Visual memories, especially those of boyish vintage, tend to be inexact but I am pretty confident of this one: Joseph Grégoire de Roulhac Hamilton was a short, gnomish, balding figure, longtime chairman of the history department at the University of North Carolina, and founder of the great Southern Historical Collection there. And more to the present point, a valued friend and mentor to my father and his older brother, who had studied under him in the 1920s.
The occasion I recall here was one of a succession of visits at his house when my uncle, a West Coast academic, visited in North Carolina. He and my father would call upon their revered teacher, taking me along. I would sit patiently on the berm overlooking the front porch as the three of them, in their rocking chairs, talked into the warm summer night. I was too boyishly in-curious to listen carefully, but one topic was surely a shared interest in Southern history—as to which Dr. Hamilton, as will be seen, entertained emphatic views. He had done his doctorate at Columbia under William Dunning, eponymous founder of the dominant “school” of Reconstruction history, which tended to charge the South’s postbellum woes to vengeful Yankee intruders.
The scene might have faded from memory long since but for a personal sequel. In the mid-1960s, I took leave from newspapering to teach American history at the Woman’s College of UNC. As I prepared lectures on the “causes” and outbreak of the Unpleasantness whose sesquicentennial we are presently observing, I chanced with mild indignation on a noted talk the very same Hamilton had given in the early 1930s. He roundly accused Abraham Lincoln, by virtue of his mere election, of having been “an immediate menace to slavery in the states,” thus provoking and justifying secession. This was not an uncommon theme then, in view of the sectional nature of the new-minted Republican party. But it was always controversial.
The indignant notes with which I sprinkled the margins of Hamilton’s pages are missing, and I probably failed to notice that a number of variables lay concealed in the words “menace,” “immediate,” and “states”—variables with which a practiced quibbler could have had a field day. I was not in a quibbling mood. After all, Lincoln had often vowed to leave the South’s peculiar institution unmolested “in the states” where it had historically existed. Under the Dred Scott decision, neither a president nor Congress possessed authority to interfere with slavery in the states that were to constitute the Confederacy. The territories of the West, recently extorted from Mexico, were a far more explosive issue. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had barred slavery from the northern Louisiana Purchase, was now extinguished, and the militant dreamers of the South’s “empire” had turned covetous eyes on the whole Gulf littoral and the Caribbean, where slavery might flourish without limit.
With these thoughts, I challenged my elder and better, not without a guilty feeling that in view of the family veneration of Hamilton I was engaged in virtual parricide. I was then in my twenties, a new-minted “Southern liberal,” imbued with the enlightened racial outlook of latter-day Chapel Hill. Hamilton, born a year after the end of “radical” Reconstruction, was a man of his time, and had delivered his provocative lecture at the crux of the Jim Crow era when its cardinal assumptions were largely undisturbed. He would have been exceptional, even among enlightened Southerners, had his personal views not reflected the culture of that time—paternalist and tinctured with a complacent confidence in white racial superiority. In youth, he had studied at Sewanee, then a citadel of Southern traditionalism which, not so many years earlier, had attempted to recruit both Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee as vice chancellors.
As for what may be called the “secession guilt” question, there remains much to be said. My recent reconsideration of the vast material bearing on that issue suggests that neither Lincoln nor the other decision-makers of 1860-61 clearly foresaw what his election meant for peace in their time. Lincoln’s rival (and eventual secretary of state) William Seward had spoken of an “irrepressible conflict,” but as war clouds gathered, he had drastically modified his views. I still believe Hamilton to be wrong about the implications of Lincoln’s election. His polemical strategy is to identify the Republican party with its abolitionist fringe, and Lincoln as its tribune: an early case of guilt by association.