James Buchanan was US President from 1857-1861. He is often considered one of the worst presidents of the US, with his presidency leading up to the US Civil War. Here, Ian Craig takes a look at Buchanan’s presidency. He starts by arguing that, in spite of his Democratic Party generally favoring slavery, what are often seen as pro-slavery actions during the Bleeding Kansas crisis (1854-1861), actually led to Kansas becoming an anti-slavery state.

1859 portrait of President James Buchanan. Painting by George Peter Alexander Healy.

1859 portrait of President James Buchanan. Painting by George Peter Alexander Healy.

Of all the presidents in the history of the United States, none have been as ridiculed as the man who became the fifteenth president on March 4, 1857. Having secured the Democratic nomination in 1856, James Buchanan had little trouble defeating the Republican Party’s first candidate John C. Frémont and former president Millard Fillmore. At the time of his election, Buchanan was the nation’s most qualified person to hold the office of chief executive. Having been a lawyer, state legislature, U.S. representative, U.S. Senator, minister to both Russia and Great Britain, and Secretary of State, Buchanan remains one of the only presidents in U.S. history to have an extensive public service background.  The question then remains is, why he is considered the worst president in history and why is he blamed for the Civil War? These questions will be answered over a series of articles sequencing key events in Buchanan’s presidency.

 

Kansas-Nebraska Act

In his last message to Congress on January 8, 1861, Buchanan stated that, “I shall carry to my grave the consciousness that I at least meant well for my country.”[1]Since that time, over one hundred and fifty years have past since he left office and the Civil War concluded. However, his legacy remains plagued by the questions posed above.  To really understand the actions taken by Buchanan leading up to the outbreak of Civil War, one must look into the political climate of the time as well as the personal beliefs that shaped Buchanan’s governing style.

One particular event that would have a direct impact of Buchanan once he became president was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  This allowed for Kansas and Nebraska to create governments and decide for themselves the slavery question while also repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  Pro-slavery settlers from neighboring Missouri crossed the border illegally into Kansas, heavily influencing the election of a pro-slavery government in Kansas. This led to violence in the territory as both pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups fought for control.  It also led to the creation of two governments, one at Lecompton (pro-slavery) and one at Topeka (anti-slavery).  This series of events later became known as “Bleeding Kansas” for the violence and death that occurred.  Even the United States Senate was not spared from the violence. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten over the head with a cane by Congressman Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate.  Sumner had called out a relative of Brooks regarding the slavery issue offending his honor. Lecompton was also recognized as the legitimate government despite hostilities.

 

Dealing with Bleeding Kansas

Upon assuming office, Buchanan had to deal with the crisis in Kansas left to him by his predecessor Franklin Pierce.  Pierce had signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act believing that territories were “perfectly free to form and regulate their institutions in their own way.”[2]However, Pierce would come to favor the pro-slavery legislation over that of the anti-slavery actions.  James Buchanan’s views of the Kansas-Nebraska Act were not favorable. He wrote that “Congress which had commenced so auspiciously, by repealing the Missouri Compromise…reopened the floodgates of sectional strife.”[3]The governing style of James Buchanan was one based on that of a diplomat.  Having an extensive background as a negotiator, he used his prior experience in his many diplomatic and legislative roles as chief executive.  He also heavily relied on his days as a lawyer and his knowledge of constitutional law to formulate his opinions.  This is how he dealt with the crisis in Kansas.

As president, Buchanan believed that he did not have the authority to interfere in the elections which took place in Kansas despite the fraud that had occurred there.  He wrote that “it was far from my intention to interfere with the decision of the people of Kansas wither for or against slavery.”[4]Essentially, Buchanan felt that the people of Kansas could settle the matter themselves without government intervention. Despite his intentions, Buchanan took military action in sending federal troops to Kansas in 1857 to secure the legitimacy of a state constitution without fraud or violence.  His justification for this was that it was his duty to protect the recognized government and the people’s wishes as President of the United States.  Buchanan recalls, “under these circumstances, what was my duty? Was it not to sustain this government (in Lecompton)? To protect us from the violence of lawless men, who were determined to ruin or rule? It was for this purpose, and this alone, that I ordered a military force to Kansas.”[5]

In doing this, Buchanan was criticized for appearing to support the pro-slavery party in creating a slave state.  This, however, was not the case as he attempted to perform his duties in executing the laws and by preserving and protecting the Constitution.  He states in a broad question to such people, “would you have desired that I abandoned the Territorial Government, sanctioned as it had been by Congress, to illegal violence…this would, indeed have been to violate my oath of office.”[6]Standing firm on his beliefs, Buchanan was convinced that his action would help to support a positive and legal result at the next election.  To him, it was still up to the people to decide on the manner.

 

1858 Kansas Election

In early 1858, a new election was held to elect state officials based on the passage of the constitution in November.  This election for governor, lieutenant governor, and other officials, resulted in the election of several members of the anti-slavery Topeka Convention.  The balance of power shifted towards them and they were more determined to vote in the creation of a constitution with some aspects of the Lecompton Constitution.  James Buchanan took this as a victory because he had wished that the anti-slavery party would take part in the elections.  Buchanan, writing in the third person, states that “it had been his constant effort from the beginning to induce the Anti-Slavery party to vote.  Now that this had been accomplished, he knew that all revolutionary troubles in Kansas would speedily terminate.  A resort of the ballot box, instead of force, was the most effectual means of restoring peace and tranquility.”[7]Buchanan, keeping to his constitutional beliefs, used force only to enforce the rights of the people to vote under the Constitution. Essentially, Buchanan gave the anti-slavery party the tools to vote in a free and fair election without fear of violence.  It only took them a while to take him up on his efforts before they would vote in the government.  James Buchanan recognized that they were in effect the majority of the population and in accordance with the law, it was up to them to decide the slavery question.  

On February 2, 1858, James Buchanan gave a message to Congress regarding the constitution of Kansas.  The newly elected government (with a large majority of anti-slavery supporters) had sent the Lecompton Constitution (with slavery elements) to the president for Congressional approval.  In Buchanan’s message he stated that “slavery can therefore never be prohibited in Kansas except by means of a constitutional provision, and in no manner can this be obtained so promptly.”[8]Although this may be interpreted as pro-slavery, to Buchanan it was not, because the people of Kansas had elected their leaders and had submitted a constitution in forming a state legally.  It was his duty to ensure that their wishes were carried out. He warns that, “should Congress reject the constitution…no man can foretell the consequences.”[9]In Buchanan’s eyes, the admittance of Kansas into the Union in a timely manner would “restore peace and quiet to the whole country.”[10]  In closing his message to Congress, he admits that he had been forced to act in Kansas on behalf of the people to ensure fair elections and opportunities for both sides. He states of the matter, “I have been obliged in some degree to interfere with the expedition in order to keep down rebellion in Kansas.”[11]

 

Buchanan and the Constitution

Although Congress would reject the Lecompton Constitution due to the slavery elements, James Buchanan could not interfere as it was not in the powers of the executive granted in the Constitution.  In 1861, Kansas became a free state. In looking at the situation in Kansas, James Buchanan’s actions were in accordance with the Constitution and his role as chief executive.  Since the Lecompton government was established by Congress it was the legal government in Buchanan’s eyes.  He recognized that voter fraud and violent intimidation had elected pro-slavery delegates that did not speak for the majority of Kansas.  It was for this reason that he urged them to have new elections which were fair.  When that advice fell on deaf ears, he sent federal troops to defend the rights of the people at the ballot box.  This action was taken as his support of the pro-slavery election results.  However, it gave the anti-slavery party the ability to vote in unbiased elections which would lead to their control of the government.  In the words of James Buchanan, “I have thus performed my duty on this important question, under a deep sense of responsibility to God and my country.”[12]

 

What do you think of James Buchanan’s actions during Bleeding Kansas?


[1]Irving Sloan, James Buchanan: 1791-1868, (New York: Oceana Publishers, 1968): 84.

[2]Michael F. Holt, Franklin Pierce, (New York: Times Books, 2010): 77. 

[3]James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, (Scituate: Digital Scanning Inc, 1866/2009): 13. 

[4]Sloan, 35. 

[5]Buchanan, 18. 

[6]Buchanan, 18. 

[7]Buchanan, 24. 

[8]Sloan, 47. 

[9]Sloan, 47. 

[10]Sloan, 48. 

[11]Sloan, 49. 

[12]Buchanan, 26.

Modern-day China differs greatly from its days of imperial monarchy. The origins of this change are rooted in the events of the 19th century. Here, Chris Galbicsek explains how Empress Dowager Cixi played a key role in resisting internal attempts at Westernization in 19th century China.

Empress Dowager Cixi  by Katharine Carl. 1904.

Empress Dowager Cixi by Katharine Carl. 1904.

Today, we know China as a modern communist colossus, and yet we also know China as a nation steeped in a long history of imperial monarchy. In our busy lives, most of us carry around these two images of China without really thinking much about the connection. But how and why did the Chinese monarchy fall in the first place, prior to taking its modern form? Given that China looms so large on the world stage, and given that the Chinese political transformation occurred so recently in history, this lack of public awareness is striking. A closer look reveals some important insight into the ideological and political forces at play in the world around us, as well as a fascinating chapter in the human story.

By the eighteenth century, China had been a remarkably insular empire for hundreds of years. The British had long tried to gain access to the Chinese market by reaching out to the Manchu dynasty, but had little success. However, British merchants eventually did find an effective entry point with the illicit sale of opium. As the Chinese addiction to opium grew to staggering proportions, so did the British addiction to the profits.

By the time Chinese officials finally got around to enforcing its opium prohibition with more seriousness, British merchants were not cooperative. When the Chinese then seized huge stockpiles of opium contraband, this only prompted an indignant British response. As the British demanded reimbursement for their seized property, conflict quickly escalated into violence, and then came war.

 

The Opium Wars Changed China

The industrialized British military quickly pounded China into submission. Various unfavorable trade agreements were forced upon China, including the formalized legalization of the opium scourge, with all of its terrible effects.

As a result, the Chinese empire, which had long considered itself to be the center of the world, was now brought to humbly bear witness to a very different geopolitical reality. No longer could China deny the wide margin of military superiority in the hands of the Western "barbarians". Nor did China any longer have the luxury of choosing its preferred level of economic involvement vis-à-vis the West. If China had indeed been the center of the Earth, then the Earth seemed to have shifted overnight.

The situation represented a critical precipice for China, and the nature of the Chinese response was to be enormously consequential. Japan, coming to grips with similar geopolitical revelations, chose to steam headlong directly into this new phenomenon of "Westernization".

 

The Response

The Chinese leadership, in contrast to Japan, did not proceed with nearly as much solidarity. While there were some voices that did urge immediate adoption of Western technology and institutions, many others insisted instead on a stringent conservatism, and were deeply reluctant to abandon any part of their Confucian worldview, which had proven so enduring.

When the Chinese emperor died in 1861, he left only a four-year-old son to take the dragon throne. The resulting power vacuum only magnified the challenges for an imperial court which already lacked a unified voice.

Nevertheless, in 1861, Prince Gong managed to spearhead an initiative known as the "Self Strengthening Movement", in an ambitious effort to bring about Western reforms. For the first time, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs was established, modern schools were formed, and the study of foreign languages was promoted. Additionally, Western arms and shipbuilding projects were set in motion, along with railroads and telegraph lines. Initially, the program seemed to be creating meaningful change in China.

 

What Went Wrong?

But Prince Gong's voice, and pro-Western voices like his, were soon drowned out by others, and most notably by the young emperor's mother: the Empress Dowager Cixi. Virulently anti-Western, the empress soon demonstrated an uncommon level of political shrewdness, and managed to thoroughly consolidate power around herself within the royal leadership. It has been reasonably presumed that part of the motivation behind Cixi's strong ideological stance, resulted from her calculation that Western governmental reforms would only serve to reduce her influence. In the endCixi would prove so politically irrepressible, that she would go on to profoundly influence China for an astonishing forty-seven years.

While the "Self Strengthening Movement" officially continued, Cixi (pronounced "tsuh-shee") and her cohorts steadily undermined (and even outright sabotaged) various aspects of the project, and set out to marginalize its proponents. As a result, critical momentum was stymied.

On one occasion, Cixi refused to approve construction for an important railway line from Beijing, and when the project finally did move forward, she insisted that the train cars be pulled by horses, so as not to disturb the souls resting in nearby tombs with engine noise. On another occasion, Cixi sent for seven de-commissioned British warships, but then for seemingly trivial reasons, ordered the ships to turn around and head back to England upon their arrival.

In 1893, Cixi continued to frustrate national affairs when she allegedly embezzled thirty million taels of silver, which had been set aside for naval shipbuilding. Instead, Cixi redirected the badly needed funds toward the restoration of the imperial summer palace. Significantly, it was the case that no new Chinese naval ships were put into service from that point forward.

But the tactics of the empress included more ruthless measures as well. Historians widely believe that Cixi was responsible for the poisoning of her own emperor son in 1875. Likewise, she pushed Prince Gong (the architect of the Self Strengthening Movement) into semi-retirement in 1884. And when the subsequently installed emperor (who had replaced her son) later attempted another sweeping national reform movement (known as the "Hundred Days' Reform") in 1898, the empress again intervened. This time Cixi led a coup to overthrow the young reformist emperor, banishing him to house arrest on an island for the remainder of his life.

As might be expected, with all of this internal resistance, China did not fare well when tested militarily during this period. In 1885, China was badly beaten by the French in Indochina. In 1895, China was again beaten badly by the Japanese, losing its hold on Korea and Taiwan, and revealing just how much more industrial progress Japan had managed to achieve.

After orchestrating the coup against the emperor in 1898, reactionary conservatism, atavism and xenophobia were ratcheted up by the Manchu government. Soon Cixi was cracking down on reformist-minded intellectuals, and even blaming natural disasters on Westerners.

When the empress openly endorsed the "Boxer Rebellion" at the turn of the century, the Manchu dynasty further alienated itself. Believing themselves to be invulnerable to Western weapons, over ten thousand “boxers” rampaged throughout the country against anyone and anything pro-Western. After great loss of life, the rebellion was soon put down, and the resulting war reparations exacted by the West left the Manchu royalty desperately in debt. Not long after, with the dynasty barely hanging on and the situation now increasingly precarious, the mighty Cixi died in 1908.

 

Revolution

Within three years of her death, the spark of revolution caught fire, and spread across China. Province after province began to declare independence. Having been continually rebuffed, the impulse toward reform gave way to revolution. The weakened dynasty was now powerless to defend against the wave of resistance, and the monarchy was soon toppled. In 1911, the two hundred and sixty-eight year Manchu dynasty had come to an end.

What followed for China was nothing short of disaster for most of the twentieth century. After a valiant attempt at republicanism failed, China fractured and fell into a chaotic decade of rule by warlords, followed by a bloody national civil war, and then by the now infamous (though not infamous enough) communist reign of Mao Zedong. The result for the Chinese people was more death and destruction than perhaps any other single nation in history over a similar span of time.

 

Hindsight

Looking back, it is hard not to wonder how much longer the Chinese monarchy might have lasted, had pro-Western technology and political institutions been more fully embraced within the royal court. Even after the British shamefully imposed the scourge of opium upon China, the Manchu dynasty was left standing for another half century. And while it may not be fair to lay responsibility for the fall of the monarchy directly at the feet of any one individual, the outsized nature of Cixi's direct and decades-long personal anti-Western impact certainly was a key contribution which invites attention, and begs questions. Under different guidance, how much longer might the monarchy have lasted? How much of the political turmoil and human suffering in the century that followed might have been mitigated? How much differently things might have turned out for China and the world, both in the twentieth century and today.

  

Chris Galbicsek studied Philosophy at Colgate University. He came to intensely appreciate history in the time since, and has recently launched a historically-themed t-shirt site, Exoteric Apparel, which aims to raise historical awareness through fashion.

 

Bibliography

Baum, Richard. University of California, Los Angeles. The Fall and Rise of China. The Great Courses, 2010.

Chang, Jung. Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. Knopf Publishing, 2013.

The American Civil War produced many outstanding figures. One of those was the nurse Hannah Anderson Ropes. Ropes had an intriguing life before the Civil War, and fought to improve the conditions of soldiers during the war. Joshua V. Chanin explains.

The book  Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes  by Hannah Ropes and edited by John R. Brumgardt is available here:  Amazon US  |  Amazon UK . Image shown above from the Amazon page at those links.

The book Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes by Hannah Ropes and edited by John R. Brumgardt is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK. Image shown above from the Amazon page at those links.

I currently work at Texas A&M University-Commerce, where the university is expecting to christen a state-of-the-art nursing facility in the fall. I have known several nursing students during my undergraduate and graduate studies, who have told me that their major is one of the toughest offered at the university due to the lab classes after school hours and the numerous reports they have to write—I agree (sometimes they look like they do not decently sleep). To celebrate the tough, rewarding, and sometimes overlooked work of nurses, I have decided to write about Hannah Anderson Ropes, a nurse during the Civil War who was dedicated to improving her craft.

 

Early Life

Hannah Anderson Chandler was born on June 13, 1809, in New Gloucester, Maine. As her parents were prominent state lawyers, young Hannah was privately educated and raised in a wealthy household that championed Christianity. Hannah’s religious faith grew stronger as she aged, coinciding with her developing opposition to slavery. Although she was more vocal than many other women—a displeasure to the patriarchy—Hannah attracted the attention of William Ropes, an educator who believed the sexes were equal. The couple married in January 1834 and had four children, two of whom lived to adulthood. 

The marriage was fruitful until in 1847, citing health concerns, William abruptly moved to warmer temperatures of Florida, leaving his wife and children behind. Abandoned by her spouse, Ropes moved to the Kansas Territory with her children. Ropes, along with her daughter, played a major role in spurring support for the 1856 abolitionist movement in the region, cooperating with male abolitionist leaders in local meetings. As she became more involved in the growing fight against slavery, Ropes strengthened the close bond she had with her children. Amidst the violence of ‘Bleeding Kansas,’—where pro-slavery raiders from Missouri were a threat to anti-slavery families—Ropes always went the extra mile to protect her children as she kept “loaded pistols and a bowie knife upon my table at night, [and] three sharp’s rifles, loaded, standing in the room.” Ropes did not let the disappearance of her husband upset her. Hannah Ropes became a liberal-feminist, a woman who vocally championed for the elimination of slavery while dutifully (and passionately) attending the household needs.

