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The Mind of the Old South: New Views

ISSUE:  Spring 1980

“How or on what conditions,” asked R. G. Collingwood in a famous knotty question, “can the historian know the past?” His answer of course was that one “must reenact the past in his own mind,” rethinking for himself the thought represented in the record he examines.

At a time when American intellectual historians make a book of their self-criticism, Collingwood’s view of history deserves to be taken down from its shelf and dusted off a bit. Yet in the case of the Old South one can say half-whimsically that Collingwood poses a severe problem: at first glance, little of antebellum Southern thought remains “thinkable” to us. Historians have treated what they found of it largely with impatience and bewilderment. Louis Hartz, discussing American consensus in The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), dismissed Southern social thought as “a simple fraud”; Steven Channing’s monograph on the secession movement in South Carolina, Crisis of Fear (1970), concluded that the decision to leave the Union in 1860 “was the product of logical reasoning within a framework of irrational perception” (286). Eugene Genovese, who in The World the Slaveholders Made (1969) viewed the proslavery sociology of George Fitzhugh as quite coherent, nonetheless described it as the rationalization of a ruling class that came closer to being medieval European than Main Street American, The rhetoric of Southerners was that inflamed, historians usually agree, their defensiveness that transparent, the bizarre that common among them. Forewords emphasize the. distance between us and those exotic and wayward people; words like folly, burden, and doom abound in our attempts to come to terms with them.

Recent studies of the Old South and its thinking invite a fresh attempt to arrive at a critical understanding of that society. These books suggest ways of linking antebellum Southern convictions, the men who wrote about ideas or transmitted ideology, and the movement for secession. They also help us to fill Collingwood’s prescription, for they make the Southern intellectual past—what Southerners thought and believed—more “conceivable.” This reenactment of thinking might well begin with the Southerners’ view of their future, on the theory that such writing often says much about one’s present state of mind. Trying to foretell the future, to anticipate reality, these musings can boast of Tom Swiftly optimism about what the future holds. More often they betray a need for escapism, apprehension about present misdirection— sometimes rage over contemporary blindness.

The Old South produced its full share of futuristic writing, and one prominent piece of it—hitherto unpublished—was George Tucker’s A Century Hence; Or, A Romance of 1941. Often financially embarrassed, Tucker was a productive writer who practiced law and served three terms in Congress before Jefferson in 1825 named him to the original faculty of the University of Virginia. There he taught moral philosophy and published on political economy. He also wrote popular social commentary—first a satire on American manners, A Voyage to the Moon, which appeared in 1832, and then A Century Hence. In this story, unfolding through a series of formal letters, a young man’s unrequited love sends him on a world tour that he hopes will soothe his wounded heart. By the end of the tale he and his sweetheart are happily together; until then the lad and his traveling companion seize every chance to register their impressions of life in the mid-20th century. Tucker scores on a few predictions, misses on others. His United States of 1941 is a world power, an arch-rival of Russia, a prosperous trading nation. He correctly foresees war with Mexico—though his timing is off by 95 years. While Tucker quite rightly tells of continued sectional friction in the republic, giving rise to it are the jealousies not of North and South but of eastern and western America.

At times 1941 voices the guarded optimism that Jefferson found so congenial in this talented scholar, who in 1837 became the former president’s first biographer. For one thing Tucker expected Americans eventually to dismantle the slave structure. By his vision of progress, slavery would persist in only a few states and Congress in 1941 would take up a bill to purchase the freedom of the 14 million blacks remaining in bondage. He wrote of gains in women’s education, at least in France, and at least in fields like the ministry and medicine. Tucker, like Jefferson, enjoyed writing about gadgetry; his long view was transcontinental. Telegraph wires would speed news from New York to Centropolis (a Middle Western city that had replaced Washington as the federal capital) and then on to Astoria on the Pacific. Tucker told of flying machines and powerful lunar telescopes. Laser beams were invented. City water at last was drinkable.

