I used to be an unreconstructed Southerner. It didn’t last very long, but it wasn’t that long ago. I would never have admitted to being a racist (I’m pretty sure I wasn’t), and I would have argued very strongly that racism and love for the Old South had no necessary connection to one another, but I did read a lot of historical revisionism regarding the Civil War and the Old South, I did regard “the North” as a symbol of “Big Government” and modernity, and I even went to two League of the South Meetings. Among the many things in my life that would surely disqualify me from ever running for president, this brief period of my life has got to be near the top. But here’s the important thing to know—I was not raised that way and it was never my heritage.
Even though I was born in South Mississippi, attended a Southern Baptist Church for 20 years, and went to the University of Southern Mississippi, I had no confederate heritage. The Confederacy was an absolute non-factor in the stories my family told, the music we listened to, and the way that we passed along our identity, values, or culture. The “Rebel Flag” (which is what most everyone called it where I was from) held no special place in our eyes. I had to learn how to be “Old South” after I grew up.
How did I become interested in Southern partisanship? It was an act of intellectual rebellion. As a young twenty-something, I was in the habit of challenging all sorts of authorities. I listened to punk rock and heavy metal. I read Dada poets and a fair amount of Nietzsche. And, bizarrely, I talked about Stonewall Jackson all the time. I had heard, from here and there, that he was a good guy, and so I looked around for some books or articles about him as well as other Confederate personalities. I found most of the stuff online. I was still a very incoherent person, but the common thread was a desire to challenge the received narratives, all of them.
I distinctly remember one occasion after class where one of the grad students in the poetry department, a secular Jewish guy with an armful of tattoos, heard me talking about the Old South and said, “Man, how is it that I’m friends with you?” And I immediately replied, “Because we both like the idea of mayhem.” He laughed, and we stayed friends.
At this point (circa 2002) I was in no way a hardcore devotee of the South. It was just one curiosity among many that I would spend a little time on and then move on to something else. But I was becoming theologically “Reformed” at this time (also an act of rebellion, I should say), and so I did begin to learn more, and it was usually intertwined with serious topics. 1st Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, MS had Harry Reeder come speak on “Christian Manhood,” and two of his three models were Confederate soldiers. This was interesting to me because it put one of my “rebellious” interests into a very, in my mind, straight-laced context. I got to be a little bit “bad” while still being mostly “good.” In the big picture, this was a shift for the better in my life, but it is still more than a little odd.
I did end up meeting one minister at 1st Pres. who was big into the Old South, and he invited me to hear him speak at a Sons of Confederate Veterans banquet. I rode with him, actually, and we got lost, so I remember the night pretty well. Now, I should be honest here. Even at the time I thought the SCV was pretty lame. It was mostly a civic club for older folks, and I would rather have been at a rock concert. I was no kind of “genuine” Southerner, even while I was shopping around its various ideas and identities. It’s still pretty funny to think about the folks who were at the meeting. There were definitely some intentionally gnarly dudes who I have often wondered about, but there was also some other folks not so different from me, very confused or at least trying to figure out what in the world they were doing there. There was at least one quasi-Kellerite pastor there, whose reputation I will spare.
My theology studies continued, and I stumbled on the real tough guys, the Christian Reconstructionists. The Reconstructionists, ironically, managed to be unreconstructed Southerners, and at that time they still easily coexisted with the so-called TRs and “Southern Presbyterians” of the PCA. I would later learn that their glory days were already over, but they still managed to hang out together at this time. That same group is also what introduced me to “the Federal Vision,” and so of course I listened to and read Wilkins and Wilson on all of this. Through that combined mixed influence, I managed to go to those League of the South meetings.
Now, the League of the South was every bit as lame as the SCV. It met in this odd little community center just off Highway 49 in Medenhall, MS. There were probably about 9 folks there, and I remember that the women all wore denim jumpers and white Keds. But they actually did have something kind of interesting to say. The main speaker read an essay from Dr. Francis Nigel Lee. Its primary argument was how the “Gaelic” culture could be traced through Gaul to Galatia, and that this meant that the Scots-Irish had played an important role in the glories of late-Antique Greco-Roman culture. I doubt anyone in the room was “Gaelic” in any meaningful way, but Southerners like to claim both Scottish and Irish heritage, so it went over well. I’m sure that if I were to reread this essay I would find it difficult to swallow, but it did have a bit of historical rigor that impressed me.
The Nigel Lee stuff was good enough to have me give the LOS a second shot. I went again, at the invitation of a friend, but this time the speaker was not as interesting. Once I got back home, my dad told me that one of the men associated with it was a notorious Klan lawyer, and so I decided I probably should give it a wide berth. Plus, I was still playing guitar and hanging out with a very different crowd in most of my life, and so I didn’t really have to worry about it. It was all still intellectual and cultural sampling.
