In Defense of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Gentle Readers, some of you might enjoy my prose but I suspect you keep reading for the history. That history comes from a mix of original research on my part and the work of others, who guide me to documents and further work through their footnotes. A typical post begins with my reading what a historian has said about something, checking those footnotes, and then reading the sources if I can access them. In the course of that, I also come on things by chance. If you read the acknowledgements of any history book, you’ll find long lists of colleagues, archivists, and others thanked. Still more fill the citations. Every work of history owes much to unnumbered collaborators from librarians to mentors to students, friends, and family.

And they cost money. I do my research through an internet connection, but I can do that because of you. For decades the United States has used tax dollars to fund historical research in much the same way, albeit rather less generously, as it does science. Those countless historians digging through the archives often do so with government grants. If you look through the citations of any history book, except perhaps the most narrow and technical works, you will find numerous references to widely-scattered archives. Even if one has the good fortune to live near an important archive, others always remain that require travel expenses. That’s gas for your car, your airfare, hotel costs, and historians have long accustomed themselves to eating while they do all of this. Grants and other federal funds make meeting those expenses far easier, especially for the vast majority of historians who lack the considerable wealth of the few academic superstars who regularly hit the bestseller lists.

If you have ever read a history book published in the United States in the last fifty years, you have almost certainly read a work that received support from our government many times over. In addition to the historians themselves, the United States funds many of the archives used. It has funded work I do here, by way of the digitization projects which have made so many documents available to me. I lack the funds and ability to travel to Kansas or Missouri where I might find bound volumes or loose issues of those nineteenth century papers. I journey to them through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. If you have a local museum, university, college, historical site, or library, then your community probably has had funding from them too. The NEH has a search function you can use to find what it has done for your town.

We have a public library here with an impressive local history room, which received $6,000 in 2009. To the best of my knowledge it doesn’t have any interesting slavery-related materials, but I have had occasion to use it all the same. Last fall, my father saw a news report about the anniversary of a plane crash. He vaguely recalled the event but not any details, so one Tuesday we hopped in the car and got over to the public library, which hosts the collection. I thought we would probably have to go through the microfilm and we found the proper reel, but we no sooner did that than a librarian came over. She told us that they kept clippings from the local newspaper for aircraft disasters. In less than five minutes, we sat down in a pleasant little room with one of the gray archival boxes you see in the documentaries. We came away with almost everything we needed to know. My father wanted to know about a monument that the families had built on public land. The librarian knew a few local people who studied that kind of thing and put me on the phone with one, who gave us directions. That NEH grant paid for our afternoon’s research and facilitated a thoroughly pleasant afternoon together.

The loser of the 2016 presidential election got to be president anyway. This past week he submitted a budget which does not merely cut the NEH, but actually eliminates it on the grounds, presumably, that the NEH has never killed a sufficient number of people as to impress him with its hard power bona fides. I consider it eminently worth keeping, and vastly increasing, simply for the good work it does. You can’t put a dollar value on the greater understanding of ourselves that the humanities provide. But if one insists, then the NEH consumes such a tiny part of the four trillion dollar budget that eliminating it wouldn’t pay for a brand new aircraft carrier or some other war-winning gadget for a war we have yet to embark upon. If one feels an overriding need to slash spending for its own sake, then the president might well look at his own travel budget. His weekend jaunts to his vacation home in Florida have already cost us millions, rather more than almost every historian will ever see.

The cuts to the arts and humanities will not kill anyone, which is more than I can say for most of the cuts that Trump prefers, but they do strike to the heart of this blog’s mission. I hope you will join me in condemning them and making your opposition known.

Recent Reading (Septemeber-October 2016)

Gentle Readers, I feel like a tour of the bookshelf wouldn’t hurt. We left off back in August, where I had just finished Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. Since then, many pages have flown, and occasionally crawled, by.

I followed up Foner with Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Berlin made for a complicated, occasionally confusing, but valuable read. He does what he says in the title, taking us from the first enslaved arrivals to about 1800. He further does so in a regional format, separating out the Mississippi Valley, the Lower South, the Upper South, and the North for individual treatment. Berlin breaks each down into a rough sequence of generations, around which he organizes the book. The generation format proved very helpful in charting both regional differences and development over time. Berlin’s Mississippi Valley rushes through the tentative states of feeling out a slave system into an early plantation boom, which then falls apart in the face of a large slave revolt and only re-emerges as a slave society toward the end of the book. His North looks at first like it will always have only marginal slavery, only to ramp up and begin to resemble the South in the middle of the eighteenth century. It may have gone all the way, but the Revolution intervened and cut off the supply of new slaves. The Upper and Lower South chart more familiar courses, but distinguish themselves meaningfully toward the end where the less numerous free people of color in the Lower South, largely concentrated in cities, develop into something like a distinct class between black and white. In the Upper South, freedpeople find themselves instead forced to stay at the bottom with the slaves.

All of this makes for many moving parts. In doing so, it helpfully complicates a picture of slavery necessarily oriented more toward the mature late Antebellum system. The generalities largely hold, but highlighting the exceptions and nuances gives a far deeper understanding of just how slavery functioned with the constant tension between enslaver and enslaved. Berlin’s use of the term negotiation for that raised my eyebrows. He considers it problematic himself, taking pains to stress that the enslavers hold all the cards and he means nothing like a negotiation between equals. Berlin’s meaning becomes clear easily enough, all the same. The enslaved constantly want to exert control over their lives, protect their families, and secure what safety and prosperity they can. Enslavers want to eradicate that control and completely reduce their human property to the status of livestock, but the practical inability to govern or supervise every second of their lives makes that quest impossible. Looking at slavery like that does not minimize its cruelty, but does stress how real people with conflicting goals pushed against one another (and the enslaved almost always lose, but make important gains on the margins) in a constant dynamic rather than a static system of dominance.

