The Chosen People

Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1585-1763

by Richard Beale Davis
University of Tennessee Press, 3 vols, 1,810 pp., $60.00

Southerners have long been irked by the tendency of New Englanders to write American history, especially intellectual history, as the story of New England writ large. Richard Beale Davis has set out to redress the balance. In three large volumes he has compiled the evidence to show that the people of England’s southern colonies (Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia) thought, wrote, and prayed at least as much as those in New England, if not more.

Davis’s method is comprehensive and encyclopedic. Drawing on a host of sources, he has produced, in effect, a series of complete monographs on every category of intellectual endeavor: literature, education, religion, science and technology, the fine arts (including landscape gardening), law, economics, and politics. Along the way he gives us 150 pages on the Indian in southern colonial literature and nearly 240 pages on books, libraries, reading, and printing. In each chapter of the book he begins with an overview of the subject and then breaks it down into subtopics and sub-subtopics for a rundown of everything said or done that can be called intellectual, from the abortive Roanoke colony of 1585 to the beginning of the American Revolution. For example, in the chapter on the Indian, one of the subcopies is “The Red Man as His White Neighbor Saw Him.” Under this heading we begin with “Indian Personal Character in General,” followed by discrete discussions of Individual Indians, General Impressions of Indian Life, Dancing and Music, Sports and Games, Medicine, Marriage and Burial, Utopias (two plans for Indian communities supervised by whites), White Ideas of Red Origins, and Native Religion and Christian Conversion and Education.

As a reference work these volumes will surely become standard. Despite continual warnings that the evidence is not all in, Davis has combed the printed sources and some of the manuscript ones for a fuller inventory of intellectual activity and artifacts than has yet been attempted for any set of colonies, northern or southern. It is an impressive achievement, and it goes far toward demonstrating the author’s main contention, namely that there was intellectual activity.

The work is not so successful in demonstrating that all this activity was the product of what he calls an “early southern mind” that left as profound a mark on American national consciousness as the New England mind. Indeed the kind of analysis needed for such a demonstration is scarcely attempted. The author seems more determined to accumulate evidence of thought than to perceive its direction. While he succeeds admirably in showing that southerners engaged in thought about a great many different things, his delineations of what they thought do not yield a core of ideas that will sustain the notion of a southern mind. He assures us from time to time, and most insistently in an epilogue, that southerners were realists, who saw things as they were, that they loved the soil, that they had a sense of humor and a number of other traits shared with their descendants …

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