Thomas Jefferson, Antislavery Man?

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

People disappoint us. I think everyone probably wants, at least a little bit, some kind of saintly mouthpiece for their views. We want a pure vessel beyond reproach to illustrate wrongs we see and how to right them. Then, we imagine, the basic decency of humanity will win out. The scales will fall from our enemies’ eyes and they will come over to our side. With everyone together, we could fix things. It wouldn’t take any compromises or half measures; we could really get it done. We could begin the world anew.

I’ve thought about that idea frequently in the last few weeks. It appeals to our sense of fairness. We like to think that everyone, deep down, really thinks and feels and has values more or less like our own. It can take hard work, especially if we don’t have a personal stake in an issue, to resist the notion’s seduction. No one wants relishes perpetual anger and we rightly worry about the potential of a well-cultivated hatred. I see at least two problems with this approach. Firstly, other people do not always share our values. Human beings really do have deep, fundamental, and often irreconcilable differences. Often for one party to win, another party must lose.

We can try to manage those contradictions, but often the compromises we make do nothing more than postpone the conflict. They may even help ensure it. The Armistice’s Fugitive Slave Act got the South little, but gave antislavery men in the North a great issue with which to appeal to less concerned neighbors. Four years later, the KansasNebraska Act purported, again, to settle all controversy over slavery once and for all and so ignited a firestorm of new controversy. Dred Scott, the work of a conscientiously moderate, Unionist court trying to manage the same resolution, did much the same. In more recent times, some Americans did not find the sight of police dogs and fire hoses set on civil rights activists all that horrifying. Quite the opposite, they saw the movement getting what it deserved. More, of course, simply didn’t care one way or another. That put them in the same party as the others, since they would do nothing to stop it but might make excuses and certainly tolerated it.

I wrote all of that so I could write about Thomas Jefferson. The other problem with the idea of a saintly, pure spokesperson comes in the fact that the world does not produce saints. People have flaws and blind spots. They care about some things more than others. Did Thomas Jefferson, as Salmon P. Chase would have us believe, really oppose slavery? He talked a good game, but words come easy. He freed very few of his own slaves. He introduced very moderate, very conditional, very limited antislavery legislation that did little to disturb slavery where it already existed, and then scurried back from it at the first sign of serious opposition. He advised Edward Coles to keep silent, work only in secret, keep his slaves, and keep living in enslaved Virginia. When Virginia made manumission easier in the late 1700s, many Virginians freed their slaves. Jefferson freed only two in his lifetime, despite complaining to Coles years later that the law made manumission much harder then. Other men of his class did much more, swelling the number of free blacks in Virginia.

Does that sound like an antislavery man? It depends on what one means by the term. I do think Jefferson had serious, sincere qualms about slavery and thought it, on some level, bad for white and black alike. He probably thought it much worse for whites and certainly thought blacks an inferior sort of humanity that could positively benefit from bondage. If having some personal sentiment against it makes you an antislavery person, Jefferson qualifies.

But Jefferson’s personal sentiments rarely drove him into any conflict with proslavery men. Quite the opposite, he rarely found occasion to stay in a fight with them. Late in life, he encouraged Edward Coles to do the same. I don’t think that’s good enough. Jefferson’s feelings against slavery might do him some credit, but ultimately they didn’t amount to much.  His actions and words align on that point. Jefferson may have opposed slavery in his heart and wanted it, someday, ended, but he did precious little to make that happen and encouraged others to do less. When Coles asked him to take a stand, Jefferson took one that looked not to slavery’s end but to its perpetuation. Freedom would inevitably come, Jefferson thought, but best it come quarter to never.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

A friend of mine has a saying. I forget the exact words, but it goes something to the effect of this: One should not try to schedule the liberation of another. Jefferson would, and he would always schedule it for “later”. Many white men did. Freedom later meant, of course, slavery now. Writing in a different context, I think Martin Luther King, Jr. captured the essential problem here:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

A. Phillip Randolph

A. Phillip Randolph

Slavery, or segregation, now meant perpetuating the injustices. Righting wrongs can require revolutions, if not always violent ones. The March on Washington happened fifty years and two days ago. I neglected the anniversary, but here’s A. Phillip Randolph speaking there:

We want integrated public schools, but that means we also want federal aid to education, all forms of education. We want a free, democratic society dedicated to the political, economic and social advancement of man along moral lines. Now we know that real freedom will require many changes in the nation’s political and social philosophies and institutions. For one thing we must destroy the notion that Mrs. Murphy’s property rights include the right to humiliate me because of the color of my skin.

The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality. It falls to the Negro to reassert this proper priority of values, because our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property. It falls to us to demand new forms of social planning, to create full employment, and to put automation at the service of human needs, not at the service of profits—for we are the worst victims of unemployment. Negroes are in the forefront of today’s movement for social and racial justice, because we know we cannot expect the realization of our aspirations through the same old anti-democratic social institutions and philosophies that have all along frustrated our aspirations.

With something as deeply baked into society as racism, removing injustice requires more than taking away the most visible forms. Part of grappling with our past and present inequities involves owning up to how our notions of justice, of how things ought to be, cooked in the same sauce of injustice. Our ideas and our personal behaviors have to change along with our laws. I think that Jefferson, and many men like him, knew that. Abolition could, at least potentially, turn into a widespread social revolution. That scared them, as it should have. We can say that revolution needed to happen and the sooner the better, but of course we have nothing to lose. We don’t own a hundred slaves and a Virginia plantation. But we have our own unfinished revolutions, many entwined deeply with the successes and failures of those long ago.


The Slave State of Illinois, Addendum

Edward Coles

Edward Coles

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

I forgot to point it out in my previous posts (1, 2, 3, 4), but you can read the entire Jefferson-Coles correspondence online.

Coles’ first letter to Jefferson: July 31, 1814

Jeffferson’s answer: August 25, 1814

And Coles’ second letter: September 26, 1814

The two men had written each other before, but Coles never wrote him again.

The SHPG and Lee Atwater

Over on CW Crossroads, Brooks Simpson has the latest adventures of the Facebook comments at the Southern Heritage Preservation Group. They concern themselves with proper displays of the Confederate flag (everywhere they can put it, or applaud someone else putting it) and offenses against (white, Christian, conservative) Southern heritage. That heritage, for mysterious reasons, revolves entirely around the middle portion of the 1800s. One would think nothing interesting, praiseworthy, or worthy of preservation happened after. So far as I can tell, they mostly work to preserve certain unflattering stereotypes about the South. People like this do exist, but not just in the South. So do other sorts of people, not just outside the South. I think the comments speak for themselves.

I think that we can go too far with patting ourselves on the back for making these men and women into a minority. Race relations in the United States have improved, but they have improved before and then taken a hard turn backwards. Improvement does not mean perfection; we can still do better. Too often history focuses on the happy stories with good endings and neglects those periods of backlash and retrenchment. The SHPG tells a part of that story. Few people, caught up on the wrong side of a major social or political change, suddenly decide they had it wrong and go over to the other side. Instead most of them just get quieter and find ways to rebrand their old school politics as something unrelated. This can happen through normal social mechanisms, but often conscious choices of political actors play a role:

You start in 1954 by saying ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘Nigger.’ That hurts you. It backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states rights and all that stuff and you get so abstract. Now you talk about cutting taxes and these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that’s part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract and that coded, we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. Obviously sitting around saying we want to cut taxes and we want this, is a lot more abstract than even the busing thing and a hell of a lot more abstract than nigger nigger. So anyway you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.

The SHPG certainly does not speak for the South, or even the white South. But to some degree they speak to the seedy underbelly of a style of politics once very overt that lives on, if not as healthily as it used to, under other guises and in all parts of the country.

