A review of Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence (ISI Books, 1999) edited by Herbert Agar and Allen Tate
In graduate school, I was assigned by the resident “New South” historian I’ll Take My Stand by Twelve Southerners as my final paper. I eagerly accepted the project. This was in my back-yard, so to speak. I had read the book at least twice before and considered it one of the best tomes on Southern culture and more accurately the American tradition. I received a “B+.” After presenting my paper to the class, the professor explained that I was too sentimental. The authors were, in his mind, Utopian romantics who had never worked a farm and therefore could not understand how terrible the agrarian life had been for most Southerners. This liberal academic advocated an industrialized South, for in farming he could only see economic backwardness, poverty, and social decline. Industry saved the South from her sins and buried the ghosts of the past.
His critique was, unfortunately, typical. Since being published in 1930, most reactions to the subject material have been negative. The “Southern Agrarians” as they have been called were branded fascists, reactionaries, racists, and every other name a Reconstructed Southerner or self-righteous Yankee could throw at them. Agrarianism did not fit their American paradigm. I also remember the hippie Leftist fellow who sat next to me in class raving over the book. To him, it had an environmental appeal that most missed. He was right. I’ll Take My Stand should have broad appeal to Americans. It is a treatise of independence, both economic and social, a study of the best elements of a prosperous society. It is Jeffersonian and uniquely American, not just Southern. As Donald Davidson wrote, “In its very backwardness the South had clung to some secret which embodied, it seemed, the elements out of which its own reconstruction—and possibly even the reconstruction of America—might be achieved.” It is a song of hope.
Six years later, seven of the original twelve partnered with fourteen additional writers to produce Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence. This work disappeared from the American literary scene faster than I’ll Take My Stand. It also received much of the same critique. Those on the American right—essentially the Hamiltonian strain which had long since destroyed their opponents—vigorously opposed its distaste for a capitalist economy. And, while the authors rejected capitalism, Marxists panned it because the book did not embrace their centralized prescription for societal change. Of course, none of the authors were Marxists, thankfully. Alan Tate explained that Marxists simply wanted to “keep capitalism with the capitalism left out.” So what did these men and women want? If they rejected both capitalism and Marxism, what was left? To Americans who had been thoroughly reconstructed into the progressive industrialist order, these were the only choices that made sense.
Who Owns America? was written during the heart of the Great Depression, and most political and economic thinkers believed more centralization, not less, was needed to tame and then conquer the problem. It was evident around the world, from the rise of fascist, communist, and totalitarian governments in Europe, to the iron fisted centralization of the New Deal and the Roosevelt administration, the West was having a love affair, it seemed, with supreme power. As the title states, Who Owns America? offered a different solution: political, economic, and social decentralization, a “new declaration of independence.” That was the American tradition from the founding period forward and in 1936 it had only been recently destroyed. America, the real, tangible, beautiful America based on the republican ideals of small, independent, virtuous, politically engaged and astute farmers could be resurrected from the ashes, but drastic action needed to be taken. This was not romantic idealism. In contrast to the America reformers of all persuasions wanted, the America embodied in Who Owns America? was based on a real place time had forgotten. This was a conservative manifesto of the American variety.
“Neither Congress, President, nor Supreme Court knows at this moment what is the Constitution of the United States; and it can hardly be proved that the remaining one hundred and thirty million inhabitants of the United States possess any greater certainty about their Constitution than the three departments of the Federal Government which are sworn to uphold, maintain, and defend it. We are, indeed, in a constitutional fog which has constantly grown thicker since the original document was presented to the country for ratification in 1787,” wrote Frank Lawrence Owsley in his essay “The Foundations of Democracy.” This is hardly a radical statement. Owsley, one of the original twelve agrarians, was pointing to the obvious in 1936. Americans had forgotten, or had purposely neglected, their distinctively American past.
Owsley placed the burden of this problem squarely on the backs of the Republican Party. They had maliciously transformed society by using the famed (or infamous) “higher law” doctrine of the 1850s.. “It was only after Lincoln’s death that it became apparent that the ‘higher law’ had been invoked, not to bring freedom and happiness to the slave, but rather to the great bankers, railroad magnates, and industrialists….It short, it was in reality the industrialists and corporations who invoked the ‘higher law’ to gain control of the National Government and make it over according to their desire.” Yet, Owsley emphasized that the “higher law” had been distorted. The Founders subscribed to a “higher law,” just not the one advanced by the Republican Party from the 1850s onward. His “higher law,” as expounded upon by Jefferson, Henry, Dickinson, and Samuel Adams, “was and is the absolute denial of the totalitarian State; neither kings nor parliaments, foreign or domestic, had complete sovereignty over the individual [emphasis in the original].”
This “higher law” was born from their common experience and history:
…from the Anglo-Saxon days when God was supposed to have made the laws and the king and his council only declared what they were; from the charter of Henry I, who acknowledged the supremacy of immemorial customs and laws; from King John, who signed the Magna Charta, and all the kings who came after him, who, in a similar fashion, admitted that their sovereignty over subjects was limited. The jurists Coke, Littleton, and Blackstone confirmed the limitations of sovereignty, and Browne, Hobbes, Milton, and Locke, the philosophers, stated in broad abstract terms the theories of limited sovereignty. The philosophers of the American Revolution stated these principles more clearly, and, as I have said, they made these principles the foundation of the American State. They were called “natural rights.”
Included among the “natural rights,” Owsley contended, was the “right to self-government—that is government was made to serve man, man was not made to serve government, and when government failed to serve man it should be changed, peaceably if possible, forcibly if need be.”
Owsley argued those who supported the original interpretation of “natural rights” and the “higher law” were the Jeffersonians. They defined American conservatism, a conservatism based on the “cardinal principle of self-government.” And it was founded on their understanding of human history, most importantly their collective colonial experience. “The knowledge gained from experience as English colonists demonstrated irrefutably to these men that government from a great distance, by legislators not equally affected by their laws with the people for whom they were legislating, was ignorant government because it had no understanding of the local situation; and it was despotic government because the opinion and wishes of the people for whom the laws were passed were not considered or even known.” The Jeffersonians utilized the commonly used terms “States’ rights” and “strict construction,” Owsley contended, as either “aspects of the great principles of the right of self-government” or as “defensive weapons against what the Jeffersonians believed to be the enemies of the basic principles of the American State [emphasis in the original].” Thus, both terms were born from practical American experience but were rooted in something tangible: history and human experience.
But Owsley also believed Jefferson and Samuel Adams would not support strict construction or States’ rights today. “They would, probably, according to their own logic, advocate regional governments; and realists as they were, they would hardly be able to look at the two hundred and ninety-odd volumes of Supreme Court decisions and remain strict constructionists. Without doubt they would demand a new Constitution which guaranteed unequivocally the basic principles of democracy.” Central to a democratic government was the wide distribution of property and the resulting independence of the American people. It was only by securing the traditional “natural rights” of the American founding that the United States and the American people would be able to protect against “the fascist or communist totalitarian State which guarantees security and denies freedom.”
Donald Davidson, another of the original Twelve Southerners, carried the theme further in an essay titled “That This Nation May Endure—The Need for Political Regionalism.” Davidson lamented that since the 1850s, Americans had looked upon regional differences, often classified as sectional differences, with disdain. They were more readily seen as a curse upon nationalism and the Union than a blessing, but Davidson flipped that notion on its head. In a purely Jeffersonian way of looking at the United States—Jefferson after all did believe that the North American continent would at one point contain several autonomous regional governments—Davidson stated that, “The diversity of regions rather enriches the national life than impoverishes it, and their mere existence as regions cannot be said to constitute a problem. Rather in their differences they are a national advantage, offering not only the charm of variety but he interplay of points of view that ought to give flexibility and wisdom.”
