History

Review of Edna Greene Medford, "Lincoln and Emancipation"

Reading the Emancipation Proclamation for the first time is an unforgettable experience. Nothing prepares you for how dull it turns out to be. Ranking only behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in its consequences for U.S. history, the document contains not one sentence that has passed into popular memory. It was the work, not of Lincoln the wordsmith and orator, but of Lincoln the attorney. In fact, it sounds like something drafted by a group of lawyers, with Lincoln himself just signing off on it.

Destroying an institution of systematic brutalization -- one in such contradiction to the republic’s professed founding principles that Jefferson’s phrase “all men are created equal” initially drew protests from slave owners -- would seem to require a word or two about justice. But the proclamation is strictly a procedural document. The main thrust comes from an executive order issued in late September 1862, “containing, among other things, the following, to wit: ‘That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free….’”

Then -- as if to contain the revolutionary implications of that last phrase -- the text doubles down on the lawyerese. The proclamation itself was issued on the aforesaid date, in accord with the stipulations of the party of the first part, including the provision recognizing “the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”

In other words: “If you are a state, or part of a state, that recognizes the union enough to send representatives to Congress, don’t worry about your slaves being freed right away and without compensation. We’ll work something out.”

Richard Hofstadter got it exactly right in The American Political Tradition (1948) when he wrote that the Emancipation Proclamation had “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” It is difficult to believe the same author could pen the great memorial speech delivered at Gettysburg a few months later -- much less the Second Inaugural Address.

But to revisit the proclamation after reading Edna Greene Medford’s Lincoln and Emancipation (Southern Illinois University Press) is also a remarkable experience -- a revelation of how deliberate, even strategic, its lawyerly ineloquence really was.

Medford, a professor of history at Howard University, was one of the contributors to The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views (Louisiana State University Press, 2006). Her new book is part of SIUP’s Concise Lincoln Library, now up to 17 volumes. Medford’s subject overlaps with topics covered by earlier titles in the series (especially the ones on race, Reconstruction and the Eighteenth Amendment) as well as with works such as Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (Norton, 2010).

Even so, Medford establishes her own approach by focusing not only on Lincoln’s ambivalent and changing sense of what he could and ought to do about slavery (a complex enough topic in its own right) but also on the attitudes and activities of a heterogeneous and dispersed African-American public with its own priorities.

For Lincoln, abolishing the institutionalized evils of slavery was a worthy goal but not, as such, an urgent one. As of 1860, his primary concern was that it not spread to the new states. After 1861, it was to defeat the slaveholders’ secession -- but without making any claim to the power to end slavery itself. He did support efforts to phase it out by compensating slave owners for manumission. (Property rights must be respected, after all, went the thinking of the day.) His proposed long-term solution for racial conflict was to send the emancipated slaves to Haiti, Liberia, or someplace in Central America to be determined.

Thanks in part to newspapers such as The Weekly Anglo-African, we know how free black citizens in the North responded to Lincoln, and it is clear that some were less than impressed with his antislavery credentials. “We want Nat Turner -- not speeches,” wrote one editorialist; “Denmark Vesey -- not resolutions; John Brown -- not meetings.” Especially galling, it seems, were Lincoln’s plans to reimburse former slave owners for their trouble while uprooting ex-slaves from land they had worked for decades. African-American commentators argued that Lincoln was getting it backward. They suggested that the ex-slaves be compensated and their former masters shipped off instead.

To boil Medford’s succinct but rich narrative down into something much more schematic, I’ll just say that Lincoln’s cautious regard for the rights of property backfired. Frederick Douglass wrote that the slaves “[gave] Mr. Lincoln credit for having intentions towards them far more benevolent and just than any he is known to cherish…. His pledges to protect and uphold slavery in the States have not reached them, while certain dim, undefined, but large and exaggerated notions of his emancipating purpose have taken firm hold of them, and have grown larger and firmer with every look, nod, and undertone of their oppressors.” African-American Northerners and self-emancipating slaves alike joined the Union army, despite all the risks and the obstacles.

The advantage this gave the North, and the disruption it created in the South, changed abolition from a moral or political concern to a concrete factor in the balance of forces -- and the Emancipation Proclamation, for all its uninspired and uninspiring language, was Lincoln’s concession to that reality. He claimed the authority to free the slaves of the Confederacy “by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.”

Despite its fundamentally practical motivation and its avoidance of overt questions about justice, the proclamation was a challenge to the American social and political order that had come before. And it seems to have taken another two years before the president himself could spell out its implications in full, in his speech at the Second Inaugural. The depth of the challenge is reflected in the each week's headlines, though to understand it better you might want to read Medford's little dynamite stick of a book first.

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U of Oklahoma history professors object to joint course with History Channel

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Many historians try to make their work accessible to the public. But how accessible is too accessible, and at what cost? New course offered jointly by History Channel and U of Oklahoma has some on campus wondering.

Scholars are troubled by legal battle over Goebbels’s diaries

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Scholars are troubled by implications of legal battle over Goebbels’s diaries. Will researchers want to pay the heirs of fascists?

Interview with editors of 'The American Yawp,' a free history textbook published online

"I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world," Walt Whitman declares in Leaves of Grass. How he ended the line without an exclamation point always puzzled me, but maybe it was implicit. The poet sang "the body electric," and every line was meant to zap the reader into a higher state of awareness.

Whitman would have been pleased to see the new American history textbook called The American Yawp -- and not just for its allusive title. As a sometime school teacher and educational reformer, he wanted "free, ample and up-to-date textbooks, preferably by the best historians" (to quote one discussion of this aspect of the poet's life). Yawp's 30 chapters cover American history from the last ice age through the appearance of the millennial generation. It has plenty about the founders and the origins of the U.S., but avoids a triumphalist tone and includes material on inequality -- including economic inequality -- throughout. It was prepared through the collaborative efforts of scores of historians. And the creators have published it online, for free.

The beta version was released, with no fanfare at all, at the start of the current academic year. By the fall, a revision will be issued in e-book format, suitable for use in an undergraduate survey course -- again, for free. Walt would surely approve.

I contacted the editors -- Joseph Locke, an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston-Victoria, and Ben Wright, an assistant professor of history and political science at the Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in south Georgia -- to find out more about The American Yawp. They collaborated in responding to my questions by e-mail. A transcript of the discussion follows.

Q: How did you go about writing (assembling?) your textbook? Did you collaborate via Listservs? Were there any face-to-face meetings?

A: Traditional textbooks usually begin with a single editor or a small team of editors searching for some unifying theme to tie together the many thematic strands of American history. Instead, we mirrored the way our profession already works. We believed that a narrative synthesis could emerge through the many innovations of our profession’s various subfields no less than through a preselected central theme. We therefore looked to a large and diverse yet loosely coordinated group of contributors to construct a narrative.

We began by mapping out potential contributions for all 30 chapters based on our experiences teaching the survey and in informal conversations with colleagues and potential chapter editors. We came up with things like “500 words on the election of 1860” and “300 words on the music and art of the Civil War.” We compiled these into lists.

Then, after tapping into the networks of scholars we knew, as well as scouring recent editions of major history journals, combing through lists of recent dissertations, browsing the rosters of university programs with traditional strengths in particular eras and soliciting contributors through social media and H-Net’s many history Listservs, we targeted scholars to write on these themes.

We had no trouble recruiting an adequate pool of qualified contributors. In fact, we ended up with over 300 historians writing for the project. This work was done almost exclusively online.

Q: Was it a matter of one person preparing a draft chapter and then other participants proposing changes?

A: Since a textbook should be more than a series of brief, disjointed topical entries, we began the work of synthesis. We recruited talented writers and scholars as chapter editors who went to work stitching submissions into coherent chapters. We then reviewed and edited drafts of all 30 chapters, particularly with an eye on ensuring greater narrative cohesion across the text.

During our beta year, we are soliciting feedback not only from our esteemed board of editorial advisers but from contributors and users through our parallel Comment Press platform. With that feedback in hand, we will publish a refined version of the text and begin a second phase that incorporates interactive digital content and further explores what a digital textbook is truly capable of.

Q: Are you aware of anyone teaching with the beta version? Have you had commitments from individuals or departments to use it during the next academic year?

A: Students are currently working with the text at a variety of institutions ranging from major state universities (such as the University of Georgia and the University of Florida) to various community colleges (such as Central New Mexico Community College and Bronx Community College) and everything in between (Rice University, Georgia State University, the University of Texas at Dallas and others). We don’t solicit formal commitments for use, but we’ve already heard from additional instructors and history departments hoping to adopt the text next fall. We are historians, not marketers, but we believe continued positive feedback and our formal launch in the fall will also encourage additional adoptions.

Q: In the culture wars, American history is one of the more harried battlegrounds. Did that factor into the textbook’s preparation in any way?

A: We believe history should be written by historians. We have no interest in the culture war, beyond mitigating the way that some have used it to wildly distort the past. Instead, we've trusted in our profession; our desire has been to reflect all the very best of contemporary scholarship.

On the other hand, we have been conscious about how to properly synthesize the American past. What gets included, and what doesn't? This is a difficult issue and we have enlisted the historical profession to help guide us. And we remain open to critical feedback.

Q: The talk page of a Wikipedia entry tends to become a forum for debate, informed and otherwise. Yawp is not in wiki format, of course, but will the comments component be moderated?

A: We've seen very little rancor in our Comment Press platform. Disagreements have mostly taken the form of highly specialized critiques. Historians are argumentative, but we've been pleased to see that all have followed the standards of professional decorum. We therefore haven't had any plans to moderate discussions. And, unlike a wiki, disruptive comments would not be able to filter into the text without editorial decisions.

Q: It seems as if The American Yawp could serve as a model for other textbooks. Is that the plan?

A: Our model is completely reproducible. We've accomplished this without institutions, grants or rarefied technological know-how.  And we very much hope that others will follow our example. We already know, for example, that within our own profession there is quite a bit of interest for a similar project in world history.

Q: A commercially produced textbook can be financially rewarding for everybody involved in its creation, and it counts on an author's CV. These seem like powerful incentives for stasis. What would it take for your mode of textbook production to establish itself as viable over the long run?

A: Of course, a commercially produced textbook is not financially rewarding for everybody involved -- it is often quite financially punitive for our students. (The College Board, for instance, found that the typical student now spends $1,200 a year on textbooks and supplies.) And outside of a few textbooks written by a few academics for a few major presses, financial rewards can be extremely limited for textbook producers.

Still, the reputational economics of academia do matter. Professional consideration of projects such as this will certainly shift as academia continues to adjust to the digital age, but we also did not embark upon the project for economic or professional gain. This has been and will continue to be a labor of love. We entered the historical profession because we believe there is a moral imperative to study the American past and to share that knowledge with students and with the public. The rising costs of higher education makes that difficult. Academics recognize this, and we believe that's why over 300 academic historians were so willing to participate in this project.

We believe our model is viable in the long term. This is not a start-up having to satisfy investors or foundation boards. This is simply a collective of historians who have come together to share the knowledge of our profession. That doesn't mean certain developments couldn't further secure the long-term viability of projects such as this, of course. For instance, we have been looking into possible partnerships with innovative university presses to help satisfy the very reputational implications you cited.

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Historians reject vote on controversial anti-Israel resolutions

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At business meeting of American Historical Association, members refuse to consider last-minute proposals to condemn Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

Historians discuss the pleasures and pitfalls of teaching popular history

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From Little House on the Prairie to comics to flappers, historians at annual meeting discuss the pleasures and pitfalls of teaching popular history.

Essay on "The Americans," and Margaret Peacock, "Innocent Weapons: The Soviet and American Politics of Childhood in the Cold War"

It was too prolonged for there to be any specific date, or dates, to mark it. But perhaps this is as good a time as any to mark the 25th anniversary of a process that started with the fall of the Berlin Wall in early November 1989 and reached a kind of peak with the events in Romania late that December.

The scale and pace of change were hard to process then, and difficult to remember now. Ceausescu had barely recovered from the shock of being heckled before he and his wife faced a firing squad. It was not how anyone expected the Cold War to end; insofar as we ever imagined it could end, the images that came to mind involved mutually assured destruction and nuclear winter.