Lynching Whites

The Alton mob attacking Lovejoy's warehouse.

The Alton mob attacking Lovejoy’s warehouse.

The lynch mob we imagine involves a band of white men coming together to work murder on a black person. Atticus Finch faces one down in To Kill a Mockingbird, even if he then goes on to tell his daughter that the mob’s murderous hatred of black men amounts to just a personal eccentricity which should not lower her opinion of them. Certainly history does not lack for examples of whites lynching non-whites, whether that meant blacks or the wide universe of comparatively pale people who nonetheless did not count as white at one point. But lynch mobs also killed people who the mob understood to share a race with them. They might, or might not, get a show trial before a respected member of the community but they ended up just as dead.

Southerners had long demanded that the North engage in some form of suppression of antislavery activity. Their constant complaints about abolitionists hang as much on how the North had not run them out of town as anything the abolitionists themselves said or did. Since at least the 1830s, proslavery men had demanded the North censor its mails to keep abolitionist literature away. That asked too much of the North, but Southern postmasters routinely searched the mail and burned material they found offensive. Simple discussion could prompt the same sort of defensive hostility, which further endeared proslavery politics to an otherwise disinterested North. Men who cared not at all about brutal, authoritarian control of blacks far away cared a great deal about slaveholders stomping on their own rights as white men in a free society. The Fugitive Slave Act made that concern especially immediate.

This must sound like a hysterical overreaction, but it made good sense to the planter class. They lived deeply integrated lives, with slaves always present. Discussing abolition meant that any nearby slave, like a cherished bodyservant, the maid next door, or one’s childhood playmate could hear and get ideas. Papers and pamphlets discussing abolition lay on tables where slaves could read them, even if the law forbade slave literacy. Slaveholders understood that situation as the equivalent of inciting a riot, something I think most modern Americans would agree does not fall under the umbrella of free speech.

South Carolina's capitol building, where James Powers worked.

South Carolina’s capitol building, where James Powers worked.

The threat of mob violence could keep dissenting Southerners in line. It certainly served to drive the region’s few native antislavery types northward. It also spilled over on plenty of innocents. One such innocent, Irish stonecutter James Powers, worked on South Carolina’s new capitol building in 1859. The Carolinians admired his accent, maybe a bit too much, but had no trouble seeing him as a potential member of their society until John Brown raided Harper’s Ferry. He transformed every outsider in the South into an abolitionist guerrilla. Suddenly men who spoke like Powers did not belong. Someone should do something.

Powers got wind of this and fled Columbia. The mob pursued him for nine miles and then hauled him back and threw him in jail. Iron bars did not satisfy the mob, which dragged him out to the packed city square, where they declared Powers worse than a slave and handed slaves the whip to give him twenty-nine lashes. The Carolina mob still wanted more. They let a fire and heated a kettle of tar, forcing the boiling  black ooze into his wounds and smearing it across all the skin they had not seen whipped off. They forced him to do a dance and declared that his outside matched his inside. Then someone got the feathers and doused Powers with those as well. Then, finally, they promised his head would roll if he ever returned to Columbia before throwing him on a train to Charleston.

A mob in Charleston met his train and hauled Powers off to jail, where they returned often to threaten. They dragged him out again, pushing and shoving him through the crowd at last to another train, which finally took him to New York. Powers’ made it out alive, as did many others, but the South lynched three hundred whites in the thirty years before 1860. It made for a strong message: Do not cross us; do not challenge our institutions, or you’ll leave town whipped, tarred, and on a train or in a box.

A Culture of Violence

The Alton Mob attacking Lovejoy's warehouse.

The Alton Mob attacking abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy’s warehouse.

