OLD ENGLISHIn my "Norton Anthology of English Literature," the first entry is Caedmon's Hymn. It's our first poem, first song; if you take the vast pile of English literature and peel it away, year by year, back through time to the oldest scrap,
this is it. Dated sometime between 650 and 680 C.E. Before Shakespeare, before Chaucer, before even "Beowulf" (in the form it has come down) is Caedmon. I love most Anglo-Saxon verse, but I can't stand Caedmon.
"The earliest English poem," of course, is really just the oldest one to have survived. As the Caedmon story makes clear, a rich tradition of poetry flourished around him when he composed his hymn. Random shears cut through history and blindly decide what survives, what doesn't. A Sappho poem sits faded but intact on papyrus stuffed in a barrel bung, while teething moths have devoured the one next to it. Not so in Caedmon's case. His little praise-song survives exactly because it killed off the rest.
In an England still half heathen, where one king set up Ing's idols on the altar in his priest's church, Caedmon was the first to discover that the rich lode of old songmaking could be perverted to the purpose of the new, alien religion. He took a full-flowering pagan art and forced it to the baptismal font and invented the church-hymn. He was the first Christian-rock star. We're the future where Beethoven and the Beatles are forgotten, but Kenny G. still sounds, where Jane Austen is gone but Danielle Steele endures.
The miracle-story of Caedmon is in Bede's history of the English church. To Bede the background is the setting for the gem. Caedmon lives in a settlement around an abbey. The people gather in the evenings after chores in some public hall. There, amid warm fires and laughter, they pull down the harp and pass it around. Everyone takes a turn singing and strumming the chords. They make music as a social function, to win attention, to show affection, to move or amuse one another. Perhaps they tell great adventure-songs from their people's past. Perhaps they sing some raunchy limerick to get a laugh.
But every time this starts to happen, Caedmon gets up and leaves. He slips out of the warm hall into the cold starlit night, on the excuse of tending the sheep. But the truth is, he can't sing, and he's ashamed. When the harp comes near, he ducks out, and he lies in his cold bed and listens to the distant laughter.
One night, after this happens, he dreams an angel stands at the head of the bed and commands him to sing. Caedmon pleads that he can't sing. "Yes, you can," the Angel says. "What shall I sing?" Caedmon asks. The Angel tells him to praise God the creator, and Caedmon burps out this tubthumper hymn about the making of the world.
In Bede's version, he wakes up the next day and tells his aldorman, then the local abbot, and the miracle story begins.
But in my version, Caedmon gets out of bed right then and stalks up to the mead-hall, flings the doors open, stands there and croaks out his sermon song. The whole place turns to watch him. cups half-raised to lips, harp passing from hand to hand of men whose frozen faces now turn toward Caedmon's eruption. And as he sings the whole room begins to fade -- the food, the hands that grip it, the frozen faces, the harp, till the song ends and Caedmon stands alone at the head of a hall as vacant and dim as starlight. And he pulls the doors to and turns to face us.
Now he's all we have.
In the 20th century readers of English re-connected with the bloody, cunning sagas of 1,000 years before, and that says a lot about the 20th century. Regarded as embarrassingly crude by the 19th century, "Beowulf" and similar tales now seem shockingly cinematic, violent as the nightly news. Young Robert Graves, after serving in the trenches in World War I, found himself at Oxford among other returned soldiers resuming the education they had interrupted in 1914. His Anglo-Saxon lecturer was almost apologetic: "It was, he said, a language of purely linguistic interest, and hardly a line of Anglo-Saxon poetry extant possessed the slightest literary merit." Graves disagreed.
"I thought of Beowulf lying wrapped in a blanket among his platoon of drunken thanes in the Gothland billet; Judith going for a
promenade to Holofernes's staff tent; and
Brunaburgh with its bayonet-and-cosh fight -- all this came far closer to most of us than the drawing-room and deer-park atmosphere of the eighteenth century." [
Good-Bye To All That]
Yet it is a direct speech, and its directness is the root of both its power and its charm. Nothing is affected about a language whose word for the little finger is eorcleaner. A politician who speaks such a tongue could not bury you in a slurry of canting prose. The French Latinate words flooded into English because clerks and clerics who came across the Channel with William the Bastard after Hastings needed terms for their theology and lawsuits. The pollution that fouled the language seeped from the twin stacks of serfdom and dogma.
Even more than the lexicon, however, the grammar makes the tongue strong. Despite the entanglements of gender and its oblique cases, Old English was actually less complex in some ways than Modern English. Best of all, from the point of clear writing, is that it had not yet discovered the cursed copula, where "to be" is the main action and the real verb dissolves into the sentence, sapping the life out of it and strewing about soporific "-ing" endings. Its structure also made Old English unfriendly to those other essential tools of dull writing: the passive voice, the unspecified "it," and the continuous tenses.
"It is raining," is just not a possible sentence in Old English. The old language forced you to stand up and say what you meant, not hide it behind copulas. The rain falls. Or it floods. At any rate, a word must come forth and declare itself the subject of the sentence, and then it must do something. Passive voice, continuous tenses have their uses; they allow writers or speakers to deftly describe complex and subtle relationships. But they are used far more commonly to curtain the speaker's ignorance, or to deflect attention from what ought to be the important facts of a case.
Old English did have the "-ing" words, but it wasn't infested with them, like its modern cousin. Anglo-Saxons were more likely to form their gerunds in -aş or -oş for masculine nouns. At least it's a real syllable, not a mumble. It used -ing or -ung in feminine gerunds like gaderung ("gathering") or ræding ("reading"). Wilnung is a good word meaning "desire." The "-ing" suffix also served in Old English as an converter of adjectives into nouns, but again it was rare. Æşling, which turns the adjective "noble" into a word meaning "nobleman," is the one I see most frequently.
You can read page after page of Anglo-Saxon and never meet a word that ends in -ing. Try to write just a paragraph in Modern English without one. Even the past perfect tense was folded into the verbs (through a ge- prefix) and it was possible for Anglo-Saxon writers to write narrative prose uncluttered with "haves" and "hads" (when groping with any but the simplest statements, however, they cluttered it up with other words instead).
It was an English without all the cobweb words that end in "-shun," however you spell it. It was an English with far more strong verbs, with their juicy evolutions (the past participle of "help" was not the whiny "helped" but the more muscular holpen). It was an English that had far more plurals of the "man-men" type, where a stem vowel changes, and more possessives with a suffix -an rather than the hiss that's now tacked on to the end of words in both cases.
I've read that only about 20 percent of the Modern English vocabulary is directly descended from Old English. The open-door policy of English is part of the reason for its global popularity, of course, but unlike in more conservative languages, English words keep slipping away to make room for new ones. And other words live on as toothless relics of their former selves. Old English thunderheads of power, like mood and grim, have survived in debased, pip-squeak form. Some 23,000 or 24,000 Old English words have come down to us, which is doubtless only a fragment of the corpus. But even among that list are a few gems that we never should have dropped in the philological dustbin. These words are gone, and now we fumble around for want of them. I've modernized the spellings to indicate pronunciation, though if these words had really survived to modern times this is how they'd probably be spelled.
SHRITHE - Bruce Mitchell's "Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England" gives this account of the word: "The [Beowulf] poet uses the verb scrişan four times -- of hellish monsters, of shadows, of Grendel, who is both a hellish monster and a sceadugenga 'shadow-goer' and of the dragon. The word seems to imply smooth and graceful movement (it is used elsewhere of the sun, clouds, and stars, of a ship skimming over the sea, and of darting salmon in a pool) and an element of mystery (other poets use it of the coming of May, of the beginning and ending of the day, and of the gradual passing of human life). In Beowulf, there is also a suggestion of menace and danger which is echoed in other poems, where the word refers to the spread through the body of a disease which could be cancer and to flames raging unchecked. Had it survived, poets would have used it as a rhyme for 'writhe' and sports writers would have turned it into a cliche applicable to footballers, cricketers and baseballers, tennis-players, and boxers."
WER - male human being. The word "man," used in Modern English for both "adult male" and "human being," causes much confusion and bad feeling. It seems to make males the true humans and females a sort of afterthought, which is consistent with Christian theology but not with biology or chivalry. Never mind that the "Human being" meaning of "man" is the older of the two; most people don't know that. Other Germanic languages have adopted different forms of the word for the two senses (German has Mann and Mensch). English had a similar distinction, with the word "mennisc," but it vanished by the 13th century. But the Old English terms to distinguish the sexes were wer and wif. "Woman" is actually "female human being" from a compound of "wif" and "man." Wer survives obviously in "werewolf" and, more obscurely, at the root of "world." But why not revive it to mean "male human" and root out the difficulties of "man." "Wer and woman" has a healthy, Anglo-Saxon alliterative ring to it.
SWITHE - strong, harsh, right, very, quite. This adverb once had a wide range of meanings, including "right hand," but it generally was used simply for emphasis, like the modern words "very" and "really." It's in this sense that I'd revive it. It sounds nifty and "very" and "really" have certainly been beaten to death by overuse, so they could take a break for a couple of generations and let swithe do their work. It often worked together in Old English with MICKEL, another one I'd like to bring back, which meant "more" and became "much," though the original form survived in Viking-tinged Scottish dialects much longer than in the rest of England. Its comparative and superlative forms survive as "more" and "most," but the root word has a more satisfying taste than "much."
FRODE - It meant "old" and "wise" at the same time. In a similar vein would be DOUTH, as a sort of counterweight to "youth," derived from the old verb dugan, meaning "be good for, be strong" (surviving, barely, in the archaic "doughty"). It would make a more vigorous and honorable word than "middle age" to describe the accumulation of life experience and maturity.
SEVA - As a noun, it meant "mind, heart, spirit," but with a sense of perception, of knowing through the heart. It could serve as a word for the concept we fumble at with words like "emotional intelligence" or trivialize with phrases like "women's intuition."
NESH - The word has a soft, timid, delicate sound, which is exactly what it meant: "soft, timid, delicate." It grew out of Old English hnesce, and was a much-used word in Middle English. I had written that this word survived till the early 20th century in North England and Midlands dialects, which is what the dictionaries assured me. But I've since heard from several Yorkshire folks who assure me it still thrives in conversation there. Good news! Yorkshire against the world! I am told as well that the word is in daily use in Liverpool and most of Lancashire.
