Tracing Lord Jeff, part 2

This post is part 2 of the “Tracing Lord Jeff” series. Click here for part 1.

When did the Amherst College community develop a more substantial relationship with Lord Jeffery Amherst than name alone? As archivist Mike Kelly has pointed out, the first significant cultural reference to Amherst by students is the college song “Lord Geoffrey Amherst,” written by James Shelley Hamilton, class of 1906. Hamilton’s inspiration to write the tune, as he explains in a letter he wrote decades later as an alumnus, was the lack of pre-existing campus song and a portrait of Amherst that hung in Johnson Chapel:

I wanted something to open the concerts with, as a balance for “Cheer for Old Amherst” that always came at the end – rather vaguely I wanted something a bit gay, like “Here’s to Johnny Harvard” and the song about Eph Williams “who founded a school in Billville.” No such thing existed for Amherst…Lord Amherst wasn’t a particularly familiar figure to us then except as a picture we saw every day in chapel; we certainly didn’t make light of his name by calling him “Lord Jeffery”. More or less subconsciously, I suppose, [I] was working a recollection of some verses which appeared in the Amherst Literary Monthly for February, 1903, during my Freshman year. I didn’t definitely remember them but they must have suggested to me that here was a personality and a name on which a cheerful ditty must be hung. [1]

The Literary Monthly that Hamilton mentions indeed includes a joking series of verses that identify Amherst as a “gallant soldier” whose fame the college now honors. Some of the language in these verses is similar to the lyrics of Hamilton’s popular song: [2]jeffpoem1

The 1903 Literary Monthly also includes a brief biography of Amherst, which similarly–just as Hamilton does in his letter and researchers like Mike Kelly and myself–contemplates the (lack of) relationship between the student body and Lord Jeffery. “How many of us, for instance, ever stopped to inquire about the portrait of Lord Amherst which hangs before our eyes every morning that we attend chapel?” the publication asks. “Who was Lord Amherst, anyway? How did this fair college town ever receive his name? And where did this portrait come from?” [3]

This painting referenced by both Hamilton and the Literary Monthly was gifted to the college by Herbert B. Adams, an alumnus from the class of 1872 who became a prominent historian and actually published a profile about Amherst the historical figure. The painting was a life-size replica created in 1895 by artist Charles P. Didier of an engraving of the original 1765 painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds. [4] Its donation to the college presumably occurred sometime between this date and Adams’s death in 1901; by the time Hamilton was a student at Amherst, the portrait had found its home in Johnson Chapel. (The painting no longer hangs there–it was moved to Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum in 1967.) [5]

reynolds-portraitScholars have identified this depiction of Amherst as distinct from common portraiture at the time. Historian Kevin Sweeney notes that the pastoral background departs from the customary battlefield imagery and instead “captures Amherst’s genius triumphing over the sublime powers of nature” and presents him “as a proto-Romantic hero.” [6] The Mead catalogue entry for the piece further explains that the portrait presents Amherst as he as known to the British public after his successes in the French and Indian War: “as a merciful conqueror who had achieved the largely bloodless surrender of New France through a masterfully planned three-pronged invasion and then treated the inhabitants of Montreal with compassion.” [7] Though this interpretation of Amherst perhaps lacks historical accuracy, it is still significant: its soft, heroic portrayal becomes the primary medium through which students like James Shelley Hamilton come to understand and conceptualize Lord Jeffery Amherst.

Hamilton’s own writing attests to this fact. Again discussing the song, he admits that “the whole thing had been frivolously conceived and carelessly done, without any reference to historical justification or fact and even with Jeffery’s name mis-spelled.” [8] “Lord Geoffrey Amherst” the song therefore seems to have originated primarily from the intrigue of his triumphant Johnson Chapel portrait. The lyrics to the hastily created, whimsical song reflect this influence, as they praise Amherst for his military prowess and bravery. They also reminiscent of the verses from the 1903 Literary Monthly, similarly boasting how Amherst is unique from other more typical college heroes:

Oh, Lord Jeffery Amherst was a soldier of the king
And he came from across the sea,
To the Frenchmen and the Indians he didn’t do a thing
In the wilds of this wild country,
In the wilds of this wild country.
And for his royal majesty he fought with all his might,
For he was a soldier loyal and true,
And he conquered all the enemies that came within his sight
And he looked around for more when he was through.

