Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 / Edition 1

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In this magisterial history of intellectual life, Michael O'Brien analyzes the lives and works of antebellum Southern thinkers and reintegrates the South into the larger tradition of American and European intellectual history.

O'Brien finds that the evolution of Southern intellectual life paralleled and modified developments across the Atlantic by moving from a late Enlightenment sensibility to Romanticism and, lastly, to an early form of realism. Volume 1 describes the social underpinnings of the Southern intellect by examining patterns of travel and migration; the formation of ideas on race, gender, ethnicity, locality, and class; and the structures of discourse, expressed in manuscripts and print culture. In Volume 2, O'Brien looks at the genres that became characteristic of Southern thought. Throughout, he pays careful attention to the many individuals who fashioned the Southern mind, including John C. Calhoun, Louisa McCord, James Henley Thornwell, and George Fitzhugh.

Placing the South in the larger tradition of American and European intellectual history while recovering the contributions of numerous influential thinkers and writers, O'Brien's masterwork demonstrates the sophistication and complexity of Southern intellectual life before 1860.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
O'Brien's prize-winning tome is both an exhaustively researched encyclopedic trove and a skillfully organized monograph. . . . O'Brien's observations on intellectuals and their ideas brim with originality and wit. . . . Historians of the American South . . . should . . . savor this important book.—Journal of Southern History

Provides the most ambitious, sophisticated, and detailed intellectual history of the Old South yet written. Its scale and scope are astonishing, its analysis illuminating, and its prose graceful.—Journal of the Early Republic

The past few decades have witnessed a dramatic increase of interest in the intellectual history of the Old South, and Michael O'Brien has figured prominently in that resurgence. These volumes embody the fruit of more than twenty years' dedication to the works and lives of antebellum southern intellectuals. Their more than 1,200 pages testify both to his immersion in the sources and to his analytic virtuosity. And the book's publication obliges anyone who pretends an interest in southern—or American—intellectual history to grapple with their arguments. Not all will agree with O'Brien's interpretations either of specific texts of the nature of southern society and culture. But even those who disagree with specific points or the broad interpretations will learn much from this often brilliant and always provocative book.—American Historical Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807828007
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 3/29/2004
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 1360
  • Sales rank: 1,043,384
  • Product dimensions: 6.70 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 3.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael O'Brien is University Lecturer in American History at the University of Cambridge and is a fellow of Jesus College. He is editor-in-chief of the Southern Texts Society and is the author or editor of several books on Southern intellectual history.

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Conjectures of Order

Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860
By Michael O'Brien

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

Chapter One

A Moral Terra Incognita

There were many motives for Southerners going north: education, business, politics, religion, vacations, shopping. Then there was kinship. For generations, Northern and Southern families had been moving, intermarrying, visiting, moving again, writing letters, and exchanging cousins. Yet the overall pattern of movement between North and South, South and North, was asymmetrical. More Northerners came South for economic opportunity, if sometimes for their health, while Southerners (though they also sought the main chance) habitually went North to use cultural facilities. On balance, the result of these interchanges was that Northerners knew less about the South than Southerners did of the North. But in neither case did experience often translate into sympathy; indeed, it is striking how early and how deep were mutual suspicions and incomprehensions.

There are many ways to understand these interchanges, but four will be most pertinent to an intellectual history: the Southern experience of Northern higher education, the responses of Southerners traveling as visitors beyond the Potomac, the character of Northern judgments about the adequacy of Southern culture, and the debate all this occasioned within the South about the comparative standing of that culture in American life and beyond.

The structure of education is peculiarly telling, for here the asymmetry was most marked. The student body of Southern colleges was far less cosmopolitan than the faculty. Of the students who attended the University of Virginia between 1826 and 1874, just 1.7 percent came from nonslaveholding states, a total of 155 undergraduates out of 9,160. Of the graduates of the University of North Carolina after 1798, the first Northerner-Oliver Wolcott Treadwell of Connecticut-did not appear on the rolls until 1826, and the second-C. Stephens Croom of New York City-not until 1859. This was a mirror image of the situation in the North, where the faculty members were more local and the students more various, more national. As Francis Lieber the Prussian found to his distress, it was easier for him to get employment in the South than in the North. With the exception of Princeton, few Northern college were hospitable to hiring Southern teachers. However, the number of Southerners who attended Northern colleges was considerable, if much smaller than those educated at home.

