Friday, April 15, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 15: John Brown, abolition and bad historical analogies

I've tried to resist the temptation in my daily Confederate "Heritage" Month posts to spend time and energy griping about the bad historical analogies that people pull out of the Civil War and its surrounding history.  The point of that series of posts is to look at the real history of the conflict in contrast to the neo-Confederate/Lost Cause fantasy version.

But with the rightwing foaming at the mouth over the evils of an independent judiciary, and even members of Congress encouraging violence against judges, I thought I would pause here at the halfway point of the month to say something about historical judgments.

Abortion and slavery

In reference to the  the far-right freaks who are advocating violence against judges today, I'm not inclined to waste any time making sophomoric arguments about historical analogies in that connection.  There is simply no justification for that, nor any justifications for the Tom DeLays of the world to encourage it.  It's worse than disgraceful.

Steve Gilliard has been unloading on Amy Sullivan, who writes on politics and religion, for what he sees as her carelessness in discussing the Republican complaints about the "cultural elite."  I think he's too harsh on Sullivan herself, who I've quoted here with approval more than once.  But I also think his basic point is correct, that behind the rightwing "cultural war" rhetoric there's more than a little anti-Semitism and various other seedy conspiracy theories.  Because today's Republican Party is, after all, the offspring of Southern segregationism and Nixon-style authoritarianism.

In the process, Gilliard makes a succinct characterization of the way in which the violent antiabortion fringe tries to use images from African-American history (Code Words 04/13/05):

From "pro-life" to talk about Dred Scott to "vouchers", modern American conservatism panders to bigotry without ever saying so openly. It's not just the radical right, but they have taken the ball and run hard with it. They hide in plain site. It started with Reagan's use of the words "welfare queens", accompanied with the depiction of a few black con artists. Lost in the debate was the fact that the average AFDC recipient was a singe white woman. Welfare gained a black face, which was then used to attack the program with working class whites. This attack played into the perception that blacks were getting ahead over whites, when every statistic showed the opposite.

Charles Murray had the cover of the supposedly "liberal" New Republic to launch into a "discussion" on race which could have been lifted from Theodore Bilbo's Segregation or Mongrelization. Filled with racist canards geneticists viewed with disdain and hoary old myths like penis size comparison, this racist tome was given respectability. The Bell Curve was a sea of words to say niggers were born stupid and will stay that way.

The radical right uses code words to express their goals. Take vouchers. While they use blacks as cover, anyone who looks at the stats will see who would benefit the most: all-white Christian schools. They don't say they want to defund public education and end integration. Because code words are wonderful cover and can suck in the unsuspecting. Well meaning people repeat their coded arguments without seeing the deeper meaning.

Take the current debate about pharmacists "religious choice". Now, on the surface, this sounds fine. No one should be forced to violate their religious beliefs. John Kerry got sucked right into this code word argument. But what it really is an attack on Griswold, which was the case which created the right to have contraception. Condoms had been sold as a disease prevention device, but the pill, which was designed to prevent pregnancy, was a very different matter.

That quotation really hits some key points in why the very common comparison that the antiabortion movement makes of themselves to the antislavery movement is so vapid and dishonest.  For one thing, it's less of a historical comparison for them than it is an example of the obsession of the Radical Right with accusing the Other Side (blacks, liberals, Jews, and so on and so on) of being horrible hyprocrites.  "See, we're just like the abolitionists and the civil rights movement."

But more to the point, opponents of abortion have full freedom to persuade people not to have abortions.  And they make use of that freedom, often to the point of real abuse, like disseminating medical misinformation exagerrating the dangers of abortion.  One excellent option would be for the antiabortion groups to actively promote the use of contraception.

But, as Gilliard points out, the antiabortion activists for the most part are also opposed to the use of contraception.  As well as reality-based sex education.  Politically and psychologically, there are two strong connecting threads here: pregnancy and the risk of disease as punishment for sinful sex; and, opposition to women's control over their bodies.

Despite a fountain of medical misinformation from the antiabortionists, the medical reality is still the same today as it was in 1973, when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade.  A fetus is not viable outside of it's mother's womb until the end of the second trimester.  And so the law should recognize, as it currently does, that a fetus in a medical sense is part of the mother's body until that time.

And however strongly and sincerely some individuals may feel about the issue, the notion of full-fledged human life beginning at the instant of conception is a very new concept, and by no means a generally accepted one.  Abortion in the United States was orginally outlawed around the beginning of the 20th century because the procedure was inherently dangerous; it simply couldn't be done safely and reliably.  In addition, the medical profession in the US was fighting to establish clear lines between the professionally-trained, scientifically-based practitioners and various kinds of quacks and medical scamsters.  Many abortions at the time were being carried out by the latter types of shady operators.  In the 1960s, the movement to legalize abortion prominently included activist clergy, who were appalled by the suffering and death that was being caused by back-alley abortions.

Both the Christian and Jewish religious traditions long relied on a concept of "ensoulment," the idea that at some moment the developing child would receive a soul.  Until fairly recently, the instant of conception was not considered the moment at which that occurred - and even the antiabortionists don't seem to talk much about "ensoulment."

In other words, the antiabortion movement relies on a conception of human life that is by no means clear-cut or generally accepted.  And opponents of abortion are free to oppose abortion as a practice even though it's legal.  And no one in America is being legally forced to have abortions.

To even mention that these conditions are radically different that the situation with slavery seems sophomoric and gives the antiabortion comparison more respect than it deserves.  But to put it very briefly: slavery was a compulsory condition, not a matter of choice for the slaves; there was nothing abstract about the living, breathing human beings who were being held as human property; and, not only was the system not open to public debate in the South, as time went on it was being increasing imposed on the free states and opposition forcibly suppressed.  The comparison of the antiabortion movement to abolition is based on the propaganda concept that Steve Gilliard describes.

Judging the antislavery movement

Leaving aside the frivolous historical analogies, how do we pass judgment on the antislavery movement today?  More specifically, how do we judge a John Brown, who took violent and illegal action to free the slaves and challenge the Slave Power?  Or the Underground Railroad that took slaves to freedom, also in violation of state and national laws?  Or those in the free states who resisted their legal obligaiton under the Fugitive Slave Law to return human property to the slaveowners?

Thre are no easy answers to questions like these, and no simple historical analogies to be drawn for today.  That's why it's so important to understand these things in some kind of realistic conflicts.  For instance, the proslavery fighters were going to do whatever they could to take over Kansas.  They didn't care whether they had to be violent or whether what they were doing was strictly legal.  That in itself doesn't justify anything and everything the antislavery people did.  But one can't be understood without the other.

It's worth noting, given the hysteria about judges on the Radical Right the last few weeks, that the Dred Scott decision was arguably the most disastrously consequential court decision in the country's history.  But, so far as I'm aware, no one tried to assassinate any of the Justices involved.  John Brown fought proslavery thugs in Kansas and soldiers at Harper's Ferry.  He didn't go gunningfor Chief Justice Taney or for proslavery members of Congress.

But there certainly were instances of violence being perpetrated against politicians and activists on the slavery issue.  One of the best known at the time involved South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, a sterling representative of Southern honor and the Peculiar Institution.  One day in 1856, antislavery Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner had some particularly harsh words on the Senate floor for one of the Senators from North Carolina.

This brave defender of the higher civilization created by slavery in the South walked up to Sumner as he was sitting at his desk on the Senate floor and began beating him with a heavy wooden cane.  The bold Southern hero selected that particular weapon in favor of a whip, he said, because he knew "that the Senator was my superior in strength" and so "might wrest it from my hand."  David Donald described in more detail how the honorable gentleman proceeded from that point in Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960), drawing on the findings of a investigative report from the House of Representatives:

Dazed by the first blow, Sumner of course could not remember that in order to rise from his desk, which was bolted to the floor by an iron plate and heavy screws, he had to push back his chair, which was on rollers. Perhaps half a dozen blows fell on his head and shoulders while he was still pinioned. Eyes blinded with blood, "almost unconsciously, acting under the instinct of self-defence," he then made a mighty effort to rise, and, with the pressure of his thighs, ripped the desk from the floor. Staggering forward, he now offered an even better target for Brooks, who, avoiding Sumner's outstretched arms, beat down "to the full extent of his power." So heavy were his blows that the gutta-percha cane, which he had carefully selected because he "fancied it would not break," snapped, but, with the portion remaining in his hand, he continued to pour on rapid blows. The strokes "made a good deal more noise after the stick was broken than before. They sounded as if the end of the stick was split."

As soon as Sumner was free from the desk, he moved blindly "down the narrow passage-way, under the impetuous drive of his adversary, with his hands uplifted." As "Brooks continued his blows rapidly with thepart of the stick he held in his hand," Sumner lost consciousness and "was reeling around against the seats, backwards and forwards." "His whole manner seemed . . . like a person in convulsions; his arms were thrown around as if unconsciously." Knocking over another desk, diagonally in front of his own, he seemed about to fall when Brooks reached out and with one hand held Sumner up by the lapel of his coat while he continued to strike him with the other. By this time the cane had shivered to pieces. Sumner, "entirely insensible" and "reeling and staggering about," was about to fall in the aisle. "I ... gave him about 30 first rate stripes," Brooks summarized. "Towards the last he bellowed like a calf. I wore my cane out completely but saved the Head which is gold."

It took Sumner many months to recover to the point he could resume his regular Senate duties. 

Now, to people living in the inferior, failed culture of the free states, Brooks' action looked like a cowardly, unprovoked assault on an unarmed man by a worthless thug.  Protest meetings were held in many cities of the North.  Some of these backward Yankees may have even wondered if this was an indication that the slaveowners were unlikely to agree to any peaceful resolution to the problems generated by the existence of slavery in a democratic republic.

But in the enlightened and noble realms of the plantation South, he was hailed as a hero.  Understandably so, since his action embodied the highest ideals of the Slave Power.  A few Whig newspapers expressed mild reservations about the attack.  (This was is a "Southern moderate" position, you see:  we don't object to him sneaking up on an unarmed man and clubbing him nearly to death with a cane; we just question his manners in doing so.  After the war, they probably claimed, "I had no hesitation in condemning Brooks' attack on Sumner!")  But he was heartily praised by his constituents.  Braxton Bragg of Louisiana, later of Civil War fame as a Confederate general, thought a vote of thanks to the brave Mr. Brooks by the House would have been appropriate.  "You can reach the sensibilities of such dogs only through ... their heads and a big stick," Bragg declared to a friend.

Abolitionists and religion

I've stressed the religious element in the self-understanding of the abolitionists, John Brown in particular, and also that of the slaveowners.  I didn't do that to encourage more bad historical analogies, e.g., Brown as Bin Laden, antiabortionists as antislavery crusaders.

But the religious element was a reality in that movement.  One observation I feel comfortable making about that is that it showed that Chrisitianity in the US at that time was not just about "pie in the sky when you die."  It's true that the slaveowners happily promoted such a view of Chrisitianity for the slaves as well as for free whites who were not part of the planter class.  And there were no shortage of free-state ministers who encouraged godly submission to whatever outrage an employer wanted to impose on his workers.

But it also clearly inspired many people to undertake active reform measures that aimed at broadening democracy and human freedom.  In the case of John Brown, it led him to sacrifice his own life in a serious effort to free slaves and help undermine the slave system.  For those people, Christianity didn't mean passively accepting destructive conditions.  Rather, it inspired them to try to change them.

On the other hand, the very fact that white Southern believers found it so comfortable to shape a version of Christianity which placed the Prince of Peace on the side of a brutal slave system that even under the best conditions gave the slaves no right to even form their own families, on the side of the notorious slave patrols and on the side of treason and war in behalf of defending those things, is a very disturbing historical realization.

