Fires of Jubilee

I’m reading this book in preparation for a book chat on September 17 for a completely different book,“Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?” by Bruce Lesh.  I don’t think any author has inspired me to order books more than Bruce Lesh, and I’m really glad I ordered this one.  My husband thought I paid too much because it cost me $4.00, and the book only cost  $7.95 new.  (Of course that was in 1990).

Lesh’s lesson captured my attention since I’ve dedicated the 150 year anniversary of the Civil  War years to studying it.  Unlike a true historian I still default to my experiences and imagination (as you will see as you read) to help me understand what took place at another time very different from the one in which we are now living.

When siblings fight, there is always the “He started it!” accusation that is supposed to vindicate the scuffle to Mom and Dad.  I think I’ve always just naturally felt that way about the North and their culpability for the Civil War.  The first shots of the Civil War were fired when South Carolina authorities ordered state militia to fire on the unarmed merchant ship, Star of the West and to bomb federally controlled Ft. Sumter off the coast of Charleston.  When I found out last year that some Southerners still call the Civil War the “War of Northern Aggression, as a Northerner I was truly puzzled.  They started it – right?  To be fair I went on a quest touring Southern Civil War sites to find out what they meant.

Struggling to understand the Confederate point of view, when I got to the museum in Petersburg,  I felt my first pang of empathy.  Pictures, artifacts, and a 20 minute video of the destruction of life and property during General Grant’s deadly siege left me feeling heartsick.  I had more than an inkling of why they wanted revenge for that 9 month battle.  I saw for myself how beautiful those antebellum homes were.

Here I have to revert back to my life.  I love the beauty and safety that my home provides me.  From time to time I  imagine how I would feel if people, someone – anyone, would come in and destroy all the work that has gone into creating our comfortable home.  I think about how frightening it would be.  So I can understand the fear, and anger that Southerners felt when their towns were destroyed by those aggressive northerners.  After reading Steven Oates book, I now believe that their designation of “Northern Aggression” had little to do with what happened toward the end of the war.   Southern desperate fear and hostility may have started with Nat Turner’s slave rebellion.   Until that time, they convinced themselves that the slaves didn’t mind being slaves.

A little aside here – I can’t imagine being a slave, let alone liking it –  no matter how hard I try.  I get testy when my husband is bossy doing home improvement projects when he wants me to help him.  I do as little as possible, and hide out.  So to even think about slavery being remotely likable for any human is just outside my ability to imagine. OK – back to the past.

Southern hatred of “Northern Aggression” started long before the War.  In Fires of Jubilee, the author does more than recount the story of Nat Turner and the slave rebellion that spawned terror in the hearts of Southern whites in 1831 and beyond.  There was nobody powerful enough to calm the revenge storm that raged against negroes after the rebellion.

Oates set the context with his words, “..Needing to blame somebody for Nat Turner besides themselves, Southern whites …linked the revolt to a sinister Northern abolitionist plot to destroy their cherished way of life” p. 129.  Even the governor of Virginia believed that abolitionists urged “our negroes and mulattoes, slaves and free to the indiscriminate massacre of all white people” p. 130.  So there you have it.  The Northern aggressive abolitionists were responsible for the negroes acting dissatisfied with their way of life.

Now, even though I still firmly believe that Southern whites were 100% in the wrong by holding on to the institution of slavery, I can finally understand how they had to blame “damned Yankee fascists” as one Southerner recently labeled us, tongue in cheek, for attacking their peaceful way of life.

First published in 1975, so you may have already read it, but I’m going to step out here and make a sales pitch and recommend Stephen B. Oates‘, The Fires of Jubilee:  Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion.  You will learn so much about this one pivotal event that contributed to the War of Northern Aggression.  In addition, I also hope many history teachers will read as “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?” by Bruce Lesh to help us as we learn to teach engaging, Common Core-friendly lessons.

And if you live in my area I hope you will come to the book chat on September 17th.