TUNGOL - Used to mean "star," and is evidently at the root of modern words like "twinkle," but I like it as a homely alternative to the icy "star." And "astronomy" is nowhere near as magical a word as its Old English equivalent, tungolcræft.
NITHE - "Malice, enmity, violence, persecution." Except perhaps "malice," none of the synonyms come close to the nasty sneer of nişe. The word nithing survived into the mid-19th century in parts of England, meaning "vile coward, wretch, villain of the lowest type;" and a nithing post was a stake set up as a form of insult.
Learning an ancient tongue brings strangeness into the world. The familiar turns out to be exotic. Here's some of the strangeness of English that you discover when you wash away the soil and examine its roots.
The bulk of the core vocabulary of English is made up of recognizable Indo-European root words, shared by most languages from Iceland to India. But there also are a number of words from a hypothetical "Northwest European" provenance, which would be a cluster in the Indo-European family that comprises the ancestral tongues of the Italic, Celtic, Baltic, Slavic, and Germanic languages. These words presumably descend from a common Bronze Age culture, and they consist of roots not found elsewhere in Indo-European languages, or which have different meanings in them. The vocabulary itself is largely cultural -- many of the words are agricultural terms or names of animals and plants found across this range. Grain, apple, sow (the pig) and seed are among them. But we can't know whether these words were borrowed from some long-extinct language of the pre-Indo-European inhabitants of these lands, whether they developed independently, or whether they were words from within the Proto-Indo-European lexicon that have been lost by all the other languages (this seems the least likely explanation).
English is a Germanic language, under the French, but a surprising number of our most basic words are unique to the Germanic languages -- bath, boat, drink, drive, evil, finger, hand, sea, and possibly earth and little.
Names of colors turn out to be among the most slippery words. I had already encountered Homer's "wine-dark" -- oinopos -- an adjective which Homer uses 17 times of the sea and twice of oxen, and Sophocles uses once to describe someone's arm. And ancient Greek references to the star Sirius, an icy blue to us, as "red." When I started reading Anglo-Saxon, I saw that the spectrum of color there, too, was not divided as it is now. In "Beowulf," yellow is the color of linden wood (used to make shields). The favorite color-adjective for gold, however, is red.
Many surviving color words from Old English -- dun, wan, sallow, bleak, dusky, swarthy, bright, murky, dark -- refer to colors which are not hues. These words have more to do with chroma (reflectivity, brightness, quality of light) than with hue (wavelength). We tend to think of color only as hue. Out of all this you can get an insight into that world. Look aound you and subtract all the artificial, man-made pigments from your world. Then look at what is left, and you may see why glitter and dark mattered more than pink and purple in naming what you see. Northern Europe through most of the seasons is a landscape of brown, gray, and dull green. The eruptions of color in spring and fall must have been brief and amazing, with an almost hallucinogenic intensity.
Old English brun and hwit both meant "bright, shining," though now both are used to mean hues (although we still speak of "burnished" wood or metal). One of the knottiest linguistic problems in Old English is blaec, which is the common ancestor of the seemingly irreconcilable modern words black and bleach. The Old English word seems to have been used to refer to a type of colorlessness.
The poet Julia Kasdorf wrote somewhere about the Old Order Mennonite community where she was raised, that its dialect only has words enough for farming and gossip. Old English has something of that innocence. To a degree, that simplicity is deceptive -- there are complex linguistic knots around the ideas of fealty and guilt, revenge and fate, but we miss them because we no longer hear such things so elaborately, and we translate half a dozen fully nuanced Anglo-Saxon words into one vague modern one, like "glory."
YOU WOULD WEEP
A little more than 200 years ago, a bombastic U.S. agent named William Eaton (today he would be special op) led a handful of U.S. Marines, several hundred foreign mercenaries scraped from the taverns and brothels of Alexandria, and a pack of hired bedouins in a march across a desert that hadn't been crossed in force since classical times. They captured Tripoli's second largest city, then defended it against counter-attack, and in the end they had won a tremendous victory.
Eaton went there with a purpose. The tyrant of Tripoli had captured a U.S. warship and enslaved its 300 sailors. When some of them died in captivity, the Bashaw Yussef threw their bodies to the dogs in the street. The Jefferson administration wanted the survivors freed. America in those days knew what "honor" meant.
The administration approved Eaton's mission, as part of a multi-pronged effort, but it didn't expect it to succeed. Until then, the only thing the U.S. Marines had going for them was a Washington, D.C., marching band which the citizens loved but the violin-playing Jefferson despised. Instead, he trusted the wily diplomats, who played the game the European way. Headlines in the administration mouthpiece newspaper blared "Millions for Defense but not a Cent for Tribute," but secretly Jefferson authorized ransom for the sailors.
So with a rival for the Tripoli throne, Hamet Bashaw, in tow, Eaton and his rag-tag army surprised everyone, Jefferson included, and conquered the city of Derne. It provided a line for the Marine song every boy used to know:
From the halls of MontezumaTo the shores of TripoliWe will fight our country's battleson the land as on the sea.First to fight for right and freedom ...
And so on. It also provided the curved Memeluke sword on the Marine dress uniform that still commemorates what was, no matter what else, a glorious and honorable victory.
But the Marines' victory, when it came, was almost an embarrassment to the administration The diplomats were working things out smoothly with the tyrant, agreeing in principle, haggling over prices. They made sure Eaton and his followers never had a chance to upset their work. The administration not only paid ransom, it accepted a treaty with a clause that set a going ransom rate for U.S. prisoners, thus encouraging the pirates to try to take more of them.
Worst of all, it sold out every honest ally the U.S. had in Libya. All the North Africans and Bedouins who had cast their lot with the Americans, all the residents of Derne who had helped the Americans defend it, the Arab women who had slipped between the lines and warned Eaton of their enemies' plots and plans, were left to their fate. Everyone knew the town would be looted and the inhabitants massacred when the Americans left. Eaton wrote from Derne to a friend describing his feelings when he read the diplomatic order to withdraw the American forces and the details of the deal that had been cut:
You would weep, Sir, were you on the spot, to witness the unfounded confidence placed in the American character here, and to reflect that this confidence must shortly sink into contempt and immortal hatred; ... but if no further aid comes to our assistance and we are compelled to leave the place under its actual circumstances, humanity itself must weep: The whole city of Derne, together with numerous families of Arabs who attached themselves to Hamet Bashaw and who resisted Yussef's troops in expectation of succour from us, must be abandoned to their fate -- havoc & slaughter will be the inevitable consequence -- not a soul of them can escape the savage vengeance of the enemy.
A pusillanimous political class, an attention-deficit public, an inept administration, and a malice-blinded media all seem to drift toward a premature American exit from Iraq.
The good people of Iraq will have to stand and face the bad people of Iraq and many other lands, on their own. It always was going to have to be them who won this war, not us. We went to Iraq to lose -- to be told to go home. It was the only way to make the place what we wanted it to be: A strong, free, prosperous, and law-abiding country ruled transparently by its people. The question was, whether we would stay long enough to help build that country and receive its orders to depart, or whether it would be jihadis and thugs who would force us to leave too soon.
It seems clear now that we don't have the will to continue this war. There will be consequences. The Kurds will feel them. But so will we. Weakness displayed before a weaker enemy is an invitation to further disaster. Just read Bin Laden.
Whatever the good, hard work being accomplished by our people in the country, there's nothing left here at home but the egos. Whatever the hopes and prospects once were for helping Iraq up on its feet as a strong and functioning democracy, we have broadcast to the world that we are not going to stick around long enough to do it. And no one else wants the job.
The people who ought to have supported and promoted this effort failed. That would include me. The people who worked from the beginning to defeat it won. And they seem to have convinced themselves they have no idea of the hell about to be unleashed.
I see the posters and stickers at the rallies. They're jarringly unreal. "Stop the war?" The real war begins after we leave. "Too many dead?" U.S. casualties over four years amount to a bad afternoon in 1944. The real threat begins after the enemy knows he's chased us out. No port, no off-base tavern, will be safe. "Deaths of innocents?" You've seen nothing yet.
They seem to think, on some unexpressed level, that the American failure they proclaim and support will simply re-set the clock to 2002.
In the limits of my experience, for most of the anti-war crowd this war always has been principally a domestic political issue. Concepts of national sovereignty, international rule of law, anti-imperialism served them as argument window dressing, but not consistently or sincerely (and in fact often in blatant contradiction to other stated goals of such people).
Once the last U.S. National Guard private has boarded the last flight out of Iraq, as I read these anti-war folks, America will enter a period of national self-mortification, humbled and humiliated, doing penance before a wiser world. They actually seem to think this is a good thing and anticipate it with some pleasure. Expect the next American U.N. ambassador to stand up and deliver a lengthy and formal apology to that august body.
And, as I think a great many people now perceive it, even after the war ends it will continue to function as a domestic issue chiefly: A cage to contain the new leaders' rivals. The memory of it will be like a family story that can be retold at any convenient moment to embarrass and check old stupid dad. "Remember that time you thought it would be a good idea to liberate Iraq? Oh, yes you do. Don't listen to anything he says; he's a fool."
One-time rah-rah war supporters are now sullenly silent. But there's still work that needs to be done, and there's no one but us to try to do it. Prepare for the catastrophe that will come with the defeat our anti-war leaders have invited into the house. Prepare for the new, ugly global realities that these people seem not to realize we'll face, instead of the pacifist utopia they dream.
I can think of many rear-guard fights that must be fought, and future calamities that ought to be anticipated. I know which one I intend to concentrate on: Let's try not to leave our friends behind to burn in the furnace of the enemy's victory celebration. This is where I'm going to choose to devote my energies as the expedition to liberate Iraq implodes.
The last remaining neo-cons must rouse themselves out of the funk of failure and take responsibility for what they own, and for what no one else will do. The Iraqis who took our offer to help them build a better future -- they are our responsibility. Everyone else wants to walk away from them, forget about them, let them disappear into the night of the long knives. They are inconvenient facts about to be ground like hamburger in the anti-imperialist narrative, which will be the story indoctrinated into our children about this war, as it was for me about Vietnam.
The Iraqis who shared our vision of their nation are about to be killed, with their families, and then forgotten. We know this, if no one else does. We care, if no one else does.
