Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

Old John Brown: Martyr? Hero? Madman? Terrorist?

Harper’s Ferry NHP was one of the first historic sites I visited outside my home New England, and is still one of my favorites. It’s a sleepy little hamlet, nestled in a valley at the fork of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, with interesting Old Frontier architecture (like the church pictured below) and a calm, relaxed atmosphere.  Visit in the fall, when the air is crisp, the foliage is out, and the fog is on the river in the early morning.

Harper’s Ferry, with two major rivers, a proximity to the Mason-Dixon, and one of the last stops between the colonies and the Frontier, was a true nexus point in early American history. Jefferson and Washington both surveyed the land, it served as a launching point for westward expansion, and was used by the military as a base and weapons depot. But the town is most famously known for the Raid that Started the Civil War.


The time between the founding of the country and the fall of 1859 was most definitely the Dark Ages for America. People like to strut around today and say “our rights are threatened”, and that may well be, but this is nothing like it was back in the early 19th century. According to census figures, over 3.2 million free-thinking people were held as slaves in 1850. It was pervasive everywhere in the South, slaves accounted for one out of three souls living south of the Mason-Dixon line. It was no “curious institution”, it was a massive abomination. The work was hard, the treatment harsh. Families were routinely broken up as they were sold to different bidders at auction. In some cases, treatment even got worse in the 19th century. Constant fear of slave rebellion sparked states and counties to restrict slave movements. States passed laws forbidding teaching slaves to read or write, or form groups in the evening, or celebrating weddings, or traveling without a master (even to walk to a creek for water).

But it wasn’t just slaves whose liberties were restricted: the slave laws foisted upon the Union by southern aristocrats (and unopposed by cowardly Northern presidents), challenged the liberties of free men as well. It was illegal to aid in the escape of slaves, which basically forced every citizen (even those in the so-called “free states”) to participate in the captivity of a fellow human being. The states had no say: the Wisconsin supreme court declared the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional and would not uphold it, only to be told by the U.S. Supreme Court that they must uphold it whether they liked it or not. Nullification, indeed! Looking back, the honorable free states should have been the ones to secede from a corrupt, anti-liberty federal government right then and there!

Even the very notion of “one man one vote” was bastardized into the 3/5th rule, which gave the Southern gentry undeserved power in the Congress and the Electoral College. The notion that slaves could be counted in apportionment for a democratic society was disgusting, and is wholly responsible for the decades of tyranny foisted upon the nation. That horrible rule  gave the slave states nearly 20 more seats in the 1850 House of Representatives and votes in the 1848 Electoral College than they justly deserved, creating a Congress that passed the dastardly Compromise of 1850 and gave us one of the worst presidents in U.S. history, Millard Fillmore. The North should have been able to railroad the South into giving up that horrendous institution, but instead the Founding Fathers’ greatest mistake led to a wholly unjust government, the enslavement of an entire race of men, and a society teetering on the boundaries of pure evil.

It was into this world that John Brown was born.

A heavily devout Christian, John Brown saw the entire institution of slavery, and the flaws in our political process that enabled it, as a crime against man and a sin against God. He took it so far as to say there was no way the United States could possibly have been founded as a Christian nation, because no true Christian would ever start a country with slavery as part of its core values. He was even more infuriated by individuals like John C. Calhoun, who said slavery was good and rooted in the Bible. To John Brown, that was apostasy, nearly as great a crime as slavery itself. John Brown was more than  prepped for the forthcoming battle, at least on a spiritual level. Then came Kansas.

For over sixty years, the balance between slave state vs. free state was kept through a series of compromises. In 1812, the tally was even: 9 slave states and 9 free states. There was parity in the Senate, and the coveted Electoral College, and close tallies in the House (thanks to the 3/5ths rule). In order to keep the peace, states would be admitted in pairs: one free, one slave. Indiana & Mississippi, Illinois & Alabama, Maine & Missouri. However, in 1854, the anti-slavery faction in Congress won a minor victory: the residents of a territory, upon application for statehood, could vote themselves as to whether or not they would be free or slave. This put the pro-slavery faction in a terrible position: popular opinion in the new territories beyond Missouri was decidedly anti-slavery.  The slave states would soon be outnumbered in the Senate and  would surely lose their political clout and, therefore, their economic foundation. Drastic action was necessary, and drastic action was undertaken.

