Southern Critics of Intervention: Part II


The Confederate States of America did not last long enough as a going concern to produce a tradition in foreign affairs. The main issue facing the Confederates was self-defense against Mr. Lincoln’s armies. This left little time for debates about intervening or not intervening in other country’s affairs or supporting other secessionist movements (although there was an interesting correspondence between President Davis and Brigham Young).

There are those – they might be called the Yankee Hysteric School of History – who stoutly maintain that an independent Confederacy would have conquered everything from the Rio Grande down to Tierra del Fuego, establishing slavery everywhere and putting a real hurtin’ on the British Empire. And worse: the bad Southern example would have stiffened the spine of reactionaries everywhere, preventing the British Reform Bill of 1867, stifling “democracy” and trade unions, thereby depriving future Yankees of the services of the Reuther Brothers and George Meany. The South African song “Daar kom die Alabama” – which celebrated the Confederate commerce raider’s appearance at Cape Town – might be more than a curiosity; it could have symbolized a working alliance between the Confederates and those terrible Boers, neatly reversing the plot of Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South. (The song title, by the way, is Afrikaans – South African Dutch – and not some kind of Joel Chandler Harris attempt at “dialect” writing.)

I don’t myself hold with exactly that view of the Confederates’ potential or their intentions, but never mind. It is enough to note that, after the war, Southerners’ attention was focused on rebuilding a ruined society and economy, resisting being “reconstructed” on the Yankees’ terms, and dealing with problems arising from war, defeat, and occupation. Southern political writing in these years centered on defending the Lost Cause.

The works of Jefferson Davis, Albert Taylor Bledsoe, former Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, and others raised the question of empire in the 18th-century sense. American republican thinkers used the term “empire” to refer to any large, consolidated state able to wield irresponsible power. This understanding of the concept ran all through the debates on the Constitution of 1787. This is how Stephens, probably the last great American republican theorist, saw things: “there is no difference between Consolidation and Empire; no difference between Centralism and Imperialism. The consummation of either must necessarily end in the overthrow of Liberty and the establishment of Despotism. To speak of any Rights as belonging to the States, without the innate and inalienable Sovereign power to maintain them, is but to deal in the shadow of language without the substance. Nominal Rights without Securities are but Mockeries!”1 This is sound republican doctrine, it seems to me, but truth in advertising requires me to add that, before the Late Unpleasantness of 1861-65, Stephens had been among those interested in acquiring new territory to the south suitable for the expansion of the slave economy – but not, I’m sure, all the way down to Antarctica.


Alongside the complaints of old-line republican enemies of centralized power, a literature arose which depicted the South and West as “internal colonies” of the Union, put upon by northeastern politicos, bankers, and capitalists, and their paid-for allies in those regions. (Bitter memories of Reconstruction led Southern Congressmen and Senators, who generally detested Mormonism, to provide the only opposition to federal “reconstruction” of Utah in the 1880s.) There was more than a grain of truth in this theme, which began with late 19th-century populists and carried over into the work of Walter Prescott Webb, B.B. Kendrick, A.B. Moore, Francis Butler Simkins, and, later, C. Vann Woodward and William Appleman Williams (the last a Midwesterner). Unfortunately, much of the economic analysis employed by such writers was completely hopeless. Anyway, many Southerners – ex-Confederates included – preferred to do their best to get on with the Yankees’ gospel of progress.


When foreign policy returned to the stage with the Spanish-American War, most Southerners were happy to go along with the “splendid little war” and be praised for their (unexpected?) “loyalty.” A few Southerners drew the parallel between the suppression of Philippine independence and their own struggle three decades earlier. Senator James H. Berry of Arkansas said that if “the doctrine that ‘all just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed,’ was true in 1861, it is true in 1898….” Senator Edward W. Carmack of Tennessee held that if American rule in the Philippines was “not ten thousand times better” than carpetbag rule in the South, “may the Lord God have mercy upon the Philippine Islands.”2 Tom Watson, the rough-and-tumble Georgia populist, who styled himself a Jeffersonian (please don’t tell Conor Cruise O’Brien), commented of the war: “Republics cannot go into the conquering business and remain republics. Militarism leads to military domination, military despotism.”3


The next great American interventionist adventure, US participation in World War I, was in great measure the work of an ex-Southern political scientist and world-improver, Woodrow Wilson. We can only hope that Wilson’s views and policies owed more to his life in New Jersey than to his Virginian background. Even if the Spanish war launched the American empire, the domestic consequences of Wilson’s crusade far outweighed those of the former.

