The Defense of Southern History

From late 1983 until its fitful demise in the early 2000s, I served as a contributing editor, adviser, or just simply a contributor to the old Southern Partisan magazine. Although a last issue came out in 2009, the quarterly had pretty much ceased regular publication a few years before that, largely due to internecine South Carolina politics and personalities. The valiant efforts of former Sons of Confederate Veterans Commander-in-Chief Chris Sullivan, as editor, to keep it alive were, alas, to no avail.

Yet during its nearly three decades of existence the Southern Partisan published some of the finest writing about the South, Southern history, and Southern culture since the Agrarians of Nashville back prior to World War II. Begun originally in 1979 under the aegis of Thomas Fleming and Clyde Wilson, it featured in its pages essays by such luminaries as Mel Bradford, Cleanth Brooks, Eugene Genovese (not a Southerner, but an internationally-recognized historian who developed a sympathetic fascination about the South), Tom Landess, Russell Kirk, Reid Buckley (brother of William), Andrew Lytle, Don Livingston, and many others.

I was privileged and very fortunate to be associated with those giants in a small way; over the years I had around fifteen essays and reviews published by the Partisan on subjects that have continued to interest and fascinate me: historical Southern figures such as Nathaniel Macon and Robert Lewis Dabney, several reviews of books by the late Dr. Russell Kirk (for whom I had served as assistant back in the early 1970s), an appreciation of the Southern-born actor and star of Westerns Randolph Scott, and lastly, reviews of books of Patrick Buchanan (a larger-than-life political figure with deep roots in the Old South and with a rambunctious mixture of Confederate and Irish Catholic ancestry!).

There’s an old maxim that states “you’re known by the enemies you have”; and the Partisan had its share…and for many of us associated with it, that indicated we were having some effect.  For much of its existence, it was a veritable bete noire for Morris Dees and his radical Leftist Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). In addition to seeing Klansmen under the bed of every “conservative” Southern politician and ferreting out every stench of Southern “racism,” the SPLC simply went apoplectic when the topic of the Partisan came up. They termed it “arguably the most important neo-Confederate periodical”, and thus the most dangerous to their fanatical totalitarian Marxist social justice agenda. The views it reflected were reactionary and anchored in a hateful past, not worthy of serious consideration in modern America.

But the Southern Partisan could not be dismissed so cavalierly. Even The New York Times, the national journalistic flagship for frenzied and inflamed Progressivism, while denouncing the magazine “as one of region’s most right-wing magazines,” also begrudgingly admitted that “Many of [its] articles, however, are more high-minded historical reviews in the tradition of the Southern agrarian movement, which glorified the South’s slow-paced traditions of farms and small towns.”

Although the Southern Partisan ceased to exist a decade ago, other voices have arisen to fill that void, most notably The Abbeville Institute, its superb summer schools and seminars, and its online review and blog. Clyde Wilson’s daughter Anne has also established a fine site, Reckonin.com, and it offers excellent commentary and reviews. And there are other venues where good writing and essays from a traditional Southern viewpoint appear.

In 1985 I had the opportunity to interview the late historian Eugene Genovese for the Partisan (Fall 1985, volume V, no. 4), and it was the beginning of a close friendship that lasted until his untimely death in 2012. And it was a friendship that forever influenced me and my conception of Southern history and culture. For, beginning as a Vietcong supporter back in the 1960s, through a long and at times difficult evolution into the 1980s, Genovese had subjected the history of the South, the issue of slavery, and the “Southern mind” to the most severe and close examination. And, after it all, he became a stouthearted and brilliant defender of the South and its traditions (his friendship with the late Mel Bradford had undoubtedly assisted in that process).

For Genovese the key to Southern history had been and was its firm foundation in traditional Christianity. It was a form of mostly Calvinist Protestantism, but also in a wider sense which warmly incorporated Catholics and Jews in its midst, but united in an broad consensus on the idea of a Christian society, which he found best expressed in the writings of the brilliant South Carolina Presbyterian theologian, James Henley Thornwell (d. 1862).

