Thomas Nelson Page

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Thomas Nelson Page
Portrait of Thomas Nelson Page.jpg
Portrait of Thomas Nelson Page, by Frances Benjamin Johnston
Born (1853-04-23)April 23, 1853
Virginia, United States
Died November 1, 1922(1922-11-01) (aged 69)
Virginia, United States
Thomas Nelson Page in 1916

Thomas Nelson Page (April 23, 1853 – November 1, 1922) was a lawyer and American writer.[1] He also served as the U.S. ambassador to Italy under the administration of President Woodrow Wilson during World War I.


Born at Oakland, one of the Nelson family plantations, in the village of Beaverdam in Hanover County, Virginia to John Page and Elizabeth Burwell (Nelson). He was a scion of the prominent Nelson and Page families, each First Families of Virginia. Although he was from once-wealthy lineage, after the American Civil War, which began when he was only 8 years old, his parents and their relatives were largely impoverished during Reconstruction and his teenage years. In 1869, he entered Washington College, known now as Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia when Robert E. Lee was president of the college. In Page's later literary works, Robert E. Lee would come to serve as the model figure of Southern Heroism.[2] Page left Washington College before graduation for financial reasons after three years, but continued to desire an education specifically in law. To earn money to pay for his degree, Page tutored the children of his cousins in Kentucky. From 1873 to 1874, he was enrolled in the law school of the University of Virginia. At Washington College and thereafter at UVA, Nelson was a member of the prestigious fraternity Delta Psi, AKA St. Anthony Hall.

Admitted to the Virginia Bar Association, he practiced as a lawyer in Richmond between 1876 and 1893, and also began his writing career. He was married to Anne Seddon Bruce on July 28, 1886. She died on December 21, 1888 of a throat hemorrhage.

He remarried on June 6, 1893, to Florence Lathrop Field, a widowed sister-in-law of retailer Marshall Field. In the same year Page, who had become disillusion with the Southern legal system, gave up his practice entirely and moved with his wife to Washington, D.C. There, he kept up his writing, which amounted to eighteen volumes when they were compiled and published in 1912. Page popularized the plantation tradition genre of Southern writing, which told of an idealized version of life before the Civil War, with contented slaves working for beloved masters and their families. He based much of his writing on his personal experience living on a plantation in the Antebellum South. Page viewed the Antebellum South as a representation of moral purity, and often vilified the reforms of the Gilded Age as a sign of moral decline.[3] His 1887 collection of short stories, In Ole Virginia, is Page's quintessential work, which provides an idealized depiction of the Antebellum South. Another short-story collection of his is entitled The Burial of the Guns (1894). As a result of his literary success, Page was seen as cultured and popular by the capital's upper crust and regularly was invited to socialize with politicians from around the country.[4] During the first quarter of the 20th century, he founded a library in the Sycamore Tavern structure near Montpelier, Virginia, in memory of his wife, Florence Lathrop Page.[5]

Under President Woodrow Wilson, Page was appointed as U.S. ambassador to Italy for six years between 1913 and 1919. Despite being untrained in Italian and having little experience in governmental affairs, Page was determined to do a good job. He eventually learned Italian, formed beneficial relationships with Italian government officials, and accurately reported on the Italian state during World War One.[4] During his time as ambassador Page managed to maintain and improve American-Italian relations during The First World War, and provided a sympathetic ear to the Italian and Triple Entente cause in the U.S government. After a disagreement with President Wilson over the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, in which he argued for increased Italian benefits, Page resigned his post in 1919. His book entitled Italy and the World War (1920) is a memoir of his service there.

Returning to his home in Oakland, Virginia, Page continued to write for the remainder of his years. He died in 1922 at Oakland in Hanover County, Virginia.

Historical sites[edit]

Page was an activist in stimulating the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities to mobilize to save historical sites at Yorktown and elsewhere, especially in the Historic Triangle of Virginia, from loss to development. He was involved in gaining Federal funding to build a seawall at Jamestown in 1900, protecting a site where the remains of James Fort were later discovered by archaeologists working on the Jamestown Rediscovery project which began in 1994.


Thomas Nelson Page House located at 1759 R Street, NW in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Page and Nelson families were each among the First Families of Virginia. The Page lineage in Virginia began with the arrival at Jamestown of Colonel John Page at Jamestown in 1650. Col. Page was a prominent founder of Middle Plantation, which was later renamed Williamsburg. The Page family included Mann Page, U.S. Congressman and Governor John Page. The Nelson lineage began with Thomas "Scotch Tom" Nelson, a Scottish immigrant who settled at Yorktown, and his son, William Nelson, who was a royal governor of Virginia. Thomas Nelson Page was a direct descendant of Thomas Nelson, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a governor after Statehood, and thus of Robert "King" Carter, who served as an acting royal governor of Virginia and was one of its wealthiest landowners in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The Nelson family had settled in Hanover County, where Thomas's mother Elizabeth Burwell Nelson, married John Page.

