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The Challenge of the Southern Tradition

In 1966, Senator Jim Eastland of Mississippi walked into the Senate Judiciary Committee and asked, “Feel hot in heah?”

A staffer replied: “Well Senator, the thermostat is set at 72 degrees, but we can make it colder.”

Eastland, puzzled by the response, doubled down, “I said, Feel Hot in heah?”

The staffer now was perplexed and fearing that he might not understand the question suggested that he would lower the temperature.

Eastland shot back, “Damn it, son!” Is Sen-a-tor Feel P-H-I-L Hot H-A-R-T in heah?”

I begin with this story because it is emblematic of the regionalism of the United States. Or at least it used to be. Listening to congressional debates from the middle of the 20th century was like hearing a symphony of dialect. The Kennedy brothers—though hailing from Irish Catholic bootleggers—sounded like they were from an old Brahmin Massachusetts family. Stennis, Russell, Thurmond, Ervin and other Southerners brought their instruments to the show. How Alexander Hamilton... Brion McClanahan Best Price: $4.09 Buy New $5.99 (as of 06:55 UTC - Details)

I attended school in Delaware, but my eighth grade English teacher was from Alabama. Yet because her husband was a minister and had to move around, she dropped her accent and adopted a flat Midwestern timbre all while assigning great Southern writers or notably anti-Yankee partisans like Washington Irving. You can take the girl out of Alabama, but you can never take Alabama from the girl.

With a few exceptions, it would hard to detect any regionalism among the current crop of 535 members of Congress. As Americans move and consume, we become a less independent and more plastic people dominated by a Midwestern Yankee Puritanism. Recent studies have shown that children who move frequently are less likely to excel in school or in a social environment. They aren’t from anywhere and have no real culture. This is by design. Nationalization creates a crop of drones with an “Americanism” that suggests saying the Pledge of Allegiance makes you an American and that Abraham Lincoln and Hamilton’s state capitalist dream are the greatest parts of American history. We have replaced Billy’s Grocery, Harvey Lumber Company, and Daniel Appliance with Publix, Home Depot, and Best Buy respectively. Buy your American flag at the Home Depot with your credit card during our Presidents’ Day sale in every town USA. Let’s do this.

The South always offered a counterweight to this type of “Americanism,” but today you can’t sound Southern and still be taken seriously, just as you can’t suggest that anything from the Southern tradition is true and valuable without being slapped over the head with the book of bigotry. I’m surprised the modern left doesn’t walk about like the monks in the Monty Python film the Holy Grail chanting “Pius Mother Planet Earth, Save Us From Our Privilege, Slap.” The only thing they haven’t done is require a bonfire of the vanities and demand that every heretic throw some traditional vice—the Bible, your guns, precious metals, certainly your Confederate flags—into the fire in a communal cultural cleansing. That’s probably coming.

Senator John Stennis from Mississippi said in 1974 that while people in the South “lacked for money, and lacked for worldly things…they got plenty of things money can’t buy—like good neighbors, good friends, the community spirit of sharing with the other fellow.” Sam Ervin, the last Jeffersonian to serve in the Senate, shared a similar sentiment when he suggested defeat was good for the soul because it shook the glory out. Ervin was from Burke, North Carolina and the spirit of that place and people ran through is blood and bones.

Some interwar Southerners knew that the world was changing, just as their ancestors knew the United States was destroyed by fire in 1865 and replaced with a unitary American empire beholden to Hamiltonian political economy and Yankee social engineering, the very thing John Taylor of Caroline and other “Old Republicans” warned about in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Nothing had changed after the War. Robert Lewis Dabney derided the “New South Creed” for its infatuation with progress in all forms. Industrialization was simply the mistress of social transformation and the destruction of tradition. The fusion of big banks, big business, and unconstitutional big government along with government sponsored social engineering made for a Frankenstein that could not be tamed. There is a reason Populist Senator Tom Watson of Georgia titled his newspaper the Jeffersonian in the early twentieth century. The continuity between generations, the traditions that shaped the South and her people, were the most important part of Southern identity. The South Was Right! James Ronald Kennedy, ... Best Price: $21.38 Buy New $36.15 (as of 10:45 UTC - Details)

That identity has been remarkably consistent even when it seems otherwise. Take for example the efforts of “progressive” Southerners to tame the evils of Yankee finance capitalism in the pre-World War I Congress. The War saw the complete victory of Hamilton’s economic system in the post bellum period. Protective tariffs, central banking, federally funded internal improvements, and corruption signaled Republican rule. Southerners had some success in pushing back against these measures in the 1880s and 1890s, but it wasn’t until the Wilson administration that they achieved any sort of legislative victory. The Glass-Steagall Act, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, and the Underwood Tariff were all part of a broad Southern effort to place a Jeffersonian stamp on the economy. These were undoubtedly “big government” and constitutionally questionable ideas and policies, but to these Southerners, using the apparatus the Republican Party created to undermine what they considered to be the backbone of anti-Southern and anti-Jeffersonian principles seemed natural. Oscar Underwood of Alabama even classified the Federal Reserve as a Jeffersonian inspired central banking system. Henry DeLemar Clayton of Alabama also secured federal loans for farmers in the 1910s, a type of reparations for being punished by poverty after the War.

But in spite of or perhaps because of this crushing economic dislocation, Southerners clung to their history, their regionalism, and their culture and used it as both a shield and a blanket when confronting modernity or in some cases adopting it. For example, Fuller Callaway, a Southern industrialist in LaGrange, GA, told the muckraker Ida Tarbell that he “made American citizens and used cotton mills to pay the expenses.” His son Cason Callaway focused his energy on scientific agriculture and eventually made his Blue Springs farm a private nature reserve called Callaway Gardens. He and his wife Virginia cultivated the Jeffersonian agrarian spirit and believed in independent farmers and localism. The family farm dominated their lives, and azaleas, blue spring water, woods, and outdoor recreation were their Southern legacy.

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