Looking Back to Glory, Conclusion

For good or ill—or rather for good AND ill--Southern statesmen and political thinkers could not afford the comfortable illusions of Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration.  Calhoun admired Jefferson, but, exasperated by the assertion of natural equality, he lamented the inclusion of that one little phrase, “all men are created equal.” Before too long, Calhoun’s disciples—and his opponents—took up his insight and developed the argument.  James Henry Hammond, when reproached on the floor of the Senate, for defending the evil institution of slavery they had eliminated in the North, fired back, “the name but not the thing.”  George Fitzhugh went to the extreme of condemning any society based on liberty and equality, because such principles led inevitably to a ruthless competition in which the strong and amoral exploited the weak and gentle.

The effect of this painfully acquired moral realism is omnnipresent in Southern culture.  We can hear it in the gritty lyrics of Southern music, white and black, in Huddie Ledbetter and Jimmie Rodgers.  Southern humorists—Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and Brother Dave Gardner.  They are down-home, realistic, hard-headed and occasionally raunchy, in the right company, but rarely dirty and hardly ever self-righteous.  What SNL comic could be this frank:  "Money doesn't grow on trees, and if it did, someone else would own the orchard." (Lewis Grizzard).  "A fool and his money are soon elected." (Will Rogers).  "I love everything about the South; I even love hate."  (Brother Dave)

The best Southern literature is not dreaming romanticism but unflinching realism. I am not speaking so much of the South-hating sarcastic redneckery of progressives like Erskine Caldwell, but of William Faulkner and even Margaret Mitchell, whose depiction of her characters is very hard-headed.   William Gilmore Simms was a master-realist, a trait he may have picked up from misunderstood and  equally hard-eyed Walter Scott.  Read Simms's depiction of the noble red man in poems like  “The Indian Village,”  or his surprising account of  Martin Faber:  Story of a Criminal, or his earthy depiction of rednecks in The Kinsmen (The Scout) and Woodcraft.  Anyone who wants to understand the difference between Yankee and Southern literature has only to contrast depiction of black people in Uncle Tom’s Cabin with  Mark Twain's sympathetic but mostly unsentimental portrait of Jim in Huckleberry Finn (to say nothing of Puddin'head Wilson!)

Southerners of all classes, income-levels, and ethnicity had to deal with people different races living side by side.  They could not ignore the realities of slavery.  By and large, the two races were able to size each other up with some accuracy and to find some means of living with each other.  Real men and women, living in this world, they could not fall prey to the sentimentalizations of idealizing or demonizing the other.

For all the moonlight on the magnolias depictions of the South, Southerners were the true Machiavellian realists and the Yankees pious dreamers, who, while they had given up on the Christian God, never lost their dream of building a New Jerusalem, though by the mid-19th century their city on a hill was to be funded by the confiscation of southern property and dedicated to the principles of Robespierre.  Jefferson would be the exception, if he were in fact the political dreamer depicted by propagandists.  Thomas Jefferson “the dreamer” is often contrasted with his political rival Alexander Hamilton “the realist.”  If anything, the opposite is true or at least less misleading.  While Hamilton repeated the cliché that the people is a “great beast” and wanted to sell the country to the wealthy, Jefferson trusted no class or person or political institution with power.  That is why he was not content with merely dividing power among the three branches of the federal government or even with defending the rights of the states.  In his plan for a Virginia system of public instruction and in his proposal for “ward republics,”  Jefferson offered a vision of political authority so decentralized and pulverized that each neighborhood or vision would be master of its own affairs.

Looking back we can see how Southern romantic patriotism--with all its flags, symbols, and folklore--kept the dream of the Old South alive in the dark days of the first Reconstruction that ended in 1876 and again during the Second Reconstruction whose increasingly harsh tyranny we have endured for the past four decades.  However we can also see how southern realism inspired practical resistance in the form of the populist movement, in the abandonment of the Democratic Party, when it no longer served Southern interests, and in pragmatic measures of racial reconciliation.  The last thing in the world the South needs these days is a revival of the “attack and die” strategy on the political plane.  The prospects for achieving Southern political independence are slim indeed, much slimmer than the Jacobites faced in 1745, when their mismanaged uprising spelled not only doom for the Old Cause but the destruction of much of the Scottish civilization.  A political realist has to deal in realities and cannot live in a dream world, “half sick with shadows,” like the Lady of Shalott.

Taking a realistic view of political prospects does not entail selling out to the enemy or relying on turncoat leaders like Lindsey Graham who bamboozle voters with the prospect of endless wars to make the Glorious Union the dictator of the world.  (One might paraphrase what was said of Bocherini--that he was Haydn's wife--and describe Senator Graham as McCain's wife.)  That is not Machiavellian pragmatism but a form of naive imperialism that will be the ruin of the entire country but particularly the South, whose men have never seen a war they were unwilling to fight.  American imperialism is not just a threat to the lives and security of people around the globe:  It is the direct cause of a great deal of political, social, and cultural amalgamation and centralization.  But, if we are to reject the braying imperialists, we must also view with skepticism any political strategies that are rooted in nostalgia.  Calls for resistance and defiance to the enemy will only bring on another more intense round of reconstruction and reeducation.  Southerners can follow no better advice than the admonition of St Paul that we should be as gentle as doves and wise as serpents.

