Blogging Through the Pandemic: “Retired But Not Shy” at Eleven

[Note: Funny thing:  I’ve been feeling trapped in “writer’s block” for the past year, even recording my supposed plight a couple of times in my journal.  And yet. . .  Looking back at the blog posts I’ve put up since June 1, 2020, the start of the eleventh year of “Retired But Not Shy,” maybe I’ve been exaggerating the whole “writer’s block” thing. Let me explain.]

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When I launched this blog in June of 2010, I decided that one post a month would be my limit, and for the first few years that worked. Then, as my confidence grew that I could produce sufficient material to go beyond that initial goal, I began to build a collection of “future blog posts,” which enabled me, once I converted my notes into deathless prose, to put up two per month, between 2014 and 2018. Then, sanity reasserted itself, and I cut back to a single post a month, a plan I’ve followed pretty regularly.

When Year Eleven began, I had only four posts remaining in that “future file,” two on my favorite “Dead Georgian,” John Wereat; the others on factions and parties in Georgia from 1807 to 1845, which would complete my blog history of political party development in Georgia between the Revolutionary Era and the eve of the Civil War.  I was concerned at the outset that I would use those four posts early on and be at a loss for the rest of the year, but fortunately that did not happen.

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Year Eleven began June 1, 2020, with the annual “birthday post,” followed two weeks later by a Father’s Day post honoring my father, Ben Lamplugh, “Ben as Dad,” whose history had consumed large chunks of 2019-2020 at “Retired But Not Shy.” In July, my yearly homage to the nation’s birthday took a different form:  rather than simply link readers to an earlier offering about how the Fourth was celebrated in Antebellum Georgia, I offered instead an edited transcript of an Independence Day address offered in the small Georgia town of Hawkinsville in 1838, along with commentary.

August’s post grew naturally out of the searing debate about the fate of Confederate monuments in the modern South in the era of “Black Lives Matter” that was roiling the state and the country. This essay was heavily informed by things I’d seen and heard on the Internet over the previous few months.  The idea for the post came just when I needed it, and I was pleased with the result.

Last Fall, “Retired But Not Shy” devoted three posts [go here, here, and here] to a comparison and contrast of two books I’d read about the impact of the Vietnam War on American culture(s), published a generation apart, in 1985 and 2015.  The series was an itch I had wanted to scratch since publishing “Growing Up with Vietnam,” in Year One, between December 2010 and March 2011. And, as was the case with the various posts put up in June, July, and August of 2020, the Vietnam Era essays were newly-written, not drawn from what remained of the “future posts” I’d been nurturing for several years.

I ended 2020 and opened 2021 with two posts on my historical “bro-mance” with Georgia’s John Wereat, whom I’d grown to know while in grad school and continued to find fascinating as I considered his role in the American Revolution and later in Georgia’s infamous Yazoo Land Fraud.  The two-part Wereat series [go here and here] gave me a chance for closure–farewell, Mr. Wereat. . . .

The post in honor of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in January 2021 was a change from previous MLK entries, offering “A Prayer for Our Country” from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer—and an explication, by yours truly—against the backdrop of the tumultuous events between election day in November 2020 and the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

February’s post , an essay on the art of the book review, used two reviews of the same work, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, one by my friend Joe Kitchens, the other mine.  In March, I finally was able to post an appreciation of a great book—one of my favorites—Melton McLaurin’s memoir, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South—which I had referenced numerous times over the years but had not found time to review. 

Then, in April and May, Year Eleven drew to a close with the posting of the two-part study of factions and parties in Georgia between 1807 and 1845 that had been in the offing since I published a book on the topic in 2015. And these posts stripped my WordPress “dashboard” of the last completed “future posts” in the backlog.

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So, does this mean that I’m in trouble? Not really, at least not yet. I already know that the June 2021 post, the first in Year Twelve, will be the annual “birthday post,” i.e., the one you’re reading now. And the July post will be yet another visit to the Fourth of July in Antebellum Georgia, using excerpts from a holiday oration published in the state press.

All of which means that, if Year Twelve of “Retired But Not Shy” is to flow as smoothly as the previous eleven years, I must return to my bulging folder of notes for “Future Blog Posts” and whip them into “post-able” shape, to carry the blog through at least May 2021. Please stay tuned. . . .

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Next, we turn to a series of “top-ten” lists, statistics, provided, as always, by wordpress.com.

All time (2010-2021) [Excludes “Home Page/Archives” and “About”]:

Teaching Prep School With a PhD: Is It For You? | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Getting Reacquainted With Georgia Governor Wilson Lumpkin,1831-1835 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 4) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Teaching History “Backwards” (History Lesson Plans, 1) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Son House–Preacher, Killer, “Father of the Delta Blues” (Blues Stories, 10) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Blues Theology, Part 1: The “Devil’s Music” (Blues Stories, 15) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Mississippi John Hurt, The Yoda of the Blues (Blues Stories, 11) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

The Voice of the Urban Blues–Bobby “Blue” Bland,1930-2013 (Blues Stories, 13) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Georgia’s Notorious Yazoo Land Fraud and Its Consequences, Part 1 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 27 ) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

The Chitlin’ Circuit: Life, Death, and a Musical Revolution (Blues Stories, 14) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

On the Trail of Blind Willie McTell (Blues Stories, 24) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Year Eleven–2020-2021 [Excludes “Home Page/Archives” and “About”]:

Teaching Prep School With a PhD: Is It For You? | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Blues Theology, Part 1: The “Devil’s Music” (Blues Stories, 15) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

The New South: Myth and Reality (Teaching Civil Rights, 9) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Georgia’s Notorious Yazoo Land Fraud and Its Consequences, Part 1 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 27 ) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Reckoning with “The Dispossessed Majority,” 1989 (Adventures in Interdisciplinary Land, 9) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

[Note: The sudden popularity of this post in 2020-2021 took me aback. It concerns a purported survey of “American history,” The Dispossessed Majority, written by a white nationalist. In 1989, my older son was taking New Testament in summer school, when free copy of this volume in question arrived at our house–and at the homes of the other members of the rising senior class. My son’s Bible teacher asked if I would talk about the book, and I readily agreed. The Dispossessed Majority interpreted the nation’s history through the warped lenses of a white nationalism, racism, and anti-Semitism; thus, it had almost nothing to recommend it.

Yet, three decades later, those same ideas reappeared, during the latest phase of the “culture wars” in the U.S., and this led me to post my review, in February 2018. It was not until 2020, though, that the number of readers visiting that post really took off. And I wonder why. Were some visitors fans of the work? Were they just curious about the title? Ah, the joys of hosting an Internet blog. . . .]

Mississippi John Hurt, The Yoda of the Blues (Blues Stories, 11) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

On the Trail of Blind Willie McTell (Blues Stories, 24) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

[Note: This post’s recent burst of popularity also puzzled me, until I realized that the surge coincided with McTell’s birthday. Thank you, Blind Willie fans!]

Son House–Preacher, Killer, “Father of the Delta Blues” (Blues Stories, 10) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Skip James, “Emotional Hermit” of the Blues (Blues Stories, 27) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Howlin’ Wolf,1910-1976: His Life, His Times, His Blues (Blues Stories, 28) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

New Posts, Year Eleven–2020-2021 [Excludes “Home Page/Archives” and “About”]:

The Vietnam War and American Culture(s), Part 1 | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Growing Up White in the Segregated South: A View from North Carolina (Teaching Civil Rights, 14) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

The Vietnam War and American Culture(s), Part 2 | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”: Two Reviews | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Jim Crow and his Minions–the New South, the Lost Cause, and Confederate Monuments: a Review | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

A Post for the Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday, 2021: “A Prayer for our Country” | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

The Vietnam War and American Culture(s), Part 3: “Passionate Historians,” and Selected Sources on the Vietnam War | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

John Wereat and Georgia, 1775-1799, Part 1 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 33) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1807-1845, Part 1 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 34) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

The Year of Ben (2019-2020); and a decade of “Retired But Not Shy” (2010-2020) | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

Let me end by calling attention once again to the enduring popularity of this blog’s posts on the Blues. Six of the ten most popular posts since 2010 come from the “Blues Stories” page; the same percentage holds for the top ten posts in Year Eleven that come from years one through ten. In Year Eleven, however, there are no new Blues among the top ten, but that’s because I did not put up any new “Blues Stories” this past year. Gotcha! Oh, and thanks to all those Blues fans out there for finding this blog and continuing to visit it. I don’t know where I’d be without you!

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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP Cover

Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, Year in Review | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1807-1845, Part 2 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 34)

john-quincy-adams-picture

[Note: This is the second of two posts on the evolution of political parties in Georgia from 1807 to 1845 (for the first, go here).

Between 1831 and 1837, the tariff issue became increasingly divisive in Georgia. Some members of both the Troup and Clark parties were lured by the siren song of John C. Calhoun’s Nullification scheme. Yet, each party continued to operate as though nothing new had happened, until that blinkered vision proved impossible to sustain. The turning point came in December 1832, when President Andrew Jackson issued his Proclamation to the People of South Carolina, terming Nullification unconstitutional and its ultimate step, secession, as treason.

John C. Calhoun

Jackson’s Proclamation resounded like a thunderclap throughout the South; in Georgia, it sparked a political reorganization. The Clark and Troup parties dissolved, re-forming on the basis of support for, or opposition to, Nullification. Most Troupers, and some Clarkites, organized the State Rights Party, which favored Nullification; most Clarkites, along with some Troupers, opposed to the Carolina doctrine, formed the Union Party.]

President Andrew Jackson

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The newly-organized parties slugged it out for political supremacy, with the Union Party in control over much of the next decade, primarily because it proved adept at “waving the bloody shirt” of support for the Union and President Jackson. Consequently, the State Rights Party began to distance itself from Nullification, though without much success at first. What ultimately helped resolve the issue was the formation in Congress of an anti-Jackson party, the Whigs.

Georgians opposed to Andrew Jackson, strongly influenced by Congressman (and later, Governor) George M. Troup’s doctrine of state rights and Calhoun’s theory of Nullification, initially were reluctant to adopt the Whig name because of the influence of strong Unionists like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and former President John Quincy Adams among its members, but they still gravitated towards the new party because it opposed the President. Consequently, politics in Georgia continued to baffle uninitiated observers.

President Martin Van Buren

The State Rights Party recouped some of its fortunes after the Democrats nominated Martin Van Buren as Jackson’s successor in 1836, a decision that went to the heart of a key event in the history of the Clark party (which formed the core of the Union Party). In 1824, Van Buren had been campaign manager for Georgian William H. Crawford, the bitter rival of John Clark, when Crawford unsuccessfully challenged Adams, Calhoun, Clay, and Jackson for the Republican presidential nomination. Consequently, many former Clarkites in the Union Party, now Jacksonian Democrats in all but name, were reluctant to support Van Buren in 1836, even though he was Jackson’s hand-picked successor. Eventually, the State Rights Party backed Hugh Lawson White of Tennessee, one of the Whigs’ regional nominees. White carried Georgia with support from many “Clark Union men,” although Van Buren, supported in Georgia by the Union Party, won the presidency.

