I had a long conversation with Professor Thomas Main this afternoon.
He’s writing a book about the Alt-Right. It was actually fairly thought provoking and dovetails with a subject which I have been writing a lot about lately. What is liberalism? What is the Alt-Right’s relationship with liberalism? How far are we willing to break with liberalism?
I’ve written on this website that I don’t identify with the “liberal family.” By that I mean I consider the Alt-Right to be outside the boundaries of liberalism. We believe that liberalism is exhausted and self-destructing before our eyes. We’re also, you know, excommunicated from mainstream liberal society on the grounds of “racism” which is a social pathology which didn’t exist in the United States until the 1930s. President Thomas Jefferson was a classical liberal, but he was a “racist” and “white supremacist.” If Jefferson were alive today, he too would be hounded into exile.
What do you think? Are we rejecting liberalism root and branch? I think we are trying to salvage the things that are good about liberalism. Generally speaking, we like free speech. We like gun rights. We like science and free inquiry. We like the rule of law. We like property rights. We’re also far more tolerant than our “progressive enemies.” I don’t have a witch hunting mentality. I’m not a “bigot” in the classical sense which meant someone who is extremely intolerant of other points of view.
I’m not completely against freedom, equality, tolerance, individual rights, etc., etc. I suppose you could say that I see these things as “goods,” but there are other “goods” that I prize like community and solidarity which limit the amount of freedom and equality that I find desirable. I believe there should be more of a balance. Instead, liberalism has become a rigid ideology. We can only choose between more freedom or more equality. Politically, is there nothing else worthwhile in the world?
Aristotle thought that a moderate amount of “liberty” was a good, but contrasted it with extremes of absence (tyranny) and excess (license). Somehow, our present day liberal society manages to combine the worst aspects of tyranny with the worst aspects of license. The Ancients had concepts of “liberty” and “republicanism,” but completely lacked the liberal origin story of the State of Nature or the Original Position. They also lacked the radical individualism, egalitarianism and crusading universalism of modern liberalism. They had no concept of universal natural rights.
“Liberty” meant different things to different regional cultures in the United States:
“By the early 1700s the Cavaliers and their descendants had turned Tidewater into a country gentlemen’s utopia, their manors lining the creeks and tributaries of the Chesapeake. Plantations were also taking shape on Albemarle and Pamlico sounds in the new colony of North Carolina and on the Atlantic shores of southern Delaware and the lower Delmarva peninsula.
Power in Tidewater had become hereditary. The leading families intermarried in both America and England, creating a close-linked cousinage that dominated Tidewater generally and Virginia in particular. The Virginia Royal Council served as that colony’s senate, supreme court, and executive cabinet, and it controlled the distribution of land. By 1724 every single council member was related by blood or marriage. Two generations later, on the eve of the American Revolution, every member was descended from a councilor who had served in 1660 …”
I strongly believe that America’s origins ought to be traced back to the colonial era, not the American Revolution. There were multiple cultural hearths in North America, not simply the most familiar one in New England. Each of these regional cultures had their own understanding of “liberty” and “equality.” We Southerners are much older than America as our ancestors generally arrived here in the 17th and 18th centuries before there was a United States:
“One might ask how such a tyrannical society could have produced some of the greatest champions of republicanism, such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison. The answer is that Tidewater’s gentry embraced classical republicanism, meaning a republic modeled after those of ancient Greece and Rome. They emulated the learned, slaveholding elite of ancient Athens, basing their enlightened political philosophies around the ancient Latin concept of libertas, or liberty. This was a fundamentally different notion from the Germanic concept of Freiheit, or freedom, which informed the political thought of Yankeedom and the Midlands. Understanding the distinction is essential to comprehending the fundamental disagreements that still plague relations between Tidewater, the Deep South, and New Spain on one hand and Yankeedom and the Midlands on the other.
