Tag: slavery

And John Tyler too

When I realized I had yet to read a presidential biography this year, I decided to tackle one that was more obscure and therefore more likely to be shorter. For some reason, tenth president John Tyler came to mind.

I opted for John Tyler by Gary May, part of the American Presidents series of short books. I try to avoid that series because all the books are intentionally short—this one was 150 pages—and I want to feel like I’ve earned (i.e. suffered through enough pages of) every biography, you know? But I decided to cut myself some slack on this one, and I’m now 18 presidents down with 26 to go.

Tyler Who?

John Tyler proved more interesting than I expected. All I knew of him, besides “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”, was that he was the first president to ascend to the office due to his predecessor’s death (pour one out for William Henry “31 Days in Office” Harrison) and that he was a slaveholder who eventually served in the Confederacy.

He was also the youngest president (at 51) to take the oath at the time, had 15 kids between two wives (and two of his grandsons are still alive), was the first president to get married while in office, and the first to decline to seek a second term.

He also facilitated the annexation of Texas, which helped cause the Civil War. So there’s that.

One of the more intriguing episodes was when he resigned from U.S. Senate in 1836. He did it in protest of a resolution to expunge the censure of Andrew Jackson, which he’d earned from his conduct related to the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. Though a longtime Democrat, Tyler was even more strongly for states rights and therefore against Jackson’s despotism and expansion of executive power. So much so that he preferred resignation over acquiescence to federal overreach.

This also meant he was often politically homeless. Take a look at his political party affiliation history:

  • Democratic-Republican (1811–1828)
  • Democratic (1828–1834)
  • Whig (1834–1841)
  • None (1841–1844)
  • Democratic-Republican (1844)
  • None (1844–1862)

Notice he wasn’t affiliated with any party during his 1841-1844 presidential term. That’s because after vetoing several Whig bills (his own party, mind you) for being unconstitutional, which triggered mass resignations from his own cabinet (orchestrated by ol’ Henry Clay), the Whigs expelled Tyler from the party. He spent the rest of his administration a free agent, exerting the little influence he had on his two primary presidential passions: annexing Texas and vetoing as many bills as possible.

Tyler’s story ended just as the country’s took a dark turn. In February 1861 he was sent as a private citizen to the Peace Conference of 1861, a last-ditch effort I’d never heard of to negotiate a compromise over slavery. It failed, obviously, but it wasn’t long before Tyler was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. He died before the first session began, thus denying him the opportunity of living to be the only U.S. president to formally give the finger to his erstwhile nation.

(Is that my Yankee showing?)

As a committed one-termer with a handful of goals (Texas and vetoes), Tyler reminds me of his presidential successor, James Polk, who got to fight the war with Mexico that Tyler’s backroom deal-making instigated. And this book fills in yet another gap in this era of forgotten presidents between Jackson and Lincoln. “And Tyler too” is about right.

