Friday, November 03, 2017

Monuments and the Danger of Presentism


The United States has long been the shining light of the world, a place where all are welcome to come, and live, and embrace America and the United States, to contribute to its growth, and to set an example for the world to look up to, and to become Americans and proudly so. 
 
Colonial America existed as a safe haven for the people of the Reformation to come and worship as they wished, without fear of remonstrations, or even imprisonment and execution.  And it was built up by an enormous workforce composed almost entirely of African Slaves.  

Slavery had been going on in Africa since ancient times but what we call modern slavery was conducted by the Arabian Muslims who moved coast to coast through Central Africa taking slaves and marching them back to the Arab lands. This had been going on from the 8th Century. 

By the middle of the 15th Century, Prince Henry of Portugal had established a school for sea captains, training them in sailing, seamanship and navigation.  He began sending these captains in their Caravels south from southern Portugal to the west coast of Africa.  At the end of each thrust farther south along the African Coast, the captains would establish a base camp/port, where they could stockpile supplies, and conduct trade with the local natives, taking home seeds, lumber, and elephant ivory.

But then they ran into Arab Muslim slave raiding expeditions and learned what had been happening for 700 years.  The slave raiders sold them a few slaves and they were taken back to Portugal.  

Prince Henry and his brother, King Duarte [Edward], were devout Catholics, and supported the Church with riches brought back from Africa.  But when the slaves appeared in Portugal, the slave trade there was underway.  It was so lucrative that the Pope, Nicholas the V, during his 8 years as Pope, issued two relevant Papal Bulls:  the first, issued in 1452, basically said to the Captains of Prince Henry go ahead and subdue and capture any non-Christians they encountered for enslavement, and the second, issued in 1755, gave exclusive economic rights as they reached and eventually rounded the Cape of Good Hope and went on to India.  It also authorized them to buy or capture non-Christians as slaves to bring back to Portugal. 

Portugal, and its chief sea-going rivals, Spain and England, began exporting African slaves to the New World shortly after Christopher Columbus [trained by Prince Henry’s school] discovered it.  The Portuguese moved African slaves to what is now Brazil, while the Spanish moved them into Mexico, Florida, throughout the West Indies and the Caribbean, through Mexico north to California, and south through Central America and down the west coast of South America.  The English began importing slaves into Virginia in the early 17th Century though most early Black slaves were brought from the West Indies. 

The African slaves were the people who cleared the swamps along the North American coast, and cleared and built the roads, and ports, and towns.  Then they learned to pick cotton.  Their owners got very rich from cotton.  Southern culture changed, the plantation owners gained great wealth, buying more land, and more slaves, to the extent that wealth in the Colonial South was measured in how many slaves they owned.  And they determined that the slaves were “less than human,” thus justifying the institution of slavery.

And then, an ancient Greek political philosophy suddenly re-emerged in the American colonies, and a new nation was formed in the fashion of that ancient Greek philosophy: Democracy.  It came to be called “The Great Experiment”, among other expressions.  And it based its foundations on the core of the Enlightenment: the natural rights of man. 
  
By the time the Virginia philosopher, politician and revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote his treatise on “The Rights of Man”, talk had already started about slavery among the political leaders of the Colonial states.  The Northern states wanted to extinguish slavery, the South said “no.”  But the British government in England enacted some laws applying to Colonial Americans that became known as the Intolerable Acts, and independence was suddenly more important than slavery.  During the Revolutionary War, England offered freedom to any slaves that joined their army [as teamsters and servants, not as soldiers].  George Washington and Alexander Hamilton established a policy that any slave could join the Continental Army earning a rifle and his freedom. 
 
The Constitutional Convention that followed the Independence of the United States and the insufficient first attempt at government under the Articles of Confederation took nearly a year to draft, and heated arguments on the floor during its construction were daily low-lights.  One of the most important was the issue of slavery.   Deals were made between states in order to obtain concessions from the Southern slave states.   One of the more well-known concessions is located in Section 9 of Article I:
Section 9. The Migration of Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.
This law ended the United States involvement in the International Slave Trade by 1808, but it spawned a new business in the South: slave breeding.  The slave markets were thus supplied past 1808.

The Constitution also contains another law that outlines slave-owners’ rights when a slave runs away.  The Runaway Slave Law is contained in Article IV, Section 2:
No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.


The U.S. Navy began patrolling the West Indies to prevent slaves being smuggled into the U.S. in 1819, and at the same time, began patrolling the eastern Atlantic along the coast of Africa to stop the slaves from being smuggled to the U.S. from Africa.
 
The make-up of early Government of the United States tells a tale in its numbers.  William Lee Miller wrote in his book Arguing About Slavery [Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress. Vintage Books Division of Random House, New York, 1996. ISBN 0-679-76844-0.]

"Five of the first seven presidents were slaveholders, for thirty-two of the nation's first thirty-six years, forty of its first forty-eight, fifty of its first sixty-four, the nation's president was a slaveholder.  The powerful office of Speaker of the House was held by a slaveholder for twenty-eight of the nation's first thirty-five years.  The president pro-tem of the Senate was virtually always a slaveholder.  The majority of cabinet members and--very important--of justices of the Supreme Court were slaveholders.  The slave-holding Chief justice Roger Taney, appointed by the slave-holding president Andrew Jackson to succeed the slave-holding John Marshall, would serve all the way through the decades before the war into the years of the Civil War itself; it would be a radical change of the kind the slaveholders feared when, in 1863, President Lincoln would appoint the anti-slavery politician Salmon P. Chase of Ohio to succeed Taney.  But by then, even having a president Lincoln had been the occasion for the slaveholders to rebel, to secede, and to resort to arms. 
 "One cites these facts about the formidable presence of the slave interests--to which, of course, dozens more could be added--not as later unhistorical moralizers sometimes do, as an indictment of the nation, but for almost the opposite purpose, to dramatize the immense power of the interest that the nation would nevertheless overcome."
As one can begin to see, the fight to remove slavery from the United States was a knock-down-drag-out battle in the United States Congress, and in the newspapers throughout the nation.  Northern politicians also fought against the Slave interest in Congress by attempting to admit new states as “Free” states, allowing no slavery.  At least five generations of slave-owning Southerners were born before the Constitution was adopted.  To be sure there was indeed slavery in the North.  But by the 1840s most of those Northern States had ended slavery by outlawing it and granting freedom to the slaves.  

Regardless, the fight in Congress went on, and grew to focus on the admission of Slave and Free states to the Union as the nation grew westward.  

The Republican Party grew up in the upper Midwest in the 1850s as an anti-slavery liberal party.  It lost the 1856 election when Northern Democrat James Buchanan from Pennsylvania defeated explorer and scout from the wild western state of California, John C. Fremont.  It was a contest, but not really close.  But it was encouraging enough to the Anti-slavery states, and the Party grew.

By 1860 the U.S. was preparing for war, particularly in the South.  Slavery had a major role in Southern Culture.  Well over a century of successful slave-owning had solidified that role as a natural part and a natural right of the slave-holding South.  Slavery was a larger part of the Southern economy than real estate.  

Along came Abraham Lincoln.  His seven fiery 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas during the race for the Senate seat from Illinois captured the attention of the nation.  Newspapers followed them around the state and reported in great detail what both men said.  It was Anti-Slavery Republican Lincoln vs. Slavery Defender Northern Democrat Douglas.   Douglas won the Senate seat, but it was tight.

And so it was again in 1860, when the two faced off in a fight for the White House.  Both had enhanced their reputations during the debates in Illinois, and it was clear what each man stood for.  The issue of slavery had finally come to the fore.  But the Democratic Party split along North-South lines, Southern Democrats backing John C. Breckinridge, and Northern Democrats backing Douglas, against the Republican, Abraham Lincoln.  

The split doomed the Democrats, Lincoln won in a landslide. 

The South was in shock, and immediately began serious talk of secession and Civil War.  Lincoln made it clear he would not seek to end slavery.  What he didn’t say is that he would seek to block any new states from joining as Slave States.  It wasn’t enough.  By the time Lincoln reached Washington in the Spring of 1861 to be sworn in, many of the deep Southern states had already left the Union forming the Confederate States of America.   