From Berlin, I set into Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. Gentle Readers, I did not think I could like Lee much less than I did before I started. Pryor showed me otherwise. Please don’t read this as suggesting she wrote a hit piece. Frequently Pryor shows remarkable sympathy for her subject. His endless career frustrations and time spent away from his family clearly weigh on him. He has obvious talents as an engineer that often go neglected or wasted. He encourages loved ones to avoid the military and thus the mistakes he made. But Lee also has a petty side. His West Point cadets knew him as a martinet. He could do little for his friends, while expecting them to do much for him. He only dislikes slavery because he finds managing slaves disinclined to obey him and doubles-down on the cruelty as a remedy.

Pryor wrote a good, important work. One comes out the end of it with a much stronger understanding of Lee the man. But her format works against her on occasion. She insisted she would not write a biography, but then essentially did. Each chapter begins with a letter from or to Lee, usually in full. Sometimes full exchanges see print. They proceed in rough chronological order through his life. She does her best to make each chapter’s biographical essay and analysis about its own distinct subject, but they inevitably blend together. I might have had an easier time with it if she went with more standard thematic chapters, though it would come at the cost of understanding the arc of the Marble Man’s life. Given I don’t intend to read any other Lee biography, I can’t complain too much.

About halfway through Pryor, an acquaintance suggested that the two of us read Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 together. I happily agreed, even breaking with my usual practice to write real reading notes on each chapter. The book deserves all the praise it gets, though I feel Foner regrettably neglected to integrate the widespread violence into the story as much as he might have. Foner’s admiration of and inspiration by the twentieth century Civil Rights movement shines through on every page, to the point where one could slip and forget that politics happened as much or more with bullets, rope, whips, fists, flesh, blood, and terror as with ballot boxes and elected officials. I doubt Foner himself would write it that way today; he stresses the violence more in recent lectures he’s given. At some point I intend to revisit the era through more recent works that do highlight the violence more.

After Foner, I finished Pryor and then went on to Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War by Michael Morrison. I went into Morrison expecting largely old news, given how my studies for the blog have gone. Sure enough, I found parts where he reiterated things I already knew for pages on end. It happens to everybody once you start reading in depth about a subject. But Morrison brought an attention to party politics to bear that turned a theme of previous works into the dominant narrative thread. Doing so linked together more firmly many things I knew in general, particularly with regard to the breaking of the Democracy. That kind of history has gone somewhat out of fashion, for many good reasons, but getting a fresh dose of it proved extremely helpful to me.

Skipping ahead a few books, we come to River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson. After multiple books about white politics, I wanted something with a stronger slavery focus. Johnson delivered. His book concerns itself deeply with slavery, including frequent quotations from slave narratives. These form the center of the book, but on a broader level Johnson asks an unusual question. Most antebellum surveys begin at Sumter and work backwards. We know what happened, so how did we get there? Johnson focuses far more on on the world of possibilities open to the Mississippi Valley enslavers. He asks not what they seceded from, but rather what they hoped to secede to. Secession, while clearly the most important of the dreams they contemplated, comes at the end of a forest of options.

Of those, Johnson focuses the most on filibustering. That focus got me to read the book, as few historians treat filibustering as more than a sideshow. In doing so, Johnson paints a Deep South that has filled up as far as many of its boosters think it can manage. They need more something or the rising price of slaves means that white solidarity may soon crack as disgruntled nonslaveholders realize their economic mobility will never come. The Mississippi Valley defined itself on the move, improvising, expanding, lying, cheating, exploiting with no end in sight. But the might have dome to an end after all. Filibusters might open up new horizons once more. Poor whites could move to virgin land and buy slaves to work it. New Orleans merchants fretting over the railroad redirecting trade could look forward to a Caribbean empire centered on their port. Like Berlin, Johnson has a keen eye for the dynamism of the systems in play. He also has a keen appreciation for irony and symbolism. Nor, in all of that, does he for a moment let you forget that he talks about the dirty business of real lives spent for money; no amount of literary flourish obscures how Johnson writes about a world filled with horrors.

Some Recent Reading (August 2016)

I do a lot of reading for the blog. You see a great deal of it in the period documents quoted extensively in just about every post. I also read full-length books by modern historians, which appear less frequently as such but always inform my writing. Now and then I even get my hands on journal articles. Astonishingly enough, a history blogger frequently reads history. Often, I have read that history very slowly. Historians can produce excellent prose, but most do not. The job is to communicate information and analysis rather than to have one on the edge of one’s seat with suspense. We all know everybody died at the end. I mostly muddle through, though I possess sufficient quantities of boringness that now and then a book really does grab me.

The past three books have gone rather differently. I developed a system. Did you know they divide books into chapters? I have ignored these things for ages, just reading until I get tired of it and moving on. This produced considerably inconsistency. Sometimes I would read for an hour or two, sometimes ten minutes. Over time I got the sense that often I made no progress through books, which served as a disincentive to continue. Three books back, I decided to try what I do for this blog. You’ve no doubt noticed that I have a preferred length for blog posts. Ideally, they run for about one idea and 300-500 words. I hit the one idea mark rarely, but the words much more consistently. I usually end up between 500 and 600. Wordy nineteenth century authors work against me. Then I stop, most of the time. I often could write more, and sometimes bank a few days ahead, but it feels like a good balance between the willingness of readers to push on in a conventionally short form medium like a blog and my own endurance. I feel done, but not exhausted, when I finish. I have settled on using chapters as a similar benchmark. If I finish a chapter a day, I have done my duty to research and can move on or continue as I like. Gentle Readers, your author has reached the third grade at last.

