in the van, was plainly deserting to Satan.

“… it fell out inevitably that the religion of the South was brought over to the twentieth century as simple, as completely supernatural and Apocalyptic, as it had been in the earliest decades of the nineteenth, and far more rigidly held, far more pugnacious and assertive, far more impervious to change.”[16]



Regarding evangelical religion in the post Civil War era up to the early C20th South, “What the ministers proclaimed as the divine desire must be obeyed without question and without hesitancy, lest the hour of the South’s deliverance be fatally postponed; and it must be obeyed not alone by way of profession but also by way of public conduct. In these decades the power of the evangelical ministers, waxing conclusively prescriptive for opinion, made the official code of the South ever more Puritanical and repressive. Save among the moribund Virginians and the more abandoned poor whites, the fiddle was silenced and limbs grew heavy and pompous; wine vanished from the table and alcohol became a demon to be eschewed on pain of ruin in this world and damnation in the next. In the end, indeed, almost the only pleasures which might be practiced openly and without moral obloquy were those of orgiastic religion and those of violence.”



Essential to the confidence trick perpetrated upon the mark is the latter’s belief that all that happens to him is contingent upon the nature of things, the way the world is. Were he to perceive that he was being taken for a ride the jig would be up, the game over. Down South, for the white common man  “… the spectacle of the constant elevation of these brothers, cousins, friends, confirmed and kept bright in the masses that ancient illusion of free and open opportunity—led each man among them to acquiesce in whatever happened to him, on the economic side at least, as merely a piece of personal bad luck.”



Cash once again takes up the religious thread in the development of the mind of the South, making clear at every turn the fact that the opposites were hostile twins—both of whom laid claim to the Southern soul:



temperance had long been preached in the South but only in the first decade of the C20th—when the parsons and businessman sought “to please each other”  did it lead to prohibition; it was made possible by  “the further widening of the old split in the Southern psyche between Puritanism and hedonism. For if the land was growing officially more sternly moral, it is not to be supposed that the old love of pleasure, and particularly verboten pleasure, was lessening.”



“Almost nobody who wanted a drink felt bound to do without it merely for having voted for prohibition.

“… the sense of sin and the need for absolution in more or less orgiastic religion” were two sides of the same coin. And so the phenomenon of the “travelling evangelist, as typified in such men as Mordecai Ham of Kentucky, and ‘Cyclone Mack’ (Baxter McLendon) of South Carolina multiplying in Dixie with a rapidity unexampled since the early nineteenth-century revivals, and tent revivals everywhere drawing hysterical throngs, not only from among the degraded poor whites but also from the highest levels of society.”



And where the twins are so too is the trickster. But the Southern form differs from that in the North in that there’s “little of downright cynicism” in the Southern version. “… in their commercial chicane there is a kind of curious innocence when set against that of the Yankee captain of finance. They go about the making of money in dubious ways as boys go about stealing apples … in the high-hearted sense of being embarked upon capital sport, in the conviction that at most they are breaking the senseless rules of fusty schoolmasters.

“… Morality as it is generally understood in the South in 1914—as it is commonly understood and preached by the ministers themselves—is the obligation not to break into one’s neighbour’s strong-box, the obligation not to commit adultery, to refrain from gambling and swearing and strong drink—the obligation, precisely, always to stand militantly for these standards, however much one may fall from them in one’s personal conduct, and humbly to seek atonement for these faults.”



Cash gives two examples of the Southern businessman as trickster: “… the master of a cotton mill, born on a great South Carolina plantation, who notoriously bilked minority stockholders in his enterprise, by using his ownership of the majority stock to vote himself and his sons exorbitant salaries which consumed the body of the profits—and yet might be trusted, as certainly as his father and grandfather, to repay a loan secured by nothing but his oral promise, though it cost him bankruptcy. Or here was another, infamous even in the South for his labor-sweating, a man who, having contracted his goods to Yankee merchants at a price, habitually employed cunning lawyers to break the bargain when a better price offered elsewhere—and yet a man who fiercely disowned his son for seducing a factory girl, not because there was a scandal—there wasn’t—not even purely because it violated his understanding of the Seventh Commandment, but also because, as he himself put it, it was the act of a cad thus to make a plaything of another human creature!”


What Southern businessmen were doing when they fell into line behind the evangelical preacher was



“contriving a bargain with Heaven in which their assiduous performance of duties held to be pleasing to it, their ready response to the suggestion of the ministers, their raising of new and magnificent temples, should ensure its favour and both their continuance in positions they liked or their advance to positions they coveted, and their final entry into bliss.”

[Medieval Aristotelian thinking was at the heart of the Southern outlook; i.e., tied up in all of this was] “… the old Southern concept of god as master of an earth in which every man occupied his place because He had set him there.”

“…And if, in truth, the perception of these Southerners went forward to grasp the immediate social advantages which would naturally accrue to the constant and devoted practitioner of religion in an intensely religious country—the business opportunities, the invitations to the right houses, the chances for good marriages—yet these were felt and accepted naively as merely the further natural, just, and entirely deserved rewards which Heaven vouchsafed to those who pleased it by ‘living right’ and furnishing an exemplary model to others.”



Cash speaks of the people of the United States of America—or at least of the South of the USA—being “habituated to unreality…eager to romance about themselves in every available vein.”



While those who had actually lived in the Old South were still alive there was a brake “to restrain too large pretensions on the part of the newcomers. But [by the first decades of the C20th] the majority of these inconvenient carry-overs were gone…[so] fewer people were any longer really able to say whether a claim were true or not, and so fiction would henceforth have a clearer field.”



