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.


Kansas, Boston, and Treason in the Nineteenth Century, Part One

Reading sources hostile to the free state movement, and antislavery in general, one often comes across mention of their treasonable nature. With regard to the wildcat state government that came to operate in Kansas in late 1855 and early 1856, the connection doesn’t require much explanation. They really did aim to set up an illegal government within the territory of the United States, in opposition to the legally-constituted government placed in charge of that same territory. When the guilty parties work only to obstruct the fugitive slave law, to the point of violence, the accusations seem more strained. Strained, however, does not mean insincere, hysterical, or inaccurate. I have previously tried to understand accusations of treason in the context of those making them and the situation at hand. I lacked a grounding in nineteenth century jurisprudence necessary to say more. Thanks to Al Mackey’s research (PDF), I can do better now.

On October 15, 1851, your author’s negative one hundred twenty-ninth birthday, Justice Samuel Curtis of the United States Circuit Court in Boston issued instructions to a grand jury. It doesn’t seem that Curtis had a specific case in mind when he gave these instructions, but rather made them in anticipation of cases likely to come before the jurors during their term. We know that Boston didn’t have another fugitive rescue until Anthony Burns, but he didn’t.

Curtis opens by explaining why we must take treason so seriously, noting that it alone receives a precise definition in the Constitution.

It is there made to consist in levying war against the United States, or adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. This language is borrowed from an ancient English statute, enacted in the year 1352 (25 Edw. III.), mainly for the purpose of restraining the power of the crown to oppress the subject by arbitrary constructions of the law of treason.

That all sounds very high school civics. The Founders, understanding that accusations of treason could lead to serious oppression, precisely defined the crime. Themselves a band of traitors against the crown of Great Britain, they had experience on both sides of the law. To argue that either small bands rescuing fugitive slaves or a protest movement oriented towards achieving legitimacy with the United States government levied war against it may seem quite the stretch to us.

Curtis didn’t think so. According to “settled interpretation”

the words “levying war,” include not only the act of making war for the purpose of entirely overturning the government, but also any combination forcibly to oppose the execution of any public law of the United States, if accompanied or followed by an act of forcible opposition to such law in pursuance of such combination.

Curtis couldn’t read the free state movement into this back in 1851, but surely would have recognized it later just as he recognized treason in fugitive slave rescues. He provided the jury a helpful checklist for diagnosing traitors:

(1) A combination, or conspiracy, by which different individuals are united in one common purpose.

Whether the Boston vigilance committee or the free state party, we have that. The Blue Lodges gave the border ruffians much the same. But anybody could unite in common purpose. If you go out with friends to see a movie, you’ve done as much.

(2) This purpose being to prevent the execution of some public law of the United States by force.

Our night at the movies slips the net here. The free state movement, for all its rhetoric of resistance, also wrapped itself in the flag and declared specifically for a public law of the United States: the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Though one sees occasional reference to the Kansas-Nebraska Act’s sanctity from proslavery men, they generally defended their activities in terms of counteracting efforts by Emigrant Aid Societies. They concerned themselves, on paper, with tit for tat rather than the sanctity of the law, except for the Kansas slave code.

The free state party, whatever occasional disavowals its leaders made, did have active military companies enlisted for its cause. Prior to fooling Wilson Shannon into authorizing them, those forces occupied a deeply ambiguous role. However, they did not meaningfully satisfy Curtis’ third criterion:

(3) The actual use of force, by such combination, to prevent the execution of that law.

Nobody attacked the United States Army, revenue officers, or federal marshals. Andrew Reeder faced armed threats in regard to the execution of his duties, but the proslavery men declined to consummate them. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow attacked the governor and the matter ended with pistols drawn, but he had a personal grievance against Reeder for calling him a border ruffian.

By a very strict reading Curtis, it seems no one in Kansas had committed treason. The judge, however, intended a more expansive reading and offered it up to his jurors.

Thomas Jefferson, James Henry Hammond, and Uncanny X-Men #237

Between early October and late November, 1988, Marvel Comics published Uncanny X-Men #235-238. These four issues contain the first appearance of the fictional island of Genosha, a place somewhere between Madagascar and the Seychelles. The Genoshans, almost invariably white, have built up a wealthy, technologically advanced society in an otherwise inhospitable place. They enjoy every luxury that superhero comics of the late 1980s could provide. Or rather I should say the free Genoshans enjoy those luxuries, courtesy the enslaved Genoshans whose bodies and lives they pillage.

