Few remember a more polarized and toxic time in American politics, where even Watergate and the Vietnam War are being re-examined as ‘the good old days’ compared to today’s gloomy political landscape. It’s no surprise that the recent ‘leak’ of Justice Alito’s Roe v. Wade draft reversal has Margaret Atwood getting totally worked up again, she the great mind who conjured The Handmaid’s Tale was quoted recently saying, “Enforced childbirth is slavery” in regard to the long established right here in America. As a Canadian, Atwood should well remember that her country was the terminus of the Underground Railroad before the Civil War and I’d hope she’d use more caution with any comparison of these two separate and distinct rights. It follows statements in the press and Tweets comparing anyone who we disagree with to Hitler and the Nazis and that’s irresponsible hyperbole in the gravest sense and the Auschwitz Holocaust Museum has had to make that particular point a lot recently. This plea has fallen on deaf ears in MAGA-ville of course, where Nazi flags were unfurled in Disneyworld recently by disciples of the stupidest Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, because Disney supports gay, lesbian and transgendered folks and these Nazi flag-waving Floridians couldn’t be more vile and disgusting human beings if they tried. So the notions portrayed in The Handmade’s Tale are horrific indeed, however there’s simply no comparison with slavery to abortion. Perhaps the American institution of slavery prior to the Civil War could legitimately be compared to Nazism because both institutions were created by the utmost evil ever perpetrated on the human race. Atwood’s most recent comments about her novel and the reality we all face were more measured and thoughtful:
I set this novel in and around Harvard University—an institution that in the 1980s was renowned for its liberalism, but that had begun three centuries earlier chiefly as a training college for Puritan clergy…. Women were nonpersons in U.S. law for a lot longer than they have been persons. If we start overthrowing settled law using Justice Samuel Alito’s justifications, why not repeal votes for women?Margaret Atwood
A recent report issued by Harvard University and their regrettable slave-holding legacy (as well as what to do about reparations, with Harvard dedicating $100 million to ease their guilty consciences) has reminded me of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the ‘Harvard Regiment’ for all the alumni who served in the unit during the Civil War, distinguishing it first among Massachusetts regiments and fifth overall among all Union regiments in total casualties in the Civil War. April and May figure prominently in American history, at least as far as the Civil War is concerned and as an amateur historian, I’m always looking for ways to oversimplify the vast sweep of time into a few crumbs of interest, for example the Civil War began on April 12, 1861 when the bloodless attack on Fort Sumter began the bloodiest war in American history and where Vicksburg was the last major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, before capturing it completed the second part of the Union Anaconda Plan, two major assaults against Confederate fortifications began on May 19 and 22, 1863 but were repulsed with heavy casualties, so General Ulysses S. Grant decided to besiege the city beginning on May 25. After holding out for more than forty days, with their supplies nearly gone, the garrison ultimately surrendered on July 4, effectively cutting the South in half. The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant after the Battle of Appomattox Court House, but the Battle of Palmito Ranch, (also known as the Battle of Palmito Hill) is really considered the final battle of the Civil War, fought May 12 and 13, 1865, because no one telegraphed the news down there to let them all know that the South had already lost the war, apparently.
Looking at the institution of slavery, my first inclination is to bring up the CRT-laden, woke subject of the 3/5ths compromise, which seems to me as good a place as any to understand just how fucked up everything got since our forefathers crafted the Constitution, and yes, we know most of the best of them were slave owners themselves (Washington, Jefferson and almost 2/3rds of the rest of ’em) and the original sin of the birth of our country has been a sore subject to anyone who has looked at it closely since, about who we really are and where we actually came from and most of us hate to admit the contradictions either way. Our country was founded by great men (no Blacks or Jews or Muslims or Catholics or even indigenous Native Peoples had a say in the matter) but these great white men went out into the humid summer air in Philadelphia and created the greatest country on Earth. Go figure. Close examination of who we really are can be as painful as a successful trip to a psychiatrist, crying about daddy (in my case) or dear momma and coming out the other side of the session sobbing, but a lot better off. The 3/5ths clause represented the insanity that came with trying to forge a Republic on this side of the Atlantic, after most of Europe had benefited handsomely from slavery (especially England, France and Spain) for hundreds of years, their daughter, British America, would be caught up in this evil trap as most Europeans tried to remain above the fray.
Now the idea that Black folks at the time of America’s founding were valued at only 60% of a human life is a huge misnomer itself, because slaves were property and not human beings under the law and their real value to the Founders was actually nil, nothing, 0%. Political issues regarding apportionment as contained in the 3/5ths compromise concerned only taxation and (over) representation in the Electoral College among slaveholders and in fact, during the debates in Philadelphia, Southern delegates proposed full representation for the slave population because it had nothing to do with their humanity, only the value of property and slave owners’ own political representation. And of course there were no women delegates to the Constitutional Convention and no women were among the people who participated in state ratifying conventions and there were no women judges or legislators in existence anywhere in America at the time and in fact, as with African-Americans, women could neither hold office nor run for office legally, so most women actually didn’t exist as ‘persons’ under the law, as Margaret Atwood makes clear.
When America’s coastline was being explored by Henry Hudson in 1609, the State of Delaware was inhabited by several groups of Native Americans, including the Lenape in the north of the future state; Delaware was initially colonized by the Dutch near the present town of Lewes in 1631 and in 1638, Sweden then established Fort Christina (in today’s Wilmington) led by Peter Minuet representing a bunch of Swedes, Dutch and Finns and the colony of ‘New Sweden’ was founded and would last almost 17 years. In 1651, the Dutch, under the leadership of Peter Stuyvesant established a fort at New Castle, Delaware and in 1655 they eventually conquered New Sweden, annexing it into the ‘New Netherlands,’ but nine years after that in 1664, the Dutch were in turn conquered by a fleet of English ships under Robert Carr representing the Duke of York, the future King of England, James II.
Delaware was the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution, thus earning the distinction by which it has been known ever since: ‘The First State’ of the United States of America. The Delaware-Pennsylvania boundary is a semi-circular arc running from a wedge of land called ‘Arc Corner,’ across the top of the state to the Delaware River mean low water line, finally reaching across to the New Jersey State line, established as the border as late as 1934 in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling based on an original decision from 1750, where the center of the arc was fixed at the cupola of the Old Courthouse in New Castle, Delaware. This twelve-mile semi-circle stretches into the Delaware River in the east and the western side the Arc also forms part of the Mason-Dixon Line, thus separating Delaware from Maryland and also the North from the South. The North, where I’m from, was based in New England in Colonial times as the first successful colony in America, Plymouth County, spawned the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the rise of Boston as the first great American town, superseded by the more cosmopolitan, forward-thinking towns of Philadelphia in William Penn’s Pennsylvania and New York City in the former New Amsterdam.
Now, a lot happened in America between our founding and the Civil War, but it was only “four score and seven years” (87 years) that had elapsed as ‘Ol Abe Lincoln noted at Gettysburg since our founding and a few stalwart Americans had lived long enough to witness both of these world-changing events. A few important news items marked important precursors to the Civil War, namely the Amistad revolt in 1839 was newsworthy, Steven Speilberg retold this story in his great film Amistad (1997) and extended his view of slavery in another great film, Lincoln (2012) but Nat Turner’s rebellion was as serious as a heart attack on August 21, 1831 and the Alton riots and the murder of publisher and abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy in 1837 may have been the first real indications of a coming civil war, and then the Missouri Compromise, the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 made the war almost inevitable.
