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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Failures in Leadership

When it comes to posting about Jimmy Carter — Nobel Peace Prize winner, home builder, human rights advocate, international statesman — I could have gone in many directions. In light of his recent cancer diagnoses, I could have focused on his positive, post-1980 accomplishments, and may have gotten a lot of positive comments and referrals. Instead, I feel compelled to talk about his greatest failure: his leadership during his tenure as the 39th President of the United States.

Before I go on, I have to say it’s really unfair for me to criticize others for poor leadership. I have practically no leadership abilities at all. I’ve proven time and time again that this is a skill or talent that I simply do not possess, and almost every attempt I’ve made to take leadership of anything has been a fairly abysmal failure. However, I think I can recognize good leadership when I see it. I’ve known a lot of good, and even great, leaders personally, and through careful observation of their methods, I think I have a fair bead on what makes a good leader. I’ve also known a lot of horrible leaders, and am fairly certain I know what poor leaders lack.

Any post criticizing Jimmy Carter would also be unfair if it did not include a disclaimer statement about “level of difficulty”. Carter was elected President in 1976, a period of great internal strife in the U.S. President Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1973. America’s most divisive and most embarrassing confrontation — the Vietnam War — ended in 1975 with the Fall of Saigon. The Cold War’s nuclear arms race was well into its fearful Mutually Assured Destruction phase. Inflation was at a troubling 12%, and the nation was in a depressing funk barely masked by the revelries celebrating our nation’s 200th birthday. Carter was entering into a losing proposition, it would take immense skill to turn the ship of state around.

A_SENIOR_CITIZENS'_MARCH_TO_PROTEST_INFLATION,_UNEMPLOYMENT_AND_HIGH_TAXES_STOPPED_ALONG_LAKE_SHORE_DRIVE_IN_CHICAGO..._-_NARA_-_556256

Yeah, times were GREAT!

Unfortunately, Jimmy Carter, during his tenure as President, was a pretty poor leader.

Of course, that’s not particularly insightful. Folks have been saying this for 35 years, Jimmy Carter has taken quite a bashing from all sides since 1980. If he hadn’t been so successful in his post-Presidential career, he’d be nothing but an entry on a list between Martin Van Buren and Calvin Coolidge: barely remembered unless you went to Carter High School or your commute took you over the Carter Bridge. I’m glad he went on to do great things after his presidency, he’s probably one of the most ethical men to ever hold the office, and he deserves better than a minor footnote in a history textbook. So how did an otherwise good man fail to be an effective leader?

In my opinion, one event, more than any other, illustrates exactly why Carter was such a bad leader as President. That event was his infamous Malaise Speech, delivered to the nation via broadcast television on July 15, 1979. This was a speech that, although initially receiving a favorable reception by the American people, would go down in infamy as the worst speech ever given to the nation by a seated President. This was a speech that would become so reviled, it not only resulted in the loss of the White House to the Republicans in 1980, it most certainly caused the death of American progressive politics.

But wait, something here doesn’t quite compute, does it? How could a simple speech ruin a Presidency and kill a political movement? Speeches are nothing, really, just air exiting through a larynx, magnified by microphones and amplifiers. Most people, even then, rarely listen to political speeches, and of those who do, few even remember anything about them. Throughout American history — over 400 years if you include the colonial period — only half a dozen or so political speeches (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, etc.) have entered into the national consciousness. It’s certain that dozens upon dozens of Presidential speeches quite literally sucked, full of triteness and pandering and even lunacy. Did any of them derail a presidency?

No, and this speech, itself, did not derail Carter’s. What killed his presidency, and what marked Jimmy Carter as a terrible leader during that phase, was he felt that the nation actually needed a speech to solve its problems. That was the fundamental mistake, the fundamental error, the fundamental misunderstanding of leadership that Carter had during that period. What he did was deliver a speech as the solution, rather than delivering a speech to communicate the solution. 

Not a great idea.

Not a great idea.

So many people in positions of authority try this tactic. These folks think that they can inspire people by words. They’ve heard the lore of those half-dozen cool American speeches, or have seen Patton, Braveheart, Henry V, or even Independence Day, and think “ooh, that’s what I need to inspire my troops, a good speech!” Well, no, nothing can be farther from the truth.

