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Allen Tate and My Conscience

Allen Tate, courtesy of The New Republic

It’s not often that my conscience troubles me — annoying thing, a conscience — but it’s demanding right now that I distance myself as far as is humanly possible from the 1936 Allen Tate lecture recently posted on this site. (It was posted some weeks back but I’m just now getting to it.)

Tate’s argument is that “antebellum man” lived in a “traditional society” that was morally superior to our own, which is dominated by “finance-capitalist economics.” The traditional society of the antebellum South had this as its “distinguishing feature”: “In order to make a livelihood men do not have to put aside their moral natures.” In that society, as opposed to our own, “The whole economic basis of life is closely bound up with moral behavior, and it is possible to behave morally all the time.”

Not once does Tate mention that the entire economic basis of this admirable traditional society was chattel slavery, and that therefore he does not consider the ownership of other human beings as in any way impeding a person who would “behave morally all the time.” I believe, rather, that the system Tate praises so highly was abominably wicked and unworthy to be called a “traditional society” at all: it wore a mask of genteel tradition to hide its horribly disfigured face. And as the late, great Eugene Genovese demonstrated, this was understood by many Southern Christians even during the antebellum period — I am not here simply imposing contemporary standards on ancestors who could not have known better. People who wanted to know better knew better in 1850, and there’s no excuse for Tate’s late romanticizing of the corruption.

Let me follow that tangent for a moment: It’s generally assumed that Christianity provided major support for the slaveholding culture, but that’s not quite right. As Genovese shows, there were certainly many vocal Christian defenders of slavery, but in the antebellum South itself almost all the opposition to slavery proper, and even more to cruelty towards slaves, came from orthodox Christians. The strongest intellectual props of slavery came from the kind of Stoic luck-based ethics I’ve been denouncing lately and from so-called “scientific racism”. I write about this at some length in my cultural history of original sin — see especially Chapter 9, “The Confraternity of the Human Type.”

It is common among defenders of the Old South to regret the slavery-based economic system while celebrating the culture’s aristocratic values. Tate will have none of this. “The kind of property” — property including other human beings — “that sustains the traditional society is not only not hostile to a unified moral code; it is positively the basis of it.” Again: “But the antebellum man saw no difference between the Georgian house and the economic basis that supported it. It was all of one piece.” Tate stresses this point repeatedly: it was the economic system of the Old South that enabled, that made possible, its moral virtues. He takes the view of the vulgar Marxist that the economic base absolutely determines the cultural superstructure. You have to have the slavery in order to get the virtuous society that the few, the very few, landowners can enjoy. (My poor-white ancestors would have been sharecroppers at best in Tate’s ideal world.)

So, in sum: I think Tate’s lecture is wrong tout court, and wickedly wrong.

There. I hope my conscience will leave me alone now.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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