October 10, 2021
MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey
Our Solemn Task as Southerners
The Introduction to The Land We Love: The South and Its Heritage
[Back in late 2018 Scuppernong Press published a volume of my essays on the South and Southern history titled The Land We Love: The South and Its Heritage (available via Amazon and most other booksellers). I have been gratified by the reception given to this volume and by the many positive reviews. Below I share my Introduction to the book which I believe can stand on its own as a statement of my principles and of my commitment to my history, my region, and, as the poet Robert Lee Frost once said, “To the truths we keep coming back to.”]
Over the past several years I have been writing essays for several publications and media outlets regarding Southern and Confederate history and heritage, and, in particular, about the growing assault on the symbols of that history and heritage. None of what I wrote—nothing I put into print—should have seemed that unusual or radical. My thoughts and observations could have been put down on paper fifty years ago—even thirty years ago—and I don’t think they would have caused much of a stir or raised an eyebrow for most readers. Of course, much has changed in fifty years, and what was admired, revered, and considered normal then, is, in large part, considered controversial, even hateful, or subject to censorship and banning, now.
The Southland that I grew up in has, indeed, changed in many ways. There are millions of new residents, mostly transplants from the more northerly climes who find our climate, our low taxes, our more relaxed way of life, and our generally more friendly and accommodating people, to their liking. No doubt these newcomers, along with thousands of immigrants, legal and illegal, from south of the border, have effected changes in the South. Yet, I believe that there is still what the late Southern historian, Francis Butler Simkins, once called “the everlasting South,” a South—a land and a people—that subsists and continues to exist, even if at times occulted or not easy to grasp or experience, and even if under severe stress and assault from those who would purge it of its past and exile or extinguish its traditions handed down as a legacy from our ancestors.
The symbols of any society, of any culture—its flags and banners, its monuments to veterans and historical figures, its markers, its street and city names, the names of its schools, even its holidays, and so much more—are public manifestations not just of the history of that society, but represent visibly the beliefs and principles that culture has held—and holds—most dear. In a real sense as well, they offer an aspirational guide to what the future will be, what will give it structure and sustenance, and what the offspring of this generation will bequeath to the next.
It is that way with any culture which remembers its history. As Mel Bradford once wrote, it is through “remembering who we are” that we come to comprehend how the fullness of that history, that heritage, that legacy have shaped us and given us a richness and distinctiveness of character that make us a people.
When I was doing doctoral work in Spain at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, I came across an observation by the subject of my research, the Spanish traditionalist writer and philosopher, Juan Vazquez de Mella (1862-1928), that I think is universal in its application:
Who has ever seen ‘the individual,’ if not defined by his family, his region, his profession, his language, his inheritance, his faith? Removed from these defining characteristics the individual is an abstraction, and a political system based on an abstraction must either end in despotism or revolution.
Show me a rootless society, point to a society where the sense of community has disappeared, a society deprived of its heritage and the inherited legacy of its customs, its literature, its heroes, its shared beliefs, all that lore passed down not just officially by the state, but from father and mother to son and to daughter—and you have a social anthill, a mass of humans as faceless cogs, reduced to the status of the aimless and amorphous mass of grunting pigs inhabiting George Orwell’s dystopian fantasy novel, Animal Farm -- and susceptible to the beckoning calls and tempting of the first demagogue who appears on the scene, or to the lunacy of an ideology that promises utopia here on earth, but ends in enslaving the inhabitants.
Southerners, among all Americans, have been the most resistant to such Siren calls. As in no other region of the country they have been aware of and suffered the hardships and cruelties of defeat in war, a war between the states which they understood philosophically as a war to preserve the original Constitutional system left to them by the Framers, many of whom were Southerners.