Here he is in a passage on the South Carolinian, demonstrating a view that found resonance throughout the South:

Shortly before his death Thornwell…in a “Sermon on National Sins,” preached on the eve of the War, and boldly in a remarkable paper on “Relation of the State to Christ,” prepared for the Presbyterian Church as a memorial to be sent to the Confederate Congress, he called upon the South to dedicate itself to Christ. He criticized the American Founding Fathers for having for­gotten God and for having opened the Republic to the will of the ma­jority. “A foundation was thus laid for the worst of all possible forms of government—a democratic absolutism.” To the extent that the state is a moral person, he insisted, “it must needs be under moral obligation, and moral obligation without reference to a superior will is a flat contradiction in terms.” Thornwell demanded that the new Constitution be amended to declare the Confederacy in submission to Jesus, for “to Jesus Christ all power in heaven and earth is commit­ted.” Vague recognition of God would not do. The state must recog­nize the God of the Bible—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Thornwell made clear that he wanted neither an established Church nor religious tests. The state must guarantee liberty of con­science for all: “He may be Atheist, Deist, infidel, Turk, or Pagan: it is no concern of the State so long as he walks orderly.” Could a Jew become Chief Magistrate? Certainly, so long as he does nothing in of­fice “inconsistent with the Christian religion.” By all means separate Church and state, but do not delude yourself that you can separate the state from religion. At issue lay the moral basis of society, which, Thornwell argued, had to be informed by one religious system and, therefore, in the Protestant South, by Christianity. (I cannot prove that T.S. Eliot read Thornwell’s essay, although I suspect as much, but I would invite a comparison of “Relation of the State to Christ” with Eliot’s celebrated essay “The Idea of a Christian Society.”)

After the war—after Southern military defeat and the destruction of much of Southern society and eventually its culture—Thornwell’s clarion calls were picked up by another Presbyterian divine, Robert Lewis Dabney, who turned his Biblical ire and critical (and prophetic) intellect to the developing “Yankee empire,” religious indifferentism, and to the triumph of globalist capitalism and an imperialist and plutocratic “democratic despotism” (something that the Northern writer Henry Adams, scion of the Adams of New England, also recognized).

In his magnum opus, The Mind of the Master Class (2005), co-authored with his wife Professor Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Eugene Genovese offered the finest and fullest—certainly the most documented—account and evaluation of a “Southern mind and intellect” that had conserved and illuminated the original, but oh-so-fragile vision of the Framers of the Constitution.  Despite, or perhaps because of his earlier interest in Marxist theory, Genovese came to understand well, better than almost all his contemporaries, the extreme dangers inherent in post-War Between the States America.

And that was why my interview with him nearly thirty-five years ago was so eye-opening. (The full lengthy interview published in the Southern Partisan is now reprinted in my recently published book, The Land We Love: The South and Its Heritage [2018], chapter 29: “A Partisan Conversation: Interview with Eugene Genovese.”)

I quote below some extensive passages from that interview. Eugene Genovese and the Southern Partisan were incredibly productive and profound in their contribution to the defense, survival, and, even just maybe the reflorescence of Southern heritage. In our perilous times, when our traditions and heritage often seem hanging on by a mere thread, we can do no better than refer to their sturdy intellectual armament.

Here is Genovese from 1985:

…what I have argued from the beginning is that Southern society existed within, inexplicably, the modern capitalist world and that internally it had many of the attributes of a bourgeois society. But the master-slave relation carried it psychologically, materially, politically in quite a different direction, and this is the formulation that I have used and that my wife and I tried to develop in our book Fruits of Merchant Capital — that the South was in but not of the modern capitalist world. That has gone down very hard with many people on the Left.

For me, the essential question comes to this: Did the South and North diverge in a deep cultural sense, as well as politically and institutionally, to a degree that made secession and war understandable, not as a historical tragedy but as the outcome of a historical process? Under any circumstances the War would have had tragic dimensions, the mere fact that members of families fought on both sides, and so on.

Now, here I don‘t see the point of merging the South and the North at all, and I say that with full awareness that Louisiana was not South Carolina and Mississippi was not Virginia. Nonetheless, because the South developed as a slave labor society whereas the North developed as an essentially bourgeois society, these people became separate in sensibility as well as interests.

That does not preclude enormous regional variations on either side. It suggests a common range of behavior and much overlapping, but with a very different locus. And in this sense, I think that those Southerners who perceived themselves by the 1850s as being in the process of forging a separate nationality and as being a people apart were right. I think this was one of the great difficulties in the way of any kind of a compromise. Northerners from their perspective had to see the country as one; Southerners had to see themselves increasingly as a separate people who were trying to negotiate a coexistence.

