Now for our mountain sport …
Act III, Scene 3
—Entrances to Wade Hampton Golf Club and High Hampton Inn and Country Club, North Carolina
Walt Whitman once said, as anyone who saw Bull Durham knows, that baseball would function to draw America together after the Civil War: the game, the poet said, would “repair our losses and be a blessing to us.” Many Americans have not lost this belief in the redemptive power of sports: as recently as 2011 John Boehner, then-Speaker of the House of Representatives, played a much-ballyhooed round of golf with President Barack Obama—along with many other outlets, Golf Digest presented the event as presaging a new era of American unity: the “pair can’t possibly spend four hours keeping score, conceding putts, complimenting drives, filling divots, retrieving pond balls, foraging for Pro V1s and springing for Kit Kats off the snack cart,” argued the magazine, “without finding greater common ground.” Golf would thusly be the antidote to what the late Columbia University history professor Richard Hofstadter, in 1964, called the “paranoid style”: the “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that Hofstadter found to be a common theme in American politics then and whose significance has seemingly only grown since. Yet, while the surface approval of the “golf summit” seemed warranted because golf is, after all, a game that cannot really be played without trust in your opponents—it’s only on the assumption that everyone is honest that the game can even work—as everyone knows by now the summit failed: Boehner was, more or less, forced out of office this summer by those members of his party who, Boehner said, got “bent out of shape” over his golf with the president. While golf might, in other words, furnish a kind of theoretical model for harmonious bipartisanship, in practice it has proved largely useless for preventing political polarization—a result that anyone who has traveled Highway 107 in western North Carolina might have realized. Up there, among the Great Smoky Mountains, there sits a counterexample to the dream of political consensus: the Wade Hampton Golf Club.
Admittedly, that a single golf club could be strong enough evidence as to smack down the flights of fancy of a Columbia University professor like Hofstadter—and a Columbia University alumni like Barack Obama—might appear a bit much: there’s a seeming disconnect between the weightiness of the subject matter and the evidential value of an individual golf club. What could the existence of the Wade Hampton Golf Club add (or detract) from Hofstadter’s assertions about the dominance of this “paranoid style,” examples of which range from the anti-Communist speeches of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s to the anti-Catholic, “nativist” movements of the 1830s and 1840s to the Populist denunciations of Wall Street during the 1890s? Yet, the existence of the Wade Hampton Golf Club does constitute strong evidence against one of the pieces of evidence Hofstadter adduces for his argument—and in doing so unravels not only the rest of Hofstadter’s spell like a kitten does a ball of string, but also the fantasy of “bipartisanship.”
One of the examples of “paranoia” Hofstadter cited, in other words, was the belief held by “certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy”—a view that, Hofstadter implied, was not much different than the contemporary belief that fluoridation was a Soviet plot. But a growing number of historians now believe that Hofstadter was wrong about those abolitionists: according to historian Leonard Richards of the University of Massachusetts, for instance, there’s a great deal of evidence for “the notion that a slaveholding oligarchy ran the country—and ran it for their own advantage” in the years prior to the Civil War. The point is more than an academic one: if it’s all just a matter of belief, then the idea of bipartisanship makes a certain kind of sense; all that matters is whether those we elect can “get along.” But if not, then that would suggest that what matters is building the correct institutions, rather than electing the right people.
Again, that seems like rather more question than the existence of a golf club in North Carolina seems capable of answering. The existence of the Wade Hampton Golf Club however tends to reinforce Richards’ view if, for nothing else, on its name alone: the very biography of the man the golf club was named for, Wade Hampton III, lends credence to Richards’ notion about the real existence of a slave-owning, oligarchical conspiracy because Hampton was after all not only a Confederate general during the Civil War, but also the possessor (according to the website for the Civil War Trust, which attempts to preserve Civil War battlefields) of “one of the largest collections of slaves in the South.” Hampton’s career, in other words, demonstrates just how entwined slaveowners were with the “cause” of the South—and if secession was largely the result of a slave-owning conspiracy during the winter of 1860, it becomes a great deal easier to think that said conspiracy did not spring fully grown only then.
Descended from an obscenely wealthy family whose properties stretched from near Charleston in South Carolina’s Lowcountry to Millwood Plantation near the state capital of Columbia and all the way to the family’s summer resort of “High Hampton” in the Smokies—upon the site of which the golf club is now built—Wade Hampton was intimately involved with the Southern cause: not only was he one of the richest men in the South, but at the beginning of the war he organized and financed a military unit (“Hampton’s Legion”) that would, among other exploits, help win the first big battle of the war, near the stream of Bull Run. By the end of the war Hampton became, along with Nathan Bedford Forrest, the only man without prior military experience to achieve the rank of lieutenant general. In that sense, Hampton was exceptional—only eighteen other Confederate officers achieved that rank—but in another he was representative: as recent historical work shows, much of the Confederate army had direct links to slavery.
As historian Joseph T. Glatthaar has put the point in his General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse, “more than one in every four volunteers” for the Confederate army in the first year of the war “lived with parents who were slaveholders”—as compared with the general population of the South, in which merely one in every twenty white persons owned slaves. If non-family members are included, or if economic connections like those to whom soldiers rented land or sold crops prior to the war are allowed, then “the vast majority of the volunteers of 1861 had a direct connection to slavery.” And if the slaveowners could create an army that could hold off the power of the United States for four years, it seems plausible they might have joined together prior to outright hostilities—which is to say that Hofstadter’s insinuations about the relative sanity of “certain” abolitionists (among them, Abraham Lincoln) don’t have the same value as they may once have.
After all, historians have determined that the abolitionists were certainly right when they suspected the motives of the slaveowners. “By itself,” wrote Roger Ransom of the University of California not long ago, “the South’s economic investment in slavery could easily explain the willingness of Southerners to risk war … [in] the fall of 1860.” “On the eve of the war,” as another historian noted in the New York Times, “cotton comprised almost 60 percent of America’s exports,” and the slaves themselves, as yet another historian—quoted by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic—has observed, were “the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.” Collectively, American slaves were worth 3.5 billion dollars—at a time when the entire budget for the federal government was less than eighty million dollars. Quite literally, in other words, American slaveowners could buy the entire U.S. government roughly forty three times over.
Slaveowners thusly had, in the words of a prosecutor, both means and motive to revolt against the American government; what’s really odd about the matter, however, is that Americans have ever questioned it. The slaveowners themselves fully admitted the point at the time: in South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Adduce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” for instance, the state openly lamented the election of a president “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” And not just South Carolina: “Seven Southern states had seceded in 1861,” as the dean of American Civil War historians James McPherson has put observed, “because they feared the incoming Lincoln administration’s designs on slavery.” When those states first met together at Montgomery, Alabama, in February of 1861 it took them only four days to promulgate what the New York Times called “a provisional constitution that explicitly recognized racial slavery”; in a March 1861 speech Alexander Stephens, who would become the vice president of the Confederate States of America, argued that slavery was the “cornerstone” of the new government. Slavery was, as virtually anyone who has seriously studied the matter has concluded, the cause motivating the Southern armies.
If so—if, that is, the slaveowners created an army so powerful that it could hold off the power of the United States for four years, simply in order to protect their financial interests in slave-owning—it then seems plausible they might have joined together prior to the beginning of outright hostilities. Further, if there was a “conspiracy” to begin the Civil War, then the claim that there was one in the years and decades before the war becomes just that much more believable. And if that possibility is tenable, then so is the claim by Richards and other historians—themselves merely following a notion that Abraham Lincoln himself endorsed in the 1850s—that the American constitution formed “a structural impediment to the full expression of Northern voting power” (as one reviewer has put it)—and that thusly the answer to political problems is not “bipartisanship,” or in other words, the election of friendlier politicians, but rather structural reform.
Such, at least, might be the lesson anyone might draw from the career of Wade Hampton III, Confederate general—in light of which it’s suggestive that the Wade Hampton Golf Club is not some relic of the nineteenth century. Planning for the club began, according to the club’s website, in 1982; the golf course was not completed until 1987, when it was named “Best New Private Course” by Golf Digest. More suggestive still, however, is the fact that under the original bylaws, “in order to be a member of the club, you [had] to own property or a house bordering the club”—rules that resulted, as one golfer has noted, in a club of “120 charter and founding members, all from below the Mason-Dixon Line: seven from Augusta, Georgia and the remainder from Florida, Alabama, and North Carolina.” “Such folks,” as Bradley Klein once wrote in Golfweek, “would have learned in elementary school that Wade Hampton III, 1818-1902, who owned the land on which the club now sits, was a prominent Confederate general.” That is, in order to become a member of Wade Hampton Golf Club you probably knew a great deal about the history of Wade Hampton III—and you were pretty ok with that.
The existence of the Wade Hampton Golf Club does not, to be sure, demonstrate a continuity between the slaveowners of the Old South and the present membership of the club that bears Hampton’s name. It is, however, suggestive to think that if it is true, as many Civil War historians now say, that prior to 1860 there was a conspiracy to maintain an oligarchic form of government, then what are we to make of a present in which—as former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently observed—“the richest one-hundreth of one percent of Americans now hold over 11 percent of the nation’s total wealth,” a proportion greater than at any time since before 1929 and the start of the Great Depression? Surely, one can only surmise, the answer is easier to find than a mountain hideaway far above the Appalachian clouds, and requires no poetic vision to see.