Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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The Social Principle

Speech | The Erosophic Society of the University of Alabama | 1843

            William Gilmore Simms delivered his lecture The Social Principle: The True Source of National Permanence to the Erosophic Society[1] at the University of Alabama on 13 December 1842 during the occasion of his receiving an honorary LL.D. degree from that university.[2]  An important text in Simms studies, this oration marks “Simms’s single most extensive published exposition of his social philosophy.”[3]  He took as the genesis for his talk what he perceived as the fundamentally changed nature of the environs of western Alabama from his previous visit to the area, on a trip to see his father nearly twenty years earlier.  In the intervening time, the author noted, Tuscaloosa had changed from a sprawling wilderness into a civilized town and a thriving seat of higher learning.  Simms attributed this rapid gentrification to the effects of the English colonial impulse in America, especially as contrasted with that of other nations active on the continent.  He saw an essential difference in the colonial goal of English settlers from those of the other European powers.  In short, he claimed that “[w]hile the Spaniards and the French, in the new world, sought either for gold, for slaves, or for conquest, the English sought for nothing but a home.”[4]  This proclivity to nest rather than merely exploit accounted for English success and Spanish and French failure in continental America, and by association to the rapidly tamed Alabama frontier.

            Though no mention is made in his letters of the original invitation to deliver the speech, Simms obviously wrote The Social Principle in a rather short timeframe.  He first mentioned the oration in a 17 November 1842 letter to James Lawson in which he announced his pending departure for the engagement and an assurance that “I am now writing it.”  As of a 22 November 1842 letter to Benjamin F. Perry, Simms was still struggling with the composition of the talk.  The hurried nature of its composition is reflected further in the front matter to the published version of the speech.  Both in his response to the initial request for a copy of the lecture for publication and in the “Advertisement” that begins the volume, the author disclosed his basic dissatisfaction with the work because of this rushed character. [5]  Simms maintained this general feeling of disappointment at least as late as his 16 June 1844 letters to John Pendleton Kennedy, in which he dismissively called it “a performance to which I attach no great value myself.”  External reviews, though, were kinder.  In the Southern Literary Messenger of December 1843, Thomas Caute Reynolds published a notice of Simms’s speech, “finding it of as high excellence in its line as his romances are in theirs.”[6]  The committee from the Erosophic Society tasked with publishing the lecture called it “highly interesting and deeply instructive.”[7]  Even Simms himself had to admit in a 7 January 1843 letter to James Lawson that his performance was well-received.[8]

            The address was published shortly after the event, in 1843, by “the [Erosophic] Society” in Tuscaloosa, AL and printed by Burges & James Printers of Charleston, SC.  It appeared in a paperback, pamphlet-type booklet with a cover/title page reading:  THE SOCIAL PRINCIPLE: | THE TRUE SOURCE OF NATIONAL PERMANENCE. | [rule] | AN ORATION, | DELIVERED BEFORE | The Erosophic Society of the University of Alabama, | AT ITS | TWELFTH ANNIVERSARY, | DECEMBER 13, 1842. | [rule] | BY WILLIAM GILMORE SIMMS, | OF SOUTH-CAROLINA. | [rule] | TUSCALOOSA: | PUBLISHED BY THE SOCIETY. | 1843.  Though there were no subsequent printings, Simms bound the oration into a collection with other of his writings[9] called Orations Essays & Pamphlets.

Elizabeth Oswald

[1] The Erosophic Society was one of the earliest social societies formed at the fledgling University of Alabama.  Begun in 1831, it was primarily a literary and debate society.

[2] See Simms’s letter of 17 November 1842 to James Lawson (Letters, 1:332n).

[3] David Moltke-Hansen, preface to The Social Principle, by William Gilmore Simms (Columbia: Southern Studies Program, University of South Carolina, 1980).

[4] Simms, The Social Principle, 8.

[5] The front matter of the published speech contains a “Correspondence” page that reproduces an exchange between M.L. Stansel, J.T. Lowe, and J.L. Smith, as representatives of the Esosophic Society, and Simms.  In it, the group from University of Alabama requested a copy of the oration from the author for subsequent publication, a request to which Simms initially demurred citing the need for revisions prior to publication.  The “Advertisement” that precedes this correspondence, though, apologizes that these revisions never were made.

[6] See Letters, 1:398n.

[7] See the “Correspondence” page of The Social Principle.

[8] Though in a subsequent remark from the May 1843 issue of the Magnolia Simms was careful to depict his reception in strictly social terms (the elegant dinner and abundant hospitality), others uniformly agreed that the speech was equally well-received as its creator.

[9] The collection also includes, Self-Development, The Sources of American Independence, Slavery in America, The Prima Donna, Count Julian, Atalantis (1832), and A Supplement to the Plays of William Shakespeare.