Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Sidebar blandishment

As I mentioned earlier, I have been compiling a page of history links for my department, and I have been using to do it. Now I have also added a Link Roll in my sidebar, which will display the most recent ten links added to the page.

Speaking of, it seems to be up and running well now, despite its recent outage. I have noticed some problems when I try to select a group of links by using more than two tags, but presumably that's because they are still working on "tag intersections." I've also recently downloaded the Firefox extension for and it is well worth the nothing you pay for it. Works great and has some unexpectedly convenient features. (The same could be said of Firefox, of course.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Precedents and presidents

Here come the analogies between President Bush's authorization of domestic spying and President Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War. (Via Civil War Memory.) The analogy has been considered before, of course, but I expect to hear it more in the coming days.

Presumably a defender of President Bush's illicit extension of executive power would argue thusly: Lincoln did it first, and he's a great president who saved the Union. He understood that law in wartime was different from law in peacetime. President Bush understands that too. Ergo, if this President plays a little fast and loose with the law, history will still judge him to be a great President, because he is defending the security of the country against all enemies. His critics are simply the liberal equivalent of Civil-War Copperheads. And so on.

The soundness of such arguments really depends on the validity of two separate arguments. The first is the argument that the two cases at hand really are parallel. If they are, then the second question is whether the actions of each President were justified. One can't argue for President Bush's action by simple appeal to President Lincoln, on the grounds that Lincoln could do no wrong. Precedent can be of some use in determining what is right and wrong, but it cannot be the only consideration. Some of the blogs I read have pointed out that the President is not a king. Their point is that presidents do not have the unchecked power of a king, but it could also be pointed out that leaders in a democratic society do not have the same untrammeled claim on the past that kings do. At least, that's what Thomas Paine, that inveterate critic of executive power, argued in The Rights of Man,
Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow. The Parliament or the people of 1688, or of any other period, had no more right to dispose of the people of the present day, or to bind or to control them in any shape whatever, than the parliament or the people of the present day have to dispose of, bind or control those who are to live a hundred or a thousand years hence. Every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require. It is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated.
This is not to say that the past is of no use to the present generation, but you don't have to agree with Paine entirely to be suspicious of appeals to the authority of the past, simply because it is The Past.

As to whether or not the two cases are precisely parallel, I'm not sure. As The Mahablog points out, whatever one thinks about Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, he did it in public view instead of behind closed doors. On the other hand, it's a discomfiting fact that Lincoln's arguments in favor of his civil rights policy sounded broadly similar to the ones that President Bush might make. In the past few days I just happened to be reading the portion of James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom that deals with this issue. According to Lincoln, says McPherson,
the whole country was a war zone and military arrests in areas far from the fighting front were justified. Civil courts were "utterly incompetent" to deal with such a massive threat to the nation's life. This was precisely the contingency that framers of the Constitution foresaw when they authorized suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in cases of rebellion or invasion. With a homely but effective metaphor, Lincoln affirmed that he could no more believe that the necessary curtailment of civil liberties in wartime would establish precedents fatal to liberty in peacetime "than I am able to believe that a man could contract so strong an appetite for emetics during temporary illness, as to persist in feeding upon them through the remainder of his healthful life." (p. 598-599)
One could defend Lincoln's argument from hasty equations with Bush's argument by pointing out two crucial facts. First, Lincoln emphasized the temporary nature of his policies, whereas I think you will search in vain to find President Bush and his supporters excusing his policy by describing it as temporary. You will find President Bush saying that these are anomalous times that call for special methods, that we are fighting a new war. But you will be hard pressed to find any clear statement about when--if ever--these anomalous times will end. The "war on terror," unlike Lincoln's war for the restoration of the Union, still has no clearly articulated ending. Second, Lincoln seemed to recognize that what he was doing was decidedly unpleasant, and something which clearly indicated that the nation was in a period of sickness rather than health. President Bush, on the other hand, sounds as though he thinks that the leaks about the NSA program are more shameful and unsavory than the program itself. As Tim Burke says, it would at least be nice to see some Lincolnian "gravity and weariness" on the faces of this administration's boosters, some hint of the "haunted conscience" that clearly plagued Lincoln every minute he was in the White House.

But however we might try to extenuate Lincoln's remarks, it's hard not to admit that there are at least some similarities here. Both presidents clearly believed that the Constitution gave them the power to identify a threat to the nation's security and then curtail civil rights as a way of curtailing that threat. Both thought that extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures. But for that reason, one of the things that is most enervating about the President's rhetoric is the constant reminder that we live in a new world, that this is a new war, that we need different thinking to meet a threat unlike any we have ever faced before.