Listening to Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men, which I heartily recommend to any fan of comics, brought to my notice the story’s proslavery rhetoric. It passed me by when I first read the issues and I thus understood Genosha exclusively in the light of later stories. Those painted it more directly as Apartheid-era South Africa. You can find Apartheid in the original story too, as well as other twentieth century horrors, but Jay and Miles rightly noted that this story overwhelmingly concerns slavery. Inspired, and with their kind encouragement, I read the comics again with an eye to a short post about the arguments.

My reread found four issues so dense with depictions of and allusions to American slavery that I filled four and a half pages of notes just marking out pages and panels. At first, I thought I might note such references in passing, but they come too numerous and in too many layers for such a casual treatment. Unpacking them would also distract from examining the proslavery arguments and make for a whole series of posts. I might write them in the future, but for today my original goal will suffice. Should you wish to read along, you can get digital copies of the issues on Comixology or through Marvel’s Netflix-for-comics program, Marvel Unlimited.

On the island of Genosha, they enslave mutants. In the strange and wonderful world of Marvel comics, mutants get their powers from their genes rather than through the bites of radioactive animals or via aliens handing over jewelry as decent people do. If your genome shows up in regular tests, the state seizes you and subjects you to a process that erases your mind and alters your body, literally to the point of replacing your skin, to meet the needs of non-mutant society. Most enslaved mutants work in Genosha’s iron mines and steel mills, generating high-quality material on the cheap to feed the world economy. The story also depicts mutants cleaning streets and tending gardens, but mainly they mine. Having them grow cotton would seem anachronistic in a story written in the 1980s, but it works out the same.

The architects and administrators of the system keep it a secret from the world and even their own families. Even the son of the man in charge of enslaving mutants has convinced himself that Genosha’s mutant slaves enjoy their station, right up until his affianced qualifies for enslavement. In explaining the system to her, Genosha’s Genegineer goes full nineteenth century:


Uncanny X-Men #237. Written by Chris Claremont. Pencils by Rick Leonardi. Inking by Terry Austin. Lettering by Tom Orezechowski. Colors by Glynis Oliver.

I know this isn’t your fault, that you view what’s happening as some horrible, unspeakable fate worse than death, but without such gifted people as yourself, how else do you think Genosha can maintain its standard or living…or even survive?

GjendependThe Genegineer here lays out a necessary evil case for slavery. Their whole civilization runs on the labor of the enslaved. They can’t do without it, even if it requires the sacrifice of loved ones. “Paradise on Earth” demands its price. Without the slaves, Genoshans “are nothing.”

The necessary evil argument can sound very sympathetic. Its advocates grant the injustice of slavery and the suffering of the enslaved. Take it from Thomas Jefferson:

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us.  The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.  Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal.  This quality is the germ of all education in him.  From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do.  If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present.  But generally it is not sufficient.  The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.  The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.  And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other.

No one can question Jefferson’s especially intimate familiarity with slavery. He sounds a great deal like the Genegineer:


I am truly sorry, Jenny. I so looked forward to your becoming my daughter-in-law.

However sincere Jefferson’s or the Genegineer’s anguish over slavery, it only goes so far. Jefferson dreamed of a continent free of slaves, but his plans for emancipation always scheduled it well into the future. Someone else, not the Sage of Monticello, would have to manage the actual process. The time, conveniently, never seemed quite right. Like the Genegineer, Jefferson fretted over the consequences of abolition. In his old age, the author of the Declaration of Independence avowed

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. the cession of that kind of property, for it is so misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. but, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.

Jefferson wanted slavery, and blacks, gone. But it wouldn’t do to go crazy for it. He would happily instead have others suffer some sacrifices in order to preserve himself in his luxuries. Just like the Genegineer:



how else do you think Genosha can maintain its standard or living…or even survive?

Slavery, whether on the fictional island of Genosha or the real state of Virginia remained necessary as well as evil. We might associate the platform of slavery in perpetuity with later writers of a more radical bent, but the Jefferson and others like him ultimately held to the same ends. They called slavery evil, often and at length, but it proved a curiously dear sort of evil from which they loathed to part. All their tender consciences and good intentions fell short in the face of its considerable rewards.