Yet in other places A Century Hence suggested how, in an unguarded moment, a Jeffersonian might outline his doubts about the future. One of them was the likelihood of urban growth and its attendant dangers to a self-governing people. New York, sprawling, dirty, a demagogue’s cry away from a street riot, Tucker referred to as “this Babylon” (39); “Oh the corruption of a great city!” exclaimed his suffering lover, speaking of Centropolis, “—and that city the seat of government, where the blandishments of flattery offered by power, and talent, and high station, are irresistible” (34)! Tucker also drew a bleak portrait of British industrialization, which brought with it massive ghettos of miserable workers. Population increase—Tucker knew his Malthus—had led to hunger and unemployment there and threatened the same result in the United States. “What a picture of human wretchedness,” read one letter home to America. “Every avenue of employment seems already filled, even to suffocation, in its population of near three hundred and thirty to the square mile, and thousands would annually perish from starvation, if it were not for the large numbers which emigrate every year. . .” (52—53). The critical question, as one of Tucker’s characters puts it, was whether change would be “safe and tranquil, or turbulent and bloody” (64).

An answer to that question depended in part on who governed and on what principles. Here Tucker’s vision was blurred. First of all he found it comforting that somewhere in 1941 things had not changed. Caspar Bentley, a Virginia native accompanying the lovesick Henry Carlton, speaks glowingly of the British reverence for their elders and for the “time stricken objects” of antiquity. In like manner, Bentley and Carlton find the English aristocracy appealing simply because of the tradition it represented. “There is, it must be confessed, among the old nobility, an air of tranquil ease,” writes Bentley, “an absence of all bustle or display, or pretension, a self-possessed simplicity that is very imposing; and there is seldom any difficulty in distinguishing them from those who have been recently raised to the peerage” (52—54). It is an aristocracy to which poorer classes and arrivistes alike pay “a willing deference” (54). It is also an elite that has not effectively set about trying to cure its serious domestic ills. British rulers, Tucker commented in a paragraph demonstrating his divided mind, needed “something of the energy of republicanism, and of those who have been the builders of their own fortunes . . .” (54).

A great many antebellum American commentators in their time wrestled with the same problem. Sure of progress, Tucker wanted certain things—like the tall oaks at the Virginia home of Bentley’s grandmother—to remain standing. Welcoming technological advances, he was unsure to whom a democratic people would turn (and who would be able and willing) to lead in the complicated age dawning. Stuffy aristocrats had little to commend them; the “proud, purse-proud upstarts” of London had even less. In real life Tucker had found public service to be tedious, crass, demeaning. Where did one’s responsibilities lie? Tucker has William Carlton remind his wandering son that he too has certain duties to perform, that like his forebears he must answer the call either to the military or public life. Henry has no taste for politics. “There is so much in it to disgust a man of delicacy,” he writes a friend, “—so much of hollowness and insincerity— such a perpetual alternation of union and discord . . .a restless malignant spirit of rivalship and envy” (104). He plans to enter the army on his return to America and then, if escaping unharmed in any wars with Mexico or Russia, to “retire into the country,” as he puts it, “and devote myself to letters and philosophy” (104).

* John Higham and Paul K. Conkin, eds., New Directions in American Intellectual History, Johns Hopkins, 1979.


Tucker’s need for gentlemanly solitude was as determined as the search for popular acclaim among five other men whom Drew Faust examines in her book, A Sacred Circle, subtitled “the dilemma of the intellectual in the Old South.” Her collection is a colorful one, loaded with hotheads, a ring of fire if not the “sacred circle” that one of its members, William Gilmore Simms, called it. Simms was a South Carolina novelist and keeper of the Revolutionary memory there: a man of modest talents, he expended much energy complaining of the neglect Southerners paid their writers and engaging likeminded men in correspondence. Among them was George Frederick Holmes, who migrated from England to America in 1837 and after 1856 taught history and belles lettres at the University of Virginia. Later in the century Holmes helped to form the American Historical Association; in antebellum times he was perhaps best known for a scathing review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Another of Simms’s friends was James Henry Hammond, the South Carolina planter, politician, and occasional essayist whose name usually brings to mind, if anything at all, his proslavery “mudsill” speech in the Senate on the eve of the Civil War.

