De-Demonizing the South


Clyde N. Wilson, Defending Dixie: Essays in Southern History and Culture (Columbia, S.C.: Foundation for American Education, 2006).

Southerners have been so effectively demonized, both in American history and American popular culture, that not only the left but even a certain brand of conservative and libertarian will run for cover when the subject is raised, or even add their own voices to the establishment chorus against the South. (Wouldn’t want to be ranked among the nonrespectables, you understand.)

These critics doubtless prefer not to be reminded that major figures in American conservatism always had an affinity for the South, or that Lord Acton had a sympathetic exchange of letters with Robert E. Lee. Murray Rothbard — Mr. Libertarian — supported states’ rights from the beginning of his political activism in the late 1940s, and the wonderful Liberty Fund published The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, which found a great deal of value in Southern civilization. It is not an edifying spectacle to observe supposedly independent thinkers slavishly repeating whatever the mainstream — which they normally pride themselves on their willingness to confront — seems to want to hear about the South.

I myself became interested in the South as a result of two factors. First, I took both of Donald Fleming’s American intellectual history courses at Harvard in the early 1990s. There I first encountered I’ll Take My Stand, the 1930 agrarian manifesto written by the Twelve Southerners. Although I disagreed with some of it I assuredly profited from reading it, and I subsequently became much more open-minded about the South. (When I first entered college I was a politically correct idiot when it came to the South — oddly enough, it took a Harvard professor to draw me out of that prejudice.)

Second, I had the privilege of attending the 1993 William E. Massey, Sr., Lectures, an annual series at Harvard delivered that year by the accomplished and celebrated historian Eugene Genovese. When Genovese, historically a man of the left, spoke with something other than moralizing contempt about the Southern tradition, his audience was shocked, though I myself grew more intrigued than ever. (Genovese later observed that when you address the question of Southern history before a Southern audience they’ll call you on every misplaced semicolon. But when you do so before the Ivy League? "Don’t worry. Nobody is going to know anything.")

Naturally, after releasing my Politically Incorrect Guide to American History I got all sorts of unsolicited diagnoses as to why I had this sympathy for the South: I obviously favored slavery and all manner of oppression. (Hardly anyone who says these things is actually stupid enough to believe them, of course; they are uttered for the sole purpose of character assassination.) No amount of protest could change the minds of all these people who had never met me or read more than three sentences of my work, so I figured it was pointless to bother.

Clyde Wilson, who is professor emeritus of history at the University of South Carolina and editor of the Papers of John C. Calhoun, has never particularly cared about the predictable barbs that come from the quarters of fashionable opinion. He has managed, nevertheless, to win considerable professional respect for his work simply because it is so good. Eugene Genovese has even called him one of the top ten Southern historians in America, not that any of this matters to the professional haters who make careers out of smearing and hounding decent gentlemen like Clyde.

Much of the time we greet the release of a new book with apathy: we have too much to read as it is, we don’t want to spend the money, whatever. It would be a terrible injustice to do so this time: Defending Dixie: Essays in Southern History and Culture is an outstanding and absorbing book, in which Wilson gives us a small taste of the breadth and depth of his knowledge of American history, culture, literature, and more. He effortlessly parries the typical accusations against the South.

One of the book’s observations is that for a long time after the war a gentlemanly truce held between North and South: "For our part, Southerners agreed, in exchange for a little respect, that we were glad that the Union had not been broken up and that we would be loyal Americans ever after, something which we have proved a thousand-fold since…. And both agreed that the War had been a great tragedy with good and bad on both sides, a great suffering out of which had emerged a better and stronger United States."

That truce having been established, no one felt the need to heap abuse on Southern symbols. Wilson writes, "I have seen a photograph of Franklin D. Roosevelt making a speech before a huge Confederate battle flag. Harry Truman picked the romantic equestrian painting of Lee and Jackson for the lobby of his Presidential Library. Churchill wrote admiringly of Confederates in his History of the English Speaking Peoples. Gone with the Wind, book and movie, was loved by audiences worldwide. If you look at the Hollywood movies and also the real pictures from World War II, you will see battle flags painted on U.S. fighter planes and flying over Marine tents in New Guinea."

