Good News and Bad News, The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part Four

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left the New England Emigrant Aid Company in dire financial straits. J.M.S. Williams wrote to Ely Thayer, demanding he pay his fair share. He had gotten them into this whole business, but spent none of his own money on it. With the company near broke, operations in Kansas grinding to a halt for lack of funds, and the directors already out of pocket, something had to give. At the board meeting of December, 1855, Thayer opened his coffers:

I told the committee that it was very pleasing to me to hear from their own lips their confession of error in substituting the charity plan for the old business charter. Had we retained the latter and made investment in Kansas City, which our own work would have built up, we could have easily become a very formidable power against slavery, not only in the territories, but in the slave states as well.

He did tell them so. Business antislavery hadn’t raised the hoped-for funds, but it did recognize that investors wanted something for their trouble. The accounts of well-off men from Massachusetts could only go so far. Thayer then proposed to go big: the company would hire him through May. If he raised more than $20,000, then he would take 10% off the top as his fee. The Board agreed and Thayer hit the road again, focused on New York and Boston. He hoped to get $100,000, just as he had in 1854, and pick up $40,000 more in Boston.

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Thayer had big dreams. He brought NEEAC into the black again at $5,287.62 on hand. He took a commission of $5,158, so Andrews calculates that he raised at least $51,580. That made for a hefty sum indeed at the time, albeit not all that Thayer had hoped. The immediate crisis had passed by the end of May, but by then 1856 had delivered a fresh set of problems. While the Company’s finances rose, the free state effort it supported with mills, loans, and guns had taken a deep plunge. A second proslavery army had gathered on Oread Heights, named after Thayer’s school. David Rice Atchison and Samuel Jones led them to sack the Company’s town, throw the presses of the Company’s paper into the river, burn its hotel, arrested Charles Robinson and George Brown for treason, and closed the Missouri river. The closure of the river meant the end of communications, so with that news Kansas went dark.


“You are worth $200,000!!!!” The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part Three

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

The demise of business antislavery left Eli Thayer as a traveling promoter of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. His excessively rosy account of Kansas led to some emigrants opting to go right back home, but some stayed on in the territory and Thayer’s appearances helped keep Kansas in the public mind. The aid companies also kept themselves in the minds of white Missourians living in the plantation counties next door. NEEAC could muster dozens or a few hundred emigrants, but they had thousands of angry proslavery men with guns, knives and two cannons. After they carried two elections in a row, antislavery Kansans had quite enough.

Charles Robinson wrote Thayer to inform him

Our people have now form themselves into four military companies and will meet to drill till they have perfected themselves in their art. Also, companies are being formed in other places ans we want arms … cannot your secret society send us 200 of Sharp’s rifles as a loan till this question is settled?

The Stringfellows could go around telling everyone that the company raised legions of pauper mercenaries, but those mercenaries apparently set out for their war without sufficient arms. One would expect better of professionals. Nor did NEEAC’s directors leap at the chance to underwrite their emigrants’ military ventures. But as it soon appeared that antislavery Kansans would get no relief from Franklin Pierce, they secretly changed their minds. Robinson didn’t mean the Aid Company per se when he referred to Thayer’s “secret society”. He meant a group within it that privately raised money for arms, organized by the society’s then-current treasurer, Samuel Cabot. Amos Lawrence donated $2,700 for guns on top of what he gave to the official company funds. The Sharpe’s rifles arrived over the course of fall, 1855, often in crates labeled as books.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

As the second amendment thrived in Kansas, on both sides of the slavery question, the Aid Company did not. Amos Lawrence took over as treasurer, but quit the post in September. By April, the Company had spent $22,000. It had stock subscriptions for $26,844, but the subscribers had declined to pay their bills to the tune of almost eleven thousand dollars. It transpired that telling people their stock donation would probably not realize profit somewhat dimmed their ardor for investment. Philanthropy and patriotism only went so far. Resignation or no, Lawrence paid six thousand against the overdrafts of company agent Samuel Pomeroy. Pomeroy himself went back east on a two month tour of New England and New York that netted only $3,000.

One of the directors, J.M.S. Williams, blamed Thayer for all of this. Having paid out $3,000 already, with $800 more to go, and due to pay another $2,300, he felt that Thayer ought to kick in some of his own money too. The cash flow had dried up to the point of impeding the establishment of mills, where the company expected to realize its real gains. The company stood crippled by shortfalls. The directors had paid out of their own pockets to keep things going. Operations ground to a halt, Williams wrote Thayer,

yet you are worth #200,000!!!! You have done more to palce us all in this position than any other and ought to take hold in earnest and relieve us.


