Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Lee Cheek as he examines the importance of agrarianism in American life and the necessity of restoring its place within our culture. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
Among the contributions to I’ll Take My Stand, Allen Tate’s “Remarks on the Southern Religion” is usually interpreted as the most acerbic, immoderate, and unusual essay in the collection. All too often the essay is read as an apologia for violence or an eccentric defense of tradition. In fact, Tate–like his fellow Agrarians–was seeking to remind his readers of the religious and political society that was once the South. More importantly, Tate’s essay is a plea for a recovery of what has been lost: a humane social order.
Nourished by daily labors in the fields, it was the properly ordered agrarian community that produced a more stable and wholesome environment for families and workers than industrialism could offer. According to Tate, an agrarian environment encouraged a life more conducive to religious and ethical living as well. In regard to farming, the experience of tilling the soil and harvesting crops embodied a sense of self-sacrifice and an attachment to a shared community. Farming was by its very nature a communal, rather than a solitary act. The primary aesthetic and spiritual needs of humankind were best fulfilled by the structure and corporate nature of an agrarian society. Tate’s close friend and fellow Agrarian, Andrew Lytle, convincingly reaffirmed this sentiment years later: “Agriculture is a limited term. A better one is farming. It is inclusive. Unlike any other occupation, farming is, or should be, a way of life.”
Genuine cultural renewal could not take place without appreciating the agrarian worldview—grounded in a connection to the soil and love for the Creator that was increasingly less palpable to Tate’s generation, and at the end of 20th century even the memory of such an existence is quickly fading.
The root of the problem for Tate was simple: The significance of New England, and more specifically the Massachusetts Bay settlement and subsequent religious and political developments in American life had crowded out the agrarian alternative from public discourse. For the Agrarians, the “American” political, religious and social experience, as well as the resulting vision for politics, was usually attributed to Puritan New England. The late Sydney Ahlstrom argued that the “Puritan Ethic” of legalistic moral strictures, and a doctrine of labor as serving and pleasing God, became the American ethic. And, in the hands of the Puritan divines, the “ethic” became incorporated into their understanding of politics, nourishing New England religious and political thought and influencing the Founding generation by providing a way of understanding the unique nature of the American political experience.
The consummation of the New England ethic was the development of a civil theology based upon the special status of the American regime. America was regarded as the “New Israel,” expressing similarity with the Biblical and historical narrative modes of expression. America’s situation in the pantheon of world religious and political history was understood as unequaled. The regime was special, a providential gift offered to the world, a city on a hill, a light amidst the darkness of political despotism. The transcendent aspects of American civil theology served a rememorative purpose, providing a basis for appreciating the generosity of the Divine while also looking to the future.
As Tate noted, this was only half—and the least important half—of the story. Commencing with the earliest movement of American religious and political thought an important bifurcation in the conceptualization of a humane social order can be observed and is of great importance to the transmittal of an appreciation of the good life.
While not as explicit as one would have preferred for him to be, Tate proclaimed that alongside the development of New England, there arose a less dogmatic and more explicitly pastoral presentation–and we should associate this with the other great colonial settlement, Jamestown. The Virginia colony, nearly simultaneous in date of origin with the Puritan Massachusetts Bay colony, shared a related history and many aspects of its political development while also exhibiting a distinctiveness.
The Southern and agrarian tradition in America produced a very different understanding of what was really most important. Against the tendency to endorse a theocratic and unitary form of life, this experience accommodated divergent theological and political understandings of order and sought to nurture an ecumenism grounded in the acceptance of dissent and a diffusion of political power.
Liberty was conceived in terms of its corporateness, a societas, combining the family and larger units of an interconnected citizenry with each other to form associations. Instead of the rigorous moral codes found in New England, the Southern colonies were more dependent upon the English model of ecclesiastic and civil subsidiarity, relying on representatives nearest the situation to provide order and preside over the deliberation of disputes. In essence, the religious and political developments within the South were founded upon a spirit of localism in theory and practice. The movement towards “establishing” state-sponsored churches met, for example, with great success in New England, while in the South a decentralized theory of control and the habit of localism in matters of church and state insured a greater autonomy and forbearance among the associations of the faithful and governing authorities.
