Stewards of a Tough and Tender Earth

Two spring flowers and a leaf growing out of colorless soil

While the air is still cold and the dune’s trees are bare, these inconspicuous flowers bloom in the sand.  They are useless as far as I know, the hepatica and spring beauty.  Deer don’t eat them.  The plants don’t need much: given leaf rot and water, voila! they bloom.

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The Freed Slaves’ Prospects; or, The Copperheads’ Revenge

This drawing from 1863 encapsulates the dangerous anti-federal anti-black sentiment that bubbled up in the Civil War north once the slaves were freed.  Dominating the drawing is a figure resembling Lincoln, mowing the field with a scythe and in the process exposing some snakes in the grass.  The verse below identifies the snakes as venomous “copperheads.”

Copperheads were a faction of northern “peace Democrats” sympathetic to slaveholding who opposed the war to preserve the Union.  Their opposition to race equality and perverse sympathy for Southern rebels clouded the prospects of black Americans and threatened the realization of the Republicans’ plans.  (Since the South had seceded and taken up arms, the US government was left mainly in Republican hands.)

The Copperhead faction, whose adherents were mainly from Ohio, Indiana, and other Midwestern states, were vigorous dissenters during the worst crisis Constitutional government had faced to date.

Beyond the Mower, episodes of a national saga unfold.  The scenes depict the massive social and economic transformation that “Black Republicans” had hoped would follow from abolition.  They anticipated that former slaves, once freed from Southern bondage, would become equal participants in a prosperous “free labor” economy on the same terms as whites.

The two halves of the drawing envision this heartening progression, as chattel slaves, depicted on the right under a stormy sky, begin living into the promise of personal freedom and autonomy.  Formerly, blacks enslaved in the South lived in demeaning conditions, their well-being dependent on the will of their owners and overseers.  At center, a fugitive slave carrying a child is pursued by dogs.

On the left, emancipated slaves labor on the land with dignity.  Like other Americans, they are part of a prosperous “free soil” economy, more than sufficient to meet their needs.  In the distance, a substantial-looking farmstead telegraphs a “dream home,” come true.

Unfortunately, emancipation ignited virulent opposition in some segments of white America.  The Copperheads couldn’t relate to a real shift in American sentiment that had led a majority of the electorate to reject slavery and the South’s “states-rights” defense of its “peculiar institution.”  Copperheads viewed the Union war effort as an abuse of federal authority.  They pleaded for a peaceful negotiated settlement with the South.

Copperheads were agrarians who feared that the modernization championed by eastern Republicans (which included industrialization) would jeopardize and eclipse their way of life.  Copperhead leader Clement Vallandigham was so vehement in opposing the federal government that he was tried for treason and exiled to live in the Confederacy.  Copperheads were understood to be active in the Knights of the Golden Circle, a fraternity whose goal was Southern expansion around the Gulf of Mexico to preserve the South’s distinctive way of life.  In the words of historian David C. Keehn, “The Knights were a militant oath-bound secret society dedicated to promoting Southern rights (including slavery) and extending Southern hegemony over the Golden Circle region,” encompassing the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, and Central America.

The Copperheads’ impolitic opposition to progressive forces at work in US society echoes across the ages, finding voice in the militant anti-federalism fueling Trumpism and other reactionary causes today.  Just as baleful was the underlying racism that led Copperheads to embrace the cause of slavery and white supremacy, a world view that justified the exclusion and prejudicial treatment of black Americans.

Image: from this source.

The Storm; Or, Putin’s Race To The Bottom

Chromolithograph showing Cupid and Psyche fleeing from an approaching storm (War).

Outside, rain is falling, and all America is waking to the news that Vladimir Putin is sending troops into sovereign Ukraine, having concocted an excuse that the world is too savvy to believe. It’s a deadly serious day for Ukraine, which has been moving fitfully toward genuine self-government.  For Americans, the challenge is to disregard the media hype Putin is deliberately stoking and to see his aggression as the desperate, go-for-broke gesture that it is.  If Americans start thinking that Ukraine is our fight, we fall into a trap that proves Putin’s point.

Putin can’t tolerate the shape of the post-Soviet world.  Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, many of Russia’s former satellite states have gotten used to being self-governing.  They enjoy more autonomy; their citizens have more civic and economic freedom.  Do they want to end up under Russia’s thumb again?  No.