That dazzlingly complex routine has pushed me along through James Huston’s Calculating the Value of the Union. A genuine slavery scholar recommended it to me. Huston, despite his protests, writes very little new. The South had a massive investment in slave property with which it would not lightly part. What distinguishes his work comes more in the remarkably thoroughness of it. He has economic graphs and charts upon charts, which he carefully walks through in prose sections. Huston approaches the question as an economic historian to an almost maddening degree at points, insisting always on an emphasis in property rights and varying conceptions of them. In other words, antebellum white Southerners considered people an acceptable form of property. At times it verges on recreating the strange theory that great political disputes come down to men discoursing politely in high society, but he pulls from quite crossing the line. As such, Huston wrote a good book that I hesitate to recommend. It features far more numbers than people and discusses almost everything at a highly abstracted level. But if you like that kind of thing, or just love economic graphs, Huston has one hell of a book for you.

From Huston I went to an essay collection: Contesting Slavery: The Politics of Bondage and Freedom in the New American Nation, edited by Matthew Mason and John Craig Hammond. You never know quite what to expect with these, as each chapter comes from a different author and addresses a different topic. I picked it up because I enjoyed Mason’s Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic, which argues persuasively that slavery constituted an important political issue long before either its otherwise anomalous appearance in the Missouri Crisis or the arrival of immediate abolitionism with William Lloyd Garrison in the 1830s. Mason’s book ends with at Missouri. The essays in Contesting Slavery reach from the 1750s to the 1840s, connecting the antislavery defeat in 1820 with the rise of militant abolitionism in the 30s and the re-emergence of more political antislavery in the 1840s. That puts Garrison and company in a much-needed context.

Along the way I also learned much more about the presence of early slave systems in the Old Southwest, which at least complicates the traditional understanding (which I have shared) that the founders simply chose not to bar slavery from the Lower South west of the Appalachians and so it came. Quite the opposite. Slavery already existed on the ground, if not on the scale that it soon would, and westerners of sometimes doubtful loyalty insisted upon it as the price for their allegiance. The weak federal government of the late eighteenth century had little power to either force them into line or enforce a slavery prohibition even had the will existed, though the will also did not exist.

Every essay has worthwhile things to learn; I heartily recommend the collection.

Which brought me to Eric Foner’s dissertation-turned book: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. I came warily to this book. I respect Foner tremendously as a historian, but his first book came out before my parents left high school and covers ground where you would expect subsequent scholars to frequently tread. I might pick up badly outdated ideas, or just see the original version of thought that has become so standard it appears everywhere; old news either way. I feared in vain. I have no doubt that some points of Foner’s have seen revision, but except for the dated language -Foner often refers to “the Negro” and “the race issue”- and a larger focus on direct political action than one would probably have now, it felt contemporary. Nor did Foner simply talk about ideology, though he organizes his chapters around ideological analysis and only does a chronological narrative within them. Rather Foner gave a relatively detailed account of just how the Republican party formed, warts and all. I saw him call it a book about how to build a political party a few years ago, via youtube, and it really is. The last few chapters even include some trailers for his more famous work on Reconstruction in the limits of Free Labor thought. If you want to understand Lincoln’s party before Lincoln led it, you do yourself a disservice not to get a copy.

Missouri Calls for Help

Walter Lynwood Fleming

Walter Lynwood Fleming

Before delving back into the maltreatment of William C. Clark, I wrote about the Kansas Pioneer Association of Jackson County, Missouri. They aimed to do what the Emigrant Aid Societies had done for more than a year: subsidize emigration of politically-reliable white men to Kansas. There they would vote for slavery, vs. the Emigrant Aid Societies’ freedom, and cement the institution’s grip on the nation’s most troubled territory. Missourians had heretofore considered such behavior cheating, but firm principle yielded to clear advantage as often to them as to us. Nor did they come alone to the prosalvery side of the Emigrant Aid Game, though their side did come to the business tardily. Walter Lynwood Fleming explains why in The Buford Expedition to Kansas (PDF). My copy is from Transactions of the Alabama Historical Society, Volume IV (huge PDF) on the grounds that I found it first.

Fleming puts proslavery delay down to how “it was doubtful if the anti-slavery party would ever be strong enough to control the elections” but Yankee Emigrant Aid operations got to work at the job.

In the movement of importing men the North had already two years the start, the South being confident that no exertion would be necessary in order to secure Kansas as a slave State. So there was very little pro-slavery emigration into this debatable land before late in 1856 except from the neighboring State of Missouri.

Fleming then recounts how the first territorial elections went in favor of the South. He neglects how the South ensured what, whether he means the delegate election of November, 1854, or the legislative elections of March, 1855. As a member of the Dunning School, Fleming leaned proslavery about as hard as one could at the turn of the twentieth century. That proslavery Missourians invaded Kansas in large numbers to control the territorial elections seems to simply not register as relevant to him. Come late 1855 “the outlook was gloomy for the pro-slavery cause.”


Pro-slavery emigrant aid societies were now organized in Missouri, and soon other similar societies were formed in the remaining Southern States. Missouri appealed to her sister States in the South to come to her assistance.

I haven’t found the original appeal online anywhere; my searching turns up Fleming’s citation and ought else. But he does quote from it. Citing the two years of southern reverses, which Missouri had born alone, the appeal held

The time has come when she can no longer stand up single-handed, the lone champion of the South, against the myrmidons of the North. It requires no foresight to perceive that if the ‘higher law’ men succeed in this crusade, it will be but the beginning of a war upon the institutions of the South, which will continue until slavery shall cease to exist in any of the States, or the Union is dissolved.

The Missourians had it mostly right on both counts. They depicted Kansas as coming to a crisis point, which would last at least through the elections of October, 1856. If the proslavery party could not control matters, they would lose the territory. Kansas required

bolt, determined action. Words will no longer do any good; we must have men in Kansas, and that by tens of thousands. A few will not answer. If we should need ten thousand men and lack one of that number, all will count nothing. Let all then who can come do so at once. Those who cannot come must give money to help others to come.

Failure in Kansas would lead, as always, to the loss of the whole West to freedom and the restriction of slavery to the southeast. Excitement reigned through the end of 1855, with the slave states

now thoroughly canvassed by agents of the pro-slavery emigrant aid societies.

Someone would take Missouri up on the offer. According to Fleming, “Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia” rushed to get in line. An Alabaman named Thomas J. Orme published an appeal of his own on November 18, 1855:

If the people of Alabama will raise $100,000, I will land in Kansas 500 settlers. I have over one hundred volunteers now.

Some Recent Reading

Writing this blog has encouraged me to read much more history, and much more consistently, than I did in years past. That reading both informs and inspires posts, but I don’t often take time out to write about the books themselves. I don’t know that I’ll get into the habit now, but in an effort to do better, I’ve decided to look back at some of the history I’ve read since the start of the year.

The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath by Robert Pierce Forbes

The Missouri Compromise hasn’t inspired many historians to write dedicated books. The survey before Forbes’ dates to the middle of the last century. I haven’t read it, though it has a spot on my ever-growing backlog. From Forbes, I learned that the prior survey originated the claim that had civil war erupted over the Missouri question the battles never would have left the floor of Congress. Forbes argues persuasively that the politicians of the time largely meant their dire threats and that the public, far from treating the matter with bewilderment or indifference, took an active interest and understood slavery’s future in Missouri as relevant to their own lives as well as the course of the nation. By doing so, Forbes joins other recent scholars in elevating slavery to a position of much greater import decades before the Civil War than previous historians have accepted. That challenges the old understanding of sectional conflict as a feature of the late Antebellum, something which will come up with some other recent reads of mine as well.

Forbes wrote a genuinely important book, if also one that reads like a dissertation. It takes a lot of work to follow the amorphous politics of the era. To that complexity, Forbes adds a line of argument based on sometimes tenuous circumstantial evidence. The old narratives holds that James Monroe played a largely passive role in the Missouri controversy. Forbes argues otherwise, but insists that Monroe had such a deft hand that he left few traces a historian could follow. Easy enough to say, but much harder to establish. I might have read too much into it, and do accept that Monroe did more than sit in the White House and watch the fireworks, but I don’t know that Forbes entirely made the case. He points to telling moments and makes interesting observations, but I still had trouble believing Monroe aggressively stage managed the affair to its conclusion.

The Slaveholding Republic by Don Fehrenbacher

I almost read this book right back when I started the blog, but on advice opted for The Impending Crisis instead. I made the right choice, even if Fehrenbacher finished Crisis after David Potter’s death. He set out to investigate the United States government’s dealings with slavery from start to finish. He did a thorough job, highlighting oft-overlooked issues like how the government sought compensation for lost slaves from foreign powers. Ultimately, Fehrenbacher argues that the United States government did not start out as a proslavery operation but soon became one and held fairly consistently to that ground right up to 1860.

For the most part, Fehrenbacher made a good case. I think he tried a little too hard to excuse the founding generation for their proslavery leanings, cutting them slack that he rightly denied to their children and grandchildren. Their intentions seem to matter more to him, at least at times, than their actions. Aside that, the book has two unfortunate shortcomings, only one of which a reasonable person could blame on the author. Fehrenbacher opted to write thematic chapters, which made it hard to see the full picture of policy as it developed or connections between contemporaneous issues. Fehrenbacher also died before finishing the work. The historian who completed it, Ward McAfee, has a much drier, often leaden, style. Aesthetic judgments will vary, but the clash between the two did the book no favors on my end.

Slavery’s Constitution by David Waldstreicher

I read this in part as a counter to Fehrenbacher, who hews to the standard argument that the founders lacked the means to act against slavery. Waldstreicher makes a convincing case for understanding arguments over the most fraught issue at the constitutional convention, how to apportion representation, as heavily inflected with concern about slavery. Representation always included slave representation, which would mean extra power and extra security for the enslavers or their loss of the same, depending how the convention voted.

Waldstreicher made for a decent read; I did the last half in a single sitting. He takes some well-earned historiographical swipes in the course of it too. A few of them got me smiling, but I suspect such things make for an acquired taste.

Slavery and Politics in the Early Republic by Matthew Mason

Mason looks at an alleged nadir in the national debate over slavery, the period before the Missouri crisis. There he finds a great deal of slavery talk just beneath the surface, which he takes as suggestive of a genuinely broad antislavery sentiment in the North. While nothing on what would emerge in later decades, Mason makes the point that the politicians who did embrace antislavery rhetoric did so with the expectation that it would pay off for them. The voters generally, though not always, agreed that it ought to. I happily took that on board as part of how I understand political speech in general.

The Internal Enemy by Alan Taylor

I have mixed feelings about this book. If you have an interest in Virginia, slavery politics, fugitive slaves, the War of 1812, or the development of proslavery ideology then you ought to pick him up straightaway. The fear of slave revolt, and the rare actual revolt, runs through the whole book. At one point, Taylor relates how Thomas Jefferson and James Madison have trouble understanding one another in letters as Madison didn’t want to put his fears in so many words. Along the way, you learn a good deal about how the British dealt with the slaves who looked to their military for liberation, what they did with their freedom (including leading armed parties home to free their families), and what happened to them after the War of 1812.