A cabal of slave-owners and -supporters organized dozens of bands of men called the Border Ruffians to rush to Kansas, create fake homesteads, and engage, not in farming, but in massive voter intimidation and fraud. They managed to elect a pro-slavery legislature for the territory. To counter the threat, abolitionists joined forces to form the Topeka Convention and create a state constitution marking Kansas as a free state. Presidential coward Franklin Pierce decreed the pro-slavery forces were legitimate, and that’s when all hell broke loose. The Ruffians burned and ransacked Lawrence, and John Brown headed to Pottawatomie, and eventually to Harper’s Ferry, leaving a trail of bodies (both friends and foes) in his wake.

What happens next are the opening salvos of the greatest war ever fought on North American soil, a terrible stream of carnage that resulted in the emancipation of not only slaves but also of the American soul. Slavery, regardless of the opinions of the slaveowning aristocracy, was the albatross around the neck of the United States. It was preventing our rise to greatness, and even now, 150 years later, we’re still battling with the demons of our past. But at least they are now in our past, thanks to John Brown. He was like the interventionist to a drug addict: that person who holds up the mirror and says, in a very blunt manner, “look what you’re doing to yourself!!”

The full story of John Brown is a fascinating one, full of character and drive and madness. But it’s also admittedly troubling. Was John Brown a terrorist? He led his devout followers to their near-certain deaths. He committed acts of violence on American soil that took the lives of civilians. He instilled great fear amongst the citizenry, especially amongst the border counties of Virginia. His actions led the United States, especially the southern states, to crack down on civil liberties even harder. His actions ended up instigating a war.

So was he a terrorist? Or should we take into consideration what he was fighting for? He wasn’t grandstanding for an upcoming book tour, there is no doubt he was ardently opposed to slavery and wanted the institution destroyed. He knew the institution was destroying America, and he knew that nothing short of bold action would change the nation’s course. And that course had to be changed: over 3 million lives, and the lives of all their future generations, depended on it.

Before you read on, here are some things to ponder. Do people have the right, or even perhaps the duty, to take bold and deadly action in the face of true evil? It’s a tough question. Is terrorism ever justified? Did John Brown act appropriately? Should he be regarded as a hero or as a demon, especially in light of what he was fighting for?

Made up your mind?

Now think about this: in preparation for his attack on Harper’s Ferry, John Brown worked on a document, to be released to the public if and when he managed to instigate the change he desired. A new Constitution for the United States, with guaranteed rights for all men of any race, a reworking of the system of representation, and a modification of the roles & responsibilities of the three branches of government: Congress, the Presidency and the courts.

All with him as the Commander in Chief in charge of the whole thing.

Now re-ask yourself those questions. You can probably even think up some better ones.


[Sadly, I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Harper’s Ferry. Photo of St. Peter’s Church is used with permission of Patty Hankins. Check out her website, she specializes in close-up floral photos (something I enjoy doing on my own National Park trips). John Brown Birthplace postcard is available at www.vintagepostcards.org. Photo of John Brown’s tombstone is from the Wikipedia Commons (original). All other works are in the public domain.]


Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park

Modernizing a Slave Economy

Republicanism and the Compromise of 1850

Google map to Harpers Ferry

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One Problem, Many Solutions, Few Successes

If there is one difficult part of American history & society, it is that transition from slavery to freedom in the post-Civil War period (which, in actuality, is still going on today). I’m not talking about the actual sequence of events from the Emancipation Proclamation to Kanye West’s recent Grammy speech, I’m talking about the larger social, political, and even philosophical problem: how does an entire population, almost 4 million strong, make the transition from slavery to freedom, without crushing the economic and social status of the formerly enslaving nation? Oof, that’s a toughie, a heady question with so many facets, from the technical to the ethical to the theological.

