By Hunter Wallace
Lately, I have been on a tear about economic nationalism.
I have reviewed Paul Theroux’s travelogue “Deep South,” which brought up the subject of deindustrialization and globalization in the South, and Clyde Prestowitz’s “The Betrayal of American Prosperity” which explores how the doctrine of unilateral free trade has been undermining the American middle and working class. Coming up soon, I plan to review Donald Trump’s new book “Crippled America” whose presidential campaign has stimulated new interest in the issue.
Before moving forward though, I thought it would be a good idea to go back to the past. More than anything else, it was the crushing defeat of the Confederacy which made up my mind on this issue. As a Southern Nationalist, the defeat of the first Southern Nationalist movement should be our starting point for any discussion of what the economy should look like in a future independent South. 1 out of every 4 Southern White men died trying to secure our independence but failed largely because they lacked the material means to do so.
It occurred to me that this was not a new debate. I recalled reading a profile of James D.B. De Bow in Eric Walther’s book “The Fire Eaters.” I have also cited many articles from De Bow’s Review here over the years. Thus, I already knew that De Bow was both a fire eater and an economic nationalist, and since I have already written so much about Robert Barnwell Rhett and William Lowndes Yancey here it seemed natural to explore the life of Louisiana’s great secessionist.
By pure chance, I stumbled across John Kvach’s “De Bow’s Review: The Antebellum Vision of a New South” while scrolling through Kindle the other day. I wasn’t aware of the existence of this book which was published in 2013, but I am glad that I read it, even if Kvach is critical and unsympathetic to Southern Nationalism.
James D.B. De Bow was an unusual figure in the Southern Nationalist movement for many reasons: he lived almost his entire life in the urban South in Charleston, New Orleans and Nashville, he was a statistician and a journalist by profession, he was a practical-minded, business-oriented modernist, and he was a non-slaveowner.
Originally from Charleston, De Bow moved to New Orleans – the South’s largest city – where he established a national reputation as the editor of the antebellum South’s most influential magazine, De Bow’s Review. As the editor of the Review, De Bow became deeply involved in the prewar Southern commercial convention movement from 1845 to 1861, which were forums where Southern planters, merchants, professionals and industrialists gathered to discuss new business opportunities and the trajectory of the South’s economic development.
As a Southern patriot, economic booster, and statistician, De Bow became increasingly alarmed by the South’s growing commercial, agricultural, and industrial dependence on the North. This ultimately lead him down the road of economic nationalism and De Bow spent the rest of the antebellum era promoting a more diversified Southern economy with a stronger infrastructure and industrial and commercial sectors.
By the mid-1850s, the Yankee threat was looming large on the horizon: open warfare had broken out in Kansas, California had been admitted as a free state, and the Republican Party had been formed to block the expansion of slavery into the Western territories. The Northern-based Republican Party was full of abolitionists who proposed nothing less than choking the Southern economy and destroying slavery which would obliterate in a single blow all the capital that Southerners had invested in the institution – and virtually all the capital in the South was tied to slavery in some way or another.
Even as a non-slaveholder, De Bow could see the economic ramifications of the Republican platform – a death sentence to the Southern economy for slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike – and this is what pushed him into the Southern Nationalist camp. Henceforth, De Bow’s Review became an organ for pro-slavery writers like George Fitzhugh and leading fire eaters like Edmund Ruffin, and the Southern Nationalist message reached the ears an elite audience which included some of the wealthiest and most influential men in the South.
In making the case for secession, De Bow lost his objectivity and exaggerated the strengths of the Southern economy while glossing over its weaknesses. When the war finally came in 1861, it exposed those weaknesses and exploded any number of treasured theories. De Bow himself was financially crippled by the war and was forced to suspend publication of the Review as his world crumbled around him.
After the war, a contrite and humiliated De Bow repudiated secession and threw himself into the task at hand: relaunching the Review, guiding the reconstruction of the devastated Southern economy, and learning from the mistakes of the war so that the South could be rebuilt on a more sound foundation. In his last article in the February 1867 issue titled “Manufactures – The South’s True Remedy,” De Bow ruefully noted that the Confederacy would have won the war and its independence if it had only developed a stronger and more diversified economy in the antebellum era. Unfortunately, the myth that “cotton is king” and its simple formula of investing in ever more land and slaves prevailed. It left us dependent on the North for food and manufactured goods, then dependent on the hope of British intervention, and finally destitute, dependent, and reduced to the status of a Northern colony.
De Bow’s life was cut short by a sudden illness in 1867 and the Review folded two years later. For almost 25 years, De Bow had articulated all the concepts that would become the foundation for the “New South,” but his legacy was lost amid the postbellum mythmaking that the “Old South” had been a romantic land of dashing cavaliers and moonlight and magnolias, and that more practical-minded businessmen, professionals and indistrialists were a product of the “New South.”
James D.B. De Bow’s life sheds light on the continuities between the Old South, Confederacy, and the New South which include urbanization, industrialization and modernization.