Tag Archives: politics

Using Reacting to the Past in the Civil War Classroom

The time had come for the delegates to Kentucky’s Sovereignty Convention to decide whether or not the state should secede. One by one, the delegates responded to the roll call vote. Once the representatives from the Cumberland Plateau, Pennyroyal, and Jackson Purchase regions had spoken, the vote was tied. It was up to the Bluegrass region to determine the state’s fate. “This is so exciting!” said one of the delegates.

The year was not 1861 but 2017, and the setting was not Kentucky but a college classroom in Colorado. For the first time, I used the role-playing game “Reacting to the Past” (RTTP) to teach the sectional crisis and secession in my Civil War Era class. One of my colleagues used an RTTP game to teach the Mexican Revolution, and he suggested that I try the “Kentucky, 1861: Loyalty, State, and Nation” game in my course. I have been moving away from lectures and heading towards active learning exercises in class, so I was open to his ideas. Before following his advice, though, I did as much research as I could on RTTP. The testimonials that I uncovered seemed so breathlessly enthusiastic (Mark Carnes, one of RTTP’s founders, has a book immodestly titled Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College) that I wondered if it was some sort of academic cult. Despite my reservations, I decided to drink the Kool-Aid.

In RTTP games, students take on roles based on historical figures or archetypes and re-enact events from a historical era. The games range from debates over democracy in Athens, to the shape India will take following independence in 1945.[1] In “Kentucky, 1861: Loyalty, State, and Nation,” the only RTTP game directly related to the American Civil War, students play the role of delegates to a special session of the Kentucky legislature. There are twenty-seven different characters, many of them based on actual antebellum figures. One student became Cassius Clay, another was governor Beriah Magoffin, and a third was Simon Bolivar Buckner, Inspector General of the Kentucky State Guard. The “Homespun Lawyer” is based on William Lowndes Yancey while the “Arch-Unionist” represents Joseph Holt. Other characters are archetypes, like the Jacksonian Democrat who opposes additional legislative spending and wants to keep Kentucky united. Each student receives a character sheet (provided with the game materials) that explains the person’s background and views on a variety of issues. All characters have a variety of objectives to accomplish during the game, and they usually have to work with other characters to succeed. Issues ranged from reforming the state’s manumission act, to encouraging immigration into the state, to preventing the flow of military supplies through Kentucky. The game was, in a way, a cross between a historical re-enactment and the “Survivor” television show.

The preparation for the game, both for the instructor and for the student, is extensive. I had to become familiar with the 232-page Instructor’s Manual and the 190-page Game Book. The Game Book includes a historical background on the sectional crisis, the game’s rules, a description of the assignments, a description of Kentucky in 1861, primary source documents, and a bibliography. Instructors have to assign roles to students, distribute handouts, track student progress, and answer an abundance of questions. The students had to read a historical background article and an extensive list of primary texts. They were also tasked with delivering at least one speech and publishing one issue of a newspaper (complete with masthead, an editorial, and articles), both of which had to reflect their understanding of the assigned materials. Students could also run for Speaker of the House, propose legislation, debate initiatives, form militias, and jockey for political power.

The game itself proceeds through 1861, with sessions that respond to the secession of the Lower South, the Crittenden Compromise, the creation of the Confederacy, the firing on Fort Sumter, and the secession of the Upper South. It also requires an extensive investment of class time. My class runs on a Tuesday/Thursday schedule and I used two class periods to introduce the material, another five to play the game, and one more to debrief the students. Even though the two introductory sessions covered essentially the same material that I normally covered, I decided to eliminate a third introductory session and one game session. The game thus consumed about four weeks, or one-quarter of my semester. I chose to use Gary W. Gallagher and Joan Waugh’s The American War: A History of the Civil War Era as the text that would take the place of my lectures.

When I spoke of the game during the first couple of class periods, students were dubious. Six of the forty students dropped the class, including one with the last name of Sanders, thus depriving those who remained of the fun of addressing him by the honorific title of “Colonel Sanders.” The discussions of the background reading and primary source material went well, but the game started slowly. I had a hazy understanding of how to act as “Gamemaster” and the students had not fully digested the rules.[2] By the end of the first session, though, we had vigorous debate that revealed the contradictory nature of America in 1861. As we worked our way forward in time, students became more confident to speak up in class, and many of them provided excellent distillations on topics such as the influence of the Fugitive Slave Law on secession or the political philosophy of John Calhoun. I sat off to the side of the class and did not speak much during the legislative sessions. As for Kentucky, the delegates from the Bluegrass region tipped the scales in favor of secession. I rolled a die to determine the war’s outcome and we learned that the war lasted four years and the Union government freed the slaves. In reality, of course, Kentucky did not secede, but the other two events did happen.

The game had a number of positive effects. The level of interaction among students was substantially higher. Rather than being locked into their little cell phone worlds before class began, they were politicking and working the room to secure votes. One student also noticed this change and commented that, more than any other class he was taking, he got to know his classmates. Other students said that they really enjoyed the game and found it to be a good way to learn about the contingent nature of events in 1861. They cited the high level of work that went into the assignments but said that they learned so much. Indeed, their speeches and newspapers exceeded my expectations. The class period after the re-enactment ended was one of the best that I have been a part of during my seventeen years of teaching. During our comparison of the game to actual events, an essential part of the curriculum, the majority of the class asked questions. As we continued to discuss the early part of the war, the students referred back to the knowledge they gained because of the game. I cannot credit RTTP with this passion for history, but I suspect that it has motivated my students to learn more. At least five students have stopped by my office and mentioned how much they are learning in this class.

There are several drawbacks associated with the game, though. In a larger class such as mine, it was difficult for all students to deliver their speeches and the sessions bogged down at times. Some students were simply not invested in the activity while others did not make an effort to build coalitions or trade votes. The game was also a fair degree of work for me, between grading the assignments, answering questions, and keeping up with administrative work.

As for me, I will drink the Kool-Aid again and use RTTP the next time I teach the Civil War course.

[1] A list of published games and those in development is found on RTTP’s website, https://reacting.barnard.edu/ (accessed March 22, 2017). Additionally, there are a number of videos on YouTube that demonstrate how the games work; this video is one example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_U6L9ERzw0U (accessed March 22, 2017).

[2] From June 8 to 11, 2017, there will be a Faculty Institute at Barnard College to train instructors. Participants can attend workshops on twelve different games. See https://reacting.barnard.edu/ai-2017.

Robert Gudmestad

Dr. Robert Gudmestad is an Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University. His current research project involves using GIS to study the Union and Confederate brownwater navies and their quest for control of the Mississippi River system. He is author of A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade (LSU, 2003) and Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom (LSU, 2011). He can be reached at robert.gudmestad@colostate.edu.

In “Defense” of James Buchanan

Journalists, pundits, the public, and even some scholars love to celebrate James Polk as a “man of destiny,” successful president, “a political chess master,” and an “expansionist leader” with a “republican vision” who, through “extraordinary diligence,” worked to “spread the blessings of American democracy.”[1] James Buchanan, on the other hand, is roundly condemned as the “worst” president and an example of “political ineptitude,” most recently in a post on Muster.[2] These judgments, I believe, are misleading and inaccurate. Polk was indeed successful in achieving the majority of his goals as chief executive, but so was Buchanan. The fact that secession occurred during his administration should not cloud our assessment of his political skills and ability to accomplish his aims. If we judge him a failure because his actions led directly to the Civil War, then we must judge Polk likewise, as his invasion of Mexico was arguably the match that set the house aflame. Consider this blog post, then, a ‘defense’ of Buchanan’s political acumen and success (though certainly not an endorsement of his distasteful policies).

Before we can even get to his administration, we need to appreciate the fact that Buchanan and his operatives wrested the 1856 Democratic nomination from the hands of Stephen Douglas, the architect of the Appeasement of 1850, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the most widely-admired Northern Democrat of the decade. Such a feat was no accident. Months ahead of the Democratic national nominating convention in Cincinnati, Buchanan worked to maintain the allegiance of the slave states, alienate Douglas from partisan leaders, and directed state-level operations to guarantee that key Northern states, such as Indiana, would hold strong for “Old Buck” despite large pro-Douglas majorities. At the convention, Buchanan operated through his top advisers Jesse Bright of Indiana and John Slidell of Louisiana to ensure that critical committees were dominated by “Buchaneers,” that the traditional Two-Thirds Rule (which benefitted the staunchly pro-slavery Buchanan) was renewed, and that states with divided delegations, like New York, remained inert. Douglas, despite his popularity, did not really stand a chance. Buchanan was many things, but politically inept was not one of them.

Portrait of James Buchanan
President James Buchanan. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As president-elect, Buchanan moved quickly to assemble a cabinet that suited his needs and leadership style. In order for us to judge the effectiveness of his cabinet, we must consider his desires and designs. Yes, Buchanan’s cabinet was lackluster, full of pro-slavery cronies and mediocre minds. But that is exactly what the confident Buchanan wanted. He had spent a lifetime in public service, and he knew from experience how to run an administration and deal with Congress. He also knew exactly which policies he wanted to pursue. Thus, he did not want a “team of rivals” (as the inexperienced Lincoln needed) or an assemblage of great intellects (as Monroe had preferred). Buchanan’s selection of the incapacitated Lewis Cass for the State Department was especially deft, since the president-elect had extensive foreign policy experience and clear diplomatic goals. Instead of assembling capable administrators and trusted advisers, Old Buck, the tough partisan warrior and seasoned public servant, chose to use his cabinet appointments for patronage purposes. He sought to use his appointive power to heal the internal party divisions wrought by his predecessor Pierce (who bungled appointments so badly that he had a partisan revolt on his hands before he even took office). These were Buchanan’s priorities, and we historians must respect them as such.[3]

While he selected his cabinet, President-Elect Buchanan also worked behind the scenes to achieve a long-held personal and partisan goal: a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against black Americans and against Congressional authority over slavery. Buchanan, ever the skilled wire-puller, achieved exactly that with the infamous Dred Scott decision. Originally, Supreme Court justices were not inclined to issue a broad ruling on the legal status of the enslaved Missourian Dred Scott, but Buchanan, who had close personal and professional connections to several of the justices, exerted pressure of dubious legality and convinced the court to turn the Missouri case into a national edict on slavery and federal power. It was a major victory for the Slave Power, and an epic accomplishment for a man not yet even inaugurated.[4]

As president, Buchanan continued to achieve his goals: he reduced U.S. participation in the trans-Atlantic anti-slavery naval squadron; forced Nicaragua to grant transit rights across the isthmus; bullied Mexico into accepting U.S. occupation during times of civil disturbance; sent nineteen warships with 200 guns to Paraguay to force acceptance of U.S. economic interests; purged his Democratic Party of any lingering anti-slavery elements or moderate “Softs”; prevented any federal action during the Panic of 1857; and forced the defiant Mormon community at the Great Salt Lake to recognize and accept U.S. authority. More famously, Buchanan, in an unprecedented exertion of executive influence, was able to push the fraudulent, pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution of Kansas through an uncooperative Congress full of anti-slavery Republicans and anti-Buchanan supporters of Stephen Douglas. Like the Dred Scott ruling, it was an epic accomplishment, though, unlike Dred Scott, one largely misunderstood or underappreciated by scholars. The president employed all manner of carrots and sticks to achieve his greatest victory, everything from cash bribes to patronage promises to political assassination to turning wives against their Congressional husbands. The fact that the constitution was quickly rejected by Kansans does not in any way diminish the magnitude of Buchanan’s achievement.[5]

Buchanan did not expect or plan on the “secession winter” of 1860 to 1861, and his failure to act in defense of the Union is rightly condemned by most historians. That should not change, however, how we see the rest of his administration, a single term in which he achieved monumental political victories and proved himself a wily politico, skilled strategist, and powerful executive. He and his supporters were enormously proud of their accomplishments, and Buchanan even penned an 1866 monograph vigorously defending and celebrating his actions.[6] Like Polk, he achieved most of his goals, served only one term, presided over a dramatic party split, and watched Democrats fail in the next presidential contest. If we are to judge the success or failure of an administration based solely on achievement of executive goals, then Buchanan should rank alongside Polk. If, however, we want to judge a president on the morality of their policies and their long-term impact on the health of the nation, then both Polk and Buchanan must be deemed rotten failures. We cannot have it both ways: Polk judged on his accomplishments, while Buchanan measured by morality. Similarly, we must recognize that the designation “worst” president is a moral, anachronistic one, and does not accurately reflect his achievements (no matter how distasteful they may be to us today).

[1] Robert W. Merry, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 1-2, 224; Paul H. Bergeron, The Presidency of James K. Polk (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987), 51; Sam W. Haynes, James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse (New York: Pearson, 2005), 211; Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), 579.

[2] “James Buchanan: Why is he considered America’s worst president?” Constitution Daily, http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/2014/04/james-buchanan-why-is-he-considered-americas-worst-president/ (accessed December 19, 2016); “Worst. President. Ever.” Politico. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/09/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-worst-president-james-buchanan-214252 (accessed December 19, 2016); “Worst president ever: The ignominy of James Buchanan.” CBS News. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/worst-president-ever-the-ignominy-of-james-buchanan/ (accessed December 19, 2016); Robert Strauss, Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2016); Garry Boulard, The Worst President – The Story of James Buchanan (iUniverse, 2015); Rick Allen, “Harmony Amidst Division: The Cabinet of James Buchanan,” Muster, http://journalofthecivilwarera.org/2016/12/harmony-amidst-division-cabinet-james-buchanan/ (accessed December 19, 2016).

[3] For more on Buchanan’s cabinet, see Michael Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014); Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan, A Biography (Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1995).

[4] For more on Buchanan’s role in the Dred Scott decision, see Michael Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014); Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan, A Biography (Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1995); Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

[5] For more on Buchanan’s role in the passage of the Lecompton Constitution, see Michael Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014); Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004).

[6] James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion (1866).

Michael Todd Landis

Michael Todd Landis is an Assistant Professor of history at Tarleton State University (member of the Texas A&M System) and author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Cornell, 2014). He is also a board member of Historians Against Slavery and edits the HAS Blog. He is currently working on Georgia in the Civil War era. You can contact him at mlandis@tarleton.edu or follow him on Twitter, @DrMichaelLandis.

Harmony Amidst Division: The Cabinet of James Buchanan

At this critical juncture in our history, a new American president will be sworn into office with a nation that appears very divided. Chief among the decisions weighing on Donald Trump’s mind should be how to set up an administration which will bridge that divide. In doing so, he could certainly look to history to find moments when his predecessors faced a similar task. In that regard, there may be no greater parallels than the divisiveness facing President-elect James Buchanan in 1856, and also Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

The stakes for the American republican experiment were perhaps higher in 1856 than at any previous time in the history of the nation. When Buchanan took office, physical violence was occurring in Kansas over the introduction of slavery into that territory. With the votes of the solid South, he had narrowly defeated not only the new Republican party whose platform demanded there be no additional slave territory, but also had faced an anti-immigrant third party.[1] Know-Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore accurately stated, “I tell you that we are treading upon the brink of a volcano that is liable at any moment to burst forth and overwhelm the nation.”[2] With the Republican candidate carrying New England and what today would be considered the “Rust Belt” states of the Old Northwest, and Buchanan, the Democrat, carrying all the slave states and only 45 percent of the total national popular vote, the situation begged for a unifier.

Party unity was indispensable and the selection of Buchanan’s cabinet could have been a major catalyst toward the achievement of this goal. With the threat of secession looming, the future of the Union seemed to be hanging by the slim thread of a Democratic victory in upcoming presidential elections. It would not have been an impossible task to hold that party together. The situation called for firm leadership and a spirit of unity, not only within the Democratic party but within the nation itself. With Stephen A. Douglas in command of Illinois, and Buchanan’s friend Jesse Bright as the leader in Indiana, the president-elect could have forged a working coalition over the next four years. James Buchanan indicated just a few weeks after his election, “the object of my administration will be to destroy any sectional party, North or South, and harmonize all sections of the Union under a national and conservative government.”[3] The first of these aims was almost met by the time Buchanan left office, but it was not the Republicans who were in tatters—rather, it was his own Democratic party, split in an unnecessary rift with Stephen A. Douglas. The latter of these aims was not even a possibility four years later, as by that time, seven states had seceded and formed their own government.

