Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, July 31, 1975. Interview A-0311-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Commercial interests superseded the historical accuracy of the bicentennial organization

Dabney discusses his involvement with a bicentennial organization. Some leading scholars resigned from the organization for fear that the Revolutionary War was being overly commercialized.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, July 31, 1975. Interview A-0311-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

DANIEL JORDAN:
You are also active, I believe, in a private bicentennial organization. the U.S. Bicentennial Commission.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
That's right. I'm chairman of the trustees of that and it is a private, non-governmental agency which is trying to produce things that are useful and valuable to people who want to observe the Bicentennial. Some of these things are pretty expensive, decidedly so, collectors' items and such things as replicas of George Washington's pistols, beautiful silver mounted pistols. Also the pistols that Hamilton and Burr fired at each other with, both of them reproduced exactly at great expense. There are also some bone china plates, a dozen of them with color portraits of prominent figures in the Revolution. They are being sold to collectors and we are getting out a book which may not make any money at all. I've got the jacket here if you want to see it. It cost a great deal to produce. The authors are quite distinguished people, the editor excepted. Henry Commager has written a magnificent 20,000 word introduction and the brief sketches of fifty patriots of the Revolution are by the people on the back of the jacket, Morison and Commager and Bruce Catton and Merrill Peterson, Alistair Cooke and others.
DANIEL JORDAN:
And you, of course, served as editor of the book which you have entitled The Patriots.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
That's right.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Now, was there a controversy with this organization which led to the resignation of certain trustees?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
It wasn't any serious controversy at all. For example, Admiral Morrison served for a couple of years and helped us and wrote three of the sketches for the book and we are on very friendly terms; but when we brought up the matter of the Hamilton-Burr pistols, for some reason he said that he was opposed to that and then he said, "I've been worrying about some of the other things that you have been doing and I'm not sure that I agree that all of them belong as parts of the Revolutionary observance." Well, that surprised us because one of the things that we had gotten out was a series of plates of Winslow Homer's paintings, and of course, they had nothing to do with the Revolution; they were mid-nineteenth century or later. We chose Homer because the National Gallery of Art in Washington said that he was the most thoroughly American painter and we thought that this society ought to be concerned with the origins of American culture as well as the actual events of the Revolution. We sent Admiral Morison a set of the plates, and he was delighted with them; they had his name on the back with the rest of the trustees, and he wrote us a letter of fervent thanks, and said that they were beauties and he was glad to have them. Later on, for some reason, he decided that some of the things we were doing didn't belong in the Revolutionary concept that he had. So, he said that he would rather just get off. Then, Alistair Cooke had made several statements, including a speech to Congress, that he thought all commercialization of the Revolution was wrong, that nobody ought to commercialize the Revolution in any way at all. His conscience got to gnawing at him; he was one of our trustees and was being paid a trustees fee. He said very pleasantly that he thought he ought to get off, too, because of that utterance, particularly, that he had made to Congress. He also wrote three of the sketches, and is relatively happy with the whole situation, but he just thinks that he ought not to be a trustee. Vann Woodward was on it at first; we ran an ad in which we had his name along with Morison and the other trustees for the plates. It was in The New Yorker and he hadn't realized that we were going to use his name in advertisements. We had neglected to tell him and somebody got after him about it. He told me that somebody did, and said that it made him kind of unhappy to be kidded by people about having his name used in a commercial enterprise like that. So, we said that it was perfectly all right for him to resign, so he did.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Has there been any criticism beyond these examples given of the fact that this is a commercial, private, profit-oriented organization?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I haven't heard any. I'm sure that some people perfectly sincerely think that nobody ought to do anything commercial that is connected with this great anniversary. That is a perfectly valid point of view if they want to think that. I didn't put up any money for any of these things. Those who did, put up more than $20,000 to publish the book, "The Patriots." To get that money back, they've got to sell a lot of books, Those color plates, twelve color portraits, along with black and white illustrations, are quite expensive. And everybody had to be paid to write those fifty sketches. They were paid $300 a piece, a total of $15,000. It is entirely possible that the book will turn out to be a philanthropic proposition on the part of the people that put up the money. There is another philanthropic proposition, a musical number composed by Morton Gould specifically for the Bicentennial. The U. S. Bicentennial Society put up $5,000. There is a stipulation that nobody except the composer, is to get any money out of this. A New York organization also put up $5,000. So, that is pure contribution to observance of the Revolution.
DANIEL JORDAN:
I don't want to belabor anything, but did you also write a letter that was published in the Boston paper blaming . . .
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes, I had forgotten about that.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Was that in response to an editorial or . . .
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
It was to something that appeared in the Boston paper. It was a signed piece about commercialization of the Revolution and it linked us with a lot of people who were getting out t-shirts and red, white and blue ice cream, things like that, just getting out a lot of trash, ash trays and I don't know what all. We didn't like being linked with that sort of thing. We do have a very tasteful series of things that we are doing and we are not being blatantly commercial about it, I wouldn't say. But of course, it is being done in general for profit. The trustees get an annual fee and the underwriters get whatever profit there is. There hasn't been any so far.