The Soul of the Southern Tradition

I was born in the North. Nonetheless, I have instructed my attorney, a most honorable Virginian, that when I die he is to see to it that I am buried in that national cemetery at Gettysburg as close as he can possibly get me to the high water mark of the Confederacy.

These instructions are based on conviction—the firm conviction that the American South is one of the last places left on earth where the true soul of Western Civilization is consciously nurtured and honored.

And what, you ask, is the true soul of Western Civilization? Of the Southern Tradition?

Perhaps the Tradition was already at work when bravery, cunning and determination kept the ancient Greeks fighting after the defeat at Thermopylae to prevail at Marathon and Salamis, protecting Europe from the despotic Persians who represented the utter subordination of the individual to the state.

It may be too much to say that Western Civilization and the Southern Tradition were born in ancient Greece. Yet the valor of these proud men established a precedent—-a standard—-by which all true Western men, from Leonidas to Lee, lived and died.

This standard, this brave banner, this subordination of self to the higher interests of God and Country propelled the West into a position of distinction in the world.

Did the Tradition die at Appomattox? I think not, though the terrible casualties suffered on both sides in the War Between the States thinned out the real blood of America. Thereafter we see an accelerating erosion of the values upon which our nation and Western Civilization had been built.

This same tradition of the transcendent spirit caused Robert E. Lee twice to mount major invasions of the North, knowing the overwhelming odds against the Confederacy, but knowing too that the South could not hope to win unless it carried the war to the enemy. The spirit is forged in defeat as well as victory, and it impelled Lee to try again after Antietam, and fight on for two years after Gettysburg.

But the soul of the West, of the Southern Tradition, is not mirrored only in great battles, whether won or lost. It is seen in a thousand and one other events, great and small, over centuries.
We see it most brilliantly in Christ on the Cross, giving His life that we might live. We see it in the lives of the early saints, suffering so the Faith came to prevail in Europe. From that Faith and its ancient roots come the discipline required for the survival of the Tradition. It is a Tradition still in evidence in the simple act of a man tipping his hat to a lady, of children showing respect for their parents, of neighbors helping one another. The Tradition created America, transforming an undeveloped continent into a great nation, as millions of people pledged and kept their word in countless transactions from selling a bushel of wheat to constructing skyscrapers. All but a fraction of these transactions, even now, are honored without benefit of written contract, though the trust Americans place in one another is declining noticeably.

The decline in trust, the decline in values, is due in part to the influences of alien forms of despotism, non-standards or anti-values in direct antithesis to those of the West, to the Tradition of the Southland. Iranian fanatics storm our embassy in Teheran and hold Americans captive against all international law. The Soviet masters, in typically despotic fashion, make treaties without any intention of keeping them, their only aim being to gain an advantage over the United States, over the West, so they can advance their slave empire across the face of the earth. Nation after nation succumbs. Tragically, one sees the non-values of oriental despotism increasingly embraced by the West. This has been apparent for fifty years, since the recognition of the Soviet Union, becoming more obvious at Yalta with the sellout of a hundred million Christians in Eastern Europe to the Communists. We see the decline in hundreds of ways, large and small, as we witness American policy at home and abroad increasingly based, not on honor, but on expediency and greed. Even an honorable President, now that we have one, is alone unable to reverse the trend.

The soul of the Southern Tradition which is synonymous, I hold with the Heart of America. It is, in short, a belief in the transcendence of the spirit, a sense of honor, an unswerving conviction that there are things worth fighting for, if need be to the death.

In the end, this belief must prevail over materialism which murders all things of the spirit. In the end, if only a remnant of us holds fast to the Southern Tradition, it will survive.

This piece was published in Southern Partisan magazine, Summer 1983.

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