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Cultural Caveat: The Southern Agrarians

By George Grant, Ph.D.
July 01, 1999
"There is no place like home. Of joy, of peace, of plenty, where supporting and supported, dear souls mingle into the blissful hubbub of daily life. No matter how benevolent, no matter how philanthropic, and no matter how altruistic some social or cultural alternative may be, it can never hope to match the personal intimacy of domestic relations. Except in the rare and extreme cases where strife and bitterness have completely disintegrated familial identity, there is no replacement for the close ties of brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, parents and children, aunts and uncles, kith and kin. Though under siege in our day, domesticity has always been recognized as the glue that holds nations together — and ever it shall be. Upon this ought we, like the Agrarians of yore, take our stand." — Tristan Gylberd

In 1930 an extraordinary group of Southern historians, poets, political scientists, novelists, and journalists published a prophetic collection of essays warning against the looming loss of the Founding Fathers' original vision. Including contributions from such literary luminaries as Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Andrew Nelson Lytle, Stark Young, and John Crowe Ransom, the symposium — entitled "I'll Take My Stand" — poignantly voiced the complex intellectual, emotional, and spiritual consternation of men standing on the precipice of catastrophic cultural change.

The men were alarmed by what they perceived to be a steady erosion of the rule of law in modern American life. They feared that — as was the case in the eighteenth century — our liberties were facing a fearsome challenge from the almost omnipresent and omnipotent forces of monolithic civil government. They said:

When we remember the high expectations held universally by the founders of the American union for a more perfect order of society, and then consider the state of life in this country today, it is bound to appear to reasonable people that somehow the experiment has very nearly proved abortive, and that in some way a great commonwealth has gone wrong.

They were determined to warn against the creeping dehumanization of an ideological secularism that they believed was already beginning to dominate American life:

There is evidently a kind of thinking that rejoices in setting up a social objective which has no relation to the individual. Men are prepared to sacrifice their private dignity and happiness to an abstract social ideal, and without asking whether the social ideal produces the welfare of any individual man whatsoever.

Standing Against Modernity
They knew full well that they were essentially standing; against the rising tide of industrial modernity, nevertheless they were convinced that ordinary Americans would ultimately hear and heed their warning — otherwise, the nation would collapse under the weight of corruption: "If the republic is to live up to its ideals and be what it could be, then it had better look long and hard at what it is in danger of becoming and devote conscious effort to controlling its own destiny, rather than continuing to drift along on the tides of economic materialism."

Clearly, the contributors were old-line conservatives in the tradition of Americans like Patrick Henry, Fisher Ames, John Randolph, and John C. Calhoun. But they also drew on the rich European conservative tradition of men like Edmund Burke, Walter Bagehot, Robert Southey, and Thomas Macaulay. As political scientist Louis Rubin later commented:

They were writing squarely out of an old American tradition, one that we find imbedded in American thought almost from the earliest days. The tradition was that of the pastorale; they were invoking the humane virtues of a simpler, more elemental, non-acquisitive existence, as a needed rebuke to the acquisitive, essentially materialistic compulsions of a society that from the outset was very much engaged in seeking wealth, power, and plenty on a continent whose prolific natural resources and vast acres of usable land, forests, and rivers were there for the taking.

Short-term pessimists but long-term optimists, they believed that eventually a grassroots movement would restore the principles of the rule of law and that the American dream could be preserved for future generations. Though they were not economists or sociologists or activists, their vision was a comprehensive blueprint for a genuinely principle-based conservative renewal.

Thus, they believed in an extremely limited form of civil government and took a dim view of government intervention. They went so far as to assert that communities should "ask practically nothing of the federal government in domestic legislation." Further, they believed that this limited governmental structure should be predicated primarily on the tenets of "local self-government" and "decentralization."

They were not minimalists or libertarians. Instead they were realists who envisioned a society which called "only for enough government to prevent men from injuring one another." It was by its very nature, a "non-ideological" and "laissez faire society." It was an "individualistic society" that "only asked to be let alone."

A Wholesome Skepticism
Not surprisingly then, the contributors to the symposium opposed the idea that "the government should set up an economic super organization, which in turn would become the government." They regarded socialism, democratic liberalism, communism, and republican cooperationism with equal disdain. In fact, they professed an ingrained "suspicion of all schemes that propose to coerce our people to their alleged benefit."

They believed that it was necessary "to employ a certain skepticism even at the expense of the Cult of Science, and to say it is an Americanism, which looks innocent and disinterested, but really is not either." They were not resistant to technological progress so much as they were resistant to the crass and inhuman humanism that often accompanies industrial advance. They believed that "a way of life that omits or de-emphasizes the more spiritual side of existence is necessarily disastrous to all phases of life."

Clearly then, the men who contributed to "I'll Take My Stand" believed that society ought to be defined by its moral and cultural values. They yearned for return to that early American ethic of freedom and liberty which was "for the most part stable, religious, and agrarian; where the goodness of life was measured by a scale of values having little to do with material values."

In essence, they believed in humanizing the scale of modern life: ". . . restoring such practices as manners, conversation, hospitality, sympathy, family life, romantic love — the social exchanges which reveal and develop sensibility in human affairs." They believed in a "realistic, stable, and hereditable life." Thus, they favored continuity and tradition over change for the sake of change: "The past is always a rebuke to the present; it's a better rebuke than any dream of the future. It's a better rebuke because you can see what some of the costs were, what frail virtues were achieved in the past by frail men."

