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Book Synopsis: Miller, William Lee. Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Scholarship, Slavery, Southern History, The South on October 30, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This is the story of America’s struggle to end slavery without destroying the union.  The book deliberately focuses on the rhetoric of white male politicians and thus does not purport to tell the “whole” story, but only that part of the story which is most recoverable and hence most knowable.  Many early 19th century politicians averred that the Northern textile industry, which was roughly as powerful as today’s oil industry, depended on Southern slavery.  An industry with such power and control over the financial interests of the country can, Miller argues, cause social changes to come about more slowly.  When talking about slavery, Miller submits, American politicians of the time had to deal with inherent contradictions in the American tradition: a nation that celebrated equality and the virtues of the “common man” had to come to terms with the fact that African slaves, officially excluded from citizenry, embodied the “common man” ideal but were not permitted to climb the social and economic ladder.  Most politicians did not believe slavery could end abruptly but would end gradually as economic dependence turned elsewhere.  Slavery went against all the principles and rhetoric of America’s founding documents, and yet there it was, a thriving and ubiquitous industry.

The book begins in 1835, when Congress deliberated over petitions to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.  Congress took on these petitions reluctantly, unwilling to address a contentious and divisive issue that would disrupt congressional and governmental harmony.  Congress wished the issue would just go away—but realized that it could not.  During this congressional session, most of the speechmaking came from proslavery Southerners, since Northern politicians were, generally, too afraid to take a stand one way or the other.

Major figures from this session include the following:

President Andrew Jackson

John Fairfield: Congressman from Vermont who introduces the petitions to abolish slavery in D.C.

Franklin Pierce: Eventually the fourteenth President, he is, at this time, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.  He is a Northerner with Southern sympathies.

James Henry Hammond: Congressman from South Carolina who opposed Fairfield and Adams.

John Quincy Adams: A former president (the nation’s sixth), he is, at this time, a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts.

Henry Laurens Pinckney: A Congressman from South Carolina who opposed Fairfield and Adams but who also did not get along with John C. Calhoun.

John C. Calhoun: A U.S. Senator from South Carolina, having resigned from the Vice Presidency.

Martin Van Buren: Eventually a U.S. President (the nation’s eighth), he is, at this time, the Vice President under Andrew Jackson.

James K. Polk: Eventually a U.S. President (the nation’s eleventh), he is, at this time, a member of the U.S. House from the State of Tennessee.

The debates in Congress were fueled by abolitionist literature (written by people like John Greenleaf Whittier, William Lloyd Garrison, and Elizur Wright, Jr.) and oration that maintained not only that slavery was wrong (as people had maintained for decades) but also that its demise was the nation’s highest priority.  Congress could not “sit on its hands” while abolitionists protested and demanded change; it had to respond, albeit reluctantly, to an institution that many congressmen assumed was already doomed.  The demise of slavery was supposed to be inevitable, according to the common logic, yet it persisted; therefore, the abolitionists forced Congress to address slavery, the demise of which, the abolitionists argued, was not as inevitable as people supposed.

The Senate also faced petitions.  Senator Calhoun became the most colorful and powerful figure opposing these positions.  Calhoun and his followers often employed “liberal” rhetoric on the Senate floor.  Henry Laurens Pinckney authored the gag rule, which was an attempt to stop citizens from submitting antislavery petitions.  (Calhoun despised Pinckney so much that he endorsed unionist candidates to take over Pinckney’s Congressional seat.)  The gag rule was adopted by a 117-68 vote, thus suggesting that the nation was more united on the issue of slavery than popular thought maintains.  The gag rule required congressmen to set aside slavery petitions immediately, without so much as printing them.  John Quincy Adams would spend the following years in Congress battling the so-called gag rule.

At this point in the book, Adams becomes the central figure.  Adams, then a distinguished ex-president, was in his 60s and 70s as he fought against the gag order.  He maintained that not only abolitionists but also slaves could petition.  Miller argues that this position shows the extent to which Adams was willing to risk his reputation and what was left of his career in order to stand up to the Southern gag order.  Other congresspersons were slow to join Adams in his fight.  During these debates, very little was said of African Americans, and most of the debates focused on the rights and roles of government and ignored the human persons that that government was supposed to serve and protect.

After Martin Van Buren became president, succeeding Andrew Jackson, he announced that he would veto any bill involving the issue of slavery in D.C. or the slave states.  Nevertheless, the petitions continued to pour in.  Adams himself began submitting petitions.  The gag resolutions had to be passed each session, but a gag rule was announced in 1840 that, in essence, made the “gagging” permanent.  Adams led the effort to rescind this rule.  He grew closer and closer to the abolitionists as he precipitated disarray in the House.  He also made several speeches despite threats against his life.  Adams’s opponents tried to get the entire House to censure him, but they failed.  Adams used the censure trials as an occasion to bring slavery to the forefront of Congressional debate.  In 1844, Adams succeeded in having the gag rule abolished.

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Law in Melville and Hawthorne

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Writing on July 11, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Law was a common trope in the writing of nineteenth century American authors.  The jurist Roscoe Pound referred to nineteenth century America as a “frontier society” that was struggling to define what law was.  Justice John Marshall was carving out the jurisdiction of the nation’s high court, even as Andrew Jackson challenged Marshall’s authority to do so.  (Jackson supposedly said, in regard to Worcester v. Georgia, that Marshall had made his decision, “now let him enforce it.”)  American jurisprudents were seeking to reconcile the contradictions between liberty and equality on the one hand—the ideals of the revolutionary generation—with the peculiar institution of slavery on the other.  The ethos of republicanism and the ideal of open discourse clashed with the legislative attempts among the Southern states to resurrect Roman code to validate slave laws, even as the judiciary, on all levels and in all states, attempted to incorporate British common law into a new setting with unique problems.  In short, law was in flux during the nineteenth century in America, and writers like Melville and Hawthorne picked up on this problem and gave it unique and sometimes troubling articulation in their literature.

The “facts” in Benito Cereno are strikingly similar to the facts in one of America’s most memorable cases: U.S. v. The Amistad, in which John Quincy Adams, among others, served as an attorney.  In both “cases,” slaves took over a slave ship, killed some of their white captives, and demanded that the remaining white shipmen return the boat to Africa.  Rather than doing that, however, the white shipmen steered a path toward America, where the unsuspecting crew of another ship, sensing something wrong, came to assist.  These fact patterns raise sensitive and disturbing questions about the law.  What is justice?  How should it be determined?  Which party is right, and what does it mean to be right or to have rights?  For that matter, what is the law to begin with?

In Benito Cereno, Cereno is the captain of the ship bearing slaves, and it is from Delano’s perspective that we learn, gradually, that a slave revolt has occurred and that Cereno is being held captive by Africans.  Delano is the captain of a different ship who has come aboard Cereno’s ship to assist Cereno’s apparently distressed crew.  The leader of the slave revolt, Babo, himself a slave, is always by Cereno’s side, thereby giving Delano the impression that Cereno has a loyal servant.  What Delano eventually discovers is that the slaves have spared the lives of only Cereno and a few other whites in order that these whites return the ship to Africa.

In Amistad as in Benito Cereno, the African slaves had been removed from their homeland, without their consent, and taken to a foreign land among alien peoples for the sole purpose of perpetual enslavement.  On the other hand, the white shipmen had, it could be argued, complied with the law of the sea in conducting these actions, and they were murdered by mutinying slaves.  The problem here is that neither side seems to represent an unquestionably moral or obviously right position.  Slavery is evil, but so is murder.  Melville, perhaps realizing the literary possibilities created by this tension, subjects this challenging set of circumstances to rigorous interrogation by way of a captivating narrative. Read the rest of this entry »

Review of Lions of the West by Robert Morgan

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Historicism, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Southern History, The South, Writing on January 31, 2012 at 6:46 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here at the Southern Literary Review.

Good histories don’t just tell stories; they make arguments.  Robert Morgan’s arguments in Lions of the West, subtle though they are, run as follows: historians and storytellers cannot help but view dramatic shifts of history as products of the actions of famous individuals; nevertheless, what happens in the course of history is attributable to numerous common folk acting independently and with disparate motivations.  Even the most comprehensive history cannot tell the stories of all these individuals, each of whom, in the narrative of the American West, could be numbered among the great “lions.” 

“While it is understandable,” Morgan explains, “that we see history mostly in terms of the deeds of a few, our grasp of what actually happened will be flawed and limited if we do not consider the story of the almost invisible many who made the notable deeds possible, even inevitable.”  Despite this claim, Morgan seems taken by the Great Man theory of history, and one of the epigrams to his book, which gets repeated in the Prologue, is Emerson’s remark that there is “properly no history; only biography.”

Morgan’s stated purpose is to “create a living sense of the westward expansion of the United States through brief biographies of some of the men involved.”  In realizing this goal, he offers a nod to other popular historians and storytellers such as Joseph J. Ellis, Gordon S. Wood, and David McCullough.  Each of these men writes histories free of the monotony and tendentious urgency of academic historians, yet each is also committed to facts and small details as indicia of greater narrative patterns. 

Morgan admits, as he must, that Lions of the West is, at best, “only a partial story.”  That’s not a shortcoming peculiar to Morgan’s narrative but a reality of human experience: all histories, like all memories, are partial.  Morgan himself submits that “written history is distortion through selection,” and that by its nature “narrative can represent only by implication, explicit about some parts, suggesting the many.”  No history could recount all the constituent parts that make up the whole; no history, in other words, could recreate the past.  For that reason, an author’s values and priorities are reflected in the subjects he or she chooses to undertake. 

Morgan’s values and priorities can be gleaned from his decision to profile ten individuals whose lives and toils characterize the American West in all its outlandishness and glory: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”), David (“Davy”) Crockett, Sam Houston, James K. Polk, Winfield Scott, Kit Carson, Nicholas Trist, and John Quincy Adams.  Of these, all but Chapman and Adams maintained significant ties to the South or would have considered themselves, or by others would have been considered, Southerners. Read the rest of this entry »

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