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Robert Lewis Dabney and His Attack on Progressivism
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Most Americans who know anything of Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898) know him only as the stern chaplain of General “Stonewall” Jackson and the author of a classic biography of the general. Yet, after the War Between the States Dabney became one of the most intransigent and impressive American critics of industrial capitalism of the late 19th century. During his lifetime his acerbic criticisms were widely read and debated, if not readily embraced.

In April 1865, after four years of bloody conflict, the South, which in many ways had politically dominated the American nation for much of its first seventy-five years, lay defeated, disenfranchised, and ruined. The triumphant Republican Party had eliminated Southern influence and weight in the Federal union, and by so doing, had imposed its view of the American Founding. Through Reconstruction policies and financial dominance, the Republicans and newly-empowered central government would seek to remake the defeated South in a new image. With support from some prominent Southerners, a “progressive” South would arise in the 1870s and 1880s, advocating change, industrialization, and turning away from older ideas of a patriarchal and agriculture-based society. It was Dabney’s role during those years, holding fast to his understanding of the principles of the American Founders, to question the values of this “new South,” as well as the foundations of triumphant capitalism.

Historian David H. Overby has said of Dabney that after the war he “possessed the shrillness of a scorned prophet.” And, indeed, Dabney completely and caustically rejected the new progressivist creed that was being accepted by so many of his fellow Southerners. “I am the Cassandra of Yankeedom,” he exclaimed late in his life in 1894, “predestined to prophesy truth and never to be believed until too late.”

During the last thirty years of his life Dabney would become the South’s—and one of the nation’s—most aggressive critics of industrialism, corporate monopoly, educational “reform,” and religious liberalism. Of course, these had existed long before the Confederacy’s defeat in 1865. But prior to the war, plantation agriculture had been dominant in the South, shaping the region’s politics and cultural outlook. Defeat had given rise to strong doubts concerning the basis for Southern society and culture. In the recent conflict the Northern states apparently had proven the importance of industrial society. Many Southerners now echoed the view of former South Carolina planter Ben Allston: “We must begin at the beginning. We must make a new start.”

The Birth of the New South Creed

Already in the years immediately following the war at least one prominent Southern magazine advocated a reorientation of Southern society towards industrialism. DeBow’s Review of New Orleans had championed a policy of Southern economic nationalism and industrial development before 1861. For editor J. D. B. DeBow (1867), the war confirmed the necessity of leaving behind the old agrarian South: “We have got to go to manufacturing to save ourselves….Every new furnace or factory is a nucleus of a town, to which every needed service is sure to come from the neighborhood or from abroad. Factories and works established establish other factories and works.”

DeBow was soon joined by other Southerners in recommending an economic cure for the problems of Confederate defeat, most notably Edwin DeLeon in Harper’s magazine, Henry Watterson in his Louisville Courier Journal, and Bishop Atticus Haygood in his widely-distributed sermons. But it was the young Henry W. Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution in the 1880s, who became the real prophet and symbol of the “new South” creed. Grady, from a unionist family, studied at South Carolina College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (in New York), working later in Northern iron mills. Paul Gaston in his volume, The New South Creed, says of Grady: “Commercial in its essence, young Grady’s world was built on bristle, energy, and shrewdness, and he experienced none of the genteel leisure allegedly characteristic of the planter class which had led his region into the war.”

As a chief prophet of the new creed, Grady was joined by two other individuals of almost equal importance—Richard Edmonds, editor of the Manufacturer’s Record of Baltimore, and North Carolina publicist Walter Hines Page. For these “new” Southerners industrialization and educational reform were the keys to future success. The fate of the South was inextricably linked to the growth of big industry and commerce. The South could offer the manufacturer natural resources and raw material, cheap labor, and favorable legislation. In turn, the manufacturer would bring jobs, diversification, and, above all, cash wealth. New railways, new businesses, and new (Northern) immigrants would stream south to take advantage of these opportunities. The South must show itself ready and eager for what Grady termed “progressive development” and Northern capital. Most significantly, the South would have to discard its conservative and patriarchal ways when these conflicted with modern ideas and innovation.