The Genegineer has some sympathy for his son’s beloved and so preaches the necessarily evil of slavery to her, but only to her and only to a point. Ultimately he goes further still, recasting slavery as a positive good in the frame of radicals in the later Antebellum. Slavery’s sacrifice of the enslaved came with a benefit. He declares Genosha “a paradise on earth,” and the government propaganda, via an “informatape” agrees:

Informatape UXM237

Over the years, Genosha has built an economy and society that is the envy of the world. There is no poverty here, no hardship, with unparalleled opportunities for education and employment ours is a free land where people are judged by deeds and character, not for the color of their skin.

Unless I’ve missed one, all the enslaved Genoshans we see have white skin. By choosing to enslave whites, they have consummated one of the more radical dreams of slavery’s defenders and followed their critique of free labor, which theorists imagined as exploitative and adversarial, to its natural conclusion. The human sacrifices, by the slaves, necessary to free Genosha from hardship and poverty, except for the slaves, likewise echo antebellum thought. Specifically, the framing of freedoms sacrificed to create freedom for others recalls James Henry Hammond’s mudsill theory:

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that order class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purposes, and call them slaves.

By mudsill, Hammond meant the wood at the bottom of the door that keeps the mud out; the thing that people step on and might use to scrape clean their boots. Like Jefferson, Hammond had especially intimate acquaintance with slavery. Unlike Jefferson, he sold either his enslaved son or grandson.

Genoshans didn’t find a docile race inured to the climate any more than American enslavers did. They created one through the horrors of comic book science, but only the genre conventions separate them from their American counterparts. Where Genoshans could use fantasy technology to render their slaves compliant, Southern whites understood that an educated slave would soon seek freedom. Thus they undertook to suppress slave education even in such otherwise universal and urgent matters as reading the Bible. Thus, they hoped, they would keep slaves to their “natural” role and free from infection with dreams of liberty. When that inevitably failed, they resorted to violence.

James Henry Hammond

James Henry Hammond

Hammond continued, insisting that the white South cared much better for its slaves than any Yankee could hope to receive or buy with wages:

The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either. Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street in any of your large towns. Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South. […] Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves.

Per Hammond, the slaves had it so good that they ought to thank their enslavers. The Genoshan propaganda promised Hammond’s vision of the South. The Genegineer promised his victim that she would be just as happy, even if she came on the wrong end of the system:


You needn’t worry, though. You’ll be cared for–well-fed, well-housed–most of the world’s population would probably kill for such a life.

If Jennifer Ransome, the Genegineer’s victim, didn’t see it that way then it didn’t matter. Though ordinary Genoshans vastly outnumbered their slaves, the opposite of the circumstance that southerners like Hammond often founds themselves in, they understood their situation much the same. Where four million slaves might once rise up in the antebellum South, and the threat of that rising justified endless repressions, “A few hundred super-powered mutants” posed an existential threat to their more numerous enslavers. Thus the Genoshans, like Southern whites, concluded that


Their power is sufficient to destroy us. That’s why we have to impose such strict controls. Not slavery, child, self-defense.

They had the wolf by the ears. Not content with that, like antebellum Southern whites, the Genoshans insisted that they did the wolf a favor to hold it there. They didn’t even demand thanks, just a small bit of backbreaking labor and large helping of dehumanization, degregation, and a dash of medical torture. What else could they do? Recognize the villain of the story when they looked in the mirror?

I could go on. The comics provide something close to a guided tour of proslavery argument, if with numerous departures for genre conventions and the convenience of the story. One shouldn’t get one’s historical education from a superhero comic, but these four issues offer up a vision of slavery deeply informed by the history. They go well beyond the conventional images and famous names, demonstrating a thoroughgoing understanding of slavery itself, its function as a social control, economic system, and the defenses marshaled in its favor in the nineteenth century United States.

The Junto’s March Madness brings free journal articles

Gentle Readers, every year the early Americanists at the Junto blog do a fun popularity contest with history writing. It happens in March and involves both some species of bracket and a form of mental illness. This may entail some sort of sports reference; I lack the necessary cultural context to say. This year they’ve chosen to do journal articles and made arrangements to turn most of them open-access for the duration of the affair. In plain English, that means lots of free PDFs of scholarly articles, including Edmund Morgan’s first go at the argument he developed in American Slavery, American Freedom.

