Paul Quigley’s Shifting Grounds: Nationalism & the American South, 1848-1865
“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
Paul Quigley’s Shifting Grounds: Nationalism & the American South, 1848-1865 explores the rapid collapse of American Nationalism and the rise of Southern Nationalism in an international context of nationalist movements from the Mexican War to the War Between the States.
In the span of a mere 13 years, the United States was shaken to its foundation by sectional conflict and was cleaved apart into two rival nation-states. Almost instantly, the secessionist vanguard was catapulted from the fringes of Southern society to the mainstream.
Paul Quigley’s book will strike a familiar chord with Occidental Dissent readers: it is a story of disillusionment with the United States, the rejection of American Nationalism, the search for alternative models of social and political organization, the sense of being an oppressed minority under siege by a hostile majority and finally Southern ethnogenesis. There are hundreds of thousands of people in this country who are going through a similar process of alienation in the 21st century.
In the 1850s, the balance of power within the Union between the North and South was shifting. Demographically speaking, the North was becoming more populous than the South. This growth of population was diminishing Southern political power in the House of Representatives. The admission of California as a free state in 1850 ended sectional parity in the Senate.
As the South was losing political power within the Union, it was also under siege by the abolitionist movement in the North. Yankee abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison were fanatics who demonized Southerners as their moral inferiors. They denounced the “false Union” and the Constitution as a wicked Satanic pact with Southern slaveholders that had empowered the slave states.
The growth of anti-slavery sentiment in the North culminated in the formation of the Republican Party which was based on the “Free Soil” concept that Southern slaveholders were morally inferior to Yankees and should be excluded from the national territories. Henceforth, the national territories would be the exclusive domain of Northerners, and an outlet for the expansion of their own socioeconomic system. Northerners were outraged when the Supreme Court ruled against them in the Dred Scott decision and many appealed to a “higher law” than the Constitution.
As the moral inferiors of Northerners, they believed Southern slaveholders should have to “pass through a kind of moral quarantine” to enter the gates of the free soil paradise. The South would be encircled by a ring of free states like Kansas which would be populated by Northerners. This would further augment Northern political power with the Union and the dominant section would use this power to elect a purely sectional government, throw off the shackles of the Constitution which had secured the rights of slaveholders and further aggrandize itself at the expense of the South.
In other words, mid-19th century Southerners anticipated the reduction of the South to its late 19th/early 20th century condition as a prostrate industrial colony of Northern capital and embarked on the dangerous course of Southern independence to avoid sharing the fate of Ireland or Poland. The North was clearly the aggressor in the conflict: it was the North which nurtured a radical social movement based on hostility to the social and economic foundation of Southern society, it was the North which formed a sectional political party to exclude Southerners from the territories and it was the North that was rapidly changing and demanding corresponding changes in the terms of the Union. In the 1850s, the American South was frustratingly still a Slave Society as it had always been for over two centuries.
In the Early Republic, peace and harmony had largely prevailed in the Union. There was an “Era of Good Feelings” under President James Monroe. The North and South expanded into Transappalachia on equal terms. Slavery had not prevented the Founders from creating the Union. With the exception of the Missouri crisis, which former President Thomas Jefferson saw as “a firebell in the night,” it had not disturbed the Republic for over forty years following the ratification of the Constitution.
Southern Nationalism was a reactionary phenomenon: the Nullification Crisis of 1828 to 1832 was a reaction by South Carolina to the Tariff of Abominations which had been passed under the John Quincy Adams administration, the Bluffton movement of 1844 was a reaction to the Tariff of 1842, the Secession Crisis of 1848-1851 was a reaction to the Wilmot Proviso and the admission of California as a free state, the Secession Winter of 1860 was a reaction to John Brown’s 9/11-style terrorist attack on Harper’s Ferry and the election of Abraham Lincoln as a “Black Republican” president.
