Where We Stand
(Stiff upper lip optional)
What, precisely, does Wilmington stand for?
That has been my question these past few months as I wander this town named for me, along with the surrounding coastal Carolina environs.
There’s the rich history, answered Cricket Stubbs at the Visitor Information Center on the Riverwalk. Yes, it’s an early English port city that may well have been the first to rebel against my crown and country during the tax stamp scuffle that predated the Boston Tea Party. (It’s rather ironic that the Coast Guard ship that has been long stationed here — the Diligence — bears the same name as the British ship that triggered that mini-revolt of 1766.)
Of course the area played a fierce role in the Civil War, Cricket added.
And, upon my word, after! The historic — and unpunished — Wilmington insurrection and racial massacre of 1898 that overthrew the postwar government here is called the only successful coup d’etat in U.S. history.
Yes, there are the many historic and beautiful homes and buildings that tell the stories of the merchants, politicians, developers, doctors, educators and dreamers who shaped this town during its many incarnations:
Port town, slave town, rice, cotton, lumber and molasses town, sleazy river town, streetcars-to-the-beach tourist town, railroad town, ghost town (after the railroad left), college town and now boomtown, with new residents and retirees absolutely flooding this area, sure of its beauty but perhaps, like me, unsure of its heart.
There are only a few statues — one on South Third honoring fallen Confederate soldiers (like so many Southern towns); and one on Market Street for the local senator George Davis, attorney general for the Confederate States with an upflung arm of questionable tailoring. There’s a nice monument to the area’s WWI casualties at New Hanover High School and that smashing (sometimes literally) fountain of the Kenan family at Fifth and Market, along with a host of historical markers of many flavors.
But what is Wilmington, really? What do we stand for? (As I liked to tell members of Parliament when I was speaker of the House of Commons 300 years ago, “Stand for something or remain seated.”)
“Well,” Cricket mused when I pressed her on this, “it was named for Lord Wilmington in England.”
Aha! But who was he? Cricket, smartly togged in summer colors and bright lipstick, could only smile, because she, like virtually all of this area’s inhabitants, knows not one whit about Spencer Compton, the Earl of Wilmington, England’s second prime minister and likely the most fashionable man in British government at the time.
It wasn’t always like this. During Wilmington’s Bicentennial Celebration, held at the Federal Center on Princess Street in 1939, my oil portrait and letters made up the first exhibit among many others, including historic paintings, maps, drawings, photographs and other artifacts, such as the gavel made from the Dram Tree.
There was also the Spencer Compton Society here, but it’s my understanding it devolved into an excuse to add some pomp to cocktail hour before it collapsed due to a lack of interest. That last — a lack of interest — is how much of history has unkindly portrayed me: a lax, ponderous leader, the most ordinary of orators, a perfumed fop and a dullard — but only because I preferred not to engage in the the loud braying and spittle-spraying in the House of Commons.
Verily, I was a terrible leader. I hated the pressure, the volume, the mess of it.
But your Lord Wilmington worked tirelessly behind the scenes with both the Whigs and Tories (today’s liberals and conservatives) to make Britain’s vast holdings and Colonies — including this town — work successfully. Remember how our tiny island nation reached all around the world?
It was a complex maze of holdings, shipping nightmares, peerages, uprisings, epidemics, scoundrels and whatnot that required a stiff upper lip to control. And none was as stiff as mine (as my critics used to say while denouncing my oration).
If you would like your city to stand for the things thats its namesake stood for, a stiff upper lip is a good start. Steady at the helm, plan carefully and smartly, take care of the details now that the future will require, such as roads, bridges, sewers, schools and parks. These jobs must be done for the health of the realm, without fail and no whining. As I always liked to say, excuses are only patches on the garment of failure.
I also stood squarely for bipartisanship, which was why both the Whigs and Tories could agree upon me — even if only to jointly and enviously mock my brocaded scarlet jacket with gold trim.
Let those who can get the jobs done do the jobs of governance. Fairness and honesty before party! North Carolina’s greatest governor, Gabriel Johnston — the man who moved this city from Brunswick Town and named it after me — learned this at my stockinged knee in my London manse. There should definitely be a statue to this grand man of vision and fairness.
What else should be Wilmington’s cachet?
Some Southern cities are known for their water feature or sculpture themes (and we have some fine ones, including the Riverwalk and its pelican, owl and Venus flytrap sculptures), but why not cultivate Wilmington as the best-dressed city in the South, in honor of your dashing royal patron? Imagine each day and evening as a fashion show, including hats without bills and shoes with heels. To repeat the advice of my impeccably attired mother, Mary Noel, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth getting dressed up for.”
As I wrote in my last outing for this very well turned-out magazine, Spencer Compton also encouraged gardening for beauty and mental health in all of our Colonies. Why not makes this entire city a shining example of what the wonderful Joe Pawlik has done in his neighborhood at S. 2nd Street at Ann? Please go by and see the difference careful, loving gardening can make. As the always crisply dressed Sir Joe (yes, he should be knighted) likes to say, it’s harder to be ugly in a city that’s pretty.
Lastly, why not make Wilmington a sister city to England’s London and Warwickshire, my two hometowns?
Both nations are feeling a little lost right now. We could reclaim the relationship we had back when my man Gabriel Johnston shaped this land and perhaps show the way for reunification, maybe even get the Queen or Duchess Kate to visit.
It seems pompous for me to have to say this, but I was a man of wealth, influence and style in my day. Just look at my image on the cover of the bicentennial program, complete with my rare Order of the Garter medal. Many have copied that style, including fellow Britisher Mick Jagger. As I embrace my new life here in shorts and collarless shirts — I’ve even gone barefoot — I often wonder why there are no stylish Spencer Compton T-shirts, caps and mugs with my favorite sayings and bon mots, instead of just the usual tributes to sea life, pirates and being salt-treated. How about a Lord Wilmington beer or wine? (A glass of port at the Kit-Cat Club, where my famous portrait was painted.)
A certain past can certainly help shape an uncertain future. Why not capitalize on the quiet, cool, capable and well-coifed reputation of your namesake as Wilmington writes its next chapter as the new sweet spot in the South? — Spencer Compton b