There is a ring of truth to Lois Lerner’s observation, posted to a friend in an e-mail exchange, that Lincoln should have let the South go in 1861 because the North and South really are of two mindsets.
Lerner’s observation was gleaned from e-mails included in the Senate Finance Committee’s Investigation of her tenure as IRS Director of Exempted Organizations. She’s under investigation for allegedly hindering the efforts of conservative groups to secure tax exemption.
I really don’t understand why such views are met with unease in some quarters. Within the last 30 years, a wealth of scholarly and popular writing has focused on this great American regional dichotomy, including: Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer; The Nine Nations of North America by Joel Garreau; Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways of the Old South, by Grady McWhiney and Forrest MacDonald; and American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard.
And I can’t overlook Chuck Thompson’s rather venomous book “Better Off without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession,” which, as the title implies, puts the issue into stark perspective.
Yet, at this stage of my life, I’m of a divided mind on all of this. Yes, I agree with Lerner’s premise. We are two regions with radically different mindsets and interests — two nations conjoined into one. But I’m glad Lincoln did not let us go in 1861. The Northern victory in 1865 benefited us Southerners in a myriad of ways. We were dragged kicking and screaming into the 19th and, ultimately, the 20th century as a result of the Civil War, and as a son of the South, I’m thankful for that.
A Confederate victory would have been catastrophic for the South in so many ways. The Confederate States of America would have emerged out of that war a pariah state, an early forerunner of apartheid South — a pariah state and a culturally and economically backward one to boot.
We likely would have struggled to maintain our independence. In time, we may have been absorbed into the British Empire and granted dominion status, much like the fledgling nations of Canada and Australia. We would have certainly benefited from integration into Britain’s imperial economic system and from the protection of the Royal Navy. We may have opened every sporting event with “Dixie,” followed by “God Save the Queen.”
We would have also ended up a highly stratified society: hardscrabble yeoman farmers like my north Alabama ancestors perpetually locked in a struggle against super-rich planters, who would have been perpetually devising schemes to limit the voting franchise.
There would have been no Southern equivalent of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862.
This landmark legislation, which provided generations of ordinary Americans with training in farming and engineering and other practical arts, was a key factor in propelling the United States to the front ranks of nations. But the Confederate States Congress would have rejected any such reform as radical social experimentation. Such legislation would have been perceived as dire threat to the ruling class but also as unnecessary, because few of these elites would have seen any merit in large-scale industrialization.
And without industrialization, there would have been little need for the two-year normal schools that eventually evolved into four-year teacher colleges and ultimately into regional universities — the sorts of schools that provided my father and millions like him with a ticket out of dirt-row poverty and that also educated and inspired first-generation middle-class kids like me.
As a Confederate States citizen, I likely would have spent my life on a small farm or some dead-end agricultural job, semi-literate with few prospects for social mobility. And I only touch on how different things would have been if the South had won.
Yet, I’m speaking as Southern partisan. I think the South should be recognized for what it is: a nation within a nation. Moreover, I think the American federal system is broken because it no longer accounts for the regional diversity that stubbornly characterizes our union, despite the sweeping effects of the industrial and digital revolutions. But it’s time that we Southerners started looking ahead rather than backward. If the South really is a nation within a nation as I and a growing number of Americans believe it to be, we should acquire the will and the means to solve our problems on our own.
We may operate with a different regional mindset than our Northern cousins, but it’s time we refined this mindset to conform to the demands of the 21st century.