Robert Lewis Dabney: A Forgotten Visionary

Rev. Robert L. Dabney is one of the most famous Americans that you may have never heard of. He was a very well-known intellectual in the 19th century, and especially popular in the American South during the conflicts over slavery and state sovereignty. Dabney was a southern Presbyterian minister who spoke out in defense of the people of the South and forthrightly on the question of slavery. Dabney was prophetic in many ways as to how trends in his own time would turn out disastrous consequences in future decades.

Dabney was born in 1820 in Virginia and was descended from a famous French Huguenot family originally spelled D’Aubigne. The Dabney family had a long and well-connected history in Virginia before Robert Dabney was born. Thomas Jefferson’s good friend and brother-in-law Dabney Carr was related to the Dabney family. Robert’s father Charles was a respectable Presbyterian elder and farmer. Robert was the sixth of eight children and cared for his mother when his father died; Robert was only 13 at the time. In 1836, when Robert was age 16, he entered Hampden-Sidney College where he spent the next year and 4 months. During his time at Hampden-Sidney, studious Dabney ranked first in his class. Before finishing school he left so that he could return to his family’s farm and help his mother, who was becoming burdened with debt.

After two years of working on the farm and intermittently teaching school he entered the University of Virginia in December 1839. He attended university for the next two and a half years and graduated in 1842 with a Master of Arts (M.A.) degree at the age of 22. In November 1844 Dabney entered Union Theological Seminary at Hampden-Sidney to study for the ministry, again ranking first in his class. At the age of 26, Dabney was licensed to preach on May 4, 1846, by West Hanover Presbytery. Dabney maintained a passion for preaching the Gospel in his home county and he labored for one year in his home county of Louisa as a home missionary. In July 1847, he was called to the pastorate of Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church.

It was at Tinkling Spring in Augusta County where Dabney met his wife, Miss Margaret Lavinia Morrison, daughter of Rev. James Morrison, a Presbyterian minister. They were married March 28, 1848, when Dabney was 28 years old. Dabney called his marriage “the first and last love affair of my life.” The marriage produced six sons, though not all were fortunate enough to survive to adulthood. Dabney maintained a farm close to where he grew up and continued to pastor his country church.

About eight years later, when Dabney was 36 years old, he was offered the position of President of Union Theological Seminary at his alma mater, Hampden-Sidney College. He deliberated on the position with his wfe and congregation, and ultimately decided that he would accept. Dabney would maintain the presidency for the next thirty years of his life. Around this time slavery and state sovereignty became increasingly heated issues in national politics, and Dabney advocated a strongly conservative stance advocating for a policy of non-intervention in Southern affairs. In the early 1860s, when hostilities finally came to a head with the election of Abraham Lincoln, and the secession of the state of Virginia, Dabney enlisted in the Confederate military as a chaplain. Eventually he became the chief-of-staff to his relative by marriage, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Dabney was a minister at heart, and he thought himself ill-suited to military life. His time of service in the Confederate Army proved otherwise though. He was a capable officer and he inspired the troops with his bravery. In addition to his duties as an officer and chaplain, Dabney offered his pen in defense of the Southern people and the Southern cause. He penned A Defense of Virginia and Through Her, of the South.1 He did this in order to explain the moral rationale for the South’s political opinions and as a means to morally defend the social order found in the South.

On May 10, 1863, Stonewall Jackson died. Mrs. Jackson employed Dabney to write her husband’s biography. Dabney began writing in 1863 and finished in 1865 shortly before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.2 After the war Dabney considered emigrating with several Confederate expatriates to another country. Ultimately Dabney decided to stay put, and he published his Systematic Theology in 1871.3 Dabney resigned as President of Union Theological Seminary in 1883, and he accepted the chair of Mental and Moral Philosophy in the University of Texas at Austin. Dabney battled illness and, in the late 1880s, Dabney developed an astigmatism and eventually glaucoma. An attempt at surgical correction at Baltimore in 1886 proved unsuccessful. Dabney’s eyesight became increasingly worse until he became completely blind in 1889.

Amazingly, this did not stop Dabney as a professor and lecturer. Dabney employed a private secretary to write at his dictation and to read for him that he might continue his studies. Dabney resigned from teaching at the university in 1890, but his resignation was refused by the administration, and he continued teaching until 1894. His health continued to decline until he finally succumbed to illness and died in 1898. He was buried at Hampden-Sidney College in Virginia.

What is so significant about Robert Dabney is that he was one of the most profound and eloquent articulators of conservative and orthodox Christian ideas in the 19th century, and yet so few are aware of his contributions due to their current unpopularity. The Christian orthodoxy that Dabney once defended has been driven into obscurity amidst the tidal wave of “seeker sensitivity” and self-help “Christianity.” Dabney’s defense of the South in the matter of slavery and his views on race has further pushed Dabney away from the modern American mindset. In many ways, the South that Dabney defended and the present America are two separate countries, separated by a vast distance of time rather than space.