The earlier their experience in the North, the less contentious it seems to have been. John C. Calhoun, the Grimké brothers, Stephen and William Elliott, who all graduated before 1815, seem to have experienced little cultural tension. Thomas S. Grimké, who was a protégé of Theodore Dwight, returned to Yale often and, even in 1831, was having his pamphlets issued by a New Haven printer. Alfred Huger, in retrospect, warmed at the memory of his own undergraduate days, as a contrast to the ruin he saw around him in Charleston in 1865:

I was educated at the North, receiving my first impressions of "country" at the College of Princeton, under the tuition of Samuel Stanhope Smith. I remember there, J. B. Ingersoll & Rush & Nicklin and Emlin & Scott & Biddle Wilkinson & Peters-all from Philadelphia, & all prominent, especially Mr. Ingersoll: also Mr. Sergeant! Every State was represented: there was Marshall, son of the Chief Justice & Breckinridge, father of the General, and a french boy from Louisiana, named "Toutant" father of Beauregard-with many others, and from that distant period / 1803 to 1807 / I always thought, & always spoke, as an American, of the North with pride & exultation!

When Frederick Porcher went to Yale in 1825, he found many Southerners among his contemporaries, twenty-four as he was to remember, from a student body of about 300. Porcher thought that Yale "did not at that time number many Southern students." In fact, they represented about 12 percent of the student body. On average, between 1820 and 1860, Southerners represented about 9 percent of Harvard students, 11 percent of Yale's, but 36 percent of those at Princeton, enough for them to have their own institutions. At Yale, most notable was the Calliopean Society, one of the three debating societies, and the one "which all the Southern students joined." Yet intersectional friendships were common. Porcher became friends with Northerners: Thomas Gold Alvord from New York, who lived nearby, Robert James Telfair of the same state ("one of my most cherished associates," who later moved to Georgia), Coburn Whitehead of Philadelphia, Oliver Payser Hubbard of Connecticut, David Bartlett of New York, Erskine and Tryon Edwards of Connecticut (descendants of Jonathan Edwards), David Downes of New Jersey, Ezra Palmer of Boston. With these, Porcher would smoke cigars, play football on the Green, swim in the bay, vacation, and shoot ducks.

As to his educational experience, unlike Thomas Grimké earlier, Porcher was not very much impressed. Until the junior year, it was the common experience to be stuck with a single tutor, often a very young man "who had but recently gone through the same course in precisely the same way." Hugh Blair Grigsby was still less pleased. Soon after arriving, he was explaining to his stepfather in Virginia that instruction at Yale was weak, the classics were neglected, the teaching by very young tutors negligent: "When a student recites his lesson, the tutor makes scarcely any remarks, but passes on to another." He, however, seems to have struck lucky with a somewhat older tutor, a graduate in divinity from Princeton, "the best American classical scholar, I have ever seen ... equal to any tutor in college ... [and] an excellent mathematician." In general, the tutors took themselves too seriously, he thought, by requiring that students bow to them, more so even than the professors and president, who seemed all to be invalids. Predictably, Grigsby liked the Calliopean Society, but was conscious that a New England faculty regarded a collection of Southerners with suspicion, even contempt. His main problem, his bane, was that mathematics was very important at Yale, and Grigsby hated the subject. "The moment I place the [mathematics] book before me, I become so sick, that I am almost incapacitated from attending on my other duties." And why bother with it? After all, no mathematician ever became notable in public affairs: "Examine the history of every orator, and of every writer, and you will find none who ever studied mathematicks attentively." But the faculty prized mathematics above the classics, and hence discriminated against the Southerners, whose values were opposite. The Calliopean Society was full of "very excellent speakers, fine writers, and good classical scholars; and poor mathematicians," who had little hope of taking the highest college honors. Nonetheless, like Porcher, Grigsby took his friends from both South and North, if the list in his commonplace book is reliable. Yet his letters and diaries do show a marked nostalgia for the South, or at least for Virginia: "Fulton of the Senior class is the only Virginian in College; we always call each other 'Virginian.' He is from Richmond Va. we both slept together the other night on the only fine Virginia feather bed in College."