A few years ago, Daniel T. Rogers characterized the intellectual history of the final decades of the 20th century as an “age of fracture” – an era in which the grand narratives and overarching conceptual schemata were constantly displaced by “piecemeal, context-driven, occasional, and… instrumental” ideas and perspectives in the humanities, social sciences, and public life. Fair enough; just try finding a vintage, unshattered paradigm these days. But a system of bipolar geopolitical hostilities prevailed throughout most of that period, and the contradictory structure of conflict-and-stasis seemed very durable, if not permanent.

Until, suddenly, it wasn’t. One smart and well-executed treatment of the world that came to an end a quarter-century ago is a recent television series called "The Americans," set in the early 1980s. The first season is now available in DVD and streaming video formats, and the second will be in two weeks, just in time for binge-viewing over the holidays.

"The Americans" is a Cold War spy drama as framed by the “secret life amidst suburban normality” subgenre, the basic tropes of which were inaugurated by "The Sopranos." In it, the Jenningses, a married couple, run a travel agency in Washington, where they live with their two early-adolescent kids. But they are actually KGB agents who entered the United States some 20 years earlier. They have operated from behind cover identities for so long that they blend right in, which makes them very effective in their covert work. While gathering information on the Strategic Defense Initiative, for example, they even get access to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network -- aka ARPANET -- which allows communication between computers, or something.

The comparison shouldn’t be pushed too hard, but the paradox of the deep-cover agent is right out of John Le Carré: A divided identity makes for divided loyalties. At very least it puts considerable strain on whatever commitment the couple started out with, back in the late Khrushchev era. We get occasional flashbacks to their life as young Soviet citizens. With the onset of “Cold War II,” the motherland is imperiled once again (not only by the American arms buildup but also by the reflexes of KGB leadership at “the Center”) and the Jenningses have decidedly mixed feelings about raising kids under rampant consumerism, even if they’ve grown accustomed to it themselves.

The moral ambiguities and mixed motives build up nicely. Life as a couple, or in a family, proves to be more than a layer of the agents’ disguise: love is another demand on their already precarious balance of loyalties. Yet the real menace of thermonuclear showdown is always there, underneath it all. Some viewers will know that things came very close to the point of no return at least once during this period, during NATO’s “Able Archer” exercise in November 1983. Whatever sympathy the audience may develop toward the Jenningses (played with real chemistry by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) is regularly tested as they perform their KGB assignments with perfect ruthlessness. They are soldiers behind enemy lines, after all, and war always has innocent casualties.

The conflict has gone on so long, and with no end in sight, that the characters on screen don’t even feel the need to justify their actions. The spycraft that the show portrays is historically accurate, and it gets the anxious ground-tone of the period right, or as I remember it anyway. But very seldom does "The Americans" hint at the impending collapse of almost every motive driving its core story -- something the viewer cannot not know. (Pardon the double negative. But it seems to fit, given the slightly askew way it keeps the audience from taking for granted either the Cold War or the fact that it ended.)

The focus on the family in "The Americans" takes on added meaning in the light of Margaret Peacock’s Innocent Weapons: The Soviet and American Politics of Childhood in the Cold War, recently published by the University of North Carolina Press. The scriptwriters really ought to spend some time with the book. At the very least, it would be a gold mine of nuances and points of character development. More generally, Innocent Weapons is a reminder of just how much ideological freight can be packed into a few messages rendered familiar through mass media, advertising, and propaganda.

Peacock, an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, examines the hopes and fears about youngsters reflected in images from the mid-1940s through the late 1960s. The U.S. and the USSR each experienced a baby boom following World War II. But the outpouring of articles, books, movies, and magazine illustrations focusing on children was not solely a response to the concerns of new parents. It might be more accurate to say the imagery and arguments were a way to point the public’s attention in the right direction, as determined by the authorities in their respective countries.

Children are the future, as no politician can afford to tire of saying, and the images from just after the defeat of fascism were tinged with plenty of optimism. The standard of living was rising on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In 1950 President Truman promised parents a “the most peaceful times the world has ever seen.” Around the same time, the Soviet slogan of the day was “Thank You Comrade Stalin for Our Happy Childhood!”, illustrated with a painting of exuberant kids delivering an armful of roses to the General Secretary, whose eyes fairly twinkle with hearty good nature.

