A Rebel's Recollections
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But the magistrates were not wholly without instruction even in technical matters of law. They learned a good deal by long service, – their experience often running over a period of thirty or forty years on the bench, – and, in addition to the skill which intelligent men must have gained in this way, they had still another resource. When the bench thought it necessary to inform itself on a legal point, the presiding magistrate asked in open court for the advice of counsel, and in such an event every lawyer not engaged in the case at bar, or in another involving a like principle, was under obligation to give a candid expression of his opinion.
The system was a very peculiar and interesting one, and in Virginia it was about the best also that could have been hit upon, though it is more than doubtful whether it would work equally well anywhere else. All the conditions surrounding it were necessary to its success, and those conditions were of a kind that cannot be produced at will; they must grow. In the first place, the intelligence and culture of a community must not be concentrated in certain centres, as is usually the case, especially in commercial and manufacturing States, but must be distributed pretty evenly over the country, else the material out of which such a magistracy can be created will not be where it is needed; and in the very nature of the case it cannot be imported for the purpose. There must also be a public sentiment to compel the best men to serve when chosen, and the best men must be men of wealth and leisure, else they cannot afford to serve, for such a magistracy must of necessity be unpaid. In short, the system can work well only under the conditions which gave it birth in Virginia, and those conditions will probably never again exist in any of these States. It is a matter of small moment to the citizen of Massachusetts or New York that Virginia once had a very peculiar judiciary; but it is not a matter of light importance that our scheme of government leaves every State free to devise for itself a system of local institutions adapted to its needs and the character and situation of its people; that it is not uniformity we have sought and secured in our attempt to establish a government by the people, but a wise diversity rather; that experience and not theory is our guide; that our institutions are cut to fit our needs, and not to match a fixed pattern; and that the necessities of one part of the country do not prescribe a rule for another part.
But this is not a philosophical treatise. Return we therefore to the region of small facts. It is a little curious that with their reputed fondness for honorary titles of all kinds, the Virginians never addressed a magistrate as "judge," even in that old time when the functions of the justice fairly entitled him to the name. And it is stranger still, perhaps, that in Virginia the members of the Legislature were never called "honorable," that distinction being held strictly in reserve for members of Congress and of the national cabinet.This fact seems all the more singular when we remember that in the view of Virginians the States were nations, while the general government was little more than their accredited agent, charged with the performance of certain duties and holding certain delegated powers which were subject to recall at any time.
I have said that every educated Virginian was acquainted with politics, but this is only half the truth. They knew the details quite as well as the general facts, and there were very many of them not politicians and never candidates for office of any kind who could give from memory an array of dates and other figures of which the Tribune Almanac would have no occasion to be ashamed. Not to know the details of the vote in Connecticut in any given year was to lay oneself open to a suspicion of incompetence; to confess forgetfulness of the "ayes and noes" on any important division in Congress was to rule oneself out of the debate as an ignoramus. I say debate advisedly, for there was always a debate on political matters when two Virginia gentlemen met anywhere except in church during sermon time. They argued earnestly, excitedly, sometimes even violently, but ordinarily without personal ill-feeling. In private houses they could not quarrel, being gentlemen and guests of a common host, or standing in the relation of guest and host to each other; in more public places – for they discussed politics in all places and at all times – they refrained from quarrelling because to quarrel would not have been proper. But they never lost an opportunity to make political speeches to each other; alternately, sometimes, but quite as often both, or all, at once.
It would sometimes happen, of course, that two or more gentlemen meeting would find themselves agreed in their views, but the pleasure of indulging in a heated political discussion was never foregone for any such paltry reason as that. Finding no point on which they could disagree, they would straightway join forces and do valiant battle against the common enemy. That the enemy was not present to answer made no difference. They knew all his positions and all the arguments by which his views could be sustained quite as well as he did, and they combated these. It was funny, of course, but the participants in these one-sided debates never seemed to see the ludicrous points of the picture.
