• Wales, The Welsh and the Making of America - Interview and Review

  • the welsh and the making of america.jpg AmeriCymru: Hi Vivienne and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. When did you first become interested in the Welsh in America? When and why did you decide to research this book?

    Vivienne: Hi Ceri. Thank you for this opportunity.  My interest in the Welsh in America began with my Cardiff-born Great-Aunt Kitty. After her mother told her, “Never under any circumstances go down to Cardiff docks”, she went there at every opportunity and in 1918 met and married an American sailor from New Jersey. She visited us, we visited her, and I could see her torn apart – hiraeth.

    I had been writing textbooks on American history for years and was still doing so after I retired, but I was anxious about “giving back”. I volunteered at the historic house at Dyffryn Gardens (which has a connection to a signatory of the American Declaration of Independence), and then thought that a book on the Welsh in America might stimulate American interest in Wales and possibly lead to more American tourism and even investment in Wales. I even fantasised (I still do) about a museum dedicated to the Welsh-American experience, based in the Welsh valleys and providing jobs there.

    It took me about a year to write the book and it was a gamble. I wasn’t really sure that my interweaving of American history and the Welsh role in it would work. The University of Wales Press thought it did and I hope readers do too!

    AmeriCymru: You open your book with the following sentence: “I can still remember my surprise during a tour of Shirley plantation in Virginia in 1970, when our guide said someone in colonial America hailed from a place in England called Wales.” Has anything changed in your view or is more work needed to correct these misconceptions?

    Vivienne: Hopefully the subsequent increase in international travel and people such as Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey have made some Americans more aware of Wales, but it would be great if both Americans and Welsh people knew just how much we contributed to the development of the United States.
    I do wonder whether Americans were more aware of us back in 1941 with the popular movie of Richard Llewellyn’s novel, “How Green Was My Valley”. My grandmother used to chat on the phone to Richard Llewellyn when he came to Cardiff – she said we were related, but I never pursued the issue. Now, I wish I had.

    AmeriCymru: In the course of a fascinating chapter on the Madoc legend you say: “Gwyn Alf Williams gives us cogent reasons to disbelieve the Madoc story, but widespread belief in Madoc persisted for an extraordinarily long time”. Care to share your current thoughts on the Madoc issue?

    Vivienne: I would certainly LOVE to believe the Madoc story and several things make me unwilling to dismiss it out of hand. First, the Viking “discovery” of America was disbelieved until proved by archaeological evidence. Second, Tim Severin made a transatlantic voyage in a vessel similar to Welsh coracles, proving that relatively primitive craft could make that crossing. Third, I think the labelling of the Gulf of Mexico by a sixteenth century Spaniard as “Tierra de los Gales” or “Land of the Welsh” might be significant. Fourth, there is the 1810 letter of John Sevier, telling of the Cherokee belief in Welsh-speaking ancestors.

    AmeriCymru: What, in your opinion, were the main factors driving Welsh immigration to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries?

    Vivienne: Welsh farmers had long suffered at the hands of greedy landlords, but their situation worsened with the frequent crop failures and heavy taxation of the 1790s. Some were motivated by religious and political oppression. Welsh Protestant nonconformists resented the domination and financial demands of the Anglican Church. Political radicals who believed that the American and French revolutions signalled the dawn of greater political and social equality were likely to suffer governmental persecution. The belief in Madoc also encouraged emigration. Individuals such as Morgan John Rhys and Samuel Roberts wanted to establish a new and better Wales in the USA, and those already in America wrote home, encouraging friends and relations to follow them.

    During the 19th century, the nature of Welsh emigration to America changed. Now the vast majority of immigrants were industrial workers – miners and iron, steel and tinplate workers from South Wales; slate quarrymen from North Wales. We are lucky that so many of their letters survive. They tell us that better wages were the main factor in emigration, along with the chain migration that operated through letters, family links and recruitment by American companies.

