Fergus M. Bordewich

Posts Tagged ‘Civil War’

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…)