Some Thoughts on John Brown

John Brown

Gentle Readers, despite occasional appearances, historians are human. Just like the people we study, we come to the past with our own set of values, inclinations, and biases. None of us can produce an objective history, any more than we can produce the final, complete history of anything. We cannot pretend to neutrality and you ought to take a skeptical look at any recent historian who tries. But we must approach the past as fairly as we can and try to understand the mores, motives, hopes, fears, and cultural backgrounds of the people we study. Perhaps we don’t communicate this well, but history is an exercise in empathy.

That brings us to John Brown. Biographers have painted him as a Christian warrior saint and a deranged madman driven by paranoid obsessions. The most recent work I’m familiar with credits Brown as a vital precursor to civil rights. People love and hate Brown, often intensely. As must surprise no one, I find him intensely admirable. Though not as immune to the white supremacy of his era as one biographer would cast him, he does have a far smaller helping of it than most. He fought slavery, which puts him right up there with a soldier liberating a concentration camp in my book. Brown felt an obligation to black Americans that he cast in cringe-worthy paternalistic terms, but demonstrated a remarkable willingness to let them guide the course of his own life. He believed them ignorant and lacking in necessary discipline, but also saw both traits as situational and cured through good examples and education rather than innate in their race. In that, he differs little from many black leaders of his era. Far more than most white Americans, he treated non-whites as his equals. He would even fight and kill white men for their freedom, something he intended as early as the 1840s and finally consummated, twice, in the last decade of his life.

For the most part, historians don’t debate the facts of Brown’s life. Some have pathologized his antislavery, just as they have that of most whites, as a kind of mental illness. Brown and the rest had an unnatural fixation on slavery, which posed no danger to them. They reacted with intolerable offensiveness and hostility to a harmless, dying institution. Abandoning those ideas, as recent generations have, presents us with newly revised, more generous take. Brown’s violence may still discomfit us, as all violence should, but in the end he proposed killing enslavers to free the enslaved. How can we celebrate George Washington, who put a lot of white, British soldiers into their graves for what we consider, at least in principle, the cause of freedom and damn Brown for the same? If we are consistent and fair, we must count them as similarly heroes for freedom. The fact that Brown might well have killed George Washington for the same cause should say more to us damning of Washington than of Brown.

The idea of the hero abolitionist John Brown drowns in Pottawatomie creek, next to William Sherman’s brains. On that terrible night, Brown killed unresisting men who owned no people. He did it in what he imagined as self-defense and specifically targeted those who worked for an illegitimate and oppressive government. Some of them may have made dire, credible threats or posed a threat to Brown and his family through their connection to the bogus legislature’s courts, but Brown killed them in anticipation. Had the Doyles, Wilkinson, or Sherman come at him armed and dangerous, Brown would have done no worse than anybody else. By taking them at night, ripping them from their beds and their families and ordering them hacked to pieces in the dark, he went beyond any reasonable understanding of self-defense. He acted like an enslaver lynch mob, protecting his community from what he deemed a vile, dangerous element. That we agree with him on slavery, or even farther that proslavery whites themselves count as a serious danger, should not blind us to that.

Furthermore, self-defense does not tell the full story even if we grant it to Brown. James Townsley reported that his motives extended further than the simple murders of threatening elements and, unlike his claim that Brown wanted a general purge of the area, this makes sense in light of all Brown did:

Brown said it must be done for the protection of the Free States settlers; that the pro-slavery men party must be terrified

and consequently that

the pro slavery men were dreadfully terrified

Brown valued consistency in most things, following his convictions where they led him, whatever the hazards. We have a word for political violence directed at civilian targets to create fear among the enemy. Let us honor Brown’s values by calling the Pottawatomie murders he, his sons, and a few others committed by their right name: terrorism.

We usually imagine terrorism as something that someone else does, for goals we oppose. Calling Brown a terrorist does not come easily to anyone sympathetic to him. It associates his cause with those which shock our conscience. We might view it as discredited by such methods. But what else can one call a man who pulls people from their beds at night and murders them to set an example for others?

