This post is a response to Mr. Ted Colt’s tweet, displayed below:
Mr. Colt is, of course, correct about finding and fixing flaws, though I’d rephrase his statement a bit. Southern civilization (the Old South) was destroyed from the outside, when emancipation removed the aristocracy’s foundation and source of power – property. It wasn’t a failing of Southern culture that resulted in the destruction of the Old South, but rather outside circumstances that the South had no control over. That said, the Old South wasn’t, of course, perfect. There existed strains of Leftism, primarily introduced via Revolutionary figures like Jefferson, but by 1860 the so-called “Reactionary Enlightenment” was driving the South ever Rightward towards a more-or-less total repudiation of the original Enlightenment. Had the South achieved independence, I assess that it would have continued on this path. There is little reason to believe Southern culture would have succumbed to the self-destructive tendencies which characterize the modern West (some caveats here, which I will discuss in some future post).
As it happened, Southern society (no longer a distinct civilization) was forcibly tethered to American society, for better or worse, via which Leftism began to be administered intravenously. For us, this muddies the waters in that it’s difficult to discern whether Leftist tendencies which exist in the South today are organic developments which would survive severance from USG, or if their source is extraneous and shallow. I think it safe to say that while the source of most of the modern manifestations of Southern Leftism is foreign, some of these tendencies now have a strong hold on Southern culture which will prove problematic in a post-USG scenario.
Jeffersonianism is the most prominent example of home-cooked Leftism. Jefferson’s influence on the South has waxed and waned over time, but it’s always been present in some form or another. With the recent growth of libertarianism in the South, Jefferson has regained his status as a primary figure for Southerners looking for alternatives to the modern state. One reason is practical: despite recent rumblings, Jefferson clings to his status as a “mainstream figure” and thus provides a measure of legitimacy to disgruntled Southerners. Another is theoretical: Jefferson’s philosophy of individualism, republicanism, and government decentralization serves to provide an alternative vision to the ever-increasing totalitarianism of USG.
Jeffersonianism is mostly Leftist at heart and lies somewhere on a spectrum from inefficient to totally impractical for use in a post-USG independent South. The “Reactionary Enlightenment” figures realized the anti-civilizational character of Jeffersonianism prior to the Civil War, and were in the process of expunging the more Leftist elements of it from the Southern worldview. Jeffersonianism is simply not conducive, on the whole, for protecting or maintaining a traditionalist aristocratic society, and for our purposes, even less so for building one. The prominence of Jefferson’s philosophy on the modern Southern psyche poses a strong obstacle to reconstituting a distinct Southern civilization.
Baser modernist facets of Leftism, such as materialism, atheism, feminism, and progressivism, are almost wholly recently acquired and have much less of a hold on today’s Southern culture (being almost totally endemic to white urban areas). Still, in my view it would be a mistake to write this problem off as a non-factor. Depending on the geographical and cultural makeup of a post-USG Southern state, it is theoretically possible that urban mores will take precedence in establishing the philosophical foundation of said state. This, of course, would be an unmitigated disaster.
The question becomes: how in the world can these infectious philosophies be cleansed, or even mitigated? It seems quite clear to me that nothing significant can be done while the Leftist zeitgeist remains in control of the South’s destiny. Indeed, even if the South gained independence tomorrow, this Southern Leftism would assuredly dictate the formation of the government, and we would almost certainly be quite as bad off as we are now. Rightism is simply too marginal, leverage-wise, to affect any significant social change in the current milieu. The only way to gain the power to affect said change is to use corrupting Leftist tactics, such as demotic “activism.”
The only way Rightist elements can return to a guiding role for the South is through some kind of cleansing or transitional period. Unfortunately, any way you slice it, this period will be difficult and ugly, though not necessarily absolutely so. It will require a total reformation into a society and government which will seem completely alien to the modern layman. This will happen, though the timeframe and manner are anyone’s guess.
