Thomas Nelson Page
The Old Dominion: Her Making and Her Manners
In compiling his famous 1908 essay collection The Old Dominion: Her Making and Her Manners, author Thomas Nelson Page seemed to have several goals in mind. Of course, offering a brief history of the Commonwealth of Virginia was one. He also quite clearly wished to rehabilitate the good name of his home state — as well as that of the defeated South — in the wake of postbellum criticism, condemnation, and stereotyping which was still prevalent in the early twentieth century. Deeper than this, however, Page intended to remind us of how history helps maintain civilizations. Without a positive and optimistic account of a people’s ancestors, such people will suffer a lack of identity and will be unmoored from the traditions which will guide them through trying times.
For Page, his identity begins quite naturally enough with Virginia, and at the start of The Old Dominion, he treats his readers to a meticulous and loving tribute to Jamestown, the very first successful European settlement in North America. As with much of Page’s writings, he speaks about “race” — but often inconsistently. He will, of course, speak of whites as a race, as opposed to Indians or blacks. But he will also speak of Southerners or even Virginians as a race, perhaps in the same manner as contemporaneous Europeans who commonly referred to the English, French, and Spanish as different races. In fact, it is this racial distinction between the English and the Spanish which occupies much of the book’s first chapter. In the sixteenth century, an increasingly arrogant and absolutist Spanish Empire was beginning to chafe against Protestant England under Queen Elizabeth, which was exhibiting its own ambitions in the New World.
With searches for the elusive Northwest Passage proving futile, the English turned their attention southward and noted how the Spaniards, armed with militant chauvinism for their Catholic religion, often asserted their dominance with cruelty and barbarism. Page describes a scene in which Pedro Menendez d’Arvilles (“an admirable soldier and a matchless liar” who was appointed by Elizabeth’s former brother-in-law, King Phillip II of Spain) attacked a Huguenot settlement on the St. Johns River in Florida. Menendez took 500 men on a three-day hike through the wilderness in order to surprise the settlement and slaughter every man, woman, and child in it — 142, to be exact. Afterward, 200 Huguenot sailors who had just survived a shipwreck stumbled upon the scene:
Just what followed is not known except from Menendez. He says that they [the Huguenots] were informed of the destruction of their town and surrendered on what they understood to be a promise of safety, but that he used equivocal words. Anyhow, this is what happened. It was surrender or starvation. They agreed to surrender. The arms were first sent over, and then he brought the men over in a boat ten at a time, and taking them off behind a line of sandhills, bound their hands behind their backs. By sunset they were all over and securely bound, and then he coolly butchered every soul.
Later, Menendez placed a sign over his victims which read, “Not as Frenchmen, but as heretics.”
Atrocities such as these galled the British and fueled their ambition to colonize the New World, if only to check the expansion of their Iberian enemies in favor of a “freer and broader civilization.” Following this, Page glorifies the unmatched heroism and bravery of the explorers and colonists who made Jamestown a reality. He also sympathizes with the aristocracy, describing how many of its members, such as Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh, had sold their estates in England and proved to be excellent leaders at sea and in the colonies. This enabled the English to finally gain a permanent foothold in North America and establish “the supremacy of the Saxon Race.” Settlements led by the merchant class, Page points out, did not fare quite as well.
With Jamestown scarcely settled, however, Page makes two things quite clear. One, that the early Virginians embodied the freedom-loving spirit of America as codified in the Virginia Charters of 1606, 1609, and 1612. He calls these charters “the foundation of the liberties of the American people” and never passes up an opportunity in The Old Dominion to celebrate how Virginians stood by these liberties. For example, the concept of no taxation without representation began in Virginia, according to Page, with the early Virginians insisting that Parliament could not levy a tax without the approval of their own General Assembly. Page’s prose is downright triumphant:
Yet, here on this very spot, at the head of this little island was Jamestown, the Birthplace of the American People: the first rude cradle in which was swaddled the tiny infant that in time has sprung up to be among the leaders of the nations; the torch bearer of civilization, and the standard-bearer of popular government throughout the world.
Does anyone even remember when American history was portrayed in such a refreshingly unapologetic manner? In his preface, Page credits historian Alexander Brown and his The Genesis of the United States for much of what appears in The Old Dominion — perhaps Brown and his works deserve a second look today. This next quote is my favorite, and it was written in the context of the Jamestown inhabitants suffering a sixty percent death rate during their first winter in the New World:
But it is well for the Anglo-Saxon race to pause and take note of the one great fact, that, however their perils may have alarmed them, however their vast isolation may have awed them, there always survived spirit enough to preserve them, and they remained in this far and perilous outpost of Anglo-Saxon civilization, and with the devotion of the vestal virgin of old, kept the fire, however, dim its spark, ever alight on the sacred shrine.
Obvious parallels can be drawn to the Dissident Right today, which makes Thomas Nelson Page as relevant and inspiring as he has ever been.
Secondly, Page makes it known that the Indians were entirely unassimilable to the incipient white civilization. He describes them as hostile, primitive, and untrustworthy. He refers to them often as “savages” (echoing the Declaration of Independence) and describes them more matter-of-factly rather than expend any particular animus upon them. In 1622, the Indians massacred over 400 colonists, and from that point on, the whites were vigorous and unrelenting in opposing their indigenous enemies. And rightly so, according to Page.
In regards to the Indian question, Page dedicates many pages to the famous John Smith, whose reputation was under fire even back then. While seeming to accept Smith’s many personal flaws (such as being impertinent and boastful), Page defends Smith’s account of his 1607 capture by the Indian King Powhatan and his subsequent rescue by the king’s daughter Pocahontas. He also defends contemporaneous accounts of Smith as being instrumental to the survival of Jamestown despite — or perhaps because of — his harsh measures. And it was through these measures that Virginian culture, and later Southern culture in general, became agrarian, aristocratic, feudalistic, and self-reliant to the point of arms. It was the best way for them to survive in an entirely inhospitable locale.
Page provides a grand account of Virginia’s contribution to the Revolutionary War and the Constitutional Convention. Virginians provided most of the strength and brains behind the revolutionary movement, and America’s independence would not likely have been accomplished without them. Virginia was the first state to declare independence from Britain, and after her, all other states followed:
Such in brief, was the part which the Old Dominion had in the creation of the Revolutionary movement. She inspired the movement, encouraged her sister colonies, supplied the statesmen who led the councils and the chief who led the Revolutionary armies to final victory. It was by no mere accident that George Washington, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, the Lees, the Harrisons, the Nelsons [Page’s forebears], the Randolphs, the Blands, and other leaders of the Revolutionary movement came from the shores of the rivers which poured into the Chesapeake. They were the product of the life established on these shores. Then, when Independence was achieved, she led the movement to establish a more permanent union by the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, to consummate which she surrendered her vast Northwest Territory which her sons had conquered. And, having effected this, it was under one of her sons that the great Louisiana Territory was secured, and under another that the loose bands of the Constitution were welded to make the whole homogenous and effective.
Much of the above may already be known by students of American history. But what may not be is Thomas Jefferson’s seminal contribution to the modern university system. Page dedicates a chapter to Jefferson’s founding of the University of Virginia and explains how the university ideal which we take for granted today was really the result of the enlightened vision of Thomas Jefferson.
Education at that time, even the higher education, was under the spell of formalism. The principal colleges were subject to some Church whose teachings influenced the curriculum. It was Thomas Jefferson’s idea to do away with this subordination—to destroy this cramping formalism and to emancipate the mind from every form of Church domination. At the time, Princeton was a sectarian institution, as William and Mary, while no longer one, was at least under the influence of the Episcopal Church. Jefferson, however, as he boldly declared, had “sworn on the altar of the Most High God hostility to every form of tyranny over the human mind,” and held that a great University should belong to no Church and be dominated by no sectarian creed.
A glimpse at today’s university system, which is dominated by the “sectarian creed” of cultural Marxism, reveals how Jeffersonian reforms are in even greater need now than they ever were.
Page’s chapter about Reconstruction, of course, is his saddest. He admits that slavery had secluded the Southern people from the modern world, of which they knew little more “than they knew of Assyria and Babylon.” He also points out that the freed blacks were at first very sympathetic to the whites during this period. Although Page repudiates slavery, he never loses his race realism or his white identity. In fact, he presages what we now know as the North American New Right when he describes how the various classes of white people merged during Reconstruction into a single force, that of a unique strain of the white race: the American. This and their ensuing racial pride helped whites endure their suffering during this time; in particular, their near-complete disenfranchisement and the punitive taxation levied upon them which, in large part, paid for the fiscal and social irresponsibility of their Negro and carpetbagger overlords.
Page also recounts how blacks and whites could have lived peaceably side-by-side, if not for the “political debauchery” perpetrated by the Freedman’s Bureau which operated under the false premise that “the Negro was a poor oppressed creature who was to be treated as the Nation’s ward, and the White was a hardened tyrant who had to be restrained.” Clearly, Dissident Rightists today have to contend with similar political debauchery from political elites.
Thomas Nelson Page is, at heart, a white supremacist — but an extremely benign one. He indeed appreciated blacks and was not insensitive to their plight after the war. Having grown up alongside them as slaves on his family’s plantation, he had even grown to like them, and, in The Old Dominion, pines for the day when “[t]he women and children of the Southern States, during the utmost excitement of war, had slept as secure with their slaves about them as if they had been guarded by their husbands and fathers.” He has made this clear on numerous occasions, especially in his work The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem and with the many sympathetic black characters in his novel Red Rock. However, he refuses to allow whites to submit to blacks, whom he honestly sees as the inferior race. While never fully approving of the Ku Klux Klan and its “swath of outrage and terrorism,” Page does admit that the organization served a crucial purpose during the early years of Reconstruction.
Unable to resist openly the power of the National Government that stood behind the Carpet-bag Government of the States, the people of the South resorted to other means which proved for a time more or less effective. Secret societies were formed, which, under such titles as the “Ku Klux Klan,” the “Knights of the White Camelia,” the “White Brotherhood,” etc., played a potent and, at first, it would seem, a beneficial part in restraining the excesses of the newly exalted leaders and their excited levies.
Today’s Dissident Right can look back on the life of Thomas Nelson Page both as an inspiration and a cautionary tale. As a prominent Southern advocate in the postbellum period, Page becomes, when looked at through the clarifying prism of history, one of the nation’s first white advocates. His opponents over a century ago are not terribly dissimilar to the opponents of white advocates today. And that Page was a best-selling novelist, famed orator, and US diplomat during the First World War indicates that his status in this regard has yet to be surpassed.
As a cautionary tale, however, we can learn from Page that white supremacy is doomed to fail. That a man with such a sterling character, breadth of knowledge, and good intentions could not rescue it from the lies of egalitarianism and the rot of the Left tells us everything we need to know. Blacks and whites cannot coexist in a nation without one dominating the other — and each will find the other intolerable in the end. It’s a shame that it has to be this way, but there it is.
Finally, we learn from Thomas Nelson Page, at least from The Old Dominion: Her Making and Her Manners, that a proper knowledge of history can help prevent a race or a population from submitting to another or falling into decline. By admitting the negative aspects of the past but focusing on the positive, a people can hold on to their traditions and maintain the pride and confidence they will need to proceed into the future. Thus, history becomes confused when different peoples must compete over it. Theodore Gross does Page little service when, in his 1967 biography of Page, describes The Old Dominion as “nostalgic chauvinism” and states that Page “is not a historian and these essays are not history; they are romantic recollections of the glory of America.”
But Page never claims to be a historian in The Old Dominion, and its essays did not originate as essays. In his preface, Page gives credit to the historians whose work he perused. He also states that these essays originated as “addresses delivered before various Societies and different times.” This strongly implies a sense of community and understanding between speaker and listener, as evidenced by the common knowledge Page assumes. He often refers to historians and other famous figures by last name only (for instance John Foxe, who wrote a history of Christian martyrs). He makes numerous classical allusions (his favorite, apparently, being Heracles’ Nemean Lion). He employs archaic terms (such as referring to China as “Cathay”). He also refers to monarchs by their first names, expecting one to infer the Roman numerals which follow.
In The Old Dominion, Thomas Nelson Page delivers history by assuming a common bond with his listener and reader which drives deeper than culture or religion, and strikes at the very reason why a people celebrates its history to begin with.
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