On Memorial Day, Americans honor those who died in all our wars. Traditionally, we honor the men and less the cause they fought for. There have been wars America fought which, in retrospect, may have been less than just: some were unnecessary, a few were futile; but we honor those who fell in them nonetheless.
Ambrose Bierce joined the Union Army the instant he heard of Lincoln’s call for troops; unlike many, he not only joined because he wished to preserve the Union, but because he and his family were ardent Abolitionists. His Uncle Lucius Bierce had supplied John Brown with the broadswords that Brown used to commit the Pottawatamie Massacre, and later eulogized Brown when he was executed. But after four years of war, killing his fair share of the enemy and after nearly dying himself, Bierce was no longer that idealistic young man. He had seen too much death, too much suffering, to gloat over his former foes defeat; he never regretted his war service, but neither did he rejoice in the victory achieved at such a cost.
In 1903, Ambrose Bierce, still very much haunted by his experiences in the war, penned this essay after revisiting the scenes of his first experience of the war. He saw the ill- tended graves of his former foes and the neglect which they had fallen into. His eloquence on viewing the graves of not enemies, but fellow soldiers, remains an eloquent Memorial Day statement:
A BIVOUAC OF THE DEAD
“Away up in the heart of the Allegheny mountains, in Pocahontas county, West Virginia, is a beautiful little valley through which flows the east fork of the Greenbrier river. At a point where the valley road intersects the old Staunton and Parkersburg turnpike, a famous thoroughfare in its day, is a post office in a farm house. The name of the place is Travelers’ Repose, for it was once a tavern. Crowning some low hills within a stone’s throw of the house are long lines of old Confederate fortifications, skilfully designed and so well “preserved” that an hour’s work by a brigade would put them into serviceable shape for the next civil war. This place had its battle–what was called a battle in the “green and salad days” of the great rebellion. A brigade of Federal troops, the writer’s regiment among them, came over Cheat mountain, fifteen miles to the westward, and, stringing its lines across the little valley, felt the enemy all day; and the enemy did a little feeling, too. There was a great cannonading, which killed about a dozen on each side; then, finding the place too strong for assault, the Federals called the affair a reconnaissance in force, and burying their dead withdrew to the more comfortable place whence they had come. Those dead now lie in a beautiful national cemetery at Grafton, duly registered, so far as identified, and companioned by other Federal dead gathered from the several camps and battlefields of West Virginia. The fallen soldier (the word “hero” appears to be a later invention) has such humble honors as it is possible to give.
His part in all the pomp that fills
The circuit of the Summer hills
Is that his grave is green.
True, more than a half of the green graves in the Grafton cemetery are marked “Unknown,” and sometimes it occurs that one thinks of the contradiction involved in “honoring the memory” of him of whom no memory remains to honor; but the attempt seems to do no great harm to the living, even to the logical.
A few hundred yards to the rear of the old Confederate earthworks is a wooded hill. Years ago it was not wooded. Here, among the trees and in the undergrowth, are rows of shallow depressions, discoverable by removing the accumulated forest leaves. From some of them may be taken (and reverently replaced) small thin slabs of the split stone of the country, with rude and reticent inscriptions by comrades. I found only one with a date, only one with full names of man and regiment. The entire number found was eight.
In these forgotten graves rest the Confederate dead–between eighty and one hundred, as nearly as can be made out. Some fell in the “battle;” the majority died of disease. Two, only two, have apparently been disinterred for reburial at their homes. So neglected and obscure is this campo santo that only he upon whose farm it is–the aged postmaster of Travelers’ Repose–appears to know about it. Men living within a mile have never heard of it. Yet other men must be still living who assisted to lay these Southern soldiers where they are, and could identify some of the graves. Is there a man, North or South, who would begrudge the expense of giving to these fallen brothers the tribute of green graves? One would rather not think so. True, there are several hundreds of such places still discoverable in the track of the great war. All the stronger is the dumb demand–the silent plea of these fallen brothers to what is “likest God within the soul.”
