You are deplorable.
It is worse than that. If you are Southern or interested in the South you are the most deplorable of all the deplorables. There is no place for you among the enlightened and virtuous people of 21st Century America.
But perhaps there is a certain advantage to being an outsider. It can help you see what 21st century America really is rather than what it assumes itself to be.
We can’t understand Southern identity without a candid view of that other thing, call it the North or mainstream America or the Age of Radicalism, for which the South has been an economic colony and a cultural whipping boy since well before the War for Southern Independence.
I was struck a few years ago by the statement of a leading Ivy League intellectual. America was suffering, he said, from increasing violence because of the spread of “the Southern gun culture.” This was the time of Timothy McVeigh of New York, Michigan, and the U.S. Army; of the Unabomber from Harvard and Berkeley; of the Columbine shooters (the only ones who used guns). You see, all this violence is because something is seeping out of the evil Southern culture to contaminate the good parts of America.
More recently, another Ivy League savant characterised the present truly deplorable condition of once wealthy and productive Detroit as “an Alabama ghetto.” We have now had three generations born and raised in Detroit, but if there is something wrong, you see, it must be the fault of the South. To invoke Alabama explains it all. In fact, studies have shown that the first generation of African-Americans who migrated from the South to Detroit were well-behaved even though they faced a lot of hostility. They had jobs and founded churches and businesses. But what has happened since MUST BE the fault of Southerners. That is the eternal default position.
Even more recently, I read the comments of a gentleman who says that in his Northern parochial school, the nuns taught that Southerners used black people for fire logs.
These commentators are ignorant. They are also diseased in mind and character. They imagine something they call the South which does not exist. To identify this as the source of evil in an otherwise pure and shining American society is for them a sign of superior intelligence and virtue. This defect is present, I fear, in millions of Americans, including some Southerners. You have to wonder what would become of them if they did not have this imaginary South to blame everything on and had to face their own selves. It seems to me this attitude can only flourish because American mainstream society is devoid of religion and any real culture, as well as of self-knowledge. It has no self except in contrast that imaginary evil “other” that is standing in the way of perfection.
This is the hostile environment in which the Southern tradition must survive.
John C. Calhoun said that the South was the balance wheel of the Union. Without the South America would go wild and fly apart. In this time when the South has lost almost all power and influence, is not that exactly what has happened? Is that not why we are in the “Age of Radicalism”?
Southerners are always being called upon to stop being themselves and become more like other Americans. Curiously, however, to be a mainstream American one must be intellectually and morally nimble enough to hit a moving target. Mainstream America is always changing and about every second or third generation it goes into a frantic revolutionary mode as it did in the 1850-1870s , in the 1960s-70s, and as we are living though now. The South has changed a lot but it simply can’t keep up. And what civilized people would want keep up with the mainstream America that is sunk in materialism, intellectual trivia, moral depravity, and that anti-culture called diversity?
The South, of course, may be dealt with by tangible facts and figures, historical and present-day. But there is an intangible element that is perhaps the most important of all. Although intangible, this South is real, not a product of the ravings of celebrated intellectuals. It may be this promethean qualitativeness of “the South” that allows outsiders to deal with us in ways that defy all reality.
This is what Mel Bradford was getting at when he defined the South “As a vital and long-lasting bond, a corporate identity assumed by those who have contributed to it.” The bond is not quantifiable It is a shared identity of values and behaviour, perhaps even of personality, and it has lasted a long time and is much more venerable, humane, and constructive than that artificial and dubious creation known at the U.S. government. It is not even a matter of birth and raising. It is shared by all who contribute to it.
In 1981, with youthful presumptuousness that still astonishes me, I attempted to define the South. I wrote:
“In my opinion the South has always been primarily a matter of values, a peculiar repository of intangible qualities in a society particularly preoccupied with the quantifiable.”
Count Hermann Keyserling was an Austrian (not German) nobleman well-known in the 1920s for his insightful writings on his world travels. After a long visit to the United States, he praised the material success of the United States (this was written in 1929 just before the Great Depression). But he added this:
“When the American nation finds itself culturally, the hegemony will inevitably pass over to the South. There alone can there be a question of enduring culture. The region below the Potomac possesses the type that was truly responsible for America’s greatness in the past. This is the type of the Southern gentleman, with the corresponding type of woman. For these are the only types of complete souls that the United States has yet produced.”
The only “complete souls” to be found among culturally and spiritually shallow Americans are Southerners. Think about it. Bradford and Keyserling’s remarks relate to the “social bond individualism” described by Richard Weaver. Lee’s men spontaneously forced him out of the line of fire against orders because it was the right thing to do for the common enterprise they were carrying out for their society. We may observe also, I think, a complete soul in the Southern grandmother who in civilizing young people warned against bad behavior not because it would be punished or was a bar to success but because “we don’t do that sort of thing.” It may be that the Southern dominance of American literature and music is an example of how complete souls can find expression even in such a debased American society as we now endure.
This form of individualism can often include a good deal of cussedness. Like Faulkner’s farmer who could not fathom that the government wanted to pay him NOT to grow cotton. Or the Confederate soldier described by Shelby Foote, who survived Pickett’s Charge and backed very slowly and defiantly down the hill taunting the Yankees.
In the late 19th century Americans reached a workable compromise in the understanding of the great revolutionary bloodshed of the War for Southern Independence. Southerners were glad that the Union had been preserved and wanted to fully participate in the flourishing America that followed. Northerners agreed that there was good and bad on both sides and that Southern motives were honourable and Southern heroes were American heroes.
There was another side to this peace treaty, however: everything good about the South became American. In the mainstream understanding of American history, the great Southerners who created and nourished the United States were “Americans,” that is, they were honorary Yankees. Only bad people like Calhoun, slavery defenders and traitors, were considered “Southern.” So Washington and Jefferson were put on Mount Rushmore along with Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt to suggest some sort of American, that is Yankee, tradition. In fact Washington and Jefferson would have despised Lincoln and Roosevelt as betrayers of the Founding. Now that we are expunging heroes, let’s blast Washington and Jefferson off of Mount Rushmore and replace them with Chester Arthur and Warren Harding.
It seems now that the lie is not working so well. It has come home that Washington and Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were Southern slaveholders, so there is a rising demand that they be expunged along with Confederates. Since Southern plantation owners were Presidents for 50 out of the first 72 years of the United States, as were most other significant leaders, American history must go. New Orleans can no longer celebrate its greatest hero, a slaveholder. If we are to put under the ban all slaveholders then we have wiped away all of the earliest and best part of American history. That, of course, is exactly what is intended.
But it has also wiped away the lies that have passed for mainstream American history. Washington and Jefferson and Andy Jackson are once more Southern and no longer honorary Yankees. And we can claim entirely for ourselves Lee and Forrest, who are not just Southern icons but world renowned military leaders, among the greatest ever produced by America. Today is General’s Forrest’s birthday, by the way.
I find jihadist campaign against America liberating. As Southerners we no longer have to be good sports and play by the rules that “those people” as General Lee politely called them, have thrown out. We can once more embrace our own Southern history, which is the real American history.
As Dr. Livingston and Dr. McClanahan have shown, from the beginning the South was America and America was the South. With good will, the South gave all to build the United States. Southerners all along thought of the Union as an agreement in good faith for mutual benefit of all the States. They served it in a spirit of patriotism and honour. From the very first day the ruling elements of the North considered the Union as a way to make themselves some easy money. They still do. And secondarily as a tool to force their way of thinking on everybody else. Our loyalty to the United States has never been reciprocated and our desire to be good Americans has been treated with contempt. That is the reality of enlightened and virtuous 21st century America that we can see from the perspective of the Southern tradition.
