The Truest Men


    “The truest men, the truest Christians, and the truest patriots” – the Right Reverend James Hervey Otey’s vision in 1857 of the man the new University of the South would furnish the American nation was lofty in conception and evangelical in its reach, but it was not altogether distinctive.
    The U.S. was in the midst of a college-founding boom in the half-century before the bishops of Tennessee, Louisiana, and Georgia – Otey, Leonidas Polk, and Stephen Elliott – collectively launched their endeavor to found a university drawing its identity and resources from the Southern Episcopal dioceses. America, a Protestant minister proclaimed in 1851, was a “land of colleges.” Already by 1848 there were at least 97 private and 16 public degree-granting institutions in the U.S. In Tennessee Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist colleges already were in operation by the late 1850s, seeking to stabilize their standing in American life. Whether public or private, solidly funded or fly-by-night, virtually all aimed to make men and shared the southern bishops’ aspiration to furnish the nation with true, Christian, manly patriots.
    What distinguished the University of the South was the centrality of slavery and the violent national conflict over the “slavery question” to the founders’ conception of the man the nation and region needed. The founders – clergymen and laymen alike – were not in full agreement on the great question of whether the slave and free states could coexist. Otey, an ardent unionist, believed they could; Polk believed secession unavoidable and necessary.
    However, all were of one mind on the subject of slavery: the Constitution upheld it, it was not just legal and moral, but right in the eyes of God. The manly Christian patriots of the University of the South were to bear and defend those truths before the nation and world.   
    The University of the South was the only institution of higher education in the U.S. expressly designed and launched by and for a modern plantation slave economy and society. In a practical sense, the regional assets the University’s founders cited were foundational to the burgeoning and expansive cotton and sugar plantation society: the church and business leaders who designed the university, the vast wealth that promised to fund an endowment of historic proportions, the young men from the South’s leading families who would seek its degrees, the regional need for Episcopal clergy to minister to booming enslaved and free populations, the railways that linked Sewanee to the region it would serve.
    The vision of the University’s true and Christian man also was part of that foundation. In slave societies the most private and the most public relationships mimic the master-slave relationship. This insight is critical in understanding how the ideal of manliness proposed by the University’s founders reflected the needs and reinforced the values of a confident and expansive slave society. The truest men the founders envisioned furnishing as guardians of the region and nation were to be pious and paternalistic Christian masters of their communities and of the wives, children, and slaves of their households.


Address of James H. Otey on the Subject of a Proposed Southern University
July 4, 1857

The prime end aimed at in our projected University, is … to make the Bible the ultimate and sufficient rule and standard for the regulation of man’s conduct as a rational and accountable being; to cultivate the moral affections of the young, while their intellectual powers are in process of development, thus furnishing the community with an enlightened and virtuous class of citizens; and last of all, to supply convenient facilities for the acquisition of theological learning, that a native population may be served by a native ministry.…

Now, all this … results from the deterioration of public morals ... and it must end in the subversion of law, thus throwing society back upon its original elements; or, what is as fearful a consummation, the strong hand of despotism may sway the sceptre of this land, watered with the tears and hallowed with the blood of earth’s noblest sons.

These fears are not imaginary. See already the violence and bloodshed which attend the popular elections in our large cities! See the portentous collisions between the authorities of the State and of the General Government!


Leonidas Polk's Ashwood Hall plantation house near Columbia, Tenn.


