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Liberty and Order in the Slave Society

Conservatism and Southern Intellectuals, 1789-1861: Liberty, Tradition, and the Good Society, Adam L. Tate, University of Missouri Press, 402 pages

Adam Tate begins his study of antebellum Southern conservatives with a short but incisive discussion of what conservatism means in a country born of revolution and without a feudal past. This is well-worn territory, but Tate’s treatment is, if not entirely original, certainly perceptive. He rejects the 20th-century liberal line that held the South to be, in the words of Louis Hartz, “an alien child in a liberal family, tortured and confused, driven to a fantasy life.” Instead, Tate argues, “the United States could be both conservative and radical, in an eighteenth-century sense, at the same time.” The several conservatisms of the South, seeking to cultivate tradition in a new land and safeguard liberty in a slave-owning society, are special instances of this quintessentially American paradox.

Conservatism and Southern Intellectuals examines three pairs of Southern intellectuals: John Randolph of Roanoke and John Taylor of Caroline, Virginians both and more Jeffersonian than Jefferson himself; the Southern nationalists and literary men Nathaniel Beverly Tucker and William Gilmore Simms; and, from the Hamiltonian side of the Southern psyche, the Whig humorists Joseph Glover Baldwin and Johnson Jones Hooper. Except for Randolph and perhaps Taylor, these men and their ideas remain largely unknown beyond the academy. Tate’s work is above all a contribution to scholarship, yet it is accessible enough to introduce the layman to these important and problematic figures. The varieties of conservatism here—and Tate pays careful notice to the distinctions both between and among the three pairs—are a neglected chapter of America’s intellectual history.

Politically, as Tate shows, there was little to separate Randolph from Taylor. Together they represented the “Principles of ’98,” the states’ rights doctrines of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and they stood athwart any measure that smacked of political centralization. They were as laissez faire in their political philosophy, both in economics and in their view of state’s proper role in society, as any American statesman has ever been. Tariffs, internal improvements, the Bank of America, and militarism were anathema to these Old Republicans, whose principles Randolph summarized as “love of peace, hatred of offensive war, jealousy of the state governments toward the general government; a dread of standing armies; a loathing of public debts, taxes, and excises; tenderness for the liberty of the citizen; jealousy, Argus-eyed jealousy of the patronage of the President.” He and Taylor had been early supporters of Jefferson, but his second administration disappointed them sorely. Randolph in particular came to see the Republic as already in decline, subverted by the ambitions of the executive.

Taylor and Randolph were not so similar in their social philosophies. Taylor, an agrarian who “viewed happiness as possession of family, farm, and leisure,” had no great love for organized religion, social hierarchy, and other such traditional institutions. Randolph, by contrast, was deeply influenced in his ideas of community and culture by Edmund Burke and the writers of the Augustan Age of English letters. As Tate puts it, “Randolph’s social vision was not one of provincialism”—let alone of Taylor’s individualism—“but of humanism and civilized discourse in the Western tradition.” Both men had reservations about Western expansion, but for different reasons: Randolph believed westward migration would uproot Southern communities, while Taylor thought the West was (in Tate’s words) “heavily subsidized by the government and capitalist interests.” As for slavery, Taylor simply thought blacks incapable of liberty. Randolph, who professed to be a friend to blacks, nevertheless defended slavery as ideally a kind of benevolent paternalism. In a letter to Andrew Jackson, he claimed he would never treat his slaves as roughly as the U.S. Navy treated its sailors—“In seven years the same quantity of punishment would not be distributed among the same number of slaves as was inflicted in a voyage of three weeks from Hampton Roads to Portsmouth.”

Yet fatefully, as a congressman Randolph became one of the first politicians—if not, as Henry Adams thought, the very first—to tie slavery to states’ rights in an appeal to Southern interests. He hoped to use slavery’s popularity to resuscitate flagging support for the Principles of ’98 and to make the case that the South had much to lose by going to war with Britain in 1812. Randolph failed: the South supported the war anyway, enthusiastically, and there was no renascence of Jeffersonian decentralism. But the line of argument he pioneered soon took on a life of its own.

Nathaniel Beverley Tucker was Randolph’s half-brother and his successor in more ways than one. He inherited Randolph’s slaves as well as his hatred of consolidated power. But Tucker’s political career was not nearly as distinguished as his kinsman’s, and he found greater success—and happiness—as a novelist and a professor of law at the College of William and Mary. Tate pairs him with William Gilmore Simms, a South Carolina native who became the old South’s most prolific man of letters, as representatives of a turn toward Southern nationalism. Retaining many of the decentralist principles and much of the rhetoric of the Old Republicans, Simms and Tucker hardened in their support for secession and slavery. The peculiar institution that Taylor and Randolph had acknowledged, however reluctantly, as an evil, Simms and Tucker defended as a positive good.

