The New South and the Frogs of Egypt
On June 15, 1882, the Reverend Robert L. Dabney delivered a discourse at the Annual Commencement of Hampden Sidney College in Virginia, entitled, “The New South.” Dabney was a Presbyterian theologian, seminary teacher, pastor, and author of numerous and diverse works on theology, philosophy, ethics, history, and political economy.
Although frequently quoted by scholars, historians, and theologians, he is unfortunately little known today by the general public. He was, however, among the most prominent men of his era. His service in the Confederate Army as a Chaplain and for a time as Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff was by no means the limit of his great accomplishments. He was a scholar and social commentator of enormous breadth and penetrating insight.
Much of Dabney’s writing is as relevant today as it was in the late 19th century. While he is long dead, he yet speaks with near prophetic clarity on issues facing the nation and especially the South today. His words are particularly relevant to the present discussion of the heritage and future of the South. In our own time as in his, Southern Heritage is being constantly battered by politically correct propaganda. Today as never before, there are powerful organizations and ambitious power seekers who butter their political and economic bread by purveying historical ignorance and misinformation as a form of public righteousness. Politicians, educators, businessmen, churchmen, and whole states are cowered and blackmailed into accepting outrageous distortions of history. We suffer a time of too little knowledge and too little courage. Our own generations would do well to heed Dabney’s passionate and fiery exhortation on that day in 1882, a few paragraphs of which are here quoted:
“It behooves the New South, in dismissing the animosities of the past, to see to it that they retain all that was true in its principles or ennobling in its example. There are those pretending to belong to this company who exclaim: ‘Let us bury the dead past. Its issues are all antiquated, and of no more practical significance. Let us forget the passions of the past. We are in a new world. Its new questions alone concern us.’ I rejoin: Be sure that the former issues are dead before you really bury them! There are issues that cannot die without the death of the people, of their honor, their civilization and their greatness. Take care that you do not bury too much, while burying the dead past: that you do not bury the inspiring memories of great patriots, whose actions, whether successful or not, are the eternal glory of your race and section; the influence of their virtues, the guiding precedents of their histories. Will you bury the names and memories of a Jackson and Lee, and their noble army of martyrs? Will you bury true history whose years are those of the God of Truth?”
“There is one point on which you insist too little, which is vital to the young citizens of the South. This is, that he shall not allow the dominant party to teach him a perverted history of the past contests. This is a mistake of which you are in imminent peril. With all the astute activity of their race, our conquerors strain every nerve to pre-occupy the ears of all America with the false version of affairs which suits the purposes of their usurpation. With a gigantic sweep of mendacity, this literature aims to falsify or misrepresent everything; the very facts of history, the principles of the former Constitution as admitted in the days of freedom by all statesmen of all parties; the very essential names of rights and virtues and vices. The whole sway of their commercial and political ascendancy is exerted to fill the South with this false literature. Its sheets come up, like the frogs of Egypt, into our houses, our bed chambers, our very kneading troughs. Now, against this deluge of perversions I solemnly warn young men of the South, not for our sakes, but for their own. Even if the memory of the defeated had no rights; if historical truth had no prerogatives; if it were the same to you that the sires whose blood fills your veins, and whose names you bear, be written down as traitors by the pen of slanderous history, still it is essential to your own future that you shall learn the history of the past truly.”
Today as equaled only in the days of Reconstruction, there are those who would bury truth and honor to gain peace and prosperity. The perversion of history that Dabney warned of in 1882 prevails as never before in our media, our educational institutions, the halls of government, in the giant business corporations with their vast economic power, and even in many of our churches. It is time we resurrected Dabney’s words and with them the courage to insist that our children and future generations learn history free of outrageous distortion and propaganda, that they learn the history of the past fully and truly.
January 24, 2004
Mike Scruggs lives in Birmingham, Alabama. He may be reached for comment here.