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Live Demagogue, or Dead Gentleman?

ISSUE:  Winter 1936

Mr. H. L. Mencken once wrote of the ante-bellum South, “It was a civilization of manifold excellencies—perhaps the best the Western Hemisphere has ever seen—undoubtedly the best that These States have ever seen. . . . In the South there were men of delicate fancy, urbane instinct, and aristocratic manner—in brief, superior men—in brief, gentry. To politics, their chief diversion, they brought active and original minds. It was there that nearly all the political theories we still cherish and suffer under came to birth. It was there that the crude dogmatism of New England was refined and humanized. It was there, above all, that some attention was given to the art of living— that life got beyond and above the state of a mere infliction and became an exhilarating experience. A certain noble spaciousness was in the ancient southern scheme of things.”

With this estimate Southerners, as a whole, will agree. But candid men are bound to admit that it assumes a sardonic tinge in the light of recent history. “Men of delicate fancy, urbane instinct and aristocratic manner”—as, for example, Huey Long of Louisiana, Coleman L. Blease of South Carolina, J. Thomas Heflin of Alabama, Theodore G. Bilbo and, earlier, James K. Vardaman, of Mississippi, Thomas Edward Watson of Georgia, Jeff Davis of Arkansas, J. C. Walton of Oklahoma, James E. Ferguson of Texas, Ruby Laffoon of Kentucky. The list is so long that it cannot be regarded as representing mere political accidents. Here is a definite trend in Southern politics. And not only are men of this type numerous, but they are the Southerners of genuine force and vitality, the Southerners who have impressed themselves upon the imagination of the country. Opposed to them the Southerners who have been heard of outside their own bailiwicks consist of a few fanatical defenders of the old order—Glass of Virginia, Robinson of Arkansas, Harrison of Mississippi, Underwood of Alabama—a little earlier, and a handful of others of the same general type. That these are men of quality is undeniable, but their quality is intransigence. Almost the last thing that could be truthfully said of them is, “To politics they brought active and original minds.”

In the essay quoted above Mr. Mencken offered a brief and beautifully simple explanation of this alteration in the spirit and quality of Southern men in public life. It was that the aristocracy of the South was destroyed in the Civil War. This explanation is more than brief and simple. It is also flattering to Southern pride. It acquits us of recreancy to a great ideal and attributes our present low estate to a misfortune for which the modern generation has no responsibility. But pleasant as it might be to accept this way out, the facts point to a different conclusion. Counting men killed in battle, those who died of wounds, and those who died of disease, the Confederate army lost altogether only 4,626 officers. It staggers credulity to assert that so small a loss engulfed the entire aristocracy. Besides, aristocratic control, as a matter of record, actually survived the war in several States—for example, in South Carolina under the reign of Wade Hampton.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the men the South sends to Washington today fall into three categories. The first, including the larger number of modern representatives, is also the most enduring, having included everywhere and at all times the larger number of public men. It is the category of respectable stuffed shirts, in whom there is no great harm, but who are of no earthly use. This class is without special significance in Southern politics, because it isn’t distinctly Southern; the larger number of Northern representatives in Washington also belong to it. The second class is fairly represented by the most distinguished member of the Senate from the region below the Potomac, Carter Glass of Virginia, a stout defender of the status quo, a resolute opponent of nonsense and also of improvement, one of the ablest fiscal experts in the country, and sociologically illiterate. There can be no doubt that these men are valuable, and admirable, and dangerous. Finally, there is a third class including personalities of the most widely different types, some educated, some ignorant, some moral, some anything else, some honest according to their lights, and some most complete, finished, conscienceless rogues in any light, but all of them noisy, blatant, unmannerly, prejudiced, and violent. These men are not valuable, and not admirable, but they, too, are dangerous.

Furthermore, they are peculiarly Southern, for while the North and West send to Washington plenty of stuffed shirts, and plenty of able defenders of the existing order, and plenty of men of radical views, and not a few whose morals, public and private, are open to suspicion, they do not often elevate to high public office men who are loutish and offensive in their conduct.

