Higher Law and Disunion: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Eight

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Andrew Butler, former messmate of David Rice Atchison, told the Senate that all his hopes lay with Franklin Pierce. It fell to the President to step in with the military, disperse the free state government, and so prevent civil war. A cynical person might argue that relying on Franklin Pierce to do the right thing amounted to admission of defeat. Butler might agree. He didn’t want shots fired in Kansas because he knew “one drop of blood” would likely end the Union, but in saying so he returned to an earlier theme:

I have such confidence in the good sense of the country that I believe republican institutions might survive the present Union. Really it is broken already; for the spirit which cherished it has been extinguished, and the very altars upon which we ought to worship have been profaned by false fires.

Here Butler anticipates Lincoln’s mystic chords of memory and recalls Calhoun’s cut ties of Union. He rightly sees the nation as a thing that can only last so long as belief in it. Like many Americans in both sections, he now looked at a series of broken promises, violated understandings and rounds of mutual recrimination that pushed him toward the conclusion that the Union did not deserve saving. Back in the day, men had

a hardy morality, which dealt with events as they were. They had a wisdom which knew how to accommodate itself to circumstances, and did not lift themselves so high that they saw more than others, and sought ethereal regions because the earth was too good for them.

In other words, those Higher Law people could shove it. The framers, pragmatists to a man, saw and accepted slavery. They made no great effort to change or challenge it, but rather conformed themselves to its particular demands for security. Generations of later scholars would disagree, but the tide of research has gone against them. Butler doubtless ascribed to the framers any number of novel constitutional doctrines they wouldn’t recognize or would find dubious, but the general thrust of his argument holds. Even the most sympathetic scholars admit that the famous framers antislavery credentials rest more on intention than action.

Franklin Pierce

Of course, Franklin Pierce had delivered for slavery before, doing much to start the entire Kansas mess. He could do it again. Should the President feel so inclined, Butler had advice for him. In his place, Butler

would serve a warrant on Sharpe’s rifles, and if Sharpe’s rifles did not answer the summons, and come into court on a day certain, or if they resisted the sheriff, I would summon the posse comitatus, and I would have Colonel Sumner’s regiment to be part of that posse comitatus.

Gentle Readers, I am not a lawyer. I can’t tell you if Butler here means to use one of the odd legal fictions where the common law treats property as persons or if he just chose a clever turn of phrase. Either way, he means to send the 1st Cavalry to disarm the free state movement. This would prompt “reflection” amongst the antislavery enthusiasts. Butler didn’t say just what they would reflect on, but one imagines he meant them to consider how easily an unarmed man can get himself shot dead. That in mind, they would “give over their delusions.” If Pierce couldn’t do that, then Butler recommended his state

Go out of the Union, and make arrangements with others to form such a government as you can live in with honor and dignity.


“General Mitchell is guilty of having prostituted his power” Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part Four

David B. Mitchell

Parts 1, 2, 3, American State Papers (pages 957-75, PDF), Shingleton’s paper (JSTOR)

It didn’t take long for David Brydie Mitchell to put his position as Creek Agent to work for him. He received his appointment from James Monroe on November 4, 1817. By December 8, the first shipment of contraband slaves from Amelia Island had arrived there. I have to this point worked entirely from the American State Papers, but last night discovered that one historian took it upon himself to do more than cite them and move on. Back in 1973, Royce Gordon Shingleton published his version of events in the Journal of Negro History. He had access to the original papers on which William Wirt drew for his report and adds some important information, whilst also wrestling them into a coherent narrative. From him I have it that Bowen set out for Amelia Island on October 18, prior to Mitchell taking up his post as Indian agent. That suggests that Mitchell may have stumbled on a scheme already afoot and insisted on buying in, but he could just as easily have learned about his appointment well in advance and participated from the start. It seems unlikely that the plan’s financiers would have such confidence in him to agree to make good any expenses he called on them for had he just popped in at the last minute.

Either way, Erwin, Groce, & Company of Augusta and Savannah fronted Bowen the $25,000 he used to buy 110 slaves and bring them into the United States in defiance of the 1807 ban on slave importation. Those slaves, in two groups, came and stayed at the Agency for some time. During that time, Mitchell fed them and he and the other partners marked out the ones they claimed for themselves. Mitchell’s share may have come for both services rendered and from a direct investment of embezzled funds meant to support the Creek Nation.

The matter came to the attention of John Clark, soon governor of Georgia, through the Agency’s blacksmith. He found letters in Mitchell’s desk about the business and sent them on. Clark appears to have done much of the subsequent investigation. However, Shingleton’s paper clarified for me the role of General Gaines in the matter. According to him, Mitchell passed through the Agency in early December to attend a meeting of the Creek chiefs. On the return trip through, toward the middle of the month, Mitchell came back to the Agency in the company of General Edmund Pendleton Gaines. Gaines had the job of surveying the boundaries of Indian territory. On seeing all these slaves, he became suspicious. Mitchell did keep slaves he legally owned at the Agency as well, but it seems he kept the imported people separate from them and that stood out to Gaines. Mitchell, as he would when defending himself later, insisted he didn’t know anything about them. Gaines thereafter sent men to make sure those slaves didn’t conveniently vanish.

Per Wirt in the ASP, a

Captain Melvin, of the fourth infantry, states the had observed fifteen of the Africans (the choicest of those brought to the agency by Bowen) building huts and clearing land at the agency, the plantation of General Mitchell

A few days later the Inspector of the Port of Darien, McQueen McIntosh, caught wind of this. He probably found out much like the federal marshal did, when Mitchell offered to sell him some of the slaves. They must have elected governors for their subtlety in those days. McIntosh went out to the agency aiming to seize the contraband slaves and found many of them four days gone toward Alabama with Jared Groce. McIntosh set off in pursuit and overtook Groce and the slaves on the road to Alabama. Groce claimed the slaves as his own, which prompted McIntosh to arrest him. They turned back for the Creek Agency.

McIntosh employed a man named Langham to escort him, but Langham

perfidiously hurried on to the agency for the purpose of giving notice of McIntosh’s approach and intention, enabling those who had charge of the negroes there to put them out of the way.

Mitchell himself had left the agency again, putting it in the hands of his son William. Melvin tipped McIntosh off to that and led him the mile and a half to their huts. McIntosh opted not to take them out of doors in the cold, which had hit the slaves hard, but went to the younger Mitchell and told him to consider the slaves seized. Mitchell fils agreed to that without objection, but didn’t volunteer any information about other slaves. Groce had forty-seven slaves with him. That accounts for sixty-two of the hundred and ten slaves, leaving forty-eight unaccounted for. Five of those probably went off with Long as his payment for helping with the transport, leaving forty-three to slip William Mitchell’s mind.

The slaves had not forgotten their fellows. When McIntosh came for them in the morning, he learned

from the negroes [Wirt’s emphasis] that General Mitchell’s overseer had the night before supplied a great many Africans with provisions, and taken them into the woods; that Captain Melvin himself fell upon their trail, and found about fifteen in the woods, who tried to make their escape, but were apprehended, and the whole thirty were brought to the agency; Captain Mitchell then delivered up eleven small Africans (children, I presume) from the huts in the yard.

Wirt clearly means the fifteen Melvin and McIntosh found in the huts and woods, respectively. So we can account for eighty-two, ninety-three with the children. As McIntosh took them off, William Mitchell followed him down the road a few miles. McIntosh had left behind “two or three” people. I don’t know what to make of this. McIntosh may have genuinely misplaced a few people or Mitchell might have tried to hand over a few more in a desperate bid to deflect suspicion. Regardless, McIntosh came to the Creek Agency expecting to collect fifteen contraband slaves and departed with forty-one.

Discussion of all this came into the letters between Bowen and Mitchell pere that William Moore found in the latter’s desk and sent on to John Clark. Bowen feared that Groce would spill the beans and wrote that he had gotten himself worked up to the point of incoherence, so they needed to do something to shut him up. A letter from Mitchell declaring Groce a bondsman engaged in removing the slaves might do the trick.

