I am 77 and I recently started to remember things that used to be commonplace but that my children and grandchildren have never seen:
Snuff sticks and spittoons
Mule wagons in town
Greasy hair tonic for men and boys on Sundays.
When soft drinks came only in real glass bottles and you had to reach down in delightfully cold water to get one
Cotton fields everywhere and up to the edge of the road. Cotton presses in every town of any size that was on the railroad.
When newspapers were independent local voices
Real Southern orators with white coats and hats
When I saw my first foreign car (a Volkswagen)
When I had my first pizza (I was 18)
When the county courthouse was free to everyone and not a government fortress
When rolled down white socks were fashionable for girls
When college girls had to sign out and in
When college students lived without cars, apartments, and electronics.
Bib overalls worn by working men and boys, and in summer without shirts
Going barefoot most of the time in the summer
Tin roofs (delightfully restful in the rain)
Most roads were dirt except main ones.
Boys played with BB guns and lighter fluid
Boys spent all day unsupervised in the woods with rifles
Boys played sports, mowed lawns, and rode bicycles without helmets (and often without shoes)
When gas was 35 cents a gallon and no woman would be seen near a gas pump.
Everybody who lived in the country had multiple dogs that mainly slept under the house.
There was no television, no computers and only party-line telephones with the speaker you had to stand up to.
Nobody you knew had ever sent or received a long-distance call. Too expensive. We had “air mail” for important communications.
Nobody you knew had ever ridden on an airplane, unless in the military.
When a cup of coffee was a nickel or dime depending on how upscale you wanted to go.
When the weekly wash had to be “put through the ringer” and hung outdoors to dry.
Trolley cars powered by overhead wires.
Door deliveries by the milkman, the ice man (for non-electric ice boxes), the coal truck, and the telegraph boy.
Grammaw making biscuits every day from scratch.
Wagons taking cured tobacco to the auction house.
When hot dogs were 10 cents and milkshakes a quarter, along with 10 cent comic books. So, including bus fare you could have a great day downtown Saturday for one 50 cent piece and a nickel. Sometimes Grampa gave you an extra dime for another comic book, saving you from the tough decision between “Smilin’ Jack” and “Terry and the Pirates.” (Nobody, white or black) ever imagined a child alone downtown would be harmed.)
The presidential election of 2016 gave promise to be a watershed in American politics. Donald Trump appeared, a non-politician and rich enough to support his own campaign without selling himself to the usual special interests. He collected all the right enemies. He deflated a whole platoon of Republican celebrities down to their actual pigmy size. He vanquished them by something so simple you wonder why it is not used more often---by speaking to the people about real issues rather than spouting the near-identical and meaningless advertising slogans of his opponents. Something not done in presidential politics since George Wallace a half century ago. Amazing how far just a little bit of truth can go when inserted into the hullabaloo of lies and evasions that is American public discourse.
Most importantly, Trump inspired a despondent American people, nearly resigned to the vanishing of democracy, with hope that the system might develop some responsiveness to their beliefs and interests. Much of the people’s enthusiasm remains. The question is---is it any longer justifiable?
At the time of the election I published a little book called Annals of the Stupid Party: Republicans Before Trump. This book acknowledged the potential for bringing to power a populist revolt should Trump be elected. But the burden of the book was the lesson that Trump’s greatest obstacle to meaningful change would be the Republican Party itself. As I cataloged historically, the party is not a political party but an election machine. Aside from protecting and enhancing great wealth it has no ideas, values, or principles. It exists to provide power and perks to those who participate in the higher levels of its machinery. Its stock-in-trade, long successful, is to position itself as the decent middle-class alternative to Democratic radicalism. That stock is not selling so well anymore, because the customers are being squashed into the proletariat by the policies of the Democrat/Republican party, the leaders of which disagree on nothing important.
With such an institutional nature, it is no puzzle why the Republican party has no real interest in and has never put up any serious opposition to any leftist revolutionary initiative in American society. It is simply the “me-too” side of the one party Duopoly that governs---a.k.a. The Deep State and The Swamp. The election of Trump was only a beginning, as I and every other serious supporter believed. Ilana Mercer, in her book The Trump Revolution, wrote that the hope was not so much in Trump as in a process which he had begun.