William Lloyd Garrison had been the most prominent champion of disunion for twenty years preceeding the formation of the Confederacy. Garrison advocated Northern disunion on the grounds that the Constitution was an immoral pro-slavery document that made the North complicit in Southern slavery. He was advocating disunion for almost ten years before even the most prominent Southern fire-eaters like Robert Barnwell Rhett, William Lowndes Yancey and Edmund Ruffin embraced secession.
The bigoted abolitionist hate campaign toward the South collided with an honor-based culture where the Jeffersonian-Tertium Quid-John C. Calhoun tradition of states’ rights republican political philosophy was the dominant understanding of the Constitution. Southern Nationalism hatched out of this ideological matrix when an angry secessionist vanguard emerged in the Lower South that began to perceive Northern aggression as a threat to their interests, honor, security and especially their rights.
In the backdrop of these developments in the United States, the intellectual and political landscape was shifting overseas in Western Europe. If the 18th century had been the Age of the Enlightenment, the 19th century was the backlash and the Age of Romanticism and nowhere was romanticism more fervently embraced in the United States than in the Old South.
In the early 19th century, German philosophers like Johann Herder and Johann Fichte had articulated a powerful new version of nationalism, romantic ethnonationalism, in reaction to the French Revolution and the expansion of the French Empire and its creed of civic nationalism across the German-speaking areas of continental Europe. Herder had argued that peculiarities of geography and climate formed the national economies of different peoples. The followers of Georg Hegel believed the customs and economies of different peoples gave rise to different historical experiences, cultures and ultimately to different ethnicities who had different ways of understanding the world.
Johann Fichte expressed the unity of language, culture, history and nation in his “Thirteenth Address To the German Nation” in 1806:
“The first, original, and truly natural boundaries of states are beyond doubt their internal boundaries. Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins; they understand each other and have the power of continuing to make themselves understood more and more clearly; they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole.
Only when each people, left to itself, develops and forms itself in accordance with its own peculiar quality, and only when in every people each individual develops himself in accordance with that common quality, as well as in accordance with his own peculiar quality-then, and then only, does the manifestation of divinity appear in its true mirror as it ought to be; and only a man who either entirely lacks the notion of the rule of law and divine order, or else is an obdurate enemy thereto, could take upon himself to want to interfere with that law, which is the highest law in the spiritual world!”
By the 1850s, the ideal of this new type of blood-and-soil romantic ethnic nationalism was destroying ancient empires and sculpting Europe into the rival ethnostates of the 20th century. Germany and Italy were in the process of completing their unification into nation-states.
When Southern secessionists looked toward Europe, they were inspired by ethnonationalist historians and freedom fighters of their day like John Mitchel of Ireland, Guiseppe Garibaldi and Guiseppe Mazzini of Italy, Lajos Kossuth of Hungary, Joachim Lelewel of Poland and František Palacký of Bohemia. From Kossuth in particular, White Southerners adopted the romantic tradition of place-based nationalism. The Southern ideal of being deeply rooted in a place was a 19th century European intellectual import.
Didn’t the American South have a peculiar institution that gave it all the aspects of nationhood? Didn’t the South have a peculiar climate? Hadn’t this peculiar climate and peculiar institution combined to create a different organic and historical nation in the Southern states? Weren’t White Southerners joined by a multitude of invisible bonds across state lines like other nations? Didn’t Southerners belong together in a separate and divinely ordained nation-state like the Irish, Poles and the Hungarians?
As Paul Quigley reminds the reader, Southern secessionists like William Lowndes Yancey and Robert Barnwell Rhett were beginning to draw analogies between South’s relationship with the Union and the other romantic nationalist movements in Western Europe:
“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.”
William Tell was a folk hero of Switzerland whose legend played a central role in the restoration of the Swiss Confederacy following the downfall of Napoléon Bonaparte. Although Paul Quigley never raises the subject in his book, Mark Twain famously blamed the influence of Sir Walter Scott’s romanticism for creating the beau idéal of the antebellum South’s honor-bound, aristocratic, neo-feudal culture that drove its violent reaction to Northern condemnation and caused the War Between the States:
“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.”