The Revolutionary War was won in the South by Southerners, although New England historians lied so industriously that most people see the winning of independence through a New England lens. In both the colonial and antebellum eras, the South was the productive part of the American economy, its products in great demand internationally. And it was the most prosperous as well. The North could not produce anything that Europe could not make for itself, thus the tariff that forced all American consumers to guarantee profits to Northern industrialists and a national debt that did the same for bankers.
Remember, in 1860 Lincoln was rejected by 60% of the American people. But he and his party got control of the federal machinery and waged a brutal war of conquest against the Southern people that no one previously could have imagined possible.
This war destroyed 60 per cent of the property and one fourth of the men of the South. War was very deliberately made on civilians, including African Americans. Historians have looked recently into the matter are discovering that the Southern civilian death toll, white and black, was much greater than has previously been estimated.
In carrying out this war of conquest nothing was ever done by the Union with a primary motive of benefit to the African Americans. In war and Reconstruction they were simply tools of the winning side. The war was not to preserve the Union. It was to replace the Union with a centralized machine. Lincoln did not save Government of by and for the people. He established a permanent regime of state capitalism.
This means that the real power is in the hands of big business and big banks who use the government to protect and increase their own private profit and wealth. It had nothing to do with slavery or the welfare of African Americans.
This is the reality of 21st century America that we live under. If you don’t think so, remember the bailout a few years back in the derivatives crisis. The banks had gambled and lost. But they were Too Big to Fail. Neither party could think of any solution except for the taxpayers to bail the criminals out to the tune of billions of dollars. And this was regarded as an exercise of great statesmanship. If there had been any Southern Jeffersonian Democracy left the crisis would never have happened nor would the atrocity of the bailout.
There has been a campaign to whitewash Reconstruction. But verbal gymnastics and cherry-picked facts cannot forever disguise the fact that that Reconstruction was actually a regime of oppression by military dictatorship and of looting of an already impoverished region that postponed its recovery. In the end it left nothing but poverty for Southerners white and black.
The period following Reconstruction has been euphemistically described as “the New South.” I recommend two recent books --- Philip Leigh’s SOUTHERN RECONSTRUCTION and PUNISHED BY POVERTY by Ronald and Donald Kennedy. They show that Reconstruction has never ended. We remain a colony of the ruling class of mainstream America to be impoverished for their benefit and hectored for our sins. You will be surprised to learn to what extent federal policy after Reconstruction was designed to keep Southerners, black and white, as impoverished colonials. Some 20 million Southerners, black and white, left for the North and West in the first half of the 20th century to escape their poverty---a wolrd-class diaspora. But being good sports and constructive and desiring to be good Americans, Southerners have almost ceased to notice their second-class citizenship. And the South is still the only part of American that remembers the Jeffersonian philosophy of government, as Dr. Walters has pointed out.
The sufferings of Southerners in the war and Reconstruction do not even register on the national consciousness. How easy it is to endure other peoples’ troubles. Several people have recently attacked General Lee for being bitter after the war. How can one be bitter about his land and people being destroyed now that he has been shown the superior virtue of the other side. This is the same mentality that encourages Americans to wreak destructive havoc on other countries. Why don’t they love us when we send drones half way around the world to blow up their wedding parties? After all, we mean well and only want to bring them good things.
Faulkner, the greatest American writer of the 20th century, wrote from the Southern tradition. There is the young farmer so poor he had to listen to the radio outside a neighbour’s window. But the day after Pearl Harbour he hitchhiked to Memphis to enlist. He did not need any abstractions about saving the world for democracy. To defend your people was the right thing to do. That is social bond individualism. Thoreau would have said don’t bother him. Emerson would have demanded that he be the one to decide for everybody else what the war was about.
Or the old lady and two boys in Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust who go to extreme lengths to save a black man falsely accused of murder. Not because they are dedicated to some abstraction about equality but because it is the right thing to do as members of society. And Faulkner’s The Reivers, as Bradford pointed out, begins with the words “Grandfather said…” followed by an uproarious account of what happens with Grandfather’s instructions on the conduct of a gentleman are disregarded. Imagine Hemingway’s or Fitzgeralds’s solipsist characters listening to what Grandfather said.
In Go Down, Moses, the character Ike McCaslin has been taken to be a hero because he repudiates his family heritage tainted with slavery. But Ike is no hero, he is a barren man, driven by an overly fastidious and abstract idea of the good. He is a Southern Thoreau. The real hero is the wordly Cass Edmonds, who accepts his tarnished heritage and does his best to carry out his responsibilities to his people, black and white. When in The Unvanquished Bayard Sartoris faces down his father’s killer unarmed in order to stop a cycle of violence, he is a conspicuous example of social bond individualism.
Cleanth Brooks, the greatest student of Faulkner, as pointed out that the central character of all of Faulkner’s work is not an individual but the community—the town of Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County. This is true of all the great Southern writers and sets them off from what elsewhere passes for American literature. The world portrayed in Southern literature has historical scope and social context, compared to what passes for American literature.
Faulkner at the time of his death was preparing a book to be called ”The American Dream—What Happened to It?.” He had written some parts of it and it is a pure expression of the Southern and Jeffersonian tradition, more so than he probably realized. In a speech a year after the Nobel speech, Faulkner said that the noble American principle of a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness had become nothing more than an excuse for materialistic ease. The early Americans did not mean just the chance to chase happiness. By happiness they meant “not just pleasure, idleness, but peace, dignity, independence and self respect,” things that had to be worked for and earned. “We knew it once, had it once … only something happened to us.” We no longer “believed in liberty and freedom and independence as the old fathers in the old strong, dangerous times had meant it.”
Nobody these days even knows what you are talking about when, like Keyserling, you mention “souls.” That is evidence that the United States has never found itself culturally. I would say that it never will, because American culture is now irredeemable. The Southern soul is still here but we have to admit that it is embattled and weakened and I rejoice to see that it survives in some young people.
Our topic this summer is “Being Southern in an Age of Radicalism.” I can think of no better way to conclude these reflections than this passage from Abbeville Scholar, Dr. Robert Peters:
The South is a garden. It has been worn out by the War, Reconstruction, the Period of Desolation, the Depression and the worst ravages of all---Modernity; yet, a worn-out garden, its contours perceived by keen eyes, the fruitfulness of its past stored in memory, can be over time, a time which will last no longer than those of us who initially set our minds to the task, restored, to once again produce, for the time appointed unto it, the fruits which nurture the human spirit and which foreshadow the Garden of which there will be no end.
This is the text of a speech originally presented at the Abbeville Institute Summer conference in 2017.
Before the appearance of Jack Kennedy as a television celebrity about 1960, Americans did not feel any personal relationship with Presidents. In the early days they were men of accomplishment who received respect as their due. After that occasionally they were military heroes, but until about 1960 they were mostly hack politicians, like nearly all the Republican nominees for President. FDR, of course, was loved by many people for his cheerful uplift in hard times. But the public did not really know him and expect to invite him for supper.
Since, 1960, when television damaged Nixon with his “three o’clock shadow,” personal identification with the candidate or the lack thereof has been an important but little recognised factor in Presidential elections. A large number of Americans want to feel like they know the President as a friend, someone they would like and who would like them if they were personally acquainted. A lot of Republicans even referred to the unlovable Nixon as “my President”--- shortly before they deserted him. Such people stupidly like to believe or at least to pretend that we Americans are really just all one big happy family.