With his cabinet selections, Buchanan was presented with substantial opportunities to not only diminish the growing sectional conflict within the nation, but to also set an example for future leaders within the Democratic party. The president-elect’s harsh campaign rhetoric toward the Republican party had fanned the flames of passion as he had repeatedly referred to them as abolitionists and infidels against the Union. Yet rather than moving to heal the divide and consider all sides in his cabinet choices, Buchanan relied upon the advice of his closest friends and advisers who were either Southerners or “dough-faces” (Northern men with Southern principles). These included Howell Cobb of Georgia, Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, Indiana Senator Jesse Bright (a Kentucky slaveowner), and John Slidell of Louisiana. Many of these men had also been the chief architects of Buchanan’s nomination.[4] To begin with, Buchanan quickly offered all four of these men cabinet posts themselves, but in the end, all but Cobb declined.

Buchanan, above all else, desired harmony within his cabinet, though it was to come at the expense of harmony within his party and harmony within the nation. His thoughts on this subject were revealed in advice to Franklin Pierce in 1852, when he wrote that “without unity no cabinet can be successful…I undertake to predict that whoever may be the President, if he disregards this principle in the formation of his cabinet, he will have committed a fatal mistake. He who attempts to conciliate opposing factions by placing ardent and embittered representatives of each in his cabinet, will discover that he has only infused into these factions new vigour and power for mischief.”[5] Buchanan also desired men who he felt were personally and socially compatible.[6]

When the smoke cleared in early 1857, Buchanan went to Washington with an entirely pro-Southern cabinet which consisted of four Southerners, one elderly Northern statesman quite agreeable to Southerners, and two additional Northern men who were considered doughfaces. In the end, Buchanan’s cabinet did not even represent a range of interests and opinions within the Democratic party, much less the nation. The New York Tribune labeled it a cabinet controlled by slave-drivers. The paper mused, “It is well understood now that the South have got Mr. Buchanan stock and fluke. Nobody who has been intimately conversant with his political career ever doubted this would be so.”[7] There was not one Free-Soiler, not one man from a larger city, and, probably most importantly, not one popular sovereignty Democrat.

Buchanan and His Team of Confederates: (l-r) Jacob Thompson, Lewis Cass, John B. Floyd, President Buchanan, Howell Cobb, Isaac Toucey, Aaron V. Brown, and Jeremiah S. Black. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Buchanan and His Team of Confederates: (l-r) Jacob Thompson, Lewis Cass, John B. Floyd, President Buchanan, Howell Cobb, Isaac Toucey, Aaron V. Brown, and Jeremiah S. Black. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Despite assertions by many that Buchanan was the tool of his pro-Southern cabinet, that was not actually the case. They just happened to all agree because he had intended it that way from the start. He and his harmonious cabinet presided over the nation’s hastening dissolution. Buchanan indeed spent much time with his cabinet members. They convened every day in meetings, sometimes consuming four to five hours at a time. Yet Buchanan retained control and made the final decision which almost always coincided with his entrenched classical republican principles favoring the “property” rights of Southerners. Buchanan ranks today at or near the bottom of every poll of presidential effectiveness. A recent popular press book on Buchanan is titled Worst. President. Ever.[8]

In contrast with his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln selected men who were considered his political rivals for cabinet advisors, even retaining qualified men who were or had been Democrats.[9] He generally limited his cabinet meetings to twice per week on Tuesdays and Fridays, at noon in his office.[10] He was a patient listener at all times, regarding the advice of each cabinet member equally and “for what they were worth, and generally no more.”[11] Lincoln’s cabinet sessions often became contentious when members expressed disparate viewpoints. Yet Lincoln, ever respectful of all opinions, made the final decision, and is today revered for beginning the reunification process of a divided nation.

Lincoln and His Team of Rivals: (l-r) Montgomery Blair, Caleb B. Smith, Salmon P. Chase, President Lincoln, William H. Seward, Simon Cameron, Edward Bates, and Gideon Welles. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Lincoln and His Team of Rivals: (l-r) Montgomery Blair, Caleb B. Smith, Salmon P. Chase, President Lincoln, William H. Seward, Simon Cameron, Edward Bates, and Gideon Welles. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Buchanan, the political master, chose advisers who already agreed with him and mostly ignored their advice until the secession crisis was upon him. Lincoln, the political novice, chose advisers who held opposing viewpoints, calmly listened to their advice, and deftly managed to win a civil war hastened in many respects by Buchanan’s refusal to reach out to those who disagreed with him. History never specifically repeats itself, but there are parallels between 1856, 1860, and 2016. As we, like Buchanan and Lincoln, transition from one era in our national history to another, let us remember the only way to achieve true success requires the inclusiveness of both people and ideas.

[1] “Republican Party Platform of 1856, June 18, 1856,” The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29619 (accessed November 18, 2016).

[2] Statement of Millard Fillmore, Congressional Globe, 34th Cong., 1st Sess., (1856), Appendix, 716.

[3] “Mr. Buchanan’s Inaugural,” New York Herald, December 3, 1856.

[4] Kenneth Stampp, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 51.

[5] James Buchanan to Franklin Pierce, December 11, 1852, James Buchanan Papers, 1783-1895, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (HSP).

[6] James Buchanan to Franklin Pierce, December 17, 1852, Buchanan Papers, HSP.

[7] “Pacific Road – Kansas A Slave State,” New York Daily Tribune, February 18, 1857.

[8] Robert Strauss, Worst. President. Ever (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2016).

[9] Doris Kerns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006).

[10] Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), I, 136-137.

[11] Ibid.

Rick Allen

Rick Allen is a history graduate student at Southeast Missouri State University. Having retired in 2016 from a career in the health insurance industry, he is now engaged in writing a thesis titled “Team of Confederates: The Political Ineptitude of James Buchanan” under the direction of Dr. Adam Criblez. Rick’s main historical interests are antebellum American politics, the sectional crisis, the history of leadership, and heritage education. He can be reached at rtallen1s@semo.edu.

The Bubble: Greenbacks, Corruption, and the Politics of Looking Backwards

Throughout this long presidential campaign season, the specter of the Great Recession is well and alive. Over seven years since the end of the recession, many American workers are dealing with painfully slow wage growth and lingering anger and anxiety about the economy. Reacting to these concerns, the candidates offer voters clashing visions of a path forward. Hillary Clinton promises that she will strengthen financial regulations passed during the recession, reform taxes, and increase infrastructure spending. Donald Trump plans to rewrite or terminate many of these policies, especially international trade agreements such as NAFTA.[1] Critically, he has gone one step farther by stressing corruption in Washington and secret conspiracies of politicians and financial elites as part of the problem. At the first Presidential debate, Trump warned millions of Americans that the Federal Reserve’s low interest rates were actually feeding a “big, fat, ugly bubble” that would favor Clinton.[2] Recently at a rally in West Palm Beach, Florida, Trump went so far as to suggest a secret “global power structure” that works against himself and the interests of the American working class.[3]

caires1
The Federal Reserve Building, Washington, D.C., Courtesy of the Federal Reserve.

 Conspiracy theories and dramatic promises in the face of a stagnant or depressed economy are nothing new in American history. But when trying to provide a historical context for politics and policy in the shadow of the Great Recession, historians typically explain our current situation by pointing to the history of late twentieth-century conservatism, the decline of labor unions, and financial restructuring. But history does not just provide origins, its also provides perspective. It is in this second mode that the Civil War might speak to our current concerns.