My first encounter with a real leader was my Boy Scout scoutmaster. He was a quiet, soft-spoken guy. I can’t remember his speaking voice, honestly. But all the kids loved him because he did stuff. We always had stuff to do, every meeting was full of activities, and our camping trips were chock-full of things to do. His job moved him to second shift, and we got a new scoutmaster. That one was a chatty guy, and the absolute worst scoutmaster. Activities dropped, camping trips dropped, and I dropped Scouts entirely.

Later, I worked at an apple orchard. The owner was not necessarily soft spoken, but he was a great guy. He motivated us to work hard, not through his words, but because he was a hard working guy. If you were employed by him, you would be ashamed to be a slacker because he worked so hard.

I would see other good leaders who displayed good leadership because they loved what they did, or they took the time to teach those under them, or they took bold moves, or they were simply good at their job. They were leaders because they did stuff, not because they talked about stuff. It’s not even about caring for your people — there is no doubt that Jimmy Carter cared about the American people — it’s about recognizing that doing is a prerequisite to leading. 

If Carter had focused more on getting things done as President, he could have made all the crappy speeches in the world and no one would have cared. But he felt the people needed a speech, and history has proven that was a bad choice. Fortunately, Mr. Carter would go on to do plenty of good things in his post-Presidential career, and now he is well respected by many. But for one, brief time, when it was needed the most, he had the wrong idea of what true leadership actually is.

Well, maybe I stand corrected.

Well, maybe I stand corrected.

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I didn’t bring my camera when I visited the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site. All photos used in this post are public domain and hosted on Wikipedia Commons.

Jimmy Carter National Historic Site

Character Above All Essay on Jimmy Carter

Jimmy & Roslyn Carter Work Project at Habitat for Humanity

Google Map to JCNHS

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Concepts of Time

When Lewis and Clark left St. Louis to explore the Great Frontier:

It’s only been 210 years since they set off. In the grand scheme of things, that’s pretty tiny. But look at everything that’s happened.

  • The country: Nearing 320 million
  • The population center is now actually west of Missouri, showing the great expansion of the country and the migration of her people.
  • New York City: 7 million
  • St. Louis: 300,000, and the city has existed so long it’s actually decaying (like all the other great industrial cities)
  • About three hours from Boston to New York if you’re a stodgy driver.
  • A couple more to fly to London
  • You can drive across the entire country in just a few days, or fly over it in about six hours or so.
  • But really, who cares? With Skype, you can talk to someone across country instantaneously. No reason to go anywhere.

It’s hard to fathom sometimes how quickly things have changed, and how much has happened in a measly 200 years.

Courtesy National Park Service

Courtesy National Park Service

Go to St. Louis. See the Gateway Arch. It’s way cool.

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Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

Visionaries with Courage (Video)

Some Gateway Arch photos taken by the masses

Google map to the Gateway Arch

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A Monument to the Politically Crazy

Somewhere in Mentor, Ohio, sits the well-kept home of our 20th President, James A. Garfield. Few Americans know anything about James Garfield, or perhaps their only knowledge of this man is through the lyrics of a Johnny Cash song:

Mr. Garfield been shot down shot down shot down

Mr. Garfield been shot down low

President Garfield was assassinated by spurned office-seeker and political nutbag, Charles Guiteau, on July 2nd, 1881, a mere 160 days after his inauguration. As far as assassinated Presidents goes, Garfield is simply one of four, an afterthought on a list that also contains one great (Abraham Lincoln) and one beloved (John F. Kennedy).

Few remember James Garfield, but I think the story of Garfield is tremendously valid today, and should be read and understood by anyone and everyone with a political leaning, whether left or right, whether they follow Fox News or the Huffington Post or even the Onion. The story of President Garfield is the story of dangerous political extremism.

