Some Thoughts on John Brown

John Brown

Gentle Readers, despite occasional appearances, historians are human. Just like the people we study, we come to the past with our own set of values, inclinations, and biases. None of us can produce an objective history, any more than we can produce the final, complete history of anything. We cannot pretend to neutrality and you ought to take a skeptical look at any recent historian who tries. But we must approach the past as fairly as we can and try to understand the mores, motives, hopes, fears, and cultural backgrounds of the people we study. Perhaps we don’t communicate this well, but history is an exercise in empathy.

That brings us to John Brown. Biographers have painted him as a Christian warrior saint and a deranged madman driven by paranoid obsessions. The most recent work I’m familiar with credits Brown as a vital precursor to civil rights. People love and hate Brown, often intensely. As must surprise no one, I find him intensely admirable. Though not as immune to the white supremacy of his era as one biographer would cast him, he does have a far smaller helping of it than most. He fought slavery, which puts him right up there with a soldier liberating a concentration camp in my book. Brown felt an obligation to black Americans that he cast in cringe-worthy paternalistic terms, but demonstrated a remarkable willingness to let them guide the course of his own life. He believed them ignorant and lacking in necessary discipline, but also saw both traits as situational and cured through good examples and education rather than innate in their race. In that, he differs little from many black leaders of his era. Far more than most white Americans, he treated non-whites as his equals. He would even fight and kill white men for their freedom, something he intended as early as the 1840s and finally consummated, twice, in the last decade of his life.

For the most part, historians don’t debate the facts of Brown’s life. Some have pathologized his antislavery, just as they have that of most whites, as a kind of mental illness. Brown and the rest had an unnatural fixation on slavery, which posed no danger to them. They reacted with intolerable offensiveness and hostility to a harmless, dying institution. Abandoning those ideas, as recent generations have, presents us with newly revised, more generous take. Brown’s violence may still discomfit us, as all violence should, but in the end he proposed killing enslavers to free the enslaved. How can we celebrate George Washington, who put a lot of white, British soldiers into their graves for what we consider, at least in principle, the cause of freedom and damn Brown for the same? If we are consistent and fair, we must count them as similarly heroes for freedom. The fact that Brown might well have killed George Washington for the same cause should say more to us damning of Washington than of Brown.

The idea of the hero abolitionist John Brown drowns in Pottawatomie creek, next to William Sherman’s brains. On that terrible night, Brown killed unresisting men who owned no people. He did it in what he imagined as self-defense and specifically targeted those who worked for an illegitimate and oppressive government. Some of them may have made dire, credible threats or posed a threat to Brown and his family through their connection to the bogus legislature’s courts, but Brown killed them in anticipation. Had the Doyles, Wilkinson, or Sherman come at him armed and dangerous, Brown would have done no worse than anybody else. By taking them at night, ripping them from their beds and their families and ordering them hacked to pieces in the dark, he went beyond any reasonable understanding of self-defense. He acted like an enslaver lynch mob, protecting his community from what he deemed a vile, dangerous element. That we agree with him on slavery, or even farther that proslavery whites themselves count as a serious danger, should not blind us to that.

Furthermore, self-defense does not tell the full story even if we grant it to Brown. James Townsley reported that his motives extended further than the simple murders of threatening elements and, unlike his claim that Brown wanted a general purge of the area, this makes sense in light of all Brown did:

Brown said it must be done for the protection of the Free States settlers; that the pro-slavery men party must be terrified

and consequently that

the pro slavery men were dreadfully terrified

Brown valued consistency in most things, following his convictions where they led him, whatever the hazards. We have a word for political violence directed at civilian targets to create fear among the enemy. Let us honor Brown’s values by calling the Pottawatomie murders he, his sons, and a few others committed by their right name: terrorism.

We usually imagine terrorism as something that someone else does, for goals we oppose. Calling Brown a terrorist does not come easily to anyone sympathetic to him. It associates his cause with those which shock our conscience. We might view it as discredited by such methods. But what else can one call a man who pulls people from their beds at night and murders them to set an example for others?

We can make excuses and claim Brown doesn’t qualify if we want, and some have, but this serves us poorly for understanding Brown. The past does not exist to make us comfortable and we are poorer for not confronting the difficult parts. We imagine terrorists, for the obvious reasons, as utterly evil. They do wrong for bad causes, like Nazis. In John Brown, we have a terrorist who may have done wrong for the best of causes. I don’t want to say that; I still admire him. My own convictions are such that I view the murder of an enslaver by the enslaved as inherently just, even praiseworthy, but Brown did not murder an enslaver and so his killing freed no one. Nor did he suffer slavery and so we might grant to him a right to revolutionary violence against his oppressors as a class, unless we recognize his act as one of solidarity with black Americans as well as white and so as an extension of their struggle. Brown would probably have agreed with that but his immediate motives involved protecting white freedom, which puts a hard limit on how far we can take that line of reasoning.

At Pottawatomie, Brown did much the same, on a vastly smaller scale, as the men who flew planes into buildings seventeen years ago. If we take slavery seriously and if we care about understanding the past in all its complications, we must grapple with that. John Brown presents us with a terrorist who feels like one of us. I don’t have a neat answer for that, which resolves all the contradictions and gives us a capsule understanding of Brown that we can put on a shelf and take for granted. Right now, I feel confident that Brown did wrong for a good cause. After I spend some time reading about slavery I tend to feel that everyone involved in enslaving others and defending the business have no rights the rest of us should feel bound to respect. Neither position sits easily with me. Both feel right at the time but not on more distant reflection.

Gentle Readers, please forgive me for the poor form of not ending with a conclusion for all of this; I don’t think there is one.

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The Journey to Kansas, Part 1

John Brown

John Brown and North Elba: parts 1, 234

According to Stephen Oates’ biography, John Brown felt conflicting urges to go ahead with his plan to relocate to North Elba and to go with his sons to Kansas. He had a prior commitment to New York and most of his family already lived there, but Kansas did beckon. He asked advice from friends and gave the black community in the Adirondacks potentially the deciding vote. By November of 1854, Brown had settled on the point. He would stick with his first plan.

That same month, Owen, Salmon, and Frederick Brown drove their herd of eleven cows and three horses into Illinois for the winter. Come spring, 1855, they continued on and staked claims near Osawatomie. That put them some thirty miles south of Lawrence and near to where Samuel Adair set up his homestead.

While Owen, Salmon, and Frederick moved their stock and wintered over, Jason and Brown’s namesake son sold their Ohio farms and readied themselves to follow. Not burdened by herds, they expected to travel across Missouri by riverboat. Brown himself kept on making arrangements and trying to scrape together the money to remove permanently from Ohio to North Elba. By February, he hoped that he could quit the state sometime in the next month and also

I got quite an encouraging word about Kansas from Mr. Adair the other day. He had before then given quite a gloomy picture of things. He and family were all well.

On the same day, February 13, he wrote another letter where he declared his interest in Kansas as considerably beyond the abstract:

Since I last saws you I have undertaken to direct the operations of a Surveying; & exploring party to be employed in Kansas for a considerable length of time, perhaps for some Two or Three years.

Contrary to his first biographer, James Redpath, Oates found evidence that Brown intended to do more than survey a bit. He would look into land speculation and business opportunities. If any of those appeared promising, and Brown tended to find most business opportunities promising, then he could relocate his whole family to Kansas. John Brown would go to Kansas, at least for a few years and maybe for good, sometime in the summer or fall of 1855.

The other Browns had already gotten underway. Jason and Ellen, with their son Austin; and John Jr, Wealthy, and their son John Brown III went by boat as planned. They loaded up on supplies in St. Louis: “two small tents, a plough, and some smaller farming-tools, and a hand-mill for grinding corn.” In April they got going aboard the New Lucy,

which too late we found crowded with passengers, mostly men from the South bound for Kansas. That they were from the South was plainly indicated by their language and dress; while their drinking, profanity, and display of revolvers and bowie-knives -openly worn as an essential part of their make-up- clearly showed the class to which they belonged, and their mission was to aid in establishing slavery in Kansas.

“They should have a right to vote” John Brown and North Elba, Part 4

John Brown

A small personal note, Gentle Readers: I’ve just had my second appearance on the AskHistorians Podcast, talking about Charles Sumner. If you think all of this would be better without having to read my prose or just want my soothing words to delight you, it’s available here, via Youtube, or on Spotify. As before, I promise to use my fame mostly responsibly.

Parts 1, 23

John Brown vented himself to Frederick Douglass about the Kansas-Nebraska Act in a letter. He asked that Douglas refine his prose and make it available to the general public; someone had to talk good sense into white Americans. Douglas obliged by printing the letter in his paper. There Brown’s words joined the tide of outrage against repealing the Missouri Compromise. He could read the indignation of others from Horace Greeley’s paper, to which Brown subscribed, and probably hear it on most streets in the North at least for a while. Everyone understood that the future of Kansas now hung in the balance. Proslavery and antislavery whites would collide there and to the victor might go the nation.

Brown must not have enjoyed the news any better for expressing himself in the papers, but his many debts from the wool business preoccupied him. His surviving letters from the time don’t mention Kansas further. Instead he laments the drought, which claimed the crops he hoped would clear his obligations. Brown hadn’t suffered as badly as some of his neighbors, and suspected they might help themselves to his fruit crop, but the Kansas fever did not strike him at first.

