Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson

Over at his Jacksonian America: Society, Personality and Politics blog, historyprof Mark Cheathem has a review of a book entitled A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson. I haven't read the book and can't comment on its substantive merit. But my first thought was that the cover is, as they say, from hunger. My suggestion for the cover of the second edition is above.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Alexander Stephens Predicts Civil War, July 3, 1850

I suspect that many or most who deplore the Compromise of 1850 assume that it wasn't necessary - the South would have rolled over anyway. It's impossible, of course, to prove (or disprove) the consequences of contingent scenarios that never came to be. But the angry words of Alexander H. Stephens certainly suggest that, had the compromise failed, and had shooting broken out between Texas and the United States over the Texas-New Mexico border in late 1850 or 1851, the Civil War would likely have started out ten years early.

After the Compromise was brokered, Stephens became its champion. He helped lead the campaign in support of the Compromise in his native Georgia, decisively rallying public opinion behind the Compromise and away from secession in late 1850 and 1851.

But at the beginning of July 1950, Stephens was both angry and frantic. Having heard that President Zachary Taylor supported the immediate admission of New Mexico as a state, Stephens then received news that the president and his cabinet "had supported using the army if necessary to oppose Texas forces in New Mexico." On July 3, 1850, Stephens, already "smoldering", read an editorial in the National Intelligencer that appeared to confirm the report: the Whiggish newspaper urged that "If Texas advanced on Santa Fe . . . it would be the 'duty' of the army to defend it."

Stephens promptly sat down and wrote to the paper a reply (published by the Intelligencer on July 4)that both expressed his fear that this course would lead to general civil war and made clear that even moderates like Stephens would regard war as justified. Thomas E. Schott summarizes Stephens's letter in Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography (from which the other quotes in this post are likewise taken):
Convinced beyond doubt that Taylor would use force to carry out his policy, Stephens sat down at his desk in the House and wrote a blistering reply to the editors. "The first Federal gun that shall be fired against the people of Texas, without the authority of law, will be the signal for the freemen from Delaware to to the Rio Grande to rally to the rescue." Whatever doubts there might be about the Texas boundary, "nothing can be clearer than that it is not a question to be decided by the army." In case of conflict, the Texas cause would be the cause of the entire south.
Here's a thought exercise. Imagine you're a northern politician in mid-1850. You detest the Slave Power, slavery and the proposed Fugitive Slave Act in particular. Do you hold your nose and support the proposed compromise because you fear civil war? Or, if you decide to oppose the compromise, do you do so because (a) you're confident the South will cave, or (b) war or no war, it's about time someone stood up to these people?

About the illustration, entitled Congressional Scales, A True Balance (1850):
A satire on President Zachary Taylor's attempts to balance Southern and Northern interests on the question of slavery in 1850. Taylor stands atop a pair of scales, with a weight in each hand; the weight on the left reads "Wilmot Proviso" and the one on the right "Southern Rights." Below, the scales are evenly balanced, with several members of Congress, including Henry Clay in the tray on the left, and others, among them Lewis Cass and John Calhoun, on the right. Taylor says, "Who said I would not make a "NO PARTY" President? I defy you to show any party action here." One legislator on the left sings, "How much do you weigh? Eight dollars a day. Whack fol de rol!" Another states, "My patience is as inexhaustible as the public treasury." A congressman on the right says, "We can wait as long as they can." On the ground, at right, John Bull observes, "That's like what we calls in old Hingland, a glass of 'alf and 'alf."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Alternative History

This Etsy page features wonderful prints of American historical themes and figures . . . slightly altered. The one above is my favorite because it includes Millard. The one below is for you Abe lovers!

Thanks to Boing Boing for the pointer.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Publius Valerius Publicola and the Federalist Papers

You probably know that Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison wrote the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym "Publius." Publius was a common Roman name, and I always assumed that the Federalist authors used it generically, to invoke the aura of the Roman republic, not to refer to a specific person.