In spite of his obscurity, or perhaps because of it, Dabney is a fascinating person to study, because his observations are so relevant and accurate for our modern predicament. Dabney remained unswervingly steadfast to his convictions and his insights are very relevant to postmodern American traditionalists who are grasping to understand our current predicament.4

Dabney on the Future of Mainstream Post Civil War “Conservatism”

“It may be inferred again that the present movement for women’s rights will certainly prevail from the history of its only opponent, Northern conservatism. This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity, and will be succeeded by some third revolution to be denounced and adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves towards perdition….It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle.”5

What a profound assessment of “conservatism” today! Dabney saw the beginnings of the impotency of conservatives in his own day. Dabney accurately describes how pseudo-conservatives express moral indignation at harmful innovations in society one day, and declare them to be established orders in society the next. These same sellouts among the conservative ranks are willing to promote these ideas and innovations as conservative principles. A good example of this in our day is the notion of equality. Genuine conservatives have always opposed the abstract idea of equality. John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia was an excellent example of traditional conservatism when he stated, “I hate equality, and I love liberty, I am an aristocrat.”6 Traditional conservative Mel Bradford further argued against equality as a conservative idea, suggesting that the modern concept of equality is based upon a faulty interpretation of an otherwise obscure “equality clause” in the Declaration of Independence.7 Dabney accurately dissected the problems that postwar America would suffer as a result of a lack of moral foundation that would define American “conservatism.” 8

Dabney on Race and Integration

“[T]his miserable career must result in one of two things, either a war of races, in which the whites or the blacks would be, one or the other, exterminated; or amalgamation. But while we believe that ‘God made of one blood all nations of men to dwell under the whole heavens,’ we know that the African has become, according to a well-known law of natural history, by the manifold influences of the ages, a different, fixed species of the race, separated; from the white man by traits bodily, mental and moral, almost as rigid and permanent as those of genus. Hence the offspring of an amalgamation must be a hybrid race, stamped with all the feebleness of the hybrid, and incapable of the career of civilization and glory as an independent race. And this apparently is the destiny which our conquerors have in view.” 9

“[Union with the Northern Presbyterian Church] means, of course, that we must imitate the church which absorbs us, in the ecclesiastical amalgamation with negroes; accepting negro presbyters to rule white churches and judge white ladies; a step which would seal the moral and doctrinal corruption of our church in the South, and be a direct step towards that final perdition of Southern society, domestic amalgamation. And the time would come in the South – yea, in the North also, as it found itself encumbered with this gangrened limb – a mulatto South, when all who had lent a hand, under the prompting of a puling sentimentalism, to this result, would incur the reprobation of all the wise and good, in terms as just, and as bitter, as those visited on Benedict Arnold.” 1011

Dabney foresaw the problems that would be inherent in race relations in America now that the goals of the radical abolitionists had been realized. Dabney realized the perils that the Northern conquest would cause for the Southern people. Like many of his contemporaries in the South, as well as the North, Dabney feared amalgamation of the two races brought about by an unnatural and forced social and political equality. He noticed that the character of the American people, and more particularly the Southern people, would be changed forever if the racial stock were unchangeably altered. Dabney’s concerns resonate today. Never before has there been a time or place where miscegenation is so promoted or approved. Every institution of popular culture in America and throughout the West promotes miscegenation with gusto. Dabney also predicted that equality would bring about escalating racial tension rather than racial harmony. Our generation would do well to see that Dabney was correct given our benefit of hindsight. Social and political equality has wrought destruction in the fabric of American life, and this destruction has come in the form of the notion of universal suffrage.

Dabney on Universal Suffrage

“God’s commonwealth was not founded on universal suffrage. That he rejected the Jacobinical principle is plain from the history of the Gibeonites. They were exempted by covenant with Joshua from the doom of extinction, and retained a title to homes for many generations upon the soil of Palestine, and as we see from 2 Sam. xxi. 6, they were very carefully protected in certain rights by the government. They were not domestic slaves, neither were they fully enfranchised citizens. From the higher franchises of that rank they were shut out by a hereditary disqualification, and this was done by God’s express enactment. (Josh. ix. 27.) Individual descendants of the Gibeonites, however law-abiding and gifted with natural capacity, did not enjoy ‘la carriere ouverte aux talents’ equally with the young Israelites, which the Jacobin theory demands indiscriminately as the inalienable right to all. And to make matters worse, the Scripture declares that this disqualification descended by imputation from the guilt of the first generation’s paganism and fraud upon Joshua.”12

Dabney was also acutely aware of the problems with “universal suffrage” and universal citizenship without regards to race or ethnicity. Today, a Christian that agrees with Dabney’s sentiments can scarcely be found. Most Christians today have swallowed the postmodern and cultural Marxist notion that Christian societies have no basis in racial or ethnic identity. Dabney provides a clear example of Israel’s ethnic identity involved in the assimilation of the Gibeonites. Originally they avoided extinction by swearing fealty to Joshua and were gradually assimilated into society by the Israelites. It is very clear though, when reading the passage that Dabney cites, that the Gibeonites were still considered Gibeonites, and consequently were not considered the social or political equals of the native Israelites. The Gibeonites would not permanently own property in the Israelite countryside13 or serve as a civil magistrate.14 Sadly, most Christians today are so Biblically illiterate that they probably have never heard of the Gibeonites.

