Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810–1860 • Michael O'Brien • Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004 • 2 vols. • xx, 1354 pp. • $95.00
Reviewed by Mary Kelley, Ruth Bordin Collegiate Professor of History, American Culture, and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of numerous books, including Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America (1984).
Two volumes and thirteen hundred pages of densely written prose, Michael O'Brien's Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810–1860 fully merits the adjective "magisterial." Not that long ago, historians were asking, if they bothered to ask at all, "what possible intellectual life could the slaveholding South have had?" Most would have agreed with Henry Adams: southerners had temperament, not mind. For more than three decades, Michael O'Brien has been showing us that Adams's appraisal tells us more about his penchant for condescension than it does about the post-Revolutionary and antebellum South. Since 1982, O'Brien has written A Character of Hugh Legaré; and Rethinking the Old South: Essays in Intellectual History; edited An Evening When Alone: Four Journals of Single Women in the South, 1827–67 and All Clever Men, Who Make Their Way: Critical Discourse in the Old South; coedited with David Moltke-Hansen Intellectual Life in Antebellum Charleston; served as general editor for the publications of the Southern Texts Society; founded the Southern Intellectual History Circle; and mentored generations of scholars in southern history.
O'Brien's scholarship culminates in the masterpiece that is Conjectures of Order. Southerners were simultaneously "national, post-colonial, and imperial, all at once" (p. 2). Makers and inheritors of the American Revolution, leading southerners from Jefferson to Madison to Jackson to Calhoun looked upon the republic's fate as their responsibility. Securing the nation as an independent political entity was one side of the coin, continued reliance on European culture was the other. "Madame de Staël mattered more than Ralph Waldo Emerson," O'Brien observes (p. 4). Not least, O'Brien's southerners practiced imperialism that expelled Indians from their lands.
All three of these identities were inflected by perhaps the most fundamental impulse these southerners shared—a persistent and palpable desire to order the world in the face of relentless change. In the decades between 1810 and 1840, they shared in the massive project dedicated to ordering nature. Southerners began with plants and animals. However, and increasingly, they focused on the diversity constituted not only in descendants of Anglo Virginians, South Carolina Huguenots, and Louisiana Creoles, but also in Africans and African Americans. Why did human beings differ in physiognomy and complexion? What did racial difference signify? Initially, a belief in a single human race prevailed, but its counter, a separate and static creation inaugurated by God, gained ascendancy in the antebellum decades. Not surprisingly, racial theory that accorded Caucasians the highest rank was popular. The imperialistic practices of conquest and subjection were validated, as were post-colonial claims to equality with Europeans. "A Caucasian was a Caucasian in whichever Georgia he or she was found," as O'Brien wryly observes (p. 233). In a telling analysis, O'Brien highlights the contested matter of gender. Southern women of intellect had to negotiate between the aspirations generated by the educations they received at women's academies, seminaries, and colleges and the constraints of a society that insisted upon female deference and dependence. Women calibrated their displays of mind and manners in the matrix of intellectual life—in letters, in journals, and for a relatively few in published essays, poetry, and fiction.
O'Brien devotes the first volume to the social and cultural landscape in which these southerners fashioned their traditions. "Intellectuals" and "intelligentsia" had yet to enter the vocabulary. However, "intellect" and "intellectual" were used freely, as was "learned class," the designation chosen by Basil Manley in 1850 (p. 389). In inviting his readers into the world of intellect and the social forms in which it was constituted, O'Brien is dazzling. He begins with conversation, which in terms of recovery is the most challenging for scholars of intellectual history. How did these southerners converse, O'Brien asks. "Come up, and pass a week or two with me," Edward Johnston asked Richard Crafts, "you shall look through my books, we will talk history, Politics, even Swedenborgianism" (pp. 397–98). Conversations such as the one proposed by Johnston were considered a treasure. More commonly, men and women took their conversation at morning visits, at dinners, and at evening parties. Separately, they gathered at clubs and debating societies, at tea tables and sewing circles. The questions posed at debating societies testify to the breadth of engagement—"Was Alexander or Caesar the greater general?" to "Is a lawyer justifiable in defending a bad cause?" to "Is the existence of slavery indispensable to the southern states?" Correspondence furnished a key site for conversation. There was the most public form—the published letters such as Sarah Grimké's Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, which claimed both intellectual equality and a public role for women. There were the travel letters, which were circulated widely and some of which were published. By far the most common form were the letters that Charleston's Unitarian minister Samuel Gilman called "all the juice of information and opinion" (p. 448). For some, correspondence supplemented the intellectual connections forged in clubs and debating societies, tea tables and sewing circles. For those who were more isolated, it was the connection itself.