Where 1920s building fever in the South “assumed tremendous proportions, the passions for dream building and for speculating upon that dream building, as it developed in the extravagant, romantic, and Progress-haunted South, was Gargantuan. For every new factory, for every real new skyscraper plastered with mortgages, ten imaginary ones immediately leaped up in the mind of the



secretary of the Chamber of Commerce and his Rotarian followers.”

The South, “so long trained to believing what it wanted to believe … [regarded visions of great achievement] as being practically as good as realized actuality; with a result that is comparable to nothing but the speculative boom of the 1830’s … or the Mississippi and South Sea Bubbles. Every man who fancied himself a trader (and there were few men in the South who would not come to fancy themselves as traders in these years) and who could command the easy credit of the time rushed to get in on the ground floor and lay hands on something, anything, that might be of value in the megalopolises of tomorrow; maybe to hold on to it, but more likely to sell it to another eager entrepreneur of the future, and hurry on to something fancied to be to be more pregnant with coming riches still.”



“The South always had vented its horse-trading instincts by speculating in land, its single greatest possession, even during the blackest years after the Civil War. Even in those years … it never quite lost its capacity to believe the thing it was most anxious to believe: that, come next year, cotton at last would begin



to fetch always more handsome prices.”






The deterioration in the conditions of the common white man in the 1920s unleashed “powerful forces to move him toward the development of class consciousness” but once again he was the victim of the confidence game and threw in his lot with the Southern demagogue, albeit after going



on strike here and there. In South Carolina the common white “clung to Cole Blease …[whose] single service to them was to keep before the startled gaze of the nation the vision of their eternal assault on upon the black man.” In Louisiana Huey Long came to the fore but for all his apparent championing of the common white as a working class victim of the ruling capitalist class, Huey Long “belonged essentially to the traditional pattern of the Southern demagogue … He was full of the swaggering, hell-for-leather bluster that the South demanded in its heroes and champions; and in addition he had a kind of quizzical, broad, clowning humour, and a capacity for taking on the common touch, that had characteristically been the stock-in-trade not only of the more successful demagogues but even of many of the best of the older leaders.” Nevertheless, Long “greatly modified” the traditional pattern. He was, for instance, “the first Southern demagogue largely to leave aside nigger-baiting” and address himself instead to class issues of the common white man’s “economic and social status.”



The common white man was easily fooled into thinking he might haul himself up by his bootstraps because the fellow here and there “did sometimes surmount the odds against tenants and sharecroppers, escape from the spindle and the loom, and make [his] way from the bottom to riches … And so … the illusion of free opportunity for all was accepted without definite question, with no more at most than sullen bewilderment on the part of individuals among the younger generation, than sad puzzlement on the part of some oldster gazing back on long years of effort rewarded with little more than meat and bread.”


The town held “great and growing entertainment value” for the white sharecropper and tenant farmer. “With its towers, its bright shop windows, its glittering signs, its blaze of white light at night, its theatres and bands and parades, its crowds it in effect made permanent for a simple country-bred people the old once-a-year circus or travelling carnival.”



“… I has been maintained that the Klan was a mere accident—just another tin-pot fraternal order, created by the half-cracked brain of a starveling Methodist parson … ”



“Except in North Carolina and Virginia, the rural clergy belonged to it [the KKK] or had traffic with it almost en masse, and even in those two states the same thing was true in many districts. It was true, too, in many towns throughout the South, and everywhere the great body of the ministers either smiled benignly on it or carefully kept their mouths shut about it.

“… the Klan summed up within itself, with precise completeness and exactness, the whole body of the fears and hates of the time including, of course, those which were shared with the rest of America and the Western world.”[17]

(Southern) Honour (Honor)


Bertram Wyatt-Brown in his Introduction to Wilbur Cash notes that Cash’s belief that the reaction of the post-1865 Southern whites, their vicious fury, was their remorse and guilt at having subjected African-Americans to the degradation of slavery. Rather, says Wyatt-Brown, it was the white “dread of dishonour … [that] aroused Southern white fury. In the eyes of the white rich and poor alike, ignorant critics—damnable ‘Black Republicans,’ greedy nutmeg peddlers, and bluestocking New England spinsters, most especially—stigmatised slaveholders, ordinary folk, and their descendants. White Southerner’ reactions of anger and frustration—culminating at one point in secession—revealed a belligerence about perceived insult. Their honor, Southerners claimed, had been unjustly assaulted. Vindication could come, secessionists thought, only with the pulling of a trigger.”[18]



During the Gastonia, NC, cotton mill strike of 1929, “ a mob of masked men, led, as is now common knowledge in the territory, by business and political figures of the town and neighbouring towns … ”

[1] Cash, The Mind of the South, 444, xxv-xxvi

[2] W. J Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 12-13

[3] Ibid., 41

[4] Ibid., 43

[5] Cash, The Mind of the South, 444.

[6] Ibid., 67 [Cash is quoting from “The Impending Crisis of the South ... - Google Book Search,” (accessed October 20, 2007)

[7] Ibid., 68-69

[8] Ibid., 73

[9] Ibid., 74-75

[10] Ibid., 77

[11] Ibid., 98-99

[12] Ibid., 8-11.

[13] Ibid., 107

[14] Ibid., 126

[15] Ibid., 130

[16] Ibid., 132

[17] Ibid., 336

[18] Cash, The Mind of the South, 444.