Horseshoes, History, and Violence

Gentle Readers, if you spend any length of time arguing about politics you will soon encounter the horseshoe theory. This notion holds that ideological extremes, despite their ostensible opposition, tend to blur together. Thus a left-right spectrum actually bends along another dimension and we should understand all of those horrid radicals as essentially equivalent: violent, dogmatic, and authoritarian. This has the appeal of making the speaker, always situated at the horseshoe’s peak, into a font of sensible moderation. Neither political scientists nor political philosophers take the horseshoe very seriously, as they have committed the grievous sin from which the it grants salvation: Actually reading and thinking about politics.

Horseshoe theory came to mind this week when I thought, briefly, about Thomas Fleming’s catalog of errors. Fleming holds that abolitionists and proslavery Americans had one another caught in a vicious cycle of mutual alienation and states-raising that eventually led to the Civil War. In doing so, he largely follows the outlines of blundering generation and needless war historiography in vogue at about the time of his birth. These scholars, like Fleming, put on a show of blaming both sides for what they consider a tragic and hysteria-fueled war of choice. In practice, however, they reliably cast the abolitionists as the true villains of the piece. Fleming would have us believe that white Southerners practically begged for abolition, but stumbled into a war due to vicious abolitionist onslaughts.

Setting aside for a moment the outright falsity of Fleming’s suggestion, purely for the sake of argument, the thesis of mutually reinforcing radicalisms has a lot of horseshoe in it. It assumes that a virtuous, non-violent, tolerant center exists. This might sound like a simple, common sense proposition. In the real world things work out rather differently. Extremists, for whatever limited value that category has, do sometimes engage in violence and authoritarianism. But so do moderates. Not all moderates do so, but then not all extremists do either.

That all sounds very abstract, so let’s get some nineteenth century on the case. A moderate, in Fleming’s view and the view of an assortment of early twentieth century historians, does not have a strong opinion one way or the other on slavery. He, or rarely she, lives in a country where slavery exists. Enslavers might not ply their trade just outside the door, but the moderate knows and accepts that they do it somewhere within a polity of which the moderate considers himself or herself a part. The moderate lacks decades of forgetting to obscure the reality of enslavement:

As Frederick Law Olmstead described “the severest corporeal punishment I witnessed at the South, “a slave girl named Sall was ordered to pull up her clothes and lie on her back, private parts exposed. The overseer flogged her “with the rawhide, across her naked loins and thighs.” Sall “shrunk away from him, not rising, but writhing, groveling, and screaming, “‘Oh don’t sir! Oh plerase stop, master! please sir! oh, that’s enough master! oh Lord! oh master, master, of God, master, do stop! oh God, master, oh God, master!”

After “strokes had ceased” and “choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard, “Olmstead asked if it was “necessary to punish her so severely.’ … ‘O yes sir,” answered the lasher, laughing at the Yankee’s innocence. Northerners ‘have no idea how lazy these niggers are …” They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.”

The moderate might dismiss the writings of abolitionists on the point. The moderate might even do so while engaged as a member of a mob attacking an abolitionist troublemaker of some sort. But the moderate could look at the writings of the enslavers and see much the same sort of thing. They made no bones about all the whipping they did as a “necessary” part of managing their human property. Nor could they, as it constituted such a normal, everyday part of life in the slave states. If you didn’t care to whip your slaves yourself, you could pay someone else to do the job. You could contract with the local constabulary for the task, or employ an overseer.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

One especially famous enslaver did the both in turn, a fact remembered very well by one of his chattels, Wesley Norris. Norris, his sister, and their cousin had run away, believing the famous man who inherited them had no right to their lives. Their prior owner, they thought, promised them freedom on his death. With the new boss proved less than forthcoming with it, they stole themselves. They got into Maryland before recapture

we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

The General Lee who owned Norris went on just a few years later to his fame, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia in the Slaveholder’s Insurrection. A moderate of the time wouldn’t have read Norris either, not in the least because his account didn’t reach publication until 1866, but one would have to work very hard to miss that things like this went on in the South every day. Nor, when pressed, did enslavers even deny sexual exploitation. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow considered the rape of enslaved women a praiseworthy feature of the system:

Negro slavery has a further effect on the character of the white woman, which should commend the institution to all who love the white race more than they do the negro. It is a shield to the virtue of the white woman.