Eli Thayer Goes on the Road: The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part Two

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

We left Eli Thayer demoted from a leader of his own invention, the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company, to a promoter of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. His signature idea, to subsidize free state settlement in Kansas to keep slavery from the territory’s bound and then try to roll it back elsewhere, whilst turning a handy profit, fell by the wayside. Conservative Whigs with deep pockets took over, dropping Thayer’s business antislavery strategy for a more conventional charitable frame focused entirely on Kansas. This brings us to July 24, 1854.

By this point, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had Franklin Pierce’s signature and the expansion of white settlement had begun. The word in Missouri had it that Thayer’s operation had its five million on hand and twenty thousand impoverished Yankees ready to turn slave stealing Hessian just down the road from Missouri’s plantation belt. Proslavery Missourians organized for self-defense, with future Squatter Sovereign editor John Stringfellow telling St. Joseph

To those having qualms of conscience, as to violating of laws, state or national, the time has come when such impositions must be disregarded, as your lives and property are in danger, and I advise you one and all to enter every election district in Kansas … and vote at the point of a Bowie knife or revolver.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

The endless hosts of Yankee Hessians numbered twenty-nine. They departed Boston on July 17, with Thayer escorting them to Buffalo. He admitted that he had not mustered the legions he hoped, but you had to start somewhere. At Buffalo Thayer parted company with the expedition, but Charles Robinson and Charles Branscomb joined up. They had gone out in advance to scout locations and see about group rates for transportation. That scouting mission determined the site of Lawrence, named after the Emigrant Aid Company benefactor and slayer of business antislavery, Amos Lawrence. The company fronted a newspaper there, George Brown’s Herald of Freedom. Whilst touring to solicit donations, Thayer took care to have stacks of it on hand.

While settlement got going in Kansas, Thayer started on his lecture circuit on earnest. Past efforts had focused on Massachusetts and New York, but he now traveled all over New England. Over the three years from September of 1854, Thayer traveled north of six thousand miles and gave above seven hundred speeches. He and his companions, most often Charles Brancsomb, would arrange promotion in the local papers in advance. Thayer would give his spiel to a mass meeting and set up a Kansas League. It appears the leagues did the main work of finding people willing to go, whilst Thayer focused on exhortation and fundraising.

Thayer had an ambitious pitch, to the point where NEEAC’s leadership asked him to tone it down. They had no mind to carry the fight from Kansas into the slave states, but Thayer sold the enterprise as one which would free Kansas as the first step. Then they would press on to Missouri and Virginia, whilst also pushing out to make more free states in the west. Thayer extravagantly claimed that they could free Kansas in a year and then add a new state on top each year thereafter, and the stock would pay off whatever the directors thought. This required representatives of the company to walk back their spokesman’s remarks and distinguish between his ideas and their own.

Thayer’s boosterism, combined with the usual wild claims of an earthly paradise just aching for you to go settle it, did little to please those who took the plunge. Many emigrants pronounced Kansas a humbug and went home. At the time of Thayer’s first big tour, Lawrence boasted “one log cabin, one shake house, and a conglomeration of hay houses.” All the same, little had yet transpired in Kansas to make for interesting news. Thayer’s traveling show helped keep the territory in the public mind until the real struggle kicked off.

The Rise and Fall of Business Antislavery: The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part One

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Between the Howard Committee and the Buford Expedition, plenty of people have lately come to Kansas Territory. Before them, Missourians went across the border. Many meant to stay, but many also meant to control Kansas’ elections or murder abolitionists and make it home for breakfast. In all this, I have largely left out the people who offered the proslavery forces their casus belli: the Emigrant Aid Company. To a great degree that comes down to the historians I have relied upon. Concerned with matters largely internal to the Kansas-Missouri border, it matters less to their narratives how antislavery Americans arrived in the territory than what they did once present. A few paragraphs suffice. But a kind friend has supplied me with Horace Andrews’ Kansas Crusade: Eli Thayer and the New England Emigrant Aid Company, the hot release of December, 1962.

Andrews points out that as the Kansas-Nebraska Act worked its way through Congress, a sense of inevitability set over certain quarters of the North. Slavery got what slavery wanted and they appeared impotent against the new advance. The Democracy had its house in order, a few dissidents aside, and would continue to do as it liked as the nation’s dominant party. Who could stop it? Eli Thayer of Worchester, Massachusetts though himself the man for the job. He ran a school for women, the Oread Collegiate Institute, for the four years prior to considerable success. In that time he supported the Free Soil party to the end and took a term in the Massachusetts legislature. All this made him prominent enough that the state legislature would grant Thayer his corporate charter, creating the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company.