A story is told of one of the fiercest of these social political debaters – a story too well vouched for among his friends to be doubted – which will serve, perhaps, to show how unnecessary the presence of an antagonist was to the successful conduct of a debate. It was "at a dining-day," to speak in the native idiom, and it so happened that all the guests were Whigs, except Mr. E – , who was the staunchest of Jeffersonian Democrats. The discussion began, of course, as soon as the women left the table, and it speedily waxed hot. Mr. E – , getting the ear of the company at the outset, laid on right and left with his customary vigor, rasping the Whigs on their sorest points, arguing, asserting, denouncing, demonstrating – to his own entire satisfaction – for perhaps half an hour; silencing every attempt at interruption by saying:
"Now wait, please, till I get through; I'm one against seven, and you must let me make my points. Then you can reply."
He finished at last, leaving every Whig nerve quivering, every Whig face burning with suppressed indignation, and every Whig breast full, almost to bursting, with a speech in reply. The strongest debater of them all managed to begin first, but just as he pronounced the opening words, Mr. E – interrupted him.
"Pardon me," he said, "I know all your little arguments, so I'll go and talk with the girls for half an hour while you run them over; when you get through send for me, and I'll come and SWEEP YOU CLEAR OUT OF THE ARENA."
And with that the exasperating man bowed himself out of the dining-room.
But with all its ludicrousness, this universal habit of "talking politics" had its uses. In the first place, politics with these men was a matter of principle, and not at all a question of shrewd management. They knew what they had and what they wanted. Better still they knew every officeholder's record, and held each to a strict account of his stewardship.
Under the influence of this habit in social life, every man was constantly on his metal, of course, and every young man was bound to fortify himself for contests to come by a diligent study of history and politics. He must know as a necessary preparation for ordinary social converse all those things that are commonly left to the professional politicians. As well might he go into society in ignorance of yesterday's weather or last week's news, as without full knowledge of Benton's Thirty Years' View, and a familiar acquaintance with the papers in the Federalist. In short, this odd habit compelled thorough political education, and enforced upon every man old enough to vote an active, earnest participation in politics. Perhaps a country in which universal suffrage exists would be the better if both were more general than they are.
But politics did not furnish the only subjects of debate among these people. They talked politics, it is true, whenever they met at all, but when they had mutually annihilated each other, when each had said all there was to say on the subject, they frequently turned to other themes. Of these, the ones most commonly and most vigorously discussed were points of doctrinal theology. The great battle-ground was baptism. Half the people were, perhaps, Baptists, and when Baptist and pedo-Baptist met they sniffed the battle at once, – that is to say, as soon as they had finished the inevitable discussion of politics.
On this question of Baptism each had been over the ground many hundreds of times, and each must have known when he put forth an argument what the answer would be. But this made no manner of difference. They were always ready to go over the matter again. I amused myself once by preparing a "part" debate on the subject. I arranged the remarks of each disputant in outline, providing each speech with its proper "cue," after the manner of stage copies of a play, and, taking a friend into my confidence, I used sometimes to follow the discussion, with my copy of it in hand, and, except in the case of a very poorly informed or wholly unpractised debater, my "cues" and speeches were found to be amusingly accurate.
The Virginians were a very religious as well as a very polemical people, however, and I do not remember that I ever knew them, even in the heat of their fiercest discussions upon doctrine, to forget the brotherly kindness which lay as a broad foundation under their card-houses of creed. They believed with all their souls in the doctrines set down by their several denominations, and maintained them stoutly on all occasions; but they loved each other, attended each other's services, and joined hands right heartily in every good work.
There was one other peculiarity in their church relations worthy of notice. The Episcopal Church was once an establishment in Virginia, as every reader knows, but every reader does not know, perhaps, that even up to the outbreak of the war it remained in some sense an establishment in some parts of the State.
