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Research notes: 1850’s Kansas

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Just a few observations on research-in-progress.

I’m currently reading Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War by Eric Foner.  Three groups came together to form the early Republican Party: Conscience Whigs, Moderate-Conservative Whigs, and anti-slavery ex-Democrats, with the middle group being the overwhelming majority.  And it made me kind of giggle when I suddenly realized that, to this group, what led them to an anti-slavery stance was their single most important issue: Giving the Federal Government a bigger role in running the country.

It is also intriguing to find that there was such a drastic difference between those who considered themselves “abolitionists” and those who were “anti-slavery.”  The former were, for the most part, religious, and driven by the belief that slavery was a great moral wrong and must be ended forthwith; the latter, much more numerous, believed that slavery interfered with the growth of the nation, or that the slave power’s control of the Federal Government was destructive to national (ie, Northern Capitalist and Western Agricultural) interests, and so slavery had to be limited and put on the road to extinction.  I knew these differences existed; I hadn’t realized just how profound they were.

I also read War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas 1854-1861 by Thomas Goodrich, and found it very upsetting.  I don’t know if Mr. Goodrich is just one of those historians who feels the need to bend over backward to be “objective” or if he is actually an apologist for the slave-owners, but the book seems to spend a lot of time questioning the accuracy of reported atrocities by the pro-slavery settlers, and simply accepting reports of atrocities by anti-slavery settlers.  The fact is, that could be my imagination, so don’t put too much stock in it.  Much more upsetting are passages such as the one on page 104, “Perhaps the greatest explanation why so few bondsmen ‘stole themselves’ and fled to Kansas was simply that many slaves were not entirely convinced that freedom was better for them than slavery.”  He follows this with quotes from various slaves explaining how happy they are, without appearing to question them (ie, was this statement given in a place where the slave would feel safe saying anything else?).  Anyway, the book kind of squicks me.  Nevertheless, it is filled with extremely useful information, so I’m glad read it.  Sort of.   This is one reason why I’ll never make a real historian: I get much too emotionally involved in stuff like this for any sort of objective assessment.

I also read Kansas: The Prelude to the War for the Union by Leverett W. Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1885) which is a positive gold mine of stuff.  I’ll need to go over it again to purify the nuggets, but there is an amazing amount of material.  This book is refreshingly partisan (anti-slavery).   Aside from the fact that it is partisan on my side of the issue, I find myself much more comfortable with open, clearly stated partisanship than with efforts at “objectivity” that appear dishonest.*  Also, on page 165, to my inexpressible delight, I came across the following: “The volume of anti-slavery migration toward the territory swelled like mountain streams after heavy showers.  A constant movement thitherward had been in progress…”  Thitherward.  I cannot express how gleefully I have added that word to my dictionary.  Thitherward.  Rapture!

Two people weave their way through all of these: James Lane and John Brown. Lane is, well, if I need a villain, he’ll do.  He was a leader of the anti-slavery faction, but seems to have been an opportunist in the worst sense of the word, changing positions constantly so as to advance his own interests, violent when it would serve him, perfectly happy to run from battle and leave his command to fend for themselves, and utterly unprincipled.  Naturally, he became a Senator.  Brown is generally treated by most of what I’ve read as a fanatic, but there are strong hints that this isn’t the whole story, and I’m going to need to dig deeper before I dare touch him.

Still to read is Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri edited by Earle and Burke, graciously given me by Carol Kennedy.  That will be next.

* Note to self: Do a blog post on just what “objective” means in the context of historical writing.

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

19 Comments

  1. If you haven’t read it, I recommend the novel Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks, a really interesting fictionalized examination of John Brown. Not sure what the thrust of your research is, but the novel plays heavily on the religious motivations of abolitionists.

  2. Well, after all, states’ rights was a bizarre retrogressive concept as far as the rest of the world was concerned. Even in the US it was obvious to everyone from the start it was only adopted due to the need for a north-south compromise at the formation of the country. It was nice that Jefferson was able to coopt the movement to introduce the Bill of Rights, but sad that the FFs wound up accepting slavery. In some respects it might have been better to hang separately. Would the British have extended their ban on domestic slavery to America had they retained control? Perhaps not (though they did abolish slavery in Jamaica in 1834) but at least they had established their own domestic abolition long before the US.