The champion in this respect was Reagan. He was the ideal avuncular and benevolent fellow, always unruffled and ready with a joke. You would be happy to see him at the Thanksgiving table and he would never forget your birthday. The next best in the likable friend category was Obama. Here was a guy who was only half black and cool. You could have him as a neighbour and feel virtuous without running any risk of a mugging.
To a degree that is probably not sufficiently recognized, Bill Clinton was favoured by the likable friend factor also. He seemed easy-going and reasonable, not likely to do anything too crazy that would cause you trouble personally. Most Americans don’t have the experience of politics or insight to detect a plausible psychopath beneath the friendly demeanour. Unlike Carter, whose Southern accent was too pronounced and was too earnest, demanding that you really do some unpleasant thinking about things.
Unlovable Nixon lucked out. While nobody could really like him, at least as he appeared in the media, he had as opponents Humphrey and McGovern, the pretentious hectoring know-it-all college professor that you did not like. At least Nixon seemed experienced and relatively sane.
Americans do not like spoiled smart-aleck rich boys. Adlai Stevenson never had the faintest chance against Eisenhower. However, Bush minor lucked out even more than Nixon. Nobody really liked the brat very much, but he was up against Gore, who was not only a spoiled brat but a pompous flake. And nobody could really warm up to Kerry (or the other Massachusetts Yankees, Dukakis earlier and Romney later).
For some, Trump is the hard-driving ambitious fellow in your high school class who was fun to watch. Half of the class admired him and half hated him. Most of the public continue to like Hillary because they take her as a woman of accomplishment. That she has never done anything admirable and is vicious off-camera is something the public is not sharp or cynical enough to notice. If they really knew her personally they would recognise her as the nasty women she is.
The election of 2016 was a classic contest between the jocks and the nerds. Of course, we have to allow that Trump is the first nominee of either party who has had anything to say about any real issues in a long time. The nerds are increasingly outnumbering the jocks, which is a sign that people are feeling a false sense of security.
If my little analysis is right, then the person to watch for 2020 is Warren. Despite all her swerving, she comes across as the ideal Yankee well-meaning schoolmarm, an image that I wager still has a lot of power.
Those of us whose experience goes back a way into the last century, can remember when “democracy” was the main theme of American discourse. A million tongues proudly and repeatedly declared that America was the Democracy, exemplar and defender of that sacred idea to all the world. Hardly anyone dared to question that sentiment. It saw us through two world wars and the Cold War.
Of course, praise of “democracy” was not always sincere, and the term never had a very strict and clear definition. But most Americans thought of it in Lincoln’s sonorous phrase: government of, by, and for the people. In practical terms that seemed to mean majority rule. In that case Lincoln was not sincere because he headed the party of a large minority that seized control of the federal government and made brutal war against another large minority of the people.
Of course, a lot of questions were bypassed in the celebration of “democracy.” Who are “the people”? Who gets to participate in majority rule? Our Founding Fathers, like the ancients, were wary of a too pure democracy. They would have been astounded by the notion that a few million uninvited immigrants could wade ashore and immediately become deciding members of “the people.”
The Founders preferred to consider themselves “republicans,” not “democrats.” For republicans “the people” were not the mass but citizens with substantial stakes in society. Some, the Hamiltonians, thought that pure majority rule simply meant that the poor majority would vote themselves the wealth of the rich minority, that the people are “a great beast.” Therefore, the majority had to be hedged about by Supreme Courts, infrequent elections, a strong executive with armed force, government bondholders, and a national bank. Hamiltonianism now universally prevails, except that the constitutional gadgets that they relied on have never quite worked as they are supposed to. They would undoubtedly be shocked at some of the purposes of social revolution to which radicalized elites have devoted their institutional power.
The Jeffersonians had a bit more trust in the people and the ability of the majority to decide justly. After all, most folks were busy making a living and did not bother the government as long as it did not bother them. It was elitists who hung around the halls of power looking for privilege and profit. However, it cannot be over-stressed that the government in which the majority was to rule was one of very limited power. It was the agent of certain collective tasks but had no power to seriously interfere with the natural society of those who deserved to be called free men. For Jeffersonians majority rule was very limited in its jurisdiction, and the farther away it was the more limited it should be.
The thoughtful have always understood that there is a tension between democracy and liberty. They do not naturally go together, in fact are logically in conflict. Democracy strictly considered has nothing to say about liberty. However, Anglo-Saxon historical experience had for some time provided what seemed to be a practical working relationship, so it was somewhat natural to think of “democracy” being the two things happily married.
Looking a step further ahead, we find in our path another powerful idea: equality.
Majority rule suggested that citizens were more or less equal in their political rights and freedoms. But both ancients and the Founders were pretty clearly convinced that liberty and equality were natural enemies and very unnatural companions.
We no longer talk much about “democracy,” but Equality is all the rage. Minorities are to be made “equal” by government force: majority will and constitutional limitations be damned. Aspiring politicians no longer promise just rule and following the will of “the people” but announce what government power they will use to enforce Equality. Democracy, majority rule, the will of the people are obsolete ideas that stand in the way of sacred Equality.
Thus Obama can disdain the people for their “guns and Bibles” and Hillary Clinton, like Alexander Hamilton, can describe the people as “deplorables.” In a genuine government of the people both of these characters would be sent down in shame for insulting “the people.” Instead, they gather the votes of a majority of the electorate. How can this happen? I offer a possible explanation. The American educational system has turned out millions of pseudo-intellectuals, people with no particular intelligence or learning and who have no real power but who think that because they share the egalitarian scripture that they are therefore members of the elite and superior to those deplorables.
In present day America vast amounts of the national wealth are owned by a tiny fraction of people; imperial military bases straddle the globe; and five Supreme Court justices can make social revolutions in defiance of law, tradition, religion, and common sense. A private banking cartel controls the credit and currency of the country; the flow of information is effectively controlled by a few unknown oligarchs; there is an unpayable government debt that can never be paid, is partly owned by foreign powers, and will economically enslave our descendants; there is no civilized democratic political debate but only advertising campaigns competing for market share.
This cannot possibly be a government of the people, a democracy. It is even an enemy of genuine equality of citizenship. We should stop pretending we are a democracy, but that would be an intolerable blow to American self-esteem which has long been based on denial of reality.
In this list I emphasise films that are particularly vivid in portraying historical situations.
The Hill (British, 1965). Stark drama of WW II British soldiers in a brutal brig in North Africa. Sean Connery and Michael Redgrave.
El Alamein (The Line of Fire, Italian, 2002). Brave and loyal Italian soldiers trying to hold the line while left behind and isolated.
The Missing (2003). Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett in a powerful story of the hardships and dangers of the Southwestern frontier.
Danger UXB (British,1979). Actually a 7 episode television series about a team charged with dealing with unexploded bombs on the British home front.
Murphy’s War (British, 1971). A Brit (Peter O’Toole) and a Frenchman (Philippe Noiret), stranded in South America, devise the destruction of a Nazi U-boat.
Life and Nothing But (La vie et rien d’autre, French, 1989). A quiet portrayal of French survivors dealing with the trauma of the holocaust of WW I.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (French, 1928, silent). This portrayal of the last days of Joan of Arc is justly called one of the foremost masterpieces of silent cinema.
The Trojan Women (1971). Euripides’ classic Greek play about the women survivors of a destroyed world is made vivid, with Katherine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Irene Papas, and Genevieve Bujold.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992). The classic James Fenimore Cooper story of the colonial frontier has been filmed many times, but never with the vividly realistic impact of this version, with Daniel Day-Lewis as a convincing “Deerslayer.”
