By Hunter Wallace
Michael Cushman’s new book ‘Our Southern Nation: Its Origins and Future’ is an introduction to the ‘Atlantic World’ perspective on the origins of Southern civilization.
It is an abrupt departure from most of the titles you will find on the Neo-Confederate bookshelf. In these pages, you will not learn about the heroic deeds of ‘black Confederates’, the Celtic origins of the White South, or the quagmire of abstract constitutional arguments that attempt to justify the legality of Southern secession. Fortunately, we are spared all the usual disingenuous proofs that the Confederacy really and truly was not ‘racist’, or that slavery had little to do with secession.
Instead, Michael Cushman’s starting point is an obvious question: why is there such a thing as ‘the South’, and what made it ‘the Other’ in the United States where the North’s civilization is held up as the ‘American’ standard? ‘Our Southern Nation’ is based on the proposition that slave-based, plantation agriculture really was the cornerstone of the Southern way of life and the historical Confederacy.
In this view of American history, the cultural, economic, and demographic foundations of ‘the South’ was laid in the colonial era, not the American Revolution or the War Between the States. Indeed, what we call ‘the South’ was really the far north of a slave-based, plantation civilization rooted in classical values which was centered on the Caribbean and stretched from Maryland to northern Brazil. Seen in this context, ‘the South’ wasn’t an outlier or a problem, but conformed to regional norms.
It is a very long story. The roots of the plantation complex stretch back to Arab-controlled regions like al-Andalus (southern Spain), Sicily, and the Levant during the Crusades. After Europeans conquered these areas in the Middle Ages, the sugar plantation began its long migration westward to Crete, then the Azores and Canary Islands, then the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of West Africa, then to northern Brazil in the New World.
From northern Brazil, the sugar plantation was transplanted in the Caribbean in the English colony of Barbados and Guadeloupe and Martinique in the French West Indies. This model eventually swept across the Leeward and Windward Islands, the northern mainland of South America (Guyana, Suriname, Venezuela), and the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Hispanolia).
Fatefully, these culture bearers from Barbados who transformed Jamaica from a nest of pirates into the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire played a key role in the founding of South Carolina, which was built from the outset in the image of Barbados as “a colony of a colony.” While British colonies such as Barbados, Virginia, Jamaica and Georgia all had disparate origins, they all eventually adopted Brazil’s slave-based, plantation agriculture model. The same was true of French Saint-Domingue and Spanish Cuba and Puerto Rico.
From its cultural hearths in Chesapeake Bay and the South Carolina Lowcountry, the nascent slave-based, plantation civilization that we would come to call ‘the South’ – as seen from the perspective of ‘the North’ – advanced westward to Missouri and Texas before its expansion became a point of sectional controversy in the antebellum era. As Cushman points out, the annexation of Cuba, Nicaragua, Yucatan and northern Mexico was blocked by Northerners in Congress.
Some antebellum Southerners used the term ‘Golden Circle’ to describe the sum of the New World plantation societies. An organization called ‘The Knights of the Golden Circle’ was created which envisioned a bright future for a Southern Confederacy outside the United States. In this scenario, an independent South would pursue its own ‘Manifest Destiny’ of absorbing Mexico, Central America, and all the plantation societies of Brazil and the Caribbean into a vast Southern Empire. By controlling the production of key agricultural commodities, the seigneurial lords of the ‘Golden Circle’ would defeat the abolitionist movement and secure their independence and economic future.
Alas, it was not meant to be: during the ‘Age of Revolution’, the plantation societies of the ‘Golden Circle’ were picked off one by one. The process began with the American Revolution which artificially split the British Caribbean from the American South, which fatally united the latter in a constitutional union with New England, while fatally undermining the position of the former in Parliament. The Haitian Revolution destroyed Saint-Domingue while the republican revolutions in Spanish America undermined the plantation complex there.
After Great Britain abolished slavery in the British West Indies in 1834, Britain committed itself to the cause of undermining slavery in Brazil and the French, Spanish, and Dutch colonies by interdicting the slave trade. The Second French Republic abolished slavery in the French West Indies in 1848. The Dutch followed suit in 1863. The defeat of the Confederacy by the Union in 1865 isolated Cuba, where slavery was abolished after years of republican revolution in 1886, and Brazil where it was abolished in 1888, and the monarchy and empire fell in 1889.
The ‘Golden Circle’ plantation civilization, which had previously been the wealthiest region on earth, was shattered and systematically destroyed during the ‘Age of Revolution’ from 1776 to 1889. Starting with Haiti in 1804, the fate of ‘post-plantation societies’ was poverty and decline as Enlightenment economic and political theories were applied by force on the region from the outside. When these utopian theories failed to work in practice, the phantom called the ‘legacy of slavery’ was invoked to explain away dire contemporary realities.
This is a huge subject and there is much that I could add here. Michael Cushman’s ‘Our Southern Nation’ is a well written, tightly argued book that exceeded my expectations. It relies on dozens of mainstream academic sources which have been ignored by the more Jeffersonian wing of the Southern movement. Indeed, there is nothing in this book which will be unfamiliar to mainstream historians of slavery. It is not a apology so much as it is an exploration of our origins.
Buy this book. I’m sure you will enjoy it.
Note: In my next post, I will share some further thoughts on the demise of the ‘Golden Circle’, and specifically the Confederacy, which are not covered in the book.