Yet if we really are in a different age, where is the truly "different thinking"? For all the talk about a new war, which supposedly makes everything different, the President's strategies and rationales turn out to be old hat. Gathering executive power in order to gather intelligence and act with speed and awesome force: it's nothing that every war president there ever was has not already thought of. We do need some truly different thinking, because in so many ways we are still in the grips of the ages: still believing that coercion can bring us liberty, still believing that war can bring us peace, still believing that shocking and awing our enemies will make them release the stranglehold of fear they have on us, still believing that forcing ourselves to retch will eventually make the body politic well. And we still believe that we, alone among all the generations that preceded us, are the first to have discovered that these paradoxical beliefs are actually true, despite all the evidence to the contrary that our predecessors have provided us.

When I hear it said that a new world was born on 9/11, and then hear that claim used to defend a continuation of the patterns of violence and coercion that predated that day by millennia, I'm reminded of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in response to Black Power activists impressed by Frantz Fanon's exhortations to "turn over a new leaf" and "set afoot a new man" by taking up arms in anticolonial struggle:
These are brave and challenging words: I am happy that young black men and women are quoting them. But the problem is that Fanon and those who quote his words are seeking "to work out new concepts" and "set afoot a new man" with a willingness to imitate old copies of violence. Is there not a basic contradiction here? ...

Humanity is waiting for something other than blind imitation of the past. If we want truly to advance a step further, if we want to turn over a new leaf and really set a new man afoot, we must begin to turn mankind away from the long and desolate night of violence. (Testament of Hope, p. 596-597)
I don't profess to know exactly how we might turn over such a truly new leaf, but at least we might start by declaring our intent to abide by our own rules, even in wartime. For it is that determination, rather than the decision to suspend the law for the sake of security, that would constitute truly "different" thinking.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)


Freudian slip?

Was this just a slip of the tongue in President Bush's press conference yesterday?
In a nation that once lived by the whims of a brutal dictator, the Iraqi people now enjoy constitutionally protected freedoms, and their leaders now derive their powers from the consent of the government [sic].
I'm hoping this was just a slip of the tongue, and not of the Freudian variety. If it was not, I recommend a re-reading of this: "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

UPDATE: Maybe I should have made the title of this post plural:
Let me give you an example about my concerns about letting the enemy know what may or may not be happening. In the late 1990s, our government was following Osama bin Laden because he was using a certain type of telephone. And then the fact that we were following Osama bin Laden because he was using a certain type of telephone made it into the press as the result of a leak. And guess what happened? Saddam -- Osama bin Laden changed his behavior.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


History Carnival

Jonathan Dresner has posted the last History Carnival of 2005, and it's a good one. Recently I have not been very good about promoting the Carnival--a bimonthly collection of links from the history blogsophere--but Sharon Howard and Jonathan himself deserve three cheers and more for getting the Carnival going and sustaining it over the past year. You can read past iterations at the Carnival's website.

UPDATE: Also check out the latest Teaching Carnival over at New Kid on the Hallway.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Conference paper update

Thanks to some suggestions I received from readers of my previous post, I've revised the opening paragraphs of my conference paper. I took a hatchet to the first couple of paragraphs so I could get to Irish Repeal more quickly. To do so I've sacrificed the "two questions" way of framing the paper, and I'm not sure whether I've also sacrificed any "performative gloss."
In 1842, Garrisonian abolitionists, who took their name from the fiery editor of the Boston Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison, began to call publicly for the dissolution of the United States. The Union, they had concluded, was a sword and a shield for slavery; the Constitution was a proslavery instrument; and as long as Northerners stayed in a Union that contained slaveholders, they would bear guilt for America’s national sin. In a letter to the Liberator in April 1842, abolitionist Henry Clarke Wright summed up the new Garrisonian view: “we ought to have laid before the slaveholders, long ago, this alternative. You must abolish slavery, or we shall dissolve the Union.” In reality, the Garrisonians had laid that alternative before the South before, but it was not until the spring of 1842 that the Liberator began to propose disunionism as the “one standard” for dividing “genuine friends of liberty” from false ones. And it was not until two years later, in 1844, that the Garrisonian American Anti-Slavery Society adopted as its motto: “No Union with Slaveholders!” [1]

Meanwhile, during the same years in which the Garrisonians began calling for disunion, Irish reformers on the other side of the Atlantic were beginning to call for an end to a different union. In 1842 and 1843, early Irish nationalists known as Repealers were agitating for a repeal of the Act of Union of 1800, which disbanded Dublin’s independent Parliament in the wake of the Irish Rebellions of 1798 and united Ireland with Scotland and England under one Parliament in London. Forty years after this Union, Daniel O’Connell, a prominent British abolitionist who first earned international fame in the 1820s as the champion of Catholic emancipation, began to mobilize a movement for its repeal. In 1843, which O’Connell dubbed the “Repeal Year,” Irish Repealers held numerous “monster meetings” demanding the repeal of the union and the restoration of the eighteenth-century Irish Parliament. Across the ocean, their demands were echoed by the growing numbers of Irish immigrants in the United States, who began in 1840 to form Repeal societies of their own. [2]

