This past weekend, National Public Radio produced a fascinating and entertaining story about the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, which preserved African-American spirituals from the slavery era and performed them for international audiences in the early 1900s. You can link to the article on the NPR website here or go directly to the audio story here.
February 2011 Archives
In an NPR interview Chuck McMichael, a high school teacher from Louisiana and past president of the SCV, said that slavery was not a feature of the Davis inaugural re-enactment because it was not mentioned in the original inaugural. McMichael is technically correct, for Davis did not mention the institution by name, instead referring to it obliquely as a cause of "sectional tensions" and the driving force behind creating a more "homogeneous" new nation. When courting the support of European governments, it simply would not do to admit that the new Confederacy was conceived and designed to protect slavery. Alexander Stephens apparently still had not received that memo when he delivered his notorious "Cornerstone" speech a mere month after the inaugural. Stephens, the irascible Vice President of the Confederacy, bluntly stated that the agitation over slavery "was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution." As for the new Confederate government, he contended, "its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition." The forthright Stephens, however, is not a favorite Confederate founding father among SCV members. Indeed, another of those members interviewed by NPR parroted the organization's familiar and tedious mantra that "the war was fought over states' rights. Slavery was an issue, but it was not the main issue."
Attitudes like this have made me wonder what exactly inspires people to believe this nonsense, despite mountains of evidence that show that the primary cause of secession was the growing fear that the Union no longer was safe for the continuation and expansion of slavery (please don't waste your time invoking the tariff issue, either. For decades, the tariff was alternately increased and lowered to appease the sometimes conflicting desires of southerners, northerners, and westerners alike). Certainly, nobody wants to believe that their ancestors fought to maintain a brutal and coercive slave system, no matter how common slavery was in the nineteenth century world. I think the motivation to deny the central role of slavery in the conflict goes even deeper, however. I think those who reject slavery's role are striking back against an imagined narrative in which their ancestors are demonized by northerners who cast their own ancestors in the heroic role of having restored the Union and destroyed the noxious institution.
As a historian, one of my most important tasks is to get past these rigid and simplistic conceptions of North and South in this era and explain to my students that slavery was a national, not a sectional institution. While many northerners found the institution distasteful at the very least, most were unwilling to forego the economic benefits and social privileges it afforded them. This is amply illustrated in the North's largest commercial centers, Philadelphia and New York City, where considerable sympathy for the seceded states prevailed in early 1861. Indeed, in January 1861 New York City's Democratic Mayor Fernando Wood even counseled the city government to consider secession from the state of New York and the Union. In part, this was a response to recent laws passed by the state legislature efforts that shortened the mayor's term and created an independent metropolitan police department answerable to a police board appointed by the legislature, rather than the mayor's office. These laws were early attempts at civil reform, aimed at stanching the considerable corruption in the city government and graft among the police force. Wood's refusal to disband the municipal police and accede to the authority of the new metropolitan police force would lead to riots between the rival forces in 1857 and the colorful mayor's brief arrest.
Beyond this conflict between the local government and the state legislature, however, New York City's commercial and political ties with the seceded states inspired Wood's secession threat. New York banks funded the domestic slave trade and southern cotton production, and Wood solemnly noted, "with our aggrieved brethren of the Slave States, we have friendly relations and a common sympathy. We have not participated in the warfare upon their constitutional rights or their domestic institutions." In fact, Wood promoted his secession scheme specifically as a way of maintaining relations with the seceded states, asserting that New York's independence "would have the whole and united support of the Southern States." In this sense, New York City's proposed independence really was a mechanism by which Wood hoped the city would maintain some form of Union with the seceded slave states. Predicting that the Union would dissolve into various, small republics, the scheming mayor imagined that an independent New York City would maintain close relations with these new governments and grow rich off of the commercial and financial services it would provide them to market their goods to the world.
Clearly, Wood and many New Yorkers were perfectly happy to live in a Union where slavery persisted. They were sincerely appreciative of the profits slave-based agriculture contributed to the city's commercial economy. In Wood's case he feared that Gotham could not thrive without it. True, northerners divided sharply on slavery's value as a labor system. Some believed it was inefficient and backward, suppressing the individual motivation of the laborer and retarding innovation. Others though, acknowledged that slavery itself and slave production were extremely valuable and produced the lion's share of national exports and federal revenues. Despite years of antislavery agitation in the North and secession in the Deep South, in 1861 there remained many northerners like Wood who had no interest in destroying the slave system.
