The Kansas-Nebraska Act: 1854 and 2016

Our first comparison in our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign goes back a little to an article about the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.

As you recall, the KNA overthrew the Missouri Compromise (1820) that established a line at 36°30′ north of which all states entering the Union would be free, and south of which would be slaveholding states. Stephen Douglas, the Democratic author of the KNA, wanted Nebraska to enter the Union free, but the territory was so large it extended south of the compromise (or, better put, appeasement) line and Southern Congressmen refused to let it enter as free. So Douglas split the territory in two, creating the Kansas Territory to be a potential southern state. Anticipating a howl of outrage from northern members of his party at turning part of a free territory into a slave territory, Douglas then proposed that the people of each territory be allowed to decide for themselves, in a vote, whether to enter the Union free or slave (this was called popular sovereignty).

The legacy of that decision is infamous in U.S. history. People who lived in other states went to Kansas to swing the vote, and violence between proslavery and antislavery interlopers gave the territory the name Bleeding Kansas. Abolitionist John Brown got his start in Kansas as an antislavery interloper who led a small militia that killed proslavery interlopers.

In 1854, when the KNA was passed, the nation was divided once again along sectional lines, and now we come to our comparison with 2016. As we said in our opening post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

When we read one of the many New York Times‘ editorials on the KNA, it rings eerily familiar. Substitute in “gun control” or “immigration”, or “war on Christianity” for “slavery”, or “liberal” for “Northerner” and “conservative” for “Democratic” and it could be an account of Congress in 2016:

Popular indignation at the passage of the Nebraska bill finds vent in various projects, some wise and some otherwise. …Cassius Clay [abolitionist and one of the founders of the Republican Party] proposes that every body who voted for the bill shall be treated to a social as well as a political crucifixion—and seeks to prepare the country for a dissolution of the Union. [Abolitionist William Lloyd] Garrison [seizes] the opportunity to push [a] program of dissolving the Union and breaking down the Constitution. We hear men a good deal more sensible than any of these proclaiming their hatred of all compacts [agreements] which bind us to the Slaveholding interest, and declaring they will keep no faith with them.

…The champions of the [KNA] know perfectly well that they have acted in direct opposition to the popular will. The originators of the iniquitous measure have for months been as clearly persuaded that the great sense of the country is against this outrageous breach of honor and good faith, as they are of their own existence, yet they have accomplished it through recreant Northern votes. These Northern traitors prating Democratic cant have gone deliberately against what they knew to the the mind of the North. The smallest fraction of decent regard to honor and propriety would have led them to put it over till the sense of the country could be tested by another election. They were chosen to vote on no such question. Its coming up was not dreamed of by the people at large. When it was sprung upon the country, there was but one consentaneous cry of indignation throughout all the Northern land, in which honest and honorable men of all parties joined.

…A large portion of the honest and honorable feeling of the South was against it too.The palpable indecency of driving it through under such circumstances, was doubtless as much a matter of distinct consciousness to the majority that perpetrated it, as to the minority that resisted it, as to the country that cried out against it. They did it because it was in their power to do it—they had the Might and that they knew was all the Right they had.

The clear and seemingly accepted sense of the nation being firmly divided into North and South, each with a plan for the nation that is utterly opposed to the other’s, and anyone who dreamt of bridging the gap lacerated as a villain—all these are bitterly familiar to Americans today. So is calling for a “political crucifixion” of anyone outside one’s own faction. And, increasingly, so is the threat of the nation splitting over political ideology.

The KNA truly was a terrible piece of legislation, which justified this kind of outrage and made it understandable to call those who supported it traitors without honor or propriety. The issues we face in 2016 do not match up. 1854 was about enslaving human beings and breeding them for sale. 2016 is about whether to let non-white (Latin American) and increasingly non-Christian (Muslim) immigrants into the country. 2016 is about whether every American should own and carry a gun, and whether transgender citizens possess civil rights. These seem like lesser issues that could be solved politically by drawing on our national legacy of always extending more and more civil rights to our citizens and future citizens.

But that’s what makes 2016 exactly like 1854 or 1860—there is a growing contingent of Americans who want to stop extending civil rights to all U.S. citizens and future citizens. They want to roll back civil rights in this nation and reserve them to the few: the native-born, straight, and Christian. That is a kind of slavery, and that’s why the 21st-century sectionalism of liberal v. conservative is as potent and dangerous as the 19th-century sectionalism over slavery ever was.

Next time: Trump and Brooks

Presidential campaigns, 1860 and 2016

Here we launch a series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign. We’ve often noted that the growth of a new kind of sectional tension in this country runs disturbingly parallel to sectional tension in the years before the Civil War; here we explore those parallels by going back to newspaper reports on the 1860 campaign and comparing what we find there to what we see happening now.

