The South and the Sectional Conflict
The Burden of Southern History
One sometimes wonders what Americans would have done had the South not existed: what regional mysteries would there have been? Until the blacks themselves demonstrated that racism has been a national, not merely a sectional, disease and that Northern liberalism had little left to offer their liberation movement, the South served splendidly as the American scapegoat. The black revolt has shattered the hypocrisy and undermined the smugness; we may now expect a serious reappraisal of Southern history and culture in the years ahead. In this, as in so many other ways, black militancy, in both its directly political and its intellectual manifestations, has already contributed substantially to the positive reorientation of American life.
In the past, southern history and culture have been the special province of white southerners; with a few important exceptions—most recently and notably, William Freehling and Winthrop Jordan—northern white scholars have been blinded by self-righteousness whereas blacks have largely restricted themselves to those problems which bear most directly on their own people. It is now only a question of time, however, before we will get studies of, say, planter-poor white relations or of the economics of the plantation by black writers, who will bring their own points of view to the wider subject matter of history—that is, they will follow the path already opened by John Hope Franklin and a few other black historians who have refused to limit themselves to “black” subjects.
That southern history has been largely dominated by white southerners has been unfortunate only to the extent that we have needed to hear other voices as well. Contrary to the slanders of professional South-baiters, the level of scholarship of the best white southern historians has been unusually high. The volumes of interpretive essays under review represent years of work and thought by two of the best minds in the historical profession. Together with Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, whose productive life ended more than thirty years ago, David Potter and C. Vann Woodward are the greatest of southern historians. Both are from the Deep South—Potter from Georgia, Woodward from Arkansas; both attended Emory University; both have lived and taught in the North for many years; both are now close to sixty; both have won the admiration of their profession.
Ideologically, Potter is the more conservative, whereas Woodward combines a strong Populism with liberal political views. Both are notable for their willingness to take ideological opponents seriously.
Taken together, these books represent the culmination of several decades of white southern scholarship, which left far behind the racism and regional chauvinism of Phillips and sought to reinterpret southern experience in a sympathetic but uncompromisingly critical spirit. whether future historians, black and white, succeed in explaining the paradox of the South will largely depend both on their willingness to absorb what Potter and Woodward have written and on their ability to transcend those formidable performances.
Both books are rich but necessarily uneven. Each covers a great deal of ground, and every essay deserves lengthy discussion. One cannot do them justice in fewer pages than they themselves contain. Potter’s book is a new collection of essays, whereas Woodward’s is an old collection revised and enlarged. If I treat them together briefly, my purpose is to try to demonstrate the limits imposed on the best scholarship when it avoids the central role of class.
Both books wrestle with the question of the distinctiveness of southern identity. Potter’s The South and the Sectional Conflict consists of eleven essays, grouped in three sections: “The Nature of Southernism,” “Three Historiographical Forays,” and “The Crisis of the Union.” The first section lays down his point of view, and the second and third apply it. We shall therefore concentrate on the general ideas spelled out in the beginning, although this procedure obscures important contributions to many particular historical questions. A word on the second part is, however, essential. Potter’s review of the historical literature on the South and the nation during the nineteenth century is not only useful, it is unique. No other historian in the United States has his ability to present the arguments of others, including his opponents, with such conciseness, scrupulousness, and sensitivity to nuance.
Potter and Woodward center their analyses on the abrasive relationship between the South and the rest of the nation; Potter stresses the material foundations of the antagonism, whereas Woodward makes a point of the irony inherent in the antagonism itself. To Woodward, for example, the South has generally been out of step with the rest of the country, but this eccentricity has brought it closer to the experience of the rest of the world. In this and in other respects, the points of view of Woodward and Potter are complementary. For Potter, the South has provided the focus for two great national problems: it has represented distinctiveness and combative sectionalism in a republic undergoing consolidation; and it has upheld racial caste in a society committed in principle, if not in practice, to equality.
Irony is a theme running through Woodward’s book, from the first essay, “The Search for Southern Identity,” to “The Irony of Southern History” and “A Second Look at the Theme of Irony,” an essay which has been added to this collection. The seven other essays take up specific problems in this spirit. The United States, Woodward argues, is unique in the world, but the South has not shared in this uniqueness. He too seeks the roots and quality of the southern heritage. What makes the South distinctive, he argues, is its collective historical experience, in which it developed both as part of a larger nation and yet as an entity that has taken a road different from that of the nation.
