Larry E. Tise: A New Narrative for North Carolina History

Tise & Crow, New Voyages to CarolinaToday, we welcome a guest post from Larry E. Tise, co-editor (along with Jeffrey J. Crow) of New Voyages to Carolina:  Reinterpreting North Carolina History, on a new way to view North Carolina history.

New Voyages to Carolina offers a bold new approach for understanding and telling North Carolina’s history. Recognizing the need for such a fresh approach and reflecting a generation of recent scholarship, eighteen distinguished authors have sculpted a broad, inclusive narrative of the state’s evolution over more than four centuries.

New Voyages to Carolina is available now in both print and e-book editions.


A New Narrative for North Carolina History

“We need a new narrative for North Carolina’s history!”  That is precisely what Jeffrey Crow and I concluded several years ago when we mulled over what lasting legacy we might like  to give the state where he and I have spent decades researching and preserving its past.  This was one of those “eureka” moments that occur only once or twice in a lifetime.  We have devoted ourselves to finding and articulating that new narrative ever since.  We did not lock ourselves in an ivy shrouded tower.  We engaged instead in reading the abundance of articles and books of dozens of smart authors who have assiduously plowed the rich fields of North Carolina’s history over the past twenty or so years. We also engaged many of these historians, journalists, anthropologists, and others in wide-ranging discussions. And some of what we learned is both startling and instructive.

Wars do not explain our state’s history.  Nor do the parade of governors and politicians who have presided over the colony and state of North Carolina for the past three centuries.  Nor do the cyclical fluctuations in the national economy and monetary supply.  To endow these phenomena with benchmark status in our history obscures the unique warp and woof of North Carolina’s past. Nor does it help to busy ourselves in searching an obscure moment in history where North Carolina might have had the earliest English settlement (which failed!), became the first colony to declare independence from England (without a document to verify the claim!), whose troops charged farthest to the front at Gettysburg (who was measuring amidst the blood and gore?), or that was the most “progressive” state in the New South (by what metrics?).  We decided to move beyond these fruitless and unenlightening discussions to more relevant topics.

We asked some much harder questions.  Why, after all, does North Carolina exist?  What should be the true genesis story for this colony-become state?  What happened to the thousands of Indian nations that inhabited this land for thousands of years before Spanish and English explorers rudely and often savagely invaded their fruitful and peaceable kingdoms?   What tenet of Christian religion justified the taking of Indian lands, enslaving Indian women and children, and exporting young Indian men in chains to the West Indies?  What was it in this same religion that permitted our Founding Fathers to declare that all men were created equal and have a sacred right to life, liberty, and happiness while importing thousands of Africans also in chains as chattels deprived of nearly all of those rights?   When other states invested so heavily in building roads, canals, and railroads to deliver their products to global markets, why did North Carolina fail to do the same for its citizens for nearly a century?  With such a diversity of peoples and such abundant natural resources, should North Carolina have defied the stampede to disunion chosen by it neighboring states in 1861? Why did North Carolina’s leaders after the Civil War choose to pursue low wage, non-union, high-volume manufacturing as the perennial cornerstone of its economic development policy?  What was so appealing about the idea of “progressivism” that made it the encompassing and permanent social and political doctrine of North Carolina’s leaders throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century?  How has North Carolina maintained its reputation as a “progressive” state despite its retrogressive support for public education, evasive policies in public school integration, and its late twentieth century turn to a right wing political culture.

North Carolina, we found, defies any of the typical patterns for telling the story of American history.  We also found that the traditional tendency of batching North Carolina with aggrieved slaveholding states of the Old South and New South centers of commercial development does not really work.  North Carolina followed its own distinctive route which we have sought to describe in a new chronology.

Irrespective of North Carolina’s modest position in the American nation, it has remained one the most populous and productive of all the states.  Without a predominant center of business, learning or culture, it has thrived on a rich diversity of European, African, and Indian influences to build a rich environment for music, literature, arts, religious expression, and technical creativity.  North Carolina has also bred a strong populist impulse against government intrusion extending from radical Regulators in the colonial backcountry to dissenters against a southern Confederacy and from agrarian Populists warring against banks to a defiant radical right spawned by Senator Jesse Helms in the late twentieth century.

North Carolina, we found, defies any of the typical patterns for telling the story of American history.  We also found that the traditional tendency of batching North Carolina with aggrieved slaveholding states of the Old South and New South centers of commercial development does not really work.  North Carolina followed its own distinctive route which we have sought to describe in a new chronology that finds continuity between the aspirations of Indian natives and European colonists.  There was a struggle for the control of this land between Indians and Europeans that culminated in a bloody war with the predominant Tuscarora in 1713.  North Carolinians were not sure who they wanted to rule this unusual commonwealth until they adopted a Constitution in 1835 that gave all power to white male inhabitants (excluding women, blacks, and Indians from citizenship).  Since North Carolina was geographically and geologically wedged between two slaveholding colossi (Virginia and South Carolina), its white male leaders designed a new sort of state between 1835 and 1900 that would reward investors who built railroads, exploited water power, opened factories, and delivered food, fish, and finished goods to America’s hungry seaboard cities.  In 1900 these thriving business leaders came together to form a white supremacist Democratic Party sprouting what they called “progressive” values to dominate North Carolina’s government and social polity throughout most of the twentieth century.  Under the wings of Senator Jesse Helms a new party of conservative populists emerged in the 1980s which eventually took control of all branches of North Carolina’s government in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Throughout this project Jeff and I have struggled with the dilemma that North Carolinians and their historians have not found the types of celebratory genesis stories and dramatic themes that are enjoyed by so many other American states.  Even Justice William Gaston’s adopted state song, “The Old North State” (1835), demurs to those other states with the words “she envies not others their merited glory” and forgives “the scorner [who] may sneer at and witlings [who] defame her.” Such disparaging epithets as “Lost Colony,” “Rip Van Winkle State,” “Vale of Humility,” and “Tobacco Road”–regularly employed by both Carolinians and outside observers–have but added to the perennially negative cant.  We believe that we have countered the apologetic and long-suffering tones of these belittlements by outlining a new narrative that describes the epochal campaigns of those who have inhabited these lands to make use of its extraordinary natural resources, to create a government appropriate to a diverse environment and population, to define a generally positive “progressive” notion of where the state should be headed, and to unleash a great variety of voices through music, art, and literature that articulate trenchantly and vividly the outlook and values of rustic Americans.  We thus invite Carolinians of all stripes to join with us on these “new voyages to Carolina.”


Larry E. Tise is former director of North Carolina’s Division of Archives and History, distinguished history professor at East Carolina University, and private-practice historian.