Very Degraded in Every Way

Published:July 2, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Kevin Levin, at his blog Civil War Memory, recently posted an image and an excerpt from an old Virginia history textbook. He was disgusted (and rightly so) by the book’s outlandish description of slavery, which emphasized feelings of “strong affection” between masters and their “cheerful” slaves.

I was thinking of this while proofreading our entry on the writer Mary Tucker Magill (1830–1899). Magill was a novelist and Lost Cause enthusiast who also authored a set of Virginia history textbooks. Here’s the relevant paragraph from our entry:

“Her textbook, The History of Virginia for the Use of Schools (1873), written for students in the fourth and fifth grades, portrays Virginia’s founding fathers as wise aristocrats. Because the Virginia State Board of Education required its use in teaching Virginia history for more than forty years, Magill’s textbook shaped the historical perspective of several generations of Virginians. Magill also wrote a history of the state for younger children, published under two different titles: Stories from Virginia History, for the Young (1897) and Magill’s First Book in Virginia History (published posthumously, in 1908).”

Intrigued, I purchased a couple of Magill’s books. I can now verify that, yes, The History of Virginia for the Use of Schools does, in fact, portray Virginia’s founding fathers as wise aristocrats. But there’s more to the story than that. Following Kevin’s lead, I looked for what Magill had to say about slavery. You might ask whether this is entirely fair. After all, hundred-year-old textbooks are unlikely to reflect modern attitudes about issues as thorny as race. And perhaps it’s a bit unseemly to make a big to-do about pointing this out. What’s interesting, though, is the way in which Magill’s texts, for forty years, “shaped the historical perspective” of Virginians through subtle and not-so-subtle interpretations of historical events, through masterful uses of factual ellipses, and, in a few places, through outright distortion and mistruth.

I’m sure there will be more to say about this over time, but for now, here is Magill on slavery: “Generally speaking, the negroes proved a harmless and affectionate race, easily governed, and happy in their condition.” In Magill’s First Book in Virginia History, she is even more to the point:

“Many years before the Revolution, slaves had been brought to America, and the English Government made so much money by capturing Africans and selling them in America, that they insisted that it was right. Virginia never liked it, and remonstrated with England; bit it did no good, and all the colonies had slaves. In their own country they were can-ni-bals, or man-eaters, and very degraded in every way. They were much better off in this country, where they were taught to know about God and about other things which were good for them.”

I myself have written social studies, American history, and world history textbooks, so I understand the difficulty of conveying complexity of any kind to young students. But cannibals? Really?


12 Comments on “Very Degraded in Every Way”

  1. Casey Clabough

    It may interest readers that Magill’s textbook also weighs in on the “Indian problem,” noting that settlers “paused not until this fair country was wrested from the hands of the barbarous savage and given to those who worshipped the God of heaven.”

    Chapters in her book also include study questions, including the following:

    “Was it right for the English to take the country from the Indians?”

    “What made the Indians hard to deal

    Unfortunately, my 1881 edition lacks an answer key.

    Readers interested in other notable and occasionally eccentric articulations of Virginia’s history may wish to peruse the following:

    Cooke, John Esten. Virginia: A History of the People. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1883.

    Dowdey, Clifford. The Golden Age: A Climate for Greatness, Virginia 1732-1775. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.

    Fishwick, Marshall. The Virginia Tradition. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1956.

    Meade, Julian. I Live in Virginia. New York: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1935.

    Moore, Virginia. Virginia is a State of Mind. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1943.

  2. Brendan Wolfe

    Thanks, Casey. I like Dowdey’s title. It’s almost a parody of itself. And I will try to read the Cooke sometime. He came from an interesting family, if I have my facts straight. His uncle was Philip St. George Cooke, a respected cavalryman who sided with the Union during the Civil War, earning the hatred of his son-in-law J.E.B. Stuart. At the time of secession, Stuart had already gone and named his own son after PSG Cooke — oops — so he renamed him JEB Jr. and never spoke to the man again. John Esten Cooke, meanwhile, served under Stuart for a time in the Army of Northern Virginia.

  3. Bland Whitley

    FYI, both Philip St. George and John Esten Cooke appear in volume 3 of the Dictionary of VA Biography, as do the latter’s older brother Philip Pendleton Cooke, a significant antebellum poet, and their father John Rogers Cooke, who played a pivotal role in VA’s 1829-30 Constitutional Convention. Also their sister Flora (JEB’s wife) founded what became Stuart Hall Academy in Staunton. An interesting family indeed. On the textbooks, one could argue that those late-nineteenth century interpretations lived on longer than 40 years even. Although less obnoxious, the history books produced at the state’s behest in the 1950s (_Cavalier Commonwealth_ and a grade school companion whose name escapes me) did not alter prevailing elite attitudes much and were still in use during the 1970s.

  4. Brendan Wolfe

    Thanks for the comment, Bland. I ran across the Cookes last week while reading an essay on how Virginia military men — especially West Point men — went about deciding whether to stay with state or nation. It was an interesting piece, and I think the author is also an EV contributor now.