 

An Interest in Nursing

Hannah Ropes—who described the Kansas fighting as “the most unmitigated calamity Heaven ever suffered upon the earth”—moved back to Massachusetts in 1857, where she knew her family would be safe. It was in New England when Ropes became an author. Her unique writing talent led to the publication of her first book, Six Months in Kansas: By a Lady, which compiled a collection of letters Ropes wrote to her ailing mother while she lived in the mid-west. Ropes would later write a popular paperback of prairie life, Cranston House: A Novel, in 1859. Still active in political movements, Ropes desired an opportunity to help people. Her interest in nursing stemmed from reading literature by English nurse, Florence Nightingale. After Ropes’s nephew gave her a copy of Nightingale’s 1859 book, Notes on Nursing, which depicted the English’s nurse’s account of the Crimean War, Ropes’s career trajectory changed, foreshadowing the professional role the New England woman would play in the next stage of her life.   

 

A New Position at the Union Hotel Hospital

At the start of the Civil War in spring 1861, the Union Hotel in Washington D.C.—which had been built in 1796 and hosted many prominent citizens including Robert Fulton and George Washington—was seized by the government and converted into a Union Army hospital. After Edward enlisted as a private in May 1862, Ropes quickly offered her services to the Office of United States Army Nurses, and was subsequentially placed at the former capital tavern. During this era, the nursing occupation was linked with a negative stigma—woman nurses were associated with prostitutes or ‘fallen women.’ However, as blood was shed as a result of several major Confederate victories, nurses became heroes of the Union Army. ‘Women of good conduct’ were speedily recruited to care for the sick and wounded. Ropes rose through the ranks because of job dedication, and in the autumn she was named the head matron of the Union Hotel Hospital. Her job responsibilities included training the hospital’s nurses and monitoring the general operations of the institution.

Upon taking the managerial post, she actively criticized the appalling conditions of the building and the former management—the complaints included lack of sanitation in the wards, the building’s decay, an absence of necessary supplies, and the cruel treatment of soldiers. Ropes strongly believed that every man in uniform (of every rank) deserved healthy surroundings, good food, and humanitarian treatment. This belief is evident by a diary entry she wrote in the first week of her new appointment in October 1862: “The poor privates are my special children of the present…the loss they have experienced in health, in spirits, in weakened faith in man, as well as shattered hope in themselves.” Rather than ignoring the problems at hand—as elected officials did at first—Ropes swiftly picked up the mantle, restructured the hospital’s management style, and brought real change to the depleted building. The head matron selected women who were eager to enter the nursing field, and trained them to treat all their patients with compassion. Moreover, the nurses were taught to ignore long hours of work (often without decent pay) because the soldiers were first priority and a nurse could not leave the building until their patients were comfortable. Discipline among the staff was introduced by the new management, as Ropes was not afraid to terminate nurses if they failed to address the needs of the wounded soldiers.

 

Strong Leadership 

Head Matron Ropes quickly found out that most of the male staff at the D.C. hospital, including the surgeons, wanted to only help those who would survive—some argued that they did not have enough supplies for all the wounded soldiers. Ropes took disagreement with this belief as she wanted to save all the soldiers—she cited the laziness of men. Thus, she personally took extensive actions against staff who were cruel to the patients. On one occasion, Ropes had a surgeon arrested for graft (selling food and clothing meant for the hospital patients for profit). On November 1, 1862, the matron engaged in a heated argument with head surgeon Dr. Ottman regarding the man’s decision to lock a disease-infested soldier in a dark cellar to keep ‘a plague’ from spreading to the other wards. Dr. Ottman has plans to exterminate the wounded soldier. Ropes wanted to give the soldier time to recover; however her orders were stiffly ignored. As she did not let men trump her decisions, Ropes took her complaint to the office of the Secretary of War. Edward Stanton sided with the head matron and addressed the following note to the department’s provost marshal: “Go to the Union Hospital with this lady, take the boy out of that black hole, go into it yourself so as to be able to tell me all about it, then arrest the surgeon and take him to a cell in the old capital prison, to await further orders!” Subsequentially, Stanton wrote an order forbidding anyone from removing the head matron from her post. As she pressed on with her progressive nursing agenda, breaking down gender barriers, Hannah Ropes constructed an identity that emulated masculine traits—she was professional and dutiful in the toughest times. Although military generals often resented the sight of strongly opinionated women in hospitals, Ropes constantly butted heads with male colleagues, and held her ground with the best interests of the wounded soldiers at heart.

 

Comfort Among Chaos

In her position, Ropes worked longer hours than her colleagues—writing reports, ordering supplies, tirelessly advocating for hospital infrastructure improvements, and keeping a daily activity log. It was not uncommon to see Ropes tending to soldiers in the late hours of the night, only then to see her again at the hospital at the crack of dawn. Moreover, the head matron took an interest in writing letters to elected officials, politely asking them to either send extra blankets and supplies to the hospital or coaxing them to try and advocate politicians to pass funding stipends for the hospital. Ropes was in contact with a powerful figure in Congress. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner—the elected official who is famous for being nearly caned to death by South Carolinian politician Andrew Butler in 1856—was an established supporter of Ropes’s hospital reforms, and continuously tried to push parts of the head matron’s agenda on to the Senate floor.

Hannah Ropes’ passion for nursing and devotion in monitoring the wounded (day and night) are evident from several diary entries written by nurse Louisa May Alcott, who joined the staff at the hospital on December 13, 1862, shortly after her 30thbirthday. At this time, the Union Army was heavily engaged in the Battle of Fredericksburg, which resulted in over 10,000 wounded soldiers. The hospital’s staff was overwhelmed during the five days of conflict as nurses dispensed food and medication, changed smeared dressings, bathed patients, wrote letters to loved ones for soldiers, and held the hands of those who were dying. Although chaos occurred in the wards and bloody carnage littered the hospital’s floors, the steady hand Ropes provided her staff and the patients brought some assurance to those who were stressed. “All was hurry and confusion; the hall was full of these wrecks of humanity, for the most exhausted could not reach a bed till dully ticketed and registered; the walls were lined with rows of such as could sit, the floor covered with the more disabled, the steps and doorways filled with helpers and lookers on…and in the midst of it all, the matron’s motherly face brought more comfort to many a poor soul, than the cordial draughts she administered, or the cheery words that welcomed all, making of the hospital a home.” Alcott also recalls a time when she suggested the idea of drastically rationing the wounded’s meals after food was in short supply—Ropes, a selfless patriot, thought otherwise: “When I suggested the probability of a famine hereafter, to the matron, that motherly lady cried out: ‘Bless their hearts, why shouldn’t they eat? It’s their only amusement; so fill every one [bowl], and, if there’s not enough ready tonight, I’ll lend my share to the Lord by giving it to the boys.”

 

Sudden Illness and A Life Remembered 

During the height of her nursing career, Hannah Ropes’ life abruptly came to an end in January 1863. On January 9, Ropes wrote a letter to her son Edward noting that she and Alcott “worked together over four dying men and saved all but one…we both too cold…and have pneumonia and have suffered terribly.” The women contracted the deadly virus known as typhoid pneumonia, a major killer of wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Although she was sick, Ropes continued to work (day and night) and put the lives of injured Union soldiers ahead of her own health. Alcott hovered between life and death, however, was able to recover in the spring. Ropes’s health continued to fade. On January 19, Ropes’s daughter, Alice sent a dismal update from the hospital to her brother: “Mother has been ill for some weeks and indeed all the nurses ill, so they sent for me to help a little.” The next day, January 20, 1863, Hannah Ropes took her last breath and died of the disease. She was fifty-three years old. Family and colleagues mourned. The Union Hotel Hospital was draped in black and a moment of silence took place among the wounded soldiers. Senator Sumner eulogized the matron’s life in a letter addressed to the family: “Mrs. Ropes was a remarkable character, noble and beautiful and I doubt if she has ever appeared more so than when she has been here in Washington, nursing soldiers.”

In an era where women were expected to master the roles of domesticity, keep their mouths closed, refrain from accepting educational or employment opportunities outside of the home, and sexually satisfy their spouses, Hannah Ropes convincedly (and tirelessly) blended the two spheres of a woman’s life together—nurturing and protecting her household while progressively crafting the nineteenth-century nursing field.

 

What do you think of Hannah Anderson Ropes’ life? Let us know below.

 

Finally, you can read about US Civil War nurses Clara Barton (here) and Cornelia Hancock (here).

References

Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. New York: Applewood Books; Reissue edition, 1991. 

Brumgardt, John R., ed. Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993. First edition was written by Hannah Ropes.

Granstra, Pat. “Hannah Ropes: The Other Woman Behind ‘Little Women.’” Civil War Primer. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://www.civilwarprimer.com/2012/03/hannah-ropes-the-other-woman-behind-little-women/

MacLean, Maggie. “Hannah Ropes: Head Matron at Union Hotel Hospital.” Civil War Women. Accessed January 19, 2019. https://www.civilwarwomenblog.com/hannah-ropes/.

New England Historical Society. “Hannah Ropes Spends Six Months in Kansas with Loaded Pistols and Bowie Knife.” Accessed January 18, 2019. http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/hannah-ropes-spends-6-months-in-kansas-with-loaded-pistols-and-bowie-knife/

Nightingale, Florence. Notes On Nursing: What it is and What it is Not. London: Harrison, 1859.  

Ropes, Hannah Anderson. Six Months in Kansas: By a Lady. Boston: J.P. Jewett, 1856. 

TThe nature of constitutions of Native Americans is a debated topic in American history, particularly as those constitutions played a role in the ‘legitimacy’ (or otherwise) of the settling of Native American lands. Here, Daniel Smith discusses Western colonial law, property rights, and the constitutions of Native Americans - and how the constitutions are seen to have altered with Western concepts of property rights.

You can read Daniel’s past articles on California in the US Civil War (here) and Medieval jesters (here).

Major Ridge, a leader of the Cherokee in the nineteenth century who was to play a major role in ceding Cherokee lands to European-American settlers.

Major Ridge, a leader of the Cherokee in the nineteenth century who was to play a major role in ceding Cherokee lands to European-American settlers.

The idea of independent sovereignty with full “property rights” observed is a Western concept that Native Americans adopted. The Cherokee Constitution, for example, was a purposeful effort by the Cherokee to adopt Western ideals, as through their observations they felt a sense order, structure, justice, and liberty. Hence, they moved to partition the Cherokee Nation from tribal culture, and establish a more formal and legal presence within North America. 

In Article 2, section 1, “The power of the Government shall be divided into three distinct departments---the Legislative, the Executive, and the Judicial.”[1] This is the same wording as the American Federal Constitution, in article 1, section 1. This leads me to believe that the Cherokee established their constitution under the same formatting as the Federal Government for reasons of: 1.) Tribal Security, 2.) Tribal Continuity, and 3.) Regional Relief of Tensions.

According to todayingeorgiahistory.org, “It was designed to solidify the tribe’s sovereignty and resist white encroachment and removal -- and to counter American citizens stereotyping of Indians as savages. The Cherokee constitution proved controversial with both other Cherokee, who saw it as a threat to tradition, and the state of Georgia, which thought it threatened its sovereignty over the tribe. Georgia continued, and succeeded in, its relentless pursuit of Cherokee removal, despite the Constitution adopted on July 26, 1827” [2] 

That is made worse when you learn that the Cherokee were attempting to assimilate into American society as best as they could while maintaining their own sovereign identity. Oppositely though, I find it hard to believe that there was not misconduct between Georgia and the Cherokee – on both sides. Typically, as in geopolitics, there is always a reaction to an action whether negative or positive in outcome.

I had an argument where a peer said, "A constitution that has been in practice since before the upstate settlements in the 1600s and may hold partial responsibility in the development of the settlers nation. As proof, they cite records kept by the colonists. An Onondaga named Canassatego, suggested that the colonists form a nation similar to the Iroquois Confederacy during a meeting of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania in Lancaster on June 25, 1744.”

 

INFLUENCES

There is an argument that the ideals for some Native American nations, such as the Cherokee, predate any influence provided by the Europeans. Where we see the most similarity is in how these Native Americans formatted their laws to reflect that of the settlers. This may have been done in the attempt to most effectively convey their already sovereign nations to these foreigners in a way that most effectively would do so.

I would humbly disagree that "the ideals for some Native American nations, such as the Cherokee, predate any influence provided by the Europeans." There is a lack of evidence that Western-style Native American political ideals predated European Influence, especially when it comes to the Constitution of National Governments. Here is why: colonial law and property ownership is a particularly Western concept (even though all cultures understand ownership over physical items).

An example here would be the Magna Carta of 1215. The Magna Carta was a signed document and statement that embodied the principle that both sovereign nations and sovereign people are beneath the law and subject to it. Later, both Englishmen and American Colonists cited the Magna Carta as a source of their freedom. Native Americans did not have access to this document.

Even before 1215, Alfred the Great, an English King from 871-899, was a strict follower of Catholic Saint Patrick. After many Viking invasions, Alfred the Great instituted Christian reforms in many areas of life, including government. These reforms were based on the Ten Commandments as the basis of law and adopted many other patterns of government based on religious texts. My point here is that, it is very difficult, if not impossible, that Native Americans could have established a style of Western or "Christian Constitution" without direct Western European influence.

 

EVIDENCE EXPLAINED

According to the Michael P. Gueno, “English common law jurists expounded upon the argument for the English monarchy’s right to conquer non-Christian territories, most articulately described in Lord Chief Justice Edward Coke’s dicta in Calvin’s Case. Coke argued that all non-Christians were perpetual enemies, of the Christian and by their very nature are in a state of war with Christian nations.[3] However, despite the general consensus that Native American tribes lacked any rights to the territories that they occupied, in practice, colonists often felt compelled to obtain at least some formal semblance of legal consent from the tribes through treaties or purchase agreements to assert their claim upon tribal lands”. This shows that, despite how the settlers took the lands, there was still a desire to have a legal basis for taking the lands.

Mr. Gueno continues to state that, “Some colonists even denounced the unilateral rights and universal sovereignty of European Christians over the Native Americans. Colonial theologian Roger Williams rejected the assumption that being white and Christian were sufficient conditions to legitimize colonization or conversion. He argued that since Native Americans clearly believed that they owned the land, Native American–inhabited territories could not be legally treated as vacuum domicilium and settled without regard for tribal presence.” This helps to show that property ownership was understood. [4] 

Gueno concludes, “Europeans continued to debate conflicting religious interpretations of Indian rights during the early North American colonial era. Yet, whenever Native Americans were numerous, proximate, and potentially threatening, colonizing peoples felt pressed to seek Indian consent for new settlements. Thus, European powers ascribed, to some extent, in practice and in theory a sufficient degree of sovereignty to Native tribes to legitimately transfer claim of lands and administer their own communities.”[5]

How Native American lands were taken by Europeans, and how legal this was, is a complex issue in North American history. Interpretations are one of the major battles in presenting history, but I hope this article helps to explain more about Colonial Law and Native America.

 

 

What do you think of the arguments in the article? Let us know below.

Finally, Daniel Smith writes at complexamerica.weebly.com.

Sources

[1]"1839 Constitution." Cherokee Nation, www.cherokeeobserver.org/Issues/1839constitution.html. Accessed 26 Nov. 2018.
[2] State of Georgia. "Cherokee Constitution." Todayingeorgiahistory.org/, 2013, www.todayingeorgiahistory.org/content/cherokee-constitution. Accessed 26 Nov. 2018
[3] David H. Getches, Charles F. Wilkinson, Robert A. Williams, Jr., Matthew L. M. Fletcher, & Kristen A. Carpenter, eds., Cases and Materials On Federal Indian Law, 7th ed. (Saint Paul, MN: West Academic Publishing, 2017), 63.
[4] Henry S. Commanger, ed., Documents of American History, 9th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968), 5–10.
[5] Gueno, Michael P. "Native Americans, Law, and Religion in America." Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, 10 Nov. 2017, religion.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-140. Accessed 10 June 2018.

The Inquisition was led by institutions in the Catholic Church and took on many forms over the centuries. Here we provide an overview of the history of the Inquisition, including witch-hunts, the Spanish Inquisition, and why the Catholic Church launched and maintained it for many centuries. Jessica Vainer explains.

Saint Dominic presiding over an Auto-de-fe by Pedro Berruguete.

Saint Dominic presiding over an Auto-de-fe by Pedro Berruguete.

When was the inquisition and what was its goal?

The Inquisition was established in twelfth century Western Europe by the Catholic Church and had the goal of fighting heresy and threats to Catholic religious doctrine. Initially the leaders of this Medieval Inquisition fought varied groups including Albigensians, Cathars, Manichaeans, Waldensians and other free-thinkers who tried to shake off Catholic doctrine.

 

Witches

However, from the fourteenth and especially the fifteenth centuries, the Inquisition became more interested in witches. Sociologists talk about several reasons for why attention was placed on witches. But, a key reason was the fundamentally patriarchal nature of society at the time. And for a Catholic inquisitor living in such a society, the idea that if a woman caused certain problems, then she was a witch, was quite natural.

The custom of burning witches at the stake was more common in northern European countries, such as Germany, France, Ireland, and Britain.

One of the earlier such instances took place in 1324 in Ireland. Bishop Richard de Lestrade brought accusations against Lady Alice Kyteler for renouncing the Catholic Church. She was accused of:

Trying to find out the future through demons; 

Being in connection with the "demon of the lower classes of hell" and sacrificing live roosters to him; 

The manufacture of magical powders and ointments, with the help of which she allegedly killed three of her husbands and was going to do the same with the fourth. Possibly through this the bishop intended to settle personal accounts with the lady.

 

Witch-hunting became more common over time and one of the more shocking statistics is that in 1589, in the Saxon city of Quedlinburg, with a population of 10,000, 133 women were burned in one day. More broadly, while exact statistics are hard to come by, from 30,000 to 100,000 people were killed during witch-hunts. Among the executed were men too as accomplices of witches and sorcerers, but that was not the norm. 

 

Execute all people in the Netherlands

The Spanish Inquisition started in 1478 and lasted until the nineteenth century. This Inquisition spread to other countries, including Portugal, parts of modern day Italy, and the Netherlands. The Inquisition of the Netherlands was established by King Charles V of Spain and continued to work with particular diligence during the reign of his son Philip II, who was a strong advocate of Catholicism. In addition to Spain, Philip II inherited from his father the Netherlands, Naples, Milan, Sicily, and some lands of the New World. To eradicate heresy in his domain, Philip strengthened the courts, and supported them with the use of spies and torture.

During the reign of Charles V, the people of the Netherlands were largely Catholic. But with the beginning of the rule of King Philip II of Spain, the Protestant Lutherans and Calvinists were becoming more important, which intensified the carrying out of the the Inquisition. 

Many inhabitants of the Netherlands did not recognize Philip as their king due to religious reasons, excessive taxes, and the harassment of wealthy merchants. This discontent went from riots and escalated into a large-scale popular uprising in the 1560s. Then Philip sent one of his best military leaders, General Alba, to be the Governor of the Netherlands. With the arrival of Alba and his troops, the fires of the Inquisition broke out: just bad words were enough to send a person to death.

On February 16, 1568, the entire population of the Netherlands - at that time it was three million people - was sentenced to death, apart from a few exceptions. 

On this day, Philip II presented a special memorandum, which stated that "except a select list of names, all residents of the Netherlands were heretics, distributors of heresy, and therefore were traitors to the whole state." The Court of the Inquisition adopted this proposal, and shortly after, Philip confirmed the decision with a document in which he ordered it to be carried out immediately and without concessions. 

Philip II ordered Alba to proceed with the execution of the sentence. Mass executions began in the country, leading many nobles to flee to the German lands. Alba wrote back to Philip that he had already made a list of the first 800 people who would be executed, hanged, and burned after Holy Week. Hundreds of people were subjected to terrible torture before death: men were burned at the stake, and women were buried alive.

According to historians, during his six-year tenure in the Netherlands, Alba personally ordered the execution of 18,600 sentences. But over time, the resistance in the Netherlands was put down, and the Inquisition took on a weaker form.

 

The end of the Inquisition

The Inquisition was practiced in different European countries – and European territories outside of Europe, particularly the Spanish Empire - with different levels of intensity from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries. It was often a time of cruel torture, bloody punishment, searches, suspicions, and accusations by the Catholic Church against heretics. And it was only by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the religious investigative apparatus of the Inquisition was reorganized, and ultimately wholly abolished.

Spain abolished the Inquisition only in 1834. But the decline of the church court system began earlier, with the ascension to the throne of King Charles IV of Spain in the late eighteenth century. A changing domestic situation and ideas from other countries affected Spain, as the ideas of the French Revolution and enlightenment started to become more important.

All over Europe the times had changed and the Inquisition was over.

 

This article was brought to you by Jessica Vainer, writer of AU Edusson, an Australia-based writing service.

Editor’s note: That external link is not affiliated in any way with this website. Please see the link here for more information about external links. 

References

https://www.britannica.com/topic/inquisition

https://www.catholic.com/tract/the-inquisition

https://readofcopy.com/lib/contemporary-narrative-proceedings-against-dame.pdf?web=api.tourtan.io

http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/witch/wtimlin.html

https://dutchreview.com/culture/society/calvinism-netherlands-dutch-calvinist-nature/

http://www.reformation.org/heroic-holland.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witch-hunt

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

San Francisco is often considered to have a large homosexual community, something that statistics back up. But how long has there been a homosexual community in San Francisco? Here, Alison McLafferty tells us the history of the male homosexual community in San Francisco - and that it goes back a very long way.

“The Miner’s Ball,” by Andre Castaigne, depicting a dance among during the 1849 California Gold Rush.

“The Miner’s Ball,” by Andre Castaigne, depicting a dance among during the 1849 California Gold Rush.

Ask almost anyone in the United States to list the first things that come to mind when they think of that glorious “City by the Bay,” San Francisco, and--along with exorbitant rent, candy-colored Victorian houses, and aging hippies-- they will invariably mention: “gay or homosexual men.” 

The LGBT community in the Bay Area makes up 6.2% of the population, which is almost twice the national average of 3.6%. Homosexual men are also more numerous than homosexual women. The Castro neighborhood, the historic center of homosexual activity since the 1970s, is now one of the hubs of tourist activity. The streets are strewn with rainbow flags, and storefronts revel in double-entendres: “The Sausage Factory” is a restaurant and pizzeria, and “Hot Cookie” sells famously delicious cookies as well as--why not?--men’s underwear.

The city became a hub for homosexual activity in World War II, when men from all over the country found themselves in an all-male environment far from the families and small towns who knew and watched them closely. Facing an uncertain future and shrouded with the relative anonymity provided by a bustling urban hub, many sought to satiate previously hidden desires, finding solace in same-sex relationships. “I think the war has caused a great change,” one of the homosexual “Queens” in Gore Vidal’s 1948 novel, The City and the Pillar, mused while admiring a collection of marines and sailors at an all-male party. “Inhibitions have broken down. All sorts of young men are trying out all sorts of new things, away from home and familiar taboos.”

After the war, many men stayed in the city where they’d finally found a community that made them feel safe and welcome. When the “Summer of Love” bloomed in the Haight Ashbury district in 1967, wreathed in a haze of marijuana smoke and set to the rhythm of Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and the Beatles, homosexual men joined in the general celebration of “free love.” The Castro Neighborhood right next-door to Haight Ashbury, with its cleaner streets, its large Victorian houses, and its cheap rent, became a mecca for homosexual men seeking to build their own community and culture.

So goes the usual history of homosexual men in San Francisco, but few people know that this story goes back much farther than this--back to the old Gold Rush days, back ever further to the days when the Miwok, the Ohlone, and the other Native American tribes hunted and fished in the wild coastlands of the Bay far before any foreigners arrived. 

 

The Berdache

When French fur trappers, Spanish missionaries, and American explorers first encountered the Indian tribes of the Great Plains and the Pacific Coast, they were shocked to note the presence--in a wide variety of tribes--of Native American men who wore female clothing, performed female duties, and appeared to be the “wives” of prominent Native American men. 

The generic term for such individuals became “berdache,” though different tribes had their own terms. The Hidatsa, for example (the tribe with whom Sacajawea was living when Lewis and Clark met her), called them“miáti.”The Lakota (the tribe led by Crazy Horse in the Battle of Little Bighorn against General Custer) called them “winkta.” Crazy Horse himself had a berdachein his harem. Such individuals existed in tribes from the Pacific Coast to the Mississippi Valley and Great Lakes-- but it was in California that the berdache were particularly ubiquitous.

Berdache were not considered “homosexual” by their tribes--Native Americans did not consider sexuality as binary as westerners came to do, nor did they consider it something biological. Instead, gender was considered an aspect of a person’s spirit, and berdache possessed both male and female spirits. They were not, however, intersex--or, to use the 19th century term, “hermaphrodites,” who possess both male and female biological characteristics. Berdache were biologically male, but often performed the roles of both men and women--for example, dressing as women but joining male war parties--in their daily lives, and generally had sexual relations and marriages with men. 

Berdache were generally greatly respected by their tribes, as they were considered to be endowed with immense spiritual power: many were healers, medicine men, seers, and priests. But to the western missionaries and federal agents who encountered them, they were an abomination: something to be prayed over, forcefully dressed in men’s clothing, put to men’s work, and strictly punished. 

 

The California Gold Rush

Such a severe crack-down was somewhat ironic: the same Europeans and Americans who exacted harsh punishments on the Native American berdache were quite blind to similar activities among their own people during the gold fever of the 1850s. As men of all ages, all races, and all nationalities flooded San Francisco’s harbor in their head-long rush for the gold fields of California, they found the city--and the newly minted state in general--a hotbed of homosexual activity.

Few men came to San Francisco specifically to seek out other men as sexual partners: the journey was long and arduous, fortunes were fickle, and the city itself was a hastily-built, slap-up affair that burned down every few years and featured, as one young man wrote in his diary, “Far too many drunken men lying in gutters.”

It also featured far too few women: gold digging was a male sport, something to be undertaken by the sex considered more adventurous, hardy, courageous and aggressive. Most men headed to San Francisco for the sole purpose of using it as a gateway to the gold fields: a place to grab some mining equipment, hitch a ride to the gold, strike it rich as soon as possible, and bring the fortune home to lure a lovely bride.

But the dearth of women-- the U.S. Census of 1850 set the population of non-Native women in the entire state of California at just 4.5%-- also provided opportunities for those who did have homosexual inclinations, who struggled with secret desires and new opportunities, or who claimed simple loneliness and the desire for any kind of company. Men who spent their days with their feet in the ice-cold waters of the American River and their backs bent double in the scorching sun sometimes spent their nights in camp with other men, sharing food, tents, and blankets. Starved for some fun and entertainment after long days in a stark, empty landscape, many headed to San Francisco in their free time, carefully hoarding the few flakes of gold they had managed to sift from the churning river waters. 

Because there were never enough women to partner with all the men at dances, it was common practice for a man to tie a handkerchief to his upper arm to signify that he was willing to take the women’s role. Visitors to San Francisco remarked in bemusement on the spinning couples on dance floors-- shaggy, bearded men with faces scrubbed for the occasion, holding each other daintily about the waists, swaying gracefully, and dancing cheek to cheek. Some men even went so far as to don full gowns--often lent by amused prostitutes, who made up the majority of the population--and the practice was generally accepted.

The West, after all, was a space without the usual constraints of civilization: without the laws, taboos, and enforcement agencies that kept Victorian society tightly laced on the East Coast. It was a trans space in many ways--a space for crossing boundaries, lands, identities and sexualities. One Western gentleman (the records just name him “M”) who took several bullets fighting in the Indian Wars, explained that he dressed in women’s clothing because the petticoats covered the holes: “Then I forget all about them, as well as all other troubles,” he explained serenely.

 

The Third Sex

M, as well as other men of the West in general and San Francisco in particular, were tolerated in part because of the relative dearth of enforcement agencies, and in part because the people of that era understood homosexuality differently than people of the 20th or 21st century. The binary of “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” did not exist until the 20th century, particularly with the rise ofFreud and his psychosexual theory of development. Freud claimed that humans are born innately bisexual, and that influences in early childhood determined whether or not they will follow a “straight” course of sexual development (heterosexual) or a “perverted” course (homosexual). Prior to the popularization of these ideas in the early twentieth century, society generally accepted the existence of a third group of people, commonly termed the “third sex.” This “third sex” was made up of men who identified themselves as women: they dressed as women, did women’s work, and had sexual relations with men. Colloquially, they were often termed “fairies.” 

