Clement Eaton wrote that the plantation society of the Old South emphasized the family far more than in the North, and family graveyards were a familiar sight south of Mason and Dixon’s line. The family altar was a part of its religious mores, devotion to kin and tradition was essential, and “people were evaluated not so much as individuals but as belonging to a family, a clan.”
Additionally, the old Southern culture was different from our own age in its greater devotion to the classics; Hugh Swinton Legare of Charleston believed that their study “would form in [students] a pure taste, kindle their imaginations “with the most beautiful and glowing passages of Greek and Roman poetry and eloquence” [and] store their minds with “the saying of sages,” and indelibly impress upon their hearts the achievements of the Greek and Roman heroes.
The quest for the Northern conception of progress, unrestrained social change and an embrace of industrial capitalism changed all this.
Worship of the Dynamo
“The United States . . . does not possess many of the conservative advantages enjoyed by most premodern cultures . . . [and is] made up of dozens of peoples and cultures. Some are compatible with the culture of the original, predominantly British settlers; others are not.
We have long since lost our reverence for tradition. If the United States has a national tradition, it is the habit of change and the worship of the dynamo. Our most poignant folk hero is John Henry, the defeated enemy of progress.
The ordinary restraints imposed by community and religion survive most powerfully in the distorted forms of intolerance and superstition – much like the bizarre remnants of ancient paganism that endured for several centuries beyond the official Christianization of the Roman Empire. All that seems to bind us together as a nation is a vague ideology of liberty, equality and progress.
Apart from a certain natural inertia, there are few restraints on social innovation. Far from being unique, the United States has been, much like Athens, the education of the modern world.
Herein lies the special quality and crisis of our civilization. Our original and creative minds seethe with new ideas. A few of them are productive, but in the nature of things, most are not. There is nothing wrong with originality, but what is missing from the modern scene are all the powerful restraints, the governors that control the speed of social change, the filters of experience and tradition that sort out the practical from the merely clever.
What we lack are the divine oracles that thunder against any trespass upon ancient rights and any invasion of the nature of things. We have our prophets, it is true, but most of them insist on being creative men of original genius.
The family and the church have not disappeared . . . But they survive in isolated and individualized forms, which cannot impose much restraint upon the community or the state. In the 1980s . . . American families cannot even be sure of their right to rear their children without government interference.
The churches have seen their actual power reduced even more than the family. Today . . . the tax-exempt status of churches is regarded as a privilege granted by an indulgent government. Church schools are regularly taken to court in efforts to make them conform to the model of public education.
What is unsettling is the idea that community bodies – like local churches – have no part to play in exercising social control, that power is exclusively a function of the government and perhaps, the mass media.”
(The Politics of Human Nature, Thomas Fleming, Transaction Publishers, 1988, excerpts pp. 8-9)