An extraordinary letter from John Brown

John Brown

Gentle Readers, I usually take a one day blogging hiatus this time of year. Without particularly meaning to, I’ve taken longer this year. Don’t worry; it’s all for pleasant reasons. I’m about ready to begin again, but the week only has two blogging days left and it seems like a waste to get back going with the narrative for those and then stop for a weekend before restarting. Instead, let me share with you a letter that came to me courtesy of Louis Ruchames’ A John Brown Reader, which I did not have on hand when last I mentioned it.

Akron, Ohio, 30th Sept 1854

Dear Children

After being hard pressed to go with my family to Kansas as more likely to benefit the colored people on the whole than to return with them to North Elba; I have consented to ask for your advice & feeling in the matter; & also to ask you to learn from Mr. Epps & all the colored people (so far as you can) how they would wish, & advise me to act in the case, all things considered. As I volunteered in their service; (or the service of the colored people); they have a right to vote, as to the course I take. I have just written Gerrit Smith, Fredk Douglass, & Dr. McCune Smith, for their advice. We have a new daughter now Five days old. Mother & child are both doing well to appearance. Other friends well so far as I know. John & Wealthy are still with us. Will you write as soon as you can? Have not received your reply to my other questions.

Your Affectionate Father

John Brown

Few white men of his age would acknowledge a general debt to black Americans, let alone give them a say in such a momentous decisions as moving across the country. Brown asked the people he made the commitment to personally up in North Elba, and also Frederick Douglass and James McCune Smith, the latter the first black American to earn a medical degree.

Advertisements

Money and Provisions: The Journey to Kansas, Part 4

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left John Brown inquiring with his sons who went to Kansas about prices in Westport. Brown still planned to make a trip to North Elba, but by spring of 1855 he had decided to go at least for a time to the nation’s newest territory himself. As he settled up affairs in Ohio and looked forward to that tip, Brown had a letter in hand from John, Jr., describing all Kansas’ troubles with election-stealing Missourians. He recommended, in language close to that his father used when establishing the League of Gileadites, that “The Antislavery portion of the inhabitants should immediately, thoroughly arm and organize themselves in military companies.”

The younger John Brown avowed that his brothers with him in Kansas, except maybe the unusually gentle Jason, would take up the fight in a heartbeat, if only they had guns and ammunition. Since Brown the elder intended to come to Kansas anyway, could he pick up some for them? To get the cash, Junior suggested hitting up Gerrit Smith.

Brown already had some years of familiarity with Smith from his North Elba involvement. Smith had the right politics and the deep pockets to provide. Brown meant to go to New York anyway. All the pieces fell together and Brown found Smith at Syracuse, where “Radical Political Abolitionists” had gathered for a convention. Brown stepped into the hall on June 28 and informed the body, who had already voted $4,600 to antislavery business, that Kansas needed support.

Brown explained what happened next in a letter collected in The Life and Letters of Captain John Brown, by Richard Webb. He received “a most warm reception from all” and got just that day

a little over sixty dollars-twenty from Gerrit Smith, five from an old British officer; others giving smaller sums with such earnest and affectionate expressions of their good wishes as did me more good than money even. John’s two letters were introduced, and read with such effect, by Gerrit Smith, as to draw tears from numerous eyes in the great collection of people present.

Gerrit Smith

Smith and Frederick Douglass also spoke to the convention on Brown’s behalf.

Brown sounds genuinely moved by his reception. He tells his family that he wishes they could have seen it with him and that he made many “warm hearted and honest friends.” He took their sixty-odd dollars, not a great deal considering what the convention pledged elsewhere, back to Ohio and bought bought a box of guns.

In Springfield, he received advice from Junior that he had requested about the best way to get into Kansas. Brown should avoid the river at this time of year and travel by lumber wagon. Junior also warned him of the weather and reported that the amount of squatters made land speculation dubious. Nor should Brown hope to do well with horses or cattle. Jason wrote as well, explaining that he had fallen silent out of depression over Austin’s death. His wife Ellen had taken it worse still and he might have to bring her back east. Salmon wrote asking Brown to bring food and summer clothing, while also reporting slaves owned not three miles away from the boys’ claims.

 

“They should have a right to vote” John Brown and North Elba, Part 4

John Brown

A small personal note, Gentle Readers: I’ve just had my second appearance on the AskHistorians Podcast, talking about Charles Sumner. If you think all of this would be better without having to read my prose or just want my soothing words to delight you, it’s available here, via Youtube, or on Spotify. As before, I promise to use my fame mostly responsibly.

