American History As It Can Be Written

Preface to From Union to Empire by Clyde N. Wilson

Dr. 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 a collection of Calhoun's most important writings. He has also seen to it that at least a corporal's 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,, 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.

Wilson 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 government's) starring role as perfected millennial state – to steal a phrase from Richard Weaver.

That transformation requires some explaining, and explanations duly emerge from Wilson's 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. Wilson's views on recent events are systematically connected with his views on the great sweep of American history.

It 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 after another.

Wilson is not content merely to throw the occasional spanner into the enemy's works. Instead, he takes the war to the enemy's 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.

The essay just mentioned already contained many of the major themes of Wilson's 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.

Historical 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 the other.

In Wilson's 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 founders' pantheon for not living up to received mythology about him. By contrast, James Madison's 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 u2018The Father of the Constitution'" (p. 66–67).

Centralists 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.

The 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).

New 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 it becomes.

As 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.

The essays bristle with contempt for our vaunted two-party "system" – made possible by the Federalists' 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 Wilson's book. He is of the real republican school and his heroes are such as John Taylor of Caroline and John C. Calhoun.

This 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.

It is hard to do justice to Clyde Wilson's 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 Wilson's essays and, having seen it, I can say that it is well worth careful and repeated reading.

There 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 "Doin' right ain't got no end," nevertheless, Clyde Wilson has "whupped 'em again."

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