More Hot Water for Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner had a rough time of it from the summer of 1854. His party lost control of Massachusetts. The architect of the coalition that elected him defected to the Know-Nothings and then swept the state. He tried to get away from it all, and escape aligning himself with the nativists, with a vacation and managed to flip his carriage. But things did improve for him in the fall. The Know-Nothings lost the Virginia governor’s race, which gave hope that anti-immigrant, anti-catholic paranoia would not form the seed of a durable movement. The phenomenal showing in the Massachusetts legislature, where the Know-Nothings had almost unanimity, stumbled under the burden of amateur legislators and an investigation of the state’s Catholic religious institutions. By summer of 1855, Charles Adams thought that denouncing the nativists now would look like a desperate attempt to jump on the bandwagon.

Henry Wilson, who had gone over to the natvists for a shot at the Senate, promptly came back and set to forming a new coalition on strictly antislavery lines. The Know-Nothing governor would take support from anywhere and signed on. Wilson reached out to Robert Winthrop and his conservative Whigs. Throw in disorganized Know-Nothings, anti-Nebraska Democrats, and together they could all join the Republicans. All that might put Sumner in a bind. Governor Gardner obviously didn’t deserve his trust. Wilson promised Winthrop something substantial for joining. That could mean Sumner’s head. Then again, if the fusion plan failed then Sumner remained without party support back home.

Sumner’s enemies might have saved him. Winthrop’s Boston Whiggery sat out the planned convention out of distrust for the Senator and Wilson. That left Wilson with no one to support in the Senate except Sumner, who he endorsed for re-election when the time came. The convention kept nativism out of its platform and opted to support a new governor rather than the Know-Nothing incumbent. Gardner in turn quit his flirtation with the Republicans and ran as a pure Know-Nothing. The realignment shook out so that all the antislavery men lined up in the Republicans and the Know-Nothings boasted only old line Whigs. That left Sumner free to campaign for the Republicans and denounce the Know-Nothings without harming his own support.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

The new alignment closely matched the old, Free Soilers back again with a few more Whigs in attendance. Bay State voters noticed and repeated their lack of enthusiasm. The Know-Nothings increased the pressure by asking for Sumner and Wilson’s resignations. If they didn’t oblige, then the legislature might instruct them out of office. That meant delivering binding instructions to the senators with which they couldn’t easily comply, essentially forcing their resignation. Failing that, they might even just elect two new senators and send them on. Gardner liked himself for the job.

Sumner tried to revive his prospects by close attention to constituent services and the usual quest to secure federal dollars for projects back home, to little avail. He struggled to find a publisher for a collection of his speeches, with printers informing him that the book had little potential unless they could say it included the Senator’s last oration. With nothing else working, he had to resume his attacks upon slavery.

 

Without a Party Again

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Incensed at Charles Sumner’s refusal to play the part of slave-catcher, a task they believed assigned to him by the Constitution, Southern Senators plotted his expulsion from the Senate. His emergence as a competent debate partner helped turn his oratorical achievements into something far more menacing and he had to go. Alas, a quick canvass showed they lacked the necessary votes. The proslavery men would just have to put up with Sumner until his term ran out.

In the tumult of the Whig party’s slow collapse and the coalescence of the Republicans, Sumner ought to have played a leading role; he certainly hoped to do so and intended to play a large part in the fall campaigns. But many Whigs even in Massachusetts disliked the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Sumner’s extremism alike. Persistent factionalism in Massachusetts antislavery circles did its work, helped along by Henry Wilson. Wilson had orchestrated the coalition with the Democracy, which now stood in ruins. He had a reputation as a plotter and soon lived up to it. The Massachusetts GOP put on a poor campaign because Wilson betrayed it.

Wilson joined the nativist Know-Nothings, who kept their proceedings secret, and his people supported their man for governor. For that support, Wilson had a promise that he would go to Washington as Sumner’s colleague. The Know-Nothings promised a single issue party opposed to Catholicism and immigration and their ticket swept Massachusetts. The new legislature would have one each of Whigs, Democrats, and Republicans. All the rest hailed from the nativists.

Sumner, like any Massachusetts politician of the day, knew of his state’s anti-immigrant bent. The press of Irishmen into the factories transformed the demographics of Boston in just a decade. Many of his antislavery colleagues harbored nativist sentiment and the sense that the Bay State changed for the worse under the ministrations of foreign elements, whether the alliance of Massachusetts textile magnates and the Slave Power or the new immigrants, permeated political discourse. Disgusted by the development, Sumner discussed building an antislavery party clean of such elements.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

For once Sumner kept his beliefs largely to himself and a tight circle of intimates. Know-Nothing power in Massachusetts looked too strong to permit an open challenge. He explained the success of nativism entirely by citing dissatisfaction with the old parties. Even in private correspondence, he took care not to get on the wrong side of the movement. A more venal sort might have rushed to head the new movement, living up to the belief of his enemies that Sumner cared only for his own position. Instead Sumner delayed and kept silent, which precluded assuming any kind of leadership role. In less than a year, Sumner had gone from a politician with no support back home and a dubious future to a favored son and back again.

Without a party, again, and with no clear way forward, Sumner decided on a trip to the West. There he saw slavery firsthand, including an auction and the beating of children. He went as far as St. Louis, then up the Mississippi to Minnesota. Along the way, his carriage caught on a fence and flew up into the air. It landed on Sumner, but he suffered no worse than a bad bruising.

Some help for @GOP

Lincoln 1860Gentle Readers, a conventional post will come today but I wanted to put out this item separate from it. As you know, Abraham Lincoln hailed from the Republican Party. The Republicans today haven’t forgotten. I have it from Kevin Levin that for his birthday, the GOP’s official twitter offered up a fake Lincoln quote. This speaks volumes for their understanding of history, though I suppose we must give them credit for not attributing something from Alexander Stephens or Jefferson Davis to him instead. But I write this to help, not mock.

To replace the false Lincoln quote, I offer to the Republican Party this genuine article:

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 or 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 [sic].

 

Finding a Speaker

We left the 34th Congress deadlocked on who to elect Speaker of the House. Until they did, they lacked a presiding officer and could hardly get any business done. Someone had to become Speaker, but the administration’s candidate couldn’t get the required majority. The opposition coalition of Know-Nothings, Free Soilers, Whigs, Republicans, and anti-Nebraska Democrats together had the votes to fill the seat, but such a heterodox group has its own problems finding the right man for the job. They agreed on not accepting Franklin Pierce’s choice of William Richardson, but little else.

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

After Richardson won a plurality and, consequently, lost the first ballot the opposition made a go of uniting around Lewis Campbell, an Ohio Whig. Campbell earned their esteem through an attempted filibuster against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the last Congress. Things went so well back then that Campbell nearly found himself physically attacked. That had to count for something, right?

Apparently not enough. Giving it another try after Campbell also failed to command a majority, a large group of Republicans settled on Nathaniel P. Banks. Banks, a Massachusetts man, had the kind of pedigree that would inspire mixed emotions in such a fraught time. In the Bay State, he had stood as a Democrat but then combined with free soilers. Lately Banks had hopped parties again, moving over to the Know-Nothings. That made him a traitor twice over, to more orthodox Democrats, and might look shifty to his latest band of allies. But his career also spanned contentious spectrum of party politics in the middle 1850s.

Bank’s fellow Know-Nothings preferred Kentucky’s Humphrey Marshall and without them he didn’t have a majority either. When Marshall’s run ended similarly, they tried Henry Fuller. The votes went on and on, with no winner emerging. Every ballot came with a new round of recrimination. The Republicans laid into anti-Nebraska men who opposed Banks, which naturally endeared them to their targets. The southerners and administration Democrats had their own frustrations in the minority, still voting for Richardson ballot after ballot.

William Aiken (D-SC)

William Aiken (D-SC)

The 34th Congress opened on December 3, 1855. Yet on the 24th, Allan Nevins reports that with the sixty-eighth ballot,

Banks has 101 votes, Richardson 72, and Fuller 31, with eleven for minor figures.

As part of the process, congressmen quizzed the candidates. Nevins relates how a Mississippian asked Banks if he believed in racial equality. Banks

responded that it seemed to be the general law that the weaker of two juxtaposed races was absorbed or disappeared altogether. “Whether the black race … is equal to the white race, can only be determined by the absorption or disappearance of one or the other, and I propose to wait until the respected races can be properly subjected to this philosophical test before I give a decisive answer.”

Nathaniel Banks

Nathaniel Banks

The House thought that pretty funny, but it probably didn’t win Banks any votes.

With the grinding process, the constant rounds of fruitless questioning and votes, and endless speeches, one might expect tempers to flare. Congressmen had assaulted one another on the floor before, and would again. But only Horace Greeley took any lumps, and he took them away from the floor of the House. I sought further details, but haven’t found a copy of the New York Weekly Tribune for February 2 online.

