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crossWith the publication of I’ll Take My Stand in 1930 the southern conservative intellectual tradition definitively entered into consciousness of the American academy and the American literati. Noted historians, novelists, and poets made their case unequivocally. The apocalyptic moment that triggered this movement’s self-awareness, the Civil War, remained in the words of Robert Penn Warren the central event in American imagination. The Civil War, to Mr. Warren, was American history. The agrarians offered a robust defense of the Old South, but seemed willing to give some ground on the nature of the Civil War itself and on the person of Abraham Lincoln. M.E. Bradford, an associate of the agrarians, carried their intellectual tradition into the end of the twentieth century. His intellectual conflict with Harry Jaffa in the late 1970s laid the groundwork for two competing visions of American conservatism. Mr. Jaffa saw the federal state and American nationalism as the guarantor of civil rights and human liberties. M.E. Bradford saw the federal state as a monstrosity bent on imposing capitalist excess, and subordinating the individual to an ephemeral and homogenizing functionalistic nation. [1]

The chronological and historical terrain Bradford and Jaffa fought over remained the Civil War Era. Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided provided the most complete and enduring defense of President Lincoln’s affirmation of American nationalism. Mr. Bradford, along with a host of southern (and northern) intellectuals, continued to argue that Mr. Lincoln and the Republicans represented the progressivism that culminated in militarism, imperialism, and statist excess in the twentieth century. The debate continues, but purpose in this essay is merely to provide a small but I believe substantive corrective, particularly using the Old South and the Confederate experiment as mythological and symbolical forms for a Europe-inherited traditionalist conservatism. While formalist intellects may shy away from confronting temporal Aristotelian particulars, certain truths might call into question the planter class’ credentials as the best exemplars of a transcendent southern conservative tradition. As Grady McWhiney noted during secession’s centennial, supposedly anti-capitalist traditionalist planters “were so anxious for a share in American material prosperity that they complied with every demand made upon them for readmission to the Union.” Eugene D. Genovese saw the paradox in 1992 when he noted that Bradford, as well as his predecessors such as novelist and poet Allan Tate, called themselves reactionaries “and yet honestly denied any wish to restore some ancient or medieval regime.” Civil War Era southerners, Mr. Genovese perceptibly noted, “repudiated neither ‘progress,’ nor ‘science,’ nor ‘modernity.’”[2]

screen_441acc2391be7The South, it should be noted, always enjoyed a robust conservative tradition. Southern elites, mostly from the older Atlantic states, overwhelmingly affirmed their traditionalist conservatism by their suspicion of democracy, caution and condescension towards commerce (trains remained illegal in South Carolina for much of the antebellum era), and perhaps most importantly in their religious identity. Nearly all southern conservatives attended Episcopalian or orthodox Presbyterian churches. A small Catholic minority included William Gaston of North Carolina and the Louisianan Whigs. It should be noted that few of the Agrarians’ observations have been truly invalidated. But it behooves expositors of the southern conservative tradition to challenge the powerful and enduring southern bourgeois commitment to and reliance on the nationalist mission of the United States for economic and social actualization. This divergent southern tradition became actualized more fully by the confluence of Evangelicalism and American nationalism in the mid-nineteenth century.

Nowhere and at no time did southerners appear so nationalistic as in the hyper-nationalist atmosphere of mid-nineteenth century Europe. One such southerner, Methodist minister Joseph Cross from the Blue Ridge region of Upstate South Carolina, traveled in Europe in 1857-58 and recorded his observations and opinions. Writing mainly in and of Great Britain and Italy, Cross emerged as a nationalist committed to democracy, material progress, and enthusiastic Evangelical Protestantism.

