In Their Own Words: A review from 1857 of The American Citizen by John Henry Hopkins

Sewanee Watercolor by John Henry Hopkins. No. 28, View near Bower’s Chalybeate Spring, February 25, 1860.

Why are we giving so much attention in our blog Meridiana to the words and thoughts of the Bishop of Vermont, John Henry Hopkins? Neither the state nor the diocese of Vermont had anything much to do with the founding of the University of the South, and Hopkins himself was not officially a “founder.” The time in the 1850s that he spent in the actual presence of the two bishops most important to the university campaign, Leonidas Polk and Stephen Elliott, can be counted in days instead of weeks. His grand plan of the university’s campus was supplanted in the late 1880s and 1890s by other visions.

All of that granted, Hopkins still was the most influential Episcopal Church figure from outside the “plantation states” of the South to lend credence, enthusiasm, and meaning to the enterprise of the southern university. Collaborating with Elliott and Polk, and bringing his considerable experience as a designer of church architecture and Romantic landscapes, he helped conjure up a magnificent vision of the mountaintop university embowered in the forests of the Cumberland Plateau. Putting his head together with those of the southern bishops and kneeling in prayer with them, he also wrote and published several carefully reasoned and influential justifications of the enslavement of Black people. In Hopkins’s pronouncements on “the happy fruits of slavery in the regeneration of Africa from her long bondage of barbarism and idolatry,” we can hear Stephen Elliott’s hymns to the “divinely-guarded institution” of slavery and all the good it did for the enslaved. In doing so, Hopkins revealed the indebtedness of his proslavery arguments to those of his southern friends and the comfort and encouragement the southern bishops took from his words in defense of their peculiar institution. Hopkins’s assertions on behalf of slavery and the goodness of “southern masters” further disclose the genetic code of the charming watercolors he painted during his two-month sojourn in Sewanee in 1859. Upon close inspection, the renderings of the Natural Bridge or the rock formations near Bower’s Chalybeate Spring on the plateau’s edge illuminate the bond between bishops Hopkins, Elliott, and Polk and expose the violence of slavery that the bishops’ vision of the University of the South sought to hide and deny.

Friendly as white southerners were to Hopkins’s views, critics outside the South saw the dark connections between Hopkins’s writings and his friendliness toward Episcopal enslavers and pounced on the bishop’s defense of slavery. “Lament,” an Episcopal priest (John Burke) implored Vermonters, that Hopkins offered the reassuring balm of the bishop’s blessings instead of condemning “Those villa[i]nous cravens,” or cowards, “who fatten the ravens with blood from the heart of a slave!”

The following review in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science, and Art was more economical, if equally unsparing, in its denunciation of Hopkins’s American Citizen. Founded in 1853, Putnam’s Monthly was one of the two leading high-minded magazines in the United States catering to the literary and cultural tastes and preferences of America’s elite. The other and older magazine, Harper’s Monthly, was cosmopolitan in its outlook, publishing and paying attention to writers and cultural happenings in England and on the European continent. Putnam’s Monthly was nationalist in design and intent, focusing more exclusively on American writers and subjects. Its politics in the 1850s followed the mainstream of moral arguments against antislavery instead of the more militant demands of abolitionists. Such distinctions were lost on white southerners. A writer under the name “Python,” commenting in the South’s leading magazine, DeBow’s Review, in 1856, dismissed Putnam’s Monthly as “the leading Review of the Black Republican party.”

A review of John Henry Hopkins, The American Citizen: His Rights and Duties, According to the Spirit of the Constitution of the United States, from Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science, and Art, May 1857, 550-51. The original of the review can be found here.

The Right Reverend John Henry Hopkins, D. D., LL. D., Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the diocese of Vermont, has published a work, in which he states that he thinks it wrong for the American citizen to dance the polka, but perfectly proper for him to hold his brother in slavery. The bishop says, he holds “conversation parties” to be innocent, and equally so the selling a child from its mother. He says, that Canaan was cursed, and, therefore, Governor Wise may dispose of black men and women at the highest rates. The Right Reverend John Henry Hopkins has written some four or five hundred pages to show that the citizens should obey the law ; but omits to state what his pastoral advice would have been to mothers with babes under two years of age in the latter days of the lawgiver Herod of Judea.

He also does not find room in his prolix disquisition upon the duties of the American Citizen, which is the title of his book, to inform his pupil what he is to do when the law of the land contravenes the plain law of God. For it is evident that, if a law is to be obeyed, because it is a law, a regulation to lie, or to steal, or to deliver up the fugitive, so it be legally enacted, has the same authority as one to collect taxes. But if the discretion of the citizen or his conscience are ever to interfere, or, in other words, if there be the individual and collective right of rebellion, it would be only complaisant in a bishop, who writes a book in which he finds room to discuss the propriety and morality of dancing, to indicate when that right may be asserted.

Do you think that any honest Christian man supposes for a solitary instant that [a slave] trader to be any better than a devil—and a servant of God only as all criminals are?

Putnam’s Monthly Magazine

The single point of interest in the American Citizen is the elaborate reiteration of the scriptural argument for slavery, which is easily enough refuted by the younger classes of Sunday-school girls, and which falls at this day, and in this country, with peculiar edification from the lips of a high dignitary in the church of Him who said, “Do unto others as ye would they should do unto you.” Bishop Hopkins anticipates a millennium when “the whole world shall behold the happy fruits of slavery in the regeneration of Africa from her long bondage of barbarism and idolatry.” If it were not so tragical, this would be too ludicrous. Let this gentleman consider one question: Even if you knew that some of the Africans, who should survive the horrors of the slave-ship, and the long, dreadful, compulsory labor in swamps and fields, the gradual imbruting of human beings treated as cattle, with every natural right and affection outraged—even if you knew some could survive it all and attain a kind of fond and ignorant feeling that you would call Christianity, do you, as a man, not as a bishop, believe for one moment that the trader, who paid money for a single one of those victims, was doing anything but an accursed act? Do you think that any honest Christian man supposes for a solitary instant that trader to be any better than a devil—and a servant of God only as all criminals are?

Of course God will bring good out of it. God brings good out of everything. Would that reflection reconcile Bishop Hopkins to having his house burnt down and all that was dearest to him in it? There was one who said, “It must needs be that offenses come; but woe to him by whom the offense cometh.” With the usual inconsequence of the south-side of the slavery discussion, after having made slavery the instrument of the Christian regeneration of Africa, the bishop undertakes to show the inexpediency of slavery. But let the bishop take comfort. If the Lord has made slavery right, he will also, in view of its hold upon this country, make it expedient. And if it be the Christianizing process for Africa, what right has Bishop Hopkins or any other pious man to resist the due operation of that process? Excepting the portion of the volume we have indicated, which attracts attention solely by its subject and not at all by the ability with which it is treated, The American Citizen is like a series of a country clergyman’s weekly lectures. We do not advise any American who wishes to improve himself as a man, a Christian, or a patriot, to leave his South, Tillotson, Hooker, Herbert, or Jeremy Taylor, and take to Hopkins.


Image courtesy of the William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections: The University of the South

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