I can say this with absolute certainty: it’s a question that America failed to answer satisfactorily. Yes, I said it: America failed one of the greatest challenges a nation ever faced.

Vegetable Garden — © 2008 America In Context

It’s obvious that America failed in this regard: Jim Crow, the Klan, Plessy v. Ferguson, police dogs in Birmingham, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the Watts riots, the continued concentration of poor blacks in America’s inner cities. These are not good results. The only part we really got right was freeing them in the first place (although even that was almost a hundred years too late — surely the Great Teacher in the Sky took points off for lateness on that one).

Sure, things have gotten better for African-Americans since 1865. But is it really better because America made it better, or is it better in spite of America’s efforts? As time has gone on, we have become more integrated. Black culture and music has woven itself into our society, creating art forms (like the Blues, rap music, urban wall art, and others) that could only incubate in a cauldron of pain, suffering, and intolerance that post-slavery America provided. But I don’t call that a “success”, we’ve simply accepted the failure and tried to move on with our lives.

Sheep In Pen — © 2008 America In ContextOh, to be able to take a time machine back to the late 19th Century and advise our leaders — both white and black — on how to do it right. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? It would be like telling the diners in Pompeii to leave the city; telling the Middle Age clerics to let the cats kill the plague-infested rats; warning post WWI Germany to leave Adolph in Austria. We could go back and fix everything, and none of those traumas I mentioned earlier would happen!

Unfortunately, even today, 145 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, we still have no idea how we could have done it any better. So we would hop out of our little time machine, look President Andrew Johnson and the U.S. Congress square in the eye, and go: “duhhhhh……”

The problem back then (with certain similarities today) is how to take an entire population, uneducated and entirely dependent upon a ruling class, and transform it into an independent, productive, successful body, without correspondingly bringing ruin upon that ruling class. Do you give them their own territory so they can develop their own society? Do you work to integrate them into your own society, so your success is their success and vice versa? Or do you simply transform from slavery to something almost as bad, keeping them a chronic underclass forever?

In the post-Civil War days, many African-American leaders came forward with their own ideas. Booker T. Washington was one such leader.

Tobacco Shed — © 2008 America In ContextWashington was a man after my own heart. He strongly believed in teaching freed slaves and their children about the real world: science, technology, engineering, agriculture. I’m a big fan of science and engineering and their real-world applications. In my view, as was Washington’s, if you can teach a person a real trade, you can set that person up for life. If you’re skilled, it doesn’t matter who you are, it matters what you do. Yes, it’s a pie-in-the-sky ideal, for you always have that personal element in everything, but your odds are much better if you have something real and tangible to offer society. And if society doesn’t want it, at least you can use those skills and have some semblence of autonomy. That was Booker T. Washington’s modus operandi: teaching blacks how to do. It was also the genesis of Washington’s great achievement: the Tuskeegee University (also part of the National Park Service, a topic for a later post).

The reality of the times would sadly tarnish Booker T.’s reputation. In order to create such a university, Washington needed funding. Funding he received … from wealthy white elitists, some of whom were former slaveholders themselves. Labelled an “accommodationist”, Washington was far too mum on the subject of segragation for many other African-American leaders. He would eventually speak out more and more against segregation, but for many of his contemporaries, it was too little, too late.

Munch Munch Munch — © 2008 America In Context

As I stated earlier, I’m not very good with African-American history. But I do know that no one in that era, including black leaders like Booker T. Washington, had all the answers for the freed slaves and their descendents. Those (black and white) who had the best of intentions did the best they could, based on their knowledge of humanity and the condition of the times. Their efforts may or may not have been successful, they may or may not have been right, but it has to be acknowledged that the simultaneous release of millions of men, women, and children from bondage created a problem vaster than mankind’s ability to solve. These people did the best they could, and at least they acted, and didn’t wait the required couple hundred years for the problem to solve itself.

