Recovering Southern History

Every historian has a viewpoint, shaped by his own background, values, and perception of the present. The relationship between background and viewpoint is not necessarily simple. As in the case of Supreme Court nominees, one cannot always predict in advance in what direction a historians background, modified by research and thought, will lead. At any rate, we properly measure a historian’s value, not by the degree to which he conforms to our own viewpoint, but rather by his observance of the canons of evidence and honest debate, and by his imaginative insight. Thus, to acknowledge that U.B. Phillips grew up in post-Civil War Georgia is a relevant datum in assessing his work as a historian of American slavery. However, it does not, as some seem to feel, constitute an all sufficient indictment of that work, any more than the fact that Kenneth M. Stampp grew up in the twentieth century in a German community in Wisconsin necessarily guarantees him superior objectivity and insight as a historian of slavery.

If history teaches anything at all, it is that there is more than one side to a question. In fact, it has always seemed to me that the chief functional value and social utility of the study of history (not that it needs such justification) is that it can make more tolerant and foresighted citizens by disabusing us of the shallow, deterministic ideas that are a characteristic intellectual error of the modern age and especially of Americans. Such determinism creates social havoc by substituting ideological combat for moral struggle and denies human existence its ennobling contingency. Rather than appeal to preordained forces, honorable historians openly acknowledge that they have values in conflict and pursue the conflict frankly, if possible keeping it within the bounds of mutually acknowledged rules. If they do so. they can hope to construct a history that will be useful and instructive over a long range to the thoughtful, whether they share the viewpoint or not.

By contrast, the ineluctable penchant of the ideologue is for a sneak attack that obliterates the enemy in advance of declared hostilities. The ideologue is not interested in drawing understanding or inspiration from history, but in the manipulation of unreflected symbols for a quick, present-centered victory. Disagreement, or different values, become, in his book, a manifestation of evil, an incitement to extermination. The close relation of this attitude to those totalitarian deformations of reality that mark our age is evident, even when the practitioner goes under the guise of a “democrat.” By such an attitude, the ideologue, usually but not always in our time the devotee of a progressivist program, not only proves himself incapable of historical thinking. He also poisons the wells of honest deliberation that are essential, as the Southerner John C. Calhoun long ago pointed out, to social comity and the process of consensus formation in a democracy. The factor of mind that closes out a free historical debate on the causes and meaning of the Civil War. by an appeal to inevitability or a sloganeering oversimplification of the moral issues involved, is exactly the same factor that makes electronic journalists incapable of a fair statement of the public questions of the day.

Nowhere has the power of ideological convention and presentism to choke off the examination of evidence and honorable debate been more persistent and pervasive than in regard to the issues surrounding the Civil War and Reconstruction and the “peculiar” history of the Southern region. This closure of debate is a critical defect in our self-understanding as a people because the great sectional conflict of the nineteenth century, despite all that has passed since, is still the central episode of our history as Americans. Slavery and the position of the black minority in American society; industrialization, centralization and modernization; the meaning of the Constitution; the bounds of government authority and individual liberty; the claims of tradition and innovation, social reality and social ideals; the nature of majority rule and consensus — there is no basic issue, except possibly our international role, for which the Civil War does not contain the fundamental knot of debate.

Despite the vast resources devoted to historical investigation, the American mind has never been fully liberated from the conventions that were formed to justify the new settlement that accompanied the victory in battle. (Professor Ludwell Johnson has written persuasively on the persistence of such conventions.) The Civil War still cannot be acknowledged as an honest disagreement, or viewed with the historical detachment with which a good English historian, say. can view his civil war. The ideologues sense that to grant the chivalrous concession of a fair argument of the merits of the losing side is to fatally compromise the scenario of leftward inevitability that constitutes their fundamental and unexaminable scheme of the course of American history.

Thus, the South, though it is hard to imagine any part of America more original or authentic, must be held at arm’s length, explicable only as a peculiarity. Thus, the ideals formulated in the seventeenth century on Massachusetts Bay are America, by premise; those formulated at the same time on the Chesapeake Bay (though they may have had an equal or greater and possibly a more constructive role in the formation of America) are at best an interesting, at worst a malevolent, deviance. The Civil War must remain a contest of good America over bad America, of the mainstream over the deviant, even though, in terms of the larger experience of mankind, it is the mainstream that may be perceived as “peculiar.”