I think I have said all that I want to about Lincoln’s views on mob violence. Though written long ago, the concerns he raises still hold. The man who shot Trayvon Martin did not do it as a part of a mob, but an individual conducting freelance violence differs from a mob doing so only in size. He must have imagined himself in some capacity as an agent of the law, but in doing so he subverted it, denied Trayvon its safeguards, and because of the way Florida law bakes Stand Your Ground into its definition of self-defense and mandatory jury instructions, he got away with murder. The presumption of innocence means that the justice system will regularly release some portion of truly guilty people. We pay that cost for protecting the rights of everyone else, though the Stand Your Ground laws in Florida and elsewhere go beyond that into an enthusiastic endorsement of freelance murder. If you feel threatened, these laws say you no longer have any responsibility to retreat, to defuse the situation, or even use the least amount of force. Rather they authorize and encourage you to draw and shoot to kill at first provocation, because if you leave a witness alive you might get convicted. They would make mobs of us all.

This kind of violence has a long history in the United States, which I have already touched upon. It has, regrettably, not yet left us in any section of the nation. To some degree, one must expect it when civil institutions and legal law enforcement stretch thin on the ground. I don’t say that to defend vigilante violence, by individuals or mobs, as a desirable development, only that it arises from particular circumstances. Periods of civil anarchy and heightened tensions, usually over race, can bring it out anywhere. At some points in American history, vigilantism formed a normal, ordinary part of the social order. The men who posed with their victims after a lynching must have understood themselves as acting in a legitimate role as agents of public safety, for certain sorts of people.

A slave hunt, painted by Thomas Moran

A slave hunt, painted by Thomas Moran

William W. Freehling writes extensively in The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854 on the use of mob violence in the antebellum South. There it served two indispensable roles: mastering slaves to keep them in slavery and mastering whites to maintain their support for slavery. I’ve written before about the first function, which the South enshrined in law in the slave codes and, at times, enforced on the ground with slave patrols. Many Southerners saw that as such an elemental, basic part of the imperative to manage black people that they demanded the North take up the slave patrol as well. The second I have only touched upon and intend to develop over the next few posts.

Whites who did not own slaves had plenty of reasons to throw in with the planter class. They could fear competition from free blacks for the tiny crumbs that the economy allowed them. They also had deep economic and often personal ties with local planters. Freehling describes them:

Commoners relished the master as charismatic egalitarian. It felt ever so good to be treated as The Man’s equal; and in a black-belt neighborhood, non-slaveholders had little economic reason to attack slavery. Rich and poor grew the same crops for the same market. They utilized the same merchant,whether they shipped little or much. Nonslaveholders sold slaveholders extra grain. Slaveholders ginned nonslaveholders’ cotton. Landowners rented landless tenants a few acres. Planters advanced poorer folk a few dollars. Folks were so materialistically intermeshed as to make, at least economically, for one folk neighborhood.

And of course, many had still more personal ties:

The term “folk,” denoting blood relations, was accurate. Nonrelatives in tiny clusters of folk not only cared about each other in the manner of relatives but were often somehow related. Marriage between cousins was ubiquitous. When mothers survived almost yearly childbirths, families were huge. When mothers succumbed, fathers selected a new bride-who produced huge families or succumbed in turn. Between first cousins and second cousins and stepcousins and cousins of stepcousins, a planter had hundreds of relations. Family interconnections so extensive, inside locales of rural intimates so small, created a norm of treating neighbors as if they were, well, folks.

Scholars have a useful label for (white) folks’ political ideal: herrenvolk democracy. Neighborhoods of white folk, committed to treating each other as equals, were equally committed to keeping black folks unequal. The herrenvolk southern neighborhood may have been more passionate about white egalitarianism than the northern. Black-belt whites had before their eyes the essence of deviation from independent equality: black slaves.

