When General Lee handed Grant his surrender and my ancestors went home in defeat, there was reason to believe that one of the great unresolved conflicts over the meaning of the American experiment had been laid to a bloody rest.
No, I’m not talking about slavery and no, it did not in fact prove to be the end.
The most important original argument over American’s identity was best encapsulated in the competing visions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Simply put, Hamilton was a proto-capitalist New York banker who wanted to see the country embrace a commercial model. His vision would require a strong central government to invest in infrastructure and regulation.
Jefferson was a Southern plantation owner who wanted a republic of small landholders where each was practically sovereign on his own property. His model required almost no central government. It was simple and in the beginning it was dominant, especially in the South.
In the years after the Revolution Northern states began a shift toward industrial capitalism. Over strenuous Southern objections those states, and the Federal government wherever possible, began chartering banks, building canals, expanding ports, and laying railroad tracks. You can’t develop a coal industry in Pennsylvania if you can’t ship the product to New York. Building that infrastructure would require more organization and capital than individuals could fund on their own, but would yield massive benefits to a wide swath of the country.
Southerners were able to block most Federal expenditures for infrastructure. President Jefferson himself dismissed the Erie Canal as “little short of madness.” His fellow Virginian, President James Madison, vetoed an effort to fund it. It was eventually financed by New York State. It brought massive new wealth to the Great Lakes basin and solidified New York City as the commercial capital of the nation.
It brought nothing to the South.
My Southern ancestors lived quiet rural lives. The harshest and most dangerous labor in their world was performed by slaves, giving them a sort of borrowed dignity regardless of whether they owned any slaves themselves. Religion was paramount, followed by family, clan and country. Their agricultural model and warm climate left them free from the need to organize any meaningful government beyond basic police and courts.
There were trains and factories, but few of them. Southern states resisted any organized industrial planning and fought federal efforts to build infrastructure. When the war came they never had a chance. Their aristocratic, martial spirit made them formidable fighters, but they were lousy at coordination. They were plowed under by the massive organizational power of a Capitalist civilization. They lost because they had built a weaker system.
Wars don’t necessarily change cultures. The South has experienced waves of Federal Reconstruction, including the post-war occupation, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement. Each has had some impact, but my people have never openly confronted the central question that still hangs in the air.
Will we decide – deliberately – to join a modern Capitalist nation with all the complex responsibilities and spectacular benefits it brings, or will we continue to cling to the dead vision of The Confederate Dream? The South has never plainly confronted that choice. Up to now it has been dragged kicking and screaming into a form of Global Capitalism-Lite, accepting it only so much as it was better than it’s opposite, godless Communism.
We have now fielded a Republican Congress which is determined to burn down the Hamiltonian Republic that has emerged since the war and return to a “simpler” time. Along the way they would damage if not destroy the benefits we’ve gained from our reluctant Capitalism.
You may not think that’s what you voted for. After all, no one can say out loud that they are fighting for the Confederate way of life, and some who embrace it may not even recognize it. But you can get some hints at what’s going on if you probe the Paul Boys for their thoughts on Lincoln.
The weird AM radio and Tea Party rhetoric of fighting “socialism” sounds absurd, but only if you take it literally. That ridiculous bluster is a more socially acceptable proxy for what is actually driving this movement, especially in the South. We want to relive a fleeting moment of Jeffersonian simplicity.
It will be an expensive vacation.
If you want to know what a Neo-Confederate political model looks like in a modern country, try to find a good public school for your kids in Mexico. That’s a rough description of where these people will take us if we let them.
In their guts, no one prefers Hamilton over Jefferson. The Jeffersonian vision of every man as a king on his own land just feels good. A country of bankers and “wage slaves” has zero romantic appeal. Capitalism is a generous but ugly mother. Someone must defend her.
Government is not the only threat to personal freedom, not by a long shot, and the Neo-Confederate version of the American dream being promoted by the far right will gut our freedom, destroy what’s left of our infrastructure, and leave us poorer, weaker, and vulnerable. This same choice cost our ancestors terribly. We dishonor them by repeating it.
The rebellion against the Neo-Confederate Revolution must start inside the Republican Party. We have to decide that the Capitalism we fought for in a different time against Marxist enemies is just as compelling when challenged from within. If we fail to manage the complexity of our age, there are horrors that await. Jefferson’s world is gone, but we can still have a Banana Republic if we so insist.
The new crop of Republican Congressmen preaching Fundamentalism and promising to unwind the federal government will destroy us if we let them. It will take courage and intelligence to defeat them. If sane, concerned Republicans can mount enough internal resistance to this madness then we could yet hand our heirs a new American Century. The alternative is too depressing to consider.
It’s time for reasonable Republicans to win the Civil War again, and for good.