I predicted several years before 2016 that a bold independent candidate might appear, one who could reach the people over the jamming of the media. The first requirement for such a person was to find and appoint people who shared the populist vision rather than the usual Republican hacks lined up for office. Trump failed in this first requirement and that has come near to destroying him from the get-go. No cadre of dedicated helpers was found. They were there, but they were never identified or promoted. I take no pleasure in having anticipated this. I see now that it was nearly inevitable.
We are now well into the first Trump administration and the government is still full of Republican hacks and Democratic holdovers. Federal district attorneys are doing little or nothing to curb illegal immigration or to prosecute the crimes of Hillary Clinton, other leading Democrats, and antifa mobs, not to mention the reported millions of illegal alien voters. (If Republicans had done a fraction of such evil deeds, they would all be in court in handcuffs right now.) People high up in the bureaucracy are sabotaging the elected President. Goldman Sachs clusters in the administration as in every previous one. Republicans get their corporate tax break but not the repeal of Obamacare, the issue that all the Republican grassroots was agreed upon.
The Swamp has not been drained. It is a massive and daunting job that is still to be done. The appointment of a couple of preppie Bush Republicans to the Supreme Court means little. That trick has been played so many times it is laughable. The misbehavior and radicalisation of the Left in recent months has led to predictions of increased Republican power after the November 2018 elections. Perhaps; but this will mean nothing unless the right kind of Republicans are elected. It is argued that the Kavanaugh affair has destroyed Never-Trumpism in the party. It remains to be seen who has conquered who.
The two magisterial planks of Trump’s platform were fixing the immigration catastrophe and toning down American global imperialism, especially the deranged hatred of Russia that serves no American purpose. On the immigration issue, although he has accomplished some change of focus, what has actually been done amounts to a drop in the bucket.
On the tempering of “democratic” imperialism nobody can really know what is up. Trump has made some truly statesmanlike moves, such as the opening to North Korea, and has perhaps avoided war by allowing the vicious neocons who he has appointed to the highest posts in his administration to enjoy useless saber-rattling. The danger here is that Trump, like Nixon and Reagan, will forget the domestic base that elected them and become absorbed in the game of foreign policy. That game means that the American people are no longer of any importance except as a base for an international contest that has nothing to do with their wishes or welfare. It is a great temptation for a President---a role of worldwide leadership instead of the strife and drudgery of internal reform. War is always a ready tool in the arsenal of a threatened Establishment.
Trump is thought of as a fighter, but he has not fought where it counts. I am not impressed by Tweets (although people more politically knowledgeable than me tell me it is his great strength). But tweets concern political party battles, not vital long term issues They do not substitute for frank confrontation of his enemies before the people. A revolutionary disintegration of American society is being carried out by the Deep State. Deals do not substitute for fighting for a real agenda. We hoped for a statesman and got a salesman. Of course, in justice we must admit that Trump more than any other President has faced an unprecedentedly hostile and dishonest media, not to mention a population with so many people with a childishly self-referential idea of politics. But so far he has reproached the media (and the Deep State) only as unscrupulous oppositionists. He must confront them as a revolutionary movement that is destroying the American fabric, which is its intention.
Earlier, it seemed entirely possible that by not fighting his real enemies Trump might be ejected from office on a technicality, with the collaboration of his own party leaders, as was Nixon. He seems to have succeeded at least for a time and in some respects in getting the support of the Republican Establishment. The populist appetite for reform has been thrown a few crumbs, but its hunger is intense enough that it may yet break out in a form more forceful.
Anyone who has been paying attention has heard many times the assertion that the flag of the Southern Confederacy is equivalent to the banner of the Nazi German Reich. That this idea should gain any credit at all is a sign of how debased American public discourse has become by ignorance, deceit, and hatred.
To make an obvious point: The Confederacy fought a defensive war against invasion. It had no design to rule others or exploit their resources---only wished to be let alone. Nazi Germany was a militarist state, dedicated to a boastful, bullying, brutal conquest of other peoples. Rather like the U.S. Army in 1861—1865.
Another obvious point. Nazi Germany was a regimented totalitarian state. On the other hand, a number of observers have suggested that the Southern people were too loosely governed and individualistic to accept the strong central authority that was needed to win their war against a larger aggressive state organized for conquest. In this respect the Confederacy was the last Jeffersonian regime in America.
