“In my honest and unbiased judgment, the Good Lord will place the Garden of Eden in North Carolina, when He restores it to earth. He will do this because He will have so few changes to make in order to achieve perfection.”
—Sam J. Ervin Jr.
William S. Powell’s magnificent portrayal of an American state through a collective biography of its men and women of eminence or interest has reached midpoint in its publication. I will try to explain why it is worthy of serious notice by readers of the magazine of American culture.
One of the great virtues of this collection is an old-fashioned scholarship that is at once skillful, thorough, aware without being trendy, and pious without being blind. The editor has spent a lifetime exploring every facet of the history of his state and mastering it with a thoroughness seldom matched today. The result is a grand and comprehensive design that leads to an inclusiveness, accuracy, and insight that is of permanent value.
Let’s face it: the libraries are full of biographical dictionaries. Many of them, even some bearing the names of famous scholars as editors, are merely publishers’ gimmicks, cut-and-pasted together by people who were unable or unwilling to see their subject freshly and comprehensively and full of articles written hastily by clockwatching “scholars” who merely compile and rewrite old mistakes of fact and judgment. Not so in this remarkable work.
Another consoling feature is the collaboration of hundreds of authors on some four thousand sketches, with professional scholars and amateurs (in the old and honorable sense of that term) appearing shoulder-to-shoulder without embarrassment. The collaboration is reminiscent of that golden age of American culture around the turn of the 20th century, when history and all other endeavors were dominated by gifted amateurs, the last great promising moment before “experts” and “progressives” took government and learning away from the people and ruined them forever. We North Carolinians have always been behind the times in many ways—and glad of it.
Pardon me if I talk about “we.” Though I have been in exile south of the Catawba for some years,
I’m a Tar Heel born
And a Tar Heel bred.
And when I die,
I’ll be a Tar Heel dead.
Unlike some neighbors, I will not mention that we don’t like to brag. Our motto is “Esse Quam Videri“: to be rather than to seem. But I will point out to a world whose perspective is slanted by New York and Hollywood that we make up a pretty big slice of America, both in size and history. For instance, we are the tenth most populous state (1980 census), a position we have not deviated far from throughout this century. We are six times bigger than New Hampshire, twice as big as Iowa or Oregon, considerably bigger than Indiana or Wisconsin. Yet for some reason our presidential primary, which has been competitive for decades now, is never noticed like those states’ by the media moguls. (Could they be prejudiced!??)
At the time of the American Revolution, we were bigger than any of the 13 colonies except Virginia and Pennsylvania (that is, bigger than New York or Massachusetts) and growing fast. And unlike some states I won’t mention, our influence was always heavily on the patriot side, especially after we broke the Scotch Tories at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, which, if American history were ever told right, would be as famous as Bunker Hill.
And we have a pretty long history, by American standards, and including three rebellions before the Revolution, going back almost four centuries now. We have always made up our own minds, and always been American republicans. Not democrats, not progressives, not liberals, not conservatives in your Wall Street sense, but American republicans. Our Revolutionary heroes chronicled here, to name just a few—John Ashe, Richard Caswell, William Richardson Davie, Cornelius Harnett, James Iredell, Willie Jones—were fully the equals, as patriots and statesmen, of some of the better-advertised chaps from other states.
Perhaps our most representative leader of all time was Mr. Macon, my account of whom, for the next forthcoming volume of the DNCB, appears herein. As I said, we think for ourselves. Consider Sam Ervin or Jesse Helms. You will have a rather hard time fitting them into any categories devised by the newspapers or the Stanford political science department. (Ervin appears herein. Senator Helms does not. The DNCB’s one discrimination is against the living, who are not included.)
Not only are we a large state with a history a good deal older than the United States and an independent spirit, but we are an empire within ourselves. A coastal (plantation) region, a piedmont (yeomen and industry) region, and a mountain region, each one distinct and bigger than the similar regions in any other Southern state. You can find within our broad bounds anything that you can find in any Southern state, most of anything that you can describe as generally American, and a great deal that is not found anywhere else.
When it came time for the Civil War, we did not want to rush into things. But when others had fouled it up beyond help, we did not hesitate. We told Mr. Lincoln what he could do with his troop requisition and voted 120-0 for secession. We provided 45 generals to the Confederacy (Civil War buffs will find in the DNCB a host of familiar heroes like Gilmer, Grimes, Hoke, Pender, Pettigrew, Ramseur, and many others) and nearly a fourth of the men who carried General Lee’s bayonets for four years. But we also produced George W. Kirk, who fought a guerrilla war against the Confederacy from the mountains; General John Gibbon, who commanded some of the federal troops on Cemetery Ridge; and Solomon Meredith, who moved off to Indiana and ended up in command of the Iron Brigade, the best outfit in the Northern army. As I said, we do our own thinking.