Likely the easiest way to accomplish this cleansing would be through some form of a Rightist dictatorship, ala maybe Pinochet or Sulla. This hypothetical dictator would have absolute authority, or nearly so, to reform government and social influences at will, and thus could take the requisite steps to eliminate or at minimum marginalize the anti-civilizational disease of Leftism. How exactly this could be done is outside of my purview, though it seems self-evident that it is theoretically possible. Of course, this option carries with it a certain amount of risk – how do we know the dictator won’t be another Caligula or Lincoln (ha)? In short, we don’t – but risk must be assumed at some point to get civilization back on track. A dictatorship could accomplish our aims with a minimum of blood and tears. The optimal endstate would be a transition from dictatorship to government via an organic state, such as a traditionalist aristocracy. The reader may form his own opinion on how likely or attractive of an option this is for our necessary cleansing period.
In my view it is much the better option than our alternative – a cleansing period characterized by some kind of fiery cataclysm brought on by the drunk-at-the-wheel guidance of Leftism. It is almost useless to pontificate on the exact nature of this cataclysm, simply due to the huge number of variables involved. What seems sure is that it will happen in some form and at some time. Ethnic turbulence? Economic crash? Political splintering? Terrorist attack? Mass revolt? Simple prolonged power outage? The potential embers which may fall on this powder keg we inhabit appear legion. Once it happens, it will be big, it will be ugly, in all likelihood it will be bloody. In a word, it will be cataclysmic. What will emerge is anyone’s guess, but I believe this forcible reversion of civilization will naturally demonstrate the utter fallibility of most or all facets of Leftism.
This might happen next year or next century. At any rate, the most a Southern Reactionary might do in the meantime is try to increase our sphere of influence and promote blood and heritage ties among our thede. Leftism is pernicious and, for now, all-powerful. We should endeavor to outlast it and plan for its eventual fall from grace.
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time…
William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust
The Civil War / War Between the States / War of Secession is unquestionably the Main Event of Southern history, and even Southern identity. And it should be. As prophesied by wise men in the antebellum period, the War was a defining moment for the New World, and even, if I may, the entire Occident. Whether one considers it good or bad, Northern victory is the acknowledged foundation on which much of the modern world rests. The history of it reads like an epic drama – it’s the most written about event in American history, producing more than one book published per day since 1865. It simply possesses a huge amount of appeal for anyone with a modicum of interest in history.
This has both positive and negative effects for those of us who want to preserve and revive the Southern worldview. The positive effect is the Old South receives what amounts to a ton of free advertising. While just about all of it is anti-Southern, as they say, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” Likely a non-negligible number of people are attracted to the Southern viewpoint after coming into contact with all this talk about the War. This is beneficial and is a major reason why interest in the Confederacy remains relatively high (as compared to, well, any other losing side in history).
But it is the drawbacks which I wish to discuss here. For the pro-Southern camp, excessive emphasis on the War creates what I call the Confederacy Vortex. This is a sinkhole-like effect in which people are pulled into refighting the War in a historical context, to the detriment of preserving the principles for which they fought today. You likely know the types I mean – those who spend huge amounts of time arguing over the internet or elsewhere about the causes of the War, the way it was fought, etc. Essentially, they endlessly argue over who was right.
Of course, I believe that the Confederacy was right, and I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to convince others of this. I spent years trapped in the Confederacy Vortex; years which yielded little return and which would have been more productively spent on other studies. Not much more than a basic grasp of the history of the War is required to demonstrate the rightness of the Confederate cause (although coming to terms with slavery takes a bit more); the Vortex prevented me from doing anything meaningful with that knowledge. I simply had to spend my time reinforcing my positions again and again, rather than resting assured that my analyses were correct and expanding into other areas.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans is a good example of an organization trapped in the Confederacy Vortex. SCV proponents can and will defend the Confederacy from all assaults. But this overarching focus on the Confederacy to the detriment of other periods of Southern history encourages attempts to progressivize the Confederacy (for example- “Secession had nothing to do with slavery”). Restricting one’s focus to CSA-promotion requires one to try and adapt the Confederacy to whatever the prevailing winds of contemporary feeling happen to be. Hence “Rainbow Confederates.” One need look no further than SCV worship of figures like H.K. Edgerton – doubtless a good man, but it is delusional to think he should be the face of a Confederate organisation.
