- Albert Taylor Bledsoe: Defender of the Old South and Architect of the Lost Cause
Albert Taylor Bledsoe presents formidable challenges to any biographer. Bledsoe distinguished himself in several intellectual fields—theology, mathematics, political and social theory, and constitutional interpretation—thus requiring his biographer to be conversant on a broad range of topics. In addition, few of Bledsoe’s personal papers have survived. Terry Barnhart is to be commended, therefore, for both mastering the various intellectual endeavors into which Bledsoe ventured and for presenting a fairly full picture of the [End Page 206] man, although we learn little about Bledsoe’s family and personal life. But that lack of detail on the private Bledsoe is forgivable: Bledsoe was first and foremost a public intellectual, and Barnhart has filled an inexcusable void by providing us with a carefully researched and persuasively argued examination of a neglected but vital antebellum southern thinker.
Barnhart does a fine job of charting Bledsoe’s fascinating political trajectory—from a conventional Whig who supported the Wilmot Proviso to one who uncompromisingly defended the Confederacy both during and after the Civil War. Born, like Abraham Lincoln, in Kentucky in 1809, Bledsoe graduated from West Point, where he forged a deep and permanent friendship with classmate Jefferson Davis. Bledsoe then practiced law in Springfield, Illinois, in 1839, where he and Lincoln became political allies. Barnhart convincingly demonstrates that Bledsoe was anything but a militant proslavery ideologue during the 1830s and 1840s; his frequent contributions to Whig publications in those years reveal his firm opposition to the expansion of the slavery into the territories. It was only after Bledsoe moved south in 1848 to assume his position as professor of mathematics at the University of Mississippi that he began what Barnhart calls “his odyssey from Unionism to southern nationalism” (p. 47). That odyssey took over a decade. Even in 1860, while teaching at the University of Virginia, Bledsoe remained a moderate and supported the Constitutional Union Party. It was only after Fort Sumter, Lincoln’s call for troops, and the secession of Virginia that Bledsoe became a fully committed Confederate. He remained one until he died in 1877, producing the classic Confederate apologetic, Is Davis a Traitor?, in 1866 and numerous pro-Confederate articles as editor of the Southern Review from 1867 until his death.
One of the strengths of Barnhart’s book is to demonstrate that Bledsoe’s political odyssey can be appreciated only by understanding that “metaphysics and theology remained his ruling passions” (p. 58). Ordained a minister in the Episcopal Church in 1836, Bledsoe forcefully promoted his unorthodox but essentially Arminian views [End Page 207] in two great treatises, An Examination of President Edwards’ Inquiry into the Freedom of the Will (1845) and A Theodicy; Or, Vindication of the Divine Glory (1853). Barnhart correctly views these two texts as fundamental to any proper understanding of Bledsoe, and he wisely analyzes them within the context of nineteenth-century theological disputes that had little sectional or overtly political dimensions. But Barnhart recognizes that even during Bledsoe’s most political moments, such as his work as a Whig editor in Illinois, his theological convictions informed his political perspective. Although he rejected predestination and Calvinist notions of original sin, Bledsoe insisted that “there is a fountain within—in the profoundest depth of man’s nature—which is continually sending forth its streams, unless purified, to disturb the free actions of every good thing on earth.” This dark view of human nature led Bledsoe, even as a northern Whig, to be skeptical of “political dreamers . . . who fondly imagine that the manifold disorders of the world proceed almost exclusively from bad organizations of society” (p. 35). The mania for reform that “these reckless schemers” promoted arose from a false and dangerous view of human nature. Barnhart ably shows that Bledsoe’s underappreciated masterpiece, An Essay on Liberty and Slavery (1856), restates and elaborates upon the theological beliefs—and their social and political implications...