But vows of peace and plenty on either side were only as good as the leaders’ ability to hold their ground in the Cold War. That, in turn, required that young citizens be imbued with the values of patriotism, hard work, and strong character. Sadly enough, children on the other side were denied the benefits of growing up in the best of societies.

The Soviets media portrayed American youth as aimless, cynical jazz enthusiasts facing Dickensian work conditions after years of a school system with courses in such topics as “home economics” and “driver’s education.” The Americans, in turn, depicted Soviet youth as brainwashed, stultified, and intimidated by the state. (And that was on a good day.)

By the late 1950s, the authorities and media on each side were looking at their own young people with a more critical eye (alarmed at “juvenile deliquincy,” for example, or “hooliganism,” as the Soviets preferred to call it) -- while also grudgingly admitting that the other side was somehow bringing up a generation that possessed certain alarming virtues. Khrushchev-era educational reformers worried that their students had endured so much rote instruction that they lacked the creativity needed for scientific and technological progress, while American leaders were alarmed that so many young Soviets were successfully tackling subjects their own students could never pass -- especially in science and math. (The news that 8 million Soviet students were learning English, while just 8,000 Americans were taking Russian, was also cause for concern.)

The arc of Cold War discourse and imagery concerning childhood, as Peacock traces it, starts out with a fairly simplistic identification of youth’s well-being with the values of those in charge, then goes through a number of shifts in emphasis. By the late 1960s, the hard realities facing children on either side were increasingly understood as failures of the social system they had grown up in. In the U.S., a famous television commercial showed a little girl plucking the leaves of a daisy as a nuclear missile counted down to launch; while the ad was intended to sway voters against Barry Goldwater, it drew on imagery that the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (better known as SANE) and Women Strike for Peace first used to oppose nuclear testing a few years earlier. Nothing quite so emblematic emerged in the Soviet bloc, but the sarcastic use of a slogan from the Komsomol (Young Communist Union) became a sort of inside joke about the government’s self-delusion.

“To varying degrees,” writes Peacock, “both countries found themselves over the course of these years betraying their ideals to win the [Cold] war, maintain power, and defend the status quo…. Even images like that of the innocent child can become volatile when the people who profess to defend the young become the ones who imperil them.”

 

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Georgia Southern University investigating a professor accused of proselytizing in his classes

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Georgia Southern U. is looking into claims that a history professor is pushing his own anti-evolution views in his classes at the public university.

Review of Chris Walsh, 'Cowardice: A Brief History'

In recent years we’ve had quite a few books on the negative emotionsdisgust, malice, humiliation, shame – from scholars in the humanities. In addition, Oxford University Press published its series of little books on the Seven Deadly Sins. Apparently envy is the most interesting vice, to judge by the sales ranks on Amazon, followed by anger -- with lust straggling in third place. (A poor showing, given its considerable claims on human attention.)

The audience for monographs putting unpleasant or painful feelings into cultural and historical context probably doesn’t overlap very much with the far larger pop-psychology readership. But their interests do converge on at least one point. Negative affects do have some benefits, but most of us try to avoid them, or minimize them, both in ourselves and others, and to disguise them when necessary; or, failing that, to do damage control. And because the urge to limit them is so strong, so is the need to comprehend where the feelings come from and how they operate.

Arguably the poets, historians, and philosophers have produced richer understandings of negative emotions, in all their messiness. As for what the likes of Dr. Phil bring to the table, I have no opinion – though obviously they’re the ones leaving it with the biggest bags of money.

But the avoidance / interest dynamic really goes AWOL with the topic Chris Walsh explores in Cowardice: A Brief History (Princeton University Press). The Library of Congress catalog has a subject heading called “Cowardice — history,” with Walsh’s book being the sole entry. That’s a clerical error: Marquette University Press published Lesley J. Gordon’s “I Never Was a Coward”: Questions of Bravery in a Civil War Regiment in 2005. It is 43 pages long, making Walsh the preeminent scholar in the field by a sizable margin. (He is also associate director of the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University.)

“[P]ondering cowardice,” he writes “illuminates (from underneath, as it were) our moral world. What we think about cowardice reveals a great deal about our conceptions of human nature and responsibility, about what we think an individual person can and should have to endure, and how much one owes to others, to community and cause.”

