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Richard Weaver’s The Southern Tradition at Bay

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Richard Weaver
The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Postbellum Thought
New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1968

Richard Weaver’s The Southern Tradition at Bay has grown in both poignancy and meaning since its posthumous publishing in 1968. Originally Weaver’s 1943 doctoral dissertation at Louisiana State University, this work offers a survey of the most important postbellum literature produced by Southern writers until 1910 and ties it together with a philosopher’s breadth of vision. Occupying the Southern mind, of course, was how to reconcile the painful defeat of the Confederacy with the forces of progress, universalism, and commercialism emanating from the now-dominant North. Underlying all of this was a battle of ideas, or, rather, ideals, which Weaver deftly outlines and assesses in this masterwork of history, political thought, and literary criticism.

Weaver offers no solutions to the existential troubles plaguing the South during this time. Instead, by assembling the output of its most prominent thinkers, writers, and statesmen in a comprehensive and logical manner, he not only invites the reader to reassess the past but also provides a rational framework with which to apply the past to the present and future. This constitutes perhaps the most meaningful contribution of The Southern Tradition at Bay to the present Dissident Right: Weaver’s postbellum South has now become today’s White America; Weaver’s Old South has become pre-1965 America; and Weaver’s modern, oppressive, universalist North has become the anti-white Left. The parallels are as striking as The Southern Tradition at Bay is monumental.

Weaver’s first task is to define the Old South. In effect, it was a time capsule of Europe before the French Revolution, and thus was outdated even by the mid-nineteenth century. He defines its root in the European past as fourfold:

  1. Its plantation system sprung from European feudalism.
  2. Its code of honor derived from Christian chivalry.
  3. Its education system produced a European-styled aristocracy.
  4. Its religion as revealed truth suggests Europe before the Reformation.

Through his exposition of these four main points, Weaver reveals his overall sympathy with the South and its now-defunct ideals. He considers the Old South as “historically right” and sees the antebellum South as a critique of modernism through its belief in race-realism, a rigid class system, the particularism of people, the necessity of divine sanction, as well as the complete rejection of all utopian and universalist ideological schemes.

He states:

The South was the last part of the Western World to be defeated by the ideological forces of the French Revolution. The breaking down of what is called Southern culture is thus not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a world-wide drift toward cultural anarchy and social chaos.

Weaver makes clear the pragmatic foundations of the Southern application of European feudalism. Centrally managed plantations utilizing slave labor was simply the best way to derive wealth from the land. These plantations required organization, which, in turn, required permanent stations. From this seed grew an entire nation within a nation which embodied the plantation ideal; the ideal of human existence appeared in the form of the gentleman and the lady, the pinnacle of this stately edifice. Although classes were rigid — especially the slave class — almost all human endeavor in the Old South pointed to these two guiding lights. Furthermore, Weaver asserts that there was “subordination without envy and superiority without fear, and this was made possible, as is always true, by an articulation of the whole society.” People knew their place; planters expected loyalty from their slaves, slaves expected protection from their planters. When both sets delivered, the resulting familial harmony bypassed most exigencies of capitalism.

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This gazing towards the heights of aristocracy could only succeed with strong roots in the ground; as such, almost total devotion to the land and a powerful sense of provincialism sprung up all over the Old South. As an example, Weaver offers John Pendelton Kennedy’s novel Swallow Barn in which a wealthy planter distrusts the steam engine and proclaims that things were never better in Virginia than when the roads were at their worst. With pressure to modernize bearing down from the commercial North and the highly individualistic West, Southerners looked to this provincialism and to their old-time religion—their “rock of ages”—to keep them moored to the traditions which made their region strong and unique. After all, what better way to resist the modern tide of skepticism than to firmly believe in God’s divine guidance and Man’s central position in the universe?

