Not long after moving from Minnesota to Alabama, I was having supper with Miss Dorothy Jane at the home of a mutual friend. Dorothy Jane Nisbet, daughter of a Presbyterian minister in Selma, married into a family of social standing in Jacksonville. When I met her, she was a widow and a pillar of the First Presbyterian Church of Jacksonville. 

As we began eating, it was mentioned that I was a vegetarian. Dorothy Jane leaned forward, with a look of concern on her face, and asked, in her genteel drawl, “Did you suffer an episode of some sort?” The inquiry was posed with equal measures of affection and disdain. My vegetarianism met with incredulity—not because it was unbiblical or irrational but because it was one of those things Not To Be Done. Too far off the proper path. Dorothy Jane is not a reactionary. She is quite progressive by Alabama standards, both politically and theologically. Educated and cultured, she is far from the southern redneck of northern stereotype. Yet there is such a thing as tradition, and it is not to be lightly contravened.

Holding fast to the past is not unique to the South. It seems to be a rural trait, regardless of geographic region. A farmer—whether in Georgia, Illinois, or Pennsylvania—is more likely to be culturally conservative than the average metro dweller in Atlanta, Chicago, or Philadelphia. Collectively, this is true for agrarians more than urbanites. Obviously, there have been tremendous changes in farming during the past century . . . some for the better, many for the worse. Still, even today, farm families are the most likely group of Americans to be traditionalists. More populist and libertarian in their politics. More Bible-believing and Christ-honoring in their religion. More naturalistic and moralistic in their lifestyle. Their individualism is balanced by community-mindedness. 

What is true for rural dwellers in general is even more true for those who live on farms and in small towns in the South. Agrarianism is more than the South and the South is more than agrarianism, but the two converge in a way that we don’t see with other parts of the nation.[1] There is a reason that country music is centered below the Mason-Dixon Line and is popular throughout the rural areas of America. The word country denotes certain values. So while a cleaving to old times is not found only in the South or only in rural areas, it is in the predominantly rural states of the South that such cleaving is most clearly seen.

In his model of regional U.S. political subcultures, political scientist Daniel Elazar labeled the culture of the South as traditionalistic. Elazar was writing 36 years after the publication of I’ll Take My Stand.[2] Despite the perception that the Twelve Southerners exemplified retrograde values in their own day, an emphasis on tradition was still the most striking thing about the South four decades later. This despite the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War on a national scale, and despite rising mechanization, industrialization, and urbanization in the region. Old times there are not forgotten—a trait that cuts both ways. It is good to hang on to good traditions, bad to hang on to bad. Therein lies the glory and tragedy of the South.


The South is politically conservative, but its cultural conservatism is foundational. The past matters, and those who realize this serve to balance the ever-restless, new-is-better crowd. History and memory are not to be confused with cheap sentimentality or commercialized nostalgia. As Christopher Lasch puts it, “Having trivialized the past by equating it with outmoded styles of consumption, discarded fashions and attitudes, people today resent anyone who draws on the past in serious discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present.” There is even something divine about our longing for the past, in the view of C.S. Lewis. Often patronized as mere Nostalgia or Romanticism, our “desire for our own far-off country” stems from memories of special times in the past—memories that are “good images of what we really desire.”[3]

Sometimes the physical and spiritual intersect. My family attended worship services at First Presbyterian of Jacksonville during our years in Alabama. The congregation was founded in 1834. Its building was constructed beginning in 1859 and served as a hospital for Confederate soldiers a few years later. Looking around the sanctuary, it was interesting to think about what was happening in that very space a century and a half earlier.[4] 

Another landmark of the Jacksonville area was Rick Bragg, son of a textile mill worker and a woman named Ava. Bragg went off to New York City and became a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Times. Since then, he has written widely acclaimed memoirs of his family and home town, including All Over But the Shoutin’ and The Most They Ever Had. The Jacksonville cemetery has a large gravestone labeled “Bragg,” not far from several Confederate flags that mark the burial site of soldiers. I have a picture of my little son sitting next to the stone, with cactuses growing nearby. To understand the region, it might be better to read a book by Bragg or listen to old music LPs by southern singers than to read an examination by an academic. Well-meaning though the scholar may be, he or she is not likely to capture the ethos in the same way.

No other region of the nation has a richer history of popular music than the South. It can be credited for giving Americans a multitude of musical genres: folk, gospel, blues, ragtime, jazz, country, rock & roll, soul, funk, and tejano. In addition to the Appalachian Mountain, Ozark Mountain, Mississippi Delta, and South Texas regions, southern cities such as New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Atlanta, Nashville, Muscle Shoals, Austin, and San Antonio have become known as centers of popular music. The breadth and depth of this music are amazing—both white and black, Old World and New World, earthy sexuality and heartfelt spirituality.

One of the most important cultural contributions made by the South has been its preservation of English, Scottish, and Irish traditional and popular ballads—sometimes known as “Child Ballads” after compiler Francis James Child—that were brought from the British (Anglo-Celtic) Isles to colonial America. Settlers in the Shenandoah Valley, Appalachia, and Ozarks were largely responsible for passing these songs on to later generations, thereby serving as the foundation for early folk music and country music.

Country music—the authentic stuff, not the slick-but-second-rate pop-rock-with-a-southern-accent drivel that dominates country radio and the CMAs—is an example of multiculturalism in the good sense of the word. The beneficial kind of multiculturalism is organic, not artificial. It develops naturally, rather than being forced on others. It unites instead of divides. While country music is the traditional music of white southerners, its roots are multicultural. It is not just the province of those genealogically English and Scotch-Irish. A multitude of ethnicities have contributed to the richness and appeal of country music.

Hank Williams was taught guitar by an African American: Rufus Payne (“Tee Tot”). The instruments of country music come from a variety of sources. The guitar and harmonica are European, the banjo is African American, and the steel guitar is from Hawaii. The accordion is German (polka and waltz) but also Mexican (Tex-Mex: conjunto tejano). Similarly, the brass horns of Texas swing can be seen as European orchestral or Mexican folk (tejano). The yodeling of Jimmie Rodgers was borrowed from the Swiss. The western half of the old “country and western” designation was a mixture of actual cowboy culture with the fiction of cheap novels and Hollywood movies. 

Despite its ethnically diverse elements, country music has been almost exclusively white with two notable exceptions (Charley Pride and Darius Rucker). Obviously, there have been some talented performers in more recent years, but the golden age of country-western music, from the late 1940s through the early 1970s, included Hank Williams of Alabama, Kitty Wells of Tennessee, George Jones of Texas, Johnny Cash of Arkansas, Elvis Presley of Mississippi, Jerry Lee Lewis of Louisiana, Wanda Jackson of Oklahoma, Don Gibson of North Carolina, Patsy Cline of Virginia, and Loretta Lynn of Kentucky. 