The Nazi analogy rests on the idea that both the Confederacy and Germany were “racist” states. The term “racist” has become so elastic and pejorative that it is no longer used by honest writers. History and ordinary observation indicate a vast variety and gradation of the “racist” ideas that the various races of mankind have had about each other, many of them involving notions of significant differences and superiority/inferiority.
If “racist” means in this connection that the Confederacy generally assumed an attitude of “white supremacy,” it is true. This tells us very little. In the sense intended the overwhelming majority of white Europeans and Americans were white supremacists from the first contacts with Africa in the 16th century until well into the 20th century. Abraham Lincoln expressed this idea several times. Many of his supporters did so frequently and firmly.
By the time of the War Between the States, the South had been a biracial society with more than two centuries of adjustment to that situation. Certainly by that time, the widespread attitude of the South toward the blacks was paternalistic. It was an attitude assumed in everyday living. Unlike Yankees and Germans, Southerners did not make “racist” ideologies. Healthy black children proliferated in the South at a time when half the white children of New York City died before the age of five.
It is well to remember that until World War I, when factory labour was needed, the number of African American people who lived outside the South was very small---and moving North was discouraged. Undoubtedly one of the North’s motives in the War Between the States was to keep the black people in the South and out of the North. In the midst of the war the Radical Republican abolitionist governors of Massachusetts and Illinois fiercely protested the admission of a small number of freed slaves into their states. Governor Andrew of Massachusetts was certain that black people would not be happy there and would be better off in the South.
Yet another bootlegged assumption in support of the Confederate “racist” theory is that the war was being fought to emancipate the slaves and therefore was against “racism.” This is obviously untrue. Emancipation (partial) became a goal as a war measure after the conflict had assumed titanic proportions and seemed to Lincoln unwinnable. A number of the scrawlers of graffiti on Confederate monuments have declared them to be offensive as symbols against “racial equality.” Emancipation, tainted as it was, was not driven by desire for racial equality. In a sense it was a support to “racism,” indicating a lack of interest in the black people except as tools of conquest.
Emancipation of millions presented a tremendous problem for American society and particularly for African Americans who faced a daunting change of conditions and a catastrophic decline of everyday living standards that had compared favourably to those of Northern and European workers. It is evident that the emancipators had little interest in racial equality until after the war when they discovered the usefulness of Republican-voting black men in the South. When asked what was to become of the emancipated people, the saintly Lincoln replied, “Root, hog, or die.” The abolitionists’ foremost guru, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said that the black people were unfit for modern civilization and would become extinct.
Preserving slave property and “white supremacy” was not a primary incentive for those who fought under the Confederate banner, whether they were slaveholders or not. The incentive was repelling invasion. They did not so much defend slavery as resent interference in their society by an outside force that preached hatred against them and never had any constructive solutions for a difficult situation. Those the Confederates fought against were quite as “racist” as themselves. Although they lost, they put up a spectacular fight which has long been admired around the world. Confederate monuments, often erected by the financial sacrifices of ordinary people, are memorials of that fight and what it cost in blood.
Were the evils of Nazi Germany perpetrated in the name of the “white supremacy” that governed American belief for so long? I don’t think so. While the Nazis had a policy about “Aryan supremacy,” they in fact made wars of conquest entirely against other white people and countries, and in alliance with Japanese and Muslims. And were defeated by other white people, many or most of whom were “white supremacists.” I once saw a documentary about survivors of the great Battle of Stalingrad. The Russians were tall and fair “Aryans” and the German soldiers were mostly short and “Slavic” looking. Nazism was not driven by “white supremacy” but by German nationalism of a particularly grandiose and vicious sort. It caused the deaths of more white people than anything else in history.
It is worth mentioning in this connection that in the period before World War II there were strong manifestations of isolationism and pro-German sentiment in the North. A large pro-Nazi rally was held at Madison Square Garden. Such stuff hardly existed in the South. Public opinion surveys showed overwhelming pro-Allies sentiment among Southerners.
It is also worth pointing to the strong connections that German statists had with Lincoln and the Northern war of conquest. Early German settles in what became the U.S. were mostly peaceful farmers. After the failed European revolutions of 1848, many militant, aggressive Germans immigrated to the U.S., especially the Midwest. These were revolutionaries experienced in conflict, dedicated to social revolution by violence, and ignorant or contemptuous of American constitutionalism. Lincoln courted these people assiduously. It has been shown that Lincoln’s election as President was a product of the influx of Germans into the Midwest, outvoting the traditional Democratic majority there. Some of the Germans were also ignorant peasants who could be made to believe the cynical Republican lie that Southerners intended to enslave them.
