Essay: The Neo-Confederate Movement
By Euan Hague
Proponents of neo-Confederacy typically look to the antebellum South and the Confederate States of America (C.S.A.) for lessons on leadership, values, morality and behavior. The C.S.A., which existed during the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, and its leaders Jefferson Davis, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest, are venerated as working to uphold the U.S. Constitution by preventing Abraham Lincoln's federal government from maliciously revising its provisions. Neo-Confederacy thus promotes a perspective that claims that the Civil War, often termed the War of Northern Aggression, was an unconstitutional invasion of southern states by aggressor Union forces. In this interpretation, President Lincoln is understood to be a war criminal and key amendments to the U.S. Constitution, most pertinently the Fourteenth Amendment's "equal protection" clauses, are illegal and their implementation is therefore illegitimate.
As a result of these mid-nineteenth century actions, America is thought to have diverged from the path established by the Founding Fathers and, having gone astray, abandoned the culture and foundations upon which American society should be built. The result is a "multicultural empire" that fundamentally contradicts the very meaning of America. Federal authority is asserted to be an unconstitutional infringement on states' rights and U.S. culture is considered to be "profane" and incompatible with traditional American society, given its promotion of equal rights for women, ethnic minorities, LGBT people, and non-Christian religions. Because the U.S. has become a "multicultural empire," neo-Confederate ideologues argue that it is doomed to dissolution into smaller, self-governing nation-states. This is because, in neo-Confederate belief, the idea that a state can be multi-ethnic is a contradiction in terms. Often drawing on eighteenth and nineteenth century political philosophers for justification, neo-Confederates contend that the ideal unit for governance is a small, ethnically homogeneous republic. Some advocates have gone so far as to propose a return to independent city-states and local fiefdoms. Thus, neo-Confederacy is closely intertwined with nationalist and secessionist sentiment.
Current neo-Confederacy finds its intellectual origins in the Southern Agrarianism of the 1930s and 1940s and the efforts to stall racial integration and rearticulate conservatism in the 1950s and 1960s. The first contemporary usage of the term seems to have been in Southern Partisan in 1988 when the magazine's editor, Richard M. Quinn, used it in praise of former Reagan administration staffer Richard Hines. Arguably the most important neo-Confederate periodical, Southern Partisan began publication in 1979 and was established by two men who subsequently became leading neo-Confederates, Clyde Wilson and Thomas Fleming. Two important neo-Confederate organizations are the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) founded in 1985, and the League of the South (LOS) founded in 1994 (the LOS was originally named the Southern League). The CCC was created based on the mailing lists of the anti-integration White Citizens' Councils, which sprang up throughout the South in the 1950s after the Supreme Court ended segregation in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education. The CCC has publicly opposed interracial marriage, affirmative action and immigration and its members included the late syndicated columnist and former Washington Times editorialist, Samuel T. Francis. Though not formally in favor of segregation, the CCC has venerated the Confederate Battle Flag. Echoing many of the CCC's positions, the LOS, led by J. Michael Hill since its inception, has also criticized racially integrated schools, proclaimed that education in the United States is anti-southern indoctrination and rallied in support of the Confederate battle flag. Unlike the CCC, the LOS advocates secession. The LOS regularly publishes a newsletter, Southern Patriot, and maintains one of the most comprehensive neo-Confederate websites.
Many of the proponents of neo-Confederacy are intellectuals and educators – from professors and pastors to political and community leaders. As such, although neo-Confederacy is reactionary and contains racist, sexist, elitist and antidemocratic positions, these are glossed over with a scholarly veneer of closely argued rationales, references to legislative precedents and philosophical treatises. One of the most important articulations of neo-Confederacy is the New Dixie Manifesto. Published in The Washington Post in 1995 and written by two founding members of the LOS, Thomas Fleming and J. Michael Hill, the article fulminated against the homogeneity being forced onto the United States by the media, universities and wanton federal authorities and demanded independence for southern states. Although focused on the southern states, and drawing most of its supporters from this area, neo-Confederacy is not just a southern form of nationalism. It is a conservative ideology that has gained adherents throughout the United States.
At the core of neo-Confederacy is a genetic argument, the belief that "Southern" people and culture are "Anglo-Celtic." This argument initially surfaced in the mid-1970s in the work of historian and future League Director Grady McWhiney, who died in 2006, and his colleagues at the University of Alabama. In a series of scholarly publications in prominent academic journals, McWhiney and his Southern intellectual allies maintained that at the time of the Civil War, the United States was divided between the English northern states and Celtic southern states, the residents of each practicing wholly incompatible cultures and exhibiting a historical animosity that could be dated back to early Europe. Using evidence gathered from examining surnames found in, and travel narratives about, the antebellum southern states, proponents maintained that the Civil War was a continuation of the ancient rivalry of the Celts and English.
