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.)