Scholars Nostalgic for the Old South Study the Virtues of Secession, Quietly

To avoid being tagged as racist, professors retreat to the Abbeville Institute to study the virtues of secession

Billy Howard for The Chronicle

Donald W. Livingston, a philosophy professor at Emory U., sits in a historic plantation house. He founded the Abbeville Institute, named for the birthplace of John C. Calhoun, an advocate of state's rights and slavery.
December 06, 2009

In 1991, Donald W. Livingston threw a party—well, a conference—and nobody showed up.

It was during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and Mr. Livingston, a professor of philosophy at Emory University and raised in South Carolina, decided there should be more thoughtful discourse on the topic of secession.

A political philosopher who specializes in David Hume, he searched philosophy papers published since 1940 and turned up only seven on the matter of secession from federal unions: five reviews of a book and two articles about Quebec. Thinking he had the market to himself, he held a conference on secession at the 1991 meeting of the American Philosophical Association.

He was right about his share of the market. Nobody came.

Today Mr. Livingston is drawing slightly larger crowds. In 2003 he started the Abbeville Institute, named after the South Carolina birthplace of John C. Calhoun, seventh vice president of the United States and a forceful advocate of slavery and states' rights. The institute now has 64 associated scholars from various colleges and disciplines. They gather to discuss topics about the South that they feel are misrepresented in today's classrooms. Feeling a chilly reception to its ideas—officials of the Southern Poverty Law Center say its work borders on white supremacy—the group has kept a low profile. Mr. Livingston's own department chair, as well as a number of Emory history professors, say they have never heard of it.

That may change. Mr. Livingston says Abbeville is, for the first time, publicly advertising a conference, on secession and nullification—the refusal of states to recognize given federal laws within their territory—to be held February 4 to 7 in Charleston, S.C. It is the institute's eighth annual conference. The group does not endorse secession but does say the idea has moral and political validity.

"The university should be the place where the unthinkable can be thought and the unspeakable said as long as it is backed by civil conduct and argument," says Mr. Livingston, who runs the institute from his house. "It is not that today."

A Guarded Society

On his own campus, Abbe­ville's founder is anything but a pariah. "Mr. Livingston has a great reputation as a professor among his students," says John J. Stuhr, chair of the philosophy department at Emory. "His connection with this institute has not impacted his teaching, research, or campus service by any standard professional measure."

The other Abbeville scholars teach history, philosophy, economics, and literature at institutions including Emory, the University of South Carolina, the University of Georgia, and the University of Virginia. They write books with titles like Defending Dixie: Essays in Southern History and Culture (published by the Foundation for American Education, a nonprofit group "dedicated to the preservation of American culture and learning") and The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, his Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (Prima). They say the institute's work, although academic in nature, is ­really about values. Its members study the South in search of a history of piety, humility, and manners. The scholars acknowledge a history of bigotry and slavery, but they focus primarily on what they say are the positive aspects of Southern history and culture.

To do so, they have created their own guarded society, something of a secession in its own right. Mr. Livingston will not provide Abbeville's entire list of scholars and participants, because he fears "academics who claim to find something valuable in the Southern tradition are sure to suffer abuse." Institute members say they rarely submit work in the field to mainstream journals. Now they are creating a Web periodical, called Arator, as an outlet. The title is taken from an 1813 book by a Virginia planter and senator named John Taylor, who defended "the socioeconomic and political order of an agrarian republic," according to one description.

Still, the outsiders who have heard of Abbeville tend not to like what they hear. One historian, whose research includes the cultural history of racism and white supremacy in the United States, and who asked for anonymity to avoid becoming a target of "Southern identity groups," says the lectures he has listened to on the Abbeville Web site (http://www.abbevilleinstitute.org) are dominated by racialism and are "ideological, through and through." There is the condemnation from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights group. In 2005, Time magazine pegged Abbeville as a group of "Lincoln loathers." Mr. Livingston initially declined to be interviewed for this article, citing bad experiences with the news media. But he eventually agreed to talk, as did a handful of scholars and students involved with the institute.

Thinking about secession and what it means to be a Southerner came with his territory, Mr. Livingston says. "Anyone raised in the South has a certain dissonance in his imagination because he receives a history of his own identity and country that he knows is not quite right."

Abbeville's scholars contend, for example, that the Civil War—or as they often refer to it, the War of Northern Aggression or the War to Prevent Southern Independence—was not about slavery (the system was on its way out anyway, they argue) and that the antebellum Southern states had every right to secede. They say they are not able to make these points to their campus colleagues, however, without being painted into a corner as racists. So instead of discussing them with professors down the hall, they turn to Abbeville.

And though they offer many historical and philosophical justifications for secession, Abbeville's members say the argument boils down to two points. First, the United States was founded on the basis of secession (from Britain and then from the Articles of Confederation). Second, the best way to combat an unwieldy central government is to allow states the ultimate right: their independence.

Abbeville is growing steadily and attracts about $30,000 in donations annually, according to public records. But for those involved with it, Abbeville is about passion, not money. Its members participate free and pay their own way to conferences.

