ENTRY

Bruce, Philip Alexander (1856–1933)

SUMMARY

Philip Alexander Bruce was a historian whose five-volume account of seventeenth-century Virginia history continues to be cited as an important work of scholarship. Born in Charlotte County into an accomplished family, Bruce studied law at the University of Virginia and at Harvard but found his calling in scholarship. He wrote briefly for the Richmond Times before joining the Virginia Historical Society and, in 1893, helping to found its quarterly journal, the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Her served as the magazine’s first editor from 1893 until 1898. Bruce’s own work often focused on social and economic history, seeking the origins of the New South while often marginalizing African Americans. His five volumes on seventeenth-century Virginia, published between 1896 and 1910, included two on economic history, one on social life, and two on institutions such as the church, the courts, and the General Assembly. Bruce also served as the University of Virginia’s centennial historian, writing a five-volume history of the school’s founding and first hundred years. He died in 1933 at his home in Charlottesville.

Early Years

Staunton Hill and Its Original Owners

  • Charles Bruce
    Charles Bruce

    Charles Bruce, a wealthy planter who built Staunton Hill in Charlotte County, is the subject of this miniature watercolor portrait painted about 1850 by George Lethbridge Saunders. This is one of two portraits--the other image depicts Bruce's wife, Sarah Alexander Seddon Bruce—that were probably displayed in a double frame that is now separated.

  • Sarah Alexander Seddon Bruce
    Sarah Alexander Seddon Bruce

    Sarah Alexander Seddon Bruce, the wife of the wealthy Charlotte County planter Charles Bruce, is the subject of this miniature watercolor portrait painted about 1850 by George Lethbridge Saunders. This is one of two portraits—the other image depicts her husband—that were probably displayed in a double frame that is now separated. Sarah Bruce was the sister of James A. Seddon, who served as the Confederate secretary of war. During his career, the English-born Saunders painted a number of wealthy southern planter families, as well as Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy, and Jubal Early, who went on to beome a Confederate general.

  • Staunton Hill
    Staunton Hill

    This mid-nineteenth-century Gothic Revival mansion is the main residence at Staunton Hill, a plantation in Charlotte County that was built by the wealthy planter Charles Bruce and his wife, Sarah Alexander Seddon Bruce. During the Civil War the grounds of the estate were used as a training ground for Confederate artillery. This image came from A Handbook of Virginia (1910), published by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Immigration. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bruce was born on March 7, 1856, at Staunton Hill in Charlotte County, the son of Charles Bruce, a wealthy planter, and Sarah Alexander Seddon Bruce. His brother William Cabell Bruce represented Maryland in the U.S. Senate, his brother-in-law was the writer Thomas Nelson Page, his nephew David K. E. Bruce served as American ambassador to France, West Germany, and the United Kingdom following World War II (1939–1945), and his niece Kathleen Bruce became an eminent historian. After attending the Norwood School in Nelson County from 1871 to 1873, Bruce spent the next two years at the University of Virginia and graduated from the law school of Harvard University in 1878. He continued his law study at the University of Virginia under John B. Minor in the 1878–1879 academic year before establishing his own practice in Baltimore in 1879.

The Plantation Negro as a Freeman

  • Scrapbook Page
    Scrapbook Page

    A page from a personal scrapbook compiled by Sarah Alexander Seddon Bruce of Staunton Hill includes newspaper clippings about her son, Philip Alexander Bruce, after he published his first book, The Plantation Negro as a Freeman: Observations on His Character, Condition, and Prospects in Virginia (1889). The volume reflected the thinking of many white southerners who then regarded African Americans as a socially and intellectually inferior laboring class. Positive reviews of the book are pasted on the page, though the Hartford Times does offer one caveat: "The author, Philip A. Bruce, of Richmond, must be a young man yet; for he has no recollection of the negro in a state of bondage." A biographical sketch on the left side of the page identifies the author's father, Charles Bruce, as "one of the largest slave holders in the South under the old system, and one of the most extensive planters of the new." 