Instead, Brown’s grown sons Owen, Salmon, Frederick, Jason, and John, Jr. decided they should go. They read Emigrant Aid Company material that depicted Kansas as especially verdant and promising. With Ohio in a drought, they must have seen little sense in sticking around. If the kids went, might Brown not go too? Junior asked him and Brown wrote back on August 21, 1854:

If you or any of my family are disposed to go to Kansas or Nebraska, with a view to help defeat Satan and his legions in that direction, I have not a word to say; but I feel committed to operate in another part of the field. If I were not so committed, I would be on my way this fall.

In other words, Brown still dreamed of the Adirondacks and the black colony Gerrit Smith set up there. An in-law of Brown’s, Samuel Adair, already aimed to go so the Brown boys would have a friendly face on the frontier. He had made promises to Smith and to the black community. He felt at home and at peace in North Elba. John Brown couldn’t turn away.

Frederick Douglass

On November 2, 1854, he wrote to his children that expected the elder boys to strike for Kansas. He felt “still pretty much determined to go back to North Elba.” But even by this point, Brown had his doubts. It appears that he wrote to Smith and Frederick Douglass for advice, as he says

Gerrit Smith wishes me to go back to North Elba; from Douglass and Dr. McCune Smith I have not yet heard.

Here Stephen Oates cites a letter in the Brown papers I dearly wish I had access to. As Oakes tells it, brown felt “hard pressed” to relocate to Kansas

as more likely to benefit the colored people on the whole than to return with them to N. Elba.

In his consultations, Brown did something remarkable for a nineteenth century American white man yet again: he asked his family in New York to consult with North Elba’s black community. Brown said

As I volunteered in their services; they should have a right to vote, as to course I should take.

Caught in a genuine dilemma, unsure of what he should do, John Brown believed that his black neighbors should have perhaps the controlling say in the further course of his life. He, in his own words, gave them a vote. Without it, he doesn’t sound at all inclined to give up on his commitment to them.

John Brown’s Conviction

John Brown

Gentle Readers, as you might have guessed the blog got a bit ahead of my reading. I didn’t notice in time so I ended up reading a book on black slaveholders in South Carolina rather than getting the necessary biographies to best understand John Brown. Redpath’s hagiography makes a fair start at that, but we must read it as essentially an antislavery campaign document. His protestations aside, he published at a time when white Southerners damned the Republican Party as a collection of John Browns. The Republicans denied this and condemned Brown’s ill-fated campaign against Harper’s Ferry.

Redpath’s book takes a different approach by vindicating Brown against his critics. Still, he had the clear cooperation of Brown’s family and friends as well as living in Kansas himself at the same time Brown did so we can’t just dismiss it entirely. I now have better sources to supplement him with: David S. Reynolds’ John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights and Stephen Oates’ To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Reynolds bills his book as a cultural biography, as much about John Brown’s world as Brown himself. Oates’ wrote a conventional life. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Both authors also have more distance from Brown and less commitment to making him into a saint or a madman than his contemporaries or past biographers.

Redpath gave us John Brown’s ideological reason to go to Kansas: to fight slavery. He also acknowledged in passing that Brown intended to help his sons and others who had preceded him out of both a general benevolence and from his genuine frontier expertise. These bear a closer look.

John Brown lived on the frontier of white settlement for much of his life. He grew up mostly in Ohio, in close company with Native Americans. His family had an unusually positive and close relationship with them. Reynolds points to this as evidence that Brown grew up free of any racial prejudice, raised by his father to treat all people just the same. Many incidents in Brown’s life argue for something like that. He raised his children to act as he did and he both aided fugitive slaves and appears to have socially mixed with non-whites in ways quite unusual for a nineteenth century American. I doubt he completely lacked prejudice, but in a pervasively and openly racist society that does count for something.

Reynolds also makes the point that Brown always considered himself a servant of the community. He had his famous hard, uncompromising side, but he also spent his time on the frontier building institutions and aiding his neighbors. In John Brown, they had the kind of man who would insist that the sheriff arrest and hold a man who committed a crime even when the sheriff wanted to grant leniency. They also had the kind of man who knew that the loss of labor and income would harm the accused’s family and provided for them out of his own quite modest means for the duration of his imprisonment. He built schools and hired teachers. He served as volunteer postmaster. The same uncompromising attitude toward his cause also applied to his duties.

We remember John Brown as a man who failed at everything he did. His business dealings bear that out. For example, Brown worked for as a time as a wool factor. He took in wool on consignment from farms back home, graded it, and put it for sale in the east. Brown had a good eye for wool and priced accordingly, with the worst stuff sold at below market rates and the best above. This resulted in buyers scooping up his low quality stock for less than it could go for and leaving his high end product in the warehouse. He would not budge from the prices he stated unless absolutely forced to, which meant he took a bath on most everything. His repeated errors seem to stem from a basic unwillingness to bend that served him well elsewhere. When Brown thought he had a duty to do something and do it right, he did not move.

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.  

 

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.