Lest we forget Southern history

This year, 2015, marks the sesquicentennial of the end of a four-year war between American Southern States and Northern States that supported an aggressive federal government Southerners could not abide. In addition to the appalling loss of lives; thousands of severely wounded men; and war against civilians with massive destruction and theft of their property, this holocaust was unnecessary and avoidable. And it was not fought to “free the slaves.”

Regardless of the patriotic rhetoric about “one nation indivisible” this conflict forever divided people of the American States: flag-waving and speeches can’t change that. The result of military force and political vengeance left our sovereign States in the grip of an increasingly powerful, unrelenting, centralizing nationalistic government.

During the past year I’ve written several posts at this site about that tragic period in our history. It saddens me to revisit it. I grew up in Northern States subjected to the popular propaganda in vogue there: Southerners were traitors; war saved the “Union”; Lincoln freed the slaves, and other distortions. On the New York State side of our family three brothers fought in State regiments. One of my ancestors fought in a Pennsylvania regiment and was wounded at Gettysburg. Ironically, he was treated at a church in the village used as a Confederate field hospital and guarded by North Carolina soldiers.

Since moving to North Carolina over twenty-years ago, and studying more about this terrible time and its aftermath, I have tried to learn “the rest of the story,” as the late Paul Harvey often told us.

It is important to know as much as we can about our past because history comes back to haunt and harm us. It reminds us from where we came; giving greater perspective to our little lives. Many people immersed in current frivolous culture may not care; some want to reject it. But we must not allow historical myths to distort our thinking, burden truth seeking and divert us from better understanding. A Southern scholar has said, “History is who we are.” When we accept mythology as history we deny our American heritage—good and bad. And there is no lack of sources of discovery.

Northern friends ask, “Where do you learn these things?” We can find long suppressed and unvarnished history in many books, scholarly organizations and history websites: “The Real Lincoln,” by Thomas DiLorenzo; the Abbeville Institute (www.abbevilleinstitute.org); and the North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission (www.ncwbts150.com) represent some of those sources.  Many Southern historians and authors have knowledge and insight worth learning. Lately, I’ve been reading some essays written by Richard M. Weaver from 1943 to 1963, the year he died.

Richard Weaver was born in North Carolina in 1910. He studied at several Southern universities and in 1943 received a PhD degree in English from Louisiana State University. Weaver taught at the University of Chicago until his death, but remained a strong defender of Southern culture and tradition.

In a 1956 essay, “The Land and the Literature,” Weaver wrote: “The South remains, despite some terrible pounding from the outside and a good bit of betrayal from within, a stronghold of humanism” (without a capital ‘H’).

Of course, that was nearly 60 years ago; pockets of humanism—in contrast to materialism—still exist in the South, but as I have observed, another Northern invasion and betrayal by some Southerners have almost stamped out the tradition of people who embraced agrarianism, maintained classical learning, and were courageously willing to fight against oppressive governments.

In the Preface to a 1987 book titled, “The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, editors’ wrote: “The body of work he completed speaks for itself, and one feels certain that it will be read and pondered as long as men still care deeply about civility and honor and liberty.”

One needn’t be from the South to care deeply about those Southern traditions, and I ponder the things that Mr. Weaver wrote.

***

The Southern Phoenix

Richard Weaver was well-read, knew American history and wrote in scholarly style, with keen perception, clarity and occasional humor. In a 1963 essay Weaver discussed a controversial 1930 publication titled, I’ll Take My Stand. The word controversial, he wrote, “is the language of journalism and reviewing for saying that a book touches upon real values.” From it, noted Weaver, we can learn something of the pluralism of American culture.

This work by scholars at Vanderbilt University, “in a brilliant symposium of defenses,” unapologetically revived the Southern idea of life. Prior to that, as Weaver puts it, “the funeral sermon of the Old South was preached so many times that most people thought it was really going to be interred.” I’ll Take My Stand eloquently “shattered, perhaps permanently, the power of that group which had used the Civil War to gain political and financial hegemony over the nation and write finis to Southern influence.” Weaver spoke of this book of essays as a landmark for “serious students of American intellectual history.”

In The Southern Phoenix essay Weaver wrote: “For generations Southerners have shown an unswerving loyalty to their section, with the exception of a few today who are exhibiting the disintegrative effects of modern liberalism. They have shown loyalty toward a region in which many outsiders can see little to be patriotic over…In a word, it has been a stumbling block to modernism.”

The South and the American Union

In 1957 Weaver wrote an essay, The South and the American Union. He described “the South,” a region distinguished by various factors of geography and politics, and that it existed independently for four years.

He thought that Americans were challenged to “understand themselves historically” because of “the doctrine of American exceptionalism”—we were immune from the fate of other nations. “History, it is commonly felt, consists of unpleasant things that happen to other people,” wrote Weaver. He admits that there were plausible reasons for that “seductive notion.”

One reason was that the American Union began at a definite time and documents survive that we can inspect. Another is that the union of States was created by rational men discussing principles and ideals of better government; we prefer to remember that “rather than the prior fact that the nation owes its existence to the battlefield,” Weaver wrote.

He reasoned that the Founders were working under many pressures that hot summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. The State delegates had “soberly” read history and were under no illusion that their new creation would be exempt from the evil nature of some men who would pervert the best of governments “to wicked purposes”—delegates were constantly aware that they must restrain that power; they knew that “government needs to be protected against itself,” Weaver noted. Yet, with the pressure they labored under, the delegates didn’t take care of everything “equally well.” As Weaver saw it, “Some sleeping dogs had to be left alone.”

One large “sleeping dog” was the question of justifiable rebellion against oppressive government. What about the recent war with the English king “recently invoked and blessed with success?” Other vital questions were left unanswered by the State delegates.

“The Declaration of Independence certainly suggested that the right to rebel was a right inherent in all peoples. Might it not be asserted again sometime?… What about the true locus of sovereignty in the new nation? The States claimed it, yet the new instrument of government seemed to gather many sovereign powers to itself. Could sovereignty be divided? Was not the idea of a dual sovereignty just a way of deceiving yourself? Of all the questions left unresolved by the new instrument of union, this was to be the most fateful.”

It was difficult to convince the skeptical States that this new union was a good idea. Today we may think of the U. S. Constitution as a conservative document, but in the 1700s it was a radical idea. The Continental Congress met initially to amend the Articles of Confederation. That action was considered by State legislators to violate a contract they had made for a union that “shall be perpetual.” Pennsylvania legislator William Findley said it returned Americans to a “state of nature outside the law they were sworn to uphold.”

  A massive propaganda effort by New Yorkers Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, and Virginian James Madison was launched to convince the people in key States of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia and, especially, New York State that ratifying a new constitution was a good idea. Today we call these thematic documents The Federalist Papers. But many speeches, letters, pamphlets and articles were written by people who opposed the radical change (anti-federalists). New York State maintained the strongest opposition; it didn’t approve the draft because two of its delegates walked out in protest, leaving the lone delegate Alexander Hamilton without a vote.

Richard Weaver noted that several States, including New York, Virginia and North Carolina reluctantly ratified the Constitution, and delegates considered it revocable if the new government should become abusive or damaging to their State interests. Weaver sums up the essence of this dilemma:

The ways in which men seek power over other men are almost infinitely various and subtle, and it was felt that if the new government were left to judge the extent of its own powers, there could be no way of forestalling eventual tyranny. The true aim of a constitution, from the standpoint of classical liberalism, is not to create empowerments, but to ‘bind down the powers of men to do mischief.’ Several, if not most, of the States desired to preserve some form of veto in case that power should exceed the prescribed bounds.

Weaver’s essays clearly show the differences in Northern and Southern cultural and intellectual tradition. The “Yankee” mind embraces the idea of progress; its “language of conquest fills the air…enchanted by the concept of an infinite expansion, they reject the classical philosophy as too constricting.” On the other hand, “The Southerner… has tended to live in the finite, balanced and proportional world which classical man conceived.”

Weaver questions why it was inevitable that one of these civilizations “make war on the other and offer it the alternative of being ‘reconstructed’ or perishing?” He answers his own question: “It was not inevitable if you believe that the coexistence of unlike beings is possible.”

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About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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