Demonization as a political and social stratagem knows no temporal or geographical bounds; it is a ploy as old as civilization itself. The objective of the game is to dehumanize an opponent (an individual or a group) in order to gain public support for his marginalization or destruction. Modern America abounds with examples of the demonization process, most of them perpetuated by the left (which includes Trotskyite neoconservatives) against the traditional, populist right. The Oklahoma City bombing, black church burnings, and the Atlanta Olympics pipe-bombing have all been used by the government and its lapdog media to portray anyone to the right of the Dole-Kemp ticket as a clear and present danger to the public weal. But the boogeyman singled out to receive the lion’s share of the liberal/neoconservative opprobrium is the battle flag-waving Southern “cracker” or “redneck,” who is uniformly presented by the media, the academy, and popular culture as Old Scratch incarnate.
Though Southerners of both high and low estate contributed mightily to the founding and advancement of the American Republic, they have been subjected to a long-running process of demonization that has turned them into national whipping boys in the latter half of the 20th century. The demonization of the South did not begin, as some may think, with the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 196()’s, though it did take on a particularly hostile tone during those decades. Rather, the campaign to portray the South as the sole blot on an otherwise pure and shining “City on a Hill” began in earnest in the 1830’s with the rise of the Yankee reformist impulse (i.e., Abolitionist, women’s rights, temperance, anti-tobacco, and other like-minded movements) and fears that the so-called “Slave Power” of Southern aristocrats threatened American democracy. The three decades from the publication of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator in 1831 to the outbreak of The War for Southern Independence in 1861 witnessed a virulent crusade to vilify not only the South’s culture and institutions but Southerners themselves.
To understand why the Yankee thought it necessary and profitable to demonize the South, we must trace briefly the dichotomy between a rapidly changing antebellum North and a stable, conservative South. Southern men of affairs, especially South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, rightly understood that unchecked consolidation and the campaign against slavery would result in either the destruction of the South or in the dissolution of the Union. The gathering forces against which the South had to contend were indeed foreboding. The sweep of “progress” was already gripping the North (especially New England), urging it toward finance and industrial capitalism and the exploitation of “free” labor. William H. Seward warned the South that unless it voluntarily discarded its old ways—particularly an outmoded adherence to states’ rights and the “peculiar institution”—it would later yield them amidst a sea of blood. Such threats to the well-being of their region caused thoughtful Southern leaders to consider what sort of checks might be imposed against an increasingly hostile North.
But progressive Northern leaders were in no mood to be checked by a numerical minority in the slaveholding South. Undermining the Southern way of life would be the first step in the triumph of the Yankee worldview, and to accomplish this the South had to be demonized in the eyes of a majority of Northerners before the radicals could hope for its actual physical destruction.
Revolutionary change in the North’s economic and political systems had been accompanied by European-style reform movements of every stripe. Indeed, New England and parts of the Midwest now produced a breed of perpetual reformers in whom emotion trumped common sense and hard experience. Eventually, all the reformist strands were woven together into the rope of Abolitionism, and by the 1830’s the antislavery movement had become a messianic religious crusade. Radical Abolitionist propaganda found its way not only into the literature and public oratory of the day, but into juvenile storybooks, church hymnals, and even almanacs.
The milder form of Abolitionism that existed until the late 1820’s in both North and South called for gradual emancipation under conditions to be determined by those closest to the institution. Few men condemned the actual physical conditions of slavery; instead, they criticized the institution on the grounds of principle. In 1827, James Fenimore Cooper of New York told a French audience that “the American slave is better off, so far as mere animal wants are concerned, than the lower orders of the European peasants.” Moreover, both sides m the debate were aware of the problems inherent in the manumission of several million Africans who lacked experience with self-government. Many, if not most, early advocates of emancipation favored one or another plan for the separation of the races. The American Colonization Movement, for instance, proposed to transport out of the country those slaves freed by their masters. Until the beginning of the 1830’s, then, there was little overt hostility between the pro- and antislavery factions. But the first issue of Garrison’s Liberator changed the nature of the slavery debate forever.