The small communities Freehling talks about formed great swaths of the extremely rural, South. Places named Spotsylvania and Appomattox Court House are legacies of that limited urban development: they got the names because the named building, a jail, and a few other buildings could constitute the only town or village in the county. But what happened when those tight networks of kinship, economics, and racial identity frayed, or simply could not reach everyone? In the white belts, in the larger towns, nearer the North, or where just many outsiders mixed the informal networks that kept all whites together in the name of keeping all blacks subjugated had to find other ways to maintain themselves. As they already used violence and the threat of violence to terrorize black people into submission, and Southern policing often amounted to not much more than the local slave patrol with its vigilante remit to begin with, doing the same sorts of things to dangerously nonconformist whites must have seemed very reasonable. After all, they sought to bring decent white folk down to the level of slaves. If they wanted that so much, why not give it to them?

I don’t mean to say that every white man got together at the county seat and spelled these things out. This system of social control rises out of culture and we all learn out culture as children. We, the People, do things this way and not that way. We treat others this way, outsiders this other way. We imbibe our folkways long before we have the tools to critically examine them, and that can challenge us even in far more cosmopolitan times.

I, and I imagine most readers, find the system I’ve described simply horrific. In other eras, if we grew up learning it at our parents’ knees, we might think very differently indeed. Given how these things work, most of us would probably see all the previous as naturally as we today see voting for the president or shopping at the supermarket. Most of us believe much the same things as our parents did, after all. A few would not, but cultures do not long endure when the vast majority of their members reject them. They inevitably then change or perish. The Antebellum South built up a durable, if not invulnerable, social and political culture around slavery. It sustained itself through diverse means, including and especially violence, and showed no signs of collapse as late as 1860.

The Deeper Dangers of Mob Violence

Lincoln in the 1840s

Lincoln in the 1840s

I left off with Lincoln at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, citing examples of putting passions ahead of the law. From that one can take that mob violence should not be celebrated or welcome. That may seem like a very obvious conclusion, but it has long eluded parts of the American public, who saw fit to proudly commemorate their lynch mobs by posing with the victim for photos and postcards, or by making excuses after the fact that rarely stop short of declaring that the victims really had it coming. I’ve read and heard quite a bit too much of that about Trayvon Martin, as if his murderer recognized him, went down to the courthouse and checked his records, then calmly came back to shoot him dead. To that we may add that they also affirm that, at worst, fairly minor crimes deserve execution. The cause could be anything, really: smiling at the wrong person, just being visibly different, speaking out against injustices ones neighbors preferred to preserve.

Lincoln grappled with that. He started by conceding the point: McIntosh in St. Louis killed a person. The Vicksburg gamblers declared their unworthiness by their profession. They might very well, he said, have deserved killing:

Abstractly considered, the hanging of the gamblers at Vicksburg, was of but little consequence. They constitute a portion of the population, that is worse than useless in any community; and their death, if no pernicious example be set by it, is never a matter of reasonable regret with any one. If they ere annually swept, from the state of existence, by the plague of small pox, honest men would, perhaps, be much profited  by the operation. — Similar too, is the correct reasoning, in regard to the burning of the negro at St. Louis. He had forfeited his life, by the perpetuation of an outrageous murder, upon one of the most worthy and respectable citizens of the city

Lincoln did not advocate abolishing the death penalty, but in neither case he cited did the victims receive fair trials, due process, or receive their punishment from the hands of the state. That carries serious consequences even if the victims end up equally dead:

When men take it in the heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they could recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake. And not only so; the innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down, and disregarded.

I have known far too many people convinced that no one would ever mistake them for a guilty party who thus take a profound disinterest in protections for the accused. American law enforcement and the courts have given people, especially people of darker skin, ample cause to distrust them, but they still beat the alternative. However flawed, all the vaunted safeguards of the American system of justice play out therein and abuses and errors at least have the potential for correction on appeal. Try to convince a mob of your right to due process.

But the problem goes beyond just indiscriminate violence against the innocent:

By such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained.–Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation. While, on the other hand, good men, men who love tranquility, who desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defense of their country; seeing their property destroyed; their families insulted, and their lives endangered; their persons injured; and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better; become tired of, and disgusted with, a Government that offers them no protection; and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose.


Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocractic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed–I mean the attachment of the People. Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last.

One of the more valuable civics lessons I got in school came from essentially the first time the subject came up. Amid a very patriotism-soaked lesson, my sixth grade teacher pointed out that in the United States the government did not just declare that certain rights existed, but also took affirmative steps to ensure they existed in fact as well as on paper. With twenty years of additional education I can point out many problems with that statement, including the implication that only the US does so, but the essential fact remains that rights written on paper but not observed in practice are not enshrined, but rather entombed. The constitutions of the Soviet Union came up as the obvious example of the day, even if that state only had months when she gave us.

And why would anybody, knowing the society has declared open season on them and that they have no rights it will respect, care to defend it? Lincoln speaks here as  a radical and a conservative simultaneously. The conservative aristocrat, a common enough figure in Whig circles, asks how sacred tradition can survive popular attacks upon it, but the radical in him looks from the position of the downtrodden and asks why they would want to support such a society. In that Lincoln anticipates the very sort of man he would probably have  seen as a very dangerous radical indeed, Frederick Douglass.

Lincoln and Lynching

The Alton Mob attacking Lovejoy's warehouse.

The Alton Mob attacking Lovejoy’s warehouse.

Lincoln did not have to pull violence out of his imagination to call it a threat to American institutions. By modern standards, the nineteenth century looks so violent one has to wonder how anybody could sleep at night. Even aside the wars, habitual violence played a tremendous role in everyday life. The nation did not see Andrew Jackson as a pariah for his duels, but rather largely took him as a homespun workingman’s hero. Thomas Hart Benton’s political career had barely begun, and certainly did not end, when he put a bullet in Old Hickory and broke his sword. He simply moved to Missouri where he shot a man dead. St. Louis mobs destroyed Abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy’s printing press, so he moved across the Mississippi to Alton, Illinois. Settled by southerners and a center of slave catching activity, Alton enjoyed Lovejoy’s antislavery politics so much that it formed a mob which killed him on the way to destroying his most recent printing press. Even men at the heights of power, in no less rarefied air than that of the Senate chamber, could draw pistols on one another.

Though Lincoln surely knew of Lovejoy’s fate, he had other examples in mind at the Young Men’s Lyceum:

It would be tedious, as well as useless, to recount the horrors of all of them. Those happening in the State of Mississippi, and at St. Louis, are, perhaps, the most dangerous in example and revolting to humanity. In the Mississippi case, they first commenced by hanging the regular gamblers; a set of men, certainly not following for a livelihood, a very useful, or very honest occupation; but one which, so far from being forbidden by the laws, was actually licensed by an act of the Legislature, passed but a single year before. Next, negroes, suspected of conspiring to raise an insurrection, were caught up and hanged in all parts of the State: then, white men, supposed to be leagued with the negroes; and finally, strangers, from neighboring States, going thither on business, were, in many instances subjected to the same fate. Thus went on this process of hanging, from gamblers to negroes, from negroes to white citizens, and from these to strangers; till, dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest.

Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic, if anything of its length, that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.

Such are the effects of mob law; and such as the scenes, becoming more and more frequent in this land so lately famed for love of law and order; and the stories of which, have even now grown too familiar, to attract any thing more, than an idle remark.

Lincoln could have added Nat Turner’s revolt. Turner’s band massacred around sixty men, women, and children, essentially any white person they came across. In retaliation white militias and mobs, sometimes not all that distinct from one another, descended on the county and claimed as many as two hundred black lives. The vast majority of those people committed only the crime of living while black.

These lynchings, and many others, occur too often to take as some kind of exception. The lynchings and the terror campaigns that produced them belong as much in the heart of the American story as slavery. However horrible, this kind of violence and the threat of it formed an integral part of the American social order for much of the nation’s history.