Thayer advocated what he called “Business antislavery,” to separate it from the tried-and-failed methods of ordinary politics and moral suasion. If Stephen Douglas insisted that popular sovereignty would settle Kansas’ future, then Eli Thayer would take him up on that. Thayer’s business antislavery gained a significant convert in the person of Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian minister and advocate for settling antislavery men in Texas to turn the state around. Hale had never come up with a concrete plan for doing that, but Thayer thought he had one. Thayer expected to sell stock in his company, use the money to subsidize emigration, and make a profit in the process. Andrews doesn’t go into just how, but presumably Thayer imagined that the company would invest in or found town companies just like many similar projects.

Amos Adams Lawrence

Amos Adams Lawrence

There came the snag. Thayer and his associates could drum up plenty of interest but not much money. The organizing committee itself refused to buy the stock they proposed to sell. Nobody seems to have believed that the five million dollar capitalization authorized would appear and many looked askance at the idea Thayer had to take the crusade into the slave states after they saved Kansas for freedom. At the instigation of Amos Lawrence, from whom Lawrence, Kansas, got its name, plans changed. Lawrence preferred a charitable operation with no expectation of future profit. If the stock wouldn’t generate dividends anyway, why pretend otherwise? And what if it did? Didn’t that suggest a mercenary outlook on the part of good-hearted antislavery men bent on saving the Union?

The Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company thus gave way to the New England Emigrant Aid Company on July 24, 1855, complete with a well-off board of Massachusetts luminaries for directors. Thayer got the news on his way home from a tour in New York where he raised $100,000. NEEAC, now institutionally controlled by conservative Whigs rather than New England radicals, had the form of a corporation but functioned like a charity. It took in gifts, rather than investments. Thayer himself took a demotion from leading light to a promotional speaker.

Flags & Nooses

Confederate Battle Flag

Confederate Battle Flag

Everybody knows that the Southern states had slavery. The institution, in fact, made them Southern rather than something else. But the nation’s most notorious white supremacists have their less famous cousins north of the Mason-Dixon line. There states passed laws banning black Americans from living within their bounds. That degree of racism prompted proslavery men to answer back that they thought more highly of their slaves than northerners did of free blacks. Until the Great Migration early in the twentieth century, most black Americans lived in the South. Probably most would have anyway, as they and their ancestors had lived there for generations, but when they fled white terrorism and came to northern cities they found more of the same. The Klan effectively ran the state of Indiana for some time. Midwestern cities, like many others, still bear the stamp of that particular history: whites fled the city core and inner suburbs to achieve segregation impossible therein. Their children than wrung their hands and wondered just what had happened to the cities.

I would like to say we do better now, but cities remain highly segregated. You don’t need de jure Jim Crow when you’ve simply created de facto whites only jurisdictions. You can find many of these whites only suburbs around the country, but this story brings me to one on the outskirts of Detroit. There a man put up a Confederate flag, a habit my neighbors like to think only exists in far warmer climes than our own state. They don’t seem to notice the people who drive around with one on their license plate or covering the rear window of the pickup truck. Nor do they often recognize that the integration of the high school, during my own tenure there, required the attention of the county sheriff. Only people with other accents do such things. Not content with the flag itself, Robert Tomanovich of Livonia, MI, added nooses hanging from trees to the display outside his house and another property he owns down the road.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Tomanovich’s wife offered excuses to the reporter that came asking questions. You can believe them if you like, but I don’t find the combination of the Confederate battle flag and a noose in a tree a likely coincidence. Quite what he hopes to accomplish in lily-white Livonia I don’t know. When the reporter pressed his wife on how others might see the display, she shrugged the question off. That hardly seems like the behavior of a person trying to draw attention to how the town got the demographics it has with a deliberately provocative act.

Tomanovich owns the property. He can display what he likes there and broke no law in doing so. But that does not make his display innocuous. I really don’t know how to read it as anything short of a proud declaration that a person who approves of lynching lives there. Thus people of the wrong color should not feel safe in the area. I can’t read Tomanovich’s mind to know it, but I strongly suspect that I have taken the correct meaning from his tableau. One need not live in the land of cotton to remember the bad old times.

An Antislavery Dissent, Part Three

James Tallmadge, Jr. (D-NY)

James Tallmadge, Jr. (D-NY)

Parts 1 and 2

C. Stearns told Kansas radicals like George Brown and Charles Robinson that they needed to cool down. Their plan, then pending and subsequently voted through at Big Springs, to organize a government of their own, raced past good sense and straight into self-destruction. They would not, he supposed, have such an interest in doing so except that many of them saw themselves occupying offices in the new government. Further, and less insulting, the free state movement simply did not have time to write a Constitution before the delegate election at the start of October. But what if they pulled it off? Stearns expected that to go worse than achieving nothing:

if we form a Constitution now, we run the risk of having the “Black Law” engrafted upon it. If this is done, farewell to all our hopes of admission into the Union. Foul as is that Union, slaveholders and all, have always rejected such Constitutions as contrary to that of the United States. Henry Clay successfully opposed the admission of Missouri for that reason. Sumner, Hale, Giddings, all radical anti-slavery men, would oppose such a bill to death.