300px-Rms_persiaAs the Rev. Joseph Cross traveled to the Old World in 1857, he attended Sunday services held on the British vessel Persia. An evangelical Methodist minister from Spartanburg, South Carolina, Rev. Cross participated in on-board Sunday worship services. “The Sabbath dawned. Worship, according to the ritual of Her Majesty’s Church, must be performed on board Her Majesty’s steamships.” The ritual was that of the Anglican Mass, quite a bit more high church than many Americans were accustomed to. Cross appreciated the Episcopal variations to the Anglican mass. “In the midst of the prayers, the lay-parson very properly interpolates the petition of the Protestant Episcopal Church for ‘the President of the United States, and all others in authority.”’ Cross appreciated the prayer for the president. Cross felt it only right that a prayer should be offered for his head of state, James Buchanan. A convinced nationalist, Cross’ time in Europe also revealed him to be a convinced liberal and progressive as well. [3]

A Methodist minister from a Deep South State, he nevertheless was familiar with the sermons and writings of northern preachers. The Methodist Church’s split in 1844 over slavery did not preclude Rev. Cross from reading northern Methodist publications. Northern-born, Rev. Cross’ nationalism bore the hallmarks of the powerful nationalism so prevalent among American Evangelicals at mid-century. The foundations of Cross’ nationalism lay in a powerful commitment to the ideal of human progress. Progress’ vehicles were Evangelical Protestantism, democracy, and the material and territorial expansion of the American nation. Tied into this territorial expansion was the explicitly Evangelical idea of rebirth. The Old World connoted monarchy, poverty, and state-established religion, especially Catholicism. Evangelical religion presaged democracy, industrial prosperity, and spiritual and temporal progress.[4]

Custom House - Liverpool - circa 1800From nearly the moment he disembarked in Liverpool, Rev. Cross wore the mantle of an Evangelical Progressive. In Liverpool and other cities he encountered urban poverty, which encouraged the Evangelical coupling of material and spiritual progress. He spoke to impoverished Britons who “would gladly come to America, if they could manage to get here; and several of them solicited us to take them with us on our return, offering to pay their fare by their subsequent services.” Various Britons told Rev. Cross that the American press exaggerated the condition of the poor in London, Birmingham, and other British cities. “Perhaps it is so; but certainly I saw more indications of pinching want and absolute wretchedness during the week we spent in London, than have met my observation in the United States for twenty years.” Rev. Cross’ tortuously attempted to reconcile his modernistic belief in functionalistic labor as the source of human prosperity while simultaneously arguing for the necessity of Evangelical-tinged anti-poverty campaigns. “Men ought not to be taught…that they may live more easily by idleness than by industry,” wrote Reverend Cross. His belief in benevolent societies, however, did not stem from a belief in benevolence as a transcendent Christian practice. Instead, benevolence proved the best way of redressing the functional disabilities of Britain’s increasingly industrial society. The multiplication of charities was for Reverend Cross “a safe subject of congratulation among Christians; and if vicious indolence will take such unworthy advantage of our philanthropy, the responsibility is wholly its own.” To Reverend Cross’ credit, he rejected the sort of survival-of-the-fittest capitalistic thought that rejected aide for the poor. Still, he saw poor relief as essential to make impoverished Briton’s laborers in the British industrial machine. “It is often urged against such [benevolent] institutions that their influence upon character is injurious to society; that reliance upon eleemosynary aid is unfavorable to that spirit of independence so essential to industry.” Aide to the poor should therefore be fashioned with an eye to function, since “indiscriminate charity produces selfishness and indolence, and thus creates the evils which it aims to cure.” Aide also should be limited in scale, Joseph Cross said, for it was the “keen sense of want” that served as “the strongest impulse to labor, and virtue itself would be unpracticed but for the sharp goadings of necessity.”[5]