Of course, Weaver admits that there were abuses. But the plantation system worked better than many other systems; further, on the whole, it worked well for the people of the South — black and white. A crucial element of this program was the perfect honesty of the aristocrats in leadership roles. These were paternalistic men whose relationships with their inferiors relied as much on sentiment as on any quid-pro-quo one would expect in labor relations. This is what led to the aristocratic notion of personal honor taking up such space in the Southern mind. To challenge a man’s honor could potentially lead to the breakdown down of the very order upon which the Old South depended. Thus, defending one’s honor in many instances took greater precedence than defending one’s life. Weaver goes into great detail regarding the dueling culture which abounded in the Old South. [1] Hand-in-hand with this came also the gentleman’s adherence to chivalry and noblesse oblige.

In what Weaver may have considered both a strength and weakness in the Old South, gentlemen were educated according to the two overriding values of their culture: war and statecraft. That the Old South produced a disproportionate number of war heroes and presidents between 1776 and 1861 should make the truth behind this assertion quite obvious. This, however, came at the price of not having a strong presence in the fields of arts and letters, which the Spartan leaders of the South considered to be for the weak and effeminate, or in the many growing fields of science and scholarship, which the same leaders saw as undignified. Gentlemen were trained to conform to rigid societal expectations and to avoid specialization of any kind outside of war and statecraft. [2] This led, unfortunately, to the closing of many of Southern minds, and was only exacerbated by their heightened provincialism. Weaver points to this to help explain why Southern leaders were so quick to go to war and had so clearly overestimated their chances against the North.

***

Weaver thankfully does not cover the Civil War in much detail in The Southern Tradition at Bay since this topic has been covered ad nauseum in countless other volumes. The only exceptions appear when he finds a certain aspect of the fighting which underscores his thesis. For example, he asserts that Southern heroism and fearlessness in the war was very real and stemmed in large part from the Southern emphasis on chivalry and religiosity. He writes [emphasis mine]:

. . .we must acknowledge, in view of plain facts, that the American Civil War was one of the bloodiest and most stubbornly fought wars in the long history of military conflict. If comparisons mean anything, it may sober one to learn that whereas at Waterloo the army of Napoleon, after fighting for eight hours and losing 10 per cent left the field in a rout, at Gettysburg, the armies fought for three days, each suffering 25 per cent of its strength with neither yielding ground or suffering visibly in morale. At Stone’s River and at Chickamauga, the proportion of slaughter was even greater. Single Confederate units are on record as having lost 85 per cent of their number without ceasing to exist as military organizations.

Furthermore, he quotes Confederate soldier John B. Gordon in the following passage:

Providence does not always dispose according to human estimates of probability, and so Confederate troops in the Battle of the Wilderness, well aware of Grant’s overwhelming numbers, “rejected as utterly unworthy of Christian soldiery the doctrine the Providence was on the side of heaviest guns and the most numerous battalions.”

Weaver also brings up the witty dictum that the Civil War was essentially a struggle between “shovelry and chivalry,” with obvious connotations for his thesis.

After establishing the Old South and its ontological relationship with ancient and medieval European forms, Weaver focuses on the central topic of his opus: the variegated response of the South to its defeat. Much of this work reads like an expanded bibliography of the notable literary efforts of the South during this period. The amount of scholarship that Weaver brings to the table is astonishing; only a fraction of it can appear in a review such as this one. Weaver begins with what he calls the “case at law” and offers some of the more legalistic defenses of the Southern perspective of the war.

Prominent among these Southern apologists were Albert Taylor Bledsoe, Edward Albert Pollard, Alexander Stephens, and Jefferson Davis himself. These men were what Weaver calls “unreconstructed Southerners” who repudiated the “war guilt lie,” who never stopped exalting the Old South, and who believed to the very end the South was correct in seceding. These men and others also addressed “the Negro Question,” by infusing race realism into public debate to combat the egalitarian dogma which was prominent even back then. As stout as these arguments were, however, Weaver admits that they never amounted to anything more than a “forensic victory” (although the race-realist arguments may have borne some fruit, as we shall see).

