Stretching from the Potomac River across the southeastern quarter of the United States in a broad arc into the plains of Texas is a region known geographically and politically as “the South.” That this region has been distinctive by reason of its climate, type of produce, ethnic composition, culture, manners, and speech is known to every citizen of the country. That it existed for four years as an independent, if beleaguered, nation is one of the focal chapters of American history. All the while it has been a challenge, never very well met, to Americans to understand themselves historically.
The chief reason for this is that in the minds of most Americans there exists, like an inarticulate premise, the doctrine of American exceptionalism. This assumption is that the United States is somehow exempt from the past and present fate, as well as from many of the necessities, of other nations. Ours is a special creation, endowed with special immunities. As a kind of millenial state, it is not subject to the trials and divisions that have come upon others through time and history. History, it is commonly felt, consists of unpleasant things that happen to other people, and America bade goodbye to the sorrows along with the vices of the Old World.
It must be owned in fairness that two facts lend some plausibility to this seductive notion. One is that the American Union began at a definite point in time. The dates of its origin can be cited by any schoolboy reasonably well up on his books. Its beginning does not have to be traced sketchily in a mist-shrouded antiquity. It became a republic by fiat, as it were, and even the documents involved in its creation survive for our inspection.
The second is that this union of States was formed by men who sat down and discussed among themselves principles and ideals before drawing up a form of government. This was, of course, a rational undertaking, which many find more agreeable to remember than the prior fact that the nation owes its existence to the battlefield. The thought of forming a government de novo at a definite point in time does therefore encourage the conclusion that here is an exception to history. Our flag-waving orators—and flag-waving historians too— have seldom failed to make special claims for us on the basis of it. The feeling pleases that to be an American carries qualification and exemption.
The Founding Fathers who worked over the problems of government that hot summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, though conscious of their great opportunity, were on the whole realists. They were under no illusion that their creation would be exempt from the trials of history. A great political thinker has written: “The existence of man in political society is historical existence; and a theory of politics, if it penetrates to principles, must at the same time be a theory of history.” Most of the State delegates at Philadelphia had read history soberly, and one lesson they had gathered was that evil continuously arises from the nature of man and is capable of perverting the best of institutions to wicked purposes. They desired a government with greater power, yet the problem of restraining that power was never absent from their thoughts. Abuses of power had recently driven them to armed rebellion, and they wanted no more of these. On the other hand, they thought they saw grave dangers in excessive democracy and the anarchy it might produce.
The device which they created out of an awareness of these two perils is, as is well known, a system of checks and balances, whereby any branch of the government, if it took the road to aggrandizement, could be restrained by one or both of the others. As most of the bounding Fathers felt that man needs to be guarded against his own worse impulses, so they believed that government needs to be protected against itself. It was a brilliant conception, which speaks well of their foresight of things, and their realization that the new government would not be exempt from contingencies or the temptations that might dazzle men in future circumstances.
Not everything was taken care of equally well, however. We must remember the heat, the fatigue, the limits of time, the uncertainties, the pressures of private business, and above all a widespread and determined opposition to the structure of union known to be under design. Some sleeping dogs had to be left alone. What about the principle of rebellion, so recently invoked and blessed with success? The Declaration of Independence certainly suggested that the right to rebel was a right inherent in all peoples. Might it not be asserted again sometime? In such case the American revolutionaries might discover that they did but “teach bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague the inventor.”
What about the true locus of sovereignty in the new nation? The States claimed it, yet the new instrument of government seemed to gather many sovereign powers to itself. Could sovereignty be divided ? Was not the idea of a dual sovereignty just a way of deceiving yourself? Of all the questions left unresolved by the new instrument of union, this was to be the most fateful. Yet it was a question too dangerous for this hour, since most of the States were extremely jealous of their rights, and only the most conciliatory attitude could get them to ratify at all. Despite the great influence of Alexander Hamilton, the important State of New York ratified by the slim margin of thirty to twenty-seven and then stated that it did not regard its ratification as irrevocable. Virginia went even further and spelled out in its ordinance of ratification the right to resume the powers thus delegated if Virginia should ever become convinced that they were being abused. North Carolina stayed out for two years until it could be persuaded that its people were not entering a combine that might be perverted to their injury.
When the issue of the scope of Federal power was raised a decade later, in connection with the Alien and Sedition Acts, the famous Kentucky Resolutions, of which Jefferson himself was the author, affirmed that “free government is founded in jealousy, not in confidence; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions to bind down those we are obliged to trust with power.” It was resolved accordingly that “the several States composing the United States of America are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to the General Government.” These words and actions fairly indicate the attitude of the States in subscribing to the compact of union. Had they then been told they were entering a door which could never be opened again, it is questionable whether a single one would have entered.
