After graduating at Durham and acquiring a teaching diploma in 1938, I then won a Commonwealth Fellowship, to study in the US. Commonwealth Fund Fellows were 24 in number and appointed annually, with a requirement that they should spend their first summer vacation on an extensive tour; books and scholarship were seen as less important, though we got an occasional and very welcome cheque for any extra books we might need, in addition to our lavish stipends. We sailed first class on the good ship, the Cunarder Scythia. Marcus Cunliffe said that we were treated so generously that the Fund thought we were princes, travelling incognito. We were given four splendid days of sight-seeing in New York; we saw the Rockettes pose and dance on the world's largest stage in the world's largest theatre (theater, should we spell it so?), heard the chorus of the I. L. G. W. Union sing 'New York? Give it back to the Indians', learnt something of the complexity of the city's geography, that 'New York, New York is a wonderful town, the Bronx is up and the Battery down'. And I met a former Fellow who dropped in on the Fund for lunch: Alastair Cooke. I recall the chairman's sad comment on him afterwards: 'it looks as tho' Mr. Cooke is going to be a journalist.'
One feature of our Fellowship was that we should spend the summer travelling round the country, to get to know it from real acquaintance and not just from books. For this we would be given one thousand dollars to buy a car and pay the travel expenses. Since I had not driven a car as a student in Britain, I persuaded the Fund to allow me to buy a car as soon as I arrived in Virginia, so that I would be familiar with it when the summer came. As Virginia's splendid climate made a garage unnecessary, I made a good case. They agreed, only to discover that Virginia did not have driving tests and so they suggested I ask the local police to give me a certificate of road worthiness. The Fund were worried over my safety, and conscious that I had a widowed mother to support. The local police were amused by my request and made great play with the danger that I would drive on the wrong side of the road. They duly gave me a chit - without any test or evidence of my skill behind the wheel - and happily I never had an accident in all my motoring in the US. And (as I often reflect and surprise myself at the thought) in all my driving I never once took out insurance against accidents.
My possession of a car was, however, an asset. I paid a fortnightly visit to Richmond, going down US 250 - an hour's drive, to see the book-editor on The Richmond Times-Dispatch, to become a book-reviewer and to have the honour of meeting and occasionally dining with the paper's distinguished editor, Douglas Southall Freeman, a well-known daily radio broadcaster on the world scene, and himself a remarkable biographer of four volumes on Robert E. Lee. It represented the beginning of my book collecting, which has not ceased; and I also made a monthly visit to Fairfax County and Washington DC, a two-hour journey. I came to know Virginia, Albemarle and Fairfax Counties, Monticello and the Skyline Drive with its vista over the Shenandoah long before I attempted longer journeys in the Deep South and in the West. And I think I had done wisely to buy a car early, though I used it rarely in Charlottesville itself; I lived an easy 10 minutes walk from the Lawn and the Rotunda: to adapt the local advertising phrase, Virginia is for walking as well as for loving.
I came to treasure special places in Virginia as well as Charlottesville and Richmond. One of these was Lynchburg, for we made regular weekend visits to see the girls at Sweet Briar College - the University of Virginia in my day was whites only and male only (except the graduate and some of the professional schools), so regular excursions were made to Lynchburg (for Sweet Briar) or to Roanoke (for Hollins Women's College). 'Goin'd down to Lynchburg town, to carry my tobacco down.' So went the old folk song when Lynchburg was the main trading centre for the Virginia Colony's tobacco in the 18th century. Today the town remains handsomely sited on its seven hills, with views across the James River on the one hand, and to the lovely line of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the other. The town was named after an industrious young English Quaker, John Lynch, who ran his ferry across the James River there in 1757 - 'the price for a man threepence, and for a horse the same.'
At Appomattox, half-an-hour's drive from Lynchburg, an entire village has been restored and recreated. Here America's bitter Civil War came to an end on Palm Sunday 1865, with the South's General Lee outnumbered by four to one, surrendering to the victorious Northern forces of General Grant.
I liked driving through Fairfax County, and the hunting country of Orange, later made fashionable by Mrs. Wallis Simpson, King Edward VIII's wife, en route to Washington DC. Fairfax is historic. When created in 1742, Fairfax was simply an economic extension of the Chesapeake tobacco kingdom, a prosperous empire that produced the country's two most illustrious citizen-residents, George Mason and George Washington. After the American Revolution, the county went into a half-century of economic decline. With the phasing out of tobacco cultivation, the number of slaves dropped from 6,485 in 1810 to only 3,116 by the Civil War. For the same years, the total population declined from 13,654 to 11,834. The Civil War itself wreaked havoc to the county unfortunate enough to be in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln's White House.
Yet this very proximity to Washington eventually produced an economic upturn. Especially after the advent of the electric trolley around 1900, a substantial dairy industry developed to supply the capital's needs. Federal bureaucrats began the process of locating homes in the rustic county environment, which is now very fashionable and expensive.
And, though I valued my visits to Lynchburg, Fairfax and Jamestown, where the colony of Virginia was born, I found myself frequently more intrigued by the historical markers that left evidence of another war: the War Between the States. Down where the South begins, no one can live long without finding heroes and marking shrines of battlegrounds - or of surrenders, like Robert E. Lee and Appomattox. Even on a visit to Richmond, it is all but impossible not to salute the South's heroes as you drive along tree-shaded Monument Avenue. The whole eastern part of the Civil War was fought over the ground between Richmond and Washington. But of all of the sites that recall history in the Old Dominion, Williamsburg is pre-eminent.
Williamsburg is named after the impassive Dutch Stadtholder who decided to visit England in 1688 to 'secure its infringed liberties', and stayed to receive a Crown as his reward. He had been on the throne only ten years when the building of the new Virginia capital was begun at Williamsburg. But six years before the move to the new capital, Williamsburg received a royal charter to build a college, the first in the South. It was called the College of William and Mary. Sir Christopher Wren designed the main building, which was burned and rebuilt three times. In 1925, when John D. Rockefeller, Jr., visited the town, the charred outer walls of the Wren buildings were all that stood of the original.
Mr. Rockefeller's visit is the reason why Williamsburg is no longer a sluggish eighteenth-century backwater overgrown with nineteenth-century weeds; it is the reason why it is now a research mine for historians, architects, and interior decorators, and a mecca for tourists. Mr. Rockefeller was fired by the antiquarian zeal of a Dr. Goodwin, the rector of the parish church, the oldest building still in use. He dreamed of seeing the main street of Williamsburg destroyed and carefully rebuilt into the image of the 'noble great street six poles wide' and nearly a mile long, down which, as the Duke of Gloucester Street, had sauntered Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Marshall, Madison and Monroe in the great days of the late eighteenth century.
Dr. Goodwin had restored the parish church far back in 1905. He was working on the restoration of the house of George Wythe, Marshall and Jefferson's law teacher, when he was invited to New York to lecture on Williamsburg. The son of the fabulous old Rockefeller attended, and a few months later he was pacing the run-down Main Street of Williamsburg and warming to the glamorous detective project Dr. Goodwin unfolded to him.
By 1938 six hundred buildings put up since 1800 had been torn down, a hundred dilapidated but authentic buildings had been wholly rebuilt or restored, and 230 buildings that existed only on maps and deeds were rebuilt on their first sites. Fifty of the colonial gardens were replanted with the identical flowers and shrubs that Randolph and Jefferson and Washington knew.
The result is, of course, a museum, but an exquisite museum flourishing with more ease, as the years go by, in the soil that nurtured the original.
When I first saw it as a student in 1938, the Rockefellers had already spent 60 million dollars on the restoration project, and 450 buildings had been restored and/or rebuilt. The Union Jack still flies from the Governor's Palace, the only place outside the British Embassy where it takes precedence over 'Old Glory'.
I planned to spend my first Christmas on a tour of the deep South: Charleston, Savannah and if possible as far as Key West. Harvey Benham was an agricultural scientist who was going to do research at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. If my plans came off, could he join me for the Southern tour? he asked; and when I found that he could drive a car, I readily agreed. He joined me at the end of the first term, early December, and we went all the way over the Florida Keys to Key West, 90 miles from Cuba.
Key West, the southernmost city of the US, is 115 miles from the mainland. You reach it by the Overseas Highway (US 1) which runs the entire length of the Keys, the tiny islands that separate the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean. The road is made possible by a series of bridges connecting the islands, all of which are empty. It is a weird experience driving, apparently, over two oceans with, in our day, hardly any other car ever in sight. As my travelling companion kept reminding me, 'If you must learn to drive a car, the Ocean Highway is a good place to start - having assured yourself that you have enough gasoline and that all your tyres are intact.' Happily, we had no troubles.
Key West is a small semi-tropical island, the only frost-free city in the US. It is distinctively Spanish - some of the older houses had been built by ship carpenters, with pegs instead of nails, and are of cedar mahogany.
I preferred the orange-rich Orlando in the centre of Florida not yet spoilt by Disneyland, and still more St. Augustine and St. Augustine's State Highway 140, which forms the so-called Ocean Shore Boulevard, running along the ocean both north and south of the city in the US: founded by Pedro Memendez de Aviles, leading an expedition of some 2000 or so who had sailed from Cadiz in Spain in July that year. It was Spanish because on Easter Sunday April 3, 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon had landed there in search of the Fountain of Youth. At the pavilion that honours him, you are still invited to drink a glass that, the locals tell you, is designed to ensure perpetual youth. I recall its being very expensive pure cold water. But this hides my special affection for St. Augustine. When the Revolution and American Independence came, many Southern plantation owners wanted to remain loyalist, and with as many of their worldly goods (and slaves) as they could transport, took refuge in St. Augustine. In the end, many of them moved onto the Caribbean and/or to Canada. Many of today's families in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick are descended from those proud to describe themselves as United Empire Loyalists. But not, I hasten to add, in today's St. Augustine. Later, I would make a special study of the Loyalists, on whom I have written.
My summer tour took me to the Canyon country in the West, to Death Valley, Los Angeles and San Francisco, to Banff and Lake Louise and the Indian country. It was in high summer that I visited the Custer battlefield, and went on to visit the Crow Indian reserve. I went to Montana and Wyoming to visit some of the sites of the battles where the western tribes had lost their lands to the advancing armies of settlers, and where one of America's great soldiers, George Custer, died at Indian hands. It is an easy drive west from Mount Rushmore, with its four great Presidential heads carved out of a mountain top. The battlefield at the Little Bighorn marks such a profound divide in American history that it is hardly any surprise to find it reflected in the landscape. From this place you can see two Americas: a before-and-after view of the great plains.
In all my travelling, l became fascinated by the states' names or insignia on other cars. Greyhound bus drivers were invariably kind and genial as Virginia, the 'First Dominion', tag on my car plates made me readily identifiable in states west of the Mississippi. There was - certainly in those days - a real comradeship on the road. Everyone of the now fifty states has its soubriquet, such as New York, the Empire State; Pennsylvania, the Keystone State; Ohio, the Buckeye State; Maine, America's Vacationland; Kentucky, the Blue Grass state; Georgia, the Peach State; Wisconsin, the Dairy State or the State of Ten Thousand Lakes; Colourful Colorado; Oklahoma, the OK State; Texas, the Lone Star State. Cities, too, have their pet-names: Cincinnati, Queen City of the West; New Orleans, the Crescent City; Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Twin Cities; Philadelphia, the City of brotherly Love. Akin to these sub-names are such tags as 'What Chester (Pennsylvania) makes, makes Chester', or 'Trenton (New Jersey) makes, the world takes'.
I was in fact in Saskatchewan when I heard of Neville Chamberlain's declaration of war on Germany in September 1939. The US was neutral. What Canada might do I did not know. But I made a quick return to the US, crossing at Opheim, Montana. I visited the Embassy in Washington to take counsel, but was encouraged to return to Charlottesville, using any opportunity that might occur to talk about Britain, but completing my second year course. In Washington they did not treat my return as urgent. To the officers in the Embassy, it was a 'phoney war'. I concluded that a Ph.D., which I had reckoned would require three years of research, should be abandoned for a master's degree on some aspect of Thomas Jefferson's political philosophy. This would allow my return in the summer of 1940. For my MA degree, I would need a foreign language, so I chose German rather than French or Latin, which had been my earlier 'subsidiary' subjects.
I was awarded the MA in June 1940, by no less than the President of the US, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had undertaken to give the address, since Franklin Junior was studying law at the University, whose Law School is distinguished. That morning, Italy entered the War; in FDR's words, 'The hand that held the dagger has stabbed it in the back of his neighbour'. This brought wild applause, as did his many kind references to Winston Churchill. When it came to the award of degrees, I discovered that FDR stayed seated because of his polio, the graduate when his name was called, simply stood up and bowed. Each graduate was named, and his city or state of origin. In my case, when 'Esmond Wright, of Newcastle On Tyne, England and the University of Durham, England' was saluted there was vehement applause, not because of me but 'England'. I stood up and the applause was sustained. To acknowledge it, I turned and bowed. I discovered that in the row behind, which was empty, a policeman, with his hand on his revolver-holster, had been parading as each graduate stood up; he said, too loudly, 'Congrats, Englishman and give my good wishes to Winston Churchill.'
He could be heard all too clearly, and the applause increased. The President gave his characteristic grin and shook his hands above his head. Next day, I was invited to Franklin Junior's party on the Lawn, and he came over to say, 'I have a message for you from my father. Tell the young Englishman that he got his degree from the President of the United States and not from a White House policeman.' I treasure the memory of the occasion, and of the meeting with America's greatest president, bar none.
Before returning home, I paid a quick visit with my Alabama fellow graduate student and friend, Wilder Watts, to his home just above one of the dams in the TVA county, contriving to visit also - and to be fascinated by - New Orleans, and much of the Mississippi country in driving back to Charlottesville. I sailed in September from Quebec - the US was neutral and no ship was sailing from New York, at least officially - and we made a fast and unescorted crossing, me and two other Fellows, one of whom, Noel Lees of Manchester University, I would meet again in the North African desert. I thought it discreet not to enquire where the other twenty Fellows were. There were only a few other passengers: twenty French Canadian nuns, who found the life-jackets we were required to wear all the time very cumbersome bits of apparel, and twenty-four very noisy Texans who were volunteering for war service in Britain. Quite apart from the beauty and the libraries of the University of Virginia, the acquaintance and friendship with my tutor, Perkins Abernethy - to whom some years later I dedicated my first scholarly book, a biography of Washington - and the years of study in the Alderman Library, my two years as a Commonwealth Fellow were intensely happy and memorable, and, as it happened, rich in dividends.
I reckoned that in my old and very second-hand Ford jalopy which had cost me 250 dollars, I had in all covered 40,000 miles. The highest point I reached was Pike's Peak at c. 14,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, the lowest and hottest - where we needed a regular daily diet of salt tablets as we crossed it - was Death Valley. The most beautiful: Lake Louise, I think. Or perhaps Yosemite and its natural wonders: Bridal Veil Falls, the beetling cliff, El Captain, the torrential falls of the Yosemite River, and not least Half-Dome. The most awesome, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, though I did not go all the way down, which would have demanded an extra night. The most interesting experiences: the holy-roller sermons I listened to in Pasadena, or my week-end on a Navajo Indian reservation, where the favourite sport seemed to be Indians play-acting as being white men. I never liked to confess, when I became a member and in the end Vice-Chairman of the Automobile Association in London, that in my student-travel in the US I never had had car insurance, and that, in Virginia in my days as a student, there were no driving tests. The policeman on 'The Corner', the favourite students meeting point in Charlottesville, knew me and never enquired whether I could or could not drive. He saw me driving, and had confidence, it seemed! Moreover, I sold my old Ford when I left the US for the same 250 dollars that it had, two years before, cost me. So I did all my travels free except for the price of gasoline and one tyre change.
As events were to unfold, it was for me and the South, not goodbye but au revoir: I would return often to lecture or to do research. One visit was very special: it was 1969, the year that marked the 150th Anniversary of the foundation of the University of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson. I was asked to give a memorial address - at the time I was serving as a British Member of Parliament. There had been changes since my days as a student: women and blacks were on the student body. But it was a memorable day: the Rotunda, the Lawn and the Ranges are still among the most beautiful academic buildings in the United States. I had and still have a special affection for the lands south of Washington DC: of plantations lazing in the sun, an absence of snow (only two snowy days in my two years), of mint-flavoured drinks and, flowering gardens, of bayous and beaches, and of the Blue Ridge and the Smokies, mountains and caverns galore. And if one city had a special place in my affection it was New Orleans. Partly because of its history, so skilfully preserved: founded by the French, ruled for thirty-eight years by the Spaniards, then acquired by Thomas Jefferson. It is a romantic port of lovely old buildings, adorned with iron-laced balconies, with the narrow streets and flower-filled patios of the Vieux Carre or French Quarter.
I had many automobile and bus and air journeys to and in the US on my return trips after the War - I count twenty-six return trips to the US from the UK. Yet none would ever have the innocent delights of my first Christmas tour of pre-War America.
Esmond Wright is now Emeritus Professor of US History in the University of London; from 1971 to 1983 he was Director of the Institute of US Studies in London. Among his many works on American history are biographies of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.…