In the Christian Science Monitor, Dr. Michael Hill has some comments on Southern Nationalism and the antebellum roots of the Alt-Right:
“Yet the alt-right’s roots, at least according to some, can be traced all the way back to the antebellum South, when the Rev. Robert Lewis Dabney, an aide-de-camp to Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, began writing about fundamental fissures within American conservatism – largely the epic struggle between traditionalism, the vision of a America as a country of people over principles, and liberalism, improving lives by hewing closer to the Constitution’s core principle, that “all men are created equal.”
“I think the original alt-right-ers in America were Southern nationalists,” says Mr. Hill, a Killen, Ala.-based former history professor at a historically black college who is listed in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hate Watch” project. He points to the Reverend Dabney, who after the Civil War wrote, presciently: “The meaning of northern conservatism is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit with a respectable amount of growling but always acquiesces at last in the innovation of the progressives.”
Dabney’s antebellum observation, says Hill, “is a perfect picture of what the alt-right has come to call ‘cuckservatives,’ [a sexual and racial pejorative based on the word cuckold.] So, I think there’s little doubt that Southern nationalism is the original strain. It’s always been blood and soil, kith and kin for people down here, and that’s what the alt-right pushes, is this idea of a true nation … that happens to be white and European.”
This is true.
I’m surprised it hasn’t come up sooner. In many ways, the Confederacy was the result of the Dark Enlightenment of the 1850s, which is still a very poorly understood subject. There were a number of currents in antebellum Southern Nationalism.
The most familiar strain – the states’ rights/constitutionalist strain – was developed by John C. Calhoun and can be traced back to the Anti-Federalists through the Old Republicans. According to this theory, the sovereign states created the Union and the Constitution, and the people of each sovereign state could choose to secede from the Union whenever their rights were perceived to have been violated. In such a way, the Confederates were the real Americans who were following in the footsteps of their revolutionary ancestors and Lincoln was reprising the role of the tyrant King George III.
The Confederacy was much more than that though. It was a revolution in defense of racialism, white supremacy, and slavery:
“But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. …”
As Vice President Alexander Stephens pointed out, the cornerstone of the Confederacy was “the great truth that the negro is not the equal of the white man.” This is a well known and highly cited phrase, but the key point that Stephens was making was that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had been based on an erroneous Enlightenment philosophy. Thomas Jefferson and his generation had gotten it wrong. All men were not created equal, but had instead evolved in disparate environments across the globe under radically different selection pressures.
Stephens goes on to say that “the errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago.” There had been a great intellectual sea change since that time. He says that “this truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science.” The Confederacy was the first government in the history of the world to embrace the latest cutting edge insights from science.
What had happened since the US Constitution was ratified in 1789? In the early 1830s, Charles Lyell had published Principles of Geology, which founded modern geology and revealed that the earth was far older than anyone had ever imagined. In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which founded modern biology and posited that “favored races” was the key mechanism in the development of new species. Samuel Morton, Josiah Nott, and Louis Aggaiz had developed American racial theory.
Suddenly, European man had discovered that dinosaurs had roamed a primordial earth in the distant past long before the emergence of the races of mankind. Scientists debated whether or not blacks and Whites shared a common human origin and to what extent they were related. Whether it was due to the Curse of Ham or evolution, it was increasingly clear to anthropologists that the races of mankind were not equal. The discovery of the Neanderthals revealed the existence of an unknown extinct human species.
These were most shocking developments in science to occur since Galileo’s discoveries. The progress of 19th century science cast a whole new light on 18th century Enlightenment theories of human equality. 19th century European philosophy was also taking a romantic ethno-nationalist turn which was strongly felt in the South:
“As the great idea of the eighteenth century was that of union against tyrants, so it is that of the nineteenth century, the independence of nationalities.”