For former Congressman James Phelan of Tennessee this meant not only rapid industrialization, but also such innovations as free public education. Other leaders, including Virginia superintendent of public instruction, William H. Ruffner, agreed, and initiated broad programs to transform Southern education by implementing a broad program of state-supported public schools. For them education was to become the base of a permanent prosperity. The child, educated at state (taxpayer) expense, would pay the state back later with his talents and expertise.

For the proponents of the “new South” creed there was literally no place (except perhaps in sentimental novels) for “the ante-bellum ideal of the leisured gentleman who scorned manual labor.” He was, as Paul Gaston states paraphrasing Grady, a “relic that has no place in the new age.” And to confirm the moral superiority of the new commercial man, even religion lent its blessings. Episcopal bishop William Lawrence of Massachusetts echoed a widely held sentiment when he proclaimed: “In the long run, it is only to men of morality that wealth comes. Godliness is in league with riches….Material prosperity is helping to make the national character sweeter, unselfish, more Christ-like.” To which Mark Twain, in his sardonic remarks on these proponents of the post-war capitalist creed, responded: “Brisk men, energetic of movement and speech; the dollar their god, how to get it their religion.”

Robert Lewis Dabney: His Early Years

Moral uncertainties never afflicted Robert Lewis Dabney. He had been reared in a staunchly Calvinist “Old School” Presbyterian home in Louisa County, Virginia. Born of aristocratic Piedmont parents in 1820, Dabney never lost an inherited sense of social hierarchy. As a student at Hampden-Sydney College and the University of Virginia in the early 1840s, he was, according to Virginia historian Francis Butler Simkins, “the Virginia gentleman par excellence, who did not let righteousness interfere with exquisite manners in the presence of ladies.” Ordained and licensed to preach by the Union Theological Seminary then on the Hampden-Sydney campus, Dabney led an active life as a pastor in the Shenandoah Valley before the war. His prominence as a minister and thinker brought him back to Union in the 1850s, where his influence as a teacher of young Southern men was profound. During the war he served as chaplain to “Stonewall” Jackson, and it is through his eloquent biography of that legendary commander that he became known throughout the South and the union.

In 1867 Dabney published his famous A Defense of Virginia [and Through Her, of the South], one of the most unreconstructed apologies produced in defense of the old South. He would take the arguments elaborated in A Defense of Virginia and over the next twenty-five years develop and extend them into a comprehensive critique of the “new South” creed.* It was as if he were still riding at “Stonewall” Jackson’s side. But Dabney’s “ride” in the post-war period would be a lonely one. Only a small group of conservative, mostly Presbyterian divines, would accompany him in his critique of the “new South” and industrial capitalism.

Dabney’s views owe much to his orthodox Presbyterianism. As his biographer Thomas Cary Johnson has pointed out, Dabney “was a servant of God first and primarily.” Preaching, teaching, and writing tomes of theology and philosophy were his major concerns. His volumes Practical Philosophy and Sensualistic Philosophy of the Nineteenth Century and his membership in the Royal Philosophical Society of Great Britain attest to his expertise and international fame. In 1883, finding Union Theological Seminary too liberal for him, Dabney moved to Texas, where he assumed the chair of Mental and Moral Philosophy at the University of Texas.

Industrialism, Monopoly, Oligarchy

Dabney actually first attacked the growth of “industrialism” in the South in 1868. But it was in 1882, at Hampden-Sydney, that he first gave a fully developed overview of his thoughts on the topic. In this prepared speech, “The New South,” Dabney methodically critiqued the ideas of Grady and his followers. He began by restating his firmly held belief in state sovereignty, strict constitutional construction, and natural social hierarchy. “But this century has seen all this reversed,” he exclaimed, “not because the old forms were not good enough for this day, but because they were too good for it.”

Striking directly at the “new South” doctrines, Dabney warned that the chief temptation confronting the South was “to become like the conquerors.” Many of the South’s leaders seemed bent of converting the cities below the Potomac to industrial replicas of New York. For Dabney the South must not sacrifice its heritage and character for what he termed the “Yankee spirit” that, he declared, was “like the tawdry pyrotechnics of some popular feast, burning out its own splendors into ashes, darkness and the villainous stench of brimstone.” The South must strive to retain “all that was true or ennobling in its principles.”