By Christmas Day of 1825, Grigsby was far gone in his mathematical funk, further gone in his sectional interpretation: "The faculty do not treat the Southerners as they should do; if a southerner enters College, the bare fact of his coming from the south, makes him a suspicious character. All they like are those canting hypocritical wretches, who come from New England." In February, the faculty had been deemed "a diminutive and lowminded set." Their values were wrong, as history showed. Calhoun himself had missed out, while "the person who took the highest honor in his class is a preacher in some obscure village in New England." By May Grigsby had taken a leave of absence and was pondering his algebra with a tutor in Wilton, Connecticut. This turned out to be a fortunate absence, since he missed a great rebellion of those who shared his discontent at mathematics. Many students were expelled, and most of the rest left.

The experience of Grigsby's Norfolk friend, John N. Tazewell, the son of Littleton Waller Tazewell, points up a further moral. The younger Tazewell went off to Harvard in 1822 to study with George Ticknor. Ticknor was friendly to Southerners, had known the likes of Hugh Legaré and William Campbell Preston in Europe, had sought the patronage of Thomas Jefferson, and, in turn, been asked to join the faculty of the new University of Virginia. The elder Tazewell sent his son to Harvard, partly for its intellectual benefits, but also to found associations that would be useful in later life. Harvard was a calculation that presumed the economic importance of nationality. As the father explained to the son: "Now you will regard yourself, and be regarded by all others, as a member of a very respectable community, whose interests and reputation it is as much your duty to sustain and advance, by all the means in your power, as it is theirs to support and assist you in your laudable efforts.... You and the college thus become assimilated nay identified, and rely upon it, so soon as you are regarded as a promising 'alumnus' of this 'alma mater,' all concerned in it will aid and assist you both in your literary and even proper pleasurable pursuits, by every means in their power." The elder took this calculation more seriously even than intellectual matters, not because he undervalued the mind, but because he knew that it was possible to learn outside of a college. Later, after his son had migrated to Charlottesville, he wrote: "The question as to your return to the University after the present course I leave entirely to your own decision-With the exception of those studies which require experiment to exemplify and establish the truth of their precepts, there is none which may be as well pursued, and many of them certainly much better employed at home, than at any University whatever, by one aware of the importance of properly disposing of his time, and disposed to employ it to the best advantage." College, that is, was a matter of acquiring society, as well as knowledge, and Littleton Waller Tazewell, for one, felt that Harvard and the North offered a valuable connection. And Tazewell was not a man to spend money idly.

These early Southern students in the North show marked local sensitivities, but less of a political response. For Grigsby it was the balance of mathematics and the classics, not slavery, that marked the gulf. Southerners knew they were moving among "strangers," whose odd ways needed definition, but not always strangers who threatened survival. With the onset of abolitionism, the mood changed. This can be traced even among older alumni, the men from North and South who had once inscribed each other's yearbooks. Take the case of William Elliott of South Carolina, the author of Carolina Sports by Land and Water, the closet dramatist, the essayist, the rice and cotton planter from Beaufort. Elliott had attended Harvard from 1807 to 1808, he had many friends in the North, he visited often. Indeed, his account of attending the commencement exercises at Harvard in 1836 cautions against drawing too firm lines between North and South, even after William Lloyd Garrison had asserted his refusal to equivocate. For at the Phi Beta Kappa dinner in that year Elliott heard Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom he describes as "a son of Doctor Holmes (mother's old friend)," deliver in verse "a hard hit at the Abolitionists." Elliott frequented parties in Boston, to observe that "[t]here are many Carolinians here and hereabouts-Stephen Elliott & Wife & Phoebe-remain a week longer-Mr. & Mrs. Nott & Miss DeSaussure are here. The Heywards & Cuthberts are just gone for N. York."