There were little old churches in many neighborhoods which had stood for a century or two, and the ancestors of the present generation had all belonged to them in their time. One of these churches I remember lovingly for its old traditions, for its picturesqueness, and for the warmth of the greeting its congregation gave me – not as a congregation but as individuals – when I, a lad half grown, returned to the land of my fathers. Every man and woman in that congregation had known my father and loved him, and nearly every one was my cousin, at least in the Virginian acceptation of that word. The church was Episcopal, of course, while the great majority, perhaps seven eighths of the people who attended it and supported it were members of other denominations – Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists. But they all felt themselves at home here. This was the old family church where their forefathers had worshiped, and under the shadow of which they were buried. They all belonged here no matter what other church might claim them as members. They paid the old clergyman's salary, served in the vestry, attended the services, kept church, organ, and churchyard in repair, and in all respects regarded themselves, and were held by others, as members here of right and by inheritance. It was church and family, instead of Church and State, and the sternest Baptist or Presbyterian among them would have thought himself wronged if left out of the count of this little church's membership. This was their heritage, their home, and the fact that they had also united themselves with churches of other denominations made no difference whatever in their feeling toward the old mother church, there in the woods, guarding and cherishing the dust of their dead.
All the people, young and old, went to church; it was both pleasant and proper to do so, though not all of them went for the sake of the sermon or the service. The churches were usually built in the midst of a grove of century oaks, and their surroundings were nearly always pleasantly picturesque. The gentlemen came on horseback, the ladies in their great lumbering, old-fashioned carriages, with an ebony driver in front and a more or less ebony footman or two behind. Beside the driver sat ordinarily the old "mammy" of the family, or some other equally respectable and respected African woman, whose crimson or scarlet turban and orange neckerchief gave a dash of color to the picture, a trifle barbaric, perhaps, in combination, but none the less pleasant in its effect for that. The young men came first, mounted on their superb riding horses, wearing great buckskin gauntlets and clad in full evening dress – that being en r?gle always in Virginia, – with the skirts of the coat drawn forward, over the thighs, and pinned in front, as a precaution against possible contact with the reeking sides of the hard-ridden steeds.
The young men came first to church, as I have said, and they did so for a purpose. The carriages were elegant and costly, many of them, but nearly all were extremely old-fashioned; perched high in air, they were not easy of entrance or exit by young women in full dress without assistance, and it was accounted the prescriptive privilege of the young men to render the needed service at the church door. When this preliminary duty was fully done, some of the youths took seats inside the church, but if the weather were fine many preferred to stroll through the woods, or to sit in little groups under the trees, awaiting the exit of the womankind, who must, of course, be chatted with and helped into their carriages again.
Invitations to dinner or to a more extended visit were in order the moment the service was over. Every gentleman went to dine with a friend, or took a number of friends to dine with him. But the arrangements depended largely upon the young women, who had a very pretty habit of visiting each other and staying a week or more, and these visits nearly always originated at church. Each young woman invited all the rest to go home with her, and after a deal of confused consultation, out of whose chaos only the feminine mind could possibly have extracted anything like a conclusion, two or three would win all the others to themselves, each taking half a dozen or more with her, and promising to send early the next morning for their trunks. With so many of the fairest damsels secured for a visit of a week or a fortnight, the young hostess was sure of cavaliers in plenty to do her guests honor. And upon my word it was all very pleasant! I have idled away many a week in these old country houses, and for my life I cannot manage to regret the fact, or to remember it with a single pang of remorse for the wasted hours. Perhaps after all they were not wholly wasted. Who shall say? Other things than gold are golden.
As a guest in those houses one was not welcome only, but free. There was a servant to take your horse, a servant to brush your clothes, a servant to attend you whenever you had a want to supply or a wish to gratify. But you were never oppressed with attentions, or under any kind of restraint. If you liked to sit in the parlor, the women there would entertain you very agreeably, or set you to entertaining them by reading aloud, or by anything else which might suggest itself. If you preferred the piazza, there were sure to be others like-minded with yourself. If you smoked, there were always pipes and tobacco on the sideboard, and a man-servant to bring them to you if you were not inclined to go after them. In short, each guest might do precisely as he pleased, sure that in doing so he should best please his host and hostess.
My own favorite amusement – I am the father of a family now, and may freely confess the fancies and foibles of a departed youth – was to accompany the young mistress of the mansion on her rounds of domestic duty, carrying her key-basket for her, and assisting her in various ways, unlocking doors and – really I cannot remember that I was of any very great use to her after all; but willingness counts for a good deal in this world, and I was always very willing at any rate. As a rule, the young daughter of the mansion was housekeeper, and this may perhaps account for the fact that the habit of carrying housekeeper's key-baskets for them was very general among the young gentlemen in houses where they were upon terms of intimate friendship.
