“Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark! what discord follows! Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy”—Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida
One of William Gilmore Simms’ abiding concerns was the almost complete absence of a profession of literature in the South. Prior to the 1850’s the South had produced only two professional writers of any note—Simms, himself, of course, and Edgar Allan Poe. [i] Simms most complete treatment of the theme, an essay entitled “Literary Prospects of the South,” appeared in Russell’s Magazine in 1858 where he argues that the greatest hindrance to the development of a literary culture in the South was the lack of a sufficient number of urban centers that might become, as in the North, the basis of a thriving literary culture. Speaking as a Southern Nationalist Simms argued that the South’s relationship to the Northern industrial powerhouse was one of abject colonial dependence; not merely Southern literature, but Southern civilization itself could achieve independence only through a diversification of its economy. While agriculture would retain pride of place, the South must embrace commerce and industry, as well.
What is striking about Simms’ vision of a South possessed of her “proper independence” is the absence of any apparent concern about the socially corrosive effects of industrialism and the growth of large cities. In his novels and poetry Simms was a skilled purveyor of the pastoralist vision so central to antebellum Southern fiction; as a planter, his deepest loyalties resided in an agricultural vision of hierarchy and stability. Moreover, in “The Social Principle: The True Source of National Permanence” (1843), his most extended reflection on the importance of settled communities as the basis of any civilization worthy of the name, Simms, while he does not overtly attack the rising industrial order of the North, leaves little room for supposing that the Jeffersonian ideal he upholds could flourish under the conditions of widespread anomie generated by the factory system. Given these commitments, we are justified in asking how he could have embraced so enthusiastically the movement for a diversified southern economy and, in so doing, assume a position that defied the communal wisdom of most of the planter class. The answer is by no means a straightforward one, but in what follows I will endeavor to show that Simms’ confidence that an industrialized and urbanized South could avoid the breakdown of social order in the North was rooted primarily in two deeply held convictions: First, that the Southern social order was founded upon a conception of progress that would render it largely immune to the siren song of radical equality; and second, that the institution of slavery would serve as an effective barrier against the anarchic individualism fostered by the urbanization of the North.
The problem for the visionaries of a planter culture was how to reconcile the conflicting demands of progress and stability—a problem no longer even recognized by much of the nation, caught up in the throes of unbridled westward expansion and industrial development. In “The Social Principle” Simms notes early in his remarks that “no civilized people can remain stationary; the law of civilization is a law of progress,” but “progress” must not be understood in primarily material terms. He argues that the planting of Anglo-Saxon civilization in the New World, by contrast to the efforts of the French and Spanish, was successful precisely because the former sought not conquest or gold but a home: “they came to colonize and not to conquer.” Ponce de Leon “[abandoned] all in a wild and visionary search after delusive waters ….” The Anglo-Saxons, however, planted along with their colonies a social principle: The idea that while liberty is the greatest social good, a liberty which “is entertained without human comforts—which neither knows nor desires them—is the liberty of the savage…,” who, “insisting upon [his] freedom, returns only to [his] wallow. By “human comforts,” Simms means the canopy of culture itself, which would include, at the highest level, art, literature, and the consolations of religion. Such comforts are inseparable from and grow out of the “family homestead.” Have we preserved this social principle, he asks. “Are our freeholds so identified … with our freedom, that the abandonment or decay of the one, makes us tremble for the safety of the other?” Simms fears that this is not the case, and he identifies a number of symptoms that suggest the decay of the social principle in his own age. Most importantly, he laments “the wandering habit of our people.” A wandering people is a barbarous people. “Every remove … is injurious to social progress; and every remove into the wilderness, lessens the hold which refinement and society have … upon the individual.” Allied to this is the “insatiate” and restless rage of the planter to exhaust his soil without improving it, and having exhausted it, to leave it behind. [ii]
In his analysis of the “alarming evils of our present social condition,” Simms does not dwell upon the perils of industrialism, though he does remark upon the “miserable” condition of the industrial laborer, and deplores the tendency of the press to worship blindly at the altar of false progress, to regard, for example, “An improvement in Rail-roads or Steam Engines … as a great moral improvement.” The reign of “trade” and “speculation,” he writes, has made of “money … a sign, among us, of the highest social power.” Thirteen years earlier, in his early days as the editor of the Charleston City Gazette, Simms had “devoted his editorial career …” to defending the interests of business, the growth of industry, and a sound currency. [iii] But in 1830 Simms was not yet himself a planter. After he acquired a plantation (by marriage) in 1836, his views on trade and industry became more cautious, but never hostile unless directed, as in his proslavery writings, against Northern “wage slavery.”