For the Norse, Anglo-Saxons, Dutch, and other Germanic tribes of Northern Europe, “freedom” was a birthright of free peoples, which they considered themselves to be. Individuals might have differences in status and wealth, but all were literally “born free.” All were equal before the law and had come into the world possessing “rights” that had to be mutually respected on threat of banishment. Tribes had the right to rule themselves through assemblies like Iceland’s Althingi, recognized as the world’s oldest parliament. Until the Norman invasion of 1066, the Anglo-Saxon tribes of England had ruled themselves in this manner. After the invasion, the lords of Normandy imposed manorial feudalism on England, but they never fully did away with the “free” institutions of the Anglo-Saxons and (Gaelo-Norse) Scots, which survived in village councils, English common law, and the House of Commons. It was this tradition that the Puritans carried to Yankeedom.
The Greek and Roman political philosophy embraced by Tidewater gentry assumed the opposite: most humans were born into bondage. Liberty was something that was granted and was thus a privilege, not a right. Some people were permitted many liberties, others had very few, and many had none at all. The Roman Republic was one in which only a handful of people had the full privileges of speech (senators, magistrates), a minority had the right to vote on what their superiors had decided (citizens), and most people had no say at all (slaves). Liberties were valuable because most people did not have them and were thought meaningless without the presence of a hierarchy. For the Greeks and Romans there was no contradiction between republicanism and slavery, liberty and bondage. This was the political philosophy embraced and jealously guarded by Tidewater’s leaders, whose highborn families saw themselves as descendants not of the “common” Anglo-Saxons, but rather of their aristocratic Norman conquerers. It was a philosophical divide with racial overtones and one that would later drive America’s nations into all-out war with one another.
Tidewater’s leaders imposed libertas on their society in countless ways. They refereed to themselves as “heads” of their respective manors, dictating duties to their “hands” and other subservient appendages. Finding Jamestown and St. Mary’s City too crude, they built new government campuses in Williamburg and Annapolis from central plans inspired by Rome; Williamsburg featured a sumptuous formal “palace” for the governor (surrounded by Versailles-like formal gardens) and the elegant Capitol (not “state house”) decorated with a relief of Jupiter, the god whose temple stood at the center of Roman civic life. They named counties, cities, and colonies after their superiors: English royals (Prince George, Prince William, Princess Anne, Jamestown, Williamsburg, Annapolis, Georgetown, Virginia, Maryland) or high nobles (Albemarle, Baltimore, Beaufort, Calvert, Cecil, Cumberland, Caroline, Anne Arundel, Delaware). While they were passionate in defending their liberties, it would never have occurred to them that those liberties might be shared with their subjects. “I am an aristocrat,” Virginian John Randolph would explain decades after the American Revolution. “I love liberty; I hate equality.”
The Deep South arose from similar origins.
Whereas Virginia was founded as a gentleman’s utopia with an aristocratic conception of liberty derived from Ancient Greek and Roman classical republicanism, South Carolina was an extension of the West Indian slave states. We had a racial or caste based conception of liberty:
“The founding fathers of the Deep South arrived by sea, their ships dropping anchor off what is now Charleston in 1670 and 1671. Unlike their counterparts in Tidewater, Yankeedom, New Netherland, and New France, they had not come directly from Europe. Rather, they were the sons and grandsons of the founders of an older English colony: Barbados, the richest and most horrifying society in the English-speaking world.
The society they founded in Charleston did not seek to replicate rural English manor life or to create a religious utopia in the American wilderness. Instead, it was a near-carbon copy of the West Indian slave state these Barbadians had left behind, a place notorious even then for its inhumanity. Enormously profitable to those who controlled it, this unadulterated slave society would spread rapidly across the lowlands of what is now South Carolina, overwhelming the utopian colony of Georgia and spawning the dominant culture of Mississippi, lowland Alabama, the Louisiana delta country, Eastern Texas and Arkansas, western Tennessee, north Florida, and the southeastern portion of North Carolina. From the outset Deep Southern culture was based on radical disparities in wealth and power, with a tiny elite commanding total obedience and enforcing it with state sponsored terror. Its expansionist ambitions would put it on a collision course with its Yankee rivals, triggering military, social, and political conflicts that continue to plague the United States to this day.