The Constitution was, especially in its bill of rights, a creation of eighteenth century classical liberalism, which looked upon the freedom of the individual from state coercion as the highest political object. As John C. Calhoun was to point out later, the constitution of a free state is primarily a negative document in the sense that it consists of prohibitions and restraints imposed upon the authority of the state. It is a fixed obstacle to that government by confidence, to echo the language of the Kentucky Resolutions, under which so much oppression in the Old World had been possible. The ways in which men seek power over other men are almost infinitely various and subtle, and it was felt that if the new government were left to judge the extent of its own powers, there could be no way of forestalling eventual tyranny. The true aim of a constitution, from the standpoint of classical liberalism, is not to create empowerments, but to “bind down the powers of men to do mischief.” Several, if not most, of the States desired to preserve some form of veto in case that power should exceed its prescribed bounds.
In essence, what the Founders established was a federal republic of limited delegated powers. How limited those powers were was the subject of diverse interpretations. But even in the North at this time Senator Maclay of Pennsylvania could write in his Journal for March 22,1790: “Is it to be expected that a federal law passed directly against the sense of a whole State will ever be executed in that State?” Now it is necessary to follow some of the great historic forces that turned these questions of freedom and organization into concrete issues.
Even at the time of the Revolution there was an awareness of important differences between North and South. The leaders of that movement did their best to keep them in the background, but they were often mentioned privately. These differences were not merely in economic life, but also in what may be designated as “regime,” or general way of life. Historical realism shows that people living side by side do not necessarily grow to resemble one another. They may grow apart, and this the North and South did rather rapidly after the second war with Great Britain.
Many attempts have been made to characterize the Northern and Southern minds; few of them satisfy our perceptions. I am inclined to think that no account of the mind of the South can be valid unless it stresses the extent to which the Southerner is classical man. Even in the South of today one can find surviving large segments of the classical-Christian-medieval synthesis. It was not unusual for a Southerner of the upper class to steep himself in Roman history and name his sons after Roman generals. Here the Greek Revival in architecture had its inception; and here, in the region influenced by Charleston, the idea of Greek democracy was not only practiced but articulated in theory, as Vernon Parrington demonstrated in his great work on American culture. Here law was an exalted profession, and the Ciceronian ideal of rhetoric was admired. The fact that the Southerner stayed wedded to the idea of classical liberalism in government, with its fixed limitations of power, may be taken as further evidence of his classical spirit.
The Southern world-outlook was much like that which Spengler describes as the Apollinian. It knew nothing of infinite progressions but rather loved fixed limits in all things; it rejected the idea of ceaseless becoming in favor of “simple accepted statuesque becomeness.” It saw little point in restless striving, but desired a permanent settlement, a coming to terms with nature, a recognition of what is in its self-sustaining form. The Apollinian feeling, as Spengler remarks, is of a world of “coexistent individual things,” and it is tolerant as a matter of course. Other things are because they have to be; one marks their nature and their limits and learns to get along with them. The desire to dominate and to proselytize is foreign to it. As Spengler further adds, “there are no Classical world-improvers.” From this comes the Southern kind of tolerance, which has always impressed me as fundamentally different from the Northern kind. It is expressed in the Southerner’s easy-going ways and his willingness to let things grow where they sprout. He accepts the irremediability of a certain amount of evil and tries to fence it around instead of trying to stamp it out and thereby spreading it. His is a classical acknowledgment of tragedy and of the limits of power.
This mentality is by nature incompatible with its great rival, the Faustian. Faustian man is essentially a restless striver, a yearner after the infinite, a hater of stasis, a man who is unhappy unless he feels that he is making the world over. He may talk much of tolerance, but for him tolerance is an exponent of power. His tolerance tolerates only the dogmatic idea of tolerance, as anyone can discover for himself by getting to know the modern humanitarian liberal. For different opinions and ways of life he has not respect, but hostility or contemptuous indifference, until the day when they can be brought around to conform with his own. Spengler describes such men as torn with the pain of “seeing men be other than they would have them be and the utterly un-Classical desire to devote their life to their reformation.” It happened that Southern tolerance, standing up for the right to coexistence of its way of life, collided at many points with the Faustian desire to remove all impediments to its activity and make over things in its own image. Under the banner first of reform and then of progress, the North challenged the right to continue of a civilization based on the Classical ideal of fixity and stability. Bruce Catton gives a characteristic expression to this Faustian urge when he writes in an article on the Civil War that “America would cease to have room … for a feudal plantation economy below the Ohio, veneered with chivalry and thin romance and living in an outworn dream….”
This Southern philosophy of life, which the North has generally regarded as a stumbling block in the road of progress, may be characterized more directly with reference to three things: the creation, the nature of man, and the ends of living.
To most Southerners the term “creation” comes with its literal meaning. The world is something created for man, but certainly not by him. He can understand some of its intermediate principles and relations, but its ultimate secrets are forever beyond him. He is granted some dominion over it, but not an unlimited one, since that would be setting him on a level with the Creator. Basically nature is right in being as it is. Change for its own sake is not good, and many of nature’s dispositions are best left as they are. He has a degree of reverence for the natural order of things and he suspects hubris in a desire to change that order radically.