In the Bedroom (2001). The title of this gem makes no sense and tells nothing about the film. The killer of a man’s son is let go from punishment on a technicality. The man devises and carries about a beautiful revenge that satisfies himself, his wife, and most of us viewers.
Mrs. Miniver (1942). Stiff upper lip on the British home front during Dunkirk evacuation. One of the most effective patriotic films ever made in my opinion.
Don Segundo Sombra (Argentine, 1969). Quiet, classic depiction of growing up among the gauchos, based on a popular novel.
I will add two more titles, which will bring my recommendations to 50 from 50 years of viewing.
The Flame Trees of Thicka (1981). Actually a 7-episode television series about a British family pioneering in Kenya.
Elizabeth (British, 1998). A portrayal of the early years of Elizabeth I, marvelous in every aspect. Followed by Elizabeth: The Golden Years (2007).
I recently read a report of a professor who declared that he had come sadly to the conclusion that the Founding Fathers had been all wrong in the government they created. I don’t remember the name or place of this professor. Whether he had ever contributed anything to scholarly knowledge was not stated, but is doubtful. He probably suffers from Trump Derangement Syndrome. His credentials for this judgment on our American forebears are that he has “taught American government for 40 years.” We are so accustomed now to the media promoting the supposed “expert” opinions of supposed “experts,” especially in regard to history, that we pass over these things without noticing how ridiculous they are. The Founders had experience of large agricultural and mercantile enterprises, of state and continental government, of war, and in some cases of diplomacy, not to mention genuine learning that is seldom found today, especially among professors. Who is this person that anyone should notice his opinion much less consider it newsworthy?
When it comes to rewriting history to suit one’s personal preferences, this fellow is farm team compared to a a professor named Guelzo. Southerners are used to irrational hatred directed against us in the guise of fake history. It happens most of the time, but Guelzo is a gold medalist in this endeavour. He has recently produced a notorious video claiming to be about “Reconstruction.” The video is apparently sponsored by the Battlefield Trust organisation. Odd. How did such a thing happen? Surely the Trust has more important things to do than to promote nonsense which has nothing to do with the great battlefields of the War between the States and that many or most of its supporters repudiate.
To summarise Guelzo’s version of history: The North won the war but the white South won Reconstruction. The North should have continued Reconstruction until Southerners were forced to accept racial equality. The land of Southern whites should have been given to the freed slaves, who together with Northerners made the South prosperous during Reconstruction. But the Northerners left so the South reverted to racism and impoverished backwardness from the lack of Northern benevolence and enterprise. If Reconstruction had only lasted longer, the South would have been forced to become egalitarian and prosperous.
I note that Guelzo has a Master of Divinity degree. Perhaps that helps explain why he thinks his sermons impart historical knowledge. In fact, his “Reconstruction” never touches the plain earth of history at any point---it is all opinion, not understanding. And a malicious set of opinions based on false assumptions.
The biggest false assumption is that the North and the U.S. government invaded and conquered the South and subjected it to military occupation in order to achieve racial equality for black Americans. Thus that Northern actions were always wise and benevolent and Southern actions were always evil and incompetent. This is a common self-righteous assumption that supports the myth of America’s unique goodness, but it is wholly false. The number of Northerners who would have risked their lives to achieve racial equality could have assembled in a small room.
No Northerner before 1860 ever proposed any serious plan to achieve emancipation (much less equality), although many were free in their condemnation of Southern sins. Lincoln said that he did not know what to do about slavery even if he had the power, which he did not, and that Northerners would be exactly like Southerners if they had been in the same situation. He declared himself willing to protect slavery where it already existed in perpetuity, but declared that he must have his tariff revenue.
Surely there must have been something other than self-sacrificing goodness that kept together the varied interests that sustained the Northern war effort ? General Sherman’s brother, Senator Sherman, declared that establishing the national banking system was a more important goal than freeing the slaves. In Guelzo’s formulation, Northern politics is never about interests, like every other politics in human history, but only about noble mission.
Most Northern States, including Lincoln’s Illinois, had laws forbidding the residence of free black people and severely restricting the lives of the small number who were there. During the war the Black Republican abolitionist governors of Massachusetts and Illinois refused to accept as residents even a handful of freed black refugees. The governor of Illinois said that his people would not accept them and the governor Massachusetts said they would be happier in the South.
These are the people who conducted a war for equality for black Americans? In fact, the Northern people and soldiers were as “racist” as Southerners. Arguably more so, because Southerners were accustomed to living peacefully among black people. There was no significant number of black Americans outside of the South until World War I when many migrated into Northern discrimination. As serious historians are now noticing, Southern black people died in huge numbers from the destruction of resources and abuse by Northern soldiers.
Our “ leading authority” says that Southern land should have been confiscated and given to the black folk. Indeed, a lot of Southern land did change hands during Reconstruction, not to the freed people but to Northerners, in whose hands it remains today. Had there been any Reconstruction generosity to black Americans there were millions of acres of vacant land in the West---free to any white immigrant and to Northern railroad and mining corporations, but not an acre for freedmen. One of the chief motivations of the war and Reconstruction was to keep black people in the South and out of the North and West.
In sum, Reconstruction did nothing for black Americans except to make them voters, mobilise them to terrorise whites, and create hostility between the races that had not existed before. Like Southern white people they were left in poverty that lasted for generations.
The most preposterous of all the imaginary factors of Guelzo’s Reconstruction scenario is that Reconstruction, through Northern enterprise, made the South prosperous. I do not think there is or ever has been any historian of any political stripe who believes this. The primary Northern activity in Reconstruction was looting what was left of the South’s great antebellum wealth that had already been devastated by the war of conquest. The story of Reconstruction is not racial equality, it is corruption---corruption for personal enrichment that was a main activity of Republican politicians and fat cats and reached right into Grant’s White House.
In fact, Northerners ended Reconstruction when they became disgusted with near universal corruption and with the failure of the black people to turn themselves into industrious New Englanders. Guelzo is not interested in politics, but how could Reconstruction have been continued when even its proponents were turning against it. In the 1868 presidential election Grant had a hard time defeating Horatio Seymour, antiwar and anti-Reconstruction Democratic candidate. He probably would have lost without the disenfranchisement of Southern white men, the corralled votes of Southern blacks, and military control of the polling.
Other things that do not interest Guelzo but that stood in the way of continuing Reconstruction: democracy (majority rule) and the limits of revolutionary deconstruction provided by Constitutional government.
If we look at Guelzo’s website, (which interestingly is a .com rather than a .edu or a .org), we find a declaration by a person you have never heard of that Guelzo has for two decades “been at the forefront of Civil War era scholarship.” Further, he is “the leading authority on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Lincoln,” and also a major authority on the Founding Fathers. The leading authority.
After a lifetime of study, I am a little bit of an authority on the 19th century United States. I am interested in and have studied a lot of other history, but I am by no means an “authority” on any of it. What a prodigy Professor Guelzo must be!
In fact, he dispenses not history but his own unanchored opinions on matters of great importance. His opinions are fashionable among the many who have a preference for an interpretation that damns Southerners and postulates an imaginary Northern crusade for racial equality. These opinions are not based on historical learning but are a product of crusading zeal. Guelzo is not a major historical authority but a media celebrity---someone who is well known for being well-known.
1. Guns at Batasi (1964). Richard Attenborough as a British Sergeant Major dealing with the tensions of the handover of an African colony to the natives.
2. Untamed (1955). Tyrone Power as a leader of the Boer trekkers in South Africa. A movie that follows history somewhat closely and could not be made today. Amazing it has not been suppressed. (Careful: there are other inferior films of the same title.)
