Fergus M. Bordewich

NYT Covers The First Congress: City History, and Vantages, Often Overlooked
February 9th, 2016

This past weekend, in a column about my new book “The First Congress,” New York Times writer Sam Roberts picked up on the fact that the First Congress is also a New York story. When Congress met there, in 1789-1790, nearly all Manhattan Island was still farmland. But the city’s sophistication seemed like a trap to many members, who worried that they might never be able to pry the national capital away. (Sam Roberts is also the author of “Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America” — well worth reading.)

Read the full article titled “City History, and Vantages, Often Overlooked” by Sam Roberts here. The First Congress will be out tomorrow as well and you can find it here.

“America begins in New York,” Kenneth T. Jackson, the Columbia University professor and editor of the Encyclopedia of New York City, likes to say. Now comes the journalist and author Fergus M. Bordewich to engagingly revive the forgotten story of the nearly 18 months that New York was the nation’s first capital in “The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government” (Simon & Schuster, $30).

As the author instructively recalls, that first Congress fleshed out the bare bones of the recently ratified Constitution in two sessions that were probably the most productive in its history — a claim vindicated through prodigious research by the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University.

Congressmen, representing only 11 states, convened at Peter Charles L’Enfant’s renovated Federal Hall downtown. These learned men loftily managed to compromise on most issues (though closing their eyes to others, like the slave market practically across the street) while enduring the clatter of horse-drawn traffic outside their windows and the noise of insatiable spectators cracking nuts in the public gallery of the House of Representatives.

 

Can Calhoun, Waive Wilson
January 9th, 2016

Woodrow Wilson was an unadulterated racist. Princeton students who are demanding the removal of his name from everything named after him at the university he served as president are right to point it out. Born in Virginia in 1856, and raised in Georgia and South Carolina during the Civil War and the repressive Jim Crow years that followed it, Wilson absorbed southern bigotry as a birthright. As Princeton’s president, he made clear that he would welcome no black applicants. As president of the United States from 1913 to 1919, he oversaw the racial segregation of the federal civil service. Segregation, he asserted, “was not a humiliation but a benefit” for blacks. He also held a White House screening of “Birth of a Nation”, praising its degrading portrayal of blacks and romanticization of the Ku Klux Klan as depictions of reality. Although the Klan’s resurgence after the film’s release cannot be blamed on Wilson, his approval of it doubtless lent encouragement to its activities.

Wilson is now the latest target in proliferating demands to topple monuments and reputations that honor long dead Americans tainted by racism. Students at Yale are engaged in a similar, much publicized campaign to remove John C. Calhoun’s name from one of the university’s undergraduate colleges. A former vice president, and a senator who was a member of the “Great Triumvirate” that also included Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, Calhoun, who died in 1850, regarded African-Americans as fundamentally “low, degraded, and savage.” He adored slavery and defended it tenaciously, declaring that it ennobled masters and slaves alike, and formed the foundation of true republicanism, by creating the affluence and leisure for white men to engage in self-government.

His advocacy for slavery was accompanied by a broader disdain for mass democracy  and its basic freedoms, even for white men, which he claimed led only to “violence, injustice, and anarchy.” He mocked the assertion of the Declaration of Independence that all men were born free and equal, declaring, “There is not a word of truth in the whole proposition,” adding that “the attempt to carry into practice this, the most dangerous of all political error…has done more to retard the cause of liberty and civilization than all other causes combined.” He advocated that police powers, and censorship of both speech and the press be imposed on the rest of the country to silence slavery’s enemies, and actively fostered, if he did not invent, the South’s antebellum narrative of perpetual resentment and grievance. At a time when Congress was gridlocked and Civil War threatened, in 1850, he stood out among his contemporaries as the leading enemy of compromise.

Calhoun’s legacy remains a vital if too little acknowledged part of American politics today. It survives in appeals to racism cloaked in anodyne present-day appeals to “states rights,” in the continued devaluation of black lives, and in the kind of cultural purism that wishes to build walls against immigrants in the guise of patriotism and “self-defense.”  Calhoun of course cannot be blamed for every retrograde tendency in twenty-first century American politics. But nor should his ghostly influence be underestimated.

Wilson’s record pales beside Calhoun’s contempt not only for blacks but also for basic democratic values. Although Wilson’s policies on race were shameful, they must be balanced against his commitment to political reform, which resulted in the passage of a raft of progressive legislation – the Federal Reserve Act, creation of the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Farm Loan Act, the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote, and much more – as well as his advocacy for the League of Nations and self-determination of the world’s oppressed colonial minorities. His contributions to the liberalization of American government and to the export of America’s higher political values were significant and lasting. Calhoun, by contrast, did more than any other American politician in history to sow suspicion of the federal government, to undermine democracy, and to rationalize authoritarian tendencies in the United States.