Another example is the book The South Was Right!, a sort of neo-Confederate historical manifesto. It’s been a long while since I’ve read it, and when I read it I was exactly the type of person at which this post is targeted. I remember agreeing with all the viewpoints which the book presented, but even then I was kind of annoyed; I felt it could do nothing more than preach to the choir. No doubt it won a few people over, but it certainly isn’t optimized for this purpose, with its gaudy cover and non-serious title. Not to say it isn’t a good book; but what has it done to improve our overall chances of success against the forces of modernity? Not much, in my estimation.
The thing which those caught in the Confederacy Vortex have in common is that they greatly reduce their ability to influence the future of the South in any meaningful way. They focus all of their energy on reliving and refighting one battle that has already been lost, rather than focusing on the war which we are in the process of losing. They stand in formation at Gettysburg while General Lee flees towards Appomattox. To fulfill our inherited obligation to our ancestors who died on those fields, we must work to understand the society from which they came, and try to revive the principles which underlay that society. This can only be accomplished by close and unfettered study of the entirety of Southern history.
Excessive emphasis on the War, when not relegated to pure historical interest, hinders our ability to understand our current struggle by way of reframing the entire dispute. True, the War was North vs. South, but a deeper understanding tells us it was in reality a battle of Left vs. Right. North vs. South, while not a completely inaccurate way to frame our modern struggle, is on the whole obsolete and insufficient for delineating our friends and enemies. The Left vs. Right dichotomy places the War in its proper context and sheds light on the greater conflict which started before the War and continues today.
Another way which the Confederacy Vortex confounds is that the short view of history which characterizes it emphasizes single individuals and events instead of the forces which drive them. For example, those in the Confederacy Vortex tend to consider Abraham Lincoln as a Bad Guy who was the author of the destruction of the South. While this view is not wrong, it is shallow in that it overlooks the forces which produced Lincoln and gave him his place in history: Leftism and liberalism. Lincoln was ultimately a placeholder, not a Great Man, not a true influencer of history. He was simply a representative of a more sinister force which survives and continues to wreak havoc today. Had Lincoln never lived, another would have filled his place; it would have changed nothing but minutia.
Lest my meaning be misconstrued: I am not saying “Forget about the Confederacy.” The Confederacy in nearly all respects embodied the Old Southern civilisation and therefore should be held in high esteem by all defenders of the principles of said civilisation. The problem arises when the Confederacy is emphasized as the end-all, be-all. In the final analysis, the Confederacy represents only four years of a struggle in which the South has been embroiled since 1789. There is a way to properly venerate our ancestors today, and it is assuredly not to continue to fighting their 150 year old battle. North vs. South has been lost; only a clean up crew remains. The war of Left vs. Right still rages; while our prospects aren’t looking bright, our chance, our opportunity to participate in this conflict lies before us still. On its face, the Confederacy Vortex can appear to be satisfying and worthwhile; the problem is that it doesn’t lead anywhere.
“Mainstream” Southerners today – that is, Southerners who are largely accepted by polite American society despite maintaining some overt Southern signalling – are quite the curious breed. Most are true thedish Southerners, born and raised in culturally strong Southern areas. Perhaps strangely, most must necessarily actively choose to retain their Southerness; on television, in books, and in school, Southerners are almost without exception presented as the Other. This awkward self-awareness presents the intelligent Southerner with a choice to be made very early on in life: actively resist the often unconscious impulse to suppress Southerness, or actively purge Southern characteristics which may out one as Other. Fortunately, more than a few choose the former.
However, this presents additional difficulties. One who hesitates to jettison all Southern signalling will often be made an object of derision; harmless joking at best, or outright ostracizing at worst. The strong-willed will nonetheless hold the course, to their credit. Unfortunately, even for the non-history-minded there is one large spectre which will always hang over them, preventing them from going too far in overt endorsement of their homeland and their ancestors – racist slavery. The sin of sins.
This creates a strange creature. The mainstream Southerner can only stay mainstream by maintaining a highly irregular, psychologically speaking, interpretation of his people’s history. He can appreciate only a very limited and self-flagellating view of the past. He may endorse his grandfather as a good man, perhaps his great-grandfather, but to go farther back than that is to get into some very morally murky water – racism! the Klan! Jim Crow! lynchings! and ultimately… slavery! How does the mainstream Southerner come to terms with this?
In short, he doesn’t. He is forced to divorce himself from his not-so-ancient ancestors, in much the same way a regular American is divorced from his European origins. To him, the slaveowners were not us; they were fundamentally different, perhaps a mutation of some sort; a primitive or maybe degenerative people with whom we only bear a passing resemblance. We share a geographical region and maybe some blood – if I could count how many times I’ve heard said “Of course my family didn’t own slaves” – at most. This may be all well and good, were it true. In reality, we are them. The slaveowners, the Klansmen, the Confederates are our close ancestors and differ from the modern Southerner in few, if any, appreciable ways. To study them honestly is to study ourselves. To divorce from them is to confound our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit. Further – it is to ensure the ultimate destruction of our worldview.
To even ask the question – was slavery actually an evil practice? Was Jim Crow segregation driven by anything other than blind hatred? Could there have been – gulp – noble Klansmen? To even contemplate the question is to reveal yourself as not simply the Other, but the Enemy. You are one of those vile racists who have polluted the Southern image! The mainstream Southerner is practically obligated to battle against The Asker of Questions if he has any hope of retaining his mainstream status. This creates a strong incentive against the Asking of Questions and ensures that the Southern worldview, deprived of historical nourishment, will continue to fade.
Slavery, Jim Crow, KKK, etc. are currently used as cudgels to bludgeon mainstream Southerners from straying too far outside of the progressivist interpretation of the South by preventing those Southerners from even questioning it in the first place. “Oh, you think the Old South had some points in its favor? I guess you want to bring back slavery!” Normal people don’t want to be accused of these things and thus find it is far easier to just. Not. Ask. Questions.
How to undermine the power of these cudgels? It’s quite simple, but it requires two things not so easily attained: a willingness to be forcibly removed from the mainstream, and an truly open mind. They are both necessary to allow oneself freedom of movement to investigate these matters in full and gain confidence in your conclusions. Let’s say you find that slavery was, in the end, as great of a moral evil as Garrison would have you believe. Even though your view of history may not have radically changed, the very act of giving Fitzhugh, Hammond, Dabney, and Bledsoe a fair hearing will magically remove the power of the cudgels to influence your thought in any direction whatsoever. This assumes, of course, that you don’t use your newfound perspective to empower the cudgels’ usage on others.
Having performed this same procedure, as near as I might, I have arrived at nearly the opposite conclusion. I may say in honesty that the cudgels have no power over me. Of course, my views are as far from mainstream as you can get, but I may posit that I’ve acquired enough perspective to be able to intrigue people I converse with enough so that they begin questioning some of their deeply-held beliefs. Our initial task with regards to recruitment should be to promote the simple Asking of Questions, rather than immediately winning all of our acquaintances over to our side. To do this ably requires a strong knowledge and perspective on both the Leftist and Rightist interpretations of Southern history.
For those interested in sources, I may refer you to my Recommended Reading page. Additionally, I have a How to Become a Southern Reactionary post in the works, but I will have to put it off for the time being, as I’ll be travelling for the next week. See y’all when I get back.