Now there was a time when not the best, but the second-best, men from the South were defenders, while the best were assailants of the existing order. Jefferson, the incorrigible revolutionary; Madison, who helped overthrow the existing Constitution and wrote a new one; Marshall, who bored from within so successfully that he wrecked a large part of Madison’s work; Jackson, who flung down the oligarchy and erected the republic; and Clay, who started the process that flung down the republic and erected the empire—certainly to describe these as “active and original minds” is to speak conservatively. And even the Southerners whose work was less constructive than defensive, the men who might be described, in the terminology of a later day, as the great standpatters, John Randolph, Calhoun, Hayne, Toombs, Davis, Stephens, and the rest, might fairly be called “men of delicate fancy, urbane instinct, and aristocratic manner.” Even those birds of ill omen, Rhett of South Carolina and Yancey of Alabama, brought a sort of crazy brilliance to their work of destruction and death.

It may be that these men were not representative of what Benjamin Ryan Tillman, alias Pitchfork Ben, used to call “the wool-hat boys,” and what persons who never ran for office call “the poor white trash,” but, representative or not, they were tolerated by the Southern proletariat. And why not? From Washington as far down as Calhoun, the Southern leaders to a man acknowledged their responsibility as a ruling class to furnish the people of this country with good government. Their ideas of what constituted good government were as wide apart as those of Jefferson and those of Marshall; but they were agreed as to their own responsibility. Witness the agony of old Henry Clay, on that February day in 1850 when he made his great speech in defense of the Compromise. Already feeling the hand of death upon him, and too weak to clamber unassisted up the long flight of steps leading to the Capitol, he dragged himself to the summit clinging to the arm of a friend; but to the man’s suggestion that he postpone the effort, he replied, “I consider our country in danger, and if I can be the means in any measure of averting the danger, my health and life is of little consequence.”

That was the greatest thing ever said by Henry Clay, because there is no doubt that he meant it. Grant that he had been a shifty politician. Grant that more than once he had apparently put the interests of Clay ahead of the interests of the country. Grant all the charges that are brought against him, yet the fact remains that in the end he acknowledged, what he had known all along in the bottom of his heart, that the responsibility of an American leader to the people overrides, not only all other responsibilities to outside authority, but the very right of self-preservation. Jefferson had written that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the “unalienable” rights; but the best thought of his century held that the man who rules forfeits even these rights if they conflict with the discharge of his responsibility to his people. Unalienable as regards the people, the sacrifice of these rights is part of the price of rulership.

It was a high and austere conception of public duty, but Southern statesmen of the old school had it. Nor did the greatest among them stop with that. It was not enough for a statesman to be ready to die for his country. That might mark the limit of a soldier’s obligation, but a statesman owed his people something more. In return for the authority conferred on him, he was under the obligation to furnish them with just and honest government and to provide for their defense. But that was not all. The great ornaments of Southern statecraft believed that it is the duty of rulers who are worthy of their position to furnish the people, not merely with good, but with better, government. Consider how, from Jefferson to Clay, every illustrious Southerner was perpetually evolving schemes, not merely for the maintenance, but for the perfection, of our system of government. The fact that some—Marshall, for the most conspicuous example— were more concerned for property rights than for human rights does not alter the fact that theirs was a kinetic statecraft, a restless, inquiring, mobile statecraft, which might have been denounced on various other grounds, but could never have been scorned as paralytic.

A conspicuous characteristic of these men was their avid, intense interest in whatever was being thought and said by students of the art of government anywhere in the world. The letters of Jefferson are famous, of course, for the vividness of the writer’s interest in any new idea, whether it originated in Williamsburg, Virginia, in Braintree, Massachusetts, or in China; but the same insatiable hunger for the products of the finest minds in the world was to some extent evident in them all. Madison’s incessant researches did not terminate when he finished his part of the Federalist. To all the great debates of the first forty years of the republic Southerners brought a wealth of information gathered from the four corners of the earth; and apparently it entered no man’s mind to suppose that the un-Americanism of an idea was any reason for objecting to it. The last of the giants, Clay, was almost Jeffersonian in his hospitality to new ideas. True, he frequently failed to take the trouble to assimilate them thoroughly, but he was receptive enough; and his own “American System” he offered as an epitome and adaptation of the best thought of many other nations. Certainly it never occurred to him that the fact that he had based his project on the practice of other countries was anything against it; on the contrary, he was certain that it was a recommendation.