The most spectacular of the men whom Faust encircles were Virginians, two more prophets of the Southern future in the years when the value of the Union was a topic of heated discussion. Beverley Tucker (a distant cousin of George) taught law while preaching secession at the College of William and Mary for much of the antebellum period. This Tucker’s prediction, made in a curious tract labeled The Partisan Leader: A Tale of the Future (1836), was that civil warfare would break out in 1849 as Virginians revolted against the tyrant Martin Van Buren. In Tucker’s fertile imagination, the portly New Yorker would then be launching his fourth presidential term. The Partisan Leader told of a time when federal oppression made a joke of Southern liberties and when fiery heroism—the kind Tucker was prepared to exhibit—was suddenly at a premium. One of Tucker’s friends, Edmund Ruffin, published his own Anticipations of the Future: To Serve as Lessons for the Present Time in the midst of the 1860 presidental campaign. A native of Prince George County, Ruffin was well known in the antebellum period as an agricultural reformer in the exhausted eastern reaches of the Commonwealth and as a fervent crusader for Southern rights. Anticipations was a book of “reports” from a British newspaperman to his London editors. It forecast Southern secession (this time in 1868), the futility of Northern arms, and the defeat of New England as upper-Mississippi and mid-Atlantic states made their peace with the South and conceded the wisdom of black servitude.

The writings of these men spread anxieties across the page the way a prism refracts light. Both Tucker’s romantic novel and Ruffin’s “correspondent” spoke of the expectations that in the end did help Virginians, at least, decide for disunion. Tucker’s Partisan Leader voiced between-the-lines doubts about western Virginians’ loyalty to the slave system. He wrote hopefully of the coalescing power of war against a “foreign” foe, believing that conflict with a common oppressor would bind together Eastern slaveholders and Western nonslaveowners. War in his prospective story also united women behind “their” men and restored military skills to prominence. Such hopes traced the pressure points of a dividing and developing society. Ruffin’s threats on the other hand were external forces. Worst of them was a projected army of abolitionists and free blacks which, in his darkest imaginings, would invade the South raping and pillaging with the blessings of then-president William Henry Seward—who in 1850 had shocked many listeners by charging on the floor of the Senate that slavery violated a higher law than the Constitution. Ruffin further predicted that Congress, once under Republican control, would create new states to fatten the Northern majority, pass high tariffs, and eventually move to abolish slavery by constitutional amendment. Tucker and Ruffin referred to themselves as men of prescience.

Faust takes the ideas of Ruffin, Tucker, Simms, Hammond, and Holmes seriously, helping thereby to redress the heavy attention historians have given the thought of contemporary Northerners. By looking at their writings between 1840 and 1860 as a set piece she is able to explore the large themes common to them. Members of the circle, for example, were concerned with “rehabilitating thought” as a means of solving pressing social problems—and of raising their own reputations. They studied history because, in the Burkean phrase, it was philosophy teaching by example. Biography they championed as containing the lessons of true greatness—and they saw themselves as similar men of providential importance. Writing reviews for Southern periodicals, they hoped to reach Southern society and awaken it to the needs of a peculiar culture. They worried about the status of education in the South. And of course they wrote eloquent defenses of slavery, an institution that preserved what Faust describes as their “transcendent values” (117). She reminds her readers often of the circle’s “commitment to truth,” of its pledge (in her words) to “disinterested inquiry” (87), its illustration of “the perennial tension between thought and action in human life” (xi). At once loving and hating the South, both defending and trying to “reform” it, members of this circle embodied “not just the dilemma of the thinking Southerner, but the universal plight of the intellectual” (xii).


