virginian pride -- 2/11/15

Today's selection -- from George Marshall by Debbie and Irwain Unger. Like many of their Virginian contemporaries, George Marshall's parents thought there was an importance to their ancestry that was beyond that of other Americans. As a young man Marshall, who some consider to be the greatest general in American history, never had as much use for the puffed-up family pride as his parents:

"[George Marshall's family] traced their ancestry to Virginia. That pattern was not uncommon; hordes of old-stock Americans could claim Virginia origins, for the Old Dominion had scattered thousands of its sons and daughters across the nation's landscape to merge and blend with streams of people from other commonwealths and other countries. Yet many of these Virginians, wherever they lived, held themselves special for their ancestry and their ancestral values.

"The proud claim was based in part on a myth of royalist forebears fleeing Oliver Cromwell's Puritan England. These high-toned Cavaliers had fought for King Charles I and fled Britain for America in the 1640s, when Cromwell's low-born Roundheads triumphed and beheaded their monarch. In fact few English royalists actually sought refuge in the infant colony named for the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I; far more Puritan Roundheads settled in frigid New England. Yet the legend of Virginia's Cavalier heritage, reinforced by the century-long struggle between North and South over slavery and states' rights, would prove potent as a formative cultural influence among its children, whether at home or abroad.

"One result was inflated collective pride, as expressed by the lineage society the Order of the First Families of Virginia (FFV), a state version of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) or the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR). The full myth went beyond the Cavalier-Roundhead distinction, however. More legitimately, it also drew on the critical role of Virginia in the events leading to the Revolution, and on the fame of its revolutionary sons -- Washington, Jefferson, Madison -- in the creation of the early republic. For George's family the esteemed forebear was John Marshall, the fourth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who established judicial supremacy as the cornerstone of American constitutional practice.

"Though at best a distant, 'collateral' relation, the famous jurist loomed large in Marshall's family lore. George Catlett Senior revered John Marshall and treasured his connection to the chief justice. However, as a boy his younger son never had much use for the puffed-up family pride that infused his father. In fact he believed that 'continual harping on the name of John Marshall was a kind of poor business.' George at one point offended his father when, thumbing through a history of the Marshall family, he fastened on the pirate Blackbeard, husband of one of the ancestral Marshall women, as the only interesting character in the work, and boasted to his classmates about his raffish forebear.

George Marshall, at VMI, as First Captain

"But if indifferent to his own pedigree, George was susceptible to the Virginia myth as a force for molding character and personality. In reality, from the outset, the settlers of colonial Virginia and their descendants enjoyed a mixed reputation, one that included proclivities for hard drinking, boisterous sports, reckless gambling, and heedless extravagance. But at its best the ideal of 'Virginian' shaped a code of values and behavior that appended pride with honor, grace, and integrity that George somehow absorbed on the road to adulthood. Among those who seriously practiced what they preached, it included a love of place and country, an exalted standard of personal honor and public rectitude, an avoidance of overt self-serving, and a respect for women, children, and the weak. ...

"For George as a boy the Virginian myth was steeped in the special mystique of George Washington. ... In 1957, in his first interviews with his biographer Forrest Pogue, Marshall seemed almost obsessed with Washington and his early military exploits. It is not surprising that as he evolved into an adult George would borrow the attributes of his childhood hero and make them his own.

"Interestingly, Washington's own self-creation had foreshadowed George's. According to his recent biographer Ron Chernow, the Father of His Country 'tended his image with extreme care.' He 'trained himself to play the gentleman in polite drawing rooms. . . . People sensed something a bit studied about his behavior.' Chernow says that Washington's model was the British aristocracy as he perceived it before the Revolution, but Marshall in his turn learned much of what manhood meant, or should mean, from Washington directly. ...

"Marshall's exposure to noble Virginians and their attributes intensified at Virginia Military Institute, where George would receive his military training as a young man. At VMI in Marshall's day the Civil War victories of Confederate general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson in the Valley Campaign, at Antietam, and at Fredericksburg remained heroic legends. His classmates at the institute, moreover, were predominantly Southerners, many from the wealthier classes who cherished and emulated the Virginia type. Reinforcement came from that still-more-famous Virginia general, Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and general in chief of the Confederate army. After the South's surrender at Appomattox in 1865 Lee had settled in Lexington, adjacent to VMI, to serve as president of Washington College. He was a potent presence, both literally and figuratively, in Marshall's early manhood."


Debi and Irwin Unger


George Marshall: A Biography


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2014 by Debu and Irwin Unger with Stanley Hirshon


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