Toward man the Southerner takes an attitude inculcated by orthodox religion and by tragedy also. Man is a mixture of good and evil, and he can never be perfected in this life. The notion of his natural goodness is a delusive theory which will blow up any social order that is predicated upon it. Far from being a vessel of divinity, as the New England Transcendentalists taught, he is a container of cussedness. It is fatuity to suppose that his every impulse is good, for many of his impulses are anti-social and some of them are suicidal. He needs to be protected against himself by the teachings of religion, by law, and by custom. The Southerner has always been conservative in his view of man in the sense that he has been pessimistic. Yet this kind of pessimism, just because it refuses to fret over optimistic impossibilities, leaves large room for joie de vivre. Laughter and good humor have always been native to the region, with the Negro joining in rather freely.
The South’s attitude toward the ends of living has deeply influenced its mores and institutions. In the eyes of its energetic neighbor to the north it has never been sufficiently up and doing. But there is a profound difference between accepting your place and your role and working out the most practicable regimen of enjoyments, and conceiving life as an unceasing struggle which has as its object the reordering of everything. “Southern inefficiency” is a notorious phrase, but then “efficiency” is a term out of science and business. If you set little store by science and business, you will not be much influenced by the rhetorical force of “efficiency.” True, life cannot be lived without some sense of making progress, but progress may occur through intensification and elaboration; and the art of living in the South remains a rather complex thing. The saying of John Peale Bishop is worth recalling, that the South excelled in two things which the French deem essential to civilization: a code of manners and a native cuisine. Both are apt to suffer when life is regarded as a means to something else. Efficiency and charm are mortal enemies, and Southern charm indubitably derives from a carelessness about the efficient aspects of life.
One further fact is of great consequence: the South has maintained, generally speaking, a social rather than a business civilization; one can scarcely imagine a Southerner’s saying, as Calvin Coolidge once said, that “the business of America is business.” This means that the claims of business have usually had to yield precedence to what has been considered socially desirable or important. It probably would have been “good business,” in one sense, for the South to have maintained a nonsegregated school system: It might have cost less; but financial considerations have been powerless against social objections. Likewise the Southerner has often been chided for asking “Who are you?” rather than “What can you do?” But in a world that spins on an axis of social relations, who you are is more important than your efficiency rating. For the Southerner, things tend to derive their reality and their importance from social, not business life, where personality counts, and manners are a deference to personality.
In one of the novels of F. Hopkinson Smith there occurs the story of an old Virginia gentleman who lived on a decayed plantation. Whenever visitors came, he insisted on directing the conversation to the past glories of the ancestral hall. On one occasion he mentioned, purely incidentally, that there were coal outcroppings on the estate. This led to the discovery of extensive coal deposits, which eventually launched the old gentleman into prosperity. But he had not thought the matter of coal worth discussing beside what one ancestor had done at Williamsburg and another at Yorktown. His was a world of human relations. The relative incapacity for business of the Southerner has cost him sadly in this acquisitive world. The choice involves, of course, the contentious subject of the order of values.
While these attitudes were growing deep-rooted in the South, the North was developing in a different direction. Its world outlook traces back fairly clearly to the Reformation and the Puritan Revolution. Especially was the Puritan mentality influential upon the North. A reformist type of mind, it was indifferent toward tradition, inclined to be suspicious of the arts and graces as snares set by the Evil One, and proudly conscious of a duty to make the world over. This Northern or “Yankee” mind, which has been received by the world as the typical American mind, is excellently shaped and disciplined for success in the practical sphere. It focuses sharply, knows how to keep feeling under restraint; it is shrewd in estimating practical consequences. There has never been such a mind for getting things done.
But as always in this ambiguous world, positive qualities carry liabilities in their train, and this mind does not always impress others favorably. To some it seems too insistent on the explicit, too lacking in depths and psychic recesses, too deprived of what might be called resonance. To some it appears like a house kept in perfect neatness and order, but lacking in charm. When the Southerner or the European or the Latin American communicates with this dust-free, unencumbered mind, he finds that things which are significant to him strike no response. Especially is this true of matters of sentiment, and he finds shocking the relegation of sentiment to a kind of Sunday-morning observance. The tendency seems to be to think scientifically and hence abstractly in the interest of manipulation rather than concretely out of respect or pleasure in contemplation. Local attachments seem dragweights, and allegiance is given, as Tocqueville pointed out, to something large and grandiose. States’ rights do not mean much unless you have learned to know and to prize the special contours of your State.
Nowhere has the Northern mind more clearly embraced the Faustian concept than in the idea of progress. There is the constant out-reaching, the denial of limits, the willingness to dissolve all into endless instrumental activity, to which even some American philosophers have supplied theoretical support. Hence the incessant urge to be doing, to be transforming, to effect some external change between yesterday and today. The mood of the Americans, another French critic of a century ago remarked, is that of an army on the march. The language of conquest fills the air. They will “master nature”; they will “attack problems”; they will “control energy”; they will “overcome space and time.” The endlessness of progress in these terms is the most generally accepted dogma. And thus enchanted by the concept of an infinite expansion, they reject the classical philosophy as too constricting.
