“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?

David Wong, Roger Taney, and Donald Trump

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

Sorry for the late post, Gentle Readers. I felt quite unwell during my normal writing time.

Ever since Donald Trump became the nominee-presumptive of the Republican Party, the media have treated us to a stream of pieces on how we must understand his supporters. They may have picked a narcissist and clown straight out of interwar Italian politics, but we need to look on them with empathy. In principle, I agree wholeheartedly. I deal regularly with people who have done worse still, though they do have the good decency to have put themselves out of our misery. Future historians will probably feel much the same about the Trump movement.

You can’t get around it. To actually understand what drives people, especially people with politics you loath, you need to treat them as rational and sensible as anybody else. Calling them dupes or fools as much removes their agency and reduces them to a stereotype one may loathe with ease but comprehend not at all. You end up like Samuel Cartwright, explaining slave resistance as a form of mental illness. What holds true for slaves also holds true for slaveholders, though historians have traditionally had far less trouble emphasizing with them than their victims. Aside from a few black historians and radicals, the academy didn’t get on board with understanding black Americans as thinking beings capable of understanding, holding values, and acting accordingly until better than halfway through the twentieth century.

My obvious political inclinations aside, I ought to be the target audience for pieces on understanding Trump Country. I have largely avoided them, except one shared with me by a friend. There are multiple reasons for that, including my general contempt for media industry multi-millionaires who tell us they understand “real America,” the compulsory ignorance of the subject one finds in reporters parachuted in without context to pretend-report on something for thirty seconds, and skimming headlines and opening paragraphs to show how devotedly they live up to my expectations. But I did read the one. Let’s pick it apart.

A few things going in, Gentle Readers. As the numerous ads and whatever lives in the sidebar when you load up the page will show, Cracked doesn’t aim for serious journalism. (Its history pieces don’t withstand casual scrutiny either.) But now and then someone writes a piece meant for serious consideration, as David Wong has. I intend to take it as such, humor site pedigree aside.

We must begin with the title. Wong suggests that half of America lost its mind. It grabs the reader’s attention, but Wong frames his article just the opposite. He does not portray Trump supporters as insane or demented. They have real grievances, which he reduces down to a rural vs. urban divide. To prove it, he hauls out one of those red vs. blue county maps. It turns out the diverse cities, shockingly, tend to support candidates who less devoted to white supremacy. The much whiter rural counties vote the other way.

I could stop right here, but Wong digs himself deeper. He paints a picture of neglect and negative stereotyping. Urban America doesn’t care about rural America. All the television and movies have to do with cities. When disaster strikes, you’d best have a major media operation nearby or don’t expect to make CNN. We all know the stereotypes of rural life, that bonanza of inbred hicks who only take their hands off the cross they’re using to beat a LGBT person to death in order to light it on fire. I don’t know about the inbreeding -none of my business- but that sounds like my neighbors. They do not like the idea of living with people of different color, sexuality, or non-Christian religion. Wong puts those up as stereotypes, but he admits to their truth:

But what I can say, from personal experience, is that the racism of my youth was always one step removed. I never saw a family member, friend, or classmate be mean to the actual black people we had in town. We worked with them, played video games with them, waved to them when they passed. What I did hear was several million comments about how if you ever ventured into the city, winding up in the “wrong neighborhood” meant you’d get dragged from your car, raped, and burned alive. Looking back, I think the idea was that the local minorities were fine … as long as they acted exactly like us.

Wong had a more charmed childhood than I did. Casual dismissal of non-whites happened every day. I can’t count the times I’ve heard family members start a sentence, stop and visibly struggle, then finally blurt out “coloreds!” with extra emphasis just so you know what they really mean. Fairness demands that I recognize the ecumenical nature of their hatreds; they had nothing nicer to say about other people who dared come in the wrong colors or religions. But of course you’d be polite to someone’s face. Small communities can’t afford a full-on white power operation, aside local government, so we content ourselves with more petty species of viciousness. Say nothing in front of your victim, but be sure it gets out behind their backs. Plain, honest folk in real America don’t need that explained to them.

Maybe that racism seemed one step removed to Wong -who is white like me; he writes under a pseudonym- but you can’t honestly put it at arm’s length. We both learned to associate minorities with dangerous, criminal behavior and took those who didn’t rape and murder people every day for fun as deviations from the norm. I can’t imagine the victims agree.

It goes on in this vein. The white racial resentment or, to use a word more familiar to its practitioners, entitlement, just boils off the screen. Wong knows as much and acknowledges it. He doesn’t pretend that rural America has somehow, double-secret, turned into a bastion of tolerance. His quest to highlight Trump Country agency has brought him that far. But he thinks it wrong and dehumanizing to ascribe white voters’ motives to either the driving force of American history, white supremacy, or to the central institution of their communities, which he considers to be conservative Christianity. What they say doesn’t actually matter. They just hurt and lash out.

