University of St. Francis, Indiana
“The Early Development of Southern Chivalry” and the visual history of children in the slavery debate
Sometime in the 1850s David Claypool Johnston created a small watercolor image savagely dismantling the notion of Southern chivalry. In Johnston’s caustic visual commentary, a boy prepares to strike a female doll with a cat-o-nine tails. His unfortunate victim has been stripped to the waist and tied to a parlor chair, underneath which a chamber pot stands ready to catch the imagined flow of blood and other bodily fluids. Next in line stands the tyrant’s ghoulishly smiling sister, clutching a male doll, who is sure to suffer the same grim fate. Johnston could not have made an image much more shocking to mid-century, middle class Northern sensibilities. Here, the parlor, that hallowed chamber of sentimental domesticity, is soon to be quite literally befouled by violence and its physical aftermath. Even more distressing is the perversion of childhood’s innocence, for here, playtime is not a gentle and innocent affair but rather teaches children to relish inflicting pain. More terrible still is the explicitly sexualized relationship between each pint sized tyrant and his or her victim; the boy strikes the female and the girl, the male. Johnston puts it baldly here: that southern chivalry so prized by sectional champions is nothing but unnatural, sexualized violence.
Because childhood had taken on new cultural resonance by the nineteenth century, Johnston’s use of children in his cartoon makes it sting that much more acidly, however it is not the only image to use childhood as a foil for arguments about the institution. Childhood served as a particularly dramatic setting for visual arguments over the institution of slavery. This paper considers Johnston’s image, which has received scant critical attention, within this larger history of the use of children in images both pro- and anti- slavery.
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