Cool Brains

Nicholas Guyatt

  • Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South by Michael O’Brien
    North Carolina, 1354 pp, £64.95, March 2004, ISBN 0 8078 2800 9

The Founding Fathers of the United States were mainly Southerners: between them, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison can take credit for drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, winning the Revolutionary War, and preserving America’s independence through its turbulent early decades. The republic was governed by Southern presidents for 40 of its first 48 years, a period of dominance interrupted only by the single-term administrations of John Adams and his son John Quincy. Conversely, 24 years after Andrew Jackson of Tennessee left the White House in 1837, the next generation of Southerners led 11 states out of the Union, founding a Southern Confederacy to preserve the institution of slavery from the meddling of Abraham Lincoln. As a result, the United States was temporarily dissolved, and the North embarked on a war of unprecedented destructiveness to correct the South’s mistakes.

The fact that the South played an integral role in both the nation’s founding and its bloody dissolution has called for some explanation. Traditionally, historians have turned to the enervating effects of slavery to account for the paralysis of the Southern mind. This view, which is still repeated in textbooks and surveys of American history, holds that the political geniuses of the founding period (principally Jefferson and Madison) left no heirs in the Southern intellectual tradition. Worse, a compulsion on the part of Southern thinkers to defend slavery against Northern attacks deepened a process of intellectual retrenchment after 1820. Even with Jefferson or Madison as its representative, the South had been a premodern place, fixated on the idea that a society might endlessly renew itself through farming rather than the unsettling prospect of manufacturing and cities. The next generation of Southern thinkers, it is usually argued, clung to this vision with an irrational persistence, generating cranky and parochial treatises on economics as well as self-serving defences of slavery. By the 1860s, Southerners had become so set in their backwardness that only a calamitous war could break the grip of the old ideas.

Given such an unpromising landscape, who would want to read an intellectual history of the antebellum South, much less become a historian of Southern intellectuals? Michael O’Brien has been working on an answer to these questions for fifteen years, and the result is a massive refutation of received wisdom. His first task is to persuade a sceptical audience of the mere existence of Southern intellectual life between 1810 and 1860, the period between Jefferson’s retirement and the eve of the Civil War. To this end, O’Brien presents rich and detailed studies of around a hundred Southern intellectuals, organised by themes that range from immigration to European tourism, from ideas about gender to the lending habits of Southern libraries. By far the greater part of this material is fresh and interesting, though the epic proportions of this book occasionally feel like payback for the decades of derision directed at the very idea of Southern intellectual history. (If you thought that Southerners were unreflective and lazy, O’Brien is ready to punish your prejudice with a long description of, say, the relative strengths and specialties of the Parisian hospitals that trained Southern doctors in the 1830s.)

O’Brien’s second aim is to argue for the importance of Southern intellectual life as a whole. While he acknowledges the enormous variety of thinking across the antebellum period, he also sees a pattern in it – the ‘conjectures of order’ of the book’s title – and suggests that Southerners made sense of their world with a candour and sophistication that anticipates the emergence of Modernism. If Emerson and the North contented themselves with sterile paeans to progress and the self, or invoked providence to conceal the problems of the past and the present, the scattered intellectuals of the South confronted their own predicaments with a cold eye and ‘cool brains’ (in the prescription of the Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut). And the defeat of 1865 merely confirmed their prescience about the instability of people, places and things. The American South, in O’Brien’s telling, learned a lesson in defeat that would not reach Europe for fifty years.

O’Brien has a compelling argument to explain why it has taken us so long to retrieve these perspectives. When historians began to write accounts of the South as a distinct entity for the first time in the 1880s, their desire to defend the restored Union led them to romanticise the antebellum past and to ignore the ugly problems of racial injustice that continued to define the Southern present. In the process, they also ignored the sophisticated and sceptical thinking of antebellum intellectuals, preferring a simpler story of Southern honour that fostered respect or even nostalgia for the ‘Old South’. The South had been wrong about slavery, but the mistake was an honest one. The region was unthinking, naive but essentially benign.