Like modern oil sheiks in the Middle East who romanticize the Islamic Caliphate, the wealth and lifestyle of leisure created by plantation slavery in the antebellum South created the perfect environment for the emergence of a romantic fantasy ideology to take root and evolve into the foundation of Confederate nationalism. The Chivalry could imagine themselves as knights from the Middle Ages, as the rural lords of great estates (or humbler abodes) who were honor-bound to protect their dependents, who as the descendants of the racially superior Normans were engaged in but the latest climactic ethnic struggle with the Saxon Yankee to create an autonomous Southern nation-state.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis echoed the South’s new ideology of romantic ethnic nationalism in his first speech in Montgomery:
“FELLOW-CITIZENS AND BRETHREN OF THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA: For now we are brethren, not in name merely, but in fact, men of one flesh, one bone, one interest, one purpose and of an identity of domestic institutions, we have hence I trust a prospect of living together in peace, with our institutions subject to protection not defamation. It may be our career will be ushered in in the middle of storm. It may be that as this morning opened with clouds, mist and rain, we shall have to encounter inconvenience at the beginning; but as the sun rose it lifted the mist and dispelled the clouds, and left the pure sunlight of Heaven, so will the progress of the Southern Confederacy carry us safe to the harbor of constitutional liberty and political equality. [Applause.] Thus we have nothing to fear at home, because we have homogenity. We will have nothing to fear abroad, because if war should come, if we must again baptize in blood the principles for which our fathers bled in the Revolution, we shall show that we are not degenerate sons, but will redeem the pledges they gave, preserve the sacred rights they transmitted to us, and show that Southern valor still shines as brightly as in 1776, 1812, and in every other conflict.”
Davis explicitly defines the Southern cause in terms of ethnic homogeneity of the Southern people. He says if the war comes, Southerners will “baptize in blood the principles for which our fathers bled in the Revolution.” This is an instructive example of how the Confederacy blended the new European romantic ethnic nationalism with the older Tertium Quid republican political philosophy of state sovereignty. European intellectual currents had not stopped influencing the South after 1776.
Southern secessionists argued that the United States had never been a real nation. Instead, it was based on a type of antiquated 18th century civic nationalism, the Enlightenment republican ideal of a union of free men against tyrants to preserve their liberties, which had been expressed as a contract between individuals based on reason and self interest, not on more primordial feelings and associations like common ancestry, sentiment and culture. In Fichte’s words, Yankees and Southerners are not the same people. They do not “understand each other” or “belong together” under a common government.
“The planters celebrated slavery because it ensured the stability and perpetuation of a republican aristocracy. “The planters are a genuine aristocracy, who cultivate themselves in a leisure founded on slavery,” London Times correspondent William Russell reported from South Carolina on the eve of war. “The admiration for monarchical institutions on the English model, for privileged classes and for a landed aristocracy is undisguised and apparently genuine.” One planter told Russell: “If we could only get one of the Royal race of England to rule over us, we should be content.” Many others expressed regret for the revolution, noting they “would go back tomorrow if they could.”
