Southern Critics of Intervention: Part I


With due care, it is possible to rent a film set in the American South which is not given over to bewailing endless Evil and Corruption of the sort that logically requires permanent occupation by the Army of the Potomac. These days, it’s not just high-minded leftists or former victims of the famous speed-trap at Jesup, Georgia, who write film-scripts. Some of us regard this as progress, however limited. Hell, some of us are so far along the irony trail that we can listen appreciatively to Tom Lehrer’s "I Wanna Go Back to Dixie" and savor the cruel fate that turns the liberals’ social-engineering delusions back on them. And with all these Southern ironists about, more work is made for certain fright-mongers who must stay up of nights drawing Hakenkreuzen on the mildest dissenters from their plans for Social Reconstruction.


Along the way, Southerners acquired a certain reputation for belligerent behavior and readiness for war. Charlie Daniels’ "In America" captures this mood, which owes a lot to the unthinking patriotism of Andrew Jackson’s movement . I’m very fond of Daniels’ music but I’m not keen on seeing him become Secretary of State any time soon.

Southern frontier folk came mainly from the Celtic parts of the British Isles. This makes them, I guess, the original "fringe" element. They believed in instant self-defense and took unkindly to perceived insults. One writer has done a whole book exculpating a present-day New York murderer on the grounds that this fellow’s touchy sense of honor – imposed on his ancestors by those mean white folks in South Carolina – made him do it. There may be some little truth there, but the alternative toward which we daily stumble – a society with no code of honor at all – has some drawbacks of its own. Los Angeles comes to mind.

Southern predominance in the Old (pre-1861) Army and in U.S. armed forces in this century adds to the Southern reputation for militarism. Certainly, the South did not afford a mass base for anti-interventionism as did the Midwest down to the Cold War. Nor was the South all that blessed with strict pacifists. On the other hand, there were always individual Southerners versed in republican theory and classical liberalism, who stood against war and empire. Some of the academic sheep began bleating, by the 1960s, about a terrible increase in Southern "isolationism" which set in after 1945. This – if true – would be a good thing.


One of the most "hard-core" Southern opponents of empire and war was the colorful – "half-mad" some say – John Randolph of Roanoke (1773-1833). This Congressman and planter saw Virginia as his country. The South came next, with the Union a distant third.

In Randolph’s view, the happiness of Virginia, the South, and the Union did not rest on borrowing trouble with an activist foreign policy. In the debate on Gregg’s motion (March 1806), he broke with his own party, the Jeffersonian Republicans, who seemed bent on involving America in war with Britain, which was embattled, worldwide, with revolutionary France. He said: "this Government was not instituted for the purposes of offensive war. No – it was framed… for the common defence and the general welfare, which are inconsistent with offensive war. I call that offensive which goes out of our jurisdiction and limits for the attainment or protection of objects not within those limits and that jurisdiction…. I fear if you go into a foreign war for a circuitous, unfair foreign trade, you will come out without your Constitution. Have you not contractors enough in this House? Or do you want to be overrun and devoured by commissaries and all the vermin of contract?" Mad Jack would have loved our late 20th-century Military-Industrial-University Complex.

Once the war-hawks had gotten their war (1812), Randolph found himself allied with his erstwhile enemies, the New England Federalists, and widely reviled in the South. In a letter to his constituents, he asked, "My friends, do you expect to find those who are now loudest in the clamor for war, foremost in the ranks of battle? Or, is the honor of this nation indissolubly connected with the political reputation of a few individuals, who tell you they have gone too far to recede, and that you must pay, with your ruin, the price of their consistency?" This is a good question in 1812 or 1999. It mostly goes unanswered.

The 1812 warhawks gave plausible reasons, at least, for their war, like annexing Canada (still not annexed as yet) and saving U.S. ocean-borne commerce. Oddly, the states most interested in the carrying trade – New England – opposed the war and toyed with secession in protest. But what of ideologically-driven, "humanitarian" interventions of the recent type? Randolph’s position emerged in his speech on the Greek cause (January 24, 1824), our earliest proposed Balkan adventure. That Yankee gasbag, Daniel Webster, had called for sending U.S. agents to Greece to help the Greek struggle for independence from our future heroic NATO allies, the Turks.

In terms recalling Sydney Smith’s Letter to Lady Grey, Randolph asked, "Are we, Sir, to go on a crusade, in another hemisphere, for the propagation of two objects as dear and delightful to my heart as to that of any gentleman in this, or in any other assembly – Liberty and Religion – and, in the name of those Holy words – by this powerful spell, is this nation to be conjured and beguiled out of the high way of Heaven – out of its present comparatively happy state, into all the disastrous conflicts arising from the policy of European Powers, with all the consequences which flow from them?"

Randolph likened this madness to the Jacobin policy of spreading the French revolution by force – what Edvard Kardelj has called "social Bonapartism." With great political incorrectness, he added that he could think of only one other such aggressive armed doctrine, that of – to put it delicately for us moderns – the third great world religion. That aside, Randolph went on to ridicule the resolution further: "Not satisfied with attempting to support the Greeks, one world, like that of Pyrrhus or Alexander, is not sufficient for us. We have yet another world for exploits: we are to operate in a country distant from us eighty degrees of latitude, and only accessible by a circumnavigation of the globe, and to subdue which we must cover the Pacific with our ships, and the tops of the Andes with our soldiers. Do gentlemen seriously reflect on the work they have cut out for us? Why, Sir, these projects of ambition surpass those of Bonaparte himself!"1

Happily, we who live in more enlightened times, in which there are no gentlemen and damned little reflection either, can see that such projects are dead-easy, such ambitions entirely normal. Just ask the present recumbents – I’m sorry, incumbents – and their likely successors of either party. It’s bad form, these days, to laugh at the unbridled ambitions of the One Remaining Superpower. Indeed, if you say "superpower" aloud for about three minutes, you will find that its rhythm has a very calming effect somewhat like chanting "Om" – which may explain something. An early republican like Randolph – and slaveholder, surely I haven’t forgotten to mention slavery? – could hardly have foreseen our present leaders’ worldwide moral achievements, backed up by weapons of sublime, if massive destructive.

During the Nullification Crisis, Randolph, who disliked John C. Calhoun and had little faith in his particular doctrines, expressed a wish to be strapped to his horse so as to help the South Carolinians resist federal invasion, if Andrew Jackson really chose to cement the fraternal bonds of union and collect the tariff in that fashion.


This brings me to South Carolinian William Waters Boyce, who served in both the U.S. and Confederate Congresses. In both Houses, Boyce’s chief concern was preserving republican liberty against centralized and arbitrary government. The domestic consequences of imperial foreign policy loomed large in his view of things.

Speaking in January 1855 of the proposed annexation of Cuba – that hardy perennial – Boyce said, "We are now in the position of Russia, with all her advantages; we are the Russia of the western continent; we have a vast territory; we are compact and invulnerable, defiant of the world in arms. Shall we weaken our position by the acquisition of maritime colonies?"

He thought not. To keep Cuba we would need a larger navy and the taxpayers were already burdened enough. Boyce’s reservations apply with even more force to U.S. seizure of the Philippines in 1898. Cuba, at least, was nearby.

The larger question raised by Cuban annexation was empire. Boyce put it thus: "We may extend our dominion over the whole continent, our navies may ride triumphant on every sea, our name may be the terror of Kings, our decrees the destinies of nations, but be assured it will be at the price our of free institutions. [my emphasis] I know not how it may be with others, but for my own part, I would not pay this price for all the power and all the glory that ever clustered around all the banners and all the eagles emblazoned in the pantheon of history."2

Boyce’s second – Confederate – Congressional career found him a staunch critic of Jefferson Davis and the seeming centralizers in Richmond. With Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, Linton Stephens, Governor Joe Brown of Georgia, and Governor Zebulon Vance of North Carolina, Boyce was part of a Confederate opposition whose position, at times, approached "revolutionary defeatism." They thought it better – if it came to that – to lose the war than to lose republican liberties to a new despotism in Richmond.


Now out there in the much-mooted "mainstream," it might be asked, "Is that all you guys have? Endless warnings that liberty is about to be lost? Can’t you see liberty all around you?" Well, frankly, No.

If someone foretells the eventual end of republican liberty as the outcome of imperial policy, he is not required to give us a "sell-by" date, unless he scrawls his warnings on a milk carton. That someone a hundred years ago spotted the trend does not mean he expected to see all the evils realized in his own lifetime. We, on the other hand, are living with most of those eventualities, and are in a position to weigh the damage. We are beginning to spell things out in detail. Empire and its sometime ally, socialism, have been whittling away at liberty all through this century and if it’s rude to mention it, the advice given those who "don’t like Hank Williams" surely applies.

The notion that we are "free" in any way that classical liberals and republicans could have understood, is a bad joke. Perhaps we have those "four freedoms" of FDR’s. Maybe we should gladden our hearts over the freedom to vote, now and then, for look-alike hacks who oversee our real managers and keepers in the standing army of bureaucrats. Or possibly it’s the zillion or so welfare "rights" spawned since the sixties. Between FDR’s four freedoms and the zillion new-fangled ones (which mostly ratify the collapse of real communities, real localities, and even real "villages"), some of us would rather have the 18th-century short-list sometimes summed up as the Rights of Englishmen. Failing that, we intend to highlight assaults on those rights now and then. I’m afraid we shall have to name names on occasion, rather than cosmic "social forces." Blaming abstract forces relieves the hacks of all responsibility and allows them to recommend – for the thousandth time – their pal Big Government as the only countervailing power big enough to reign in the unseen, otherworldly perpetrators. We’ve heard that one before.


I shall let Congressman W. W. Boyce have the last word: "Let us turn from the line of vulgar conquerors to the fathers of the Republic; let us learn from them, that the truest patriotism is the preservation of our institutions, the truest wisdom is moderation. In short, let our history be not the history of our imagination, but the history of our common sense. By this course we may not vaunt so many statues, so many triumphal arches, so many trophies of victory, and boundless dominion, but we shall have what is more glorious than these, we shall have our institutions preserved; we shall have the conquests of peace; the mighty march of civilization; Christianity working out, unimpeded, her Divine mission; these will be our statues; these our triumphal arches; these the trophies of our victories; and they will be such as no nation before us have ever had."2

[1] Randolph quoted in Russell Kirk, John Randolph of Roanoke (Chicago, 1964), pp. 273, 203, 326-27, and 332-33.
[2] Quotes found in W. W. Boyce, "The Annexation of Cuba" in Philip S. Foner and Richard C. Winchester, eds., The Anti-Imperialist Reader (New York, 1984), pp. 48-50.