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It’s easy to see a simple connection between the people waving Nazi flags and those waving Confederate flags in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
You can say it’s racism and leave it at that.
But the truth is that racism is just one of the parallels Nazis Germany and the Confederate South share, and it may not even be the most important one. While most Americans are quick to accept that Hitler’s Nazis were hell-bent on spreading fascism throughout the world, they’re slower to accept the same about Lee’s Confederates.
But that’s what the Confederacy was, a fascist nation hell-bent on spreading its political and social system across America and even across its southern borders. Developing its own form of fascism was how the South dealt with opposing ideals of American egalitarianism and the institution of slavery.
As a country we’ve spent a lot of time in our historical conversation trying to play down this truth in the name of national unity and, in many cases, flat-out racism. But that has only been damaging to us. The truth is America doesn’t need to borrow fascism from abroad because we developed our own particular version of it almost 200 years ago.
When we fail to recognize that, we fail to recognize how it can organically find its way into our political discourse.
That is why when our own brand of fascism strikes in America, we actually have the nerve to be surprised about it.
We grew it
By its simplest definition, fascism is an authoritarian form of government in which economic, social, and political powers are monopolized by one individual, party, or class.
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In the Antebellum South that class was the Southern planters. A survey of their understanding of freedom and democracy from the American Revolution to the Civil War shows a dramatic evolution of their thinking, prompted by their desire to hold on the institution that made them rich: slavery.
The early leaders of the post-Revolutionary South – men like John Taylor of Caroline and Thomas Jefferson, were egalitarians. They believed that freedom meant equality of chances for all men. As such, they feared what living with the contradiction of slavery would do to the population.
In 1781, Jefferson wrote that slavery would corrupt American democracy and egalitarianism beyond recognition in his book “Notes on the State of Virginia.”
“The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and moral un depraved by such circumstances [under slavery]. And with what desecration should the statement be loaded, who permitting one half of the citizens to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots and these into enemies, destroys the morals of one part and the amor patriae of the other.”
And that is exactly what slavery did.
Surrounded by inequality, the planter class turned away from the idea that all men deserve equal chances. Instead it reasoned that a strict social system with slaves at the bottom and the planter class on top would be best for law and social order. Freedom, according to this ideology, was the freedom to move within one’s social station. This, again, confirmed and rationalized planter-class rule.
This went for everyone in society, not just slaves. By the eve of the Civil War the nature of the Southern economy made social mobility almost impossible for Southern whites, too. Conservative lawmakers in the South had looked askance at investing in education and infrastructure (which could help nonlandowners develop skills and move to places where they could be put to use) since the American Revolution.
At the same time, slaves and land had become too expensive for people to buy on meager wages or with the income from a small farm. As a result, resources were concentrated in the hands of the planters. For example, during the 1840s and ’50s, the most fertile land in Georgia (the Black Belt region) belonged to one-tenth of the population, according to historian Steven Hahn’s book “The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry.”
It was clear that many in the planter class didn’t want to change that either. Instead of trying to figure out what was wrong with this picture, Southern leaders and intellectuals embraced planter-class domination as a positive feature of their society and government.
As Hahn notes, one editorial in The Athens Southern Watchmen, a Georgia paper published from 1854 to 1882, called out Jefferson directly.
“Thanks to Mr. Jefferson we have made a mistake … and pushed the love of democracy too far … vulgar democracy and licentious freedom is rapidly supplanting all the principles of constitutional ‘liberty’! When shall the American people perceive that all our difficulties arise from the absurdities of deciding that the ‘pauper’ and the ‘landholder’ are alike competent to manage the affairs of a Country, or alike entitled to vote for those who shall?”
In sum, the Watchmen was calling for the end of democracy and the ushering in of a particular breed of American fascism that results from the concentration of wealth and power into the hands of a few. As historian Manisha Sinha noted in her book “The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina,” secessionist hotbed South Carolina did not allow its citizens to vote in the presidential election of 1860. “Pro forma the state’s legislature” voted for the secessionist candidate.
South Carolina was the home of the Fire-Eaters, the most radical secessionists in the South. It was one of their ilk, Edmund Bryan, who in 1850 would pervert the words of Revolutionary War hero Patrick Henry and cry “Give me slavery or give me death.”
And we tried to spread it
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All over the internet and in history book after history book you’ll see revisionists claim that slavery wouldn’t have lasted had the Confederacy been victorious. Robert E. Lee, goes one argument, was opposed to slavery and would’ve found a way to end it.
All of that is patently false.
There are two reasons the South needed more land. Both were examined in historian Eugene Genovese’s seminal work, “The Political Economy of Slavery.” He showed that until as late as the 1850s, Southern planters hadn’t realized that their style of agriculture was depleting the region’s soil. To find more fertile land, Southerners would have to move west.
Advocates for poorer farmers, like Hinton Helper, a Georgia intellectual who was critical of slavery, and Kentucky politician Cassius Clay, saw slavery’s expansion as the only possible avenue for social mobility for poor whites. The planter class embraced this idea, of course, because it was a way to get the lower classes to buy into the social system they ruled.
Hitler’s Nazis, for what it’s worth, offered a similar promise to suffering lower-middle-class Germans to get their buy-in on Nazi rule. It’s part of the reason the regime needed to expand its territory.
As The Atlantic noted in a 1932 essay by Nicolas Fairweather, Hitler once said: “when for centuries to every child of the German race it has been possible to give his own piece of land. Never forget that the holiest right this world is the right to earth that a man desires to cultivate himself, and the holiest sacrifice the blood that a man pours out for his own soil.”
Of course, when it came to ruling, the Southern planters looked out for only themselves. Many opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its accompanying Homestead Bill in 1854 because it would release large swaths of government land for cheap purchase. The planters feared that that would mean the loss of yeoman farmers, who often worked for them and depended on the planter class for everything from loans to food.
As Fire-Eater South Carolina politician James Henry Hammond – the man who coined the phrase “Cotton is King”- once said, “in all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties and perform the drudgeries of life.”
The planters wanted everyone, not just slaves, to stay exactly as they were.
And now we must own it
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Both racism and a desire for peace between the North and the South prompted the historical revisionism that has led scholars to leave fascism out of the most basic narratives of Civil War history for generations. But it is to our country’s detriment. Want to know the roots of a particularly American breed of fascism? Look no further than the Southern planter class – a class of landowners who refused to invest in their communities and instead hoarded power for themselves.
Want to know the first successful American fascist political movement? Look no further than the Fire-Eaters – the radical Confederates who ultimately took over the Southern political discourse and advocated secession.
Want to know who the first American fascist leaders were? They were Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
It is crucial that we consider Southern fascism, American fascism – that we join the history of the victors in the North with that of the defeated in the South. As disgusting as it is, our homegrown fascism has reemerged from the shadows of history to the forefront of our discourse, and worse yet it seems the White House doesn’t understand or even care.