The counter-factual is always difficult. It’s not easy to imagine the world being greatly different than what we see around us. However, it is certain that had more Southerners embraced the ideas put forth by Robert Barnwell Rhett in the three decades leading up to Southern secession in 1860-61 things would have turned out differently. In many ways, Rhett was the Father of Southern Nationalism since he was not only the first important Southern leader to openly and consistently call for independence but also its most radical champion for more than thirty years. Beyond championing States’ rights and secession, Rhett promoted a vision of the future where Dixie led a confederation of agriculturally-based, classically-inspired societies that stretched from the Atlantic out to the Pacific, from Maryland down to Brazil. It was an ambitious dream, and one which Rhett thought was at the heart of the historical mission of the Southern people.
This idea that a people have a historical mission is not new or even modern. Traditionalist Spanish people will talk about the historic mission of Spain in empire-building and spreading the Catholic faith to the world. Modern Americans talk about the mission of the United States to spread liberal-democracy, equality, gay rights and so forth to the world. Different societies and culture have different perspectives that arise from the world-view of the people and often take on international importance. The Southern vision that Rhett articulated in speeches throughout his life was nothing like the modern American vision. Rhett proposed a Southern-led classical civilisation that rejected Enlightenment fantasies of the sort that flourished in New England the North. Had his vision came true, the greater South would have stood as a mighty bulwark of traditional Western civilisation in the midst of the New World – in direct opposition to modernity, ‘progressivism’ and horrors of the type that abound today in the US Empire. This might strike some people as pure fantasy, but remember that once the independent South was conquered, the United States set out on a path of aggressive and brutal expansion by conquest – eventually ruling over a vast empire that included Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii, the Philippines, etc. It’s possible to imagine that the agrarian-societies of to the west and south of Dixie might have wanted to join Southerners in a common confederation that stressed local autonomy, free trade and classical civilisation (we also have modern examples of regional confederations in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, etc). Professor and author Eric H Walther, who is certainly unsympathetic to Southern nationalism, on page 144 of his book The Fire-eaters writes about Rhett’s vision of an independent South:
…Rhett began to emphasize that secession would bring redemption and honor, liberty and prosperity to the South. Nowhere was this shift in rhetoric more apparent than in his address at Macon [Georgia]. After another long recitation of northern trespasses against the South, Rhett focused on the supposed benefits of secession. The South, he predicted, would have a free hand in the West after secession. “New Mexico and Utah, contiguous to us, will be easily ours; and how long will California keep out of a Southern Confederacy?” he asked. Californians, he was sure, joined southerners in their desire for lower tariffs and required slaves to work in their gold mines “-need them more than any people in the world; – the South alone can supply her with them.” A southern nation [sic] would soon absorb all of Mexico. With “so glorious a destiny before them,” Rhett said that southerners would prove “the most stupendous instance of imbecility, folly and cowardice, the world has ever seen” if they did not form their own nation [sic]. Later, in South Carolina, Rhett repeated his vision of territorial glories and added that secession would bring a new age of commercial prosperity. Free trade would increase European commerce with the South, cripple northern business, and thus preclude the possibility of a northern naval blockade or civil war [sic]. According to Rhett, the South had much to lose by remaining in the Union and much to gain by seceding.
Note on semantics: In the excerpt above, author Eric H Walther claims that secessionists want to form a Southern ‘nation.’ This is, of course, inaccurate. The Southern people were already (and remain today) a nation of people – a distinct culture and ethnic group with their own identity. This is the classical understanding of a nation (ethno-nationalism). Secessionists wanted independence for the Southern nation. Most of them wanted to see a confederation of Southern republics. In today’s world of ‘propositional nations’ (so-called ‘civic nationalism’) such as the USA, the word ‘nation’ is often confused (and purposefully so) with independent government, that is the state. The USA, a multinational state or empire, is certainly no nation in the real sense of the word. Neither was the Confederate States of America a nation; it was a government created by the Southern nation of people.
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