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August 01, 2004
The South Was Right (James and Walter Kennedy)


Pursing, in a casual way, my inquiry into exactly why a handful of southern states think of themselves as "The South" and imagine they were destined for some kind of greatness on the world stage that they were robbed of when they lost the Civil War, I decided to forego the scholarly and learned tomes on the subject.

My apologies to any scholars out there, but there are only so many hours in the day and all I really required was the most cursory understanding of the issue, so, I chose this book.

For one thing, the title promised it was a work by wingnuts, and if you're only casually interested in a topic, the wingnuts are more likely to offer amusement and entertainment with the information than someone with, you know, an actual reputation for sanity to safeguard.

For another, I have a private theory that if you want to know the bedrock beliefs that underlie any movement, you can identify them more easily through the writings of the hard-core wingnuts than anyone else. There's always a leavening of truth and facts in with the lies, distortions, and hallucinations. A healthy percentage of what they write is what their adherents believe, even though they might not say it aloud. (The psychology of all this will be obvious.)

And in caricature, you can most quickly spot identifying characteristics, of course.

So. What did I learn?

Well, by cherry-picking sources, carefully quoting out of context, and name-calling, the authors inadvertently prove that the South was, in fact, quite wrong.

They naturally hoped to convince their readers that that handful of southern states were and should be a nation separate from the UsofA, but only managed to convince this reader that there's a lot of bigotry still to be overcome in this country. (And that our public education system needs an overhaul.)

While arguing that the Civil War had almost nothing to do with slavery, the authors can't help returning to the subject again and again. They provide copies of notes and letters, describing what a laudatory institution it was for most slaves and how bitterly many of them missed it when the 'Damned Yankees' stole it from them.

They dismiss stories of cruelties and atrocities, (barely worth mentioning, practically never happened, certainly less than 30% of slaveowners beat, tortured, or otherwise abused their slaves. It's like parents sexually abusing their children. These things happen and it's just shocking, but it wasn't important then and you don't kneed to think about it now) and dwell on reports of slaves happy in their captivity and warmly fond of their owners.

Even beyond the explicit discussion of slavery, it's difficult to describe the level of racism implicit in almost every line of this book, but the sentiment is an ugly stain that underlies everything the authors have written. (It's one of those books that makes you want to take a shower after you've been reading it.)

All the familiar epithets are there. Yankee. Carpetbagger. Southern Scalawag. (Name-calling is a major feature of their argument that the southern states should have been allowed to go their own way.)

There are the predictable and copious references to Jefferson and the superiority of an agrarian society.

There's even (in a no-doubt inadvertent foray into actual defense of their premise) an interesting argument about the break-up of the Soviet Union and an accusation of hypocrisy on the part of "New England Yankees" for encouraging those states to 'secede' while denying some southern states here the same freedom.

The premise of the book (as "defended" by the authors) is unconvincing; the "defense" itself is logically and morally flawed, and the level of ignorance displayed about this country, both then and now, simply tells me once again that we have got to do something about the quality of public education in this country.

I've read it, so I'm reviewing it, but I can't recommend it. It wasn't even all that entertaining in a, "look how crazy some people can be" kind of way, like I'd hoped.

I simply can't accept that the level of poverty and lack of opportunity in some southern states today is somehow nobler than the level of poverty and lack of opportunity that exists in inner cities and small towns all over the country.

That's their main premise, aside from the "slavery wasn't the evil your teacher told you it was" argument. That they were a noble, agrarian society moving toward perfect freedom and equality and that Yankees were jealous so they've been systematically repressing 'the South' for the last hundred years.

It's worth mentioning, I think, that their main legal argument for the southern states' "right" to secede is that since the Constitution doesn't specifically say it's creating a perpetual union, that states are entitled to leave when the mood strikes them.

If I'd been choosing a title for this one, I'd have chosen, "Losers Without A Clue" but that's just me.

(*I'm not providing a link to an on-line source to buy the book because it would be a waste of your money. Anyone who feels they just have to read it, let me know. I'll be happy to rid my house of my copy. I believe the rest of my books feel that this volume brings down the tone of the place considerably.)

Posted by AnneZook at 10:49 AM


Sorry to hear your views on this book were so negative. I was born southern and have experienced many things southern. The south is very different from the northern states in culture and beliefs. The difference may or may not be more than at the time of the souths war for independence. I took something very different from what I read.