As Mel Bradford posits, the Southern “spirit” looked to Eden after the Fall as a model, with “the best of the gifts of this life,” and anticipated that a fruitful social and political existence was possible only when “pursued with prudence, energy, honor, and regard for a wise prescription.” The implantation of the “garden” as a metaphor for explaining how the Southern understanding differed from the New England version deserves our attention. Contrary to the New England understanding of precision in all religious and political arrangements, the Southern and agrarian worldview identified the ancient imperfections of a civilization with the need for an enduring pattern of improvement and refinement within human nature. A society grounded upon the rock of such a prescriptive development of religious and political thinking was less likely to be consumed by ideological deformations of their understanding; conversely, it was also more reluctant to submit to a reformation of defects in the pre-existing worldview inherited from previous generations. The distant and overbearing sources of ecclesial and political authority were not easily accepted and were viewed with skepticism. In the long struggle within the development of an agrarian worldview, a distinct version of the regime was articulated, incompatible with the New England presentation, while sharing its original design for the diffusion of political authority. From the colonial period, we can witness the beginning of two divergent understandings of the reality of religion and politics, prompting the historian Nathan Hatch to suggest that at some point in the development the two great regions one “could draw upon precious few common traditions in defining their Americanness.” John Randolph, cousin of Thomas Jefferson and an influential model of statesmanship for the Agrarians, could defend the extraordinary position of an inherited Southern worldview in response to a confidant’s query about his attendance at a religious gathering:
I was born and baptized in the Church of England. If I attend the Convention at Charlottesville, which I rather doubt, I shall oppose myself then and always at every attempt at encroachment on the part of the church, the clergy especially, on the rights of conscience. I attribute, in a very great degree, my long estrangement from God to my abhorrence of prelatical pride and puritanical preciseness; to ecclesiastical tyranny…. Should I fail to attend, it will arise from a repugnance to submit the religion, or church, any more than the liberty of my country, to foreign influence. When I speak of my country, I mean the Commonwealth of Virginia. I was born in allegiance to George III; the bishop of London (Terrick!) was my diocesan. My ancestors threw off the oppressive yoke of the mother country, but they never made me subject to New England in matters spiritual or temporal; neither do I mean to become so, voluntarily.*
Within the South Atlantic region even as eccentric (and brilliant) a representative as Randolph could be appreciated as the defender of the verities of a mode of understanding that relied upon the reclaiming of a pre-existing order while recognizing the need for imparting this understanding with particular attention to a rapidly expanding republic.
Randolph affirmed, as Tate and the other Agrarians would concur more elaborately a century later, the vision of a moral regime focused upon the idea of subsidiarity (or localism) in political and religious concerns. Subsidiarity as a means of dividing public authority and political power and perpetuating the republic was dependent on the virtue of the citizenry within the states. Contrary to criticisms offered regarding the philosophical progenitors of Agrarians (especially those of an Antifederalist and Calhounian cast), virtue was of great importance to their understanding of religious and political order. The inculcation of virtue required a sustained effort to allow each generation to hear the “voice of tradition,” Patrick Henry urged. If the witnesses expired without fulfilling the need to “inform posterity,” social and political life might suffer the consequences of such a collective loss of memory and purpose.
Tate and the Agrarians also urged a spirit of inhibition or prudence towards accepting any radical innovation too quickly that deserves comparison with the paladins of industry’s plea for immediate action to maintain the regime during every period of unrest. The Agrarians were neither a monolithic response against the prospects for confronting the modern world, nor a remnant of irredentist elements from the War of Northern Aggression. Instead, the Agrarians accepted the imperfections of the American society concerning the decline of a true religiosity and the dangerous growth of governmental authority while advocating many impediments to the problems resulting from what George Mason decried as “the natural lust of power so inherent in man.”
Even though the Agrarians were an assortment of representatives with many theoretical and geographical differences, they were united by an unwillingness to accept consolidationist measures, regardless of the form, and insistent upon protecting a decentralized, group-oriented society, as defined in a variety of ways. But the Agrarians cannot be adequately fathomed by simply noting their negative response to particular issues; on the contrary, the Agrarians were part of a clear republican understanding of the nature of the American regime and religious experience.
For Tate and his fellow Agrarians, the overwhelming practical and theoretical inheritance was established upon an appreciation of the necessary limitations of social and political life. Primary among the means of limitation was the need for societal and personal restraint when faced with the possibility of radical transformation. While change and social mobility were not the most commonly acknowledged aspects of Southern society, neither were such considerations beyond the pale of possibility. As articulate representatives of agrarian republicanism during the twentieth century, Tate could present an Aristotelian mean as the basis for installing an element of restraint in the operation of government. If government could not be restricted and faith encouraged, the regime would necessarily lose a sense of liberty.
Living within a society aware of its constraints, Tate also appreciated the limits of human experience, acknowledging the shortcomings of his own perspectives and holding utopian schemes in disdain. The South had lost its heroic struggle due in part to a separation of its religion from its politics. In fact, Tate’s essay rightly noted that tradition alone, devoid of the impact of religion, tends to be a tradition of violence rather than of spiritual empowerment. And in terms of the conundrum of political and spiritual confusion, Tate’s own life bears witness to his inability to overcome just such a struggle.
Today, the centrality of the Agrarian’s devotion to the preservation of an inherited worldview and way of life and its explication for a new generation of Americans must serve as the hallmarks of their thought, and as a remarkable testimony for the rising generation. At a time when efforts to “create” or force a false and destructive sense of community upon us are widespread, it is time to revisit the Agrarian defense of an older, organic social order. And to appreciate the Agrarian fatum, we must remember their love of the Creator and his creation, amidst our current confusion.
* “September 25, 1818,” in Collected Letters of John Randolph to Dr. John Brockenbrough, 1812-1833, ed. Kenneth Shorey (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1988), p. 21.