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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Spinning Secession-
Georgia on My Mind

Doug Walker, a writer for the News-Tribune in Rome, Georgia, yesterday marked the sesquicentennial of his state's secession from the union as follows:
A little more than a year after John Brown’s raid on a federal armory in West Virginia and three months before shots were fired at Fort Sumter, S.C., leaders of the state of Georgia saw the handwriting on the wall. It was Jan. 19, 1861, when lawmakers in Georgia adopted an ordinance dissolving the union between the state and the United States.*
Georgia's Secession Flag, 1860
The question for Mr. Walker is, "whose handwriting on the wall?" As the moderate, compromising candidate for presidency, Abraham Lincoln made it quite clear in his famous Cooper Union speech that the Harper's Ferry raid led by Brown signaled nothing of federal policy or Republican intention. John Brown's effort in Virginia was representative of militant abolition, not the federal government. So what "handwriting" were the leaders of Georgia observing on the political "wall" of the nation, except their own desperate and selfish scribbling? Walker's remark certainly implies justification of Southern secession--rebellion--against the federal government in 1861. But blaming John Brown's raid and then telescoping the Fort Sumter incident as "handwriting on the wall" is ludicrous, nor does it provide any real light as to why Georgia and the other Confederate states abandoned the Union.

Why can't romancers of Confederate secession come clean about their own history? First they tell us that the war was about "states rights," not slavery. Then they tell us that Lincoln started the war, and that it was a "war of northern aggression." Now they tell us that Georgia, on the vanguard of the Confederate rebellion, could "read the handwriting on the wall" in some sort of flash of great foresight. Foresight of what? The answer is that the only "handwriting on the wall" that Georgia and the other rebellious states could see was that which they projected in their own minds--particularly in the lustful determination of wealthy southern leaders to "eat their cake and have it too"--that is, to keep their chattel (as Lincoln and the Republicans would surely have granted) and to continue to pursue a policy of expanding slavery into new territories (which Lincoln and the Republicans would not have granted). The only real "handwriting on the wall" foreseen by the leaders of the militant slave states was that the future would not be kind to their imperial, expansionist slavocracy.  And for this reason, the wealthy Southern slave owners sent hundreds of thousands of their sons to their deaths in the name of patriotism.

Davis, Lee, and Jackson--
Stone Mountain, Ga. memorial
Unfortunately it seems still too early in our national narrative to expect Confederate romantics to stop peeing on history and telling us it's fresh country rain water. As long as the prideful denial concerning the systemic injustice of slavery persists in this nation overall, and as long as Southern "patriotism" entails loving the beautiful South but denying its historical shame, and as long as defenders of secession continue to blame the North (including John Brown) for "starting" the Civil War, we can expect nothing but more of the same kind of self-serving rhetoric.

Speaking of John Brown, the Old Man had no particular grudge with the South and Southerners, only with the so-called "peculiar institution." Had the heart of slavery been in Boston, Massachusetts, he would have as happily invaded the armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, in the hopes of assaulting that wicked system of oppression.  The point is not to defend Lincoln and all of his policies, or to demonize Southerners to the exclusion of blaming the entire nation for slavery (which, after all, was a U.S. institution, not just a Southern institution).  Nor am I suggesting Southerners simply need to "get over it."  But as far as Southern apologetics go, it's time for some integrity.  Own up or shut up.  Southern statecraft was mightily influential throughout the antebellum era.  Republicans did not enter the White House with the intention of emancipation or Southern repression, only the containment of slavery.  Lincoln was not pro-slavery, but he was most certainly a man of compromise, and would have kept blacks in slavery longer if it had suited his white brethren in the South sufficient to keep them in the Union.  There was no need for the Civil War as far as the politics of what Frederick Douglass called "the peculiar aristocracy" of this nation (i.e., white people's interests).

Of course, it took civil conflict to end slavery, which only proves the extent to which matters had to go before the agenda got "real."  Yet in retrospect, entering the sesquicentennial of the war, it seems we have largely forgotten the lessons of history.  Either people sentimentalize the war as if it were a bloody political football game between two equally noble and admirable teams (i.e., military history fascination, which often is bereft of any political interpretation); or they form in huddles of Confederate or Lincolnian romanticism; or they form a third huddle which bemoans the tremendous loss of life resulting from the Civil War, insinuating that it was unnecessary and might have played out differently had fanatics--Northern and Southern--not taken control.  None of this is reality, nor does it assist us toward getting to the truth of our nation's history.

