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Southern Civilization and Slavery’s Taint

I appreciate and largely agree with the sentiments Ross Douthat advances in this blog post [1], and that Rod Dreher concurs in here [2], but I can’t resist asking a few pointed, perhaps uncomfortable questions.

The argument for Southern civilization tends to see the North the way Alexander Hamilton saw it, as New York City writ large. I’m a proud New Yorker myself, but even here you can find passionate champions [3] of the case against progress – champions who, I venture to suggest, have not been as much heeded in Dixieland as they have been up north. It’s worth remembering that Henry “American System” Clay wasn’t a Yankee; he was born in Virginia and represented Kentucky in the Senate. And when you think of the enormous impact the Army Corps of Engineers, the interstate highway system, the big box store, and so forth have had on the Southern landscape, I wonder whether it isn’t better to see the anti-progressive Southern tradition as oppositional rather than representative even within its own region.

But granting, for the sake of argument, that the distinctive American strain of thought that stands in opposition to progress as the ultimate good speaks most eloquently in a Southern accent. Why should that be? Why isn’t Vermont, or Iowa, just as good a place to find the virtues of the small, the local, the independent, the stubbornly unchanged? Why aren’t the accents of Marilynne Robinson and Robert Frost just as eloquent as those of Wendell Berry and Allen Tate?

I think the answer has something to do with the tragic sensibility of so much of the best in Southern culture. That sensibility is often linked to the status of being a conquered people, and hence to the “lost cause.” But I think it goes back earlier, to the slave system that cause aimed to defend – and expand.

The ideological defenders of slavery made two central arguments, the one suspiciously convenient to their interests, the other distinctly inconvenient for any American. The first was that Africans were an inferior species of people whose best destiny was bondage to a superior race. But the second was that all civilization depends on the capture and intelligent direction of labor power, and that genuine universal equality is therefore incompatible with civilization itself, the only open question being according to what social system that labor power is to be controlled, expropriated and directed. John C. Calhoun was called [4] “the Marx of the master class” because many of his arguments found an echo in Marx’s own critique of capitalist relations, but without Marx’s utopian optimism about the promised land of egalitarian communism that lay on the other side of capitalist exploitation. And Calhoun could call on good classical authority for his contention that freedom depended on slavery because no man who had to live on his own labor could possibly be free. That’s certainly how Aristotle saw the matter.

That second proposition – that freedom can only be purchased through slavery, and that civilization itself is necessarily based on the expropriation of labor – lends a distinctly tragic view to society if it’s not tainted by the foolish presumption that any group, class, or individual actually deserves the title of master. And that latter presumption is what was, at least among the sensitive minority of southerners overrepresented in its literary ranks, shattered by 1865. Such a sensibility is a particularly powerful corrective to the more general American optimism about our national experiment; indeed, it makes that view look more cruel than uplifting. It’s what the likes of Eugene Genovese [5] have tried to rescue from the Southern conservative tradition, and represents much of what both the Yankee Douthat and the southerner Dreher value about southernness from an intellectual and spiritual perspective.

It’s worth valuing, and rescuing. But it’s worth recognizing as well that what’s being rescued isn’t something that was tainted by slavery, but – like the music, and the food, and all of Louisiana, pretty much everything on Douthat’s list – the product of slavery’s taint.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Southern Civilization and Slavery’s Taint"

#1 Comment By ck On June 25, 2015 @ 4:26 pm

“But it’s worth recognizing as well that what’s being rescued isn’t something that was tainted by slavery”

Let’s not exclude those Northern states that did the same at some point in their past.

#2 Comment By Matt On June 25, 2015 @ 4:54 pm

No slavery, no Blues.

If No Blues, then No Elvis, No Beatles, No Stones.

Not that I defend slavery.

#3 Comment By Noah172 On June 25, 2015 @ 7:46 pm

But the second was that all civilization depends on the capture and intelligent direction of labor power, and that genuine universal equality is therefore incompatible with civilization itself, the only open question being according to what social system that labor power is to be controlled, expropriated and directed

You know who makes this argument today? Mass immigration advocates of the right and left, and free traders of the right and left. Jobs Americans won’t do, crops rotting in the fields, nobody to write code, comparative advantage, mobile labor and capital = peace while restrictionism and protectionism = war (and genocide) — all the sophisticated justifications for why Mexicans and Chinese and Indians should perform labor for a post-national, service-economy elite while the white American middle class hollows out.

And this worldview often goes by the name, “progressive”.