For all that, Tate shows that the conservatism of Tucker and Simms was not merely window dressing for their proslavery views. On the contrary, following Eugene Genovese, Tate argues that these antebellum intellectuals perceived in slavery an alternative to the creation of an urban proletariat of the sort that existed in Europe and threatened revolution throughout the mid-19th century. “They provided vigorous defenses of slavery and argued that the institution benefited southern society by excluding European working class radicalism,” he writes. Tucker and Simms, no less than Randolph and Taylor, were concerned with “how southerners could create a society that respected both tradition and liberty without threatening either.” They saw slavery as a means toward that end.

Secession also became a means toward that end for Tucker and Simms, and they lent their literary talents to the task of constructing a Southern national consciousness. Simms put it plainly: “My novels aim at something more than the story. I am really, though indirectly, revising history.” He wrote to a friend, “A national history, preserved by a national poet, becomes, in fact, a national religion.” Tucker, for his part, “had been an advocate of secession for most of his adult career,” according to Tate, and in 1836 published a successful novel, The Partisan Leader, in which a Southern confederacy arises to resist the tariffs of President Martin Van Buren. But it was not economics driving Tucker’s secessionist inclinations, rather it was his belief that under Jackson and Van Buren, if not earlier, the old confederated Republic had died, replaced by a unitary state too large to love. As he wrote to Congressman William Porcher Miles, “it is in small communities only, that the love of country is found to grow, with the intensity of those passions, which account life as worthless, in comparison with the honor of a wife, the purity of a daughter, or even a wanton’s whim.”

Tate’s final set of subjects, the Whig humorists Joseph Glover Baldwin and Johnson Jones Hooper, shared the sectionalist sympathies of Simms and Tucker but had a broader political philosophy quite different from those of the other intellectuals covered in this book. Baldwin and Hooper took their cues from Hamilton and Henry Clay rather than Jefferson and John Randolph, though they shared with the others a dislike for Andrew Jackson. (“He found a confederacy—he left an empire,” wrote Baldwin.) Their Whiggism was more ideological than partisan: like the Old Republicans and their successors, Hooper and Baldwin distrusted political parties, feeling that they led to dissension and disregard for the common good. But they supported economic policies that had been repugnant to Taylor and Randolph: internal improvements, protective tariffs, a larger army and navy to protect commerce, and the Bank of the United States.

Baldwin and Hooper differed in style as well. Their satirical flair contrasts strikingly—and favorably, it must be said—to the loftier rhetoric of Tucker and Simms, if not Randolph himself. The synopses Tate provides of Hooper’s stories, in particular those recounting the schemes and misadventures of the fictional Captain Simon Suggs, almost by themselves justify the cost of the book. Many of these tales were drawn from Hooper’s own experiences—as a census official in Alabama, for example:

    Hooper encounters Mrs. Naron, who named her young son Thomas Jefferson. The toddler, when Hooper met him, did not wear any pants or diaper and soon urinated on the floor. Hooper relates that Mrs. Naron called to her son but he ‘did not heed the invitation, but continued to dabble and splash in a little pool of water, which had somehow got there, as proud, apparently, of his sans-culottism, as ever his illustrious namesake could have been of his.’

Jefferson, Jackson, religious revivalists, and Captain Suggs’s parents are just a few figures of authority and piety that serve as objects for Hooper’s ridicule. But Tate finds that there is a conservative philosophy behind this lampooning and the more genteel humor of Baldwin. Hooper and Baldwin criticized the failures of traditional authorities on the frontier so as to dramatize the conflict they perceived between unbounded freedom and needed order.

“The West created a conceptual problem for conservatives,” according to Tate. “Traditional institutions, Burke contended, not only ordered human affairs but also protected the individual from direct influence of the government. Traditional institutions thus preserved freedom. Baldwin agreed with Burke, but he noted that America, particularly in the West, had very few organic traditional institutions to defend.” To preserve liberty and establish a viable social order, these satirists first set about exposing the old institutions that were not up to the task: “Baldwin and Hooper inverted the ideas of Edmund Burke.”

Whether their efforts can rightly be called conservative is a matter of debate. The six intellectuals surveyed by Tate subscribed to widely divergent ideas of community and the good society, even while they held certain political principles in common. Tate set himself a difficult task in attempting to connect men with views as disparate as John Randolph’s and Johnson Jones Hooper’s—linking them closely enough that they can be said to have a shared political philosophy, while leaving their differences stark enough to illustrate the intellectual diversity of Southern conservatism. Yet Tate largely succeeds. Conservatism and Southern Intellectuals is a thought-provoking and carefully argued work that, even when it fails to persuade in all its particulars, never fails to put compelling questions before the reader. That, and the service Tate has rendered in bringing these obscure figures to light, makes the book well worthwhile.