It is unfortunate that, 150 years later, it still needs to be said that slavery was a national, not a sectional problem. It is equally unfortunate that there are still those who believe that they cannot honor their ancestors and commemorate their actions unless they deny the central role that slavery played in those actions. Citizens of the free states were heavily implicated in the institution just as citizens of the slave states were. Citizens of both sections benefited significantly from the institution, and citizens in both sections also questioned the wisdom of its continued existence and growth. Rather than deny that slavery was the primary cause of secession and war, we need to highlight its preeminent role in this conflict and remember that slavery was built and maintained by northerners and southerners alike, and that it was an explosive political problem created by North and South in tandem.
@ Civil War Memory, Cenantua's Blog, Dead Confederates.
In an earlier blog post, Kristen Campbell, another senior scholar in the throws of authoring a thesis, spoke about the process of dissecting research tools and about the amazing resource the Richards Civil War Center has been to her during the thesis process. I would have to say that I agree with her completely and the purpose of this post is to talk about the "next step," if you will, in writing a thesis. Once the research is identified and has been initially worked through with an eye to your purpose, the writing needs to start.
I know, writing a thesis, it sounds intimidating, and truthfully, it can be. The trick is, in my opinion, to get the momentum going and to keep it going. Once you have an idea about your research questions, you can apply what you are reading in your research to what you are writing. This type of approach allows you to really blend your ideas and your questions with the existing work on the topic you chose. In other words, as you read through your research answer your own questions and write down your findings. And just keep writing. Trust me, it is easier to edit and work with words on a page than to write from scratch.
This is where different writing tactics come into play. Some writers, myself included, feel it is more effective to write more rather than less, perhaps the entire work or significant parts of it, and then go back and edit, reorganize, and fix. Other writers feel it better to spend more time editing while writing and have less to go back and fix after the initial writing process. Only the individual can decide which process is better for him or her. That decision is another big part of the thesis process, and when it's made, the writing process can go much more smoothly.
I my case, I was able to get a lot of the writing done over the summer between my junior and senior years. Without a lot of contact with my adviser over the summer months, I was forced to write without a ton of guidance and go back to it later. It worked for me and I was able to get a good base done and was left with the editing process. Like I said, however, this process is not how everyone writes.
Since December, it has seemed that nearly every day brings us the 150th anniversary of some event related to secession and the coming of the Civil War. Today, February 18, is no different. It marks the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederate States of America. Davis' inaugural address, brief, grave, and slightly self-effacing, offers some insight into his concept of the new national project that the Confederacy had embarked upon. Obviously, this is one of the key documents in which we see the Confederacy turning from secession to fashioning a new government and creating a new country. In light of this, it is somewhat surprising that Davis had little to say about nationalism or nationhood on the birth of his newly adopted country. This contrasts sharply with the state of European political theory in that same period. Since 1848, Europeans had been experiencing periodic nationalist revolutions aimed at overthrowing old regimes. This spate of revolutions also inspired a florid debate over the concept of the nation and the meaning and purposes of nationalism. Despite the abundance of this intellectual fodder just across the Atlantic, the new Confederate president seemed to take little heed of it.
Davis' inaugural address instead emphasized how little things had changed in the new Confederacy. Member states retained their sovereignty and their existing governments, and the people's rights and the laws remained essentially unchanged. All that the seceding states had done, Davis suggested, was effect a change in "the agency through which they have communicated with foreign powers." This was, arguably, the most demure description of a political revolution ever uttered.
Perhaps we should not expect America's leading politicians and intellectuals to have waxed philosophical on the concept of nation in this period. There had not been a great tradition of such thought in the country's young history. Certainly, Americans were united in a kind of civic religion that venerated select Founding Fathers, and they shared a common land, and relatively uniform republican institutions that defined both their state and federal governments (with the exception of slavery, of course). Yet, a sense of nationhood still seemed lacking in the Union. During the crisis that led to the 1850 Compromise, Senator John C. Calhoun, haggard and dying, wrote vaguely of the "cords which bind these States together in one common Union," cords which he believed could not be sundered in one fell swoop. Yet, even this phrase did not plumb the depths of common national heritage. Tellingly, Calhoun referred to those institutions which seemed to tie disparate peoples and states together, not a shared sense of commonality which united the people.
