"That History Is Truly the Life of Nations": History and Southern Nationalism in Antebellum South Carolina

By Quigley, Paul D. H. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, January 2005 | Go to article overview

"That History Is Truly the Life of Nations": History and Southern Nationalism in Antebellum South Carolina


Quigley, Paul D. H., South Carolina Historical Magazine


CHARGED WITH THE TASK OF ADDRESSING THE SOUTH Carolina Historical Society on its fifth anniversary in I860, Thomas Hanckel began, appropriately enough, by extolling the virtues of history and memory. Personal memory, he explained, was an indispensable element of the human condition. Without it, people would have no individual identities at all. "And what memory is to the individual," Hanckel declared, "history is to a nation." Just as memory defined individuals, that is, history defined nations-and without a proper awareness of its history, a nation could not be said to exist as a nation at all. Thus did Hanckel affirm "that history is truly the life of nations."

To illustrate the connection between history and nation, Hanckel went on to relate the history not of the United States as a whole, but of the state of South Carolina alone, concluding, "so must our State history be the strength of our State life and the bond of its citizenship." As Hanckel's words suggest, the meanings of terms such as "nation" and "country" were not fixed in antebellum South Carolina. For historically-minded individuals across the country, in fact, the community that history helped build was typically defined by state lines: almost every state founded its own historical society between the Revolution and the Civil War, and in almost every case the desire to promote state pride was a prominent motivation.1 The study of the past could be used, though, to define communities larger than single states. While some extended the study of history-and the concomitant creation of identity-to America as a whole, there were others, especially in South Carolina, for whom the "nation" which history substantiated was the South. For these thinkers, history underpinned southern nationalism. Five years prior to Hanckel's oration, College of Charleston professor Frederick A. Porcher had delivered the South Carolina Historical Society's inaugural address, in which he indicated the function of historical activity as a weapon in the sectional struggle of the 185Os. Promoting involvement in the society, he urged that South Carolinians and southerners in general should take control of their own history:

Fellow citizens, the people of the South have in many respects been false to themselves, and in none more than this, that utterly regardless of their own past, they have consented to receive their instructions from others, and under interested teachers their history has been falsified. What child has not been taught that to believe rigorously that all that is good, all that is noble, all that is venerable in our country is derived from the Puritan who landed on the rock of Plymouth?2

Porcher was not alone in his conviction that history could provide valuable support to the southern cause. Faced with the task of Grafting an ideological southern nation to support their separatist political project, southern thinkers had little that was tangible to work with. The South enjoyed few of the features that the producers of other nationalisms have relied on: no clear geographicalboundaries; no genuine racial distinctiveness; no unique language or religion of its own. There was, of course, slavery, which certainly set the South apart, but that problematical institution seemed even to some of its defenders unable, by itself, to bear the weight. Like other nationalists in the nineteenth century and ever since, southern ideologues solved this problem in part by looking to the past to support their claims that the South constituted a distinctive nation. Looking to various periods of southern, American, and world history-from colonial and revolutionary America to ancient Rome to medieval Europe-these men called on the testimony of the past to support the idea of a separate southern nation in the present.3

In this regard, the ideology of southern nationalism before the Civil War fits quite comfortably into the constructionist model of national identities that has achieved such widespread dominance over the last generation. …

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