While in Liverpool Cross attended an Evangelical service where he exultantly listened to a British Evangelical echo the vision put forth by progressive Protestants in the United States. The minister, a certain Dr. McNeil, reminded Rev. Cross “of Dr. Samuel H. Cox, of Brooklyn, or Dr. Lyman Beecher, of Boston…” What made the comparison easier were Dr. McNeil’s ideological affinities with the American pastors. “Dr. McNeil,” Joseph Cross noted, “is a staunch Millennarian, and puts forth his views of the end in all his preaching.” Dr. McNeil’s sermon was heavy on apocalyptic imagery, which he directed toward the “guilty nations of Christendom.” Whichever nations those were, he never indicated—Rev. Cross only used “Christendom” to denote Europe-but his sermon was heavy on the guilt of Great Britain. “Severely did he lash the sins of England—dishonesty, hypocrisy, political corruption, spiritual wickedness in high places.” Spiritual wickedness in high places proved to be a subtle attack at the perceived laxity of the Church of England. Dr. McNeil also attacked the Tractarians, led by Anglo-Catholics like John Henry Newman, who presented the spectre of supposedly heathenish Catholicism to English Evangelicals. “Would to Heaven,” said Reverend Cross, “there were many more such firebrands in the Church! The clergy have been quiet too long, and Rome has been reaping England while her husbandmen have slept.” When a Briton protested that Wesleyans’ appeared fanatical, Joseph Cross countered that Wesleyans saved the Church of England from Romanism. “My friend,” wrote an annoyed Rev. Cross, “thought it ‘vain to reason with one as fanatical as McNeil himself,’ and here ended our conversation.” Rev. Cross, however, saw Dr. McNeil as a true visionary. “That Sabbath in Liverpool,” Joseph Cross exulted, “will ever be remembered as one of the great days of my life.”[6]

Benevolent societies and societal reformism stemmed from revivalist tendencies in Evangelicalism. While some heterodox Presbyterians embraced revivalist progressivism, nearly all Baptists and Methodist did. Many Old School Presbyterians and Episcopalians rejected progressive evangelicalism entirely; Old School Presbyterians unequivocally retained Calvinist soteriology, and the Protestant Episcopal Church, while officially Calvinist, held both Calvinist and Catholic traditionalists. Unsurprisingly Evangelicals often identified not only Catholicism but also orthodox Calvinism as enemies of progressive Protestantism in the mid-nineteenth-century. Peter Cartwright, a leading Methodist of the era, saw Calvinism and Catholicism as equally conservative and reactionary epistemologies that oppressed Europe. Evangelicals like Mr. Cartwright and Cross saw evangelicalism as essential to the future and progress of Europe, but both Calvinism and Catholicism would first need to be defeated. John Calvin, according to Methodist Peter Cartwright, “was a real disadvantage” to the Reformation. “His pernicious doctrines,” complained Mr. Cartwright, “have ever since been a curse to the cause and Church of God, and have been one grand cause of preventing the Protestant religion from obtaining in Catholic countries.” Reverend Cross carried his particular detestation of Calvinism to Great Britain. Charles Spurgeon’s sermon annoyed Reverend Cross. “I do not think, that he preaches this good old gospel in the very best form. All wheat has chaff. Mr. Spurgeon preaches Calvinism gone to seed.” It was Mr. Spurgeon’s revivalist evangelicalism, according to Reverend Cross, that made him less a true Calvinist and therefore more palatable. [7]