These immigrant “Union” enthusiasts were proto-fascists or proto-communists. It amounts to the same thing. A number of Germans were generals in the Northern army, which also had several entire divisions composed of German immigrants. European Communists boasted that these people had played a big role in the federal government’s winning the war. This is not true---their battle record was quite poor. But it was certainly known that these German immigrants were the most brutal of Union troops in their treatment of American civilians in the South.
The Christian philosopher Gerhart Niemeyer recorded an experience when he was studying in Spain just before World War II. At the next table were two Germans, discussing what a fine country Spain was and what a valuable conquest it would make for the Reich.
Here is a Massachusetts colonel of the Union army writing to his sympathetic governor in the midst of the war:
“The thing we seek is permanent dominion: and what instance is there of permanent dominion without changing, revolutionizing and absorbing the institutions, life and manners of the conquered peoples? They think we mean to take their slaves. Bah! We must take their ports, their mines, their water power, the very soil they plow.”
This is a far more typical expression of what the Confederate soldier was against than pleas for “racial equality.” Who are the best candidates for the Nazi label in the War Between the States?
One of the cultural markers that has identified that which we call Southern from the undistinguished mass of American nonculture is language. Obviously pronunciation is involved here, but also words, idiom, usage, style. A few years ago there was a celebrated (and therefore naturally very stupid) series on PBS on the English language. According to this series the only distinctive aspect of English to be found in the South was the black Gullah dialect of the South Carolina coastal islands. Otherwise, it seems, all Americans speak a general English —to illustrate where American English speech originated, they showed a picture of the home of U.S. Grant’s forebears in Ulster. The only mention of Southern speech was by the actual speakers who were interviewed, who kept pointing out speech differences that are common knowledge to every American but apparently not to the excruciatingly boring Canadian newsreader who was responsible for the program.
Let’s look at Southern speech as seen by people who know what they are talking about. It is interesting to note here that the supreme scholarly expert on American dialects was Professor Raven McDavid of the University of Chicago—who was a native of Greenville, South Carolina. What I have to say is supported by his work. But for a less technical source let me call to your attention to a wonderful book called The Language of the American South by Cleanth Brooks.
Brooks was a Vanderbilt Agrarian, just a little too young to be among the writers of I’ll Take My Stand, though he contributed to its sequel Who Owns America? Brooks went on at LSU and then to Yale, to become I would say the greatest American literary scholar and critic of the 20th century. He wrote the definitive works on Faulkner, saving Faulkner from cooption by the New York Marxists, and with Robert Penn Warren produced basic college texts that were in use for half a century. He also directed Richard Weaver’s graduate studies. (Brooks and Warren, already internationally distinguished, were driven out of LSU and out of the South by a carpetbagger college president, but that is another story for another day.)
Fairly late in his distinguished career, Brooks took the occasion of an invitation to a lecture series to produce a commentary on the language of the South. He states clearly why he does so—because the language of the South is the rich heritage that helps to explain the astounding world-class achievements of Southern writers in the 20th century which was his lifetime subject of study. He was much too polite to say this—but Southerners have the only native connection with English language among Americans and are the only Americans capable of creative use of the language to tell real stories about real people. What passes for American English today is a dull speech derived of its roots and all subtlety by the horde of German immigrants who invaded the Midwest in the 19th century. Among all the many dialects in which the rich and wonderful language of English is spoken across the world, standard American is the least attractive.
And where did the South get its language? From the same Southern English counties and at the same time as the earliest South got its ideal of the gentleman and its love of the land. Language is a living thing and changes over time, so we generalize. What we now regard as the cultivated English accent was a creation of 19th century “public” schools and universities and London commerce. Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh and Shakespeare did not talk like recent Oxford graduates. They talked more like a lowcountry Southerner, or at least such a Southerner up until the present rising generation. Shakespeare likely spoke like those who left England during his lifetime to settle Virginia. But if you or I recited Shakespeare in our native tongue, Yankees would think it was funny and a sign of ignorance.
