September 15, 2018


INTERVIEW with JAMES C. COBB: WHY HAS AMERICA BEEN SO RELUCTANT TO 'OWN' THE SOUTH?: A Preeminent Historian Explores How a Region Central to U.S. Identity Gets Written Out of the National Narrative (INTERVIEW by GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | SEPTEMBER 13, 2018, Zocalo Public Square)

Were there forces other than slavery that forged this sense of regional distinctiveness?

Identity is not something that we get to pick. We are not the sole arbiters of our own identity. Our identity is partially what we think we are, but it is also defined by others. What they see us as being. And as the nation developed in the first few decades, there were already differences in the South and the New England states. The South is a dispersed population, organized around the agricultural plantation. New England is organized more around the small towns, the villages. More concentration of the population and more demand for education and innovation spawned what I always call a foolish Yankee faith in education. That also spawns, then, the market for public communication, for newspapers and magazines and journals.

Whereas in the South everything is so spread out, and any printing material you get there would take so long to arrive, it would be way out of date. And public education was unknown. The planters who had the money, they educated their kids privately. There was no investment in public education.

So with all of that, basically the definition of the South as a region set apart from the rest of the country was actually written in New England. And at the same time, New Englanders and the New England media are pushing New England as the essence of what this new country is supposed to be about--the New England ideals of frugality and hard work and piety. And so, it's sort of a struggle as to who gets to represent the true American. And, the advantages clearly lie with New England in this respect.

When we finally decided we were not going to fight Great Britain anymore, we no longer had the kind of antithetical foe or antagonist that group identities are usually dependent on. You know, when you identify a group, it's not just "this is who we are," it's also "they are who we ain't." And so, whereas Britain had served in that role up through the War of 1812, the South then sort of supplanted Great Britain. Now you had these people out in outrageously hot weather living dissolute lives growing wealthy off the labors of bondsmen--so it was easy to write the South out of the central narrative of American history, but make it a vital component nonetheless in the formulation of a national identity.

Slavery itself, the institution, became one of the characteristics that set the South apart from the rest of country, which is really ironic because slavery was kind of the impetus for the development of New England.
What role does Thanksgiving play in the way the South was written out of America's national narrative?

Thanksgiving was basically a New England holiday. And by the time there was a push in the 1840s to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday, abolitionism had become so associated with New England that many Southerners and Southern politicians, in particular, didn't cotton to the whole idea of basically an abolitionist holiday. So there was a strong resistance to celebrating Thanksgiving that carried over well through the Civil War era. And it's only after Reconstruction that the Southern states finally say, well, we realized we've finally got to get back in the fold and get with the program--to show that we are after all American--that the Southern states start to embrace Thanksgiving. [...]

What was the primary impulse for Southern states to secede?

For many generations, white Southerners have insisted that the Civil War was not about slavery, that it was about states' rights or it was about economic differences, or tariffs. But if you go back and just read the debates over secession in each Southern state-- which I have had the dubious pleasure of doing--it becomes very clear that the debate is taking place between two groups of slaveholders. And every state secession convention was dominated, not just by slaveholders, but by large slaveholders. And the question that they're trying to wrestle with is: "Can we best protect slavery by leaving the Union, and creating a new nation centered on protecting slavery, or can we still find better ways to protect slavery by staying in the Union?" That's the debate.

The cretins even opposed our high holy day.

Posted by at September 15, 2018 7:02 PM