So I’ll take me a li’l ol’ swing and stroke this individual up into the cheap seats.
How ’bout that? It’s them nasty ol’ Southern Conservative Values that’s a-bustin’ out an’ takin’ over the whole dam’ country! It’s a good thing the author describes herself as a “social futurist,” since she’s so ham-fisted about analyzing the past or observing the present. What makes this screed amusing is that her subtitle is in fact correct, but 180 degree out from why she thinks.
By way of self-criticism, this post is long, and because it was written in dribs and drabs over the course of a few weeks, it might be more than usually disjointed in places. Its child-in-a-candy-store atmosphere also is a function of being in a target rich environment. Almost everywhere one looks in Ms. Robinson’s effort one finds historical inaccuracies, mischaracterization, or simple manufactured-from-wholecloth fantasy. Oh, where to start?
Let’s begin with the general outline of the argument: (i) There are two entirely distinct understandings of “freedom” discernible in American political and cultural tradition. (ii) One of those understandings traces back to Good Puritan Yankee thinking and involves one’s betters joyfully guiding humanity into something sounding awfully like the charity ward of a local po’ folks home, and the other of which runs its lineage back to them whip-lashing, slave woman raping, humanity-grinding Lowcountry Plantation Lords, in which “freedom is a zero-sum game.” (iii) Those beneficent, far-seeing, gentle Yankees have “mostly managed to keep away from the levers of power since the Revolution” them mean, nasty Southerners. (iv) This has changed since the New Deal when we made the mistake of building roads in the South and letting them have electricity. (v) The entire United States, “even liberal cities like Seattle,” are “now home to the kind of local justice that used to be the hallmark of small-town Alabama sheriffs,” is run jes’ like one great big ol’ plantation, with kindly Massa easin’ down to the quarters after dark to get him some strange.
Sara Robinson, the authoress, stuffs so many fabrications and mischaracterizations into a few short pages that it’s difficult to unpack them all for a proper Fisking, but I’ll try. Let’s work with some of the purely historical statements first.
The assertion that “since the Revolution,” the politics, culture, and economics of the U.S. were, up until the New Deal, dominated by those kindly souls in black broadcloth from New England, who “wore their wealth modestly,” would perhaps come as a surprise to Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, two-termers all, who accounted for 32 of the first 40 years of life under the Constitution (interestingly enough it was the two Adamses, who of all presidents come closest to Miss Robinson’s cartoon-like portrayal of Northeastern politicians, who both got mudholes stomped in their respective asses after a single term). It would also come as a bit of a shock to Andrew Jackson, orphan boy from the Waxhaw Settlement (I’ll give Ms Robinson a hint: the Waxhaws weren’t Lowcountry, and not many wealthy younger sons from Barbados settled there), who so stamped his personality on an entire generation of American politics that his name has become an adjective. Henry Clay, likewise of modest background and Kentucky power-base, who has become famous as the Great Compromiser, not once but twice brokering deals which saved the nation from splitting apart, might find Ms Robinson’s grasp of history to be less than perfect. Her condescension might also strike the Tammany Hall operatives as being neither true nor flattering to them. Andrew Carnegie, of slave-owning dirt poor Scottish immigrant background, who got his start in the Midwest as a bobbin boy in a textile mill, might also scratch his head at the proposition (we’ll have more to say about Carnegie later). Whatever else they might have been, the Roosevelts were neither (a) Puritan, nor (b) of English background. The Woodrow Wilson whom Ms Robinson cites was the selfsame fellow who was a backer of eugenics (a movement targetted above all at blacks and immigrants from Eastern Europe) and held profoundly anti-democratic views of what government power ought to be and how it ought to be exercised. Carl Schurz, refugee from Germany and a dominant force in the U.S. Senate for years, might also look quizzical to hear himself lumped in with the Puritan tradition.
In contrast, the U.S. military, we are assured by Ms Robinson, has been under the dominance of them awful expat Barbadian Southerners for so long why we just can’t see straight any more. Or something like that. Grant, or Sherman, or Sheridan might all suggest otherwise. Or Eisenhower, or Stilwell, or Chester Nimitz, whose grandfather still spoke German to him in Texas. Or how about Ernie King, Omar Bradley, or Hyman Rickover, or Hap Arnold, or Ray Spruance, or Douglas MacArthur, or Gen. Wedemeyer, or Mark Clark? Fleet Admiral Leahy, whom FDR called out of retirement to be his personal advisor and factotum, wasn’t of plantation culture heritage, either. I don’t recall George Patton having a lowcountry planter’s pedigree, or Alfred Thayer Mahan. In fact, about the only post-Civil War commander I can easily think of who does fit Ms Robinson’s bill would be George C. Marshall . . . and he (i) was Virginia, not Coastal Carolina, and (ii) became about as Eastern Establishment as they make ’em.
The pre-Civil War Supreme Court was dominated by two personalities, John Marshall and Roger Taney, both of whom were very much Southern and both of whom, especially the latter, were more than slightly solicitous of the South’s peculiar institution and how it played out in the development of legal and constitutional theory. Years ago, when I took (at a large Midwestern university, by the way) a course in Southern history, taught by Prof. Barbara J. Fields [Aside: Black, female, and one of the most A. J. Squaredaway professors I ever came across, even back then you could tell she was what Wodehouse would call The Goods. She did a magisterial job of getting her students to understand what a phenomenally complicated social relationship slavery was, on both ends of it. So much of what “everyone knows” about it is either flat-out incorrect, or is a caricature of actuality. At the time her particular area of interest was in the non-Confederate slave-holding states, which of course added an additional layer of intricacy to the politics of it. I took her class for the same reason I later took, in Germany, a class in colonial American history: Listening to an outsider’s good-faith contemplation of one’s world provides continuously and enduringly helpful perspectives on what one thinks one knows. Of all the classes I’ve taken at any level, hers and that German’s courses are among the very few the specifics of which I to this day recall with profit. I don’t know where Prof. Fields teaches now, but I sure hope she’s doing well and I also hope she’s had children. Got to keep the gene pool up, after all.] I recall Prof. Fields mentioning that at the time the War broke out there were several lawsuits working their way through the courts which, had they reached the Supreme Court, could easily have resulted in rulings which would have rendered toothless most of the Northern states’ prohibitions of slavery, to say nothing of the proscriptions in the territories.
What is important to remember is that the era during which Southerners (and oddly enough, with a few exceptions such as John C. Calhoun, they were not from Lowcountry Carolina) in fact did exercise not just a role but an outsized role in national politics was precisely that era in which so much of what the United States became was hammered out. It was the era which established national over local supremacy; which established the propriety of government’s role in what was then known as “internal improvements”; which cemented a policy of westward expansionism (the nascent indutrialists of the Northeast were not much in favor of aggressive westward expansion for fear that it would deplete their labor pool); which established the office of the president as an independent political force and not merely the executive of Congressional decision; which established and solidified the Supreme Court’s role, for better or worse, in looking over the shoulders of the other two branches; which established protection of domestic industry from competition as a legitimate goal of federal policy . . . I could go on, but one gets the point. With the exception of the issue that tore us apart — slavery — the decades in which the core dynamics of the federal union coalesced were those decades during which, because of historical anomoly, Southerners had their hands on the levers of power more than would otherwise have been the case
So much for a random sampling of personalities. I’m sure an enormous number more could be dug up and trotted out if one had the time. Let’s talk a bit about some of the actual levers of power. Can you say “three-fifths clause,” or “fugitive slave act,” or the constitutional grant of an extra 20 years’ life to the international slave trade? Can you say “nullification crisis” or “Missouri Compromise”? How about the Compromise of 1850, in which the Southern senators held up the business of the country for nine long months until they got their new fugitive slave act? As Fergus M. Bordewich points out in America’s Great Debate, his recent history of the compromise, the fugitive slave law turned out to be the South getting what it wanted, good and hard, the draconian act radicalizing enormous swathes of the northern population for whom slavery had been until then an abstract debate about people far away.
It is quite true that, with the exception of posts which run back to the days of the Indian Wars and aviation-related bases out west, the military has built its largest installations disproportionately in the South. That has, however, more to do with land prices, prevailing weather, and pork-barrel politics (and more to the point, it has to do with the Democrats’ courting of the boll weevils’ votes in Congress) than with any cultural leaning, one way or the other.
Ms Robinson also does not seem to understand that until after World War II the military had such an explicitly apolitical bent that the first election Dwight Eisenhower voted in was the one in which he was elected president. Ms Robinson also does not seem to recall (aside: the reader will note that the foregoing phrase is an almost universally appropriate introduction to nearly any issue with Ms Robinson that one cares to mention) that with one exception the U.S. military was a culturally negligible factor until World War I. That one exception was of course the Civil War, in which — as the reader may realize, even if Miss Robinson doesn’t — enormous numbers of people from the North and the Midwest fought in blue uniforms against a large number of guys wearing grey and butternut (or rags), who were not from the North or Midwest. To clue Ms Robinson in on the social, ethnic, cultural, and political background of just one of those large groups (plot spoiler: their ancestors hadn’t come from Barbados, nor were they the younger sprigs of aristocratic houses back in the Olde Country), we refer her to Nothing But Victory, a history of the Army of the Tennessee. The Grand Army of the Republic may have been a potent social and political (at least on the local level) force in the years after the war, but again, that’s certainly not a credible device for specifically Southern influence to have pervaded the army. Came World War I and the cultural make-up of the armed forces got mutated into something it had never seen before: an enormous conscript army from literally all over the world. The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War tells, through a dozen or so examples, a truly remarkable story about a generation of immigrants who became Americans in the forge of World War I. Again, it was not at all unusual for a single division to need translators in six or ten languages, just to train the men (and of course that doesn’t include German, they and the Austrians being generally excused from service).
Now, it’s true that with the exception of the bigot Wilson, the South didn’t put up much of a show in the national political scene between the Civil War and the post-World War II era. Oh, you had a bunch of dyed-in-the-wool
racists Democrats exercising unbroken authority throughout the states of the Confederacy. And of course you had the Ku Klux Klan taking over the State of Indiana in the 1920s. And you had segregation either as the law or the uniform practice pretty much everywhere (Brown v. Board of Education was not a suit against the board of education of Lubbock, Texas; the balance of that case’s title is “of Topeka, Kansas”). You had lynchings as far north as Minnesota, where if you wanted to lynch a black you really, really had to go looking for one (in fact the two I’m thinking of were rousters with a circus).
But here’s something else Ms Robinson seems to have overlooked (I know, I know: how much of a surprise can this be, with Ms Robinson?): Until the New Deal (and again with the exception of the Great War years) there were precious few “levers of power” to be exercised at the federal level. At all, by anyone. Think of all the things the federal government wasn’t doing during that period: no department of education; no block grants; until 1913 no Internal Revenue Service; no civil rights enforcement; no Americans with Disabilities Act; no selective service; no regulation of interstate pipelines; no Jones Act; no National Labor Relations Act; until 1913 no Federal Reserve; no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; no hand-outs to every damned farmer in the country both to grow more of something and to plow under what he just grew; no Environmental Protection Act; no subsidies to Boeing, or Grumman, or Lockheed-Martin, or Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock; no
Goverment General Motors; no General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs; no regulation of offshore oil drilling; no strategic petroleum reserve; no National Highway Transportation Safety Act; and on, and on, and on. For Ms Robinson to allow that Southerners were successfully kept away from the levers of power is to assume that there were meaningful levers of power in the first place. Until the 1930s that simply wasn’t the case.
So what was the federal government doing between the Civil War and the Great War? Well, mostly it was doling out graft in the form of internal improvements bills (can anyone say “Central Pacific Railroad”?), taking payoffs from sundry industrialists to keep tariffs artificially high (Andrew Carnegie spent a tremendous amount of
money effort and goodwill on precisely such efforts), and fighting Indians, bimetallism, and the Roman Catholic Church (I’ll give Ms Robinson a bit of an assist in guessing from what part of the country came the characterization of the Democrat Party as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion”: it wasn’t Mississippi). One thing they did have going on was the Interstate Commerce Commission, which made it its particular speciality to hook up its donors supporters by doing stuff like setting the freight rates for goods going from the North and Midwest to the South significantly lower than the rates coming out of the South. For a huge chunk of the post-Civil War era the federal government was dealing with fallout from the Panics of 1873, 1897, and 1907 (it was that last which lead to the Federal Reserve Act being established, by the way).
The state governments were likewise doing little more than doling out patronage (“jobs for the boys!”) and graft. Public education and temperance were always fashionable, at least in some circles. What I found interesting was the specifically anti-Catholic impetus behind a lot of the mandatory public schooling movement. Especially in places like New York City the growth of public education was driven by and publicly presented as a device to fight the Roman Catholic influence. By the way, New York City was also the birthplace of a movement very much like the operations in which the juvenile Aboriginals in Australia were packed off to white families. In NYC what they did was scoop up feral children, largely Catholic, and ship them off to Protestant families as far away as the Midwest. The story’s told in Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.