Secession and the subsequent birth of the Confederacy then offered the perfect opportunity not just to excoriate the wrongs of the old Union, but to expound on the purity of the CSA's political and national mission. Davis, however, allowed the opportunity to pass. Expounding on the sound basis of union among the Confederate states, he felt it "necessary that there should be so much homogeneity as that the welfare of every portion be the aim of the whole. When this homogeneity does not exist, antagonisms are engendered which must and should result in separation." In other words, not only must Confederate states maintain the institution of slavery, but should ensure its growth to maintain that harmony of interest among all member states. Not even rising to the eloquence of Calhoun's invocation of the Union's "cords," Davis' meager reference to the necessity of "homogeneity," leaves us wanting.
Compare this with the self-consciously nationalist movements that convulsed Europe periodically from 1848 through the 1860s. Guiseppe Mazzini, one of the leaders of Italian unification, was acutely aware that his mission was not one of simply creating a political union of disparate kingdoms and provinces. In his Essay on the Duties of Man, Mazzini intoned, "the country is not an aggregation, but an association," an association that both inspired and required each citizen to "strive to incarnate his country in himself" and to "regard himself as a guarantor, responsible for his fellow countrymen." Mazzini further contended that there is "no true country without a uniform right. There is no true country where the uniformity of that right is violated by the existence of caste privilege and inequality." Equal rights and equal opportunity among citizens was vital for the growth of national unity, he insisted.
Therein, of course, lay the rub. Confederate leaders like Davis, despite their invocation of the Union's Revolutionary ideals and pledges of respect for individual rights, found the concept of equal rights rather tricky. The Confederacy's member states had allowed their citizens to vote for delegates to secession conventions, but did not allow popular voting on secession itself. Secession was a revolution of elites, even if it was a revolution that most southern citizens came to support. Indeed, the Confederate states did not merely represent a slave society, but resembled a caste society with slaveholders ensconced at the top, enjoying enormous political power (thanks to 3/5 clauses in state constitutions that gave slaveholding districts disproportionate power in southern state legislatures), social prestige, and economic clout. Little wonder then that on his inauguration, Jeff Davis and most Confederate leaders seemed more animated by the idea of independence than by the concept of nationhood.
Mississippi governor Haley Barbour has refused to condemn the SCV and other so-called heritage groups' efforts to put Nathan Bedford Forrest's ugly mug on a commemorative Mississippi license plate. No need for extended commentary on this subject; this is merely a follow-up on my previous post about the Mississippi controversy. Click here for the Washington Post's coverage of this story.
This Saturday past, Abraham Lincoln turned two-hundred-and-two. But, despite his advanced age, Americans refuse to allow his memory to retire in peace. Instead, we continue to trot out his legacy in support of everything from contemporary political agendas to vampire-slayer novels.
Among the latest to do so is Gettysburg College historian Allen Guelzo, who in a recent article for The National Review pointed to Honest Abe's economic views as the very antithesis of those held by the "progressive Left today." Not only was Lincoln an all-out, no-holds-barred, enthusiastic supporter of a capitalist market economy - a point made by Guelzo's former Gettysburg colleague Gabor Borritt in Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (1978) - but he was also a fierce opponent of government meddling in economic matters. "Lincoln's rule," writes Guelzo, "was neither 'big government' nor 'no government' but minimal government, with that minimum confined almost entirely to the task of removing obstacles to self-improvement and the development of ambition."
This is unexpected, to say the least. Prior to reading the Guelzo piece, I would not have thought that providing federal funding for a transcontinental railroad was merely an effort to remove 'obstacles to self-improvement.' Nor would I have thought that increasing tariff duties for the purpose of protecting domestic industry - and in the process, passing the tariff's costs onto consumers in the form of higher prices for goods - was a prime example of free market liberalism. But since Lincoln supported both of these policies and many others like them, they must, according to Guelzo, be emblematic of the president's hands-off, minimalist economic policies, right?