The world of intellect was most readily visible in books and periodicals. Urban or rural, these southerners were deeply invested in print culture. Those who lived in towns or cities made their purchases in bookshops, which stocked American and European imprints. In the rural South, they relied on peddlers who sold a kaleidoscope of literature, on colporteurs who distributed Bibles and religious tracts, and on agents who sought subscribers for books and periodicals. Established in most towns and in all cities, social and circulating libraries offered readers history, medical treatises, biography, travel literature, fiction, and devotional works, as did libraries at the male colleges and their literary societies. Residents of Columbia, South Carolina, could choose from the 60,000 volumes in the college library, the legislative library, and the library of the theological seminary. Combining these collections with those in Charleston, which totaled 30,000, this density of print goes far to explain South Carolinians' expansive world of intellect. Indeed, as O'Brien tells us, they contributed much of that which "was significant in Southern intellectual culture" (p. 521).
Writers used the media of newspapers, pamphlets, periodicals, and books to reach their readers. The publications bore the mark of the spoken word that had originated in the many dimensions of conversation, as O'Brien emphasizes. Periodicals, including the Southern Review (1828–32), the Southern Literary Messenger (1834–64), the Southern Quarterly Review (1842–57), and De Bow's Review (1846–80), were foundational. When the writers who filled the pages of these magazines with essays, religious debates, poetry, and historical sketches sought to publish books, they looked north to Philadelphia and New York. (The exception was proslavery books, nearly all of which were published in the South). Those writing fiction dominated the market in books. It was here that women writers, including southerners Augusta Jane Evans, Caroline Lee Hentz, Maria McIntosh, and Mary Virginia Terhune, achieved ascendancy in the 1850s.
Southern intellectuals distinguished themselves in a host of disciplines, most notably, history, political economy, philosophy, and theology. The canon, which moved chronologically from ancient to American, had a Whiggish trajectory. In one of his striking interventions, O'Brien offers readers another dimension of slavery's prominent defender Thomas Roderick Dew. Published posthumously in 1853, Dew's Digest of the Laws, Customs, Manners, and Institutions of the Ancient and Modern Nation, which was a compilation of lectures he delivered to generations of students at William and Mary, celebrated 1776 as the culmination of liberty. (African Americans might have asked, whose liberty?) "Thinking," John Taylor of Caroline declared in 1804, "is necessary to a body politic, to enable it to shun evil and to do good" (p. 782). He was not alone in these sentiments, as O'Brien shows in the 150 pages devoted to the closely linked issues of politics and economics. Taylor, a Virginian with a late Enlightenment sensibility, contributed individualism, a suspicion of banks and of paternalistic government, all of which were central to Jacksonian thought. Jackson embodied the conviction that the Union was indispensable. His response to nullification, as O'Brien notes, was "apoplectically nationalist" (p. 844). An imperialist without rival, Jackson proclaimed the people's sovereignty, which he made the basis for a celebratory exceptionalism. In the antebellum decades, Jackson did not need specify the "people"—everyone understood that African Americans and Native Americans were excluded. Calhoun rejected Jackson's belief in the people, however defined, and the will of the majority. Ranked by O'Brien as the South's pre-eminent political thinker, Calhoun fashioned the challenge posed in the Nullification Crisis. Claiming for the minority the right of veto, "a concurrent voice in making and executing laws," he provided South Carolinians with an elaborate defense for nullification, or state interposition, as he labeled his position (p. 852). Taken together, this triumvirate of political thinkers drew on those who had come before, paying deference to the ideas of Jefferson and Madison and incorporating Europeans ranging from Edmund Burke to the Scottish Enlightenment's Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart. O'Brien argues persuasively that their political thought was as richly erudite and analytically powerful as any since the Founding Fathers.
Southerners read Reid and Stewart, both of whom were taught at the male colleges. Most of those who pursued moral philosophy after graduation eventually found Scottish realism inadequate. Many were taken with German transcendentalism as an alternative. During the 1820s, southerners along with their counterparts in New England began to read Kantian and post-Kantian German philosophy, and by the 1840s the Germans had been incorporated into their philosophical discourse. At least one southerner looked skeptically on the enthusiasm of Emerson and Margaret Fuller. Concord's and Boston's understanding was "so slight and imperfect, as scarcely to deserve notice." Instead of simply embracing German philosophy, they ought to emulate southerners who adopted the premises "with discrimination, with judgment" (p. 1050). So much for Transcendentalist claims to cultural superiority, at least from a southerner's perspective.
