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Thursday, October 27, 2016

More on Nat Turner

[The Tocqueville series will continue next week.]    

 Because I was under pressure to write a piece on The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s film about Nat Turner, I based my critique almost entirely on Nat Turner’s confession, which is linked I the original piece two years ago.  But because I did want to find out how much truth there was behind various other aspects of the film, I checked four books on the rebellion out of the library.  One thing in particular shocked me.  It turns out that the massive reprisals against innocent black people—free and slave—which Parker describes in the closing caption never took place.  Parker evidently wanted to insist that more black people than whites were killed as a result of the rebellion, but that was not true.

     Although Turner’s rebellion took place in a relatively remote area of southern Virginia, contemporary sources about the rebellion and its aftermath were quite rich.  As Alexis de Tocqueville, who was traveling through North America at the time of the rebellion and referred to it in Democracy in America, reported, every hamlet in the United States had at least one newspaper.  It is no exaggeration to compare the impact of Turner’s rebellion to 9/11, at least within Virginia and nearby North Carolina.  The newspapers wrote a lot about it, the story was picked up all over the country, and local authorities investigated it quite thoroughly—although they did not, learn very much about Turner himself, making his confession by far the most important source that we have.  Thus my reading has developed only one significant fact about Turner’s life before the rebellion: that he was in fact beaten by his master about two years before the rebellion for having stated that the slaves should be free. While the story of his baptism of a white man is true,  there is no evidence that he was punished for it.  In other respects the historical record turns out to be much more vague than the movie suggests.  Cherry, portrayed in the film as Turner’s wife, is only one of several women who may have actually been his spouse.  There is nothing at all in the record about any outrages perpetrated on her, as the film depicts.  Nor could I find anything about his preaching, and specifically to confirm that he had told other slaves to be content with their lot and obey their masters, as the film shows.  The key question of the reprisals, however, was exhaustively researched in a 2004 book by David Allmendinger, Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County.  

         The story that about 100 slaves or free blacks had been killed was originally popularized, it turns out, by the Massachusetts white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in his newspaper The Liberator some weeks after the massacre.  It probably drew on some statements made at the time by local Virginians that were misinterpreted.    Theodore Trezvant, a storekeeper, apparently wrote a letter to a newspaper on September 5, about two weeks after the insurrection, stating, that, and claimed to know of 22 specifically killed by “scouring parties.”  John Hampden Pleasants, a Richmond newspaperman, wrote on September 6 that 25-40 blacks, or possibly more, had been killed without trial in circumstances of “great barbarity.” Garrison in the Liberator raised the estimate to 100 later in the month, and by 1861, Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote of “many hundreds” as he tried to rally support for the civil war in the North   Allmendinger found that a number of black people were indeed summarily executed—but almost all of them were in fact part of the rebellion. 
According to Allmendinger’s very careful researches, the tax rolls for St. Luke’s Parish, which seems to include the whole area of the rebellion, show a loss of 107 slaves from 1831 to 1832 of which he says 42 probably died as a result of the rebellion including the 18 who were  executed after a trial.  (The slave population was slowly declining in this part of the country at that time as many slaves were sold to owners in the Deep South.) 12 more were transported outside the 10 had been killed during the uprising including 3 who died in captivity after wounds. Two of those were decapitated and count as “atrocities,” the word that General Eppes, the commander of forces deployed to suppress the rebellion,  used.. The other 7 of these 10 could also be counted as atrocities since they had been captured and were killed on the spot.  All these people were actually involved in the rebellion.  Various other observers or later researchers—including Thomas Gray, Turner’s interrogator—concluded that between 3 and 6 completely innocent black people had been killed.  The 42 dead compares to 55 white victims of the massacre that Turner led.  Local authorities faced pressure from some of their white fellow citizens to make further reprisals upon the slave and free black population, but having interrogated the captured rebels—including Turner—they concluded that they had all the guilty men and resisted that pressure.  The rebellion did lead to some executions or killings in neighboring North Carolina in response to real or fancied slave conspiracies there, Contemporary reports confirm only three such deaths, but by 1839 some authors were speaking of 15-20.  There seems in any case to be no detailed contemporary evidence that 1-200 black people were killed “for no reason but being black,” as Parker’s movie states.