We can make excuses and claim Brown doesn’t qualify if we want, and some have, but this serves us poorly for understanding Brown. The past does not exist to make us comfortable and we are poorer for not confronting the difficult parts. We imagine terrorists, for the obvious reasons, as utterly evil. They do wrong for bad causes, like Nazis. In John Brown, we have a terrorist who may have done wrong for the best of causes. I don’t want to say that; I still admire him. My own convictions are such that I view the murder of an enslaver by the enslaved as inherently just, even praiseworthy, but Brown did not murder an enslaver and so his killing freed no one. Nor did he suffer slavery and so we might grant to him a right to revolutionary violence against his oppressors as a class, unless we recognize his act as one of solidarity with black Americans as well as white and so as an extension of their struggle. Brown would probably have agreed with that but his immediate motives involved protecting white freedom, which puts a hard limit on how far we can take that line of reasoning.

At Pottawatomie, Brown did much the same, on a vastly smaller scale, as the men who flew planes into buildings seventeen years ago. If we take slavery seriously and if we care about understanding the past in all its complications, we must grapple with that. John Brown presents us with a terrorist who feels like one of us. I don’t have a neat answer for that, which resolves all the contradictions and gives us a capsule understanding of Brown that we can put on a shelf and take for granted. Right now, I feel confident that Brown did wrong for a good cause. After I spend some time reading about slavery I tend to feel that everyone involved in enslaving others and defending the business have no rights the rest of us should feel bound to respect. Neither position sits easily with me. Both feel right at the time but not on more distant reflection.

Gentle Readers, please forgive me for the poor form of not ending with a conclusion for all of this; I don’t think there is one.


Visions of Prosperity: The Journey to Kansas, Part 3

John Brown

Parts 1, 2

With Austin Brown dead of cholera and buried in Missouri, the families of Jason and John Brown, Jr., made their way back to the steamer and found that it had left them behind. They paid for a full passage and departed the boat only to bury four year old Austin, in the middle of a thunderstorm no less, but got abandoned all the same. By the most charitable reading, the captain simply didn’t know they left. More likely he didn’t care or saw the chance to spite Yankees as a fringe benefit to making up lost time. That left the Browns to proceed by land, paying passage all over again. That included food, which many Missourians refused to sell to Northerners.

Still, the Browns soldiered on and reached Kansas

her lovely prairies and wooded streams seemed to us indeed like a haven of rest. Here in prospect we saw our cattle increased to hundreds and possibly to thousands, fields of corn, orchards, and vineyards. At once we set about the work through which our visions of prosperity could be realized.

The Browns had the standard frontier experience, gleefully imagining their future prosperity on stolen land. They came to the town of Osawatomie, where the Marais des Cynges met Pottawatomie Creek, an area with ample timber. They a brief time time with John Brown’s in-law, Samuel Adair, and he probably got them up to speed on what the Missourians did come election time. Then they headed off to find Frederick, Salmon, and Owen Brown’s claims by North Middle Creek, a tributary of the Marais des Cynges. There they established adjoining claims. Kansas greeted its new arrivals with the height of its rainy season, delivering thunderstorms aplenty.

All this takes us up to May of 1855, at which point Brown biographer Stephen Oates says Brown decided to join his sons in Kansas. He references Sanborn’s Life and Letters of John Brownfrom which I have most of the Brown correspondence I’ve quoted to date. Sanborn doesn’t produce a letter indicating Brown’s official change of heart, but the relevant page includes narrative from Sanborn that Brown made his decision at this point. Considering Sanborn knew Brown personally and served as one of his Harper’s Ferry backers, his word should suffice.

Oates refers to Brown writing John, Jr., on May 24 to ask about the best way to come to Kansas and what his sons wanted him to bring along. The relevant page of Sanborn does include two brief letters Brown wrote from Rockford, dated May 7 and June 4. Neither letter refers to any plan to come to Kansas directly or includes the questions Oates has Brown ask. Nor does the letter that Junior wrote Brown on May 2 informing him of the situation in the territory appear there. I would rather have both, but will have to settle for Oates’ rendition:

On May 24, Brown himself wrote his sons from Rockford, Illinois, asking how he should come to Kansas and what necessities they might want him to bring. He also inquired about the prospects for surveying and speculating in land and about the going prices for beans, apples, cornmeal, bacon, horses, and cattle.

