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It’s always useful to remember how low expectations were for Abraham Lincoln when he took office. Even his ostensible allies sometimes described him as a rube, a hayseed out of his depth in troubled times. As for his political enemies, the editors at Harper’s Weekly*, a publication that had shilled for Stephen Douglas during the 1860 campaign, printed the above cartoon (click here for a larger image) on this day in 1861. Less than a week before Lincoln’s inauguration, the artist, John McLenan, depicted the president-elect, apparently drunk, joking with cronies as a funeral procession for the Constitution and Union passed by in the background.
* The editors at Harper’s maintained a Unionist stance throughout the war. And by the end of the conflict, the publication had become aggressively pro-Lincoln.
Of all the things I’ve read about Lincoln recently, this very moving something-or-other is among my favorites. The idea that a person unfamiliar with Lincoln might meet and then find herself falling in love with him warms my heart.
(Thanks to a reader for the link.)
Had he not been cut down by an assassin’s bullet, Abraham Lincoln would have been 200 years old today. How’s that for a lede? Honestly, I feel like I should try to write something grand on this auspicious occasion, but as Frederick Douglass noted in 1876, “no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln.” Douglass was right. And that was in 1876. So you can imagine how hard it is to be original about Lincoln today. But that hasn’t stopped people, lots of people, from trying. In fact, I’ve just finished reading six new Lincoln books for a longish essay I’m writing to mark the bicentennial. I learned some interesting stuff from these books — especially from James Oakes’s The Radical and the Republican — but nothing that changes my basic impression of the man, his politics, or his presidency. Truth be told, it’s probably time for a multi-decade moratorium on Lincoln scholarship.
If I’m President Obama, I’m steering clear of Ford’s Theater, thank you very much. I mean, supporting arts and culture is one thing, but tempting fate is quite another.
“The Legend of John Brown” by Jacob Lawrence
Editor’s note: Caleb McDaniel, who many of you (at least those of you familiar with internet traditions) may remember from modeforcaleb, joins us today for a guest post. Thanks, Caleb, for taking the time to do this. We really appreciate it.
One-hundred-and-forty-nine years ago today, the state of Virginia hung the militant abolitionist and Kansas Free State warrior, John Brown.
A month and a half earlier, Brown had led a band of twenty-two men, including three of his sons, in a daring–and disastrous–raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry in western Virginia, a raid intended as a direct strike on the institution of slavery within the South itself. Captured on October 18 and quickly tried by the state, a wounded Brown spent November in a jail cell in Charlestown, Virginia. Then, on December 2, he was escorted from his jail cell to the gallows. As he left the prison, he handed a note to his jailor predicting that more lives–many more–would be lost before slavery died: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood.” Barely one year later, South Carolina seceded from the Union, initiating a sequence of events that led to the American Civil War.
On this day in 1862, Abraham Lincoln cashiered General George B. McClellan for the second and last time. Lincoln had been angry for some time with McClellan, whose victories typically seemed to result from happenstance, while his failures all appeared to be the result of hard work.
In the days leading to Antietam, McClellan had, for example, stumbled upon a detailed accounting of Robert E. Lee’s plans for his Army of Northern Virginia. And yet, because of his pathological cautiousness, McClellan’s federal troop had not routed their rebel foes at the war’s bloodiest battle. The Union, despite McClellan’s good fortune, narrowly carried the day.
After Antietam, Lincoln took a massive political risk, issuing his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Eager for more victories to raise morale and provide political cover, Lincoln practically begged McClellan to pursue Lee’s battered army. McClellan responded, time again, by noting that his Army of the Potomac was foot-sore and hungry. In mid October, the President, taking note of the fact that Lee’s men were in far worse shape than were McClellan’s, wrote the general, gently asking him, “Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you can not do what the enemy is constantly doing?” Lincoln warned that McClellan did not have time to dither and instead had to move quickly to engage the enemy.
McClellan ignored him. He then discovered a new excuse for inactivity: his pack animals, like his men, were exhausted. Exasperated, Lincoln replied: “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?” Finally, on October 26, the Army of the Potomac crossed its namesake river. It was too late. Lee had been reinforced. The Army of Northern Virginia remained intact. Richmond stood just out of reach.