Another bone of contention fueling the apologists was the deplorable Northern conduct during the war. Weaver points out that against Generals such as Meade and Grant, who dealt out devastating defeats to the Confederacy in the field, most Southerners had no complaint. However, against William Tecumseh Sherman, their loathing knew no limit. Sherman, of course, waged a war of total aggression not only against the armies of the South, but against their civilian populations as well. Yes, such absolute measures may have foreshortened the war and exacted a surrender sooner than otherwise. But for Southerners, this tactic was dishonorable and contemptible. Weaver relays how Southerners believed that history was the revelation of God. If the North and South were to settle a dispute by arms, then whoever proves to have the superior military in the end earns the right by God to set the terms. Then both sides can shake hands and move on. But when one side inflicts onerous damage on the civilian populace — which cannot fight back — then they are fighting merely as men, outside the sanction of God. By the lights of the old-time Christian religion, this is pure evil, and it heated the rhetoric of unrepentant Southerners for decades after the war.

***

Weaver also investigates Southern fiction of this time period (logically enough, since he submitted his dissertation to the Louisiana State English department). He divides the notable authors into four categories: defenders of the Old Regime, critics of the Old Regime, satirists, and realists. Much of this does not surpass the interest of the specialist since, by Weaver’s own admission, the Southern literature of this period was spotty at best. He warns the reader to prepare for “conventionalized portraiture, syrupy romance, and nostalgia” when perusing selections from the first group of authors, which includes Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon. While both authors sympathized and identified with the South in their fiction, they handled the subject of Reconstruction quite differently. [3] One of Page’s great conceits was to have a Northerner come to the South and disabuse himself of his notions of racial equality. This, among many other consequential things, happens in Page’s Reconstruction novel Red Rock and results in a spirit of rapprochement between North and South. It should also be noted that Page was a white supremacist at heart — and a fairly benign one at that — and so his treatment of Negroes tends to be sympathetic despite his white identity and unshakable race realism. [4]

Dixon, on the other hand, takes a very hard line and paints the Civil War and its aftermath as a battle of good versus evil. Weaver looks somewhat approvingly on Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots and notes how, despite its Southern identity, it lacks all the refinement and politeness often attributed to the Old South. Dixon is quite blunt with his assessment of the North and its false preconceptions of the South as well as the Negro Question. Where Page presents the Ku Klux Klan as misguided outlaws in Red Rock, Dixon paints them as a “law and order league” in The Leopard’s Spots and gives them the hero’s treatment throughout the novel.

One passage from Dixon which Weaver includes is so farsighted and chilling that I have to include it here. Dixon’s unreconstructed protagonist, Reverend John Durham, addresses a Boston preacher thusly:

I’ve studied your great cities. Believe me the South is worth saving. Against a possible day when a flood of foreign anarchy threatens the foundations of the Republic and men shall laugh at the faiths of your fathers, and undigested wealth beyond the dreams of avarice rots your society until mocks at honor, love, and God — against that day we will preserve the South.

Thomas Dixon may not have been great novelist, but, given the way Western civilization is trending in the twenty-first century so far, he is certainly a prophet for writing the above passage.

Among the satirists, we have Opie Read and F. Hopkinson Smith. These two were unwaveringly sympathetic to the South, yet they poked clever fun at Southern quixotism, provincialism, and other highfalutin’ aspects of the Southern character. They were both quite popular in the South for their wit and eye for local color. [5] Their characters tended to be big-hearted parodies of Southern gentlemen who cannot seem to figure out why they are out of step with the times. In one laugh-out-loud moment, Weaver relays how a certain colonel challenges a New York stockbroker to a duel because the broker criticized one of his investment schemes, but later discovers that his challenge never reached his rival because he had forgotten to affix a stamp on the envelope. According to Weaver, “The South of the past, with its distinctions, anachronisms, paradoxes, and conflicts. . . was the great storehouse for the raconteur.” [6]

The best novelist of the period, in Weaver’s estimation, was Ellen Glasgow, one of the few women he mentions in his volume, and the only author receiving her own sub-chapter: that of the realists. According to Weaver, Southern fiction needed blood and irony, and Glasgow delivered. In The Voice of the People, Glasgow offers romance that is not maudlin as well as an honest depiction of all levels of postbellum society. In The Battle-Ground she takes on the war directly and depicts the tragic coalescing of classes that it had effected. She also took the novel approach of showing how slavery degraded the underprivileged whites of the South — a topic that has been tragically neglected in the years since.

