This essay is a chapter from The South in the Building of the Nation series, History of the Social Life.

The solidarity of public opinion in the South has been so often commented upon that it is difficult to realize the heterogeneous elements employed in making her population. The “solid South” is not only a political but in many respects a social and even a religious fact, so confirmed has the section become in conservatism and orthodoxy. First by reason of slavery and then of the war and then of reconstruction, the people have been bound together by the strongest of ties. They have acted together and thought together. The popular tradition that has been cherished as most typical of the South is that of the Virginia Cavalier—his hospitality, his refinement, his chivalric spirit. Widely different as are other elements of the population, they have all been modified to some extent by this tradition. It is strange that some historians still speak of the War of Secession as if it were a renewal of the old conflict between the Puritans and Cavaliers.

Diverse Elements in Southern Society.

It is well to remember, however, that there are many diverse elements in Southern society, all of them suggesting a background of European influences. The Huguenots of South Carolina, the ScotchIrish of the Piedmont section and of the southwest, the French and Spanish of Louisiana, the Spanish and Germans of Texas; at a later time, the great Methodist and Baptist churches—constituting an increasing middle class—all of these types have been important factors in Southern civilization. Some of them are picturesque survivals in an industrial and democratic republic, destined yet, when the solidarity of opinion and of life has been broken, to play a commanding part in a more complex civilization. The various commonwealths and cities, viewed in the light of their origins and early history rather than of their later, suggest a diversity of ideas, customs and traditions that must inevitably lead to a finer social and political life in the years to come.

Along with the solidarity of public opinion there has been a marked provincialism, commented upon by all outsiders and admitted even by Southern writers. For the reasons already indicated the South was for nearly three-quarters of a century largely shut out from the influences of modern life and modern thought. If, as Charles Dudley Warner says, “the root of provincialism is localism, a condition of being aside and apart from the general movement of contemporary life,” then the South was provincial. It is well to remember, however, that prior to the time when slavery became a fixed economic and social institution, Southern cities and states were the most cosmopolitan sections of the country—they were most sensitive to European influences. At the time when the sections met each other in the councils of the Revolutionary period, New England leaders were far more provincial than the great leaders of Virginia, who had a certain lordly compass of mind that made them citizens of the world. Virginia Cavaliers, as represented in Thackeray’s The Virginians, and as seen in the journals and letters of the Eighteenth century, were in close touch with their kinsmen across the waters —in trade, in learning, and in social customs and traditions. In South Carolina, especially in Charleston, the contact with English and Scottish universities and the survival of French influences among the Huguenots, served to make Charleston more cosmopolitan than Boston in the early years of the Nineteenth century. Josiah Quincy, on a visit to that city, was so struck with its architectural beauty and its cultivated society, as to remark that he found there what he never expected to find in America. In Mobile and New Orleans, the French and Spanish rule, attended as it was by European ideals of architecture, education and dramatic art, served to keep intact the life and society of the Old World. Southern universities, notably the universities of Virginia and South Carolina, were among the first in the country to feel the influence of foreign institutions in the changes of curriculum and in the constitution of their faculties.

Some of these European influences in Southern life it is our purpose to set forth, or, rather, suggest. Limitations of space demand that the settlement and early history of the various colonies be taken for granted, so well known are they to the student of American history. The coming of the Cavaliers after the establishment of the Commonwealth in England, the later migration of the ScotchIrish by way of Pennsylvania, the mingling of the Huguenots and English in South Carolina, the influence of the constitution of Locke and Hobbes on the state governments of the Carolinas, the settlement of the Spanish in Florida, and of the French and Spanish in Louisiana, and of the Catholics in Maryland may well be passed over in this paper. Nor is it necessary to speak of all foreigners who exerted a strong influence in various communities; for in nearly every state there were certain teachers, or preachers, or publicists, who gave impetus to individual lives. Almost any city has its romantic stories that look across the seas; and Southern biographies have much to say of traits inherited from remote ancestors. We may admit, too, the influence of foreign literature on individual writers, or the social influence of brilliant women, like Madame Le Vert, of Mobile, who first in that city, and later in Washington, and later still in the capitals of Europe, reigned with undisputed charm.

English Influence in the South.