African American dialect is rooted in both West African languages brought to the South by slaves and traditional language transplanted from England to the South. Both linguistic migrations first occurred in the 1600s. Sometimes disparaged as “ebonics,” the dialect includes pronunciations such as aks for ask. Blacks who pronounce the word in this way are viewed by many Americans as ignorant, but aks is an unconscious conserving of a legitimate tradition. 

Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary, points out that the pronunciation aks goes back 1,000 years. It is found in Beowulf and Chaucer. During the Middle Ages, both aks and ask were in use for the word “ask.” Over time, the latter reached ascendancy among English speakers but the former survived in the Appalachian Mountains and other portions of the American South, among both whites and blacks. Today, it is largely a black pronunciation in the South and among those in the North who have southern heritage. According to the Random House website, aks is an example of the linguistic process known as metathesis, whereby “sounds or syllables switch places.” Sometime during the medieval period, the Old English verb ascian became alternately written and pronounced as acsian or axian. Today, acs or axe is rendered as aks (pronunciation being the same, regardless of spelling). Sheidlower notes a similar metathesis: the old pronunciation of thred for third. This makes sense because the ordinal number third comes from the number three.[5]

Those who make a fetish of standardized, proper English are ignoring a deep tradition. They are also losing sight of the fact that the point of language is communication (not rule-keeping). Our ancestors understood this better than we, which is why great variation of spelling was acceptable among educated people in the past. Even the spelling of one’s own name often varied. Spoken language was considered to be the more important antecedent of written language. As long as spelling made phonetic sense, communication was achieved. The pompous prigs of our day, who look down on blacks and rednecks for their use of “improper” English, could learn a lesson from our forebears. 

The contraction ain’t instead of “am not,” “is not,” “are not,” “has not,” and “have not” is popular in the South by members of both races although it is also used by the supposedly ill-educated in the North. Like aks, it has a respectable pedigree. The words am’t, an’t, and han’t were proper English contractions in the 1600s. Variation in pronunciation gave rise to ain’t and hain’t. Eventually, the latter’s “h” sound largely disappeared and the contraction merged with ain’t. In the 1700s and 1800s, the word was common in England and can be found in Dickens. It fell out of favor among the upper-class but can still be found in England among the working class (e.g., Cockney dialect).

Another southernism is the double modal might could instead of “might be able to.” One day in Alabama, my daughter asked if I had thrown something away. When I told her I hadn’t, I was shocked to hear her say, “Good. I might could use it.” Born in Minnesota, she had adapted to her surroundings in this small way after a couple years. The phrase fixin’ to instead of “planning to” is another common southern way of speaking. So one is fixin’ to go to the store or fixin’ to make supper. The expression also includes the g-dropping so prevalent in the South. Both in the classroom and in less formal situations, I soon changed my Midwestern habit of going to goin’, working to workin’. To pronounce the words by emphasizing the –ing seemed too formal or cold. 

The stereotypical southern contraction y’all for you in its plural form makes a lot of sense. Many if not most languages do not make one word do double-duty for singular and plural. Hence, usted and ustedes in Spanish. A contraction for “you all” (plural you) makes things more clear. Because it was such a southern stereotype, however, I felt self-conscious in saying y’all with a non-southern accent so I held back during my Alabama years. About the only time I used the word was when it slipped out once while speaking—or speakin’—to a couple girls who were friends of my daughter. I think their age put me at ease. 

Of course, in addition to the different words noted above, southern dialects also include region-specific designations such as buggy for shopping cart and Coke for pop/soda. Early on, at the local Winn Dixie, I learned about both of these word uses. Upon entering the grocery store, I was asked if I needed a buggy. Not having a baby with me, I was confused until I realized the employee meant a grocery cart. Later, when the customer in front of me walked out of the store without his six-pack of pop, the checker said to the bagger, “He left his Cokes,” although he had purchased Pepsi. 

There is also the different pronunciation of words, especially in regard to the letters a and i. At an ice cream shop in town, when I asked for more water in my glass, the girl behind the counter asked, “Would you like some ahss?” This was my second or third day in Alabama so I couldn’t imagine what she was saying. I was forced to ask her to repeat the question and then it took a couple seconds of me looking stupid before I realized she was saying “ice.” 

I grew to appreciate the differences between my new neighbors and those with whom I had been raised. Rather than looking down on those who spoke differently, I realized the value of diversity. Variety is the very spice of life, as Cowper wrote (sardonically but I mean it sincerely). Even within the South, there are sub-dialects. The speech of Virginia natives is quite different from that of Alabama natives, for example. It is possible to celebrate diversity in a natural, human way instead of the artificial, coercive way so characteristic of political-correctness-minded elites. 


Being immersed in the culture of the Deep South brought to mind my experience of being one of the minority of whites while working at Lincoln University in the 1990s. Lincoln was an historically black college founded in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1866 by veterans of the 62nd and 65th Colored Infantries of the Union Army. In the evening, students in the library were almost entirely black. At first, I felt so out of place and so conspicuous. Yet it became a good experience. After several months, I sometimes felt that white people were so blah—in skin color (compared to the variety of black hues) and personal interaction (uptight and boring compared to the expressive and dynamic). 

In Alabama, eating establishments were often favored by one race or the other. There were exceptions, but many restaurants seemed characterized by self-selected segregation. Fast food places, barbecue joints, and buffets were more integrated. On more than one occasion, while eating at Golden Corral or a locally-owned equivalent for Sunday lunch, I was pleasantly amazed by the vivid clothing colors of some of the black diners who had just been in church. In a white church, the clothes would been garish . . . or, more accurately, they would not have even been present. Yet they were beautiful.

The southern portion of the United States, from Virginia to Texas, has a warmth of natural climate that is matched by a warmth of human personality. “Southern hospitality” is a cliché, but there is truth behind the hackneyed phrase. Different regions of the country have varying social cultures. Southern culture includes a friendliness and a willingness to exhibit feelings that go beyond those of other regions. In practice, these things are part of a unique balance between informality and formality. 

Social hugs and the use of affectionate nicknames are small examples of warm informality. Bubba for brother and Sissy for sister are family examples. You also hear Honey and Darlin’ used by waitresses for customers. Children will hear Baby and “Bless your heart” from unfamiliar grown-ups. Music tends toward the sentimental and the earthy—different traits but both low-brow. Most Christians have a more emotional style of worship than that found in colder climes. 