In the letter of May 7, Brown asks only about the prices of wheat and corn in Westport. The next, June 4, reports that Brown has sold his Devonshire cattle and planned to head up to North Elba. Reading those in conjunction with Sanborn’s declaration that Brown chose for Kansas at this point makes for a convincing case, but the absent letters remain a personal research frustration.

John Brown’s Conviction

John Brown

Gentle Readers, as you might have guessed the blog got a bit ahead of my reading. I didn’t notice in time so I ended up reading a book on black slaveholders in South Carolina rather than getting the necessary biographies to best understand John Brown. Redpath’s hagiography makes a fair start at that, but we must read it as essentially an antislavery campaign document. His protestations aside, he published at a time when white Southerners damned the Republican Party as a collection of John Browns. The Republicans denied this and condemned Brown’s ill-fated campaign against Harper’s Ferry.

Redpath’s book takes a different approach by vindicating Brown against his critics. Still, he had the clear cooperation of Brown’s family and friends as well as living in Kansas himself at the same time Brown did so we can’t just dismiss it entirely. I now have better sources to supplement him with: David S. Reynolds’ John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights and Stephen Oates’ To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Reynolds bills his book as a cultural biography, as much about John Brown’s world as Brown himself. Oates’ wrote a conventional life. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Both authors also have more distance from Brown and less commitment to making him into a saint or a madman than his contemporaries or past biographers.

Redpath gave us John Brown’s ideological reason to go to Kansas: to fight slavery. He also acknowledged in passing that Brown intended to help his sons and others who had preceded him out of both a general benevolence and from his genuine frontier expertise. These bear a closer look.

John Brown lived on the frontier of white settlement for much of his life. He grew up mostly in Ohio, in close company with Native Americans. His family had an unusually positive and close relationship with them. Reynolds points to this as evidence that Brown grew up free of any racial prejudice, raised by his father to treat all people just the same. Many incidents in Brown’s life argue for something like that. He raised his children to act as he did and he both aided fugitive slaves and appears to have socially mixed with non-whites in ways quite unusual for a nineteenth century American. I doubt he completely lacked prejudice, but in a pervasively and openly racist society that does count for something.

Reynolds also makes the point that Brown always considered himself a servant of the community. He had his famous hard, uncompromising side, but he also spent his time on the frontier building institutions and aiding his neighbors. In John Brown, they had the kind of man who would insist that the sheriff arrest and hold a man who committed a crime even when the sheriff wanted to grant leniency. They also had the kind of man who knew that the loss of labor and income would harm the accused’s family and provided for them out of his own quite modest means for the duration of his imprisonment. He built schools and hired teachers. He served as volunteer postmaster. The same uncompromising attitude toward his cause also applied to his duties.

We remember John Brown as a man who failed at everything he did. His business dealings bear that out. For example, Brown worked for as a time as a wool factor. He took in wool on consignment from farms back home, graded it, and put it for sale in the east. Brown had a good eye for wool and priced accordingly, with the worst stuff sold at below market rates and the best above. This resulted in buyers scooping up his low quality stock for less than it could go for and leaving his high end product in the warehouse. He would not budge from the prices he stated unless absolutely forced to, which meant he took a bath on most everything. His repeated errors seem to stem from a basic unwillingness to bend that served him well elsewhere. When Brown thought he had a duty to do something and do it right, he did not move.

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.

How To Find and Avoid History Books

For the most part, history comes in book form. You can learn a lot from good documentaries, recorded lectures, and the like, but the main medium for communicating history remains the bodies of trees. Sorting the good history books from the bad can take some doing. For the most part, I find good ones by figuring out a standard survey text and then digging into the footnotes. My intensive study of nineteenth century America began in the citations of Battle Cry of Freedom. Books that appear often, especially if they’re cited in other good books, usually deserve a look. Over time, one builds up a sense for this sort of thing.