Wirt spends the rest of his report discussing the arguments Mitchell and Bowen made in their defense and reporting on Clark’s investigation of the affair. He goes on at considerable length and with diligence, but writes little new for it. To cut his long, rather circuitous story short, the parties told improbable lies, could not keep their stories straight with one another, and none of it withstood scrutiny. He couldn’t prove, to the standards admissable in court, that Mitchell profited from the importation and actively conspired for it, but the evidence supported his having an understanding with Bowen. Even if Mitchell and Bowen didn’t have some kind of arrangement, they clearly entered into one when the slaves arrived at the agency. He concluded:

that General Mitchell is guilty of having prostituted his power, as agent for Indian affairs at the Creek agency, to the purpose of aiding and assisting in a conscious breach of the act of Congress of 1807, in prohibition of the slave trade-and this from mercenary motives.

The presidential inquiry wound down in February of 1821. Monroe reviewed the evidence, agreed with Wirt, and had Secretary of War John C. Calhoun write his pink slip.

That leaves the matter of what happened to the slaves. Wirt devotes some time to discussing whether or not responsibility for them fell to the president under new anti-slave trade laws passed in 1817 and pleads a lack of recent information on the question. According to Shingleton, eighty-eight of them passed into the hands of Georgian authorities for sale. State law required a public notice and period of delay before action, during which the Governor Rabun -Clark did not win the office until November- placed them in households around Milledgeville, the state capital, to provide for their maintenance until the waiting period ran out. They appear to have all passed into private ownership by August, grossing $34,736.18. Expenses reduced that to $27,571.82. Somewhere along the way, twenty-two of the slaves slipped through the cracks. Most probably they ended up just like the rest, but enslaved in Alabama.

Elizabeth Warren and the Gag Rule #shepersisted

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

Gentle Readers, Kansas must wait a day. This past Tuesday night, as part of protesting against the appointment of Jeff Sessions to the post of Attorney General of the United States, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren tried to read into the record a letter that Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in opposition to his nomination for the federal bench back in the 1980s. It details how Sessions, as United State Attorney, used his power to go after black Alabamans trying to vote. King operated under the theory that a white supremacist ought not have a judge’s lifetime tenure to use fighting against black Americans who dared think they could vote. The protest worked then and Sessions did not get black robes to wear over his white set. Such things happened in 1986; they do not in 2017.

Instead, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Majority Leader, rose up and accused Warren of violating the Senate’s rules. He moved for her censure on the grounds that she had insulted a fellow Senator, which the Republicans then agreed to. As a result, Warren had to stop reading the letter and remain silent for the remainder of the debate on Sessions’ nomination. Now Jeff Sessions, who had the votes regardless, heads up the executive department charged with stopping people like Jeff Sessions.

I didn’t come here to write about Sessions; I’ve done that. Silencing elected representatives in the course of their deliberations has a history in the United States. We can find the most obvious precedent for Warren’s case in the Gag Rule of 1836-44. Practice going all the way back to the First Congress dictated that antislavery citizens could petition Congress, but any petition they sent would receive no action other than tabling or referral to a committee to die in obscurity. After coming to Washington and voting to do just the same as always with two antislavery petitions, South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond rose in the House of Representatives to condemn the petitions as an insult to the South which demanded a firmer response than effective silence. Instead, the House ought to not receive the petitions at all.

The drama that ensued rarely left the confines of the United States Congress, but that made it no less significant. Here, as in previous clashes, slavery rose up as an issue that could reconfigure national politics. No white man in the South could afford to appear less proslavery than anyone else and expect to prosper in politics. That same quest to always prove one’s soundness on slavery required concessions from a North which would understand each one as demanding that they yield not far away, but in their own homes, to slavery’s despotism.

John C. Calhoun, always ready to involve himself in anything proslavery, took up the same charge in the Senate. There he argued, as quoted in William Freehling’s Road to Disunion, Volume One, that the petitions represented

a war of religious and political fanaticism, … waged not against our lives, but our character. The object is to humble and debase us in our own estimation, and that of the world.”

According to the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Warren’s reading of Scott King’s letter imputed

to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Calhoun maintained, as Freehling puts it, that

Free debate must leave us debased in our own estimations.

The Senator from South Carolina averred that the Senate must receive petitions, but only when they prayed for action that the body had a constitutional power to undertake. Since the Congress had no power to touch on slavery whatsoever, it must reject all antislavery petitions. To do otherwise would trespass against the property rights of the white South.

James Henry Hammond

James Henry Hammond

In all this, both Calhoun and Hammond insisted that the South’s censorship of the mail must now extend to the halls of Congress itself. The tolerance that the white North possessed for dirty hands and debased republicanism far away did not extend so near as all that. But outrage also went only so far. The House and Senate both passed gag rules that gave the Hammonds and Calhouns of those bodies nearly everything they wanted. James Buchanan, the man infamous for letting the Union fall apart, then sat in the Senate with Calhoun. The chamber adopted his almost absolute capitulation: the Senate would receive the petitions -sorry, Calhoun- but then would reject them at once rather than merely leave them on the table, from which someone might take them up, or refer them to a committee which may then take action on them.

The gag would last almost a decade, during which time it gave John Quincy Adams his finest hour. Now occupying a seat in the House, he proceeded to both name the rule by demanding to know if his opponents would have him “gagged” and explore every clever option he could think of for breaking it, including presenting a petition from people alleging themselves slaves -the objections rose up at once- who he then said had decided they liked slavery. When not embarrassing his overeager foes that way, he would offer up petition after petition and ask if they fell under the rule or not. Each time occasioned a slavery debate, just the thing the gag meant to stop forever. Stricter rules failed to silence the former president, who would finally introduce the resolution to end the gag in 1844. By then, the Northern Democrats that had accepted the gag before joined in opposing it.

Mitch McConnell did gag Warren Tuesday night. That he did it to silence her criticism of a man contemptuous of the rights of black Americans speaks volumes. So does his use of a rule against insulting senators reveal a further disturbing connection between his work and the nineteenth century. I need not explain the salience of the twentieth century connections. Instead, I will close with the epitaph that the Majority Leader wrote on Warren’s speech and which, gendered pronoun aside, fits John Quincy Adams just as well:

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Franklin Pierce’s Third Annual Message

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Sorry for yesterday’s tardy post, Gentle Readers. I mistakenly scheduled it for the wrong date entirely.

We left the House of Representatives with a new Speaker. Nathaniel Banks claimed the office with a plurality vote on February 3, 1856, just a day shy of  two months after the 34th Congress opened. The fate of slavery in Kansas had created that struggle to begin with, as northern antislavery reaction had cost the Democracy control of the House and support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act made various candidates entirely unacceptable. Every round of voting occasioned further speeches on the question. While the Speaker’s race wore on in the legislature, the executive made its own statement on the matter.

From the very start of Kansas’ troubles, free state men had expressed their hope that if Franklin Pierce knew what had gone on he would stand with them. It suited their position to say so, as they constantly emphasized that they rejected only the bogus government of Kansas rather than the United States as a whole. They wanted nothing of treason, but rather only their rights as Americans and as promised to them by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Self-preservation and cynical positioning play their role in those declarations, but we should not confuse Franklin Pierce with Jefferson Davis or John C. Calhoun. As a New Hampshire man, his contemporaries might not have expected him to defend every proslavery excess. Furthermore, the border ruffians had sinned against the cardinal tenet of the Democracy: popular sovereignty. As far back as Thomas Jefferson, Democrats (then calling themselves Republicans) had proclaimed themselves the advocates of the common white man against distant and elite authority. Andrew Jackson, who gets the press for doing the same, largely benefited from a well-advanced trend toward greater white male democracy. As a northerner and a Democrat, Pierce must have seemed to some, like his fellow northern Democrats in Kansas, like exactly the man you’d want to sort out the entire Kansas mess.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

So far as official acts go, Franklin Pierce had not given much encouragement to antislavery Kansans. He had fired Andrew Reeder, who demonstrated at least some devotion to genuine popular sovereignty in Kansas. But officially, Pierce dismissed Reeder for land speculations. Even if you didn’t believe that reason, and I doubt many did, at least the president hadn’t called Reeder a damned abolitionist plotting servile insurrection. And the first governor of Kansas had engaged in shady land speculations involving both land reserved for Indian tribes and the United States Army. Pierce had removed a guilty man from office, if not for his actual crimes.