    But yes, that particular point, the focus on federal power and central government, is very amusing considering the current day Republican party is absolutely opposed to everything the original Republicans stood for. The Southern Strategy was like an enormous Democrat-Republican dosie-do.

    Re historical objectivity: an oxymoron.

  3. skzb

    Oh, my. Overmorrow. Yum.

    I’m also learning how very, very many slaveholders not only spoke in favor, but actually worked for gradual emancipation. Doomed, of course; you don’t peacefully disenfranchise a ruling class. But it’s one of those things that isn’t as black and white as I’d thought.

  4. “I’m also learning how very, very many slaveholders not only spoke in favor, but actually worked for gradual emancipation.”

    History just keeps fucking with black-and-white narratives.

  5. “I’m also learning how very, very many slaveholders not only spoke in favor, but actually worked for gradual emancipation.”
    You mean, like George Washington? One fascinating thing about Washington and Jefferson is that Washington began as a very callous, unthinking, happy slave-owner and gradually became morally opposed to slavery, while Jefferson professed a desire to end slavery, while actually working to extend it because it was in his selfish interests.

  6. Well some of the organizations pushing for “gradual emancipation” pushed for emancipation over the course of centuries. Meanwhile, their immediate goal was to persuade free people of color to emigrate to Africa, or even force them to do so. Which would have eliminated one of the great threats to slavery. So in practice the “gradual emancipationist” slaveholders were campaigning to protect slavery. If I can rec another biased source – “Two Friends of Man”.. It deals specifiically with this issue among others.

    Oh and on the issue of Brown as a fanatic. The usual basis for this is that he killed non-slaver owners. But essentially these were non-slave owning terrorists from Missouri who crossed the border into Kansas to suppress voting by anti-slavery voting by force and often murdered people in the course of this suppression. So unless you consider self-defense a form of insanity, this was not particularly fanatical.

  7. Full title “Two friends of man: The story of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips and their relationship with Abraham Lincoln” Ralph Korngold . Does not cover Kansas much. Amazon link http://www.amazon.com/Two-friends-man-Garrison-relationship/dp/B0006AS6DC

  8. “…this was not particularly fanatical.”

    If today somebody raided a US government armory intending to arm a bunch of people and start a revolution in the USA, I would consider him a fanatic.

    But I guess things were different back then. 😉

  9. Different circumstances. Harriet Tubman was planning to join him, but she got sick. I have yet to hear Tubman described as a fanatic. Frederick Douglas did not consider him a fanatic.

    Also Tubman had a lot more practical experience infiltrating the South from her many trips to free slaves. I wonder if the raid might have been planned more successfully, or if a more vulnerable target than Harper’s Ferry might have been chosen if she not grown ill and had joined John Brown as she planned to.

  10. “I don’t know if Mr. Goodrich is just one of those historians who feels the need to bend over backward to be ‘objective’ or if he is actually an apologist for the slave-owners…”

    Tom Goodrich is a well known, proudly revisionist historian, one who is well-liked by white nationalists and national socialists. That doesn’t mean his work is worthless, but it’s useful to know his writing tends towards certain goals.

    “Aside from the fact that it is partisan on my side of the issue, I find myself much more comfortable with open, clearly stated partisanship than with efforts at ‘objectivity’ that appear dishonest.”

    Reading a historical text in order to “take sides” or find someone who thinks a certain way gives the reader no basis whatsoever for passing judgment on an author’s objectivity.

    “Note to self: Do a blog post on just what ‘objective’ means in the context of historical writing.”

    Jumping the gun a little here. All history is objective; it’s only when it is retold that any sort of subjectivity enters, and anyone who fails to understand the best history texts are the results of painstaking reconstruction of thousands of details joined by the author’s perception of the reason those details are related is looking for absolute knowledge where there can be none.

    I think the closest anyone can come to writing “objective history” as I believe you mean it are people who write about technology in its various forms. “The Western Way of War” by Hanson is an entire book devoted to nothing but the experience of Greek hoplites, analyzing their armor piece by piece, comparing every available description of battle with geography and weather patterns and making an educated guess as to why the battles were fought they way they were. Likewise, Gallwey’s “The Book of the Crossbow” was written by a man who built the various bows, catapults and engines he wrote about. As he learned from his failures, he would point out this would be why the ancients used such thick/thin rope or certain kinds of fasteners. In both cases they have to make assumptions, but they’re based on known physical limitations of the human body or construction material.