The shock of the rebellion had interesting political consequences.  Sadly, although Turner had been a slave, it led to new restrictions on free black people in Virginia and a number of other southern states.  But it also led to a full scale debate in the Virginia legislature on the abolition of slavery, which many delegates regarded as a great evil that was bound to lead to further outrages like the Turner rebellion.  Abolition had the support of a substantial minority, but that was all.  The post-revolutionary idea that slavery was an evil that could and should die out was not yet dead in Virginia.  During the next 25 years a new generation of white southerners abandoned that tradition and insisted that slavery was a necessary and positive good, one that needed to be expanded, not abolished. Secession, the civil war and abolition resulted.

Something has happened over the last half century among much (but hardly all) of the black intelligentsia of our nation, and many white intellectuals have eagerly followed in their wake.  To begin with, their identification with their oppressed forebears and their resentment of all whites tarred with the brush of slavery or collaboration with it has become more intense.  Although the northern states abolished slavery in the wake of the American Revolution and became the home of an active abolitionist movement and eventually fought a war to end slavery, historians (many of them white) now accuse them of collaboration with the peculiar institution in all sorts of ways, including the acceptance, by Harvard Law School, of a bequest from a southern slave owner.  But more importantly, Parker clearly sees history as a mine from which to draw inflammatory material to arouse racial resentment today.  Because blacks have been oppressed, he seems to think, he is free to spread any particular stories of oppression he chooses, making them far more inflammatory than historical fact would admit.  And following in the tradition of Stokely Carmichel, H. Rap Brown and the Black Panthers, Parker seems to feel there is something sacred about black rage that justifies making Nat Turner, who responded to slavery with the murder of 55 people in their homes and their beds without regard to age of sex, into a hero and in some sense a role model.  He said as much to Anderson Cooper in a  60 Minutes interview.   Parker has grown up in a relatively advanced society (albeit not one free from racism), received his higher education at the expense of the public, and has pursued a film career.  All that was possible because men in other age of all races found ways of living together that did not involve acting out violent rage.  Our survival as a nation still depends on recourse to law.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was a Prophet, born in the immediate wake of the French Revolution, and one of the great western thinkers of the modern age.  A French aristocrat with an English wife, he combined intense historical research with the inquiring and generalizing spirit of his age, and became in my opinion its greatest political theorist.   Like my contemporaries and I, he grew up after the end of a tremendous ideological struggle, in a world dominated by competing political systems.  I was introduced to probably his greatest work, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, nearly 50 years ago, and I read portions of Democracy in America at the same time.  Now I am reading the latter work--which appeared many years before the former--from start to finish for the first time.  I thought it might provide important insights in the midst of one of the great crises of American democracy, and I have not been disappointed.

In the last thirty years, our political thinking has become extraordinarily unsophisticated. Democracy = good, Everything else = bad has become our credo, and the basis of our foreign policy as well.  The strength of Tocqueville--and also or Rousseau--was their skepticism about every system, owing to their skepticism about human nature.  Both seem to have been influenced by Aristotle, who had defined three classic forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.  Each, in his opinion could provide good government, but each also could degenerate into an evil form--monarchy into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into mob rule.  Tocqueville lived in an age in which all those transformations had taken place.  Monarchy became tyranny under Napoleon I and again near the end of his life under Napoleon III, the British aristocracy became more of an oligarchy in the early 19th century than it had been in the 18th, and mob rule overwhelmed France at the height of the revolution and had threatened some of the American colonies before the adoption of the Constitution.  Nearly all his writing is comparative, dominated by the contrasts between monarchical France, aristocratic Britain, and the democratic United States.  In the same way that Clausewitz--who was 23 years older, and who also died in his early fifties with a great work unfinished--built his great work around the different types of war, Tocqueville built his around different forms of government.  Last but hardly least, while out of sympathy with his own age, Tocqueville did not allow his preferences to cloud his powers of observation.  He believed aristocracy to be the best form of government, because he thought that powerful aristocrats could protect both their own and the people's liberty against a tyrannical government far more easily than a mass of equal citizens could.  Yet as he explained in the forward and at the conclusion of Democracy in America, he, like Jefferson, had no doubt whatever that democracy was the unstoppable wave of the future to which all western nations would have to adjust.  By democracy he meant, more than anything else, the end of class distinctions among men, and the great question that dominates the book is whether democracy can in fact protect liberty.  That is the question we face in different ways today.

