The Timely Wisdom of Robert Lewis Dabney

Many of the destructive ideas and “isms” of our century in America had their roots in the 18th and 19th centuries, and a number of Southern writers and clergymen recognized their nature and warned against them. Among these men was Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898) of Virginia, one of the South’s great Presbyterian thinkers.  He was the author of a number of works including A Defense of Virginia, The Life and Campaigns of Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and Practical Philosophy.

“Truth is never out of date,” Dabney wrote, as the following excerpts from some of his writings will attest.

On politics:

“American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. The pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing for the sake of truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always—when about to enter a protest—very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its ‘bark is worse than its bite,’ and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent role of resistance.”

“In this day innovations march with rapid strides. The fantastic suggestions of yesterday, entertained only by a few fanatics, and then only mentioned by the sober to be ridiculed, is today the audacious reform, and will be tomorrow the recognized usage. Novelties are so numerous and so wild and rash, that even in conservative minds the sensibility of wonder is exhausted and the instinct of righteous resistance fatigued.”

On government schools:

“Imperial Donatives to the Roman populance became very popular; true, but they poisoned the last good element of Roman character, and helped to complete the putrescence of the empire. I fear it is only too true, that this cunning cheat of Yankee state-craft is alluring the poor, harassed Southern parent; and that he is yielding to the bait which promises deceitfully to relieve him of his parental responsibility … A bribe, alas, may become easily popular in decadent times.”

“Your ‘free schools’ like not a few of the other pretensions of radicalism are in fact exactly opposite to the name falsely assumed. The great bulk of those who pay the money for them do it, not freely, but by compulsion. They are virtually thrust down our throats by the bayonet, and the exemplars you most boast and imitate, not only make the payment compulsory, but the attendance also … The only freedom of your system is your freedom to compel other people’s money.”

On feminism:

“It would not be hard to show, did space permit, that this movement on the part of these women is as suicidal as it is mischievous. Its certain result will be the re-enslavement of women, not under the Scriptural bonds of marriage, but under the yoke of literal corporeal force … This world is a hard and selfish scene where the weaker goes to the wall. Under all other civilizations and all other religions than ours woman has experienced this fate to the full … In Christian and European society alone has she ever attained the place of man’s social equal, and received the homage and honor due from magnanimity to her sex and her feebleness. And her enviable lot among us has resulted from two causes: the Christian religion and the legislation founded upon it by feudal chivalry …”

On godless democracy:

“God gave the people of this land great and magnificent blessing and opportunities and responsibilities. They might and should have made it the glory of all the lands. But they have betrayed their trust: they have abused every gift: above all have they insulted him by flaunting in his face an impudent, atheistic, God-defying theory of pretended human rights and human perfectibility which attempts to den man’s subordination, his dependence, his fall and native depravity, his need of divine grace. It invites mankind to adopt material civilization and sensual advantage as their divinity … Must not God be avenged on such a nation as this? His vengeance will be to give them the fruit of their own hands, and let them be filled with their own devices. He will set apart this fait land by a sort of dread consecration to the purpose of giving a lesson concerning this godless philosophy, so impressive as to instruct and warn all future generations. As the dull and pestilential waves of the Dead Sea have been to every subsequent age the memento of the sin of Sodom, so the dreary tides of anarchy and barbarism which will overwhelm the boastful devices of infidel democracy will be the caution of all future legislators.”

On republican government:

“While the Bible does not prohibit stronger forms of government per se, it indicates God’s preference for the representative republic as distinguished from the leveling democracy; and to this theory of human rights all its moral teachings correspond.”

About Karen Stokes

Karen Stokes, an archivist and writer in Charleston, S.C., is the co-editor of Faith, Valor, and Devotion: The Civil War Letters of William Porcher DuBose, and A Confederate Englishman: The Civil War Letters of Henry Wemyss Feilden, both published by the University of South Carolina Press. She is also the author of three non-fiction books published by The History Press: South Carolina Civilians in Sherman’s Path, The Immortal 600, and the newly released Confederate South Carolina. Her latest historical novel, Honor in the Dust, is set in the South Carolina midlands in 1865.

More from Karen Stokes

You might also enjoy these articles...