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.]

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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)

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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.)

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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

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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)

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 , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.]

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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)

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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.

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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.  

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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.]

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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:

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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.

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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, 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.)

* * * * * *

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).

* * * * *

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)

* * * * *

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-Ghraid 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)

* * * * *

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 pubic:  “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)

* * * * *

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.

* * * * * *

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, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, prep school teaching with a PhD, Research, Retirement, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Vietnam War and American Culture(s), Part 1

A Review of

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)

 [Note:  The “page” devoted to posts on “The Vietnam Era” at this blog charts a defining period in my life.  Four posts are devoted to “Growing Up with Vietnam” [Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV], a lecture I wrote to present the history of the war to my students, from a personal perspective. Two posts originated as editorials during my time as editor of the my school’s History Department Newsletter. [here and here]  Another dealt with “Teaching the Vietnam War as History,” a talk offered to a group of local history teachers at a conference.   In 2015, I combined a book review with a concise account of “My Vietnam War and Welcome to it.”

In other words, from my years at “My Old Graduate School” (MOGS, 1968-1973), through my career at “Atlanta’s Finest Prep School” (AFPS, 1973-2010), and on into retirement (2010-present) I have pondered the Vietnam War and its legacies.

Before I could write “Growing Up with Vietnam,” I delved into the history of our involvement in Southeast Asia after World War II.  A very helpful volume I encountered during those early years at AFPS was Loren Baritz’s Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did (1985).  A generation later, after I’d been retired for five years, I read another scholarly effort to explain our involvement in Vietnam and what it wrought, Christian Appy’s American Reckoning:  The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (2015).

In this post and the next, I want to revisit our Vietnam adventure and its consequences, in light of both Baritz’s 1985 volume and Appy’s take on the same subject a generation later.]

* * * **

In Backfire, Loren Baritz asserts that we never understood Vietnam, or even tried to.  He is especially harsh on the influence of our continuing belief in the myth of “American exceptionalism” that he traces to Governor John Winthrop and the colony of Massachusetts Bay: that the Puritan colony was a “city upon a hill” which the world would watch to see how a group of religious people organized a society governed by the ordinances of God.
* * * * *
Baritz pursues the idea that the United States was a special, God-given, and God-protected nation into the twentieth century, including the beliefs of President Woodrow Wilson, whose idealism (e.g., that America’s role in World War I was to “make the world safe for democracy”) met bitter defeat when Congress refused to support American membership in the new League of Nations at war’s end.  Baritz argues that this notion of “American exceptionalism” was also held by President John F. Kennedy and his chief advisors five decades later.  American altruism was absolute in the 1960s, Baritz contends, and we were convinced we could prevail militarily in a “limited war” anywhere in the world, buttressed by our superior technology, which supplied the tools; and our federal bureaucracy, both civilian and military, which provided the procedures and trained and led the men and women who used those tools to attain our desired aims.

 

To Baritz, our involvement in Vietnam was a product of the Cold War.  He creates a metaphorical “Chain to Vietnam,” comprising ten “links” between the issuance of the Truman Doctrine in March 1947 and the situation in Vietnam in September 1960, near the end of President Dwight Eisenhower’s second term, when we were paying 70% of the budget of the newly-created “nation” of South Vietnam.  One underlying premise in the forging of this “chain” was the Truman Administration’s acceptance of diplomat George Kennan’s policy of “containment,” the theory that the Soviet Union was an expansionist power, but that, if the West resisted, the USSR would collapse, the victim of Soviet Communism’s internal contradictions.  Containment seemed to work in Europe immediately after World War II, but, by the 1950s, the doctrine was fading, because the Soviet Union, frustrated by American efforts at “containment,” began to work through proxies, including the Communist regime under Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam.

To Baritz, the myth of  Governor Winthrop’s description of  the “city upon a hill” fitted snugly with “containment” and helped to impel America’s God-given mission to build democracy around the world. Fortunately for that “city upon a hill,” President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was “Woodrow Wilson’s most direct and natural heir.” (78)  (And, though Baritz could not have known this, Dulles’ sunny take on Wilson’s outlook on world affairs would live on, into the early twenty-first century, when President George W. Bush and his administration viewed the prospect of American intervention in Iraq in the aftermath of 9-11 as a sort of “cake-walk,” with a Texas twang.)

* * * * *

In Christian Appy’s American Reckoning, the “reckoning” was produced by false pretexts used to justify our intervention in Vietnam; the indiscriminate brutality of our warfare; the stubborn refusal of elected leaders to withdraw from Southeast Asia, despite public opposition; and the military’s failure to achieve its objectives.  Appy’s thesis is that our involvement in Vietnam “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)  Thus, Appy agrees with Loren Baritz that the idea of “American exceptionalism” was at the heart of our involvement in Southeast Asia, a part of our cultural DNA.

Although Professor Appy, like Baritz, reviews the Cold War background of our involvement in Vietnam, he basically reduces it to the perceived need for the United States to “save” Asia, and, because we were the United States, he argues, we believed we would succeed.  (On the other hand, race relations in the U.S. at the time did not reveal a lot of love for people of color.)