However little we think of Stearns’ strategy of delay, he had the black law issue right. The free state movement voted overwhelmingly to ban all black people from Kansas once they had their state government established. Stearns did, however, rather selectively remember the Missouri crisis in implying that Missouri came before the Congress with a black law in its constitution and asked admission. Rather instead, James Tallmadge, Jr., of New York, proposed making the exclusion of future entrance of black Americans into Missouri as a condition of its statehood. This, among other provisions, aimed to set Missouri on the road to emancipation in the decades ahead. Tallmadge’s proposals ignited the crisis that Clay then settled with the Missouri Compromise, of late repeal fame.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

His questionable history aside, Stearns declared that a free Kansas with a black law poison pill could show up with hat in hand, beg the Republicans to support its admission, and receive no takers. Obviously the national Democracy wouldn’t go out of its way to help them after creating the whole Kansas mess. The free state men would have nowhere to go.

With a reasonable danger laid out, Stearns moved once more to the implausible. He argued that the proslavery men might not entirely loathe the free state party, save for a pair of Stringfellow or Kelley here and there. But even if they did

it proves to me that their usual sagacity has not forsaken them, but they can see farther ahead than some of us can, and hope by seeming to oppose this project to blind our eyes, and induce us to advocate it still more strenuously. At any rate we must have penetration enough to ascertain the bearing of our projects upon our destiny, without being obliged to ask our opponents what they think of those projects. If we pursue the opposite course of always questioning the pro-slavery party as to their opinions on our meetings, they will certainly know enough to appear angry at a step which they are glad to see us taking.

Do they know that we know that they know that we know? One could follow that train of logic to the point of utter paralysis. Stearns seemed to prefer that to all other outcomes. I would from that take that he in fact did not have any real interest in preventing Kansas from going over to slavery, but far too often I’ve seen people begin with good premises and tie themselves into impotent knots with the same kind of argument. Somehow magnificent brilliance descends upon one’s foes, which helpfully makes one’s own struggle all the more heroic despite its doom. But these advanced placement elegies assume the brilliance of one’s foes in a world where we, the unspectacular, vastly outnumber the Machiavellian savants.

An Antislavery Dissent, Part Two

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

We left C. Stearns in the pages of the September 22 Herald of Freedom telling us that not every antislavery Kansan went all out for the radicals’ plan to make their own government and strike at once for statehood. To bolster his credibility as a genuine free soil man, Stearns quoted a letter he had from a friend in Boston. If a Boston lawyer, who Stearns left anonymous, could not sign on from the safety of Massachusetts, then surely antislavery men in Kansas could voice their strong opposition.

Stearns continued, in his own voice, to explain the problem facing the free state movement. After telling a folksy anecdote about a guinea (the English coin, not the adorable rodent) blocking the view of a man who opposed reform, he explained

It is not always guineas that prevent men from seeing the truth, but sometimes it is the American’s other ruling passion, viz: love of office.

I trust that your readers will not consider that in my opinion, if fewer persons here were seeking for office we should hear less about a State Constitution than we do now. If any person takes offense at this remark, he will prove himself the identical office-seeker in question.

One hears this kind of argument a great deal. People who object to injustices are simply grandstanding for their own gain. Just look how many have political aspirations for themselves. One would never expect any kind of natural overlap between the politically ambitious and the leadership of political movements. With this argument one can indict any movement on behalf of any cause. All human endeavors will attract their share of the self-aggrandizing. The free state movement had one in James Lane and probably others. Not satisfied with that, Stearns happily went on to declare that anybody disagreeing with his accusations of bad faith simply proved them true.

Insult posing as argument out of the way, Stearns proceeded to more substantive charges. He argued that

it is extremely foolish to talk of forming a State Constitution, as we would write a newspaper article or make a stump speech. I question whether a year would be time enough to form such a Constitution as the wants of the age would require. We must go about such a measure free from all excitement, and with the utmost deliberation. The very short time left for us between the first of October, and the session of Congress, would hardly suffice to elect delegates.

I can’t argue much with the plea for deliberation in crafting something so weighty as a constitution, but what Kansas did C. Stearns live in? His opponents had not accepted delay, but struck early and often. It gained them much, however thoroughly it alienated most Kansans. Proceeding in haste might have its own risks, and the delegate election would come before a constitutional convention could assemble, but patience and restraint had poorly served Kansas’ antislavery party to date.

An Antislavery Dissent, Part One

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

My sources for the antislavery resistance in Kansas skew heavily to the radical end. I do what I can with the materials available to me to highlight the less radical elements as well, but I have no good repository of moderate antislavery opinion from the time and place. While the proslavery party’s embrace of violence and suppression of white freedoms certainly radicalized many, and drove others previously sympathetic over to the opposition, not everybody took that journey so far as the Charles Robinsons or George Browns of the day. The constant emphasis on unity in the resolutions of antislavery meetings speak well enough to that. Nor did every moderate come to that place through acts of political opportunism, as James Lane did.

In the September 22 Herald of Freedom, published just after George Brown’s return from the Topeka Convention, latest of the free soil party’s move toward a state government and a subject of future posts, a C. Stearns wrote of his “utter dissent” from the idea that the Free State party should write a constitution and strike for statehood. Stearns’ letter predates the Topeka and Big Springs Conventions alike, but arraigns their project in general. Stearns began by affirming his own antislavery beliefs:

While I honor the motives that actuate the majority of those concerned in this movement, yet believing as I do, that it is fraught with lasting injury to the cause that lies nearer to my heart at present than any other, viz: the making of Kansas a free State, I must unqualified condemn this movement. This I do hesitatingly, for my experience here has convinced me that no man can obey the “light within,” and act as his conscience directs, in all things, without meeting with the common lot of all reformers, viz: ridicule and hatred.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Stearns went on to say that he wrote a lawyer he knew in Boston to get qualified opinions on the matter. His Boston friend understood the situation well enough, saying that free soil Kansans fought “against unscrupulous wickedness, armed with power.” The “utmost sagacity and discretion” would give them little help against a foe who controlled the territory. But the antislavery men of Kansas had a single great weapon at their disposal: the ability “to guide and arouse the Northern feeling.” He thus endorsed repudiation of the legislature. But Stearns and other Kansans should stop there:

I think a State Government, without a basis of sufficient population, would be a mistaken course. That defect would be held by all the nation, a sufficient, though it might only be the pretended reason, for rejecting you, and this would give the enemy the best side of the argument. By ignoring the Legislature, and organizing Territorially [sic], you keep all the principles of right, law, and statesmanship on your side. Whether you fail or succeed in your immediate purpose, this keeping right legally, as well as morally, is a great thing, if possible.

Easy for him to say off in Boston, but he did have a point. A wildcat state government offered up excuses for most any politician on the national stage to repudiate it. Congress set up a territorial government, not a bunch of random Kansans on their own authority. Usurpation of congressional power would give not just proslavery men a plausible reason to deny the free state men, but also any dubious northerner. Such politicians could then say that they didn’t have a slavery problem in Kansas, but rather a civil disorder that required suppression. Such language had answered resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, as a Bostonian would know very well.

The War of Northern Aggression? It depends.

A friend pointed me to James Oakes’ piece in the latest Jacobin, titled The War of Northern Aggression and available on their webpage. There Oakes describes the contemporary consensus that the North went to war to preserve the Union, rather than to end slavery:

We are repeatedly told that the North did not go to war over slavery. The Civil War is once again denounced as morally unjustified on the grounds that the North was not motivated by any substantial antislavery convictions. Emancipation itself is described as an accidental byproduct of a war the North fought for no purpose beyond the restoration of the Union. A recent study of the secession crisis states that during the war, slavery was abolished “inadvertently.”

So far as criticizing the war as morally unjustified because a blue uniform or an office in Washington at the time did not transform one into an abolitionist or racial egalitarian, I’ve never encountered the argument except from the usual suspects who use it to deflect attention from the paramount interest in preserving slavery that the Confederates clearly, consistently expressed in word and deed.

I don’t know that I would go so far as the study Oakes quoted, but that would depend on the context that a single quoted word doesn’t supply. Certainly the secessionists did their part in inadvertently abolishing slavery, but only because they lost. Many northerners did not march off to war to free the slaves, but the slaves turned their advance into an emancipation movement by flocking to Union lines. In that context, calling abolition inadvertent also makes for what I consider sound history.

But all that said, I do think that a majority of white northerners and border state residents had little to no interest in suppressing slavery when they went off to war in 1861. Some certainly did, and the Republicans’ efforts to that effect. According to Oakes,

Unwilling to take seriously what contemporaries were saying, historians have constructed a narrative of Emancipation and the Civil War that begins with the premise that Republicans came into the war with no intention of attacking slavery — indeed, that they disavowed any antislavery intentions. The narrative is designed to demonstrate the original premise, according to which everyone at the time was mistaken about what the Republicans intended to do.

Fully aware of Oakes’ greater education and expertise, I still can’t entirely agree with him. I think that his piece, perhaps for reasons of space, perhaps at the hands of an editor, conflates a series of related but separate questions of interpretation. Separating them back out clarifies things greatly. One can tackle the issue from even more angles, but I think the two which follow cover the core of the dispute.