I can’t give a guided tour of the articles, as I’ve not read almost any of them. Journals remain largely inaccessible to me for logistic and financial reasons. But the selections cover such a broad scope that probably anybody with an interest in the subject will find something worth reading.

You Should Listen to the Omaha History Podcast

Gentle Readers, I must recommend the Omaha History Podcast. It makes for a fun listen even for those, like your author, who know little about Omaha. Its virtues will speak for themselves, but I must add my voice in favor of one all the same. Its hosts have kindly rendered me podcast famous in their latest episode, courtesy of the two Williams Phillips of territorial Kansas.

Marcia Bennett, the punster half of the hosts, contacted me some weeks ago about the two men named William Phillips. The subject of the latest episode, Byron Reed, met the victim of the lynching during his Kansas sojourn and subsequently confused them as well. We spent some time on twitter sorting out which Phillips did what, when, and how we knew, commiserated about nineteenth century naming conventions and clerical practices, and generally had a pleasant time vanishing down the rabbit hole.

Monday last I received the happy surprise of learning that our conversation would feature in the podcast. My traditional reservation gave way to boyish glee. My sources do not permit me to say authoritatively that I did celebratory cartwheels, but given my inconsiderable physical prowess I think it unlikely. I may, however, have incessantly bent the ear of an understanding friend with the news. Unaccompanied exclamation points may have appeared.

I promise, Gentle Readers, that I shall use my fame in the services of good history. Should some video of yours truly leaning over a document and swearing quietly about this ambiguity or that conflicting date surface, you believe that the source really had it coming.

Thanks again for the fun conversation and kind mention, Marcia. It was a pleasure to help.

Christianity and Slavery

The abolitionists don’t figure very large in the general memory of the American Civil War. They deserve quite a bit more prominence, but then we would have to all admit just what the majority of the slave states chose to fight for. When they do come up, one often hears about them of people of great Christian virtue. Through their example, they give proof positive that we need more Christianity in our lives and, more pointedly, our government. The speakers will sometimes make a faint ecumenical gesture and say “faith” or “religion” but they mean Christianity. Nobody honestly thinks they mean we need to get right with Zeus. Nor do they mean any of Christianity available, but rather their specific sort.

I don’t want to debate the merits of that suggestion today but, in discussing such a sensitive topic, fairness demands I lay my cards on the table. I am a thoroughgoing secular humanist, an unbeliever in every religious creed of which I have heard and expect ever to hear. While I have a significant interest in religions as cultural and historical phenomena, they do not engage me as they would a believer. At this point I must add, because the question naturally arises and some who agree with me on some points of understanding with regard to religion opt to make asses of themselves, that I don’t think religion necessarily makes morally or intellectually inferior or that irreligion makes one in the same ways superior. I have not come here today to praise faith of any sort or to damn it, but my perspective does come necessarily informed by unbelief.

LincolnIn the absence of very compelling evidence to the contrary, I take the abolitionists’ religious convictions essentially at face value. They understood slavery as an abomination in the eyes of their god and took up arms, eventually literally, against it. The line from their faith to their action seems fairly straightforward. As Christians, they believed Christians could not hold slaves. To do so turned them away from the Almighty and invited his wrath

if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln never made for much of an abolitionist until the very end, but most of them would have heard their convictions in that.

If I could end there, I wouldn’t have bothered to write this. Antislavery Americans did have secular arguments against slavery and we would do well to understand them, but they had religious scruples as well. One does not negate the other. The problem comes in the fact that proslavery Americans did much the same. They, as Christians, believed that they ought to hold slaves. They believed that through slavery they taught a savage and inferior race the rudiments of civilization and brought the light of faith to otherwise damned souls.

How studiously they tended to that Christian obligation naturally varied. Anything that seemed likely to lead to literate slaves, particularly gathering with other slaves under minimal or no supervision, could raise eyebrows and provoke suffocating scrutiny if it somehow escaped legal proscription. Likewise we should consider that the enslavers thought the right sort of Christianity might pacify their restive human property. But we can’t deny a genuine, if far from benevolent, missionary impulse played its part.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

We take antislavery Christians seriously when they go into their scriptures and come out with religious arguments against slavery. We must grant the same consideration to proslavery Christians who the same. If the abolitionists could draw a straight line from their faith to their politics, why couldn’t the other side? I ask because when one sees two contradictory claims, one naturally wonders which has the right of it. While you will find the occasional sort who praise the antebellum South for its fine Christian character, most modern Christians probably agree more with Frederick Douglass:

I FIND, since reading over the foregoing Narrative that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.