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Elias Boudinot, Cherokee Editor

Georgia’s dealings with the Cherokees were increasingly strained in the 1830s. According to critics, Georgia opposed Nullification in response to the protective tariff but practiced it by refusing to recognize the jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court in cases involving Cherokee affairs, and there was some truth to that charge. Meanwhile, the Cherokee Phoenix, founded in 1828 by Elias Boudinot, presented the Cherokee case to a wider public. Boudinot’s eventual decision to support Cherokee removal, despite principal chief John Ross’s continuing opposition, led to his resignation as editor in the summer of 1832.

Trail of Tears

Boudinot’s successor, Ross’s brother-in-law Elijah Hicks, enlisted the Phoenix for Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay in 1832, in a final, desperate effort to block Cherokee removal, but to no avail. The Phoenix folded in May 1834, and the so-called “Treaty Party,” including Boudinot, Major Ridge, and John Ridge, signed the Treaty of New Echota in December 1835. The “Trail of Tears” in 1838 put paid to the issue, and white Georgians at last controlled all the former Native American lands within the state’s boundaries.

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During the 1820s and 1830s, Georgia congressmen became ever more defensive about attacks on slavery, especially those launched from the Northeast, home of the dreaded Abolitionists. The situation was further complicated by publication of David Walker’s Appeal (and its role in the ouster of Elijah Burritt as editor of the Milledgeville Statesman & Patriot, which was succeeded by the Federal Union as the leading organ for the Clark/Union Party); and by the Nat Turner revolt in August 1831. Georgia congressmen became favorite targets of Massachusetts Representative (and former President) John Quincy Adams and his abettors, who fought to secure repeal of the hated Gag Rule. Like many southerners, Georgians saw attacks on slavery hidden in every political disagreement, from the protective tariff to the annexation of Texas, and efforts to mollify them inevitably failed.

In the late 1830s, the Union Party nearly imploded over Federal Union editor John Cuthbert’s attack on Georgia’s Central Bank, whose board was chaired by Tomlinson Fort, the wizard behind the curtain of the Union Party and owner of the Federal Union. Ultimately, this vendetta cost Cuthbert his post at the Union, but before he left Georgia he repaid the Union Party’s leadership in spades, publicly supporting the State Rights Party’s George Gilmer in the 1837 gubernatorial election, which was won by Gilmer.

Mark Anthony Cooper, State Rights Democrat

Thereafter, the Union Party evolved into the Democratic Party, while most members of the State Rights Party, eventually joined by a few disgruntled Union Democrats, embraced the Whig label, though with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The Georgia Democracy was increasingly influenced by Troup’s doctrine of state rights, aided by the migration to its ranks of former State Rights/Whig Party members Mark Cooper, Walter Colquitt, and Edward Black, who claimed to be so steeped in the principles of state rights that they could stomach neither Whig policies nor their presidential candidate in 1840, William Henry Harrison. The Democrats welcomed them with open arms, and Cooper, Colquitt, and Black soon acceded to prominent positions in the party hierarchy, much to the chagrin of some long-time members.

The irony was striking: Georgia Whigs had evolved out of the anti-Jackson State Rights Party yet, in the end, defended the Union; Georgia Democrats, whose party had developed from the pro-Jackson, anti-Nullification Union Party, became ardent champions of state rights in the 1840s.  Once again, outside observers trying to understand Georgia’s party politics scratched their heads in stupefied wonder.

John M. Berrien, Georgia political chameleon

The pull of state rights and Nullification became so pervasive among Georgia Democrats that most of their editors worked for John C. Calhoun’s nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1844. Whigs, on the other hand, although reminding voters of their State Rights Party roots and their continuing belief in that party’s doctrines, began to speak in terms of what was good for the nation as a whole rather than for the South or Georgia. Even John Berrien, who had boxed the political compass from Federalism to the Democracy (including a post in Andrew Jackson’s Cabinet), State Rights, and finally, the Whig Party, began to sound like a national statesman compared to increasingly angry, provincial state rights Democrats like Cooper, Colquitt, and Black, and later, Absalom Chappell.

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One of the most important aspects of political party development in Georgia in the first decades of the nineteenth century was the spread of newspapers and the work of skilled editors in setting the political agenda, ushering in another era of bitter partisan journalism. No longer were editors merely artisans skilled in setting type; most were attorneys by training, adept at interpreting current events through the prism of ideology, and supported by increasingly sophisticated organizations. They played active roles in party affairs, developing campaign strategy, participating in public meetings and debates, occasionally even running for office themselves.

Most often, however, it was the steady stream of editorials explaining the political world through the lenses of partisanship that made local editors indispensable. In Milledgeville, Seaton Grantland founded two papers, the Georgia Journal and the Southern Recorder, which, over time, gravitated from the Crawford/Troup party to the Whigs. Elijah Burritt created the Statesman & Patriot for John Clark, and, after Burritt’s disgrace and flight from the state, John G. Polhill, in conjunction with John A. Cuthbert, established the Federal Union to echo the views of the Clark faction of the Union Party. Thomas Haynes moved the Standard of Union from Sparta to the capital, where it became the mouthpiece of Troup Union men.

Michael Kappel was instrumental in setting up pro-Clark papers in Milledgeville and Savannah. Myron Bartlett founded the Macon Telegraph and made it successively the voice of the Clark, Union, and Democratic parties in middle Georgia, while his peripatetic brother, Cosam Bartlett, had a hand in founding Clark, Union, and Democratic papers in Milledgeville, Macon, Columbus, and Savannah. Albon Chase steered the Athens Southern Banner from the Troup party to the Union party during the Nullification Crisis, and to the Democracy thereafter. In Augusta, P.C. Guieu made the Constitutionalist the staunch Union/Democratic voice of the upcountry, despite angry protestations from his neighbor, Augustus Longstreet, at the State Rights’ Sentinel. The voice of the State Rights/Whig Party in Columbus, the Enquirer, continually struggling for its financial life, was kept afloat thanks to energetic, articulate editors like R.T. Marks, Samuel Flournoy, and James Calhoun, as well as their frequently harried financial backers.

During the presidential election campaign of 1840, each party published a separate newspaper dedicated to its presidential standard-bearer. And, in 1844, when the staunchly pro-Van Buren Macon Telegraph refused to join the Milledgeville Federal Union in singing the praises of John C. Calhoun, the Carolinian’s middle Georgia supporters bankrolled the establishment in Macon of the American Democrat.

Political organizations also became tighter.  Each party gathered in the capital when the legislature met, and later in Athens at the state college graduation, to hash out pressing issues and nominate candidates. In response to the political excitement of the late 1830s and early 1840s, parties emphasized personal contacts between candidates and the electorate through various “public discussions,” debates, meetings, and conventions.

Even if those contacts were sometimes more apparent than real, the net result was that voters were energized and trooped to the polls in large numbers. Both parties also replicated tactics originally developed by the Whigs in 1840 to attract voters: parades, festive meals, drinking parties, “liberty poles,” special election-season newspapers; you name it, one or both of Georgia’s parties trotted it out, beginning in 1840.

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In the decades after James Jackson’s death (1806), in other words, Georgia politics evolved from a personal operation to one based more on issues, from “men to measures,” with the rise of Nullification the catalyst for the establishment of the State Rights and Union parties. The final steps came between 1843 and 1845: another political reorganization produced two parties that mirrored, at last, those on the national level. The 1844 presidential campaign sparked impressive efforts by both parties to attract voters, this time without confusion or evasion about party names, although some uncertainty about party principles remained. This movement climaxed in 1845, when each gubernatorial nominee ran as a candidate of one of the national parties, with no ifs, ands, or buts.

By the end of 1845, then, political parties in Georgia finally had adopted national party names as their own and begun to reshape their principles accordingly. Georgia politicians had been declaiming for decades that their supporters adhered to “principles, not men,” but this became a reality only because of the Nullification Crisis. Moreover, which men believed what principles was not always clear, especially on Nullification. Eponymous labels (Troup/Clark), those indicating support for a key issue (State Rights/Union), and those combining the two (Troup Union/Troup Nullifiers, Clark Union/Clark Nullifiers) became things of the past.  After more than half a century on the periphery of political developments in the United States, Georgia was, at long last, floating in the mainstream.

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Unlike modern historians, antebellum Georgians could not know what would happen later, cataclysmic events like the Compromise of 1850, for example, and how that would affect political parties in the state.  Perhaps it’s just as well. The effort in Georgia to support the Compromise of 1850 would lead to yet another party reorganization, with the Whigs and Democrats breaking up and reforming into the Constitutional-Union (pro-Compromise) party and the Southern Rights (anti-Compromise) party.

In the end, the Constitutional-Union party triumphed: Georgia supported the Compromise, but warned the nation that the state considered the Compromise the “final solution” to the question of the expansion of slavery.  And yet, the efforts of Howell Cobb, the leader of the Constitutional-Union party, to drag Union Whigs into the ranks of a moderate Democratic Party in the wake of the Compromise, failed. According to a veteran Democratic operative, this was because party names meant everything in Georgia politics by that point.  Former Whigs who supported the Union would willingly have joined a permanent Constitutional-Union party, but were unwilling to follow Howell Cobb into the national Democratic Party

By 1845, though, Georgia’s political parties finally bore the names of the national ones, even if their principles made less than perfect sense in historical context, their enmities remained “rancorous,” and their partialities “blind.” Hezekiah Niles would have been proud.

[Note: The author apologizes for the sweeping nature of this two-part post, but, since they summarize Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1807-1845, in four thousand words, that is perhaps to be expected. Anyone interested in learning more about the events, individuals, and (especially) the “hairy-dog stories” treated in these posts, please check out the book (see below).]

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For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP Cover

Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in "Cherokee Phoenix" (newspaper), American "republicanism", American History, Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Removal, Chief John Ross (Cherokees), Creek Indians, Elias Boudinot, George M. Troup, George R. Gilmer, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, John Clark, John Cuthbert, Nullification, Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Uncategorized, William Harris Crawford, Wilson Lumpkin, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1807-1845, Part 1 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 34)

john-quincy-adams-picture

[Note: Between 1807 and 1845, the political system in Georgia underwent a reluctant, clumsy, and—to outsiders—baffling evolution. Georgia politics seemed so bizarre that Baltimore editor Hezekiah Niles was wont to look down his increasingly Whiggish nose and mutter something along the lines of, “We know not what they differ about, but they do violently differ.” Of course, Niles made almost no effort to try to understand Georgia politics; it was easier, and perhaps more satisfying, to publish yet another scathing criticism about how things were done by those Georgia bumpkins. Yet, as was the case for Georgia’s previous political generation, it is possible to understand what Georgians “differed about” in the first half of the nineteenth century, even if one must agree with Niles that, no matter why Georgians “differed,” they continued to do so “violently.”]