There arises my personal issue with the book. Though Taylor did lose me a few times with the affairs of a single enslaver family, mostly he wrote a different book then he’d led me to expect. The opening pages suggested to me something like a general history of slavery in Virginia from independence up through the early 1830s, with the War of 1812 as the centerpiece. Though Taylor devotes more than perfunctory space to the rest of the timespan, he really wrote a book about the war and how it disrupted slavery in Virginia. He did a great job with that book; I learned a lot despite expecting something else.

A Massacre in Memphis by Stephen Ash

The anniversary of the Memphis pogrom, where the city’s mostly-Irish police and firefighters rose up and attacked the freedpeople over a few days in early May of 1866 occasioned this read. I know less than I like about Reconstruction and a relatively short and focused work seemed a good place to change that. Ash wrote the book on what we euphemistically call a race riot. In it and its aftermath he found both the inspiration for Reconstruction era policies and the seeds of their undoing. It made for an extremely grim, if important, read. At points, Ash takes you through the riot almost body-by-body. Before that, he spends about half the page count setting the scene. Though occasionally one wishes he would get on with it, the description of Memphis could make for a decent short book of its own. Through it, Ash puts you into the situation so well that when violence finally erupts it seems less like the history-free spontaneous eruption that “riot” often recalls and more the consummation of months of tension.

Then Ash leaves you with most of the institutions of the black community in Memphis in ruins and, despite efforts by the freedpeople and the occasional well-meaning Freedmen’s Bureau worker and congressional committee, the rioters got away with it. The nation, both in the part of the small military post in Memphis at the time and the entire American state flush with its postwar power, stood by and watched. If the courts in Memphis, where no black person could give evidence or sit on a jury, would not give justice to the massacre’s survivors, then no one would. States rights orthodoxy, which consigned the police power exclusively to the states, demanded no less.

Debunking Bunkum

Felix Walker historical marker

Felix Walker historical marker

On February 25, 1820, Felix Walker rose to address the House of Representatives on the Missouri question: Would the Show Me State come into the Union with slavery undisturbed, or with the institution on the road to extinction? By this point, the House had heard every aspect of the issue dissected at often rancorous and tedious length. Could one more speech hurt that much?

Apparently so. The Annals of Congress, predicessor to the Congressional Globe, report that

the question was called for so clamorously and so perserveringly that Mr. W. could proceed no farther than to move that the Committee rise.

The Committee refused to rise, by an almost unanimous vote.

The Annals of Congress do not preserve Walker’s remarks, only the motion and its rejection. Any good survey of the era or work on the Missouri Compromise will tell you a bit more. Pleading with the House, Walker allegedly said that he spoke not to that body but rather for his constituents back in Buncombe County, North Carolina. In other words, Walker made a speech for the political theater of it rather than out of sincere belief in anything save that he ought to put the right foot forward. Walker’s invocation of Buncombe entered the lexicon as bunkum, eventually shortened to bunk.

Walker gave us the word for it, but politicians the world over have long practiced bunkum in abundance. A particularly cynical person might take from that that we ought to ignore all they say, or even take their spoken word as the opposite of their genuine positions. That can make perfectly good sense, as people in general do lie often enough. We also shade our meanings, exaggerate, phrase ourselves ambiguously, and otherwise craft impressions of ourselves running more to the convenient and appealing than earnest. Nor do we have the good decency to make clear just when and to what degree we do so, as that would give the whole game away. As such, we must parse things closely, looking to deeds, circumstances, and personal consistency as much as to the letter of a text. This holds true as much for the nineteenth century as any other time.

Go around the internet long enough and you’ll discover that neo-Confederates come in different flavors. They all end up in the same place, but arrive there by many roads. The low rent sorts will content themselves with denials and expressions of ancestral resentment. Yankees have always had it out for the South, hating the section for its virtue and seeking ever to degrade and debase it. The Union Army came through and stole everything not nailed down. (Especially the people.) Sherman burned every stick of upright wood between Atlanta and Savannah. (And would you like to tour one of our lovely antebellum mansions?) Grant incinerated whole regiments by exhaling over his cigar. (No one else ever drank a drop.) The North (never the United States) fought the Civil War as part of some black magic ritual to destroy states’ rights. A rendition of one’s ancestors martial prowess, real or imagined, soon follows. Though repulsive, the remarkably ignorance one finds in these types can at least make for some unintentional humor.

The clown car takes on passengers from more sophisticated environs too. Here you hear more about tariffs and very abstract talk about ways of life. Some of these people have even read period documents, which puts them in a bit of a bind:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property

The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slave-holding States.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

I could go on. White southerners agreed in remarkable volume and right up until the spring of 1865, that they fought a war to save slavery. They only changed their minds afterwards. Neo-confederates familiar with these texts, and others confronted with them, will often cry bunkum. Southern politicians, they tell us, indulged in fiery proslavery rhetoric entirely to please the rubes back home. They actually had other motives which arose from constitutional abstractions, as everybody knows that one adopts constitutionalisms out of perfect disinterest rather than as a means of achieving policy goals. Conversely, they will also invoke bunkum to explain away antislavery rhetoric on the part of Northern politicians. Those fiends had some kind of vision of an industrial, centralized United States which everyone clearly hated so they had to dress it up in more appealing terms. Put these two sets of bunkum together, as some historians have, and you find a pack of irresponsible, reckless, blundering politicians who drove the country into a needless war.

That argument appeals to some people still. A few historians, mostly getting on in years, still defend at least limited versions of it. More will defend a version of bunkum projected back further into the Antebellum. Sean Wilentz has described Federalist antislavery rhetoric as simple partisan positioning, dismissing it in short order so he can write his epic story of the Democracy as freedom’s greatest champion. An old Whig turned Republican did the actual emancipating, but he somehow embodied the true Jacksonian faith. In making that claim, Wilentz largely follows Jefferson and others of his time who imagined the Missouri controversy as a cynical play by old time Federalists to regain power on the national stage. Quite how they would have done so while not contesting the presidential race, adopting a policy that would do them no good anywhere in the South and little good in the West, and by rallying around the proposal of one of Jefferson’s own Republicans, I have no idea.

