The Coming Purge

Gentle Readers, it appears likely that Donald Trump will announce the end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals today. He may have done so by the time you read this. The president of the Electoral College has done many deeply disturbing things in his few months in office, enough to last a reasonable country for at least a few decades. He has applauded Klansmen and Nazis. He has tried to ban an entire religion from entering the country. He has tried to ensure more than ten thousand people die every year for lack of access to affordable health care. Now he has higher ambitions.

Let me explain. Barack Obama established DACA in 2012 to help people who came to the United States as children. They arrived and remained illegally, always unsure of their safety and security, because their parents fled with them from horrors back home. They risked traveling vast distances and placed themselves and their families in the hands of criminal syndicates known for torture, murder, and rape in order to come to the US without our leave. One does not do this lightly; economic opportunity doesn’t draw people to such extremes. They deemed what they faced in their prior homes so terrible for themselves and their children that they took those risks. If we believed our national creeds, we would call them heroes.

DACA permits children who came to the US this way to legally remain, work, and study here. To get that right, they had to report themselves and risk deportation to horrors unknown to them for most of their lives. It took a breathtaking act of faith for almost eight hundred thousand undocumented immigrants, Americans in everything but name, to come forward that way. The government vetted them for criminal history and national security before approving their status. That bought them two years safe from deportation, with a renewal option thereafter if they paid a fee. It gave these people a security they hadn’t had before and, by making their status legal, protected them from the exploitation inherent in not having recourse to the police.

Undocumented immigrants to the United States don’t usually come from rich countries full of white people. Rich countries, by pillaging poor countries, have usually bought themselves plenty of stability. Most DACA recipients hail from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. According to our racial theories, they don’t get to claim whiteness. It doesn’t matter that they’re ordinary people just like the rest of us and the United States is their only home. They have the wrong color written all over them, so they must go.

I don’t know how this will all transpire, but ending DACA puts eight hundred thousand people on notice that they may be thrown out of their homes. In many cases, they will be forced back into the dangers that their parents tried to spare them from. Some will muddle through, but people will suffer and die from this. When other countries do forced population transfers with reckless disregard for life, we call it crimes against humanity. Consistency demands we do the same here. Americans have had pogroms and genocides before, but until recently we seem to have been dragging ourselves kicking and screaming away from them. We can’t say that anymore. Forcing DACA recipients into these dire situations isn’t an accident of the policy or an unforeseen outcome; it’s the goal.

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Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Three

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2 Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner, not at all a judging type, informed the free soil gathering at Faneuil Hall that he could never live with himself if he enforced the new fugitive slave act. He would resign his position first, but he didn’t hold others to his standards. If they felt the urge depart from “any true sense of justice”, ignore their “humane feelings”, and answer the blandishments of “office” and “salary” by complying the that hateful law so repugnant to the Puritan and republican faith of Massachusetts, then Sumner would not condemn them. Officers of the court had to obey the law, which Sumner non-judgmentally called “the apology also of the masters of the Inquisition, as they ply the torture amidst the shrieks of their victim.”

In a far more avowedly Protestant, anti-Catholic place that Massachusetts today, invoking the Inquisition had special resonance. Many of Sumner’s audience might even then have feared a reactionary Rome using Irish immigrants as Trojan horses to impose a dour Catholic theocracy. So American liberty would die, slain by the sinister agents of a foreign faith and suspect nationality, who came claiming privations at home to take advantage of the good nature of decent, hardworking Americans. We have put such things behind us, instead now fearing immigrants from Muslim-majority countries who we imagine will recreate the Caliphate. A future generation may learn to fear someone else in just the same way; we have a gift for it.

Surely no Bay Stater would play the part of Pilate, washing his hands as he did the same as “the naked, barbarous Pagan chiefs beyond the sea.” If a court, Sumner averred, dared surrender a slave to a slave-hunter, then they would have broken faith with their ancestors and

the very images of our fathers would frown from the walls; their voices would cry from the ground; their spirits, hovering in the air, would plead, remonstrate, protest against the cruel judgment

Images falling, the dead crying out, and veils rent made for potent images, but Sumner wouldn’t let a religious reference slip by unmarked if he could help it. He reminded Faneuil Hall of the story of St. Mark, descending from heaven to shatter the chains of a slave. His Puritan fathers might look askance at the story, coming as it did from Catholic hagiography and recorded by a painting in Venice rather than the Bible, but someone later sent Sumner a sketch of the work which the editor of his papers assures us Sumner kept as “a cherished souvenir.”