If you are in the Deep South and identify yourself as a newcomer in the community, strangers will not hesitate to invite you to their church. This is very different from other places that may be equally religious. In the Upper Midwest, for example, pious Lutherans and Calvinists are unlikely to invite new acquaintances to church because it would be seen as too forward, too personal. Church-going would probably not even cross their minds when talking with a newcomer. If it did, they would think, “He probably has his own church tradition. Or he may not be a Christian. It’s none of my business. If he wants to find a church, he can look in the Yellow Pages.” A southerner is inclined to have a different perspective, thinking, “It’s good for everyone to worship the Lord. I should invite this man to church!” In a less-religious context, this tendency to think—or feel—out loud may come out in matter-of-fact revelations of health issues to a stranger in the store check-out line or the sharing of a deeply personal loss in settings that seem unsuited to intimacy. 

At the same time, this informality is balanced by quaint formalities that are holdovers from the distant past. The average southerner uses “Yes, sir” and “No, sir,” “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” as a means of social grace. There is an egalitarianship, a recognition of common respect under God, in the use of the expressions. They go both ways: white-to-black, black-to-white, young-to-old, old-to-young. A 60-year-old man will, on occasion, say “Yes, ma’am” in response to a question by a 6-year-old girl. After living in this world for a while, the northern practice of a simple “Yes” and “No” seems too abrupt, too cold, slightly rude.

Every year, the media highlights a press release from a group that claims to identify the happiest states in the U.S. in rank order. Happiness of state residents is determined by social indices such as crime and health. Body weight is a big determinant of health. Partly because residents of the southern states are more overeight than other Americans (although only slightly), they are deemed to be the nation’s unhappiest people. Yet they aren’t. The little-bit-skinnier and more homogeneous people of Maine are no more happy than the average person in Mississippi. Yes, southerners have to contend with hot, humid summers and flying cockroaches, but these trials are balanced by a lack of cold, snowy winters and large mosquitos. Fire ants, yes; blizzards, no. In the South, you’re liable to hear expressions of contentment like, “Life here is good. It’s fine if folks in the North don’t understand. They can stay put and we can enjoy it without so much crowding.” 

There is a slower pace in the South. Using Aesop’s terms, most southerners are like grasshoppers because the snowy winter never comes. Comfort with the familiar, a leisurely way of life, warmth of heart, and space for the spiritual transcend northern-oriented social statistics. Of course, southern life is an acquired taste. It is one thing to be born and bred in the South. Transplants often find the adjustment difficult. Their roots having failed to go deep, they may leave after a short while on the first available north-bound moving van. 

Conversely, the Great Migration of African Americans from South to North has been partly reversed in recent decades as some blacks return to their home region. The promise of equality and opportunity in the big cities of the North proved to be illusory with inner-city ghettos and de facto segregation being too often the discouraging reality. Obviously, we are thinking in generalities here. The typical person on the south side of Chicago or south-central Los Angeles—let alone those in more affluent areas of the same cities—will not be moving to Birmingham or Atlanta, but there is a significant-enough movement taking place that it has gained the attention of demographers.[6]


In general, the South has been a land of heartfelt Christianity. This has borne some truly good fruit, including people characterized by warmth and caring, and a commitment to God-honoring values when the rest of the nation has drifted elsewhere. At the same time, there were internal contradictions present from the beginning that flowed from the disease of racial pride/fear/hatred. In her poignant essay from 1949, “When I Was a Child,” Lillian Smith recalled her experiences as a white southern girl. As she grew older, she “began to know that people who talked of love and Christianity and democracy did not mean it,” which was “a hard thing for a child to learn.” Smith added: “I still admired my parents, there was so much that was strong and vital and sane and good about them and I never forgot this; I stubbornly believed in their sincerity, as I do to this day, and I loved them. Yet in my heart they were under suspicion. Something was wrong.”[7]

In describing a place as varied as the South, I am limited by own background. I lived in the heart of the region for three years, but I did so as a white man who had been a lifelong midwesterner. (Although my six years in mid-Missouri bordered on southern.) Desiring a wider perspective, I asked Alberta Cooley McCrory, a friend of my wife, to share her thoughts as a black woman, and she was kind enough to do so. I will be quoting and paraphrasing her words. McCrory is mayor of Hobson City, the oldest incorporated black town in Alabama and the second oldest in the United States. The town was created in 1899, as the Jim Crow Era was getting underway and civic rights were being denied to African Americans in predominantly white Oxford, Alabama. 

Alberta McCrory was born in 1948 and raised in the Deep South. She speaks to us not only as an African American woman but also as a civic leader and Christian minister. Alberta was one of ten children born to her parents. There were five churches in Hobson City when she was growing up. Every Saturday, the families in the community went through the same ritual of getting prepared to attend church on Sunday by ironing clothes, pressing and curling hair, and heating water to take a bath in a large tin tub. Most people did not have cars so they walked to church. 

According to Mayor McCrory, her experiences in the community taught her everything she knows about God. In her words,

My father and mother didn’t have a high school education because the school where they lived only went to the sixth grade and they completed that. As hard as they and other fathers and mothers worked, they couldn’t escape the grip poverty had on them. Blacks were not poor because they were lazy and shiftless. They were poor because of a racist system that was designed to keep them poor. Men, women, and children went to church on Sunday because it was the only place to go to find comfort, to be reminded that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have ever lasting life.’ We were included in the ‘whosoever.’ No matter what unjust acts were committed against us doing the week, Sunday was coming and we would be renewed and restored to go on. 

While Alberta Cooley and her family enjoyed some privileges as a result of living in Hobson City, they were members of a larger world where segregation was the law. They could go to the counter at the café in Hobson City, order a sandwich, sit down and eat, but they could not do that in neighboring Oxford or Anniston at white-owned businesses. Hobson City had a park with a swimming pool, a baseball field, and a dance hall. Groups from miles around came to the town for fun and recreation and to be free.

Alberta was six or seven years old when the story of Emmett Till appeared in Jet magazine. The 14-year-old black youth from Chicago was killed in Money, Mississippi, while visiting relatives for the summer. He was accused of whistling at a white woman at the store her husband operated. In the magazine, the picture of his face beaten and shot beyond recognition was next to one of a handsome boy neatly dressed, wearing a nice hat, and looking like he was on his way to a becoming a successful black man. Alberta recalls, “Mothers and fathers passed the magazine around in the community, making sure that everyone—particularly young boys—saw what evil white men had done to this little boy. It served as a reminder of what could happen to their sons. In spite of what happened black people kept going to church and kept believing that God would punish those who murdered Emmett Till and others because they were black.”[8]

In an interview not long after his acquittal, one of the killers said, “I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. . . . ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”[9]

Alberta’s mother and others in the black community often used Bible examples and other stories passed down through generations to help them cope with the injustice and violence they experienced as a race. They used scriptures, songs, and stories to give them hope that God would take care of everything and that the men who committed atrocities would reap what they sowed. The older folks in Hobson City taught the children to not hate white people for how they mistreated them. They all knew some good white people, and they taught them that not all white people were bad.

