— Counter-Currents —

The Confederate Revolution


The “Confederate flag” (Battle flag of the Army of Tennessee)

2,800 words

The Confederate rebellion can be viewed as a revolutionary attempt at regional secession from the Union with the objective of establishing an independent state. I would hesitate to say “white ethnostate,” because I don’t think it was that.

Yet nationalism scholars barely notice the Confederate States of America. There are a variety of reasons for this: Southern secession failed, the Confederacy was short-lived, Confederates were conservative rather than Leftist, and academics are reluctant to view a slave-based society in nationalist or revolutionary terms.

The pertinent legal issue is: Was secession constitutional? If so, then, theoretically, secession was not revolutionary, but a valid assertion of legal rights.

But, as a practical matter, it must be viewed as revolutionary.

The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience

Forty years ago Emory M. Thomas, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, analyzed the Confederacy from this perspective.

His 150-page essay on the subject was published as The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience (1971).

The Confederates, Thomas maintained, were conservative revolutionaries in the tradition of their American revolutionary predecessors. Through an “external revolution” they established a new nation, the Confederate States of America.

“But revolutions, even conservative revolutions, contain a dynamic of their own. They have a way of getting out of hand and transforming even institutions they were meant to preserve.” (p. 1)

So, unintentionally, Confederate leaders ushered in a second, “internal” revolution at odds with pre-war Southern society and many of the secessionists’ own aims. This accidental revolution was propelled by the demands of total war.

Professor Thomas has also written a comprehensive history of Confederate nationalism called The Confederate Nation, 1861–1865 (1979). In 2005 a Festschrift edited by Lesley J. Gordon and John C. Inscoe, Inside the Confederate Nation: Essays in Honor of Emory M. Thomas, was published.

Thomas also penned biographies of J. E. B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee. An hour-long 1995 television interview with Thomas from C-SPAN’s Booknotes about the Lee biography and Thomas’s own background can be viewed online [2]. A transcript of the interview is also available.

The South’s revolutionary experience is worth examining because it holds valuable lessons for white nationalists. Thomas’s view of the experience is outlined in what follows.

The Old South

The most salient features of the pre-war “quintessential South” were states’ rights, agrarianism, racial slavery, aristocracy, and specific habits of mind.

In their postwar memoirs, both Jefferson Davis and Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens maintained that states’ rights were the essential issue underlying the conflict.

States’ rights is the political doctrine that strictly limits the prerogatives of the federal government to powers explicitly assigned to it by the US Constitution, while reserving to the several states all remaining powers not explicitly forbidden them.

The legal concept originated with Thomas Jefferson in 1798, and was elaborated in succeeding decades by John Taylor of Caroline, John Randolph of Roanoke, and Southern statesman John C. Calhoun.

Agrarianism signified an agricultural society, economy, and way of life neither communal nor wholly capitalistic.

Slavery was a third vital feature of the South.


Pierre Brissaud, “Picnic in the Old South,” 1934

Emory Thomas quotes Virginian Thomas Jefferson’s racial belief as representative: “I advance it . . . as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”

Thomas notes that moderate abolitionists, despite their desire to abolish the legal ownership of human beings, did not accept black-white racial equality.

This observation is in accord with the Nation of Islam’s statement that “white abolitionists who earnestly wanted an end to slavery had no intention of granting the Black man full social, economic, or political citizenship. They decried the horrors of that cruelest of institutions, but most [emphasis added] fundamentally believed in the rightness of white mastery over all affairs of the nation.” (The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, Vol. 2, 2010 [4], p. 28)

As further evidence, many founders and leaders (including Quakers) of the American Colonization Society, whose goal was to repatriate blacks to Africa, were abolitionists. “Incorruptibles” like William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown were rare.

Thomas writes that “the great majority of antebellum Southerners did not own slaves.”