I shall not sit here and tell you that white people never suffer or rural poverty doesn’t matter. But Wong refutes himself twice over by focusing on poverty as the driving force explanation. Firstly, rural America hasn’t done well, economically, in decades. Nor has it had much cultural focus in the same period of time. If neglect drives rural voters, then we would have seen a Trump-style candidacy decades back. Indeed, we did. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan both ran white grievance campaigns. On the other side, so did Bill Clinton. Whether we look at structural factors all the way back to the Constitution or individual campaigns, nobody gets more attention. Even in the most conservative interpretation, white America has at least the whole of one political party devoted to preserving its prerogatives over the rest of the nation. These people do not lack a voice. Their politics do not constitute a wild divergence from the American norm; they are the norm. The past few decades have simply seen a shift from nigh-absolute control to a more qualified but still nearly overwhelming dominance.

Since Trump came out of normal politics, his voters don’t require a unique explanation. The same things drive them that drove the American right in 1968, 1980, 1996, or 1860. They see the United States as a white man’s country, period. Any diminution of their power counts as the most agonizing species of persecution.

But let’s turn that back around. Wong would have us believe that poverty made Trump. He admits that Trump runs on racism, which he also considers a decidedly negative personality trait. He must think the same of poverty as he casts the rural poor as a people lashing out. They can’t have acted in their actual interests, but rather poverty has driven them to it. Poverty, in other words, makes you immoral and destructive. This loops us right back to the stereotypes that Wong and I grew up believing about black people: they earned their poverty through sloth, through dependence, through crime. White people got poor for reasons beyond their control. Trust us; we have the white skin to know. For Wong to argue this, hasn’t he dehumanized the poor just as he complains that others have?

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney

Bringing this back to history, I consider taking what people say and granting them their agency bottom-line stuff. If you can’t do that, then you fundamentally do not believe your subjects full human beings. They must occupy some inferior order, to which one silently applies Taney’s corollary:

altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect

I cannot think of a more thorough way to dehumanize someone than to ignore both their words and deeds in favor of inventing some deterministic explanation that excuses them from both. To do this, you reduce them to unthinking automatons, for all the protests to the contrary. You declare that they do not know what’s best for themselves, that they cannot know. Wong’s rural poor, intended or not, are infantilized subjects. He wants us to not blame them for what they do, for the powerful hatreds they bear, because they just can’t help themselves. You don’t blame a baby for soiling a diaper, so you should not blame Trump voters for Trump.

Wong’s piece has a larger problem, though. “Poor” doesn’t begin to describe Trump’s supporters:

As compared with most Americans, Trump’s voters are better off. The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.

If those statistics reflect poverty, then I imagine plenty of us would like to sign up for some. Wong says that poor people from his home town support Trump; I believe him. But his poor voters resemble the general constituency no more than the neighbors that media personalities talk to at wealthy resort communities represent ordinary Americans.

I’m on a podcast!

Gentle Readers, I have news of a personal and historical nature. As you may recall, back in the spring I was flaired as an expert on Reddit’s AskHistorians. They host a podcast, the Ask Historians Podcast, run by one of the resident Mesoamericanists. Every two weeks, he interviews one of the flairs about the historical subject of our choice. It’s one of my favorite podcasts and I heartily suggest giving it a try. The podcast is on iTunes, libsyn, and I believe several other services.

A few weeks back, I was asked to participate. My favorite history podcast asked me to talk about history, one of my favorite things to do. I spent more time considering how to respond without sounding like the creepiest kind of fan than I did on whether or not to record an episode. Our discussion went well over the expected time, which you could probably all guess would happen. It’s split in two episodes, the first of which is live now. If you ever wanted to know what I sound like, or just to hear more about the Kansas-Nebraska Act, here’s your chance.

As you can probably tell, I had a tremendous time doing it. The credit for that has got to go to the fine host, 400-Rabbits. The credit for the errors that crept in during the course of speaking while excited goes to me. I’ve posted errata on Reddit. AskHistorians has a zero tolerance policy for the behavior that makes Reddit infamous, but if you’d rather avoid it anyway I understand completely. Here are the corrections and two minor additions.

Corrections

  • I referred to Enabling Acts and Organic Acts as terms used inconsistently. I recall seeing primary sources do that, but the Congress was more careful. An organic act organizes a territory, hence the name. The Kansas-Nebraska Act is the organic act for Kansas and Nebraska. An enabling act is a later law passed by Congress to authorize a territorial government to write a constitution preparatory to statehood. While speaking I confused the two as I was focused on the Wisconsin Enabling Act, which reiterated the Northwest Ordinance’s slavery ban.
  • I mistakenly referred to the Washington Territory as including modern Idaho. It’s just the top half of that. The bottom half is Oregon Territory.
  • The proposed amendment to emancipate Missouri would have kept those born after its enactment slaves until they turned twenty-five, not twenty-one.
  • I said that the sessions of Congress ran out in May. It’s actually the start of March. Slip of the tongue. I was probably thinking ahead to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act at the end of May, 1854.

