De-Demonizing the South

by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

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

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

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.)

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