Debunking Bunkum

Felix Walker historical marker

Felix Walker historical marker

On February 25, 1820, Felix Walker rose to address the House of Representatives on the Missouri question: Would the Show Me State come into the Union with slavery undisturbed, or with the institution on the road to extinction? By this point, the House had heard every aspect of the issue dissected at often rancorous and tedious length. Could one more speech hurt that much?

Apparently so. The Annals of Congress, predicessor to the Congressional Globe, report that

the question was called for so clamorously and so perserveringly that Mr. W. could proceed no farther than to move that the Committee rise.

The Committee refused to rise, by an almost unanimous vote.

The Annals of Congress do not preserve Walker’s remarks, only the motion and its rejection. Any good survey of the era or work on the Missouri Compromise will tell you a bit more. Pleading with the House, Walker allegedly said that he spoke not to that body but rather for his constituents back in Buncombe County, North Carolina. In other words, Walker made a speech for the political theater of it rather than out of sincere belief in anything save that he ought to put the right foot forward. Walker’s invocation of Buncombe entered the lexicon as bunkum, eventually shortened to bunk.

Walker gave us the word for it, but politicians the world over have long practiced bunkum in abundance. A particularly cynical person might take from that that we ought to ignore all they say, or even take their spoken word as the opposite of their genuine positions. That can make perfectly good sense, as people in general do lie often enough. We also shade our meanings, exaggerate, phrase ourselves ambiguously, and otherwise craft impressions of ourselves running more to the convenient and appealing than earnest. Nor do we have the good decency to make clear just when and to what degree we do so, as that would give the whole game away. As such, we must parse things closely, looking to deeds, circumstances, and personal consistency as much as to the letter of a text. This holds true as much for the nineteenth century as any other time.

Go around the internet long enough and you’ll discover that neo-Confederates come in different flavors. They all end up in the same place, but arrive there by many roads. The low rent sorts will content themselves with denials and expressions of ancestral resentment. Yankees have always had it out for the South, hating the section for its virtue and seeking ever to degrade and debase it. The Union Army came through and stole everything not nailed down. (Especially the people.) Sherman burned every stick of upright wood between Atlanta and Savannah. (And would you like to tour one of our lovely antebellum mansions?) Grant incinerated whole regiments by exhaling over his cigar. (No one else ever drank a drop.) The North (never the United States) fought the Civil War as part of some black magic ritual to destroy states’ rights. A rendition of one’s ancestors martial prowess, real or imagined, soon follows. Though repulsive, the remarkably ignorance one finds in these types can at least make for some unintentional humor.

The clown car takes on passengers from more sophisticated environs too. Here you hear more about tariffs and very abstract talk about ways of life. Some of these people have even read period documents, which puts them in a bit of a bind:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property

The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slave-holding States.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

I could go on. White southerners agreed in remarkable volume and right up until the spring of 1865, that they fought a war to save slavery. They only changed their minds afterwards. Neo-confederates familiar with these texts, and others confronted with them, will often cry bunkum. Southern politicians, they tell us, indulged in fiery proslavery rhetoric entirely to please the rubes back home. They actually had other motives which arose from constitutional abstractions, as everybody knows that one adopts constitutionalisms out of perfect disinterest rather than as a means of achieving policy goals. Conversely, they will also invoke bunkum to explain away antislavery rhetoric on the part of Northern politicians. Those fiends had some kind of vision of an industrial, centralized United States which everyone clearly hated so they had to dress it up in more appealing terms. Put these two sets of bunkum together, as some historians have, and you find a pack of irresponsible, reckless, blundering politicians who drove the country into a needless war.

That argument appeals to some people still. A few historians, mostly getting on in years, still defend at least limited versions of it. More will defend a version of bunkum projected back further into the Antebellum. Sean Wilentz has described Federalist antislavery rhetoric as simple partisan positioning, dismissing it in short order so he can write his epic story of the Democracy as freedom’s greatest champion. An old Whig turned Republican did the actual emancipating, but he somehow embodied the true Jacksonian faith. In making that claim, Wilentz largely follows Jefferson and others of his time who imagined the Missouri controversy as a cynical play by old time Federalists to regain power on the national stage. Quite how they would have done so while not contesting the presidential race, adopting a policy that would do them no good anywhere in the South and little good in the West, and by rallying around the proposal of one of Jefferson’s own Republicans, I have no idea.

Set that aside for a moment. For the sake of argument, grant that antislavery and proslavery politicians did make bunkum speeches on the subject. They must have at least some of the time. Occasionally they kindly left us private misgivings or words to the effect of how they didn’t much care about this issue or that but chose a side in the interest of Southern honor or solidarity. The Lower South largely did this when it came to the Fugitive Slave Law. Much of the South, aside Missouri, did the same on Kansas. On the antislavery side we might cast the belief in the slave power conspiracy as something on the same order. In fact, we could stipulate that the politicians on both sides endorsed the positions and uttered the rhetoric that they did entirely to deceive. That oversells the case very badly, more so than any serious blundering generation scholar would probably support, but we may as well go all the way. Even if all of that holds true and the United States achieved in the nineteenth century the Platonic ideal of bunkum, does it really change our understanding of the sectional conflict?

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

I don’t think so. Any discussion of bunkum that limits itself to politicians and their speeches has missed the most important thing about it. Felix Walker and others like him might have made speeches in bad faith. They may have lied to their constituents and posterity in the name of their personal gain. But Walker’s constituents in North Carolina, James Tallmadge’s in New York, and all the rest wouldn’t settle for just any bunkum. Few voters in Massachusetts would swoon and toss the proverbial panties on stage for Charles Sumner, had he told them about the wonders of slavery. Nor would their countrymen in Mississippi do the same if Jefferson Davis spoke about its evils.

For bunkum to work at all, it must speak to the general interests of the relevant voting public. It must reflect their fears and hopes. As such, any successful use of bunkum indicates that, whatever a cynical politician or latter-day historian might thing, the speaker has hit on a genuine sentiment. Maybe the elected official doesn’t believe every word, but the people back home believe enough for it to matter. Insincere bunkum and genuine belief feed into one another. A practitioner of bunk helps frame the debate and set expectations for the voters, but those voters have their own active role to play in shaping the content of bunkum and thus the policies it drives. Neither party passively accepts what the other offers, but rather voters and politicians inevitably work in conscious partnership.

Did politicians indulge in proslavery and antislavery bunkum? Sometimes they must have, as we all do about any subject. We should ask the question as part of our normal interrogation of sources. Who, when, and to what degree will always remain open to interpretation. But if we stop there we write the voters out of the story, reducing the beliefs and interests of millions to the status of generic minions for the class of men that get buildings named after them. Including the millions who supported the politicians makes for a less tidy narrative, but one which tells us far more about the past than the characters of famous men. That broader story naturally implicates us as much as any historical figure, who we might otherwise imagine ourselves detached from. We produce and consume bunkum ourselves, our preferences for it speaking to our natures as much as the habits of past actors speak to theirs.


Andrew Jackson, the Democrats, Sean Wilentz, and Slavery

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Gentle Readers, for nearly the past month, I’ve read Sean WilentzRise of American Democracy. Wilentz surveys American political history from 1800 to 1860. I thought to read it as a companion volume to David Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, a much broader survey of the period from 1815-1848. Either book would easily maim pets or small children, but they have little else in common. Wilentz and Howe talk almost completely opposite positions about the democratizing trend of the age, right down to attributing it primarily to different parties. Wilentz locates democracy in Andrew Jackson’s Democracy. Howe finds it in the evangelical reform associations that concentrated on the Whig side of the aisle. I concur with most present historians of the era that Howe has it more right than Wilentz, though both have significant blind spots.

I may write a comparative post about the two books at some point, but today I want to delve into an issue I came across while reading Wilentz. I have found him hard going, very unlike Howe. Some of that comes down to one’s taste in prose, but more often I find myself silently arguing with the text. Wilentz proudly declares himself a partisan for Andrew Jackson, a popular enough sentiment in decades past. He casts his work as a modern version of Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson, a similar lionizing of the man and his movement. Given Jackson’s career, this presents difficulties for a reader of modern sensibilities. Wilentz skips past some of that, summarizing the military actions that made Jackson infamous in roughly as much space as he spends on the general’s health. This leaves his critics to come across as paranoid aristocrats. He does take seriously Jackson’s involvement in Indian removal and makes few excuses for it, though he does downplay Jackson’s personal responsibility and emphasize how Jackson understood removal as a benevolent act.