The Liberator gave Garrison a platform from which to stoke the fires of sectional hatred against the South, and he wasted no time in doing so. In the first issue of January 1, 1831, he declared: “I do not wish to think or speak or write with moderation. I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard.” And so he was. Garrison and a vocal minority of New Englanders agitated unceasingly to distort and fictionalize Southern society and to make hatred of slavery synonymous with hatred of all who inhabited the slaveholding South. Southerners were described as “thieves and adulterers . . . who trample law and order beneath their feet . . . ruffians who insult, pollute, and lacerate helpless women; and . . . conspirators against the lives and liberties of New England citizens.”
Like many New Englanders who wrote about the South during the middle third of the 19th century. Garrison possessed virtually no firsthand knowledge of the region. Along with Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose only visit had been a brief one to a model plantation in Kentucky, and arch-Abolitionist Wendell Phillips, Garrison created a simplistic and false portrait of a South whose social system was much more complex than they were willing to admit. Phillips the orator exceeded Garrison the editor in his ability to tug on the heartstrings of New Englanders over the slavery issue. He contended that the institution was not only evil, but that it represented a direct threat to the political and economic well-being of the North. The South’s aristocratic Slave Power, as he called it, stood as an obstacle to the onward march of American democracy, and if the North was to avoid contracting this contagious disease, it must remake the South in its own progressive image. Unlike Garrison, who preached a philosophy of nonresistance, Phillips conjured for his audiences “scenes of blood through which a rebellious slave population must march to their rights.” Long before Lincoln made his “House Divided Against Itself” speech, Wendell Phillips had already convinced many New Englanders that the slave and free sections “cannot live together.”
Anti-Southern Abolitionist vitriol also found expression in the writings of some of New England’s most popular men of letters: John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, to name but three. Though none but Emerson had actually traveled to the South, all confidently scorned the region as a benighted cultural backwater where sloth and stagnation prevailed. Just how susceptible to hearsay and rumor these men were can be gleaned from Whittier’s The Narrative of James Williams. Williams, a runaway slave, told of being “sold down the river” by his owner in Virginia to a cruel master who foreshadowed Mrs. Stowe’s Simon Legree. Whittier scandalized his readers with Williams’ tales of his new master’s barbarism, which included raping female slaves, whipping pregnant women until they miscarried, and shooting escaped field hands in the back.
The work was published by Boston’s Anti-Slavery Society in 1838 and quickly went through six editions before being withdrawn after it was discovered that Whittier had not bothered to verify the truthfulness of Williams’ fantastic tale. Nonetheless, Whittier’s book made its mark. Even after learning of its fabrication, many Abolitionists still held that the narrative gave an accurate description of slavery in the Deep South. Howard R. Floan’s The South in Northern Eyes, 1831-1861 (1958) tells us: “In considering the reception of The Narrative of James Williams, it is not hard to understand how, after twelve years of conditioning, the American mind was well prepared for Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
James Russell Lowell, though largely uninterested in the great political questions of the day that loomed over both North and South, was quick to assert that the preeminent struggle was one between the forces of enlightened Northern progressivism and Southern traditionalism. To Lowell, the South was “King Retro,” stubbornly clinging to an unnatural and hierarchical worldview that eventually must bring it to ruin. The region’s only salvation, he believed, was for it to adopt the prevailing ideologies of mid-19th-century New England, especially egalitarianism. His depiction of the typical Southerner as an idle ruffian and an ignorant hypocrite created in the popular imagination, according to Floan, “a villain who the people of the North would soon be quite willing to meet in battle.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, before joining the ranks of the radical Abolitionists in the mid-I840’s, had opposed Southern slaveholders on principle, but did not sensationalize the alleged cruelty of master to slave as did Whittier and Lowell. Emerson wrote in the late 1820’s: “For it is true that many a slave under the warm roof of a humane master, with easy labours and regular subsistence enjoys more happiness than his naked brethren in Africa.” He also expressed a grudging admiration for the masculine lighting qualities of Southern men, and feared they would outmatch Yankees in the contest of politics. “The Southerner,” he noted, “always beats us in politics. . . . [He] has personality, has temperament, has manners, persuasion, address, and terror. The cold Yankee . . . has not fire or firmness.” Emerson’s view was representative of a growing Northern resentment of the South’s strength in national affairs.