As my personal development continued, I ended up going to seminary, and the president of the Seminary had pictures of Jackson and Lee hanging in his living room. One of my Korean roommates asked me about this, since he had been taught that the South was bad. Oh no, I said, the southern sections of national splits are always the good guys. Just like with Israel and Korea. He laughed, and we got to explain “states rights” to him.
The Old South seemed to be pretty normal among “Reformed” folks in the South. I didn’t grow up Reformed though, and so this was all a kind of exciting and subversive move to me, but it never got very dangerous. However, I think a lot of the “Reformed” folks, even in MS, became Reformed because of the Calvinistic revival of the 1960s, and so very few of them “grew up that way” either. They were also revising the narrative. I read a good bit more on all of this and developed the typical talking points. Looking back, I think I was trying to find a sort of utopian world which was better than the real one we all had to live in. The ideology wasn’t the big thing. It was the cultural longing for something else.
The theological landscape was changing at this time though, and those Reconstructionists ended up splitting six ways to Sunday. When I finally did meet Steve Wilkins in person, I learned that he had basically dropped out of the League of the South and wasn’t all that interested in talking about Southern heritage. He never renounced it outright, as far as I know, but his priorities changed pretty dramatically. Now, I suspect, he reads more Eugene Peterson than Rushdoony. Things are funny that way. For my part, the Federal Vision sent me back to the 16th and 17th century, and that historical pursuit eventually lead me back to a more traditional Reformation identity. Again, things are funny.
I kind of let the Old South thing drop off. I didn’t renounce it either, but it just wasn’t as interesting any more. I moved on. Like I said, it wasn’t serious. I began to teach at a classical school, and this caused me to have to study the Middle Ages and the ancient world, and not just from a theological point of view. I had to teach history. So that meant I had to learn about history. And what I learned was that there was a whole lot of stuff that I had no idea about. I ended up receiving a pretty major re-education through all my class prep and other duties at the time, and while I didn’t need to “rebel” or “break out” of my intellectual world, I definitely broadened my horizons and settled down personally. Eventually I had to teach American history, and this caused me to look at the Civil War stuff again.
Here are a few things that I found which made me go “Hmm…” For starters, the Articles of Confederation called for a “perpetual union.” That’s not what I was expecting. Secondly, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 already gave “the Federal Government” a sort of priority in defining the United States as a nation. This means that the Civil War could not actually be the place in history where things “went wrong” (as viewed from a states’ rights perspective). Andrew Jackson’s presidency was also eye-opening. Though a supposedly paradigmatic Southerner, he definitely subordinated states’ rights to the federal government. To complicate any sort of sacred history, Calhoun, a hero for Southerners, was mostly a Unitarian and therefore not someone to theo-politically sympathize with. By the time the Civil War finally rolls around, slavery as an economic power, particularly for westward expansion, is clearly the dominant and overwhelming issue. While there were radicals who called for outright abolition, the majority position of anti-slavery advocates was a gradualism which began by simply not adding slave states to the Union. This was one of the primary areas where the South actually took on a belligerent posture. It wanted to add more slave powers. In fact, as history draws closer to the Civil War, the Deep South had begun to wholly embrace slavery as essential to its being, and they didn’t hide it. Mississippi expressed how slavery was necessary for its own ability to succeed in the international marketplace:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
There are a few interesting points made there. Obviously slavery cannot be made a side issue. It is the issue. Secondly, it had to be Negro slavery, because “an imperious law of nature” had determined that they were the only ones who could work out in the Mississippi sun. And then, finally, states’ rights did not imply minding one’s one business or simply preserving a local culture. States’ rights, for Mississippi, was all about the right to have a certain kind of economy which would make the state an international trade power. Within this sort of state’s right paradigm, however, a great deal of power could be ceded to the government. Mississippi has never approximated a libertarian view of politics.
Outside of Mississippi, things don’t get any better. The Vice President of the Confederacy explicitly stated what he believed to be the true genius of the Confederacy’s political contribution:
The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.
Slavery and even Black subjugation was no longer some sort of necessary evil, an unfortunate economic need or a problem with no good solution. No, it had become a positive good, a metaphysical commitment for the Confederates. This was an immutable divine hierarchy.
I also came to find out how the Southern states were firmly in favor of empire. They had no problem with Manifest Destiny, so long as the new acquisitions would be slave states. Some slavery proponents even wanted to create a slave empire across the Caribbean. The Lost Cause had apparently not been invented yet. None of this means that the typical “Union” historical narrative is without its own prejudice and hagiography, but I came to see that the historical revisionism which promoted the Old South was itself in need of major revision. In my desire to not accept a naïve and hagiographic historical narrative, I had embraced something much more fictional and fantastic. Real history was indeed complicated and challenging, but it did not at all vindicate the South.