Reading Democracy in America is a major project, and I expect that it will lead to a series of blogs both before and after November 8, the date which in my opinion will mark a turning point of sorts for American history.  I begin today with some relatively general observations and some comparisons between the American Tocqueville toured in the early 1830s, and the one we live in today.

The first section of the book describes the governing structures of the United States that Tocqueville visited--and leaves no doubt that if we are still a democracy, it is of a very different kind than the one he described.  Tocqueville found the essence of the democratic spirit at the lowest level of government, the township.  He appears to have investigated New England townships most carefully, but he had traveled through all the regions of the young country and he assures us that there are very few aristocratic regions left.  That is partly because American inheritance laws made it very difficult to pass on landed estates, as in Europe and families, he says, rarely remained rich for very long.  Rough equality of fortune prevailed alongside of equality of rights.  Within townships, Tocqueville found, town meetings of all adult males decided virtually every question.  Each town had roughly the same set of officials, including a constable, a tax assessor, a tax collector, a clerk, a justice of the peace, and a supervisor of local roads.  Each town also maintained its schools, the institution that impressed Tocqueville more than any other.  In contrast to the peoples of continental Europe, the Americans administered themselves, and there were very small state bureaucracies and almost no national federal institutions, except for the federal courts.  It was in part because America had no large cities and few enormous fortunes, he felt, that American democracy functioned so well. Obviously all of that has now changed.

Tocqueville described the United States as a confederation, but he thought the federal government, even then, was significantly stronger than the government of most confederations since it directly collected taxes, raised and maintained and army and navy, and had a national court system.  In once fascinating discussion, he turns his comparative bent in another direction, and argues that it is easier for smaller nations to be happy, prosperous, and self-governing than large ones.  "In small nations," he wrote, "the watchfulness of society penetrates everywhere and attention is paid to the improvement of the smallest details; national ambition is greatly tempered by weakness, and their efforts and resources are almost entirely directed towards their well-being and not liable to be dissipated in vain dreams of glory. . .Moderate fortunes make conditions roughly equal; mores are simple and quiet."  In large nations, on the other hand, "The ambition of individuals grows with the power of the state, , ,Great wealth and dire poverty, huge cities, depraved morals, individual egoism, and complication of interests are so many perios which almost always arise from the large size of the state."  These problems, he said, had led many writers (including Rousseau, if I remember correctly) to deny that large states could remain republics, but Tocqueville insisted that this was not necessarily so,  Reading this passage, however, it seemed to me that my own nation today had much more in common with great monarchies of Tocqueville's age and that it had fallen prey to their national and personal vices.  Ironically, thanks to the military supremacy which the United States established within the western world after 1945 and has maintained ever since, it is the European nations who have enjoyed more of the benefits Tocqueville ascribed to smaller nations while we have fallen prey to the temptation of large ones.  The European nations have even surrendered a good deal of their sovereignty to the EU, although that decision, of course, has become very controversial, and seems likely to be reversed, to some extent at least, in years to come.

"It is therefore permissible to say," he continued in chilling terms, "in general terms that nothing is more inimical to human prosperity and freedom than great empires."  But such nations reflect very real aspects of human nature, and he quickly adds that they also "have peculair advantages, which must be recognized.  "In a large state thought on all subjects is stimulated and accelerated; ideas circulate more reely; the capitals are vast intlelectual centers concentrating all the rays of thought in one bright glow; that is why great nations contribute more and aster to the increase of knowledge and the general progress of civilization than small ones."  He was evidently thinking of Athens and Rome, of the Russian and Ottoman Empires, of the great French monarchy and the British Empire--and in our own time the United States and, yes, the Soviet Union have played this role too.  For the time being, Tocqueville argued, the United States had successfully combined that advantages of small and large states, both because of its federal character and because it was not threatened by any foreign nation and did not need a large army or navy.  The question now is whether we, like other great nations of the past, are likely to succumb to the defects of our greatness, rather than continue to display its advantages.  That question to me is a very open one. 

