For me, one of the more interesting aspects of history is that ideologies rarely die. Ideas and cultures can be traced back centuries, and once-settled vendettas can return with a vengeance decades (or centuries) later. And, since everything is connected to everything else, context is everything.
I say this, because these are ideals with old, old roots. To tell the story properly, we have to go back to David Fischer’s Albion’s Seed and the founding of America, and we have to answer a question that I thought well settled: “Was the South morally or legally justified in their secessionist movement?” Additionally, we must answer the modern-day question of whether or not states (or individuals) should have rights that supersede those of the federal government, and if so, what are those rights?
Let’s get one thing out of the way: America was never unified. Instead, each region formed based on different distinct waves of English immigration/colonization. Over the 946 pages of his book, Fischer identifies the 4 groups who have had the largest influence on America.
1. The Puritans, who settled from East Anglia in the 1620s. Their culture, in addition to being highly religious and puritanical, also dedicated to education and civic service. Their Calvinist philosophy was highly influential in shaping the Northeast.
2. The Cavaliers, refugee nobles from the south of England, fled to Virginia in the 1640s following the English Civil War. Being nobles, they did not like to work, and brought thousands of indentured servants with them, eventually moving to imported African slaves. Their plantation model and their peculiar ideals shaped the south (more on this in a bit).
3. The Quakers, a religious group believing in pacifism, tolerance, equal rights, and ethical capitalism, settled in the area now called Pennsylvania (named after William Penn) in the late 1670s. The Quaker influence on America was broad; there’s a reason the Continental Congress was in Philadelphia.
4. The Borderers, a large group from Northern England, who were... fiercely independent, straight-talking, and prone to violence. They settled in Appalachia and formed the base of America’s western expansion. Borderer tradition was what made the “wild west” wild.
Though America is more mixed these days, group influence can still be plainly observed, as in the following map:
|Obama in green, Clinton in red|
This alignment between Borderer regions and Clinton victories is unlikely to be a coincidence.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is, the United States were born divided. 13 independent colonies, imperfectly coming together. It was not a harmonious union and many of the compromises (such as the famous “3/5ths Compromise”) were designed to give the agrarian slave-holding states greater political influence and representation. And, as is the nature of compromise, both sides were left unhappy. Benjamin Franklin summed up the mood well: “I confess that There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. ... I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution”.
Obviously, this didn’t last. Abraham Lincoln’s election triggered a wave of secession, as he was elected without the votes of a single southern state. Worried that the northern states might vote to eliminate chattel slavery, and enraged at the northern states’ unwillingness to sufficiently enforce the Fugitive Slave Act — a position simultaneously pro and anti-state rights — the southern states left the Union.
The Civil War, I’m assuming, is history everyone is familiar with. Lincoln refused to recognize the Confederate government, or the legality of their secession, and when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter the war began in earnest. Note: the concept of the “War of Northern Aggression” rests on historical revisionism (read: lies). The Southern states were explicitly clear that their reason for seceding was about slavery. Regardless, the war was very bloody, and very personal. Both the North and the South instituted a draft, and the drafts could be avoided with money in the North, and sufficient slave ownership in the South. Thus, the war was fought between poor whites on both sides, each fighting for the interests of their respective elites.
The war ended only when Union forces did enough damage that war was impossible, though it did continue afterwards in small pockets (the main bulk of the Southern army surrendered with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox). Eventually, the slaves were freed, the states readmitted to the union, and then the South won.
That’s a deliberately provocative statement, but the history holds up. The South may have surrendered, but only out of necessity. The period of Reconstruction was essentially an occupation, preventing the southern states from expressing their right to enslave and oppress black people. And, like any occupied country, they enjoyed many lively insurgencies which rebelled violently against the occupying force, fighting to restore the traditional government wherever possible (this was the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan). Not so coincidentally, this was also the beginning of the southern states inordinate focus on — and hatred toward — taxation. This will be an important detail later.
So how did the South win?
Short answer: The rebellion used political violence, terrorism, and murder until the Northerners gave up and left the South to its own devices. Which meant rigging elections, lynching, and the reinstatement of slavery via sharecropping, imprisonment, and other means.
Long answer: The short answer plus the fact that the radical Republicans/Abolitionists wanted to set up an equal-ish society in the south. This meant giving the newly freed slaves land, education, and other things, expensive things that were necessary to keep the ex-slaves self-sufficient and not subservient.
This approach ran into problems immediately, as the more conservative Republicans balked at the expense (and of course, being nice to ex-slaves by giving them economic and political power made the South madder than a cat in a bathtub). Enforcing this required enormous manpower and occupying troops, some of whom were killed by the people in the above photo. Eventually, the rich elites in the North realized that it didn’t really matter who picked the cotton or how, as long as it got picked and delivered on time. So, with the Compromise of 1877, a Republican landed in the white house on the condition that Reconstruction was finished, and leaving the South free to govern themselves as they liked.
Thus, the South won against the North, and their systems of legal enslavement persisted until the civil rights era, after which everyone was free and no one was ever unjustly enslaved, imprisoned, or disenfranchised again. The cost of peacefully restoring the Union was, apparently, to let the rebels enslave and oppress the blacks.
And for a while, things were relatively ok, at least by comparison. The country governed itself, political violence was common but did not result in open warfare, other new immigrant groups arrived and were subsequently oppressed, and America was at peace with itself. But the peace, now as in the past, remains fragile and conditional.
