My Brother, the Writer: Act 2

A Review of Rick Lamplugh, Deep into Yellowstone: A Year’s Immersion in Grandeur & Controversy (2017). Available at in both paperback and e-book formats. 

Several years ago, I reviewed my younger brother Rick’s book, In the Temple of Wolves (2014), which recounted experiences he and his wife Mary shared over several winter stays in Yellowstone National Park.  That book was quite successful, boosting Rick from merely a recent retiree to a prominent advocate for Yellowstone and its wildlife, especially the wolf.

The volume under review is a sequel to In the Temple of Wolves, but with a difference.  The author’s emphasis this time is, as his subtitle suggests, “A Year’s Immersion in Grandeur and Controversy.”  Rick and Mary are no longer seasonal visitors to the nation’s first national park.  Since the publication of In the Temple of Wolves, the “Oregon Lamplughs” have become the “Montana Lamplughs,” moving to Gardiner, just outside Yellowstone’s north gate. That relocation, with the adjustments required of them by their new environment, gives this book its special flavor.

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All the grandeur of the park and its wildlife you’d expect from the author’s lyrical writing in his earlier volume is here, too, but now there’s more.  Living year-round next to Yellowstone brought new responsibilities to wolf advocates Rick and Mary, plunging them into controversies about conservation of the park and its denizens vs. exploitation of its resources and wildlife.  And, thanks to Rick’s skill in describing those issues, the reader is there with him and his wife throughout that year.

The self-deprecating humor that was part of Rick’ s first book carries over to this volume as well.  For example, a chapter entitled “A New Way to Stop” highlights Rick and Mary’s efforts to master cross-country skiing. Rick is determined to learn how to ski downhill safely; after all, what could go wrong?  Try a face plant that cuts his forehead and forces him to scramble around madly retrieving glasses, sunglasses, hat, and one glove.

Another hilarious account reveals that Yellowstone wildlife pay scant attention to the needs of local advocates.  Rick and Mary decide to take a weekend off, do some chores, kick back and relax.  Well. . . . Several female elk show up with newborn calves in tow just outside Casa Lamplugh.

Watching the spectacle out of their windows, Rick and Mary are struck by the cluelessness of a jogger who got too close to one of the calves for its mother’s liking and was chased away by the angry mama.  And then—wait for it!—Rick stepped outside to work on a project, despite Mary’s warning that Mama Elk and baby were still nearby.  Rick shrugged off his wife’s advice; after all, he was a permanent resident of Gardiner, not a weekly renter like the jogger.  Then:  Rick ended up shouting at an aggressive Mama Elk, while backing slowly into his garage and slamming the door.

A final example of the author’s penchant for humor occurs when he records what happened after he and his wife awoke up on a cold September morning while on a camping trip and found themselves forced to run from three angry moose who,  it turned out, were trying to escape from them!

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In explaining what drew him and Mary to activism on behalf of Yellowstone and its denizens, Rick offers as an example the “hunters” (“shooters—a firing squad really” [20]) who wait for hapless bison to wander from the protection of the park to adjoining land where—surprise!—bison hunting season has begun.  Moreover, this “sport” is part of an “interagency management plan” that aims to reduce the number of bison in the park from 5000 to 3000.

Rick and Mary soon joined local conservation groups, hoping to make a difference.  Even if bison escape being shot by hunters, another part of the interagency management plan allows some of the animals to be captured, penned up, and then sent to a slaughterhouse, with the meat being given to local Native Americans, again as part of an effort to control Yellowstone’s bison population.

The author’s first detailed account of what advocating for wildlife can mean for the truly dedicated describes a meeting in the Gardiner school during a “public comment” session on a proposal to increase the kill quota for “Montana Wolf Management Unit 313,” just outside the park, from two wolves to six.  Rick’s sympathies are clear, but he does give “equal time” to the other side.  A month or so later, the government agency announces that the quota would remain at two; the title of the chapter, “Saving Four Wolves.”

Another example of Rick’s introspective cast occurs when he has a nightmare while on a camping trip.  The experience leads him to ponder the nature of his fears, and he concludes that they’re primal and have been part of being human for eons:  “Our ancestors kept shooting, trapping, and poisoning any and all creatures that evoked the fight or flight response.  Kill the animal; kill the fear.”  (203)

Yet, it isn’t only the park’s wildlife that Rick and Mary try to protect.  Rick and another member of Gardiner’s Bear Creek Council joined advocates to tour the proposed site of a controversial gold mine.  While listening to the testimony of experts on the gold mining process, the author realizes that one person who also opposes mining in Yellowstone owns a wilderness outfitting business and is a trophy hunter whose kills decorate his workplace.  Can you say irony?

Moreover, there really was no force strong enough to monitor whether the mine would live up to its promises to the public.  Ultimately, the Interior Department ruled that the proposal would be put on hold for two years so that more time could be spent studying the impact of the mining proposal on areas near Yellowstone and on the park itself.  In other words, the powers that be opted for a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

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A regular feature of the book is the use of a specific activity that leads the author to consider a broader issue.  For example, a leisurely hike sparks a discussion of the “trophic cascade theory,” which holds that the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone in 1995, by reducing the elk population, enabled the park’s willows, aspens, and cottonwoods to recover.

When Rick and Mary spot a grizzly couple courting, Rick reflects on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s current effort to delist Yellowstone grizzlies from the protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act.  He points out that, when wolves were delisted from the same statute in 2011, the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho essentially became “free fire zones” for wolf hunters, and he fears that, if grizzlies lose those same protections, they would face a similar fate.

Rick and Mary’s first mountain bike ride of the season takes them near a group of pronghorn antelopes and their fawns, then segues into the history of the pronghorns in Yellowstone.  Not surprisingly, these animals also are in danger.  Their numbers are down from one thousand or so in the 1930s to four hundred and fifty today.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Mary pulls a four-day volunteer stint driving tourists at Old Faithful.  Meanwhile, Rick, ensconced with a book manuscript in a room at the Old Faithful Inn, recalls how, a few summers earlier, he joined a group of tourists watching an eruption of the geyser.  The author muses about observers who became impatient with how long the process took, because they shortly had to be somewhere else to view another attraction.  Rick wonders, “When did this marvel of nature become just another stop along the vacation highway, a wonder to bag in our rush to the next must-see?” (136)

* * * * *

Rick also devotes an occasional chapter to the historical context of a current controversy.  For instance, in meditating on the role of the bison, he reviews the history of efforts to protect Yellowstone’s bison from poachers, who had been plundering herds almost from the creation of the national park in 1872.  Two decades later, Congress passed the Lacey Act, which prevented hunting, wounding, killing, or capturing wildlife in Yellowstone and became the model for protecting wildlife in all national parks.

My little brother can certainly turn a phrase.  Here’s an excerpt from his journal, when he and Mary went backpacking along the bottom of Yellowstone’s “grand canyon”:  “The clouds have unionized.  No longer separate little puffs, they have banded together, flexing billowing muscles, forming thick masses with battleship-gray bottoms and few breaks of blue.  They cover more than half the sky and drift slowly eastward, resisting the wind, demanding more time to block the sun.” (169)

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Rick also does not shy from commenting on the impact of Yellowstone’s popularity on the park and its neighboring towns, including Gardiner.  Around the turn of the twentieth century, ten thousand visitors came to Yellowstone; in 2015, four million tourists arrived, in a park that’s designed to handle two and a half million annually.  Of course the money is good for residents of Gardiner and other nearby towns, but the tourist season puts a tremendous strain on local budgets.  For instance, the town of Gardiner has 850 year-round residents but hosts about 750,000 visitors each year.

The author points out that the National Park Service’s multi-year ad campaign, “Find Your Park,” was too successful; in fact, it’s a major factor in the park’s problem of overuse.  He offers a modest proposal, “Reserve Your Park,” as a way to limit visitors to the nation’s park system.  Basically, “Reserve Your Park” amounts to asking the Park Service to cap the number of both overnight campers and day-trippers, and, once reservations reach the limit, to accept no more.  Yet, everyone Rick shared this idea with pointed out that, while it might look good on paper, in practice it would arouse controversy and, ultimately, end in failure.

A fascinating chapter concerns the role of the grizzly in Yellowstone’s ecosystem.  Returning to the site of  a big male grizzly feeding on an elk carcass, Rick and Mary watch as the grizzly, who is loading up for his approaching hibernation and isn’t eager to share the carcass with interlopers, eventually comes around.  At that point, Rick imagines the same grizzly preparing for hibernation if the carcass had been brought down outside Yellowstone and, thus, beyond the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act in the park.  And the twist:  he also recognizes that it’s people like him and his wife, watching grizzlies in a context where the animals are in no danger from humans, who actually help condition the bears to view humans as harmless, even if they’re packing heat.

* * * * *

Deep into Yellowstone is a fine book, illuminating the evolving interests of Rick and Mary  in their now permanent home environment, just outside the gates of Yellowstone. The seasonal organization of this volume stresses the year-round demands made upon the time and energy of local residents who care about the future of the park, its wildlife, and its resources.  As was the case in his first Yellowstone book, in treating controversies Rick strives for objectivity, and  succeeds much of the time.  If you liked In the Temple of Wolves,  you’ll certainly enjoy Deep into Yellowstone.

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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)

POTP Cover

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







Posted in "In The Temple of Wolves", Books, Current Events, family history, Historical Reflection, memoir, Research, Retirement, Rick Lamplugh, Uncategorized, Wolves, Yellowstone National Park | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Georgia Visions: A Continuing Drama in at Least Six Acts, Part 2 (Adventures in Interdisciplinary Land, 10)

[NOTE:  This is the concluding part of a post derived from a talk I presented, on two occasions, to foreign students visiting my school, on the history of the state of Georgia. For Part I, go here.]

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Henry Grady (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

Henry Grady’s Vision

The defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War was traumatic for Georgia and the other southern states, and the period of Reconstruction that followed the war was considered a humiliation by most southern whites.  Military rule was imposed on the former Confederate states for varying periods of time (nearly six years in Georgia); and a series of amendments to the Federal Constitution abolished slavery, defined freed persons as citizens, and protected African Americans in the exercise of their civil rights.