Set that aside for a moment. For the sake of argument, grant that antislavery and proslavery politicians did make bunkum speeches on the subject. They must have at least some of the time. Occasionally they kindly left us private misgivings or words to the effect of how they didn’t much care about this issue or that but chose a side in the interest of Southern honor or solidarity. The Lower South largely did this when it came to the Fugitive Slave Law. Much of the South, aside Missouri, did the same on Kansas. On the antislavery side we might cast the belief in the slave power conspiracy as something on the same order. In fact, we could stipulate that the politicians on both sides endorsed the positions and uttered the rhetoric that they did entirely to deceive. That oversells the case very badly, more so than any serious blundering generation scholar would probably support, but we may as well go all the way. Even if all of that holds true and the United States achieved in the nineteenth century the Platonic ideal of bunkum, does it really change our understanding of the sectional conflict?

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

I don’t think so. Any discussion of bunkum that limits itself to politicians and their speeches has missed the most important thing about it. Felix Walker and others like him might have made speeches in bad faith. They may have lied to their constituents and posterity in the name of their personal gain. But Walker’s constituents in North Carolina, James Tallmadge’s in New York, and all the rest wouldn’t settle for just any bunkum. Few voters in Massachusetts would swoon and toss the proverbial panties on stage for Charles Sumner, had he told them about the wonders of slavery. Nor would their countrymen in Mississippi do the same if Jefferson Davis spoke about its evils.

For bunkum to work at all, it must speak to the general interests of the relevant voting public. It must reflect their fears and hopes. As such, any successful use of bunkum indicates that, whatever a cynical politician or latter-day historian might thing, the speaker has hit on a genuine sentiment. Maybe the elected official doesn’t believe every word, but the people back home believe enough for it to matter. Insincere bunkum and genuine belief feed into one another. A practitioner of bunk helps frame the debate and set expectations for the voters, but those voters have their own active role to play in shaping the content of bunkum and thus the policies it drives. Neither party passively accepts what the other offers, but rather voters and politicians inevitably work in conscious partnership.

Did politicians indulge in proslavery and antislavery bunkum? Sometimes they must have, as we all do about any subject. We should ask the question as part of our normal interrogation of sources. Who, when, and to what degree will always remain open to interpretation. But if we stop there we write the voters out of the story, reducing the beliefs and interests of millions to the status of generic minions for the class of men that get buildings named after them. Including the millions who supported the politicians makes for a less tidy narrative, but one which tells us far more about the past than the characters of famous men. That broader story naturally implicates us as much as any historical figure, who we might otherwise imagine ourselves detached from. We produce and consume bunkum ourselves, our preferences for it speaking to our natures as much as the habits of past actors speak to theirs.

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.

On Bias and How to Read History, with thanks to @HankGreen

This past week, I saw a post from educational Youtuber Hank Green (@HankGreen) over on Facebook. Hank and his brother John operate the benevolent informative empire of SciShow, CrashCourse, and numerous associated channels. Hank found a quiz put out by an actual academic to tell the you how much bias influences your politics. He scored very well on it. I also took the test and beat the average by a healthy margin, though I didn’t do quite so well as Hank. Best to disclose that up front. I also don’t mean to call Hank out here. His Facebook post provided the inspiration, but dealing with bias constitutes a very large part of what I do here. Evaluating sources for bias comes in not very far under reading sources, and usually runs simultaneously with it.

If you go around the Civil War block enough times, you’ll hear plenty of accusations of bias. Historians have a bias. Sources have a bias. Interpretations have a bias. Geography itself has a bias, apparently toward the North. The implication generally runs that the guilty indicate, by the presence of bias, shown themselves utterly untrustworthy. The speaker, emancipated by that discovery, can just skip reading the lot in favor of the unbiased. There one can learn the truth. The same argument runs through almost every subject on which people have differences. We could as easily have talked about the news as historical documents, or the questions asked on the test that Hank found. The liberating power of shouting “bias!” always works.

I find the entire business frustrating, because it comes so close to a good point and then careens off into a weird mix of cynicism and naivete. The cynicism comes in with the assumption that the presence of bias invalidates all points. If we really believed that then we would believe nothing about anything including that. Rather we generally mean by it that people who disagree with us constitute a pack of lying villains we can and should dismiss out of hand. This conviction comes in tandem with the notion that those who agree with us we can accept uncritically as they have no bias. Not everybody will go to that extreme, and I don’t mean to suggest that Hank did or does, but just calling out bias and stopping there ends up in much the same place. I’ve seen others do it, and others have seen me do it, often enough.

The bias road has a third exit, which generally goes unstated: we ourselves either have no bias or can easily set it aside when we make determinations about the bias of others. After a few years dealing with historical actors and documents, on top of all the normal business of life, I have come to find the latter assumption far more dangerous. What follows from finding what one considers an unbiased source, if not that we can then accept what this source says uncritically? We have not escaped bias then, but rather elevated it to dogma.

In some perfect world, we may find that unbiased source and so come to no grief from taking it uncritically. In the world where we actually live, bias comes hand in hand with humanity. If you can think, you have bias. It comes from your upbringing, your values, your experiences, your education, how your brain chemistry sorts itself out, and literally every input into your life. All of us live in its thrall; none of us can escape. We all come from somewhere and we all take it with us into all the things we do, from the historian perched uncomfortably on the sharpest peak of the ivory tower to the latest newborn. Every stimulus gets processed according to the machinery already in place and in so doing becomes part of the machinery itself. This doesn’t make us bad. We do not acquire all our biases out of malice. But we do acquire them uncritically enough that we should do our best to keep close watch over them. As the world’s most peerless experts in fooling ourselves, that proves a daunting challenge.