The Secret Relationship, written by black nationalist scholars, is more explicit than Thomas. Referring to the US as a whole, the book says that prior to the Civil War roughly 7% of white Americans owned slaves, while 93% did not. (p. 54) In the South, Jews were twice as likely to own slaves as the average white Southerner. (p. 23)

A few Southern dissidents opposed slavery on the grounds that it was harmful to whites. One such dissident was Hinton Rowan Helper.

In The Impending Crisis of the South (1857), dedicated to “nonslaveholding whites” (mostly Scotch Irish and English Americans), he demonstrated that slavery and the plantation system held back the entire region, as well as white non-slaveholders as a class.

More than a century earlier (1751) Benjamin Franklin had made much the same argument against slavery [5].

Another radical Southerner, James DeBow, Superintendent of the US Census and publisher of the commercial monthly DeBow’s Review, soundly urged Southerners to diversify their economy, build railroads and factories, and become economically self-sufficient and prosperous as a practical extension of Southern nationalism.

Nevertheless, Southern non-slaveholders supported slavery for reasons of race, kinship (in some cases), and economic ties to the plantation system. Helper’s critique of slavery, dubbed “Helperism,” was roundly condemned throughout the South. The majority of Southerners did not seriously question the planter-dominated social structure.

As slavery came under increasing attack, the Southern position hardened. What had once been a “necessary evil” became a “positive good.” With striking unanimity Southern elites—slaveholders, press, pulpit, schools, and politicians—closed ranks on the issue.

Aristocracy “in a qualified sense” was another Southern hallmark. Planters constituted a stylized landed gentry that locally produced a single staple commodity—cotton, tobacco, sugar, or rice.

The plantation ideal and the lifestyle of country gentlemen fostered a planter aristocracy that united white Southerners of all classes, who were psychologically and economically part of it.

For the most part, the Southern aristocracy was not based upon old money and distinguished family lineages. From colonial times until the eve of secession, Southern aristocracy remained fluid: individual members came and went, though the class itself endured. New whites rose into it as former aristocrats dropped out.

Land and slaves afforded financial, social, and political eminence to the minority of whites who owned them in quantity. Because planter interests were politically dominant, the Confederacy became an expression of those interests.

One serious deficiency of Thomas’s account is his failure to explain how late a development the full-blown American plantation-slave economy actually was. It only developed in the first half of the 19th century.

Finally, Southerners shared unique “habits of mind,” one of which was provincialism. Another, surprising one, according to native Southerner Thomas, was individualism:

Individualism was a strong characteristic of the Southern mind. The rural and near-frontier conditions of Southern life usually precluded a feeling of corporate identity. The Southerner often lived or could remember himself living in rural isolation, commanding the destiny of himself, his family, and his chattels. If he was a slaveholder, he felt himself to be absolute master of a rural empire, and this feeling fed the assertion of self. (p. 17)

Southern individualism was reflected in decentralization, states’ rights, localism, agrarianism, laissez-faire, and private ownership of land and commercial enterprises. “Bureaucrats [were] scarce in the antebellum South, which adhered to the maxim ‘the government which governs least governs best.'” (p. 70)

Other features of the Southern mind were evangelical Protestantism, romanticism, chivalry, codes of honor, manners, reverence for womanhood, oratory, and dueling.

The South was a conscious minority long before 1860, and remained one long after.


Florida’s Ordinance of Secession, January 10, 1861

The Fire-Eaters

The “conservative revolution’s” classic revolutionaries, the men who agitated for secession and war (if necessary) to create a Southern nation, are called fire-eaters or radicals by historians. They appeared from the 1820s on, and over the course of the ensuing 40 years made secession a popular and respectable cause.

The revolutionaries employed “radical means to achieve conservative ends . . . Their goal was reactionary—to preserve the Southern way of life.” But in pursuit of that goal, they “acted in ways commonly associated with revolutionaries.” (p. 24)

Among the leading Southern radicals were Edmund Ruffin (publisher of a journal promoting scientific farming), Robert Barnwell Rhett (“Father of Secession,” an attorney, state legislator, state attorney general, US Congressman and Senator), and William Lowndes Yancey (attorney, state legislator, and US congressman).