They habitually address us as if nothing but the purblind ignorance of the very first elements of moral science could shield our minds against the force of their irresistible arguments. In the overflowing exuberance of their philanthropy, they take pity of our most lamentable moral darkness, and graciously condescend to teach us the very A B Cs of ethical philosophy!
Albert Taylor Bledsoe
Some may wonder at the perhaps excessive emphasis placed on history at this blog. There are two reasons for this: one, it’s the area I know best and am most interested in studying; and two, an accurate picture of history is absolutely critical to understanding the principles of Reaction and translating them to our contemporary age, especially for Southerners.
Because we have been relatively effective at retarding the onslaught of Progressive infection over the past century and a half, Southerners as a thede can still trace our cultural lineage back to tried-and-true Reactionary ancestors – dedicated warriors, wise theologians, and patriarchal slaveholders. The goal of Southern Reaction is to preserve and reinvigorate that tradition; it cannot be done while the bastardized liberal interpretation of Southern history remains promulgated.
Southerners are tied to their history like no one else in the US, maybe in the entire Occident. Mention the South, and it is historical images which come to mind. Slaves picking cotton; hillbillies making moonshine; “Whites Only” water fountains; Pickett’s Charge; Robert E. Lee; George Wallace. To revive the Southern tradition necessitates ridding our history of the foul stench of liberal revisionism. Confederate General Cleburne, like most of his contemporaries, possessed the mysterious crystal ball of wisdom:
Every man should endeavor to understand the meaning of subjugation before it is too late… It means the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern schoolteachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, and our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision…
The premise of Southern Reaction with regard to our history is really quite simple: our ancestors as a whole were at least as possessed of their intellectual and moral faculties as any other society in the West. Thus, “evils” like slavery and Jim Crow cannot simply be written off as “Well, they didn’t know better” as many modern Southerners are prone to do. God does not countenance moral relativism; we have examined our history in light of God’s eternal laws and, instead of evil and darkness, we found goodness and light.
Thus, one of my primary goals here at LTC is to deconstruct the liberal interpretation of Southern history, bit-by-bit, and present what I believe is the “correct” view of history. A caveat:
While I don’t claim to be without bias I refuse to fall into the trap of ancestor-worship; I strive to make balanced judgments on the good and bad aspects of our history and (dormant) civilisation. There are a great many of both. An accurate picture of our past is absolutely critical to both the proper vindication (and overlooked criticism) of our ancestors and the assessment of how we might utilize our tradition to influence the future of our people. I said in a previous post that we take a critical view the Southern tradition so that we might trim the fat, so to speak; while that may be a bit hard to believe, coming from a man who defends Southern slavery, it is nonetheless true. Once completely scrubbed of Leftist Narrative-building influence, by which it’s been beset since 1865, Southern history takes on quite a different shape than anyone nowadays – even most Southern Nationalists and neo-Confederates – is willing to promote.
We acknowledge the greatness of Jefferson and Madison while fully appreciating the dire results which adoption of their liberal-egalitarian heresies brings. We view slavery as overall beneficial for both blacks and whites, and Jim Crow as an unfortunate but necessary reaction to the destruction of the civilising influence of slavery. We see the New South as traitors within the gates, working a pernicious influence, modernizing and destroying the traditional South from the inside. We see the peasant populism endemic to 20th century Southern politics as a negative result of the removal of the old aristocracy, undoubtedly the greatest calamity which our people have suffered. We regard the Old South, circa 1850, as the pinnacle of the young Southern civilisation and thus work to understand the principles which undergirded their worldview so that we might again return the South to the road of true progress – civilisation building. You will find an honest assessment of these principles almost nowhere nowadays; therefore we look to primary sources as well as the titans of Southern traditionalist conservatism.
