This sprawling and densely written 400-page study of Southern political thought, from Old Republicans John Taylor of Caroline and John Randolph of Roanoke down to Whig social theorists (and humorists) John Glover Baldwin and Johnson Jones Hooper—with wedged-in discussions of such other Southern luminaries as Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, St. George Tucker, William Gilmore Simms, and John C. Calhoun—is truly an encyclopedic work.  The fact that it was carried out by a young man without a promising academic post strikes me almost as dramatically as the author’s accomplishments.  Tate has moved, since he completed this text, from one not often heard of institution in Morrow, Georgia, to Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  His rank (alas) remains that of assistant professor.  Tate’s present employer is a black Presbyterian college, originally established to educate former slaves.

I mention these biographical details because they illustrate a problem that cries out for a solution.  Young Professor Tate has produced a study in intellectual history and in the history of political theory that 99.9 percent of those in his field, even those ensconced at elite universities, could never equal.  Tate, who links his subjects to European political thought, Christian theology, and philosophy with ease and learning, can expect to earn only a small proportion of what these political intellectuals command.  And as a presumptive conservative admirer of antebellum Southern thinkers, as can be inferred from his choice and treatment of his subjects, Tate may not have much in the way of a professional career ahead of him.

These points occurred to me while I was watching the Harvard faculty express, on TV, their collective rage at their liberal Democratic president, Larry Summers, for suggesting that there may be significant cognitive differences between the sexes.  By now, Summers has groveled before fuming feminists and their girly-boy allies multiple times for having said something that is self-evident but incorrect, politically speaking.  Would the chance to work somewhere like Harvard, among the banshees and weirdos who are reaming Summers, represent a goal for which Tate should strive?  I don’t know the answer.  It seems to me, however, that someone who writes a book such as this one, in what must have been straitened circumstances, deserves the means to develop his scholarly bent.

An original quality of this study is the attempt to relate its subjects to a wide variety of philosophies and movements that went beyond the Southern states.  While Tate stresses the thematic importance of the speech that John Randolph delivered as a congressman in December 1811, in which the speaker linked states’ rights and slavery in the context of opposition to an impending declaration of war on England, this linkage was not yet clear in the minds of most Southerners.  Southern politicians, like the young Calhoun, eagerly supported the War of 1812, and many Southerners still believed that slavery would eventually vanish on its own.  In the 1850’s, as the South drew closer to secession, Southern nationalism was not a uniformly accepted position among white Southerners.  Many Southerners, while viewing themselves as different from Northerners culturally and socio-economically, persisted in defining their difference in terms of loyalty to Old Republican virtues, which were associated with yeoman farmers.  There was also a peculiarity in Southern conservatism that still puzzles me but which Tate treats as basic to its character: Southerners were Burkeans when it came to society and Lockeans when they were talking about the state.  Although a contradiction would appear to exist between these two positions, antebellum Southerners, who spent decades staving off federal tariffs and other forms of interference from a centralized state, found no inconsistency here.

A point that Tate addresses frontally in his conclusion is whether the South represented a “monolithic conservative tradition.”  Deferring to M.E. Bradford, Clyde Wilson, and Eugene Genovese, he argues that its dominant political tradition, as it developed in the early 19th century, is identifiably conservative.  The South saw itself increasingly as an organic deferential society in which slavery, as Genovese observes, created an economic counterpoint to a capitalist economy based on individual gratification.  But what rendered the philosophical foundations of this society less than monolithic were the heterogeneous forces that had to coexist within it, from the sporadic growth of an industrial economy to religious skepticism to Lockean and Jeffersonian individualism.  What Tate leaves us with is a far more (pardon the term!) diverse antebellum South than some historians have recognized; he demonstrates how this diversity of views and interests intersected with what has been defined as Southern conservatism.

Tate notes, near the end of his book, the interpretive emphases of three historians—Wilson, Bradford, and Genovese—who tried to define Southern conservatism and to explain what made this persuasion a formative influence on the antebellum South.  This, in my opinion, is the most absorbing part of the work and may deserve a volume in its own right.  For Wilson and Bradford, what gave the South its organic traditions was already present in its revolt against British rule and intertwined with the attempt to preserve a landowning society built around kin relations and inherited duty.  The South did not rebel primarily to reclaim  universal rights but to protect local rule and to keep its land free of the depredations of British mercenaries.  Once free, Southerners gravitated almost inevitably toward a states’-rights position in order to keep at bay the central regime.  Although Southern politicians could be found within the Federalist and Whig camps, they, for the most part, resisted the enlargement of the federal state and of its powers.  Tate notices that, when Bradford talks about Southern conservatism, he “seems to be saying that he will define the southern conservative tradition and exclude from it those he deems not really conservative.”  Such an approach, Tate opines, may “be legitimate for political purposes” but less so for “historical inquiry.”

Although all three historians of Southern conservatism are equally worthy of respect, Tate is correct to notice the methodological merits of Genovese’s approach to his subject.  In his interpretively rich Introduction to The Southern Tradition, and (I would add) in works written while he was still a sui generis Marxist, Genovese examines incisively the commonalities of antebellum Southern life.  Particularly in Calhoun, he finds the quintessentially “conservative southern tradition in terms of his constitutional arguments, social vision, and political strategy.”  But while Genovese certainly does not argue that this tradition developed “only because of slavery,” he does strongly suggest that the peculiar institution provided the foundation stone on which much that was Southern was built.  The culture of manners, the oft-exaggerated chivalry, and the planter society that nurtured the characteristically Southern behavioral models were connected to a slave economy; and, though elements of the older society persisted down through the 20th century—beyond “troubled race relations,” as Tate and Genovese point out—they were the by-products of their earlier socioeconomic context.  The Southern Calvinist theology, which Genovese has examined at length, took on a neomedieval organic aspect, as it was adapted to the pre-capitalist, planter-led antebellum South.  The persistence of serfdom and manorialism on the American continent imposed the necessity of creating a conservative worldview as an alternative to capitalist individualist modernity.

To his credit, Genovese never dodges the issue of the centrality of slavery in the formation of Southern conservatism.  Unlike those tedious moralists Kenneth Stampp, Eric Foner, and Harry Jaffa, however, he does not harp on that peculiar institution to beat up on the South or to justify continuing reconstructions.  What Genovese shows is the function of a felix culpa, the ways in which the fall into a morally dubious situation instilled and buttressed attitudes and relations that an older America once admired.  Needless to say, that now-faded America existed before asocial, individual gratification and the insatiable quest for equality became our highest (or only) concerns.


[Conservatism and Southern Intellectuals, 1789-1861: Liberty and the Good Society, by Adam L. Tate (Columbia: University of Missouri Press) 402 pp., $49.95]