The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 21, 2017

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Southern Conservatism
M. E. Bradford - 08/17/11

Southern conservatism, as opposed to the generic American variety, is a doctrine rooted in memory, experience, and prescription rather than in goals or abstract principles. It is part of a nonnegotiable Southern identity with what it is prior to what it means. Not the consequence of dialectics or reasoning, it emerges from a historical continuum engendered by a recognizable people who have, over a long period of time, a specific set of experiences. This conservatism antedates the American Revolution, and, after much attenuation, can be found in the region to this day, legalistic, rhetorical, retrospective, defined by its past and unthinkable in any other setting than the one which shaped its unfolding. The political theory of Southern conservatism, from the seventeenth century, has been localist and legalistic: willing to acknowledge that government is natural among men—self-government, though not if organized by extrinsic or a priori ideas—and providing for the preservation of a culture and way of life grown out of its beginnings, not (in the language of I’ll Take My Stand, 1930) “poured in from the top.” Always Southern conservatism has acknowledged a precious Anglo-American continuity, a heritage preserved, first of all, through veneration of the British constitution and of institutions derived from our colonial English past and our struggle to resist presumption and high-handedness from the mother country without surrendering our patrimony as overseas Englishmen.

This conservatism is both historic and principled in not insisting on rights anterior to or separable from the context in which they originally emerged—what the Declaration of Independence says, if we read all of it and not just one sentence. No “city on a hill” to which we, as mortal men, will someday arrive is presumed by it—no New England millennium. We can read much of the story of the beginnings of Southern conservatism in Richard Beale Davis’s Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1585–1763 (1978), or in the cautious voices of the Revolution in the South: the Carolinians, such as Edward and John Rutledge, Rawlins Lowndes, William Henry Drayton, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, James Iredell, and Samuel Johnston, often more characteristic Southern thinkers than the Virginia radicals; also, from Virginia itself, such revolutionaries by inheritance as Carter Braxton, Edmund Randolph, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Harrison, William Grayson, and Edmund Pendleton; and from Maryland such Old Whigs as Luther Martin and Samuel Chase. This is to mention only a few of the Southerners who, through and beyond the Revolution, expressed a great respect for the British constitution; and to ignore other nontheoretical framers and the less familiar followers of Jefferson, Madison, Richard Henry Lee, and George Wythe, who were indeed the sometime champions of “natural rights.” But the great point to be derived from this evidence is that colonial Southern political piety is a predicate for the rigorous constitutionalism of Southerners as citizens of the new Union that took shape between 1787 and 1790.

In that portion of the region’s political history that includes its early experience as part of the Republic and the years of sectional conflict leading up to secession and the War between the States, powerful conservatives worked and spoke for the South and refined its doctrine. Indeed, such Southern thought that was not conservative during this period is generally regarded as eccentric or exceptional. Therefore, a catalogue of these conservatives is unnecessary. But no summary of this period of regional establishment would be complete without mention of the imaginative literature generated in this time and place. John Pendleton Kennedy’s Swallow Barn (1832) and the revolutionary war romances of William Gilmore Simms, since these fictions are as representative of their time as are Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1784) and John Drayton’s Memoirs of the American Revolution as Relating to the State of South Carolina (1821) of the previous era, deserve mention. Both have obvious claims on the attention of those interested in the essence of Southern politics—as do the satiric stories of the frontier humorists George Washington Harris, Johnson Jones Hooper, William Tappan Thompson, Joseph Glover Baldwin, and Augustus Baldwin Longstreet.

Direct political teaching not to be ignored is to be found in Arator (1813) and other controversial writings by John Taylor of Caroline, in John C. Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government (1851), in his Fort Hill Address (1831), Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States (1851) and many occasional writings, in the speeches and letters of the Tertium Quids (John Randolph of Roanoke, Thomas Sumter, Nathaniel Macon), in the two inaugural addresses of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederate States of America, and in the farewell speeches of the Southern senators who left Washington during the Great Secession Winter of 1860–61. Moreover, it is impossible to consider this subject and still ignore the political theory of Southern savants like Thomas Roderick Dew, Henry Hughes, T. R. Cobb, George Fitzhugh, E. N. Elliot, George Tucker, and George Frederick Holmes; or the social teaching of their impressive contemporaries among Southern theologians—James Henry Thornwell, Benjamin Palmer, Robert Dabney, and Thornton Stringfellow. The study of Southern conservatism after its manifestation in the state ratification conventions that approved the Constitution and before the state conventions that adopted ordinances of secession could be a work of several volumes. Southern conservatism in this era is constitutional, antitheoretical, antirationalistic, localist, and religious. Furthermore, even before the debate concerning slavery, it knows itself as Southern—as is even more the case once it has attempted to realize itself politically in creating a nation of its own. The failure of this effort in 1865 completed the basic list of ingredients informing the characteristic Southern worldview in its maturity by adding to that list what is sometimes called the tragic sense of life, what a people learn by losing a terrible war.