#4 Comment By JonF On June 25, 2015 @ 8:07 pm

Re: Re: The Emanicipation Proclamation came late in the war, and was directed only at Confederate slave states, not slave states that supported the Union.

It needs to be repeated: the EP was of very dubious constitutionality as it was; it was justifiable only as a war measure doirected at peoples in active rebellion. There was no way it could have been applied to Uniuon slave states. which is why the 13th amnendment was drafted.

Re: Indeed, American capitalism as we know it rested on a foundation of the slave economy.

This is overstated, though with a grain of truth. And it was not so much the economy of the North that benefited from Southeren slavery as it was the economy of Great Britain– though Southerners oveestimated that too, imagining that the loss of Soiuthern cotton would collapse the British ecomnomy and bring assiatance to their cause. Which of course did not happen.

Calhoun’s notion that freedom can only be founded on the slavery is profoundly unChristian (unsurprisingly, since Calhoun was a doubter and skeptic as far as religion went). It ignores the Catholic tradition of distributism, and contradicts the motto of the old monastic orders “Ora and labora”. Granted, work under capitalism is often ignoble, but the answer is not to foist that work onto others, but to seek to ennoble our work. The Bible itself assures us that men, under Original Sin, are bound to labor for their bread. Why object, this side of the Kingdom of Heaven?

#5 Comment By Michael Sheridan On June 25, 2015 @ 8:14 pm

I ran across this quote (from an 1856 issue of Alabama’s Muscogee Herald, [6] in Vol. 39 of the Journal of the Senate of Indiana) in a recent piece by TNC. It seems relevant to Millman’s hypothesis:

Free Society! we sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists? All the Northern men and especially the New England States are devoid of society fitted for well-bred gentlemen. The prevailing class one meet with is that of mechanics struggling to be genteel, and small farmers who do their own drudgery, and yet are hardly fit for association with a Southern gentleman’s body servant. This is your free society which Northern hordes are trying to extend into Kansas.

#6 Comment By Sam M On June 25, 2015 @ 9:22 pm

Ok. But whose culture is free of this sort of taint? Much of the northeast was plundered from natives. No plunder, no CBGB. Is that “worth recognizing” for fans of The Ramones?

#7 Comment By hypersensitive minorities On June 25, 2015 @ 9:53 pm

“And that latter presumption is what was, at least among the sensitive minority of southerners overrepresented in its literary ranks, shattered by 1865.”

You’d be hard put to find a society whose “sensitive minority” wasn’t overrepresented in its literary ranks. It’s in the nature of literary ranks.

#8 Comment By Samuel Barry On June 25, 2015 @ 11:25 pm

It will always be easy for Southerners looking to blunt the edge of our history to point to the Dickensonian labor practices of the 19th-century Industrial North, saying “were we truly so much more evil as to deserve to have our lands laid waste and our cities burned by invading armies?” Besides the obvious moral depravity, the racist element of the Southern economy clearly has been a politically effective answer to this question, in that it very quickly and neatly divides the South against itself in a way that questions of labor policy by themselves cannot do for the North. Yet the call for racial justice still fails to exonerate the rest of the country from its broadly analogous iniquities.

The Jeffersonian preference for politically-oriented as opposed to economically-oriented policy certainly gains an edge of its own from that history, an edge which makes the liberals self-satisfied with their “responsible consumerism” seem absolutely ridiculous in comparison. That approach is both politically and morally untenable if it cannot be reconciled with the sharpest critiques of Southern racism. Yet why should such a reconciliation not be possible both in principle and in practice, whatever the historical causes that have made it necessary?

