Blood of the Liberalsby George Packer
An acclaimed journalist and novelist explores the legacy and future of American liberalism through the history of his family's politically active history
George Packer's maternal grandfather, George Huddleston, was a populist congressman from Alabama in the early part of the century--an agrarian liberal in the Jacksonian mold who opposed the New Deal. Packer's… See more details below
An acclaimed journalist and novelist explores the legacy and future of American liberalism through the history of his family's politically active history
George Packer's maternal grandfather, George Huddleston, was a populist congressman from Alabama in the early part of the century--an agrarian liberal in the Jacksonian mold who opposed the New Deal. Packer's father was a Kennedy-era liberal, a law professor and dean at Stanford whose convictions were sorely--and ultimately fatally--tested in the campus upheavals of the 1960s. The inheritor of two sometimes conflicting strains of the great American liberal tradition, Packer discusses the testing of ideals in the lives of his father and grandfather and his own struggle to understand the place of the progressive tradition in our currently polarized political climate. Searching, engrossing, and persuasive, this is an original, intimate examination of the meaning of politics in American lives.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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A Thomas Jefferson Democrat
In the year of my grandfather's birth, 1869, Ulysses S. Grant became President and General Nathan Bedford Forrest (CSA) resigned as Grand Wizard and dissolved the recently formed Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan, fifty miles south of my grandfather's birthplace in Tennessee. On the day of my grandfather's death in 1960, John F. Kennedy was campaigning for the Democratic nomination for President and Martin Luther King, Jr., was holding a strategy session in Montgomery, Alabama, on the new student sit-in movement. The year 1869 is almost as close to 1776 as to 1960. Born in the nineteenth century, dying in the twentieth, George Huddleston lived mentally in the eighteenth, the century of yeoman farmers and revolutionary democrats. His congressional career stretched from 1915 to 1937, and his views won him, at various turns, the labels Bolshevik, socialist, liberal, and finally "the conservative gentleman from Birmingham, Alabama," and "the darling of Wall Street." But at the most difficult moments, when his political life was on the line, he always called himself "a Thomas Jefferson Democrat." To him the meaning was self-evident; in fact, the term encompassed a set of complications, even contradictions, that originate in Jefferson himself and the revolutionary age, when the new republic was working out what kind of society it wanted to be. By our standards, George Huddleston ended his career repudiating everything he had stood for at the start. By his own lights, he remained true to a core of belief the heartwood within the rings of modern interpretation, something old and hard and knotty. He believed in the right and abilityof ordinary people to run their own lives, and he distrusted any concentration of wealth or power that threatened to take that right away. This core sustained him until the age moved on, and then it brought him to grief, public defeat added to private misery, leaving him with not much more than his fierce pride.
When I was a boy my grandfather meant little to me. He was the Solomonic figure at the center of my mother's tales about a raucous household of five children. The stories always followed the same path from civil war or rebellion to gruff, essentially good-humored restoration. These were comedies, and to me their moral was that a big family, with lots of children and dogs, was happier than my own. The dogs made a far deeper impression on me than my grandfather, especially the heroic Great Dane, Duke, whom a cop shot through the neck as the dog chased a bicycle. Duke survived, but the cop, whose bullet just missed hitting my mother, was suspended from the force on orders of Representative Huddleston. He was the unquestioned authority who only had to utter a name to quiet the thousand petty disputes that broke out daily among his offspring. I knew that he was nearly twice as old as my grandmother when he married at age forty-eight, and ninety when he died, and though he died just six months before my birth I always assumed that he'd been dead for decades. My main impression was that he was old, impossibly old. When I was thirteen and my grandmother died, I inherited my grandfather's pocket watch, a pair of Civil War muskets, his infantryman's sword from the Spanish-American War, and a set of brass knuckles, all of which deepened my sense that he and I belonged to different civilizations.
A few years ago I asked my mother if her father's family had owned slaves. She sighed, as if I'd finally raised the subject she'd always dreaded. Only a dozen, she said, and not on a cotton plantation but on a hardscrabble farm in the bluegrass country of middle Tennessee, all of them freed (by defeat in the Civil War) several years before my grandfather was born. Still, slave owners. The stain of the South, even a small one, lay upon us. The news shocked me, though it seemed to implicate her rather than me, as if the sins of the fathers have a statute of limitations at the third generation. Instead of personal culpability or the heavy hand of ancestral guilt, I felt mildly excited to learn of the family's connection to the great American crime. History, any history, confers meaning on a life.
The truth is, I already should have known. My mother had published a collection of essays about her father, most of them written when I was a boy. In "Lee's Lieutenants" she wrote: "My father said that before the Civil War his grandfather had a fairly large farm worked by ten or twelve hands." I read this sentence several times over the years without stopping to consider just who those "hands" were I'd always pictured young white hires, like the ranch hands on Bonanza. Perhaps some scruple had kept my mother from using the word "slaves."
When she was twelve, eager to assert her regional pride among classmates at a new school, she announced that she wished the South had won the war, slavery or no slavery. That night she boasted of her rebel stand to her father.
"Don't talk like an ass," he told her. "Slavery is a terrible evil. It degrades both sides."
"The Confederates must have believed it was all right," she said.
"I'm sorry to say that at that time most Southerners did think it was all right. And the South paid for it."
I thought you would have been a Confederate," she said.
"No doubt I would have been with my people," her father admitted, "right or wrong, foolish or wise."
She absorbed both lessons, about slavery and loyalty "and I would be forever escaping the ambivalence toward love and conscience that trapped me then."
The father in her book is not without faults, too forbidding to be lovable, but an admirable man of the crotchety, set-in-his-ways sort, whose role is to teach integrity to the children, tease his volatile wife, and impose his law on the house with a quick clearing of the throat. "None of it is false," my mother once told me, "but it isn't the whole truth." She placed kin ahead of candor and spared both her parents the pain of exposure for, as I would come to learn, there was plenty of pain to expose, stories she didn't write, ones she's since told me or I've discovered on my own, leaving me to work out my own ambivalence toward love and conscience.
Reading my grandfather's speeches in crumbling red-leather-bound volumes of the Congressional Record alive all these years later with his quick wit, his love of a righteous fight I often heard my mother's voice. She's my link to him, his values and his world, and in searching for my grandfather, dead before I was born, I came to know a woman who's been there since my birth.
When I went down to Lebanon, Tennessee, and browsed through the Wilson County archives, I discovered that at the start of the Civil War the Huddlestons owned a total of thirty-four slaves, lodged in six slave houses, which made them one of the country's larger slave-owning families. On June 16,1860, my grandfather's grandfather also George Huddleston was deeded a "negro woman Martha and 5 children" by his oldest son. A year later that son joined the 7th Tennessee Infantry; a year after that he was killed at Antietam, one of 23,000 casualties on the single bloodiest day in U.S. military history. Another of my grandfather's uncles, Billy, lost a leg in a Yankee prison camp. But my grandfather's father, Joseph Franklin, a twenty-six-year-old merchant at the outbreak of war, didn't fight. He drew up a list of names for a company that he would lead into action, but the company never materialized. Instead he stayed home and married a woman named Nancy Sherrill. The war raged back and forth in large battles and guerrilla skirmishes and marauding banditry across middle Tennessee for three long years, and at its end the region was devastated. "Mourning in every household," wrote one contemporary, "desolation written in broad characters across the whole face of their country, cities in ashes and fields laid waste, their, commerce gone, their system of labor annihilated and destroyed. Ruin, poverty, and distress everywhere, and now pestilence adding to the very cap sheaf to their stack of misery; her proud men begging for pardon and appealing for permission to raise food for their children; her five million of slaves free, and their value lost to their former master forever." So observed William Tecumseh Sherman the man the South held personally responsible for a good deal of its misfortune.
The Huddlestons were financially ruined, their slave labor gone, their acreage diminished. The store my grandfather's grandfather had owned since the 1820s closed, and the place known as "Huddleston's Cross Roads" ceased to exist. "After the War," my mother wrote, "most of the land was sold for taxes and my great-grandfather was hard put to feed his family. He got mighty little help from his many sons, my father said, for they were so ashamed of working the fields that whenever a carriage or horse passed by they ducked below the level of the corn to protect their honor from the view of ex-slaves and scalawags and social inferiors.
"'Protect their honor?' my father repeated, outraged, gazing around the dinner table at each of us as if we had called it honor. 'Bosh. Honor would have set to work and amounted to something and got the land back.'"
My grandfather was born in a clapboard house, on a dirt road off the pike between Lebanon and Murfreesboro down which Sherman had marched just five years before. "My earliest memories are of the poverty which in the seventies fell upon the people of the Triangle" between Nashville, Franklin, and Murfreesboro, he wrote near the end of his life. "Poverty and privation did what war with all its horrors could not do. The people were conquered at last; their spirits were broken; they were in despair." His father's wealth had been reduced to half its level at the start of the decade. Joseph Franklin tried farming but abandoned it. He moved his family to Nashville and opened a store that failed. The hardships, his general fecklessness, his failure to serve in the Lost Cause, left his son George with a sense of shame and quite possibly hatred, which he repressed into an unpretentious family pride. In later years the ties of blood would lead him to take in countless long-lost cousins who needed a place to stay, send them to school or find them a job, force his children to pay regular visits to their hick relations in Tennessee, and compile a volume called Huddleston Family Tables that traced his forebears back to pre-Norman Yorkshire. He said that he wanted to make the book as uninteresting as possible. "What he honored was not the romance of family riches or accomplishment or derring-do, but the simple country fact of kinship," my mother wrote. "It is a book of begats, not of celebration." When a man named Huddleston sent him a commercially prepared family tree that claimed to prove descent from Saxon royalty, my grandfather wrote back: "If you believe this you should immediately lay claim to the British throne."
With the Huddlestons there were no trappings or displays. My grandfather grew up among defeated, unsmiling people. In a family reunion photograph taken in 1931, several generations of Huddlestons are lined up all wearing the same grim jaw, even the toddlers. His father and cousins were followers of Alexander Campbell Church of Christers, so austere they didn't allow music in services, so unforgiving they believed members of all other denominations were hellbound. When my grandfather was old enough to become a skeptic which he remained for the rest of his life he asked his father whether this law of damnation would include a baby born on a ship that then shipwrecked. "Well, I don't really know," Joseph Franklin Huddleston replied, "but I don't hold out much hope."
"Huddlestons don't gush," my grandfather liked to say. "And they don't marry either," my grandmother would answer. "They just dry up and blow away." Of ten children in one branch of the family, four never married, two married cousins, two married when they were almost fifty, and just three had offspring. Only my grandfather's eccentric uncle G. Perk Huddleston, who fathered a mulatto daughter, who rode a horse into church one day, who raised regionally famous gamecocks and peddled his patented "Chicken Powder" ("puts life and vigor in your flock giving them red combs and beauty of plumage, while as an egg producer it is unequaled") only Uncle G. Perk seems to have had any pleasure in life.
The Huddleston graveyard lies alongside the Murfreesboro-Lebanon Pike, now Highway 231, where it crosses the dry bed of Hurricane Creek the original Huddleston's Cross Roads, where my great-great-grandfather had built his store. On a trip South not long ago I went in search of my dead kin one warm spring evening. This part of middle Tennessee is Bible Belt and horse-farm country, bluegrass fields and rolling limestone hills. Around a bend in a backcountry road, a tin-roof church appeared with a glaring marquee: "THE WAGES OF SIN IS DEATH." The graveyard is so plain that I drove by three times before noticing it next to a pasture where three horses were browsing. A stone wall about 150 by 200 feet, with a chain-link gate, surrounded a grove of tall cedar trees wrapped in vines. It was seven o'clock and the sun was going down behind the graveyard. Golden light slanted through the branches, and the air was full of the burnt smell of cedar needles. The gravestones tilted crookedly in the dirt. The more recent ones near the front were rather large and polished, but the deeper into the plot I walked, the older and humbler they became. "He died as he lived an honest man," said one-legged Uncle Billy's, but this was relatively flamboyant. Most of them were on the order of "Mary (wife) 1846-1935." Along the back wall stood a row of little foot-and-a-half-by-one-foot markers that said nothing at all, the names worn away. As the sun went down a gloom settled over the headstones. Nothing moved. A dog was barking in the pasture. The stillness in the Huddleston family graveyard seemed deeper than the silence of the dead. These ancestors of mine had never had much to say.
The next day I found the Sherrill plot on a road a couple of miles west. The difference was striking. My great-grandmother's family had erected little obelisks and scrolls and medallions to catch the eye of a passerby their last chance to make a favorable impression. They were handsome and sophisticated people flighty spendthrifts, according to my grandfather who scattered after the war. His mother was the main, maybe the only, source of warmth in his early life. Nancy Sherrill Huddleston felt that her third child was destined for greatness, and she told him, "You'll be President someday." In January 1882 she drank bad water from their contaminated well in Nashville and died of typhoid fever at age forty-two. Her unsentimental husband buried her in the Sherrill plot, to leave room among the Huddlestons for his next wife, who turned out to be a hard country woman named Miss Betty Barrett.
So at the vulnerable age of twelve my grandfather lost the most important person in his life. Decades later he still got depressed in January and talked about his mother in lugubrious terms. Her death seemed not to have drained all the feeling out of him, but to have blocked it far down in dark pools, where it grew morbidly romantic.
Not long ago his oldest child, my aunt Mary, gave me a thin brown booklet labeled "Students" Note Book. EXTRA FINE PAPER," with George Huddleston's signature on the cover. Its ruled pages are filled with poems he wrote between fourteen and twenty, in pencil or brown ink in a looping old-fashioned script. One of them is called "A Dead Mother":
Close her eyes for she is dying.
Lightly tread around the bed where she is lieing.
Gently fold her hands upon her breast.
Softly speak around her now for she's at rest ...
Sing sweetly spirits unto a brother
Unto a sad and sorrowing son, that's lost a mother.
Most of the others are gloomy love poems, under the influence of Burns, about cruel girls named Mary, Jane, and Nancy, the names he would give his daughters likely pseudonyms for a cousin improbably named Mordante Chenault, with whom he was in love and who broke his heart. His mother's ambition for him when she was alive, combined with the unhappy romanticism brought about by her death, made this barely schooled young man want to become a poet. A colored tintype shows him as an ancient-looking boy standing in a waistcoat and britches and porkpie hat, with his right hand placed flat on a thick volume on a table, a solemn little country boy striking a literary pose but his feet are bare. He wrote poems throughout his teens and read "all of the books left in our family and all that I could borrow from neighbors within a radius of miles." He took volumes of Shakespeare and Dickens from the Nashville library and pored over them in the attic. "At thirteen a neighbor lent me a copy of Paradise Lost. I was routed horse and foot, after the first few pages." The writing stopped in his twenties but the reading never did, "quite without system and undirected."
His early literary fantasies found a second life when he entered politics and eventually became one of the renowned speakers in Congress. His favorite writers remained the masters of Victorian rhyme, Swinburne and Tennyson, and at eighty-two he took the unwise step of self-publishing a collection of his own lovelorn doggerel. In the way of most rigid and repressed men, he carried on a sort of shadowy emotional life that mainly found expression in sentimentality.
With his mother's death, existence went from hard to grim. His father, having failed at his Nashville store, returned to the family farm in Wilson County. George stayed behind and tried to continue in school while selling newspapers on the street, but he too failed. He dropped out of school after sixth grade and got a position working in a country store for five dollars a month. But when he saw the owner making money peddling goods, George quit the store and, now fourteen years old, struck out on his own. He became an itinerant peddler, selling chickens and eggs, beeswax, hides, tallow, feathers, lead shot, and snuff from a secondhand wagon drawn by a blind horse that he'd bought on credit.
All around the bluegrass country of middle Tennessee the boy and the blind horse plodded, from farm to farm and market to market. The rural South was falling into even deeper poverty as agricultural prices collapsed to starvation levels during the 1880s. George Huddleston had gone into business at the bleakest moment since the end of the war. Acreage reduced, mules and equipment in short supply, crops mortgaged at interest rates reaching 50 percent under the crop lien system, poor farmers were leaving the land altogether for the new industries in the cities. Some of the fields my grandfather rolled past were abandoned, corn and sorghum replaced by tall grass and weeds, houses collapsing in on themselves. The farmers who stayed behind were slipping into "a fatal lethargy," one contemporary wrote "our minds become benumbed, deadened."
My grandfather willed himself to persist, save his money, and pull himself up toward the greater things his mother had imagined for him. The price this austere self-discipline exacted on his character was paid in a stunted affective life that would strain all of his most important relationships. He was incapable of easy bonhomie, prone to quick and severe judgment of others. But hardship also shaped the growth of his moral consciousness, in a way that's revealed by this story from when he was seven, published years later in a Birmingham newspaper:
Little George wanted some money all his own money that he could spend just as he pleased. A neighbor had a cotton field. All but fifteen rows had been hoed. This fifteen rows of cotton looked like a job. He approached the owner: "I will hoe out those fifteen rows of cotton for a nickel," he said. " It is a trade," replied the neighbor farmer.
George sailed in, and at the end of the first half day he had hoed seven rows. He had realized also that he had made a bad trade. But he did not back down. This has been a characteristic of his life. When he begins a job he finishes it. But this was about the first and last bad job he ever took. It was certainly the first and last bad trade he ever made.
He worked all next day on the cotton patch, and finished it. Then he got his nickel. He kissed the nickel and swore that from that time on he would be a friend to the poor and oppressed.
It begins like a typical tale from the Horatio Alger age, another poor but plucky boy who impressed adults with his diligence and cleverness, learned from mistakes, and worked tirelessly toward his deserved reward on top of a mountain of cash until the last phrase. The Horatio Alger novels were set in the victorious, industrializing North. My grandfather, growing up in the defeated, rural South, discovered at an early age that even American stories don't always have happy endings, family pride is mingled with shame, and life can grind people down until they lose the will to strive.
As it happened, Huddleston's biography bears some resemblance to the rags-to-riches legend he would make his fortune practicing law and then go on to public office. He could have adopted the self-made man's smug view: if I can do it, anyone can. In another version of the story, the poor boy learns business shrewdness and swears that one day he'll buy out the neighbor's farm and pay someone else a nickel to hoe it. This would be Little Richard Nixon's version. Both boys worshiped their mothers, had failures of fathers, suffered early humiliations. Psychologically, two reactions are possible one that resents and rejects poverty, the other that embraces it as a virtue.
My grandfather once said, "I have come in contact with a few great men and quite a few 'near' great ones. But I consider the contacts which I made as a lad when engaged in buying and selling as the basis of my knowledge of and love for what Abraham Lincoln called the 'plain people,' and this is the secret of my ability, if I have any, to mix and mingle with them, for in so doing I am not playing a part, but simply acting naturally along lines which give me my greatest joy."
Whenever one of his children would put on airs or groan at having to attend another Sunday picnic with their father's poor Alabama constituents, he would snap, "Quit posturing," and then quote his favorite lines of verse, from Goldsmith's "The Deserted Village":
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.
For George Huddleston, the "bold peasantry" of the eighteenth-century English poet was simply the American common man the "plain people" whom he came to know as an itinerant peddler. It's important to realize what this did not mean. His was not a modern, quasi-Marxist view of economic class conflict involving ceaseless struggle for wealth and power between the haves and the have-nots. His thinking was not "scientific." He disliked elites on moral, and maybe even aesthetic, grounds because he loathed "posturing," had an instinctive sense of justice, and believed that democracy depended on a rough equality of conditions. He once gave a speech called "The New Americanism and the Old," in which he said, "There can be no abiding democracy among a people separated into social classes and economic groups, in which all the advantage, all the hope, and all the opportunity rests with the few, and all the labor and all the burdens are imposed upon the many." The "Old Americanism," he believed, was a republic of free equals. And this is what my grandfather meant when he called himself a Thomas Jefferson Democrat.
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