Robert Lewis Dabney and the New South Creed

Only a few prominent Southerners actively questioned the call for the rapid industrialization of the South or pointed to the broader implications involved in such a policy after the Confederacy’s defeat in 1865. Of those who rejected what came to be called “the New South Creed,” Robert Lewis Dabney stands out as the most significant and the most deserving of reconsideration.

Born of aristocratic Virginia parents in 1820, Dabney was reared in a staunchly “old school” Presbyterian home in Louisa County. A student at Hampden-Sydney College and the University of Virginia in the early 1840s, he was according to historian Francis Butler Simkins, “the Virginia gentleman par excellence.” Ordained and licensed to preach by the Union Theological Seminary then on the Hampden-Sydney campus, Dabney led an active life as a pastor in the Shenandoah Valley before the War Between the States. His prominence as a minister and thinker brought him back to Union in the 1850s, where his influence as a teacher became profound. During the war he served as chaplain and chief-of-staff to Stonewall Jackson, later penning a successful biography of the famous commander.

Dabney never got over the defeat of the South. The War for Southern Independence had been waged he said, “to save the liberties transmitted by our fathers.” But in 1865 the South lay prostrate, its proud people defeated, its institutions and traditions uprooted. The Old South of agrarian virtues had been bested by modernity in the form of Northern bayonets. A “New South” would arise in the 1870’s and the 1880’s. It was Dabney’s role during these years, holding fast to unshakeable convictions of his civilization, to question the basic values of this “New South.” “I am the Cassandra of Yankeedom predestined to prophesy truth and never to be believed, until too late,” he exclaimed in 1894.

The tenets of the New South Creed Robert Dabney attacked— whether industrialism, monopoly, educational reform, or religious heresy— had existed in the South before the war. In those days, however, plantation agriculture had been the unchallenged king. Now defeat had given rise to strong doubts as to the basis for Southern society. The North had proved the value of industry in the recent conflict. There was a realization that, in the words of Carolina planter Ben Allston, “We must begin at the beginning. We must make a new start.” Already in the years immediately following the war at least one prominent Southern magazine advocated a reorientation of Southern economics. DeBow’s Review of New Orleans had championed a policy of Southern nationalism and industrial development before the war. The conflict’s outcome confirmed for editor J. D. B. DeBow the necessity of manufacturing for the South’s future: “We have got to go to manufacturing to save ourselves… Every new furnace or factory is the nucleus of a town, to which every needed service is sure to come from the neighborhood or from abroad. Factories and works established establish other factories and works.”

DeBow was soon joined by other Southerners in positing an economic cure for the problems of defeat: Edwin DeLeon in Putnam’s and Harper’s, Bishop Atticus G. Haygood in his homilies, and Henry Watterson in his Louisville Courier Journal. But it was the young Henry W. Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution in the 1880’s, who became the real prophet and symbol of the New South Creed. Grady, from a Unionist family, studied at South Carolina College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, working later in Northern iron mills. Paul Gaston in his The New South Creed says of him, “commercial in its essence, young Grady’s world was built on bristle, energy, and shrewdness, and he experienced none of the genteel leisure allegedly characteristic of the planter class which had led his region into the war.” In 1882 Grady moved to Charlotte to begin a meteoric if short career in New South journalism.

For all these “new” Southerners, Progress with a capital “P” was the key to success. The fate of the South was inextricably linked to the national tide of industrialization and modernization. The South would have to offer the manufacturer natural resources and raw materials, cheap labor, and favorable legislation. In turn, the manufacturer would bring jobs, diversification, and above all, cash wealth. New railways, new businesses, and new immigrants would stream south. The South must show itself ready and eager for industrial development and Northern capital, said Grady. The South would have to discard previously-held beliefs and practices when they conflicted with these new ways.

The attacks Dabney launched on the New South came as a part of a larger critique. As his biographer Thomas Cary Johnson has pointed out, Dabney was a servant of God first and primarily. Preaching, teaching, writing tomes of theology and philosophy were his major concerns. His volumes Practical Philosophy and Sensualistic Philosophy of the Nineteenth Century and his membership in the Royal Philosophical Society of Great Britain attest to his expertise in philosophy and religion. It was only after his election to the chair of Moral Philosophy (and later Political Economy) in the University of Texas in 1883 that he really began any systematic exposition on the problems of the New South.

Actually, Dabney had criticized the growth of industrialization in the South as early as 1868. But it was only in 1882 that he gave his famous address “The New South” at Hampden-Sydney. In this address Dabney excoriated the new creed. He began by restating his firmly-held belief in state sovereignty, strict constitutionalism, and natural social hierarchy. “But,” Dabney exclaimed, “this century has seen all this reversed, not because the old forms were not good enough for this day, but because, they were too good for it.” On a primary level the existence of true human rights had been distorted by a base and deceptive egalitarianism. There was only one kind of equality, Dabney repeated, and that was moral equality, the equality of souls before God and His laws, the equality of souls responsible and culpable in those spheres of existence suited to each. The attempt to reverse this natural order of things would result eventually in the inversion of the social order.

Secondly, Dabney attacked the growth of financial oligarchy. This is perhaps the most important segment of “The New South” address. Here Dabney drew a comparison between the United States in 1789 and in 1882. In the former year no one city, no one or two states, no few corporations controlled a majority of the wealth. But in 1882 the city of New York had become the “commercial mistress” of the whole nation. Asked Dabney, “can a sensible man persuade himself that political independence and e-quality permanently remain in a land where financial despotism has become established?”

Dabney elaborated on the effects of oligarchy in the third and fourth points of his address. The transferal in power and wealth and the “marvelous applications of the science and mechanic art to cheapen transportation and production” had resulted in great changes in social conditions. Centralization and rationalization of industry meant vast re-orientations in manufacturing. But what did this do to the artisan in his personal vocation, Dabney asked, where the individual achieved a large part of his person-hood and individuality through his work? Even the axe and hoe of farm life were mass produced, and the housewife’s yeast was supplanted by “factory ‘baking powders,’ in which chemical adulterations may have full play.” When capital was controlled by the few “kings of industry” who commanded the masses at their bidding, could anyone doubt the falseness of this new equality?

The combination of centralization and oligarchy had produced extreme inequalities of wealth which deformed American society. The Jeffersonian ideal of an aristocracy of merit and intelligence had been perverted. But the destruction of suffrage requirements did not bring victory for popular democracy. Instead, “under a thin veil of radical democracy, the government has already become an oligarchy.” Indeed, was not the tendency of all radical and popular governments toward oligarchy? When there were no prescriptive traditions (as had existed in the Old South) to check the popular appetite, did not the populace, as Burke said, fall for the beguiling promises of demagogues. It was not an easy step to determine that the oligarchies of wealth also controlled politics, that, “It is Washington or Wall Street which really dictates what platforms shall be set forth, and what candidates elected and what appointments made, not the people of the States.”

Striking directly at the heart of the New South creed Dabney warned that the chief temptation confronting the South was to become like the victors. Many of the South’s leaders seemed bent on converting the cities below the Potomac to exact replicas of Pittsburgh or New York. To Dabney they seemed to say: “Let us develop! develop! develop! Let us have, like our conquerors, great cities, great capitalists, great factories and commerce and great populations; then we shall cope with them.” Robert Dabney would have been the first to say that wealth is essential to civilization. A poor society would always come off worse in competition with richer ones. But the South would have to be extremely careful not to make acquisition its god, not to sacrifice its heritage for a glittering promise of prosperity which, said Dabney, was “like the tawdry pyrotechnics of some popular feast, burning out its own splendors into ashes, darkness and a villainous stench of brimstone.” It behooved the South to retain all that was true and ennobling in its traditions.