When white men bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and four little girls attending Sunday school were killed, in September 1963, Alberta did not know what to believe about God:

The killings didn’t stop and the message from the community didn’t change. God will take care of it sooner or later. He is a good God. . . . I don’t believe there was anybody who was not scared, but we were not scared enough to quit. There was something about going to the mass meetings, participating in the marches, being afraid to go to the church and when getting there being afraid to come out, but I never got scared enough to quit. I didn’t want to die, but I knew that I could get killed.

Mrs. Irene Stinson, her P.E. teacher, told her one day, “Cooley, you can’t do that. White people will kill you.” The teacher was referring to an article Alberta had written for the Speak Out section of the Anniston Star. She was responding to a young white girl who had written an article about race mixing and how God did not want black people and white people together. She used black birds and red birds to make her point. 

In March 1965, Alberta participated in the final Selma-to-Montgomery march. 

A few months later, Willie Brewster, a black man, was killed while riding home at night with co-workers from his job at an Anniston foundry.[10] Earlier that Friday, a Rev. Lynch held a rally on the steps of the Calhoun County Court House urging whites to kill blacks. Alberta Cooley had gone to Butler Insurance Company, across the street from where the mob of men, women, and children had gathered to listen to Rev. Lynch. He preached from his Bible and used Scripture to support the killing of black men. Some in the crowd had Bibles. Alberta finished her business with the insurance company and went home.

The next morning, she got up and prayed a prayer that she will never forget. She was angry with God and had questions that only God could answer. Rev. Lynch had motivated some men to carry out the killing, and he had used the same Bible that Hobson City preachers and parents were using to teach their children to not hate and to not kill. Alberta remembers, “How were we to continue to be Christian and nonviolent with all that was happening to us and around us? Mama always said, ‘You just have to trust Him.’ A lot of things mama said made sense, but this didn’t make sense. She said, ‘You’ve got to have a strong constitution’ and ‘You have to know how to revive to survive.’”

Later, a conversation with her cousin led to a new understanding. Alberta writes, “I left Cousin Nancy’s that night knowing that it was alright for me to question God, disagree with some of the writers of the Bible, struggle with what I believe, and still be a Christian.” As a young woman, in 1970, Alberta was hired by the city of Anniston, becoming the first African American female hired for a non-custodial position. In more recent years, she earned a master of divinity degree and was ordained by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Today, she says, “I now understand people in the community when they would say with conviction, ‘You can’t make me doubt Him. I know too much about Him in my heart.’”

When I told a work colleague, at my college in Minnesota, that I would be moving to Alabama to accept a full-time, tenure-track teaching position, her face revealed that she was aghast.[11] Trying to find a bright side, she responded, “Alabama? Well, at least you’re white. I wouldn’t want to be black living there.” I could have told her—but did not—that this was 2008, not 1958. Or 1858. When I was in Alabama for my job interview, I did not see any lynchings or cross burnings. The blacks I met appeared to be fine. There did not seem to be fear or the need for an Underground Railroad. But old stereotypes hang around. 

After living in Alabama for several years, I had a somewhat nuanced understanding of race in the twenty-first century. It was not the bleak picture assumed by my colleague. Yet it was also not the “Those days are long gone” that I assumed at first glance. On the surface, race relations seemed good in Calhoun County, but I sensed considerable social isolation and stratification linked to race. It was not a seething cauldron of race hatred and fear. Most folks were polite to one another and most tried to follow the Golden Rule. 

On the other hand, it was not unusual for white folks to include things like, “We had a plumber come over the other day—he was a black man—and . . .” in their stories. Why note the race of the plumber? That seemed odd to me and an indication that while racism does not seem to be as strong, people remain quite race-conscious. Another example: a (white) greenhouse owner told me he was a Christian who loved everyone equally but wondered if I would be okay with the front lawn landscaper being a black man. Of course, that made no difference to me, but it must have made a difference for some customers or he would not have asked.

The Jacksonville Parks and Recreation Department kids’ tee-ball teams in the summer reflected the diversity of the city, but I noticed that the white parents and the black parents mostly kept to themselves. When my wife and I tried to spark a conversation with some of the black parents on our daughter’s team, there was a sense of coolness or closedness in response. We kept trying, the aloofness dissipated, and we became friends with a couple of the other moms.

When I asked Mayor McCrory about this recently, she responded, “Years ago, my friend Andrew Ridley told me that when I go somewhere and there are black people and white people to always sit with the white people even if I am uncomfortable. He said, ‘They are uncomfortable too, but that is the only way you are going to get to know them and change things.’” Referring to racism encountered by Ridley in his younger days at the University of Georgia and other places, McCrory says,

He went through a lot, but he was determined to stay focused on what he wanted to accomplish. There were times when I thought that he was too critical of black people when he would say that we weren’t doing enough for ourselves and relying too much on black leaders and assistance from the government to do for us what we could do for ourselves. However, he is one of the people who taught me how to make friends with white people and that not everything is about race. 

I loved the JSU classes I taught, partly because I had a variety of students together in the class. They got along and were not afraid to speak up during discussions. Nearly 30 percent of the students at the university were black. Our daughter’s public elementary school classes were fulfillments of Martin Luther King’s dream of “little black boys and black girls” in Alabama being able to “join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” At the same time, the existence of private schools and the growth of subdivisions in the county provided alternatives to the integrated public schools in the cities for white parents who did not want their kids being educated with black kids. Similarly, there was a private swimming hole off Highway 204 that served as a whites-only alternative to the integrated public pools.

Slavery—the practice itself and its lingering effects—can be thought of by using various analogies. All of them are negative. With emphasis on the immorality of the slave trade and chattel slavery, it can be called a great crime. As Jefferson, a man who shared in its guilt, wrote in the 1780s, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” It is a tragedy that touches all concerned, regardless of race and regardless of the level of ancestral involvement. It is a deep wound that is not always apparent but is always present, manifesting itself in a multitude of ways, large and small.


This essay aims to echo or update the classic book I’ll Take My Stand (1930). A group of intellectuals and writers associated with Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the Twelve Southerners were not necessarily waxing nostalgic for the Lost Cause in the form of the planter aristocracy or the Confederate States of America. Instead, at least some were reaching further back to a less-tainted source: the independent yeomanry of Jefferson. This is not to say that the Southern Agrarians favored racial equality. There was a common love of the land and its nurture, and of southern culture in general, but by the 1950s, at least one—Robert Penn Warren—publicly supported the Civil Rights Movement as a new manifestation of the old struggle against special privilege, while others were opposed. 

