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Still Waiting For That Southern Domination

As the descendant of “communitarian Yankees” and “unsophisticated” Scots-Irish alike, I found this Michael Hirsh item whining about the alleged Southern domination of American politics (no, this is not a joke) to be one of the worst things I have read all year.  Here [1] is the Yankee-as-besieged-enlightener morality tale:

This region was heavily settled by Scots-Irish immigrants–the same ethnic mix King James I sent to Northern Ireland to clear out the native Celtic Catholics [bold mine-DL]. After succeeding at that, they then settled the American Frontier, suffering Indian raids and fighting for their lives every step of the way. And the Southern frontiersmen never got over their hatred of the East Coast elites and a belief in the morality and nobility of defying them. Their champion was the Indian-fighter Andrew Jackson. The outcome was that a substantial portion of the new nation developed, over many generations, a rather savage, unsophisticated set of mores. Traditionally, it has been balanced by a more diplomatic, communitarian Yankee sensibility from the Northeast and upper Midwest. But that latter sensibility has been losing ground in population numbers–and cultural weight.

Where to begin?  One might note that Scots-Irish are also a Celtic people, which makes the designation of Irish Catholics as Celtic rather redundant.  Nowhere in this does Hirsh seem to consider the possibility that despising the Eastern elite was, is, a good idea.  The “communitarian Yankee” sensibility is not really waning.  Indeed, I would argue that it remains disturbingly strong despite its long history of doing great harm to this country. 

Every foreign war or foreign policy leading to involvement in war since 1898 has largely been supported and waged by the “diplomatic, communitarian Yankee” set.  Who wanted us to go to war with Spain?  Overwhelmingly, it was Northeasterners who fueled the frenzy and a Midwesterner who presided over it.  Who took us to the edge of war with Great Britain over a Venezuelan boundary line?  A New Yorker named Cleveland (who was otherwise actually quite sound on foreign policy).  Who wanted us to enter WWI?  Liberal Protestants and Anglophiles from the Eastern Establishment.  Wilson was from the mid-Atlantic region for almost his entire life, and eschewed the Jeffersonian restraint in foreign affairs of the land of his birth.  Who urged entry into WWII?  The same people as had urged entry into WWI, and often for the same reasons.  Southerners, Westerners, fundamentalists, the “unsophisticated” of the land were overwhelmingly against involvement in European wars.  Panama, the Gulf War, Kosovo–all were the products of “realists” and internationalists.  No doubt Hirsh thinks involvement in those wars, which grew out of the internationalism and/or economic interests of the Easterners, was desirable,. but he cannot pretend that America has usually gone to war because of the Scots-Irish.  The Scots-Irish typically are unenthusiastic about the war, but serve disproportionately in the military because they believe patriotism and duty require it.   Meanwhile, the preachers of American nationalism were typically Northerners, whether we trace it back to Webster and Clay (correction: as has been pointed out in the comments, Clay was a Kentuckian, so he doesn’t really belong in this sentence–I regret the mistake) or consider Lincoln as one of its main proponents or look to T.R. and FDR.  Who has given us the Iraq war?  Bush may have lived in Texas for a while, but he is by background and education as thoroughly a product of the Eastern establishment as anyone alive.  Do the so-called “Jacksonians” tend to support the war more than others?  Yes, but not always enthusiastically or zealously; they support American wars because they believe, sometimes mistakenly, that it is their patriotic duty to do so.  It takes Easterners, particularly those reared in the “realist” and “internationalist” schools and weaned on Wilsonian fantasies about democracy and self-determination, to come up with the sort of interventionist and ideologically-motivated crusading of the last twenty years.  Middle Americans will support wars they believe are waged in self-defense or for the sake of national security; it takes Easterners to concoct preposterous theories of targeting potentially hostile states with “preventive” invasions.  The unsophisticated yokels of the backwaters, as Hirsh would see them, do not, would not, imagine such elaborate nonsense. 

No one can look at American politics today, seeing the main presidential candidates who are now running for the White House, and conclude that the South has triumphed in any meaningful way: we have two out-and-out Northerners and a transplant whose ancestors may be Scots-Irish but whose loyalties are to the central state and the status quo and who has immersed himself fully in the culture of the capital.  The South has become the most populous region, and yet it still wields vastly less cultural power than the major urban centers of the East Coast and California.  Hirsh is free to prefer the urban, Eastern liberals, but he should give up on the idea that the power and influence of Easterners are meaningfully in decline. 

After all, who still has the real power?  Overwhelmingly, they and urban elites around the country do, while Middle Americans will express their displeasure only if these people openly mock or belittle their beliefs.  So long as the pandering and the charade of phony populism continue, Scots-Irish folks and Southerners seem mostly content to accept and even to support a system that consistently works against them, their history and their interests.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Still Waiting For That Southern Domination"

#1 Comment By Howard J. Harrison On April 28, 2008 @ 10:37 am


Do you disapprove of Grover Cleveland’s taking us to the brink of war in 1897? The situation and prospects of Cleveland’s Venezuelan (really Canadian) war of 1897 more nearly resembled those of James K. Polk’s Mexican war of 1848 than those of William McKinley’s Spanish war of 1898. The object of Polk’s war were the empty lands of Mexico, of Cleveland’s aborted war, the empty lands of Canada. McKinley by contrast targeted lands already populated by foreigners.


#2 Comment By Daniel Larison On April 28, 2008 @ 11:03 am

As I recall, the Venezuela incident was in 1895-96 and was more or less concluded by early spring in 1896. Nothing in the official records of Cleveland’s administration supports an interpretation that he was picking a fight for a land grab in the north. His anti-imperialism was of such a kind that he saw it as his duty to intervene on the side of other peoples against the major empires–hence our silly detachment of forces to Samoa (to keep the Germans at bay), and the crazy sabre-rattling over an ill-defined Venezuelan-Guyanese border. I believe Cleveland was utterly sincere when he was arguing for resisting what he considered British aggression (this was taking place at right around the same time as the Jameson Raid, when the British definitely were engaged in aggressive moves against small republics), and he believed himself to be quite traditional in enforcing his interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine. I certainly disapprove of what Cleveland did over Venezuela, because it was none of our business and it was also based on faulty information about the correct border. Cleveland basically repackaged the Venezuelan position as his own, an unfortunate habit that many Presidents after him have taken up. His later career as one of the Anti-Imperialists was consistent, from his perspective, with this dangerous brinksmanship over the rights of Venezuela. I disagree that the boundary dispute resembled the Mexican case. There were poorly defined borders involved in both, but in the Venezuelan case we were attempting to come in one the side of the allegedly wronged Latin American state.

What we almost did in 1895-96 would be comparable to a British threat to intervene militarily prior to or during the Mexican war on behalf of Santa Anna. Had Cleveland followed through on his threat, we might have tried to attack Quebec again, or perhaps occupy parts of Alberta, but the British Navy would have reduced our port cities to rubble. So, yes, I disapprove of what he was doing.

I would qualify my point about the Venezuela example in an important respect: it was the heavy dependence of American commerce and finance on British lending that ultimately made the war politically undesirable in the U.S., so in this instance the Easterners’ pro-British bias prevented the situation from escalating, but this was not because of their greater sophistication or wisdom. It was because they were economically tied to the British–the same ties that sucked us into WWI twenty years later. That was a rare case where the traditional Democratic Anglophobia and populist dislike of concentrated financial power rallied in support of a belligerent posture towards another nation.

#3 Comment By tedschan On April 28, 2008 @ 11:23 am

What does Mr. Hirsh mean by communitarian?

#4 Comment By Daniel Larison On April 28, 2008 @ 11:30 am

Actually, I have no idea, since it was the Jeffersonians and Populists who often spoke in the name of the common good and local community interests, and their support came overwhelmingly from the people that Hirsh condemns. That’s something that could be turned into another post all on its own.

#5 Comment By jgquiggin On April 28, 2008 @ 1:34 pm

“Every foreign war or foreign policy leading to involvement in war since 1898 has largely been supported and waged by the ‘diplomatic, communitarian Yankee’ set. ”

Maybe you’re drawing on a superior source, but the most exhaustive and respected account of regional cultures in the United States that I know of is still David Hackett Fischer’s _Albion’s Seed_. Fischer writes:

“The war fever of [17]98 marked the beginning of a consistent pattern in American military history. From the quasi-war with France to the Vietnam War, the two southern cultures [i.e. the Southern tidewater region and the so-called Scots-Irish] strongly supported every American war no matter what it was about or who it was against. Southern honor and the warrior ethic combined to create regional war fevers of great intensity in 1798, 1812, 1861, 1898, 1917, 1941, 1950, and 1965.”

You might have a better case that those wars were *conceived* by the “Yankees,” but certainly not that they were “largely…supported and waged” by them.

#6 Comment By conradg On April 28, 2008 @ 3:16 pm

I agree with a lot of this, but there’s some historical problems in depicting Scotts-Irish southerners as anti-war. Culturally speaking, from their roots in the British Isle all the way to the present, these have been among the most militarily aggressive peoples in America, and also the most militarily talented. Which may be why they have been so willing to sign on to so many wars promoted by the eastern elites against their own interests. Foremost among these cultural traditions is that of “honor”. You probably know how deep this goes, and how highly honored military traditions are amongst these peoples. If you want to know why John McCain constantly talks about “honor”, and why it seems to be the only cohesive thread in his entire approach to foreign policy, one only need look at his Scotts-Irsih roots. The downside of honor is of course blind patriotism and the sense that one must carry on a battle out of sheer honor, rather than out of any real personal or political gain. This is one way in which the Scotts-Irish get manipulated into fighting wars: if the war is seen as a matter of personal honor and prestige, it seems worth fighting, even against one’s economic or political interests. This is why the south supported Vietnam and the Iraq invasion.