The most striking European influence in the South —extending even to the war—was naturally that of England. The close contact between Virginia and the mother country may best be seen in the career and personality of William Byrd, the brilliant merchant and publicist of the middle of the Eighteenth century. Descended, like so many other Virginians, from distinguished English ancestors, he was educated in London, lived there for a number of years on intimate terms with some of the most prominent men of Queen Anne’s reign, established himself at Westover, which was one of the most picturesque reproductions of English rural estates, and collected the largest and most significant library in the colonial era. The catalogue of his library indicates that he was familiar not only with the classical writers, but with the contemporary writings of Swift, Addison, and other writers of the Augustan age. His own charming style—the perfection of good breeding—derives from English contemporaries. His daughter, Evelyn Byrd, was one of the social lights, not only of colonial Virginia, but of London, where she is reputed to have been beloved by the dashing Earl of Peterborough.

English culture thus typified in William Byrd was characteristic of all the most prominent families of Virginia, many of whose sons were educated at Eton, Oxford or Cambridge. Rich old mahogany furniture, finely wrought silverware, portraits by London artists, and mellow Elzevirs and Lintots are precious heirlooms in many Virginia homes.

The same may be said of Charleston. Travelers were impressed with the cosmopolitan air of that city. Duke La Rochefoucault wrote in 1796: “In no town of the United States does a foreigner experience more benevolence or find more entertaining society than in Charleston. * * * Many of the inhabitants of South Carolina, having been in Europe, have in consequence acquired a greater knowledge of our manners and a stronger partiality to them than the people of the northern states. Consequently, the European modes of life are here more prevalent.”

As Virginia’s social life was a reproduction of English rural life, so that of Charleston was modeled after that of London, the rich planters of the surrounding country making the city their headquarters during the winter. Many of these men had amassed enough wealth to travel through Europe as gentlemen of leisure. Out of 114 American students in the various law schools of London during the colonial period forty-four were from South Carolina. The young doctors generally went to Edinburgh, and the merchants to France and Holland. Hence we have in the first year of the Nineteenth century a group of highly cultured leaders. Hugh S. Legare, himself a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and for a while the leader of social and literary circles in Charleston, was editor-in-chief of the Southern Review (1828-1832), modeled after the Edinburgh Review. He was justified, perhaps, in claiming, in one of the early numbers of his magazine, that the attainments of Charlestonians in polite literature were far superior to those of their contemporaries in the North, and the standards of scholarship in Charleston were much higher than any other city on the continent.

Evidences of the culture of Charleston are found, not so much in literature as in the establishment of her well equipped library, her philosophical society, her interest in science as attested by the lectures of Agassiz on the glaciers of Switzerland at Charleston College in 1849, and in the patronage of art by various Charlestonians. Ralph Izard, especially, did much to create an art “atmosphere” by securing pictures of himself and family from the best contemporary English and American artists. Portraits by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Gilbert Stuart and Copley, and miniatures by Malbone, Washington Allston and the native Charlestonian, Fraser, for a long time cherished by rich families of the city and of the surrounding country, are now scattered in the art galleries of Europe and America. It is not surprising that Washington Allston should have been born in that region and received his first impulse to an artistic career from his own people.

The culture of Charleston, however, is seen best of all in the architecture of the city, and especially in that of the noble St. Michael’s Church. It is not unnatural that Henry James, in his recent visit to this country, seeking for picturesque features in American scenery in architecture, should have been so “romantically affected” by the city of Charleston, by reason of its very contrast to much contemporary American life and art. “The high, complicated, inflated spire of St. Michael’s produces the impression of grace and form as nothing else in America,” he says. In the sweet old churchyard, ancient authority seemed to him “to sit among the sun-warmed tombs and the inter-related slabs and the extravagant flowers.” “The place feels itself, in the fine old dusty archway, the constituted temple of a faith.” Still more noteworthy is Owen Wister’s tribute to the city in his remarkable novel, Lady Baltimore. Against the background of modern industrialism and democracy he draws an appealing picture of “the most lovely, the most wistful town in America.” “This King’s Port, this little city of oblivion, held, shut in with its lavender and pressedrose memories, a handful of people who are like that great society of the world, the high society of distinguished men and women who exist no more, but who touch history with a light hand, and left their mark upon it in a host of memoirs and letters that we read to-day with a starved and homesick longing in the midst of our modern welter of democracy. With its silent houses and gardens, its silent streets, its silent vistas of the blue water in the sunshine, this beautiful, sad place was winning my heart and making it ache. Nowhere else in America such charms, such character, such true elegance as here.” And, speaking more particularly of the gates and churchyard of St. Michael’s, he adds: “Of these three houses of God, that one holds the most precious flame, the purest light, which treasures the holy fire which came from France.”

