No History Today

Sorry, Gentle Readers. Kansas will be back next week. I intended to get a post out to you, but ended up going on a road trip with my mother instead. The most historical thing I can tell you about it follows:

As of Wednesday, I had twice been inside a Lego Store. To the best of my recollection, I have never bought anything at one. I adored Lego as a child, but I was very grown up then. As of Thursday -I write a day, occasionally more, in advance of posting- my record has changed. This has almost nothing to do with my research or what this blog is about, save that anyone who spends a great deal of time reading about human beings being terrible to one another needs some positive outlets.  



In Defense of the National Endowment for the Humanities

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017 by way of 1965

Gentle Readers, I’ve thought quite a bit about whether or not to continue with Modern Mondays. In the past I’ve sometimes had trouble finding an adequately modern event with historical resonance to write about and struggled to write about those I do find in new ways, failing often. The horror that stars in our news for at least the next four years suggests no shortage of incidents to come, which forms part of the problem. I come here to write history, if history I consider relevant to our present circumstances. For all that I wear my politics on my sleeve, I did not set out to write a political blog. I don’t know how often I will keep this up, but here we are.

A white supremacist with the apt name Jefferson Beauregard Sessions will soon lead the Cabinet department responsible for, and founded for the express purpose of, defending the civil rights of African-Americans. People don’t have to take an example from the names their parents chose; this Jefferson could have done better. The brief era when people took the Justice Department’s mission seriously will come to a close just as it has before. We may all be long dead before such a time comes again, if it ever does.

History has no arc and it will not bend toward justice. People bend history. We made this world as we made all the others, with the choices that fill our days. We could unmake it too, if enough of us move in the right direction. That happens, sometimes. When the world tilts our way we call it justice. When it doesn’t, we have to explain it. We can tell ourselves that we just lost that one on a fluke, that something outside the system intervened, or the ill-starred moment just came and no one could do anything.

Everyone has stories. Jeff Sessions will tell you he stood up for civil rights. He will not tell you that he did so by prosecuting people who tried to register black voters. He will tell you that he doesn’t believe in racism, in segregation, that he opposes white supremacy in all its forms. He will not remind you that the Republican Senate found him too racist to give a job on the federal bench to back in in the Eighties. The Republican Senate of the two thousand tens will confirm him and congratulate themselves for all the work he will do ensuring black Americans find it harder and harder to vote. The other side bends history too; they win at least half the time.

Sessions will become Attorney General. We can’t stop it, but we don’t have to go quietly along. Sessions presently represents Alabama in the United States Senate, and by Alabama I must say that I mean the white Alabama of 2016, by way of 1965. White Alabamans knew what they wanted back then: black Americans should not vote, should not protest, should not do anything that made them look like citizens of the United States. They should instead remain, if not chattel, then as close to it as one could feasibly manage. Some whites disagreed with the racial order, even if it did put them on top, but they had a century to alter it and had not found the will or numbers to bend that arc of history.

When American citizens, allegedly as equal and good as your or I, marched to protest Alabama denying their right to vote, the Sheriff of Dallas County called out every white man in his jurisdiction and deputized them. One does this to answer an invading army or a revolution, which came that day in the form of nonviolent protesters walking down a public road. The police told them to stop and go home. They paused, prayed, and the police descended on them with teargas. Some, mounted, rode into the crowd with billy clubs.

We were beaten, tear-gassed, left bloody, some of us unconscious. Some of us had concussions. Some of us almost died on that bridge. But the Congress responded, President Lyndon Johnson responded, and the Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, and it was signed into law on August 6, 1965.

I don’t know how Jefferson Sessions, nineteen that year, spent that day; I suspect he spent it at university. John Lewis, twenty-five, stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, leading the protesters. Those are his words above. They fractured his skull. He remained with the protest and delivered a speech before seeking treatment. Since 1997, when Sessions claimed his Senate seat, both men have served in the United States Congress. No one needed to tell John Lewis where his old enemy had risen up again. This past week he testified against Sessions’ nomination:

I advise against reading the Youtube comments, Gentle Readers.