Permit me a quick plug: If we were able to measure and graph Leftist influence in the South from the American Revolution to the modern day, it would look something like an inverted bell curve, with the 1850-1860 decade in the middle, lowest point. The South at that time was barreling towards a flat-out rejection of the Enlightenment in favor of the feudal, hierarchical view of society which characterized the European medieval period. No one illustrates this “Reactionary Enlightenment” more ably than Virginian George Fitzhugh, and thus I have spoken of him as the leading historical representative of Southern Reaction. Anyone calling themselves a Southern Reactionary, or interested in our views, needs to read Sociology for the South and Cannibals All! We’ll be here when you get back.
Anyway, back to my original point. Here we seek to set the history of the South aright, judging by the principles which stimulated Western Civilisation to towering heights, not those which are responsible for its recent degeneracy. You will find little, if any, genuinely original thought on this blog; I’m neither smart, creative, or well-read enough to pull that off. Like, perhaps, many of you, I’m a pretty simple country boy who is looking to do his ancestors justice and work for a better world for his descendants. Probably some mistakes, and hopefully some progress, will be made.
The following is taken from the Introduction to Cotton is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments, published by a leading group of Southern conservatives in 1860. The unnamed author here succinctly covers some of the characteristics of slavery as practiced in the South. This is important because the question of slavery is at the heart of any analysis of Southern history, and it is wrought with a deep well of preconceived notions that don’t hold up upon closer inspection. I invite all to peruse the work at the above link and compare with a leading anti-slavery work on the subject, Hinton Rower Helper’s The Impending Crisis. Highlighted passages bolded by me.
In the following pages, the words slave and slavery are not used in the sense commonly understood by the abolitionists. With them these terms are contradistinguished from servants and servitude. According to their definition, a slave is merely a “chattel” in a human form; a thing to be bought and sold, and treated worse than a brute; a being without rights, privileges, or duties. Now, if this is a correct definition of the word, we totally object to the term, and deny that we have any such institution as slavery among us. We recognize among us no class, which, as the abolitionists falsely assert, that the Supreme Court decided “had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” The words slave and servant are perfectly synonymous, and differ only in being derived from different languages; the one from Sclavonic, the other from the Latin, just as feminine and womanly are respectively of Latin and Saxon origin. The Saxon synonym thrall has become obsolete in our language, but some of its derivatives, as thralldom, are still in use. In Greek the same idea was expressed by doulos, and in Hebrew by ebed. The one idea of servitude, or of obedience to the will of another, is accurately expressed by all these terms. He who wishes to see this topic thoroughly examined, may consult “Fletcher’s Studies on Slavery.”
The word slavery is used in the following discussions, to express the condition of the African race in our Southern States, as also in other parts of the world, and in other times. This word, as defined by most writers, does not truly express the relation which the African race in our country, now bears to the white race. In some parts of the world, the relation has essentially changed, while the word to express it has remained the same. In most countries of the world, especially in former times, the persons of the slaves were the absolute property of the master, and might be used or abused, as caprice or passion might dictate. Under the Jewish law, a slave might be beaten to death by his master, and yet the master go entirely unpunished, unless the slave died outright under his hand. Under the Roman law, slaves had no rights whatever, and were scarcely recognized as human beings; indeed, they were sometimes drowned in fish-ponds, to feed the eels. Such is not the labor system among us. As an example of faulty definition, we will adduce that of Paley: “Slavery,” says he, “is an obligation to labor for the benefit of the master, without the contract or consent of the servant.” Waiving, for the present, the accuracy of this definition, as far as it goes, we would remark that it is only half of the definition; the only idea here conveyed is that of compulsory and unrequited labor. Such is not our labor-system. Though we prefer the term slave, yet if this be its true definition, we much protest against its being applied to our system of African servitude, and insist that some other term shall be used. The true definition of the term, as applicable to the domestic institution in the Southern States, is as follows: Slavery is the duty and obligation of the slave to labor for the mutual benefit of both master and slave, under a warrant to the slave of protection, and a comfortable subsistence, under all circumstances. The person of the slave is not property, no matter what the fictions of the law may say; but the right to his labor is property, and may be transferred like any other property, or as the right to the services of a minor or an apprentice may be transferred. Nor is the labor of the slave solely for the benefit of the master, but for the benefit of all concerned; for himself, to repay the advances made for his support in childhood, for present subsistence, and for guardianship and protection, and to accumulate a fund for sickness, disability, and old age. The master, as the head of the system, has a right to the obedience and labor of the slave, but the slave has also his mutual rights in the master; the right of protection, the right of counsel and guidance, the right of subsistence, the right of care and attention in sickness and old age. He has also a right in his master as the sole arbiter in all his wrongs and difficulties, and as a merciful judge and dispenser of law to award the penalty of his misdeeds. Such is American slavery, or as Mr. Henry Hughes happily terms it, “Warranteeism.”
Bottom Line Up Front: Read it for a good overview of the liberal Southern tradition (with complementary annoying liberal perspective) of the antebellum period. Go here to buy.
The Mind of the Old South, published in 1967, serves, for the Reactionary, as a moderately-detailed study of the liberal tradition in the South between the turn of the 19th century to the War Between the States, with emphasis on the 1830-1860 ‘Reactionary Enlightenment.’ Eaton, a Southern liberal from North Carolina, strives hard to justify his viewpoint of the Old South, but ultimately his task is too great and his analysis devolves into passive-aggressive sniping couched in strong cognitive dissonance.
The problem which Eaton cannot overcome is that his dual goals, to highlight the nobility, virtue, and open-mindedness of Southern liberals, and simultaneously the “stifling” conservative culture of the Old South, cannot be reconciled. Either his examples serve one stereotype while contradicting the other, or he finds that his subjects are, quite inexplicably to him, liberal in one aspect of their thinking, like business or education, while conservative in others, like slavery or religion. For example, he finds that although Southern businessmen possessed liberal aspects “that arose out of the very nature of business,” as a whole they failed to “emancipate themselves from agrarian ways of thinking… They were much closer to agricultural and agrarian ideals than were Northern businessmen.”
The word “emancipate” demonstrates the author’s biases admirably. For him, the contemporary North is the golden standard by which to judge the Southern civilisation. Areas where the South differed from the Northern ways of thinking are regarded as moral and intellectual failures. This is the defining characteristic of all liberal and Leftist histories of the South.
It does not occur to Eaton that the Southern conservative worldview was held by men just as much possessed of their intellectual and moral faculties as any Southern, Northern, or European liberals. For him, the act of displaying sympathy or allegiance to any aspect of the Old South is a failing which he assigns to the malevolent conservative influences of Southern society. Either he was an honest historian beset by unconscious biases or a dishonest one actively seeking to appeal to the prevailing Leftist interpretations of history of his time.
The latter view is perhaps enhanced by his choices for archetypes of the liberal and conservative Southern worldviews, and the language he uses to describe these representatives. For the former, he chooses John Hartwell Cocke, “an exemplar of the liberal facet of the Southern mind of the antebellum period.” Eaton spends fifteen pages gushing over Cocke, “one of the few social reformers that the Old South produced.” He assigned the driving force for this impulse to Cocke’s religiousness, calling him a “Puritan cavalier” who crusaded against alcohol and even tobacco use and pursued “an enlightened plan of gradually removing the slaves from the state” and promoted the education of slaves. Eaton says,
The failure of General Cocke to carry out his enlightened program of reform illustrates the difficulties of being a liberal in the Old South. The cards were stacked against the liberals then just as they have been in most periods of history. The inertia opposed to change was extraordinarily powerful in the Old South. The overwhelmingly rural condition of society, the existence of slavery, the masses of illiterate and provincial voters, the strongly orthodox religion of the people were allied forces to defeat liberalism.
Of course, we can easily infer Eaton’s proscribed antidote from this passage – to urbanize society, free the slaves, educate the voters, and destroy the religion. These things have now been done, and we are living the resultant dysfunction.
