Southern Conservatism and the “Gilded Age”

Richard Taylor 2

Russell Kirk called the early post-bellum period in American history the age of “Conservatism Frustrated.” He lamented that the leading members of the conservative mind from 1865-1918 flirted with the radicalism of their compeers both before and during the Civil War and now were left with the daunting task of closing Pandora’s Box, a Box they helped open:

The New England reformers thought they had struck down evil incarnate when they crushed the Sable Genius of the South….They had dreaded an era of Jefferson Davis, but now they were in an era of Thaddeus Stevens, and of worse than Stevens. The merciless and vulgar old ironmaster, indeed, looked conspicuously admirable by the side of the Conklings and Mortons, the Butlers and Randalls, the Chandlers, Blaines, and Boutwells who scrabbled in the dust of a country blighted even worse spiritually than physically….They had been intent on abstract virtue, and now they awoke to find their fellow-Republicans, the oligarchs of their party, intent upon concrete plunder. The Mountain had yielded to the Directory.

It was North over South, and as Kirk wrote, “The obligations of conservative restoration therefore lay with the mind of the triumphant North; but the Northern intellect, which practically was the New England intellect, faltered before this enormous task.” Kirk concluded that “By the time the First World War ended, true conservatism was nearly extinct in the United States, existing only in little circles of stubborn men who refused to be caught up in the expansive lust of their epoch….” Overall, “change,” he wrote, “was preferred to continuity.”

This is only partly true. Kirk’s exemplary conservatives of the period, James Russell Lowell, E.L. Godkin, Henry Adams, and Brooks Adams, are part of the problem, and his lavish praise of the intellect of Henry Adams ignores the lasting vexation of the age, New England education, the product of what Thomas Jefferson famously called the “dark Federalist mills” of the North. Of course Godkin, by Irish birth and education, can be excluded from the New England conservative school, and like William Graham Sumner was more correctly a classical liberal disgusted with corruption, democracy, centralization, imperialism, and cheap money, but he was a Northern partisan (though he had kind words to say for “Stonewall” Jackson), and a sharp critic of Southern culture.

Regardless, Kirk’s choice for a chapter title is correct. Conservatism was frustrated in the late nineteenth century, but it was broader and more complex than his New England standards demonstrate. Arguably, this is the most important era for the student of the conservative mind. The dramatic changes in politics, government, and society induced by industrialization and egalitarianism presented problems for Western civilization and in particular the Western political and moral tradition. No one knew this better than Southern conservatives suffering under the Federal yoke, brow beaten and demonized by the conservatives Kirk praises for their rear-guard action against the forces Northerners helped unleash through their support for Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party. American conservatism existed, not in little pockets as Kirk suggested, but down in Dixie.

James A. Bayard, the younger, of Delaware (arguably a Southern State in 1860) was one of these conservatives. Born into a prominent American family that counted among its members several U.S. Senators, war heroes during the American War for Independence, and a signatory to the United States Constitution, Bayard was as traditionally an American conservative as anyone in the antebellum United States. He was one of the lone voices against the Republican Party in the United States Senate during the War, a conservative working to maintain the Union of the founding generation, and a staunch opponent of centralization, democracy, and the executive usurpation of congressional power. Bayard fought against radical reconstruction and the political and social transformation of the United States in the years after the War. It was during this period that he displayed an open contempt for majority rule, reform, and modern education.

A common theme in Bayard’s letters and speeches after the War centered on “Yankee Puritanism” and the combination of arbitrary power and moral reform. He feared a French Revolution on American soil and thought the Republican policies would surely lead to the same cataclysmic event in the United States. He called the Republican controlled Congress the “French directory” and complained how the “apathy of the people and their apparent ignorance or indifference” was leading to “the despotism which is advancing upon them.” Temperance and reform were “dangerous to our future,” and Bayard considered the reform movements of the day nothing short of the “demoralization” of the country.

Bayard made his last speech in the Senate in 1869 on the proposed Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, what he called the “Negro Suffrage” amendment. But Bayard did not focus his attack on race; rather, his was a blistering and calculated assault on universal suffrage, what he called the “hobby of the day.” The Fifteenth Amendment, he said, would “subvert the system of government organized by our ancestors, and converts a confederated Republic into an elective despotism.” He contended history showed that universal suffrage gave no “security for the preservation of civil liberty; and the imperial Government of France, with its six million majority, affords ample illustration of the inefficiency of such a remedy to secure liberty against the aggressions of power.” He later wrote privately to his son, future Senator Thomas F. Bayard, Sr., that the amendment would be “the last drop in the cup which will cause the waters of bitterness to overflow.”

Bayard believed that the American people, “at large have lost their capacity for self-government,” and he thought the best men were shrinking from public life, leaving both the general and state governments in the hands of the “political traders.” “Middle class government” had left Paris and London in a “shocking condition” and the only hope he had for America was “decentralization. It is by this alone,” he said, “that a free govt of any kind can be preserved in so extended a country as ours with so heterogeneous a people.” He later wrote, “there can be no empire in so extended a country as ours. Natural laws render it impossible even if Grant or his successor had the genius and capacity of Napoleon Bonaparte.” Bayard would have agreed with John Tyler, Sr., who urged Thomas Jefferson in 1783 to reconsider turning down a seat in the Continental Congress. Tyler wrote, “I suppose your [reasons] are weighty, yet I would suggest that good and able men had better govern than be governed, since tis possible, indeed highly probable, that if the able and good withdraw themselves from society, the venal and ignorant will succeed.”

“Demoralization,” centralization, and “mediocrity,” Bayard surmised, could be blamed squarely on the “Yankee school system” and the “surly press.” “All periodical literature,” he said, “written by half thinking men and the effect on the public is somewhat like the over gorging on food would be on the general health….” And poor education exacerbated the problem. The “Yankee school system” could “stimulate the brain, but it ignores mans [sic] moral nature and produces discontent with their condition among the masses…which can only end in anarchy and despotism.” Because government had been handed to the masses, the people “were left to the control of trading politicians and the teachings of a licentious, sensational, and corrupt press.” Bayard reflected that:

what is called progress must be based on the moral culture of the people and not on merely intellectual excitement. That latter will end as it has been shown in New England in the decay of the thinking power and a more wide spread mental disturbance and ultimate extensive insanity. The whole doctrine of bringing all men to equality in mental moral or physical endowments by so called education is simply an absurdity. Equality of civil rights may be and is rational but equality is not the law of nature….

In his last years, Bayard prophesied that the “organized corruption of the monied class” and the popular press would ruin the United States, as it had other civilizations, and could only be arrested by “an honest sound state of opinion among our agricultural class.” Ultimately, the modern press, whittled down by poor education and incapable men, would “weaken if not destroy its power or lead to too rigid a restriction of the public expression of opinion by some sort of censorship incompatible with republican institutions.” Bayard linked agrarian interests with republicanism and a free, unregulated, and enlightened press with liberty. His position offered a traditional bulwark against a tidal wave of reform of modernity, and Bayard believed, as did his son, that the agrarian South exemplified the principles of 1776.

Richard Taylor of Louisiana displayed much of the same sentiments as Bayard in the post-bellum period. Taylor’s lineage could be traced to the earliest settlers of Virginia; his grandfather was a colonel in the Continental Army during the American War for Independence, and his father, Zachary Taylor, was one of the most distinguished general officers in American history and later President of the United States. Like Bayard, Taylor was a disinterested statesman cut from the cloth of old American principles. His cause in 1861 as a Confederate general was the same as Washington’s and Jefferson’s in 1776. To men like Bayard and Taylor, the South was the continuity between the founding generation and their own, and after the War, Taylor waged a rearguard action against the fanaticism of so-called Northern conservatives. To him and conservative men of the South, losing meant the destruction rather than the preservation of the Union and the founding tradition. His memoirs titled Destruction and Reconstruction highlight post-bellum Southern conservative thought.

Taylor’s response at the conclusion of the War to a recent German emigrant turned Union soldier outlined his understanding of history and traditional American principles, principles the South defended and exemplified. This unnamed German “comforted” Taylor “by assurances that we of the South would speedily recognize our ignorance and errors, especially about slavery and the rights of States, and rejoice in the results of the war.” Taylor apologized “meekly” for his “ignorance, on the ground that my ancestors had come from England to Virginia in 1608, and, in the short intervening period of two-hundred and fifty odd years, had found no time to transmit to me correct ideas of the duties of American citizenship.” The German smiled and offered to instruct Taylor whenever needed. This was not “Yankee education” at work, but recent German immigrants—many of whom were Northern partisans disaffected by their failures in the communist revolutions of 1848—influenced American social policy after the War. Radical transformations in public education and the kindergarten movement are the most conspicuous examples, and Northern agitators clung to such education “reform” with both hands.

Taylor described Washington D.C. shortly after the War as little better than Sodom. Paroled Union officers “gorged with loot” taken from Southern homes flaunted their new found treasure, mostly in the form of lavish gifts to their women. The city swarmed with prostitutes who freely conducted business in the shadow of the executive mansion. This was not the Union or the capital city his father and his grandfather had known. Lust for power had supplanted republican principles. And the political class exacerbated the situation.

As a former Whig with political connections through his father, Taylor had access to the leading men of the Republican Party after the War, most of whom were former Northern Whigs. Taylor described “The Great Commoner” Thad Stevens of Pennsylvania as a frank man with little remorse for the Southern people—Taylor feared Stevens hoped to stretch his neck. Stevens declared without reservation that the Union of the founders was dead and called the Constitution a “worthless bit of old parchment.” In his estimation, the South had to be kept from power else they would align with the “Copperheads” of the North and wreck the true agenda of the War, the radical transformation of America.

Taylor thought President Andrew Johnson attempted to keep the barbarians at bay, and though he had little regard for the President, Taylor considered Johnson’s attempt to keep the office above the wretched rent seekers, bully politicians, and radical reformers to be at least admirable. Taylor remarked that he was disappointed to know that the restoration of the old Union was never contemplated by the Republican leadership. He believed, he said naively, that the War was for the restoration of the Union and that the old order would be at least maintained in the North. He now knew otherwise.

Even men who would later be viewed as statesmen turned their backs on the founding tradition. Taylor thought Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, doubtless more anti-Southern than anyone in Washington after taking a beating from Preston Brooks, to be an educated man, refined and cultured, and open to logic and reason. Not so he discovered. Taylor recounted how Sumner “seemed to be over-educated—had retained, not digested his learning; and beautiful flowers of literature were attached to him by filaments of memory, as lovely orchids to sapless sticks. Hence he failed to understand the force of language, and became the victim of his own metaphors, mistaking them for facts. He had the irritable vanity and weak nerves of a woman, and was bold to rashness in speculation, destitute as he was of the ordinary masculine sense of responsibility.” Bayard had simply called Sumner a “pompous ass” when the two had sparred in the Senate. Both descriptions fit. Sumner personified “Yankee education.”

Taylor eventually gave up trying to influence policy and spent several years in Europe. American politics had been given to demagogues, banks, and rent seekers, what Bayard called the “monied class.” Taylor agreed. He could find few reasons to hope and even mourned that the South was succumbing to the poison brought to it by the War. The only hope was tradition, the same tradition that Kirk sought in Northern voices. Taylor saw it in the South and in the founding generation. “Respect for the memories and deeds of our ancestors is security for the present, seed-corn for the future…” he wrote. Yet, he feared it was already lost by the 1870s. “The story of six centuries of sturdy effort by which our English forefathers wrought out their liberties is unknown, certainly unappreciated. Even the struggles of our grandfathers are forgotten, and the names of Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jay, Marshall, Madison, and Story awaken no fresher memories in our minds, no deeper emotions in our hearts, than do those of Solon, Leonidas, and Pericles.” Taylor was prophetic, for in 2014 most Americans would be hard pressed to recognize even the American names on his list.

Such melancholy aligns with Kirk’s description of the period, but Taylor had hope, and he concluded his memoir with words that should make any conservative take notice.

Traditions are mighty influences in restraining peoples. The light that reaches us from above takes countless ages to traverse the awful chasm separating us from its parent star; yet it comes straight and true to our eyes, because each tender wavelet is linked to the other, receiving and transmitting the luminous rays. Once break the continuity of the stream, and men will deny its heavenly origin, and seek its source in the feeble glimmer of earthy corruption.

Respect for tradition could still be found among the majority of Southerners in the Gilded Age. Kirk cannot be faulted for underestimating them. Southerners were marginalized and maligned by the stigma of the War and secession and were being emasculated by Northern interests and Northern dogma. Nevertheless Southerners, not the Adams family of Massachusetts, should be the focus of study for historians looking for “true conservatism” in this period. They were and are the “security” and the “seed-corn” for future generations and a lasting echo of the American tradition that dates to the earliest settlements in Virginia.

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