French Conservatives and the Southern Tradition

Part of the blood that flows through the veins of the Southern ethnos is French blood, both of the high-born that settled in places like New Orleans and the plainer folk like the Cajuns of Acadiana and the Huguenots of South Carolina.  This being so, and it also being the case that all true sons and daughters of the South are engaged in trying to roll back a revolution imposed on them by the Yankees/proto-globalists in 1865, Dixie stands to gain quite a lot from the study of the French traditionalists who stood against the French Revolution of 1789.  We will take a look at the writings of two of these great men in this essay, Louis de Bonald (1754-1840) and Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821). 

Since Bonald is the more concrete and practical of the two, we will begin with him.  And right away the South will find in him a firm friend, as he strikes at the heart of the Yankee ideal for society – i.e., every individual becoming as rich as he can – while offering a healthy, Christian alternative to it.  The way he judges a culture’s goodness is similar to the South’s own non-commercial criteria such as manners, hospitality, the quality of the cooking, and so on:

To consider wealth in nations:  Does not extreme misery go hand in hand with extreme opulence?  Is not the nation with the most millionaires always the one that contains the most paupers?  . . .  I repeat:  The wealth of a nation is its strength, and its strength is in its constitution, its morals, and its laws, and not in its money.  One can even be certain that given equal territory and population, the more opulent nation, that is to say the more commercial one, will be the weaker, because it will be the more corrupt, and that with the worst of all corruptions, the corruption of greed (‘Political Reflections on Money and Lending at Interest’, The True & Only Wealth of Nations: Essays on Family, Economy & Society, C. O. Blum, translator, Naples, Fl., Sapientia Press, 2006, p. 57).

Just prior to this last quote, Bonald says something that will also ring true with Southerners, vis-à-vis the idea that a nation is not simply ‘a collection of individuals’:  ‘One may instead defend the view that a nation is, as a society, something greater than a collection of individuals’ (p. 61).  And, truly, Bonald strives to show that the family, not the individual, is at the foundation of a country.  Claude Polin explains Bonald’s belief thusly:

First the individual is not only a destructor of society, he is also a sort of fake substance; no man is an island, all men are born and raised in families, which is the original natural society that corresponds to the social nature of man.  The family, not the individual, is therefore the basic brick of the social building, and anything that endangers the family, like divorce, also endangers the whole society.  . . .  Second, within the family lies the first model of the authority necessary to unite the social body; the benevolent altruistic authority of the father, which, though not devoid of coercive power, is inspired by the love of his offspring, the paternal authority aiming at nothing but to serve (‘Foreword:  In Defense of Louis de Bonald or the Nature of Human Societies’, Ibid., p. xiv).

But it is not just the isolated nuclear family cut off from its past that protects society from decay.  It is the family with a long memory of the generations that have come before it:

Each man has it in himself to be almost immortal, for families are but everlasting individuals.  Families are the channel through which habits can be transmitted and turned into the personal traditions to which the heirs become linked by honor and duty.  True societies last because they do not need individuals eager to show off their abilities so much as long lines of sons picking up the job after their fathers’ demise, with a sense of fulfilling an office.  To do this they do not need talent so much as virtue.  If virtue is a habit then obviously time can consolidate virtue, not only through individuals but mainly through families whose life span is indefinite.  Once there are enough families endowed with respect for their own traditions, a society is really founded and built to perpetuate itself.  Thus nature wants societies to hold together by a double bond:  a spirit of public service on one hand, hereditary functions on the other (Polin, p. xviii).

A family extended thus through long ages of time is not a mental abstraction.  It needs an actual physical place in which to exist:

Families being the bricks natural society is built with, it is only natural that property become the mortar that binds them together and also holds each of them together.  Bonald’s idea is, as usual, as simple as it is common sense:  By nature there is no family where there is no family home, or more generally “propriété de famille.”  . . .  The long possession of an estate, large or small, is the visible symbol of its continuity, that is to say, of its subsistence through time, and therefore of its very historical reality.  Everyone has a family that dates back millennia; everyone goes back to Adam.  But no family is as traceable, as obviously an entity by itself, as the family whose ancestors already owned the same building centuries ago.  Is it necessary to note how all that points to landed property as the type of property most befitting its natural purpose?  Bonald’s natural society is made up of landed families—which was still the common idea behind those famous races that took place during the American conquest of the west in which everyone could compete for a piece of uninhabited land.  And it should be mentioned Bonald wished such ownership to be shared by the greatest possible number of citizens (Polin, p. xx).