Opposition to Free Speech

This was the first day of the Tulare County Teaching American History Institute.
A big shout out to California History Project Director, Nancy McTygue, and her sons for preparing lunch.   It was an absolutely perfect 75 degree day in Davis, California.
Nancy McTygue introduces our guest lecturer.
Participants learned about the differing world views between the Federalist Party and the Jeffersonian Republican Party, and their stands on Free Speech.  These are my notes from the lecture.
Dr. Alan Taylor  Pulitzer Prize winner, Professor at U.C. Davis
Bill of Rights Ratified December 15, 1791
Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Bill of Rights only pertains to what Congress can and cannot do, and does not limit what private entities can do.  Free speech is never completely free.
In 1790 the population of the United States was 5 million, and the western boundary was Mississippi River.  Slaves were a fifth of the population, but 90% of those were in the south. The north wasn’t free of slavery.  For example, in  New York it wasn’t until 1826 until all slaves were freed.  There were differences between east and west and north and south.  There were no railroads most goods moved by water, and the mountains created obstacles.  The United States wasn’t very united.
The Federal Government in 1790
The United States was set up as a republic and not a democracy so that there was a barrier between the people and the government.  At that time powerful insecurities dominated national thought. This was the only Republic this size that had ever been tried.  Switzerland was a republic, Venice was a republic – smaller places that were homogeneous we’re republics, but the US was large and not homogeneous.  It was so risky that politicians at that time thought that the experiment in governing as a republic was likely to fail.  No one was  sure that the unity was going to last when the enemy (Britain) was gone.   The forms of state government varied radically between the states.
The founding fathers fought like cars and dogs.  There were two parties as the country began its political life, the Federalists and the Republicans, which were different from Republicans now.  They tended to polarize between the Federalists George Washington and Alexander Hamilton while Thomas Jefferson joined by James Madison and Aaron Burr started the opposition party called the Republicans. The Federalists were fearful about common people taking part in government.  Alexander Hamilton once said, “The people sir are a great beast,” and Federalists felt the strong need to ride herd on the people.  The Jeffersonian view of government was much more robust.  Jeffersonian Republicans believed that people will stay stupid stuff, but it will sort itself out without the government having to squelch them using the military.   Most people were Jeffersonian Republicans and thought that the government was better off not governing.  Over time we evolved in a more democratic government where the common people have more of a say in government than what they had when the government was new.  It is in the ambiance of  anxiety that is the context for the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Federalist leaders received a powerful dose of fear when they saw what was happening during the French Revolution.  At first they thought the French were just like the Americans, but when the French executed their king, Federalists felt that the French world view which would culminate in violent tyranny and despotism.  Dr. Taylor conjectured that Matt Groening, writer of the Simpsons, most likely is a Federalist.  To support this statement, nothing good happens in Springfield during the times that the mob rules.
Federalists and the Concern over Free Speech
Whiskey Rebellion was another example of the fear that Federalists felt when the common people got out of hand. Those that took part in the Whiskey Rebellion felt they were doing just what the Boston Tea party participants had done.  George Washington felt the need to bring the Whiskey Rebellion under control.  The Federalists wanted to outlaw self-governing areas.
The first contested election was between John Adams v Thomas Jefferson in 1796.  John Adams received 71 electoral votes to Jefferson’s 68.  By the rules of the government then, Jefferson became the Vice President instead of another Federalist.   John Adams was accused of trying to set up a monarchy.  There is a war undeclared between France and the US. The French were preparing to invade US.  So first effort to limit free speech was in 1798 with Alien and Sedition acts.
A question was asked about electoral college which was to prevent the two-party system.  Each party said they represented the public view.  About this time, the Irish began coming in large numbers to the United States. The Irish were radicalized and they voted republican, and this influx of new immigrants leads to the first instance of Nativism.  According to the Federalists, the Irish were not prepared to vote.
Alien and Sedition Acts
Most of four acts of the Alien and Sedition Acts were  lumped together.  One of the components of the Acts was that it took 14 years for someone to be naturalized, and be a citizen. The Federalists did this to help prevent a rebellion.  The Sedition Act pertains to free speech, and it concerned  any false, scandalous and malicious speech toward federal government should be curtailed especially regarding the President.  The key question at that time was who would decide whether the speech matched the criteria for being false, scandalous, and malicious?  Juries determined the fate of the one accused of false speech.  Then the question arose, ” Who gets to pick the juries?”  A lot was drawn to decide who was chosen as a juror.
Licentious is a favorite word of the Federalist that comes from the word of license.  The Federalists want to prohibit people from publishing something.  They weren’t plying for censorship, which is limiting free speech before it happens, but they wanted to control what was done after the speech was already out.  Under the terms of this law over 20 Republican newspaper editors were arrested and some were imprisoned. The most dramatic victim of the law was REPRESENTATIVE MATTHEW LYON of Vermont. His letter that criticized President Adams‘ “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and self avarice” caused him to be imprisoned.

On the Floor of Congress
This is what the floor of Congress looked like in 1798.  Matthew Lyon was prosecuted under Sedition Acts who was not well-educated and came from Ireland, but was elected to Congress,and the Federalists hated him.  He had been court marshaled, and was forced to carry a wooden sword.  He was re-elected to Congress while he was in prison.
These acts were opposed by states, in particular Virginia and Kentucky, and they passed a law declaring that federal law was invalid within their states.  This set the precedent that the Southern states used to justify their right to secede.