A Review of Old Times There Should Not Be Forgotten (Shotwell Publishing, 2020) by Leslie R. Tucker
If I were to classify my own regional sense of identity, I would say I am a Tennessean born and bred first; second, a North Carolinian by adoption; third, a Southerner, and finally, an American. Like Leslie Tucker, I am disturbed by the destruction of history that continues by means of the removal of Confederate monuments. Supposedly this is due to the War for Southern Independence being caused by slavery and the monuments to Confederate soldiers being built as symbols of racism. Tucker effectively answers this charge in an unusual way: he presents the history of the American South from colonial times to the present day. He attacks a group of historians he calls the “librevs,” or “liberal revisionists,” who seek to disparage the South for slavery and for its racist policies against Blacks that began in the late 1880s and 1890s.
Tucker’s thesis is simple: that although the South was wrong in having slavery and wrong for its apartheid “Jim Crow” laws, it should not be singled out for those wrongs. The North was also a racist region, as Tucker shows by an examination of laws designed to exclude Blacks from entering northern states and northern laws banning interracial marriage. He notes that most Americans, even the “intelligentsia,” were racists until well after World War II. He is correct on this point—a classic example is the Eugenics Movement, which advocated sterilizing the mentally ill, those with severe birth defects, and often, those of “inferior races.” It is interesting to note that by far, both in numbers and per capita, the greatest number of people sterilized lived in California. I would add one (admittedly anecdotal) report of police brutality in New York City against the great jazz pianist Bud Powell, who walked with a limp the rest of his life due to a brutal beating by a police officer. Thus, the South should not be considered the only guilty party regarding racism when the north committed similar wrongs against Blacks.
Tucker correctly distinguishes the causes of secession from the causes of the War for Southern Independence. The former, he believes, was primarily due to economic reasons with the extension of slavery into the territories being the predominate issue, along with other issues such as the high tariff. He holds that people tend to act from self-interest, and that often, seemingly altruistic motives hide a person’s economic self-interest. The planters in the South thought that it was in their self-interest to allow territories to decide whether they wanted to be slave or free. Slavery was much of the basis for the Southern economy, and given the ideal climate and terrain to support large agricultural estates, it was almost inevitable given the standard practices of the time. He criticizes the librevs for “presentism,” the assumption that people in the past should be judged by the same moral standards accepted today. Slavery was generally accepted in both the South and the North. Tucker also notes that the first abolitionist societies were in the South. The cooler climate and terrain of much of the North was not conducive to large estates, so the economy, at least after the Industrial Revolution, was driven by manufacturing. The War between the States was mainly a battle over two economic visions of how to compete in the world markets.
I take Tucker’s views as a corrective to overly-romanticized views of the Southern planters as intellectual aristocrats working to preserve traditional Western civilization. Richard Weaver, who is overall an excellent writer on the South, tends to fall into this trap. Tucker focuses on economic rather than broader cultural motivations as moving both the planters in the South and the industrialists in the North, although he does not deny that other motivations may have come into play. At times he comes close to Thomas Hobbes’ psychological egoism, the notion that every human being acts only from self-interest, though Tucker prefers the position that people primarily, but not exclusively, are motivated by self-interest. When the self-interest of the industrialists with their desire for big government and high tariffs clashed with the planters’ self-interest of small government (states’ rights) and low tariffs, there was bound to be conflict, although it was not necessary for the conflict to degenerate into war. Although his view of human nature is, to me, overly cynical, he is correct in holding that economic issues are most often the causes of war.
Tucker correctly surmises that the Southern states had the legal right to secede from the United States. Once they did, the constitutional course the North should have taken was to recognize the independence of the Confederate States. Abraham Lincoln, motivated by economic reasons (a desire to keep receiving Southern tariff money and a desire to continue to exploit Southern markets) provoked the South into an attack at Fort Sumter. Tucker recognizes Lincoln for the tyrant he was, with his suspension of habeus corpus, his mass arrests of political opponents, disenfranchisement and intimidation of voters in Maryland, and his waging aggressive “total war” to annihilate the South. He also points out the truth about Lincoln’s racial attitudes; he did not support equality of the races and desired to send former slaves to South America and Africa. He does not address, however, the librev claim that Lincoln changed his mind late in the war due to his encounters with Frederick Douglass. I would hope that he or other scholars sympathetic to the South address this claim.
