I have a bunch of thoughts rolling around in my head: the cultures of early American immigrations and colonies, the different types of liberalisms especially the differences between contemporary American liberalism and classical liberalism, the defense by liberals of traditional conservatism against fiscal conservatives, and maybe a few other things besides. I’ll begin with the issue of colonies and go from there.
I’m presently reading American Nations by Colin Woodard and was having a discussion about it. I find it quite fascinating, although it probably would only interest someone to the degree that they have had personal experience in different regions of the US.
I was reading about the Deep South and my little mind was blown. I spent many years living in and/or visiting the South Carlina cities of Columbia and Charleston, the latter being the originating point of the Deep South colony, but during my years there I was mostly oblivious to the history of the Deep South. That region has experienced massive change over the centuries and, whatever problems it may still have, it is far away from where it began.
Among the colonies, the Deep South was unique in a number of ways. It is the only colony that began explicitly as a slave society. It is also the only colony that was started by people from another colony, Barbados, upon which it was modeled. At the time, Barbados was well known for being the most violently and horrifically oppressive slave colony in the entire English-speaking world. The Barbados colonists were immensely rich, but they didn’t have any more land to be developed. So, the sons of the Barbados elite sought lands on other islands as well as coming to America. It was because they had so much wealth that they could be so brutal. It didn’t matter that their slaves had such short lives under these conditions because more could be bought with the massive profits made.
The Deep South was the wealthiest and most heavily populated colony in America. They had so much money that they even bought most of their goods from Britain and so the Deep South colony had little need for industry. Many of the plantation owners sent their children to boarding schools in England. Also, many of them lived in England themselves rather than living on their plantations. Deep South was the only colony to have major political representation in England which allowed them to keep taxation low within their own colony.
I’m not even sure how to describe this kind of society. It was as anti-liberal as is possible for a society to be while still being functional. It was a capitalist nightmare where everything operated according to property. The ruling minority at the top owned everything and everyone. All legal rights were based on property rights. I suppose it was some kind of proto-fascism, but typically fascism is seen as a response to socialism and this was long before socialism was formulated.
Deep South was similar to the Tidewater colony in that it was based on plantations using indentured servants and slaves, but it was urban where Tidewater was more rural. Deep South plantation owners built a major city and spent much of their time and money visiting it. Plus, Deep South plantation owners lacked the paternalism of the Tidwater where the plantation owners were expected to care for the needs of those working for them. Tidewater plantation owners lived on their plantations and so lived closely with their indentured servants and slaves. Tidewater was a very kinship-oriented society and so those living on a plantation were a part of the daily experience of family life. Deep South didn’t have this same intimate way of running their plantations.
Deep South was similar to the New Netherlands colony (what would become New York City) in that it was a society undemocratically centered around capitalism. New Netherlands for some time was managed by a corporation. So, both had elements of proto-fascism. One difference is New Netherlands wasn’t founded as a slave society, although it was New Netherlands that first introduced slavery to America. Another difference is that New Netherlands was a more multicultural, egalitarian society. If any colony could make a claim to bringing classical liberalism to America, it would be New Netherlands. They believed in the more modern capitalist dream of working hard in order to better one’s station in life. Unlike Deep South, many of the wealthy in New Netherlands weren’t born into wealth. Even African slaves could become freemen and operate their own farms and businesses. New Netherlands was one of the most tolerant of the colonies and Deep South was one of the least tolerant.
And Deep South was similar to the Yankiedom colony in that it was politically centralized and expansionist. It was Yankiedom and Tidewater that had the longest history of conflict that tied them both back to the conflicts in England, but it was Yankiedom and Deep South that were two most major forces in their competing visions. Yankiedom was focused on an educated middle class whereas Deep South was focused on inherited power and wealth. Yankiedom was built on democratic ideals that were inspired by the Reformation (such as mandatory public education to ensure everyone could read the Bible and have a personal relationship with God) whereas Deep South was built on republican ideals that were inspired by the slave oligarchies of the ancient world. Despite their differences, both would use military force to ensure their expansion and both could be less than welcoming to those perceived as outside of their social in-group.
By the way, I should clarify what is included within the Deep South. It started in South Carolina from which it expanded South and West mostly going through states along the Southern coast and ending its expansion in Eastern Texas. It came to occupy Georgia, for example, even though Georgia was colonized as a utopian society very different from the Deep South colony. So, even within the Deep South, there are pockets or mixings of other cultures. The Deep South is almost entirely bordered by Appalachia on its Northern side. Many people conflate Deep South and Appalachia for they both share a number of states, including South Carolina, and they both have influenced each other greatly. I suspect that it is the anti-authoritarian Appalachian culture that has been a moderating force on the formerly authoritarian Deep South culture, and I’m sure the formerly utopian Georgia culture probably had its impact as well.
Still, no matter what changes have occured, Deep South still emphasizes the view that property rights are prioritized above all else. This property rights focus is a major point of agreement Deep South has with Appalachia. There is this idea of ownership as the basis of liberty. It was the Deep South (and maybe Tidewater as well) that promoted the idea that only land owners should have the right to vote. This cultural heritage is what has formed the basis of what is now known as fiscal conservatism. It was the GOP’s Southern Strategy that brought fiscal conservatism to dominance in national politics.
I was discussing the problems and dangers of fiscal conservatism in a recent post. Events in the local city government have made me aware of how much influence fiscal conservatism has had on the nation. Even in this Yankee-style liberal college town in the moderate Midlands, the local government has turned to fiscal conservatism as the preferred solution for economic problems. Even radically progressive states like Wisconsin which is in a stronghold of Yankiedom, fiscal conservative rhetoric helped to elect some of the most radically right-wing politicians seen in a long time. In the endless struggle between the superpowers of Yankiedom and Deep South, it does at times feel like the latter has won the war of who will dominate public debate and hence determine America’s future.
My point, as a Midlander, isn’t necessarily to take sides in this war between Yankiedom and Deep South. The former doesn’t represent my sense of liberalism and the latter doesn’t represent any normal notion of traditional conservatism. In the past, traditional conservatives fought against capitalism and classical liberalism. It’s hard to find many vocal traditional conservatives left in the so-called conservative movement, especially not in the GOP itself. The demographic most strong in their traditional conservatism would be minorities who vote for the Democratic Party. The two party system isn’t split between conservatism and liberalism. Rather, it is split between neoconservatives on one side and traditional conservatives on the other, between classical liberals on one side and neoliberals on the other. Conservatives have stopped defending traditional conservatism for the most part and liberals have come to akwardly defend it.
As a Midlander, I realize the culture of the region I live in isn’t the most influential, even though some think of it as being the most ‘American’ since it is the Heartland, after all. If traditional conservatism as a viable and established culture still exists anywhere in the US, it likely would be found in small pockets in the Midlands Midwest, especially in the small Catholic farming towns in states like Iowa. The great conflict I see right now in this country is between fiscal conservatism and traditional conservatism. It is during hard economic times that Americans remember the importance of traditional conservatism (family, religion, community, regionalism, ‘sense of place’, government regulations, public welfare, etc). Maybe at this point such traditional conservatism has become nothing more than a romanticized reminiscence of and projection onto a distant past. America has never had much of a culture of traditional conservatism and probably never will, but I think it is good for Americans to think what it might mean for society facing so much change. One thing to keep in mind is that socialism is closer than capitalism to the original meaning of traditional conservatism. So, to contemplate traditional conservatism is to be forced to confront the failures and problems with capitalism.
In terms of demographics, I think minorities have the strongest connection to traditional conservatism because of two reasons, both related to the Hispanic population. First, Hispanics are some of the most strongly Catholic of Americans. Catholicism is one of the oldest Christian traditions left in the world and so it still is rooted in ancient traditions (unlike Protestantism, Anabaptism, Mormonism, New Thought, etc). Second, Spaniards were some of the first to colonize North America. Their arrival here precedes the Enlightenment by many centuries. Also, the El Norte colony/nation (in the Northern parts of Mexico, along the Southern border of the US, up along Southern California coasts, and into the Southwest) is one of the few places where European culture mixed with native culture.
Interestingly, El Norte is known for having a history of seeking democratic reform. As the Hispanic demographic is the fastest growing in America, it makes me wonder what this will mean for national politics in the future. Combined with that, I could see a further impact of blacks returning to the South in large numbers after spending generations in Midlands and Yankiedom where they incorporated that culture. I portend major culture clashes in the coming decades.
I’m not sure I have any clear conclusions to add. I was just trying to bring together that jumble of thoughts. I feel like there is such a confusion of issues going on that it may be impossible to disentangle what it all means and where it all is heading. In pointing out the problems of the early Deep South, I don’t mean to praise Yankiedom as the better alternative culture. I do think we could use more of the Yankee emphasis on education. However, I’d gladly point out the hypocrisy of Puritan egalitarianism at the heart of the Yankee vision of society. I’m personally fond of the Midlands, but I don’t know that the Midlands has much to offer that would be acceptable to the powers that be. I don’t even know if the growing minority population will lead to any positive change, but almost any change would feel better than the status quo at this point. I don’t know what potential is left in American society. My hope is that understanding the past might help break us free from the sense of cultural hegemony that can blind us from other perspectives.