Booker T. Washington National Monument restores the boyhood home of a man who did what he thought was right. It has been restored to resemble what it might have looked like during that time. The place itself is unremarkable, but the place in context with the most difficult part of American history truly makes one think.

Booker T. Washington Memorial — © 2008 America In Context

[All photos on this post are my originals. See my other Booker T. Washington National Monument photos here.]

Freed Fowl — © 2008 America In ContextLinks:

Booker T. Washington National Monument

The Negro Problem (essays from Booker T. Washington & others)

Google map to the monument

Some damned fool let the chickens out!

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My Kind of Guy

Forget Ben Franklin. Forget Thomas Jefferson. Forget George Washington. John Adams is my favorite patriot.

I guess it goes back to my youth. I was in elementary school during the American Bicentennial in 1976. That was a huge time for patriotism and flag-waving, and interest in our Founding Fathers was at an all-time high.

One of our field trips actually took us to the movies – for a showing of the film version of the musical 1776. It’s an odd sort of thing, but seeing that film sparked, in me, an interest in American history that would smolder, unnoticed, until college fed it enough oxygen. Anyway, I digress…

There’s one terrific line in 1776 that I’ll never forget. Jefferson, Franklin, and others are trying to convince Adams to pen the Declaration of Independence. His retort? “Mr. Jefferson, I think that you should write it. I am obnoxious and ignored, you know it’s true!”

Even at 11 years old, I knew that described me as well: obnoxious and ignored. A kinship was forged.

John Adams — public domain photo courtesy of WikipediaAdams was not only obnoxious and ignored, he was also a rarity: a brilliant ideologue. I’m not overly fond of ideologues. Generally, I find them horribly lacking in any real insight or knowledge, they hide behind their ideology like a shield, avoiding true understanding (because that’s too hard). I prefer pragmatism and practicality. How do we solve problems? That question sparks brilliance, not some high-minded ideal of how the world should work.

But, certainly, there are issues that require staunch and unwavering ideology, dogmatic certainty, and tremendous zeal. At that time, American independence was one of those issues. The abolishment of slavery would be another, I’ll get to that later. As far as John Adams is concerned, he was the right zealot at absolutely the right time, and was the single patriot who pushed for independence more than any other. He absolutely aggravated and aggrieved his contemporaries, but still his point was made, and the Continental Congress moved in his direction.

The great thing about Adams the Zealot was he was also a man of tremendous personal integrity and wisdom. A great husband, a great writer, a great lawyer, a great patriot, unfortunately he was an ineffectual President. But he held fast to his convictions throughout all his life. Some of his quotes still resonate strongly today, and a few are still ominous in their warnings. I think that, after 200 years, and with our current political climate, we can still learn a lot from John Adams:

“There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live.”

“Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people.”

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.”

“Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.”

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

That last one sends a chill down my spine, not only for its morose tone, but for the sneaky suspicion it’s accurate.

The First Emancipator

John Quincy Adams was, up until recently, a rarity: a son who followed his father into the Presidency. He was a rarity, up until recently, in another way: he did not win by popular vote, but won through that great Constitutional technicality, the Electoral College. He was a decent enough President but, like his father, he only served one term. And also like his father, it was his actions outside the Presidency that made him so invaluable to America.

John Q. Adams — public domain photo courtesy of WikipediaAs a diplomat, he oversaw the acquisition of Florida (so we’d have a place to dump our elderly), and fabricated the Monroe Doctrine, which drew a line in the sand to European colonization in the Americas. To Adams, this was a moral obligation of the United States. Europe must not further muck around in the affairs of the Americas. He didn’t advocate imperialism of our own, his idea was to allow the Americas to evolve into nations of their own, without outside interference. He was right, absolutely right. To this day, we are still dealing with the problems of long-terminated European colonization in Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. The problems of America are our problems, fomented internally, which is much better than problems foisted upon you by outsiders. Sadly, the Monroe Doctrine would later be used to justify invasions and actions on our own (like the Spanish-American War, a topic for a later time).

More importantly, John Q. Adams inherited his father’s zealous ideology in opposition to great injustice. In this case, I am referring to slavery. He not only famously argued the case of the schooner Amistad before the Supreme Court, he was a staunch and vocal opponent of slavery in the halls of Congress, battling that institution at every opportunity. In the decades before the Civil War, Congress managed to pass the Gag Order, prohibiting any discussion of slavery before Congress. This infuriated Adams, who set about trying to fight it at every turn. “I hold the resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, the rules of this House, and the rights of my constituents,” he bellowed across the House chamber.

Eventually, he would even make a grandiose declaration:

“From the instant that your slave-holding states become the theatre of war — civil, servile, or foreign — from that instant the war powers of the Constitution extend to interference with the institution of slavery in every way in which it can be interfered with.”

That’s right: John Quincy Adams set forth the principle that Abraham Lincoln would later use to write his famous Emancipation Proclamation. This is one of those brilliant chains in history: events lead to ideas which lead to ideas which lead to events. Uncovering these chains has been one of the great joys of my tours through the National Park System and American history.

Ideology – Well Preserved

The Adams family houses preserved by the National Park Service are wonderful. They have the two houses where the Adams’ were raised (an amazing feat considering decades of development in greater Boston), as well as the Adams manse “Peacefield”. This expanse is an absolute rarity among historic sites in America: all of the furnishings and contents of these houses is original to the original owners, including the vast collection of John Q. Adams’ books in a beautiful stone library (to protect Adams’ greatest possessions from fire – who says ideologues can’t also be practical?).

Normally (and recently, it would seem) ideologues ruin more than they create. The simplicity of their arguments usually belies the underlying realities of the times and does their constituency a great disservice. However, in at least two cases, this nation had serious issues requiring the intervention by serious ideologues. In both cases, we’re lucky we had the Adamses.

Peacefield — © 2008 America In Context

[Pictures of the Presidents are in the public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia. All other photos in this entry are originals by the blog owner.]

See all America In Context original photos of Adams NHP


Adams National Historical Park

Exploring Amistad
Amistad America
Google map to Adams’ NHP

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Stupid Questions

“So, this is original, right?” I asked, pointing to the log cabin inside the granite mausoleum.

“No, it’s a replica.”

Cabin (courtesy of National Park Service)After this almost mandatory exchange, I asked the ranger how many people ask her this stupid question every day. “A lot”, she replied. Of course the log cabin at Lincoln’s Birthplace isn’t original. The original one was surely torn down and replaced by the next residents after the Lincolns moved to Indiana (log cabins were not known for their longevity). The ranger did proceed to discuss what was really important: the thoughts and writings of our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln.

One of my regrets during my NPS travels is I never get the names of the rangers and volunteers who staff these sites. Some of them, including this woman at Lincoln’s Birthplace, are truly stellar. She was very smart, and a very good communicator. She also knew a lot about Lincoln. Not just the contents of some script for park employees to parrot out on command, but she really studied and respected the man. She read a great many books on the subject, and spoke with a fluidity that only true knowledge can sustain. I was absolutely captivated when she spoke. It didn’t hurt that she was attractive as well, brilliant and beautiful is a great combination.

It’s a shame to hear that the Park Service doesn’t pay particularly well, nor do they adequately fund or staff these parks (the fault of an uninterested Congress). Even with those obstacles, some of their employees are terrific.

The Man, The Legend

It’s amazing how well liked, or even loved, our 16th President is in the U.S. There are no less than five National Park Service sites dedicated to Lincoln, and many educational and cultural institutions (and more elementary and secondary schools than you can shake a stick at) are named after him. Of course I’m looking at this through Yankee eyes (having been born and raised in Massachusetts), but I think he’s even loved in the south, although probably not as thoroughly.