Let's work to get them out alive. Even if nobody ever gets credit for it, even if it does nothing to stave off the coming American grovel and the resultant repercussions for what's left that calls itself "the West." Even if it boosts the fortunes of our domestic political rivals by allowing them to have a relatively bloodless victory. Forget them; they will make their own hell. Do what is right. Do what you're responsible for doing.
I am thinking of the Iraqi interpreters who helped us. And the political leaders of secular or minority parties. And the Iraqi women who stood up for their rights. And the communists (I never said you were going to like all these people). The writers, the intellectuals, the doctors. Employees who worked for the allied agencies or contracted companies, down to the last secretary in the pool.
Get them out, with their families. Settle them here, or in some other safe place of their choosing. Australia, perhaps, or Kurdistan. Give them the freedom and security elsewhere that we promised them, and failed to give them, in their homes.
The administration hitherto has been reluctant to open the national doors to Iraqi refugees. As long as the White House was committed to succeeding in Iraq -- or at least to giving off the public impression of such commitment -- enabling the best and most useful citizens of Iraq to flee the country would have been counter-productive both politically and practically.
That time has passed. And so it's time to change the policy. And it's up to us to start pushing for it. Write to your congressman, and to people in power likely to have the skill and will to effect such changes. And keep writing. Keep calling. Keep up the pressure. Let's get some bills started. If that fails, set up private funds. Work with the people you know in the military, who will know best who over there needs a ride out. Find any allies and work with them; even if they're the loathsome types who likely will hold power here in a few years.
There is some practical virtue, after all, even in neo-isolationist realpolitik or sap-headed transnationalism, of being true to your friends.
The Britain of that time, newly confirmed as the world's great superpower by virtue of its naval might, offers the more interesting parallel to modern America.
The Barbary Coast ran 1,500 miles from the African side of the Straits of Gibraltar to the Gulf of Sirte in Libya. The rulers of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli nominally paid allegiance to the Ottoman sultan, but they were practically independent. Safe in their well-fortified port cities, with fundamentalist Islam as their guide and pretext, they sallied out into the sea and kidnapped Christians from Italy, Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, as well as anyone they could take from any ship they could catch in the Mediterranean, including northern Europeans and Americans.
At one time, Algiers alone held as many as 25,000 white Christians as slaves. Wealthy captives usually could be ransomed. Others were enslaved, or held in chains, or tortured till they converted to Islam. Women who could not raise a ransom sometimes were raped and usually were married off to locals or sent to harems as concubines, after being fattened up.
The British Navy was incensed. In part, this was personal -- seamen were frequent victims of the corsairs. But in part it was awareness of the role a superpower ought to play in the world. The British military men knew they had the ability to destroy these impudent slave-states, but their government lacked the will.
Who held power in this government? Liberal evangelicals -- the two words were as firmly linked in that time and place as "conservative" and "fundamentalist" are in this. The mix of liberalism and Christianity was a potent force that accomplished much good in the world. But the liberal evangelicals exhibited an early example -- perhaps the earliest I've seen -- of a quality that has weakened their successors on so many occasions: I call it the altruistic double standard.
Though William Wilberforce and the other liberal evangelical MPs campaigned ceaselessly to abolish the slave trade, they meant by that only the enslavement of blacks by whites. They exhibited a sort of inverted Darwinism -- doubly perverse -- and took no interest in Christian slavery that had for its targets people most like themselves.
Some British citizens pleaded with the government to stamp out the Barbary Coast pirates. Admiral Nelson wrote in 1799: "My blood boils that I cannot chastise these pirates. They could not show themselves in the Mediterranean did not our country permit. Never let us talk about the cruelty of the African slave-trade while we permit such a horrid war." But the government took no interest.
That's where the Americans came in. The young country was not yet powerful enough to tackle the problem on its own, but its aggressive approach aroused the British government by shame and example. With the exception of Jefferson's under-the-table deal, America consistently refused to ransome captives with money and munitions, as the Europeans often did. This is the source of Jefferson's oft-quoted rhetorical line in the sand, much better known at the time than his secret double-dealing.
After 1803, Washington and the Barbary states were at war, in effect. U.S. forces usually won the direct battles and forced the Muslim rulers to sign treaties which they promptly broke as soon as the American ships sailed out of sight.
In 1815, after making peace with Britain, America began sending expeditions to the Barbary Coast again, forcing the rulers to hand over American slaves (and Europeans sometimes) and pay fines.
The British finally were roused to action by this example and the shame it cast on them. On an August afternoon in 1816, the British Navy broke the power of Algiers, sank almost its entire fleet, killed up to 8,000 soldiers and civilians, and damaged or destroyed every building in the city.
The punishment didn't entirely end the depredations, however. Only the French invasion and colonization of Algeria a generation later did that.
Civil War: Maryland3These are excerpts from a pamphlet forwarded to U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, Oct. 28, 1861, by the major general in command in Baltimore, with this notice: "I inclose a pamphlet containing an address by three peace nominees of Harford County. It is very impudent, but is their language such as to warrant their arrest?" Seward's answer is not recorded, but men were arrested for similar utterances and jailed for months without being charged and without being allowed to communicate with a lawyer.
[This is about two-thirds of the original. What I have omitted is mostly a history of states' rights from the time of the Constitution, as well as some reflections on the previous election and the state of things in Kentucky and Missouri.]
TO THE PEOPLE OF HARFORD:
We have thought it best to address you explaining frankly the convictions that influence and the principles that govern us in the present crisis; principles we believe to be sound and convictions we know to be honest. Intending to adhere to them and willing to be judged by them we do not hesitate to submit our opinions unreservedly for your censure or approval.
Within our borders the Federal courts have always been open, their process unobstructed, their orders never resisted (but by Federal officials). Through this section every law of Congress could be enforced and every offense known to the code punished.
Yet Maryland by deliberate acts of the Administration has been outlawed; her government subverted; her laws disregarded and defied; her property seized, and force under the name of martial law has superseded the civil power. Her citizens are arrested without warrant; the security of their papers and effects violated; their right to keep and bear arms infringed, and freedom of speech and of the press not only abridged but suppressed.
Every man knows that these things are done in our midst; no honest man can deny that they are palpable breaches of the Constitution for no man can point to one line in that Constitution or to any law that authorizes, justifies or excuses them. Acts now so sanctioned are encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States and the people, and if prohibited are revolutionary. When the Government is not controlled by the paramount law, when it can do and does what that law does not permit or forbids it is unrestrained and absolute.
Wherever the law is superior to the ruler civil liberty exists; when the ruler is superior to the law; where at his discretion he can supersede, suspend or disobey it he is by whatever name he may be called despotic.
Believing that powers fatal to her rights as a State and destructive of the liberty of her citizens are exercised by those administering the General Government Maryland asks whence they are derived; asks to be shown the grant, and she is told that South Carolina has seceded and the cotton States are in rebellion. But Maryland has not seceded, and unless its repudiation by South Carolina destroyed the Constitution our rights under it are not lost; if it is destroyed the Government, its creature, has ceased to exist.
We have next the much-abused maxim inter arma silent leges (in war the laws are silent), but we reply the Constitution was made for peace and for war and its voice is too potent to be drowned in the din of arms.
But "the Government must be maintained, the Constitution and the Union must be preserved." We answer to violate the Constitution in order to maintain it is a contradiction in terms -- without it there is neither Union nor Government, which can exist only with it. The President's oath is to maintain the Constitution not to preserve the Union in some other mode. We ask you, fellow-citizens, have you ever had or heard from the adherents of the Administration -- the miscalled Union party -- any other justification attempted? Or this eked out with grandiloquent platitudes about the stars and stripes, our flag and the eagle?
There is one more -- the supreme law of necessity! Necessity for what and whence? If the necessity has been produced by the Administration instead of palliation it is but aggravation of its offenses. What then is this necessity? We are told that the seceding States have repudiated the Constitution and deserted the Union; they must be coerced to return to the one and to submit to the other. The Constitution gives no power to coerce a State; the power is indispensable, therefore we must usurp it.
The President has told us that [the war] cannot settle the issues that divided the North and the South. His more conservative adherents declare it is not waged for conquest or subjugation, whilst the abolition wing of his party frankly declares that its motive and its inevitable consequence is to emancipate the slave and destroy the South.
Whatever the opinion elsewhere six months ago except a few isolated Republicans the citizens of Maryland almost to a man of every party denounced the coercive policy and coercive war as fatal to the continuance or the restoration of the Union, and none more earnestly or persistently than the members and leaders of the Union party. We adhere to that opinion still. What reason have they found for renouncing a truth so indisputable?
But we are asked what good can the peace party do if they control the State? They cannot stop the war. We can and will at least refuse to aid in dragging Maryland into the slaughter-house. We can and will refuse at the bidding of the Administration to impose a war debt on her depleted treasury, to tax her citizens or to draft them for the battle-field. We can and will refuse to acknowledge that the Constitution is intermittent--performing or ceasing its functions at the will of the Executive. We can and will refuse to renounce the rights of our citizens or the sovereignty of the State, and will not by assenting to the exercise of powers not conferred by the Constitution admit that it is not supreme in war as well as in peace.
We have addressed you thus freely in plain words that there may be no misunderstanding. We have not stooped to pick the delicate phrases of a new-fangled loyalty. We do not counsel treasonable acts or combinations; we do not advise violence in conduct or unkindness in feeling; we abet no resistance to the law or its constituted authorities.
But we think and say that we should not consult our fears rather than our consciences; we should not volunteer our substance to the taxgatherer or our hands to the fetters. If we are doomed let us not be suicides. Whilst we are permitted to speak let us speak boldly for the truth and justice and civil liberty; whilst we are permitted to vote let us declare by our bolts that we cling to State rights as the only barrier to oppression and that we know no necessity superior to the Constitution.
Let us continue to advise as the Union party did in February last "that if it be found we cannot live together in harmony under the Constitution our fathers framed let us as brethren agree to part in peace," and to disclaim indignantly the doctrine of coercion by arms. If we cannot command let us at least invoke the blessings of peace--peace to a distracted land which partisan sectionalism has summoned to hatred and slaughter! Peace for the sake of those republican institutions which our forefathers left us and which are sinking fast in the red abyss of civil war! Peace for the sake of palsied labor and idle trade! Peace for our good old State, distracted and prostrate, doomed else to be the prize as she is daily more and more the victim of war!