Now these men pleased the Southern proletariat. Every one of them at times encountered fierce opposition at home. Every one of them was the target of the envy and jealousy of less successful rivals. Every one of them had to fight to maintain his position. Nevertheless, every one of them was able to muster the necessary public support in a population far less well-informed and every whit as bigoted and prejudiced as the wool-hat boys who put Theodore Bilbo in the seat once occupied by L. Q. C. Lamar and who rendered to Huey Long a personal adoration rivaling that which they once gave to Henry Clay.

Here is a tremendous change, and not many Southerners will contest the assertion that it is an appalling change. But where, precisely, is the shift? Does it signalize a sharp degeneration in the poor white trash, or has there been an alteration in the character of Southern statesmanship?

Scientific investigators long ago established the rule that where alternative hypotheses seem each sufficient to account for the observed facts, the simpler of the two is more likely to be the true one. A widespread degeneration of the Southern proletariat, a degeneration not less esthetic than moral, would account for the change in the character of Southern representation in Washington. But such a degeneration would demand an explanation excessively complicated. The Southern proletarian today is better fed, better clothed, better housed, and healthier than he was a hundred years ago. He is generally able to read now, which was not true then, and he has enormously improved facilities for informing himself. Every material requisite for a happy, healthy, long, and productive life is easier of access now than it was in 1835. If the net result of this is degeneration, then we must reconstruct all our ideas of the process of civilization. The hypothesis of degeneration, therefore, is certainly far from simple.

Is the other hypothesis less involved and obscure? Well, to begin with, we have the fact, noted by every historian, that a great change did come over the spirit of Southern statesmanship. From about the year 1830—that is to say, concurrently with the rise of Abolitionism—it began to be on the defensive. It found itself committed to a different point of view. An enormous economic interest was involved in the institution of Negro slavery, but an equally important social interest also was involved. To arouse intense emotional pressure in a huge population over an economic interest is so difficult as to be virtually impossible; but a social issue always involves the emotions. Here were the two combined, and the resultant pressure was so powerful that it drove the ablest Southerners to the point of view that their responsibility as rulers was conditioned. That is to say, they accepted the falsehood that the search for truth must be restricted within the limitations imposed by an existing institution. It was, essentially, the same error that dragged Huss to the stake, Galileo to prison, and John T. Scopes to the bar of justice in Dayton, Tennessee.

To make the catastrophe complete, the North undertook to eradicate this idea by beating it out of the Southerners’ heads. The inevitable result, of course, was that it was merely embedded, and after seventy years it is still embedded in the minds of the gentry. To this day the ideal Southern statesman, in the opinion of vast numbers of Southerners, is typified by Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar. That Lamar was valuable, as well as brilliant, is undeniable; but Lamar is dead, and the polity that he was compelled to follow is as dead as the man. Consider his situation: he stood in the Senate as the representative of a country that had already been beaten in the field, but that was afterward suffering an even more dangerous assault in the council chamber. Victory was not even to be considered; his task was to save, if he could, such remnants of civilization as the Northern armies had left in Mississippi. Southern statesmanship, that is to say, was still on the defensive, and this time a Southerner brought to the defense wit, ingenuity, suppleness, grace, and eloquence, all backed by courage and iron determination. The result was the most brilliant and successful defensive campaign ever fought by a Southerner.

Lamar, in short, was the Captain of the Gate, and he earned from the South the sort of rapturous praise the ancient Romans gave Horatius. But that was a long time ago. Lars Porsena long since returned to Clusium and the way is clear again; nevertheless, the South has ever since been afflicted with politicians who aspire to be Lamar and who think that the way to do it is to defend the bridge. They have defended it with prodigious success; but, unfortunately, instead of halting the ranks of Tuscany they have been holding up traffic. For one man single-handed to check a whole invading army is, indeed, heroic; but for one to stop a street car full of people who want to go to work is something else. Yet for three-quarters of a century the great success of Southern statesmen has been in stopping, not invaders, but street cars. Our Horatiuses have included far fewer public deliverers than public nuisances.

Since Calhoun it is easy to pick out numbers of eminent Southern defenders of the status quo. Gorman of Maryland, Carmack of Tennessee, Smith of Georgia, Underwood of Alabama, Glass of Virginia, come to mind at once. But where is the prominent Southern politician, from Calhoun down, who has made any such original contribution to the science of government as, say, James Madison? I omit Jefferson, as a genius whose like has not been produced by North, or East, or West. Defenders of the faith as it was delivered unto the saints we have in plenty; but what Southerner has extended the boundaries of political thought as they have been extended, during the same period, by Bryan, or Theodore Roosevelt, or Altgeld, or the elder LaFollette, or Norris, or Borah, or Wagner, or even—God save the mark!—by Brookhart, or Upton Sinclair? Wilson? But Wilson developed his ideas in New Jersey, and New Jersey, not a Southern State, gave him a chance to try them out.

None? Ah, but there is one. I have no admiration for his ideas. I cherish profound suspicion of his integrity, public and private. I regard his methods as detestable. Nevertheless, the late Huey Pierce Long has the distinction of having injected more realism into Southern politics than any other man of his generation. Huey made millions of Southerners think of the political problems of 1935 as something quite different from those of 1865. Huey really counted.

It was not the man himself, but his huge success that made him significant and that may, perhaps, make a permanent impression on Southern politics. There was something about Huey that commanded the enthusiastic admiration of millions of Southerners, and the young Southerner in politics who can identify that element, isolate and cultivate it, cannot fail to be a winner. The discouraging phase of the situation is the fact that so many Southerners to this day believe that Huey won his successes by misconducting himself in wash rooms, by receiving foreign dignitaries in green pyjamas, and by telling the President of the United States to “go slap damn to hell.” That is to say, there are many Southerners who believe the wool-hat boys support ruffianly politicians solely because they are ruffianly. They may be right, but there are other hypotheses that will account for the facts.

Remember that Huey Long did not start his career in the United States Senate. He had been Governor of Louisiana before that; and it was as Governor that he built up his strength with the people. His record in that office was one which makes many Louisiana people turn purple in the face, and when they master their emotions sufficiently to be coherent, they will accuse Huey of barratry, morth, simony, and imagining the king’s death, as well as of every variety of more common crime. Perhaps they are libeling Huey; perhaps they are not. Be that as it may, they almost invariably omit the part of the record that explains the man’s power. Huey Long built countless roads into the backwoods parishes. He extended and strengthened the public school system, at the very moment when he was battering Tulane University. He improved the public health service, especially in the rural districts. To a very large extent he shifted the burden of taxation, lifting it from the backs of petty land-owners and laying it on cities and corporations. I do not assume to say that this was right or just; but it certainly evinced a sense of responsibility to the poor white trash—responsibility, not merely for defending their ancient rights, but for improving the government under which they live and suffer.

Opponents of Huey will be quick to point out that for every responsibility he assumed towards the wool-hat boys he abandoned an equally important one toward the rest of the State; for every benefit he conferred on the countryman, say these critics, he inflicted a wrong on the city man; for every constructive move he made in one direction, he made two destructive moves in some other direction; for every time he paid Paul once, he robbed Peter half a dozen times. Thus, they assert, the net result of his activities has been disastrous to the State of Louisiana.

This may be true; but if so, it is only the natural result of having Paul paid by a man like Huey Long, instead of by some man who would make the payment without robbing Peter for the purpose. It could be done, and it is arrant nonsense to hold otherwise. Decent roads, decent schools, decent public health service, a decent share of all the social services could be supplied to the Louisiana proletariat by means of moderate taxation laid on the wealth of the State. If it hadn’t been done until Huey did it, the reason is that the political leadership of Louisiana had never accepted the provision of such things as its first responsibility. And if Huey, in doing it, taxed the wealth of the State one dollar for social service and four dollars, or more, for the maintenance of his political machine, that is part of the cost of leaving social improvement to demagogues. It can be done at much less cost; but the point of transcendent importance is that it is going to be done, whatever the cost.

For if there is anything clearly demonstrated by the trend of Southern politics for the last generation, it is that the man who evinces a sense of responsibility to the poor white trash hereafter is going to succeed in Southern politics. For generations the wool-hat boys were in tutelage; but they are so no longer. They will now support the man who convinces them that he has their interests at heart, and they will support him regardless of how many other disqualifications he may have.

Tom Heflin is remembered chiefly for his frenetic propagation of religious prejudice, but the important fact about his career is that he did not get into Congress originally by denouncing the Pope. Indeed, after he had wasted a whole term roaring against the Roman Catholics, he was ejected by the same Protestant proletariat that sent him there in the first place. He made his name and won his seat in the first place by a powerful and effective attack on the corporation control of Alabama. This same Bilbo, who first came into notice above the Potomac by waging a fantastic war against the University of Mississippi, has done some excellent work for the public school system of Mississippi; the public schools are the wool-hat boys’ university, so why should they worry over what Bilbo did to Oxford? Coleman L. (To-hell-with-the-Constitution) Blease at least cleaned out the unspeakable South Carolina penitentiary. The Southern gentry understand clearly, and explain volubly, that every one of the mountebanks whose whoops and dances in Washington have made the South a laughingstock, got his start by appeals to the passions and prejudices of the poor white trash. And this is nonsense. Every one of these apparitions who has amounted to much got his start, not by making appeals to anything, but by actually delivering some part of the goods promised.

And yet when one examines the programs of these wild men, the astonishing thing about them is their conservatism. The Share-the-Wealth scheme of Long never got beyond the stage of vague propaganda. All that he actually gave the Louisiana proletariat is regarded in every section but the South as the merest routine of decent government. Roads, schools, public health service, the imposition of taxes on those best able to pay—where, in Heaven’s name, is the radicalism in any of them? Yet apparently they were so new and strange to the backwoodsmen of Louisiana that their accomplishment won for Huey the reputation of a sort of demigod. The success of Long, in short, is the bitterest of commentaries on the sort of government Louisiana had had before him.

So it is with the rest of the fantastic creatures the South has been sending to Washington. Every man of them won his initial battles with ammunition that should never have fallen into his hands. Every one succeeded by promising the under-privileged, not anything radical, but just those things which any government with a keen sense of social responsibility would have provided long ago. But the one social responsibility that has been acknowledged by the political leadership of the South since the Civil War has been the negative responsibility of preventing Negro domination. Having promised, and provided, a white man’s government, it has considered its duty done. The great currents of modern thought have swirled and eddied around the South, but they have moved her political leadership with painful slowness. She has had socially alert leaders, but not in the political field. An occasional clergyman—a Murphy of Alabama, a Jones of Georgia, one or two in nearly every other State—has cried out for social justice as an ethical principle. A platoon of college professors is shouting for it as a philosophical principle. Now and then a business man of the type of Coker of South Carolina joins the chorus as a matter of plain common sense. Then there are newspaper editors. That dismal trade includes, in the South as everywhere else, a certain percentage of born Bolsheviki—a Hall in Alabama, a Harris in Georgia, a Daniels in North Carolina, a Jaff6 in Virginia—one or more in practically every State.

Nevertheless the future is with these people, because these are the people who know how to restrain the wool-hat boys from voting Heflins and Huey Longs’ into the Senate. Gentlemen in politics may continue, if they choose, to have Calhoun for their preceptor; but if they do so choose, it means that they must expect to yield their seats to men who never heard of Calhoun, or who will not admit it, if they have. For what Mr. Walter Lippmann calls the New Imperative has begun to percolate through the minds of the Southern proletariat, and in the end the Southern gentry must open their minds to it, also. The idea that the first responsibility of the rulers of the South is not to hold down the Negro, but to hold up all men, including poor white trash, defending them against domestic as well as foreign foes, warding off from them famine as well as bayonets, is a ferment that, once started, will work its way through the whole mass of the population.

But is it really a new imperative? What is it, in essence, but the theory that he who is given the right to rule in a democracy must answer for the happiness and welfare of his people, must continually labor for the improvement of their condition, must ever look forward, not back, on pain of having rulership taken from him? But this is not new. This was the merest truism to such Southerners as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, John Randolph in his early days, Jackson, and Clay. John Marshall would not have denied it. Patrick Henry proclaimed it passionately. George Mason, Nathaniel Macon, James Monroe accepted it. It was the very essence of Southern political philosophy in the days when the South was furnishing the nation with the most brilliantly successful leadership it has ever had.

It may be bitterly ironical that the revival of this idea among the masses in the South has had the effect of sending to Washington a group of men whose manners astound the nation, and whose sincerity is more than suspect; but if they are the only political leaders with the wit to pay even lip-service to the idea, what would you have? A demagogue is objectionable for a vast number of reasons, but he has at least the virtue of being alive; and when the choice lies between a demagogue and a political corpse, the voters who choose the demagogue may be degenerate, but I doubt that their choice proves it. Necrophilia is not a wholesome trait, either.


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