They were honest and courageous foemen, having little in common with the political madmen who persuaded them to their doom and the literary bearers of false witness in the aftertime. They did not live through the period of honorable strife into the period of vilification–did not pass from the iron age to the brazen–from the era of the sword to that of the tongue and pen. Among them is no member of the Southern Historical Society.
Their valor was not the fury of the non-combatant; they have no voice in the thunder of the civilians and the shouting. Not by them are impaired the dignity and infinite pathos of the Lost Cause. Give them, these blameless gentlemen, their rightful part in all the pomp that fills the circuit of the summer hills.”
As we have seen previously, beginning with the very foundation of the nation, there have been successive movements to split apart the Union, none of which had anything to do with slavery per se. In this installment we shall look at one episode which had a direct bearing on the 1860 Secession Crisis, yet which did not directly impinge on the issue of slavery versus abolition. This was the Nullification Crisis.
After the War of 1812, the country entered a period of renewed national unity, which some historians have labeled as an age of Nationalism. Although the United States had done poorly in the war, Andrew Jackson’s spectacular victory at New Orleans gave the country the perception that we had actually won it. To foster American industry, Congress had instituted tariffs to prevent foreign, mainly English, imports. The Tariff of 1828 was particularly stiff in restricting imports, earning it the sobriquet, “The Tariff of Abominations.” Many in the South opposed the tariff, but so did many New England merchants. In South Carolina in particular, opposition to this tariff was very strong. When Andrew Jackson ran for President in 1828, many in South Carolina and elsewhere hoped that Jackson would repeal the hated import duties.
When, after taking office, Jackson did not take immediate action to repeal the tariff, the radicals in South Carolina became even more militant in their opposition. Vice President John C. Calhoun resigned his office to run for the Senate, where he felt he could more effectively oppose the tariff. President Jackson did in fact pass a reduced tariff in 1832, which had the support of New England and much of the South, but it was not enough for either John C. Calhoun or the radicals in South Carolina.
Here’s where the situation grew from a simple political dispute into a potential threat to the Union. John C. Calhoun proposed the Theory of Nullification: that the individual states had the right to overrule any Federal law which that state considered unconstitutional. In essence, if accepted, nullification meant that no law passed by Congress would be able to be enforced, returning the country to the same chaos which had caused the downfall of the Confederation government. The separate and individual states were to be the ultimate arbiters of what was and was not constitutional, not the Supreme Court. Nullification flew in the face of both the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, as well as Article III, which gave the Federal judiciary the right to rule on constitutionality.
Andrew Jackson, it should be borne in mind, was a slave holder and was not opposed to reducing tariffs to the benefit of the planters and shipping merchants; but he was also a nationalist and felt a sense of betrayal by the actions of his former vice president, who was the main proponent of what was tantamount to an act of rebellion. Previously, as the controversy was still brewing, at a Democratic Party celebration in honor of Jefferson’s birthday, Jackson had famously proclaimed, “Our Federal Union: It must be preserved.”
South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Nullification in November, 1832, unilaterally repealing the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 and the state began to make military preparations to resist the Federal government. In response, in December of 1832, President Jackson issued the “Proclamation to South Carolina” as his response to the Ordinance of Nullification, which categorically refuted Carolina’s claims.
Andrew Jackson was in a high rage at both Calhoun and the radicals in South Carolina; Congress passed the Force Bill, which authorized the President to use military force against South Carolina to compel it to submit to Federal authority. Jackson threatened to personally lead an army into the state to enforce his will and hang all the state legislators who had passed the rebellious acts. But at the same time, Congress also passed the Tariff of 1833, which substantially reduced the import duties to a level which even the radicals in South Carolina could live with.
In the end a military solution was averted and South Carolina backed down, although they continued to argue their right to nullify Federal laws. In retrospect, the Nullification Crisis was very similar to the situation which existed during the Secession Crisis of late 1860 and early 1861; but there were important differences. As in 1860, it was South Carolina that was the most militant and aggressive in seeking to undermine Federal authority; but unlike 1860, none of the other Southern states sided with Carolina in the crisis, even though there were many in the South who disliked the high tariffs.
Moreover, it was not strictly a North versus South issue, as there were many in New England who were equally unhappy about the protectionist tariffs. On another point, although South Carolina talked of defying the Federal government to enforce its “rights” in truth they were not militarily prepared to do so. In 1860, contrary to all their talk about being the offended party and of Lincoln’s aggression, South Carolina had in fact been secretly stockpiling arms and ammunition, including heavy artillery, for a decade or more.
The Nullification Crisis was not directly about slavery; it was about free trade versus protectionism. But in pursing their militant theories of states rights, Calhoun and other Carolinians of his ilk were setting the groundwork for the later Secession Crisis. Slavery was not the issue at stake in this fight, although it was lurking in the background, to be sure. The Age of Jackson was considered a period where Nationalism was triumphant over sectionalism; indeed, even the though Jackson was from Tennessee, at this time Tennessee was still considered The West and not The South, a perception which would change after he left office.
Following the Jacksonian era, the country would increasingly divide itself over the issue of slave versus free. But the notion that one or more states had the right to go their own way was not fundamentally tied to the issue of slavery; it was very much tied to whose economic interests were threatened at any given time. Or, to quote James Carville: “It’s the Economy Stupid.”
In 1860, despite what many Secessionists tried to claim in their ordinances of Secession, and which modern writers have taken out of context, Lincoln had no intention of abolishing slavery, nor did he run on that issue in the presidential election. Nor could Lincoln have abolished slavery even if he had wanted to on taking office in 1861; President Lincoln was simply too good a lawyer to think so. Slavery was built into the Constitution and it would take Constitutional amendments to abolish it—which only came about because of the hubris of the Southern States and the “Fire-Breathing” Secessionists in South Carolina and elsewhere, who goaded the South into rebellion and war.
As noted in our previous essay, the notion that slavery “caused” the Civil War seems to be in vogue again these days as a matter of political dogma, although any serious historian of the era would, or should, know better. Journalist Ta-Nihisi Coates, influential editor at The Atlantic, in particular has pushed this as the solecause of the Civil War. No one can deny that slavery was an underlying cause or that many leaders of the Secession movement cited its preservation as a motive for dragging the country into war. But that is a far cry from saying that it was THE cause.
In the previous installment I argued, rather, that it was the economic system of the South—the Plantation Economy—that was the root cause, of which the enslavement of Negroes was but a means to an end. If good ole’ Artistotle were analyzing this, I’ll wager he would identify Negro slavery as a “formal cause” not as the material cause, the efficient cause and especially not the final cause. An economic oligarchy—at base a very small number of tremendously wealthy planters—had control of the South’s political and economic life and managed to impose their self interest over the greater good of the majority of its inhabitants and the good of the country.
But even the economics of the Southern plantation system was not the sole cause of the Civil War. The road to Secession was a long and convoluted process, much of it irrational and based on perceptions rather than facts. As I noted in the previous essay, Great Britain too had a substantial economic investment in Negro slavery, especially in the West Indies; yet when it finally abolished slavery, there was no rebellion by the sugar plantation owners in the Indies, no assertions of independence, no bloodshed.
In truth, the ideology of Secessionism in the US is far older than the debate over slavery and in this and following essays we will take a brief look at previous secession movements in the United States, most of which had nothing to do with slavery.
The War of 1812 has sometimes been described as the “Second American Revolution” as it was perceived by many as an effort to throw off the yoke of British dominion that many still perceived the country to be under. The western states were hot for war, looking towards expansion to the west and northwest and to many leaders in the burgeoning west the British to blame for much of their troubles with the Indians, both to the South and to the North along the western frontier.
Indeed, in the northwest the British had encouraged Tecumseh and his followers and even appointed the Shawnee leader a “brigadier” giving him a shiny gorget and a redcoat officer’s uniform, complete with epaulettes.
There was also the issue of the impressments of American sailors by the British Navy. Employment by American merchant fleets was better paying and the treatment of sailors far better than in His Majesty’s Navy, where commoners were treated as less than dirt by the officers, who were often as sadistic as they were incompetent. To make up for the lack of willing recruits, the Royal Navy often resorted to stopping ships on the high seas and stealing as many sailors as they needed to make up a full ship’s complement. The British government justified this by arguing that they were merely drafting English citizens into military service. Since most Americans had been citizens of the British Empire before the Revolution, there was an element of truth in this argument, although the US disputed the claim.
As a note of caution, however, I should point out that historians still haggle over the causes of the War of 1812 just as they do over the Civil War and there were a number of motives at work in the period leading up to the war as well. But our present interest is not so much in the causes of this war as one of the consequences.
Not everyone in the US was eager for war with Britain, no matter the provocations. In particular, the New England merchants were less than pleased with the disruption the war was causing their trade with England. New England may have led the movement towards independence in 1776, but once independence was achieved, the thrifty Puritan merchants of the northeast were quite happy to trade with the London merchants and visa versa. The wealthy merchant traders of New York and New England may have resented the impressments of sailors as high handed, but they resented the embargos Presidents Jefferson and Madison had placed on trade far more and then, when the US declared war in 1812, the British blockaded American ports, which hit them in a very sensitive spot—their pocket books.
As the war dragged on and their profits diminished, the New England shippers and merchants became quite vocal in their opposition to a war which not only benefited them nothing, but which the US seemed to be losing.
The Democratic-Republicans (today just the Democratic Party) had been the party of laissez faire economics and small government—except that no sooner was Jefferson elected President than he started wielding Federal power like a club.
The Federalist Party, in contrast, had originally been the party which had advocated a strong Federal government and policies that involved government intervention in the private sector. But in the face of Jefferson and Madison’s adverse trade policies and then the declaration of war, the Federalists of the northeast became more and more opposed to Federal policies. New England governors even refused to supply militia regiments to fight the war with the British. Things came to a head in 1814, when delegates from New England attended the Hartford Convention.
As early as 1804, some New England Federalists had discussed secession from the Union if the national government became too oppressive. By 1814, many in New England and not few in New York came to regard the “small governent” Democratic-Republican Party as oppressive and that the Northeast’s best solution was secession from a Union dominated by the South and the West. The New England governors and legislatures called for a regional convention, ostensibly to propose constitutional amendments to protect their region’s interests and to make arrangements for their own military defense against the enemy. In theory the “enemy” was the British, but implicitly many New Englanders were viewing the Federal government as more an enemy than the British.
The amendments that were proposed by the Hartford Convention seemed more aimed at galling the opposing party than ensuring any basic liberties. For one thing, they wished to abolish the “3/5th Compromise” which gave the Southern states a disproportionate share of representatives in the House of Representatives. In terms of the original Constitution, the Southern states were fine with regarding Negro slaves as people (or at least 3/5 of a person) so long as it gave them political clout. Another amendment would have prohibited not only a person serving more than one term as President, but also prohibiting someone from the same state succeeding him—clearly aimed at Virginia, from whence most of the Presidents had come up to that point. Other amendments would have restricted the Federal government’s ability to declare war and impose embargoes.
The delegates met in secret from December 14, 1814 to January 5; no notes were kept and even the votes were not recorded. It is believed that secession was actively discussed in these meetings, even if their official proposals made no mention of it. Much of what went on during these sessions was very hush-hush and even to some fellow New Englanders their activities were regarded as treasonous. In the end their activities came to naught: by the time three commissioners from Massachusetts reached Washington, news of Andrew Jackson’s famous victory at New Orleans and the peace treaty—The Treaty of Ghent—had both reached Washington.
In the celebrations over Andrew Jackson’s famous victory, most people in the country forgot the string of defeats the US had suffered—Generals Hull’s and Winchester’s humiliating defeats in the Northwest territories and General Wilkinson’s bungled Canadian invasion. Even though Jackson fought his battle after the peace was signed, in the public mind he “won” the war.
With the return of peace, trade between America and Great Britain was restored, the Napoleonic Wars were over and the British no longer needed to impress seamen, and the Federalist Party, its reputation now blackened by accusations of disloyalty, extremism and advocacy of Secessionism, had been discredited.