To Appy, the key to our involvement in Vietnam was President Eisenhower’s belief in the “domino theory.”  “For U.S policymakers, supporting capitalism and building anti-Communist alliances were indistinguishable goals; they were ‘two halves of the same walnut,’ to use [President] Harry Truman’s phrase.” (94)  But, Appy argues, the key was to cloak this economically-oriented rhetoric in language calling “for global freedom and democracy, not global capitalism.” (95)  (By the 1990s, for example, the United States had established diplomatic relations with Vietnam, which, though Communist, “was now open for business.” [114])

* * * * *

Baritz and Appy agree that the war in Vietnam was fought “by the numbers,” as the administrations of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were determined to stave off the angry right wing of American politics by claiming—and supporting with all sorts of statistical information, no matter how wrong or misleading—the success of “superior” American forces against the “inferior” armies of North Vietnam, from 1965 to 1968.  Yet, our general at the time, William Westmoreland, evidently understood the importance of winning battles against the entrenched American military and governmental bureaucracies better than he did the armies of North Vietnam and the Vietcong.

When, in 1968, the North Vietnamese and their South Vietnamese allies launched the Tet Offensive, the result was an American “victory,” but one from which we never recovered.  The “credibility gap” between what a President said and what he actually did came home to roost, with a vengeance.  President Johnson was so stricken by Tet that he declined to run for re-election in 1968.

* * * * *

Both Loren Baritz and Christian Appy criticize the operation of the draft during the Vietnam War.  Baritz, in a treatment I drew on for my “Growing Up with Vietnam” lecture, points out that, of 27 million Americans eligible for the draft, 2,215,000 were drafted; 8.7 million enlisted, some to avoid the draft; 500,000 evaded or resisted the draft; and 16 million had deferments, exemptions, or disqualifications. (Baritz, 287)  By Appy’s reckoning, poor and working-class Americans formed the bulk of the American war effort:  “About 60 percent of the Vietnam generation’s men were able to avoid military service, most of them simply by taking advantage of the rules created by the draft.” (Appy, 134-136)

There’s a sense in which both historians play fast and loose with that figure of sixteen million Americans who had deferments, exemptions, and qualifications.  A sizable number of those individuals were granted deferments for college, but with the obligation to enter the military once college, or in some cases graduate school (e.g., law, medical,  or dental school), had been completed.  True, some of those students abused that deferment provision (with prominent names among them); but others, including me, played by the rules and did our duty.  [In my case, two years on active service (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, 1966-1968), followed, once I entered graduate school, by two additional years in the active Reserve, most of it in a Quartermaster unit in Rome, GA, north of Atlanta.]

* * * * *

An interesting difference between the coverage of the “war at home” in the two books is that Baritz, writing in the mid-1980s, scatters his references to the antiwar movement throughout the text.  Appy, on the other hand, delivers a solid chapter on the domestic responses to the war: the antiwar demonstrations, of course; but also the role of the civil rights movement—and its face and voice in the 1960s, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—in trying to shape popular opinion about the war.  Appy also examines the efforts of President Richard Nixon to use the idea of a “Silent Majority,” whether hardhats in New York City or Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio (1970), to build a pro-war constituency.

With thirty more years of hindsight than Baritz to draw on, Christian Appy also has a better appreciation of the significance of technological changes in television coverage of the war, which showed Americans on the home front, who viewed bloody small unit engagements each night over dinner, the nature of modern warfare, and, thus, helped turn them against it.  While Baritz certainly did not neglect efforts by GIs in Vietnam to resist the war, Appy seems more attuned to it, as well as more aware of the work of the antiwar “Vietnam Veterans Against the War.”  Finally, Appy notes that even prominent historian Henry Steele Commager, “who had come to national prominence in the 1950s as a prolific champion of American exceptionalism,” argued in a 1972 article that Vietnam was “not only a war we cannot win, it is a war we must lose if we are to survive morally.” (217)

End of Part 1

Copyright 2020  George Lamplugh

Next:  Short and long-term consequences of the Vietnam War, according to Baritz and Appy.

* * * * * *

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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Jim Crow and his Minions–the New South, the Lost Cause, and Confederate Monuments: a Review

[Note:  2020 has rapidly become a “Year of Discontent” in the United States.  The coronavirus–and our government’s seeming inability, or unwillingness, to bring it under control–has produced much of the pervasive anger and frustration currently testing the strengths of the American social contract.

But there are other strands contributing to the current gloomy atmosphere–political, economic, social, and cultural. One of the bitterest of these has been the latest flareup over the continuing legacy of racism in this nation, its roots in our history, and the best way(s) forward in light of it.   I’ve been studying and teaching about the intersection of race and history in the United States for over half a century now, so I take this personally.]

* * * * *

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

As I was growing up, I lived through landmark developments in race relations and civil rights, including the Supreme Court’s epochal Brown decision in 1954, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.  The televised coverage of these  events helped determine the way I viewed the world and, once I began to teach American History, shaped the emphasis I placed on the significance of southern and African American history in the nation’s past.

Voting Rights Act (1965)

A decade before I retired, I inherited a one-semester course in the History of the Civil Rights Movement; the need to revise and restructure it led me to rethink the parameters of the story.  A key decision I made was to devote considerable time to the precursor of the Movement, the so-called “Age of Jim Crow.”  I felt that, unless I considered in some detail the period that established the “ground rules” for the post-Reconstruction world of African Americans living in the South (and in much of the rest of the country), my students would not receive a well-rounded picture of what the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement had achieved.  Without a knowledge of Jim Crow America and its tentacles on the nation’s African American citizens, the triumphs of the King era might have seemed inevitable.

Age of Jim Crow (ea.wikipedia.org)

So, I immersed myself in a study of the origins of the Jim Crow South.  The result was a series of lectures I used throughout the Civil Rights course–and in my Advanced Placement U.S. History survey–to provide context for the material provided in texts, supplementary readings, and videos.  This interest in the Jim Crow era accompanied me into retirement.

