When I was growing up in a rural community in eastern Wake County, N.C., the world was physically centered around the New Bethel Baptist Church on one side of the highway and my grandparents’ small country store on the other. The church was obviously the spiritual center of this world, but it was the store, with its worn wooden floors and red Coca-Cola drink box, that held sway over the social and political realms of life as we knew it.
The elders would gather there, seated on drink crates and benches outside in the summer, or around a potbellied kerosene stove in the winter, and hold forth on the subjects of the day — sometimes news of other neighbors, but much more often disparaging remarks on yet another governmental gaffe. And I would listen, perched on my grandfather’s knee.
Decades later, I recognized the essence of this scene in Milton Ready‘s new book, The Tar Heel State (University of South Carolina Press, 2005). The author, a Mars Hill resident and professor emeritus of history at UNCA, writes about my North Carolina — a place with unique characteristics forged in small, self-sufficient and slightly rebellious communities not fundamentally unlike the one I flourished in as a child. What a delight to have someone turn the globe bottom-side up and let the history of the Carolina countryside become the basis for understanding our present state!
Ready offers abundant documentation of the effects of a Colonial proto-North Carolina settled mostly by scattered, small-scale landholders fully prepared to fight for representative government — royal governors be damned. This settlement pattern — unlike that of the more urban Virginia and future South Carolina — established a peculiar and long-lasting pattern of mistrust of government that has led, at times, to outright rebellion.
But there’s so much more to Ready’s version of the state’s rich history. First, the book is admirably inclusive of the various waves of inhabitants, from the original native population to the current Hispanic immigrants. And that, it seems, is no accident. Ready says a key factor in the book’s genesis was his history students’ continual complaints that their N.C. textbook was too outdated and lacking. “There was nothing in there about women and nothing much … positive about Native Americans, and there was nothing past about 1930. It’s like N.C. history stopped just before World War II,” Ready recalls. “They said there’s nothing about urbanization, nothing about the environment, and there wasn’t much about blacks except a little about slavery.”
“A really big thing,” Ready notes, was the fact that “there was nothing in there about Western North Carolina.” So into the book went Luck, Joy and Trust — three tiny Madison County towns.
There’s also an intriguing chapter on the Regulator Rebellion in early 1771, which Ready describes as “the largest mass social uprising in American history.” According to the book, the Regulator movement extended from what is now Piedmont North Carolina into what were then the ill-defined western reaches of the settled territory. And Ready credits this feisty troop of tax resisters and antigovernment types with determining the course of independence not only in the state but in the entire South. “I really got into the Regulators,” the author reveals. “They’re really the original rebels.”
Ready also maintains that his is the first N.C. history book to give the western end of the state its due. “Raleigh ignores us. I decided to … put us in the history.”
Expansive in its vision of the political realities that have shaped and continue to influence the state, the book also vividly traces the evolving identity of what Virginia surveyor William Byrd dubbed “Lubberland” nearly 300 years ago. “Surely there is no place in the world where the inhabitants live with less labor than in North Carolina,” Byrd wrote. Ready also quotes another early Carolina critic, Janet Schaw, “a haughty Englishwoman and reluctant [pre-Revolutionary War] visitor” who branded the state’s residents the “most slovenly” of all Americans, subsisting on “corn and pork” and whiskey.
Ready’s own attitude, however, seems closer to that of the colony’s first royal governor, George Burrington, about whom the author writes: “He thought them to be ‘not Industrious but subtle and crafty,’ especially when it came to politics. They always behaved ‘insolently to their Governours,’ even throwing some in prison.”
Ready sees in this a “nascent political philosophy” that led to a “deep aversion to taxes and government of any kind.” That sentiment, he argues, not only led the colony into a war for independence but continues to influence the state’s development to this day.
Further supporting Ready’s theory, he maintains, is the land itself, which he portrays as a principal character in the state’s evolution. In fact, the author begins and ends his book with references to the “great geological rifts that divided the state into three distinct regions (mountains, foothills, and costal areas)” and that “also separated North Carolina politically, socially, and economically.”
In addition, Ready looks with fresh eyes at such familiar topics as the Civil War and Reconstruction, as well as the influences of different religious movements. He traces the patterns and impacts of urbanization and late-20th-century economics in a chapter titled “Triads, Triangles, and Parks.” That, in turn, is followed by a snapshot of “A Modern Megastate” — albeit one still plagued by the ghosts of its antigovernment past.
Which brings us back to that country store where I grew up. Those people would have loved debating some of Ready’s facts and theories, and I’m sure they would have cheered for the Regulators. But most of all, they would have nodded in agreement with what Ready says he concluded at the end of his research: “It’s the backcountry people who count.”