The Abbeville Institute was founded in 2002 by a group of scholars in history, literature, philosophy, religion, and other disciplines who conducted a conference on “Modernity and the Southern Tradition” at the University of Virginia. We were concerned that the Southern tradition is no longer taught in colleges and universities except as a function of the ideological needs of others. With few exceptions, the Southern tradition is presented as little more than the story of racism and slavery. Eugene Genovese, a distinguished historian of the South—a Northerner and a man of the left—has been a rare voice in criticizing this effort to purge the Southern tradition and its symbols from the American landscape. In the Massey lectures he gave at Harvard in 1994 he had this to say: “Rarely these days, even on southern campuses, is it possible to acknowledge the achievements of the white people of the South …. To speak positively about any part of this southern tradition is to invite charges of being a racist and an apologist for slavery and segregation. We are witnessing a cultural and political atrocity—an increasingly successful campaign by the media and an academic elite to strip young white southerners, and arguably black southerners as well, of their heritage, and, therefore, their identity. They are being taught to forget their forbearers or to remember them with shame.”
The Institute was formed as a response to this intellectual challenge. Its purpose is to critically explore what is true and valuable in the Southern tradition. To this end, we hold summer schools for college and graduate students as well as conferences for academics at colleges and universities. We also conduct educational conferences for the public.
M.E. Bradford called Southern identity “a vital long lasting bond, a corporate identity assumed by those who have contributed to it” which means you do not have to be born into it. Indeed, the Southern tradition is a way of being a certain kind of American. The Southern tradition is older than the United States. The South was the leading section of the Union from the Revolution up to 1860. Of the first 15 presidents, 11 were from the South only 4 from the North. Of Attorney Generals: 14 to 5. Supreme Court Justices 17 to 11. Speakers of the House: 21 to 12. Moreover, all the territory beyond the original 13 States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), was acquired by Southern administrations.
When America was thought of in the 1850s, it was mainly Southerners who came to mind: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Marshall, Jackson, Davy Crockett, Clay, and Calhoun. After the Civil War, America would be identified with Northerners: Lincoln, Webster, Adams, Grant, and Roosevelt. In short, what is called the Civil War was not a conservative act to preserve the Union, it was a violent revolutionary transformation from a federative polity of sovereign States (a kind of Switzerland writ large) into a would-be unitary state. This brought about a shift of political power from the States to the central government and a transformation of American identity.
Consequently, we have inherited two incompatible visions of America: a founding Jeffersonian America based on State and local sovereignty and a Lincolnian America based on centralized bureaucratic national sovereignty. The latter currently dominates. But there are signs the regime has exhausted its moral and intellectual resources, and has become so large as to be dysfunctional. If so, we would do well to revisit that founding Jeffersonian America to see what salience it has for us today. We cannot do so, however, without passing through the Southern tradition which was, and still is, the most loyal to the Jeffersonian inheritance. To do that is to gain a deeper, more differentiated, and more humane understanding of America.
The mission of the Abbeville Institute is to preserve and present what is true and valuable in the Southern tradition. The fellowship has grown to over 170 scholars and associates. Among other activities, the Institute has conducted annual summer schools for college and graduate students, conferences for academics, and educational programs for the public.
The website before you presents the fruits of what we have accomplished in our mission so far.