Such a contention is problematic and is not sustainable. Not only does this argument completely bypass the central issue of slavery, but also numerous scholars have exposed the flaws in the propositions forwarded by McWhiney and other proponents of the "Celtic South" thesis. Amongst the many criticisms are demonstrations that advocates of the "Celtic South" thesis rely upon erroneous assessments of U.S. Census data from the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, incorrectly understand immigration patterns in the United States, reduce the diversity of the early American population to homogenous, culturally monolithic blocks, and expansively define who comprises "Celtic" people in a manner that is wholly inconsistent with usages employed by other scholars. Despite such challenges, the proposal that because "Southern people" speak English and are descended from European Celts they are "Anglo-Celts" now enjoys much popular currency amongst neo-Confederates.
Popular films like Braveheart have been interpreted by neo-Confederates as mirror images of their own struggles and proponents of the Celtic South thesis simplistically conflate Confederate with Celtic. Within this interpretation, Celtic culture is assumed to be genetic and evidence of supposedly Celtic behavior (fighting, drinking, emotional reactions, clannishness, disdain for authority, etc.) is taken as proof of Celtic ancestry. In turn, Celtic ancestry legitimates these supposedly Celtic behaviors, practices that are typically understood to be unchanged since the Bronze Age. This Celtic culture and ethnicity is understood by neo-Confederates to be under attack from a mainstream U.S. policy that favors non-white ethnicities over others. Proponents maintain that malevolent actors are deliberately committing "cultural genocide" against the "Anglo-Celtic" white southern population. Invoking the language of multiculturalism and self-determination, neo-Confederates demand the right to pursue and preserve their own culture in their own communities. When coupled with neo-Confederate beliefs about the ideal unit of self-governance, the result is an intellectualized argument for racially homogeneous and ethnically segregated self-sufficient communities.
One of the most troubling aspects of neo-Confederacy is how proponents understand the relationship between culture and ethnicity. What is lauded in the "Anglo-Celtic" population (e.g. violent masculinity) is derided in other ethnic groups, particularly those of African descent. Neo-Confederacy proposes the antiquated position that cultures do not change over time. The behaviors of "Celtic" peoples in the seventeenth and eighteenth century British Isles are understood to have been transmitted intact to the southern states of the U.S.A. The Confederate troops in the Civil War are claimed to have fought in a Celtic manner, and musical and culinary tastes of white southern residents and historical Celts are taken to be identical. In a manner that closely mirrors nineteenth century racial arguments, such cultural traits and behaviors are understood to be genetically inherited across generations and oceans.
Such logic is also applied to other ethnic and racial groups in the United States, although less explicitly. The result is a sentiment that the dominant beliefs and behaviors of an ethnic group are resistant to change and thus it is nonsensical to invest in social programs like affirmative action or welfare. People and cultures "naturally" find their place in society and so government has no business getting involved to alter this state of affairs. The strongest cultures will rise to positions of superiority and less able ethnic groups will settle into subordinate positions. Thus, egalitarianism is illogical and a "one person, one vote" democracy is unfair and ultimately unsustainable. The League of the South's J. Michael Hill, utilizing the language of nineteenth century social Darwinists, has argued that society is divided into "superiors, equals and inferiors" and that such a hierarchy is God-ordained.
Neo-Confederate websites and authors are quick to reject allegations of racism, offering strong denunciations of the Ku Klux Klan and more crudely racist extremists. Another response to accusations of prejudice is to challenge the legitimacy of the very concept of "racism" and demand that it is a modern invention, unmentioned as sinful in the Bible, and a mainstay of political correctness. Yet, when examining the proposals forwarded in neo-Confederate publications, it is evident that race is central to this ideology. The 1950s and 1960s are regularly invoked as the decades in which American society spiraled into terminal decline. Integration of schools is lamented, desegregation is derided as "social engineering" and policies like school busing and affirmative action are depicted as vindictive attempts to merge whites and African-Americans together to produce a single, ethnically homogenous and racially undefined identity. Leading neo-Confederate authors argue that racial animosities are now greater than ever in U.S. history and that the periods of slavery and Jim Crow segregation were eras of harmonious race relations.
