No discussion of Southern conservatism, its history and its relationship to what is termed broadly the “American conservative movement” would be complete without an examination of events that have transpired over the past fifty years and the pivotal role of the powerful intellectual current known as Neoconservatism.
From the 1950s into the 1980s Southerners who defended the traditions of the South, and even more so, of the Confederacy, were welcomed as allies and confreres by their Northern and Western counterparts. William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review and Dr. Russell Kirk’s Modern Age, perhaps the two leading conservative journals of the period, welcomed Southerners into the “movement” and onto the pages of those organs of conservative thought. Kirk dedicated an entire issue of Modern Age to the South and its traditions, and explicitly supported its historic defense of the originalist constitutionalism of the Framers. And throughout the critical period that saw the enactment of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Buckley’s magazine defended the “Southern position,” arguing forcefully on constitutional grounds that the proposed legislation would undercut not just the guaranteed rights of the states but the protected rights of citizens.
Southern authors like Mel Bradford, Richard Weaver, Clyde Wilson and James J. Kilpatrick lent their intelligence, skill as writers, and arguments to a defense of the South. Yet by the late 1980s, that “Southern voice” had pretty much been exiled—expelled—from major establishment conservative journals. Indeed, friendly writers from outside the South, but who were identified with what became known as the Old Right, that is, the non-Neoconservative “right,” were also soon purged from the mastheads of the conservative “mainstream” organs of opinion: noted authors such as Joe Sobran (from National Review), Sam Francis (from The Washington Times), Paul Gottfried (from Modern Age) and others were soon shown the door.
What had happened? How had the movement that began with such promise in the 1950s, essentially with the publication of Kirk’s seminal volume, The Conservative Mind (1953), descended into internecine purges, excommunications, and the sometimes brutal triumph of those—the Neoconservatives—who only a few years earlier had militated in the cadres of the Marxist Left?
To address this question we need to examine the history of the non-Stalinist Left in the United States after World War II. And we need to indicate and pinpoint significant differences between those—the so-called Neocons—who made the pilgrimage from the Left into the conservative movement, and those more traditional conservatives, whose basic beliefs and philosophy were at odds with the newcomers.
In this traversal I utilize the insights of a long list of writers and historians, including the late Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk and Mel Bradford, and more recently, Paul Gottfried and Gary Dorrien—plus my own experiences in witnessing what I term “the great brain robbery of the American conservative movement.” That is, what can only be described as a subversion and, ultimately, radical transformation of an older American “conservatism” and pattern of thinking by those who, for lack of better words, must be called “leftist refugees” from the more globalist Trotskyite form of Marxism.
Shocked and horrified by the recrudescence of Stalinist anti-semitism in the post-World War II period and disillusioned by the abject economic failures of Stalinism and Communism during the 1960s and 1970s, these “pilgrims away from the Communist Left”—largely but by no means completely Jewish in origin—moved to the Right and a forthright anti-Communism. Notable among their number were such personages as Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, both of whom had sons who figure prominently amongst the current Neocon intellectual establishment.
At first welcomed by an older generation of conservatives, and invited to write for conservative publications and participate in a panoply of conservative activities, they soon began to occupy positions of leadership and importance—and most significantly, to transform and modify historic views associated with conservatism to mirror their own vision. For, in fact, even though shell-shocked by the effects of Soviet Communism, yet they brought with them in their pilgrimage an overarching framework and an essential world view that owed much to their previous militancy on the extreme left. And they brought, equally, their relentless zeal.
Often well-connected financially, with deep pockets and the “correct” friends in high places, within a few years the “Neocons” had pretty much captured and taken control of most of the major “conservative” organs of opinion, journals, think tanks, and, significantly, exercised tremendous influence politically in the Republican Party (and to some degree within the Democratic Party, at least during the presidency of Bill Clinton).
This transformation—this virtual takeover—within conservative ranks, so to speak, did not go unopposed. Indeed, no less than the “father” of the conservative intellectual movement of the 1950s, Russell Kirk, denounced publicly the Neocons in the 1980s. Singling out the intellectual genealogy of major Neocon writers, Kirk boldly declared (December 15, 1988): “Not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.”