At the University of Texas Dabney extended his attacks on the New South creed to include a series of blasts at finance capitalism in general. Perhaps the most significant essay of his later career was “The Philosophy Regulating Private Corporations.” In this article Dabney closely examined the theory versus the reality of incorporating large combinations. Private incorporation once, in the years before the war, had been “The only expedient of the weak as against the strong.” But now it was “too often the partial and usurping artifice of equals against their fellows— of the strong against the weak.” “A new aristocracy, armed by law with class privileges and powers more odious than feudal” was the result. Such manipulations for select oligarchies was immoral, a flagrant injustice to the public and especially to the honest working man. Who could fail to see the mockery of the ill-advised species of legislation which permitted all shades of corruption in chartering such establishments? State legislators both in the South and in the North seemed “to meet mainly to register the edicts of railroad presidents.”

Perhaps the worst of all was the corrosive influence that corporations had on the virtue of the people, on the family, and on the worldly vocations. The new giant corporations undermined the domestic and personal independence of the yeomanry, many of whom were driven off the farm in desperation. The man of the country did not want to be a part of “the multitudinous mass proletariat, dependent on the corporation for his work, his wages, his cottage, his kitchen garden, and the privilege of buying the provisions for his family.” Yet that was what was happening. Such a condition was incompatible with permanent republicanism.

In 1891-92 Dabney penned two more essays on the subject: “The Labor Union, the Strike and the Commune” and “The Depression of American Farming Interests.” Dabney disliked and distrusted unions and strikes. To him they were “a forcible attempt to invade and dominate the legitimate influence of the universal economic law of supply and demand. This law instructs us that generally the relation of supply to demand in any commodity must regulate its price.” On the other hand, Dabney was not oblivious to the plea that skilled labor is entitled to higher remuneration. It was true that many working men did not get a just shake from their employers. But there were other groups of Americans, notably farmers, who received even less.

The growth of Populism disturbed Dabney, not because he was unsympathetic to the plight of American farmers, but for the very reason that seemed inspirational to so many: the single-minded approach to problems. In a letter to his son Charles in 1894, he expressed his dismay that “the whole Southern democracy, misled by a parcel of shysters and demagogues like Bland of Missouri and Hogg of Texas have gone mad after this free silver nonsense…”

The cause of agricultural depression would not be found in currency problems, and inflation was not the cure. The causes were more complex. For one thing, the economy had become unbalanced by the over expanding weight of monopolies which artificially violated the law of supply and demand. The burden of rural taxation, a “crushing weight,” was grossly unfair. Thirdly, the protective system effectively cushioned the monopoly rings and cartels from the check of home competition. Dabney observed that,

The American Nail Maker’s Association, instead of observing the law of supply and demand, ordains what we shall pay for each nail driven in America… The Standard Oil Company inflates the price of petroleum and the other oils and depresses that of the farmer’s cotton seed. The sugar trust regulates the price at which we shall taste the sweets of life. There is now a cigarette trust fixing the monopoly price at which our boys shall poison themselves and pollute the atmosphere around…

Dabney advocated “no Quack nostrums;” “Economical government, reduced taxation, the arrest and repeal of all class legislation and swift return to strictly revenue tariffs:” these were necessary steps.

When it came to suggesting remedies for the problems he saw implicitly in the New South creed, Robert Dabney reverted to those old visions of the Jeffersonian, or perhaps Calhounian, republic that can be summarized as laissez faire, free trade, and frugal government. Some class legislation would have to be repealed, but on the whole remedies would have to be found in the “firm and just administration of the laws, coupled with wise and equitable commercial and industrial legislation and the propagation of industry… economy and contentment among the people by means of Christian principle.”

Although Dabney proposed few specific solutions to the problems he observed flowing from the New South creed, it is difficult not to agree that his analysis was remarkably prescient. Almost alone he criticized what he saw from a point of view seemingly made obsolete by the events of 1861-1865. But Robert Lewis Dabney was a man of unshakeable principles. To have given up his sacredly-held beliefs because of the mere vagaries of history would have been unthinkable. He would have agreed with James Branch Cabell that “no history is a matter of record; it is a matter of faith.”

About Boyd Cathey

Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.

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