Time for Some Truth and Backbone

Robert L. Dabney
Robert L. Dabney

There seems to be a new full-court press in big media, education, and government to demonize Southern history and culture. It has even become difficult to find a study copy of the Confederate Constitution on the internet without shoveling through dozens of articles recently written to discredit it and anything not conforming to increasingly vicious anti-Southern narratives of the war. This new intolerant viciousness serves neither truth nor peace and insults common sense and wisdom.

The government and progressive media narrative of the Civil War focuses on one issue—slavery—turning the war into a morality play about freeing Southern slaves. No knowledgeable and politically uncorrupted scholar can endorse such a politicized and distorted simplification of history. Yet that is the prevailing and often compulsory public understanding of the “cause” of the war. Slavery was an important secondary issue, but it was not primarily driven by a moral rejection of the institution by most Northern political leaders or their constituents.

Southern States seceded for various reasons. Reconciling various slavery issues was vitally important to some but less important to others.  Moreover, there had been 40 years of Congressional tariff wars that led Southern leaders to believe that dominant Northern political and commercial interests could not be trusted to consider or defend Southern economic interests  Hence as a minority,  Southerners were very sensitive to Northern attempts to consolidate Federal power at the expense of States Rights.  Four states seceded to rebuke Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops to invade the South. Northern desperation to preserve tariff revenues and prevent Southern secession and free trade created huge political and economic tensions.  Southern secession and low tariffs would have destroyed Northern shipping and industrial commerce and wiped out 80 percent of Northern tax revenue. When Southerners talked about States’ Rights, they referred to enormous bread and butter economic issues and fear of Northern economic and political tyranny. 

Before and during the war, many Southerners referred to “Sectionalism” as the cause of the war. This simply meant that the Northern sectional majority in Congress consistently voted for what was good for the North rather than the overall good of the country. In fact, they pursued a course of  uneven-handed economic tyranny that caused extreme economic hardship in the South. Ironically, this sectionalist tyranny of high tariffs paid by the South and business subsidies benefiting the North was called “The American System of Economics.” It was really a big business-big government scheme, which is a common form of phony capitalism. What is needed is competitive economic freedom.   

Two days before Lincoln’s election in November of 1860, an editorial in the Charleston Mercury summed up the feeling of South Carolina on the impending national crisis:

“The real causes of dissatisfaction in the South with the North, are in the unjust taxation and expenditure of the taxes by the Government of the United States, and in the revolution the North  has effected in this government, from a confederated republic to a national sectional despotism.”

Writing in December of 1861 in a London weekly publication, the famous English author, Charles Dickens, who was a strong opponent of slavery, said these things about the war going on in America:

“The Northern onslaught upon slavery is no more than a piece of specious humbug disguised to conceal its desire for economic control of the United States.”

Henry Carey, Lincoln’s Chief Economist, wrote to House Speaker Schuyler Colfax in March 1865 that the underlying  cause of the war was “British Free-Trade,” in other words, high-tariff protectionism for Northern industry verses the South’s desire for free trade, benefiting cotton and other agricultural exports to Europe.  

The Civil War ended in April 1865, but the Northern dominated Congress continued to inflict high tariffs on Southern imports for 50 years, keeping the South in grinding poverty until Woodrow Wilson moved Congress to enact lower tariffs in 1912. 

President Woodrow Wilson, in his multi-volume History of the American People, offered this explanation as to why the issue of slavery was so exaggerated during and after the war:

“It was necessary to put the South at a moral disadvantage by transforming the contest from a war waged against states fighting for their independence into a war waged against states fighting for the maintenance and extension of slavery.”

It is time we stood our ground for the sake of truth, honor, and our children and grandchildren,

On June 15, 1882, the Reverend Robert L. Dabney delivered a discourse at the Annual Commencement of Hampden Sidney College in Virginia, entitled, “The New South.”  Dabney was a Presbyterian theologian, seminary teacher, pastor, and author of numerous and diverse works on theology, philosophy, ethics, history, and political economy.  Although frequently quoted by scholars, historians and theologians, he is unfortunately little known today by the general public.  He was, however, among the most prominent men of his era.  His service in the Confederate Army as a Chaplain and for a time as Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff was by no means the limit of his great accomplishments.  He was a scholar and social commentator of enormous breadth and penetrating insight.  Much of Dabney’s writing is as relevant today as it was in the late 19th century.  While he is long dead, he yet speaks with near prophetic clarity on issues facing the nation and especially the South today.  His words are particularly relevant to the present discussion of the heritage and future of the South.  In our own time as in his, Southern Heritage is being constantly battered by politically correct propaganda.  Today as never before, there are powerful organizations and ambitious power seekers who butter their political and economic bread by purveying historical ignorance and misinformation as a form of public virtue-signaling.  Politicians, educators, businesses, churches, and whole states are bullied and blackmailed into accepting outrageous distortions of history. We suffer a time of too little knowledge and too little courage.  Our own generations would do well to heed Dabney’s passionate and fiery exhortation on that day in 1882, a few paragraphs of which are here quoted:

 “It behooves the New South, in dismissing the animosities of the past, to see to it that they retain all that was true in its principles or ennobling in its example.  There are those pretending to belong to this company who exclaim: ‘Let us bury the dead past.  Its issues are all antiquated, and of no more practical significance.  Let us forget the passions of the past.  We are in a new world.  Its new questions alone concern us.’  I rejoin:  Be sure that the former issues are dead before you really bury them!  There are issues that cannot die without the death of the people, of their honor, their civilization and their greatness.  Take care that you do not bury too much, while burying the dead past:  that you do not bury the inspiring memories of great patriots, whose actions, whether successful or not, are the eternal glory of your race and section; the influence of their virtues, the guiding precedents of their histories.  Will you bury the names and memories of a Jackson and Lee, and their noble army of martyrs?  Will you bury true history whose years are those of the God of Truth?”

“There is one point on which you insist too little, which is vital to the young citizens of the South.  This is, that he shall not allow the dominant party to teach him a perverted history of the past contests.  This is a mistake of which you are in imminent peril. With all the astute activity of their race, our conquerors strain every nerve to pre-occupy the ears of all America with the false version of affairs, which suits the purposes of their usurpation.  With a gigantic sweep of mendacity, this literature aims to falsify or misrepresent everything; the very facts of history, the principles of the former Constitution as admitted in the days of freedom by all statesmen of all parties; the very essential names of rights and virtues and vices.  The whole sway of their commercial and political ascendancy is exerted to fill the South with this false literature.  Its sheets come up, like the frogs of Egypt, into our houses, our bed chambers, our very kneading troughs.  Now, against this deluge of perversions I solemnly warn young men of the South, not for our sakes, but for their own.  Even if the memory of the defeated had no rights; if historical truth had no prerogatives; if it were the same to you that the sires whose blood fills your veins, and whose names you bear, be written down as traitors by the pen of slanderous history, still it is essential to your own future that you shall learn the history of the past truly.”

Today as equaled only in the days of Reconstruction, there are those who would bury truth and honor to gain peace and prosperity.  The perversion of history that Dabney warned of in 1882 prevails as never before in our media, our educational institutions, the halls of government, in the giant business corporations with their vast economic power, and even in many of our churches.  It is time we resurrected Dabney’s words and with them the courage to insist that our children and future generations learn history free of outrageous distortion and propaganda, that they learn the history of the past fully and truly.

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