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james kirke pauldingOn April 10, 1852, James Kirke Paulding—literary New Yorker and former Secretary of the Navy—wrote a letter to South Carolinian Joseph Starke Sims. Paulding maintained excellent relationships with southerners (and northerners) his whole life. Paulding corresponded with many southern luminaries during the antebellum period on politics, society, and various other areas where Paulding’s erudition typically carried him. But on that particular Saturday in April, Paulding reflected on his native Hudson Valley. “Though threescore and fifteen, I have not lost the rural feeling, but enjoy the beauties of nature with all the zest of youth, as I ramble about my farm, or sit on my piazza which commands on of the finest prospects in the world.” He would later tell Sims that “old as I am, I still revel in green fields and green woods, and had rather listen to the Boblincons than to Sontag or Alboni.” The “castles” of New York’s gentry, green forests, and cliffs along the Hudson River affected Paulding throughout his life. He always preferred tradition and nature to progress. He referenced Cicero in his fiction and lived as a good Roman: reading and writing preferably from the rustic glory of his estate in Duchess County, New York. Even in politics his earthy and rustic traditionalism emerged. He despised modernity and the material excesses of the antebellum United States. When he experienced considerable pressure to convert the U.S. Navy from sail to steam during his tenure, he told a friend, “I will never consent to let our old ships perish and, and transform our Navy into a fleet of sea monsters.”[1]

Paulding affirmed the preeminence of place, tradition, and orthodoxy in the antebellum North even as he forces of capitalism, Evangelicalism, and materialistic modernity eroded the gentrified and agrarian culture of the Hudson River Valley. Paulding never wavered from his belief in prescriptive truth and the transcendence of place. He derided American democracy, viewing it as “the petty ambition of groveling politicians, who could never expect to gain distinction, except by pampering the vanity of their constituents at home.” A confirmed Jeffersonian Democrat, Paulding sometimes championed agrarian and sometimes southern interests because he saw the reflection of the bucolic, romantic, and aristocratic ideal of the Hudson Valley in the Atlantic South.[2]

imageJames K. Paulding grew up in the Hudson River Valley and throughout his life chose to stay close to the Hudson Valley, telling his friend and neighbor Martin Van Buren that he would always “prefer a country life.” At eighteen, he moved to New York City. He grew close to the Irving family, especially William and Washington. Paulding disliked much of the city and satirized urban life in his early works. By 1815, Paulding established himself as a writer through the publication of the satirical Salmagundi. A joint venture of William and Washington Irving, Salmagundi parodied both British and American fashionable urban society by creating faux journalist, theater critics, and well-born citizens. The work sold well and gave Paulding a considerable amount of celebrity. Salmagundi and budding literary fame brought Paulding to the attention of James Madison, who later offered him a post in the Navy Department. [3]

The Jeffersonian ideal best guaranteed the Ciceronian agrarian culture and society Paulding loved. He trusted that agrarian society bred inherently better citizens in a republican society. Paulding believed that “trade and industry are good things; but they are not without that alloy of evil which seems to incorporate itself with every mode and habit of life.” Aristocrats inherited virtuous behavior and understood that their patrimonies placed upon them responsibility for the cultivation of civilization. “Those who get money with difficulty, part from it with difficulty; and, although they may add to their own enjoyments, and to the wealth of a country, seldom, I believe, are either very disinterestedly hospitable or generous.” The bourgeois class, Paulding believed, “certainly rarely partake, in any great degree, of those lofty feelings, which set one man high above another in the scale of being, and which are so frequently found among those who are neither very industrious nor very saving.” [4]

Paulding’s aversion to industrialization and urbanization bore itself out in his perception of what he termed “progress.” He disdained urban politics and believed that “if not kept under the control of honest common sense,” progressive democracy would “end in carrying the world around in a circle, till it gets back to the point from whence it started in the aforesaid progress. That is, to a state of nature.” Paulding saw the continual human “refinements” of nature, such as urbanization and industrialization, as ultimately destructive, producing a “mass of human misery.” He conjectured hopefully that the “invariable law of Providence” would ultimately restore humanity and nature to the “place whence we started.” That place, in the mind of Paulding, remained distinctly agrarian.[5]

The Classical farmer-gentleman served as Paulding’s ideal type of republican citizen. He rejected the antebellum businessman and in many ways urban capitalism while embracing gentrified agrarian cultures throughout the North and the South. He adored Virginia and cast George Washington and the Tidewater planters as latter-day frugal and rustic Medieval or Roman paterfamilias. Paulding took the time, in print, to buttress that image. He refuted the spurious charge that Washington, the “Cato of these latter times,” heartlessly sold his old horse. When Paulding traveled through the Tidewater Region his imagination turned to Virginia’s aristocratic, rustic, and genteel past. “Along the rivers, winding through these extensive plains, lived, not more than an age ago, a race of stately planters, whose hospitality gave a character to Virginia, which it still retains.” Although he lamented the dilapidation and decay of many of the old great houses he passed, he evoked the romantic. One broken window pane “was like the banner of the ancient barons, which, when displayed from the castle, betokened that the lord was at home, and would receive all that came.”[6]

Leisure seemed to Paulding’s the central distinction between agrarianism and modern material culture. He saw in Virginia the “distinction subsisting between the two parts of the Union—the one being occupied by farmers, cultivating farms, the other by planters, cultivating plantations.” In a land of “country squires” and “hospitable” mansions, Paulding noted what he perceived as the southern gentility’s pursuit of leisure during a stay at the country “seat” of a planter. “A day’s residence here convinces you that you occasion no restraint; consequently that you are welcome; and therefore you feel all the freedom of home.” Paulding coupled leisure with a Catonian enthusiasm for rustic sport. “You are told the carriage or horses are at your service—that you can fish, or hunt, or lounge, or read, just as you please; and every one makes his choice.”[7]