As for Brown, if Southerners today are people of principle and character, they owe themselves the opportunity to intelligently revisit history and investigate this man, instead of feeding off of the biased myths of the past.  Here was a man with no sectional contempt, but one who hated the abuse of humanity.  Southern romancers are quick to cite the Pottawatomie incident, as if the people killed by Brown and his men in 1856 were typical of themselves--and if one thinks so, one had better look a little closer.

Sherman, Wilkinson, and the Doyles--the so-called "victims" of the Pottawatomie "massacre"--were either political terrorists or aids to malicious terrorists.  Brown lived in a neighborly fashion with Southern people in the Kansas territory prior to the terrorist assault on Lawrence in May 1856.  He made trips back and forth between the territory and Missouri to buy and trade; he conversed hopefully with Southern settlers who were neither pro-slavery nor pro-black, in the hopes of their attaining a correct vision of humanity; in Kansas territory, he never initiated aggression toward any Southerner purely on sectional or political basis; there is even some evidence that he reared his children to understand what today we would call the "psychology" and "sociology" of Southern people regarding slavery, so as not to demonize them apart from the rest of the [white] people of this nation.  Only when pro-slavery people became aggressive and conspiratorial did he take up arms.   Were Sherman, Wilkinson, and the Doyles from southern Ohio, he would have as quickly split their skulls because of their wicked designs against his family.  They were not killed because they were Southern, nor even because they were pro-slavery.  They were killed because they were actually mortal enemies with malicious and criminal intentions, and in the absence of any protection, killing them--in the midst of a de facto civil war--was a legitimate response on the part of Brown, his family, and associates.  As to old Virginia and Brown's invasion there, his best witnesses are the slave masters that he took captive, for their courtroom testimonies are harmonious in attesting to Brown's humane behavior toward them and his single-minded hostility toward slavery.

It is a shame that a segment of Southerners--then and now--continue to read the John Brown story as an inherently hateful, murderous anti-Southern narrative.  Yes, John Brown was an invader of the South, but the time would come when the South would prefer men of the caliber of Brown and his raiders to the myriad federal troops that came thereafter, many of them with malicious intent.  It was not Brown who burned Southern cities, tore up Southern infrastructure, and decimated Southern land.  Indeed, John Brown was perhaps the last opportunity for the South to be freed from its own stubborn wickedness by a minimalist program of "violence."  Since academics are so enamored with counterfactual history in disdaining the Civil War, let me try my hand at it: What if John Brown had not wasted so much time catering to the whimpering slave masters in the Harper's Ferry engine house?What if he had gotten himself, his men, and his growing circle of liberated black enlistees out of town and up into the mountains before any militia could arrive?  Whatever else might have happened, there is a good chance that there may not have been a Civil War as we know it, at least not at the cost of 600,000 lives.

Regardless, let John Brown have the last word in commemoration of Georgia's secession from the Union:
. . . all you people of the South -- prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question. You may dispose of me very easily -- I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled -- this negro question I mean; the end of that is not yet.
Here was the real "handwriting on the wall" of history.  But I doubt anyone in Georgia had paused to read it before rushing down the suicidal trail of secession 150 years ago yesterday.

*Doug Walker, "Georgia seceded 150 years ago today." Rome News-Tribune on line [Rome, Ga.], Jan. 19, 2011


R. Test said...

Excellent points.

One small quibble:

"Nor am I suggesting Southerners simply need to "get over it." But as far as Southern apologetics go, it's time for some integrity. Man up, own up, or shut up."

I agree with your point. But, I the expression "man up" is questionable. I realize that conservatives love the expression and I suspect you are merely using it to throw it back in their faces.

It's clearly sexist and probably homophobic. I don't in anyway want to suggest that you are either of these.

The expression does, however, carry these linguistic overtones.

I think you should reconsider the use of this term.

Thank you for creating such a great blog.

[There's no need to publish this comment if you agree with it or disagree with it.

If you disagree with it, I would find it interesting to know why. You would probably have some good and interesting reasons for your position. I've been wrong before and I'm too old to be embarrassed about being wrong again.]

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Thank you for both of your comments.

Frankly, I used the term, "Man up" quite without considering any social or political implications. I could just as easily have written only, "Own up or shut up." Clearly school's never out when it comes to how we use language. On the other hand, being neither liberal nor conservative in any official sense, I am hesitant to accept either side's political grammar completely because I do not entirely agree or disagree with either ideology. However, I would not deliberately use terms to be provocative along the lines you mention either.