Assassination of President Grant (www.authentichistory.com)

Anatomy of an Assassin

If I was to ask a panel of experts or non-experts, “what makes a presidential assassin”, I’m sure the bulk of them would say, in language academic or mundane, “they’re crazy”. By and large, anyone who would assassinate POTUS would have to be crazy. When you think about it, there’s not really a lot of point to it: our system of government isn’t particularly susceptible to change or overthrow in that manner. Between our tripartite government, our well-defined system of presidential succession, our deeply entrenched two-party politics, and the ponderous inertia of a democracy, the assassination of our President won’t really make much of a difference, other than to put the nation in a state of mourning. It could even steel our resolve to “stay the course” more than simply waiting until the next election to instigate change.

So if there’s no value in assassinating the president, then why do it? Well, John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln in retaliation for the Confederate loss in the Civil War, and the abolishment of the institution of slavery. Leon Czolgosz, the man who shot William McKinley, was a turn-of-the-century anarchist inspired by a slew of assassinations in Europe. Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist sympathizer (or maybe a patsy for the mob, or for the FBI, or by grey aliens, or who-knows-what). Slavery. Anarchy. Communism. Heavy, deeply philosophical ideas. Crazy, but deep crazy.

Charlie Guiteau? Charlie Guiteau killed James Garfield because his particular wing of the GOP (the Stalwarts) lost to Garfield in the Republican convention of 1880.

Um, seriously? That’s shallow crazy right there.

Charlie Guiteau (wikipedia)

The Drudgery Grudgery of Politics

There is a long, complicated story surrounding the 1880 Republican Convention. To summarize, there were two favorites. The Stalwarts stood behind former President Ulysses S Grant, and the Half-Breeds stood behind Senator James Blaine of Maine. During the convention (a weird affair, like all other 18th century conventions), dark-horse  James Garfield — a compromise candidate offered when neither favorite carried a majority — surprisingly won the nomination. He would then go on to defeat Democrat William Hancock in the general election.

There’s a lot more to this, of course, but it would probably bore you to tears. Which is kinda the point: all these inner workings of the two-party system, all the legerdemain cast by the party machines, it’s all fairly petty stuff. It’s all about favoritism, and patronage, and civil service, and all this other nonsense. None of it is “deep”, none of it is particularly soul-renching. None of it is, even in a madman’s eyes, cause for assassination! Unless, of course, you’re a person with the shallowness of purpose as Charlie Guiteau.

Political shallowness is exactly the point, and hence the subtitle of this post, “A Monument to the Politically Crazy”. Garfield was killed for no reason other than some whackjob took offense over a political process. There was no other reason! Sure, Guiteau also felt slighted for not getting the patronage job he wanted, but he also knew killing the president would result in him being hanged! There was no purpose to it, whatsoever. Just the total waste of a life, and the lost potential of a President. I think Garfield was on his way to being a very good President when he was shot, but we’ll never know that now.

Soccer Riot or Election Day? (http://www.thetimes.co.uk)

Crazy: Then and Now

Charlie Guiteau was a political nut-job. He was so fixated on his own faction that he took it upon himself to murder a president. He wasn’t fixated on a cause, but on a team. How shallow is that? But let’s look at this madness: this is exactly the type of bent most politically-minded Americans have today! How many people only vote for their own political party? How much punditry on 24-hour cable news, talk radio, or the blogosphere is really “our team is great, the other team sucks”? Listen carefully to what goes on in today’s popular media outlets, you’ll see this to be true most of the time. We are all being trained to be Charlie Guiteaus: not concerned with the facts or philosophies of governance, but wholly concerned about our “team” beating the other “team”?

None of this is good, none of this is wise. We need to stop playing team politics, and start paying real attention to real issues and the real results of our decisions, before we all end up crazy like Charlie Guiteau.

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Links:

James A. Garfield National Historic Site

How Our Partisan Loyalties Are Driving Polarization

Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield <– an excellent book and my key source for this post.

Google map

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Liberty Enshrined

Everyone believes in something. Even agnostics and atheists believe in something. Some put blind faith in money, thinking it will make them happy. Some put blind faith in material possessions, because, well, *sparklies*. Some put blind faith in their political party or right-left-center talking points. Some put blind faith in celebrity, buying Bieber cologne or other ludicrous claptrap. Some put blind faith in themselves, being so arrogant as to think they are infallible and therefore beyond question. Some even put blind faith in science, as odd as that sounds, believing that any and all studies that cross their path must be true (this leads to a lot of fad diets as well as other errors).

