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, but the characteristics he mentions do not add up to a set of ideas held in common.
Again and again he contrasts his genial folk with the crabbed, hysterical, hypocritical New Englanders, but the contrast never develops into extended analysis. It satisfies him to tell us, for example, that southern funeral elegies were secular, unlike the “lugubrious gnarled Calvinist lines of New England versified mourning for the departed,” or that Hugh Jones and Robert Beverley (authors of two early accounts of Virginia) were “far closer to the main stream of American historiography, or the American dream, than Bradford or Winthrop or Mather or Edwards.” In opening the discussion of the Indian he raises the extremely interesting question of why the captivity narrative, which became a distinct literary genre in the North, was far less common in the South. This and other questions, he says, will be raised in the chapter “and usually answered by implication,” but when we arrive at a section devoted to “Accounts of Captivity and Torture,” we get merely the assertion that the captivity narrative did not in fact become a literary genre in the South.
Indeed what we get throughout the three volumes is an assemblage of facts, impressive in amount but relatively inert. The reason may be the author’s concern for comprehensiveness. This is in many ways a pioneering work, which will serve as a guide for future investigators. But one suspects that the level of analysis may be limited by the material itself. Individual works, like those of John Smith or William Byrd, could certainly be subjected (and have been) to closer analysis than they receive here. But it is questionable that the thinkers of the colonial South had enough ideas in common to warrant generalizations that go beyond the elementary.
This is not to say that their thinking was elementary but that they did not think together. They were not collectively self-conscious in the way that colonial New Englanders were. The men and women who settled New England were convinced that they were engaged in one of the most important enterprises in human history. They kept a record of everything they did, and they talked and wrote endlessly about it, because they never doubted that posterity would want to know all about it. They took themselves very, very seriously, not only as individuals but as a group engaged in a historic mission. That is why they were both so irritating and so influential. Posterity has accepted them, despite numerous protests, at their own evaluation of themselves.
The South, on the other hand, though probably the most self-conscious section of the country today, only began to achieve its collective consciousness in the period after Davis’s study stops. The Revolutionary generation of southerners first showed a clear awareness of the sectional characteristics that divided them from the North in the 1780s in the Continental Congress. The awareness surfaced also in the debates of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and still more strongly in the rise of the Republican Party under Jefferson and Madison in the 1790s. But even then, and well into the nineteenth century, most white southerners, including Jefferson and Madison, were uncomfortable about one of the principal distinguishing marks of the South: dependence on slave labor.
As southern self-consciousness emerged more and more overtly in the nineteenth century, it was linked more and more to explicit recognition of that dependence and of all the consequences that went with it. By the middle of the nineteenth century it would be possible to speak of a southern mind, but that mind was almost wholly engaged in the sterile task of defending slavery as a beneficent institution, one which permitted the development of an upper class devoted to high intellectual pursuits. It is one of the many ironies of southern and American history that the South became a major source of high intellectual pursuits (pace Mr. Davis) only when it lay in ruins. With the end of the Civil War southerners began to write as never before, and from that time to this have produced more than their share of the country’s literature.
In the colonial period, however, southerners did not feel obliged to defend their way of life or even to reflect much about their “peculiar institution,” perhaps because it was not so peculiar then as it later became. Davis has little to say about the development of slavery, because, as he rightly observes, “the growing institution was not a major element of southern thinking, economic or otherwise, in the first century after Jamestown.” We might extend the statement for another fifty years or even another hundred. One of the most remarkable things about southern colonial writing is the absence of discussions of slavery. The silence is at times so profound that one suspects it may in itself be significant, but without the gift of second sight one cannot write the history of unexpressed ideas. And without ideas held in common it is difficult to sustain the notion—which at best requires some heavy sustaining—of a common “mind,” an early southern mind.
The case with New England is surely different. The contrast, as Davis insists, is lugubrious, but it is also, as he does not seem to notice, a contrast between people committed to a well-articulated view of themselves as a group and people without such a view. The New Englanders not only sustained their view through various transformations but managed to impose it on the whole nation of which they became a part. It is, of course, this bit of cultural imperialism that makes Mr. Davis so cross with them. Long before 1860 New Englanders laid claim to the national consciousness and gave their own past as a legacy to the nation, whether the nation wanted it or not. The way the New Englanders did it is the subject to which Sacvan Bercovitch addresses himself in The American Jeremiad, a book that will surely raise the hackles of those who think that the New England mind has been elevated at the expense of the South.
It is one measure of the success of New England’s cultural hegemony that Bercovitch can unblushingly entitle his book The American Jeremiad, for the jeremiad, first identified as such by Perry Miller, was a New England specialty. As defined by Miller, it was a sermon in which New England ministers, after the heroic days of the founding had passed, recited the afflictions with which God was now visiting his backsliding people, identified the sins that had provoked Him, and warned of much direr chastisement if the people failed to repent and return to the ways of their fathers. Miller was concerned to show how the jeremiad came to serve as a ritual renewal of New England’s mission. But Bercovitch perceives a great deal more in the ritual than Miller did and extends it to cover a multitude of sermonic, literary, and oratorical performances. For Bercovitch the jeremiad embraces the sermons of John Cotton and John Winthrop (the famous “Model of Christian Charity”) before the settlers landed, and it goes on through the Mathers and Jonathan Edwards to include the sermons of the Revolutionary period, the poetry of Timothy Dwight, the fourth-of-July orations of the early nineteenth century, and finally the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s Walden, the novels of Melville and Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas.
It obviously requires some doing to bring all these together without reducing them to triviality. Bercovitch is up to the task. Seen through the jeremiad in his extended understanding of it, a great deal of American social and intellectual history makes a new kind of sense. Major episodes, not only the founding and development of New England, but the Great Awakening of the 1740s, the Revolution, westward expansion, the American Renaissance, even the Civil War, all appear explicable in terms of the rhetorical formula first developed by the seventeenth-century New England ministers.
Bercovitch is not out to replace Miller. In the preface he pays homage to him and expresses his disdain for the “patricidal totem feast following Miller’s death, when a swarm of social and literary historians rushed to pick apart the corpus of his work.” That corpus, he insists, “remains pretty much intact, and…will remain a towering achievement of the American mind.” But Bercovitch builds on Miller and on the work of many other historians, making use of their insights to create a pattern of interpretation that brings together seemingly disparate views in a new synthesis. It is difficult to summarize his argument without destroying its subtlety and sophistication. But a reviewer must try.
The distinguishing characteristic of the jeremiad, as Bercovitch sees it, was not its condemnation of backsliding (though that condemnation was always present and prominent) but its prophetic assurance of a bright future, not God’s anger but his special love for his chosen people, not pessimism but optimism. New Englanders, he argues, identified their hopes of eternal salvation with their hopes for the future of their church and their land. Through the migration to New England, the perseverance of the saints became attributed to the society as a whole. The history of New England became sacred history, which would eventuate in the millennium: “the progress of saint and society became identified: one reflected, and verified, the other.”
With the Great Awakening of the 1740s this vision was extended to involve the whole continent. Cotton Mather had already made the jump in his Magnalia Christi Americana (which Miller himself described as “a colossal Jeremiad”). Jonathan Edwards, with his concerts of prayer, saw the Great Awakening as the beginning of a millennial fulfillment of New England’s and America’s destiny, enlarging the constituency of the jeremiad “from saintly New England theocrats to newborn American saints.”
The expansion continued as North America became the battleground for the war against Antichrist in the shape of Catholic France. The French and Indian War which ended in 1763 was to be seen as a holy war, in which God’s people, having repented of their sins, must inevitably triumph. When the quarrel with England began soon after and culminated in independence, it was the jeremiad that enabled Americans to see their rebellion not as an act of patricide but as one of filial piety. George III was not a father but an affliction, playing the role that drought, disease, and hostile Indians had played for an earlier generation. In casting him off, Americans must return to the saintly ways of their founding fathers, the fathers, that is, who had founded New England.
By this time, however, the saintly ways of the founding fathers had themselves been transformed into something that the fathers might not have recognized. If we may use another author’s terms, the Protestant Ethic had been transformed into the spirit of capitalism, and the jeremiad was now used to batter down any dissent from the values that went with capitalism. Bercovitch detects such dissent during the Revolution in widespread popular movements that threatened the stability of government and the dominance of the rich and well-born, a view that not all historians of the Revolution are likely to accept. He adopts the posture of the Progressive and neo-Progressive and New Left historians to declare that “the first aim of legislators after 1776 was to curb popular demands.” The Federalists of the 1780s enlisted the clergy in this cause. Through them the jeremiad, “mediating between religion and ideology…gave contract the sanctity of covenant, free enterprise the halo of grace, progress the assurance of the chiliad, and nationalism the grandeur of typology. In short, it wed self-interest to social perfection, and conferred on both the unique blessings of American destiny.”
Once we have reached this point, the rest of American history falls easily into place. Westward expansion was “a sort of serial enactment of the ritual of the jeremiad. It was the moving stage for the quintessentially American drama of destined progress.” Religious diversity was a cultural counterpart of territorial expansion, with every new religious movement enlisted into a common reverence for the American way and its millennial promise. Indeed every kind of dissent, every potential rebellion was reduced to impotence by the success of the jeremiad in sanctifying the American social order. The effect was “to blight, and ultimately to preclude, the possibility of fundamental social change…to transform what might have been a search for moral or social alternatives into a call for cultural revitalization.” And Bercovitch closes with the frustration of Melville and Hawthorne and the ambivalence of Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman in their fundamental acceptance of the society whose shortcomings they denounced, just as the Puritan ministers had denounced the sins of the people while holding out the prospect of a bright future in God’s love.
This is a dazzling performance. It supplies conceptual links between phenomena where historians have often sensed a connection without being able to describe it adequately, between the Great Awakening and the Revolution, between Edwards and Emerson, between the Puritan vision of a city on a hill and the “manifest destiny” of American expansion. One can quarrel with the author at almost every stage, from the assumption of the optimistic thrust of the jeremiad at the outset to the identification of it with social and political conservatism at the end. One can even question the unstated assumption that other Americans accepted the embrace of New England and saw themselves in the terms that the jeremiad prescribed.
Bercovitch sweeps us along with him so persuasively that we are scarcely aware that we are not dealing with facts at all. If Davis presents us with a set of inert facts, summaries of what people said and did, Bercovitch touches facts only to see beyond them, to translate them into the scheme of the jeremiad—and we have to remind ourselves that the jeremiad itself is a historian’s construct, just as the New England mind is a construct, as would be the early southern mind if we could persuade ourselves of its existence. Intellectual history at this level is metaphor.
As metaphor it is not susceptible to empirical confirmation. The social historians who have attempted to deal with New England’s past by counting births, marriages, and deaths, by comparing tax lists and church records and court cases will find little here with which they can make contact, just as they have found little in Miller to interest them and have attempted to supersede his work by ignoring it. But it is at the level of metaphor and unprovable insight that intellectual history becomes most exciting to those who see in it a way of understanding ourselves. Max Weber’s insights into the relationship between religion and society are not empirically demonstrable, nor, despite the continual efforts to discredit them, are they susceptible to empirical refutation. The same is true of Freud, whose insights into human nature continue to excite us, despite the failure of systematic attempts to support them in controlled experiments. Miller’s construction of the New England mind is of the same order.
This kind of history, which creates the past for us in new perspectives, has to depend on the author’s ability to persuade his readers to see what he sees, persuade them to rearrange familiar objects in a new pattern from a new angle of vision. If those accustomed to other angles are unable to recognize the familiar objects in the new perspective, they will reject the new view out of hand. But if the author is successful, he will at least give his readers pause and perhaps make them adjust their historical glasses. Anyone who reads the mass of writing produced by seventeenth-century New Englanders and then reads what Miller makes of those writings must be a very dull person if he fails to see things that he did not see before, if he does not find his mind stretched into a new understanding not only of New England but of himself. What Bercovitch has done is to stretch our minds a bit further in the direction that Miller bent them. And that means, however one may quarrel with him in details, that he has written intellectual history at the highest level.
July 19, 1979