The period of the 1840s and 50s saw tremendous change on multiple fronts in the South. Many left the Atlantic coast States to settle and work the land in Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas. Politically, the Era of Good Feelings was a distant memory. Fights over the protective tariff (which was borne disproportionately by Southerners) of the 1830s had hardened sectional tensions. As well, Northerners were adopting ever more hostile positions towards African slavery in the South and every time a new State in the West was considered for admission into the Union, the struggle over the question of slavery was re-fought. Industrialisation was gaining significant ground in the North and even beginning to appear in areas of the agrarian South. Culturally,Romanticism‘s influence was at its peak, as the revolt played out against Enlightenment rationalism. Much like our own age today, it was a time when many people felt a growing alienation from society and the world around them. And, of course, the bloodbath of the 1860s lay just over the horizon.
This is the setting for Drew Gilpin Faust’s book A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860. Faust, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, takes an exceedingly critical view of Southern society in general as well as the five men she examines in her book. These men (listed below), each of them heavily influenced by Romanticism and plagued with feelings of isolation and what they believed to be unrecognised genius, consciously built an informal support group they called a ‘Sacred Circle.’ They were each gravely concerned about the direction of Southern society, the intellectual and moral climate around them and the Atlantic South’s declining relative population and wealth. On pages 52-53 of her book, Faust writes about the great importance which these Southern leaders and intellectuals placed upon morality in their changing world. Once again, we can see the Classical nature of the South, even in the writings of these would-be reformers, as opposed to the Progressive nature of the North and the US taken as a whole. Notice the focus on social order, duty and personal responsibility. Most importantly, notice that they embraced a fixed set of moral principles, not an ever-changing and crusading sense of morality as was (and remains) popular outside of the South.
Like the moral philosophers, [James] Hammond, [George] Holmes, [Nathaniel Beverley] Tucker, [Edmund] Ruffin and [William Gilmore] Simms considered social order and amelioration as the ethical responsibility of the individual; duty would serve as an instrument of personal and therefore of social restraint. The Southerners’ warnings about the dominance of faction in politics and the overriding importance of wealth in America echoed the moral philosophy texts. The men of mind felt, too, that the most threatening aspect of change in their world was the decline of virtue that seemed to accompany social evolution. Civilization appeared to Holmes “menaced with utter annihilation in the wild conflict of selfish interests, the rejection of fixed principles of morality, and the destructive fury of uncontrolled passions. Simms emphasized that it was imperative to devote intellect to establishing “sure pledges for security in a time of great popular commotion.”