Blogs > Cliopatria > Intellectual History: American & Southern

Jan 26, 2007 6:18 pm

Intellectual History: American & Southern

I mentioned several days ago Tim Lacy's call for a revitalization of American intellectual history. Subsequently, he's posted at H-Ideas a plan of action, including a listserv, a caucus within a major existing organization, an annual or bi-annual conference, and a journal. At his blog, Tim announces plans for an American intellectual history group blog.*
*Update: In comments here at Cliopatria, Lacy says that, rather than setting up a separate listserv for American intellectual history, he intends to continue participating in H-Ideas and use the group blog, U. S. Intellectual History for more specialized concerns. If you're interested in joining, you could contact Tim there

In the discussion about the possibility of renewed interest in American intellectual history, an odd thing occurs to me. Thirty-five years ago, when I began teaching and American intellectual history still flourished, a slightly more senior colleague told me and subsequently published the claim that the South had no intellectual history before 1890. It was an astonishingly ignorant claim, even then. Had he never heard of Thomas Jefferson? Of John C. Calhoun? Or did he actually believe that they functioned in an intellectual vacuum? That colleague subsequently taught American intellectual history for, oh, another thirty years at a reasonably good liberal arts college. They even gave him the department's only endowed chair. Fortunately for his students, his course in American intellectual history always began around 1890.

But I mention that only to point out that Southern intellectual history has never been so well-represented as it is now. I'd love to hear my former colleague's reaction to that. The Southern Intellectual History Circle is one of the livelier small groups of historians who meet annually. And few fields of American history have been better served in recent years by magisterial work like Michael O'Brien's Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 (2 vols., 2004) and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview (2005).

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Oscar Chamberlain - 1/26/2007

I am going to do this point by point.

1. "I appreciate your instinct to mediate, but in this case I think that you are, simply, wrong."
I like to think of myself as trying to understand, rather than mediate (though I admit I have mediating tendencies)

2. "You may be inclined, like some others, to dismiss thought with which you don't agree as not-thought."

Not guilty on that one. I began my comment saying that your colleague was wrong about there not being a southern intellectual history. That wasn't simply rhetorical; I meant it. When I called Calhoun brilliant, I meant that, too. I think Genovese has a point when he has argued that there are writers worth examining closely. I also think that it is particularly challenging because of the issue of slavery.

3. "that led my colleague to say and publish a dumb observation."
Here I am guilty. I missed your original statement that he published that opinion; my comments were predicated on a more private opinion, not necessarily considered with the same care as a published remark.

4. "unless you've read some of Fox-Genovese & Genovese, O'Brien,"
As I said, I have read E. Genovese on this topic. (I have read O'Brien on other topics.) I simply was indicating that I had not read the works that you mentioned, and something in them might lead me to change my mind.

5. However, I do stick to my main point, which, based on what I know now, is this.

American political thought divided sectionally in the antebellum period; the division worsened with time. An important reason for the divide was that a great deal of the southern political writing was tied up in the defense of slavery.

The Civil War and its aftermath encouraged intellectuals elsewhere to largely ignore their political thought. By being discounted, this thought was, in a sense, lost. It retained historical importance but was not perceived as still part of a living tradition, except by a few.

[Something I did not mention earlier, but that goes here: the tendency of non-southerners to conflate the nation and the north did not help.]

Correctly or not, I assumed that your colleague might have been confusing historic importance with current importance as part of the national (probably northern) living tradition.

This is wrong, but if he approached his field by beginning with the present and looking backward--a not uncommon tendency when one is concerned with the evolution of thought in recent history--then it is at least comprehensible.

But you are right that he should have thought the question through much more carefully .

Tim Lacy - 1/26/2007


Thanks for your attention to our efforts. I want to publicly state, however, that for the near future we have withdrawn our plans for a new listserv in favor of posting within H-Ideas. The blog site will be used for tossing around smaller topics, technicalities, and more amorphous ideas with which we don't want to clog H-Ideas.

All the best,

Tim Lacy

Ralph E. Luker - 1/26/2007

Oscar, I appreciate your instinct to mediate, but in this case I think that you are, simply, wrong. And maybe wrong because you may be inclined, like some others, to dismiss thought with which you don't agree as not-thought.
Whether you're talking about the ante-bellum's pro-slavery thought that Larry Tyse published about (and which was in dialogue with both New England and European intellectual traditions) or the peculiarly Southern post-bellum "lost cause" tradition that Gaines Foster published about or the black thought about which I and others have published, the South was awash in ideas. And, frankly, unless you've read some of Fox-Genovese & Genovese, O'Brien, Tyse, Foster, and others, I'm afraid you're working off the same instinct of distaste that led my colleague to say and publish a dumb observation.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/26/2007

"Thirty-five years ago, when I began teaching and American intellectual history still flourished, a slightly more senior colleague told me and subsequently published the claim that the South had no intellectual history before 1890."

Your colleague was wrong, of course. There is a large and fascinating history, well worth studying. Yet when I consider John C. Calhoun I get a sense of how he could have drawn that conclusion.

Calhoun was brilliant. He thought carefully about a number of issues, but over his career he bent those skills and much of his writing to one purpose, the defense of a slave-owning South. He did so to the point that it is hard to tell in his political writings where political advocacy ends and a more objective analysis of the world around him begins.

After the Civil War his thought, like the thoughts of many other white southerners, were as water poured onto sand. His insights into political economy (free and slave) and constitutional order were lost.

To some extent that was simply because he was on the losing side. The winners did not simply write the history; they ignored whatever intellectual accomplishments that their enemy might have claimed.

But to a considerable extent, Calhoun's own skill at uniting his brilliance with a states' rights defense of slavery made it very difficult to separate wheat from chaff in his own writings. I have not read the works by the Geneoveses' and O'Brien that you mention, but I have read some of Eugene Genovese's earlier discussion of the the antebellum Southern intellect. He does a masterful job of reclaiming some of that wheat, but it took a masterful job to do it.

In short, I think your colleague's comment was true in this sense: The Civil War turned antebellum southern thought into a cul-de-sac. To my knowledge, Calhoun and other antebellum southern intellectuals had no heirs. Influence, perhaps, but no one to call them their intellectual fathers.

Post script on Jefferson: I think there is an older tendency to conflate (incorrectly) southern white thought with the thought that emerged largely after the War of 1812.

With that in mind, I suspect your colleague did not count Jefferson as simply southern. At one level ridiculous indeed, but again, from that post-1812 perspective, not without merit.

Jefferson lived in a time when the intellectual winds flowed from north to south (and south to north) and back again. Example: Jefferson influenced and was influenced by John Adams. And even when neither was influenced by the other, they listened.

Calhoun was part of the generation that--on all sides--stopped listening so carefully to their sectional opponents. The streams of thought diverged. After the Civil War, the North's flowed on easily. The South's could not, and did not, do the same.

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