The other day I came across this sad piece from the online publication Bitter Southerner. Read their About page. Good grief. It struck me that these are just the latest manifestations of the nearly century-and-a-half old New South movement, which has sought since its inception to modernize and progressivize the South. What started as well-meaning but misguided efforts to lift the South out of postwar poverty has morphed, quite inexorably, into a full-fledged Leftist effort to stamp out what little remains of the Southern Tradition, to reduce the South to nothing more than a place with warm weather and a few culinary peculiarities. The above piece, entitled “Dixie is Dead” clearly demonstrates the culmination of this movement – something Rightist Southerners have predicted all along. I thought it might be beneficial to return to my “Roots of Southern Leftism” series to take a look at how this movement first impressed itself on the Southern psyche.
On the heels of the destructive War Between the States and the fight to overthrow Reconstruction, the crushed and dying aristocracy could not overcome the huge economic challenges. Poverty and despair were the rule of the day in the South. C. Vann Woodward tells us that in 1880 the per capita wealth in the South amounted to only 27% that of the Northeastern states. One Yankee walking the streets of New Orleans remarked, “These faces, these faces. One sees them everywhere; on the street; at the theatre; in the salon; in the cars; and pauses for a moment, struck with the impression of entire despair.” This poverty seemingly demanded a reorientation – some direction, any direction, forward out of humiliating defeat and destitution. The essentially Progressive “New South” movement filled the vacuum in short order.
Orator and journalist Henry Grady represented the earliest champion of the New South. New South proponents tended to emphasize the bright new possibilities offered by the breakdown of the aristocratical hegemony; in an 1886 speech, Grady said, “There was a South of slavery and secession – that South is dead. There is now a South of union and freedom – that South, thank God, is living, breathing, and growing every hour.” He urged the South to turn away from the agrarian roots which provided the foundation of the Southern civilisational model and turn towards industry; his leadership provided the impetus for Georgia’s iron production to quadruple between 1880 and 1887 and coal production to quintuple between 1870 and 1887 [source].
Still, the earliest New Southerners like Grady weren’t very much different from the aging apologists and Southern conservatives. In 1890, he wrote, “Anarchy, socialism – that leveling spirit that defies government and denies God – has no hold upon the South.” In The Southern Tradition at Bay, Richard Weaver writes,
Speaking at Augusta, Georgia, [Grady] urged his listeners to invite only such as would come “to confirm and not to estrange, the simple faith in which we have been reared, and which we should transmit unsullied to our children.” He was glad that the homogenous character of the South “has left us the straight and simple faith of our fathers, untainted by heresy and unweakened by speculation.”… Apart from the disavowal of sectionalism, which was certainly nothing new in 1886, Grady thus stands much nearer to the apologists than to the liberals and reformers; and his disposition to see the future of the South in some kind of sublimated reunion with the nation should not be allowed to obscure his belief that the section offered “the last hope of saving the old fashion in our religious and political government.”
Despite his words, Grady is today accurately reckoned as the forerunner to the New South movement. He ultimately sought to conform the Southern tradition, however slightly, to the modern world, economically and ideologically if not socially, and thus blazed the trail over which more liberal elements would soon trod. Grady died in 1889, only months before this next wave came on the scene.
April 1890 saw the publication of Why the Solid South? or Reconstruction and its Results, written by fourteen spokesmen to include Zebulon Vance, Robert Stiles, and Bernard J. Sage. Dedicated specifically to “the business men of the North,” it was primarily designed to win over Northern industry while simultaneously ward off any future Northern attempts to influence the Southern political realm. Weaver writes,
“This book is more truly a document of the New South than the speeches of Grady, for whatever else may be said of the work, it was free from the old Southern rallying cries, and it was designed frankly to appeal to the self-interest of a business class. The authors were men who had been in the thick of the affairs they described, and they believed that they could win their case by making Northern business men, whose pecuniary stake in the South was growing, realize what Reconstruction had cost in money, in public morale, and in cultural retardation.”
Their wealth obliterated and influence waning due to the growing strength of the Southern Populists, the aristocracy was witness to the beginnings of the rise of bourgeois class, opportunistic, materialistic, and beholden to moneyed Northern interests. Within a few decades, this class would gain economic hegemony in much of the South – one study showed that about eighty percent of early Southern industrialists were of nonslaveowning parentage (thirteen percent were of Northern birth). The removal of the aristocracy as the binding glue of Southern society caused a rupture by which class warfare was introduced. Poor whites allied with this new bourgeois were politically pitted against the old planters allied with (often by coercion borne of desperation) Black Belt Negroes and whatever lower class whites were in their purview. It was a struggle that the aristocrats were destined to lose. In Lanterns on the Levee, William Alexander Percy informs us of the breed of politician which characterized the former group:
The most prominent politician in Mississippi at that time was James K. Vardaman, a kindly, vain demagogue unable to think, and given to emotions he considered noble… At the slightest opportunity he would quote Bobby Burns fervently and with appreciation, but his oratory was bastard emotionalism and raven-tressed rant. For political platform he advertised his love of the common people… He stood for the poor white against the “nigger”- those were his qualifications as a statesman. He was very popular in Mississippi; they called him the Great White Chief.
Father rather liked Vardaman – he was such a splendid ham actor, his inability to reason was so contagious, it was so impossible to determine where his idealism ended and his demagoguery began… A likable man, as a poolroom wit is likable, but surely not one to set in the councils of the nation… Vardaman stood for all [Father] considered vulgar and dangerous.
Nor was the New South attitude of overturning the Old Order restricted to the industrialists. New South proponents waxed gaily on the opportunities that lay in wait for the small Southern farmer, if only they came together in opposition of the aristocracy. In Origins of the New South, C. Vann Woodward writes:
It was an inspired vision, and it represented everything that the Southern farmer was not and had not. But the vision was made of the tough stuff of myths and was destined to endure. The new myth fulfilled the old Jeffersonian dream of an independent yeomanry, self-sufficient lords of a few acres. Later elaborations pictured this yeomanry “breaking up the plantation system,” or “wiping out the last vestige of the planting aristocracy,” and vindicating the Civil War as the bringer of “economic democracy” to the South. “Emancipation freed the poor whites more than it did the Negro!”
Here the self-proclaimed oracles of the New South betrayed their ultimate loyalties. They appealed to that most basic instinct – the lust for power – in a class ill-equipped to possess it responsibly, while simultaneously excoriating the old way of life which had sustained the upcountry yeoman farmer for more than a century. They denounced the “backwardness” and anti-intellectual tendencies of these Crackers, insisting that they must begin treating farming as a business requiring a “liberalized state of mind freed from narrow local concerns.” According to one Louisiana farmer, “it has become fashionable for every quill-driver in the land to inform us, ‘that we are not abreast of the age, that we don’t know how to farm.’”
Meanwhile, according to census figures the number of large plantations actually increased during this time period, though they were of shrunken size. Postwar Louisiana saw a decrease in the number of total farms, with a simultaneous almost threefold increase in the number of plantations – whereas “the state had more farms than plantations in 1860, it was dominated by agrarian monopoly in 1900.” Woodward again:
Moreover, the survival and expansion of the plantation did not mean the preservation of the ante-bellum “plantation system.” It was often the plantation without system, at least in cotton culture – the plantation minus such scant efficiency, planning, responsible supervision, and soil conservation as the old system provided. It was minus the ordinary minimum of economic virtues associated with proprietorship, for the plantation was usually minus even an owner who lived on its soil and spent the profits of another’s labor on his own family. The evils of land monopoly, absentee ownership, soil mining, and the one-crop system, once associated with and blamed upon slavery, did not disappear with that institution but were, instead, aggravated, intensified, and multiplied.
Far from being uplifted by utopian New South plans for the future, the upcountry yeoman farmer was devastated; those not among the huge multitude driven into wage slavery in horrible Northern-esque factories (the number of textile mills in South Carolina increased from twelve in 1880 to 115 in 1900, then to 184 in 1920 [source]) were often subsumed into the capitalistic sharecropper system in which the new plantation owners possessed ever diminishing amounts of the noblesse oblige that characterized the antebellum planter class. “Progress” indeed.
Even in its infancy the New South movement caused irreparable harm to the old order and way of life, falling prey to the age-old promises of Progressivism and Leftism. It achieved its goal, quite plainly – the South was modernized, achieved “progress”, and stamped what was left of the old aristocracy into the dust. Of course, they were ignorant of where it would ultimately lead – our dystopian world of McDonald’s and iPhones, gay marriage and fat positivity, and literal monuments to Satan we see about us today. Had they been able to see this, there is little doubt that they would have turned from their path of destruction; therein lies the lesson for us today. Leftism is a downhill snowball, take one step towards it and you’ve taken ten more before you know it; and those steps which you don’t take your children no doubt will.