Additions:

  • The senators of the F Street Mess are David Rice Atchison, A.P. Butler (SC), R.M.T. Hunter (VA), and James M. Mason (VA, wrote the fugitive slave act of 1850). Their names were in my outline, but I couldn’t find them in the moment.
  • I also blanked on the names of the two of the women who feature into the narrative, which is unfortunate. Archibald Dixon’s wife and memoirist is Susan Bullitt. Stephen Douglas’ southern wife (his first, she died in 1853 and he remarried) is Martha Martin.

The Two Triumphs of Simone Manuel

Gentle Readers, I live by Lake Huron; my whole town does. I can be at the lake in five minutes by car or half an hour as the podcast-listening blogger in no particular hurry walks. Back in my mother’s day, to graduate high school here you had to be able to swim and prove it. By the time I graduated, that requirement had long gone. Now you know how I got out of high school; as a child I enjoyed being in the water but never quite learned how to swim. I did not know until today that I shared that with 68.9% of black children in the United States.

I don’t know from sports, but I found out that Simone Manuel won a gold medal in swimming at the Olympics. No other black woman from the United states had done so. This makes her another first black American for us to celebrate come February and forget promptly, as we usually do. The firsts matter, but our conventional focus on them risks two costly mistakes. We can take a first person as the end of a story, the victory lap in a story of progress. Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, and Barack Obama broke through the color line, so we have triumphed over white power. Everyone applauds as the curtain falls. Pay no attention to the rabid white supremacy still raging almost undisturbed behind it. It would not do to demean the achievements of talented individuals in breaking down social barriers, but I think it makes far more sense to consider them as beginnings of stories than ends.

I did not see Manuel win her gold. I have seen other events where the reporter comes immediately to the American who wins second place for an interview. You expect that when you watch an American network. Maybe the person from Tuvalu or Belarus actually won, but the home country’s network will focus on the home country athletes even if language barriers didn’t very often argue for it. Not so for Manuel, who had to make do with a still photo on Twitter while the American news discussed an Australian swimmer. Priorities, you know? Maybe the law made her an American, but white Americans have never quite made our peace with that.

The other peril of focusing on first arises from that. In taking a first achievement as a kind of trivia point, we easily miss just why it mattered. Maybe it would have taken until Manuel hit the water for a black American woman to win a swimming gold, but we can’t know because white Americans have long insisted that black people have no place in our swimming pools. We have dumped acid into them to keep our waters white. We have drained the pools and filled them with dirt or concrete. More often, we’ve abandoned public pools that must accept swimmers of all colors in favor of private pools we can keep whites-only. We don’t much care for black people getting their blackness into our pools. Take it from Strom Thurmond himself:

Thurmond had a seat in the United States Senate into the twenty-first century. South Carolina kept voting for him and he ended his career as a revered and exceptionally elder statesman. Why wouldn’t he? His name made for a good trivia question and everybody knew his checkered past, but that kind of thing rarely disqualifies any white man from much of anything in the United States.

All the black children who don’t learn how to swim, and so die from drowning at five times the rate of white children. But if we poison them to cut costs then you can’t expect white America to care much about mere accidental deaths. I say accidental because so far as I can tell the statistics omit suicides; the people who drowned did not mean to do so. But in another sense, they don’t qualify at all. You can’t learn to swim without some dependable water nearby and for a great many people, particularly in cities, that means a pool. White Americans left those behind to die from lack of funds, where we didn’t destroy them, rather than let black Americans enjoy the water with us. We chose that policy and we have kept right on choosing it. We know the consequences and we, as we almost always do, took the deaths of black Americans as at least an acceptable loss. Some of us surely go so far as to prefer it.

I can’t know what went through the minds of the directors, film crew, and reporters who ignored Manuel’s achievement, but flag-waving enthusiasm didn’t enter into it or she would have gotten far more coverage than she did. We are all trained to believe black Americans just don’t count, even beyond how we’re trained to think women don’t count. But meaner things lurk in the national consciousness. She didn’t win her races for an America that we’ve been trained all our lives to see as our own: the white male land playground build on stolen land and lives. She represented an America that that country has fought for centuries. For her to win, it had to lose. We do not celebrate our losses.

Simone Manuel beat her opponents in the pool. She beat Strom Thurmond and all his modern doppelgangers too.

Some Recent Reading (August 2016)

I do a lot of reading for the blog. You see a great deal of it in the period documents quoted extensively in just about every post. I also read full-length books by modern historians, which appear less frequently as such but always inform my writing. Now and then I even get my hands on journal articles. Astonishingly enough, a history blogger frequently reads history. Often, I have read that history very slowly. Historians can produce excellent prose, but most do not. The job is to communicate information and analysis rather than to have one on the edge of one’s seat with suspense. We all know everybody died at the end. I mostly muddle through, though I possess sufficient quantities of boringness that now and then a book really does grab me.

The past three books have gone rather differently. I developed a system. Did you know they divide books into chapters? I have ignored these things for ages, just reading until I get tired of it and moving on. This produced considerably inconsistency. Sometimes I would read for an hour or two, sometimes ten minutes. Over time I got the sense that often I made no progress through books, which served as a disincentive to continue. Three books back, I decided to try what I do for this blog. You’ve no doubt noticed that I have a preferred length for blog posts. Ideally, they run for about one idea and 300-500 words. I hit the one idea mark rarely, but the words much more consistently. I usually end up between 500 and 600. Wordy nineteenth century authors work against me. Then I stop, most of the time. I often could write more, and sometimes bank a few days ahead, but it feels like a good balance between the willingness of readers to push on in a conventionally short form medium like a blog and my own endurance. I feel done, but not exhausted, when I finish. I have settled on using chapters as a similar benchmark. If I finish a chapter a day, I have done my duty to research and can move on or continue as I like. Gentle Readers, your author has reached the third grade at last.

That dazzlingly complex routine has pushed me along through James Huston’s Calculating the Value of the Union. A genuine slavery scholar recommended it to me. Huston, despite his protests, writes very little new. The South had a massive investment in slave property with which it would not lightly part. What distinguishes his work comes more in the remarkably thoroughness of it. He has economic graphs and charts upon charts, which he carefully walks through in prose sections. Huston approaches the question as an economic historian to an almost maddening degree at points, insisting always on an emphasis in property rights and varying conceptions of them. In other words, antebellum white Southerners considered people an acceptable form of property. At times it verges on recreating the strange theory that great political disputes come down to men discoursing politely in high society, but he pulls from quite crossing the line. As such, Huston wrote a good book that I hesitate to recommend. It features far more numbers than people and discusses almost everything at a highly abstracted level. But if you like that kind of thing, or just love economic graphs, Huston has one hell of a book for you.

From Huston I went to an essay collection: Contesting Slavery: The Politics of Bondage and Freedom in the New American Nation, edited by Matthew Mason and John Craig Hammond. You never know quite what to expect with these, as each chapter comes from a different author and addresses a different topic. I picked it up because I enjoyed Mason’s Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic, which argues persuasively that slavery constituted an important political issue long before either its otherwise anomalous appearance in the Missouri Crisis or the arrival of immediate abolitionism with William Lloyd Garrison in the 1830s. Mason’s book ends with at Missouri. The essays in Contesting Slavery reach from the 1750s to the 1840s, connecting the antislavery defeat in 1820 with the rise of militant abolitionism in the 30s and the re-emergence of more political antislavery in the 1840s. That puts Garrison and company in a much-needed context.

Along the way I also learned much more about the presence of early slave systems in the Old Southwest, which at least complicates the traditional understanding (which I have shared) that the founders simply chose not to bar slavery from the Lower South west of the Appalachians and so it came. Quite the opposite. Slavery already existed on the ground, if not on the scale that it soon would, and westerners of sometimes doubtful loyalty insisted upon it as the price for their allegiance. The weak federal government of the late eighteenth century had little power to either force them into line or enforce a slavery prohibition even had the will existed, though the will also did not exist.

Every essay has worthwhile things to learn; I heartily recommend the collection.

Which brought me to Eric Foner’s dissertation-turned book: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. I came warily to this book. I respect Foner tremendously as a historian, but his first book came out before my parents left high school and covers ground where you would expect subsequent scholars to frequently tread. I might pick up badly outdated ideas, or just see the original version of thought that has become so standard it appears everywhere; old news either way. I feared in vain. I have no doubt that some points of Foner’s have seen revision, but except for the dated language -Foner often refers to “the Negro” and “the race issue”- and a larger focus on direct political action than one would probably have now, it felt contemporary. Nor did Foner simply talk about ideology, though he organizes his chapters around ideological analysis and only does a chronological narrative within them. Rather Foner gave a relatively detailed account of just how the Republican party formed, warts and all. I saw him call it a book about how to build a political party a few years ago, via youtube, and it really is. The last few chapters even include some trailers for his more famous work on Reconstruction in the limits of Free Labor thought. If you want to understand Lincoln’s party before Lincoln led it, you do yourself a disservice not to get a copy.