The Rt. Rev. Leonidas Polk
James Stuart
Oil on Canvas, 1869

The Bishop of Louisiana and the Southern University

The Bishop of Louisiana, Leonidas Polk (1806-1864), was the driving force behind the founding of the University of the South, an institution that he believed essential to the preservation of the divinely sanctioned order of the Slave South. While groomed as an heir to a prominent North Carolina family, Polk received his call to ministry as a cadet at West Point.  From 1830 until his death, Polk was priest and planter and master. While fulfilling his ministry, he maintained large holdings of land and enslaved people in Tennessee and Louisiana, where 200 or more slaves labored on his Leighton plantation. Polk achieved extraordinary success in building up the Episcopal Church in Louisiana, founding parishes and recruiting communicants among his fellow plantation elite – the same population he tapped, with comparable success, to fund the new university’s endowment.
    All three founding bishops – Otey, Elliott, and Polk – insisted on the master’s Christian duty to bring his most abject “dependents” into the light of true religion, a movement that increased in force throughout the South with the evangelical awakenings of the early nineteenth century and the sharpening abolitionist charge of slavery’s sinfulness. Stephen Elliot preached in 1845 on the importance of the “religious instruction of our domestics, and of the negroes upon plantations.” This call to minister to the Southern population, white and black, proved a catalyst in the inception of the University. The founders expected the Sewanee man to uphold the divine mission of racial supremacy and Christian evangelism.
    Though only four percent of white southerners were Episcopalian, the denomination’s adherents controlled a disproportionate share of the region’s political offices and commerce. On July 1, 1856, when Polk submitted a letter proposing an Episcopal university to nine of his fellow southern bishops, the message signaled more than his confidence that the slave states could build such an educational institution under the aegis of the southern Episcopal Church. Only a few weeks earlier, in May, radical abolitionists led by John Brown had murdered five unarmed proslavery settlers in the Kansas Territory, slicing their throats and hacking them to death with broadswords. Readers of Polk’s letter, which was widely distributed among the region’s Episcopal elite, understood its urgency. The missive conveyed his conviction that antislavery sentiments outside the South had grown so in intensity and reach that, in order for slavery to survive, the region had to go its own way. The Southern University was to be a critical means of ending its dependency on the North by creating a cultural, religious, and educational foundation for a slave society.
    Polk’s designs for the Southern University are illustrated in excerpts from a private letter in 1856 to Georgia’s Bishop Stephen Elliott. The letter sketched the distinctly Episcopal and southern man such a university would furnish. Moreover, Polk stated his “sectionalist” vision in a distinctly masculinist voice, demanding that Southern men defend their manhood by taking forceful, aggressive action to confront the dangers to the region’s way of life.


Rt. Rev. Stephen Elliott, Bishop of Georgia

Leonidas Polk to Stephen Elliott 20 August 1856

I think, my dear Elliott, I cannot be mistaken in the signs of the times. A few years more. And we shall have nothing left us but bitter and unavailing reproaches, if we do not wake up the necessity,–the stern necessity, of providing amply for the emergency that is at the door…. Talk of slavery those mad-caps at the North don’t understand the thing at all. We hold the negroes and they hold us. They are at the head of the latter. They furnish the yoke and we the necks. My own is getting sore, it is the same with those of my neighbors, in church and state. … But besides we are afraid of the Northern domination in our schools and pulpits at the South, ‘these northern men with southern principles.’ We are so afraid of this influence of Northern seminaries, colleges on the minds of southern youth. We revolt at the humiliation to which the impotence of our position and resources subject us now, and still more at the deeper humiliation into which we see it in the power of contingencies, at hand, to plunge us. And in short we see no way in which relief is to be had, but by rising right up and meeting the emergency. We must shake off our lethargy, awake to the actual posture of affairs, and ourselves set about providing for our own wants…
    A large number of young people will be forced back from the other side of Masons and Dixons line. Right or wrong, their parents are in their own language ‘done with northern colleges.’ ‘They would rather their children go half educated than send them thither.’ But they would still better propose, they should, while being protected from the taint of northern fanaticism have access to the highest educational advantages. How is this to be effected?…
    There ought to be enough of a love of learning and religion in the Church itself to found and endow the institution we would establish, amply. I think there is a large amount at our disposal, enough perhaps for our purposes. If not, we have happily another influence at our disposal which I do not doubt will supply the lack of service of both the others. The negro question will do the work. It is an agency of tremendous power, and in our circumstances needs to be delicately managed. But it is in hand and in great force to be used by somebody. It will be used. It insists upon being used. It insists upon being allowed to throw its strength into a development of its power to take care of the education of southern youth. If we–Churchmen–do not let it have its own way and operate through us, it will cast us aside and avail of the agency of others.…

