The United States has a reputation abroad for being a nation of ignorant, backwards loonies who advocate policies the rest of the advanced nations abandoned decades ago. We are, say foreigners, Christian fundamentalists who trust corporations much more than we should, are quick to resort to military force in answer to international conflicts where diplomacy, persuasion, and economic force would be more appropriate, and crass commercial absolutists who kow-tow at the altar of rich people.
There’s some truth to all of this, I must confess. But that truth is localized. It isn’t really true of Americans in general, but it is true — all of it — about one region of the country, roughly contiguous with the eleven states that seceded from the United States in 1861 and were forcibly reincorporated in it in 1865.
Few Americans understand just how different the South is culturally and politically from the rest of America. (Or used to be, and still is to some degree. There are signs that this is changing as the South becomes more urban and more racially diverse.) It doesn’t come down to any one simple characteristic, positive or negative. It’s not that the South is racist (although in large measure it is). It’s not that the South is religious (although it is). It’s not that the South is Republican (in fact, for most of its history, it wasn’t). It does go back to the institution of slavery as the cause of much of this, but it precedes that, and the lasting effects of slavery cover a lot more ground than race relations.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Those words were written by a Virginian and a slave-owning planter, but he was a very complicated man with a compartmentalized and conflicted mind. Jefferson believed many things intellectually that he did not live. In that passage, he captured the central ideology that defines most of America. But it does not define the American South. In the South (although again, this is changing), all men are not created equal. Rich men are better than poor men, white men are better than non-white men, and all men are better than women. Also, Christians are better than non-Christians and Protestants are better than Catholics. Since all are not created equal, certainly government doesn’t exist to protect their equal rights.
The next passage in the Declaration, however, meets full agreement in the South:
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Oh, yes. Certainly the South agrees that when a government fails to deliver the goods, it’s the right of the people — or anyway, of the better people — to alter or abolish it, and that’s what they’ve been trying to do ever since they lost control over it in the mid 19th century. The aim of the neo-Confederate subculture, which exercises increasing control over the Republican Party today, is to destroy the United States.
A look at the history of the American South reveals how this peculiar culture-within-a-culture developed and evolved over the several centuries of its existence.
The United States, or what would become that, was founded as a group of English colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America, but that didn’t happen as a result of any coherent and consistent British policy and as a consequence the colonies were not all of a piece. Roughly speaking, the English colonies inside what is now the United States may be divided into three groups.
New England was settled mainly by Puritans in the early to middle 17th century. These people, in American historical mythos, left England in search of “religious freedom.” Actually, they left because England had too much religious freedom for their taste and they wanted to establish a theocracy, which proved impossible in the mother country. While their co-believers back home were chopping off a king’s head and briefly overthrowing the monarchy, the Puritans in America established colonies as religious experiments. Over time and generations, New England lost this Puritan character but retained a distrust of monarchical authority that would prove significant in the late 18th century.
The Mid-Atlantic region was originally settled not by the English but by the Dutch. It was a lucrative commercial settlement that was absorbed by the British in the mid-17th century and retained that commercial character into modern times. It’s no accident that Wall Street is in New York City.
The Southern colonies (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) were, unlike the other two sections, founded by the British crown as royal colonies. Four of them (all except Virginia) were founded under the name “province” rather than “colony.” Royal charters gave privileged status to particular English nobles, so that this region of the country felt more impact from the British ruling class than the other two.
The South was established deliberately to compete with other European powers for land and wealth. Its climate and soil proved suitable for growing cash crops (tobacco, sugar, and, later on, cotton) and the entire rationale for establishing the colonies was to grow valuable commodities and enrich the English nobility and the British government. In short, it was an exploitative enterprise from the beginning, unlike New England or the Mid-Atlantic.
Growing cash crops requires a lot of labor, which in the old agrarian paradigm meant forced labor. The growers tried enslaving Native Americans for the purpose, but that proved difficult as escape was too easy. White indentured servants (temporary slaves) proved a workable approach for a while, but eventually the expedient of enslaving Africans was adopted. This was ideal from the planters’ perspective, if less so for the unfortunate Africans. These were proto-civilized people who knew how to grow crops, and they were far from their homelands or any sympathetic society, and visibly different from the local population, which made escape difficult.
Even before African slavery began, the South acquired one of its distinctive characteristics as a result of its founding enterprise. It was authoritarian, as a culture founded on forced labor must be. The idea of freedom as most Americans think of it, and indeed as the plain meaning of the word suggests, is foreign to the original culture of the South, for which freedom meant failure of the entire reason the colonies existed.
Religion was one method used to enforce order. Of course, the South was not (and is not) uniquely religious or especially more so than the rest of America. But the type of religious belief prevailing in the South was different from what was found elsewhere, and still is. As a tool for the enforcement of order and social stratification, Southern Christianity was and is more authoritarian and less inclined to challenge the wealthy elite than forms of the religion found in other parts of the country. One finds in some cases, such as the Baptists, distinctive denominations, one for the South and the other for outside it. The Evangelical denominations are almost all Southern in origin.
The culture of the South, then, was from the beginning authoritarian, and as African slavery became entrenched, that authoritarianism took racial form. It was never entirely racial, however. Class and gender distinctions have also been and remain very important in Southern culture. Reform that addresses racism itself, while important, does not go to the heart of the matter, which is the authoritarian character of the culture.
The South in the Early United States
During the War of Independence, British strategy recognized the distinctive (and more loyal) character of the South and employed it in an attempt to retain power in the colonies. The strategy ultimately failed, but in fact the South was more fiercely divided between loyalists and rebels than other parts of the country.
After the war, the failure of the original U.S. government led to the drafting of the Constitution. We can see the economic and political disputes between the South and the rest of the country in passages of that document, from the infamous “three-fifths of a person” clause to the prohibition on ending the slave trade before 1808 to the structure of Congress itself, for which the conflict between the relatively populous Southern states and relatively underpopulated New England led to the two-chamber compromise that exists today.
Because of that population difference, the South dominated the United States government during the period after the Constitution’s founding. The political conflict ran along classic Marxist lines between the feudal/agrarian South and the industrial capitalist North, as it increasingly became. A capitalist economy produces more wealth than an agrarian one, and supports a larger population despite the superiority of Southern climate and soil (particularly when the Northern capitalist culture absorbed the splendid wheat lands of the Midwest as the nation expanded westward). The political balance in Congress began to tip against the South as the first half of the 19th century ran its course. Moral opposition to slavery as an institution arose. The South attempted to expand slavery, and authoritarian Southern culture with it, westward, and succeeded to a degree, but on balance the mainstream American culture was winning that race. The Mexican-American War, which incorporated California as a free state and opened the way to a continental empire, accelerated that process.
The development of most of the Western territories as non-Southern states would eventually mean that Southern dominance of Congress would break. While Congress lacked the authority to outlaw slavery as such, it could have used its power to tax and to regulate commerce to make the institution unprofitable. Eventually, the magic proportion of three-quarters of the states might come to oppose slavery as new free states were added, and that would allow a Constitutional amendment outlawing slavery.
The dominant political party in these years was the Democratic Party, which primarily served the slave-owning Southern constituency. The capitalist interests were represented by first the Federalist Party and then the Whig Party. In the 1850s, former Whigs came together joining their commercial and industrial interests with an opposition to slavery and founded the new Republican Party. For the first time, a major party in American politics made the abolition of slavery a central plank of its platform. (Given the current neo-Confederate dominance of the party, that history is ironic to say the least. But it’s true.)
The writing was on the wall. The planter interests in the South, facing eventual loss of the political game, decided to upend the board. That was the first time that, faced with loss of control over the federal government, the South decided to destroy it. It would not be the last time.
Next week: The American South (Part II) dealing with the Civil War and its aftermath.