The Challenge of the Southern Tradition

In 1966, Senator Jim Eastland of Mississippi walked into the Senate Judiciary Committee and asked, “Feel hot in heah?”

A staffer replied: “Well Senator, the thermostat is set at 72 degrees, but we can make it colder.”

Eastland, puzzled by the response, doubled down, “I said, Feel Hot in heah?”

The staffer now was perplexed and fearing that he might not understand the question suggested that he would lower the temperature.

Eastland shot back, “Damn it, son!” Is Sen-a-tor Feel P-H-I-L Hot H-A-R-T in heah?”

I begin with this story because it is emblematic of the regionalism of the United States. Or at least it used to be. Listening to congressional debates from the middle of the 20th century was like hearing a symphony of dialect. The Kennedy brothers—though hailing from Irish Catholic bootleggers—sounded like they were from an old Brahmin Massachusetts family. Stennis, Russell, Thurmond, Ervin and other Southerners brought their instruments to the show.

I attended school in Delaware, but my eighth grade English teacher was from Alabama. Yet because her husband was a minister and had to move around, she dropped her accent and adopted a flat Midwestern timbre all while assigning great Southern writers or notably anti-Yankee partisans like Washington Irving. You can take the girl out of Alabama, but you can never take Alabama from the girl.

With a few exceptions, it would hard to detect any regionalism among the current crop of 535 members of Congress. As Americans move and consume, we become a less independent and more plastic people dominated by a Midwestern Yankee Puritanism. Recent studies have shown that children who move frequently are less likely to excel in school or in a social environment. They aren’t from anywhere and have no real culture. This is by design. Nationalization creates a crop of drones with an “Americanism” that suggests saying the Pledge of Allegiance makes you an American and that Abraham Lincoln and Hamilton’s state capitalist dream are the greatest parts of American history. We have replaced Billy’s Grocery, Harvey Lumber Company, and Daniel Appliance with Publix, Home Depot, and Best Buy respectively. Buy your American flag at the Home Depot with your credit card during our Presidents’ Day sale in every town USA. Let’s do this.

The South always offered a counterweight to this type of “Americanism,” but today you can’t sound Southern and still be taken seriously, just as you can’t suggest that anything from the Southern tradition is true and valuable without being slapped over the head with the book of bigotry. I’m surprised the modern left doesn’t walk about like the monks in the Monty Python film the Holy Grail chanting “Pius Mother Planet Earth, Save Us From Our Privilege, Slap.” The only thing they haven’t done is require a bonfire of the vanities and demand that every heretic throw some traditional vice—the Bible, your guns, precious metals, certainly your Confederate flags—into the fire in a communal cultural cleansing. That’s probably coming.

Senator John Stennis from Mississippi said in 1974 that while people in the South “lacked for money, and lacked for worldly things…they got plenty of things money can’t buy—like good neighbors, good friends, the community spirit of sharing with the other fellow.” Sam Ervin, the last Jeffersonian to serve in the Senate, shared a similar sentiment when he suggested defeat was good for the soul because it shook the glory out. Ervin was from Burke, North Carolina and the spirit of that place and people ran through is blood and bones.

Some interwar Southerners knew that the world was changing, just as their ancestors knew the United States was destroyed by fire in 1865 and replaced with a unitary American empire beholden to Hamiltonian political economy and Yankee social engineering, the very thing John Taylor of Caroline and other “Old Republicans” warned about in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Nothing had changed after the War. Robert Lewis Dabney derided the “New South Creed” for its infatuation with progress in all forms. Industrialization was simply the mistress of social transformation and the destruction of tradition. The fusion of big banks, big business, and unconstitutional big government along with government sponsored social engineering made for a Frankenstein that could not be tamed. There is a reason Populist Senator Tom Watson of Georgia titled his newspaper the Jeffersonian in the early twentieth century. The continuity between generations, the traditions that shaped the South and her people, were the most important part of Southern identity.

That identity has been remarkably consistent even when it seems otherwise. Take for example the efforts of “progressive” Southerners to tame the evils of Yankee finance capitalism in the pre-World War I Congress. The War saw the complete victory of Hamilton’s economic system in the post bellum period. Protective tariffs, central banking, federally funded internal improvements, and corruption signaled Republican rule. Southerners had some success in pushing back against these measures in the 1880s and 1890s, but it wasn’t until the Wilson administration that they achieved any sort of legislative victory. The Glass-Steagall Act, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, and the Underwood Tariff were all part of a broad Southern effort to place a Jeffersonian stamp on the economy. These were undoubtedly “big government” and constitutionally questionable ideas and policies, but to these Southerners, using the apparatus the Republican Party created to undermine what they considered to be the backbone of anti-Southern and anti-Jeffersonian principles seemed natural. Oscar Underwood of Alabama even classified the Federal Reserve as a Jeffersonian inspired central banking system. Henry DeLemar Clayton of Alabama also secured federal loans for farmers in the 1910s, a type of reparations for being punished by poverty after the War.

But in spite of or perhaps because of this crushing economic dislocation, Southerners clung to their history, their regionalism, and their culture and used it as both a shield and a blanket when confronting modernity or in some cases adopting it. For example, Fuller Callaway, a Southern industrialist in LaGrange, GA, told the muckraker Ida Tarbell that he “made American citizens and used cotton mills to pay the expenses.” His son Cason Callaway focused his energy on scientific agriculture and eventually made his Blue Springs farm a private nature reserve called Callaway Gardens. He and his wife Virginia cultivated the Jeffersonian agrarian spirit and believed in independent farmers and localism. The family farm dominated their lives, and azaleas, blue spring water, woods, and outdoor recreation were their Southern legacy.

This is something every Southerner took for granted in the 1920s and 1930s. Jimmy Carter’s agrarian manifesto An Hour Before Daylight portrays his father as a Jeffersonian worried about New Deal regulations on hogs and tomatoes. Like a good Yankee, Franklin Roosevelt drove through Georgia and thought he could fix it. It’s no coincidence that the first industrial hog slaughterhouses appeared in the United States in 1930s. Chicken houses followed in the 1950s and soon “industrial farming” was ripping apart the family farm, the backbone of the Southern tradition.

The twelve Southerners who wrote I’ll Take My Stand in 1930 could not have been more prophetic, but most people, even some Southerners, didn’t want to listen to what Mary Cuff, in a recent piece in Modern Age, describes as an “untenable” prescription. She writes: “Thus even for those who sympathize deeply with the agrarian diagnosis of modern society’s ills—the social alienation and dehumanization triggered by sprawling urbanism, industrialism, and the dominance of technology—there is often the sense that agrarianism is unhelpful as a solution in the twenty-first century.” These Southerners have been labeled romantics who hectored about farming and never picked up a plow. Southerners, even in the early twentieth century, seemed to agree. As eleven-year-old Lillian Nettles of Magnolia, MS told a photographer in 1911, “we like the mill work much better than farming.” Five of her nine family members worked in the mill.

But these criticisms miss the point. Did “agrarianism” make the man or did the man make “agrarianism?” More directly, was I’ll Take My Stand an agrarian or a Southern manifesto? The authors could have called themselves twelve farmers, twelve poets, or twelve writers, but they chose twelve Southerners, and the title is certainly a Southern choice. David Chandler in his book The Natural Superiority of Southern Politicians wrote that “the South has produced the pre-eminent geniuses of American political history.” That genius was only made possible by Southern culture, the root of “agrarianism.” A Southern man could still be agrarian and not live on a farm. It certainly helped, but at its core the Southern agrarian tradition was based on an organic rhythm of life, a Christian sensibility of “good friends, good communities,” faith, property, independence, and a chivalric code that had honor as one of the highest traits of man and organized society. To be Southern meant that you embraced the old order of Western Civilization as handed down by the Anglo-American tradition and peppered with the cultural mosaic of the various peoples that settled south of the Mason-Dixon.

And as Southerners began to wrestle with the implications of a Yankee victory in 1865, they became consciously more Southern, but that did not change their traditions. The historian Drew Gilpin Faust vaulted into a college presidency at Harvard by, in part, continually insisting that “Confederate nationalism” was inorganic, a creation of racism and white supremacy. But is this true? The evidence points in another direction. Edwin Alderman, the first president of the University of Virginia and editor of the comprehensive Library of Southern Literature, told a University of California audience in 1906 that, “when the age of moral welfare shall succeed to the age of passionate gain-getting; when blind social forces have wrought some tangle of inequality and of injustice, of hatred and suspicion, when calculation and combination can only weave the web more fiercely; when the whole people in some hour of national peril shall seek for the man of heart and faith, who will not falter or fail, in the sweet justice of God, hither shall they turn for succor as once they turned to a simple Virginia planter.” This Southern tradition had nothing to do with race. It was an expression of the Jeffersonian mind, a critique of the Hamiltonian vision for America.

Turning to the Virginia planter—the “man of heart and faith”—not the industrialist or the shopkeeper, had to be the solution, and that planter brought up on the traditions of his people, the stories of his ancestors, men of action when the time called for it, had to be a Southerner. This was a call to Washington or Jefferson, not Lincoln or Grant, and certainly not J.P. Morgan or John D. Rockefeller. But would America, now in the throes of industrialization, look to the sage of Monticello for answers, and if not, how could a defeated people sell this tradition, or should they?

Literature professor Charles Kent advised Southerners to look inward, to become better Southerners, not coopted Yankees. “It seems,” he wrote in 1907, “much more desirable that we should endeavor to comprehend what our fathers stood for, especially in all matters relating to self-government, then study calmly our own situation, and resolutely acknowledge and adapt the principles and policies that seem most constant with our welfare. So far as my own studies allow me to judge, no other people or fraction of a people has a more admirable body of publicists from whose writings inspiration and guidance may be derived.”

The Southerners who wrote I’ll Take My Stand in 1930 and contributed to Who Owns America in 1936 took this challenge seriously. Who Owns America is, in some respects, a more interesting book. It is more prescriptive and less philosophical, a practical application of the principles the twelve Southerners sought to define just six years earlier, and while not explicitly Southern focused like I’ll Take My Stand, the Southern tradition dripped from its pages.

The great poet Donald Davidson outlined a plan for regional government that incorporated Frederick Jackson Turner’s prophecy that the core of American government was naturally the relation of “section and nation,” not “state and nation.” Davidson called it a “New Federalism,” not be confused with Richard Nixon’s bastardization of the term in the early 1970s. He wrote, “For the United States, the ideal condition would be this: that the regions should be free to cultivate their own particular genius and to find their happiness, along with their sustenance and security, in pursuits to which their people are best adapted, the several regions supplementing and aiding each other, in national comity, under a well-balanced economy.” This has not happened, he lamented, because the Constitution could not allow it. The result had been the clash of competing imperialisms, with the Northeast the ultimate victor. “The old outcry against Wall Street,” Davidson argued, “is an outcry against a regional foe symbolized by a single institution. It means that the towers of New York are built upon Southern and Western backs.”

Andrew Nelson Lytle, the philosopher as historian and writer, heaped praise on Franklin Roosevelt for acknowledging the importance of the family farm, what Lytle called the “livelihood farm.” He was giving FDR too much credit, for Roosevelt’s discovery that the Southern agrarian tradition was vital to American prosperity was like Augustus telling Livy to write glowing histories of Rome in the first century A.D., or in Josiah Baily of North Carolina writing the “conservative manifesto” in 1936 warning about the potential constitutional and legal hazards of the New Deal. In both cases, the empire had already consumed its parents.

Regardless, Lytle insisted that a United States with one quarter of the people engaged as livelihood farmers would boast the most stable economy in its history. The tangible benefits would be seen in the welfare of the general population, what he termed their more “natural living conditions.” Lytle continued “this should be the important end of polity, for only when families are fixed in their habits, sure of their property, hopeful for the security of their children, jealous of liberties which they cherish, can the state keep the middle course between impotence and tyranny.”

