Notes concerning the author
John Richard Alden (1908-1991) was a professor of history at Duke University and an authority on the American Revolution. His other books include A History of the American Revolution and The South in the Revolution, 1763-1789.
This fascinating, erudite and often surprising little book is an essay of John R. Allen that was part of the Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History, a series of studies “principally founded upon published records, correspondence and diaries, together with newspaper letters and essays of the Revolutionary period.” These lectures attempted to establish that “Southern sectionalism appeared with the American republic.”
Alden designates as the period of the “first South” (preceding the “old South”) as 1775 to 1789. During this time, he contends, it was taken for granted that the South was a “distinct area with special and common interests that could not be ignored in the affairs of the nation.” Many of these interests were in opposition to the rest of the states, and many Southern statesmen were well aware of it, and feared domination by a more populous North.
Cyrus Griffith, a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress, reported that he saw few men in that body who were “actuated by patriotism,” and observed in 1778 that the “great questions” tended to be settled in favor of the northeastern section over the South. Griffith feared that the South would exchange British oppression for Northern oppression, writing, “I am apprehensive that…by avoiding one set of plunderers we are certain to fall into the clutches of a still more dangerous set.”
During the Revolutionary War, Dr. James Anderson, an eminent Scottish writer, published a pamphlet, Free Thoughts on the American Contest,” in which he predicted that “an independent American Union would be disastrous for Southerners.” Anderson wrote prophetically that the South would eventually become exasperated with the North, and would try to leave the union, but would not be allowed to do so peacefully. After being defeated in war, “they would live in a state of inferiority and subjection to the North.”
Alden recounts the sectional struggles over and objections to the Articles of Confederation, some of which revolved around the navigation of the Mississippi River and fishing rights of New Englanders off Newfoundland, and in the third chapter, he explores the reasons why the South helped to create the Constitution, agreeing to a more powerful central government despite fears of Northern domination. In chapter four, which deals with the ratification of the Constitution, he notes that American history and political science textbooks generally do not mention Southern opposition to the Constitution, “This even though the historians of Virginia have pointed out time and again that fears for Southern interests played an important role in the convention of 1788 of that state.” Alden gives an example of Southern opposition in the person of Rawlins Lowndes, a South Carolina statesman who proclaimed that “when this new Constitution should be adopted, the sun of the Southern states would set, never to rise again.” Other Southern anti-federalists who opposed the adoption of the Constitution supported protective amendments, “including a proviso that the states retained ‘every power not expressly relinquished by them.’” In Virginia, foes of the Constitution included Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, George Mason, and Patrick Henry.
Despite the objections of the anti-federalists, the Constitution was ratified, and in the aftermath, as early as 1791, Alden notes that Southerners who had supported the Constitution were already changing their minds. Thomas Jefferson urged George Washington to run for the presidency again in order to temper rising sectional tensions, fearing, he said, “violence and secession.”
The First South is a brief but illuminating study of a neglected aspect of early American history, and includes a valuable bibliographical section listing many published primary sources as well as some recommended secondary works.
Availability of the book:
The book is out of print but inexpensive used copies can be found on Amazon and other online vendors. Click below to link to the Amazon offering: