The Spirit of Radicalism
As southerners surveyed the damage after their failed bid for independence, some gave in to despair. Others were unsure what to do. Many turned to Christian ministers for guidance and comfort. Some of the better ones gave comfort and advice that is still excellent today.
Robert Lewis Dabney was a Presbyterian minister, who preached for a time in Fishersville and spent a good deal of time teaching at Union Theological Seminary and Hampden-Sydney College. He served as Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff, and wrote a number of books and articles after the war. In one article called “The Christian’s Duty to His Enemies,” Dabney argued for three forms of loss as a result of a wrong being committed: first is “the personal loss and natural evil inflicted,” reflected in law by the Latin word damnum. The second is the “guilt (reatus) or relation of debt to the law, by which the wrong-doer is bound to pay for his act in punishment.” Finally, is the concept is that of “moral defilement or depravity of character (pravitas vel macula).” According to Dabney, “when the Christian is made the object of an unrighteous act, the element of loss, or damnum, is the only one which is personal to him, and therefore the only one which it is competent to him to remit.” A southerner can forgive the burning of his barn, the theft of his cow, or even the killing of his brother in battle. He cannot, however, forgive the guilt the northerner earned by his misdeeds. That is between the perpetrator and the state. Nor can the southerner forgive the depravity the northerner earns through the knowledge that he has gained through his wrongdoing, for that is between the perpetrator and God.
The southern Christian’s duty, in this case, was to hold a mirror up to the northern conscience to help northerners restore themselves to a right relationship with southerners and with God. The North, in Dabney’s view, had wronged the people of the South through killing southerners, stealing their property, slandering them and their institutions, and denying them their former political rights in the Union. This was the Christian’s duty, to forgive the damnum, but remind the sinning north that they had other business with God before reconciliation with God would be possible.
Dabney gave the commencement address at Davidson College in North Carolina in June 1868. Dabney’s address on this occasion was entitled “The Duty of the Hour.” In the address, Dabney urged Davidson students to maintain their virtue during what he called “this winter of our disaster.” The commission of a wrong, which Dabney argued the North had committed against the South, was degrading to the perpetrators who justified the wrongs. Such conduct, unpunished, taught the perpetrators that it was possible to commit wrongs with impunity. Sinners, in this case, learned you can benefit from sinning.
This situation was also degrading to the victims, since it caused in the victim “no other thought than to crouch, and disarm the lash by his submissiveness.” Worse, the infliction of a wrong inspires in the victim, not a spirit of manly defiance, but a resort to “that common weapon of the weak against the strong, artifice.” The government of the oppressor, Dabney said, trained “its victims in all the arts of chicanery and meanness.” Instead of manfully confronting one’s tormentors, oppression trained victims to become obsequious, to use craft, deceit and deception to disarm the oppressors and attempt to gain favor with them by being non-threatening and subservient. Dabney wanted manly opposition, if not violent, at least philosophical and firm.
Dabney’s called on southern college graduates was to maintain their virtue if they were to overcome what Dabney saw as the recent disasters. Southern men must not, in a vain pursuit of sectional reconciliation, admit the South had been wrong in the Civil War. “Man’s first duty to himself is the preservation of his own virtue,” Dabney preached. Preservation of virtue meant continued resistance to the oppressor. Indeed, this was a divine task. “God appoints to the brave and true the stern task of contending, and falling in a righteous cause.”
To inspire these young southern men, Dabney cited Confederate general and Davidson College alumnus, Stephen Dodson Ramseur. The last time Dabney had seen Ramseur, he was on the disastrous battlefield of Cedar Creek as the Confederate army was falling to pieces. Ramseur was with a handful of his soldiers, fighting against overwhelming odds. Ramseur had been mortally wounded that day. Dabney urged his young audience, let us resolve “to endure as he fought, and you will be secure against all the degradations of defeat.” Poignantly calling on the ghosts of the dead, Dabney urged his charges, “We have no need, sirs, to be ashamed of our [Confederate] dead: Let us see to it that they be not ashamed of us.” “If the spirit of independence and honor be lost among the people, this is the death of the commonwealth.” The challenges facing Davidson College students were perhaps not as deadly as those Ramseur had faced, but Dabney still urged them to adopt Ramseur’s steadfastness.
In 1870, the Presbyterians held a meeting to attempt to reunite the southern and northern branches of the denomination. At this meeting, Dabney said, “I hear brethren saying it is time to forgive. Mr. Chairman, I do not forgive. I do not try to forgive. What! forgive these people, who have invaded our country, burned our cities, destroyed our homes, slain our young men, and spread desolation and ruin over our land! No, I do not forgive them.” Three years later, Dabney wrote Daniel Harvey Hill, “The only choice we have is to teach the Southern people to hate the Yankees, or else, to all be Yankees together.” That was not going to happen for Dabney.
Perhaps more eloquent was Reverend John L. Girardeau of South Carolina. Girardeau delivered a road-map for the future of the Lost Cause. Speaking at an 1871 ceremony in Charleston, South Carolina, at which South Carolina’s dead from Gettysburg were re-interred in Magnolia Cemetery, Girardeau delivered the keynote address. “There are” he said, “living issues which emerge from these graves – gigantic problems affecting our future, which starting up in the midst of these solemnities demand our earnest attention.”
Girardeau reminded his audience that there were “fundamental principles of government, of social order, of civil and religious liberty,” upon which the Confederate government had stood. “[O]ur brethren will not have died in vain, if we cherish in our hearts … the principles for which they gave their lives.”
Girardeau’s posited “three Divinely ordained institutes, … Family, the State, and the Church.” Against these was a countervailing force, “a spirit abroad in the earth,” under the control “of the Arch-foe of God and man,” a spirit Girardeau called “Radicalism.” “This ruthless, leveling Spirit” sees man as the all-encompassing idea and “wages war against the Family, the State and the Church” with “Titanic audacity.”
Rev. Girardeau reminded his listeners that “the spirit of Radicalism guided the actions” of the North and “powerfully contributed to produce the evils under which we are now suffering.” It was against its aggressions, “that these men whose memories we honor today, and their compatriots, contended unto death.”
Girardeau acknowledged that the South was defeated in the war, but he refused to acknowledge the defeat of the South’s principles. “As a weak man, overpowered by the superior physical strength of another, may be said to lose the right for which he has contended. He loses the exercise of it, until he has the power to recover it.” The South should “cling to [our principles] as drowning men to the fragments of a wreck. They furnish the only hope for our political future.” If southerners held tight to the principles for which these dead men struggled, their deaths “will not have been in vain.”
In a comment that seems prophetic today, Girardeau said that “Civil Liberty and Religious Liberty are twin sisters. They stand or fall together. … [W]hen civil liberty has in fact been extinguished, the argument is a short one to the extinction of religious.”
As to how best to resist, Girardeau had one guiding principle. “Let us cling to our identity as a people!” As for the means to this end, Girardeau provided several actions in a philosophical vein. First, southern people should continue “to wear the badges of mourning.” Second, southern people could cling to their identity simply by embracing their material poverty, to “distinguish us from a people inflated with material prosperity.” Wealth frequently leads to a haughtiness and pride. Next, they could embrace the aesthetics of suffering by turning it into “a discipline which may save our virtues from decay, and our liberties from extinction.” Finally, southerners should not add to the political cacophony but instead should preserve “a dignified silence by which we shall signify our resolution, if we may not act for truth, right and liberty, not to act at all.” Southerners were gagged, disfranchised and abused during Reconstruction. The Bishop of the Episcopal Church of Alabama was jailed and his church closed because he declined to pray for the health of the President of the United States.
More importantly, Girardeau then proceeded to provide some very concrete practical means by which the southern people could affect the future:
[B]y forming associations of a memorial character like that whose call gathers us here today; by collecting and publishing materials for our own history; and by appointing anniversaries by which if we may not celebrate the attainment of independence we can at least commemorate the deeds of men who died for our fundamental liberties and constitutional rights. We may do it, by scrupulously adhering to the phraseology of the past – by making it the vehicle for transmitting to our posterity ideas which once true are true forever, … by the education we impart to the young; by making our nurseries, schools and colleges channels for conveying from generation to generation our own type of thought, sentiment and opinion; by stamping on the minds of our children principles hallowed by the blood of patriots, and by leading them with uncovered heads to gaze upon the grandest monuments the South can rear to liberty – the headstones which mark the last resting-place of Southern Volunteers!
In sum, Girardeau told his listeners “keep the faith,” to actively keep the faith, and pass that faith on to the next generation.
These men lived through the trauma of the war of 1861-1865 and the Reconstruction that followed. We look at their words as they explored why the war was fought and how to deal with its aftermath. First, these men called southerners to maintain their own virtue. While doing that, southerners should confront their northern oppressors and force them to accept that they had done wrong and seek God’s forgiveness. Finally, these men suggested that southerners remember why they fought and teach that to their children, lest future generations come to see their ancestors as traitors or worse.
These men were prophets. Like the prophet Jeremiah, they warned of impending disaster and called a people to repentance. Most remarkably, they were prophets warning us of the spirit of radicalism and its ravages. Who can examine the history of the last century and a half and fail to see that the spirit of Radicalism is still alive and active today. Thus, these Confederate prophets speak to us still.