Now let’s take us a li’l ol’ look at them modest Puritans who wore their wealth so modestly. You’d think Ms Robinson had never been to Newport, or up the Hudson, or wandered about the swankier parts of Boston. You’d think she’d never heard the expression “Gilded Age,” or knew what it referred to. You’d think she’d never heard of charming folks like J. Pierpont Morgan, who counted among his first deals a circular maneuver by which he bought rusted out muskets early in the Civil War and then sold them back to the federal government at a huge mark-up. She’s never looked into the word “shoddy” to know that it got its current meaning from the cloth shoddy, from which those modest Northern industrialists made uniforms for Billy Yank, and which was so flimsy that it would damned near fall apart the first time it got wet. Jay Gould, who tried to corner the gold market, likewise has eluded her radar. Andrew Carnegie made his first money when, as a telegraph boy in his boss’ office, he acted as a straw purchaser of railroad stocks, and was faded a piece of the action. Or how about Henry Flagler, who was John D. Rockefeller’s partner and who in the course of realizing his “modest” ambition to “ride his own iron” from New York City to Key West, Florida more or less built the Atlantic coast of that state, buying copious numbers of legislators in the process. And let’s not forget that charitable soul, Brer Rockefeller himself, who through business ethics of the very highest caliber built up Standard Oil to be the quasi-monastic entity it turned out to be. Hell’s bells, Ms Robinson has obviously never heard of the jingle about the weary traveller who keeps trying to find a place to rest his bones, only to be told everywhere he tries to alight to move on, that belongs to J. Pierpont Morgan. The refrain runs: “It’s Morgan’s; it’s Morgan’s / The great financial gorgon’s; / Get off that spot; we’re keeping it hot / That spot is reserved for Morgan.” Among Morgan’s more “modest” purchases was the White Star Line (through his International Mercantile Marine, which had snapped up sundry other lines as well); the reader might remember one of their more famous if unfortunate liners — Titanic. Ms Robinson appears never to have heard of the expression “too poor to paint; to proud to white-wash,” or to know where it came from (answer: Charleston, South Carolina).
Let’s look a bit more closely at the cultural heritage of the South and the Northeast, while we’re on our way through the thickets of what Ms Robinson is pleased to call her mind. By curious happenstance I have Albion’s Seed on my bookshelves, and unlike Ms Robinson have read it, attentively. Fisher identifies four “British folkways” which have, to a remarkable degree, pervaded the cultural patterns discernible in different parts of America. The three we’re interested in and which he identifies are the Puritan heritage, coming largely from East Anglia, the cavalier strain, coming from southern and western England, and finally what he calls the “borderers,” who came from southern Scotland, northern England (in what had been known as simply the Marches until they were “pacified” by James I in the early 1600s), and northern Ireland (the Ulster Plantation). Notice he does not mention any influx of Barbadians — although in fact there were quite a number of immigrants from Barbados to what became Lowcountry South Carolina. Indeed, he identifies Barbados as being, until William Berkeley became royal governor of Virginia (before 1640) one of the preferred destinations for English immigrants.
Ms Robinson locates the gravitational center of Southern politics and society in the Barbadian-derived slave drivers, whom she places as the leading lights in an arc extending from South Carolina around the Florida peninsula to New Orleans. In doing so she plays more than a little fast and loose with time and migration (yeah: shocking, coming from her).
The colony which became South Carolina and North Carolina began as a single colony, in the latter half of the 1600s. There was in fact more than a little migration from Barbados to Carolina colony during that period, and even later. Just by way of example Judah Benjamin, the first Jew to sit in Congress (senator from Louisiana; although the son of a leading organizer of the first Reform Jewish congregation in North America, he was non-observant and married out, but never formally renounced his religion; his is a fascinating story which is made frustrating by his having burned his papers shortly before death), was born in Barbados in 1811. So Ms Robinson is correct that the influence of the West Indian sugar plantation did seep into colonial America to some degree.
Barbados was never a very huge influence outside the Carolinas, though. According to Fisher the in-migration to Virginia, while originating in the same circles in England that the initial English settlement in Barbados had come from, did not go through that island but came directly from England. And until later on in the 17th Century a significant portion of the immigrants to Virginia were white and servile. Until the colonists figured out a way to deal with the ghastly climate of the tidewater region (mostly by moving inland, as they did when they moved the capital in 1699 from Jamestown to Williamsburg), buying a slave was a poor economic choice. Why pay fee simple for a slave who was likely to die within a few years when you could buy an indentured servant who wouldn’t outlive his indenture? And besides you got land rights when you imported the indentured servant. Once settlement moved somewhat inland that began to change. If your indentured servant survived his term of service you had to give him land, tools, or similar goods as a send-off to freedom. Factor in Bacon’s Rebellion of the 1660s and by the last third of the century African slavery was beginning to look much more attractive to the hegemons of Virginia society.
Georgia was a penal colony, only founded in the 1720s, and while it remained in its original form only comparatively briefly, its coastal areas were (and are) comparatively minuscule relative to its enormous back-country (it’s the largest state east of the Mississippi, by the way). Florida remained a Spanish territory until 1818. Alabama and Msissippi weren’t settled until after the War of 1812, long after any significant in-migration of wealthy Englishmen had ceased, and they were settled as much down the inland rivers as in from the coast. The Acadians who had been ejected from the French maritime colonies in Canada, and who had settled around the mouth of the Mississippi, brought an understanding of society, race, and slavery with them that differed in numerous respects from the Anglo perspective. Texas was Spanish and would remain so until the 1820s, and then remain Mexican for another decade after that. To the extent of its Anglo settlement at all, it too was settled principally overland, from the interior. It also got a hefty dose of Germans, later in the century (e.g., Fleet Admiral Nimitz’s grandfather, referred to above). The pattern is clear: The supposed dominance of the Barbadian form of society, with a tiny number of whites amidst a sea of oppressed slaves only kept in check by a deadly combination of disease, over-work, and violence, simply did not transfer to any area outside a very limited portion of a single small set of colonies.