The planters’ loathing of Yankees startled outsiders, “South Carolina, I am told, was founded by gentlemen, [not by] witch burning Puritans, by cruel persecuting fanatics implanted in the north … [and her] newly born colonies all the ferocity, bloodthirstiness, and rabid intolerance of the Inquisition,” Russell reported. “There is nothing in all the dark caves of human passion so cruel and deadly as the hatred the South Carolinians profess for the Yankees,” he continued. “New England is to [them] the incarnation of moral and political wickedness and social corruption … the source of everything which South Carolina hates.” Another planter told him that if the Mayflower had sunk, “we should have never been driven to these extremes.” …
As the conflict with the Yankees loomed, there was renewed interest in the old Tidewater theory that racial differences were to blame. In wartime propaganda, the Deep Southern elite was explicitly included in the allegedly superior Norman/Cavalier race in an effort to increase the bonds between the regions, with the (decidedly un-Norman) Appalachian districts often embraced for good measure. For Tidewater in particular, casting the conflict as a war for Norman liberation from Anglo-Saxon tyranny neatly sidestepped the more problematic slavery issue. The Southern Literary Messenger,Tidewater’s leading journal, conceded in 1861 that “the Roundheads” may gain many victories in view of their superior strength and their better condition” but assured “they will lose the last battle and then sink down to their normal position of relative inferiority.” The journal argued the Confederate aim was to create “a sort of Patrician Republic” ruled by people “superior to all other races on this continent.”
This propaganda was embraced in the Deep South as well. In an 1862 speech, Jefferson Davis told Mississippi legislators that their enemies were “a traditionless and homeless race … gathered by Cromwell from the bogs and fens of the north of Ireland and of England” to be “disturbers of peace in the world.” The war, De Bow’s Review declared, was a struggle to reverse the ill-conceived American Revolution, which had been contrary to “the natural reverence of the Cavalier for the authority of established forms over mere speculative ideas.” By throwing off monarchy, slaveholders endangered the wondrous “domestic institution” that rested “on the principle of inequality and subordination, and favored a public policy embodying the ideas of social status.” Democracy “threw political influence into the hands of inorganic masses” and caused “the subjection of the Cavalier to the intellectual thralldom of the Puritan.” Other Tidewater and Deep Southern thinkers came to agree that the struggle was really between respect for established aristocratic order and the dangerous Puritan notion that “the individual man was … of higher worth than any system of polity.” As Fitzhugh put it, it was a war “between conservatives and revolutionists; between Christians and infidels … the chaste and the libidinous, between marriage and free-love.” Some even championed the dubious notion that the Confederacy was fighting a Huguenot-Anglican counterreformation against Puritan excess. Slavery was not the issue, they argued –defeating democracy was.”
As the war raged, Southern Nationalism continued to evolve. William Trescot’s “great, red river of blood” created a visceral and sacred chasm between the North and South that had been only speculative before the war. The Yankee was now the total alien to the Southerner:
“As the war progressed, the Examiner continued to assert national difference. In April 1862, the paper approvingly excerpted a passage from the New Orleans Bee that detailed racial distinctions between Yankees and southerners. Whereas northerners were intolerant, abusive of power, and inclined toward fads and “isms,” southerners were more honest, moral people who distrusted “new-fangled theories.” To the Examiner, this confirmed that the war was not only about the protection of slavery against northern assaults but also about “certain radical and irreconcilable differences of nationable character” between North and South.”
In 2019, there are still “certain radical and irreconcilable differences of nationable character” between the North and South over 150 years after the demise of slavery. In our times, the Yankees are still intolerant, self-righteous, abusive of power, fond of novelties mislabeled as “progress,” hostile to tradition and social stability and “inclined towards fads and “isms.” In fact, their pursuits of these fads and “isms” has metastasized to the point where they threaten destroy their own civilization.