So, if I couldn’t continue to believe in the mythical Confederacy of chivalry and localism, for the very relevant fact that it never existed, I was left with that older old South, the one I grew up in. It wasn’t all bad, but it was what it was. There was a great deal of nasty and malicious evil which surfaced all over the South during the late 1950s and into the 1960s, and there’s just no credible way to say that you don’t have to deal with it. Fast-forward to the current day, and about the least helpful thing I can think of for addressing the problems of the South is for the White people to try to tell their tall-tales of glory days of yore.
I am writing all of this because the tragedy in Charleston has given occasion for more rethinking of the Confederate battle flag’s place in public institutions but also churches and civil society. But I don’t really care about the flag. I care about the reason that people seem to care about the flag. The anti-flag case is pretty easy. It is a corrupted symbol. Whatever it used to mean, or whatever its constituent parts mean, is irrelevant. It means something now, and it means resistance to the 20th century Civil Rights movement. The pro-flag cause, however, is much less clear and much less defensible. Basically, the pro-flag cause says that the flag doesn’t have to mean that. The flag might just mean mom and apple pie, only with a Southern drawl. Make that mamaw and collards. But do we really need “mamaw and collards” as a public symbol? It seems a bit hokey. But if we do want something like that then why not make an actual mamaw-and-collards kind of icon? It wouldn’t be historical, people say. It would lack heritage. But isn’t that where the rub is? It would lack the relevant bit of history and heritage under discussion, the heritage of racial strife and cultural warfare. It would lack all the stuff that the anti-flag people say the flag stands for.
The real truth to the “heritage” thing is that the Rebel Flag, along with most Confederate iconography, was either done away with or dramatically reinterpreted after the Civil War. The United Daughters of the Confederacy went about the country building monuments and telling the Lost Cause narrative which strangely allowed Rebels to become symbols of American patriotism and even national unity in the face of foreign enemies. There was no emphasis on an agrarian slave empire. It was all about “freedom,” interpreted along nationalistic lines. Soon enough this could be merged with a general anti-Marxist political philosophy, and by the time you get to the Civil Rights era, the Confederate imagery is firmly and decidedly used to defend “the American way of life” against the forces of international communism. If you read any pro-segregation material from the 1950s and 60s, you’ll see an identification of Black rights and Marxism. This wasn’t all false, of course. Marxism was a real thing. But this does show how the “heritage” had mutated into something completely new. The true Old South was about half “American founding” and half a criticism and supposed-perfection of the American project. The rebels of the 20th century, on the other hand, had largely made their peace with “the new South.” Almost all of them were Democrats, and this is not simply an anachronistic point. No, the Southern Democrats were mostly pro-labor and populist, critics of big business and the like, and they were not actually moral activists of the right-wing Christian sort, though a good many of them were Teetotalers. They were not the old Confederate South, and they were not the partially neo-Confederates that one can find among right-wing Christians today. The heritage snaked and turned and became something new, as it has done again and again since then.
I would ask people to be honest with themselves. Flag or no flag, what is Southern heritage? It’s not all bad. Not at all. But a lot of it is. A lot of it is really bad. And a lot of the good stuff is not an intentional product of the old Southern architects (no Southern “worldview”) but instead an organic outgrowing of people just being people over time. The best of Southern literature? It comes after the Civil War and has always been self-critical of Southern culture and identity. The best of Southern music? It was all written by Black folks or poor Whites struggling with the challenges of a depressed Southern economy. The best of Southern food? Well, who can say which parts of that are Black or White? I sure can’t.
And it seems to me that this means that the real Southern heritage, the one we should be proud of, is the struggle through our dark and challenging history towards some sort of imperfect but very real cross-pollination of people, place, and thing. My real tradition is not those years in college when I was angsty and looking to find “the truth.” It isn’t the utopian historical fiction that I tried to find but never quite could. No, my real Southern heritage is when Mr. RC, the neighborhood handyman and gravedigger—who was Black—drove me around on his tractor, smoking his pipe and setting our pasture on fire in order to clear the brush. It’s also the country catfish house which didn’t care about much besides high cholesterol and shooting the breeze. It’s the highschool football games which, oddly, played “Eye of the Tiger” and “Welcome to the Jungle” for fight songs. It’s a lot of contradictions, terrible mistakes, great times, warm hospitality, and real people.
And so I find myself to be unreconstructed no more. Perhaps I am post-reconstruction or post-unreconstruction. Whatever the name, I am confident that I am now more traditional than I ever was before. Let’s admit it. The desire to defend and reclaim the Old South was never who we were. It was an odd side-show, a hobby that we got into somewhere along the way. It was always something created rather than inherited. Is it really important? Is it really prudent, much less historically true?
We don’t have to self-flagellate and concede to every demand of contemporary progressivism. I think the center-Left has its own historical mythology, the one of “progress” where we were always essentially “equal” and “modern” and simply had to prune away the prejudices and irrational commitments of the past. But we shouldn’t fight one false narrative by creating another. That’s a sure way to lose (again).
Let’s be who we are. Let’s not try to be who we never were.