Wlliam Gilmore Simms
image of pageExplore Inside


Speech | The Thalian Society | 1847

            William Gilmore Simms was invited to give the oration, which would become Self-Development, by the Literary Societies of Oglethorpe University in Milledgeville, GA in 1847.  In consideration of his student audience, Simms took as his theme the nature and progress of the individual, especially in relation to his function within God’s plan.  The title quality, according to the author, is about recognizing one’s God-given potentials and subsequently nurturing and expressing them in action.  Everybody has inborn strengths and aptitudes; self-development is the art of fully realizing the extent of these individuated capabilities, howsoever grand or humble they might be.  As a review from the 16 November 1847 Federal Union summarized it, the speech was fundamentally about “the importance of every one knowing the sphere for which he was designed, and bending all his energies fully to occupy it.”  Not being so aware, and thus so engaged, causes problems for both the individual and society as a whole.  In this vein, Simms parlayed his message of personal development into a statement of support for the burgeoning Mexican War, Mexico, in his opinion, not being sufficiently aware of its proper place on the world stage.

            Though both the Thalian Society and the Phi Delta Society are credited with extending the invitation to speak, the eventual publication of the oration and a correspondence leading to it[1] suggests that the former was actually more instrumental in securing the author’s involvement. In his letters, Simms was a bit unclear about the exact occasion for the oration.  In a 26 October 1847 letter to James Lawson, Simms claimed that the speech was to be delivered “at the Commencement.”  Yet earlier, in an 18 March 1847 letter to George Frederick Holmes, he noted that he was to deliver the “anniversary oration.”  In evaluating the oration in November 1847, the South Carolinian made mention of a series of speeches by the “Graduating Class” in conjunction with Simms’s appearance, and Oglethorpe University was chartered “shortly after the centennial observance of the state” of Georgia[2], making their anniversary likely sometime in the early spring, not November.  Entries of the time in Georgia’s Southern Recorder[3], are clearer, making mention of the speech specifically in conjunction with the university’s Commencement Week.  Simms’s theme also seems particularly suited to such an occasion.

            Simms first referred to Self-Development in the aforementioned letter to G.F. Holmes in March 1847, closing with a casual mention of having “just consented to deliver” the oration in the coming November.  When Simms composed the speech is unclear from his personal records, though it was likely not until very close to the date of delivery.  Sporadically, in the fall of 1847, he mentioned being plagued by the necessity to write the oration.  He called the writing an “antipathetic duty” in a 20 October 1847 letter to James Henry Hammond, and he mentioned to James Lawson in the 26 October 1847 letter that he was “awfully worried with the preparation” of the oration.  This latter mention occurred a mere two weeks before his address.  He delivered the oration on 10 Nov 1847 in the chapel at Oglethorpe.  Among the audience, and apparently cheering enthusiastically for the author, were Alexander H. Stephens and James L. Petigru[4].  The address was published shortly after the event, also in 1847, by the Thalian Society in Milledgeville, GA and printed by Burges, James & Paxton of Charleston, SC.  It appeared in a paperback, pamphlet-type book with a cover/title page reading:  SELF-DEVELOPMENT. | [rule] | AN | ORATION | DELIVERED BEFORE | THE LITERARY SOCIETIES | OF | OGLETHORPE UNIVERSITY, | GEORGIA; | NOVEMBER 10, 1847. | [rule] | BY | WILLIAM GILMORE SIMMS, | OF SOUTH-CAROLINA. | [rule] | MILLEDGEVILLE: | PUBLISHED BY THE THALIAN SOCIETY. | 1847.  Though there were no subsequent printings, Simms bound the oration into a collection with other of his writings[5] called Orations Essays & Pamphlets.

Todd Hagstette

[1] The front matter of the published speech contains a correspondence page that reproduces an exchange between Thomas F. Wells, Joseph M. Quarterman, and Samuel M. Carter, as representatives of the Thalian Society, and Simms.  In it, the group from Oglethorpe requested a copy of the oration from the author for subsequent publication, a request to which Simms enthusiastically submits.

[2] See http://www.oglethorpe.edu/about_us/history/in_depth.asp

[3] See the issues of 9 November 1847 and 23 November 1847.

[4] See Simms’s letter of 22 November 1847 to J.H. Hammond (Letters, 2:371-75).

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