* * * * *

When Georgia’s first “party boss,” James Jackson, died in 1806, there was a Republican consensus, thanks to Jackson’s skill at yoking avid support for Thomas Jefferson with angry opposition to the role of Senator James Gunn and other prominent Georgia Federalists in the infamous Yazoo Land Fraud. Although Georgia historians have long argued that leadership of the state’s Republican interests passed smoothly to Jackson’s designated political heirs, the story is more complicated.  John Milledge, long a Jackson lieutenant, and Governor of Georgia in 1806, was elected to fill the remainder of Jackson’s Senate term and subsequently won a full term for himself. However, he resigned the seat because of his wife’s health and retired from politics.

David B. Mitchell

Once Milledge left the stage, Georgians were divided between two more-or-less “Republican” factions:  one was headed by a rising upcountry politician, William Harris Crawford, and by Jackson’s low-country protégé, George M. Troup; the other by General John Clark, an adamant foe of Jackson, Crawford, and Troup but a self-proclaimed “republican” nonetheless, even if his foes believed he was a Federalist.  Yet, Crawford was already launched on a career of national significance and Troup was occupied in Congress, so the real leader of the “Crawford [or Jeffersonian Republican] party” in Georgia was David Mitchell. Mitchell fought a defensive, rear-guard action, as prominent supporters, for various reasons, sought greener pastures in Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, even as John Clark successfully extended his “party” across the state.

The Yazoo Fraud, which had dominated Georgia politics during the final decade of James Jackson’s life, continued to roil those waters after his demise. Although transferring Georgia’s Yazoo lands to the national government in the Compact of 1802 was supposed to settle the long-simmering controversy over the state’s western territory, it did not. To most white Georgians, the key to future growth lay in the national administration’s willingness to compel the Creeks and the Cherokees to surrender their claims to Georgia lands as provided in the 1802 agreement.  Yet, the government in Washington proved unable, or unwilling, to do that, at least at a pace satisfactory to land-hungry Georgians.

* * * * *

The original Yazoo purchasers disposed of their lands to reputedly “innocent” buyers, who demanded that the national government satisfy their claims. Aided by Virginia’s John Randolph, a vocal cadre of Georgia congressmen, led by George Troup, opposed the new purchasers and pressured Washington to live up to the 1802 agreement. Despite determined opposition from Randolph, the Georgians, and their allies, Congress finally reached a compromise with the “innocent” Yazoo purchasers in 1814, but echoes of Yazoo continued to bubble up from the state’s political memory during campaigns into the 1840s, a rhetorical gift that kept on giving.

George M. Troup

In the context of defending Georgia against pressure from Yazoo purchasers, Congressman George Troup honed a state rights philosophy that would become his trademark in the 1820s. Rather than satisfy the demands of corrupt land speculators, Troup thundered, the general government should eliminate Native American land claims in Georgia, as provided in the Compact of 1802; but, if Washington were unwilling or unable to do that, then Georgia must act unilaterally, he argued.

Peter Early

Most Georgians strongly opposed settling “corrupt” Yazoo claims, but the state’s “Republican” consensus divided bitterly over two other issues. The first was the enactment by the state legislature, in 1808, after passage of Jefferson’s Embargo by Congress, of the Alleviating Act.  This measure was intended to ease credit terms for planters driven into debt by American attempts to use commercial pressure instead of warfare to settle disputes with Britain and France. Georgia Republicans supported this concept in 1808, 1809, 1812, and 1813, despite increasingly angry opposition from creditors. In 1814, however, Governor Peter Early, who had signed the 1813 measure, vetoed its successor and was denied a second term, then watched, with other Republicans, as the Crawford party was damned by irate debtors, and its members ousted from office.

As if Crawford Republicans were not in enough trouble, several members dealt the party another blow in 1816, when they supported the Compensation Act, which altered the method of paying members of Congress from a flat annual rate to a per diem basis. This change unleashed a storm of criticism of this supposed “salary grab,” cost William Bibb his Senate seat, and evicted most of the state’s congressmen as well. By 1816, the Crawford party was reeling.

* * * * *

John Clark

The bitter climax of the David Mitchell-John Clark rivalry came after the War of 1812, when Mitchell resigned as Governor to serve as American agent to the Creeks, just as the “Clark party” emerged as Georgia’s dominant Republican faction. Agent Mitchell became involved in a slave-smuggling scheme, and Clark, elected Governor in 1819, grimly pursued allegations against him and publicized the results. Clark’s determined campaign, bolstered by his political alliance with Andrew Jackson, sparked an investigation by the Monroe Administration and led to Mitchell’s removal from office in 1821, further embarrassing the Crawford party.

The collapse of the Crawford Republicans was halted—and, to some extent, reversed–by the fiery George Troup, who returned from Congress to assume leadership of the organization, soon referred to as the “Troup party.” Troup and John Clark opposed each other for Governor three times between 1819 and 1825, with Clark winning in 1819 and 1821 by joint votes of the legislature. Troup defeated Clark lieutenant Matthew Talbot on a joint legislative ballot in 1823, and faced Clark again in 1825, when Georgia voters first elected a Governor directly.

Ironically, in 1825 “the people” chose the more “aristocratic” Troup, not the supposedly more “democratic” Clark, with Troup’s rapidly evolving “state rights” stance seemingly the deciding factor. As Governor, Troup used the national government’s apparent reluctance to fulfill the Compact of 1802 as a whetstone, further honing the aggressive state rights philosophy he had developed in Congress, and, perhaps unwittingly, helping lay the groundwork for acceptance by many in Georgia of John C. Calhoun’s doctrine of Nullification in the 1830s.

Chief William McIntosh

Exploiting his relationship with his cousin, Chief William McIntosh, Troup secured remaining Creek lands in Georgia through the Treaty of Indian Springs (1825). When the new John Quincy Adams administration disavowed that agreement on the grounds of corruption, Troup sparked an angry confrontation that, although it seemed at first to threaten civil war, eventually secured Creek lands for Georgia peacefully, thanks to two additional treaties (Washington, 1826; Fort Mitchell, 1827). With the Creeks finally divested of their Georgia lands, a Milledgeville editor smugly noted, the turn of the Cherokees had come, and the even uglier process of Cherokee removal began.

END OF PART I

* * * * * *

For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP Cover

Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American "republicanism", American History, Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Removal, Creek Indians, George M. Troup, Historical Reflection, History, James Gunn, John Clark, Nullification, Research, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Uncategorized, William Harris Crawford | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Growing Up White in the Segregated South: A View from North Carolina (Teaching Civil Rights, 14)

A Review of:

Melton A. McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South (2nd ed.) Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1998.

[Note: Regular readers of this blog will remember that near the end of my career as a History teacher at an Atlanta prep school (referred to here by its nom de blog, Atlanta’s Finest Prep School, or AFPS), I inherited a one-semester, junior-senior course, the History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement. In revising the course, I decided that it must begin with a substantial unit on “The Age of Jim Crow.”  I believed this background was essential if my students were to understand the magnitude of what the modern civil rights movement had accomplished.

One of the supplementary texts I selected was by Melton McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South. Although I’ve read other accounts of growing up White in the Jim Crow era over the past decades I haven’t found a more engaging account than this one, or one more suitable for classroom use.]  

* * * * *

In September 1953, in the small town of Wade, North Carolina, seventh-grader Melton McLaurin began working at his grandfather Lonnie Mack’s store, located on the boundary between the White and Black communities. In retrospect, McLaurin describes Wade as “an almost perfect microcosm of the rural and small-town segregated South.” (3)  McLaurin’s generation of White children would be the last to come of age in the segregated South, yet even after the U.S. Supreme Court’s epochal 1954 decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, residents of Wade “remained convinced that the South would find an acceptable method of circumventing it.” (4)

Wade was a mill town surrounded by small farms owned mostly by Whites but worked by Black and White tenants and field hands. There were few college-educated Whites in Wade; White high school graduates usually found jobs with the local railroad.  Although residential segregation in Wade was not rigidly enforced, everyone knew the rules of Jim Crow and followed them—or else.  Melton McLaurin’s father, Merrill, was a member of the town’s small middle class, having begun as a barber and then become an insurance salesman; but for young Melton, his grandfather’s store was the center of the world:  he worked there every summer and most school holidays between seventh and twelfth grades. 

McLaurin described his grandfather as an “indomitable little man, taught by experience to stifle any expression of feeling, to be emotionally tough and to cloak his caring with blunt speech and a hard, cold demeanor calculated to keep everyone at a safe distance.” (18)  Lonnie Mack was a hard taskmaster, both to his grandson and to his customers, because he took seriously his self-appointed role as the town’s “fixer,” for some Whites of course, but especially for his store’s many Black customers.

And it was these people, especially the African Americans, that Melton McLaurin served in the store during a formative period in his life.  He believed that the “association with blacks [sic] had also forced me to make some difficult moral judgments about racism and segregation” that most Whites in Wade did not make, which  would “further alienate me from the society in which I came of age.” (26)

* * * * *

To explain how this happened, McLaurin presents a series of sketches of the most memorable Black residents of Wade whom he encountered at his grandfather’s store.  Each of them managed to call into question, in various ways, the values and beliefs of the White society in which McLaurin had grown up, and these encounters helped determine the man he became. The stories McLaurin tells are arranged in roughly chronological order, and the people featured in each chapter also helped frame McLaurin’s assessment of how Jim Crow shaped Southern society at ground level.

Bobo, a young Black man McLaurin’s age, from a poor family, lived in a constricted world where rules were spelled out by Jim Crow and enforced using the power of White paternalism, or, if necessary, violence. For Bobo’s parents, this meant leaning on the generosity of “Mister Lonnie” when they needed money or credit and being sufficiently grateful if their request was granted, as it usually was.  Young Melton’s reckoning with this elaborate system of white noblesse oblige came one afternoon during a pick-up basketball game near his grandfather’s store, when he suddenly realized that the needle he needed to re-inflate the communal basketball had previously been in Bobo’s mouth.  To regain his place as a member of the “superior race,” McLaurin was reduced to a mild act of violence, which “for the first time raised questions in my mind about the institution [of segregation], serious questions that adults didn’t want asked and, as I would later discover, that they never answered.” (41)

Street, an older Black man who lived in a cave near Wade filled with books, magazines, and religious pamphlets, struck Melton as one of the most intelligent people in the village, as well as the best read, and both these qualities ran counter to the doctrine of white supremacy.  Young McLaurin saw Street as “the freest man in Wade,” as well as, in a sense, his mentor.