What is sectionalism? It’s a situation in which one part of a unified group begins to feel alienated, and to separate itself from that group, on the basis of geography or interests. Those interests usually become passions. In the two decades before the Civil War, sectionalism occurred as the South (geography) began to separate itself mentally and emotionally from the North because of the South’s commitment to slavery (interest), which the North did not share. Eventually, the North reciprocated by developing its own sectionalism, which rejected union with the South over slavery (see our post Northern sectionalism before the Civil War for more on that). Each geographic region defined itself in terms of slavery, embracing or rejecting it, and insisting that slavery was the one key issue of the day and for the nation. Eventually, sectionalism led to secession, and, as Lincoln said, the war came.

Today, sectionalism still has a slight geographic component, as southern state legislatures make a stand against liberty and justice for all (through state laws demonizing illegal immigrants, gay and transgender Americans, women seeking abortions, etc.) while most northern states do not. But geography has been trumped by interests: the real divide in the U.S. is ideological, between liberals and conservatives. Neo-conservatives, as they were called in the 1980s, found a stronghold in formerly Democratic southern states in the 1960s as the Democratic party under Johnson reached a pinnacle of civil liberty and social justice, particularly for racial minorities, that racist leaders of southern states and state politics could not accept. They moved to the Republican party, which, under Nixon, welcomed them as a bloc that supported the president’s and the party’s desire to stop civil rights legislation (on the basis that the federal government was overreaching and trying to “legislate morality”).

Conservatism had a boom under Reagan that moved it out of the south and into many white, middle-class homes around the country, as their inhabitants identified with Reagan’s image of the “real” America as white, self-supporting, and Christian, as opposed to everyone else, who was not white, on welfare (and abusing it), and non-Christian. Many white Americans also vibed to Reagan’s statement that the federal government was a curse and a burden (“government isn’t the solution to the problem; government is the problem”) and that it should be dialed way back to have minimal impact on people’s daily lives (i.e., no more social legislation). (See our post Reagan’s Farewell, 1989: We the People need no government for more on that.)

Many political leaders and people in the west seemed to embrace this new conservative message, as they saw themselves in a battle to the death with the federal government over access to and development of/mining on public lands, water, and protecting endangered animals.

Over the decades from the 80s to the 2010s, the new conservatism found strongholds in every part of the nation, wherever poor and middle-class white people felt disenfranchised and/or insulted by big business, immigrants, and/or liberals. To be fair, the movement is not entirely white; there are black and Latino conservatives. But the movement began with white people “taking back” their rights from newly-empowered minorities. For the past five years or so, the new dimension of sexuality has been added in, as conservatives generally identify as straight and feel their rights threatened and curtailed by the expansion of civil rights to gay and transgender people.

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either, although the south and west (particularly the Mountain zone) skew conservative while the northeast and Pacific Coast skew liberal. The midwest seems divided.

This new sectionalism has been an issue in every political campaign since 1980, but this year it is the be-all and end-all of the entire presidential election. And this is where the comparisons become striking:

—1860 was the year that sectionalism over slavery became the main issue of a presidential election. 2016 is the year that sectionalism between liberals and conservatives is the main issue.

—In 1860 the Democratic party fractured under the stress; the party split, nominating two different candidates: a Southern Democratic proslavery candidate, and a (northern) Democratic candidate who was on the fence but unlikely to abolish slavery. Today, the Democratic party vote may be badly divided between Sanders and Clinton.

—A new party emerged to take the place of the Whig party that had already been destroyed by sectionalism: in 1860 the Republican party was a party of radical social change dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery and “its eventual extinction”. Today, the Republican party is promoting radical social change by (presumably) nominating Trump as its candidate.

—In 1860, some people watching the campaigns were confident that the country would not split over it, while others tried hard to laugh off the idea, but no one denied that talk of civil war was in the air. In 2016, we laugh about people saying they’ll move to Canada if their candidate doesn’t win, and try hard to promote the idea that people whose candidate loses will put country ahead of cause and support the winner, but no one can deny that there are many voices saying they will do no such thing.

Next time we will get into the early coverage of the 1860 campaign and begin our comparisons, hoping as always to draw some useful plan of action from the exercise.

If Trump could save the Union by bombing Europe with nuclear weapons…

Do you remember how, back in April 2008, we posted an analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation? It was called “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves…”: The victory of the Emancipation Proclamation,” and it referred to the famous Lincoln-Greeley exchange:

In the months before Lincoln published his proclamation, Horace Greeley, of the New York Tribune, wrote an editorial letter on August 20, 1862 blasting the president for not abolishing slavery already. No one outside Lincoln’s cabinet knew he had the EP written and waiting. Lincoln’s response is famous, or infamous, to us now. It is the letter in which he said that if he could save the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would, and it he could save it by freeing none, he would, and if he could do it by freeing some and leaving others, he would do that.