It is not insignificant at all that settlement of the trans-Appalachian South (what you sometimes see referred to as the Old Southwest) occurred overland and/or down the Ohio from western Pennsylvania. The reason for that significance is the fourth and last set of British folkways Fisher identifies: the Borderers. They were English, Scots, and Scots-Irish; they were Presbyterian and Anglican, with a smattering of Roman Catholic here and there. For centuries they and their ancestors had lived a life in which you could never trust the next day not to bring violence and destruction to your valley. For centuries, in fact, there was even a sub-set of law – Marcher law – which applied nowhere else outside the Marches between England and Scotland. The lords of that area were known as the Marcher lords, and they were given expanded rights and powers for precisely the reason that they were expected on both sides of the border to hold the lid on some extremely violent people. The Steel Bonnets provides a very readable history of that part of the world, in which you possessed nothing that you were not able and willing to defend at sword-point with your life. It was, in truth, a place where “life was short and death was violent.” One of my favorite vignettes is – and I can’t recall where I read it, alas – of the missionary who wandered into some border valley and inquired in the village whether they were Christians there. “Christians? Nah; we’s a’ Armstrongs.” The Borders were a place of negligible land tenures, rack rents, poor soil, worse weather, and through everything the daily threat of violent death and destruction. You enjoyed peace only to the extent that you could be make others leave you alone by their fear of you if they didn’t.
The Borders were “pacified” by James VI of Scotland after he succeeded Elizabeth of England. He “pacified” them principally by reducing them to a smoking ruin and killing or deporting all but a miserable remnant of the original inhabitants. Part of his Big Idea was the Ulster Plantation, a scheme whereby he’d transplant his troublesome Scots to northern Ireland to displace his troublesome Irish. And so for several generations, beginning in 1610, the Scots and the Irish mixed their language, their genes, their society, and their bad habits with each other. If James had a mind to enervate the Scots by moving them to Ireland he failed, pretty miserably.
Whatever else the Borderers may have thought about anything in particular, their experience of organized government – of strangers who wanted them to behave in ways they did not choose themselves – was decidedly unfavorable. “Government” wasn’t something that taught your children to read, or brought you soup when you were sick, or fixed your roof when it leaked. “Government” was a bunch of men on horseback who burned the crop you were counting on to make it through the winter, pulled down your sod shack, shot, bayonetted, or hanged half the male population of your village, and hunted you out of the place where your family had lived for centuries. The Borderers’ experience of “government,” in other words, was not too dissimilar from that of the Indians’ experience of “government” (in fact, Paul Johnson in his The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 points out the ironic tragedy that just as the destruction of the Eastern Indians’ society was concluding on this side of the Atlantic, so the Highland clearances in Scotland were wrapping up the destruction of a tribal way of life that had likewise existed for centuries on end).
Fisher in Albion’s Seed paints a vivid picture of the Borderers as they debarked in the New World: “But even in their poverty they carried themselves with a fierce and stubborn pride that warned others to treat them with respect.” These were not the sons of planters, nor did they bring any slaves with them. They were shunted in short order to the back-country, where they spread down the spine of the Appalachians to the Carolinas and turned west, through the Cumberland Gap and othewise. The Germans, who while much smaller in number had moved in tandem with them, stopped in western Carolina (there is a reason there’s a Mecklenburg County in western North Carolina, and why congregations of Moravian Brethren are found in that area). It was the Scots-Irish who settled the Kentucky and Tennessee territories, who pushed down into Alabama and Mississippi, and who eventually continued across the river to Arkansas and Texas. When Sam Houston, born in the Shenandoah, ran away – literally – from the Tennessee governorship, he went to Arkansas to rejoin his fellow Cherokee, who had adopted him when he’d run away as a boy from home in East Tennessee; while with them he earned his nickname “Big Drunk.” Andrew Jackson’s people fetched up in back-country South Carolina.
It was the Scots-Irish cultural background of indifferent husbandry, jealousy of outside control, and propensity for personal violence that stamped the entire Old Southwest and was then carried, through Jackson, Clay, Benton (the bullet in his shoulder that intermittently tormented Jackson to the end of his days was lodged there during a brawl with future Sen. Thos. Hart Benton and his family, conducted on the streets of Nashville) and those like them, back east to the capital. To the extent the inland South sought cultural guidance from their social betters, they looked to Virginia, not to the Carolinas.
There is another aspect of colonial America which Ms Robinson, being innocent of history, does not seem to account for very much if at all: the Great Revivals. The first such was in 1750; the second, and even larger, was that of 1800. They were not peculiar to the South or any portion of it. The Burnt-Over District (so named because of the fires of religious fervor which swept over it so frequently) is not in the South; it’s in upstate New York. A central theme of those revivals was the notion of a personal conversion experience. It was a direct, unmediated experience of the present visitation of the Holy Spirit upon the believer. The Great Revivals were a profoundly anti-hierarchical movement. In fact the Great Revivals were for the Borderers little more than the continuation and intensification of a trend that began before they got on the ships. Fisher describes the “militant Christianity” of the People of the New Light, meeting in the open fields; he also describes the sectarian violence among them on the frontier.
The Anglicans just never got much in the way of a toe-hold in the back-country. Charles Woodmason’s memoirs of his attempts at mission work in the Carolina back-country in the mid-1700s are just the best-known example of what must have been a depressingly widely shared experience among those who would bring established religion to the deep woods. Not only was there the whole cultural gap problem, but there just weren’t enough educated ministers for the Anglicans or even the Methodists or the main-line Presbyterian branches to make much progress. Enter the “whosoever will” philosophy of the camp meeting; cue the jack-leg preacher on his horse, riding from farm to farm. Thousands upon thousands of people would travel from all over a state to attend the larger meetings, and they would go on for days. Denominations splintered, doctrine became atomized, and congregations divided and re-divided to the point where you’ve got everything from Foot-Washing Baptists to snake-handling Pentecostals to congregations of specific denominations where it is taught that you’re going to hell not only if you aren’t of Denomination X, but you’re going to hell if you don’t attend a specific congregation of Denomination X. No kidding; I grew up among such people.
The common element in all of this? It is a perception that personal freedom is measured by what you may not do to me. It is not, and never has been, measured by what I may do to you. Remember: If you’re like me I know good and well what you propose to do to me if I try to shove myself into your business. The two notions are just not the same thing at all. Nor is one’s value as a human driven by one’s place in a hierarchy under the conception of freedom prevalent around here. One’s place in society is driven by what one may prevent others from doing to one, by whatever means necessary. Ms Robinson may be to some extent correct about the Southern exaggerated “honor” code and the sensitivity to slights to it, but outside those specific areas it did not come from the Carolinas or Virginia. The dirt-poor Borderers brought it with them in their baggage; they wrapped it about themselves as they milled about on the quay.
I forget which author it was, but a number of years ago someone actually began looking at real property tax records from the antebellum period. What he found was that land ownership was much more concentrated in the South than was previously realized. So where did all those people live, because there certainly were vastly more middling and poor sorts than there ever were plantation grandees. The answer is that they lived where they could, ran their cattle and hogs on such land as they could find untended, and when it was time to move on did so, abandoning the little they’d had. That model of society and economy didn’t work so well once the slave economy was destroyed. It’s been 27 years since I read it for Prof. Fields, but Steven Hahn’s The Roots of Southern Populism, a study of the political transformation of the Georgia up-country after the war, is indispensable reading to understanding how this stratum of poor whites (by the way, it was the slaves who invented the expression “white trash”; they used it to describe those whites who lived worse off than they did) which had been permitted to exist largely outside the scope of the sub-industrial plantation economy was roped into the new way of life that had to develop once slavery was destroyed. To sum it up: they didn’t like it very well.
According to Ms Robinson, under those paragons of morality and civic virtue, i.e. the Puritans in case you hadn’t recognized them from the description, sovereignty reposed in the collective. And did it ever. Just ask Roger Williams. You’ll remember him; he was the guy who barely beat the arrest warrant when he ran away from the Massachusetts Bay colony to found Rhode Island. The Puritans were so civic minded and so conscious of sovereignty residing in the collective that they’d run your country ass out of town if you did not conform to their religion. It was in Puritan paradise that they executed witches, not in Cavalier Virginia or lash-strangled Carolina.
I’m not here to tax the Northeastern cultural heritage. It was and is what it was and is, a charge to which we all must plead guilty. What I do object to is Ms Robinson’s holding this one cultural tradition – even assuming she’s got it read correctly, which is giving her quite a bit of leeway I’m not sure she’s entitled to claim – as being somehow more legitimately in the American tradition than the contrasting traditions of another cultural legacy. To castigate a notion of freedom as meaning the freedom from control by others, as opposed to the freedom to impose a cultural consensus of propriety on individuals, as originating in a specifically slave-based culture is both inaccurate and stupid. I object to Ms Robinson’s castigating the historical peculiarities of an entire region, which has had a vastly different historical fabric to work with, as being somehow the inevitable product of a specific cultural tradition. I object to her ahistorical comparison of one region with the historical peculiarities of other regions of the country, likewise attributed not to objective realities of their existence but to some imagined inherent moral superiority of their people.