The battle for the Speakership wore on through December and January, not ending until the start of February when the House voted a rule to elect the Speaker with a plurality. Nathaniel Banks at last prevailed, 103-100, over South Carolina’s William Aiken, Jr. In settling on Banks, the opposition coalition had not repudiated nativism, but the majority within had clearly chosen an antislavery nativist, from Massachusetts no less, over proslavery or indifferent candidates available to them from climes further South. A victory barely managed out hardly made for a grand triumph, and Banks would use his powers in a decidedly impartial way, but the opposition had moved at least a small step beyond single-issue rejection of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and toward a consolidated party.

The Disunited 34th Congress

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Dunn’s proslavery men left the Sparks home cruelly disappointed. They came to shoot a man and found him still away. That would not mark the end of Stephen Sparks’ trouble with Kansas’ slavery enthusiasts, but he managed to dodge the immediate threat. Reese Brown had less luck. The latest violence came from the free soil elections of January 15, where Kansas’ antislavery voters made Charles Robinson their governor and filled the other offices that the free state constitution had created. This development, like others in Kansas, did not go unmarked on the national stage.

As the events within Kansas have dominated our narrative for so long, we have to rewind the clock a bit to catch up with happenings elsewhere. Since the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Democracy had taken a beating. The Whig party continued its collapse. In the North, Democrats often followed suit. Those who didn’t cast themselves as foes of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the trouble it had brought. The anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party seemed, for a moment, poised to take the Whig’s place as the second party of American politics but had a serious competitor in the form of the new Republican party and its fortunes soon faded.

As 1855 wound down, the first session of the 34th Congress opened on December 3. For the first time, Republicans took seats in the Capitol. In the Senate, the Democrats outnumbered them two to one. Just across the building, one might as well have entered a new world. Franklin Pierce could count on a majority of 158 in the last House. The anti-Nebraska opposition now had a majority of 117. That might not have upset the House Democrats too much, as they knew their party’s disarray and probably didn’t have much hope of getting everyone back together and taking the customary whip. The last time that happened, they repealed the Missouri Compromise and eighty-four percent of those who voted for it found themselves in need of other employment. They might do better to find some moderate Republican who they could then blame for the House’s inevitable failure to get much done.

The Pierce administration had other ideas, and ensured that the Democratic caucus passed resolutions declaring the late elections a vindication of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, doubled down on religious freedom in terms offensive to the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, and pledged the Democracy to a hard line on both. The Democrats hadn’t entirely lost their minds. After some early reverses, they took encouraging results in some later elections as signs that they hadn’t entirely destroyed themselves. With the same kind of excellent judgment that led them to take elections they largely lost as signs of public approval, the Democrats settled on William A. Richardson, of Illinois, as their man for the Speaker’s chair. Richardson had managed the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act last Congress, which made him exactly as popular with the anti-Nebraska majority as one would expect.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Richardson simultaneously won and lost the vote. On the first ballot, the House gave him seventy-two votes. No other man came within twenty of that total. But the House rules required that the Speaker have a majority, not a mere plurality. The rules assumed two parties, but the 34th Congress had rather more than that. Just how much more, few could say. The Congressional Globe considered the mess beyond recovery and dispensed with the usual custom of listing men by party allegiance. In Race and Politics, “Bleeding Kansas” and the Coming of the Civil War, James Rawley reports the Tribune Alamanac’s best guess:

79 Pierce Democrats, of whom 20 were northerners, 117 anti-Nebraska man, all of whom were northerners, 37 Whigs of Americans [Know-Nothings] of proslavery tendencies, all but 3 of whom were from slave states. Of the 117 anti-Nebraska Congressmen, 75 had been elected as know-Nothings.

Allan Nevins gives a different arrangement in the second volume of his Ordeal of the Union:

The House membership was roughly classed as 108 Republican, 83 Democratic, and 43 Know-Nothing or American.

Though the numbers don’t agree, to the point of using different categories, they tell a similar story. The Democracy had lost its majority to someone, but no one quite knew who.

Know-Nothingism and anti-Nebraska sentiment often existed in the same person, part of the problem in classifying them, but they did not necessarily do so. Nor did party allegiance mean that when they did, nativism took precedence. Many Know-Nothings ended up as Republicans, some in suspiciously short order. Some probably joined specifically to subvert the organization in antislavery directions. They co-existed with men who felt otherwise and who had latched on to nativism as the issue to push slavery back out of the national discussion. As the seventeen candidates running against Richardson for the Speakership attest, the Opposition did about as well at agreeing on things as the Democracy did.