One might imagine a finger pointed southward in reading that. I know I did when writing it. But violence, racially-charged or otherwise, took place all over the country. It still does, if not to the horrific extent that it once did. Years ago a friend directed me to a collection of lynching photos online. They make for hard viewing, but the first in the collection comes from Yreka, California. One cannot get much further north than Duluth, Minnesota.

The images tell at least two stories. First they tell us that the lynching happened. The second story challenges us more. In some photographs the mob posed with their work, entirely unashamed and unafraid. Some appear to be smiling. They tell us that they did the deed and are proud of it. They want others to see them as men capable of breaking into jails to drag out the accused and do murder, the sort who will douse someone in tar or oil and burn them alive. One does not trifle with them…or with the community that supports them. They thought of themselves good, upstanding, moral men. Their communities largely agreed. Some of the photographs in the collection are postcards.

This too is a part of us.

On American Violence: Lincoln at the Young Men’s Lyceum

Lincoln in the 1840s

Lincoln in the 1840s, via the Library of Congress

A friend brought this New Yorker post to my attention a few days ago. I think Douglas securing White House support to take his new bill to the Senate makes for a good break point in the narrative, so here I am. Over at the New Yorker, Adam Gropnik finds a common historical thread linking Lincoln’s first public speech and the disgust and horror many in the American left, myself included, feel toward Stand Your Ground laws and what we consider their inevitable, perhaps even intended, outcome in the murder of Trayvon Martin. Journalism does not lack for pieces making those kinds of links, many of them reaching a bit too far or even getting matters entirely wrong so I wanted to look in a bit more detail instead of just taking Gropnik at his word. I don’t mean that as a slight against him; I simply never heard of him before my friend pointed me in his direction.

I dug up a copy of Lincoln’s speech and an introduction to it (link goes to a PDF) by Thomas F. Schwartz, curator of the Lincoln Collection. Schwartz casts Lincoln’s first speech as his way of proving himself as an up and coming Springfield professional by demonstrating his learning and oratorical skill. The future president only arrived in town on April 15, 1837 and delivered his speech the following January. He chose what he must have imagined a very innocuous topic, the perpetuation of American political institutions. With 1776 and 1789 in living memory, the youth of the nation often occupied the public mind. Could this ramshackle, rickety constitutional structure really endure?

Yet even so early in the nation’s history, Lincoln stood in what in the 1830s still looked very much like the frontier, and began not with the nation’s youth but with its antiquity:

We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them — They are a legacy bequeathed to us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors.

Lincoln did not see it as his generation’s task to create anew; they had the United States given to them to keep and hold in trust. These words do not come from a radical’s mouth. Lincoln staked out an essentially conservative argument for the maintenance of what he and his had been given, not for perfecting, creating anew, or anything like that. What would threaten the established order, then, that Lincoln wanted his audience wary of? Not external foes, as he says in often quoted lines:

Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! — All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

The United States kept a very small army and navy at the time. It picked one fight with a European power and lost badly in 1812. But such a vast, largely undeveloped, territory would challenge nineteenth century logistics. Significantly, Lincoln doesn’t speak of keeping Boston, New York, or Washington from foreign armies. He puts his secure landmarks well inland. Nobody could conquer such a place. Popular opinion in Europe saw the Union cause as hopeless on just those grounds a few decades later. Napoleon could go into Russia, but only to starve his men and return defeated. The same travails would face any foreign foe.

The threat then, must come from within. Americans could undo America:

If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

Read that line and think ahead to the 1860s. Throw in the 1960s too. It would also do to remember the frequent, if erratic, violence involved in keeping slaves in their places. To the slaves, that had to have felt something like a campaign of terrorism. Their owners intended as much.

What America meant, what freedom meant, and how both ought to function have never been settled issues. Lincoln knew it as well as anyone, even then:

I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth and an insult to our intelligence, to deny.

