February is seldom as fun as I hope it will be. I dream of escaping to the sledding hill or spending an afternoon out ice-skating, but instead I end up trapped at my desk, thinking of dead presidents, the white and black races, and slavery.
Its calendar page filled with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, the birth and death dates of Frederick Douglass, and the observance of Black History Month, February is a minefield of historic associations, of significance buried but waiting to explode. Continue reading
New Year’s has often been a working holiday for American statesmen. More than a day of moral resolution, January 1st marks the anniversary of several bold, ambitious actions that have opened new eras and horizons for Americans as a people.
1. SCOUTING THE WEST
New Year’s Day in 1803 found Thomas Jefferson secretly laying the groundwork for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a scheme that had to be covert because it proposed scouting out vast tracts of land that at the time belonged to other countries. The French lands now referred to as the Louisiana Purchase would not belong to the United States until the spring, while the Oregon Territory would remain the property of England for many decades. Yet Jefferson was undeterred in his determination to familiarize himself with, and strengthen American claims to, these unknown neighboring regions.
So he began crafting a confidential message to Congress, describing the possible benefits of reconnoitering these lands and asking for an appropriation of the $2,500 necessary to supply the journey. Congress looked with favor on his request, thus inaugurating a initiative that pioneered knowledge of the West’s lands, resources, and native peoples.
The government was rewarded with a treasure-trove of maps and documents that facilitated its later dealings with, and gradual displacement of, native American tribes. Today, we tend to discount the expansionist ambitions that motivated Jefferson, instead lauding the Expedition as an early model of the many progressive scientific projects and surveys the US government would subsequently fund.
2. FREEING THE SLAVE
Sixty years later, President Lincoln spent New Year’s Day greeting callers to the White House and putting his signature on the final version of his Emancipation Proclamation, which was sent out over the telegraph wires later that day. Not unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition, Lincoln’s statement had had a long fruition, with earlier drafts of the measure being floated and discussed the previous fall. Lincoln’s determination to associate the waging of the Civil War with the moral cause of ending slavery marked a tipping point in the long struggle to secure for African-Americans personal freedom and civil equality, a struggle begun decades earlier and continuing on for more than a century, even down to today.
The executive order, which famously declared the freedom of all slaves held in rebel states, was on display at the National Archives in Washington yesterday, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary. Though limited in its scope and practical effects, the proclamation spelled liberation for a people who had suffered oppression since colonial times. Lincoln’s deliberate blow to slavery paved the way for its complete and permanent abolition, accomplished through the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
3. WELCOMING THE IMMIGRANT
Finally, on New Year’s Day in 1892, the first immigrant (of some 16 million) passed through the doors of Ellis Island. It is commonly said that “American is a nation of immigrants,” but the establishment of Ellis Island and other formal points of entry gave that rite of passage a dignity and regularity that was previously missing.
Located near the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island bestowed welcome and the necessary paperwork on immigrants who had previously been less distinguishable from American citizens. At a time when many born Americans went through life without the legal documentation of a birth certificate, Ellis Island conferred a bureaucratic identity on the newly arrived, routinizing a more paper-bound and legalistic conception of Americanness that is with us still. Today, however, Ellis Island stands as a cherished symbol of the rational means the government employed to bind its disparate population into one people.
May these complex and impressive projects inspire today’s political leaders to lift up their sights and grapple bravely with the issues confronting the nation now.
The tantrums. The bad manners. The stubbornness. The ruptures. I read the news and think of the Civil War times.
Fortunately, no single issue divides us geographically, as slavery did then; otherwise, there are startling similarities between the politics of that time and what we have now.
The 1850s were a cataclysmic time, as events intensified the need to solve the ‘problem’ of slavery, an entrenched point of controversy which for decades had defied solution. Since the time of the Founding, some 60 years before, statesmen on different sides of the issue had found ways to compromise so that the nation could keep functioning.
Compromise was ‘good’ in the sense that it averted political paralysis or the breakdown of the Union, but ‘bad’ in the sense that it was merely a ‘settlement’—an agreement that temporarily put the issue to rest, without resolving it once and for all.
Compromise kept the nation and its government going, however. It allowed the two major political parties (Whigs and Democrats then) to enjoy a fine balance of power. But the possibility that one party might gain ascendency over the other, and thus resolve The Issue in their favor, raised the stakes on every controversy. Every political battle was fought as though it were the ultimate one.
Little did the parties know that, in the coming decade, their organizations would be shattered into pieces—one party split in two, the other dead. A new party would be born.
Or did they know? It seems they suspected. Yet, rather than rearrange their parties around The Issue, they, too, like us, engaged in a politics of avoidance. Politicians tried to suppress slavery. They introduced the gag rule in the House. They devised temporary fixes. Above all, they hoped the uncomfortable problem would go away. That it would be resolved sometime, in the future, by someone; but not by them.
The repeated return of The Issue gradually wore civility away. Eventually, politicians on the two sides of the slavery issue stopped socializing. Their insults grew more personal, causing violence and occasional invitations to duel. Content with power, the parties were fearful of what an ultimate resolution of the Issue would mean.
People in the states grew restive, too. Being more particularized, they were not content with some of the federal compromises. There were the same charges then: that federal action was a threat to their way of life.
Slaveholders worried that they would be deprived of their property; they railed against a federal government that would drain their prosperity away. Abolitionists in the North were also unhappy: they didn’t want to have to return fugitive slaves to the South, as federal law decreed. So they began to work against the federal law, not only in the courts, but by subverting it too.
Opinions became polarized, varying sharply depending on what part of the country you were in. Countrymen looked on their opponents as people with whom they had nothing in common. States began crafting arguments to justify their leaving the Union, growing weary of the yoke of federal compliance, and certain life would be better if they could have their own way.
Never had there been such partisan strife. It was a time when the weaknesses of our political system lay fully exposed; when our parties, our leaders, and our devotion to the Union failed us. It was an uncompromising time that left us divided in two.
Image: N. Mendal Shafer,
“Diagram of the Federal Government and American Union,”
1862 lithograph, from this source.
A shout-out to the Wikimedian who prepped this image
and made it so easy to find—thank you.
Joe Biden has mastered the political stump speech. Watch the whole of his controversial campaign speech in Danville, Virginia, and you’ll see a great piece of Americana: a politician who knows how to work a crowd, seeking votes in a way that’s entertaining and folksy. Biden’s allusion to slavery was hardly a gaffe; it was a logical and powerful way to get across a larger point about class and how Republicans have treated it for several decades.
We know Biden’s speech was a big success, because he was immediately excoriated as a dunce and a racist. Blowback dominated the media for several days. Romney huffily declared that Democrats had hit a new low and tried to get us to believe that Biden was a dangerous man whose message of division somehow “disgraced” the presidency.
Both sides questioned old Joe’s fitness and utility: Could he fill the presidential shoes if necessary? Shouldn’t Obama drop him in favor of the sure-fire Hillary? Democrats behaved predictably, too: instead of championing Biden and endorsing his underlying point, they grew sheepish. If only they learned unity, the race wouldn’t even be close.
Puncturing the politics of avoidance
Yes, Biden hit a nerve, and he did it by puncturing the politics of avoidance that has been gripping the country. Ever since the Reagan era, when Republicans managed to yoke together with one seamless ideology the economic interests of the elite with the social and moral concerns of people far more ordinary, class has been diminished as a potent source of political energy. Republicans wish their supporters to believe that the interests of the wealthy and the less-so are the same. To the extent that Democrats can pry this apart and present an alternative vision of class in American society, they will gain an important advantage over a Republican party that’s badly weakened already.
After all, this election is not “about jobs” or “the economy,” as Republicans say so blandly: it is about economic inequality and the role of the super-wealthy in our economic life. It is about whether people like Mitt Romney, who has the whole world as his oyster, care about this nation’s economy and its ordinary people.
Romney would like voters to believe that his interests and theirs are just the same: that, if you feed the interests of his class, all will benefit; the interests of all classes will be served. If that were the case, the recession would be ending, because American elites can write the script of the unfolding story. They can decisively aid in restoring the nation’s economic health. Leaders of America’s corporate class already have far more power than the president to see to it that Americans are more fully employed.
A party that’s drifted from its noble beginnings
Biden’s bald reference to slavery may well have pricked the conscience of Republicans who know how far their party has drifted from its noble beginnings. In Lincoln’s time, Republicans were not only the champions of abolition: they were devoted to egalitarianism and to securing better economic prospects for lower-class whites. The most radical Republicans advocated for full racial equality, a bracing proposition given the time. Republicans were the ones who wanted to discuss such forbidden topics as slavery; it was Democrats who were proponents of silence, who wanted all discussion of “the peculiar institution” gagged.
Yet even then there were Republicans, such as Horace Greeley, who would not join the anti-slavery fight because they doubted whether the nation’s growing free-market system held out a sufficient promise of prosperity to American workers—even when those workers were white. In the meantime, the persistence of slavery in America proved beyond a doubt that powerful elites, if left to their own devices, could not always be counted on to do the right thing.
Perhaps it was all that history that gave Biden’s arrow such a powerful zing.