A Time for Reckoning: Jimmy Carter and the Cult of Kinfolk.

Author:Brinkley, Douglas
Position::President Jimmy Carter's family history
 
FREE EXCERPT

Only seven months after Jimmy Carter was inaugurated thirty-ninth president of the United States, walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in a symbolic populist gesture of brisk commoner who disdained the "high-falutin" pretensions of limousine wealth, the New York Times published a summary of a twenty-three-page genealogy report issued by Debrett's Peerage of London, which claimed that the new chief executive had not only descended from a family of nobility that produced the first American millionaire but was also related to both George Washington and the Queen of England. Up until this report, it had been assumed that President Carter's first direct ancestor to set foot on American soil was an indentured servant who sold himself to pay his way from England to Virginia.(1) The president's middle son, Chip Carter, even made a much publicized trans-Atlantic pilgrimage to Christ's Church in Hampshire, the believed spot of origin where the Carter family coat of arms first appeared; now the New York Times raised the distinct likelihood that he visited the wrong location.(2)

Most American families have at least two conflicting genealogical charts, not to mention disjointed collateral lines, but now, courtesy of the New York Times, citizens were jettisoned into yet another new quandary of how to perceive their famously complex and multifaceted president. Was he the direct descendant of either British royalty or a white slave? While new presidents are always a little mysterious, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. noted, Jimmy Carter "seems more mysterious than most."(3) A "populist president" was the most commonly used shorthand tag to explain Carter's approach to governing, but his critics claimed that in truth he was a "phony populist," a typical pandering opportunist trying to be all things to all people--liberal and conservative, soldier and peacemaker, peanut farmer and wealthy businessman, nuclear engineer and backwoods poet, politician and antipolitician. The president himself saw nothing unusual about his jarring juxtapositions; they were all parts of the essential Jimmy Carter, who could be understood if one studied his Georgia roots and personal history. "I don't see myself as being complex," Carter has stated. "There is a unity to everything I do which comes from my ancestors and parents and church ... and, of course, Plains and the land around it."(4)

The importance of Carter's interest in his Georgia roots had a direct influence on any number of policy decisions he made while president. Instinctively, he appointed fellow Georgians knowledgeable of his family's heritage as his closest advisors including Hamilton Jordan as White House chief of staff, Jody Powell as press secretary, Andrew Young as United Nations ambassador, Bert Lance as head of the Office of Budget Management, and Frank Moore as congressional liaison, among others. When his brother Billy behaved like a greedy buffoon--accepting a consultant's fee from Libya's Momar Quadaffi--President Carter refused to publicly repudiate him because "he was kin." Often, during the difficult Iran hostage crisis, President Carter would return to Plains, walk the land of his ancestors, clean up their gravesites, and ponder options. His understanding of racial strains, he said, came from his firsthand experience with the sharecropper system in the Deep South. And when considering human rights policy, President Carter contemplated everything from his family's slave-owning heritage to the Confederacy's loss of the Civil War.

Years before the Debrett's Peerage report--or his presidency--Carter had been intensely interested in his pedigree, trying to understand his past by discovering sunken family gravestones hidden in a tangle of kudzu and weeds and rot, rummaging through old family letters and deeds, hunting for time-forgotten clues to the Carters's and Gordys's (maternal ancestors) faded past in towns all over Georgia. His partner in these searches was his father's older brother, Alton Carter, affectionately named "Uncle Buddy" a stocky, soft-spoken raconteur of family history and the proprietor of Plains Antique Store. When Jimmy Carter's father, Earl Carter, died in 1953, Undo Buddy assumed the unfillable role of substitute father. "Alton became head of the whole Carter family," his son and former Georgia state senator Hugh Carter--whom Jimmy calls "Cousin Beedie"--has noted.(5)

People would travel far and wide to hear Uncle Buddy reminisce in Uncle Remus fashion about Georgia's bygone days, spinning colorful yarns while sitting on a wooden fruit crate. North Carolina novelist Reynolds Price, who had ventured to Plains in 1976 to write an article on Carter for Time, fell under the spell of Alton Carter's "tendrils of memory and hearsay that reached from the main stem back towards the Revolution, England and Ireland" (Price 1977, 26). Jimmy Carter was Uncle Buddy's most attentive listener and note taker. Often, the two would take long Sunday drives through the Georgia countryside, stopping to pick plums and scuppernongs in Webster County, discussing their roots, Uncle Buddy the "great rememberer" and Jimmy the new storehouse of knowledge. Once, Jimmy even brought a tape recorder to his home and got Uncle Buddy to reminisce for two hours.(6) But Jimmy's research took him even further back. "Jimmie [sic] Carter was over at Warrenton, Georgia a few days ago and he found a plaque located on the courthouse lawn that showed the names of the soldiers who enlisted in the Revolutionary War from Warren County," Uncle Buddy wrote to a cousin in 1967. "Wiley Carter's father, Jas Carter, Jr., and Thomas Ansley, who was Wiley Carter's first wife's father were among those whose name is on that plaque ... the more you dig in this the more interesting it gets."(7)

When Carter left the governorship to campaign for president during America's bicentennial year, he brought this message of roots, heritage, and kinship to the campaign trail. "As the campaign progressed," the Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine noted, "the theme became liturgy" (see Shannon 1977, 8-9). At one memorable stump even in the days before the New Hampshire primary, a precocious five-year-old boy tugged on the Democratic presidential contender's pants. "What's this all about?" he asked in a simple and direct fashion, too innocently interruptive to be ignored. "It's about our American heritage, our forefathers," Carter responded as if playing the Southern version of a Frank Capra film hero. "It's about how my ancestors and your ancestors left Europe to make a better life, to form a government as good as its people."(8) At an energized Des Moines campaign rally during the Iowa primary, Carter told a packed house he found solace by meandering around a Plains cemetery where his ancestors--"who were born in 1787"--were buried, proudly noting that "we haven't moved very far" (see Carter 1978, 12). The importance of knowing one's ancestors, of learning one's family history, was paramount both to Carter the politician and to Carter the farmer. "I know it's probably foolish," Carter confided to journalist James Wooten in 1976, "but I'd like to see everybody in the country get to know his family tree, to study it, to find out about their own people--who they were, where they came from, how they lived, when they died, where they're buried" (see Wooten 1978, 62).

Until the publication of Debrett's Peerage--a reliable royal genealogical report based on manorial records found in the Hertfordshire Record Office and the Record Office in London--and noted British genealogist Noel Currer-Briggs's (1979) The Carters of Virginia: Their English Ancestry, Jimmy Carter's knowledge of his family tree was based on sketchy histories and fragmentary findings passed on to him by the Georgia Genealogical Society, the Mormon Church, and by Uncle Buddy and other family and friends. The Genealogical Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had placed Carter's origins in Hampshire in southeast England; Debrett's Peerage and Noel Currer-Briggs traced his lineage back to 1361 to Kings Langley, Hertfordshire, today a commuter suburb twenty-five miles north of London.(9) "So far as the ancestry of President Carter is concerned, everything depends on the accuracy of his descent from Thomas Carter of Isle of Wight," Currer-Briggs has noted, stressing the inherent complications of sorting out English bloodlines in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.(10) The Carters became, however, part of the Virginia gentry who not only owned large plantations worked by West African slaves but also controlled the county courts, parish vestries, and the lower houses of the Assembly. These elite planter families intermarried and established multigenerational family dynasties. To put these powerful Virginia dynasties in perspective, when Patrick Henry told the members of the First Continental Congress in 1774 that he was "not a Virginian, but an American," an astonishing 70 percent of the House of Burgesses was drawn from affluent families residing in Virginia since before 1690. The Carters--along with the Byrds and the Lees--were the richest of all the eighteenth-century Virginia clans, owning 170,000 acres of land and 2,300 slaves dispersed over seven counties. Their bloodline connection to George Washington came from both sides of the Atlantic: the Tookes and Newces families in Hertfordshire and Virginia. The Carters are also kin to former U.S. presidents William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) and Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) (see Roberts 1977, 181; New York Times, August 12, 1977).

While exact details of Jimmy Carter's colonial Virginia heritage are somewhat vague and open to a certain amount of debate, his family footprints become considerably clearer once they appear in North Carolina and Georgia after the British surrender at Yorktown. Not long after the American Revolution, the Virginia dynasty slipped into a...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP