A review of The Southern Tradition: The Achievements and Limitations of Southern Conservatism (Harvard, 1994) by Eugene Genovese

The notion of a Southern polit­ical tradition can be understood as conservative, complete, and consistent with its roots. Eugene Genovese’s The Southern Tradition poignantly articulates these qualities from the perspec­tive of a Marxist gone conserva­tive—a Southern conservative, indeed. Elucidating Genovese’s understanding of “Southern con­servatism” will shed light on what like-minded conservatives mean when they say that the present Gingrich House conservatives are not their “type of conservatives.”

Southern conservatism, according to Genovese, is closely related to “transatlantic tradition­alism. Conservative European philosophers like Edmund Burke were heroes to the Southern con­servative intellectual movement that gained national influence in the 1930s under the name, “Southern Agrarians.” Briefly, transatlantic traditionalism viewed political problems as reli­gious and moral, hence opposing any attempts at secularization. Moreover, it rejected the idealism of an egalitarian society, finding pursuits of classlessness as invita­tions to tyranny. While Burke was specifically responding to the French Revolution, conservatives today cite the long history of “egalitarian regimes” that promised absolute class equality only to deliver mass murder. Nevertheless, prominent figures of early Southern conservatism, like John C. Calhoun and John Randolph of Roanoke, were far from monarchists or aristocrats, for they believed themselves to be republicans, as those who believed in the sovereignty of the people, not popular rule; “consti­tutional” democracy, not “absolute” or “numerical.” “We call our State a Republic—a Commonwealth, not a democra­cy,” stated Calhoun. “It is a far more popular Government than if it had been based on the simple principle of numerical majority.

To these Southern “republi­cans,” representative democracy, rather than “direct” democracy, was premised on the innate inequality of humans as individu­als, and thus, a social hierarchy inevitably developed based upon the value of these natural inequalities. It is important to note that this notion of “inequali­ty” was never intended to use race as a criterion, but ironically became so under scientific pro­gressivism—distrusted and viewed with contempt in the South—which buttressed racist rhetoric with facile scholarship and statistical “credence.” (Today, The Bell Curve, in some way, has reignited this venue of debate.) It was specifically this hierarchical society which the Southerners evolved from and wished to pre­serve that gave the region its brand of conservatism, altogether unique from the social stratifica­tions found in the North where big industries and a free- market labor lie in stark contrast. Agrarian intellectual M. E. Bradford averred, “Not religion but the cult of equality is the opi­ate, of the masses in today’s world—part of the larger and old­er passion for uniformity or free­dom from distinction.” Therefore, “Equality as a moral or political imperative, pursued as an end in itself—Equality, with the capital ‘E’—is the antonym of every legiti­mate conservative principle.”

Genovese, furthermore, delin­eates the religiosity of the progres­sive, liberal North, and the Old South’s defense of mainstream Christianity. Having relinquished its Christian orthodoxy since the beginnings of nationhood, the North, in the eyes of conservative Christians, had receded into heretical deviancy. The Unitarianism that permeated northern institutions, like Harvard and influential churches of the northeast, was the South’s evi­dence of the North’s moral and religious recidivism. Some north­ern churches were as extreme as to abandon the doctrine of original sin and human depravity for a progressive view of God and mankind. Theologians like Friederich Schleiermacher and Adolf von Harnach attacked church dogma, and radical theolo­gies like Arianism and Socinianism undermined established beliefs. Other churches even went so far as to not require a fundamental Christian conviction that Christ was Savior.

By contrast, Southern conserva­tives, who viewed politics through moral and religious lenses, found God to be real with an inscrutable will, and “whose commands must be obeyed, no matter how deeply they may offend ordinary human sensibilities.” Their faith was grounded on local judgment and nonscientific discernment. This carried over into their literal reading of the Bible, allowing the individual to come to an under­standing of scripture based on “community-grounded prejudices and apparently non-scientific modes of discrimination,” hence without the encumbrances of pro­gressive theologians and liberal theology that was contaminating the North. Concomitantly, Southern conservatives valued individualism. For the Southern conservative “Christian individu­alism,” attained through the Protestant Reformation, allotted the Christian the “right of private judgment,” yet the faith bounded this liberation with communal responsibility.

