Review: Albert Taylor Bledsoe
Terry A. Barnhart. Albert Taylor Bledsoe: Defender of the Old South and Architect of the Lost Cause. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011. 270 pp. ISBN 978-0-8071-3724-6.
Historians Eugene Genovese, David W. Blight, and Charles Reagan Wilson, among others, have ranked Albert Taylor Bledsoe as one of the leading theorists of southern nationalism before and after the Civil War. Until the appearance of Terry Barnhart’s excellent and comprehensive biography on Bledsoe, however, there has been no book-length profile of this important figure. He was an eminent defender of slavery and states’ rights before the war. After its conclusion, Bledsoe was a leading “architect of the Confederate interpretation of the conflict” (6). He began articulating the Lost Cause ideology, while retroactively justifying secession in light of southern defeat. Religious historians will find Bledsoe’s own religious story interesting. He was an Episcopal priest who became a Methodist minister later in life. However, while he is known for his ministerial career and his involvement in the critical theological controversies of the day, Bledsoe also held a number of other vocations in his life. Born in Kentucky, a graduate of West Point, a member of the Springfield, Illinois, bar with Abraham Lincoln before relocating to the South, Bledsoe was also a mathematician, teacher, editor, and Confederate official during his varied career.
The book is organized chronologically, but it also incorporates chapters exploring Bledsoe’s theological and political writings. Barnhart adequately details Bledsoe’s overall impact in his time, as well as how scholars have characterized his work.. The author does an excellent job discussing Bledsoe’s 1856 An Essay on Liberty and Slavery, as well as one of the first postwar treatises defending the right of secession, Is Davis A Traitor? (1866)—which became a springboard to his editorship of the Southern Review. Bledsoe eventually aligned that periodical with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. But, while Barnhart’s prose is generally sound, there are several instances where he seems to focus a bit too heavily on secondary sources and their assessment of Bledsoe, especially numerous direct quotations from them that distract from the overall flow of his arguments.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is chapter four, which examines Bledsoe’s metaphysical and theological ideas. While Barnhart explains that Bledsoe wrote on these subjects throughout his life, Barnhart situates the chapter within the larger description of his antebellum corpus. It was during this time that he wrote two of his most important works, An Examination of President Edwards’ Inquiry into the Freedom of the Will (1845) and A Theodicy; Or, Vindication of the Divine Glory (1853). The central theme in this chapter, which is also successfully weaved throughout the book, is Bledsoe’s Arminian-influenced philosophy of free will. Barnhart proves that Bledsoe’s “works were original, learned, and well-argued treatises that earned him something of a following among advocates of free will who shared his disdain of Calvinism” (57). But these writings were not received without controversy in Calvinist circles, as Barnhart demonstrates. As with other parts of the book, Barnhart effectively summarizes Bledsoe’s work, and the broader reception to it.
Barnhart admits that there are gaps in his biography, which stem from limited sources. “Writing a biography of Bledsoe is a challenging endeavor because so few of his personal papers have survived” (211). Fortunately, Barnhart provides an informative five-page essay on the sources that he does utilize. Bledsoe deplored writing letters, and much of his correspondence before 1860 was lost. At the same time, several family members saved correspondence. Washington Post columnist David Rankin Barbee, moreover, compiled a multitude of materials in the middle of the twentieth century in anticipation of an unwritten biography on Bledsoe. Along with these sources, Bledsoe’s numerous writings and work, especially in the Southern Review, form the core of Barnhart’s sources, which are masterfully employed throughout his book.