Review of “A Defense of Virginia” by Robert Lewis Dabney

I think I’ve now read almost all of the books recommended in this post (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and herehere and here are a couple others on the same period that were recommended in other posts).

Do I get some sort of prize for doing this? I think I should.

Here’s Moldbug on this book:

And last but not least, do consider R.L. Dabney’s Defence of Virginia (1867) – idiosyncratic and theology-packed. Stonewall Jackson was a notoriously religious man. Dabney was his minister. ‘Nuff said. If you live in 2009 and can read, understand, and perhaps even respect R.L. Dabney, there can be no further doubt of the matter: you have an open mind.

Perhaps the prize of an open mind is sufficient.

Most of these books focus on the Civil War – as Moldbug says of the post,

This week and next we’re going to focus on the exciting part of the story. This is the story of the losers – the Neanderthals, as it were, who lost out to the Modern Structure and its lusty hominid forebears. Ie, to the great democratic movement for freedom, justice and democracy.

Moldbug uses most of the post to discuss the fact that abolitionism was to blame for the war:

There were two basic problems with abolitionism.

One: it could not be seen as anything but an attack on the South, the weaker party, by the North, the stronger party. Once the lines of sectional politics were clear, as Jefferson saw clearly in 1820, the question of whether a new state would allow slavery was the question of which bloc would get its two new Senators.

Two: the North had no legal basis whatsoever for this attack. The idea that the Federal government had the power to end slavery and free the slaves was roughly as foreign to antebellum constitutional law as the proposition that Barack Obama could order Rush Limbaugh hanged at dawn, "just because he’s an asshole," is to ours. . . .

Because the truth was that the North was attacking the South and trying to abolish slavery, its politicians had to assert that the South was attacking the North and trying to propagate slavery. . . .

As the ideology of antislavery spread West, it passed from those who hated slavery because they loved Negroes as fellow men, to those who hated slavery because they didn’t want Negroes around. (Lincoln, with typical dexterity, managed to convince his audiences that he was in both categories.) Thus the free-state Kansas constitution prohibited Negroes free or slave, as did that of Oregon. By 1860, little that is human or humane can be found in the antislavery movement. Its engine runs on pure chimp rage.

I agree with these thoughts, but my own major take-away from reading all these primary sources is more humble. Our understanding of the Civil War increased from the time of the war through the middle of the 20th Century, at which point it dropped off a cliff. The modern mainstream understanding of the war is completely retarded.

The easiest way to understand how retarded the modern view of the Civil War is, is to read two short speeches by Charles Francis Adams. These are easy because they’re short and well-written and Mr Adams is an impeccable source – he fought for the Union and he is a great historian. The cracks in the official story become clear because Adams position on the war would – by modern standards – make him a rabid defender of the South. Unfortunately, for the modern and official story, he fought for the North. Adams defends Virginia’s decision to secede. He believes Virginia decided to secede in defense of its understanding of the Constitution (see Moldbug’s analysis of abolitionism above). He also comes to believe that his own understanding of slavery was severely lacking (I still think Genovese’s book, linked above, was the best on this particular issue). I think it would have been virtually impossible to live through reconstruction and not believe that it was a complete tragedy. As Moldbug puts it:

It is in fact very difficult to argue that the War of Secession made anyone’s life more pleasant, including that of the freed slaves. (Perhaps your best case would be for New York profiteers and Unitarian poets who produced homilies to war. [heh!]) War destroyed the economy of the South. It brought poverty, disease and death. As Lincoln put it: "root, hog, or die." While material things are not everything, and the psychological impact of freedom was large and usually positive, you will find few slave narratives in which the late 1860s are remembered as days of wine and roses.

So your best bet, as a Union supporter, is probably the argument that the war made a better life for the children, grandchildren, etc, of the slaves it freed. On a moral level, this is slightly metaphysical for me, but I think on a historical level I can buy it. Of course, the war did also kill 600,000 people, but this is a small butcher’s bill by the standards of the Modern Wars. Again, it’s your choice.

Let me try to make the decline of history more concrete by way of an analogy. Imagine that you had fallen asleep in 2005 and stayed asleep until 2150. Further assume that when you woke up in 2150, everyone loved the Iraq War. Not just Rumsfeld-style liked it, but fucking loved it. They loved it so much, that if you dared to question the righteousness of liberating the Iraqis from bondage, you’d be considered unfit for civil conversation. Intellectuals in 2150 prove their intellectual-ness by signaling to each other they support the Iraq War more than other people. In other words, by 2150, mainstream opinion on the Iraq War would be such that Donald Rumsfeld in 2005 would – by 2150 standards – be considered only moderately pro-war.

Regardless of what you think about the Iraq War in the present day, you’d have a pretty low opinion of history as practiced in 2150.

Anyway, I should let Dabney have his say. Dabney’s is a good summary of many of the arguments made in the other books. I’m glad I read Dabneys’ work after all the others, as it would not be the best introduction.

Dabney defends the Southern institution of slavery. If we take Genovese to the standard of what slavery in the South was really like, Dabney’s description is more accurate than something like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Dabney has his biases, but his writing doesn’t rise to the level of propaganda. Dabney correctly points out that Northerners also benefited from slavery and had mixed attitudes about blacks. For example, he spends some time discussing the Confederate Constitution:

When the late Confederate Government adopted a constitution, although it was composed exclusively of slaveholding States, it voluntarily did what the United States has never done: it placed an absolute prohibition of the foreign slave trade in its organic law.

He also points out that the war didn’t really "free" the slaves – again this was the common understanding of what happened during Reconstruction until sometime in the mid-20th Century:

That Northern emancipation was prompted by no consideration for the supposed rights of Africans, but by regard to their own interests, is evinced by many facts. Of these, perhaps the most general and striking is the persistent neglect of the welfare of their emancipated slaves; the refusal to give them equal civic rights, until they found a motive for doing so in malice against the South; and the shocking decadence, vice and misery to which a nominal liberty, according to the testimony of Northern writers, has consigned their wretched free blacks.

. . .

Thus, Massachusetts, in March, 1788, (eight years after the pretended extinction of human bondage) passed a law ordering every black, mulatto or Indian who came into the State and remained two months to be publickly whipped; and this punishment was to be repeated “if he or she shall not depart Mies quoties.” This law remained in force until 1834!

. . .

But how different is the summary abolition forced upon Virginia and the South!

He also throws in a bit of philosophy, which I enjoyed very much:

What, then, is man’s natural liberty? We answer, that it is only privilege to do whatever he has a moral right to do. Freedom to do whatever a man wills, is not a liberty, either natural or civil, but an unnatural license, a natural iniquity; man’s will being naturally depraved. What then is man’s civil liberty? We reply, that under an equitable government, it is the same—the privilege to do whatever he has a moral right to do. No government is perfectly equitable: none are wholly unjust. Some withhold more, some fewer, of the citizen’s moral rights. None withhold them all. Hence, under the most despotic government there are some rights left, and so, some liberty. A perfectly just government would be one which would allot to each citizen freedom to do all the things which he had a moral right to do, and nothing else. Such a government would not restrain the natural liberty of any citizen in any respect; each man’s civil liberty would be identical with his natural. Government does not originate rights, neither can it justly take them away. But practically, it confirms, instead of impairing, our natural liberty; because it secures us in the exercise of it.

. . .

Again: the amount of privileges properly conceded to the body of citizens of the first class, should vary in different commonwealths with their average character. If intelligence and virtue are, in the average, more developed, the restraints of government should be fewer ; if less cultivated, more numerous. Different frames of government may be best for different communities.

. . .

It has been shown, that as different persons in the same society differ widely in character, powers, and relations, their specific natural rights differ also. But under all forms of government, all still have some liberty. And under a perfectly equitable form, the different classes of persons would properly have different grades of liberty. So that, even in the relation of involuntary servitude for life, if it be not abused, there is an appropriate liberty.

This shit will indeed open your mind.


13 Responses to Review of “A Defense of Virginia” by Robert Lewis Dabney

  1. Brandon says:

    It aint “shit”, but I understand what you mean…

  2. Jeff Singer says:


    This is fast becoming one of my first blog stops in the morning — once I get my own blog up and running soon you’ll be one of my best sources of material!

    Yes, you do deserve a prize for getting through Moldbug’s reading list — my reading queue still has CFA’s Cromwell speech waiting for me to find the time!