And even if we admire the courage and commitment and the goals of a John Brown, his actions are still a reminder that seeing onself as directly doing the will of God makes any kind of normal political compromise far more difficult.  When what is at issue is a law, a piece of land, and sectional political arrangement, deals can be cut.  But when compromising with the enemy means betraying God, that makes things notably tougher.

Since we now know that the Slave Power was willing to go to war in 1861 rather than accept any peaceful political compromise that didn't allow them to continue to expand and strengthen the slave system, it would be hard to saythat Brown was wrong in 1859 to believe that the slaveowners would not give up their system of human bondage through peaceful agreement.  There's no good way to measure how much Brown's example meant, on the one hand, in making the Southerners more terrified and intransigent, versus on the other hand, inspiring the Northern public and armies when the Confederacy came into being and imposed civil war on the country.  Abraham Lincoln was later to reflect bitterly on his decision to allow some of the Confederacy's most able officers to leave the US Army and go to join the rebellion, hoping as he was for a last-minute peaceful solution, rather than simply arresting them.

But whether we view Brown as fanatical and/or crazy in some degree, or whether we view him as a dedicated political activist and religiously-motivated antislavery fighter, he still has to be considered in the context in which he actually lived, made decisions and died.  In 1881, Frederick Douglass reflected on his old ally in a speech in Harper's Ferry:

In studying the character and works of a great man, it is always desirable to learn in what he is distinguished from others, and what have been the causes of this difference. ... It is not always easy to explain the exact and logical causes that produce them, or the subtle influences which sustain them, at the immense hights where we sometimes find them; but we know that the hour and the man are seldom far apart, and that here, as elsewhere, the demand may in some mysterious way, regulate the supply. A great iniquity, hoary with age, proud and defiant, tainting the whole moral atmosphere of the country, subjecting both church and state to its control, demanded the startling shock which John Brown seemed especially inspired to give it. ...

To no one was the world more beautiful or life more sweet. How then as I have said shall we explain his apparent indifference to life? I can find but one answer, and that is, his intense hatred to oppression. I have talked with many men, but I remember none, who seemed so deeply excited upon the subject of slavery as he. ... He saw the evil through no mist or haze,but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no line of its ten thousand horrors out of sight. ...

Against truth and right, legislative enactments were to his mind mere cobwebs--the pompous emptiness of human pride--the pitiful outbreathings of human nothingness. He used to say "whenever there is a right thing to be done, there is a 'thus said the Lord' that it shall be done."

It must be admitted that Brown assumed tremendous responsibility in making war upon the peaceful people of Harper`s Ferry, but it must be remembered also that in his eye a slave-holding community could not be peaceable, but was, in the nature of the case, in one incessant state of war. To him such a community was not more sacred than a band of robbers: it was the right of any one to assault it by day or night. He saw no hope that slavery would ever be abolished by moral or political means: "he knew," he said, "the proud and hard hearts of the slave-holders, and that they never would consent to give up their slaves, till they felt a big stick about their heads."

This quotation that Douglass gave from Brown, I notice, uses the same metaphor that Braxton Bragg used in praising Preston Brooks' non-metaphorical assault on Charles Sumner.

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month post 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)

6 comments:

fdtate714 said...

On the subject of bad historical analogies and the hysteria over the judiciary, Ann Coulter came up with the king of bad analogies by invoking your hero, Andrew Jackson in the Terri Schiavo tragedy...

<<What was supposed to be the "least dangerous" branch has become the most dangerous — literally to the point of ordering an innocent American woman to die, and willfully disregarding congressional subpoenas. They can't be stopped — solely because the entire country has agreed to treat the pronouncements of former ambulance-chasers as the word of God. The only power courts have is that everyone jumps when they say "jump." (Also, people seem a little intimidated by the black robes. From now on we should make all judges wear lime-green leisure suits.)

President Andrew Jackson is supposed to have said of a Supreme Court ruling he opposed: "Well, John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it." The court's ruling was ignored. And yet, somehow, the republic survived.

If Gov. Jeb Bush doesn't say something similar to the Florida courts that have ordered Terri Schiavo to die, he'll be the second Republican governor disgraced by the illiterate ramblings of a state judiciary. Gov. Mitt Romney will never recover from his acquiescence to the Massachusetts Supreme Court's miraculous discovery of a right to gay marriage. Neither will Gov. Bush if he doesn't stop the torture and murder of Terri Schiavo.>>

Of course, knowing what an admirer of Jackson's that you are, I don't have to tell you what his quote was in reference too, do I?  A truly bad historical analogy!

bmiller224 said...

I'm surprised Mad Annie's mouth didn't burst into flames when she mentioned the name of Andy Jackson.  You know, kind of like the Devil touching the Bible?

What's next?  Invoking William Faulkner to promote censorship? - Bruce

amkpantera said...

Where was the security back then at the Congress or why was it so poor as to allow one senator to rise up and beat the hell out of another?  That reminds me of those sporadic fights that governments in Asia have; you can see them on "Real TV" and shows of that nature.

bmiller224 said...

Things were assumed to be less threatening in those days.  The President didn't even have special security until the Secret Service was tasked to guard Lincoln during the Civil War itself.

In one of the early political crises of the new Republic, when Jefferson was elected in 1800, some of the more monarchist-minded Federalists wanted to attempt to hold the national government by force.  The Jeffersonian (Democratic-Republican) Party was preparing to mobilize troops to restore the results of the election.

The crisis was resolved by the just-elected Jefferson and outgoing President taking a private stroll in Washington to discuss it, just the two of them.  No security.  No reporters tagging along.  No tourists coming up to ask for autographs.  When Jefferson made it clear that his partisans were serious about resisting any kind of Federalist coup, Adams was able to go back and tell his crazies to cool it. - Bruce

fdtate714 said...

I'd like to add some comments about Brooks's attack on Sumner.  Brooks was a member of the House who entered the Senate chamber to attack Sumner.
Sumner's speech, "The Crime Against Kansas," infuriated many Southerners, but South Carolinian Andrew Butler, a relative of Brooks's, was singled out by Sumner as a "Don Quixote who had chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows...the harlot, Slavery."
Many Southerners considered challenging Sumner to a duel, but this was reserved for social equals, not someone as low as this Yankee blackguard.  Horsewhipping was considered the suitable punishment.
Brooks was seen as a hero in the South.  The fragments of his cane were sought as sacred relics.  Southerners sent him new canes as presents.  The House voted to expel him, but he resigned, went home, and was reelected.  The Southern response caused a bigger political outcry than the actual attack.

bmiller224 said...

This is a good example of how social/psychological factors - in this case, the quirks and conventions of "Southern honor" - contributed to the failure of normal peaceful politics to reach a solution.  Even Frederick Douglass, who was by no means a pacifist, talked after the war about how war represented a failure of politics.  (Presumably he wasn't a devotee of the Von Clausewitz view of war as a continuation of politics by other means.)

"Southern honor" wasn't just a rhetorical posture.  It was a systematic way of viewing life, based heavily on family relationships and elaborate understandings of status relationships, as Duane's comment indicated.

The Brooks incident, apart from his own personal hotheaded tendencies, could also be seen as an example of the ways Southern responses escalated tension in ways that could have been avoided.  To Sumner and other Northerners, an insult was an insult based on someone's actions or words, and their expectation was that the offended party was perfectly capable of responding the the insult in like manner.  Brooks and many other Southerners processed the same thing as a calculated act of more serious escalation, which called for violent and/or lethal retaliation.

This "Southern honor" perspective certainly contributed in a significant way to the slaveowners' viewpoint that preserving slavery in its existing locations and accepting a more gradual, peaceful and even financially compensated phase-out of slavery as even a potential option. - Bruce