Gentle Readers, mine failed me. I picked up a used copy of Stephen Puleo’s The Caning: The Assault that Drove America to Civil War. It concerns the Brook-Sumner affair, wherein Preston Brooks of South Carolina breaks his gutta-percha cane over the head of Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Sumner was seriously hurt and absent from the Senate for a few years after. I got it a few months back and just had occasion to open it up over the last few days.

Puleo is an engaging writer, sometime you get to appreciate more the more you read academic prose. I probably kept on with him longer than I might otherwise have because of that, but I quit him all the same. This might sound like a silly reason, but I needed the footnotes. Puleo has none. At first I thought he might have declined to annotate the prologue, which mostly involves scene-setting. One must make judgment calls in these things. Then I noticed he would make direct quotes and not note them. The first few chapters came and went without a single number in superscript.

At this point, I had my worries. But books on the caning don’t come around often and his came most recently. I talked myself into continuing for a while longer, though I found myself less and less able to trust him. I don’t know that Puleo wrote anything but good, solid history. His might deserve a place of pride as the standard work on the subject. But given the total lack of footnotes, or even informal indications of where he drew quotes for the most part, I have no way to tell. I enjoy only very limited access to academic journals, but I went looking for reviews all the same. I couldn’t find any, not even to say Puleo had done an awful job and scholars should avoid the book. That did it; I have too many history books I want to read, and which might serve as springboards for further research, to spend more time with this one.

I told you all of that so I could tell you this. There are many ways to find solid histories to read. One of the best, even if you don’t intend to use them as a guide to future research, is to check for footnotes and endnotes. Scholars use, and sometimes misuse, them for professional accountability. Their presence doesn’t mean you’ve got a solid work for sure, but point to at least a serious effort toward one. If something does seem dubious to you, they give you the ability to look it up. Does that quote have ellipses in a place that looks odd? It should be cited and in principle you can go find the original. Absent the notes, who knows what really went on? Maybe everything remained above-board, maybe not. You just don’t know, unless you’ve had the good fortune to have read the same sources and remember them well.

Bad books can have footnotes too, of course. A relative layperson on the subject, a category which often includes your author, might have trouble telling a good footnote from a bad one.  The other signs I look for don’t make for infallible indicators either, or I would just use them, but here are two other ways to know if you likely have a solid history on your hands.

Check the publisher. A well-known university press makes a strong point in favor of a book. Popular presses can and do release good history, even doing peer review, but academic publishers exist for that job. They will still produce poor works now and then, as one must expect from institutions run by humans, but in general one can read with greater confidence.

If you can get the book in hands, or look at an Amazon preview, then you can hopefully flip to the acknowledgements. Every author will thank family members, editors, and the like, but check for archivists and other historians. In the second case, thanks given to big names in the field should carry some extra weight but any known good authority counts for something.

Failing all these, you can try the author blurb. This takes you well into the realm of promotional text, but they rarely lie about the author’s professional affiliations. If they teach at a university, the blurb will surely tell you. If they don’t, then it might say who they studied under and/or list their degree. These don’t count as the strongest indicators, but they beat nothing.

It bears repeating that none of this guarantees finding a solid work, but they do help when it comes time to browse the shelves.

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.

The Positive Necessities and Good Evils

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Hamilton and Slavery

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

Gentle Readers, for the past few months yours truly has affirmed a certain stereotype of his people by obsessing over a musical. The Ten Dollar Founding Father without a Father charmed me sufficiently that I spent a fair portion of that time listening to the Ron Chernow biography that inspired the show. I don’t normally care for biographies. The author has to have so much sympathy for the subject that it frequently comes at the expense of a balanced understanding. This goes double for any subject generally revered. Double it again for anybody called a founding father. I expected that I would give up on Alexander Hamilton within a few hours. Maybe the musical primed me for it, and I certainly enjoyed picking out turns of phrase that became lyrics, but I ended up listening to every word and enjoying almost every moment. In the course of writing this I stopped and looked at the prices for a used copy of the book so I could have the footnotes.

Chernow wrote a really good, sometimes even funny[1], book. His affection for the Hamiltons, husband and wife alike, comes across from the first pages. Probably on some points a student of the founding era, or a Jefferson partisan, would have cause to complain. I lack either of those credentials, but I have spent a small amount of my time studying slavery politics. There Chernow roused my skepticism. Whenever slavery comes up, he calls Alexander Hamilton an abolitionist. The facts he cites to support that claim don’t really do the job, by late Antebellum standards.