The problem with some of your historical analysis is that it neglects the Civil War – obviously one war fought for both honor and economic interests that the Scotts-Irish southerners were all for. Of course, this was not a foreign war, so perhaps it shouldn’t count. Except that all opposition or disinterest in foreign wars in the ante-bellum south can be seen as a consequence of the terrible defeat they suffered, and their lack of say in the federal government for a very long time. If we look at war prior to the Civil War, the evidence for their peaceful nature is lacking. The Texan War of Independence and the later Mexican War were both the result of Scotts-Irish aggression, and of course the Indian wars were fought with total commitment by these same peoples. Any opposition to expansionist wars during this time was purely due to the fear that expansionist states would not be slave states, and so lead to their marginalization. Which led to the Kansas-Missouri wars, and of course to the Civil War itself, which was fought far more aggressively and competently by the south, until of course Grant and Sherman took over.

So the militant tradition in the south is very strong, and continues to be exploited and re-directed to serve the ends of others. Even in WWII, it was the Scotts-Irish who were our best fighters, and even many of our best generals, such as Patton.

What I question is whether it’s really fair to say that these peoples have opposed the foreign wars that our elite establishments have gotten us into. I don’t recall much southern opposition to WWII, Korea, Vietnam, or either Iraq war. Or any war in my lifetime, to be sure. I agree with you that they didn’t start these wars, that various elites in our country are responsible for that, but I don’t get any sense that these people have ever mounted any serious opposition. It seems they are all too eager to go off and fight wars if the elites tell them to. Maybe I’m missing something, but I think you are relying on wishful thinking to imagine that Scotts-Irish culture is some kind of fertile ground for anti-war isolationism.

On the other hand, I do sympathize with your notion that these people ought to be anti-war, if they were acting in their own best interests. But this neglects how the culture of honor and warrior ethics is precisely the kind of culture which does NOT act in its own best interests, but is willing to plunge itself into lost causes (see Civil War once again) that often lead to ruin, regardless of all the warning signs. I’m not sure how this can be reversed, but if you have any clues, please let me know. It could save the whole country a lot of trouble.

#7 Comment By James Kabala On April 28, 2008 @ 8:28 pm

I actually see the history differently and mostly agree with conradg (Conrad G.?).

Leaving out the complicated issue of the Civil War, the only major war in U.S. history where opposition was strong in the South was the Phillipine War (a separate war from the Spanish-American War, which was generally popular in the South). Southerners were unqestionably the driving force behind the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the “filibustering” movements of the 1850s. The Civil War changed the dynamic and made Southerners more suspicious of foreign expansionism, which was reflected in their opposition to Grant’s failed annexation of Santo Domingo, McKinley’s successful annexation of Hawaii, and the Philippine War.

Except for his years as an undergraduate at Princeton (always the most Southern-friendly of the major Northeastern colleges), Wilson lived in the South continuously until he was thirty (twenty-six if we consider Maryland Mid-Atlantic instead of Southern). The dominant influences in his Cabinet and advisers were mostly Southern (notably House, McAdoo, Burleson, Daniels, Glass, and Page). Attempts to classify him as a non-Southener just won’t wash. Most Southerners in Congress voted for the war (as did most Congressmen from other regions, it should be said). Again in World War II, very few of the leading opponents of intervention in Congress were Southerners; most were Midwesterners and Westerners.

The most anti-war region of the United States in the twentieth century has unquestionably been the Upper Midwest, where the dominant cultural influences have been Yankee, German, and Scandanavian.

Both Northeastern liberals like Hirsh and Southern (or Southern-friendly) paleoconservatives like you enjoy dividing the nation into children of light and children of darkness (merely disagreeing on which region is which), but the facts are otherwise. All regions of the country have bellicose at certain times and pacific at other times.

P.S. Since when was Clay a Northerner? That is even more dubious than portraying Wilson as one, since Clay never lived in the North at all. (Kentucky is arguably non-Southern after 1861, but no one during Clay’s career knew which states would succeed and which would not.) Since he was a Mexican War skeptic, claiming him as a Southerner would actually support your point. (And his strong support of the War of 1812 was similar to that of John C. Calhoun, then his close ally.)

#8 Comment By James Kabala On April 28, 2008 @ 8:30 pm

“Secede,” of course, not “succeed.”