What should we make of the fact that Garrison began to call for the dissolution of the Union at the same time that O’Connell was calling for the repeal of the Act of Union? Was it mere coincidence that the appeals of O’Connell and Garrison for disunion were so similar and simultaneous? This morning I want to suggest that it was not. In fact, I want to suggest that the Garrisonians explicitly saw Repeal as a model for their movement. In 1843, Edmund Quincy, a staunch Garrisonian, said in a guest editorial for the Liberator that abolition and Repeal were “precisely analogous in principle.” Quincy exaggerated when he said the analogy was precise: the two repeals were actually very different. But between 1842 and 1844 Garrisonians often described themselves as American analogues for Repealers, and even referred to the issue of disunion as the “great question of a repeal of the Union,” a phrase that deliberately echoed calls for Repeal in Ireland. I believe that paying attention to those echoes can help us understand disunionism better. Towards the end of my talk, I will even suggest that seeing Garrisonians in transnational perspective can illuminate aspects of their thought that might otherwise be obscured by a focus on the history of the United States. [3]
I'd still welcome your comments on which opening you prefer; the reason I'm focusing so much on the introduction is because those are the moments when the audience is most likely to be, er, awake, and I'd like to keep it that way if I can. Part of that, I know, will depend on the rest of the talk, which is nearly complete.


[1] Henry Clarke Wright, “The Only Alternative—Dissolution of the Union, or the Abolition of Slavery,” Liberator, 29 April 1842; “The Annual Meeting at New-York,” Liberator, 22 April 1842. For protests from other abolitionists about Garrison’s apparent call for a disunion litmus test, see James S. Gibbons, “The Dissolution of the Union,” Liberator, 13 May 1842.

[2] On the Union of 1800 and its aftermath, see the various essays collected in Dáire Keogh and Kevin Whelan, eds., Acts of Union: The Causes, Contexts and Consequences of the Act of Union (Dublin: Four Courts, 2001). On O’Connell’s early career before the Repeal movement, see On O’Connell’s early career, see Oliver MacDonagh, The Hereditary Bondsman: Daniel O’Connell, 1775-1829 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988); Wendy Hinde, Catholic Emancipation: A Shake to Men’s Minds (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992). See also T. Desmond Williams, “O’Connell’s Impact on Europe,” in Kevin B. Nowlan and Maurice R. O’Connell, eds., Daniel O’Connell: Portrait of a Radical (New York: Fordham University Press, 1985), 100-106; K. Theodore Hoppen, “Riding a Tiger: Daniel O’Connell, Reform, and Popular Politics in Ireland, 1800-1847,” Proceedings of the British Academy 100 (1999), 121-143.

[3] “The Irish Repeal Movement,” Liberator, 8 September 1843; WLG to George W. Benson, 13 May 1842, Walter M. Merrill and Louis Ruchames, eds., The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison (6 vols.; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971-1981), 3:74.

Monday, December 12, 2005


History links

Over the last month I've been assembling history-related links for the Department of History at JHU. The Department wants to provide a page on its website with Links of Interest to historians.

Obviously, it will not be exhaustive, but ideally it will provide a good springboard page for historians in our particular department. That's why my first collection method was to email department members asking for pages that they use regularly. I have not yet visited all of the sites I was referred to, but I've got a working collection that I've been supplementing with my own finds when I have the time.

Right now I'm collecting the links on a page, which allows me to organize the links with tags. (I don't know how I would even begin to organize them otherwise, without making an unmanageably long list on which sites would appear in multiple categories.) If you have suggestions for sites I'm overlooking, please pass them along. You can tell by scanning the geographical tags to the right that I could use some help filling out certain fields.

Many of these links may not be new to you, but here are several pages that I've found recently that have been very helpful:

Digital Images Online at the Yale Beinecke Library: This searchable database contains over 70,000 prints, photographs, and other visual images. The search engine, I've found, is amazingly precise and user-friendly for an image database.

American Political Prints, 1766-1876: Provided some good fodder for classroom discussion in my U.S. survey course. For example.

Secession Era Editorials at Furman University: I went looking for a site like this after reading about a teaching exercise that James Horton uses: "I break the class up into regional groups, New England, Mid-Atlantic and Southern. Each group then reads newspapers from their respective region for news coverage of the John Brown raid on Harpers Ferry. Students debate the raid using the information that they find in their regional newspapers. It quickly becomes clear that the newspaper accounts differ considerably. We then discuss the ways that newspaper accounts shaped public opinion and how the newspaper accounts were shaped by regional attitudes especially those concerning slavery."