Lincoln fired McClellan, noting that the general had a case of “the slows.” McClellan’s war career was over. He turned to politics, faring about as well as he had on the battlefield. McClellan lost the 1864 election to Lincoln, who, by that time, had cycled through a series of generals before finally tapping U.S. Grant to command the Union’s military. Grant may not have been fast. But nobody ever claimed, as Lincoln had of McClellan, that he was a “stationary engine.”
On this day in 1859, John Brown set in motion a plan he believed would liberate 4 million slaves throughout the American South. Brown envisioned a biblical flood rising at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, as bondsmen rallied to the Harpers Ferry federal arsenal. This army of liberation would break over Dixie in a divine wave, cleansing the the region of its sins. At nightfall, Brown and his men seized the armory and sent patrols to take hostages and alert slaves that the day of jubilee had arrived. The next day, townspeople traded shots with Brown’s gang, until marines arrived and ended the rebellion.
Brown had chosen Harpers Ferry because it evinced federal power, stained by slavery. And as he readied to martyr himself for freedom, he held captive George Washington’s great-grandson, proving that, if nothing else, Brown understood symbolic politics. The marines, though, didn’t consider the raid’s semiotics. Led by Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart, they stormed the building and freed Lewis Washington. An officer wounded Brown with a sword. The troops then took the bleeding abolitionist to jail, where he remained until his trial. The South’s slaves had to wait for their freedom.
Brown, meanwhile, waited behind bars, impressing his captors with his cool demeanor and his piety. Then, when his trial began, Brown made the courtroom his stage, enacting a morality play, which helpful journalists shared with the entire nation. Throughout the proceedings, Brown lay on a cot, still bleeding. And at his sentencing, he gave a homespun speech making clear his willingness to die:
I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of his despised poor, I did not wrong but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” And perhaps he did. On December 2, 1859, Brown was hanged. Then his body lay a-mouldering in his grave.
And yet, Brown wielded more power dead than alive. Union troops sang about him, poets venerated him. And Southerners despised him. They saw Brown as the face of abolitionism, of Republicanism, of the North; alive, he had been none of those things. Even militant abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass, had considered him a dangerous tool, a loaded gun with a hair trigger. Republicans, including Lincoln, had viewed him as a political liability. And Northerners had thought about him less than Southerners guessed. But none of that mattered. In death, Brown embodied the South’s greatest anxiety: that armed slaves would rise up and throw off their chains.
From there, Brown’s cultural stock fluctuated across time. After inspiring Yankees during the Civil War, Brown passed through the end of the century as an ambiguous figure in American letters. He had, after all, brutally murdered people throughout his career as the bloodiest of the nation’s radical abolitionists. In 1909, W. E. B. Du Bois resurrected him in a sympathetic biography. Activists in the civil-rights movement later elevated Brown still further. Most recently, though, Brown has become a hero for moral absolutists, anti-abortion crusaders especially, who venerate him for his willingness to kill and die to uplift the innocent.
In this way, I suppose, his soul goes marching on.
[Author’s note: I’ve stolen much of this post from myself.]
I’m haunted by the sense that I’ve written this post, or something very much like it, already. Worse still, I’m almost certain that what I wrote before was much better than what I’m about to write this time. But I can’t find the old post. So I guess I’d better do this again. My mind truly is a funhouse filled with mirrors. Anyway…
On this day in 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The document did not free any slaves; instead it warned the Confederacy that the consequences of continuing the rebellion were about to change. The previous July, Lincoln had explained that: “This government cannot much longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing. Those enemies must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy the government, and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt.”
After first floating another in a long series of proposals for compensated emancipation — slaveholders rejected the offer out of hand — Lincoln embraced emancipation. On July 22, he informed his cabinet that he would soon issue a proclamation freeing the slaves. Secretary of State Seward suggested that Lincoln should wait until Union troops enjoyed a victory in the field. Seward argued that Lincoln’s proclamation would then have more weight, rather than looking like “the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help.” Lincoln agreed.
