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Hatfields & McCoys on History Channel Review and Lessons

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Hatfields & McCoys on the History Channel

I am going to try to write a few paragraphs about the amazing mini-series recently aired by the History Channel: Hatfields & McCoys. It is hard to describe just how entertaining this mini-series was. People around the country were simply riveted by the compelling story of two post-Civil War families locked in a blood feud – dramaticized into a made-for-Tv mini-series airing over three days on The History Channel.

Stars Come Out for This Epic Mini-Series

There are certain actors and actresses who, for whatever reason, have the right skills and understanding to portray historical characters with the dignity and respect they deserve. Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton – to name two – playing the lead roles of Devil Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy fall into that category. Likewise Tom Berenger (whom I didn’t even RECOGNIZE playing the role of Jim Vance), Powers Boothe (Wall Hatfield), and Jena Malone (Nancy McCoy). Each member of the principal cast had the responsibility of portraying an actual historical character with the intensity the available historical record demands without drawing attention to themselves.

I would hope that somewhere drifting in the after-life those portrayed in the mini-series would feel that their personalities and frailties were demonstrated with the dignity and honesty (of spirit if not of actual fact) they deserved. I certainly felt that to be the case, although being neither Hatfield nor McCoy – nor having any true appreciation for the emotions and intense feelings which fueled the rivalry I hardly feel qualified to make that judgement. Perhaps only a deep-rooted Appalachian could answer that.

Some Facts Surrounding Hatfields & McCoys Feud and Motivations

The difficulty in producing any sort of historical theatrical piece is the availability and depth and breadth of documentation itself. A wise person would tell you that in truth history is written by the victors – and victors don’t typically treat the vanquished with much dignity. In this case though it’s pretty clear there were no victors, but there was quite a bit of documented history in a legal sense. This West Virginia interview transcript is quite detailed in describing what facts are known about legal issues between the two rival families.

What is most clear from the interview transcript with the West Virginia historian is that the McCoy family – for multiple reasons, some of which was their own doing, some of which can be blamed on Devil Anse Hatfield – was seriously economically disadvantaged. Their family values (one generation prior to Randall) were badly displaced relative to other families in the community. This is not in dispute given the detailed court records regarding a divorce proceeding (source: interview link above). This economic disadvantage, combined with some early legal maneuvering (and hard-heartedness in my thinking) led to a massive land-windfall for the Hatfields at the expense of one of the relatives of Randall McCoy (Perry Cline).

Historical Lessons We Can Learn from the Hatfields & McCoys

I have to believe my previous paragraph should be telling what lessons are to be learned from the Hatfield / McCoy feud. I would add that any lessons given on the subject were not learned by later combatants on a more global scale in World War I. Thankfully I believe that someone must have taken note by the end of World War II – with the rebuilding of Europe (and particularly Germany) after the war. Sadly these lessons appear lost to present day leaders in the financial world both in America and more pointedly in Europe.

The lesson, if you haven’t already guessed it, is to be a gracious victor and not hoard the spoils of victory. What we can glean from historical records is that the McCoys (and Randall McCoy’s sons in particular) had very poor future economic prospects, whereas Devil Anse’s family went from rags to riches basically over-night with a land settlement secured from Perry Cline. Was it absolutely necessary for Devil Anse Hatfield to secure every last piece of property owned by Perry Cline in his land settlement? Was it not foreseeable such a total devastating loss would create a festering cancer very close to home – short of eliminating Perry Cline himself? I doubt Anse Hatfield could have foreseen how one man’s hatred of him (Perry Cline) could be so effectively poured into another (Randell McCoy) – but such are the ways of devious people – and clearly Perry Cline was one devious person.

Economic Lessons Found and Lost Again as History Repeats Itself

One need only look at the tone and outcome Treaty of Versailles ending World War I to see the dangers of onerous terms in settling conflict. The seeds of discontent and unending economic disadvantage in Germany post World War I led ultimately to the rise of the Nazis and subsequent plunge into World War II. Clearly Harry S. Truman, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin did a better (albeit with its own problems) job of concluding the second world conflict.

Sadly however modern references to economic disadvantage and long-term disparity show clear indications that once again the lessons about distribution of economic opportunity have been lost. Last year we watched in horror as Greek citizens rioted over austerity measures imposed by the European Union over debt insolvency. Similar riots have happened in Spain. Regardless of how or where you see the source of the debt-load taken on by these countries, the resulting economic imbalance is a huge untapped source of resentment globally. The wealthy bankers and investors (with the means to influence legal and political outcomes) are using their power to impose by legal force onerous economic austerity measures on the debt-stricken in an effort to preserve what in reality are BAD INVESTMENT DECISIONS ON THEIR PART.

Will European Leaders and Global Bankers Learn from the Hatfields and McCoys?

Fortunately – to at least some extent leadership in Europe has made efforts to negotiate debt-write downs to share in the losses, but it clearly has not been enough. The only way out for Europe is via agreements which produce the possibility of long-term economic opportunity for all members of the European Union – not just those who speak German. If that means capitalism needs to take its course and certain banks to fail as a result of their poor investment choices then that needs to happen. But that doesn’t mean all the losses have to be borne by one party or another. The “victors” of that European debt mess would do well to heed the lessons of the Hatfields & McCoys feud – and negotiate a mutual settlement of shared sacrifice – not an onerous “winner take all” one. All of us will suffer in this lifetime if they don’t.

About Hatfields . (2012). The History Channel website. Retrieved 18:07, May 31, 2012, from

Transcript of interview with Altina Waller for the film “West Virginia” (June 27, 1992), West Virginia Film History Project from

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No Comments updated August 5, 2012