As a “mid-sixty-year-old revolutionary,” Edmund Ruffin fired the first cannon at Fort Sumter.

Of William Lowndes Yancey one source states, “As extreme a ‘fire-eater’ as William Lloyd Garrison was an abolitionist, he even advocated the reopening of the African slave trade. The whole separatist movement was due more to him than to any one Southerner.”

Before the war Yancey envisioned a policy of secession by a “considerable number” of unspecified Deep South states, with Virginia and other sympathetic border states staying within the Union. By virtue of their positions and councils they would moderate and counter Union demands and serve as political and geographic buffers for the new nation, avoiding a long, hostile, politically abolitionist border. Once the new regime was firmly established,border states desiring to do so could join the Confederacy under the protection of its arms and diplomacy.

Although Yancey’s vision did not materialize, it illustrates the detailed, practical thought revolutionaries gave to their cause. Like 18th century American or 20th century German revolutionaries, they were serious about political change—they really intended their ideas to alter the existing social order.

Nathaniel Beverley Tucker (1784–1851), a prominent lawyer and judge (not to be confused with his eminent nephew of the same name), was unusual for a Southerner in that he belonged to a social aristocratic family [7] whose members were prominent in law, the judiciary, politics, and diplomacy from the time of the American Revolution to the 1930s.

Tucker wrote a revolutionary novel, The Partisan Leader (1836), envisioning a future Virginia ruled with an iron hand by Northern functionaries while, to the south, a new Confederacy basked in the sunshine of prosperity and freedom. The book was a forerunner of contemporary revolutionary fiction by William Pierce [8] and Harold Covington [9].

Mirabeau B. Lamar had served as president of the Republic of Texas, and David Yulee, America’s first Jewish US Senator (D.-Fla.), was a large slaveholder, sugar plantation proprietor, and president of the Florida Railroad Co.

Henry A. Wise, an attorney, US congressman, ambassador to Brazil, and governor of Virginia, controlled the Richmond Enquirer newspaper. He earned the sobriquet “Danton of the Secession Movement in Virginia” for his efforts on behalf of disunion.

The fire-eaters also included prominent Presbyterian clergymen, newspaper editors, state governors, and US congressmen and senators.

Thus, even the most radical Southerners included many highly placed individuals—members of the elite.

This pattern is true of every revolution. There comes a time when radical dissent needs to extend to elite individuals and institutions on a significant scale. It was true of the Dutch Revolution, the American Revolution, and the German Revolution of 1933.

On the other side, it was also true of the French Revolution, the Revolutions of 1848, the Communist revolutions, and the cultural “revolutions within the form” characteristic of the New Deal (see Garet Garrett, “The Revolution Was,” [10] 1938), post-WWII totalitarian “democracy,” and the 1970s.


South Carolina, 1860: “The Union is Dissolved!”

Revolution and the Climate of Ideas

The fire-eaters propagated secessionist ideas via “their own communications media”—speeches, church sermons, books, pamphlets, and mainstream newspapers and journals including the Southern Literary Messenger once edited by Edgar Allan Poe, and the Southern Quarterly Review.

Many newspapers—the main mass medium of the day—promoted the cause of secession. The equivalent in our time would be mainstream broadcast and cable TV stations, channels, and programs, and mainstream novels, movies, video games, pop music, etc., promoting the cause of white rights, independence, and separatism.

Throughout the South newspaper editors took up radicalism and radicals became editors. By 1860 Southern newspapers were divided about evenly between radical secessionist and moderate states’ rights papers. Few Union newspapers survived.

Gradually, Southern nationalists came to dominate the press, pulpit, and classroom.

“Super-Southerners,” Thomas writes, “banned books, smashed presses, and harried malcontents from the land”—an “intellectual blockade” documented in Clement Eaton’s The Freedom-of-Thought Struggle in the Old South (rev. ed., 1964).

