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Ground Zero

July 2024
1min read

Following a week in Paris during which I watched with fascination each morning on CNN the debates between Gorbachev and his rivals at the Congress of the Communist party, I took another vacation that might seem more appropriate for the editor of American Heritage. This was a leisurely tour of Virginia from Mount Vernon to Monticello and Montpelier with special attention to what Virginians call the Peninsula—Jamestown, Williamsburg, Yorktown, Hampton, Newport News, and Norfolk across the bay.

Eastern Europe, to tell the truth, was never far from my mind. It occurred to me that if there was one focus of American historical sites to show off to a visitor from the East, that place would have to be the state on whose men and institutions so many of the founding ideas and events of the American government centered—a kind of ground zero of revolution. As 1 roamed the battlefield at Yorktown and sat in the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, my professional persona seemed to merge with my private self. Place ignited mind, and each fed the other to create an exhilarating experience. Well, I thought, I haven’t been giving the reader such bad advice all these years: Traveling with a sense of history really does increase the value of the journey.

I’m glad my trip coincided with the editing and publication in this issue of John Lukacs’s look at the long relationship we’ve had with Eastern European figures and aspirations. Although Lukacs is not overly optimistic about the prospects of what we would consider a fully democratic system in the East, he would certainly agree with a Polish reformer who recently said, “The most important thinker in Eastern Europe right now is James Madison.”

Madison—a Virginian, of course—would have not found surprising the thesis of one of the most remarkable books about America that I’ve read in recent years. It is David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America . In our interview with Fischer this month, he describes in fascinating detail how those parts of the country originally settled by the British each maintained and contributed four distinct ways of life—varying in religion and class attitudes and in such daily activities as house building, sports, and courting and marriage customs. Most intriguing—and most controversial— is Fischer’s belief that these patterns still persist.

Whatever may be true of them today, my personal observation about Virginians is that they still believe in and revere the basic thrust of American democracy. (If license plates are evidence, Virginians throng their historical sites in greater numbers than do out-of-staters.) They are also still comfortable with the martial virtues that their Cavalier ancestors espoused. When I observed somewhat naively to my brother-in-law, now retired from the Air Force, that the Peninsula seemed to have a greater concentration of military installations than any comparable body of land and water in the world, he smiled and said, “Yes, we’re standing on ground zero.”

Byron Dobell

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