Betty Jo, a Black teenager McLaurin met while waiting on her at his grandfather’s store, reminded him how “interracial sex,” or even the thought of it, “became the ultimate temptation and the ultimate taboo, a symbol of both the reality and the futility of segregation.” (65)  Although white supremacy kept young Melton from going beyond the minimum contact he had with Betty Jo in the store, he came to believe that “she was really no different from the white girls [he] dated.” (85)

The figure of Sam, a mentally challenged young man of McLaurin’s acquaintance, comes across as a Black version of Harper Lee’s character Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.  In retrospect, Sam came to personify for Melton the White stereotype of African Americans.  It was fine to taunt Black people for whatever reason, McLaurin had assumed, but, when he joined several White friends in making fun of Sam one memorable summer night, he was unable to forget the incident.  This encounter only deepened his feelings of guilt about the power of segregation.

In the story of Granddaddy and Viny Love, McLaurin’s grandfather Lonnie Mack takes center stage, when his role as “the Man” in the village seems (to him) to have been called into question by a bureaucrat in the local welfare office.  Viny Love, a hard-working Black single mother whose only child suffered from cerebral palsy, came to Granddaddy asking him to intervene with the welfare department so that she could receive financial benefits to which she was entitled, to help her son.  Lonnie Mack agreed to help her, and, when he learned that his aid had been of no avail, he blew a gasket.  He was a racist, as were most of the Whites in Wade, but his “help” was intended to keep Wade’s African American population loyal to the system. When his effort to help Viny Love was challenged by the local welfare official, Granddaddy took action in an unforgettable fashion that won plaudits from local Blacks and from his own family, especially from his grandson.

In his reminiscence of Jerry and Miss Carrie McLean, Melton McLaurin once more was brought face-to-face with the differences between White stereotypes of Black people and how Whites interacted with them on a personal level.  Miss Carrie was a retired schoolteacher, the only Black woman he knew who was addressed by Whites as “Miss.”  Her husband Jerry was a man of mixed race who made a living doing odd jobs for Whites and had built with his own hands the home where he and Miss Carrie lived.  When he was seventeen, McLaurin was invited by Miss Carrie to join her and Jerry to eat pie in her kitchen.  Knowing how well thought of the couple were in Wade, Melton went to their home expecting to find a house up to White middle-class standards, but he was shocked to see that the McLeans had so little.  In retrospect, McLaurin believed this episode “made inevitable my final rejection of the segregated South.” (154) 

* * * * *

Melton McLaurin grew up to become a historian of the South, spending most of his career at the University of North Carolina branch in Wilmington.  Not only is he an engaging writer, but his historical training has also enabled him to place his personal story of growing up in the Jim Crow South in the proverbial “larger context.”

In the book’s Epilogue, McLaurin recounts a visit home for Christmas in 1984, when he accompanied his father to the home of Dora Lee to drop off some lard as a gift, a visit that enabled him to see his father at his paternalistic best:  “He remained, spiritually, emotionally, a resident of the Wade I had left and to which I could never return. . . . And so, aware of and linked by our separate pasts, we rode toward home and the celebration of a family Christmas.” (164)

In an Afterword added to the second edition of the book, McLaurin focuses on events in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he had spent most of his teaching career. He reviews the “revolt” of Wilmington’s Whites in 1898, during which they ousted the leaders of the local Populist/Republican ruling clique, in a “stridently racist campaign portraying blacks as the rapacious destroyers of white civilization, as an insidious evil against which the whites [sic] of North Carolina could be protected only by Democratic leadership.” (167)  Building on this success, Democrats recaptured control of the state government in 1900, disfranchised Black voters, and imposed legal segregation.  A century later, Professor Melton McLaurin worked to create a commemoration of that 1898 racial violence campaign in Wilmington that would enable both races to understand the consequences of that event and work for the common good of the city’s residents.

In December 1997, McLaurin again returned home for Christmas. He used that opportunity to talk with Allen Smith, whose father had received some attention in this book, about the importance of race in modern Wade.  According to Mr. Smith, despite undeniable progress in race relations over the previous four decades, “[Racism] is in you, and it’s in me, and that’s the truth, down there inside us. That’s just the way it is.”  (176)  This conversation filled McLaurin with “a deep, sorrowful anger,” and he drove home “to continue to struggle with the difficult necessity of confronting our separate pasts.” (176)

* * * * *

Melton McLaurin’s Separate Pasts:  Growing Up White in the Segregated South is a great book. It is a subtle, but deep and powerful treatment of his coming of age in a small southern town in the 1950s, engagingly written and accessible. Drawing on his memories, McLaurin paints an unforgettable picture of life in Wade, and he situates his memories firmly in the historical context.  Available at amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle editions, Separate Pasts belongs on the e-readers and bookshelves of anyone interested in the history of the South.

Melton McLaurin

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP Cover

Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in Age of Jim Crow, American History, Civil Rights Movement, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History Teaching, memoir, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Retirement, Southern History, Teaching | 4 Comments

J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”: Two Reviews

[Note: In 2016, J.D. Vance published Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir of his growing up as a child in a later, Appalachian white, version of the “Great Migration,” a youngster who accompanied his mother and her extended family from a “holler” in Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, in search of work and a future.

Vance’s book appeared just as Donald Trump had begun his ascendancy in the quest for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. And, as events unfolded, members of the “commentariat,” well-educated, well-paid, and generally cocksure newspaper columnists, tried to steer their readers in the proper, anti-Trump, direction, but there was a problem: those “in the know” kept missing what was going on, and Trump’s candidacy continued to gain strength, despite the efforts of op-ed writers nationwide to make it go away.

Vance’s book became a hot item, a volume recommended as at least a partial explanation of Trump’s candidacy. And yet, those who specialized in American politics continued, despite Vance’s views, to misunderstand the Trump phenomenon. Yes, lots of writers cited Vance’s work, but once Trump was elected in November 2016, where Hillbilly Elegy fit into the political debate no longer seemed important, at least until the 2018 midterm elections.

Vance himself made the rounds of television interviewers, even gave a TED Talk, obviously enjoying his moment in the sun, regardless of whether people actually understood his book. And then, perhaps inevitably, came a movie version of Hillbilly Elegy (2020), directed by Hollywood notable (and veteran of “The Andy Griffith Show”) Ron Howard, which earned lukewarm reviews, perhaps saved from disaster by the bravura performance of actress Glenn Close as Vance’s grandmother.

Yet, although Vance’s book fell from the lofty heights it had occupied on the New York Times–and other–best-sellers lists after Donald Trump entered the White House, some observers continued to read–and review–Hillbilly Elegy.]

* * * * *

Reviewing books is an art, not a science, and how one does it depends upon both the genre to which the book belongs and the audience for which it is being reviewed.

This post offers reviews of Vance’s book by two historians who approach the memoir from different perspectives but still try to give readers an idea of both the book and the larger context in which it fits.

First up is Joseph Kitchens, who spent a good part of his career doing “public history” after a stint teaching history in a college classroom. Joe recently retired from the directorship of the Funk Heritage Center at Georgia’s Reinhardt University, a jewel of a museum that emphasizes the impact of the Creeks and the Cherokees on Georgia, and vice versa.

Joe’s approach, in a post at his blog, Longleaf Journal (August 2020), is to review Hillbilly Elegy, but also to enmesh the book in a broader historical context, ranging from colonial Georgia to the election of Donald Trump. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, but I think Joe does a fine job with it:

While you’re visiting Joe’s blog, “Longleaf Journal,” I invite you to explore other posts there. Dr. Kitchens is a skillful writer of “Southern stories” with a vivid imagination and a great sense of humor, as a trip through his blog’s archives reveals.

My review of Hillbilly Elegy, originally posted on this blog in August 2017, focuses on the memoir, but also attempts to place the volume in the context of the 2016 presidential campaign:

Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Hillbillies | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

* * * * *

[Note: It is important to keep in mind that these reviews of Hillbilly Elegy were published in a blog, not in a historical journal or a newspaper. What that means is that the authors of those notices–and, as it happens, the creators of those blogs–could set whatever length they wished for the reviews.

Normally, a book review in a historical journal is limited to somewhere between 250 and 750 words, and the reviewer must adhere to that standard. In “Retired But Not Shy,” the upper limit I set for each post is around 2000 words. This allows me to examine a subject at greater length, but it also risks boring a reader whose interest in a particular book might not be as strong as that of the proprietor of the blog. In the case of Vance’s book, though, each reviewer believes the volume was important enough to merit extended consideration, even if their emphases differed.]

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP Cover

Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Post for the Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday, 2021: “A Prayer for our Country”

[Note:  A year ago, I reflected in this space on the play of “light” and “darkness” in the rhetoric of Dr. King, drawing on remarks by the late Georgia Congressman John Lewis and Republican columnist Michael Gerson.  I ended by confessing that I could not imagine what Dr. King would make of the state of our union in 2020.  Do you see where I’m going with this?

Since that post, we’ve had the worsening of the Covid-19 pandemic, the presidential election that would not die, and, between November and early January, the eyes of the nation were fixed on my home state of Georgia, where two–count ’em, two–seats in the U.S. Senate were at stake.  And, son of a gun, the Democrats won both seats!

BUT, just when a few optimists thought that the bad times were over and a brighter future beckoned this battered country, our incumbent President refused to accept the outcome of the presidential race and then tried to “fix” the results of the Georgia senatorial election because control of the Senate hung on the outcome.

Bad, right?  But it got worse:  On January 6, 2021, the incumbent President encouraged several thousand of his supporters, who had made the trip to Washington because he promised that things would be “wild,” to march on the Capitol, at the very time Congress had assembled there to count ritually the presidential votes from the states in the Electoral College.  The President promised he’d be with his supporters on their march, but of course he wasn’t; instead, he was hunkered down in the comfort of the White House watching everything on television that he’d set in motion, no surprise given his conduct over the past four years.

And the results of that “march” by “patriotic” followers of a defeated President yielded only chaos, including five deaths.  The new President, former Vice-President Joe Biden, is to be inaugurated on January 20.  Problem over, right?  No!  Rumors reported by the FBI warn of the possibility of gatherings by the defeated incumbent’s supporters, not only in the Nation’s Capital (again) but also in state capitals. 

Oh, I almost forgot:  our lame-duck Commander-in-Chief has now been impeached by the Democratic-controlled House, for the second time, for inciting the riot that led to the invasion–and brief occupation–of the Capitol by his fan club. Of course, he escaped conviction by the Republican-controlled Senate almost a year ago, and whether he’ll be convicted by the soon-to-be Democratic-controlled Senate this time, after Biden is inaugurated, is up in the air.]

* * * * * 

So, what in the world can I say on this King holiday that will bring comfort, or be even the least bit celebratory?  I thought I’d try something different this year. 

