Santayana had it wrong: Even if we remember the past, we may be condemned to repeat it. Indeed, the more we learn about the conflict between the North and South that led to the Civil War, the more it becomes apparent that we are reliving that conflict today. The South’s current drive to impose on the rest of the nation its opposition to worker and minority rights—through the vehicle of a Southernized Republican Party—resembles nothing so much as the efforts of antebellum Southern political leaders to blunt the North’s opposition to the slave labor system. Correspondingly, in the recent actions of West Coast and Northeastern cities and states to raise labor standards and protect minority rights, there are echoes of the pre–Civil War frustrations that many Northerners felt at the failure of the federal government to defend and promote a free labor system, frustrations that—ironically—led them to found the Republican Party.
It’s the resilience of the Southern order and the similarities between the Old South and the New that are most surprising—at least, until we disenthrall ourselves from a sanitized understanding of that Old South. It’s taken nearly 100 years for the prevailing image of the pre–Civil War South to become less subject to the racist falsifications that long had shaped it. The malign fantasies of 1915’s The Birth of a Nation and the Golden Age hooey of 1939’s Gone with the Wind have given way to the grim realism of 12 Years A Slave. Through all its incarnations, however, the antebellum South has retained its status as a world apart from the rest of America, whether (as D.W. Griffith would have it) for its chivalry or (as the historical record shows) its savagery.
Southern exceptionalism has also extended to the views of the South’s place in—or more precisely, its purported absence from—the development of the modern American economy. The slavery-saddled South was often considered the quasi-feudal outlier in the early—and presumably Northern—development of 19th-century American capitalism. While finance and factories rose north of the Mason–Dixon Line and railroads spanned the Northern states, the South was an island—with just a sprinkling of banks and rails and virtually no factories at all—largely detached from industrial capitalism’s rise.