I did something similar by using editorials on Harpers Ferry drawn from the Furman website. First, I distributed different editorials to pairs of students, but concealed the title and location of the newspaper. I then asked them to answer a series of questions about their editorial (Who was involved in the raid? Who or what is to blame for the violence? What are the lessons to be learned from Harpers Ferry? etc.). Finally, I asked students to go around the room comparing notes with other pairs, and to stick together with groups that seemed to have similar answers to the document questions. Once they were sorted into groups, I revealed the titles of the newspapers, along with their locations and partisan affiliations, and we were able to analyze the patterns of agreement that emerged. It became a little chaotic towards the end with students moving around and the class period about to end. But I think better time management on my part could make a second trial of this exercise better.


Politicians and historians

Over at Cliopatria, Manan Ahmed asks why President Bush is "continuously comparing Iraqis to America's founders." I'm not sure I have an easy answer, but the question does bring to mind some thoughts I've been having about the way the Bush administration uses history in general.

President Bush and his spokespersons have a habit of saying that historians will be the best judges of their present actions. But they almost always add that, for this very reason, we should not judge those actions now. The historian is to the Bush administration as the kick returner is to the football team. Historians are the ones you punt to for analysis of your decisions or policy judgments.

Viz., Scott McClellan:
... historians are going to look back and make judgments in terms of the decisions that were made in the aftermath of going into Iraq. ... as Senator Lieberman said that we've made mistakes, and [the President] said he's right. And so, yes. I mean, but in terms of making judgments about what those are, I don't think you can judge that at this time. Historians over time will be able to look back and make judgments about the decisions-- [Reporter: "in acknowledging and agreeing with Senator Lieberman, what mistakes do you believe this administration has made?"] Again, we'll let the historians look back and make those judgments. I don't think you can do it in the current time. This is something that will be looked back over the course of history.

Viz., Ari Fleischer:
I think you're going to find the historians, legal scholars will have differing conclusions about these matters. But the conclusion the President reaches is that Iraq's failure to disarm presents a threat to the people of the United States and, therefore, he is prepared to use force.

Viz., President Bush:
I have made a lot of decisions -- some of them little, like appointments to board you've never heard of, and some of them big. And in a war, there's a lot of tactical decisions that historians will look back and say, you shouldn't have done that, you shouldn't have made that decision. And I'll take responsibility for them. I'm human.

Viz., President Bush:
... you know the interesting thing about Presidents and Prime Ministers is you're never going to be around to judge history, judge the true merit of the history, of the decisions you make. Short-term history is -- it's hard to call it unobjective. It's very subjective, I guess, is the best way to put it. After all, the person who has written the history hasn't had a chance to see the full effects of the decision-making.

And in my case, most of the short-term historians probably aren't that thrilled with me being President in the first place, which might color the short-term history. (Laughter.) But my only point is, I think a President must not try to write the legacy of every moment. The President just does what he thinks is right, and try to explain as clearly as I can -- part of the purpose of my visit to your great country is to use the opportunities I've had to speak directly -- like I'm doing right now -- to people about why I made the decisions I made.

Viz., Ari Fleischer, on why the fall of Baghdad is "historic":
I think historians will make judgments about what today means. But today certainly marks a wonderful day for the Iraqi people as they pursue the freedom to which they are entitled.

And, of course, President Bush's famous reply to the question of whether he had made any mistakes in his first administration:
I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time, so I could plan for it. (Laughter.) John, I'm sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could have done it better this way, or that way. You know, I just -- I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't yet.

Perhaps as an historian, I shouldn't complain too much about these deferrals to history. After all, they invest a great amount of cultural authority in my guild: according to the Bush administration, we historians are the ones who will settle all the scores, figure out where mistakes were made, assess blame and praise. There is even something Gadamerian about the Bush administration's view that understanding can only come as a result of the passage of time, that temporal distance from the original event is not an impediment to the interpretation of the past but an aid to it.

But the problem with that view is that it refuses judgment in the present. We cannot judge until later. [ed.--How much later?] The later the better. Indeed, once President Bush punts to historians to judge his present actions, he can always reply to criticism by saying the day for judgment has not yet come. If, for instance, historians venture to remark on the start of the Iraq war, he can dismiss historians as "revisionists" or argue that we are still in the "short-term." "I don't worry about our standing in history," he told one audience in 2002. "Plus, I know most historians didn't vote for me, so they're probably going to write something ugly anyway. (Laughter and applause.)" Historians can judge, but only future historians--historians who had no connection with the present. A generation must pass before a generation's sins can be accounted for.

President Bush ends up damning historians with high praise. On the one hand, they are described as the highly respected arbitrators of all the decisions he makes. But on the other hand, their day for judging him is always about to arrive while never yet arriving. The President's rhetoric leaves everything for the historians to decide, without actually giving historians anything they can do, since they can always be dismissed as not distant or detached enough to judge his policies. In the end, his policies remain safely beyond the pale of judgement, whether now or in the forseeable future.

