Tolerating the South’s Past

The Age of Enlightenment represented the Middle Ages as a Gothic night—an interlude of ignorance and superstition when men were enveloped in a cowl, oblivious to the wonders of knowledge, and concerned only with escape from the miseries of this world and of hell. Voltaire said that Dante was considered a great poet because no one read him, that a Gothic cathedral was a monument to the stupidity of its builders. The humility of holy men and the faith of the Catholic offended the egotism, skepticism, and common sense of the leaders of the Enlightenment.

Historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have thrown aside the conceits of those who went before them and have learned to appraise the medieval age in terms of its own values. It is now recognized as a period when the Christian church and an imaginative architecture flowered, when artists were humble enough to glorify God rather than themselves, and when universities, chivalry, and vernacular literatures had their beginnings.

The reputation of the region of the United States below the Potomac today suffers from die same forces from which the Middle Ages suffered at the hands of historians during the Enlightenment. Chroniclers of Southern history often do not grasp the most elementary concept of sound historiography: the ability to appraise the past by standards other than those of the present. They accept a fanatical nationalism which leaves little room for sectional variations, a faith in Darwinian progress which leaves no room for static contentment, and a faith in the American dream of human equality which leaves little room for one person to get ahead of another except in making money. In theory at least, our historians refuse to tolerate the concept of “all sorts and conditions of men” of which The Book of Common Prayer speaks.

Growing out of the uncritical acceptance by historians of the South of this creed of contemporary Americans are certain concrete dogmas: the church and the state should be separate, but not the school and the state; school but not church attendance should be compulsory; universal education is better than folk culture; political democracy is better than aristocratic rule; freedom is better than slavery; nationalism is better than provincialism; urban standards are better than rural ones; small farms are better than plantations; the larger the number of voters the better the commonwealth; and the two-party system is better than the harmony of one party.

I am not asking the abandonment of any of these dogmas as bases for action in the world of today. They constitute the American Dream on which much prosperity and hope is built. I am asking that Southern historians not hide this fact: our ancestors did not hold to these dogmas in every situation of life, and especially in those aspects of their lives which explain their regionalism. I am also asking Southern historians not to accuse their ancestors of being stupid or unreasonable in this respect.

The historians who are friendly to the region and who accept the ideal of human equality seem ashamed of the degree to which the South has not attained this ideal. In defense of their beloved region, the hopeful among them find evidences of the struggle of the lower classes for a greater degree of equality. They present the followers of Nathaniel Bacon as yeomen farmers rebelling against a planter dictatorship. They give credence to many rumors of slave insurrections, and they often envisage the common people rising against political oligarchies. Their faith in the benefits of two political parties has led them to predict, for the past ten decades, the breakup of the solid South and the coming of a state of rectitude like that of New York or Illinois. They are apologetic over the existence in the South of the sharpest social distinction in all America: that between the white man and the Negro. They hail breaks in the color line as forecasts of the good times a-coming.

Their attitude, when proclaimed by publicists and politicians, may be justified as accommodation to the dominant ideals of the ruling part of the United States. But such diplomacy applied to issues of the past convicts historians of naivete or what the French and the Germans call Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy.

Those who accept national unity as the ultimate goal of all Americans find it difficult to defend a region whose chief distinction is that it attempted to destroy that unity. The friendly historian often chooses States’ Rights or secession as his theme. He emphasizes the existence of minorities who adhered to the national rather than the sectional cause. He gives honor to such nationalists as Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson instead of to such divisionists as John Randolph and John C. Calhoun. He seems almost to get his inspiration from William T. Sherman who felt justified in imposing a cruel punishment upon the South because it tried to destroy the national unity.

Why do not our historians take their cue from Sinclair Lewis when he condemns America to an esthetic hell because most of its regions have succeeded in ironing out their provincial differences ? Why are they not proud of the fact that Lewis’ criticisms apply least of all to the South ? If this were not true, the South would not be worth writing about. Let historians take for themselves the task of understanding and appreciating the sectional variations.

There is a reality about the South which historians with egalitarian standards find hard to comprehend. This reality is that many of the so-called advances in equality turn out to be imaginary. Freedom, for example, to the early Georgians meant revolt against the tyranny of foreign despots. Georgians did not want to be saved from the social and economic inequalities of the other Southern colonies through prohibition of slavery and large estates. The so-called rising of the Virginians in the American Revolution against oppressors turns out to be, in the light of modern researches, the struggle of an aggressive aristocracy against an official oligarchy, with the common man following noisily the leadership of his social betters. There is much that is artificial and sentimental in Virginia’s greatest political philosopher advocating the equality of man and at the same time owning slaves, living in a house which Europeans would call a palace, and tolerating a political machine as oligarchical as that of Harry F. Byrd.

A paradox of Southern history is that progress in political democracy was often followed by the desire of the newly enfranchised to destroy certain aspects of equality. The freer exercise of the suffrage by the common white man in the 1890s was followed by the Jim Crow laws and the disfranchisement of most of the Negroes. Those who got the vote under the Jacksonian reforms of the 1830’s were pleased when their leader was transformed into a planter and a Southern gentleman; and when a catty journalist accused Rachel Jackson of smoking a pipe, there was resentment among the descendants of the original Jacksonians. Earlier, the Jacksonian reforms had been followed by the strengthening of the slave code and the disfranchisement of the free persons of color.

The Southern Negro has never got much beyond federal ukase in his enthusiasm for closing the social gap separating him from Southern whites. As a slave, he never carried out a general rising against his masters. The equalities which after the Civil War were supposed to be his never got beyond a narrow political stage: the Negro never until recently made a determined demand for social equality. In withdrawing from the white churches he surrendered an element of social intimacy with the white man which he had experienced under slavery. In our day he has been invited to attend white churches, but in many cases he does not want to accept this invitation. The most exalted outside interventionists in the social arrangements of the South recently restored suffrage to the Negro, but he turned around and joined the political party of the white oligarchy….

It is time that historians who explain or defend the South recognize the existence of social hierarchy. They can be sympathetic toward it without being illogical, remembering that arguments advanced for social gradations by Plato are as logical as arguments advanced to the contrary. They should realize that the arguments of Jefferson Davis and James D. B. De Bow in favor of the gradations in slave society had more influence on the nonslaveholding whites than did the arguments advanced by Hinton R. Helper and other enemies of Southern social practices. They should know that the color line was created to sustain the most important fact in Southern history. Two biologically aggressive races have dwelt together in large numbers for 340 years without the ruling race losing its integrity of blood. Without this fact there would be no South in the social or psychological sense; the region between the Potomac and the Rio Grande would be just a geographical expression.

The historian of the South should accept the class and race distinctions of his region unless he wishes to deplore the region’s existence. He should display a tolerant understanding of why the Goddess of Justice has not always been blind in the South, why there have been lynchings and Jim Crow laws, why the legend of the Cavaliers exists, and why, as William Alexander Percy puts it, “Even today from Virginia to Texas ten thousand crepuscular old maids in ghostly coveys and clusters” seek to trace their ancestors. Our historian should stop trying to prove that the maidens of the Old South did not always have wasp waists and stand on colonnaded porches attended by bandannaed mammies who did not have wasp waists. At least one Southern historian, Francis P. Gaines, has retired from the iconoclastic task of trying to prove that the Old South was not what it is supposed to have been. He became the keeper of the tomb of the knight whom not even our most energetic fact-finder has accused of being unworthy of the company of King Arthur.

A logical consequence of the disparagement of the sectional values is that the leader who tried hardest to break the national unity has fared badly at the hands of his biographers. They condemn Jefferson Davis as a prolonged conspirator against the Union. But the facts show that as late as i860 he, as a United States senator, was advocating appropriations for the army he was to fight in less than a year. A proper sympathy for the sectional values would perhaps lead to a condemnation of Davis because he did not become a conspirator against the Union soon enough. Unlike Caesar or Hitler, Davis was not one of the great revolutionists of history; he was too honorable for that. Unlike William L. Yancey and R. Barnwell Rhett, he was slow in understanding that the North was in a revolutionary conspiracy against the Constitution as he interpreted it, a conspiracy which could be answered effectively only by counterrevolution. The poet Allen Tate is the only biographer who condemns Davis for not understanding that the aim of the plutocratic democracy of the North was to crush his beloved Southland.

Davis should be praised for at last recognizing the forces arrayed against his section and then heroically defending its concept of truth and justice. Despite physical weaknesses, he maintained a proud but ragged nation for four years against the powers of wealth, progress, and patriotism. After defeat he did not repent.

For his failure to repent, historians do not forgive Davis. He did not respond to the new wave of nationalism which came after the Civil War. He was no pragmatist, no evolutionist. Until his death he remained in spirit the slavemaster, the soldier who found greatest virtue in continuing the battle charge after the enemy had inflicted a grievous wound, and remained the scholastic who accepted the Bible and the Constitution just as they were written. He was as optimistic in his devotion to the antique values of the South as was Don Quixote to the antique values of an older land. If the historians of the South were as tolerant of our past as are the European historians of theirs, they would confer on the defeated President of the Confederacy as many honors as have been conferred on the Spanish knight.