In our effort to explain why Lincoln’s statement is not disgustingly pro-slavery but revolutionary in its essence, we said this:

Lincoln starts by saying that his main aim in the war is to preserve the Union. He sees a few options when it comes to saving the Union. He might be able to do it by freeing all the slaves. If that was the best option, he would take it. He might, though, be able to save the Union without freeing any slaves. If so, he would take that option. Or, he might be able to save the Union by freeing some slaves.

You, by now, should see that he is hinting very broadly at his Proclamation, which did just that: it freed some enslaved people and left others (in the border states) enslaved. (For the reasons we have already described—under war powers, he could only free slaves in territory at war with the U.S. without Taney and the courts striking the measure down.)

We still shudder at Lincoln calmly talking about not freeing anyone. But people at the time saw what was really shocking: Lincoln was saying that ending slavery was on the table. For the first time in the history of the United States, a president was saying he would outlaw slavery. This had never been on the table before.

It would be like an American president today saying, “If I can bring peace to the Middle East without using nuclear weapons, I won’t use them. If I have to launch a few nuclear strikes to bring peace, I’ll do that.” We would say, wait a minute—when did nuclear weapons come into this question? No one has ever talked about nuclear war in the Middle East before, but now the President is saying it’s on the table.

When we wrote that, we deliberately tried to think of the most exaggerated, not remotely possible scenario we could—a U.S. president saying s/he would use nuclear weapons on the Middle East.

But Republican presidential candidate Trump has yanked this scenario into the realm of the possible. He has in fact made our outlandish scenario look modest by saying he would bomb not just ISIS-held areas of the Middle East, but our allies and friends in Europe. Here is the relevant part of his interview with Chris Matthews:

Donald Trump: “First of all, you don’t want to say take everything off the table because you would be a bad negotiator if you do that.”

Chris Matthews: “Just nuclear?”

DT: “Look, nuclear should be off the table, but would there be a time that it could be used? Possibly.”

CM: “The problem is when you say that, the whole world heard that. David Cameron heard that in Britain, the Japanese where we bombed them in ’45 heard it. They are hearing a guy running for President of the United States talking about maybe using nuclear weapons. Nobody wants to hear that about an American president.”

DT: “Then why are we are making them [nuclear weapons]? Why do we make them?”

CM: “Because of the old mutually assured destruction, which Reagan hated and tried to get rid of.”

DT: “I was against Iraq, I would be the last one to use the nuclear weapons because that’s sort of like the end of the ball game.”

CM: “Can you tell the Middle East we’re not using nuclear weapons?”

DT: “I would never say that. I would never take any of my cards off the table.”

CM: “How about Europe? We won’t use in Europe?”

DT: “I’m not going to take it off the table for anybody.”

CM: “You’re going to use it in Europe?”

DT: “No! I don’t think so. But…”

CM: “Just say it, say ‘I’m not going to use a nuclear weapon in Europe’.”

DT: “I am not taking cards off the table. I’m not going to use nukes – but I’m not taking any cards off the table.”

And thus we have it: an American presidential front-runner, if not an actual president, saying he would use nuclear weapons on Europe. Lincoln’s statement that he would end slavery to win the war now takes second-place in the list of astonishing political statements made by presidents and/or presidential contenders. If we jinxed this by making the analogy, and by using the very words “on the table” that Trump used,  believe us, we’re sorry.

Stop saying “slaves”, “Union”, and “Compromise of 1850”—they’re all inaccurate

We were delighted to find this article on the History News Network: “There are words scholars should no longer use to describe slavery and the Civil War”, by Michael Todd Landis, an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University. You need to go read it yourself, and not just because it affirms our decision here at the HP to refuse to use the word “slave” (see Why I don’t talk about black slaves in America). It’s important because we all know that terminology is the best weapon in any fight. Are people who oppose abortion anti-choice or pro-life? The first is negative, the second positive. Establishing the labels “right to life” and “pro-life” was the smartest thing anti-abortion advocates ever did, because those subjective labels skewed the public perception of what was being debated and what was at stake.

Labels created today go down in history and do the same thing: they shape how we think about past events. Let’s let Dr. Landis take over from here:

…We no longer call the Civil War “The War Between the States,” nor do we refer to women’s rights activists as “suffragettes,” nor do we call African-Americans “Negroes.” Language has changed before, and I propose that it should change again.

Legal historian Paul Finkelman (Albany Law) has made a compelling case against the label “compromise” to describe the legislative packages that avoided disunion in the antebellum era. …Instead of the “Compromise of 1850,” which implies that both North and South gave and received equally in the bargains over slavery, the legislation should be called the “Appeasement of 1850.” Appeasement more accurately describes the uneven nature of the agreement. In 1849 and 1850, white Southerners in Congress made demands and issued threats concerning the spread and protection of slavery, and, as in 1820 and 1833, Northerners acquiesced: the slave states obtained almost everything they demanded, including an obnoxious Fugitive Slave Law, enlarged Texas border, payment of Texas debts, potential spread of slavery into new western territories, the protection of the slave trade in Washington, DC, and the renunciation of congressional authority over slavery. The free states, in turn, received almost nothing (California was permitted to enter as a free state, but residents had already voted against slavery). Hardly a compromise!

