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Thomas Jefferson’s fire bell sounded in the legislative darkness, tolling the “knell” of the Union he had so much helped to shape…

This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. —Thomas Jefferson

As my title and epigraph must imply to those acquainted with Thomas Jefferson’s last days, this is a paper on the “central theme.” Both the auspices for this gather­ing and the form and pressure of the times recommend the topic. For I have been encouraged, by one who knows the breed, to address you in my capacity as an impenitent conservative Southerner and to con­sider the meaning and proportion of American history from that specific per­spective.[1] Furthermore, the Southerner’s experience of being an American has, un­til only a short time ago, been in great measure defined by his entanglement with the “peculiar institutions” of his culture. The present moment in our confederated existence is thus an exceptionally propitious one for such an enterprise issuing from such a source.[2]

The burden of my remarks should ap­pear to be, on the whole, uncomplicated. At this time, as perhaps never before, we (I mean, for the nonce, Americans) are as a people well on our way to being forced into belated recognition of the truth behind Mr. Jefferson’s alarm at the Compromise of 1820, our first attempt in employing the engines of national power to regulate and reform our domestic economic and social relations in a connection involving race: forced into knowing what Southerners have believed all the time, regardless of their attitudes toward specific alterations in the “racial roles.” Jefferson’s fire bell sounded in the legislative darkness, tolling the “knell” of the Union he had so much helped to shape. After Missouri, states achieved full membership in the federal compact only after meeting federally determined prescriptions concerning the status of blacks within their boundaries­—conditions not imposed upon the original thirteen and without real precedent in the Northwest Ordinance. In addition, chiliastic moral imperatives were employed to justify this violation of a morally binding (if tacit) agreement. And these imperatives gave augury of more than what was at issue in the congressional debates preceding the admission of Missouri: augury of our dis­position to war against one of the most ir­reducible components of man’s social dis­position. In this gesture, our indigenous millennialism and our difficulties with race met and combined.[3] There has been for these “united states” no more pregnant conjunction.

Predictably, Jefferson’s Union did die­ in 1861. And in the latter stages of its ruin, the connection between blacks and American millennialism intensified. With Equality (capital “E”), the new Republic played some verbal and opportunistic games. I leave aside for the moment the merits and demerits of this “second found­ing.” It has proved to be digestible suited under certain circumstances to ac­commodation with the first. For, once com­pleted, given a frame and substance to rest upon the base and wheels of 1820 and 1850 (and given a little Reconstruction “testing”), the Trojan Horse of our home­ grown Jacobinism was rolled away to some back stall within the stable of received American doctrines. Emancipation appeared to have changed nothing substantial in the basic confederal framework. Neither did it attempt any multiracial miracles.[4] Said another way, after 1877 no one of our complex and perhaps contradictory set of national objectives retained a veto power over the rest. And certainly the most hieratic of those remaining in authority (probably “freedom”) applied in only a small way to the exclusive and singular handicaps of the freedman. That is—until the last two decades—the season of our third and most intensive metamorphosis; the period in which the revolution, intentionally forestalled (even if earlier encouraged) by the Emancipator and his heirs, came to pass; the occasion of our first (and unlike Lincoln’s) positive com­mitment to equality of condition qua man­datory brotherhood. Upon these events, with their historic prologue held in mind, is my emphasis—upon ideas and policies which will not be digested by the nation (an entity logically prior to its legal exten­sion in the formation of a government) if that nation is, in its given character and with its own organic momentum, to con­tinue.[6]

This teaching, if its source be considered, cannot seem new or unfamiliar. It contends very little concerning the abstract philo­sophic or ethical validity of arguments ad­vanced in encouraging the great reorder­ings of priority marked by the past twenty years. It does, however, assume an in­superable gap between transcendent social perfection, privately conceived, and politi­cal possibility in what the Federalist wisely called a “large and various Republic.” Like all forensic rhetoric, grounded in the record of human error, it is formal and prudential.[7] Moreover, it is a personal esti­mate, an essay in opinion, openly acknowl­edging its postulation that millennialism per se is to be discouraged, and that millennial schemes for the mechanical elevation of racial minorities are the most dangerous of all reformist undertakings. And yet I say once more that those devoted to the study of American history are at this point better prepared to hear out what I contend than at any previous time. For an action in history is like the unfold­ing of plot in a play; the meaning is not clear until we come near to the end.