But had the war not ended when it did and the Madison administration summarily rejected the convention’s proposals (which they were fully expected to do), who knows what would have happened next?
Much of New England and perhaps even the state of New York might have lined up against the South and West in a bitter sectional conflict—a conflict which had nothing to do with slavery, but everything to do with economics.
While Flaggers, neo-Secessionists and other fringe groups continue to justify the Lost Cause, most thoughtful students of the Late Unpleasantness generally agree that preserving the Union was generally a good thing. A modern corollary to this is the dogma that the cause of the War was slavery and slavery alone; all else was just rhetoric or propaganda to justify the unjustifiable. I am simplifying here, but I think most intellectuals and academics would basically subscribe to that premise, albeit with a few ifs, ands and buts. Certainly preservation of slavery was a root cause of the War and among the Slavocracy that dominated the political and social fabric of the South–and much of the Federal government–that was certainly their main reason for Secession; but it was hardly the only cause of the war.
I have long felt that other factors paved the downward road to Secession as well and that in 1861 in both the North and the South there was a broad spectrum of motives for siding with one side or another. Quite a few Federal officers–including Ulysses S. Grant’s family–were slave owners for one thing. Moreover, a number of Confederate officers later claimed that they would not have gone to war solely to defend the Peculiar Institution, while I think it could fairly be argued that very few in the North would have volunteered to go to war had it been presented as a war to abolish slavery in 1861. Lincoln himself was on record on a number of occasions as saying he placed preservation of the Union over the destruction of slavery.
While slavery was an underlying factor, for some groups other motives lay behind their decision to cast their lot with the Confederacy. It is in this context that I reproduce below the declaration of war by the Cherokee Nation, dating to October of 1861. It is true that the Native American tribes in Oklahoma were slave-owners as well, but their economy and well being were hardly dependent on the institution. It is clear from their statement of purposes that their motives were far different than, say, the South Carolina plutocrats or the Cotton aristocracy of the Cotton Belt. Of course, behind all the Cherokee justifications looms the Trail of Tears and an innate distrust of the Federal government and its promises. Some Native Americans did side with the North; many did not; more than a few did not give a rat’s ass about the war. Following is the Cherokee Nations explanation of its “inexorable necessity” for siding with the South:
Declaration by the People of the Cherokee Nation of the Causes Which Have Impelled Them to Unite Their Fortunes With Those of the Confederate States of America.
When circumstances beyond their control compel one people to sever the ties which have long existed between them and another state or confederacy, and to contract new alliances and establish new relations for the security of their rights and liberties, it is fit that they should publicly declare the reasons by which their action is justified.
The Cherokee people had its origin in the South; its institutions are similar to those of the Southern States, and their interests identical with theirs. Long since it accepted the protection of the United States of America, contracted with them treaties of alliance and friendship, and allowed themselves to be to a great extent governed by their laws.
In peace and war they have been faithful to their engagements with the United States. With much of hardship and injustice to complain of, they resorted to no other means than solicitation and argument to obtain redress. Loyal and obedient to the laws and the stipulations of their treaties, they served under the flag of the United States, shared the common dangers, and were entitled to a share in the common glory, to gain which their blood was freely shed on the battlefield.
When the dissensions between the Southern and Northern States culminated in a separation of State after State from the Union they watched the progress of events with anxiety and consternation. While their institutions and the contiguity of their territory to the States of Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri made the cause of the seceding States necessarily their own cause, their treaties had been made with the United States, and they felt the utmost reluctance even in appearance to violate their engagements or set at naught the obligations of good faith.
Conscious that they were a people few in numbers compared with either of the contending parties, and that their country might with no considerable force be easily overrun and devastated and desolation and ruin be the result if they took up arms for either side, their authorities determined that no other course was consistent with the dictates of prudence or could secure the safety of their people and immunity from the horrors of a war waged by an invading enemy than a strict neutrality, and in this decision they were sustained by a majority of the nation.
That policy was accordingly adopted and faithfully adhered to. Early in the month of June of the present year the authorities of the nation declined to enter into negotiations for an alliance with the Confederate States, and protested against the occupation of the Cherokee country by their troops, or any other violation of their neutrality. No act was allowed that could be construed by the United States to be a violation of the faith of treaties.
But Providence rules the destinies of nations, and events, by inexorable necessity, overrule human resolutions. The number of the Confederate States has increased to eleven, and their Government is firmly established and consolidated. Maintaining in the field an army of 200,000 men, the war became for them but a succession of victories. Disclaiming any intention to invade the Northern States, they sought only to repel invaders from their own soil and to secure the right of governing themselves. They claimed only the privilege asserted by the Declaration of American Independence, and on which the right of the Northern States themselves to self-government is founded, of altering their form of government when it became no longer tolerable and establishing new forms for the security of their liberties.
Throughout the Confederate States we saw this great revolution effected without violence or the suspension of the laws or the closing of the courts. The military power was nowhere placed above the civil authorities. None were seized and imprisoned at the mandate of arbitrary power. All division among the people disappeared, and the determination became unanimous that there should never again be any union with the Northern States. Almost as one man all who were able to bear arms rushed to the defense of an invaded country, and nowhere has it been found necessary to compel men to serve or to enlist mercenaries by the offer of extraordinary bounties.
But in the Northern States the Cherokee people saw with alarm a violated Constitution, all civil liberty put in peril, and all the rules of civilized warfare and the dictates of common humanity and decency unhesitatingly disregarded. In States which still adhered to the Union a military despotism has displaced the civil power and the laws became silent amid arms. Free speech and almost free thought became a crime. The right to the writ of habeas corpus, guaranteed by the Constitution, disappeared at the nod of a Secretary of State or a general of the lowest grade. The mandate of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was set at naught by the military power, and this outrage on common right approved by a President sworn to support the Constitution. War on the largest scale was waged, and the immense bodies of troops called into the field in the absence of any law warranting it under the pretense of suppressing unlawful combination of men.
The humanities of war, which even barbarians respect, were no longer thought worthy to be observed. Foreign mercenaries and the scum of cities and the inmates of prisons were enlisted and organized into regiments and brigades and sent into Southern States to aid in subjugating a people struggling for freedom, to burn, to plunder, and to commit the basest of outrages on women; while the heels of armed tyranny trod upon the necks of Maryland and Missouri, and men of the highest character and position were incarcerated upon suspicion and without process of law in jails, in forts, and in prison-ships, and even women were imprisoned by the arbitrary order of a President and Cabinet ministers; while the press ceased to be free, the publication of newspapers was suspended and their issues seized and destroyed; the officers and men taken prisoners in battle were allowed to remain in captivity by the refusal of their Government to consent to an exchange of prisoners; as they had left their dead on more than one field of battle that had witnessed their defeat to be buried and their wounded to be cared for by Southern hands.
Whatever causes the Cherokee people may have had in the past, to complain of some of the Southern States, they cannot but feel that their interests and their destiny are inseparably connected with those of the South. The war now raging is a war of Northern cupidity and fanaticism against the institution of African servitude; against the commercial freedom of the South, and against the political freedom of the States, and its objects are to annihilate the sovereignty of those States and utterly change the nature of the General Government.
The Cherokee people and their neighbors were warned before the war commenced that the first object of the party which now holds the powers of government of the United States would be to annul the institution of slavery in the whole Indian country, and make it what they term free territory and after a time a free State; and they have been also warned by the fate which has befallen those of their race in Kansas, Nebraska, and Oregon that at no distant day they too would be compelled to surrender their country at the demand of Northern rapacity, and be content with an extinct nationality, and with reserves of limited extent for individuals, of which their people would soon be despoiled by speculators, if not plundered unscrupulously by the State.
Urged by these considerations, the Cherokees, long divided in opinion, became unanimous, and like their brethren, the Creeks, Seminoles, Choctaws, and Chickasaws, determined, by the undivided voice of a General Convention of all the people, held at Tahlequah, on the 21st day of August, in the present year, to make common cause with the South and share its fortunes.