I hold to the school that we ought not make people into heroes, as we must revise and edit them past any hope of honesty to turn a person into perfection. For the same reasons, we should not name anyone the conscience of a nation. Everyone has faults, blind spots, contains contradictions. But if we conceive of the United States as a nation of justice and freedom, I don’t know many people living today who have done better at holding the country to those ideals and living them out, broken bones, bruised flesh, and all. If being a good American means the things we so often say it means, we must count Lewis one of the best.

Our questionably-coiffed president-elect, the man who got millions less votes in the election of 2016, must have had his TV on just then. He informed the world via Twitter

You understand the thought process, Gentle Readers. He saw a black man on his television. That must mean poverty and crime, because he has worked hard all his life to ensure just that. For Lewis to represent a large section of Atlanta, which seems to do well enough, would mean that Trump and all the others that update their wardrobe in the bedclothes aisle had failed. It would confront them with black Americans as capable, not merely of good leadership but of anything at all. They could not endure such a tragedy and so will go to heroic lengths to prevent it, like losing an election by more than two million votes and calling it a landslide. Or naming Jefferson Sessions Attorney General.

I have not studied Lewis’ career in Congress, but I don’t doubt he’s had his share of frustrations and disappointments. The latest probably began late on election night. But he’s gotten results too. The broken bones of he and his fellow protesters, coming to them through the television in fuzzy black and white, drove a profoundly white supremacist nation to briefly decide it could be something better. The Voting Rights Act, now teetering on the edge of oblivion, came out of it. That could not stand. Millions of white Americans would not tolerate any such thing and embarked on a decades-long campaign to restore Jim Crow and take it fully national. White supremacy won the White House, despite losing the vote, back in November just as it has previous Novembers when Richard Nixon promised “law and order” (break skulls) and Ronald Reagan declared for state’s rights (the right to murder civil rights activists without federal interference). We have come this way before. We shall again. Departures stand out because we see them so seldom.

Every time a storm hits Washington, you don’t have to go far to find photographs of the soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns. They come with injunctions to respect the steadfast commitment of these men and women to their duty. That, we believe, says something about us and the kind of nation we have. Maybe it does; I am no connoisseur of martial virtues. Fifty-seven years on, it seems we still stand on the Edmund Pettus Bridge too. Now, just as then, both sides have a large cheering section as the teargas flies and bones break. That says more.

Some Thoughts Inspired by the Orlando Mass Shooting

I write about history; readers come for history. We have a social contract there. Today, I’m breaking it. My name is Pat; I’m gay and I need to say a few things.

I don’t hide the fact that I’m gay, but have chosen not to make an issue of it. If the WordPress search works as it should, the word ‘gay’ has appeared on this blog exactly once. The history I study doesn’t frequently present occasions where my gayness might be relevant. I have told myself that everybody has parts of their life that don’t come up in the context of other parts. I don’t know the favorite foods of the bloggers I read. I have a vague awareness via Twitter that some on my blogroll follow sports, but I honestly don’t know which ones. Very occasionally someone mentions a family member.

That’s all fine, right? I’m five to ten years too young to have gotten comfortable with the idea of putting your entire life up online, moment by moment. Even if I were of an age more inclined to such things, my life is boring. Do you really want to hear that I got a good deal on a book? Or that this one came signed? How my Minecraft project has gone? That’s what I tell myself.

It’s not true. Nobody, or at least very few people, get shot over a used book that’s clearly never been opened or one that the author signed. I doubt anyone has ever been shot over a favorite food. They certainly don’t get shot and killed fifty at a time. People do get murdered, sometimes that many at once, for being LGBT+. It happens right here in the United States. It happened last week; it happens all the time.

I can only speak for myself here. I think that some of my experiences are fairly common, but I’m keenly aware that white, cisgender gay men have a long history of writing everyone else out of the story. I fail often, probably far more than I know, but I try to be better.

The first thing I remember learning about actual gay people was that people murdered them. I didn’t know that I was gay yet, but I knew that being gay could get you beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die. The first two important things I figured out about being gay personally, rather than in the abstract, were that I was not a monster and that other people would consider me a monster and might kill me because of it.

I figured these things out over a few months in 1999 and 2000. The Supreme Court legalized my sex life in 2002. I was twenty-one. It gave me the right to legally marry in 2015. I was thirty-four. I’m glad for those things. I can look at them on a good day and say it really does get better. The kids growing up today? They’ll be fine. People my age had these things to deal with, but that was then.

It wasn’t then; it’s now. It shouldn’t surprise me that the letter of the law changed before the killing stopped, but it did anyway. I don’t want thoughts and prayers, particularly not from politicians running on the notion that they’ll turn back the clock further still and who wouldn’t soil themselves by saying who was killed or why. I don’t want endless navel-gazing about how something like this could happen; we know exactly how it happens. Teach people that something is evil and they ought to wipe it out, then supply them with the necessary tools to easily do the job and you can’t claim any surprise when they put those tools to use.

I don’t want to hear that people have it worse in Saudi Arabia or somewhere else because they actually kill LGBT+ people there. We do that just fine in America, thanks. Nor do I want to hear about how Islam is a primitive, medieval faith practiced by savage brutes who can’t help themselves. American Christians have been a driving force behind Uganda’s draconian laws. Orthodox Christians have played the same part in Russia. The Communist Party before them decided homosexuality was a bourgeois vice fit for eradication too. I don’t see vast gulfs between the faiths, or the lack of a faith. The same people end up deprived, imprisoned, tortured, and dead.

And I especially don’t want to hear another tired rendition of how we’re all the same. We’re so different even on the other side of the imaginary line we’ve drawn that I’ve been using all those letters to refer to us. The lives of LGBT+ people should not rest on our ability to make others forget we exist.

There’s no good reason that it took this mass murder make me write all these things; the facts have been apparent for a long time. It’s not a bold stand against the world to declare my gayness under my first name on a blog. It’s just something that I can do to make my tiny corner of the internet a little more like I think it ought to be.

rainbow flag


Southern History? It’s Complicated.

Gentle Readers, some time back an acquaintance of mine described my abiding interest in southern history. That didn’t sound quite right to me. I spend a fair bit of time studying the American South -mostly the ugly bits I admit- but when I name it for myself, I use “history”. The exact label doesn’t matter that much for my internal monologue, but I do aim for precision when asked by others. Depending on the context, I’ve told people that I study slavery, the nineteenth century, or the Civil War. I have lately moved away from the last one, as if one says one studies a war then one tends to get questions about battlefield tactics or other very explicitly military matters. I don’t object to that kind of question and, if it requires saying, accept that they have an important role in historical inquiry. But they don’t interest me as much as many other questions. None of my standard answers quite satisfy, but they get close enough for most conversations.

I never considered, until the acquaintance suggested it, calling the whole business southern history. I knew the term existed, but hadn’t until then connected it with my own efforts. I still don’t, which probably sounds either silly or thick-witted of me. I don’t spend hours reading books about the lumber industry in Maine, Puritan Massachusetts, or Michigan during the fur trade. The stars of my bookshelves owned people, wanted to, or suffered under the attentions of the previous. Their business most often takes place within the confines of the slave states of 1860, or very closely adjacent and directly connected to slave state concerns. One cannot get much more southern than all that, given how completely slavery marks the South out from the rest of the nation. Where slavery went, the South went. Where white supremacists rode by night, there you find the South. The beating heart of Dixie pulses with the blood of stolen lives.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

If you grew up in the United States, you probably heard some version of that often enough. Study a little and you find Ulrich Bonnell Phillips telling you just the same. Southern history has a central theme: white supremacy. Most Americans from outside the region probably agree. They do things differently down there, if you know what we mean. This all has more than a whiff of the stereotypical crazed relative kept locked in the attic. We have a secret national shame which we dare not acknowledge, even if the whole world knows already.

The more I have thought on this, the more apt that stock character from an age less considerate of the mentally ill has seemed. The good family squirrels away the human disgrace, which cannot bear the light of day. Some people shun society willingly, probably all of us have now and then. But the stock character doesn’t hide up in the attic entirely out of choice. Rather the family put him of her up there, away from prying eyes and so conveniently unacknowledged. We have a perfectly normal, healthy family, and you can’t prove otherwise.

A fair observer of all this might suspect that we have tried too hard to make the case. Crazed relations don’t just fall from the sky; they grew up somewhere. Someone put them in the attic or, in later decades, had them committed. Who else but family? Stock characters don’t go around locking up someone else’s relations to spare them the stigma of mental illness. They do it for themselves. In confining their relatives, they push the whole of the burden on the afflicted. If something went wrong, it went wrong with that person, there. It has nothing to do with us. Look all you will, you will find no hint of strangeness about us.

Stock characters don’t know their genetics or any of the other ways someone can end up ill. They don’t know much history either, except maybe a handed-down story about how now and then you get one of those sorts. But they know, at least implicitly, that if you get too close then the crazy might rub off on you. Often it already has. Our families don’t necessarily define us, but they try awfully hard.

De Tocqueville could sail down the Ohio river and see enslaved dock workers on one side, free on the other, and imagine a vast rift separated them. I wouldn’t try to leap or swim the Ohio myself, and not only because I do better at drowning than floating, but his chasm tells only half the story. The distinctions between North and South deserve consideration, both on their own and as expressions of their principle source: slavery. No one can fairly look at the United States and say they have found uniformity. We really do have different ways of doing things.

De Tocqueville’s Ohio separated the sections, but it also linked them. Farm products from the Midwest flowed down the Ohio to their markets. Southerners from Kentucky, including the Lincolns, moved across the same river to occupy the opposing shore. There they remained a powerful constituency, powerful enough to nearly make Illinois a slave state. They supported northern politicians who tilted South and constituted a significant check on the Republican party’s electoral success. The Grant Not-Yet-Old Party knew it had no hope in the South, so winning the White House required a great deal of support in the border North. Most of the butternut districts might have voted Democrat anyway, but their strength meant that the party needed a candidate with a more moderate reputation than party stalwarts of national standing, like William Henry Seward. The homely guy from Illinois worked out pretty well.

This story doesn’t end in 1860 or 1865. The first Klan, and allied groups, murdered and terrorized their way across the South to fight black equality even in the limited form tolerable to most nineteenth century whites in the North. When black Americans left the region of their birth, as much refugees as immigrants, they came North to cities with factories hungry for labor. Many of the children and grandchildren of idealistic abolitionists, as well as newer white arrivals, didn’t like that one bit and consequently signed on for the second Klan. That national organization had little trouble finding recruits outside the South and for a time controlled the government of Indiana. In many places, near enough every white man joined up. Did all those communities, and the state of Indiana, join the South for a while?

The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement punctuate Southern history. They set the section apart from the rest of the nation. Those things happened down there, involving those people. Then the rest of us knocked some heads together and it all worked out. Integration for everyone. It all sounds plausible enough, if you leave out the rest of the nation. If a generation of civil rights activists suffered losses, many of them tragic, then they had some wins too. When the movement swung north those dried up fast. My own state, Michigan, successfully defended segregation before the Supreme Court. White Bostonians rioted against the possibility of their children sharing a classroom with black children in the 1970s, not the 1850s. By that point, Southerners had done most of their rioting on the subject and restored segregation through private schools. And I don’t see southern states going out of their way to poison majority-black cities.

If we take white supremacy, or even just especially virulent and unrepentant white supremacy, as the defining trait of the South then we have a real problem. We have the South, sure enough, but on a fair examination it might take us a long time to find the North. We might not find it at all. With this in mind, I think that calling the subject Southern history gets close to the truth, but so close that one can miss the forest for all the damned trees in the way. Places outside the South’s traditional bounds do differ, but not nearly so much as those traditional distinctions might lead us to believe. Southern history is American history.

The Herald of Freedom on Presidential Impotency

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Gentle Readers, I live in one of those forested parts of Michigan that doesn’t have much of a history with the automobile industry. At one point, some dreamers thought they would start a car company here. Everyone else in the state had the same idea about the same time. Far from most everywhere, the tourism focuses less on internal combustion and more on nautical illumination. We have more lighthouses than any other state. This weekend I went out to see one that I hadn’t before, built in 1895. I planned to take pictures and write about the experience.

I forgot my camera.

Right then, we’ve spent some time with the Squatter Sovereign’s reaction to Franklin Pierce’s annual message and related matters. Two papers could play that game. George Washington Brown’s Herald of Freedom, of senator-threatening fame, had news of Pierce’s message in the very next edition after its release:

The president has sent his Message to the Senate, and referring to the recent troubles in Kansas, says the people must be protected in the execution of their rights, -eulogizes popular sovereignty, advocates States rights with respect to slavery, and the fugitive slave law, &c., &c.

Yeah, yeah, whatever, Frank. The next issue, on January 18, 1856, included a synopsis of the message that said little more on the subject of Kansas. But Brown took aim at Pierce’s inaction in the face of repeated invasions of Kansas by Missourians through a piece reprinted from “The Republican, Me., Journal”:

The late disturbances in Kansas have raised a serious question respecting the authority of the President of the United States. Has the President of the United States the right to interpose its sovereign power to prevent the citizens of a State from invading the territory of the United States, and forcibly usurping the rights of citizenship, and exercising legislative authority over it? If he has no such right then Congress should immediately confer it upon him; and if he have the right he should be held responsible for its exercise upon due information, whenever the public exigencies require it.

This all sounds a little abstract on the face, but Pierce’s wrote with regard to Kansas that

the people of the Territory, who by its organic law, possessing the right to determine their own domestic institutions, are entitled while deporting themselves peacefully to the free exercise of that right, and must be protected in the enjoyment of it without interference on the part of the citizens of any of the States.

If Pierce believed that, why hadn’t he ordered the cavalry out to save Lawrence? With a presidential order in hand, they would have ridden from Fort Leavenworth at once. Colonel Sumner told Wilson Shannon as much. If Pierce had the power, why hadn’t he used it? The President moved from the quoted passage into a disquisition on states rights that includes the following:

It is not pretended that this principle [popular sovereignty] or any other precludes the possibility of evils in practice, disturbed, as political action is liable to be, by human passions. No form of government is exempt from inconveniences; but in this case they are the result of the abuse, and not the legitimate exercise, of the powers reserved or conferred in the organization of a Territory. They are not to be charged to the great principle of popular sovereignty. On the contrary, they disappear before the intelligence and patriotism of the people, exerting through the ballot box their peaceful and silent but irresistible power.

Taken in context, Pierce at least implies here that if something went wrong then he had no responsibility to right it. Stuff breaks. Things fall apart. But popular sovereignty made that into a problem for the locals, not for Franklin Pierce to fix from Washington. He lacked the power or the moral right to intervene.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

The Journal took that all under due consideration:

Shall the president of this great republic, with full knowledge of an invasion of a Territory by citizens of one of the States of this Union with intent to usurp the rights both of citizenship and of supreme legislative authority over it, stand coolly by and suffer the damning deed to be done under the pretext that he has no authority to prevent it? No authority to execute the law of Congress? No authority to repel the invasion of a Territory of this Union, and prevent a forcible usurpation of the rights of citizenship, and of supreme legislative power? No authority to protect American citizens on the soil of the United States, or prevent civil war? In our opinion it is not so. Such a confession of Presidential impotency is an evasion, -we had almost said a pretext, a subterfuge. Our government is not that rickety thing, nor our constitution that phantom of statesmanship which such a confession of its weakness would imply.

The piece went on to point out that the President had command of the Army and Navy. His duty included, in so many words, seeing the laws faithfully executed. That meant the part of the Kansas-Nebraska Act restricting voting to actual residents as much as the Fugitive Slave Law Pierce would rather execute. Who did he think he could fool with that line?

Update: A previous version of this post identified the essay in the Herald of Freedom as original to it. It was actually a reprint from another paper and I’ve edited the above to reflect that.

Some Recent Reading

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

The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath by Robert Pierce Forbes

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

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

The Slaveholding Republic by Don Fehrenbacher

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

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

Slavery’s Constitution by David Waldstreicher

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

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

Slavery and Politics in the Early Republic by Matthew Mason

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

The Internal Enemy by Alan Taylor

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

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

A Massacre in Memphis by Stephen Ash

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

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

Watermelons, Shirts, and Accidental Racism

A sorority at a university in Alabama passed out some t-shirts. They had a party and wanted keepsakes, as one does. I don’t know from sorority life, but I imagine that happens often enough. Since the shirts would commemorate their special day rather than any old thing off the rack, they ordered up a custom printing. It appears that they submitted the design to the university for approval. On getting a firm no, they ordered the shirts anyway. Ordinarily, you might smile a bit at college kids sticking it to the establishment. You’d smile less on learning that the shirts bear a map of Alabama decorated with images of slaves picking cotton and a black caricature eating a watermelon. You can view the shirt at here.

The image of the black person inordinately fond of watermelons, and fried chicken for that matter, has a depressing history:

the stereotype that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose. The trope came into full force when slaves won their emancipation during the Civil War. Free black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons, and in doing so made the fruit a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. This racist trope then exploded in American popular culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure.

The Jim Crow Museum has more information on that explosion:

It seems almost silly to say that watermelons have been racialized, but that is exactly what happened in this culture. For much of this country’s history, postcards showing Black people comically eating watermelons were popular among White Americans. Many of these so-called “Coon cards” show Black people stealing watermelons, fighting over watermelons, even being transformed into watermelons. The Jim Crow Museum houses a 1930s parlor game called, “72 Picture Party Stunts.” One of the game’s cards instructs players to “Go through the motions of a colored boy eating watermelon. The card shows a dark Black boy, with bulging eyes and blood red lips, eating a watermelon almost as large as he is. This is racial stereotyping as family entertainment. The museum has dozens of three dimensional objects showing African Americans eating watermelons, including banks, ashtrays, toys, firecrackers, cookie jars, match holders, dolls, souvenirs, doorstops, lawn jockeys, and novelty objects. These objects not only show Blacks lustily eating watermelons but often portray African Americans in physically caricatured ways: hideous faces, over-sized bright red lips, darting eyes, and ragged clothing. The problem is not that African Americans are shown eating watermelons. Rather, the problem is that Blacks are portrayed as contented Coons, Toms, Mammies, and Picaninnies, with all their hopes, dreams, and fears sated by eating watermelons under the shade of great trees.

In the course of learning about this today, I came on the claim that one must either study white supremacy or have more than the usual number of decades under one’s belt to recognize the watermelon trope. Given we still see frequent recurrences, I have my doubts about that. But the argument raises an interesting question. Suppose that someone did come on the image innocently. To this person, it only shows a man eating a watermelon. It lacks the punch of a person engaged in violence, theft, or some obvious sin.

We must not have had a particularly observant innocent either, as one needn’t know the entire history of a trope in order to recognize a racial stereotype from context. But we have the hypothetical person we have. If this person buys the shirt, does the image remain racist? Does the person?

One wants to deny it. Most of us, I hope, try to extend some charity to others. We have all made honest mistakes. Nobody knows everything and muddling through with imperfect, incomplete understanding leaves everybody on the wrong foot now and then. We didn’t set out to mistreat anybody, but it happened anyway. We feel terrible, apologize, berate ourselves a bit, and move on.

We shouldn’t. Our intentions matter, but so do our actions. Even if we made an honest mistake, we still made it. What we may take as a small thing, and what we know or pretend we did without malice, can still hurt. Furthermore, Americans live in a deeply white supremacist culture. You don’t have to study up in some hilltop castle, with lightning striking the parapets, cackling like a Disney villain, to imbibe racist tropes. Just living in the culture will do the job, filling our minds with concepts about how “those” people behave and acceptable conduct toward them that can take a great deal of work to remedy. We naturally know that the same rules don’t apply to people like us, as we find it far easier to understand ourselves as individuals than people we learn to see as other. Undoing all that, if one can do it at all, takes more than a bland assertion that one had no idea. It took centuries to build the edifice of white power out of stolen land and lives. Why would we expect it to vanish with no more than a whim?

More goes into human interactions than one party’s intent. We understand that as a matter of course in almost every other situation. We may get caught up in our own feelings. Our anger, excitement, and all the rest can drown our our consideration for others. But when they do and we upset someone, say something we didn’t mean, or phrase something poorly, we own up and apologize. It may take us a while to work it out, but when we realize the situation we do our best to make amends. When others don’t do the same for us, we naturally think less of them. At the very least, we don’t pretend that they just meant well. We understand that they either meant whatever they did precisely as we received it or simply don’t care either way.

