Review: Michael Cushman’s ‘Our Southern Nation’

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.

16 Comments

  1. But you’ve already covered much of this history here at your own site!? OK, great to have a reference work of such magnitude, but it is the eye-opening primary presentation of the facts, that made OD one of the ‘go to’ sites, in times past.

    Hunter, this is the book YOU could have written. Cheer, nevertheless to ‘have your opinion backed by a competent authority,’ as it were.

    • Yes, I never got around to compiling all of my material into a book. Cheers to Cushman though. He said everything that needed to be said. This is the perfect introduction to the topic.

  2. So basically if the South had succeeded in absorbing all these majority non-white areas what would have happened when slavery was finally made obsolete?It seems like a recipe for disaster.I for one do not believe in whites ruling over non-whites.

  3. The “Golden Circle” theory, like Cushman himself, gives short shrift to the the inland mountain South. Us throwbacks of that Appalachian culture don’t require validation from any outsiders. Unlike the deep South, the land of the “Golden Circle”, we remain a vestigial culture largely uncorrupted by a massive negro population. Though many modernities have taken their toll, we are not the Golden Circle South of the “Black Belt”. With all the pathologies found there.

  4. This is actually what Michael does best; enlightening people on purposely overlooked and obscure facts about Southern identity. I don’t agree with him on everything, but he is usually interesting and articulate on this subject. I look forward to reading the book.

  5. Cushman does address the inland mountain South.

    I didn’t want to spoil everything in the book. Basically, he argues that the Scots-Irish had a huge impact on Southern culture, but they are not the reason ‘the South’ developed such a distinct culture.

    He’s right on that score. Southern Appalachia was divided between Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. The states were drawn in such a way that the uplands – until the creation of West Virginia – were split in seven different ways.

    In all these states, wealth and power were concentrated in the lowlands during and prior to the Confederacy. In Kentucky, for example, the Bluegrass region was dominant. In Tennessee, West Tennessee was wealthier and more developed than East Tennessee.

    I considered it such a huge and important topic that I planned to deal with it separately. I wrote some book reviews and did some research, but again never got around to publishing anything.

  6. I’ll certainly grant I have not read this new book, and I’ll put it on my winter reading list. My comment above stems from exchanging several (very civil) comments with Cushman many moons ago on his old Facebook page. The name of that page escapes me, it wasn’t a proper name, it was called something else. My impression is that he regards our mountain culture and our overmountain forefathers as an afterthought, very much on the periphery of his vaunted “Golden Circle”, completely irrelevant to the culture of the Southland. When I mentioned Kings Mountain, the conversation dwindled, shall we say…

    • I don’t think it is a subject he has studied in exhaustive detail.

      When I started writing about the ‘Golden Circle’ or the plantation culture of the Lower South, I had a broader project in mind. I would spend several months researching that subject, then Appalachia and the Ozarks, then Texas and the Louisiana Cajuns, etc.

      I actually spent a great deal of time on the Upper South. I wrote some book reviews which are in the archives. Then I got married and had a kid and got caught up in activism.

  7. Those exigencies of life… I understand completely. Probably most important to note here is that in the here and now, Appalachia wants the federal boot off our necks as ardently as any deep South Southron. From the Ohio River to the Gulf of Mexico, it is a free and independent Southland for which I’ll spend my energy and ultimately if necessary, my life itself.

    • Appalachia has a very interesting story of its own.

      Now that Cushman has written the ‘Golden Circle’ book, I might go ahead and finish the project I started on Appalachia and the Ozarks. Anyway, time will tell.

  8. It is a hard place, and we are hard people. My roots here run deep, I’d of course be glad to give anything you might find useful which is mine to offer.

  9. The Knights of the Golden Circle I believe Hunter if you drew a gigantic circle, Cincinnati is at the top of the circle, the HQ of the KGC then draw the circle way out at the Atlantic, down to Venezuela then include part of Mexico and Texas and draw the circle back up to Cincinnati. That was roughly the Golden Circle, although it was intended that would include other areas as well.

    KGC became the KKK in 1865. Ku Klux is Kuklos meaning Circle, Knights of the Circle

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