First one must consider what the Republicans did and why they did it. Here, I have no real quarrel with Oakes. The Republicans, from Lincoln on down, understood the election of 1860 as their great opportunity. Lincoln forbade his agents in Washington during the secession winter from making any compromise that would forgo restrictions on slavery in the territories, from Kansas on west, on the grounds that it would give up the whole point of their election. The people of the North elected then on an avowed platform of restricting slavery and placing it on the road to its eventual extinction. I don’t know of many historians who would argue otherwise. In that respect, the Republicans absolutely waged a war of at least containment against slavery. One can and should consider slavery coterminous with the South, as nineteenth century Americans did, and thus in a sense the Republicans did propose to wage at least a cold war against it regardless of any secession. Does that count as a war of northern aggression? Possibly, though given the normal context in which one sees that name used I do not rush to adopt it.

However, the Republicans did not eradicate the Northern Democracy. The Democracy arguably did an exemplary job of that all by itself, but even they had not destroyed the party completely. Thus one can’t fairly take the Republicans’ goals as synonymous with those of the North at large. Consideration of and cooperation with democrats, especially in the border states, placed a significant restraint on what the Republicans could do. The party of Jackson might not command a majority in the Congress, but early in the crisis much hinged on the loyalty of the border states where they had considerably more influence. Those politicians had constituents as well and they did not enthusiastically embark upon a campaign against slavery, even if many did eagerly sign up to preserve the Union. Many probably would happily received news that the Republicans had repudiated their platform not just out of partisan interest but also sincere belief. I don’t think one can fairly call them militants in a war of northern aggression. They fought against slavery only reluctantly and only as a means to what they considered a higher end.

I have yet to delve deep into the scholarship on why ordinary soldiers fought for the Union, but I understand that Gary Gallagher satisfied most scholars with his extensive look into their letters. He came down firmly in favor of the Union first interpretation. If Oakes condemns other scholars for not taking the sources at their word, then he should find Gallagher’s work rather persuasive. Maybe he takes it on in his books, and I’d love to hear if he does, but it appears in his essay only as a cause for criticism.

So did Northerners fight a war of aggression to end slavery? It depends on which Northerners one asks about. To that, we could also add when we ask about them. A soldier from Maine who signed up in 1861 and knew slavery only as a vague thing that happened far away might find ending it more imperative after seeing it up close. Of course changes of heart could go the other way as well. Northern-born white Americans had gone into the South and discovered there that they liked slavery quite well, or at least found it necessary to manage black Americans concentrated in such numbers. We can hope that people draw the right lessons from experiences, but not all of us do.


Burning headlineThe spinning newspaper with the banner headline informs us that horrible things have happened. We must all look and know them so we remember our capacity for evil. In remembering, we tell ourselves that we do our small part toward ensuring such things do not happen again:

Insurgents seized a man, tortured him with a red-hot poker, gouged out his eyes, and castrated him before burning him alive.

Extremists tied a married couple to a tree, making them hold hands as their mob chopped their fingers off, to give away as souvenirs. Not content with those trophies, they set in with a corkscrew to dig out plugs of flesh. Only then did the militants relent and burn their victims alive. The radicals and their supporters alike made a picnic of it, enjoying refreshments as they watched the spectacle.

This news comes not from CNN or any other modern news outlet. Nor did these events transpire in some distant land where they speak differently, accents aside. The castrated man, Lation Scott, died in Dyersburg, Tennessee. The married couple? Luther Holbert and his wife, of Doddsville, Mississippi. Nor did those who tortured and murdered them come from abroad, shouting strange slogans in an unfamiliar tongue. If they happened today, in some other country, the news would report them in much the same voice. The news did, however, report such things back in the day. Some genuine headlines accompany this post. They communicate the obscene excitement accompanying the events better than I could.

I have these accounts from the Equal Justice Initiative’s new report on lynching in the South. Between 1877 and 1950, they count nearly four thousand victims of lynching, ranging from individuals like Lation Scott to massive attacks that claimed the lives of hundreds. The New York Times supplies a map of those lynchings. One of those took place in Arkansas, on the Mississippi Delta. The Daily Beast has the story, beginning with some horrible framing:

In 1919, in the wake of World War I, black sharecroppers unionized in Arkansas, unleashing a wave of white vigilantism and mass murder that left 237 people dead.