So naturally, we should give it all up. If we can never escape bias, then we can never do anything worthwhile or approaching the truth. Having no solution, we must either decide we have no problem and proceed anyway or we have to call it quits. Only the second allows us to make an honest choice, though even there we come freighted with biases in favor of consistency over contradiction. I even put my thumb on the scale by calling the latter the honest choice. Or we can do something else entirely, though this comes less naturally than either of the two previous options.

John Blassingame

John Blassingame

If all of this sounds abstract, then let me give you a few examples. I’ve mentioned Ulrich Bonnell Phillips before. Phillips wrote the first real history of slavery in the modern sense. In so doing, he made one of these calculations and demonstrated very well how the cynicism/naivete dynamic plays out. Phillips had slave narratives available to him. He chose to discard them as hopelessly muddled and written as polemical works to inflame antislavery sentiment. In other words, the experiences of enslaved people as passed down to us came with bias. They couldn’t be trusted. Phillips had no trouble, however, accepting uncritically the writing of their enslavers. Those rare specimens of humanity had written objectively, free of their biases. This may sound so retrograde to us that it beggars belief, but it made perfect sense to Phillips and to a bit more than two generations of historians after him. For most of the twentieth century, the study of slavery involved very few enslaved perspectives. This held true even for historians with a far more positive opinion of the antislavery movement and black Americans than Phillips had. It took until the 1970s and the work of a black scholar, John Blassingame, for the change to begin. One still finds occasional historians who treat slave narratives as an expendable genre of literature rather than one which can tell us important things about slavery. The Economist generally likes their work.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

In my own late work, I’ve dealt with two murders committed by proslavery men against antislavery men. In both cases, the only eyewitness testimony I have found comes from proslavery sources. These naturally paint both murderers as acting in self-defense against aggressive antislavery partisans who both escalated the conflict and initiated the violence in their final, fatal encounters. Samuel Collins literally came looking for Patrick Laughlin to cause trouble. Charles Dow and Jacob Branson wanted Franklin Coleman gone so badly that they went against established custom to excuse their expropriating parts of his claim and leaving him with not enough to support his family.

Or so the stories sympathetic to the killers go. The accounts in the Herald of Freedom generally swing the other way, but George Washington Brown doesn’t claim to have any witnesses to back himself up. His decision to paint both Collins and Dow as innocents murdered by brutes seems to have come down to consulting their politics. William Phillips, the author and journalist but not the lynching victim, did much the same. Branson, Coleman, and Laughlin all lived to tell their sides of the stories but they all had an understandable interest in vindicating themselves.

How does one sort out that mess? Ideally, one could read proslavery and antislavery accounts against each other. When they agree, we can more confidently argue that things happened as described. Where they do not, we must necessarily consider both in their contexts and inevitably make subjective judgments about probability and plausibility. When I do this, I try for transparency by both admitting that I have made the judgments and sharing my reasoning. In no way do these judgments, or those of a real historian, constitute a science. In the past generation most historians have come to accept that we can’t manage any kind of perfect objectivity. Instead the discipline strives to integrate diverse perspectives in the service of mitigating the ubiquity of bias through commensurate diversity of bias.

That said, I don’t want to leave you, Gentle Readers, with shrugs and invocations of human messiness. History does not aspire to science, but it does have some best practices. I’ve already alluded to some of them, and they live in the subtext of most every post here, but I can’t go this far without offering a few suggestions. These apply to both primary sources from the era in question and to historians working from them:

A diversity of sources, as diverse as one can get, considered fairly but critically will tell you more than one source or one type of source alone. Where they differ, you can read them against one another and see what falls out. However, this often makes for an unattainable goal. We have only so much time, money, and access to information. Sources which seem consistently misleading and deceptive may not deserve the effort put into integrating them. That holds especially true for sources speaking to things that happened in some external to the author sense, but less so for sources speaking to attitudes, feelings, and perceptions at the time. If you want to know what enslavers thought and felt, you’ve got to read them even though they frequently lie even to themselves.

William Phillips

William Phillips

One should always consider who wrote a source and try to know something about the author and his or her circumstances. That includes their politics, upbringing, and their personal involvement with issues touching upon their subject. William Phillips (both of them) actually lived in Kansas and participated in antislavery politics there, which presents us with both an asset in firsthand knowledge and a liability in that they have enough personal investment to strongly encourage them to ignore or obscure facts inconvenient to the cause. Much the same holds true for Franklin Coleman and all the rest. More recent and scholarly works remain likewise a product of the same. Historians find their questions in their present, even if they dig into the past to answer them. Historical work inevitably comments on the present as well as the past. Interest in political violence, notably around Reconstruction, has had a considerable revival since September 11, 2001. Interest in moderation and consensus, along with enthusiasm for capitalism, similarly took place of prominence during the years of white prosperity after the Second World War.

One should then consider to when the author wrote. William A. Phillips published his book on Kansas with the issue still very much unsettled. Charles Robinson wrote his decades after the fact. He had more hindsight to benefit him than Phillips, as well as a less urgent need to vindicate the free state cause before the nation with the question long resolved, but likewise took a very personal role in events. Those decades further added to the natural fading of human memory. On a broader level, one should take histories written closer to the event as inherently more invested in the event than those written later. That doesn’t mean that all early works don’t deserve reading, or that all recent works do, but the earlier authors often have less access to information and frequently worked in times with different scholarly norms. Assessments we find abhorrent, like U.B. Phillips’ dismissal of the slave experience, once raised no eyebrows at all. Our own time will have the same.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

One should further consider to whom the author wrote. William Phillips, like George Brown and Robert Kelley, wrote with a national audience in mind. Kelley’s and John Stringfellow’s Squatter Sovereign hoped to elicit the sympathy and support of southern partisans for their Kansas project, whilst simultaneously stressing the evils of abolitionism to depress its appeal to wavering northerners. Phillips and Brown hoped to do the same things, but in favor of their own Kansas project. Thus they have more interest than they might otherwise in emphasizing the virtues of their own side and vices of the other. Furthermore, they might not shy away from printing lies that anybody in Kansas could spot on the grounds that many readers would not have the firsthand knowledge to recognize the deceptions.

