2.20.2011

disunion: celebrating my own freedom to read with history online

I don't know if Freedom To Read Week is purposely timed to coincide with Reading Week, the mid-winter break for university students, but I'm celebrating my own freedom to read by diving headlong into "Disunion". I'm starting at the beginning, with the goal of being caught up with the current post by the time classes resume next week.

My friend Alan With One L should be happy to read this: he learned about Disunion through my post here, and like me, he couldn't just pick up in progress, he had to start with the first post. I have to thank him, too. I thought I was too far behind to get caught up, but his enthusiasm convinced me otherwise. Now we can gush about this together in April.

So far, this blog is amazing, a must-read for history lovers, especially if you're into the 19th Century, as I am. It was no surprise to me to read that political life in mid-1800s America was louder, more divisive and more violent than it is today.
Hurled brickbats, smashed glass and howled curses were the soundtrack of American electoral politics a century and a half ago. The oratorical eloquence that most people today associate with the 19th century — those resonant fanfares of prose carved upon monuments, enshrined in history textbooks, hammered into the brains of 10th graders — often provided little more than the faintest melodic line, drowned out amid the percussive din. Last week’s notorious “head-stomping” incident outside a Senate debate in Kentucky, footage of which has drawn nationwide condemnation and half a million views on YouTube, seems almost gentle in comparison.

On the last Friday night before the 1860 election, Senator William H. Seward delivered a rousing Republican campaign address to a large outdoor gathering on 14th Street in Manhattan. Afterward, crowds of pro-Lincoln “Wide Awakes” fanned out through the surrounding area. Wide Awakes, members of an organization with strong paramilitary overtones, could be a menacing sight: they wore military-style caps and shrouded themselves in long black capes made of a shiny fabric that reflected the flames of the torches they carried. Some strapped axes to their backs, in tribute to their rail-splitting hero.

According to the next day’s Times and other papers, things began to spin out of control when supporters of a rival presidential contender, John Bell, charged toward the Lincoln men, “calling them ‘negro stealers,’ ‘sons of b____s,’ &c.” At the corner of 12th Street and Fourth Avenue, several dozen volunteer firemen — members of Engine Company 23 — joined the fray, swinging roundhouse blows with clubs and heavy iron wrenches that the Wide Awakes tried to parry with their torches. But the tide of battle turned when the young Republicans brought their Lincoln axes into play. They chased the enemy back into the company firehouse and promptly began smashing down its barricaded doors, as other idealistic marchers flung bricks and cobblestones. (News reports are vague about what finally ended the fracas.)

Similar disturbances happened almost daily in various East Coast cities. In Baltimore the previous night, Republican marchers had been pelted with stones and rotten eggs. (That city was justly known as “Mobtown”; dozens sometimes died in a single campaign season there.) In Washington on Election Day itself, pro-slavery forces stormed a Wide Awake clubhouse a block or two from the Capitol. The attackers practically demolished the building and were only narrowly prevented from burning the ruin — along with several Wide Awakes trapped on the third floor — by the timely arrival of police.

There was little talk of bipartisan civility during that particular election cycle.

Right away, we see how all of the US - not only the southern states - was complicit in the slave trade...
If you had risen early on that Sunday morning, you probably would have ventured out to marvel at the wreckage left by the past night’s storm. Trees had toppled; shop signs lay smashed on the cobblestones. All along the wharves of lower Manhattan, ships had lost spars and rigging.

And on the harbor’s restless water, a three-masted merchant vessel tossed and bucked at her mooring lines. If you drew close, you might still have caught a whiff of the distinctive stench that every well-traveled mariner in that day and age knew: the reek of close-packed bodies, of human misery, of captivity and death.

She was the slaver Erie, and she had recently come to New York as a captive herself. A U.S. naval vessel, patrolling for ships engaged in the illicit trade, had seized her off the mouth of the Congo River. Flinging open the hatches to the cargo hold, the officers saw a dim tangle of bodies moving in the darkness, packed so tightly that they seemed almost a single tormented soul. Nearly 900 Africans — half of them children — had been stripped naked and forced below decks at the height of equatorial summer, aboard a vessel barely more than 100 feet long. Just a few days into their weeks-long voyage, a witness later recalled, “their sufferings were really agonizing, and . . . the stench arising from their unchecked filthiness was absolutely startling.” Even after their rescue, dozens died in a matter of days.

It might seem odd today that the American government was freeing slaves across the Atlantic while zealously protecting the “property rights” of slaveholders closer to home. Not long after Congress abolished slave importation in 1808, however, U.S. and British naval vessels had begun policing the African coasts and the waters of the Caribbean, occasionally even bringing the captains and crews back to stand trial under federal law. (The freed captives, no matter where in Africa they had come from, were set ashore in Liberia, often to be set to work there in conditions little better than slavery.) It was one of many such hypocrisies, born of political compromise, that most Americans in 1860 took for granted.

Like the majority of slavers at the time, the Erie had been bound for Cuba, where importation was still legal. Her human “cargo” might have fetched somewhere between half a million and a million dollars there — depending, of course, on how many captives perished during the crossing. A mortality rate of one in five or so was taken for granted in the trade, but the Erie’s record on past voyages had been even worse than this horrific average. Still, enormous profits were to be made. The slaver’s New England-born captain, Nathaniel Gordon, had purchased the Africans with kegs of whiskey. He was now a prisoner in the Eldridge Street jail.

The Erie was no stranger to New York. It was, indeed, her home port, as it was of many such vessels. Nearly 100 clandestine — or barely clandestine — slaving voyages had set out from the city over the past 18 months alone. Notorious traders in human flesh hung out their shingles in front of offices on Pearl and Beaver Streets downtown, scarcely bothering to camouflage themselves as legitimate shipping merchants.

Slavery was in the lifeblood of the metropolis. An editorial in that same Sunday’s New York Herald warned local citizens against electing a candidate like Lincoln who might interfere with the institution in the American South. Slave-grown cotton was one of the greatest sources of the city’s wealth, the paper pointed out. Rashly frightening the slave states out of the Union would be “like killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.”

...and how slavery came to be abolished in the US. Even in the first few posts, I see glimpses of how the people's abolition movement pushed leaders in that direction. Older generations of USians learned that "Lincoln freed the slaves," while younger students in more progressive areas learned that Lincoln would have been content to preserve slavery if he could still preserve the Union. Neither is correct.
Throughout most of the nation’s history, it had taken weeks for votes to be counted and for Americans to find out who their new president was. But by 1860, telegraph lines – more than 50,000 miles of them – had spread so far and wide across the country that the results were in the morning editions of the next day’s papers.

In Boston that night, Wendell Phillips strode onstage to address a large audience of abolitionists in the Tremont Theatre, just off the Common. Phillips, one of the nation’s most prominent antislavery leaders, had been skeptical of Abraham Lincoln from the beginning. To him, the unknown Midwesterner – born in Kentucky to Virginian parents, he must have noted with alarm – was going to be just one more mediocre politician to warm the presidential chair for another four years, while black Americans continued to languish in bondage. Addressing an anti-slavery meeting that summer, just after the Republicans announced their nominee, Phillips had sneered: “Who is this huckster in politics? Who is this county court advocate? . . . What is his recommendation? It is that nobody knows anything good or bad of him. . . His recommendation is that his past is a blank.” In an article he wrote for The Liberator, the leading abolitionist newspaper, a month later, Phillips went further still: he turned in a manuscript headlined “ABRAHAM LINCOLN, THE SLAVE-HOUND OF ILLINOIS.”

But by November, his feelings had changed. It wasn’t anything the candidate had said – for he had said almost nothing. Rather, it was how Americans had rallied around Lincoln with an outpouring of antislavery feeling. A few weeks earlier, Phillips had watched Republicans parade through Boston carrying banners reading “No More Slave Territory” and “The Pilgrims Did Not Found an Empire for Slavery.” But the most welcome sight of all was the company of “West Boston Wide Awakes”: two hundred black men marching proudly in uniform, keeping stride in perfect tempo with their white comrades, under a banner that said “God Never Made a Tyrant or a Slave.”

So now, less than 24 hours after Lincoln’s election, it was a chastened Phillips who addressed the crowd at the Tremont Theatre. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he intoned as the hall fell momentarily quiet, “if the telegraph speaks truth, for the first time in our history, the slave has chosen a President of the United States.”

So now my reading will take me to 17th Century London and 19th Century America along with 21st Century Canada.

4 comments:

laura k said...

...while younger students in more progressive areas learned that Lincoln would have been content to preserve slavery if he could still preserve the Union. Neither is correct.

Please note, I am aware of this famous quote from Lincoln:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it

My point is that one quote does not tell the story. Even the remainder of the quote helps:

...and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

But the evidence is more complex, as it always is.

allan said...

Flinging open the hatches to the cargo hold ... Nearly 900 Africans — half of them children — had been stripped naked and forced below decks at the height of equatorial summer, aboard a vessel barely more than 100 feet long.

Check out these two pics. There is absolutely no room to move -- of course, they are in chains. The ceiling is 2 foot 7 inches. The voyage lasted 6-8 weeks.

I have read there was forced exercise (though even walking would have been difficult at that point) and those who refused to eat were force-fed. Some took the opportunity when on the deck to jump over the side of the ship.

laura k said...

Two very good books that try to give you a glimpse into that mind-boggling horror are Charles Johnson's "The Middle Passage" and Lawrence Hill's "Book of Negroes", known in the US as "Somebody Knows My Name".

laura k said...

Everyone should read this post.

#LeastImportantThing, check out the house for sale.