Jason Lee Steorts has written a lengthy article and a blog post at National Review decrying the rejection of “the Founding vision” by a “virulent challenge from the Right.” This challenge is said to be coming from the “latter-day Calhounists” who are the Alt-Right. This is the first time that “conservatives” have connected the Alt-Right with the Southern Reactionary Enlightenment.
I’m happy to illustrate that such a relationship does exist:
“But when once raised to an equality, they would become the fast political associates of the North, and acting and voting with them on all questions, and by this political union between them, holding the white race at the south in complete subjection. The blacks, and the profligate whites that might unite with them, would become the principal recipients of federal offices and patronage, and would, in consequence, be raised above the whites of the South in the political and social scale. We would, in a word, change conditions with them – a degradation greater than has ever yet fallen to the lot of a free and enlightened people, and one from which we could not escape, should emancipation take place, (which it certainly will if not prevented), but by fleeing the homes of ourselves and our ancestors, and by abandoning our country to our former slaves, to become the permanent abode of disorder, anarchy, poverty, misery and wretchedness.
With such a prospect before us, the gravest and most solemn question that ever claimed the attention of a people is presented for your consideration: what is to be done to prevent it? It is a question belonging to you to decide.”
Calhoun explains that all men are not capable of self government. He says “ours is the government of the White man” and protests against incorporating Mexicans:
“Nor have we ever incorporated into the Union any but the Caucasian race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the first departure of the kind; for more than half of its population are pure Indians, and by far the larger portion of the residue mixed blood. I protest against the incorporation of such a people. Ours is the Government of the white man. …
We make a great mistake in supposing that all people are capable of self government. Acting under that impression, many are anxious to force free Governments on all the people of this continent, and over the world, if they had the power. It has been lately urged in a very respectable quarter, that it is the mission of this country to spread civil and religious liberty over all the globe, and especially over this continent — even by force, if necessary. It is a sad delusion. None but a people advanced to a high state of moral and intellectual excellence are capable in a civilized condition, of forming and maintaining free Governments; and among those who are so far advanced, very few indeed have had the good fortune to form constitutions capable of endurance. …”
Calhoun attacks Lockean classical liberalism in his Disquisition on Government:
“These great and dangerous errors have their origin in the prevalent opinion that all men are born free and equal;—than which nothing can be more unfounded and false. It rests upon the assumption of a fact, which is contrary to universal observation, in whatever light it may be regarded. It is, indeed, difficult to explain how an opinion so destitute of all sound reason, ever could have been so extensively entertained, unless we regard it as being confounded with another, which has some semblance of truth;—but which, when properly understood, is not less false and dangerous. I refer to the assertion, that all men are equal in the state of nature; meaning, by a state of nature, a state of individuality, supposed to have existed prior to the social and political state; and in which men lived apart and independent of each other. If such a state ever did exist, all men would have been, indeed, free and equal in it; that is, free to do as they pleased, and exempt from the authority or control of others—as, by supposition, it existed anterior to society and government. But such a state is purely hypothetical. It never did, nor can exist; as it is inconsistent with the preservation and perpetuation of the race. It is, therefore, a great misnomer to call it the state of nature. Instead of being the natural state of man, it is, of all conceivable states, the most opposed to his nature—most repugnant to his feelings, and most incompatible with his wants. His natural state is, the social and political—the one for which his Creator made him, and the only one in which he can preserve and protect his race. As, then, there never was such a state as the, so called, state of nature, and never can be, it follows, that men, instead of being born in it, are born in the social and political state; and of course, instead of being born free and equal, are born subject, not only to parental authority, but to the laws and institutions of the country where born and under whose protection they draw their first breath. …”
George Fitzhugh went further than Calhoun and completely rejected classical liberalism in his book, Sociology for the South or The Failure of Free Society:
“The first principles of the science of political economy inculcate separate, individual action, and are calculated to prevent that association of labor without which nothing great can be achieved; for man isolated and individualized is the most helpless of animals. We think this error of the economists proceeded from their adopting Locke’s theory of the social contract. We believe no heresy in moral science has been more pregnant of mischief than this theory of Locke. It lies at the bottom of all moral speculations, and if false, must infect with falsehood all theories built on it. Some animals are by nature gregarious and associative. Of this class are men, ants and bees. An isolated man is almost as helpless and ridiculous as a bee setting up for himself. Man is born a member of society, and does not form society. Nature, as in the cases of bees and ants, has it ready formed for him. He and society are congenital. Society is the being – he one of the members of that being. He has no rights whatever, as opposed to the interests of society; and that society may very properly make any use of him that will redound to the public good. Whatever rights he has are subordinate to the good of the whole; and he has never ceded rights to it, for he was born its slave, and had no rights to cede.
Government is the creature of society, and may be said to derive its powers from the consent of the governed; but society does not owe its sovereign power to the separate consent, volition or agreement of its members. Like the hive, it is as much the work of nature as the individuals who compose it. Consequences; the very opposite of the doctrine of free trade, result from this doctrine of ours. It makes each society a band of brothers, working for the common good, instead of a bag of cats biting and worrying each other. The competitive system is a system of antagonism and war; ours of peace and fraternity. The first is the system of free society; the other that of slave society. The Greek, the Roman, Judaistic, Egyptian, and all ancient polities, were founded on our theory. The loftiest patrician in those days, valued himself not on selfish, cold individuality, but on being the most devoted servant of society and his country. In ancient times, the individual was considered nothing, the State every thing. And yet, under this system, the noblest individuality was evolved that the world has ever seen.”