So long as the Speakership remained vacant, the House couldn’t commence its business. So long as the House couldn’t get to work, much of the national government ground to a halt. Soon much of Washington waited on the outcome.

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.

The Herald of Freedom on Patrick Laughlin, Part Two

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Part One

George Washington Brown had a great deal to say about Patrick Laughlin in the pages of the November 17 Herald of Freedom. He published a report of Samuel Collins’ death at Laughlin’s hands, but gave over a considerable portion of the issue to related matters. Under the headline “Pat Laughlin’s Exposure”, Brown laid into Laughlin’s original article in the St. Joseph Cycle. He introduces it as the work of “a son of Erin, calling himself Pat Laughlin”.

the pro-slavery press are nearly frightened out of their boots on account of it. Pat says, “blessings I have not enjoyed since I became connected with this secret order.” His object in making the development was that he might “have some sleep on an easy conscience.”

Brown relates how Laughlin, by his own admission, swore that if he revealed as a perjurer and traitor. Therefore, Brown writes:

Pat stands before the country, according to his own showing, as a “perjurer before heaven, a traitor to his country, subject to the scorn of all men, the frown of devils, and utter abandonment of God,” else a falsifier and libeler, and wholly unworthy of credit the best way he can fix it.

The oath did include those words, so Laughlin could hardly complain that Brown treated him unfairly. Laughlin had to either lie in exposing the Kansas Legion or have made himself a liar in swearing his oath. Either way, Brown could fairly claim that Laughlin indicted himself. Who should believe such a man?

While Brown’s offering of the perjurer now vs. perjurer then distinction, he ultimately insisted that Laughlin lied from start to finish, inventing it all:

If Pat’s statements were true, the Free State men of Kansas are thoroughly organize don a military base, and are well qualified to resist the usurpations of the “border ruffians.” If they believe the tale they will not dare, as they value their lives, to send another marauding expedition into the interior of the Territory. We give it as our private opinion that there is something on which to base the story; that it is not wholly a fabrication; though we are suspicious that much of it arises from the fertile imagination of this worthy son of Erin, else from that of his amanuensis.

Brown did a great job of having it both ways. Laughlin invented everything, he insisted. However, even if he hadn’t, Laughlin made himself a liar so he should not be trusted. But if one did trust Laughlin, then he hinted to his readers that the free state men did have an armed organization. Maybe it didn’t match Laughlin’s account, but if it did then Missouri men should stay clear for their own safety. And even if it fell short, who could say how far short? Small bands of border ruffians might just find themselves with a nasty surprise all the same.

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

Brown concluded with a gratuitous dig at Laughlin. An Irish immigrant might not speak English. Many in the nineteenth century came from the western reaches of the island where the language had not quite come to dominate yet. But Laughlin had lived in the country for years and interacted successfully enough with anglophones.

Failing that, Laughlin must have had an amanuensis, who wrote under his name. Here Brown reversed the usual complaint proslavery men made of slave narratives. Some better-educated person had written, presumably inventing along the way, on behalf of the slave. Everyone knew they couldn’t produce such work on their own. It would go well beyond the facts to say that the Irish had it as bad as slaves, or that they served as slaves (PDF), but nineteenth century Americans proved versatile enough to express their prejudices similarly from time to time.

 

The Herald of Freedom on Patrick Laughlin, Part One

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

The Squatter Sovereign, as one might expect, greeted news of Patrick Laughlin’s killing of Samuel Collins with apparent glee. The death of a free state man at the hands of a proslavery man warranted celebration, even if the editors chose to give Collins twelve companions against whom Laughlin struggled almost alone. I hoped to find a proslavery paper less keen on the affair to examine for contrast, or to learn that the Sovereign’s public joy spread to other papers, but haven’t had any luck. My access to the Leavenworth Herald falls off in early September of 1855 and much thereafter has even survived, it seems the Library of Congress doesn’t know of it. The Kickapoo Pioneer does survive, but in libraries states away. We’ll survive the lack, but it does mean that the only contrast comes from George Brown’s Herald of Freedom.

The October 27 edition has nothing to say about Laughlin, Collins, or the Kansas Legion. Given that the fight happened on the 25th and some distance away, one can hardly blame Brown for not knowing or not having the time to set the type and still meet his deadline. Owing to uncertain paper supplies, Brown elected to go skip a few weeks, so the next paper did not come out until November 17. That issue includes several interesting pieces, some of which may appear in future posts, but on the Collins killing, Brown had little to say. He offered up no excited headline, only “Murder.”