Advocates of neo-Confederacy articulate their arguments in numerous books, magazines and websites. One common practice is to reprint copies of pro-Confederate nineteenth century texts, such as those by Confederate Army Chaplain Robert Louis Dabney (1820-1898) and Mathematics Professor and Slavery Apologist Albert Bledsoe (1809-1877). Another is to produce new materials that advocate neo-Confederacy. Often written in a breathless style that makes the reader feel as if they are becoming privy to long-suppressed truths, the most prominent publisher of neo-Confederate texts is Pelican Books of Gretna, La. Its catalogue, which has important books outlining neo-Confederate sentiments, also contains several overwrought polemics including Michael Andrew Grissom's Southern by the Grace of God; James and Walter Kennedy's Was Jefferson Davis Right? and The South Was Right!; Walter Kennedy's Myths of American Slavery and Gordon Thornton's The Southern Nation: The New Rise of the Old South. Other significant neo-Confederate books include Frank Conner's The South Under Siege (1830-2000) which argues that Jews from northern states instigated and funded the African-American civil rights movement and used Martin Luther King, Jr., as a puppet in an effort to "destroy Christianity" and Southern Slavery As It Was by Steve Wilkins and Douglas Wilson, which selectively interprets slave narratives and rehashes pro-slavery arguments of the mid-nineteenth century to argue that the practice was benign, sanctioned by God and was used as a "pretext" by Unionists to prosecute a war fought over the "biblical meaning of constitutional government" in an effort to suppress Christianity.
A central aspect of neo-Confederacy is this intersection with theology, which has produced a uniquely neo-Confederate reading of Christianity. Advocates maintain that the Civil War was a struggle over the future of this religion. In this assessment, the Confederacy was a bastion of supposedly orthodox Christians fighting against heretical Union troops. Abolitionists are understood to have misinterpreted the Bible, which is held up by neo-Confederates as condoning slavery. As a result, slave owners are depicted as pious observers of Biblical teachings whereas those who opposed slavery necessarily opposed this Biblical lesson and thus the word of God. One of the major efforts of current neo-Confederate writing is to reinterpret slavery as a benevolent institution in which kindly masters brought Christianity to their slaves and cared for their wellbeing.
The upshot of this interpretation is that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. Rather, it was a theological war fought to ensure that Christianity would survive in the United States. Given this view, emancipation was an affront to Biblical teachings and thus, when the Confederacy was defeated, so too was the centrality of Christianity to American society. Consequently, neo-Confederates demand a return to communities founded upon what they term orthodox Christianity. Many proponents therefore argue for the implementation of Biblical law, sometimes called theonomy, as the true Christian basis of American society. This understanding of Christianity also incorporates the patriarchal family as its most vital institution, condemns homosexuality, promotes home schooling as a Christian duty and understands that people are not equal because God makes everyone unique. Any effort to overturn social, physical, mental, and other human inequalities comprise an artificial interference in God's chosen order.
Neo-Confederate activists are engaged in numerous struggles to control the depiction of the past and shape the future. Many curators at museums in southern states have been subjected to public and private harassment by neo-Confederates demanding that exhibitions be restaged to ensure that the Confederacy is presented in a positive light and that the "truth" about the Civil War and slavery be told. Opponents of neo-Confederacy have been threatened with lawsuits, physical injury and worse for exposing this nasty underbelly to supposedly innocuous celebrations honoring Confederate ancestors. Neo-Confederacy's advocates have been elected to school boards and other minor political positions, and have had some success in wresting control of major organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans from more moderate members.
Elected officials, most notably former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), have spoken at meetings of the Council of Conservative Citizens, expressing sympathy for the organization's positions (often, bad publicity forced quick retractions). Other politicians were members of the League of the South while in office, for example the late Alabama Republican State Senator Charles Davidson between 1994 and 1998. As a result, conservative columnist Stanley Crouch felt moved to write in 1999 that "Neo-Confederates with a disguised racial policy have risen to the top of the G.O.P." and journalist Peter Applebome wrote in Dixie Rising, "it's hard to know these days where the Confederacy ends and the Republican party begins." Believers in neo-Confederacy, historian David Goldfield assesses, "are not fringe people." Their worldview and activities have "a broader white support in the South, within the Republican Party and among some evangelical Protestants."
In sum, neo-Confederacy is an ideology, advanced by professors, pastors, politicians and other well-educated members of society, many of them in positions of authority, which offers an intellectual justification for positions that many would consider anti-democratic, racist, sexist, elitist, religiously intolerant and homophobic. It is considerably more than just support for the Confederate battle flag or nostalgia for the Old South. Neo-Confederacy is an active and ongoing attempt to reshape the United States in the Old South's image.
Euan Hague is Associate Professor of Geography at DePaul University where he researches white supremacy and neo-Confederate activism. His work has appeared in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Canadian Review of American Studies and Cultural Geographies and he co-authored and co-edited Neo Confederacy: A Critical Introduction.