That Southern character and sense of community, if you will, was already in formation long before the bloody conflict of 1861-1865, as I have discussed …in examining the work of Professors Mel Bradford and Richard Beale Davis…. It manifested itself in the early colonial settlements and the creation of colonial communities of likeminded peoples. It derived much of its integrity and nourishment from the Old World, from Europe, in particular, the British Isles, from settlers who brought with them their customs, their mores and religion, their songs and ballads, their legends, and their beliefs, to these shores. As David Hackett Fisher has intimated in his volume, Albion’s Seed (1989), tracing transatlantic migrations from the British Isles, the early inhabitants of the South country came mostly from southern England, colonists who were more apt to have been Cavalier and Royalist supporters in the seventeenth century (and thus favorable to plantation culture), or from the borderlands, from Scotland and the far north of England or Ulster, fiercely independent, but also dedicated to agriculture and a rural way of life.
These cultures gave rise to a uniquely Southern society, a culture that while it would differ over the years about such political issues as representation (e.g., the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829, and the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1835) or internal improvements, still found much more in common than not. Southern Whiggery may have supported Henry Clay’s “American (or national) system,” but regional and, especially, communal and state identification were never far from the surface.
As Professor Bradford illustrates in his illuminating study, Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution (1993), …at the debates over the framing of the Constitution the Framers basically created a document and a resulting new nation that reflected Southern states’ rights views, a national executive that was in no way like the increasingly centralizing power that emerged in 1865 after four years of war. And, in fact, that regionalist view was generally held by many national political and intellectual leaders, not just by those from below the Mason-Dixon Line.
It was not so much a radical transformation of Southern thinking and views that propelled the nation on a course to eventual conflict. While it is certainly true that Southerners and their perspectives on what was occurring in the Union hardened and sharpened in intensity in the years leading up to the outbreak of the War Between the States, it must be argued that that intensity was occasioned as a response to increasing assaults, both political and, finally, violent, by their brethren north of the Mason-Dixon, and in particular, from the descendants of those largely Puritan New Englanders. As such historians as Paul Conkin (Puritans and Pragmatists) and Perry Miller (The Life of the Mind in America and The New England Mind) have documented, the intellectual and eventually political influence on America, at least the northern portion of it, by the latter-day inheritors of Puritanism was immense and wide-ranging. And it ran up against a South that, for its part, would undergo what liberal historian, Louis Hartz in his classic volume, The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), called somewhat despectively, a “reactionary enlightenment,” a time of doubling down on those “original intentions” and beliefs that increasingly Southerners felt to be under attack.
It is impossible, of course, to ignore slavery and its effects in the Southern states. The coming of the African slave to American shores would become an important factor both culturally and socially, and eventually, politically in the life of the American republic. Yet, the modern concentration on race and slavery, to the exclusion of all other factors, as the all-important—and often only—determinant in Southern history, both misreads the fullness of that history and turns it, too frequently, into an ideological cudgel with which to damn all of Southern heritage and culture. As Professor Davis has detailed in his massively-documented three-volume work, Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1585-1763 (1978), a Southern character—a distinctive Southern personality—was already maturing before the presence of African slavery figured as a disquieting note in Southern history and long before it became an issue debated widely on the national level.
Certainly, the questions surrounding slavery and the existence of a growing mostly servile black population in a dominant white society would become more visible in the first half of the nineteenth century. The rise of abolitionist sentiment in the northern states, brought on as a kind of zealous evangelical afterbirth of the Puritan tradition, and the pressure to end the slave trade and attempts by Christian reformers either to ameliorate the condition of slaves or advocate for their emancipation, had their effects. Indeed, Southerners, themselves, grappled with the issues, as Professor Eugene Genovese has shown in his various studies, including The World the Slaveholders Made, and more significantly, The Mind of the Master Class. And none more deeply and profoundly than perhaps the greatest of the antebellum theologians of the South, James Henley Thornwell.
Slavery in the antebellum South was not an earlier version of Auschwitz or the Gulag, which is clear and evident from a close examination of the abundant historical record. As Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman in their path-breaking study Time on the Cross (1974) have demonstrated, employing extensive research and careful statistical and economic analysis, “many slaves were encouraged to marry and maintain households, they were given garden plots, the dehumanizing practice of slave breeding was virtually non-existent, the quality of their daily diets and medical care were comparable to the white population, and many trusted slaves were given great responsibility in managing plantations.” In short, the antebellum South was much more akin to a traditional patriarchal society than to a modern totalitarian state.
