Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 16: No 1) >> ''That Feel and Touch of the Elbow": William Gilmore Simms and the Whig Interpretation of History >> Page 28

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Secondary Scholarship | 2008
Transcription One lesson, in chief, may be gleaned, among many others, from
this imperfect story of the past. It is that which teaches the citizen to
cling to the soil of his birth in the day of its difficulty, with the
resolution of the son who stands above the grave of a mother and
protects it from violation. ...Opinion hourly fluctuates and changes;
public policy is, of things, the most uncertain and capricious; and the
pretexts of ambition suggest a thousand subtle combinations of thought
and doctrine, upon which the human mind would depend with doubt and
difficulty. But the resolves of a decided majority, in all questions of
public expedience or policy, assumed as the voice of the soil, would be
the course equally of patriotism and safety.18

Another by-product of whig oversimplification, according to Butterfield,
is the tendency to unduly pronounce moral judgments on past subjects. The whig
historian plies his trade in overt condemnation and praise. "Behind all the
fallacies of the whig historian," Butterfield wrote, "there lies the passionate desire
to come to a judgment of values" so that he might have "the last word in a
controversy." He believes that his research "is inconclusive unless he can give a
verdict."19
Simms shied away from using history as an arbiter of moral judgment.
As _noted, he held deep sympathy for the patriot cause. One cannot, for example,
read his biographies of Francis Marion and Nathanael Greene or any of his
revolutionary novels and deny that he favored the patriot perspective.20 To
suggest that such allegiance did not ever cloud accuracy would be nazve. But
modern critics go too far in arguing that Simms's moral judgments (both praise
and blame) disqualified him as an accurate historian. It has even been suggested
by Hugh Rankin that Simms's portrayal of Marion was completely a mythical
adulation for consumption by a guilt-ridden southern public that "so desperately
needed heroes to counter the flood of antislavery criticism leveled at her during
the era before the Civil War." From such uncritical historical treatment, Rankin
claimed, the Marion "legend grew."21
One should not confuse, however, human opinion with historical
methodology. That Simms praised people he admired and criticized those he did
not is no sign that he ignored evidence to the contrary. Strong expression of
personal perspective is appropriate as long as it is either backed by clear evidence


18 Ibid., 323.
19 Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History, 64-65.
20 For Simms's approach in writing biographies see Busick, A Sober Desire for History, 36-50.
Busick argues persuasively that Simms's biographies were works of careful historical scholarship and
were not overtly hagiographic.
21 Hugh F. Rankin, Francis Marian: The Swamp Fox (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1973),
xi. Rankin's conclusion itself borders on a whig perspective of history. Consider John McCardell's
point that the view that "what came before the [Civil] war must surely have foreordained its outcome,
and, that being so, southerners, like Tories . . . must have possessed some fundamental flaw" was a
"linkage" that "`whip' historians often made." John McCardell, "Biography and the Southern Mind:
William Gilmore Simms" in "Long Years of Neglect, " ed. Guilds 204.

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