with James C. Cobb

Why Has America Been So Reluctant to ‘Own’ the South?

A Preeminent Historian Explores How a Region Central to U.S. Identity Gets Written Out of the National Narrative

Illustration by Jaya Nicely.

James C. Cobb is Emeritus B. Phinizy Spalding distinguished professor in the history of the American South at the University of Georgia. He has published 13 books and many articles focusing on the interaction of the economy, politics, and culture in the American South. Three of his books—The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development 1936-1990, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity, and The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity—are considered classics in the field.

In December 2017, he sat down with Zócalo Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Gregory Rodriguez in Los Angeles to talk about what “the South” is, how the South came to embrace Thanksgiving, and why old country songs often reinforce a cult of the noble loser.

This transcript of the discussion has been edited for clarity and length.

You have been called “the most Southern man on earth.” Is this true? And, if so, what does that mean?

Well, if I were truly the most Southern man on earth, I would tell you that I had no idea.

What is the simplest way to know whether you’re in the South?

This comes up in Texas all the time. You’re in the South if bar fights unfold in parking lots. In the West, bar fights happen inside the bar. So that’s a rule of thumb for you. If you hear anybody say, “Would you like to step outside, buddy?” you’re still in the South.

At what point did Americans begin to identify the South as a distinct region?

You could argue as far back as even the colonial period, but I don’t. I think at that point the differentiation was not so much Southern colonies, as slave colonies. And that sufficed to define the South even into the early national period. And, of course, slavery itself, the institution, became one of the characteristics that set the South apart from the rest of country, which is really ironic because slavery was kind of the impetus for the development of New England. It financed the expansion of the Northeastern financial establishment; it was an incredible boon to the national banking system when it was reinstituted in the [early 1800s]. And so New England is heavily involved of course in the slave trade: It’s heavily involved in the production of goods to be used on Southern plantations and in the capital raised through shipping and manufacturing. And commerce related to slavery becomes kind of the accelerant for the development of New England and ultimately a good bit of the Northeast. So slavery came to define the South because it seemed so out of character for a new nation trying to find itself and which had already gone on record as being about freedom and equality and liberty.

Were there forces other than slavery that forged this sense of regional distinctiveness?

Identity is not something that we get to pick. We are not the sole arbiters of our own identity. Our identity is partially what we think we are, but it is also defined by others. What they see us as being. And as the nation developed in the first few decades, there were already differences in the South and the New England states. The South is a dispersed population, organized around the agricultural plantation. New England is organized more around the small towns, the villages. More concentration of the population and more demand for education and innovation spawned what I always call a foolish Yankee faith in education. That also spawns, then, the market for public communication, for newspapers and magazines and journals.

Whereas in the South everything is so spread out, and any printing material you get there would take so long to arrive, it would be way out of date. And public education was unknown. The planters who had the money, they educated their kids privately. There was no investment in public education.

So with all of that, basically the definition of the South as a region set apart from the rest of the country was actually written in New England. And at the same time, New Englanders and the New England media are pushing New England as the essence of what this new country is supposed to be about—the New England ideals of frugality and hard work and piety. And so, it’s sort of a struggle as to who gets to represent the true American. And, the advantages clearly lie with New England in this respect.

When we finally decided we were not going to fight Great Britain anymore, we no longer had the kind of antithetical foe or antagonist that group identities are usually dependent on. You know, when you identify a group, it’s not just “this is who we are,” it’s also “they are who we ain’t.” And so, whereas Britain had served in that role up through the War of 1812, the South then sort of supplanted Great Britain. Now you had these people out in outrageously hot weather living dissolute lives growing wealthy off the labors of bondsmen—so it was easy to write the South out of the central narrative of American history, but make it a vital component nonetheless in the formulation of a national identity.

Slavery itself, the institution, became one of the characteristics that set the South apart from the rest of country, which is really ironic because slavery was kind of the impetus for the development of New England.