The President had an annual message to give to Congress. We call that a State of the Union today and expect it delivered in person, but at the time they called it an annual message and presidents sent it along in writing. Pierce opened his third on a testy note:

The Constitution of the United States provides that Congress shall assemble annually on the first Monday of December, and it has been usual for the President to make no communication of a public character to the Senate and House of Representatives until advised of their readiness to receive it. I have deferred to this usage until the close of the first month of the session, but my convictions of duty will not permit me longer to postpone the discharge of the obligation enjoined by the Constitution upon the President “to give to the Congress information of the state of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

He waited all month, not sending the message until the last of December. Custom expected Congress to have its House in order, but as that chamber hadn’t done so Franklin Pierce reached the last possible moment to do his duty. Tradition or no, he had a job to do. He assured Congress that “the Republic is tranquilly advancing in a career of prosperity and peace” before progressing to the nation’s troubles, which might imperil said advance of prosperity and peace.

A Celebration of Calhoun


John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

I don’t know what I can say about Yale’s decision to retain John C. Calhoun’s name on one of its residential colleges that I didn’t say last week about Andrew Jackson, save that Calhoun’s deeds offer still less reason for celebration. The Carolina planter, despite his best efforts to the contrary, never attained the presidency and so lacked the opportunity to do some of the things Jackson did whilst in the White House. Nor did he ever command an American army, denying him a chance at fame through military atrocity. Serving as vice-president for two different presidents earns Calhoun a spot in the trivia books, but not much else.

Looked at in that light, Yale naming a building after Calhoun seems like a neutral bit of local boosterism, for whatever scant neutrality one can grant to any species of boosterism. He attended the university and went on to high office. That will get any number of mediocrities plenty of things named after them, as comparing a list of nineteenth century presidents to the names of American high schools will tell you. But electoral frustrations aside, Calhoun managed quite a bit more than mediocrity. Nor did he content himself with the horrifying, but common, practice of enslaving people. That would hardly distinguish him from other antebellum politicians, and certainly not in South Carolina. Not every wealthy or prominent Southerner traded in lives, but the vast majority did. Calhoun earned his fame by making himself the most prominent proslavery thinker in the nation’s history. Given the unique American contributions to proslavery thought, this at least puts him in the running for the most important proslavery theorist ever.

Yale named their college after Calhoun back in the 1930s, when such accomplishments still earned general praise. Times have changed, but not quite far enough. Yale’s president, Peter Salovey acknowledged as much, but decided that

Erasing Calhoun’s name from a much-beloved residential college risks masking this past, downplaying the lasting effects of slavery, and substituting a false and misleading narrative, albeit one that might allow us to feel complacent or, even, self-congratulatory. Retaining the name forces us to learn anew and confront one of the most disturbing aspects of Yale’s and our nation’s past.

Does it really, though? In an interview with the New York Review of Books, Salovey insisted that

I would not call naming a residential college for Calhoun necessarily celebrating him, although it does memorialize him.

We do name things after people in an act of mourning, to remember their losses and sacrifices; that hardly counts as celebration. But Calhoun’s losses and sacrifices came about to our manifest benefit. We ought to celebrate them, not gather somberly and declare never again. If Salovey really thinks memorial some kind of neutral alternative to celebration, he hasn’t paid much attention to how people actually behave. Nor, for that matter, does he seem to have noticed that he himself understands naming colleges after people as a form of celebration when he recounts the accomplishments of Anna Pauline Murray (“the best of Yale: a preeminent intellectual inspired to lead and prepared to serve her community and her country.”) and Benjamin Franklin, the latest recipients of the honor, in the same piece. No word about mere memorials for them.

I submit that in making such a distinction without difference, Salovey has failed to learn from the past and has instead opted for the complacent and self-congratulatory narrative. Changing the college’s name would erase nothing, but make a clear statement that Yale no longer considers the man worthy of honoring.

Salovey proposes entirely worthwhile educational initiatives to answer the university’s Calhoun problem. I have no objection to those, but so long as the name remains they pose a more serious problem still. Imagine the freshmen coming in every year and learning all about Calhoun’s lamentable contributions to American history. Let’s say that the programs do a really good job and they come out deeply informed about Mr. Slavery Is A Positive Good. Then they go outside and see the man’s name on the building where some of them live. Has Salovey’s policy given them a useful reminder of all they learned, or undercut itself entirely? Worse still, might it not send the clear message Calhoun deserves recognition not despite his awful achievements but because of them?

Maybe Salovey relishes the chance to explain otherwise to minority students coming into his university every year, but I have my doubts. Yale’s president does note that the students want the change. One might, implausibly, argue that some devlish outside agitators came in and created a problem where none previously existed. It worked for white southerners speaking of abolitionists for long enough, after all. But his answer to that comes right out of Calhoun’s playbook:

The debate about the name of Calhoun College has gone on intermittently for many years. [John C.] Calhoun was a defender of slavery, and he defended it not just as a necessary evil, but as a “positive good.” So this was not an easy decision. We listened to students, faculty, alumni, and staff. We’ve had multiple conversations among the trustees. But this isn’t the kind of question you can put to a vote. You have to decide what is the right principle for an educational institution.

Calhoun justified disregarding majorities to protect his minority of white enslavers in their vital interests. Abolition would bring them ruin, at least financially and probably literally as vengeful slaves rose up and murdered his entire class. However repugnant, we can at least grant that Calhoun and those like him genuinely believed in that threat and acted accordingly. If a mad president ordered a nuclear strike sure to bring about similar retaliation upon us, we might hope someone would ignore the majority that might have elected him in order to stop it.

You can’t put everything to a vote, fair enough. But changing the letterhead and switching some signs hardly seems like the kind of monumental change where we should necessarily proceed with extreme discretion. Nor does it pose any kind of existential threat to Yale. Nor does it erase any history, as Salovey himself knows full well. He proposed historical education, which demonstrates that he knows one doesn’t get history from a name on the side of a building.

But let’s take him at his word for the moment. If Salovey believes that having Calhoun’s name so prominent forces confrontation with his noxious politics and their connection to Yale, as well as the nation at large, then I have a modest proposal for him: why not commission a bronze statue of the man himself whipping his screaming slaves? Put it right out in front of the building; no one could miss it. I can’t imagine a more direct confrontation with Calhoun than that, short of reinstating slavery so everyone could see it firsthand.

This doesn’t make for an ideal solution, of course. That tasteless, vile statue would alienate many. It would offend any person of good sense and common decency. People wouldn’t want to live in a building near it, or perhaps even go to a university where it stands. They would read endorsement in it, understanding that we don’t cast things we hate into heroic bronzes. Even picturing it makes me feel more than a little soiled. No one in their right mind would ask a minority student to walk past such a monstrosity every day. In exposing the central reality of Calhoun’s life and work in such sharp relief, stripped away from the sanitized, generic letters on the side of the building and the bronze plaques we all ignore more often than not, does the compromise still sound so appealing? Or does it sound more like we ought make no compromise?

Many historical figures did terrible things as a matter of course. We have honored them, as often as not, for rather than despite those deeds. Nobody I’ve yet seen challenge Calhoun, or the Confederate flag, or numerous memorials to the Confederacy, demands perfection in order to get yourself a nice landmark in posterity. They all had faults, just as we do. If you lack any, help yourself to my abundant supply. We all, I hope, understand the need to situate people in their own contexts, and understand the nuance and complexities of their lives. Life doesn’t offer us perfect villains, though sometimes it seems to try, nor perfect heroes. But that doesn’t stop us from making decisions about which individuals on the whole have done more good than bad. We all draw our own lines, with nary an objective standard in sight. I don’t know that every problematic historical figure deserves having memorials removed and buildings renamed, but we commemorate far more of them than probably deserve it.

Of those we have celebrated, few come with a greater dearth of redeeming traits than John C. Calhoun. His glare might not adorn our money, but he did far more than passively inherit and then actively continue enslaving people for his profit. He called slavery not necessary and unavoidable, but good and worthy. He built an ideology around its defense that, while not unique, proved uniquely influential and unequivocal. Why continue celebrating him, unless we still think he deserves it?