The Southerner, to sum up the contrast, has tended to live in the finite, balanced, and proportional world which Classical man conceived. In Cicero and Horace he has found congenial counsellors about human life. The idea of stasis is not abhorrent to him, because it affords a ground for the identity of things. Life is not simply a linear progression, but a drama, with rise and fall. Happiness may exist as much in contemplation as in activity. Experience alone is not good; it has to be accompanied by the human commentary. From this, I believe, has come the South’s great fertility in myth and anecdote. It is not so much a sleeping South as a dreaming one, and out of dreams come creations that affect the imagination.
In this way two civilizations of quite different impulse grew up in the United States. Was it inevitable that one should make war on the other and offer it the alternative of being “reconstructed” or perishing? It was not inevitable if you believe that the coexistence of unlike beings is possible. Diversity is a rule of nature, and it would be ideal if the cultures of the world would practice a doctrine of live and let live. It would also be ideal if empires and large nations would consent to a separation of their parts in times of irreconcilable difference. When personalities begin to clash in a household, it is often best for one party to remove and set up an independent establishment of its own. This is what the Americans did in 1775; and the British, taught by this painful experience and others, have since recognized the right to withdraw from the Empire. The Soviet Union has written the principle of secession into its constitution. But the Americans of the North and West have generally viewed the idea as scandalous—or perhaps as blasphemous against the notion of the perfected millenial state.
The events leading up to the historical separation of the two sections are too well known to need detailed review. Economic and political disagreements arose to accentuate the underlying differences. The first issue to poison the relations between North and South following the “Era of Good Feeling” was the tariff. It is unquestionable that the protective tariff has worked great injury to the South from that date until, as one might say, the South was partly transformed into an image of the North through industrialization. For the interest of the South as a region producing agricultural surpluses has historically lain in free trade. The South sent abroad rice, indigo, cotton, and tobacco and took in exchange the manufactured products of Europe. The North began to use the Federal Union to put an artificially high price upon manufactured goods in order to help its industries. The South was thereby forced into the position of selling cheap and buying dear. All this meant that the agrarian way of livelihood, characterized by Jefferson as the most innocent form of vocation, could not be continued except under penalty of a heavy tax. As Abbott Lawrence of Massachusetts wrote to Daniel Webster regarding the tariff of 1828: “This bill if adopted as amended will keep the South and West in debt to New England for the next hundred years.” If the South had ever been able to save and fuse what was taken from it by the protective tariff system, it could have afforded a Harvard and a Yale, with a few Amhersts, Dartmouths, and Williamses thrown in for good measure.
There was of course the curse of slavery. During the Civil War one ingenious Northern general pronounced the Negroes to be “contrabands.” Contrabands they may well have been from the beginning, and I have often wondered why the sellers of this article were not held more reprehensible than the users, as is true of those who peddle cocaine. A large number of these hapless slaves were brought to America in New England bottoms, and more than one fortune in Newport and New Bedford owes its origin to profits in black flesh. The facts could be represented thus: New England sold the slaves to the South, then later declared their possession immoral and confiscated the holding. The morality of the case was less clear to the Southerners than to the agitators of Boston, and even Lincoln, if we may judge by his less political utterances, tended to believe in the common guilt of the nation.
Alienation of the sections was widened by mutual attacks upon character. Some of these reached an extreme of violence which one would hardly associate with Victorian America. A few were the products of reformist agitators giving way to their feelings, but an appreciable number seem to have been the work of the new journalism, which finds it profitable to stir up strife by assailing character, even if the character is that of a straw man. The South, which had more than its share of pride, retorted with frantic boast and foolish word. It certainly went out of its way to wound Northern vanity. It charged the North with having the deadly virtues of the middle class while claiming for itself the virtues of the chivalric age. On the whole, the South did not have a clear picture of itself or its resources. Being long on the defensive and seeing the tide running against it, the South created a number of phantasms which were to serve it ill. This is what that dour North Carolinian Hinton Helper tried to point out in his The Impending Crisis.
Whether the grievances of these States were sufficient to justify a withdrawal from the Union has been argued long and voluminously. Political separations of this kind, as Jefferson observed in the Declaration of Independence, should not be undertaken for light and transient causes. On the other hand, as Calhoun was later to argue, making the Federal government the sole judge and umpire of its authority would be setting up an engine of government from which there would be no kind of appeal. To take the position that every State remained forever a member of the Union, whether it liked it or not and whether it suffered by the association or not, certainly involved grave assumptions of political authority. There is at least as much idealism in the statement of Lee that “a Union held together by bayonets has no charms for me” as in the claim that the Union is forever indivisible. The Southern position goes back, in political theory, to the principle that there are some matters on which a majority cannot override a minority.
