FW: Farmer on Tate, _Conservatism and Southern Intellectuals_
- FYI...some Alabama content; humorists J.G. Baldwin and J.J. Hooper are
discussed, for instance.. ajwright@...
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Subject: Farmer on Tate, _Conservatism and Southern Intellectuals_
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-South@... (May, 2006)
Adam L. Tate. _Conservatism and Southern Intellectuals, 1789-1861:
Liberty, Tradition, and the Good Society_. Columbia and London:
University of Missouri Press, 2005. ix + 402 pp. Notes, bibliography,
index. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8262-1567-X.
Reviewed for H-South by James O. Farmer Jr., Department of
History, University of South Carolina Aiken.
Change and Continuity, Variety and Consistency, in Southern Thought
Almost a generation ago Michael O'Brien pointed to the failure of
historians to take seriously and explore objectively the writings and
ideas of antebellum southerners. Since then, an impressive array of
scholars has answered O'Brien's challenge, and southern thought, once
considered an oxymoron, has become a healthy field of study producing
rich fruits. One result is that it is now more commonly recognized
that the Old South, rather than being a stagnant monolith clinging to
tradition while the North embraced progress, was itself varied and
evolving. O'Brien again emphasizes this in his recent magnum opus on
antebellum thought, saying the region "was a moving target, a thing in
process, never what it had been ten years before." Yet there were
also continuities in southern thought. Core essentials remained, even as
Adam Tate's contribution to the historiography of antebellum southern
thought seems to take its cue from this understanding. First, he has
chosen a time frame which allows him to compare and contrast three
generations of thinkers, and to develop the theme of consistency versus
the evolution of southern thought over half a century. Second, in his
selection of thinkers, as his title indicates, he is looking at one of
several possible strands of southern thought--conservatism--rather than
at the whole of it. Yet Tate insists that the South "was not, as Louis
Hartz wrote ... 'an alien child in a liberal family, tortured and
confused, driven to a fantasy life.' Antebellum southern conservatives
simply tried to preserve a measure of tradition within a liberal state"
Tate's method is to examine closely six thinkers, grouping them into
three pairs, "Old Republicans," "antebellum proslavery intellectuals,"
and "Whig humorists," and comparing the two members of each group in
their treatment of states rights, republicanism, slavery, religion,
western expansion, and southern sectionalism/nationalism. This enables
him to assert that each pair shared political ideas, but diverged in
their ideas about the good society, a concept which he carries out with
some, but not complete, success. Devoting three chapters to each pair,
he first provides biographical sketches of them, then examines their
similar political and economic views, and finally turns to their social
views, where he argues for the diversity of their thought. Since these
thinkers did not develop "a common southern social vision to accompany
their states' rights political tradition," Tate maintains that "to
comprehend antebellum southern conservatism, one must understand the
views of society southern conservatives espoused" (p. 7).
The earliest of his subjects, John Taylor of Caroline, was born in 1753,
fought in the Revolution, and published his last work in 1823, a year
before his death. Tate pairs him with fellow Virginian and Old
Republican, John Randolph of Roanoke (1773-1833). His youngest subjects,
southwestern Whig humorists Joseph Glover Baldwin and Johnson Jones
Hooper, were born in 1815 and died in 1864 and 1862. Between these two
pairs, Tate considers the writings of two antebellum proslavery
intellectuals, Virginian Nathaniel Beverley Tucker (1784-1851) and South
Carolinian William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870). The reader may quibble
with Tate's choice of thinkers, or even conclude that they are not a
good sample on which to base his argument, but they do suit his purposes
Tate's first pair, Randolph and Taylor, were activated by their reading
of the English "Country Ideology," their opposition to Alexander
Hamilton's program, and their distress at Jefferson's seeming
capitulation to it (pp. 38-39). They shared political principles and the
view that the state and society should be considered separate entities.
But in their visions of the good society, they diverged. Randolph clung
to tradition, religion, patriarchy, and civility, and could not escape
the sense that society was in decline. Taylor hated aristocracy, was
less religious, more at ease with modernity, and had more confidence in
the power of ideas to improve society. From these differences flowed
their distinct views on religion, the West, slavery, and North/South
sectionalism. These differences, concludes Tate, "weakened the potential
impact of a unified Old Republican southern movement," although he also
says few southerners discovered such differences in their writings (p.