Book Notes & Quotes: John Tyler by Gary May

  • At 51 he was the youngest president to take the oath at the time
  • Tyler’s father was Virginia governor and friend of Jefferson during Revolution
  • Attended College of William & Mary, then law school by 19 and Virginia House of Delegates in 1811
  • In spring 1813 his father died, he married Letitia, and joined militia but didn’t see action
  • Elected to Congress in 1816 at 26
  • Clay’s “American System” inspired by dismal performance in War of 1812, but states rights advocate Tyler voted against
  • Appointed to committee investigating Second Bank of the United States role in 1818’s “bank mania” of speculation and corruption; report was critical but bank survived
  • Voted against Missouri Compromise of 1820, which pushed him to not seek re-election
  • Law and farming bored him, so he won spot in Virginia legislature at 33, then became Virginia governor at 35
  • Virginia senator John Randolph lost favor, so Tyler selected for Senate in 1827
  • Hated John Quincy Adams and feared Andrew Jackson; in 1824 went Adams and 1828 Jackson
  • Went against Jackson’s despotism in nullification crisis and Bank controversy, despite supporting states rights
  • Resigned from Senate in 1836 in protest of resolution to expunge censure of Jackson’s behavior in Bank controversy
  • Despised the word “national” and what it represented
  • Whigs in 1840 had no official platform so as not to tear apart fragile coalition
  • Clay clashed with Harrison assuming he’d be subservient to Congress
  • Tyler brought 8 kids to White House, had son as secretary
  • Wife Letitia had stroke in 1839 and was invalid; daughter in law and actress Priscilla Cooper acted as First Lady
  • Clay, angling for 1844, put Third Bank of United States up for vote but Tyler vetoed
  • Whig activist Philip Hone called Tyler’s message “the quintessence of twaddle”
  • Second veto of bank triggered Cabinet resignations (orchestrated by Clay) save Daniel Webster; Clay assumed Tyler would resign but instead he found independent Whigs to serve
  • Whigs expelled Tyler from party after 1841 special session
  • Letitia died in 1842
  • Skirmish with Britain in 1830s at Maine/New Brunswick border dispute led to Webster-Ashburton treaty, border resolutions, and slave trade compromises
  • Sent first envoy to China to open for U.S. trade
  • Ardent expansionist who wanted to annex Texas, but slavery held it up
  • In February 1844 was cruising Potomac on new steam-powered USS Princeton when “Peacemaker” cannon exploded; Tyler and fiancée Julia below but casualties and carnage above, including Julia’s father
  • Calhoun “never happier than when he was philosophizing on behalf of slavery”
  • Antislavery Democratic senator leaked Texas annexation treaty; solely hinges on slavery in election year
  • Created his own Democratic-Republican party to act as spoiler; promised to bow out if assured by Polk that Texas would be annexed
  • Married Julia in June 1844 in secret; first presidential wedding in office; 30 years older than her
  • Funds to improve White House denied by Congress, so Julia’s mother contributed
  • First president to decline to seek second term
  • Signed Texas annexation resolution on March 1
  • Had 15 kids between two wives
  • 1848 election split by Free Soil Party nominee Van Buren, and combined with Mexican war spoils states led to Compromise of 1850, which Tyler supported with Clay
  • Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and attempt at arming slaves tilted Tyler toward secession
  • Even in early 1861 was looking for ways to prevent disunion: participated in “peace convention” in DC but turned when proposed amendment would limit slavery and when Lincoln signaled war
  • Oversaw transfer of Confederate capital from Montgomery to Richmond, and served in Confederate House of Representatives briefly before death in January 1861
  • Asserted presidential power in era when Congress tried to weaken it; used veto vigorously, showed power even without congressional support or personal charisma
  • Improved Britain/American relations through Webster-Ashburton treaty, opened relations with China through Treaty of Wanghia, annexed Texas
  • Helped create “imperial presidency” through secret service contingency funds, guarding certain records, dispatching forces
  • Belief he was heir to Virginian presidents dynasty led to reckless pursuit of Texas, which led to Civil War

Durham Days

We just got back from a long weekend in Durham, North Carolina, for a friend’s wedding. I had a great time bummin’ around the area while my wife was busy on bridesmaid duty. Had some barbecue, heard some blues, and took a few pictures…

at Ponysaurus Brewing:

at Carolina Soul Records, where I found some Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick, and a Stax Records compilation:

at Stagville, one of the largest plantations in the antebellum South—this one was in the “Great Barn”:

I call this one “Freedom”:

And there was the unintentional irony of a Master lock on one of the preserved slave cabins:

The wedding reception was in a beautiful building near the Eno River State Park:

And our last stop before our flight home was Duke University’s “chapel”, which, come on, is actually a cathedral of epic proportions:

Twelve Years A Slave

I recently saw the above trailer for Steve McQueen’s upcoming film 12 Years a Slave and immediately got excited to see it on the merits of the trailer, cast, and director alone. But then at the library the following day I happened to see the memoir upon which the film is based and decided to read it.

Twelve Years A Slave is the Solomon Northup’s first-hand account of his kidnapping into the cruel slavery world of the antebellum South and his long-awaited deliverance. Great Scott is his story breathtaking. The book is short yet wonderfully written, so I’d highly encourage you to read it before the movie comes out so you can read for yourself Northup’s concisely poetic narrative.

One particular passage that stood out was his description of Christmas day, one of the few days all year that the slaves didn’t work:

That morning [the slave] need not hurry to the field, with his gourd and cotton-bag. Happiness sparkled in the eyes and overspread the countenances of all. The time of feasting and dancing had come. … There were to be re-unions, and joy and laughter. It was to be a day of liberty among the children of Slavery.