Tucker is clearly passionate about the denial of rights to Blacks not only in the South, but in the entire United States. He notes the bad behavior of the former planters (at least in the Deep South states) who with their descendants worked to pass Jim Crow laws. Most of them already had Blacks working on their plantations for low pay. He lauds the Civil Rights Movement for restoring Black rights, especially voting rights, and for ending forced segregation. However, he does not let the North off the hook, recognizing that in many places in the North, racial prejudice was far worse than that found in the South. The view that the North was virtuous on race and the South vicious does not stand up to historical scrutiny. Since that is the case, there is no need to condemn Southern monuments due to racism in the South when the United States as a whole was racist.
All Tucker asks is for Southerners to be able to honor their heritage and ancestors and keep their monuments. Southern identity has already been largely lost due to urbanization and other social forces, but it is unfair for Northerners and Southern scalawags to demand that the Southerners who celebrate their Southern identity must give that up. He challenges Blacks to allow Southerners to celebrate their heritage without necessarily agreeing with everything that Southerners did in a different era when national standards on race were different. Blacks are part of the South, too, and have a similar culture to White Southerners. They share an (often) Fundamentalist or Evangelical Protestant religion, a similar diet, and similar customs. Jazz is as much a product of the South as country music, and both should be valued. As Blacks have the right to celebrate their culture, why shouldn’t all Southerners, including those descended from Confederate veterans (which include Black Confederate veterans) be allowed to celebrate their culture? As Blacks honor Martin Luther King with statues and have every right to do so, why should Whites not honor their heroes such as the noble Robert E. Lee with statues and other monuments. A significant minority of Blacks do not go along with the political correctness of White liberals; Tucker calls the rest of them to realize that all those who celebrate their Southern identity, Black and White, should be permitted to honor it. To deny the past is to deny one’s identity.
Tucker may sound unpatriotic to some Americans due to his denial of American exceptionalism and opposition to imperialism. However, this is due, Tucker believes, to Southerners bowing to Northern propaganda and putting their American identity above their Southern identity. Tucker, who is an “unreconstructed Southerner” puts his Southern identity first. I agree with Tucker; it is inappropriate to put a modern nation-state such as the United States on a pedestal and label it “a shining city set on a hill.” Such a view may be consistent with New England Puritanism, but historically it denies the economically self-interested motives that drove most Europeans to the American colonies and later, to the United States. I also find the near-worship by many Americans of the country to be close to idolatry, which is dangerous—we must not forget what Hitler and the Nazis did with extreme nationalism.
Even a thoughtful book such as Tucker’s contains some errors. Although he is correct in holding that academic journals of history often label historians sympathetic to the South as “controversial” but those on the other side as “innovative” or “independent,” his example of the latter, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese is not a good choice. He labels her as a “communist historian,” but this does not apply to her later career. She began as a Marxist but eventually converted to Roman Catholicism. She was culturally conservative and considered by many to be a “conservative feminist”. Nor is her attitude toward the South a hostile one. I would hope that if there is a second edition of the book that Tucker would use a different example.
An unfortunate, and very serious, error is Tucker’s statement about “Southern Democrats such as Grover Cleveland and William Jennings Bryan…” (p. 159). Cleveland was from New York State, having served as mayor of Buffalo and then as governor of New York. Bryan was from Nebraska. This should be corrected as soon as possible in any new printing of the book.
There is so much more information in this book, and it is well worth reading. Tucker’s take on the South is refreshing, for he is willing to admit the South’s faults, support the justice of the South’s reasons for fighting (independence), recognize the racial sins of the North, and affirm the need to stop removing Southern monuments due to a misplaced sense of virtue. The tone is irenic throughout. The reader will also learn a great deal of history that is no longer taught in academia due to academia’s anti-Southern prejudice. Overall, despite some flaws, I recommend this book as a unique and refreshing defense of Southerners respecting their heritage and ancestors.