As a person inordinately concerned with history, writing a history blog, I have naturally approached the subject through that particular lens. I submit, however, that these techniques apply just as well to sorting through the inherent messiness of humanity in other fields. We can’t figure it all out to perfection, but we need not make the perfect the enemy of the good here. Understanding better and more completely, if more complicatedly, may require uncomfortable and unaccustomed exertions, but remains within our power.

The War of Northern Aggression? It depends.

A friend pointed me to James Oakes’ piece in the latest Jacobin, titled The War of Northern Aggression and available on their webpage. There Oakes describes the contemporary consensus that the North went to war to preserve the Union, rather than to end slavery:

We are repeatedly told that the North did not go to war over slavery. The Civil War is once again denounced as morally unjustified on the grounds that the North was not motivated by any substantial antislavery convictions. Emancipation itself is described as an accidental byproduct of a war the North fought for no purpose beyond the restoration of the Union. A recent study of the secession crisis states that during the war, slavery was abolished “inadvertently.”

So far as criticizing the war as morally unjustified because a blue uniform or an office in Washington at the time did not transform one into an abolitionist or racial egalitarian, I’ve never encountered the argument except from the usual suspects who use it to deflect attention from the paramount interest in preserving slavery that the Confederates clearly, consistently expressed in word and deed.

I don’t know that I would go so far as the study Oakes quoted, but that would depend on the context that a single quoted word doesn’t supply. Certainly the secessionists did their part in inadvertently abolishing slavery, but only because they lost. Many northerners did not march off to war to free the slaves, but the slaves turned their advance into an emancipation movement by flocking to Union lines. In that context, calling abolition inadvertent also makes for what I consider sound history.

But all that said, I do think that a majority of white northerners and border state residents had little to no interest in suppressing slavery when they went off to war in 1861. Some certainly did, and the Republicans’ efforts to that effect. According to Oakes,

Unwilling to take seriously what contemporaries were saying, historians have constructed a narrative of Emancipation and the Civil War that begins with the premise that Republicans came into the war with no intention of attacking slavery — indeed, that they disavowed any antislavery intentions. The narrative is designed to demonstrate the original premise, according to which everyone at the time was mistaken about what the Republicans intended to do.

Fully aware of Oakes’ greater education and expertise, I still can’t entirely agree with him. I think that his piece, perhaps for reasons of space, perhaps at the hands of an editor, conflates a series of related but separate questions of interpretation. Separating them back out clarifies things greatly. One can tackle the issue from even more angles, but I think the two which follow cover the core of the dispute.

First one must consider what the Republicans did and why they did it. Here, I have no real quarrel with Oakes. The Republicans, from Lincoln on down, understood the election of 1860 as their great opportunity. Lincoln forbade his agents in Washington during the secession winter from making any compromise that would forgo restrictions on slavery in the territories, from Kansas on west, on the grounds that it would give up the whole point of their election. The people of the North elected then on an avowed platform of restricting slavery and placing it on the road to its eventual extinction. I don’t know of many historians who would argue otherwise. In that respect, the Republicans absolutely waged a war of at least containment against slavery. One can and should consider slavery coterminous with the South, as nineteenth century Americans did, and thus in a sense the Republicans did propose to wage at least a cold war against it regardless of any secession. Does that count as a war of northern aggression? Possibly, though given the normal context in which one sees that name used I do not rush to adopt it.

However, the Republicans did not eradicate the Northern Democracy. The Democracy arguably did an exemplary job of that all by itself, but even they had not destroyed the party completely. Thus one can’t fairly take the Republicans’ goals as synonymous with those of the North at large. Consideration of and cooperation with democrats, especially in the border states, placed a significant restraint on what the Republicans could do. The party of Jackson might not command a majority in the Congress, but early in the crisis much hinged on the loyalty of the border states where they had considerably more influence. Those politicians had constituents as well and they did not enthusiastically embark upon a campaign against slavery, even if many did eagerly sign up to preserve the Union. Many probably would happily received news that the Republicans had repudiated their platform not just out of partisan interest but also sincere belief. I don’t think one can fairly call them militants in a war of northern aggression. They fought against slavery only reluctantly and only as a means to what they considered a higher end.

I have yet to delve deep into the scholarship on why ordinary soldiers fought for the Union, but I understand that Gary Gallagher satisfied most scholars with his extensive look into their letters. He came down firmly in favor of the Union first interpretation. If Oakes condemns other scholars for not taking the sources at their word, then he should find Gallagher’s work rather persuasive. Maybe he takes it on in his books, and I’d love to hear if he does, but it appears in his essay only as a cause for criticism.

So did Northerners fight a war of aggression to end slavery? It depends on which Northerners one asks about. To that, we could also add when we ask about them. A soldier from Maine who signed up in 1861 and knew slavery only as a vague thing that happened far away might find ending it more imperative after seeing it up close. Of course changes of heart could go the other way as well. Northern-born white Americans had gone into the South and discovered there that they liked slavery quite well, or at least found it necessary to manage black Americans concentrated in such numbers. We can hope that people draw the right lessons from experiences, but not all of us do.