    A surprising number of Welsh people were converted by Mormon missionaries. Perhaps as many as 25,000 of them went to Utah, to worship in peace in the Mormon promised land.

    For all these Welsh immigrants, the United States seem to offer better opportunities, whether economic, social, religious or political, or any combination of those four.

    richard price.jpg oliver evans.jpg

    AmeriCymru: Richard Price is a name that some of our readers may be unfamiliar with. How much influence did he exert on the founding fathers? How would you rate his contribution to the political philosophy which underlies the U.S. constitution?

    Vivienne: First let me claim really tenuous connections with him. I live near where he was born and I love that on his annual return from his London ministry, he would swim at Southerndown beach, where I swam as a child.

    Richard Price was close to and valued by several of the Founding Fathers. He became friendly with Benjamin Franklin in 1765. Both considered the British government unfair on the American colonists and it might have been Price who encouraged Franklin to publicise parallels between Welsh history and the position of the American colonists in the 1760s (John Adams soon took up that theme).

    Price saw a new American nation as the great hope for lovers of liberty. In his “Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty” (1776), he defended the colonists in their opposition to British rule – and his arguments in that book were echoed in the Declaration of Independence. Was that simply the common language of intellectuals who loved liberty? Maybe not, for members of the Continental Congress read his “Observations” and the most famous phrase in the Declaration might well owe much to him. Thomas Jefferson’s draft for the American Declaration of Independence said, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable”… Other Founding Fathers changed that to the far more memorable, “We hold these truths to be self-evident...” The words “self evident” were used with exceptional frequency by Price in his many publications. It was surely significant that in 1781, Yale University awarded two honorary degrees – one to George Washington, the other to Richard Price. And that was after Price had refused the offer of American citizenship from the Founding Fathers, who had hoped he would accept special responsibility for “regulating their finances” (although greatly honoured, he said he was too old to move). It is surely of great significance that Franklin chose to hold Price’s “Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty” in his 1780 portrait.

    While the Founding Fathers debated the kind of government that the new nation should have, Price offered suggestions. In correspondence with Benjamin Rush, he advocated a federal system that guaranteed the “liberty and independence” of the 13 new states. In his 1784 “Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution”, he emphasised freedom of speech, religious toleration and the separation of church and state. Washington thanked him for his “excellent observations” and recommended the work to Congress, while Franklin said the ideas would do Americans “a great deal of good” and gave a copy to John Adams, who then initiated a correspondence with Price. When Adams arrived in Britain as the representative of the new nation, he and Price grew close. Price corresponded with individuals such as Arthur Lee and Ezra Stiles about “the new federal constitution” and said that “in its principal articles”, it “meets my ideas”. One wonders whether it was jealousy that made Thomas Jefferson peevishly assure Price that many of his ideas were already firmly entrenched in the minds of others, but there is no doubt that the Founding Fathers always listened to what Price had to say: a 1788 collection of Price’s sermons was bought by Washington (four copies), Franklin (six) and 11 delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The volume reiterated Price’s belief in the separation of church and state.

    So is it Anglo-centrism that has led to the Englishman Tom Paine being considered the greatest British friend and inspiration to the American colonists during the birth of their new nation? Perhaps it is best to leave the last word to John Adams, who described Paine as better “at pulling down the building”. I like to believe that Richard Price helped in the re-building – but then I would, wouldn’t I?

    AmeriCymru: You devote the opening section of your chapter on “The Welsh and the Industrialisation of America” to Oliver Evans. Care to tell us a little more about this fascinating character?

    Vivienne: Oliver Evans, whose parents were Welsh settlers in Delaware’s Welsh Tract, introduced the concept of manufacturing as a continuous, integrated and fully automated process to America. He mechanised the process of grinding grain into flour. With this faster, cleaner process, milling was far more profitable, the number of American mills rocketed, flour prices fell and the quality of the flour and bread improved dramatically. In this way, Oliver Evans helped feed the multitudes whose labour was making America. He also invented and manufactured smaller and more efficient steam engines that aided the textile and iron industries, and transportation on the Mississippi River system. The production line idea that he pioneered would prove crucial in America’s 20th century industrial preeminence, and his steam engines were amongst the earliest examples of the manufacturing of heavy machinery that would be America’s most important industry by the late 19th century.