Oh, Amherst, brave Amherst
‘Twas a name known to fame in days of yore,
May it ever be glorious
‘Til the sun shall climb the heavens no more.

Oh, Lord Jeffery Amherst was the man who gave his name
To our College upon the Hill
And the story of his loyalty and bravery and fame
Abides here among us still
Abides here among us still
You may talk about your Johnnies and your Elis and the rest
For they are names that time will never dim
But give us our only Jeffery, he’s the noblest and the best
‘Til the end we will stand fast for him. [9]

The song’s third line, which would inevitably become its most infamous and controversial in the century of prominence that followed its debut, creates a curious contrast with the dominant impression of the piece. Though Amherst is a “loyal and true” soldier “of the king”, capable of and eager to conquer all his foes, he “didn’t do a thing” to his two enemies in his greatest, most famous military conflict? The interpretation of the line preferred by present day students is that Hamilton and his contemporaries crafted and performed the song wholly tongue-in-cheek. After all, the statement is so hyperbolic that irony seems the only explanation.

Anna Seward, Amherst College alumna of the class of 2014 and former president of the Women’s Chorus, acknowledged this widely held belief when she penned an AC Voice article in October 2013 about coming to terms with the classic college song. “The composer of the song undoubtedly knew Amherst had committed these crimes. He wrote the line undoubtedly as a joke, but genocide isn’t one,” she states. [10] Seward argues that the fun song—mainly popular due to its “wide range of the harmony in the chorus” and “the movements and gestures to go along with [it] that have been with us for decades”—shouldn’t be retired, but instead sung with more than just a sly wink and a nudge towards its obvious inaccuracy. [11] A commenter on the article, self-identified as “JH Noble”, Amherst class of 1989 and Glee Club alumnus, takes Seward’s analysis of Hamilton’s intentions a step further, asserting:

[I]t is my distinct recollection that I read in The Student during my undergraduate years that J.S. Hamilton (’06) did state that he intended both the song “Lord Jeffrey Amherst” and the specific line “To the Frenchman and the Indians he didn’t do a thing” to be understood sarcastically, and not factually. [12]

No such explanation is present in Hamilton’s account of his writing of the song. Though the polemical line has been warped by generations of students into an awkward, clever, chastising, or minimizing reference to the blanket incident (with the precise attitude dependent on the student), it is truly unlikely that Hamilton knew about Amherst’s attempted biological warfare and the criticism he would later face for it. The pairing of “the Frenchmen” and “the Indians” within the line also strongly suggests that the line alludes to Amherst’s behavior against his two enemies in the French and Indian War, not his tactics during Pontiac’s Rebellion. Could Hamilton’s lyrics instead signify an idealized version of Lord Jeffery Amherst, derived more from his portrait than from fact—a man brave and valiant, victorious in battle, yet benevolent and fair to his opponents? Even though he clearly “did a thing” to his French and Native attackers, maybe the joke was not how violently he defeated them, but rather how, if anyone could have paradoxically conquered them without destroying them, it was him, the well-dressed general with his finger on his chin and his back turned to the darkening clouds.

While the song’s opponents and defenders focus on that crucial line, the overall song has another interesting effect, especially given its subsequent development into a beloved college tradition. From the invocation of an exciting, unclaimed wilderness (“In the wilds of this wild country”) to the rewriting of the relationship between the college and Amherst (“Lord Jeffery Amherst was the man who gave his name/To our College upon the hill”, implying that the school was intentionally named for him) to the intertwining of the college with Amherst’s legacy (“May [his name] ever be glorious/’Til the sun shall climb the heavens no more…the story of his loyalty and bravery and fame/Abides here among us still…’Til the end we will stand fast for him”), the lyrics function as a sort of creation myth for Amherst College. The repeated reference to the “wild country” is sharply reminiscent of Jean O’Brien’s concept of “firsting”. Describing land as wild and uncivilized is a key strategy in delegitimizing Native communities and relationships with land. O’Brien explains: “Indian economies and land use are depicted as…irrational; rarely is the complexity of Indian seasonal economies acknowledged. Instead, Indians are generally cast as aimless wanderers over a wilderness landscape.”[13] And so the repeated emphasis on “wild”—mentioned four times in half as many lines—implicitly “writes Indians out of existence”, so to speak, even if that was not the intention of Hamilton himself.