***

1890 was an important year for the South. It was the last year in which Washington had stationed troops there — so after this point, the South was no longer an occupied territory. It also marked the failure of Massachusetts representative Henry Cabot Lodge’s Force Bill which intended to oversee the franchise of blacks in the South. According to Weaver, “[t]he national legislature, whether because it was wearying of the fight or because the Southern arguments had begun to make converts, was at least minded to let the South run its own household.” He bluntly calls this a victory for white supremacy.

Another happy event for the South was the publication of Why the Solid South? Or Reconstruction and its Results by Zebulon Vance, John J. Hemphill, and Bernard J. Sage. This document dissuaded the North against reconstruction, carpetbaggery, and Negro rule by appealing to the self-interest of the business class. It was completely lacking in Old South rallying cries and posturing. Rather, it exposed the corruption and viciousness of the Negro, and demonstrated that leaving the South alone would be best for business. Weaver calls it the “First true document of the New South” because it uses entirely modern — some would say cynical — arguments to help achieve a system of racial segregation which approximated the Old South. The irony of this document achieving victory through capitulation should not be lost on anyone.

Weaver addresses the issue of race in a polite, if almost off-hand, manner in The Southern Tradition at Bay. He never gives voice to his race realism outright (a doctoral dissertation may not have been the place for that in any event, even as far back as 1943). Yet he all but comes out as pro-segregation and never professes to believe anything close to equality between the races.  In chapter one, he refers to blacks as “an alien and primitive race.” At the end of chapter two, he asserts that “the presence of blacks was the chief source of Southern misfortunes” and quotes a journal which claimed that not a single Negro in the South could manage a farm. In chapter six he admits that handing power to “negroes and bureaucrats” during Reconstruction was a disaster. Later in the same chapter, he refers to Negroes as a “dragweight on the industry, independence, and personal habits of the whites.”

Also in chapter six, he paraphrases the writer Edgar Gardner Murphy like so:

The South was acting with instinctive wisdom when it realized that good fences make good neighbors and that an indiscriminate mingling such as visionaries at the North had urged would only multiply the sources of friction, leaving the dreamed of ‘equality’ as chimerical as ever. These are the views of a man who has studied the problems of a bi-racial society on the ground, and not in the textbooks of revolutionaries.

There can be no doubt that Richard Weaver was a race realist who sympathized with Southern identity and the white supremacy which was born out of the Reconstruction. Weaver does not mention a single Negro by name in this voluminous work, nor does he ever once consider including the Negro as part of what he calls “the Southern mind.” There were Southern black writers during this time period; Weaver just chooses to ignore them. He doesn’t seem to harbor any animus towards the Negro; on the other hand, there is nothing in The Southern Tradition at Bay that even hints that Negro is anything other than an alien and, on the whole, negative presence in the American South. [7]

More than this, however, Richard Weaver encapsulates the cultural and ideological struggles of the postbellum south in language that is clear, succinct, and universal. As such, the lessons learned and obstacles faced by the Southerners over a century ago can be transposed to today with little baggage. Weaver’s comprehensive research allows us to do this quite easily. For example, in the final chapter, Weaver quotes an 1894 speech from Reverend R.C. Cave in which Cave dedicated a monument to the memory of Confederate soldiers. Said Cave:

Against the South was arrayed the power of the North, dominated by the spirit of Puritanism, which, with all its virtues, has ever been characterized by the pharisaism that worships itself, and is unable to perceive any goodness apart from itself, which has always “lived and moved and had its being” in rebellion against constituted authority.