Now I have already conceded that some tincture of millennialism has been a part of our collective self-understanding from the “birth of the Nation.” Though purpose­ fully muted by the authors of the Constitution, it has survived in our political idiom as an inheritance from the Revolution.[8] Such a residue is predictable with almost all societies—though more so when a polity is founded of men, when it lacks a prescriptive mythology to imply the in­volvement of a higher power operating through a particular person or blood. For an understanding of these matters and of their importance in a nation’s political his­tory, we should turn to the political philosophers: specifically, to Eric Voegelin, Gerhart Niemeyer, and Michael Oakeshott. They teach us that revolution and millen­nialism go together.[9] And though intellectual historians (Ernest L. Tuveson, for one) have applied the term to the American experience, I fear that most of them are in their own sympathies too affected by the millennialist pathology to comprehend what Voegelin means by “gnosticism” or Oake­shott by “rationalism in politics”: too bemused to perceive in the submission of judgment to will and ideal a rejection of history and the providential order of “be­ing” in a fashion to be justified only by some anticipated “becoming.”[10] The theolo­gians used to call this “ontological error.” Its roots lie in a hatred of plenitude—in a denial of the variety of Creation, “abolishing the constitution of being, with its origin in divine, transcendent being and replacing it with a world-immanent order of being, the perfection of which lies in the realm of human action [and proceeds from a human dream].”[11]

Pure millennialism of the gnostic sort is thus ever restless, never satisfied. And when frustrated, it intensifies, lifts its sights to larger and larger targets. The American variety has, however, always stopped short of this presumption, has always been equivocal. Like its British Whig prototype, our zeal for the ”good old cause” has been a “sometimes thing,” a lip service to a uni­verse of discourse briefly useful when some abuse has caught the collective eye, yet never, by the aspirant to office or in­fluence, to be pushed to its logical conclu­sion—never, on pain of political death. For, as we have always sensed “in our bones” (and as the English had learned in the 1640’s), positive millennialism ordinarily entails the fracturing of hard-won com­munal bonds in the implementation of someone’s private version of the supernal good; and in a pluralistic society, im­plementation of such visions is usually per­ceived as moralistic aggression—especial­ly if it does not succeed in replacing the old social bonds with better—is so perceived after a time even by those who at first en­dorsed the implementation of that dream. Said briefly, internecine conflict, not peace, is inevitably its fruitage. For a pluralistic society agrees best on what it will not be—and can only discover in transit goals other than the few with which it began. Therefore, when we have made a common effort out of perfectibilitarian enthusiasm, its form has, as was suggested above, usually been negative: a “do not” more often than a “do this.”

Most certainly, New England has had its high (and unilinear) expectations of a City on the Hill; likewise, even the South owed, from its earliest days, some inertia to a hope of Eden over the Sea. Moreover, in company with the frontier states, both older regions drew comfort from the idea of a “manifest destiny.” Yet the total nation has, characteristically, despised and re­jected who or whatever aspired to dragoon its way to such beatitudes through the in­struments of federal policy. The only full exception to this rule, I insist, is the “civil rights revolution” of the past twenty years. In connection with the difficult question of the African American’s place within our social com­pact, an imperative was discovered stronger than any ever pressed upon us before: There discovered because the African American’s lot within that compact was so difficult (and so slow) to improve. With it we have made fair to force the issue, even if liberty (and its correlatives: law, localism, and person­alism) loses much of its authority as a term of honor is diminished especially insofar as it applies to that nondescript but sub­stantial many who captain man and propel the ship of state. Of course, as Lenin wrote, the only way to make men equal is to treat them unequally. And Lenin’s advice does not function inside our curious native dialectic. The only equality Americans can universally approve is accidental, a corol­lary of liberty.[12] In 1820 (though the evi­dence here is mostly in language and only secondarily in the resulting law), we took an initial step away from liberty; in 1861-1877, a few more. And from these exam­ples, from our uneasiness at the—to the millennialist sensibility—greatest of built-in American “scandals,” in the post-World War II era we arrived at the point of con­verting at least one feature of millennialism into a positive goal. To use the late William Faulkner’s idiom, we set out to “abolish” the African American we knew, both as presence and problem.[13] The results begin to speak for themselves, the fresh set of insoluble dilemmas which, with each dawning day, cry out for more potent magic than the cures for yesterday’s injustice which spawned them into existence in the first place. I will extrapolate upon a few.

Positive millennialist injunctions (re­verse discrimination, racial quotas, assign­ment of teachers and workers by color, grading by court order, federal involve­ment with zoning practices or intervention in the relocation of business firms, etc.) in­tending to ensure equality of condition by mere congregation or by redistribution of wealth among racial groups attempt something extremely remote from, for instance, ordinary voting rights legislation.[14] Ac­cording to the theory behind this amazing set of measures every cherished right se­cured by statute and history is brought in­to question if its free exercise forestalls that abstraction, the “integrated” society.