The South has always maintained that in this great quarrel it had the law on its side. Its case for the legality of secession rested upon an interpretation of the Constitution in the light of its creation. This contended that the Federal Union was a compact of limited, delegated authority, to which the States voluntarily acceded between 1787 and 1789. The Federalist Papers had referred to the States as “distinct and independent sovereigns.” Madison, writing in the Federalist No. 39, had said: “The proposed government cannot be deemed a national one; since its jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects only, and leaves to the several States a residuary and inviolable sovereignty over all other objects.” These expressions became common currency of the discussion. It would be cynical to assume that this was mere bait, held out to catch reluctant fish which thereafter would be permanently hooked. Surmises of the kind, however, could have been in the minds of New York, Virginia, and other cautious signers. Later one of the textbooks on political science taught at West Point—and this has important bearing upon the decisions of Southern officers in 1861—was William Rawle’s View of the Constitution of the United States, which accepted the doctrine of State sovereignty.
Legally, secession was seen by the Southern States simply as a repeal of the ordinances of ratification they had adopted 70 years earlier. In the Southern continuum, 70 years is nothing. When South Carolina voted 120 to 0 to rescind her ratification, she was repealing in her sovereign capacity what she had enacted in her sovereign capacity. The enactment of secession was not treason under any written law. It might have been treason to a concept, but that is an extra-legal matter, and the concept was not the South’s. When Bruce Catton struggles to characterize the heinousness of secession, he can only soar upon wings of metaphor and call it “a wanton laying of hands upon the Ark of the Covenant.”
For an American political leader, Abraham Lincoln has a remarkable record of consistency, but on this matter he was not consistent. Speaking in the House of Representatives on January 12, 1848, he made as good a case for the right of secession as the most ardent Southern separatist could have wished for. With reference to Texas and the incidents which had led to the Mexican War, he said:
Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable —a most sacred right—a right, which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government, may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so much territory as they inhabit.
But thirteen years later, when faced with a concrete instance of this, he saw secession in an entirely opposite way. Then a portion of a people of a government, having their own territory, revolutionized and set up a government of their own. He countered their claim of right to do this by saying that he had taken an oath to support the Constitution, and that furthermore every nation has an inherent duty to protect its integrity. The objections to this position, as the South saw them, were that the Constitution was silent on the question of secession, and that the right to revolution was a right inherent in the people if the American Revolution had any ideological basis. It was not without reason that Southerners in 1861 said, “I am no more frightened by the word ‘rebel’ than were my forefathers in 1775.”
During the War, the western counties of the State of Virginia, having been for decades at odds politically with the remainder of the State, withdrew and set up a State of their own. The Federal government showed no compunction about the legality of this secession, for West Virginia was admitted as an independent State in 1863 and has never been “reconstructed” into Virginia. In this instance Lincoln seems to have reversed himself again and to have upheld the right to revolutionize which he had emphasized in his speech on the Mexican War. It begins to look like a matter of whose ox is gored.
Another case in point is the treatment of Jefferson Davis. The passions of the victorious side demanded that he be arrested and tried for treason, and he spent about two years in prison at Fortress Monroe. But when the task of getting up the prosecution was undertaken, it was realized that there was no law under which he could be convicted—this, it should be added, was a pre-Nuremberg doubt, which troubled men in a day when nations were unwilling to invent ex post facto law by which to hang defeated enemies. Acquittal would have been a great embarrassment to the victors, who had no desire to lose in court what they had won in war. Therefore Davis, instead of being hanged on a sour apple tree, went free with no other penalty than disqualification for office-holding, which was provided by the newly enacted Fourteenth Amendment.
Thus the South has remained convinced that whatever the differing moral views of slavery and secession, it had the law on its side as the law had come down from 1787. From the standpoint of these considerations, perhaps the best description of the terrible conflict which ensued is that of Gerald Johnson, who called it a war between “the Law and the Prophets.” On the side of the South was the law, with its promise of respect for the sovereignty of the States and its recognition of slavery. It was with reference to this that Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy, was to entitle his apologia A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States. On the side of the North were the prophets of emancipation, industrialization, and nationalization. Of these the most potent was nationalization, and it should be remembered that Lincoln professed his willingness to preserve slavery if by so doing he might preserve the Union.
The potency contained in the cry “Union” at this time must always be of curious interest to students of political psychology. “Union” became in the North the paramount slogan of the War, and the popular term of opprobrium applied to Confederates was not “slaveholders,” but “secesh.” Middle Westerners in particular favored “saving the Union,” sometimes to the exclusion of all other issues involved. What was there to make the idea of union sacred ?
Considered in its essence, union is an instrumentality of power. This fact appears in the common saying that “in union there is strength.” But what is this strength wanted for? Unless it has some clearly understood applicability, the mere preservation of union is a means without an end. And because one of the prime purposes of the idealistic founders of the nation was to check the growth of a centralized, autonomous power, the things that have been done in the name of “Union” might lead one to say that it is the darling of the foes rather than of the friends of the American experiment in free government. H. L. Mencken once observed that there are, of course, advantages in union, but that they usually go to the wrong people. They usually go to the ones whose real interest is in power and the wielding of it over other men. The instrumentality of union, with its united strength and its subordination of the parts, is an irresistible temptation to the power-hungry of every generation. The strength of union may first be exercised in the name of freedom, but once it has been made monopolistic and unassailable, it will, if history teaches anything, be used for other purposes.