French Influences in the South.

The suggestion in the last sentence of the French influence in American life may serve as an introduction to a further consideration of the influence of France on the civilization of the South. In addition to the Huguenot migration, there should be noted the French influence that sprang up in the colonies in the latter part of the Eighteenth century, and during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. It was natural that, after the romantic devotion of French soldiers under the leadership of LaFayette to the American cause, there should have been an effort to mould the ideas of the country in accordance with French ideals. The political influence of France during and just after the Revolutionary War need not detain us here. The writings of Paine and Jefferson, and the political celebrations and fiery speeches of the leaders of the new Republican party, explain the great outburst of democracy. More noteworthy, from the standpoint of American culture, was the grand project of Chevalier Quesnay de Beaurepaire for uniting intellectually America and France. He was the grandson of the famous economist, Doctor Quesnay, Court Physician of Louis XV. Coming to this country with LaFayette, he was wounded in one of the battles of the Revolutionary War. While he was recuperating he traveled rather extensively throughout the country and conceived the idea of improving it by the introduction of French culture and the fine arts. His idea was heartily approved by Mr. John Page, the lieutenant-governor and afterwards the governor of Virginia, who urged him to procure professors from Europe to establish a kind of French Academy of the arts and sciences. Because of the cooperation of a large number of prominent Virginians, he decided to make Richmond the headquarters of the Academy, with branch academies in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. He went so far as to lay the foundation of the Academy building in Richmond, and then set out for France to interest the French Academy and other artistic and scientific societies of France, Germany and England in the project. He believed that the highest special training might be given to American students in foreign languages, architecture, painting, sculpture and the sciences. He succeeded admirably in winning the attention of leading men, and even of the king and queen of France and their court. The plans were brought to naught, however, by the cataclysm of the French Revolution, which began in 1789.

Jefferson’s Interest in Foreign Educational Methods.

Among those most interested in Quesnay’s scheme was Thomas Jefferson, who was at that time representing the colonies in Paris. Jefferson had for a number of years been interested in promoting popular education and in improving the standards of scholarship in Virginia. As early as 1783 he had suggested the modernization of the curriculum of William and Mary College, his alma mater, especially urging that modern languages and the sciences be added to what was then the stereotyped courses in English and American colleges. In Paris, partly as the result of Quesnay’s plans, but more on account of a temperamental interest in education, he began to study the higher institutions of learning in Europe. Always sensitive and even susceptible to contemporary influences, Jefferson’s open mind seized eagerly upon the most progressive ideas then current with regard to higher education. He was, it need scarcely be said, profoundly affected by the political ideas then creating the Revolution in France. He had also been on the lookout for the latest inventions and discoveries and ideas that might be of interest to the American people. Never was there a more cosmopolitan mind than his. During his five years’ life in Europe he kept Harvard, Yale, William and Mary and the College of Philadelphia advised of all new publications that seemed to him important.

As he studied foreign institutions and sought to supply the needs of American colleges he conceived the idea of building a great university for his own state. He saw little hope of making much out of William and Mary. He first thought of transferring to some place in Virginia the entire faculty of the University of Geneva, which had been affected by a political revolution at home. This faculty was composed of some of the most learned scholars of the continent. He was discouraged in his plan, however, by Washington, who thought the plan of importing a body of foreign professors was unwise —for political reasons, as well as on account of their ignorance of the English language. Jefferson, however, became more and more interested in building up some sort of higher institution of learning. As early as 1783 he had planned the Albemarle Academy for his own county. After he retired from the presidency he resumed his plans, but soon changed the name of the institution to Central College, and later to the University of Virginia. He corresponded with many eminent scholars, notably Priestley, a distinguished scientist and writer on political subjects, who had been persecuted in England on account of his Unitarianism. Jefferson hoped to secure books, papers, and scientific apparatus from Priestley, with the idea that a university would be established on a plan “broad and liberal and modern.” Jefferson was also influenced by other foreigners, notably Dupont de Nemours, a friend of Turgot and a well known French economist and philosopher. The latter, while on a visit to this country, drew up a scheme for a complete system of education in the United States, which influenced Jefferson’s plans for the educational development of Virginia. In 1803 Jefferson wrote to Professor Pictet, of Geneva, asking for his ideas on the teaching of science in universities, saying, “I believe every son of science feels a strong and disinterested desire of promoting it in every part of the earth.”

But Jefferson would have been unable to carry out his plans for university education in Virginia if he had not had assistance from prominent men in his own state. In 1806 Joseph C Cabell returned from three years’ travel and study in Europe. He had visited most of the prominent European universities, including those of Italy. He had studied the novel system of Pestalozzi, which he afterwards endeavored to introduce into Virginia. He had heard the lectures of Cuvier and other professors at the College de France. He had visited the universities of Leyden, Oxford and Cambridge. His preeminent interest was in science; and he first tried to get a museum of national history at William and Mary, but Jefferson wrote him that instead of wasting his time in attempting to patch up an existing institution, he should direct his efforts to a higher and more valuable object: “Found a new one which shall be worthy of the first state of the Union.” So Cabell became Jefferson’s most valuable ally; as a member of the legislature from 1809 to 1829, he gave his persistent energy and wisdom to the furtherance of Jefferson’s plans.

When at last public opinion was committed to the establishment of the University of Virginia, Jefferson entrusted to Francis W. Gilmer the delicate and difficult task of selecting the professors in England. Gilmer had come under the influence of Abbe Correa, who was an exile from Portugal and delivered lectures on botany in Philadelphia in 1813. Gilmer met him at Jefferson’s home, and attended his lectures. He considered Correa “the most extraordinary man now living.” ” He has read, seen, understands, and remembers everything contained in books, or to be learned by travels, observations, and of conversations with learned men. He is a member of every philosophical society in the world.” Gilmer corresponded regularly with George Ticknor, when the latter was studying at Gottingen, and with Pictet at the University of Geneva. He purchased many books from abroad, thus becoming a specialist in botany, while at the same time he was one of the leading lawyers of his state.

He therefore thoroughly agreed with Jefferson that the faculty of the university should be composed of specialists, and not of men who had a knowledge of things in general, however cultured they might be. With this in view he embarked for England in 1818, with instructions from Jefferson that the high qualification of the professors would be the only means by which they could give to the new institution “splendor and preeminence over all its sister seminaries.” Gilmer had the aid of such distinguished men as Dugald Stewart, Dr. Parr, Lord Brougham, as well as the universities of England and Scotland. He finally selected Professor Blaetterman, a German, for the chair of modern languages, and four Englishmen, who with two Virginians formed the first faculty. While the experiment of foreign professors was not altogether satisfactory, yet the tradition that was established of securing highly trained men was a new departure in American education. In 1820 there were only two men in the Harvard faculty who had been educated in Europe—Edward Everett and George Ticknor.

While most of the professors were Englishmen, the curriculum of the university was largely determined by the ideas that Jefferson had absorbed from the Continent. The introduction of the sciences, the emphasis laid upon modern languages and even upon Anglo-Saxon, the pioneer work of instruction in political science, the general freedom of the elective system, and the development of single schools within the university were all contributions of first importance to American education. Professor Long established the tradition of first-rate instruction in the classics; when he returned to England in 1828 he left Gessner Harrison as his successor. Long kept Harrison posted on all the latest German discussions in German philology, and thus the students of the University of Virginia were familiar with the labors of Boph before that great man was fully recognized in Germany himself. The wisdom of the introduction of a school of modern languages was seen in the influence thereof on Edgar Allan Poe, who was one of the first matriculates of the university. He took high rank in French, and made his first reputation as a writer by a translation of one of Tasso’s poems. It is a noteworthy fact, as bearing directly on the subject of this discussion, that Poe was the most distinctly European of all American writers.

The influence of the experiment in higher education at the University of Virginia was far-reaching. It gave an impulse to the noteworthy development of state universities during the past half century.

