Some Independence Day Thoughts

It’s Independence Day.  As we recognize our oldest national holiday, dating back to before the country was even formally founded, no doubt many people are thinking that these are strange, difficult times, and are wondering just what the future may bring.  We’ve experienced significant protests across the country — with “Black Lives Matter” signs being seen even on a small road in this remote corner of Maine — and in this presidential election year political passions are running high.  

The spirit of unbridled protest has always run deep in this land.  We’ve fought two civil wars in an effort to define and structure concepts of liberty and freedom, and we’ve experienced other periods where the vein of protest pulsed strongly.  The country has seen the mass civil rights marches and Vietnam War protests of the ’60s, the women’s suffrage movement, the Prohibition and anti-Prohibition movements, and the organized labor movements in the late 1800s — and that’s just scratching the surface.  Each of these protests has changed the country in some meaningful way, and there is no doubt that the current protests will, too.  The spirit of protest is so important to this country that we have codified our right to protest in the very first provision of the Bill of Rights and specifically stripped Congress of the ability to make any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  People who wring their hands about protests simply don’t understand our history, or our institutions.  In reality, protest is as American as apple pie.  

We often think of the “Founding Fathers” as gentlemen with powdered hair in fancy dress who secured freedom just by signing the Declaration of Independence — the execution of which gives rise to the holiday that we celebrate today.  From our vantage point, more than 240 years later, we tend to forget that country’s first civil war, which we now know as the Revolutionary War, was a harsh, bloody fight that occurred in a bitterly divided land — and the Founding Fathers in their silk stockings were the rebels

Courtesy of a present from Richard, I’m reading an excellent book about the first part of the revolutionary period by Rick Atkinson, called The British Are Coming.  One passage had particular resonance with me, in view of the period we are currently living through:

“John Adams, never taciturn, later would be quoted as saying, ‘I would have hanged my own brother had he taken part with our enemy in the contest.’

“Few were hanged, at least not yet; incivility rarely turned to bestiality.  But no one could say how brutal the war would become.  Conformity, censorship, and zealotry now flourished.  Even small sins, such as ‘speaking diminutively of the country congress,’ might be punished with forced public apologies, boycotts, ostracism, or property confiscation.  A mild word of praise for the British government–or simply being suspected of thinking loyal thoughts–could provoke a beating.  Militias served as a political constabulary, bolstered by the Continental Army.  When Queens County, a loyalist stronghold on Long Island, voted 788 to 221 against sending representatives to the provincial congress, the names of those in the majority were published in the newspaper; they were forbidden to travel, hire a lawyer, or practice a trade.  More than a thousand militiamen and Continentals then swept through Queens, arresting opposition leaders, seizing weapons and extracting allegiance oaths–except from the 250 obdurate men who fled into the swamps to await General Howe’s arrival.

Such measures spread.”

In short, there is nothing new under the sun, and we’ve been through these kinds of challenging periods–in fact, much more challenging periods–before.  Reading accurate histories of America would provide reassurance on that point.  Unfortunately, airbrushing history has also been a tradition in this country.  How many of us who went through the American school system were taught of the horrendous Tulsa, Oklahoma race massacre of 1921, or of lynchings, or the role of the Ku Klux Klan in subjugating African Americans — or for that matter the egregious history of lies, broken promises and mistreatment of indigenous Americans, Chinese immigrants, or other ethnic groups, or the Japanese internment camps that were created during World War II?  Those terrible racist episodes are as much a part of American history, and our ability to gain a true and complete understanding of our country, as the lofty pronouncements in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation.  Those of us who were taught that America’s history is an unbroken story of freedom, liberty, and fairness in service to the world were not told the whole story.  We deserved the truth, but we didn’t get it.