Once Emerson joined the Abolitionists, he radically altered his view of the South. Most of his literary venom he saved for South Carolina, comparing it to contemporary Algiers. “We must go there,” he fretted, “in disguise, and with pistols in our pockets, leaving our pocketbooks at home, making our wills before we go.” South Carolina’s chief rascal was, of course, the Nullifier Calhoun, whose voice, Emerson claimed, spoke for the state.
The decade of the 1850’s further convinced Emerson that, if unchecked, the South’s “slaveocracy” would render New England impotent in American politics. Many of his fellow Northerners were lured into sympathizing with the South, he thought, by “the ascendancy of Southern manners.” Alarmed at the prospects of Southern political dominance, Emerson discarded whatever objectivity he once may have had and increased the fury of his attacks on the region and its inhabitants. He called upon his fellow Abolitionists to help foster a climate in New England that would produce future Negro leaders in the mold of Toussaint, Douglass, Nat Turner, and Denmark Vesey. Such men, he believed, if unleashed on the villainous South, would bring more positive results than all the white antislavery societies then in existence.
But not all Northern men were of the same cut as Garrison, Phillips, Whittier, Lowell, and Emerson. For instance, Oliver Wendell Holmes, though he opposed Southern slavery in principle, refused to demonize the Southern people as “racists.” Holmes feared that if the South’s social system should be forcibly dismantled by radical Abolitionists, the egalitarian forces unleashed would eventually work to undermine the superior position of the New England Brahmins in their own region.
Like Holmes, Nathaniel Hawthorne viewed the emotionally charged, anti-South rhetoric of the Abolitionists as harmful to the nation’s social and political stability. Aware of the unbridgeable cultural gap between the regions, Hawthorne advised a constitutional approach to the problem of slavery. He was indeed horrified to hear Emerson proclaim shortly after the execution of John Brown that “the death of this blood-stained fanatic has made the Gallows as venerable as the Cross!” Hawthorne joined most Southerners in thinking that Brown had received justice at the hangman’s noose.
The literati of New York City also kept their distance from the rabid abolitionism of New England. Business and marriage alliances between New Yorkers and Southerners served to soften the former’s perceptions of the latter. Herman Melville, William Cullen Bryant, and Walt Whitman, though surely no lovers of the South or slavery, all refused to engage in the general demonization of the region and its people. As Floan points out, “one must find in New York a body of opinion which objected to slavery without cursing the slaveholding South.”
But when one looks closely at the demonization of antebellum Dixie, it is clear that New England, and particularly Boston, lay at the heart of the movement. Boston in the mid- 19th century was the center of a Unitarian-Universalist revolt against traditional Christianity in which sinful mankind was transformed into a creature of innate goodness and light. If mankind was inherently good, then all social problems were external ones that could be eradicated by one sort of reform or another. Perhaps even the Southern slavedriver could be redeemed if only he could be made over in the image of the sturdy, democratic New Englander and his cousin in the Midwest who knew the proper interpretation of the Declaration of Independence. To these abstract idealists, the South seemed woefully out of step with the idea that “all men are created equal.” While New Englanders called down the wrath of God’s “terrible swift sword” against the South, Western men in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan, writes historian A.O. Craven, “had a way of viewing evil as something there ought to be a law against.” This combination of sanctimony and the appeal to laws that surely would be enacted by Randolph of Roanoke’s “King Numbers,” served to coalesce the disparate elements of the white South and gird them for the impending conflict.
The war waged from 1861 to 1865 was precipitated in no small part by the Abolitionists who had for 30 years fanned the flames of hatred against the South. When the fighting broke out in April 1861, they all rejoiced, some at finally being rid of the South and others at the opportunity to destroy her. One of their own, Julia Ward Howe, while in Washington during the early days of the war, penned the lyrics to what became the Unitarian-Abolitionist anthem—”The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Her words hailed the advent of a holy war against an evil South and equated the crucifixion of Christ with the present crusade against slavery. The South Carolina Presbyterian divine. Reverend James Henley Thornwell, well understood the nature of the “irrepressible conflict” waged against his homeland. He wrote: “The parties in this conflict are not merely Abolitionists and slaveholders, they are Atheists, Socialists, Communists, Red Republicans, Jacobins on the one side and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battleground, Christianity and Atheism the combatants, and the progress of humanity the stake.”