3. Ivan’s Childhood, aka My Name is Ivan (1962). Grim tale of a Russian boy spying behind the Nazi lines in World War II.
4. The Passion of the Christ (2004). Brilliantly conceived and carried out. Anti-Christian Hollywood condemned this, which is a recommendation in itself.
5. The Blue Light (German, silent, 1932). Beautiful and moving story with Leni Riefenstahl as a mountain girl who loves a brilliant mountain light.
6. The Road to Glory (1941). A French regiment in World War I. Screenplay by Faulkner.
7. Cross of Iron (1977). Veteran and disillusioned German soldiers facing the collapse of their Eastern front in World War II.
8. Les Grandes Gueules, aka Jailbirds’ Vacation. (French, 1965). Humane and humourous story of French convicts given opportunity to work in a country lumber mill. The French are tops at portraying real life.
9. Himalaya (French/Nepalese, 1999). Realistic and vivid story of the life of people in a remote village of Nepal who must make a dangerous annual caravan to survive, which is threatened by a rivalry over leadership.
10. The Ballad of Narayama (Japanese, 1958). A very old woman struggles to make her son understand that it is time for her to go to the mountain where old folks go to quietly expire. Almost an opera, but dealing with the hardest realities of human life.
11. Is Paris Burning? (1966). Told in almost documentary style, an account of the few days of the history of the liberation of Paris and the thwarting of Hitler’s intent to destroy the city. (Please do not confuse this film with a sodomite thing called Paris is Burning.)
12. 13 Hours (2016). A vivid and well done portrayal of the Benghazi terrorist battle against Americans. Among other things it shows the courage of fighting men and the incompetence of bureaucrats.
Movie recommendations by Yours Truly and other Reckonin writers have attracted some popularity. There are more to come. The interest has prompted me to add a second dozen to what I wrote earlier
1. A Year of the Quiet Sun (Polish, 1984). A masterpiece. A heartbreakingly poignant story of the suffering and sacrifice of Polish people in the wake of World War II.
2. The Last Lieutenant (Norwegian, 1993). I am a sucker for films that portray outnumbered people fighting bravely against cruel invaders, invaders usually being Yankees or Nazis. A Norwegian old soldier determines not to let the German invasion go unopposed, even knowing that resistance is hopeless.
3. I’ll Be Seeing You (U.S., 1944). A woman on a brief Christmas relief from prison and a soldier about to be shipped overseas have a meeting of souls. With two of the best stars of their time: Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten (both of whom were Southern-born). A similar theme of brief and touching WW II meeting is also well done in The Clock (1945) with Judy Garland and Robert Walker.
4. Ride with the Devil (U.S., 1999). A vivid and truthful rendering of Southerners caught in Missouri/Kansas conflict of the War Between the States. The Chinese director Ang Lee does not suffer from Yankee self-righteousness and gives us something that is astonishingly true for a work produced in our times. Northerners Tobey Maguire, Jewell, and Jeffrey Wright and Brit Jonathan Rhys-Myers apparently have no objection to portraying Confederates.
5. The Virginian (U.S., 2000 version). Owen Wister’s iconic 1902 novel about a cowboy Southern knight in frontier Wyoming has been made into a movie numerous times, beginning in the silent era. Most of these films are third-rate routine Hollywood Westerns with no resemblance to the book except a plot summary. Not so, this newer version, which has beautiful Wyoming scenery and poetic attention to the characters.
6. The Bostonians (U.S., 1984). Henry James, who published his novel The Bostonians in 1886, is regarded on both sides of the Atlantic as one of the greatest fiction writers in English of all times, although for us plain folk he is something of an acquired taste, like opera. In The Bostonians a young ex-Confederate from Mississippi comes to New York in hopes of making a living. He pays a visit of duty to a lady cousin in Boston where he meets “the girl of his dreams.” There follows a contest between Boston reformers who want to use the young lady, who has a mesmerizing stage presence, as an orator for feminism, and the Southerner, who wants her for his wife. This time, the Southerner wins. Though of a defeated people, he is alive and vital, a great contrast to artificial and sick Boston society.
7. The Star (Russian, 2002). A moving story of a small Russian recon unit behind German lines in World War II.
8. Soldier of Orange (Dutch, 1977). The French and the Norwegians had forests and mountains to base their resistance to Nazi occupation. Not so the Dutch, who had to resort to other means. Rutger Hauer before he went to Hollywood.
9. The Admiral: Roaring Currents (Korean, 2014). Vivid and human account of outnumbered Koreans defeating an attacking Japanese armada in 1597.
10. Saigon--Year of the Cat (British, 1983). The last crashing down weeks of the American Vietnam crusade vividly portrayed. Obiter dicta: The most celebrated Vietnam movies---Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket tell more about the psyches of movie makers caught up in the 60s revolution than they do about Vietnam itself. The Deer Hunter is somewhat better, portraying something resembling actual Americans. For honest portrayal of the war see The Siege of Firebase Gloria and We Were Soldiers.
11. Madron (U.S., 1970). Richard Boone, a hardened gunslinger, sacrifices himself to save a nun (Leslie Caron) from the Apaches. The “critics” don’t seem to like this one, which is a recommendation. It is hard to find.
12. Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility (British, both in 1995). There are many very good films of Jane Austen’s work. These are the best, in my opinion.
Keep in mind:
When the Powers -That - Be engage in censorship, remember that censorship is ALWAYS directed at suppressing TRUTH that they do not want you to know. They don’t care about suppressing falsehood, which they often use themselves.
Politicians have no interest in truth or virtue. The most successful ones all have psychopathic traits to some degree or other, which means they can project a seeming sincerity. They are interested in themselves---in power, which is a shorthand for vanity, greed, and lust. Telling the truth never occurs to them---they tell you whatever is to their advantage, what they think you want to know or will make them look good. They vote millions for this or that not because they want to improve society but because it enhances their power.
The only good politician is one who leaves office no richer than he entered it. There may be a good politician somewhere. Somewhere there may be a unicorn and an honest car salesman. I have never seen either but I don’t rule out the possibility that they might exist somewhere.
There is no separation between money and government power. They are the same thing, always. Government power gets money and money gets government power. Money talks and virtue walks.
Our Founders knew that responsibility of public officers for their actions was a necessity for a republican government. Holding office was a temporary thing and the representative was to return to the body of the people and live under the laws that he had made. This would help to make him virtuous in office. Believe it or not, in early days people actually lost money by neglecting their business while they served in Congress. Of course that no longer works. Very seldom do politicians suffer for their actions. They leave office to give allegiance where it will make them even richer. What President besides Nixon has been held to account for his actions? Nixon’s fall occurred because he was obsessed with means rather than ends and his Republican supporters were shallow and cowardly. George Bush 2 carried out the most illegal, foolish, irresponsible, catastrophic policies in history and has never suffered a ruffled feather. Obama was responsible for one illegal act after another and never had reason to lose his cool. For Americans two weeks ago is ancient history.
*Various iconoclasts have made a list of several hundred Confederate memorials to be trashed. Does that include the statue at the courthouse in Palmyra, Missouri, that honours the 13 civilians brutally and illegally massacred by Union soldiers? Or the monument in Front Royal, Virginia, to Mosby’s men who were illegally executed? Or the monument at New Market, Virginia, to two soldiers who were murdered in June, 1865, by Union soldiers after they had surrendered?