Compounding this subtle erasure of local indigenous people is the sanitized, glorified presentation of Amherst, inconsistent not only with respect to his genocidal actions but also to his general reputation in North America. After lack of success in the colonies compelled him to return to London, his was hardly “a name known to fame”, at least not without dispute. Falsely praising Amherst as the school’s beloved, popular founder and pledging to remember him as “the noblest and the best” may have been innocuous enough when Hamilton first half-heartedly wrote it without much hope or intention for the song to catch on, but as “Lord Geoffrey Amherst” has become popularized and codified as a bona fide college tradition, it has taken on a different life and meaning for new generations of students. The song encourages us to misremember both who Lord Jeffery Amherst was in addition to misremembering our relationship to him, retrofitting a nuanced understanding of his history and inappropriate wartime actions into a moment (the writing and early performance of the song) where it simply did not exist.

Half a century after Hamilton wrote his song, the Amherst College student-run yearbook The Olio paid tribute to it by reprinting the sheet music on the inside cover of the 1950 edition. Addressing the controversy that had developed since the song’s original publication, the Olio editors acknowledge, “true enough, [the song] is a quixotic idealization of a soldier. Certain details of his life, such as have been revealed in a letter to his subordinate, were unwittingly omitted by its author.”[14] The blurb then cites one of Amherst’s incriminating letters to Colonel Henry Bouquet.

olio-1950-1  olio-1950-2  olio

After quoting Amherst’s desire to “innoculate [sic] the Indians” or “hunt[] them down by dogs”, the Olio editors do not dwell on or condemn these ideas. Instead, they go on to discuss the song’s popularity across different schools in a cheerful tone and even print a “rewrite” of Hamilton’s lyrics, proposed by alumnus and sportswriter Stanley Woodward in an article he wrote for the New York Herald Tribune:

Oh, Amherst, sly Amherst
Put the pox in their sox in days of yore-ore-ore,
Vaccination! Extirpation!
Till the Redskins roamed the woods no more. [15]

The editors refer to “slight misrepresentation of character” in Hamilton’s song with great nonchalance, implying an apathy towards the historical colonial violence.  [16] To examine these student attitudes in greater depth, I will now analyze visual representations of Amherst since the release of Hamilton’s catchy college song.

Click here to continue to part 3 in the “Tracing Lord Jeff” series.

[1] “The Window Seat.” Amherst Literary Monthly (1903): 297-300. Print.

[2] Thompson, K. O. “Lord Amherst.” Amherst Literary Monthly (1903): 276-81. Print.

[3] Hamilton, James S. Letter to Mr. Fletcher. 3 Nov. 1934. MS. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst, MA. 1.

[4] Thompson,”Lord Amherst,” 281.

[5] “Sir Jeffery Amherst.” Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium. Mead Art Museum, n.d. Web. 10 May 2015.

[6] Sweeney, Kevin. “The Very Model of a Modern Major General.” Amherst College. Amherst College, 2008. Web. 15 May 2015.

[7] “Sir Jeffery Amherst.”

[8] Hamilton, 1-2.

[9] Bigelow, William Pingry. Amherst College Songs. Amherst: Alumni Council of Amherst College, 1932. Print.

[10] Seward, Anna. “The Singing College.” AC Voice. AC Voice, 19 Oct. 2013. Web. 1 May 2015.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. (blog comment).

[13] O’Brien, Jean M. Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2010. 27. Print.

[14] Olio. Amherst: Amherst College, 1950. Print.

[15] Woodward, Stanley. “Historian Flays Lord Jeff Amherst for Smallpox War on Indians.” New York Herald Tribune 10 Jan. 1937: n. pag. Print.

[16] Olio.

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