But today I heard that the Federalist authors did mean to summon up the image of a particular Roman. A quick check of the Wikipedia entry for the Federalist Papers corroborates that at least one academic has asserted that Hamilton decided to use the name "in honor of" a specific Roman: Publius Valerius Publicola.
Hamilton chose "Publius" as the pseudonym under which the series would be written. While many other pieces representing both sides of the constitutional debate were written under Roman names, Albert Furtwangler contends that "'Publius' was a cut above 'Caesar' or 'Brutus' or even 'Cato.' Publius Valerius was not a late defender of the republic but one of its founders. His more famous name, Publicola, meant 'friend of the people.'" It was not the first time Hamilton had used this pseudonym: in 1778, he had applied it to three letters attacking Samuel Chase.
Publicola, a legendary figure from the dawn of the Roman republic, helped drive out the last of the kings and later sponsored a law that permitted the murder of anyone who tried to become king. Here's Plutarch:
But although in these particulars [Publicola] showed himself a popular and moderate lawgiver, in the case of an immoderate offence he made the penalty severe. For he enacted a law by which any one who sought to make himself tyrant might be slain without trial, and the slayer should be free from blood-guiltiness if he produced proofs of the crime. For although it is impossible for one who attempts so great a task to escape all notice, it is not impossible for him to do so long enough to make himself too powerful to be brought to trial, which trial his very crime precludes. He therefore gave any one who was able to do so the privilege of anticipating the culprit's trial.
But, if the story is true, I can't help wondering whether Hamilton settled on the name because he enjoyed the delicious irony that the most famous tale about Publicola revealed the inherently irrational nature of an insufficiently controlled populace.

As the story goes, having established his devotion to republicanism beyond any possible doubt, Publicola built a house on a height above Rome called the "Velia". The Roman public promptly drew the bizarre conclusion that Publicola was going to use the house as base from which to establish himself as king. Here's Livy:
After the battle had gone in this way [a battle in which Publicola had led a Roman army which defeated an Etruscan attempt to reinstate the last king], so great a panic seized Tarquin and the Etruscans that the two armies of Veii and Tarquinii, on the approach of night, despairing of success, left the field and departed for their homes. . . .

At all events the Romans left the field as victors; the Etruscans regarded themselves as vanquished, for when daylight appeared not a single enemy was in sight. P. Valerius [Publicola], the consul, collected the spoils and returned in triumph to Rome. He celebrated his colleague's obsequies with all the pomp possible in those days, but far greater honour was done to the dead by the universal mourning, which was rendered specially noteworthy by the fact that the matrons were a whole year in mourning for him, because he had been such a determined avenger of violated chastity.

After this the surviving consul, who had been in such favour with the multitude, found himself - such is its fickleness - not only unpopular but an object of suspicion, and that of a very grave character. It was rumoured that he was aiming at monarchy, for he had held no election to fill [Lucius Junius] Brutus' place [Brutus had been killed in the battle], and he was building a house on the top of the Velia, an impregnable fortress was being constructed on that high and strong position.

The consul felt hurt at finding these rumours so widely believed, and summoned the people to an assembly. As he entered the "fasces" were lowered, to the great delight of the multitude, who understood that it was to them that they were lowered as an open avowal that the dignity and might of the people were greater than those of the consul. Then, after securing silence, he began to eulogise the good fortune of his colleague [Brutus] who had met his death, as a liberator of his country, possessing the highest honour it could bestow, fighting for the commonwealth, whilst his glory was as yet undimmed by jealousy and distrust. Whereas he himself had outlived his glory and fallen on days of suspicion and opprobrium; from being a liberator of his country he had sunk to the level of the Aquilii and Vitellii.

"Will you," he cried, "never deem any man's merit so assured that it cannot be tainted by suspicion? Am I, the most determined foe to kings, to dread the suspicion of desiring to be one myself? Even if I were dwelling in the Citadel on the Capitol, am I to believe it possible that I should be feared by my fellow-citizens? Does my reputation amongst you hang on so slight a thread? Does your confidence rest upon such a weak foundation that it is of greater moment where I am than who I am? The house of Publius Valerius shall be no check upon your freedom, your Velia shall be safe. I will not only move my house to level ground, but I will move it to the bottom of the hill that you may dwell above the citizen whom you suspect. Let those dwell on the Velia who are regarded as truer friends of liberty than Publius Valerius."

All the materials were forthwith carried below the Velia and his house was built at the very bottom of the hill where now stands the temple of Vica Pota.
And here's Plutarch:
But that which the rather displeased and offended the people in Valerius was this. Brutus, whom they regarded as the father of their liberties, would not consent to rule alone, but once and again chose a colleague to rule with him. "But this Valerius," they said, "in concentrating all power upon himself, is not a successor to the consulate of Brutus, to which he has no right, but to the tyranny of Tarquin. Yet why should he extol Brutus in words, while in deeds he imitates Tarquin, descending to the forum alone, escorted by all the rods and axes together, from a house no less stately than the royal house which he demolished?"

For, as a matter of fact, Valerius was living in a very splendid house on the so‑called Velia. It hung high over the forum, commanded a view of all that passed there, and was surrounded by steeps and hard to get at, so that when he came down from it the spectacle was a lofty one, and the pomp of his procession worthy of a king.

Accordingly, Valerius showed what a good thing it is for men in power and high station to have ears which are open to frankness and truth instead of flattery. For when he heard from his friends, who spared him no detail, that he was thought by the multitude to be transgressing, he was not obstinate nor exasperated, but quickly got together a large force of workmen, and while it was still night tore the house down, and razed it all to the ground.

In the morning, therefore, the Romans saw what had happened, and came flocking together. They were moved to love and admiration by the man's magnanimity, but were distressed for the house, and mourned for its stately beauty, as if it had been human, now that envy had unjustly compassed its destruction. They were also distressed for their ruler, who, like a homeless man, was now sharing the homes of others. For Valerius was received into the houses of his friends until the people gave him a site and built him a house, of more modest dimensions than the one he had lived in before, where now stands the temple of Vica Pota, so‑called.

Wishing now to make not only himself but also the government, instead of formidable, submissive and agreeable to the multitude, he removed the axes from the lictors' rods, and when he came into the assembly, inclined and lowered the rods themselves to the people, emphasizing the majesty of the democracy. This custom the consuls observe to this day. And before the multitude were aware of it, he had succeeded, not by humbling himself, as they thought, but by checking and removing their envious feelings through such moderation on his part, in adding to his real influence over them just as much as he had seemed to take away from his authority, and the people submitted to him with pleasure and bore his yoke willingly.

They therefore called him Publicola, a name which signifies people-cherisher. This name prevailed over the older names which he had borne, and it is the name which I shall use for him in the remainder of this Life.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Charles Sumner Receives a Stroke of Good Luck

Ironically, the caning that Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner received from South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks on May 22, 1856 may well have been the best stroke of good luck that Sumner ever received, rescuing his senatorial career and ultimately transforming him into one of the most powerful men in the country.

Sumner was first elected to the United States Senate by the Massachusetts legislature in 1851 as the result of an unstable and transitory coalition between Democrats and Free Soilers. No party at the time had a majority in the state. At the beginning of 1851, Massachusetts Free Soilers - heretofore primarily a group with more connections to the Whigs than to the Democrats in Massachusetts - struck a deal with the Democrats:
With Free Soil backing, the Democrats would elect their candidate for governor, George S. Boutwell, the lieutenant governor, the speaker and other officers of the [state] House of Representatives, a majority of the governor's counsel; in addition they would receive the short-term United States senatorship, the few remaining weeks of [Daniel] Webster's term which [Robert C.] Winthrop was filling.
The quid pro quo included the other Senate seat, which would go to Sumner:
The Free Soilers would get the presidency of the state senate, the remaining members of the governor's council, and the six-year United States senatorship, commencing March 4 [1851]. On January 7 [1851], a Free Soil caucus, by a vote of eighty-four to one, nominated Sumner senator, and the following day the Democrats, with only six dissenting votes, accepted him.
But even with this deal, Sumner's election was a close-run thing. In the legislative voting, a large majority of the Whigs unenthusiastically but steadfastly supported Winthrop. More important, a faction within the Democratic Party, led by Caleb Cushing and former governor Marcus Morton, "objected to sending 'a red-hot Abolitionist, . . . like a firebrand, for six years, into the senate chamber of the United States.'" Although Sumner was tantalizingly close, he was a few votes short.

