American Culture: Massachusetts or Virginia

By August 3, 2016October 21st, 2023Review Posts

Delivered at the 2016 Abbeville Institute Summer School.

A Frenchman has observed that the qualities of a culture may be identified by two characteristics— its manners and its cuisine. If that is so, then we can safely say that the United States, except for the South, has no culture at all. Aside from the South the only American contributions to cuisine consist of a few things imported by immigrant groups, like the hot dog and pizza. And a great many Americans outside the South either disdain good manners or have no concept of manners at all.

From earliest colonial times to the present, Southern manners have been noted by outsiders as an admirable exception to normal American behaviour. A Northampton, Massachusetts, newspaper says this in 1833:

“The manners of the Southern people we like far better than those of our own. They win confidence without effort, and create a feeling of sociality without ostentation, and throw around them a sentiment of kindness without affected display.”

The great Southern writer George Garrett has explained Southern manners as a function of the South’s continued purchase on Christianity in a post-Christian age. Garrett writes these profoundly wise words:

“In both life and art, the Southern emphasis upon manners and amenities derives chiefly from an assumed, a given view of the nature of Man. . . . All men are immortal souls, equally fractured by sin, equally and mysteriously loved by a loving God. Equally liable to enjoy grace and salvation . . . . Manners represent a formal obligation to one’s neighbor . . . and the ritual recognition of the love of God and for the presence of the Holy Ghost in all of one’s fellow creatures.”

For the Southerner a violation of manners is a serious matter, which is why the sense of personal responsibility for answering an insult and for self-defense remains stronger in the South than among other Americans.

These remarks follow Garrett’s discussion of the collapse of culture in New York City and the portrayal of American life in the works of Tom Wolfe. Wolfe’s books, like The Bonfire of the Vanities, I Am Charlotte Simmons, and Hooking Up hold up to ridicule most American institutions, attitudes, and conduct , almost every aspect of American life and culture. But the Virginian Wolfe has become an icon of Manhattan. Garrett’s point is that the Yankees are so wrapped up in their own virtue and so lacking in a sense of manners that they don’t recognize a deadly insult when they see it.

If the South excels in manners and cuisine, the same can be said of American literature and music. Without Southern writers American literature in the past century would be on a par with minor European countries. Every distinctively American form of music has come out of the South. As the Agrarian poet and scholar Donald Davidson pointed out long ago, American “culture” is an artificial thing, “poured in from the top”—museums of European art and concerts of European music. Genuine artistic creation must arise from a living folk culture, Davidson argued, out of which a high culture (like Southern literature) can emerge. What a marvelous film industry could we have with a free South, compared to Hollywood comic books and pornography. “American culture” without the South has no roots and no high art. It consists only of technology, perishable middle-brow entertainment, and artificial avant-garde pretensions.

If that is so, then preserving what is left of the South is an indispensable civilizing mission.

Compare the high spirited love of homeland in “Dixie” with the vicious, domineering blasphemy of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and you will perhaps see what I am getting at. “Sweet Home, Alabama” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Nothing Could be Finah than to be in Carolina,” “The Arkansas Traveler,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Shenandoah.” Who ever heard of a song about New Jersey, or Iowa, or Lake Michigan? Compare William Faulkner’s deeply historical, communal, and faith-pervaded works with Hemingway’s solipsist heroes.

The South is the American land of song and story. This was true from the beginning. The explorer Verrazano, cruising the coast of Carolina in 1524, observes: “Many fair fields and plains, full of mighty great woods with divers sorts of trees, as pleasant and delectable to behold as is possible to imagine.”

Carolina—“as pleasant and delectable to behold as is possible to imagine”!

The Cavalier poet Michael Drayton wrote in 1606 an “Ode To the Virginian Voyage” for the settlers about to depart to found a new colony at Jamestown:

You brave heroic minds,
Worthy your country’s name,
That honour still pursue,
Go and subdue!
Whilst loit’ring hinds
Lurk here at home with shame.
Britons, you stay too long;
Quickly aboard bestow you,
And with a merry gale
Swell your stretch’d sail,
With vows as strong
As the winds that blow you!

