Book Reviews - Winter 2005

The Peculiar Intellectual

In the antebellum South, scholars made serious contributions to their fields, at least until they turned to defending slavery

By Richard E. Nicholls | December 1, 2004


Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1819-1860, By Michael O’Brien, University of North Carolina Press, $95

Until recent decades the suggestion that the antebellum South might have possessed a robust and cosmopolitan intellectual life worth studying would have been greeted in many quarters with disbelief. The prevailing attitude, long held and often repeated, asserted that southerners, tied to an unchanging agrarian order, devoted more time to sociability than to science, and more effort to pleasure than to original thought. Scholars challenging that stereotype have been, in the words of Michael O’Brien, the author of this monumental study of antebellum intellectual life, “vexed by the suggestion that they spend their time among phantom documents and people, and ruminate on thin air,” since “it has been familiarly objected that the South has no intellectual history, or one so etiolated that the effort is misguided.” The notion of an intellectually placid, incurious region has likely persisted because it satisfied prejudices on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. But those prejudices have been under challenge for some time now, and are unlikely to survive the publication of this surprising and engrossing work.

Conjectures of Order considers the lives and labors of some one hundred men and women during five decades of the pre–Civil War South, summoning a lost world back to life and proving it to be neither somnolent nor addicted to tradition. The South that emerges from this prodigiously researched and exhaustive 1,200-page narrative is ambitious, keenly interested in new trends in thought, and anxious to prove itself the equal of the North and of Europe in the vitality and originality of its own ideas and projects. To most fields of intellectual endeavor, from philosophy to theology, from natural science to anthropology, from political science to law and economy, southerners contributed serious and even unique work, much of it now largely forgotten. Some of these scholars had a profound impact on their field of study, and O’Brien’s excavation of their work shows the complexity and contentiousness of their world. But his revision is of more than academic interest. In illuminating antebellum intellectual life, and its shifting stance within southern society, the book also offers a disturbing portrait of the way intellectuals can fall prey to illogic and allow themselves to become defenders of the indefensible.

The focus on slavery built slowly. As O’Brien makes clear, southern intellectuals only gradually grew obsessed with supporting and explaining the repugnant institution that supported their way of life. In the first decades of the nineteenth century they still saw themselves as participating in a far-flung community of scholars and scientists. Some of them, such as Stephen Elliott, of Charleston, South Carolina, gained wide respect and influence for their labors. His 1825 Sketch of the Botany of South Carolina and Georgia was, in O’Brien’s words, “the most considerable contribution made by a Southern botanist to learning” in the pre-war years. It gained him an international circle of correspondents, and drew respectful attention for his thoughtful essays celebrating science as a collaborative discipline capable of helping man grasp “an efficient sovereignty over the earth” by comprehending “all the productions of nature” and their “mutual connexion and dependence.” Elliott was a vigorous reminder of an earlier, polymath age, working at times as a physician and banker, and helping to found a South Carolina literary society, a medical college, and the influential magazine the Southern Review. He was also an example of the South’s determination to assert its intellectual independence. The prospectus for the journal noted that the “southern states have been long regarded abroad, and have submitted to be so regarded, as incapable of any great literary effort. We have been content like children to receive such mental food as our eastern friends thought proper to bestow upon us.” But now the magazine could further “the diffusion of knowledge, the discussion of doctrines, and the investigation of truth.”

The long-simmering southern mistrust and resentment of the North was clearly becoming more volatile by the 1820s. Southerners went north to attend college, pursue business, or search out pleasure, but their writings, both public and private, indicate the extent to which they already felt isolated and misunderstood. Hugh Grigsby, a Virginian attending Yale in 1825, complained that members of the faculty “do not treat the southerners as they should; if a southerner enters College, the bare fact of his coming from the South makes him a suspicious character. All they like are those canting hypocritical wretches, who come from New England.” Perceived northern hostility fueled the growth of colleges in the South, as did the desire to prove southern society as intellectually eager and sophisticated as that in the North. Stephen Elliott had attended Yale. His son graduated from South Carolina College. The expansion of southern institutions of learning and their implicit acceptance of the principles of the southern economic system further served to isolate southern intellectuals. Implicit in such efforts as the Review and the founding of new colleges was the realization that, as the president of South Carolina College wrote to its trustees, knowledge “is power; to a nation it is wealth.” If the South was to rout its critics and strengthen its institutions, it would have to generate a class of distinctly southern intellectuals to do so. But what, precisely, did it mean to be both southern and an intellectual? That vexing question was to bring many of the would-be intelligentsia to grief.