* * * * *

Since leaving the classroom, I have continued to “do history,” primarily through this blog.  Look at the top of this page; under the picture, you’ll see links to various “pages,” each of which organizes relevant posts topically.  One of them is “The South/Civil Rights.” Click on that link and you’ll find a list of more than thirty posts.  Scan this list;  notice how many of the posts are related, not to the Antebellum South, the Civil War and Reconstruction, or the modern South of the Civil Rights Movement, but to the Jim Crow years.

Reviewing this page recently, I realized that the lectures I created to supplement material assigned in the Civil Rights and AP U.S. History courses provide a concise overview of the road from the end of Reconstruction through the early twentieth century, AKA “the Age of Jim Crow.”  In this seminal period are buried the origins of issues that still roil our society, politics, and culture.

* * * * *

Below are links to those posts, along with a brief description of each.  I have appended a list of suggested readings to each essay:

The New South:  Myth and Reality–a sketch of the economic and social worldview of a group of influential Southern journalists and promoters after the end of the Civil War, whose ideas amounted to a contract, whereby southern whites would allow their states to be made over in the image of the victorious North, if they were permitted to handle race relations themselves.  This post also mentions the origins of an important cultural adjunct to the “New South Creed,” the Lost Cause, which remains a controversial trope in our current wrestling match with the legacy of the Jim Crow period (see, for example, here and here).

The Road to Jim Crow, Part 1 and  Part 2–I used to tell my students, when teaching about the Jim Crow Era, that what happened then was nothing less than that the South, defeated on the battlefields, actually “won the Civil War” by the end of the nineteenth century.  These posts, along with the intellectual framework provided by the “New South Creed,” help explain why that occurred.

amazon.com

The Age of Jim Crow–life in the Jim Crow South as lived by African American and white southerners.  I draw heavily here on the late Leon F. Litwack’s fine study, Trouble in Mind:  Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.  (For important supplementary information, see Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long:  The Aftermath of Slavery.)

The South/Civil Rights page also includes a concise treatment of the modern Civil Rights Movement through 1968, as the “Second Reconstruction,” Part 1 and Part 2.

Finally, for a look at a peculiar feature of the course I offered on the history of the modern Civil Rights Movement, go here.

* * * * *

Since I published the posts listed above, I have read–and listened to and watched– different approaches to the Age of Jim Crow and its legacies.  Here are a few recent sources that I’ve found helpful:

Sheffield Hale
(atlantadowntown.com)

“For Faith: Monuments and Symbols”–this podcast features the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, The Rev. Robert Wright, and Sheffield Hale, President and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, discussing Confederate monuments and their significance.

(petecandler.com)

A Deeper South–This site is the creation of Pete Candler, an Asheville, NC-based writer and photographer who explains his idea of “a deeper South” this way:

The vision of A Deeper South is rooted in the idea that the spiritual, political, and cultural health of a nation, region, city, town, or person depends upon an honest and unflinching memory; that the gravest danger to our cities and ourselves is a willful amnesia; that hope is to be found through the work of active remembrance, putting back together the fragments of personhood scattered by a culture of selective memory.

A Deeper South features stories, short films, podcasts, and, of late, Zoom interviews  with guests who, like Mr. Candler, are interested in both the South of memory and, more importantly, why we remember it the way we do.  (Candler lays out his views on this “Deeper South” in more detail in an engrossing essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

Heather Cox Richardson (Facebook.com)

And, finally, a shout out to Dr. Heather Cox Richardson, professor of History at Boston College, whose nine-part video series on YouTube, “The American Paradox,” is based on her recent book, How the South Won the Civil War.  (It’s always heartening when one encounters a younger historian who shares his sometimes weird ideas of what makes the historical world go round!)

* * * * * *

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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4th of July Oratory in Antebellum Georgia–In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 32

 4th of July Oration, Hawkinsville, Georgia, 1838—Dr. William Germany (excerpts)

[Milledgeville Federal Union, August 14, 1838]

[Note: Over the past few years, I have tried to show how Georgians celebrated the Fourth of July before the Civil War.  (See, for example, here.) This year I thought I’d try something different.

In previous posts, I’ve explained how small towns and cities in Antebellum Georgia began planning for the Fourth of July months earlier, lining up speakers and arranging for parades, food, and drink to mark the holiday.  Usually, a younger, rising politician read the Declaration of Independence, to be followed by a more seasoned public servant, who offered a full-blown oration on the glories of America and its history.  Once political parties developed in Georgia, these events were followed by smaller, more partisan gatherings, where toasts were drunk–and drunk, and drunk–explaining why the party quaffing said toasts had done more for the state–and the nation–than had their political opposition.

This year, I thought I’d offer you a chance to visit one of these celebrations, and “listen” to the main speaker as he retails the history of Georgia and the nation and also considers their present and their future.

I’ve chosen the July 4th, 1838 oration by Dr. William Germany, who lived in Hawkinsville, the Pulaski County seat, in Central Georgia, forty miles or so south of Macon.  The version of Germany’s speech published in the August 14 issue of the [Milledgeville] Federal Union takes up about two and a half columns on page two of the paper.  It’s a very long speech, in other words, so I’m only presenting excerpts here, though they are representative of the whole.  (If you’d like to read the entire oration, go here.)

I hope you’ll find these selections from Germany’s address interesting, both for what he says and what he does not say:  Slavery virtually goes unmentioned; the burden of the last part of Germany’s argument is how far Georgia has declined from its brilliant beginnings; and the speaker’s explanation for this phenomenon already–about sixty years since independence (and, as we now know, just over two decades until civil war), reflects, at least implicitly, the rise of southern sectionalism, at the heart of which, of course, was the region’s “peculiar institution” of slavery.