The Southerners who colluded in this mythologising after 1865 traded away a rich history of intellectual cosmopolitanism for a ‘romantic innocence’ that concealed both their substantial achievements and a troubling truth: slavery and racial oppression had always been a conscious choice, rather than an unthinking inheritance. O’Brien, then, is not proposing the moral rehabilitation of this lost generation of the American South, but instead a recognition of their substantial achievements. Southern intellectual history, when viewed in this way, presents a tough-minded engagement with problems of philosophy and politics that confirms Southerners as at least the equals of their Northern counterparts, if not as the forebears of a European modernity that was still in embryo as Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox. More troublingly, the compatibility of slavery with these ‘conjectures of order’ raises questions about the integrity both of American history and of the modern world that O’Brien’s Southerners imperfectly glimpsed.

O’Brien seems to have read pretty much everything produced by Southern intellectuals across this period. In both ambition and industry, Conjectures of Order can be ranked with another vast work of American history: Perry Miller’s two-volume study The New England Mind. Miller’s hope for that book was similar to O’Brien’s: he sought to recover the Puritans from the dismissive views of his contemporaries, who had been inclined to see dourness and even anti-intellectualism where Miller saw reason and order. Miller’s task was made easier, however, by his methodology. When he published his second volume in 1953, he could still get away with the argument that New England had a single ‘mind’, a form of collective consciousness that could be anatomised from the written record and applied to an entire culture. O’Brien, instead, presents us with biographical and intellectual sketches that are held together by a series of arguments about the problems faced by Southerners more generally, as well as a detailed study of their intellectual infrastructure: the libraries and booksellers who supplied the raw materials; the journals that provided a forum for debate and a method of distributing ideas to the remotest corners of the South; and the letters and diaries in which Southerners talked to each other and to themselves about their world and its many challenges.

Who belongs in an intellectual history? Again, O’Brien’s answer to this question recalls Miller’s. He boldly announces in his introduction that ‘intellectual history is not a democratic venture,’ before revealing the ‘cold truth . . . that its subject-matter is clever people who once expressed themselves in complicated patterns, which other clever people have taken seriously’. He continues by describing a two-stage selection process: contemporaries play the leading role in identifying the ‘clever people’, but historians are responsible for searching in the archives for those who have been overlooked. Social and cultural historians may recoil from this, but it seems reasonable to read O’Brien’s self-confessed ‘elitism’ as a response to the prejudices of his peers. This book is a rebuke to those who doubt the existence of ‘clever people’ in the South, either in the antebellum period or more recently.

After slyly comparing the open-mindedness of Southern tourists visiting the North with the dismissive behaviour of their Northern counterparts, O’Brien presents the South as deeply and directly connected to Europe. Emigré intellectuals, like the Prussian historian Francis Lieber, found Columbia, South Carolina, a more tolerant and welcoming place to work than Cambridge, Massachusetts; literary visitors like Thackeray were pleasantly surprised by the intellectual vitality of the region, particularly given that Dickens had avoided the South entirely during his famous American visit of 1842. (Dickens had been advised by Henry Clay not to traverse the ‘dismal swamp’ between Washington and Charleston; O’Brien notes that the Kentuckian Clay ‘was ill-disposed to send anyone into the land of Calhoun’.) As the South was shaped by its visitors, so its conventions tempted and tormented new arrivals. For Francis Lieber, slavery was ‘a greasy institution’, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was ‘the most harrowing book I know’ and the ‘superiority of the white race’ was a canard invented to serve the political needs of the present. And yet Lieber owned at least four slaves, domestic servants who passed silently through his house as he wrote letters condemning slavery to his friends in the North.