I am an Episcopalian; central to our worship is the Book of Common Prayer (hereafter BCP), a volume of nearly 1000 pages, with roots in the English Reformation, that guides our modern worship services, religious rites, and private devotions.  What some say about us is almost literally true, “You Episcopalians have a prayer for everything!”  (To which I invariably respond, “Not quite, but close.”)  And today I offer an example, a “Prayer for our Country.”  Believe it or not, this is one of at least three such prayers for the nation in the BCP, and is the most complete and detailed petition.  Moreover, the words seem to me to “speak to our condition” in this perilous moment: 

Almighty God, who has given us this good land for our heritage:  We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will.  Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners.  Save us from violence, discord, and confusion, from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way.  Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues.  Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth.  In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  (BCP, p.820)

* * * * * 

The prayer’s first two sentences seem to embody “American exceptionalism,” the idea that, to put it colloquially, “God is an American.”  Thereafter, though, comes recognition that our history always has been messy and will continue to be, followed by a plea for national unity.  Interestingly, this plea is based upon the notion that we are “a nation of immigrants,” at a time when immigration policy is a “third rail” in American politics.  There follows a request for wisdom on the part of those who govern and–believe it or not–that, by our obedience to law, we may set an example for the rest of the world.  The concluding sentence has haunted me since I first encountered this prayer:  “In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail. . . .”

* * * * * 

As I type this, I have no idea how things will turn out between now and January 20.  I simply offer the “Prayer for our Country” for those of you who, like me, are uneasy about our nation’s immediate future and pray for better days ahead.  Let’s hope that, a year from now, we can face the future with renewed confidence and energy, as we continue working to achieve Dr. King’s goal of the “beloved community.”

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

 

Posted in American History, Books, Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Education, Episcopal Church, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, Martin Luther King, memoir, Popular Culture, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

John Wereat and Georgia, 1775-1799, Part 2 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 33)

[NOTE:  This is the second, and final, post about John Wereat, who turned up at almost every crucial event in Georgia’s history between the outbreak of the American Revolution and his death in 1799 Part 1 followed him from his arrival in Savannah from England through the end of the War for Independence. This installment traces Mr. Wereat’s role in Georgia’s post-Revolutionary history until his death in 1799.

For Part 1, go here.  A list of sources is appended to this post.]

* * * * *

John Wereat (Wikipedia)

In 1783, after the end of the Revolutionary War, John Wereat served as Auditor-General of Georgia, charged with the unenviable task of putting the state’s war-shattered finances on a sound footing.  That he was re-elected annually by the legislature for a decade testified to the esteem in which his efforts were held.

Wereat was the natural choice for this arduous post: as Georgia’s continental agent during the Revolution, he had demonstrated an impressive grasp of finance, earned a reputation for probity, and, not least important considering the state’s tangled obligations to Congress, had made a number of influential friends in Philadelphia.

Further evidence of the respect Wereat commanded in Georgia came in December 1787, when he was chosen president of the state convention that unanimously ratified the newly written Constitution of the United States.  As the session concluded, delegates voted Wereat their thanks “for his able and impartial conduct in the chair.”

* * * * *

Georgia in 1790

Once the new national government began to function, Georgia’s tangled financial obligations to the federal government required attention.   Perhaps not surprisingly, in December 1790, the legislature unanimously elected Auditor-General John Wereat as its agent for settling Georgia’s outstanding financial claims with the new United States. Wereat remained at his post in Philadelphia until early August 1793.  His long stay in the temporary national capital meant that his funds would be exhausted before he could conclude his business.   Moreover, Wereat, his daughter Nancy, and his granddaughter arrived in the city during an outbreak of smallpox and promptly joined others in seeking refuge in New Jersey.

To ensure the continued operation of the state auditor’s office during his absence, Wereat appointed his nephew, Thomas Collier, to act for him in Georgia.   Unfortunately, Collier’s high-handed conduct during his uncle’s absence created ill-feelings towards Wereat.  Either because of this, or because Wereat had had all the fun he could stand trying to resuscitate the state’s finances,  he was not re-elected auditor in 1793.

At least partly as a result of Wereat’s efforts as the state’s agent in Philadelphia, the national government agreed to assume $246,030 of the debt Georgia had contracted during the Revolution, out of the $300,000 maximum permitted by law.  Moreover, the final report of the federal board of commissioners ruled that the national government still owed Georgia $20,000.

* * * * *

Following his retirement from politics, John Wereat, his financial situation ravaged by the War and by the unstable economic conditions before ratification of the new federal Constitution, engaged in land speculation.  On November 12, 1794, he made the first bid to the state legislature to purchase a tract of Georgia’s western territory, the so-called “Yazoo lands,” on behalf of three wealthy acquaintances in Pennsylvania.  When his offer was rejected, Wereat joined three other Georgians to form the Georgia Union Company, which hoped to purchase the Yazoo lands desired by the Georgia and Georgia Mississippi companies, but, because the rival companies had swept the state clean of hard currency, Wereat and his associates were unable to raise sufficient funds to convince the legislature of the sincerity of their bid.

Yazoo Land Grants, 1795

Nevertheless, Governor George Mathews vetoed this Yazoo Act.  Wereat briefly thought that the proposal of his Georgia Union Company might have another chance, but that was not to be.  Instead, the General Assembly passed a revised version of the law, and the successful purchasing companies greased the measure’s passage by distributing money and lands to pliant legislators, public officials, militia officers, and newspaper editors, virtually every person of influence in the state who could keep the lid on popular discontent over the Yazoo sale.

During the ensuing controversy over the so-called “Yazoo Fraud,” the successful Yazoo companies impugned the motives of Wereat and other organizers of the Georgia Union Company, accusing them of trying to torpedo the sale after the legislature had rejected their inferior bid.  Wereat responded that, “As the [Yazoo] Act has doubtless been obtained by corruption and fraud, will not the [state constitutional] Convention who are to meet in May [1795] have it in their power to declare it null and void?”

Mr. Wereat’s prominence in that May 1795 state constitutional convention, which ordered anti-Yazoo petitions transmitted to the next session of the General Assembly, lent credence to the successful purchasers’ accusations against Wereat and the Georgia Union Company. Nevertheless, using anti-Yazoo petitions and other evidence of corruption accompanying the law’s passage, the legislature in 1796 passed the Rescinding Act, nullifying the sale.

* * * * *

Following the Yazoo controversy, John Wereat retired to his home in coastal Bryan County, but his hopes for peace and tranquility were short-lived. He soon found himself embroiled in a bitter family squabble that forced him once more into the public eye and dragged on for nearly six years after his death.

The disagreement erupted after Wereat announced that he was offering for sale five-hundred acres of land that had once belonged to his brother-in-law, the late Reverend John Collier.  Collier’s son, Thomas, who had served as deputy auditor under Wereat and been disgraced by accusations of corruption during his tenure, promptly inserted a notice in the press asserting that those lands were not Wereat’s to sell.  According to Thomas Collier, the lands should have passed to his brother John Collier, Jr., and, when his brother died, to Thomas himself.  Instead, Thomas Collier argued, “Mr. Wereat, administrator of the estate, thereby obtained possession, and still retains them; whether fraudulently or otherwise must be determined by a jury of Chatham County.”

Wereat replied a month later, charging that Thomas Collier’s publication had been intended to injure his reputation.  He termed Collier’s assertion that he had “obtained possession of certain papers as administrator of your brother’s estate,” a “base falsehood,” and claimed to welcome the investigation into the matter promised by his nephew.  Wereat added that “any further publication you may think proper to make will be treated with silent contempt.”  Collier fired another shot in this newspaper war, maintaining, among other things, that Wereat consistently had practiced “dissembling flattery. . . [for plunder] towards me and your sister’s family.”  True to his word, John Wereat remained silent, even after Thomas Collier sued to recover the disputed tract of land.

Although he had chosen to ignore his nephew’s accusation in public, Wereat drew up a new will on April 1, 1798, following the death of his daughter.  The new document provided that, upon Wereat’s death, Thomas Collier was to receive but “One Spanish milled dollar.”  Moreover, Wereat vowed that, even if his chief beneficiary, his granddaughter Elizabeth Fishbourne, died before reaching the age of twenty-one, “Thomas Collier shall receive no more than his dollar.” Collier’s suit against Wereat was taken up by Collier’s sister and her husband, Jacob Isaacs, after both Collier and Wereat died. It was finally dismissed by the courts in 1805.

* * * * *

John Wereat died at his Bryan County home on January 25, 1799, at the age of sixty-five.

His death deprived the state of one who had served Georgia well from the outbreak of the American Revolution until his retirement from the Auditor-General’s post in 1793.  A reluctant leader of the conservative Whig faction during the war, Wereat had helped the fledging state grapple with the manifold financial problems accompanying independence.   While it is tempting to describe him as an eighteenth-century bureaucrat, Wereat saw the matter in a different light: to him, his career was neither a “profession” nor a “job,”  but instead, it was “the duty of every good Citizen.”

John Wereat’s involvement in the Yazoo sale, which was motivated by friendship, personal connections, and a desire for financial gain, was unsuccessful.  However, his opposition to the corrupt purchasers eventually redounded to the state’s benefit, though perhaps at some cost to Wereat’s reputation.

Although unsuited by temperament for the rough give and take of Georgia politics, John Wereat nevertheless proved himself a capable, conscientious public servant.  Quiet and reserved by nature, Wereat preferred to avoid controversy; ironically, he found no peace short of the grave.

* * * * *

Wereat Estate Records (excerpts)

Wereat’s Will, dated April 8, 1798—His daughter, an only child, had just died, so Wereat made changes in his will.  His major beneficiary was now his granddaughter, Elizabeth Fishbourn. His daughter Ann (Nancy) had married Dr. Michael Burke after Benjamin Fishbourn’s death.

One odd provision: Wereat awarded his nephew, Thomas Collier, “one Spanish milled dollar (was his mother alive I would give her a good many). . . .”  Wereat added that, if his granddaughter did not live to reach age twenty-one, “Thomas Collier shall have no more than his dollar, nor have I any other relation by blood in America.”   

Wereat listed his estate as follows:

Plantation and tract of Land on the river Ogeechee in Chatham County;

Unimproved tract of Land in Bryan County called Pengathly;

Four lots in the township of Hardwick, in Bryan County;

1400 acres of land on the Great Satilla River;

Two tracts of land in Burke County of five hundred acres each;

Tract of land near Augustine’s Creek;

A confiscated estate in Columbia County called Daverill [?]—three tracts of land, along with sixty adjoining acres;

House and lot in the town of Savannah;

Also in Savannah, a lot fronting St. James’s Square, for use of granddaughter Elizabeth Fishbourn.

Wereat transferred his Columbia County plantation, Mount Hope, to his son-in-law Dr. Michael Burke.

Appraisal of John Wereat’s personal property, dated Hardwick, March 1799:

56 Negroes                                                                    $14,000

30 Head black cattle                                                            150

6 Horses                                                                                 480

50 Head of sheep                                                                 100

2 Feather Beds & bedding                                                  100

6 Chairs, Crockery ware, & household furniture             60

Plantation Carpenters & Blacksmith Tools                      60

1 Sulkey & Harness                                                               40

1 Gun                                                                                       12

__________

$14,922

* * * * *

SOURCES

George R. Lamplugh, Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (Newark, DE, 1986).