A contemporary cousin of Thomas Nelson Page was William Nelson Page (1854–1932), who became a civil engineer and mining manager had helped develop the natural resources of western Virginia and southern West Virginia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. William Page is credited with, in partnership with millionaire financier Henry Huttleston Rogers, planning and Building the Virginian Railway. His family's Victorian-era mansion, the Page-Vawter House in Ansted, West Virginia, is a National Historical Landmark as is a former company store of the Page Coal and Coke Company in Pageton.Other cousins were Confederate officers Robert Edward Lee and Richard Lucian Page

The ruins of Rosewell Plantation, the home of early members of the Page family and one of the finest mansions built in the colonies, sit on the banks of the York River in Gloucester County. In 1916, a fire swept the mansion leaving a magnificent shell which is testament to 18th century craftsmanship and dreams. There are ongoing archaeological studies at the site.

Writing themes[edit]

Thomas Nelson Page was one of the best-known writers of his day. ... He also was a defender of the white man's right to lynch. Page was by no means some regional joke. He served as Woodrow Wilson's ambassador to Italy, and the president referred to him as a "national ornament".[6]

Page's postbellum fiction featured a nostalgic view of the South in step with Lost Cause mythology. Slaves are happy and simple, slotted into a paternalistic society. For example, the former slave in Marse Chan is uneducated, speaks phonetically, and has unrelenting admiration for his former master.[7] The gentry are noble and principled, with fealty to country and to chivalry—they seem like knights of a different age. The strain epitomized by Page would carry through the postwar era, cropping up again in art with films like Birth of a Nation. The ideology and thoughts that appear in Page's writing and in Southern ideology are no mere simplistic, archaic world-view; they are part of a complex history that has informed, for worse and for better, the evolution of the Southern mind to today.[8]

Thomas Nelson Page lamented that the slavery-era "good old darkies" had been replaced by the "new issue" (blacks born after slavery) whom he described as "lazy, thriftless, intemperate, insolent, dishonest, and without the most rudimentary elements of morality" (pp. 80, 163). Page, who helped popularize the images of cheerful and devoted Mammies and Sambos in his early books, became one of the first writers to introduce a literary black brute. In 1898 he published Red Rock, a Reconstruction novel, with the heinous figure of Moses, a loathsome and sinister black politician. Moses tried to rape a white woman: "He gave a snarl of rage and sprang at her like a wild beast" (pp. 356–358). He was later lynched for "a terrible crime".

Page dealt with the morality of lynching by acquitting the mob from any guilt, holding, instead, the supposedly debased Negroes responsible for their own violent executions. The following excerpts are taken from Page's essay, "The Negro: The Southerner's Problem," published in 1904. Lynching does not end ravishing, and that is the prime necessity. . . The charge that is often made, that the innocent are sometimes lynched, has little foundation. The rage of a mob is not directed against the innocent, but against the guilty; and its fury would not be satisfied with any other sacrifices than the death of the real criminal. Nor does the criminal merit any consideration, however terrible the punishment. The real injury is to the perpetrators of the crime of destroying the law, and to the community in which the law is slain. . . The crime of lynching is not likely to cease until the crime of ravishing and murdering women and children is less frequent than it has been of late. And this crime, which is well-nigh wholly confined to the Negro race, will not greatly diminish until the Negroes themselves take it in hand and stamp it out. . . As the crime of rape of late years had its baleful renascence in the teaching of equality and the placing of power in the ignorant Negroes' hands, so its perpetuation and increase have undoubtedly been due in large part to the same teaching. The intelligent Negro may understand what social equality truly means, but to the ignorant and brutal young Negro, it signifies but one thing: the opportunity to enjoy, equally with white men, the privilege of cohabiting with white women.

Likewise, Thomas Nelson Page complained that African American leaders should cease "talk of social equality that inflames the ignorant Negro," and instead, work to stop "the crime of ravishing and murdering women and children." (25) Though this racial pundit never offered any concrete evidence that the African American right to vote, pursue an education, or share public space was linked to the perceived increase in sexual assaults or any upswing in racial mixture, the consistent conflation of these issues was commonplace in white minds.


Thomas Nelson Page, 1903

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "PAGE, Thomas Nelson". The International Who's Who in the World: p. 829. 1912. 
  2. ^ Simms, L. Moody. "Thomas Nelson Page". American National Biography Online. Retrieved September 9, 2011. 
  3. ^ Gross, Theodore L. (1967). Thomas Nelson Page. New York: Twayne Publishers Inc. p. 18. 
  4. ^ a b Dauer, Richard Paul. “Thomas Nelson Page, Diplomat” (MA, College of William and Mary, 1972)
  5. ^ Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission staff (January 1974). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Sycamore Tavern". Virginia Department of Historic Resources. 
  6. ^ Abbott, Shirley. Womenfolks, growing up down South. New Haven, Conn.: Ticknor & Fields, 1983. Print.
  7. ^ Page, Thomas Nelson. Marse Chan excerpted from in Ole Virginia. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1887. 
  8. ^ Cash, W.J. Mind of the South. Vintage. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Theodore L. Gross, Thomas Nelson Page, New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1967.
  • Page, Rosewell, Thomas Nelson Page, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1923.
  • A.C Quisenberry, "The First Pioneer Families of Virginia", Register of Kentucky State Historical Society, Vol. 11, No. 32 (MAY, 1913), pp. 55, 57-77

External links[edit]

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Thomas J. O'Brien
United States Ambassador to Italy
October 12, 1913 – June 21, 1919
Succeeded by
Robert Underwood Johnson