Christopher Phillips’s book, Missouri’s Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of the Southern Identity in the Border West, makes many very interesting points about how much of history involves personally or familialy adopted story. Contemporary Missourians who “celebrate their Southern heritage , whether through family genealogy, as Confederate reenactors, or by touring the state’s antebellum homes… effectively deconstruct the identity of the early national Missourians who uniformly regarded themselves as westerners. In countless ways… Missouri’s residents celebrated their status as vanguard of the westward expansion of America.”
Phillips further relates in his preface that it was meeting with a Kentucky bourbon-sipping, unreconstructed Missourian that made the historian recognize Claib Jackson was worthy of a book. The contemporary Missouri Southerner wistfully pontificated that a stronger leader than Claib Jackson might have somehow saved Missouri. “We might have made it out if he had been stronger,” our bourbonized recalcitrant supposes.
What “out” would have meant or what it would have resulted in might not bear much resemblance to the facts on the ground in 1860. Turning to Michael Fellman’s Inside War: The Guerilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War, we find these succinctly stated statistics. “[T]he average Missourian was a Methodist from Kentucky who owned a 215-acre general family farm, owned no slaves, produced most of the family’s subsistence, sold products and purchased goods within the local service economy….” Corn and swine were king, not cotton or tobacco. To win elections the rich planters of the “Boonslick Democracy,” which won Claib Jackson the governorship and legislature in 1860, and the class which Jackson came from, “always presented themselves as committed Unionists and defenders of the Jacksonian version of the noble yeoman. They knew they had to address a nonslaveholding white majority in terms more inclusive than their own material interests and ideological predispositions might suggest.”
“Conditional Unionists” overwhelmed the secessionist vote on the question of holding a secession convention, taking 73-percent of the ballots. “Most Missourians,” Fellman concludes, “were conservative farmers of southern origin who voted as best they could to maintain the status quo.”
So we have several somewhat fictional “narratives” in operation here: one that, along the lines of Thomas Hart Benton, posed Missourians as vanguard westerners; one that Governor Jackson and that tiny minority of super-rich planters told to voters to win elections; one that emerged during the war as belligerents demanded Conditional Unionists abandon hope and choose sides; and one that combines bourbon with some nostalgic tourism and some truthful and earnest genealogy and family history to connect Missouri to a gentility that was actually quite rare and would not pass muster in the ballot box.
So which fiction makes us Missourians? Which fiction is history?