Southern historian Charles Sackett Sydnor was born on 21 July 1898 in Augusta, Georgia. His father, a prominent Presbyterian minister, modeled the virtues of elite leadership that in time informed the son’s scholarly themes. In the course of a tortuous intellectual quest, Sydnor progressed from his peers’ neo-Confederate apologetics to more insightful interpretations of the South’s social dynamics.
Sydnor graduated from Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College in 1918 and five years later earned a doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins University. He briefly taught at Hampden-Sydney before becoming chair of the University of Mississippi’s department of history in 1925. In 1936 he left Oxford for Duke University, where he taught for the next eighteen years. One of his generation’s premier historians, he was elected president of the Southern Historical Association in 1939 and appointed Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University in 1950.
Sydnor’s Mississippi years proved critical to his intellectual development. His early historical works evidenced a comfortable scholar little inclined to challenge contemporary social values. Sydnor’s textbook, Mississippi History (1930), was replete with the Negrophobic, anti-Yankee tone typical of southern school literature of the period, and his more substantial Slavery in Mississippi (1933) projected a paternalistic image of the peculiar institution. Gov. Theodore Bilbo’s 1930 attacks on the University of Mississippi altered Sydnor’s perspectives. A fiery leader of the state’s downtrodden masses, the governor challenged the school’s aristocratic traditions, firing its president and about a quarter of its faculty. Appalled, Sydnor developed a keen sensitivity to the struggles between the South’s intransigent elites and the restive underclasses that found voice in the demagogic Bilbo. Influenced by these events, Sydnor produced Gentleman of the Old Natchez Region: Benjamin L. C. Wailes (1938), finding in his subject an individual congenial to his own values. Sydnor admired Wailes’s promotion of education and cultural uplift in frontier Mississippi as well as his courageous stand for the Union in 1861. Just as Wailes had stood up to “reckless and unprincipled politicians” bent on secession, Sydnor determined to critique the roguish leaders of his own South. No longer confident of academic freedom at the University of Mississippi, he departed for Duke University’s more friendly environs.
Sydnor emerged from Mississippi a substantial scholar whose historical writings mirrored his growing concern that modern southern politicians and the system that bred them failed to serve the nation in general and the South in particular. His Development of Southern Sectionalism, 1819–1848 (1948) decried the qualitative decline of southern leadership from the nationalism of Washington and Jefferson to the unbending sectionalism of John C. Calhoun. Sydnor’s historical writings had come to mirror his concerns with modern-day southern politics. Personally alarmed by the states’ rights segregationist rhetoric of South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond, Sydnor turned next to an exploration of what he considered the more sagacious political traditions of colonial Virginia. Gentlemen Freeholders: Political Practices in Washington’s Virginia (1952) was a thinly veiled allegory suggesting that Virginia’s cultured, well-educated revolutionary-era elites combined the best of aristocracy and democracy to produce a political climate far superior to the destructive partisanship characteristic of the modern South.
On 26 February 1954 Sydnor spoke before the Mississippi Historical Society meeting in Biloxi. It was his unintended valedictory. Hours later he was struck by a heart attack, and he died on 2 March. Months earlier, Sydnor had written with disdain that the current “fad for displaying Confederate caps and flags” and appealing to “the ancient shibboleths of states’ rights, of race, and of Southern tradition” boded ill for his native region. Prepared as remarks before Louisiana State University’s Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures, his words were never uttered. Death had stilled his call for southern moderation.
- Fred Arthur Bailey, in Reading Southern History: Essays on Interpreters and Interpretations, ed. Glenn Feldman (2001)