Perhaps not. From the construction of a transcontinental railroad to raising the tariff (scroll down); from the land-grant colleges act, which doled out immensely valuable government lands for public agricultural schools, to Lincoln's support for federal financial institutions, Honest Abe demonstrated his heartfelt belief that government should not only clear obstacles to private enterprise, but should promote market growth and provide capitalist enterprise with substantial governmental assistance. It may not look like 'big government' to our eyes, but Lincoln's Whig/Republican ideology was closer to the mark than that of his Democratic opponents. This is not to suggest, of course, that Democrats were wholly opposed to activist federal initiatives. From Polk's illegal war with Mexico to the strong-arm Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Democrats were often willing to swallow their principles if it suited their economic or political interests. But from Andrew Jackson to Andrew Johnson and beyond, Democrats, unlike their Whig or Republican opponents, continued to profess discomfort with an activist federal government and with a broad interpretation of the nation's founding document.
Whereas most Democrats, in principle at least, insisted on a literal-minded reading of the Constitution, Whigs and Republicans claimed that the Constitution's 'necessary-and-proper' clause, as well as the gross necessity of economic growth in the underdeveloped Early Republic, justified federal promotion of everything from banks to infrastructure to education. A firm believer in this ideology, Lincoln saw no tension between government activism and market growth. It is true: Lincoln was not a regulator (although Southern slaveholders might have disagreed with that statement). But neither was he a free trader. And while he likely would have objected (in principle, at least) to government regulation of everything from workers' wages to industrial pollution to carbon emissions, he very well might have supported (again, in principle) government funding for infrastructure, green technology, and a variety of other Democratic programs in the works today. Thus, Lincoln's relationship to the ideology of the modern-day 'progressive Left' is a great deal more complicated than Guelzo lets on.
But, having typed that last sentence, I'm struck by the futility of this project. History is instructive, of course - all historians believe this. But why on earth are we looking to a nineteenth-century political figure for clues about how we might negotiate the contemporary political maelstrom? Taking one's political cues from Abraham Lincoln - or Karl Marx, or Adam Smith, or anyone else who died before the invention of the airplane - should make even the most antiquarian among us more than a little uncomfortable.
Lincoln's world was not our own. Women wore hoop skirts, and men wore top hats. Mass literacy was a recent phenomenon, and most people were still farmers. Americans reveled in melodramatic prose, and no one had yet dreamed of the Jersey Shore. But most importantly, the era of the industrial colossus was still in the future. At the time of the Civil War, the average American manufactory employed an average of 5-7 people. Upward mobility - the 'right to rise' - was more readily attainable, if only because 'underlings' had less economic, social, and administrative distance to cover. Industrial capitalism was still, in the US at least, a largely untested phenomenon. How Lincoln might have responded to the monopolistic corporations that cropped up in the later nineteenth century and that often imperiled his treasured principles of autonomy and upward mobility, we may never know. But we must at least acknowledge that the economic environment to which Lincoln addressed his politics was radically different from that of the present. To ignore this difference and attempt to extract some timeless lessons from Lincoln's views is to engage in the kind of ahistorical thinking that should make all historians wary.
But that's not the point. The point is this: Abraham Lincoln did not have to choose between his enthusiasm for capitalism and his belief in a bigger, more active federal government. To suggest, as Guelzo does, that Old Abe anticipated the ideology of the modern Right is only part of the truth. Lincoln also anticipated large parts of the ideology of the 'progressive Left' to which Dr. Guelzo objects. George Washington may be the father of our country; but Lincoln is the father of our politics - the Janus-faced forebear to whom both Republicans and Democrats owe a substantial portion of their political thought. Were that not the case, why - and how - could pundits on the Left and Right fight so long, and so hard, about who has the better claim to Lincoln's legacy? For better or for worse, Honest Abe is a shared institution.
This should not be, and it cannot be. We cannot allow the state of Mississippi to put its stamp of approval on the memory of so odious, so miserable, so unforgivable a figure as Nathan Bedford Forrest.