The young Republican Party that took power in 1861 never thought they would argue about banks and money in the midst of a war. Facing what we would call today a liquidity crisis, House Republicans drafted a bill to issue 150 million dollars in paper money in early 1862, with the crucial addition that these notes would be legal tender for all debts public and private. Since the ratification of the Constitution, gold and silver money, called “specie,” had been the only legally recognized “dollar” in the country. True, Congress created two national banks that issued a paper currency, and for decades most Americans used banknotes issued by hundreds of state-chartered banks. But American paper money had always been tied to the promise of gold. To make sure that banks and contractors would take federal paper money, Congress substituted the government’s command, or fiat, for the glitter of gold.[4]

These notes, which were eventually dubbed greenbacks due to their color, thrust the government into every cash transaction in the country. The initial 150 million in greenbacks eventually grew to almost 450 million, plus a morass of postage and fractional currency notes that served as the small change of the country.[5] Armed with the power to create money, the Republican Congress now possessed the ability to affect the price of everything in the Union economy—from a bushel of wheat to the price of securities on Wall Street. In addition to the greenbacks, in 1863 and 1864 Republicans authorized a system of national banks that would push out many of the old state banks after the war.

running-the-machine-figure-2
Currier & Ives, “Running the Machine,” c.1864,  Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

That financial power frightened and outraged critics in every political faction, but especially the Democratic Party. In 1863 and 1864, as inflation pushed up prices, Democrats attacked greenbacks as a vector for moral corruption and political cronyism.[6] One campaign document included tables of basic goods with one column marked “Democratic Prices” (or prewar prices) and the other dubbed “Abolition Prices.”[7] Within the Democratic rhetoric of the era, “greenback” became a synonym for extravagance and corruption. The Old Guard accused Abraham Lincoln of using greenbacks to “buy the hide and tallow of thousands of fishy politicians.”[8] Democrats, on different occasions, dubbed compensated emancipation “greenback abolitionism,” and called greenbacks “abolition rags.”[9] They also attacked the National Banking Acts as a means to enrich Republicans and yoke Main Street to Washington and Wall Street. In a pamphlet published in 1864, Alexander Del Mar warned his readers that “fanned by unscrupulous politicians” they were inside a “great paper bubble” that would “inflict upon the country all the long agonies of financial distress.”[10] Delmar was not alone. Among Republican critics there was a quiet hope that victory over the Confederacy would bring about a quick return to the gold standard and the financial status quo antebellum.

caires3
“Delmar’s Financial Indicating Bubble,” from Alexander Delmar, The Great Paper Bubble; Or, the Coming Financial Explosion…A Campaign Document for 1864 (New York: Office of the Metropolitan Record, 1864).

That, however, was simpler said than done. Pennsylvania iron manufacturers, Midwest farmers, and voters from every party and region registered support for the greenbacks and thwarted attempts to retire them after the war.[11] This issue was a headache for Democrats and Republicans who both counted goldbugs and greenbackers in their ranks. Eventually the United States did resume specie payments on January 2, 1879; but that act did not turn the clock back.[12] The federal government retained a greater responsibility in American finance overseeing a network of national banks, taxation policy, and the power to issue and reissue millions in notes backed by gold or silver in the U.S. Treasury. For the next thirty years, debates about money, both its volume and form, continued to serve as a forum to debate economic inequality in a changing, and increasingly industrial, market. Resolution of these issues was a long time coming. It was not until 1913, with the creation of the Federal Reserve, that the nineteenth century’s “money question” found its answer—an answer that sought to take money out of politics, but continued the trend of greater centralization of the financial system.

The history of the greenbacks does not offer a simple policy prescription for today’s economic ills. It does suggest three observations. First, while looking backwards will always be a part of our democratic politics, we can never go back to a pure moment of government-market relations—if such a thing ever existed. The Fed’s monetary policy and federal financial reform, just like the Republicans’ decision to create greenbacks and national banks, entangled the federal state with the market and fundamentally changed it. Second, building a new consensus on the appropriate relationship between the people, their government, and the economy takes a very long time. Americans fought over money, labor issues, and corporate power for decades before they found some degree of resolution in the Progressive Era and New Deal. Third, we must remember that Trump’s picture of the economy satisfies some because it offers simple answers to complex problems. Ultimately, the resolution of these difficult issues rests with the decisions that voters will make at the polls this November and in the years to come. Indeed, our ongoing debates about economic inequality and opportunity suggest that we are closer to the start than to the end of a conversation about the relationship between peoples, governments, and markets in the twenty-first century.


[1] Hillary Clinton, “My Plan to Prevent the Next Crash,” Bloomberg, October 8, 2015; “Clinton vs. Trump: Where they Stand on Economic Policy Issues,” WSJ.com http://graphics.wsj.com/elections/2016/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-on-the-economy/.

[2] Aaron Blake, “The first Trump-Clinton presidential debate transcript, annotated,” The Fix (blog) Washington Post, September 26, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/09/26/the-first-trump-clinton-presidential-debate-transcript-annotated/.

[3] “Transcript: Donald Trump’s Speech Responding to Assault Accusations” NPR, October 13, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/10/13/497857068/transcript-donald-trumps-speech-responding-to-assault-accusations.

[4] For the text of the Legal Tender Act, see Act of February 25, 1862, ch.32, 12 Statutes at Large, 345.

[5] For a table of paper money issued by the U.S. during the war, see Robert T. Patterson, Federal Debt-Management Policies, 1865-1879 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1954), 150.

[6] Green-Back to his Country Friends (New York: 1862); “The Cost of the War, and Who Must Pay It,” The Old Guard 1, no. 1 (January 1863): 1; “National Notes vs Labor,” The Old Guard 2, no. 1 (January 1864): 8-12.

[7] Society for the Diffusion of Political Knowledge, Hand-Book of the Democracy for 1863 & 64 (New York: 1864), Documents 29, 16.

[8] “Great Purchase and Sale of Damaged Democrats,” The Old Guard 1, no. 4 (January 1864): 95.

[9] “Democratic Union Association,” New York Herald, March 8, 1863; “Untitled,” Sciotto Gazette, March 31, 1863.

[10] Alexander Delmar, The Great Paper Bubble; Or, the Coming Financial Explosion…A Campaign Document for 1864 (New York: Office of the Metropolitan Record, 1864), 14.

[11] See, for example, Nicolas Barreyre, Gold and Freedom: The Political Economy of Reconstruction (Virginia, 2015); Irwin Unger, The Greenback Era: A Social and Political History of American Finance, 1865-1879 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964).

[12] While the Specie Resumption Act declared that redemption of greenbacks for gold would occur on January 1, 1879, owing to the bank holiday on New Year’s Day, actual resumption did not occur until the next day. See Unger, The Greenback Era, 401.

Michael Caires

Michael Caires is the Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow at the American Civil War Museum where he is helping to create an exhibit on greenbacks during the Civil War era. He received his PhD from the University of Virginia and has taught at UVA and Hampden Sydney College. He currently at work on a book on how the greenbacks and national banks of the Civil War transformed America in the nineteenth century.

A Conflicted Message: Christian Theology and Political Action During the Civil War Era

When citizens of a democratic society participate in electoral politics, they are often forced to determine the extent to which they are willing to compromise on their beliefs when voting. Voters sometimes find ideal candidates who share most if not all of their views, but oftentimes the best candidate in a given election holds a mix of views that an individual voter simultaneously agrees and disagrees with, leading them to believe they must choose between “the lesser of two evils.” While voters of all types throughout the United States are grappling with this tension amid the current 2016 Presidential election, the conflicted emotions of Christian voters have been particularly noteworthy in popular media coverage. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, many Christians believe that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have poor religious credentials and values that contradict the church’s teachings. Christian voters are studying their Bibles and using its words to interpret the various issues at hand, but their conclusions are widely divergent. Some frustrated Christians are holding their noses and supporting either Clinton or Trump, but some believe that a vote for either is a sinful compromise.[1]

Conflicting political actions among the faithful today echo the ones that emerged before the outbreak of the Civil War. For example, Frederick Douglass, an ordained minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, came to believe that participation in electoral politics was the best method for enacting the end of slavery in the U.S, while the Unitarian William Lloyd Garrison could not fathom voting in a sinful political system that condoned the institution. Christians who did vote often disagreed about the best candidates to represent their values. They also debated the proper boundaries for establishing the separation of church and state and discussed if such a boundary was even necessary.

Taken as a whole, the political conflicts between Christians that emerged before the war offer an important reminder that while Christian principles have played an integral role in shaping American values, the challenge of translating Biblical teachings into secular government policy has been fraught with inter-faith disagreements that previously pushed the country towards the brink of destruction. Equally important, these disagreements provoked serious theological crises that questioned what religious principles were necessary for living a virtuous Christian life.

