Southern Comfort

By Foner, Eric | The Nation, February 5, 2001 | Go to article overview

Southern Comfort


Foner, Eric, The Nation


Once again, the Civil War has sparked a contemporary political controversy. Two of President Bush's Cabinet nominees--Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft and the prospective Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton--are being asked to explain their praise of the Confederacy.

In a 1996 speech to a conservative group, Norton likened her struggle to preserve states' rights to the Confederate rebellion, saying, "We lost too much" when the Union triumphed. Ashcroft, in a 1998 interview, lauded the magazine Southern Partisan for defending "patriots" like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis and called on "traditionalists" to vindicate the Confederate cause against charges that it represented a "perverted agenda."

What is it about the Confederacy that appeals to so many modern-day conservatives from the party of Lincoln? Neither Ashcroft nor Norton appears to have family roots below the Mason-Dixon line. Ashcroft was born in Chicago, raised in Missouri and educated at Yale. Norton grew up in Colorado. But what is interesting is how conservatives who feel themselves heritage-deficient gravitate to a romanticized memory of the Old South--a usable past that conveniently omits slavery and Jim Crow.

During the 1950s, many conservatives responded favorably to Southern white resistance to desegregation. Moral conservatives saw the white South as a last bastion of traditional Christian civilization in a nation pervaded by individualism and secularism. Many libertarians insisted that federal action to secure civil rights threatened local autonomy, displaying an amazing indifference to the historic denial of blacks' rights by state and local authorities. Then in 1964, Barry Goldwater, who opposed that year's Civil Rights Act, carried five Deep South states, demonstrating that Republicans could strike electoral gold by appealing to white voters' resentment over black gains. Since then, white Southerners have become the backbone of the party's electoral strength.

Over the past two decades, Southern Partisan has carried articles defending apartheid, denying that slavery is contrary to Christian values, calling Lincoln a greater tyrant than George III, insisting that "Negroes, Asians, and Orientals...Hispanics, Latins, and Eastern Europeans have no temperament for democracy" and lamenting that immigration is undermining the "genetic racial pool" of the United States. …

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