#9 Comment By Daniel Larison On April 29, 2008 @ 8:00 am

“…the only major war in U.S. history where opposition was strong in the South was the Phillipine War (a separate war from the Spanish-American War, which was generally popular in the South). Southerners were unqestionably the driving force behind the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the “filibustering” movements of the 1850s. The Civil War changed the dynamic and made Southerners more suspicious of foreign expansionism, which was reflected in their opposition to Grant’s failed annexation of Santo Domingo, McKinley’s successful annexation of Hawaii, and the Philippine War.”

Actually, opposition to entry into WWI was strong in the South, just as it was strong almost everywhere. Opposition to entry into WWII was strong in the South. Also, I am not saying that Southerners or Scots-Irish people are reflexively or more naturally “antiwar” than others. I’m not trying to pretend that there have never been Southerners who wanted wars and some who started wars, nor am I trying to say that they are the “children of light.” I celebrate the Midwesterners who have opposed unnecessary wars down through the decades. This is an argument about which region dominates our politics and the substance of our policies, and very clearly the region that still holds disproportionate sway over all this, as it has done for well over a century, is the Northeast. People from this region have driven our policies to such a large extent because they are the ones who have been in power for most of this time, and they have directed those policies in ways that serve their interests and attachments. Wilson may be from Virginia, but the people who embraced Wilsonian ideas at the time (and, for the most part, ever since) certainly were not. The picture was more complicated during the Cold War, but overwhelmingly the people who favoured involvement in foreign wars early on were from the East. Usually, it was not just Southerners, but the vast majority of the country that was against what the Easterners wanted to do, but the latter nonetheless got their way.

Also, if the South is so dominant today, isn’t it strange that we have had only one non-transplant Southerner in the White House in the last 28 years and before that only two in the last 40?

#10 Comment By James Kabala On April 29, 2008 @ 9:02 am

I didn’t necessarily say the South was dominant; that was Hirsh. (Although one could argue that George H.W. Bush was a mirror image of Wilson. They changed regions at about the same age, and just as Wilson could never have been elected from Virginia or Georgia, Bush could never have been elected (IMO) from Connecticut or Maine. As for the second Bush, I think all but the most unreconstructed die-hards would allow the Southernness of someone who came there at age two.)

It would be interesting to look at rudimentary public opinion data (if any such exists) from World War I and World War II. In Congress for World War I, just as with the Iraq War, most members jumped on the war bandwagon and the war received the great majority of votes from all regions. Ordinary folk were on a different page, of course, but I don’t know the regional breakdown. For World War II, I have in mind the story of the Southerner in mid-1941 who supposedly told a visiting journalist “I think we will have to enter the war. Do you think the Yankees will come along with us when we do?” Of course, that is probably an apocryphal tale, and again, I wonder what story early opinion polls would tell.

#11 Comment By Daniel Larison On April 29, 2008 @ 10:36 am

I know you weren’t making Hirsh’s argument. I am trying to clarify what I am and am not claiming in this post. If you belong to elite academic circles and profess a very liberal version of Presbyterianism, as Wilson did, you are,, as an adult, coming from a significantly different cultural world than the Shenandoah Valley where you were born. I would grant that Bush is coming from a world that is somewhat different from the New England aristocratic world in which his father was raised, but it’s hard to discount the influence of his education and his family. I will compromise and say that Wilson and Bush are mixed cases, combining the worst of both worlds.

I don’t know the data for WWII offhand, but I know 70% nationally opposed entry into WWI in 1917. That means that most folks in just about every region didn’t want to join the war. It was a more popular move in those places where Anglophilia was strongest and commercial ties were greatest, and I don’t think it is a stretch to assume that this was the Northeast.

On behalf of Northeasterners and mid-Atlantic folks, I should stress that there were many people, including my ancestors and relatives, in New England and New Jersey who opposed foreign wars from 1812 through WWI and on. Wilson is the one who made my Democratic ancestors switch parties in disgust, and they were from New Jersey, so I don’t mean to lay warmongering at the door of everyone from that region, either.

#12 Pingback By Eunomia » “Jacksonians” And Nationalism On April 29, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

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#13 Comment By James Kabala On May 2, 2008 @ 7:59 am

I think we actually agree on most of this, but I always dislike painting large regions of the country with a broad brush, an all too common phenomenon on the Internet. (Hirsh’s column, of course, was a far worse example of this than anything you have ever written.)

I wonder if I partially provoked this post by Thomas Fleming: [2] Probably I did not, since Fleming probably has never heard of me and certainly has no reason to have had previous respect for my opinions. Furthermore, I never mentioned Bryan (nor would I have been so foolish as to do so, since I would have suspected, although I admit I did not know for sure, that he was of Butternut descent). There must have been a similar conversation going on somewhere else on the Internet.

Nonetheless, if anyone did think from my post that I “hate the South,” however, nothing could be further from the truth.