    I don’t have much to add at the moment, other than to note that I was fascinated to read in McPherson’s classic (and conventional) one volume history of the Civil War how hostile my beloved Catholic Church was to “Red Republicanism” during the 50s and how sympathetic they were to the South before the Civil War. Reading those statements from church figures in America I immediately become more sympathetic to the South and can understand why Moldbug argues abolitionism was an attack on the South. In the end, the question becomes was that attack necessary in pursuit of justice…

  3. JManon says:

    What is the official story of the Civil War these days? I was taught in middle school (public school in NY) that the civil war resulted from disputes about tarriffs and economic policy, which fostered the North’s economic rape of the South. My teacher told us that slavery was a factor and a spark, but that the issue was really more of a pretext used by leaders on both sides to sell war to the masses once it became clear that the union no longer made economic sense for the South. I have no idea whether his lectures were fully accurate, but I, for one, was not taught that the war was a great ideological battle about freedom and slavery.

  4. dearieme says:

    Lord Action was a great liberal intellectual. And yet: “Acton took a great interest in America, considering its Federal structure the perfect guarantor of individual liberties. During the American Civil War, his sympathies lay entirely with the Confederacy, for their defense of States’ Rights against a centralized government that, by all historical precedent, would inevitably turn tyrannical. His notes to Gladstone on the subject helped sway many in the British government to sympathize with the South. After the South’s surrender, he wrote to Robert E. Lee that “I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo,” adding that he “deemed that you were fighting battles for our liberty, our progress, and our civilization.”[5]” (Wikipedia)

    How he squared this with slavery – which of course he opposed – I don’t know.

  5. Very interesting, thanks.

    Abolition was indeed a major break with the past – in that it first embodied the kind of abolute ‘human rights’ morality – specifically human rights regardless of consequences – the style of thinking which now prevails in the West as political correctness.

    The idea of abolition *at any cost* entailed rejecting all of human history up until that point as being essentially-wicked – so that the abolitionists implicitly (sometimes explicitly) regarded themselves as having an *absolute* moral superiority over all preceding generations.

    (In other words, teenage rebellion triumphant.)

    But interestingly, my ‘knowledge’ of the American Civil War came mostly as a by-product of reading the New England Transcendnetalists (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott etc) – and in this elite circle of ‘unitarian poets’ (as Moldbug terms them) the contemporary understanding and view of the Civil War was strikingly *similar* to the modern, politically correct, official version.

    In sum, the tiny-minority perspective on the US Civil War of the intellectual elite of the Boston Brahmins centred around its outpost in Concord Massachusetts was the perspective that eventually prevailed.

    Or, to put it more succinctly, Harvard re-wrote history in line with its own distinctive preferences; and imposed this Harvard perspective upon essentially the whole world.

    Which is not exactly surprising; but nonetheless a striking example of the phenomenon which Moldbug has so often highlighted.

  6. icr says:

    On the injustice of conscription in the Civil War:
    Meanwhile, newspapers such as the Detroit Free Press were perhaps more accurate in interpreting the motives of the rioters: “There is no good reason why one man should be exempt and another compelled to perform military duty, simply because one happens to have temporarily more money than another. . . . If he has wealth, he has more reason to fight for its protection than the man who has nothing.”[xxvii] Likewise, the New York News encapsulated the frustrations of the protestors and the reasons which drove them into the streets for retribution: “It is a strange perversion of the laws of self-preservation which would compel the white laborer to leave his family destitute and unprotected while he goes forth to free the negro, who, being free, will compete with him in labor.”

  7. Borepatch says:

    And under a perfectly equitable form, the different classes of persons would properly have different grades of liberty.

    Man, I can imagine what “progressives” would do with this …

  8. […] Who is free is 21st Century America? If you read a lot of old books, one thing you notice is that we don’t understand freedom in the same way that people used to understand freedom. […]

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  10. Patrick J Z says:

    Robert Lewis Dabney seemed to be one of the more intellectually serious apologists for southern slavery, and a voice of discernment exposing northern hypocrisy. Nevertheless, even the most sanguine sounding philosophies can be nothing more than well crafted sophistry and cultural illusion. In effect, ‘two wrongs don’t make a right.’ The north had its own moral deficiencies, and so did the black race for that matter. But these things, and a host of other arguments, confusions, and so called insights do not, and never will, excuse the practice of slavery in any epoch, especially when its sole motivation is greedy gain. And furthermore, excused by biblical exegesis taken out of context in order to fit those anomalous philosophical tenets.

  11. Joseph says:

    I wonder how differently Dabney’s mind would have worked, spun, gyrated, and spewed out his thoughts, had he been in Frederick Douglass’ place?

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