Your course securely steer,
West and by south forth keep;
Rocks, lee-shores, nor shoals,
When AEolus scowls,
You need not fear,
So absolute the deep.

And cheerfully at sea
Success you still entice
To get the pearl and gold,
And ours to hold
Earth’s only paradise!

Where nature hath in store
Fowl, venison, and fish,
And the fruitful’st soil,
Without your toil,
Three harvests more,
All greater than your wish.

And the ambitious vine
Crowns with his purple mass,
The cedar reaching high
To kiss the sky,
The cypress, pine,
And useful sassafras;

To whose the golden age
Still nature’s laws doth give;
No other cares that tend
But them to defend
From winter’s age,
That long there doth not live.

When as the luscious smell
Of that delicious land,
Above the seas that flows,
The clear wind throws,
Your hearts to swell
Approaching the dear strand.

In kenning of the shore,
Thanks to God first given,
O you, the happiest men,
Be frolic then!
Let cannons roar
Frighting the wide heaven.

And in regions far
Such heroes bring ye forth,
As those from whom we came;
And plant our name
Under that star
Not known unto our north.

And, as there plenty grows
Of laurel everywhere,
Apollo’s sacred tree,
You may it see
A poet’s brows
To crown, that may sing there.

Virginia, the earthly Paradise! 1606! A land of plenty and of heroes who will make a poet sing!

As to poets, the first Southern poem dates from about 1676. It is also the first real American poem, written by an American with an American subject. I should not say “also.” The first American and the first Southern are the same thing, because, as we have said, America and the South are the same thing. I should say the first Southern/American poem. The poem is “Bacon’s Epitaph, Made by His Man.” Nobody knows who wrote it, but it memorializes the leader of Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia and his resistance to unjust authority.

Let’s look at the first Southern/American book—the first written by an American about an American subject. THE HISTORY AND PRESENT STATE OF VIRGINIA, published in 1705 by Robert Beverley. Beverley was a contemporary of William Byrd II and writes in the same spirit as Byrd. His work may be usefully contrasted with Cotton Mather’s Massachusetts scribbling as displayed by Richard Weaver in “Two Diarists.” Mather and Byrd were both Englishmen born in the American colonies. There all likeness ends. They lived in different mental universes. And the difference had nothing to do with black slavery. At the time slavery and the brutal slave trade flourished in Massachusetts. Yet we have generations of supposed savants who have said there is nothing distinctive about the South except its defense of slavery. There is no bottom to the well of lies which pass for standard American history.

Robert Beverley loves his country, Virginia, and he knows it well. He lovingly describes everything about it: the flora, the fauna, the geography, the climate, the pursuits of the inhabitants and their economy and government. He even devotes many chapters to the Native Americans and their way of life. He considers them a part of Virginia and not, like the New Englanders do, as savages to be exterminated. Virginia holds a prospect for happiness. By hard work and honesty men may acquire land, independence, and honour impossible for them to achieve in the Mother Country. And Virginia gives us our first true Southern/American hero and heroine, Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. Jealous Yankee historians have repeatedly tried to discredit the Pocahontas story, but it is true.

When Thomas Jefferson writes his only book, NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA eighty years after Beverley, his spirit and pattern of love and intimate knowledge of his homeland are the same as Beverley’s. One hundred and twenty years after that, the great South Carolina classicist Basil Gildersleeve writes in the same vein in his THE CREED OF THE OLD SOUTH.

One can understand a great deal about American history by remembering some simple facts about the Founding. New England Puritans came to America to get away from a world of sinners, and, in John Winthrop’s phrase, construct “a shining City upon a Hill” which would be an example to all the world of a superior commonwealth. They did not want to get away from religious persecution, as has been claimed. They wanted a society under their complete control so they could persecute everyone else. Their mentality was steeped in the Calvinist writings of Ramus in which reality could be endlessly divided into opposites. The Elect could discern the good, themselves, and identify the evil, who was the Other.

I ask you, is not American life and politics today dominated by a constant nasty campaign of the self-appointed progressive and enlightened good people against those of us who think that every latest demand for change might not be for the best ?

By contrast to the Puritan “city upon a hill,” the people who came to settle the South saw America as a promising garden to be cultivated, a place where a good life could be lived.

Defining the South has long been a parlour game. True, what we mean by Southern is debatable ground. Some say it doesn’t really exist. Some say it is no more than ordinary America with a particular racist nastiness. Because of a long campaign of cultural imperialism and the successful military imperialism engineered by the Yankees, the South, since the War to Prevent Southern Independence, has been considered the problem, the deviation from the true American norm.

Historians have made an industry of explaining why the South is different and evil, for that which defies the “American” is by definition evil. Is the South different because of slavery? white supremacy? the climate? pellagra? illiteracy? poverty? guilt? defeat? Celtic wildness rather than Anglo-Saxon sobriety?

It is never asked: What is actually wrong with deviating from New Jersey and Ohio? Why is it automatically and unquestionably defined as a defect in need of remedy by the superior Yankee?

Let me quote a social science definition of a regional culture as a step toward defining what we mean by the Southern tradition:

“ A culture area is charactrerised by a catalogue of traits and features —material, artistic, religious, ceremonial, social. . . but also by the way in which such features are associated, interrelated, colored by one another. Such culture complexes show a remarkable tenacity and chronological persistence.”

Thirty-five years ago, with youthful presumptuousness, I ventured a definition of the South. Forgive me. I quote myself from 1981. I wrote:

“The South is all around us. People all over the world are studying it as if it is a reality. It has arrested the attention of countless observers. It has provided a compelling means of identification for millions of people over many generations. . . . I would define the South as an inherited way of life, expressed in a number of personality and cultural characteristics that are spontaneously shared . . . by a substantial number of inhabitants of the United States. This way of life correlates with a particular history and geography but has an independent existence.”

The size of this substantial number of Southern Americans might be suggested by the fact that 70 million people today are descendants of Confederate soldiers.

In my opinion, the South has always been primarily a matter of values, of human attitudes and conduct, a peculiar repository of intangible qualities in a society peculiarly preoccupied with the material. That is what we mean by the Southern tradition. American society is in desperate need of those values.

Up until the War Southerners were the American mainstream and Yankees, meaning New Englanders, were the “peculiar” people. New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, and Midwesterners despised Yankees as much as Southerners did. Young Abe Lincoln, courting popularity among his neighbours in Indiana and Illinois, told popular “Yankee jokes,” about dishonest peddlers from Connecticut.

It makes little sense to treat the South at any time before The War as deviant. In territory, population, political and cultural influence the South was the preponderant part of American development during all this period. Postulating a South to be explained as a deviation also leaves the standard of what is normally American undefined and undescribed. It is simply assumed without thought that the North that came into dominance in 1865 is a kind of universal and unquestionable norm against which everything else in the world is to be measured.

We might note that this is the attitude that Americans often take toward the people of other countries. Which causes a lot of trouble, to say the least. People of other countries , when they show insufficient enthusiasm for U.S.-defined global democratic capitalism, sometimes find themselves punished with high explosives dropped out of the sky. Think the bombardment of civilians at Vicksburg and Atlanta and the sack and destruction of Columbia.

Let me suggest that when it is announced that evil Southerners deviate from all that is good and American, we are being measured with an elastic yardstick. America changes so much and so quickly that it is a moving target. Who would have thought even a few years ago that a distaste for sodomite marriage would be un-American? It is a commonplace these days that the South has changed, and it most certainly has, and alas, far too much and in the wrong ways. But I take comfort that it has not changed as much or as badly as to keep up with that which is known as “America.” Many traditional values remain strong among Southerners.