What constituted the “true principles of God” and the correct understanding of the U.S. Constitution was hotly debated during the antebellum era, particularly on the issue of slavery. While Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other Christian denominations had debated the merits of slavery in the United States since the country’s founding, growing antislavery and abolitionist agitation within the church led to each of these denominations splitting into Northern and Southern wings. By the time the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854 the religious debate over slavery led to an unprecedented politicization of the pulpit in Christian churches throughout the country, according to historian Timothy L. Wesley.[2]

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The Slave’s Friend, Volume III (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1836). The American Anti-Slavery Society was led by abolitionist ministers who believed slavery was incompatible with the Bible’s teachings. Proslavery ministers and congregants considered abolitionist agitation outrageous, and they detested the politicization of the minster’s pulpit. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Slavery’s defenders believed that the institution was a standard economic, social, and political practice divinely ordained by God. Proslavery ministers cited Ephesians 6:5-8, which calls upon slaves to “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” Southern Baptist minister James Robinson Graves wondered in 1857 “where in the New Testament did Christ and his apostles command the master to free his slave? . . . if any man asserts that the slavery of the family of Canaan be a sin, then God is the author of it, which would be blasphemous to affirm.” That same year Presbyterian minister Frederick Augustus Ross affirmed Graves’s views in the provocatively-titled Slavery Ordained of God, which argued that the Union could only be preserved if all white Christians agreed to support slavery’s preservation and westward expansion “for the good of the slave, the good of the master, the good of the whole American family.”[3]

Antislavery ministers argued with increasing ferocity in the 1850s that the particular form of race-based slavery practiced in the South was not biblically-sanctioned but instead the logical endpoint of racial prejudice throughout the country. Dutch Reformer Tayler Lewis acknowledged that the Bible offered divine approval of non-Jewish “heathens” of all colors to be purchased as slaves, but argued that it offered no such approval for the purchasing of slaves based solely on their color. Lewis also asked if the “heathen” slaves of the South converted to Christianity, why were they not immediately emancipated upon conversion? Baptist James M. Pendleton suggested that if slavery promoted “holiness and happiness” within the black population, why would it not do the same for the white population? And following passage of the Compromise of 1850—which potentially allowed slavery in the Utah and New Mexico territories and strengthened federal power to capture runaway slaves—Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher denounced the compromise, saying that “if the compromises of the Constitution include requisitions which violate humanity, I will not be bound by them.” He also echoed Lewis’s argument that the “Hebrew law of slavery” was not being practiced in the South, leading to millions of black Christians in the bondage of their fellow white Christians.[4]

The arrival of civil war in 1861 was partly the result of hardening sentiments and divergent biblical interpretations within American Christendom over the proper understanding of Christian living within the republic. President Abraham Lincoln understood as well as anyone that these contrasting visions of Christianity were incompatible with each other. “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing,” he commented in 1864. Expanding this thought during his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln remarked that supporters of both the United States and the Confederacy “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” but that “the prayers of both could not be answered.” Regardless of any one person’s interpretation of the Bible, Lincoln startlingly concluded, “the Almighty has His own purposes.”[5]

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“Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, 1865.” President Lincoln hoped God would bring an end to the bloodshed of the Civil War but acknowledged that it may have been His punishment for “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While the deep theological splits of the Civil War era will most likely not be replicated as a result of the 2016 election, evidence suggests that the election is fostering growing divisions in the Christian faith over issues such as abortion, homosexuality, racial equality, the death penalty, and capitalism. A recent Washington Post essay argues that many pastors are unsure of who to support and are struggling to communicate with their conflicted congregants about the election. Churches around the country are debating the theological underpinnings that guide Christian life and the extent to which compromise is appropriate when participating in electoral politics. These discussions, however, can potentially breathe new life into Christianity. Historian John Fea powerfully argues that churches must use this moment to find spaces “where conversations can take place about how to apply the Christian faith to culture, politics, art, nature, [and] our understanding of the past and its relationship to the present.”[6] Either way, President Lincoln’s words ring true: Christians should all proceed with caution before trusting their mental facilities with the ability to completely understand God’s often-mysterious intentions.


[1] Marisa Peñaloza and Tom Gjetlen, “Religious Voters May Lean Republican, But Feel Conflicted About the Candidates.” NPR, September 21, 2016. http://www.npr.org/2016/09/21/494722694/religious-voters-may-lean-republican-but-feel-conflicted-about-the-candidates; Steven Andrew, “5 Bible Verses Explain Why Voting for Trump and Clinton is Sin.” USA Christian Church, July 14, 2016. https://www.usa.church/5-bible-verses-explain-why-voting-for-trump-and-clinton-is-sin/; Pew Research Center, “Faith and the 2016 Campaign.” Pew Research Center, January 27, 2016. http://www.pewforum.org/2016/01/27/faith-and-the-2016-campaign/

[2] Timothy L. Wesley, The Politics of Faith During the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013), 1-7.

[3] James Robinson Graves, The Little Iron Wheel, A Declaration of Christian Rights and Articles, Showing the Despotism of Episcopal Methodism (Nashville: South-Western Publishing House, Graves, Marks & Co., 1857), 10, 13; Frederick Augustus Ross, Slavery Ordained of God (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1857), 5.

[4] Lewis and Pendleton quoted in Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 48-49, 54-55; Henry Ward Beecher, “Shall We Compromise?” (speech), quoted in William Constantine Beecher, Samuel Scoville, et. al., A Biography of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (New York: Charles Webster & Co., 1888), 237.

[5] Abraham Lincoln, “Address at Sanitary Fair in Baltimore” (speech, Baltimore, MD, April 18, 1864), The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=88871; Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address” (speech, Washington, D.C., March 4, 1865), Bartleby. http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres32.html

[6] Michelle Boorstein, “Why Donald Trump is Tearing Evangelicals Apart.” Washington Post, March 15, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/03/15/evangelical-christians-are-enormously-divided-over-donald-trumps-runaway-candidacy/; John Fea, “In Supporting Trump, Evangelicals Are Reaping What They’ve Sown.” The Way of Improvement Leads Home, September 30, 2016. https://thewayofimprovement.com/2016/09/30/from-the-archives-in-supporting-trump-evangelicals-are-reaping-what-theyve-sown/

Nick Sacco

Nick Sacco is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Guide at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He recently had a journal article about the Grand Army of the Republic published in the Indiana Magazine of History entitled "The Grand Army of the Republic, the Indianapolis 500, and the Struggle for Memorial Day in Indiana, 1868-1923" (December 2015). Nick also runs a personal blog about history, "Exploring the Past," at https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/.

Whither the Whigs? Donald Trump, the Know-Nothings, and the Politics of the 1850s

The historical curiosity of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Republican nomination has resulted in, among other things, a seeming endless litany of historical comparisons. As modern pundits, politicos, and historians have attempted to explain the success of Trump’s campaign, they have compared his candidacy to any number of historical precedents, ranging from Barry Goldwater and George Wallace in the 1960s, to Teddy Roosevelt and Huey Long, and, perhaps most frequently, Andrew Jackson.[i] Of course, Trump’s candidacy is also notable for the fractious impact it has had on the Republican Party, and that, too, has produced its own share of historical parallels. Predictions of a contested Republican nominating convention earlier this year, for example, invoked the stereotype of the supposedly corrupt party conventions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when wirepullers brokered nominations in smoke-filled back rooms. When that scenario failed to materialize, the divisive rhetoric of this summer’s Republican National Convention prompted several prominent historians and political scientists to rate it among the worst conventions ever, placing the 2016 RNC alongside such luminaries as the 1868 and 1968 Democratic National Conventions.[ii] (As a side note, however, it was disappointing that the 1860 DNC failed to make that list, as it is difficult to imagine a less successful convention than one that adjourned without a nominee.)

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Some historians have compared the 2016 Republican National Convention to the Democratic National Convention that met in New York City in July 1868. Harper’s Weekly, July 7, 1868. Courtesy of HarpWeek.