Four years of Jacobin-inspired warfare devastated the South. In addition to some 450,000 Confederate soldiers killed and wounded, the region’s civilian population suffered horrendously, especially during the final campaigns of the conflict. The last months of the Confederacy were filled with arson, robbery, rape, and murder, crimes perpetrated more often than not with the approval of Union military officers and civilian officials. Much of the destruction was pure vandalism directed against defenseless women and children and represented a deliberate policy to strike terror in the hearts of the Southern people. What General William T. Sherman called the “holiest fight ever fought on God’s earth” made little distinction between black and white. A reporter for the New York Herald, who witnessed the sack of Columbia, South Carolina, in 1865, noted that “Negro women were for the most part victims of the [Union] soldiers’ lust. A number of them were woefully mistreated and ravished.”
In the wake of this carnage. Northern business interests began a systematic and wholesale economic plundering of the South that would continue through Reconstruction. Oppressive taxes were levied on cotton, and in just three years (1865-68) over $70 million was expropriated from the Southern economy. As late as 1880 the value of Southern agricultural lands was only two-thirds of what it had been in 1860. Gross farm income did not rise above 1859 levels until the early 1880’s, though the South’s population rose nearly 50 percent during that period. In the decades following the war, the South became an economic colony at the mercy of Northeastern plutocrats who exacted enormous sums of capital through usurious interest rates, stole lands and resources through tax foreclosures, and rigged local elections at the point of a bayonet. Famine and pestilence stalked the land, and it was common to sec homeless widows and orphans begging bread from door to door and once-proud veterans reduced to destitution. Indeed, Wendell Phillips summed up the situation well when he remarked after the war: “This [the North’s victory] is the new dispensation. This is the New Testament. 1860 is the blank leaf between the old and the new. . . . We have conquered not the geographical but the ideal South . . . and we have a right to trample it under the heel of our boots. This is the meaning of the war.” So it was.
The sort of destruction laid upon Southerners can be sold to the public only if the targets of that destruction are demonized to the point of having their humanity stripped away. They thus become nonpersons against whom the most vile depredations can be righteously excused. Both public and private organs in the North perpetrated a false image of Southern “savagery”: the murder of Union prisoners on the battlefield; the unique horrors of Andersonville prison; and the complicity of Jefferson Davis in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. By such lies and distortions, the War Department and the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War place the mark of infamy upon the South. Northerners who took a less emotional view of the South also had ulterior, mercenary motives: the restoration of the former Confederate states to the Union as markets for Northern goods and capital. They hoped that through contact with the North the region could be morally regenerated and brought to see the benefits of Republican Party rule.
The South’s defeat in 1865, as Thornwell predicted, cleared the way for the triumph of a Jacobin worldview in a consolidated American Empire. Wasted by war and military occupation and swindled by crooked Carpetbag and Scalawag “entrepreneurs,” the Southern people could do nothing to halt the centralizers’ juggernaut. One would think the demonizers’ work done at this point. But after a truce of sorts prevailed for several decades, especially during times of war when the American nation needed the services of Southern manhood, the demonization of all things traditionally Southern resumed apace in the 1950’s and 1960’s during the civil rights movement.
The ongoing assault on the South is reminiscent of the Abolitionist campaign of the mid-19th century in that it seeks to vilify an entire people on the basis of lies and half-truths perpetrated by men with little knowledge of the subject about which they write. I could give countless examples, but I shall limit myself to a rather recent one from popular culture. In the early 1970’s, Canadian singer Neil Young wrote and recorded a neo-Abolitionist tune called “Southern Man,” in which he whines: “I heard screaming, bullwhips cracking, how long, how long?” Young’s musical diatribe was quickly answered by a group of battle flag-waving, good ol’ boys known collectively as Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose “Sweet Home Alabama” remains the favorite of many an unreconstructed Southron. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zandt growled a challenge to Young and his ilk: “I heard Mr. Young sing about her, well I heard ol’ Neil put her down. I hope Neil Young will remember. Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” Van Zandt’s lyrics may lack a certain eloquence, but they say simply and directly what demonized Southerners have been thinking for the last 160 years.