We have always exercised an undue influence inside the Congress, where smarts count more than publicity. Consider, in the 19th century, James I. McKay, chairman of the House Ways and Means throughout the Jacksonian era, or Willie P. Mangum, president pro tern of the Senate, or William A. Graham, the Whig candidate for Vice President in 1852, men who in their own day were as famous as Clay or Webster. Or in the 20th century, Claude Kitchin, Woodrow Wilson’s floor manager in the House, or Carl T. Durham, first and for many years chairman of the Joint Atomic Energy Committee. Or outside the Congress, Josephus Daniels, probably the most powerful Democratic editor in the country, who was FDR’s chief when he was assistant secretary of the Navy and who always referred to FDR as Franklin, even after he was a fourth-term President.
Maybe your taste runs to the bizarre—people who did not hold public office but who did something unusual. How about the assassin Thomas C. Dula, who is immortalized in the folk song “Tom Dooley” and who was in the same Confederate regiment as my great-grandfather and his brothers? Or how about Eng and Chang Bunker, the original Siamese twins, who, after they made their pile on Barnum’s circuit, lived the rest of their lives alternately on adjacent plantations near Andy Griffith’s Mount Airy, the prototype for “Mayberry”?
Or maybe you don’t care much for politicians but like business and professional types. How about industrialists like the Dukes, Haneses, and Reynoldses? Or James K. Hall, the Southern Karl Menninger? You want writers? How about Thomas Dixon, who was not only a fabulously successful evangelist in New York and Boston but sold millions of copies of The Clansman, which formed the basis for The Birth of a Nation? Or Johnson J. Hooper, not only the grandnephew of one of our Signers of the Declaration of Independence and secretary of the Confederate Congress but also creator of the fictional Captain Simon Suggs, the true ancestor of Faulkner’s Snopeses? You will find in the DNCB significant figures from literally every field of human endeavor—entrepreneurship, education, religion, all the arts, sciences, and professions.
Nor would I have you think that the women, and the blacks, and the Native Americans have been neglected. They are very well represented. How about George Moses Horton, the black poet who taught the children of prominent families in antebellum days? Or James G. Jones, the free black man from Raleigh who was President Davis’s coachman and trusted confidential messenger during The War? I could go on, and on.
Throughout the 19th century, to an even greater degree than most of the older states, we drained off most of our population increase to the heroic endeavor of settling the West. Mr. Powell has recognized this as an important part of our history, and has included not only those who played a significant role in our state but the Tar Heels-born who built up newer commonwealths. We played, as is obvious, a major role in every Southern state to the West, all the way to Texas—providing them with governors, congressmen, clergymen, editors, educators, and soldiers—Presidents Jackson, Polk, and Johnson, and the famous Senator Benton of Missouri, just to mention the top of the list.
But, what is less well-known, our natives played almost as big a role in the old Northwest, the region north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi. Consider Abraham Lincoln’s mother. Or William Allen, who walked to Ohio as a boy and was for years in the antebellum period a senator and boss of the Democratic Party in that state. Or “Uncle Joe” Cannon, who as a child left the Quaker settlements near Greensboro, moved to Illinois, and grew up to be the most powerful Speaker the House of Representatives has ever had. Or Richard J. Gatling, who left the family plantation in Hertford County to go off to the Midwest and invent and manufacture the Gatling gun. In fact, if you are a WASP whose family settled the Midwest before 1860, you have a one-in-three chance of having North Carolina blood in your veins. This is not to mention later and less systematic Tar Heel immigration; Richard Weaver of The Ingersoll Foundation’s Weaver Award, for instance.
The Far West? How about Kit Carson, the famous mountain man of New Mexico? A longtime Chief Justice of Washington State? Joe Lane, one of the great pioneer figures of Oregon? Or O.P. Fitzgerald, who not only founded Methodism in California but was a contemporary of Bret Harte and Mark Twain in developing California literature?
Why am I so enthusiastic about the DNCB? Not only because of the quality of the scholarship and the masterful inclusiveness of the design in every respect. Not only because of the tradition and civic heritage that is represented by the pietas of its conception and broad collaboration of its execution, both so rare and unexpected in this day and age. But because it contains vast stores of material on the real life and real deeds and real thoughts and motives of a large slice of real Americans. In a dark time when our culture is reduced to trashy novels and MTV, our politics to whining and smugness and hypocritical platitudes, and our history to Hollywood docudramas and warped ahistorical interpretations of our great documents and events, this is something for which we can be truly thankful.
[Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Edited by William S. Powell (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press) Vol. 1, 477pp.; Vol. 2, 389pp.; Vol. 3, 384 pp.; $49.95 each]
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