After all, they said: "Affections, and long memories, attach to the ancient bowers of life in the provinces; but they will not attach to what is always changing."

Although they believed that all of these foundational truths were "self-evident" in the sense that they are written on the fleshly tablet of every man's heart, they were not so idealistic as to believe that the truths would be universally accepted. In fact, they knew that such reasoning would inevitably be a stumbling block to some and mere foolishness to others. All too often men suppress reality in one way, shape, form, or another.

As a matter of fact, though "I'll Take My Stand" caused quite a stir when it was first released, very few critics gave it much chance of actually affecting the course of events or the destiny of the nation. It was assumed that "the wheels of progress could not possibly be redirected." The contributors were chided for their "naiveté," "impracticality," and "idealism." They were written off as "merely nostalgic," "hopelessly utopian," and "enthusiasts for an epochal past that can never again be recaptured."

For some fifty years it looked as if the critics might be right. The course of the twentieth century appeared to be a stern rebuke to the basic principles of the symposium. Like the English Distributists and the Continental Christian Democrats, with whom they shared so many basic presuppositions, the contributors seemed tragically out of step with the times.

Prophetic Words
But now all that has changed. Recent turns of events have vindicated their emphasis on less government, lower taxes, family values, minimal regulation, and localism. Their innate distrust of professional politicians, propagandizing media, and commercial tomfoolery have suddenly been translated by a spontaneous grassroots advent into populist megatrends. The fulfillment of their improbable prophetic caveat is even now unfolding as we race toward the end of the century.

But however they may ultimately align themselves in a party apparatus, it is apparent that the majority of Americans have solidly conservative credentials. Gallup and Wirthlin polls following the seemingly disastrous last election found that more than 54 percent of all Americans want "less government and less taxes." A full 68 percent would prefer "a government that encouraged traditional values." Nearly 87 percent favored legal restrictions on abortion-on-demand. An overwhelming 89 percent oppose relaxing the behavioral restrictions on homosexuals in the military. And some 62 percent oppose conferring on them preferential minority status. When asked to identify the most important issues facing the nation today, "reducing taxes and government spending" was selected by more than a 2-to-1 ratio over any other concern. Reinforcing "traditional family values" came in close behind, followed by "prohibiting abortion," "promoting freedom and democracy," and "eliminating government regulations."

Despite strong opposition by the politics-as-usual establishment of both major political parties as well as the uniformitarian national media, the moral principles that seemed so passé just a short time ago now actually dominate the social scene. The notions espoused by the contributors to "I'll Take My Stand" have gone from the political backwater to the cultural mainstream almost overnight. A kind of American glasnost and perestroika are beginning to have their effect on the entrenched structures of ideological power.

A new day has dawned.

Senator Ted Kennedy recently asserted that, "The ballot box is the place where change begins in America." Although he has been fiercely and vehemently wrong in the past, Kennedy has never been more wrong than this. As George Will has argued: "There is hardly a page of American history that does not refute that insistence, so characteristic of the political class, on the primacy of politics in the making of history." In fact, he says, "In a good society, politics is peripheral to much of the pulsing life of the society."

That is what makes the emergence of the grassroots conservative consensus such a threat to the politics-as-usual agenda of the Washington insiders in both major parties. That is why the dominant media recoils with fear and loathing to any and all grassroots efforts by ordinary Americans to make their communities cleaner, safer, and better. That is why the pundits, the prognosticators, and the politicos are so terribly out of sorts just now. They are suddenly discovering that the brutal imposition of fashion and fancy by a few privileged interlopers makes for an inherently unstable societal structure — one that is certain to be short-lived.

What they are witnessing — to their obvious horror — is the implementation of an extraordinary conservative strategy for the restoration of our republic: it is ordinary people doing ordinary things in an ordinary fashion in order to achieve ordinary ends.

This is the great lesson of history: it is ordinary people who are ultimately the ones who determine the outcome of human events — not kings and princes, not masters and tyrants. It is laborers and workmen, cousins and acquaintances that upend the expectations of the brilliant and the glamorous, the expert and the meticulous. It is plain folks, simple people, who literally change the course of history — because they are the stuff of which history is made. They are the ones who make the world go round. For, as G. K. Chesterton said, "The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children."

What we are seeing then may very well be precisely what the Agrarians were calling for. It is simply a new grassroots majoritarian emphasis on things that really matter: hearth and home, community and culture, accountability and availability, service and substance, morality and magnanimity, responsibility and restoration. It is a movement that may be stymied, obstructed, and hampered — but ultimately it cannot fail.

As the famed journalist-curmudgeon H. L. Mencken once said: "The man who invents a new imbecility is hailed gladly, and bidden to make himself at home; he is to the great masses of men, the beau ideal of mankind. His madness must necessarily give way to right, sooner or later, though — usually later."

Or as the poet F. W. Faber wrote: "For right is right, since God is God; And right the day must win; To doubt would be disloyalty; To falter would be sin."


Topics: American History, Culture

George Grant, Ph.D.

George Grant is the pastor of Parish Presbyterian Church, director of the King's Meadow Study Center, Founder of Franklin Classical School, New College Franklin, the Comenius School, LifeNet Coalition, HELP Services, Parish Life Network, and the Chalmers Fund. He is the author of more than five dozen books. The father of three and grandfather of three, he lives in Franklin, TN with his wife and co-author, Karen.

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