  11. L. Raymond, I agree with you about technology history. Technical, focused history seems much superior in delivering some sense of “objectivity” to general wide-span history. The author may still have just as much bias or prejudice as anyone else, but there is less scope for it to appear. This is especially true in ancient history of science and technology. Fewer axes to grind there — as it were.

    But even so, when history of science or history of technology starts focusing on individual inventors or scientists, then you see the subjectivity emerge once more. Heisenberg vs. Bohr — not the two were opposed, really, but they each have their fans — Leibniz vs. Newton, and most trendily of all, Edison vs. Tesla, for just a few examples. Subjectivity also is frequently obvious with relatively recent military technology (e.g. the geniuses/morons working on strategic bombers at the expense of CAS planes and vice versa) and also with technology developed in recent memory, such as reported in works on the history of computing.

    We now return to your regular scheduled 1850s Kansas thread, still in progress.

  12. “Harriet Tubman was planning to join him, but she got sick. I have yet to hear Tubman described as a fanatic. Frederick Douglas did not consider him a fanatic.”

    I just don’t get the context. If you join in a raid, intending to steal weapons at gunpoint from employees of the US government and kill them if they resist, so you can start a revolution, how is that not fanatical? Maybe I don’t understand the meaning of the word.

  13. Historians can’t help but see things from their own point of view, and they write for an audience that usually has a very different perspective from the people they write about. I don’t think “objective truth” is attainable.

    But — imagine that you visit a foreign culture, say you spend time in Djakarta, Indonesia. You learn the language and interact a lot, and after a while you start to get a sense of the place. It might be possible to write about it so that readers can kind of get a sense of it too. Doing that honestly is worthwhile, and doing it dishonestly can also be worthwhile if you label it as fiction. It isn’t “truth” even if you do it as well as you can, and it’s still worth doing.

    A historian who immerses himself in the details of a past time can try to do the same thing. Giving people a sense of what it was probably like, is valuable.

    It’s better if you can avoid seeing things too much in terms of what you’re already familiar with, though some of that is inevitable. Say you come from a place where race relations are so central they color all your thinking. You could go to Indonesia and interpret everything in terms of which group is the blacks and which is the whites. That would be jarring to somebody who didn’t see things that way, and yet it might be the best approach to describe your experience to people who share your point of view.

    I think it’s dishonest to intentionally twist things around to support some ideology. If you are an ardent supporter of States Rights and you interpret your experience in Indonesia in terms of how their government is organized around its own version of States Rights or why things are in a terrible mess there because they fail to enforce States Rights, I will not be impressed. Similarly if your point is that they are Evil Muslims who hate Israel and hate the USA and must be put under sanctions.

    There’s a kind of objectivity in describing as well as you can how things work, independent of how you feel about it. But sometimes people find that horrifying. If you describe a recipe that involves throwing live water bugs into boiling oil where they make piteous noises and thrash about before they settle into agonized positions and get crispy, and you are too objective, readers may be appalled. Even more if it’s live mice. Even when you’re trying to dispassionately describe how things work, you need to reassure your readers that you are their kind of people and you share their values, that you are disgusted by the same things they are. Otherwise they are likely to quit reading.

    So if your target audience consists of white supremacists, or people who believe the USA deserves to rule the world, or christians, you need to occasionally remind them that you are also a white supremacist or a US imperialist or a christian just like them. Even if you are carefully describing a foreign culture where those ideas simply don’t make sense.

  14. “I think it’s dishonest to intentionally twist things around to support some ideology. ”

    I’m inclined to believe that very few historians consciously lie, but all historians are subject to confirmation bias.

  15. “I’m inclined to believe that very few historians consciously lie, but all historians are subject to confirmation bias.”

    How could it be otherwise?

    “Some things must be seen to be believed. Many things must be believed
    to be seen.” — Anonymous

  16. I thought you were implying that more than a tiny number of historians were intentionally lying for ideological reasons. I suspect a few do, but most are sincere. Which can be harder to catch than if they were simply lying.

  17. Oh, I see. I think it’s dishonest to do that intentionally. When it’s what you honestly believe then it’s hard to avoid doing it by accident. When I see someone make weird analogies and tortured explanations to support an ideology I don’t share, I am not impressed. It’s easy for me to see his illogical biases. But when he does it around ideas I believe in, then I’m less likely to notice.

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