In the early days of the United States, Founding Father Alexander Hamilton remarked: “The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment.” The common national sentiment—among American peoples diverse in economic interests, folkways, and political agendas—mainly rested on a fraternal sense of the shared perils and triumphs of the War of Independence, prior to which British America had been little more than a geographical expression and which all Americans recognized as an event of world importance.
In the antebellum years most decent Americans shared in and gloried in this fraternal sense, as did Simms, that is, until it was destroyed, as I shall relate, by Northern chauvinism which reinterpreted the Revolutionary experience as part of an aggressive, highly partisan cultural and economic agenda. I hope to put Simms’s writings on the Revolution, his controversies with Northern historians, and his aborted 1856 Northern lecture tour, which has been well described by Prof. Miriam Shillingsburg, into a new and larger context.
The key documents here are his long-neglected manuscript lecture, “South Carolina in the Revolution: The Social Moral.” In this work Simms records his understanding of how the ground had been cut from under the shared national sentiment which he had done so much to cultivate. In “The Social Moral” Simms also shows his powers as a social observer in analyzing the forces in Northern society that had destroyed fraternity, and also his powers as a historian in understanding the nature of the distortions, many still current today, that had been inflicted on the understanding of American history.
Simms asks, referring to the North: “Shall a whole people be fed, for near half a century upon tiger’s meat, seasoned with viper’s venom, nor raven like the one, nor sting fatally like the other!” A curious thing about this to me is why Simms was so late in coming to a full understanding of the forces afoot in American society, for which I will later suggest possible explanations.
Let us remember that Simms represented a living society that had not yet lost a war of conquest. One of the pieties enforced at Appomattox is that the Northern is national and the South is by definition and tacit assumption evilly-motivated “sectionalism.”
Professor Wakelyn, somewhat typically, plays to this assumption when he writes: “Simms, who was upset over the attacks by the Northern Congressmen and abolitionists regarding South Carolina’s role in the Revolution, wanted to make his state proud of its past.”
As I read it, Simms did not accuse South Carolinians of lack of pride, but of lack of sufficient attention to substantiating their past. Wakelyn thus places Simms’s efforts at Revolutionary history, which he has been describing for pages previous to this statement, as reactive sectionalism. But Simms had been celebrating the South Carolina Revolutionary experience as a contribution to the national sentiment that held the Union together, for twenty years prior to 1856. And it is interesting, in regard to Simms’s “sectionalism,” that in his foreword to the “new and revised” 1860 edition of his History of South Carolina, he makes not a single sectional remark, such as was commonplace with Northern writers, but instead indulges in civic piety and brilliant remarks about the purposes of history.
Let us look at the destruction of national sentiment and then at its relation to the history of the Revolution. In 1789 the Connecticut clergymen Jedidiah Morse published a work entitled The Universal American Geography. It was the first of its kind and called for by the new entity in the world, the American confederacy. If we peruse the extended demographic descriptions in Morse’s book, we find the following: New Englanders are pure Anglo-Saxons. They are hardworking, orderly, prosperous, progressive, and pious.
South and west of New England, according to Morse, America was benighted territory inhabited by people who were little better than mongrels—drunken and slovenly Scotch-Irishmen and ignorant Germans in Pennsylvania, and in the South imperious, lazy, violent, immoral people, enervated and brutalized by slavery. Morse’s 1789 descriptions of New Englanders and Southerners are the same as those published by Lorenzo Sabine in his 1847 work The American Loyalists to which Simms so much objected. New England WAS America, containing all of its virtue and energy.
Sabine’s attack on South Carolina’s role in the Revolution was not a historiographical or literary fluke. It was a commonplace of New England discourse for a half-century previously. Such rhetoric was also employed freely by the Northern Federalists in their struggles with the Southern and Western Jeffersonians in the first decades of the Union government.
Sinuns in “The Social Moral”: “But secure in our invincible self-esteem, —our chinese wall—which shuts us in, equally from the Barbarians, —and ourselves, we never troubled ourselves on the subject of our real reputation, or the duties which it entailed upon us.”
The Southern reaction was to be expected. John Tyler, father of the future President, wrote that Morse and his readers were “Northern cattle,” jealous of Virginia.’ One of the staples of Jefferson’s letters is complaint about the New England “intelligentsia.” In fact, his insistence on separation of church and state rested in considerable part on his distaste for the arrogance and political power of the New England clergy.