Parts 1, 23

John Brown vented himself to Frederick Douglass about the Kansas-Nebraska Act in a letter. He asked that Douglas refine his prose and make it available to the general public; someone had to talk good sense into white Americans. Douglas obliged by printing the letter in his paper. There Brown’s words joined the tide of outrage against repealing the Missouri Compromise. He could read the indignation of others from Horace Greeley’s paper, to which Brown subscribed, and probably hear it on most streets in the North at least for a while. Everyone understood that the future of Kansas now hung in the balance. Proslavery and antislavery whites would collide there and to the victor might go the nation.

Brown must not have enjoyed the news any better for expressing himself in the papers, but his many debts from the wool business preoccupied him. His surviving letters from the time don’t mention Kansas further. Instead he laments the drought, which claimed the crops he hoped would clear his obligations. Brown hadn’t suffered as badly as some of his neighbors, and suspected they might help themselves to his fruit crop, but the Kansas fever did not strike him at first.

Instead, Brown’s grown sons Owen, Salmon, Frederick, Jason, and John, Jr. decided they should go. They read Emigrant Aid Company material that depicted Kansas as especially verdant and promising. With Ohio in a drought, they must have seen little sense in sticking around. If the kids went, might Brown not go too? Junior asked him and Brown wrote back on August 21, 1854:

If you or any of my family are disposed to go to Kansas or Nebraska, with a view to help defeat Satan and his legions in that direction, I have not a word to say; but I feel committed to operate in another part of the field. If I were not so committed, I would be on my way this fall.

In other words, Brown still dreamed of the Adirondacks and the black colony Gerrit Smith set up there. An in-law of Brown’s, Samuel Adair, already aimed to go so the Brown boys would have a friendly face on the frontier. He had made promises to Smith and to the black community. He felt at home and at peace in North Elba. John Brown couldn’t turn away.

Frederick Douglass

On November 2, 1854, he wrote to his children that expected the elder boys to strike for Kansas. He felt “still pretty much determined to go back to North Elba.” But even by this point, Brown had his doubts. It appears that he wrote to Smith and Frederick Douglass for advice, as he says

Gerrit Smith wishes me to go back to North Elba; from Douglass and Dr. McCune Smith I have not yet heard.

Here Stephen Oates cites a letter in the Brown papers I dearly wish I had access to. As Oakes tells it, brown felt “hard pressed” to relocate to Kansas

as more likely to benefit the colored people on the whole than to return with them to N. Elba.

In his consultations, Brown did something remarkable for a nineteenth century American white man yet again: he asked his family in New York to consult with North Elba’s black community. Brown said

As I volunteered in their services; they should have a right to vote, as to course I should take.

Caught in a genuine dilemma, unsure of what he should do, John Brown believed that his black neighbors should have perhaps the controlling say in the further course of his life. He, in his own words, gave them a vote. Without it, he doesn’t sound at all inclined to give up on his commitment to them.

“Malignant spirits” John Brown and North Elba, Part 3

John Brown

Parts 1, 2

We left off looking at the resolutions that John Brown wrote for his League of Gileadites, wherein he laid out his plan for fighting slave catchers and remarkably declared that he considered black Americans his people just as much as he did whites. The League would take any who came and provide arms to those who couldn’t afford them. The young and infirm would serve as lookouts and messengers. From there the resolutions moved on to administration matters.

Brown got forty-four people to sign on as Gileadites, though it seems they never carried out his advice. Slave catchers never arrived in Springfield to give them cause and local law enforcement declined to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act anyway. His rhetoric made the league into an exceptional example of planned resistance to the law, part of the general northern revulsion toward it that elsewhere resulted in violent fugitive rescues.

A few days after the meeting, Brown wrote to his wife up at North Elba on the same subject. He knew that former slaves lived in the community, some of whom had stolen themselves. Brown told Mary that the relief of fugitives had occupied his mind in Ohio. They suffered “sleepless nights on account of either themselves or their wives and children.” He believed that the Gileadite meeting boosted their spirits, then he underlined in private for his wife what he said in public in the League’s resolutions:

I want all my family to imagine themselves in the same dreadful condition.

Few nineteenth century whites in the United States would bid one another to do any such thing. White abolitionists can come close to it, but their appeals tend to focus more on pity than empathy as such.

John Brown spent the next few years trying to repair his finances from the ruin of his wool business. That involved many trips, and court appearances. Brown fared poorly at the bar, traveling and losing most of his cases everywhere from Boston to Ohio. He finally settled down back in Springfield with empty pockets and ill with malaria. The rest of the family -Mary bore Brown’s nineteenth child in this time- didn’t do much better. The new baby didn’t make it, dying of whooping cough. That made nine children who didn’t survive to date.

Frederick Douglass

But North Elba called. Brown arranged for an in-law to build him a house there. He finally dissolved his wool partnership and aimed to quit Ohio as soon as he could afford it. To manage that, Brown rented three farms and hoped for an adequate payday come harvest. He remained on them when the Kansas-Nebraska Act appeared in the Senate. Brown wrote Frederick Douglass shortly thereafter:

What punishment ever inflicted by man or even threatened by God, can be too severe for those whose influence is a thousand times more malignant than the atmosphere of the deadly Upas-for those who hate the right and Most High.

