No History Today

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

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

 

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Thoughts on Puerto Rico

Gentle Readers, I guess this is something I’ll be doing more often again for all the worst reasons.

Some people believe that moral responsibility comes from one’s actions, mixed to some degree with one’s intentions. Many also believe that what one doesn’t do doesn’t count. We never have an obligation to act, but by acting we can incur obligations on ourselves. Standing aside means one hasn’t done anything right, but also nothing wrong. I don’t buy that and, if you get right down to it, I don’t think many people really do. Rather inaction becomes innocent to us largely when we feel like we should do something, but haven’t.

That must sound judgmental; moral reasoning can’t manage any other way. What we do and what we don’t do touches the lives of others. We can’t foresee every possibility or imagine the chain of causation across the world and down centuries; it would be absurd to insist that we should and hold us responsible for failing at it. But we must take responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of our actions and inactions. We choose them at the same time as, and because of, the choices we make to act or not.

This brings me to Puerto Rico, now devastated by Hurricane Maria. Everyone who had any right or business to know knew that Maria would probably sweep over our colony and cause tremendous devastation. We knew it just like we knew Texas and Florida would need help when hurricanes struck them. The United States is a rich country with a ludicrously expensive military that boasts tremendous logistical capability. When disasters strike, it’s out job to step up and do what we can. We have the ability. If we lack the willingness, then we must admit what we have chosen: to let people suffer and die while we quietly watch. This is true anywhere in our impressive reach, but the way human beings inevitably operate we feel that obligation most keenly for people we consider our own.

Puerto Ricans are Americans, the same as I and most of you are. They have every right to expect their government, which is also ours government, to be ready on hand with plans, resources, vehicles, and people to come to their desperate aid. More people live on the island than in about half of our states, millions of lives at risk. The island lacks power and will for months. It’s residents face floods. Most of them have no clean drinking water. This is a humanitarian catastrophe that beggars belief. The Trump administration had no plan to help the island. They and the GOP majority in Congress now expect to vote some kind of aid bill through toward the middle of the month, which Washingtonian friends tell me means they might get it done by Christmas; I hope they’re wrong. The residents of Puerto Rico mostly don’t have white skin. If they did, the full logistical might of the United States government and its bottomless coffers would have opened for them. Supplies and aid workers would have been lined up to flow in. 

People have already died from American inaction. More will soon, possibly for months on end. Natural disasters claim lives and we can’t blame anyone. You can’t legislate away a hurricane or arrest a flood. But our government has chosen the side of the hurricane, whilst boasting of the insufficient amount of aid scraped together already. It has forbidden members of Congress from going to the island, for fear they will report the truth. The man at its head had more important things to do than help, namely picking Twitter fights with Puerto Rican politicians who go out in deep water by themselves to find people in need and improve his golf game at our expense. Most of those who die will be the most vulnerable, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and children. I don’t know how to explain this except as an act of mass murder, done to the people of Puerto Rico in all our names. When Joseph Stalin orchestrated a famine in Ukraine, we didn’t shy away from calling it that. We must hold ourselves to the same standard. This is America in 2017. No one deserves to be treated so monstrously, but here we are.

Private charity can’t replace the resources of the American state -most charitable organizations actually rely on state aid to do their work- but if you can help, then here are some good organizations.

Please help save the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. We have got to keep fighting.

Contact your Senators and Representatives through Resistbot via your smartphone or Facebook messenger. Call them through the Capitol Switchboard: (202) 224-3121, especially if you live in Alaska, Arizona, or Maine.

I’m sorry Gentle Readers; we’re here again. If you followed the news, you might have believed that the Graham-Cassidy bill to destroy Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, ripping health insurance and thus both access to health care and peace of mind from thirty-two million Americans was safely dead. On Friday John McCain announced his opposition to the bill. That gave it two declared no votes (the other from Senator Rand Paul) and two likely no votes (Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski). That should have sunk things, but Rand Paul has voted for prior ACA repeals/Medicaid destruction and has now signaled that he is open to doing so again as long as the cuts are deep enough. Graham-Cassidy didn’t have enough misery in it for him. Without Paul’s no, assuming Collins and Murkowski hold firm, the bill still dies.

The drafters know that and believe they don’t have the votes, so a new version of Graham-Cassidy dropped tonight. You may have heard reports that it gives states more money, but analysts looking at the bill believe that the authors are using accounting tricks to hide that most states still lose badly. The new version guts protection for people with pre-existing conditions, rendering some of them uninsurable at any price and others unable to afford insurance. It still turns Medicaid into a block grant which expires entirely in 2026. It still authorizes states to let insurers sell policies that don’t cover essential health benefits, like prescription drugs or mental health care. Every protection you value in Obamacare is left up to the states to maintain or rescind in Graham-Cassidy 2.0. The only thing they added were partial payoffs for senators who they need to get to fifty votes plus Vice-President Pence’s tie-breaker.

This entire process has been deeply disturbing to me for many reasons. The content of the bill itself, I deem frankly monstrous. Senators voting to pass it are choosing consciously to inflict unimaginable misery on countless people who will be forced off the insurance rolls, forced to buy more expensive insurance, or stuck with insurance that doesn’t cover what they need. It will cost lives. Please don’t take my word for it, listen to the actual experts. Graham, Cassidy, and company will say anything to sell their bill. Here’s a basic summary, quoting one of the people in the know:

  • Although the state-by-state numbers being circulated show these states faring well, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Larry Levitt called them “pretty misleading,” as they don’t take into account the per-person cap on federal Medicaid funding. They also add state savings to the block grants under the bill, but don’t include them in the current law baseline, meaning the comparison isn’t apples to apples.
  • Allows “multiple risk pools,” which could separate sick and healthy people and thus drive up premiums for people with pre-existing conditions.
  • Allows states to change the federal cap on out-of-pocket costs for enrollees.
  • Allows states to decide how much insurers can charge people with pre-existing conditions, the benefits plans must offer and how cost-sharing is structured.
  • States only have to describe their plans; they don’t have to submit waivers of insurance rules.
  • “If there was any question about Graham-Cassidy’s removal of federal protections for pre-existing conditions, this new draft is quite clear,” Levitt tweeted.

The bottom line is that we all lose. In 2027 every state gets a giant hole knocked in its budget, which they will have to pay for in lives or taxes. Some states might do the right thing, but states often make it very difficult to raise taxes so many will choose the alternative. It’s true that some states lose out sooner, of course. States that tend to vote for Democrats lose the most and fastest:

And more on the accountancy tricks:

The Axios piece and Gaba’s take correspond closely to that of Andy Slavitt, who ran Medicaid for President Obama. Please see this thread for a full version:

I’m sorry to throw so much of Twitter into this post, and also the last, especially for those of you who already follow my feed and so have seen all this before. The content of the bill is itself profoundly disturbing, to say nothing of its effects. But I must rely on Twitter because at the time of writing the new language became available only a few hours ago. The Senate will likely vote to make it law or not on Wednesday. No official estimates of its costs or effects can be in at that time, not even the most basic and incomplete analysis from the Congressional Budget Office. The Senate Parliamentarian, who rules on whether a bill’s provisions are permissible under the special rules the GOP is using to avoid a filibuster, has no hope of parsing through it all honestly and fairly. It took days for independent analysts to get out estimates of the previous draft, which the entire American medical industry from patient groups to doctors to hospitals and insurers, all damned.

This massive overhaul to an industry that constitutes a huge portion of the American economy, written in the dark of night and cynically sold to undecided Senators by promising them their states will not suffer as badly as other states. It was drafted in secret and will be voted on with at most two minutes’ debate in the United States Senate. The Senators have little hope of knowing what they are voting for or what it would do from the CBO, traditionally the most reliable, nonpartisan, and independent authority on a legislation’s costs and effects. The version of Graham-Cassidy which will receive a very partial, tentative score tomorrow that tells us almost nothing about it is the one from last week, not this one. There will be a sham hearing this afternoon.

This is not how a democracy legislates. It may be true on some deeply cynical level that it helps the party I prefer if this thing passes and outrage at the Republican party results in Democratic victories at the polls, but it’s not worth it in lives spent or damage done to our freedom. Legislative process is often arcane and of much aid to those who want nothing accomplished. It badly needs reform. This is not reform. This is highway robbery that might as well have been cooked up in the F Street Mess. If a massively important bill, which is profoundly unpopular in every poll taken for any version of it, can pass this way then we live in a nation where our leaders don’t expect to have to contest fair elections again.

You can say that this is my cause and my party on the defensive. It is. It may be your cause next time. Even if you’re against the idea that the United States should regulate the health insurance industry or help poor people, this should scare the hell out of you. None of the Senators who have votes Graham and Cassidy are now trying to buy voted for the Affordable Care Act. They know that this bill hurts their states and their people. They also know how profoundly undemocratic it is to legislate in secret and sell unpopular bills with lies. One of them chose to vote against a dear friend of his in order to oppose Graham-Cassidy. Take it from John McCain:

I cannot in good conscience vote for the Graham-Cassidy proposal. I believe we could do better working together, Republicans and Democrats, and have not yet really tried. Nor could I support it without knowing how much it will cost, how it will effect insurance premiums, and how many people will be helped or hurt by it. Without a full CBO score, which won’t be available by the end of the month, we won’t have reliable answers to any of those questions.

I take no pleasure in announcing my opposition. Far from it. The bill’s authors are my dear friends, and I think the world of them. I know they are acting consistently with their beliefs and sense of what is best for the country. So am I.

Let me be honest with you, Gentle Readers. I do not, as a person of liberal beliefs, think highly of John McCain on a routine basis. His public statements, positions, and votes often anger me deeply. I’m sure that if he knew of mine, he would feel the same. He suffered terribly in Vietnam, where he went on our behalf. Now he suffers from cancer. I would wish neither on him or anyone else, even for an instant. I hope he has a speedy and full recovery. I also hope that if you dismiss me as a far left crazy who should get back to his history, you don’t dismiss him because we agree on this process being a shame. This is how dictatorships work, with backroom deals cut in defiance of the will of the people and contempt for democratic norms. It should not be how any nation operates, let alone one that declares itself a beacon of freedom.

If you aren’t willing to fight for health care; fight for that. This is a traumatic time for everyone and go-around makes it a little bit worse, but we can’t give up. We have celebrated prematurely too many times, which helped get us here. We can’t stop before the other side, the side that wants to radically transform America, gives up. If we do that, they win and we let it happen. It’s time for Civics 101 all over again: go tell your congressional delegation to vote no. If they have announced opposition, even if they are leaders in the fight against Graham-Cassidy, get in touch to thank and encourage them. We have stopped these bills before through massive public pressure. We can do it again. It just takes enough of us standing up and saying this isn’t right, loudly and often.

Lastly, this week I realized something. You may recall that I greatly admire the writing and ideas of Ta-Nehisi Coates. He makes the point that victory in a struggle for justice is good, but the struggle has value in itself. I don’t think that I, a white man, understood just what he meant until now. We can win this, but we might not. We have a choice before us either way, though. We can stand silent and let bad things happen, at which point we must call ourselves by our right name: accomplice.

Every day we stand up and push back, we make it that much harder for the people who want to do great harm and see injustice thrive to keep on as they would. They want us despairing, convinced of the futility of opposition. This is a bad fight where the odds might be against us. Perhaps we should not dare to hope. We may do better for each other if we assume failure and fight anyway than by succumbing to overconfidence. But we are not alone and we are not powerless. The moral arc of history doesn’t bend on its own, but we can damned well knock a curve toward justice into it. We can do more. We can be a better, more just, more decent nation than we have been. We can hold to the values we claim. We can still be a free people who hope for greatness. No one person is going to change the course of history. Enough of us all pushing can. And have. 

Light the phone lines ((202) 224-3121) on fire. Send those ResistBot faxes -they’re still free- every day. Lives and freedom are both at stake. We cannot take anything for granted. This may not be over until 2020 or 2024. We have just got to keep fighting. What we do now, we do for those who come after as much as for ourselves.

And if you disagree with me, Resistbot and those phone numbers work for you too. Every free country, or country that hopes to be free, needs an active, engaged, vigilant citizenry. That goes for all of us and I hope we have become more all those things than we have long been in the course of this. There is value in that struggle. We are all worth fighting for, from the people in Puerto Rico looking at months without electricity and with no relief in sight who should be the sole focus of our attention right now to undecided senators and people with sick children. This is how we can do it.

Thank you for listening again. Once more, there will be history tomorrow.

Please help save the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. Your calls, faxes, and emails can save lives.

This is not a history post, Gentle Readers; please will bear with me anyway. I am grateful for every one of you, whether you stop by once or check every day. Knowing that you are there; that there are people who value what I write here enough to give the time to read it has helped me in ways too numerous to count. I would not have done the research without the readers, so you have benefited me tremendously. I understand the past and present so much more deeply now than I did a few years ago. The skills I’ve learned here have served me in other communities, most notably Reddit’s AskHistorians, where I have met new friends dear to me. The ability to come here five days a week and do something that I know others value, and contribute in a small way to the internet’s largest history enthusiast community, are deeply precious to me. All this together has done much to improve my mental health. It all started here, because some friends encouraged me to do this thing. I’m not in touch with all of you anymore but if you’re reading this; you know who you are. Please understand how much of a difference you’ve made in my life.

As I said, this isn’t a history post. Nor is it history adjacent or historically-informed commentary on recent events, as I’ve done in the past. I feel I’m presuming on you, as I’ve done once before, to even make it. I don’t do so light; I’ve put it off most of the day and I feel guilty writing it now, but I’d feel worse if I didn’t. The long and short of things is that I’ve been losing sleep over the latest plan to destroy the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, and eradicate Medicaid in the bargain. It’s called Graham-Cassidy and it’s the worst bill yet. It has a better than even chance of becoming law, perhaps even this week but most likely next. I’m not a health care expert, so I can’t walk you through the ins and outs of it. But those people exist and they’ve been sounding the alarm on and off for a month, then much more seriously starting late last week. It’s gone from a longshot in the Senate to one vote shy of passage. Here’s the briefest summary I could find:

Slavitt, who ran Medicare and Medicaid for President Obama, knows more about these issues than just about anybody. He also produced a bullet points list of what Graham-Cassidy would do:

A summary of Graham-Cassidy

This is a bill to end Obamacare, but it’s also one to destroy Medicaid. It takes us back not just to before 2010, but all the way back to before 1965. The sponsors will argue that it doesn’t, but by replacing a federal entitlement for anyone in need with block grants they have ensured it. Block grants are just piles of cash which states can use for anything. They shrink as the years go on and were built originally to strangle programs that politicians didn’t like but couldn’t get enough support to destroy outright. The American people often forgive tremendous malfeasance, but we do have our limits. The block grants end entirely in 2026, at which point Medicaid either ceases completely or the cost is borne entirely by the states. As states usually have balanced budget constitutional amendments and it’s very difficult to raise revenue, that means at minimum and long before the ten years run out they will have to drastically cut eligibility, benefits, or both to the people who need them most desperately. That includes people on life-sustaining care and people who only have a livable quality of life because they can get help. If this law passes, people will die because of it. Before Obamacare, tens of thousands died every year because they couldn’t afford health care. After it, they will again. It’s not a perfect law, just the best we could do in 2010. People are alive today who would have died but for it. The same goes for Medicaid.

Two weeks ago we thought they did not have the votes for this. We believed that after the one vote defeat in the Summer that the GOP had given up and moved on. Most of us, myself included, forgot the lesson of the House vote: Back in March, we thought for sure that after giving it one go the Republicans had given up. They regrouped, produced a far more radical bill, and hammered it through without hearings and with a margin of two votes. The life-destroying ACA repeal / Medicaid eradication is never more at risk of passage then when we think it dead. Now momentum is building, in part because Graham-Cassidy shamelessly plunders the states that expanded Medicaid to pay temporarily for the budget hole they’ll dump on the states that didn’t. Guess which states have more Republican legislators in them. A few GOP states will take a massive haircut too, but those are deemed acceptable losses. I don’t want to wallpaper this post with images, but here are two more to give you the current details:

If you’d rather read it in text form, then here’s an explainer. The bill will probably 32 million people without insurance, which combined with the present uninsured would leave us worse off than we were before Obamacare. The ban on refusing coverage or charging more for pre-existing conditions would be among the legislative casualties. Lifetime limits would be back. Insurers could sell you a junk plan and hike your rates the instant you got sick. Cassidy-Graham took everything Americans hated about health insurance in 2009 and opted to go for worse still.

My state, Michigan, will lose $3,041 billion in federal health care money in 2026, and far more after. We are not the poorest state, but we can’t afford that. Few states could. When it comes time to choose who will suffer, the most vulnerable are always first on the list. The most vulnerable in the United States include plenty of white people -my mother and I both presently get our insurance through the ACA- but white Americans have done our best to ensure that the most vulnerable are disproportionately not people who look like us. I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. Right now Arizona stands to lose a lot too, but since John McCain (R-AZ) cast the deciding vote last time you can bet they’re working on a way to make sure Arizona gets into the plus column. The last time, his governor told him that the state couldn’t afford it. This time we probably don’t have that luxury. Furthermore, McCain and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are close friends. He’s the Graham in the bill’s name.

I don’t want to embed an entire thread of tweets -I have imposed on you enough- but if you want the full state of play then please look at this thread:

I know this is the fifth time we’ve had to beg our members of Congress to let us keep having health care so we can keep living, keep having lives worth living instead mired in pain and worry. But it might be the last time. The special rules that the Senate presently uses to pass things by simple majority (50 Republicans plus the Vice President, in this case) expire September 30 and the GOP have made it clear they want the next turn with those for tax cuts. Wikler currently expects a vote late next week. It looks bad for all of us who care about our fellow citizens. According to polls, that’s an overwhelming majority of Americans. Even among Republican voters, none of the bills to date have been popular. The GOP knows that and has tried to sneak every one of them through without a thorough review and due consideration.

We let that happen once before, but we stopped it twice over the Summer. This is still a democracy and the people still have power, as dark as things look. The greatest power we have now is our voices. The votes were lined up before and one fell out. One can again, but we need massive and unrelenting public pressure. We need to show up and be loud, reminding politicians that they work for us. Not everyone can make it to DC for a protest or visit a field office, but we all have phones and we all have the internet. It’s time to light the wires on fire for ourselves and, most importantly, for each other. Write letters to the editor calling our your congressmen and Senators by name and calling on them to fight. If they’re already a confirmed no, then thank them and make sure they stay that way. If they’re a yes, tell them to reconsider. Do it even if your Senator’s name is on the bill. You are literally their boss.

You should get in touch with your governors too, especially if they’re Republicans and you have a GOP senator. You can do it on your own, or through the Capitol switchboard (202) 224-3121), or with the help of Resistbot. (The switchboard will not have your governor’s number, but Resistbot does.) Resistbot will give the right phone numbers via text or Facebook messenger. It will also allow you to send faxes, all completely free and easy to use. There’s no limit here; you can fax, or call every day. If something changes during the day, you can do it again. They’re not going to throw your message away because you rang twice. I have horrific phone anxiety so I use the faxes. The worst that’s ever happened to me was receiving a letter from my congressman. If you’re not sure what to say, then there are scripts you can use and there’s no shame in doing it.

All that said, please only contact your congressmen, senators, and governors. They’re the people who work for you. It’s dishonest to pretend you’re local when you’re not and if staffers get the impression that most of the people who contact them are from out of district then they’ll ignore genuine messages along with the bad. Our democracy can’t afford that on any issue, now or in the future.

I know it’s hard to do this; it’s harder still to have to keep doing it. It’s hard enough for me to keep at it. I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone with sick loved ones. We can still turn this around. It might come down to obstructionist dirty tricks, but everything about the progress of this legislation on the GOP side has been one dirty trick after another. Call on your senators to withhold consent and filibuster by amendment to run down the clock. Call on your governors to lean on your Republican senators, especially if you live in Arizona. If you don’t feel confident writing your own faxes, please steal mine. This is what I’ll send to my Senators (both Democrats, you’ll have to adjust for a Republican) every day for the next two weeks:

Medicaid and the ACA are in the GOP’s firing line again with Graham-Cassidy. It’s the worst version yet. The law would destroy tens of thousands of lives. I’m sorry, but it’s so. You have got to take this deadly seriously. Assume they have the votes and be ready to obstruct to save those lives. I can’t tell you how difficult this is for me personally, and I don’t presently rely on either program for essential services. Imagine how people who will soon die without them feel. For them and all of us, you have got to pull out all the stops.

Be loud on your social media. Toss out senatorial courtesy and withhold consent on everything until after September 30, when the reconciliation runs out. Be ready with amendments to filibuster during vote-a-rama. They have eight working days left. You can gum this up and force the GOP to move on. You are not powerless. You have got to stand up for the people of Michigan and every other state. We need you desperately. Please do everything it takes.

This is something we can do for ourselves and, more importantly, for each other. Or it’s something we can not do and just let the bodies fall where they may; we have a history of that. But it’s not the only history we have and history is not destiny. We each make it in our ways small and large, through all the things we choose to accept or choose to fight. This is a time to fight. We can’t all be abolitionists or civil rights workers, but we can stand against the wrongs in our own time. There are people suffering now that we can help with the bipartisan bill being worked on Senate committee. There will be far more suffering and far fewer helped if Graham-Cassidy passes.

I don’t want to ask you for anything but your time, but if you can do this then please do what you can. Calls, faxes, telling friends, everything can help. Spread these resources around; I don’t need credit and you don’t need to share my prose with them unless you want to. Let the people who represent you know that you can’t stand idly by and watch them consign your fellow human beings to untold misery, insecurity, and death. If this is presumptuous, if I have broken the social contract between us then I’m sorry. These are things I had to say.

Thank you for listening. There’ll be history tomorrow.

“Uttering groans of distress” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 12

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate, slumped down and covered with his own blood. Ambrose Murray literally pulled Preston Brooks off him, but Sumner’s assailant kept trying for another go at the Senator despite his broken cane and the congressman holding him back. He finally stopped after John Crittenden insisted he not kill Sumner. Until that point, Brooks may not have realized his assault had gone so far as to imperil a healthy man’s life. In the moment, he may also not have cared. Transported by rage and panic, people often do things they would later regret.

The caning cost exacted a minor physical toll on Brooks, beyond the simple exertion of it. Senator Alfred Iverson (D-GA), stood near to Toombs and Keitt by the Vice-President’s chair in the Senate chamber when everything took place. He saw much of what everyone else did, but also testified

I also saw Mr. Brooks standing near; that he was hurt over his eye, and asked him how it happened? He said it was from the recoil of his stick.

This points further to Brooks losing control in the moment; he can’t have meant to lay into his own skull. Given that he used a cane of some length, probably Brooks’ forehead caught a flying piece when it shattered rather than bounced it off Sumner’s head and onto his own.

While they discussed Brooks’ head, Sumner

was lying down, and uttering groans of distress, but was soon taken up and carried through the area into the ante-room of the Senate

Ambrose Murray found Sumner

reeling around against the seats, backwards and forwards, and after I pulled Mr. Brooks back, Mr. Sumner fell over. […] He was not standing erect at any time after I saw him. He seemed to be reeling around against the desk.

In other words, Sumner stood hunched over and near to collapse. He finally did so after Murray stepped in.

Edwin Morgan

Edwin Morgan, who had come in with Murray,

caught Mr. Sumner in the act of falling, so that my being there at the moment saved him from falling as heavily upon the floor as he would otherwise have done.

Sumner stood over six feet tall; it would take some doing to catch him in a fall.

The committee asked after Sumner’s consciousness at the moment:

I have no idea from his appearance, as I recollect it, that he was conscious, and I thought of it immediately afterwards, and do not think he was at all conscious of anything. I judged so, among other things, from the fact that he made no effort to defend himself in any way-not even to defend his head from the blows which were being laid on, and which he naturally would have done had he been conscious

That matches Sumner’s own account exactly. From the first blow, he couldn’t see and didn’t understand what had happened. Sumner’s memory ends with its landing and begins again as he

found myself ten feet forward, in front of my desk, lying on the floor of the Senate, with my bleeding head supported on the knee of a gentleman, whom I soon recognized, by voice and countenance, as Mr. Morgan of New York. Other persons there were about me offering me friendly assistance; but I did not recognize any of them. Others there were at a distance, looking on and offering no assistance, of whom I recognized only Mr. Douglas, of Illinois, Mr. Toombs, of Georgia, and I thought also my assailant, standing between them.

Stephen Douglas

Gentle Readers, I have lost consciousness myself. It didn’t happen under circumstances as dire as Sumner’s, but I must tell you that it doesn’t feel at all like going to sleep and waking back up. Instead you come back and have nothing in your mind to account for your changed situation. It feels from the inside like the world skipped a few moments, though in fact your brain did.

Clarity can return quickly and we can say with some confidence that Toombs at least stood in the general area at the time. Douglas had left the Senate for a nearby room, but came back at the sound of the caning. He later claimed that he almost stepped in, then realized that his charging forward at Sumner would look like an ally coming to Brooks’ aid and stayed back. That would likewise put him in the right general area to feature in Sumner’s apt portrait.

In Defense of the National Endowment for the Humanities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Crow Comes to Michigan

Gentle Readers, the triumphant story of the Civil Rights Movement ends in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow died there, stabbed through the heart by Lyndon Johnson’s pen. Black Americans henceforth had protection against state governments that acted more as their jailers than their servants. Their laws did not say, in so many words, that no black person could cast a vote but the men who wrote them made sure it worked out that way. To grant the vote to subhumans would degrade actual people who, our most ancient creed holds, come exclusively in white skin. The Supreme Court has gotten at the law, cutting away many of its substantial protections. We must now believe that some states with a history of racial discrimination -a trait all fifty share- do not require special attention. As a result those same states have rushed to erect numerous obstructions to casting a vote, closing more than eight hundred polling places and writing laws against the phantom of voter impersonation fraud which they design to ensure black Americans don’t vote. The laws will not catch every black voter, of course, but they can swing close elections. Furthermore, their mere presence serves as a deterrent.

My state has had voter ID on the books since the Nineties. I disagreed with it then, on the grounds that the fraud it’s claimed to protect happens so rarely that these measures clearly constitute a solution looking for a problem. Even if someone went around to multiple polling places to cast votes under assumed names, complete with the correct addresses remembered on the spot and the person they posed as didn’t show up before or later and cast suspicion on the ballot by doing so, microscopic vote margins happen so rarely and unpredictably even in local races that they amount to statistical noise. An individual could cast no more than a handful of fake votes. As soon as you get enough people to really make a difference, things look more like territorial Kansas. Everybody who knows anything about elections already knows this.

But Michigan requires you to have identification so every time I go with my driver’s license in hand. I present it to one of my father’s old coworkers, a man who used to live less than a block from me. We know each other by sight. He passes it to his wife, who knows me just as well. They scan the license and compare my address and name with their records to discover, quelle surprise, I am who they thought I am. Then they mark my name off and hand me a ballot. The license adds no great security to the rest, but it does cost money and one has to go out and get a new one every now and then. If I lost my license or it was damaged and I could not get a new one before election day, I would have to swear an affidavit that I had the right to vote in my precinct and then proceed. More than eighteen thousand of my fellow Michigan residents did that this month. While not ideal, and clearly intended to deprive people of less means of their chance to vote, they state government hasn’t gotten all it paid for from this system. Black Michiganders still vote.

The Republicans who control the state government have had quite enough of that. The Party of Lincoln, founded in this state, has decided to throw in with Jefferson Davis and George Wallace. They insist that if you don’t have your ID, even if you have the right name and address and the risk of someone impersonating a voter is astronomically rare and unlikely to ever matter without being obvious to the dullest observer, you should have to cast a provisional ballot. They will cast it in the trash, only to rescue it if you provide your ID within ten days. In other words, if you have the misfortune of lacking an ID on election day you have less than two weeks to get fortunate enough, find out where and how you can prove your bona fides, and then get your vote counted long after the outcome has been announced.

Maybe people will do that, but the Michigan GOP hopes they will not. They have dug this law out of a drawer somewhere, in the lame duck session immediately after the election just as they did when they voted to eviscerate the right to unionize in our state. Now they rush to get it passed before opposition can mount. I suspect that, while their gerrymandering will keep them in control of the legislature, they worry about the governor’s race in 2018. Their incumbent poisoned thousands of black people, after all. Those people have families and friends who will vote, probably not for whoever they run for the top spot in the state.

This should remind us that Jim Crow disenfranchised black Americans by the millions because of their race, but also because of how they would vote. The Democratic party that erected the whole edifice knew full well that the freedpeople and their descendants would remember what party freed them and stood up for their rights. In much of the postwar South, if black men could vote then they would decide elections. In still more areas, they would have numbers enough to force white politicians to court their support or see it go to an opponent. We must remember segregation as a racial injustice, but we should not forget that racism doesn’t come down to pseudoscientific theories about superiority. Rather we invented white supremacy to justify an existing political and economic order against challenges to it. In suppressing the vote so they can keep winning elections, Republicans in Michigan and across the country have not departed from our most deadly creed; they have renewed it.

How to be a white supremacist

Gentle Readers, let’s talk white supremacy. We do that almost all the time here, but usually in the context of other things. That makes it easy to let some details slip through the cracks. I think most Americans get the most basic idea: whites come first, everyone else possesses debatable humanity. I realized a few weeks back, in the course of talking with others, that I ought to pay more attention to the myriad ways that simple idea wends its way through our lives.

Most people would probably agree that an individual who expresses belief in the racial superiority of whites or the inferiority of non-whites to whites counts as white supremacist. The guy in the brown shirt with the red armband and the other guy in the white hood believe things like that. We have agreed, at least in mixed company, that this makes them monstrous. They believe in horrible things and countenance historical atrocities and present injustices which we righteously condemn. They have no fit place in polite society and we have an obligation to do what we can to contain them and limit the harm they do, so far as we can do so and remain faithful to other vital principles. If they wheel out racist pseudoscience, whether vintage nineteenth century or the more recent sort, that makes them a hard case. Sometimes they receive a kinder hearing than they should, but mostly the convention holds. We should call those people out and keep to our norms. Such clear expressions of racial hatred serve as calls to action and precursors for new horrors. People may do harm with or without our saying so, but they will understand silence as permission.

We do not, however much we may wish otherwise, live in a world where villainy so eagerly announces itself. Admitting that puts us in a bind. In making those who express open racial animus into pariahs, exiled by their deplorable ideas, we easily slip into a second corollary. Something we consider so vile, we cannot imagine occurring with any great frequency. We imagine racists as freaks, so different that we can’t imagine knowing them. We have made racism into a crime near unto murder, yet with no victims. Someone far away or long ago did horrible things, but we finished that and now we have sad, hateful remnants who don’t really warrant our attention. Racism simultaneously counts for a great deal and doesn’t matter at all. It then makes no sense for us to go looking for it.

By we, I must clarify, I mean myself and other white Americans. We have the luxury of these conventions written on our skin. Their costs we carve into the lives of others. I have done it myself more times than I care to remember. We have arranged our civilization to let us do it without thinking, but even when we choose thoughtlessly, we still choose. Suffer me this story to illustrate:

The worst physical injury I have yet endured came when two boys pushed me down on the playground. I landed with my left hand forward. Rather than catching myself, the radius and ulna both broke. My hand drove up between them and one of the bones lay lengthwise across the back of it. The doctors told us that I had one of the worst fractures they ever treated without operating. It still hurts when it gets cold sometimes, almost a quarter century later. I can’t imagine many people I have actually met whom I have cause to like less than those two boys, who suffered no punishment for doing it. But I have known since the day it happened that they did not come at me thinking that they would break my bones and leave me with occasional pain for decades after. They set out to shove me away, perhaps to the ground, but not to rearrange my skeleton.

Some part of that day will always be in the present tense for me. Others have suffered far worse with a grace I can’t muster; I don’t write this to ask your sympathy for childhood pains. Rather hope you can understand that what those boys meant to do on the playground didn’t matter. Their not meaning to hurt me did not preserve me from harm. No amount of good intentions saved my bones and spared me fleeting pain. Even had they simply bumped into me in the hall, not meaning to lay a hand on me, the bones got broken. I felt, and sometimes still feel, the pain of the moment. That matters. We live with the things done to us in flesh and blood far more than we ever will the intentions that drove them.

We can perform white supremacist actions without conscious intention to do so; I know I have. We can say, perhaps honestly, that we didn’t mean it. People get hurt all the same. I maintain that we do so more often than not, habitually privileging the interests, concerns, and ultimately the lives of white Americans above those of anybody else. The people of Flint have poison coming out of their faucets because white people chose to allow it. They suffer not an iota less if we meant otherwise. The government of Michigan, my state, poisoned them all. It has lately appealed a court ruling that the state must deliver that water to residents, rather than make them come to collect their daily rations. No one made the state file that appeal; they chose it, knowing that the less accessible they make drinking water the more likely they are to force the residents to use the poison flowing from their taps all the same. Flint has a majority black population. A mostly white government with a mostly white constituency prefers poisoning them to supplying them with basic necessities, even when that government has only itself to blame for the poisoning.

Say that the people of Michigan did not vote for this. (We didn’t, though when we voted as we did we could reasonably have expected a cavalier attitude toward black lives.) Say that the state government did not mean for it to happen or didn’t know it could. (They knew.) It doesn’t matter. Flint’s residents of all ages got to drink poison all the same. Pleading good intentions will not change that, though it does an admirable job of distracting us from white supremacy in grotesque operation.

Keeping on the theme of water, an oil company wants to build a pipeline through North Dakota. It would have run right by Bismarck, the state capital. The people there believed that this would put their drinking water at risk. Oil does tend to spill; pipes do fail. In response to the concerns of Bismark’s people, which we can all understand, the pipeline got rerouted through a Sioux reservation, Standing Rock. The Sioux, who know something about living on the business end of genocide for the past few centuries, objected too. They would also prefer that they and their children did not drink poison, as well as that an oil pipeline not run through their sacred lands. For some time now they have conducted a large, peaceful protest against the construction, to which the police have responded with violence. That includes spraying water on the protesters at night, in November on the high plains, which ought to count as lethal force all by itself.

I understand that many people stand to make a great deal of money off this pipeline, including the man who lost the late presidential election. But when the people of Bismarck objected to the route endangering their water, plans changed. Ninety percent of the people who live in that city can boast white skin, which goes a long way. The Sioux cannot, so they get to have their children poisoned and their holy places despoiled. Their resistance, not that of Bismarck, brought down the heavy hand of the law. Here, as in Flint and as we do in countless other times and places, people made a decision. White children don’t deserve poisoned water. No one will drive a pipeline through one of Bismarck’s churches. The Sioux have no such immunity. Their concerns, lives, and culture don’t count any more than the people of Flint do.

It may be that some of the people who made the decisions for Flint and North Dakota exulted at the thought of afflicting minorities. If I have learned anything from the research I do for this blog, I have learned to never underestimate the power of pure malice. But it doesn’t matter if they acted with depraved hearts, they did what they did. We can’t know fully the minds of others, however much we try, but they write their actions on the bodies of their victims. The rest of us must make our own choices then. Even if we can’t follow every issue and understand each controversy, we decide when they come before us. We can refuse to allow such things to happen in our name or we can turn away and tell stories about well-meaning mistakes and oversights, reducing those genuinely harmed to an irrelevant detail. A band of neo-Nazis or Klansmen might harm people by the score, but all of us standing by play our part in far greater crimes. A gang can kill dozens or hundreds; policy, silent assent, and willful blindness reach millions.

Recent Reading (Septemeber-October 2016)

Gentle Readers, I feel like a tour of the bookshelf wouldn’t hurt. We left off back in August, where I had just finished Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. Since then, many pages have flown, and occasionally crawled, by.

I followed up Foner with Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Berlin made for a complicated, occasionally confusing, but valuable read. He does what he says in the title, taking us from the first enslaved arrivals to about 1800. He further does so in a regional format, separating out the Mississippi Valley, the Lower South, the Upper South, and the North for individual treatment. Berlin breaks each down into a rough sequence of generations, around which he organizes the book. The generation format proved very helpful in charting both regional differences and development over time. Berlin’s Mississippi Valley rushes through the tentative states of feeling out a slave system into an early plantation boom, which then falls apart in the face of a large slave revolt and only re-emerges as a slave society toward the end of the book. His North looks at first like it will always have only marginal slavery, only to ramp up and begin to resemble the South in the middle of the eighteenth century. It may have gone all the way, but the Revolution intervened and cut off the supply of new slaves. The Upper and Lower South chart more familiar courses, but distinguish themselves meaningfully toward the end where the less numerous free people of color in the Lower South, largely concentrated in cities, develop into something like a distinct class between black and white. In the Upper South, freedpeople find themselves instead forced to stay at the bottom with the slaves.

All of this makes for many moving parts. In doing so, it helpfully complicates a picture of slavery necessarily oriented more toward the mature late Antebellum system. The generalities largely hold, but highlighting the exceptions and nuances gives a far deeper understanding of just how slavery functioned with the constant tension between enslaver and enslaved. Berlin’s use of the term negotiation for that raised my eyebrows. He considers it problematic himself, taking pains to stress that the enslavers hold all the cards and he means nothing like a negotiation between equals. Berlin’s meaning becomes clear easily enough, all the same. The enslaved constantly want to exert control over their lives, protect their families, and secure what safety and prosperity they can. Enslavers want to eradicate that control and completely reduce their human property to the status of livestock, but the practical inability to govern or supervise every second of their lives makes that quest impossible. Looking at slavery like that does not minimize its cruelty, but does stress how real people with conflicting goals pushed against one another (and the enslaved almost always lose, but make important gains on the margins) in a constant dynamic rather than a static system of dominance.

From Berlin, I set into Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. Gentle Readers, I did not think I could like Lee much less than I did before I started. Pryor showed me otherwise. Please don’t read this as suggesting she wrote a hit piece. Frequently Pryor shows remarkable sympathy for her subject. His endless career frustrations and time spent away from his family clearly weigh on him. He has obvious talents as an engineer that often go neglected or wasted. He encourages loved ones to avoid the military and thus the mistakes he made. But Lee also has a petty side. His West Point cadets knew him as a martinet. He could do little for his friends, while expecting them to do much for him. He only dislikes slavery because he finds managing slaves disinclined to obey him and doubles-down on the cruelty as a remedy.

Pryor wrote a good, important work. One comes out the end of it with a much stronger understanding of Lee the man. But her format works against her on occasion. She insisted she would not write a biography, but then essentially did. Each chapter begins with a letter from or to Lee, usually in full. Sometimes full exchanges see print. They proceed in rough chronological order through his life. She does her best to make each chapter’s biographical essay and analysis about its own distinct subject, but they inevitably blend together. I might have had an easier time with it if she went with more standard thematic chapters, though it would come at the cost of understanding the arc of the Marble Man’s life. Given I don’t intend to read any other Lee biography, I can’t complain too much.

About halfway through Pryor, an acquaintance suggested that the two of us read Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 together. I happily agreed, even breaking with my usual practice to write real reading notes on each chapter. The book deserves all the praise it gets, though I feel Foner regrettably neglected to integrate the widespread violence into the story as much as he might have. Foner’s admiration of and inspiration by the twentieth century Civil Rights movement shines through on every page, to the point where one could slip and forget that politics happened as much or more with bullets, rope, whips, fists, flesh, blood, and terror as with ballot boxes and elected officials. I doubt Foner himself would write it that way today; he stresses the violence more in recent lectures he’s given. At some point I intend to revisit the era through more recent works that do highlight the violence more.

After Foner, I finished Pryor and then went on to Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War by Michael Morrison. I went into Morrison expecting largely old news, given how my studies for the blog have gone. Sure enough, I found parts where he reiterated things I already knew for pages on end. It happens to everybody once you start reading in depth about a subject. But Morrison brought an attention to party politics to bear that turned a theme of previous works into the dominant narrative thread. Doing so linked together more firmly many things I knew in general, particularly with regard to the breaking of the Democracy. That kind of history has gone somewhat out of fashion, for many good reasons, but getting a fresh dose of it proved extremely helpful to me.

Skipping ahead a few books, we come to River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson. After multiple books about white politics, I wanted something with a stronger slavery focus. Johnson delivered. His book concerns itself deeply with slavery, including frequent quotations from slave narratives. These form the center of the book, but on a broader level Johnson asks an unusual question. Most antebellum surveys begin at Sumter and work backwards. We know what happened, so how did we get there? Johnson focuses far more on on the world of possibilities open to the Mississippi Valley enslavers. He asks not what they seceded from, but rather what they hoped to secede to. Secession, while clearly the most important of the dreams they contemplated, comes at the end of a forest of options.

Of those, Johnson focuses the most on filibustering. That focus got me to read the book, as few historians treat filibustering as more than a sideshow. In doing so, Johnson paints a Deep South that has filled up as far as many of its boosters think it can manage. They need more something or the rising price of slaves means that white solidarity may soon crack as disgruntled nonslaveholders realize their economic mobility will never come. The Mississippi Valley defined itself on the move, improvising, expanding, lying, cheating, exploiting with no end in sight. But the might have dome to an end after all. Filibusters might open up new horizons once more. Poor whites could move to virgin land and buy slaves to work it. New Orleans merchants fretting over the railroad redirecting trade could look forward to a Caribbean empire centered on their port. Like Berlin, Johnson has a keen eye for the dynamism of the systems in play. He also has a keen appreciation for irony and symbolism. Nor, in all of that, does he for a moment let you forget that he talks about the dirty business of real lives spent for money; no amount of literary flourish obscures how Johnson writes about a world filled with horrors.

I’m on a podcast! Again!

Gentle Readers, the second half of my episode of the AskHistorians Podcast released yesterday. It picks up right where the first left off. About halfway through we get into new territory, shooting past Felix Zollicoffer and into the break-up of the Democratic party. We finish out in April, 1861. Listening back to it, I can tell that my voice was failing but I had a ball all the same.

Corrections

  • The first time I mentioned Polk’s election, I said it was in 1846. It’s 1844, as I said on later occasions.
  • Houston and Bell both concerned themselves with the issue of displacing Indians, but Houston somewhat more so. Bell expected the Indians to go off west and quietly die for us. Houston held out hope they could be assimilated.
  • Celia killed her owner with a hefty stick, not a fireplace shovel. She burned her owner in her fireplace, crushed the bones she could, and got his grandson to scatter the ashes outside for her. The bones she couldn’t crush she hid under the fireplace.
  • South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, not December 21.

Addition: Franklin Pierce’s wife is Jane Appleton. I forgot her name in the moment.

Now what’s the appropriate time to wait and give others a chance before I pitch an episode again?