The legislature remained deadlocked for over three and a half months (from early January to late April 1851). Ultimately, Sumner was elected "with a majority of precisely one" vote:
On April 24 [1851] the legislature reassembled in an atmosphere of great tension. On the twenty-fifth ballot there were again two more votes than there were representatives present [there had been prior irregularities]. After much wrangling, the house adopted a Whig proposal that on future ballots each member must cast his vote in a sealed envelope, so that it would be impossible for these extra ballots to be slipped in. Shortly after noon, the twenty-sixth ballot was taken. This time Sumner received 193 of the 385 votes cast, a majority of precisely one, and was declared elected.
Having been elected by a paper-thin majority, Sumner soon saw the coalition that elected him fall apart, for both internal and external reasons. In the 1852 and 1853 elections, the coalition was defeated by the Whigs, the second "time so decisively that the plan for Free Soil-Democratic fusion in Massachusetts was finally abandoned." The Whigs, in charge of the state government, elected Edward Everett to the other senate seat.

Then in 1854 the Know-Nothing tidal wave hit Massachusetts. Democrats, Whigs, Free Soilers and the new Anti-Nebraska proto-party alike were swept away in the deluge. The Know-Nothings emerged with the governorship, an overwhelming majority in the state legislature, and the U.S. Senate seat not held by Sumner:
[Former Conscience Whig and Free Soiler Henry] Wilson . . . had thrown his strength behind Henry J. Gardner, the Know-nothing candidate for governor. In return he secured a pledge that, if successful, the Know-nothings would elect him to the Senate as Sumner's colleague. Gardner received an unprecedented majority of nearly 33,000 votes, and the new legislature consisted of one Whig, one Democrat, one Republican - and 377 Know-nothings.
Although the Know-Nothing tide ebbed somewhat in 1855, the Know-Nothings remained firmly in charge of the state. "In 1855, as in the previous year, the new [Republican] party made a poor showing in the polls, and Gardner, combining nativism and Whiggery, was re-elected."

In short, by the end of 1855 - and the Congressional session beginning December 1855 was the last in which Sumner had a chance to make an impact before he would be up for reelection in early 1857 - Sumner's political base had disappeared. For all the latent anti-slavery sentiment in Massachusetts, the old coalition had fallen apart and there was no sign that the new anti-Nebraska coalition would gel anytime soon. Many former Whigs detested him and Democrats felt no loyalty for him. Governor Gardner was eying the Senate seat and "plot[ting] to stage a premature election of [Sumner's] successor." Sumner looked like a political goner.

"Providentially, a burning issue came to hand" that saved Sumner from likely defeat. At the beginning of January 1856 Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which gave Sumner the opening to deliver his The Crime Against Kansas speech on May 19 and 20, 1856. Two days later, on Thursday May 22, 1856, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks administered his famous caning of Sumner - and created a "senator for life":
Sumner's friends used Massachusetts indignation over the assault to bolster his shaky political prospects. The news of the attack reached Boston just in time to give Sumner's supporters a face-saving victory over Governor Gardner, who was trying to emasculate the personal liberty law Sumner had helped draft. By astute management Republicans forced through the legislature resolutions not merely condemning Brooks's actions, but endorsing "Mr. Sumner's manliness and courage in his earnest and fearless declaration of free principles, and his defence of human rights and free territory." [Future wartime Republican governor] John A. Andrew almost gave the game away when he blurted out at the Faneuil Hall rally that in order to secure "liberty of speech - nay, liberty itself," Sumner must be re-elected, for Republicans were unobtrusively working toward precisely that end. "Providence itself seems to be on the side of the republican party," [Sumner's estranged former law partner George S.] Hilliard lamented. "Sumner is not merely their champion but their martyr, and his election for the next six years is now certain." A New Yorker, more prescient, declared that Sumner "is made by this act, senator for life."
After that, Sumner's reelection was almost a foregone conclusion. When the new state legislature met in January 1857,
the Republicans in the [state] House of Representatives forced a vote on January 9, even before Governor Gardner [who had once again been reeelected] could send in his inaugural message, which they feared might contain distracting proposals. Out of the 345 votes cast, Sumner received all but twelve. Four days later, against protests over their unseemly haste, Republicans in the [state] Senate adopted a rule for viva-voce voting on the senatorial election, and, as public opinion could thus be brought to bear upon each member, Sumner received the unanimous vote of the upper house.
In his book Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (from which all quotes in this post are taken), Prof. David Herbert Donald sums up Sumner's stroke of good luck:
Candidate of a minority party, [Sumner] was first chosen to the Senate through the devious workings of a political coalition. At nearly any point during his first five years in office, had he been up for re-election, he would almost certainly have been defeated. Then Preston Brooks's attack gave him his second term in the Senate and thereby assured him seniority and prestige within the Republican party. Never chosen by direct popular vote for any office, Sumner, by 1861, nevertheless had become one of the most powerful men in the United States.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Seward, You Weeny!

Think the word "weeny" is of recent vintage? Think again. Amanda Foreman records its use by none other than Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the summer of 1861, referring to Secretary of State William H. Seward, whom Sumner detested. On July 3, 1861 The Times correspondent William Howard Russell
bumped into [Sumner] on the street [in Washington] and had to stand for an hour in the blistering heat while Sumner gleefully enlarged on "the dirty little mountebankism of my weeny friend in office."
So, was Sumner calling Seward a dick? Alas, probably not. A quick search around the internets suggests that the words "weeny" and "weenie" are of different origin. Weeny, an adjective, is a diminutive of "wee", small, and apparently dates to at least the late Eighteenth Century. Think "teeny-weeny." Weenie, a noun, apparently derives from wiener and is of later origin. Perhaps by association with weeny (I'm guessing here), "weenie" acquired a connotation of smallness (a weeny weenie, as it were) and thus the meaning of nerd.

About the illustration, entitled I'm Not to Blame for Being White, Sir! (1862):
Massachusetts senator and prominent antislavery advocate Charles Sumner is attacked here. The artist questions his sincerity as a humanitarian as he shows him dispensing a few coins to a black child on the street, while ignoring the appeal of a ragged white urchin. The scene is witnessed by two stylishly dressed young women. Though unsigned, the print has the relatively skillful draftsmanship and atmospheric quality found in the works of Boston lithographer Fabronius. See, for instance, that artist's "The Mower" (no. 1863-14). "The Secession Bubble" (no. 1862-12) also appears to be by Fabronius. Weitenkampf gives the 1862 date and publisher's imprint.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Owl of Minerva Flies Only at Dusk

Only one word more concerning the desire to teach the world what it ought to be. For such a purpose philosophy at least always comes too late. Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Preface to Philosophy of Right.
Everything in the universe is, is, is made of one element,
which is a note, a single note.
Atoms are really vibrations, you know.
With your extensions of the BIG NOTE, everything's one note.
Everything, even the ponies.
The note, however, is the ultimate power,
but see the pigs don't know that,
the ponies don't know that.
Frank Zappa, Lumpy Gravy.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

William Seward's Irrepressible Conflict

A while ago, I puzzled over What the Hell Happened to William Seward? How was it, I wondered, that the north's leading radical anti-slavery Whig during the 1850s - the guy whom the Republicans failed to nominate in 1860 because they perceived him as too radical, versus the more "moderate" Lincoln - became such a wimp during the secession crisis, frantically seeking to appease the south to the point that he had to mislead the president in the process?

What I discovered, to my surprise, was that Seward displayed many signs of moderation during the 1850s. In fact, it seemed that his "radical" reputation was based largely, and perhaps exclusively, on two speeches - one might say on two phrases: his "higher law than the Constitution" speech of 1850, and his "irrepressible conflict" speech of 1858.

In her wonderful (thus far) A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War, Amanda Foreman reaches a similar, but more pointed conclusion about Seward: he was a moderate with a radical veneer who, during the late 1850s, spent years positioning himself "as the moderate alternative to Charles Sumner."

Ironically, she maintains, Seward inadvertently sabotaged those efforts, and his bid for the presidency in 1860, with his October 1858 "irrepressible conflict" speech. Although the phrase was not all that different from Lincoln's "house divided" language, Seward's speech was perceived as more divisive. "Whereas Lincoln sounded as though he were giving a warning, Seward seemed to be laying down a challenge." The damage to Seward's image was immediate and lasting:
Seward later claimed that "irrepressible" was not the same as "unavoidable," but the damage could not be undone. The press dubbed him "Irrepressible Conflict Seward," fostering the sense that he was a divisive rather than a unifying figure and voiding three years of careful positioning by Seward to be perceived as the moderate alternative to Charles Sumner.
On the advice of his friend and manager, Thurlow Weed, Seward traveled to Britain in the Spring of 1859 "in the hope that the public would forget the unfortunate phrase" before the 1860 election season.

Alas, it was not to be. When Seward returned to the United States on December 28, 1859, southern hysteria following the John Brown raid was at its peak, and southerners repeatedly pilloried Seward as an instigator. In the Senate, James Murray Mason of Virginia, whose seat was next to Seward's,

harangued [Seward] for being the moral, though not actual, instigator of the action. Again and again, Seward's unfortunate phrase "irrepressible conflict" was hurled back in his face. Democratic newspapers denounced his as the "arch agitator who is responsible for this insurrection." One Virginia newspaper even went so far as to put a price of $100,000 on his head; the governor of Virginia urged the South to demand Seward's exclusion from the presidency.
The cartoon reflects the considerable bitterness among New York Republicans at the party's surprising failure to nominate New York senator William H. Seward for president at its May 1860 national convention. The print was probably issued soon after the convention's nomination of Abraham Lincoln. The "Republican Barge" tosses on a stormy sea, precariously close to a rocky shore, with Lincoln (far left) at the rudder. "I'll take the helm. I've steered a "flat" boat before," says Lincoln. Also in the barge are (left to right) "Tribune" editor and powerful Lincoln supporter Horace Greeley, Missourian Edward Bates, an unidentified man, and former Washington "Globe" editor and influential Jacksonian Democrat Francis Preston Blair. The three men together heave Seward overboard. Greeley says, "Over you go Billy! Between you and I there is an "Irrepressible Conflict." Bates encourages him, "Over with him Horace never mind his kicking!" while Blair says, "He can't withstand my muscle for I once moved the Globe." The idea of an "irrepressible conflict" between slaveholding and free interests in the Union was taken from Seward's famous 1858 Rochester speech against slavery. The term became a catchphrase for radical antislavery factions in the North. Seward protests, "Dont throw "me" overboard, I built this boat, and I alone can save it." Further right are three unidentified men, two of whom are speaking. One cries, "I'm afraid this boat will sink." The other remarks, "If it had only been built in two sections instead of one we might be saved." A black wearing "Discord's Patent Life Preserver" notes, "If de boat and all hands sink, dis Nigger sure to swim, Yah! Yah!" In the bow sits New York "Courier" editor James Watson Webb, who warns, "Breakers ahead!!" Watching anxiously from the shore is Brother Jonathan, clad in striped trousers, coat with tails, and a tall hat. He admonishes the boat's crew, "You wont save your crazy old craft by throwing your pilot overboard; better heave that tarnal Nigger out."
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