The Positive Necessities and Good Evils

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Gentle Readers, should you excite my jealousy by going into the archives or bump shoulders with me at the Library of Google, you will find condemnations of slavery in abundance. You can read Thomas Jefferson’s indictment in Notes on the State of Virginia, which abolitionists took for a time as a foundational text. No Southerner could dismiss the Sage of Monticello as an ignorant foreigner., though plenty came to question his judgment. Over his life, Jefferson owned north of six hundred slaves. In his personal correspondence, which I found through Monticello’s helpful article on the subject, Jefferson proclaimed slavery a “moral and political depravity” and “hideous blot” upon the nation. He even rightly identified it as the greatest threat to the Union’s survival.

Leave the section with the founders’ papers and go a few decades to the side. There you’ll find antislavery Americans rehearsing the same themes. They too condemn slavery. They, like Jefferson, hold that it degrades the morals of the enslaver. It threatens the Union. It must go. To rid themselves of it, these Americans did not propose immediate emancipation. They advocated indirect measures to set slavery on the road to extinction, particularly in ending the Atlantic slave trade and banning it from the territories. When Congress could ban the import of slaves, Jefferson urged it to do so at the earliest opportunity, The idea of keeping it from territories goes back to his Northwest Ordinance, though the third president later changed his mind on the wisdom of that.

Neither Jefferson nor later generations of antislavery whites expected to see much progress in their lifetimes. Slavery would fade over ages, helped along by plans of gradual emancipation. From Maryland and Virginia all the way down to South Carolina, whites would free their slaves. Those slaves would go somewhere out of sight and mind, rather than remembering

ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.

LincolnOn the surface, Jefferson doesn’t sound very different from Abraham Lincoln. Neither proposed direct, hostile action against slavery where it already existed. Both saw emancipation as the project of a decades to come. The antislavery movement of the late Antebellum recognized the similarity and claimed Jefferson’s project as their own, understanding themselves as taking the next logical steps. As people who consider slavery an evil and naturally look in our past for praiseworthy opposition to it, we might very well agree. We might even argue that these men differ from the more radical abolitionists only on questions of tactics.

Closer consideration, however, shows something different: Thomas Jefferson pulled a fast one. His condemnation of slavery, however sincere, comes only in its defense. The Necessary Evil argument for slavery ran thus: We have this awful slavery. We dream of a day, long hence, when we shall be rid of it. We endorse the high principle of graduated emancipation, so gradual as to come up on the calendar quarter to never. In practical terms, with slavery that already exists rather than some hypothetical future slavery which someone else would have to deal with in the West, the necessary evil school stands for slavery in perpetuity. The argument might grant some points to advocates of genuine antislavery, but it does so in the course of forestalling the practical advance of the latter: Yes, we agree with you that slavery is bad. But what can we do about it? Along the way, of course, they planned to keep reaping the profit from reaping the bodies of enslaved people. As problems go, we must all agree that having great fortunes thrown your way ranks near the top. Slavery, to necessary evil advocates, did not amount to an unqualified good. It did, however, beat all the alternatives they understood as available to them. By preserving them from race war and endowing the enslavers with considerable wealth, the necessary evil had a decidedly positive and good application.

Jefferson and his generation kept faith with the argument through thick and thin. They held to it when it seemed slavery might just really go away on its own in an era of sinking tobacco profits, despite the trade business in rice and cotton down in the Carolina and Georgia lowcountry. They continued when the cotton gin opened up the inland South to cotton cultivation, when Andrew Jackson and company violently purged the old Southwest of Indians, and slave labor camps spread across the American empire. With new markets in need of slave labor, many Upper South enslavers could take their tender sentiments and cry all the way to the bank.

Then things changed. A new generation of enslavers, most prominently in the person of John C. Calhoun, responded rising antislavery sentiment in the North and the Missouri and Nullification controversies by articulating a new theory. They called slavery a Positive Good. No longer did they cede rhetorical ground and admit, even in theory, that slavery ought to end. Instead it should go on forever not simply for lack of a means to emancipate, but because slavery benefited the slaves too. They learned civilization and Christianity. It lifted them from African squalor and put them to useful work. In fact, slavery did far better for them than free labor did for whites:

I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Positive Good arguments came initially, as they do now, as a shock. The nation had agreed. Every good American hated slavery and wanted it gone. Now this man from South Carolina, who looked like a cross between Beethoven and a supervillain broke the rules. The argument took a long time to catch on even in the South. As late as the last years before the Civil War, particularly in the Upper South, Necessary Evil argument never went entirely out of style.

But the seeds of  predated Calhoun’s infamous speech on the subject. Calhoun preached the Positive Good gospel to the Senate in 1837. In 1814, Thomas Jefferson trotted out remarkably similar arguments:

Nor in the class of laborers do I mean to withold from the comparison that portion whose color has condemned them, in certain parts of our Union, to a subjection to the will of others. even these are better fed in these states, warmer clothed, & labor less than the journeymen or day laborers of England. they have the comfort too of numerous families, in the midst of whom they live, without want, or the fear of it; a solace which few of the laborers of England possess. they are subject, it is true, to bodily coercion: but are not the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers & seamen subject to the same, without seeing, at the end of their career, & when age & acciden[t] shall have rendered them unequal to labor, the certainty, which the other has, that he will never want? and has not the British seaman, as much as the African been reduced to this bondage by force, in flagrant violation of his own consent, and of his natural right in his own person? and with the laborers of England generally, does not the moral coercion of want subject their will as despotically to that of thei[r] employer, as the physical constraint does the soldier, the seaman or the slave?

Jefferson took free and unfree labor as practiced by the United Kingdom as his point of comparison where Calhoun and others would point to urban workers in the North, but the argument otherwise runs the same: an employer has no reason to treat his employees well. They live always on the edge of starvation, one firing away from utter destitution. They thus depend on their employer’s whim in a way that Jefferson imagines not very different from how slaves suffer under his own whims. If the British can impress sailors, then why not Americans enslave Africans? If the Royal Navy flogs a sailor, then how does it differ from his overseer putting stripes on some slave’s back? Note, however, that Jefferson doesn’t simply call the situations comparable. He goes a step further and declares the slaves better off: They have better food, warmer clothes, and don’t work near so hard. Only in the negatives does Jefferson find similarity. Otherwise, slaves come out better off.

A sentence later, Jefferson realized he might have revealed to much and disavowed any intention of advocating for slavery. Should one take his word on it, one might also come to the relief of an inconvenienced Nigerian prince or find an investment in bridges of particular interest.

Calhoun couldn’t have said it better himself. The antislavery movement could never agree, preaching instead the moral, political, and economic superiority of free labor. The Jefferson who loathed manufactures and cities could never go along with that. If this doesn’t transform him into Calhoun in drag, then it does clearly place the two men and their schools of thought close together and fundamentally aligned. Both want to preserve slavery where it existed, believing it and the culture it produced superior to free labor despite the occasional imperfections writ large on the bodies of the enslaved and small in the paranoia of the enslavers. The rhetorical shift matters; it aroused considerable controversy within even South Carolina, but we should not mistake that controversy for a genuine and thoroughgoing antislavery movement within the section. Nor should we confuse the rhetorically-convenient qualms of some Southerners with a willingness to align with outsiders in some kind of shared antislavery project. Whether advocating necessary evil or positive good theories of slavery, the speakers remained the peculiar institution’s committed defenders.

The Ends of Constitutionalism

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Gentle Readers, I’ve spent the last week thinking about constitutional theories. I’ve done so before, but they happen to have returned to the news through the continuing operations of a domestic terrorist organization. I wrote about them last week, though I don’t consider it my best effort. Consider this more inspired by than specifically about the ongoing seditious conspiracy.

In Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1819-1836, William W. Freehling remarks that a debate concerning infrastructure projects, internal improvements in the parlance of the time, “most early-nineteenth-century disputes between nationalists and sectionalists, turned into an argument over the Constitution.” Given the tremendous prestige granted to the Constitution, it only stood to reason that any contending parties would find imprimatur for whatever policies they preferred within its text. If we judged from this point alone, we would have to consider our dating badly wrong. By no means could our years begin with any other digits than one and eight, in that order. Everyone, bar a few individuals more honest and historically informed than amenable to the ever-excessive, oft-violent cult of American patriotism, stands for the Constitution. In standing for the Constitution we name ourselves red, white, and blue saints contending against traitorous sinners.

