“Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?”
No idea is more central to the American political tradition than that of limited government. As a nation we began with our commitment to the liberty of commonwealths, of communities, and of citizens. When we collectively rejected the remote, arbitrary, and potentially hostile power that, in its “benevolence,” claimed a right to govern us “in all cases whatsoever,” we chose the advantages of local and provincial self-government over those of anything more than a minimum of collective security. And, in the process, we rejected the notion of a self-admiring, ambitious, general (or national) authority, able to supervise, for “our own good,” both our public and private lives. Yet, say the friends of government, such an engine may be instrumental in realizing seemingly worthwhile objectives—goals not to be achieved in a large and various Republic without submission to some absolute authority. Thus the impulse to create such an engine has among Americans always represented a species of “noble temptation,” appearing usually in the subset of our inherited politics connected with the Puritan/Federalist/Republican minority of our public men: of those willing to set the liberty of citizens aside if there are “lofty reasons” for the sacrifice. Even though in 1776, and then again in 1787-1788, we rejected such meliorist concentrations of power and resources as potentially tyrannical, what we had learned in the Revolution, we (following this minority) swiftly forgot in hearing too much about making the nation “all one thing or all the other.” And then, in the subsequent stages of statism following the 1865 triumph of Union, we left that lesson further and further behind, until international adventurism, industrialism, and collective vainglory brought us finally, in 1933, to the instrumental state.
Interrupting this dismal record of a heritage slowly (and by regular stages) betrayed, when the declension had reached its nadir, the Nashville Agrarians appeared. The witness in behalf of the traditional regional regime rendered by these 12 Southerners commenced in 1930 with their manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, and, for all intents and purposes, had its summary and concluding statement in Donald Davidson’s The Attack on Leviathan: Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States, first published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1938. Richard Weaver rightly described this book as “the clearest and most courageous of the Agrarian documents.” However, there could scarcely have been a more inauspicious moment for recommending resistance to centralizing power than the middle of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second term as President. Yet, even though his publisher abused the book, the man met the moment. For there was never a political thinker more indifferent to what notions were, in his day, fashionable in New York, Boston, and the colleges of the Ivy League than Professor Donald Davidson of Vanderbilt University: no student of American cultural history so absolutely unaffected by the anomaly of his situation as one of the few conservative voices to be heard in his country. Dr. Russell Kirk of Michigan, the Sage of Mecosta who is a perfect Northern counterpart of this most resolute Southern Agrarian, has written a splendid introduction to this reissue of his old friend’s book—in this edition with the parts of its title reversed for the sake of clarity. Kirk speaks of Davidson as the “stalwart defender of America’s permanent things during an era of radical change,” which is true both of the general impact of Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States and of the book’s specific components.
No writer is more Southern than Donald Davidson. Yet what he teaches in this book is a truth for all the sections of our country. “There are,” he writes, “unreconstructed Yankees, too, and other unreconstructed Americans of all imaginable sorts, everywhere engaged in preserving their local originality and independence.” One of the best of these essays comes directly out of his almost forty summers at Bread Loaf in Vermont, where he taught frequently in the Bread Loaf School of English. “Still Rebels, Still Yankees” is an affectionate evocation of the original basis of American variety, the difference between the South and New England that goes back to the beginning, and of the need for preserving it. In Vermont the quintessential Southerner found relief from the pressure that surrounded him in Tennessee and from summers in the South. Place, belief, weather, and history account for the difference between Brother Jonathan of Vermont and Cousin Roderick of Georgia. Each man represents a distinctive version of American strength of character. Davidson renders each archetype in terms of the particulars of his way of living. He drew one portrait from a relative of his sometime colleague. Professor John Donald Wade of Marshallville, Georgia; the other, Brother Jonathan, is simply Robert Frost’s old neighbor, Homer Noble, in whose home the Davidsons were frequent guests. These regional Americans “are attacking Leviathan” by being themselves, by living out of what is distinctive and indigenous in their particular heritage, without wishing to change their countrymen in another place from living another way.