Friendly Southern historians bolster the pride of the section by exaggerating the ways in which the South approximated the achievements of the North. Ignoring the Negro third of the population, they emphasize the degree to which the Old South achieved political democracy and universal education. Remembering prejudices against the large landowner, they emphasize the role of the yeoman farmer in Southern agriculture. Ignoring the prejudices of the people against foreigners, they make much of isolated cases of foreigners who found the South congenial. And, in refutation of the assertion that the region has been a Sahara of talent, long lists have been compiled of Southerners who played eminent roles in the building of the nation.

The candid observer must admit that, according to the urban standards of the North and of Europe, Frederick Law Olmsted’s harsh judgment on the paucity of Southern culture has remained sound for most of the hundred years since this nosy New Englander wrote. Perhaps the reason the Dictionary of American Biography has articles on only 724 natives of Virginia compared with articles on 1,763 natives of Massachusetts is that Southerners have been indifferent to those in their midst who have had latent talents in music, sculpture, painting, and the other arts. In the South Carolina of my youth the only art we recognized was English and Northern literature. We read Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper; we did not read William Gilmore Simms. We recognized native greatness only in war and in politics.

It is true that in recent years the South has learned to acclaim native eminence in literature and in business. But a Southern book to be acceptable to Southerners must first hit the New York sounding board. Our distinguished businessmen are often dependent on Wall Street to promote and finance the South’s industrial expansion. For mechanical inventions, the most creative of American achievements, the South has been dependent upon the North. Its people do not invent or manufacture the machinery of its industry: it is still as colonial as Asia or South America in this respect.

Our historians should explain or justify these supposed deficiencies of the South by showing that its genius is rural, not urban; that the larger the cities grow the more countrified they become because of the rural origin of their newer inhabitants. Our historians should also explain that our townsmen build country-style houses, that they have little or nothing to contribute to the urban amenities, and that they support comparatively few good restaurants, theaters, orchestras, or book stores. As in the days of the English traveler George W. Featherstonhaugh, they talk of hogs, horses, and cows when they are not talking about the mechanical contrivances Northerners have sold them.

The true Southerner should take pride that the South’s fame is based on tobacco, hogs, rice, and cotton, and that its greatest man is the country gentleman with his cult of hospitality, his sense of leisure, his neglect of the passion for trade, his capacity to refurbish old mansions and to build new ones in imitation of the old, and his creative interest in the rehabilitation of antique furniture. In his capacity as a farmer the Southern gentleman has been creative from the days of John Rolfe and George Washington down to the day of our professors of agriculture and of our merchant-farmers. Our professors of agriculture perfect new seeds and varieties of animals; our merchant-farmers establish farms with green pastures which serve as models for professional farmers. If the South has had an internal revolution since 1865, it is the type of endeavor in which the people have adhered most firmly to the traditions of their ancestors. The revolution has been in agriculture.

Southern historians, trapped by the belief that education is a cure-all, have exaggerated the accomplishments of formal schooling. They like to prove that Sir William Berkeley was inaccurate when he said that there were no free schools in seventeenth-century Virginia. They are dazzled that today we have “a triumphant ‘progressive’ education which progresses even faster than the North.” They gloss over the defects of our much-praised educational system. They should remember that our public schools have affronted the American dogma of the universality of education, treating the Negroes differently from other people and at one time prohibiting them from going to school. They should realize that we of the South indulged to a greater degree than other people in “the education that does not educate” in the sense of changing people, presumedly for the better, in the arts of living and in outlook on life.

Historians would be wise to admit the defects of Southern education as measured by the proclaimed goals of American public schools; indeed they might be skeptical of these goals. They might admit that Berkeley was not a complete fool when he inveighed against schools and presses. The defender of this seventeenth-century gentleman can find comfort in high scholarly authority of the twentieth century. Arnold J. Toynbee wrote in 1947: “The bread of universal education is no sooner cast upon the water than a shoal of sharks [the presslords] arises from the depths and devours the children’s bread under the educator’s very eyes.” Southern historians should realize that the faith in the rule of the educated common man has brought us no nearer the millennium than were our ancestors in the eighteenth century.

Historians of the South agree with Montesquieu that a political structure should “fit the humor and disposition of the people,” and yet they judge the educational achievements of a rural people by standards imported from Prussia by way of New England. This Prussian-type school was loaded with antislavery sentiments and with notions of social reform repulsive to a region of Christians not dominated by hopes of earthly perfection. The leveling tendencies of the new schools ran counter to the Old South’s conception of hierarchy. Their content was more suited for those who needed guidance for town life than for a people whose chief task was to subdue a wilderness and to establish farms.