In 1847 William Elliott received a letter from an old Harvard classmate, William Plumer of New Hampshire. Elliott had just published Carolina Sports, it had been noticed in the North American Review, and Plumer had written a friendly letter of reminiscence about their old days in 1808, of the Hasty Pudding Club and of Elliott declaiming on Coriolanus. He sent along a copy of his own book, Lyrica Sacra; or, War-Songs and Ballads from the Old Testament. Elliott reciprocated the gesture with a copy of Carolina Sports. "I retain like yourself a lively interest in my classmates and shall always rejoice to hear of their prosperity," he told Plumer. "I have frequently met those who resided in Boston and received from them, tokens of respect and hospitable attentions that I can never forget." All this was amiable. But Elliott could not repress an observation and a resentment. In his visits North in recent years, he had tended to stay away from Harvard, not only to avoid spoiling pleasant memories with recent realities, but because he was aware of "a difference in the tone" which had grown "out of political and sectional estrangement." To his regret, "[t]he condition to which I was born-and which has attached to me throughout my life-that of a slaveholder-seems now a matter of offense-and degrades the [slaveholder] to the [position] of moral inferiority." From this, Elliott turned to a brief autobiography and noted that he had "published some papers in the Southern Review" and promised to send along a pamphlet or two.

Plumer replied with courtesy, disclaiming all partisan views on slavery, insisting he saw no moral inferiority in his old friend, blaming fanatics and mischievous politicians North and South for the controversy, saying that there were two sides to every question, knowing that Elliott was sincere. And yet Plumer too could not repress an observation and a resentment: "The language of such men does not indicate the true state of feeling in the mass of the people here, & still less in the more intelligent among us. We believe slavery to be morally, politically, & economically wrong-a wrong & an evil; & we think it our duty, so far our right extends, to labour for the removal of this evil & this wrong; & especially, at the present time, to prevent its extension to new territory." Plumer was very anxious to be fair. To be sure, he said, "In the same circumstances, our conduct would probably be the same as yours; & yours the same as ours, if you were in our situation." The generosity of this, however, must have been weakened for Elliott by the next sentence: "But this does not touch the question of the right, or the expediency of slavery." Nor could Elliott have been pleased by Plumer's belief that "[o]pposition to slavery did not begin with the politicians here. It is a moral feeling; which has been growing stronger & stronger, for many years; & it will, as we believe, work its way ultimately through the Union-slowly but surely, &, as we hold, beneficially for all concerned."


Excerpted from Conjectures of Order by Michael O'Brien Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Volume 1
Introduction: The Position and Course of the South
Book One: The Softened Echo of the World
1. A Moral Terra Incognita
2. Strolling Foreigners
3. European Attachments
4. The Big Valleys of the World
Book Two: All the Tribes, All the Productions of Nature
5. Types of Mankind
6. The Sex of a Human Being
7. A Heterogeneous Mass from All Nations
8. The Fabrics of Their Own Country
9. Our Fictitious Social Scale
Book Three: A Volley of Words
10. A Murmurous Sea of Conversation
11. Private Impartments
12. Chaotic Order of Books
13. The Honors of Authorship
Volume 2
Book Four: The Shape of a History
14. Retrospective Glances
The Qualifications and Duties of an Historian
Of Ancient and More Modern Times
To Discover, Procure, Preserve, and Diffuse
The Ancestral Mould
The Unities of Biography
As to My Self, What Shall I Say?
15. To Write a People
The Science of Criticism
The Rationale of Verse
Novels and the Like
Book Five: Pride and Power
16. Our Present Peculiar, Complicated, and Remarkable System of Governments
The Virginia Construction
The Horn-Book of Politics
South Carolina Doctrines
The Great Principles of Democracy
Power and Liberty
Clustering Groups
17. As If Money Was the Most Important Matter in This World
Political Economy Will and Must Be Our Judge
We Can Take Care of Ourselves
18. Our Slavery Question
Not So Much through Principle as from Necessity
A Moral Pathology
Book Six: Philosophy and Faith
19. The Dim Land of Vagaries
The Numberless Brood of the Scotch Metaphysicians
We Regard Man as Inherently a Being of Motion
Cloudy Transcendentalism
20. Theology for the South
Persuasions Different from Her Own
The Adoption of Sons
Epilogue: The Imprisoned Bird
21. Cool Brains
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