I hope that that will be one of the positive impacts of these current protests.  We can only fully grasp the meaning and complexity of American history, and the true importance of crucial historical figures, if we take an unvarnished view of their lives and understand their faults, flaws, and failings as well as their successes.  I hope that the exercise of First Amendment freedoms that we are seeing in these protests ensures that American history is never sanitized again and the full story — good, bad, and ugly — is told from here on out.

The exercise of our freedoms is something worth celebrating.  Happy Fourth of July, everyone!  

The Pioneers

I’ve just finished David McCullough’s new book, The Pioneers.  If you’re a native Ohioan, like me, it strikes home.  If you’re not an Ohioan, but you like history, you’ll find it an interesting exploration of the early American pioneer experience.

The Pioneers tells the story of the settlement of the Ohio territory in the late 1700s and early 1800s, with a principal focus on the town of Marietta, on the Ohio River.  The book sketches the history of the Northwest Territory and Marietta from the days when the Ohio lands were viewed as a tempting, but dangerous, far western wilderness and advocates of settlement were seeking congressional approval of the Northwest Ordinance and settlements, through early settlement days and the Burr conspiracy on Blennerhassett Island, to Ohio statehood and the development of the state school system and early state colleges, to the role of Ohio as a principal stop on the Underground Railroad.  Along the way we meet many interesting characters, like Manasseh Cutler, a formidable preacher turned lobbyist who skillfully managed the interests of the advocates of settlement in Congress, his son Ephraim, a spelling-challenged champion of free public schools and opposition to slavery, Samuel Hildreth, a curious and inquisitive doctor, painter, scientist, and naturalist, and Rufus Putnam, the Revolutionary War veteran and common-sense general who held the Marietta settlement together during the early, difficult days.

If you’re an Ohioan of a certain age, like me, you’ll remember learning about some of this in your Ohio history classes in grade school.  The Pioneers is a reminder of our state’s early history, when Ohio was an untamed wilderness with gigantic trees and forest prowled by panthers, bears, and wolves.  And the story of Ohio is unsettling, as most pioneer stories are — unsettling because of the treatment of the native Americans who were forced from their ancestral lands by the flood of settlers and the massacres and battles that resulted from the inevitable clashes that occurred as the natives desperately tried to preserve their way of life.  The book is also a useful reminder of how close Ohio came to being a state that allowed slavery, as opposed to a bulwark against the spread of slavery and, ultimately, one of the chief supporters of the Union cause in the Civil War.

The Pioneers is a good read.

Tippecanoe And His Accidency, Too

Yesterday marked the 177th anniversary of an interesting point in American history.  On April 4, 1841, President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia, only 31 days after taking office.  He became the first President to die in office, and remains to this day the President who had the shortest tenure in the White House.

125274-004-91e5633aBut that’s not the interesting part, in my view.  Instead, the interesting question was:  what comes next?  The Constitution, at that point, made no specific provision for what to do if a President died in office.  Vice President John Tyler, who ran with Harrison on the catchy if somewhat dismissive slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” decided that he inevitably should ascend to the presidency and become President himself.  The Constitution wasn’t exactly clear on that point, and whether the Vice President should simply remain Vice President but exercise presidential powers when necessary.  But Tyler was resolute.  He took the oath of office, insisted on exercising the full powers of the presidency, and even gave an inaugural address.  He also was reportedly very prickly about how he came to occupy the Oval Office, and purportedly refused to acknowledge correspondence addressed to him as “Acting President.”

We should add, incidentally, that Tyler may not have been motivated solely by a desire to avoid a constitutional crisis:  by becoming the President in name, Tyler’s annual salary increased five-fold, from $5,000 a year to $25,000 a year.  And Tyler wasn’t exactly a good guy, either — he was a slave owner who later supported the Confederacy and died while serving in the Confederate Congress.

But eventually the Congress went along with Tyler’s approach to presidential succession, and even though his foes derided him as “His Accidency,” the “Tyler precedent” on presidential succession was established — to be followed after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the assassination of James Garfield, and all of the other instances of vice presidential succession until the 25th Amendment, which established specific rules on the succession process, was ratified more than 100 years later.

Can The Ban

The Duluth, Minnesota school system has decided to remove two of the finest American novels ever written from its curriculum because it is concerned that today’s students will be upset by them.

huck-finnThe two books are Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which many scholars consider to be the best American novel yet written, and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which is clearly one of the finest novels written during the 20th century.  They will both be removed from the syllabus for the school system’s ninth grade and eleventh grade English classes, although the school system will allow copies of the books to remain in the school library.  The school district said it was removing the books from the curriculum because of concerns they might make certain students feel “humiliated or marginalized.”

Of course, both books directly tackle the issues of race in America, with Huckleberry Finn taking an unflinching look at slavery in pre-Civil War America and To Kill A Mockingbird focusing on bigotry and prejudice against African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.  Both books use the “n-word,” both books feature horrible racist characters, and both books involve upsetting scenes, appalling brutality, and themes that reflect poorly on the American soul.  That’s what makes the two books such uniquely powerful exercises in American literature.  And there’s no doubt that reading the books and considering the issues of slavery and racism they raise, and then talking about them in a classroom, will make students of all races and backgrounds feel uncomfortable — but there’s nothing wrong with a little discomfort along the path to greater understanding.  It’s hard for me to believe that anyone who reads either of those books could come away thinking that racism is good or that the vile, ignorant racist characters are to be emulated in any way.  I think both books in fact teach a good lesson and also have the value of demonstrating, through compelling stories, how the history of slavery and racism have stained our American character.

And, of course, removing the two acknowledged classics from the school’s curriculum sends an important, but bad, message about freedom of speech and that there are some things that are just too upsetting for students to be exposed to.

The Duluth school district’s curriculum director said that its schools planned to replace the novels with texts that “teach the same lessons” without using racist language.  Good luck with that!  How can you teach the lesson that racism is bad without exposing students to the brutality, unfairness, and ignorance of racists and their true nature?

The Way Of The Whigs

In the middle of the 19th century, the Whigs were one of the two major parties in American politics.  Founded in 1834 as a group that opposed Democrat Andrew Jackson, they won two presidential elections and counted as their members some of the most prominent American politicians of the day.

2zrpdutAbraham Lincoln started his political career as a Whig.  So did William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State.  Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, two of the most prominent members of the United States Congress during that era, were Whigs.  The slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” helped to carry Whig candidate William Henry Harrison to the presidency in the election of 1840.  Another Whig, Zachary Taylor, was elected President in 1848.

But by 1856 — only two presidential elections later — the Whig Party was gone, unable to field a candidate for national office.  It broke apart on the shoals of the slavery issue, irreparably splintered by the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with southern Whigs supporting the South’s detestable “peculiar institution” and northern “conscience Whigs,” like Lincoln, recognizing that slavery had to be ended or the country would tear itself apart.  As the old Whig Party fell apart, a new party, the Republicans, arose.  Led by Lincoln and Seward, the Republicans opposed slavery, fought the Civil War, and then became the second party in America’s two-party system.  Since 1860, those two parties have been the Democrats and the Republicans.

Could what happened to the Whig Party happen to one of the two major parties of the modern day?  Probably not.  The modern political parties are much more well-funded and entrenched, with permanent national staffs and constant fund-raising and electoral laws that make it difficult to get third-party candidates onto the ballot.

screen-shot-2015-07-30-at-11-40-42-amAnd yet . . . I think about the Whigs when I consider the choice presented this year by the two major parties.  According to the polls, the vast majority of Americans are extremely unhappy with the candidates who apparently will carry the banners of their respective parties come November.  I’ve written before about the flaws of the candidates, but what about the flaws of the parties, and the process they created?

The two parties took opposite approaches to the 2016 election.  The Republicans had a huge field of 18 current and former Governors, Senators, and business leaders, had free-for-all debates, and ended up with Donald Trump.  The Democrats treated Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee, seemingly discouraged other prominent national Democrats from running, and now see an increasingly unpopular Clinton locked in an improbable, lingering fight with a 70-plus Socialist and facing increasing scrutiny about her personal ethics and credibility.  In short, the parties took opposite approaches to selection of their candidates, but each produced candidates who seem to be deeply, deeply flawed.

Many people out here in the Midwest speak of the choice the parties have given them with a bitterness that goes beyond the normal dismissive comments about politicians.  There is a strong sense that the political parties have utterly failed; many believe that the process is corrupt, and that we should blow it all up and start over.  In short, the views of the electorate probably are a lot like the views of Americans in the 1850s, when the Whigs turned out to be an empty shell with no substance that collapsed and vanished forever.

Could the Democrats or Republicans go the way of the Whigs?  I wonder.

12 Years A Slave

Last night, Kish and I watched 12 Years a Slave. It is a well-made, gripping film that features an exceptional performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup, a free man who is lured away from his New York home, drugged, and then sold into more than a decade of slavery.

For all of its beautiful cinematography and superb acting, the movie is incredibly difficult to watch because of the oppressive reality of slavery and the bloody and terrible beatings, the hangings, and the lashings of Northrup and his fellow slaves. Of course, that’s the point — at least in part. For too long, in movies like Gone With The Wind, the reality of slavery in America was sugarcoated and airbrushed into fantasyland. 12 Years a Slave, with its depiction of the story of one man’s hellish experience on several plantations in the deep South, helps to balance the scales.

Movies can make us laugh, make us cry, make us think, and make us wonder. 12 Years a Slave falls into the latter categories. One of the great values of the movie is its exposure of the many different people who participated in the slavery system and facilitated its enormous evil. For every brutish slave owner and sadistic overseer there were a host of slave auctioneers, jailers, tradesmen, ship owners, and fugitive slave hunters who helped to keep the system running. 12 Years a Slave shows them all doing their jobs, apparently untroubled by the fact that they are trading in the lives of human beings. How did that happen? How did those people come to accept and participate in such a perverse and inherently wicked institution?

In our fast-moving modern world, where everyone focuses on the future and things a decade old are viewed as the distant past, it’s important to remember that there is a deep and rancid stain on the history of the United States that grew and endured for decades. 12 Years a Slave is a fine movie in its own right, but its powerful message about the dark corner of our heritage makes it a must-see film.

Slavery And The School

Richard has a very interesting piece in today’s Columbia Missourian about the role of slavery in the history of the University of Missouri. It addresses, in detail after fascinating detail, the slave-owning pasts of some of the central figures in the early history of the school, and the efforts of their descendants to try to atone for that fact.

IMG_0741It’s an excellent piece about a very difficult subject, and it poses a question that is impossible to answer for those of us in the modern world: how could a person like James Sidney Rollins, who professed to be enlightened and was such a strong supporter of public education that he earned the title “father of the University of Missouri,” nevertheless have justified and rationalized being a slave owner, unable to recognize the fundamental, unforgivable injustice in his claim to own fellow human beings?

I urge all of our Webner House readers to read Richard’s piece and think about how many of the institutions of modern America have some roots in that terrible institution that will forever be a stain on America’s past. Stories like Richard’s that reveal more of that past do us all an important service.

Walking In The Troubling Footsteps Of Old Hickory

IMG_3571Yesterday Kish and I went to the Hermitage, the plantation home of Andrew Jackson.  It is conveniently located within the footprint of metropolitan Nashville, and it’s well worth a visit — both to learn a bit more about one of our Presidents, but also to spend some time pondering the imponderable question of why any American, much less a President, thought it was acceptable to own slaves.

IMG_3558

Andrew Jackson’s grave

The Hermitage consists of a large brick pillared and porticoed plantation home and its grounds, an adjoining garden in which Jackson and members of his family are buried, and a series of walking paths that take you to other places and buildings on the plantation grounds, some of which are still standing and some of which are visible only in the form of foundations traced on the ground.