Although not fully accepted by society--and certainly not by religious institutions or law enforcement agencies--members of the “third sex” were usually tolerated, and even the police tended to leave them alone as long as they didn’t create too much trouble. This was due, in part, to the fact that they played an important role: in Victorian society, white women were considered to be chaste and even asexual, frightened and even repulsed by sex. In many urban centers such as New York City or San Francisco, then, women were not only sparse--as urban centers were considered public spaces where men congregated to work and play, keeping the women at home--but also sexually unavailable. This is one of the primary reasons prostitution was so rampant in the 19th century: prostitutes, themselves either perversions of womanhood or tragic “fallen” women, provided sexual outlets for men whose wives or girlfriends could not satiate their appetites.

Yet in some cases, such as in predominantly male working-class New York neighborhoods, or in Gold Rush San Francisco, even prostitutes were hard to find or too expensive. In those cases, many men sought out members of the “third sex. Because men in this era were thought to be inherently sexual (the constant production of sperm was cited as biological proof), a man who sought out sex was often considered “manly” no matter his choice in sexual partner. Manliness was therefore defined in part by sexual appetite--if no woman existed to slake it, a man might indeed seek out another man, particularly a member of the “third sex,” and no one would question either his manliness or his sexual orientation.

San Francisco, then, has almost always been a haven for homosexual men, in one way or another--and, contrary to popular belief, homosexuality has been historically tolerated across racial and geographic divides. The history of San Francisco’s homosexual community has often been presented as one of recent visibility and recent triumph--and it is true that the gains made since the Gay Liberation Movement of the 1960s-1980s have been momentous. Yet much of this history forgets the long tradition of men whose identities transcended the tenuous binary that 20th and 21st century society has imposed on both contemporary and past societies of different races. Understanding that the standards and codes by which we measure modern society are often of modern, western invention will help us to better understand the actions and experiences of historical subjects.

 

What do you think of the article? Let us know below.

Sources

U.S. Seventh Census 1850: California. [Accessed November 2018]: https://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/1850a-01.pdf

Gore Vidal, The City and the Pillar, (E.P Dutton & Co: New York, 1948).

Charles Callender, Lee M Kochens, “The North American Berdache,” Current Anthropology,Vol 24: No 4 (August-October 1983).

David Wishard, “Encyclopedia of the Great Plants,” Univeristy of Nebraska, Lincoln, 2011 [Accessed November 2018]: http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.gen.004

Timothy C Osborne’s Diary, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

Albert Hurtado, Intimate Frontiers: Sex, Gender, and Culture in Old California(University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque, 1999).

Susan Johnson, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush(W. W. Norton & Company: New York, 2000).

George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (Basic Books: New Yorkm 1995).

Barbara Weltman, “The Cult of True Womanhood,”American Quarterly, Vol. 18: No. 2, Part 1 (Summer, 1966).

Timothy Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1994).

Frank Newport and Gary Gates, “San Francisco Metro Area Rates Highest in LGBT Percentage,” Gallup, March 20, 2015 [Accessed November 2018]: https://news.gallup.com/poll/182051/san-francisco-metro-area-ranks-highest-lgbt-percentage.aspx.

Peter Boag, Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past (University of California Press: Berkeley, 2011).

Brandon Ambrosino, “The Invention of Heterosexuality,” BBC, March 16, 2017 [Accessed November 2018]: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170315-the-invention-of-heterosexuality.

The US Supreme Court has played a key role at times in US history. One such occasion was when a decision was required on segregation in the 1890s. Here, Jonathan Hennika continues his look at the history of the US Supreme Court (following his article on Marbury v Madison hereand Dred Scott here), and focuses on the 1896 case of Plessy v Ferguson.

Justice Henry Billings Brown, who write the majority opinion in the Plessy v Ferguson case.

Justice Henry Billings Brown, who write the majority opinion in the Plessy v Ferguson case.

Recently, President Trump criticized a federal judge who ruled against his administration’s asylum policy calling him an “Obama judge.” While it is often customary for judges to avoid commentary on this type of political remark, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Robertsthought little of Mr. Trump’s comparison. In repudiating the President’s comment,the Chief Justice relied on the conventional wisdom of an apolitical judiciary. In a rare display of judicial independence, Chief Roberts declared, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges or Bush judges or Clinton judges, what we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”[i]

In discussing the debate between President Trump and Chief Justice Roberts, The New Republic’sJonathan Zimmerman invokes the “Martin-Quinn” measure of the judiciary to point out that, “We have a Supreme Court where every Republican on the court is more conservative than every Democrat.” What this means to the nation is that “gone are figures like John Paul Stevens, a Republican judge nominated by a Republican president, who usually sided with Democrat-nominated justice on the court.”[ii]The Martin-Quinn measure was developed by two University of Michigan academics, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, to provide a statistical analysis of the Court’s ideological leanings since 1937.[iii]

While proving helpful, one does not need a statistical analysis of ideological leanings to examine the Court’s history. The Court’s Dred Scott decision ill defined what it was meant to be a citizen. In another infamous ruling, the Court ratified de jure discrimination when it ruled in support of de factodiscrimination of the Jim Crow South.

 

Plessy versus Ferguson: A Test Case Like No Other

The American landscape changed dramatically in the decades after the Supreme Court’s Dred Scottdecision. The nation fractured with the Civil War, followed by a period of Reconstruction.  Concurrently, it was a period of rapid industrializationin the North and Midwest; the agricultural South fell into a system of tenant farming and sharecropping. This system flourished, in part, because in the states of the old Confederacy societal divisions continued along racial lines. Historically referred to as the Jim Crow era; it was the period of segregation of the races.

One of the popular benchmarks historians use to measure a nation’s growth is the area of transportation. Rail united America in 1890; approximately 163,597 miles of railroad tracks crisscrossed the land.[iv]To govern rail passage, the state of Louisiana enacted the Separate Car Act, legislation requiring the railroad companies to maintain a second set of train cars for African American passengers.  In New Orleans, a group of like-minded residents formed the “Comite des Citoynes” or Committee of Citizens to fight the law. The Committee asked Homer Plessy to participate in the test case. With his one-eighth African heritage,Plessyagreed. After purchasing a first-class ticket and boarding the train’s whites-only car, a private detective hired for the sole purpose arrested Plessy.[v]

The case made its way to the Supreme Court which heard arguments and issued its ruling on May 18, 1896. Unlike the Court that ruled on Dred Scott, the Plessy court was regionally diverse. Three of the justices hailed from the Northwest; two from the South; three from the Midwest; and one from the West. Regionalism, once the rallying cry of the nation gave way to other considerations. “Most of the judges were conservatives who favored protection of property rights vis-à-vis state regulationof private property….Justice Stephen J. Field, a California Democrat…was by far the most influential member of the Plessycourt….he was an early champion of minority rights, he later became an advocate of laissez-faire economics and championed the revolution in due process of law…when the Court recognized substantive due process as a limitation of state legislative power.”[vi] The Court became economic activists, issuing rulings limiting the effectivenessof governmental regulations on private enterprises. The railroad company, East Louisiana Railroad, was a voluntary participant to the lawsuit. They objected to the Separate Car Act on the economic grounds of the added expense of the African-American only cars. When deciding the case, the laissez-faire, hands-offattitude espoused by Field could not stand up to prevailing institutionalized racism predominate in the American South.  In a 7 to 1 decision, Justice Brewer did not participate; theCourt ruled the Separate Car Act did not violate the 14thAmendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

 

Separate but Equal?

Justice Henry Brown wrote for the majority: “The object of the [14th] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.Lawspermitting and even requiring, their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either raceto the other and have been…recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power.”[vii]

The irony of the Plessy decision is that neither the attorney’s involved for Plessynor the Court ever discussed the premise of equal accommodations. The legal question revolved around the constitutionality of the Louisiana statute when measured against the Constitution. In arguing that the state followed the 14thAmendment in the creation of the Separate Car Act, Brown turns to inherently racist logic:

It is claimed by the plaintiff in error that, in any mixed community, the reputation of belonging to the dominant race, in this instance the white race, is property in the same sense that a right of action or inheritance is property. Conceding those to be so for the purpose ofthis case, we are unable to see how this statute deprives him of, or in any way affects his right to, such property. If he bea white man and assigned to a colored coach, he may have his action for damages against the company for being deprived of his so-called property. Upon the other hand, if he bea colored manand be so assigned, he has been deprived of no property, since he is not lawfully entitled to the reputation of being a white man.[viii]

 

University of Michigan Historian Rebecca Scott summarized the Court’s decision as embracing the “white-supremacist formulation—which reinterpreted the claim to equal treatment as a matter of forcing oneself where one was not wanted—that carried the day…the damage thus done was both practical and doctrinal, formalizing the sleightof hand that portrayed an aggressive program of state-imposed caste distinctions as the mere ratification of custom.”[ix]

Segregation in the American South continued unabashedly throughoutthe twentieth century. Proponents of segregationembraced the Plessy decision as validation that separate was equal. They argued that classification was not discrimination and if all members of the class receivedthe same treatment, there was no disparity. The Supreme Court heard other cases regarding racial bias, but it was not until its Brown versus Board of Education, decision in 1956 that separate but equal was declared unconstitutional.  In the intervening years, there are additional rulings that exemplifythe apolitical nature of the federal judicial systems’ top court.

 

What do you think of the article? Let us know below.


[i]Jonathan Zimmerman, “Who is John Roberts Kidding,” The New Republic, November 26, 2018. https://newrepublic.com/article/152399/john-roberts-kidding

[ii]Ibid.