William Kauffman Scarborough’s ably edited second volume of the Edmund Ruffin diary, The Years of Hope, April 1861—June 1863, invites a closer glance at one figure in this circle and also suggests a second look at the description of its members as “intellectuals.” It is difficult not to begin with the very appearance of this man, whose name and face come so easily to mind when thinking of the Old South. What he captures is its ambiguity, its contradiction. Appearing to be kindly and sincere in one painting, which Scarborough uses as a frontispiece, he is stern and foreboding in the daguerreotype on the dustjacket of the Diary, downright crazy-eyed (dressed in the uniform of the South Carolina Palmetto Guard, musket across one knee) in the famous Library of Congress photograph that Faust provides as an illustration. On the face of it (so to speak), one has more confidence in his martial than intellectual intensity. Completing his own portrait, Ruffin in 1865 shot himself dead rather than submit to what he called Yankee tyranny.

Nor do Ruffin’s diary jottings in the early Civil War years leave the impression of lofty thoughts or deep reflection. Having fired the ceremonial first shot at Sumter, he sat at home during the next two years singing in praise of the Confederacy he believed he had done so much to create, speaking of the embarrassment of earlier Southern moderates, and mostly reciting newspaper stories that confirmed the truth of his prophecies. More than a few of his Anticipations came to pass. But always the whining shone through the commentary. Making a twelve-page self-appraising entry in his notebook in January 1863, Ruffin struggled to put strongly enough the anger he felt at his failure to receive recognition as a statesman. Why wasn’t he instead of Davis issuing bulletins, moving pawns on the board, enjoying the prominence that went with courage and foresight? “It has been my singular fortune,” Ruffin mused, “. . . to be severely judged, & condemned, in public opinion, for minor & venial offenses against propriety—&, further, to be visited by misconstruction & calumny, censure & hostility, for acts of stern devotion to duty, & self-sacrifice, for which entire commendation, & applause, were my just due” (541). Among the sins that had brought him down he specified love of notoriety and simple credulity.

“A prophet is not without honor,” Ruffin consoled himself, quoting St. Mark, “but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house” (549). While one might not expect a man like Ruffin to seek comfort in Scripture, he belonged to what we are beginning to realize was a highly religious society, one that was notably pious, morally squeamish, often prudish even as it rested on force. George Tucker, whose sensibility was quite secular in comparison to Ruffin’s or Beverley Tucker’s, believed all the same that immorality would be the worst consequence of 20th-century overcrowding. French efforts to control the birthrate by delaying marriage in A Century Hence led to sexual liaisons that carried no commitment and produced foundling children; congestion in London brought evils of racial mixing, sexual license, and hardened women who used vulgar language and lifted their skirts “frightfully high” when crossing wet streets. Evidence of such scruples abound in the historical sources— and not merely in the now-famous letters of the Reverend Charles Colcock Jones and his family. If, since U. B. Phillips” sympathetic accounts of the slave order earlier in this century, historians largely have overlooked that evidence, one reason is that we have focused most attention on the unpleasant realities of slavery itself. White Southern morality re-surfaces in Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974), where he argues that 19th-century spirituality among slaveholders worked to “humanize” the institution while strengthening it. Faust’s discussion of moral stewardship among members of the sacred circle makes for one of the strongest sections of her book.


To be sure, one need not sit in church to develop a moral sense, but the lesson of two recent studies is that formal faith played a considerable part in shaping Southern morals, E. Brooks Holifield, complementing the work of Daniel Walker Howe, Wilson Smith, and Donald M. Scott on Northerners, treats in The Gentlemen Theologians: American Theology in Southern Culture, 1795—1860 the doctrinal sources and published writings of one hundred antebellum Southern ministers. Established in towns and seeing themselves as a clerical elite, they preached the unity of truth and beauty of God’s order to “men and women whose sense of personal identity was inseparable from their conviction that “reasonable” behavior— restraint, order, refinement, self-control, self-improvement, and similar virtues that sometimes seemed alien to Southern culture—was congruent with the deepest nature of things” (206). To neglect this “rational orthodox theology,” Holifield argues, to emphasize feeling only, would be to leave Southern religious history “empty of contrasts” (4) and incomplete. His interesting volume does supply color and contrast to the pattern Donald Mathews establishes in his Religion in the Old South, a superb blend of intellectual and social history that begins with the reminder that the faith of the people was evangelical. Whether Presbyterian, Baptist, or Methodist, most Southerners placed trust in the loving care of a God who wanted all mankind to be saved and who played a part in the ordinary affairs of ordinary people. Unlike strict Calvinists, evangelicals held that men could actively prepare for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; instead of hierarchy and ritual, evangelical sects stressed shared experience, simplicity, and the recognition that all men were brothers.