Brooks’s argument is convincing, though we don’t have space to explore all the evidence here. The common assumption that Southern speech results from a black influence is a not true. After all, who taught who to speak English? Black people did not originate a Southern accent but what they did do was exercise a conservative influence over it, help preserve it. For a long time less influenced by book learning and the Yankee Webster dictionary than whites, they preserved oral customs. Brooks presented as evidence on this matter an 1861 English book which rendered the “Song of Solomon” from the Bible into the dialect of the Southern English county of Somerset. The Somerseters sound exactly like Uncle Remus.
Most of the world regards Southern-accented English as a sign of a superior person. Yankees pretend to believe it is a mark of ignorance, but there pretense is in this, as in so many other matters, is a cover-up for jealousy. The poet Robert Lowell, a very Boston Brahmin of the Boston Brahmins, went to Tennessee as a young man and lived in a tent in Allen Tate’s and Caroline Gordon’s yard. For the rest of his life he spoke with a Southern accent. You can hear it in the videos of his anti-Vietnam War speeches.
There has been more than one variety of Southern accent, but they have all been identifiers of our people as natives of Dixie. Is Southern speech disappearing? I do not know. Most of today’s supposed experts on American speech are so Politically Correct that they do not even ask the question.
When I first came to South Carolina 35 years ago, after living in Southern places overrun with Yankees, there was no sweeter sound in the world than the speech of a cultivated South Carolina lady. It conveyed grace, charm, spirit, kindness, and lightly worn education. It was a lovely remnant of the of the Old South, the only real civilization that has existed in the United States. Such speech is hard to find today in anyone under forty, though most people have not completely lost the Southern markers from their speech. However, in younger women there is a definite tendency toward Valley Girl talk. The tendency has not taken over completely, but I have heard intimations even in young male college students. Folks in the country and small towns are less effected.
There is no doubt the mass media are poisoning the young—in speech as well as other ways. You will not hear any Southern accents on the radio or television stations in the capital city of South Carolina. The foreign-owned and staffed media have even thrown out the three-centuries old, tradition-laden term Upcountry. The now refer to the region above the fall line as “the Upstate,” as if it was in New York. Have you noticed that “country music” in the video age has just about lost its soul and can seldom be distinguished now in either style or subject matter from vulgar American pop?
Southern language and Southern music (the two things are related) have been the only sources of creativity in the otherwise flat, dull, and stuffy substance of “American culture.” We can hope that in this respect, as in others, the South will manage to survive and deal with change without losing itself.
This piece appeared on the Abbeville Institute blog on August 13, 2014. It was also previously published in Southern Partisan magazine.
“The task of the civilized intelligence is perpetual salvage.
Why has Western man lost his nerve and his sense? That is really the only important question of the day. Everything else that is happening in the world is merely a by-product of forces occupying the space made by the shrinking of the West.
Or I should say “HOW has Western man lost his nerve and his sense?” The Why is always in the deep mystery of God’s time. The only way we can approach it is in describing the How. We might then hope to understand a little or even to find a way back.
Every thinking person has observed aspects of the phenomenon and doubtless has ideas of what are major causes of the West’s terminal state. I can but describe what strikes me, in some cases perhaps things not illuminated by other diagnosticians.
To call on empirical facts. It seems to be established that in all Western countries the level of intelligence and the level of testosterone in the white male population has been declining. No doubt as an effect of urbanism, easy living, the increasing impotence of the European ethnic core, and the feminization of culture. I noticed in my last years of teaching that not only young women but young men in South Carolina were starting to speak like Valley Girls---tentative and trivial.
It is easy to find wimps, thugs, and con artists in the U.S. today. Much harder to find those who would have been regarded in earlier ages as fully realized men. And even harder to find among those who have risen to the highest ranks of politics, bureaucracy (including the military), religious government, and culture. What used to be ordinary integrity is increasingly scarce. A lot of our people cannot even muster the normal male instinct to protect the home territory from interlopers but seem to delight in raining down death at remote control on distant people who have done us no particular harm.
How is it that so many Americans have become abnormal indifferent to the slaughter of the unborn and passive in the face of immigrant invasion?
Is this phenomenon a cause or a symptom?
There is a popular theme embraced by many that the uniqueness of Southern culture is explained by its “Celtic” origins in opposition to the “Anglo-Saxon” foundations of the North. This thesis has been expressed strongly in such works as Grady McWhiney’s Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South, Jim Webb’s Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, and James P. Cantrell’s How Celtic Culture Invented Southern Literature.