*After 9/11 we had to have passenger searches at airports. Because of protests by Mideasterners and Arabs against “profiling,” everybody has to be searched, including little old ladies in wheel chairs who are 10th generation Americans. Now it has always seemed to me that if these Muslims are really loyal American citizens, they would patriotically volunteer for profiling as an efficient measure to help save the lives of their fellow Americans. That would be a natural and expected act of real patriotism that would greatly please our Founding Fathers.
*Whatever happened to shame? Homosexuals may or may not be responsible for their condition. But what could possibly make somebody parade and proclaim this in the streets? Did they not have mothers to tell them how to behave in public and what should be kept private? Apparently mothers like that now only exist among Southerners and traditional Christians.
*American history is being attacked and shredded in a multitude of ways and places. A national history reflects the people whose history it is. Maybe the problem is that American people are now something other than what they used to be. Why should somebody whose people landed at Ellis Island in 1938, much less the new “American” from Mexico or Somalia care anything about Valley Forge, Gettysburg, or Iwo Jima?
*Many pointless and needless atrocities have been inflicted on the Islamic world by the U.S. government, especially since 9/11. The blowback from these ignorant and incompetent actions of our rulers will never cease and will threaten your and my grandchildren.
*Another atrocity is the brain drain inflicted upon Asia, and particularly India. Such a country desperately needs all of its educated people. But we find our President glorifying taking such people from their countries to benefit American “excellence.” At a time when Europe was a stratified society with insufficient opportunities for the talented, we did the world and ourselves a favour by taking in such people. That is no longer the case. Besides, what kind of “American” patriotism can we expect from people who abandoned their own country for a few dollars more. The false and dangerous ideas of the Melting Pot and “America as an idea” are wreaking havoc to our society, with more to come.
*Nothing is more indicative of historical ignorance and the diseased state of our public discourse than the campaign for “reparations.” Let’s save that for another day.
In what became the United States, servitude of people of the black African race existed for about two and a half centuries. The subject of American slavery is today so entertwined with unhealthy and present-centered emotions and motives—guilt, shame, hypocricy, projection, prurient imagination, propaganda, vengeance, extortion—as to defy rational historical discussion. Curiously, the much longer flourishing of African bondage—in the Caribbean and South America, in Africa itself, and in the Muslim world—seldom enters into American consciousness.
It is appropriate therefore to commence the understanding of this critical part of American history with an investigation of the antislavery movement. There will come a time, perhaps, when it will be necessary and possible to examine American slavery itself in order to appreciate fully what Calhoun meant when, in a speech in the Senate on February 6, 1837, he used the words “positive good” to describe the long-established institution of domestic slavery in his Southern society.
In undertaking to put Calhoun in the right context I will try to succinctly describe the abolitionist movement that arose in the 1830s, which was the cause and immediate occasion for Calhoun’s famous statement. Prior to the outbreak of the new abolitionism, antislavery sentiment had been widespread. Slavery’s economic and political defects, real and imagined, were freely discussed and gentle Quakers went about the business of promoting individual emancipation. Indeed, in the early 19th century one of my North Carolina ancestors freed his few slaves as a matter of conscience.
It was Calhoun’s purpose to call attention to the changed nature of antislavery and what that meant for the American future. To make a long story short, this new anti-slavery campaign was a crusade of evangelistic Christian heresy bent on purging the world of other people’s sins. It repudiated friendly persuasion and preached hatred of the slave-owner, indeed of all Southern society, in truly vile terms of abuse. According to the new abolitionism of the 1830s in sermons, press, and voluminus petititons to Congress, the South was a House of Horror inhabited by depraved whites and tortured blacks. Slavery was a sin to be purged immediately and without any attention to practical details.
A lurid imaginary conception of slavery rather than the everyday reality of life in the South, about which most knew nothing, energized the abolitionists. Little attention was paid to the actual welfare and future of the black people, who appear mostly as suffering victims in a melodrama and humble recipients of Northern benevolence. It is often difficult to tell whether the abolitionists most feared slavery or the presence of black people. By the late antebellum period, New England’s premier intellectual, Waldo Emerson, was predicting approvingly that the blacks, when free and deprived of the paternal care of the Southern whites they had irreparably corrupted, would soon die away and be as extinct as the dodo, leaving America to the pure Anglo-Saxon.
In the context we should make clear that the fanatical temper of this new mass movement alarmed not only Southerners but most of the orthodox Christian clergy and the general citizenry of the North. Also, that it was not a North-wide phenomenon, but was centered in areas settled by the poorer class of New Englanders. These regions, especially Vermont, western New York, and parts of the Midwest, were widely recognised as the source of other strange “isms” as well as abolition—of Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, spiritualism, prohibitionism, Anti-Masonism, vegetarianism, feminism, and free-love-ism among others. The outbreak of reformist zeal had more to do with the internal religious and social tensions and the breakdown of Calvinist orthodoxy within this specific greater New England culture region than with Southern realities. The tensions and unrest were projected outward, in honoured puritan fashion, towards the sins of others. This same region furnished John Brown with the financial backers and accomplices for his expeditions. A lower class phenomenon, this zeal yet comported well in its thrust with the Transcedentalism that was attracting New England intellectuals.
One could make several large books just studying the Northern condemnation of what was deemed the fanatical and meddling spirit of New Englanders. A prominent New York Democratic writer said:
The Abolitionists have throughout committed the fatal mistake of urging a purely moral cause by means, not only foreign to that character, but hostile to it, incompatible with it. Where they had to persuade, they have undertaken to force. Where love was the spirit in which they should have approached the task, they have done it in that of hate.
It becomes evident to anyone on close examination, although Calhoun did not mention this aspect, that abolitionist propaganda was a form of pornography, dwelling on the possibilities of sexual license in the master/slave relationship. The great abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Mrs. Stowe of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” fame, made money by selling tickets to pretend slave auctions featuring young, almost-white women for sale.
The abolitionist mindset has long dominated American history and absorbed Calhoun’s defense of slavery into its own telling of the American story. A common, widely accepted history of American anti-slavery goes something like this:
Negro slavery was an unfortunate relic of colonialism. Our all-wise Founding Fathers, including the great statesmen from the South, intended to put it on the road to extinction. After all, in 1776 they declared to the world that “All Men Are Created Equal,” in 1785 they banned slaves from the vast unsettled territory North and West of the Ohio River, and they continued thereafter to speak of slavery as undesirable. In this account it is not always mentioned that opposition to slavery was mostly theoretical was usually linked with impractical notions about the removal of the emancipated blacks from the midst of American society.
Then, according to the conventional account, something terrible happened that changed the course of history. The cotton gin made slavery once more profitable. Southerners, through their greed (from which Northerners seem to have been free), reversed the intentions of the Founders and begin to cling to and defend their awful institution from the criticism of benevolent, enlightened, and progressive Northerners. If not for this unfortunate invention, slavery would have dwindled away.
Then, in 1832 South Carolina, driven to treason by its hysterical devotion to slavery, invented States rights and nullified the tariff. This action was illegal, unconstitutional, unprecedented, based entirely on a fraudulent version of the Constitution, intended to break up the Union, and was a blow struck at the prosperity and progress of all true Americans.
But, as the story goes, this was only the prelude to a long treasonous conspiracy of the “Slave Power.” The Slave Power was imagined as a ruthless, violent class of large slave-holders who kept the blacks and most of the whites of the South in ignorance, poverty, and subjection, imperiously and selfishly ruled the Union, and in its arrogance even designed to spread slavery to the virtuous North. It was the implacable enemy of Northern rights and American values.
The Slave Power conspiracy took a decisive step forward in 1837, when the evil genius John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, in another turning point in history, declared that slavery was not an unfortunate evil but a desirable thing, a “positive good.” Calhoun, of course, was motivated by bitter spite from having been thwarted in his insatiable ambition to become President. Thereafter, he and his disciples laboured unceasingly to spread the scourge of slavery and to rule or ruin the United States.
The conspiracy of the slave-holding elite reached its height with secession. In its wickedness and folly the Slave Power sought to destroy government of, by, and for the people. Southerners engaged in rebellion against the best government on earth and rejected the saintly Lincoln, who had been chosen by the people and by God to lead the country through its greatest crisis. Only those perverted by slavery could have made such a diabolical attempt to destroy the United States, the last best hope of mankind.
Inevitably, the wicked rebellion instigated by the Slave Power was defeated by the forces of righteousness, and the Great Emancipator, in the noblest act in history, struck the chains from enslaved black people and made them forever free, something which he had longed for piously from his youth. The earlier version of the tale featured adoring blacks at the feet of noble emancipators like Lincoln and Robert Gould Shaw. A revised version pictures noble self-emancipated blacks and noble boys in blue rushing into each other’s arms to overthrow the brutal Southern masters. Neither version gives a remotely truthful perspective on what actually happened during the catastrophic blood-letting of 1861- 1865.
This scenario is widely believed and may be the interpretation of the Civil War era held by the largest number of Americans. As an account of American history it is false in every particular. It is a fairy tale made up to sustain the notion that America, except for the South, is uniquely virtuous among the nations and always motivated by high and benevolent ideals. It covers with righteousness and inevitability the brutal war of conquest, domination, and exploitation that was waged against the Southern people from 1861 to 1876. It is the rehashed propaganda of one side in a vast and complex conflict, not the sober judgment of history. We feel its power when George W. Bush talks about an American mission to spread virtue throughout the world, no matter how many ungrateful people have to be killed. He is heir to the abolitionist playbook which tells us that America, democracy, and Christianity are endowed with a mission to purify the world of evil.
This was the predominant mode of telling American history before the 20th century, though in published works it appeared in a more circumstantial and sophisticated form. In order to understand the propagandistic misrepresentation of Calhoun we need to see where the fairy tale fudges the truth.
In the first half of the 20th century the evil South interpretation of the Civil War was questioned and altered to a considerable extent by professional historians who were trained to examine primary sources exhaustively and skeptically. Their inclination was to look at both sides of a controversy in search of a larger truth rather than view the past as a story of good guys and bad guys. These historians were also disillusioned by the moralistic righteousness that had justified the catastrophic and fruitless death toll of the Great War. Further, they were willing, while unsympathetic to the South, to perceive the self-interest that marked the North in the sectional controversy. And were not persuaded that the Big Business empire created by the Northern victory was altogether a wonderful thing.
The premier American historian, Charles A. Beard, wrote that the Civil War war was not a civil war and not about slavery, but was a clash between the ruling classes of two regions with competing economic interests. Other historians were not afraid to describe the irrational nature of abolitionism and to discover that opposition to slavery was not necessarily motivated by benevolence toward the slave. And some historians saw the conflict not as inevitable but as resulting from extremism and blunders by political leaders of both sides that brought about a crisis that no sensible person wanted. As one scholar has put it, The War was about “an imaginary Negro in an impossible place.”
In our time the fairy tale interpretation of The War has come back with a vengeance. It is reflected in the much hyped TV series by Ken Burns and in the most sophisticated and celebrated histories of the day. There is not time to go into the interesting question of why this is so, but, despite claims to the contrary, it has absolutely nothing to do with actual historical knowledge and expertise having reached a higher truth. Having engaged in a good many arguments over the years, I have realised that the propagators of this view are often guilty of extreme lack of actual knowledge about the events and conditions of 19th century America. I know of a graduate student who in a paper mentioned Jefferson’s and Madison’s strong allegiance to state rights. A tenured full professor of American history told the student that he had made it up—it couldn’t be true. This “scholar” knew what he had been taught, that State rights was something invented out of the air by John C. Calhoun in the cause of slavery. Much of the present insistence that an evil Southern defense of slavery is the complete explanation for the war of 1861–1865 rests on this kind of ignorant adherence to fashionable dogma.
The fairy tale now takes the form of a hardened Cultural Marxist party line. Revolutionary change is always good and those who oppose it always evil. The only significance of the war is that it was a destruction of the Southern ruling class through the ongoing dialectic of revolution. The only thing to be regretted is that more recalcitrant Southerners were not killed and even greater revolutionary change was not forced upon American society. Differing interpretations are heresies to be suppressed, not arguments to be answered. They are damned as “revisionism.” Revisionism used to mean simply a revised historical interpretation, something harmless that occurred naturally every once in a while. It is now a term of abuse meant to suggest that objectors to the official interpretation of the Civil War are in the same company as those “revisionists” who deny Nazi atrocities in World War II.
Honest historians understand that they have their own sympathies, values, and assumptions, and try to allow for their own bias in interpreting the past. Advocates of the present orthodoxy do not qualify as honest historians. The orthodoxy is believable only from the starting point of a number of unacknowledged and unexamined beliefs: The assumptions are so much a part of the mental equipment of contemporary intellectuals that they are not even aware of them. Assumptions:
*That one need pay no attention to any Southern viewpoint because Southern words were always and only rationalizations for evil deeds and motives.
*That one need not examine the motives, agenda, and behaviour of abolitionism because it was the instrument of revolution, resistance to which is always justly exterminated.
*That Southerners had no culture of their own, no distinct identity, no worthy qualities, not even any intelligent grasp of their own economic interests—nothing to sustain a right to independence except devotion to slavery. Deeply underlying these unrecognised assumptions is another—Southerners do not really count as Americans and are a disposable people.
When Calhoun rose in the Senate in 1837 he was not launching a pro-slavery conspiracy—he was taking an open and defensive stance against a new and extreme provocation.
He was not declaring that slavery in the abstract was always and everywhere a good thing—he took pains to make clear that he was talking about the existing American society, about a specific historical situation and not a theory. In the discussion that followed his speech Calhoun “denied having pronounced slavery in the abstract a good. All he had said of it referred to existing circumstances . . . .”
He was not throwing up a roadblock to the progress of emancipation because slavery was not dwindling away before he spoke. The most obvious proof that there was no serious possibility of abolishing slavery is that it was flourishing. It was not as large in American life as it had been in the 18th century, but the slaves had increased vastly in number and spread over an immense territory in company with the white population. At no time was slavery economically moribund, though some times were better than others. The economic stagnation that had marked the older South was being overcome by agricultural reform.
True, there had been some quiet progress in individual emancipation. There were more free black people in the slave States than in the free, and they were more prosperous and had a better place in society than in the North. Both Southern and European visitors to the North testified to the depressed and despised condition of the latter. Another of those many facts about the antebellum South that our fairy tale history never mentions. The great man of the North, Daniel Webster, was to point out in the debates over the Compromise of 1850, that it was not Southern spokesmen but the fanaticism of the abolitionists that destroyed the disposition toward emancipation that had flourished before they appeared.
Calhoun was most certainly not acting out of personal ambition or a desire to rule or ruin the Union. A brilliant and experienced man, he understood the operation of the American political system as well as anyone ever has. Thus he knew perfectly well by this time that no statesman could ever again be elected President. He kept his name in play for the Presidency because it lent greater attention to what he had to say. As he said on another occasion, certain politicians were always attributing political stands to personal motives because they were unable themselves to conceive of any motives that were not personal.