Religious scruples mattered in these things, but Sumner did not stint the fugitive slave’s own qualities and didn’t entirely reduce him to a pathetic figure waiting for a white man to save him. On the contrary,

By escape from bondage he has shown that true manhood which must grapple him to every honest heart. He may be ignorant and rude, as poor, but he is of true nobility. Fugitive Slaves are the heroes of our age. In sacrificing them to this foul enactment, we violate every sentiment of hospitality, every whispering of the heart, every commandment of religion.

Fugitive slaves, heroes, men, deserved better. By constantly linking a slave’s manhood to the manhood of the white men hearing him, Sumner evoked sympathy and outrage. Who could send a fellow man into slavery? Who would dare? To render over a fugitive would unman the fugitive, and perhaps the officers in charge of rendition as well. They would make themselves likewise pagans, naked, barbarous savages. Sumner needn’t say it outright: white men should know better.

The Klansman Wears a Mask

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refugees, Fear, and the Art of Human Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, as Lincoln wrote:

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

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

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

ssstloushavana

The SS. St. Louis in Havana

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

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

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

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

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

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

Two Conventions, Two Parties, and Two Americans

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

The Know-Nothing American Party had a Union degree. They had perhaps 1.5 million men pledged to stand for Union and against sectional agitation from North or South. They positioned themselves in every way they could as the new party of the Union and peace. If they lost in Virginia, just barely, they could make it good by winning the White House in 1856. But if they stood for Union, what kind of Union? The Union meant different things to different people. To moderate and pragmatic antislavery sorts, the Union provided a tool to restrain slavery. If the two came into conflict, slavery had to lose. No southern politician could dare to utter such a thing in public, Know-Nothing or not. For a great many of them, in increasing numbers as the 1850s wore on, the Union rested on preserving slavery. If the two came into conflict, the Union had to lose.

The Know-Nothings tried to put these diverse groups together in a single party with a single platform and promptly found out that the Union, to the southern delegates at their National Council in Philadelphia, meant the Union that the Kansas-Nebraska Act made. To many of their northern counterparts, it meant the Union that the Kansas-Nebraska Act unmade. They could agree on hating Catholics, except for the Louisiana delegation, and the foreign-born. But inveighing against “the incubus of Popery” only got you so far. The slave states forced through a pro-Nebraska platform and a large portion of the northern delegates quit the convention. Henry Wilson, the club with which Henry Wise beat Thomas Stanhope Fluornoy back in Virginia, led them out.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

The Know-Nothing rump tried to woo them back, but when the party adopted the majority platform with its pro-Nebraska language twelve northern states refused the overtures. They included all of New England and the Old Northwest. The Indiana delegation left with a parting shot that the majority platform, contrary to the party’s stated Unionism, would only sow more sectional discord. This made for quite the spectacle, but the forces of northern nativism did not quite give up on their new party. They hoped for, and got, a second chance in February, 1856.

The party’s second try began auspiciously. The pro-Nebraska platform plank went into the trash. But then the South, with the help of New York, killed a resolution in favor of restoring the Missouri Compromise. If the pro-Nebraska side could not win, then the anti-Nebraska side could not win either. In reaction to that, fifty northern delegates representing eight states walked out and formed their own convention. The rump said good riddance this time and nominated Millard Fillmore for president. The split, foreshadowing later division, resulted in northern, antislavery nativists calling themselves North Americans and southern, proslavery nativists calling themselves South Americans.

Even had the Know-Nothings somehow come together in a miraculous, if horrifying, flowering of racial and religious hatred they would still have had to contend with other weaknesses. Other parties had machines, but at least tried to look democratic and open. The Know-Nothings vested almost unlimited power in single leaders. They deputized men who could create lodges and orders as they wished on their own authority. Then those orders and those alone elected delegates to conventions to make party rules and elect officers. Party machine nothing, this looked more like private fiefdoms directly empowered to buy their own elections and then encouraged to do so. In the New York convention, 1600 could have come. A mere 953 did and of those, only 482 participated in nominating a man for governor…with all of 243 votes. This looked more like a secret oligarchy than any kind of political party. Crusty Virginia and South Carolina aristocrats might swoon at that, but to the rest of the United States mass politics had long ago become the American way.

Know-Nothings vs. Know-Nothings 2.0

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

The original version of this post should have gone live Friday. It did not and I lost it. You can imagine my discontent. So here I have reconstructed it from memory, my sources, chiefly Allen Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union and Potter’s The Impending Crisis, and a copy of the old post forwarded to me after I wrote most of this. You get the best of both worlds, Gentle Readers.

The Know-Nothings lost in Virginia. Henry Wise extracted his narrow victory with accusations that the party, with all its private meetings and secret society trappings, provided a haven for abolitionism. Some antislavery men lived up to Wise’s accusation, even if others did not and still others men disdained nativism the same way they disdained slavery. But parties have come together from less coherent bodies. The Whigs started off as the official party of people who hated Andrew Jackson, though they eventually developed a more coherent ideology built around a national bank, internal improvements, and a more prime ministerial vision of the presidency. Ex-Whigs and rebel Democrats could do the same, and that new ideology might mitigate the American Party’s demographic challenges in the South. If they could get people fired up about other things in addition to immigrants, they had a road to electoral success even where immigrants had barely penetrated.

The election of 1856 would give nativism another chance. They would have a national convention and vote on a party platform. That national platform would serve as their ideological manifesto for the next four years. They had already staked out a position on the Union, introducing a Union degree in their rituals and getting maybe 1.5 million Know-Nothings to swear out an oath to stand against sectionalism from the North or South.

But state conventions fed into the national convention and each one saw in the convention a chance to swing the national platform their way. These state conventions, of course, lived in one section or the other and acted accordingly. Massachusetts and New Hampshire got the ball rolling by approving antislavery resolutions. New Jersey’s delegates arrived instead with a resolution that the party ought to seek the friendship of the South. Illinois found too much division to agree on a resolution either way. But those resolutions did not necessarily bind the delegates down the road. A few nonconforming states could be dragged to orthodoxy easily enough, right?

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

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

The Know-Nothing bigwigs got together in a National Council in Philadelphia in June, 1855, with an eye toward using the upcoming presidential race as their next stepping-stone to becoming the one true national Unionist party. The delegates agreed easily on excluding the foreign-born and foreign-schooled from office. They signed on for a twenty-one year wait before naturalization. They condemned Catholicism. (A Louisiana convention later condemned the condemnation on behalf of the righteous, native-born Catholics unfairly lumped in with the newly arrived sorts.) A majority of the platform committee damned Whig and Democrat alike for slavery agitation and pledged the party to preservation of the Union in its existing state. In other words, they pledged themselves to Kansas-Nebraska. The document went on to say that Congress ought not legislate on slavery in the territories again. All the slave state delegates, plus California and New York signed on.

That asked far more than the rest of the Know-Nothing North would give. Their minority report demanded either restoration of the Missouri Compromise or, failing that, refusal to admit any slave states to the Union from its former territory. That would make any future Kansas and Nebraska both free soil. When the majority would not accept those demands, the delegates from all the free states save New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California seceded from the convention.

This from the party of sectional comity and national Union?

A Partial Refutation of Henry Wise

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

When running for governor of Virginia in 1855, Henry Wise tarred his Know-Nothing opponent and the party behind him as covert abolitionists. He had a point when it came to Know-Nothings in the North, if not those Virginians he actually accused. To some degree, the natural impulses of ex-Whigs, anti-Nebraska men, and nativists ran together. All feared subversive conspiracies to seize control of the nation and dispossess them of what they saw as their birthright. All had a kind of moral panic over scandals, real and imagined, at home and abroad. Rome and slavery both turned the places where they prevailed into giant brothels, as lurid pamphlets and novels told an audience eager for scandal. If that writing also provided a socially acceptable outlet for more prurient interests, few publishers and readers would complain. To many nineteenth century Americans, nativism and antislavery thus seemed logical, congenial bedfellows.

But other northerners very much disagreed. They looked on less than 700,000 of the nation’s 14,235,000 church members and asked why the Catholics prompted such fears. So small a number hardly represented a serious threat of turning the majority-Protestant United States into a majority-Catholic papal fiefdom. They counted 2,234,602 foreign-born against 19,429,185 native-born and wondered at the panic. Nativist demographic challenges did not hold just in the South. If the Catholics intended to work ruin on the nation, they had Chief Justice Roger Taney on their side. He went to their churches, listened to their sermons, and supposedly took his orders from their Pope. Yet what calamity, they asked before Dred Scott, befell from his influence? Or from Lafayette’s decades before?