Those days are long gone. That even Jimmy Carter could treat Confederate symbols with a modicum of respect, while the allegedly "conservative" Dick Cheney refused to attend a congressman’s funeral if the battle flag was to be waved or "Dixie" played, reminds us of the relentlessly leftward drift of standard American conservatism, to say nothing of American society at large, that has occurred since then. Lincoln himself loved "Dixie," calling it "one of the best tunes I ever heard"; on April 8, 1865, he asked a band to play it, declaring that Southerners should now "be free to hear it again." Good thing our wise vice president put that softie in his place.

In Wilson’s view, the major players in the ongoing anti-southern campaign are not simply misguided people of good will who can be won over by appeals to reason and history. "The people who want to suppress our symbols are not friendly folks who will cease and desist if we politely tell them the War was not all about slavery and that we are today good and loyal Americans who only want to honor our heritage. These people don’t know what you are talking about when you mention heritage, the recognition of your own forebears. They are not interested in a balanced weighing of the evidence of history. For them history is an abstraction and a weapon of power over others." (Even the ridiculous term "neo-Confederate," which makes no sense and describes no one I have ever met, is another case of typical commie agitprop, in which one’s opponents are made to appear loathsome on the basis of an ideological label not of their own choosing.)

And finally:

The thrust of the concerted anti-Southern campaign which dominates our time, even being officially enforced by Southern public authorities, is to segregate the Confederacy off from American life as an inhuman Nazi-like thing based only on slavery. (This gains impetus, among other reasons, because of a totally dishonest linking of the domestic slavery of the Old South with modern totalitarianism. It was the Union invading forces who most resembled modern totalitarians in every way.)… The suppression of Confederate symbols has no justification in history, even when promoted by alleged academic experts. It is not motivated by historical understanding. It resembles, rather, propaganda labels used by Communist and Nazi zealots to intimidate and control.

Somewhat embarrassing to the "Southern devils" view of American life is the demographic reality that black Americans today aren’t moving to New York and Boston (and they weren’t doing so before the housing bubble, either). They are moving to the South — in droves. When we moved down South last year my wife and I knew from experience that the people would be nicer, but we had no idea just how much friendlier race relations were down here as well. (We were of course familiar with De Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century observation that racial animosity was more severe in the North than in the South.) When we dine out with our youngest child (ten months as of this writing), there is hardly a black couple or family passing by who doesn’t compliment us on how pretty she is. That essentially never happened in New York, which is always congratulating itself on how tolerant and progressive it is. Now to some degree this is a function of the fairly widespread Southern conviction that one should say hello to a fellow human being rather than look away and pretend not to see him, but it also says something about how much more relaxed blacks and whites are with each other down here. The anecdotal evidence on this point is simply overwhelming, not that the wicked South would ever be given credit for it, or indeed for anything.

That many white southerners might actually be kinder than their northern counterparts to people unlike themselves is nothing new, as Wilson shows. "As is well known, or ought to be, the antebellum South was much more ethnically tolerant and open than the North, where the predominant elements can truly be described as bigoted. The South was electing Catholics and Jews to office when Bostonians were burning down convents." In a list of books on immigrants to the South, Wilson includes Robert N. Rosen’s The Jewish Confederates, which shows "how nearly all Jewish Southerners were loyal Confederates who sacrificed and bled as readily as their neighbors and also shows the anti-Semitism rife among abolitionists and Republicans."

Wilson points out that nearly one-fourth of all general officers in the Confederate Army were either from Europe or the North, and that many others had some kind of connection to the North. "In fact," he writes, "almost every Northerner and foreigner who had lived in the South for any period of time was a loyal Confederate." It is also interesting to consider the Southerners who returned to the South from the North and West "in order to share the fate of the Southern people in war. Let me mention just a few: Simon B. Buckner of Kentucky gave up a fortune in Chicago real estate; George W. Rains of North Carolina left a prosperous iron foundry he had established in Newburgh, New York; Alexander C. Jones of Virginia resigned a judgeship in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he had lived twenty years; Joseph L. Brent of Louisiana gave up a lucrative law practice and leadership of the Democratic Party in Los Angeles." We are to believe that these people, and countless others besides, dropped everything and put their prosperous lives on indefinite hold in order to go fight for slavery? Who could be so blinded by prejudice as to persuade himself of such a thing?