As I worked my way through the early sections of this remarkable work, I could not help contrasting Tocqueville's well-informed analysis of different systems with prevailing views in academia today.  The chief feature of early America, most historians would now claim, was that white males had a monopoly on political power while women, and especially Indians and slaves, suffered oppression.  Progress, to them, consists in removing these disabilities, and nothing else is very important. As a matter of fact, Tocqueville was very interested both in the status of women and the relations among the three races of the United States, as wel shall have occasion to see.  But in our single-minded obsession with issues of race, gender, and even sexual orientation (which he did not discuss), we have cast aside the classical questions relating to the government of nations and the welfare of their inhabitants.  It is not a coincidence, in my opinion, that our political system is suffering from such grave ills.

Last but hardly least, Tocqueville began his discussion of American society by quoting from a 17th-century Constitution of the colony of Connecticut--distinguished, in his eyes, by a mixture of political liberalism and moral dictatorship.  On the one hand, all males had equal political rights and the people governed itself; on the other hand, adultery and homosexuality could be punished with death.  Such discipline had eased by the 1830s, of course, but Tocqueville still believed that democracy worked in America in large part because of the relatively strict moral code which all classes of American society tended to observe.  That, too, is now a thing of the past, and I look forward to exploring whether our looser moral standards have indeed hurt the functioning of our democracy. Great works never grow old and future generations can always benefit from grappling with them.  That is what I plan to continue to do in the weeks to come as we look forward, perhaps. to a new stage in American history.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The most divided nation

The winner of the election on November 8 will attempt to govern a nation far more divided than at any time since late 1860, when the nation broke up.  My late friend Bill Strauss used to speculate that the election of Hillary Clinton might lead to the secession of at least a few states, and I suspect that it will lead at least to discussions along those lines.  But even if it does not, the split in the country will probably be even worse than it has been for the last 16 years--and since we are most certainly not about to fight another civil war, we will have no obvious means of overcoming it.  This will be the challenge that either candidate faces--and at the moment, of course, Hillary Clinton looks very likely to be the winner.

It is in a sense fitting that the decisive event of the campaign is turning out to be the revelation of Donald Trump's boasts about his sexual conduct and a string of accusations from women confirming those boasts.  That is because one of the biggest and sharpest divides among us is between men and women.  According to Nate Silver, an average of polls shows Trump leading Clinton by five percentage points among men--all men, not white men--while she leads by fifteen points among women.  Silver has published two maps showing what would happen in the election if only men or only women voted.  Trump, he reports, would win in a landslide comparable to Eisenhower's over Stevenson in 1952 with only men voting, while Clinton would carry the nation by the largest margin in history without men.  Trump leads 46%-33% among whites, but trails 85%-2% among black Americans and 50-26 among Hispanics. Trump leads among whites without a college degree by 51-26,, and that to me remains the great catastrophe of the reign of identity politics over the last half century: the complete political division between white and minority poor people, the exact opposite of the situation that prevailed from the 1930s through the 1960s.  (These figures are from a Pew Poll.)  That division was what kept white supremacy in  place in the South before the 1960s, and it is a godsend to corporate America today since it allows corporate interests to control both parties and keep the rich getting richer.  Last, but hardly least, there is the regional division, so entrenched that we now take it for granted that only about 10 states are genuinely in play in every presidential election.  The worldwide tendency has been towards the breakup of large units ever since the collapse of Communism, and Brexit and the Scottish nationalist movement have brought that tendency much closer to our own cultural home.  Anything is possible.

The New Yorker last week ran a long article about how West Virginia has become a red state, based on interviews with people from one corner of the state.  One of the most interesting interviews was with Brandon Kirk, a history professor at a local state school.  Kirk is remarkable to me because two things seem to be at war within him:  an instinctive sense, based on his own life, of how the country has gone wrong on the one hand, and modern historical fashions on the other.  Here is is talking about the older West Virginians--virtually all now dead--whom he got to know as a child, from the GI generation. 