In the late seventeenth century, Barbados was the oldest, richest, and most densely populated colony of British North America. Wealth and power were concentrated in the hands of an oligarchy of acquisitive, ostentatious plantation owners. These great planters had earned a reputation throughout the British Empire for immorality, arrogance, and excessive displays of wealth. Founder John Dickinson later dismissed them as “cruel people … a few lords vested with despotic power over myriad vassals supported in pomp by their slavery.” Another visitor declared, “For sumptuous homes, clothes, and liberal entertainment, they cannot be exceeded by the Mother Kingdom itself.” Said a third, “The gentry here doth live far better than do ours in England.” They bought knighthoods and English estates for themselves, sent their children to English boarding schools, and filled their homes with the latest and most expensive furnishings, fashions, and luxury goods. …
This was the culture that spawned Charleston and, by extension, the Deep South. Unlike the other European colonies of the North American mainland, South Carolina was a slave society from the outset. Established by a group of Barbadian planters, “Carolina in ye West Indies” was, by its very founding charter, a preserve of the West Indian slave lords. Written by John Locke, the charter provided that a planter would be given 150 acres for every servant or slave he brought to the colony; soon a handful of Barbadians owned much of the land in lowland South Carolina, creating an oligarchy worthy of the slaves states of ancient Greece. The leading planters brought in enormous numbers of slaves, so many that they almost immediately formed a quarter of the colony’s population. The slaves were put to work cultivating rice and indigo for export to England, a trade that made the large planters richer than anyone in the colonial empire save their counterparts in the West Indies. By the eve of the American Revolution, per capita wealth in the Charleston area would reach a dizzying 2,338 pounds, more than quadruple that of Tidewater and almost six times higher than that of either New York or Philadelphia. The vast majority of this wealth was concentrated in the hands of South Carolina’s ruling families, who controlled most of the land, trade, and slaves. The wealthy were extraordinarily numerous, comprising a quarter of the white population at the end of the colonial period. “We are a country of gentry,” one resident proclaimed in 1773; “We have no such thing as a Common People among us.” Of course, this statement ignored the lower three quarters of the white population and the enslaved black majority, who by that time comprised 80 percent of the lowland population. …
Not wishing to idle away their time on their sweltering plantations, the planters built themselves a city where they could enjoy the finer things in life. Charleston – “Charles Town” until the revolution – quickly became the wealthiest town on the eastern seaboard. It resembled Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, with its fine townhouses painted in pastel colors, adorned with tiled roots and piazzas and built along streets covered in crushed seashells. Unlike Williamsburg or St. Mary’s City, Charleston was a vibrant city, for the planters spent as much time there as possible, leaving the day-to-day management of their estates to hired overseers. They filled their city with distractions: theaters; punch houses; taverns; brothels; cock-fighting rings; private clubs for smoking, dining, drinking, and horse racing; and shops stocked with fashionable imports from London. Like the nouveaux riches everywhere, they were fixated on acquiring appropriate status symbols and followed the latest fashions and customs of the English gentry with a dedication that startled visitors. “Their whole lives are one continued race,” one resident wrote, “in which everyone is endeavoring to distance all behind them and to overtake and pass all before him.”
Like Tidewater’s aristocracy, many of the planters hand ancestors who had fought for the king in the English Civil War, and they embraced the trappings and symbolism of the British nobility, if not the social responsibilities that were supposed to attend them. Thrilled by the end of Puritan rule at home, they hand named Carolina and Charleston for the restored king, Charles II. The Barbadian-born aristocracy trumpted their genetic association with English knights and nobles by displaying coats of arms on their imported French porcelain. These often including the heraldic symbol for a younger son: a crescent moon tilted with the horns to the wearer’s right. This device was later incorporated into the South Carolinian flag and worn as an emblem on the uniforms of its revolutionary-era military forces, loyalist and rebel alike.