In the 18th century small-farming Southern evangelicals challenged the established order of Anglican planters, with their formal liturgy and assigned pews, and welcomed blacks into the fold. By the mid-19th century their militant voices had risen to a chant of consensus, and the value of Mathews’ work is the painstaking care he devotes to this process, to the dynamic relationship between the religious faith and social setting of believers. Evangelicals had hoped to spread the good news of Christ’s redemptive love. Yet growing in size meant that churches had to lower exclusionary standards; weak institutional structure—essential to a faith placing emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God—gave precedence to local needs and customs. Life after conversion called for self-discipline; yet persons who, like slaves, were unlikely or unable to develop such self-rule many Southern evangelicals finally saw as poor candidates for full-fledged church membership. The evangelical impulse was also one of order and stability in society so that God’s work could be done. But “extremism” upset that order, threatened community, poisoned the climate. A simple truth was that evangelical Southerners, earlier having been critics of aristocratic slaveholders, wanted their own earthly gains and succeeded in winning them. The radicals, as Mathews puts it, had become the guardians.

The less simple truth was that evangelical beliefs, changing in emphasis though not in substance, provided the language for (and placed limits on) discussions of slavery, urged a mission to slaveholders and slaves, and led to a slaveholder ethic that Mathews distinguishes from the historically more familiar proslavery ideology. Socio-economic circumstances did round doctrinal edges; but Mathews, exploring what he calls the “religious-social continuum” of doctrine and setting, deals sensitively with the way received ideas helped to shape perception and prompt behavior. Evangelical Southerners saw and thought about slavery in terms of God’s relationship to men. They placed trust in the everyday value of Scripture, the meaning of which one could find on its surface. Furthermore, they were unable to ignore their own past teachings, so that the slaveholder ethic partook of “ambivalence, frustration, guilt, and anxiety” (150). When James Furman, the South Carolina Baptist minister, wrote a parishioner that “We who own slaves honor God’s law in the exercise of our authority,” the message was an admonition, not a pro-slavery proclamation. Mathews uses the sentence as the title of a fascinating chapter that recreates evangelical reasoning. “All too often,” he writes “romantic liberals and guilt-ridden southerners have been so offended by Christian “pro-slavery” arguments, and at the same time pleased with the hypocrisy and immorality with which they could accuse the pious, that they have ignored the fact that these arguments were the logical extension of the Evangelical demand for discipline and restraint” (178).


Just as one cannot rethink the thoughts of antebellum Southerners without coming to terms with their piety, we cannot understand their reasons for secession without trying to think like Southern politicians and voters. Michael Johnson’s Toward a Patriarchal Republic, a study of secession and its aftermath in Georgia, adheres to the view that we must begin by taking Southerners at their word. As voting analysis, his book has its weaknesses. But supporting its thesis is abundant evidence that secession in that state had much to do with internal stresses. Small farmers in northern counties long had clamored for equitable representation in the legislature and complained of privilege among slaveholders, who next feared attacks on slavery itself; yeomen, in short, were dangerously amenable to democratic elements in the Revolutionary heritage. Johnson argues that secessionist planters campaigned to take Georgia out of the Union mostly because by doing so they could rewrite the state constitution and secure what they saw as their uncertain political power. Another recent state secession study, Mills Thornton’s Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800—1860, draws its own connections between internal friction and secessionist clamor. It is a twopart work, the first analyzing Alabama political structure as it developed in the several decades after 1820. Here Thornton examines legislative membership, patterns of taxation, spending, and party machinery. He entitles this part “Quirites,” a Roman term for the active, vigilant citizenry that he portrays.

