The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

February 21, 2019

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Holmes, George Frederick
James E. Person, Jr. - 09/10/10
Lifespan: (1820–1897)

A professor of history, literature, and economics at the University of Virginia from shortly before the American Civil War until his death in 1897, George Frederick Holmes was a prolific writer of books and periodical articles advocating free trade, states’ rights, and slavery.

Born to English parents in the colony of British Guiana, Holmes was sent to England at age two to be raised by relatives. He was schooled near Durham and attended the University of Durham, where he won a prize scholarship. Because of an obscure misunderstanding with his guardians, Holmes was removed from university at age seventeen and sent to live in Quebec. From there he migrated to Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, and finally South Carolina, where he was admitted to the state bar. He married a woman from a prominent Virginia family in 1844. Faced with the responsibilities of marriage, but finding the practice of law uncongenial, he followed his growing interest in writing and began publishing short stories and reviews for the Southern Literary Messenger and other magazines. Many of his articles argued for states’ rights in terms of constitutional protections, an end to high tariffs that hobbled the Southern economy, and what he deemed the beneficent nature of slavery. Holmes maintained a voluminous correspondence with the leading writers and public figures of the day—notably Auguste Comte and John C. Calhoun—whose orbit he crossed as a result of his writings.

In 1845 Holmes became professor of ancient languages at the University of Richmond, leaving this for another post at the College of William and Mary two years later. Recognized as a scholar of broad and thorough knowledge, he was named first president of the University of Mississippi in 1848, though this position was short-lived due to an untimely period of ill health. Holmes resigned his position at Mississippi after a short time and spent nine years farming in southwestern Virginia, during which time he wrote continuously to support his wife and children. As he confided in a letter to Auguste Comte, “I have first to work for bread for my family, then to work for books, and finally to work for leisure and independence.”

In 1857 he was summoned to the University of Virginia, where he served for the next forty years as a professor of history, literature, historical science, political economy, and the “science of society” (a form of sociology). By the end of his life, he was renowned as the author of numerous periodical articles, several grammar textbooks and spelling books for young readers, and A School History of the United States of America (1870, revised in 1885).

Further Reading
  • Barringer, Paul Brandon. The University of Virginia: Its History, Influence, Equipment and Characteristics, with Biographical Sketches and Portraits of Founders, Benefactors, Officers and Alumni. Vol. 1. New York: Lewis Publishing Co., 1904.
  • Gillespie, Neal C. “The Spiritual Odyssey of George Frederick Holmes: A Study of Religious Conservatism in the Old South.” Journal of Southern History 32 (1966): 291–307.
  • ———. The Collapse of Orthodoxy: The Intellectual Ordeal of George Frederick Holmes. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1972.
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