It may prove relatively easy to remove Calhoun’s his name from the college that bears it. But it will not scrub his reactionary legacy from the body politic. The more difficult challenge is to confront the pernicious thinking that he championed and that Wilson was heir to. Princeton students, and the rest of us, will benefit more from a fully rounded understanding of Wilson, who illustrates disturbingly but not all that uncommonly how racism can coexist alongside the highest idealism. He deserves to retain his place in the American political pantheon, tainted though it may be: Calhoun does not.

 

Fergus, Zooey Deschanel, and the Underground Railroad
September 4th, 2013

I RECENTLY had the pleasure of appearing with the multi-talented young actress Zooey Deschanel in a fascinating episode of Who Do You Think You Are?—which has been airing this summer on The Learning Channel (TLC).

Each episode of this extremely well-researched and entertaining show delves into the ancestry of a celebrity, and the history of the periods in which his or her forbears lived, usually with surprising results. Zooey discovered that she was directly descended from a Quaker who was active in the Underground Railroad, and played a central role in one of the most dramatic events of the pre-Civil-War era, the so-called Christiana Riot of 1851. In this violent episode, which is also known as the Christiana Resistance, defiant African-Americans drove off a posse of slave hunters and federal lawmen who were attempting to recapture two fugitive slaves who had been living peacefully for years in a quiet Pennsylvania hamlet. During the fight, slave owner Edward Gorsuch was killed, and other members of posse fled. Scores of African Americans were later charged with treason for daring to resist the Fugitive Slave Law, the largest treason indictment in American history. Thanks to the courage and quick thinking of Zooey’s ancestor, however, the leaders of the black resistance managed to escape to Canada.

I was asked to participate in the production as an expert on the Underground Railroad, based on my book Bound for Canaan, which includes an account of the events at Christiana.

We filmed on an unseasonably frigid day in Lancaster County, just a few miles north of the Maryland state line. Zooey, who was both charming to meet in person and much better dressed for the cold than I was, was learning about her family’s connection to these events for the first time as we talked and walked across the site of the confrontation. Although all traces of the house that once stood at the center of the battle have disappeared, the surrounding landscape remains almost completely unchanged after more than a century and a half. It was easy for us to evoke the sights and sounds of a collision between antislavery and proslavery Americans that was once as famous as John Brown’s raid.

 

The Rebel Yell
September 1st, 2013

DURING THE CIVIL WAR, Confederate soldiers were famed for delivering a shrill and unnerving battle cry as they ran to the attack. Just what the “Rebel yell” sounded like has perplexed many historians. However, more than seventy years after the Civil War’s end, veterans at a Confederate reunion were invited to perform the yell for a radio audience. It is not necessary to have sympathy for the Confederate cause—and I don’t—in order to be mesmerized by these voices speaking to us from the dark reaches of the past. I recently spoke about the Rebel yell with Linda Wertheimer of National Public Radio.

“We Have Found One Another again as Brothers”
July 16th, 2013

Remembering Gettysburg in 1913 and 1938

 

LIKE NO OTHER battlefield of the Civil War, Gettysburg has lent itself to an iconic, almost mythologized, presentation of the war. It has served in this way for at least a century. In 1913, on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, it was the site of a huge national celebration of reconciliation which drew 54,000 Union and Confederate veterans from around the
country. Twenty-five years later, in 1938, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the battle, the final “grand reunion” drew more than one thousand aged survivors from both North and South.

What exactly happened at these events, beyond the obvious socializing? What was “celebrated”? What “remembered”? What were the larger national (even international) meanings of the “reunions”? These are not simple
questions.

Both events were well recorded by the press, on film, and in 1938 on radio, and featured important addresses by the sitting presidents of the day, Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. They offer
parallel windows into the changing ways in which the Civil War has been remembered and misremembered, the uses to which that history was put at different times, and into America’s conception of itself on the cusps of both World War I and World War II. Read the rest of this entry »

A Call for the Bold Pragmatism of 1850
August 13th, 2012

AS WASHINGTON steams in the summer heat, and the nation prepares for the November elections, Congress is no closer to overcoming the legislative paralysis that has hobbled its deliberations all year. Although the recent Supreme Court decision on President Obama’s health care law has temporarily heartened Democrats, it is likely to fuel a new and perhaps even more virulent round of ideological posturing during the upcoming congressional campaign.

For a roadmap through the legislative combat zone that almost surely lies in store, today’s senators and congressmen might look for inspiration to the supremely pragmatic lawmakers who piloted Congress through the longest, and arguably the bitterest, debate in American history to pull the nation back from the brink of war and craft the Compromise of 1850.

Congress had already struggled unsuccessfully for two years to decide whether to extend slavery into or ban it from the vast new territories the United States had conquered in the Mexican War. The crisis came to a head in 1849 when Gold Rush settlers in California petitioned for admission as a free state, upsetting the precarious balance of fifteen free states and fifteen slave states in the U.S. Senate. Threats of southern secession were rampant. Congress was so badly deadlocked that many Americans expected civil war to break out within weeks. “We are on the very eve of bloodshed in the capital,” warned the New York Herald. “There is no telling when its crimson streaks may deluge the halls of Congress.”
The ten-month-long debate that extended until September of 1850 was not a pretty spectacle. Before it was over, mortal threats would be made, punches thrown, and guns drawn on the floor of Congress. Read the rest of this entry »

My new Civil War e-book
June 8th, 2012

MY NEW E-BOOK, The Looming Conflict, has finally arrived!  It will be available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other electronic outlets at a price of $2.99. For a writer like me who is a product of the age of print and paper, the very notion of a book that exists mainly in the ether of the internet was unsettling. But with a lot of good advice and a great deal of tinkering by my electronic publishing guru Neil Levin of Everpub and my brilliant web designer John Schmitz, “The Looming Conflict” has become a reality.

The six articles included in “The Looming Conflict” appeared at different times in Smithsonian Magazine. They all combine, to differing degrees, a narration of historical events with first-hand reporting, and commentary by noted historians, among them Harold Holzer, David Reynolds, Orville Vernon Burton, John Stauffer, and others. Three of the pieces focus on events that led up to the Civil War: the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, the long rivalry between pro-southern President James Buchanan and radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, and John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. Two more are war pieces, on the attack on Fort Sumter and the events that led up to it, and on the heroic but ill-fated attack of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment against Fort Wagner, in Charleston harbor, in 1863. (Though a Union defeat, the battle was the heroic debut of African-American troops, and served as the climax of the 1988 film “Glory.”) The final article centers on the creation of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, in Cincinnati. Although the Underground Railroad of course preceded the war, I saw the story of the museum’s creation as a way to look not only at the underground’s remarkable history but also at the way in which we may deal with the legacy of slavery and abolitionism today. Read the rest of this entry »

The Imperfect Union: A new blog
May 22nd, 2012

Dear Readers, Friends:

Many of you may already know that my latest book, America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Preserved the Union, was released on April 17th. With several other new publications in the offing, it seemed like the right moment to inaugurate this long-promised blog as a channel to communicate to you about my work, American history, and (occasionally) myself.

I’ll be delivering news about my current and upcoming writing projects, talking about history—mostly between the nation’s founding and post-Civil War Reconstruction—and ways in which the past continues to interpenetrate and shape the present.

When it seems apt, I’ll tie history to present-day events. I won’t shy away from controversy. But I promise not to rant, nor will I denigrate or insult anyone, present or past.

You’ll be hearing soon about my next work of history, American Dawn, a history of the First Congress, of 1789-1791, which I’ll be working on for the next couple of years, and which will be published by Simon & Schuster. The First Congress has often been overlooked in treatments of the Early Republic, but its importance was immense. It literally invented the United States government from the paper blueprint of the Constitution. What happened there, when it met in New York City still recovering from the ravages of the Revolutionary War, is a dramatic political tale in which we see the Founding Fathers as hard-headed but immensely creative politicians who took the fragile idea of nationhood and made it real. Their success was by no means a forgone conclusion. Read the rest of this entry »

The Underground Railroad: Myth & Reality
July 22nd, 2007

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD occupies a romantic place in the American imagination that is shared by few other episodes in the country’s history. The term is so instantly recognizable that today it is automatically applied to clandestine routes of travel almost everywhere, whether we’re talking about downed Allied airmen escaping from Nazi-held France, or North Korean refugees trying to make their way to China or Japan.

The Underground Railroad has bred mythology like no other phenomenon in American history. From the archives People in almost any town in the Northern states have heard about some old house, or tunnel, or hidey-hole in which fugitive slaves were supposedly sheltered.

The vast majority of these have no documentable connection with the Underground Railroad; it’s clear from abundant references in period literature that fugitives—when they needed to be hidden at all—were usually sent simply to upstairs bedrooms, basements, barns, cornfields, or nearby woods. Nor is there substance to the most recent addition to the underground legend: the alleged use of coded quilts which fugitives supposedly followed to freedom. (Those interested in this particular myth may read Leigh Fellner’s debunking article “Quilt Code,” in the March 2003 issue of Traditional Quiltworks.) Read the rest of this entry »

Evangelical Religion, Liberalism, and Antislavery
February 10th, 2006

WHEN STUDENTS AND FACULTY at Calvin College in Grand Rapids protested the invitation of President George W. Bush to speak at commencement in 2005, it made national news. This wasn’t Harvard or Columbia, but an evangelical institition supported by the Christian Reformed Church—the president’s supposed home turf, at least spiritually speaking. After all, weren’t evangelicals the shock troops of the Radical Right?

The evangelical movement has never been a political monolith. In the early nineteenth century, evangelicals were most likely to be found on the radical left. From the archives Indeed, evangelical religion helped lay the groundwork for modern liberalism. Its contribution can most clearly be seen in the spiritualized politics of the abolitionist movement in the years before the Civil War.

Although Quakers always played an important role in abolitionism, they were soon joined by large numbers of both white and black Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. The evangelical message of individual redemption through political action resonated deeply with Americans in a deeply pious era when Judgment Day was an event as real as the annual spring planting and autumn harvest, and the secularist passions of the Revolutionary generation had grown stale. Read the rest of this entry »