We see in the St. Joseph Cycle, that a fatal rencounter [sic] occurred a few days ago at Doniphan, between Pat Laughlin, the perjurer-according to his own confession-and SAMUEL COLLINS, a Free State man, and late Delegate to the Big Springs’ Convention, growing out of Pat’s exposure of a secret organization said to exist in the Territory. The Cycle represents Pat as acting in self-defense, but nobody believes the statement. COLLINS had resided about a year in the Territory, and was a man of intelligence and much personal worth. We shall have further information as regards the facts in a few days.

As a person who answers to “Pat”, I find Brown’s use of it as a kind of slur deeply amusing. I suspect that he intended to play on anti-Irish sentiment by stressing it, given the frequent overlap of antislavery and nativist sentiment.

Brown confesses to lacking the necessary facts for a larger piece, which seems unlikely weeks after Collins died. From context, Brown means that he lacked trustworthy antislavery witnesses to tell him what “really” happened. We suffer the same lack today, though I suspect we would find more of actual events by comparing those missing accounts with the proslavery version than by taking either at face value. His defense of Collins involves recourse to Collins’ reputation. This suggests to me that Brown knew they stood together for a free Kansas and little else about Collins. I’ve read him vouch personally for men he knew in the past, but he makes only a token and decidedly impersonal effort here. Most likely Brown only knew Collins by reputation and politics, but took the latter as sufficient to guarantee the former. A good man opposed slavery and a good man would not go spoiling for a fight. Therefore Laughlin, who he knew as a bad man for breaking his oath of secrecy, could not possibly have acted in self-defense.

The Squatter Sovereign on Patrick Laughlin

Patrick Laughlin killed Samuel Collins in a dispute over his published revelations on the Kansas Legion, which I’ve taken some time to examine. I found them reprinted in the Squatter Sovereign for November 6, 1855. The killing itself justified the printing, which consumed most of the Sovereign’s second page. The Sovereign customarily used its first page for short fiction and poetry, this amounted to front page news in the estimation of John Stringfellow and Robert Kelley. After the usual endorsement of David Rice Atchison for President, the Sovereign printed a paragraph on the turning season and then progressed to the matter at hand.

It transpired that not every proslavery paper in Kansas much cared for Laughlin. The Sovereign reports

The “Kickapoo Pioneer,” a Know-Nothing paper published in this Territory is the only pro-slavery (?) Journal that has had the temerity to question the veracity of Mr. Laughlin’s exposition of the midnight order of abolitionists in this Territory. It should be remembered that its editors are Know-Nothings, and that Mr. Laughlin is an Irishman, and therefore in the opinions of these scape-graces, his statements are “not worth much.”

The Know-Nothings dreamed that their anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant movement could save the Union by uniting the sections against the fruit of Rome, Ireland, and Germany. Knowing how things went at the end of the decade, we can easily forget that for a brief time they formed a significant force in American politics. Here we have both a reminder of that and at least a point of tension within the proslavery party. I’d very much like to see what the Pioneer said in its own words, but no one seems to have digitized it.

After dismissing the Pioneer’s editors a bunch of anti-Irish bigots and casting aspersions on their commitment to slavery, Stringfellow and Kelley pressed on to the main event:

GREAT EXCITEMENT AT DONIPHAN! AN ABOLITIONISTS KILLED!!

GREAT EXCITEMENT AT DONIPHAN! AN ABOLITIONISTS KILLED!!

I couldn’t do the glee with which the Sovereign reported the killing justice without including the headline. The news so pleased them that their grammar fell over. For the most part, the paper tells the same story as the witnesses did. Collins confronted Laughlin and demanded a retraction. However:

In accordance with this determination, he and some TWELVE brother Abolitionists proceeded Wednesday last to seek out Mr. Laughlin, and demand an unqualified retraction of his recent confession

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Collins had relatives with him and they did involve themselves, but nothing in the witness testimony suggests a band of thirteen abolitionists chasing after Laughlin. Accurate news probably had time to reach the Sovereign before printing, but word of these things can grow in the retelling. Or John Stringfellow could have lied to paint the antislavery party in a darker light. He could say to the South that his party had done so much on their behalf in Kansas but now they had monstrous legions arrayed against them. They desperately needed all the help they could get to hold the line. Should that help not arrive, then Kansas’ proslavery men could go down overwhelmed by numbers or prevail against all odds, valiant specimens of white manhood either way.