Like many proslavery intellectuals educated at Princeton in the 19th century, Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve presents an intriguing paradox. In the world of letters, he was admired for his tireless efforts to reform classical education in American universities, his role as a professor of Greek at the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins, and his forty-five-year editorship of the Journal of American Philology. Yet he was also an unrelenting defender of the Confederacy, states’ rights, and, by implication, slavery.
Biographers find it difficult to avoid superlatives in their description of Gildersleeve’s scholarly career. Andrew Fleming West—Giger Professor of Latin at Princeton and founder of the university’s Graduate School—described him as “the most brilliant, richly furnished and powerful master in Greek studies.” In an obituary published in the American Journal of Philology a few months after Gildersleeve’s death in 1924, Charles William Emil Miller, a distinguished classicist at Johns Hopkins University, recalled his colleague as “a man of such keenness of intellect, versatility of genius, wealth of knowledge, catholicity of taste, mobility of temperament and breadth of human experience.” Within the field of classics and humanistic education in general, Gildersleeve was considered an American icon, “a classicist of the greatest literary breadth and scholarly depth.” Paul Shorey, University of Chicago classicist, celebrated “the moral qualities of the man, the teacher, the companion, the helper, the friend.”
References to Gildersleeve’s strong support of the Confederacy, however, are scant amidst the celebrations of his career. Moreover, there has been little exploration of the ways Gildersleeve’s Princeton education shaped his scholarship and ideology. These omissions are puzzling because, far from being minor footnotes in the making of a great American classicist, slavery and Princeton were central to Gildersleeve’s ideas about culture and the role of a humanistic education in society. Slavery was the “absent cause” that informed much of Gildersleeve’s thought—and Princeton, as much as the South, provided the space in which noble and courtly southern ideals could be celebrated even in the midst of political crisis and war.
A Southerner at Princeton
Gildersleeve appears to have been the typical southern gentleman at Princeton in the mid-19th century. Born into a Presbyterian family in Charleston, South Carolina, Gildersleeve was educated at home by his theologian father before he arrived at Princeton in 1847.
Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) had a reputation for attracting southern students; they comprised more than 50% of Gildersleeve's class. And like his classmates, Gildersleeve identified strongly with the South and its destiny, noting later in life that he had “shared the fortunes of the land in which my lot was cast, and in my time have shared its prejudices and its defiant attitude.”
If Princeton appeared to be a comfortable place for young southerners like Gildersleeve, it was because the intellectual climate on campus didn’t challenge their southern identity or the set of values associated with it. In his retroactive defense of the Confederacy, published in the Atlantic Monthly (1892) and later reissued as The Creed of the Old South (1915), Gildersleeve argued that, for southerners, submission to “any encroachment, the least as well as the greatest, on the rights of a State means slavery.” The ideals that defined the region—self-respect, honor, and individuality—could only be understood within “local patriotism.” Princeton, it seemed, promised an environment where local patriotism could be nurtured even in the North.
Gildersleeve’s relationship to Princeton was, however, more ambivalent than this account might suggest. During his time at the college, Gildersleeve felt like both an insider and an outside at the institution. One reason for Gildersleeve’s unsettled status at Princeton was the nature of his induction into the college. When he entered Princeton as a junior, Gildersleeve had already mastered Latin and Greek. He did not consider the Rev. John Smith, Vice President of the college and Professor of Greek, a particularly good teacher, nor did he believe that the college took classical education seriously. In an 1877 address to the Whig and Cliosophic Societies, Gildersleeve wondered why Princeton, “which had done so much for divinity, for medicine, for law, for legislation, for arms, had fallen so far short in letters.”
After graduating from Princeton in 1849—and convinced that the state of classical education in Europe was more advanced than what was being offered in the United States—Gildersleeve went to Germany. He studied at the universities of Berlin, Bonn, and finally the University of Göttingen, from which he received his doctorate in 1853. Gildersleeve’s mission after Göttingen was to reform the study of the classics in the United States, a task that he carried out successfully as a professor of Greek at the University of Virginia (1856-1878) and Johns Hopkins (1879-1924). Within the field of classics, as Paul Shorey noted, the “figure of Gildersleeve had dominated throughout.”
Gildersleeve’s relationship to Princeton remained strained, due to personal pique and ideology. When the classicist returned from Germany with the cultural capital of a Göttingen Ph.D., Princeton offered him a faculty position that he considered demeaning. Gildersleeve’s relationship to Princeton was further tested by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. As Gildersleeve wrote, the authorities at the college—an institution he and others considered to be “almost a Southern college”—decided “to emphasize their loyalty to the Union in a way that exasperated all ardent Southerners like myself.”
Like other Southerners at Princeton, including two of his roommates who died at Manassas, Gildersleeve had assumed that Princeton would be a natural supporter of the values that the Confederacy was trying to uphold: personal freedom and honor for white men, built on a foundation of slavery.
