American historian Avery Craven devoted an entire volume of his ten part series A History of the South to The Growth of Southern Nationalism 1848-1861 (LSU Press, 1953). In one of the most interesting parts of the book Craven described the enduring impact of the African upon the Anglo-Celtic South and how his presence contributed greatly to the racial consciousness of the Southern people of all social classes. Craven wrote:
[T]he planter and their slaves did not constitute anything like a majority in the South. The men who farmed a modest number of acres with the help of their families and a slave or two, if any, far outnumbered their more fortunate neighbors. But, like their kind in other sections, they generally aspired to the ways of the larger men and granted them leadership in public affairs. They were provincial in their outlook, suspicious of different ways and values, loyal to friends, and inclined to violence against those who offended. They were thus Southern to the core and quick to resent outside interference and criticism. Living in a section where color and slavery went together, they prized their white skins with more than ordinary zeal. They were race conscious. In color, and hence in the one sense that really counted, they were the equals of all other Southerners. Farms could grow into plantations. Common men of ability could reach high place in Southern life. Rural democracy was as much a reality here as elsewhere in America. Calhoun, James H. Hammond, Albert Gallatin Brown, Foote, Jefferson Davis, and others proved it.
This is a topic I discussed on the Rebel Yell podcast. The Vermont Question was a funny attempt to point out what has pozzed the overwhelmingly White people of that and other Northern States. From afar, and having no daily contact or historical experience with less developed races, it was easy to universalize New England Enlightenment values and moralize the struggle to liberate and elevate the Negro in the Southern States. Such was in start contrast to the Southern experience with the racial “other” and the world-view and politics this helped to create.
Craven’s work tends to support this perspective. He wrote of an important “background factor that contributed to the making of Southern unity.” The professor explained:
To this warmer, wetter, rural-agricultural section had early come the Negro. First he labored in the fields and then gradually took on also the tasks of servant and artisan. In race and in station he differed widely from those who profited by his toil. He formed a great undigested bloc in the social order. By 1850 there were something over 3,400,000 Negroes free and slave, in the South as against a white population of some 6,200,000. They thus constituted around 35 per cent of the total. Their very number gave them enormous significance; their personal qualities and their social status made them doubly important. Even as slaves they created a race question. Insurrections and fear of them, occasional lynchings, and hard regulations to check the Negro from wandering, assembling, and learning to read and write, all stressed the social dangers involved and the vigilance required if this was to remain “a white man’s country.” And all through the years close association in homes and on isolated farms and plantations wove the threads of black and white into a fantastic but enduring fabric of interdependence, affection, and understanding. …In ways too subtle to yield to words, he helped to make the South Southern.
We should keep in mind when reading this that Craven’s family was Quakers who left the South because of slavery. He was educated in Northern universities. His bias is quite obvious, however, his insight is also significant. The presence of the racial “other” helped enormously in building Southern racial consciousness.
Southern Unity Today
Politically Southern racial unity transcended classes and created the “Solid South” after emancipation. It was alive and well in the 1960s and 70s and exploited by establishment Republicans with their famed Southern Strategy. Even today we see the enduring impact of the South’s social values and racial attitudes. In the 2016 presidential election, for example, White people have been generally credited with giving Trump victory. Polling data supports this position, indicating that Hillary won only 37% of the White vote across the USA. Meanwhile, 88% of Blacks voted for Hillary. As a little investigation demonstrates, overwhelmingly, it was Southerners who gave Trump his victory and they did so in the face of a large opposition demographic that was united against them. Mississippi, for example, was only about 58% White in 2010 – surely less than that today. And the Black parts of the State went heavily for Hillary. But Trump won Mississippi with 58% of the vote. In the face of overwhelming Black opposition, if only a small part of the White population deserted ranks the Democrats would have carried the Magnolia State. But that didn’t happen. Southern racial unity held. The same story played out in other Lower South States with large Black populations. Georgia was just 59% White in 2010 (down from 71% in 1990). And yet Trump won the Peach State with 51% of the vote – even in a State heavily influenced by the metropolis of Atlanta and its large non-Southern population. Louisiana was 59% White in 2014 and Trump won the Bayou State with 58% of the vote.
Contrast Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana with Vermont, which was 94% White in 2013. Hillary won the Green Mountain State with 56% of the vote. There was no White racial solidarity there for Trump to ride to victory. A similar story played out in other New England States. Massachusetts, for example, was 73% White in 2014 but Hillary won there with 60% of the vote. New Hampshire, often considered the most Right-wing State in New England, was 92% White in 2010. And yet Hillary narrowly won the Granite State. Even this supposedly conservative/libertarian New England State that is almost entirely White didn’t go for Trump.
New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont – unlike Dixie – are mostly devoid of White racial solidarity. Why? They lack the experience with the racial “other” that shaped Southern historical experience and has made unity necessary for our very survival.