When he left for college, he hadn’t planned to come back to the area, but he did. “The old people, the ones that I started to visit with when I was young, are the ones that pulled me back,” he says. “They’re all dead now. I miss those old people so bad. They were such solid people. They were kind. And they had been through the Depression and the world war—they had a lot of shared experiences that people today don’t have.” When he thinks about his home and why it matters to him, it is shared experiences that he thinks about—the shared experience, good and bad, of people whose ancestors came from many countries under very different circumstances, but whose families have now lived together for a long time in one place. He wants to feel this sense of home about America, too—a sense that we’re all in this together. “Those old people pulled me back, and then they died on me, and so here I am and they’re all gone,” he says. “I think about them a lot. Their memories stretched back to the late eighteen-hundreds, to their grandparents, sometimes their great-grandparents, and so I also feel connected to those people they spoke about.”

That was how a sense of national unity re-emerged in the 1930s and 1940s: through massive efforts, at home and abroad, that enlisted and rewarded the entire population.  That is the kind of effort we need today.  But the other side of Kirk's world view emerges when he talks about his own students and what he wants to do for them.  It comes, in my opinion, straight out of what he must have learned in graduate school.

“Sometimes I’ll have a black student and I’ll get real excited because I don’t get very many,” he says. “I’ll ask them if they’re interested in their family history, if they know anything about it, because one of my research interests is antebellum slave life in this region. I want to know those stories, and I want to know about the black migrants that came here between the Civil War and coal. That’s not my story, but I want to know that story, it’s important history. I say let everybody have their markers, their memorials, their heritage, and celebrate all of it. There’s room for everybody.” Near where one of his ancestors was buried he found an old slave cemetery. He wants to draw attention to it, so that other people will visit it, too.

Of course we need "room for everybody" in the United States, but Kirk, like the whole profession to which he belongs, has been trying for decades to find that "room" (or "space," which is the preferred postmodern term) by emphasizing the particularity of our experiences, rather than the participation of minorities and women in the great struggles that have defined us as a nation.  That is why, as two historians pointed out on the op-ed page of the New York Times a few weeks ago, political history is hardly ever taught in American colleges and universities any more.  That is why we spent many months arguing which white male should be removed from our currency: Alexander Hamilton, who did as much as any man to give our government its shape, or Andrew Jackson, the first President to make economic equality a burning issue.  We have spent much too much time on white male stories, historians think, and we need to spend more time on others.  The problem is that those white males gave our nation its shape, and other white males named Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt preserved and deepened our national unity in the midst of great crises.  Hillary Clinton, ironically, referred to Lincoln in the last debate--but only to suggest that he, like other politicians, had to use less than savory methods to achieve his goals.  Of course we all want to know our individual family histories--but we all also need to know about the history that has, and could again, unite us all.

In the midst of the revelations about Donald Trump--which have touched a nerve among liberals in a way that none of the revelations about his business career ever did--the wikileaks revelations about Clinton have been pushed to the back. "My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere," she told the management of a Brazilian bank in 2013. That, of course, was the dream that the Europeans hastened to extend to Eastern Europe--economically and culturally a completely different region from western Europe--after the collapse of Communism, and now western and Eastern European voters alike are turning against it.  And that is the dream, as the New Yorker article shows, that West Virginians are fighting against.  They are right to do so.  Both Lincoln and FDR were keenly aware that they were fighting on behalf of the whole world in their struggles to make democracy work here at home--but both understood that the battle had to be won at home first.  We have been losing that battle for the last 40 years, and we have to turn the tide at home before we cam improve our impact abroad.  In an emerging clash of civilizations, we need to make our own civilization work.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Campaign Crises, 1884-2016

The crisis in the Republican campaign created by the release of Donald Trump's 2005 remarks is almost, but not quite, without precedent in American history.  Twice before, a candidate on the national ticket has faced potentially devastating revelations subsequent to his nomination, leading to speculation that he might be dropped from the ticket.  Both times those candidates found the necessary response, and both not only remained on the ticket but won election and went on to greater glory.  Tonight Donald Trump has his chance to do the same, but it is hard to see, based on these examples, exactly how he might manage a similar escape.

