Book Review: The Southern Tradition by Eugene Genovese

Bottom Line Up Front: Read it for a good, brief introduction to 20th century Southern conservatism. Go here to buy.

The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservativism, by Eugene Genovese. Harvard University Press, published in 1994 as part of the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization.

Regrettably, this is the first I’ve read from the great slavery scholar Eugene Genovese, a New York City-born former socialist turned traditionalist conservative. This short (103 pages) book was the first to come after his “conversion,” and it is a good one which treats its broad subject with balance and candor. Unfortunately, you will encounter some progressivist language, as Genovese couldn’t help but excoriate his subjects with charges of “racism” several times though he avoids sounding shrill or unreasonable. Genovese is a good writer and the book is an easy read, even for those with a limited economic-political vocabulary.

The book is broken into a Preface, Introduction, and three Chapters. I’ll briefly summarize each and sprinkle some choice quotes about.


The author states his bio, and bias, immediately. Surprisingly, although having spent “all except the last eight of his sixty-three years as a resident of New York State” he admits to pretensions to being a (little s-) southerner. I found myself liking this Yankee from the start:

“There are a great many reasons for my southern partisanship, the most important of which arose from my early recognition that the people of the South, across lines of race, class, and sex, are as generous, gracious, courteous, decent – in a word, civilized – as any people it has ever been my privilege to get to know.”

He takes a page or so to outline his conversion from Marxism, establishes his non-racist credentials, etc. Not much to see here.


Here the author traces a very brief sketch of the Southern tradition – “Richard Weaver and his successors have had every right to speak simply of the southern tradition [emphasis in original]” – from the Roman sympathies of the early Southern aristocracy to the poetry of the Southern Agrarians to the Southern conservatives rallying behind Patrick Buchanan in the 1992 Presidential election. Choice quote:

“The argument of this book does not depend upon the political fortunes of the southern conservatives. Rather, it insists that their critique of modernism – and, by extension, of postmodernism – contains much of intrinsic value that will have to be incorporated in the world view of any political movement, inside or outside the principal political parties, that expects to arrest our plunge into moral decadence and national decline.”

Chapter One- Lineaments of the Southern Tradition

Pretty self-explanatory. The author devotes most of this chapter to the Agrarians’ battle against modernity, and late 20th century figures, like M.E. Bradford, and their struggle against the increasingly liberal tendencies of mainstream American conservativism.. He touches on the philosophical roots of Southern hierarchy, anti-capitalism, environmentalism, religious influences, suspicion of science, and the positive connotation given to the words “prejudice” and “discrimination” in the Southern lexicon. He links Southern conservatism to the initial European resistance to the French Enlightenment and the French and Industrial Revolutions. Some quotes:

“Tate and Bradford were eventually driven to proclaim themselves ‘reactionaries,’ for, as Bradford put it, ‘reaction is a necessary term in the intellectual context we inhabit late in the twentieth century because merely to conserve is sometimes to perpetuate what is outrageous.'”

“What goes largely unnoticed is that, on much of the American Right, the conservative critique of modernity has largely given way to a free-market liberalism the ideal of which shares much with the radical Left’s version of egalitarianism. The traditionalists are entitled to gloat, for they have always regarded socialism and radical democracy as the logical outcome of bourgeois liberalism.”

Chapter Two- Political and Constitutional Principles

Here Genovese delves more deeply into the antebellum growth of the Southern tradition. A reactionary eye can here begin identifying the Leftist elements within the post-Revolution South, while noting how the result of Northern pressure was to push most Southern intellectuals to the Right. Slavery morphed from an evil in the eyes of Jefferson and Taylor to a good in the eyes of Calhoun and Fitzhugh. An interesting topic covered here is the latent Southern discontent with the doctrine of States’ Rights, which Genovese posits was simply a tactical position and not integral to the Southern tradition, which he also demonstrates (perhaps not willingly) as inherently incompatible with the Constitution. The egalitarian and demotic document (“We the People…”) simply couldn’t be reconciled with the Southern way of life, and Southerners like Calhoun spent their lives trying to delay the inevitable.

“The constitutional theorists (Mason, St. George Tucker, Taylor, Calhoun, Upshur, Henry St. George Tucker, Bledsoe, and Stephens) could prevail in most of the battles in the textual and historical criticism of the Constitution, much as the proslavery theologians could prevail in the debate over the Biblical sanction for slavery. But they could not refute the fundamental political premise laid down by the Marshall Court and elaborated in Story’s Commentaries – the premise that the Constitution, to undergird a modern republic, had to facilitate capitalist development.”

Chapter Three- Property and Power

Here the author returns to the 20th Century, concentrating on the increasingly difficult choice which Southern conservatives were forced to make – stay true to increasingly deprecated principles, or compromise to stay within the Overton Window? Most chose the latter, especially with regards to the rightful place of slavery and Jim Crow; the repudiated their “white supremacist” ancestors, openly proclaiming a belief in racial equality, which necessarily deconstructs the entire Southern traditionalist position. To make the dual ideals of equality and traditionalism consistent with each other is impossible.

“The perspectives offered by southern conservatives, which I have hastily sketched, remain alive, if at bay: opposition to finance capitalism and, more broadly, to the attempt to substitute the market for society itself; opposition to the radical individualism that is today sweeping America; support for broad property ownership and a market economy subject to socially determined moral restraints; adherence to a Christian individualism that condemns personal license and demands submission to a moral consensus rooted in elementary piety; and an insistence that every people must develop its own genius, based upon its special history, and must reject siren calls to an internationalism – or, rather, a cosmopolitanism – that would eradicate local and national cultures and standards of personal conduct by reducing morals and all else to commodities.”


This book presents a fair, balanced, and informative look at the major strains of the Southern political tradition, and I would’ve liked for it to be longer and more thorough. Still, it is just about the perfect candidate for a short and quick introduction to the subject, and I recommend it for those who are looking to get knowledgeable of the roots and primary facets of the Southern tradition.


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