Fergus M. Bordewich

Posts Tagged ‘Civil War’

History and Character in Time of Trial
Saturday, August 26th, 2017

As I drove here from Richmond to Hampden-Sydney College, I could scarcely help but feel enfolded in history. I passed close to Tuckahoe on the James River, where Thomas Jefferson lived as a boy. I followed the line of Lee’s retreat and Grant’s march to final victory in the Civil War. Now we’re gathered on this lovely campus whose founders inspirited generations of students with values that are inextricably interwoven with the founding of this nation. This enfolding sense of history reminds me how close we are to our nation’s past. But it also reminds me how far many of us today feel from the ideals that animated our forebears in their effort to craft an enduring and virtuous government.

Increasingly, it seems, Americans are fracturing culturally, economically, politically, and spiritually. Anxiety, discontent, and distrust of our fellow Americans have become the common currency of public discourse. Political speech has shrunk to sound bites and tweets. Our grasp of basic grammar – the architecture of clear expression – has disintegrated. Language once fitted for locker rooms, if even there, sprouts on protest placards and from the mouths of national leaders. Popular culture saturated with coarseness masquerades as creativity. What passes for news on television and online too often trivializes complexity, distorts the truth, inflates personality, and delivers ideological combat instead of penetrating reportage.

As we all know, I think, education in civics and government has foundered over the last half-century. Countless young – and even not so young – Americans no longer know the difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives, how a bill becomes law, or understand the way power is shared between Congress and the president. It increasingly seems that, in presidential elections, many Americans of all political stripes feel they are choosing an autocrat who can do what he wants once he takes office, and they react with fury when the balancing machinery of republican government prevents him from doing so. Ignorance guarantees disappointment with the inevitably messy way that compromise politics actually works. And such disappointment with what the Founding Fathers bequeathed us invites the demagoguery – of whatever persuasion — that the Founders rightly feared. This kind of ignorance and corrosive disappointment is not something that America can long afford.

Contempt for fundamental democratic institutions has become commonplace, and support for Congress and the established press has fallen to an all-time and deeply concerning low. Confidence in the ability of seasoned politicians to make the decisions that are necessary for the nation’s welfare has shriveled. We long for examples of constructive, creative, capable government, but don’t find them. Where, we might wonder, as many Americans do, are our Washingtons, our Madisons, our Hamiltons? Where are we to find great conciliators and compromisers like Henry Clay, and moral giants such as Martin Luther King, when we so sorely need them? We might be forgiven for believing that the nation is at one of the most dire points in its history.

While history may not offer much immediate solace in a time of trial, the past can nonetheless illuminate our path through the wilderness of the political moment by reminding us that our ancestors overcame many challenges even more fraught with danger than those we face today. History also encourages us to remember that the seeming giants of the past were not demigods but men as challenged by the crises of their time as we are today. Charles Francis Adams – the great-grandson of John Adams — once said: “We are beginning to forget that the patriots of former days were men like ourselves, acting and acted upon like the present race, and we are almost irresistibly led to ascribe to them in our imaginations certain gigantic proportions and superhuman qualities, without reflecting that this at once robs their character of consistency and their virtues of all merit.” Those words were written in 1871. They are, if anything, even more apt today.

Take James Madison, one of the charter trustees of this college. He was physically unimpressive, decidedly lacking in charisma, and spoke in a whispery, difficult-to-hear voice. Yet he consistently impressed those who worked with him with his “most ingenious” clarity of mind, his powers of persuasion, his willingness to listen to others, and his determination to make the imperfect machine of government work. No other man contributed more to the intellectual bedrock of our government. Brilliant as he was, he suffered several major defeats at the Constitutional Convention: he had proposed that the president be chosen by the legislative branch, that Congress be given the right to override state laws, and that the membership of both houses of Congress be based on population. On each of these he was defeated. Yet he went on, unbowed, to implement the Constitution on the parliamentary battleground of the First Congress.

The First Congress met only months after the ratification of the Constitution, first in New York and then in Philadelphia, from 1789 to 1791. The challenges facing the nation were immense. The United States was a shaky collection of eleven sovereign states – North Carolina and Rhode Island hadn’t yet joined the union yet. (Congress almost dispatched troops to march on Rhode Island, to carry out “regime change” in Providence.) Opponents of the new Constitution – including Hampden-Sydney charter trustee Patrick Henry — were demanding hundreds of amendments. The government had no reliable source of revenue. More than fifty different currencies were in circulation. (Thomas Jefferson had to change money every time he crossed a state line on his journey from Monticello to New York.) There was no permanent capital. Southerners were suspicious of northerners, westerners of easterners, and New Englanders of everyone else. There were well-founded fears that the trans-Appalachian West would break off into another country, or maybe several. The British threatened the fragile new nation from the north, Indian nations from the West, and the Spanish from the South. Quakers were demanding an end to slavery, while southerners threatened secession if government dared to tamper with their “peculiar institution.” Even many members of Congress doubted that the government would survive its birth. It’s worth remembering that when Gorge Washington took the oath of office at his first inauguration, onlookers could see that his hands were shaking. It wasn’t because of age: he feared that he wasn’t up to the task he faced. As Madison, who dominated the first crucial session of the First Congress, put it, “We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us.”