Someone should tell that the South’s resistance to formal schooling did not grow out of laziness or stupidity. This resistance was a vital part of the region’s attempt to survive as a social and cultural entity. The South unconsciously fought against the idea that the school be allowed to iron out provincial differences in order to make the Southern states into undifferentiated units of the republic. Southerners have preserved their folkways and ancestral superstitions, thereby avoiding the fate of the people of Hawaii, a people who have deliberately escaped their ancestral heritage in order to be Americanized through the public schools.

Our chroniclers should quit being ashamed of the cloud of illiteracy which once hung over their province. They should wake up to the fact that the unschooled Uncle Remus was among the wisest Southerners. They have stressed the benefits of the schools to such a degree that they have neglected the triumphs of informal training outside the school. This informal education was good because it was useful. Our colonial and frontier ancestors put the arts of subduing the wilderness first; they learned to use the ax and the rifle extremely well. With some justice they regarded formal education as an adornment of the upper classes….

The acceptance by our historians of the national faith in equality has led them to neglect the constructive role of class distinctions and aristocracy in Southern culture. The masses of the South imitate the upper classes with so much enthusiasm that most of the section’s approved practices and attitudes are of upper-class origin. I can think of only two popular social diversions of lower-class origin: jazz music and corn whisky. The aristocratic pretensions of all classes are so strong that everybody thinks of himself as a gentleman. Wilbur J. Cash observes that the yeoman farmers of the Old South adopted from the plantation aristocracy “a kindly courtesy, a level-eyed pride, an easy quietness, a barely perceptible flourish of bearing, which for all its obvious angularity and fundamental plainness was one of the finest things the Old South produced.” And the Jeeter Lesters, for all their ignorance and barbarism, possessed aristocratic attitudes, hating manual toil and taking on, as Cash says, “a sort of unkempt politeness and ease of port, which rendered them definitely superior to their peers in the rest of the country.”

A majority of Southerners believes that the nearest approach to heaven this side of the grave is that aristocratic perfection known as the Old South. This was not only the belief of Walter Hines Page’s “mummies,” but also of such innovators as Daniel A. Tompkins, Ben Tillman, and Tom Watson. One finds it in the writings of such divergent persons as Thomas Nelson Page and William Faulkner. Then it was, so runs the legend of the Old South, that the Virginia gentleman lived in a feudal splendor that was justified by the belief that he had ancestors from the novels of Walter Scott; that the Mississippi gentleman’s comparable splendors were justified by the belief that he had Virginia ancestors. These beliefs are supplemented by the assertion that the Confederate soldier because he was always brave was also always virtuous. The fact that all classes in the South cherish the aristocratic concept has brought about a unity of spirit which results in a friendly tie between the masses and the classes.

A host of Southern historians would prove, through the collection of multitudes of facts, that things were not what they were supposed to have been. Census reports are used to prove that the number of planters who owned a hundred slaves was small; that plantation houses were more often like factories than like Walter Scott’s castles; that beautiful maidens were then not more numerous than they are now. Some historians are at pains to prove that the ancestors were not Virginia gentlemen and that the predecessors of the ancestors were not knights. Numerous investigators accuse the colonial Virginians of being ordinary persons. James Branch Cabell, with a vicious glee, befouls the nests of the forefathers by creating a repulsive age of chivalry.

Some Southern historians would change a belief which both friend and foe have taught us to think was the essence of the Old South. They tell us that the distinctions between aristocracy and humble folk were not so great as was once supposed; thereby would they take away from the aristocracy many of the distinctions of superior position. They tell us that the poor whites were not so numerous as was once supposed and that there was a substantial middle class which had no reason to feel inferior to the planter aristocracy. On the other hand, others, touched by twentieth-century concepts of human welfare, would let us know that the glory and glamor of the antebellum aristocracy was paid for by the humbling of the masses of both races.

A small shelf of books has been written by Southerners proving that all Confederate soldiers were not brave and loyal Christian gentlemen; that in fact many of them were seditionists, draft dodgers, and deserters. To add to die disillusionment, Vann Woodward advances the belief that many of the brave and loyal veterans of the Confederate army did not possess common honesty. In page after page of interesting but disillusioning data, he parades paladins of the Confederacy from John B. Gordon to Basil Duke as a second generation of scalawags who robbed the land they professed to love.