When it comes to the assumption of white supremacy, the book contains hints here and there. For instance, Donald Davidson decries the fact that the work of some contemporary southern writers was “tainted” by supposedly un-southern ideas. He mentions “studies of negro life” that were “palpably tinged with latter-day abolitionism.”[12] In my view, latter-day abolitionism in the South of the 1920s would be praiseworthy. What did Davidson prefer? Writing tinged with a latter-day defense of slavery? In the end, the enslavement of human beings is a practice that must be either rejected or embraced.

One of the twelve chapters is devoted to the Civil War and Reconstruction (Frank Lawrence Owsley) and one is devoted to the status of African Americans in the South (Robert Penn Warren). Owsley makes some valid points here—and his work in subsequent years on the recurrent struggle of Jefferson vs. Hamilton is on-the-mark—but the chapter is marred by a strident tone, racist assumptions, and historical inaccuracies. The policies of antebellum plantation slavocracy are cast in the best possible light and Reconstruction receives the opposite treatment. Gratuitous and ridiculous attacks on African Americans are found in two places of the chapter. 

Referring to the former slaves, Owsley writes that some of them “could still remember the taste of human flesh and the bulk of them [were] hardly three generations removed from cannibalism” and that “these half-savage blacks were armed.” According to Owsley, the freedmen, “led by carpetbaggers and scalawags,” pillaged the South while their ex-masters were disarmed and largely disfranchised and white people in general suffered “the ultimate humiliations.” The period of 1865 to 1880 is described as one of “plunder, rape, murder, and endless injustices” inflicted upon southern whites.[13] Overall, was this the actual milieu after the war? The actual experience of average blacks and average whites? Cruel blacks persecuting pitiful whites? No mention is made of the Black Codes, the sharecropping system, or the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist groups. The Jim Crow Era that followed Reconstruction also goes unmentioned by Owsley. The absence of these parts of the story is telling. 

Owsley is correct in arguing that sectional divisions and eventual civil war during the nineteenth century were not only about slavery. He is also correct about the pragmatism and cynicism of many Republican leaders in this regard.[14] Certainly there were cultural, economic, and political causes in addition to slavery. We know that President Lincoln, a conventional Hamiltonian, was, above all else, committed to preservation of the union, not emancipation of slaves. Was the Civil War primarily about slavery for the northern political and economic elite? No. But it was for their southern counterparts, for those in Dixie with power and money. 

The four southern states which publicly declared the causes of secession all identified opposition to their commitment to slavery as the main reason for leaving the union. As the Mississippi secession convention put it up front: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.” According to CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens, slavery—not states’ rights—was the cornerstone of the Confederacy. In his famous 1861 speech, he declared,

The prevailing ideas entertained by him [Thomas Jefferson] 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, and morally, and politically. . . . Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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 moral condition.[15] 

Thus, we have testimony from a key source that the Confederacy was based on racism and slavery, on the opposite of Jefferson’s thought.

Rather than laying responsibility for the existence of southern slavery on American ancestors, Owsley blames the British, writing, “Slavery had been practically forced upon the country by England—over the objection of colonial assemblies.” Presumably, however, affluent colonists could have refused to purchase slaves or emancipated slaves they may have inherited from their fathers. Most did not choose to do so. Why was freedom for the slaves not a wide-scale option? According to Owsley, it was no failure of will or morals on the part of the slaveowners. Instead, it was the fault of the slaves themselves: “Negroes had come into the Southern Colonies in such numbers that people feared for the integrity of the white race. For the negroes were cannibals and barbarians, and therefore dangerous. . . . Slaves were a peril, at least a risk, but free blacks were considered a menace too great to be hazarded.”[16]

Just as it was whites after the Civil War who were humiliated and stripped of their rights—without any commensurate hand-wringing about oppression of and injustice toward blacks during the three centuries before Reconstruction—it was the black slaves who were menacing, who struck fear, who were dangerous, who evoked terror, in Owsley’s account of history. It is a textbook case of blaming the victim. 

Unlike Owsley, Warren writes about the black race with nuance and even sympathy. Nonetheless, he later described his chapter as “a defense of segregation.” In the context of the middle years of Jim Crow, Warren acknowledges, “At present the negro frequently fails to get justice, and justice from the law is the least that he can demand for himself or others can demand for him. It will be a happy day for the South when no court discriminates in its dealings between the negro and the white man.”[17] 

Addressing social discrimination, Warren gives some real-life situations facing a professional, educated black man: “He has money in his pocket, but he is turned away from the white man’s restaurant. At the hotel he is denied the bed which he is ready to pay for. He likes music, but must be content with a poor seat at the concert—if he is fortunate enough to get one at all.” Getting at the heart of racial segregation, Warren asks, “Does he simply want to spend the night in a hotel as comfortable as the one from which he is turned away, or does he want to spend the night in that same hotel?” Believing in separate-but-equal, Warren finds the latter desire to be too idealistic. He concludes with the biblical paraphrase, “Let the negro sit beneath his own vine and fig tree.”[18] One senses good will from Warren and the horticultural references are an embrace of agrarianism, but the language of “his own” is a reminder that segregation is still being endorsed. It was a position he later repudiated.

Stark Young’s chapter in I’ll Take My Stand is masterfully written but seems to contain some longing for the plantation days of old. He states up front that neither he nor any intelligent person he knows in the South “desires a literal restoration of the old Southern life, even if that were possible.” He correctly argues that it is stupid to abandon worthwhile things (“flowers”) of one epoch when a new one arrives, but then goes on to refer to Southern civilization before Reconstruction as “the fine flower of men’s lives.” He does not specify the content of that civilization, but it would be difficult to extricate white supremacy, if not slavery itself, from the definition. This is especially true since he identifies the turning point at which the course of Southern civilization was halted as “those conventions of 1867 by which the negro suffrage in the South” was planned.[19]

Undoubtedly, Southern civilization was a fine flower of some men’s lives before the mid 1860s, but its beauty and fragrance were selectively accessible. The flower was not available to the mass of blacks or whites. Young’s glorification of the aristocratic seems to sanctify the Old South in a manner that is unjustified. Among aristocratic traits that he cites with approval are “certain ideas of personal honor” and “the possession of no little leisure.” Obviously, personal integrity is commendable, but “personal honor” can also be pride (the original sin), which can lead to self-delusion and self-satisfaction. There is nothing commendable or Christian about that. A great amount of leisure time worked well for those whose large estates were maintained by the sweat of other men’s labor, but it was a luxury far removed from most southerners, regardless of race. Young pits his preference for the southern aristocratic lifestyle against alternatives, including “manufacturers and their henchmen and their semi-slaves.” But was the system of slaveowners and their henchmen and their actual-slaves really better? No matter how many times the evils of northern industrial/financial life are cited, two wrongs still do not make a right.[20]