If the United States has had—within limits and with qualifications—unparalleled prosperity, the South has suffered from a persistent as well as a cyclical poverty. If Americans have been imprisoned by the notion that nothing is beyond their power to accomplish, Southerners have borne too many failures to entertain such illusions. If America has stood rigidly by its legend of innocence and moral superiority, the South has had a long, painful inner struggle to reconcile its democratic and egalitarian inheritance with the exigencies of slavery and racial caste. If America has won—by its own reckoning at least—all its wars and become convinced of its invincibility, the South lost the one that counted most and came to know the shock of defeat, humiliation, and the hardship of survival. (There is another irony here, by the way: The fate of the Confederacy and the fact of occupation and Reconstruction taught the white South how to survive in defeat and thereby sharpened its sensitivity in a way analogous to that experienced by the black South during and after its bitter years of enslavement.) If America has been supremely optimistic in its world outlook, the South has long tended toward pessimism and conservatism. If Americans have little sense of the past, Southerners traditionally have maintained a strong historical sense.
Southerners have long known, Woodward concludes, what other Americans have always been intent on not knowing—that they have been caught up in history and cannot stand outside it. Hence the irony: It is not so much the South but the North that is distinctive when considered along with the experience of other nations. But as Woodward warned during the 1950s and restates forcefully now, the string has about run out. The war in Vietnam and the black revolt in the cities have brought the rest of the country face to face with defeat and with problems that stubbornly resist solution. History is now happening to us. Thus Woodward believes that the southern intelligentsia—by which he means both blacks and whites—has a special, positive contribution to make in easing America into the new era, because Southerners are heirs to those traditions and experiences which can link American culture and sensibility to those of the rest of the world. That many of these traditions and experiences have been reactionary and even brutal does not at all upset his argument; it merely underscores the irony he sees as being so deeply embedded in the duality of southern life.
Woodward’s concern for a sympathetic reappraisal of the southern experience is double-edged. On the one side, he extols the radicalism of southern Populism and draws attention to its absorption of the aristocratic southern ethos at the same time as it sharply attacked the bourgeois values and policies of the New South. On the other side, he dispassionately examines the aristocratic and conservative tradition itself, with its roots in slavery and plantation exploitation, and traces some of the ways in which its inherent injustice has been attended by valuable patterns of community relations and resistance to commercial values. From this southern vantage point, he can attack much in American life, and call for a radical re-evaluation of the national commitment to capitalism; but he never allows himself to be uncritical toward the South itself.
Woodward’s argument is internally sound and convincing but, as Potter sees, it does not go far enough. In a review of the first edition of The Burden of Southern History Potter approves of Woodward’s views on southern distinctiveness, but observes, “…though Woodward discusses these factors [summarized above] as experiences impinging upon the southern culture, we still need a dissection of the culture itself on which they impinge.”
In his opening essay, “The Enigma of the South,” Potter attempts to do this. The essay begins with a convincing attack on the legend of southern agrarianism, and then proceeds to analyze Ulrich Phillip’s thesis that the central theme of southern history is the determination to preserve a white man’s country. Potter observes that, ironically, it took a racist, Phillips, to restore the black man to the center of the southern stage: Phillips’s liberal critics, who logically should have embraced his thesis, allowed themselves to be sidetracked by their revulsion against his prejudices. They could never see that one could readily reverse Phillips’s approbation of white supremacy and yet agree to the fact that it is the central theme in southern history.
Potter strives to transcend the views of Phillips and Woodward on the origins of southern distinctiveness by examining the folk culture of the South. Southern folk culture, he argues, has tenaciously resisted the onslaught of urbanization and industrialization. Potter is not as specific as one might wish about the content of Southern folk culture; but it is clear that when he refers to it he has in mind such elements as the sense of family, the stress on formal courtesy, and the intense awareness of local community that have characterized southern life. “it was an aspect of this culture,” he writes,
that the relation between land and people remained more direct and more primal in the South than in other parts of the country. (This may be more true for the Negroes than for the whites, but then there is also a question whether the Negroes have not embodied the distinctive qualities of the Southern character even more than the whites.)
It seems to me that this is a brilliant insight but that Potter leaves it undeveloped. Were he to relate his analysis of Phillips’s thesis to this part of his discussion, he would have to shift the locus of his concern with southern distinctiveness from the fact of racial domination—as important as that question will remain in its own right—to the duality of southern culture and from the category of race to that of class. If, as I believe, the “central theme” of Afro-American history has been its duality as at once a part of the general American national experience and simultaneously a national experience in itself, then that duality has imparted to the South a folk culture separately black and white and yet both black and white. The northward movement of black people has been therefore—another wonderful irony for Woodward to add to his list—the vehicle for the extension of certain aspects of Southern culture as well as of a distinct Afro-American culture.
Like Woodward, Potter never allows his sympathetic presentation of the Southern experience to descend to apologetics. Far from hiding the naked and brutal economic exploitation at the base of this tradition of community relations, he exposes it to full view and examines the paradox it implies. No other American historian, with the possible exception of Frank Tannenbaum, has so clearly seen the contradictory nature of the slave plantation as a force that on some levels bound two classes and races together in an organic community and yet on other levels, which he seems to regard as decisive, guaranteed their bitter estrangement.
Potter, like Woodward, adds much to our understanding of Southern history, but ultimately the problem he set out to examine eludes him. The difficulty, it seems to me, lies in the failure to face the class question. Both historians discuss class forces and make decisive contributions to a social history of the South; but neither will concede the central role of those class forces which nevertheless constantly break through in their work. As a result, their respective analyses spend their force at the very moment when they are most incisive.
The cultural question which Potter and Woodward raise cannot be understood apart from its class character. This alone, I would suggest, explains the dual nature of Southern society as a reflection of the patriarchal ethos of the antebellum ruling class on the one hand, and, on the other, the patterns by which black slaves and white non-slaveholders both resisted and accommodated themselves to those who had power over them. The origin of those southern cultural elements to which both authors draw attention is unintelligible apart from the plantation setting, at the center of which was the relation between master and slaves. The social and economic forces drawing the nonslaveholders into the widening circle of paternalism and the planters to lordship require a separate and extended analysis, but their roots in plantation life are clear.
Woodward’s singular achievement in his great book, The Origins of the New South, was to lay the foundations for a coherent and faithful history that brings together economic, cultural, and political forces; but we still need much more work on the persistence of the antebellum tradition to the present day, and the intimate relationship between this tradition and the development of class. I fail to see how southern culture can be explained satisfactorily apart from the character of the slaveholding planters, their dealings with black slave labor, and their hegemony over the white small farmers throughout the countryside. The contradictory elements of southern culture (those aristocratic-democratic, patriarchal-egalitarian juxtapositions which both Potter and Woodward so valuably describe) are the result of confrontations between clases: on the one hand between masters and slaves, and, on the other, between masters and enfranchised nonslaveholders.
These class relations crystalized as the plantation owners became more powerful and assured in their sense of “lordship”; their persistence must be sought in the nature of the postbellum ruling class, understood as a new quality; in the emergence of a socially disaffected but racist white yeomanry; and in the continuity and transformation of certain antebellum cultural patterns among the blacks, who passed from one form of dependent labor (slavery) to others (sharecropping, tenancy). Potter and Woodward do not face all the implications of their astute analyses and do not relate southern culture to its discrete class roots, but they do appreciate fully the positive side of the culture that resulted—a side that has combined the aristocratic sensibilities of the master class with the staying power of the black and white lower classes, each of which learned, in different and often tragically opposed ways, how to survive and preserve considerable social cohesion in a world of exploitation, oppression, and domination.
If Potter and Woodward end by being somewhat vague about the class character of southern culture, their radical critics are in no position to criticize them. Until recently Marxists have interpreted class forces in American life in an ahistorical (that is, anti-Marxian) way by insisting on the existence of classes of farmers, bourgeois, workers, etc. Yet, the experience of both North and South—not to mention that of the rest of the world—ought by now to have made it clear that social classes are determined by particular national and cultural circumstances. The American working class, as Herbert Gutman demonstrates,* cannot be understood apart from a careful study of the diverse cultural origins of the quite different immigrant groups composing it. Black America, as Harold Cruse is forcing the rest of us to see, cannot be understood apart from a painstaking cultural analysis of its constituent classes. But Gutman and Cruse are raising new questions that have yet to be explored adequately.
Thus scholars like Potter and Woodward are, or ought to be, an embarrassment to the Left. Not being imprisoned by arid formulas and dogmas, they have been free to see, with the utmost clarity, the decisive importance of national (and regional) culture for the solution of diverse historical and political problems. Without a serious Marxism to challenge them, however, they have not had to confront what I think is fundamental to a full appreciation of their own work—that the culture they have been dissecting must be understood as part of the class question itself.
One feature of both books requires comment, even if we must pass over many others. The distance traveled by these greatest of southern historians from the point at which Phillips left off may be measured by their respectful concern with the place of the black man. Woodward treats the black experience in two essays, “Equality: The Deferred Commitment” and “What Happened to the Civil Rights Movement.” In both essays he advances a cautious optimism. The first sees a genuine commitment to equality in the Reconstruction period, but recently Woodward has added new doubts and qualifications to those which he originally expressed.
The second essay contrasts the Reconstruction period with the “Second Reconstruction” of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Woodward stresses the elements of the predominance of blacks and youth in the Civil Rights Movement and makes some penetrating observations on the conflict of generations in the struggle—and by extension, on current white student radicalism as well. In spite of its power, the essay founders on its integrationist optimism, which is not saved by a grim postscript on Dr. King’s assassination. Woodward, himself a courageous veteran, along with many other much abused southern liberals, of the struggle against racial segregation, cannot accept black separatism in any form. It is his one blind spot and prevents him from confronting black history as an experience which embraces both the formation of an ethnically conditioned class and the growth of a separate nationality. As a result, Woodward, whose work, including The Strange Career of Jim Crow as well as the essays under review, contains so much of value for a study of Afro-American history, falls short of the mastery of the black southern experience which he so elegantly demonstrates in his analysis of the southern experience of the whites.
Potter discusses the role of the blacks in the South only sporadically and seems almost to shy away from it. Yet his discussion of the forces behind the Confederate movement implicitly sheds much light on the black experience. If Potter’s book contained nothing but the essay, “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” it would be worth the price. The argument here is subtle and runs deep, and a quick summary risks distortion. The burden of the argument is that historians have been easily misled into exaggerating the cultural attributes of nationality and generally underestimate the extent to which nations arise from a perceived or real common material interest. He agrees that an awareness of both a common culture and common interests must exist for a nation to take shape. But, he insists, historians must understand that nationalism has two psychological roots, not one; otherwise they will attempt to find a national culture every time they find a growing community of interest.
Antislavery writers more than others, Potter believes, ought to see the extent of the division between the North and South; but their liberal commitment to the notion of national self-determination forces them to deny their own viewpoint. Pro-southern writers have a similar problem since they must rest their claims for a separate southern nation on a distinct culture, the elements of which they are hard pressed to describe. Potter, in my view, slights the genuine cultural difference, but his main point—that common material interests generated a conscious effort to develop a separate culture—is well argued and, by extension, speaks directly to the current black scene. Nationalism, for him, must be understood as an ideological process arising out of both culture and material interest, either of which may be initially feeble but which may grow powerful under the stimulation of the other. His judgment on the Confederacy, even if arguable, might well serve as a critical standpoint from which to assess the sharpening debate between revolutionary black nationalists (especially the Panthers) and cultural nationalists (Karenga, Innis, etal):
The southern sympathizer finds that his view of the separateness of southern culture cannot be formed on the merits of the question without reference to his conviction that the South enjoyed a full national identity, which finds its ultimate sanction in the possession of a full-fledged culture. The attribution of culture is evaluative for the question of nationality, just as the question of nationality, in turn, is evaluative for the justification of the acts of a group claiming the right to exercise autonomy.
Potter has much to say about the problem of the nationalism of the Old South and perhaps even more to say about black nationalism. Since the South adjusted quickly to a new place in the Union after Appomatox, Potter reasons that its nationalism could not have been so deeply rooted as, say, that of Poland. What drove the South forward in the 1850s, he suggests, was less a separate national culture than a shared sense of threatened common interests. The North, he adds, fought to overthrow “a vast property interest.” But Potter cannot so easily reduce slavery to a matter of “interest,” and indeed throughout these essays he provides abundant evidence that the material interests generated by the plantation system were strongly complemented by the slave-master relationship itself. His sudden disparagement of the cultural question therefore appears strained. More to the point, the elements he so trenchantly dissects had their basis in the slave system and most particularly in its ruling class, which commanded that “vast property interest” and necessarily attempted, both consciously and unconsciously, to grasp the moral and intellectual implications of its own existence. All these ingredients Potter gives us. What he does not make explicit is the one thing that holds the discrete parts of his cogent analysis together—the central role of class and its economic, ideological, and political power.
A short while ago a young black nationalist, selected to head a Black Studies Program at a large Eastern university, told The New York Times that he might invite one or two whites to participate but that historians like Woodward were another matter. More recently, a leading liberal magazine called upon a learned gentleman from the University of Georgia to review Potter’s book, and he wrote that Potter was a southern apologist and a no-account thinker. This ideological hatchet work has its counterpart in a sharpening attack on the growing number of left-wing historians who unashamedly admit to having infinitely more admiration for the work of these “bourgeois” scholars than they do for most of their radical critics. No one has a right to complain, not even those who do not regard rough polemics as a welcome relief from the boredom of academic life. In fact, if the most one suffers these days in the ivory tower is verbal or written assault, then one should be grateful. Without complaint, I should like to exercise the reviewer’s prerogative of ending on a personal note.
Not surprisingly, I was recently treated to a dose of the inanity to which Woodward and Potter (not to mention William Styron, Stanley Elkins, and many others) were subjected. At the risk of seeming self-serving, I think the following incident is relevant to the difficulties in establishing a rational line of criticism about southern matters. The left-wing scholarly journal, Science & Society, which enjoys a well-deserved reputation for factionalism and an easy attitude toward the truth, published a lengthy series of falsehoods designed to show that I equate the slave South with the Union and that I am ethically neutral, if not downright pro-Confederate, in my views on the War. The details of the attacks—on Styron and Elkins as racists, on Potter as a southern apologist, on Woodward as the Lord knows what, and on me as soft on Jefferson Davis—are unimportant. What is serious in this familiar scenario of ideological malice is the persistent unwillingness of so many radicals, as well as liberals, to confront conservative criticism of their assumptions.
Potter and Woodward have argued that southern history has been deeply paradoxical and that its most gruesome features have engendered powerful qualities worthy of respect and preservation. If I read them correctly, they would accept the view that even slavery—that most foul of modern social systems—bequeathed, in spite of itself, important achievements to future generations. How many Americans, for example, including the most radical, continue to admire the personal quality, political ideals, and historical legacy of the early generations of Virginia slaveholders? Somehow everything reactionary in Jefferson, Madison, and Washington, is supposed to have emanated from their slaveownership, but everything noble and wholesome is supposed to have been a gift of God. Such a view is not serious, and the paradox it obscures presents precisely the kind of problem to which Potter and Woodward have applied their exceptional talent. If they had done no more than to force us to think about the contradictory nature of the southern legacy, we would owe them an immeasurable debt.
Are they then, after all—and are their radical admirers—apologists for southern reaction or indifferent to the moral issues in the struggle between slavery and freedom? Hardly. They take the immorality of slavery and racism as undeniable but recognize that much of lasting value had its roots in the original injustice. Those folkways to which Potter draws attention, for example, represent today an important and potentially radical force against capitalist values; that they were once organically linked to a reactionary social order provides Woodward with further irony but is not his responsibility.
The critical position Potter and Woodward share is the opposite of any apologetics, for it provides a base from which to attack the reactionary origins of the southern heritage and simultaneously transforms that heritage into a weapon of criticism against prevailing national values. If anything, they ought to be criticized for not going far enough. I have argued elsewhere and at some length that the slaveholders were deeply committed to slavery as a way of life, not just as a way of making money and that they were essentially men of principle. There has been no shortage of idiots, or even of scholars, who should know better, to conclude—contrary to the evidence and all reason—that I equate the Union and Confederate causes and remain ethically neutral.
In fact—as conservative critics have had no trouble in understanding—the point is the reverse: Since they were men of honor and subjective morality and since they defended an objectively immoral system for which they must be held responsible, the slaveholders could not have been frightened into submission or bought off. If a radical regional revolution and the genuine liberation of black people were to be effected, the slaveholders as a class would have had to be exterminated. As southern apologetics go, I am not aware that these have ever been received with enthusiasm by their ostensible beneficiaries.
Woodward and Potter do not see the issue in such terms; as anti-Marxists who reject the idea that class confrontation is of central importance, they cannot do so and would probably recoil at such conclusions. But in their own terms they have brilliantly faced, and compelled their honest opponents to face, the problems of class power, with all the irony and tragedy contained therein. It ought then to be obvious why they find an increasing number of admirers on the Left. For all their ideological disagreements, they have set an example for us by rising far above their biases to pose the major problems; by paying respectful attention to opposing points of view; and by bringing strong understanding and scholarship to bear on burning questions. Historians on the Left have a long way to go to match, much less transcend, their performance.
in several papers on working-class history, soon to be published.↩
Is There a Marxist in the House? November 20, 1969
in several papers on working-class history, soon to be published.↩