There is so much more here.
After 1830, the abolitionists began to systematically indict the Southern social order in the name of anti-slavery. The North was boiling over with dozens of reform movements like Mormonism, Millerism, the temperance movement, free love and women’s suffrage.
In the South, the response was a drift away from Jeffersonianism. Southerners began to reject Enlightenment liberalism in favor of Romantic nationalism. Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Carlyle became very influential. Racial scientists like Josiah Nott and Louis Agassiz popularized polygenism. The result was a sea change in how Southerners thought about race, politics and culture.
As you can see above, there was a moment in the 1850s when Southerners turned against liberal democracy. Calhoun and Fitzhugh dismissed Locke’s State of Nature as an ahistorical falsehood. Like Aristotle, they believed that man is a social and political being who is born into society and subjected to parental authority. The rights of man are rewards to the deserving granted by the state. They denied the existence of human equality and insisted that some races are unfit for liberty.
Alexander Stephens described the Alt-South’s metapolitical revolution in the Cornerstone Speech:
“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 …”
Where could Alexander Stephens have gotten this idea?
“The social, moral, and political, as well as the physical history of the negro race bears strong testimony against them; it furnishes the most undeniable proof of their mental inferiority. In no age or condition has the real negro shown a capacity to throw off the chains of barbarism and brutality that have long bound down the nations of that race; or to rise above the common cloud of darkness that still broods over him.
In no quarter of the globe have the energies of the human mind been so locked up in the dungeon of despair. While in other nations its elastic energies have burst up like heavings of a volcano, sundering all obstacles to its rise, progress, and developments, the barbarous negro nations of Africa have quietly rested in their unalloyed barbarism for thousands of years, exhibiting no more evidence of a capacity for native born advancement than the baboons and ourang-outangs that people the forest …”
152 years later, it might be worth returning to investigate the present condition of Haiti, Jamaica, Liberia, sub-Saharan Africa and the black enclaves of the Northern states which caused antebellum Southerners to formulate this conviction. Maybe we could expand the inquiry to Detroit and New Orleans.
The Alt-South’s goal was to create a Patrician Republic:
“The Southern people, though superior to all other races on this continent, are yet themselves but men, and subject to all the general laws of humanity – it, therefore, appears necessary that human agencies should be used in effecting great changes, howsoever prosper. We have been so long in the enjoyment of the privileges of an almost unqualified liberty, both personal and political, that we would scarcely have consented to their abridgment for any cause. But a curtailment of that liberty, and a more modified form of government, appeared to be necessary to the position which the advances of time demanded us to assume. In short, a stronger government appeared to be necessary – not a monarchy, but a sort of Patrician Republic …
Although the Southern people are by nature superior, in many high points of character, to the Northern, or to any other people on this continent, they are yet, by no means, exempt from the common proclivity of humanity, to relapse into frivolity and corruptions, when circumstances favor the disuse of the higher attributes of their race: and quite as subject as others to the insidious approaches of temptation, when not nerved up to a performance of a high duty.
The peculiar form of government, under which we have for many years been living – call it by what name we may, whether a democracy or a republic – has been well calculated to demoralize, to some extent, the native, high character of the South, and to vitiate its progress in statesmanship. There has been too much individual freedom, license rather, conferred upon the masses, through the agency of which fact, the lighter and less worthy material of society has floated to the surface. Men of actual merit, who are generally less adapted to popular approbation, have been compelled to come with their opinions and claims before the same volatile tribunal, with the worthless and flippant demagogue; and they, too, as far as was possible for them to do so, have been compelled to resort to the same vitiated means of success.”
The Southern idea was to cast off the burden of liberal democracy.
Instead of a source of “progress,” liberal democracy was thought to be demoralizing and vitiating the high character of the South. It was filling our high offices with “the lighter and less worthy material of society” instead of men of actual merit. There was too much individual freedom which was degrading the character of our people at the middle and bottom ranks of society.
George Fitzhugh believed the nature of “free society” is a perpetual state of social revolution. The abstract ideals of “liberty” and “equality” undermine the social order by generating new “-isms” which tear apart the social fabric. The radical individualism of liberalism leads to atomization, alienation and economic exploitation which generates utopian movements like communism.
Seen in this light, “American conservatism” is a ridiculous project. It “conserves” nothing and always loses ground to the Left precisely because the principles of classical liberalism are destructive to our culture. As Thomas Carlyle pointed out, it is like a virus in that it weakens the social order to the point where organized mobs can push the system in a moral egalitarian direction. For two centuries, the course of liberal democracy in every nation it has been tried has been leftwards.
The Alt-Right is rediscovering many of these same truths. This has all happened before. Most people who identify with the Alt-Right are unaware of their forerunners. Antebellum Southerners produced a vast body of work which has been neglected for over 150 years now.