To his credit, Young has an irenic spirit regarding other regions and races, noting that plenty of people in New England “wish to preserve certain elements [of American life] on the same grounds that we do, and often more coherently and more intelligently,” and that many Jews “share our Southern family instinct.” He calls such comparisons “too obvious to dwell on, as is the fact that there are gentle things, of course, that gentle people everywhere believe.” Unfortunately, they are not obvious to some white southern intellectuals who glorify the traditions of their region—and hate on New England—as though the (white) South were God’s gift to the earth in a unique and redemptive way. Young has a more realistic perspective: “We must remember that we are concerned first with a quality itself, not as our own but as found anywhere; and that we defend certain qualities not because they belong to the South, but because the South belongs to them.”[21]


Any fair-minded person who has lived in the South knows that it is a wonderful place in many ways and its culture—white and black, much of it intermingled from the beginning—is not something to be despised. However, the evils of racism and hatred, injustice and violence, should never be minimized, even in defense of a beloved land or people. Today, some conservative intellectuals, of the traditional sort, are minimizers. They are nostalgic for the Old South, including plantation society and chattel slavery. These are learned and thoughtful men but they have a blind spot when it comes to social justice and racial equality. Like John C. Calhoun and George Fitzhugh, such intellectuals are fundamentally hostile toward equality and natural rights. This being the case, how can they logically object to slavery? In fact, they publicly argue that slavery is not unbiblical, immoral, or unnatural. Indebted to classical pagan thought as much or more than to Scripture, they set aside biblical and classical liberal notions of rights and equality in favor of an organic view of the state held by Plato and Aristotle.[22] 

An aristocrat and slavocrat, John Calhoun was not a democrat or libertarian.[23] In other words, he was not like Thomas Jefferson. In 1848, Calhoun specifically criticized Jefferson for holding “an utterly false view of the subordinate relation of the black to the white race in the South.” According to Calhoun, Jefferson’s proposition that all men are created equal contained “not a word of truth in it” and this great error eventually produced “poisonous fruits.” In complete contrast to Jefferson, Calhoun had contempt for the concept of natural rights. In Calhoun’s mind, liberty was something to be earned, not a blessing freely bestowed by God.[24] The nostalgia evoked by pro-Calhoun, pro-Confederacy intellectuals tends, by implication, to glorify the worst cultural traits of the aristocratic South: slavery, slothfulness, and self-satisfaction. 

In a recent documentary, a black film maker is respectful toward CSA nostalgia but expresses mystification that “a rogue government that existed for a few years can somehow be confused with the South.”[25] This is a good point. The story of a united, pro-slavery, pro-secession white southern culture is a neo-Confederate fantasy. One of the Twelve Southerners, Andrew Nelson Lytle, correctly draws a distinction between the “plain people” and the “planting aristocracy,” between the “yeoman farmer” and the “great landowner.” Even the the plantation class was not monolithic. Looking for more-Jeffersonian, less-Calhounian figures in the South during the nineteenth century, one can find Sarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké of South Carolina, and Robert Jefferson Breckinridge of Kentucky.[26] Another example is Senator Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO). And there is the Blair family of Kentucky and Missouri: Francis Preston “Frank” Blair Sr., Frank Blair Jr., Montgomery Blair, and B. Gratz Brown. Despite their status as wealthy southerners, all were anti-slavery or free-soil.

Glorification of the Confederacy during the 100 years after the Civil War created a false memory of the South for many whites. The culture of slavery and the war period were cast in romantic and inaccurate terms. Recent scholarly correctives for these myths include The Peculiar Democracy and Bitterly Divided. Such writings point out that the vast majority of whites in the South prior to 1861 were small, relatively poor farmers. They had little in common with the minority of aristocratic whites who owned slaves and pushed through secession.[27] A South Carolina legislator who helped engineer secession acknowledged that most southerners did not want to leave the Union. He argued, “But whoever waited for the common people when a great move was to be made—We must make the move and force them to follow.” In early 1862, President Davis— no friend of decentralized power—was frustrated by his inability to more fully control state governments and complained to General J.E. Johnston that his critics were “weak” men too concerned “with local and personal interests.”[28] In other words, with things like community, family, and liberty. 

Those who spoke most loudly of honor and patriotism—the large planters—were exempt from the CSA’s military draft. Some volunteered to be officers, but the bulk of the Confederate troops were poor whites, and a substantial number of such southerners volunteered for the Union. During the later years of the war, when hunger was a real problem, most planters continued to raise cotton and tobacco to benefit themselves rather than food to benefit the mass of people. As the war dragged on, desertion rates among Confederate soldiers grew high. One deserter, from Texas, later rejoined his cavalry unit, but was upset for decades thereafter when thinking of the Confederacy, “saying that the slaveholders stayed at home and let the poor whites fight their war for them.”[29]

Although the plantation elite of the South, in alliance with the capitalist elite of the North, dominated the region economically and politically prior to the Civil War, a majority of white southerners remained more loyal to the traditional tenets of Jefferson and Jackson. The populist stream in the South was wide even though it lacked power and a public voice. It would later provide support for the new People’s (Populist) Party and for the Jeffersonian revival of 1896-1912 in the Democratic Party under William Jennings Bryan. 

Populist politicians who represented non-wealthy white southerners—those often derided as “peckerwoods,” “crackers,” and “rednecks”—were among the core of Bryan’s political support during his three campaigns for the presidency. Unfortunately, Bryan Democrats such as Josephus Daniels of North Carolina, Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina, Thomas Watson of Georgia, Jeff Davis of Arkansas, James Vardaman of Mississippi, and, later, Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, were masters of “playing the race card” in the South. That is, they appealed to the racial bigotry of their supporters as one means of uniting voters behind candidacies that were in many other ways quite liberal or progressive. They were awful race-baiters, but they were also populists and anti-imperialists. 

Turning to the more-contemporary (yet still-Jim Crow) South, what does nostalgia for the aristocratic Confederacy have to do with the earthy populism of George Wallace or the honky-tonk music of Ray Price or Lefty Frizzell? Very little, in actuality, beyond a superficial linking of southerners of European descent. Today, the South retains widespread populism even as it suffers under a tradition of elitism. The traditionalistic political culture of the South encourages citizen passivity as power administration is delegated to elites.[30] Such passivity was often mandated by law during the Antebellum and Jim Crow periods for both poor blacks and poor whites. Hence, voter turnout and other indices of civic engagement are low, while political corruption and cronyism are high. Because the epicenter of the Religious Right is in the South, it is tinged with the politically-passive, deference-to-elites tradition of that region—which tends to dilute its populism and put undue faith in leaders. 