Leading up to the war, the greatest debate of all time became the series of seven Lincoln-Douglas debates between August and October 1858, elected to Congress in 1846, the log cabin-born, rail-splittin’ lawyer and Representative from Illinois, Abe Lincoln (elected as a member of the Whig Party) had challenged Democrat Illinois Senator Steven Douglas to show and prove why voters should re-elect him in 1858. A great orator himself, Douglas was first elected to the Senate in 1846 and was seeking re-election for a third term in 1858. Lincoln already argued in his House Divided Speech in June of 1858 that Douglas was part of a conspiracy to ‘nationalize’ slavery and them’s were fightin’ words. Douglas and his constituency believed in white supremacy, opposed the abolition of slavery and basic civil rights for Black folks and Douglas also profited from a slave plantation in Mississippi that his wife inherited. Lincoln said that ending the Missouri Compromise and lifting the ban on slavery in Kansas and Nebraska would be the first step to making slavery a national issue, (after the brain-dead Dred Scott decision) but of course at that time ‘the voters’ for US Senate were elected representatives themselves, serving their 2-year terms in the House, a little-known fact about the L-D debates is that Douglas would go on to win the election after the famous long-winded speeches were all said and done. The white, male citizens that did cast ballots that year actually voted for Lincoln according to the overall party-wide results, even though Lincoln ended up losing the election to Douglas in the Illinois General Assembly (comprised of the Illinois House of Representatives and the Illinois Senate) 54–46, even though Republican candidates for the state legislature together received almost 25,000 more votes than candidates supporting Douglas. Lincoln’s credentials as ‘The Great Emancipator’ hadn’t been quite established yet and no kidding, after Douglas won the first debate by accusing Lincoln of being an abolitionist, he said that Lincoln didn’t believe that black lives matter, quoting Lincoln’s own words:
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.— Abraham Lincoln
In response to Douglas’ questioning of Lincoln’s support of African-American citizenship and being an abolitionist (heaven forbid), if not for full equality for blacks, Lincoln thus defended himself in his follow-up statement, saying “I tell him very frankly that I am not in favor of negro citizenship.” Lincoln was a populist, so he would alter his views to better reflect the (Northern) electorate in due time, but the debates were a turning point for Lincoln’s political fortunes and even though he lost the Senate election, his performance in the debates improved his status as a possible presidential candidate, which won him an appearance in front of a national audience at his famous Cooper Union speech in New York City in 1858 and this sealed the deal with his transformation to a full, blue-blooded abolitionist.
The final straws leading up to the Civil War were the compromise enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and then Bleeding Kansas furthered the chasm between North and South, but it was one sensational news report from Harper’s Ferry, Virginia and a man named John Brown that can be pinpointed as the seminal event leading to all-out civil war. The issue at hand with ‘Ol John Brown, as crazy as they come, was that he did recognize the uniquely evil sin of slavery for what it really was and many more would have to die after his blazing example at the Osawatomie Massacre and then his nutty decision to storm the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. At the time, this was the only federal arsenal in the South and John Brown’s legacy is as a terrorist in almost every sense of the word, his call to insurrection and a race war scared the living shit out of most Southerners and for damned good reason. It wasn’t until the Massachusetts 54th that the full power of Brown’s call to arms was made most evident, as African-Americans would claim their rights as humans and American citizens with Union guns a-blazing, all forged at the only other federal armory in America at the outbreak of the Civil War, firmly situated in the North at Springfield, Massachusetts where the famous Springfield Rifle was sprung.
So the most important issue pertaining to slavery was the abolishment of it and the work of the abolitionists represented the intellectual and moral force that would result in the Civil War and the ultimate prosecution of it. John Brown was an abolitionist, of course, and it must be understood that he was not a man standing alone. He had the greatest abolitionist of them all, Frederick Douglass on his side as well as the deep pockets of the ‘Secret Six‘ abolitionists (mostly) behind him all the way. Massachusetts dominated the early antislavery movement during the 1830s, motivating activists across the nation led by the radical William Lloyd Garrison and his clarion call for the abolition of slavery, The Liberator. Frederick Douglass loved The Liberator and was a subscriber after he escaped from slavery to settle in Lynn, Massachusetts (just north of Boston) with his wife Anna and they lived in Boston while starting a new family for over six years before he moved to New York. Douglass testified for the very first time at the Atheneum on Nantucket when he was just 24-years old, with recollection of the evils of slavery fresh in his mind, he would become one of the greatest orators in a way no one else could or did at the time, but he was also a great writer; Douglass published his masterpiece Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and he founded another influential abolitionist paper, The North Star that would become the voice of emancipation, all up in Lincoln’s face during his entire administration. Douglass said Lincoln represented ‘the white man’s president’ and wanted more from him, however Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation changed Douglass’ mind about his presidency in January, 1863 as they both came to see Black participation in the war as a key to unlocking the chains of slavery on America, Douglass welcomed the Civil War in what he termed “a war of necessity” and through dogged persuasion, Douglass challenged Lincoln to act, once saying that “Mr. Lincoln is a representative of American prejudice and hatred” and that Lincoln had pushed for a ‘separate but (non)equal’ America. Douglass broke from Garrison in 1849 because he thought his approach was wrong-headed because Douglass wanted to use the Constitution in a more measured way (rather than burn copies of it as Garrison was known for) and Douglass used the tools at hand to defeat slavery using public opinion, politics and the law. Douglass was vehemently against the Harper’s Ferry raid and thought Brown’s attempt was a folly that amounted to murder and treason, but even so, after Brown was hanged December 2, 1859 Douglass needed to escape America in order to save his black skin — only to return as the Civil War loomed on the horizon. He personally recruited 100 members to the Massachusetts 54th, including two of his own sons and by the end of the war, over 180,000 African-Americans fought for the Union and over 38,000 had died in the war. In 1878 Douglass retired to elder-statesmen status as a worldwide celebrity, but he was bitterly disappointed with the end of Reconstruction, which marked ‘back to business’ for most of America. White supremacy, under the ‘lost cause’ banner would ultimately outlive him, in fact Douglass’ house was torched under that “Ku Klux spirit,” also taking out the North Star in a conflagration of flames and hatred.