Lincoln (public domain photo courtesy of Wikipedia)We should ask ourselves “why?” Why would a man who presided over the one and only War Between the States (the worst human bloodletting ever witnessed on the North American continent), a man who initiated the first widespread draft in America (leading to riots in New York City and other places), a man who suspended many legal rights (an act used years later as justification for Japanese interment and the Patriot Act), still be so loved by the American people? Not only loved, but perhaps even deified.

“Honest Abe”. “The Great Emancipator”. “The Man Who Saved the Union”. Lincoln was not always honest, he had to lie often during his Presidency (a wartime President is rarely blessed with opportunities to be honest). Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was done to turn the heat up on the Confederacy, and had a great many flaws. And was it simple Northern arrogance driving him to maintain the Union (under Northern control, of course) at such a heavy price?

I offer up three reasons why Lincoln, of all the Presidents, is held in the highest regard, and has so many marble structures bearing his name:

He Won.

Americans love a winner. We always have. Washington. Jackson. Grant. Eisenhower. Colin Powell. The 2007 New England Patriots. We love those who win, and will imbue them with talents far beyond reality. Winners can do no wrong. In the end, Lincoln won. Yes, he wasn’t a direct military commander, but it was his war, his battle. It was his dogged determination, and eventually his appointment of Grant as commander of the army, that led to victory over the Confederacy. And it was a true, military victory, not some negotiated settlement or stalemate. We salute Lincoln because he was the victor.

He Died.

It’s a horribly cynical thing to say we only admire people who are struck down early. In the case of our Presidents, it’s not always true (who knows anything about William McKinley or James Garfield these days?). But it is true enough that we put people on pedestals after they die, especially when they die before their time. Was James Dean really that good of an actor? Was Kurt Cobain more talented than Eddie Vedder? Was Abraham Lincoln really the best President ever? Or do we put a better spin on those who leave us before they really should? The story of Lincoln’s death is tragic, but it came at such a special moment – days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox – that it will forever be held as the stuff of legend.

He Was Right.

Above all else, I feel Abraham Lincoln is worthy of mention as America’s greatest President for one simple fact: he was right. He was right to free the slaves, even though his Proclamation was half-baked. He was right that the Union should stay together, for divided the nation would have been weaker. And he was right that the Confederacy should be defeated and not bargained with. There would have been conflict on our soil between two nations (or perhaps more) for generations afterward (witness the strife that plagued Europe for hundreds of years).

Emancipation Proclamation (public domain photo courtesy of Wikipedia)But there is another meaning to the word “right”. Lincoln was also the right President at the right time. People tend to forget the mess this country was in before Lincoln. The “slave problem” was a menace, a canker, a tumor on the very heart of America. It ate at the very core of our beloved Constitution. America, a nation supposedly founded on freedom, held hundreds of thousands in thrall, was a nation of hypocrites.

This canker led to a cancerous government, for we not only had a collection of weak-willed, spineless Presidents (from Harrison to Buchanan, find me one worth a damn), we also had a divided, rudderless Congress, and a court whose decisions were at times abhorrent (the infamous Dred Scott decision). We even had riots in the states and territories (Bleeding Kansas, John Brown’s Raid). I will even suggest that slavery was harming Southern culture; it enabled a decidedly undemocratic aristocracy, more interested in pomp, grandeur, and socializing than education, social betterment, industrialization, or agricultural advancement.

The American Civil War was such a tremendous turning point for the United States. We became a much better nation after Appomattox than we ever were before Fort Sumter. The transfiguration is glaring, in fact it’s shocking. The elimination of slavery, and the resolution of the simmering North-South conflict, revitalized this nation and sent us on the path to becoming a true powerhouse, and Abraham Lincoln was there, right when he needed to be, a nexus between barbarity and enlightenment.

In the end, we are right to deify the man named Lincoln, faults and all.

Memorial (courtesy of the National Park Service)

[The photos on this entry are public domain, and come courtesy of the National Park Service and Wikipedia] 


Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site

An Analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation

An Essay on Pre-Civil War Southern Stagnation

Google map to Lincoln’s Birthplace

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