Naturally inclined as they were to remember old times in the land of cotton, many twentieth-century southern Democrats retained the decentralist, constitutionalist, and populist traditions of Jefferson and Jackson . . . and not merely as a pretext for bigotry and segregation (although there was obviously much of this present among such Democrats). Thus many southern Democrats resisted U.S. entry into World War I and growing social uniformity and engineering dictated by Washington, D.C. Over time, however, many leading southern Democrats were co-opted by the imperial city through seats at the table of power and military bases back home.

While more refined in their support for segregation and white supremacy than the crude, fire-eating populists of the South, most upper-class Bourbons were segregationists and white supremacists nonetheless. In some ways, the elite Bourbons were more reprehensible than the genuinely populist politicians because they were less sincere. They were willing to use a great social evil for their own purposes without even believing in the goodness of that evil. They were in a position of cosmopolitan enlightenment when it came to race, and they were not in a position of competition with southern blacks, yet they often cynically used racist fears to preserve their own power at home and in D.C.

Since the 1920s, most southern Democratic politicians in Washington have openly embraced the full range of political centralization through their alliance with the national Democratic Party establishment. Back home, populist governors such as William Murray (D-OK) and George Wallace (D-AL) were anomalies in southern politics. By the 1960s, the Democratic parties in the southern states were no longer principled opponents of big government—most of the opposition that was still in existence was highly selective and poisoned by racial prejudice.[31] In this way, the national party of Jefferson completely surrendered the principle of decentralization.

Despite the Republican Party’s post-New Deal professions of concern about overweening federal government power, southern Republican politicians have not typically done anything to significantly reduce that power. For the past century, the more typical southern politician has championed constitutional devolution of power in a very selective way—one designed to enhance the power of himself and his patrons. Lip service has often been paid to strict construction and states’ rights even though concentrated political power has been bolstered by centralized state administration, acceptance of the federal welfare state, embrace of the New York-based financial/commercial system, and support for armed internationalism. 

Over the decades, the deep-rooted militarism of the South has displaced other, more beneficial tendencies of the region. Populism, common sense, and belief in small government have been set aside in too many cases. This displacement has led to southern support for a belligerent, imperial foreign policy. The gradual shift in emphasis from national defense to international aggression is illustrated by the differences between two Democratic natives of Georgia: Senator Tom Watson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The crucial distinction between nationalism and internationalism, between defense and empire, was almost entirely forgotten by the South, or at least by its representatives in Washington, by the late 1930s.[32] 

Alabama used to be known as the Cotton State, but cotton production is not what it used to be. There is still a considerable amount grown in the southern part of the state, but I only saw two small cotton fields in my neck of the woods. In 2011, we moved from Alabama to the Tall Corn State of Iowa. Once we settled into our Sioux Center home, we noticed one vestige we brought with us from the land of Cracker Barrels and Waffle Houses, of mockingbirds and magnolia trees: our little son still had a southern accent on certain words (e.g., cay-at for cat, Cay-er Bay-er for Care Bear). Eventually, his slight accent disappeared, but his birthplace will always be Birmingham.

On our final morning at First Presbyterian of Jacksonville, the church held a farewell reception for us after the service. As we were going through the reception line and our friends were telling us goodbye, Dorothy Jane had one thing to say to me. It was not “Goodbye” or “God bless.” It was not “We will miss you” or “We wish you the best.” Dorothy Jane took my hand in hers. “Say nice things about us—about the South, about Alabama.” She paused as I smiled and nodded. She added, “The rest of the country already knows all of the negative things.” This was the dignified plea of the South at its best. A South of white and black, rich and poor, young and old.

Note of Acknowledgment: The portion of this chapter dealing with the life of Alberta Cooley McCrory is largely a paraphrase of her own words, changing first-person to third-person. Portions of this essay were adapted from the author’s book Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism © Lexington Books, 2013. Used by arrangement with the publisher. 

Header Image via PxHere.


[1] For a survey of agrarianism in general, see chapter 2 of Politics on a Human Scale (“The Country Party”). Jeff Taylor, Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2013), 17-53.

[2] Daniel J. Elazar, American Federalism: A View From the States (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966); Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, c1930, 1977).

[3] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, c1979, 1991), xvii; C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, c1949, 1980), 6, 7.

[4] My Taylor ancestors spent years in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, before emigrating to the Midwest and ending up in Iowa.  This heritage gave my paternal forebears a southern tinge.  The two ancestors of mine who were in uniform during the 1860s both wore Federal blue.  Joseph Edward Crowder of Illinois was with the Union despite having been born in Bedford County, Virginia. 

[5] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Added Bonus: Irregardless of What You Think, ‘Conversate’ is a Word, “ The Atlantic, January 7, 2009, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2009/01/added-bonus-irregardless-of-what-you-think-quot-conversate-quot-is-a-word/6549; “Ax-Ask,” The Mavens’ Word of the Day, December 16, 1999, http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19991216.  In 1930, Andrew Nelson Lytle noted that the (white) small farmer in the South was subject to propaganda telling him that his ancestors “were illiterate because their speech was Old English.” Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand, 242.

[6] While the majority of ethnic minority in the South are African Americans, there is different diversity in the southern corners of the region.  You find Hispanic population predominantly in south Florida (Cuban) and south Texas (Mexican).  A smaller number of American Indians live not only in the former Indian Territory of Oklahoma but a smattering in other places where the Catawba, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Comanche, Shawnee, Osage, Tuscarora, and Seminole nations once flourished.

[7] Reporting Civil Rights: Part One, American Journalism, 1941-1963 (New York: The Library of America, 2003), 110.

[8] If the reader objects to McCrory’s description of the 14-year-old Till as a “little boy,” it is useful to know that at the time (1955), John Cothran, a white deputy sheriff for Leflore County, Mississippi, told a reporter, “The white people around here feel pretty mad about the way that poor little boy was treated, and they won’t stand for this.”  Yet they—or at least their peers in the neighboring county—did stand for this.  A few weeks later, an all-white jury acquitted the two defendants of murder.  Two months later, a grand jury refused to indict the two for kidnapping.  Cothran quote: Stephen J. Whitfield, A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, c1988, 1991), 25-26.

[9] William Bradford Huie, “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” Look, January 1956.

[10] Anniston was the site of the fire-bombing of a Greyhound bus carrying Freedom Riders on Mother’s Day, 1961.  The white mob attempted to murder those initially trapped within and later trying to flee from the burning bus.  Some of the would-be killers were dressed in their church clothes.  The Calhoun County trial of the man arrested for murdering Brewster was historic.  The killer was convicted by an all-white jury, marking the first instance in Alabama of a white being convicted of killing a black during the Civil Rights Era.

[11] Herman Clarence Nixon, historian and political scientist, was one of the Twelve Southerners who contributed to I’ll Take My Stand.  Nixon was born in a small town in Calhoun County, Alabama, north of Jacksonville.  Among other institutions, he was educated at Jacksonville State Normal School (teacher’s college) and began teaching at Jacksonville State in 1910.  One hundred years later, I was teaching the same subjects at Jacksonville State (2010). 

[12] Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand, 58, 59.

[13] Ibid., 62, 63, 64.

[14] Ibid., 68-76.

[15] William T.S. Barry, comp., Journal of the State Convention (Jackson, Miss.: E. Barksdale, 1861), 86; Carol Moseley-Braun, “Statement on the Extension of the Patent of the Insignia of the United Daughters of the Confederacy,” Vital Issues IV, 1&2 (1994): 24.

[16] Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand, 77.

[17] Ibid., xxvii, 252.

[18] Ibid., 253-54, 264. (Micah 4:4)

[19] Ibid., 328.

[20] Ibid., 350.

[21] Ibid., 336. For a look at the contemporary southern culture movement, from a northern decentralist perspective, see: Bill Kauffman, Bye Bye Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and their Underdog Crusades to Redraw American’s Political Map (White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010), xxiii-xxv, 184-216.

[22] For more on Calhoun and Fitzhugh, see: Taylor, Politics on a Human Scale, 63-67. For a Reformed Christian perspective on equality and rights, see: Roy A. Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories, rev. ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 314-16; Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008). Following Calhoun, CSA President Jefferson Davis “rejected the individualistic heritage of Jefferson and Jackson for an ideal of an organic slaveholding community.” – Wallace Hettle, The Peculiar Democracy: Southern Democrats in Peace and War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 164.

[23] Slavocracy is rule by slaveowners. As can be seen in the secession declarations of causes, slavocrats sacrificed every other aspect of southern culture on the altar of slavery. Andrew Nelson Lytle refers to Calhoun’s ideal as “Feudal Aristocracy.” – Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand, 210.

[24] Harry V. Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 212, 407-9, 206, 429, 221, 412-19; Kenneth M. Dolbeare and Michael S. Cummings, American Political Thought, 6th ed. (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2010), 254 (from Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government). 

[25] Shukree Hassan Tilghman, “More Than a Month,” Independent Lens, PBS, February 19, 2012.

[26] Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand, 208, 209; Catherine H. Birney, The Grimké Sisters: Sarah and Angelina Grimké: The First American Women Advocates of Abolition and Woman’s Rights (New York: Haskell House, c1885, 1970). 

[27] Hettle, Peculiar Democracy; David Williams, Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War (New York: New Press, 2008); William H. Skaggs, The Southern Oligarchy: An Appeal in Behalf of the Silent Masses of Our Country Against the Despotic Rule of the Few (New York: Negro Universities Press, c1924, 1969), 403-04; George Marion O’Donnell, “Looking Down the Cotton Row” in: Herbert Agar and Allen Tate, eds., Who Owns America?: A New Declaration of Independence (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, c1936, 1999), 219-22; Eugene D. Genovese, “Yeoman Farmers in a Slaveholders’ Democracy,” Agricultural History 49 (1975): 331-42.

[28] Williams, Bitterly Divided, 10; Hettle, Peculiar Democracy, 158.

[29] Williams, Bitterly Divided, 244.

[30] Elazar, American Federalism.

[31] For the story of how southern Democratic officeholders quietly helped to change the racial status quo in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, see: Glen Browder with Artemesia Stanberry, Stealth Reconstruction: An Untold Story of Racial Politics in Recent Southern History (Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 2010).

[32] For a detailed examination of southern political history, see chapter 5 of Politics on a Human Scale (“Southern Democrats and Selective Devolutions”). 

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  1. Well, bless his heart, I surely am glad to have this Iowa boy explain the South to me. And with footnotes, no less.

    A buddy of mine, when told of a local farmer working his pastures with mules, pressed me for an address and phone number. “Why?” I asked. “I want to bring my sociology class to observe”, he said. I declined.

    Unfortunately, one can spend a week driving from Maryland to Florida and never meet a native-born Southerner. But at least we have the academic class collecting oral gems polished into a mirror to reflect back to us what we once were. Guiding us correctly through the mists of heritage is also a real bonus.

    Never turn back, even if a cliff rapidly approaches.

    And I’m kidding, yet sadly I’m not.

    • I was born in the Midwest. Part of that was spent in Iowa, some of my most formative years. But then my family moved to North Carolina and I spent several summers in North Carolina. So, about half of my youth was in the North and half in the South. It’s given me a strong sense of contrast and further strengthened my sense of being a Midwesterner.

      I never could shake my early Midwestern upbringing. The South never felt like home to me and I moved back to Iowa in my 20s. There really is a stark cultural contrast. Funny enough, as this article talks about agrarianism, I spent most of my time in the South in a big city, Columbia, SC. Whereas, here in Iowa, only blocks away from my home there are cornfields.

      • Benjamin,
        I’m a fan of the rural Midwest. In my career in the book mines, I traveled extensively throughout the region. It does still have a rural heart that beats and some of the best people to be found in this land. In those travels I always stayed in small towns and took the backroads to my destinations. I think Jeff’s piece found me in a weary mood. The South has long been the whipping boy, and backhanded compliments like this essay contains leave me more than a bit whopperjawed as to how to respond…if at all. Kind of makes one wish that both the interstate system and air conditioning had never been built or invented.

  2. Very nice set of reflections, but length inevitably leads to sloppiness:
    “the point of language is communication (not rule-keeping)”

    Well, how exactly are they opposed? If you try to speak to someone who does NOT share your dialect, then standardization is VERY useful for communication. Otherwise, one accent drifting in a direction different from the other is going to impede communication. A flexible ear is beneficial, but a lazy tongue is not.

    Americans studying Spanish, French, or other foreign languages DO want to be corrected in their grammar. So why should the study of English be immune to correction? It certainly isn’t a free-for-all when someone in Japan or another non-western country wants to learn the socalled global language so that he/she can communicate across many cultures.

    The fact that rules change, or can be found to have flip-flopped over the centuries, does not prove they are meaningless. Gratuitous opinions tossed in offhand without evidence are the bane of lengthy essays.

  3. I was reading the first part of the article with unusual delight. Of course it seems far nicer, sweeter, gentler for that 60 year old man to say “yes Ma’am” to a 6 year old than to just say “yes.” I’m from New Orleans so my accent is a different from all the Texans I live around now. But I used to say “aks” when I was a little girl. So did all my friends. So, like I said, I was enjoying the article immensely and thinking I have to read some of this to my husband. Then the bludgeon fell. The writer couldn’t be content to say he learned something good and true from his new southern neighbors. He had to step in to correct what he does not understand.
    Well we, here in that southern homeland, know that John C Calhoun was a great statesman and that the southern agrarians had something important and good and right (and quite prophetic) to tell us.
    I have to admit, I couldn’t finish the article.


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