Even when they turned to Europe for some sense of continuity with the past—and in search of a society less critical of their region—southerners only discovered their isolation. Viewing northern intellectuals as competitors increasingly devoted to the abolition of slavery, they preferred to believe, O’Brien observes, that their intellectual foundations were “formed mostly by the older cultures of Europe.” To many southerners, “Madame de Staël mattered more than Ralph Waldo Emerson.” But while they went to Europe to renew their sense of sustaining traditions, what they saw there—revolutions, urban poverty, the compromise and decline of the aristocracy, the uncontrollable pace of technology—only reinforced for them the experience of living in a time when energies at loose in the world constantly “threatened to change the rules, to reinvent the paradigms.” Everywhere they looked, they found evidence of mutability, and were reminded of the provisional nature of most social and political arrangements. This was not at first a matter of great anxiety. After all, their ancestors had created a revolution, and having “made a world, southerners were aware that worlds could be made.” The unsettling corollary of that, which became clearer as the century progressed, was that a world could also be lost. As Europeans added to the chorus of voices calling for the abolition of slavery in North America, southerners increasingly came to view themselves as the only true protectors of conservative traditions originating in Europe. And now they were being jettisoned by that civilization. Never really at home in the North, they now became uncomfortable aliens in the place they had regarded as their intellectual homeland. And, in one of the cascading ironies that came to define the age, the North, as O’Brien notes, came to view the conservative, aristocratic South as the embodiment of the way in which “the great experiment of a moral, progressive republic might go awry. That is, the North saw the South as the continuation of Europe by other means; hence, to defeat her was to complete the project of the American Revolution.”

Southern intellectuals were only sporadically successful in their efforts to create a sense of mutual obligation with their society and to gain identity as its voice. The more scattered populations of the South, where the appetite for new thought and the commitment to local authors was uncertain at best, never matched the larger, more urban, and more supportive audience that northern intellectuals could command. (Part of the southern identification with Europe meant that authors from the Continent were more popular than most of their local counterparts.) As the century advanced, the materialism that southern authors derided as peculiarly northern made inroads in the South, making the writers even less popular at home. William Gilmore Simms, the most accomplished antebellum southern novelist and no admirer of the North, complained in a letter to a friend in 1845 that the South “don’t care a d––n for literature or art. Your best neighbor & kindred never think to buy books. . . . You will write for & defend their institutions in vain.”

O’Brien shrewdly traces the long evolution of these travails during a period that began with the last gasp of the Enlightenment and concluded with the rise of the modern state. His vigorous narrative proceeds thematically. Sections in the first volume treat the southern exploration of the world beyond its borders, the development of distinctly regional ideas about race, gender, and class, and the many attempts by intellectuals to create a sustaining sense of community among themselves. The second volume deals with the study of history in southern letters, offers a lengthy and admirably precise discussion of ideas about political economy in general and the development of a large and troubling body of pro-slavery work in particular, and concludes with an investigation of philosophical and theological thought.

O’Brien’s arguments always work out from the specific, accumulating authority by building on numbers of complementary examples. Drawing on letters and diaries (the bibliography lists some five hundred manuscript collections), and on published speeches and lectures, as well as essays, memoirs, and an impressive body of nonfiction works and novels, he is able to give his narrative the density of experience and the sense of individuals swept up by change more usually found in great fiction than in even the best histories. Each of the intellectuals he considers here, from such familiar figures as John Calhoun, Thomas Dew, and Mary Chesnutt to those who are obscure or unknown, receives careful treatment. O’Brien, quoting often from their work, draws their ideas out from published and unpublished sources, weaving succinct biographies of their lives into an illumination of their ideas, making their contributions to the body of antebellum thought clear and at the same time placing it within the intensely partisan nature of the age.

Consider, for instance, Josiah Nott, described by O’Brien as “the quintessential modern, hustling southerner.” A natural cosmopolitan, he trained as a physician in New York and Paris, and seemed to embrace whole-heartedly the pragmatic convictions of his instructors on the importance of close observation and the primacy of evidence over doctrine. He openly challenged the Bible’s standing as fact because, O’Brien explains, “modern science—geology, astronomy—had disproved so much of it. Truth alone mattered, let the chips fall where they may.” Believing that to “make his mark in the world” it would be “good to stir things up,” he published a paper in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences asserting that “the Anglo Saxon and Negro races are . . . distinct species.” His carelessly researched piece was widely criticized, even by some southerners. Pushed to defend it by the international debate it aroused, Nott plunged with gusto into the newly emerging field of anthropology in search of evidence. He read widely in European books and journals, accumulated massive amounts of citations that he believed would buttress his case, became an expert in several fields in the process, and went back on the attack. He became, O’Brien notes, “the most famous southern intellectual of his day” and was even made an Honorary Fellow of the Anthropological Society of London. Deeply identified with the defense of southern ideas about race, he was thus also identified with the defense of slavery. Instead of allowing facts to dictate his findings, Nott chose among the available evidence to validate an assumed conclusion. By claiming to prove that the Negro race was a different (and, implicitly, inferior) species, Nott turned scholarship to pernicious ends. He did so for a long time, and with zest. “In the great roaring torrent of anthropological racism,” O’Brien says, “Nott roared with the best or worst of them.”

