Things You're Not Supposed To Know About the South

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Clint Johnson, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the South (and Why It Will Rise Again) (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2006).

From The Simpsons, "Much Apu About Nothing," episode 151, May 5, 1996:

Citizenship Test Administrator: What was the cause of the Civil War?

Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between abolitionists and anti-abolitionists, economic factors both domestic and international….

Administrator: (Interrupting) Hey, hey.

Apu: Yeah?

Administrator: Just say slavery.

Apu: Slavery it is, sir.

Over the past couple of years the Politically Incorrect Guide series has released numerous successor volumes to my Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, covering topics ranging from English and American literature to climate change — the latter subject treated in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming (and Environmentalism), the third New York Times bestseller in the series.

The beginning of this year saw the release of still another entry in the series: The Politically Incorrect Guide to the South, by Clint Johnson. The professional haters and emotional hypochondriacs who pounce on anyone with anything favorable to say about the South will have a hard time digging up much dirt on Johnson, the respected author of seven books on the misnamed Civil War, ranging from volumes on the conduct of the war to guides for visiting Civil War sites today.

This enjoyable and wide-ranging book is arranged into two parts. The first is a quick introduction to Southern culture, including discussions of manners, music, food, and pastimes, and a useful overview of historic Southern homes, events, and locations. The second part is trip through American history, from the colonial period through Reconstruction, from a Southern point of view. This makes the book a valuable primer — and an enjoyable, easy-to-read one at that — for friends who are curious to know why you hold an interpretation of American history that doesn’t exactly conform to what everyone was taught in fourth grade.

As with Clyde Wilson’s recent book, I am struck by a central point in The Politically Incorrect Guide to the South: the demonization of all things Southern, a recent phenomenon, would have struck most Americans even half a century ago as grossly unfair, even bizarre. "If you watch films from the golden era of Hollywood (and the golden era of television)," Johnson writes, "you’ll find plenty of sympathetic portrayals of Southerners and the Confederacy. Political correctness — and the virtual banning and sometimes actual banning of pro-South portrayals (like the disappearance of the classic Disney film Song of the South) — didn’t happen until Hollywood decided to focus on bad language, brutal violence, pornography, and liberal preaching."

Johnson later refers to an incident that occurred in December 1898, when President William McKinley traveled to Atlanta to deliver a speech: "After a rousing round of u2018Dixie,’ during which McKinley jumped up and waved his hat, the president announced that u2018every soldier’s grave during our unfortunate civil war is a tribute to American valor. He then announced that the United States would take responsibility for caring for more than four thousand Confederate graves scattered around several national cemeteries in the North."

I mention this incident not because I am particularly interested in the opinions of politicians, but rather to show that there was a time in American history when it was not considered completely crazy to honor the sacrifices of Southerners who had fought to protect their homes against invaders. And that, of course, was exactly what the typical Southern soldier was doing: not defending slavery, but defending his home and family.

This respect for Southern valor continued even into the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who loathed Jefferson Davis and the very idea of secession. Nevertheless, in 1905 Roosevelt asked Congress to pass a law authorizing the return of 440 Confederate battle flags in the possession of the War Department. "We think it will be a graceful act of the Congress to return these flags," he said. (That, of course, was before we found out that those flags were something to be ashamed of — and, in classic Jacobin, totalitarian style, to be systematically expunged from the popular consciousness.)

In a speaking tour of the Southern states, Roosevelt declared, "Only a heroic people could have battled successfully against the conditions with which the people of the South found themselves face to face at the end of the Civil War." "All Americans," he later said, "must ever show high honor to the men of the War Between the States, whether they wore the blue or the gray, as long as they did their duty as the light was given them to see their duty with all the strength that was in them."

Now again, the point is not that TR is an especially lovable fellow whose opinions we are obliged to respect; my contribution to the book Reassessing the Presidency makes my own appraisal of the man clear enough. Rather, the point is that even TR, who — like the neoconservatives and left-liberals who adore him — despised the Confederacy and its blasphemous sundering of the sacred American Union, was able to summon some kind words for the sacrifices made by men defending their homes. Not for a moment did he think he was thereby defending slavery.

Particularly interesting is the example of Moses Jacob Ezekiel: born to a middle-class Jewish family in Richmond in 1844, Ezekiel went on to become one of the most sought-after sculptors in the world. As a young cadet Ezekiel had fought at the Battle of New Market, Virginia, where his roommate died; Ezekiel held his hand until the moment the young man passed away.

When approached by the design committee of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to sculpt a Confederate monument, Ezekiel was delighted, waiving his usual commission and offering to sculpt the monument for the cost of materials. "I have been waiting for forty years to have my love for the South recognized," he explained.

Ezekiel’s "Virginia Mourning Her Dead" depicts the classical female figure from the Virginia state seal sitting with her head in her hands, grieving over the deaths of young Southern men at New Market. Ezekiel went on to sculpt several other Confederate statues.

These are the kinds of facts and anecdotes that can be found throughout Johnson’s brisk narrative.

To be sure, there were a few little things that grated on me here and there; I don’t think it is particularly helpful to call the antiwar Federalists of the War of 1812 "liberals," for example, or to argue that their embrace of "isolationism" was obviously something to be deplored. Still, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the South is an excellent and welcome defense of all that is good and valuable in the Southern tradition. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, Patrick Henry, St. George Tucker, John Taylor, John Randolph, Abel Upshur, and Spencer Roane, to mention only the tip of the iceberg, constitute not exactly the most shameful philosophical lineage in human history. When combined with the South’s literary heritage — Poe, Twain, and Faulkner, for starters, are not exactly to be sniffed at — and her contributions to countless other aspects of American life and culture, the result is not, as Johnson reminds us in this light-hearted and useful book, a package to be ashamed of after all.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [view his website; send him mail] is senior fellow in American history at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His books include How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (get a free chapter here), The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy (first-place winner in the 2006 Templeton Enterprise Awards), and the New York Times bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.

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