Copyright America In Context

Liberty’s Shrine

In my own case, I tend to put blind faith in the American ideal. For folks like me, Independence Park in Philadelphia is the Temple Mount, the Ganges River, the Mecca of our own beliefs. It’s a place of extreme importance, a shrine commemorating the place where the founding principles of this country were put to paper and approved by an assemblage of great minds and strong characters. A place where heretofore un-codified principles were defined and written into law and principle, grandiose notions such as “[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”; “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”; or “[t]he privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it”. Fabulous ideas, amazing ideas, ideas that would inspire nation after nation to rebel against tyrants and kings and establish democracy. It’s the Great American Way that Independence Park symbolizes, the Great American Way that I hold most dear.

Unfortunately.

Folks are going to worship me someday, aren't they? :sigh:

“Folks are going to worship me someday, aren’t they? :sigh:”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, ideals aren’t real. They don’t exist, and you can’t count on them. If you do, you will be betrayed. Every time. The American Ideal is the same: it’s full of betrayal. The original Constitution says that certain people are only worth 3/5ths of other people, and also said that those in bondage who escape to another state must be returned into bondage. Basically, it protected the vile institution of slavery for nearly 100 years. Even today, long after that particular abomination was wiped out by amendment, there is betrayal. These documents have been subverted, abused and weakened, leaving a system of government so devolved it barely represents the will of the people at all, and our nation is in a fine ruddy mess because of it.

Then again, it’s still important to hold onto ideals. It’s vital, actually. They are the goal, the dream, the vision, and without our goals, dreams and visions, we are a dead species. And to keep goals, dreams and visions alive, it is important that kids be indoctrinated (for lack of a better word) with ideals that are truly valuable, else they, too, will grow up to be tyrants and monsters; and you can’t do any worse than indoctrinating them into the important American ideals of equality, liberty, self-governance, and independence.

And naked statuary, of course

And naked statuary, of course

There is also no better element of that indoctrination than a trip to Independence Park in Philadelphia. I really like Philadelphia for one simple reason: the park is dedicated not to rebellion (like Boston, with it’s homage to the Boston Massacre, Faneuil Hall, and Paul Revere), nor to warfare (like Valley Forge or Yorktown), nor to marble monoliths (like Washington, DC) but to ideas, thought, consideration, and debate. It’s a site that contains meeting rooms, and convention halls, and judicial chambers;  not cannons, trenches, or cemeteries, but desks. It is a truly remarkable place in that aspect, it’s dedicated to ideas, and I find that refreshing.

But he's just sitting there! THINKING!

But he’s just sitting there! THINKING!

Liberty Imprisoned

I first visited Philadelphia in the 90’s. At that time, the Liberty Bell was in a non-descript glass enclosure inside Independence Hall. Anyone could see it. I never bought into Bell lore myself (like most American legends, it’s more tall tale than fact), but I kinda liked the presentation: subdued, no drama, viewable by everyone, kinda like I envision liberty itself. Freedom should not be a big deal, it should not be something we put on a pedestal. It should just “be”. You don’t pay attention to it when it’s there, you just live your life, yet everyone notices when it’s absent.

Then 9/11 happened, our liberties were sacrificed to the Lords of Fear, and The Liberty Bell became a symbol of our shift to madness.

In the grief-stricken days after 9/11, we were all expecting more terrorist attacks. We went bat-shit crazy protecting everything.  We improved airport security, then we “improved” airport security, then we began the systematic groin-groping known as the TSA. We started monitoring financial transactions, then started monitoring foreign communications, and now the NSA has a full-blown domestic spy program best suited for watching cheating spouses and stealing credit card numbers. We placed Jersey barriers in front of government buildings, we put metal detectors at the entry of every government building and landmark, and we built a prison for the Liberty Bell.