What role does Thanksgiving play in the way the South was written out of America’s national narrative?

Thanksgiving was basically a New England holiday. And by the time there was a push in the 1840s to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday, abolitionism had become so associated with New England that many Southerners and Southern politicians, in particular, didn’t cotton to the whole idea of basically an abolitionist holiday. So there was a strong resistance to celebrating Thanksgiving that carried over well through the Civil War era. And it’s only after Reconstruction that the Southern states finally say, well, we realized we’ve finally got to get back in the fold and get with the program—to show that we are after all American—that the Southern states start to embrace Thanksgiving.

Now let’s go back even further. You have cited that as early as the 1790s, the South was depicted as what historian Edward Ayers has described as America’s Latin America, a sort of swampy, disease-ridden region motivated by lust and gluttony.

That was a type of “othering.” If you are all these things that are so awful, then that brings up a lot of space for us to be all the things that are good. And, you know, the South is then set up as the antithesis of what America is supposed to be—and certainly what New England is and can bring to the country—even though New Englanders are the first people to come up with the whole notion of secession after the War of 1812. They held a convention at Hartford to discuss the idea of pulling out, because they were upset about the War of 1812 because it hurt shipping very badly. The New England colonies were not flourishing, and by that time the cotton gin had been invented for over a decade and the Southern population was flourishing. And of course slavery was thriving and there was westward expansion across the lower Southwest. But the narrative by that point was pretty well fixed as far as what’s America and what isn’t—and what’s Southern, and what’s not Southern.

Historian James C. Cobb in Los Angeles. Photo by Jake Fabricius.

How did Southerners react to these characterizations of them?

Up until the rise of abolitionism on a national scale, I think the Southerners were not really too much attuned to this more critical view of them—possibly because not many of them were reading what was being written about them.

And yet the South enjoyed disproportionate political power prior to the Civil War?

Yes. The South dominated the presidency. They dominated the Supreme Court. But that political dynamic is shifting by the time you get to the 1850s because the white population is expanding much more rapidly across the mid-Atlantic states and into the Eastern, Midwestern states. And it’s the South then that’s losing momentum. The crusade against slavery creates this sense of resistance and being besieged by external forces—Northern forces—and that kind of siege mentality becomes much more characteristic.

So the siege mentality originated before the Civil War?

Oh yeah, but it really did! At least in my examination, it does come forward really in a very pronounced way only with the abolitionist surge of the 1830s. And I think it is just something that most Southerners had not previously contemplated in terms of where they stood relative to the rest of the country.

What was the primary impulse for Southern states to secede?

For many generations, white Southerners have insisted that the Civil War was not about slavery, that it was about states’ rights or it was about economic differences, or tariffs. But if you go back and just read the debates over secession in each Southern state— which I have had the dubious pleasure of doing—it becomes very clear that the debate is taking place between two groups of slaveholders. And every state secession convention was dominated, not just by slaveholders, but by large slaveholders. And the question that they’re trying to wrestle with is: “Can we best protect slavery by leaving the Union, and creating a new nation centered on protecting slavery, or can we still find better ways to protect slavery by staying in the Union?” That’s the debate.

So it wasn’t a groundswell of enthusiasm for secession. There was a lot of opposition from the upland mountain counties where there was no slavery and no real sense of being worried about an interest in slavery to preserve. Secession happened because the people who were interested in promoting and protecting the institution of slavery were also the people who were in power. They dominated the state legislatures and they dominated the state secession conventions.

The Confederate government was unpopular almost instantly. And so Confederate white affections settled on the military: the guys who were doing the fighting. And that’s why there was the embrace of the battle flag, as opposed to the national flag of the Confederacy.

Was slavery, then, the reason Southerners—even those who owned no slaves—fought on behalf of the Confederacy?

I think it’s worth distinguishing between what started the war, and who started it, and the people who fought it. There were lots of reasons why white Southerners might have taken up arms that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with any vested interest on their part in slavery. Once Lincoln makes the call for troops, it becomes—in the minds of many—“Well, I’ve got to protect my home, my family, my community.” My great-great-grandfather’s two sons went off to war. One of them was underage and the other never made it any closer to the front than North Carolina, where he died of measles. The one who was underage came home on furlough over Christmas of 1861 and tried to get discharged because he had signed up underage. And so he filed a petition with the Confederate Secretary of War, Judah P. Benjamin, and never hears anything. The kid goes back to his unit and dies that September in the Battle of Antietam. And his family never had any slaves. They had 150 acres of land.

And so there were a lot of people who fought in that war for reasons we can’t fully comprehend. It was a war that served the interest of slaveholders and was precipitated by just the existence of the institution of slavery and of course the desire to see it expand. But we cannot necessarily extrapolate from that to say that everybody who fought in that war was fighting for slavery.

And as much as I am in favor of getting rid of the public display of Confederate monuments, I do think it is important to realize that there is a possibility that people see their ancestors as fighting for something other than slavery. I have trouble making the leap to where they still kind of defend them—these monuments—but there is an essence in there that there is some benefit of the doubt still due, I think.

Did the Confederacy ever forge something akin to a new national identity?

No. You know there was all this talk about stirring up Southern nationalism in the decade prior to secession. The South had basically benefitted in a lot of ways from New England’s superiority in terms of literature and communications and educational firepower. The planters sent their sons to northern schools. The majority of the men at Princeton in 1860 were from the South. And so there was an effort to say, “We’re not sending our boys up there to be educated by the Yankees anymore. We are going to stop hiring these Yankee tutors that come to the plantation. We are going to quit reading Northern books and Northern newspapers.” But none of that stuff worked a lick. People didn’t stop doing any of those things.

When suddenly all at once there is secession, it’s, “Oh my God, we have got to have a government!” What happens is the Southern leaders basically just seize on the model of the United States. I mean, their premise is that we are really trying to restore the original intent of our forefathers, and what they had in mind in terms of the sanctity of the sovereignty of the states by creating our own nation. But the Confederacy wasn’t a confederacy at all! It was a very centralized slave-holding republic. There was more concentrated power in the Confederacy then there was in the United States government at that time.

Everybody is enthused when the war is going well, but the exigencies of throwing together a government that can actually govern, it’s hard enough to do that in peacetime. But a brand-new government trying to govern in war is infinitely more difficult. So the Confederate government was unpopular almost instantly. And Confederate white affections settled on the military: the guys who were doing the fighting. And that’s why there was the embrace of the battle flag, as opposed to the national flag of the Confederacy.

What was the Lost Cause? And what led to its emergence?

In the grand sweep of human history there have been as many nations built on defeats as much as on victories. Because you can find unanimity and a ferocity in how you handle defeat and how you react to defeat as much as through victory. And so the whole idea of the Lost Cause was to justify the white South’s position and to ennoble the Confederate cause.

Basically, what they were trying to do was create a Southern nationalism that had never existed before secession—based on the idea of the hallowed Confederate warriors fighting against overwhelming odds who only lost because they were so outnumbered. It was also an attempt to restore masculine pride among Southern white men. So it is really the basis of kind of a nationalist ethos. And it leads, of course, to the erection of all these monuments at the end of the 19th century and during the early 20th century.

Is it fair to call that ethos sort of the cult of the noble loser?

Yeah, I think it is.

Historian James C. Cobb in Los Angeles. Photo by Jake Fabricius.

Is there any connection between that cult of the noble loser, the Lost Cause, and country music?

I think there is in the sense that there is a kind of chip-on-your-shoulder mentality that so much of country music exudes. It’s now less so than back in the glory days of country music but there is a sense of being looked down upon and feeling that you’re kind of at loose ends and you need to be back among your own people. And so I think country music does capture those sentiments. But again, it’s not today’s watered-down version, which is all about the perils of trying to live in suburbia. But I think the country music of the ’40s, in particular, when it became much more of a modern phenomenon and you hear a lot of songs about how “I may be a hobo and a hillbilly, but I can still whip your ass,”—there’s a kind of grudge mentality that’s definitely there.

