Dynastic discipline



Dynastic discipline

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The fourth issue raised by Nguyen Van Thanh in 1812 proved to be his undoing. This was the succession question. Gia Long’s three eldest sons were already dead. The choice of crown prince was between My Duong, the eldest son of former Crown Prince Canh, who was in his teens and was Gia Long’s eldest grandson, and Gia Long’s fourth son, Minh Mang (1791–1840), already in his twenties. Gia Long was inclined toward Minh Mang because of his maturity and the fact that he was not likely to be manipulated by others. He considered that those who favored My Duong were looking for an opportunity to influence a youthful king. Nguyen Van Thanh, for reasons that can only be conjectured, decided to pose publicly as an advocate for My Duong. Apparently, he was led astray by his past experience in submitting proposals to Gia Long and having them approved, as well as by his well-known fondness for wine. In 1815, Nguyen Van Thanh announced to a group of officials whom he had invited to his house for drinks that “The kid will be named crown prince; I am about to petition the king about it.” Informants reported the remark to Gia Long. Shortly after, an official reported to Le Van Duyet that Nguyen Van Thanh’s son was making conspiratorial moves to ensure that My Duong would follow his grandfather on the throne. Le Van Duyet immediately alerted Gia Long. In 1816, Nguyen Van Thanh was arrested. Shortly after, a conspiracy to rally a rebellion around Le Duy Hoan, the senior member of the formerly royal Le family, was uncovered, and Nguyen Van Thanh and his son were implicated as having previously given encouragement to the conspirators. In 1817, Nguyen Van Thanh drank poison and his son was executed. Thus ended the old feud between Nguyen Van Thanh and Le Van Duyet. The supposed conspiracies of Nguyen Van Thanh and his son to engineer the appointment of My Duong as crown prince and to champion the restoration of the Le dynasty may have been more smoke than fire, but even smoke is a sign of  something. Behind Nguyen Van Thanh’s support of My Duong and the suspi- cions of his pro-Le sympathies lay his susceptibility to the sensitivities of north- erners and his efforts to soften southern attitudes toward northerners at the Hue  court. This was demonstrated in 1811 when he argued on behalf of Dang Tran Thuong.

Dang Tran Thuong (d. 1816) was from the Hanoi area. His family had held prestigious positions under the Le dynasty. He was well educated and ambitious. Unwilling to serve the Tay Son, in 1794 he fled by sea to Saigon and joined  Nguyen Phuc Anh, who quickly learned to appreciate his skill as an adminis- trator and as a leader of soldiers. He was in the forefront of many battles during the final years of the war and was assigned to serve with Nguyen Van Thanh at Hanoi when the war ended. In 1805, he recommended fourteen northern scholars for service at the Hue court. In 1809 he was summoned from Hanoi to Hue to take charge of the Ministry of War. During his service at Hanoi, a group of officials had been charged with compiling biographical information about prominent deceased northerners in order to prepare a register of those worthy of being posthumously honored by the Hue court. When indications of widespread fraud began to surface, motivated by northerners seeking to revise  family records to burnish their credentials with the new dynasty, a full investi- gation was set in motion.

Among the facts that came to light was that Dang Tran Thuong had revised information about Hoang Ngu Phuc, the Trinh general who had invaded the south and expelled the Nguyen Phuc from Hue in 1774–1775. Dang Tran Thuong erased the posthumous titles granted to Hoang Ngu Phuc by the Trinh and added Hoang Ngu Phuc’s name to the register being compiled for honors at the Hue court. A long and contentious argument broke out between those affirming that Dang Tran Thuong deserved death and those favoring clemency on account of previous merit. Nguyen Van Thanh, who had worked with Dang Tran Thuong in Hanoi for several years, was at the head of those speaking for clemency. Gia Long finally decided that, considering how Hoang Ngu Phuc’s southern campaign had affected not only his family but him personally, any effort to rehabilitate the man’s name was unacceptable and deserved death. Nguyen Van Thanh was fined for arguing on Dang Tran Thuong’s behalf.

Dang Tran Thuong was imprisoned, but in 1813 Gia Long lifted his death sentence and released him, yet he was not allowed to leave Hue. In 1816, after the arrest of Nguyen Van Thanh, new charges of corruption were brought against Dang Tran Thuong dating from the time he had served in Hanoi. This prompted him to deliver a drunken rant against Gia Long, after which he was seized and hung. The angry words that earned him the belated execution of his death sentence were not recorded. They escaped from the disappointed ambitions of a talented man and the whispering world of suppressed northern resentment toward a regime of southerners. That it ever entered Dang Tran Thuong’s mind  to rehabilitate the memory of Hoang Ngu Phuc at Gia Long’s court is a remark- able indication of the blind intensity of northern feelings.

Gia Long dealt with court politics in a manner similar to that in which he had conducted his armies during the war. He was not hasty, yet he was decisive. He strictly enforced norms of obedience and trusted his enemies to eventually bring about their own downfall. Predictably, the most serious intrigues that he faced were related to tensions between northerners and southerners, particularly to efforts by northerners to reshape the central government toward their regional interests and the vigilance of southerners to prevent this.

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