In the 19th century the Yankee elite kept all their over-developed and self-centered righteousness after they lost their Christianity and replaced it with the imported German philosophy of Transcendentalism. Emerson went to Germany to study and came back to announce that “the American,” by which he meant the New Englander, the only one who counted, was “a New Man” who would lead humanity on an upward path. Waldo became a Unitarian and denounced the Christian sacraments as a relic of barbarism. A perfect example of the limousine liberal, he proclaimed a famous oration celebrating the manly “Self-Reliance” of New Englanders shortly after marrying the terminally ill daughter of a banker. He found time, also, to announce that the inhabitants of the Massachusetts penitentiary were superior beings to the leaders of the South. And that the black people would be eliminated by the unstoppable upward march of progress and become extinct like the Dodo. So much for the great righteous Yankee crusade against slavery.

Henry David Thoreau agreed with Waldo Emerson. Thoreau celebrated the great American outdoors from his little pond in sight of the smokestacks of Boston, from which he could always go home to his rich father for laundry and a hot meal. I have been to Walden Pond. It is not much bigger than a large classroom. Meanwhile Southerners like Boone, Crockett, Houston, Lewis and Clark, and countless others were risking life on the glorious mission of penetrating and conquering a dangerous wilderness—including the northern part of the West. An opportunity made possible entirely by Southern statesman and soldiers in the Louisiana Purchase, the battle of New Orleans, the Alamo, the war with Mexico, all of which were bitterly condemned by those great New England defenders of American nationalism. Thoreau found time in his “wilderness” retreat to liken the psychopath serial murderer John Brown to Jesus.

I believe we can see in Emerson the godfather of American rulers and American disturbances that flourish today. When George W. Bush from Connecticut decrees an American crusade for “global democracy” and Hillary Clinton from Chicago insists on the inalienable right to declare yourself whichever sex you want, we see revealed the offspring of that Boston “city on a hill.” The Elect are still at work, exterminating sinners as they did Quakers and Baptists.

The Yankees early on carried on a systematic campaign to give the impression that they were the true Americans. Their writers were American literature, they pretended. The War of Independence was their accomplishment, despite the fact that the war was won in the South by Southerners after it had reached stalemate in the North. Edgar Allan Poe, the Southerner who had more creative genius in his little finger than all the New England writers put together, wrote a very funny piece called “Boston and the Bostonians.” Invited to read in Boston he deliberately read some joke material. The Bostonians pompously condemned his inferior literary qualifications. Poe referred to the New England literary elite as “the Frogpondians,” croaking bullfrogs who thought their little pond was the world.

Compare Boston culture to the Southern variety. Anyone who will look closely at the Southern people during their desperate losing war against conquest will see that they remained incredibly chivalric and humane in conflict with those who were not. General Lee prayed for his enemies. Generals Grant and Sherman did not pray at all.

The Yankee seizure of American myth and history was a near complete success that lasts to this day. Awhile back I saw a docudrama on the Monroe Doctrine. All of the characters except John Quincy Adams were Southerners—Monroe, Clay, Crawford, Jackson, Calhoun. The only one who had a Southern accent was the villain Calhoun. You see, whenever you can use a Southerner favourably, he is not really a Southerner at all but an “American.” He is only Southern if he is a bad image. Thus Southerners are absorbed into “American,” and become non-Southern, unless they are bad.

I saw a program about Washington’s crossing of the Delaware in which George Washington speaks and acts like he was from Ohio and the heroes are troops from Massachusetts, which is a very incomplete story. And a docudrama about the plain democratic John Adams has him antislavery in 1776, in contrast to a fop from South Carolina. The real John Adams wrote that Southern slaves were as well off as the lowest class of Northern workers, that the argument over “slavery” was about words rather than realities. And he told Jefferson, late in life at the time of the Missouri controversy, that he was willing to leave the issue of slavery entirely to Southern men whose concern it was. And in the noisy TV series “The Sons of Liberty” I do not think we will ever see Sam Adams as a slave owner who brought his people with him when he came to Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence.