Another associate of Garrison (who also thought he was wrong-headed) was a radical Leftist (before the word even came into being) by the name of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, one of my personal heroes and also one of the Secret Six, Harvard-educated Higginson was from my hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts and after a stint as a Unitarian minister, was a writer and then a bad-assed Union Colonel in the war, where he also commanded an all-black regiment that was more successful than the 54th that was just as brave as the unit commanded by Captain Robert Gould Shaw, made famous by Matthew Broderick’s portrayal in the glorious film Glory (1989), perhaps the best Civil War film ever made. As a member of the Six, Higginson called for the others to break John Brown out of the jail at Harper’s Ferry and had every intention to do so, seriously Higginson had already led a prison bum-rush in order to free escaped slave Anthony Burns, who found a job working in a clothing store after his harrowing escape from bondage, only to be arrested by a slave hunter in Boston only a month later. A warrant was issued on May 24, 1854 and the US Marshal of Massachusetts was required by law to arrest Burns and bring him before Judge Edward G. Loring to stand trial. As a result of Loring’s participation in the trial, Harvard refused to re-hire him for his faculty position at the Law School and also the Massachusetts legislature voted to remove Loring as a Probate Judge and the blowback from Massachusetts prompted outrage from know-nothing politicians in Washington and President James Buchanan then appointed the bum Loring to the Federal Court, natch. Just before the infamous Burns trial began, a committee in which Higginson spoke fiercely departed from an emergency meeting at Faneuil Hall (it turns out that the eponymous Faneuil was actually a slave owner, whoops!) and at around 9 p.m. they gathered at least 25 men, all armed with guns n’ axes who made their way to the Boston Courthouse jail, but a cop was shot and killed during the melee (where some thirty shots were fired by rioters) and the effort failed miserably. With this in mind, Higginson chose to bide his time, but he would avenge both Anthony Burns and ‘Ol John Brown and in the process become a Civil War hero.
I had been an abolitionist too long, and had known and loved John Brown too well, not to feel a thrill of joy at last on finding myself in the position where he only wished to be.— Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Higginson was a fantastic writer and organizer, a man way ahead of his time (including supporting Temperance, unfortunately) and his books and essays won him worldwide acclaim, really one of the most important early contributors to the Atlantic magazine in which he can almost be credited with it’s founding as well (the literary magazine started in Boston in the abolitionist cause) and his circle of associates was a who’s who of all the great abolitionists and literati of the time, including Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Julia Ward Howe, Justice Joseph Story, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Thackeray and Thomas Hardy among many other notable names of the 19th Century. Higginson also discovered and was the first to oversee the publishing of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. After the Civil War, Higginson would take up the cause of women’s suffrage and along with Frederick Douglass, they would both fight for the women’s right to vote until the very end of their lives.
Douglass came out for suffrage as early as 1848 in articles published in The North Star and when his wife Anna died, it was a crushing experience that he wrote about extensively, saying that he felt lost without her, alone in thought, silence, humility and resignation, but after mourning her for a couple of years, Douglass then took up and married a white lady named Helen Pitt from Mt. Holyoke, Massachusetts, a suffragist who happened to live in the house next to his in Washington. His own daughter spoke against the marriage, but then Ida B. Welles helped him to regain his reputation by asking Douglass to speak out about lynching when almost every day in America in 1894-95, an innocent African-American was hung from a tree. After regaining his place as a respected statesman, Frederick Douglass died the very day he attended a women’s suffrage meeting in 1895 with the hope that equality would eventually come for all women as well.