One cannot feign surprise, therefore, that thirty years after the great struggle to consolidate and unionize American power, the nation embarked on its career of imperialism. The new nationalism enabled Theodore Roosevelt, than whom there was no more staunch advocate of union, to strut and bluster and intimidate our weaker neighbors. Ultimately it launched America upon its career of world imperialism, whose results are now being seen in indefinite military conscription, mountainous debt, restriction of dissent, and other abridgements of classical liberty. We must be “unified” at home so that we can be strong abroad—indeed, there are now those who would outlaw party division over foreign policy. But why does one have to be strong abroad ? From the clear perspective which the Founding Fathers seem to have enjoyed, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina observed: “Conquest or superiority among other powers is not, or ought not ever to be, the object of republican systems.” But this was not the view of those who were to make use of the great consolidation effected by the Civil War.
To the mass of soldiers in blue and to the Northern civilians, “Union” seems to have been a kind of mystique—a vague attitude against which political and metaphysical demonstrations of reserved rights had no power to make an impression. “Union” was hypostatized and bowed down to, and the question of whether separation does not have some advantages also was ruled out as not in keeping with the times. The material fact is that under this potent cry the union of the United States was shifted in 1865 from a basis of voluntary consent to one of force.
When the Joint Committee on Reconstruction presented its report in 1866, it opened with a terse description. “They [the Southern States] were in a state of utter exhaustion, having protracted their struggle against Federal authority until all hope of successful resistance had ceased, and layed down their arms only because there was no longer any power to use them. The people of those States were left bankrupt in their public finances and shorn of the private wealth which had before given them power and influence.”
This might appear a situation dire enough, yet the South still had to face about a dozen years of having its bones picked. To make real what went on during the years of so-called “Reconstruction” demands the pen of a novelist, and it is regrettable in a way that this chapter of our national history has not received more attention from creative writers. Lincoln had taken the view that the States were really never out of the Union, and had mentioned that if in any Southern State ten per cent of the population—surely a curious fraction, but perhaps the best that could be hoped for—were found “loyal,” that State might resume its standing and function within the Union. But this was, as Professor E. Merton Coulter has pointed out, a conservative solution, and no such thing was in the minds of the Radical Junto which took over after Lincoln’s death. They saw their chance “not only to remake Southerners in many respects that had no direct relationship to the war; they would also remake the Union by not only degrading the Southern States but in the process also depriving all States of much of their power and bestowing it upon the central government. Here was the fruition of a growth in extremism evident in the North long before the war broke out, but now made easy by that war’s having been fought.”
Under their program the Southern States were to be held in the Union as far as the purposes of rule and exploitation went, but kept out of the Union as far as rights and the ability to protest effectively were concerned. This was a method of having the States and eating them too, and it was highly profitable both politically and financially.
The invading army was in control. Down from the North swarmed carpetbaggers looking for a good thing, and up popped scalawags ready to assist them. The Negro, who, it must be admitted, behaved considerably better than circumstances might have warranted, was a useful auxiliary. State governments were set up consisting of outsiders with various axes to grind, the scum of the local populace, and the misled and eventually victimized freedmen. There ensued a carnival of debauchery, corruption, and political buffoonery such as no other modern nation has witnessed. In a hundred ways, kangaroo legislatures robbed the stricken people not only of their present but of their future substance also. Over the whole affair hangs an aura of unreality, so that even the most cynical might question how this was possible after a hundred years of American traditions. The best verdict on Reconstruction was written by Richard Harvey Cain, a Negro editor of Charleston: “When the smoke and fighting is over, the Negroes have nothing gained, the whites have nothing left, while the jackals have all the booty.” It is proof of the public morality which existed in the Southern people as a whole that these States were eventually able to recover, instead of sinking permanently to the level of the worst mismanaged Latin American countries.
William A. Dunning, the Columbia professor of history, expressed admiration for the way in which Reconstruction was carried out against “a hostile white population, a hostile executive at Washington, a doubtful if not decidedly hostile Supreme Court, a divided Northern sentiment with regard to Negro suffrage, and an active and skillfully directed Democratic Party.” On the same principle one might express admiration for the way in which the South managed to preserve some remnants of its civilization against an invading army and an alien and partly disaffected race, with a government in which it was not represented claiming authority over it. Some of the means, for example the Ku Klux Klan, were irregular, but essentially it was the political genius of Jefferson, of Washington, of Madison, and Pinckney expressing itself in times of trouble and oppression.
The nightmare of Reconstruction ended in 1877, after the South, in a frank “deal” to get rid of the occupying forces, decided not to contest the election whereby the Republican Hayes had fraudulently won over Tilden. But it was another twenty years before the South was able to struggle back to its feet economically, and it was even longer before it could begin the establishment of an adequate school system. There was no Marshall Plan for the Southern States. Instead, the South’s economic disadvantage was prolonged, if not intensified, by even higher protective tariffs and by its contributions to national pensions for a clamorous GAR.
The era of Reconstruction is thus an indelible memory in Southern minds. In effect the period was a forging process which hardened the South’s determination not to be assimilated into the national pattern, but to preserve her character and autonomy in all ways that could not be prevented. The palpable unfairness of the era even brought recruits to the South’s side, for Kentucky, which had been divided during the war, turned pro-Southern and Democratic in politics as soon as it saw the uses that were being made of the victory. If, as President Edwin Aiderman of the University of Virginia wrote, “under the play of great historic forces this region developed so strong a sense of unity in itself as to issue in a claim of separate nationality, which it was willing to defend in a great war,” it seems equally true that its experience during the great upheaval confirmed the feeling that is was in spirit and needs a separate nation. It might be viewed as an American Ireland, Poland, or Armenia, not indeed unified by a different religious allegiance from its invader, but different in its way of life, different in the values it ascribed to things by reason of its world outlook, and made more different after the war by its necessary confrontation of the tragic view, which success and optimism were holding in abeyance in the North. The South has in a way made a religion of its history, or its suffering, and any sign of waning faith or laxness of spirit may be met by a reminder of how this leader endured and that one died, in the manner of saints and saviors. It has, in fact, its hierarchy of saints, and the number of public tributes offered up to Lee and Jackson must run to untold thousands. Being a Southerner is definitely a spiritual condition, like being a Catholic or a Jew; and members of the group can recognize one another by signs which are eloquent to them, though too small to be noticed by an outsider.
There are some who will say that this is talk of old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago. But a nation is made what it is by its past; there is no identity without historicity. And the South, far from being ashamed of its past, as a good many outsiders seem to assume, is proud of it just because that past is a story of resistance to many things urged or forced upon it from the outside. If these things are added together, they will be seen to comprise rather completely what is known as modernism or “progress.” In the political field the South has resisted nationalization and centralization of authority, sometimes with cannon and musket, and sometimes with political maneuver, as in the case of the States’ Rights Party of 1948. In the economic and financial field, there has been an instinctive opposition to industrialism; and if the spirit is not very conspicuous now, it has flourished strongly enough in the past to warn the South against mechanization and standardization. Southerners owe a debt of gratitude to Russell Kirk, who comes from Michigan, for pointing out that “Despite its faults of head and heart, the South—alone among the civilized communities of the nineteenth century—had hardihood sufficient for an appeal to arms against the iron new order, which, a vague instinct whispered to most Southerners, was inimical to the sort of humanity they knew.” The historic South has been indeed “unprogressive,” but defiantly so and on principle.
Pragmatists have never been able to convince the South that religion is just another one of the cylinders of the engine that produces “progress.” The South retains a belief that religion is the expression of man’s poetic, tragic, and metaphysical intuitions of life, and that as such religion is tied neither to science nor utility. Hence the South’s famous fundamentalism and literalism, the footwashings of the primitive Baptists, the doctrinal rigor of Southern Presbyterians. Believing in the necessity of man’s redemption, the people—especially country people— typically like preachers who preach hell fire and damnation better than those who put their faith in psychiatry and socialism. The preference is essentially for the older religiousness, such as one finds before the age of rationalism.
By the same token, the South has never lost sight of the fact that society means structuring and differentiation, and that “society” and “mass” are antithetical terms. It has never fallen for a simple equalitarianism, nor has it embraced the sentimentalism that anyone on the bottom ipso facto belongs on top. Its classes have gotten along together with surprisingly little envy because they have been fused into a society by a vision which has kept subordinated the matter of varying degrees of success in the pursuit of money. Because the mass looks with hatred upon any sign of the structuring of society, the South has been viewed with special venom by Socialist and Communist radicals, past and present. One of their prime goals is to break down the South’s historic social structure and replace it with a mass condition reflecting only materialist objectives.
These facts and others which could be cited mean that the South remains a great stronghold of humanism, perhaps the greatest left in the Western World. It has opposed by word and deed the kind of future portended by George Orwell’s In doing so it has developed considerable toughness and resourcefulness, and it has never run from a fight. Its people still have no desire to be pulled in and made to conform to a regimented mass state, by which homes that look like homes, whether in Tidewater or in the Blue Ridge, must give way to the ant-colonies of public housing, and the traditional courtesy of a region must change into “public relations.”
Today the South is faced with fresh assaults upon its regime and its order of values. All the while it has known that what grudging respect it has obtained from the North has come because the South has maintained the standards of white civilization. It knows that if it were to accept without reservation the dictates of the Supreme Court, it might be turned into something like those “mixed sections” found in large Northern cities. Such sections are there spoken of in whispers, and those who have the money flee as from the plague when they find a neighborhood beginning to “go.” The South cannot learn these facts from Northern newspapers and journals, which maintain a curious attitude of unreality upon the subject. But it notes the behavior of Northerners who come South to live; it learns of the plummeting of Northern real estate values where “integration” is on the march; and if a Southerner happens to journey North, he finds the hotels and resorts conspicuously unmixed. As Bishop Hugh McCandless of New York’s Protestant Episcopal Church of the Epiphany recently admitted : “What the North generally has done is to accept the social conventions of the South, while condemning the reasons for those conventions.” Naturally the Southerner wonders from what area of the Northern consciousness the great outcry against segregation comes.