In fact, the critical element in the political culture of antebellum Alabama, in Thornton’s view, were republican assumptions that made voters so alive to their civic duties. These ideas—fully as important as the democratic theme Johnson discusses—also had roots in the Revolution. They included beliefs about the fragility of self-rule, and the voracious tendency of unchecked power: Alabamians knew well the value of being left alone, dependent upon no one. Being good Jacksonians, they also believed that politics “worked,” that politicians were the tribunes of the people in the fight against privilege, that there were noticeable “enemies” of the people which political leaders would point out to voters and, in assembly and Congress, could successfully keep at bay. Thus small farmers of northern Alabama jealously watched for threats to their liberties; planters, professional men, and industrial developers were just as keen for “independence.” Nobody wanted to be subject to another’s power. Everyone, in the favored phrase, resisted political “slavery.”

The second part of Politics and Power shows the effect of change on this structure during the volatile 1850’s, a period of rapid growth and of Alabamians’ diminishing confidence in the political system. Old matters of banking, tariff, and internal improvements appeared to be settled, so that Whigs and Democrats had trouble distinguishing between one another. Many regular politicians were helpless to find enemies of the republic. Political newcomers took a different view of their role, willing to guide voters where their elders had merely spoken for them. The young fire-eater William Lowndes Yancey and other radicals of the Southern Rights movement won applause when they pointed to the Republican party as the latest “monster” abroad in the land. Through it, they argued, Yankees planned to saddle and ride outvoted Southerners. Thornton makes a strong case that the support hillcountry farmers of north Alabama gave John Breckinridge, who stood as the militant Southern candidate in the 1860 election, did not grow out of fears that Lincoln would free the slaves so much as the fear that he and the federal government would “enslave” poor white yeomen. Vigilant quirites had become militant “commilitones” (as Thornton calls part two), the comrades-at-arms who speedily followed the Southern Rights banner into Civil War.

Making Thornton’s treatment of Alabama in the 1850’s especially noteworthy is his willingness to dig deeply for the causes of the poor farmers’ malaise. He finds a blend of class antagonism and moral apprehension, both of which grow out of the extraordinary pace of Alabama economic growth in the decade. New railroads and banks were chartered, cotton prices and production shot upward, state spending increased sixfold; members of the legislature reflected in their own wealth the influence of speculators and the rivalries of competing interest groups. Ordinary Alabamians, the dependable foes of elitism and privilege, were dismayed, and to document their dizziness Thornton shows a precipitous rise in the murder, suicide, and divorce rates for these years. But in the light of Mathews’s work on traditional morality the misgivings— Thornton says “social vertigo”—of small-farming Alabamians make particular sense: they were ambivalent about material advance because to pursue worldly goods with too much ardor was to worship graven images, to taste forbidden fruit. To lust after wealth was to invite the wrath of God. These Alabamians voted to secede in search of new leadership and a fresh start. They might have agreed with Beverley Tucker, who had friends and readers in the state, that secession would remove the South from occasions of sin; it was like heading for the mountains when the heat of summer brought deathly fevers.


Taken together, all these volumes point out promising directions in the history of the Old South and challenge prevailing interpretations of it. For one thing they suggest that, after a decade or more of fascination with holistic theory, historians may be shifting their grounds for inquiry to discrete problems and to what Laurence Veysey would call more easily definable social aggregates. These books run counter to Eugene Genovese’s influential view of the Old South, by which one can reasonably direct most of his energy to study of the slaveholding class and its interests, its means of exercising political hegemony, its need to expand the plantation system in 1860, and hence its decision to secede. The books on this list, however, call for continuing research on the real differences among Southerners—the tensions within antebellum Southern society that are evident in Johnson’s literary sources, the small farmer-Black Belt planter rivalry that Thornton so well demonstrates, the fear of sectionalism in Virginia that Tucker betrayed in The Partisan Leader. The Thornton and Johnson books argue that instead of speaking of “the slaveholding class” we can more fruitfully examine secession by taking each state, each political culture, as a distinct subject.

