Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 7: No 2) >> Nationalism, History, and Moral Progress in Simms's Earliest Writings >> Page 12

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Secondary Scholarship | 1999
Transcription would engage much of the rest of his incredibly productive career: nationalism,
progress, and the relationship of history to fiction.
Southerners' sense of nationalism has often been misunderstood. In The
Political Economy of Slavery, historian Eugene D. Genovese rightly observes that
antebellum Southerners' sense of nationalism and their "protestations of love for the
Union were not so much a desire to use the Union to protect slavery as a strong
commitment to localism as the highest form of liberty. They genuinely loved the
Union, so long as it alone among the great states of the world recognized that
localism had a wide variety of rights."3 Simms, like the Southerners Genovese
describes, was a nationalist who saw no inherent contradiction between a strong
commitment to localism and a love of the Union. He sincerely loved the Union
because it had effected the independence of South Carolina as well as for the
protection it afforded her, which he was confident would allow future unhindered
In an address to the Palmetto Society printed in the Southern Literary Gazette
under the heading "28t June," Simms gave voice to this dual commitment to
nationalism and localism. Eventually, he predicted, the anniversary of the Battle of
Sullivan's Island (sometimes referred to by Simms as the Battle of Fort Moultrie)
would cease to be celebrated in Charleston. "The proximity of the 4th of July, a day
generally celebrated in the country, will in a great measure render unnecessary, a
distinct anniversary of any one achievement, however prominent in our history."4 As
long as the national holiday incorporated the celebration of local accomplishments,
observances of local exploits were superfluous. "Every event, of course," explained
Simms, "being included in the general celebration of our National Independence."
Local exploits should not be ignored; rather, they should be celebrated for
contributing to the more glorious national achievement—independence and the
formation of a national union. Even though, as Simms acknowledged, love of the
Union "should equally be the sentiment of all," South Carolinians should not forget
that "there are some points where prejudice is a merit, and selfishness the best of
virtues. Such are the duties we owe to ourselves, and to our own local interests."5
In Simms's thought, history, nationalism, and progress were intimately
linked. In order to be truly great, a nation needed to progress morally.6 The way to

3 Eugene D. Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and
Society of the Slave South ( New York: Vintage Books, 1967), 31.
4 William Gilmore Simms, "28t June," Southern Literary Gazette new series, vol. 1, (1
July 1829): 93. Although not attributed to Simms by Guilds (see note 11, below),
Simms acknowledges delivering this Palmetto Day address in a letter to James Lawson
dated 29 December 1839. Simms, The Letters of William Gilmore Simms, vol. 1, ed.
Mary C. Simms Oliphant, Alfred Taylor Odell, and T.C. Duncan Eaves (Columbia: U of
South Carolina P, 1952), 164.
5 Ibid., 95.
6 "Moral progress" included for Simms not just the development of morally correct, but
also intellectual and artistic development.