Earlier this month, political commentator Rachel Maddow and the host of MSNBC’s nightly The Rachel Maddow Show offered an extended piece exploring the similarities between the current state of the Republican Party and the collapse of the Whig Party and the so-called “Second Party System” of Whigs and Democrats during the decade of the 1850s.[iii] To be sure, Maddow is by no means the first observer to compare the fortunes of today’s Republican Party with the fate of the Whigs. For that matter, neither is today’s political milieu the only historical moment when Americans have predicted the doom of a political party by hearkening back to the Whigs. Indeed, as the only major, national, political party in American history to disappear, over the years the Whigs have served, if nothing else, as political fodder for commentators to invoke any time a modern political party appears in a state of disarray.

Maddow’s piece is noteworthy, however, not only for her focus on the collapse of the Whigs and the Second Party System, but also her explicit, and at times even sophisticated, discussion of the link between the disintegration of the Whigs and the political nativism of the 1850s. That nativism produced the so-called Know-Nothing Party—an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic third party that experienced substantial electoral success in 1854 and 1855. In the editorial Maddow argues that, historically, the breakdown of America’s two-party system (in her words, “when normal politics collapses”) has allowed fringe voices to gain a mainstream audience, even if temporarily, thereby eclipsing “decent political discourse.” Thus, as Maddow tells it, in the context of the 1850s, the collapse of the Whigs created a political “wasteland,” which allowed the Know-Nothing Party to emerge and spread their nativistic message of intolerance, bigotry, and hatred. Maddow suggests that this provides a lesson for our contemporary election, as she claims a similar political message of intolerance, bigotry, and hatred has emerged, in part, “because the Republican Party was weak, and failing.”[iv]

The so-called Know-Nothing Party produced virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric. Its supporters believed German and Irish immigrants were disrupting American democracy, as depicted in this ca. 1850s political cartoon, likely penned by political cartoonist John H. Goater. Original held at the New York Public Library. The author thanks Tyler Anbinder for providing the location of the original cartoon, and Jason Stacy for help in tracing the cartoon’s origins, particularly in identifying its hitherto unknown artist.
The so-called Know-Nothing Party produced virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric. Its supporters believed German and Irish immigrants were disrupting American democracy, as depicted in this ca. 1850s political cartoon, likely penned by political cartoonist John H. Goater. Original held at the New York Public Library. The author thanks Tyler Anbinder for providing the location of the original cartoon, and Jason Stacy for help in tracing the cartoon’s origins, particularly in identifying its hitherto unknown artist.

While there certainly exist eerie parallels between the politics of the 1850s and some of the developments of the 2016 presidential election, Maddow has it slightly backwards. The Know-Nothing Party did not emerge, as she claims, only after the Whig Party collapsed, but rather the other way around. As Michael F. Holt, author of the (1,248 page) book on the Whig Party (and in the interest of full disclosure, my dissertation advisor) has pointed out elsewhere, it was precisely the meteoric rise of the Know-Nothings that served, in part, to finish off the Whigs (rather than the collapse of the Whigs producing the rise of the Know-Nothings).[v] At the very same moment when nativism was emerging primarily in Northern cities as a grassroots social and political movement, some Whig leaders had been openly courting the support of immigrant voters—particularly Catholics who had traditionally voted Democratic. In response, native-born white voters registered their disgust by seeking political outlets outside of the two major parties. In sum, the emergence of political nativism helped destabilize the two-party system, rather than the breakdown of party politics giving rise to political nativism, as Maddow claims. I would argue that the same is true today: Donald Trump has not emerged because the Republican Party is weak and failing, but the other way around. Much like his Know-Nothing forbears, Trump’s success stems from a grassroots appeal. It is that appeal which has in turn created the perception that the Republican Party may be failing, thus drawing comparisons to the Whigs.

Moreover, while the politics of the 1850s provides an intriguing comparison to our current political moment, any serious discussion of the collapse of the Second Party System has to account for the role that slavery played, and on that point, there is simply no modern parallel. As the Whig Party crumbled between 1852 and 1856, Northern outrage at the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act fueled the subsequent rise of the Republican Party. It was only those developments, combined with the Know-Nothings, which led to the displacement of the Whigs. Maddow does briefly mention slavery at the outset of her editorial, though she brushes over the disappearance of the Know-Nothings, which also stemmed largely from the disagreement between its Northern and Southern wings over the issue of slavery extension.[vi] In other words, Maddow is correct that there is a link between nativism and the disruption of politics in the 1850s (even as she slightly mischaracterizes that link), but the real story was slavery extension.

It is certainly possible that we are in the midst of some sort of extended political realignment, though I am not sure the 1850s and the death of the Whigs provides the best historical example for comparison. In the years immediately following the Civil War, political observers regularly offered predictions that both political parties would soon disappear, commenting repeatedly on “The Reorganization of Parties” and offering forecasts and explanations as to “Why the Republican Party is Breaking up” (there were plenty of similar predictions for the Democrats, as well).[vii] One cannot overstate just how ubiquitous these predictions were. The assumption was that Republicans were essentially an ad hoc coalition that had come together to end slavery and stop secession, while others argued that the Democrats might never overcome the stigma of secession and treason. Informing these predictions was also the belief of many Americans in the mid-nineteenth century that political parties were fundamentally impermanent organizations—as evidenced by the disappearance of major parties like the Federalists and Whigs, not to mention a host of third parties along the way. The decade that followed witnessed several third parties come and go and produced a significant amount of shifting across party lines. Yet, even as the politics of Reconstruction evolved and some voters and politicians switched parties, both the Republican and Democratic organizations remained intact. That, I would argue, provides a more relevant historical parallel. The Republican Party may emerge from this election in a modified form, but the past would suggest that it is unlikely that it will go the way of the Whigs.

If you have thoughts, comments, or questions for the author, please discuss your ideas or pose questions in the comments section below. We would love to hear from you!


[i] Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, “Why I Support Donald Trump: He’s The New Roosevelt,” Forbes, December 15, 2015 <http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2015/12/15/donald-trump-teddy-roosevelt/#4607493d349c>; Matthew Mason, “The Disturbing Parallels Between Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson,” History News Network, March 20, 2016 <http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/162259>; Steve Inskeep, “Donald Trump’s Secret? Channeling Andrew Jackson,” New York Times, February 17, 2016 <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/17/opinion/campaign-stops/donald-trumps-secret-channelling-andrew-jackson.html?_r=1>.

[ii] “The Worst Convention in U.S. History?” Politico Magazine, July 22, 2016 <http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/07/rnc-2016-worst-convention-historians-214091>.

[iii] “Trump anti-immigrant speech follows dark pattern of US history,” The Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC), September 1, 2016 <http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow/watch/trump-nativist-speech-follows-dark-us-pattern-755626563851>.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Michael F. Holt, “Are the Republicans Going the Way of the Whigs?” Sabato’s Crystal Ball, University of Virginia Center for Politics, March 10, 2016 <http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/going-the-way-of-the-whigs/>. See also Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 956–957.

[vi] On this point, see Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know-Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 162–193.

[vii] Baltimore Sun, August 31, 1865; Mount Vernon (Ohio) Banner, July 7, 1865.

 

Erik B. Alexander

Erik B. Alexander is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, where he teaches classes on American history, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and Abraham Lincoln. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. He was an Assistant Editor on volume 9 (1831) of the Papers of Andrew Jackson (University of Tennessee Press, 2013). He is currently finishing his first book manuscript, a study of Northern Democrats after the Civil War, titled Revolution Forestalled: Northern Democrats and the Politics of Reconstruction, 1865–1877. He can be reached at eralexa@siue.edu.

Fighting for Every Yard: Colin Kaepernick and Patriotism in African American History

In recent days, Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest about the treatment of people of color in the United States has garnered both applause and condemnation across the fifty states. Lately, he has been joined by a teammate, a college teammate, an opponent, and soccer star Megan Rapinoe in kneeling or sitting during the national anthem. Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick’s former coach, acknowledged Kaepernick’s right to protest but said he “didn’t respect the motivation or the action.” Harbaugh later apologized and supported Kaepernick’s motivation but objected to his “method of action.”[1] While acknowledging that a protest during the national anthem is difficult for some to observe, President Obama defended Kaepernick’s right to “exercis[e] his constitutional right to make a statement.”[2]

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Colin Kaepernick kneeling, taken by Michael Zagaris of Getty Images.