They embraced Scottish Enlightenment, which taught them to distrust “ideological nos­trums,” and rely upon “Christian revelation” and “God’s providence in nature and human history.” These experiences would provide the bulwark for moral principles that would be used to guide the individual within society. Established upon the ideals that emerged from the French and Industrial   revolutions,

“Renaissance individualism” gained little, if any, support from conservative traditionalists.

Differences in religious tenets provided a comparison of north­ern and Southern brands of Christianity. “As a divinely inspired elite, of moral Christians, the abolitionists proclaimed egali­tarianism, but in actuality simply replaced the old elite with a new, making little significant headway for the general masses whose cause they purported to advocate.

Southerners understood God to provide varying amounts of “tal­ents” to humanity, and intended for some inequalities, which natu­rally resulted in a stratified soci­ety. Property became the symbol of class demarcation, delineating the various social strata, and pre­serving moral and spiritual val­ues. Ownership of property, however, was not to be central­ized but broadly owned amongst communities in small and middle- sized groups. Ironically, after 1865, the South would find itself in the same predicament for which its predecessors whole­heartedly denounced the North at the start of the war: a society must have private ownership of property to sustain general moral­ity and integrity. Having replaced the old system of slavery, the North, and eventually the South, succumbed to a free market sys­tem that over time stripped away the social relations necessary in retaining a working, living com­munity. (Today, the unholy alliance between free-market lib­ertarians and traditional conserv­atives is tartuffery, since the former opposes any controls, and the latter, understanding the errancy of man, advocates social boundaries dictated by elites.) In short, Southern, conservative Christians saw no possible recon­ciliation of the abolitionism, radi­cal egalitarianism and the elitism with which these social “progres­sives” imposed their set of beliefs upon the slave states.

The 1994 congressional elec­tions have placed a body of con­servative Republicans-from the South, at that, who profess to uphold conservative principle-on Capitol Hill and into powerful decision-making positions, the implications of which go far beyond their small town con­stituents. Though they do mea­sure up to some conservative traditionalist principles—smaller federal government and state’s rights-these Southern Republicans are enraptured in the polity’s edict for action. They lack funda­mental understanding of their responsibility as elites for certain issues, unbridling the dangers of free-market capitalism, which Genovese’s traditional Southern conservatives had cautioned of before the Civil War.

Southern conservative philoso­phy and constitutional principles promote limited government, and Gingrich’s Contract with America is doing exactly that; but a realis­tic balance must be reached. The preservation of “traditional val­ues” necessitates government to interfere, as least and as delicate­ly as possible, in a society where the market heavily influences many social and economic out­comes. Genovese argues that Americans placed trust in similar lopsided political philosophy when electing Reagan, and, when disap­pointed with the results of Reagan’s optimistic view of humanity, advocacy of limitless material progress, and devotion to free-market/finance capitalism, “bitterly denounced its aftermath in the Bush Administration.” For what the Reagan administration represented, it can be correctly deduced that Reaganism embod­ied right-wing liberalism. “His radical individualism and egali­tarianism represent much that Southern conservatives have always loathed.”

Eugene Genovese’s articulation of the Southern political tradition pertinently reviews American conservatism’s intellectual roots. Though a free-market capitalistic system seems to have been a bedrock of America’s conser­vatism, according to Genovese, its overemphasis partially belies the full history of conservatism, par­tially lost and partially diffused since 1865. The preservation of Christian orthodoxy and individu­alism; advocacy of representative democracy; broad ownership of property; and free-market econo­my bounded within limits of morality—these are the qualities of the southern tradition that seem lacking in today’s matrix of conservatism.

This piece was originally published in the 3rd Quarter 1995 issue of Southern Partisan Magazine.

Won Kim

Won Kim was a fellow with the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C.

Leave a Reply