In 1884 the Re[publican Party had won the last six presidential elections, largely because so many voters associated the Democrats with secession and the losing side of the Civil War.  The Democrats had only narrowly lost the elections of 1876 and 1880, however, and in 1884, they they seemed poised for victory. The Republicans had nominated a party stalwart, James G. Blaine of Maine, who had demonstrated great ability as a nator and Secretary of State, but who had also been caught red-handed taking money to advance the cause of a railroad in the southwest, becoming a symbol of the political corruption of the age.  The Demorrats already had their slogan--"Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from teh State of Maine"--and by late summer they thought they had the right candidate, Grover Cleveland, the Governor of New York.  Cleveland was a very freshly minted politician, a former mayor of Buffalo now in the midst of his first term in Albany, but he had fought machine politicians at every step and looked like the perfect alternative to the corrupt, well-established Blaine, whose resume is not entirely dissimilar to Hillary Clinton's.  Some weeks after Cleveland's nomination, however, a bombshell dropped in Cleveland's home city.  A bachelor, Cleveland was revealed to have acknowledged the paternity of an illegitimate child born to a widow, Maria Halpin, some years earlier.  The child, interestingly enough, had been christened Oscar Folsom Cleveland--and Oscar Folsom had been Cleveland's very married law partner at the time, suggesting that Cleveland might have chosen to protect a friend.  Democrats were initially devastated, but Cleveland immediately told party leaders simply to "tell the truth."  Yes, he said, he might have been the father, but others might have been as well.  The revelation set off a national debate about the sexual options of unmarried men, with Mark Twain weighing in on Cleveland's side.  At length a Democrat found the proper answer to the Repblicans: Blaine, whose private life was blameless, should be returned to private life, while Cleveland, the impeccably honest public servant, should ascend to higher office.  The Democrats went boldly forth into battle, but the Republicans had their slogan too: "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!"  The campaign was, until this year, probably the dirtiest in American history, but Cleveland narrowly prevailed and went on to two non-consecutive terms in the White House.

The second candidate to face such a crisis in mid-campaign was Richard Nixon in 1952, when Nixon, a 39-year old Senator from California, was running for the vice presidency with General Dwight Eisenhower.  Given the unpopularity of the incumbent Democratic administration because of the Korean War, they seemed destined for victory.  Midway through the campaign, however, the New York Post revealed that Nixon had received $16,000 for his own use--much of it for travel expenses to and from California--from wealthy Republican contributors.  Given that the corruption of the Truman Administration was one of the major themes of the Republican campaign, this was a serious accusation, and a leading Republican newspaper asked him to resign.  Eisenhower's entourage seemed to share that wish.

Nixon instinctively fought back, blaming the enemies who would never forgive him for unmasking the Communist spy Alger Hiss.  He refused to quit the ticket, and was given a chance to explain himself to the American people in a televised address.  Nixon was now fighting on death ground, where Sun Tzu says men fight best.  He delivered the famous Checkers speech, laying his family's finances bare in great detail with his wife at his side, and telling the families of American veterans like himself that he was just another struggling young man with a family like them, not a profiteer.  The Republican National Committee was deluged with telegrams in his favor, and he stayed on the ticket. The rest, as they say, is history.

Trump this evening cannot, like Cleveland, "tell the truth," and he cannot, like Nixon, convince his fellow citizens that he is really just one of them.  His best move is the one Bill Clinton should have made twenty years ago: to refuse to discuss these personal issues at all and stick to the issues.  It is at least equally likely, however, that he will double down and reply with an attack on Bill and Hillary Clinton.  Statements by leading Republicans now leave no doubt that they would get rid of him if they could figure out a way to do so, and Mike Pence would make a formidable opponent for Hillary at this late stage.  But many ballots have already been cast for Trump, and many more have been printed.  Today's papers report that there is no way to force him off the ticket--he would have to quit,  he is just as unlikely to do that as either Nixon or his current opponent.  This time it seems unlikely that the candidate will escape.  There will be time later on to discuss what this means.