    Like so many thousands of others of Welsh descent, he was the product of the American Dream, and he was perhaps the greatest of Welsh American dreamers – he had ideas for a refrigerator, a solar-powered boiler, a basic breadmaking machine – and many more!

    Of course, there were others who made an even greater impact than Oliver Evans. Rhys Davies was asked to provide the world-renowned Welsh expertise in the iron industry in the creation of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, which was the largest producer of iron in the United States by 1840. Another South Walian, David Thomas, was known as “the father of the anthracite industry” of America.

    AmeriCymru: What was Meriwether Lewis’s Welsh background and what were the aims of the Lewis and Clark expedition?

    Vivienne: Meriwether Lewis was the great-grandson of a Welsh immigrant who had arrived in Virginia in 1635. The Lewises frequently intermarried with another prosperous family of Welsh descent, the Meriwethers. Meriwether Lewis’s mother was a Meriwether, so he had Welsh ancestry on both sides.

    The Lewises were friendly with Thomas Jefferson who, when President, commissioned the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and Lewis’s chosen lieutenant, William Clark. President Jefferson had several aims. He sought to spread American Revolutionary principles across the continent in an “empire of liberty”, so he needed information about new lands and their Native American population to facilitate this American expansionism. He also wanted Lewis to find the best water route across the continent “for the purposes of commerce”. 

    Lewis’s expedition was a great success. It served to aid and inspire American settlement of the West. In one way though the expedition was a great failure. Notably aware of his own Welsh ancestry, Jefferson instructed Lewis to look for the “Welsh Indians”, the descendants of Madoc. Lewis wrote down many Indian words phonetically in order to compare them with Welsh words on his return. He must have been familiar with the Welsh tongue, because he thought the throaty, guttural speech of the Salish Indians sounded like Welsh. Unfortunately, he had failed to find any Welsh Indians.

    AmeriCymru: In your chapter, “Assimilation and the Vanishing Welsh”, you argue that, “The Welsh often proved adaptable and exceptionally keen to assimilate.” Why so?   Vivienne: Some Welsh and their descendants favoured speedy assimilation. They argued that they had emigrated to get on, not to perpetuate their Welsh culture, and that it was only polite to blend in when Americans were so welcoming. Amongst those who emigrated from farming communities and held on to their Welsh language and culture in America, many were considered good citizens because of their enthusiastic Protestantism and their great work ethic. Welsh Americans often claimed that Wales had a particular kinship with a nation that had sought independence from an oppressive government in London. All these factors, along with familiarity with the American legal system (based on that of Britain), and the ability to speak or speedily acquire the use of English, helped make it relatively easy for the Welsh to fit in.

    This isn’t to say that Welsh immigrants never aroused antagonism. When Welsh miners demanded higher pay and went on strike, they were very unpopular. Welsh-born future senator James J. Davis said he had been accused, as a Welsh immigrant, of being “a wild Welshman from a land where the tribes lived in caves and wore leather skirts and wooden shoes.”

    AmeriCymru: Where and when can people purchase copies of the book online?

    Vivienne: The University of Wales Press is publishing the book in July. It will be on sale online from bookshops and Amazon.

    AmeriCymru: What in your opinion would be the best way to keep a knowledge of Welsh origins alive? Any further message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru? 

    Vivienne: My message would be, have pride in what Wales contributed to the making of America, and if you want to keep knowledge of Welsh origins alive in America, you have several options. You could go to the museum of the Welsh on the Great Plains Welsh Heritage Project museum in Wymore, Nebraska. You could read my book. You could watch the inevitable TV series based on my book. You could help me set up a “Wales in America” museum in the Welsh valleys! With those last three, aren’t I cheeky?

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