JOURNEYS TOWARDS FREEDOM AND EQUALITY

A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809 – 1849 by Sidney Blumenthal. Simon and Schuster. 2016.

The Politicians and the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics by Sean Wilentz. W.W. Norton & Co. 2017.

Two excellent books, the first minutely detailed, the second done in broad strokes of the historian’s brush, but illustrated with telling specifics. Both show how the struggle for freedom and equality in the United States has succeeded when idealists have found a successful political leader, with the skill to get things done through government action.

Blumenthal traces the process by which Abraham Lincoln went from poor white settler on the western frontier to well established lawyer and politician, on the cusp of turning his conviction that slavery was unjust and should be confined to the states where it already existed, into full blown opposition to slavery everywhere. Blumenthal’s second volume, Wrestling with his Angel, covers the years 1849-1856, when this conviction became more firmly set, and Lincoln joined the nascent Republican Party.

Part of the pleasure of this book is the details of Lincoln’s political activity during the ferment of the 1830s and 40s, the age of the Jacksonian Democrats and Whigs. I wrote about some of this earlier, in my post about Joshua Gidding’s The Exiles of Florida. In those days local party-affiliated newspapers provided outlet for the kinds of extravagant political commentary that thrives today on Facebook, and the partisanship was, if anything, even more violent, with dueling still sometimes practiced and plenty of plain old brawling. Lincoln was no simple country lawyer, telling homely stories about widows and lost horses, but an accomplished political satirist with a knack for vicious caricature, much of it printed anonymously. He had some fights, though he seems to have generally avoided them.

One of the most interesting sections for me was the account of the Mormons in Illinois and Missouri during this period, just before the migration to Utah. Their penchant for violence, even if cast as self defense, and the methods used to gain and keep adherents, make all but the nastiest of today’s cults seem not so bad. Lincoln and Illinois politicians both courted and feared these fanatics, eventually turning against Joseph Smith and accepting his murder with little indignation. This sort of mob violence became more common as politics became more polarized, leading up to the destruction of anti-slavery newspaper offices and, in one famous case, the murder of the editor.

Lincoln’s experience with politics up to 1848 was mostly in party caucuses and the Illinois legislature, with a single term in the House of Representatives. There, he was an active supporter of efforts to counter what was beginning to emerge as the Slave Power, the unified southern bloc that was determined to expand slavery as far as possible. Unlike many of the founding generation, who at least paid lip service to the idea that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, these men argued that it was a positive good and that southern society was morally superior to that of the North. Lincoln estimated that he had voted at least fifty times in the House for the Wilmott Proviso, an amendment that would have banned slavery in the new territory acquired in the Mexican War.

I’m looking forward to reading the next volume.

Wilentz’s book covers the same history as Blumenthal’s book in essays on Lincoln, Andrew Jackson and Frederick Douglas. There’s also one on John Brown. Besides these, he writes about Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. He briefly touches on many others who can be classified as either egalitarian idealists or politicians who fought for freedom and equality. Throughout, his central point is that idealism by itself accomplishes nothing: only when joined to astute political manipulation can it take concrete form. Besides this, he challenges specific authors who have seen in men like Lincoln and Johnson sudden epiphanies that led them to do great and good things despite their basically rotten political nature. He argues strenuously that these men’s core beliefs in freedom and equality grew up naturally as they matured and rose to power, often at odds with other ideas and attitudes, but never appearing by magic at the singular moment.

Wilentz thinks that a deep seated American distrust of party politics, from the early founders like Washington and John Adams to the vast numbers of citizens who today claim to be independents, is fundamentally wrong headed. He thinks that partisanship, even as parties form and dissolve and change their spots, like the modern GOP, are essential to the progress that we have made since 1787. From 1860s and 70s Republicans, to the 1960s and 70s Democrats, he cites the ways powerful party leaders were able to pass such vital legislation as the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, the wage and hour laws, the progressive income tax, Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. These are the changes that make a real difference in the lives of ordinary people, and we ought to be alarmed when politicians and judges begin to chip away at their protections, but we can only resist effectively by petitioning and protesting in ways that lead to concrete political action. Wilentz uses John Brown to argue that violent protest is generally counter-productive in American politics. The Homestead Strike is another example he gives to show how reactionary forces take any hint of violence (in that case, threats by anarchists) as a pretext for even more violent repression, to the great loss of those trying to achieve real gains.

Reading Wilentz’s broad depiction of the sweep of the American struggle for freedom and equality makes me want to go even deeper into these causes. I have loved Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson, despite his bias against the man, and as a high schooler I enjoyed delving into labor history, including one of my idealist heroes, Clarence Darrow, through such books as his own Attorney for the Damned (1957). I need to learn more about  periods such as Reconstruction and about areas Wilentz does not discuss, like women’s rights. There is no lack of fascinating and inspiring history along these many and various paths.

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Freedom and Exile in Florida

Giddings, Joshua (1795 – 1864) The Exiles of Florida, Or, the Crimes Committed by Our Government Against the Maroons, who Fled from South Carolina and Other Slave States, Seeking Protection Under Spanish Laws. 1858. Columbus OH. Follett, Foster and Co.

[image: By USMC – NARA archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4012354%5D

I listened to the very fine Librivox recording.

A remarkable polemic by a U.S. Representative from Ohio (1838-1859). This account of events in Florida from the late 1600s to the date of publication, was supported by numerous documents from the records of the US Congress, including treaties, military reports, letters and legal filings. The basic story is very simple: Africans fled from slavery, first in South Carolina and later in Georgia, and sought refuge in Spanish Florida, where Spanish authorities granted them freedom. The slaveowners sought desperately to get them back, even after several generations of the original slaves’ descendants had been settled in communities under Spanish law. Escaped slaves and their offspring were considered lost or stolen property, just like stray cattle. [Note the similarity to some peoples’ attitude towards the children of undocumented immigrants, despite the 14th Amendment.] As time passed, slaves continued to flee to Florida, and joined native Americans, often living in close proximity, sometimes intermarrying. Some of the natives were a subgroup of the Creek Nation, who became estranged from the main body of Creeks, who lived in Georgia. These Africans and Americans became known in Spanish Florida as “Seminoles,” which basically means “exiles” or “runaways.”

By the beginning of the 19th Century, conflict was rife along the border between the new United States and Florida. Between 1810 and 1819, the US and Great Britain made various attempts to gain control of the Florida panhandle. The destruction of the “Negro Fort” on Prospect Bluff above the Apalachicola River by the US Navy, resulted in the deaths of over 300 free Africans. The Seminoles, including the remaining free Africans, continued to resist to attempts of the Georgians, white Floridians and Creeks to capture them or drive them out of the border territories. These raids and counter raids led to Andrew Jackson bringing the US Army into the Seminole territory (which was still legally Spanish) to drive the natives out and seize the Africans for sale into slavery. Jackson’s ruthless policies were popular with many Americans but criminal in the eyes of others. In the end, the US acquired Florida from Spain and convinced the British that future trade relations were more important than resisting the violent overthrow of their interests in Florida and Jackson’s arbitrary execution of two of their officers. Congressional resolutions condemning Jackson’s behavior failed. The Seminoles were forced to accept a treaty confining them to central Florida.

The later chapters of the Seminole Wars repeated the pattern: South Carolinians and Georgians clamored for seizure of their lost “property,” namely the Africans living freely in Florida. Raiding and retaliation went on, and the US Army again intervened, only to face guerilla resistance from the Seminole. Throughout the period from 1819 to 1858, as Giddings documents, Congress struggled with the impetuous calls of the southerners for war and the northerners’ demands that existing treaties be respected and the free Africans be left alone. The anti-slavery Members argued that these wars, which cost tens of millions of dollars, were making all Americans complicit in the dirty business of hunting and enslaving people who had been free for generations and who lived on US soil.

The Second Seminole War, from 1835 to 1842, ended with the removal of most of the Seminoles, including the free Africans, to the Indian Territory, where the Creeks and other southeastern Nations had already been forced to go. Along the way, the slavers never gave up trying to get the Africans into their possession, by legal maneuvers or by force, but thanks to the honor and integrity of a few US Army officers, notably General J.W. Worth, the assurances of safe passage to the Seminoles were made good. Giddings particularly commends his handling of the war chief Wild Cat, whom Giddings evidently met in 1857. The peaceful removal of a large body of Africans and Native Americans to the territory was made possible by the respect and trust between Worth and the chief.

Not that the Black Seminoles’ troubles ended after resettlement: they were required, by a treaty to which they were never a party, to settle in the lands assigned to the Creeks. The Creeks and their co-conspirators, the southern slavers, insisted that the Africans were slaves and wanted to seize them. General Matthew Arbuckle did all he could to uphold the honor of the US by sticking to treaty stipulations that those who submitted to removal to the Territory were free. Once the Africans left the protection of the Army’s fort, however, nearly a hundred were seized in a raid by Creeks and slavers, and despite a habeus corpus hearing (before a pro-slavery judge) in Arkansas, were shipped to New Orleans and sold, disappearing into the general slave population. Seeing that they could not expect protection from the laws and treaties of the US, a group of the black Seminoles and some Native allies left for exile in Mexico, where they resided until the late 20th century, serving as border guards in the local militia, and before the Civil War ended slavery, fending off efforts of Texas slavers to seize them. For more fascinating information about the diverse fates of these exiles and their continuing struggles to be recognized and respected, see the Wikipedia article on “Black Seminoles.”

Giddings was a great investigator, and although his biases are clear, a good reporter. In this account he lays bare the unremitting efforts to force all Africans into bondage, in accordance with the laws of every southern state, which saw all Negros as either someone’s property, or subject to seizure by whomever could lay hold of them. He exposes the duplicity of successive Presidents and cabinet officers, trying to walk the tightrope between the pro and anti-slavery forces and the bitter divisions in Congress over the issue. In 1842 Giddings was censured by the House for persistently bringing up the question of slavery. He resigned his seat, but was immediately reelected by his constituents. Later, he made public the contents of a treaty, which had been kept secret by the Administration, because it contained assurances the lives and property of the Seminoles, including the free Africans, would be protected. When he pointed out how the State of Georgia had been violating these terms by pursuing the exiles, he was threatened on the floor of the House by a Member from Georgia, wielding his cane as a weapon. Giddings died while serving as Lincoln’s consul general in Montreal, before the victory of the Union and passage of the 13th amendment. His The Exiles of Florida is a masterpiece of polemic as well as fascinating history.