Why the South Will Survive, by Fifteen Southerners. Edited by Clyde N. Wilson. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1981.
As a naturalized Southerner (born in the North but educated in the South) it is a delight to discover this hard intellectual diamond among the soft dunghills of contemporary American publishing.
The fifteen separate essays contained in this work deserve the grace of the reader’s gratitude. It is hard for the young today to survive the murder of the mind that produces pygmy leaders at all levels. The majority of the essays in this work have been written by young Southern scholars who are giants. Each has taken the time to discover the roots and reality of Southern society, as opposed to the fostered falsehoods taught in the penal colonies of public education. It takes a person endowed with a tough and inquiring intellect to affirm the unconventional notion that, indeed, the American South will not only survive but has intellectual, moral, and social values worthy of examination by the rest of the nation.
The revisionist Southern historian David Leon Chandler in his much-neglected 1977 book, “The Natural Superiority of Southern Politicians,” makes the often-ignored point that Southerners founded America. Jamestown, Virginia, preceded Plymouth, Massachusetts, by thirteen years. The two founding political charters of the American Republic were written by Southerners: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and Madison’s U.S. Constitution. The South has produced a profusion of literary and military talent unequalled by other parts of the nation. Yet, despite these undeniable facts, the South continues to be viewed by the rest of America with a mixture of condescension, undisguised hatred and admiration for the region’s rawbone approach to living.
The late lamented Southern historian Clifford Dowdey wrote during the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1976 that its official celebration demonstrated that the South was still regarded as a region unfit to rejoin the Union. The focus of the Bicentennial was largely on New England, ignoring if not blurring the role and part Southerners played in the making of the American Republic. After 1865 and Appomattox, Dowdey stated, Southerners became the largest group of “unmentionable ethnics in the nation.”
“For Lincoln did not save the union,” Dowdey adds, “the military might he amassed destroyed one of the original parts of America, and after his death powerful men of ambition formed a new union to which the South, after a period of military occupation which completed the war’s destruction, was a poor stigmatized attachment.
“It’s only one example of omissions to make no mention of the reality for half its existence, the U.S. was in effect two nations. This so falsifies the journey of America from Jamestown … as to reduce realities to empty slogans. In the last quarter of the 20th century with the West in disarray whilst the Soviet giant looms menacingly, I do not believe that as a nation we can maintain a high morale with a combination of ignorance and delusion about itself.”
Dowdey specifically mentions the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution in 1987, warning that if we are to survive as a free people to celebrate the event it is necessary to correct a multitude of delusions and distortions.
Why the South Will Survive serves as an indispensable primer as we work our way toward the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. What unites all these brilliant essays is that they are rooted in the classical world reaching back to Greece and Rome. Perhaps of paramount importance is they are also rooted in the rockbed of religious belief. These two pillars—classical thought and revealed faith—formed the foundation of the American Republic and produced the U.S. Constitution. It in turn sustained the most extraordinary experiment in human history until Appomattox in 1865.
The shipwreck that was the U.S. Civil War, or War Between the States, ran the U.S. Constitution onto political reefs from which it has never been retrieved. But it also produced lethal fissures in the pillars of religious faith and in classical learning. Gradually over the last century as Americans lost their belief in the value of the next world and lost their belief in the experience of the ancient wisdoms as guidelines in this world, they began to believe they could play God with government.
The American South was never contaminated by the “metaphysical madness” of the French Revolution, as John Randolph of Roanoke put it. The fissures the French heresies created in Western Civilization were that man was a god and that the past could offer him no real guidance for the future. The State became the Church, materialism became the highest secular sacrament, and power the highest holy order. The American Revolution had proceeded from the opposite premises. And as the historian Otto J. Scott observed, the dramatic differences between the two revolutions, often confused as being similar, were that “Washington never left a trail of corpses or became a Napoleon.”
The late Richard Weaver, in The Southern Tradition at Bay, pointed out that the War Between the States was regarded by the South’s leadership, steeped in classical tradition and religious belief, as a continuation of the French Revolution. The war was a violent clash between ideals and ideas of the American Revolution and the metaphysical madness of the French Revolution. Perhaps this comparison defeats the ends of propagandists who persist in promoting the myth and distortion that the conflict was waged to free American blacks. Prior to Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the major justification for the war of conquest and subjugation was to preserve the Union, not to end slavery.
How the South survived its hundred years of hard history after Appomattox can be grasped by reading these thoughtful essays. It survived by clinging tenaciously to the salvaged remnants of the religious and cultural legacy that had created the American nation. The South was destroyed physically, but never spiritually or culturally. The North after 1865 never understood this spiritual and cultural wellspring of the South. Blinded and obsessed by the issue of race and equality, the North even today does not fathom why the South prefers to be wrong in its way rather than right in the ways of others. The disintegration in the last few decades of sectors of American society outside the South raises the question of who really won the Civil War in the long run.
