It is not often enough, but I do set aside blocks of time to express gratitude to God for all the many blessings He has bestowed on me in my lifetime. There are many things I have missed out on, or simply fouled up royally, but the stars aligned in mid-October and I had the good fortune of being able to attend the Abbeville Institute’s “Who Owns America?” conference in North Charleston, South Carolina.
I met many new friends and ran into several old ones I had not seen for a while. The highlight was getting to spend time with two of my heroes. After reading their writings for decades, and recently being able to correspond and collaborate on some projects through email, I came face-to-face with Dr. Thomas Fleming and Dr. Clyde Wilson. With no exaggeration I declare to you that, if I had been granted a wish of getting to meet and spend time with anyone on the planet, these two intellectual giants would be on the very short list.
The occasion marked the ninetieth anniversary of the first publication of I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, a manifesto of essays written by twelve Southern scholars (historians, literary critics, novelists, poets) bemoaning the negative aspects of and trend toward encroaching mass industrialism and dehumanization in the America of 1930, especially the cultural assault it was having upon their native South.
I first heard about and purchased a copy while in college in the mid-1990s. The book had such a profound impact on me that when I took a part-time job at a book store in 2005, I was asked to list my two favorite books for a biographical sketch of new employees that went on the company’s bulletin board. I chose the Holy Bible and I’ll Take My Stand.
While driving the 400 miles back to my home in northeast Alabama on the Sunday the conference ended, I reflected on what I had heard there. Four books came to mind. When I got back home, I went to my study and pulled them down. A summary of these recollections follows.
In his presentation that Saturday morning, Dr. William Wilson spoke about the vilification from the media that the writers of the book endured. The sales of the book were low, the reviews were generally bad and mocking. Yet, ninety years later the lamentation of the loss of honor and virtue of the time, the position that bigger is not always better, still resonates with us today. Dr. Wilson said that the authors were “writing with their backs against the wall.”
This reminded me of the third volume of the Dumas Malone work on the life and times of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty. The 23rd chapter is “A Desperate Holding Operation, 1798.” It was during this time that Jefferson was vice-president to Federalist John Adams. War with France was looming, Adams’s party was drafting and implementing the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the Jeffersonians were reduced to being the party of opposition. Jefferson was the very life and soul of that opposition. Powerless, they were doing the best they could during a “desperate holding operation,” struggling to be an influential ballast and a rallying point in the midst of what Jefferson described in a letter to John Taylor that year as “a reign of witches.”
The Southern Agrarians of 1930 probably felt they were in their own “reign of witches,” much as the “Deplorables” of 2020 certainly do. I know of none of my like-minded brethren who actually thought Donald Trump was going to save us or restore the republic. We are in a desperate holding operation of our own, and four more years of Trump was simply buying time for the hope that something more meaningful could possibly be effected.
It was put another way in Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird by Alabamian Harper Lee that we had to wait until 2015 to see published. In that novel, Uncle Jack Finch had to describe it to the adult Scout, visiting from her new home up north, in this manner: “Baby, all over the South your father and men like your father are fighting a sort of rearguard, delaying action to preserve a certain kind of philosophy that’s almost gone down the drain…there are to this day in Maycomb County the living counterparts of every buttheaded Celt, Angle, and Saxon who ever drew a breath.”
The first night of the conference we were treated to a panel discussion of Dr. Clyde Wilson’s 1969 essay, “The Jeffersonian Conservative Tradition.” That happened to be the first piece in Wilson’s 2003 book From Union to Empire: Essays in the Jeffersonian Tradition, which, incidentally, was also the source containing his recommendation of the Dumas Malone work on Jefferson.
That night, Dr. Wilson related to us that that particular essay was not well-received at the time, either, but he was encouraged by none other than Mel Bradford, who enjoyed it and told him that it would “continue to percolate.” Fifty-one years later, it has certainly done that and more.
The fourth book I pulled from the top shelf of my collection was I’ll Take My Stand itself. I thumbed through those old pages and notes I have made over the years. I reminded myself, again, how this book needs to be pulled from the shelf much more often.
Whether it has been 1798, 1930, 1955, or 2020, Southerners and their like-minded American allies have continuously found themselves in anguishing situations. Call it a desperate holding operation, backs against the wall, a rearguard delaying action, or whatever else. Each time, it seems that there are fewer and fewer of us. What are we to do?
The analogy has been used before. In Genesis 18, Abraham interceded for the Lord to spare the city of Sodom from destruction. Abraham began with a question: “Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked?”
God agreed to spare the city if only ten righteous people were found within it. As I sat among the attendees at the Abbeville conference in mid-October, I strongly surmised there were many more than ten righteous people in that very room.
In Dixieland, we’ll take our stand.