As many of you may already know, Mississippi is considering a measure to put Forrest's ugly mug on a commemorative Civil War sesquicentennial license plate. This, of course, is the same Forrest who earned his considerable pre-war fortune as one of the South's most successful slave traders, who stood by as his soldiers massacred surrendered African-American troops at Fort Pillow, and who topped off his illustrious personal history as a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
I don't care if Shelby Foote called him one of the authentic geniuses of the Civil War. I don't care if he's slowly taking Jefferson Davis's place among the 'Holy Trinity' of the Confederacy. I don't care if he was a 'self-made man' from the hardscrabble frontier. Forrest's memory is, or should be offensive, not only to African-Americans, but to all Americans. No amount of military 'genius,' no feat or maneuver on a battlefield near or far will make Forrest anything more than what he was: a grim manifestation of America's most hateful legacy and the author of countless sorrows.
The only problem with Miller's analysis is that he's comparing the wrong documents. The preamble he cites comes from the permanent Confederate constitution, adopted on 11 March 1861, not the provisional constitution that was adopted by a Confederate convention 150 years ago yesterday. The provisional constitution had been written hastily with the full knowledge of its authors that it subsequently would be superseded by a permanent constitution. The purpose of this initial instrument was to create a political and legal framework for the creation of the newborn Confederacy and legitimize its authority. The provisional constitution specifically converted the Confederate convention that conceived it into a national legislature, enabling it to pass necessary laws to conduct the business of the new nation while it simultaneously crafted a more detailed, permanent constitution to be its true founding document. While both Confederate constitutions were nearly identical, there were some notable and interesting differences between the two documents, however, and those differences revealed that the Confederacy's representatives already were beginning to argue over such issues as the source of sovereignty and the extent of federal powers in the new nation.
In place of "we the people," the preamble of the provisional constitution announced that "we the deputies of the sovereign and independent states" ordained this revolutionary government. This phrasing hearkened back to a concept popularized by John C. Calhoun that sovereignty under the U.S. Constitution had resided with the individual states that were a party to it, not the people as a united body. This concept was at the foundation of the theory of states' rights, particularly the alleged rights to nullify federal laws or secede from the union. Unionists, both North and South, had countered that sovereignty rested in the people, disavowing the power of state governments to abrogate federal law or sunder the union.
The preamble of the subsequent, permanent constitution sought to reconcile these dueling views of sovereignty, declaring that "the people of the Confederate States, each state acting in its sovereign and independent character," were the founders of this new republic. The confused pairing of popular and state sovereignty here reminds us that the Confederate constitutions were not simply a slavish copy of the U.S. Constitution, nor a reaffirmation of a mythical constitutional consensus. Rather, they were the result of intense ideological differences and political conflict and comprise (much like the original Constitution).
In his comparison, Miller takes the Confederacy's defense of slavery as another example of constitutional consensus and focuses instead on the novel ways in which its founding document empowered both the executive and legislative branches to limit each other's power. Yet, just how the Confederacy would protect property rights in slaves still was the subject of considerable debate in February and March of 1861. The provisional document contained only two clauses relating to slavery, one prohibiting importation of slaves from Africa or the slave states of the U.S., and another requiring that fugitive slaves escaping from one state into another be delivered up on the claim of their owners. Leonidas Spratt, editor of the Charleston Mercury, considered the ban on the African slave trade a betrayal of the principles of the secession movement, and he feared that it threatened to leave the glorious revolution of the slave states of the Deep South stillborn. He envisioned the slow decline of slavery in the Confederacy's border states, leading to the inevitable emergence of the same kind of debilitating abolition movement that had so vexed southern secessionists for the last few decades.
To Spratt's chagrin, however, the slave trade prohibition later was retained in the permanent constitution. Still, in an attempt to mollify the editor and his ilk, that document further safeguarded slave property with a clause stipulating that no laws could be passed that would impair "the right of property in negro slaves." The successive Confederate constitutions might very well have found novel ways to improve the checks on both the legislative and executive branches as Mr. Miller contends. More importantly, however, the authors of these seminal documents found it much more difficult to achieve consensus on how to improve federal protections of slavery itself. In that regard, the Confederate constitutions did not merely tweak their U.S. predecessor. Instead they resulted from serious debates over the very nature of republican government in a slaveholding nation.
