A review of Dabney on Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government (2019) by Zachary Garris, ed.
During his lifetime, Southern theologian and writer Robert Lewis Dabney was most notably known for his 1866 biography of General “Stonewall” Jackson (The Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson) and for his post-war apologia for the Southern cause, A Defense Of Virginia, And Through Her, Of The South, In Recent And Pending Contests Against The Sectional Party (1867). But his renown as a theologian and philosopher were also well-established. In addition to serving as chief of staff for Second Corps under Stonewall Jackson, and being a Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Seminary in Virginia (until 1883), he also served as Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy at the newly-founded University of Texas until his retirement in 1894. His volumes Practical Philosophy and Sensualistic Philosophy of the Nineteenth Century and his membership in the Royal Philosophical Society of Great Britain attest to his expertise and international fame.
Inspired by Richard Weaver’s treatment of Dabney’s thinking in the marvelous volume, The Southern Tradition at Bay (1968), his classic study of great Southern writers who defended the cause of the Confederacy and post-bellum Southern thought, I wrote a paper on Dabney while in grad school at the University of Virginia in 1971. Weaver’s intellectual portrait of Dabney as a “cultural” or “political” philosopher and critic of what historian Paul Gaston has called “the new South Creed” profoundly influenced me. How was it that such a brilliant and perceptive writer on what was occurring in the late nineteenth century, such an acute and intellectually fascinating figure, had been largely forgotten or ignored, and not only nationally, but in his Southern homeland?
I went back to his writings which had been collected near the end of Dabney’s life and published in five volumes, Discussions (1890-1897), and the only biography I could find of him, The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney (1903), by Thomas Carey Johnson. Long after I had left Virginia, finished a doctorate in Spain, and returned to North Carolina, Sprinkle Publications republished a facsimile edition of Dabney’s works (1982-1999). Those hardbound volumes are still available but hard to get.
Now, thanks to the work and diligence of Zachary M. Garris, four essential and substantial essays by Dabney are made readily available in a handsome new paperback edition, Dabney on Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government (2019). Garris, in his introduction, rightly emphasizes the fact that Dabney’s writings, even the most secular—volume four of his Discussions is subtitled “Secular Discussions”—must be understood in a larger and more fundamentally religious context. For Dabney was, above all, an Old School Presbyterian minister and theologian, indeed, a theologian and philosopher of international repute. His writings, even the most political, reflect his understanding, shared by nineteenth century thinkers and writers as diverse as Cardinal John Henry Newman in England or Juan Donoso Cortes in Spain, that all political, social and cultural issues can be reduced to essentially religious and theological questions.
Garris’s first included essay is a recopied and very detailed sermon which Dabney gave to the Synod of Virginia in October 1879, “Parental Responsibilities” (from volume one of his Discussions). Theologically, it sets the stage for his further writings and essays in the volume. For it is incumbent to understand the basic and essential role of the family within the Christian framework and in society, and, indeed, of the father as head of the family, before advancing on to discuss the remaining subjects addressed here in Dabney’s writings: “Secularized Education,” “Women’s Rights Women,” and “Civic Ethics.”
Understanding this primordial responsibility—which is necessary prior to any discussion of children’s education, the position of women in society, or civic responsibilities of citizens—begins with understanding Biblical teachings, and indeed, from a larger perspective, Divine Positive Law and natural law. And here, although Dabney comes from an orthodox Calvinist heritage and views both theology and history from that perspective, his language and arguments are also within a broader, orthodox Christian tradition and can be appreciated in that sense.
Dabney’s famous writings on the nature and responsibility for the education of children are, thus, annealed in his understanding of the supreme rights of the parents and their duties, both scripturally and in natural law, for the educating of their offspring. Garris has included as representative Dabney’s 1879 essay, “Secular Education,” as an excellent discussion and summary of these arguments.
Dabney first wrote on the topic in his debate with Virginia’s first Superintendent of Public Instruction William Ruffner in the mid-1870s. His commentary is undergirded by his profound understanding that so-called “public” education could not and never would be “neutral” when it comes to religion. State-run education not only usurped the God-given rights and solemn responsibility of the parents over the education of their children, but would, he foresaw, devolve into basically what we see today: anti-Christian and anti-family indoctrination.
More so, state-run education sought to impose an unnatural equality on all. “Providence, social laws, and parental virtues and efforts, do inevitably legislate in favor of some classes of boys,” he declared. “If the State undertakes to countervail that legislation of nature by leveling action, the attempt is wicked, mischievous, and futile.” Indeed, Dabney questioned “whether the use merely of letters is not education, but only one means of education, and not the only means.” True education involved more than simply the use of letters. Most citizens had traditionally found education through their various professions, a training of the “moral virtues by the fidelity and endurance” with which they earned their livelihood. The laboring man “ennobles his taste and sentiments by looking up to the superior who employs him. If to these influences you add the awakening, elevating, expanding force of Christian principles, you have given the laborer a true education…a hundred fold more true, more suitable, more useful, than the communication of certain literary arts, which he will almost necessarily disuse.”
Almost alone among writers of the late nineteenth century, Dabney saw the distinct danger of the new public school system being used by “demagogues, who are in power for a time, in the interests of their faction.” And his most serious indictment of public education has become a question that has only become more critical since then: what happens to religious instruction if the state takes over the teaching of children? Given the status of post-war relations between church and state and changing constitutional interpretations, the state could not endorse one religious belief over another. State-sponsored education would become secularized. But if education were not Christian, then it would inevitably become anti-Christian. “He that is not with his God is against Him,” Dabney repeated. Could education really be education if it educated “the mind without purifying the heart?” Dabney answered: “There can be no true education without moral culture, and no true moral culture without Christianity.”
Dabney resolutely rejected the idea of egalitarianism, whether between men who found themselves in disparate social and economic conditions, or between men and women. Again, from a scriptural perspective while God had created all mankind and given to each person a right to life and a right to the attainments of his own labor, He had also created us all in many ways differently and, in most respects, unequally in intelligence, in talents, in roles and professions, by sex, and by inheritance. That inequality was not of the prejudicial kind and did not invite prejudice or disdain for someone who excelled at what society might consider a “lesser” profession or task. Thus, the tradesman’s superior capability in crafting superb furniture might not appear to us as prominent or as important as the actions of a national political leader, but God did not judge us based upon comparisons with one another, but rather on how well we fulfilled, how well we measured up, in completing our own unique, innate and God-given abilities and talents (recall the Parable of the Talents in St. Matthew).
And natural law, in fact, legislated these differences.
It was the height of folly, wrote Dabney, to read back into the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution modern ideas of equality, or to use statements made in a particular historical context “that all men are created equal” to advance modern movements such as feminism. As more recent historians such as Mel Bradford (in his Original Intentions) and Barry Alan Shain (in The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context) have extensively detailed, Dabney’s understanding of our nation’s founding documents, as well as the Founders’ and Framers’ rejection of egalitarianism, was essentially correct.
Such talk of and demand for “rights” incurred some of Dabney harshest and most withering fire, including his criticism of the clamor for women’s suffrage.
There is a long passage from Dabney’s essay on equality and women’s suffrage (included in the volume) which deserves to be fully quoted:
The very axioms of American politics now are, that ‘all men are by nature equal,’ that all are inalienably ‘entitled to liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ and that ‘the only just foundation of government is in the consent of the governed.’ There was a sense in which our fathers propounded these statements; but it is not the one in which they are now held by Americans. Our recent doctors of political science have retained these formularies of words as convenient masks under which to circulate a set of totally different, and indeed antagonistic notions; and they have succeeded perfectly. The new meanings of which the ‘Whigs’ of 1776 never dreamed are now the current ones. Those wise statesmen meant to teach that all men are morally equal in the sense of the Golden Rule: that while individual traits, rights, and duties vary widely in the different orders of political society, these different rights all have some moral basis; that the inferior has the same moral title (that of a common humanity and common relation to a benignant Heavenly Father) to have his rights—the rights of an inferior—duly respected, which the superior has to claim that his very different rights shall be respected.
The modern version is that there are no superiors or inferiors in society; that there is a mechanical equality; that all have specifically all the same rights; and that any other constitution is against natural justice. Next: when our wise fathers said that liberty is an inalienable, natural right, they meant by each one’s liberty the privilege to do such things as he, with his particular relations, ought to have a moral title to do; the particular things having righteous, natural limitations in every case, and much narrower limits in some cases than in others.
Radical America now means by natural liberty each one’s privilege to do what he chooses to do. By the consent of the governed our forefathers meant each Sovereign Commonwealth’s consenting to the constitution under which it should be governed: they meant that it was unjust for Britain to govern America without America’s consent. Which part of the human beings living in a given American State should constitute the State potentially, the populus whose franchise it was to express the will of the commonwealth for all—that was in their eyes wholly another question, to be wisely decided in different States according to the structure which Providence had given them. By ‘the consent of the governed’ it would appear that Radicalism means it is entirely just for Yankeedom to govern Virginia against Virginia’s consent, and that it is not just to govern any individual human being without letting him vote for his governors. The utter inconsistency of the two parts of this creed, is not ours to reconcile. It is certain that, both parts (consistent or not) are firmly held as the American creed….
To these errors the American people are too deeply committed to evade any of their logical applications.
In addition to a basic misunderstanding of the American Founding, such modern views on equality fundamentally violated the teaching of Holy Scripture and the laws of nature and the roles assigned by it to the different sexes. Thus, it had been the near unanimous teaching of the Christian tradition since Apostolic days. And more, although not venturing deeply into the topic, Dabney inferred that both physiological and genetic conditions militated against sexual equality.