I read of a people who believed that they should have the right as to how much money was given to the central government, how much authority that goverment should have, and how the voice of the people should be reflected by the government they are paying to continue. As far as slavery I agree it is wrong for one person to own another, but now we face the current situation in which our government has included itself. It is wrong for one country or entity to decide what form of freedom another country or entity should have even if it is morally wrong to them. It is their choice and that was the choice of the southern states. Although it may have been wrong to the northern states the southern states wanted the right to control their destiny. They were seeking a government of the people, for the people, and by the people. The very ideas this country was founded upon.

I'm very proud of my southern heritage and I believe in individual rights, but I also have a problem with government telling how much of a crop to grow to keep the dollar amount where they want it, or to set limits on the amount of gas that can be sent to market. Our government is controlled by rich people getting richer. I implore you to read the web site of moveon.org and read a little about the things our government is putting over on us while we stand by watching. I also invite you to come to the south and see the true southerners in all our hospitable glory. You are always welcome here!

Posted by: Mark M at August 3, 2004 01:42 AM

Mark - I'm interested to see what you brought away from the book.

For instance, the not-so subtle racism and the contempt for all things Northern that was so prominent to my eyes seems to be irrelevant to your memories of the book.

You don't address the name-calling or the quoting out of context that the authors were using to demonstrate their "moral" right to freedom.

You don't address the dichotomy present in the country at the time of how "freedom" could be worth dying for for some but so irrelevant for others that slaveholding was considered acceptable.

Any case the authors were trying to make for a "legal and moral" right to freedom was undermined by their defense of slavery. They didn't want to give "the South" the right to a voice in government, just selected parts of it.

The fact is that in the north, we've learned to accept and regret the nationwide policy of racism that was fundamental to the founding of our country, but parts of the south are still pretending there's no dissonance between, to use the words you quoted, "of the people, for the people, and by the people" and enslavement of some of the people.

That argument is morally bankrupt. It was a fallacy from the beginning, not just from the time of the Civil War.

Sticking with our topic, the situation at the time was far more complex than either you or I have the space to address here, but my review of the book is not an indictment of the south. It's an indictment of a poorly written piece of propaganda.

I'm no expert but I habitually spot-check facts and quotes from the books I review, so I can get a sense of how honestly authors are citing source material. The very first quote I checked from this book turned out to be a fragment of a sentence lifted out of context to create an illusion of the "persecution of the south" the authors were trying to claim existed.

This is not a well-written book and it's not a reliable source of information. That's what I'm saying.

(P.S. Whatever the government is "putting over" on "us" they're "putting over" on the entire country, not just southern states. Nor am I certain what the rest of your argument is actually saying.

As far as slavery I agree it is wrong for one person to own another, but now we face the current situation in which our government has included itself. It is wrong for one country or entity to decide what form of freedom another country or entity should have even if it is morally wrong to them.

I don't understand what you're saying here, for instance.)

(P.P.S. I may be mistaken, but as I understand it, if you're not taking government handouts in the form of subsidys or something, the the government can't control what you grow, so the argument, as phrased here, is inaccurate.)

Posted by: Anne at August 3, 2004 08:38 AM


The fact is, States did have a right to succeed! So legally, the Souths rights were trampled on. But also intersesting is who was freed in the Emanicipation Proclamation....only the slaves in the South. Why didn't He free the slaves in the North? He didn't have the authority to make any laws in the South.

But you ask any schoool kid who freed the slaves, and its "Honest Abe" and the E.P.!

Posted by: Buzz at August 3, 2004 11:26 AM

The Revolution established the concept of secession, if you have a just cause and can win the war. Ironically, I think the South's right to secede could be a bit stronger under a 20th century 'self-determination' argument than under the 'Constitution doesn't say' doctrine, which can cut either way. Except that the South does not constitute an ethnic 'nation' in any meaningful sense of the word. Oh, and the South had nothing resembling a 'just cause' except the natural decay of an agrarian slave society facing the rise of rights and the efficiency of industrial wage labor. (Yes, I know that's a simplification, but it's not wrong, for all that).

Yes, the Emancipation Proclamation referred to slaves in the Confederate States: most of the Union states didn't have legal slavery, except for the doctrine of return, so the number of slaves left in slavery at that point was very small. Final abolition was under the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified by all Union states before Lincoln's death (so he should get a little credit for it) and enough former Confederate states to make it the law of the land December 6, 1865. Anyone think it should be repealed or invalidated? I didn't think so.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at August 4, 2004 12:43 AM