Essentially, the Neoconservatives were “unpatriotic” in the sense that they placed their zealously globalist values of equality and liberal democracy ahead of their allegiance to their country, or, rather, converted their allegiance to their country into a kind of “world faith” which trumpeted disconnected “ideas” and airy “propositions” over the concrete history of the American experience, itself. America was the “exceptional nation,” unlike all others, with a supreme duty to go round the world and impose those ideas and that vision on other, unenlightened or recalcitrant nations. To use the words of author Allan Bloom (in his The Closing of the American Mind): “And when we Americans speak seriously about politics we mean that our principles of freedom and equality and the rights based on them are rational and everywhere applicable.” We Americans must engage in “an educational experiment undertaken to force those who do not accept these principles to do so.” (Quoted in Paul Gottfried, War and Democracy, 2012, p. 110)
Although he won few friends among the newly transformed conservative establishment, Russell Kirk’s demurrer and the opposition of luminaries like internationally-recognized historian Paul Gottfried and author-turned-politician Patrick Buchanan starkly demonstrated the differences between the Old Right and the increasingly dominant Neocons.
In these so-called “conservative wars” Southern conservatism, when not sidelined by the Neocon ascendancy, found itself fighting side-by-side with the dwindling contingent on the Old Right. And that was logical, for the Old Right had—during the previous decades—treated the South and Confederacy with sympathy, if not support, while the Neoconservatives embraced a Neo-Abolitionism on race, liberal democracy, and, above all, equality that owed more to the nostrums of historic Marxism than to the historic conservatism that Kirk championed.
The late Mel Bradford, arguably the finest historian and philosopher produced by the South since Richard Weaver, also warned, very presciently in the pages of the Modern Age quarterly (in the Winter issue, 1976) of the incompatibility of the Neocon vision with the inherited traditions and republican constitutionalism of the Founders and Framers. In his long essay, “The Heresy of Equality,” which was just one installment in a longstanding debate he had with Dr. Harry Jaffa of the Claremont Institute, Bradford laid bare the abundant intentions of those who came together to form an American nation, while giving the lie to the Neocon narrative that the republic was founded on universalized notions—those “ideas”—of equality and liberal democracy. Those notions, he pointed out perceptively, were a hangover from their days and immersion in the globalist universalism that owed its origin to Marx and Trotsky, and to the Rationalist “philosophes” of the 18th century, rather than to the legacy of kinship and blood, an attachment to community and to the land, and a central religious core that annealed this tradition and continued to make it viable.
What Bradford revealed in his researches, ultimately distilled in his superb volume, Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the American Constitution (Athens, GA, 1993) and later confirmed in the massive research of Colgate University historian Barry Alan Shain (in his The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context: American State Papers, Petitions, Proclamations, and Letters of the Delegates to the First National Congresses, 2014) was that our old republic was not founded on abstractions about “equality” or “democracy,” or some fanatical zeal to “impose our democracy and equality” on the rest of the world, or that we were “the model for the rest of the world,” to paraphrase Allan Bloom.
North Carolinian Richard Weaver aptly described the civilization that came to be created in America, most particularly and significantly in the Old South, even a century before the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as one based on a “communal individualism.” By that he meant that those transferred communities from Europe brought with them a communal conformity which offered certain enumerated liberties to each of its members, or at least to the heads of households of families within those communities. There was a degree of autarky that existed; but in many respects those little communities brought with them inherited mores and beliefs that they had held in the old country, and those beliefs were based essentially in ties of blood and attachments to the soil, to the land.
As historian Richard Beale Davis has demonstrated conclusively in his exhaustive history, Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1585-1763 (Knoxville, 1970; 3 vols.), it was in the South where a distinctive communitarian individualism developed which distinguished it almost from the beginning from other regions of America. From the earliest landings at Jamestown and the settlements in South Carolina and Georgia, the Southern colonies developed differently from those of New England. Although by no means in conflict with its inherited British heritage, as were the Puritan settlements and traditions to the north, the South did over the years very gradually modify its rich Anglo-Celtic patrimony, adjusting to distance, circumstance, climate, the presence of Indians, and the mixture of additional folk from other European countries, with their customs and traditions. The result was quantifiably conservative and localist.
Professor Davis equally lays to rest the interpretation of Southern history and character that attributes everything to the presence of slavery. As Professor Bradford, commenting on Davis, makes precise:
The South thought and acted in its own way before the “peculiar institution” was much developed within its boundaries. Colonial Southerners did not agonize in a fever of conscience over the injustice of the condition of those Negroes who were in bondage among them. Contrary to popular misconception, intense moral outrage at slavery was almost unheard of anywhere in the European colonies in the New World until the late eighteenth century, and was decidedly uncommon then. The South embraced slavery in its colonial nonage because Negro slavery seemed to fit the region’s needs—and because the region, through the combination of its intellectual inheritance brought over from the England of the Renaissance with the special conditions of this hemisphere, had reached certain practical conclusions. (Bradford, “Where We Were Born and Raised: The Southern Conservative Tradition,” National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, April 1985, reprinted in The Reactionary Imperative, p. 118)
Commenting on the recent tendency to attach an overriding importance to slavery in the earlier development of Southern culture and character, Davis adds that “…it is difficult to see that in the slave colonies any consistent rationale if indeed any at all developed in defense of the peculiar institution, simply because there was not sufficiently powerful attack upon it to warrant or require a defense.” (Davis, p. 1630) The development of a natural and blood-and-soil conservatism of the South predates the furor over slavery.
Let me give a personal, and I think representative example: my father’s family is of Scottish origin. Actually, after leaving ancestral homes in Counties Argyll and Ayrshire, then passing about fifty years in County Antrim in Ulster, they made the voyage to Philadelphia, arriving in 1716-1717, and settled initially in what is now Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (as deeds show). Their object was cheap and good land on which to raise their families; they were already able to practice their faith in County Antrim, just as they were able to do in Lancaster. And the same “liberties” they had in the old country they also had in Pennsylvania.
Seeking newer and fresh lands, whole families picked up in the later 1730s and made the trip southward along the Great Wagon Road to Augusta County, Virginia, and then, by the 1740s to Rowan County, North Carolina. And what is truly fascinating is that from Scotland (in the early 1600s) to Ulster, to Pennsylvania, to Rowan County, North Carolina, it is the very same families in community, the very same surnames and forenames that one finds in the deed and estate records. Robert W. Ramsey, in his path breaking study, Carolina Cradle: Settlement of the Northwest Carolina Frontier, 1747-1762 (Chapel Hill, 1964), platted the land grants of those pioneers in Rowan County, and over 90% of the family names are the same as those we find in Ulster a century earlier and in the parish registry books of Scotland before that.
And perhaps more striking is that this pattern continued on for another century and more; collateral members of my father’s family made the trek to California in 1848-1849, enticed by promises of gold and new, unploughed lands. There is a community still known as “Catheys Valley” (near Yosemite Park) where they settled, and as late as the 1950s, the same old surnames in the telephone directory still predominated.
But not only do we find the geographical movement of entire families and communities, in the existent correspondence that we do have there is, almost without exception, no word about traveling west or crossing the ocean to seek “freedom” or “equality” or to “create a new nation founded on [globalist and egalitarian] principles.”
Our ancestors were not seeking to establish a “Shining City on a Hill” like the New England Puritans and their descendants, or “create a new people,” but rather to preserve and enhance the old. When those settlers wrote about their experiences, if at all, it was about their respective families and communities having a better life, about cheaper and virgin farm lands, and about conserving the inheritance and traditions they took with them. In other words, the 18th century philosophy of Rationalism, and the ideas of “equality” and “democracy” that we are too inclined to attribute to them, don’t really appear on nearly any level.
And this, at base, practical and communal individualism is reflected in the deliberations preceding the Declaration and then, even more so, by the Framers in 1787—as both Bradford and Shain have convincingly shown. The documentary evidence in every form confirms that. The “right to equality” enshrined in the Declaration is an “equality” viewed from the Colonies across the Atlantic to the English Parliament, equality as to the “rights of Englishmen,” not to social or economic revolution in the former colonies.
Those deliberations in Philadelphia were the product of a community of states, each with their own peculiarities, their own communities of families, with traditions inherited from Christian Europe (largely from the British Isles), and the desire to both preserve that inheritance while co-existing and collaborating with other communities and states in the creation of the American republic, where those traditions and that inheritance would be protected and respected, and could prosper as its families and communities prospered.
And in large part that result was the product of great Southerners, Virginians and Carolinians. It was a result that functioned well for eighty years. The legacy of Northern victory in 1865 was the overthrow of the original republic created by those men, which, in effect, paved the way for the present-day success of the Neoconservatives and the triumph of what the late Sam Francis called the managerial state…and what we now call the Deep State.
Given this history and this context, both the War Between the States and subsequent American history after that conflict, and with the modern displacement by the Neocons of the traditional (and Southern) conservatives and their opposition to the growth in government and to the destruction of those bonds and traditions that characterized the country for centuries, the results we observe around us do not augur well for the future. While the hard core cultural and political Marxist Left continues its rampage through our remaining inherited institutions, those self-erected Neocon defenders accept at least implicitly, many of the same philosophical premises, the intellectual framework of argument, and the long range objectives of their supposed opponents.
Ironically, although they may appear at times in major disagreement, both the hard core multicultural Left and the Neocon “Right” share a commitment to the globalist belief in American “exceptionalism.” In explaining this exceptionalism, they use the same language—about “equality” and “democracy” and “human rights” and “freedom,” its uniqueness to the United States, and the desirability to export its benefits. But, then, the proponents of the dominant Left and of the establishment Neocon Right will appear variously on Fox or on MSNBC, or in the pages of National Review or of The Weekly Standard, to furiously deny the meaning given by their opponents…but all the while using the same linguistic template and positing goals—in civil rights, foreign policy, etc.—which seem remarkably similar, but over which they argue incessantly about the “means.”
Thus, in their zealous defense of the “civil rights” legislation of the 1960s and their advocacy of what they term “moderate feminism” and “equal rights for women” (now extended to same sex marriage), the Neocons mirror the ongoing revolution from the Left and accept generally its overarching premises, even while declaring their fealty to historic American traditions and historic Western Christianity.
It is a defense—if we can call it that—that leads to continuous surrender, if not betrayal, to the Revolution and the subsequent acceptance by those defenders of the latest conquest and advance by the Left, and their subsequent attempt to justify and rationalize to the rest of us why the most recent aberration—same sex marriage, or “gender fluidity”—is actually conservative. Or, that it is critically necessary to send American boys to die in faraway jungles or deserts to “establish democracy,” that is, prevent one group of bloodthirsty fanatical Muslims from killing off another group of bloodthirsty fanatical Muslims—this latter group, of course, willing to do our bidding economically and politically. And all in the name of spreading—mostly we should say imposing—global “equality” and “freedom” and the “fruits of American exceptionalism.”
Neither the leftist Marxist multiculturalists nor the Neoconservatives reflect the genuine beliefs or inheritance left to us by those who came to these shores centuries ago. Both reject the historic conservatism of the South, which embodied that inheritance and the vision of the Founders.
They offer, instead, the spectacle of factions fighting over the increasingly putrid spoils of a once great nation which becomes increasingly weaker and more infected as they assume the roles similar to that of gaming Centurions at the Crucifixion.
The election of Trump threw them—both the cultural Left but also the establishment Neoconservatives—off stride, at least temporarily. And the history of the past year and a half has been a continuous sequence of their efforts to either displace the new administration (by the hard Left and some Never Trumpers) or surround the president and convert him, or at a minimum neuter his “blood and soil,” America First inclinations (by many of the establishment Neocon and their GOP minions).
Who wins this battle, who wins this war, will determine the future of this nation and whether the dominant Deep State narrative, shared by both the establishment Left AND the establishment conservatives, will complete its triumph.
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.