So long as man is lewd, woman will be his victim. Those who are forced to occupy a menial position have ever been, will ever be most tempted, least protected: this is one of the evils of slavery; it attends all who are in that abject condition from the beautiful Circassian to the sable daughter of Africa. While we admit the selfishness of the sentiment, we are free to declare, we love the white woman so much, we would save her even at the sacrifice of the negro: would throw around her every shield, keep her out of the way of temptation.

While moderates might not think much of these things, they happened all the same. Whatever its cause, violence leaves broken bodies and lives just the same. The strokes of the lash do not turn into a lover’s kiss any more than bullets become a warm caress because their issuers deem the cause noble. Even misunderstandings and accidents, where human agency plays a confused role or none at all, grant no such considerations.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Yet the moderate, who protests the violence of the extremes to the point of imagining them as identical and treats violence as the characteristic in particular for which extremists deserve condemnation, has at best nothing to say about the precise violence that happens every day. More often, the moderate exerted, and in many cases still exerts, great effort to legitimate just that violence. The moderate argument against violent extremism comes down not to a principled stand against violence, nor even to a conviction that it ought to be minimized. Rather the moderate wants violence to continue along exactly as it has, afflicting those it has, likely in perpetuity.

I raise this issue in part because one hears horseshoe arguments so frequently, but also to make this point: The war only began at Sumter if only believes that army-scale intersectional violence between whites counts as violence. If we omit consideration of scale, then white Americans attacked one another in clashes either over slavery or deeply involved with it on at least a steady basis back through 1855. If we omit the intersectional qualification, then we find that Southern whites violently policed dissent against slavery going back decades before. If we remove the word “white” and admit lives are lives, bodies bodies, and violence violence, then we have a longer war yet. It might not have proceeded in every era at a fever pitch, but the war of those Americans and English colonists before them upon those they deemed black stretches back through the whole history of slavery in Anglophone North America. From that perspective, we must accept the Civil War as a true revolution. For four years, the violent energies of white Americans so eagerly directed, often with pride, at black Americans found themselves wrenched from their customary frame and applied elsewhere.

I can’t know the hearts of Thomas Fleming or the historians that preceded them, but in looking at a fuller picture than they offer I find it hard to resist the conclusion that their objection to the war lies chiefly in that temporary departure from our most ancient customs. With the possible exception of Avery Craven, who I understand held generally to pacifism, they don’t mind the violence. They mind that white people suffered it.

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4 comments on “Horseshoes, History, and Violence

  1. Andy Hall says:

    I’m guessing that perspective from Stringfellow won’t make it into the script of Mercy Street.

    • Probably not. In the show’s defense, it’s from a different Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow. The Mercy Street Stringfellow is his nephew with the same name. Because nineteenth century parents had a grudge against us.

      My Stringfellow (1816-9) moved off to Missouri with his brother, and later to Kansas. He shows up in the surveys mostly as the guy who supplies the self-congratulatory quote about how well the bogus legislature did in protecting slavery after the first legislative elections. He also managed to get into a brief fistfight with the territory’s first governor, but unlike his brother opted not to move into Kansas permanently until the excitement had largely passed.

      I’ve read that Missouri & Kansas BF also pushed things a bit too far and nearly had his mob turn on him when he went out to purge a Yankee clergyman and presumed abolitionist from Platte County, but so far as I can tell from the footnotes that incident is only related in private papers that aren’t online anywhere. Something about denigrating wage labor in front of a bunch of wage laborers. Old Ben was clearly a savvy one.

      • Andy Hall says:

        Thanks for clarifying. I got the two confused. The Stringfellows were prolific, but not very creative when it came to names.

        • Could be worse. I confused two unrelated men named William Phillips for months. 🙂

          Both were active in antislavery circles in Kansas, one something of an intimate with the leading figures. The second one has a very small presence in the literature, appearing mostly as lynching victim. He survived tar and feathering, then being sold at a mock auction, but died in a gunfight about a year later. The more famous one, William Addison Phillips, wrote for the papers and published a book on the struggle.

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