The rest of the South seceded.  Lincoln moved to keep Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri from leaving the Union.  

America was at war with itself. The Civil War was fought over four long years, killing approximately 620,000 men.  That is almost half the total of U.S. war dead in all wars.  

In December of 1865 the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.  It states in full:
Section 1. Neither Slavery, nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Slavery is the United States was ended.  A great moral and ethical wrong was righted, decided on the Battlefields of the Civil War.  The deaths of 620,000 men locked that down tight.  Those 620,000 men included both Union and Confederate, men from North and South.  For the most part the war was fought with honor, and with a full belief in the cause of each side.  Those beliefs were not abandoned on either side, but they accepted the outcome.  Both sides honored their returning soldiers, sailors and marines.  Both sides held reunions.  Many Veterans from both sides returned repeatedly over the rest of their lives to the fields on which they fought.  They were drawn there.  Fate drew them there as it was fate that allowed them to survive. 

At home, statues and monuments were erected honoring the leaders and heroes of both armies.  They were doing the bidding of their political leaders, and for those leaders’ political and economic reasons.  They did so with ferocity and honor – how else can you explain 620,000 dead men?  

We now have generations that have, on the surface, grown distant from that event.  They look at these events only on the surface, and through the colored glass of the present.  This is called Presentism: judging the past by modern values and mores.  It is a terrible mistake to judge someone by today’s standards that lived 155 years ago.
 
 The result of presentism is the mistake that George Santayana warned about: "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it."  

It was a different time.  The universal mores were different -- vastly different.  For example, science had not advanced to the point where there was accepted dogma on race: specifically Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” was not published until 1859, and was not readily accepted by scientists.  And Africa south of the Sahara and north of the Limpopo River had not been studied or even explored to any great degree.  Dr. David Livingston left on his expedition into Africa’s interior in 1866, and he was not found by reporter Henry Morton Stanley until 1871.  Little was really known about Black, non-Muslim Africans of Central Africa.  

That is looking at an historical era with objectivity.  Indeed, if we remove the monuments and markers from the locations where they were erected, then we risk erasing a part of history.  The next step, already underway in some schools and colleges, is to remove that unpleasant past from the history curriculum because it offends.  

If that is allowed to persist, and is not corrected, we will not only lose our history, we will lose the significance of the great events of our past.  And thus, we will lose our national identity of being not just a beacon of hope for the world, but how we became one by recognizing and righting the wrongs that we made as a people, as a nation, along the way.

Do not look at a Confederate monument and be offended.  Instead, be proud that the nation recognized the inhumanity of slavery and eradicated it, at the expense of 620,000 American lives.  We need to remember that man is not infallible: Benjamin Franklin sold slaves, George Washington owned slaves, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, James Madison owned slaves, yet these men are honored for founding and framing our country.  It was these men and others in their conventions, who framed the nation’s charter of laws to include paths and mechanisms for change.  The larger good far outweighs their slave-owning or dealing, because of the times, not because of now.  Good people can do bad things, as well as good things, but look at their lives in the light of the mores of the times, not the mores of today.  620,000 men died, in part, so you would not judge them by today’s mores, but by the mores of their times, but by the mores of their time. 

Novus Livy

”Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history."-- Abraham Lincoln

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Book Review: Custer’s Trials, by T.J. Stiles


[With Permission from W. G. Davis at Three Days at Gettysburg blog

T. J. Stiles [author of Pulitzer Prize winning The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Jesse James, Last Rebel of the Civil War] gives us a deep understanding of George Armstrong Custer in his new book Custer’s Trials [Alfred Knopf, in stores October 27, advanced ordering at Amazon]. 

In “Rise”, the first part of Custer’s Trials, Stiles takes us on a well-crafted journey through Custer’s youth, and through the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he excelled at few things military or academic, and including his court-martial while a graduate awaiting orders.  It then chronicles the career of the “boy-General” throughout his  meteoric rise in rank and legend during the Civil War.  At the same time Stiles, relates aspects of Custer’s personal life and his romances, culminating in his marriage to Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon.