Brown damned the legislators who voted for proslavery laws “malignant spirits” and “fiends clothed in human form.” He extended the description to everyone who enforced the laws and argued in their favor. Proslavery divines insulted the Almighty directly. What had become of the country, for such people to go on in impunity? He asked Douglass to revise his arguments into suitable form and bring them to public attention.

Christianity and Slavery

The abolitionists don’t figure very large in the general memory of the American Civil War. They deserve quite a bit more prominence, but then we would have to all admit just what the majority of the slave states chose to fight for. When they do come up, one often hears about them of people of great Christian virtue. Through their example, they give proof positive that we need more Christianity in our lives and, more pointedly, our government. The speakers will sometimes make a faint ecumenical gesture and say “faith” or “religion” but they mean Christianity. Nobody honestly thinks they mean we need to get right with Zeus. Nor do they mean any of Christianity available, but rather their specific sort.

I don’t want to debate the merits of that suggestion today but, in discussing such a sensitive topic, fairness demands I lay my cards on the table. I am a thoroughgoing secular humanist, an unbeliever in every religious creed of which I have heard and expect ever to hear. While I have a significant interest in religions as cultural and historical phenomena, they do not engage me as they would a believer. At this point I must add, because the question naturally arises and some who agree with me on some points of understanding with regard to religion opt to make asses of themselves, that I don’t think religion necessarily makes morally or intellectually inferior or that irreligion makes one in the same ways superior. I have not come here today to praise faith of any sort or to damn it, but my perspective does come necessarily informed by unbelief.

LincolnIn the absence of very compelling evidence to the contrary, I take the abolitionists’ religious convictions essentially at face value. They understood slavery as an abomination in the eyes of their god and took up arms, eventually literally, against it. The line from their faith to their action seems fairly straightforward. As Christians, they believed Christians could not hold slaves. To do so turned them away from the Almighty and invited his wrath

if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln never made for much of an abolitionist until the very end, but most of them would have heard their convictions in that.

If I could end there, I wouldn’t have bothered to write this. Antislavery Americans did have secular arguments against slavery and we would do well to understand them, but they had religious scruples as well. One does not negate the other. The problem comes in the fact that proslavery Americans did much the same. They, as Christians, believed that they ought to hold slaves. They believed that through slavery they taught a savage and inferior race the rudiments of civilization and brought the light of faith to otherwise damned souls.

How studiously they tended to that Christian obligation naturally varied. Anything that seemed likely to lead to literate slaves, particularly gathering with other slaves under minimal or no supervision, could raise eyebrows and provoke suffocating scrutiny if it somehow escaped legal proscription. Likewise we should consider that the enslavers thought the right sort of Christianity might pacify their restive human property. But we can’t deny a genuine, if far from benevolent, missionary impulse played its part.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

We take antislavery Christians seriously when they go into their scriptures and come out with religious arguments against slavery. We must grant the same consideration to proslavery Christians who the same. If the abolitionists could draw a straight line from their faith to their politics, why couldn’t the other side? I ask because when one sees two contradictory claims, one naturally wonders which has the right of it. While you will find the occasional sort who praise the antebellum South for its fine Christian character, most modern Christians probably agree more with Frederick Douglass:

I FIND, since reading over the foregoing Narrative that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.

To Douglass, enslaver Christianity amounted to no Christianity at all. I have nothing but sympathy for his desire to share no religion with them, just as I dislike sharing the name of atheist with Joseph Stalin. More than that, I see in Douglass an intensely admirable man with whom I do not eagerly disagree on matters of his particular expertise. However, to make a distinction as Douglass does requires us to decide that there exists one true Christianity against which we measure all who claim the name. When we find those who claim the title differ from the true faith, we can pronounce anathema on them.

If believers wish to find that true Christianity and pronounce those anathemas on their own account, they may do so. I don’t consider them insincere or dishonest for it. I do, however, not consider these judgments to have bearing on points of history. The means by which believers make these distinctions amongst themselves come down to theological commitment and devotional exercise, with historical argument rarely playing even a peripheral role. Even apparently objective criteria like examining the statements of Jesus in the Bible inescapably come freighted with presumptions about the role of scripture and its correct methods of interpretation which have caused intense, sometimes bloody, controversy within Christianity for so long as the religion has existed.

Granted a particular set of premises about them, I might make the same judgment. But which of the competing Christianities ought one take as definitive? History offers no answer to that, nor can it. We can say which Christianity we find more admirable and thus would rather prevail, of course. The question, however, often comes to rather more than that. By asking which Christianity deserves the name, we make an implicit judgment about Christianity. Do we consider it primarily good or bad?

Here I must demur. I see Christianity as far too large and sweeping a thing to reduce to a one word answer. We may as well as the question about freedom or government and then find ourselves instead considering the freedom to do what or from what, or which government, doing what, and when. Christians, motivated by and in service of their faith, fought slavery. Other Christians, motivated by and in service of their faith, fought for slavery. Christians have done good and evil, each time citing their faith as the cause. On a personal level, religion has brought great agonies and great comfort. Beautiful works of art and horrifying destruction alike have come from hearts fired by faith. Proslavery and antislavery Christians alike saw good, honest, faithful faces in the mirror. I prefer the latter; I hope you do as well. But our preferences can only tell us about ourselves, just as the preferences of historical actors tell us about them. Frederick Douglass considered slavery evil and Christianity good. Therefore an enslaving Christian made as much sense as a square circle or six-sided triangle. The enslavers, by and large, thought the opposite. Abolitionists, they held, had wandered from the true light of faith. With that in mind, I can only say that historically Christianity proved equally compatible with slavery and abolition.

I apologize if my answers don’t satisfy, but I have no others to give.

The Klansman Wears a Mask

Klan CartoonOne snowy day in very late 1991 or early 1992, my mother parked the car in the lot down by the river. We got out and walked the half block to a decayed movie palace, now almost unrecognizable after four renovations, for one of the first films written for primarily for adults that I recall seeing on the big screen, Fried Green Tomatoes. One of the scenes therein has the spunky women in the 1930s flashbacks confront a man over his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. I no longer have a copy of the film to check, but I recall that he denies it. Like any good Klansman, he wore a mask. She pointed to his singular shoe size as evidence of his involvement. Around this time, I read ahead in my history textbook and learned that the Klan adopted its odd rituals and unique dress sense to frighten “superstitous” freedpeople.

For many years, I did not put the things together. I didn’t think much about the Klan, except as a generic group of villains. My textbook didn’t dwell on what they did to actually scare people, only that they did. In 1999, I took my one class on the Civil War, where the teacher went a bit beyond the syllabus to inform us that the freedpeople could see that Klansmen left bodies broken on the ground or hanging from trees. Their horses made the same marks on the ground as any others, not ectoplasm-filled depressions. Probably most of their victims knew, or could make a pretty good guess, as to just which of their white neighbors stood behind the mask.

You don’t hear much from the Klan proper, these days. It has gone over the past handful of decades from a respectable (to whites) organization of white men bent on defending that most sacred and inviolate of American traditions, white supremacy, from the foreign influences of equality, immigration, and integration to a national laughingstock and whipping boy. If white-robed masses once marched on Washington, now when they gather the police appear to protect them from the much larger counter-demonstrations. The familiar hoods and robes come mainly from the Klan of the 1920s rather than the Reconstruction Klan, but both used masks when they felt necessary.

The theatricality served its purposes, then and now. I suspect most of us remember the Klan, when we think about it at all, as a collection of truly vile human beings known for their odd rituals. We know that they opposed the Civil Rights movement and have a record going back to Reconstruction. We might imagine them as violent, but mainly they have these ridiculous costumes. They offer up to us the kind of evil we most like, the sort from the cliche western where every villain declares himself with a black hat and optional kicked puppy. The Invisible Empire announced itself as something clear and distinct, an evil imagined as a country one could go out and conquer or an army to destroy. It even has the kindness to come down to us as a spent and dead force, around which we can do an unearned victory lap.

This memory, so far as it goes, has more historical evidence to support it than many. The Klan did have silly costumes. When one delves deeper into the subject, the violence takes center stage. Together or separately, they can do what stories of martial valor and romantic, nineteenth century manhood do to the memory of the Civil War and distract one from the reason for the whole affair. The Klan did not congeal out of some abstract desire to do evil by their own lights any more than any other group does. They had a politics, just as the original members had had when they signed up for their Confederate uniforms. Though I’ve called them Klan politics for purposes of illustration and brevity, the Klan did not invent them. That honor probably belongs to largely unknown Europeans in the early Chesapeake who discovered, to their delight, their own whiteness and its lack in others. Whatever the name, its practitioners acted in conscious pursuit of that politics, however random and anarchic their campaign of terror might seem from our remove. Black Americans could not live free; they would make sure of it.

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

The Klan, as an organization, has seen better days. Its politics have taken a beating too, but not nearly so much as we would like to think. Klan politics had a very good November this year. The Syrian refugees gave my governor, many others, presidential candidates, and congressmen a chance to put join the Invisible Empire. Few demurred. Syrians, as they share part of an address and part of a religion with ISIS/ISIL/Daesh/those murderous fanatics, must embody terrorism to the last particle of their beings. While not African, Klan politics construe the Syrian as similarly other and thus an abomination. In the Twenties, the Slav and the Catholic played the same part.

