The South, Progressivism, and Historic Revisionism

Over at Humane Pursuits, Brian Brown, in an exceedingly verbose disquisition (Yes, please do insert your pot-and-kettle joke here.), makes the novel assertion that

The South is certainly highly conservative in temperament (disliking change), but it is actually oddly Progressive in the values it wishes to conserve. Whether its detractors realize it or not, The South represents a chapter in Progressivism’s past, and a chapter in its present. Progressives hate the sight of it. But like it or not, The South (as a movement) is actually a form of half-grown Progressivism that couldn’t quite get the hang of it.”

Novel, and absurd. To a degree, Brown is correct in noting that some of “the values [The South] wishes to conserve” coincide with certain Progressive values, just as he is when he posits that the founders of the Religious Right — Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson — acted Progressively insofar as they “made [social issues] into national crises demanding coercive, national legislative and judicial measures.” But in his continued obsession with Progressivism, Brown errs grossly on at least three points.

First, there is something peculiar — even incoherent — about his claiming that they wish conservatively to preserve Progressive values, only then to cite abortion and gay marriage as the issues that they wish to combat — very conservative values, it seems to me — through Progressive means. (Only later does he make the partially correct contention that The South has adopted the earlier Progressive value of militant nationalism.) Toward the end of the essay, he hedges his claim, noting,

The counter to all this, of course, is that Progressivism tends to be anti-tradition, anti-family, and anti-religious, while The South is the proud preserver of all of the above. But just as the initial description of The South was a pejorative generalization, so this is a pejorative generalization of Progressivism. Many of Progressivism’s early leading men were deeply religious (Wilson is an example); only comparatively recently have the atheistic sects of the movement gained control of its policies. And the significance of The South’s upholding of tradition and family, while real, has been diluted by its adoption of the Progressive moral tradition of nationalism and material tradition of massive strip malls, chain stores, and Wal Marts over many local institutions.

I am right with Brian in condemning the “adoption of … material tradition of … Wal Marts over many local institutions”, but, again, he proceeds a leap too far in accusing The South of seeking to conserve Progressive values, when they’ve actually been guilty of using Progressive tactics to conserve their values. Moreover, he borders on equivocation with the suggestion that because Wilson was deeply religious, he was also a “proud preserver” of tradition, family, and religion. Few things so impressively rout all of the above as does engaging in a war — with a draft no less! — on another continent — to say nothing of post-war policies — when the United States traditionally had observed the Monroe Doctrine (itself a disturbing innovation). Add to that the list of federal accomplishments under Wilson — the Federal Reserve Act, the Revenue Act of 1913 —, and we see, however unintentionally, an enemy certainly of family and tradition, both moral and American-political.

Second, simply to suggest that the leaders of the Religious Right, and, following them, The South, adopted “Progressive ideas [as] the best way to solve social problems” while remaining “highly conservative in temperament (disliking change)” fails to place matters in proper context: To wit, the Religious Right and The South have not simply chosen to play by Progressive rules, but have had Progressivism forced upon them. Certainly, they could (possibly!) have chosen something of a Benedict Option, or a more ardently localist front-porch approach, rather than having adopted tricks from the Progressive playbook, but given the ramifications, for example, of Roe (Brown, recall, specifically mentions abortion.), such tactics would have offered little opportunity for undoing the atrociously Progressive act of legalizing infanticide. (I have argued, and intend to do so here at NCM later, that culturally conservative localism and a repudiation of “social conservatism” is necessary if we ever seek to develop a meaningful, strong Culture of Life, so I’ll concede to Brown slightly, but this is decidedly not the same thing as overcoming entrenched Progressivism in the chambers of government; that is, our building a Culture of Life from the ground up does not mean that we necessarily can afford to stop fighting the game on the Progressives’ terms simultaneously, given that they still rule the roost.) Just as Herbert Croly, as Brian notes, determined that the conditions of his time “demand[ed] as a counterpoise a more effective body of national opinion, and a more powerful organization of the national interest”, the Religious Right and The South recognized that Croly’s desired “more effective body” had ascended to dominance, and they had to form their own counterpoise thereto.


Will, at Dispatches, has a post-Presidents Day post in which, amongst other things, he links, critically, to my Terrapin Times piece on Roger B. Taney. He packs quite a pit into a brief paragraph, so I’ll post it in its entirety and respond as appropriate.

I’m baffled by the rise of anti-Lincoln sentiment on some quarters of the Right. Freeing the slaves ought to count for something. Moreover, letting the South go and hoping for the best (voluntary manumission, perhaps?) seems like wishful thinking. I’d also argue that Jim Crow would have been a lot more durable had the South gained independence. Patrick Deneen’s assessment is a bit more balanced.