Moreover, by asking us to look beyond the slaveholding class to the ordinary Southerners’ evangelical faith and to popular republicanism, these books call for a more heterodox view of Southern beliefs and their sources than Genovese’s interpretation of class ideology allows. At first glance, it may not seem so. Members of the “sacred circle” trumpeted proslavery ideology as one would expect of class apologists; the gentlemen theologians of Holifield’s book, as moralists of order, exercised what one might describe as a hegemonic function. Johnson’s slaveholding elite promoted secession, he argues, in order to place the lid on an insurgent democracy. Fear of change would seem to signal the apprehensions of an entrenched elite for whom stasis was necessary and secession a class strategy. Nonetheless, by focusing attention on how slaveholders viewed their world, Genovese has invited eventual criticism of his theoretical framework: was it “their” world; did they “see” it as members of a class; what of the way non-slaveholders viewed things? In the end Genovese’s approach, schematizing the evidence provocatively, seems to distort where one should revel in the richness of the subject.

Instead of telling us more about the substance of ruling class ideology or the workings of hegemony—instead of adding detail to a scenario that imposes order outside the experience of Southerners—these books urge us to look at their beliefs, with all their contradictions, from the inside out. In this sense they argue for Collingwood, the re-enacter of thought, over Gramsci, the Italian historian and theorist of hegemony. If nonslaveholders were not dominated, in Gramsci’s sense, by a slaveholding class, then evangelical beliefs and hand-medown assumptions about power and liberty take on new importance; in trying to rethink Southerners’ thoughts, to see the world they lived in from the inside out, these beliefs and expectations assume shaping power that one does not associate with a ruling class ideology. Indeed, they prompted resistance to the political power of slaveowners in downstate Georgia and Black Belt Alabama, embraced doubts about the morality of slavery, and made untoward change an object of anxiety quite apart from the needs of slaveholders.

Focusing on the slaveholding elite and relying on sectional spokesmen like Calhoun and Fitzhugh as illustrations of “the Southern mind,” historians, not surprisingly, have seldom treated pervasive beliefs and the means by which they coursed through Southern life. The possibilities of such research are attractive because it would entail not merely what Southerners of differing stations believed important, but also how they came by those beliefs and what they did to gain adherents to them or simply to brandish them about. Clearly, the time has come to examine the process by which men came to understand republicanism, lawyers and public men generally to learn constitutional theory, and ministers to influence their flocks and the community at large. Thornton, for example, makes noteworthy efforts to discuss the active rivalries of Alabama factions disputing versions of Southern rights, including the clever maneuvers of Yancey and his “fire-eaters” to turn republican suspicions of politics-as-usual against office-holders who were slower to uncover the lurking, alwayspresent enemy of liberty. Both Mathews and Holifield speak to denominational competition in the search for converts. Faust, by dealing with men who had what they thought were urgent messages, leads her readers to questions about the roots of their ideas and reasons for their frustration in promulgating them. Thus publicists, circuit riders, teachers, newspaper editors, publishers, lawyers who had apprentices, magazine writers, all offer themselves as objects of study. We should ask how patterns of belief made their way from one generation to the next and from older to newer regions.


