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Impearls: Southern Militancy

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Earthdate 2003-11-23

Southern Militancy

Glenn Reynolds, wearing his Instapundit cap, contradicts the common European perception that the United States (and Britain for that matter) have never experienced foreign invasion and defeat, and thus have a difficulty “in comprehending the humiliation of occupation.”  In reality, as Reynolds points out, the American South experienced profound and disrupting foreign occupation — from the North — in the decades following the end of the savagely bloody American Civil War.  Glenn writes:

Reconstruction was very unpopular, and my grandmother can still tell stories that she heard from her grandmother about Union soldiers passing through and stripping the place bare of everything except what they were able to hide, and of the years (decades, really) of privation that followed the war.

Reynolds goes on to comment, however:  “But American southerners know something that apparently a lot of other people seem to have trouble with: how to lose a war and not hold a grudge.  (Much of one, anyway.)”

Glenn is quite correct.  The great American victory — over time reconciling Southerners, inhabitants of the former Confederacy, so that they did not seethe as a nation under foreign subjugation, yearning to breathe free, but rather became Americans (citizens of the United States, of a particular, ethnically aware region to be sure, but still patriotic Americans) — is a political success almost Roman in its profound historic triumph.  Thus, as Reynolds notes, Europeans are particularly off base in criticizing this aspect of what they see as American inexperience.

I will quibble with one speculation Glenn makes, that Southern experience with (post-Civil War) occupation “may possibly explain why the American South is also far more military-minded than other parts of the United States — or, for that matter, than London.”  To the contrary, it's clear that the “military-mindedness” of the South greatly predates the Civil War, much less the follow-on occupation. 

This can be seen from the Civil War itself, where the most brilliant generals and valorous troops for most of the war, actually, were southerners.

Long before that, however, the insightful Alexis de Tocqueville informed us of the differences between South and North, Southerner and Northerner, in his famous comparison of freedom and slavery floating down the Ohio River during the 1830s:

So the traveller who lets the current carry him down the Ohio till it joins the Mississippi sails, so to say, between freedom and slavery; and he has only to glance around him to see instantly which is best for mankind.

On the left bank of the river the population is sparse; from time to time one sees a troop of slaves loitering through half-deserted fields; the primeval forest is constantly reappearing; one might say that society had gone to sleep; it is nature that seems active and alive, whereas man is idle.

But on the right bank a confused hum proclaims from afar that men are busily at work; fine crops cover the fields; elegant dwellings testify to the taste and industry of the workers; on all sides there is evidence of comfort; man appears rich and contented; he works.  […]

These contrasting effects of slavery and of freedom are easy to understand; they are enough to explain the differences between ancient civilization and modern.

On the left bank of the Ohio work is connected with the idea of slavery, but on the right with well-being and progress; on the one side it is degrading, but on the other honorable; on the left bank no white laborers are to be found, for they would be afraid of being like the slaves; for work people must rely on the Negroes; but one will never see a man of leisure on the right bank: the white man's intelligent activity is used for work of every sort.  […]

The white man on the right bank, forced to live by his own endeavors, has made material well-being the main object of his existence; as he lives in a country offering inexhaustible resources to his industry and continual inducements to activity, his eagerness to possess things goes beyond the ordinary limits of human cupidity; tormented by a longing for wealth, he boldly follows every path to fortune that is open to him; he is equally prepared to turn into a sailor, pioneer, artisan, or cultivator, facing the labors or dangers of these various ways of life with even constancy; there is something wonderful in his resourcefulness and a sort of heroism in his greed for gain.

The American on the left bank scorns not only work itself but also enterprises in which work is necessary to success; living in idle ease, he has the tastes of idle men; money has lost some of its value in his eyes; he is less interested in wealth than in excitement and pleasure and expends in that direction the energy which his neighbor puts to other use; he is passionately fond of hunting and war; he enjoys all the most strenuous forms of bodily exercise; he is accustomed to the use of weapons and from childhood has been ready to risk his life in single combat.  Slavery therefore not only prevents the white men from making their fortunes but even diverts them from wishing to do so.

The constant operation of these opposite influences throughout two centuries in the English North American colonies has in the end brought about a vast difference in the commercial capabilities of southerners and northerners.  Today the North alone has ships, manufactures, railways, and canals.

My impression is that traits of “northerner” and “southerner,” as perceived by persons such as Tocqueville prior to the Civil War, since that war have spread more broadly throughout the American populace.

(Read a more complete excerpt from Tocqueville's writings on slavery here.)



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