A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860. By Drew Gilpin Faust. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
In A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860, Drew Gilpin Faust examines how self-described men of “genius” in the antebellum era handled their lack of institutional and social support. She asserts that William Gilmore Simms, James Henry Hammond, Edmund Ruffin, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, and George Frederick Holmes formed a “sacred circle,” an intimate group of like-minded men dedicated to improving their personal lot in life and reforming southern society. Faust finds the group to embody the tug of war inside all men of mind in the antebellum South.
Faust begins with an explanation for the intellectual deficiency of the Old South. Achievements in mind did not bring notoriety or wealth, and a lack of cities and sparse population stunted the exchange of ideas. Moreover, education was extremely poor. The South did not support public schools as much as the North, and even the schools for the elites were subpar. The “sacred circle” recognized those problems, particularly the larger problem of southern agriculture. In identifying regional misfortune, they could identify some of the problems in their own lives.
Those problems appear to be many. The entire “sacred circle” saw themselves as lonely and isolated, misunderstood by everyone around them. The group formed to provide intellectual support, providing catalysts for each other’s thoughts and helping each other’s careers. Each man brought a different skill: Simms was a novelist, Hammond, a politician, Tucker and Holmes, professors, and Ruffin provided a specialty in agriculture.
Above all, the five men saw themselves as chosen to raise the illiterate masses by the power of their own genius. They craved power and leadership but felt torn between a commitment to the ideal and a desire to fix the real world. Faust emphasizes religion and history as two of the main sources of validation for the men of mind. In terms of religion, they all experimented with different churches and religion and were adamant that it was possible to reconcile science with religion.
Thinking about the ideal proved to be much easier then beginning social change. The public press was the main outlet for the spread of their ideas. In particular, the men utilized reviews, focusing on not only history and philosophy but also agricultural, banking and slavery. They advocated educational reform, diversified agriculture, and the growth of industry, foreshadowing the efforts of a New South after the Civil War. Although all five participated in politics, with varying degrees of success, they did not feel their ideals meshed with contemporary politics and greatly desired to change the system. How to change the system was a problem they could never solve.
Proslavery arguments proved to be the “sacred circles” greatest claim to fame among their contemporaries. Faust argues that the five men found a “culmination of their endeavors to institutionalize moral stewardship and thus establish a recognized place for mind in their society” in slavery. (112). The five men argued that slavery was far less evil then Northern economic oppression and releasing an inferior people into the free market would be unjust. By attacking abolition, they found greater acclaim then in their other pursuits.
The “sacred circle” was not destined to remain whole. Following the failure of the South to unify after the Nashville Convention of 1850, the five men reevaluated their goals. Hammond retreated into private life and melancholy. Simms tried to revitalize his friends and region before retiring in bitterness to his plantation. Tucker attempted to rally the region to war in 1850 but died in 1851. Ruffin gained some notoriety for his agricultural reforms, which caused jealousy and a break in his friendship with Hammond. Holmes retreated into contemplation at the University of Virginia. Simms and Hammond were the only two who remained close.
Faust’s work is enlightening. By an extensive examination of the inner thoughts of five intellectuals, she shows the deficiencies of the antebellum South. The world of the Southern man of mind proves to be both very small and too far ahead of its time. Though the description of the five men’s inner dialogues sometimes becomes repetitious and tedious, to the point that they appear to be whiners, the author’s mastery of their psyche proves to be so great that one can explain all of their shortcomings, including their defense of slavery. She obviously researched the book well. This work is recommendable for scholars of intellectual and Southern history. It proves readable and is usable in both undergraduate and graduate classrooms.
Meredith May Texas Christian University
Drew Gilpin Faust. A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
In A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860, Drew Gilpin Faust investigates the extraordinary association of five antebellum Southern intellectuals who cooperated “to establish a role for men of mind in their region. Novelist William Gilmore Simms, politician James Henry Hammond, agricultural reformer Edmund Ruffin, and professors Nathaniel Beverly Tucker and George Frederick Holmes all believed that their innate genius had exiled them from their society” (x). Faust’s thesis argues that “This common sense of alienation provided the basis for intense personal friendship that evolved into what Simms christened a ‘sacred circle’—a network of mutual emotional and intellectual support” (x). The men of the “sacred circle” dedicated their work in various specialized fields to encouraging Southern autonomy through educational improvement, increased regional industrialization and economic independence, and protecting slavery as a positive, Christian institution necessary for continued prosperity. Like many of the more famous reformers of the Jacksonian period, the “sacred circle” sought to redesign and perfect the corrupt society they inhabited, but unlike their Northern counterparts, they sought to preserve the inefficient and unjust slave labor system. The analysis of the pro-slavery argument constitutes the most intriguing feature of Faust’s study, as the five members of the “sacred circle” rejected the more radical arguments proposed by pro-slavery theorist George Fitzhugh and instead focused their arguments upon the more traditional interpretations that slavery had thrived throughout history in the most successful ancient civilizations and led to the Christianization of millions who otherwise would not have been exposed to the Gospel. Although their public enterprises ultimately failed to create a politically independent or intellectually enlightened South, the informal organization of disaffected philosophers played an important role in the slavery debate and the secession crisis.
Interestingly, as Faust observes, all five men shared a lonely and often tragic childhood, losing close relatives to death and lacking intimate friendships. Each member of the sacred circle endured continual professional disappointment and familial frustration as their adult lives failed to approach the esteem they felt entitled to as self-professed men of genius. All five intellectuals hailed from Southern states along the Atlantic coast, which at this time in history were losing a large percentage of the white population to immigration to the frontier due to soil exhaustion and the domination of land ownership by small elite families. Driven by a fear of personal obscurity and the destruction of the world they sought to reform, the “sacred circle” sought public acclaim through pamphlets, journals, speeches, and other publications to no avail. As Faust observes, “Their feelings of isolation and of rejection became communal; the shared nature of their plight imparted to it a universal and transcendent character; they were no longer exiles, but prophets” (147).
In the end, Faust concludes that in “their simultaneous love and hate for the South, in their need both to justify and to reform, Hammond, Holmes, Ruffin, Tucker, and Simms embody not just the dilemma of the thinking Southerner, but the universal plight of the intellectual” (xii). A Sacred Circle is a unique and interesting study of antebellum Southern ideology, but due to its philosophical nature I would only recommend its use to serious scholars of the era.
Texas Christian University Steven Nathaniel Dossman
A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860. By Drew Gilpin Faust. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977. 189 pp.
In her work, A Sacred Circle, Drew Gilpin Faust analyzes the role and experience of the Southern intellectual during the antebellum period. Faust focuses upon an informal group, the “Sacred Circle,” comprised of novelist William Gilmore Simms, politician James Henry Hammond, agricultural reformer Edmund Ruffin, and professors Nathaniel Beverley Tucker and George Frederick Holmes. Drawn together by shared feelings of social isolation and neglect, intense personal friendships developed amongst the men, and they provided each other with mutual emotional and intellectual support (2). In order to create and justify a place for themselves within society, the members of the “Sacred Circle” sought to reform the South through various means, including agriculture, education, religion, politics, and the defense of slavery.
Through its studies of the Romantic outlook, history, religion, and philosophy, the “Sacred Circle” developed explanations and justifications for its’ members marginal role in Southern society. Influenced by Romanticism, the five Southerners cultivated a notion of ‘genius’ as a biological trait that made an individual both emotionally and intellectually distinctive (22). The men cultivated the notion of themselves as creative but alienated ‘geniuses,’ that could only be understood by others of equally extraordinary gifts (21). Through history and religion, the five Southerners compared themselves to other historical figures, such as Jeremiah, Job, and John Smith, who went through similar social exclusion. The “Sacred Circle” tried to live “in” and “for” history. The network consoled itself in the belief its present struggles would be rewarded in the future or eternal realm. In a sense, the men attempted to transcend Southern and human society. As Faust explains, the Southerners described themselves as prophets and moral stewards.
According to Faust, the “Sacred Circle” existed in an antebellum South that did little to encourage or support the life of the mind (7). Faust describes the only institutional framework for the life of the mind in the Old South, the educational system, as a failure. Additionally, the lack of Southern urban centers resulted in the difficulty of intellectual interchange and a limited availability of books. Yet, the five Southerners believed that the economic decline of the South resulted from this deficiency and lack of intellectual discourse.
The “Sacred Circle” believed that the decline of Southern civilization resulted from a failure of the mind. The five men explained that the South must cultivate the thinker (13). In making this claim, the group attempted to establish a place for itself within society. Because they regarded themselves as moral stewards, the Southern intellectuals declared they were destined to provide practical guidance for the human race. The “Sacred Circle” attempted to reform the South through agricultural, educational, and political reforms, but faced a lack of success in almost every endeavor. Interestingly, the men promoted the idea of industrial development within the South, but ultimately, the men felt destined to serve as agents of external control (111).
Nevertheless, the defense of slavery constituted the most important reform effort undertaken by the “Sacred Circle” (xi). Through their defense of slavery, the five Southerners made their most concerted attempt to reconcile transcendent with practical aims. The “Sacred Circle” defended slavery through Biblical interpretation and “philosophical” history. Notably, the Southerners argued the main difference between blacks and whites lay in superior intellect. Yet, the “Sacred Circle’s” defense of slavery rested more in an idealistic vision of slavery than an actual representation of the institution.
In a well-written work, Drew Gilpin Faust explores the role and development of the Southern intellectual in the decades leading up to the Civil War. The work provides interesting insight to the attempts of a group of ‘outsiders’ to explain their perceived social ostracism and place themselves within a society that held little place for them. Faust provides a great example with the “Sacred Circle” of the existence of critical thinking in the antebellum South.
A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in to Old South, 1840-1860. By Drew Gilpin Faust. 1977.
Drew Gilpin Faust has written an interesting book in which he attempts to explain the conflicts, frustrations and compromises experienced by intellectuals in the antebellum South. As a vehicle, he has chosen a group of five notable intellectuals who created an informal group which was named "A Sacred Circle" by one of its members, Novelist William Gilmore Simms. The group consisted primarily of Simms, Politician James Henry Hammond, agricultural reformer Edmund Ruffin, and professors Nathaniel Beverly Tucker and George Frederick Holmes. The organization and its goals were not highly defined, but its fundamental purpose was to establish an appropriate role for the ‘men of mind’ within the Old South. The Sacred Circle served both as a cultural association and as the basis of an intense personal friendship on behalf of its members. In part, the need for such an association was based on a sense of alienation felt by its members and other intellectuals throughout the South. There is reason to think that other such groups existed during this period, but the Sacred Circle was the only one to leave a large quantity of material as evidence of their activity. The group achieved its height of activity during the decade of the 1840s.
Members the Sacred Circle considered themselves to be men of genius. They believed that both God and nature had endowed them with insight and understanding far superior to their compatriots. Their inability to receive proper recognition of their talent, or support for their reforms, created a sense of isolation in their minds and tended to marginalize them in the minds of others. Although they were sincerely interested in reform and progress, their efforts were also driven by self-interest and a very great need for recognition. Their inability to effect change and reform coupled with the lack of social status appropriate for their genius, created a deep sense of frustration among these great thinkers.
The five intellectuals approached reform on both the practical and conceptual levels. In order to affect their more progressive reforms, they also identified with traditional institutions which would provide them a forum by which they could attain some legitimacy. The two primary such institutions were Christianity and Slavery. Like most people of their time, they were highly influenced by evangelicalism. By utilizing the language of evangelicalism and expressing their transcendental view of religion within acceptable perimeters, they could maintain their status as both Christians and reformers. They further believed that their innate genius was, like their Christianity, transcendental. They could use their understanding of the past, in conjunction with their view of the future to help explain the present. If people would listen to their transcendental views on Christianity, they would also listen to their views on the cultural reforms necessary to sustain a strong role or their region in national affairs. They believed the God had intended them, through their intellectual and spiritual superiority, to improve the human race and maintain the order of society.
Ironically, the largest issue used by these reformers was their defense of slavery. All five of these ‘men of mind’ was strongly proslavery in their outlook and rhetoric. Again, it provided them a forum within which they could promote other reforms. However, their proslavery argument was also an exercise in reconciling the transcendent with the practical. They believed that the moral stewardship associated with slavery to be its own best defense. In contrasting the benevolent care provided by southern slaveholders with the indifferent attitude of northern industrialist, they believed the bondsman to be more free that the laborer. Through the moral stewardship of slavery, the slave was provided with food, clothing and shelter. The northern laborer had no such guarantee. He must feint for himself, yet his survival was at the mercy of an impersonal master.
The defense of slavery provided a greater audience and reception than the Southern thinkers had experienced with their other reforms. With this issue, the members of the Sacred Circle were able to approach the level of recognition and acclaim they had long sought. The intellectuals were not demagogues who simply used the slavery issue for their own self-interest. They believed that, through open discussion of the proslavery issue, they could revitalize their region and thereby contribute to the improvement of society. By transforming the proslavery issue into a comprehensive social and moral philosophy they translated it into transcendent religious and cultural terms. This moral philosophy could then expand beyond the slavery issue to have relevance to other social issues.
The Sacred Circle began to dissolve after a regional meeting of Southern leaders known as the Nashville Convention of 1850. The five intellectuals had expectations that this meeting would result in great unity and moral purpose. They were very disappointed in the outcome as the participants had chosen to address imminently more practical matters. Although the issue of secession had been directly addressed for the first time, most representatives ultimately opted to support the Compromise of 1850, which was then being developed in the United States Congress. The five ‘men of minds’ had hoped for more enthusiasm in support of secession which the saw as a ‘ritual of purification.’
As war approached, there was much less attention on the conceptual and more focus on the practical. The plight of the intellectual once again fell into marginality. Edmund Ruffin, however, did enjoy some acclaim as his theories of agricultural reform began to show practical results. He began to achieve the level of recognition he had always believed to be rightfully his. However, his success created jealousy among other members of the Sacred Circle, especially James Hammond, and further added to the demise of the group. As war approached and defeat was experienced, there was only to be disappointment and dissatisfaction for the five great thinkers as well as for most intellectuals throughout the South. As Faust stated in the epilogue to his book: “In their simultaneous love and hate for the South, in their need both to justify and reform, Hammond, Holmes, Tucker, Ruffin, and Simms thus embody not just the dilemma of the thinking Southerner, but the universal plight of the intellectual.”
Gary J. Ohls