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Viewed the right way, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic paranoia could look very much like anti-aboltionist paranoia. Mobs attacked convents, but mobs had also attacked abolitionist meetings. One had murdered Elijah P. Lovejoy for the crime of abolitionism. Smart antislavery men took care where they traveled to avoid following his example. Respectable venues once refused antislavery patronage, just as the nativists would have the country refuse immigrants and Catholics. For that matter, the goals of the nativists sounded suspiciously similar to a slave system: one race, and nineteenth century Americans very much saw the Irish and, often, Catholics also, as a racial group subordinated permanently to the other via a form of despotism that would require extension over free, white Protestants to sustain itself. If that happened, the nation would have the anti-democratic impulses of slavery replicated and suffer still more for it. They had more of that than they ever wanted just from sustaining slavery.

Possibly the man who put it best had essentially quit politics some years before, after an uninspiring single term in the House of Representatives. The Kansas-Nebraska Act drew him back in. Looking on the ruins of his chosen party, Lincoln wrote to his slaveholding friend, Joshua Speed:

I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. When I was at Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that. I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.

Lincoln

Lincoln

Still an antislavery Whig in 1855, he knew the Know-Nothings wanted the votes of men like him. He would not have it:

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

Virginia’s new governor would have trouble finding a man eager to throw in with the Know-Nothings in all of that, even if he could find others who would.

A Partial Vindication of Henry Wise

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

The Know-Nothings did not triumph in Virginia. They put on a very good showing and Henry Wise had to pull out every tool in the rhetorical arsenal to win, but win he did. Along the way, he called the Know-Nothings secret abolitionists. Their hidden meetings and secret society trappings only encouraged rumors about them. What did they have to hide, after all? Wise had a point, if not about the ex-Whigs from Virginia who flocked to the Know-Nothing banner. If the Puritan-minded antislavery men had a nativist problem diluting their ranks and competing for their natural constituency, then the nativists also had an antislavery problem diluting their ranks and competing for their natural constituency. The split ran both ways. If the same type of person favored antislavery and favored nativism, then having a party built around each issue meant splitting those voters.

Or did it? Henry Wilson’s election to the Senate from Massachusetts showed that nativists and antislavery men could work together, even if Wilson proceeded to act much more as an antislavery man than as a nativist. Across the North, the Know-Nothings and antislavery men did their best to avoid collision. Rather than work against one another, as one might expect of parties competing for the same voters, they tended to work around one another. That potential for amalgamation came together with the fact that even if one thought nativism or antislavery the controlling issue of the day, that need not mean one also felt the other should just drop off the face of the earth.

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

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

Across the North, many antislavery men also feared the hard-drinking, Catholic Irish flooding into their ports. Likewise many nativist men also feared that the Slave Power had taken control of their Union and sold off their future. Nativists could point to Catholic sins abroad and threatening moves at home. Antislavery men could point to their impressive string of defeats since the start of the Mexican War, culminating in Kansas-Nebraska, and imagine a natural alliance of the Slave Power and its northern fellow travelers, as abetted by urban political machines larding the ballot boxes with the votes of easily controlled Irishmen. From a certain mindset, the two issues seem to flow together at every turn. Why wouldn’t these groups come together into a single party, if as wings with differing priorities? Americans have long been terrible at developing political parties with any ideological coherence. Having only two competing groups might actually count as progress.

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

The two groups already coordinated, avoiding direct contest amongst themselves. Some went one step further and did amalgamate, coming together as Know-Somethings and under other titles. If that antislavery nativist movement would go nowhere in the South, it could still frame itself as a northern party of northern interests and northern men. That would at once reverse Calhoun’s old dream of a single, southern political movement to save slavery. Instead a united sectional party would look down the map and down its nose at the South and set slavery on the road to extinction. Thus the end must come, unless the South could have and keep decisive control of national institutions or establish some kind of permanent veto over the national majority. Either solution depended on antislavery interests constantly losing, even as each loss further inflamed antislavery passions. The South could very well lose by winning.

The Virginia Showdown, Part Three

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

(Parts 1 and 2)

The Know-Nothing American Party contested Virginia’s gubernatorial election in 1855, hoping to replicate its success in adjacent Maryland and elsewhere. With Virginia in their pocket, the Know-Nothings would have a platform to expand in the South and become a true national party by sweeping up all the South’s discontented ex-Whigs. Against the strange non-campaign of ex-Whig turned Know-Nothing Thomas Stanhope Flournoy, Democrat Henry Wise waged an actual campaign. He toured the state extensively, speaking with theatrical flair. He took aim at the Know-Nothings’ secrecy and branded them a secret abolitionist cabal trying to subvert Virginia’s slave system.