Kaepernick’s protest and the response to his motivation and method remind us of Americans’ complicated relationship with patriotism and the past. The American flag has flown over great national and moral triumphs. It flew, too, during our darkest days: the expulsion and massacre of native Americans across the continent; nativist riots against “foreign” faiths; the protection and promulgation of slavery; the capture of slaves seeking freedom; the institutional and cultural embrace of segregation and white supremacy; and the Japanese internment camps, just to name a few. The Star-Spangled Banner can evoke pride and pain, for some simultaneously. The past, like the present, is not a zero-sum game.

By speaking up and sitting down or, more recently, kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem, Kaepernick reminds us that “the land of the free” has also been the home of historical and contemporary racial injustice. This is not an unfamiliar story for historians. Over the past week, many have noted that Francis Scott Key was a slaveholder and attorney who attacked abolitionism in a series of high-profile cases.[3] Neither was the flag that inspired Key free from the stain of unfree labor. Mary Pickersgill sewed the flag with her daughter, two nieces, and Grace Wisher, a thirteen-year old African-American indentured servant.[4] By 1813, indentured servitude had all but disappeared for white Americans, but many African Americans remained indentured. In slave states like Maryland and non-slave states like Pennsylvania, indentured servitude often served as a cover for whites to hold blacks as slaves in all but name. Key watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry from a British ship in Baltimore Harbor and saw that American flag, battered but still flying, as an inspiring metaphor of American resilience, righteousness, and freedom. But for slaves in and around Baltimore, the flag represented continued oppression and bondage.

At times in this country’s history, African Americans have struggled with questions of whether and how to be loyal to a country that mistreats them. Black troops helped found the United States during the American Revolution and defend its fragile sovereignty during the War of 1812, but they also fought against the United States, deciding that escape to the British was the likeliest route to freedom. Despite the black contribution to American independence and the rhetoric of liberty and equality, slavery grew and white Americans increasingly assaulted black rights. Black abolitionist David Walker directed his incendiary 1829 Appeal to “the Colored Citizens of the World” and repeatedly used the term “American” to refer to whites only, warning them that if they did not abolish slavery, divine retribution was coming. “God will not suffer [African Americans], always to be oppressed,” he predicted. “Our sufferings will come to an end, in spite of all the Americans this side of eternity…‘Every dog must have its day,’ and the American’s is coming to an end.”[5] In 1842, when it seemed the U.S. might go to war with Great Britain over a border dispute, an unnamed correspondent of the Colored People’s Press urged black men not to fight for the U.S. in the event of war. “If war be declared, shall we fight with chains upon our limbs?” he asked. “Shall we make our bodies a rampart in defence of American slavery?”[6]

During the Civil War, black men fought for the United States and played a crucial role in Union victory. In the war’s early stages, however, Union officials banned black soldiers from enlisting, leading some African Americans to suggest that black men should avoid the war altogether lest they repeat the mistakes of earlier generations by fighting a white man’s war that would do nothing to end slavery or win black rights. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Henry Cropper, the captain of a black militia company in Philadelphia, publicly denied that he and his comrades had tried to fight for the United States. “We have more knowledge of our duty, and more dignity, than to offer our services” and had resolved never to fight for the U.S. except on terms of “equality with all other men.”[7] When U.S. officials began allowing black men to enlist at the start of 1863, the question of whether to serve took on new immediacy for black Americans. When Frederick Douglass urged service before a crowd of black New Yorkers that spring, and upbraided them for failing to enlist sooner, a black New Yorker named Robert Johnson challenged Douglass. By a “few well-spoken words,” Johnson explained that it “was not cowardice that made the young men hesitant to enlist, but a proper respect for their own manhood.” If the Union wanted black men to fight, it needed to “guarantee to them all the rights of citizens and soldiers, and, instead of one man, he would insure them 5000 in twenty days.” Johnson’s remarks occasioned “tremendous and long-continued applause.”[8]

Of course, black men served the Union in large numbers, making up approximately 10 percent of the Union army, helping to destroy slavery and win new rights and citizenship for black Americans. They changed the fabric of America, but the revolution in which they participated went backward. White Southerners, barely punished for mass treason borne of zeal to defend white supremacy, regained control of Southern state governments and constructed a new regime of white supremacy that denied black men and women the ability to enjoy the rights and citizenship they possessed in theory. By the 1880s, some black veterans like the AME minister Henry McNeal Turner turned to emigration as the way for African Americans to find freedom because, as Turner put it, they had been “de-citizened.”[9]

The reemergence of white supremacy post-Civil War, institutionalized in the South through the legal regime of Jim Crow, and perpetuated in the North through informal practice, meant that African Americans faced knotty questions about loyalty and allegiance to the United States into the twentieth century. These questions loomed especially large during wartime. During the First World War, some black leaders followed W.E.B. DuBois in urging African Americans to “close ranks” and support the U.S. war effort, while others like the black journalist William Monroe Trotter, the son of a Civil War veteran of the 54th Massachusetts, argued that Southern lynch law was a far greater threat to black lives than the Kaiser.[10] In the next World War, many African Americans embraced the idea of a “Double V” campaign that sought victory over Fascism abroad and racism at home. The term was coined by James G. Thompson who, after searching his soul, decided that he would fight for the U.S., but only with the caveat that he sought to destroy “our enemies from without…and our enemies within” who were seeking to “destroy our democratic forms of government just as surely as the Axis forces.”[11]

Issues regarding the treatment of people of color and allegiance to the United States remain salient, especially as the country reflects on the ways in which violence against black lives—during slavery, during Jim Crow, today—has been systematic, unprosecuted, and persistent. Kaepernick, to be sure, has not suggested that he does not owe allegiance to the United States; he altered his form of protest specifically to convey respect for the U.S. military and the country itself, while at the same time highlighting its flaws. But his gesture reminds us of the discomfort some African Americans have felt when they have considered the prospect of fighting under the American flag. African American considerations of how, when, and why to serve a nation that institutionalized inequality remind us that interrogation of our national symbols is essential to creating a “more perfect Union.”

Megan Rapinoe kneeling, from Twitter user @GBpackfan32.
Megan Rapinoe kneeling, from Twitter user @GBpackfan32.

American political protests are older than the terms “United States” or “Star-Spangled Banner” (just ask King George about his tea). Like antebellum black activists who rather than celebrate Independence Day, instead held protest meetings on July 5th, Kaepernick is appropriating a bedrock piece of American national culture to make a necessary point. He reminds us that racial injustice still haunts this nation. “American” does not mean–and never has meant–blind fealty to symbols or institutions. Being American is about holding America accountable when it fails to live up to its great promise. Megan Rapinoe, a member of the LGBT community, also reminds us that American injustice comes in many forms and that a sense of solidarity can lead us to stand, or kneel, with our oppressed brethren. Hopefully Kaepernick, Rapinoe, and those beside them will inspire other Americans to embrace the complexity of the past and present and junk the zero-sum game in which you either stand for the anthem, or you are against America. Sometimes the best way to honor the United States is by kneeling down when its anthem plays. We can do two things at once. After all, we are Americans.


[1] Dan Murphy, “Jim Harbaugh: ‘I don’t respect’ action of Colin Kaepernick’s protest,” ESPN, August 30, 2016, accessed September 9, 2016, http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/17416931/former-san-francisco-49ers-coach-jim-harbaugh-respect-colin-kaepernick-actions.

[2] Hanna Trudo, “Obama: Kaepnerick ‘exercising his constitutional right to make a statement,” Politico, September 5, 2016, accessed September 9, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/obama-colin-kaepernick-protest-227731.

[3] On Key, slavery, and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” see Christopher Wilson, “Where’s the Debate on Francis Scott Key’s Slave-Holding Legacy?” Smithsonian Magazine, July 1, 2016, accessed September 9, 2016, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/wheres-debate-francis-scott-keys-slave-holding-legacy-180959550/?no-ist.

[4] On the making of the flag, see “Making the Flag,” Smithsonian.com, accessed September 9, 2016, http://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/making-the-flag.aspx.

[5] David Walker, David Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Colored Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America (Hill and Wang: New York, 1999), 15.

