Lessons from 1888

Jane Phillips Spencer: Photo rom The Carolina Story: A Virtual Museum of University History (UNC-CH)

The 126-year-old book featured in PPNC’s “The State We’re In” is a volume of unique perspective into the early years of this state. And, also unique, the author was a woman! In 1888!

Now, in 2014 – 126 years after its publication – it is a keepsake for me because my mother loved it, but also because it is a volume of unique perspective into the early years of this state. And as an extra bonus, it is also special  because the author was a woman! In 1888!

Her name was Cornelia Phillips Spencer (1825-1908), and according to the North Carolina History Project she was born in Harlem, New York, but moved at the age of one to the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill, where her father chaired the school’s mathematics board. (For a fascinating account of how she later helped to physically save that school, which would not even admit her as a student because she was female, go here.

Spencer’s first book was proposed by none other than Governor Zebulon B. Vance, and titled The Last Ninety Days of the War in North Carolina, published in 1868. She subsequently became the editor of the Chapel Hill Ledger, and she wrote on environmental, educational, and women’s issues. In 1895, the university awarded her its highest honorary degree, a doctorate of law.

But back to the tiny but powerful First Steps in North Carolina History.

Spencer writes with color and a tone of familiarity – as if she might have personally known many of the historic characters in the book. (In truth, in the later years, she did.) But it is a period piece, and she weaves the social and logistical histories of the state with a factual comprehension that is sometimes blurred by attitude. Yet given the time period of her writing, the reader is easily taken back to a much earlier and much different state of affairs in fair Carolina.

Of course, the book reflects a host of social prejudices and political biases – an education in itself, if one is inclined to see the imprint left in today’s world. But it still chronicles the march toward the independent-minded North Carolina that gave the country the Halifax Accords; the schizophrenic Carolina that finally opted to join the Confederacy; the powerfully buffeted Carolina that moved forward, then backward after the War Between the States broke the dam of privileged power.

And in a quaint (today) way, Spencer wraps up each chapter’s action with a “Recitation” – a poem or song illustrating or enlivening the chapter’s topic.

I have been left with a somewhat different attitude about the early years of my state because of reading this book. It has given me a better sense of the sway of politics and the cycles of power. It has also given me a deeper belief in the spirit of populism that has from time to time spoken common sense to a skittering government.

Interestingly, this little book was reprinted by facsimile in paperback about five years ago – a seeming salute to its antiquarian and contemporary worth. That should be an invitation to step back in time and see our heritage with different eyes.

And now, hopefully Cornelia Spencer will forgive a little tongue-in-cheek tribute from an observer of today’s history in the making. I close with her recitation marking the period of 1781, entitled “North Carolina Teachers” (attributed to “H”).


In this fair, sunny Southern land,

       Where peace and joy and mirth

Reign supreme on every hand,

       Glad Freedom had her birth.


And of the States which make this land

       So brave, so free and great,

No one will ever higher stand

       Than our noble “Old North State.”


Of those who place so high our State,

       No poets, press or preachers

Can e’er a prouder record make

       Than “North Carolina teachers.”



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    PoliticallyPurpleNC examines -- from a nonpartisan angle -- the legislative decisions of the North Carolina General Assembly and their potential effects on the citizens of the state. It does so in a setting that includes context -- historical background and social implications. PPNC encourages rational, nonpartisan evaluation and advocacy for the good of the whole.
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