The idea of the Southern plantation in particular, and the Southerner’s love of his family’s homeplace in general, is well reflected in Bonald’s thinking.

But how can landed property, and the farming economy of which it is a part, be protected from the encroachments of industrialism?  Bonald’s answer is quite unique and worthy of our attention – he recommends that societies arrange things so that one profits more from agriculture than from commerce/industry; and to do this it is necessary to fix interest rates so that they do not exceed the percentage of revenue that is produced from the land:

If the profits of commerce regularly rise far above the revenue of the land, it would be a wise measure to bring them back to equality, either by favoring the cultivation of the earth in every possible way, or by containing the speculations of commerce within the limits of general utility.  Otherwise commerce will take the lead over landed property, and the businessman will be more politically imposing than the landowner.  The land will be abandoned for the cash register, and money, exclusively reserved for mercantile enterprises, will no longer give life to agriculture, the first and noble occupation of man, the nourishing mother of mankind, and the foundation of every resource and every virtue of society.

It would therefore be contrary to the nature of things, and consequently contrary to the interest of society, if where the soil produces annually for the landowner only a twentieth, money were to return a tenth, a fifth, or a quarter.

The government, therefore, should not allow interest to rise above the legal rate, but it should always let it fall below it.  The more that landed property holds an advantage over the possession of money, and the more the condition of the landowner is esteemed and sought after, the more one seeks to pass from the mobile condition of the capitalist to the fixed and secure condition of the landowner (‘Political Reflections on Money and Lending at Interest’, pgs. 38-9).

All of this fits very well within the Southern agrarian ethos.

Having taken a look at the social and economic aspects of Bonald’s thought, let us turn now to the political and religious outlook of Joseph de Maistre and how this relates to Southern ways. 

The idea of the extended republic is key to those who support the current constitution of the union of the States written in 1787.  But Maistre is emphatic:  There is no such thing; it is in fact a self-contradiction.  ‘Can the French Republic Last?’, he asks in the title to Chapter Four of his short book Considerations on France.  He answers,

It would be better to ask whether the Republic can exist.  The assumption is made, but too hastily, and the preliminary question seems quite justified, for nature and history together prove that a large indivisible republic is an impossibility.  A small number of republicans closed up within the walls of a city can undoubtedly have millions of subjects; this was the case with Rome.  But a large and free nation cannot exist under republican government.  . . .

What could have been said to the French to get them to believe in a republic of twenty-four million people?  Two things only: (1) nothing prevents us from doing something that has never been seen before; (2) the discovery of the representative system makes possible for us what was impossible for our predecessors.  . . .

Well then!  Let us run through history; there you will see so-called Fortune tirelessly throwing the die for over four thousand years.  Has LARGE REPUBLIC ever been rolled?  No.  Therefore, that number is not on the die.

 . . .

As for the representative system, which some people believe capable of resolving the problem, I hope I will be pardoned for a digression.

Let us begin by noting that this system is by no means a modern discovery, but was a production, or better, a piece, of feudal government when the latter attained that state of maturity and equilibrium which made it, all things considered, the most perfect in the world.

Having formed the communes, the royal authority called them to the national assemblies; they could appear there only through their mandatories, and this is how the representative system began (Considerations on France, R. A. Lebrun, translator and editor, Cambridge, United Kingdom, Cambridge UP, 2006, pgs. 32-4).

The Southern preference for feudalism, for an organically grown and interconnected hierarchy of classes, rather than for abstract forms of government drawn up on paper is here justified. 

Furthermore, the exercise of real sovereignty by ‘the people’ is illusory in the large republic:

The recent commission that was charged with proposing a method of national representation estimated the French population at thirty million.  . . .  Each year, according to the terms of the constitution, two hundred and fifty members of the legislative body will be replaced by two hundred and fifty others.  So if the assumed fifteen million males in the population were immortal, qualified as representatives, and named in rotation, then each Frenchmen would exercise his turn at national sovereignty once in every sixteen thousand years.  But since some men cannot be prevented from dying from time to time in this interval, and since moreover, some people may be elected more than once, and since many individuals, by nature and good sense, will always be ineligible as national representatives, the imagination is staggered by the prodigious number of sovereigns condemned to die without having reigned (p. 36).

Power in the extended republic will always lie with those who sit in the national capital, not with ‘the people’ (p. 37).  The Southern experience with Washington City only serves to confirm this.

Also like the South, Maistre insists that constitutions are not created but the products of time, experience, and a host of complex issues:

What is a constitution?  Is it not merely the solution of the following problem?  Given the population, the mores, the religion, the geographic situation, the political circumstances, the wealth, the good and the bad qualities of a particular nation, to find the laws that suit it (‘On Divine Influence in Political Constitutions’, p. 53).

