SON OF THE SOUTH. SORT OF.
I’m currently in Nashville, but over the weekend I was in Birmingham, Alabama. I didn’t get to see much of it. I got there on Saturday night for a Saint Patrick’s Day party. I drank a lot of beer. Played some pool. Came home Sunday. But it was an education nevertheless.
I’m a pseudo-intellectual demi-Jew from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, so my ear for regional differences is very sensitive. Basically, I think the Upper East Side is a country not my own. And that huge chunk of the Northern Hemisphere between New York City and, well, New York City, might as well be the moon (I’m not bicoastal; L.A. makes less sense to me than Chad). But, I’m no “it’s-all-fly-over-country snob” in the strict sense. First, I can’t stand most of the people on the Upper West Side. Second, I generally think regionalism is a great thing. The homogenization of the United States should be fought, not encouraged.
Now, nothing I say here should be taken as if I did any real reporting while I was down South. I don’t even know the full names of anybody I talked to and I wasn’t exactly in a position to take notes — since both hands had drinks in them. Nevertheless, I stand by my quotes as if I had taped them. So what did your intrepid Kulturkampfer uncover? First, people actually say the following words in the order I am presenting them: “Y’know, Birmingham has always considered itself the Pittsburgh of the South.”
I know it isn’t polite to laugh at people when they are paying their hometown a compliment. But, the Pittsburgh of the South? Maybe this is a national trend. Maybe Portland is starting a new ad campaign, “Come to Portland: The Secaucus, New Jersey, of the Greater Northwest!” Or, “Oakland: All the Murder of East St. Louis and Twice the Taxes!”
The Birminghamites compare their city to Pittsburgh because it too is a former industrial center and steel town. Fine, nothing to be ashamed of, but there has got to be a better way to say it.
The group I was with was comprised entirely of conservative Republicans, so most of the conversation was tactical political stuff. But somehow, the topic of Abraham Lincoln came up, and everything went down from there. The bile directed at Lincoln was overwhelming and shocking. “He was the Bill Clinton of his day,” seemed to be the nod-inducing mantra among the well-informed. “He was no conservative!” was shouted more than once. “He was a hypocrite and he was a racist!” “The Emancipation Proclamation was the politically expedient thing to do.” It was “a deliberate thumb in the eye of the South.” I’ve been through much of the South and I know well that feelings about the Civil War still run high. Indeed, you’ll more often hear it called the War Between the States. Which is fine by me. But I don’t go for the War of Northern Aggression. Still, I have to admit I was shocked by the intensity of the dislike for Lincoln.
It was particularly difficult for me because my significant other is not simply a student of the Jaffa School, but she is also prone to wolverine-like rages. If you don’t know who Harry Jaffa is, it’s probably because you have your priorities straight. Jaffa is a fairly obscure but brilliant scholar who currently teaches at Claremont-McKenna. His biggest brush with fame was his reputed authorship of Barry Goldwater’s “extremism in the defense of liberty” line. Jaffa is the leader of what are known as the West Coast Straussians. (Named after Leo Strauss — another obscure and even more brilliant scholar who inspired a generation of conservatives to see the world in a very complicated way). And a core tenet of the West Coast Straussians is that Abraham Lincoln wasn’t simply a great president in the tradition of Washington and Jefferson, but a great figure along the lines of Moses or Aristotle. So here I am sitting with a bunch of nice people — our hosts to boot — who are talking about Lincoln like he was a jail-house snitch, and the only thing keeping my date from ripping out their throats and feasting on their livers is the fact that we need them to give us a lift back to our car. It was a hot time in the Pittsburgh of the South, let me tell you.
So, now that I am sober and back in Nashville (the Orlando of central Tennessee), I can settle the issue without benefit of interruption or fear of being stranded. Lincoln, along with Washington, was our greatest president and, along with Coolidge and Reagan, the best conservative president. And, before we get into the slavery stuff, it should be recognized that he was a conservative for a number of reasons that had nothing to do with the war. He was a fanatic about intellectual property, for example. He believed that the copyright clause of the Constitution was perhaps the Founders’ greatest contribution to human history.
Okay, on to the North-South stuff. Conservative critics of Lincoln argue with merit that Lincoln expanded the power and scope of the central government, as well as fanned the flames of mass democracy to such an extent as to virtually guarantee the New Deal. One of my heroes — Frank Meyer — wrote in National Review in 1965 that Lincoln trammeled the Constitution in fealty to the “spurious slogan of Union.” Others, including Willmoore Kendall, James Kilpatrick, and Richard Weaver, echoed similar statements (also in the pages of NR) that Lincoln betrayed the Founders. Lincoln, to them, was an ideologue who ignored the textured federalism of the Constitution in favor of a pernicious egalitarianism.
Friends of Lincoln say that yes, he did in fact beef up the central government. But he did so to secure a conservative aim — the preservation of the Union. In many ways, Lincoln’s closest parallel is Benjamin Disraeli, the conservative Prime Minister who mid-wived Conservatism into the modern era. Lincoln made conservatism — which he defined as an adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried — a governing philosophy. He understood that individual political liberty is the fundamental moral obligation of the state and of the Founders. To the extent that people were interpreting the Constitution to say otherwise, either the Constitution or the people interpreting it were wrong. In fact, the contention that he was a racist, though a pointless and ahistorical observation really, would only go to bolster Lincoln’s principled stature. If Lincoln believed (as he surely did) that African-Americans were a troubled people, he still recognized that they were people. And all people are equal in the eyes of God, and because of that equality, they must be equal before the law. Thus, they too were entitled to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness — even in the Pittsburgh of the South.