This is reflected, it seems to me, in the difference in Constitutional perception. For Southerners, the Union was a compact; they put it in States’ Rights terms and that meant something very real to them. I don’t underestimate it. But at the bottom of that (and I think this can be demonstrated in their own testimony) was the notion that the Constitution made possible the political co-existence of two radically different social systems. And that therefore from their point of view, the Constitution was a way to live and let live. From the Northern point of view it was much closer to being a national document. They never accepted the notion this was a solemn compact between two equal social systems. They may have been willing to tolerate slavery in the states as a States’ Rights phenomenon, but they never acknowledged that therefore the Constitution sanctioned slavery and put that social system on an equal footing with their own.

….On another aspect of culture, my wife Betsey and I are doing a book on the master class [i.e., The Mind of the Master Class]. Central to that book is a thesis which we have taken up from Southern conservatives that the Old South should be understood fundamentally as a religious society. We take that very seriously. We are enormously impressed and moved by our work on the slaveholder, family by family, person by person. We’ve been digging into family papers for many, many years to do this project in a very specific way, and we’re discovering in our study the efforts to develop not only the churches per se but the schools, the old-field schools, the academies, the female institutes, the colleges — all of which were permeated by religious values and largely either directly sponsored by religious institutions or by people who very much saw education as religiously grounded.

In our study, we say the intense religious quality of Southern life sets it apart from the North in two ways: First, and less firmly, we strongly suspect Southern culture was more deeply religious than Northern. But that’s awfully hard to establish, especially since there are different qualities of religious experience. But second, and this is more important and easier to nail down, the religious quality of Southern society carried with it very specific social and political consequences.

Incidentally, while we are not Biblical scholars, we’ll go out on a limb and say the Southerners won the argument against the abolitionists. These were people who were very close to the Book…that was true of the Presbyterians, even of the Episcopalians and certainly of the Baptists and Methodists and the smaller sects.

….the fundamental political and social thought of Southern society was religiously grounded. Where I think we can demonstrate the divergence from the North is that, over time in the North, religion was weakening even in the bastions of Old Puritanism in New England. It was increasingly being watered down by liberal religion and increasingly losing its hold on the discourse. In the South, it was being strengthened. In the North, politicians could appeal to God and the Bible in some fashion; after all, they still do. In the South, it was impossible to make any kind of a political or social statement without grounding your arguments firmly in a religious discourse and knowing full well that you were speaking to people who knew exactly what the touchstones were.

Look at James Hammond of South Carolina, a brilliant man but hardly the epitome of a good Christian, or Henry Wise of Virginia. Take the most opportunistic of people, the depths of whose religion one could suspect, yet these guys, in speaking about great social questions and political principles, knew they had to begin in the same way their deeply religious colleagues did. That was the discourse. Now that was no longer true of the North. The discourse in the North was increasingly secular with God thrown in occasionally in a somewhat deeper way. But in the South I don’t think you could find serious social and political arguments beyond the level of stump tactics that were not religiously grounded and didn’t operate within a discourse that was steadily disappearing in the North.

….we formulated the hypothesis primarily by reading conservative defenses of Southern tradition: Allen Tate, for all of his feelings that the South wasn’t a good Roman Catholic society as it should have been, the people from I’ll Take My Stand, Richard Weaver, M. E. Bradford, and others who formulate it very sharply. One of the things which has amazed me is that I’ve worked on these Antebellum Southerners now for a long, long time, but it wasn’t until I started to go back and reread the conservative interpretations and defenses of Southern tradition that the full force of that hit me, the force of what it might mean.

And also ironically I was led in writing Roll, Jordan, Roll to place great emphasis on the centrality of black religion. Given my own biases, I was dragged kicking and screaming to that vantage point. But that’s where my evidence led me and when I started to reflect on it I finally said, “You know this is absurd.” You could not have this kind of a deeply religious black community without its white counterpart or vice-versa.

For Betsey [my wife] this was a lot easier because she came in to Southern history late, without my prejudice and she saw it right away. She said, “My God, you cannot read the family letters of these people, what they write to the public, what they say to themselves privately, without being struck by the centrality of religion to Southern life.”

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. More from Boyd Cathey

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