To circle back to Manan's question, I think the President's frequent analogies between Iraqis and America's founders convey a respect for history that also ends up being illusory. Look closely at what President Bush said about the Founding in today's speech:
The eight years from the end of the Revolutionary War to the election of a constitutional government were a time of disorder and upheaval. There were uprisings, with mobs attacking courthouses and government buildings. There was a planned military coup that was defused only by the personal intervention of General Washington. In 1783, Congress was chased from this city by angry veterans demanding back-pay, and they stayed on the run for six months. There were tensions between the mercantile North and the agricultural South that threatened to break apart our young republic. And there were British loyalists who were opposed to independence and had to be reconciled with America's new democracy.

Our founders faced many difficult challenges -- they made mistakes, they learned from their experiences, and they adjusted their approach. Our nation's first effort at governing -- a governing charter, the Articles of Confederation, failed. It took years of debate and compromise before we ratified our Constitution and inaugurated our first president. It took a four-year civil war, and a century of struggle after that, before the promise of our Declaration was extended to all Americans.

It is important to keep this history in mind as we look at the progress of freedom and democracy in Iraq. No nation in history has made the transition to a free society without facing challenges, setbacks, and false starts. The past two-and-a-half years have been a period of difficult struggle in Iraq, yet they've also been a time of great hope and achievement for the Iraqi people.
What is the lesson that we learn from history? That chaos and disorder happen, that leaders make mistakes, that politicians face challenges and setbacks. But all of these points have the same rhetorical effect as punting to historians: they all draw, as their lesson, that we cannot judge mistakes and setbacks in the present, because in the future they could turn out to be the storm before the calm. How will we know which are the truly devastating mistakes and which are the growing pains? We won't, we can't, until some indefinite "later." It took "a century" for the Founders' heirs to smooth out their wrinkles, so, by implication, it could take a century before we can judge the President's mistakes. The appeal to American history, like the appeal to future historians, ends up being nothing but a prima facie vote of confidence in the status quo.

Perhaps the patterns I have pointed out in the Bush administration's rhetoric on history are not unique to this White House. I suspect that at one time or another, the nebulous idea of "future historians" has provided most politicians with a way to redirect criticisms of their policies. When described by politicians, perhaps history always suffers. But I think it's worth making a distinction between "politicized" history that actually uses historical evidence and reasoning to judge the present (which is how Fred Siegel at Slate classifies Sean Wilentz's recent book), and a political use of history that actually makes it and its practitioners useless as commentators on the present. It's one thing to flatten history into a comment on the mistakes of a sitting president; it's another thing to flatter history in order to dismiss any comment on those mistakes.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Conference paper

Today I've been working on a draft of the paper I will be presenting next month at the Annual Meeting of the AHA. Here's the panel: Transnational Histories of the American Civil War Era. And here's the proposal for my paper that I submitted, along with my fellow panelists, to the Program Committee back in February. It slipped under the 250-word limit at 248:
In 1842, William Lloyd Garrison, the fiery Boston abolitionist, began to call for the dissolution of the United States, a nation hopelessly corrupted by slavery. In 1844, the American Anti-Slavery Society adopted the principle of “no union with slaveholders” as its motto. In 1861, the union would be dissolved, but not in the way that Garrisonians had desired.

Garrison’s disunionism can be placed in a national tradition of secessionist thought that culminated in civil war, but Garrisonian thinking about disunion also had transnational sources. Calls for disunion were influenced by the language of Daniel O’Connell’s transatlantic movement for Irish Repeal, which peaked in 1843. The coincidence of the Repeal campaign with the appearance of Garrisonian disunionism was not accidental. In the early 1840s, many Garrisonians forged personal ties with a coterie of Irish reformers, some of whom, like Dublin merchant James Haughton, were devoted Repealers. They advocated a “repeal of the union” that joined Ireland to the United Kingdom, while Garrison called for a “repeal of the union” between North and South. In 1842, he declared himself “both an Irish Repealer and an American Repealer,” and Wendell Phillips, another Garrisonian, referred to disunionism as “our repeal” in private correspondence.

Historians cannot understand the timing and texture of Garrisonians’ disunionism without understanding their ties with Irish reformers. Likewise, even the quintessentially American question of whether divided houses can stand was part of wider transatlantic debates in the early nineteenth century, which included Irish Repealers, European liberals, and American abolitionists.
Since submitting that proposal, I've completed the chapter of my dissertation on which it was based. So I'm now paring down a 51-page chapter into an 11- to 12-page (double-spaced) paper, which means throwing many of the chapter's branches into the fire. In the process I've been acutely conscious of Timothy Burke's prophetic denunciations of AHA conference panels:
The formal session is a kind of loathsome ritual of humanities and social science academia, a lacerating gesture of masochism. Three, sometimes four, panelists read dully through a pre-written paper. Every once in a great while, one of them has actually written a shorter version of the paper designed to be read aloud, that has some vague hint of a performative gloss to it. Mostly though presenters just put red lines through paragraphs they want to skip, rush through the end, make amendations on the fly, read prose intended for formal publication.
"Lacerating gesture of masochism." Ouch. That sounds like it would hurt. I'd prefer to give the paper some kind of "performative gloss." So while I do have the chapter file open in another window as I write, I'm starting the draft of the talk from scratch. Here are the opening paragraphs of my current "talk" draft:
In 1842, Garrisonian abolitionists, who took their name from the fiery editor of the Boston Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison, began to call publicly for the dissolution of the United States. The Union, they concluded, was nothing but a sword and a shield for slavery; the Constitution was a proslavery instrument. And as long as Northerners remained in a Union that contained slaveholders, warned Garrison and his supporters, they would bear guilt for the national sin of slavery. Coming out of the Union was the only way to stay innocent and the only way to abolish slavery. In a letter to the Liberator in April 1842, radical abolitionist Henry Clarke Wright summed up this view: “We ought to have laid before the slaveholders, long ago, this alternative. You must abolish slavery, or we shall dissolve the Union.” [1]