Life in Virginia was the pursuit of happiness and its attainment. Money was a means only, and was usually spent very lavishly whenever its expenditure could add in any way to comfort, but as there was never any occasion to spend it for mere display, most of the planters were abundantly able to use it freely for better purposes. That is to say, most of them were able to owe their debts and to renew their notes when necessary. Their houses were built for comfort, and most of them had grown gray with age long before the present generation was born. A great passage-way ran through the middle, commonly, and here stood furniture which would have delighted the heart of the medi?valist: great, heavy oaken chairs, black with age and polished with long usage – chairs whose joints were naked and not ashamed; sofas of ponderous build, made by carpenters who were skeptical as to the strength of woods, and thought it necessary to employ solid pieces of oak, four inches in diameter, for legs, and to shoe each with a solid brass lion's paw as a precaution against abrasion. A great porch in front was shut out at night by the ponderous double doors of the hallway, but during the day the way was wide open through the house.
The floors were of white ash, and in summer no carpets or rugs were anywhere to be seen. Every morning the floors were polished by diligent scouring with dry pine needles, and the furniture similarly brightened by rubbing with wax and cork. In the parlors the furniture was usually very rich as to woods and very antique in workmanship. The curtains were of crimson damask with lace underneath, and the contrast between these and the bare, white, polished floor was singularly pleasing.
The first white person astir in the house every morning was the woman who carried the keys, mother or daughter, as the case might be. Her morning work was no light affair, and its accomplishment consumed several hours daily. To begin with she must knead the light bread with her own hands and send it to the kitchen to be baked and served hot at breakfast. She must prepare a skillet full of light rolls for the same meal, and "give out" the materials for the rest of the breakfast. Then she must see to the sweeping and garnishing of the lower rooms, passages, and porches, lest the maids engaged in that task should entertain less extreme views than her own on the subject of that purity and cleanliness which constituted the house's charm and the housekeeper's crown of honor. She must write two or three notes, to be dispatched by the hands of a small negro to her acquaintances in the neighborhood, – a kind of correspondence much affected in that society. In the midst of all these duties, the young housekeeper – for somehow it is only the youthful ones whom I remember vividly – must meet and talk with such of the guests as might happen to be early risers, and must not forget to send a messenger to the kitchen once every ten minutes to "hurry up breakfast!" not that breakfast could be hurried under any conceivable circumstances, but merely because it was the custom to send such messages, and the young woman was a duty-loving maid who did her part in the world without inquiring why. She knew very well that breakfast would be ready at the traditional hour, the hour at which it always had been served in that house, and that there was no power on the plantation great enough to hasten it by a single minute. But she sent out to "hurry" it nevertheless.
When breakfast is ready the guests are ready for it. It is a merit of fixed habits that one can conform to them easily, and when one knows that breakfast has been ready in the house in which he is staying precisely at nine o'clock every morning for one or two centuries past, and that the immovable conservatism of an old Virginian cook stands guard over the sanctity of that custom, he has no difficulty in determining when to begin dressing.
The breakfast is sure to be a good one, consisting of everything obtainable at the season. If it be in summer, the host will have a dish of broiled roe herrings before him, a plate of hot rolls at his right hand, and a cylindrical loaf of hot white bread – which it is his duty to cut and serve – on his left. On the flanks will be one or two plates of beaten biscuit and a loaf of batter bread, i. e., corn-bread made rich with milk and eggs. A dish of plain corn "pones" sits on the dresser, and the servants bring griddle-cakes or waffles hot from the kitchen; so much for breads. A knuckle of cold, boiled ham is always present, on either the table or the dresser, as convenience may dictate. A dish of sliced tomatoes and another of broiled ditto are the invariable vegetables, supplemented on occasion with lettuce, radishes, and other like things. These are the staples of breakfast, and additions are made as the season serves.
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