Even more implausibly, he refuses to consider Jackson or his movement as proslavery. Wilentz doesn’t deny that the Democracy had a proslavery wing, just as the Whigs did. In the Lower South, though not elsewhere, Wilentz calls that wing’s politics master race democracy. But he denies that that those Democrats exerted a decisive influence, at least as late as 1850, and considers it an outlier from the Democracy rather than its central theme. He would thus reject Howe’s characterization of the movement as a whole:

One policy that the Democratic Party embraced consistently was white supremacy. The centrality of white supremacy in Democratic policymaking helps explain that party’s hostility toward Clay’s American System. Democratic suspicion of government aid to internal improvements reflected not a horror of the market revolution but a fear that such a program might threaten the institution of slavery. The danger, from the slaveholders’ point of view, was twofold. In the first place, national plans for internal improvements might be designed to wean areas in the Border States or Upper South away from slave-based agriculture toward a diversified economy in which slavery would become vulnerable to gradual emancipation. In the second place, national plans for internal improvements set a precedent for federal activity that might encourage interference with slavery— for example, by exercising the interstate commerce power over the interstate slave trade. Jacksonians welcomed transporting farm products to market, so long as it could be done without the centralized planning that raised the specter of emancipation.

I find very little to disagree with in Howe’s interpretation, which he supports generously throughout his formidable tome. I felt the temptation to dismiss Wilentz as a shameless partisan more interested in vindicating his heroes, but one can say that about any historian. Every work of history includes an argument and to a large degree flows from it. Bad histories do exist, but bad history means more than history with which the reader disagrees. A bad history should have serious methodological or evidential issues, at least. Wilentz may have a few of those. I understand that historians of the Early Republic don’t think highly of his treatment of the Jeffersonians, with some criticisms reaching to that point. I don’t know enough about the period to feel confident saying for myself, or even that I could spot the problems without help.

I feel much more confident in disagreeing with Wilentz about what one must do to earn proslavery status. It came to me only when Wilentz laid down his criteria firmly, in a discussion of contradictions within the Jacksonian coalition:

The politics of antislavery exposed another side of Jackson’s coalition. Jackson and his party were decidedly hostile to antislavery radicals. Without endorsing Calhounite pro-slavery positions, the unapologetic slaveholder Jackson, especially in the postal controversy, tried to silence the immediatist agitators, even if it took a federal censorship law to do so. Those efforts only reinforced the radical abolitionists’ conviction that Jackson himself, as well as his party, was no better than any of the other slavocrats, and that their professions to democracy and equality were vitiated by their racism and self-interest.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Wilentz presents no facts here to quarrel with. Jackson absolutely and purposefully alienated abolitionists. This makes him at least to a small degree proslavery, given his fight against the institution’s foes, but we could say the same of David Wilmot, who bragged about fighting abolitionists:

Is there any complexion of Abolitionism in this, sir? I have stood up at home, and battled, time and again, against the Abolitionists of the North. I have assailed them publicly, upon all occasions when it was proper to do so.

Calling Wilmot and others like him both proslavery and antislavery might cover the bases, but it invites confusion and misunderstanding. As Wilentz notes, attacking abolitionists did not make one a Calhounite. Surely Jackson’s ownership of slaves implicates him further, all the more so because he did not inherit them or have trouble emancipating them due to restrictive laws, but rather eagerly sought out human property with which to enrich himself. That alone would make him fairly proslavery in my book, possibly closer to a Calhounite on the subject than not.

Wilentz doesn’t think so. Rather it seems to him that unless one makes explicit Calhoun-style positive good arguments in favor of slavery, one doesn’t qualify as proslavery. In other words, one must adopt the most radical proslavery position available to get the title. None of us would probably shed any tears at the excommunication of John C. Calhoun from the antislavery ranks, least of all the man himself. Maybe the fact that Jackson, and other Democrats thereafter, did not consistently argue for the wonders of slavery makes them less radical than Calhoun, but does that really exculpate them? We credit antislavery Americans who condemned abolitionists for their position, even if we find it unsympathetic. That allows for degrees of distinction in opposition to slavery. Might we not do the same with degrees of proslavery sentiment? Wilentz appears willing to grant that range of opinion to slavery’s foes, but not as much to its friends.

Wilentz admits that slavery and race played their part in shaping the Democracy, but only to excuse them:

To halt abolitionist agitation and quiet southern counteragitation, both Jackson and Van Buren attacked the abolitionists’ civil rights, in the mails and gag-rule controversies […] northern Democrats did take the lead in disenfranchising blacks (as in Pennsyulvania in 1837-38), even as they celebrated the growing political impact of lower-class white men.

None of this, however, made the Jacksonians a pro-slavery party-or even, as one milder critic has argued, “functionally pro-slavery”-fighting a proto-abolitionist Whig Party in order to protect a status quo that left the slaveholders the dominant class in American politics. The Jacksonians did not oppose interference with slavery where it existed, or obstruct the abolitionist efforts to arouse the South, because they wished to sustain the slaveholders as a national ruling class. They wanted, as the Whigs did, to keep slavery out of federal politics to protect constitutional order, national harmony, and party unity. Sustaining the slaveholders’ power was the goal of Calhoun and others

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

This contradicts itself so markedly that one wonders how, or if, Wilentz failed to notice it. A functionally proslavery movement would, through its actions and inaction, serve to protect, perpetuate, and possibly expand slavery. It need not intend specifically or primarily to do so in order to manage the task functionally. Preserving the status quo in Antebellum American did just that. That the Whig mainstream felt similarly tells us that proslavery Whigs existed as well, a fact Wilentz eagerly points out later in the same paragraph. There he credits John Tyler, certainly a proslavery man but a fairly dubious Whig. (The party ultimately expelled Tyler, during his presidency, and by the time he left office he had a largely Democratic administration.) Wilentz does note that Calhoun came back to the Democracy in a quest to transform it into a more explicitly proslavery vehicle, but would we expect him to have chosen the less hospitable of the two parties for that project?

People can disagree about where to draw interpretive lines. We must admit to the fuzziness of every boundary, given the complexity of the past and its population of inconstant human beings. Historians have excused inaction on slavery from exponents of the necessary evil argument. They had slavery, but couldn’t see a way out and had some misgivings. Those misgivings rarely, if ever, drove them to challenge slavery where it existed. Rather acting out their supposed sentiments fell to other people, of some future generation or distant place. If we credit their rhetorical qualms, then we should weigh them against their practical outcome: the perpetuation of slavery.

Wilentz draws his proslavery lines so precisely that they read more as tools for exculpation than understanding. Anybody can be antislavery, but it takes a real zealot to manage proslavery. You’ve got to know your Calhoun and show it off. One has to work hard for the title, even though accepting the existence of slavery represented the status quo position. Such a framework might make sense today, when few will openly advocate for slavery and most of us imbibed abolition as a national achievement, but hardly seems suited to the nineteenth century. Rather it seems Wilentz purposefully construed only the most radical proslavery position as proslavery in order to avoid applying the term to the movement that has his sympathies.

He could have done better. On other fronts, Wilentz makes worthwhile points. To Howe, class doesn’t seem like a particularly relevant metric in democratizing. Wilentz thinks otherwise and argues well for the position. Neither historian eagerly handles the ugly side of their preferred movement’s politics, but Howe does a much better job of acknowledging his. Wilentz only seems able to raise the subject in order to minimize it or make excuses, most critically on slavery and race. On less fraught issues, like patronage, he even finesses the matter through outright silence. I don’t know any way to explain this all except that Wilentz decided a priori in favor of Jacksonian Democracy, then contorted around inconvenient facts until he had something that seemed halfway plausible.

I find myself entirely in agreement with Kevin Gannon over at the Junto:

Wilentz’s entire corpus is predicated on the argument that Jacksonian Democracy, in its most Schlesingerian sense, was the motor that drove the inexorable “Rise of American Democracy.” To believe this, though, one has to soft-pedal (at best) the racialized, herrenvolk nature of that Democracy; see the Free-Soilers as the true representatives of the Jacksonian creed instead of actual Jacksonians like James Polk; and argue the moderates and conservatives within Whiggery and abolitionism sped the cause of freedom rather than delayed it.