In reality, Garrisonians had laid that alternative before the South before, but it was not until the spring of 1842 that the Liberator began to propose disunionism as the “one standard” for dividing “genuine friends of liberty” from false ones. The week before printing Wright’s letter, William Lloyd Garrison proposed that disunion be made the first order of business at the next meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. In May, he began printing a new slogan in capital letters above his editorials, calling for “A REPEAL OF THE UNION BETWEEN NORTHERN LIBERTY AND SOUTHERN SLAVERY.” Two years later, Garrisonians officially endorsed a more concise motto: “No Union with Slaveholders!” And for the rest of the antebellum period, until the firing of shots on Fort Sumter in 1861 actually did dissolve the Union, disunionism would be the Garrisonians’ calling card. [2]

In this talk I want to raise two questions about disunionism and then suggest how taking a transnational perspective on the era of the American Civil War might help us answer them. The first question I want to ask is about timing. Portents of disunion predated Garrisonians’ adoption of the slogan, “No Union with Slaveholders,” but why was it not until 1842 that Garrisonians began making that demand their rallying cry? Part of the answer is that the outlook for abolition looked especially grim in 1842: President John Tyler seemed to support plans for the annexation of Texas as a slave state; Northern Congressmen were bound by a “gag rule” that banned antislavery petitions from the floor of Congress; in January, Southerners called for the censure of John Quincy Adams, who spent his post-presidential career as a Massachusetts Congressman flaunting the gag rule, and the next month, the Supreme Court ruled, in Prigg v. Pennsylvania that slaveholders had a constitutional right to capture fugitive slaves in the North. Later in 1842, Philadelphia erupted in a bloody race riot, after which the black abolitionist Robert Purvis said that he saw “nothing redeeming, nothing hopeful” in recent events. “Despair black as the pall of Death hangs over us.” [3]

To Garrisonians, despairing times called for a desperate measures: disunion. But their critics, both at the time and since, have tended to view disunionism as a flight from reason into fancy. The second question I want to raise is about this interpretation of disunionism. What did Garrisonians intend, what did they mean, when they called for disunion? Answers to that question have tended to be seen through the distorting lenses ground by Garrison’s critics, who were and continue to be legion. Many abolitionists in 1842 were beginning to organize antislavery third parties and to build political coalitions among Northern voters disaffected by the power of proslavery factions in their parties. [4] These political abolitionists believed that the usurpations of the “Slave Power” could best be resisted at the polls and on the hustings. They were therefore fiercely critical of the disunionists, for whom one of the first ways to withdraw from the guilty Union was to abstain from voting. Political abolitionists said such “no-voting” advice was absurd, and many historians have murmured “amen.” Disunionism is still often seen as a priggish and self-centered agenda, which Garrisonians adopted simply for the sake of keeping their hands clean, while political abolitionists are praised for rolling up their sleeves and actually making political gains.

This critical portrait of disunionists often implies that they were essentially no different from Southern secessionists: both were good at throwing tantrums, but bad at proposing real solutions. That comparison is too much of a caricature, but it is not entirely unfair: disunionism can and should be seen as part of a long American tradition of states threatening to take their electoral votes and go home when they found out that they could not play well with other states. Yet disunionism was not merely one more chapter in an exclusively American history of secessionist thought. In the next several minutes I want to suggest that the Garrisonians had another, more immediate model for disunionism, which they found not by looking southward to Southern fire-eaters, but by looking eastward across the Atlantic, where in the 1840s Irish nationalists led by Daniel O’Connell were agitating for political independence from England. Seeing O’Connell’s movement as a model for disunionism, rather than Jefferson Davis’s, helps us answer why Garrisonians became disunionists when they did—thus shedding light on the timing question—and it also suggests a more nuanced interpretation of disunionism. Comparing disunionism to Irish Repeal, I will argue, helps us to see that Garrisonians viewed disunionism as a serious strategy for ending slavery, not just as an attempt to preserve their purity.
And on it goes. My concerns at this stage are two-fold: I may be taking too long to get to the "Irish Repeal" punchline, although from here on out the paper turns decisively towards a discussion of how Garrisonians learned and thought about Irish Repeal, and why they viewed disunionism as a similar movement.

