The rise of Southern nationalism (part I)

In the late 1820s, only a few decades after the United States had been formed, Robert Barnwell Rhett (1800-1876) began to speak openly against the Union and the idea that there was a single American nationality. Over time the South Carolina statesman and other Southern leaders developed a true Southern nationalism which was based upon a different identity and value system than that of Americanism.

With early US history dominated by Southerners such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Andrew Jackson, many in the South of that time identified Americanism with their own culture, values and politics. Washington was, after all, the Father of the Country, and the capital was located in the South and named after him. Virginia was then the leading State and it dominated US politics. The party of centralization and Northern finance, the Federalists, was discredited and ceased to be able to compete outside of New England with the pro-Southern Democrats. The South was far more wealthy than the North and most Northerners and Southerners alike believed that eventually the Union would incorporate Cuba and other plantation societies of the Caribbean, expanding the South’s power in Congress. The future looked bright for the South and that time is remembered fondly as The Era of Good Feelings.

The Tariff of Abominations was a wake-up call to Southerners and reminded them that they were numerically out-numbered in a political union which was moving away from limited, aristocratic republicanism and closer to mass democracy. It reminded Southerners too that their partners in the Union, the people of the Northern States, had very different economic interests. And most importantly, the tariff demonstrated that the North could and would enact anti-Southern policies even over the strong objections of the South, in this case effectively fleecing Southern taxpayers to benefit Northern industry.

Rhett referred to the Tariff as “oppression” and by 1833 was calling for the “happy termination” of the Union and the creation of a “Confederacy of the Southern States.” He was far ahead of public opinion on the matter, even in the Lower South, and his own South Carolina ultimately chose the moderation of John C. Calhoun over the defiance of Rhett. Even so, an awakening was occurring. Southern national consciousness was growing. And Rhett could openly proclaim that “The star-spangled banner no longer waves in triumph and glory for me.” He went even further, declaring the US government “currupt, perverted, tyrannical.”

Source: Rhett: The Turbulent Life and Times of a Fire-Eater by William C. Davis

1 Comment

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  1. Unfortunately, for many Southrons, in their minds at least, the Era of Good Feeling still exists today in 2015. This is especially true in folks fifty or older. This thinking is partly because a great many aspects of Southern Culture, especially food and drink, and despite the Northern bias, are widely popular outside of the South. Thus we find Dallas Cowboys fans, and those who appreciate Southern music and BBQ in the deep North. However, this has lulled a great many of the Southern people into a false sense of security. They’re simply unaware of the actual animus for them, that always bubbles beneath the surface of the Northern people’s constitution and public face. It’s this false perception that Southern Nationalism must overcome. We must separate Southernism and Americanism in the Southern people’s minds. It’s true that America® and whatever was/is valuable, true and good about it, is the creation and rightful inheritance of the Southern people and no one else. But that nation died a long time ago.

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