This, however, required the Southern tradition. John Crowe Ransom argued that “the South may be a valuable accession to the scattering and unorganized party of all those who think it is time to turn away from the frenzy of Big Business toward something older, more American, and more profitable.” What Ransom loathed and feared most was a South beholden to “foreign ideas.” And notice that he used the term “American” along with the descriptive “older.” The Southern “agrarian” tradition is older than the United States. The straight line from the “old Republicans” like John Taylor of Caroline to Ransom, Davidson, and Lytle should be easy to see. But that tradition, that “older, more American” vision of America was swallowed up in the post-World War II nationalist orgy and Cold War propaganda. Us against them had no room for regionalism and Southern agrarianism. The machine age and the nuclear age required a Hamiltonian Americanism. We had to beat the commies, but more importantly, beating the commies required a civic religion that also took aim at tradition, the very thing Dabney said would take place immediately following the War.

Which brings us to 2019 and Tucker Carlson’s now infamous—at least among neoconservatives—monologue criticizing what he called “market capitalism.” This was a clumsy though refreshing attempt to articulate the “older, more American” vision of the twelve Southerners. The establishment panned it as anti-capitalist and foolish, with media darling Ben Shapiro immediately going on the offensive in both print and video.

Carlson mislabeled his enemy “market capitalism.” He was really throwing barbs at Hamilton’s state capitalist system and the over century long Republican Party led attempt to remake America. That involved an economic, social, political, and diplomatic transformation that replaced of the “older, more American” world of the Southern agrarians with the Lincolnian American empire. Regardless, when Carlson asked for “A fair country. A decent country. A cohesive country. A country whose leaders don’t accelerate the forces of change purely for their own profit and amusement. A country you might recognize when you’re old. A country that listens to young people who don’t live in Brooklyn. A country where you can make a solid living outside of the big cities. A country where Lewiston, Maine seems almost as important as the west side of Los Angeles. A country where environmentalism means getting outside and picking up the trash. A clean, orderly, stable country that respects itself. And above all, a country where normal people with an average education who grew up no place special can get married, and have happy kids, and repeat unto the generations. A country that actually cares about families, the building block of everything,” he was channeling the Jeffersonian America that dominated politics and culture until the close of the War in 1865 and that found a voice in fits and spurts in the post-bellum period, particularly from Southerners who knew they told you so.

Richard Weaver offered the best explanation for why the Southern tradition still has currency in modern society in his The Southern Tradition At Bay. He wrote, “The South possesses an inheritance which it has imperfectly understood and little used. It is in the curious position of having been right without realizing the grounds of its rightness.” The interwar Southern critique of Hamilton’s America came closest to doing so, and in the end, we are left with Weaver’s conclusion that the Southern tradition offers not an example but a challenge. “The challenge,” he said,” is to save the human spirit by re-creating the non-materialist society.” This is the very challenge Carlson offered his viewers, the twelve Southerners scribbled about, Dabney thundered from the pulpit, and Taylor of Caroline, the most Jeffersonian of all Jeffersonians, insisted we remember when faced with Hamilton’s schemes. Weaver concluded by suggesting that “The Old South may indeed be a hall hung with splendid tapestries in which no one would care to live; but from them we can learn something of how to live.” You don’t have to be a farmer to be an agrarian. We could all use a little more of the Southern tradition, but it’s up to us to take the challenge of “saving the human spirit” through an “older, more American” worldview, seriously.

About Brion McClanahan

Brion McClanahan is the author or co-author of six books, How Alexander Hamilton Screwed Up America (Regnery History, 2017), 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and Four Who Tried to Save Her (Regnery History, 2016), The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers, (Regnery, 2009), The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012), Forgotten Conservatives in American History (Pelican, 2012), and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Real American Heroes, (Regnery, 2012). He received a B.A. in History from Salisbury University in 1997 and an M.A. in History from the University of South Carolina in 1999. He finished his Ph.D. in History at the University of South Carolina in 2006, and had the privilege of being Clyde Wilson’s last doctoral student. He lives in Alabama with his wife and three daughters. More from Brion McClanahan

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