– William Woods Holden, Raleigh 1862
“Secessionists sometimes identified themselves overtly with oppositional nationalist leaders in Europe. Thus William Lowndes Yancey, responding to the charges that he was a “rebel,” defiantly identified himself with other nationalist heroes battling colonial-style oppression: “Washington was a rebel! Lafayette was a rebel – and so was Tell and so is Kossuth – rebels against abuse of power; and welcome to us be the appellation received in defense of our rights and liberties.” In a speech of the late 1850s, Robert Barnwell Rhett looked toward Europe and saw “a bloody contest for the independence of nationalities.” God had meant for there to be national differences, and a nation’s right to independence was particularly strong when it was battling against a foreign occupier, as was the case in places such as Ireland, Poland, and Italy. “Let Italy be for Italy,” he urged. Aligning his own nationalist cause with the others, Rhett argued that “the people of England and Ireland, Russia and Poland, Austria and Italy, are not more distinct and antagonistic in their characters, pursuits, and institutions, their sympathies and views, than the people of our Northern and Southern States.”
Mark Twain attributed the War Between the States to the influence of Sir Walter Scott’s romanticism:
“Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition. The Southerner of the American Revolution owned slaves; so did the Southerner of the Civil War: but the former resembles the latter as an Englishman resembles a Frenchman. The change of character can be traced rather more easily to Sir Walter`s influence than to that of any other thing or person.
One may observe, by one or two signs, how deeply that influence penetrated, and how strongly it holds. If one take up a Northern or Southern literary periodical of forty or fifty years ago, he will find it filled with wordy, windy, flowery `eloquence,` romanticism, sentimentality– all imitated from Sir Walter, and sufficiently badly done, too– innocent travesties of his style and methods, in fact. This sort of literature being the fashion in both sections of the country, there was opportunity for the fairest competition; and as a consequence, the South was able to show as many well-known literary names, proportioned to population, as the North could.”
There had been a remarkable change.
The antebellum South of the 1850s was rejecting Thomas Jefferson’s egalitarianism in light of the progress of natural science, the dashing antebellum cavaliers of the plantation South were styling themselves as Medieval knights, and suddenly, Southerners were discovering that they were an oppressed ethnic minority – like the Irish, Poles, Germans, or Hungarians – and that they were the descendants of the Normans and the Cavaliers whereas the Yankees were the descendants of Anglo-Saxons and the Roundheads:
“But, when the eye was turned from the contemplation of these social phenomena to a survey of the political institutions of the country, it required no remarkable strength of observation to discover that there were two distinct nationalities existing on the soil of Great Britain; and of the two, the Norman was the ruler.
The Teutonic and the Latin – the Northern and the Southern – types of civilization, with their diverse social systems, their incompatibility of ideas, opinions, and institutions, and their ineradicable national prejudices, were brought into the presence of each other, under the exigencies of a compulsory political union; and so long as the dominant race maintained the principles and institutions that were the native outgrowth of its civilization, its ascendancy was complete.
Aristocracy, based on the feudal relation, is the natural expression of the political thought of the Norman – a social condition, resting on the principle of subordination, and recognizing the family as the primary basis of social union. Democracy, founded on the idea of an unlimited individualism, and without any reference to the conservative organism of institutions, is the fundamental conception of the political philosophy of the Teuton or Saxon.
The English constitution is the result of a compromise between these two hostile systems, with the Norman element always in the ascendant, save during the brief reign of Cromwell.
But the Roundhead, at once a religious fanatic and a political agitator and reformer, could conceive of no government but the rule of the Saints, and form no other idea of the principles of civil liberty than what the levelling philosophy of the covenant taught. A bigot in faith and an idealist in speculation, his sentiments were violent and his convictions impracticable. A visionary from principle and a revolutionist from interest, his prejudices allowed no compromise, while his passions fed equally the flame of his cupidity and ambition. Austere in his morals and inflexible in his principles, he set up his own conduct as the standard of right, and sought to dictate the opinions and control the convictions of others. Rude in his manners and morose in his disposition, he practiced the profoundest dissimulation, while attaining credit for sincerity, and concealed his real character and designs under the cloak of hypocrisy. . . .
