The Reversal of Liberalism and Southern Religion

lptj2472016The Extinction of Jefferson’s Religious Liberalism

Michael O. Cushman

The great Southern intellectual Richard Weaver noted in his essay “The Older Religiousness in the South” that Thomas Jefferson was part of a “transient phase” among “certain Southern educational centers and among elements of the Southern upper class” who were influenced by the French Revolution and came to embrace “much religious skepticism.” This skepticism was “confined while it lasted to small cultivated groups, and it disappeared so completely in the antebellum years that it can be properly ignored in any account of the molding of the Confederate South.” Jefferson was “the best known Southern exponent of free-thinking” – a movement of an “intellectual aristocracy” who became “accustomed to the critical handling of ideas” and “considered it fashionable to embrace Deism and to flaunt a disrespect for the Bible.”

Weaver points out that,

Jefferson failed to take root in his section. His doctrine of states’ rights and his agrarianism were cherished, but his religious liberalism, like most else that he learned from the French radicals, was ignored. His influence waned so rapidly that within a few years after his death the Presbyterians were able to force the resignation of an atheist professor from the University of Virginia, which he had aspired to make the very citadel of unfettered thought.

Weaver writes that, “After 1830, when the South as if by prescience turned to a defense of all conservative ideals, [religious skepticism] declined almost to the point of extinction.” Interestingly, this is about the same time that Southerners began pointing to the positive effects of the plantation system rather than defending African slavery as a necessary but unfortunate evil. It is also when Southern nationalism was born as a real political and intellectual movement with the rise of Robert Barnwell Rhett and the early “Fire-eaters” in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Jefferson’s influence on the South after this point was narrowly confined; more traditionalist voices came to the fore as the South’s founding High Tory and seigneurial colonial heritage was reasserted.

Published on Southern Future, 24 July 2016.