Liberty's Prison

Liberty’s Prison

On my second visit to Independence Park, I spotted the Liberty Bell Center, and it saddened me. The Liberty Bell is no longer just “there”, like our liberties should be. It is encased in a steel and glass structure, surrounded by guards and various security devices, reminiscent of a prison. It also, oddly, has the look of a high-end shopping mall, meaning not only is Liberty imprisoned but it’s also commercialized (they should call it Liberty Disney). I was so repulsed by the appearance of the Liberty Bell Center from afar, I didn’t have it in me to go there. Liberty was imprisoned and I didn’t want to be stuck on the outside, pressing my face against the glass in the hopes she’d remember me in her confinement.

I think the NPS has toned down the security in the intervening years, and I’ve heard from others that the Center is actually a pretty nice facility. But for me, the illusion has been shattered. The Liberty Bell, like the very civil liberties it represents, is not just cracked but contained, with an admission fee, groin groping, and gift shop.

[Photos on this blog entry are mine and thusly copyrighted.]

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Links:

Independence National Historical Park

Founding Fathers Fetish (slate.com)

3D Tour of the Liberty Bell

Google Map of Independence National Historical Park

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Boring Built America

The National Park Service has a couple hundred small, unimposing, mundane historic sites spread all over the country. They don’t cover events of magnitude, like Pickett’s Charge or the Gold Rush or the battle of the Alamo, but they are loved by their local communities and tell important stories nonetheless. Hopewell Furnace, in rural south-central Pennsylvania, tells one such story: mundane, boring, but vital.

Hopewell was an early ironworks, a forging business operating in  the late 18th, early 19th centuries. There, you can learn how charcoal was made; how limestone was harvested; and how those two materials were combined in a blast furnace with raw ore to form iron, the metal that transformed the world. Mundane & boring? Sure. Hopewell is well-maintained, the people are pleasant, the visiting children seemed to like it, but it isn’t particularly exciting. But you know what? Boring isn’t so bad: it built and defended this nation for over 200 years now.

It shouldn’t be too great of a leap to understand that iron built America. We look at the musket-carriers of the Revolutionary War with great reverence, but if it wasn’t for places like Hopewell, there would be no iron or steel for the musket barrels, wagon wheels, and cannons. We were in the early days of being an industrial juggernaut, producing 30,000 tons a year at the beginning of hostilities. Iron built the weapons that fought off enemies, shot at brothers, and conquered new territory. But it didn’t stop there. Iron built the railroads, and the great engines that rode on them. Iron built the ocean liners that shipped our goods everywhere in the world. Iron built the buildings and skyscrapers that housed finance, engineering, science, and even religion.

Yes, it’s all very poetic. What’s not poetic is how mundane it all is. Hundreds of men crawled around in mines, breathing in noxious fumes and dust and working themselves to the bone to extract ore. Dozens more gathered wood and endured the laborious process of turning wood into charcoal. Others dug limestone from cliff faces. Then there were the oxcart drives and teamsters, hauling stuff to and fro. Awfully boring, awfully dangerous, awfully hard work, all necessary to the production of iron at Hopewell Furnace.

But that’s what built this country. Not politicians, not “captains of industry”, not wealthy elitists, nor Harvard graduates or published authors or generals or soldiers or even architects. All of those occupations are worthless without real people doing real boring, mundane, uninteresting, hard work. Even today, it’s the trades who continue to build stuff. Whether they live & work in Pennsylvania or Mexico or China, today the entire world is built by the hard working folks doing the most boring of tasks over and over and over.

Next time you’re bored, remember: boring built America. And if you’re going to do something boring & monotonous, at least make it worthwhile to someone.

[All pictures are mine and thusly copyrighted. A few more, in black & white, are here.]

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Links:

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

A Brief History of Iron & Steel

Pennsylvania Iron Furnace Sourcebook

Voluntary Simplicity

Google map to Hopewell Furnace

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Charisma is My Dump Stat

Ever since I was a young pup, growing up in the Western Massachusetts confluence of mill towns and dairy farms, people routinely sang the praises of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “He saved the country and the people” was the mantra. If you were a blue-collar worker, FDR was a hero. If you were a farmer, FDR was a hero. If you held degrees in the arts or sciences, FDR was a hero. His name was always spoken with reverence. “He got us out of the Great Depression”. As a kid, I never understood it, but it was taught to me from a very early age. Actually, “taught” may not even be the operative word here, it was almost genetic.