Hatred of the other in the United States probably must roll downhill to the nation’s most conspicuous other, Americans of dark skin. Even as nineteenth century Americans imagined the Irish as white, if a dramatically inferior sort of white, their racial theories and stereotyping linked them to black Americans. Scholars crafting races measured skulls and affirmed the Irish more apelike, much closer to African than the pure stock variously imagined as Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, Caucasian, and in later generations Aryan. Thus it made perfect sense to want them controlled, limited, and ideally out of the country. Irish-Americans soon learned the best way to burnish their white credentials: hatred of black Americans. Solidarity with the victim made you a victim, a race traitor, miscegenationist, or other slur of the day. Solidarity with the white supremacist made you part of the club, at least if you worked hard enough at it for long enough.

The classic form of Klan politics remains, of course. To give that up would surrender the entire edifice and leave one open to charges that one should give up the many pleasures of the centuries spent looting lives. Here too, November proved a banner month. A group of Black Lives Matter activists protested outside a police precinct in Minneapolis. Their concern, as usual, involved the police shooting of an unarmed black person, Jamar Clark. For this crime, three white supremacists arrived at the protest and shot five protesters. Since then, others have cruised by brandishing firearms and racial slurs. The perpetrators, unsurprisingly, had the usual sort of interests and affiliations. They even wore masks. One cannot, short of bringing out the white robes, burning cross, and rope, better embody Klan politics.

Klan for AmericansAnd then we have Donald Trump. Trump does not wear a mask, but when a protester disrupted one of his campaign events the crowd attacked him. Mercutio Southall committed no greater crime than engaging in a protest chant at a Trump speech. Had Trump pulled a Stephen Douglas of legend and told him off. That probably would have made the news as conduct somewhat unbecoming a presidential candidate. Calling Trump boorish barely registers more than looking askance at his coiffure, but people seeking the White House just don’t behave like that. Or so we tell ourselves. But his supporters launched themselves at Southall, shouting racial slurs and attacking with fits and feet:

I got punched in the face, I got punched in the neck. I got kicked in the chest. Kicked in the stomach. Somebody stepped on my hand

The man himself had a chance to distance himself from the altercation. The Donald could have condemned his fans’ violence. We know he likes to speak his mind. He even anticipated that one of his events might erupt in violence should someone try what Southall did. Did he take responsibility? Did he stand up and say that when he ordered the crowd to remove Southall, he did not mean to start a fistfight? Not quite:

Trump was asked to weigh in on his supporters’ actions on Fox & Friends Sunday morning. “Maybe he should have been roughed up,” he said. “It was disgusting what he was doing.”

Trump supporters have built up a record for this kind of thing. Two men who urinated on a sleeping , Latino homeless man and then beat him credited Trump as their inspiration. He declared 

that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.”

On twitter, Trump later decided he doesn’t condone violence. Maybe Trump likes to see and sign off on attacks personally, which he could do in Mercutio Southall’s case.

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Trump’s actual response involved segregating the media away from his crowds, which calls to mind how the Chicago Police killed Laquan McDonald. McDonald, running from police, went into a Burger King. There he died, with his killer pumping plenty of extra bullets into the body. This all took place last year, but it took until just now for him to face charges. In the interim, we have learned that the Chicago PD destroyed evidence and intimidated witnesses to protect one of its own. They surely regretted the lack of masks at the time, and endeavored to don them retroactively.

I suspect that I could fill a post with events like these most every month. The particulars would change; we shall not always have Donald Trump to give voice to our national hatreds. But we have done these things for a very long time and show little to no inclination to stop. Instead we take each as a carefully isolated event. None constitute a program. None tell us much about the nation. None of them have a politics. They just happen, no more to do with us than the wind and rain. We cast ourselves not as purposeful agents participant in a culture, but as the perpetually innocent and bewildered. Even people with clear white supremacist ties shooting black protesters, or even just ordinary people in church, doesn’t seem like an act of terrorism, though such behavior comes as routinely in our history as elections.

And why would it? Terrorists do things we disagree with. We respect the masks their Klan politics wear. We must, as we wear the same ourselves. To reveal them reveals us.

I have used the first person plural through this and began with a personal story, because I must include myself. The most deadly act of terrorism on American soil took place in 1995. A skinny white guy, in conjunction with another and probably some others that the FBI didn’t find enough evidence on, parked a truck full of fertilizer and gasoline next to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It exploded, as he planned, and killed 168 people. On hearing this, the day of the attack, I consulted the roll of media stereotypes in my head and assumed we would watch a band of Muslim men with beards. I did as told; as I had been trained for all my fourteen years. I too wore the mask.