One example. Ms Robinson sings the praises of Northeasterners’ supposed love of schooling and specifically government-sponsored schooling, as being a product of their Puritan civic virtue (we ignore the ethnic supremacy elements of its agenda, of course). What she overlooks is that the area whose praises she sings so vigorously was settled and stable by the mid 1600s. It had established government, industry, shipping, commerce routes, and was above all compact. Much of the Old Southwest in contrast was not cleared of its aboriginal inhabitants until the 1830s, nearly two hundred years later. It was a land of deep forest, of wild rivers, of isolation. It was above all else poor, in most places desperately so. The patterns of settlement, in other words, were entirely different from those of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, or even the coastal South, to say nothing of the Midwest. What surplus wealth there was in the inland South was engrossed by the larger planters and a few industrialists or bankers in the very few cities. Get outside those few towns and there just wasn’t the money to spare for established systems of education. Sam Houston taught school for a couple of years in a one-room log school; those families who could spare a child from the fields for a few weeks a year were happy to have him, and pay him in-kind with whatever they could grow, raise, or kill. After the Civil War most of the South was economically devastated. Again, the surplus wealth that might have supported a formal education system such as existed in the Northeast, or even in the Midwest, simply did not exist. Chicago had not burned; Atlanta, Columbia, Charleston, and Richmond all did. But to pretend that the Southern neglect of formal education that is an undeniable fact of this area’s history is some inevitable product of the alleged sensibilities and priorities of a small group of immigrants to a tiny area generations before is just dishonest, or foolish, or both.
Finally, Ms Robinson’s attribution to a supposed slave heritage of what she conceives to be a “Southern” understanding of freedom as being a secret desire to dominate and subjugate, cloaked in fraudulent language of just being left alone, demonstrates most of all her profound ignorance of other societies’ thinking about freedom over time. Let’s look to William Blackstone and his Commentaries (I’m proud to say I have a facsimile edition of his first edition from the 1760s). “By the absolute rights of individuals we mean those which are so in their primary and strictest sense; such as would belong to their persons merely in a state of nature, and which every man is intitled to enjoy whether out of society or in it. * * * For the principal aim of society is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights, which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature; but which could not be preserved in peace without that natural assistance and intercourse, which is gained by the institution of friendly and social communities. Hence it follows, that the first and primary end of human law is to maintain and regulate these absolute rights of individuals. Such rights as are social and relative result from, and are posterior to, the formation of states and societies: so that to maintain and regulate these, is clearly a subsequent consideration. * * * The absolute rights of man, considered as a free agent, endowed with discernment to know good from evil, and with power of choosing those measures which appear to him to be most desirable, are usually summed up in one general appellation, and denominated the natural liberty of mankind. This natural liberty consists properly in a power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, unless by the law of nature: being a right inherent in us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation, when he endued him with the faculty of free-will.” Oh dear; Ms Robinson, call your office.
Perhaps, though, Blackstone’s notion of freedom somehow derived from a fundamental support for the institution of African chattel slavery? Maybe Ms Robinson gets a pass after all. Let’s see: “As to the several sorts of servants: I have formerly observed that pure and proper slavery does not, nay cannot, subsist in England; such I mean, whereby an absolute and unlimited power is given to the master over the life and fortune of the slave. And indeed it is repugnant to reason, and the principles of natural law, that such a state should subsist any where.” Sorry, Ms Robinson, Blackstone did not derive any portion of his notion of freedom from the existence or propriety of slavery.
By the way, we ought not forget that ancient Athens in all its democratic glory was a slave society. The miners who worked the silver mines which were a mainstay of Anthens’s prosperity were not carrying UMW cards in their pockets. Contrast Sparta, a much more tightly collectivist society (in fact, quite a bit like the Puritan ideal so burnished by Ms Robinson, in its modesty, discipline, devotion to “public service,” and firm belief that sovereignty resided in the collective). Each year Sparta formally declared war on the helots, by which device they could be killed as enemy combatants by any Spartan citizen who found it expedient to do so.
Rome likewise was a society awash in chattel slaves. I forget which personage it was (I’ve slept since I came across the line, but I have a hazy recollection that it was Pliny the Younger) who, when asked why he needed several hundred slaves, replied that it was expected of him.