This reverent view was especially held by those who actually lived through the Depression. My grandparents – disinterested in politics otherwise – loved FDR, as did their brothers & sisters, family friends, and others of the same generation. My parents’ generation, mere tweens during the 30’s & 40’s, also spoke lovingly of the man. It’s only now, with my grandparents’ generation is 20 years dead and my parents’ rapidly disappearing, that FDR is receiving critical attention by the general public.

I find this utterly fascinating. Sure, pundits & partisans would complain about the economics of the New Deal and the court packing scandal, but FDR had to be dead 60 years before the common man started questioning his Presidency and leadership. That’s almost three generations! I can’t think of anyone short of George Washington and perhaps Thomas Jefferson who escaped such criticism for so long. The people of FDR’s time had to basically die before public opinion turned against him. Today, we decry the previous loser the day after Election Day.

How in the world does this happen? How is it even remotely possible that any leader can earn such true devotion amongst his people? His wasn’t based on fear, nor was it based on indoctrination (contrary to right-wing conspiracy theorists). The devotion FDR enjoyed was real, and true, and long-lasting. This is the real story of FDR: not the impact of his policies but the power of his charisma. Utterly fascinating!

I have many flaws. Perhaps the most striking one is my near-total lack of charisma. I’m not particularly likable, and have virtually no leadership skills. I couldn’t convince people to escape from a burning building. If I was at a picnic and implored people to not eat the botulism-tainted potato salad, a score of ambulances would be needed to cart away the doubled-over masses. To me, strong & genuine leadership qualities are as alien as an iPhone to Neanderthals. That is why I find FDR so fascinating. His charisma is akin to string theory: practically unknowable.

Here’s my own take on why Roosevelt inspired such devotion: he had the “perfect storm” of confidence, communication, competence, and empathy. His family, especially his mother, Sara, gave him a good education and instilled in him a measure of self-confidence absolutely required of a good leader. FDR was a great communicator. His speeches are the stuff of legend and they were delivered, not as oratory, but as conversation, meaning they were genuine. Was FDR competent? Sure, you could say his policies weren’t necessarily wise, but he got them done. People respect people who get things done, action is rewarded far greater than thought or bearing. And FDR did accomplish an awful lot in his 12 years as President.

So that leaves empathy. Empathy is the capacity to care about your fellow human being: to see, understand and relate to other people and their troubles. In the beginning, FDR (like most bluebloods) didn’t have much in the way of empathy. He was “upper crust”, raised in the bubble of Hudson Valley prestige and private school. He was not fit to lead the U.S., at least not in a manner to receive such a tremendous amount of public adulation. But something happened that gave him the empathy he needed to be one of the top five Presidents in history. That something? Polio. To alleviate the pain of polio (or perhaps Guillain-Barre syndrome), FDR would visit Warm Springs, Georgia. There he’d meet poor farmers and others trying to live in impoverished conditions. It’s there he learned to empathize with the common man, and where he gained the final skill required to be a strong leader.

It’s both sad and relieving that presidents like FDR are far and few between. On the one hand, we could certainly use more competence in our nation’s capitol. We are certainly sick and tired of politico-speak (the near opposite of  good communication). And empathy? If there’s a skill that’s dead in Washington, it’s empathy. That’s why our government is failing us, that’s why Congress has minute approval ratings, why our President — like the one before him — barely holds 50%, why no one trusts the courts and dissatisfaction rules the land.

But on the other hand, imagine what leaders like FDR can do. He inspired such huge devotion, devotion that lasted for decades, can you imagine what would have happened if he wasn’t an honorable man? Well, carnage, that’s what. If history has taught us anything, it’s “beware the charismatic man.” It’s the people who inspire loyalty and devotion in others who are the most dangerous.

We got lucky with FDR. We may not be so lucky with the next one.

[I did not own a camera when I visited Hyde Park. All photos are in the public domain and pulled from various sources, including those links given below].

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Links:

Home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Historic Site

FDR Presidential Library and Museum

FDR’s Ties to Georgia (University of Georgia site)

American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches

Google map to FDR’s home

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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.

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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.

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[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.]

Links:

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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