John Preston.jpg

John Smith Preston

"That nutriment which the University proposes to furnish"

With pledges exceeding $500,000 in hand – the bulk of it coming from Louisiana benefactors – the trustees laid the University’s cornerstone on the mountain on October 10, 1860. As many as 5,000 people gathered for the occasion. The University’s Chancellor, Bishop James Otey, introduced the principal speaker, John S. Preston of South Carolina, an illustrious representative of the South’s planter aristocracy.
    Preston had much in common with the University’s most generous benefactors, who were devout Episcopalians and had amassed fortunes in the expanding plantation slave economy of Louisiana and Mississippi – what Southerners called the “West.” Preston had wisely invested in a sugar plantation southwest of New Orleans, The Houmas, where at one time he held 701 persons in bondage. He sold the property and its captive workforce in 1858, reportedly for $1 million. Bishop Leonidas Polk closely consulted with Preston on the plans for the University and expected him to be a generous patron. Otey introduced him that October as “a gentleman who has always shown himself zealous and liberal in promoting the interests of all institutions designed for the honor of our country and the welfare of mankind.” Less than a month later, with Lincoln’s election to the presidency, Preston assumed an important role in South Carolina’s secession and served as the state’s commissioner to Virginia’s secession convention.
    Preston’s speech that October day took more than two hours to deliver. He devoted most of his words to recounting the “Holy epic” of the Reformation’s triumphant rise against the tyrannies of Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Church’s transplanting of true Christianity under the banner of religious freedom in North America. The mission and purpose of the University of the South, he concluded, was the next step in this world historical development: to produce enlightened masters of Christian households to lead the “gravest mission ever entrusted to man, that of redeeming to Christianity, through the portals of slavery, an inferior, subject, dependent and necessary race, on which his whole order of civilization is based.”


Laying the Cornerstone
Richard Brough
Watercolor, 1958

John Smith Preston, Speech at the Laying of the Cornerstone of the University of the South, October 10, 1860

Ten Dioceses of the Protestant Episcopal Church of America are, this day, making an oblation which, before God, I believe will come to be the chief element in His economy of retaining, perpetuating and exalting the people of these Southern States, with all their institutions, their liberties, and their hopes, for all time to come.
    To these States, and the people thus represented here, more sternly than to any other people or governments on earth, is the mandate [to] educate, elevate the citizens. Every citizen who owns property or fulfills any function of society in these States is a civil magistrate and a religious teacher. In addition to all other obligations, he has the gravest mission ever entrusted to man, that of redeeming to Christianity, through the portals of slavery, an inferior, subject, dependent and necessary race, on which his whole order of civilization is based. Ten millions of free, intelligent, responsible men are now engaged in this mission. In it you are sitting beneath the awful judgment of the Eternal Justice, and the eyes of your fellow-men all over the earth are upon you; the good with anxious and tremulous prayers, the wicked with denunciations, revilings and lyings.…
    Now fanaticism is always false, and no manifestation of fanaticism since the world began ever exhibited such a concentrated lie as that which is raising its hollow outcry against the system of slavery as it exists in the Southern States. And it is because of its hollow falsehood that we must be the better prepared to refute its scandal, and resist its aggressions, and give over its followers to the infamous notoriety they have achieved while we preserve that system which saves us from the sins and dangers growing naturally in the soil of Abolition.…
    Never in any previously existent form of society has the individual citizen had such a dread responsibility as that which pertains to the Southern planter; and he must meet it. He cannot avoid it. His extraordinary duties are as necessary, as imperative, as his daily food and clothing. He must perform them or perish. And he cannot perform them efficiently for himself, or acceptably to his country and his God, without the very highest moral and intellectual culture. You cannot maintain this order of things in which you find yourself placed, without elevating your minds and hearts by precisely that nutriment which the University proposes to furnish.…



The Truest Men