H. D. FARNANDIS. JOSHUA WILSON. WM. B. STEPHENSON.
Civil War: LincolnThis afternoon the President of the United States gave audience to a Committee of colored men at the White House. They were introduced by the Rev. J. Mitchell, Commissioner of Emigration. E. M. Thomas, the Chairman, remarked that they were there by invitation to hear what the Executive had to say to them.
Having all been seated, the President, after a few preliminary observations, informed them that a sum of money had been appropriated by Congress, and placed at his disposition for the purpose of aiding the colonization in some country of the people, or a portion of them, of African descent, thereby making it his duty, as it had for a long time been his inclination, to favor that cause; and why, he asked, should the people of your race be colonized, and where? Why should they leave this country? This is, perhaps, the first question for proper consideration.
You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated. You here are freemen I suppose.
A Voice: Yes, sir.
The President---Perhaps you have long been free, or all your lives. Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. You are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours. Go where you are treated the best, and the ban is still upon you.
I do not propose to discuss this, but to present it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I would. It is a fact, about which we all think and feel alike, I and you. We look to our condition, owing to the existence of the two races on this continent. I need not recount to you the effects upon white men, growing out of the institution of Slavery. I believe in its general evil effects on the white race. See our present condition---the country engaged in war!---our white men cutting one another's throats, none knowing how far it will extend; and then consider what we know to be the truth. But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.
It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated. I know that there are free men among you, who even if they could better their condition are not as much inclined to go out of the country as those, who being slaves could obtain their freedom on this condition. I suppose one of the principal difficulties in the way of colonization is that the free colored man cannot see that his comfort would be advanced by it. You may believe you can live in Washington or elsewhere in the United States the remainder of your life, perhaps more so than you can in any foreign country, and hence you may come to the conclusion that you have nothing to do with the idea of going to a foreign country. This is (I speak in no unkind sense) an extremely selfish view of the case. But you ought to do something to help those who are not so fortunate as yourselves.
There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us. Now, if you could give a start to white people, you would open a wide door for many to be made free. If we deal with those who are not free at the beginning, and whose intellects are clouded by Slavery, we have very poor materials to start with. If intelligent colored men, such as are before me, would move in this matter, much might be accomplished. It is exceedingly important that we have men at the beginning capable of thinking as white men, and not those who have been systematically oppressed.
There is much to encourage you. For the sake of your race you should sacrifice something of your present comfort for the purpose of being as grand in that respect as the white people. It is a cheering thought throughout life that something can be done to ameliorate the condition of those who have been subject to the hard usage of the world. It is difficult to make a man miserable while he feels he is worthy of himself, and claims kindred to the great God who made him. In the American Revolutionary war sacrifices were made by men engaged in it; but they were cheered by the future. Gen. Washington himself endured greater physical hardships than if he had remained a British subject. Yet he was a happy man, because he was engaged in benefiting his race--- something for the children of his neighbors, having none of his own.
The colony of Liberia has been in existence a long time. In a certain sense it is a success. The old President of Liberia, Roberts, has just been with me--- the first time I ever saw him. He says they have within the bounds of that colony between 300,000 and 400,000 people, or more than in some of our old States, such as Rhode Island or Delaware, or in some of our newer States, and less than in some of our larger ones. They are not all American colonists, or their descendants. Something less than 12,000 have been sent thither from this country. Many of the original settlers have died, yet, like people elsewhere, their offspring outnumber those deceased.
The question is if the colored people are persuaded to go anywhere, why not there? One reason for an unwillingness to do so is that some of you would rather remain within reach of the country of your nativity. I do not know how much attachment you may have toward our race. It does not strike me that you have the greatest reason to love them. But still you are attached to them at all events.
The place I am thinking about having for a colony is in Central America. It is nearer to us than Liberia---not much more than one-fourth as far as Liberia, and within seven days'--- run by steamers. Unlike Liberia it is on a great line of travel---it is a highway. The country is a very excellent one for any people, and with great natural resources and advantages, and especially because of the similarity of climate with your native land---thus being suited to your physical condition.
The particular place I have in view is to be a great highway from the Atlantic or Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and this particular place has all the advantages for a colony. On both sides there are harbors among the finest in the world. Again, there is evidence of very rich coal mines. A certain amount of coal is valuable in any country, and there may be more than enough for the wants of the country. Why I attach so much importance to coal is, it will afford an opportunity to the inhabitants for immediate employment till they get ready to settle permanently in their homes. If you take colonists where there is no good landing, there is a bad show; and so where there is nothing to cultivate, and of which to make a farm. But if something is started so that you can get your daily bread as soon as you reach there, it is a great advantage. Coal land is the best thing I know of with which to commence an enterprise.
To return, you have been talked to upon this subject, and told that a speculation is intended by gentlemen, who have an interest in the country, including the coal mines. We have been mistaken all our lives if we do not know whites as well as blacks look to their self-interest. Unless among those deficient of intellect everybody you trade with makes something. You meet with these things here as elsewhere. If such persons have what will be an advantage to them, the question is whether it cannot be made of advantage to you. You are intelligent, and know that success does not as much depend on external help as on self-reliance.
Much, therefore, depends upon yourselves. As to the coal mines, I think I see the means available for your self reliance. I shall, if I get a sufficient number of you engaged, have provisions made that you shall not be wronged. If you will engage in the enterprise I will spend some of the money intrusted to me. I am not sure you will succeed. The Government may lose the money, but we cannot succeed unless we try; but we think, with care, we can succeed. The political affairs in Central America are not in quite as satisfactory condition as I wish. There are contending factions in that quarter; but it is true all the factions are agreed alike on the subject of colonization, and want it, and are more generous than we are here. To your colored race they have no objection.
Besides, I would endeavor to have you made equals, and have the best assurance that you should be the equals of the best. The practical thing I want to ascertain is whether I can get a number of able-bodied men, with their wives and children, who are willing to go, when I present evidence of encouragement and protection. Could I get a hundred tolerably intelligent men, with their wives and children, to "cut their own fodder," so to speak? Can I have fifty? If I could find twenty-five able-bodied men, with a mixture of women and children, good things in the family relation, I think I could make a successful commencement.
I want you to let me know whether this can be done or not. This is the practical part of my wish to see you. There are subjects of very great importance, worthy of a month's study, instead of a speech delivered in an hour. I ask you then to consider seriously not pertaining to yourselves merely, not for your race, and ours, for the present time, but as one of the things, if successfully managed, for the good of mankind---not confined to the present generation, but as
"From age to age descends the lay, To millions yet to be, Till far its echoes roll away, Into eternity."
The above is merely given as the substance of the President's remarks. The Chairman of the delegation briefly replied that "they would hold a consultation and in a short time give an answer."
The President said: "Take your full time---no hurry at all." The delegation then withdrew.
People in the West talk about the need for an "Islamic Reformation." By which they mean, perhaps, something that will have the same effect as what happened in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, when a monolothic theopolitical power cracked and what emerged, over time, was a Christianity that overall was less oppressive, less domineering, less dogmatic than what had come before. Something like that -- the picture is oversimplified (and never mind that barrels of blood were spilled in the process).
It's a hopeful vision. It's optimistic, and I've learned to be optimistic about the world -- like Churchill, because "it does not seem to be much use being anything else." So I like this idea, too. But I'm not so optimistic that I think it will happen.
For one: We want there to be an Islamic Reformation. There's no particular evidence that Muslims, in sufficient number and in the right places (i.e., not living in America or Canada) want there to be an Islamic Reformation.
Reformations don't happen because rival civilizations want them. Imagine the response if the Ottoman sultan in 1519 had said to the Pope, "Just this and this and this needs to be changed in Christianity so we can get along better." If the sultan had been advocating for exactly the same things Martin Luther spoke up for, you can bet Luther never would have got past the Wittenberg church door.
For another: There already was an Islamic Reformation. It happened while we were sleeping. The result is Wahhabi dominance, and Islamic Brotherhood, and Bin Laden. This is the Islamic Reformation. We're fighting it now.
When religions "reform" -- note the "re-" prefix -- they swim back toward their sources. And in every case, they carry the baggage of the present with them. Every attempt to reform Christianity during the 16th and 17th centuries sought the wellsprings. It turned away from the Catholic Church not because it was wrong to mix political power with religious authority, but because that's not how it was in the Gospels.
So they set out in search of the Christianity of Paul. But they always dragged their own time and place with them -- how could they not? If the command was, "be separated from the world," the shape of your separation would be determined by the shape of the world you lived in. Thus the same motivation, and the same Gospel, in different times and places led one group of people to be Quakers and another to be Pentecostals.
Or Amish. Look at an adult Amishman: he has a beard, but no mustache. Why is that? Because in 18th century Germany it was fashionable for young men to wear mustaches but no beards. So to get back to the Gospel and be not of this world, the Amish enshrined the exact opposite style. And they still wear it.
When Christianity reforms -- when it goes back to its roots -- it tries to foreswear the world. When Islam goes back to its roots, it tries to conquer the world. And it takes modern conflicts and technologies with it.
The Christian Reformation (I prefer the term "Protestant Revolt") was as much about political control as it was about religion. Once Luther opened the door, kings and queens usurped the power of the church in their domains and changed it just enough to suit their purposes without undermining the people's faiths. England is a good example.
Islam has seen this, too, in the strong-arm rule of the men, mostly of military backgrounds, who have led Muslim-majority nations in modern times. The "secularism" of men like Saddam or Musharraf, or nations like Tunisia or Egypt, has been noted, but not so often noted is that it never really dethroned the faith from the hearts of their people, nor did it replace Quranic authority over civil matters.
Instead, secular rulers have tended to fudge their way to non-Islamic legal codes and constitutions by using legitimate, but perverted, aspects of Shari'a. Takhsis al-qada, for instance, the right of the ruler to control the jurisdiction of courts; or Takhayyur, the selection of any opinion within a school of Islamic jurisprudence, not necessarily the dominant one, or Syasa shari'ya, the discretion of a ruler to implement beneficial regulations if they are not contrary to Shari'a.
The "secular strong-man" solution, then, is temporary and insufficient. It is neither valid within the Islamic legal tradition, nor capable of displacing it.