For Dabney the defeat and turning away from those principles after 1865 had as a result the rise of what he termed three major “adverse conditions.”

First, the true relation between God and man had been distorted by egalitarianism. There was no such thing as real human equality, Dabney repeated, and to attempt to impose it was to violate the laws of God and nature. The effects of such efforts were disastrous to society. Dabney explained (in a later commentary):

…one must teach, with Moses, the Apostle Paul, John Hampden, Washington, George Mason, John C. Calhoun, and all that contemptible rabble of ‘old fogies,’ that political society is composed of ‘superiors, inferiors, and equals’; that while all these bear an equitable moral relation to each other, they have very different natural rights and duties; that just government is not founded on the consent of the individuals governed, but on the ordinance of God, and hence a share in the ruling franchise is not a natural right at all, but a privilege to be bestowed according to a wise discretion on a limited class having qualification to use it for the good of the whole; that the integers out of which the State is constituted are not individuals, but families represented in their parental heads; that every human being is born under authority (parental and civic) instead of being born ‘free’ in the licentious sense that liberty is each one’s privilege of doing what he chooses; that subordination, and not that license, is the natural state of all men; and that without such equitable distribution of different duties and rights among the classes naturally differing in condition, and subordination of some to others, and of all to the law, society is as impossible as is the existence of a house without distinction between the foundation stone and the cap-stones.

The second adverse condition Dabney attacked was the growth of financial oligarchy. Here Dabney drew a comparison between the United States of 1789 and ninety-three years later, in the 1882. In the former year no one city, no one or two states, no handful of corporate giants controlled the nation’s wealth. But in 1882 New York City had become “the commercial mistress” of the whole nation and a handful of industrial and financial barons dictated policies to presidents. Asked Dabney: “Can a sensible man persuade himself that political independence and individual initiative shall remain in a land where financial despotism has become established?”

Dabney continued: “the transfer of wealth and power into the hands of a few, and the marvelous applications of science and mechanic art to cheapen transportation and production” were causing not just the transformation of the South, but a massive change in all of American society. Centralization and monopolization in industry meant a vast reorientation in manufacturing, with far-reaching effects socially and culturally. What happened to independent small businessmen and craftsmen who were now overwhelmed by monopolies, mergers, and crushing competition? When capital was controlled by the few, and the powerful barons of industry commanded the masses at their bidding, individual liberty soon disappeared.

This brought Dabney to his third adverse condition, the destruction of true republican government and the establishment of what he saw as a political and managerial oligarchy.

In the old pre-war South most states had some sort of suffrage requirement, usually a freehold requirement, which meant that only men who had a real interest in society (usually property) could vote. These requirements had been wisely included in the constitutions of the original states by their founders. Post-war Reconstruction constitutions did away with these in the name of “democracy.” But the destruction of suffrage requirements did not bring a real victory for “democracy.” Rather, on-the-make politicians could now make all sorts of promises to the enfranchised masses without the old limitations and safeguards to protect the system from serious abuse and corruption. Concentrated wealth provided almost unlimited opportunity for a powerful few to sway and manipulate the public. In post-war America it was but an easy step to observe that the oligarchies of wealth would now control politics, as well. “Is it Washington or Wall Street,” exclaimed Dabney, “which really dictates what platforms [of the political parties] shall be set forth, and what candidates shall be elected, and what appointments shall be made? For certain it is not the people of the states.”

Dabney in Texas

At the University of Texas Dabney expanded his critique of industrialism and the “new South” creed. Perhaps his most significant essay of his later career was “The Philosophy Regulating Private Corporations,” in which he closely examined the whole idea of “incorporating” modern and national (and international) super-businesses. A modern corporation was “an artificial person, created by the law, usually of many individuals, and clothed by its charter with certain rights of personality, and with a continuity of existence outlasting the natural life of each of its members.” Private corporations once in the years before the war had been “the only expedient of the weak as against the strong.” But now, said Dabney, it was “too often the partial and usurping artifice of equals against their fellows—of the strong against the weak….A new aristocracy, armed by law with class privileges and powers more odious than feudal” was the result. Such manipulation was “a flagrant natural injustice” to the public, and especially to “the honest working man.” Who could not fail to see the error of the “ill-advised species of legislation” that permitted all shades of corruption in chartering such establishments? State legislatures, both North and South, seemed “to meet mainly to register the edicts of railroad presidents and coal barons,” Dabney continued.