Should the distinctive and defining features of the South be described and understood as “Celtic”? This is an interesting and important question that deserves exploration. However, there is a more important question to be kept in mind: is the “Celtic thesis” an asset or a liability for those of us who are working to keep Dixie alive and hoping that someday Southerners will regain control of our own destiny?
There is no doubt that certain cultural traits, as expressed in Southern life and literature, have persisted and reappeared over long periods of history. I my humble self have written that Faulkner has resemblance to some antebellum Southern writers, not because of direct influence but simply because he put his bucket down the same well of Southern life as they did. However, the continuity of certain traits, a historian is prompted to suggest, does not necessarily prove that a specific culture has been transmitted whole-hog across centuries—does not prove that “ the South” can be understood as a Celtic culture. It is evident that there is a “Celtic” strain that is resistant to the materialism and abstract thinking of mainstream American society and that it is found among Southerners–but that is a long way from proving that the South is to be defined and understood as a Celtic culture.
A good many of our unsophisticated compatriots who have become devotees of Southerners as Celtic have not even understood the need to define the term. It is not even clear whether to them “Celtic” means a culture, a race, or a language. These three categories are not neatly coterminous. “Celtic” has not been as clearly defined as it ought to be by those who use the term. McWhiney assumed it was the way of life of the non-Anglo regions of Britain, but provides little guidance as to how it was transmitted to the Old South. Also, as I pointed out in a review of Cracker Culture when it first appeared, he describes us crackers entirely from the observations of hostile outside observers and seems to glory in their biased portrayal of our supposed negative traits. Of course Frank Owlsey had laid out the whole Southern herding culture long before McWhiney, though he did not call it “Celtic.”
I have many strong impressions of “Celtic culture.” However, as a historian I do not yet have a systematic account of its description, origins, and historical course. I think the promoters of the Celtic thesis under-estimate the extent to which the Celtic and Anglo or even Anglo-Norman cultures have interpenetrated and mutually influenced each other, over centuries in Britain, and in the formation of the life of the South. For instance, can you draw a distinction between Celts and non-Celtic English borderers? Would Sir Walter agree with that division? How about Lorna Doone, as I recall, south of the border people doing a good imitation of Scots rievers ? William Gilmore Simms may have had Irish forebears, but he is rather hard to separate from the English and Huguenot gentry of Lowcountry South Carolina.
I do not think that such a sharp division can be made between Celtic Southerners and Anglo-Norman Southerners . This seems to me both wrong and as giving aid and comfort to our enemies who want to declare Southern whites as riven by class antagonisms. Both Webb and Cantrell present a South in which Celts are oppressed by an Anglo aristrocracy. Celtic Southernness picks up too much of the enemy’s dogma in seeming to accept a dichotomy between Confederate slaveholding whites and those who did not hold slaves but were fighting for their distinct non-Anglo culture rather than for the South as such. Or perhaps just because they were “Born Fighting.” I can hardly think of anything that more undermines the eternal South than this false division.
Boones and Crocketts and Donelsons and Lytles went over the mountains and when the Calhouns moved into upper South Carolina in the 1770s they had substantial numbers of Negroes already with them and they started exporting as much cotton and tobacco as they could and as soon as they could In 1860 the substantial families even in the mountains were slave owners, as indeed were a fourth of all Southern families and in some states up to a half—mostly small numbers who worked with the family. Southerners were not class -divided between slaveowners and non-slaveowners as our enemies have always insisted. And if they were, it certainly was not a Celt/Anglo division. There was by the late antebellum period a shared identity by Southerners of every ethnic origin, so solid that even newcomer Yankees and Europeans could see and identify with it.
True the Ulster Presbyterians were a strong element in supporting the Revolution in the South, but no more than the gentry and yeomanry from southern England. On the other hand, before and during the Revolution, Scots were notorious Tories—the educated, citified, on-the-make Scotsman being a zealous hanger-on of the English ruling class with nothing “Celtic” about him except maybe an accent—the scoundrel Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and James Wilson being prime examples.
