Editor’s Note: The image above in the header is the Southern writer William Gilmore Simms whose work we have yet to explore.
The following excerpt comes from David Brion Davis’s book Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. It draws upon an older book by Drew Gilpin Faust called A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860:
“By the 1840s, some highly talented young intellectuals and writers had become determined to defend slavery while improving the level of Southern life and defining a distinctive Southern culture. Though outraged by abolitionist attacks, this “Sacred Circle,” as one group called itself, was less interested in a Northern audience than in unifying, spiritualizing, and revitalizing their society – much as Transcendentalists and moral reformers were trying to do for the North.”
Beginning in the 1830s and 1840s, the growing abolitonist crusade against the South began to inspire a conservative counter-revolution against liberalism among likeminded Southern intellectuals:
“From Aristotle, Edmund Burke, and European romantic reactions against the French Revolution and Enlightenment, these Southerners derived theories of the organic cohesiveness of society, the inevitability of inequalities, and the danger of applying abstract principles to human relationships – such as the slogan “all men are created equal.” While attracted by images of feudalism and the cult of chivalric honor, they were also committed, like most Southern clergy, to a belief in science, the wonders of technology, and historical progress.”
The most famous words ever uttered by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in the Cornerstone speech were a product of this Southern intellectual counter-revolution. Unlike the United States, Stephens argued that the Confederacy was based on the cornerstone that all men were not created equal, that some races and social classes are naturally superior to others and that slavery was natural and that the subordination of a weaker race to a superior race was justified, sensible and worked out to the advantage of both races because it was more in line with nature.
Stephens himself noted in the Cornerstone Speech how there had been a metapolitical revolution in the South over the previous 20 years that had toppled the old consensus.
“That said, figures like James Henry Hammond, the young governor of South Carolina, and George Frederick Holmes, a professor of history and literature at the University of Virginia, were deeply troubled by the threat of an individualistic, acquisitive society based on the capitalist wage system. According to the Sacred Circle, racial slavery was the labor system most conducive to the elevation of the intellect, since it protected some men from the allurements of greed and gave leisure to a master class that could cultivate “mental improvement and refinement of manners.” This was essentially a reworking of Aristotle’s classical argument, but Aristotle was never able to identify “the natural slave,” and he admitted that men born to be free were sometimes wrongfully enslaved by sheer force.”
By the 1850s, the Southern counter-revolution was well on the way to rejecting Americanism and repudiating the original mistake of grafting classical liberalism onto American nationalism.
“In A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860, Drew Gilpin Faust examines how self-described men of “genius” in the antebellum era handled their lack of institutional and social support. She asserts that William Gilmore Simms, James Henry Hammond, Edmund Ruffin, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, and George Frederick Holmes formed a “sacred circle,” an intimate group of like-minded men dedicated to improving their personal lot in life and reforming southern society. Faust finds the group to embody the tug of war inside all men of mind in the antebellum South. …
Thinking about the ideal proved to be much easier then beginning social change. The public press was the main outlet for the spread of their ideas. In particular, the men utilized reviews, focusing on not only history and philosophy but also agricultural, banking and slavery. They advocated educational reform, diversified agriculture, and the growth of industry, foreshadowing the efforts of a New South after the Civil War. Although all five participated in politics, with varying degrees of success, they did not feel their ideals meshed with contemporary politics and greatly desired to change the system. How to change the system was a problem they could never solve. …
In A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860, Drew Gilpin Faust investigates the extraordinary association of five antebellum Southern intellectuals who cooperated “to establish a role for men of mind in their region. Novelist William Gilmore Simms, politician James Henry Hammond, agricultural reformer Edmund Ruffin, and professors Nathaniel Beverly Tucker and George Frederick Holmes all believed that their innate genius had exiled them from their society” (x). Faust’s thesis argues that “This common sense of alienation provided the basis for intense personal friendship that evolved into what Simms christened a ‘sacred circle’—a network of mutual emotional and intellectual support” (x). The men of the “sacred circle” dedicated their work in various specialized fields to encouraging Southern autonomy through educational improvement, increased regional industrialization and economic independence, and protecting slavery as a positive, Christian institution necessary for continued prosperity. Like many of the more famous reformers of the Jacksonian period, the “sacred circle” sought to redesign and perfect the corrupt society they inhabited, but unlike their Northern counterparts, they sought to preserve the inefficient and unjust slave labor system. …”
Note: At some point down the road, I will write a review of this book. I’ve been approaching the subject like a Renaissance humanist recovering and studying a fossilized intellectual tradition, dusting it off and trying to think through how it could be revived and adapted in our own times. What if all these new robot workers could become Aristotle’s natural slaves?