I don’t use the religious language for effect. The frame of the argument neatly recapitulates tropes very popular in the rhetorical histories of various Christianities: Once, all agreed and lived together in paradise. The nude frolic could not last. We fell from grace and lived shackled to our sins. But now we have a chance at restoration, to come around to the right and live in conformance to the grand design. This could easily be the story of Martin Luther or Joseph Smith as the story of original intent and strict construction, the story of a proslavery Constitution or an emancipationist Constitution perverted to opposing ends. We could call any version true, so long as it comported with our values. If we wanted to really separate ourselves from the crowd, we might burden ourselves with inconvenient facts as well as the airy freight of rhetoric. Even if we do, Constitutional debates ultimately come down to what we want and how we think we can best achieve it.

This doesn’t necessarily render Constitutional considerations irrelevant, but it does mean that we cannot take them in isolation. People adopt the constitutionalisms they do for what they consider good, real world reasons rather than fuzzy abstractions. That doesn’t necessarily make constitutional theory insincere, but does mean that it follows and flows from policy preferences. If we take it at face value, a practice once popular among historians as well as the lay public, then very little of American history makes much sense. We mistake states’ rights for a cause, rather than a method. We have no explanation at all for how a diehard nationalist like John C. Calhoun became his generation’s most famous anti-nationalist. Going down this road leads one to thinking that slavery had little to do with the Civil War or any of the sectional crises before it, rather than serving as their indispensable driving force.

The ex-confederates and their latter-day admirers, many of whom must know better given the ink they spill trying to defend slavery, want just that from us all. If white supremacy remains taken for granted and invisible in American history, then it becomes that much easier to prosecute today. By removing African-Americans and their interests from history, we can deny that they have one except as objects acted upon by whites. With only the most superficial knowledge of how white supremacy operated and operates, we happily consign it to the past even as we continue it in the present. We had slavery, but we ended it. We had segregation, but we ended that too. Neither has any persistent effect, either on its own or in the form of attitudes and circumstances perpetuated despite de jure achievements.

One must truly sleep through life to miss that black Americans do not do as well as whites. Even if we don’t know the statistics, the brute facts confront us every day. The color of wealth, and the power and authority it brings, remains almost entirely white. Absent a robust understanding of both how white Americans have denied black Americans advancement, we must conclude not that injustice persists but rather that something about black Americans makes them, by their nature, inferior. We can call it culture, but this pretends that black culture exists utterly apart from white culture. It transforms black Americans into Martians, strange visitors fundamentally alien and incomprehensible save in that we can comprehend the supposedly existential threat they pose to us. They thus become a thing to battle, rather than fellow people with whom we have shared a country since before we called it a country.

If you don’t believe me, then consider this musical genre. Its performers hail chiefly from one identifiable racial group, speaking about their experiences both real and idealized. Its lyrics regularly glorify crime, including violent crime. If you watch the news often enough, you know I have just described rap and hip-hop. If you turn the radio to the right station, you will soon learn that I instead described country. Neither, with the exception of the occasional musical about a founding father and Johnny Cash, regularly graces my ears but the lyrics speak for themselves.

We invented race for that purpose, of course. We must keep to our traditions, lest we admit our own responsibility. In appreciating how fundamentally we built it into our system, it would take at least a minor miracle to have kept it clear of our constitutionalisms. Plenty of Americans, then and now, don’t even try to pretend otherwise. They deem civil rights legislation unconstitutional, a point on which the Supreme Court has chosen to concur. Programs that help the poor? As poverty in America comes with black skin, we find that unconstitutional as well. In the world of disinterested constitutionalism, these things just happen. They have their consequences, but we have the poor and wrongly-colored to bear those.

No one can hold the devoted constitutionalist responsible. They must follow the rules, the same as everyone else. Those rules come down to us themselves disinterested and thus inherently fair. We should know; we made them. How could we, white with innocence, do otherwise? All through our history we have the same distinguished record of pure principle. Such abstractions cleanse anything. We had no slavery; we had property rights.

This distinction, from time to time, brought petitioners to the Congress asking compensation for slave property lost or damaged in the course of wars. Such requests provoked considerable controversy. For many white Americans, asking the government to pay for lost slaves like it paid for lost cattle asked far too much. But for others, it asked only the absolute minimum. They had their rights, you understand. It had nothing to do with slavery, in that the Constitution protected all property alike, and everything to do with it in that slave property remained slave property. On these small issues, easily forgotten and deserving of future blog posts, the Congress could produce sectional alignments typical of the late Antebellum solid decades before and in the midst of eras where we do not usually understand slavery as a particularly divisive issue. Competing constitutionalisms then squared off, but they did not square off on their own terms. Both sides had preferred ends which their constitutional theories served.

We can pretend otherwise, but doing so doesn’t just turn hated minorities into aliens. It does the same for cherished national totems, rendering them inert, uninteresting paragons from whom we insist we must learn but from whom we have likewise stripped anything worth learning. We built such statues, out of marble or imagination, for devotion rather than education.

Andrew Jackson, the Democrats, Sean Wilentz, and Slavery

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Gentle Readers, for nearly the past month, I’ve read Sean WilentzRise of American Democracy. Wilentz surveys American political history from 1800 to 1860. I thought to read it as a companion volume to David Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, a much broader survey of the period from 1815-1848. Either book would easily maim pets or small children, but they have little else in common. Wilentz and Howe talk almost completely opposite positions about the democratizing trend of the age, right down to attributing it primarily to different parties. Wilentz locates democracy in Andrew Jackson’s Democracy. Howe finds it in the evangelical reform associations that concentrated on the Whig side of the aisle. I concur with most present historians of the era that Howe has it more right than Wilentz, though both have significant blind spots.

I may write a comparative post about the two books at some point, but today I want to delve into an issue I came across while reading Wilentz. I have found him hard going, very unlike Howe. Some of that comes down to one’s taste in prose, but more often I find myself silently arguing with the text. Wilentz proudly declares himself a partisan for Andrew Jackson, a popular enough sentiment in decades past. He casts his work as a modern version of Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson, a similar lionizing of the man and his movement. Given Jackson’s career, this presents difficulties for a reader of modern sensibilities. Wilentz skips past some of that, summarizing the military actions that made Jackson infamous in roughly as much space as he spends on the general’s health. This leaves his critics to come across as paranoid aristocrats. He does take seriously Jackson’s involvement in Indian removal and makes few excuses for it, though he does downplay Jackson’s personal responsibility and emphasize how Jackson understood removal as a benevolent act.

Even more implausibly, he refuses to consider Jackson or his movement as proslavery. Wilentz doesn’t deny that the Democracy had a proslavery wing, just as the Whigs did. In the Lower South, though not elsewhere, Wilentz calls that wing’s politics master race democracy. But he denies that that those Democrats exerted a decisive influence, at least as late as 1850, and considers it an outlier from the Democracy rather than its central theme. He would thus reject Howe’s characterization of the movement as a whole:

One policy that the Democratic Party embraced consistently was white supremacy. The centrality of white supremacy in Democratic policymaking helps explain that party’s hostility toward Clay’s American System. Democratic suspicion of government aid to internal improvements reflected not a horror of the market revolution but a fear that such a program might threaten the institution of slavery. The danger, from the slaveholders’ point of view, was twofold. In the first place, national plans for internal improvements might be designed to wean areas in the Border States or Upper South away from slave-based agriculture toward a diversified economy in which slavery would become vulnerable to gradual emancipation. In the second place, national plans for internal improvements set a precedent for federal activity that might encourage interference with slavery— for example, by exercising the interstate commerce power over the interstate slave trade. Jacksonians welcomed transporting farm products to market, so long as it could be done without the centralized planning that raised the specter of emancipation.