In his autobiography, Jefferson points out an instance, personally known to him, where Federalist historians had given Massachusetts credit for something that had been due to the action of Virginia. In the House of Representatives in 1798, Northern members were pushing for the funding of a regular army (an increase of centralized power) because of the need to defend the allegedly enervated South. Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina, who had fought through the Southern campaigns of the Revolution, remarked: “in the last war no man eastward of the Delaware was ever seen fighting in the Southern States, and that now the Southern members are satisfied, with few exceptions, to be left to themselves.”‘ Broadly speaking, Macon’s history is correct and in agreement with Simms’s branding of Sabine’s account of New Englanders fighting the Revolution in the South as false.
One will not begin to understand the controversies that occupied Simms over Revolutionary history unless one takes notice of aggressive New England chauvinism. It was not limited to history. In 1828 Noah Webster published his Dictionary of the American Language, and in 1831 his American spelling book. Readers of Webster’s work are informed that New Englanders speak the purest and most refined version of English, not only in America but in the world. New England spelling and pronunciation were the standards which all others should strive to attain. Southerners and others ridiculed or ignored such presumption until after the War for Southern Independence.
New England chauvinism did not work in the beginning with most Americans. Washington Irving wrote of the disagreeable Connecticut Yankee, Ichabod Crane, who intruded his unwelcome presence upon New Yorkers. Cooper decried the pushy Yankees who had swarmed into New York and condemned interference with the South over slavery. Paulding wrote a book in defense of the South. Melville and even the New Englander Hawthorne can be interpreted easily as opponents of the ‘New England way.’ Remember Poe’s lampooning of the Boston literati, published in New York.
In fact, the word ‘Yankee’ is apparently of Dutch or Native American origin, first applied by New Yorkers as a negative term for New Englanders, presumably of the pure Anglo-Saxon variety. It was not applied to all Northerners till the Civil War, when Southerners assumed that all the Northerners were now Yankeeized. Young Abraham Lincoln had a fund of Yankee stories to amuse his neighbors in southern Indiana and Illinois, the most popular part of his repertoire except for his obscene stories. For Lincoln’s neighbors, Yankees were shifty hypocrites from Connecticut, swindling honest people with shoddy goods. The New Englanders, who moved somewhat later into the Midwest than their Southern-bound neighbors, returned the favor by referring to the latter as shiftless “Hoosiers.” The cultural faultline, I am told, can still be seen across the Midwest.
Before 1856 Simms’s abundant Northern contacts had been largely among Old Northerners who did not share in the New England chauvinism. (Two partial exceptions: Bryant was a New Englander who had written a poem referring to Jefferson as a “wretch” and the Louisiana Purchase as a useless swamp. However, he was courteous in personal relations and widely acquainted among Southerners. Bancroft exhibited positive but not negative Massachusetts chauvinism. He was an opportunist who liked to keep all bases covered.)
Through his Northern acquaintances, Simms had perhaps been lulled into a false sense of security. For that reason, he may not have appreciated the changes in Northern society that were bringing out the ravenous and the venomous. In 1856 Simms entered the belly of the beast. Western New York was not only the core of the Chautauqua circuit: Chautauqua was the name of a town in the region. It was also “the Burnt Over District,” well-known in American popular lore as a hotbed of religious and social ferment. At the time of the Revolution western New York had been empty frontier. In the antebellum period it filled up with the overflow of the poorer population of New England, the people that Cooper complained about. By 1830 half the people in New York State were New England-born and there was a very different social climate from that of Old Yorkers like Cooper, Irving, Paulding, or Mrs. Elizabeth F. Ellet, who wrote good non-sectionalist Revolutionary history that Simms admired. And in New York City, most of the big money men, and the leading editors like Bryant and Greeley, were also Yankees.
Given time and resources, a book could be devoted to Northern dislike of New Englanders and their aggressions, from the Revolution to the Civil War.
The Burnt Over District was so called because it had been swept time and again by raging fires of evangelism and reform. The evangelism was post-millennial, a heretical form of Protestantism postulating the need to perfect man on earth before Judgment Day. At various times reform had focused on perfection of man on earth by elimination of liquor, of tobacco, of meat-eating, of marriage, or other evils. When Simms in 1856 bearded the tiger, fervor had concentrated on the greatest evil in American society, the Southern slaveholder. America was God’s instrument and God’s Kingdom on earth, held back from perfection only by Southern wickedness.