First, I’m not sure why this baffles Will. Criticism of Lincoln from the Right is nothing new; granted, unfortunately, a fair amount of it comes from certain neo-Confederate paleoconservative/paleolibertarian corners where racism, I suspect, seethes just below the surface, awaiting the day when Jim Crow laws can be revived, perhaps “for the good of” Blacks. However, such denouncements come from conservatives unpossessed of such virulent tendencies. (I like to think that I belong to this latter category.) For instance, long ago (by blogosphere standards), Larison offered this:

Serious conservatives of old (and some still around today) frequently disparaged Father Abraham and rejected the politics that he represented; to the extent that the GOP really was always the Party of Lincoln, conservatives are hard-pressed to ever find a real place in it, since our tradition via the Agrarians and Bradford ties us to the Antifederalists, Jeffersonian Republicans, Southern Democrats and Populists.  At each stage of our history, the revolutionary forces of consolidation wanted to transform and do violence to the settled order of American life and sought to damage the constitutional order as well.  At each stage serious conservatives opposed them and their works . . . .

. . .  if “Lincoln Republican” means anything it refers to the post-1865 Republican stranglehold imposed on the country by the post-War arrangements of power . . . .

It was only ten years ago that Bob Dole lectured us about how the GOP was the Party of Lincoln and anybody who didn’t like it could get out right now.  I got the hint when I was still just 17 and never joined the Party of Corporations, Corruption and Consolidation.  Weaver’s argument from definition notwithstanding, Lincoln was certainly no conservative or, if he was a conservative, I would not want to have anything to do with such a conservatism. [Emphasis in the original. – NPO]

Moreover, of course this antipathy toward Lincoln is emerging perhaps more openly now, as we’ve marked his bicentennial. Such anniversaries are frequently the points at which we curmudgeons escape from our cellars long enough to inject politically incorrect vitriol into staid discussion. Pro-Lincoln agitprop (along with pro-Darwin commentary and anti-Darwin screeds) have dominated the media of late; that dissidents would keep opinions to themselves is neither to be expected nor desired.

Of course freeing the slaves ought to count for something; as far as I know, none of us expressing our disapproval of the Great Emancipator have denied that this was a good thing. I fully challenge the notion that ending slavery was Lincoln’s principal intention — if, initially, an intention at all (I’ll not pretend to know what motives drove him from deepest within.) —; preserving the Union, for better or for worse, I think, is what he sought to do. That the Emancipation Proclamation immediately freed slaves only in states over which Washington had no de facto authority — and in those parts of the Confederacy over which the Union had regained control (a fact seemingly lost to too many critics of Lincoln) — suggests an unwillingness, or ambivalence, at least at first, respecting the issue.

I certainly agree that expecting to see the end of slavery, at least any time soon, by way of “letting the South go and hoping for the best (voluntary manumission, perhaps?)” is wishful thinking. I certainly had no intention of making such a suggestion when I noted that Taney manumitted his own slaves. I make mention of that only to suggest (specifically to my primary audience; more on that below) that, dreadful and mistaken as his Dred Scott opinion was, Taney was not a complete beast.

Slavery is unequivocally immoral, a particularly sad stain on this nation’s sad history. However, I’m not at all convinced that the liberation of Black slaves into a Southern society in which de jure discrimination and, notwithstanding the Fourteenth Amendment, de facto inequality reigned and into Northern cities where the absence of slavery and the chimera of tolerance did little to meliorate the fact that Blacks often remained second- (perhaps third-)class citizens justifies the deaths of more than six hundred thousand Americans, more deaths than every other war, Revolution through Vietnam, combined.

How could we have ended slavery otherwise? I don’t pretend to know. Perhaps, as Will suggests, had the South been left to its own devices, Jim Crow would have been a lot more durable. On the other hand, that a South not embittered by bloodshed, conquest and Reconstruction, Sherman’s rape of Georgia, and the quashing of the important Constitutional question of secession (More below.) and states’ rights, could have gradually ended slavery and slowly developed, more organically, healthier race relations is not, I submit, impossible. I may reveal naïvety by expressing such an opinion, but, left with few options, I’m willing to entertain it.

Ultimately, for me, the question of slavery is almost irrelevant to my personal assessment of the sixteenth president. Rather, his willful violation of the Constitution (the fundamental point of my Taney piece), nationalism/centralism, refusal to negotiate with the secessionists over the legal transfer of Fort Sumter (and other forts) to the Confederacy (which could have precluded the attack that incited the War Between the States), and being beholden to corporate interests inform my judgment. That emancipation resulted from his war wins him a few points, but that it was such a bloody, dubious war that brought forth this result suffices to negate much of the gain here.

The Taney piece to which Will responded will be on the front page of the forthcoming issue of The Terrapin Times. The fact is that I’m running a beleaguered-from-the-get-go right-of-centre paper on a heavily liberal/apathetic campus; running a piece like this is something I’m doing because a) Provocation draws attention and b) Notwithstanding the great flaw of Taney’s, I believe that people ought to realize the important of Taney qua judge in Ex parte Merryman whose opinion was most recently reaffirmed in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld. Had I written a piece about Lincoln, I, doubtless, should have dedicated more of the piece to criticizing him, but I also should have offered at least a small bone to the vastly more numerous pro-Lincoln crowd.

On the question of secession, I hold firmly no opinion. Unwilling to say that the States definitely possess the right to secede, I’m even more loath to submit that they lack such a right. Doubtless, whatever the Constitution says, I suspect that many States’ leaders failed to realize the Hamiltonian machinations at work to guarantee that, regardless of what they all believed, whatever right to re-establish autonomy would slip into the mists of history courtesy of the centralizing tendencies of Madison’s document.

The Maryland Corner: “Redeeming Roger Taney”

(from the forthcoming issue of The Terrapin Times, the first installment of our new feature, dedicated to important political figures, past and present, on the Right from Maryland, tentatively called The Maryland Corner)

Americans have a way of spinning history to bolster our national mythology. JFK’s foreign policy was nightmarish — to speak nothing of his personal life —, yet we extol him. FDR attempted to pack the Supreme Court, interned Japanese-Americans in numbers that dwarf the count of unfortunate souls at Guantánamo, and eagerly collaborated with the murderous Stalin, but idolizing him as the conqueror of the Depression and scourge of the Axis powers is much more palatable than embracing the truth. 

Then there is Abraham Lincoln. Ignoring that he needlessly sanctioned the bloodiest war in American history and put the kibosh on the important question of whether states, sovereign when they entered into the great experiment in liberty, could secede and reassert their autonomy, we revere the sixteenth president as a great liberator, the savior of the Union. We relegate Maryland native and Lincoln antagonist Chief Justice Roger B. Taney to the deepest pits of Hell for his opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford.

Yet, ironically, as we begin at least four years under our first Black president, a man esteemed as the new Lincoln, we ought to look for inspiration to no less a man than the estimable author of that loathsome Dred Scott decision.

Roger Brooke Taney, of Calvert County, was hardly perfect; he was, however, more complex than many would care to admit. His opining that Blacks were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race,” and thus ineligible for citizenship, is detestable. Nevertheless, he had personal qualms with the “peculiar institution,” and manumitted his own slaves. A dual-federalist, he stood firmly between ardent states’ rights champions and the advocates of centralization, proud of his Southern heritage and a lover of Maryland, but a loyal American who sought the preservation of the Union. 

Most important today, as our government continues to expropriate powers at the cost of our God-given liberties, Taney stood up to Lincoln’s antipathetic attitude toward the Constitution. After the mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, to the president’s consternation, proclaimed that they would permit no more Union troops to transfer through their respective jurisdictions, Lincoln instructed General Scott to suspend the writ of habeas corpus within the area of the military line. 

Obeying the governor’s orders, Lt. John Merryman, of the Baltimore County Horse Guards, burned bridges to prevent additional Pennsylvania soldiers from entering Maryland; not long thereafter, he was arrested on charges of treason. Numerous Maryland legislators soon found themselves incarcerated for no obvious reason. 

Enter Roger Taney. Presiding over the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Maryland, Taney, in Ex parte Merryman, reaffirmed that the president lacks authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus — a power expressly delegated to Congress in Article I of the Constitution. A defiant Lincoln persisted, widening the scope of the territory wherein the writ was held in abeyance. Employing arguments frightfully comparable to — but exceedingly more eloquent than — those to which we have grown accustomed in this tumultuous decade, Lincoln asked rhetorically of Congress, “Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?” Orwellian reverence for the rule of law at its finest.

Taney’s comprehension of liberty was incomplete, perhaps unforgivably so. That President Obama intends to try to suspend the writ of habeas corpus is dubious. However, given Obama’s vision for expanding government’s role in the economy, embrace of the Pax Americana ideology, and, more relevant, support for the USA PATRIOT Act and the FISA “compromise,” one is right to fear for his liberty. If we look beyond his imperfections, in Roger Taney we see a Marylander of whom we should be proud and whose spirited defense of the Constitution we should aspire to mimic.