    Citation: Papers regarding Philip Alexander Bruce's historical writings and personal correspondence, 1899–1940. Accession #2889. Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

  • Letter from Ex-President Davis.
    "Letter from Ex-President Davis.",University of Virginia Special Collections,Monday

    This detail from a scrapbook page compiled by Sarah Alexander Seddon Bruce of Staunton Hill shows a letter that the former Confederate president Jefferson Davis sent to her son, Philip Alexander Bruce, after he published his first book, The Plantation Negro as a Freeman: Observations on His Character, Condition, and Prospects in Virginia (1889). The author had sent a copy of his book to Davis, who was living in Mississippi. The volume reflected the thinking of many white southerners who then regarded African Americans as a socially and intellectually inferior laboring class—a viewpoint endorsed by Davis in this letter, which was reproduced in a Richmond newspaper. "It is gratifying to know that at last a southern writer, comprehending the true character of the nogro [sic], has chosen to present a real portrait for the benefit of the uninitiated," Davis wrote. "While the subject is being so grossly misrepresented by writers having no exact knowledge of the subject … history is being made by the grossest perversion of the facts, and school-books are introduced in our own country which intentionally, or otherwise, are calculated to mislead the minds of our children."

    Citation: Papers regarding Philip Alexander Bruce's historical writings and personal correspondence, 1899–1940. Accession #2889. Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

Bruce never enjoyed the practice of law and began to think seriously about the southern economy. A disciple of the New South ideal of a business and industrial revival based on values traditionally associated with the region, he initially regarded African Americans as an obstacle to progress. Bruce wrote a series of articles on the subject for the New York Evening Post in 1884 and expanded them the following year for his first book, The Plantation Negro as a Freeman: Observations on His Character, Condition, and Prospects in Virginia, for which he did not find a publisher until 1889. The volume reflected the thinking of many white southerners who then regarded African Americans as a socially and intellectually inferior laboring class. In later work Bruce recommended that blacks not needed for agricultural labor be resettled outside the South.

Historical Work

Philip Alexander Bruce in Colonial Garb

In 1887 Bruce moved to Richmond as secretary and treasurer of the Vulcan Iron Works, of which his brother Thomas Seddon Bruce was president. By 1890 Bruce had joined the editorial staff of the Richmond Times. His varied work included articles critical of women in the pulpit and editorials on race relations and economic development. Drawn toward historical scholarship, Bruce left the newspaper in 1892 to become corresponding secretary and librarian of the Virginia Historical Society. The following year he helped start the society’s quarterly historical journal, the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. During Bruce’s five-year tenure as the founding editor, the magazine published historical documents and genealogical accounts focused on the leading colonial families, an agenda that continued for decades.

In his own research Bruce combined a nostalgia for the traditions of the Old South, the boosterism of the New South, and a new interest in the earliest period of Virginia’s history. He conceived of a three-part project intended to demonstrate that the idealized society of his youth had its basis in the seventeenth century. The first fruit of this research was Bruce’s two-volume Economic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century: An Inquiry into the Material Condition of the People, Based upon Original and Contemporaneous Records (1896), which made significant contributions to understanding Virginia’s early economic history and the rise to wealth of its great landed families.

Bookplate Used by Philip Alexander Bruce

On October 19, 1896, Bruce married Elizabeth Tunstall Taylor Newton, a Norfolk widow. They had one daughter. Resigning from the Virginia Historical Society in 1898, Bruce made the first of several extended research trips to England. While there he publicized the New South gospel and tried to explain to British readers his views on race. Before publishing the results of his further research on seventeenth-century Virginia, Bruce wrote The Rise of the New South (1905), a work that established him as a leader in a school of historical scholarship that sought the origins of the New South in the ruins of the Old. Characterized by high optimism, it reads like an industrial gazetteer of the South and became one of the capstones of the New South crusade, one facet of which was restriction of African American suffrage. Modifying his stern views of two decades earlier, Bruce acknowledged a limited but useful place for black laborers in southern industry.

Bruce moved to Norfolk in 1907. He had inherited more than 1,400 acres of land from his parents’ estate in Charlotte County, the income from which enabled him to engage in historical scholarship for the remainder of his life. In 1907 Bruce published the second part of his series on seventeenth-century Virginia, the one-volume Social Life of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century: An Inquiry into the Origin of the Higher Planting Class, together with an Account of the Habits, Customs, and Diversions of the People. Its focus on the “higher planting class” fit the then-current notions of social history. Bruce sought the origins of the present in the past and attempted to discover how Virginia’s great early planters evolved into the celebrated colonial squirearchy and its commercial leaders, the forerunners of the New South.