Historiographically. my point is proved by the present reputations of James G. Randall and Avery O. Craven. Randall was an Illinoisian who devoted a scholarly career of great skill and dedication to elucidating Lincoln. Craven was an Iowa Quaker who made the most profound, thorough, and objective study of sectional conflict ever undertaken. Both are at this writing largely relegated to the historiographical dustbin as “pro-Southern” and therefore unworthy of attention. In fact, neither was in the least pro-Southern. (Jefferson Davis would have considered them incurably anti-Southern.) They represented the viewpoint, rather, of moderate Northerners, a viewpoint embodied, at least part of the time, by Lincoln himself, a viewpoint which has perhaps always represented the largest, though not the most aggressively argued, segment of American opinion toward the Civil War and Reconstruction.

As historians Randall and Craven did not close out the case in advance by appeal to the inevitability of conflict of good and evil, but rather sought to comprehend the course of events for a larger understanding. Randall’s Lincoln is designed to emphasize his oneness with the moderate rather than the radical North. Craven was even able to comprehend why those who sought radical change in society and who demonized their opponents were in some sense responsible for conflict, rather than all the guilt belonging to those who merely wished to preserve what was lawful and familiar and to which no constructive alternative was offered. By the reigning canons of historiography, a historian must be committed, not only to a Northern position, but to a Radical Republican one, or be conclusively dismissed as “pro-Southern.”

How much more difficult, then, for a historian who cannot, at least not without hypocrisy, escape an authentic Southern viewpoint. Whatever his scholarly integrity or imaginative power, such a historian has a hard row to hoe. Professor Grady McWhiney’s account of the careers of two such. Francis Butler Simkins and Frank L. Owsley, is a significant contribution to the self-understanding of American historians. It is also an important contribution to the self-understanding of American conservatism. As historians, Simkins and Owsley are indispensable to the construction of any counter-leftist scenario of American history.

Simkins’s great point was a rejection of the totalist notion that America had to be all one thing or all the other: that the South, indeed, had often preferred to be different and had a perfect right to do so. It was a modest and indeed a wholly democratic proposition. Is it not exceedingly strange in a society that prides itself on its pluralism and hunts out and celebrates every conceivable minority, that the most important minority by far in American history, the South (whether considered by geography, population, culture, or historical import), remains untolerated? Owsley even more fundamentally threatened the reigning progressivist scenario. His Plain Folk of the Old South, which has been often attacked but never refuted, is a key document in any conservative (not consensus) account of American history. Simply put, his point is that the Old South was not an evil oligarchy that had to be suppressed because by its nature it was a threat to mainstream American democracy. Rather, the Old South was an essentially consensual society that provided a legitimate alternative version of American democracy.

No more fundamental challenge than Owsley’s has ever been offered to the Liberal conception of American history, for this always reduces, at bottom, to a scenario in which presidential Lone Rangers gallop in to save democracy from the dark forces of reaction: that is. the progressive scheme draws its persuasiveness from an appeal to the necessity of the righteous suppression of a rightward enemy who prevents the realization of the next, inevitable and higher, stage of progress. Deprive the forces of “progress” of their diabolized enemy and they lose much of their momentum.

Owsley and Simkins are conspicuous examples of historians who never repudiated their identity as Southerners. (Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a valuable historian who is not in some sense a patriot.) But there were many others who have enriched American historiography. One who might receive equally illuminating treatment is E. Merton Coulter, who turned out a steady stream of able and still useful monographs and surveys on many aspects of the history of the Old South, and who successfully combined professionalism and piety. Also worthy of similar attention is Douglas Southall Freeman, who memorialized the heroes of the War for Southern Independence in works that are masterpieces of American historical writing. Freeman was the only unequivocally Southern historian to enjoy wide acclaim, through the historical accident that his works appeared during the World War II era when the record of authentic American heroism seemed, for the moment, to be relevant and expedient.

It is rather clear to the thoughtful Southerner that the South has symbolically played the role of scapegoat for mainstream America. Southern history, rather than being understood on its own terms, has been a kind of colonial resource, from which raw materials have been drawn when needed. At various times, the liberal and conservative poles of mainstream America have joined to execrate the South as an obstacle to national imperatives. At other times one or the other has looked to the South for convenient allies. Put in a more positive light, this makes, as Calhoun observed, the South the indispensable balance wheel of the Union, which prevents centrifugal pressures from exploding the whole machine.