Traffic between Europe and the American South moved in both directions. Southerners travelled extensively and proved to be keen observers of literary and scientific developments. Britain was relatively neglected: while respecting its industrial achievements, visitors registered an insularity there that (along with the bad food and the dreadful weather) hastened them towards the Continent. They made for France, renowned for its affordable education and its sensual possibilities; for Germany, the intellectual capital of Europe; and for Italy, the ‘most sacred’ European destination and a window on the classical past. Southerners tended to dislike the Italian government, the religion and often the people; but the scenery was terrific, and the ghosts of antiquity or the Renaissance could be summoned with only a little imagination. ‘Americans from their republican sympathies are more interested in the history of Rome than any other people,’ one visitor noted in 1818, though the purported backwardness of modern Italians would later provide Northern critics with a compelling argument about latitude and development. The ‘dusty decay’ of Charleston, according to Charles Eliot Norton in 1855, ‘is like Italy in the feeling that belongs to it’.

Some Southerners wandered further from the beaten path. William Brown Hodgson of Georgia entered the State Department in 1824 and, without the benefit of a university education, became the most prodigious linguist of his time. He played an important role in persuading American diplomats of the need to master other languages, and served in a variety of posts from Egypt to Peru until his retirement in 1842. Another diplomat, Joel Poinsett of South Carolina, sent dispatches from Latin America to Jefferson’s chosen successors, Presidents Madison (1809-17) and Monroe (1817-25) of Virginia. Poinsett’s widely admired garden in Charleston secured him lasting fame – the poinsettia was named in his honour – but his activities overseas were equally notable. In 1814, as revolutions swept across South America, he acted as a military adviser to the rebel junta in Chile; a decade later, he vexed the British and many of the locals as a proactive ambassador to newly independent Mexico. Founding Masonic lodges and seeking local Washingtons and Jeffersons who might complete Latin America’s transformation, Poinsett was one of the earliest diplomatic advocates of what is these days called ‘regime change’. Since this policy enjoyed less support in the Washington of the 1820s than it has more recently, he was eventually asked to spend more time with his plants. But Poinsett continued to provide Washington with sharp observations on Latin American affairs, and assurances of Mexico’s democratic potential in spite of its instability.

Issachar Jacox Roberts, a Tennessee missionary, travelled to China in 1837 to win souls for the Baptist church. A decade later, Roberts encountered Hong Xiuquan, the Hakka revolutionary who led the Taiping Rebellion. Hong apparently admired Roberts, and the two men remained in contact even as Hong’s revolt brought a Heavenly Kingdom into being throughout central China. Hong sought to convert Roberts to Taiping Christianity; Roberts wanted Hong to become a more orthodox Christian. In O’Brien’s hands, the tale of this odd relationship, placed against the backdrop of a conflict in which twenty million or more Chinese were killed, concludes with a caution about American exceptionalism: Roberts eventually returned home in 1862 just as the Union army marched towards Tennessee and the battleground of Shiloh, but he left behind another civil war ‘more brutal than Abraham Lincoln and Mary Chesnut could imagine’.

O’Brien supplements these stories with a discussion of white Southerners’ diverse forms of identity. Beyond those who traced their ancestry to Britain, the South was home to the descendants of the Spanish and French empires in America and to a wave of recent immigration. More than half of white male adults in Savannah in 1860 had been born abroad: French, Irish, Spanish, German and Jewish immigrants found a home in the South, as well as a cohesive whiteness that forswore ethnic tensions in the establishment of an impassable colour line. Any disputes among whites about ethnicity could eventually be employed in the service of Southern separatism. The New Orleans historian Charles Gayarré, who produced his four-volume History of Louisiana between 1846 and 1866, came to see the United States as merely the latest in a series of imperial oppressors; after naming his first volumes for the Spanish and French, he filled his final volume (written during the Civil War) with bitter asides on what O’Brien describes as the ‘imperial hypocrisies of Washington’. The subtitle of the final volume – The American Domination – betrayed Gayarré’s bitter feelings towards this latest phase of imperial control, and confirmed his work as, in O’Brien’s phrase, ‘a study in cultural mistrust’.

