The Continuing Relevance of Southern Nationalism


William Henry Trescot of South Carolina was a well-respected historian and civil servant in the 19th century. He was also an ardent Southern nationalist. And, in fact, a short work of his from 1850, The Position and Course of the South, remains just as relevant, if not more so, for Southerners and the rest of the world as it was then.

One of the subjects he expands upon is the ineradicable differences of the regional cultures that have sprung up within the union of States (which are now more in number than the three he wrote of) :

‘ . . . the most striking feature of our physical history, is the marked development of great geographical sections; and the most important event in our industrial progress, is the creation of vast interests, bounded in their fields of action by these ineradicable geographical lines. It is true that science has achieved, over space and time, triumphs almost miraculous, but it has not annihilated them. It is true that the panting of the steam-engine and the tremor of the magnetic wire indicate an unwearied material activity, but still mountain ranges rear their heads in unbroken ruggedness — rivers roll their ceaseless currents, and oceans heave their world of waters, in discharge, now as ever, of God's great commission — to divide the nations. It is almost impossible to conquer nature. A dozen bridges across the Rhine would not identify the Frenchman and the German; a tunnel through the Alps would scarcely reconcile the Italian to the Austrian; and it is idle to suppose that the mere speed and facility of communication between distant geographical sections, will entirely counteract those national peculiarities, which it is an unerring law of Providence that those divisions shall of necessity develope.

‘ . . .

‘In examining, then, the conflicting characters of two great sections, it is no unfavourable introduction to such an investigation, to discover that nature herself has drawn deeply the sectional lines. Now, if a map of the settled portion of the North American continent be pre- pared, indicating only the great mountain ranges and the large rivers, the most superficial review would mark three grand divisions — the north, the south, the west. . . . Not only has nature drawn these lines, but history, in the action of its providential instinct, has followed their guidance. In the colonization of this continent, who has not been struck with the marvellous parallel? The antithesis of Plymouth and Jamestown did not end with their settlement. The growth of the two great sections, radiated from different centres, diverged in distant directions, were developed from differing principles, and perfected through dissimilar experiences. For every point of likeness in the history of the two plantations, points of difference might be multiplied, and from the quaint freshness of the old chronicles might be drawn, passage after passage, expressing, in language of the most strongest symbolism, their ancient, continued, and present variance. Nor does the argument stop here. As the country has filled up^ internal improvements have spread through the land, in obedience to laws hardly perhaps recognized by those who planned, and have developed, in process of completion, well defined sectional systems.

‘With these preparations for great national differences, no philosophical inquirer would be surprised to discover a wide distinction of sentiment and institution; and the student of political principles would anticipate the impossibility of the consistent action of a single government.’

The peoples of the various States and regions of the union have tried for 244 years to accommodate themselves under just such a single federal government, to no one’s satisfaction. The perpetual differences in their deep-seated folkways make for an unceasing struggle of various factions to control that government. But because of the weight of the population in the large cities of the Northeast and the West Coast, it is rare that others outside those sections control the federal government. Here again Mr Trescot’s diagnosis of the situation still rings true:

‘We will avoid a metaphysico political discussion on the checks of the Constitution. The experience of the last twenty years, from General Jackson downwards, has proved that the President, as has been admirably said, "is a demagogue by position" — that the House of Representatives represent popular passions and interests — that in the Senate only is to be found the conservative element of government. Now the representative majority is Northern — the Presidential electoral majority is Northern — and since the admission of California, the Senatorial majority is Northern. Can a multiplication table work out results more certain. If the government obeys the popular spirit which creates and sustains it, what must it do but reflect Northern sentiment, sustain Northern interests, impersonate Northern power. For argument sake, we will admit that the admission of California is right — that a savage greediness for gold is the purest of social bonds — that a State is admirably adapted to influence national legislation, where its heads are the shrewdest of speculators and its body the outcasts of every population under heaven. We will admit that Texas ought to pocket, in an extravagance of jockeying triumph, her ten millions, and chuckle at the market price of patriot blood and State pride — she may have more to spare, and she has found a generous customer. We will admit that Virginia and Maryland are but intruders in the District of Columbia, and if not acceptable, should be removed without even notice to quit; they gave the land to their Northern brethren — what more have they to do with it. We will admit, with Mr. Toombs, that the South has nothing at all to complain of, but as we do not know what we may have to censure, we earnestly ask every Southern man to take a list of the States and having separated the two sections, make the simplest of calculations, and then, with neither the fear nor favour of party before his eyes, answer the question, What is the position of the South? In case — and we may in argument imagine so improbable a thing — in case our rights should be attacked, where is our constitutional protection? The mournful but indignant echo from the past answers — where? If, then, the lessons of experience are worth the reading — if the political events of the last few months are not illusions — if the expression of outraged feeling all through our Southern land, be anything but the wild ravings of wicked faction — it is time for the South to act firmly, promptly, and forever. But one safe path is open to her honour, and that is, Secession and the formation of an Independent Confederacy.’

Let us repeat these last words for emphasis: The only safe path for the South is secession and the formation of an independent confederation. There should be no fear of her failure as a separate country: Dixie is well-placed economically. Mr Trescot described that place in his day:

‘The formation of an independent Southern confederacy, would give to the South the control of its industrial policy and its commercial connection; thus arming it, at the very outset of its national career, with diplomatic power, and at the same time, from the character of those interests, propitiating all foreign jealousy, and inviting the cordial alliance of European powers. The advantages of such a position are incalculable, and the most selfish interests of the foreign world would be prompted to a speedy recognition of our national independence. When we consider too, that completion of the Isthmus connection promises to make the Gulf of Mexico the theatre of a mightier commerce than that which, in the days of ancient Rome, civilized the classic shores of the Mediterranean, and gave the provincial city of Alexandria a place among the capitals of history, or that which illuminated with its treasure the pages of Venetian and Genoan story, we must acknowledge that the formation of a Southern confederacy, at least so far as regards its foreign relations, bids fair to place the South, an equal among the nations of the earth.’

This is rather rosy, and it was based on the South’s being a leading grower and exporter of cotton, one of the most important resources at that time. However, though cotton is not as important as it once was, the South is still a major agricultural grower and exporter overall. Together with this is her production and export of what is a critical resource affecting geopolitics today: energy (in the form of oil and natural gas). Similarly, there are major centers related to outer space endeavors across the South, which are quickly growing in geopolitical importance: Cape Canaveral, Florida; Michoud, Louisiana; Huntsville, Alabama; Houston, Texas. While comparisons with Venice, Alexandria, etc. are a little far-fetched, it is not unreasonable to think that a separate Southern nation would be able to flourish amongst the other nations, given her abundance of natural resources and technical capabilities.

Given the South’s economic potential, it would be surprising if the partisans of the current arrangements of the American Empire did not try to hinder her leaving, even to the point of resorting to arms as they did in the War to Prevent Southern Independence waged from 1861-5. Mr Trescot foresaw that possibility a decade before it happened, and to those who are unwilling to secede today because it may provoke a violent reaction from the globalists in Washington City, he has a burning response:

‘The first objection is not a legitimate one. It is simply a selfish unwillingness to suffer, in order to succeed. If the rights in question are worth a struggle, the necessity of the conflict is no argument against the propriety of action. If the duty of the citizen is clear, the perils of the strife become patriotic privileges, and the fact that war is inevitable only proves to what an extent we have endured before we have ventured to resist — only demonstrates the power of that unrighteous authority against which we are forced to arm. We say nothing in mitigation of the unimaginable horrors of a civil war — dangers are not disarmed by self-deception, and if these terrors lie direct in our path, look at them full but firmly; but there are more terrible disasters than war, and in the perpetual cry of peace, peace, there is as much selfishness as sense. This world is not one of peace — its wisest and highest teacher brought into its troubled life "not peace but a sword," and nothing of national greatness or individual good has been achieved without sacrifice and sorrow. It is a truth of history, untouched by an exception, that no nation has ever yet matured its political growth without the stern and scarring experience of civil war. The God of this world's history is indeed the God of Hosts, and he who shrinks, in the plain path of duty, from that last appeal to arms, is not more holy than he is wise.’

To encourage the South to endure such trials, Mr Trescot once again points out the disadvantages of the current situation and the advantages that could be gained if Southerners do not quail in the face of adversity but pursue their independence wholeheartedly:

‘The true position of the South is this: — From the formation of the government there have existed, in the two great sections of the Union, political systems, opposed in principle. Recent events have developed into excited hostility these contradictions, and, just at the time when sectional interests are most antagonistic, the government, by the admission of California, has destroyed the balance of power between the two sections, and placed the South, its interests, and its institutions, in helpless dependence upon Northern majorities. Will not the establishment of a Southern confederacy, with a homogeneous population, and an united government, relieve the South from this false and dangerous situation, enable her to control her own fortunes, and use, to the best advantage, the strength of her natural position.

‘The prime element of national Southern strength, is commerce; the peculiar character of the Southern staple identifying agriculture and commerce more completely than in any other national experience. It is in relation to commercial questions, that the South would come in contact with foreign powers, and by her industrial policy, that she would influence remote countries. Rivalry, on these points, with foreign nations, exists only in the northern section of the republic. . . .

‘If then secession fails in its purpose, it can only be in respect to its domestic policy. What do we expect in this regard? That a homogeneous people, governed by the same sentiment and acting upon the same interests, will give to their government unity of character, and thus that parties will be formed by a fair difference of opinion on national measures, and not upon theoretical differences as to the nature of the government itself. That the government placed in immediate and active sympathy with popular institutions, will devote itself to the practical perfection of those institutions, and will cut oft' all extraneous agitation. Of course we can no more prevent the expression of Northern sentiment at the North, than we can check the eloquence of Exeter Hall in London, but then the agitation at the North will affect us only in the same degree. As to the expression of opinion, the world may think as it pleases, and say what it thinks. We do not complain of Northern sentiment, except where having achieved political representation, it undertakes to act in Congress. Through the national councils only does it reach us, and there only do we protest against it.’

Striking a conciliatory note, Mr Trescot shows his sympathy for those who have an unfeigned love for the current union. He addresses them in the following manner:

‘There are many men who have grown old in the Union, who feel an honest and pardonable regret at the thought of its dissolution. The enthusiasm of their boyhood, the hopes of their manhood, the calm honours of their age belong to the completed circle of the past. They have felt themselves parties to the great experiment of political self-government, they have prided themselves on the successful demonstration of that great problem, and they feel that the dissolution of the Union, proclaims a mortifying failure. But it is not so. The vital principle of political liberty is representative government, and when federal arrangements are discarded, that lives in original vigor — it has become the characteristic of our race, to spread with our emigrant millions over continents, and into the hidden isles of distant seas. Who does not consider the greatest triumph of the British constitution, the facility with which it adapted itself to the altered condition of its colonies the vigour with which under slight modifications, it developed into, the great republican government, under which we have accomplished our national progress.

‘And so it will be with our own constitution; the elements of constitutional liberty, may be slightly varied in their action under different governments; but they will act with energy for they have been incorporated into the national character. The experiment instituted by our fathers will receive its highest illustration and a continent of great republics, equal, independent, and allied, will demonstrate to the world the capabilities of republican, constitutional government. That the dis- solution of the Union must come, even without the present agitation, at no distant day, is almost a historical necessity; for the hi4ory of the world is the record of the aggregation and dissolution of great empires. National individuality seems to be the agent of Providence in the conduct of the world, and having, in the extension of our territories to the extremest Western verge accomplished the first part of our destiny, we are about to fulfil the second in creating those separate national interests and individual national peculiarities, to the attrition of which is due the varied and brilliant civilization of modern times.’

Mr Trescot may be excused for his enthusiasm regarding republican ‘experiments’ of government; he and the others in the States were still in the lull of their delusive daydream. We now know better how such things end: with the empowerment of extremely wealthy oligarchs. It could hardly be otherwise. For how can a people create a government before which they are both its masters and its subjects? This sort of deception arises from the black pits of the abyss by satanic conjuring, and the people who willingly give their allegiance to it deserve the masters they get. The South must consider very seriously her pre-Modern, Christian past when the question of the form of government arises.

That aside, withal, Mr Trescot’s closing fanfare is exhilarating for the Southerner who has tired of the putrified national politics of the last several decades (bolding added):

‘The question is the gravest that can well be imagined — it is invested with a solemn responsibility, and rises above the flippant passion and uncertain temper of ordinary politics. We believe that the interests of the southern country demand a separate and independent government. We believe that the time has come when such a government can be established temperately, wisely, strongly. But in effecting this separation, we would not disown our indebtedness, our gratitude to the past. The Union has . . . developed a population with whom liberty is identical with law, and in training thirty-three States to manhood, has fitted them for the responsibility of independent national life. . . . It has achieved its destiny. Let us achieve ours.

With those words resounding in our minds, we close.