I've been tough on the Puritans in recent posts, but I'd like to put in a good word for the historical Puritans, those Whiggish, crusty revolutionaries who had a passion to establish a country inspired by religious and republican ideals.
One could argue that the English Puritans were the first real moderns in the political sphere, and their hatred for the throne-and-altar narrative of premodern Europe led to the Puritans vs. Royalists civil war in England. The Puritan/Whigs won, beheaded the king, and ran the country under Cromwell for about a decade in the mid 1600s. But the English weren't quite up to rejecting their premodern past so easily as that, so they figured out a way to keep someone on the throne in the great Tory/Whig compromise called the Glorious Revolution. The Puritans in New England were watching, and said among themselves, “No way we’re gonna compromise,” and their continued resistance to the crown-and-altar narrative culminated in the American Revolution about a hundred years later.
And so the United States became the first of the genuinely modern democracies, but there was still a problem, namely the South. Because while the oligarchs down there were OK with not having the King butting into their business anymore, they really didn't get the modernity part of the new modern American narrative, and so they continued to live out of the premodern, feudal narrative. They wanted to run their fiefs without any interference from above, whether it be the King or the federal government. That’s the real narrative behind the “principle” of states rights promoted mainly by the southern elites--"Leave us alone so we can run our duchies the way we please."
Jefferson was a smart guy, an intellectual infatuated with the most up-to-date modern ideas from France, but when push came to shove, he didn't walk his talk. He remained a slaveholder aristocrat in the premodern style. We could call him, anachronistically, what we use to call his type in the sixties: a limousine liberal. His agriculture-centered imagination of America was very different from the Whiggish Puritan vision typical of the New Englanders, and it's a conflict of visions that eventually led to the Civil War. Those crusty northern Puritans didn't like that the Southerners wouldn't get with the new program, so after decades of bickering about it, they finally went down there and beat them into the modern age.
The Civil War in America was really a replay of the the Civil war in Britain two hundred years earlier. This time the Whiggish, Puritan roundheads won the more permanent victory over their Tory Cavalier adversaries in the South. But it still took another hundred years before the South really joined the modern world, and that's what we meant when we began to talk about the “New South” in the 1970s. Or so it would seem.
At first glance it seemed to mean that the South would no longer be a third-world, one-party, commodities-based, plantation-centered oligarchy, but that it was finally becoming integrated into a modern, capitalist market economy. For a moment, anyway, that's what it looked like was happening. But really the idea that the south was morphing from a one-party system to a two-party system was a transitional illusion.
Sure, all the black Republicans became Democrats and all the white Democrats became Republicans, or Reagan Democrats, which is the same thing (Think Zell Miller). But did anything really change at the core of the southern system? Gradually the South morphed into what it had been before--a white dominated, one-party oligarchy. But now just about everybody aligned with the opposite party. The party of the northern Whigs--the Republicans--gradually got hijacked by the southern plutocrats, while the party of states rights, slavery, and populism--the Democrats--became associated with the party of federal regulation, civil rights, and the northern liberal elites.
This is an historical irony that is surprisingly only rarely commented on. And it has a lot to do with our current political confusion, because the parties we support are intellectually muddled with regard to their historical missions and animating principles.
The southern republicans have since then worked pretty hard to transform the historical party of the Whigs and to reshape its republican/Whig ideology into a neo-Tory ideology. And I think that this has been possible because while the Whigs won the states-rights argument with regard to the relationship between the feds and the states, it has not yet been won with regard to the feds and the corporations. And the reason is that they, too, are profoundly implicated in the corporate system, because they invented it. And that's the irony and the reason for the southerners last laugh. Because the corporation is where the old southern plantation mentality still thrives--the corporations have emerged as the new duchies, and the people who run them want to be left alone, just as the old southern plutocrats did: Let us run our duchies as we please. That's really what we mean now by the New South--the same old oligarchic mentality but transposed from plantation to corporate board room.
The corporation has morphed into something its Puritan creators would never have imagined, and it more than any other force in modern society has undermined the Puritan republicanism that was at the heart of their American experiment to become "a shining city on a hill." The Whigs won on the battlefield in 1865, but they lost in the longer-term struggle. Our society has evolved since then into a plutocracy not all that different from the one that those revolutionary Puritans fought against. We're no longer dealing with a landed aristocracy, but a corporate one.
And that's what interests me about the way that the Armstrong Ranch has come into the public spotlight in the last week. For there you have perfectly symbolized the integration of the Old South with the New. It's a place where republican elites can do their hunting, just like the landed aristocrats of yore, but it's also a meeting place where the folks from Halliburton and Enron can kick back and talk about their partnership with big gummint. That's what the new southern elites have figured out: If you can't beat them, coopt them. Hey, the last laugh on those sanctimonious Puritan prigs with their self-righteous republican airs. We southerners are the real Americans.