Historical Publications by Philip Alexander Bruce

  • Brave Deeds of Confederate Soldiers
    Brave Deeds of Confederate Soldiers

    A Confederate soldier lends a helping hand to a comrade-in-arms in this illustration on the cover of Philip Alexander Bruce's Brave Deeds of Confederate Soldiers (1916), a volume that reflects Bruce's lifelong allegiance to the Lost Cause.

    Citation: Brave Deeds of Confederate Soldiers. E484 .B88 1916. Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

  • Valuable Contribution to American History
    "Valuable Contribution to American History",University of Virginia Special Collections,Tuesday

    A newspaper review of Philip Alexander Bruce's two-volume Institutional History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century (1910), published in the April 11, 1911, edition of the Baltimore Sun, is headlined, "Valuable Contribution to American History." The favorable review ends with, "The book … is a work of high literary and historical value that bears evidence of being also a labor of love for his native State by one of her most gifted sons." Philip Alexander Bruce's mother, Sarah Alexander Seddon Bruce, pasted this newspaper clipping into a scrapbook about her son that she complied at Staunton Hill, the family's Caroline County estate.

    Citation: Papers regarding Philip Alexander Bruce's historical writings and personal correspondence, 1899–1940. Accession #2889. Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

He concluded his three-part Virginia history in 1910 with the two-volume Institutional History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century: An Inquiry into the Religious, Moral, Educational, Legal, Military, and Political Condition of the People, Based on Original and Contemporaneous Records. Once again he focused almost exclusively on the social and political elites. Summing up all five of Bruce’s volumes on seventeenth-century Virginia, an unsigned article in the American Historical Review praised Bruce for employing new primary source materials “in lavish but discriminating profusion” and accorded him “no small measure of praise as a scholar and a thinker.”

The stereotype of the Old South took firm root in Bruce’s memory of his own childhood, his views of the past, and his scholarship. This vision is clearly evident in the laudatory popular biography of Robert E. Lee that Bruce published in 1907 and in Brave Deeds of Confederate Soldiers (1916), both reflecting his lifelong allegiance to the Lost Cause and to the mythology and symbolism of the Old South. In 1916 Bruce moved to Charlottesville as centennial historian of the University of Virginia. Working in the library and from the university’s archives he wrote the five-volume History of the University of Virginia, 1819–1919: The Lengthened Shadow of One Man (1920–1922). Bruce treated the university as both an educational and a cultural institution. The subtitle summed up his belief that Thomas Jefferson‘s influence had been pervasive throughout the university’s history and that in turn the university’s influence had been profoundly significant in the history of Virginia.

Later Years

Statewide Recognition of Philip Alexander Bruce

  • Historical Markers Committee
    Historical Markers Committee

    This document, signed by Governor Harry F. Byrd Sr. on April 1, 1927, certifies that the historian Philip Alexander Bruce has been appointed a member of the state's Advisory Committee on Historical Markers.

    Citation: Papers regarding Philip Alexander Bruce's historical writings and personal correspondence, 1899–1940. Accession #2889. Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

  • Battlefield Dedication
    Battlefield Dedication

    The historian Philip Alexander Bruce is invited to the June 22, 1932, dedication of the Richmond section of Virginia's Battlefield Parks by Governor John Garland Pollard. The event coincided with the forty-second reunion being held by the United Confederate Veterans to honor those who fought for the Confederacy during the Seven Days' Battles between June 25 and July 1, 1862. The official seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia at the top of the invitation is festooned with the Confederate flag and the state flag.

    Citation: Papers regarding Philip Alexander Bruce's historical writings and personal correspondence, 1899–1940. Accession #2889. Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

The lives of great Virginians formed the subject of Bruce’s last major publication, The Virginia Plutarch (1929). Its two volumes contained biographies of the figures he deemed the most important and influential in Virginia’s history, all eminent white men except for Powhatan and Pocahontas. Bruce published numerous articles and reviews throughout his career, several small works, and one textbook, A School History of the United States (1903). He wrote the section on Virginia’s history through 1763 for a three-volume History of Virginia published in 1924 and supplemented with three additional volumes of densely printed biographical data supplied by the subjects themselves. A revised and extended version of that essay, carrying Virginia’s history up to World War I (1914–1918), appeared as Virginia: Rebirth of the Old Dominion (1929). Bruce also contributed entries on Sir Samuel Argall, Nathaniel Bacon (1647–1676), Sir William Berkeley, and Norborne Berkeley, baron de Botetourt, to the Dictionary of American Biography. He occasionally wrote poems, some of them in imitation of Edgar Allan Poe, and he published a small volume of verse, Pocahontas and Other Sonnets (1912).