One of the few ebullient passages in what is otherwise a dark and suffering-filled story, I like how it shows the slaves drawing their own joy and tangible meaning out of a holiday that was also celebrated by the very men who unjustly enslaved Solomon and his brethren.

Read the book. (And while you’re at it, check out the director Steve McQueen’s film Hunger, which chronicles the harrowing prison hunger strike of IRA rebel Bobby Sands.)

Bringing Old Orthodoxies To A Boil

I just finished reading Fergus Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, a history of the Underground told through a series of vignettes. I enjoyed learning about the unheralded individuals of all stripes who served on the Railroad as “stationmasters” or support staff along the way. But one particular passage stood out for its relevance in today’s tempestuous times.

Some context: The Fugitive Slave Law, passed in 1850, was part of Congress’ infamous compromise of that year and was arguably the most controversial part of an already contentious piece of legislation. The Act imposed legal consequences upon those who aided in the escape of fugitive slaves to the North in order to support Southerners’ legal right to their slave property. But the Act’s draconian measures perturbed even non-abolitionists outside of the South, so much so that the law, according to Bordewich, “became a virtual dead letter” in the North.

This spirit of civil disobedience was not unique to the 1850s, as the book thoroughly illustrates; rather, it was who was being disobedient that was novel after the Act passed. Benoni Fuller, a county sheriff in Indiana—a nominally free state with a proslavery bent – had this reply for proslavery citizens who complained to him about the hundreds of fugitives coming through: “Let ’em!” What made Fuller’s response unique was that he wasn’t an abolitionist nor Underground Railroad stationmaster, but a Democrat, a member of the party of the South and of slavery. Bordewich’s conclusion: “Old orthodoxies were boiling away.”

That last line is what stuck out to me. Even then, before the Civil War had even been fought, the antebellum orthodoxy that said slavery had been and ought to remain a protected social and economic institution was beginning to crumble. While in many ways the orthodoxy continued for decades after slavery was constitutionally disallowed through Jim Crow laws and state-sanctioned discrimination, the idea that a Democratic sheriff who most likely disagreed with abolitionism in a state that was sympathetic to slaveowners would openly balk at implementing a proslavery law demonstrated that the culture was being changed, at least partially, by the Underground Railroad and its lofty ideals.

This is significant because culture changes very slowly. Perhaps it was the animus produced by the Civil War and the events that preceded it that accelerated the culture change, or perhaps it was the overarching sense of divine destiny promulgated by the Quakers and evangelicals who founded and propelled the abolition movement. Whatever it was, it all contributed to the heat that, as per Bordewich, was boiling away the old traditions.

Which got me thinking: what are the beliefs and conventions our culture holds today that are in the process of being “boiled away”? The attitude toward gay marriage is the first one that comes to mind; like the slavery proponents of old, opponents of gay marriage often cite Biblical precedence and the importance of tradition as reasons for keeping the status quo (as Fox News’ [!] Megyn Kelly recently pointed out). But old assumptions about gay people and marriage, especially in the last decade, have been slowly boiling away.

On the issue of slavery, things began to change when regular people, who were neither abolitionists nor slaveholders, started becoming exposed to the horrors and humiliations of slavery (often because of the fugitive slaves that came through their towns on the Underground Railroad). Similarly, opposing gay rights likely becomes more difficult when you merely know a gay person as a friend and can empathize with their struggle to win basic civil rights.

I wonder if the average slaveholding Southerner, knowing now in hindsight that the institution for which he fought and died would crumble and that he would be viewed dismissively as an enemy of what we now consider basic human rights, would still cling tooth and nail to his (at the time) legal right to own a slave. With this in mind, what are the chances our great-grandchildren will look back on this decade and cultural era and judge us harshly for clinging to unjust or flat-out wrong beliefs and dogmas for too long? What sort of blind spots can we see, without the benefit of hindsight, in our own lives?

Will we, for lack of a better phrase, be on the right side of history? For some, that won’t matter: They believe what they believe and that’s that. But for others, it’s an important question to keep in mind when pondering what you believe, why you believe it, and what societal good you do to support those beliefs.

If you consider all of these things yet are not satisfied with the answers, perhaps that which you hold dear—for better and for worse—will one day be boiled away.