Worships itself, yes. Is there a better description of the modern, anti-white Left?

Later in the chapter, Weaver discusses Basil Gildersleeve’s essay “The Creed of the Old South.” Gildersleeve was a Southern apologist and philology professor whom Weaver credits as one of the first to posit “an objective analysis of the great civil conflict” and who “could compete with the Yankees in something other than political scholarship.” Weaver writes [emphasis mine]:

Two thoughts give “The Creed of the Old South” the flavor of “unreconstructed” Southern writing: pride in having belonged to “a heroic generation,” and satisfaction in having served an intensely felt particular loyalty rather than a general and diffuse one.

This is an excellent descriptor of the differences between today’s Dissident Right and what is still known as “the Alt Light.” The loyalty these people would foist on the Right is something diffuse indeed: the idea of the proposition nation, the multiracial melting pot, civic nationalism, the magic dirt theory, and similar modes of thought that attempt to challenge a person’s natural devotion to kin and kind while still pretending to be conservative. It’s not real, and the Southerners of the nineteenth century knew it wasn’t real as well.

The final sentence of The Southern Tradition at Bay may appear to be the blackest of black pills:

The South which entered the twentieth century had largely ceased to be a fighting South.

Of course, the statement is objectively correct. The South ceased to fight in any physical sense because they had already done their fighting and knew the horrors of it all too well (although the Southern states have maintained their martial tradition in the US military up to this very day). Softening this, however, is the fact that the South did learn to fight with words after their guns fell silent. A defeated people must accept the new order placed upon them by the victor. Weaver makes the point often that the generations which came of age in the Gilded Age or in the early twentieth century had less interest in rallying around the lost cause and more in finding their way in the world which they, through no choice of their own, had inherited. This is perfectly natural, if tragic, considering the splendid civilization for which their ancestors had fought and died in vain.

As for today, one crucial element remains apart from this parallel between the postbellum South and modern white America. Where the Southerners knew defeat and the inhuman price they would have to pay to reverse the Progress which destroyed their nation and falsely tainted their heritage, white Americans today know no such pain. True, they have never engaged in a civil war — this means, on the other hand, that they have never lost a war as well. With this comes the hope that when, God forbid, whites do lose their demographic majorities in their homelands all over the world — and are forced to endure the indignities of Islamic rule in Europe or non-white corruption, violence, and oppression in the United States — the Old South will rise again in spirit, bind them as single race, and guide them to victory through the crucible of war.

Notes

[1] Weaver relates an interesting anecdote from a source dated from 1852 underscoring the near-absolute Southern devotion to honesty. A certain writer was told in New Orleans that no New Orleans jury would ever convict a man for murdering another man who had called him a liar. In fact, such an instance was considered by many to be a justifiable homicide.

[2] A related anecdote I would like to share which does not appear in The Southern Tradition at Bay involves the New Orleans chess player Paul Morphy. Morphy was considered the unofficial world champion when, in the late 1850s, he vanquished all of the best chess players in America and Europe with relative ease. It was an astonishing feat that remained unsurpassed for over a century. Yet, when he returned home to New Orleans, Morphy gave up chess entirely for a law career. Chess-playing (or at least playing it well) was considered a bit of a stigma in the Old South. Reuben Fine, in his The World’s Great Chess Games relates how a girl refused Morphy’s hand in marriage because she considered him a mere chess player. Fine also describes how, when someone tried to compliment Morphy by calling him a professional chess champion, Morphy objected, stating that his father had left him $136,472.23, and never once had he accepted a penny for playing chess.

[3] I discussed this very difference between Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon here. The contrasting natures of these two men, I believe, is quite telling, and have much bearing on today’s acrimonious racial climate. I have also written a brief biography of Page for Counter-Currents and a review of his best-selling Reconstruction novel Red Rock.