One must expect that of a southern politician. Most every one of them had to prove his proslavery bona fides come election time or risk getting tarred as soft on slavery. But Wise also attacked the Know-Nothings based on the parts of their platform they made little effort to hide. If the Know-Nothings embraced such un-American dogmas as Boston abolitionism in secret, they openly avowed their hostility to the foreign-born and Catholics. Wise called that hostility just as un-American. To make his case, Wise invoked the one Frenchman that every nineteenth century American both knew and admired: the Marquis de La Fayette.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette

The French aristocrat came close to sainthood in the minds of Americans of the era. When he died, the nation mourned Lafayette like it mourned Washington. He got 24-gun salutes and Congress asked the nation to wear black for thirty days. The Know-Nothings would toss him out and betray the memory of his numerous sacrifices for the cause of American freedom. And for what? For the privileges of the native-born? Native-born like the Protestant Benedict Arnold? Patriotic Americans had to know that the place of a man’s birth and the nature of his faith did not determine his worth. The national epic said as much, as did all the places carrying Lafayette’s name.

Heaping patriotism on top of protecting slavery, Wise finished off with a vision for a new Virginia. He would build internal improvements. He would establish a public school system. He would support the development of industry and agriculture in a Virginia that looked a bit long in the tooth from decades of tobacco decline. Henry Wise, patriot, proslavery man, man of the people, would lead Virginia into the future.

When election day came in May, Virginians turned out in record numbers. Wise won more votes than any other Virginian of the century. The Democracy defeated nativism and kept the South by a margin of 10,180. It very nearly went otherwise. The massive turnout and tremendous enthusiasm the race generated still ended with 47% of Virginian voters choosing Flournoy. A swing of a few percent would have given him and the Know-Nothings their victory. Had Wise made any misstep, most especially had he not tarred the Know-Nothings as abolitionists in hiding, he could easily have failed and heralded the rise of a new party to challenge the Democracy in the South. With his victory, southern democrats could finally relax.

The Virginia Showdown, Part Two

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

In 1854, the Know-Nothing Party elected nine governors. It stood over the ruins of Virginia Whiggery, poised to make it ten. The Democracy’s Henry Alexander Wise stood just as poised to make sure they did not. He traveled across Virginia, arraigning the Know-Nothings and their chosen man, Thomas Stanhope Flournoy. Wise screamed himself hoarse. He exhausted himself riding Virginia’s roads for months on end. He made a tremendous show of his campaign in the finest nineteenth century tradition of democratic theatricality. Flournoy refused to attend public meetings. He wrote a letter instructing his voters, as an eighteenth century gentleman might, and called it done.

With that kind of contrast, one might expect Flournoy to lose so hard that his great-grandchildren felt it. Everybody watching the election, however, expected it to go down to the wire. The contest electrified Washington, with everyone seeing its potential. From Virginia, the Know-Nothings could sweep the South. Seeing an exciting election that could go either way and would have great significance for the future of the nation, Washington politicians wagered heavily on it.

Why did they think it could go both ways? Virginia had enough immigrants to fuel some serious nativism, unlike much of the rest of the South. Those nativists had plenty a mix of real concerns and traditional paranoia to stoke their electoral fires. Furthermore, Flournoy’s genteel non-campaign belied the fact that the Know-Nothings operated as a secret society. They did not do typical eighteenth century politics, with public meetings and stump speeches. Know-Nothings convened amongst themselves and behind closed doors. They refused to speak of their party operations in mixed company, insisting that as it says on the tin they knew nothing about it. Despite that secrecy, they elected the governor of Maryland just north of Virginia.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

But secrecy invites suspicion. What did the Know-Nothings have to hide? What of all these secret passwords, names, and so forth? It looked like a conspiracy, not a political movement. In the South, conspiracy meant slaves gathering and the underground railroad and abolitionists in their midst, preaching rebellion and ruin. Wise dug up a comment Flournoy made years before about how slave populations impeded prosperity. He pointed to the Know-Nothings’ success in Massachusetts, where they had just sent a slightly anti-immigrant but ferociously antislavery Henry Wilson to take moderate Edward Everett’s seat in the Senate. To do that, they openly combined with Free Soilers! Know-Nothing secrecy did not hide anti-immigrant politics. It only wore those as a mask to hide its true, antislavery face. Thomas Stanhope Flournoy would invite servile rebellion. He would raise up a legion of Nat Turners to murder white Virginians in their beds. Why else would he need that secrecy?