Good Intentions and Antislavery

"Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"

“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”

I write this inspired by the controversy historian Sean Wilentz caused with his editorial in the New York Times declaring slavery always a state, not a national institution. I cannot improve upon the many responses he has received, not even to say that he should know better. But arguing over whether the Constitution, the founders, or the country itself had some species of antislavery character raises the question of what one means to call something or someone antislavery.

Most often, the question probably comes down to whether or not a person expressed antislavery opinions or a policy arose from antislavery intentions. Thomas Jefferson expressed antislavery opinions; we count him as antislavery just as we would a random farmer in Massachusetts. This makes intuitive sense. We should take people at their words, at least as a starting point. Antislavery of this species, concerning itself with thought and intention as passed down to us in writing, makes for a big tent. We can include everyone who expressed a negative opinion about slavery at all, making for an appealing past where most everyone save a few degenerates knew deep down that they tolerated a great wrong. Abolition thus seems inevitable, a natural consequence of the general agreement of the white community upon it. We needed a few decades and seven hundred thousand lives to work out the logistics, but these things happen.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The intentional understanding of antislavery politics works, at least in a limited sense, for unraveling the positions of private individuals of little influence. If someone in Kansas, Illinois, or Virginia confides to his or her diary opposition to slavery then that can settle things. Most people always lack the power to greatly influence their societies one way or another and we can’t blame them for it. But we would do right to look askance at someone who preaches such doctrines, whether in public or private, whilst owning, acquiring, and exploiting slaves. Words can cost us, but actions come dearer still. When the two come into conflict, we can reasonably see the choice of action as expressing the actor’s paramount values. Thomas Jefferson freed only a small number of his slaves. Robert E. Lee freed the five slaves for which he gets undue credit because the terms of his father-in-law’s will required it and got all the work out of them that he could before doing so.

Focusing on intention alone allows us to ignore the details and frees us to bask in the joys of feel good history for white Americans. We need not inquire much about what happened to the slaves, who we implicitly deem marginal and unimportant. Instead we focus on our favorite subject: the agreed-upon virtues of white people. Here we have written ourselves a happy fable which only requires us to dismiss the lives and ordeals of black Americans as meaningless, something which we receive encouragement in every day.

We have also rendered the entire antebellum era incomprehensible. If Americans white enough to matter generally agreed on the evil of slavery and that it must end, then how did white Americans with their absolute control of the American government and all the state and local governments, preside over an era not simply where slavery endured but also thrived and expanded with the frontiers of the nation? How do we account for those decades and the remarkable sacrifice and harvest of lives that finally ended it? If such an antislavery consensus existed, surely it would not have taken decades and seven hundred thousand lives to free the slaves. Nor can such a concord explain how near half the nation spent its share of those lives not to end slavery, as if some foreign foe imposed it upon the land, but rather to preserve it.

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

Robert E. Lee

To dismiss the limits of the intentions-only approach to antislavery, we must disregard the reality of slavery as experienced by the slaves and prosecuted by the enslavers with the aid of the state the latter ordained, established, and operated. To advocate it requires tacit acceptance of all the previous. That in mind, we should consider such an approach not only dangerously misleading historiography but also inherently white supremacist. No law of nature requires us to assent to such judgments, so if we must accept them then we should give them their proper name.

Admitting the complexities and shortcomings of white Americans, rather than treating them as entombed saints, does not make for us the most comforting and celebratory history. It requires us to look at how our national ancestors stepped on others, stole their lives and labor, destroyed their families, and built an empire not of liberty or some high-toned Enlightenment virtues but rather from flesh and blood drawn by the lash. That unflattering picture ought to cause revulsion, but can also call upon us to do better and offer suggestions for roads forward.

Or we may go on as we always have, stolen lives in hand and supremely convinced of our white virtue. We don’t have to do that. If we cannot begin the world anew, then we still have the power to make it better. If we fail at that, then we can at least acknowledge our failure and admit that we chose it, contenting ourselves with the plunder we have assigned to our skin. We have done so often before, graciously allowing ourselves to forget each time. This exquisite virtue must tragically go unheralded; accepting a pardon admits to a wrong done. We took the flags and statues, among many other things, for granted for long enough that continuation seems far more in our “racial” character than doing otherwise.