I find very little to disagree with in Howe’s interpretation, which he supports generously throughout his formidable tome. I felt the temptation to dismiss Wilentz as a shameless partisan more interested in vindicating his heroes, but one can say that about any historian. Every work of history includes an argument and to a large degree flows from it. Bad histories do exist, but bad history means more than history with which the reader disagrees. A bad history should have serious methodological or evidential issues, at least. Wilentz may have a few of those. I understand that historians of the Early Republic don’t think highly of his treatment of the Jeffersonians, with some criticisms reaching to that point. I don’t know enough about the period to feel confident saying for myself, or even that I could spot the problems without help.

I feel much more confident in disagreeing with Wilentz about what one must do to earn proslavery status. It came to me only when Wilentz laid down his criteria firmly, in a discussion of contradictions within the Jacksonian coalition:

The politics of antislavery exposed another side of Jackson’s coalition. Jackson and his party were decidedly hostile to antislavery radicals. Without endorsing Calhounite pro-slavery positions, the unapologetic slaveholder Jackson, especially in the postal controversy, tried to silence the immediatist agitators, even if it took a federal censorship law to do so. Those efforts only reinforced the radical abolitionists’ conviction that Jackson himself, as well as his party, was no better than any of the other slavocrats, and that their professions to democracy and equality were vitiated by their racism and self-interest.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Wilentz presents no facts here to quarrel with. Jackson absolutely and purposefully alienated abolitionists. This makes him at least to a small degree proslavery, given his fight against the institution’s foes, but we could say the same of David Wilmot, who bragged about fighting abolitionists:

Is there any complexion of Abolitionism in this, sir? I have stood up at home, and battled, time and again, against the Abolitionists of the North. I have assailed them publicly, upon all occasions when it was proper to do so.

Calling Wilmot and others like him both proslavery and antislavery might cover the bases, but it invites confusion and misunderstanding. As Wilentz notes, attacking abolitionists did not make one a Calhounite. Surely Jackson’s ownership of slaves implicates him further, all the more so because he did not inherit them or have trouble emancipating them due to restrictive laws, but rather eagerly sought out human property with which to enrich himself. That alone would make him fairly proslavery in my book, possibly closer to a Calhounite on the subject than not.

Wilentz doesn’t think so. Rather it seems to him that unless one makes explicit Calhoun-style positive good arguments in favor of slavery, one doesn’t qualify as proslavery. In other words, one must adopt the most radical proslavery position available to get the title. None of us would probably shed any tears at the excommunication of John C. Calhoun from the antislavery ranks, least of all the man himself. Maybe the fact that Jackson, and other Democrats thereafter, did not consistently argue for the wonders of slavery makes them less radical than Calhoun, but does that really exculpate them? We credit antislavery Americans who condemned abolitionists for their position, even if we find it unsympathetic. That allows for degrees of distinction in opposition to slavery. Might we not do the same with degrees of proslavery sentiment? Wilentz appears willing to grant that range of opinion to slavery’s foes, but not as much to its friends.

Wilentz admits that slavery and race played their part in shaping the Democracy, but only to excuse them:

To halt abolitionist agitation and quiet southern counteragitation, both Jackson and Van Buren attacked the abolitionists’ civil rights, in the mails and gag-rule controversies […] northern Democrats did take the lead in disenfranchising blacks (as in Pennsyulvania in 1837-38), even as they celebrated the growing political impact of lower-class white men.

None of this, however, made the Jacksonians a pro-slavery party-or even, as one milder critic has argued, “functionally pro-slavery”-fighting a proto-abolitionist Whig Party in order to protect a status quo that left the slaveholders the dominant class in American politics. The Jacksonians did not oppose interference with slavery where it existed, or obstruct the abolitionist efforts to arouse the South, because they wished to sustain the slaveholders as a national ruling class. They wanted, as the Whigs did, to keep slavery out of federal politics to protect constitutional order, national harmony, and party unity. Sustaining the slaveholders’ power was the goal of Calhoun and others

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

This contradicts itself so markedly that one wonders how, or if, Wilentz failed to notice it. A functionally proslavery movement would, through its actions and inaction, serve to protect, perpetuate, and possibly expand slavery. It need not intend specifically or primarily to do so in order to manage the task functionally. Preserving the status quo in Antebellum American did just that. That the Whig mainstream felt similarly tells us that proslavery Whigs existed as well, a fact Wilentz eagerly points out later in the same paragraph. There he credits John Tyler, certainly a proslavery man but a fairly dubious Whig. (The party ultimately expelled Tyler, during his presidency, and by the time he left office he had a largely Democratic administration.) Wilentz does note that Calhoun came back to the Democracy in a quest to transform it into a more explicitly proslavery vehicle, but would we expect him to have chosen the less hospitable of the two parties for that project?

People can disagree about where to draw interpretive lines. We must admit to the fuzziness of every boundary, given the complexity of the past and its population of inconstant human beings. Historians have excused inaction on slavery from exponents of the necessary evil argument. They had slavery, but couldn’t see a way out and had some misgivings. Those misgivings rarely, if ever, drove them to challenge slavery where it existed. Rather acting out their supposed sentiments fell to other people, of some future generation or distant place. If we credit their rhetorical qualms, then we should weigh them against their practical outcome: the perpetuation of slavery.

Wilentz draws his proslavery lines so precisely that they read more as tools for exculpation than understanding. Anybody can be antislavery, but it takes a real zealot to manage proslavery. You’ve got to know your Calhoun and show it off. One has to work hard for the title, even though accepting the existence of slavery represented the status quo position. Such a framework might make sense today, when few will openly advocate for slavery and most of us imbibed abolition as a national achievement, but hardly seems suited to the nineteenth century. Rather it seems Wilentz purposefully construed only the most radical proslavery position as proslavery in order to avoid applying the term to the movement that has his sympathies.

He could have done better. On other fronts, Wilentz makes worthwhile points. To Howe, class doesn’t seem like a particularly relevant metric in democratizing. Wilentz thinks otherwise and argues well for the position. Neither historian eagerly handles the ugly side of their preferred movement’s politics, but Howe does a much better job of acknowledging his. Wilentz only seems able to raise the subject in order to minimize it or make excuses, most critically on slavery and race. On less fraught issues, like patronage, he even finesses the matter through outright silence. I don’t know any way to explain this all except that Wilentz decided a priori in favor of Jacksonian Democracy, then contorted around inconvenient facts until he had something that seemed halfway plausible.

I find myself entirely in agreement with Kevin Gannon over at the Junto:

Wilentz’s entire corpus is predicated on the argument that Jacksonian Democracy, in its most Schlesingerian sense, was the motor that drove the inexorable “Rise of American Democracy.” To believe this, though, one has to soft-pedal (at best) the racialized, herrenvolk nature of that Democracy; see the Free-Soilers as the true representatives of the Jacksonian creed instead of actual Jacksonians like James Polk; and argue the moderates and conservatives within Whiggery and abolitionism sped the cause of freedom rather than delayed it.

Refugees, Fear, and the Art of Human Sacrifice

Not to be taken as a statement of American policy or values.

Not to be taken as a statement of American policy or values.

Few things have more power over us than fear. At its bidding, we disregard otherwise dear values, cast aside critical safeguards, and do horrible things otherwise inconceivable. Ordinary people will rise up spontaneously, or “spontaneously,” in great numbers to do its bidding. We need to meet the emergency, you understand, and in that state we just don’t have the time and the stakes are far too high for the ordinary way of things to handle. Not all that long ago, an American leader told us that even if he had 99% certainty that the perceived threat amounted to nothing, the 1% doubt justified anything to combat it. That anything included torture. Through the suffering of our chosen martyrs, always someone else, we become free.

Syria, a country wracked by a civil war between a vile dictator and a vile group of religious fanatics, the latter of whom the United States rolled out the red carpet for in its misbegotten war of pleasure against Iraq and bungled aftermath, naturally has a tremendous refugee problem. Its huddled masses, poor, tired, and desperate, would probably like freedom. They would certainly like freedom from the prospect of marauders with guns out to murder them and their families. Maybe they haven’t imbibed every jot and tittle of western, post-Enlightenment values, but the hope that oneself and one’s children might escape slaughter knows no borders.