There are several inclusive examinations of the Lost Cause written by Southern historians after the fact of defeat, by soldiers, clergymen, journalists, and legal theorists. The great summary of all this literature is Richard Weaver’s The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Postbellum Thought (1968) and later The Southern Essays of Richard Weaver (1987). We can recognize a development of the inherited political doctrine in the legal teaching of Albert Taylor Bledsoe, in the polemical analysis of Edward Pollard and Alexander Stephens, and in the personal narratives of Raphael Semmes, Robert Lewis Dabney, and Richard Taylor, which is to make no appropriate mention of the wartime and post-bellum memoirs of Southern women or of the voluminous fiction of the “era of good feeling” described by Paul H. Buck in The Road to Reunion, 1865–1890 (1937). These were of course the best days of the United Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and Sons of Confederate Veterans. Official piety was ubiquitous and flourished under every imaginable circumstance. But after the South’s successful resistance to Reconstruction, there was a persistently elegiac quality in subsequent expressions of loyalty to the inherited political tradition and the culture it had sustained.

The continuity of Southern conservatism after 1918 is a matter of intellectual refinement along with a simultaneous practical attenuation. The South remained the backbone of American conservatism, but with less effect and less distinction. Traditional Southern conservatives came to a better historical understanding of their own position and developed a more adequate critique of other, often hostile forces operating in the dialectic of American history. American political leaders continued to presuppose the region’s conservatism, and yet were nervous about it, even though racial questions were no longer taken to be peculiarly problems of the Southern Right. From this period the student of Southern conservatism should read William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee (1941); J. Evetts Haley’s Rough Times, Tough Fiber (1976); I’ll Take My Stand, by Twelve Southerners (1930) and Why the South Will Survive, by Fifteen Southerners (1981); Donald Davidson’s Attack on Leviathan (1938) and Still Rebels, Still Yankees (1957); M. E. Bradford’s edition of From Eden to Babylon: The Social and Political Essays of Andrew Nelson Lytle (1990), and Andrew Lytle’s A Wake for the Living (1975); Francis Butler Simkin’s The Everlasting South (1963), and Charles P. Roland’s The Improbable Era: The South since World War II (1975). This selection passes over a wide range of imaginative evidence produced by the writers of the Southern Renaissance—evidence which renders in action, tone, and character the traditional vision of the South; and it leaves aside many uncollected essays and works of scholarships—such as Russell Kirk’s John Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in American Politics (1964), Clyde Wilson’s Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew (1990), and Eugene Genovese’s The Slaveholder’s Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820–1860 (1992)—the kind of scholarly achievements that illuminate and reinforce the entire tradition in focusing on its characteristic figures or central problems. Paradoxically, as traditional Southern conservatism loses some of its force in the public life of the region and among a people who have honored its premises for more than 200 years, our understanding of the tradition, its origins, and its justifications grows apace.

In summary, Southern conservatism is still decentralist, opposed to concentrated authority inclined to regulate men’s lives in a fashion that is arbitrary, indifferent, self-important, and (when challenged) arrogant. Even today this doctrine continues to be antiegalitarian, as the biblical parable of the talents is antiegalitarian: opposed not only to demands for equality of condition but also to vapid generalizations concerning equality of opportunity, a circumstance which cannot be achieved even by a total submission to government: the negative equality of universal slavery. The industrial, cosmopolitan lifestyle, along with those political, scientific and managerial methods of manipulating reality so well suited to a contemporary assault on the providential order of things are also rejected, in part for reasons announced most clearly in the introduction to I’ll Take My Stand. There the Agrarians speak of religion as “our submission to the general intention of a nature that is fairly inscrutable; it is a sense of our role as creatures within it. But nature industrialized, transformed into cities and artificial habitations . . . is no longer nature but a highly simplified picture of nature. We receive the illusion of having power over nature, and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent.” Modern rationalism rejected the mythopoeic vision that makes religion possible. Filtered through these distortions, God “is merely an amiable expression.” At the bottom of agrarianism is a commitment to what Richard Weaver called “the older religiousness.” In essence, it is an ontology as well as a preference for the agricultural life and an attitude that rejects most versions of the progressive, Faustian myth. Ignoring the Agrarians, many politicians and journalists predicted that the South would lose its character after the conclusion of the Second Reconstruction. They were guilty of wishful thinking.

Traditional Southern conservatism, even when blurred or mixed with other attitudes, maintains a precarious balance. On the one hand, everyone needs to be as independent as it is possible to be. Yet some will always have five talents, some three, and some only one. Therefore, responsible members of the tribe, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, parents and grandparents always have to organize the units of the human family to some formula for stewardship: a patriarchal/matriarchal arrangement with most of the operative pressure not on the state but on voluntary associations, ties of blood and friendship that are prepolitical. Certainly, this conservatism is not going to hold that liberty or human rights can exist apart from the context in which they are created and readily subsist: it is not going to accept that such values can be posited as anterior to their historical development in particular circumstances.

Further Reading
  • Bradford, M. E. A Better Guide than Reason: Studies in the American Revolution. La Salle, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1979.
  • ———. The Reactionary Imperative: Essays Literary and Political. Peru, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1990.
  • Genovese, Eugene. The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Owsley, Frank L. Plain Folk of the Old South. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1949.
  • Reed, John Shelton. The Enduring South: Subcultural Persistence in Mass Society. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1972.
  • Wade, John Donald. Selected Essays and Other Writings. Edited by Donald Davidson. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1966.
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