As Cocke’s conservative counterpart, Eaton chooses the flawed James Henry Hammond, a man of “unsurpassed intellectual equipment” who failed to live up to his potential due to his adherence to the Southern way of thinking. Eaton goes on to conduct a detailed (and not wholly undeserved) character assassination campaign:
His fortune made him indolent and gave him the leisure to indulge his immoral tendencies, his self-pity, and his morbid taste for being sick… Ever ambitious and self-seeking, Hammond accepted the values of the conservative and aristocratic society into which he had been born.
What’s interesting is that Hammond was not born into the upper-crust of the aristocracy, coming from the less-refined upcountry of South Carolina and marrying into the planter class. Cocke was in fact more immersed in the aristocratic mindset; but, of course, he refused to “accept those [debased] values.” Eaton fails to rise above the petty attacks Hammond’s personality, simply attributing his personal failures to the intellectually and morally impoverished state of the society in which he lived.
Hammond was certainly a Southern conservative, and certainly a flawed man. Why did Eaton choose him to represent the Southern conservative mindset as a whole? Eaton spends very few words on George Fitzhugh, Albert Bledsoe, R.L. Dabney, John C. Calhoun, or any of the perfectly honorable defenders of the Southern tradition. It is easy to see why – to shed more light on these figures damages the carefully constructed narrative of the Southern mind which Eaton is attempting to put together.
The cognitive dissonance mentioned earlier reaches its highest crescendo in the chapter entitled “The Mind of the Southern Negro.” Here the author meets with quite the dilemma – he attempts to show both that slavery “greatly retarded the normal development of Negroes in the South” and that “a considerable number of slave and free Negroes in the South… were able to rise above the general level of the culture of their race and confute the prevailing Sambo image.” Each example given for one hypothesis works against the other. The true story is that slavery generally aided in civilizing the Africans, who were undoubtedly better off than if they had been left as slaves in Africa, and the “remarkable individuals” which Eaton highlights were indeed able to use their proximity to white society, and the humaneness of Southern slavery, to capitalize on their natural gifts.
Eaton uses as an example Reverend John Chavis – a truly remarkable man of which I’ve unfortunately not heard of before, and who does more to hurt his hypothesis than help it. Chavis, a free Negro born in North Carolina, was educated at Washington Academy (now Washington and Lee University) in Virginia, and likely also studied at Princeton. Being perfectly free to travel where he might (except, of course, those Northwestern states which had outlawed Negro immigration) he chose to return to North Carolina to preach and teach. He went on to teach both black and white pupils – including some of the most influential and prominent political leaders of his state, referring to US Senators and former students as “My Son” in letters. Unfortunately but necessarily, his school was shut down in the aftermath of the Nat Turner slave revolt, but North Carolina still paid him his salary until his death. Wiki states that he was killed by a mob of whites, though I doubt there is evidence for that other than “local legend.” Eaton does not mention it.
The society which capitalized on Rev. Chavis’s gifts, and which Eaton wishes to characterize as inherently backward, was defended by Rev. Chavis himself. He was strongly opposed to abolitionism, writing, “I am clearly of the opinion that immediate emancipation would be to entail the greatest earthly curse upon my bretheren [sic] according to the flesh that could be conferred upon them especially in a Country like ours.” He goes on to invalidate the slaves’ feelings on the matter: “I suppose if they knew I said this they would be ready to take my life, but as I wish them well I feel no disposition to see them any more miserable than they are.”
The Mind of the Old South is not all bad. It is a good, if slanted, history of the liberal Southern tradition of the antebellum period, and very readable if you can overlook the subtle unsubstantiated and tiresome language employed to denigrate Old Southern society. It is simply another in a long line of works dedicated to psychoanalyzing “the Southern mind” which has apparently perplexed liberal historians for decades. Like the rest of these works, the conclusion is that “the Southern mind” is backward, overly emotional, stupid, or worse. And like the rest, this conclusion is attained through an inability to question Enlightenment notions of How Things Should Be accompanied by some impressive mental gymnastics.