That set me to thinking. Hamilton clearly opposed slavery. Chernow makes that case quite well. Furthermore, his opposition went beyond personal sentiment. When negotiating with British representatives as Washington’s ex officio Secretary of State before Thomas Jefferson returned from France, Hamilton essentially ignored one of the pressing issues between the countries: compensation for slaves lost during the Revolution. I haven’t written much about this issue in the past, but between the Revolution and the War of 1812, American diplomats demanded cash for slaves from the United Kingdom for decades. Even latter-day antislavery heroes like John Quincy Adams pressed the issue as a matter of policy. Hamilton, to my knowledge uniquely, did not and specifically cast his opposition in terms of moral abhorrence to bondage. One might pass over that as a partisan dig at Hamilton’s southern opponents. Federalists did take up antislavery in part to score points against Jefferson’s Republicans, especially once they largely gave up on building a party in the South. But Hamilton took his stand before the parties developed.

Opposition to slavery doesn’t necessarily turn one into an abolitionist, though. While no Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton married into a slaveholding family and dealt personally in slaves. Specifically, it seems that he bought and traded them on behalf of his in-laws. When Angelica Church (Elizabeth Hamilton’s sister) and her husband returned from Britain, he bought real estate and slaves on their behalf. Chernow doesn’t think that Hamilton ever bought a slave for himself, but it seems likely that he owned slaves on paper while waiting on his sister-in-law’s return.

You could join the New York Manumission Society, and Hamilton did, and still do all that. The Society’s program called for gradual emancipation, nothing at all like the immediate end to slavery preached by later generations of abolitionists. If Chernow ever has Hamilton advocate the immediate course, I missed it. By any reasonable standard, calling him an abolitionist seems in outright defiance of the facts.

By this I don’t mean to argue that we should necessarily consider Hamilton especially proslavery. Rather he seems like a fairly normal antislavery American. He makes his compromises, usually to the detriment or enslaved Americans, but also preferred and enacted policies that he understood as injurious to slavery and looking to its ultimate end. He didn’t publicize his views on the subject at length, a conspicuous rarity for Hamilton, but he did more than make excuses and fret impotently. He probably benefited from, and might directly have used, slave labor himself. But he didn’t organize his entire economic life around it as any number of famous founders did.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

We can stop here and declare Chernow’s argument a specimen of the hagiographer’s craft. Hamilton did not advocate anything like what the abolitionists did and so doesn’t warrant the title. However, this requires us to read late Antebellum distinctions back into the eighteenth century. In more stark cases, like Jefferson’s, that makes some sense. The Sage of Monticello’s policies amounted to slavery forever and must stand in the context of his hundreds of slaves. Hamilton occupies a more ambiguous space. In light of that, we ought to consider just how few people argued for immediate abolition in Hamilton’s time. To my admittedly incomplete knowledge, that position didn’t become politically significant until the 1830s. While this doesn’t make Hamilton into an antislavery radical, even by period standards, it does suggest a political spectrum more tilted toward slavery and with less conceptual space for abolition than would exist in later decades. Even John Adams, generally considered a fairly strong antislavery founder, preached against immediate abolition on the grounds that it might spark a slave revolt. Hamilton surely belongs closer to him, for all that the two men would dislike one another’s company[2], than to Jefferson.

Considering all of that, Chernow still exaggerated Hamilton’s antislavery credentials. Hamilton advocated no abolitionism, but he did preach and practice at least moderate antislavery politics. They didn’t occupy a central position in his agenda. He often compromised in slavery’s favor. He traded in slaves on behalf of others. But, unlike others, his scruples served as more than a vehicle to salve his conscience while advocating the practical extension of human bondage in perpetuity. Hamilton’s record doesn’t invite easy explanation, admitting many complexities and contradictions, but he deserves some credit for it.

[1] Seriously, go read the Republican responses to the Reynolds Pamphlet and try to keep a straight face.
[2]Adams’ insults? Also hilarious.

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.