“Why, we could lick them in a month!” boasts Stuart Tarleton soon after the Confederates fire on Fort Sumter in Margaret Mitchell’s Gon e with the Wind. “Gentlemen always fight better than rabble. A month—why, one battle.” At that point, young Mr. Tarleton is interrupted by Rhett Butler, a rather darker character in Mitchell’s novel than the swashbuckling playboy created by Clark Gable on the screen. Butler points out that the Southerners do not possess what modern strategists would call the industrial and logistical infrastructure with which a modern war roust be fought—the cannon factories, iron foundries, railroads, and woolen and cotton mills that the North has in abundance. “But, of course, he says, “you gentlemen have thought of these things.”
Of course they hadn’t thought of those things. What they had thought about were the glories of the coming conflict and the rights they were going to vindicate, and within a few years and a few more battles than Stuart Tarleton had anticipated, he and his twin brother were dead, along with most of the others who had listened to them, the Confederacy itself, and the society on which it rested. As for Rhett Butler, he not only survived but flourished, confident in his philosophy that there are two times when a man can easily make a fortune for himself— once when a civilization rises, an once when a civilization falls.
Today, 130 years after the disasters to which the chatter of valiant fools like Stuart Tarleton led, secessionism purports to rise from the ashes, this time embodied mainly in the league of the South, of which most of the editors of this magazine except me are members. Its leaders foreswear the use of violence, so we need not anticipate that the results will be similar—at least not until a good many more Southerners sign up than seem to have done so in the four years of the League’s existence and until the federal government pays more attention to them than it has done to date. Nevertheless, if the physical extermination of 600,000 white men over the burning issue of whether four million black men are to be slaves or serfs is not on the agenda this time, secessionism promises to be no less a disaster for those of the American right than it was for the pretty belles and beaux of Mitchell’s novel. It is unfortunate that many of those gentlemen most dedicated to secession seem not to have thought of the weaknesses of their position any more than Stuart Tarleton and the other guests at the Wilkes barbecue had.
Two main forces appear to drive time resurrection of Southern secessionism. In the first place, the American right as a serious political movement has collapsed, leaving its most dedicated adherents with no obvious vehicle for pursuing its goals of dismantling the federal leviathan and ending the cultural and demographic inundation of the South and the rest of the nation. Second, a concerted onslaught against Southern and Confederate symbols and traditions, most clearly represented in the attacks on public display of the Confederate Battle Flag, rightly excites the wrath of Southerners who remain loyal to the memory of the Confederacy and the culture that the flag and the war have come to represent. Correctly lacking any confidence in the Republican Party or the neoconservative-dominated “conservative movement,” Southerners of the right have decided to chuck it all and set off on their own, with the goal of invoking the traditions and identity of their own land and culture as the basis for resisting federal tyranny and their own racial and cultural destruction.
Yet neither of these two forces provides an adequate justification for secession, and neither suggests any realistic prospect of success. There are, to put it simply, two strong reasons why secession, for the South or any other part of the nation, is not a good idea: it is not practical; and even if it were practical, it would not be desirable.
Leaders of Southern secessionism often point to sister movements abroad— to secessionist movements in Northern Italy, Quebec, Scotland, the Balkans, and other places—as well as to perennial discussions and controversies about a kind of secession in various states, cities, and regions in this country. But the foreign movements and those in the United States are irrelevant to what Southerners actually propose. Abroad, where secessionism has gathered significant support, it has done so because those pushing it can claim to be the heirs of real and ancient nations or at least of subnational regions that exhibit far more distinctiveness than the American South, today or at any time in its history, can claim. Scotland, Quebec, the Balkan peoples, and even Northern Italy all call boast of distinctive linguistic, religious, ethnic, and historical heritages, far more distinctive than those of the South, and some can point to some period in their past when they actually constituted autonomous states. Indeed, compared to some of these nations or regions, the American South under close scrutiny begins to vanish as a cultural unity. There is at least as much difference between Tidewater Virginia and East ‘Tennessee or between northern and southern Louisiana as there is between Scotland and England or Northern and Southern Italy today.
Within the United States, the periodic demands for breaking Staten Island off from New York City or East Kansas from West Kansas or Southern California from Northern California are not secessionist movements in the same sense as what the Southerners advocate. None of these other movements contemplates leaving the national political unity of the United States. It makes sense that over time some borders and jurisdictions will become outmoded, and to redraw the map every now and then to suit contemporary interests and needs is unobjectionable. But it is not secession in the sense that Southerners and most dictionaries use the term, and to cite such movements (none of which has so far been successful) as examples of the rising dissatisfaction with the unified nation-state is fallacious.
Nor do contemporary Southern secessionists make any compelling case for the separation of their own region from the larger national unity. Historically, the Southern people have had an arguable case for separation, and in 1860, with the prospect of their slave-powered economy being gradually gutted by Northern dominance, their case was more arguable than ever, though even then there was less than a universal consensus in the South for separation. Today, that case simply does not apply. The modern South has probably profited from federal largesse more than most other regions, and the argument for states’ rights, which Southerners invoked from Jefferson to George Wallace, is silenced by the demands of Southern politicians for more farm subsidies, more defense contracts, more military bases, more federal highways, and – if we include blacks as Southerners, which the League readily does – more “civil rights,” more affirmative action, more federal marshals to enforce them, and more welfare.