______________, “‘To Check and Discourage the Wicked and Designing’:  John Wereat and the Revolution in Georgia,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 61 (Winter, 1977): 295-307.

______________, “‘The Duty of Every Good Citizen’:  John Wereat and Georgia, 1782-1793,” Atlanta Historical Journal 27 (Spring, 1983): 87-94.

______________, “John Wereat and Yazoo, 1794-1799,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 72 (Fall, 1988): 502-517.

______________, “John Wereat,” Kenneth Coleman and Steve Gurr, eds., Dictionary of Georgia Biography (Athens, GA, 1983).

______________, “John Wereat,” John Inscoe, ed., New Georgia Encyclopedia (https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/john-wereat-ca-1733-1799).

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP Cover

Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, American Revolution, Education, Georgia History, History, History Curriculum, History graduate school, History Teaching, John Wereat, memoir, Philadelphia Convention (1787), Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Stephen Calt, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

John Wereat and Georgia, 1775-1799, Part 1 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 33)

[NOTE:  I first met John Wereat in the late 1960s, while researching Georgia politics in the era of the American Revolution.  (By that time, he’d been dead for about 175 years!) I soon found him fascinating, because almost nothing had been written about him in standard secondary sources.  Yet, the deeper I got into my research, the more primary sources I found about Mr. Wereat (as I usually call him).  Consequently, over the past half century I became his biographer, publishing three articles about him, as well as  sketches of his career in two reference works.

What I’ve discovered is that, like some late eighteenth-century Georgia version of the fictitious “Forrest Gump, John Wereat made his presence felt during the most significant events in the state’s history from the outbreak of the Revolution until his death in 1799.

In this two-part post, I’d like to introduce Wereat to a wider, general audience, and  explain what drew me to him as a biographical subject over the course of my career.]

* * * * *

What first caught my attention about Mr. Wereat was his last name, which I still don’t know how to pronounce.  (But as the possessor of an odd name myself, I suppose I shouldn’t complain!) My best guess:  “Weer-ee-at.”

Then there was his distinctive handwriting, beautifully wrought, as befits a person who began his career as a diligent merchant’s clerk in England and eventually joined a mercantile firm in Georgia.  Here’s a sample:

 

Finally, a portrait of John Wereat has survived. I first saw it at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah around 1970. The head of the Society ushered me down to the basement to show me the painting, apologetically explaining that there was not enough wall space upstairs to display all the art in the Society’s collection. (Her implication seemed to be that only pictures of important people were displayed on the main floor, and since Mr. Wereat’s portrait had been consigned to storage, he must not have been a significant figure in Georgia’s history.)  In the vernacular of the times, though, it was “pretty cool” to have a face I could attach to his odd name as we became better acquainted over the next fifty years.

John Wereat (Wikipedia)

* * * * *

Wereat was born circa 1733 in the village of Road, Somerset, in the southwest of England. In 1759, he and his wife, the former Hannah Wilkinson, arrived in Georgia, where he joined a Savannah mercantile firm headed by William Handley, a relative of Mrs. Wereat.

Between 1760 and the outbreak of the Revolution, financial problems blighted Wereat’s career as a merchant and forced him to dispose of almost three thousand acres to satisfy creditors. The lands he saved, however, along with his slaves, served as collateral for additional loans that improved his holdings along Georgia’s rice coast. Despite those earlier setbacks, then, John Wereat was a man of property by 1775.

Wereat’s entry into politics coincided with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. He represented St. Mary’s Parish, and then the town of Savannah, in provincial congresses prior to the drafting of the state’s Constitution of 1777 and served briefly on the Council of Safety.  A trip to Philadelphia in July 1776 secured his appointment as Georgia’s “continental agent,” representing the state in dealings with Congress, a post Wereat would hold throughout the Revolution. As continental agent he was responsible for provisioning American vessels that called in Georgia ports; disposing of captured enemy ships; and furnishing cargoes for a continental mail vessel that sailed regularly between Savannah and Philadelphia. (Obviously, his career as a merchant and the contacts he’d made in various colonial ports stood Wereat in good stead in this role.)

* * * * *

Button Gwinnett (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

During the Revolution, Georgia’s Whigs, those working for independence from Britain, were divided into bickering factions.  John Wereat emerged as a spokesman for the conservative Whigs, in opposition to the radicals, who were led by Button Gwinnett.  In private letters, grand jury presentments, and pamphlets, Wereat charged that Gwinnett and his allies espoused “patriotism” only to mask their ambition and greed.

Lachlan McIntosh

Wereat claimed that Gwinnett and his minions in the so-called “Liberty Society” labelled conservative opponents like himself and his friend General Lachlan McIntosh “with the hateful name of Torey [sic], . . . in order to raise themselves fortunes, & political fame upon the ruins of the real Friends of their Country and the American Cause.”  He blamed the Constitution of 1777 for this situation, arguing that it reflected the views of Button Gwinnett and his allies:  increased county representation provided in the new frame of government, Wereat believed, had combined with reduced property requirements for voting to render helpless the “best part of the community,” thereby creating a situation in which “neither Liberty, or [sic] property are secure.”

Relations between General McIntosh and Button Gwinnett deteriorated, until they resolved their differences with pistols.  On May 16, 1777, they met outside Savannah; both were wounded in the exchange of shots; Gwinnett’s wounds proved mortal.

* * * * *

After the fall of Savannah to the British in December 1778, Mr. Wereat sought refuge in South Carolina, but he shortly returned to Georgia following the withdrawal of British forces from Augusta.  Remnants of the colony’s House of Assembly gathered there and chose a “Supreme Executive Council” to govern the small part of the state still in Whig hands.  On August 6, 1779, that Council elected John Wereat as its president.  The loss of Savannah to the British, the dispersal of the state’s constitutionally elected officials, and the dire need for congressional assistance had transferred the reins of Whig government from the radical to the conservative faction; thus, Wereat found himself the de facto Governor of Georgia.

To show that they acted out of selfless patriotism rather than the selfish opportunism they ascribed to radical Whigs like Button Gwinnett, the members of the Supreme Executive Council agreed to serve without pay, and pledged to exercise neither legislative nor judicial powers. They also circulated petitions in the upcountry seeking popular approval of their actions until elections for a new House of Assembly could be held.  Lacking constitutional sanction, however, Wereat’s regime was short-lived.

During the unsuccessful Franco-American siege of Savannah, President Wereat negotiated with British authorities for an exchange of prisoners, but to no avail.  Upon his return to Augusta, Wereat set December 1, 1779, as the date for the election of a new House of Assembly. Presumably to avert a resurgence of the radical faction, he also published in a South Carolina newspaper a proclamation informing exiles from the Georgia low country, the center of conservative Whig strength, of the scheduled poll.

George Walton

Before the election could be held, however, George Walton, a former conservative ally, arrived in Augusta and formed an alliance with two prominent radicals, George Wells and Richard Howly. They and their supporters formed their own “House of Assembly” and elected Walton both governor of Georgia and delegate to Congress.

Walton had brought with him a letter from Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln, suggesting that an Assembly should be organized as soon as possible, which gave Walton’s actions at least a shadow of legitimacy.  Moreover, most of Georgia’s influential conservative Whigs, Wereat’s natural allies, had abandoned the state, found sanctuary in neighboring South Carolina, and had not returned.  Thus, Walton’s maneuver succeeded.

Wereat claimed that the exodus of conservative Whigs from Georgia had left men like himself virtually powerless “to check and discourage the wicked & designing whose principles & policy is to raise themselves to wealth & opulence on the ruins of honest & inoffensive individuals & of the whole state.”

The new government, dominated by radical Whigs, promptly secured the suspension from Continental command of Wereat’s friend and political ally, General Lachlan McIntosh. For the remainder of the war, Wereat worked with McIntosh to clear his name and secure his reinstatement in command.

Wereat was captured when the British returned to Augusta in the summer of 1780 and  sent to Charleston, where he joined McIntosh as a prisoner of war. Following their release from captivity a year later, the two friends journeyed to Philadelphia, McIntosh to try to restore his reputation and Wereat to settle his accounts as Georgia’s continental agent.

* * * * *

The end of the war was in sight by the time Mr. Wereat returned to Georgia in 1782. He estimated his financial losses during the Revolution at almost 2400 pounds. In submitting his account to the state, though, he commented bitterly, “I don’t expect to be reimbursed a Shilling of it.” Instead, he urged his attorney to push matters through the courts “immediately.”

As the war wound down, John Wereat did what he could to help restore order in the  upcountry.  Battles and skirmishes had disrupted agriculture, and the situation around Augusta was particularly acute.  In March 1782, Wereat journeyed to South Carolina, where he procured “a small supply of Rice” that would “enable the people in the back part of [Georgia] to subsist ‘til the Crops of Wheat comes [sic] in.”

In the summer of 1783, Georgia Governor John Martin sent Wereat and two others to British East Florida to negotiate with Royal Governor Patrick Tonyn an end to raids by military forces across the St. Marys River. The Georgia emissaries met a cool reception in St. Augustine, and, while they awaited Governor Tonyn’s reply, Wereat renewed his acquaintance with several exiled Georgia Loyalists who had taken up residence there.

In a poignant letter to one such former Georgian, Wereat recalled a discussion they’d had during the heady days before the outbreak of hostilities:  “I have in the course of this business found your prediction fully verified,” he wrote, “and cannot pretend to say that every Man who has been professedly an American was actuated by a regard for justice or an inviolable attachment to the rights of this Country, and that many who had very little pretention [sic] to public trust and confidence, have wormed themselves into appointments of the first consequence, and into great fortunes, while others more deserving have been reduced very considerably.”

Based on his own experience, then, John Wereat believed that the American Revolution had permanently altered the world he had known.  Once the loyal colonial “establishment” had been ousted, well-to-do Whigs like Wereat assumed that direction of affairs would pass smoothly to men of property like themselves, but they had reckoned without the ability of the radical Whig leadership.

The fabric of an ordered society dominated by the “best part of the community,” which Wereat and other conservative Whigs had hoped to preserve amid revolution, lay in tatters. With time, the gains of independence became evident enough; yet, given his conservative perception of the course of the American Revolution in Georgia, Mr. Wereat could not help thinking wistfully in 1783 of what had been lost.

End of Part 1

Copyright 2020 George Lamplugh

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, American Revolution, Constitution of 1787, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, John Wereat, Philadelphia Convention (1787), Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Uncategorized, Yazoo Land Fraud | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Vietnam War and American Culture(s), Part 3: “Passionate Historians,” and Selected Sources on the Vietnam War

[NOTE:  It’s awfully easy to stereotype historians as calm, objective, even bloodless observers of the past, especially when you read a garden-variety history textbook.  But, when one moves to more specialized works, there is room for a historian to bring in personal opinions.  That is certainly the case with both Loren Baritz and Christian Appy in their treatments of the impact of the Vietnam War on American culture(s).