John Hartfield will be Lynched by Ellisville Mob at 5 o'clock This Afternoon

John Hartfield will be Lynched by Ellisville Mob at 5 o’clock This Afternoon

I know that one needs to sum up the entire story in a line or so to meet journalistic conventions, but doing so in such a way invites questions about whether the Beast’s editors think the victims had it coming. They did not unleash a wave of white terror. The whites did. The remainder of the article does much better, explaining how the sharecroppers, exploited by their white landlords, did what exploited workers the world over do to get redress: they organized a union. The owners, like employers in every land and at every time, did not welcome this development. Better pay meant money taken straight from their profits. Those vile unionists wanted to steal their rightful property, which the owners had properly stolen from their laborers in one of the most hallowed traditions not merely of the South, but of the United States in general.

There was nothing “peaceable” about the methods used to demolish the sharecroppers’ union. Late on the night of September 30, 1919, the planters dispatched three men to break up a union meeting in a rough hewn black church at Hoop Spur, a crossroads three miles north of Elaine. Prepared for trouble, the sharecroppers had assigned six men to patrol outside the church. A verbal confrontation led to gunfire that fatally wounded one of the attackers. The union men dispersed, but not for long. Bracing for reprisals from their landlords, they rousted fellow sharecroppers from bed and formed self-defense forces.

The planters also mobilized. Sheriff Frank Kitchens deputized a massive white posse, even setting up a headquarters at the courthouse in the county seat of Helena to organize his recruits. Hundreds of white veterans, recently returned from military service in France, flocked to the courthouse. Dividing into small groups, the armed white men set out into the countryside to search for the sharecroppers. The posse believed that a black conspiracy to murder white planters had just been begun and that they must do whatever it took to put down the alleged uprising. The result was the killing of 237 African Americans.

The local whites could not do it themselves. They got help from the War Department, which dispatched six hundred soldiers at the governor’s request. Men crossed over from Mississippi to pitch in. The union men fought back, but numbers and superior arms overwhelmed them.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has called white supremacy a kind of theft. We don’t usually frame it quite that way, but he has it absolutely right. White America has stolen from black America labor, property, success and lives with which we instead enrich ourselves. So the cannibal dynamo turns their misery into our happiness. That dynamo doesn’t exist independent of us; it is us. The violence did not just happen, but rather people who look like us chose to make it happen. They felt not shame, but pride and satisfaction. No one went to jail. If white, one could collect a finger or a plug of flesh from Luther Holbert and walk away feeling enriched.

By and large we don’t remember those atrocities. In the hundred and fifty years since the end of slavery, we instead ask why black Americans don’t do better. It suits us better to forget that we have prevented them from doing better and made our success out of the wreckage of black lives. Best we forget, lest we suffer pangs of conscience.

Negro Jerky and Sullen as Burning Hour Nears

Negro Jerky and Sullen as Burning Hour Nears

Or we could remember and perhaps do better. We have a good museum in Washington, part of the Smithsonian, all about the Holocaust. Go see it if you have the chance. But we have no unit of the Smithsonian for slavery, an American institution for more than two hundred years and utterly central to the development of the United States. In the American History Museum, which you can skip, you will find displays about presidents, first ladies, and George Washington sculpted as a Greek god. We choose to remember those things, not the others. Washington had his eight years and slavery its two centuries, but with sufficient editing we can turn Washington into an Olympian object of veneration.

Certainly we cannot teach our children the uncomfortable parts of our past. Today news came to me that a House committee in Oklahoma has voted to defund the state’s AP American History program, which would amount to an effective ban on it. Why?

Fisher, who has been active in a church-and-state organization called the Black Robe Regiment, said the AP U.S. history course framework emphasizes “what is bad about America.”

I don’t recall my own AP American History course as very long on the bad about America, but perhaps they’ve improved in the many years since. I have written on this before, but the facts remain the same. The Oklahoma committee, like the Denver school board, doesn’t want students to learn complexities and nuance. Instead they must believe the United States either perfect or close enough to call it that all the same. History class should not present difficult questions or raise consciousness, but rather suppress both in a lily-white stream of sunshine and flag waving. Should history teachers give children the skills to understand complicated issues and turn a critical eye on their own society, who knows where it would end?

That sunshine can’t come through clouds, so the clouds have to go. It can’t come in different colors. The shadows it casts must pass without scrutiny, taken for granted like a Whites Only sign. Such signs, ex officio, remain on the covers of plenty of history textbooks. The lynchings from the EJI report, their great popularity in their day, and how they went unpunished say things about America, past and present. Remembering them doesn’t put a neat little bow on history, raising past injustices only to declare them resolved in the grand tradition of American progress where, born immaculate and perfect, the nation only gets better. They confront us with our national shortcomings.

The EJI support memorializing the victims. They should have monuments to fill that curious lacuna in the American landscape. We have monuments for the Civil Rights Movement. We have monuments for Confederate soldiers, including one I saw in Massachusetts. Yet even where scores died no monuments exist, as people of the right color died at the hands of people of the other right color, each group in its proper place. A plaque here and a statue there will not change the world but just as forgetting four thousand lives feasted on by white mobs says something about us, so would choosing to remember them instead. It might even say that, in some small and tenuous way, we have had our fill of such lives and wish to stop claiming them as our own.