This tendency to use the South as a convenient resource has created curious conventions in American historiography. A conservative who dislikes Jefferson, for instance, points out that he was after all a Southern slaveowner, and therefore naturally had corrupt and debased ideas of the just commonwealth. If one wants to use Jefferson as a positive figure, one skips over, as lightly as possible, the same fact that he was, in his primary social identity, a Virginia planter. Or. in a more sophisticated version of the game, one suddenly finds Jefferson inconsistent and hypocritical, discovering that he was not what one wanted him to be. But the inconsistency is in the viewpoint of the beholder, not in Jefferson, who was what he was. A similar game was played recently in the obituaries of Senator Sam Ervin. Commentators were unable to reconcile the constitutionalist of Watergate with the opponent of liberal notions of civil rights. But the combination is far more authentically American than that of the commentators, and. from the standpoint of tradition, thoroughly consistent. Such games strike deep wounds in our ability to grasp the integrity of the past. Or, if one dislikes some of the social characteristics of the Southwest, they are, of course, “Southern.” If one likes them, then they, of course, could not be “Southern” but must be “Western.” In fact, the phenomenon in question is both, the one ingredient as indispensable as the other. The division that is made is an empty semanticism. To the extent that the American West exists as something more than a place to raise cattle, it exists as the frontier sphere of the Southern ethos. One only has to note that our most famous Western characterization in fiction, after all, has as its hero The Virginian, or to scrutinize with some cultural sensitivity the difference between Texas and South Dakota.

The most glaring example that occurs to me of the colonialist attitude is in the conduct of the mandarins of the Washington liberal establishment. Though they have no more firmly held and consistently pursued idea than hatred of the South and all its effects, they flock, whenever possible, to the ancient Southern townhouses of Georgetown or Alexandria, there to bask in the reflected glory of the interiors, and sometimes of the very family portraits, of departed and derided Southern planters. Able to generate no respect not dependent upon the direct application of money and power, they derive vicarious respectability from a class whose influence on the formation of America, by their own belief, was wholly baneful. In all the replete annals of social hypocrisy, few tales surpass this.

It is easy to understand why the privileged liberal desires to close out consideration of the possible positive role of the South in American history, for his position depends upon a pose as the defender of the oppressed. But for self-declared conservatives to do so strikes the Southerner as extremely peculiar, though this is exactly what has routinely happened. Professor M.E. Bradford, who as a scholar undertook to point out to American conservatives (irrefutably on the evidence) some of the mischief in Lincoln’s historical and constitutional views, was read out of the conservative camp by a born-again conservative newspaper columnist who had, only a few years previously, been an advocate of McGovernism. Straussian political scientists, thought to be a conservative force, have made strenuous efforts to equate the Old South with Nazi Germany. If anyone attempts to show the historical merits and conservative usefulness of the Southern view of the Constitution and the meaning of American society, he is invariably attacked by the Straussians who keep a flying squad on alert for this purpose, as an amoral “historicist” who gives precedence to circumstance over ideal. Apparently the only moral approach to the meaning of America is allegiance to a verbalistic exegesis of certain selected phrases of certain documents, which in some mysterious unhistoricist way contain the revealed meaning of America, however much the revelation may be contradicted by actual life and tradition.

To the Southerner, such efforts seem perverse and self-defeating, if the goal is to establish a persuasive conservative genealogy. To him it is self-evident that any viable American conservatism must incorporate the South. (And therefore that the readers of a professedly conservative historical journal will be interested in a recovery of some of the elements of Southern history.) Just as a practical matter, one might argue, the first conservative President of the century owes much of his conservatism to the residue of state rights and laissez-faire beliefs in the Democratic Party which formed him rather than to the energetic, Hamiltonian traditions of the Republican Party in which history has forced him to work out his destiny. Most certainly the core of his original grassroots support, as opposed to the vast legions which joined him during the progress of his success, was in terms of its inheritance as much Southern-tinged as it was traditionally Republican.