In the teeth of such adversity, the First Congress achieved the most prodigious output of any single Congress in American history. It established the executive departments, the federal court system, the first revenue streams for the national government, approved the first amendments to the Constitution, adopted a program for paying the country’s debts and embraced the principles of capitalism as the underpinning of government financial policy. It also founded the first National Bank, established the national capital on the Potomac River, enacted the first patent and copyright laws, founded the United States Coast Guard, and much more.

How did they achieve all this? It wasn’t with a group hug. They did it largely through contentious debate and pragmatic, occasionally shameless, deal-making. Perhaps the best known compromise – now famous thanks to a certain well-known musical – took place at Thomas Jefferson’s home on Maiden Lane, in the heart of today’s financial district, in New York. There, in June 1790, Madison agreed to supply a certain number of very grudging votes from his friends in Maryland and Virginia in order to enact Alexander Hamilton’s far-reaching financial plan. In return, Hamilton a proto-abolitionist who favored a free-state capital, agreed to trade votes from his supporters in the North for the establishment of the seat of government securely in the slave states of Maryland and Virginia. It was, in essence, the first “backroom deal” in American history.

By today’s unrealistic standards, such swapping of votes at the expense of principle might seem reprehensible. But it required both character and courage on the part of the men involved. And the nation was the better for it.

Most of the members of that First Congress were not so different from the men and women who populate Capitol Hill today. Most were professional politicians, a majority were lawyers, and there was a good deal of chaff along with the human grain. They differed deeply from each other on many issues – slavery, centralized government, financial policy, regional interests, taxation. But every one of them wanted the government to succeed. They also believed in politics as a tool for national survival. After all, the right to be political was what they had fought the Revolutionary War for. The usually astute French ambassador, Louis-Guillaume Otto, rather cynically remarked in 1790: “The intrigues, the cabals, the underhanded and insidious dealings of a factious and turbulent spirit are even much more frequent in this republic than in the most absolute monarchy.” But the turbulence he was describing was just republican government at work.

The urgencies of transactional politics aside, Madison and his colleagues also believed in persuasion over power-driven argument, in accommodating divergent views, and in a willingness to make painful compromises for the greater good. Put another way, they relied on their own character, on their trust in the character of their fellow men, and on the kind of humane values that are deeply rooted here at Hampden-Sydney.

Americans today bemoan political partisanship, not entirely without reason. But partisan battles in the early republic could be savage, too. Take the struggle for the first amendments. We rightly think of the Bill of Rights as one of the most majestic components of our constitutional system. But many members of the First Congress didn’t want them at all. Federalists complained that tampering with the new Constitution would “throw everything into confusion.” Others argued that if the Constitution was treated as something “sacred” and untouchable what was the point of permitting amendments at all? Madison took on the responsibility of compressing the more than two hundred proposed amendments down to twelve, of which ten would ultimately be ratified as the Bill of Rights, although it was never called that then. No one at the time was happy with the result. South Carolina Congressman Aedanus Burke complained that the amendments that were finally enacted were “little better than whip-syllabub, frothy and full of wind, formed only to please the palate.”

We sell the founders short when we imagine that today’s messy political battlefields cannot also produce results that may also be of lasting value. And we sell ourselves short when we imagine that the men and women like us who represent us today are somehow made of lesser human material than our ancestors.

No one opposed the new government, the Constitution, and Madison more vigorously than Patrick Henry, the governor of Virginia, and the country’s paramount advocate for the rights of states against strong central government. Frankly, he hated the Constitution. “The principles of this system are extremely pernicious, impolitic, and dangerous,” he declared in 1788, predicting that the new government it created would “oppress and ruin the people.” The following year, he did everything he could to sabotage Madison’s election to Congress. But even Henry resigned himself to results that he had fiercely resisted. “Altho’ the Form of Government into which my Countrymen determined to place themselves had my Enmity, yet as we are one & all embarked, it is natural to care for the crazy Machine, at least so long as we are ought of Sight of a Port to refit,” he wrote to his protégé James Monroe after the close of the First Congress.