But that does require that white Americans acknowledge that we have all received stolen goods and so have a responsibility beyond that of well-meaning bystanders to do what we can to ameliorate the wrong. Progress on that front has come with agonizing slowness and great controversy, most infamously involving the greatest political realignment in recent American history and most famously the Civil War. We should accept the country we have and not think about alternate visions, whether for better or worse. Otherwise we might have to ask what kind of country we actually have, at what costs we have it, and whether we should allow it to continue as we have.

The first great historian of slavery and the South, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, got a few things badly wrong. He thought slavery a benevolent, paternal, and tragically inefficient and backwards institution. But he did find a kind of consensus, however unwittingly. Writing in the 1920s, he identified white supremacy as the central theme of Southern history in a famous essay of the same name.

Phillips wrote long ago. The field has moved on. He particularly missed the centrality of white supremacy outside the South. Writing today, he might instead title his essay The Central Theme of American History. When the American ISIS rampaged across the South, busting unions and burning people alive, the rest of the white America filled our pockets and looked away. When thousands of black refugees flooded out of the South, fleeing white terror, we got into the lynching business ourselves to remind them that we had a white man’s country, by us and for us. Many of us, if not so many as in past decades, want to keep it just that way.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Preventing children and adults alike from putting the picture together ably serves such goals. If they can’t count on our malice, then they can count on our ignorance. Toss in a large helping of desire for peace and quiet, popular once upon a time on the Missouri frontier, where it saturates the writing of proslavery men, and then again in Alabama, not so long ago, and it might seem like things will never change. They might not, but if so then we have again said something about ourselves. We have said that the American ISIS and all its gains must prevail. This must remain a country for the white man and the Klan, the Red Shirts, and their many auxiliaries had it right. We have chosen and voted in our myriad ways to keep it that way.

That choice falls not on impersonal forces beyond our control, but in ourselves. It would mean discomfort. We would have to take sides. But we do both of those things anyway. White America usually chooses to make black America pay the price, with everything from grotesque violence and our carefully-curated, genteel forgetfulness. Maybe that makes sense to members of the Denver school board or the Oklahoma House committee. I know it made sense to proslavery writers in the nineteenth century and defenders of segregation in the twentieth. Might we at last wonder if we picked the wrong side? We have such clarity when we condemn ISIS, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda. The horrors at home receive a few passing mentions, often full of equivocation or calibrated to avoid the larger questions they present.

Growing up white and American means you get to take that for granted; I know I did. Despite learning better, I probably still do in more ways that I care to count. It takes uncomfortable work to curb the habit. It takes more than a book or memorial or post by some random internet person. The slaveholder’s lexicon comes built in: runaways, not slaves who stole their lives back; race riots, not pogroms built on white terrorism; plantations with their nice houses and gardens; not slave labor camps like something out of Siberia. Even the word lynching doesn’t do the reality justice. Terrorism might, but even that seems too abstracted from the gross realities of cutting off fingers and pulling plugs of flesh out by corkscrew to keep as souvenirs.

Three thousand people came to see a man burned alive. If they did that in some other country, it would be the one thing every American knew about that country and we would cite it for decades after as the defining trait of that foreign land. No American old enough to have heard of it forgets that the Germans had the Nazis and killed the Jews. To at least a generation, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. To another, Muslims flew planes into the Twin Towers. In our memories, those moments stretch on to eternity…so long as someone else has the dirty laundry worth airing.

While we can attribute this to a universal reluctance to grapple with complex issues and resistance to confronting things that don’t reflect well on people we imagine as somehow a part of ourselves, that only sanitizes things for the perpetrators. Yet even granting that, other countries have done much better. In school, German children learn all about the Nazis and the Holocaust. I understand they have special classes just on it.

Americans can’t even manage a National Museum of Slavery. Some of those who prefer the version of history espoused lately in Oklahoma City and Denver stress the import of American exceptionalism. Why not meet them halfway? History teachers should encourage students to understand American exceptionalism: Exceptional Americans made an empire for slavery. They came by the thousands to watch a man burned alive. They came and took fingers and corkscrews of flesh to remember the day. They posed for the pictures with the hanged bodies, like they would with a prize deer or trout. They smiled and laughed and ate their picnics while human ash rose up to the sky, burnt offerings as much as anyone that rose above camps in Europe.

We wrote those chapters into the story of us just as we did all the other things. If a full accounting leaves us with more bad than good on the balance sheet, we should find fault not in the math but in ourselves.