Institutional and/or artificial induce­ments to distinctions among the citizenry may indeed be removed and the momentum of our history persist unbroken—undiverted, even though the majority of those who share my persuasion remain opposed to the implications of such removings. But, so far as the body of our law was con­cerned, “fair liberty was all our cry”—the first in rank of what the late Richard Weaver called our “god terms.” Southern conservatives and their antagonists have usually agreed on this much history. Hence all and any affronts to our ineluctably poly­glot particularism—our still gathering de­termination to be “one and many”—have always owed much to the extravagant promise and angry righteousness of the language used to secure through cautiously negative means the possibility of a class­less, raceless, sexless, and cultureless melting pot. Our devotion to Sans-culotte has had this limit and this side effect. Nonetheless, as I have been suggesting from the first, in one adventure with positive millennialism as law or policy, the way is opened to all other such adventures as may be con­ceived by the sanguine politician or bureaucrat willing to set himself up as an imitation Cromwell or Robespierre. Said another way, it is impossible to use a rhetoric suited to one set of objectives and one mode of pursuing them and then expect to achieve only less ambitious ends by way of less provocative exertions. If we say with passion that pure equality is the end in mind, sooner or later we must lose patience with our difficulties in producing that result. Yet this merely verbal millennialism is what we for a long time attempted, grow­ing linguistically perfervid in our war on difference and in our abstract passion for union in oneness. Furthermore, in the train of our effort, we have mortally strained the ties that bind together in comity our com­ponent parts, have made many Americans to feel that others were being uplifted at their expense. With each small shift in our political balance of power, we discover our­selves further implicated by the strong identities of age and occupation and taste. We admit that we are sexist—and are burdened by the thought. And as historians you know very well that indigenous American racism has, in only a few years, been, in the scholarship, uncovered everywhere­ gnawing at the vitals of our every achieve­ment, past and present: in the “free soil” movement, in the very tents of Abolition, in exploration, trade, industry, the Fourteen Points, Christian missionaries, domestic Marxism, Black Separatism and Black Antiseparatism—even in talk about the meaning of racism. Indeed, race (at least as far as the Negro is concerned) has proved to be an almost indestructible identity. The nation wearies of the effort to circumvent its durability and begins to perceive therein a trap in which all of its other aspirations might be forfeited. And in all of this moil and seethe, it is predicta­ble that liberty, as our tradition understands the term, should begin to reassert its original hegemony, that the oldest of liberties honored among us—rights grounded in the fundament of an English inheritance (privacy, person, choice—and thus property) should once again acquire a precedence over those more recently in favor: return, though in new disguises.

As the South has always recognized, patronizing, for-the-African-American millennialism has had its primary meaning and ultimate promise exposed in those other species of utopian hope for which it broke trail. From the first, it has been a stalking horse for objectives never able to command general national assent—never except as they hid be­hind or within the (for the last two decades) one “sacred” cause. And thus we are about to give up on homogeneity; not inso­far as homogeneity results from the opera­tion of our system, but rather upon homogeneity as a first priority. And no longer will the cry of “racism” force us back into step with the orthodoxy professed while we labored to “overcome.” At the ballot box and in the street, the word (and the objective it describes) has lost its luster. What literary historians have recognized for some time, we are learning of politics. A little repression, a little censorship, and a culture otherwise intact (France of the Ancient Regime) can go on, can produce value. But (as with literature behind the Iron Curtain), once a set of inflexible objectives—a program—is imposed by the government, the culture is soon no more. Even the angriest of black or brown Ameri­cans is now suspicious of the total politicizing of his life—sees down the road toward face­less equality/identity the specter of slavery come again—under a new name and with a greater variety of company, but still slavery. And what he wants now (or will, as they told us at Gary, want soon) is his own path. It is not pleasant to say to some Americans that there is folly in ruining the thing they want a part of—in changing its operation so that little is offered to anyone: little especially of dignity, because of the manner chosen for seeking after it. The unpleasant is in this case, however, the necessary.[15]