In “Literary Prospects of the South,”Simms penned his most extensive statement on the place of literature in society and his hopes for the emergence of a profession of letters in the South. Against those Northern critics who claimed that the South’s deficiency in literary activity was due to the debilitating influence of slavery, Simms argues that the problem is not slavery but the “insulating and exclusive nature of our occupation; in the necessary sparseness of a purely agricultural population; and the almost total want of large cities.” [iv] Though an agricultural people may produce great orators and statesmen, warriors and philosophers, “no purely agricultural people has ever produced a national literature.” That this must be so is self-evident: “Production, even in the intellectual world, obeys the ordinary law of demand.” If no extensive body of readers exists to demand a literature to supply its intellectual needs, then those who might otherwise supply the product are “content simply to brood over [their] thoughts and fancies in an untiring reverie.” It is only in the great cities that an aspiring writer can “find his level.” The South’s dependence on staple crop agriculture and its lack of manufacturing interests, hindered the development of a population of sufficient density and literacy to foster a sectional literature to compare with the North’s, where not only the fine arts but the “mechanical arts” flourished. Indeed, Simms asserts, “where you find the fine arts wanting, you will be very apt to discover a corresponding deficiency in the mechanical arts.” While Simms exalts the place of agriculture, the “original source of all human prosperity and power,” it is nonetheless true that the exclusive pursuit of agriculture “on the part of a whole people, does certainly subject them, intellectually, to the control of all other peoples.”
Note that there is a certain ambiguity in Simms’ conception of the magnitude of urbanization that would be required to produce the population density necessary to support a thriving literary culture. More than once he refers to the need for “great cities” or “large cities,” but provides conflicting specifics about what those relative terms might mean. He cites at length comparative statistics on population density in North and South, noting that in much of New England and in the state of New York, the density was almost four times as great as the most populated areas of the South. The importance of this in literary terms is that the North could materially support a profitable publishing industry, while the South possessed only printing firms. Indeed, Simms knew the mechanics of the publishing industry well, and here he expounds in some detail upon the origins of the Harper & Brothers publishing concern and its expansion through “a judicious division of labor.” A true publisher, he argues, is a captain of industry, a capitalist of a “higher” order, whose power to shape the literary tastes of the nation is immense. But this power requires circulation. The successful publisher must maintain ties with thousands of booksellers “from Maine to Mexico.” He must ship his merchandise from printing houses to booksellers over hundreds of routes, and by the most efficient means—in short, the publisher must command a “vast machinery to carry through all the details, which require to be systematic in the highest degree ….”
Most importantly, though, for a publishing business to thrive, it needs vast numbers of readers, and writers to cater to those readers. Without a sufficient density of population, potential writers languish without stimuli, and only urban centers of sufficient size and development can cultivate the levels of literacy—primarily through education—necessary to support both writers and their publishers. Surveying the material development of the South, Simms duly notes the growth of cities like Charleston, New Orleans, Augusta, Savannah, Mobile, and others, but the thrust of his remarks suggests that however promising the emergence of such urban centers, all connected by the “iron bonds” of the new railroads, they are not yet sufficiently large or, at least, sufficiently numerous to support a southern Republic of Letters to rival the North’s.