White Southerners understood that slavery and the presence of a large black population were part of their culture. With that understanding and the historical reality of natural inequality and a “master class,” Southerners dealt with that fact generally honestly according to the best of their comprehension and abilities within the context of the age, as Professor Genovese explains. That the response was not of the moralizing kind of our modern age should not be a surprise to anyone.
Southerners—those who thought deeply about the question—understood that although Almighty God had created all human beings and therefore endowed them with a certain spark of divinity and a certain dignity, human equality of status and opportunity on this earth was chimerical and non-existent. Even the famous words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” were never intended by the Founders for literal domestic consumption, but rather directed at the parliament in England. The Founders intended that document as a statement of grievances against the Mother Country, and not a charter of natural rights that could and would entail the future aims of egalitarians.
All through the eighteenth century thousands of white folks were brought to the new world as indentured servants, as well. In many cases, that servitude was entered into involuntarily, as a forced arrangement, and one can argue that in some ways its parameters, like other systems of servitude, resembled slavery. Indeed, slavery, and not just of the African kind, existed throughout the world in colonial times. Historic Christianity, as Thornwell and others pointed out, countenanced its existence, but also with the strict admonition for humane treatment by slaveholders that mirrored the immemorial traditions and teachings of the church, and with the goal of possible future manumission.
In the more than two centuries during which slavery existed not only in what became the Confederate States of America, but in other parts of the nation, slaves were acculturated and made contributions to the country. They were absorbed by that country, as they, in turn, absorbed the European culture and traditions on which it was founded. No longer were they Africans, but Americans—and Southerners. Thousands were eventually manumitted and became “free persons of color,” sometimes landholders (according to census statistics) and even electors in some instances if they held property, as I documented in a thesis presented to the Graduate Faculty of the University of Virginia in June 1971 (“Race, Representation, and Religion: The North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1835”; see: https://libra2.lib.virginia.edu/public_view/zs25x853s )--And all of this before the War Between the States.
In a hierarchical society, as the old South was, both black and white inhabitants lived and existed on various levels, some politically and culturally powerful, others not; some exercising the franchise, but most (blacks and whites), not. And some as slaves, and others not. Yet, even among the servile population there had developed a love and appreciation for the land they lived and worked on, and for their white masters and neighbors. And when war finally came, the overwhelming majority of blacks, freeman and slave alike, resisted the opportunity to take advantage of the situation, and engage in civil insurrection.
I can cite here, as personal examples of this, several letters from my great-great grandfather, Captain Marquis La Fayette Redd, stationed at Aquia Creek, Virginia, along the Potomac in 1861, to his wife, Emily Ann Sidbury Redd, in Onslow County, North Carolina. She was there alone with her young children, surrounded by slaves—but completely trusting and, indeed, secure. Captain Redd, in his correspondence, always finishes his missives declaring: “My love to all my family, both white and black.” [Italics added] The meaning and sincerity—and the bond he felt—are palpable and real, and they were repaid by the entirety of his household. (See, Marquis La Fayette Redd Papers, 1798-1895, PC. 1635, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina)
Indeed, thousands, perhaps as many as 30,000 black men, and probably many more, enlisted in Confederate ranks during the war, and not just as auxiliaries but fully integrated into regiments, often times voted in, as …is examined in detail by such authors as Ervin Jordan, Jr. in Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (1995), and Charles Kelly Barrow, J. H. Segars, and R. B. Rosenburg in Black Confederates (2001), and more recently researched by North Carolina Museum of History black historian and curator, Earl Ijames (See, for example, information on his in depth investigations, “NC history museum curator to speak at Civil War Roundtable,” The Kinston Free Press, March 18, 2016, link: http://www.kinston.com/news/20160318/nc-history-museum-curator-earl-ijames-to-speak-at-civil-war-roundtable)
Without the war, would slavery have eventually disappeared, succumbing to the great economic currents and pressures of the later nineteenth century? I think so, and I believe that the former slaves, given that evolution and natural development economically and internationally, would have found their way into a welcoming Southern society, not due to the abrupt results of an incredibly disastrous war or well-intentioned but largely misguided Federal legislation, but rather because of the natural bonds of affection that were already existent and the Christian charity that characterized Southern folk.