    Anyway, you’re absolutely right about the way in which these histories linger. If you follow the link to Kevin Levin’s blog, you’ll find that the history textbook which first got his goat was in use as recently as the 1980s.

  5. Jim

    Where is Kevin Levin’s outrage over textbooks that glorified the genocide of the Native Americans? Where is his shock over the lack of education regarding slavery in the North?

    See a pattern? That’s because Levin is severely anti-southern. A survey of his blog revealed that over 50% of his posts in a given month were anti-Confederate and irreverant to the South.

  6. Jim

    Looks like Kevin is still using his anti-Confederate propaganda to save us in the 21st century. So appropros indeed.

    Where’s his outrage regarding Africa, Portugal, Spain, and England’s part in the slave trade? How about the slave-recipient nations that dwarfed America? And northern US slavery? Oh that doesn’t matter, in Levin’s world it’s all about the evil Confederacy, led by Robert E Darth Vader Lee and Stonewall Darth Sidious Jackson. Man is this guy and his blog important.

  7. Brendan Wolfe

    Jim, you’re welcome to argue with Kevin Levin on Kevin Levin’s blog if you like. But if you post here, please consider what’s posted here.

    For my own part, let me say this: To talk about the ridiculousness of what Magill wrote is hardly to deny the existence of evil elsewhere in the world. And why would you expect there to be equal or more outrage directed at the evil of slavery in places far away than at the evil of slavery as it was perpetrated so close to home?

    This blog focuses on Virginia and Virginia history. Would you like to mount a defense of southern slavery or Mary Tucker Magill’s depiction of it that doesn’t depend on you either attacking Kevin Levin or saying, “Other countries did it too”? If so, you’re welcome to use this space to do it.

  8. Jim


    All I’m saying is that one cannot truly evaluate one slice of history for one small region without seeing the larger picture and context of slavery throughout time. One could just as easily ask why is there a disproportionate burden and blame placed upon one region’s policy or one woman’s writings without examining and admitting the complicity of colonial Euro-centric values?

    Example, weren’t 20th century television depictions of black Americans which came out of NYC, Chicago, and Hollywood also considered racist (Amos and Andy, Little Rascals, etc.), and haven’t they shaped our racist ideologies more than any obscure southern writer? I fail to see the value of taking a thinly, one-sided, derogatory view of Virginia and the South, but that is what I keep seeing from many dabbling in history.


  9. Brendan Wolfe

    Jim, I think I understand your point, and I appreciate you taking the time to make it. We continue to disagree, however.

    There may indeed be examples of, let’s say, attacks on the South and its institutions that suffer from a lack of historical perspective, or global perspective, or both. The racism that was at the core of slavery did not exist in a vacuum. And the vast majority of Union soldiers did not march off to war to free their fellow man. I think in this we can find common ground.

    But to criticize Mary Tucker Magill, as I did, or to express shock, or to wonder what sort of legacy her teaching has had on Virginia and on our common memory — this can be done without my needing to make some obligatory acknowledgment of “the larger picture and context of slavery throughout time.”

    After all, in this blog post, I am not writing a history of slavery. I am writing about Mary Tucker Magill. As such, it’s fair for me to encourage you to focus your response on her.

    For instance, does this larger picture you insist upon exculpate her in some way? If we are to take it into more careful consideration, does it lessen the South’s responsibility for what the South, in fact, did? Should it somehow leaven our distaste for what Magill wrote and perhaps even suggest a way for us to muster some sympathy for her?

    Or, given this broader perspective, should we be judging Magill by different standards? Should we see her as a product of her time and place, a patriot even with some warts?

    I don’t mean to ask these questions facetiously. And I also understand how easy, and even at times convenient, it can be to express shock and horror at the “backwardness” of the South while forgetting that there are few in this world blessed with moral purity.

    But the bottom line is that we are in Virginia. And about Virginia and Virginians we are called to write. So I invite you to make a larger argument about Mary Tucker Magill. Is there some new way we should be thinking about her that was given short shrift in this post?

    This blog does dabble, by the way. I fully admit that. It is the nature of the medium. Of course, the encyclopedia, by its nature, will be different. And in the meantime, I appreciate readers such as yourself who challenge us and provoke interesting discussions such as this one.

  10. Jim

    Thanks Brendan for responding so thoughtfully and diplomatically regarding this subject. I cannot express how rare this value is among history blogs, and maybe even other venues such as classrooms and literature.

    I see Magill for what she is and what the rest of the nation was, a product of her time and environment. Who should write a region’s history? An individual resident, or a diverse council? I don’t know, but I think it isn’t unreasonable to believe that Magill should have had her works evaluated within relevant context of time and region.

    I don’t consider the above to mitigate certain southern American policies, rather to illuminate historical truth in an otherwise convenient, dark, knee-jerk reactionary time of immediate judgement. I see no harm in expressing a fair and balanced interpretation of individuals like Magill as long as there is no non-factual elements included. We are smart enough to do that aren’t we?

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