Opposite under the banner of the king, stood the Cavalier – the builder, the social architect, the institutionalist, the conservator – the advocate of rational liberty and the supporter of authority, as against the licentiousness and morbid impulse of unregulated passion and unenlightened sentiment. No idealist, enthusiast or speculative system-builder, upheaving ancient landmarks and overthrowing venerable monuments; but a realist, a practical and enlightened utilitarian, bowing to the authority of experience and acknowledging the supremacy of ideas, forms and institutions that had received the hallowing sanction of time . An institutor by genius and a ruler by race, his pride was at once the sword of his most eminent virtues and greatest weaknesses, while honor was the touchstone of his character. Chivalrous in sentiment and magnanimous in deed, glory was his ambition, and loyalty the inspirer of his every thought, impulse and action. Elevated in his ideas and tolerant in his views, his selfishness was vicarious and his very faults wore the semblance of virtue. Unyielding in his principles, but compromising in his opinions, his conduct was governed more by sentiment than reflection, and more by association than either. Courtly in his manners and splendid in his tastes, a knightly generosity he practiced even toward his foes, and never lost his faculties in volumptuousness. Without being an abject advocate of passive obedience or a supporter of arbitrary power, he yet took ground against the revolutionary party, not as an enemy to liberal institutions or a well-regulated liberty: but, discovering in the doctrines and principles of the revolution a greater danger to the social and political system than from the alleged existing abuses, he preferred yielding his loyalty rather to institutions than abstractions, and felt it a duty to attempt to quench the lights of the incendiary philosophy, whose torch had been applied to the noblest monuments of civil wisdom yet erected by the genius of man …”
Antebellum Southerners were the first group in America to attempt to “quench the lights of the incendiary philosophy.” They were the pioneers.
No one was more important in this that George Fitzhugh and his books Cannibals All!, or Slaves Without Masters and Sociology for the South, or, The Failure of Free Society. Fitzhugh attacked the dominant American liberal tradition itself and seeded the intelligentisa of the antebellum South with Thomas Carlyle’s thought in his own books and journals like the Southern Literary Messenger and DeBow’s Review:
“Further study, too, of Western European Society, which has been engaged in continual revolution for twenty years, has satisfied us that Free Society every where begets isms, and that isms soon beget bloody revolutions. Until our trip to the North, we did not justly appreciate the passage which we are about to quote from Mr. Carlyle’s “Latter-Day Pamphlets.” Now it seems to us as if Boston, New Haven, or Western New York, had set for the picture:
“To rectify the relation that exists between two men, is there no method, then, but that of ending it? The old relation has become unsuitable, obsolete, perhaps unjust; and the remedy is, abolish it; let there henceforth be no relation at all. From the ‘sacrament of marriage’ downwards, human beings used to be manifoldly related one to another, and each to all; and there was no relation among human beings, just or unjust, that had not its grievances and its difficulties, its necessities on both sides to bear and forbear. But henceforth, be it known, we have changed all that by favor of Heaven; the ‘voluntary principle’ has come up, which will itself do the business for us; and now let a new sacrament, that of Divorce, which we call emancipation, and spout of on our platforms, be universally the order of the day! Have men considered whither all this is tending, and what it certainly enough betokens? Cut every human relation that has any where grown uneasy sheer asunder; reduce whatsoever was compulsory to voluntary, whatsoever was permanent among us to the condition of the nomadic; in other words, LOOSEN BY ASSIDUOUS WEDGES, in every joint, the whole fabrice of social existence, stone from stone, till at last, all lie now quite loose enough, it can, as we already see in most countries, be overset by sudden outburst of revolutionary rage; and lying as mere mountains of anarchic rubbish, solicit you to sing Fraternity, &c. over it, and rejoice in the now remarkable era of human progress we have arrived at.”
Now we plant ourselves on this passage from Carlyle. We say that, as far as it goes, ’tis a faithful picture of the isms of the North. But the restraints of Law and Public Opinion are less at the North than in Europe. The isms on each side the Atlantic are equally busy with “assiduous wedges,” in “loosening in every joint the whole fabric of social existence;” but whilst they dare invoke Anarchy in Europe, they dare not inaugurate New York Free Love, and Oneida Incest, and Mormon Polygamy. The moral, religious, and social heresies of the North, are more monstrous than those of Europe. The pupil has surpassed the master, unaided by the stimulants of poverty, hunger and nakedness, which urge the master forward.”
Thomas Carlyle’s “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” “Latter-Day Pamphlets,” analysis of how freedom failed in the British Caribbean and his pilloring of John Stuart Mill and the laissez-faire economists are an important wellspring of Alt-Right thought. Someone needs to write a book on how there was an Alt-Right before the Alt-Right. Most of our ideas aren’t really new.
Note: Robert Lewis Dabney was drawing from a well known tradition in his time. The leading Confederate journals were full of this stuff.