[iii]Martin-Quinn Score Project Description, http://mqscores.lsa.umich.edu/

[iv]Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum “Maps Showing the Progressive Development of U.S. Railroads - 1830 to 1950,”http://cprr.org/Museum/RR_Development.html

[v]Plessy v Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896)

[vi]David W. Bishop, “Plessy v Ferguson: A Reinterpretation,” The Journal of Negro History,62 (Apr. 1977), 126. This 

[vii]Plessy v Ferguson, 163 US 537; 544

[viii]Ibid, 549.

[ix]Rebeca Scott, “The Atlantic World and the Road to Plessy v Ferguson,” The Journal of American History, 94 (Dec. 2007), 731.

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Britain’s role in the abolition of slavery during the 19thcentury is a well-known and well-studied part of the historiography of slavery. While it is often said this was due to the British upholding their Christian moral duty, there were other, more sinister motives that led to the British abolishing slavery. Thomas Cripps explains.

William Wilberforce, perhaps the most famous campaigner in favor of abolishing slavery. Painting by John Rising.

William Wilberforce, perhaps the most famous campaigner in favor of abolishing slavery. Painting by John Rising.

How the British Abolished Slavery – And Ensured Many Others Did the Same

In 1765 Granville Sharp issued the first meaningful petition against Britain's role in the slave trade, and by 1783 there were significant protests outside of the British Parliament; in part due to the Zong Massacre of the same year where 130-150 slaves were massacred aboard a trading vessel. This in turn meant that by 1788-89 William Wilberforce, probably the most well known abolitionist, petitioned the government to end the Slave trade, yet this took 19 more years to happen. It was not until March 1807 and the Slave Trade Act that it would be illegal to trade in slaves, nevertheless slavery was still in place in much of the British Empire until the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which ended slavery in the British Empire.

That being said, this came with some caveats. The East India Company was exempt from the Act as was the colony of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the island of St Helena, although this did end in 1843 when the 1833 Act was enforced to its fullest extent. Furthermore, the slave owners received large compensation payments for their losses, the sum of which is estimated at around £20 million at the time. 

The trading of slaves in the British Empire was apparently now at an end, it was now their Christian duty of the British Empire to ensure that others partook in this humanitarian gesture and they set out to enforce this. 

Between c. 1833 and the end of the 19thcentury there was still a thriving illegal slave trade. Thousands of African slaves were being transported to the America’s, perhaps most notably to Cuba and Brazil. To combat this the British government increased the size of the Royal Navy’s West African Squadron that had been created in 1808 following the initial Slave Trade Act. By 1850 there were 50 ships in the region of West Africa. These ships aimed to deter would be slave traders, often stopping them forcefully in the process of transporting slaves who would then be returned to the African continent. This led to the expansion of societies such as Freetown in Sierra Leone where these ‘liberated’ slaves were delivered.

 

 

Ulterior Motives for the Abolition of Slavery

Whilst many of these actions may seem to be pointing the moral compass in the right direction, there were mostly certainly ulterior motives to the British enforcement of abolishing slavery and expanding the end of slavery globally.

The end of slavery cannot completely be seen as being motivated by the moral compass of Britain. And while there were certainly some who were driven by this, the powers that be were less certain and this can be seen as a large part of why the aforementioned legislation took so long to come to pass. Key wealthy individuals who had made significant monetary and political gains obviously objected to its end and funded serious campaigns against abolition. An apt example of this is William Beckford, who was a 22,000-acre plantation owner during the late 1700s and twice Mayor of London. In addition to this there were a large number of British Members of Parliament (MPs) who sided with the anti-abolition movement. It was not until later they came to the realization that it was no long conducive to profit. 

Excessive planting of crops, most notably tobacco, had lead to a large percentage of the soil in these areas becoming eroded meaning it was less profitable than it had been in the past to harvest these crops. Once the profitability of slavery was on the decline, it was not in the interest of the British Empire to continue with its previous policy on slavery. 

 

From Slavery to Colonialism

It is then, no coincidence that the number of British colonies in Africa significantly increased during the period following the abolition of slavery. In many ways their role in enforcing the end of slavery was a pretext for the expansion of imperialism into the African continent. 

Under the guise of a civilizing mission, to rid the ‘heathens’ of their inherent barbarism, the British among other European nations undertook a mission to ‘civilize’ the ‘dark continent’. The British abolition enforcers were then in a prime position to see that this goal was achieved.

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s the city of Lagos in modern day Nigeria was in a succession crisis. Kosako, one of the contenders for the city declared his loyalty to the Oba of Benin and repulsed a British force. The British reaction was to support the other contender who agreed to abolish slavery in support for their help in overthrowing Kosako. Following a British bombardment of the city in December 1851 he was replaced with his British-backed rival Akitoye. Again, this may seem like a noble and chivalric mission, yet within ten years Lagos was seized as a crown colony and by 1887 the remainder of the former Benin Empire was seized as part of this so-called civilizing mission. 

Then, in 1884, at the Berlin Conference European nations met to discuss the partition of Africa. Following this, the well-known ‘Scramble for Africa’ took place - Britain was in pole position due to its activities in abolishing slavery.

By the turn of the century Britain had the largest empire in Africa, including South Africa, Nigeria, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Kenya, the Gold Coast (Ghana), and Sierra Leone.

In 1833 only 10% of Africa was colonized, by 1914 this figure sat at 90%. Only Liberia and Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, managed to successfully navigate the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and even Ethiopia was colonized in 1935 by Italy.

Whilst, Britain did not colonize the whole continent or force other countries to engage in imperial practices, it did utilize its maritime dominance and the opportunity afforded by the ending of the slave trade to expand its own imperial possessions.

 

What do you think about the motives of the British in ending the slave trade?

California is not talked about too much in the context of the American Civil War (1861-65). It had only joined the Union in 1850 and was far from the main action in the east of the USA. However, California did have a part to play during the US Civil War. Daniel L. Smith explains.

An Independent gold hunter on his way to California, circa 1850. California’s gold helped to fund military activities during the US Civil War.

An Independent gold hunter on his way to California, circa 1850. California’s gold helped to fund military activities during the US Civil War.

California and Statehood

It was prior to 1850 that the true nature of the Wild West existed in California, this pristine region of the country. Ideology was split, and even within the split, there was further fracturing due to cultural differences as well as consistent fighting for property rights. The discovery of gold exacerbated the issue of regional turmoil as California was pulled into the US Civil War. This is just the tip of the iceberg on how California existed during this era. Many, or almost all people, are not aware of how truly important California as a region was during the Civil War.

California and Californians themselves endured in its struggle and existence. California had essentially wrapped itself in the American Civil War in politics, finances, and culture. California ethos (or ideology) was absolutely split politically. In hindsight, it was seemingly more than “Blue & Grey” ideology in a state that was overwhelmingly Native American. California had always been home to a Native American and slave population well before being “settled” by Americans East of the Mississippi.

It all started when California made statehood in 1850. Soon thereafter in 1859, the legislature of California was split into two states – Northern California and Southern California (as Colorado Territory). Even though Southern California was part of the Union, it had strong Confederate sympathies. These Confederate ties were due to the large number of Southerners who had transplanted to the Southern California area during the famous Gold Rush. This mass-relocation showed its evidence in the 1860 presidential elections. Lincoln had received only 25% of the Los Angeles vote. 

On the brink of the Civil War California chose the Union, abandoning three other choices: secession, neutrality, and independence. Arguments and counterarguments were made from every political and civic level of the community. It seemed as though some people were in doubt and tossed about in which decision it should have been. Although California was isolated from the conflict in the East and despite the diversified political beliefs of her people, a feeling of loyalty to the United States and federal government was overwhelming. California Republican and Union-Democratic leaders expressed an unwavering loyalty in a multitude of ways.  

Ultimately, the Unionist political candidates took over two-thirds of the votes for state government. Various estimates have been guessed regarding the number of pro-Confederates in the population in California. Indeed, although the loyalty of the state appeared evident, militias were activated. 

 

Revenue and Turmoil

Oaths of loyalty were required for certain groups and individuals, and of course occasional military arrests were made to solidify loyalty. Regardless, California would end up being a major financial contributor to the federal government during the Civil War, because the gold deposits were direct revenue to pay for war costs. In fact, quite a large portion of the federal government’s war budget was reinforced by new gold from California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. General Grant, in fact, said, "I do not know what we could do in this great national emergency, were it not for the gold sent from California.” 

The U.S Army built and operated many fortifications along frontier trails in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. What people do not know is that although California leaned towards the Union, they were so wrapped up in their own civil discord at home they were not able to send organized regiments east. In late 1861, a Confederate Brigadier General Henry Sibley was allowed to open up an easier route into California through northern Arizona Territory, with further instruction to capture the gold fields in San Francisco by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. This instruction would be for the purpose of a preemptive strike against the Unionist state and in turn show how significant California really was in the Civil War.

Little did both sides realize, California was in regional turmoil on its own accord without the help of a formal war. Now, aside from the status quo bleeding “Blue & Grey,” some non-traditional elements to the war are that the settlers who had come to California were still dealing with the effects of settling tribal lands, adding negative social, criminal, and economic dilemmas between the local Native American tribes, settlers, and the U.S. government.[1]For example, in Humboldt County (approximately 271 miles north of San Francisco) on March 29, 1862, a Humboldt Times headline read, “Horrible Indian Outrages!—The Savages Become Bolder!”  