Under the flag of “nation” the United States experienced several waves of regional imperialism facilitated by the Constitution, a document Davidson contends was ill equipped to handle regional or sectional differences. The central villain in the modern era had been the Northeast, a region which considered the South conquered provinces after the War Between the States, and that forced its political-economic vision—Hamiltonianism—on the rest of the United States by manipulating the powers of the central government. Every president from “Grant to Hoover,” Davidson wrote, has “represented the will of the Northeast and fostered the welfare of the Northeast.” The result was an unbalanced United States, the “towers of New York…built upon Southern and Western backs.” Davidson considered the New Deal as a frontal assault by a combination of the West and the South against the imperialist Northeast. But it, in kind, would only produce another round of regional imperialism against the Northeast. While he thought some in the South and the West considered this retribution just, he was not among that group. Americans must recall, he warned, “Burke’s great saying about not drawing an indictment against a whole people, we should remember gallantries and beneficences as well as errors.” In other words, there were always good, hard-working, honest, and just Northerners. Yankees could not be counted among them.
Regional governments, he surmised, would save rather than imperial the Union, for the Union of the Founders had long since disappeared and had been replaced with a government destructive to the liberty, independence, and cultural uniqueness of the American people. How this would be accomplished was a matter of debate. Owsley, among others, had suggested a new constitution, and Davidson agreed that this method of reform was preferable to any other. Yet, he was skeptical, and rightly so, that this culled be pulled off by modern American society:
Whatever may be said of this bold and well-argued proposal, there is no doubt that it quickens our minds, as other schemes do not, with a sense of possible and statesmanlike achievement rather than dulls us with a cynical yielding to the grind of abstract force and blind accident. If the Constitution is to be rewritten, the drafting must be done by men who, like the fathers of the original Constitution, believe in the power of humanity over circumstance, and can bring to the task of constitution-making something more than the statistical and technical knowledge of the modern expert, and a great deal more than the sleek political knowledge which is the average American politician’s substitute for statesmanship. The task requires men who are, as Madison and his colleagues were, at once lawyers, philosophers, students of history, men of letters, and men of the world, and who have the “feel” of the American situation as well as acquaintance with theory.
What Americans needed most was independence in the old sense, i.e. the end of the neo-colonialism of the Northeast. Davidson supported any proposal short of totalitarianism, communism, or fascism that would bring about the restoration of “small business, well-distributed property and an agrarian regime…content with modest returns.” In an argument that harkened back to the opponents of the Constitution (the true federalists) and John Taylor of Caroline, Davidson supported regional government because it was the most beneficial to the American people as a whole. It was truly national. “Among other things,” Davidson said, “it means that the land and the region belong to the people who dwell there, and that they will be governed only by their own consent.” That was American democracy and the American tradition guided by the lamp of experience.
Perhaps the most interesting essays of the book dealt with the social and cultural dislocation of modern America. Two are of note. The first titled “The Emancipated Woman” by Mary Shattuck Fisher, was a judicious analysis of arguably the most important and undervalued group of people in modern American society: married women as mothers. I say arguably because most of the modern “emancipated” women had lost her connection with the traditional role of wife and mother, not by accident, but by choice. 1936 could be 2011. Modern women were free—“free to serve machines, free to starve, free to go on the streets. There is little choice among such freedoms.” They worked and provided for families, many because they had to, others because they chose to. Modern society dictated that course.
Fisher concluded that, “Both men and women have better records as voters if they are married, if they own property, and if they have permanent residences. In other words, given the security which marriage and roots in one’s own community afford, both men and women take their citizenship more seriously. When such security is possible for the majority of American citizens—when the people own America—then, and then only, will America become democratic. Women, too, will be citizens in that new democracy.” This was an indirect indictment of the modern women, a women who Fisher believed too “ignorant, bewildered, helpless or indifferent” to make a difference in the dizzying mess of modern society. The modern woman, Fisher argued, did not want to live in a genderless society, regardless of a gradual push in that direction. What she wanted most was to preserve humanity.
These women do not want their husband’s jobs; they do not want to take men’s places. They want to be effective and responsible citizens, to contribute what they can to their communities. They do not want their children to grow up in big cities. They want for their children the kind of closeness to reality, the variety of experiences, the satisfaction of performing simple and necessary tasks, which they themselves knew in their childhood homes. They know that their children must be prepared to meet change, and they believe that there is no better preparation for it than to have roots, to have love for and faith in the homely things of life. They want them to have the courage to be themselves. They want them to create a free and democratic America.