The sorority chose the shirt they did, presumably putting a fair bit of thought into it. One doesn’t order custom keepsake items at random. In doing so they acted out whatever intentions they genuinely had, but those intentions exist in a larger cultural space just the same as everything else we do. Though more Americans than we’d like to believe probably still skew closer to malice than innocence in such matters, meaning well would not excuse them. Whether they wanted it or not, they acted out the white part of a frequently violent drama centuries in the making. White skin means you don’t have to say you’re sorry. You get to define the terms by which others must understand you, rather than have them dictated. You even get to decide how and when others should take offense at your actions. In an entirely unanticipated turn of events, we cast ourselves as the innocents every chance we get.

We all get on the wrong side of these things now and then, unless we live very fortunate or very segregated lives. We can say we meant no harm, but words come easy. Actually meaning no harm asks more of us. I don’t get it right all the time; I don’t know anybody who does. But pretending that we only do harm when we act with depraved hearts accuses rather than excuses. By doing so we don’t aim for improvement. Instead we dismiss the experiences of others and the painful histories we share as trifling impediments to our self-esteem.

We can fall into racism by accident or inheritance. We choose to stay there.

Debunking Bunkum

Felix Walker historical marker

Felix Walker historical marker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

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

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

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

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

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

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

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

A Vindication of Edward Motter

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee


Gentle Readers, I’ve made an error and I’d best correct it before continuing. I previously said that Stephen Sparks’ version of the night of January 17-18, 1856 made no mention of Dr. Edward Motter and his attempt to defuse the situation. It turns out that he does, though he tells that part out of chronological order, in response to cross-examination, and in a page of testimony that your author managed to misplace while rifling through the multiple witnesses in the Howard Report. I print lengthy materials for ease in marking passages and transcription. Their page numbers help, but testimony on a subject often comes out of order or with significant gaps for other matters so a missing page doesn’t immediately raise any red flags.

For the record, Sparks says this about Motter:

Dr. Motter came to me in Dawson’s there, when more than twenty-five or thirty men were standing around me making threats, and said to the company, “as Mr. Sparks is on his way home and has got thus far, let him go.” He requested that of the company, and then went round between me and home, and the last I saw of him was standing there in the lane.

With both men agreed, I see no reason to retain any doubts about Motter’s testimony on the point. The doctor came forward and urged the other proslavery men to let Sparks be.

Sparks also commented on another part of Motter’s testimony that I found dubious. In Motter’s version, the free state men challenged him and then he wrote back. The doctor frames it as a personal matter between him and some drunken antislavery hooligans. Sparks doesn’t quite confirm or deny that narrative:

I do not know as any messages were sent by the men at Minard’s down to the men at Dawson’s to provoke them. I heard nothing of any challenge being sent down to the pro-slavery men to come up and fight. I sent none myself, and I never heard of any, though there might have been.

Stephen Sparks didn’t see anything, but wouldn’t rule out some kind of provocative note. This makes for far from a definitive statement on the existence of a note prior to Motter’s challenge, and Motter still suspiciously left the ballot box out of his version of events, but that he thought the scenario plausible bears notice.

One last thing: Motter found Sparks’ route home very suspicious, as it took him right past the proslavery men who he knew hated free state types and had spent all day fuming and drinking over the election. Sparks’ later testimony explains the path:

I could have gone from Mr. Minard’s house on a bee-line home, which would have been nearer home than the way I went, but it would have been over rocks and drifts. I went down the road I usually go-and go yet.

That doesn’t sound like Sparks went off in some display of machismo, or deliberately trolling for a fight. He just took the longer, but easier, path. Motter knew enough to find the choice suspicious, or at least reckless, but might not have appreciated the rough ground that Sparks would have to negotiate in the dark.

I don’t think that any of these points alter the narrative a great deal, but they do reflect somewhat better on Edward Motter than my previous read did and I do my best to keep these posts as accurate as I can.