Rome-Pantheon-front-and-sideFrom Britain Joseph Cross traveled to Rome, where his travelogue revolved around Catholic Italy. Reverend Cross called Catholicism the “Italian apostasy” and his anti-Catholicism equaled if not surpassed his anti-Calvinism. As an evangelical committed to rationalistic expressions and measures of piety he found the Christian holy city “impoverished by the rapacity” of priests and “degraded by the tyranny of superstition.” Joseph Cross attacked Catholic societal composition and Catholic morality. In Rome he noted that “there are now in the Propaganda…thirteen young Americans, preparing for the priesthood…” He found it disturbing, calling it, “something for American Christians to ponder!” Americans, he believed, should be vigilant about Catholic intrusion into the United States. Not only did most Americans believe that Catholicism and republican democracy were mutually exclusive, but most viewed Catholicism as a precursor to corruption. “What is to be expected,” he wrote, “of a country where the religious teachers of the people have no higher standard of morality?” Roman architecture he pronounced “grotesque” and “ridiculous.” Early Modern Roman architects built “whimsical absurdities.” The tourists eyes met architectural and artistic “extravagances and deformities.” The only building Reverend Cross admired turned out to be the pre-Christian Pantheon. Public acts of piety and penance revolted Joseph Cross. He sneered at penitents climbing the Scala Santa, and at the notice of indulgence given to those who completed the task. After quickly reminding the reader of the Protestant soteriological ideal of faith alone, Reverend Cross noted “how vastly superior are these truly Christian sentiments to the common inculcations of the Roman ecclesiastics…and the idolatrous veneration paid them by the Roman people!”[8]

Catholicism’s association with monarchy seemed natural to Joseph Cross. He perceived liberty, progress, and Protestantism as inseparable, and he attacked the strictures against non-Catholic worship in the Papal States. Sunday services served as the chief meeting place for Americans, and the worship service became as a social focal point. “The Braschi Palace is the residence of our Minister, Mr. Cass, and the general Sabbath rendezvous of American sojourners in Rome; for under the stars and stripes they are permitted to worship God in their own manner, while no such honor is conferred upon the flag of any other Protestant nation.” He gloated about the ability of American Protestants to worship even in Rome. Their Sunday worship service took place in an old Roman palace that had become the sight of the American consulate. “The large hall was much crowded, and it was pleasant to see so many Protestant sects represented in the assembly, all unmindful of the several peculiarities of creed and custom which divided them at home.” Protestant unity also pleased Reverend Cross because it offered a perceptible contrast to the recent revolution in Rome. Supposedly loyal and “unified” Catholics had risen up in revolt against Pius IX, a fact that Reverend Joseph Cross did not let his readers forget.[9]

castelloJoseph Cross left Rome and traveled on the main road south, toward the border of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. His destination was Naples, and as he traveled through the Roman countryside he saw many places he had read about in the classical literature of his education. The Pontine Marshes, Cicero’s Villa, and other landmarks gave him the impetus to engage in melodramatic writing that was fairly typical of the day. One place however did elicit his derision, the fortress at Gaeta. He noted that it had been the sight of several sieges in the Middle Ages, and ended his report of the fort by noting, “Hither fled the present Vicar of the Most High, when the Roman dirk threatened his bastard divinity.” Pius, worried about bloodshed in Rome and its environs rejected the military tyranny of his Austrian patron during the Liberal Revolutions of 1848 but the strength of liberal thought in the United States never allowed for the intellectual and rhetorical flexibility that Americans needed to understand that monarchy and despotism were inconstant bedmates. Pius also left Rome because of serious fears about what a republic might mean for his safety. Reverend Cross’ judgment of Pius IX was unfair, but typical. He echoed fellow Evangelical Methodist Henry Cheever’s assertion that “Popery must always go with monarchy and despotism.” Mr. Cheever and Rev. Cross’ anti-Catholicism painted an ominously total millenarian vision of Protestant progress. There is, warned Mr. Cheever, “no neutral ground.” Catholic principles “were at war with republicanism and it must always be itself overthrown or rise upon the ruins of liberal institutions.” Rev. Cross and Mr. Cheever engaged in an exercise in mild intellectual dishonesty. While no true Catholic republic existed in the late 1850s, Europe provided more than enough examples of anti-liberal Protestant monarchy. The kings of Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and especially Prussia ruled as de-facto and (in the case of Sweden de-jure) divine right kings for another decade after Joseph Cross’ time in Europe. Most likely, however, Reverend Cross considered the Calvinist and Lutheran monarchs of Northern Europe half-baked Protestants. Historical Lutheran monarchs like Augustus II of Saxony, Reverend Cross wrote accusingly, easily converted to Catholicism for dynastic considerations.[10]

American evangelicals inherited from their puritan predecessors the conviction that piety found a robust fruition in labor. Pious Christians worked hard; God rewarded their labors with material prosperity. Thus American Evangelicals safely pursued mammon without any subsequent loss of devotion. Rev. Cross explained Italian poverty as a mark of willful sloth. As he traveled further south, he gained more and more ammunition for his claim. Every town he passed through seemed a reminder of how decrepit the Italian peninsula was. Ignoring the beauty of a small seaside town, he instead looked at the street, which he deemed “narrow, dirty, full of priests and donkeys, monks and soldiers, police-officers and pickpockets, noisy facchini and lousy lazzaroni.” Naples he contrasted positively to Rome. He found both revoltingly Catholic, but Naples enjoyed the apparently more Protestant value of commerce. “The Eternal City looks as if it were just going into an eternal sleep, and the people are as indolent and stupid as the pope,” but Naples appeared “brisk with business, and its stir and hum constantly remind an American of New York or New Orleans, though the multitude perhaps are more intent on pleasure than profit.”[11]

Naples-A-view-taken-from-Villa-Tolentino-by-Giacomo-Brogi-1822-1881Neapolitan commercialism, according to Reverend Cross, hid a reality of monarchical despotism. Only the Bourbon kings’ despotism created the veneer of quiet urban contentment. Joseph Cross wrote, “Never was there a greater swarm of soldiers in Naples during a season of peace; and never, perchance, were they more essential to the royal safety and the popular quiet.” He delivered a diatribe against the city worthy of any Protestant and democratic American. “Of the many thousands that eat their daily macaroni within the gates of this fair metropolis, though pretending to love their native city to distraction, where is the man that would lift his little finger for her benefit?” Though Naples was beautiful, it was cursed by its inhabitants. “Her artisans are snails; her tradesmen are greedy jobbers; her soldiers are servile hirelings; her nobles, such as have not yet taken to street-begging, care for nothing but the table and the theatre…” Reverend Cross lambasted the King Ferdinand II with equal gusto. “The king himself is the greatest gambler in the world, and derives his largest revenue from the lottery; while his subjects, of both sexes and all classes, live, move, and have their being in its hazards and its hopes.” American newspapers had long berated Ferdinand II. The New York Times called him a “miserable despot” who commanded a “felon government” that was typified by “gratuitous barbarity” and “terrible wickedness.” Compulsive gambling was no surprise, to Reverend Cross. This behavior was consistent with what he already believed about Ferdinand II, whom he dubbed “a specimen of royal stupidity.”[12]

Reverend Joseph Cross’ time in Naples brought his thoughts once again back to the United States. He lamented the conditions that Neapolitans lived under. He saw the poverty and wretchedness of the impoverished populace as endemic of the archaic, oppressive, and evil monarchy he believed oppressed Neapolitans. Even the material progress their city had made seemed incomparable to the suffering he saw in Naples. Begging was an obvious example of just how depressed the people were. “The servants beg at the hotels; the postilions beg upon the highways; the woman…rises to beg as you approach; the peasant laboring in the field…runs to beg, as you pass; even the infant in its mother’s arms, before it can utter its mother’s name, learns to stretch out its little hand…” He laid the blame squarely at the feet of the sovereign. “The King of Naples sees and knows it all; but are not the people his? And has he not a right to drain their money into his lotteries? And does he not need the revenue to pay the soldiers that are hired to keep them in order?” All of these miseries in Naples induced him to write “Once more, ‘Hail, Columbia, Happy Land.'” Barely two years later, Columbia cannibalized her young men in order to more authoritatively affirm her national happiness.[13]

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


1. John J. Langdale III, “Southern Conservatism and its Malcontents: M.E. Bradford and the American Right,” in Lisa Tendrich Frank and Daniel Kilbride eds., Southern Character: Essays in Honor of Bertram Wyatt-Brown (Gainesville: University Press of Florida: 2011), 198; Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War.

