A review of From Founding Fathers to Fire-Eaters: The Constitutional Doctrine of States’ Rights in the Old South (Columbia, SC: Shotwell Publishing, 2018) by James Rutledge Roesch.
Mr. James Rutledge Roesch is doing God’s work with the publication of his book, From Founding Fathers to Fire-Eaters: The Constitutional Doctrine of States’ Rights in the Old South. Riding to the sound of the cannon, Mr. Roesch has charged straight into the fire of the court historians, the apologists for the deep state left, and has scattered their neo-abolitionists nostrums to the winds. And he has done so in a style that is accessible to the lay reader, and with evidence that the scholar ignores at his peril. In order to appreciate the importance of this work, a bit of historiography is in order.
Before the 1960s, three schools of thought on the causes of the War Between the States. One school viewed the existence of slavery as the chief cause of hostilities, a second school believed that deep and profound cultural and social divisions, including but not limited to slavery, between an industrial North and an agrarian South was responsible for the conflict, and the third group lay the blame at a failure of politics and politicians to reach the necessary compromises over slavery and other national issues to head off the war. This final group emphasized the war as a national tragedy between the sections, whose people shared far more similarities than differences. A fourth group emerged in the 1960s, the New Left, who emphasized slavery as the only real cause of the conflict between the North and the South. They, however, went a bit further than the earlier historians who shared their view of slavery’s primary role in the sectional conflict.
The New Left historians viewed American history as the story of an unfinished revolution, and they viewed the Civil War and Reconstruction as a primary event in that unfinished social and cultural revolution. As these historians came of age in the 1960s, they viewed the eternal struggle as reignited by the various and sundry civil rights movements and protest movements of the 1960s and beyond. They are the new Puritans, a type of neo-abolitionist whose thought and action is seasoned with cultural marxism, and like both the Puritan, the Abolitionist of yesteryear, and the Marxist, they view history, the present, and the future through the glasses of Manichean dualism. Thus the South is the wilderness, slavery the great sin and stain, and every thought formed by a Southerner, every word spoken by a Southerner, lest it accord with neo-abolitionist and revolutionary views, suffers from the taint of slavery and must be viewed as an apologia for the same. This is what our intrepid author is up against, and bless his soul, Dantesque he names, names and calls out their errors: James McPherson, William C. Davis, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Bruce Levine, William Freehling, Steven Channing and others. Taken together, and in alliance with such Straussian political theorists as Harry Jaffa, they are legion, these despisers of the South. (Some may take issue with my characterization of these gentlemen, but I can only say, “By their works ye shall know them.”) As Marx and his disciples once made the mistake of viewing all human action through the lens of “class conflict,” so too do these scholars view the South through the lens of slavery, and a simplistic and incomplete view of slavery at that.
With such formidable opponents arrayed against him Mr. Roesch uses the only weapon available to him, evidence. Mr. Roesch selects seven prominent Southern political thinkers: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, St. George Tucker, John Taylor of Caroline, Abel Parker Upshur, John C. Calhoun, and Robert Barnwell Rhett and examines the public lives of each, the general outlines of their political thought, and then explores in some depth a specific contribution each man made to the political theory and doctrine of States’ Rights. What emerges is an accessible study that first and foremost seeks to do what all good intellectual history does, understand historical actors as they understood themselves. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Roesch does not uncover dark plots to use the mantra of “states’ rights” as cover for the spread of slavery across time and space. What he does uncover is a deep and rich political tradition that asserts the states as sovereign political communities that pre-existed the federal government, a deep and abiding commitment to local governance, and a deep and abiding suspicion of political and financial consolidation. As Mr. Roesch has properly done his homework, he appropriately contextualizes these important Southern contributions in the political traditions and historical experiences of the British Isles. In brief, Mr. Roesch has uncovered a living, breathing political tradition which possessed a remarkable diversity in reasoning, methodology, and even conclusions (witness Madison and Jefferson) among its adherents. Imagine, some of the political thought Southern statesmen drew from can be traced to a time before any African bondsman, or any European free man or indentured for that matter, set foot in America!
Now for a few quibbles. John Randolph of Roanoke is mentioned prominently in the book, but he does merit his own chapter. True, he never wrote any political treatises, I can’t imagine him doing so, but he is a crucial figure in the continued development of the states’ rights argument and he adds a unique aristocratic perspective that is missing from both Jefferson and Madison. Also, I think it may have made the book more effective to expand the introduction a bit to include those prominent historians and political thinkers, mentioned elsewhere in the text, who are the chief opponents of the states’ rights teaching and Mr. Roesch’s interpretation. A mention of their views would fit nicely in a paragraph or two after Mr. Roesch’s discussion of Marxist historical theory and the Frankfurt School. As is, these folks are scattered about the text and it is not always clear how they fit into the larger picture of the anti-states’ rights camp.
Quibbles aside, and they are minor, Mr. Roesch has put together an excellent study that provides a good antidote to the narrow and constrained interpretations of antebellum Southern political thought. One can only hope for more of the same from both Mr. Roesch and Shotwell Press.