Richard Weaver: Historian of the South

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Along with Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet, Richard Weaver was one of the most influential intellectuals of the postwar conservative renascence in America. A professor of English at the University of Chicago, Weaver was also a scholar of Southern history, and his defense of Southern civilization was at once so elegant and insightful that historians continue to study and discuss his work some forty years after his untimely death. Although despised in fashionable circles, the South, Weaver believed, possessed insight and wisdom that a world increasingly enticed by liberalism (in the American sense) neglected at its peril.

In 1830, one of the most famous debates in American history occurred between Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster and South Carolina Senator Robert Hayne. Weaver analyzed the debate in his essay "Two Orators," and much of what in Weaver’s judgment separated North and South politically, culturally, and ideologically came through in this celebrated exchange. Before a packed and rapturously attentive Senate chamber, the two men delivered a total of five speeches, in which they examined the nature of the American Union.

According to Hayne, the American Union was formed by distinct American states, acting in their sovereign capacity to establish a federal government to act as their agent in a few clearly specified areas. The political consequences of this view were plain. The United States was composed of independent, sovereign political communities, which retained all powers not delegated to the federal government, and which as sovereign states could, through secession, recall the powers delegated to that government. That Hayne’s position possessed merit was evident in the grammatical construction people generally used when speaking about the United States: the United States are rather than the United States is.

Webster, on the other hand, argued that the Union had been formed by the entire American people in the aggregate. In Webster’s conception, therefore, secession (and the less extreme method of resistance to unconstitutional federal action known as nullification) was metaphysically impossible. The Union was not, at root, a confederation of states, but rather an indivisible whole.

Weaver frequently observed that the Southerner was very much a local person, devoted to his particular plot of land and skeptical of distant authorities or grandiose political schemes — and he perceived this attachment to the locality in Hayne’s remarks before the Senate. Hayne’s historical argument, Weaver wrote, "was devoted to the proposition that the United States had been founded primarily to secure the blessings of liberty. For Hayne the implication was clear that liberty required the independence and dignity of the parts, with local attention to and disposition of local affairs. In what may seem to many an excess of particularism, he opposed local improvements financed by funds of the general government. Yet from a strict point of view Hayne was but facing and accepting the price of liberty. Freedom is something that gathers around the hearth, inheres in local associations, and endears to a man his place of habitation."

The issue could also be conceived another way: was the American Union simply a means to an end or an end in itself? For Webster "a nation was something that filled the political horizon; it was a creation which tended to carry its own vindication, and for which the sacrifice of local rights was appropriate." But for Hayne, a nation "was a means toward a higher end, not a self-glorifying structure which improved as it gained size and authority for coercion." This was the fundamental issue at stake in nineteenth-century American political thought.

Although the testimony of history was clearly on the side of Hayne rather than Webster, whose rhetorical flights of fancy tended more to the mystical than the strictly historical, it was Webster’s view that would be established on the battlefield during the American Civil War. Weaver observed with sorrow that "somewhere along the path of events the French revolutionary theory of the people as a unitary whole, governing in the interest of the whole without restrictions on its power, had seeped into the political thinking of some Americans…. The u2018spurious democracy’ of the French Revolution, as Lord Acton was to term it, which placed power and rule above local rights and autochthonous institutions, continued its sway during the nineteenth century and profoundly altered the character of the American Union."

Another aspect of the Southern character that Weaver identified is that it is not utopian. When during the mid-nineteenth century Northerners were setting up self-described "utopian communities" — in which there would be no private property, or no marriage, or whatever — the Southerner shook his head in amusement. The Southerner, said Weaver, "accepts the irremediability of a certain amount of evil and tries to fence it around instead of trying to stamp it out and thereby spreading it. His is a classical acknowledgment of tragedy and of the limits of power." Weaver pointed out that such a mentality was utterly incompatible with another character type with which we are all too familiar. This other character type is "unhappy unless he feels that he is making the world over. He may talk much of tolerance, but for him tolerance is an exponent of power. His tolerance tolerates only the dogmatic idea of tolerance, as anyone can discover for himself by getting to know the modern humanitarian liberal." Although he naturally acknowledged the existence of exceptions, it was these two impulses, Weaver suggested, that comprised the two sections of the Union. (Which of them would ultimately triumph is evident from a glance at current American foreign policy.)

Throughout American history, there have been those who have sought to strengthen the central government and weaken the independence of the states in order to bring about this or that allegedly desirable social outcome. This tendency has manifested itself in many forms. In 1954, the Southern states were told that they had to begin racial desegregation of their schools. By 1957, federal troops were being used against a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, that had defied the federal government. By the 1960s, the Southern states were being told that desegregation was no longer enough: they now needed to engage in active integration of the races. Simply giving parents a choice of schools was not enough, the ideologues claimed, since they might choose to continue sending their children to single-race schools (as indeed happened in many cases). Even forced busing of students hours each way was said to be a perfectly constitutional way of accomplishing this task of social engineering. Whether any of this actually improved anyone’s educational performance — it didn’t — was scarcely even raised.

