Cracks in the Treasury of Virtue

john brown

A review of Division and Reunion: America, 1848-1877, by Ludwell H. Johnson, New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1978. 301 pages; and The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement, by Otto Scott, New York: Times Books, 1979, 375 pages.

It was Flannery O’Connor who remarked, in one of her short essays, that people will believe anything about the South as long as it is strange enough. She was speaking of the obstacles to acquiring a proper understanding of fic­tion with a Southern setting, but she could just as well have been referring to Southern historical writing. There is probably no subject under the sun that has spawned a greater amount of nonsense.

People who would never dream of passing judgment on contemporary Uganda or Elizabethan poetry without years of study feel no hesitation in passing sweeping judgments on the South. They embody their “knowledge” and conclusions not only in TV epics but in works of serious history.

This is an old phenomenon, one that has made us aware of the peculiar uses to which the South has habitually been put in the psychological life of non-Southern Americans. The non-Southern American has been repeatedly tempted, since the 17th century, to employ the South as a scapegoat in a pecu­liarly Puritan technique of self-gratification. Northerners of a certain type have used hostility to the South as a means of establishing their own identi­ties, even of asserting their own heroic virtue. That the South is the center and embodiment of all evil, that it is a pollution of which America must be purged, has been a recurrent theme. These attacks, of the kind Edmund Burke con­demned as ‘”an indictment of a whole people.” have been made upon a region which has done the attacker little or no harm. But attacks on the South typi­cally have nothing to do with the evils and ills of our section, serious as they may be. It is extremely rare that we have received constructive criticism as opposed to blanket condemnation.

There has been a variation of sorts, whereby Northerners, for their own purposes, have projected favorable images upon the South. After the Civil War, the South was romanticized by Northerners who had become disgusted with the world they had created. Ironically, when this treatment went out of fashion, other Northern writers chalked it up as just one more sin of the South. Southerners’ penchant for romanticizing their past, it was said, made them an absurd, dangerous people whose fantasies prevented them from coping with their own defects and problems.

Another peculiar permutation on the theme is that anything Southern that is to be praised —George Washington, for instance, or Davy Crockett, or coun­try music —is discovered to be not really ‘”Southern” after all. Anything American to be condemned (social disintegration and racial strife in Northern big cities, for example) is discovered somehow to be a result of the South’s sins. In fact, one of the chief motivating factors for the great batch of books on slavery in the last few years has been the desire to find a way of blaming the long dead planters of the Old South for the inhumanity and hypocrisy of urban American life. This enterprise becomes more and more suspect as soci­ological evidence accumulates that black people in the South suffer less from crime, unemployment, and broken families than in the great liberal cities of other regions.

But the point is, all this historical investigation has not so much to do with determining the truth about the Old South as it does with an implicit self-grat­ification for the critic, a process which Robert Penn Warren denominated the “Treasury of Virtue” some years ago in a neglected masterpiece, The Legacy of the Civil War. The critical defect in much of the literature about the South, even much that is intelligently and responsibly done, is the Implied Comparison.

The South is always found wanting by the investigator, always found to fall short of his standards. But the standards are never stated. One may deplore inequality of wealth in the Old South, for instance, without ever being required to look into the question of whether such inequality was any greater (or even as great) as in the North or Europe. One may investigate and con­demn violence or militarism in the Old South endlessly, without ever having to say how it compared with the like elsewhere. The virtue of the “Elsewhere,” by comparison, is simply assumed. To vindicate it is the chief motive for the investigation, not to discover the facts.

The standard, really, is the Treasury of Virtue, the writer’s self-congratulation on being one of the elect, on not being a sinner such as they.

The virtue of the two books under consideration is that they constitute part of the long-overdue investigation of the Implied Comparison. They exam­ine the motives and conduct of Northerners during the Civil War era. Division and Reunion is a collegiate survey of the period by a professor of history of the College of William and Mary. The Secret Six is an effort by a Northern conservative writer to come to grips with one element of the sectional conflict. Both works are assiduously researched and eloquently written. Their success is to be judged by the fact that Johnson’s carries a foreword warning that it is “controversial” and that “learning begins with provocation” and that Scott’s was reported out of print shortly after publication and is no longer obtainable.

Rather than assuming that the Civil War is explained by a completely understandable desire of virtuous Northerners to wipe out a wicked and inde­fensible South, Johnson has told the story even-handedly. He has examined the motives, policies, and behavior of Northern politicians, soldiers, and citi­zens with the rigor and candor that is usually reserved for the South. The pic­ture that emerges is not a pretty one, but the focus is instructive, alike for the student seeking both sides of the story and for the Southerner seeking a better understanding of his forebears.

Scott devotes himself to the John Brown episode and examines Brown’s life and exploits in scrupulous detail. There cannot be the slightest doubt that Brown was a hypocrite, a liar, a swindler, and a petty tyrant, in addition to being a mass murderer. Charles Manson and the Rev. Jim Jones, remember, justified their deeds as service to high political ideals.

But more interesting and instructive than Brown by far are the “secret six,” the half-dozen wealthy, intelligent, and respectable New Englanders who clandestinely aided and abetted Brown’s murderous activities in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry. These include Gerrit Smith, the richest man in the U.S. and a reformist crank; Theodore Parker, a noted Biblical scholar and pastor of the biggest church in Boston, also a secret enemy of religion; Samuel Gridley Howe, a brave soldier and true benefactor of mankind in the education of the disadvantaged, also a cruelly unscrupulous exploiter of women, including his wife, who wrote the venomous words of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”; and others of similar ilk.

These people are examined in detail and largely through their own records. Clearly, their interest in the South, about which they knew little and understood nothing, bad as it might have been, was a convenient outlet for hatred and destructiveness. Even more important, for Brown and the others, was the way in which their hatred of the South, their desire to wipe out its civilization, pro­vided for them a cover and excuse for their own individual sins. Thus Brown, a repulsive human being by every known standard, could become in the minds of many a martyr and saint. His friends could excuse their own lying, cheating, vindictiveness, irresponsibility, and betrayal on the grounds of their participa­tion in the noble cause of South-hating. The South was evil, therefore its ene­mies good, the more relentless and irresponsible the better. And all this had only a superficial relationship to the actual existence and welfare of the black slave, as repeatedly emerges from Scott’s evidence. On the other hand, the evi­dence shows that Southerners, even when subjected to the greatest provocation and while being denounced by a lying press as murderous barbarians, actually behaved with gentlemanly restraint and fair play.

Scott’s careful portrayal is not just a historical exercise, as useful and hon­est as it is as such. The phenomenon it probes is a recurrent one in American history and is as pertinent to understanding the 1960s as the 1860s. It is espe­cially pertinent for the new conservatives who seem to be in the ascendant. Few of them have dealt honestly with the South and its enemies —Russell Kirk being a notable exception. They will never establish a viable American con­servatism until they do.

There has always been a countercurrent, of varying strength, set up by Northerners who did not participate in the fashionable gang-up against the South. The story of that is largely unwritten. In fact, anywhere one goes in the civilized world one encounters a considerable amount of sympathy and inter­est in the South and its history.

Despite all the heavily subsidized disapproval of the media and official his­tory, there is some integrity and authenticity, some real glamour and heroism in the history of the South that continues to attract admirers even when Southerners themselves, it sometimes seems, have ceased to care.

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