In fact, Simms, along with James Hammond, had long been an advocate of greater industrial development for the South, but as Eugene Genovese and others have noted, that development was largely stymied by the planter class to which both men belonged: “Independent merchants [in the South] found their businesses dependent on the patronage of the slaveholders. The merchants either became planters themselves or assumed a servile attitude toward the planters. The commercial bourgeoisie … tied to the slaveholding interest, had little desire or opportunity to invest capital in industrial expansion ….” [v] For most of the planters, industrialization beyond what was required to supply the needs of the plantation system was suspect for a number of reasons, most importantly because of the disruptive potential of a strong urban bourgeoisie and an industrialized labor force. In the few instances in which slave labor had been used in Southern factories, it had result in their enhanced status, verging upon a “semi-free” condition “subversive of labor discipline in the countryside.” In his analysis of the dilemma faced by successful southern industrialists like William Gregg, Genovese notes that their success depended upon being able to market their goods in the North, since the dominance of agriculture in the South precluded the development of a home market. The solution, as many of the planters feared, would have required “the break-up of the plantations, the raising of a yeomanry with substantial purchasing power, and the consequent provision of a … basis for urbanization.” [vi]
Whether Genovese’s analysis is correct is, of course, a matter of speculation. Hammond and Simms were convinced that only greater economic diversification would rescue the South from long-term economic decline. In an 1849 address at the South Carolina Institute, Hammond attempted to mollify planter fears by assuring his audience that manufacturing would in fact bind the interests of non-slaveholders even more closely to the interests of the plantation system by providing employment and greater economic security. In his advocacy of a “carefully monitored” [vii] industrial development, Hammond was confident that the planters’ political control of state legislatures would ensure that the ‘money power’ would remain subservient to the interests of a predominantly agricultural regime. By 1849 Hammond shared the view that using slave labor in southern factories was a dangerous scheme; he notes in the Carolina Institute address that “Whenever a slave is made a mechanic, he is more than half freed … and soon becomes the most corrupt and turbulent of his class.” [viii] Thus Hammond argues for the use of white labor, convinced that, especially in view of the growing surplus of the landless unemployed, bringing them into factories and providing them with “adequate remuneration” would obviate any threat that they might be influenced by abolitionist sentiments. [ix]
It should be emphasized that Hammond never argued for a “general industrialization” in the South, but for a moderate level of modernization that would provide the South with some degree of self-sufficiency. As we have seen Simms shared Hammond’s fears of southern dependency upon the North—whether cultural or economic—but it is not clear that Simms’ hopes for industrialization were as modest as Hammond’s. If we are to judge by his references in “Literary Prospects of the South” to “great cities” and a publishing industry to rival the North’s, we must assume that Simms’ vision of an urbanized South was more ambitious. On the other hand, given his repeated defense of the superiority of the agricultural way of life, and his insistence on the importance of domestic stability, it is not likely that Simms would have advocated wholesale industrialization, and certainly not one based upon the Northern model. How, then, did he imagine that an ambitious program of Southern industrialization could avoid the social unrest, the dangerous mobility, and the egalitarian leveling so typical of the industrialized North? As far as I have been able to ascertain, Simms never addressed this question directly, but an answer of sorts can be cobbled together from his letters and his proslavery writings.
First, it should be established that, unlike Hammond, Simms continued to support the use of slave labor in industry as late as 1861. In a letter addressed to John Jacob Bockee,[x] Simms speaks of a South united by “the one grand cohesive institution of slavery.” The peculiar institution, he argues, is the answer to “the great problem now threatening all Europe, and all the North—the struggle between capital and labor. Our labor is our capital.” Moreover, what slave labor has done for agriculture, it will do for the “industrial arts—to the construction of railroads—to the working of mills—in brief, to all the provinces of toil.” In fact, Simms’ assertions were at least partly borne out by the practices of the Confederate government, which impressed slave labor on a number of industrial projects, and by the widespread use of slave laborers by private industrial concerns, which, as historian Stephen T. Whitman has shown, often preferred unfree labor. [xi] Slave labor was not subject to market fluctuations, and, as Simms had suggested, did not strike. But what precisely did Simms mean by his reference to the “grand cohesive institution of slavery”?