And Calhoun was not launching some great innovation in the Southern attitude toward slavery because most of what he had to say was already a well-developed part of American discourse.
Calhoun’s speech of 1837 could be characterised as an aggressive and innovative repudiation of previous American doctrine only in the light of the fairy tale history that there had been a commitment to emancipation at the Founding. The misrepresentation of this occasion was deliberate and malicious propaganda that reveals much about the nature of anti-slavery.
It is still today vigorously asserted that the Founding Fathers contemplated the elimination of slavery, although somehow they did not quite get around to it. Though many of the founding generation regretted the existence of slavery, it is absurd to say that they contemplated a decree of emancipation. It has been pointed out that the Constitution explicitly recognised the existence of slavery in several ways, but that is not the main point that can be made. The idea of some firm but deferred commitment to end slavery rests upon the completely anachronistic assumption that the framers of the Constitution were omnipotent and omniscient sages who were free to design a New World Order out of their divine wisdom. This is a reflection of the nationalist fantasy history that was developing at the same time and in tandem with abolitionism. The Framers not only never had an intention to interfere with the slavery that existed, they would never have dreamed that they had any power to do so. The Constitution was an agreement among the states to preserve their existing societies.
Slavery was not dwindling away on the eve of the American Revolution. The slave population was growing, mostly naturally in pace with the American population in general. In fact, slave ownership was actually increasing in some of the Northern colonies. The two great Revolutionary heroes of Massachusetts, John Hancock and Samuel Adams, were slave-owners who brought their dependants with them to the Continental councils in Philadelphia.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1785, banning slaves from the land north and west of the Ohio river, is portrayed as a conclusive avowal of antislavery determination among the Founders. It was nothing of the sort. Since in the Continental Congress each state had one vote, it more resembles an agreement among the states to divide territory, like the later Missouri Compromise, than a popular determination to advance emancipation. In 1785 the importation of more slaves from Africa was still open and, as far as anyone knew, would remain so indefinitely. If the geography of slavery were not limited, the country could fill up with more black population, which nobody wanted. The natural increase of the slave population was already abundant. Among other things, additional imports to fill up all the unsettled territory of the Union would decrease the value of slave property in the East. So little binding was the territorial restriction on the future of slavery in the Old Northwest that the Illinois legislature not long after statehood gravely considered a proposal to make slavery legal in its borders.
By the time of the Missouri controversy of 1819 – 1820, the situation had changed greatly. Foreign importations were illegal by general consent. The Jeffersonian leadership unequivocally repudiated the attempted restriction on slavery in Missouri and the territories. The retired statesmen Jefferson and Madison agreed that the restriction on Missouri was unconstitutional, was a cynical political maneuver by Federalists to divide Northern and Southern Republicans and achieve rule, and that the extension of slavery was a phony issue. They said so repeatedly and emphatically in their letters. Jefferson even used the term “so-called” to refer to the extension of slavery issue. Forbidding the so-called “extension” of slavery did not free a single slave and in fact retarded gradual emancipation.
It is true that these gentlemen, though by no means all Southern leaders, had previously expressed a desire to be rid of slavery, if that were possible, and that they continued to do so. But in 1819–1820 they also vigorously denied the right of the Northern majority in Congress to interfere with slavery. The antislavery that had appeared in the Missouri issue they regarded as illegal, unwise, inexpedient, hypocritical, and portentous of disaster. This is what Jefferson meant when he referred at the time to “the fire bell in the night.” The terror that awakened him was not slavery but the dangerous portent of anti-slavery.
At the same time Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina, William Smith of South Carolina, and other members of Congress denied that slavery in the South was “barbaric” and defended it as a paternalistic good. John Taylor made the same case in his Inquiry, which he was provoked to publish by the Missouri question. The most solid Jeffersonians of the North tended to agree.
In 1830, seven years before Calhoun uttered “positive good,” Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina had this to say during his celebrated debates with Webster:
Sir, when arraigned before the bar of public opinion on this charge of slavery, we can stand up with conscious rectitude, plead not guilty, and put ourselves upon God and our country. If slavery, as it now exists in this country, be an evil, we of the present found it ready made to our hands. Finding our lot cast among a people, whom God had manifestly committed to our care, we did not sit down to speculate on abstract questions of theoretical liberty. We met it as a practical question of obligation and duty. We resolved to make the best of the situation in which Providence had placed us, and to fulfill the high trust which had devolved upon us as the owners of slaves, in the only way in which such a trust could be fulfilled without spreading misery and ruin throughout the land.
When in the 1850s a Northern party formed around opposition to the so-called “extention” of slavery, it laid a thoroughly dishonest claim on the name Republican and the heritage of Jefferson. Exclusion of slavery from the territories was portrayed as the Jeffersonian policy and used as a front by a mercantilist party that represented the extreme opposite of all that Jeffersonian Republicanism had stood for. So remote had the Northern understanding of the American past become that a party which existed to force through every policy that Jefferson despised, claimed him. Southerners still understood the Revolution and the Founding in intimate terms. They knew what their fathers and grandfathers had thought. In the North, American history had already become an abstraction, a matter of words to be cherry-picked for ammunition. This itself is an important story but far too large for this occasion.
The conventional accounts of anti-slavery tend to ignore or justify the extremist, hateful, and obviously counter-productive rhetoric that denounced Southerners as enemies, tyrants, pirates, and kidnappers and the South as an alien abomination which must be purged from America. Even less noticed is the economic critique of the South that was flourishing at the same time in the calculations of the most hard-nosed Northern capitalists, who would eventually join with the abolitionists in the Republican Party. While the abolitionists were raging against the planters for abominable cruelty to their dependants, the capitalists were faulting for being bad businessmen, too good to the workers on the plantation and failing to extract the maximum profit from them.
The belief was strong among them that slave labour was unwilling and therefore inefficient, though this theory was somewhat belied by the fact that the immense production of Southern tobacco in the 18th century and Southern cotton in the 19th century made up the overwhelming bulk of American exports. The capitalists and their spokesmen also believed and frequently said that slave labour was more expensive because it required the lifetime support of the worker. Something which for Southerners was a source of pride was seen by Northerners as a foolish waste of profits.If the workers were free to compete for wages, it was thought, productivity would be up and labour costs down. Often, this notion was accompanied by a belief that if lazy Southern blacks and whites could be got rid of and Southern lands settled by industrious New Englanders or Europeans, the profits of cotton would be all the greater and flowing into the pockets of people who really deserved them.
It seems to be the judgment of respected economic historians that the plantation was indeed a highly productive agricultural enterprise. Also, as Calhoun asserted in his “positive good” speech, that the black bondsmen received a greater lifetime return on their labour than industrial workers of the time in the North and Europe. Even before the end of the war and Reconstruction, opportunists followed the Union armies into the South, grabbed land, and set about to get rich with “free labour.” It usually did not work. The Northern capitalist conception of Southern society was as misguided as the abolitionist. This powerful part of anti-slavery should be kept in mind when we hear Lincoln singing the praises of “free labour.”
A planter might well have maximized return on his capital if he could somehow dispose of his land and slaves and invest like rich Northerners in government bonds and the stock of tariff-protected industries. But how could he possibly do this? And if he did so, what was to become of his people and his inherited way of life?
All of this was in Calhoun’s understanding of his world when he rose to speak. Having tried to explicate what he did not say that day, I will next try to understand what he did intend.
SOURCE: From The Abbeville Institute Scholars’ 2008 Conference, ” “Northern Anti-Slavery Rhetoric.” Previously published at the Abbeville Institute on June 25, 2014.
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