The integrity of regional American cultures and what we must do to preserve them is the great theme of Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States. Davidson sees regional culture as natural—as something in contrast with the states and the federal government, which are the handiwork of conscious design. Two-thirds of this volume is made up of essays treating the political economy of regionalism, the resistance of social science to regional explanations, regionalism in the arts, and the great diversity of the American scene. Other chapters discuss the regional character of American heroes, educational regionalism, the regionalism of American literature, and the malevolent response of New York to the nation’s cultural variety. One that I like well contrasts the explanations of American character provided by Frederick Jackson Turner and Arthur Meier Schlesinger: the first a Western regionalist, devoted to understanding American particularity, and the other an Eastern centralizer, interested in telling his reader how we have moved toward life in a statist society not yet in being: a norm imagined. Another essay almost as good, “The Two Old Wests,” gives balanced expositions to the versions of America that developed north and south of the Ohio River and west of the Appalachians after the achievement of American independence in 1783. Lubbock and Amarillo, Fargo and Omaha are the western edges of this vast domain. Here men remember frontier, not Europe. But they remember it in two distinctive ways. Davidson’s analysis of the difference between the Old Northwest and Old Southwest is masterfully done: on the one hand, “intensity of conviction, frankness of love or hate . . . unwillingness to submit one’s integrity to abstract dictation or to taint it with even the shadow of disloyalty to what one holds dear,” even to the point of death; on the other, “much more optimism than fatalism” and a refusal “to believe that obstacles cannot be overcome” or that measurable purposes cannot be achieved “by an effort of the will.”
One other large section of the book deals specifically with problems peculiarly Southern. Despite the sixty years and more since its contents were written, it has remained undated. As Davidson maintained in 1937, it is still true that Southern liberals do not get what they expect out of their “victories,” that moderate Southern social thinkers are still used politically by those in power but are not then called to serve in government, that Southern interests are habitually misrepresented by the region’s spokesmen and leaders, and that Southern poets are well-advised to go their own way, without seeking the approval of the literary dictators of the Northeast. Indeed, the proportion of Davidson’s counterattack that seems as timely in 1992 as in 1938 is astonishing—and a melancholy reflection of the misfortune of his homeland (and mine) during the intervening years.
These comments on things Southern, and several other components of the book, carry with them a prophetic air, a sense of ominous foreboding. One instance of this wise anticipation occurs when Davidson writes in a concluding essay of H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come and the contrasting sentiments of “/E” (George William Russell), who disliked the idea of a world state as much as Wells admired it. Davidson in 1932 realizes that the mad scheme of world government (despite the failure of the League of Nations) is on the march: it is a further extension of the uniformitarian principle that he opposes within the United States. As with the idea of a “Great Society organized under a single, complex but strong and highly centralized national government,” once its effects are recognized for what they are, he expects to see the nation and the world filled with an angry reaction to such empty promises. Then, knowing once again that “true Federalism consists in the right relation of region (or section) and nation,” these restored Americans will be ready to shout down “the subtlest and most dangerous foe of humanity, the tyranny that wears the mask of humanitarianism.”
Russell Kirk has done a genuine and lasting favor for all who are, as Davidson predicted, now prepared to learn from what is happening in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, who realize how they must take sides with the breakup of polyglot empires and artificial combinations. For Davidson’s meditation qua polemic on regional integrity and devotion to “our own folks” is a fierce old book, one which gives a rightful place to both “federation” and “autonomy” but is uncompromising in its tenor—loving, sometimes angry, and always incisive—like my mentor himself, the man who made it. For those who knew him (and especially those who were his students) found in Donald Davidson a moral force unlike anything we had discovered in other men, and an illustration of that primary and indispensable loyalty to one’s own, to those for whose sake we must attack and destroy Leviathan.
[Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States: The Attack on Leviathan, by Donald Davidson, Introduction by Russell Kirk (New Brunswick, New Jersey Transaction Books) 368 pp., $19.95]