Did the plantation aristocrats ruin America?

Over at Salon.com, Sara Robinson claims that the Southern aristocracy’s values—or lack thereof—have become the dominant ones among the governing class. This, she believes, is sending us all to hell in a handcart.  I stumble across similar editorials from time to time, in which a pundit flies into hysterics over the ascendancy of Southern and/or conservative and/or evangelical forces with the same horror of a Roman patrician watching the Goths pour across the border.

Robinson started losing me right at the outset.  She argues that the Yankee elite had a sense of noblesse oblige, whereas Southern planters always displayed an “utter lack of civic interest.”  From a purely historical standpoint, this is simply asinine.  Noblesse oblige was an integral part of the worldview of colonial Tidewater planters.  Anyone who’s read anything substantial on early Virginia society should know this.

Equally bizarre is her inclusion of Woodrow Wilson as one of the “nerdy, wonky intellectuals who, for all their faults, at least took the business of good government seriously.”  It’s true that Wilson was a reformer.  And yet Wilson was also a Southern Democrat, the son of a Celtic father who migrated from Ohio to the South before the Civil War and enthusiastically embraced the Confederacy. Robinson decries the Southern aristocracy’s belief in inequality; she should recall that Wilson held firmly to that belief, and allowed his cabinet members to segregate their departments’ offices.  In fact, Wilson is one of many examples one might cite to demonstrate the extent of Robinson’s drastic over-generalization; neither Southernness nor a belief in racial inequality have been incompatible with the reformist spirit over the course of American history.

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3 Comments

Filed under History and Memory

3 responses to “Did the plantation aristocrats ruin America?

  1. Another example of someone who doesn’t know history trying to shape it to fit their own ideology.

  2. Without question a Howard Zinn inspired analysis of our national history and character with an unapologetic reverence for Northeastern “Yankee” Culture. Once again Red-state Southerners are the guys responsible for ALL of our US social, cultural, and economic woes, Southern whites, and of these whites, the rich in particular. Furthermore, this tiny minority is a clever bunch. Gosh, they’ve even brought President Obama into their ideological fold. Like it or not, whether we believe it or not, the rich Southern white guy is leading us down the primrose path to national ruin just as if it were 1860 all over again. An astonishing essay. Nevertheless I prefer it when a dyed-in-the-wool socialist sheds her mainline political clothing, lays her cards down and hides no longer behind a “Liberal” banner. She openly despises the South and any other part of the country that has embraced the degenerate values of the old Southern elite, an old bogeyman that has the US by the privates. The US is on the road to ruin because we Southerners, still dreaming of the old plantation, just cannot be more like the witch-burning Puritans and their slave-ship owning children. The US is on the road to ruin because our rich don’t have the civic-minded “Noblesse oblige”, the virtuous, progressive, and generous values of the rich in the Northeast. It’s been awhile since I’ve struggled to digest and “worry-down”, (as my old Southern grandad might have said) a smellier load of horse manure. I read the whole thing. And like being tied to the whipping post, I sure was glad when it was over.

  3. Steve Peck

    The writer makes strong points but fails in making a good citizen vs. bad citizen comparison with north vs. south. Her president’s cited did little to move the country away from the racism inherent in slavery or separate but equal. The country was guilty of the original sin.

    One point to ponder is the lasting effect of slavery on whites in the south. To own a human being and or feel racially superior to others for generations has to scar the soul. The 100 years of Jim Crow likewise had to warp our white sense of reality. I think we white southerners should consider how that effects our politics and lives. Ms. Robinson is on to something here but she does no good argument by making racism a purely sectional issue.

    Was the north ever ” essentially meritocratic, civic-minded and generally believes that it will do better when everybody else does better, too “? .No I do not think that is true. The mills and mines of the northeast in the past century were often horrendous. Immigrants be they Irish, Italian, or Chinese were often ruthlessly exploited and repressed.

    The questions the writer begs but does not address directly are to what extent do we define ourselves by money, power, or ethnic background? What do we have a moral and civic duty to the country in caring for all citizens?

    Wealth defined as property is it human beings, land, trust funds, business ownership, stocks or bonds defines power in this country. Duty to country does not seem to be in the equation at times. My own belief is that the people are the greatest assets we have. If we do not educate and provide healthcare to the citizens we do not defend the country. Promoting the welfare of our citizens and defending the country must be the first priorities of our government.

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