This Yankee conquest, distortion, and self-flattering of American history is an inexhaustible subject. There is vast evidence for what I am saying, much more than I can possibly present here. Let me recommend my little book THE YANKEE PROBLEM: AN AMERICAN DILEMMA, just published by Shotwell for more on this subject.

American government and society today are controlled by people who think that the ideas floating around in their heads can be imposed on reality. Somehow, we have a duty to transform ourselves into those fantastical pictures. And the federal government, which was conceived as a limited Constitutional power, somehow has the right to force us into this nightmare. It is an impossible delusion, but the effort to impose such always leads to coercion. We see more and more the intention to punish free thought and free speech that does not conform to the ideological fantasies of the moment. We are literally governed by the insane. What civilized and Christian society would think it a mark of progress to send women into war?

Contrast the Southern tradition which is reflected in Southern literature and in public opinion polls which show that Southerners, despite all the infiltration we have suffered, are still the only large group of Americans firmly traditional in their values. It would seem from recent trends, the success of candidate Donald Trump, that a good part of the ordinary people outside of the South are waking up to the insanity. Through American history, whenever there have been good times, it has been when there was unity of the South and the Northern plain folk against the Yankee elite. That is what is really meant by Jeffersonian Democracy and Jacksonian Democracy despite historians’ relentless labour to mischaracterize those good periods of American history.

Note that the lunatics I am describing, unlike Southerners, have no sense of humour. Can you imagine Bush minor or Ms. Clinton laughing at themselves or admitting guilt for a really serious mistake? Southerners still have a sense of humour, can still laugh at themselves, and have a Christian view of reality in a largely post-Christian society—that we are all sinners and there is no perfection to be had in this earthly realm. A sense of humour, including an ability to laugh at yourself, is a sign of mature and civilized people. The United States is desperately in need of what is Southern at the very time that the ruling powers are doing all they can to banish us from existence.

Abbeville needs to do a conference on the great creative genius of Southern humour as it shows up the shortcomings of what General Lee politely called “Those People.” We could also use a conference on Southern manners.

The brilliant Southern theologian Robert Lewis Dabney remarked during Reconstruction that Northern conservatives had never in the entire course of American history conserved anything. The conservative philosopher Russell Kirk observed that in the United States “an acquisitive instinct” had often been mistaken for a “conservative disposition.” The Northern-dominated Republican party has always represented that acquisitive instinct and has never been a force for the preservation of a healthy society. Preservation of Robert Beverley’s lovely land is what the South fought so fiercely and sacrificially for and what was lost at Appomattox.

John C. Calhoun, America’s greatest political thinker, said in 1838: “I have long regarded the South as the balance wheel of our beautiful, but complex system of government. . . indispensable to the working of the whole machine.” He had in mind the evident tensions between big capitalists and the rest of the population in the North, but also the fact that the Northern elite, from time to time, every other generation or so, goes crazy with vicious purifying zeal against the normal.

The Northern elite who dominate American society have no roots—which is why they can blithely ship American jobs and capital abroad for a marginally increased profit. They also have no real culture or religion. Thus their natural human search for meaning makes them prey to ideological fads like the rabid Federalism of the early Republic and the pseudo-religious abolitionist crusade. This has happened repeatedly in American history whenever the Southern tradition has been weak. We had such a period of insanity known as The Sixties. We are suffering through another regime of crazed abstractions right now, when our rulers live under the delusion that they can manage the earth and that the fundamentals of nature such as male and female can be abolished at will.

Until recent times Southern Democrats filled the role of conservatism in the national agenda. Now there are no Southerners in Congress, only Democrats and Republicans. The South has become merely a rotten borough of both national political parties, and there is no preservative force left.
But only the Southern tradition can provide the base to restrain these empowered destroyers of society. It is past time for the Southern tradition, the last best hope of America, to rise again.

Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books.

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