While not particularly religious, the planters embraced the Anglican Church as another symbol of belonging to the establishment. Locke’s charter for the colony had guaranteed freedom of religion – Sephardic Jews and French Huguenots emigrated to the region in great numbers – but the elite overturned these provisions in 1700, giving themselves a monopoly on church and state offices. Their Anglican religious orientation also gave the Deep South elite unfettered access to London high society and the great English universities and boarding schools, milieus generally denied to Puritans, Quakers, and other dissenters. Whether English or French in origin, the Deep South’s planters would also come to embrace the Tidewater gentry’s notion of being descended of the aristocratic Normans, lording over their colony’s crass Anglo-Saxon and Celtic underclass. …
By the middle of the eighteenth century, black people faced Barbardian-style slave laws everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line.
In the Deep South, African Americans formed a parallel culture, one whose separateness was enshrined in the laws and fundamental values of the nation’s white minority. Indeed, the Deep South was for at least three centuries from 1670 to 1970 a caste society. And caste, it should be noted, is quite a different thing from class. People can and do leave the social class they are born into – either through hard work or tragedy – and can marry someone of another class and strive for their children to start life in a better position than they did. A caste is something one is born into and can never leave, and one’s children will be irrevocably assigned to it at birth. Marriage outside of one’s caste is strictly forbidden. So while the Deep South had rich whites and poor whites and rich and poor blacks, no amount of wealth would allow a black person to join the master caste. The system’s fundamental rationale was that blacks were inherently inferior, a lower form of organism incapable of higher thought and emotion and savage in behavior. Although presented into service as wet nurses, cooks, and nannies, blacks were regarded as “unclean,” with Deep Southern whites maintaining a strong aversion to sharing dishes, clothes, and social spaces with them. For at least three hundred years, the greatest taboo in the Deep South was to marry across caste lines or for black men to have white females as lovers, for the caste system could not survive if the races began to mix. Even the remotest suspicion of violating the Great Deep Southern Taboo would result in death for a black male.”
Greater Appalachia was the third major Southern culture.
The Scots-Irish brought a more individualistic, clannish conception of liberty to the South. Their ancestors had been fighting in the Scottish and Irish borderlands for centuries. “Liberty” meant the spirit of “Don’t Tread on Me.” It meant the freedom of the clan to live unmolested by government:
“Greater Appalachia – poor, isolated, and not in control of a single colonial government – had the most complicated involvement in the wars of liberation. The Borderlanders seized on the pretext of the “revolution” to assert their independence from outside control, but, as previously mentioned, this took different forms in each region, sometimes in each region.
In Pennsylvania the Borderlanders were the shock troops of the revolution, which provided them an opportunity to usurp power in the province from the Midlander elite in Philadelphia. Here the Scots-Irish so dominated the rebel armies that one British officer called them the “line of Ireland.” In London King George III referred to the entire conflict as “a Presbyterian War,” while Horace Walpole told Parliament: “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson!” The army that famously shivered at Valley Forge was made up almost entirely of Yankees and Borderlanders, and it was the Scots-Irish backcountry leadership that drafted Pennsylvania’s 1776 Constitution, granting the Appalachian districts effective control over the colony. By war’s end they had liberated themselves from the Midlanders and British alike. …
Meanwhile, other backcountry communities were fighting the British, carrying the banner of Scotland into battle, to which some Borderlanders added the Scottish motto: Nemo me impune lacessit, loosely translated as “Don’t Tread on Me.” When the British Army under Cornwallis arrived in the area in 1780, the Borderlanders turned on one another, plunging the colony into a civil war with horrors worthy of the conflicts their ancestors had fought on the British borderlands. Loyalist forces raped young girls in front of their parents, while patriots whipped and tortured suspected enemy collaborators. Many armed gangs had no loyalties whatsoever and simply preyed on whomever they wished, kidnapping children for ransom, looting homes, and assassinating rivals. . . .
