When the essays and addresses of Robert L. Dabney were being prepared for publication in the late 1880s, his editors asked the old Virginian whether he would like to suppress or revise some statements of theological and political opinions that had fallen out of fashion. Dabney’s creed of pure Calvinism had been on the wane for decades, and even the South was washing its hands of Confederate apologia, so a politic man of Dabney’s years might have chosen to fudge the record and pass into history as a vaguely venerable worthy. But Dabney was the exact opposite of a politic man. In the words of his biographer, “he would not be swept . . . by the strongest winds and waves of the zeitgeist” and “was consequently at war with much in his age.” Dabney therefore scorned the proposal and answered his editors with this stinging rebuke:
“Do you like the plan of trimming a man whose life and work you would perpetuate, to suit your notions, and then handing the resultant down as if it were real?”*
What the editors had proposed was to preserve the name of Robert L. Dabney while they remodeled the man in their own image. Dabney was, no doubt, especially offended by the proposed swindle because it is precisely what Calvinists said politic men had done to the life and work of Jesus Christ. They wanted to keep the brand but change the product, and Robert L. Dabney would have none of it.
The defenders of Laurence Sullivan Ross are also politic men, and they hope to save the brand by fudging the record, trimming the man, and setting up a sanitized simulacrum that suits their own needs and notions. They need a vaguely venerable worthy to set in the center of vaguely meaningful traditions, and they are confident that some heavy editing can trim old Sully down to their own notions.
This will fail because trimmed Sully is really just a hunk of bronze, and yet his trimming will not in the least appease those who wish to tear him down. There is only one trimming by which they will be appeased, and that is trimming away everything. After all, this is the essence of their implacable creed:
If you feel uncomfortable around us, it is because you are a hateful bigot. If we feel uncomfortable around you, it is because you are a hateful bigot.
*) Thomas Cary Johnson (ed.), The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney (Richmond, Va.: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1903).