In this letter submitted to the paper’s editors on March 27, 1862, the citizens of Arcata were “really alarmed at the extent of their (the Native America) evil deeds and the increased boldness and daring… “.  The letter states that local natives shot Mr. Zehendner and burned his home, burnt Goodman’s house and the next day, Mrs. Brehmer’s. On Friday, March 28, Augustus Bates was shot and killed. The natives burned his house. The letter ends, “What a sudden reverse - peace and fancied security one day - death and destruction the next. Surely human life is mutable and occurrences like this bring the fact impressively to our mind. This is a gloomy letter, and ours is a gloomy town.  I can think and write of nothing else.” 

 

Still The Wild West

On April 2, 1862, many of the citizens of Arcata signed a petition asking the military to remove all the Native Americans from the county completely and push them far away. They went on to state that they didn’t want them in Mendocino County or Crescent City – as it was too easy to get back.[2]  This shows that California was essentially dealing with its own problems, as well as the internal war. With a combination of civic non-cohesion of indigenous native populations, the settlers of the newly established towns, and with the two warring governments remaining active in the state, it appears as though both the centralized governments failed to see the deeper issue residing in California.[3]

Overall, there were handfuls of land skirmishes in California. Within the timeline of the war, California seemed to be most concerned with keeping political tension at a minimum. A further example of the civil issues that California would have to navigate would be the Bullion Bend Robbery.Two stagecoaches were robbed of their silver and gold near Placerville. A letter was left for authorities explaining that they were not committed criminals but carrying out a subversive operation to funnel money to the Confederacy.[4]

In 1864, a magistrate and handful of men became known as the Partisan Rangers.They sacked the property of Union-loyal civilians in the rural and outlying areas around Stockton. For the next two years they posed as “Confederate Partisan Rangers” but acted out criminally. They were found committing robberies, thefts, and murders located in the counties of San Joaquin Valley, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Santa Clara, and a few other counties located in Southern California.[5]

A final notable incident required a superb show of force by the Federal Cavalry in the streets of San Bernardino at the end of election day in September of 1864. They quelled a Confederate political demonstration during the gubernatorial elections in San Bernardino County.[6]

 

California’s Permanent Divide

After the Civil War ended in California the state took greater control and quickly began to integrate the counties of what would end up being on today’s political boundary maps. With the last of the Pacific coast Native Americans being rounded up to be placed on reservations and the fizzling out of what would come to be known as Westward Expansion, the state would start to consolidate its power as the new and now truly established authority in the West.[7]

It was now no longer considered the Wild West – as you would see on old black and white Western movies. Even so, the Union won the Civil War and California adopted the Union’s policies, there would always be a permanently heavy Democratic and Republican divide that would simmer beneath the voting cracks.

 

What do you think of the role of California in the US Civil War? Let us know below.

Finally, Daniel Smith writes at complexamerica.weebly.com.


[1]Charles B. Turrill."San Francisco and the Civil War." Museum of the City of San Francisco. Last modified 1876. http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist5/civwar.html.

[2]“Horrible Indian Outrages! - The Savages Become Bolder!”The Humboldt Times, March 29th, 1862. p.3 col. 1.

[3]Brian McGinty. "I Will Call a Traitor a Traitor: Albert Sidney Johnston." Civil War Times Illustrated, 1981.

[4]John Boessenecker (1993). Badge and Buckshot: Lawlessness in Old California.Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 133–157. ISBN 0806125101. Retrieved 21 October 2018.

[5]William B. Secrest, (2007). California Badmen: Mean Men with Guns.Sanger, Calif.: Word Dancer Press. pp. 143–147. ISBN 1884995519. Retrieved 21 October 2018.

[6]Henry Martyn Lazelle; Leslie J. Perry (1897). The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved 21 October 2018.

[7]Kevin Starr. California: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2015

The US Supreme Court becomes a very important political issue whenever a vacancy arises. Here, Jonathan Hennika continues his look at the history of the US Supreme Court (following his article on Marbury v Madison here), and focuses on slavery. He looks at the case of Dred Scott, and the 1850s ruling that said freed slaves were not US citizens.

Dred Scott, circa 1857.

Dred Scott, circa 1857.

In his Congressional testimony refuting the allegations of Dr. Christine Ford, Judge Brett Kavanaugh said in part: “This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.”[i]In 2018 the political reality is the line drawn between the Right (Conservatives/Republicans) and the Left (Liberals/Democrats).  As the final arbiter of all things Constitutional, Supreme Court nominees have and always will be a political firestorm. After his testimony, concerns were raised by the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other organizations, both political and apolitical, regarding Judge Kavanaugh’s judicial independence. Judicial independence is as strong a myth in the system of American Jurisprudence as an apolitical court. 

In the teaching of American history, there was a euphemism used to discuss slavery: the peculiar institution. The phrase originated in the early 1800s as a “polite” way to discuss the topic of slavery. Southern historians later appropriated the phrase in an attempt to re-brand the image of the New South, i.e., the post-reconstructed South. These historians postulated and taught the paternalistic theory of slavery—that the life of the slave was better because the fatherly master-class took care of the slave’s basic needs. Such phraseology and historical excuses are intellectually dishonest. The question of slavery is one that troubled the founding fathers and the framers of the American Constitution. To see that conflict, one need look at Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution, which reads: 

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

 

Known as the “Three Fifths Compromise,” it was a stop-gap measure in determining the number of Representatives in Congress from the Southern States. Throughout the 19thcentury, as the nation grew, the debate raged on as to whether a territory or state admitted to the union were permitted to have slaves. Other measures included the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. As the nation grew and slavery became tied into the economy of the South, Southern politicians railed against Northern interference in the “peculiar institution.” The country balanced on a fulcrum of “free” and “slave” states. Each new admission to the Union tipped the balance one way or another. One of the methods the Southern plantocracy used to their advantage was through political patronage and judicial appointments. Southern politicians, such as John Calhoun, were adroit at imposing the will of the South on the nation.

 

The Question of “Citizenship”

It was not long for the question of slavery to reach the Supreme Court. It did so in the case of Dred Scott v Sanford60 US 393 (1856). As is often the circumstance, the Dred Scott case was two separate cases brought together for Supreme Court review. The slave, Dred Scott, sued under Missouri law and brought a second suit in Federal Court. These are the cases that became the Dred Scott case. The statutes in question were criminal trespass and false imprisonment. The historian Walter Ehrlich wrote extensively on the subject of Dred Scott and discovered heretofore lost court documents of Scott’s state action:

“The origin of any court litigation involves at least two basic issues. The first is grounds—do the law and the facts warrant legal action? The second is motivation—what specific circumstances impel the plaintiff to take his legal action….An investigation of Missouri statutes…reveals quite clearly not only that there were laws which prescribed circumstances under which a slave might become free, but also that ample precedent existed of slaves actually having been freed under those laws…Dred Scott…qualified substantially for his freedom.”[ii]

 

Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote the majority opinionthat held:

“A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a "citizen" within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States. When the Constitution was adopted, they were not regarded in any of the States as members of the community which constituted the State and were not numbered among its "people or citizens." Consequently, the special rights and immunities guarantied to citizens do not apply to them. And not being "citizens" within the meaning of the Constitution, they are not entitled to sue in that character in a court of the United States, and the Circuit Court has not jurisdiction in such a suit…. The only two clauses in the Constitution which point to this race treat them as persons whom it was morally lawfully to deal in as articles of property and to hold as slaves.”[iii]

 

Sectionalism as a Deciding Factor 

In a 7 to 2 vote the Taney Court declared that the rights and privileges of citizenship did not apply to slaves and freed Africans. In the 20thand 21stcentury the Justices’ votes are often broken down via political lines; the left, the right, the middle. In the 19thcentury, sectionalism dominated the discussion. What section of the country did the Justice represent? There were nine members of the Taney Court:

-       Roger Taney (Chief), Maryland: Majority

-       John McLean, Ohio: Dissent

-       James Moore Wayne, Georgia: Majority

-       John Catron, Tennessee: Majority

-       Peter Vivian Daniel, Virginia: Majority

-       Samuel Nelson, New York: Majority

-       Robert Cooper Grier, Pennsylvania: Majority

-       Benjamin Robbins Curtis, Massachusetts: Dissent

-       John Archibald Campbell, Georgia: Majority

 

The Court’s majority hailed from states that left the Union in 1860. Chief Justice Taney was from Maryland, wooed by President Lincoln as a border state, and could have been a member of the Confederacy. Of the two Northerners who voted in the majority, President Buchanan pressured Justice Grier to join the majority to avoid the appearance that the ruling ran along “sectional lines.”[iv]The Executive branch used its friendship to influence the political topic of the day. These men on the Supreme Court may have attempted to “rise above” partisan rhetoric. If you examine them within the context of their times, a question arises: when declaring that Dred Scott and the many other slaves were not protected by the laws of man, were they thinking of their own section’s best interests? 

Dred Scottwas not the last time the Supreme Court had the opportunity to weigh in on the constitutionality of racial subjugation. The next time the Court sat on this question, the entire national dynamic had changed, though the culture remained. 

 

What do you think of the political nature of the US Supreme Court? Let us know below.


[i]“Brett Kavanaugh’s Opening Statement: Full Transcript.” New York Times¸ September 26, 2018. Retrieved October 14, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/26/us/politics/read-brett-kavanaughs-complete-opening-statement.html

[ii]Ehrlich, Walter. “The Origins of the Dred Scott Case,” The Journal of Negro History59 (April 1974):133

[iii]Scott v Sanford,60 US 393 at 393

[iv]John Mack; et al. Out of Many: A History of the American People(Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall, 2005) 388