Theology, which was included in moral philosophy at many of the male colleges, appealed to some of the South's most original thinkers. The most sophisticated and influential of them, James Henley Thornwell, was not a theologian for the faint hearted—God was omnipotent but did not intervene—Adam had sinned irrevocably. In a passage that would have made the likes of Cotton Mather flinch, Thornwell declared the sinner "morally ulcerated from head to foot; he is one universal mass of gangrenous matter" (p. 1122). As harsh as these convictions were, they did not constitute a "Theology for the South," as O'Brien titles the chapter. Thornwell provided that theology in his defense of slavery, which he issued in pamphlets and sermons. Basing his defense on the familiar hierarchical principle that "the Bible . . . teaches that God puts one above another," Thornwell called those with the right to mastery to meet their obligations to their dependents (p. 1150). Like masters, slaves were moral agents who needed to be instructed in ethical principles. Most important, at least from the perspective of the planter elite, slaves had the same obligation as masters to uphold the community's stability—one through obedience, the other through the benevolent exercise of authority.
Always there, always lurking in the shadows, always reminding them that their hold on millions of African Americans was tenuous, slavery stood as these southerners' greatest challenge. In the 1820s, they began to develop the claims central to their defense of slavery—enslaved African Americans were treated humanely and indeed had a more satisfying life than white industrial workers, free African Americans were unable to sustain themselves and degenerated in freedom, masters practiced Christian benevolence, and the Bible sanctioned enslavement. They also insisted that the slaveholding South was at the forefront in advancing Western culture.
In weaving together the fabric of proslavery, southerners constituted themselves as a community, debating, borrowing, and revising one another and introducing their original contributions into the larger discourse. O'Brien highlights the main threads of this discourse in three telling portraits. In the ideas these individuals were weaving together, we also see them unraveling central premises set forth by the previous generations of Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and Calhoun. William Harper was one of the first to insist that any defense of slavery required that egalitarianism be repudiated. Henry Hughes steeped himself in Charles Fourier and August Comte and, galvanized by them, imagined a social and political structure that incorporated the private into the public. Rejecting individualism and installing collectivity in its stead, he privileged the state as the supreme power. O'Brien introduces readers to a signal but neglected dimension of George Fitzhugh, the South's leading defender of slavery and one of its most formidably aggressive thinkers. O'Brien's Fitzhugh illustrates a transit from the brutal realism of a James Henry Hammond to the lushly sentimental. Fitzhugh cast aside the familiar intellectual traditions—individualism and social contract, natural rights theory, and minimalist government. In their stead, he envisioned a world framed by power and subjection. Antebellum slavery was one form of subjection, nothing more, nothing less. Women and children were similarly obligated to perform as dependents. Fitzhugh, O'Brien tells us in a striking insight, "wanted power, but he also wanted to be loved" (p. 978). The family he conjured was suffused in sentiment—kindly masters caring for loving dependents filled his southern landscape. Many southerners must have chosen this fiction. O'Brien leaves the final word to Mary Chesnut, however. As she says in her diary on the eve of the Civil War, "people talk before [slaves] as if they were chairs and tables. And they make no sign." Then she asks: "Are they stolidly stupid or wiser than we are, silent and strong, biding their time?" (p. 992). It was the latter, as these southerners would discover shortly.
O'Brien concludes with members of the generation that came to maturity in the 1850s. These younger intellectuals were different from members of earlier generations who "had hoped they could elude the choice between power and morality." These southerners knew better. They were the realists, who understood that "choice was the burden of survival" (p. 1161). O'Brien's portraits of Augusta Jane Evans and Mary Chesnut capture this generation as the choice was reckoned and the consequences faced. In a remarkable reading of Evans's Beulah (1859), O'Brien brings center stage all the expansive curiosity, the intellectual ambition, and the cosmopolitan learning with which generations of post-Revolutionary and antebellum southerners identified. Evans's heroine is an avowed intellectual who pursues Coleridge, Feurerbach, Cousin, Goethe, and Carlyle among many others. Ideas galvanize the characters in the novel. Convictions matter, and they are enacted by the heroine. Mary Chesnut, the woman of the "cool brains," begins where Evans ends. "We have risked all, & we must play our best for the stake is life or death," as she recorded in her diary at the beginning of the Civil War. Four years later in February 1865, Chesnut acknowledged that the choice had ended the world as she knew it: "Nearly all my sage prophecies have been verified the wrong way—& every insight into character or opinion I have given as to men turned out utter folly" (p. 1190). "Cool brains" had not sufficed. Like virtually all white southerners of power and privilege, the South's intellectuals risked all to maintain a power rooted in imperialism and sustained by the enslavement of African Americans and the expulsion of Native Americans. They may not summon our sympathies. They do "invite understanding," O'Brien tells us (p. 1199). With Conjectured Orders, we have that understanding.