Likewise, scholar Edward Baptist (Cornell) has provided new terms with which to speak about slavery. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books), he rejects “plantations” (a term pregnant with false memory and romantic myths) in favor of “labor camps”; instead of “slave-owners” (which seems to legitimate and rationalize the ownership of human beings), he uses “enslavers.” Small changes with big implications. These far more accurate and appropriate terms serve his argument well, as he re-examines the role of unfree labor in the rise of the United States as an economic powerhouse and its place in the global economy. In order to tear down old myths, he eschews the old language.

This excerpt reveals how powerful language that has been handed down for hundreds of years can be. Landis also advocates dropping “the Union” because this upholds the Confederate claim that the United States ceased to exist during the Civil War.

There are many words and phrases that were carefully crafted to shape perception that we use unthinkingly today: reservation, the opening of the West, Japanese internment camps, inner city, Gilded Age, carpetbagger, housing projects, robber baron, etc. Some are euphemisms (reservation, opening), some have become joke terms that imply that the people or issue in question a) weren’t that bad and b) don’t matter anymore because they have forever disappeared from our society when they haven’t (Gilded Age, robber baron). Some are vicious insults created by racists frantic at the notion that someone might help black people (carpetbagger). Others originally meant “poor, dangerous black people” and now are utterly meaningless (inner city, housing project). And don’t get us started on the meaningless parasite that “community” has become.

If you read the HP, you know we’re all about truth defeating myth, so we welcome the movement to speak accurately and honestly and fearlessly about our history, and we urge you to make your own changes and take back your history and your present-day reality.

Pro-Confederate is anti-American

No need to do much more than to point you to James Loewen’s frank article: Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy?

But we will go ahead and also point you to our own posts on this topic: Amazing Fact: The Civil War was fought over slavery, What made the north and south different before the Civil War?, and Slavery leads to secession, secession leads to war.

The Confederate States of America were founded with the sole purpose of perpetuating black slavery. There is nothing heroic in that. The men who created the Confederacy did not care about states’ rights—they had repeatedly demanded that states’ rights be trampled by forcing northern states that had abolished slavery to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, by going into territories and voting that they enter the Union as slave states even though they were not residents of that territory, by terrorizing residents who wanted to vote anti-slavery, and by taking enslaved people into free states and forcing the free state residents to endure that slavery.

Soldiers of the Confederacy were not heroes. The old argument that most of them were poor and were not slaveholders is meaningless: they fought to protect their land and their governments, which meant protecting the slave system and the slave aristocracy that governed their land. If they won the war, those poor, non-slaveholding soldiers would have allowed slavery to keep going. They knew that. You can’t cherry-pick motives and focus on the heartwarming “they fought to keep their families safe” motive and ignore the chilling “the soldiers didn’t care if black Americans were enslaved as long as they kept their land” motive.

Secession was not allowed in the Constitution. There is no place in it that makes secession legal. So founding the Confederacy was the most anti-American action in our history.

It’s high time we became as tough on Confederacy worship as the Confederates were on America, democracy, and states’ rights.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Lincoln (on Real Time)

The HP was delighted to hear basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skillfully counter Bill Maher’s leading negative question about President Lincoln on Maher’s show Real Time last week.

The two were having a discussion about Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who had just been heavily censured by the NBA commissioner for his racist screed on the phone a week or two earlier. They ventured into many different issues of racism in America society and history,  including the question of, as Maher put it, whether to cut the Founders slack for their slaveholding because they were “of their era”—i.e., they grew up with slavery and didn’t know any better. Kareem said no, no slack is allowable, because there was never a time when people did not know that racially based slavery was a tool for destroying the enslaved race (our paraphrasing). Kareem mentioned Alexander Hamilton’s abolitionist views, and Bill Maher proffered Ben Franklin as well, but then fell into the usual trap about Lincoln: that he was an unrepentant racist and proslavery president with an unjust reputation for ending black slavery in the U.S.:

Maher: But you know Lincoln had some harsh words about the black people…

Kareem: Yes he did, but you have to say that Lincoln evolved. In 1858 he had some harsh things to say, [but] by the time the middle of the war had come around he realized what needed to be done, so you have to give him his credit for evolving quickly and understanding what really was at stake.

Kareem must be reading the HP! For this is the point we make in the first post of our series on Lincoln, Slavery, and Racism. Everyone is of their time in that they imbibe certain attitudes, beliefs, and social/political systems as children, but when they grow up, they inevitably re-evaluate those attitudes, beliefs, and systems. Most people decide to uphold them, for various reasons (tradition, the desire to avoid trouble, real support, no new ideas to offer). But some, like Lincoln, decide to reject them. They decide to be better than their society, and to forge a new attitude, belief, or system to bring more justice to the world.

