Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Three

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding a Speaker

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

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

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

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

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

William Aiken (D-SC)

William Aiken (D-SC)

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

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

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

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

Nathaniel Banks

Nathaniel Banks

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

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

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

The Disunited 34th Congress

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

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

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

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

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

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Klansman Wears a Mask

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refugees, Fear, and the Art of Human Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, as Lincoln wrote:

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

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

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

ssstloushavana

The SS. St. Louis in Havana

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

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

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

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

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

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

The Herald of Freedom on Patrick Laughlin, Part Two

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Herald of Freedom on Patrick Laughlin, Part One

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

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

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

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

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

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

The Squatter Sovereign on Patrick Laughlin

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

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

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

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

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

GREAT EXCITEMENT AT DONIPHAN! AN ABOLITIONISTS KILLED!!

GREAT EXCITEMENT AT DONIPHAN! AN ABOLITIONISTS KILLED!!

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

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

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

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

The Democracy’s Slavery Problem, Part Two

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Two weeks of consultation in Washington got Andrew Reeder nothing more than a promise that if Franklin Pierce dismissed him from the governorship of Kansas, he would claim Reeder’s shady real estate dealings as the reason. That concession looks perverse to us, but Pierce may have meant well by it. Nineteenth century politics involved corruption at least close to the point of self-parody. That Reeder used his post in an attempt to enrich himself may have painted him as a crooked character, but crooked characters might have enjoyed a brighter future in the Democracy of the 1850s than antislavery men. This spoke to the centrality of the slavery issue at the time, unlike past decades, but also to the deeper nature of the Democracy’s ideological commitments.

The antebellum Democracy upheld, per John Ashworth’s The Republic in Crisis: 1848-1860: states rights on the national level, limited government on the local level, popular control of all government, and resistance to projects of moral reform dictating choices to private individuals. These ideals, and others, did not demand an adherence to slavery. Nor did one necessarily have to read proslavery politics into them, even if the party’s heroes, Jefferson and Jackson, both owned slaves. The simple fact that black people, their lives and freedom, counted for precious little to most white Americans went a long way toward enabling slavery on its own. The Democracy’s ideology never demanded from the national party a full-bore defense of slavery as necessary or good. Attempts to require the national party to sign on to such a platform led, by design on the part of some of its proponents, directly to its split in 1860. If the Democracy had a specific ideological commitment to slavery, it may never have risen as a national party at all. Had it, in some strange world, managed both the proslavery platform and national political success, one struggles to imagine a homely nobody from Illinois taking up residence at the White House in 1861.

But Ashworth draws an important distinction here. While the Democracy did not adopt slavery qua slavery, each of its key ideals served to implicitly protect slavery. The party mainstream might have thought John C. Calhoun a dangerous crank. Those outside the hard core of proslavery southerners certainly chafed over the way in which that powerful, often the most powerful, faction exerted its influence. Despite these complaints, and dissenters of the David Wilmot and Salmon P. Chase stripes aside, the Democracy as a whole functioned as a proslavery institution. Each key point of Democratic ideology had its proslavery consequences, something Ashworth remarks “was no random effect.”

Thus limited government and state’s rights, if strictly adhered to, removed the threat to slavery from Washington and as a consequence from any potentially hostile northern majority that might be formed. The insistence upon individual autonomy in the moral sphere allowed Democrats to demand that individual white males be allowed to decide whether or not they should own black slaves without any legal coercion from government. The Democratic doctrine that all should be left undisturbed by government in the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour was invaluable to slaveholders, since, as we have seen, it ignored the existence of the slave and simultaneously removed from view the inequalities generated by slaveholding.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

One could add that if states’ rights took threat to slavery from Washington off the table, then limited government in the states further removed it from state legislatures. Who then remained to enact emancipation? For some, this remained the purview of the Almighty. They may have genuinely believed it possible that divine intervention would remove slavery, and of course the slaves, but one doesn’t imagine them holding their breath waiting for it.

The result was that the Jeffersonian tradition operated not directly or explicitly to promote slavery but rather to disable antislavery. Slavery was an unrecognised or invisible underpinning, an unacknowledged condition of Jeffersonian and Democratic thought. In consequence, the northerner who had no interest in slavery but who accepted this creed was likely to end by defending southerners’ rights to hold their slaves, unmolested by the federal government and unchallenged by abolitionism. Such at any rate was the situation until the advent of the territorial question in the 1840s.

Even as slavery became the dominant issue, northern democrats often returned to this well. They grew up believing it. They bought into the party that preached it, wagering their futures, their fame, and their fortunes on its tenets. Franklin Pierce did not need the deep ideological underpinnings of the Democracy’s implicit proslavery agenda to refuse Andrew Reeder any help with the Missourians marauding about Kansas, stealing elections and lynching people. But his actions make more sense in light of them. So also do those of many Democrats, from Stephen Douglas on down, trying to navigate the increasing political confusion of the 1850s. Even a person who decided on the moral abhorrence of slavery could, through orthodox reading of the Democracy’s doctrines, adopt a strong position against opposing it in the political realm.