During these years, several energetic young southerners developed a program, the “New South Creed,”  intended to give the region’s humiliated whites grounds for hope.  Perhaps the most effective prophet of a “New South” was a Georgian, Henry Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution.  The “New South” idea supported by Grady and others included  diversification of agriculture, to break the pre-Civil War “tyranny of cotton”; industrialization of the South, using outside capital but avoiding outside control; sectional reconciliation; and participation of African Americans in southern life on a “separate but equal,” or racially segregated (“Jim Crow”), basis.

By 1900, northerners and southerners were convinced that a “New South” had indeed arrived, but they were wrong.  The largely agricultural South entered the 20th century in the same position it had occupied earlier, an economic “colony” of the industrial North.

There had been some progress in crop diversification, but not much.  Economic conditions in the post-Civil War South led to the creation of systems like crop lien, tenant farming, sharecropping, and convict leasing, all of which bound both blacks and whites in a vicious cycle of indebtedness for nearly a century, with cotton still the main crop. Industry came to the South, but so too did outside control.  Moreover, the industries that arrived were extractive ones, producing only raw materials or involving just the early stages of manufacturing, with the finishing processes being done outside the region.

About the only aspect of Grady’s “New South” vision that worked well was his desire for sectional reconciliation and racial segregation.  For nearly another century, African Americans in Georgia and other southern states lived a life that was rigidly separated from, but decidedly unequal to, that of whites.  This segregation was approved by the United States Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which would be the law of the land for the next 58 years (until Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in 1954).  A prominent spokesman for Southern blacks, Booker T. Washington, even used a speech in Atlanta in 1895 to acquiesce in “Jim Crow” social segregation in return for access to economic opportunity for African Americans.  And so, with segregation essentially taken off the table, the North and the South found much to admire in each other, joined hands, and marched into the sunshine of a reunited nation–for a time.

* * * * *

Tom Watson (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

Tom Watson’s Vision

Even as Henry Grady’s dream of a “New South” took hold in the minds of Georgians and other southerners, a competing vision was being developed by another Georgian, Thomas E. Watson.  Watson believed that the conservative Democrats who controlled Georgia after Reconstruction were only using Grady’s “New South” rhetoric to enrich themselves and to keep other Georgians mired in poverty.  Watson envisioned a Georgia peopled by simple, rural folk. His view, while anti-urban and anti-capitalist, was bi-racial, at least at first.  He became the leading spokesman for the forces of agricultural protest that eventually produced the Populist Party, whose vice-presidential candidate Watson became in 1896.

Gradually, however, because of a series of political defeats and the frustrations of thwarted ambition, Watson’s vision became distorted in bizarre and dangerous ways.  He turned against African Americans, Catholics, and Jews.  As powerful and appealing a speaker as Watson could be, his prejudices produced dire results.  He touched off a race riot in Atlanta in 1906 and urged the lynching of Jewish factory owner Leo Frank in 1915 for the alleged rape and murder of the “little factory girl,” Mary Phagan.  And Watson’s ideas, if not Watson himself, played a part in the revival of the virulently anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain, also in 1915.

Tom Watson’s racial, religious, and ethnic prejudices helped shape—and warp—Georgia politics for the next half century, and his defense of rural Georgians against “corrupt” capitalists and the sinful city was engrafted onto the state’s political system in 1908, with the adoption of the “county unit system” for electing the governor.  Under this system, the eight most populous counties each had six unit votes; the next thirty largest counties had four votes each; the 121 smallest counties each received two votes; and the candidate receiving a plurality of popular votes got all of the unit votes in each county.

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Governor Jimmy Carter (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

The “Sunbelt” Vision

During the first half of the 20th century, no single vision imparted any sense of unity to Georgia and the South.  It was a time of transition, when Grady’s creed for a “New South” and Watson’s vision of a rural paradise competed for dominance.  What finally emerged, thanks to the boll weevil, the Great Depression, World War II, the modern civil rights movement, and the energy crisis of the mid-1970s was a vision of Georgia as part of the so-called “Sun Belt,” a perception rather close to Grady’s “New South” but without the racial segregation.

After World War I, agriculture in Georgia continued slowly to diversify and manufacturing to develop.  In the early 1920s, the arrival of the boll weevil spelled disaster for Georgia’s cotton production.  By the mid-1920s, for the first time in the state’s history, industry produced manufactured goods worth more than the products of Georgia agriculture. By the time the rest of the nation began to suffer from the Great Depression in the 1930s, conditions already existed in Georgia and other southern states that led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to label the South as “the nation’s #1 economic problem.”  FDR’s New Deal proposals had as one goal reversal of the South’s economic problems, but the real turning point came during and after World War II.

The period between the world wars also saw the beginnings of the challenge to the system of racial segregation that dominated the social system in Georgia and the South.  Then, in March 1946, a federal court in New Orleans declared unconstitutional Georgia’s “white primary,” which had effectively disfranchised the state’s African American voters during Democratic primary elections that chose candidates for the state’s dominant political party.  Electoral reform would continue when later courts broke the rural domination of state politics by outlawing the county unit system and by requiring that election districts be drawn based on the principle of “one man, one vote.”

Even before World War II, federal courts had begun to attack segregation in education.  The climactic case was the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision mandating the integration of public schools.  This, plus the raft of civil rights laws of the 1960s and early 1970s, brought black Georgians, and their brothers and sisters elsewhere, into the mainstream of American life for the first time.

The vision proclaimed so movingly in August 1963 by one of the greatest Georgians, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I Have a Dream” speech, slowly came to have the shadowy shape, and at least some of the substance, of reality, when, for example, Maynard Jackson was elected the first African American mayor of Atlanta in 1973.  And, two years earlier, in 1971, newly-elected Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, one of the racially moderate “New South Governors” of the era, could proclaim that “the time for racial discrimination is over.”

By the late 1970s, it seemed clear to many observers that Georgia was part of a “New South,” this one called the “Sun Belt,” the southern and southwestern rim of the United States, where racial peace and economic prosperity seemed to go hand in hand.  Yet, as was the case with the other “visions” we’ve examined, the “Sun Belt” vision also reveals a gap between perception and reality.

For example, studies consistently showed that the prosperity of the “Sun Belt” was unevenly distributed.  In 1985, for instance, only three of Georgia’s 159 counties had per capita incomes above the national average, and only eight others were above the state average.  Much of this “prosperity” was urban-based.  As one Georgia professor put it, “Without Atlanta, Georgia is poorer than Mississippi.”  This has given rise to the phenomenon of the “Two Georgias,” with the state divided economically between the Greater Atlanta region and everyplace else.  Capturing the Olympics for Atlanta in 1996 also had a tremendous impact, for better or worse, on the Greater Atlanta area, but it’s hard to see how the rest of the state benefited.

The Sunbelt (Wikipedia)

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The visions we’ve examined have one thing in common:  They describe aspirations rather than reality.  In other words, they encompass what those who held to them hoped to achieve, not necessarily what they accomplished.  Of them all, only the  “Sun Belt vision” seems realistic enough actually to be achieved.  But will it be?  Even after all these years, the jury’s still out.


Numan V. Bartley, The New South, 1945-1980 (1995).

Kenneth Coleman, general editor, A History of Georgia (2nd ed., 1991).

______________, The American Revolution in Georgia, 1763-1789 (1958).

Paul M. Gaston, The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (1970).

George B. Tindall, The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945 (1967)

C.Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (1951).

________________, Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel (1938).


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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, Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Georgia History, Henry Grady, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, Martin Luther King, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Sun Belt, Teaching, Tom Watson, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Georgia Visions: A Continuing Drama in at Least Six Acts, Part 1 (Adventures in Interdisciplinary Land, 10)

[NOTE:  On two occasions, separated by more than two decades, I was asked at my school to address visiting foreign students about the history of the state of Georgia.  In 1985, the audience was a group of students from France; in 2008 the audience was made up of teenagers from Kenya. The second version of that presentation was a revision of the first, and I added a dozen or so Power Point slides.  The post that follows is based on the outline of the 2008 version. On both occasions I prepared more material than I could fit into the time allotted, as I usually do, and had to cut (and simplify) as I went along.  A list of suggested sources is appended to Part 2.]

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I’ve been asked to talk to you this morning for less than an hour about the history of Georgia. Obviously, it’s impossible to cover everything significant in that time, so I won’t try.  Instead, I’d like to offer a very selective approach to this state’s past, focusing on a series of “visions” (or collective perceptions and myths) that give unity to the ways even native Georgians understand the growth and development of the state.  We’ll examine each “vision,” then try to determine its accuracy as a picture of the period in Georgia history it purports to describe.

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Gen. James Oglethorpe (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

The Trustees’ Vision

 Let’s begin with the vision of the twenty-one Englishmen who secured a charter from King George II in 1732 empowering them to found and control a new colony south of the Savannah River.  Most of the Trustees were idealistic dreamers.  They believed that settlers would be poor but honest English people of good character who, through no fault of their own, had fallen on hard economic times and been imprisoned for debt.  The Trustees envisioned their new colony as a producer of exotic products like silk and wine.  Finally, they believed that the early colonists would be so grateful for the opportunity to start life anew that they would be satisfied with small landholdings, and with prohibitions against the use of slaves and alcoholic beverages.

The most significant “realist” among Georgia’s founders was General James Oglethorpe.  He hoped that the new colony would become an armed bastion to protect the older, neighboring colony of South Carolina from Spain and her Native American allies.  Crown officials in London tended to share Oglethorpe’s view.

The idealism of the Trustees was frustrated almost from the first, and they ended up turning control of Georgia over to the Crown a year earlier than required under the terms of their charter.  Of the 5000 settlers who arrived in Georgia between 1733 and 1750, only 2000 were on public charity, and, of those, only 646 were British males who might possibly have been imprisoned for debt.  Other early Georgians included European Jews; Salzburgers (German Lutherans); Moravians (who didn’t stay long because they refused to bear arms); belligerent Scots; even transported New England Puritans.

Since the first settlements were established south of the Savannah River, and because South Carolina lay north of that river, Georgia colonists became quite familiar with conditions in that colony, where one could own as much land and as many slaves as he could afford and consume as much alcohol as he could hold.  Thus, many early Georgians rejected as overly restrictive the rules imposed by the Trustees, protested those restrictions, and eventually moved across the Savannah to Carolina. Only General Oglethorpe’s vision of creating an armed camp between the Savannah and the St. John’s rivers came close to being realized.

Once Georgia became a royal colony in 1752, the coastal area set out to emulate the plantation economy of lowcountry South Carolina (rice and sea island cotton), while colonial Georgia’s upcountry became almost indistinguishable from other frontier regions in Britain’s North American colonies. The colony’s first slave code revealed the attitude of white Georgians toward slaves, “the haunting fear of the black man, which still persists today, especially in our cities,” according to one historian. Moreover, the economic pattern developed in Georgia before the American Revolution would last until well into the 20th century, “a dependence on others for things she could well produce herself out of her own raw materials.”

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Sir James Wright (Wikipedia)

The Patriots’ Vision(s)

 Most Americans have a rather heart-warming view of the American Revolution, of freedom-loving American colonists unanimously rising in righteous wrath to throw off the shackles of British tyranny.  This picture bears almost no relation to the reality of events anywhere in British North America, and it certainly doesn’t come close to describing things in Georgia.

In the years after 1763, when the Mother Country began to tighten the bonds of empire, setting in motion the events that eventually produced the Revolution, Georgia always seemed slower than other colonies to demonstrate outrage.  One reason for this was that Georgia was only thirty years old in 1763 and had not had time to develop a strong tradition of self-government.  Another was that, beginning in 1760 the colony’s royal governor was one of the most skillful officials in British North America, the American-born, English-educated James Wright.  For example, Wright was so influential that he coerced the colonial legislature to support the much-hated Stamp Act, and Georgia became the only colony to use the stamps.

When war finally came to Georgia, there were few large-scale battles.  Instead, patriots fought British regulars and loyalist forces in savage hit-and-run guerrilla actions, with no quarter asked and none given.  Moreover, the Whigs, those who favored independence, fought and occasionally killed one another, as they struggled to impose conflicting visions on the small part of Georgia outside British control.  Georgia was the only rebellious American province to have its colonial government restored during the War for Independence, with a royal governor and British troops occupying the port of Savannah between 1778 and 1782.

When the last British ship sailed away from Savannah in July 1782, 7000 persons had left the now independent state:  5000 slaves; 1200 British troops and Georgians still loyal to the king; 500 women and children; and 300 Native Americans.

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Margaret Mitchell (Wikipedia)

Margaret Mitchell’s Vision

Perhaps no book has influenced how we view the American past more than Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.  Her novel, along with the popular 1939 film based on it, has fixed in the popular mind, probably forever, an attractive vision of the Old South in general, and Georgia in particular, from the 1850s through the end of Reconstruction.  It was a prosperous region peopled by beautiful, strong-willed white women, and handsome young white men willing to die in defense of their way of life; large plantations; and slaves who were relatively content with their lots in life.  There is an element tof truth in this, but Mitchell’s vision of Georgia and the South is incomplete, to say the least, in several crucial respects.


The expansion of Georgia had come at the expense of the Creek and Cherokee Indian tribes.  The process had begun in the colonial period and culminated in the late 1830s in the so-called “Trail of Tears,” the forced removal of the Cherokees from the state to what is now Oklahoma, during which an estimated 4000 to 5000 of them died.

A cotton gin, which made possible the spread of cotton to the upcountry, was invented in Georgia in 1793 by a visiting New Englander, Eli Whitney.  If Whitney’s invention helped make possible the rise of the “Cotton Kingdom” in the South, then the ensuing prosperity rested squarely on the backs of the slaves.  Between 1800 and 1860, the number of slaves in Georgia increased from 60,000 to 460,000 and the price of an able-bodied black field hand rose from $300 to $1800.

Georgia was a rural society before the Civil War, but there were in the state growing cities like Atlanta, Macon, Columbus, and Augusta that were important as manufacturing and transportation centers.  Finally, in a state where slavery and cotton were so important to the so-called “Southern Way of Life,” only about 40% of white families in Georgia owned slaves, about 41,000 out of 110,000 families, which means that about 69,000 families owned no slaves.


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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, Colonial Georgia, Education, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, Popular Culture, Prep School, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Howlin’ Wolf,1910-1976: His Life, His Times, His Blues (Blues Stories, 27)

A Review of James Segrest and Mark Hoffman, Moanin’ at Midnight:  The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf. New York:  Pantheon Books, 2004.

Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf

Howlin’ Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett, June 10, 1910, near West Point, Mississippi.  (His grandfather nicknamed Chester “Wolf.”) Wolf’s father, Leon “Dock” Burnett, was a sharecropper; his mother, Gertrude Jones, a cook and maid. His parents split when Chester was one year old—Dock moved permanently to the Mississippi Delta, while Gertrude took Chester north to Monroe County.  Gertrude was a mentally unstable  religious zealot who sent her son away when he was ten, and Chester never really knew why—probably as a result, he had “mommy issues” for the rest of his life.

Young Wolf made his way to the home of great-uncle, Will Young.  Will mistreated all of his own children, but was especially hard on Chester—he never let him go to school, often didn’t provide food, meted out severe punishments for even minor infractions.  Chester was interested in music early on—he sang while plowing, made a one-string diddley-bow, and began to learn how to play the harmonica.  Driven away by Will at age thirteen, Chester made his way to the Delta in search of his father.  Although he seldom spoke of his miserable, poverty-stricken, brutal childhood, Wolf’s feelings came out in some of the songs he wrote.

Dock Burnett was glad to see his son and took good care of him.  That this meant something to young Wolf became clear when, no matter how far he traveled from Dock’s farm during his wandering years as a neophyte bluesman, he returned each spring to plow Dock’s fields.

Though he wasn’t educated himself, Chester encouraged his step-sisters to learn to read and write.  Despite—or more probably, because of—his lack of education as a youngster, Wolf’s “belief in self-education was a lifelong habit.” (16)  This self-education included regular academic subjects, as well as a steady diet of lessons on reading music and playing both the guitar and the harmonica. By the time Wolf received an honorary doctorate from Chicago’s Columbia College in 1972, he had been taking academic classes at a local high school for six years and weekly guitar lessons for more than ten. (287)

Among Wolf’s early teachers was one reputed “Father of the Delta Blues,” Charley Patton.  Wolf, fascinated by Patton, asked Dock to buy him a guitar.  With the new guitar, Wolf began spending more time with Charley, who helped him learn to play, and, eventually, he performed with Patton around Ruleville.  Before he left the Delta, young Wolf also traveled and played with Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), who helped hone his skills on the harmonica, and performed with Robert Johnson, Son House, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Johnny Shines, and Jimmie Rodgers.  Wolf admired Rodgers’ yodeling but couldn’t duplicate it, so he adopted a “wolf’s howl” that furnished the most famous of the half dozen or so names he eventually performed under. (Wolf’s gravelly voice was the product of boyhood tonsillitis that damaged his vocal cords. [22-23])

* * * * *

A strapping, handsome man, Wolf had no trouble attracting women, but these encounters sometimes led to trouble.  In Hughes, Arkansas, for instance, Wolf tried to protect one female acquaintance from an angry boyfriend, and the two men clashed, with Wolf killing his opponent with a hoe. (What happened afterward is a matter of dispute—Wolf either   fled the area or did some jail time.) While sharecropping and performing around Pace, Mississippi, Wolf took up with Elven Frazier, who bore him a son, Floyd, in 1939.  The two didn’t marry, perhaps because Wolf had to flee to avoid an angry white sharecropper, who threatened to kill him for playing a song for the white man’s wife on their porch.

Wolf’s service in the U.S. Army during World War II was an unpleasant experience.  He never took to Army discipline; even the military’s efforts to teach the young man to read and write involved physical punishment.  Finally, in late 1943, he was given an honorable discharge “for disability not in line of duty and not due to his own misconduct.” (55)

In 1947, Wolf married Katie Mae Johnson in Penton, Mississippi, and then retrieved his son Floyd from Elven Frazier.  While still trying to break into the blues bigtime, Wolf  encountered his mother Gertrude, who, as would be the case every time he met her, remained upset because he  played the “devil’s music,” an attitude that was not unusual in the African American community.

Both his son Floyd and his musical acolyte Johnny Shines claimed that Wolf had told them  he’d “sold his soul to the devil.”  Segrest and Hoffman concede that Wolf was “conflicted” about religion, as were several other noted blues men, including Charley Patton, Skip James, and Son House.  The authors assert that Wolf was sure of only one thing: “He wouldn’t stand with the hypocrites he’d known who called themselves Christians and then did ungodly things.” (63)

After he moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, in the late 1940s, Wolf and various bands he organized experimented with “electric blues” and developed strong local followings. It was in West Memphis that Wolf first witnessed the guitar skills of Hubert Sumlin, who would eventually join his band in Chicago, creating “one of the great musical partnerships in blues history.” (87)

* * * * *

Young Wolf (

Wolf’s big break came in 1951, when legendary producer Sam Phillips invited him and his band to move to Memphis to record.  Phillips sent a demo to the Chess Brothers in Chicago, and the rest is blues history.  Wolf’s proficiency with “electric blues” made his records strong sellers both in the Deep South and in northern cities of refuge during the “Great Migration.”

When Wolf moved to Chicago in 1953 to join Chess Records, that label’s star was Muddy Waters, who offered Wolf a place to stay in the Windy City—for a price.  Wolf plunged ahead with his band, quickly displacing Muddy and his group at the Zanzibar Club and igniting a celebrated feud.

Wolf’s wife Katie Mae did not accompany him to Chicago, and she later died of breast cancer.  In the late 1950s, Wolf met a widow, Lillie Handley.  They hit it off at once, lived together for about seven years, and married in 1964.  Wolf became a loving stepfather to Lillie’s daughters, whose boyfriends must have been intimidated, to say the least, when they dropped by to pick up their dates and heard their large, imposing stepfather explain his rules of dating to them!

* * * * *

Life in Wolf’s bands was rocky and sometimes violent, because Wolf believed in rules and enforced them rigorously, much to the chagrin of some of his players. The move to Chicago eventually brought to Wolf’s band skilled performers like guitarist Hubert Sumlin; drummer Sam Lay; and saxophonist Eddie Shaw, who became his band leader. Wolf genuinely cared for the welfare of the members his band, eventually taking both Social Security and unemployment insurance from their wages, which, according to Segrest and Hoffman, was “unheard of for a Chicago blues band then and probably even today.” (179)

Wolf Rediscovered (

Wolf’s blues career peaked in the 1960s, but the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm ‘n’ blues, and Motown soul began to weaken his appeal to younger African Americans.  Like other blues performers during this period, Wolf eventually was “rediscovered” and in demand. Various “British invasion” bands considered him an idol and did all they could to emphasize his influence on their music, as did aspiring American blues men like Charlie Musselwhite, Michael Bloomfield, and Paul Butterfield.  Overseas promoters also hoped to bring the music of African American blues performers like Wolf to European audiences.

Meanwhile, Wolf scrambled to keep in touch with his audience at home.  Chess pushed him to try different musical styles as the blues market shifted, issuing albums featuring Wolf as an electrified blues singer (like Muddy Waters’ “Electric Mud” album); a soul singer; a folk singer; and a member of a blues “super group,” along with Waters, Bo Diddley, and Little Walter. Wolf had misgivings about these tactics, but he persevered, trying to find his groove, or at least locate the groove his fans preferred to see–and hear–him in.

In late 1969, Wolf’s health began to deteriorate.  He suffered a heart attack in Chicago, and only quick work by Hubert Sumlin saved his life.  Three weeks later, in Toronto for a gig, Wolf experienced additional heart and kidney problems but refused an operation recommended by his Canadian doctors, telling his wife Lillie that his band needed to continue working.

In May 1970, while in the UK to record The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, additional health problems cropped up.  One year later, Wolf had another heart attack, and his kidneys failed.  Yet he plunged on:  by May 1973 Wolf was on the road again, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his opening acts included Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, and George Thorogood.

By late 1973, Wolf had soured on the music industry, believing that he was being exploited by young, white musicians who were making millions off his music.  In May 1974, his attorneys sued Arc Music and Chess Records for taking advantage of him. Wolf would not live to enjoy the fruits of his lawyers’ efforts; diagnosed with a brain tumor, he died on January 10, 1976.

In summing up their subject’s career, Segrest and Hoffman argue that “Today [Wolf is] considered one of the giants of American music.” (321)  Their last paragraph is a dandy, especially if you don’t mind metaphor, personification, and wordplay clacking like pinballs:

The Wolf has stalked away in the end, but he didn’t wipe out his tracks.  He had a very rocky furrow to plow in life, out of which he created music of incomparable beauty.  In it, you hear all the joys and sorrows of a hard life fully lived.  His art speaks to people across oceans and ages.  It whispers about morality while moaning of mortality.  It’s the blues. (325)

Still Howlin’ (

* * * * *

Segrest and Hoffman surround Howlin’ Wolf with such a great “cloud of witnesses” that, in their hands, he becomes multi-faceted and comprehensive.  In building their case, the authors frequently cite veteran Bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards.  It’s a rare chapter that does not include recollections of at least a few of Wolf’s contemporaries—family members; acquaintances; fellow Blues performers; and, especially once he got established in Chicago, members of his band.  Segrest and Hoffman love to provide biographical and critical information on their hero’s bandmates.  Moreover, once Wolf began to record, the authors seldom let an album go by without offering their take on its most significant songs.

James Segrest and Mark Hoffman have produced a fine biography, their conclusions buttressed by a raft of sources, including reminiscences by numerous contemporaries of Wolf.  The volume is well-illustrated with striking black and white photographs. It’s difficult to imagine a better, fuller, or more interesting biography of Howlin’ Wolf.  Moanin’ at Midnight is definitive.

James Segrest and Mark Hoffman (

Additional Sources

Howlin’ Wolf:  The Complete RPM & Chess Singles As & Bs 1951-62.  Acrobat Music (ACTRCD9039), 2014.

Howlin’ Wolf:  His Best.  MCA/Chess (CHD9375), 1997.

The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions.  MCA Records (CHD9297), 1989.

The Howlin’ Wolf Story [DVD].  Blue Sea Productions (82876-56631-9), 2003.

* * * * * *

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)

POTP Cover

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

Posted in "Charley Patton", Age of Jim Crow, American History, Chicago Blues, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Popular Culture, Robert Johnson, Skip James, Son House, Southern History, The "Great Migration", The Blues, Uncategorized, Urban Blues, WP Long Form | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

History, Family, and Memory in the Jim Crow South:  Comparisons and Contrasts (Teaching Civil Rights, 8)

[NOTE:  Both during my teaching career and since I retired from the classroom, I have been fascinated by the history of the Civil Rights Movement. I decided early on that, if my students were to understand the accomplishments of the Movement, they first needed to grasp the history and power of the “legal” racial discrimination that undergirded the Jim Crow South.  I‘ve already reviewed several books on life in the Jim Crow South for this blog.  This post compares and contrasts three of them.  Click on the author’s name below for the full review of each book.

 Karen Branan, The Family Tree:  A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth (2016).

Joseph Madison Beck, My Father & Atticus Finch: A Lawyer’s Fight for Justice in 1930s Alabama (2016).

Kristen Green, Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle (2015). ]

             * * * * *

Back Stories

Karen Branan

 Karen Branan graduated from the University of Georgia in 1962, during a tumultuous period when Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes were trying to desegregate the school; Branan supported their efforts.  For almost fifty years, Branan has worked in journalism, contributing to newspapers, magazines, and television.

The inspiration for Branan’s book, about a 1912 lynching in the small Georgia town of Hamilton, in Harris County, came when she asked her grandmother about her “most unforgettable memory.” The old woman replied, “The hanging. They hanged a woman and some men right downtown in Hamilton when I was young.”

Joseph Madison Beck

Joseph Madison Beck graduated from Emory University in 1962 and subsequently earned an M.A. at George Washington University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.  Beck became an intellectual property attorney in Atlanta and a member of the law faculty at Emory.  He has written an account of his father Foster Beck’s doomed effort to ensure that a black man, Charles White, received fair treatment in a small Alabama town after being accused of raping a white woman in 1938.

Kristen Green

Kristen Green, grew up in Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia.  She graduated from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and received a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  Like Karen Branan, Green became a journalist, and her career took her to San Diego, Boston, and Richmond, Virginia.  Green, who was born in 1973, focused her research on the quality of education available to students in Prince Edward County, Virginia, between 1959 and 1964, when county officials closed the public schools.

During Green’s grandparents’ generation, officials in Prince Edward, including her grandfather, influenced by Virginia political boss Harry F. Byrd’s call for “massive resistance” in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s epochal Brown decision (1954), chose to shutter the county’s segregated public schools.  To ensure educational continuity for their children, however, these white leaders established a private school, Prince Edward Academy, one of the first “segregation academies.” The academy was tuition-free for the first year after it opened, but thereafter  students were expected to pay tuition.  Green’s parents had graduated from Prince Edward Academy (PEA), and her mother later worked there as a guidance counselor.  When Green and her siblings were ready for school, their parents enrolled them at PEA with no real discussion, and, as she grew older, Green began to wonder about that.

* * * * *

The Politics of Jim Crow

Karen Branan’s great-grandfather, Sheriff Buddy Hadley, was warned that standing in the way of the “Hamilton [Ga.] Avengers,” organizers of the lynching, could harm his political career. Consequently, the sheriff was conveniently “busy” in nearby Columbus, Georgia, when the “Avengers” struck. Two decades after the Hamilton lynching, as pressure grew on Congress to enact an anti-lynching bill, President Franklin Roosevelt, well aware of the importance of white southern Democrats to his governing “New Deal Coalition,” refused to support the legislation.

The involvement of Joseph Beck’s father Foster in the Charles White case was the direct result of a political decision by a local judge, who drafted attorney Beck to represent White so that the American Civil Liberties Union would not be attracted to the case. And, when White refused to plead guilty and accept life imprisonment (instead of a death sentence) for a crime he claimed he did not commit, the color of his skin, the nature of the crime, and the era in which it occurred doomed him to execution, despite Foster Beck’s  efforts.

In Green’s case, Senator Byrd’s state political machine and his call for “massive resistance” to integration lit the fuse to racial tension in Farmville and Prince Edward County.  On the national level, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower seemed uninterested in what was happening there, and the administration of Democratic President John F. Kennedy talked tough while keeping in mind the strength of southern whites in the national Democratic Party, just as FDR had three decades earlier on the anti-lynching measure.

 * * * * *

Sources and Voices

Branan, Beck, and Green grounded their research in similar primary sources—newspapers and public records—and Branan and Green were able to conduct oral history interviews as well.

Karen Branan relied on the memory of a group she called the “Ancient Mariners,” very elderly people of both races whose insights occasionally come heavily laced with local lore that strains the reader’s credulity. In her research, Kristen Green interviewed former students, black and white, willing to discuss how they had been affected by the school closings; and older people of both races who had lived in Prince Edward County between 1959 and 1964.  Because she reconstructs events of a more recent past than either Branan or Beck, Green had a larger group of living witnesses from which to draw and makes good use of them. Because of the importance of their families in the story they tell, both Branan and Green have produced works that are part history and part memoir.

In addition to the record of the White case provided by local newspapers and court documents, Joseph Beck’s sources included conversations with his parents over the years (Joseph was not born until 1943, five years after White’s execution); and his father’s handwritten family history, which unfortunately ended before it could devote much space to the Charles White case. There were holes in the evidence available to Joseph Beck, and he makes scant use of oral history, so he is reduced to “filling in [some of] the blanks” using educated guesses and his imagination.

* * * * *

The Importance of Context

Branan and Green also work hard to place their stories in a broader context, explaining what had occurred before and after the events they cover. Karen Branan treats slavery; Reconstruction; the Myth of the Lost Cause; and the establishment of legal segregation during the Age of Jim Crow before moving on to the Hamilton lynching.  She also examines what happened to the “Hamilton Avengers” after the lynching and sketches failed efforts to pass anti-lynching legislation through Congress.

Kristen Green traces the forces that produced Brown and those that led Prince Edward officials to close all public schools in 1959.  After telling her story, she examines public and private education in the county since 1964, when the public schools were reopened. (Prince Edward Academy, from which Green graduated, did not admit African American students until 1986, when she was in eighth grade.)  During her research, Green was constantly frustrated by the lack of empathy, even fifty years later, shown by local whites, including her own parents and grandparents, about the impact of the school closings on black–and poor white–students, and their families.

Joseph Beck’s focus is so tightly on his father’s work on behalf of Charles White that he does not spend much time establishing the broader historical context.  On the other hand, his description of small-town life in the Jim Crow South is more detailed than Branan and Green offer.

* * * * *


Branan, Beck, and Green wrote as racial “liberals” whose college years and subsequent careers took them outside their native region, at least for a time, and exposed them to different cultural values, including those of race, before they returned to the South.  Each author considers events in a single southern state during the Age of Jim Crow; features one or more of the author’s family as historical actors; and draws in part on individual and group memories as primary sources.

Each historian investigated the role of one or more family members in a particular incident that revealed something about life in a small community in the Jim Crow South.  By the time they had completed their research, all of them were profoundly disillusioned by what they’d found.

Karen Branan had been raised in Hamilton, Georgia, to admire her great-grandfather, Harris County Sheriff Buddy Hadley, who, according to family tradition, had acquitted himself well while trying to avert the lynching. Instead, Branan learned that Hadley had chosen the path of political expediency, absenting himself from town after being warned that if he tried to interfere with the work of the “Hamilton Avengers,” he would be putting his career—and perhaps his life—in jeopardy.  Moreover, Branan gradually realized that the picture of idyllic life in Hamilton presented by her parents and grandparents when she was young could not have been true, because her research revealed deep layers of racism, crime, and violence there.

Joseph Beck chose the title My Father & Atticus Finch for his book because he believed that Harper Lee might have modeled the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird on Foster Beck.  Lee gently turned this suggestion aside, but Beck evidently had difficulty letting go of his preconception.  Then, too, the fact that the “good [white] citizens” of Enterprise, Alabama, ostracized Foster Beck, assaulted him, and vandalized his office led Joseph to abandon a view he’d once shared with his father, that southern whites were not unified in their acceptance of the “depravity” of African Americans.

Kristen Green seems to have sailed blithely through her years at Prince Edward Academy before leaving for college.  It was only later, when she worked for a Richmond newspaper, that she returned to the events in Prince Edward between 1959 and 1964.  Much that she discovered in the course of her research disabused her of the rosy picture she’d had of her childhood in Farmville, as well as her view of the racial attitudes of her grandparents during the school closings and of her parents later.  Green also came to feel strongly that area whites had not—and, to an extent, still do not—understand the permanent harm closing the county’s public schools inflicted on African American and poorer white students in Prince Edward.

* * * * *

As in an earlier post comparing books about growing up white in the Jim Crow South, the volumes assessed here add personal perspectives on that time and place, while also suggesting problems inherent in trying to understand the “mind” of a diverse and complicated region, or even a small part of it, through autobiographies and memoirs.  Nevertheless, these books include fascinating pieces to the puzzle that is the tangled history of racism and civil rights in the United States.

* * * * * *

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)

POTP Cover

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









Posted in American History, Books, Civil Rights Movement, Current Events, family history, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, memoir, Prince Edward County Virginia, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reckoning with “The Dispossessed Majority,” 1989 (Adventures in Interdisciplinary Land, 9)

[NOTE:  As I’ve explained elsewhere (for example, here and here), some of my “adventures in interdisciplinary land” came in response to requests from colleagues in other disciplines asking for help in dealing with an “historical” issue.  Here is another example, a book by one Wilmot Robertson (real name, John Humphrey Ireland [1915-2005]), The Dispossessed Majority (1972), sent to rising seniors at my school, and other local independent schools, on at least three occasions (1983, 1987, and 1989) by an “anonymous donor.”

I’m not even sure I was aware of the “gift” in 1983 and 1987, but I certainly was in 1989, because my older son was a rising senior at the school.  In June, he and a few classmates were enrolled in a senior New Testament summer school course, trying to clear a slot on their schedules for elective coursework during senior year.  When Robertson’s volume began to arrive at their homes, several of the students in New Testament mentioned it during class.  Because the work purported to be “history,” their instructor asked my son if he thought that I might be willing to address the book and its message for a few minutes in their class.

Cramming my “interdisciplinary” hat on my head, I agreed to undertake the task of explicating a truly wretched, allegedly “historical,” work for my son’s Bible class.  What follows is a lightly revised version of my introductory and concluding remarks.]

* * * * *

To read Wilmot Robertson’s The Dispossessed Majority is to be forcefully reminded of the staying power of ideas, even dangerous ones long since discredited by modern scholarship or rendered untenable by events of the twentieth century.  I should state here that the fact no respectable scholar, and for that matter no thinking American, would accept either Robertson’s thesis or the assumptions on which it is based, probably does not bother the author in the least:  Robertson apparently believes that a massive conspiracy has been operating for a very long time aimed at suppressing the supposed “truths” in his book.

Mr. Robertson writes not a work of history, but a polemical morality play, with clearly-delineated “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys.”  He believes in a hierarchy of races, for example, with the “Nordic” at the top, the superior race.  Robertson also adheres to the Aryan or “master race” concept, although he does admit in a few places that Hitler’s policies towards the Jews and other so-called “inferior races” have made it impossible for anyone to discuss this concept and expect to be taken seriously.  Still, Robertson claims that only members of Northern European “races” managed to construct true “civilizations.”  The American descendants of these various offshoots of the “Aryan race” Robertson labels “the Majority.”

These are Robertson’s “Good Guys,” the “true Americans” who have been “dispossessed” by the “Bad Guys,” whom he terms the “liberal minority.”  The most dangerous elements among the so-called “liberal minority,” according to Robertson, are African Americans and Jews.  In his mind, African Americans are mindless adherents to 1960s-style “Black Power” ideology.  Robertson claims Jews control the nation’s wealth, communications media, and artistic life, and thus are at the center of that supposed gigantic conspiracy that has kept from “the Majority” the knowledge that they have been “dispossessed.”

* * * * *

The Dispossessed Majority is a slickly packaged mishmash of bad anthropology and even worse history.  Robertson’s notion of “superior” and “inferior” races draws heavily on a few works published by the same extremist organization that published his book and ignores virtually all of the findings of modern, mainstream anthropology.

What I know about American history does not agree with Robertson’s story in any important particular.  It is not that Robertson lies consistently to make his points; indeed, there are “facts” in the book.  No, it is what Robertson does with those “facts,” his fondness for outdated interpretations, penchant for distortion, and habit of cloaking half-truths with the appearance of Holy Writ.

* * * * *

In short, The Dispossessed Majority has so little to recommend it that none of you would willingly have paid for the book; perhaps that’s why it was sent to you for free!  Like you, I wonder why this school was selected by Robertson’s backers for this dubious distinction.  Was it because we pride ourselves on being a “Christian school” and the misguided zealots who publish Robertson’s book assume that graduates of an institution like ours will find this work appealing?  Or, has someone in the parent body, or perhaps an anonymous “friend of the school,” paid to have Robertson’s bizarre version of  “the truth” put into your hands, maybe out of a conviction that the view of the past you receive here is simply part of the grand “conspiracy of silence” described by the author?

It seems to me that Robertson’s tome, as worthless as it is, raises questions in at least three areas.  First, to what extent do we who teach History actually aid and abet people like Wilmot Robertson who argue that only the “superior” Nordic or Aryan “races” have actually created “civilizations”?  So long as we focus in our teaching of the past on “Western Civilization,” “European History,” or a version of American History in which all important achievements are made by white males, just so long will we give Robertson’s narrow, twisted perspective a degree of plausibility it does not merit.  Like the society we are still trying to build in this country, the history we teach must include everyone, must not be the exclusive property of any single “race” or group.

The second area that concerns me is that of public policy during the Reagan-Bush era.  To what extent does the gutting of social programs by President Reagan reflect a mindset similar to that of Robertson?  And what about recent Supreme Court rulings against affirmative action programs handed down by a court which, thanks again to President Reagan, now has a slim conservative majority?  The jury is still out on President George H.W. Bush, but, if the campaign that won him the White House in 1988 is any indication, things may not improve very much.  (Remember the infamous “Willie Horton” ad that exploited white fears of black criminals?  The trashing of the word “liberal” until it became something of an obscenity?)  What message do these things send about the nature of the society we are trying to build?

Finally, I wonder about the sense of community here at our school.  This, it seems to me, is an especially appropriate topic for discussion in a New Testament class.  We are a Christian school, but not all of us are Christians, and even among Christians there are honestly held differences of opinion about theology.  So, what do we mean when we describe this institution as a “Christian school”?  Most of us are white, but some are not, and even among what Robertson might call this school’s “Majority” there is a lack of unanimity on just about any political, social, or moral question you care to name.  On what basis do we build our community?  Robertson assumes he can identify an “American type,” at home or abroad; can we recognize a “type” here, on campus or off, by how individuals look or by what they profess to believe?

These are questions worth wrestling with, especially in light of what we read in the New Testament.  I only regret that it took a despicable book like Wilmot Robertson’s The Dispossessed Majority to get me to raise them here.

* * * * *

[Postscript, January 2018:  Reading through this manuscript recently, I was struck by how the venom spewed in Wilmot Robertson’s book in the 1970s and 1980s remains sadly relevant to our nation’s present political and cultural strife.  In our era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” of Steve Bannon and “Breitbart,” of our President labeling (and libeling) the press as “enemies of the people,” Robertson’s tome would no doubt find an eager readership among members of at least one political party, at least those in it who support the President.

Yet, considering the almost daily appearance of even more outrageous statements from our public officials (especially one of them), statements that then become chum for social media sharks out there before being displaced by yet another outrageous pronouncement, perhaps The Dispossessed Majority too might quickly disappear without leaving a ripple, a fate it would richly deserve.

Nearly three decades ago, however, when Robertson’s book arrived–for the third time in six years, remember–at the doorsteps of our rising senior class, my son’s New Testament teacher asked me to furnish perspective, context for that volume, and I could not ignore his request.

Finally, I admire how the president of our school described Robertson’s work in a letter to members of my son’s class, the Class of 1990:

“In my opinion, shared by some faculty colleagues and many [or our] graduates who received the book, The Dispossessed Majority contains racist trash written by a known extremist.”]


* * * * * *

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, building a classroom persona, Current Events, Denying the Holocaust, Education, family history, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, memoir, Popular Culture, Prep School, Southern History, Teaching, Theology, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A Post for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2018

[NOTE:  I have described in several earlier posts the long and winding curricular road that eventually led me to teach a course,  the “History of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement,” for a few years at an Atlanta “prep school.”  (See here, here, and here.)  Recently, I came across another milestone on this journey to the Civil Rights course, a brief talk I gave to help commemorate the life and legacy of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during an assembly at my school on January 16, 1987.

The head of the History department had asked me a couple of weeks earlier to prepare a 5-10 minute biographical sketch to introduce a panel discussion on Dr. King and his historical significance. To me, the most important part of the talk was not the biographical information.  Rather, I was more concerned with the final section, where I shifted from a rather dry, objective overview to a more personal take on the man and what he meant to us as a nation.  That section appears below, lightly revised.]

* * * * *


Martin Luther King, Jr., was the most eloquent and best-known voice of the civil rights movement between 1956, the year of the Montgomery bus boycott, and his assassination twelve years later.  His dedication to the philosophy of non-violent resistance against segregation and discrimination; his powerful, moving speeches; and the sympathetic eye of television news made him the most visible symbol for the strivings of his people.  To many of us growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, King was the Movement.  That, of course, was a vast oversimplification, unfair to other talented leaders, and especially to those anonymous “foot soldiers” they led.

Even if Dr. King symbolized the civil rights movement to a child of television like me, there was much more to him than that.  His concern for equal rights was not abstract or intellectual.  His commitment was deeply spiritual:  his grounding in the Christian faith, combined with his natural gifts, created a leader who was charismatic, compassionate, and self-sacrificing.  Nowhere is this more evident than in a talk he gave to 2000 people tightly crammed into a Memphis church on a rainy spring evening.  I would like to share some of what he said on that occasion with you this morning.

Dr. King was tired and his nerves were frazzled because of a bomb threat that had delayed his flight earlier that day.  He didn’t want to speak that evening, but his aides convinced him that he should.  At the beginning of the talk, he reviewed his career and spoke of the challenges that lay ahead for the civil rights movement.  Then he turned to various threats against his life:

I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  Like anybody I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the Promised Land.  And I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.  So I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. . . . With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day, when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old, “Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God almighty we are free at last.”  (Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound, p.486)

Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered this message on the evening of April 3, 1968.  Less than twenty-four hours later, he was dead.  The words of the Negro spiritual quoted by Dr. King are carved on his tomb.

Wikimedia Commons

* * * * *

There were black leaders more militant than King, shrewder, better organizers.  But none could rouse listeners—whether black or white—as he did:  to indignation against injustice; to marches and demonstrations at the risk of facing policemen’s clubs, tear gas, dogs, and cattle prods; to faith in the inevitable triumph of love over hate, brotherhood over persecution.  Martin Luther King, Jr., is, to me, one of the truly heroic figures of the twentieth century.

* * * * *

For a subsequent evaluation of King’s significance, the product of additional decades in the classroom, what I trust is a broader understanding of the history of the civil rights movement, and several years teaching a course on that topic, I invite you to read this post, from 2015.

* * * * * *

For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several 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)

POTP Cover

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





Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Georgia’s Notorious Yazoo Land Fraud and Its Consequences, Part 2 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 27)

[Note: The first post in this series discussed the Yazoo land fraud and its consequences between 1795 and 1815 or so.  This part carries the story through the late 1830s, when Georgia, strongly supported by President Andrew Jackson, finally realized the oft-delayed promise in the controversial “Compact of 1802,” which transferred the Yazoo lands to the federal government:  the removal of the Creeks and the Cherokees from Georgia.]

* * * * *

A more tragic legacy of the Yazoo fraud grew out of the state’s cession of its disputed western territory to Congress in the “Compact of 1802.”  As cotton culture spread across Georgia, federal officials proved either unwilling or unable to extinguish quickly enough for land-hungry Georgians the claims of the Creeks and the Cherokees to lands within the state.  Angered over this delay in fulfilling the terms of the “Compact,” throughout the 1820s and 1830s Georgia’s leaders regularly prodded Washington to complete the process of Indian removal. By the late 1830s, this process was complete, after one of the ugliest campaigns in the nation’s history.

* * * * *

William Harris Crawford (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

In 1814, in the Treaty of Ft. Jackson, the Creeks ceded 22 million acres of land in the southeastern United States, including a large swath, but not all, of their lands in Georgia.  To help nudge the Creeks towards complete removal, Secretary of War William Harris Crawford, a long-time power in Georgia politics, convinced President James Madison to appoint Georgia Governor David Brydie Mitchell as federal agent to the Creeks, a position he held from 1817 to 1821.  When he accepted this appointment, Mitchell clearly believed that his main task was to secure additional lands from the Creeks.

David Brydie Mitchell (Nat. Govs. Assn)

Despite pressure to cede tribal lands exerted on them both by Agent Mitchell and the government of Georgia, the Creeks dug in their heels.  The Compact of 1802 was irrelevant, the Creek National Council argued in 1824, because its provision that the United States could acquire Indian land only “peacefully and on reasonable terms” meant that the Creeks were within their treaty rights to refuse to sell the lands.  Therefore, the Creeks insisted, “we must positively decline the proposal of a removal beyond the Mississippi, or the sale of any more of our territory.”

Chief William McIntosh (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

And yet, in 1825, Georgia concluded a flagrantly corrupt treaty at Indian Springs with a small group of Creeks led by Chief William McIntosh, who–wait for it–was Governor George Troup’s cousin.  This pact transferred all remaining Creek lands in Georgia to the state.

Governor George M. Troup

Although the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, when newly-inaugurated President John Quincy Adams learned of the corruption involved in securing it, he disavowed the agreement.  Governor Troup angrily insisted that the treaty was valid and threatened that, if challenged by Adams, the state would meet force with force.  This hasty threat of civil war blew over, but only after the Adams Administration negotiated new treaties, in 1826 (Washington, D.C.) and 1827 (Ft. Mitchell), that finally procured the last Creek lands in Georgia, this time without the rank odor of corruption that had accompanied the Indian Springs pact.

(William McIntosh’s role in signing the Treaty of Indian Springs cost him his life, because the Creek National Council earlier had voted that any tribal member who disposed of Creek territory without permission was guilty of treason, a capital crime.  Governor Troup and the Georgia authorities claimed that McIntosh had been “assassinated”; tribal officials termed McIntosh’s death a legally-mandated “execution.”)

* * * * *

In the aftermath of Troup’s—and Georgia’s—triumph over the Adams Administration, Georgians who shaped public opinion clearly indicated the next step:  with the Creeks vanquished from Georgia, the turn of the Cherokees had come.  Once again, the Compact of 1802 reared its head.

Moreover, the creation of a republican government by the Cherokee Nation in 1827 outraged Georgians, who saw it as an attempt to create a state within a state, and, thus, as an unacceptable attack on Georgia’s sovereignty, a violation of Georgia’s “state rights.”  To Georgians, the federal government’s duty remained fulfillment of the Compact of 1802:  Washington must secure Cherokee lands for Georgia, or the state would be forced to act unilaterally, as it had against the Creeks.

George Troup’s gubernatorial successors, John Forsyth, George Gilmer, and Wilson Lumpkin, had cut their teeth in Congress defending Troup’s approach to Indian affairs, so, once they entered the Governor’s office, none of them could afford to be less demanding than Troup. And, beginning in 1829, Georgia had a powerful, unswerving ally in Washington, President Andrew Jackson, who shared the state’s views on the need for Indian removal and encouraged Georgia to ignore efforts by the U.S. Supreme Court to defend the rights of the Cherokees in the cases of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832).  (Claiming, on state rights grounds, that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction over the state’s dealings with the Cherokees, Georgia’s governors refused even to appoint a lawyer to represent the state before the Court.)

Like the Creeks before them, the Cherokees enacted a law (1829) making further cessions of tribal land without their National Council’s permission a capital offense.  By June 1830, however, sure of President Jackson’s backing, Georgia had annexed Cherokee territory; extended state laws over the area; prohibited the Cherokee National Council from meeting within the boundaries of Georgia (except to cede lands); forbidden Cherokees from mining gold found on their lands; and required an oath of allegiance to Georgia from all whites living in the Cherokee Nation, in an effort to weaken the influence of Christian missionaries there.

John Ridge

By 1831, John Ridge, a member of the Cherokee delegation of lobbyists in Washington, had heard from supporters that there was no longer any hope the Cherokees could stave off removal.  He also had seen editorials in northern newspapers that had once defended the tribe, now conceding that the time had come to give up their fight.  President Jackson himself told Ridge that, while the Cherokees were certainly free to try to remain in the East, the national government would do nothing to aid them.

Consequently, John Ridge, his father Major Ridge, and his cousin Elias Boudinot, editor of the tribal newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, concluded that removal to the West was inevitable.  They would form the core of the so-called “Treaty Party” that shortly organized to negotiate a Cherokee removal treaty on the best possible terms.

John Ross, Principal Chief

The Cherokees’ Principal Chief, John Ross, and the National Council continued to reject the idea of leaving Georgia, but, in December 1835, the Treaty Party signed an agreement at New Echota exchanging Cherokee lands in Georgia for new territory west of the Mississippi River.  Even though the Treaty Party represented only a small minority of the Cherokee people, both the Jackson Administration and the government of Georgia accepted the agreement as legitimate.

Principal Chief John Ross worked strenuously to abort the new treaty or to secure better terms, to no avail.  The Compact of 1802, the federal government’s recognition of the success of James Jackson’s effort to overturn the Yazoo Land Fraud in 1796, had at last been fulfilled, at least to the satisfaction of white Georgians.

“Trail of Tears”

The end of the Indian removal campaign came in the winter of 1838-1839.  Most eastern Cherokees moved West along the infamous “Trail of Tears,” during which an estimated 4000-5000 of them died.  And, in a bloody epilogue to the drama, in June 1839 several groups of Cherokees, loyal to John Ross but purportedly acting without his knowledge, killed Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot for their part in arranging the Treaty of New Echota.

* * * * *

Governor John Clark (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

 Georgia politicians continued to use the “Yazoo” label to discredit their political opponents for decades following the 1814 congressional settlement. For instance, Troup party members employed “Yazoo” as a partisan club to bludgeon supporters of opposition leader John Clark, who had received some of the Yazoo lands.  In 1821 and 1825, Troup newspapers published detailed accounts of the Yazoo Fraud to inform readers who had no personal memory of that infamous transaction of what had occurred, and why those long-ago events should lead them to vote for George Troup instead of John Clark for Governor.  (Clark defeated Troup in 1821; in 1825, though, with the popular Treaty of Indian Springs in his pocket, Troup was elected.)

The use of “Yazoo” to discredit opponents did not end in 1825.  There are references in Georgia newspapers to the Fraud and its perpetrators during political campaigns as late as 1835, forty years after the original sale!  That virtually all of those actually involved on both sides of the Yazoo question had either retired or died by 1835 evidently made no difference.

* * * * *

Moreover, by the late 1830s, the political landscape in Georgia had changed almost beyond recognition:  Indian removal was all but complete; the low country had become a political backwater; what had been referred to, sometimes sneeringly, as the “upcountry” was now the center of economic and political influence in the state; and there was a new frontier, this one wrested by whites from Georgia’s original inhabitants.

Georgia’s infamous Yazoo Land Fraud proved an almost perfect example of the law of unintended consequences.  The sale was conceived and executed by avaricious speculators and their enablers and fought by angry white Georgians and their allies, using George Troup’s concept of “state rights.” Once the lands were transferred to the national government in the “Compact of 1802,” Georgia’s–and eventually the nation’s–focus shifted to the removal of the Creeks and Cherokees from within the state’s borders. The eventual, but ignoble, success of this long campaign opened the way for the further expansion of slavery in Georgia and in Alabama and Mississippi, states created from the Yazoo lands. Finally, the expansion of slavery in the southeast, and the increasingly bitter, bloody effort to push it into lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase and the war with Mexico, strengthened the importance of the region’s “peculiar institution” to the nation’s economy as well as to the idea of “state rights” that helped sustain it; this sparked the cry that “Cotton was King,” which underlay most of the incidents on the long “road to the Civil War” between 1848 and 1861.

* * * * *

SOURCES (Parts 1 and 2):

Hobson, Charles F.  The Great Yazoo Lands Sale:  The Case of Fletcher v. Peck.  Lawrence, Kansas:  University Press of Kansas, 2016.

Lamplugh, George R.  Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806.  Newark, Delaware:  University of Delaware Press, 1986.

______________.  Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1807-1845.  Lanham, Maryland:  University Press of America, 2015.

* * * * * *

For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several 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 "Cherokee Phoenix" (newspaper), American History, Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Removal, Chief John Ross (Cherokees), Creek Indians, George M. Troup, George R. Gilmer, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, John Clark, Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Uncategorized, William Harris Crawford, Wilson Lumpkin, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Georgia’s Notorious Yazoo Land Fraud and Its Consequences, Part 1 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 27 )


[NOTE: The Yazoo land fraud was the key issue in my doctoral dissertation (and the book that grew out of it), which treated the evolution of political parties in Georgia between the American Revolution and 1806.  And yet, the Yazoo story was not over, as I realized once I began research on a sequel to that first book.  During four decades after 1806, Yazoo transcended its parochial beginnings in Georgia to become a factor in regional and national events.  It is that more complete story that I hope to tell here.  A list of sources will be appended to Part 2.]

* * * * *

The Yazoo land fraud was one of the most significant events in the post-Revolutionary history of Georgia and the United States. The bizarre climax to a decade of frenzied speculation in the state’s public lands, the Yazoo sale of 1795 did much to shape–and warp–Georgia politics for decades and to strain relations with the federal government for at least a generation.  Reaction to the great land fraud guaranteed that political party development in Georgia would be different from that process in other states; divided one of the nation’s major parties; produced a landmark Supreme Court decision; helped pave the way for Indian removal; and played a major role in establishing the belief, at least among southern white males, that the theory of “state rights” was a legitimate response to the power of the national government, thus nudging the country down the road to the Civil War.

* * * * *

Yazoo Lands (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

Georgia was too weak after the Revolution to defend its vast western land claims (roughly, the modern-day states of Alabama and Mississippi), called the “Yazoo lands” for the river that flowed through the westernmost part of them. Consequently, the legislature listened eagerly to proposals from companies of land speculators willing to pay for the right to form settlements there.

In the 1780s, Georgia supported two unsuccessful speculative projects to establish counties in the western territory, and then tried, again without success, to cede a portion of those lands to Congress. In 1789, the legislature sold about 25 million acres of Yazoo lands to three companies of speculators, only to torpedo the sale six months later by insisting that payment be made in gold and silver rather than in depreciated paper currency left over from the American Revolution.

Pressure continued to build on legislators; by mid-November 1794, a majority reportedly once again favored the sale of the western territory to speculators. On January 7, 1795, Georgia governor George Mathews signed the Yazoo Act, transferring 35 million acres of land to four companies for $500,000 (about 1½ cents/acre). To bring off this coup, the leader of the Yazoo speculators, Georgia’s Federalist U.S. Senator James Gunn, distributed money and land to legislators, state officials, newspaper editors, and other influential, land-hungry Georgians.

Cries of bribery and corruption accompanied the Yazoo Act as it made its way to final passage. Angry Georgians protested the sale in petitions, anonymous newspaper essays, political speeches, and raucous street demonstrations.  Despite this swelling opposition, the Yazoo companies completed their purchases, then promptly sold their lands to other, supposedly “innocent,” speculators, most of whom resided in New England.

* * * * *

James Jackson (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

Learning of the circumstances surrounding passage of the Yazoo Act, Georgia’s leading Jeffersonian Republican, U.S. Senator James Jackson, resigned his seat and returned home determined to overturn the sale. Making skillful use of county grand juries and newspapers, Jackson and his allies gained control of the next session of the legislature. After holding hearings substantiating corruption charges in the sale of the Yazoo lands, Jackson himself dictated the terms of the 1796 Rescinding Act, nullifying the sale, which was signed by Governor Jared Irwin, a Jackson ally.

Burning the Yazoo Act

James Jackson also arranged for the destruction of records connected with the sale; ensured that state officials tainted by Yazoo were denied re-election and replaced by his own anti-Yazoo, pro-Jefferson supporters; and, in 1798, orchestrated a revision of the state constitution that incorporated the substance of the Rescinding Act.

* * * * *

The Yazoo Fraud played a major role in determining that political party development in Georgia would be very different from most other states in the new nation.  There had not been many influential Federalists in Georgia, and most of them were implicated in the Yazoo Fraud.  So, beginning in 1795, what mattered in Georgia was not Federalists vs. Republicans, but Yazoo vs. Anti-Yazoo.

To prevent speculators claiming lands under the Yazoo purchase from receiving a sympathetic hearing in a Congress still dominated by the Federalists, James Jackson and his lieutenants blocked any cession of the western territory to the national government until Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party was in control, after the election of 1800.  In 1802, commissioners from Georgia, including James Jackson, transferred the lands and the Yazoo claims to other Jeffersonians representing the federal government.

Under this so-called “Compact of 1802,” the United States paid Georgia $1.25 million for the Yazoo lands and agreed to extinguish as quickly as possible remaining Native Americans land claims within the state, when that could be done “peaceably” and “on reasonable terms.” This pledge, a product of the turmoil over the Yazoo Fraud, would prove controversial in the years ahead.

* * * * *

Northern speculators who had bought land from the Yazoo purchasers pressed Congress for payment, despite the Compact of 1802. After all, they argued, they had bought the lands from the original Yazoo companies and expected to be able to exploit those purchases.  But Georgia had cancelled the sale and turned the lands over to the national government in 1802, so, if the “innocent” purchasers were to get any satisfaction, it would have to come from Congress.

John Randolph (Wikipedia)

Yet, for more than a decade, congressmen sympathetic to Georgia, led by the eccentric Virginian John Randolph, rebuffed them.  (In 1795, during the excitement over the Yazoo sale, Randolph had been in low country Georgia visiting a friend, Joseph Bryan, and had experienced first-hand the emotion, violence, and charges and counter-charges accompanying the fraud.)

George M. Troup

A key Randolph ally in frustrating the efforts of the Yazoo claimants was Georgia congressman George M. Troup, who honed a powerful doctrine of state rights to do so.  Troup argued that the Yazoo Act had only passed because of corruption.  The sale had subsequently been rescinded by an outraged republican people determined to recover their landed inheritance from a pack of vile, crooked speculators, as it was their right to do.  Thus, to reward allegedly “innocent” purchasers of Yazoo lands would mean that Congress supported the fraud used to separate Georgia’s western territory from its citizens, ignoring state rights in the process.

Chief Justice John Marshall (Wikipedia)

The frustrated Northern claimants finally sued for redress, and, in the case of Fletcher v. Peck (1810), Chief Justice John Marshall ruled for the Supreme Court that, regardless of the corruption allegedly accompanying the sale, the Rescinding Act had been an unconstitutional violation of the right of contract. Rejecting this ruling, Georgia’s congressmen and their allies continued to block efforts to reach a settlement with the Yazoo claimants.  In 1814, however, after John Randolph was denied re-election by his Virginia constituents, Congress finally resolved the issue, providing $5,000,000 from the proceeds of land sales in Mississippi Territory to be shared by the Yazoo claimants.

* * * * *

The congressional debate over the Yazoo claims between 1802 and 1814 was long, bitter, and repetitive, boring even.  But not entirely:

Speaker of the House Nathaniel Macon (Wikipedia)

By December 1809, for example, the Speaker of the House, Nathaniel Macon, was at the end of his tether.  Yet another petition had arrived from a group of supposedly “innocent” New England speculators in Yazoo lands, praying that Congress settle their claims.  Speaker Macon was irate because the petitioners could not seem to take no for an answer:  every time Congress rejected one of their petitions, they simply came back with another one!  This time, Macon told the House that “to keep this petition out of these walls [of Congress], I would be willing to vote to give the State of Georgia a sum [of money] equal to what we have given for the land, to take it back.  We made a bad bargain with her; I thought so then, and I think so still.”

Almost five years later, in the spring of 1814, when it was clear that Congress finally was ready to satisfy the Yazoo claimants, angry Georgia congressmen fought a stubborn rearguard action.  By that time, however, even the clerk who reported on the speeches for the House journal had had enough.

When Representative George M. Troup rose to speak, yet again, against the proposed Yazoo claims settlement, the reporter ignored the details of the Georgian’s diatribe, writing instead that Troup had “displayed the vehemence and zeal which usually characterizes his observations on this question . . ., until he appeared to be exhausted by the effort of speaking.”  Or, as we might put it today, “yada, yada, yada. . . .”

* * * * *

The cost of the “victory” for the Yazoo purchasers was high for the nation’s dominant party, the Jeffersonian Republicans.  The long and increasingly bitter congressional debate over Yazoo was one of the factors that split the party after the War of 1812.  “Old Republicans” like John Randolph, George Troup, and Georgia political leader William Harris Crawford clung to the firmly pro-state rights rhetoric of the party’s founders, Jefferson and James Madison, and saw the settlement of the Yazoo claims as a violation of the rights of the state of Georgia.

On the other hand, younger Republicans were eager to put the Yazoo question behind them so they could turn to charting the nation’s new course. They were generally less ideological, more pragmatic, than their elders and supported significant departures from Jefferson’s principles:  the re-establishment of the Bank of the United States; passage of the nation’s first protective tariff, in 1816; and government financial support for costly internal improvements like canals and turnpikes, as envisioned by Republican Congressman Henry Clay of Kentucky’s so-called “American System.”  This division helped produce two new national parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, in the 1820s.

[End of Part 1]

* * * * * *

For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several 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, George M. Troup, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, James Gunn, Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Uncategorized, William Harris Crawford, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

They don’t call me “Dr. Excitement” for nothin’, you know! (Be True to Your School, 5)

[Note:  In a previous post in this series, I discussed how certain personal eccentricities helped me construct a “classroom persona,” one “Dr.,” beard, polyester suit, and awful pun at a time.  In this entry, I’d like to offer a few examples of how the likes and dislikes that helped shape that persona also dictated  some of the choices I made in designing my Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) course over nearly four decades at “Atlanta’s Finest Prep School” (AFPS).  And, yes, these examples also grew out of my teaching mantra, “Never let ’em think you’re boring or predictable,” mentioned in that earlier post.]

* * * * *

Thomas Jefferson (

“Nothing important has happened in the American past since 1800.”

This catchphrase became a staple during what I like to think of as the “Federalist Period” of my classroom persona.  After all, my dissertation treated the political history of a single American state from the American Revolution through 1806, when the state’s first “party boss” died, so when I began to teach at AFPS I knew more about those years than any others. I greatly admired—and still do—our first two Presidents, George Washington and John Adams, both Federalists.  I wasn’t as much of an Alexander Hamilton fan, though I did appreciate his “financial plan” designed to put the nation on a firm financial footing following adoption of the Constitution.  And, because I was such a fan of Washington and Adams, I of course had to denigrate Thomas Jefferson and all his works after the election of 1800.

Obviously, one cannot teach an American History survey course, especially on the AP level, without going beyond 1800, so, in case you’re wondering, I didn’t stop the course  with Thomas Jefferson’s election.  I did, however, develop a fairly histrionic explanation of my reluctance to go beyond that point in the nation’s history, a presentation that never failed to puzzle my students and produce multiple eye rolls in the peanut gallery.

As I began research on a second book, which completed the topic I had begun in my dissertation, carrying the story of political party development in that same southern state from 1807 through the mid-1840s, I learned more about the periods of the Early American Republic and the Antebellum decades.  While doing so, I eventually came to admire Jefferson’s political wizardry, Andrew Jackson’s stand against Nullification (though not his Indian policy or the Bank War), and Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War.

So, in the end, I only continued to dislike the period from Reconstruction through 1945, or claimed I did, for a while (see below).  Who says you can’t teach an old history teacher new tricks?

* * * * *

“The News from Indian Country: Elias Boudinot and the Cherokee Phoenix”

I originally prepared this lecture for an interdisciplinary program on Native American cultures that the school offered one year.  I was eager to do it because the topic of Indian Removal was central to the ongoing research project I’d begun in 1990, on the second phase of  party development in that southern state, from 1807 to 1845. Once I’d used the talk in the interdisciplinary program, it seemed natural to incorporate it into the APUSH course when we reached the Age of Jackson.  I did that, and the presentation became an annual feature for my students.  (And my discovery of the Cherokee Phoenix and its founding editor, Elias Boudinot, provided a Native American perspective on the otherwise dispiriting campaign to remove the Cherokees from Georgia.)

* * * * *

“The Wah-uh”

As noted earlier, I decided, midway through my career at AFPS, to avoid glamorizing war in all my courses, whether I was teaching Ancient, Medieval, Modern European, or American history.  I applied the same formula to each conflict, requiring my charges to become familiar with a) causes; b) turning points; and c) short and long-term consequences.  Given that my APUSH seniors were in Atlanta, the home of Margaret Mitchell of Gone With the Wind fame, they came to my class predisposed to hear a “drums and trumpets” version of the Civil War, but I refused to give them one.  A child of the Vietnam Era, I saw no need to stress the “glory” of martial conflict; and, besides, I had over the years developed a keen interest in life on the “home front” during America’s various wars.

I began our unit on the “the Wah-uh” with the first episode in Ken Burns’ memorable documentary series, The Civil War, “The Cause, 1861.”  I followed that episode a few classes later with episode five, “The Universe of Battle,” which had as its focus the Battle of Gettysburg.  My own contributions to our study of the nation’s central conflict were two  lectures, one on the home front, contrasting accounts of the War in the autobiographies of Unionist George Templeton Strong and Confederate Mary Boykin Chesnut; and another I called “The Civil War in Fifty Minutes,” which sketched the military “highlights” of the conflict, absent trumpets and drums.

* * * * *

“The Age of Jim Crow” and the Blues

Years before I inherited an elective course on the History of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement, I had decided that one way to make the (to me) dreary period after “the Wah-uh” interesting was to spend time “‘splainin'” to my charges how the “Age of Jim Crow” came to be and why it was important for them, residents of the modern, post-Civil Rights Movement South, to understand where the system of racial oppression the Movement had fought against had come from.

A regular supplement to our study of Jim Crow in the post-Civil War South grew out of my love affair with the African American musical contribution, the Blues, which I managed to work into my APUSH  course each spring.  This approach proved so effective, not to mention popular, that I subsequently included it in that elective course on the Civil Rights Movement and in a series of “mini-courses” I offered for several years during an annual “Back-to-School Night” event for alumni and have subsequently published on this blog– see for example, here, here, and here.

* * * * *

American History in the “Age of Lamplugh” (1944 ff):

[Eventually, I modestly converted the nation’s history since the end of World War II into the “Age of Lamplugh,” because it pretty much coincided with my time on earth.  As I grew older and settled into my role as an “Old Head” at the school, I began to see where I “fit” into that swath of time.  This was not really an attempt on my part to speak autobiographically, believe it or not; rather, it enabled me to give my sometimes jaded APUSH seniors a chance to see that history “happened” to real people, not simply to the “usual suspects” they had been learning about since elementary school.  Below are some examples.]

World War II

The most interesting topics (to me, remember) between 1941 and 1945 were life on the American home front, including the internment of Japanese Americans, and the still controversial decision to drop the atomic bombs on the Japanese homeland in hopes of bringing a quicker end to the war.

Regarding the latter issue, I was, as I annually explained, of two minds about President Truman’s use of that ultimate weapon in August 1945.  The destruction was terrible, but it did bring the war to a rapid close, which, in retrospect, was important to my family.  My father was among those American soldiers sent to Japan as part of what was expected to be an invasion force that would, by best estimates of military leaders, face fierce resistance and probably suffer large casualties during the assault.  Because of what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that landing–and the concomitant American casualties–were unnecessary, and, after a brief time in American-occupied Japan, my father returned home.

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The Modern Civil Rights Movement

A logical follow-up to the “Jim Crow” unit, this brief look at the highlights of the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s also provided some needed context to help explain the rise of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as the “face” and voice of the Movement.  Of great assistance here were a few excerpts from Henry Hampton’s magnificent documentary series, Eyes on the Prize.  And, as mentioned above, what I’d learned about the period from “Jim Crow” through MLK over the years also prepared me for the junior/senior elective course I inherited a few years before I retired, The History of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement.

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Springtime and Vietnam

As I’ve explained elsewhere, though unwilling to do so at first I eventually found that I must come to terms with the history of our involvement in Vietnam. Having done so, I then incorporated a fifty-minute lecture on that topic into my APUSH courses (1989-2009) and even delivered it a few times to the entire senior class as a contribution to a series of “senior lectures.” [That lecture also has been published on this blog–see here, here, here, and here.]

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“Popular Music as Social Commentary”

I enjoyed this unit, and my APUSH seniors did as well. A colleague and I created an audio tape of topical songs, mostly folk and folk rock pieces, and we took a couple of days to play through and discuss the tape with our classes, stressing the importance of listening to–and, most importantly–trying to understand, the lyrics.  And, unlike a lot of the music my students normally listened to, the songs on the tape actually had lyrics that were worth paying attention to and told a story, if one listened closely, a story that could be related to a number of key issues and episodes in the nation’s post-World War II history.

Discussion was a key element of this assignment, which we first offered in the late 1980s and continued to use for the next decade or so, periodically revising the play list to keep up with current events.  Among the topics covered were:  ‘60s counterculture; Vietnam; the Cold War, including, during the Reagan years, the always uplifting prospect of nuclear annihilation; drugs; urban unrest; the decline of manufacturing and agriculture; modern American religion; small-town America and its discontents; and several anthems that raised even broader questions about the mood of the nation itself (e.g., Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” and “American Tune”; Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changin’”; and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” which Republican politicos who thought the title would aid their “patriotic” cause never quite understood).

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The Best Thing to Come Out of New Jersey (Other Than the Turnpike)

Speaking of Springsteen, in the 2000s I let my fondness for the music of the “Bard of New Jersey,” come to the fore each spring, when we looked at the Great Depression, believe it or not.  First, I used an excerpt from the classic movie version of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and photos from the Depression era to illustrate the plight of “Okies” and other migrants during the 1930s.  Next, I asked my classes to consider the plight of the modern “dispossessed,” showing the music video version of Springsteen’s powerful, angry ballad, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which transports Steinbeck’s character to the first decade of the twenty-first century, with words, music, and images courtesy of “The Boss.”

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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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