Clyde N. Wilson, professor of history at the University of South Carolina, in the introduction to Why the South Will Survive, raises the question of whether the South is the only region with any identity left. “The Southerner may be justified,” he observes, “in wondering whether there is any American culture any more, whether America is anything other than a collection of people sharing a common territory, government, and standard of living, but otherwise having no identity.”
John Shelton Reed, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, points out that what still survives in the South is “what used to be seen as the American trait of individualism.” This shared value of Southerners encompasses other aspects of the region’s culture that places a premium on the personal and the subjective while rejecting the collective that has done so much to create the impersonal, faceless and unfeeling society outside the South. “Just as Southerners are expected,” Reed writes, “to work out their own salvation without calling on the formal institutional apparatus of church, priest, and sacrament, so we have often been inclined to work out our own justice without running off to the legislature or the courts.”
The traditional Protestant Southerner’s view that salvation is always personal is consistent with the view first concretized by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution: that power politics must not be seen as the source of societal salvation, as is the case today. However, this personal approach of Southerners is not without its explosive elements. William C. Havard, chairman of the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, candidly concedes that the “proclivity toward violence in the South is also related in no small part to Southern personalism.” But Havard maintains such violence is easier to understand and control since it stems from a personal code of honor that insists injury and injustice find a direct means for redress. Not so with “the abstract, depersonalized violence that now seems endemic to the American megalopolis, old North and new South alike.”
The American South endured defeat, poverty, military occupation and decades of deliberate distortion and attack on its society of shared values, on religion, family, and work. Both whites and blacks have shared these hardships. As a consequence, the South was better prepared to cope with the defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate trauma. Fred Hobson, associate professor of English at the University of Alabama, makes the salient point in his essay that while the nation seems to have been de-moralized by Vietnam and Watergate, the South and Southwest, now called the Sunbelt after decades of derisive references as the Bible Belt, is booming. “Its optimism,” he observes of the Sunbelt philosophy, “and confidence have replaced, or at least modified, the Southern legacy of failure, pessimism, and looking backward….For the first time since 1930, the South has dropped its defensive stance and speaks from a position of strength, even presumed superiority.”
Hamilton C. Horton, Jr., a North Carolina attorney and former leader in the state’s General Assembly, maintains that the Southern love of and attachment to the land is a check on the region embracing uncritically the Bitch Goddess of material progress at any cost. Delay in industrialization has been a blessing. Since the South is also blessed with an abundance of woods, streams, and rivers, where industry has relocated in small Southern towns farming, hunting, and fishing can coexist in merging patterns that keep the young from leaving. It has also, according to Horton, “saved the family farm. Thousands of Southern farm families today supplement the income from their farms with income from industrial jobs.” The South, he adds, may “well be the first major region in the world to be industrialized and yet preserve the human dimensions. Megalopolis can be rejected.”
The abundance of small towns in the South with industry and stabilized populations has achieved without the Washington bureaucrats’ blueprints the key element that has eluded the North: population dispersal. Combined with its fidelity to the Founding Fathers’ philosophy of limits to political power to declare martial law in the marketplace, is it any wonder that the South has been the beneficiary of one of the largest inter-territorial migrations in history? The exodus from the Snowbelt to the Sunbelt in the last two decades by population and industry has been the direct consequence of governments in the North playing god with the lives and fortunes of the productive for the benefit of the nonproductive. Equality plus political power equals ruin and exodus!
Don Anderson, executive director of the National Association for the Southern Poor, raises important questions of how to come to grips with the pervasive problem of poverty among Southern blacks. As a former staff member in the House of Representatives he identifies why the Great Society’s War on Poverty was a forecast of the American defeat in Vietnam. The Great Society advocates wrongly assumed that massive numbers of the poor require massive blueprints. It was not until Anderson returned to the place in Virginia where his forebears had been slaves that he discovered the cultural dimension of the Southern black society, with its center in the black church. Anderson is part of a growing group of blacks who have come home to the South from a North that proved not to be the Promised Land. “It seemed appropriate to me,” he writes, “in attempting to solve the main problem [poverty] confronting the Negro people in the South, that I should put to work the ideas of Virginia’s greatest political philosopher, Thomas Jefferson. He believed that the salvation of the idea of democracy lay in his ward republics.” Such decentralized centers of black self help would become a manageable vehicle for “taking the last step up from slavery.”