#9 Comment By James On June 26, 2015 @ 1:08 am

Noah,

Civilization was bought by destruction, by man’s exploitation of nature and by man’s exploitation of of man. It is the way of things. Because of this human existence is inextricably bound up with tragedy, loss, defeat, futility and ultimately death. One may deny every historical assertion for and theological tenet of Christianity and still possibly hold my respect, but deny original sin and I will think you naive. It permeates our existence, and only by grace can we be saved from it. We surely cannot save ourselves, not through ideology, technology or any other contrivance. I think this is one of the greatest geniuses of the Southern tradition of which you write; it is deeply aware of man’s failings and the tragic sense of life. The greatest sin of antebellum Southerners was not racism but pride, a pride that preceded the fall. Many thoughtful Southerners after the war recognized this, and this realization (with its accompanying humility and stoicism in the face of that humiliation) was a defining element of what the South later produced in its art and literature afterward, those things which you say you value.
It must be said, however, that overweening pride was not unique to the Old South. Far, far from it. Americans, North and South, felt it. Blustery commentary about the wonderful greatness of American institutions, the great wisdom of American democracy and the wondrous prosperity it all produced flowed from the lips of politicians come election time from Maine to Georgia, from New York to California in the decades before the Civil War. This is not to say that Americans did not have honest cause to be proud, but there is a fine line between that and a blinding arrogance that precludes needed reflection and self-criticism.
The South was chasten, but not the North, and since it was, by its victory, the one to define what American civilization would become (and by its historians supposedly always had been) that pride became the basis for the idea of America as secularized version of the old Puritan ‘city on a hill,’ a lamp unto the rest of the world, the map of enlightenment, freedom and democracy. In this vision of America there is little room for that sense of tragedy, of limits or the potential for failure. Such things are anathema to this notion of American identity. America always wins and is always in the right. This too is a legacy of the Civil War, although one not so obvious as the long tragic history of racism. Because it is not obvious, and the other certainly is, it has been convenient for Americans, if they notice that Southern tradition of which you write at all over and above the troubled racial history of the South, to cast it off as alien or “other,” as if it were somehow not part of the “true” American experience. I hear and read commentators now speaking of the Confederate flag as “an un-American, treasonous symbol” and “a reminder of an ugly part of our past.” Whatever else it may be, it is certainly not ‘un-American.’ It is an inescapable part of the tapestry of the American experience. What were antebellum Southerners but Americans, a people born of the same broad historical processes and developments as those Americans in Massachusetts, Michigan or Lincoln’s Illinois. What I suspect is also at work in the current dialogue about the Confederate flag however is not just its racial overtones but its subtle, inchoate rebuke to the contemporary notion that in America there can be only winners, that failure, be it moral, political, intellectual or at war is simply not part of who we are. The Confederate flag represents the fact that this is not true. Southern literary and cultural tradition which grew and flourished after its furling at Appomattox, contains much wisdom from that lesson if modern Americans will care to look for it. I fear that will not.

#10 Comment By Johann On June 26, 2015 @ 8:44 am

Rome enslaved many, including north European barbarians. And of course many other civilizations that history considers to be great civilizations had many values and practices that would be unacceptable today. By the time of the turn of the 18th century, i.e. circa 1800, there were the beginnings of moral outrage against slavery, which escalated and reached a peak during the civil war. So it was a period of transition. I disagree that the southern heritage should be expunged, buried, or whatever, because much of it is a product of slavery. It should be acknowledged as a part of its history.

#11 Comment By The Sigmoid Curve On June 26, 2015 @ 11:05 am

“the foolish presumption that any group, class, or individual actually deserves the title of master”

If you never met an individual who “actually deserves” the title of master you need to get out more. They exist, our preferences and prejudices to the contrary notwithstanding.

#12 Comment By Colonel Bogey On June 26, 2015 @ 11:10 am

Why does traditional conservatism ‘speak most eloquently in a Southern accent’ instead of the accents of Vermont and the rest of the Yankee North? Because the Yankee Puritans were the same sort of people as those who cut off King Charles’s head and set up the dictatorship of Cromwell. The Restoration was proclaimed in Virginia in 1659, and only in 1660 in England itself.

#13 Comment By Benjamin Schwarz On June 26, 2015 @ 11:49 am

I greatly admire (and agree with) this post, though I offer a small correction. Noah writes:

But granting, for the sake of argument, that the distinctive American strain of thought that stands in opposition to progress as the ultimate good speaks most eloquently in a Southern accent. Why should that be? Why isn’t Vermont, or Iowa, just as good a place to find the virtues of the small, the local, the independent, the stubbornly unchanged? Why aren’t the accents of Marilynne Robinson and Robert Frost just as eloquent as those of Wendell Berry and Allen Tate

Donald Davidson, the Southern Agrarian with in many ways the most profound grasp of southern history (and, alas, the Southern Agrarian with probably the most retrograde views of race relations) turned precisely to rural New England as a model of conservatism and localism. For years he spent most of his summer in Vermont.

#14 Comment By L.M. Dorsey On June 26, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

Fwiw, R.P. Warren’s Legacy of the Civil War is a compelling meditation on the various national mythologies developed subsequent to the war. To be read in tandem, I might suggest, with Dubois’ Black Reconstruction.

#15 Comment By JonF On June 26, 2015 @ 2:05 pm

Re: Because the Yankee Puritans were the same sort of people as those who cut off King Charles’s head and set up the dictatorship of Cromwell.

And the Southerners started a war over a lost election that killed far more people than the Roundhead-Cavalier dust-up did

#16 Comment By Winston On June 26, 2015 @ 9:49 pm

The British were the ones who introduced slavery;but have long gotten over their ties to it;but racism still stalks the country (every part of the country). It is wrong when a white high school drop out has same chances of a job as a black college grad. When Nigerian immigrants say need to do much better than the whites because of racism!

#17 Comment By Winston On June 26, 2015 @ 10:05 pm

Still carrying albatross of racism..

[7]
America still is the land of opportunities for black immigrants—but not their kids
[8]
It’s Mostly White People Who Prefer to Live in Segregated Neighborhoods

#18 Comment By M_Young On June 28, 2015 @ 7:52 am

“America still is the land of opportunities for black immigrants—but not their kids”

There’s recently been a slew of stories about kids admitted to all eight Ivy league colleges — all have been black or immigrant stock. So it isn’t for lack of trying of our elites to give these ‘kids’ opportunities. Probably running into regression to the mean.

“It’s Mostly White People Who Prefer to Live in Segregated Neighborhoods”

Yes, because they will have lower crime and all sorts of other nice things.

#19 Comment By JonF On June 29, 2015 @ 1:18 pm

Re: Yes, because they will have lower crime and all sorts of other nice things.

The reality today is not so much ethnically segregated neighborhoods as income segregated neighborhoods. Wherever you have great concentrations of poverty you will have great concentrations of crime. Most middle class people are OK with a black doctor or college professor next door– and at the same time they don’t want welfare whites from the trailer park next door. (I live in a racially mixed neighborhood, it’s a bit downscale, but not seriously impoverished. The worst neighbors I’ve had were a white couple who inherited a house there and for the next two years played to every “trailer trash” stereotype you can imagine. Was very glad to see them go)

#20 Comment By Noah172 On June 29, 2015 @ 9:54 pm

JonF,

Race still matters to rates of criminality even when looking only at the underclasses. Underclass whites are not as violent as underclass blacks: whites in Appalachia have problems with drugs and property crime, to be sure, but they do not shed blood with the fervor of, say, the residents of the South Side of Chicago.

For that matter, race still matters when examining criminality among affluent suburbanites. Not far from you in Baltimore, there are a cluster of affluent DC suburban counties: Montgomery, Fairfax… and Prince George’s. Two of these have low rates of violent crime; the third has had shockingly high rates of violent crime given its affluence, even after some abatement in recent years. In two of these counties whites plus Asians form significant majorities of residents, with relatively small (though growing) black minorities; the third is heavily black, has been getting blacker for decades, and has few remaining whites. Can you match these counties to the descriptions just given?

#21 Comment By sam On June 30, 2015 @ 6:20 pm

” Because the Yankee Puritans were the same sort of people as those who cut off King Charles’s head and set up the dictatorship of Cromwell. The Restoration was proclaimed in Virginia in 1659, and only in 1660 in England itself.”

Why yes. And the Southern culture was created by dispossessed Cavaliers. I’ve sometimes thought our Civil War was the last act of the English Civil War. And the aristocrats lost again.

#22 Comment By Cole Simmons On July 6, 2015 @ 4:52 pm

The frank acceptance of ruling class prerogatives and responsibilities, and opposition to egalitarian values are historically attached, in the South, to slavery. However, those two qualities, by themselves, are potentially attached to societies that are not based on slavery, much less race specific slavery. If people are determined to attach those qualities that linger in the South to its history, fine. Though we claim to have separated those values out from racism and slavery, and I think the majority of educated and conservative Southerners actually have done so. We are therefore right to say that the attempt to keep those values nailed to slavery shows not only an aversion to slavery, but an aversion to the values. The discussion of the historical origin of our values is lower in dignity and importance to the discussion about the values themselves.

#23 Comment By Michael Cooper On September 2, 2015 @ 9:02 am

As my old Southern granny used to say, if Yankees had found slaver profitable, it (slavery) would have stretched out to the crack of doom! But that was just my poor, benighted, Shakespeare quoting granny. What had she learned in her 88 years of hypocrisy and false piety? But, I take your lesson straight; I can no longer read the classics without the lingering taint of slavery fouling my delicate sensibilities. Thanks for the belated trigger warning!