To Douglass, enslaver Christianity amounted to no Christianity at all. I have nothing but sympathy for his desire to share no religion with them, just as I dislike sharing the name of atheist with Joseph Stalin. More than that, I see in Douglass an intensely admirable man with whom I do not eagerly disagree on matters of his particular expertise. However, to make a distinction as Douglass does requires us to decide that there exists one true Christianity against which we measure all who claim the name. When we find those who claim the title differ from the true faith, we can pronounce anathema on them.

If believers wish to find that true Christianity and pronounce those anathemas on their own account, they may do so. I don’t consider them insincere or dishonest for it. I do, however, not consider these judgments to have bearing on points of history. The means by which believers make these distinctions amongst themselves come down to theological commitment and devotional exercise, with historical argument rarely playing even a peripheral role. Even apparently objective criteria like examining the statements of Jesus in the Bible inescapably come freighted with presumptions about the role of scripture and its correct methods of interpretation which have caused intense, sometimes bloody, controversy within Christianity for so long as the religion has existed.

Granted a particular set of premises about them, I might make the same judgment. But which of the competing Christianities ought one take as definitive? History offers no answer to that, nor can it. We can say which Christianity we find more admirable and thus would rather prevail, of course. The question, however, often comes to rather more than that. By asking which Christianity deserves the name, we make an implicit judgment about Christianity. Do we consider it primarily good or bad?

Here I must demur. I see Christianity as far too large and sweeping a thing to reduce to a one word answer. We may as well as the question about freedom or government and then find ourselves instead considering the freedom to do what or from what, or which government, doing what, and when. Christians, motivated by and in service of their faith, fought slavery. Other Christians, motivated by and in service of their faith, fought for slavery. Christians have done good and evil, each time citing their faith as the cause. On a personal level, religion has brought great agonies and great comfort. Beautiful works of art and horrifying destruction alike have come from hearts fired by faith. Proslavery and antislavery Christians alike saw good, honest, faithful faces in the mirror. I prefer the latter; I hope you do as well. But our preferences can only tell us about ourselves, just as the preferences of historical actors tell us about them. Frederick Douglass considered slavery evil and Christianity good. Therefore an enslaving Christian made as much sense as a square circle or six-sided triangle. The enslavers, by and large, thought the opposite. Abolitionists, they held, had wandered from the true light of faith. With that in mind, I can only say that historically Christianity proved equally compatible with slavery and abolition.

I apologize if my answers don’t satisfy, but I have no others to give.

Horseshoes, History, and Violence

Gentle Readers, if you spend any length of time arguing about politics you will soon encounter the horseshoe theory. This notion holds that ideological extremes, despite their ostensible opposition, tend to blur together. Thus a left-right spectrum actually bends along another dimension and we should understand all of those horrid radicals as essentially equivalent: violent, dogmatic, and authoritarian. This has the appeal of making the speaker, always situated at the horseshoe’s peak, into a font of sensible moderation. Neither political scientists nor political philosophers take the horseshoe very seriously, as they have committed the grievous sin from which the it grants salvation: Actually reading and thinking about politics.

Horseshoe theory came to mind this week when I thought, briefly, about Thomas Fleming’s catalog of errors. Fleming holds that abolitionists and proslavery Americans had one another caught in a vicious cycle of mutual alienation and states-raising that eventually led to the Civil War. In doing so, he largely follows the outlines of blundering generation and needless war historiography in vogue at about the time of his birth. These scholars, like Fleming, put on a show of blaming both sides for what they consider a tragic and hysteria-fueled war of choice. In practice, however, they reliably cast the abolitionists as the true villains of the piece. Fleming would have us believe that white Southerners practically begged for abolition, but stumbled into a war due to vicious abolitionist onslaughts.

Setting aside for a moment the outright falsity of Fleming’s suggestion, purely for the sake of argument, the thesis of mutually reinforcing radicalisms has a lot of horseshoe in it. It assumes that a virtuous, non-violent, tolerant center exists. This might sound like a simple, common sense proposition. In the real world things work out rather differently. Extremists, for whatever limited value that category has, do sometimes engage in violence and authoritarianism. But so do moderates. Not all moderates do so, but then not all extremists do either.

That all sounds very abstract, so let’s get some nineteenth century on the case. A moderate, in Fleming’s view and the view of an assortment of early twentieth century historians, does not have a strong opinion one way or the other on slavery. He, or rarely she, lives in a country where slavery exists. Enslavers might not ply their trade just outside the door, but the moderate knows and accepts that they do it somewhere within a polity of which the moderate considers himself or herself a part. The moderate lacks decades of forgetting to obscure the reality of enslavement:

As Frederick Law Olmstead described “the severest corporeal punishment I witnessed at the South, “a slave girl named Sall was ordered to pull up her clothes and lie on her back, private parts exposed. The overseer flogged her “with the rawhide, across her naked loins and thighs.” Sall “shrunk away from him, not rising, but writhing, groveling, and screaming, “‘Oh don’t sir! Oh plerase stop, master! please sir! oh, that’s enough master! oh Lord! oh master, master, of God, master, do stop! oh God, master, oh God, master!”

After “strokes had ceased” and “choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard, “Olmstead asked if it was “necessary to punish her so severely.’ … ‘O yes sir,” answered the lasher, laughing at the Yankee’s innocence. Northerners ‘have no idea how lazy these niggers are …” They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.”

The moderate might dismiss the writings of abolitionists on the point. The moderate might even do so while engaged as a member of a mob attacking an abolitionist troublemaker of some sort. But the moderate could look at the writings of the enslavers and see much the same sort of thing. They made no bones about all the whipping they did as a “necessary” part of managing their human property. Nor could they, as it constituted such a normal, everyday part of life in the slave states. If you didn’t care to whip your slaves yourself, you could pay someone else to do the job. You could contract with the local constabulary for the task, or employ an overseer.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

One especially famous enslaver did the both in turn, a fact remembered very well by one of his chattels, Wesley Norris. Norris, his sister, and their cousin had run away, believing the famous man who inherited them had no right to their lives. Their prior owner, they thought, promised them freedom on his death. With the new boss proved less than forthcoming with it, they stole themselves. They got into Maryland before recapture

we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

The General Lee who owned Norris went on just a few years later to his fame, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia in the Slaveholder’s Insurrection. A moderate of the time wouldn’t have read Norris either, not in the least because his account didn’t reach publication until 1866, but one would have to work very hard to miss that things like this went on in the South every day. Nor, when pressed, did enslavers even deny sexual exploitation. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow considered the rape of enslaved women a praiseworthy feature of the system:

Negro slavery has a further effect on the character of the white woman, which should commend the institution to all who love the white race more than they do the negro. It is a shield to the virtue of the white woman.

So long as man is lewd, woman will be his victim. Those who are forced to occupy a menial position have ever been, will ever be most tempted, least protected: this is one of the evils of slavery; it attends all who are in that abject condition from the beautiful Circassian to the sable daughter of Africa. While we admit the selfishness of the sentiment, we are free to declare, we love the white woman so much, we would save her even at the sacrifice of the negro: would throw around her every shield, keep her out of the way of temptation.

While moderates might not think much of these things, they happened all the same. Whatever its cause, violence leaves broken bodies and lives just the same. The strokes of the lash do not turn into a lover’s kiss any more than bullets become a warm caress because their issuers deem the cause noble. Even misunderstandings and accidents, where human agency plays a confused role or none at all, grant no such considerations.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Yet the moderate, who protests the violence of the extremes to the point of imagining them as identical and treats violence as the characteristic in particular for which extremists deserve condemnation, has at best nothing to say about the precise violence that happens every day. More often, the moderate exerted, and in many cases still exerts, great effort to legitimate just that violence. The moderate argument against violent extremism comes down not to a principled stand against violence, nor even to a conviction that it ought to be minimized. Rather the moderate wants violence to continue along exactly as it has, afflicting those it has, likely in perpetuity.