Of course, the same process occurred in reverse in the North. And far, far worse intellectual suppression prevails today.

Contemporary whites have woefully failed to examine, much less cope with, prevailing mechanisms of repression, thought control, mass psychological conditioning, and social marginalization and destruction of recalcitrant individuals.

They have not treated seriously the unseen culture-distorting activities of Jews, the mass media, academia, the ADL, the SPLC, or the FBI. Yet these are what have prevented any effective, anti-genocidal opposition from arising that would certainly have developed in the past.

This climate of ideas must absolutely change. Until the “quarantining” and marginalization of white ideas is effectively beaten back or eradicated, no progress will be possible, and genocide will proceed apace.

Racial totalitarianism such as this is unique to the modern era. If past revolutionaries of any stripe had had to contend with similar obstacles, their ideas would never have gained currency. They would have died aborning, just as ours have.

The closest historical analogy is Communism. Its many opponents and victims throughout the world, through no fault of their own, were helpless in the face of repression due to disparity of power, technology, will, state lawlessness, psychological and social control, and, frankly, pure evil.

Triumph of the Moderates

Southern radicals did not just preach revolution in the abstract. Thomas is careful to note, however, that a climate of opinion sympathetic to disunion was necessary: the social tinder had to be ready for the revolutionary spark.

In conscious imitation of Samuel Adams and other Founders of the 1770s, the radicals formed Southern Rights Associations, the League of United Southerners, and Minute Men organizations.

William Lowndes Yancey in 1858 proposed forming Committees of Public Safety throughout the South “as our fathers did,” in order to instruct the Southern mind and fire the Southern heart. Then, at the proper moment, “by one concerted action,” they could precipitate the Southern states into rebellion.

But it was Robert Barnwell Rhett’s blueprint that became a reality almost to the letter. Despairing of concerted action, he proposed instead that a single state, South Carolina, should secede, presenting a fait accompli. Then other states would follow suit, and Southern union would result.

In fact, the Southern states seceded in two waves: the first in response to the election of Lincoln and the secession of South Carolina, the second in response to the clash at Fort Sumter.

Curiously, the Confederate Constitution established a “permanent” union, thus in a sense denying the logic of its own origin. Moreover, the Northern case against the Confederacy was that the US Constitution itself had established a permanent union.

In an interesting twist, in 1861, following Virginia’s secession from the Union, the western counties of that state held their own convention, seceded from Virginia, and by popular referendum created a new state (West Virginia), which was admitted to the Union in 1863.

I’ve read some debates from West Virginia’s secessionist convention, and certain delegates cited the Dutch Revolution as a precedent.

Ironically, radicals did not exert significant influence over the Confederacy after its formation. Few fire-eaters served long or prominently in the new republic they labored so hard to create.

Instead, they were shunted aside by civilian and military moderates: Jefferson Davis, Alexander H. Stephens, Jewish Secretary of War and Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin (a large slaveholder and plantation owner), Robert E. Lee, and others.

Historian Charles Lee estimated that 40 percent of the membership of the Provisional Confederate Congress [12] in 1861 consisted of cooperationists and unionists:

Although the founding of the Confederacy was a radical act, the convention that performed this act was not radical in nature. The principal objective was to establish a government that would preserve and perpetuate the political, social, and economic conditions which represented the Southern way of life in 1861. (Charles R. Lee, Jr., The Confederate Constitutions, 1963, p. 49)

These moderates did, however, deliberately create an “instant nation.”

The Confederate Constitution was essentially the US Constitution as amended and construed by Southerners.

The irony, Emory Thomas notes, is that the moderate statesmen who conducted war and statecraft on behalf of the Confederate nation responded to the demands of total warfare, limited finances, and the lack of an industrial base by creating

a real, substantive revolution within Southern society. This internal revolution ultimately transformed the Southern way of life. Thus, the Confederate revolution, initiated by radicals to preserve the antebellum status quo, changed to conservative hands and then revolutionized that status quo. (p. 42)