Both Madison and Henry were of course gentlemen of their time. But as Henry Adams implied, our ancestors had no monopoly on virtue. One of the most virtuous public men I have ever known lived not far from here, in Lunenberg County. His name was Nathaniel Lee Hawthorne. He was a World War II veteran who served in a racially segregated unit and was badly wounded in the Italian campaign. When I met him in 1967, he was the county chairman of the NAACP. I was a college kid helping him to register disenfranchised African-American voters. He was threatened, harassed, shot at, and accused of crimes he never committed. His rectitude was quiet but unbreachable. He also possessed extraordinary physical courage. One day, he walked into the middle of a Ku Klux Klan rally on the steps of the county court house to prove that African Americans weren’t afraid of them. (I know all this because I was with him that day.) If ever a man had reason to despair of his country it was Hawthorne. But he believed fiercely in it, and – like Madison and Henry – he also believed in the moral fortitude of his fellow men. He was, in every respect, a gentleman. And his battle for fairness in Lunenberg County was not so very different in its essentials from the one that Madison and his colleagues waged in New York two hundred and twenty-seven years ago.

In government, times are always tough, and the future always uncertain. We may wish to return to a kinder and gentler, more inspiring, more honorable, or more enlightened time. But every age has been as fraught with anxiety and dread as our own. In a sense, we are always, in Patrick Henry’s words, “ought of Sight of a Port.” History can’t guarantee us that our future will be bright, or ensure that when the political wheel turns, as it must, it will restore our world as it was before. Rather, history tell us that our political reality was never trouble-free to begin with.

Times of trial are not something for us to fear: crisis also reveals the essential character of a man. We will continue to struggle for the ideals and policies that we believe in. But lasting victory can never be achieved without compromise, and compromise can never be achieved without respect for one’s adversaries. Madison knew it. So did Patrick Henry. So did Nathaniel Lee Hawthorne. When we despair, we would do well to turn to Madison and Washington, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and others like them who brought common values of fairness and tolerance to the political world that we live in. All of them faced crises that tried their souls. Times of crisis also give birth to creative solutions. Just because we cannot see them at the moment does not mean that they don’t exist.

For almost two hundred and fifty years Hampton-Sydney has been committed to shaping character that will endure, and not falter amidst the turbulence of the moment. Its mission to form good men and good citizens is today more urgently needed than ever, as we navigate the personal and public challenges that will inescapably emerge to confront us as our lived history unfolds. Its commitment to teaching and embodying the values of mutual respect, open-mindedness, clear reasoning, and clear language are the blood and sinews of our society. Civility will never become obsolete. Honor need not grow feeble with age. These benchmarks of Hampden-Sydney’s purpose will remain forever vital not just to the molding of its graduates’ character, but to that of the nation.

Can Calhoun, Waive Wilson
Saturday, 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
Wednesday, 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
Sunday, 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.

My new Civil War e-book
Friday, 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. (more…)

The Imperfect Union: A new blog
Tuesday, 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. (more…)

The Underground Railroad: Myth & Reality
Sunday, 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.) (more…)

John Brown’s Subterranean Pass-Way
Saturday, January 14th, 2006

JOHN BROWN believed that God himself had ordained him to bring an end to slavery. Achieving his goal hinged on a radical and deeply secret scheme: the establishment of an “Underground Pass-Way” that would extend the Underground Railroad more than a thousand miles southward through the Appalachian Mountains into the heart of the Deep South. This highway to freedom would drain the South of slaves, Brown believed; they would travel north to the free states protected by strongholds manned by armed abolitionists and freed slaves. Few abolitionists knew what Brown really had in mind. Brown’s dreams ended in the debacle at Harper’s Ferry.

What was John Brown’s Subterranean Pass-Way? As Brown envisioned it, it would be an underground highway that would reach 2,000 miles all the way down through the Appalachian Mountains through Virginia and Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and into the Deep South, as far as Georgia. From the archives It was the vision that Brown had in mind when he marched into Harper’s Ferry in 1859. This was the UGRR on an epic scale. Had it succeeded, today we’d all be talking about how the entire underground as we know it was just the lead-up to John Brown’s monumental plan.

What did Brown really have in mind? How would the Subterranean Pass-Way have worked? Was it was just a pipe dream, or something that could really have happened? (more…)

The Underground Railroad
in the New York Hudson Valley

Thursday, July 28th, 2005

WE KNOW the Hudson Valley was one of the main arteries of the Underground Railroad.

We know that large numbers of fugitives were sent from Philadelphia to New York City, and up through the valley to Albany and Troy. Between 1842 and 1843—fugitives—virtually all, probably, from New York City. Most of them were sent onward to Central New York, Vermont, or Massachusetts.

But there is almost no record of how they traveled. Compared to other areas—for example, Central New York State, southern Pennsylvania, the Ohio River Valley, From the archives Detroit—the absence of records is deeply puzzling.

How did they travel? What routes did they follow? And who helped them?


Profile of the valley and slavery

Before we get to the answer, I want to go back in time somewhat. New York was once home to the largest number of slaves of any state in the North—more than Georgia, until the late 18th century. The heaviest concentration of them was on plantations in the Hudson Valley, many owned by the prominent Livingston family. At times, slaves had made up as much as 10% of the population. Slavery was cruel here as it was anywhere in the South. Slaves were branded with irons, and notched in the ears, like cattle. Sometimes they were punished with castration. (more…)