Bruce’s works of popular history and on the American Civil War (1861–1865) have long been forgotten, and most of his scholarly works have been superseded. His writings on race and on elite whites are no longer persuasive, but his five volumes on the economic, institutional, and social history of seventeenth-century Virginia are still cited as important works of scholarship. Bruce did painstaking research in colonial land and court records and grounded his work in the available primary sources. The volumes have all been reprinted and have influenced subsequent textbook authors, giving his most important scholarly work an enduring place in the literature of Virginia’s history.

Telegram of Condolence

Bruce received honorary doctorates from the College of William and Mary in 1907 and from Washington and Lee University in 1908, and he was a vice president of the Virginia Historical Society from 1918 to 1933. After 1930 he was often ill. Bruce died at his home in Charlottesville on August 16, 1933, and was buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery in that city.

Major Works

  • The Plantation Negro as a Freeman: Observations on His Character, Condition, and Prospects in Virginia ( 1889)
  • Economic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century: An Inquiry into the Material Condition of the People, Based upon Original and Contemporaneous Records (2 vols., 1896)
  • A School History of the United States (1903)
  • The Rise of the New South (1905)
  • Social Life of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century: An Inquiry into the Origin of the Higher Planting Class, together with an Account of the Habits, Customs, and Diversions of the People (1907)
  • Robert E. Lee (1907)
  • Institutional History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century: An Inquiry into the Religious, Moral, Educational, Legal, Military, and Political Condition of the People, Based on Original and Contemporaneous Records (2 vols., 1910)
  • Pocahontas and Other Sonnets (1912)
  • Brave Deeds of Confederate Soldiers (1916)
  • History of the University of Virginia, 1819–1919: The Lengthened Shadow of One Man (5 vols., 1920–1922)
  • The Virginia Plutarch (1929)
  • Virginia: Rebirth of the Old Dominion (1929)

MAP
TIMELINE
March 7, 1856
Philip Alexander Bruce is born at Staunton Hill in Charlotte County.
1871—1873
Philip Alexander Bruce attends the Norwood School in Nelson County.
1873—1875
Philip Alexander Bruce attends the University of Virginia.
1878
Philip Alexander Bruce graduates from the law school of Harvard University.
1878—1879
Philip Alexander Bruce studies law under John B. Minor at the University of Virginia.
1879
Philip Alexander Bruce establishes a law practice in Baltimore.
1884
Philip Alexander Bruce authors his first book, The Plantation Negro as Freeman. It does not find a publisher for five years, however.
1887
Philip Alexander Bruce moves to Richmond and works as secretary and treasurer of the Vulcan Iron Works.
1890
By this year Philip Alexander Bruce has joined the editorial staff of the Richmond Times.
1892
Philip Alexander Bruce becomes corresponding secretary and librarian of the Virginia Historical Society.
1893
Philip Alexander Bruce helps to found the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. He is the magazine's first editor.
October 19, 1896
Philip Alexander Bruce and Elizabeth Tunstall Taylor Newton marry. They will have one daughter.
1898
Philip Alexander Bruce resigns from the Virginia Historical Society.
1907
Philip Alexander Bruce moves from Richmond to Norfolk.
1907
Philip Alexander Bruce receives an honorary doctorate from the College of William and Mary.
1908
Philip Alexander Bruce receives an honorary doctorate from Washington and Lee University.
1916
Philip Alexander Bruce moves to Charlottesville, where he serves as the centennial historian of the University of Virginia.
1918—1933
Philip Alexander Bruce serves as a vice president of the Virginia Historical Society.
August 16, 1933
Philip Alexander Bruce dies at his home in Charlottesville and is buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery.
FURTHER READING
  • Simms, L. Moody Jr. “Bruce, Philip Alexander.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss et al., 338–341. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Simms, L.. Bruce, Philip Alexander (1856–1933). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/bruce-philip-alexander-1856-1933.
MLA Citation:
Simms, L.. "Bruce, Philip Alexander (1856–1933)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 21 Sep. 2021
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