* * * * *

Now, it’s on to Hawkinsville, Georgia, on a sunny, hot, sticky July 4th, in the Year of Our Lord, 1838.  There’s already been a parade of county militiamen, and a younger local political figure has just finished a stirring rendition of the Declaration of Independence.  Perhaps you’ve begun to feel hungry and thirsty, given the heat of the day and how long it’s been since breakfast, but you’re still eager to hear Dr. Germany’s message.  Who knows?  Perhaps he’ll have some interesting remarks about affairs of the day intermingled with his review of the history of Georgia and the nation since 1776.

The introduction completed, the orator of the day now takes the stage.]

* * * * *

Friends and Fellow Citizens!

We have again assembled to commemorate the jubilee of our independence—the birthday of our country’s greatness—a day hallowed by the magnanimous resolves of our ancestors, which gave liberty and safety to American citizens, and opened a retreat to the oppressed of other nations; a day well calculated, not only to lead us into an examination of what we now are, but likewise to induce us to reflect upon what we once were. . . .

[The colonies] had been permitted to grow, almost in total neglect. The first care of the parent country was evinced in sending officers to rule over them—to spy out their liberties, misrepresent their actions, and prey upon their substance. Instead of having received protection from her hands, they had nobly expended her blood and treasure in her defence [sic], and for her own peculiar benefit.

The pride of their origin had been a sufficient incentive to loyalty, and made them ever ready to put it to the test. Without murmuring, they had permitted their commerce to be tramelled [sic], and its revenues to be thrown into the British Exchequer. They had born[e] with every thing [sic], save direct taxation—but slavery, in its worst form; and this, as Englishmen and freemen, they were compelled to resist. . . .

[After the Revolution,] In bequeathing us independence, and a government so truly republican, they gave us all that a people could ask for the building up of a great and powerful nation. Happily, their antic [i.e.] patrons have been realized. While we have enjoyed peace and prosperity at home, our strides to greatness have been rapid and progressive, and we can now claim for ourselves the highest place among the nations of the earth. . . .

Yet, fellow citizens, while we view with delight the elevated position we have assumed as a whole nation, it behooves us, as a member of this great confederacy, to look well to the position which we occupy.  Our State, enjoying a situation in point of location not surpassed by any on this great continent–her climate in every way propitious–her soil rich and productive–her innate sources of wealth surpassed by none–claiming for herself, in the enthusiastic pride of her first settlers, the flattering appellation of the paradise of the South–should at this very time occupy a position among her sister States, to which I fear she can never hereafter aspire.  Barely a century has elapsed, since her colonization; and what is now her condition?  Turn your eyes abroad over the face of the country–view it well, and see to what reflections it will unavoidably lead.–Where shall we look for the magnificent drapery in which she was once clad?  Where her majestic forests and blooming fields?  Where her soils, which once, with abundant harvests, blessed the soils and crowned the hopes of the agriculturalists?  Where her commercial cities, which once bid fair to adorn her coasts and command the attention of foreign nations?  Where her ships, which should have traversed her waters, extended commercial intercourse with other commercial nations, and brought back to her bosom in return the wealth of other countries?  All, all are expended–all have faded away!  Of her forests, scarcely a remnant is now to be seen.  Her soil, once rich and productive, has now barely strength to send forth the slenderest weed.  Her cities have dwindled into villages.  Her ships are no where to be seen. 

And what can we [i.e., Georgia in particular, but, the South in general?] boast of in return? Nothing—nothing save a degree of patience and long suffering which can now scarcely be looked upon as a virtue. And will you ask where you may again behold the immense wealth which has been extracted from the soil of your State? You cannot find it within her boundary. You must visit other States [in the North]—you will there behold magnificent cities that could never have been built by the products of their own soil. You will there see a rich and flourishing commerce. to which we have been rendered tributary. You may there see the immense wealth of the South, supporting in luxuriance and splendor those who would probably think it a stigma to be classed amongst her prodigal sons. . . .

[Why is this situation so?] Other and more powerful causes have conspired to subject us, in a manner so strange and unnatural.  A few, I think, will be sufficient to solve the whole mystery—at least, they are sufficiently powerful to have produced such evils as those of which we complain, and even worse, if they are permitted to continue.  An unequal action of the Federal Government, by which the revenues of the country are collected in one section, and dispersed in another [i.e., the protective tariffs]—the creating of a large moneyed institution, to be managed at the North [i.e., the second Bank of the United States], by which means their merchants could be supplied with facilities to break down all competition, on the one hand; and, on the other, suffering our attention to be drawn off to subjects of less importance—contending against each other in the most rancorous party strife—the Southern States kindling in jealousies against each other, as if the small rivulets that divided them likewise sundered their interest—and suffering ourselves to be cajoled into the belief, that our wealth was inexhaustible, and that our country [i.e., the South] could never become impoverished.

And is there no remedy? None: unless we can arouse ourselves—unless we can become the guardians of our own interests—unless we can learn to patronize our own people. To discredit the idea that our wealth can only be rendered conspicuous, and our summers supportable, by a tour of pleasure to the North—that the intellect of our youth cannot as well expand, and be as richly endowed, in our own [Southern] institutions, as elsewhere [in Northern schools and colleges]. Unless we can become reconciled to the opinion that our first and greatest obligations are due to the land of our birth; and unless we become united in feelings and in interests, and true to ourselves. On such contingencies depends our future prosperity—our future prosperity—our future independence, and our weight in the councils of our nation. Our growth must be progressive, and co-equal with that of the other members of this great Republic. Then, the rich legacy deposited with us by our fathers in trust, will descend, to posterity. We may still rejoice in the prosperity of our common country, and the names of our ancestors be sung in rounds of applause by rising generations.