I have my doubts as to the popularity of such values among Americans. Few fret at the trifling burden of preaching, but we rarely care for the weight of practice. Because an unrelated group killed a large number of innocent people in Paris a week ago, we learn that the United States cannot permit a single Syrian refugee into the country. Presidential candidates have said so. Congress has said so. The governors of many states, including my own, have said so and pledged that should refugees come within their jurisdiction, they shall do all in their power to deprive them of a chance to start anew.

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to “take over” American life

They said the same things about the Germans, a militaristic people unsuited to democratic government. They said it about the Irish, enthralled to medieval religious leaders and sworn to do their bidding. Massachusetts even deported thousands of them. Slavs and Italians infamously came from the armpit of Europe. Change the ocean crossed and one finds much the same rhetoric deployed against the Chinese and Japanese. Do a ninety degree turn and you’ll hear it about people from Latin America. Take a small step back and you’ll hear it about black American refugees fleeing the South for the dubious safety of northern cities. Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free, but not those poor, tired, huddled masses. They exhibit far too much huddling, poverty, fatigue, and yearning.

Anyone we let in must withstand scrutiny, of course. The world has no shortage of dangerous fanatics who mean to do us harm. They hate us, as the saying goes, for our freedoms and seek tirelessly to destroy them. Speaking of those, some of our would-be leaders have decided to run for Ayatollah in lieu of President, declaring that we can only trust those Syrians who we can prove sufficiently Christian. Presumably if elected, he would establish an Inquisition to assess their credentials. It worked for Ferdinand and Isabella, though not so much for the Muslims and Jews of Iberia. The Catholic Monarchs doubtless considered that working as designed. Others have advocated databases to track them. A yellow crescent badge must come up eventually. Failing that, perhaps tattoos will do the job.

Lincoln 1860We can say that these people don’t speak for us, but we keep voting for them. So it has transpired before. So it probably will again. Abraham Lincoln corresponded with Joshua Speed on the subject of Kansas back in 1855:

You say if Kansas fairly votes herself a free state, as a christian you will rather rejoice at it. All decent slave-holders talk that way; and I do not doubt their candor. But they never vote that way. Although in a private letter, or conversation, you will express your preference that Kansas shall be free, you would vote for no man for Congress who would say the same thing publicly. No such man could be elected from any district in any slave-state. You think Stringfellow & Co ought to be hung; and yet, at the next presidential election you will vote for the exact type and representative of Stringfellow. The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class, among you; and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you, and are as completely your masters, as you are the masters of your own negroes.

We can say that these leaders don’t speak for our values, but we keep electing them. I wouldn’t bet anything I wanted to keep on any governor losing an election over the Syrian refugees. Nor would many southern politicians likely lose an election for excessive enthusiasm for slavery. Of course many of us don’t bother with the conventional pieties. Only those who wish to pose as moderates need them. Speed’s rhetorical abhorrence of slavery might play well in his Kentucky, which remained as committed to slavery indefinitely in the 1850s as South Carolina did, but it wouldn’t do to sound too much like a Carolina radical.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

We can say that we face a unique threat which justifies our fear, but accidental discharges of handguns kill more Americans every year than innocents who died in Paris. Even deliberate shootings don’t warrant this sustained, organized rush for a less humid pair of trousers, no matter how clearly terroristic. Our leaders, aspirant and otherwise, have invented nothing particularly new. We have our traditions of fear, involving both “degenerate” immigrants and the horrific prospect of a freely moving black person.

Though we imagine fear as general and a concern for security as universal, both turn highly selective in practice. We do not calibrate our responses to the gravity of the threat, or to the likelihood of something happening, but rather we choose which perils we deem emergencies and which we consider merely ordinary. An understandable panic might explain immediate responses, but we maintain the same behaviors for decades on end. We don’t do calculatedly, with malice aforethought. We decide which people deserve protection and which punishment. Their deeds, real or imagined, rarely enter into it. They, whoever we choose this time around, come to us as curiously pathetic titans. They will destroy us all, but somehow remain our inferiors in every way that matters. We imagine not flesh and blood, but evil that cloaks itself in the semblance of people.

If I told you that a murderous band of sadistic rapists roamed the country at will and occupied high positions in the government, from which they exerted effective control over it, you would think me mad. I only named the slaveholders, their habits, and correctly stated their influence throughout most of the antebellum period. If I told you about a police state that aggressively monitored the internal movements of its people and vigorously suppressed dissent, would you think of Stalin’s Russia or Calhoun’s South Carolina? Security, fear’s respectable alias, demanded similar human sacrifices. So long as we imagine perfect security possible, we will continue feeding lives to it. You don’t sacrifice people you find valuable, of course. You sacrifice the expendable. Foreigners, outsiders, dissidents, anybody who doesn’t fit your vision of the good society. My governor would like to feed Syrians to what Corey Robin calls the Moloch of national security.

Moloch, if you don’t know your Bible, meant either a hollow idol in which human sacrifices burned or the god the idol represented. He preferred his feast in the form of babies. Whether this ever happened with any regularity or not, I can’t say. Imagining one’s neighbors as literally baby-eating monsters seems far too popular the world over to take at face value. Moloch features heavily in one of my favorite poems, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl:

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!

Must we keep feeding our Molochs? If starved long enough, the heavy judger of men might at last consume itself instead.

Fear of phantoms will only satisfy Moloch for so long. Eventually it will want more and fear’s apostles will eagerly provide. They know that by aligning with the security state, they have immunized themselves. Every society has a surfeit people deemed undesirable. Often they work hard to produce as many as possible. The lives burned away in all the persecuting horrors perfume the air. The screams make for a symphony. Thus Moloch blesses his faithful, orthodox practitioners of that most demanding rule: Do unto others, good and hard. The ritual ablutions cannot entirely hide their joy. At last they can run free and do as they always wished. They partake of forbidden pleasures sanctified by exquisitely selective altruism. Back in the day, priests would burn or otherwise dispose of only a part of offerings. The rest they would enjoy for themselves, thus making their living. If we pass such vast distances and find ourselves in the same place, we should wonder if we ever left.

So, as Lincoln wrote:

As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

We have come so far now that we count sufficiently white Catholics as equal, provided they join us in counting the rest as otherwise. The Russian Empire, Putin’s, Stalin’s, or the Tsar’s, awaits us, but why go? We can get it all at home. Had we come to a country born innocent, we might say that we accepted an intellectual immigration. Always broad-minded, we made room in America for a Russian police state. Our national ancestors did one better, though. They didn’t need to go study some other country to learn the arts of fear. They created it for themselves on the shores of the Chesapeake, whips in hand. They did the same in the New England forests with hot lead.

We choose not to remember that part. The nativists don’t occupy much of a position in the national memory, save as an ordeal faced by certain immigrant groups and now happily behind them. We certainly don’t recall how they got right with nativism for the next wave of immigrants, who somehow came by all the same sins that their parents never did. To join an us, they agreed to create a them. The wages of our sins thus find repose in the most popular of places: our victims.


The SS. St. Louis in Havana

The faith in a united, narrow consensus America with few great rifts between its people demands we deny the controversy. A land can hardly claim perfection at birth and endless improvement thereafter, the ne plus ultra of American nationalism, and admit Americans as a fractious, divided people. Instead it must paper over the division by deciding who doesn’t count. The American consensus endures by writing its critics and its victims out of memory. There one must recognize not merely a normal, if regrettable, tendency toward self-flattery but rather another line in the liturgy of fear. It would not do to undermine the values of the nation, to corrupt its racial purity, and enfeeble the race by amalgamation or debase it by placing equal what nature, gods, or some other mouthpiece for our hatreds declared unequal. The eternal creed goes by many names, but works its bloody way through the world over and the voyages of the damned continue. Enough of us, Joshua Speed endlessly reborn, vote to ensure it. We know where the voyages end, whether with bullets or starvation or a crematoria. No evil, however notorious, lacks for eager accomplices.

Once we told slaves to endure for all eternity. Once we said No Irish Need Apply and sought to keep them from the country while they starved at home. Once we met black refugees from the South with a northern wing of the Klan. Once we sent a ship full of Jewish refugees back to Nazi Germany. Now we tell Syrians to stay home and wait for ISIS to come get them.