We don’t have to keep wearing it. Federick Douglass used to introduce himself to crowds as the possessor of stolen goods; he stole his body. He had little choice in the matter; we insisted. We imagine we have little choice in the matter, but we also insist upon that. Most of us will never make history. We live ordinary, boring lives. Given the sort of excitement that features in notable lives, you can’t really blame anyone for taking a pass on historical fame. Maybe even all together we couldn’t turn this thing around, take off the mask, and do any better than we have. Maybe even if we did, we have arranged things too well to ever fix. We do things every day that we cannot undo.

We also do things which we say we cannot undo because we do not want them undone. We put on the mask to hide things we don’t want seen. Once slavery seemed permanent too, impossible and even inconceivable to end. Now few of us make excuses for it. The mask works for wearer too.

The Slaver’s Lexicon (with insight from @Ed_Baptist)

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

I’ve had this post hiding in the back of my skull for a while, possibly as far back as when I read Freehling’s The Road to Disunion, Volume One. As I’ve yet to drink deeply from the fire hose of slavery historiography, I held off on writing it. Even after The Economist affair it sat quiet in some corner of my mind. But Kevin Levin turned over that stone with this post. He quotes Baptist’s book, which sounds still better every time I hear about it, on the nature of slavery:

Talk about “stealing” forces a focus on the slave trade, on the expansion of slavery, on the right hand in the market, on the left picking ever faster in the cotton fields. In this story there is no good master, no legitimate heir to the ownership of slave property, no kindly plantation owner, only the ability of the strong to take from others. Stealing can never be an orderly system undergirded by property rights, cushioned by family-like relationships. There is no balance between contradictory elements. There is only chaos and violence. So when enslaved people insisted that the slave trade was the crystalline form of slavery-as-theft, they ripped the veils off a modern and modernizing form of slavery, one that could not be stabilized or contained. Constant disruption, creation, and destruction once more: this was its nature. (p. 189)

The authors of slave narratives sometimes refer to stealing themselves. In comments, Kevin quotes Frederick Douglass on the matter:

I appear this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master, and ran off with them.

Douglass certainly did that. He took another man’s property without permission by running away. But we seldom use that phrasing. I know that I have in the past, but rarely. More often we speak in terms of runaways. Children run away, but we know that they should be at home if everything has gone right. Livestock runs away. Trains and cars run away. In each case, we view these runaways as deviations from the natural order. Even saying someone has a runaway imagination carries with it at least a mild reproof. They’ve gotten carried away and abandoned good sense. Furthermore, each scenario implies a need for correction. Someone must stop, corral, find, or secure the runaway object or person.

Douglass famously made himself a fugitive. Fugitives have broken the law, making them criminals, but go a step farther still: They run from justice. They have not just done wrong, but even more completely isolated themselves from orthodox society by fleeing its corrective apparatus. Before advances in criminal justice, the common law made fugitives into outlaws and encouraged ordinary people who saw them to execute them at will. Though sanctioned by law and thus not technically lynching, such an execution might look much the same.

We take our cue on the latter from the fugitive slave act in labeling slaves that stole themselves, of course. People called them that at the time and it generally makes sense to use period terms rather than anachronisms. But in calling slaves who steal themselves runaways and fugitives, don’t we to some measure conceal the reality of slavery? The language suggests, even if we don’t intend it to, that a slave belongs to his or her master in the correct order of things. That may not raise problems when we characterize the views of slaveholders; we need not share someone’s views in order to report them.

But do we really stop with that language when we stop characterizing the views of slaveholders and switch to a more general voice? I don’t think that most of us do, myself included. We inherit the biases of our sources, which have a long history of privileging the master’s perspective over the slave. The last few generations of historians have made tremendous gains in reversing that trend, but these things often move slowly. Only in the last few years have we seen Hollywood move away from a faithfully Lost Cause depiction of slavery and the Confederacy. Defenses of slavery as something ultimately good for African-Americans remain current in some corners of American thought. One of them reached some fame this past year:

“And because they [Black Americans, though Bundy prefers the term ‘negro’] were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Freedmen's Bureau cartoon

A cartoon attacking the Freedmen’s Bureau for encouraging idleness

Less freedom than under slavery. Past generations didn’t even bother with the act, skipping right to simply calling black people lazy as the slaveholders did, even if they sometimes cloaked it in a scientific guise. Crude racism goes a long way toward accounting for this, but there are other human foibles at work. I suspect that most people flinch from a full-bore examination of the horrors of slavery. They don’t make for easy reading and lack the obvious immediacy that present day horrors have, even if we still live in the world they made. Looking away tends to preserve one’s impression of the peculiar institution as wrong in some vague, general sense rather than having a firm command of what it entailed that made it so wrong. This runs the risk of making slavery into a fairly venal sin, like cutting in line or using coarse language. By giving ourselves the luxury of obscurity we more easily inherit the language and attitudes of the very people and practices that otherwise condemn.

Changing the language will not change the reality, but it can help change our perception of reality. That might necessitate some kind of action. At the very least it raises one’s consciousness of the real, hard facts. This probably explains why most of us, myself included, don’t change our language.