In a newly conservative climate, the effort to exclude the South from the emergent establishment creates some intellectual fashions that seem exceedingly odd to the historically minded. One may discuss the restoration of strict construction, limited government, and laissez-faire, for instance, as if they were discovered yesterday and without noticing even in passing the historic embodiment of those principles in the South. In fact, the political history of the Old South is very largely concerned with an effort to prevent tariffs, internal improvements, currency manipulation, pensions, and subsidies, which effort was condemned as legalistic obscurantism by the pragmatic, conservative business interests at the time.

Or, one may plump for a recovery of aristocratic ethics or classical education or a sense of family, without even a moment’s reflection that the South held onto these notions long after they had been derided elsewhere as hopelessly behind the times and unprogressive. Or one may reject Utopian solutions to social problems and moral imperialism, and yet also reject the Old South as fascist or irrelevant for having done just that in the most authentic and conspicuously sustained effort in American history.

No one is likely to accept the Southern tradition whole cloth today, but for those who are searching for a genuine American conservatism to condemn its historic embodiment in the South while postulating a conservative ideology that is as abstract and flawed as its progressivist counterpart, will seem to many of us, to whom tradition and historical experience are central to the conservative idea, to be a strangely compromised endeavor. It is not only inexpedient, but it requires a celebration of theory over experience that negates the concept of conservatism.

There are underway at the present a variety of historical efforts that, without any deliberate concert, are making possible a recovery of important aspects of Southern history. Professors McWhiney and Forrest McDonald have described, in a number of works, a “Celtic” South. By this I take them to mean that the South has enjoyed a way of life that received its formative values from a different part of British culture than did that strange amalgam of abstract moralism and ruthless utilitarianism, inexactly labeled Puritanism, that dominated Massachusetts and ultimately was taken to stand for the American mind. Raimondo Luraghi, an Italian, has pointed to the existence of a “seigneurial” society in the Old South which differed in significant ways from the world of the bourgeoisie. The lively Marxist Eugene Genovese has portrayed an authentic paternalistic tradition in the slave South.

In American historiography there is a growing and sophisticated body of literature on “republicanism” aimed at recovering the actual beliefs and Weltanschauung of the Founders. This emphasis has naturally led to a realization of the persistence of “republicanism” in the outlook of the South. This realization has inevitably led further, to a rediscovery of the complexity of Southern political thought, long dismissed as a simplistic defense of an outdated regime. Along with this rediscovery has gone a revisionist appreciation of the intellectual life of the South, which is most conspicuous in the works of Richard Beale Davis and Michael O’Brien.

Most recently, and from unexpected quarters, has come a new attention to the hallowed western tradition of chivalric honor as a lasting influence in the South. Even though, as Dr. Thomas Fleming has pointed out, the scholar who has taken on this topic has hopelessly confused two different phenomena-aristocratic ethics and community conformity. The absence of one in current American society explains low standards of political and intellectual ethics. The absence of the other accounts for massive moral breakdown. But perhaps the confusion of the two is not entirely unhappy, for both have perversely endured in the South, to the extent that the South has resisted or modified “modernization.” (Honor was much better defined by Burckhardt—”that enigmatic mixture of conscience and egotism.”)

The persistence of traditional folkways and attitudes, including orthodox Christian belief, in the South has been widely documented, most articulately in the works of the humanist sociologist John Shelton Reed. Finally, there is always with us the historical vision of Southern literature. Even the black experience is coming to be seen as not so wholly antagonistic to Southern history nor so wholly compatible with Northern as was once thought, as is evidenced by such recent works as John Boles’s Black Southerners. This exhibits some of the possibilities of revisionist and restorative views of Southern history, though it by no means exhausts the possibilities.

These different approaches are not necessarily antagonistic alternatives. It can be argued that they are all compatible and are essentially apprehensions of different aspects of the same historical reality. This reality is also compatible with that phenomenon eloquently described by Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind as “The Valor of the South.” The reality in many ways runs athwart the course of mainstream America. Yet the reality is an authentic component of America and of American history, if America is something more than a protean abstraction that is to be made to mean anything that is desired. Just to the extent that we are dissatisfied with contemporary America, we ought to be impelled to reconsider an older and better version, which is, in some senses at least, a persistent feature of the history of the American South.

This piece was originally published in 1984.

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