In now carrying this resolution into effect and consummating a treaty of alliance and friendship with the Confederate States of America the Cherokee people declares that it has been faithful and loyal to is engagements with the United States until, by placing its safety and even its national existence in imminent peril, those States have released them from those engagements.
Menaced by a great danger, they exercise the inalienable right of self-defense, and declare themselves a free people, independent of the Northern States of America, and at war with them by their own act. Obeying the dictates of prudence and providing for the general safety and welfare, confident of the rectitude of their intentions and true to the obligations of duty and honor, they accept the issue thus forced upon them, unite their fortunes now and forever with those of the Confederate States, and take up arms for the common cause, and with entire confidence in the justice of that cause and with a firm reliance upon Divine Providence, will resolutely abide the consequences.
Tahlequah, C. N., October 28, 1861.
President National Committee.
Clerk National Committee.
Speaker of Council.
THOMAS B. WOLFE,
This text is reproduced from The Cherokee Nation official website: Cherokee Declaration of Causes 1861 , where you may learn more about their perspective on things. The document itself is in public domain.
In the years leading up to the Civil War there were a number of reform movements which were stirring throughout the country. Abolitionism was the most notable and vociferous, but by no means the only one. Moreover, many of those who advocated the immediate abolition of slavery were often involved in other movements, social, political or spiritual.
It may come as a surprise to some that the early Republican Party had a very strong Socialist tinge to it. The early Utopian colonies that popped up around the early Republic often combined a communitarian economic program with religious beliefs, racial equality and sexual equality. After the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe failed to overthrow the old monarchies, many Socialist revolutionaries in the Old World fled to the America to begin their lives anew. Here in the U.S. they found congenial company among these native reform movements and particularly among Abolitionist and Free Soil groups. In fact, Socialism, in various forms, was very much a mainstream movement in the North. The leading newspaper leading up to the Civil War, The New York Tribune, was unabashedly Socialist in its editorial orientation; up until 1862, Karl Marx was a regular correspondent for the paper and his columns were widely read by political reformers, Lincoln included.
Other reform movements traveled hand in hand with Abolitionism as well, foremost among them Spiritualism. Formally begun in upstate New York in the 1840’s it quickly spread throughout the US and even too Europe. Begun by the Fox sisters, whose house had begun to experience poltergeist like phenomena, their method of communicating with the alleged spirits soon became all the rage. Their novel method of divination, however, did not arise in a vacuum; the region from whence they came was called the “Burnt Over District” because so many radical religious and political reform movements originated there and spread outward from there, much like wildfire. Moreover, the oldest of the Fox sisters, Leah, was already a devotee of the visionary writer and reformer, Andrew Jackson Davis, whose writings were certainly familiar to Abraham Lincoln.
Women speaking in public, much less leading a movement, were something virtually unheard of before the Fox sisters and their success spurred other women so inclined to also enter the public forum. That early Feminism should march hand in hand with Spiritualism, therefore, should come as much of a surprise and the two movements had quite a few joint adherents, some quite influential politically. Often those active in those movements were also militant Abolitionists.
Enter the Hutchinson Family Singers of Vermont. Although virtually forgotten today, they were tremendously popular in the decades before the war—although certainly not in the South. The Hutchinsons were the equivalent of The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and the early Bob Dylan all rolled into one. (If you are too young to know who those singers are, go to You Tube and get educated.)
The Hutchinsons were unabashedly in favor of Abolitionism but were also adherents of Spiritualism, worker’s rights and were also supportive of Feminism. About 1858, sister Abby Hutchinson was invited by Susan B. Anthony to attend a Women’s Rights Anniversary to be held in Mozart Hall in New York City, the Carnegie Hall of the pre-war era. It is uncertain whether Abby was well enough to perform, but some of the family certainly did, singing a ditty called, “Right Over Wrong.” The Hutchinsons also wrote at least one song in favor of Spiritualism as well.
In 1859, John Brown capped his career as a militant Abolitionist with his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Less well known is the fact that John Hutchison had friends who helped plan and finance the raid, and that he knew John Brown personally.
It is not known whether Lincoln actually heard the Hutchinson Family Singers perform but is almost certain he met one or another of the family, either during one of their concert tours to Washington, DC, when he was in Congress, or during one of their Midwestern tours. As popular as they were, and given their political orientation, Lincoln would undoubtedly have been aware of them. Their most notable achievement was during the Election campaign of 1860 when they wrote and performed “For Lincoln and Liberty Too.” Some historians claim that this militant and still performed song was what gave Lincoln the edge in the four way election of 1860. While that assertion may be hard to prove, the song certainly motivated many people to go out and vote for Lincoln who may otherwise have stayed home
The Hutchinsons worked very hard for the Lincoln Campaign. John Hutchinson compiled two campaign songbooks the Connecticut Wide-Awake Songster and Hutchinsons Republican Songster for the Campaign of 1860. After the election, when Lincoln was journeying to Washington, he had a layover in Jersey City and it so happened that John Hutchinson’s troupe was there; they gave an impromptu performance from their hotel balcony to the President elect, repurposing their song “Right Over Wrong” for the occasion.
The Hutchinson’s political influence did not stop with Lincoln’s election; when war came, as many knew it would, the Hutchinsons performed patriotic concerts which bolstered the morale of the North. Some of their songs had a definite religious tinge to the political message, such as “Good Times Coming:”
Behold the day of promise comes, full of inspiration
The blessed day by prophets sung for the healing of the nation
Old midnight errors flee away, they soon will all be gone
While heavenly angels seem to say the good time’s coming on
Music may not win any wars, but it has the power to persuade and during 1860 and after, during the war, the Hutchinson Family Singers certainly persuaded many.
“DEATH, THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, FROM WHOSE BOURNE NO MAN RETURNS” —Shakespeare
Abraham Lincoln was a complex, multi-faceted man. The common mis-perceptions of him have been carefully cultivated by his hagiographers
TheParanormal Presidency deals with Lincoln’s belief in and experience of the paranormal, and while but one aspect of this many faceted man, it is one which has hitherto been overlooked.
To a large degree, how we perceive the Sixteenth President today is as much a reflection of his various biographer’s own biases and beliefs. as it is a reflection of the man himself and his life’s work.
If you peruse even a small fraction of the many biographies of Lincoln, you will find a quite voluminous literature on Lincoln as secular saint and devout Christian–despite the fact that he resisted joining any denomination until the very end of his life.
My book deals with his beliefs relating to his supernatural, irrational side; yet there is also a book out that argues that his love of mathematics caused him to be highly rational. Indeed, a good case can be made for Lincoln being, if not an outright atheist, at the very least a “free thinker” or skeptic, although the evidence is complex and subject to debate.
There is no doubt that Lincoln was personally opposed to slavery. Yet Lincoln’s detractors can quote Lincoln directly, expressing things that by any modern standard would be considered overtly racist.
Lincoln has been portrayed as shy with women to the point one writer even theorized he was a homosexual; yet his former law partner gathered testimony that as a young man long, lanky Abe had several sexual encounters; even so, Herndon may well have suppressed even more explicit accounts of Lincoln’s sexual exploits as a young man.
The bottom line to all this is that the common biographical portrait of Abraham Lincoln, which has been heavily sanitized and sanctified, is almost certainly false. He was a man–a great man–but one who had foibles and faults. Some admirers have thought to protect his memory by suppressing those aspects of which they disapproved. My view is similar to his law partner Herndon’s; that Lincoln’s character and accomplishments was great enough to endure the truth–the whole truth. In following posts we shall explore several aspects of that truth.
One aspect of Lincoln’s character which runs like a golden strand through his life and career, was his fatalism. From a very early age, Abraham believed that he was fated for greatness; but he also believed that he would not long live beyond achieving those great things.
To a large extent, death stalked Lincoln throughout his life and career; it informed all his actions and motivated him to strive to achieve his goals before he should be struck down. To what extent this fatalism was a self-fulfilling prophecy is a moot point. That he believed in his personal destiny is something which I document in depth in my book.