2. Grady McWhiney, “Reconstruction: Index of Americanism in Charles Grier Sellers, Jr. ed The Southerner as American (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960), 96; Eugene D. Genovese, The Slaveholders Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992).

3. Joseph Cross, A Year in Europe, 20.

4. Ralph A. Keller, “Methodist Newspapers and the Fugitive Slave Law: A New Perspective for the Slavery Crisis in the North,” Church History 43 (September 1974): 319-339; David Goldfield, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created A Nation (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011), 5.

5. Cross, A Year in Europe, 32.

6. Ibid.; Gerald Parsons, James R. Moore eds., Religion in Victorian Britain: Traditions (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), 14-66.

7. The best treatment of nineteenth-century United States religion remains: Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Cross, 232, 472; Peter Cartwright, Fifty Years as a Presiding Elder (Cincinnati: Hitchcock and Walden, 1871), 149.

8. Cross, 62, 313.

9. Cross, 111; Ted C. Hinckley, “American Anti-Catholicism during the Mexican War,” The Pacific Historical Review 31 (May 1962): 121-137; Jenny Franchot, Roads to Rome the Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

10. Cross, A Year in Europe, 158; Daniel Kilbride, Being American in Europe, 1750-1860 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013); Giacomo Martina, “Pio IX (1846-1850),” Church History 44 (June 1975): 266-267.

11. Walter McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828 (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 66; Cross, 162.

12. Harold Acton, The Last Bourbons of Naples: 1825-1861 (London & New York: St. Martens Press, 1961) 183-282; Cross, 162, 197; “Neapolitan Atrocities,” New York Daily Times, Jan 31, 1852;

13. Cross, 168.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Alas, although it is likely to leave Prof. Smith unhappy, growing up in the segregated Old South has left me with little interest in its older political traditions.

    Slavery, segregation, the dominance of politics by planters and timber barons, widespread poverty, particularly in rural areas, and an obsession with a war that was triply bad, being in defense of slavery, fought for the interests of just a few, and badly lost, has left me with a feeling that, with so much that was wrong, why bother to look for bits and pieces or rightness among the ruins?

    Some of my own NW Alabama ancestors felt the same. They rebelled against the rebellion and called it a ‘rich man’s war, a poor man’s fight. Some even joined the First Alabama Cavalry U.S., a Union force. Three were murdered for opposing the war, including my great-great,great grandfather, apparently killed by a Klan-related group in 1874.

    My attitude is like that of Albion Tourgee in his bestselling novel, A Fool’s Errand, a novelized account of his actual experience in Reconstruction Era North Carolina. As he repeatedly points out, the South, blessed with a warm climate and ample rainfall, could have advanced rapidly after the Civil War. Instead it listened to the Democratic party and the planters, as well as cowering before the Klan. The result was a century of twisted politics and widespread poverty. What is there to learn from that?, I sometimes ask myself. It’s like a German asking what he could learn for his country during the 1930s, except this madness lasted for a century.

    Nevertheless, there is something to learn, at least from what might have been, particularly about the harm that comes when politics sets one group against another. That’s why I took Tourgee’s novel, stripped out the obscure politics, which no one but historians understand today, and created a dramatic novel that reveals the people of the South, both good and bad, in the aftermath of the Civil War. And the good were struggling to establish what the South needed rather than what its aristocracy and politicians forced on it. They were standing against the hate.

    Professor Smith might find this adaptation of Tourgee’s story, including my commentary, makes for interesting reading. It certainly breathes life into an period in our history that few today understand. His students might also find it helpful. The Lily of the tale is particularly impressive when she mounts her father’s dangerous thoroughbred stallion and rides at night over roads infested with the Klan to warn her father that he is slated to die that very night.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride: Rescuing her Father from the Ku Klux Klan.

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