The second twosome, Tucker and Simms, dealt with the same concerns about
liberty and tradition, and faced the same public issues. Tucker's
thought revealed the influence of his half brother John Randolph. After
1833 he was professor of law at William and Mary, but he also wrote
didactic novels, which led to his partnership with Simms, the Old
South's first man of letters. Tucker and Simms held political views that
showed their debt to the Old Republicans, and both became secessionists
early on. Tucker had more use for political parties than did Simms and
became a Whig out of fear of Andrew Jackson's power. In their faith in
progress, within a carefully balanced state, both resembled Taylor more
than Randolph. Yet both blasted the Bank of the United States and the
protective tariff. Their hierarchal social thought was shaped by Burkean
respect for tradition and the proslavery ideology. Both respected
religion, though Tucker was more devout. Both knew the West well,
d its potential, regretted its crudeness, and saw the Old South as the
key to civilizing it. Tate finds little difference in their views on
slavery, concluding that for both it was the virtual panacea for modern
society's ills. Both also embraced southern nationalism as an expression
of interest and ideology. Here Tate's argument for differing social
views is less than convincing.
Baldwin and Hooper provide Tate the opportunity to explore the dilemma
of balancing freedom with tradition in the context of the old Southwest.
These writers used humor and satire to advocate a Whig concept of order
that they saw as crucial to the development of southern frontier
society. Tate's close reading of their thought reveals some differences,
but he is confusing when he asserts that southern Whig conservatism
"differed greatly from the early southern conservatism of the Old
Republicans," and then adds that rather than abandoning the doctrines of
the Old Republicans, Baldwin and Hooper "gave them a modern flavor" (p.
Baldwin, a Virginia lawyer, struck out for the southwest in 1836, went
into politics and wrote humorous sketches of frontier life that were
published as _Flush Times in Alabama and Mississippi_ in 1853. By then
he had moved to California, and thus took himself out of the cauldron of
southern self-consciousness. North Carolinian Johnson Jones Hooper's
life followed a similar path, except for the last part, and led to his
writing a series of stories featuring the frontier rascal Captain Simon
Suggs. He edited a Whig paper in Alabama, endorsed Clay's program, and
became a "Know-Nothing" after the Whigs' demise.
Tate finds Baldwin's and Hooper's political views similar to those of
the Old Republicans except for their support for Whig economic policy.
Their social views, however, differed considerably from their elders',
in large part because of their southwestern perspective. Thus Baldwin
"inverted Burke." That is, while appreciating the importance of
tradition, he understood that "the new institutions of the West were not
organic," and therefore "had to be voluntary in nature" (p. 308). He
concluded that only Whig policies could impose economic order and build
a basis for republican institutions in the anti-traditional West. Hooper
shared this view. His Simon Suggs is not deterred even by the fear of
eternal damnation, and cheats his own father in a game of cards, showing
"the inability of coercion and religion to order modern freedom" (p.
321). Baldwin made the Yankee character who believes the worst
stereotypes about southerners a target of ridicule, thus offering
another basis f!
or southern cohesiveness. He did not become a southern nationalist, but
Hooper did, and he championed racial prejudice and hatred of northern
fanaticism as bonds for southern whites. In the 1850s, unlike Baldwin,
he became increasingly shrill in his calls for southern unity.
Tate makes good use of the writings of his six subjects, and includes a
fifteen-page appendix, placing his argument in its historiographical
context. Here he demonstrates his command of the literature on the
southern mind as he surveys larger trends in the scholarship and then
comments on earlier studies of each of his six subjects. His study
provides a valuable combination of horizontal and vertical analysis of
the intriguing mind of the Old South. Well grounded upper-level
undergraduates could benefit from it, and it would be a good choice for
a graduate course in antebellum southern thought.
. Michael O'Brien, ed., _All Clever Men, Who Make Their Way: Critical
Discourse in the Old South_ (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press,
1982). The list of works is long, but most recently it has been greatly
enriched by two monumental studies: Michael O'Brien, _Conjectures of
Order: Intellectual Life in the American South, 1810-1860_ (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 2004); and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
and Eugene D. Genovese, _The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith
in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview_ (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2005). Neither of these works was available to Tate.
. O'Brien, _Conjectures of Order_, p. 5.
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