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BOURBONISM, RECONSTRUCTION, AND THE PERSISTENCE OF SOUTHERN DISTINCTIVENESS George C. Rabie Historians have searched long and inconclusively for the "mind of the South," an idea that has often seemed every bit as elusive as the "American character." The quest has proceeded haltingly, impeded by difficult problems of definition and emphasis. Too often the southerner has become a stock character or, more accurately, an ideal type whose virtues and vices are exaggerated and distorted. Intellectual historians have seldom treated southern thinkers with the same care and seriousness applied to other American intellectuals; they have found the region's conservatism and racism unattractive and therefore undeserving of close analysis. Another shortcoming of scholarship in this area hasbeen the choice of sources. Most historians have preferred to take a "highbrow" approach to southern intellectual history by examining the works of literary figures and social thinkers while ignoring newspaper editorials or the speeches and correspondence of politicians (with the exception of John C. Calhoun). Here the question of influence arises. How many southerners , for example, did a novelist such as William Gilmore Simms influence? How many southerners shared hisviewpoint? Simms himself sometimes felt ignored by his contemporaries. Although to measure precisely the impact of particular ideas on a large population is impossible , the historian must search a wide range of sources for such an expansive subject. In addition to these general problems, historians of the antebellum period have been victims of the common propensity to divide history into deceptively neat periods. These scholars have correctly interpreted the Civil War as the central event in southern history, but from this reasonable premise, they have drawn the doubtful conclusion that the war constitutes a watershed. Thus they close their story of southern thought in 1861. Reconstruction historians have in their own way reinforced this decision by dealing primarily with political, social, and economic developments while slighting intellectual ones. Because of this periodization many students have missed an opportunity to explore the impact of the war on southern thought and to interpret Reconstruction in light of the historiography on the antebellum period. 136civil war history Moreover, a serious discussion of southern ideas during Reconstruction would contribute to a clearer understanding of the preceding decades. As C. Vann Woodward has rightly noted, the most curious feature of The Mind of the South is Wilbur Cash's thesis that in fact the South had no mind, only a temperament.1 His book is therefore nearly devoid of references to southern thinkers and analysis ofsouthern ideas. Cash's prototypical southerner is no thinker at all but rather a romantic and often violent frontiersman. For this very reason, this classic has become a curious and misleading landmark in southern intellectual history. Ironically, the starting point of the search for the antebellum southerner 's Weltanschauung is not a book on the South at all but Louis Hartz's striking interpretation of American thought in The Liberal Tradition in America. In attempting to forcenearly all Americans into a liberal mold, Hartz has serious problems with the South. He argues, rather implausibly , that most southerners, including Calhoun, were part of a "reactionary enlightenment"—meaning that they used Lockean formulas for conservative purposes. Recognizing that George Fitzhugh, slavery's most brilliant and atypical defender, hardly fits into this Uberai consensus , Hartz dismisses Fitzhugh's critique of free society as a "fraud" riddled with contradictions and based on racist ideas which could not constitute a genuine alternative to enlightenment ideas.2 After these semantic gyrations, Hartz's America remains safely liberal. By concentrating on Fitzhugh, the southern intellectual who gave Hartz the most trouble, Eugene Genovese has concluded that thevalues of the plantation South were "antithetical" to those of the "bourgeois" North. Whereas Hartz wrote off Fitzhugh as an aberration, Genovese makes him the ultimate spokesman for the planter class. Although admitting that many slaveholders did not find Fitzhugh's views congenial with their own, Genovese nevertheless asserts, but does not prove, that Fitzhugh's ideas were well received and influential in southern intellectual circles.3 Yet he does not explain why this mouthpiece of the plantation South seemed to carry so little weight with southern politicians, newspaper editors, or the southern people generally. If Genovese...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 135-153
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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