Tom Watson of Georgia hated Wilson’s crusade even more than he had hated the war of 1898. In August 1917, Watson, who was, among other things, a lawyer, defended two black men accused of failing to register for the draft, in a test case he hoped would overturn Wilson’s Conscription Act. This of course failed. His arguments were based, as C. Vann Woodward writes, “upon the old creed of strict-construction and state-rights… the same sort of argument that Alexander H. Stephens would have used.”4

Watson unaccountably believed that constitutional rights do not go into suspension merely because a war exists, and continued to denounce the administration in his newspaper, The Jeffersonian. Spotting violations of the Espionage Act, the postmaster general effectively suppressed Watson’s paper by banning it from the mails, along with the publications of the antiwar socialists. Watson exclaimed: “Without specification of alleged wrongdoing, and without trial by jury, and without knowing why it is done, a publisher’s business is outlawed and his property scrapheaped, and his presses stopped: still, this is not press-censorship. What is it then? Evidently, it is a part of the ‘The New Freedom’ which Father-in-law Wilson advocates in his book; which Son-in-law McAdoo employs in his sale of Liberty Bonds; which the Germans are suffering so badly from the want of; and which we are spending blood and treasure to establish throughout the universe.”5

In 1920, as disillusionment with Woodrow’s war set in, Watson ran for a vacant Georgia Senate seat against A. Mitchell Palmer, Wilson’s dreadful attorney general and – like Newt Gingrich – a Pennsylvanian, not a Georgian. Watson denounced the League of Nations as a modern Holy Alliance. On one occasion, he said: “I am utterly opposed to any conscription law, any compulsory military training, any sedition law, any espionage act, or any legislation giving those in power the authority to banish from this country any citizen who is not first given a fair, legal trial.”6 The last point aimed at Palmer’s deportation of foreign-born radicals – mostly to Russia.

Elected to the Senate, Watson had a bit of revenge helping defeat Wilson’s peace settlement. When he died shortly thereafter, he was mourned as an agrarian radical by such certified leftists as socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. Today Watson is remembered – if he is remembered at all – as a terrible racist and bigot. This is not untrue, but, latter-day sensibilities aside, there must be more at issue than that. It was, after all, that wonderfully Progressive state-building President Woodrow Wilson himself, who mandated segregation in federal employment. It would take a fine-toothed comb to find a Progressive who wasn’t “racist” in some sense of the word. And if we applied current standards…. No, Watson’s chief crime lay in opposing intervention and empire, those great engines of Progress and Enlightenment.


Watson’s faults were many, but he didn’t lead us into a world war and an unbelievable domestic repression, from which our republican institutions never fully recovered. Nor was Watson, with all his faults, entirely alone. In 1922, the Literary Digest recounted – with a great show of hilarity and Yankee superiority – the tale of an Ozark county which had been a pocket of draft resistance during the late Crusade.7 Imagine that, folks, hillbillies so pig-ignorant, backward, and ingrown as to not want to get killed, or have their kinfolk killed, fighting that wicked Kaiser and Prussian militarism.

Is this some sort of underground Arkansan tradition we don’t know about? Can the Head of the Free World fill us in on it, between wars and interventions, if he has time? Not likely. He’s probably due to go on the road again, with a bigger entourage than Charlemagne himself could have imagined. Still, it’s nice to think that somewhere in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” there were people who thought that “Don’t tread on me” actually means “Don’t tread on me” even during an idealistic crusade to make the world safe for this and that abstraction – and if it happened in Arkansas, we’ll just have to live with that odd circumstance.

[1] Alexander H. Stephens, A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, volume II (Philadelphia: National Publishing Company, 1870), p. 668.
[2] Quoted in Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 150-152.
[3] Quoted in C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 335.
[4] Ibid., p. 456.
[5] Ibid., p. 458.
[6] Ibid., p. 468.
[7] “Uncle Sam’s Little War in the Arkansas Ozarks,” reprinted in Peter Karsten, ed., The Military in America (New York: The Free Press, 1980), pp. 297-300.