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, Blood of the Liberals is an original, intimate examination of the meaning of politics in American lives.
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Blood of the Liberals
By George Packer
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2000 George Packer
All rights reserved.
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 ability of 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 county'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 second 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."
Excerpted from Blood of the Liberals by George Packer. Copyright © 2000 George Packer. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
Blood of the Liberals,
Part 1: The Man and the Dollar,
Chapter 1: A Thomas Jefferson Democrat,
Chapter 2: Iron and Flesh,
Chapter 3: The Little Bolsheviki,
Chapter 4: No Is Always Right,
Part 2: The Sunlight of Reason,
Chapter 5: A Modern Jew,
Chapter 6: Winds of Freedom,
Chapter 7: Golden Age,
Chapter 8: Cults of Irrationality,
Chapter 9: The Prose and the Passion,
Part 3: The Age of Disbelief,
Chapter 10: Free Ride,
Chapter 11: Winners and Losers,
Chapter 12: Twilight of the Gods,
Chapter 13: Birmingham Dreams,
Chapter 14: Past Is Prologue,
Note on Sources,
Also by George Packer,
About the Author,