Both historians consider the cultural significance of the Vietnam War as a product of American culture and for American culture, and they do not pretend to be “objective.”  Rather, they clearly analyze and “passionately” interpret their topic.  Why?

I also append to this final post in the series links to online information concerning historians Baritz and Appy; and a list of sources I’ve found especially helpful in assessing the impact of the Vietnam War on the United States.

Two odd coincidences:  Loren Baritz was affiliated with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in one capacity or another from 1980 until his retirement in 1991.  Christian Appy has been on the faculty of that school since 2004. Secondly, Appy does not mention Baritz’s book in the endnotes to his own volume (there is no bibliography), perhaps because Baritz’s volume, written a generation earlier, had a more limited perspective, and, thus, did not add much to Appy’s picture in 2015 of the war’s domestic impact.]

* * * * *

Loren Baritz (digitalcommonwealth.org)

In his Preface, Loren Baritz claims that, when he began writing Backfire in the summer of 1982, he had been agonizing over the War in Vietnam for nearly two decades; had read “every major book and article about the war”; but “was always disappointed by them.” (7)  To Baritz, these sources merely described the conflict; they “did not explain the war, or why it happened, or why we waged it the way we did, or why we negotiated the way we did, or why it eventually became such a disaster for us.” (7)

Baritz admits that, to him, the Vietnam War was not an abstract, “academic” topic. He “became a political participant in opposition to” the conflict; participated in “teach-ins, marches, more speeches than was consistent with sanity, and political organization.”  In 1968, he was elected as a delegate to “the terrible Democratic National Convention in Chicago.” (8)

Baritz asserts that the War in Vietnam was one of those events where, for the historian, “truth is more important than evenhandedness,” and he does “not apologize for the fact that some of [his] conclusions are passionate.  We are considering matters of life and death,” he writes, “not merely an intellectual exercise.” (11)

* * * * *

In 1985, Loren Baritz appeared on Chicago radio icon Studs Terkel’s interview show to talk about his new book, Backfire.  Baritz emphasized there that the roots of our Vietnam involvement had been our belief in the myth of “American exceptionalism.” This notion, which he traced to Puritan Massachusetts, essentially made Americans “God’s Chosen People” and led us, as Bob Dylan sang, to believe that “God was on our side,” but with disastrous results.  (See Baritz’s 1964 book, City on a Hill: A History of Ideas and Myths and America for background on this.)

Angry and frustrated with the Vietnam War, Baritz applied his notion of the folly of “American exceptionalism” to his study of our journey into the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam—and onward, into the Reagan administration. His view of the war in Backfire clearly reflects, no doubt with the aid of hindsight, his feelings at the time.

Another factor that might have shaped Baritz’s attitude towards the Vietnam War was that, by the 1970s, he had left the classroom and become a college administrator, first as provost, executive vice president, and then president of the State University of New York’s Empire State College; and, finally, as provost and acting vice president of the SUNY system.  In 1980, Baritz was appointed provost and, in 1982, acting chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, before stepping down in 1983 and returning to the classroom, where he remained until his retirement in 1991. To college administrators in that era, the war in Vietnam simply would not go away, if only because students refused to stop protesting against it and its consequences, and those protests were easily transferred to other issues.

To Baritz, President John F. Kennedy’s “best and the brightest” were merely “engineering mechanics” who tried to calm the country down, and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, was the “great cheerleader of them all.”  In this 1985 interview, Baritz scathingly described the “management mentality” in engineering and business administration graduate schools, populated by “Yuppies” who were no longer subject to the draft, as the same mindset that had “brought us Vietnam.”

Baritz argued that we equated our technological superiority with moral superiority, so that George Orwell’s dictum in the novel 1984, “Ignorance is strength,” became, during the Lyndon Johnson era, “strength is ignorance.”  What we were not taught to do, he believed, “was to see ourselves as the bully.”

Baritz told Studs Terkel that “the press did not distinguish itself in Vietnam.”  He also maintained that subordinates lied to General William Westmoreland, attempting to make their reports of wartime “progress” match Westmoreland’s heightened expectations.  In short, a key lesson of Vietnam, at least according to Loren Baritz, was that guerrilla wars were not as easy to fight and win as we had expected.

* * * * *

Christian Appy (umass.edu)

In his “Introduction” to American Reckoning, Christian Appy proposes that “the Vietnam War shattered the central tenet of American national identity—the broad faith that the United States is a unique force for good in the world, superior not only in its military and economic power, but in the quality of its government and institutions, the character and morality of its people, and its way of life.  A common term for this belief is ‘American exceptionalism.’” (xi-xii)

So, where did Appy’s animus towards the concept of “American exceptionalism” originate?  Born in 1955, Christian Appy grew up during the Vietnam War, graduating from high school in 1973.  Appy claims that the conflict did not have a major impact on him or his family at the time. He does recall that his father, a World War II veteran who initially supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam, turned against the war, voting for George McGovern, the Democratic antiwar candidate, in the 1972 presidential election. Appy turned 18, and became subject to the draft, in 1973, but was not drafted

At Amherst College, Appy was exposed to more debate about Vietnam, including the views of Amherst’s legendary American History professor Henry Steele Commager, a one-time exponent of American exceptionalism, who came to believe that the country had badly lost it bearings in Vietnam.  In a 1972 essay, for instance, Commager wrote that, although we honored Germans who had resisted Hitler during World War II, we failed to respect the views of Americans who opposed the Vietnam War a few decades later.

In the 1980s, while working on a doctorate in American Civilization at Harvard University, Christian Appy interviewed Vietnam veterans in the Boston area.  This research became the basis for his dissertation, and first book, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (1993). A subsequent work, Patriots (2003), an  oral history of the Vietnam War, featured interviews with some 350 people “from all sides”—Americans, Vietnamese, soldiers and generals, journalists, antiwar protesters, and government officials — who had been touched by the bitter struggle that cost more than 58,000 American lives and the lives of more than three million Vietnamese.  

* * * * *

After publishing Patriots, Appy was ready to find a new subject for study, at least until he became frustrated with the seemingly endless Iraq and Afghanistan wars (2002-present). He saw disturbing parallels between those conflicts and Vietnam but heard little discussion about how they might be part of the legacy of  the Vietnam War.  So he began to write American Reckoning.

Probably because of the publication of that work in 2015, Christian Appy agreed to review Lynn Novick and Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “The Vietnam War” (2017), for the Organization of American Historians’ blog, “Process.”  His take on the series is well worth reading, whatever your opinion of Novick and Burns’s production (see below for episode links).

In a lecture delivered in 2017, Appy made an interesting point:  Burns and Novick, in discussing their project, said that they hoped it would heal the wounds of the war and its legacy in the U.S.  Yet, Appy argued, the series ends with the war itself, in 1975; there is no real attempt to treat its “legacy.”  In fact, he asserts, there was no mention in the documentary of two crucial words that he believed were connected to said “legacy”:  “Iraq” and “Afghanistan.”

[Note:  From 1989-2010, I used a lecture, “Growing Up with Vietnam,” with my senior AP U.S. History classes, then published it in four parts on this blog in 2011.  In Part IV, “Paying the Cost to be the Boss:  With Apologies to B.B. King,” I consider the short and long-term consequences of America’s adventure in Vietnam.  And, in Part III, “Coming to Terms,” I examine my changing attitude towards the conflict.]

* * * * *

ADDITIONAL SOURCES

Interviews:

Loren Baritz, interview with Studs Terkel, WRMT Radio (1985):

https://studsterkel.wfmt.com/programs/interview-loren-baritz

Christian Appy, with Steve Pfarrer, Amherst College Bulletin (2015):

https://www.amherstbulletin.com/Archives/2015/07/14artAppy-hg-081415

Obituary:

Loren Baritz, 2010.  https://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/article/obituary-loren-baritz-former-provost-and-acting-chancellor

Lecture:

Christian Appy, “The Legacy of the Vietnam War” (2017):

https://www.pbs.org/video/christian-appy-the-legacy-of-the-vietnam-war-r0n9gt/

Christian Appy’s review of Novick and Burns’s “Vietnam” series for PBS:

* * * * *

SELECTED SOURCES ON THE VIETNAM WAR

Surveys

Herring, George CAmerica’s Longest War:  The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (1979). Diplomatic history of the war.

Karnow, Stanley.  Vietnam:  A History (1983).  Companion volume to PBS series, “Vietnam: A Television History.”  (1984, 2004).   

Burns, Ken, and Lynn Novick.  The Vietnam War (2017).The latest effort to analyze the war for television.

Context

Fitzgerald, Frances.  Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972).

Kaiser, David.  American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of The Vietnam War (2000).

Schell, Jonathan.  The Time of Illusion (1975). The Vietnam War as part of the “Nixon Era.”

Journalism

Emerson, Gloria.  Winners and Losers:  Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses, and Ruins from the Vietnam War (1985). By a New York Times correspondent stationed in Vietnam, 1970-1972.

Halberstam, David.  The Best and the Brightest (1993).  A classic account of American hubris.

Herr, Michael.  Dispatches (1978). From a correspondent sent to Vietnam in 1967.

The Library of America.  Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1975 (2000). Paperback featuring sixty-one selections from 106 in the two-volume hardback edition with the same title published in 1998 by “The Library of America.” 

The War at Home

Kaiser, Charles.  1968 in America: Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation (1988).

Maraniss, David.  They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967 (2003).  A tour de force, in which Maraniss tells three stories that climaxed in the Fall of 1967:  one occurred in Vietnam; the others took place on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and in Washington, D.C.

Palmer, Laura.  Shrapnel in the Heart:  Letters and Remembrances from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1987).  What we learn from things left behind by loved ones at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Todd, Jack.  Desertion:  In the Time of Vietnam (2001).

Wells, Tom.  The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam (1994)  The War on the home front.

Men at Arms

Atkinson, Rick.  The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966 (1989). Hard to put down.

Goldman, Peter, and Tony Fuller.  Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did to Us (1983).  Fascinating treatment of a single Army infantry company in Vietnam, 1968-1969.  From a long piece in Newsweek magazine  in 1981, based on the recollections of sixty-five members of Charlie company who attended a reunion.

Moore, Lt. Gen. Harold G., and Joseph L. Galloway.  We Were Soldiers Once. . . and Young: Ia Drang: The Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam (1993). A gripping account of two American Army units who longed to meet the enemy and did so, in November 1965.  

Sheehan, Neil.  A Bright Shining Lie:  John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988).  A classic of its kind.

Spector, Ronald H.  After Tet:  The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam (1993). Exactly what it says, unfortunately.

Memoirs and Oral History

Baker, Mark.  Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Soldiers Who Fought There (1983).  A gripping oral history, but like others of its kind, lacking in context.

