henry adams and jamestown’s john smith -- 10/25/21

Today's selection -- from The Last American Aristocrat by David S. Brown. During the Civil War, Northern author Henry Adams took the initiative to diminish the reputation of Jamestown colonizer John Smith precisely because he was a Virginian and icon of the South:

"Beyond the practical implications of emancipation, another and seem­ingly more distant southern question captured Henry's attention while in London: the problematic narratives of John Smith (1580-1631). Sol­dier, explorer, and colonial governor, Smith, as every ten-year-old knew, helped establish Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. More than simply conducting an exercise in textual analysis, Adams took aim in his research at one of the South's original icons. To reduce Smith's reputation might vicariously diminish the status of all 'cavaliers' who claimed him as a patriarch of sorts. The idea came to Henry after the Boston historian John Gorham Palfrey raised doubts about Smith's famous account of his rescue in 1608 by Pocahon­tas, daughter of Powhatan, a leader of the Algonquian-speaking Vir­ginia Indians. Presumably the young princess threw herself between Smith, his head pressed down upon a stone, and a warrior about to club him to death in a ritual ceremony. Impressed, her father spared the lucky Englishman's life. After a few hours of research at the British Museum in October 1861, Henry began preparing a paper designed to demolish Smith's credibility -- 'the ancient liar,' he called him. 'I hardly know whether I ought not to be ashamed of myself for devoting myself to a literary toy like this, in these times,' he wrote Palfrey, 'when I ought to be helping or trying to help the great cause.' But as a self-ascribed 'social failure' unable to fire off any more dispatches to New York, he had time on his hands. 'So perhaps the thing is excusable, especially as it is in some sort a flank, or rather a rear attack, on the Virginia aristoc­racy, who will be utterly graveled by it if it is successful.'

"Henry sent a copy of the completed essay, 'Captaine John Smith,' to Palfrey in early 1863; due to authorial second thoughts it remained unpublished until, under Palfrey's prodding, appearing four years later in the North American Review. The piece, propagandistic in temper and intent, opens with a predictably deflating contrast: Smith is dis­missed as a poor composite of the piratical line, a Sir Walter Raleigh redux 'on a much lower level.' Adams then launches into a comparison of Smith's memoir, A True Relation by Captain John Smith (1608), with his later study, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624). It is in the second manuscript that Smith included the dramatic Pocahontas story, and its absence in the first history led Henry to reject it outright as a tall tale. His antisouthernisms come through in various pointed remarks -- 'Smith's character was always a matter of doubt,' 'his career in Virginia terminated disastrously' -- and in a derisory observation: 'Families of the highest claim to merit trace their descent from the Emperor's daughter that saved the life of Captain John Smith.' Presumably the members of these high-tidewater clans could connect their blood to the celebrated young Indian sov­ereign and her English husband, John Rolfe. Of course in attacking Smith's character and questioning Pocahontas's posterity, Henry more broadly undermined the founding article of southern history -- the story of the noble 'savages,' the beautiful princess, and the brave Eliza­bethan adventurer -- as a mere creation myth. Pocahontas's 1616 'visit to England,' he insisted, 'made her the most conspicuous figure in Vir­ginia, and romantic incidents in her life were likely to be created, if they did not already exist, by the exercise of the popular imagination.'"

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David S. Brown


The Last American Aristocrat




Copyright 2020 by David S. Brown


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