At present the most interesting implication of American history to the Southern Conservative is, therefore, the evidence that his folks were right all along: most specifically right about millennialism because they had endured it in connection with blacks, even as blacks endured it in connection with hasty and uncircumstanced emancipation; and because American Southerners of all colors have had time to learn that race problems are too important to be solved, that they can only be accommodated, that all of us who will not take half a loaf will get a stone. Living with each other has given Southerners (in com­parison with other Americans) a relative immunity to millennialism operating in a racial context. However, in large measure the Southern experience of American his­tory is now becoming identical with the na­tional. And it is the former which finally contains the latter. Like Joel Chandler Harris’ Brer Fox, we Southerners have left what was heretofore our trouble up in the middle of the big road, retired to watch the bizarre spectacle and advise those who de­sire to share our memories (the most durable Southern identity) and to profit from their deposition. Some of our countrymen may attempt to kick and whack around the tar baby for a little longer. Yet we must hope not. For after too much aggravation, raising of hopes, extreme efforts, failures, irritations, excited rededications, etc., that silent and ubiquitous trap could change it­self into Jefferson’s protean wolf, not to be held very long by the ears.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Winter 1973). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] An abbreviated version of this essay was read last April 7 as part of an Organization of American Historians (OAH) program devoted to con­servative views of American history. This pro­gram was arranged for by Professor Eugene D. Genovese of the University of Rochester. I retain the form of the public address but invite the reader to remember for what audience I was prepared.

[2] Conservative Southerner as opposed to a con­servative who is only incidentally a Southerner: There is yet a difference.

[3] John Randolph of Roanoke perceived the first Great Compromise in precisely this light: as a step toward full political reorganization. Among his contemporaries (slaveholding and non-slave­holding) his reaction was not unique. See Russell Kirk’s John Randolph of Roanoke (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951).

[4] On this reversion see C. Van Woodward’s Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction (Garden City N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956) and George M. Fred­rickson’s The Inner Civil War: Northern Intel­lectuals and the Crisis of the Union (New York: Harper & Row, 1965).

[5] On the distance between the millennialism of Lincoln’s language and the modest objectives he sought to reach through the use of that lan­guage, see Gottfried Dietze’s America’s Political Dilemma (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1968), Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959) and my “Lincoln’s New Frontier: A Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution,” Triumph, VI (May, 1971), 11-13 and 21; (June, 1971), 15-17. It is, of course, the Lin­coln of the mythographers who is the patron saint of the millennialists. But Father Abraham himself was the first of these mythographers.

[6] The Continental Congress was, narrowly speaking, the first expression of American nation­hood. Government under the Articles of Confed­eration was its creature—as was the unorganized government that accomplished the Revolution. The United States whose Union found perfection in 1787 was, in turn, the creation of the nation through the government formed under the Ar­ticles. The origins of the nation represented in the Continental Congress are, however, organic: historical, prescriptive and a little mysterious. Hence there are special sanctions to be had only from the eldest of American cultural precedents.

[7] Forensic rhetoric, as defined by Aristotle, deals with the merits or demerits of a course of action already pursued to its conclusion. It aims to judge after the fact and to assign praise or blame.

[8] See for example, Bernard Bailyn’s The Ori­gins of American Politics (N.Y.: Allred A. Knopf, 1968), J.R. Pole’s Foundations of Amer­ican Independence, 1763-1815 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972), and Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 1969). The trouble with our literature from the revolution is, to be sure, the disproportionate representation of ultra sentiments in these documents. But we should not be surprised at this, considering the distribution of sentiment in our own day’s commentary on current politics: ultras are usually articulate and always out­ spoken. And commonplace, middling attitudes rarely drive their way into print.

[9] Voegelin’s Order and History, 3 volumes (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1956 and 1957); Niemeyer’s Between Nothingness and Paradise (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univer­sity, 1971) and Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1962).

[10] See Tuveson’s Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: Univer­sity of Chicago, 1968).

[11] From Voegelin’s Science, Politics and Gnos­ticism (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1968), pp. 99-100.

[12] Hence our Declaration of Independence speaks of being “created equal” and of the right to pursue happiness, not of staying equal or of the right to be happy—as does the North Viet­namese Declaration of September 2, 1945, and certain other Jacobin “translations” of our one serious flirtation with the millennial thing.

[13] The Unvanquished (N.Y.: Random House, 1938), p. 228.

[14] I have chosen here to refer to only a few illustrations of judicial and legislative egali­tarian activisms: preferential hiring for govern­ment jobs, the Philadelphia Plan, the southwide balancing of teacher racial balance with student color distribution, a Texas court order suggesting equal schooling must produce equal grades, and a Spring, 1972 suit filed by the government (under the 14th Amendment) to prevent certain firms from relocating outside of a “changing neighborhood.”

[15] The Prohibition crusade is only a partial analogue-Puritan but not egalitarian. However, in the reaction which it finally generated there is a close connection with what may soon be a na­tional revulsion at the final stages of our “Civil Rights revolution.” 

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