Laurence, John.  The Cat from Hue: A Vietnam War Story (2002).  Memoirs of the noted CBS correspondent who covered the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1970.  A long read, but worth it.

Marlantes, Karl.  What  it is Like to Go to War (2011)Memoir of a Marine officer in Vietnam in 1969. Marlantes also wrote a novel about his experiences there, Matterhorn (2010).

Mason, Robert.  Chickenhawk (1983).  Memoirs of an American helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

O’Brien, Tim.  If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box me up and Ship me Home (1975).  Memoir by the noted author of The Things They Carried (1990).   

Santoli, Al.  Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It (1981).  Another powerful collection of stories, with the same weakness noted about Mark Baker’s volume, above.

Terry, Wallace.  Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (1984). See comment on Santoli, above.

Tripp, Nathaniel.  Father, Soldier, Son: Memoir of a Platoon Leader in Vietnam (1996).  A complicated work, but certainly worth the read.

End of Part 3

Copyright 2020  George Lamplugh

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP Cover

Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, Books, Cold War, History, History Teaching, Research, Retirement, Teaching, Uncategorized, Vietnam War, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Vietnam War and American Culture(s), Part 2

[Note:  This is the second installment of a three-part series examining the impact of the Vietnam War on the United States, by historians writing a generation apart:

Loren Baritz, Backfire:  A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did (1985); and

                                           Christian Appy, American Reckoning:  The Vietnam                                                     War and Our National Identity (2015)

This segment looks at the short and long-term consequences of the war.  (For Part 1, go here.)  A list of suggested readings on the Vietnam War will appear in Part 3.]

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Loren Baritz (digitalcommonwealth.org)

In Backfire, Loren Baritz labels the collaboration between President Richard Nixon and Dr. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s aide and eventual Secretary of State, as “the politics of ego.” (190)  In his eyes, the relationship between Nixon and Kissinger was “mutually enriching and parasitic,” one that was “consummated in a shared dedication to secrecy, which always tends towards a conspiratorial view of political and human affairs.” (206)  To Baritz, the seeds of the Watergate scandal were planted in the secret bombing of Cambodia and in the intricacies of the subsequent diplomatic negotiating process that eventually brought “peace with honor” and ended American participation in the Vietnam War.

The proof that Vietnam era Presidents misrepresented the importance of Vietnam to our foreign policy, Baritz argues (writing in 1985, remember), is that, since the reunification of Vietnam under Communist rule in 1975, almost nothing had happened in that part of the world to threaten our security.  “America was now like other nations of the world, its meaning, if it still had one, in shambles.  What was left for America was power, technology, and bureaucracy.  What was missing was  purpose.” (230)  So much for the “domino theory.”

When Baritz speculated on the nation’s future in the wake of our Vietnam adventure, his view was gloomy.  War is the product of “culture,” he argued, and in Vietnam our “managerial sophistication and technological superiority resulted in our trained incompetence in guerrilla warfare.” (322)  Put another way, to Loren Baritz the “American culture” he refers to in the subtitle of his book was that of the civilian and military bureaucracies, rather than what we might call “popular culture,” although he also hangs his interpretation of the early support for the Vietnam War on the widespread acceptance in the United States of the “myth of American exceptionalism.”

Yet, Baritz writes, the end of the draft under President Nixon freed most young Americans to indulge “their distaste for public issues.” (336)  They evinced no concern beyond self.  Thus, we became “a nation without citizens, and a people without politics,” yet another impact of the war on American popular culture that is only implicit in his text. (338)  The prototypical young American of the 1980s, the “Yuppie,” had arrived.

What had we learned from the Vietnam experience?  In Baritz’s view, not much.  In fact, as he was writing, President Ronald Reagan was urging Americans to abandon self-doubt and to restore that “city upon a hill.”

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Christian Appy (umass.edu)

In American Reckoning (2015), Christian Appy, with three more decades in his rearview mirror than Loren Baritz, could assess the impact of the Vietnam War on the United States through the first term of President Barack Obama (2009-2013).

In language similar to that of noted Southern historian C. Vann Woodward when analyzing the impact of the Civil War on the American South, Appy argues that the war in Vietnam introduced “something new and unexpected into the American war story:  failure.” (228)  By 1982, with the opening of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., American popular culture had decided to “separate the warriors from the war”:  thanks to memorials and clichés, “mainstream culture and politics promoted the idea that the deepest shame related to the Vietnam War was not the war itself, but America’s failure to embrace its military veterans.” (241)

Then, enter Hollywood’s string of Vietnam War action flicks, stage right, featuring symbols of American manhood like Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris heading back to a cinematic Southeast Asia to “rescue” the remaining POWs. (246-249)  (Appy comments  that few if any Americans knew or cared about the real POWs, the South Vietnamese forced into “re-education centers” because of their service in the South Vietnamese government and military, or their work for the U.S. government during the Vietnam War.)

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During the Reagan years, according to Professor Appy, in the USA “the pride was back,” and the process of rebuilding it had not taken long.  Somehow, Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Born in the USA,” became a sort of post-Vietnam national anthem, thanks mainly to the fact that “hawks” promoting it didn’t listen to the words.  And then there was the Chrysler advertisement interpreting Oliver Stone’s film “Platoon” as a “’memorial’ to Vietnam veterans.”  (257-258)  Springsteen wouldn’t agree to let “Born in the USA” be used in a Chrysler commercial, so the corporation created a new anthem, “The Pride is Back,” which was transformed into a country song that included a musical reincarnation of American exceptionalism:  Americans were “born special, born blessed/born different from all the rest.” (260)

The opening to the public of the renovated Statue of Liberty in 1986 featured tributes to the nation’s immigrant past, but, because we were also being roiled by economic problems, this focus fostered “a xenophobic hostility to foreigners and newcomers, particularly immigrants from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.” (261)

Moreover, high school history texts were being revised to remove iconic Vietnam War photographs that put us in a negative light, while, at the same time, movies and paperback books had joined the rush to make the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese the unalloyed “bad guys” and the Americans the “good guys.” (267-269)  

Even if “the pride was back,” pride was accompanied by a desire for “no more Vietnams.”  Antiwar Vietnam vets, for example, opposed our involvement in Central America during the Reagan years, which angered congressional “hawks,” who blamed their lack of enthusiasm for further military engagement on a loss of national will, the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome.”  According to Appy, though, the real “Vietnam Syndrome” was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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President Reagan was the captain of the national cheerleading team, in Appy’s view, doing his best to wash all the negativism away.  Still, there emerged a bipartisan agreement that “never again should the U.S. engage in long, inconclusive wars with high American casualties.” (286)  Perhaps sensing this, the sometimes bellicose President Reagan responded to an attack on U.S. barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 Americans by withdrawing our forces.  On the other hand, when Reagan was convinced we could prevail, as in the American assault on Grenada, he stood firm. These events formed the background for the “Iran-Contra scandal,” when secrecy was preeminent, and both Congress and the American public were kept in the dark.

Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, served only a single term, but he managed to launch “the two biggest military operations since the Vietnam War,” the invasion of Panama and Operation Desert Storm in the Middle East. (293-300)  The nation’s now twenty-four hour news cycle provided “mostly celebratory coverage” of Desert Storm, Appy claims, which enabled the first President Bush to declare that Iraq was “not another Vietnam,” and to crow that “by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” (299)

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And yet, under both George H.W. Bush and his successor, Bill Clinton, the public’s doubts resurfaced when confronted with events in Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo. (300-304)  Still, to the nation’s “hawks” we were at least projecting American power abroad (if not very effectively), one of the keystones of “American exceptionalism.”

In his final chapter, “Who We Are,” Appy revisits the post-invasion period in Iraq, examining issues like the Abu-Ghraib prison photos.  He believes that President George W. Bush was kept in the dark by Vice-President Dick Cheney and CIA Director George Tenet, so that the younger President Bush could assert that the Abu Ghraib pictures did “not represent the America I know.” (309)  Nevertheless, Appy maintains, our government’s actions in Iraq “fundamentally contradicted a core principle of American exceptionalism—the belief that the United States adheres to a higher ethical standard than other nations.” (309)

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Following the death of Osama Bin Laden at the hands of Navy Seals in May 2011, the Barack Obama Administration began planning the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, while adding troops to Afghanistan.  Despite the fact that bad stuff also was happening in Afghanistan, we continued to insist that “This is not who we are.” (307)  When Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, spoke at Ft. Benning, Georgia                  (May 2012), he referred to the “challenges ahead,” which Professor Appy paraphrases as “Don’t commit war crimes, because you never know when someone might take a picture of it to make us look bad.” (308)

Appy concludes with this message to the American public:  “As long as we continue to be seduced by the myth of American exceptionalism, we will too easily acquiesce to the misuse of power, all too readily trust that our force is used only with the best of intentions for the greatest good.” (335)

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So what, if anything, can we learn from these two studies of the impact of the Vietnam War on American culture, published a generation apart?

First of all,  perspective matters.  When Loren Baritz put the finishing touches on Backfire, he stood only about a decade from the end of the Vietnam war. He could make some judgments, but the years after 1985 were of course unknown to him.  Christian Appy, on the other hand, had thirty additional years of perspective (and hindsight) on the war and its consequences when he wrote his concluding chapter.

Secondly, definitions matter.  Baritz’s subtitle is “How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did.” His understanding of “American Culture” focused on the civilian and military bureaucracies that attempted to guide our campaign against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.  (Yet, his introduction to the issue also relied on his belief in another, more popular, cultural trope, the “myth of American exceptionalism.”)

Christian Appy’s understanding of “American Culture,” while taking into account the power of the belief in “American exceptionalism,”  is broader than Baritz’s.  Appy delves more deeply into the antiwar movement than Baritz and also considers how popular music, films, and novels portrayed the war and its consequences.  Put another way, Baritz’s understanding of “American culture” was mostly from the top down, while Appy’s was more from the bottom up.

Nearly half a century after the end of the war in Vietnam, we still struggle with the conflict and its legacy.  People in my age group have probably made up their minds about the war, because we lived through it—and many of us served in it—but younger Americans are perhaps not as certain of its causes or consequences.  They no longer have to worry about the draft, no matter what sort of a bind American foreign policy places us in, and there have been so many subsequent adventures abroad for American foreign policy that the details of the Vietnam endeavor tend to fade into the mists of time.

While there are obvious similarities, then, between Loren Baritz’s view of the Vietnam imbroglio and its consequences and the analysis offered by Christian Appy, there also are differences in both approach and emphasis.  Neither historian gives us the “whole story,” but they present enough of it to make the topic interesting; perhaps that is the most we can expect.  Once more, in trying to understand the Vietnam conflict and what it did to us as a nation, we are wrestling with the idea that “each generation writes its own history.”

End of Part 2

Copyright 2020  George Lamplugh

Next:  “Passionate Historians”; additional sources on Baritz and Appy; selected sources on the War in Vietnam.

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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

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