A Celtic/Anglo division of the colonial South does not allow for other elements in the formative period. My own little bit of research indicates that Germans were much more numerous in Virginia and the Carolinas usually allowed for and blended quickly into the various British strains. And there were the French, not only in Louisiana but in the whole Mississippi Valley from New Orleans to St. Louis. Anglo and German Southerners hated Yankee Puritans just as much as Celtic Southerners and their opposition to Puritanism was much clearer than the Scots’. On the other hand, the mutual sympathy between antebellum Southerners and oppressed Irish indicates a generous recognition of a similar plight. It does not prove that antebellum Southerners felt a huge ancestral and cultural identity with “Celtic Culture.” True, the Irish and Catholics did not encounter bigotry in the South as they did among the Yankee puritans, but I might argue that had more to do with a a tolerant gentlemanly code of English Episcopalians than with any Celtic inheritance (which was the most anti-Catholic strain in the South).
Consider that the frontier conditions of America tended to cause a reversion to a type of social organization (tribal, warrior) that was common to all northern Europeans (or for that matter the ancient Greeks) at an earlier stage. Those Anglos from the Low Country and even the Germans moved west and became good frontiersmen too. Something more involved was involved than a transfer of “Celtic culture.” Vast numbers of Irish poured into the North in the 19th century. While many of their descendants made good Americans, there is nothing Southern about these “Celts.” They are wannabe puritans with smarmy writers, oily cardinals, freedom-riding nuns, criminal gangs, and crooked politicians. Why did “Celtic culture” turn out so differently there? How then can we say that Celtic Culture as such particularly defines Southern identity when it made such a negligible or different impact elsewhere?
In the earlier antebellum period there was a literary convention about the older regions of the South being in decay. It is true that there were richer lands to the west and half the population was moving off, so there was a sense of vacancy and nostalgia. The conditions did not indicate decay–that so much of the population was moving west is an indication of a very dynamic people. If they had all stayed home you would have had a static society. Webb in particular presents a picture of a weak older South versus a dynamic frontier. False. Antebellum Southerners of all national origins were a prolific people with large healthy families, meaning resources were strained and it was necessary for many sons to abandon the old home place. That enervated mood described the earlier antebellum period only, in the economic depression after 1816. By 1850 the “Anglo” older South had recovered economically and was in a strong and dynamic condition. By 1860 agriculture had been reformed and revived. Industry was building. Capital was accumulating. Prosperity was rising. Schools, churches were flourishing. How do you think Virginia and the Carolinas sustained four years of total war so well, both in morale and economic productivity?
In fact, it was the very dynamism and prosperity of the South that motivated a destructive Northern envy and hatred that saw little difference among the people of the vast Southern land except an imagined class division that the history of the Confederacy proved to be a delusion.
My real concern is this. Dwelling on the Celtic theme is dividing and undermining the South. Once we have established that the South is defined as Celtic, what have we accomplished? We have excised Southern and substituted Celtic. Our enemies could not ask for anything more. To claim that the real South is “Celtic” is to say, as Webb and Cantrell do, that genteel Anglo-Southerners are inimical to and different from Celtic Southerners. This is wrong historically and factually, but more important it divides up Dixie at the time it needs to be united in a revived self-identification.
Some years ago there was a stupid PBS series on the English language. They managed to portray black dialect as the only distinct speech from the South. (In fact, as Cleanth Brooks showed, the black accent is not African but reflects the speech of the earliest settlers from Southern England, the first North American slaveowners.) According to this silly show presented by a Canadian, the “American” accent is Scots-Irish (here they showed the home of U.S. Grant’s forebears in Ulster). Actual Southern speech was never mentioned but simply portrayed as “American English” even though some of the plain folk actually being recorded kept referring to their Southern accent. In other words, the South as such disappeared into “Celtic” history. Webb’s book serves the same purpose. Rather than celebrating brave SOUTHERN and Confederate fighting men, our attention is directed to brave Celtic warriors who happen to be in the South and explain its history.
If we are going to celebrate great Celtic warriors rather than Southerners we may as well celebrate Grant, Sheridan, McClellan, Kilpatrick, etc. The whole approach divides up and subverts the identity of our beautiful homeland and noble SOUTHERN people. What about the hard-fighting Southerners with non-Celtic names like Beauregard, Hood, Early, Hill, Hampton, Hardee, Longstreet, Van Dorn, Forrest, Hoke, Pender, Ramseur, Cobb, Ashby, Mosby, and Semmes (Spanish).
America is Southern at its core. Southerners are not an ethnic group except when America is considered only as a mélange of such groups.. We are a people, a nation, incorporating many groups that have been made into one by our history. To be a “Southerner” is good enough for me.
Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews