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From Bourbonism to Liberalism

ISSUE:  Summer 1937

It’s a Far Cry. By Robert W. Winston. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $3.00.

One seldom encounters a man of conservative habits of mind whose thought-patterns have undergone a bouleversement late in life. We have in Patrick Henry and others examples of lapses into reaction on the part of aging men who once had battled aggressively for radical objectives. In the case of Robert W. Winston we are confronted with the remarkable phenomenon of a man whose social ideology was largely transformed in the liberal direction after he had reached his sixties.

That is why Judge Winston’s autobiography, “It’s a Far Cry,” is a rather arresting volume. Something like seventy-five per cent of the book is a chatty, informal recital of the adventures of a successful lawyer, jurist, and state legislator in postbellum North Carolina, in which small pretense to liberalism is advanced. True, as a student at Chapel Hill in the 1870’s he was impressed with the fact that three “supposedly great commencement orations” were mainly flatulent bombast. His unfavorable reaction to these deliverances, with their hackneyed “glorification of the past,” is evidence that he was endowed with a critical intelligence.

But he is forthright enough to declare, apropos of his arrival at the bar: “An opportunist, wedded to the triumphant Democratic party, I was a Bourbon of the Bourbons, a favorite of the Brigadiers.” He felt that Walter Hines Page was merely “stirring up the rabble against their betters.”

While the impression is created that his attitude remained largely the same for many years, there is the puzzling fact that he was an enthusiastic admirer of Governor Charles B. Aycock, afterward his law partner. Aycock, certainly one of the most militantly progressive minds in the history of the South, was Governor of North Carolina from 1901 to 1905. (The dates are not given by Judge Winston, who, indeed, gives scarcely any dates in his autobiography. The practice I find annoying.) Be that as it may, he records that Aycock as Governor “captivated” him, and that this torch-bearer for Southern liberalism impressed him as “the best living exponent of a workable constitutional democracy.” All of which indicates that the judge’s mental processes were beginning to exhibit considerable flexibility at the turn of the century, to say the least of it.

But he assures us that he did not become genuinely emancipated until much later. Apparently the complete transmutation occurred after he had retired from active law practice, spent some time reading, studying, and golfing in Washington, and then had enrolled as a freshman at the University of North Carolina in the early 1920’s, when he was over sixty years of age. He confesses that he doesn’t know precisely when or how the metamorphosis happened, since the process was a gradual one. The fact remains, however, that it took place. Judge Winston today, at nearly seventy-seven, is a man of advanced views, especially in his hostility to sectionalism and his attitude toward certain aspects of the Negro problem.

His autobiography moves along smoothly. There are too many anecdotes for this reviewer’s liking, but at least one of them is of historic significance: Henry Cabot Lodge’s statement, when seated before the Winston hearth at Raleigh, that if he had made that visit to the South ten years earlier, he would not have offered the Force Bill in the Senate.

The distinguished author of biographies of Andrew Johnson, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee exhibits, in his memoirs, a regrettable fondness for cliches, such as “the tables groaned,” “beggar description,” “in spite of hell and high water,” “the cynosure of all eyes,” and “praised to the sky.” The fact does not detract seriously, however, from the readability of his latest book, which not only contains vignettes of leading figures in North Carolina history, both living and dead, but offers a cross-section of the post-war South and a significant glimpse of an interesting mind evolving from Bourbonism to attitudes which have caused Daughters of the Confederacy and like-minded patriots to clamor for his scalp.


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