In the Southern states, especially, its prestige has been supreme. Perhaps the most immediate influence was on the University of South Carolina. Jefferson had one disappointment in the selection of his faculty—his inability to hold Thomas Cooper, on account of the objection of the religious organizations to his reputed infidelity. Cooper, like his father-in-law, Priestley, was an exile in this country from England, after having lived in Paris at the most exciting time of the Revolution. Educated at Oxford, he was out of sympathy with all the conservative ideals of England, and as a writer on political subjects gave great impetus to democratic ideals in this country. Successively a lawyer in Philadelphia and a professor of chemistry at Dickinson College, he was elected the first professor at the University of Virginia, Jefferson speaking of him as “the greatest man in America in the powers of his mind and in acquired information—the cornerstone of our edifice.” It was a grievous blow to give him up, but Jefferson had the satisfaction of seeing him elected to the University of South Carolina in 1819. At this institution as professor of political economy and later as president, he exerted a wide influence. By his contributions to the Southern Review, he became one of the main allies of John C. Calhoun in the advocacy of free trade.

His successor was Francis Lieber, who in the course of twenty years’ stay at the university wrote the three works by which he is remembered. Although he never was in sympathy with the institutions of the South and continually fretted at the lack of congenial fellow-workers, he owed much to his position. Born in Berlin, he had studied in the leading universities of his country, and especially under Niebuhr. He had translated French and German works and was in every way alive to contemporary influences, being a most pronounced liberal in his political opinions. He became intensely interesting in his teaching, bringing into his classroom an air of contemporaneousness that must have been particularly significant in South Carolina. One of his first requests of the board of trustees was for an appropriation of $50 for foreign newspapers that his students might know current events as well as past history.

German Influences in the South.

The influence of Lieber suggests the coming into Southern life of German ideas. There is no such movement, to be sure, as that which played such an important part in the culture and literature of New England in the middle years of the century, nor is it to be compared with French influence in the Southern states. And yet there were men here and there who came under the influence of German universities. As early as 1830 a young Virginian was giving lectures on Anglo-Saxon at RandolphMacon College—lectures based on the unpublished researches of German scholars. Professor Gildersleeve gives the best account of what Germany meant to a few young Southerners, who like himself studied at German universities. In his nineteenth year Carlyle introduced him to Goethe, the most important of all the teachers he ever had. Goethe’s aphorisms were his daily food, and he repeated the lyrics over and over to himself in his long solitary rambles. This was the epoch of what he called his Teutomania—the time when he “read German, wrote German, listened to German, and even talked German.” It is not remarkable, then, that he decided in 1850 to go to a German university. Three years at Berlin, Gottingen and Bonn, while giving him special training as a classical philologian, contributed to the widening of his culture. “In the early fifties,” he says, “to see Germany, to enter a German university, to sit at the feet of the great men who had made and were making German scholarship illustrious, was a prospect to stir the blood of aspiring youth.” The spirit of the reproduction of antiquity was ” the formula of the men who taught and of the students who crowded the seminaria and lecture rooms.”

Contemporary with him were two young Charlestonians who afterwards went into law, and a little later Thomas R. Price, who first at Randolph-Macon College and later at the University of Virginia, had such a marked influence on the teaching of English in Southern universities. When the war broke out Sidney Lanier, heeding the advice of Professor Woodrow who had studied under Agassiz and then for two years in Germany, was just on the point of going to Heidelberg. In the seventies a larger number of Southerners went to Germany for their education—men who have had a large part in shaping the educational ideals of the present South. The chancellor of Vanderbilt University, the presidents of Tulane and of the University of North Carolina, the vice-chancellor of the University of the South, not to mention some of the most prominent professors in these and other institutions, received their higher education in Germany. It is a noteworthy fact that Southern scholars were pioneers in the editing of Anglo-Saxon texts in this country. When Johns Hopkins University was established Professor Gildersleeve of the University of Virginia was the first member of the faculty elected; his long and illustrious career is an evidence of the far-reaching influence of Germany on American life.