Bountiful Whips

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

The insecurity of slavery in the Border South stimulated many extreme measures to defend it, including the Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The presence of so many whites, so few blacks, and so many outsiders made the hard-nosed, violent ways that the Lower South constructed white solidarity harder to exercise and more likely to backfire. Thus Kansas became a test case for whether or not Border South slavery could endure.

I intended to follow immediately along on that thread today, but have lately taken up Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. I picked up a very cheap Barnes & Noble edition some time ago and it finally reached the top of my pile. Born in Maryland, Douglass lived under the Border State slavery regime. In the course of telling his own story, he tells many others about how his fellow slaves suffered. I read one of those just today and it struck me as a good way to turn things back, at least for a moment, from a story about the future of white settlement in Kansas and the implications it had for the white man’s Union to a story of how white Americans suppressed the agency and stole the lives of black Americans.

Douglass wrote about an overseer, the aptly named Austin Gore, who excelled at his job. He could turn anything a slave did into a sign of insubordination and would readily answer that with the lash.

Mr. Gore was a grave man, and, though a young man, he indulged in no jokes, said no funny words, seldom smiled. His words were in perfect keeping with his looks, and his looks were in perfect keeping with his words. Overseers will sometimes indulge in a witty word, even with slaves; not so with Mr. Gore. He spoke but to command, and commanded but to be obeyed; he dealt sparingly with his words, and bountifully with his whip, never using the former where the latter would answer as well. When he whipped, he seemed to do so from a sense of duty, and feared no consequences. he did nothing reluctantly, no matter how disagreeable; always at his post, never inconsistent. He never promised but to fulfil.

Leaving aside Gore’s exact job, he sounds like a model employee. People at the time didn’t have to set aside the job to make that call, since they knew full well that they wanted someone to manage slaves. Manage them, Gore did:

His savage barbarity was equalled only by the consummate coolness with which he committed the grossest and most savage deeds upon the slaves under his charge. Mr. Gore once undertook to whip one of Colonel Lloyd’s slaves, by the name of Demby. He had given Demby but a few stripes, when, to get rid of the scourging, he ran and plunged himself into a creek, and stood there at the depth of his shoulders, refusing to come out. Mr Gore told him that he would give him three calls, and that, if he did not come out at the third call, he would shoot him. The first call was given. Demby made no response, but stood his ground. the second and third calls were given with the same result. Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional call, raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood.

Gore did not own Demby. He belonged to Gore’s boss. Thus he had to answer for destruction of property. That didn’t bother Gore in the slightest. He told his employer

that Demby had become unmanageable. He was setting a dangerous example to the other slaves,-one which, if suffered to pass without some demonstration on his part, would finally lead to the total subversion of all rule and order upon the plantation. He argued that if one slave refused to be corrected, and escaped with his life, the other slave would soon copy the example; the result of which would be, the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the whites.

Gore kept his job and his reputation spread. He knew his business. So did the 545 other Maryland men who listed their profession as overseer on the 1850 census. More would do the job for themselves and thus might tell the census that they farmed or planted. Over in Missouri, the same census found only 64 overseers. Maryland had a few counties that looked like bits of the Lower South, more than half enslaved. Missouri’s most enslaved county, Howard, could only manage 5,886 slaves out of 15,946 people, 36.91%.

Small wonder that Stringfellow, Atchison, and the rest felt so vulnerable. Even Maryland, with half its black population free, could produced better slavery numbers than Missouri could. They might have already lost their home state, so best secure the one next door. Otherwise they might find black Americans voting, with their feet or otherwise.

David Blight & Frederick Douglass on Memorial Day

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

I forgot this existed some time ago, but a friend reminded me today. Here’s David Blight on the first Memorial Day. The very, very short version is that black Americans appear to have invented Memorial day. You can find Blight’s whole course here. The individual lectures have pretty good transcripts available on their respective pages.  If the video isn’t your thing, here’s the relevant part from the transcript:

And the very night of that ceremony, which was the 14th of April, they held a banquet of a sort in a building that had a roof on it, back in Charleston, and that was the very night, of course, that Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington. But the black folks of Charleston had planned one more ceremony. That ceremony was a burial ceremony. It turns out that during the last months of the war the Confederate Army turned the planter’s horse track, a racecourse — it was called the Washington Racecourse — into an open air cemetery — excuse me, prison. And in that open air prison, in the infield of the horse track — about 260-odd Union soldiers had died of disease and exposure — and they were buried in unmarked graves in a mass gravesite out behind the grandstand of the racetrack. And by the way, there was no more important and symbolic site in low country planter/slaveholding life then their racetrack.

Well, the black folks at Charleston got organized, they knew about all this. They went to the site. They re-interred all the graves, the men. They couldn’t mark them with names, they didn’t have any names. Then they made them proper graves and they built a fence all the way around this cemetery, about 100 yards long and fity, sixty yards deep, and they whitewashed the fence and over an archway they painted the inscription “Martyrs of the Racecourse.” And then on May 1st 1865 they held a parade of 10,000 people, on the racetrack, led by 3000 black children carrying armloads of roses and singing John Brown’s Body, followed then by black women, then by black men — it was regimented this way — then by contingents of Union infantry. Everybody marched all the way around the racetrack; as many as could fit got into the gravesite. Five black preachers read from scripture. A children’s choir sang the national anthem, America the Beautiful, and several spirituals, and then they broke from that and went back into the infield of the racetrack and did essentially what you and I do on Memorial Day, they ran races, they listened to sixteen speeches, by one count, and the troops marched back and forth and they held picnics. This was the first Memorial Day.

African-Americans invented Memorial Day, in Charleston, South Carolina. There are three or four cities in the United States, North and South, that claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day, but they all claim 1866; they were too late.

Since I’m here and on the subject, Andy Hall has Frederick Douglass’ Decoration Day speech of 1871 over at Dead Confederates:

When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.

I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to hat terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.

The speech naturally invites comparison with Douglass’ Fourth of July speech. I don’t know that Douglass ever quite got over that; I don’t know that anybody could. Perhaps they shouldn’t. Regardless, the nation went out of its way to give him little reason to forgive and forget as the 1800s rolled on. But Douglass had in mind the narrow subject of men who gave their lives in ending slavery, not broad American patriotism.

As history rarely runs low on disappointments, Andy also brings word of how Arlington National Cemetery has neglected a section full of the graves of black soldiers and civilians to the point where many have simply vanished.

The Agency of Black Americans

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Most of what goes on this blog relates to political history. My education and interests run strongest there. A political history naturally focuses on political actors. They typically include elected officials, influential newspaper men, public intellectuals, and other people of that sort. This omits the vast multitudes of humanity from the story as anything more than a sort of bit of the environment. To the degree that ordinary people enter the narrative, they generally do so as collective masses expressing their opinions through generalization. Of necessity, we tend to use public figures as their spokesmen.

All of that goes only so far. In nineteenth century America, the traditional field of political actors includes fairly exclusively white men. Women did not vote. Black men did not vote anywhere outside New England. Nowhere did any black person or any woman hold elected office. A few enter the story anyway through their conspicuous deeds, most famously Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. To their number we could add other fugitive slaves and their sensational stories, people like Ellen and William Craft, Anthony Burns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), Shadrach Minkins, and Thomas Sims.

One might hold, as E.B. Long does in the appendices to his The Civil War Day by Day, that the nation’s slave population amounted to “more-than-interested spectators, and occasionally participants.” I follow William W. Freehling in considering their acts and agency an often overlooked aspect of antebellum America. Slaves had no votes, but they voted with their feet all the same. Without runaways, one has no fugitives and thus no fugitive slaves to inflame the Border South and inspire resistance in the North. Slaves might have lacked conventional political character, but their actions had great political impact.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The fear of fugitives and their abolitionist enablers establishing themselves in Kansas spurred men like David Rice Atchison, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, and groups like their Platte County Self-Defense Association into action. The proslavery extremism that opened Kansas and the rest of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery via the Kansas-Nebraska Act in turn inflamed the North and inspired the founding of Emigrant Aid Societies. Those in turn convinced the slaveholders in western Missouri that they had a real menace on their hands which justified extreme action.

All of this loops back to black Americans seeking their freedom and white Americans bent on keeping them slaves. That struck very close to home for western Missouri’s slaveholders. Exposed, living amid both slaves and whites who sometimes openly questioned slavery and wished it gone, living in a state that had very recently had a senator who avowed that proslavery extremism threatened the Union, they had every reason to feel insecure even before antislavery Americans declared their intent to seize Kansas for freedom.

But at least one more slave had her own role to play in working Missouri’s slaveholders into a fever. An enslaved woman named Celia and her possible lover, George, murdered her owner and likely serial rapist. They then burned the body. That could have happened to any slaveholder. Who knew what really lurked behind the eyes of their human property? Worse still, while white Missourians caught and hanged Celia, George escaped the state. If the abolitionists took Kansas, they could only inspire more such acts. Four slaves ran from Platte County two days before the Platte County Self-Defense Association formed, further underlining their peril.

Much of antebellum history involves whites acting upon blacks. We can easily slip into viewing this as E.B. Long did, but it behooves us to remember that the protection and expansion of slavery came into the minds of slaveholders because their treasured institution required the suppression of black agency. Whites could and did do horrible things to slaves, but they did those things to keep their control over black lives. Every controversy over slavery amounted to that, ultimately. Black agency proved impossible to completely erase and so the next radical step had to come and come again or the whole edifice would crumble.