by Daniel Decatur Emmett
Since “Dixie” had more than one life, it had more than one setting. As a Confederate anthem it was set within the politics of secession and the Civil War. As a Northern response, it was set among famous battles linking the Civil War to the American Revolution. As a minstrel tune, however, written by a Northerner and originally performed in Northern cities, the song was set within the imagined world of the plantation South. Many Northerners joined Southerners in constructing a falsely benign portrait of slavery and life within this brutal labor system.
The sad fact is that abolitionists were never more than a small minority within the Northern public. Even though many Northerners opposed the expansion of slavery northward, they were not necessarily interested in abolishing the institution in the South. To a great extent this was because they accepted the Southern representation of slavery. As explained within the most powerful defense of slavery, The Sociology of the South, written by George Fitzhugh in 1854, slavery protected Africans from the harsh conditions of life in the North. Fitzhugh described Africans as child-like and docile, no more intelligent than twelve-year old. If freed, they would be outwitted in the competitive conditions of the labor market, but as slaves, they were offered homes and care and instructed in the soul-saving teachings of Christianity. Others felt that God himself would end slavery when the time was right, once white Americans had helped to progress their African American slaves past the savage and godless states from whence they originated. It was in this way that many Christians were able to reconcile slavery with their religious beliefs.
“Dixie,” like most minstrel songs, re-enforced this portrait of African Americans and slavery. They were portrayed as foolish and ignorant, yet mindlessly happy within their lives as slaves, and it was seen as a boon that the white man was willing to make productive use of their lives regardless of their shortcomings. As horrendous as that sounds to Americans today, that was the world into which “Dixie” was born.