[6] Untitled letter copied from Colored People’s Press, Liberator, April 1, 1842.

[7] Henry Cropper, “Note from Philadelphia,” Pine & Palm, May 25, 1861.

[8] “Great Meeting in Shiloh Church,” Liberator, May 22, 1863.

[9] Henry McNeal Turner to Blanche K. Bruce, Christian Recorder, March 27, 1890.

[10] On African Americans, black service and World War I, see William Jordan, “‘The Damnable Dilemma’: African-American Accommodation and Protest in World War I” Journal of American History 81, no. 4 (1995): 1562-1583; Adrienne Lentz-Smith, Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009); Chad Louis Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[11] James G. Thompson, “Should I Sacrifice to Live,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 31, 1942, in Neil A. Wynn, The African American Experience during World War II (Lantham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010) 110-111.

Brian Taylor and Tom Foley

Brian Taylor is an assistant teaching professor of history at Georgetown University. He received his PhD from Georgetown in 2015 for his dissertation, "'To Make the Union What It Ought to Be': African Americans, Civil War Military Service, and Citizenship." He teaches courses on antebellum empire building, Abraham Lincoln, War and American Society, and slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. He can be reached at bmt36@georgetown.edu. Tom Foley is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. He co-edited "Memorable Days: The Emilie Davis Diaries" (www.davisdiaries.villanova.edu) and contributed to the Georgetown Slavery Archive (www.slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu). His dissertation explores the politics and the origins of the fossil fuel industry in nineteenth century Pennsylvania. He can be reached at tfoley2@gmail.com.

Fraud, Violence, and ‘Rigged’ Elections: A Warning from Bleeding Kansas

Democracy is fragile. One whiff of dishonesty, real or imagined, can undermine our dedication to democratic procedures. Even the wildest accusations about an opponent’s unethical or illegal behavior can help us justify rewriting the rules, or ignoring them altogether, in the name of victory. Allegations of electoral trickery are not uncommon in American politics, but they have cast a dark shadow over the ferocious presidential contest of 2016. Talk of voter fraud and rigged elections has proliferated in both the primary and general campaigns and will probably echo long after November. Still, the United States has weathered similar storms before: the “Corrupt Bargain” which allegedly ripped victory from Andrew Jackson’s hands in 1824; the disputed 1876 election, which raised fears of renewed civil war; and Bush v. Gore in 2000.

Outside of presidential politics, America’s record of peaceful, democratic decision-making gets even spottier. Just ask Kansas. In the mid-to-late 1850s, political strife in Kansas Territory captivated national attention and hastened the coming of the Civil War. From a bird’s-eye view, “Bleeding Kansas” represented a titanic struggle between two civilizations, with the fate of the republic hanging in the balance. The authors of an “Appeal to the South” warned that if abolitionists won, they would continue their “war upon the institutions of the South…until slavery shall cease to exist in any of the States, or the Union is dissolved.”[1] William H. Seward, a leading antislavery senator, agreed that the stakes were enormous. Either Kansas would be a free state, or slaveholders would win “at the cost of the sacrifice of all the existing liberties of the American people.”[2] Up close, however, the conflict looked grittier.

Within Kansas, the issues were equally substantial but the action unfolded as a series of sometimes violent clashes over voter qualifications, the validity of election returns, and the legitimacy of the territorial government. It was not supposed to be this way. Organized in 1854 under the principle of popular sovereignty, whereby local white voters would establish their own “domestic institutions” – and decide the fate of slavery – Kansas was meant to be a model of democracy. Popular dissatisfaction with a dysfunctional Congress made popular sovereignty appealing. Convinced that gridlocked antislavery and proslavery legislators could never compromise on the issue of slavery’s expansion, popular sovereignty’s supporters insisted that territorial voters choose for themselves. In practice, however, Kansas revealed democracy’s Achilles heel: if both sides are not willing to accept defeat, the system breaks down. And in Kansas, just as in Washington, D.C., slavery seemed too important to be left up to the whim of a majority.

A nineteenth-century etching entitled “Voting in Kickapoo,” from Albert D. Richardson, Beyond the Mississippi: From the Great River to the Great Ocean (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1869; GoogleBooks), 101.

The trouble began in the winter of 1854 to 1855, when Kansas held a pair of elections to select a delegate to Congress and a territorial legislature. Hearing that hordes of Yankees were en route to Kansas, and fearful of being surrounded on three sides by antislavery neighbors, proslavery Missourians resolved to control the outcome by any means necessary. Declaring that northern migrants had no more right to rule the territory than they did, Missourians crossed into Kansas just before both elections and voted by the thousands. One later testified that, while en route to Kansas, he met three hundred like-minded men whose travel expenses had been paid by slaveholders determined to protect their western flank. They planned to vote at least fifteen hundred times.[3] Many proslavery partisans voted early and often; in the March 1855 election for delegates to the territorial legislature, more than 6,000 ballots were cast in a territory which had only 2,905 legal voters. An overwhelming majority – 5,427 – were for proslavery candidates.[4]

People on both sides denounced their foes. Northern migrants reported armed voter intimidation, theft of ballot boxes, and thousands of ballots cast by Missouri “Border Ruffians” who had no intention of staying in Kansas. Well-armed Missourians surrounded an antislavery candidate, grabbed him by the collar, and mocked him as a “damned abolitionist.”[5] But Missourians insisted that their lives, property, and security were at risk and declared that settlers just arrived from Massachusetts had no more valid right to vote than they did.

Border ruffians with swords
“Two Unidentified Border Ruffians with Swords,” ca. 1854-1860. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Given that many of the earliest bona fide migrants to Kansas were from Missouri, proslavery candidates might have won both elections honestly. But their partisans’ unwillingness to risk defeat unleashed a cycle of protest, deceit, and violence that plagued Kansas for years and undermined many inhabitants’ faith in local governance. Rejecting the proslavery territorial government as a sham, antislavery residents established a rival (and federally unsanctioned) government in Topeka and applied for admission into the Union as a free state. By 1856, guerrilla warfare raged across much of the territory, claiming dozens of lives, including Frederick Brown, a son of soon-to-be-infamous abolitionist John Brown. The bloodletting spilled over into Congress when Preston Brooks (D-SC) assaulted Charles Sumner (R-MA) for a speech denouncing efforts to force slavery into Kansas. Outside observers recognized that the escalation of blame and retaliation threatened the whole country. The nation’s proslavery and antislavery factions, wrote one concerned bystander, grew “more repulsive every year….Kansas, in fact, is already the literal battle-ground of this unquenchable contest, where streams of blood have flowed on both sides.”[6]

In our own superheated political climate, Bleeding Kansas might seem disturbingly familiar. Born out of disillusionment and desperation, the struggle in Kansas Territory bred a self-righteous refusal to accept the legitimacy of political rivals – and ultimately released a wave of violence. Whether they fought to protect property, preserve racial privilege, or promote an ideology, participants justified fraud, intimidation, and murder by demonizing their foes. History offers few clear-cut lessons, but it is apparent that democracy cannot thrive amid violence, hectoring, and intolerance. It is precisely when our confidence in “politics as usual” has been shaken that we must shun the temptation to take shortcuts to victory. It is precisely in the high-stakes elections, the ones we are most loath to lose, that we must reaffirm our dedication to democracy as a process. When the process breaks down, everyone loses.


[1] W.H. Russell et al., “Kansas Matters – Appeal to the South,” DeBow’s Review 20, no. 5 (May 1856), 636.

[2] Congressional Globe, 34 Cong., 1 Sess., appendix, p. 405 (April 9, 1856).

[3] E.P. Vaughn testimony in U.S. House of Representatives, Report of the Special Committee Appointed to Investigate the Troubles in Kansas; With the Views of the Minority of Said Committee, Report No. 200, 34th Cong., 1st Sess. (Washington: Cornelius Wendell, Printer, 1856), 130.

[4] Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 59.

[5] John A. Wakefield testimony in Report of the Special Committee, Report No. 200, 2.

[6] Samuel Gilman to My Dear Children, August 1856, Samuel Gilman Papers, South Caroliniana Library, Columbia, SC.

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Assistant Professor of History at Marshall University. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. He is currently at work on a book entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy.