Wlliam Gilmore Simms
image of pageExplore Inside

Slavery in America

Reviews/Essays | Thomas W. White | 1838

           A month before the Battle of Fort Sumter, Simms, in a letter to William Porcher Miles, asserted that the system that was about to plunge the nation into the Civil War was misunderstood:  “In 1835 I took the ground, in my pamphlet on the Morals of Slavery, that our Institution was not slavery at all, in the usual acceptation of the term[…]but that the negro in the South was a minor, under guardianship[…]was distinctly individualized, & protected in all his rights & privileges, through a representative master.”[1]  The pamphlet to which Simms referred was Slavery in America, published by Thomas W. White of Richmond, who was also the publisher of the Southern Literary Messenger.[2]  Slavery in America was a republication of Simms’s earlier essay “Miss Martineau on Slavery,” which, as John Caldwell Guilds notes, was “ostensibly [a] review of Harriet Martineu’s Society in America (1837), but actually [was] an answer to her attack upon slavery.”[3] Simms published this essay under the pseudonym “A South Carolinian” in the November 1837 number of the Southern Literary Messenger; the following year, the essay was republished in pamphlet form under the same pseudonym, along with a four-page dedication to the “Hon. the delegates from South Carolina, in the Congress of the United States.”

           In this essay, Simms provided the paternalist defense of the South’s “peculiar institution” that was standard amongst men of his class and time.  Guilds explains that in this work, “Simms voiced the patriarchal philosophy adopted by most intellectuals living in the seaboard South in the 1830s and 1840s[…it was] nothing more or less than an articulation of the point of view of the Southern planter class to which Simms now belonged.”[4]  Thus, while its thinking lacks novelty—at least in this regard—Slavery in America shows Simms’s real rhetorical gifts, as well as providing us with an example of the author’s political thought.  This is not to say that Simms’s thinking is merely derivative, as, in parts of the essay, he integrates critiques of individualism and capitalism into his defense of slavery before such arguments became commonplace.

           In a May 1845 letter to James Henry Hammond, Simms laments the fact that he “cannot lay hands on a single copy of my review of Martineau, except in a volume of bound pamphlets.  I distributed a number in the district when I was in nomination three years ago,”[5] referring to his 1842 campaign for the South Carolina Legislature. Jon L. Wakelyn notes that “[t]he politically astute Simms may even have written his critical review ‘Miss Martineau on Slavery’ in hopes of furthering his own political status in South Carolina.”[6]  While Wakelyn’s suggestion is difficult to prove, if we take into account the fact that Simms used Slavery in America as a political tool in the years after its publication, Wakelyn’s thinking appears at least plausible.  While there is nothing to suggest that Simms wrote this volume with explicitly electoral ends in mind, he certainly realized that its contents were political.  By entering into the debate over slavery, he was taking a stand on an issue that would have significant political ramifications.  Slavery in America can thus be read as Simms’s understanding of the ethical and moral issues surrounding slavery, as well as the political realities surrounding this most contentious of issues in the mid-nineteenth century.   

           The contexts of this presentation of the political and moral aspects of slavery are intriguing.  While a slaveholder, Simms thought of himself more as an intellectual and man of letters than as a planter, and most of his holdings came to him through marriage into the Roach family and, via this connection, the lowcountry gentry.  Simms seems to have maintained an uneasy relationship with his new social milieu, constantly feeling himself an outsider trying to prove his worth.[7]  Such a fact is not lost on historian Drew Gilpin Faust, who explored the proslavery arguments of southern intellectuals, with Simms as one of her primary subjects. She noted that many “of the bewildering aspects of the defense of slavery are best understood as expressions of the special needs of an alienated Southern intellectual class concerned with questions more far-reaching, yet in some ways more immediately personally relevant, than the rights and wrongs of human bondage.”  Men like Simms were not merely taking a political or ethical position on slavery; rather, an individual like him was seeking “to advance his particular values and define for himself a respected social role within a culture known for its inhospitality to letters.”[8]  Simms was thus doing something remarkably complex in an essay like Slavery in America: he was defending slavery as a moral, political, and social good in the face of criticism that argued something exactly antithetical, working to possibly advance his own political fortunes; perhaps most significantly, he also was using his rhetorical gifts to show himself worthy of a position in the planter aristocracy in which he found himself uncomfortably placed, legitimizing the place of the man of letters in this society.  In other words, the proslavery defense allowed men on the margins of the powerful circles of southern society, men like Simms, to claim a place within it, using the intellectual, rhetorical, and stylistic skills they possessed to overcome a lack of political connections or economic clout.

Slavery in America was never republished again in a stand-alone volume.  It was, however, reprinted under the title “The Morals of Slavery” in an edited volume called The Pro-Slavery Argument, first published in 1852 by Walker, Richards and Co. of Charleston, and reissued the following year by Lippincott, Grambo and Co. of Philadelphia. That the final republication of the essays was under the title “The Morals of Slavery” is significant, as Wakelyn states that, when originally crafting the essay as a response to Martineau, “Simms seemed most disturbed by [her] chapter on ‘The Morals of Slavery,’ which was devoted to the abuses of slavery.”[9]  Again, more than a mere discussion of the political necessities of slavery, Simms, in this essay, was particularly concerned with slavery as a moral good, beneficial to both white and black southerners.

           The Simms Initiatives’ copy of Slavery in America has been re-bound with plain yellow boards; yellow spine with gilt stamp reading horizontally: [rule] | SLAVERY IN AMERICA | SIMMS | [rule]  Its original paper cover appears as follows:  [double frame surrounding] SLAVERY IN AMERICA, | BEING | A BRIEF REVIEW OF MISS MARTINEAU | ON THAT SUBJECT. | [rule] | BY A SOUTH CAROLINIAN. | [rule] | RICHMOND:  | Printed and Published by Thomas W. White. | 1838. [double frame surrounding] The title page features:  SLAVERY IN AMERICA, | BEING | A BRIEF REVIEW OF MISS MARTINEAU | ON THAT SUBJECT. | [rule] | BY A SOUTH CAROLINIAN. | [rule] | [Inscription: [bracket] William Gilmore Simms [close bracket]] | RICHMOND: | Printed and Published by Thomas W. White. | 1838.


W. Matthew J. Simmons

[1] Letters, 4:343.  Simms seemingly misremembers the date, as Slavery in America was published in 1838, not 1835.

[2] Interestingly, White’s publication of Slavery in America seems doubly useful for him:  on the one hand, it gave an elegant voice to a perspective he himself seemed to share.  On the other, White seemingly owed Simms a debt, and the publication of Slavery in America seemed to settle things between the two men:  in July 1839, Simms tells James Lawson that “[White] owed me some 150 or 200 dollars but printed for me a pamphlet which I suspect, sweeps off nearly if not quite all of the debt.”  See Letters 1:150.

[3] John Caldwell Guilds, Simms:  A Literary Life (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 92.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Letters, 2:60-61.

[6] Jon L. Wakelyn, The Politics of a Literary Man:  William Gilmore Simms (Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, Inc, 1973), 62.

[7] Simms’s desire to earn approval from the society into which he married is also found in his writing novels like Pelayo and Count Julian; Guilds suggests that Simms “was encouraged by his new peers […] not to forsake the great literary traditions of Europe, to which they still looked, with something akin to awe, for cultural verification.”  See Guilds, 81.

[8] Drew Gilpin Faust, “A Southern Stewardship:  The Intellectual and the Proslavery Argument.”  American Quarterly 31, no. 1 (1979):  66.  This essay forms part of a larger argument Faust puts forth in her 1986 book Sacred Circle.  Also of interest in this regard is David Donald’s 1970 presidential address to the Southern Historical Association, later republished in the Journal of Southern History as “The Proslavery Argument Reconsidered.”

[9] Wakelyn, 63.