Then he waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally, on September 17, Union and Confederate soldiers clashed at Antietam, the bloodiest battle of the war, abruptly ending Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North. Five days later, Lincoln again called his cabinet together. He explained that he had struck a deal with the Almighty: if the army could drive the rebels out of Maryland, he had promised God that he would issue his Emancipation Proclamation. “I wish it were a better time,” he worried. “I wish that we were in better condition.” He proceeded anyway.
The Proclamation stated that unless the Confederate states returned to the Union before January 1, their slaves “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” That sounds good in theory. But in practice, the document was pretty weak tea. Its conditions would only apply to those states still in rebellion when the New Year began. Which is to say, territory where federal authorities had no ability to enforce it. As the London Times explained: “Where he has no power Mr. Lincoln will set the negroes free; where he retains power he will consider them as slaves.”
True enough. But that characterization partly missed the point. Lincoln believed that the Constitution bound his authority. In his capacity as Commander in Chief, he could seize property in territory rebelling against the government. But in areas loyal to the Union, or those occupied by Union troops, he had no such power. More than that, the Proclamation revealed that Lincoln’s view of the war had shifted. As he explained: “The character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation. The South is to be destroyed and replaced by new propositions and ideas.”
As for the details of the Emancipation Proclamation, like Lincoln’s war aims, they evolved over time. But that’s a story we’ll take up in the New Year. Hey! Wait just a second! I think I know where to look for that missing post. Yup, there it is.
Over at Yglesias we read,
Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I would certainly favor doing away with the Department of Energy and I think that given the origins of the Department of Education, I would favor doing away with it as well.
I was under the impression that the “origins of the Department of Education” lay with Republican Congressman of Minnesota Ignatius Donnelly*, who introduced this resolution to the House of Representatives on December 14, 1865:
Whereas republican institutions can find permanent safety only upon the basis of the universal intelligence of the people; and whereas the great disasters which have afflicted the nation and desolated one half its territory are traceable, in a great degree, to the absence of common schools and general education among the people of the lately rebellious States: Therefore,
Resolved, that the joint committee on reconstruction be instructed to inquire into the expediency of establishing in the capital a national Bureau of Education, whose duty it shall be to enforce eduction, without regard to race or color, upon the population of all such States as shall fall below a standard to be established by Congress; and to inquire whether such a bureau should not be made an essential and permanent part of any system of reconstruction.
A while back Ari asked where was the Amity Shlaes of Reconstruction. Maybe it’s John McCain.
*Who was, yes, crazy, but not about this.
On this day in 1864, the above Thomas Nast cartoon (larger version here), my favorite of his many excellent works, ran in Harper’s Weekly. Nast drew this image in the wake of the Democratic Party’s national convention, which took place in Chicago from August 29-31, 1864. At the convention, with Sherman bogged down outside Atlanta and Grant’s incremental progress toward Richmond measured in gallons of blood, the Democrats’ Copperhead wing, led by Clement Vallandigham and Fernando Wood, managed to nail a peace plank into the party platform.
Nast penned his cartoon as a response to that fateful decision. A Union soldier, his body mangled through patriotic sacrifice, hides his head in shame as he shakes hands with Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Davis’s boot sits atop the fresh grave of an unknown Yankee killed “in a useless war”. Columbia, meanwhile, kneels beneath the two men, watering the fresh grave with her tears. The cartoon’s title is, “Compromise with the South”. (Again, you can click on the link above for more details, because I’ve only just scratched the surface in this summary.)
The cartoon is extraordinary not only because of its power but also because of what it tells us about media and the spread of information at the time. Two days before this image appeared in Harper’s, on September 1, 1864, John Bell Hood’s troops had retreated from Atlanta, leaving the city for Sherman to occupy. That news, which Nast wouldn’t yet have received as he worked on his cartoon, buoyed the Union. The Democratic Party, which had capitulated to its peace wing only days before, looked disloyal. And Abe Lincoln, whose loss in the ’64 election had seemed a foregone conclusion in August, trounced George McClellan in November.
In an otherwise perfectly fine post about white resentment, Ezra Klein writes:
Ending slavery meant destroying a lot of privilege, and it created a war.
That’s half right. Ending slavery did mean destroying an awful lot of white privilege. Cry me a river. But what caused the war was the South’s effort to expand slavery into new territory, and the unwillingness of the Republican Party — and especially its leader, Abraham Lincoln — to compromise on that issue. Now sure, one can make the case that if slavery didn’t expand, it was doomed, that eventually the balance of power in the Senate would tilt toward the free states. That’s a fine argument. And maybe that’s what Ezra meant. But that’s not what he wrote.
Why do I call him Ezra? I have no idea. And why can’t I leave well enough alone? Because when an ostensibly progressive pundit starts suggesting that the Civil War started because Yankees (I assume) destroyed the institution of slavery, well, I’m not able to get to sleep. If that makes me this guy, so be it. Really, Civil War memory has been a major issue throughout this campaign season: from Ron Paul’s suggestion that the war was a mistake, to Mike Huckabee’s courageous defense of the Confederate flag, to Barack Obama’s heritage. And so it behooves progressives to fight the good fight, not give aid and comfort to the slaveocracy. [/pedantry]*
* Probably not.
On this day in 1861, the federal government enacted the nation’s first income tax.* Congress did so intending not to raise much revenue from the tax itself so much as to reassure skeptics that the government would have sufficient revenue on hand to pay interest on the war bonds that the Union was floating at the time. The law also was somewhat progressive. Only incomes of $800/annually or more were subject to taxation, exempting the majority of Northern wage earners.
Unfortunately, the lingering impact of Jacksonian fiscal policy — even Republicans at the time typically believed the federal government should maintain a healthy distance from the banking sector — coupled with bad news from the front lines threatened the Northern economy. With General McClellan stuck in the mud outside Washington in the fall of 1861, investors lost faith in Union victory and the region’s financial markets. By early winter, a run on the banks had begun, leaving the Treasury Department unable to pay its bills. Congress, despite widespread fears of soft money, eventually responded to the crisis by printing greenbacks. And if you’ve been reading this blog diligently, you know where that measure led: to the Rothschilds, the Illuminati, and Lincoln’s assassination.
This blog post brought to you by Americans for Tax Reform.
* Not to be mistaken for the much better known Internal Revenue Act, which became law nearly a year later, on July 1, 1862. By “much better known” I mean much better known to nerds like me. Which is to say, if you knew about it already, you’re probably still pretty cool. Or at least cooler than me.
(Note: This post is utterly unrelated to the one below it.)
Somewhere in Silas Weir Mitchell’s voluminous correspondence on the brain damage of Civil War veterans—my notes are in California, I’m now in Texas—is an account of a Confederate soldier whose bullet-struck head recoiled into a dry-stone wall and performed a fortuitous auto-trepanation. The insult to his brain had been mitigated by the hole in head, but Mitchell feared the soldier would never regain normal cognitive function. As time tripped over nothing, cursed in tongues, begged passersby for aid and, roundly rebuffed, stumbled on, the soldier slowly found himself again. Eventually he could move, see, speak, form new memories and remember the old ones. He was as he’d been before the war, but for the brutal fact he saw in still life:
The dog is across the room curled before the fire.
The dog is on its hind legs staring out the window.
The dog is in the middle of the room facing him.
The dog is sinking its wet nose into the crook of his arm.
The dog is across the room curled before the fire.
The soldier suffered what we now call akinetopsia or motion blindess.* The effect represented by crude blinks above is better, if more crudely, represented about 5 minutes and 14 seconds into this clip, which captures the fear and paranoia Mitchell assumed would accompany akinetopsia. Items like fans would be particularly disturbing because they produced a constant impression upon the skin by a process undetectable to the patient, for whom the blades would jump—jump—jump instead of spinning. But Mitchell was less concerned with akinetopsia itself than one of its side-effects: the ghostly motion trails produced by items in motion.
On this day in 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg concluded with a Union victory, leading directly to Shelby Foote’s finest hour. Although I know enough to be skeptical, and to carp, cavil, and, most of all, quibble rather more knowledgeably than the next chap, I’m still wowed by Ken Burns’s ability to evoke the horror of war by weaving together footage of talking heads and a series of still photographs, mediocre paintings, and an empty field, all backed by dramatic readings of primary sources, now-iconic music, and David McCullough’s spare narration. And speaking of masculinity and patriotism, I should know better than to let this bring tears to my eyes. [Sniff, sniff.] Damn you Ken Burns! You and your moving pictures!
Scott adds: Remember there’s a reason Ari and Eric invited me here. (Not that correlation has anything to do with causation, mind you.)
When I was a lad of about fourteen I saw a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that said “Union Pride” next to a picture of Old Glory, and I figured it represented a reaction against the many pickup trucks with Confederate flag bumper stickers. Because what other referent could “union” have?
I would someday like to read a story in which, in my hometown, a group conscious of history and heritage is raising a replica of this flag the size of a tractor semitrailer. This is of course the flag on which the secessionists fired. It is the flag of the United States of America, and for a citizen of this country to make war on it is treason.
(My brother sent the story to me; I then realized that of course Kevin blogged it.)
On this day in 1868, John Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, asked Americans to set aside May 30 “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” The holiday, initially known as Decoration Day, later evolved into Memorial Day.
On this day in 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina approached Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts while the latter sat at his desk in the Senate chamber. As Sumner affixed postage to copies of “The Crime Against Kansas,” a speech he had given earlier that week, Brooks explained that the address had been a “libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”
“Mr. Butler” referred to Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, Brooks’s cousin and one of the figures Sumner, in his stem-winder, had excoriated for supporting the abominable Kansas-Nebraska Act. After explaining his business with the Senator, Brooks began caning Sumner, who tried to rise and flee but found himself trapped beneath his desk, which was bolted to the floor. Struggling wildly as Brooks continued raining blows down upon his head, Sumner finally wrenched the desk from its moorings. He then collapsed in a pool of his own blood.
Sumner, in his speech, had been rather hard on the superannuated Butler. The abolitionist had called the South Carolinian a “Don Quixote who had chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows…the harlot, Slavery.” Sumner also had said that Butler, who drooled and suffered from a tremor as a result of a stroke, “discharged the loose expectorations of his speech” when supporting slavery.
Steeped in the aristocratic South’s honor culture, Brooks found these insults intolerable. He also viewed Sumner as a social inferior and so chose not to challenge him to a duel. Instead, he beat Sumner as an overseer would beat a slave.
Many Southerners recognized that Brooks had defended not only his family’s reputation but also the region’s good name. Editors at the pro-slavery Richmond Examiner, for instance, opined that the violence represented an:
act good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequence. The vulgar Abolitionists in the Senate are getting above themselves…They have grown saucy, and dare to be impudent to gentlemen…The truth is, they have been suffered to run too long without collars. They must be lashed into submission.
Brooks thus became a hero in the South, where people apparently begged him for fragments of his shattered cane, “sacred relics.” He received from admirers dozens of new walking sticks, often inscribed with pithy phrases (“Hit Him Again”). And although some of his colleagues in the House tried to expel him, they failed to reach the required two-thirds majority because of the Southern delegation’s sectional loyalties. Brooks then quit to make a point, re-running for his seat and allowing the people of South Carolina to return him to Washington with their blessing.
For Northerners, many of whom had no love for radical abolitionists, the caning of Sumner nonetheless joined the Sack of Lawrence — an episode in which approximately 800 pro-slavery terrorists had burned parts of that town, the center of free-soil Kansas — which had taken place just a day earlier. Even for moderates, the two events, in concert, demonstrated that the Slaveocracy could not be placated, no matter how many times the North compromised to forestall secession.
John Brown was no moderate. He had been rushing to defend Lawrence when the town fell. The violence there, coupled with the caning of Sumner, next led him to embrace biblical justice gone mad. By his calculation, border ruffians had already killed at least five free-soilers in Kansas. And so, two days after Brooks pummeled Sumner, Brown kidnapped five pro-slavery settlers from their homes near Pottawatomie Creek. That night, he split their skulls open with broadswords. The nation slipped headlong toward war, the skids greased with martyrs’ blood.
On this day in 1975, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, which, I’m told, is a good get. Killer Angels, for those of you who haven’t read it, tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, mostly through the eyes of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and James “Pete” Longstreet and Union officers Joshua Chamberlain and John Buford. The prose is vivid, the narrative taut, and Shaara’s command of tactics and history are both impressive.