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Blood & Spirit of the People

Monday, February 20, 2017 22:42
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Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University, explained in her book A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860 that the romantic nationalism which swept across the Occident in the 1800s had a profound impact upon the world-view of Southern leaders. It was a better fit with their pre-Modern (or anti-Modern) values and the inegalitarian, racial order of Dixie than was the Enlightenment rhetoric of Jeffersonian Democracy which had previously prevailed. Faust writes of Southern poet and novelist William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870) and his colleagues and friends in the informal intellectual group known as the Sacred Circle:

Through biography Simms hoped not just to derive lessons from a single life, but to approach the spirit of a people and to define the relationship between the extraordinary individual and his time. Tortured by the need to find his own place, Simms sought to explore the problem historically. Great men, he concluded, “represent the moods as well as the necessities of a race”; they were the supreme expression of the spirit of the people. In an age that increasingly recognized the masses as the ultimate source of all wisdom, the member of the Sacred Circle sought convincing legitimation for the authority of the few. The genius, they suggested, should be recognized as superior to the people simply because he was the quintessential emanation of them; he understood them better, [George Frederick] Holmes suggested, than they did themselves.

Biography was useful, therefore as an instrument to approach “the moods as well as the necessities of a race,” to endeavor, in other words, to understand national character, for this was the overriding purpose of historical inquiry. The belief in a moral and intellectual spirit peculiar to a nation was central to the conception these Southerners shared about the study of the past. In the conventions of nineteenth-century Romanticism, “nation” had come to mean not as much a political entity as a people or race, which was the source of national character and the determining force of history. A race, as Simms had explained, had certain “necessities,” certain peculiar characteristics that controlled its experience and could be understood by the historian as rules governing its development. Simms subscribed to the widely held belief in the importance of Anglo-Saxon blood to the origins and maintenance of parliamentary republicanism. This “Teutonic origins” theory, as it came to be known, was embraced by many prominent nineteenth-century scholars, including, for example, George Bancroft, who like Simms was convinced that the success of the British and American government arose from the “Sagacious instincts of the Anglo-Saxon nature” and the “inherent virtues of the Anglo-Saxon stock.”

Note: A Confederate monument in Charlotte, NC which reads “Accepting the arbitrament of war, they preserved the Anglo-Saxon civilization of the South and became Master Builders in a Reunited County” was defaced during the high-tide of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Also note: Governor George Wallace, in his famous 1963 inauguration speech, described Alabama as “this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the great Anglo-Saxon Southland.”


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