He persevered at West Point, and though he was last in his class academically and first in demerits, he succeeded in passing his exams, thus becoming eligible for graduation.   In spite of all of the negatives, Custer showed himself to possess many qualities the military desired in its officers: poise, creative thought, conventional and unconventional avenues to problem solving, the ability to get others motivated, and stature, into which he grew through his activities, mostly in the course of breaking rules…rules by which he abided just enough to get by.  In short, Custer, with the assistance of West Point, taught himself leadership.  It was not the leadership of someone who proclaims himself the leader, it is the one who leads from the front and succeeds because others willingly follow.   And all the while building his repertoire of exploits, he began building friendships with his classmates, and with politicians in hopes of receiving assistance to further his career at his pace.

Stiles relates the details of his first trial: a court-martial before he could leave West Point after graduation.  The court found him guilty and ordered no punishment except a reprimand in orders.  And thus began the hard fighting and fast promotions of his successful and charmed Civil War career.

Custer’s Civil War experiences were as charmed and full of good fortune as were his West Point experiences.  He grew to expect this of himself - indeed, he was fearless in battle, leading from the front of his unit, sword in hand, and not just as a symbol, but a weapon he used with devastating effect in every engagement. 

But there was another Custer – a self-serving Custer, who cultivated friends, and curried favor with friendly higher-ups.  This was the insecure Custer, as changeable as the times, yet as constant as the sunrise with his contradictions.  In this manner Stiles presents Custer as a man who embraced the three main realms of his life – the private, public and professional realms, sometimes mixing them but only to his advantage.  In each he was comfortable and moved about in them freely, enjoying the moments to their fullest, yet constantly laying and cultivating the groundwork for advancement in all three realms.  Sometimes conniving, and never missing an opportunity to not only extol the virtues of his latest adventure, but enhance them as well. 

Custer’s rise through the ranks to generalship is well known.  But Stiles laces the telling with personal details often missed in many works of history involving Custer, and details the patronage afforded him by Generals McClellan, Pleasonton, and Sheridan.

 
One measure of Custer’s leadership and how it affected his men in the Michigan Brigade was when they began to copy his affectation of the famous red necktie he wore with his gaudy uniform.  But the men both loved and respected him for his personal courage and his innate ability to know the lay of the land on which they fought, and how he would invariably place them in the best position to succeed to victory.  Time after time Custer won the hearts of the Union thanks to the newspaper coverage of the war [which he curried], and was a favorite subject of sketch artist Alfred Waud.


Custer married Libbie on February 9th, 1864, and when campaigning began again in the spring, Custer took the field under Phil Sheridan, and Libbie moved back to a boarding house in Washington.  There Libbie was able to have access to the influential politicians, and even to the President himself.   She charmed them all and won favor for her Armstrong, as family called him. 

His war culminated in the surrender at Appomattox. 

No one amassed the legendary success amid the events of the US Civil War like Custer did. 

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In “Fall”, the second half of Stiles' epic biography of Custer, Stiles chronicles the last decade and a half of George Armstrong Custer’s life.  What many biographers gloss over or omit entirely is the path to Little Big Horn that Custer followed  from the end of the war, but not Stiles. 

First sent to Texas to restore law and order in a state devastated by the war, he took Libbie along.  Life was different in the post-war US Army.  There was no more war, and he was still commanding volunteers.  Custer was forced to use a hard hand even at controlling his own troops, including head-shaving, whipping and executions.  For a man who’s leadership was repeatedly proven in combat, the lack of it was proven in peace.  It was a duty for which he was unsuited, and unable to adapt.  Nor would his conservative Democrat views on race suffer the change that the war had wrought.  And Libbie shared those feelings. 

Yet Custer struggled to come to terms with the new reality of the Freedmen.  He began to think about redefining himself.  He did so in his testimony before a subcommittee of the Committee on Reconstruction, advocating black suffrage, and the continuation of the Freedmen’s Bureau.  Custer’s testimony was in line with that of other officers newly returned from the post war South.  Collectively, they pointed to the regressive results of President Johnson’s policies.  The ensuing Civil Rights bill was vetoed by Johnson, and in effect, was a declaration of war between the conservative President and the Radical Republicans in Congress.  But Custer’s testimony belied his personal beliefs.  Once again he was currying political favor from those who controlled Congress.  Then he went on a political tour with President Johnson, evoking the wrath of Ulysses Grant.  Grant ordered Custer to join the 7th US Cavalry at Fort Riley without delay.  Custer soon realized how badly he had erred in publicly supporting Johnson. 

A year later found Custer facing his second court-martial, this time for absenting himself from his command without the proper authority.  He had left Fort Wallace, Kansas apparently to get to Libbie, and traveled 275 miles to Fort Harker when his command was about to launch a campaign against the Indians.  Even worse, he had ordered a detachment of 75 men and three officers to escort the ambulance in which he rode.  And it continued to get even worse.  Custer ignored an attack on some of his men by Indians, sent a detachment out after deserters with orders to bring none back alive, and eventually had three deserters shot, but not killed, and did not allow them to be treated for their wounds – all without a trial.  In a rather long proceeding, Custer was found guilty across the board and sentenced to one year’s suspension and forfeiture of his pay.  Ultimately the Indians intervened and Sherman and Sheridan petitioned Grant to restore Custer to the 7th US Cavalry.  Grant complied, if only to keep Custer in the field and out of politics and out of trouble.   

Thus Custer began the phase of his career that would mark him as “Indian Killer.”  He operated in Kansas and Oklahoma, destroying Indian villages, and chasing after famous Indian leaders such as Black Kettle. 

Unable to rise in rank, Custer attempted to end his Army career and support himself and Libbie in a style more grand than Army pay could provide.   Custer took an extended leave, and made a disastrous foray into the world of Wall Street.  He sought funds to support a silver mine in Colorado.  It failed when the mine failed.    

In 1871, Custer returned to the Army, stationed in Kentucky to suppress the Ku Klux Klan and the illegal manufacture of moonshine alcohol.  It was boring duty.  Custer yearned for the openness of the Great Plains.  He turned to writing there, and while he had a market for his work, it was too small to allow him to leave the Army. 

In the Spring of 1873, Custer received word that the 7th Cavalry was being reassigned north to the Dakota Territory.  He and Libby began packing.  Over the next three years, he mounted three great expeditions: along the Yellowstone River in 1873 - fighting battles on August 4th and August 11th; the Black Hills Expedition in 1874; and finally, the Little Big Horn Expedition in 1876. 

The noted historian Frederick Jackson Turner who wrote at the end of the 19th century and for 3 decades into the 20th, formulated the Frontier Thesis, which was presented as a paper to the American Historical Association in Chicago, July 12, 1893, titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” It first appeared in the Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, December 14, 1893.  He cites the 1890 census report’s proclamation that, “…‘Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.’ This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”

In his paper, Turner presents the role of the frontier as the developer of Americanism, that the farther from the Atlantic Coast one got on the way west, the farther they got from the influence of their European roots.  The Frontier was the blacksmith’s hammer, forge and tempering bucket that produced American Exceptionalism and American Identity. 

In the fifteen years from the end of the Civil War to the end of the Frontier, as the Census report put it, there was perhaps no other person whose day-to-day life on that Frontier had more influence in the final forging of the American Identity and Exceptionalism than George Armstrong Custer.   

Stiles' book, 472 pages not including acknowledgements, is a most thorough, detailed, and well-supported biography.  The cast of characters is rich, and most are well known, but even the lesser known help to paint the portrait, often filling in gaps.  The principals are fascinating, and brought down from their legendary status by relating their intimate interactions and thoughts.  George Armstrong Custer was a truly great soldier during the Civil War.  The absence of war was a large part of his undoing, for it forced him into realms he had not entered before, that he was unable to manipulate to his advantage, and for which he was wholly unprepared. 

Custer’s Trials is the consummate biography of George Armstrong Custer.   


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Stiles, T.J., Custer’s Trials, Alfred A. Knopf/Borzoi, New York City, 2015.  ISBN 978-0-307-59264.

Available in stores October 27th, 2015.  Also available to preorder at Amazon here.

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”Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history."-- Abraham Lincoln

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Copyright © 2005-2015: Novus Livy and The History of the World Blog; All Rights Reserved.