Perhaps worst of all was the corrosive influence that these monopolies and super-corporations had on the virtue of the citizens, the stability of families, and the independence of small businessmen. The new giants of industry and commerce undermined “the domestic and personal independence of the yeomanry,” many of whom were driven off their farms in desperation to look for work in the bustling new cities of the South. The man of the country did not want to be a part of “the multitudinous mass proletariat, dependent on the corporation for his work, his wages, his cottage, his kitchen garden, and the privilege of buying the provisions for his family.” Yet, that was precisely what was happening. Such a condition was incompatible with the principles of true, older republicanism, as the Founders had foreseen it.

In 1891-1892 Dabney authored two more important contributions, “The Labor Union, the Strike and the Commune” and “The Depression of American Farming Interests.” Dabney distrusted unions and disliked strikes. To him they were “a forcible attempt to invade and dominate the legitimate influence of the universal law of supply and demand. This law instructs us that generally the relation of supply to demand in any commodity must regulate its price.” Nevertheless, Dabney was “not oblivious to the plea that skilled labor is entitled to higher remuneration.” It was true that many working men did not get a fair shake from their employers, especially from the new corporate monopolies.

The growth of Populism disturbed Dabney, not because he was unsympathetic to the plight of American farmers, but for the very reason that appeared so attractive to many: the Populists’ simplistic approach to issues, especially concerning “free silver.” In a letter to his son Charles in 1894, Dabney expressed his dismay that “the whole Southern Democracy, mislead by a parcel of shysters and demagogues…have gone mad after this free silver nonsense.” Silver currency was not the cure to the nation’s economic doldrums. Rather, wrote Dabney, the economy had become unbalanced by the over-expanding weight of monopolies which violated the equitable functioning of the law of supply and demand. The burden of rural taxation—a “crushing weight”—was grossly unfair. The “protective system” effectively cushioned the “monopoly rings and combinations” from the check of local and home competition. On one point Dabney did share views in common with many Populists: he strongly supported the repeal of all class legislation and laws unfairly favoring monopoly corporations at the expense of small entrepreneurs.

Dabney and Education

When he was not excoriating the financial capitalist doctrines of the “new South” creed, Dabney made periodic assaults on other new ideas. His running debate with Virginia’s first superintendent of public instruction, William H. Ruffner, over state supported schools, is a case in point. Dabney began the controversy with his February, 1876 article, “The Negro and the Common School,” in Planter and Farmer magazine, in which he clearly stated his opposition to the “Yankee theory” of free public education, especially for freedmen. For him the former slaves were wards of the South to be guided slowly and paternally through difficult years of adjustment. To promise the Negro immediate rights and an education that could never be his was dishonest and disingenuous; only through an extended period of tutelage could the Negro advance in Southern society.

In four successive articles published in the Richmond Enquirer Dabney attacked Virginia’s plan for free public education as elaborated by superintendent Ruffner. General and free education sought to impose an unnatural equality on all, he insisted. “Providence, social laws, and parental virtues and efforts, do inevitably legislate in favor of some classes of boys,” he declared. “If the State undertakes to countervail that legislation of nature by leveling action, the attempt is wicked, mischievous, and futile.” Indeed, Dabney questioned “whether the use merely of letters is not education, but only one means of education, and not the only means.” True education involved more than simply the use of letters. The laboring classes had traditionally found education through their various professions, a training of the “moral virtues by the fidelity and endurance” with which they earned their livelihood. The laboring man “ennobles his taste and sentiments by looking up to the superior who employs him. If to these influences you add the awakening, elevating, expanding force of Christian principles, you have given the laborer a true education…a hundred fold more true, more suitable, more useful, than the communication of certain literary arts, which he will almost necessarily disuse.”