Inside Russia, Putin struggles to turn back the clock politically, cracking down on pro-democracy NGOs and on opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny.  Navalny enraged Putin by exposing how Putin’s United Russia party enriches itself at the people’s expense, famously branding it “a party of crooks and thieves.”  Despite having all the resources of the Russian state at his disposal, Putin can’t tolerate Navalny’s inconvenient truths.  For the past several years, Putin has gone to grotesque lengths to torment Navalny, going so far as to order the KGB to attempt Navalny’s assassination by putting a Soviet-era nerve agent in his underpants.  At this point, Navalny’s death (the poor man remains imprisoned) would likely undermine Putin’s already doubtful popularity, just as the latter seeks re-election, in hopes of remaining president for 12 more years.

Russia is shrinking all over, thanks to Putin’s crooked and cowardly authoritarian rule.  He chose to turn the nation toward oligarchy and repression, instead of being “a river to his people” and empowering them to become creative, healthy, and autonomous.  Russia’s economy is based on the export of oil and natural gas, a narrow base of support for the nation’s population of 144 million people, a population that’s shrinking dramatically and is estimated to have lost nearly a million people in the last year alone.

Russia’s global prestige derives mainly from its military might, but this comes at a high social cost.  Its military comprises some 900,000 personnel.  A war in Ukraine will have require significant manpower, imposing a heavy burden on Russian families.  The population of Russian men aged 20 to 34 is estimated to have been just 14.25 million in 2020.  Russia’s failure to pacify the Donbass region, echoing the Soviet Union’s failure to prevail in its 9-year war of agression in Afghanistan in the 1980s, testifies to how limited Russia’s concrete military successes have been.  Some observers have noted that, when true crises call for a demonstration of leadership, Putin tends to disappear from view.  His decision to send troops into Ukraine will further burden the Russian people and continue to hamstring the Russian economy.

All this needs to be kept in mind as American journalists compare Putin to Hitler and carelessly compare the current moment to WWII.  Russia in 2022 is not Germany in 1939; Putin is not Hitler.  Russian sentiment is not mobilized around the unwarranted aggression against Ukraine that Putin is bent on.  Putin is using a very tired playbook from earlier times, largely because he doesn’t have what it takes to keep his once pre-eminent nation from sliding down to a secondary position in a changing world.

Image: from this source.

The Dawn of Modern American Race Relations

Sketch shows an officer of the Freedman's Bureau interposed between a group of violent whites threatening recently freed slaves.

This drawing from 1868 remains powerful.  It captures the virulent hatred of southern whites toward blacks (their former “property”) just after the South was defeated in the Civil War.  Because the South had given its all in defense of slaveholding, Southern defeat, coupled with the federal government’s freeing of the slaves, triggered a rage and resentment that still boils in some segments of the white population.

During the Civil War, the free part of the nation defeated the rebel states.  Beyond that, though, the free part of the nation rejected and discredited the ideas that the South’s slave-holding society had embraced.  The Northern states, which  controlled the federal government, warred against these ideas, defeating and ostracizing them, while protecting liberated slaves and taking numerous steps to outlaw slavery and rectify its wrongs.  The world the slaveholders made, which justified black enslavement by asserting whites’ natural superiority, was lost.

A value system at odds with the principle of natural equality: this is what the rebels lost in the 1860s, and what their descendants and admirers nostalgically pine for to the extent that they identify with the Lost Cause.

Of course, some Southerners were capable of shrugging their shoulders and moving on.  For most white Southerners, though, the loss was mortifying.  The consequences of losing were deeply humiliating and dire.  People who owned slaves had believed in their slaves’ native inferiority.  This supposed inferiority was the intellectual defense relied on to make slavery conscionable.

Furthermore, the belief that whites were naturally superior boosted the egos of all white southerners, most of whom were not wealthy and did not own slaves.  If all whites were superior, all were part of the master class.  The Civil War shattered this preposterous notion.  The federal government intervened militarily, breaking up the South’s “peculiar institution,” and declaring that blacks were equal to whites.

For more than a decade after the Civil War, the federal government engaged in an extraordinary effort to protect liberated slaves and ensure their freedom and equality.  The central figure in the drawing above  represents the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency that ran refugee camps for slaves during the war.  The Bureau existed to protect newly freed slaves, to promote their well-being by providing shelter, food, and education.

For the times, Freedmen’s Bureau was an extraordinary welfare effort, but Southerners regarded it as an unwarranted federal intrusion into their affairs.  The bureau’s work went forward amid whites’ open resentment and vituperation.  The freedmen were freed, but now inhabited a fearsome milieu where the threat of violence, victimization, and re-enslavement was pervasive and real.  A segment of the white population became intent on denying black equality, because to accept black equality was to equate whites’ worth with that of slaves.

Change the clothes and the architecture, and the drawing could pass for an expression of the race hatred, fear, and resentment still roiling the US today.  The tragedy of slavery in the States far surpassed the terrible trauma it inflicted on the enslaved population.  Nor did the tragedy end when the Confederates surrendered.  It was not over when every slave was free nor when slavery was formally abolished.  Even when black Americans were granted equal rights on paper, it still did not end.  In the 1960s, when civil rights activists ended racial segregation and battled Jim Crow, when the federal government passed the Voting Rights Act and instated other protections, mighty progress was made.  And yet the tragedy of racism and racial prejudice endures.

Image: from this source.

Joseph Mason and “Frank”: Two Enslaved Teens Freed in Washington, DC

E. D. Etchison's handwritten petition seeking compensation for two freed slaves.

On April 16, 1862, an Act of Congress freed every slave in the District of Columbia.  The law, coming a year after the outbreak of the Civil War, was the first direct blow to slaveholding, preceding the Emancipation Proclamation by several months.  At last, the federal government had moved to end the shameful practice of slavery, which until this date had been legal in the nation’s capital.

The DC measure laid out a model of emancipation differing from what transpired in the theater of war.  Emancipation in the District was a legal process, whereby slaveholders explicitly renounced their claims to the lifetime labor of slaves whom they had purchased.  The owners received a compensation of $300 per slave, while the former slaves received documentation establishing their free state.  Did the explicit nature of this process mitigate the anger and resentment that welled up in slaveholders when their “property” became free?  The legal process acknowledged the slaveholders’ monetary loss, even as it ended the practice of slaveholding, recasting it as the immoral, exploitive, and disgraceful thing that it was.

The legislation gave slaveholders an incentive to record the stories of every slave they owned.  The law required them to present petitions, which detailed the appearance, history, and occupations of each slave and the transactions that brought them to Washington DC.  Such documents supply unusually vivid pen-portraits of the some 3,100 blacks who obtained their freedom in Washington City.

For example, the claim papers of one DC resident, dry-goods merchant Emanuel Dorsey Etchison, sought compensation for two teenage slaves who were now legally free.  Etchison describes having purchased a claim to the labor and services of the two for life, when he acquired “Joseph Mason” from R. H. Harrison of Baltimore for $825 on April 6, 1861.  Etchison likewise acquired “Frank” [no last name] from J. Hill of Baltimore for $750 on 30 March 1861.

Frank was 17 and Joseph, 15, when they were freed.  Etchison averred that since their purchase, the value of the two young laborers had appreciated.  He put the value of the labor of Frank at one thousand dollars, Frank being “a valued and experienced hotel servant without any defect or infirmity.”  Joseph Mason’s value had also increased to the same amount, “he being a trusty and faithful office servant, without any infirmity or defect.”

The 17-year-old Frank was described as being of “dark copper color, five feet high, with a high forehead, snow white teeth, . . . free and polite in conversation, and perfectly healthy.”  Joseph Mason, at 15 years old, was “four feet five inches high and strongly built for his age” but “with a rather grum countenance when spoken to” and a small scar running lengthwise “barely perceptible” above his left brow.  The tone of Etchison’s claim is not unlike what I imagine an effective slave trader’s would be.  The boys are presented as healthy, good workers and therefore valuable, but Etchison’s banal way of describing them points up their unnatural condition and the inevitably traumatic transactions that led to each boy’s separation from family and home.

What happened to these two youths, ripped from their roots, then suddenly freed on the verge of adulthood?  The poignance of Etchison’s pen-portrait comes from its limited scope. It’s a snapshot of  Joseph and Frank with scarcely a clue to their pasts and nothing of what became of them afterwards.  This fragment conveys the awful transience, isolation, and insecurity intrinsic to chattel slavery.

Whereas Frank and Joseph’s former master got paid when they were liberated, they received no compensation for the value of the labor that they had been obliged to give to Etchison and others.  The irreparable harm every slave suffered by virtue of being enslaved was never counted as a loss. The Congress viewed slaves as benefiting from the gift of liberty, but never were slaves frankly compensated for what the condition of lifelong bondage had taken from them.

The meager terms of emancipation were, in that sense, a perverse confirmation of slaves’ worthlessness, a fresh instance of white America’s incapacity to see freedmen as anything but a pitiable and inferior class.  When it is said that the slaves received “nothing but freedom,” every hearer must admit that freedom makes a light dinner, a hard bed, and scant shelter from a storm.

Image: screenshot from this source,
Washington DC, US Slave Owner Petitions, 1862-63
available through subscription on Ancestry.com.

RELATED:
Damani Davis, “Slavery and Emancipation in the Nation’s Capital: Using Federal Records to Explore the Lives of African American Ancestors.”  Prologue 2010.