I raise this issue in part because one hears horseshoe arguments so frequently, but also to make this point: The war only began at Sumter if only believes that army-scale intersectional violence between whites counts as violence. If we omit consideration of scale, then white Americans attacked one another in clashes either over slavery or deeply involved with it on at least a steady basis back through 1855. If we omit the intersectional qualification, then we find that Southern whites violently policed dissent against slavery going back decades before. If we remove the word “white” and admit lives are lives, bodies bodies, and violence violence, then we have a longer war yet. It might not have proceeded in every era at a fever pitch, but the war of those Americans and English colonists before them upon those they deemed black stretches back through the whole history of slavery in Anglophone North America. From that perspective, we must accept the Civil War as a true revolution. For four years, the violent energies of white Americans so eagerly directed, often with pride, at black Americans found themselves wrenched from their customary frame and applied elsewhere.

I can’t know the hearts of Thomas Fleming or the historians that preceded them, but in looking at a fuller picture than they offer I find it hard to resist the conclusion that their objection to the war lies chiefly in that temporary departure from our most ancient customs. With the possible exception of Avery Craven, who I understand held generally to pacifism, they don’t mind the violence. They mind that white people suffered it.

The Ends of Constitutionalism

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Gentle Readers, I’ve spent the last week thinking about constitutional theories. I’ve done so before, but they happen to have returned to the news through the continuing operations of a domestic terrorist organization. I wrote about them last week, though I don’t consider it my best effort. Consider this more inspired by than specifically about the ongoing seditious conspiracy.

In Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1819-1836, William W. Freehling remarks that a debate concerning infrastructure projects, internal improvements in the parlance of the time, “most early-nineteenth-century disputes between nationalists and sectionalists, turned into an argument over the Constitution.” Given the tremendous prestige granted to the Constitution, it only stood to reason that any contending parties would find imprimatur for whatever policies they preferred within its text. If we judged from this point alone, we would have to consider our dating badly wrong. By no means could our years begin with any other digits than one and eight, in that order. Everyone, bar a few individuals more honest and historically informed than amenable to the ever-excessive, oft-violent cult of American patriotism, stands for the Constitution. In standing for the Constitution we name ourselves red, white, and blue saints contending against traitorous sinners.

I don’t use the religious language for effect. The frame of the argument neatly recapitulates tropes very popular in the rhetorical histories of various Christianities: Once, all agreed and lived together in paradise. The nude frolic could not last. We fell from grace and lived shackled to our sins. But now we have a chance at restoration, to come around to the right and live in conformance to the grand design. This could easily be the story of Martin Luther or Joseph Smith as the story of original intent and strict construction, the story of a proslavery Constitution or an emancipationist Constitution perverted to opposing ends. We could call any version true, so long as it comported with our values. If we wanted to really separate ourselves from the crowd, we might burden ourselves with inconvenient facts as well as the airy freight of rhetoric. Even if we do, Constitutional debates ultimately come down to what we want and how we think we can best achieve it.

This doesn’t necessarily render Constitutional considerations irrelevant, but it does mean that we cannot take them in isolation. People adopt the constitutionalisms they do for what they consider good, real world reasons rather than fuzzy abstractions. That doesn’t necessarily make constitutional theory insincere, but does mean that it follows and flows from policy preferences. If we take it at face value, a practice once popular among historians as well as the lay public, then very little of American history makes much sense. We mistake states’ rights for a cause, rather than a method. We have no explanation at all for how a diehard nationalist like John C. Calhoun became his generation’s most famous anti-nationalist. Going down this road leads one to thinking that slavery had little to do with the Civil War or any of the sectional crises before it, rather than serving as their indispensable driving force.

The ex-confederates and their latter-day admirers, many of whom must know better given the ink they spill trying to defend slavery, want just that from us all. If white supremacy remains taken for granted and invisible in American history, then it becomes that much easier to prosecute today. By removing African-Americans and their interests from history, we can deny that they have one except as objects acted upon by whites. With only the most superficial knowledge of how white supremacy operated and operates, we happily consign it to the past even as we continue it in the present. We had slavery, but we ended it. We had segregation, but we ended that too. Neither has any persistent effect, either on its own or in the form of attitudes and circumstances perpetuated despite de jure achievements.