Perhaps the best answer to this can be found in Simms’ contribution to The Proslavery Argument, published in 1852. [xii] Arguing against the egalitarian gospel of the abolitionists, he maintains a profoundly inegalitarian philosophy of hierarchy and degree. John Locke and other enlightened promoters of a supposed “state of nature” are mere fantasists; the “artifices of a social condition were woven about [man] from the earliest periods …,” and even if it had not been “the benevolent purpose of God” to ordain that men’s social conditions be unequal, inequalities would naturally have arisen. Inequality is an essential part of the diversity of divine creation. Wherever we observe the beauty of creation, of the stars, the hills, the rivers and seas, it is “from their very inequalities that their harmonics arise.” At this juncture in his argument Simms quotes at length Ulysses’ famous speech on degree from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, in which the Great Chain of Being—a concept reaching back to Plato—is invoked. Yet as one contemporary philosopher and Shakespeare scholar, Rene Girard, has noted, Shakespeare’s use of the trope of the Chain of Being is never quite consonant with its commonplace status in Renaissance culture. For Shakespeare, the Chain of Being is not merely a stable paradigm of social order, in which everything and everyone occupies a fixed place in the eternal scheme; rather, for the great dramatist, the Chain of Being is both a source of separation and unity—or, as Simms would have it—a source of paradoxical harmony in separation. According to Girard, when degree is dissolved, “when people come too near each other, hark what discord follows.” [xiii] Sounding at once reactionary and postmodern, Simms insists that “All harmonies, whether in the moral or the physical worlds, arise wholly from the inequality of their tones and aspects; and all things, whether in art or nature, social or political systems, but for this inequality, would give forth only monotony or discord.” The American founders, says Simms, may have been democrats, but they were not levelers. Rather, they sought a “harmony of relation in the moral world, in which all the agents and operatives, playing together, wrought out from their correspondence the best music of humanity—the music which builds the great city ….”
For Simms, the “harmony of relation in the moral world” is not a utopian projection but a telos toward which humanity struggles, condemned by its original “expatriation” to the labor of civilization. Anticipating his later remarks in “The Social Principle,” he speaks here of progress not as an end unto itself but as a movement toward stability—never perfectly achieved but essential for the full flowering of human potential. Genuine stability presupposes the just possession of property, and just possession is the right of the man who labors to improve what providence has given. Civilization advances not through a blind Darwinian struggle for survival, or not merely through the domination of inferior peoples by superior ones, but through a reciprocal recognition of rights and obligations. The right of domination is a natural right, but it is not a license to exploit, without limit, the substance of those who fall into bondage. Slavery is a universal law of civilization, but because it is ordained by God, it is, above all, a moral burden. Slavery does not deny the man of inferior capacity his essential humanity; on the contrary, it is only through bondage that he may eventually be lifted up, “by regular degrees, into the bosom of that society which has enslaved [him],” and thus attain his full humanity. It is in this sense, then, that slavery may be understood as a “cohesive institution.” At the pinnacle of the hierarchy of degree is the master, whose liberty—ensured by slavery—enables him to cultivate the arts and sciences, as well as what Simms in “The Social Principle” called “the pure, reserved and delicate forms of taste and fancy.” But what of those whose degree is middling, or the burgeoning population of poor whites? In Simms’ view, they, too, were enfolded within the cohesive bonds of Southern society. The merchant or the yeoman might aspire to become a master, and poor whites to become owners of property or plantation overseers, each sharing in some modest degree the status of mastery and the security afforded by a paternalistic elite.