For the Fourth

Frederick Douglass, one of the nation's most famous fugitive slaves

Frederick Douglass

I intended to leave the Fourth of July unmarked. Patriotic holidays don’t do much for me. But Civil War Emancipation reminded me of Frederick Douglass’ speech on the occasion in 1852:

Friends and citizens, I need not enter further into the causes which led to this anniversary. Many of you understand them better than I do. You could instruct me in regard to them. That is a branch of knowledge in which you feel, perhaps, a much deeper interest than your speaker. The causes which led to the separation of the colonies from the British crown have never lacked for a tongue. They have all been taught in your common schools, narrated at your firesides, unfolded from your pulpits, and thundered from your legislative halls, and are as familiar to you as household words. They form the staple of your national poetry and eloquence.

I remember, also, that, as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor. This is esteemed by some as a national trait—perhaps a national weakness. It is a fact, that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans, and can be had cheap! will be found by Americans. I shall not be charged with slandering Americans, if I say I think the American side of any question may be safely left in American hands.

Again and again Douglass speaks, to his largely white audience, about your freedoms, your rights, your nation and your holiday. Because

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. —The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!

Slavery is gone but the many injustices that remain, continue, and even get invented anew. They dulled my enthusiasm for the subject long ago. Celebrating “America” doesn’t make much sense to me, as America includes not just the First Amendment or free elections, but also slavery and segregation. Quietly passing over the ugly bits of the national past and present feels perverse to me, like calling a mass murderer a great humanitarian if one ignores all the mass murdering. I suppose we can put the good and bad on different sides of a scale, but they don’t really cancel each other out. Free elections, the vote for women, and emancipation all happened. So did slavery, lynching, Indian removal, and all the rest. We can’t give back the years and lives lost and undo the suffering from wrongs done. They are America too, writ large in as much blood as watered any battlefield.

I don’t mean to say that everyone celebrating today ignores or trivializes the bad parts, but too often they do get lost as Americans bask in the glory of…us. Don’t let me stop you from celebrating if you want to, but if you don’t normally maybe today can also be a day to try to put yourself in the shoes of someone like Douglass and imagine what the Fourth looks like from there. I don’t think Americans as a whole do enough of that.

Gettysburg 150

I don’t have anything special to say about Gettysburg or the battle there, which began today in 1863.  I have visited twice and enjoyed both times, though the large crowds do not suit my natural inclinations. Nor did some of the many monuments, but I don’t generally count those as any of my business. Especially with war memorials, the conflict between sincere desire to remember and commemorate, the natural sense of competition between different groups, and differing aesthetic sensibilities must be a tough needle to thread. The park presentation is very good and I found one could get out of the car almost anywhere and find a monument, plaque, or something to explain what happened at that spot. But I try to keep this blog on a fairly organic path where each post leads to the next and Gettysburg is consequently pretty far off my research and writing radar at the moment.

The sesquicentennial gives as good an excuse as any to read about the biggest land battle in the continent’s history, though. Andy Hall has a great post up at Dead Confederates about how the Army of Northern Virginia took up raiding for slaves, by which they meant anybody with dark skin that they came across, when Lee turned it north.

This quarter’s Civil War Monitor has some good pieces about Gettysburg, including a fascinating one about becoming a licensed battlefield guide. I have only this issue and the previous one to go by, but I heartily recommend the magazine. Both issues delivered articles about subjects which, I confess, I did not expect to find very compelling. In the spring issue, I looked forward to Kevin Levin’s piece about Confederate camp slaves and a lengthy feature on the Lincoln movie. Along the way I got a riveting account of the battle between the CSS Alabama and USS Hatteras outside Galveston by Andy Hall and Edward T. Cotham, Jr, complete with Andy’s illustrations of the ships. The Monitor’s Summer issue, naturally, is all about Gettysburg. Those pages include a fascinating piece on what it takes to become a licensed battlefield guide at the park, the pleasant surprise of the issue, and good pieces on the Gettysburg Address and Daniel Sickles.