This has modern-day implications but first, let’s go back to our 4 groups from earlier and see what they’ve been up to for the last few hundred years. Obviously, at this point these 4 are not the only immigrant groups, but Fischer makes a strong case for their continuing influence in shaping America’s culture and history. Our other immigration groups (such as the New York Dutch, the French Louisianans, Caribbean Blacks, and so on) have largely assimilated into nearby dominant cultures. So, what happened to all of them? Well, they’re us. This is somewhat speculative, but the influences can be tracked.
The Puritans believed in a mixed government that was democratic but protected aristocracy. Their focus on education gave them influence withinthe rapidly growing American elite, and American universities remain heavily influenced by Puritan ideals. Throughout history, they have favored active government and social equality. Their notion of liberty is collective: the right to make laws to order society, protecting people from basic want. Politically, they have been Whigs, Federalists, classic Republicans, and modern-day Democrats.
The Quakers have faded into the background culture; these days, the number of actual practicing Quakers is low. Their egalitarian spirit put them on the forefront of civil rights advocacy numerous times in American history, most notably as Abolitionists (many of the underground railroad operators were Quaker), and in the fight for women’s suffrage (Susan B. Anthony was a Quaker). Their notion of liberty was reciprocal, whereby each person is entitled to self-determination and freedom of conscience.
Today, the Quaker and Puritan traditions seem to form the base of the “blue” tribe in American politics, and their states they settled in are still significantly “bluer” than the rest of the country.
The Cavaliers favored a strong, traditionalist, and deeply conservative society — with minimal government oversight. Few laws, but strict adherence to social norms. As befitting their noble tradition, they organized their society with what Fischer terms as “hegemonic liberty”: the freedom to rule and not be ruled in turn. This took its historical shape most keenly during the slaveholding era, during which the South was ruled via slavocracy. In this society, a strict hierarchy was maintained, with liberty for each according to his station. The right of the few to achieve enormous freedom is preserved at the expense of liberty for many. For the owners, unlimited liberty, for the poor some, for the indentured servants less, and for the slaves none at all. The existence of slaves was, ironically, a stabilizing effect on southern society, as even the most oppressed whites had someone to look down on.
These days, hegemonic liberty has been toned down, and made much less obvious. Cavalier ideas survive in the modern libertarian movement, and the arguments are clearly seen once you start looking for them. When a man who makes more money in an hour than his workers do in a month complains that his freedom is being impacted by burdensome governmental regulations, he is arguing for the freedom to rule — to be able to act without being ruled by the will of others. Politically, this tends to find a home in the leaders of the modern-day Republican party, though of course there are plutocrats on both sides of the aisle.
Last, but certainly not least are the Borderers. The settlers of the hills of Appalachia have been maligned for hundreds of years. Hillbilly, redneck, white trash — even today Borderers are seen as acceptable targets for ridicule. But despite this, Borderer culture has had an outsized influence on America. If one was to sum up the Borderer ethos in a single word, that word would be “independent”. Their conception of freedom was based on “natural liberty”: freedom to do as you wish, without the constraints of law or custom. Autonomy from institutions and personal sovereignty are prioritized above all else. In practice, this often meant that Borderer culture was structured around retaliation and retribution over slights, with longstanding feuds only broken by outside interference or by individuals charismatic enough to unite the warring clans.
The Borderer desire for personal autonomy forced America’s westward expansion, as their search for space and isolation kept them and their descendants on the frontier, for as long as there has been a frontier. Enormous swaths of America were settled by Borderers, particularly in the southwest. Our map from earlier shows the downward migration of Borderers from western Pennsylvania and Ohio, south through Kentucky and Tennessee, and west through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The “country-western” accent is a strong indicator, mirroring the accent of the original settlers (as well as their similarity to the 1700s cultural norms of poor education, gun culture, violence, xenophobia, high premarital pregnancy rate, militarism, and patriotism).
Borderers tend to be relatively apolitical; their interests are self-interests, not policy. As such, they have formed the bulk of every populist movement in American history — Including Andrew Jackson, most folk heroes, Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, the labor movement, and the Tea Party (culminating in the election of our current president). That the modern-day republican party was brought low by a man who appealed to Borderers but was indifferent to the party’s libertine/libertarian agenda should not have been a surprise to the “Never-Trumpers”. For the remnants of the Cavaliers to control the country, the cooperation of the Borderers is a must. And they do, witness the anger from the Trump supporters as the machinery of government and “deep state” defies their wishes at every turn. For a shorthanded approximation, however, we can label the “red” tribe of modern American politics to be composed of Cavaliers and Borderers.
(Obviously, this is an extraordinarily biased perspective; I can’t not pretend to have moral and political biases. There are certainly other interpretations, and other ways to delineate the various groups. But I hope that I’ve accurately described the facts, as well as beliefs of each group. If not, hopefully someone will let me know, so I can fix it. There’s more than enough for everyone to disagree with, even with the same facts.)
As for the question of whether the South was morally or legally justified in their secessionist movement, and whether states (or individuals) should have rights that supersede the federal government, the modern-day implications over the failure of reconstruction, and a look at modern rebel “patriots”, will have to wait for another time.
Continued in Part II.
Continued in Part II.