For much of the past generation historical discussions of southern identity were dominated by the late Eugene D. Genovese, a Marxian scholar who argued that sectional differences were rooted in the “aristocratic,” “seigneurial,” and “pre-bourgeois” outlook of the region’s large planters. Involving as it did a stark repudiation of Charles Sellers’s thesis that southerners shared basic American values and felt guilt over slavery, and Stanley M. Elkins’s argument that American slavery reflected the dynamics of “unopposed capitalism,” [End Page 180] Genovese’s position went largely unchallenged until 1982 when James Oakes’s book The Ruling Race refocused attention on the internal diversity of southern slave owners, few of whom met the criteria to be called planters and some of whom became educated professionals. Unlike Genovese, Oakes argued that small slaveholders imbibed the larger acquisitive and democratic ethos that fueled westward expansion throughout America. Oakes’s book was a tacit invitation to reopen discussions about yeoman farmers and the urban and industrial sectors of southern society, subjects that had lain largely dormant since the work of Frank L. Owsley in the 1950s and Richard C. Wade, Robert S. Starobin, and others in the 1960s.
In his highly original study of antebellum male culture at the university of North Carolina, Timothy Williams adds fresh depth and new dimensions to the ongoing debate over sectional identity. The book advances three major propositions. First, that the principal concern of University of North Carolina (UNC) students was the transition to manhood rather than regional identity. A second closely related theme is that “the individual self” formed the main focus of student consciousness. Finally, and most important, Williams finds that the focus on self was “consistent” with the “middle class or bourgeois culture” (2) that increasingly typified antebellum America.
Evidence for these assertions comes mainly from a study of the University’s “informal curriculum” as revealed in student letters and diaries together with a detailed analysis of some eight-hundred speeches delivered by the members of UNC’s Dialectic and Philanthropic literary societies. In an unprecedented research effort, Williams compiled a data base of some four-thousand questions debated by the two groups, material that fills some twenty-seven bound volumes. These sources reveal a sustained antebellum concern with maturation (manhood defined against boyhood rather than with reference to feminine qualities), self-improvement, and a “romantic view of the individual self’s heroic potential” (11). Student orators sought to emulate Demosthenes, seen as the classical archetype of the “manly, muscular speaker” (87).
Through a careful analysis of the geographic, occupational, and economic backgrounds of UNC students, Williams challenges the assumption that the University was an “elite” institution catering primarily to the sons of wealthy planters. On the contrary his data suggest that Chapel Hill drew students from both the upper and middle strata of southern society. Sons from elite backgrounds arrived with traditional attachments to the culture of honor, reputation, and gentility. In the author’s opinion, however, the University provided an environment in which “middle class values infused the South’s upper class, creating a shared intellectual culture for a southern educated class” (202). Marxist scholars may wince at the idea of an “educated class” and other readers may ask whether formal education will bear the interpretive weight assigned to it here as an engine of bourgeois values in a slave society. Inferential evidence in support of Williams’ argument comes from the fact that 71 percent of students graduating between 1840 and 1859 chose professional rather than agricultural occupations. In this reviewer’s opinion, the book’s strongest and most interesting discussions concern intellectual freedom and the continued willingness of students to discuss and debate issues related to slavery. Long after slavery ceased to be a debatable issue in most southern venues literary societies at UNC debated questions such as “Which have the greatest reason to complain of the white people, the Indian or the slave?” (195). The issue was twice decided in favor of the slave and in 1851 both societies decided that...