Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Defending Virginia, the South, and Mastery, part one

Note: The earlier post on southern Presbyterianism brought this essay to mind. I presented it at the Pruitt Symposium hosted at Baylor University in October 2004. While it doesn't say anything that isn't in my Dabney book, it puts things more pointedly.

In the essay, I was trying to engage historian Gene Genovese on the one hand, by arguing that Dabney's presentation of proslavery was not a lead-pipe lock case, and historian Mark Noll on the other, by suggesting that a Reformed hermenuetic could have and should have led Dabney and other southern Presbyterians in different directions.

As Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898) lay in his recovery bed in the waning days of 1862, he despaired for the Confederate cause. To be sure, the Army of Northern Virginia had won a tremendous victory during the Seven Days Battles, forcing McClellan’s troops to retreat from Harrison’s Landing and defending Richmond successfully. Yet Dabney, whose bout with “camp fever” forced his resignation as Stonewall Jackson’s chief of staff in order to return to his civilian life as a professor of theology at the southern Presbyterian’s Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, worried that his fellow southerners were losing their grip on the reasons for the War.

Though Dabney opposed secession before the war because he was profoundly concerned that southerners were not adequately prepared militarily or politically for the resultant conflict, he generally agreed with fellow Presbyterians James Henley Thornwell and B. M. Palmer that southerners needed to defend their homeland, their liberties, and their institution of slavery. But now, in his own southern Presbyterian church, there were rumors abroad that James Lyon’s pastoral letter on slavery, to be presented to the following year’s General Assembly, was going to attack slavery and urge a number of reforms of the “peculiar institution.” In addition, northern newspapers continually hammered southern slavery, trying to shift the public purpose of the war from preserving the union to liberating the slaves. And even within southern circles, there were prominent border state leaders who questioned whether a war for southern liberties and southern slavery was worth it. For a southern Presbyterian “patriot,” there was plenty of cause for concern.

Even more, Dabney was extremely frustrated by his perceived failure as a staff officer in Jackson’s corps. Though Jackson had written a note of regret and thanks in accepting his resignation, his short-lived service and his lack of fitness for his military duties, as well as his peacetime calling as a Presbyterian minister, made him defensive about his manly honor. In order to meet this personal crisis of masculine confidence as well as to shore up possible southern retreat from a full-throat defense of slavery, Dabney took up his pen as he recovered from the illness that forced him from Lee’s army. Working over articles that he had first published in the Richmond Enqurier in 1851, Dabney crafted perhaps the last important defense of southern slavery based on political, economic, legal, and especially religious grounds. He defended the little book to Jackson, to whom he wished to dedicate the book, boasting that the “labors of the scholar, while more humble, are no less necessary to the welfare of our country, than those of the solider.”

Dabney’s book, A Defence of Virginia (and Through Her, of the South), was originally intended to serve as a piece of Confederate propaganda to convince potential British and French allies to aid the southern cause. He sent the manuscript to his friend, Moses Hoge, who was in London. Hoge apparently forwarded the manuscript to the Confederate authorities in England, but they did not publish his manuscript. Dabney was convinced that this publication failure was due to the influence of A. T. Bledsoe, whom he believed was jealous for the success of his own book on slavery. He did not give up on publishing the book; he even prepared an “Advertisement to the Reader” in 1864, explaining the circumstances of its creation and delay. However, Defence of Virginia did not appear until after the war through agency of the New York publisher, E. J. Hale, with the blessings of Robert E. Lee. While the book did not sell well, it was viewed as an able defense of southern slavery; the United Confederate Veterans eventually placed it among the first ten books that served as constitutional defenses of southern rights.

On the surface, Dabney’s proslavery polemics appears to be simply another racist and intransigent attempt to defend the indefensible system of race-based human bondage. And to be sure, one can find plenty of racism and intransigence within the pages of Defence of Virginia. But I would argue that Dabney’s work also represented one of the last gasps of a southern master class anxious to maintain their manhood and honor, their mastery, through the rhetorical assertion of patriarchal superiority. As such it not only charted the ideology of an elite group attempting to maintain hegemony, but it also served as a preview of the trajectory that at least some southern conservatives, such as Dabney, would take in the Reconstruction period in their intransigence against northern “usurpation” and eventually in their embrace of Jim Crow.

What makes Dabney’s defense of southern mastery particularly important for our purposes is the way he uses both the biblical materials and the realities of the southern slave system selectively in order to create the impression that he has successfully demonstrated that the Bible does not militate against slavery. On the contrary, I would suggest that even using the “Reformed literal” hermeneutic employed by Dabney himself, it can be demonstrated that his reading of the biblical material fails to reckon both with the entirety of the biblical materials as well as with the trajectory of redemptive history toward freedom, renewal, and multi-ethnic community. I would suggest that Dabney’s failure to recognize his own blindness signals the deep problems that arise when theologians seek to interpret texts for public order.

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