When war finally came it not only molded Southern volunteers into an exceptionally fine fighting force—they were, after all, fighting for home and hearth--but brought together Whigs and Democrats, plantation slave owners in the Tidewater and around Natchez and Charleston with small yeoman Scotch-Irish farmers from the Piedmont, most without slaves, but all dedicated to state sovereignty—a concept that even an uneducated backwoodsman could fathom. As even historian James McPherson, not necessarily a partisan of the Confederacy, revealed in his extensive survey of war time letters and diaries of nearly a thousand Union and Confederate soldiers, What They Fought For, 1861-1865. The Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History (1994; and later, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought the Civil War, 1997), most soldiers felt a keen sense of patriotic and ideological commitment and attachment to a cause. And for Southerners it was the cause of protecting their rights under the old Constitution, the rights of their states and of their communities and families, which they believed to be imperiled by an aggressive executive, mad with power and a desire to destroy that Constitution.
Much has been written, probably far too much, about the War Between the States. Needless to say, what has been occurring in recent years has as its antecedent that conflict and subsequent history since then. Through it all, through “Reconstruction and Reunion,” through the period during the middle of the twentieth century when it appeared that the South was finally “back in the Union” and its traditions appreciated by all Americans, and later, during the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s and beyond when the South became the object, again, of scorn and disapprobation, of Federal authorities once more enacting a “new Reconstruction,” and with new immigration and social changes, and the effects of national television and such items as the automobile that increased mobility and eliminated distances and, to some degree, differences between communities—through it all there remained the South of our memory and our childhood, on the defensive but still there, still visible, yet capable of sustaining its citizens if they would only seek it and accept its legacy and its inheritance…and defend it against those who wish to extinguish it.
I am reminded of another great Spanish writer and traditionalist, Marcelino Menendez y Pelayo (1856-1912), who warned Spain at the end of the nineteenth century that it was in danger of forfeiting its very credal identity. At that time, in the midst of dissolution that seemed to be affecting his country, he wrote:
Spain, evangelizer of half the world; Spain, hammer of heretics, light of Trent, sword of Rome, cradle of St. Ignatius—this is our greatness and our unity; we have no other. The day it is lost, Spain will return to the anarchy of the tribes and barbarians or the satraps of the Caliphs. To this end we are traveling more or less rapidly, and blind is he who will not see it.
Menendez y Pelayo’s words could apply analogously to the contemporary South. We have only one enduring body of tradition that has characterized us and sustained us, and it seems to be disappearing before our eyes, almost daily. Yet, there remains a South to love, a South to defend. There is still an incredibly rich wellspring of history, of literature, in the arts and music and folklore, in regional cuisine, in language, in customs, in so much that binds us and that has held us together since colonial times: it is worth our best efforts and our undying commitment.
There is a wonderfully evocative passage by the novelist William Faulkner that encapsulates the vision that the contemporary son of the South must possess:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave - yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble….[from Intruder in the Dust, 1948]
It is that same spirit—that same dedication—that same inextinguishable hope—that fuels our commitment, and through all the turmoil and sense of loss and anguish, allows us to smile and even relate a funny tale to a friend and still enjoy a fine plate of barbeque and fried chicken, grits and country ham, and greet our neighbors and help them cut down that low-hanging white oak that endangers their work shed.
It is the same spirit that motivated the once-reviled president of the Confederacy to declare after the end of the War to a visitor who remarked that the cause of the Southland was lost and that history had passed us by, that, despite defeat on the field of battle, “the principle for which we contended is bound to reassert itself, though it may be at another time and in another form.”
And, I trust, it is the same spirit and commitment…concerning the challenges we now face and of how some of our ancestors met them, and their legacy and beliefs, and what they mean and should mean for us.
Post a Comment