The main building is beautiful and well-preserved, with original wallpaper, lighting fixtures, and furnishings.  You can see Jackson’s study, his bed and his chamber pot, the weekly newspapers he read and bound in large books and the room where he died.  You can hear from the friendly guides wearing period costume about the house and Jackson’s family and his love for his wife and their adoption of their son.  You can visit his grave in a beautiful garden, where Old Hickory lies beneath a small Greek dome.

IMG_3568

One of the slave cabins at the Hermitage

The real impact of the tour for us, however, didn’t occur until we walked away from the main building and its well-kept grounds and began touring the fields and outbuildngs, where Jackson’s slaves toiled.  Jackson eventually owned 150 slaves who did the real work on the plantation.  They planted and picked cotton and operated the cotton gin that Jackson built, churned butter, tended the horses, mucked out the stables, and cooked the meals.  Little is known about them, and when you walk back to the area where the slaves lived and see photos of their lost possessions that preservationists have uncovered, you cannot help but feel an immense sadness and anger.

I commend that Hermitage for making a significant effort to cast light on the fact that one of our most famous Presidents was a large slaveholder who bought and sold slaves as chattel and achieved wealth through their uncompensated labors.  He may not have been the cruelest master in the Old South, but he somehow rationalized the ownership of fellow human beings.  That simple fact, for me, makes the rest of the Jackson story a lot less relevant.

Years after Jackson’s death, during the midst of the Civil War, the Union Army captured Nashville and slaves were free to leave.  The vast majority of the slaves on the Hermitage plantation promptly left, choosing an uncertain future over continued interaction with their former masters.  That tells you all you need to know about slavery.

Provocative Lawsuits, And The Constitutional Rights Of Killer Whales (II)

I’m happy to report that sanity reigns in San Diego — in the federal court, at least.

Only two days after hearing argument, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller dismissed a silly lawsuit brought by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that argued that five killer whales are subject to the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and were being held in “slavery” by Sea World.  The judge ruled, quite correctly, that the 13th Amendment applies only to humans, and stated:  “As ‘slavery’ and ‘involuntary servitude’ are uniquely human activities, as those terms have been historically and contemporaneously applied, there is simply no basis to construe the Thirteenth Amendment as applying to non-humans.”

PETA’s lawyer says the organization will now decide how to proceed, and presumably will consider whether to appeal the dismissal of the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — traditionally viewed as the most liberal of the various federal appellate courts.  If PETA decides not to appeal to that forum, it will tell us a lot about whether the whole purpose of the lawsuit was simply to elicit the publicity that PETA craves.

Provocative Lawsuits, And The Constitutional Rights Of Killer Whales

The BBC reports on a lawsuit by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals against Sea World.  The case argues that killer whales have rights just as humans do and that keeping such whales in captivity violates the constitutional prohibition against slavery.

The lawsuit is pending in federal court in San Diego and purportedly was brought by five killer whales as the plaintiffs.  The court held a hearing yesterday to determine whether the lawsuit could proceed.  The BBC article above quotes the lawyer for the killer whales as saying:  “For the first time in our nation’s history, a federal court heard arguments as to whether living, breathing, feeling beings have rights and can be enslaved simply because they happen to not have been born human.  By any definition these orcas have been enslaved here.”

I was sorry to read these news articles, because the principal point of such lawsuits seems to be to attract media attention.  No rational person, or lawyer, could really contend that our constitutional protections were written to protect, or should be read to extend to, killer whales or any other animal.  But such provocative lawsuits allow advocacy organizations, for the price of a filing fee, to gain a platform from which to espouse their views and then hope that any resulting news coverage will encourage like-minded people who read such articles to contribute to the cause.

The news media would do us all a favor by ignoring this kind of legal grandstanding.  I suppose I should, too.