History As It Can Be Written
Joseph R. Stromberg
to From Union to Empire
by Clyde N. Wilson
Clyde Wilson is a Christian, a Southerner, an American, an historian,
and a conservative. For over three decades he has worked on the
28-volume definitive edition of The
Papers of John C. Calhoun, has written on Calhoun and published
collection of Calhounís most important writings. He has also
seen to it that at least a corporalís guard of younger historians,
whose work he has supervised at the University of South Carolina,
will not fit the standard pattern stamped out nearly everywhere
else. I suppose these are the bare essentials. He is also, as his
essays demonstrate, a teacher and writer of great merit. His writings
published in Modern Age, Chronicles, Telos,
LewRockwell.com, and many other forums show Professor Wilson
off as the kind of conservative who is a stalwart defender of federalism
and republicanism, and the liberties associated with them. Such
conservatives are few and far between these days.
mentions having been a "Goldwater Youth." Many of us were
such, and we are probably not much the worse for it. Conservatism
itself has undergone major changes since then, none for the better.
But in those long bygone days, Conservatives already donning the
capital "C" held forth at length about accumulated wisdom
rooted in tradition. The past was all. One might, therefore, have
expected some of them to be serious historians. Alas, the truth
never quite lived up to the claims, and now the Official Conservatives
have thrown history entirely overboard, except as a heap of mere
curiosities useful in ephemeral disputations. Instead, they call
for world-revolution directed by the United States in "its"
(the federal governmentís) starring role as perfected millennial
state to steal a phrase from Richard Weaver.
transformation requires some explaining, and explanations duly emerge
from Wilsonís essays, spanning the period 1969 to 2001. One notices
a certain radicalization of his views over that time, the outcome
of cumulative disillusionment and rightly so with the ideas, leadership,
and policies of the Official Conservatives and their vehicle, the
Republican Party. Wilsonís views on recent events are systematically
connected with his views on the great sweep of American history.
is the function of history and the role of the historian to help
us understand who we are and how we got into to the situation in
which we find ourselves. Wilson writes that a historian should be
clear about "where he is coming from." Beyond that, his
obligations are to do serious research, write honest narrative and
analysis, and save his individual views for his concluding sections.
This brings us to Wilson the Southerner. He is noteworthy for being
one of a vanishing small group of professional historians who do
not regard Southern life and history as one dark, Gothic misfortune
is not content merely to throw the occasional spanner into the enemyís
works. Instead, he takes the war to the enemyís doorstep. What comes
of this is the creative deployment of a Southern perspective on
American history one that yields interesting and important insights.
This seemed more than clear to me, some thirty years ago, when I
first read in Modern Age the essay from which this book takes
its subtitle, "The Jeffersonian Conservative Tradition."
I knew we would be hearing a lot more from this historian.
essay just mentioned already contained many of the major themes
of Wilsonís work. One of them is the search for the essential American
political and social order and ideology as these unfolded in the
colonial period and became embodied in the "settlement"
of the late 18th century. Wilson provides a "Virginia-centric"
reading of American history, centering on local self-government
in real communities, within which individual liberty was possible.
This involves, necessarily, a critique of the established counter-traditions,
which pass for American history. He applies the insights thereby
gained to the prospects for republican recovery and restoration.
In this, he shows a clearheaded grasp of the obstacles, but unlike
the Marxists who wish "to analyze the existing situation and
take power" (as the phrase goes), he wants to analyze the existing
situation in order to limit power.
myths, originated and wielded by New England historians and writers
as a weapon against their opponents in the South and West, became
the received view of American historiography. What is for Wilson
the representative American norm, the localist Virginia model, was
accordingly downplayed and sidelined as the mere defense of slavery.
But neither side of this dialectic can be fully understood without
Wilsonís view, figures from the revolutionary and founding periods
have not been understood so much as put to present partisan use,
only to be thrown overboard when a more radical generation spots
the real, historical man under the myth. He addresses this pattern
in several essays on Thomas Jefferson and his changing reputation.
Thus, Jefferson, damned by Henry Adams for New England Federalist
reasons, praised by Vernon Louis Parrington for Progressive reasons,
praised further by New Dealers looking for legitimate ancestors,
is now dismissed from the foundersí pantheon for not living up to
received mythology about him. By contrast, James Madisonís stock
keeps rising ever higher. Wilson writes that Madison, "because
of his superficiality, lends himself the most readily to modernization
and liberalization. That is why he is called ĎThe Father of the
Constitutioní" (p. 6667).
have raised a series of made-to-order U.S. nationalisms on the ruins
of the decentralized republican societies. At the heart of these
phantasms is the flexible Constitution, whose meaning is never stable
for more than a decade or so. It is no surprise, therefore, that
Wilson is a critic of the Constitution itself.
Federalists often mistaken for conservatives were "tinkerers."
Their constitutional handiwork was "innovative, speculative,
and antitraditional" (p. 4). It is the elites that have
been radical in American history not the people. The majority so
feared by the Federalists was "not, in America, a desperate
propertyless mob, but a restricted electorate of middle class property
holders" (p. 5).
England intellectuals, addled by the decay of their theology and
imported historicist notions, took over the writing of American
history and championed central power. George Bancroft, Hegelian
and democrat, added to the state-centric reading of U.S. history,
and modern liberals have carried on the tradition, claiming that
the federal union is more democratic, the more powerful and centralized
Wilson reconstructs American history, the essential American tradition
is best represented by the Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, secessionist,
and Populist line of descent. He makes a good case for the sheer
continuity of these movements, whatever the drawbacks of Jackson
as a leader, or the Populists as theorists. These struggles represent
the old fight of Court vs. Country as it played out in the New World.
essays bristle with contempt for our vaunted two-party "system" made
possible by the Federalistsí tinkering and creating numerous incentives
for self-serving behavior by political aspirants. You will find
next to no kind words for the Republican Party in Wilsonís book.
He is of the real republican school and his heroes are such as John
Taylor of Caroline and John C. Calhoun.
somehow brings us back to the conservative movement after World
War II. Having accepted much of the standard historical mythology,
too many conservatives have sought to find predecessors in the Federalist-Whig-Republican
line. This odd construction has systematically misled them, while
giving them an extra rationale for becoming part of the Court Party,
that is, Big Government Conservatives. But as Wilson has remarked
more than once, Northern conservatives never conserved anything.
As one of the opposing school, Wilson dedicates this book to "Russell,
Mel and Murray," each of whom had a firmer grasp on American
history than a truckload of Neo-Conservatives and Wall Street
Journal editorialists could ever hope to have.
is hard to do justice to Clyde Wilsonís work, and as a preface should
simply say something useful about the work in hand, I bring this
to a close. Suffice it to say that there is good, powerful writing
here, where an understanding of the value of genuine aristocratic
leadership is mixed with the practical wisdom of the plain folk
of the South. I have long been waiting for a collection of Wilsonís
essays and, having seen it, I can say that it is well worth careful
and repeated reading.
are even film reviews in this collection. On that note, I can only
add that, while the Court Party has gone from success to success
under the slogan "Doiní right ainít got no end," nevertheless,
Clyde Wilson has "whupped íem again."
Joseph R. Stromberg [send him
mail] is holder of the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair in History at
the Ludwig von Mises Institute
and a columnist for LewRockwell.com
© 2003 LewRockwell.com