Mentioning the distinct danger of the new public schools being used by “demagogues, who are in power for a time, in the interests of their faction,” Dabney moved on to his most serious indictment of public education: what happens to religious instruction if the state takes over the teaching of children? Given the status of post-war relations between church and state and changing constitutional interpretations, the state could not endorse one religious belief over another. State-sponsored education tended to become secularized. But if education were not Christian, then it would inevitably become anti-Christian. “He that is not with his God is against Him,” Dabney repeated. Could education really be education if it educated “the mind without purifying the heart?” Dabney answered: “There can be no true education without moral culture, and no true moral culture without Christianity.” All basic issues in life were at their core religious and ethical issues. To ignore this fact was to open the door wide to anti-Christianity.

Dabney felt that the Virginia school system should be reformed “back towards the system of our fathers just as fast as possible.” The old system—one of semi-private and private institutions, many controlled by families or religious interests—was much preferable to the new one. It would be economical, avoiding unnecessary taxation. It would solve the problem of religion in the schools by “leaving the school as the creature of the parents, and not of the state….This old system evinced its wisdom by avoiding the pagan, Spartan theory, which makes the State the parent. It left the parent supreme in his God-given sphere, as the responsible party for providing and directing the education of his own offspring.”

Dabney and the Future of the South

When it came to suggesting remedies for the problems he saw implicit in the “new South” capitalist creed, Dabney does not elaborate in great detail. Generally, he writes, “the nation should return to a firm and just administration of the laws, coupled with wise and equitable commercial and industrial legislation and the propagation of industry…economy and contentment among the people by means of Christian principles.”

In his time Dabney’s prescriptions appeared outdated to his contemporaries even before he presented them. Yet, the themes he kept alive have resonated throughout the subsequent history of the South (as well as in the nation). Only thirty years after his death, in the midst of the worst depression in American history, twelve prominent Southern writers—the Southern Agrarians—came together to produce the volume I’ll Take My Stand, a call for the South to reassert its traditions, its culture, and its distinctive economy, echoing strikingly Dabney in a number of ways.

Contemporaneously in England, Catholic essayists G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and others developed a similar approach, Distributivism, advocating economic and political decentralization, regionalism, a return to the land, and a renewed emphasis on community, family, and church. Both Agrarians and Distributivists contributed in the 1930s to Seward Collins’ journal The American Review, and subsequent essays appeared in two seminal volumes: Who Owns America? and Attack on the Leviathan. Despite efforts to translate these ideas into action, the South (and the nation) headed in an opposite direction.

In recent years a few Southerners and other Americans have begun to rediscover Robert Lewis Dabney. In our age of faceless and rootless international corporations that owe no allegiance to locality or community, when only money and power seem to sway politicians, and where hidden elites and “inside-the-beltway” think-tanks preside over what was once a republic, in this age Dabney perhaps has something to say.

In his fiery essays Dabney makes few concrete suggestions for reform. Nevertheless, his critical analysis—now after the sordid history of the twentieth century—is in many ways prophetic. For those who give up their heritage and abandon their principles, Dabney has a warning: you forfeit your birthright at your own peril. For those willing to fight for their beliefs, however forlorn the cause may seem, Dabney offers encouragement. For Robert Lewis Dabney, to paraphrase James Branch Cabell, history is not a matter of record; it is a matter of faith.


Dr. Boyd D. Cathey, a Tar Heel native, holds an MA degree in American intellectual history (Old South) from the University of Virginia, where he was a Thomas Jefferson Fellow, and earned a doctorate in European history and political philosophy from the University of Navarra, in Pamplona, Spain. He has taught history in the United States and in Argentina, and is the author of articles on historical, political, and musical topics published in English, Spanish, and French publications.

An earlier version of this article had appeared in the January/February 2004 (volume 2, no.1) issue of Southern Mercury .


*Dabney’s social, political, theological, and philosophical essays were collected by editor C. R. Vaughan, Discussions (1890-1897), 4 vols. Mexico, Missouri, 1897, and have been republished. Volume 4 contains his “secular” essays. Thomas C. J. Johnson’s 1903 biography, Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, remains the standard reference biography.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Progressives, The South 
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  1. Great article! Thanks, Dr. Cathey!

  2. Anonymous [AKA "My Puritanical Opinion"] says: • Website

    Thank you for posting this article. Dabney is one of my favorite authors, and maybe the most prophetic. No writings more than his need to be read today when the South is being dismantled, even to the point of erasing its history by removing its Confederate monuments (in 2017.)

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