It might be objected that Simms’ ideal of security and stability could not have flourished in an industrial or urban setting, that it required the organic rhythms and relative immobility of the plantation. But it is likely that Simms would have agreed with George Tucker, who had argued as early as 1813 that the instability bred by urbanization was proportionately no worse than that of the rural hinterlands.[xiv] In any case, if industrialization in the North had bred widespread anomie and labor discontent, it was the result of two factors: a misguided and dangerous notion of progress, one which sought to abolish the natural law of degree; and an unbridled individualism which recognized no law higher than the ego. Such a combination inevitably bred social anarchy. By contrast, the Southern domestic economy integrated the individual in a complex web of communal obligation, one in which even the individuality of the slave remained intact. Cities, Simms had written in “The Social Principle,” grow out of modest freeholds: “The progress of one man, thus endowing his little cottage with love and comfort, [provokes] the emulation of his neighbor, and thus hamlets rise, and great cities, even in the bosom of a wilderness ….” It is not too much to suggest, perhaps, that for Simms the industrial city might, with proper direction from a guardian elite, become an extension of the plantation economy, in which each had his place and the security of all was assured.
Naturally, we moderns are perhaps discomfited by the great novelist’s vision of industrial cities rising upon the backs of unfree labor, but it is worth noting that the post-modern industrial city in which most of us dwell, is itself the nexus of a far more insidious form of slave labor, one in which the slave (regardless of his or her race) has little or no awareness of the nature of his servitude. Indeed, the history of The City of Man could be understood as a history of enslavement, one which has finally achieved its abysmal perfection.
[i] In referring here to the “profession of literature,” I am speaking of literature in the strict sense of the term, traditionally know as belles lettres. There were, of course, other accomplished novelists and poets: John Pendleton Kennedy being the most notable of these. But Kennedy did not regard himself as a professional writer; his primary vocation was political. I should also note that in the 1850’s several female writers of significance were emerging, especially Susan Petigru King, in Charleston; and Augusta Jane Evans, in Mobile. Both pursued their novelistic art professionally, but their work has—until recently—been woefully neglected.
[ii] All quotes from “The Social Principle” are from the abridged version included in The Simms Reader: Selections from the Writings of William Gilmore Simms, ed. John Caldwell Guilds (University of Virginia Press, 2001): 256-267. The full 1843 edition of the text can be found online at The Simms Initiatives, a virtual library of original editions Simms’ works.
[iii] John W. Higham, “The Changing Loyalties of William Gilmore Simms.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 9, No. 2 (May, 1943): 210-223.
[iv] This and all subsequent quotations from “Literary Prospects of the South” can be found in Russell’s Magazine. 3.3 (June 1858): 193-206.
[v] The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965): 20.
[vi] The Political Economy of Slavery, 181.
[vii] See Drew Gilpin Faust, James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery. (Louisiana State University Press, 1982): 274-75.
[viii] Quoted in The Political Economy of Slavery, 225.
[ix] Quoted in James Henry Hammond and the Old South, 228.
[x] The Letters of William Gilmore Simms. Eds. Mary C. Simms Oliphant and T.C. Duncan Eaves (University of South Carolina Press, 1955), Vol. IV: 287-306. Bockee, a northern friend of Simms’, apparently wrote to him on the eve of the South Carolina Secession Convention with the aim of convincing Simms to remain loyal to the Union. An expanded version of Simms’ Dec. 1860 reply was published in the Charleston Mercury, Jan. 17, 1861.
[xi] Whitman, Stephen T., “Industrial Slavery at the Margin: The Maryland Chemical Works,” Journal of Southern History 59, no. 1 (1993): 35.
[xii] The Pro-slavery Argument: As Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers of the Southern States. (Charleston: Walker, Richards & Co., 1852): 254-275. Simms’ contribution, “The Morals of Slavery,” was first published in The Southern Literary Messenger in 1837 in response to the arguments of Harriet Martineau, an English abolitionist.
[xiii] Rene Girard, A Theater of Envy. (Oxford University Press, 1991): 164.
[xiv] See the discussion of Tucker’s view on population and urbanization in Michael O’Brien, Conjectures of Order: 1810-1860, Vol. 2. (University of North Carolina Press, 2004): 908-910.