The Mind of the North


In my opinion, the single best short summary of the political and cultural differences between North and South appears in the movie Ride with the Devil, starring Tobey Maguire.

Ride with the Devil
is powerful, visually striking movie set during the guerilla war in Missouri during the War for Southern Independence. In one scene, Tobey Maguire’s character, a Southern guerilla fighter, spends an evening away from the bitter fighting in the home of a Southern sympathizer named Evans. Evans pours drinks for his two guests, who are extremely appreciative of Evans’ hospitality. Despite their attempts to avoid the subject, they start talking about how the war is going.

Evans nods thoughtfully, then predicts the Yankees will win. He asks his startled guests if they’d ever seen Lawrence, Kansas. They reply they have not. Evans tells his guests what he’d seen in the town while it was under construction:

As I watched those Northerners building that town, I witnessed the seeds of our own destruction being sown. I’m not speaking of abolitionist trouble-making, or even the number of Northerners. It was the school. Before they built the church, they built that schoolhouse. Then they brought in every farmer’s son and every farmer’s daughter and made sure they would think and live the same free-thinking way they do, without regard to station, or stature, or custom, or propriety. That’s when I realized that the Yankees will surely win, because they believe everyone must live and think just like them. We don’t want to make everyone be like us. We shall surely lose because we don’t care how other people live-we just take care of ourselves.

As Evans says, Southerners tend to mind their own business and let things be. Northerners, on the other hand, must remake things to suit them better, and to impose their way of doing things on others. As Admiral Raphael Semmes of the CSS Alabama once put it, “The Yankee is compelled to toil to make the world go around.” So what made Yankees that way?

The short answer is “The Puritans.” In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: a cultural history), David Hackett Fischer describes how the culture of the Northeast was defined by its Puritan settlers. Fischer describes that cultural migration as “East Anglia to Massachusetts.”

The South, on the other hand, was essentially a Puritan-free zone. In the migration pattern he named “The South of England to Virginia,” Fischer identified the demographics of the coastal South as “Distressed Cavaliers and Indentured Servants (Gentry influenced the Southern United States’ plantation culture).” Fischer characterized the demographics of the inner and mountain South as “The Flight from North Britain (Scotch-Irish, or border English, influenced the Western United States’ ranch culture and the Southern United States’ common agrarian culture.”

The Puritans, both in England and in New England, rejected traditional society, just as they had originally rejected the traditional church. Their doctrine of “total depravity” saw all institutions as infected by sin. Here is how A. J. Conyers describes the Puritan crusade in his book, The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit:

Their zeal drove them to criticism of existing orders and institutions, fueling the wish for deliverance from the effects of human depravity. Driven in this direction, they were tempted by the same dualism that Christians of all ages have entertained. It is a kind of Gnostic style of theologizing that finds no good in the created order, in human nature, or in the institutions arising in such a world. For the gnostic–and, for the Puritan—Christianity is altogether a theology of redemption without the inclusion of a theology of creation.

The Puritans were members of the Church of England who wanted to purify the Church of non-Biblical elements. They wanted to eliminate all the practices they viewed as holdovers from the Catholic Church, which the Puritans referred to as “popery,” including the ritual robes of the priests, the various ceremonies practiced, and the overall focus and purpose of the Church. They rejected the traditional aspects of worship that did not conform to the Bible, and therefore made the Bible the exclusive reference point of their religious practices.

The Puritans not only made their reading of the Bible central to their religious practices; they went so far as to make the Bible and their understanding of it as the exclusive authority for all religious questions. They intellectualized religion to the point of excluding all tradition and custom. As a matter of fact, the Puritans came to see religion as exclusively within the realm of the mind. Education came to be the key to salvation, and this of course established and legitimized the Puritan belief that lack of formal education equated to sinfulness.

The Puritan way of thinking eventually secularized. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a proponent of the transformed New England ideal. Emerson, a former Unitarian minister, acknowledged that his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, a devout Puritan, exerted the greatest influence on his life. Here is what Emerson said in his 1838 address at the Harvard Divinity School:

Build therefore your own world, a correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit. So fast will disagreeable appearances, swine, snakes, pests, madhouses, prisons vanish; they are temporary and shall be no more seen until evil is no more seen. The kingdom of man over nature .. a dominion such as now is beyond the dream of God.

Could Emerson have been any clearer in expressing the radical difference between the secularized Puritan worldview and the traditions of Aquinas and Aristotle? Those traditions, which respected hierarchy and social customs as invaluable sources of stability, continued to be embraced by Southerners, who saw themselves as stewards of God’s creation, and believed that traditional society is the result of God’s patient hand. Where Southerners saw mystery and beauty in the world, Northerners saw only chaos and untapped raw materials.

Southern religion, and therefore the entire Southern worldview, appreciates the richness of both the physical and the spiritual. We believe that both belong to God. Therefore, unlike the Puritan, we do not believe that “things” are inherently evil. Tobacco, food, alcohol, and guns, to name a few examples, are not evil in and of themselves. Evil people can abuse those things, but Southerners know that these things can be not only useful, but enjoyable.