Yet, in his battle with the feminists and egalitarians, Dabney despaired. For other than a few conservative Southern writers and churchmen, what he termed “Northern conservatism”—the “conservative movement” of his time—was weak, vacillating, and compromising. Here he is, again, painting a picture of contemporary conservatism, a picture that has not changed much in over a century:
It may be inferred again that the present movement for women’s rights, will certainly prevail from the history of its only opponent, Northern conservatism. This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is to-day one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will to-morrow be forced upon its timidity, and will be succeeded by some third revolution, to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. 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. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it he 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 serious, for the sake of the 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 rôle of resistance. The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it ‘in wind,’ and to prevent its becoming pursy and lazy from having nothing to whip. No doubt, after a few years, when women’s suffrage shall have become an accomplished fact, conservatism will tacitly admit it into its creed, and thenceforward plume itself upon its wise firmness in opposing with similar weapons the extreme of baby suffrage; and when that too shall have been won, it will be heard declaring that the integrity of the American Constitution requires at least the refusal of suffrage to asses. There it will assume, with great dignity, its final position.
The final essay Garris includes, “Civic Ethics,” comes from the third volume of Dabney’s Discussions. It addresses not only the moral basis for obedience to civil authority, but is an excursion into the different theories about the origin of society and the authority of government. Dabney is harshly critical of such writers as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he lumps together as proponents of the “social contract” theory of society: that we are somehow created as autonomous individuals who then come together voluntarily to form a society and create a government. Not only in logic, but in historical fact, this view is erroneous. Man is born within a society and under some form of government, which, in some way, is ordained by God. As Dabney points out, given the fallen nature of man and the existence of evil in the world, the rule of law and the operation of governments and obedience thereto are absolutely requisite to a well-ordered commonwealth, just as the family forms the natural and basic unit of the society, and in microcosm forms a kind of mini-government over its members.
The one slight difference I have with Dabney comes in this last essay, his critique of what he calls “Legitimism,” which he identifies with the Divine Right of Kings. Rightly, as he defines it, he opposes it—and given his Old Republicanism, that is to be expected. Yet, I would distinguish between most true Legitimist (mostly royalist) movements in Europe during the nineteenth century, and the theories of Divine Right. Traditionally in Christendom, kingship was not considered absolute, as certainly as it evolved during the Enlightenment. Traditional monarchies generally practiced a form of subsidiarity, even a broad form of “states’ rights,” in which local and regional bodies, communities, guilds, regions, and other subdivisions within society exercised a considerable degree of authority and autonomy, even at times a veto, within a commonwealth, even when that commonwealth was headed by a king or emperor. The examples from history are manifold, and I would cite my own experience and studies in Spanish Traditionalism: those Legitimist defenders of the old Spanish monarchy termed “Carlists” who fought several civil wars for “God, Country, Our Local and Regional Rights, and the King,” emphasis emphatically on “our local and regional rights”: their unbreachable “fueros.”
Robert Lewis Dabney was also a staunch opponent of crony capitalism and the mass industrialization of the South. He saw the destruction of our agricultural society and the rapid growth of industrialization with alarm. In his essay, “The New South,” Dabney drew a comparison between the United States of 1789 and ninety-three years later, in the 1882. In the former year no one city, no one or two states, no handful of corporate giants controlled the nation’s wealth. But in 1882 New York City had become “the commercial mistress” of the whole nation and a handful of industrial barons dictated policies to presidents. Asked Dabney: “Can a sensible man persuade himself that political independence and individual initiative shall remain in a land where financial despotism has become established?”
And he continued: “the transfer of wealth and power into the hands of a few, and the marvelous applications of science and mechanic art to cheapen transportation and production” were causing not just the transformation of the South, but a massive change in all of American society. Centralization and monopolization in industry meant a vast reorientation in manufacturing, with far-reaching effects socially and culturally. What happened to independent small businessmen and craftsmen who were now overwhelmed by monopolies, mergers, and crushing competition? When capital was controlled by the few, and the powerful barons of industry commanded the masses at their bidding, individual liberty soon disappeared.
Although not covered in the four chapters in this book, such prescient commentary on post-War America and what was happening to his beloved Southland merit perhaps another volume of selections.
It was Dabney’s role, holding fast to his firm Presbyterian orthodox theology and his understanding of the principles of the American Founders, to offer a roadmap for a righteous citizenry and for the survival of a nation. And he did so as one of the most notable thinkers that the South—and America—produced in the nineteenth century. Yet, he exclaimed with melancholy late in his life in 1894, “I am the Cassandra of Yankeedom, predestined to prophesy truth and never to be believed until too late.”
Zachary Garris’ new volume of some of Dabney’s best writing offers an opportunity to re-discover this prophet and to begin to comprehend his thought, based in the traditions of Christian theology. Dabney has much to teach us today, and Garris’ Dabney on Fire is an excellent way to begin that process.