Finally and perhaps most interesting about the books on this list, they invite us to consider the intentions and even cognitive sophistication of the men who like Ruffin and the Tuckers fretted about the Southern future or helped to bring about secession. In “reenacting” their thought, to return to Collingwood’s idea of the historian’s task, it is useful to study not only what but how they thought. “Reflection,” wrote Collingwood in The Idea of History, “is thinking about the act of thinking . . .” (307); he drew a distinction between mere consciousness on the one hand and self-consciousness or the capacity for self-criticism on the other. Whether the work of Faust’s sacred circle or Holifield’s ministers of rational Christianity made them intellectuals or not may seem a question only for semantic quibblers. Yet to ask it raises before us the important task of discriminating among levels of thought and kinds of thinkers, and one wonders whether there were circles in the South—as in the North—less sacred than agnostic. George Frederick Holmes, for his own part, did ask questions about how he knew what he did; George Tucker, paralleling antebellum discussions about the ideal university, took time in his epistolary romance to comment on the “state of healthy action,” the “energies of the mind,” that the bustle of cities held out despite (or because of) their other features; cautioning against unrelieved “rural quiet” (55), he also spoke of doubts, which men like Ruffin, Beverley Tucker, Simms, and Hammond did not share, about the value of an “excitable and romantic imagination” (1).

The comparison is instructive on two levels. George Tucker—withdrawing from the indelicacy of politics, never publishing A Century Hence, and ending his life as a Philadelphia writer—shared the worries of men more radical than he that 19th-century changes were laden with danger and that the question who would lead remained open; Ruffin and his friends stewed in the broth of frustration, complaining that no one appreciated their “genius.” Placing these men beside one another throws into relief intellectual differences and variations in the Southern intellectual vocation that historians only partially have explored. It also highlights the crisis of authority that antebellum Americans so often talked about and that helps to account for the special sensitivity of those radicals or fortune tellers, who foretold and eagerly called for secession: they hoped that events would bear them out and lift them up to the places of influence they deserved. All of them testified to the flux of Jacksonian life. Hammond and Simms, having married into wealth from undistinguished beginnings, wanted to make their way in Carolina society; the climb required proclamations of loyalty beyond any shadow of doubt and assertions of leadership in a cause that would crown everyone with glory. Tucker and Ruffin, each laying claim to old Virginia blood, smoldered in the wings, waiting to be called on stage.

Surely, there could be no worse fate for these Southerners than to be ignored, refused the voice that men of attainments apparently had enjoyed a generation before. Dire predictions came easily for such misanthropes, especially in a society whose piety encouraged apocalyptic language and at a time when Americans—as Tocqueville noticed—seemed to associate for every purpose. Would-be gentlemen of many parts, self-flattering guardians of the republican experiment, these men lacked organizational ties and even believed themselves above them. What would have happened had war not interrupted the history of Southern circles of discourse is a good question; by the late antebellum period Holifield’s ministers had begun to compose a community, nearly perhaps to acquire a professional ethic with its own power of sustaining and criticizing—a sense of identity that Southern academics were struggling to achieve. At all odds the change that most deeply upset these fortunetellers was the rise of professional politics and the parties that required discipline, loyalty to flag bearers, and compromise. Men of consistency and principled foresight disdained them. No accident that Yancey, the successful Alabama fire-eater, was a shrewd young party professional who made antipolitics serve his purposes in the sectional crisis. Such opportunism was no better when exhibited among Southern rights militants than among trimmers. The fortunetellers’ complaint was that a role partaking of learning, independence, and received honors had given way to many roles, to specialists who claimed to be nonspecialists and seemed at least to demand small compensation from the people. Thornton’s book displays a raw specimen—politicians boasting of their ignorance and denying any taint of breeding—of the participatory society that bedeviled men like Tucker and Ruffin and made their cohorts in South Carolina tremble with anger.

These books broach questions about why some scholars in the Old South became prophets, why so many people sought “fortunetellers,” why prominent fortunetellers failed to become politicians, and why politicians seized on prophecy. Enabling us to “rethink” the thoughts of antebellum Southerners, they are of additional value because they illustrate the problem of historical understanding that transfixed Collingwood. Language, change, and opportunism—objects of literary criticism, anthropological analysis, and political-economic study—combine to make the history of that society unusually challenging. In truth, trying to write it forces us to reach beyond Collingwood, who regarded only what people do “on purpose” as fit subject matter for history. One can but wish for the insight of a prophet, the touch of a fortuneteller, the distance of a skeptic.


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