Robert Dabney on Conservatism
Robert Lewis Dabney was certainly ahead of his time.
Just read this short excerpt from his essay Women’s Rights, which appeared in The Southern Magazine in 1871:
It may be inferred again that the present movement for women’s rights will certainly prevail from the history of its only opponent, Northern conservatism. This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is to-day one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will to-morrow be forced upon its timidity, and will be succeeded by some third revolution, to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always—when about to enter a protest—very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its “bark is worse than its bite,” and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent role of resistance. The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it “in wind,” and to prevent its becoming pursy and lazy from having nothing to whip. No doubt, after a few years, when women’s suffrage shall have become an accomplished fact, conservatism will tacitly admit it into its creed, and thenceforward plume itself upon its wise firmness in opposing with similar weapons the extreme of baby suffrage; and when that too shall have been won, it will be heard declaring that the integrity of the American Constitution requires at least the refusal of suffrage to asses. There it will assume, with great dignity, its final position.
This is something we still complain about today. Myself included:
- Conservatives Are The Progressives Of The Past
- The Conservatives Are Centralizers, Too
- What Exactly Are Conservatives Conserving?
“Northern conservatism” had a nice ring to it for back in the day. It’s regrettable, but this form of conservativism has taken hold nearly everywhere now. It’s no longer stuck in the Northeast. We see it both in the South and the West, who wave the neocon flags just as proudly as the North. Those original northern conservatives conquered the opposition both physically and intellectually.
This trend of an intellectual civil war in the North v. South continued until relatively recently, as well. The South held out far longer than the end of Dabney’s life. In fact, the real sledgehammer seemed to have occurred relatively recently, during the Jaffar versus Mel Bradford timeline. Bradford, the ‘Southern Conservative’, was pitted against Jaffa, the ‘Northern Conservative’. Jaffa was a one-step back progressive that bordered on worshipping Lincoln, whereas Bradford was far more steeped in his Southern heritage and held traditional positions. These two battled it out for decades, and the ramifications from their leanings still linger today. The worship of Abe by the neocons was largely started by Jaffa, and other weird right-wing evolutionary mutations like the acceptance of egalitarianism (over that of the reality of a natural order) were heavily influenced by Jaffa.
It’s obvious who won by just looking around at our “conservatives” today. This intellectual civil war continued on long after the civil war was concluded, and sadly, the North won it as well. Paul Gottfried has a good, short article on how Northern Conservatism won here if you’re interested.
But pointing out the failures of Northern Conservatism isn’t the only thing Dabney nailed. Moving on in the same essay:
Indeed, as De Tocqueville predicted, innovations in the direction of extensions of suffrage will always be successful in America, because of the selfish timidity of her public men. It is the nature of ultra democracy to make all its politicians time-servers; its natural spawn is the brood of narrow, truckling, cowardly worshippers of the vox populi, and of present expediency. Their polar star is always found in the answer to the question, “Which will be the more popular?” As soon as any agitation of this kind goes far enough to indicate a possibility of success, their resistance ends. Each of them begins to argue thus in his private mind:—“The proposed revolution is of course preposterous, but it will be best for me to leave opposition to it to others. For if it succeeds, the newly enfranchised will not fail to remember the opponents of their claim at future elections, and to reward those who were their friends in the hour of need.” Again: it has now become a regular trick of American demagogues in power to manufacture new classes of voters to sustain them in office. It is presumed that the gratitude of the newly enfranchised will be sufficient to make them vote the ticket of their benefactors. But as gratitude is a very flimsy sort of fabric among Radicals, and soon worn threadbare, such a reliance only lasts a short time, and requires to be speedily replaced. The marvelous invention of negro suffrage (excogitated for this sole purpose) sufficed to give Radicalism a new four years’ lease of life; but the grateful allegiance of the freedmen to their pretended liberators is waxing very thin; and hence the same expedient must be repeated, in the form of creating a few millions of female votes. The designing have an active, selfish motive for pushing the measure; but its opponents will without fail be paralyzed in their resistance by their wonted cowardice; so that success is sure.
Dabney predicted more in 1871 for the following century than all the Northern Conservatives combined. It’s a shame we followed the Cult of Lincoln branch instead. We may have actually had a chance at a revitalization had the Southern Conservatives been the dominant ideology instead of the neocons.
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