Skip to main content

Liberalism in the South

ISSUE:  Winter 1933

Liberalism in the South. By Virginius Dabney. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $3.50.

The rural man is usually conservative. Something in his way of living keeps him to beaten paths, and makes him interested in the preservation of property, accepted practices, and existing institutions. His outlook is provincial and that which he understands is “good” as contrasted with that which is “foreign.” Change, unless it arises from the resentments of a majority, is to be resisted and efforts to preserve things long established are likely to become confused with the “purposes of God” and to take on the spirit of a crusade.

But the rural man is also an individualist. Revolt is as characteristic as reaction. With the majority the quality manifests itself in matters of little consequence, but in the unusual case it reaches higher levels to produce the reformer who prods his fellows forward to the widening of horizons and the improvement of the common lot. Around these two tendencies hangs the tale of Southern liberalism.

Southern society in colonial days took over more from the Old World pattern than did any other section. From that source came the established church, the English notion of gentlefolk and those of lower origin, the feudal conception of woman, and the aristocratic practice of private education. A mellow climate and favoring soils gave opportunity to the country gentleman ideal, and fixed agriculture in a dominant position, with Negro slavery extended beyond the period profitable in other sections. Thus things established, favorable to the few, continued amid rural conservatism to challenge those individuals who thought in terms of natural rights or dreamed of a more perfect social order.

Mr. Dabney, certain that almost everything that has made for a more humane and enlightened civilization in the South has come from the few, has attempted a survey of liberal tendencies from the Revolution to the present in the fields of politics, religion, education, race, industry, literature, journalism, and woman’s rights. Defining liberalism in terms of “concern for the welfare of the average citizen,” acceptance of freedom of thought and speech, and a tolerance for the attitudes of others, he has really presented a series of essays on these phases of Southern social and intellectual life. They are all exceptionally well done, but each is characterized by weaknesses inherent in the staggering breadth of the undertaking and the indefinite boundaries of the fields. Generalizations, both false and true in detail, abound; for the specialist, startling inclusions and omissions exist in every field; and, more often than is necessary, the central theme of liberalism is lost in rounding out a study that lies too close to the border line. The author is conscious of these defects, but has chosen to accept them in order to secure unity in a wider field and to be able to point out the basic factors on both sides of the struggle. His success in these undertakings justifies his decision.

Liberalism was given great impulse in the South by the Revolution. Mason’s Bill of Rights and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence were but preludes to the abolition of entail and primogeniture, the disestablishment of the Episcopal Church, the broadening of the franchise, and the checking of the slave trade. But prosperity soon shifted interests, and the ante-bellum South settled back into the acceptance of slavery and the neglect of its lesser white folk. Soon, under Northern attacks, social stratification and even intellectual backwardness were rationalized into virtues. Freedom of speech was denied. Men were satisfied with an educational effort that brought the colleges to high level but gave only the rudiments of a secondary school system; and Southern women accepted, without complaint, the position which chivalrous gentlemen assigned to them on an impractical pedestal. It takes only a hundred and fifty pages to tell the whole story—and most of these are more filled with conservatives and reactionaries than with liberals.

The second span, stretching from the Civil War to the opening of the twentieth century, is almost as bleak. War freed the Negroes but left a race problem that stirred as little of the liberal spirit as its predecessor had done. Reconstruction left bitterness, prejudices, and ruin. Educational advances, with a few notable exceptions, came through Northern philanthropy; and the poor white man took his place in the political world only under the leadership of the worst sort of demagogue. The fundamentalist, in control of both church and school, checked the scientific spirit of the modern day and sent far too many choice spirits outside the region for economic opportunities and mental freedom. In spite of such names as Grady and Lamar, Curry and Hay-good, Mclver and Alderman, Woodrow and DuBose, progress was slow and the conservative-evangelical spirit held sway.

The turn of the century brought new economic prosperity upon foundations long building, and with it came new liberal advances. The public schools were well established and Southern universities took national rank. Women entered new fields of endeavor and gained rights consistent with their abilities. Interracial understanding broadened; and lynchings, after a sharp upward swing under “poor white” political control, tended to lessen. More men were willing to think in terms of individuals instead of race. The “yoke of ecclesiasticism,” while yet heavy, met with growing opposition; and a group of newspaper editors, liberal even for the nation as a whole, had their say on “sacred” matters. Only in the fields of politics and industry was progress slow. Single party dominance and “poor white” control kept the ranks of the “political clowns” so well filled that the outsider was inclined to notice Vardaman, Blease, and Long, rather than Aycock, Underwood, and Byrd. Paternalism and exploitation characterized industry. Some progress came in labor’s fight for better hours, a normal life for women and children, and for better working conditions, but the liberal still endangered his comfort and safety if he spoke freely on such matters. Industry was too young for full justice.

The volume ends with a note of encouragement. In spite of so much ignorance and bigotry, better days for liberalism lie ahead. Already an intellectual stirring, manifesting itself in a worthy literature and criticism, is felt throughout the region. And its temper, like that of Mr. Dabney’s own delightful book, is ever courageous and aggressive, even though a bit impatient. It is demonstrating the fact that, at last, a man may be both critical of, and loyal to, the South.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading