Unflattering Views of the Georgia Legislature, 2017 and 1817

[Note:  Four years ago, just in time for the adjournment of the Georgia legislature, I came across a lovely description of the state’s solons from 1817.  Re-reading that post today, as the 2017 session of the legislature convenes, I realized that the earlier description is now a nice, round 200 years old.  So, I decided to revise the 2012 mini-screed and re-post it, in honor of the opening of yet another meeting of Georgia’s finest.

Since that earlier post, our state legislature has distinguished itself in too many ways to list here, but let me just mention a couple that have garnered Georgia national press.  There was the “guns [almost] everywhere bill,” for example; perhaps we can look forward this year to our legislators earning their props from the NRA by closing the remaining, um, “loopholes.”  (Pistol-packin’ in pre-k, anyone?)  Last year, our representatives and senators strove mightily and produced a so-called “religious liberty” bill that our Governor, always aware of the screams from the state’s business community, summoned up the gumption to veto.  Guess what’s being bruited about this year–c’mon now, you can do it!  That’s right:  the “religious liberty” bill–the sequel. . . .  And a new study reveals that elections in Georgia are among the least competitive in the nation:  in a sense our system has evolved to the point that all that matters is incumbency–and the various PACs that shovel money in the direction of the incumbents.]

* * * * *

Dread is palpable all round the greater Atlanta area; wives and daughters are only allowed  to leave their homes under heavily armed escort; the family silver has been taken out of the dining room display cabinet and moved to a secure location.  Yes, friends, the duly-elected members of the Georgia General Assembly have arrived in town, with their usual plans to do as much “good” for (to?) the state, its citizens, and its economy as is humanly possible, unless prevented by cooler heads, a catastrophic “weather event,” or plain, dumb luck.

Now, in fairness, not everyone is unhappy to see our solons roll into to town:  the National Rifle Association, Georgia Right to Life, some elements of our many-sided “tea party” movement, the state chapter of the Donald Trump Fan Club, and more lobbyists than you can shake a stick at can hardly wait for the session to begin.

So, as a public service; to help inspire our dedicated solons as they go about their appointed tasks; and to confirm yet again the adage that “the more things change, the more they remain the same,” here’s a glimpse of a group of their predecessors, offered by a traveler in Georgia 200 years ago.  Peter A. Remsen, a New Yorker on his way to Alabama, visited Milledgeville, which was then the state capital, on December 20-21, 1817, just as the legislative session was winding down, and recorded his impressions:

The Legislature of this State closed its sitting on the morning of the 20th inst.  I did not visit the state house. Some 20 boarders [who were members of the legislature] put up at the house we stoped [sic] at.  But alas!  What would New Yorkers say to see them [?]  I certainly do not hesitate to say that their conduct was beneath that of any crew of sailors that was ever seen.  Cursing, quarrelling, hollowing [sic], drinking, getting drunk.  Disputing landlords [sic] bill.  Drunken men hugging sober ones.  Illiterate, mean appearances, readiness for rasseling [sic] etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc..  On the night of the 18th inst. (a thing at the close of all their meetings) the Governor [William Rabun] at the head, with a horse visited all boarding houses of members [of the legislature].  Draged [sic] them out of bed.  Marched the square and streets, and from report the noise excelled that of wild beasts.  Its [sic] well the North knows not what the South does.  Vice Versa.  [SOURCE:  William B. Hesseltine and Larry Gara, eds., “Across Georgia and Into Alabama, 1817-1818,” GHQ 37 (1953), 332]

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

REABP 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 "Business-Speak", American History, Current Events, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, Popular Culture, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

A Post for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, 2017

john-quincy-adams-pictureThe Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has long been one of my  heroes, beginning when I was a youngster growing up in an industrial suburb of Baltimore in the 1950s.  In the 1960s, when I decided that I wanted to teach American History, I wondered where Dr. King and his legacy would fit in.  He and the movement he represented seemed, at least at that time, part of “current events” rather than “history.”  Fortunately for me, I didn’t yet have to answer that question, either in college (because the American History survey course I took did not make it past World War II); or, after two-years in the U.S. Army,  graduate school (because, even as a teaching assistant, I–that’s right–never took my American History survey course much past the end of the Second World War).

Once I signed on at The Westminster Schools, an Atlanta “prep school,” in 1973 and learned that I would be teaching United States History, the need to fit Dr. King into the American story became more pressing.  Given the pace of the typical academic year at my school, however, I discovered that, by the time I reached the 1950s and 1960s, there was little time left before I had to begin prepping my Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) students for their end-of-the-year, comprehensive, standardized exam.

So many important postwar trends to cover and so little time available!  Eventually, I decided to focus on a few “big themes” for the post-1945 period:  the Presidency; the War in Vietnam; and–wait for it–the modern Civil Rights Movement.  I developed a brief unit on the Civil Rights Movement for APUSH, but I still felt as if I were giving a crucial topic short shrift.

I did eventually get the chance to focus on King and the Movement, but it took me quite a while (look here, here, and here for initial steps along that road).  At last, a few years before the end of my time in the classroom, I inherited a one-semester, junior/senior-level elective course on the Modern American Civil Rights Movement that I taught for several years.

During that same period, I also had the opportunity to assume the editorship of the History Department Newsletter.  In that post, I naturally felt compelled to opine from time to time on issues in the study of American History that I felt were important and should not be ignored at Westminster.  And–surprise!–chief among them was the Civil Rights Movement in general and Dr. King’s role in particular.

Following my retirement, and the launching of this blog (as a sort of replacement for my editorial duties at the History Department Newsletter), I continued to believe that students must understand both the background of the Civil Rights Movement (i.e., the so-called “Age of Jim Crow”) and the Movement itself if they were to understand the modern history of this nation and their own place in it.  And, perhaps inevitably, in January 2012 I decided to offer a post centered on my personal reflections about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement, the main sources for which were several editorials I had written for the History Department Newsletter.

nps.gov

nps.gov

That 2012 post soon became one of the most popular at “Retired But Not Shy,” and it remains a personal favorite among the more than one hundred thirty posts on this site.  I revised the King reflection–and re-posted it–in January 2015.  If you haven’t yet read this essay, or if you’re simply in the mood to meditate on Dr. King’s role in the American story as part of your observation of the King Holiday, I’m attaching a link to the more recent version:

https://georgelamplugh.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/civil-rights-and-wrongs-reflections-on-the-rev-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-and-his-legacy/

I hope you enjoy it.

* * * * * *

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 Age of Jim Crow, American History, Civil Rights Movement, Current Events, Dr. Martin Luther King, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, Popular Culture, Prep School, Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

“Massive Resistance” at Ground Level: The Case of Prince Edward County, Virginia (Teaching Civil Rights, 5)

john-quincy-adams-picture
A Review of

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

[NOTE:  One of the great joys of my last few years in the classroom was the opportunity to teach an elective course  for juniors and seniors on the History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Preparing for—and teaching—that course led me to read many works on the  Movement, as well as to discover several videos to supplement my course.  Since my May 2010 retirement, I have continued to read books on Civil Rights and have reviewed some of them on this site (see here, here, here, here).

Recently, I discovered another volume that might help high school (and college) students understand the impact of the so-called “long civil rights movement,” which, as the label suggests, began well before the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.]

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amazon.com

amazon.co

Kristen Green was born in Farmville, Va., in 1973, the daughter of white, middle class parents.  She and her siblings attended the same high school her parents had, Prince Edward Academy (PEA), which had been built as the white private school in the county when Prince Edward’s white leadership, including Green’s grandfather, shuttered the county’s public schools, black and white, to avoid having to integrate them in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Green left Farmville for college; became a journalist; and moved to the West Coast, where she met–and subsequently married–a man who was part Native American. Eventually, Green’s family included two mixed-race daughters. The Green family moved to Richmond, Virginia, where Kristen took a job on the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

As an offshoot of her work at the Richmond newspaper, Green decided to revisit the Prince Edward County school closings, in order to understand how they came about and what role her family, especially her adored–and adoring–grandparents, had played in those events. So, this book is part memoir, because her family’s presence in Prince Edward County over several generations put them at the epicenter of the school-closings controversy.

The book also is part history; Green includes information garnered from published primary sources, as well as from interviews with whites and blacks affected by the school closings.  Interviewees included some of the African Americans who had been barred from the county’s black schools in the post-Brown era, who spoke about what the lockout cost them and their families, at the time and since (on the other hand, some blacks and more than a few whites were reluctant to discuss those events).

* * * * *

I’m always struck by how slow integration was in the wake of Brown–there’s a statistic, in this book as well as in many others, to the effect that, a decade later, less than 10% of southern public school children were in a classroom with a child of another race.  I’ve always wondered why this was so, and Green’s book helps to answer that question, at least for one community.

Green carefully charts the decision by the county’s white leadership to defy the Supreme Court’s Brown ruling by closing all of Prince Edward’s public schools in 1959 rather than  integrate them. But, of course, education remained important to the children of the county’s white elite, so PEA was founded, one of the South’s first “segregation academies.”

Poor white children couldn’t afford to go to PEA because, although it was tuition free the first year, payment of tuition was required thereafter.  Prince Edward County became the “poster child” for Virginia U.S. Senator—and state political boss—Harry Byrd’s concept of “massive resistance,” but took it further than any other school system in Virginia or elsewhere, by both shutting African American kids out of the county’s previously segregated black schools and pretty much ignoring the plight of the county’s poor white school children, whose families couldn’t afford to send them to PEA.

* * ** *

Green is interested in what happened; why it happened; and, especially, how what happened affected black students excluded from Prince Edward County’s public schools for half a decade.

African American parents had options for their children, but none were attractive:

1)      First, black parents could do nothing, the path followed by many. This meant that, for five years, the bulk of Prince Edward’s black children had no real access to education, except for locally-sponsored efforts using black church facilities.  The purpose of this approach was to allow students who had already begun school perhaps to maintain basic skills, and perhaps to introduce beginning students to the alphabet and to very rudimentary arithmetic.

2)      Since Prince Edward was the only Virginia county to close its public schools for half a decade, a few of Farmville’s black families tried to place their children in neighboring school systems, until those venues discovered that the new arrivals were from Prince Edward and so should not be educated at their neighbors’ expense and, of course, in defiance of Senator Byrd’s concept of “massive resistance.”

3)      Two local black Farmville ministers, L. Francis Griffin and Alexander Dunlap, arranged for more than sixty upper-level students from the closed Robert Russa Moton High School to finish their educations as boarders at historically black Kittrell College in North Carolina, about twenty miles from the Virginia line. Those students received a break on tuition, and a black Christian organization in Farmville, chaired by The Reverend Griffin, helped pay their bills.

4)      And then there were the heartbreaking decisions made by some Farmville African American families to send children out of Virginia, as the only way for them to continue their schooling.  (A different source notes that only thirty-five black students were able to avail themselves of this option. [Anderson, “Burning Brown to the Ground,” 45])  One such student, the daughter of the Green family’s long-time housekeeper, moved to Massachusetts.  Gwen Lancaster adapted so well to life in her aunt’s home in the Boston area that she did not return to Farmville, even after public schools reopened there.  Gwen’s decision not to come home devastated her mother Elsie, and highlights one of the major points made by Kristen Green, the lack of empathy among Prince Edward’s white community, including Green’s own family, for the damage their decision to close the county’s schools in 1959 had dealt to black families—and to poor white families as well.

* * * * *

Ultimately, the court system forced Prince Edward County to reopen its public schools, though the process took longer than it might have otherwise, because Harry Byrd, the godfather of “massive resistance” controlled Virginia; President Eisenhower apparently was not interested in what had happened there; and the Kennedy Administration tried to talk tough while keeping in mind the strength of southern whites in the Democratic coalition.

Green also traces in some detail what has happened to the Prince Edward County schools since they reopened in 1964.  At the time of her writing (2015), the private “academy,” now renamed the Fuqua School, thanks to a hefty donation by Atlanta entrepreneur J.B. Fuqua, still existed, though its enrollment had dropped.  (There is irony here:  Mr. Fuqua responded to a request from an old friend in Prince Edward, who also happened to have been the prime mover in the effort to close the county’s schools in the first place rather than integrate.  Green’s chilling interview with this local leader opens the book, and it soon becomes clear that the man, elderly and ailing, would take his racist views to the grave.)

The story of the county’s public schools after they were reopened reveals some successes, but it also underlines the importance of a few dedicated leaders who believed in integration and were determined to do what they could to further it.  Unfortunately, neither the successes of a white county superintendent nor those of an African American  principal at the local high school towards integration were deeply-rooted enough to last,  because their successors evidently lacked the commitment of their predecessors.

One turning point in the story was a conversation Green had in a local McDonald’s with a black man, who told her that his family had moved to New Jersey after the Prince Edward schools were closed, and that he had only returned to Farmville seven years earlier.  Although he believed the town had changed, he also felt that Farmville’s leaders, most of whom still were white, were “just waiting for all of us [who had lived through the school closings] to die so they can pretend it never happened.” (260)  As this anecdote suggests, the Prince Edward story is depressing, deeply affecting, and far from over.

* * * * *

kristengreen.net

kristengreen.net

Kristen Green is an interesting character in her own right.  She arrived in Richmond as a racial “liberal,” dedicated to the cause of public education and convinced that consistent engagement by parents in their kids’ public schools was the sine qua non for long-term progress.  But that was in Richmond’s “Fan” district, which was filled with lots of liberal white and black parents like herself.

Green admittedly was, at the start of her Farmville project, woefully ignorant of what had happened in Prince Edward County in the wake of Brown v. Board, but nevertheless determined to “get to the truth.”  She wore her heart on her sleeve as she interviewed whites and blacks, stubbornly stirring up memories of Prince Edward’s ignominious past that most whites—and some blacks—wished to keep buried.

Green looked for signs of “empathy” from local whites, but she also searched for evidence of “redemption,” not least from her parents, who had attended Prince Edward Academy themselves, placed her and her siblings there without any real discussion, and where her mother spent twenty years as a guidance counselor.

Finally, while preparing lunch for her daughter and hearing, yet again, Kristen’s frustration over the refusal of local whites to reconsider the county’s actions in the late 1950s, Green’s mother said quietly, “we all wish it hadn’t happened. I wish it hadn’t happened.” (242) And that, for Green, was enough.

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I’m happy that her mother’s words helped free Green from her funk over the question of race relations in Prince Edward County’s schools.  I’m not sure, though, that the rest of us, especially those who lived through the period she studied, should let the county off that easily.  Most obviously, African Americans–and poor whites–who were prevented from continuing their education because of what happened in Prince Edward may be excused if they seem unwilling to echo that frequently heard sentiment, “Can’t we just move on?”

A recent, more statistical, and less anecdotal study of white attitudes in Prince Edward County towards segregation argues that, as of 2013, “despite a knowledge-based, technology-driven global economy, the number one occupation in the county seat of Farmville was ‘cook and food preparation worker.'”  Moreover, 9.9% of the white households in Prince Edward had annual incomes of less than $10,000, while 32.9% of black households were below that figure.  This was “‘the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession,’ for wide swaths of the” people in Prince Edward County. (Anderson, “Burning Brown to the Ground,” p.45)

Not to put too fine a point on it, then, the answer to that clichéd inquiry is—or should be— “No, we can’t just move on.”

* * * * *

SOURCES:

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

Carol Anderson, “Burning Brown to the Ground,” Teaching Tolerance, Issue 54 (Fall, 2015), 42-45.

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

REABP 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 "The Race Beat", Age of Jim Crow, American History, Books, Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Education, Elective History Course for 9th and 10th Graders, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, Martin Luther King, Popular Culture, Prep School, Prince Edward County Virginia, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Willie “61” Blackwell, A Blues Performer Without a Wikipedia Entry, 1905-c.1972 (Blues Stories, 23)

john-quincy-adams-picture[NOTE:  I suppose “obscurity” is a relative concept.  Before the modern era, one would actually have had to “research” a person in various “hard copy” sources, before lamenting his or her “obscurity.” In more recent years, however, with the Internet in general, and “Google” and “Wikipedia” in particular, it has become harder to label someone as “obscure.”

And yet–imagine my surprise when, as I was using the Internet to find information about a  lesser-known Blues performer, Willie “61” Blackwell, I ran across the following:  On December 13, 2012, on “The Evening Blues,” one “Joe Shikspack” mentioned that Blackwell was “apparently too obscure to have a Wikipedia entry.”

And I thought, holy cow!  You mean that there’s a Blues performer about whom there is either so little known or about whom there is so little interest that he/she doesn’t even rate a fan-driven entry in “Wikipedia”? That hardly seems fair!

So, I began to search for more information on Mr. Blackwell.  Obviously, the results below, as the “Sources” reveal, are the product of research by other Blues fans, not by yours truly; for the most part, I’m only the compiler.  But now, the story of Willie “61” Blackwell has a home, even if it’s not on Wikipedia!]

* * * * *

Willie “61” Blackwell ” was born in LaGrange, Tennessee, on Dec. 25, 1905, and died sometime in 1972.  He was introduced to the guitar by his father and by neighbors, but until the 1930s, Blackwell apparently considered the piano his main musical instrument.  He didn’t concentrate on guitar until the late  1930s, after, in his telling, his left arm was severely injured by friends of a pianist he’d defeated in a talent contest.  (We Blues historians have a word for such a story–“Ouch!”)  A 1937 Memphis city directory listed Willie Blackwell as living at 207 Keel Ave., working as a “Musician.”

Detroit Blues musician Robert “Baby Boy” Warren claimed that his elder brother, Jack, helped Willie learn to play guitar after his “accident,” but Blackwell told one interviewer that none other than Blues legend Robert Johnson taught him the guitar.  So, I guess, as Boss Plunkett of New York’s Tammany Hall Democratic organization once said, you pays your money and takes your choice.

Blackwell, Memphis 1970-Mike Rowe

Blackwell, Memphis 1970-Mike Rowe

An online “Willie ‘61’ Blackwell Discography” includes a picture of an elderly Blues performer, supposedly Willie Blackwell, taken by Mike Rowe and labeled “Beale Street, Memphis, 1970.”  It also lists Blackwell’s eight recorded songs for the Bluebird label, all of which can be found most conveniently on a four-cd compilation album, When the Levee Breaks.  The songs are as follows:

Disc 1, selection 12–“Four O’clock Flower Blues”; selection 22–“Noiseless Motor Blues”

Disc 2, selection 7–“Bald Eagle Blues”; selection 21–“She’s Young And Wild”

Disc 3, selection 3–“Machine Gun Blues”; selection 20–“Don’t Misuse Me, Baby”

Disc 4, selection 11–“Chalk My Toy”; selection 21–“Rampaw [sic, probably ‘Rampart’] Street Blues.” 

* * * * *

In the summer of 1942, Alan Lomax, traveling through the South to collect songs for the Library of Congress, met Blackwell and his friend William Brown on Beale Street in Memphis [See Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began, pp.5-12.]  Harassed by white Memphis policemen for consorting with the black performers, Lomax, along with Blackwell and Brown, headed across the Mississippi into Arkansas, where they visited a juke joint, Hamp’s Place, out in the middle of the cotton fields.

Lomax admits that he was more interested in recording Brown than Blackwell.  He describes Blackwell as not particularly talented, already given over to drink, and unable to stay awake very long in the juke joint because of his consumption of moonshine.  Lomax even writes that Blackwell, “although he was in his twenties,” had “eyes streaked with brown and his face had that muddy, blurred look, typical of alcoholic blacks.” (8)  Which is interesting, because the only date for Blackwell’s birth that I’ve encountered in my research, 1905, would have made him not “in his twenties” but 37 in 1942.  Still, there seems no question that, by the time Lomax encountered him, Willie Blackwell was pretty well in the grip of alcohol.

Whatever Blackwell’s age that night at Hamp’s Place, and however deep in his cups he was, Alan Lomax was able to coax from him both another version of his 1941 Bluebird release, “Four O’ Clock Flower Blues,”and one of the strangest Blues songs ever recorded, “A Jap Girl for Next Christmas from Santy Claus.”

When Alan Lomax asked Willie “How long have you been making up songs, Willie?” Blackwell responded, “Well, I’ve been just jivin’ on with verses all my life but I never had no opportunity and never was very interested in ’em and therefore was quite natural, come natural. . . .”  Willie also explained that he had adopted his nickname, “61 because I rambles 61 Highway from Chicago clean down to New Orleans with my guitar for my buddy. . . .” (10)

Blackwell’s human Blues buddy, William Brown, told Lomax at Hamp’s Place that Willie “used to be good once.  But whiskey gittin him.  He worry too much.  He always mad. . . . That poor boy never goin nowhere.  I’m leavin before I get to be like him.” (12)  Sounds like an epitaph, but there was more to Blackwell’s career

* * * * *

Blackwell, 1971

Blackwell, 1971

After his two Library of Congress recordings with Alan Lomax, Willie Blackwell dropped “off the grid” for nearly two decades, not an unusual move for Blues performers whose careers had been decimated by the Great Depression. Sometime after 1942, perhaps as the explanation of his nickname “61” in his interview with Lomax suggested, Blackwell followed Highway 61 out of the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, part of the Great Migration, and from there to Flint, Michigan, where he worked at General Motors until his retirement.

Like a number of his contemporaries, Blackwell eventually was “rediscovered” during the 1960s “Blues Revival,” by Ron Harwood and Sam Stark.  According to a 2007 online sketch from a writer calling himself “Bunker Hill,” Ron Harwood discussed Blackwell’s “rediscovery” in a Jazz Journal article, June 1967 (pp.6-7):

Finding someone named ’61’ in a city the size of Flint was not a pleasant thought. But after a few trips to Flint (80 minutes out of Detroit) and a fair share of blind alleys, we finally located Willie ’61’ Blackwell living about a mile from the Buick automotive plant. The nickname ’61’ was derived from a Bluebird recording that Willie made in 1942 called “Highway 61 Blues”. . . . The Northwest Folklore Society held a concert in which Willie appeared along with Little Sonny, Washboard Willie, Dr. Ross and Sippie Wallace. Prior to the concert, we had obtained very few complete songs by Willie. He was approaching senility and he constantly repeated the fact that he would soon be leaving for Chicago to record with ‘Big Bill [Broonzy, who had died in 1958].’  But in the concert, the applause of the audience snapped him out of his dream world and brought him round to singing all of his songs completely. . . . After he had finished playing guitar and singing we ran across the stage and seated him at the piano. Then, as if the past was clouding his eyes with memories, he began to play and sing as he had thirty-five years ago. Months of hard work melted into mere triviality as the piano banged out 1920’s Chicago style blues. It was a moment I shall never forget. . . .

* * * * *

[Epilogue:  A review of the cd compilationWhen the Levee Breaks includes the following about Blackwell, which can serve as a conclusion to this modest attempt to fill the gap left by the absence of an entry for Willie “61” Blackwell in “Wikipedia” :

As late as 1941, it was still possible for a highly individual performer to emerge, as Willie ’61’ Blackwell did. Blackwell had no great instrumental talent but his lyrics took an original line on otherwise mundane events and emotions.]

Sources:

“Joe Shikspak” on Blackwell:

(http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/12/14/1169371/-The-Evening-Blues-12-13-12)

Blackwell discography:

http://www.wirz.de/music/bla61frm.htm

Brief Blackwell biography:

http://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=3435.0

Blackwell song lyrics:

http://weeniecampbell.com/wiki/index.php?title=Category:Willie_%2261%22_Blackwell_Lyrics

“When the Levee Breaks” compilation:

https://www.amazon.com/Mississippi-Blues-Rare-Cuts-1926-41/dp/B000MTOLNG

Review of “When the Levee Breaks” compilation:

(http://www.venerablemusic.com/catalog/TitleDetails.asp?TitleID=12313),

Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (New York:  Pantheon, 1993), pp. 5-12.

* * * * * *

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 American History, Delta Blues, Historical Reflection, History, Popular Culture, Research, Retirement, Southern History, The Blues, Uncategorized, Willie '61' Blackwell | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The Long Arm of Jim Crow Justice (Teaching Civil Rights, 4)

john-quincy-adams-picture A Review of

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy:  A Story of Justice and Redemption. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014.

just-mercy

 

[NOTE:   As I’ve mentioned before, when I took over a course on the Modern American Civil Rights Movement a number of years ago at Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS), I found myself mired in the Age of Jim Crow.  It seemed to me important to show my students the context within which the Civil Rights Movement grew, if they were to grasp the significance of the efforts by The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. And then I retired.

Several years later, in 2016, my church adopted Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, for our mid-week Lenten program.  The idea was that, by wrestling with Stevenson’s book, we would get an up-close and personal view of the need for “redemption” in our criminal justice system.  The problem was that, for our participants, there was no consensus.  Still, reading and discussing Stevenson’s work was an interesting, stimulating exercise.]

* * * * *

Bryan Stevenson (eji.org)

Bryan Stevenson (eji.org)

More than thirty years ago, in 1983, Bryan Stevenson, a twenty-three year-old student at Harvard Law School, met his first condemned man at a prison near Jackson, Georgia, as an intern with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC) in Atlanta.  This initial meeting, Stevenson recalled, forced him to recognize that he had “been struggling [his] whole life with the question of how and why people [caught up in the throes of the law] are treated unfairly.” (13)  Moreover, wrestling with this issue, Stevenson concluded that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” which became his mantra over the rest of his career, but proved to be a stumbling block for perhaps half of the people in my study group.

Stevenson had grown up in the segregated society on the eastern shore of the Delmarva Peninsula, in southern Delaware. (Full disclosure:  I too am a native of Delaware, although the northern part.)  Stevenson always remembered his grandmother’s advice that, if he were to understand something important, “You have to get close.”  And that’s what he did, during a period when the prison population in the United States exploded from 300,000 to 2.3 million people, and when the United States was “the only country in the world that condemned children to life imprisonment without parole.” (15)

Early in his career, Stevenson had been hassled by the Atlanta Police Department, essentially for parking outside of his own apartment “while black.”  Stevenson fought the charge, and, in the end, he received a sort of half-hearted apology from a deputy Atlanta police chief.

This incident convinced Stevenson that the time had come for him to open his own office in an effort to help prisoners on death row.  Thus, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), in Montgomery, Alabama, was born; its star client was Walter McMillian.

* * * * *

Walter McMillian (eji.org)

Walter McMillian (eji.org)

Walter McMillian grew up near Monroeville, Alabama, the home of Harper Lee and the setting for her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Among McMillian’s “lady friends” was a white woman, Karen Kelly, who secured an ugly divorce from a white man by testifying that the African American McMillian had been her “friend.”

Thereafter, two white women, Ronda Morrison and Vicki Pittman, were murdered in Monroeville.  Karen Kelly, along with her new white boyfriend, Ralph Myers, were implicated in the murders.  Myers, whose best defense was his white skin, suddenly finding himself in jeopardy of being convicted of murder, “ratted out” Walter McMillian, who was tried, found guilty, and sent to death row.

It is Bryan Stevenson’s ultimately successful effort to free Walter McMillian from death row—and the in some ways depressing sequel to that accomplishment–that forms the unifying thread of this work.  Moreover, by looking at numerous other cases in which he and the EJI were involved , Stevenson shows, in grim detail, that the system of “criminal justice” in the South, even as late as the 1990s, featured practices that were themselves little short of “criminal.”

* * * * *

McMillian’s family produced witnesses who claimed that he had been at a fish fry at the time of Ronda Morrison’s murder, but no one (white) believed them. In fact, one of the witnesses whose testimony furnished Walter with an alibi was arrested for “perjury.”

Walter’s appeal was denied, much to Bryan Stevenson’s chagrin. Next, he turned to convincing the Alabama courts that local police officials had paid a witness to implicate McMillian, and he uncovered other evidence supporting Walter’s innocence, but to no avail.

With his back to the wall, Stevenson threw a judicial “Hail Mary” pass, filing a “Rule 32 petition,” which allowed him “to present new evidence and obtain discovery, including access to the State’s files.” (143)  This strategy gave him Ralph Myers’ recantation of his previous confession implicating McMillian, but Stevenson’s petition was rejected. Nevertheless, Stevenson pressed the ruling in the Alabama Court of Appeals; in the end, all charges were dropped, and Walter was freed.

* * * * *

Walter McMillian was released from prison in 1993.  The publicity accompanying his release, and the circumstances of his arrest and incarceration in the first place, made him and his attorney, Bryan Stevenson, celebrities, and led to the Equal Justice Initiative being awarded the Olaf Palme International Human Rights Award by Sweden.  (Stevenson subsequently received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” for his work with the EJI.)

McMillian was diagnosed with dementia after his release and began to go downhill, which raised questions about who would be responsible for his care.  McMillian died on September 11, 2013.  Speaking at Walter’s funeral, Bryan Stevenson argued that “the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question . . . is, Do we deserve to kill?” (313)

* * * * *

During the years Bryan Stevenson was fighting for Walter McMillian’s freedom and, then, trying to help him adjust to life outside of prison, lots of other cases were examined by the EJI, many of which sentenced children to life in prison, either for non-violent or violent crimes.  Stevenson treats these cases in this book, though in less detail than his focus on  McMillian.

In 2005, Stevenson and the EJI launched a campaign against the constitutionality of certain drugs used in executions in Alabama.  These drugs had become hard to obtain legally, and state prisons had begun to acquire them illegally, which led to state drug raids on Alabama prisons!

Ultimately, between 2010 and 2012, Stevenson and the EJI won from the United States Supreme Court bans on sentences of life without parole for children convicted of both non-homicide and homicide crimes. In addition, the EJI established a program to help newly-freed clients who had been in prisons for decades re-enter society.  Not surprisingly, Walter McMillian served as a role model here.  More recently, the EJI has embarked on efforts to mark sites involved in both slave-trading and lynching throughout the South, once more focusing on recognizing those whose travails in the system of “Jim Crow Justice” formerly had been easiest to overlook.

* * * * *

Bryan Stevenson’s title, Just Mercy, puzzled me from the beginning.  Did “just” mean “merely,” that is, the minimum that incarcerated prisoners should expect?  Or did “Just Mercy” mean “mercy” that somehow was fair, as opposed to the usual punishments meted out in the name of mercy?  In the end, Stevenson himself answered that question, arguing that, among other things, Walter McMillian had taught him that “mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given.  Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving.” (314)

[EPILOGUE:  Interestingly, during our Lenten study of Stevenson’s book, we also learned that his argument was still relevant to Georgia in 2016.

First, we read an article by R. Robin McDonald, “Personal Reflections Mark Ex-Justice and Prosecutor’s Death Penalty Debate,” Daily Report, February 29, 2016.  In this piece, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court Norman Fletcher debated the death penalty with  Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter at the annual “Bar, Media, and Judiciary Conference” in Atlanta.

Justice Fletcher, who had been supportive of the death penalty during his term on the state supreme court (1989-2005), contended that, since his retirement, “It has been very hard for me to take every time there has been an execution in Georgia. . . . I have a terrible job in forgiving myself.  It is a very, very tough burden to carry.”

But not so tough for District Attorney Danny Porter, who argued that the death penalty “is a valid punishment in a civilized society.”  Moreover, Porter contended, the death penalty is the law in Georgia, so any district attorney who refuses to seek it “is in dereliction of his duty.”

And then there was a fascinating article by Brad Schrade and Jodie Fleischer, “Ga. man serves life despite DNA Questions,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb. 28, 2016, A-1, 25.  The title of this piece pretty much summarizes it.

What was interesting to me was that much of Stevenson’s experience began in the 1980s, and his book was first published in 2014.  And, for those in our group who worked in “law and order” professions (e.g., attorneys, judges, police officers), the article by Schrade and Fleischer could have been embarrassing, suggesting as it did that the “bad old days” of Jim Crow justice evidently had not yet ended in Georgia by 2016!

* * * * *

As a historian of the South, I found Stevenson’s chapter 16, “The Stonecatchers’ Song of Sorrow,” most interesting.  There, Stevenson laid out what he saw as the “four institutions in American history that have shaped our approach to race and justice but remain poorly understood.” (299)  These were: slavery, and what happened after its collapse, including what Stevenson refers to as “racial terrorism” (the Ku Klux Klan, etc.); convict leasing (see also Douglas Blackmon’s fine study, Slavery By Another Name); the southern system of “Jim Crow” segregation (see, for example, Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow); and mass incarceration of black men in southern prisons.

These also were the major influences that I emphasized when I taught my Civil Rights course at AFPS.  I had become convinced that the accomplishments of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his associates in the Modern Civil Rights Movement could best be understood only after students fully grasped how awful—and how pervasive—“Jim Crow” actually was, which was why, in my one-semester course, I seldom got past Dr. King’s assassination.  And, in Stevenson’s book, I learned that “Jim Crow Justice” lasted, at least in some southern states, for decades after the death of Dr. King.]  

* * * * *

Additional Sources:

Compilation:  “60 Minutes” interviews with Walter McMillian and Bryan Stevenson; ABC News account of McMillian’s release from death row; story by Swedish television about McMillian’s life after his release, featuring interviews with McMillian and Stevenson, which Stevenson cites in his book:

Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, Montgomery, Ala.:

https://eji.org

Stevenson’s TED Talk, “We Need to Talk About An Injustice” (March 2012):

https://www.ted.com/talks/bryan_stevenson_we_need_to_talk_about_an_injustice

* * * * * *

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 American History, Books, Civil Rights Movement, History, History Curriculum, Research, Retirement, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Form, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Teaching in a Prep School with a PhD., 3:  Sealing the Deal, 1972-1973

john-quincy-adams-picture[I have written before about my efforts to help My Old Graduate School (MOGS) show its graduate students that they could do more with a History PhD. than they might think. I tried to convince my depressingly eager audience that their post-PhD. refuge could be to teach History in a “prep  school.”  (See here and here.)  This past spring I was invited to speak again, along with four other PhDs from MOGS who had wound up “beyond the professoriate,” but the format—and, thus, the presentation—was to be different this time.  As the History professor who organized the event remarked:

I’m hoping you might each prepare a 5-10 minute reflection on how you moved into your current career . . . and how you learned about and navigated the non-professional job market.  This is the biggest challenge, I think, for our current students: their advisors all followed [recognized] pathways into the professoriate, and so many don’t have the expertise you do in locating jobs beyond the professoriate. . . .

How could I turn this invitation down?  Dinner and a brief presentation, followed by a Q & A with our eager (desperate?) audience.  Of course, there were certain difficulties:  I found my first (and, as it turned out, only) position “beyond the professoriate” more than four decades ago, when computers, the Internet, even the term “networking” for all I know, were unknown. Yet, perhaps my testimony could serve as a light-hearted return to “those thrilling days of yesteryear,” a few minutes of “comic relief” that might be good for a laugh but would not apply to my audience in any practical way.  Perhaps the advice of the younger panelists would be more relevant to a job search in 2016.

What follows is based on the outline I prepared for my presentation, although, with a maximum of ten minutes available, I obviously did a lot of editing and–ad-libbing–in order to get my main points across.]

* * * * *

The 1972-1973 academic year would be my final one at MOGS, no matter how my job search turned out.  The first four years I had been supported by an NDEA fellowship (even though I was studying history, not science or math), including classroom experience as a T.A.; the fifth year, during which I was determined to finish my dissertation, would include teaching American History, and, during the spring term, one section of American survey at Georgia Tech as a night course, to students who had been working during the day at “real jobs” (i.e., “co-op” students).

I also was trying to break into publishing, as my MOGS professors constantly urged, and was beginning to find some success—two articles had appeared in 1972; a third would be accepted in 1973; and between 1970 and 1973, I had published a half dozen book reviews.

During the spring term of 1973, I was typing my dissertation (on an Underwood portable electric typewriter purchased specifically for that task, for those who haven’t visited the Smithsonian lately), at the rate of 20 pages a day for a solid month.   Moreover, our first child had been born in February 1972.

* * * * *

I had already begun searching for a teaching position during the previous academic year. My long-suffering spouse typed perhaps one hundred letters to various colleges and universities, but to no avail.  I got a single interview that year, but our department sent both me and my best friend to seek the same post, which pretty much guaranteed that  neither of us would get it.

By late 1972, the handwriting was on the wall:  there would be no early entry into the professoriate for me.  Yet, I still very much wanted to teach History, so I decided that, if I were without college teaching prospects by January 1973, I would begin searching the ranks of junior colleges and private secondary schools (i.e., prep schools).  And that’s what happened.

The reason I did not look into teaching in public high schools was that I had begun my undergraduate career as a “History Education” major but had quickly become disillusioned by the large number of “Education” courses I would have to take and the paucity of actual History courses above the survey level that I would be able to squeeze in.  So I changed to a plain old History major in the School of Arts and Sciences (or, as we liked to call it, “Air and Sunshine”).

A decade later, I was still so leery of having to take the “Education” courses I’d avoided as an undergraduate that I eliminated public high schools from consideration, figuring that I wouldn’t need “Education” courses as a prep school teacher.  Big mistake!  A story for another time.

In the MOGS library, I found a wonderful book, the name of which I’ve since forgotten, though I do remember that it was bound in red.  This reference enabled me to search for all sorts of information about every prep school in the country.  Using criteria I’ve since forgotten, I made a list of “day schools” (i.e., no on-campus resident students), and the Willowy Bride began sending out letters again. (My dissertation director at MOGS was not happy with my decision to scour the secondary-school market for a teaching position, though he certainly understood my reasons for doing so.)

I wound up with three potential job offers, one in New Jersey, another in Alexandria, Virginia, and a third at Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS), just down the road from the Georgia Governor’s Mansion, in toney Buckhead. When AFPS came in with a salary offer that was $2000 higher than the girls’ school in Alexandria, my decision was a no-brainer:  I agreed to join the high school History faculty at AFPS in the Fall of 1973.

* * * * *

Keep in mind that I somehow wound up landing a prep school teaching position without the sort of support you folks have at MOGS today.  It was an exercise in what a friend refers to as “shakin’ and bakin’,” doing the best I could with my own resources, though without either a real plan or much help, except of course for my indispensable Willowy Bride.

My greatest concern was that no prep school would be interested in hiring a PhD: rather, they would assume, or so I believed, that I would only stay for a short time, until “something better (i.e., a college job) came along,” the exact thing I ended up telling my unenthusiastic MOGS dissertation director. But, here’s the thing:  it turned out that I—and of course other newly-minted PhDs who went in the same direction I did—were, for once, ahead of the curve, though none of us understood that at the time.

Heads of prep schools were aware by the early 1970s that new PhDs being interviewed usually came to private secondary schools as “Plan B.” Remember the name “prep school”?  Well, what were those institutions “prepping” their students for?  College, right?  And what sorts of folks taught college students?  All together now, TAs and PhDs!  So, every PhD hired then—and since, for that matter—became another piece of evidence that a prep school could wave in front of prospective students, and parents, to show the school’s dedication to “college preparatory education.”  Prep schools still eagerly consider teaching applicants with doctorates, so having a PhD on the secondary level today can be an advantage to an applicant.

* * * * *

From my experience back in the “stone age,” but, more especially, from my subsequent career of almost forty years on a prep school faculty, including a decade or so as head of the History Department and numerous years mentoring new faculty, let me offer a few suggestions for those thinking you might be interested in teaching History in a prep school.

First, set up visits to a local prep school or two.  Talk to the department head and/or the person in charge of hiring and get some idea of what they expect new teachers to bring to their school.

If you like what you see during your school visit(s), fill out an application, then hope for the best. While you’re waiting, get in the habit of calling the school(s) to which you’ve applied, indicating your continuing interest in a teaching position, and see if something has come up.  Don’t be discouraged if you still have no job offer by May or June; it’s not all that unusual for prep schools to have vacancies in the middle of the summer, or even—and this was true at AFPS—as late as the opening of the new school year!

Also remember that, while prep schools want teachers who know their academic “stuff,” they also have other needs that must be filled—and from within the ranks of their teaching faculty, for the most part.  So, tell the school what other skills you have besides a deep knowledge of your dissertation topic.

Can you help coach a sport?  Rest assured that most prep schools offer lots of sports options to their students, some of which you might already have had experience with earlier in your high school or college career.  Moreover, “coaching assignments” are not limited to sports teams: there are also activities like debate, the school newspaper, yearbook, student government, music program, all of which need “advisors/sponsors.”

Moreover, depending on the school, there also will be myriad additional clubs and activities that need “sponsors.”  Take some initiative here:  I know from personal experience that, if you don’t tell your school what you’d like to help sponsor or advise, then the school will tell what you’re going to do, whether you think you’re good at it or not!  

You might also try to get on a substitute teaching list, perhaps at more than one school—the money’s not great, but you’ll get your foot in a door or two by doing so, all the while working like the proverbial beaver on your dissertation.  (And, at AFPS, we did hire a couple of full-time History teachers off the substitute list.)

* * * * *

My point is that there is life–and a potentially rewarding career–“beyond the professoriate.”  As you’ve learned today, the PhD is not simply an entrée to the professoriate (though, of course, many of you hope it will be, as I did all those years ago).  Rather, the degree in hand, and the skills you mastered in order to earn it, combined with your own extracurricular interests, have, whether you are aware of it or not, prepared you for lots of positions besides that of college professor.

Sure, winding up elsewhere might be disappointing at first, and it will surely require more work on your part than you’d expected, but, in the end, you might just find yourself both “beyond the professoriate” and not in a hurry to return to what you had once thought of as Nirvana.  I know I did!

* * * * * *

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 Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History graduate school, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Retirement, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A “Founding Mother” on Political Partisanship—Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson, August 18, 1804

john-quincy-adams[NOTE:  As a rule, I do not post at this blog about current American politics (for an exception, go here).  I usually limit that sort of thing to my Facebook timeline, when I “say something” about an article that I’m “sharing” from a newspaper like the New York Times or the Washington Post.

Madison and Jefferson cover

Nevertheless, the other morning, while reading a chapter in Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg’s fine book, Madison and Jefferson, I came across a passage that struck me as painfully relevant to our contemporary political climate.  I went to the source of that passage, and reading the entire letter made an even stronger impression.  What follows is my summary of Abigail Adams’ letter to Thomas Jefferson in mid-August 1804, as well as comments that might, I hope, suggest how ideas in that letter apply to our current depressing presidential campaign.]

* * * * *

Adams-Jefferson Letters

The context of Abigail Adams’ letter is important.  Early in 1804, President Thomas Jefferson’s twenty-five year-old daughter, Maria Jefferson Eppes, died following childbirth.

Jefferson (en.wikipedia.org)

Jefferson (en.wikipedia.org)

One of the letters of condolence the President received after Maria’s death came from Abigail Adams, who had grown fond of Maria when, on her way in 1787 to join her father in France, Maria had stayed briefly with Abigail and her husband John Adams in London.

Mrs. Adams’ letter was brief, and the correspondence might have ended there, but  Jefferson evidently saw her note as a chance to explain the warm feelings he still had for both Abigail and her husband John, whom he had defeated for the presidency in 1800 after an extremely emotional, bitter, ugly, but nevertheless celebrated, campaign, which Jefferson and his partisans subsequently referred to as the “Revolution of 1800.”

The thin-skinned John Adams, stung by the viciousness of the Jeffersonians’ campaign that had led to his defeat (though his own Federalist followers were neither fair nor gentle to Jefferson during that campaign), left the new capital of Washington, D.C. before his successor’s inauguration; correspondence between the two former friends ceased. Jefferson’s decision to respond as he did to Abigail Adams’ note three and a half years later set off an exchange of letters that throws a garish light on the political practices of the time, and also, perhaps, holds some lessons for us in 2016.

abigail_adams_by_gilbert_stuart-en-wikipedia-org.jpg

Abigail Adams by Gilbert Stuart (en-wikipediaorg.jpg)

The following passages are from Abigail Adams’ letter to President Thomas Jefferson, August 18, 1804 (Cappon, ed., Adams-Jefferson Letters, p.277):

. . . Party spirit is blind malevolent uncandid, ungenerous, unjust and unforgiving.  It is equally so under federal as under democratic Banners, yet upon both sides are Characters, who possess honest views, and act from honorable motives, who disdain to be led blindfold, and who tho entertaining different opinions, have for their object the public welfare and happiness.  These are the Characters, who abhor calumny and evil speaking, and who will never descend to News paper revileing. . . .

I have seen and known that much of the conduct of a public ruler [i.e., President John Adams], is liable to be misunderstood, and misrepresented.  Party hatred by its deadly poison blinds the Eyes and envenoms the heart.  It is fatal to the integrity of the moral Character. It sees not that wisdom dwells with moderation, and that firmness of conduct is seldom united with outrageous [violence] of sentiment. Thus blame is too often liberally bestowed upon actions, which if fully understood, and candidly judged would merit praise instead of censure.  It is only by the general issue of measures producing banefull or beneficial effects that they ought to be tested.

* * * * *

Comments:

  1. The “federal” and “democratic” “Banners” Abigail Adams mentions represented the political parties, this nation’s first, active in the 1800 campaign:  the “Federalists,” the supporters of John Adams;  and the “Democratic [or Jeffersonian] Republicans,” the party of Thomas Jefferson.  In 2016, we would of course have to substitute the “Republican” and “Democratic” labels.
  2. According to Mrs. Adams, certain political “Characters. . . tho entertaining different opinions, have for their object the public welfare and happiness.”  This brings up the great idea that was lost during the 1800 campaign and certainly has also disappeared from modern political discourse:  the notion of the “common [or public] good” [this can be rendered in Latin as res publica: “public thing or matter,” the root of our word “republic”], to achieve which, at least in eighteenth-century political theory, politicians were supposed to subsume their petty rivalries and personal ambitions in the interest of national harmony and betterment.
  3. Which reminds me of an interdisciplinary course that the History Department at my school sheltered for a few years, because we believed in the concept–it was called “The School for the Common Good.”  And, yes, it attempted to do, admittedly on a small scale, exactly what the title of the course suggested: unite students from our school with students from a local public high school in a program that tried to work for the “common good” of a deprived area in Atlanta.  It was while tracing the importance of the ideal of the “common good” in a series of lectures for this class that I came fully to appreciate what had been lost since 1800 in American political discourse.
  4. Mrs. Adams also asserts that “party hatred. . . sees not that wisdom dwells with moderation, and that firmness of conduct is seldom united with outrageous [violence] of sentiment.”  And, let’s be honest, although Mrs. Adams was complaining about the brutal tone of the 1800 campaign, the idea of “moderation” is not very attractive to political leaders, or to many political followers, in 2016 (though, I would argue, it should be!).  Rather, both parties seem to be insisting on fairly rigid ideological agreement from their members, a sort of “my way or the highway” approach to political issues that is almost guaranteed to continue the gridlock that has gripped Washington, D.C., for nearly a quarter of a century now, no matter which candidate was victorious in November, and, thus, to cripple efforts needed to repair the nation’s collapsing infrastructure, as well as other significant issues that will go continue to go unaddressed, so long as “the base” is happy.
  5. Finally, the wife of the second President charged that “Party hatred by its deadly poison blinds the Eyes and envenoms the heart.  It is fatal to the integrity of the moral Character.”  Anyone out there want to counter her charge, in 2016?

* * * * *

This notion of the need to try to restore “civility” (moderation, the search for the “public good,” the belief in the efficacy of compromise, the insistence on tolerance) in the current presidential campaign brings up a couple of points:

  1. First, I’m reminded of a discussion technique I borrowed from a colleague, modified for my A.P. U.S. History seniors, and employed for many years.  I called it a “Quaker Meeting Discussion.”  The idea was that my students, with no help from me would, when “the spirit moved them,” discuss a question from the assigned reading that I had put on the board.  I insisted on certain ground rules for these discussions, the most important of which was  civility, the willingness to listen to other members of the class, even if what they said did not accord with the listeners’ own views, and to respond to what they heard, not make their remarks personal.  And this approach generally worked, at least in my classroom.
  2. Recently, I read in the journal Teaching Tolerance, an editorial from a retired teacher, Maureen Costello.  Ms. Costello wrote that, if she were still in the classroom, she would, to prepare her students for the 2016 presidential election, “begin the year by discussing basic democratic values, sometimes called the ‘American creed,'” which, in her mind, includes:  a) Government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed;  b) Government exists to promote the common good;  c) Individuals are entitled to political equality;  d) People must follow the rule of law, with no one above the law;  e) Majority rules but cannot take away fundamental rights;  f) Truth is essential to the “American way.”

Either of these two ideas, or both together, could be a great way for either a weekend  political interview show or, heck, even a presidential debate, to conduct a discussion.  And, sure, there are problems with both, but could this approach be any worse than what we’ve been seeing for the last year or so?  I don’t think so. . . .

[POSTSCRIPT:  Those of you familiar with my Facebook “timeline” know on which side of the party lines my sympathies fall.  Regardless, I’m not happy with the ugliness of this campaign, and I believe that, whichever candidate ultimately is elected will a) need to take several very hot showers before swearing the oath of office as President, to have a hope of removing the slimy remains of the campaign; and b) have a lot to answer for, when historians put on their hazmat suits and wade into the primary sources, to try to make sense of the sorry 2016 presidential campaign.  I don’t envy them, and I’m glad I won’t be among them. . . .]

SOURCES

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, Madison and Jefferson (New York, 2010), pp.416-419.

Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (New York, 1971; paperback reprint, two volumes in one), pp.268-282.

Maureen Costello, “Perspectives,” Teaching Tolerance, issue 54 (Fall 2016), 5.

* * * * * *

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 American "republicanism", American History, American Revolution, Books, Current Events, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Retirement, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Whose Ox is Being Gore(d)? The Essays of Gore Vidal

john-quincy-adams-pictureA Review of Gore Vidal, United States:  Essays 1952-1992 (New York: Broadway Books, 1993)GV United States

Definition–“essay”:  “a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretive.” (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language)

Crossword puzzle clue–“opinion piece”; answer–“essay.”

[Note:  I’ve been writing essays since I was a youngster, and, along the way, I’ve spent time with books by writers who are acknowledged masters of the essay form, like Charles Lamb (AKA “Elia”); and Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, most of whose “essays,” at least in the volume I owned, were long reviews of books that I had not read.

As I got older, the need to write essays grew.  There is no question that I enjoyed working with the essay form, thanks to “encouragement” from a bunch of experienced English and History teachers who required that I write “book reviews” and “term papers,” which were of course “essays.”

When I eventually became a teacher, first as a TA at My Old Graduate School (MOGS) and, later, as a member of the high school History faculty at Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS), I insisted that my students learn to write essays as a means of conveying information about historical topics in an organized, thoughtful, and persuasive way.

How dedicated was I to teaching my students to write essays?  In a course I developed at AFPS, “Introduction to History,” an elective for 9th and 10th-graders, my charges spent  more time learning to write essays than memorizing historical “trivia”; in my AP U.S. and European history classes, I also emphasized the essay (both the documents-based question [DBQ] and the “standard” one) rather than bombard my students with a steady diet of multiple-choice (or, as I called them, “multiple-guess”) questions.

When I began teaching at AFPS, one of the first supplementary works I used with my senior American History students (both AP and “Regular”) was Gore Vidal’s novel Burr, because I thought Vidal’s cynical–and, to my students, counterintuitive–view of the Founding Fathers, as seen through the eyes of Aaron Burr, would challenge their preconceptions.  And it did!

I also read several of Vidal’s other “American History” novels over the years, though I never used them in class.  And then, a few years after I retired from teaching, my son David gave me a paperback collection of Vidal’s magazine journalism, United States: Essays 1952-1992 (New York, 1993), which won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 1993. Once I began reading these pieces, I became convinced that Gore Vidal, whatever his other literary accomplishments, was a master of the essay form.]

* * * * *

Gore Vidal (biography.com)

Gore Vidal (biography.com)

United States includes roughly 2/3 of the magazine pieces Vidal published over four decades.  These essays, according to Vidal, fell “naturally into three categories:  literature, or the state of the art; politics, or the state of the union; personal responses to people and events, not to mention old movies and children’s books, or the state of being.  So, herewith, my three states—united.” (vii)

State of the Art—this section includes 47 essays (519 pp), mostly what Vidal refers to as “book chat,” i.e., book reviews and other essays on literature. These treat, for instance, the works of American writers like Henry Miller, William Dean Howells, Edmund Wilson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, and John Dos Passos.  Vidal also was interested in introducing to American audiences authors from other parts of the world like Frederic Prokosch, Vladimir Nabakov, Leonardo Sciascia, and Italo Calvino.  Then, there was Vidal’s favorite American expatriate, Henry James, whom he of course referred to as “the Master.”

A constant theme throughout this section is Vidal’s hearty disdain for the efforts of professors in American college and university English Departments to “teach” literature— Vidal evidently felt that those “scholar squirrels,” as he termed them, would not have recognized a true work of literature if it had bitten them on the leg!  (Oh, and the fact that Vidal’s own books received scant attention in the airy realms of academe I’m sure had absolutely nothing to do with his opinion!)

I’m an historian, not an English professor, so this section was not of much interest to me at the outset, but once I got into Vidal’s “book chat” pieces I was hooked.  Because Vidal knew many of his literary subjects personally, anecdotes were frequent, and these held my interest, even if books by the author being discussed didn’t hold much appeal for me.

State of the Union—48 essays (535 pp), on politics, the section I thought I would be most interested in, and I was, although I was disappointed by the absence from this collection of much about Vidal’s long-time rivalry with conservative Republican luminary William F. Buckley, Jr.

After all, one of the images seared into my memory by the tumultuous year of 1968 was the “coverage” of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago provided by ABC, which, in its wisdom, decided to hire ideological opposites Vidal and Buckley as commentators.  Their angry exchanges on the air became so menacing that the network’s lead anchor, the usually courtly Howard K. Smith, practically had to step between the two  combatants to keep them apart. I also wish this section had included more discussion of Vidal’s two unsuccessful political campaigns, as a Democratic congressional candidate from Duchess County, N.Y. (1960), and in California, for U.S. Senator (1982).

“State of the Union” goes well beyond a mundane understanding of the term “politics.”  Vidal considers also the nation’s sexual mores, fascination with pornography, religious views, and even the sad fate of the “American Empire,” which he believes existed from the Spanish-American War in 1898 to September 16, 1985, when “the Commerce Department announced that the United States had become a debtor nation…. Like most modern empires, ours rested not so much on military prowess as on economic primacy.” (1007)

Of particular interest to me in this section were three essays on Abraham Lincoln, all in connection with Vidal’s fine historical novel on the nation’s first Republican president.  Perhaps not surprisingly, academic historians did not fall in love with Vidal’s portrait of Lincoln, so the novelist identified another group of “scholar squirrels” upon whom he could heap scorn.

Moreover, during the 1980s, presided over by President Ronald Reagan, a man he had little use for, Vidal suggested that, to ensure the nation’s future, the former American Empire must somehow arrange an alliance with Russia. While that didn’t quite work out, Reagan’s rapprochement with Soviet Chairman Gorbachev is now seen by many observers as a turning point on the road to ending the Cold War.

State of Being—19 essays (214 pp).  This part of the collection has some of Vidal’s most autobiographical writings, so they are interesting for that reason if for no other.  They include memoirs of his days as a screenwriter in Hollywood; his time writing plays for television (during that medium’s so-called “Golden Age”) and for Broadway; and Vidal’s recollections of his relationship with that bizarre Hollywood “genius,” Orson Welles.

I also enjoyed Vidal’s treatment of the Oz books of L. Frank Baum and the Tarzan books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, both of which he had read as a youth—who’d a thunk it! Another area where Vidal demonstrated skill as an essayist, as well as a wonderful sense of the absurd, was in his few excursions into travel writing included here—his articles on Nasser’s Egypt and on Mongolia are delightful!

* * * * *

Gore Vidal was an inveterate name-dropper.  He also was an elegant stylist much of the time, though, when he mounted one of his many hobby horses, Vidal could create some rather distracting terms, e.g., “homosexualist” and “Christer.”  The bulk of the essays selected for this volume first appeared in the New York Review of Books, which certainly seems to have given Vidal the freedom to write on topics of his own choosing much of the time (i.e., a guaranteed source of income).

In a 2014 documentary film by Martin Scorcese and David Tedeschi, “The 50 Year Argument,” commemorating the first half century of the New York Review of Books, the narrator says that the NYRB was famous for feuds among its contributors, including “Gore Vidal v. Everybody.”  Since Vidal had died before the film was made, he is represented in it mostly by voiceovers of passages from his writings.  There is, however, a dandy excerpt from a discussion of feminism and sexism on TV’s “Dick Cavett Show” between Vidal and Norman Mailer, during which Mailer walked across the stage and grabbed a copy of an article Vidal had written to which Mailer strenuously objected.  Unlike the clash between Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr., at the 1968 Democratic Convention, this televised difference of opinion ended with neither fisticuffs nor the threat of them.

* * * * *

According to Charles McGrath’s New York Times obituary of Vidal, his “ultimate reputation is apt to rest less on his novels than on his essays.”  McGrath believed that the essay form “suited [Vidal] ideally:  he could be learned, funny, stylish, show-offy and incisive all at once.”

Vidal’s long-time editor at Random House, Jason Epstein, “admitted that he preferred the essays to the novels, calling Mr. Vidal ‘an American version of Montaigne.’”  In Epstein’s words, Vidal “had too much ego to be a writer of fiction because he couldn’t subordinate himself to other people the way you have to as a novelist.”

Charles McGrath also argued that some of the political positions expressed in Vidal’s published essays were “similarly quarrelsome and provocative” to the ones he engaged in during his many television appearances:  for example, he criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians; wrote sympathetically of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber; and argued in Vanity Fair that the U.S. had brought the September 11 attacks upon itself “by maintaining imperialist foreign policies.”

To television host Dick Cavett, Gore Vidal was a welcome guest, even if he sometimes repeated a story he had told on an earlier visit:  “The best at repeating himself was Gore Vidal, because his delivery was so delicious you didn’t mind hearing something a second time.”

* * * * *

In short, as an essayist, whether in print or in person, Gore Vidal did everything a graceful writer with strong opinions should do.  His essays were varied, clearly written, and provocative.  Vidal was a clever, though cynical, American master of the essay, whose work should be read and preserved for future generations.  (As should his great historical novels, Burr and Lincoln!)

Other Sources:

Nicholas Haramis, “Perfect Strangers:  When Dick Cavett Met Seth Meyers,” NYT Style Magazine online, Sept. 5, 2016.

Charles G. McGrath, “Gore Vidal Dies at 86; Prolific, Elegant, Acerbic Writer,” New York Times, Aug. 1, 2012.

“The 50 Year Argument,” Produced by BBC Arena, Sikelia Productions and Wowow in association with Verdi Productions and Magna Entertainment. Directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi. (2014)

* * * * * *

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 Books, Historical Reflection, History, Popular Culture, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

“Teaching 21st-Century Students”: A Reflection (Be True to Your School, 3)

john-quincy-adams-picture[Note:  I’ve spent my career studying, teaching, and reflecting on History, and, whenever those above me in the administrative food chain asked my opinion on some academic topic, I was not behindhand in responding.

Here’s an example:  as a follow-up to our opening faculty meetings (a one and a half week marathon known as “Faculty Forum”) the principal at Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS) asked us what we thought about “teaching 21st-century students,” the theme of those sessions.  By the time I received this memo, I’d already informed the school that I planned to retire at the end of the academic year, so, given the imminence of my departure, I didn’t really need to say anything.  And yet—I wanted to respond. What follows is a slightly revised version of that letter.]

* * * * *

Historians are big fans of chronology—sometimes too much so.  Time magazine has for months been running stories about significant events of the first decade of the new century.  Yet, here at AFPS, we have just begun to ponder how best to teach our students in the 21st century!

(By the way, this development supports a long-held theory of mine:  AFPS habitually seems to “recognize” an idea or set of ideas at least five years, and sometimes as much as a decade, after that fad has become the talk of the “educational world.”  It’s almost uncanny how, by the time this school gloms on to such a “reform,” the rest of the educational world has turned to another one.  But I digress. . . .)

Another problem with the notion of “teaching 21st-century students” is that, based on what I read for this year’s Faculty Forum and on what the folks in my small group session reported about what they had read, this concept was designed by professional “educationists” for public schools.  I find this disconcerting because, in my judgment, AFPS has been moving more and more in the public school direction over the last couple of decades.  I wish it would stop—and soon!

While we are certainly beyond the stage where we can get by with me on one end of a log and my thirty-four Introduction to History students on the other, we don’t need to drink the “Kool-Aid” being offered by this new “educational philosophy.”  Instead, we should be doing our darnedest to distance ourselves from it, or else we are going to have a hard time offering AFPS (with a straight face, anyway) as an alternative to the public school system.

* * * * *

word processing (1)

One challenge we face in this new century is to continue incorporating technology into what we do, and most of us have been working in that direction for several years now.  In fact, this past Faculty Forum was the first one in recent memory where we were not presented with some techno-miracle that seemingly was guaranteed to make our jobs easier—remember filing grades and comments online; “curriculum mapping”; “Smart Boards”; a lap top for each teacher; a newly-installed overhead projector with wall-mounted controls (that haven’t worked in my classroom for a number of years now)?  Sure you do!

The problem with this approach is that, while the school generously spends money to make these gizmos available, and rightly insists that we—yea, verily, even the most tech-averse among the faculty—make use of them, it has been much less generous in giving us the time to master the technology and then–and only then–make it a regular part of our classroom routine.  Instead, at the next Faculty Forum, we are usually (though, admittedly, not this past year) presented with yet another technological challenge to master, once more without the time to do so.

Sir Edmund Hillary

Here’s a metaphor:  what if Sir Edmund Hillary had been required to turn back every thousand feet or so and start his ascent of Mt. Everest anew, so that his sponsors could have him use a different brand of ice axe or tog himself in a more luminescent climbing suit?  Surely Sir Edmund would either a) have at some point perished in an avalanche; or b) just said, “The Hell with it; no mountain is worth all this aggravation!”

* * * * *

In a biological sense, of course, “21st-century students” are identical to “20th-century students.”  What’s changed is the culture in which they grow up and how it shapes their approach to education.  It can be a positive influence, of course, but, as you’ve noted on more than one occasion, it also can be quite toxic.

Much of this toxicity is related to the very same techno-marvels we’ve been encouraged to adopt for our classrooms.  For example, when a few teachers decided to use Facebook as a way to communicate with their charges, all of us were told not to do so, because some of our parents weren’t comfortable with Facebook!  If AFPS cannot trust its faculty to employ technology in an appropriate manner, there is something seriously wrong with the system.

I even remember (and I’ll bet you do, too) when the school banned the use of cell phones by students (not “smart phones,” mind you, but the early, “dumb,” devices that simply made phone calls), presumably because of that technology’s purported association with greasing the skids of the drug trade.

Smart Phone (Walmart.com)

Smart Phone (Walmart.com)

And, now what?  It’s the rare student—or faculty member, for that matter—who does not carry at least one of those suckers (the “smart” variety, now) to school every day, and the faculty is charged with devising “policies” limiting students’ access to these marvels during classes, and, especially, during final exams.

How much time does the average student at this school spend online daily?  A lot—and much of it has nothing to do with school work, while a great deal has to do with the toxic culture that surrounds them.

* * * * *

Another issue I’d like to raise in this connection is the school’s continuing acquiescence in both the demands of the Advanced Placement program and, especially, of the college application process, which continues to morph, like the monster in “Alien,” or, to change the metaphor, increasingly to “wag the dog.”  These developments have put unhealthy constraints on the process of curriculum revision and will, I’m sure, continue to do so, because we don’t have the guts to say, “No more!”

As a result, we keep piling more and more “stuff” (graduation requirements, community service activities, technological marvels [see above], use of summer school for forward credit, etc.) on student and faculty plates—and never take anything away!  If this keeps up, then the whole thing will one day collapse of its own internal contradictions, like the parson’s one-horse shay.

parson's one-horse shay (eldritchpress.org)

The parson’s one-horse shay (eldritchpress.org)

 

* * * * *

What positive things can I recommend as part of our plan to prepare our charges for life in the 21st century, even if we are, as usual, behindhand in devising an approach?

pixabay.com.png

pixabay.com.png

  1. We need to insist that students continue reading in their courses, and that what they read be more intellectually challenging than web pages or “dry as dust” textbooks.  We are copping out on things like summer reading assignments, for example.  We also should use supplementary reading during the school year, but, with the pressure to “cover the material” endemic to the Advanced Placement program, less is more, I’m afraid:  the textbooks have the answers; no challenging or thought-provoking readings need apply.
  2. We also must insist that the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation continue to be taught, learned, reinforced, and followed, and that students be penalized when they are not.
  3. At least in the short run, colleges probably still will require students to do independent research using a variety of primary, secondary, and electronic sources.  Therefore, it is incumbent upon us both to teach and to reinforce this process at AFPS. One critical challenge in this regard is to create assignments that do not open the door to plagiarism!  I’m not optimistic on this issue, but I believe it’s worth the fight.
  4. The use of videos will only grow in our courses.  Therefore, we must teach our students how to view—and use—such media critically.  If they are truly worthwhile, then videos must be discussed in class, and incorporated on tests and other assignments.
  5. While head of the History Department, I tried to incorporate more non-western history into our courses, at all levels.  We’ve certainly made progress since then: in the high school, for instance, “world history” offerings currently include Introduction to History (an elective); History of the Ancient World, a required one-semester course taught with some non-western material included, but one where we’ve still got to get through the European “Middle Ages,” so our livelier students can be ready for Advanced Placement European History (which remains, as the name suggests, very Euro-centric); and History of the Modern World, which is taken by our “regular” students, for the most part.
  6. Please don’t get me wrong here:  I’m not ragging on “regular” students; rather, I believe that Advanced Placement students should also be challenged with non-western history, either in the context of A. P. European History [which means we would have to reduce Euro-centric detail] or in the A. P. World History program that has been around for a number of years but has yet to attract our department’s interest.

* * * * *

Let me close by reiterating my belief that AFPS remains a first-rate independent school.  Coming here in the autumn of 1973 was, in retrospect, the smartest thing I’ve ever done, and I have never regretted that decision.  What has made AFPS so good for so many years is that those who run the school hired top-notch faculty and let them teach, trusting in their intelligence, academic training, and professionalism.

I’m afraid, though, that what I’ve noted, as we slouch our way through this “age of accountability” and into the end of the first decade of the 21st century, is a school that seems increasingly not to trust its own judgment, at least when it comes to hiring teachers.

AFPS today builds an environment of technological “toys” that are supposed to make our lives easier but seldom do; electronic paperwork (AKA, “administrivia”) that saps both time and enthusiasm from teachers who are increasingly overworked; a curriculum that can be sclerotic; and an apparent desire to define the kind of school we wish to become without looking closely at the kind of institution we’ve been, successfully, for nearly sixty years.

Please believe that these remarks are written in love, with respect—and perhaps a tad of frustration, too. . . .

* * * * *

Bully Pulpit (www-stitoday-com.jpg)

Bully Pulpit (www-stitoday-com.jpg)

[NOTE: I’ll bet you’re wondering whether my venture into the “bully pulpit” on this issue actually achieved anything:  the answer, at least at the time, was, “nah”!  Yet, that wasn’t the point, for me.  When I responded, I assumed from experience that my individual views would have little or no impact on the issue.

And, in fairness, I should not have been surprised, because, while AFPS was looking to the future, I, staring retirement in the face, was more or less peering from the present to the past (as historians tend to do).  Nevertheless, having the opportunity to offer my opinions at least gave me a chance to vent, and I know, from some feedback, that my letter elicited a few chuckles along the way.  Oh, and I’m sure my Principal placed that response in an appropriate file, perhaps marked “Be Careful What You Ask For”!]

* * * * * *

 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 Education, Elective History Course for 9th and 10th Graders, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Research, Retirement, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Who Was A Citizen?” Historical Problem, 8: A Solution

john-quincy-adams-picture

[NOTE:  This is the final installment in the long-running “historical problem” aimed at identifying the author of Cursory Remarks on Men and Measures in Georgia, by “A Citizen,” which was published in Savannah in 1784.

“A Citizen” first appeared on the scene even earlier, in 1783, publishing some letters in the Savannah Georgia Gazette.  In addition, his major production, Cursory Remarks, “scattered about the streets of Savannah” in 1784, and subsequent contributions by “A Citizen,” his supporters, and his opponents stretched the controversy almost to the end of the 1780s.]

"A Citizen"?

“A Citizen”?

* * * * *

Thus far, we have looked at the background and context for the appearance of “A Citizen” and his critics and have examined arguments advanced by both sides.  Further, we have offered up a “portrait of ‘A Citizen of Georgia,'” based upon clues in his writings, as well as those of his opponents and his supporters.  But the key issue remains, who was the author of the pieces signed “A Citizen”?

I’m now prepared to offer my answer to that question, both negatively and positively: early in my research, I thought “A Citizen” was a man I’d been studying for years, but, in the end, I went in a different direction.

* * * * *

The One Who Got Away: John Wereat

John Wereat

John Wereat

One reason I pursued “A Citizen” with such determination was that initially I thought he might be John Wereat, who, I knew, had contributed to the pamphlet warfare surrounding his good friend General Lachlan McIntosh (and McIntosh’s brother, George) during the Revolution.  I had been collecting information on Mr. Wereat before I encountered “A Citizen,” hoping to learn more about him; once I read the pieces by “A Citizen,” his supporters, and his opponents, I began to think (hope?) that Mr. Wereat might have carried his pamphleteering activities into the post-Revolutionary world.

Ultimately, however, I decided that there was insufficient evidence to support my hunch that John Wereat was “A Citizen.”  Mr. Wereat certainly fit some of the characteristics revealed about “A Citizen” during the newspaper warfare of the early 1780s: he had been an opponent of George Walton during the Revolution; he had not been employed in a “fighting department” during the war but had “necessarily been employed in the publick [sic] service”; he had been taken prisoner by the British in Augusta and, with many of his fellow captives, had been sent to Charleston, South Carolina, for imprisonment; and, in the early 1780s, he was, as State Auditor, praised for doing a good job in a difficult position.

But there were problems:  in his 1784 pamphlet, “A Citizen” praised the State Auditor, none other than John Wereat.  I simply did not believe that Mr. Wereat would have lavished such fulsome praise on himself.  Moreover, Cursory Remarks reeked of anti-Semitism in places, and I had seen absolutely no evidence of this in the letters of Wereat I had encountered during the course of my research.

So, I put my information on “A Citizen,” his newspaper essays and his pamphlet, along with contributions from his journalistic supporters and opponents, into a file cabinet in our basement.  I only brought this material out again a few months ago, when I decided that it might be interesting to use those sources as the basis for this “historical problem.”

In the course of organizing material for inclusion in this series of blog posts, I finally arrived at an answer to the question I asked originally, “Who Was a ‘Citizen’?”  While I’ll admit that, forty years on, there’s still no smoking gun, the acrid smell of gunpowder remains in the air, as I nominate Seth John Cuthbert as author of the letters and pamphlet produced by “A Citizen.”

The One in the Arena–Seth John Cuthbert ?

Seth John Cuthbert?

Seth John Cuthbert?

How Seth John Cuthbert (probably) wound up posing as “A Citizen” is a fairly complicated story:

On New Year’s Day, 1756, Sarah Threadcraft, stepdaughter of John Cuthbert (and, thus stepsister of Seth John Cuthbert) and daughter of Esther Cuthbert of Williamsburg, S.C., married Lachlan McIntosh.  McIntosh had loaned his future father-in-law, John Cuthbert, seven hundred pounds prior to the marriage; just after the wedding, that note came due, and John Cuthbert would not pay it.  Arbitrators eventually awarded the money to McIntosh, but his father-in-law continued to refuse to hand it over.  McIntosh dropped the case, at least for the time being, apparently to avoid increasing financial pressure on his in-laws, but the issue would arise again after the Revolution.

Gen. Lachlan McIntosh (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

Gen. Lachlan McIntosh (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

John Cuthbert’s son–and Sarah McIntosh’s stepbrother–Seth John Cuthbert, briefly served as president of the Supreme Executive Council, and, thus, as de facto “governor” of the remaining Whig territory in Georgia, in the summer of 1779.  His successor as president of the Supreme Executive Council was General McIntosh’s good friend, John Wereat, who served as Council president from 1779 to 1780.

It was this conservative Supreme Executive Council that was supplanted by the more “radical” combination of George Walton and Richard Howley, which, in turn, sparked the  postwar vendetta between the McIntosh clan and George Walton.  Obviously, these events would have inclined Wereat, McIntosh, and Seth John Cuthbert to seek revenge on Walton. This was the immediate context of the appearance in the Savannah Georgia Gazette of the provocative writings by “A Citizen,” and the responses by Walton, writing as “Brutus,” in 1784.

* * * * *

William McIntosh, Jr., General Lachlan McIntosh’s third son, took offense when, at the end of the war, the Georgia legislature cleared General McIntosh from the charges contained in House Speaker William Glascock’s infamous “forged letter,” but took no action against George Walton and Richard Howley for their alleged roles in the forgery, and even elected Walton Chief Justice of Georgia.

William McIntosh, Jr., pledged to pull George Walton off the bench to which he’d been elevated by the legislature at the end of the war.  Although his petition opposing Walton did little good, young McIntosh encountered his target in the streets of Savannah and horsewhipped him.

William McIntosh Jr.’s assault on Chief Justice Walton was followed by the refusal of John Wereat, Lachlan McIntosh, and their supporters on the Chatham County Grand Jury to serve under Chief Justice Walton.  Walton dissolved the grand jury, but Governor Lyman Hall suspended him, only to have the next session of the legislature return Walton to his judicial office.

And, thus, this ugly dispute disappeared for a few years.

* * * * *

From William McIntosh, Jr.’s letter to the Georgia Gazette attacking Seth John Cuthbert (April 17, 1788), we learn that McIntosh’s father, General Lachlan McIntosh, was still involved in a law suit with John Cuthbert (General McIntosh’s father-in-law, and Seth John Cuthbert’s father). William McIntosh, Jr., insisted that the younger Cuthbert must meet him, and not his father the General, to settle the dispute. Yet, young McIntosh claimed that Seth John Cuthbert, a veteran of newspaper warfare allegedly given to character assassination behind a cloak of anonymity, refused to meet him on the “field of honor.”

On April 24, 1788, Georgia Gazette editor James Johnston’s summary of a letter from another “Correspondent” [almost certainly Seth John Cuthbert], obliquely commented on William McIntosh, Jr’s, missive in the previous issue.  “A Correspondent” praised the importance of freedom of the press to the maintenance of free government, but he also asserted that the press should not descend from its lofty responsibilities to “the impertinent frivolity of private quarrels and the indecent language of Billingsgate abuse.”

“A Correspondent” argued that aspersions cast upon a character through the press often failed of their purpose “by the insignificance of the detractor [i.e., William McIntosh, Jr.]—for who will regard the clamours [sic] and abuse of one who is himself a reproach to society—whose daily practices are daily violations of government, law, decency, and decorum, and whose situation in society is perhaps so contemptible and desperate as to make life itself burthensome to him. . . .”

William McIntosh, Jr., attacked “A Correspondent” on May 1, basing his response on editor James Johnston’s April 24 summary.  Internal evidence suggests that the younger McIntosh believed that “A Correspondent” was none other than Seth John Cuthbert, and, he seemed to imply, so was the author of “Cursory Remarks.”

  1. According to McIntosh, “A Correspondent” was accustomed to giving “the stabs [of slander] in the dark.”
  2. McIntosh charged that “A Correspondent” shrank from direct confrontations, allowing others to fight his battles for him.
  3. McIntosh also asserted, in language similar to that used by “A Citizen’s” attackers in 1785, that “A Correspondent” had sacrificed his reputation and honor by betraying the trust placed in him by his country during the Revolution “for the little property he possesses, and afterwards securing that property, and his own dear person, by a criminal neutrality, if not worse, and a connivance with the bitterest and cruelest enemy this country ever had during its greatest distress. . . .”
  4. It should also be noted that, if Seth John Cuthbert did in fact try to preserve his property during the Revolution by “conniving” with the British, that might explain the anger directed at him by the Sheftall family in 1785, one of whose members also had been accused of the same crime and had been punished for it, unlike Cuthbert, who at the end of the Revolution was elected State Treasurer, in which office he would work closely with State Auditor John Wereat.

* * * * *

At this point, Seth John Cuthbert emerged as a likely candidate for “A Citizen.”  Then, six months later, Cuthbert died.  A poetical newspaper obituary both commemorated Cuthbert’s passing and revealed additional hints that he might well have written the items signed by “A Citizen.”

In the obituary, Georgia Gazette, November 13, 1788, which was obviously prepared by someone who admired Seth John Cuthbert, the author spoke of

            [Cuthbert’s] pen severe, where glaring vice appear’d,

            Gall’d the struck culprit when her head she rear’d.

            With him the innocent could fondly stray,

            And mark the faults and follies of the day.

            But ah! too true! no more shall Cuthbert write,

            No more bring vices of the age to light. . . .

The writer of this obituary mentioned that, during the Revolution, Seth John Cuthbert was a major in the 2nd Georgia Continental Battalion and served as Treasurer of Georgia after the war, in which post “he acted with reputation to himself and advantage to the publick [sic].”

And, although the younger Cuthbert evidently held a commission in the Continental Army, it’s not certain how long he served on active duty.  If Cuthbert had found himself trapped behind enemy lines, he might have tried to preserve his property by aligning with the British, just as at least one member of the Sheftall family, and numerous other Georgians, did.  This also, by the way, would help explain the simmering anger of the Sheftalls towards the author of Cursory Remarks, especially if that person was Seth John Cuthbert, because while Cuthbert did not suffer in postwar Georgia for taking protection under the British, and was even elected State Treasurer at war’s end, Levi Sheftall certainly did, losing his civil rights for a time.

* * * * *

So, there you have it:  my modest attempt to identify the author of a series of post-Revolutionary publications that throws a sometimes garish light on politics in Georgia.  Am I certain that Seth John Cuthbert was “A Citizen”?  No, but I am reasonably confident that is the case.  I encourage readers to offer their own solutions to this question.

[NOTE:  Just to stir the pot a bit, let me suggest that it is entirely possible that William McIntosh, Jr., might have been “A Citizen,” if one readjusts his/her  perspective on Cursory Remarks!]

* * * * * *

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)

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

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