* * * * * *

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 4th of July, American History, American Revolution, Colonial Georgia, Current Events, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, Research, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

To Ben on Father’s Day, 2020: “Ben as Dad”

[Note:  I guess that, as a historian who is “retired but not shy,” I’ve spent lots of time over the past decade looking back, on my career as a History teacher and on the road that led me there.  It wasn’t until 2017 that I finally, perhaps inevitably, turned to the history of my family.

This began with a multi-part series on my mother, Betts Lamplugh, which stretched over the years 2017 to 2019.  As a way to balance this picture of my family, I eventually (20192020) turned to a treatment of my father, Ben Lamplugh.

Then, last month, I had a notion to commemorate my mother by reposting one of the “Betts” episodes on Mother’s Day, emphasizing her interest in her family and its history.  So, perhaps it’s no surprise that in June 2020, for Father’s Day, I’m reposting the episode in the “Ben” series  highlighting his role as our father, a position for which his background had not really prepared him.

This episode is more focused on Ben’s role as our dad than last month’s was on Betts as our mom, which is my fault:  in the “Betts” series, I adopted a strictly chronological approach, and trusted the reader to see how successful she was as a mother. Because of my mixed feelings about Ben Lamplugh, however, I decided to set aside one installment to examine how well he functioned as our dad, based mainly on the recollections of my siblings and I.  There are references in the post, though, that should enable anyone interested in what Ben brought (or did not bring) to his job as the Lamplugh paterfamilias to retrace his steps.

As my brother Rick put it, Ben Lamplugh “might not always have been the father we wanted, but he was the only father we had.”  ‘Twas ever thus, I guess. . . .

I hope you’ll enjoy:

https://georgelamplugh.com/2020/01/02/ben-an-american-dad-1921-1986-part-v-memories-of-ben-as-dad-2019/

Finally, happy Father’s Day to all of you out there in Internet land.

* * * * * *

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, Delaware, Education, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, memoir, Popular Culture, Research, Retirement, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

[Note:  Americans tend to focus on anniversaries that end in “0.”  For example, married couples usually regard their tenth, twentieth, thirtieth, etc., anniversaries as more important than the others.  And I guess that’s true of the few bloggers who managed to keep their sites running beyond only a year or two.

I know that’s how I feel.  In June 2010, just after I retired from teaching History at a “prep school” in Atlanta for thirty-seven years, AKA “Atlanta’s Finest Prep School” (AFPS), I created this blog.  I had a title I liked, an interesting avatar (John Quincy Adams), and a pretty clear subtitle, “Doing History After Leaving the Classroom.”

What I didn’t have was a clear idea of what I wanted to do with the blog, a question that took a while to work itself out, but eventually I was well-launched into the blogging universe.  The blog gradually grew, until a couple of years ago I was even bragging about the number of hits on my site.

But then came what I later referred to as “The Year of Hubris”:  I changed my url from one nestled under the WordPress system–which was free–and, thanks to an incessant series of ads from WordPress, opted instead to create “georgelamplugh.com” (which I pay for) as the blog’s address.  And the results were disastrous, at least for a while:  the number of “hits” to the blog nosedived, and I’ve spent the past year or so trying to recover.  (The problem, of course, was that WordPress didn’t inform my subscribers of the change in the url, so, the next time they went looking for me they could not find me.)  Since then, the number of visitors to RBNS has revived, but it has not yet been restored to its former, um, “glory”.]

* * * * *

Betts in 1942

One significant development over the past few years has been the return of long-form posts to “Retired But Not Shy.”  The first was a series about my mother, Elsie Elizabeth “Betts” Knighton Lamplugh, which spread over years seven through nine of the blog (2017-2019).  Betts’s story was based on a brief family history she had written and a two-part memoir that took her from her birth in 1923 through 1964, when her marriage to Benjamin Leroy “Ben” Lamplugh imploded and her family shattered beyond repair.

Ben and Trixie (Knighton family dog), 1943

Eventually, I followed the Betts posts with a series about my father Ben, during year ten  (2019 – 2020).  Honoring my father was much more difficult than writing about my mother, both because I was closer to her and because she had provided her own primary source material, while Ben had not.  But, thanks to information borrowed from Betts’s account of her life with Ben; some scattered primary sources; an invaluable collection of photographs; and “oral history” clues provided by my siblings and my children, I was able to do some justice to my father.

* * * * *

The “Betts” and “Ben” series brought lots of comments.  Those portraits resonated with my readers,  and I was relieved–and grateful!

In writing about my parents, the need for closure was paramount, especially for my relationship with my father, which had been strained, to say the least.  But, by the time I finished the Ben series, I felt that I understood him better, which was a gift.

So, if they did nothing else, these long-form accounts of my parents allowed me, years after their deaths, to work through lingering personal issues.  It’s sometimes been a bumpy journey, but I’m glad I made it!

* * * * *

As “Retired But Not Shy” evolved over the past decade, it became more complicated than I’d anticipated.  Based upon my own interests and the responses of readers, I gradually reorganized the home page.  I created a series of “pages,” each of which was devoted to a single theme, where readers might find posts related to those topics.  Currently, there are eight “pages,” links to which can be found near the top of the home page, beneath the picture of me shuffling into retirement: Blues Stories; Dead Georgians; Historical Reflections; Interdisciplinary Work; Prep School; Teaching History; The South/Civil Rights; and The Vietnam Era.

