The Un-Progressive South
By 1850, the American South had had enough of Northern agitation regarding the slavery in their midst and saw abolitionists as unreasoned, ideological fanatics who could produce no practical or peaceful means to do away with that residue of British colonialism. The former slave States of New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island emancipated their slaves earlier, and the South wished for time to do the same. The passage below is excerpted from the Fall 2017 newsletter of the acclaimed Abbeville Institute, see: www.abbevilleinstitute.org.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
The Un-Progressive South
“The union of classical and Christian culture gave Southerners an immunity – even before the War – to the modern virus of progressive ideology which had seized the North by the 1830s.
Criticism of Northern society by the likes of Robert Dabney, William Gilmore Simms and Edgar Allen Poe brought into stark relief the difference between the classical Aristotelian understanding of rational criticism favored by the South and the hubristic ideological critiques of Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman.
Lincoln made the ideological style of politics popular with the Gettysburg Address, where he defines America not as a historic federation of States, each cultivating, in its own terms, political and legal institutions inherited from Europe (and especially from Britain), but as a polity with a mission to shape society in accord with an abstract “idea” of equality.
By the 1950s, the ideological style of politics had become so popular that Richard Hofstadter could say approvingly, “it has been our fate not to have an ideology, but to be one.” Rather than see as a pathological condition of the intellect, it is celebrated as a great achievement and as an instance of American “Exceptionalism.”
As Al Gore and countless other pundits have put it, America is a country that constantly “reinvents itself.” Arthur Schlesinger defined American identity in this way: “The American character is bottomed upon the profound conviction that nothing in the world is beyond its power to accomplish.” And the “conservative” Ronald Reagan was fond of repeating Thomas Paine’s remark that we have it in our power to begin the world anew.
Southerners know we have no such power, and should resist the temptation to use it if we had it. The Yankee critic responds that Southerners have an intolerably relaxed tolerance of evil. But Southerners do not have a high tolerance for evil. Rather, they recognize the reality of original sin. They know how hard it is to eradicate sin from their own conduct much less reconstruct society as a whole with all the unintended consequences that generates.
Balanced “reform” is one thing, but belief in “progress” whether of the liberal or Marxist kind, is not only the pursuit of an ever-receding goal of “equality,” it is also a self-imposed innocence that protects the progressive from having to recognize his failures and the destruction caused by beginning the world anew or event totally rebuilding a part of it. Anti-slavery agitation in the antebellum North was almost entirely ideological and sentimental.
Nowhere in this agitation do we find an acknowledgement that the slaves were brought over by the North and that Northern wealth as of 1860 was founded on the slave trade and on servicing slave economies for over two centuries.
Morality demanded a national program to emancipate slaves, compensate slave holders and integrate slaves into American (including Northern) society. Northern anti-slavery agitators were not within a million miles of supporting such a proposal. What they demanded was immediate and uncompensated emancipation.”
(Abbeville, the Newsletter of the Abbeville Institute, Fall 2017, excerpt pp. 4-6)