You’re implying that country music has been suburbanized. Could you talk a little bit about the evolution of country music and what it says about Southern white identity?

Country music emerged from the musical heritage of the British Isles. And then as it becomes a more commercial art form, it pulls together not just the old themes from the old British ballads but the contemporary events that shape the South: big events like train wrecks, automobile accidents. And it becomes a rehashing of the very, very familiar. It’s got a strong religious component that always kind of brings you back to: if you sin you going to suffer for it.

I think country music has simply adapted as the South has changed. And if you go back and look at people like Patsy Cline—who is of course now regarded as the classic female country singer of all time—in her day she was viewed as a threat to traditional country music. That was because she sang with the backup of the Nashville sound, which was the big orchestral stylings, lots of strings—even a harp.

So a great majority of Southerners do live in suburbs now. With all of that, the music has adapted. But it came out of a rural culture where it was hard-bitten, hard times for much of the South’s 20th-century history. The spike was in World War II, when you finally get a little infusion of prosperity, and you get a surge in the modernity of the music in the sense of amplification and the instrumentation; but it’s still mirroring what’s happening in the South.

In the country music of the ’40s, in particular, when it became much more of a modern phenomenon and you hear a lot of songs about how “I may be a hobo and a hillbilly, but I can still whip your ass,”—there’s a kind of grudge mentality that’s definitely there.

Most Confederate monuments were erected between 1890 and about 1910, which suggests that they were less about memory and more about building a new identity based on a supposedly glorious defeat. You write a lot about the concern—shared even by some who fought against Jim Crow—that white Southern identity was so tied up with segregation that the South would disappear as a distinct region when it ended.

The proliferation of those monuments corresponds with the era in which the Southern states were instituting Jim Crow Laws. They were taking the vote away from black people and the monuments were used as sort of props for those moves. And that is why I think you just can’t have those monuments anymore, regardless of what they may have meant once to white Southerners who thought their ancestors fought for something other than slavery in the Civil War.

It’s very interesting, somebody said that what white Southerners do best is resist. And what will happen when there is nothing left to resist? And so after the civil rights movement, when the end of institutionalized Jim Crow is fait accompli, there is this kind of identity crisis. For generations everyone had heard that segregation, white supremacy, and Jim Crow was the “Southern way of life.” So what was there now to be redeemed of Southern identity, if the racial component had been stripped away?

And in that sense I think white Southerners are sort of like other immigrant groups to the United States or elsewhere, who work really, really hard to get over the stigma of being from somewhere else, and being unlike other Americans, and they push and push to deemphasize their accents. And all of a sudden, they see, with the racial stigma lifted, they’re about to—by God—trip over and fall into the American mainstream. And when they get there, they pull up short and say, “Whoa, if we just jump in there and say, OK, the South is over—what will that say about us? Who will we be?”

And so you get a classic example of the commodification of identity in the South with efforts to transform Southern identity into a lifestyle. Then you get all these lifestyle magazines like Southern Living and Southern Accents and Garden and Gun. Identity becomes a hot commodity in the global marketplace. They’re selling all kinds of things to remind people of whatever identity it is that they choose to embrace. And so what happens is that something you were cautious about revealing, or certainly not emphasizing—your Southern identity—suddenly becomes a point of pride because it’s something that makes you special.

What role did President Jimmy Carter play in the emergence of a post-segregation white Southern identity?

It was a short love affair with Jimmy Carter. But if you reel back to that period of the mid-‘70s, that’s a time when there’s really a national embrace of Southern culture. That’s when country music really explodes as a national phenomenon. And if you think about what’s on TV, you’ve got The Andy Griffith Show; you’ve got The Waltons; you’ve got the emergence of Willie and Waylon and the laid-back boys from Luckenbach. There’s this nice, warm, fuzzy, embraceable South.