Striking at the very heart of the tragically flawed Philadelphia Constitution itself, Maistre adds,

Nevertheless, it is a truth as certain in its way as a mathematical proposition that no great human institution results from deliberation and that human works are fragile in proportion to the number of men involved in their construction and to the degree to which science and reasoning have been employed a priori (‘Evidence of the Incapacity of the Present French Government’, p. 57).

Only what has a foundation in God, Maistre says, only what is created in cooperation with God, including political institutions, will last (‘The French Revolution Considered in its Antireligious Character’, p. 41).

For Maistre, the proof that a government is in harmony with the God-given order of the world is that it will be content to be still at times:

A legislator resembles the Creator by not working all the time; he creates and then he rests.  All true legislative action has its Sabbath, and intermittence is its distinctive characteristic.  Ovid thus announced a truth of the first order when he said Quod caret alterna requie durabile non est [That which lacks its alternations of repose will not endure] (‘Incapacity’, p. 54).

Echoing Patrick Henry at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Maistre describes this deterioration of government institutions (which also paints a picture that closely resembles the political situation in the States today):

Open your eyes and you will see that it does not live.  What an enormous machine!  What a multiplicity of springs and clockwork!  What a fracas of pieces clanging away!  What an immense number of men employed to repair the damage!  Everything tells us there is nothing natural in these movements, for the primary characteristic of the creations of nature is power accompanied by an economy of means.  Everything being in its place, there are no jerks or bumps, friction is low, and there is no noise, only majestic silence.  So it is that in the mechanism of nature, perfect balance, equilibrium, and exact symmetry of parts give even rapid movement the satisfying appearance of repose.

Therefore sovereignty does not exist in France.  Everything is artificial and violent, and it all announces that such an order of things cannot last (pgs. 56-7).

The obsession with writing thousands of new laws and rules every year, which we find at whatever level of government in the current involuntary union of States, is heartily denounced by Maistre:

The more that is written, the weaker the institution becomes, and the reason for this is clear.  Laws are only declarations of rights, and rights are declared only when they are attacked, so that a multiplicity of written constitutional laws proves only a multiplicity of conflicts and the danger of destruction.

This is why the most vigorous political system of secular antiquity was that of Sparta, in which nothing was written (‘Divine Influence’, p. 50).

But if the current Yankee system, like the Revolutionary system of France, is so unnatural, why has it become so strong?  Maistre would have us seek the answer in God’s Providence.  When nothing can obstruct a phenomenon, when mediocre and even immoral men and women are at its head, then we may be assured that God is using it for His own purposes:

In short, the more one examines the apparently active personages in the Revolution, the more one finds in them something passive and mechanical.  We cannot repeat too often that men do not lead the Revolution; it is the Revolution that uses men.  They are right when they say it goes all alone.  This phrase means that never has the Divinity shown itself so clearly in any human event.  If the vilest instruments are employed, punishment is for the sake of regeneration (‘Of Revolutions’, pgs. 7-8).

If one wants to know the probable result of the French Revolution, it suffices to examine that which united all parties.  They have all wanted the debasement, even the destruction, of the universal Church and the monarchy, from which it follows that all their efforts will culminate in the glorification of Christianity and the monarchy (‘How Will the Counter-Revolution Happen if it Comes?’, p. 80).

Southerner! When you see the Yankee Empire blighting and marring our beloved Dixieland and the treasures of her inherited customs, when you see it striding the world like an invincible iron colossus, remember these words of Maistre!  It will endure only until it has fulfilled the purposes God has for it.  Then it will collapse in a moment.  ‘Then you will be astonished by the profound nullity of these men who appeared so powerful’ (Ibid, p. 81).

Remember the words of General Robert E. Lee, echoing the words of Maistre:

My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them or indisposed me to serve them; nor in spite of failures, which I lament, of errors which I now see and acknowledge; or of the present aspect of affairs; do I despair of the future. The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.

The Yankee Empire, then, like the Revolutionary Empire of the French Jacobins, will one day bring about the very opposite of its present goals:  the restoration of salutary traditions in religion, politics, economics, family, and all the rest.  By reading the wisdom the Counter-Revolutionaries of France like our cousins Bonald and Maistre have left behind and putting as much of it as we can into practice, the South can prepare herself for that day (and hopefully hasten its arrival).  Only let us not grow weary and faithless as we wait for it to dawn upon us.

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