Arming the Next Generation

One of Abbeville's most important purposes, according to Mr. Livingston, is to arm the next generation of Southern intellectuals with an education they cannot expect to get from their high-school or college curricula.

"The Southern tradition as taught in the academy today, if taught at all, is studied mainly as a function of the ideological needs of others," Mr. Livingston says. "It is not examined in terms of its own inner light. It is as if you had programs of Jewish studies explored from the point of view of Catholics, or worse, of Nazis."

To try and rectify this, Abbeville members hold an annual summer program in which they give talks to 35 undergraduate and graduate students, who apply to attend. Most are from the South and are educated there.

One of the attendees at this year's program, Stephen L. Heiner, is earning an M.B.A. at Rockhurst University, in Kansas City, Mo., and was born in Singapore. He describes a camplike atmosphere with banjo playing, nightly beach bonfires, and group meals. Instead of tetherball and archery, of course, the days were filled with lectures. And, unlike at some summer camps, he says, everyone was polite.

To listen to those lectures posted online is to hear a rarely told side of the American story: Abraham Lincoln is not the Great Emancipator; he is Dishonest Abe, a president hellbent on creating a big central government, even if that meant waging war. Reconstruction could be seen as a Yankee power grab that did more harm than good. Secession itself did not cause the Civil War. (Mr. Livingston said in one lecture that "war is actually caused by forced attempts at unification.")

Alan J. Harrelson, who is working on a master's degree in Southern history at the College of Charleston and aspires to be a professor, says the summer program allowed him to see how students responded to lectures from a "Southern perspective" and encouraged him to continue with his studies.

"There are scholars nowadays who are advocating that a South does not exist, that it has merely been engulfed by mainstream American culture," Mr. Harrelson says. "But the Southern mind and intellect, which recognize there is something peculiar to the South, is there, and that's important to keep alive."

In fact, scholarly conversation about Southern identity is alive and well, says Harry L. Watson, director of the Center for the Study of the American South, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The South is a wellspring of American culture," says Mr. Watson, who was born in North Carolina and has taught history courses on the South for more than 30 years. "There are plenty of people who are genuinely fascinated by the place who find both positive and negative things to teach about it."

Agrarian Tradition

Abbeville itself consciously keeps alive a tradition that harks back to the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers and professors, many from Vanderbilt University, who in 1930 wrote a collection of essays called I'll Take My Stand: the South and the Agrarian Tradition, which amounted to a manifesto. All 12 authors "support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way," it said. Like that group, Mr. Livingston says, Abbeville recalls a simpler time, when people knew their neighbors, and children said "sir" and "ma'am."

To skeptics, however, Abbeville's rendering of the antebellum South is a misrepresentation of a place that was defined by its racism.

In 2004, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report, which tracks what it describes as "hate groups," listed Mr. Livingston as a neo-Confederate "ideologue." The article pointed out his connection with the League of the South, which bills itself as 'the premier state sovereignty and secessionist organization" and has been labeled a "hate group" by the law center since 2000. According to the center, the league's director, Michael Hill, wrote on a neo-Confederate Web site that slavery was "God ordained." It was for this group that in the mid-1990s that Mr. Livingston founded and directed an institute similar to Abbeville.

Mr. Livingston says that the League of the South is not racist but that he left it almost a decade ago because it was "avowedly secessionist," while he was more interested in understanding and explaining secession. He emphasizes that Abbeville does not advocate policy.

Heidi Beirich, research director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, stops short of calling Abbeville a hate group, but pointed to a passage in its mission statement that troubles her greatly. It quotes Eugene D. Genovese, a Marxist-turned-conservative historian: "Rarely these days, even on Southern campuses, is it possible to acknowledge the achievements of white people in the South."

That line speaks volumes about the goals of organization, says Ms. Beirich, who adds that the idea that white people are America's underappreciated stepchildren is ludicrous. "At the end of the day, they are just trying to revise the history of the South in favor of whites," she says.

A founding member of Abbeville, Clyde N. Wilson, a recently retired professor of history at the University of South Carolina, calls that criticism bunk. It's easy to use racism as a trump card to end a conversation with a group whose values differ from "conformist" academe, he says. "The academic tendency now, because of America's preoccupation with the race question the last half-century or so, is to put the whole Southern history into a dark little corner of American history," says Mr. Wilson, who edited Calhoun's collected writings.

Both Mr. Wilson and Mr. Livingston say that Abbeville does discuss the importance of wrongs such as slavery, but that such injustices were a national issue, hardly limited to the South. Mr. Livingston adds that no part of any of his lectures has been "even remotely white supremacist."

Tolerating Intolerance

There are mainstream scholars who find room in academe for the Abbeville Institute. David Goldfield, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History (Louisiana State University Press), says he is in the "more views the merrier" camp when it comes to scholarship. He disagrees that secession should be a policy option in the United States, but he respects the right of Abbeville to exist, and—like Mr. Livingston—notes that there is a difference between discussing an issue and advocating it.

"Quite honestly, there is some intolerance on the academic left of differing viewpoints," Mr. Goldfield says. "Sure, they might be conservative with strange ideas. But if we isolated everyone with strange ideas, it would be a lightly populated country."