This revision of Southern legends is based upon much research in manuscripts and other original documents. But the facts that can be unearthed by research in as complex a subject as human behavior are so infinite in extent that one set of data can refute another set. The masters of research, for example, have for a generation or two been digging up data to prove whether or not the gentry of Virginia are descended from King Charles’s Cavaliers. The evidence is so varied, and the English and Southern methods of computing aristocratic descent so different, that the reader has not yet been able to draw conclusions.

Sometimes Southern historians forget that what is often important to Southerners is not what actually happened but what is believed to have happened. Southerners want their historians to do them concrete good by revealing or creating ancestors for them. An ironic fact about Southern historical writing is that the only practitioners of the craft able to make a living from their efforts are the genealogists. Their unique vice or virtue is that they are able to dig up useful ancestors where there may have been none before. Such discoveries give a person of declining fortunes a satisfaction not unlike the consolations of religion or philosophy. Such discoveries, on the other hand, give persons of energy and ambition some¬thing with which to justify their assumptions of social and civic worth.

Disillusioning researches in the records of the South’s past have not generally impressed the Southern people. This sort of revelation must go unheeded if the South is to survive as a cultural entity.

Donald Davidson says that the key to Southern literary greatness is not the literature of protest but “the literature of acceptance.” Obedience to this standard, Mr. Davidson believes, is why the Southern imaginative literature of our times is appreciated by the critics and the reading public. William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Robert Penn Warren write in the most modern manner; at times their stories are sordid. They tell everything good and bad about the South. They only reject what Davidson calls “the false knowledge” of ignoring or deploring aspects of Southern life and character. They are not, like so many of our historians, narrow democrats and nationalists who measure the South’s past by the values of educated Americans of today.

The standards of accuracy demanded of the Southern historian are so exacting that he is often frightened out of writing a book because he must face the holy terror of having his errors of fact exposed by well-intentioned reviewers. A strange sense of reticence prevents him from telling a tale which may be a revelation of the truth about the teller and his people. Think of the fate of one of our historians if he were to join one of Faulkner’s characters in asserting that our mulattoes were descendants of Yankee soldiers and carpetbaggers. The Southern novelist is more concerned with the meaning of events than with the technical accuracy of their recording. He heeds the legends, the undying superstitions and prejudices of the people. His willingness and ability to use these in his tales is where his genius lies.

Southern historians often ignore the poor whites, rationalize them out of existence, or treat them as fit subjects for social-welfare programs. The novelists, on the other hand, portray them without apology or gratuitous sympathy and endow them with pride and humor. William Faulkner gives us a mob of country folk too chivalric to push aside a lady guard in order to lynch a Negro.

Religion as a constructive force in Southern life is generally unappreciated by our historians except for what it has done for education and social progress. Christian Fundamentalists are scolded for their capture of the Southern mind in the early nineteenth century and for their interference in science and politics in the twentieth century. The great Baptist church is tactfully ignored because, perhaps, it is an example of the union of Southern democracy with absolutism too indelicate and lusty for believers in Jeffersonian democracy. On the other hand, the novelists possess an affecting sympathy for the traditional religion. Ellen Glasgow in Vein of Iron and William Faulkner in Light in August, for example, demonstrate a tender understanding of Southern clergymen who were persecuted by their congregations.

Vann Woodward in Origins of the New South complains of the lack of understanding among Southern historians of the strain of violence which runs through Southern history. If measured at all by our historians, it is in terms of civics textbooks. Violence, on the other hand, is a dominant theme in Southern fiction. There murderous gentlemen and outlaws are presented with compassion and explained in terms of grand tragedy.

The historian of the South should join the social novelist who accepts the values of the age and the section about which he writes. He should learn to identify truth with legend and with faith as competently as he has learned to identify truth’ with facts. By mixing sympathy, understanding, and a bit of kindness with his history, he might attract the people about whom he writes to read his books. And this could be done without sacrificing scholarly integrity.

Not all historians who rise above the level of scholarly compilations are ashamed of the peculiar standards of their section. Some of them write “the literature of accommodation.” The Southern historian who has won the greatest applause writes of the heroes of the Confederacy without arguing whether or not they were quixotic. The best recognized historian of the Old South pictures plantation life without assuming that it was a grand mistake. Another historian examines the literature on the poor whites without moralizing against them because they were not as thrifty as their social betters. A recent historian of the New South joins William Faulkner in exposing the true tragedy of the South: it was not the defeat at Appomattox, but the truckling of both scalawag and Bourbon, both materialist and idealist, to alien values.

This essay was originally published in The Everlasting South, 1963.

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