Of course an interested reader is cordially invited to use the “Browse the Archives” section listed at the right side of the home page, or the “Categories” section below that, but I believe that linking to individual “pages” will get you where you wish to go much faster.

* * * * *

And now for my favorite part of these “birthday posts,” the stats, provided by my host, WordPress.  The point of these listings is, for me, not numbers, but ranking order, and what that  suggests about the interests of those who visit “Retired But Not Shy” regularly.  (God bless them everyone!)

* * * * *

Top 10 Posts of All-Time (June 1, 2010-May 31, 2020)

[Excludes “Home Page/Archives” and “About”]

 Teaching Prep School with a PhD: Is It for You? (2012/11/06)

Governor Wilson Lumpkin (2011/08/01)

Teaching History “Backwards” (2013/10/15)

Son House (2013/10/01)                                                                                     

Bobby “Blue” Bland (2014/02/01)

The Chitlin’ Circuit (2014/03/01)

Blues Theology, Part I (2014/04/01)

Mississippi John Hurt (2013/11/01)

Governor George R. Gilmer (2011/09/01)

Georgia’s Notorious Yazoo Land Fraud, Part I (2017/12/01)

This ranking suggests topics with “staying power,” themes visitors have returned to again and again over the past decade.  Notice that these posts represent several “pages”–Prep School; Teaching History; Dead Georgians (i.e., Georgia History); and, for half of them, Blues Stories.

Cast your eyes on post number ten, “Georgia’s Notorious Yazoo Land Fraud, Part I.”  I have long believed that the popularity of my posts on Georgia history is attributable to the number of college and secondary school Georgia history instructors looking for Internet resources that would support the study of Georgia’s past in their classrooms.  Just the other day, for example, I found this belief validated, when I checked my WordPress stats and found, as a search term, “8th grade ga history yazoo land fraud.”         

Top Ten Posts, Year 10 (June 1, 2019-May 31, 2020)

[Excludes “Home Page/Archives” and “About”]

 Teaching Prep School with a PhD: Is it for you? (2012/11/06)

Blues Theology, Part I (2014/04/01)

Skip James (2017/09/01)

Georgia’s Notorious Yazoo Land Fraud, Part I (2017/12/01)

Teaching History “Backwards” (2013/10/15)

Georgia Governor Wilson Lumpkin (2011/08/01)

Bobby “Blue” Bland (2014/02/01)

Ben, An American Dad, Part II (2019/11/01)

“Contingent” Career, Part II (2020/04/01)

Son House (2013/10/01)

The above list includes the ten most popular posts during year ten (June 2019-May 2020), from among all posts put up over the life of the blog (2010-2020), most of which predate year ten.

Top Ten New Posts from Year 10 (June 1, 2019-May 31, 2020)

[Excludes “Home Page/Archives” and “About”]

 Ben, An American Dad, Part II (2019/11/01)

“Contingent” Career, Part II (2020/04/01)

Ben, An American Dad, Part IV (2020/01/01)

“Contingent” Career, Part I (2020/02/01)

Ben, An American Dad, Part VI (2020/03/01)

State Rights, Nullification, and Indian Removal, Part I (2019/07/01)

Ben, An American Dad, Part I (2019/10/01)

Ben, An American Dad, Part V (2020/01/02)

Reflections on MLK, 2020 (2020/01/19)

Georgia 4th of July 2019 (2019/07/02)

RBNS at Nine (2019/06/01)

This final “top ten” list reveals the most popular of the posts that were new during year ten.  Perhaps not surprisingly, most were from the “Ben” series, which, after all, stretched over seven months in that year.  The two posts describing a “‘Contingent’ Career” were about my teaching career, which, I decided after mulling it over during my first decade in retirement, was shaped much more by “the breaks of the game” than any sort of deep-dyed plan on my part.

* * * * *

As we move into the second decade of “Retired But Not Shy” (AKA, RBNS), you might be wondering (I know I am!) how much longer I can persist in this post-retirement enterprise.  I already have several posts completed and ready to put up in the near future, and on my desk lies a bulging folder, perhaps optimistically labeled “Future Blog Posts,” that could, if I put my nose to the grindstone and shoulder to the wheel, carry RBNS into 2021–and beyond.

The problem, of course, is that over the last few months, as the Willowy Bride and I have adjusted to living under the “shelter at home” requirement, I have not been able to rouse energy sufficient to transform the material in that “Future Blog Posts” folder into actual rough drafts, let alone finished products.

Still, I’m in a much better position now than I was in June 2010, when I launched RBNS into the “blogosphere,” on the Internet equivalent of “a wing and a prayer.”  I know there are folks out there who have found their way to this blog over the past decade and will, if I still meet their expectations, continue to visit.  All that’s required is for me to shake off my lethargy and create additional posts.

* * * * *

One final thing:  remember that statement in the head-note that some folks regard anniversaries ending in “0” more fondly than others?  Well, just coincidentally, today’s analysis of “Retired But Not Shy at 10” also happens to be post number 200 in the life of the blog.  Just sayin’. . . .

* * * * * *

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, Education, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, memoir, Popular Culture, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Research, Retirement, Southern History, Teaching, The Blues, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Memories of Betts, Mother’s Day, May 10, 2020

As I was walking with my Willowy Bride this morning (after attending “virtual” church), I had an epiphany of sorts.  It struck me that, now that my mother, Elsie Elizabeth “Betts” Lamplugh (1923-2013) is gone, Mother’s Day for me is only a time to summon up memories.