It is the wrong answer for another reason. We in the liberal, modern west tend to regard our civilizational history of the past 500 years or so as the struggle of enlightened values against the dark dogmas of the past, the conservative theologies married to the powers of the state. When we look to the modern Middle East for an "Islamic Reformation" we think in terms of the bold liberals resisting the coercive power of the Inquisition or the official church.
Yet so often in Islamic history, ancient and modern, it has been the "liberal" interpretation of the faith that has been allied with the essentially secular power, and the "conservative" or strict view that was among the people, or locked and tortured in the tyrant's jails.
Corrupt caliphs like a liberal interpretation of this faith. It excuses their excesses and overlooks their failure to live up to scrupulous standards of piety and abstinence. They always have. Throughout Islamic history, it was Torquemada in the poor streets as a man of the people, building charities and preaching God's humility, and easygoing Teilhard de Chardin supping at the sybarite tyrants' tables.
Another path to reformation you sometimes hear promoted is "re-opening the gates of ijtihad." This is a favorite among Westernized and liberal Muslims like Irshad Manji, who writes:
I also propose the revival of a tradition to correct what's gone wrong with Islam. Independent thinking and creative reasoning, known as ijtihad, was something Islam always prided itself on. My foundation, Project Ijtihad, aims to revive this way of thinking and I'm helping young Muslims to set up centres in various countries, including India and the United Arab Emirates.
Ijtihad (independent juristic reasoning) was the way Arabic scholars applied and interpreted the Quran and the collected sayings of the Prophet. But around the 10th century of our age, stricter theologians like Al-Ghazali came to see this process as "leading to errors of over-confidence in judgement." So they closed the gates of ijtihad, and they've stayed closed. What replaced it was taqlid, unquestioning imitation of established jurists and schools.
But what would you get if you could reopen them? Certainly some aspects of Shari'a could be changed. But key components of Shari'a that bring fundamentalist Islam into conflict with the non-Islamic world, such as the status of non-Muslims, the status of women, the acceptance of slavery and the relationship of the Islamic state with non-Muslim states of the modern world, are literally rooted in the Quran itself, or the Sunnah. Ijtihad can't change them. It only applies to place where there is no clear Quranic injunction.
Another possibility lies in the work of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, which is worth a full consideration and a post of its own. But even his disciples admit there's not much hope they will gain traction in the Islamic world. His ideas, though rooted in Islam, are "considered to be seditious in Sunni theology," and Taha himself ended up as so many would-be Islamic reformers do: executed by a strict orthodox Islamist regime.
Must there be Shari'a? Without it, there is no Islam. Both the Islamic world and the secular West live by the rule of law, but in the one case the law is evolved primarily from secular, rational traditions and in the other it is laid down by the hand of God and is one with the worship of God. [Samuel Huntington, surveying the world, finds that only the West and Hindu civilization separate religion and politics. "In Islam, God is Caesar; in China and Japan, Caesar is God; in Orthodoxy, God is Caesar's junior partner."]
Islam is a path through a defined space, with firm walls and open courses. In Islam, every act of life, from dressing to wife-beating, is an act of worship (or, if done wrongly, a fault in worship).
Some people instantly feel stifled there. Not all traditions fit all people. Huston Smith, the great religious scholar, writes a telling anecdote in an introduction to a book on Islam. Smith writes that he felt an instant affinity for the supple music of the Upanishads, but was repelled by the legalistic rigidity of Islam. Then he met another Western religious scholar who confessed he had no idea what the Hindu texts were talking about, "but when I read the Koran, I'm home."
" 'Umdat al-Salik wa 'Uddat al-Nasik" ("Reliance of the Traveller and Tools of the Worshipper"), is a classic manual of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) based on the Shafi'i school of thought. As the English translator of my edition of "Reliance of the Traveller" writes:
"I had been a commercial fisherman in the North Pacific for seven seasons, and I remembered a book the captain used to keep in the wheelhouse near the charts, a book of bearings, with the precise compass directions between one point of land and another in Alaskan waters. This was the sort of work I hoped to produce in shari'a, a book that I could open up and find accurate, substantive ethical knowledge to apply in my life."
Even in Mecca, Muhammad was organizing his followers into a community, a political and social unit. In Medina, he not only set up a "constitution" for governing the city, he served as an arbitration judge. "Law can never be deemed Islamic without being somehow anchored in these two sources (Qu'ran and Sunna)" [Wael B. Hallaq, "A History of Islamic Legal Theories"]. But taken altogether, the legalistic aspects of Islamic tradition fall short of a full code of laws. And they fail to take into account, obviously, anything that has gone on in the world since about 800 C.E.
In propounding his message, the Prophet plainly wished to break away from pre-Islamic values and institutions, but only insofar as he needed to establish once and for all the fundaments of the new religion. Having been pragmatic, he could not have done away with all the social practices and institutions that prevailed in his time. [Hallaq]
There are other ways to interpret Islam. Brilliant minds and brave hearts in the Islamic world have advanced them from time to time. But they never seem to make much headway. Even in the modern-day "crisis" of Islamic thought, the bid to give reason a place alongside revelation must be rooted in God, not man. When humanistic and positivist tendencies collide with the imperatives of revelation, in the Muslim world, revelation wins. Even among those who reject the medievalism of the old ways as irrelevant to the modern age. "Except for a minority of secularists, the great majority of modern Muslim thinkers and intellectuals insist upon the need to maintain the connection between law and the divine command." [Hallaq]
This gives Islamic reformers a long, steep path to climb. For instance, Ali Abd al-Raziq (1925) argued that there was no Islamic authority for the caliphate and that Islam has no political component. It was a radical argument yet forcefully made and in the finest Islamic scholarly style. It had some influence among secularizing Muslims in the middle of the last century, before the Islamist Revival swept it off the board.
Yet even if al-Raziq is accepted, the societal rules of the Qu'ran and Sunna -- with regard to women, say, or to religious minorities -- remain binding on individual Muslims.
In Iran a generation later, Mohammed Mosaddeq seems to have held the view (per Roy Mottahedeh) that Shi'a jurisprudence allowed a central role for common sense and for parliaments to pick and choose from Islamic law such dogmas as were appropriate to the modern situation at hand. With that approach, if the CIA and the British oil interests and the shah had not got to him first, he undoubtedly would have faced a challenge sooner or later from the ayatollahs.
The daunting difficulty of breaking through that impasse, I think, is why many Muslims reject rationalism and modernity as Western corruptions, and seek a "puritan" Islam. And since Islam was born in a time of war to the death against unbelievers, only a few small steps stand between fundamentalist Islam to jetliners plowed into skyscrapers.
Thoughtful Muslim reformers in the past century have tried to navigate a path between secularism and Shari'a. If the choice offered to the Islamic people must be between Shari'a and Western secularism, however, Shari'a always will win, as it is the Islamic alternative, bound up in that people's sense of religious duty and resentment of the West. And the Islamists know this, and in their Anti-Western and anti-modern extremism, they prevent a third way. By keeping the Shari'a immutable, by making it heresy to attempt to alter a word of it, the fundamentalists keep control of the political flow.
Their goal is not merely to hold political power. That is their means to the end they seek. It is not to make laws. It is to enforce laws laid down in the mid-Seventh Century C.E., by the word of God.
I would love to think that will work.Muslim jurists count 500 Qu'ranic verses with legal content. Their proportion in the Qu'ran is even greater than that appears, because the rest of the Qu'ran often repeates itself, both thematically and verbatim, but the legal subject matter in it almost never does. And the average length of the legal verses is two or three times that of the average non-legal verses. Some have argued, and it would be difficult to refute them, that the Qu'ran contains "no less legal material than does the Torah."That leaves Islam in the worst possible situation, commitment to religious law, but with an incomplete and badly dated system of law. A tendency toward legal structure without a finished form. That leaves it vulnerable, eternally, to determined minds that would install their own dark, bloody, reactionary, anti-humanist desires into the word of God.
Ever since I was a teenager I've bought used books. I like them clean, not marked up, but I also enjoy, somehow, knowing that this paper has been touched by other hands and these words have flowed into other minds. If the book has an interesting signature on the flyleaf, a "discarded" stamp from some rural library, or an odd bookplate, so much the better.
When I was younger, I'd buy them at the local thrift shop, so they mostly were from close to home. Most were old novels or story collections -- I got my Dumas, Scott, Poe, Hawthorne that way. But with time my interests have grown more arcane, and with Internet resources like Alibris and Powells, I buy a book now because usually it's the only copy available, and I get it from wherever it comes from.
I've bought several older, thorough, obscure language dictionaries in the last 10 years or so. Not the kind of thing most people would want to load down on their shelves: Thick blocks of book, mostly in German, published in the early 20th century. Really fine books, if you enjoy a well-made book.
Their provenance, where they've been before they arrived in my hands, began to interest me the other night when I was looking something up in a German-language dictionary of French etymology printed at the university press in Heidelberg in the 1920s. The bookplate was a pen-and-ink sketch of an idyllic tropical scene, with dark-skinned people diving in calm waters beside a hut and under a palm tree. And the name was like something from Waugh: Peter Antony Lanyon-Orgill. It occurred to me that the Internet which brought me this book might tell me who he was.
I looked over my shelf for other names to research, and realized I had two of his books -- the massive Oxford Sanskrit-English dictionary (by the delightfully named Monier Monier-Williams) also has his nameplate on it.
As I suspected, he wasn't hard to find. To my delight, he was a sort of brilliant, bold, and controversial Cornwall character, characterized as a "fringe" figure in some quarters, cited as an authority in others.
Peter A. Lanyon-Orgill (1924-2002) made himself a place in every bibliography of Pacific linguistics without, it could be argued, ever making any original contribution to the field. At one extreme his publishing activities verged on fraud and plagiarism, but from another point of view he made available work which otherwise might have languished unknown in manuscript form. Throughout it all, in parallel with his real life as a schoolmaster, he constructed an apparently imaginary scholarly career, complete with field research, advanced degrees, and learned colleagues, all largely of his own invention.
His ancestor had sailed with Captain Cook, but his own writings elicit
dire warning in scholarly books about the mysterious Easter Island writing systems.
Apparently his library was broken up and sold when he died, which is how I came to own a little part of it, which I cherish more today than I did yesterday.
Before I bought that Sanskrit-English dictionary, I bought a small Sanskrit-English dictionary online from Powells.com. When I got it, I realized it was going to be useless to me, because all the Indic words are in the Devanagari script, which I do not read sufficiently to transliterate. It looks to be an older book, possibly 19th century, originally published in India and reprinted in the 1990s in England.
Still, I find myself sitting up at night, thumbing through it, scanning the columns of strange script and familiar definitions. A dictionary half in an unknown language is a fountain of inspiration. Delightful connections are expressed there, along with conceptions that convince me that, in ancient India, the world had a civilization that has hardly been matched in subtlety and sophistication.A man who does not cook for himself; a bad cook [a term of abuse].
A mouse; a miser.
m. A bee; a scorpion. f. A woman's female friend.
A whirlpool, a crowded place.
Inaccessible; unfit for sexual intercourse; difficult to understand.There are whole sermons and life lessons in a single word:Repentance, intense enmity, close attachment.
Fire; appetite; gold.
A great danger; a desperate act.
Supported; haughty; near; obstructed.
Touched; violated; judged; endured.
Relaxation; independence.There are mysteries fit to be taken whole as a poem by Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams, or to inspire a Borges ficcione:A benediction; a serpent's fang.
Painting figures on the body; feathering an arrow.I meet words I wish I had; that is, words for which there is no single word in English that covers the same territory. Every language has such words. One of my linguistics books lists some examples of this from the Sye language of Micronesia:
livinlivin - the top of something that is teetering over an edge and about to fall;
orvalei - to complain, unjustly, that something is insufficient or not enough. Among the words in the Sanskrit dictionary I wish we had in English were ones meaning:Pleasure arising from sympathy.
One who has suppressed his tears.
An illustration of a thing by its reverse.
A practice not usually proper to the caste but allowable in time of distress.
A figure of speech dependent on sense and not on sound.
Hans Erich Nossack was a German novelist in his 40s, married but apparently childless, living in Hamburg, during World War II. He was neither a Nazi nor a heroic anti-Nazi. By sheer coincidence he and his wife had managed to get a little vacation cabin outside the city on the sultry July night the Allied bombers came in wave after wave and rained down fire on Hamburg. The Nossacks were far enough out to be beyond reach of the flames, but close enough to see and even hear it all.
One didn't dare to inhale for fear of breathing it in. It was the sound of eighteen hundred airplanes approaching Hamburg from the south at an unimaginable height. We had already experienced two hundred or even more air raids, among them some very heavy ones, but this was something completely new. And yet there was an immediate recognition: this was what everyone had been waiting for, what had hung for months like a shadow over everything we did, making us weary. It was the end.
A short and straightforward book like this is the most devilish to translate, and the nearness of German and English makes the task more, not less, challenging.
There is a German equivalent of "the end," but it isn't the word Nossack took as his title. He called his book "Der Untergang." Literally, in English, "the undergoing." There is such a word in English, of course, but it means something different. You undergo an ordeal; you pass through some experience, like a dark night in a terror-filled forest, and you emerge, changed but alive, on the other side.
The German word is final in a way the English cannot be. It's like a torpedoed ship swallowed by the sea. Like the Latin equivalent, obitus, a going toward, a euphemism for "death," even in Roman times, and the source of our word obituary.
Even if undergoing had not the sense of "passage" in English, it has the wrong sound. The sonically unfortunate evolution of English gerundive endings into -ing, a weak and tinselly sound, renders that whole class of words mostly useless for poets or writers who aspire to a poetic quality. German -gang has the toll of a funeral bell.
The "Publishers Weekly" review seems to miss some important points:
What's missing from Nossack's account is any political or historical dimension: a reader coming to this book for primary knowledge would learn little about why the bombings took place, or why so many people accepted them with numb resignation instead of anger.
There is a yardstick for a book like this, in the modern American literary reaction to Sept. 11, 2001. What was written three months after that fact and dwelled on "why the bombings took place" and why people reacted as they did would be polemics or psychology. It would be impossible for a witness to write like that, so soon.
Oddly, the "PW" reviewer write, "The narrative is indeed clear-eyed and dispassionate, possessed of the emotional distance necessary to regard the terrible events in their totality."
It seems to me the book has not that quality at all. Yes, line by line it is a clear-eyed and dispassionate account. But there is a strange, almost insane, dislocation in it. As though you looked at a picture of an intact building, till you realized the picture had been turned and the building lay on its side.
After his wife, included throughout in a narrator's "we," every other person is a voiceless shadow. Even Nossack's neighbors and co-workers are a faceless group. The most dispassionate descriptions in the book are of human deaths: the group that huddled in a cellar and fried there is told in the kind of cold matter-of-factness you might use to describe the destruction of an anthill.
What breathes with soul and pain in this book is the lament for the lost things.
First, the buildings. Nossack and his wife, when they make their way back to the city, they go to his office to see if his papers have survived there, and they meet up with another worker who survived the night of the attack:
Suddenly we hesitated; our gaze had fallen through the back window onto Saint Catherine's Church. Shocked, we looked at each other. 'Yes, I cried when it caved in,' said the engineer, who was standing next to us. He told us the precise hour when it had happened. It didn't help when we tried to persuade ourselves: It's just a church, what about those hundreds of thousands of homes and the people, that's so much worse. I suppose it was a symbol. All of us who had worked there loved that steeple exceedingly, each in his own way, perhaps without knowing it.
"But nothing was left, not a single trinket of all the things that we loved and that belonged with us. If there had been such a little something, how we would have caressed it; it would have been imbued with the essence of all the other things. And when we walked on, we left a vacuum behind. And the apartment? Our belongings? It's just not possible. And suddenly it's all there again. You are visiting someone, they have a bookcase. Oh yes! We had so many books. Or they'll put on a record. Do you know this concerto? Yes, that's Handel, we have it ourselves, all we have to do is take it out of the closet. But you know, the Hallelujah Chorus, we play it only on Christmas Eve after setting up the crèche. It's a family tradition. It's Wordsworth's "Surprised by Joy," but with pulverized furniture in place of a dead child. How can the level of passion be the same in each case? What's wrong with this man? Nossack asks the same question:
But these are just things! Imagine if you had lost your children or your wife. Yes, that is true, we say -- but it doesn't change anything. Was our way of living with things wrong, or just different? Who can say?
If some survivor -- someone who had worked in the WTC but stayed home sick that day -- wrote a poetic account of the things he had left in his desk and lost forever, hardly mentioning his co-workers and the others, we'd be rightly repulsed.
Yet however close we get to those lost lives, and we try and try, they have crossed over -- gone under. There is nothing now here, above ground, where they were but the wind and the night. We can never get into them in their final moments. No traveller returns to tell what they felt, falling, burning, crashing down.
Surely Nossack knew someone, some many, among the 30,000 people incinerated by the firestorm or crushed by falling brick walls.
Surely. And Wordsworth's poem is almost unbearable, if you pierce through the language and feel the emotion. It's contained in the formula of the sonnet's rules. The hard box that keeps the hot gush of tears from spilling out everywhere.
Nossack does not have the rigors of poetry. But he has his relation with objects, and into it he pours, and disguises, the unbearable sense of loss of so much life. His obsession with things is not a fetish, I think, it is a displacement that preserves sanity.
These things have their life from us, because at some time we bestowed our affection on them; they absorbed our warmth and harbored it gratefully in order to enrich us with it again in meager hours. We were responsible for them; they could only die with us. And now they stood on the other side of the abyss in the fire and cried after us, begging: Don't leave us! We knew it, we heard it, and dared not pronounce their names, because pity would have destroyed us.
He wrote this within three months after that night. Joel Agee, the translator, notes in his introduction that he actually did this translation in the 1960s, with the Vietnam war in mind. But no publisher wanted it then. The reason this book has been published in English now is W.G. Sebald's praise of it in "On the Natural History of Destruction." Well, that's not the job of someone writing while the ground is still too hot to touch in some parts of the city, and while the flies still buzz from awful stinking cellar holes that nobody has the courage to peer into. But then, as they go deeper into the ruined city in search of whatever is left of their belongings, the pangs of loss rise to a crescendo. They return to the building that had held their apartment, and found "just a small, much too small, heap of stones." Again, I think of all the literature to have come out of 9-11. We know so much about the people, the lost lives, that have been spun out for us from the obituaries that began to appear within days and ran day after day in the New York Times. People sometimes talk about the things lost in the attacks, the rupture of the New York skyline, for instance, but nobody makes that a central focus of the tragedy.
Civil War: Maryland2[exerpts from OR Series 2, vol. 1, part 1, p.563 ff., under the section heading UNION POLICY OF REPRESSION IN MARYLAND]
BALTIMORE, April 19, 1861.
Mayor GEORGE W. BROWN to PRESIDENT LINCOLN:
Under these circumstances it is my solemn duty to inform you that it is not possible for more soldiers to pass through Baltimore unless they fight their way at every step.
[Gov. Hicks attached his endorsement]
PHILADELPHIA, April 23, 1861.
Honorable SIMON CAMERON, Secretary of War:
DEAR SIR: Since I wrote my last of this date I have been informed that the Baltimoreans and Marylanders have destroyed the whole of the bridges on the Northern Central. This seems to have been a mere spite action and must convince the Government that those loyal to the Government in Maryland are in a vast minority. As soon as the capital is safe from attack it seems to me that the Government should at once turn on Baltimore and place it under martial law and require that it should pay all damages to the railroads it has destroyed and to their business.
Yours, truly, J. EDGAR THOMSON, President Pennsylvania Central Railroad.
BALTIMORE, July 1, 1861.
The board of police was arrested this morning at 4 o'clock. Troops have been stationed at the principal squares of the city. All is perfectly quiet. We greatly need cavalry for patrol duty.
N. P. BANKS.
FORT McHENRY, August 25, 1861.
... I have adopted stringent measures to secure quiet but they are so ordered as to attract no notice. The regiments are well drilled to street-firing and in half an hour I can have 1,000 men in any part of the city; in forty minutes five times that number. ...
JOHN A. DIX.
FORT McHENRY, August 31, 1861.
Honorable M. BLAIR.
In regard to the "Exchange" and other secessionist presses in that city. I presume you are not aware that an order for the suppression of these presses was made out in one of the Departments of Washington. ... I think a measure of so much gravity as the suppression of a newspaper by military force should carry with it the whole weight of the influence and authority of the Government especially when the publication is made almost under its eye.
There is no doubt that a majority of the Union men in Baltimore desire the suppression of all the oppsition presses in the city but there are many -- and among them some of the most discreet -- who think differently. The city is now very quiet and under control though my force is smaller than I asked. There is a good deal of impatience among some of the Union men. They wish to have something done. The feeling is very much like that which prevailed in Washington before the movement against Manassas. It would not be difficult to get up a political Bull Run disaster in this State.
If the Government will give me the number of regiments I ask and leave them with me when I have trained them to the special service they may have to peform I will respond for the quietude of this city. Should the time for action come I shall be ready. In the meantime preparation is going on.
I am fortifying Federal Hill under a general plan of defense suggested by me and approved by General Scott. Two other works will be commanded the moment I can get an engineer from Washington. On the Eastern Shore there should be prompt and decisive action. I have urged it repeatedly and earnestly during the last three weeks. Two well-disciplined regiments should march from Salisbury, the southern teminus of the Wilmington and Delaware Railroad, through Accomack and Northampton Counties and break up the rebel camps before they ripen into formidable organizations as they assuredly will if they are much longer undisturbed. ...
JOHN A. DIX.
Reffered to General McClellan. I believe the "Exchange," "Republican" and "South" should be suppressed. They are open disunionists. The "Sun" is in sympathy but less diabolical. M. B[LAIR].
Baltimore, Md., September 4, 1861.
DIX to McCLELLAN:
No secession flag has to the knowledge of the police been exhibited in Baltimore for many weeks, except a small paper flag displayed by a child from an upper window. It was immediately removed by [the police]. They have been instructed to arrest any person who makes a public demonstration by word or deed in favor of the Confederate Government and I have prohibited the exhibition in shop windows of rebel envelopes and music.
If there is an uprising on the Eastern Shore under the influence of the rebel organizations in Accomack and Northampton, or if the Confederate forces cross the Potomac we may have trouble. I shall endeavor to be ready for it whenever it comes.
Baltimore, Md., September 5, 1861.
DIX to McCLELLAN:
Fort McHenry which has not sufficient space for the convenient accommodation of the number of men necessary to man its guns is crowded with prisoners. ... It is too near the seat of war which may possibly be extended to us. It is also too near a great town in which there are multitudes who sympathize with them who are constantly applying for interviews and who must be admitted with the hazard of becoming the media of improper communications, or who go away with the feeling that they have been harshly treated because they have been denied access to their friends.
... If as is supposed Fort Lafayette is crowded may they not be provided for at Fort Delaware? ... I certainly do not think them perfectly safe here considering the population by which they are surrounded and the opportunities for evading the vigilance of their guards.
BALTIMORE, September 15, 1861. Honorable W. H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.
DEAR GOVERNOR: I thank you in the name of every truley loyal man in Baltimore and in my own poor name too for your arrest of the traitors whom you have sent to Fortress Monroe. A great and a good work has been done. Rebellion has received a staggering blow. I hope General Banks will take care that the Legislature shall not sit at all. There are thin-skinned Union men enough who will seek to get a quorum for the sake of the $4 a day. General Kimmel is one of them. He told me a day or two ago he wanted to have a chance to pass his foolish resolutions. I bade him take up his musket rather and go to the field.
The arrest of W. Wilkins Glenn, the proprietor of the "Exchange," has given intense satisfaction. Beale Richardson and his writing editor Joice, of the "Republican," are very violent and would grace the Tortugas. If the exchange should go on a Doctor Palmer and a William H. Carpenter are the ostensible editors, and both write with bitterness. They too would do well at Tortugas.
A Mr. Hodges here told me last evening that any amount of money could be raised to continue the "Exchange," but said he, "What's the use? We can't get it through the mails." I still think they will try to keep it up just for a vent of their spleen and sinister designs.
Our provost-marshal, Mr. Dodge, whom I have just left, is anxious to have it bought up by the Union men but that's impossible. It is in debt some $40,000 and would be worth nothing to the Union cause because all its supporters are rebels who would instantly withdraw. My own judgment is that it should be suppressed out and out if it is continued.
The "South" [newspaper] has stopped after trying to get up a Polignac revolution. May's arrest has caused infinite pleasure because of his hypocrisy and malignancy. The effect of these arrests must determine very rapidly the status of the floating population who are ever on the watch for the stronger side. I have already heard of cases in our favor.
We are determined to prevent any rebel voting if he will not take the oath of allegiance. It is to be done by a system of challenging. The new mayor has already surrendered the pistols retained by the old police and evinces a reaidness to co-operate with the Federal authorities. His name is Blackburn. It is intimated that General Howard has taken the hint and will not accept the rebel nomination for Governor. If he does he should be sent at once to Fortress Monroe, and so too of Jarrett, the rebel nominee for comptroller.
I hope the Government will not release a single one of these prisoners let the circumstances be what they may. The effect upon the public mind depends largely upon firmness at this juncture.
Faithfully, yours, W. G. SNETHEN.
Baltimore, Md., September 20, 1861.
Captain BRAGG, Second Regiment Maryland Volunteers.
SIR: I do not wish any searches made in private dwellings by the military. I prefer it should be done by the police. You have very properly reported to me the case of Doctor Henkle and I shall put it in the hands of the provost-marshal in Baltimore. I do not wish any persons to be stopped who have shotguns and who are evidently going on sporting excursions. They should not be detained or interfered with in any way. Your duty is to examine vihicles passing out of the city of Baltimore and suspected of having concealed arms or goods destinated to the disloyal States.
Respectfully, your obedient servant, JOHN A. DIX, Major-General, Commanding.
BALTIMORE, September 23, 1861. Honorable REVERDY JOHNSON.
MY DEAR JOHNSON: My belief is that the peace convention is defunct. Still I have taken measures to have them watched and will inform you promptly of any movement by them.
Sincerely yours, WM. PRICE.
BALTIMORE, September 25, 1861. REVERDY JOHNSON, Esw.
MY DEAR JOHNSON: * * * In regard to the peace convention I still think it defunct; but it will be well not to be thrown off our guard and if there should be any indications of its revival I shall be informed of it. From present appearances there will be no opposition to the Union tickets either in this city or county. Much will depend, however, upon the turn of events. If the rebels should lick us or obtain any decided advantage over us the rebel sentiment here will revive. Otherwise it will remain cowed as it is now. I do not think it would be wise to cease making arrests entirely. Some evidence that the power is with the Government should be kept before the eyes of the discontented few. It has a most salutary effect.
Yours, truly, WM. PRICE.
Baltimore, Md., October 10, 1861.
DIX to SEWARD:
SIR: I have carefully examined the papers in the case of Dr. A. C. Robinson and have some doubt about the expediency of allowing him to return to Baltimore until after the fall election -- say the 10th of November. He has been a very violent secessionist, and even through he should take the oath of allegiance and abstain from any act of hostility to the Government he would not consider himself precluded from a participation in the proceedings of his party in support of the peace ticket. He is not a dangerous man like Wallis but I would rather have him away from Baltimore for the next three weeks at least.
It looks very much as though we should carry out ticket without any organized opposition. I am confident at all events that Maryland will be a Union State in November. Until then I think it would be wise to let those who have been active against the Government and have influence remain out of the State if they are not in it now. It is understood that Doctor Robinson is in Richmond at this time though he may be nearer home. If you will allow me to suggest a course in regard to his friends seeking his release it would be not to discourage them but to hold out the expectation that he will be permitted to return shortly on taking the oath of allegiance, and it ought not to be less than the one prescribed by Congress.
NEW YORK, October 11, 1861.
L. J. BRENGLE, Esq.
MY DEAR SIR: The result of the election in Baltimore proves the wisdom of the action of the Government in having the prominent traitors arrested. Even the secessionists in Western Maryland are reconciled and even approve it for they dread civil war within the State.
At the same time, however, I learn from a very reliable source in Allegany County that a secret movement is on foot by the peace party, i.e., secessionists in disguise[,] to nominate an opposition ticket; and for the purpose of defeating the Union ticket the commissioners, nearly all secessionists, have lately had a meeting and appointed the rankest secessionists as judges of election.
I mention the name of one so appointed for Cumberland, W. O. Sprigg, well known as a rabid secessionist, having a son in the rebel army. Amongst the opponents of the Government the foremost in Allegany County are Judge Perry and Doctor Fitzpatrick. The former appointed young Brien, now an officer in the rebel ranks, foreman of the grand jury and permitted him to come into court with a large secession badge on his breast. I mention this fact as a glaring instance of his proclivities.
He and his Confederates[,] Doctor Fitzpatrick, W. O. Sprigg (who I believe has also a son in the rebel ranks) and if I mistake not Devecmon, the lawyer, are the head and front of the secret movement now going on. They are in constant communication with the rebels in Virginia and are doing all the mischief they can. Now it seems to me these people should for a while be placed where they can do no harm. If the Government could be made aware of the state of things I think they should give these gentlemen free quarters at Fort McHenry or Fort Lafayette from now until after the election.
The quiet and safety of the State of Maryland would be promoted by such a proceeding and an election result obtained which could not but have a most beneficial effect upon the whole country.
C. E. DETMOLD.
Washington, October 29, 1861.
Major General N. P. BANKS, Commanding Division, Muddy Branch, Md.
GENERAL: There is an apprehension among Union citizens in many parts of Maryland of an attempt at interference with their rights of suffrage by disunion citizens on the occasion of the election to take place on the 6th of November next.
In order to prevent this the major-general commanding directs that you send detachments of a sufficient number of men to the different points in your vicinity where the elections are to be held to protect the Union voters and to see that no disunionists are allowed to intimidate them or in any way to interfere with their rights.
He also desires you to arrest and hold in confinement till after the election all disunionists who are known to have returned from Virginia recently and who show themselves at the polls, and to guard effectually against any invasion of the peace and order of the election. For the purpose of carrying out these instructions you are authorized to suspend the habeas corpus. General Stone has received similar instructions to these. You will please confer with him as to the particular points that each shall take the control of.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant, R. B. MARCY, Chief of Staff.
[Lincoln, in a July 1861 speech to Congress, had complained that Confederate elections, "where the bayonets are all on one side of the question voted upon, can scarcely be considered as demonstrating popular sentiment."]
Baltimore, Md., November 1, 1861.
DIX to DANIEL ENGEL and WILLIAM ECKER, Inspectors of Election, New Windsor.
I consider it of the utmost importance that the election should be a fair one and that there should be no obstruction to the free and full expression of the voice of the people of the State believing as I do that it will be decidedly in favor of the Union. But it is in the power of the judges of election under the authority given them to satisfy themselves as to the qualifications of the voters -- to put to those who offer to poll such searching questions in regard to residence and citizenship as to detect traitors and without any violation of the constitution or laws of Maryland to prevent the pollution of the ballot boxes by their votes.
[Substance of a memoranda of an order issued by Major Andrews, of the Second Delaware Volunteers, to Captain Moorehouse of the said regiment, under which order Mr. E. K. Wilson, of Snow Hill, Worcester County, was arrested.] "The memoranda states in substance that -- All persons who have lately uttered expressions of hostility to the Government or have spoken disrespectfully of the President of the United States are to be arrested and detained in camp."
[Dix corrected the military officer]: "Our mission is not to annoy or invade any personal rights but to correct misapprehension in regard to the intentions of the Government."
DEPARTMENT OF STATE, Washington, November 26, 1861.
SEWARD to JOHN S. KEYES, Esq., U. S. Marshal, Boston, Mass.
You will ... please inform all the prisoners confined at Fort Warren that this Department will not recognize any person as an attorney in such cases, and that if the fact comes to the knowledge of the Department that any prisoner has agreed to pay to any attorney a sum of money or to give to him anything of value as a consideration for interceding for the release of such prisoner that fact will be held as an additional reason for continuing the confinement of such person. You will also please say to the prisoners that it is the wish of the Government that they should communicate whatever they may have to say directly to this Department.
Civil War: Dixie
During the 1840s, slavery became the symbol and character of all sectional differences. It was the emotional gasoline on the sectional fires. Its moral and social implications colored every issue in terms of right and rights. William Seward, the Republican leader, recognized the fact: "Every question, political, civil, or ecclesiastical, however foreign to the subject of slavery, brings up slavery as an incident, and the incident supplants the principal question."
White Americans had been grappling with the slavery problem since the Revolution. But the classic image of the absolutist "abolitionist" was a late development. Organized antislavery in the early 19th century, as a historian has written, "differed strikingly from the caustic brand Garrison and his colleagues would promote after 1830. It was concentrated in the upper South, was conciliatory to the master, and had minimal sympathy for blacks." It stressed gradual manumission, minimal economic disruption, and repatriation to Africa. Its most prominent organization was the American Colonization Society.
On Jan. 1, 1831, William Lloyd Garrison published the first issue of "The Liberator" in Boston. Garrison's rhetoric was abrasive and vituperative, and poured out loathing for the Southern slavemasters. And if the drift began before he emerged, he certainly hammered the wedge in with all he had. Unlike earlier "abolitionists," Garrison and his followers insisted that the process of emancipation begin immediately. They were narrow, self-righteous, and morally firm. That's always been an appealing combination to a lot of Americans.
The New England Anti-Slavery Society formed in 1832 with the Garrison doctrine at its core. A little over a year later, the American Anti-Slavery Society formed, and gave the abolitionists a national organization. Thanks to the Tappans and other wealthy abolitionists, at least three-quarters of a million pieces of anti-slavery propaganda were sent out by 1838. The mass mailings sparked riots in South Carolina.
Anti-abolitionist mob violence, Lovejoy's murder, and the Gag Resolution all helped steer sympathy to the abolitionist cause and created, in the Northern mind, the spectre of "slave power," the unyielding and irrational force that supposedly motivated the leadership of the South.
Nat Turner's bloody slave uprising came seven months after the debut of "The Liberator." Despite a lack of evidence for a connection, these two events were firmly connected in the minds of Southerners and solidified the specter of a powerful Northern movement that would literally rejoice in the massacre of Southern whites.
The abolition movement fell apart in 1840 over "the woman question" among other matters of tactics, and the Garrison wing further lost credibility when it (ironically, considering how things turned out) embraced "disunionism" in 1844 -- the notion that the free states should withdraw from the union and have nothing to do with slavery.
Most Protestant denominations in the early 19th century seemed to regard slavery as not consistent with Christianity, but they were tepid about it. As the conflict became more acrimonious, the Methodists and the Baptists split over it into northern and southern branches. The Presbyterians were already in a schism over a different theological matter. But the abolitionists were always regarded with great disdain by the traditionally pious folk who made up the majority of America. Their flirtations with other causes, such as free love and socialism, made them anathema. They were obviously guilty of sins such as allowing Lucy Stone and the Grimke sisters to address mixed-gender audiences. Their women sometimes wore bloomer pants and smoked cigarettes.
The vocal defenders of slavery generally tried to present slavery as a moral institution, in terms that were understood all over America in the 1850s:
"The white is the superior race, and the black the inferior; and subordination, with or without law, will be the status of the African in this mixed society; and, therefore, it is in the interest of both, and especially of the black race, and of the whole society, that this status should be fixed, controlled, and protected by law."
You may call that speech insidious and odious. Today, it is so, and perhaps that means it was also so in 1856, when Sen. Toombs of Georgia spoke it. But it is also true that the assumptions in his speech were obvious ones to most Americans. Toombs wasn't speaking to an audience of fire-eating Charleston secessionists. He was speaking at the Tremont Temple in Boston.
There are assumptions behind the common view of 1850s America that seem to amount to a double standard. It seems to regard the movement of non-slaveholding settlers into the western territories as a natural state of things, and the movement of slaveholding settlers into those same territories as "expansion," driven by some class interest. This is the view of the Republican Party, which put forth its candidates on a platform of slavery "containment."
The Northern movement into the west was in many cases calculated and subsidized by special interests such as the New England Emigrant Aid Society. And many Southern families who brought a few slaves into Kansas were simply Americans looking for a better chance in life. The Southern states had as good a claim to share in America's future as the Northern ones. Regiments from the Southern states fought in the Revolutionary campaigns in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania (I have yet to read of New England regiments defending Charleston or Savannah in 1780). But they felt themselves being cut off from it and forced down into inferiority. They did the bulk of the fighting in the war with Mexico, which brought many of these new territories into the nation.
If you peel back this slave-holder vs. anti-slavery fight over Western territories, you again meet a clash of economic interests. Why did the North fight so hard to prevent slaveholders being allowed to carry their institution into Missouri or Kansas or other western territories? I'd answer that question by asking another one: Why would a textile mill worker in Lancashire, England, undertake the expense and hazard of a voyage to America, only to go to work on the same mule, for the same wage, in an American mill? Because cheap land in the western territories offered him the prospect of making just enough to quit the factory and set himself up as a farmer.
Hamilton, in his 1791 "Report on Manufactures," anticipated this: "Many, whom Manufacturing views would induce to emigrate, would afterwards yield to the temptations, which the particular situation of this Country holds out to Agricultural pursuits."
That's why New England mill owners resisted the expansion of slave labor and cotton plantations into the Louisiana Purchase territories and the land acquired from Mexico. Immigrants didn't flock to Alabama and Mississippi, because the plantation system that had been created there didn't provide the lure of cheap land for family farms. If Kansas and Nebraska had turned into Alabama and Mississippi, that would have cut off an essential inducement to immigrants, who gave the Northern factories cheap labor.
In reality, the lure was usually just a tease. A fraction of the immigrants to Northern mill towns eventually made it west and set up as farmers. The rest cycled from one row of tenaments to another, from Lowell to Montreal to Pittsburgh to Albany, dragging families and debt with them.
The wrangling over slavery in the territories, like the tariff, was part of the bigger picture of one region trying to break out of the original partnership compact and impose its will, its might, and its values on the whole of America. This seems a natural development to us, now, but only because it has been so effectively done. What comes to pass always seems foreordained.
View From the South
In the 1820s and '30s, using money from the export trade and tariffs, Eastern states aggressively built railroads, canals and conventional roads -- extensively aided by the national government in the form of land grants and stock subscriptions -- to capture the Midwestern trade away from New Orleans (and each other).
And as her share of the national bargain, the South got what? She got John Brown. Murderous psychopaths armed and outfitted by the industrialists of the North, sent South to incite race war. Abolitionists gloating about the likelihood of how many white families would be wiped out in a slave rebellion.
The people of the South were aware that, at the time of the Revolution, the upper South and Virginia especially was the wealthiest region of North America. And long before the Civil War, this region had sadly declined. The Virginia state convention of 1829 estimated the state's lands were worth only half what they had been in 1817. The landed gentry economy that produced Washington, Jefferson, and Madison was all but extinct. The North saw this decline, too, and piously blamed it on the baleful influences of slavery. Yet these had been slaveholding regions long before the decline, and in fact slavery was, in part, what built up that early prosperity.
The South looked at that decline and saw it in large part as a product of a defect in the American union, which distributed political power too much on the basis of population. (When I call this a "defect," I'm trying to elucidate the thinking of many Southerners in 1860, not the thinking of me today.) The Southerner looked at the decline of Southern prosperity and the rapid rise of fortunes among what had been in 1787 shabby communities of fish oil merchants in New England. And he looked at the fact that, in the first House of Representatives, Virginia had 10 members and New York six. And that, after the census of 1860, the proportion would be Virginia 11, New York 30.
And he thought about all the tariff bills his state had been asked to support, to protect the infant woolen mills of Connecticut, the rum distilleries of Massachusetts, the iron and paper mills of Pennsylvania. He thought how in some cases the Southern representatives had objected to these tariffs, which forced them to pay more for certain goods, but in many other cases his representatives had voted for the good of the whole country.
And he thought how the Northern powers, whenever possible (as it seemed to him, and as he was told by his newspapers and his political leaders), had used their hegemony in Washington to not only line their own pockets, but to weaken and undermine the South's economy, including the slavery that was intimately woven into it.
And he saw the speeches and pamphlets of the Republicans printed in his newspapers. And he heard the certain claims of what their election would mean, in accellerating what had already been happening.
And he decided he had had enough.
You don't have to agree with it, but you have to try to see it.
1. Ronald G. Walters, American Reformers 1815-1860 (revised ed.), Hill & Wang Pub., 1997.