Conclusions

Dabney was a visionary who saw the future consequences of the events of his lifetime arguably better than anyone else in his age. His defense of traditional conservatism amidst an age of Jacobin principles is admirable. He is a good example for Christians to follow, especially pastors. His steadfast devotion to the Southern cause even after defeat is truly remarkable. Dabney cogently explained the inherent problems with unnatural racial integration. Dabney rejected the Jacobin idea of universal suffrage, and he rightly castigated the conservatives of his day, and ours as well, for accomplishing nothing and compromising everything. It remains our responsibility as tradition-oriented Christians to carry on Dabney’s legacy and see to it that Dabney’s defense of the Southern cause and people is transmitted into the future to our posterity.15

-By David Carlton and originally posted on Faith and Heritage.

Footnotes

  1. Available at http://www.dabneyarchive.com/index.php?dir=Defense+of+Virginia%2F
  2. Available at http://www.dabneyarchive.com/index.php?dir=Life+and+Campaigns+of+Thos.+J+Jackson%2F
  3. Available at http://www.dabneyarchive.com/index.php?dir=Systematic+Theology%2F
  4. Biographical information paraphrased from: http://www.knowsouthernhistory.net/Biographies/RL_Dabney/
  5. Robert L. Dabney. “Women’s Rights Women” in “Discussions,” vol. IV, “Secular,” The Writings of Robert L. Dabney, originally published in 1897; republished by Sprinkle Publications, Harrisonburg, Virginia, 1994. p. 496.
  6. As quoted in Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind. Regnery Publishing. 1953, p. 130.
  7. Let us have no foolishness, indeed. Equality as a moral or political imperative, pursued as an end in itself Equality, with the capital “E” – is the antonym of every legitimate conservative principle. Contrary to most Liberals, new and old, it is nothing less than sophistry to distinguish between equality of opportunity (equal starts in the “race of life”) and equality of condition (equal results). For only those who are equal can take equal advantage of a given circumstance. And there is no man equal to any other, except perhaps in the special, and politically untranslatable, understanding of the Deity. Not intellectually or physically or economically or even morally. Not equal! Such is, of course, the genuinely self-evident proposition. -Bradford, M.E. “The Heresy of Equality: A Reply to Harry V. Jaffa,” in A Better Guide than Reason: Studies in the American Revolution (La Salle, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1979)
  8. see also Dabney, Robert. Discussions, Vol. III Philosophical. http://date-dabitur.com/?page_id=871
  9. Dabney, Robert. A Defense of Virginia, and Through Her, the South. New York: E.J. Hale & Son. 1867. pp.352-353
  10. Dabney continues, “For, let any man look on the negro character calmly, and he will see that the introduction of any, the smallest, element of negro rule into our church, means moral and doctrinal relaxation, and ecclesiastical corruption, poisoning the life-blood of our churches, just in degree as it is extended. The sentimentalist may exclaim; Why cannot a negro be converted? Cannot a negro become learned? Yes; possibly he may; but, if converted, he will not be perfect; and as sure as nature, one of his remaining imperfections will be his race feelings. Sentimentalists may shout that ‘Christianity knows no castes’; that ‘all caste-distinctions are unchristian’ – which I here denounce as scripturally and historically false – but whether we will or not, the negro is going to keep himself a caste, as to Southern Presbyterians. And in every issue where the rival and opponent of white Southern Presbyterianism is going to attack principles dear to us, the negro is going to side with that assailant. Witness the fact that, in all secular issues, he infallibly sides with the assailant of all vital Southern interests, even when the negro is thereby hurting his own interest. And this he does, usually, with a regularity exactly proportioned to his professed ‘culture.’ Once more, negro Christianity may foster in them personal virtues in individual actions; but I observe that never yet has negro religion elevated the best of them to that stage of conscience so vital for a ruler in a free, constitutional, spiritual commonwealth like our church, which prevents wrong-doing in associated actions, where the responsibility is veiled by forms of law and combination of many agents. I know some very good Christians among them – sincerely devout, prayerful, diligent, chaste, charitable, educated, intelligent, wholly above individual larceny. But I have invariably seen the best of these, as partisans, concur actively, without qualm of conscience, in the foulest and most putrescent party actions by which the South has been disgraced. Such is the average, Christianized intelligence and conscience of that race at this time. Merge our churches with the North, and at once we poison the noble Synods of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia with the infusion of the black “Synod of Atlantic”; with the prospect of the similar corruption of our whole Southern church.” (emphasis added)
  11. Life and Letters of R. L. Dabney. Chapter XVI: The Last Stadium of his Course. p.12. Available at the Dabney archive at http://tinyurl.com/4atyorp
  12. Dabney, Robert. Presbyterian Quarterly, vol. 2. Constitution Pub. Co., 1888. p. 227
  13. Lev. 25
  14. Deut. 1:13-16, 17:15
  15. For a comprehensive archive of R.L. Dabney’s writings see, http://www.dabneyarchive.com/

 

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