Southerners, as a whole, appreciate nature, and tend to the agrarian belief that nature is to be both enjoyed and preserved. We accept the world as it is given to us, and believe it is our duty to find our place in it and accept our responsibilities. As stated in the original introduction of I’ll Take My Stand in 1929: “Religion can hardly expect to flourish in an industrial society. Religion is our submission to the general intention of a nature that is fairly inscrutable; it is the sense of our role as creatures within it.” Anne C. Loveland, in her book Southern Evangelicals and the Social Order, 1800-1860 wrote that Southerners are “as dubious of human ability in social and political matters as in the matter of salvation. The belief in the sovereignty of God and dependence of man was the whole of their thinking.”

Here is how Richard Weaver once described the Southern spiritual tradition: “Piety comes to us as a warning voice that we must think as mortals, that it is not for us either to know all or to control all. It is a recognition of our own limitations and a cheerful acceptance of the contingency of nature, which gives us the protective virtue of humility.”

This helps us understand some of the pronouncements coming from Barney Frank, Hillary Clinton, and the like. These people, and their followers, really believe that there is no justice, no order, no value in traditional society. If any good is to be had, it must be imposed from the outside, by force, by the ultimate sovereign, which is Big Government.

By understanding what happened to the Calvinist Puritans, we can better understand why it is true that, “The Yankee is compelled to toil to make the world go around.” It’s because of the old Puritan belief that the natural world is evil and corrupt, and that all goodness and order come from the mind-spirit of the universe that only the elite can comprehend. According to this worldview, there is no culture whatsoever in traditional society, no barn dances, no singalongs, no folk art whatsoever until Big Government creates a museum and imports artists from New York to provide cultural uplift to the unwashed masses.

And since there are no natural bonds between people, any talk about heritage and kinship as a basis for social order is illogical sentimentality. The only thing people have in common is the shared desire to make money and protect their lives and property. Since economics trumps all other considerations, why shouldn’t we open our borders to all comers? And the thought process is the same even when they call themselves neo-conservatives, which is nothing more than another name for the same ideology wrapped in the language of conservatism.

That’s why we should appreciate what gives the Southern worldview its vitality and its uniqueness, and be ready to defend it. We must defend it because it is the only barrier to the predatory Puritan mindset. That mindset, as Evans warned in Ride With the Devil, is bound to make everyone conform, and that means the end of authentic culture and freedom.

About Mike C. Tuggle

M. C. Tuggle is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina, whose short stories have appeared in several publications. The Novel Fox published his novella Aztec Midnight in 2014. His next book, The Genie Hunt, is a tribute to Manly Wade Wellman’s Southern tales, and will be published this summer. He blogs at More from Mike C. Tuggle

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5 thoughts on “The Mind of the North

  1. I absolutely agree with the quote you isolated from the film. I found the film entertaining, even rousing, and It was visually stunning. I did enjoy the way the director tried to capture life as lived, but some of the proprieties the film ignored would have been impossible for anyone in the mid nineteenth century to flout. I quibble too with some of the properties, which are anachronisms, surly such a wonderfully researched and produced film could have gotten the furniture and the flowers right.But, while watching the film I wrote down the above quote verbatim. I struck me like a slap in the face, and I immediately forgave the film its other vagaries, small as they were. This monologue sums up the differences between the north and the south, then and now as cogently as any I know, and as a teacher in a public school it haunts me!

  2. Surprisingly, that speech doesn’t appear in Woe to Live On, the novel the movie was based on. I like the idea some Hollywood scriptwriter wrote that about Yankees!

  3. Now that’s interesting, I haven’t read the book, but the passage is quite literary. And the way the actor delivers it is perfect: he isn’t preaching Southern virtues; he is being quiet fatalistic while delivering the real philosophic differences between the two sections and stating a code of life “Leaving others alone and taking care of one’s own” which he truly believes in, but which he knows will doom his beloved South because he knows that irresistible forces are mounting against her. That small section of the film, and I quite liked the film despite its faults, has stuck with me for several years now. I think I was the succinctness with which the words captured such powerful and devastating irony. As I said I am a teacher in a public school, a common core is the latest, from my perspective, at least, of Yankees not being able to leave other folks alone–on a national scale, as usual.

  4. I too love that quote! I have used it often. And, the concept of Emerson as a “secularized Puritan” is brilliant. Remember how he chided so many American artists for being “Too European” that we [need] a distinctly American art (which I suppose we got with the works of the Connecticut crackpot, Charles Ives); then, when Lincoln imports European style nationalism to these shores at bayonet point Emerson declares: “Maybe thanks to this war we will finally have a real nation.”

  5. Tom Sheeley,

    I wasn’t aware of that Emerson quote — thanks for passing it on.

    It’s totally consistent for Emerson to welcome Lincoln’s conquest, which, just as you say, forced the Hegelian superstate on Southerners. The Puritan imperative is to force everyone to do what’s best, whether they like it or not. Consolidation and centralization were the ideals of the age. And of course, that centralization was directly responsible for the carnage of two World Wars and the rise of Communism and Fascism.

    Thanks a lot, Abe!

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