Any pragmatic Southern strategy has to take two realities into account.  The first reality is the obvious fact that the Southern tradition has not been sustained and nurtured either on abstract principles or the self-interested pursuit of wealth and power.  The South exists today because of the persistence of symbols, the preservation of myths, and the veneration of heroes.   There may be occasions when a tactical withdrawal is necessary and we must acquiesce in seeing a monument abandoned or a flag removed.  Let there be no lines drawn in the sand, especially when the issue is not the survival of the South but the defense of some unSouthern principle like segregation.  Even though we must not surrender our symbols or our heritage, we do have to take our stand on higher ground than Orville Faubus--the progressive governor of Arkansas-- took in Little Rock.

We must, it goes without saying, beware of throwing out the baby of southern identity with the bath water of flags and monuments, but it is equally true, as our friend and colleague Frank Beatty has urged,  that we must also avoid any strategy that means saving the bath water of confederate symbols only to throw out the baby of southern character.

Of all Americans, Southerners take the greatest interest in history, and we can learn several lessons from a writer whom Southerners revered, so long as the South had a vital national culture:  Sir Walter Scott.  Scott, although one of the great literary Romantics, was a political pragmatist.    He accepted the reality that Scotland, had been annexed to the British crown.  He understood all too well, as the readers of his great novel Waverley are all aware, that when Scots rose up to defend the legitimate dynasty and send the German usurpers back to Hanover, they were defeated twice and brutally suppressed.  Many of their leaders were executed; entire families were exiled or proscribed; even their symbols and national dress were outlawed.  In his poetry and fiction, Scott imaginatively reinvented Scotland and made a gift of it to the Hanoverian dynasty and to all of Britain.  He persuaded the royal family to acknowledge their Scottish heritage and, working with English Tories, he did his best to create an atmosphere in which Scottish traditions could be celebrated and not condemned.  To a great extient he succeeded where the Jacobites failed and even today there persists a tradition of Scottish nationalism.

This was, in their own way what Southern writers did from 1880 to 1960.  Southern writers as different as Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris, and Thomas Dixon, Jr. celebrated diverse aspects of Southern civilization, while Southern historians and novelists captured the American imagination to so great an extent that from the 1940’s down to the early 1960’s Confederate heroes were regarded as American heroes.  Years ago in National Review I made this argument in an article I wanted to entitle “How the South Won the War,”  but the books editor, Chilton Williamson, perhaps sensing the implied provocation, changed it to something innocuous that would not grate upon the New England sensibilities of the magazine’s editors.  The truth is that throughout the 20th century Southern writers—William Faulkner and Stark Young, Andrew Lytle and Donald Davidson, George Garret and Fred Chappell, Shelby Foot and Walker Percy have administered period shock therapy to what was regarded as the corpse of Southern civilization.  The fact that we are here today—and that there are hundreds of thousands of men and women who share some of our conviction—is proof that it can be done.


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

5 Responses

  1. James D. says:

    Thank you, Dr. Fleming. I really enjoyed these pieces.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Me too. Good stuff. “Reality is the proper nourishment for a man’s soul”— all of it!

  3. Allen Wilson says:

    The series of articles on the Left’s jihad against the South likely were the most important writings I had read in years. These two articles are also in that vein. It seems we have a foundation laid here. We have the groundwork. How then do we proceed?

    All the defiant flag flying and Facebook posting that went on during 2015 was more than I could have hoped for back in the mid 90’s when I felt alone in what seemed like a world of brainwashed drones, but as I told a friend, all the flag waving convoys and videos and social media rants amounted to nothing at all. They flew their flags and had their parades, then they all went home and back to work to pay the taxes to support the evil empire and the parasites pouring in to live off them, while their kinsmen across the pond got invaded, beaten, murdered, and raped.

    The problem with trying to preserve a heritage via literature is that today nobody reads, or if they do, they read nothing worthwhile, or of they do, their knowledge base is too small and shallow and their brainwashing too broad and deep for them to be able to understand the writer. It has gotten a lot worse since a certain Southern writer wrote “they cannot understand you, Gilmore Simms”. Now he has suffered the same fate.

    Perhaps blogging, podcasts, and social media influence are the best we can do for now?

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    Mr. Wilson, I think the idea about winning is a little overrated. It usually means some political victory that is incapable of providing much substance other than a little time for the Left to reorganize and continue their relentless assault. We need statesmen and have only politicians and puppets to draw from because the wealth is so concentrated and powerful. Soros can train anarchists quicker than our culture can cultivate citizens.

  5. Robert Peters says:

    It will be institutes such as the Fleming Foundation, the Abbeville Institute and similar associations which nurture the great virtues – cardinal, capital and Christians – in the hearts and minds of young people which will lay an initially fragile but durable foundation for a flourishing social order which resembles the South which we hold in our hearts. In a better time, we might hope that family and church were co-laborers in the endeavor; however, given the state of the both, such collaboration is not likely.

    I spontaneously wrote this on a blog several years ago. Clyde Wilson has borrowed it with permission several times. I believe that it captures within the limitations of all metaphors the essence of the thing:

    “The South is a garden. It has been worn out by the War, Reconstruction, the Period of Desolation, the Depression and the worst ravages of all—Modernity; yet, a worn-out garden, its contours perceived by keen eyes, the fruitfulness of its past stored in memory, can be over time, a time which will last longer than those of us who initially set our minds to the task, restored, to once again produce, for the time appointed unto it, the fruits which nurture the human spirit and which foreshadow that Garden of which there will be no end.”