Poet and suffragist Julia Ward Howe published eleven issues of a literary magazine, Northern Lights in 1867 and a year later she established the New England Woman Suffrage Association to campaign for the right of women to vote, serving as the first president, aligning herself with Thomas W. Higginson’s protégé Lucy Stone in the early 1870s, Howe was then nominated by the Governor of Massachusetts to be a justice of the peace, but In 1871 the Massachusetts Supreme Court made the decision that women could not hold judicial offices without explicit authorization from the legislature, thereby nullifying her appointment. This led to activists petitioning for legislation allowing women to hold office, then the fired-up women in the abolitionist movement led by Howe supported the 15th Amendment just after the war and were all ready for women’s rights to be codified into the law before the 20th Century would begin. Howe remained active in the cause until she passed away in 1910 and ten years after she died, suffrage was finally secured for women with the enactment of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, passing in the House of Representatives on May 21, 1919, which was quickly followed by passage in the Senate. These pioneers for women’s rights, abolitionists all, waited until suffrage for African-Americans was secured before they stepped up to be next in line. Howe is also credited with the creation of the first Mother’s Day, originally to be recognized in the month of June after the Civil War ended as a protest to the war on behalf of all the mothers who had lost sons in the war, her “Mother’s Day Proclamation” would plant the seed for what would eventually become the national holiday we all celebrate to this day in May. But what we celebrate her for most was a great poem she set to the tune of John Brown’s Body (a folk song sung by Massachusetts boys before the Civil War) she heard the crude ditty as Massachusetts fighting men marched past her on the way to battle during a visit to Washington, and she was then challenged to put the popular tune to lyrics of a higher class, which she dreamed about and awoke to jot all her thoughts down before she forgot them and went back to sleep, and that poem was then printed in the Atlantic magazine which would become known to us as The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Julia Ward Howe is buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, along with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Oliver Wendell Holmes (his son, the Civil War hero and the Supreme Court Justice, is buried in Arlington National) and a monument to Robert Gould Shaw (thrown in a pit with his soldiers in South Carolina), his family are all buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, where over 900 Civil War veterans were interred, joined by my mother and grandparents and in my humble opinion, Mt. Auburn is the most peaceful and beautiful resting place in America.
On April 13, 1944 in his junior year at Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School, Martin Luther King Jr. won an oratorical contest sponsored by the Black Elks. The theme of the contest was “The Negro and the Constitution” and during the bus trip to deliver the speech, MLK and his teacher, Sarah Grace Bradley, were told by the driver to give up their seats to the white passengers on the bus. King resisted at first, but his teacher finally persuaded him to leave his seat and they stood for several hours on the bus ride to the event. Though no recording exists of Dr. King’s first public speech, (King would earn his doctorate at Boston University in 1955 in Systematic Theology and the speaker at his graduation was none other than the then-Senator from Massachusetts, JFK) we can still hear the power of his voice from this portion of the text of his oration, printed shortly thereafter in the Atlanta Daily World:
Today thirteen million black sons and daughters of our forefathers continue the fight for the translation of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments from writing on the printed page to an actuality. We believe with them that “if freedom is good for any it is good for all,” that we may conquer southern armies by the sword, but it is another thing to conquer southern hate, that if the franchise is given to Negroes, they will be vigilant and defend even with their arms, the ark of federal liberty from treason and destruction by her enemies. The spirit of Lincoln still lives; that spirit born of the teachings of the Nazarene, who promised mercy to the merciful, who lifted the lowly, strengthened the weak, ate with publicans, and made the captives free.— Martin Luther King Jr.
In Martin Luther King’s final speech, delivered the day before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 the words and power of Dr. King’s oratory was by then evident to all that he was the greatest American orator since Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass and after he said “I might not get there with you,” his very last words in the ”I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech were, “My Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord,” borrowed from Howe’s The Battle Hymn of the Republic, he was aware that he was in grave danger but knew that the fight against injustice would still march forth without him.
May 13, 2022