[4] My only quibble with Weaver in this volume regards his somewhat dismissive attitude towards Thomas Nelson Page. At one point, Weaver suggests that Page and Harriet Beecher Stowe “were ridiculous by the same test” when it came to romanticizing one side or the other and depicting it as without fault. This is not true with Page, who featured a highly sympathetic character early in Red Rock who opposed secession as well as a few Southern villains. Red Rock may not be a great novel, but it is fairly close. Further, its political ideas have stood the test of time. I will also stand by Page’s Marse Chan and Meh Lady as great short stories, and lament that Weaver all but ignored Page’s first-rate essays on the Negro Question, now collected in the volume entitled The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem, which I have also reviewed for Counter-Currents.

[5] Personal anecdote about Southern provincialism. I once introduced two Southern friends of mine to each other. One was from South Carolina, and the other from Virginia. When my Virginian friend told my South Carolina friend that he was also Southern and from Virginia, my South Carolina friend said, “Virginia? You call that the South?” And my Virginia friend responded, “Well, with all the fighting that went on in Virginia, Hell yes, I call it the South!” We all got a kick out of that one.

[6] One may ask how Weaver dealt with America’s most famous satirist of the day, Mark Twain. The answer would be “dismissively.” He sums up Twain as having served with a Confederate unit for two weeks before fleeing west where it was safe to satirize the very people he claimed to know so much about.

[7] I hope Dr. Weaver won’t roll in his grave if I have a little fun at his expense. There is a very telling—and most likely unintentionally hilarious—passage in The Southern Tradition at Bay in which Weaver quotes an obnoxiously hidebound passage about blacks from an unreconstructed Southern writer named John Trotwood Moore. In the years I have spent reading sites like Counter-Currents and American Renaissance, I have never come across its equal in terms of crass Negro-hate. Here it is:

In the swellest circles of his upper ten, the blue-gum nigger with a razor in his boot-legs, hell in his heart, and that odor of assafoetida [sic], amonia [sic], and sulfuric acid that causes the chickens to drop from their roosts when he reaches up for them, is as welcome and as important and as respected as the most pious, canting, ebon-faced preacher of them that ever sang his long-metered doxology while he passed around a short-metered hat.

And to this, the impartial scholar Weaver adds the following pithy statement (and if it’s a joke, it is an ingeniously dry one):

But apart from this insistence on racism, Trotwood’s Monthly preserved a fairly objective reportorial style.

 

3 Comments

  1. Franz
    Posted March 3, 2020 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    “Thomas Dixon may not have been great novelist…”

    Dixon was a tremendous innovator even so. After working with Griffith in 1915, Dixon’s own effort in 1916 — “The Death of a Nation” — was as effective a pro-war picture as anything done now. Dixon believed, rightly or not, that England had to be saved from the Kaiser or civilization itself was imperiled. So far as anyone knows, no complete copy of this film survives. This might not be accidental. When Hollywood cranked out feature after feature of belligerent dreck in the years to come, they sure didn’t want to name one of their great influences.

    One of Dixon’s biographies at Amazon, ” Thomas Dixon Jr. And the Birth of Modern America,” notes the following:

    “Dixon proves to have been a pioneer in understanding modern methods of moving mass audiences. He experimented with tricks to excite a crowd — intermingling politics, religion, and entertainment in ways that still reverberate today.”

    Sound familiar?

    In some ways Dixon was as much a pioneer as Griffith. That all the snowflakes hate them both equally should be seen as a compliment.

  2. Dr. Krieger
    Posted March 3, 2020 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Jonathon Bowden referred to WWI and WWII as the First and Second European Civil Wars. In one of his orations, I recall, he once said, that the American Civil War was the first battle of civil war. This essay helps to clarify what he meant by that.

    Thank you

  3. R_is_my_R
    Posted March 3, 2020 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Wow ! Great article ! Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I need to look into this subject/period more. White pill: there are still noble southern men that protect their heritage. But they are fading away…

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