The story of the South is one for the ages. It is the story of elegance and tradition trampled upon by ‘progress.’ It is the story of an agricultural economy uprooted by northern industrialism. It is the story of a cultural and political rollercoaster. For our purposes, I will focus on the latter – the political evolution of the Southern electorate.
Southern culture, at its core, has always been ruled by conservative instincts. Historian Russell Kirk documents the height of the conservative intellectual experience in one chapter of The Conservative Mind. Kirk demonstrates the vibrant conservative attitudes held by southern culture through the dynamic personalities of John Randolph and John C. Calhoun –“the Virginian orator and the Carolinian prophet” (pg. 159).
It was John Randolph who famously declared, “I am an aristocrat: I love liberty, I hate equality” at the 1829 Virginia Constitutional Convention (130). For this statement, Randolph can be considered a visionary. He foresaw, even in the days of the early republic, that people were too easily swayed into socialist schemes of social leveling. He believed that government was quickly becoming an instrument of the Left to manufacture economic and social “equality” at the expense of others’ political liberty.
For this reason, he was perhaps the fiercest opponent of positive law which he thought would lead to democratic despotism. Randolph opposed using government as a tool to create an impossible utopian society. In fact, Randolph believed that it would be perfectly fine if government went ten years without writing a new law (137). He espoused the idea that prescriptive right, common law, and custom should be enough to govern the daily affairs of men. Randolph’s esteem for the individual, his philosophy of limited government, and his traditional values make him a hero to southern patriots.
Likewise, John C. Calhoun was a great conservative thinker. Calhoun’s area of expertise was defending states’ rights. And while Calhoun (and many other conservatives) errantly used this sound principle as justification for slavery, the concept itself is worthy of attention and should not be carelessly neglected. The fight for states’ rights went far beyond the issue of slavery and extended to the realm of economic oppression by northern industrialists. The “Tariff of Abominations” imposed by a northern majority in Congress in 1824 clearly sought to have the South subsidize northern industry. Calhoun and other southern conservatives could not stand for this. While he first dabbled in theories of nullification to circumvent the tariff (which he later renounced as unconstitutional “nonsense”), Calhoun later came to write A Disquisition on Government, a comprehensive political discourse on the nature of government in which he spends ample time defending the political rights of minorities. Calhoun’s contribution to conservative thought is incalculable, and his dedication to states’ rights endures to this day.
Yet, as the novel and the movie suggest, the Fall of the Old South and all its intellectual and cultural grandeur came in the blink of an eye – Gone with the wind. “Grant and Sherman ground their valor into powder, Emancipation and Reconstruction demolished the loose structure of their old society, economic subjugation crushed them into the productive machine of modern times. No political philosophy has had a briefer span of triumph than that accorded Randolph’s and Calhoun’s,” Kirk says (160).
Since the Civil War, the South has been struggling to redefine its identity. They never fully recovered economically and thus, they were sent on a philosophical wild goose chase. Poor farmers were caught up in populist waves of discontent dabbled with progressive notions of wealth redistribution in the late 1800’s. This marks the beginning of the South’s allegiance with the modern Democratic Party. This political alliance was rapidly accelerated during the Depression under the administration of FDR who did more to buy the votes of the economically impoverished South than any other president in history.
This is the Democratic Party that my family remembers. The Party of FDR.
I am a proud southerner – born and raised in the heart of middle Tennessee. My family traces its roots all the way back to the 1700s when Thomas Groves (b. 1754) landed on the shores of Old Virginia in the year 1773. For generations, members of my family have been loyal Democrats. My great-grandmother (still living at 93) grew up during the Great Depression. One of my now deceased great grandfathers worked for the TVA (a government program created by FDR). Both of them are life-long Democrats. The Democratic Party they knew was the party that helped the little guy (albeit through unconstitutional power grabs by the government).
So what changed? The parties or the people? The Democratic and Republican parties did not just miraculously “switch” as some historians have explained, nor did the people suddenly reject their principles. Rather, after a decade of 1960’s radicals, who promoted the Cultural Revolution and after the failure of the Carter administration, the South was swept away in the 1980 Reagan Revolution. Yes, the Democratic Party changed, but so did southerners.
Now the conservative impulses endowed to us by our southern ancestors are beginning to resurface: an assertive individualism, economic independence, a love of local liberties, and affection for traditional values. The Old South will never rise again. However, as the South continues to reshape and redefine its identity, let us pray that we can resurrect the passions and intellectual fortitude of those conservative giants who went before us.