Historian Charles P. Roland wrote in the forward to Francis Butler Simkins “The Everlasting South” that “probably the great majority of historians today disagree with Professor Simkins’ logic, but probably the great majority of the common folk, wittingly or unwittingly, agree with the gist of it.” As a historian, Simkins was aware that by the late 1950s and early 1960s, major publishing houses in the US were forcing authors to modify their manuscripts to suit liberal values. Speaking honestly about American history was unwanted.
In a letter to a Northerner offended by his writing, he wrote: “You may not understand that I am attempting to give what actually the ordinary Southerner thinks [and] our press – liberal and reactionary – and our politicians will not give publicly to what is actually happening; they want to be overly tactful so as to attract Northern industry . . .” His students reverently referred to Dr. Simkins as “Doc”– and he warned them that they might be making a mistake in following his example.
Tolerating the Past
“What distinguished Doc from so many of his contemporaries was that he refused to truckle to current historical fads, indeed, to use his phrase, he believed that historians ought to “tolerate the South’s past.”
Simkin’s was unashamed of being a Southerner; he was proud of his origins and ancestry. This alone, he knew, was reason enough for most Yankees and Yankeefied Southerners to object to his views.
“I do not attempt to emphasize here the contributions of the South to the history of the United States,” Doc explained in his Southern history textbook. “I propose instead to stress those political and social traits that make the region between the Potomac and Rio Grande a cultural province conscious of its identity.” To him the changes that occurred over time in the South were not nearly as significant as the presence of cultural continuity in the region.
“The militant nationalism of the Southern people supplemented rather than diminished their provincialism; devotion to State and region went along with devotion to the United States,” Doc observed. “Gloating pride in growing cities and imported industries went along with retention of growing habits. The interest of the youth of the region in rifles, dogs and wildlife, like that of the Virginia gentlemen of the eighteenth century, was often greater than their interest in classroom studies.”
Doc often provoked conventional historians by saying or writing things that they did not want to hear. Invited to become a visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, he willingly admitted to the administrators that he was something probably no Canadian university had ever had on its faculty – the grandson of a Confederate field officer. Doc even delighted in revealing the full name and regiment of his ancestor – Lieutenant-Colonel John Calhoun Simkins of the 3rd South Carolina Artillery.
In the Southern Historical Association presidential address, “Tolerating the South’s Past,” he denounced the tendency of modern historians to judge the South and its people by today rather than those of the past.
“Chroniclers of Southern history,” he charged, “often do not grasp the most elementary concept of sound historiography: the ability to appraise the past by standards other than those of the present. They accept a fanatical nationalism which leaves little room for static contentment, and a faith in the American dream of human equality which leaves little room for one person to get ahead of another except in making money.”
(The Legacy of Francis Butler Simkins, Grady McWhiney, Southern Partisan, 2nd Quarter 1995, excerpts pg. 23-24)