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ANTEBELLUM SOUTHERN EXCEPTIONALISM: A NEW LOOK AT AN OLD QUESTION James M. McPherson The notion of American Exceptionalism has received quite a drubbing since the heyday of the exceptionalist thesis among the consensus school of historians in the 1950s. Interpreters of the American experience then argued that somethingspecial about the American experience—whether it was abundance, free land on the frontier, the absence of a feudal past, exceptional mobility and the relative lack of class conflict, or the pragmatic and consensual liberalism of our politics—set the American people apart from the rest of mankind. Historians writing since the 1950s, by contrast, have demonstrated the existence of class and class conflict, ideological politics, land speculation, and patterns of economic and industrial development similar to those of Western Europe which placed the United States in the mainstream of modern North Atlantic history, not on a special and privileged fringe.1 Ifthe theme of American Exceptionalism has suffered heavy and perhaps irreparable damage, the idea of Southern Exceptionalism still flourishes—though also subjected to repeated challenges. In this essay, "Southern Exceptionalism" refers to the belief that the South has "possessed a separate and unique identity . . . which appeared to be out of the mainstream of American experience."2 Or as Quentin Compson (in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!) expressed it in a reply to his Canadian-born college roommate's question about what made Southerners tick: "You can't understand it. You would have to be born there." An earlier version of this article was presented as a paper at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Cincinnati on 8 April 1983. I wish to thank the commentators on that occasion, J. Mills Thornton III and George Brown Tindall, for offering criticisms that have led to a revised and improved version for publication. I wish to thank also the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, California, for their support and facilities during my Fellowship year at the Center, where this article was written. 1 For an excellent analysis of the historiography of American exceptionalism, see Laurence Veysey, "The Autonomy of American History Reconsidered,"American Quarterly 31 (Fall 1979): 455-77. 2 Monroe L Billington, ed., The South: A Central Theme? (Huntington, N.Y.: Krieger, 1976), p. 1. SOUTHERN EXCEPTIONALISM231 The questions of whether the South was indeed out ofthe mainstream and if so, whether it has recently been swept into it, continue to be vital issues in Southern historiography. The clash of viewpoints can be illustrated by a sampling of titles or subtitles of books that have appeared in recent years. On one sidewehave: The Enduring South; The Everlasting South; The Idea of the South; The Lasting South; and The Continuity of Southern Distinctiveness—all arguing, in one way or another, that the South was and continues to be different. On the other side we have: The Southerner as American; The Americanization of Dixie; Epitaph for Dixie; Southerners and OtherAmericans; The Vanishing South; and Into the Mainstream. Some of these books insist that "the traditional emphasis on the South's differentness . . . is wronghistorically."3 Others concede that while the South may once havebeen different, it has ceased to be or is ceasing to be so. There is no unanimity among this latter group of scholars about precisely when or how the South joined the mainstream. Some emphasize the civil rights revolution of the 1960s; others the bulldozer revolution of the 1950s; still others the Chamber of Commerce Babbittry of the 1920s; and some the New South crusade of the 1880s. As far back as 1869 the Yankee novelistJohn William De Forest wrote of the South: "We shall do well to study this peculiar people, which will soon lose its peculiarities." As George TindaII has wryly remarked, the Vanishing South has "staged one of the most prolonged disappearing acts since the decline and fall of Rome."4 Some historians, however, would quarrel with the concept of a Vanishing South because they believe that the South as a separate, exceptional entitynever existed—with ofcoursetheephemeral exception ofthe Confederacy. But a good many other historians insist that not only did a unique "South...


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