The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism
In recent years American conservatism has found a new voice, a new way of picking up the political pieces left in the wake of liberal policies. But what seems innovative, Eugene Genovese shows us, may in fact have very old roots. Tracing a certain strain of conservatism to its sources in a rich southern tradition, his book introduces a revealing perspective on the politics of our day. As much a work of political and moral philosophy as one of history, The Southern Tradition is based on the intellectual journey of one of the most influential historians of the late twentieth century.
To appreciate the tradition of southern conservatism, Genovese tells us, we must first understand the relation of southern thought to politics. Toward this end, he presents a historical overview that identifies the tenets, sensibilities, and attitudes of the southern-conservative world view. With these conditions in mind, he considers such political and constitutional issues as state rights, concurrent majority, and the nature and locus of political power in a constitutional republic. Of special interest are the southern-conservative critiques of equality and democracy, and of the Leviathan state in its liberal, socialist, and fascist forms. Genovese examines these critiques in light of the specific concept of property that has been central to southern social and political thought.
Not only does this book illuminate a political tradition grounded in the writings of John Randolph and John C. Calhoun, but it shows how this lineage has been augmented by powerful literary figures such as Allen Tate, Lewis Simpson, and Robert Penn Warren. Genovese here reconstitutes the historical canon, re-envisions the strengths and weaknesses of the conservative tradition, and broadens the spectrum of political debate for our time.
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LibraryThing ReviewUser Review - LibraryThing
The Southern Tradition is a short monograph based on Genovese's Massey Lectures at Harvard. The basic argument of the book is as follows: Southern Conservatism (a tradition spanning from Antebellum figures like Calhoun, Mason, and Randolph to more recent figures like the Fugitive Poets and Richard Weaver) can provide an historic, legitimate, and often insightful critique of present day global capitalist liberal culture. Genovese seems to be writing to an audience of fellow scholars and fellow leftist, quasi-marxist thinkers who he thinks might have something to learn from traditionalist opponents of "the market qua culture." The reason for enganing in this task and writing to this audience is made clear several times in the text. Due to the unfortunate intermixing of Southern Conservative politics and the viciously racist practices of many Southern Conservatives, mainstream consideration of the arguments and ideology emerging from Southern Conservatives has been minimal. Genovese seems to fear that the baby has been thrown out with the bath-water. That is, because, for example, state rights arguments were invoked in defense of segregation, they've been summarily dismissed because of the bad company they've kept rather than on their own merits. This seems to me to be the correct road to take and I think Genovese does a nice (if perhaps ultimately unsuccessful) job laying out the basic zeitgeist and arguments associated with Southern Conservatism in a way that neither glosses over the warts nor unnecessarily belabors the underlying racism of many of the figures discussed. The basic insight (which I think is probably correct) of Southern Conservatism is that the market needs to have some kind of moral and cultural foundation that keeps it rooted in and responsible to the communities in which it operates. Whether these foundation are to be some how enacted in legislation or simply inculcated in schools and churches remain undecided. The other basic insight is that man is a fallible creature that cannot be perfected, that the notion of equality cannot be made to fit a species of exceedingly diverse individuals with exceedingly diverse skills and interests, and thus the idea that power should be concentrated into that hands of one or several men in a centralized government is reject while the notion of populist, tyranny of the majority, direct democracy is also rejected. Instead we should look to republicanism as the proper model for government, one which will provide the people with a voice but is inegalitarian enough to filter that voice through representatives that are (hopefully) prudent enough to avoid whims, fads, potentially destructive majoritarian desires. Overall, this is only a 3 1/2 star book (even though I liked it) because, it seems to me that for anyone with any background in this area the first chapter is simply treading over well worn ground and it goes by too quickly to get below the surface. Further, the third chapter raises interesting questions about "where to go from here" (given the admission that we'll never go back to being yeoman farmers and never fully recapture the traditionalist set of values) but ultimately fails to provide much in the way of an answer. Of course a complete answer would be asking far too much, but Genovese seems to end on a sour note. The Soviet Union collapsed and Southern Conservatism doesn't really provide us with a workable model for a right-wing alternative to global capitalism so the best we can do now is throw up our hands. I'd have liked a bit more than that. Anyhow, the real meat of the book is found in the second chapter, where Genovese focuses on the constitutional interpretations and legal arguments the emanated from the Old South in the years preceding the civil war. Lots of this stuff was very interesting and the depth of analysis was sufficient to take me into some unfamiliar territory. Especially nice was the compare and contrast between Yankee traditionalists (like Joseph Story) and their Southern analogs on matters of constitutional interpretation and...
The southern tradition: the achievement and limitations of an American conservatismUser Review - Book Verdict
Genovese (Roll, Jordan, Roll, LJ 9/1/74) examines the philosophical, historical, and cultural foundations of Southern conservatism. He contrasts it not only with Marxism and other perspectives of the political left but also with those strains of conservatism that emphasize the primacy of unfettered individualism and laissez-faire economics. According to Genovese, the distinctive characteristics of Southern conservatism include not only support for the broad ownership of private property but also a belief that "socially determined moral restraints" should restrain the activities of the marketplace. While broadly critical of aspects of modern political, economic, and social conditions, Genovese does not offer specific proposals for change; nor does he present a well-defined philosophical framework in which to ground change. But he suggests that Southern conservatism, despite its limitations and contradictions, offers insights that can inform such efforts. A useful addition to the political philosophy and history collections of academic libraries.-Thomas H. Ferrell, Univ. of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette
Lineaments of the Southern Tradition
Political and Constitutional Principles
Property and Power