It's almost impossible to think of the American Civil War without also thinking about facial hair. Many, if not most, of the period's most famous figures sported facial hair of one variety or another. McClellan wore a modest goatee in the French Imperial style. William Tecumseh Sherman indulged in rugged, frontiersy scruff. Grant, Lee, and Lincoln all wore well-trimmed, respectable beards. J.E.B. Stuart, James Longstreet, and Jackson all adopted the look of Old Testament patriarchs. And Ambrose Burnside (below, in his post-war guise), the crowned king of Civil War-era facial hair, grew whiskers so distinctive that those of a similar style have ever since been known as sideburns.
But what does all of this mean? We know that the Civil War-era and the latter decades of the nineteenth century were a high water mark for facial hair -- but why? Why did every US president, with only one exception, between Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Harrison have facial hair of one variety or another? Why did millions of American men begin sprouting facial hair in the 1850s? And why did most of them cut it off by the early decades of the twentieth century?
These questions may strike many of you as silly. But why should we scoff at them? Many men (and a few women) spend a substantial fraction of their lives bent over a sink with a razor in hand. Why should we indulge in this daily ritual had it not some important meaning?
Well I, for one, am inclined to believe that shaving and growing facial hair -- as well as changes in these practices over time -- must have some important, if yet unknown, meaning. In the eyes of the world, a person is many things; but if we had to choose one aspect of appearance that defines a person, that constitutes the essence of their identity, we would likely choose their face. What people do with their faces, therefore -- how they adorn them, cover them, or reveal them -- is of utmost importance in communicating information about who they think they are, and how they want to be seen.
So, what were nineteenth-century Americans saying to the world with their mighty whiskers? A portion of my own research considers what personal appearance (in particular, those aspects of appearance pertaining to male grooming) has to say about social class and gender in the nineteenth century. But I've also come to suspect that facial hair may have had a political meaning during the period. To investigate that question, and with some indispensible technical support from my father, I've begun putting together a database of nineteenth century politicians and their facial hair. So far, the database covers the years 1789 to 1900, and includes the name and party of more than one-thousand US Senators during that period. Most importantly, it also includes a brief description of their facial hair whenever information on their appearance has been available.
After a first, relatively informal round of analysis, I've discovered a few notable trends. Some, like the discovery that American Senators of the pre-Jacksonian era (1789-ca. 1828) were invariably clean-shaved, came as no great surprise. Others, however, were rather provocative. First, I found that during the period of the second party system -- the Whig/Democratic rivalry that persisted between the mid-1830s and mid-1850s -- members of Andrew Jackson's party were decidedly hairier than their Whig opponents. Whereas roughly 24% of Senate Democrats sported facial hair of some kind between 1835 and 1855, a mere 12% of Whigs wore whiskers of any variety. The difference in facial hair growth patterns is even more striking during the third party system (1855 - Present, although my dataset ends in 1900). During that period, a whopping 75% of Republicans wore moustaches, beards, muttonchops, or goatees, while only 61% of Democrats adorned their cheeks with hair. Stated bluntly, Republicans were hairier than Democrats.
It should go without saying that these findings are far from established fact. I wouldn't even feel comfortable quoting them in a humble conference paper. For one thing, my sample size is smaller and more limited than I would like. For another, there are certain methodological issues with the data upon which these findings rest that tend to temper my enthusiasm. Two in particular are problematic. First, Republicans held the overwhelming majority of Senate seats at the height of the beard craze (1860-1877), a fact which may partially account for the high percentage of hirsute Republicans. It's entirely possible that there were just as many hairy Democrats as Republicans during the fifteen-plus years of war and Reconstruction, but because few Democrats held Senate seats during this period, they do not appear in my database. Second, the dates of the photos I've relied upon for information about Senators' facial hair do not necessarily correspond with their tenure of office; thus, a few of the politicians noted in the database as beard-wearers may actually have been clean-shaved when they held their Senate seat. The inverse is also entirely possible.
Caveats aside, these findings suggest a more intimate relationship between appearance and political affiliation than we may have previously expected. Thoughts on this topic are welcome and appreciated!
Shaffer's most recent post examines how fears of post-emancipation violence influenced many Virginians (still shuddering over Nat Turner's rebellion a generation before) to embrace secession, however reluctantly, in 1861. We look forward to reading this blog throughout the Civil War sesquicentennial.
@ Civil War Emancipation, All Other Persons, Blog Divided