The Democracy’s Slavery Problem, Part One

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Andrew Reeder went off to Washington to get help from Franklin Pierce’s administration in quelling the unrest in Kansas. Surely he could do something. Reeder suggested firm instructions to Pierce’s appointees on the ground against the Missourian filibusters who authored the strife. Furthermore, he should make a proclamation that declared their sins to the country and castigated them. Then he should pledge the administration’s full support to the preservation of Kansas for the Kansans, by calling out the Army if necessary.

Pierce declined to help. We should understand this as coming in part from his personal disposition. Pierce seems to have wanted to please everybody, quite ready to tell them all they wanted to hear and then fail to follow through. Thus Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and David Rice Atchison and the others from the F Street Mess demanded his commitment to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in writing. But one can take historical psychoanalysis too far. Between fairly calamitous reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and the ongoing struggle and embarrassment over Cuba Pierce may not have had much influence left to spend. If his proclamation did nothing, it would put Pierce in the position of having to use the military to impose order and look like a tyrant. Failing that, he would expose his impotence. Furthermore Pierce only agreed reluctantly to support the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the first place. One could even argue that Douglas, Davis, and Atchison deceived him, as they promised only to go forward with the bill and Pierce’s declaration of support if they also had the blessing of Secretary of State William L. Marcy. He might not care to preserve popular sovereignty in its name.

On top of all this, with his party taking great setbacks in the North, Pierce would feel ever more beholden to the Democracy’s Southern wing. They would not look kindly on their Yankee president taking the side of a band of filthy slave-stealers and other scum of the earth, especially not at Reeder’s bidding. It seems surplus to requirement to go off on a hunt for additional reasons that Pierce might have refused, but for Foner’s class I’ve lately read John Ashworth’s The Republic in Crisis: 1848-1861 and he sheds more light on the ideological reasons that Northern Democrats would consistently lean, by and large, in a proslavery direction. As this has far broader significance for developments in the late antebellum era, I think it worth digging a bit further.

All the way back to Jefferson, whom the Democracy claimed as something like its patron saint, down through the modern party’s establishment under Andrew Jackson, the party had a distinct pro-Southern slant. While the Democracy and its ancestors remained viable in the North, they generally saw more and more consistent success in the South. They attached themselves to the fabled agrarian interest, that of Jefferson’s farmers who worked the Earth and so were God’s chosen. By this, Jefferson meant his own class rather than the people who actually worked the Earth, but the fiction allowed for a common interest between white males and a kind of united white male populism relatively alien to both the more elitist Federalists and Whigs.

Beyond that, Ashworth identifies the Democrats as especially interested in states’ rights on the national level and limited government at home. Neither of these ideas had to defend slavery. Neither drew their appeal solely from the circumstances of a slaveholding society. Ashworth points out antecedents in the era of the English Revolution who had no experience with slavery at all.

To those, the Democracy added a strong resistance to the state dictating one’s choices in what they considered the moral realm. The state could and should make laws regarding property, but it should not seek to impose temperance. It should not appoint itself the religious tutor of the populace. It should not care what country one’s ancestors came from. (Though, of course, it should have very definite opinions about what continent they came from.) It should not impose, from outside and above, its own vision of society. This makes for enlightened-sounding rhetoric, the kind of thing we still hear today.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

At times it worked out to something we would recognize as enlightened. I doubt many of us are all that sympathetic to the temperance movement, given how swimmingly Prohibition worked out. We have yet to cure ourselves of nativism, which seems to return every few decades when the grandchildren of people from the wrong part of the world entirely decide that the newest arrivals hail from the wrong part of the world entirely, but I don’t think many of us view it as a very enlightened sentiment.

A resistance to the state imposing a moral vision on society involves such generalities that a coherent account must always come with a particular context. Laws against murder and theft impose such a vision, but most of us don’t see them as such because we take those things for granted. In fields of active controversy, one could argue for either side but more often inaction seems to manifest as at least passive support for the status quo, for better or worse, and resistance to its change.

That last point has obvious relevance when it comes to antislavery politics, but we could turn it around. Salmon P. Chase and his Independent Democrats pronounced themselves outraged at and betrayed by the attack on the status quo embodied in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, after all. In doing so they went against the choice of their party leadership, and at variance with its traditional localism, but completely in line with its resistance to a moral reform movement on the part of the proslavery men who viewed the Missouri Compromise’s slavery ban as an affront and indignity which they ought not bear.