Nor has the German influence been confined to academic circles. Here and there throughout the South there are most interesting German settlements, notably those in western Texas. Olmsted observed in 1857 that half of the population of western Texas was German. They brought to that state not only industry and a sane mode of living—often in contrast with the slip-shod methods of slaveholders—but a feeling for culture and especially for music that seemed totally at variance with their surroundings. When Sidney Lanier visited San Antonio in quest of health in 1873, he found some musicians who had no little to do with fixing his decision to devote himself to a musical career. The picture he gives in one of his letters suggests a most unusual phenomenon in Southern life. He went one night to the Maennerchor where he found seventeen Germans seated at the singing table. “Long neck bottles of Rhine wine were opened and tasted, great pipes and cigars were all afire; the leader, Herr Thielepape—an old man with long, white beard and moustache, formerly mayor of the city—rapped his tuning fork vigorously, gave the chords by rapid arpeggios of his voice (a wonderful wild, high tenor, such as thou wouldst dream that the old wealth harpers have, wherewith to sing songs that would cut against the fierce sea glass), and off they all swung into such a noble old German full voiced lied, that imperious tears rushed into my eyes. And so— I all the time worshiping—with these great chords * * * we drove through the evening until twelve o’clock.”

Spanish and French Influences in the South.

Lanier was impressed, also, with the striking beauty of San Antonio, and especially with the reminders of Spanish rule and tradition. It goes almost without saying that the most picturesque of all Southern cities is New Orleans, and that the resistance of her social life to the ideals of American civilization has been most persistent. Her very isolation, as well as her long domination by Spanish and French influences, has kept her out from the currents of American life. For this very reason her Spanish architecture and her French customs and traditions have been among the most potent illustrations of European influence in the South. Miss Grace King, in her charming book, New Orleans; The Place and the People, compares the city to “a Parisian who came two centuries ago to the banks of Mississippi—partly out of curiosity for the new world, partly out of ennui for the old, and who, ‘ma foi,’ as she would say with a shrug of her shoulders, has never cared to return to her mother country.” It is needless to attempt here a description of the place or even a suggestion of the wealth of romance that has fascinated all who have ever come within the sphere of her influence. Charles Dudley Warner has characterized New Orleans as “the most cosmopolitan of provincial cities; its comparative isolation has secured the development of provincial traits and manners, has preserved the individuality of the many races that give it color, morals and character, while its close relation to France and the constant influx of Northern men of business and affairs have given it the air of a metropolis.” The Creoles gave the tone to New Orleans; “and it was the French culture, the French view of life that was diffused. French was a study and a possession, not a fashionable accomplishment.”

The native literature of New Orleans, despite the patient work of scholars, is not yet the possession of the American people, but Lafcadio Hearn and George W. Cable have done much to interpret the romance of this city. Much of the fineness of the latter’s remarkable stories must be attributed to his early environment, while the direction of the former’s life was determined in no small degree by his twelve years’ stay in a city where he could feel the charm of a people that still retained the characteristics of childhood. Hearn said in one of his recently published letters: “Now I am with the Latins; I live in a Latin city; I seldom hear the English tongue except when I enter the office for a few brief hours. * * * I see beauty all around me— a strange, tropical, intoxicating beauty. I consider it my artistic duty to let myself be absorbed into this new life, and study its forms and color and passion. * * * This is a land of magical moons and of witches and of war locks; and were I to tell you all that I have seen and heard in these years, in this enchanted City of Dreams, you would verily deem me mad.” And again he says, speaking of a house in the Creole quarter, “I do not believe one could find anything more picturesque outside of Venice or Florence.”

When New Orleans, already feeling the impress of modern civilization, shall have come into its full possibilities as the result of the opening of the Panama Canal, she will occupy a far more commanding place in the life and culture of this country than she has. For the very reason that her unique civilization has its foundation in European rather than in American culture, she will prove a striking contrast to much that is monotonous and even sterile in American life.

And, indeed, when all the influences that have been suggested in connection with Southern communities and commonwealths have been freed from the limitations of the past—limitations due to solidarity and to provincialism—the republic will be the richer. The arrested development of the past may prove a blessing in disguise; the reaction against some of the excesses of modernity may be healthily aided by a section which has such a rich inheritance of romance, chivalry and culture.

Edwin Mims

Edwin Mims (1872-1959) was Professor of English Literature, Trinity College (Duke University) and editor South Atlantic Quarterly. He taught many of the Fugitives and Southern Agrarians.

Leave a Reply