On the one hand, part of me likes setting the talk up this way, by giving the audience a couple of questions to frame my argument. And another advantage of starting this way is that it makes clear right away what the stakes of "transnational perspectives" on the Civil War Era might be: I don't just want to point out that Garrisonians corresponded with Irish Repealers, and end with nothing more than "Isn't that cool?" Rather, I want to suggest right away--even at the risk of overstating things--that a transnational angle on the origins of disunionism helps us understand those origins differently. The disadvantage of starting this way, though, is that the above introduction amounts to 3 pages, or a fourth of the total draft. That may be too much to invest in an introduction. If you have suggestions, I'd welcome any observational reports about the current thickness of the glaze covering your eyes. (Hey, better to have you be bored at the draft stage than to have me "lacerate" the panel's IRL audience. You could have clicked away, but they might be trapped in a chair next to the wall.)


If you're interested in Irish Repeal, which I get into after the above excerpt, here's the Wikipedia entry. There's also a concise biography of O'Connell here.

Here's also an interesting contemporary print by Edward Clay. It portrays a Garrison-like figure on the far right supporting O'Connell, who was a staunch abolitionist. Clay portrays Garrison as an opponent of Repeal because he wants to imply that Garrison is a puppet of English abolitionists. But in actuality, American Garrisonians usually did support for Repeal, and by 1842 they were in rather bad odor with mainstream English abolitionists. A good place to start reading about Garrisonian relations with Irish Repealers and O'Connell is the first chapter of Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White.



[1] Henry Clarke Wright, “The Only Alternative—Dissolution of the Union, or the Abolition of Slavery,” Liberator, 29 April 1842.

[2] “The Annual Meeting at New-York,” Liberator, 22 April 1842. For the disunion slogan, see Liberator, 20 May 1842.

[3] Robert Purvis to Henry Clarke Wright, 22 August 1842, in C. Peter Ripley, ed., Witness for Freedom: African American Voices on Race, Slavery, and Emancipation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 62. On Tyler’s presidency, see Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery, ed. Ward M. McAfee (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 120-126. On discontent with the “gag rule” and the attempted censure of Adams, see Lynn H. Parsons, “Censuring Old Man Eloquent: Foreign Policy and Disunion, 1842,” Capitol Studies 3 (1975), 89-106; James M. McPherson, “The Fight Against the Gag Rule: Joshua Leavitt and Antislavery Insurgency in the Whig Party, 1839-1842,” Journal of Negro History 48, no. 3 (July 1963), 177-195. On Prigg v. Pennsylvania, see Paul Finkelman, “Prigg v. Pennsylvania and Northern State Courts: Anti-Slavery Use of a Pro-Slavery Decision,” Civil War History 25, no. 1 (1979), 5-35; Eric W. Plaag, “‘Let the Constitution Perish’: Prigg v. Pennsylvania, Joseph Story, and the Flawed Doctrine of Historical Necessity,” Slavery and Abolition 25, no. 3 (2004), 76-101; Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic, 219-225.

[4] See James Brewer Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery, rev. ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1997), 97-126; Richard H. Sewell, Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States, 1837-1860 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1980).

Friday, December 02, 2005


"The only history class they will ever take"

A few days ago I discovered a page at the History Matters site promising to reveal Secrets of Great History Teachers. It's a very interesting page of interviews with distinguished historian teachers, with a range of examples from both secondary and postgraduate schools. While browsing them I was struck by the following paragraph in an interview with Orville Vernon Burton, a professor of American history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign:
My first year at the University of Illinois when I was teaching the survey, I was called in by our most distinguished U.S. historian. I am sure he meant well, but he informed me that there were many problems with my teaching ... he thought my biggest problem was that I was confusing the students by discussing how different historians thought differently about issues. “This is the only history course that most of these students will ever take,” he told me, "and they need to know the facts." I disagreed. If this is the only history course students ever take, it was all the more important that they know that historians disagree over what the facts are as well as over interpretations. I still believe that.
"This is the only history course that most of these students will ever take." That platitude, or should I say that attitude, bugs me, even though I often repeat it to myself when struggling to make decisions about what to include on a syllabus or in a lecture. I think that many history teachers take for granted what Burton's colleague did: that we have one shot at reaching the students in our classes before they throw history on the dustbin forever. And maybe that's why we agonize about how much to cover in a course. It is because we believe, at some basic level, that this course is the only chance we have to teach students the history of the United States, or the history of Western Civilization, or the history of (gulp) the world.

Set aside for the moment the question of how statistically sound the assumption is. It seems like common sense, but I'm sure that at specific institutions and in specific survey courses, the generalization probably is not as iron-clad as it sounds. Implicit in the assumption of Burton's colleague is another presumption--that our undergraduate history students are just less interested in taking history classes than other classes--that is probably even harder to substantiate statistically. Some rough-and-ready figures in this Perspectives article suggest that national average enrollment in undergraduate history courses has been increasing in recent years, even if only marginally.

But even if it could be statistically proven, in any given course, that the majority of our students will never take another history class, I think it helps our teaching very little to know this. For one thing, it bespeaks a certain fatalistic pessimism, a world-weary attitude that students don't care about history and won't care to know more. If history teachers think that about their students, it's bound to come across to those students in their teaching. And if we convey to our students a pessimism about their interest in history, our Cassandra-like prophecies about the ahistorical wasteland of their futures will likely become self-fulfilling. Why should they take other history courses if they can sense our fear that they won't? Shouldn't our goal as teachers be to inspire students to take more history courses, rather than to assume from the beginning that they will not?

To be sure, many students will not take other history courses, despite our best efforts to encourage them to do so. Certain majors require undergraduates to run through so many rigorous paces that they won't have time in their schedules for other history classes, even if they want to take them. Even so, the fact that a student may take only one history class does not mean that they will never have another encounter with history. Indeed, if we cannot ensure that students will seek out other history courses, we can and should be conveying to students that knowledge of the past is important enough for them to seek out in whatever way they can. Suppose it is the only history class they will ever take: that does not mean the assigned reading has to be the only history book they ever pick up.

Charming idealism, some might say. Perhaps. But let's imagine the worst-case scenario: that the majority of our students, despite our enthusiasm and encouragement, will never take another history class, never enter a museum, never read another book or article about history, never watch a history documentary, never see a historical film or read a historical novel. (The scenario is ludicrous, if you put it that way. But so-called "realism" often turns out, on closer inspection, to be less realistic than idealism.) Even if that dismal scenario were to come true, it would not settle a single question about how to teach a history course. It would establish that those questions were incredibly important, that they deserve our serious thought and careful attention. But the fact that a history course may be the only exposure to history a student has entails nothing whatsoever about what that course should include or how it should be taught.

That's not what Burton's anonymous colleague concluded, of course. For him, the likelihood that his students would never take another history course made it imperative to pass along "facts" and downplay scholarly disagreement. But those pedagogical choices are not at all implicit in the bare fact that this is "the only history class they will ever take." And to be fair, Burton's counter-argument is no more valid than his colleague's: it is not "all the more important" that students learn about disagreements between historians if this is the only history class they will ever take. It is either more important that they learn about differing interpretations, or it is more important that they learn "facts." Whether this will be a student's only history course does not help a teacher decide on the relative importance of those two pedagogical strategies.

It is common for people to confuse the value of a particular decision with the values they will use to make that decision. Tourists tell themselves that this is the only time they will visit Rome, so they have to see the Coliseum. But in fact, nothing about this being their only time in Rome makes the value of seeing the Coliseum appreciably higher. The tourist's sense that his time in a city is limited sharpens the importance of making considered, rather than casual, decisions about what to see. But it doesn't actually help him make choices about what to see. He believes that his sense of urgency is directly informing his decisions about what to include in an itinerary, but that's what we might call a "logical illusion." To give another example, suppose I am visiting a restaurant that I know I will not visit again. That makes me study the menu with special care, but it doesn't at all help me decide what to order. (Least of all does it mean that it would be more rational for me to order everything on the menu rather than only one thing. That would probably lessen the pleasurableness of my one visit.)

The truth is that when I am deciding what to order at the restaurant, or what to see in Rome, or what to include on a syllabus or in a lecture, my awareness that the decision is momentous does not actually help me make a decision. Retrospectively, I may think that it does, by telling myself that I saw the Coliseum because it was the most important thing to see, or ordered the caviar because it was the chef's specialty. But really what I'm doing is trying to reassure myself that my decision about what was most important to see, or eat, or teach was the right one. In reality, I made those decisions based on some other logic that may not even be perceptible to me. I had some way of ordering the values of different possible choices, but nothing about the fact that I could make a limited number of choices actually helped me order them. (If you disagree, consider that every choice we make occurs within a context of limited possible choices, since we are temporal and mortal beings. Does a knowledge of your ultimate end really help you decide what to have for breakfast?)

By my lights, at least, the historian's platitude that "this is the only history class our students will ever take" is nothing but a pedagogical red herring. It settles nothing in debates over what to teach or how to teach it. Those debates have to be settled by appeal to some other standard of adjudication, especially since (to make an obvious point that really makes this whole post superfluous) in a debate like the one between Burton and his colleague, either side can appeal to the fact that he only gets one chance with his students. Neither interlocutor gains the upper hand by pointing out a bare fact, if indeed it is one. I could just as easily win an argument over what to teach my students by pointing out that semesters come to an end. Well, yes, but how does that fact speak at all to the question of what to do with a semester?

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

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