Let’s move forward in time some, to a period which Ms Robinson might reasonably be expected to have heard of. We hear from Friedrich Hayek (Austrian), first in his Road to Serfdom, about the incompatibility of collectivism with human freedom, by which he very explicitly means a freedom from the control of other persons. If Ms Robinson still can’t figure out the message, he also serves up his The Constitution of Liberty. And then we get to Milton and Rose Friedman (here’s some news, Ms Robinson: Uncle Milty ain’t from Dothan), with Free to Choose.
I can’t help but feel it unfair to give all this air time to those people, ancient and modern, who have understood “freedom” to mean, and only to mean, your inability to bugger me around, without sharing the stage with some folks who share Ms Robinson’s notion of proper “freedom” being a not an individual condition but a collective activity, guided by one’s betters acting through the machinery of state. For starts let’s look at who else other than Ms Robinson understands the central question questions of human existence to be, “Who? Whom?” That would be Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, whom Ms Robinson might well worship as “Lenin.” “Everything within the state; nothing outside the state.” That would be, Ms Robinson, Benito Mussolini. “Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz” – the common good over the personal good – a chestnut from the pantry of the National Socialist German Workers Party. Let’s fire up the Wayback Machine and see what it spits out: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus – no salvation outside the church, coming straight to you from the Roman church of the 3rd Century.
You know, when I look at who else shares with me that awful, eeeevvvviiillllll Southern concept of freedom, which Ms Robinson sees to her horror stalking the land, red in tooth and claw, and I compare them with the crew who espouse her version of freedom being the freedom to do as you’re told by your betters . . . . I just don’t see any reason to apologize to the Ms Robinsons of the universe. At all. Even a little. And if it really is true that Those Awful Slave Beatin’ Southerners’ concept of freedom is marching onward – which in the United States of Dear Leader’s “disposition matrix,” his domestic drone surveillance society, his use of the taxing authorities to attack his political opponents, his endorsement of what can only be described as physically violent and confrontational voter fraud, etc. I beg leave to doubt – you’re just going to have to forgive me if I don’t think that’s such a bad thing after all.
You know, it’s a pity I haven’t more time to gut Ms Robinson just a bit more. I could go on about the Robber Barons’ supposed endorsement of Dear Leader’s statement that “at some point you’ve made enough money.” Can you imagine him saying that to Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, August Belmont, or Henry Ford? I could call up example after example of distinctly non-civic behavior (like Andrew Carnegie’s repeated pattern of committing what would land him in jail for securities fraud perpetrated on cities all over America) nearly at will. I could point out that, so far from a supposedly “Southern conservative” Weltanschauung creeping forth from the slime of blood-soaked mud to pollute and conquer the Elysian fields of Seattle, for the past 40 years it’s been people from other parts of the country flooding, simply flooding, the southern tier of states with come-heres. I could point out the massive give-aways, both political and financial, to the administration’s labor union backers, in refutation of Ms Robinson’s bleat about the supposed “rights” of the workin’ man being under assault. I could examine a bit more closely the willingness of those pure-hearted, high-minded Puritans to run their steam-powered looms with slave-grown cotton. I could sift around and find natives of the Northeast who, before the Civil War, came down south and became among slavery’s biggest champions. Like Gov. Quitman of Mississippi, originally from New York. Or I could also trot out counter-examples like the first governor of California, himself a slave-owner but who backed, for political reasons, a free-soil constitution for that state in 1850. We could take a good hard look at the cultural and political make-up of the elites of the Upper Midwest, and see how many of them are four generations or fewer removed from the fishing smacks of Norway, instead of the cane fields of Barbados. We could look up a few opportunists like Vermont-born and raised Stephen A. Douglas, who moved to Illinois and, while backing “popular sovereignty” (are you paying attention, Ms Robinson) that would permit any territority or state to adopt slavery, himself owned (through his wife) a substantial number of slaves. But I just don’t have the time.
Oh: Why is the U.S. now run like a “plantation”? Ask Thos. Sowell and Alan West what happens when a black man gets off the plantation these days.
[Update 18 Dec 12:] To borrow from Margaret Thatcher (again): I refer you to my earlier comments. Ask Sen.-designate Tim Scott of South Carolina what it’s like when a black man wanders from the Democratic plantation.
I’ve been pecking away at this post for the better part of two weeks now, and it’s time to publish it. Ms Robinson should stick to social futurity; she’s got neither knowledge of nor talent for history. I don’t carry a brief for what happened in the South, either before or after the War. A whole lot of it is simply indefensible. So I’m not going to try. Kindly spare me, though, tripe such as Ms Robinson’s. When my understanding of freedom has amassed as many corpses as Ms Robinson’s concept of freedom has in less than a century, then we’ll talk.