Every time the warmed up the old idol and got our human sacrifices in a row, we found dissenters in our number. Now and then, we toss them in the fire with the rest. However much we may admire them, we do so from a healthy remove.  Taking sides in disputes long ended costs us little. When the same dispute reappears, we suddenly find ourselves living in the moment. What can we do? Our hands are tied. This time, like all the other times, differs so much that we can’t draw on past lessons. We pretend we can do no other, save to do mercilessly unto others. Then we contemplate our especially energetic species of inaction and declare our hands clean.

It all seems perfectly reasonable, just like that bit toward the end of Huck Finn with the steamboat explosion. Did the explosion hurt anyone?

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.

Unpacking Secession

The Charleston Mercury's extra announcing South Carolina's secession.

The Charleston Mercury’s extra announcing South Carolina’s secession.

It doesn’t take very long talking about the Civil War with people or reading about it online before one encounters the argument that the southern states had a right to secede. Thus we should not ask why secession took place, but rather why the rest of the nation objected and sought to suppress it. That question has value itself. We should ask it often and intently. It informs a great deal of recent scholarship about the war, in particular the continuing debate over to what extent, how, and when, northern whites understood themselves to fight the war to destroy slavery. The consensus holds that most came to emancipation only reluctantly, only after repeated defeats, and only as a measure necessary to win the war. But giving the question of why the rest of the nation fought the South its due attention should not distract us, as the bad faith debater wishes, from the more important fact that the South seceded to preserve slavery.

All that said, the supposed right of secession deserves some investigation in itself. In Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1859, Elizabeth Varon distinguishes secession from disunion. The latter carried overlapping meanings:

Disunion was invoked by Americans, across the political spectrum, in five registers: as a prophecy of national ruin, a threat of withdrawal from the federal compact, an accusation of treasonous plotting, a process of sectional alienation, and a program for regional independence.

We usually, laypeople and historian alike, call all of those secession. Varon thinks we do so wrongly. To her,

Secession referred to a specific mechanism whereby states could leave the Union, and it reflected complex constitutional theories on the boundaries of state and federal power.

Secession, in Varon’s usage, thus describes how one goes about enacting the program of disunion. For the purposes of this post, I intend to broaden the term just slightly to also include how secession’s advocates understood it. One need not go far to find references to succession in antebellum political works, which plays into the notion that everybody in antebellum America agreed that states had a right to secede. Richard Ellis makes this point in The Union At Risk, and points to an important shift in the constitutional thinking along the way:

Prior to the espousal of the doctrine by the South Carolina nullifiers, most assertions of secession had taken the form of rhetorical flourishes, political ploys, and logical extensions of arguments not fully understood or thought out. Moreover, secession before 1828-1833 was not a doctrine that was associated with a particular interest group or section of the country. A number of the more vociferous New England opponents of the War of 1812 had spoken of it, but the moderates who controlled the Hartford Convention rejected the doctrine, and the entire movement was soon disgraced and lost in the nationalist fervor that swept the country after 1815.

New Englanders also floated secession much less famously, and in fewer numbers, against Jefferson’s embargo. A simplistic reading of that would suggest a national consensus that one could secede, just as a similar reading would find a consensus on states’ rights, but note Ellis’ qualifications. Rhetoric, ploy, and arguments taken to their logical extreme do not a program make. Nor does it follow that if they did, they necessarily further amounted to the assertion of secession as a legal process to which a state had a conventional right. If secession did mean those things, then suppressing it should at the very least come only through a conflict between its exercise and other, similarly compelling rights. One can make a very good argument that in 1860-1 other rights did conflict with any such exercise, but unless one takes secession as the ultimate of all rights then such a conflict seems inherent and inevitable. We come back around to calling out the army and the familiar narrative of 1861-5.

This doesn’t render consideration of methods and understandings moot. Antebellum Americans could understand secession as a different kind of right which they understood themselves as entitled to and yet suppress its exercise by another without contradiction. Though that might seem like a stretch, it relied only upon acceptance of the logic of the American founding. The United States arose through an act of treason against the United Kingdom. The founders levied war against the legally constituted government of the land, precisely the act which they would later declare treason in the Constitution. They claimed as their justification the right of revolution, a decidedly unconventional right.

We understand ordinary rights as involving our ability to do something without interference. What we consider interference depends heavily upon our political convictions, usually with a distinction between a right to do something free from government obstruction against a right to engage in the act in and of itself. The right of revolution doesn’t fit easily into either construction. Those who revolt must expect opposition and at least very likely that they will settle the issue by a contest of arms. Thus one doesn’t have an unhindered right to rise up at will, but rather a right that exists only in retrospect. If you win your war, you have the right. Otherwise, you had the right to hang. In this light, we must consider revolution not as a right like speech where suppression in itself would violate expected norms, but rather one its lack would do so.

The understanding secession as not revolution, but rather an orderly constitutional process, came into American discourse through the innovations of the nullifiers. It did not achieve the status of an accepted dogma even in the South until after Nullification came and went, as one can see here (PDF):

The South, in my opinion, has been aggrieved by the acts of the North, as you say. I feel the aggression, and am willing to take every proper step for redress. It is the principle I contend for, not individual or private benefit. As an American citizen, I take great pride in my country, her prosperity and institutions, and would defend any State if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution.

Here we have an impressive collection of statements. The author deems the South an “aggrieved” victim of Yankee “aggression.” He wants redress. But he loathes the thought of disunion. He distinguishes between constitutional means of the redress he hopes for and secession, which he calls revolution. He doesn’t leave matters there, though. He further writes:

The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for “perpetual union,” so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled.

That, if not the earlier statements about the South’s suffering, sounds like something Lincoln would say. Robert E. Lee wrote it all to his son in late January, 1861. One can argue that Lee doesn’t make for much of a constitutional thinker. Whatever their abilities, military men have other priorities. Nor does his embrace of the Confederacy later on involve a clear contradiction. Lee would have noticed his fighting the war and in doing so he acted consistently with his understanding of secession as revolution.

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

Robert E. Lee

At least rhetorically, however, many secessionists did claim they had a legal process. Some might have believed it. During the Secession Winter, they did rather more than make the traditional threats. They employed a method along the general lines that Calhoun laid down in Nullification times. The states, through special conventions, had ratified the Constitution. To Calhoun, this meant that a state convention exercised ultimate sovereignty and could thus un-ratify the Constitution. The Union consisted only and entirely of the Constitution, legally speaking, so by exercising its sovereignty in this way, a state could take itself out of the Union. Other thinkers held that states could do this through ordinary legislation, but Calhoun’s state convention method generally prevailed. Calhoun only had to ignore where the Constitution located sovereignty to manage all this. One can’t blame him for missing it, though. Who reads the first sentence of a document?

Secessionists also differed, even in South Carolina, over whether they should secede unilaterally or not. Many held that secession would come more easily and more defensibly from a convention of the southern states acting in concert. Opponents damned them as secret unionists, pointing to the failure of the Nashville Convention to achieve secession a decade prior. Why would one adopt a method known to fail, unless one wanted the effort to fail too? Some might have done just that, but as a practical matter even while considering unilateral secession South Carolina’s leadership took a very keen interest in what other states planned to do. They had gone out on a limb before and learned that the rest of the South would not follow. That didn’t quite make the first secession a cooperative affair in the mode that the advocates of it wanted, with the whole South going out together, but they both expected and had some informal assurances that other states would follow.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

All the secession methods suggested in the antebellum agreed on one point: secession must proceed unilaterally in another way. A state had the power, either through revolution or constitutional process, to secede on its own. The consent of other states or the national government did not enter into it. They might engage in consultation. It might make for better politics for states to go out in a group. But when a state wanted to go, it had gone. This would always invoke the familiar storm of controversy. However, an uncontroversial process for secession exists in principle: the Constitution allows for amendments. If a state could secure the passage of an amendment authorizing secession, either for itself alone or for states in general, that would almost certainly meet constitutional muster. (The Reconstruction Amendments offer a clear case where the text of the Constitution did not, but such direct and obvious counterexamples don’t come up very often.) Somewhat more remotely, states could convene to write an entirely new constitution which would permit secession. Those legal roads exist, but the advocates of secession never seem very interested in them. Rather they want to leave, take the real estate with them, and demand that everyone else smile and wave as they depart.