Such a concept is consistent with the Southern political tradition, as detailed by George C. Rogers, Jr., professor of history at the University of South Carolina. In a Republic, he reminds us, power must be fragmented and broken up if it is not to be lethal to a people’s lives and liberties. The great tragedy and mistake of the South was to use the core creed of the Founders of placing limits on political power to justify the continuation of slavery. “The Southern political tradition must be brought back,” he writes, “first by protecting the state governments from edicts from the federal bureaucracy—the attempt to mould each state government into one form certified at the center.”
Dr. Samuel T. Francis, former policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation in Washington and now an aide to Senator John East of North Carolina, maintains that the South’s political tradition offers to the nation and the world a way out of its self-induced paralysis as a world power. Its tradition of loyalty and command coupled with its insistence on restraint of power, he argues, would be an alternative to the current American foreign policy that has persisted since the time of Woodrow Wilson, that Americans could successfully be the welfare workers of the world. “The global complaint against the United States today,” he writes, “is that capitalism and industrial technology, democracy, mass culture, and Western liberalism, have undermined traditional cultures. This complaint—far more than the economics of slavery or the legalism of the Constitution— also underlay much of the Confederate revolt.”
During the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, the question constantly asked, but never answered, was how it was that so extraordinary a group of human beings could come together in one place and at one time. Thomas Fleming, the South’s pre-eminent classicist, answers the question. It will no doubt be asked again when we observe the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution five years hence. Both the Signers of the Declaration and the Framers of the Constitution were the beneficiaries of a classical education. In contrast, the crisis-ridden public education system today raises profound questions about how long both the South and the nation can endure when a public education system institutionalizes illiteracy.
“The people of the South have always preferred informal arrangements between families and friends,” he writes “to the abstractions of government machinery. The South’s long-standing prejudice against public education was based on a frank appraisal of the perils of government interference in the very private matter of child rearing. However, for practical purposes, the creation of public school systems in the South was achieved under Reconstruction and on imported models.” The murder of mind and morals by the penal colonies of public education has led to the development of Christian schools in the South, relentlessly attacked by every means at the disposal of the Educational Establishment. Mind monopoly that leads to moral murder tolerates no disagreement. Fleming believes, rightly, that despite their shortcomings and “all their faults, imagined and real, these new schools and the associations which protect them are the future of the South.”
Why the South Will Survive also contains essays on Southern religion by Cleanth Brooks, Marion Montgomery, and Thomas H. Landess, on Southern literature by George Garrett, on the meaning of “country music” by David B. Sentelle, and a historical summing up by M.E. Bradford.
Which brings us to how the book, Why the South Will Survive, came to be. Its publication is to pay proper homage to the 1931 classical work, I’ll Take My Stand. Andrew Lytle, one of the original contributors to this epic work, now a classic, provides an “Afterword” essay to conclude this intellectual landmark and milestone in Southern letters. It has been fifty years since I’ll Take My Stand burst upon the world with all of its prophetic warnings from those angry Southern Agrarians who discerned the coming of a domestic darkness at noon. Lytle despairs that the work failed to hold back the growth of machine and technology that posed so powerful a threat to those values that produce a high humane culture.
I must respectfully dissent from this despair. By the time I’ll Take My Stand was published, it had been sixty-six years since the Stillness at Appomattox. The economic, social, and political forces produced by the violent rupture of the American Republic could not have been contained under any circumstances. One practical example is the important part that railroads played in the conflict in tying together the nation. The forces unleashed by the war were much like an atomic detonation; first comes the searing heat of the explosion, the shockwave that follows must run its course and dissipate its terrible energy. So it was with the War Between the States. Without sounding deterministic, one seriously questions whether anything could have held back or redirected the intellectual, moral, political, social and economic consequences of that conflict.
I’ll Take My Stand was to my mind a success in the most important sense, as expressed by T.S. Eliot. It kept alive a constellation of values by which future men and women, Northerners and Southerners, could set their own intellectual and moral compass. The proof of this is contained in the very work that is the subject of this review.
John Randolph of Roanoke saw with corrosive clarity the calamity that befell the American Republic fully a generation before the flash of cannon at Fort Sumter. While he despaired at being a Cassandra, he never once wavered in his belief that he had a moral duty to speak his mind to his colleagues in the Congress with candor and conviction. He fulfilled his moral obligation and, as a consequence, has earned a special and cherished place in the pantheon of American political heroes.
The same must be said of those who made possible I’ll Take My Stand and this new generation who has labored to produce Why the South Will Surive. If, in the final analysis, all of us who wage the war of words to preserve those values that make us humane thinking and feeling individuals are just so many modern-day Ciceros, so what? We have discharged our duty to our God, our selves, our family and friends, and to our country. If others will not listen and learn, our God-granted intellectual and moral mission is done and it is a problem, not for us, but for them.
This article was originally printed in Southern Partisan magazine, Summer 1982.