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 30

image of pageExplore Inside

Page 30

Secondary Scholarship | 2008
Transcription Their re-actions were driven by a "temper . . . unsparing and vindictive."24 These
are not the words of one seeking to manipulate events. Instead, they reflect
candor, thoughtfulness, and a keen understanding of human vulnerability in the
face of difficult circumstances.
Even if the problems attending an oversimplified approach to history
were not dominant with Simms, a lingering difficulty remains. A Hegelian-like
view of history as mouvement or progress toward liberty places him, if not
squarely in, at least on the peripheries of a whig interpretation of history.25 But it
is not at all clear that Simms held to this view of progress. As Carey Roberts has
shown, progressivism is not a monolith. Roberts has argued that a comparison of
George Bancroft and Simms on progress reveals very different historical
philosophies. Bancroft believed that progress was self-evident, inevitable, based
on equality, and had no allegiance to tradition or place. Simms, on the other
hand, believed that progress was not guaranteed and came only through
individual endowment, choice, struggle, and allegiance to place.26
The "Home Secret," as Simms termed it, is key to discerning the
difference between his view of history and that of a typical whig historian.
Allegiance to tradition and place is not compatible with the whig idea of progress.
Whig history is ever tied to movement toward the present and never to a stable
and fixed past. As G. K. Chesterton saw the problem, modern progress is "a
comparative of which we have not settled the superlative."27 If progress is about
forward movement only, it has little usefulness toward human improvement. The
whig perspective may be characterized by a Forrest Gump-like proverb:
"Progress is as progress does." But a view of progress beholden to place rather
than movement might read, "Progress does as progress is." That is, progress
cannot start until it finds definition in place and time. Any ideal of future
progress apart from a fixed standard is meaningless.
In Simms's view, the standard could never be discovered without first
taking a "Look at Home." He believed that this "Home Secret" was essential for
human progress. Whereas the whig historian is attracted to the progression of
forces that bring glorious triumphs over vast terrains, Simms was motivated by
human struggles associated with defeat at home. Writing in the Columbia
Phoenix just after Sherman's destruction of South Carolina's capital city, Simms

24 Simms, The History of South Carolina, 186, 269, 273, 270, 168, 312, 219, 210.
25 For discussions of progress in history see J. B. Bury, The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into its
Growth and Origin (N. Y.: Dover Publications, 1960 [1932]) Isaiah Berlin, Historical Inevitability
(London: Oxford University Press, 1954); Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., The Idea of Progress in America,
1815-1860 (N. Y. Peter Smith, 1951 [1944]); John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man (Indianapolis:
Liberty Fund, Inc., 2000); Karl R. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (London: Routledge & Kegan
Paul, 1957); John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past (New Brunswick, N. J.:
Transaction Publishers, 1994).
26 Carey Roberts, "The Mighty River of Providence or the Secrets of Home: The Historical
Theories of Simms and Bancroft," The Simms Review 6 (Summer 1998): 35-43. The inevitability of
progress—a tenet not found within Simms's view of progress—is central to a whig view of history.
Moltke-Hansen's failure to differentiate between these vastly different views leads to his
mischaracterization of Simms as a whig historian.
27 G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, 1905,
http://www.cse.dmu.ac.uk/--mward/2kc/books/heretl2.txt (assessed January 24, 2007).

34