For such reasons, the Supreme Court’s decretal has to it the look of a second installment of Reconstruction. As the first was inspired by vengeance, so this looks inspired by a desire to impeach the South and to impose upon it conditions which have generally proved impossible even where the obstacles were far less. The South knows that in wide areas a forced integration would produce tensions fatal to the success of education. It believes that the advice of Booker T. Washington to the Negro, though not the easiest, is still the best. Let the Negroes cultivate excellence. When they create something that the world desires, the world will come and ask to have it, and will have to accept it on the Negroes’ terms. That is the way other races have raised themselves, and it is the only permanent way. The South’s decision to resist the new forward motion of the centralizing and regimenting impulse has won it support in the North among those who see the issue of authority as transcending this particular application.
The question of whether the South deserves separate nationality will today be dismissed as academic. It has not forgotten its tremendous sacrifices in the bid for independence, as its innumerable Confederate monuments, its continuing Confederate pensions, and its odes to the Confederate dead testify. And with the United States insisting on independence for this and that country half way around the world —independence for Czechoslovakia, independence for Indo-China, independence for Korea, independence for Israel—it has certainly been handsome of the South not to raise the question of its own independence again. But putting this aside as one of those considerations which may be logical but are politically fantastic, let us turn to the role of the South in the future of the Union.
Many years ago a Southern speaker in a eulogy of George Washington predicted that at some distant date the nation would again need to look to such a man for its salvation. He based this upon a prophecy that one day the nation would arrive at such an embittered tangle of animosities, brought on by the clashing of pressure groups, the contradictions of opportunistic policy, and the blindness of relativist doctrines that it could no longer save itself by ordinary means. There would be no recourse but to turn to a man of pure, disinterested, and unshakable character to lead it out of the impasse produced by snarling self-interest and the obscuring of principles.
Washington is in many ways the prototype of the Southerner. His image adorned the Great Seal of the Confederacy; he has been, with Lee, the beau ideal of the conservative section.
Broadening this somewhat, I am inclined to believe seriously that the nation may one day have to look to the South for leadership as it once looked to the Virginia planter and soldier. If the future of the world shapes up as a gigantic battle between communism and freedom, there is not the slightest doubt as to where the South will stand. It will stand in the forefront of those who oppose the degrading of man to a purely material being, and it will continue to fight those who presume to direct the individual “for his own good” from some central seat of authority. On this matter, its record is perfectly clear. The South has opposed scientific materialism while the rest of the nation mocked it for being old-fashioned. If it has had little use for evolution, neither has it had any for Marxism. It has maintained a respect for personality while other sections were tending to relegate personality to the museum of antiquities. It has proved its conviction that when principles are at stake, economics is nowhere. Though it believes in coexistence, as I tried to show earlier, it is quick to scent the kind of aggressor that makes coexistence impossible—and hence, I think, its readiness to arm in 1940-41. By all the standards that apply, the South has earned the moral right to lead the nation in the present and coming battle against communism, and perhaps also in the more general renascence of the human way of life. The stone which the builders have so persistently rejected may become the headstone of the building. This would not be a new thing in history, and the present trend of events indicates to me that it is in the making.
One quality of the Southerner has a special relevance here. Over most of the free world today one sees an alarming loss of confidence in self in the upper or guiding classes. They seem weary of the past, disillusioned by the forces that created them, pessimistic about their future. Even a suicidal motif appears, and they are found subsidizing and even fighting for those forces which would avowedly destroy them. They go in for “liberalism,” for socialism, even for communism; and if they think of resistance at all, it is usually in terms of appeasement. They seem ready for extinction by the first rude barbarian who says, “I will.”
To this the South is an exception. The reverses to which the Southerner has been subjected and the great enginery of propaganda which has been directed against him have never been able to break his belief in himself. His self-confidence, sometimes irritating to those who lack it, comes from a knowledge that he stands in a central human tradition, and that the virtues which stem from this, though they may sometimes pass out of fashion, are never out of season. About certain matters he has an “unyielding stability of opinion,” often complained of, but a priceless asset when the foundations of things are being threatened.
It may be that after a long period of trouble and hardship, brought on in my opinion by being more sinned against than sinning, this unyielding Southerner will emerge as a providential instrument for the saving of this nation. With pragmatists and relativists giving away the free world bit by bit, his willingness to fight with an intransigent patriotism may be the one thing that can save the day from the darkness gathering in Eastern Europe and Asia. If that time should come, the nation as a whole would understand the spirit that marched with Lee and Jackson and charged with Pickett.
This essay was originally published in The Lasting South (Regnery, 1957).