By the early 1970s, even Northern states that had never engaged in overt discrimination against blacks were said to be in breach of the mandate to integrate if their school systems were de facto segregated. Now the forced busing would be extended to the North, where there had been no legal discrimination in the past, and where a majority of parents — black and white — opposed this intrusion into their local affairs.

Weaver had warned that the federal government, claiming to act on behalf of freedom, would not so restrict itself for long. "The instrumentality of union, with its united strength and its subordination of the parts, is an irresistible temptation to the power-hungry of every generation," he wrote. "The strength of union may first be exercised in the name of freedom, but once it has been made monopolistic and unassailable, it will, if history teaches anything, be used for other purposes" (emphasis added). He observed in another context that "[w]hen doctrinaire liberalism is applied to societies," the result is "an enforced Utopia sustained by the police state."

The only use a liberal has for power, said Weaver, is to destroy. Anyone who thinks liberalism will restrict its use of federal power to the purely benign is deceiving himself. "If these fanatical destroyers are allowed to have their way," he warned, "the next thing to be challenged will be the basis on which the more general u2018American way of life’ is forming. The same charges of inequity leveled against the Southern regime will be leveled against capitalism, private property, the family, and even individuality."

With the Civil War over and the American nation consolidated (in 1869, the Supreme Court blandly described secession as "unconstitutional," without deigning to justify that statement with evidence), the imperially minded could turn their attention at last to the international arena. Weaver remarked, "One cannot feign surprise, therefore, that thirty years after the great struggle to consolidate and unionize American power, the nation embarked on its career of imperialism. The new nationalism enabled Theodore Roosevelt, than whom there was no more staunch advocate of union, to strut and bluster and intimidate our weaker neighbors. Ultimately it launched American upon its career of world imperialism, whose results are now being seen in indefinite military conscription, mountainous debt, restriction of dissent, and other abridgments of classical liberty."

The American South has often been criticized for being slow to adopt modern ideas, and for being insufficiently "progressive." But the South with which Richard Weaver attempts to acquaint us, while doubtless imperfect, possesses some of the characteristics of the tragic hero. Southerners attempted to resist the spirit of the age — this was, after all, the age of the unifications of Germany and Italy — as well as overwhelming military force. By resisting the idea of a centralized, consolidated nation, the South kept alive a pre-modern conception of political authority that acknowledged the independence and integrity of the constituent parts that comprised political society, and which rejected the idea that a single, irresistible sovereign voice had the right to ride roughshod over traditional local rights. (The South was Althusius to the North’s Rousseau.) Southerners are thus an inspiration to people anywhere who wish to keep regional cultures alive in the face of the standardization and uniformity enforced by modern, unitary states.

Southerners could not have known of the historically unprecedented destruction that such large-scale centralized states would wreak in the twentieth century. But having attempted to resist the transformation of the United States from a decentralized republic of many jurisdictions to a centralized state little different from that forged during the French Revolution, they made a stand against what has proven to be one of the most destructive institutions in history. Indeed, Professor Donald Livingston of Emory University has described the modern unitary state precisely as

one of the most destructive forces in history. Its wars and totalitarian revolutions have been without precedent in their barbarism and ferocity. But in addition to this, it has persistently subverted and continues to subvert those independent social authorities and moral communities on which eighteenth-century monarchs had not dared to lay their hands. Its subversion of these authorities, along with its success in providing material welfare, has produced an ever increasing number of rootless individuals whose characters are hedonistic, self-absorbed, and without spirit. We daily accept expropriations, both material and spiritual, from the central government which our ancestors in 1776 and 1861 would have considered non-negotiable.

In a similar vein, Weaver cited the lament of Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America:

If centralism is ultimately to prevail; if our entire system of free Institutions as established by our common ancestors is to be subverted, and an Empire is to be established in their stead; if that is to be the last scene of the great tragic drama now being enacted: then, be assured, that we of the South will be acquitted, not only in our own consciences, but in the judgment of mankind, of all responsibility for so terrible a catastrophe, and from all guilt of so great a crime against humanity.

The South, as a result both of the devastation she endured during the Civil War and the orthodox Christianity in which she has believed, has appreciated the element of tragedy in human existence, and has therefore viewed with skepticism those whose utopian schemes neglect both common sense as well as the baneful influence of original sin. An appreciation of this important insight has never been more urgently needed than now, when the American foreign policy establishment believes it reasonable to remake the political culture of an entire region of the world, as if societies were mere tinkertoys, easily taken apart and reassembled.

Around the world, secession and devolution movements abound; even the European Union can at times be heard to acknowledge the desire for devolution. The Confederate Battle Flag, ignorantly condemned by American Jacobins as a symbol of slavery that should be forcibly uprooted wherever it is found, has been seen to fly wherever in the world a people seeks to resist their subordination to unchecked central authority. These are some of the valuable things that Richard Weaver found in Southern civilization, and why we can say, with Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, that "the cause of the South is the cause of us all."

Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [send him mail] holds an AB from Harvard and a PhD from Columbia. He teaches history, is associate editor of The Latin Mass Magazine, and is co-author of The Great Façade: Vatican II and the Regime of Novelty in the Roman Catholic Church (2002). His next book, on Catholic thought during the Progressive Era, will be published next year by Columbia University Press.

An Italian translation of this article appeared in the journal Ideazione.

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