And,  of course, as regular readers know, I did that, at length a couple of years ago, producing a multi-part series of posts on my mother’s life for this blog.  Today, I’d like to take a moment to honor my Mom’s memory, allowing her to speak in her own voice (with a tad of editorial help) about her family, the pursuit of history, and family history.

The text features excerpts from Betts’ letters to me over a period of two decades or so, as she gathered information on her family and, eventually steeled her nerves to produce a memoir covering her life between 1923 and 1964.  The text includes links at appropriate points if you’d like to read earlier episodes of the series that throw light on the remarks in her letters.

Please enjoy:

https://georgelamplugh.com/2017/08/15/betts-a-mothers-memoir-1923-1964-part-vii-after-words-betts-on-family-history-and-family-history/

Rus, Rick, Betts, and Judy

* * * * * *

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, Delaware, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, memoir | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ben, An American Dad, 1921-1986, Part VII: Legacies

[Note:  Although I’m sure he never understood it, Ben Lamplugh was a member of the so-called  “Greatest Generation.”  These were the American men and women who answered their country’s call in the wake of Pearl Harbor and did their parts–overseas and on the homefront–during what later observers labeled this nation’s last “Good War.”]

* * * * *      

Ben and Trixie (Knighton family dog), 1943

Ben never saw combat, despite his strong desire to serve as a paratrooper, because he was injured in a practice jump and was transferred to the artillery.  Still, he was among the thousands of young Americans who were poised to invade the Japanese home islands in the summer of 1945, until President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki suddenly brought war in the Pacific theater to a close without risking further American lives.

It remained to be seen how the nation as a whole–and Ben and Betts Lamplugh in particular– would reshape their lives in the wake of that destructive victory.  Congress passed, among other measures, the highly popular “G.I. Bill,” providing benefits to veterans of the war to help ease them back into peacetime society.  Ben drew on some of this largess, using the measure’s educational benefits to learn cabinetry in a boat-building firm outside Baltimore, Maryland.  A few years later, he also took advantage of government financial assistance to returning veterans who were seeking to purchase a family home.

The stereotypical American veteran of World War II simply wanted to make it back to the “girl he’d left behind,” and Ben did that.  He never really achieved the next rung on the metaphorical postwar ladder, though, possession of a nice suburban home, complete with picket fence and a yard for the kids, although not for lack of trying. Yes, he and Betts used the G.I. Bill to buy a new home, a “row house,” in Ballard Gardens, a development near Baltimore, in 1955.  In 1959, though, they sold that house and moved to Newark, Delaware, where they rented yet another home, one street over from Betts’s parents.  Financial difficulties proved more significant to the Lamplugh family than did the “thanks of a grateful nation.”

In this series, we’ve looked at my father through several lenses: the “big picture” (Part I); a wedding photograph (Part II) and what it suggested about Ben’s and Betts’s early lives; his biography (Parts III , IV, and VI); and how well he did his duty as “Dad” (Part V).  This  concluding post is a modest attempt to assess Ben Lamplugh’s “legacies.”

* * * * *

Ben Lamplugh (c. 1960)

This is my favorite picture of Ben.  He still looks young (he’d have been in his late thirties); he has a sly, confident look in his eyes; clearly, his worldview was still unchallenged.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this photo was the product of Ben’s fondness for beer (a trait I’ve inherited).  The Hamm’s Brewing Company was moving into the East Coast from the Midwest, and Ben had met in his local bar a Hamm’s representative who offered him the chance to appear in a Hamm’s Beer advertisement for the local paper.  The picture accompanied his testimonial on behalf of that brew; Ben received a free case of the product for his participation in the ad campaign.

* * * * *

Well before the advent of the “Greatest Generation” trope, the postwar future of the American family had been etched in film, thanks to a variety of movies and television sitcoms portraying white, middle-class American males returning to their families and morphing into more or less perfect fathers (Ozzie Nelson of “Ozzie and Harriet” and Jim Anderson of “Father Knows Best,” for example).  These dads didn’t always get things right, of course, but, on the whole, life in post-World War II America for them was pictured as Edenic.

Ben Lamplugh didn’t fit into that particular stereotype very well.  He did the best he could with what he had, but what he didn’t have was much money–his educational background kept him back–or any real grounding in a strong family, especially a father figure who could teach him how to head a family of his own.  Consequently, Ben was not comfortable with fatherhood, nor was his wife Betts cut out to be the meek, pliable helpmate of postwar mythology.  Moreover, Ben’s children sometimes presented challenges that he evidently had neither the time nor the inclination to tackle, unless prodded to do so by Betts, and then his responses could be half-hearted.

* * * * *

And yet. . . , Ben did teach me some things, whether he intended to or not:

He told me about the “birds and the bees,” though only after I had asked him, while he was shaving, what a certain four-letter word for the sex act meant—and he’d almost cut his throat in shock at hearing that particular word pass my lips (I’d heard it from a friend, who had tried to explain it to me, but I did not believe it).  And even Ben’s best effort didn’t help all that much to clarify matters.

Ben let me smoke my first cigarette and drink my first beer in our living room when I was a teenager, then told me that this would be the last time I’d indulge in either of those “vices” while under his roof, unless I earned the money to purchase them myself.  (These words of wisdom I passed on to my own children.)

Ben seemed disappointed at my lack of physical skills and at my apathy towards playing sports.