If we draw the line of Simms’s course from New York City to Buffalo in 1856, we will pass within a few miles of: the center of the anti-masonic paranoia of a few decades earlier; the place where Joseph Smith received the tablets of Mormon from the Angel Moroni; where William Miller began the Seventh Day Adventists by predicting, inaccurately, the date of the end of the world; the free love colony of John Humphrey Noyes at Oneida; the first feminist convention at Seneca Falls; and the area where John Brown lived and collected followers and financial backers.
Simms could not have picked a worse place to carry his temperate plea for fraternal sentiment in the history and credit of the Revolution. The area was awash with class and ethnic conflict, religious hysteria, and political paranoia. Once he had seen it firsthand, Simms described it well in “The Social Moral.” Because of the ambitions and internal conflicts of the North, tensions had been diverted to an outside enemy, the South. The grounds of fraternal sentiment no longer held. The North no longer stood for what Simms called in “The Social Moral,” “harmony, union, and justice.”
There was, but not alone, the Brooks-Sumner affair. Republicans were told by their newspapers and orators of a brutal attack by a Southern bully. They knew nothing of the provocation. They had been told of Bleeding Kansas, which, in accordance with Charles Sumner’s speech, was all the fault of brutish Southerners. They knew little of Beecher’s Bibles and nothing of John Brown’s mass murders.
The people of the Burnt Over District had long known that Southerners were alien and contemptible, inferior but dangerous. They now knew that Southerners were engaged in an evil conspiracy to dominate the Union, to spread slavery, to threaten and thwart everything good and decent valued by Northerners, like protective tariffs and government-sponsored banking. Political tiger’s meat indeed, thrown out for the advantage of the Republican agenda.
The hateful reaction to Simms’s lecture tour was no isolated incident, nor was it a spontaneous outrage at the Brooks-Sumner affair.
“Shall a whole people be fed,for near half a century upon tiger’s meat, seasoned with viper’s venom, not raven like the one, nor sting fatally like the other!” There was an election campaign going on in which the Republicans were highly organized for the first time. Hatred of the South had been whipped up by politicians and the yellow press. Mob intimidation of democratic voters was not uncommon in the area
Americans had worked together for their liberty. The Union involved reciprocal bonds and courtesies and affections and compromises. What Simms discovered, and recorded with his usual penetration in “The Social Moral,” was that he comity only worked one way. The slurs against South Carolina’s role in the evolution were not misunderstandings. They were falsehoods premeditated with malice. They revealed beyond doubting the evil disposition of erstwhile compatriots.
A very fine recent book supports my position: Sectional Nationalism: Massachusetts Conservative Leaders and the Transformation of America, 1815-1834 by the historian Harlow W Sheidley (Northeastern University Press: Boston, 1998). By “conservative” the author means the socially and economically dominant element, which would include Daniel and Noah Webster, Lorenzo Sabine, Jedidiah Morse, and ‘harles Sumner.” Sheidley describes how the leaders of Massachusetts sorely felt their declining national power after the War of 1812 and mounted a multifaceted campaign to regain what they regarded as their rightful pre-eminence. In a chapter called “Sectional Nationalism: Massachusetts Conservatives Interpret the American Past,” he relates how his subjects moved to take over the history of the American Revolution and the definition of American nationalism. Daniel Webster’s oration in Charleston, in which he celebrated the non-existent graves of New England Revolutionary soldiers in the South and to which Simms strenuously objected, is, seen in context, merely a move in this campaign.
Sheidley summarizes: A “properly constructed history” would promote the New England version of civic humanism and the political/economic agenda of nationalism. “Finally, the specific nature of the nationalism promoted by the Massachusetts conservatives’ version of American history would advance their sectionalist claims” to national pre-eminence, would establish the centrality of New England in American history, and “vindicate the claims of the state in producing the evolution,” thereby placing Massachusetts “in a position to which she is entitled.”
Professor Sheidley gives chapter and verse from primary sources on the carying out of this agenda. He does not say much about the response of those outside the sacred circle, but he does quote the Pennsylvania writer Job R. Tyson, who exclaimed “that New Englanders had seized control of American history,” claiming “the exclusive honour of having originated the free principles which followed our dependence. They had garnered for their section the moral triumphs of the whole proud enterprise.” If it were not countered, New England-centered history would pass to future generations as the accepted truth. (Tyson, like Southerners, spelled real English and not the artificial Noah Webster version.) Lorenzo Sabine’s account of South Carolina and New England in the American Revolution is nothing more nor less than a move in this game.
In 1856, when Simms entered the Burnt Over District, the Republican Party had for the first time effectively combined the economic and cultural agendas of the dominant Northern class into an effective political movement, the lever of which was paranoia over the alleged Southern plot to spread slavery to the North. Simms’s essays on “The Revolution in South Carolina,” in addition to being a mine of information, are a complete and true answer to all the aspersions and claims orchestrated by the New Englanders.
Sabine’s history of American Loyalists is a very poor work, mostly a list of identified Tories. The historical essay that precedes it, containing the claim that Massachusetts had won the Revolution in the South while South Carolina had been “imbecile,” is completely gratuitous and irrelevant to the subject of the book.” Sabine, it may be noted, came from an area of Maine inhabited largely by Tories, but he gives no real insights from personal experience. It was also an area notorious for trading with the enemy during the War of 1812.
In context it is well to remember that New England was held in disdain by many Americans because of traitorous activities during that war, something that was to Simms in the realm of common knowledge. Massachusetts in a glaring assertion of state’s rights had withheld its militia from federal service during a time of invasion—and then for years had notoriously demanded from Congress compensation for its militia expenses. Recall that it was Southerners like the young Calhoun who had demanded redress for the American seamen, mostly New Englanders, impressed by the British. The powers of New England had been indifferent to impressment of their poorer compatriots because they were making too much money in trade with wartime Europe to care.
It is not possible to deal here with all of Sabine’s falsehoods about the Revolution in the South. Simms did it very well in his articles. Some of Sabine’s claims are simply silly. He asserts that South Carolinians were so enervated by slavery they were unable to defend Charleston. But New York, Boston, and Philadelphia had been occupied during much of the war without any resistance, even though they were defended by the common army of the States! Charleston fell after a heroic resistance, lost, some said, because of the Yankee general sent by the Continental Congress. Sabine’s title was The American Loyaltsts, or Biographical Sketches of Adherents to the British Crown in the War of the Revolution: Alphabetically Arranged; with a Preliminary Historical Essay.
Contrary to the New England mythology, slavery did not weaken the South in war, but was a source of strength, as the War of Southern Independence would later prove.
But the biggest part of the lie rested on the numbers of troops in the Continental Line, in which New England was indeed overrepresented. The catch is that most of these troops were organized after the war had moved southward and saw little active service. They contributed little to the final victory in the Revolution which, as Macon pointed out and Simms substantiated, was won in the South by the partisans and Continental troops and militia from Delaware southward.
In writing history Simms wanted to celebrate the republican United States and promote civic virtue. The purpose of the New Englanders was quite different: power. Simms was well aware of this and he was well aware, as was everyone at the time, of the pension question. Though they had received cash bonuses and large land bounties for their service, New Englanders were the main beneficiaries and promoters of the pension system established in the early 1800s. Pensions were at first thought of as being for disabled and impoverished veterans. By stages they were extended to all veterans and to their dependents and survivors. In 1830 there were more people on the pension rolls than had ever been in the Revolutionary army—the first great entitlement program.
Pensions were one of the biggest items in the federal budget and most of it went to New Englanders, some of whom had had only brief desultory service, while many of Marion’s men could not document their much more hazardous and valuable services, or refused reward for their exercises of republican virtue.
Simms’s essays in Southern Quarterly Review. In The Life of Francis Marion, Simms recounts events in the latter part of the war: “The armies led by Gates and Greene to the defence of Carolina, were truly from States north of her, but they were not the Northern States. Two fine bodies of troops came from Maryland and Delaware, but the rest were from Virginia and North Carolina—with the exception of the Pennsylvania Line which harbored mutineers and traitors.”
Marcus Norton, a Democrat, one of the few truly national-minded governors of Massachusetts after the Revolution, writes to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun on May 6, 1818:
“But a sense of duty to my Country and its Government constrains me to make known to you some of the abuses of the Law for the relief of some of the soldiers of the Revolutionary Army, which are attempted to be practised and which, I trust you have the power to prevent. I learn, since mt return to Massachusetts, that the applications for pensions under this law, are numerous beyond the expectations of any one: and that there are among the Applicants a very great number, who do not come within the literal or equitable provisions of the Act.
I have no doubt that the officers of your department will exercise due vigilance (and no small share will be necessary) in preventing Aliliva and State troops from placing themselves upon the ‘Continental Establishment.
The great abuses to which I wish to call your attention, consist in the applications of men who are not in need of assistance from their Country for a support. Your directions allowing this faict to be proved by the oath of the applicant while it promotes and encourages perjury and gives the knave an advantage over the honest man, do not in any considerable degree check the abuses of which I complain. A great many in comfortable and easy and some in affluent circumstances, have already taken the oaths preparatory to their applications to your Department.”
When we think of Simms as an historian and “sectionalist,” it is well to remember the context. There is a pattern here in regard to the contribution of Southerners to American success. We can see the Massachusetts agenda still working at the turn of the twentieth century when Henry Adams wrote a mean-spirited biography of Randolph of Roanoke and attempted to debunk the beautiful story of Captain John Smith and Pocahontos. Adams was guilty of falsehood in a deliberate, malicious effort to brand the first Southerner, Captain John Smith, as a liar.
Note the recent Hollywood version of the story of the “Memphis Belle,” the famous bomber that flew 25 successful missions over Germany in World War II. The very nickname of the plane suggests that there were Southerners involved. In the movie the captain takes pains to declare that he is not a Southerner. The real, actual captain of the real, actual “Memphis Belle” was from North Carolina. In the Hollywood “Memphis Belle” crew there is only one Southerner. He is described as a former piano player in a New Orleans brothel whose father had lost the family farm in a poker game. There was no such person in the real “Memphis Belle” crew.
In the celebrated film “Saving Private Ryan,” there is only one Southerner in the platoon that is the subject of the movie. He is portrayed as a somewhat crazed religious fanatic who sings hymns while sharpshooting the enemy. The two Southern soldiers in both films are similarly portrayed as rather subhuman. Curiously, both have one salient virtue. They are good marksmen, a fact in which Southerners should perhaps take some comfort.
The anonymous Confederate soldier who wrote “A View of the Yankee People” for his hometown newspaper, after being an unwilling guest of the same when captured at Gettysburg, had never heard Simms lecture on “The Social Moral,” but he had very similar reactions, with which Simms would have been in complete agreement:
“They believed their manners and customs more enlightened, their intelligence and culture immeasurably superior. Brim-ful of hypocritical cant and puritan ideas, they preach, pray and whine. The most parsimonius of wretches, they extol charity; … the worst of dastards, they are the most selfish of men, they are the most blatant philanthropists; the blackest-hearted hypocrites, they are religious fanatics. They are agitators and schemers, braggarts and deceivers, swindlers and extortioners, and yet pretend to Godliness, truth, purity and humanity. The shibboleth of their faith is, “The union must and shall be preserved,” and they hold on to this with all the obstinacy peculiar to their nature. They say we are all benighted people, and are trying to pull down that which God himself built up.
Many of these bigots express great astonishment at finding the majority of our men could read and write; they have actually been educated to regard the Southern people as grossly illiterate, and little better than savages The whole nation lives, breathes and prospers in delusions; and their chiefs control the spring of the social and political machine with masterly hands.
I could but conclude that the Northern people were bent upon the destruction of the South. All appeared to deprecate war, but were unwilling to listen to a separation of the old union. They justified the acts of usurpation on the part of the government, and seem submissive to the tyranny of its acts on the plea of military necessity; they say that the union is better than the Constitution, and bow their necks to the yoke in the hope of success against us. A great many, I believe, act from honest and conscientious principles; many from fear and favor; but the large majority entertained a deep-seated hatred, envy and jealousy towards the Southern people and their institutions.
They know (yet they pretend not to believe it) that Southern men and women are their superiors in everything relating to bravery, honesty, virtue and refinement, and they have become more convinced of this since the present war; consequently, their worst passions have become aroused, and they give way to frenzy and fanaticism.
We must not deceive ourselves; they are bent upon destruction, and differ mainly in the means of accomplishing this end. However, much as sections and parties that hate each other, yet, as a whole, they hate us more.
They are so entirely incongruous to our people that they and their descendants will ever be our natural enemies.”