In the antebellum era, Paul Quigley notes that Southerners perceived a vast number of threats emanating from the North, a multiplicity of different radical utopian social reform movements, not all of which were related to slavery: abolitionism, “Free Soilism,” Bloomerism, Free-Loveism, socialism, atheism and temperance being the most readily identifiable fanaticisms (“Civil Rightsism” would debut in 1866) that seemed to be emanating from the perfectionist reform culture of the Deep North:
“For a range of nonfictional southern spokesmen as well, civilization itself rested on appropriate gender roles and relations. While the slave South was maintaining the proper order of things, the North and sometimes the rest of the Western world, was not. In his 1856 graduation address to the Virginia Military Institute, George Rumbough explained that free society was foolish to question the natural, divinely ordained order of things. Listing the dangerous “isms” he saw to the north, Rumbough included women’s rights, Bloomerism, and Free-Loveism, along with socialism, atheism, and abolitionism. The North’s distorted ideas about slavery were not only tied up with its misguided ideas about religion, liberty, and government, but also with its foolish misconceptions of manhood and womanhood. Rumbough contrasted the South, “where woman, the most powerful, the purest, noblest element of society, is considered as an object of love,” with the North, “where woman “is viewed as an object of distrust, and far from beautifying, transcends the boundaries of modesty and decency, and sighs for an MD suffix or the transcendent reputation of a philanthropic lecturer.” One of many advantages of basing a society on slavery rather than free labor, according to Rumbough and others, was that the institution safeguarded hierarchies of gender as well as of race.
Southern fears about gender proprieties illustrate how urgent the sectional conflict could become when it appeared to enter the realm of the home and family. One Virginia farmer, writing to a local newspaper in 1854, expressed just such fears. Responding to rumors that a female preacher had been plying her trade in the area, the farmer expressed disbelief then sharp anxiety. “Some hundreds are right uneasy about their wives,” he wrote. “They are afraid that some of them women’s rights folks, from the N., are traveling among us, and that some wives are encouraging them.” Even an antislavery fanatic would be more acceptable than a feminist, though the letter-writer. “One would spoil our negroes, but the other would spoil our wives and sweethearts, and either, would be made a bad piece of property.” Perhaps intending that his readers should take the loaded word “insurrection” with a grain of salt (the word was strongly associated with slave revolts in the antebellum South) the farmer concluded: “It is feared that there will be an insurrection among the women, and that they will begin to chew tobacco and drink whiskey.” Likewise, the North Carolina congressman David Outlaw recoiled at the apparent immorality of the society he encountered in Washington, D.C. In Outlaw’s eyes, it was the behavior of northern women there that caused moral deterioration. “There is a boldness,” he wrote to his wife, “a brazenfacedness about Northern city women, as well as a looseness of morals which I hoped may never be introduced south.” In this way white southerners who worried about such matters sectionalized anxieties about moral decline, projecting those anxieties onto their image of the North.”
In hindsight, it is easy to see why these perceptions inspired such ferocious resistance in the antebellum South: they were prescient, as that was exactly the long term egalitarian trajectory of Northern society, and that was exactly the personal threat it posed to every Southern household. We’ve progressed into the age of gay marriage and transgenderism since I first read this book in 2012.
Everything that the secessionists warned about in the 1850s has since come true. You could even say that the United States as it exists today has gone far beyond even their worst nightmares. As John C. Calhoun predicted, slavery was abolished and blacks have been elevated above Whites in the social scale. The triumph of women’s suffrage, feminism, Bloomerism and “Free-Loveism” under liberal democracy has destroyed traditional gender roles and is now so commonly accepted and mainstream that some imagination is required to envision or remember a different type of social order
In their fanatical social justice quest to elevate African-Americans over Whites, the modern deracinated White liberal has even gone so far as to deny the very existence of racial differences as well as biological differences between men and women as “social constructs.” White identity has been totally proscribed as evil and immoral while other groups are told to celebrate their identities. An Iron Curtain of political correctness now stretches across Western Europe and North America and lately the internet. It is creating a backlash similar to the one that destroyed the Union in the 1850s.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the modern disunionist movement of the alienated and disaffected is that it is no longer really regional in character. It is doubtful the majority of modern disunionists are even White Southerners. In the 21st century, the same fanatical egalitarian spirit that destroyed the Confederacy has been turned against the White population of the North and West whose ancestors fought for the Union. It has been turned against the entirety of Western civilization. Imagine what the world would be like if this destructive ideology had been strangled in its cradle or if Napoleon III had only been a little more courageous and checked its advance at the Potomac.