He took me to work with him now and again, usually at Betts’s urging, and either never noticed or didn’t mind how quickly I became bored.

Ben also must have given me at least a few driving lessons, because I remember him telling me that, if I ever had a choice between running into a car, a person, or an animal, I should hit the animal.  (My brother Rick remembers the same advice.)

He also took time from work to accompany me to the driver’s license road test in Wilmington, Delaware, and, after I passed, informed me that that would be the last time I’d drive a car unless I could pay for car insurance myself.  (Sensing a pattern?  I did not require that of my boys.)

* * * * *

Ben, Christmas 1971

And then there were what my brother Rick calls “Ben-isms,” fatherly advice on various occasions that Rick and I remembered:

To Ben, “Stud Hoss” was a term of endearment. (Rus and Rick)

“You can want in one hand and shit in the other and see which one gets full first.” (Rus)

“A big wheel is something dogs piss on.” (Rus)

Ben used to say, especially after a few beers, “Don’t end up like me, Boy. Make somethin’ of yourself.” (Rick)

In early 1967, when I told him that I’d proposed to my girlfriend and that she’d accepted, Ben, drawing no doubt upon his experience with Betts, somberly warned  that I must be sure Faith was the right woman for me, that she really loved me. He was as forceful and emotional at that moment as any time I can remember, no matter the subject.

Every now and then I’d feel guilty about how infrequently I kept in touch with Ben, and I’d telephone.   He would invariably be surprised, and tell me how glad he was I’d called.  A few times, he even said he loved me, which seemed difficult for him, and my response might not have come across as heartfelt.

* * * * *

Ben worked hard, two jobs much of the time. I don’t think it was because he enjoyed working, though maybe he did. He felt responsible for the well-being of his family, believing that the father was supposed to be the “breadwinner.”  Still, because he was gone so much at work, my strongest impression of him was of someone who usually wasn’t there. He’d come home late, eat supper, lie down in the living room recliner with a beer and a cigarette, and shortly be asleep. The next morning, by the time we got up, he’d already left for work.

On the few times I saw him in a suit and tie, I thought that Ben was a good-looking man. Mostly, though, I picture him in work clothes, with scabs on his hands, looking worn out and dusty.  (Rick agrees)

I remember how Ben always got cleaned up–shaved, put on Old Spice aftershave, plastered his hair with Vaseline Hair Tonic, before he went to bed at night. I never could understand that.  (Rick adds: “And when he finished combing his hair, he would always tap the comb on the sink two times and then put it away.”)

And my personal favorite:  “Make sure you get a job usin’ your head, Boy. You’ll starve to death if you have to do somethin’ with your hands.” (Rus and Rick)

* * * * *

Rick, in his book, The Wilds of Aging, reveals that, “With just months to go before retiring, I still haven’t learned to silence my father’s criticisms, the cutting remarks I named after him, the ‘Ben-isms.’  Though Ben is long gone, I dread he will hound me for as long as I live.”  (Rus shares that feeling)

“You ain’t never gonna get this right. Why don’t you just quit?” (Rick)

I was surprised to hear Rick say that he had stopped drinking because of his life with Ben during Dad’s bleary-eyed, drunken years.  Rick made that decision on December 26, 1986, after Betts called to tell him Ben had died.  Rick, who was closer to our father than I, was distraught at the news, and his four-year old daughter tried to comfort him.  Then and there, Rick decided that he would not put his child through the sorts of experiences he’d had when he’d been living with Ben after the divorce.  He emptied his refrigerator of beer and has not returned to alcohol.  (My reaction to the news of Ben’s demise was rather different.)

* * * * *

I’m not complaining about Ben’s parenting skills (or lack thereof), because obviously he  had poor role models.  Still, for better or worse, I attempted to raise my sons as the “un-Ben,” on almost every issue. Whenever discipline was needed or an important decision had to be made, I’d ask myself, “What would Dad do,” then I’d try to do the opposite.

For example, Ben spent very little time at home with us when we kids were growing up.  I decided that I would always be present for my sons.  We ate dinner most nights as a family and spent time talking about what had gone on for each of us during the day.  We’d laugh and joke at the table, and once in a while I’d spin elaborate stories that ended in groan-inducing puns, something the boys seemed to enjoy.  (My Willowy Bride, perhaps not so much. . . .)

On one occasion, after I’d complained about one son’s struggles with sports, Ben surprised me by asking whether I might not unwittingly be damaging his self-confidence!  And I thought:  where was this version of Ben when I needed him?

* * * * *

Ben and I seldom seemed to hit it off.  When we first met, at the end of World War II, he looked at me in my crib and I, having up until then been raised in an apartment full of women, promptly hit him in the head with a plastic toy.  But that wasn’t the worst of it.  As I grew up, Ben had a definite idea of what a son should be like–and, more often than not, I didn’t seem to fit that mold.

I was both overweight and introspective, neither athletic nor particularly social, and Ben had trouble understanding why that should have been so.  What I wanted to do, or was good at doing, seldom seemed to be what he had in mind, at least in my memory.  Yet, according to my brother, Ben actually told him more than once that he was proud of me, though I don’t recall him saying that in my hearing when I was growing up.

In my mind, perhaps Ben gave up on me, or maybe I turned my back on him, or both.  Whatever the cause(s) of our estrangement, I regret it still, especially because, in Rick’s words, Ben Lamplugh “might not have always been the father we wanted, but he was the only father we had.”  And he tried, God knows he tried, to be a good father to us.

End of Part VII

Copyright 2020 George Lamplugh

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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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