Carter surfaces amid that. And he’s coming on the heels of Watergate. And he’s got the whole small-town rural Southern boy humility and religiosity and maybe that’s just what we need: someone who is a good old, down-to-earth Southern boy who is humble and knows he should be humble. Maybe he’s exactly what this country needs. And in certain ways I think he was what the country needed.

But there were ways in which being a Southerner really hurt him—particularly when he was being a good Southern Baptist. I was born and raised a Southern Baptist and you know you frontload suffering if you are a Baptist. You know it’s out there, so you may as well go out there and start suffering. And so that’s what Carter did. He comes in and he says, “You know, we can’t keep doing all this stuff. We can’t have all the oil we want. We can’t treat the whole world as our oyster anymore. We’ve got to lower our expectations and live more reasonably.” And of course, Americans don’t want to hear that. Then of course there are other things: The Iran hostage thing kills him.

Has the South lost its distinctiveness since World War II?

Assimilating the South and homogenizing the country was once tantamount to a national mission. But it strikes me that white Southerners have tried to hang on to vestiges of their Southern identity that aren’t tied to race. But you also have American mass society a little bit reluctant to admit that the South is basically much like the rest of the country. Because, if you do that, then you have to own the South, which is something that the country has never really been ready to do. And I’m not sure if it still is. You can’t just keep saying that when you have a racial atrocity in Pennsylvania, you can’t say, “This is the kind of thing you would expect to happen in Mississippi, not Pennsylvania.” But if you sort of say, “The South is in it, we’re all in it together,” then you lose that negative image that makes you feel good about yourself, and proud of yourself. If you sort of accept the South as basically joining the rest of American society—I wrote a piece called The Necessary South where I argued that it’s really kind of necessary for America to have the South so as to not quite have to look itself full in the mirror.

American mass society is a little bit reluctant to admit that the South is basically much like the rest of the country. Because, if you do that, then you have to own the South, which is something that the country has never really been ready to do.

And yet the North began to confront its own problems in the last half of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, what Southern segregationist politicians had been saying for decades was born out. They always predicted, that you just wait and see what happens when Northerners, white Northerners, are told they have to integrate their schools. And when the court decides that it’s not just enough to get rid of de jure segregation. As soon as that gets in the court system, and it’s starting to affect places like Detroit, then there’s—as a famous Southern historian said—there’s a massive withering of Northern self-righteousness.

And then also—the South has always been the poorest, most backward part of the country—but then the Rust Belt happens. And you get this massive drainage of people and capital moving South during the fuel crisis. There are very solid economic reasons behind it as well, but there also is more fresh opportunity in the South. So the whole saga of the more progressive, more prosperous North kind of starts to fray around the edges.

What should it mean to be American?

If we’re talking about the ideal of being American, I think it means accepting differences based on history and culture. Obviously not accepting human rights abuses, and not persecution; but sort of understanding that people came. I mean, you come to Los Angeles, and one of the great things about our visit so far is just, I mean, Atlanta is a pretty globalized city, but you know it ain’t in the ballpark with you folks. And it’s just wonderful. I mean, everybody you meet has a different story from a different part of the world. And that’s something that also held the South back for a long time, because it was not necessarily terribly friendly to outsiders. And it didn’t offer opportunity for people to want to go there—they weren’t seeing an opportunity for them to make a better life for themselves. And so, I think being less hung up on regional differences, as well as ethnic differences, and just sort of thinking: We’re in this together, and it doesn’t matter whether your great-great-grandpa shot at my great-great-grandpa or not. Just sort of trying to find that common ground that allows you not to forget your history, and it doesn’t force you to apologize for it, but forces you to acknowledge it and keep it. Keep it as your history without letting that become something that’s divisive.


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