The South Carolina and Georgia backcountry also descended into civil war, albeit for different reasons. Here the Deep Southern oligarchs who controlled the colonial governments were especially resistant to sharing power with the rabble. In South Carolina the backcountry made up three-quarters of the colony’s white population but had only two of forty-eight seats in the provincial assembly; this arrangement led one agitator to denounce the planters for keeping “half their subjects in a state of slavery,” by whom he meant not blacks but Borderlanders like himself. Here few “loyalists” cared about Britain, but they aligned themselves with the king simply because he was fighting their lowland enemies. In some communities, Borderlands regarded the British as their greatest oppressors, creating the ingredients for a backcountry civil war in addition to the struggle with the lowlanders. Once it started, the fighting became exceedingly ugly, a guerrilla war marked by ambushes, the execution of prisoners, and the torture, rape, and plunder of noncombatants. One British officer said the Carolina backcountrymen were “more savage than the Indians,” while a Continental Army officer, Robert E. Lee’s father, Henry, observed that those in Georgia “exceeded the Goths and Vandals in their schemes of plunder, murder, and iniquity.”
“Dixie” was welded together into a coherent culture by the great struggle against the Yankee in the War Between the States, the common oppression of the Whites during the Reconstruction era, and ultimately by the Redemption of the South and the impoverishment of the Jim Crow South. It was during this period that Southern Whites began to solidify into a nation with our own folk culture:
“Scholars have long recognized that “the South” as a unified entity didn’t really come into existence until after the Civil War. It was the resistance to Yankee-led Reconstruction that brought this Dixie bloc together to ultimately include even Appalachian people who’d fought against the Confederacy during the war. . . .
The southern clergy helped foster a new civil religion in the former Confederacy, a myth scholars have come to call the Lost Cause. Following its credo, whites in the Deep South, Tidewater, and, ultimately, Appalachia came to believe that God had allowed the Confederacy to be bathed in blood, its cities destroyed, and its enemies ruling over it in order to test and sanctify His favored people. . . .
In Appalachia, however, such rigid hierarchies had never existed, and free blacks initially had more room to maneuver. Ironically this relative social dynamism triggered a particular gruesome counterattack in the borderlands. Appalachia’s staggering poverty – made worse by war and economic dislocation – created a situation in which many white Borderlands found themselves in direct competition with newly freed blacks, who tended to be less deferential than those in the lowlands. The response was the creation of a secret society of homicidal vigilantes called the Ku Klux Klan. The original Reconstruction-era Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, and remained almost entirely an Appalachian phenomenon, a warrior order committed to crushing that nation’s enemies. Klansmen tortured and killed “uppity” blacks, terrorized or murdered Yankee schoolteachers, burned schoolhouses, and assaulted judges and other officials associated with the occupation. Revealingly, it was disbanded on the orders of its own Grand Wizard in 1869 because the Dixie bloc’s white elite had become concerned that it was encouraging the lower white orders to think and act on their own.”
Anyway, this is getting way off topic.
I suppose the point I am trying to make here is that Southerners by 1776 already had pre-Enlightenment conceptions of liberty. There was an aristocratic version of liberty, a racial caste based version of liberty, and a clannish, leave-me-the-hell alone version of liberty.
In the months ahead, I suppose the Alt-South could explore the Southern tradition of liberty, and compare and contrast it with “liberty” as it has traditionally meant elsewhere, particularly in the Northeastern United States. I don’t think in terms of abstract ideologies so much as cultures and traditions. It seems clear to me that we have always had our own understanding of “liberty” and “equality” in Dixie which owes much to the rise and fall of the plantation complex.
Thomas Jefferson is one point of departure. As I told Thomas Main this afternoon, Jefferson was a classical liberal who believed in natural rights, but he was simultaneously a racialist. He struggled with race and slavery because he was of two minds on the issue. Southern identity for Thomas Jefferson was a composite of liberal republicanism, Christianity and whiteness. It was not “liberty” in the Jacobin sense. Jefferson, for example, was horrified by the course of the Haitian Revolution.
If we think of Southern liberty as simply a tradition, a cultural inheritance from our ancestors, we can avoid the pitfalls of ideological liberalism while retaining the bits of it we appreciate. After all, it was the “rights of Englishmen” before it was universalized into the “rights of man.” I think there are many aspects of “liberalism” we out to retain while simultaneously moving away it as a universal ideology.