The Classicist's Defense of Slavery
Gildersleeve’s military participation in the Civil War was not extensive. His active duty was limited to the summer months, when he served with the 21st Virginia Infantry, the 1st Virginia Cavalry, and on the staff of Confederate General John B. Gordon. But in his retelling of the war, this limited experience came to be surrounded by a romance that drew heavily on Gildersleeve’s training as a classicist. One lasting image is that of the scholar-soldier, severely wounded but still holding on to his learning:
I lost my pocket Homer, I lost my pistol, I lost one of my horses, and finally I came very near losing my life by a wound that kept me five months on my back.
Gildersleeve also turned to the classics to justify the Confederate cause. In The Creed of the Old South, for example, he rejected the suggestion that the South had gone to war to defend its economic interests in slavery. He invoked the rhetoric of an Athenian statesman who had argued that the Peloponnesian War could not be justified “on a simple calculation of material resources, but on a simple principle of right”:
To us submission meant slavery, as it did to Pericles and the Athenians; as it did to the great historian of Greece, who had learned this lesson from the Peloponnesian war, and who took sides with the Southern States, to the great dismay of his fellow radicals, who could not see, as George Grote saw, the real point at issue in the controversy. Submission is slavery, and the bitterest taunt in the vocabulary of those who advocated secession was ‘submissionist.’
But where did American slavery fit into this rhetoric of freedom?
Like other defenders of the Confederacy, Gildersleeve argued that secession had never been about slavery, but part of a concerted attempt to affirm states’ rights. In this view, the stakes of the war were not the interests of a slave-owning oligarchy, but the chivalric ideal of the South as a place of honor, freedom and civility. Slavery was “simply a test case,” he wrote. Concealed beneath his romanticism, however, was an unquestioned investment in the racial ideologies that justified the enslavement of African Americans.
In essays published in the Richmond Examiner in 1864, Gildersleeve used his mastery of rhetoric and literary techniques—most notably irony and allegory—to argue against “miscegenation” (“a word that would have made Quintillian stare and gasp”) and to denigrate African Americans with the pejorative term “Sambo.” One of the achievements of North American culture, he argued, was that “the supremacy of the white man” had saved the continent from the fate of its neighbors to the south—“the mixed population of Mexico and the twenty-two cross-breeds of Lima.” Almost thirty years later, Gildersleeve still held to the same position: that the South’s commitment to white supremacy had saved America from the specter of race mixing or government by non-whites, as in Haiti.
In spite of his unrepentant views on slavery and the lost cause of the South, Gildersleeve and his alma mater would eventually be reconciled. He was invited to address the Whig and Cliosophic Societies in 1877, and in 1899 received an honorary L.H.D. (Doctor of Humane Letters). Upon his death in 1924 (at the age of 93), Dean West paid tribute to Gildersleeve as the embodiment of a greatness that surpassed death. Although no buildings or professorships would be named for Gildersleeve at Princeton, any doubts about the reconciliation between the scholar and the university were laid to rest when his son Raleigh was commissioned to design McCosh Hall and Lower Pyne Building.
Yet certain questions remain. Why did Gildersleeve and other Southerners consider Princeton to be a Southern institution? (A question the Princeton & Slavery Project continues to explore.) How could his commitment to a humanistic education be reconciled with his support for slavery under the guise of states’ rights? And to what extent did his disdain for African Americans limit the ideals that he considered central to a modern civic culture?
About the Author
Simon Gikandi is Robert Schirmer Professor of English at Princeton University. He is the author of Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton University Press, 2011), winner of the James Russell Lowell Award for the best book by a member of the Modern Languages Association, and of the Melville J. Herskovits Award, given by the African Studies Association for the most important scholarly work in African studies. He is currently completing a book on Atlantic Slavery and the Cultures of Modernity.
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Quoted in “Gildersleeve, Basil Lanneau,” Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), 213.
C. W. E. Miller, “Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve,” American Journal of Philology 45 (1924), 100.
Ward W. Briggs, Jr., “Introduction,” The Letters of Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, ed. Ward W. Briggs, Jr. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), xiv.
Quoted in Leitch, The Princeton Companion, 215.
“Database of Princeton Student Origins,” Princeton & Slavery, accessed 25 September 2017.
Basil L. Gildersleeve, “Formative Influences,” The Forum X (February 1891), 609.
Basil L. Gildersleeve, The Creed of the Old South (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1915), 15. First Published as “The Creed of the Old South,” Atlantic Monthly, January 1892.
Basil L. Gildersleeve, “The College in the Forties,” in W. Ward Briggs Jr., ed., Soldier and Scholar: Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve and the Civil War (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1998), 51.
Leitch, A Princeton Companion, 215.
Gildersleeve, “The College in the Forties,” 51.
Gildersleeve, “Formative Influences,” 616.
Gildersleeve, Creed, 24.
Gildersleeve, Creed, 47.