Louisa McCord makes another instructive case. Her father was Langdon Cheves, who served as speaker of the House of Representatives. Wealthy in her own right, in 1840 she married David McCord, a South Carolina lawyer. McCord was “a widower of a famously hot temper, the wielder of a cane and a fist” and, O’Brien suggests, the inspiration for a line in one of Louisa’s essays: “Many a woman of dominant intellect is obliged to submit to the rule of an animal in pantaloons, every way her inferior.” A strong figure, gifted with a penetrating intelligence, Louisa was nonetheless circumscribed by the expectations of society and her own conflicted impulses. She clearly wanted to use the essays she wrote on politics and women’s rights as “an influence for stability and good in a world full of the less prescient and the less competent,” and thus to act assertively in the wider world. But her surviving correspondence indicates that she also, in O’Brien’s words, “wanted to lean trustingly on a great man’s arm in hours of danger.” This contradiction was not particularly southern, but her response to these contending drives was.

According to O’Brien, McCord was among the first Americans to habitually “use the word ‘conservative’ to describe her ideology.” She had, O’Brien says, “little sympathy with hope and reform,” responding with scorn to groups espousing, in her words, “the wild dream of ‘fraternity’” and with exasperation to those who believed in the “possibility of forcing brotherly love upon the world.” Writing in 1852 in response to an essay on women’s rights by Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, McCord acknowledged that “women’s condition certainly admits of improvement.” Man, “in the unjust use of his strength has frequently, habitually . . . and even invariably oppressed women.” Indeed, while not laboring under so complete a state of slavery as “our Negroes,” women nonetheless lived “in a very decided state of bondage.”

But no easy amelioration existed to right the injustice, and the individual “who finds the laws of society irksome to him, has no resource but submission to the discomfort entailed upon him.” These laws, she argued, were unalterable, being handed down by the deity. “He gave to the man the right, even as he gave him the power.” Men were formed to hold sway “over all that God in his wisdom has made weaker”—including both women and, by implication, the Negro race. The burden thus laid upon men was unending, for the power to unquestioningly command implied the obligation to protect. She once said to an abolitionist: “You believe the Negro to be an oppressed race, while we believe him to be a protected one.” McCord was a vigorous writer and a skilled polemicist. She was too observant to miss the fact that the South in the 1850s, and the wider nation, was, in her words, “constantly confused, constantly restless, constantly changing.” But she was also too thoroughly committed to her region, her class, and the economic system that supported them to believe there was anything positive in those changes.

Unlike the books of most antebellum southern writers, the works of such figures as Thomas Dew, William Harper, William Smith, Henry Hughes, and George Fitzhugh, all of them defenders of the institution of slavery, have been the subject of modern study. O’Brien necessarily covers them as well, and brings to his dissection of their skewed logic and heated arguments a sense of the ways in which individual careers and experience shaped their books. Unlike many of their peers, these writers could count on being circulated and discussed, and could assume a secure standing in their society. As the pressures for a decisive break with the rest of the nation grew, many other writers, O’Brien demonstrates, found themselves swept up into the debate. On this one matter, the South was appreciative of its intellectual community. But those intellectuals who did not join the chorus found themselves suspect and isolated. As the historian Drew Gilpin Faust noted, “As violent conflict with the North approached, southerners exhibited decreasing patience with individuals whose primary allegiance was to abstract and disinterested speculation.” The careers of many intellectuals had been shaped by the desire to become a visible part of their society, even if that meant suppressing critical analysis of slavery. Others, unquestioning in their support of the institution, had adapted their ideas to fit the dominant system. Like Josiah Nott, some attempted to make science validate the system. Others, like Louisa McCord, worked out elaborate justifications for slavery, identifying it with such things as an allegiance to a divinely ordained state—and arguing that attempts to abolish the system were attacks on western civilization. As the rupture that would lead to war neared, southern intellectuals found themselves with little room to maneuver and with little ability to affect events. Their ideas were entertained only as they supported the call for independence.

Because of O’Brien’s careful, precise, dogma-free readings of so many figures, his devotion to specifics, and the cartographic thoroughness with which he charts every element of southern intellectual life, his summation of the fate of antebellum southern intellectuals seems as inarguable as it is somber. Despite their accomplishments in so many fields, O’Brien writes,

the intellectuals of the Old South had helped to invent, administer, and advance an imperial regime of ruthless ambition, which had . . . enslaved millions and had seldom hesitated to shed others’ blood for its own comfort. They had been intelligent, learned, creative, even self-aware, but they had gambled to sustain their own power which . . . needed to be exercised at someone else’s expense. For playing the game of power and losing they do not invite pity.

They do, O’Brien hastens to add, “invite understanding,” and his magisterial work of investigation and recovery does just that. From this point forward, it will be impossible to write about any aspect of antebellum intellectual life without reference to it.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments are closed for this post.