We appreciate Kareem’s easy yet firm rebuff of the anti-Lincoln myth, and hope it does a lot of Americans and others a lot of good.

(P.S.: The tags for this post group together what are surely the strangest bedfellows in the world: “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Maher, Abraham Lincoln, Donald Sterling”.)

“The little speeches of President Lincoln”: why the Harrisburg press hated the Gettysburg Address

Welcome to the follow-up on our post on the retraction made by the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, PA, of its 1863 editorial blasting the Gettysburg Address. In it we will look at the entire editorial of Tuesday, November 24, 1863 that the modern paper has retracted, and which is famous for its panning of the Gettysburg Address as “silly remarks”.

It’s odd that no one—including ourselves, when we first included the paper’s remarks in our post on the Address—took a look at the full editorial. It’s not just another example of people expecting Lincoln to speak longer than he did. The Harrisburg Patriot and Union had a much bigger chip on its shoulder. Let’s read through it:

“A Voice from the Dead

We have read the oration of Mr. Everett. We have read the little speeches of President Lincoln, as reported for and published in his party press, and we have read the remarks of the Hon. Secretary of State, Wm. H. Seward, all delivered on the occasion of dedicating the National Cemetery, a plot of ground set apart for the burial of the dead who fell at Gettysburg in the memorable strife which occurred there between the forces of the Federal Government and the troops of the Confederacy of seceded States.”

—…”published in his party press”? Immediately you see two red flags that tell you the paper is anti-Lincoln. (1) they did not send a reporter to the ceremony to hear the speeches live, most likely (2) to avoid seeming to be part of the “party press”. The Harrisburg Patriot and Union was in fact staunchly Democratic, opposed to Lincoln and his “unnecessary” war to end slavery.

“To say of Mr. Everett’s oration that it rose to the height which the occasion demanded, or to say of the President’s remarks that they fell below our expectations, would be alike false. Neither the orator nor the jester surprised or deceived us. Whatever may be Mr. Everett’s failings he does not lack sense – whatever may be the President’s virtues, he does not possess sense. Mr. Everett failed as an orator, because the occasion was a mockery, and he knew it, and the President succeeded, because he acted naturally, without sense and without constraint, in a panorama which was gotten up more for his benefit and the benefit of his party than for the glory of the nation and the honor of the dead.”

—Yes, the writers are Democrats. President Lincoln is a “jester” without sense, and the occasion of burying the dead at Gettysburg, or, really, the occasion of paying tribute to them, is a mockery. The whole dedication of the burying ground was just a PR stunt for Lincoln.

“We can readily conceive that the thousands who went there went as mourners, to view the burial place of their dead, to consecrate, so far as human agency could, the ground in which the slain heroes of the nation, standing in relationship to them of fathers, husbands, brothers, or connected by even remoter ties of marriage or consanguinity, were to be interred. To them the occasion was solemn; with them the motive was honest, earnest and honorable. But how was it with the chief actors in the pageant, who had no dead buried, or to be buried there; from none of whose loins had sprung a solitary hero, living or dead, of this war which was begotten of their fanaticism and has been ruled by their whims?

They stood there, upon that ground, not with hearts stricken with grief or elated by ideas of true glory, but coldly calculating the political advantages which might be derived from the solemn ceremonies of the dedication.”

–It’s odd that the editorial here mimics the language of the Address so clearly in its first sentence up to “heroes of the nation”. Was it unconscious, or is it more mockery by the editorialists? Here they say the bereaved who gathered at Gettysburg because they lost loved ones were honorable, because their motive was honest, But the “chief actors in the pageant”—Lincoln and Everett—were hypocritical in their fake mourning because a) they had not lost anyone in the war, and b) the war itself is unjust, “begotten of their fanaticism and ruled by their whims”. Fanaticism over what, you might ask? They’re coming to that.

“We will not include in this category of heartless men the orator of the day; but evidently he was paralyzed by the knowledge that he was surrounded by unfeeling, mercenary men, ready to sacrifice their country and the liberties of their countrymen for the base purpose of retaining power and accumulating wealth. His oration was therefore cold, insipid, unworthy the occasion and the man.”

—This passage refers to Everett, former Senator from Massachusetts, who is basically good somehow (he was anti-slavery, which should not have appealed to Democrats at the time) but trapped in a lie—trying to dignify a war orchestrated by Lincoln and his party “for the base purpose of retaining power and accumulating wealth.”

“We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.

But the Secretary of State is a man of note. He it was who first fulminated the doctrine of the irrepressible conflict; and on the battle field and burial ground of Gettysburg he did not hesitate to re-open the bleeding wound, and proclaim anew the fearful doctrine that we are fighting all these bloody battles, which have drenched our land in gore, to upset the Constitution, emancipate the negro and bind the white man in the chains of despotism.”

—The first paragraph is the one everyone reads and quotes. But it is the second that really twists the knife. Did Everett somehow really say that the U.S. was fighting the war “to upset the Constitution”? Yes—because he said the U.S. was fighting to emancipate enslaved black Americans, which could only be done by enslaving white men “in the chains of despotism.” This was the standard proslavery argument: that freeing enslaved black Americans meant taking away white people’s right to rule. The Constitution did not uphold slavery in 1863; neither did it reject it. Slavery is the dark matter of the document, making sense of other statements about rights to property and voter representation. But the paper, like all proslavery Democrats, chose to say that ending slavery was unconstitutional.

“On that ground which should have been sacred from the pollution of politics, even the highest magnate in the land, next to the President himself, did not hesitate to proclaim the political policy and fixed purpose of the administration; a policy which if adhered to will require more ground than Gettysburg to hold our dead, and which must end in the ruin of the nation. The dead of Gettysburg will speak from their tombs; they will raise their voices against this great wickedness and implore our rulers to discard from their councils the folly which is destroying us, and return to the wise doctrines of the Fathers, to the pleadings of Christianity, to the compromises of the Constitution, which can alone save us. Let our rulers hearken to the dead, if they will not to the living – for from every tomb which covers a dead soldier, if they listen attentively they will hear a solemn sound invoking them to renounce partisanship for patriotism, and to save the country from the misery and desolation which, under their present policy, is inevitable.”

—The editorialists make good on their resolve not to even talk about Lincoln’s Address—they are still hammering on Everett. Astoundingly, the writers say that the dead of Gettysburg—including the Union dead—will cry out from their graves to stop the war and  continue slavery (“the compromises of the Constitution”). To put proslavery words in the  mouths of men who died to end slavery and force the Confederate states back into a free union is beyond contemptible. If anyone desecrated the memory of the dead, it was the editorial writers of the Harrisburg Patriot and Union, not Edward Everett. If anyone was pushing partisanship ahead of patriotism, it was the writers. And if anyone was causing undue misery and desolation, it was the writers of the editorial who defamed the Union dead and pushed for the return of slavery.

We see now why the present day Patriot-News of Harrisburg sticks to the tiny, isolated paragraph about Lincoln, and makes a clearly untrue (or uninformed) excuse for the editorial by saying its writers were “under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time”. No one was drunk, but they were certainly under the influence of partisanship. We still applaud the present-day paper for its retraction, but we wish it weren’t so partial, because that makes it a fillip, an interesting but unimportant “fascinating fact” that is quickly forgotten. If the paper had retracted its treasonous proslavery statements more lasting good would have been done. 

Pennsylvania newspaper apologizes for blasting the Gettysburg Address

The devoted reader of the HP will remember our close-reading of the Gettysburg Address, which ended with this description of some of the reactions of members of the press to President Lincoln’s confusingly short speech:

“People in the audience were surprised. They had expected a longer speech—something more along the lines of the “translation” we’ve just provided, something more didactic that pounded points home over and over, and expressed its patriotism in more familiar, jingoistic language. Some felt insulted, and the press reviews were mixed: The Chicago Times said “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat and dishwattery [sic] remarks of the man who has to be pointed out as the President of the United States.” The local Harrisburg Patriot and Union said “…we pass over the silly remarks of the President: for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”

We had to laugh at these no-thanks responses, and we idly wondered if the authors of these critiques ever came to regret them, given how justly famous the Address became. Well, our question is answered by the news that the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, PA has retracted its criticism (made when the paper was called the Harrisburg Patriot and Union).

The November 14 statement says:

“Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.

“We write today in reconsideration of ‘The Gettysburg Address,’ delivered by then-President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the greatest conflict seen on American soil. Our predecessors, perhaps under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time, called President Lincoln’s words ‘silly remarks,’ deserving ‘a veil of oblivion,’ apparently believing it an indifferent and altogether ordinary message, unremarkable in eloquence and uninspiring in its brevity.

“In the fullness of time, we have come to a different conclusion. No mere utterance, then or now, could do justice to the soaring heights of language Mr. Lincoln reached that day. By today’s words alone, we cannot exalt, we cannot hallow, we cannot venerate this sacred text, for a grateful nation long ago came to view those words with reverence, without guidance from this chagrined member of the mainstream media.

“The world will little note nor long remember our emendation of this institution’s record – but we must do as conscience demands:

“In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.” 

We at the HP think the imitation of the language of the Address, and the parallel brevity of the retraction, are a fitting tribute to the speech the paper once dismissed.

We also think this act is not just symbolic. The willingness, maturity of thought, and courage to reconsider one’s own history are often lacking in this world; worse, there are many who celebrate mistakes of judgment as independent thinking and “maverick” insight. And there are always those who will never admit error, and never apologize for distorting the truth and the historical record.

The men who wrote and edited the 1863 blast against Lincoln were not trying to distort the truth, but they were led by their prejudices to dismiss a powerful speech out of hand. They also had a view of the war that is entirely overlooked, and surprising to us today—more on that next post.

Next: “…this war  was begotten of their fanaticism and has been ruled by their whims”—the Harrisburg Patriot and Union hated far more than just the Gettysburg Address!

TLC’s Who do you think you are; or, where were you in high school history class?

We’ve been watching the TLC series Who do you think you are?, which answers family history questions for different celebrities. Chelsea Handler was able to put the fear that her maternal grandfather had been a Nazi to rest, Chris O’Donnell found out he had ancestors serving in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, Zooey Deschanel learned about her Quaker ancestress’ involvement with the Underground Railroad, etc.

We were alarmed by the big holes in the story of Christina Applegate’s paternal grandmother, where data written on documents shown on screen was ignored to provide a comforting version of her family history. No self-respecting genealogist would have signed off on that episode. But more upsetting to the historian were the O’Donnell and Deschanel segments, where the celebrities in question displayed an astounding ignorance about some very basic moments in U.S. history.

Chris O’Donnell’s pride in his ancestor serving in the Mexican War was misplaced, as it was a war of naked aggression and conquest against Mexico, but we will let that go (see our series of posts on that war here). A quote from The LIberator from February 1847 on that war will do for now: “…the present war is offensive in essence. As such it loses all shadow of title to respect. The acts of courage and hardihood which in a just cause might excite regard, when performed in an unrighteous cause, have no quality that can command them to virtuous sympathy.”

Moving on to O’Donnell’s ancestor in the War of 1812, we learn with him that said ancestor was present at the bombardment of Fort McHenry outside Baltimore (see our article detailing the battle there). As the public historian at the fort tells O’Donnell that his ancestor manned the cannon that quickly became useless against the British ships and their long-range missiles, and how night fell as the ships continued their bombardment of the fort, O’Donnell remains completely unaware that this is the battle commemorated in the National Anthem—that this was the “perilous fight” that had “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air”. The historian finally has to tell him this is the battle, and O’Donnell seems completely astounded.

There were those in our viewing group who believe he was told to feign ignorance so the television audience could learn it along with him, but we remain doubtful of this.

Moving on to Zooey Deschanel, we will also let pass the idea promoted by the show that Quakers were always abolitionists, and the first religious denomination to reject slavery in America—the Baptists were early abolitionists in the 17th century, though Virginia Baptists would do a 180 after the Revolutionary War. Methodists were also abolitionists, and many southern Quakers were slaveholders. It was not until 1776 that the Quakers banned slaveholding within their denomination.

The real problem here is that Deschanel had either never heard of the Fugitive Slave Law, or is a great actress who made it seem like she had never heard of the Fugitive Slave Law. As most of us know, the 1854 Fugitive Slave Law was only the boldest move of proslavery forces to not only steal liberty from enslaved people who escaped to freedom, but to enslave free black Americans, and encroach on white liberty itself. Whites were forced by the law to help slavecatchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. The Fugitive Slave Law attacked the liberties of black Americans and white Northerners, and was the most galling example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government to antislavery whites and even the professedly neutral.

We learn about the FSL when we learn about the Compromise of 1850, of which it was a part. To pacify proslavery forces who were angry that California was allowed to enter the Union as a free state, the Compromise allowed slaveholding and trading to continue in Washington, DC, and upheld the “rights” of slaveholders to their “property”—enslaved people—throughout the Union. This meant that if you lived in, say, Wisconsin, and had voted to pass personal liberty laws in your state outlawing slavery, those laws were overturned. Slavery would be upheld in “free” states, because slaveholders were allowed to enter free states and reclaim escaped people, and even pick up black citizens who had never been enslaved—the word of the slaveholder was accepted over the word of the black citizen and even the white citizens of the state. Whites were forced to help slavecatchers or be fined and jailed. Thus, slavery was basically enforced in every state of the Union, and outrage over this was expressed by many Northerners who had not previously taken a stand on slavery.

So the Fugitive Slave Law is famous and important, and it’s very hard to believe that someone would not know anything about it today, would not have even a vague recollection of learning about it, or just recognize the name. This reminds us that Kelly Clarkson had no idea what Andersonville prison was during the Civil War, and was shocked to learn about the brutal conditions there.

These are not obscure little corners of U.S. history; the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the Fugitive Slave Law, and Andersonville are major turning points in our national history. Only two men were executed for their role in the Civil War, and one of them was Henry Wirz, commandant at Andersonville. We sing about Fort McHenry before every sports event. We can only hope that viewers of Who do you think you are? have a better understanding of their history than its subjects do.