Did Gayarré’s disgust with Washington stem from his loyalty to a new Southern nation, or from his pride in a Louisiana that had struggled against successive colonial masters? What prompted him to abandon his 1860 plan to retire to Spain, and instead tough it out in the Confederacy? O’Brien’s lasting achievement in this book is to detail numerous Southern intellectual activities that were either minimally connected to or entirely independent of the Northern states. But did many people living in the vast area between Maryland and Louisiana come to see themselves as distinctively Southern? Or did they identify more with their local surroundings or their state? Americans typically used ‘the United States’ as a plural form in the antebellum period; only after the carnage of the Civil War did they come to refer to the nation in the singular. (Besides, it was only with the 14th Amendment in 1868 that American citizenship was granted directly by the federal Constitution, rather than state citizenship.) The question that haunts O’Brien’s book, then, is whether his protagonists gave much thought to the South at all, except in the contexts of slavery and disunion that he is eager to bypass.

The problem here is his loyalty to the intellectual achievements of the hundred or so thinkers at the heart of his research. It’s possible to imagine an intellectual history involving many of the sources that O’Brien uses, but focused more broadly on the question of how Southerners came to think about race and union. How did the ideas of an elite interact with the thoughts of white planters, small farmers and urban workers, and how did intellectuals relate to a political community that enfranchised poorer whites as well as a literate few? Or, to put it differently, how did Southerners look outwards to their fellow citizens as well as inwards to their deepest sense of themselves? These questions may distract from the business of revealing just how intellectually involved many of these elites were.

The most surprising thing about O’Brien’s book is that it isn’t very interested in slavery or the Civil War, perhaps because these topics have so distorted our understanding of Southern intellectual history. The experience of the war – strikingly conveyed in the diary of Mary Chesnut – serves as a kind of coda to O’Brien’s arguments about keeping one’s head in the midst of calamity, but the majority of challenges facing these thinkers are of a different nature. There is much here on the problem of maintaining one’s self as families disintegrate, or certainties in philosophy or religion diminish; there is rather less on how Southerners made sense of the daily contradictions between the world of the book and the world of the lash.

In O’Brien’s defence, he notes that his intellectuals were predominantly urban rather than rural; but this poses the question once again of how ‘Southern’ they actually were, or of how they integrated their personal identities and dilemmas into an evolving nationality that was tied to slavery. Here, his ‘elitism’ is a drawback. O’Brien’s cast of characters gives us only a limited perspective on how intellectuals and Southerners more generally came to see each other as compatriots, perhaps even as co-authors of the moral and political project of the Confederacy. Why, for example, did Robert E. Lee – a Virginian, but a committed Unionist before the election of 1860 – decline an offer from Abraham Lincoln to command the US army, choosing instead to side with Jefferson Davis? Why did the former president John Tyler, another Virginian, throw his support behind the Confederacy in 1861, even though he had vehemently opposed secession? (Tyler remains the only American president to have committed treason against the United States.) O’Brien’s evasion of these questions is understandable, but suggests that a determined focus on intellectuals can obscure as much as it reveals.

He has written that he expects the focus of Southern historiography to move from the 19th century to the 20th, and perhaps even for the Civil Rights struggle to displace the Civil War as the ‘moral centrepiece of Southern history’.[*] Such a shift would acknowledge the unfinished nature of the processes inaugurated by emancipation, and would point towards a South in which a variety of racial and social experiences might be incorporated in economic, social and intellectual history. In Conjectures of Order, O’Brien has bet his hand on this transition taking place: here is a book that, to paraphrase its lucid conclusion, will confuse admirers of Gone with the Wind while drawing readers of To the Lighthouse. But I’m not so sure that this shift will occur, no matter how persuasively Southern historians argue its merits. The Civil War continues to dominate American history (both in print and in the classroom) because it refreshes two powerful ideas about the United States: that the nation makes sense as an integral whole, and that it respects the rights of everyone who lives within its borders. That these ideas are, at best, speculative and, at worst, misleading only confirms why the Civil War will continue to be the engine of American history.

[*] ‘Orpheus Turning: The Present State of Southern History’, in The State of US History, edited by Melvyn Stokes (Berg, 448 pp., £17.99, March 2003, 1 85973 502 9).