I found a gem of an essay online by Presbyterian scholar, Southern apologist, and unapologetic Dixie reactionary, Robert Lewis Dabney, called “Women’s Rights Women.” Dabney died in A.D. 1898 after having lived a colorful life on the losing side of American history. Wikipedia notes that he served as Stonewall Jackson’s chief of staff during the Civil War. What I find refreshing about Dabney’s essay and about political writings before the cultural revolution of the nineteen sixties is their frankness. American political discourse after the Second World War has been hopelessly muddled, given that all sides have not been about to think, much less speak, honestly about political issues. The horror of the Nazis and of the Communists made several aspects of political discourse taboo, and taboos do not facilitate clarity or rationality in men’s thoughts. The Left has tried to pursue an egalitarian agenda while pretending that social democracy is compatible with liberalism and freedom. The Right has tried to uphold the foundations of society without squarely addressing the natural inequality of man, the necessary consequences of social authority, the tension between freedom and order, and the real influence of class, ethnicity, and religion in political life. The partisans in American politics rightly deride the other side’s illogic and inability to present coherent assessments and solutions, though they fail to see how their own side suffers the same, and precious few commentators realize why American political discourse remains so idiotic. It’s the taboos. The “mainstream” is intolerant of any “extreme” voice—that might actually make sense and break through the fog of self imposed blindness.
Dabney’s essay is remarkably insightful, both for its originality and for its good sense in hearkening to previous voices. Consider his observation of American conservativism, which he dismisses as Yankee conservatism. Dabney argues, rightly, as history shows, that American conservatives only try to conserve the status quo. They do not follow principles or an understanding of the natural order; they simply reject the latest innovation to come along—until they get used to it. Then, they rally against the next descent into Bedlam.
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 today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow 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 bath 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.
Dabney thus affirms Tocqueville’s observation (and Plato’s long before the Frenchman) that democracy by its own nature spreads equality throughout a society:
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 also proves prophetic about the dissolution of America’s future generations after “female emancipation”:
But now, what will be the character of the children reared under such a domestic organization as this? If human experience has established anything at all, it is the truth of that principle announced by the Hebrew prophet when he declared that the great aim of God in ordaining a permanent marriage tie between one man and one woman was “that He might seek a godly seed.” God’s ordinance, the only effective human ordinance for checking and curbing the first tendencies to evil, is domestic, parental government. When the family shall no longer have a head, and the great foundation for the subordination of children in the mother’s example is gone; when the mother shall have found another sphere than her home for her energies; when she shall have exchanged the sweet charities of domestic love and sympathy for the fierce passions of the hustings; when families shall be disrupted at the caprice of either party, and the children scattered as foundlings from their hearthstone requires no wisdom to see that a race of sons will be reared nearer akin to devils than to men. In the hands of such a bastard progeny, without discipline, without homes, without a God, the last remains of social order will speedily perish, and society will be overwhelmed in savage anarchy.
It would be nice to have American conservative thinkers who actually proceed from principles in their deliberations about the body politic. Indeed, there are such folks, but they are marginal. Gingrich, Lowry, Will, Krauthammer, Kristol, Bush, Palin, Romney, Huckabee, Christie, McConnell . . . name a prominent figure on the American Right, and you will see a liberal who finds our society’s steady march to the collectivist Left unsettling. Yet, they only react against the current. In this sense, they are simply reactionaries, whereas men like Dabney in his time or Auster today are the true conservatives. They know what they wish to conserve.