Not that this single example in any way does justice to this wide-ranging and absorbing book, but I recommend Wilson’s treatment of Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad. Amistad was really two movies, says Wilson: "One, about the 19th century slave commerce between West Africa and Latin America, is a powerful piece of film-making. The other, about American politics and law, is completely hokey and misleading."

The Amistad, in case readers do not recall, was a Spanish ship heading from West Africa with a cargo of captured slaves for eventual sale in Cuba. The slaves on board revolted and killed the crew, and the ship, after drifting for quite some time, eventually made it to Connecticut — and thus the Amistad became an American issue only by this accident of navigation.

According to Wilson, the film mentions but does not dwell on the fact that northern judges ruled against freedom for the slaves of the Amistad. In an 8—1 verdict the Supreme Court, with a majority of slaveholding southerners, ruled that these men, having been illegally seized, should be freed.

Spielberg wanted to take this historically minor case that set no precedents and, in Wilson’s words, make it "bear the whole weight of the American slavery that lasted two and a half centuries and the Great Unpleasantness that ended it. Thousands of Amistad study kits have been sent out to schools with this goal. The trouble is, as an account of American history, the thing will not bear the weight. The Amistad had exactly nil influence on (eve of Civil War figures) the nearly four million American slaves (most of whom had been here for some generations); on the 385,000 slaveholding families; on the 488,000 free blacks (most of whom, contrary to usual assumption, were in the South); nor on the issues and events which led to the bloodiest war in American history."

John Quincy Adams is portrayed in the film as a kindly man without guile who possessed a disinterested commitment to the cause of human freedom. As Wilson puts it, in the film it is "all a love of liberty on Adams’s part," though Wilson himself gives good reason to believe that Adams’s motives "had nothing to do with freedom or with the welfare of people of African origin." Adams, moreover, is portrayed as making

a pretty speech about liberty to the Supreme Court. I do not find in research so far evidence that this speech was actually delivered. What appears in the printed court record is legalistic, though it is possible the speech could have been made in unrecorded oral argument. In the film, Cinque, the leader of the Amistad captives, is present in the Supreme Court, which did not happen. And there is a totally fictional character, played by Morgan Freeman, an affluent free black man. Contra the film, no black man, no matter how affluent, would have been permitted to sit in a courtroom or ride in a carriage with white people in the North in 1839. Especially in Connecticut.

That Cinque himself became a slave trader upon his return to Africa, a proposition that Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison states as fact in his Oxford History of the American People, did not of course make it into the film, even though these purely fictional episodes (including a foreboding speech by John C. Calhoun, that never actually occurred, linking the case to the prospect of civil war between North and South) managed to find their way onto the screen. (Wilson gives additional reasons, apart from the mere authority of Morison, for believing Cinque’s subsequent slave-trading career to be more than plausible.)

In such a context it is worth noting the completely forgotten case of the Echo, a ship out of Providence, Rhode Island, that was intercepted in 1858 by the U.S. Navy’s John N. Maffitt (who would go on to command the Confederate raider Florida) and found to have 400 Africans on board, many in quite appalling condition. When Maffitt brought the ship’s captain to Key West for prosecution, the Northern-born judge (and later a Unionist) refused to take the case for alleged lack of jurisdiction — the same claim a New England judge lamely offered when Maffitt had the Echo’s captain sent up there. Meanwhile, the Echo’s captives and crew were taken to Charleston, South Carolina, where their necessities were provided for and where the crew was prosecuted by District Attorney James Conner, who would later lose a leg fighting for the Confederacy.

That, like so many other episodes in American history, doesn’t fit into the cartoon version of our past that the ignoramuses who have appointed themselves our thought police insist we accept if we don’t want to be branded haters and oppressors. So it falls down the memory hole, never to be discussed or heard about again. Clyde Wilson is very good at reaching down into that hole and recovering real American history, and telling the story of our past with all its overlooked nuance, treating its human actors like people rather than categories. Every chapter of this indispensable book corrects propaganda, recovers lost history, or provides a forbidden perspective on American history and culture. Wilson entertains and instructs as he does battle with the anti-Southern smearbund, and I heartily recommend this latest book to all the non-automatons still to be found.

(P.S. Ignore Amazon’s claim that the book will ship in 4—6 weeks. They just received plenty of copies and it will go out to you right away.)