In a time when women are told that liberty means fewer children and a career, Fisher’s prescription for family and society seems quaint. But there is a growing trend in the United States of women moving back into traditional roles by having larger families and forgoing a career to be a mother and in many cases, through home-schooling, a teacher. Women have long been the standard bearer for the tradition and stability of society. They rear their children on the history and culture of their people, provide a link to the past, and nurture future generations to develop a respect for place and tradition. Fisher recognized that they were the key to cultural independence. Without winning that war, a “free and democratic America” cannot exist.
Hilaire Belloc’s “The Modern Man” was a continuation on that theme, and as the concluding chapter to the book, an exclamation point on the destruction of the old order. Man, living in the modern industrialist state, had lost his connection with the past, his economic freedom, and his belief in the “old religious doctrines.” This had created a “conception of himself which molds all of his actions.” Man, in essence, had by inertia been dislocated from his traditional mores. He had no dock, no compass, and no map.
Before modern industrial society had robbed man of the good and the beautiful, man as representative of society at large, “strongly” retained the “ancient doctrines” of their ancestors. This was grounded in religion, in the belief of free will, “the doctrine of immorality of the soul surviving death forever; the doctrine of the Incarnation…which gave to the personality of man an infinite values since it was so regarded by its Creator; and the doctrine of eternal reward and punishment….” Man had instead substituted Christian values for “the worship of the community of which he is a member. There is a new religion which is not exactly the worship of the State, but the worship of the collective body…of which the individual is a member.” As a result, man could reject religion, but he could not ridicule or reject the honor of the collective, what had become the State or empire. Man now worshiped man and his creation, not that of the Creator.
Belloc contended this shift allowed for the modern man to be reduced to a wage-slave, a tool at the hands of the plutocracy. Why? Because he had no conception of independence, and no attachment to the land. Modern society, the machine age, had made him weak, and the loss of tradition had made him intellectually unable to cope with or resist the drastic changes that usurped his independence. “Now it should be clear to anyone who will think lucidly and coldly upon the direction in which all this must move that it is moving toward the re-establishment of slavery….To be compelled to work, not by your own initiative, but at the initiative of another, is the definition of slavery. Whether slavery shall come first in the form of slavery to the State before it arrive at the final and natural and stable form of slavery to individuals—slavery it still is, and the modern man accepts such slavery in the unshakable belief that it is in the nature of things.” Belloc lamented that slavery was the least of man’s worries, for the end result was the “decline of our civilization.”
Belloc offered a Mass for the Resurrection. “The few who have perceived these truths, the few who can contrast the modern man with the immediate ancestry of his age, but have forgotten, know that the remedy can only be found in a change of philosophy; that is, of religion.” Only by grounding man in the ancient order of things, including the possession of land, would man be able to restore his independence. The few who could see this were charged with carrying this task forward. Yet, “it was their duty to realize that this task has become exceedingly difficult of achievement, that the difficulty is increasing, and that therefore they must bear themselves as must all those who attempt a creative effort at reform: that is, as sufferers who will probably fail.” In retrospect, Belloc offered what Russell Kirk labeled the “ten conservative principles” long before Kirk wrote them. Property, independence, a respect for the old order, an understanding that change and tradition had to “reconciled,” community and the imperfectability of the soul were part of Belloc’s crusade to save man from himself. Cultural independence, Belloc suggested, breeds political and economic independence. We should listen and by listening become one of his suffering martyrs.
Those who considered Who Owns America? fascist or communist never read it, and those who classified it as un-American never understood American history. It is the practical application of the conservative mind, a prescription, political, economic, and cultural, for the restoration of the old American order. It is the culmination of centuries of wisdom, a philosophical critique, yes, but more a call to action, partly political, partly economic, and wholly cultural. Independence, the type of independence every sage in the preceding sixteen chapters advocated, can be achieved. It is the American way. It is distinctly American conservatism.
A slightly different version of this essay was originally published in Forgotten Conservatives in American History by Brion McClanahan and Clyde Wilson.