Close-reading the Gettysburg Address

It shouldn’t be necessary to parse such a short text to fully comprehend its meaning; it shouldn’t even really be possible. But the Gettysburg Address, delivered on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, by President Abraham Lincoln, packs a great deal of meaning into a very few words, and the fact that some of its phrases have become iconic, used liberally in everyday society, has actually blurred some of their meaning.  Let’s go through it, attempting to be as concise as the author was, but knowing we will fail [this article is many times longer than his speech]:

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

—Yes, the first five words may be the most well-known; there’s probably no American alive today over the age of 5 who hasn’t heard those words, usually used in jest, or presented as impenetrable. It’s the one archaic rhetorical flourish Lincoln included. “Score” means 20, so the number is four times 20 plus seven, or 87 years ago. In 1863, that was, of course, 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was written and signed.

The important thing about that number and that date is how recent it was; just 87 years ago there had been no United States. Adults in the crowd at Gettysburg had heard their parents’ stories about colonial days, and the Revolutionary War. Their grandparents might never have known independence. So the nation brought forth so recently, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, possessed all the vulnerability of youth. It was not a powerful entity that could be counted on to withstand a civil war, particularly one that amassed casualties such as those at the Battle of Gettysburg.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”

—The point is reiterated: can the U.S. survive the war? But Lincoln’s real question is about the precarious state of world affairs that the U.S. Civil War represented. The U.S. was founded as a nation dedicated to liberty for all. The Confederacy that fought the war was fighting for slavery, the opposite of liberty, and there seemed to be a real possibility that other nations, primarily England and France, would join the war on the Confederate side. If the Union lost the war, the only attempt at real democracy, personal liberty, and equality on Earth would be no more, and there might never be another. The U.S. had the best chance at making it work; if the U.S. failed, who could succeed? The worst fears of the Founders and of all patriotic Americans were realized in this war, and in losses like the ones at Gettysburg.

“We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

—This was a recent battlefield. The bodies were cleared away, but the landscape was devastated by three days of cannon and gunfire. This drawing purports to show the start of the battle:

Gettysburg

The soldiers are in a field surrounded by trees. Here is a photo from the day of the Address:

Yes, it’s now November instead of July, but the ground being completely stripped of vegetation is not the result of the onset of winter, and the lack of a single tree speaks volumes about the ferocity of the battle. There is a tree stump taken from the battlefield at Spotsylvania on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC that is all that’s left of a tall tree that was shot away to nothing by rifle fire during the fighting.

Gettysburg’s trees must have suffered the same fate. Under that stripped-bare ground many men from both sides were already hastily buried. There was a strong need on the part of the families of the dead, who could not travel to Pennsylvania to find and retrieve their bodies, to find some way to set this battlefield aside as sacred ground.

“But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

—You can make the battlefield into a cemetery, but that action is not what makes the field sacred. It is the unselfish sacrifice of the dead, who fought to keep democracy and liberty alive in the world, that makes the land sacred—not just the land of the cemetery, but all lands of the United States. They are buried now in the cemetery, but they will live forever in the memory of the nation.

“It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

—The “unfinished work” the soldiers were doing is the work of keeping democracy alive as well as the nation.

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—”

—“The last full measure of devotion” must be one of the most powerful ways to say “they gave their lives” ever conceived of. The men buried here did not just die for a cause, they died because their faith in liberty was so devout that they put the life of their nation above their own lives.

“—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

—We tend to think that the last phrase, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, must have appeared somewhere before this, in the Constitution or some Revolutionary War speech. It’s surprising that it had not. This was Lincoln’s own description, and it is simple and powerful. This final statement in the Address is far from a gentle benediction. It is a steely resolve to continue the fighting, continue the bloodshed, allow more men to die, and to dedicate more cemeteries to the war dead in order to guarantee that the United States will not perish and take freedom along with it. We “highly resolve” to continue the work of this war, knowing that it will not be easy and success is not assured.

Delivering this final line, the president sat down. People in the audience were surprised. They had expected a longer speech—something more along the lines of the “translation” we’ve just provided, something more didactic that pounded points home over and over, and expressed its patriotism in more familiar, jingoistic language. Some felt insulted, and the press reviews were mixed: The Chicago Times said “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat and dishwattery [sic] remarks of the man who has to be pointed out as the President of the United States.” The local Harrisburg Patriot and Union said “…we pass over the silly remarks of the President: for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”

Part of the problem was that the elder statesman of Massachusetts politics, Edward Everett, had spoken for over two hours in a much more conventional way before Lincoln. Technically, Everett was right to speak longer, as he was on the program to deliver an “oration” while the president was listed as giving only “dedicatory remarks”. It was an age of very long speeches, and the longer the speech, the more seriously the speaker was taken.

But there were many people who realized they had just heard an historic speech. We’ll close with the opinion of the reporter from the Providence Daily Journal who felt the same way we do today after he heard Lincoln speak: “We know not where to look for a more admirable speech than the brief one which the President made…. It is often said that the hardest thing in the world is to make a five minute speech. But could the most elaborate and splendid oration be more beautiful, more touching, more inspiring than those few words of the President?”