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Colony or Region?

ISSUE:  Spring 1938

Divided We Stand, By Walter Prescott Webb. New York: Farrar and Rinehart. $2.50.

For the generations immediately following the War between the States there seemed to be little point in examining national trends or in trying to discern their implications for national policy. The great issues of the day had been settled on the field of battle. For the North the way was clear to achieve its imperial destiny. There was work to be done and there were the men and the means to do it. For the South there was little left except continued existence and romantic nostalgia for the society that was dead. In either case the future was allowed to take care of itself; there was neither the time nor the disposition to ask fundamental questions.

During the past two decades the mental climate of America has in this respect undergone a radical transformation. Men are once more pausing to inquire whither they are going. Our present mood is strikingly similar to the mood of a century ago. The question which haunted our grandfathers was: Is it possible to maintain national unity on a continental scale? Our fathers thought this question had been answered once and for all at Appomattox. But the wheel of time seems to have spun full circle, for this same question is rising to haunt their sons.

Walter Prescott Webb’s “Divided We Stand” is an excellent illustration of the new realism in considering national problems. It reflects a desire to recognize actualities for what they are and it reveals a realization that our survival as a nation depends upon national policy being related to these actualities.

The picture of the national scene which Mr. Webb draws is not a new one, but it has seldom been presented more graphically or convincingly. It is the picture of a vast and wealthy country between whose different sections all economic balance has been destroyed. The South and the West have the land and the natural resources, but the North has the money and the control. The consequence is that the South and the West have become what is in effect an extensive colonial domain for the North. These regions serve the same useful purpose for New York City that India once served for London.

Continental maladjustment has resulted from the interplay of various historic forces whose combined strength determines the current form of America’s national destiny. Some of these forces may be traced back to the War between the States. Others were a by-product of the disappearance of the frontier, while still others were created by the machine and by the corporation which was the logical outgrowth of machine production. According to Mr. Webb, the personalization of the corporation by judicial perversion of the Fourteenth Amendment was a decisive factor in preparing the way for “America’s feudal system.” It is this system which has been primarily responsible for the progressive loss of economic balance between the different regions.

Mr. Webb draws a brilliant analogy between the nineteenth-century relief policies of the Republicans and the twentieth-century relief policies of the Democrats. The Grand Old Party had a thoroughgoing program of relief, including pensions for the faithful, homesteads for the unemployed, and tariffs for the infant or ill industries. Even the W. P. A. has never operated on such a scale. It seems that pump-priming, far from being a modern invention of the brain-trusters, was the mainstay of respectable reactionaries three-quarters of a century ago.

“Divided We Stand” would, I think, be even more effective if the “feudal system” comparison had not been used. Admitting the value of the comparison for stylistic and argumentative effect, it remains superficial and rather misleading. In some respects the feudal system was superior to the industrial system. There was, for example, greater social security. In other respects, and particularly in conditions of labor and returns for labor, the advantages obviously lie with the industrial system. Feudalism was essentially a system of personal relationships, while industrialism is essentially a system of impersonal relationships. No new light is thrown on a corporation by calling it feudal.

The main thesis of “Divided We Stand” is, however, thoroughly sound. The facts are plain and incontrovertible. What to do about them is the question. Mr. Webb says that we should “repeal that section of the Fourteenth Amendment which has led to the definition of the corporation as a person.” The solitary opinion of Justice Black may eventually prevail, but if it does it will be through the gradual evolution of public sentiment and not through sudden amendment. Mr. Webb also hopes that the “feudal” lords may become “good neighbors” of the South and West. I admit that the grace of God is equal even to that. And the fact that one feudal family has already spent more than a hundred million dollars on worthy enterprises in the South is proof that this grace is still operative. But such far-sighted generosity is not characteristic of the class.

I suggest that we who live in the South and claim it as our own have no right to expect help from anyone but ourselves. It must become a point of honor among Southern young men: first, to remain in the South instead of going North; second, to capture control of industry located in the South; third, to conserve Southern soil and reverse the trend from farm ownership to tenancy; fourth, to cultivate an authentic regional culture.

If this became our practice, institutions would naturally develop in the course of time to express a wholesome regionalism within the framework of the Federal structure. For the time being it seems pointless to inquire what the precise character of those institutions should be.


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