Loss of place and leisure formed what Paulding saw as the twin tragedies of modernity. In his novel Westward Ho!, Paulding painted a picture of nostalgic remembrance with the Dangerfield family, fictional “high-mettled cavaliers” that undertake the arduous journey across the Blue Ridge to start a new life in Kentucky. Newness, progress, and escape from the traditional aristocratic world of Tidewater Virginia form the backdrop of Paulding’s novel. Each of these emerged not as virtues but as consequences. The Dangerfield’s profligacy forced them to sell their place, Virginia, and move into Kentucky. Likewise they loss their aristocratic penchant for leisurely pursuit and took up the plow in order to survive, not to flourish. The Dangerfield’s departure from the placed rustic ideal destroyed their place in civilization. Throughout the novel Paulding lamented the loss of the Dangerfield’s traditional society as much as he praised the family’s bittersweet rebirth in the West.[8]

51Cut9OXkfLPaulding’s Classical conceptions of place and tradition carried over to a belief in divinely created and ordained gender distinctions. Paulding praised motherhood and wifehood as the chief expressions of femininity. He affirmed Cato fears of women commanding men, especially regarding questions of a political nature. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and her subsequent politicized celebrity outraged Paulding, who subsequently disparaged her and her compatriots. He sneered at what he saw as an un-masculine abolitionist movement. Paulding wrote quite seriously that, “from various notices we have seen of abolition meetings in Boston and elsewhere, it would appear that the abolition societies consist principally of females.” Paulding hoped “with all…deference to the sex” to “gently to remind them that the appropriate sphere of women is their home, and their appropriate duties at the cradle or the fireside.”[9]

Progress’ innate destructive capability, according to Paulding, extended outward into every facet of human existence into gender, family, and even religion. Paulding warned his friends to increasingly be wary of reformist “young parsons” whose puritanical morality inevitably destroyed the transcendent in the pursuit of ephemeral human conceptions of equality and progress. Increasingly Paulding feared the actions of “Puritans” in the North. “The descendants of the Roundheads and Puritans in this country are full as bad as the Jesuits were formerly.” In their desire to rid humanity of its evils, they surely produced greater human devastation. Evangelical abolitionist emerged as the successor of the Puritans in Paulding’s own time and Paulding greeted them with almost unparalleled loathing. He never believed slavery a positive good and as Secretary of the Navy supported efforts to create, equip, and put into service squadrons of ships for use as anti-slaver patrols. He feared violent societal rupture in the name of abolition. Paulding refused to “consider slavery, as it exists in the United States, an evil of such surpassing enormity as to demand the sacrifice of the harmony and consequent union of the states.” Nevertheless he never collaborated with abolitionists, whom he despised and referred to on one occasion as “satanic.”[10]

Paulding’s intense dislike of the abolition movement stemmed from what he saw as a human attempt to coerce a divinely created order without regard to the designs of Providence. Attempts to conform place and society solely in the name of equality or material progress inevitable ran against nature’s God and nature’s law. “The more, and the nearer I look at human life,” Paulding reflected near the end of his life, “the more I am satisfied of this great truth—that the only perfect system of equality is to be found in the distributions of Providence. Mankind are happy,’ said Paulding “not according to the wealth they enjoy, but to the virtues they practice.”[11]

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[1] Joseph Starke Sims was a lawyer in Union County, South Carolina and a supporter of Nullification during the crisis of 1832-1833; James Kirk Paulding to J.S. Sims, April 10, 1852 in The Letters of James Kirk Paulding (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1962), 528; James Kirk Paulding to J.S. Sims, May 29, 1853 in The Letters of James Kirke Paulding 537; James Kirke Paulding to Gouverneur Kemble, June 16, 1839 in The Letters of James Kirke Paulding, 258.

[2] James Kirke Paulding, Letters From the South 1 (New York: James Eastburn and Co., 1817), 33; Floyd C. Watkins, “James Kirke Paulding and the South,” American Quarterly 5 (Autumn, 1953): 219-230.

[3] James Kirke Paulding to Martin Van Buren, March 14, 1845 in The Letters of James Kirke Paulding ,391; Amos L. Herold, James Kirke Paulding: Versatile American (New York: Columbia University Press, 1926), 1-30; See Washington Irving and James K. Paulding, Salmagundi: Or the Whim-Whams and Opinions of Lancelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1860).

[4] Paulding, writing to Martin Van Buren in 1834, referred to the Democrats as “our party.” See James K. Paulding to Martin Van Buren, July 8, 1834 in Aderman ed., The Letters of James Kirke Paulding, 147; Lorman Ratner, James Kirke Paulding: The Last Republican (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1992), xi-xviii; Paulding, Letters from the South, 41-42.

[5] James Kirke Paulding to Martin Van Buren, December 20, 1844 in The Letters of James Kirke Paulding, 374; John M. Grammer, Pastoral and Politics in the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1996), 69-70.

[6] William R. Taylor, Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and American National Character (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 15; Paulding, Letters from the South, 11-19, 41, 96-97; James Kirke Paulding, A Life of Washington (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945), 2: 228.

[7] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 41-42; Paulding, Letters from the South, 22-26, 38.

[8] David Gellman, Emancipating New York: the Politics of Slavery and Freedom, 1777-1827 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2006), 189-219; James Kirke Paulding, Westward Ho!: A Tale (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1845), 4, 28.

[9] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (New York: Modern Library, 2000), v-vii; James Kirke Paulding, Slavery in the United States (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1835), 309-310.

[10] John Niven, Martin Van Buren: the Romantic Age of American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 105-106; Paulding, Slavery in the United States, 8-9, 205.

[11] Paulding, Letters from the South, 42.

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