Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism: A New Look at an Old Question

By McPherson, James M. | Civil War History, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism: A New Look at an Old Question


McPherson, James M., Civil War History


The notion of American Exceptionalism has received quite a drubbing since the heyday of the exceptionalist thesis among the consensus school of historians in the 1950s. Interpreters of the American experience then argued that something special about the American experience--whether it was abundance, free land on the frontier, the absence of a feudal past, exceptional mobility and the relative lack of class conflict, or the pragmatic and consensual liberalism of our politics--set the American people apart from the rest of mankind. Historians writing since the 1950s, by contrast, have demonstrated the existence of class and class conflict, ideological politics, land speculation, and patterns of economic and industrial development similar to those of Western Europe that placed the United States in the mainstream of modern North Atlantic history, not on a special and privileged fringe. (1)

If the theme of American Exceptionalism has suffered heavy and perhaps irreparable damage, the idea of Southern Exceptionalism still flourishes-though also subjected to repeated challenges. In this essay, "Southern Exceptionalism" refers to the belief that the South has "possessed a separate and unique identity ... which appeared to be out of the mainstream of American experience." (2) Or as Quentin Compson (in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!) expressed it in a reply to his Canadian-born college roommate's question about what made Southerners tick: "You can't understand it. You would have to be born there."

The questions of whether the South was indeed out of the mainstream and if so, whether it has recently been swept into it, continue to be vital issues in Southern historiography. The clash of viewpoints can be illustrated by a sampling of titles or subtitles of books that have appeared in recent years. On one side we have: The Enduring South; The Everlasting South; The Idea of the South; The Lasting South; and The Continuity of Southern Distinctiveness--all arguing, in one way or another, that the South was and continues to be different. On the other side we have: The Southerner as American; The Americanization of Dixie; Epitaph for Dixie; Southerners and Other Americans; The Vanishing South; and Into the Mainstream. Some of these books insist that "the traditional emphasis on the South's differentness ... is wrong historically." (3) Others concede that while the South may once have been different, it has ceased to be or is ceasing to be so. There is no unanimity among this latter group of scholars about precisely when or how the South joined the mainstream. Some emphasize the civil rights revolution of the 1960s; others the bulldozer revolution of the 1950s; still others the Chamber of Commerce Babbittry of the 1920s; and some the New South crusade of the 1880s. As far back as 1869 the Yankee novelist John William De Forest wrote of the South: "We shall do well to study this peculiar people, which will soon lose its peculiarities." As George Tindall has wryly remarked, the Vanishing South has "staged one of the most prolonged disappearing acts since the decline and fall of Rome." (4)

Some historians, however, would quarrel with the concept of a Vanishing South because they believe that the South as a separate, exceptional entity never existed--with of course the ephemeral exception of the Confederacy. But a good many other historians insist that not only did a unique "South" exist before the Civil War, but also that its sense of a separate identity that was being threatened by the North was the underlying cause of secession. A few paired quotations will illustrate these conflicting interpretations.

In 1960 one Southern historian maintained that "no picture of the Old South as a section confident and united in its dedication to a neo-feudal social order, and no explanation of the Civil War as a conflict between 'two civilizations,' can encompass the complexity and pathos of the antebellum reality. …

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