One must truly sleep through life to miss that black Americans do not do as well as whites. Even if we don’t know the statistics, the brute facts confront us every day. The color of wealth, and the power and authority it brings, remains almost entirely white. Absent a robust understanding of both how white Americans have denied black Americans advancement, we must conclude not that injustice persists but rather that something about black Americans makes them, by their nature, inferior. We can call it culture, but this pretends that black culture exists utterly apart from white culture. It transforms black Americans into Martians, strange visitors fundamentally alien and incomprehensible save in that we can comprehend the supposedly existential threat they pose to us. They thus become a thing to battle, rather than fellow people with whom we have shared a country since before we called it a country.

If you don’t believe me, then consider this musical genre. Its performers hail chiefly from one identifiable racial group, speaking about their experiences both real and idealized. Its lyrics regularly glorify crime, including violent crime. If you watch the news often enough, you know I have just described rap and hip-hop. If you turn the radio to the right station, you will soon learn that I instead described country. Neither, with the exception of the occasional musical about a founding father and Johnny Cash, regularly graces my ears but the lyrics speak for themselves.

We invented race for that purpose, of course. We must keep to our traditions, lest we admit our own responsibility. In appreciating how fundamentally we built it into our system, it would take at least a minor miracle to have kept it clear of our constitutionalisms. Plenty of Americans, then and now, don’t even try to pretend otherwise. They deem civil rights legislation unconstitutional, a point on which the Supreme Court has chosen to concur. Programs that help the poor? As poverty in America comes with black skin, we find that unconstitutional as well. In the world of disinterested constitutionalism, these things just happen. They have their consequences, but we have the poor and wrongly-colored to bear those.

No one can hold the devoted constitutionalist responsible. They must follow the rules, the same as everyone else. Those rules come down to us themselves disinterested and thus inherently fair. We should know; we made them. How could we, white with innocence, do otherwise? All through our history we have the same distinguished record of pure principle. Such abstractions cleanse anything. We had no slavery; we had property rights.

This distinction, from time to time, brought petitioners to the Congress asking compensation for slave property lost or damaged in the course of wars. Such requests provoked considerable controversy. For many white Americans, asking the government to pay for lost slaves like it paid for lost cattle asked far too much. But for others, it asked only the absolute minimum. They had their rights, you understand. It had nothing to do with slavery, in that the Constitution protected all property alike, and everything to do with it in that slave property remained slave property. On these small issues, easily forgotten and deserving of future blog posts, the Congress could produce sectional alignments typical of the late Antebellum solid decades before and in the midst of eras where we do not usually understand slavery as a particularly divisive issue. Competing constitutionalisms then squared off, but they did not square off on their own terms. Both sides had preferred ends which their constitutional theories served.

We can pretend otherwise, but doing so doesn’t just turn hated minorities into aliens. It does the same for cherished national totems, rendering them inert, uninteresting paragons from whom we insist we must learn but from whom we have likewise stripped anything worth learning. We built such statues, out of marble or imagination, for devotion rather than education.

A holiday programming note

The cruel fist of winter has all Yankeedom in its deadly grip. Here in Michigan, we’ve only had a light dusting of snow (gone now) and it hasn’t gotten especially cold. To date we’ve had a pleasantly, if also ominously, mild winter. We fall well short of recent Disney movie weather, though I still don’t advise trying out your new swimsuit. As a person who intensely dislikes this whole business of seasons, I would ordinarily not mind this so much.

However, for the next few days I’ve got a good friend visiting from Hawaii. Now and then he waxes wistful for all the snow and each time my resentment grows just a little bit more, as it must under the ministrations of such an accomplished architect of woe. If you have friends who live in a much nicer climate than your own, you know how it goes. If not, then you are probably that friend. Your duty requires you to smile as you imagine fists shook in impotent rage at nature’s callous whims. As unconditional unionists, we shall have to live with one another’s faults until such time as the brain implants or other remedies become available. Our present state of durance vile must take precedence over the nineteenth century for this short while. I may sneak out a post or two all the same, but expect regular service to resume around the first of the year.

I must lay upon you one duty of a most onerous character. Clothed in the full authority of the blogger, so staggering a raiment that I cannot bear it long lest I develop back trouble, I ordain that you ought to enjoy yourselves in whatever way you find most pleasing. Should you fail in this duty, I have reliable information from several mostly-sober sources that some distant authority will note your laxity and take appropriate measures. Only you can prevent coal-in-footwear disease. Unless you have a good reason, in which case it’s not your fault at all and don’t mind me.