But apart from a typically thought-provoking paper by William Ian Miller a few years ago, cowardice has gone largely unpondered. Plato brought it up while on route to discussing courage. Aristotle stressed the symmetry between cowardice (too much fear, too little confidence) and rashness (too much confidence, too little fear) and went on to observe that rash men tended to be cowards hiding behind bluster.

That insight has survived the test of time, though it’s one of the few analyses of cowardice that Walsh can draw on. But in the historical and literary record it is always much more concrete. (In that regard it’s worth noting that the LOC catalog lists 44 novels about cowardice, as against just two nonfiction works.)

Until sometime in the 19th century, cowardice seems to have been equated simply and directly with fear. It was the immoral and unmanly lack of yearning for the chance at slaughter and glory. The author refers to the American Civil War as a possible turning point, or at least the beginning of a change, in the United States. By the Second World War, the U.S. Army gave new soldiers a pamphlet stating, up front, YOU’LL BE SCARED and even acknowledging their anxiety that they might prove cowards once in battle.

Courage was not an absence of fear but the ability to act in spite of it. This represented a significant change in attitude, and it had the advantage of being sane. But it did not get around a fundamental issue that Walsh shows coming up repeatedly, and one well-depicted in James Jones’s novel The Thin Red Line:

“[S]omewhere in the back of each soldier’s mind, like a fingernail picking uncontrollably at a scabby sore, was the small voice saying: but is it worth it? Is it really worth it to die, to be dead, just to prove to everybody you’re not a coward?”

The answer that the narrator of Louis-Fernand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night about the First World War (“I wasn’t very bright myself, but at least I had sense enough to opt for cowardice once and for all”) sounds a lot like Mark Twain’s considered opinion in the matter: “The human race is a race of cowards, and I am not only marching in that procession but carrying a banner.”

Both were satirists, but there may be more to the convergence of sentiment than that. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, war became mechanized and total, with poison gas and machine guns (just a taste of improvements to come) and whole populations mobilized by propaganda and thrown onto the battlefield. The moral defect of the coward was sometimes less than obvious, especially with some hindsight.

In Twain’s case, the remark about fundamental human cowardice wasn’t an excuse for his own military record, which was not glorious. (He numbered himself among the thousands who "entered the war, got just a taste of it, and then stepped out again permanently.") Walsh provides a crucial bit of context by quoting Twain’s comment that “man’s commonest weakness, his aversion to being unpleasantly conspicuous, pointed at, shunned” is better understood as moral cowardice, “the supreme make-up of 9,999 men in the 10,000.”

I’ve indicated a few of Walsh’s themes here, and neglected a few. (The yellow cover, for example, being a reminder of his pages on the link between cowardice and that color.) Someone might well write an essay about how overwhelmingly androcentric the discussion tends to be, except insofar as a male labeled as a coward is called womanly. This is strange. When the time comes for battle, a man can try to flee, but I’ve never heard of anyone escaping childbirth that way. And the relationship between moral cowardice (or courage) and the military sort seems complex enough for another book.

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Review of Zephyr Teachout, 'Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United'

Writing in 1860, a journalist depicted Washington as a miserable little Podunk on the Potomac, quite unworthy of its status as the nation’s capitol. He called it an “out of the way, one-horse town, whose population consists of office-holders, lobby buzzards, landlords, loafers, blacklegs, hackmen, and cyprians – all subsisting on public plunder.”

"Hackmen" meant horse-powered cabbies. "Blacklegs" were crooked gamblers. And cyprians (lower-case) were prostitutes -- a classical allusion turned slur, since Cyprus was a legendary birthplace of Aphrodite. Out-of-towners presumably asked hackmen where to find blacklegs and cyprians.

But sordid entertainment was really the least of D.C. vices. “The paramount, overshadowing occupation of the residents,” the newsman continued, having just gotten warmed up, “is office-holding and lobbying, and the prize of life is a grab at the contents of Uncle Sam’s till. The public-plunder interest swallows up all others, and makes the city a great festering, unbearable sore on the body politic. No healthy public opinion can reach down here to purify the moral atmosphere of Washington.”

Plus ça change! To be fair, the place has grown more metropolitan and now generates at least some revenue from tourism (plundering the public by other means). Zephyr Teachout quotes this description in Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United (Harvard University Press), a book that merits the large readership it may get thanks to the author’s recent appearance on "The Daily Show," even if much of that interview concerned her remarkable dark-horse gubernatorial campaign in New York state's Democratic primary, in which anti-corruption was one of her major themes. (Teachout is associate professor of law at Fordham University.)

The indignant commentator of 1860 could include lobbyists in the list of ne’er-do-wells and assume readers would share his disapproval. “Lobby buzzards” were as about as respectable as card sharks and hookers. You can still draw cheers for denouncing their influence, of course, but Teachout suggests that something much deeper than cynicism was involved in the complaint. It had a moral logic – one implying a very different set of standards and expectations than prevails now, to judge by recent Supreme Court rulings.

Teachout’s narrative spans the history of the United States from its beginnings through Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, less than six months ago. One of the books that gripped the country’s early leaders was Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the first volume of which happened to come out in 1776, and Teachout regards the spirit they shared with Gibbon as something like the crucial genetic material in the early republic’s ideological DNA.

To be clear, she doesn’t argue that Gibbon influenced the founders. Rather, they found in his history exceptionally clear and vivid confirmation of their understanding of republican virtue and the need to safeguard it by every possible means. A passage from Montesquieu that Thomas Jefferson copied into his notebook explained that a republican ethos “requires a constant preference of public to private interest [and] is the source of all private virtues….”

That “constant preference” required constant vigilance. The early U.S. statesmen looked to the ancient Roman republic as a model (“in creating something that has never yet existed,” a German political commentator later noted, political leaders “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries, and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language”).

But the founders also took from history the lesson that republics, like fish, rot from the head down. The moral authority, not just of this or that elected official, but of the whole government demanded the utmost scruple – otherwise, the whole society would end up as a fetid moral cesspool, like Europe. (The tendency to define American identity against the European other runs deep.)

Translating this rather anxious ideology into clear, sharp legislation was a major concern in the early republic, as Teachout recounts in sometimes entertaining detail. It was the diplomatic protocol of the day for a country’s dignitaries to present lavish gifts to foreign ambassadors -- as when the king of France gave diamond-encrusted snuffboxes, with his majesty’s portrait on them, to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. In Franklin’s case, at least, the gift expressed admiration and affection for him as an individual at least as much as it did respect for his official role.

But all the more reason to require Congressional approval. Doing one’s public duty must be its own reward, not an occasion for private benefit. Franklin received official permission to accept the snuffboxes, as did two other figures Teachout discusses. The practice grated on American sensibilities, but had to be tolerated to avoid offending an ally. Jefferson failed to disclose the gift to Congress and quietly arranged to have the diamonds plucked off and sold to cover his expenses.

Like the separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches (another idea taken from Montesquieu), the division of Congress into House and Senate was also designed to preempt corruption: “The improbability of sinister combinations,” wrote Madison, “will be in proportion to the dissimilarity in genius of the two bodies.” Teachout quotes one delegate to the Constitutional Convention referring sarcastically to the “mercenary & depraved ambition” of “those generous & benevolent characters who will do justice to each other’s merit, by carving out offices & rewards for it.”

Hence the need for measures such as the clause in Article 1, Section 6 forbidding legislators from serving simultaneously in an appointed government position. It also prevented them from accepting such a position created during their terms, after they took office. The potential for abuse was clear, but it could be contained. The clause was an effort “to avoid as much as possible every motive for corruption,” in another delegate’s words.

Corruption, so understood, clearly entails far more than bribery, nepotism, and the like – things done with an intent to influence the performance of official duties, in order to yield a particular benefit. The quid pro quo was only the most obvious level of the injustice. Beyond violating a rule or law, it undermines the legitimacy of the whole process. It erodes trust in even the ideal of disinterested official power. Public service itself begins to look like private interest carried on duplicitously.

The public-mindedness and lofty republican principles cultivated in the decades just after the American revolution soon enough clashed with the political and economic realities of a country expanding rapidly westward. There were fortunes to be made, and bribes to be taken. But as late as the 1880s, states were putting laws on the books to wipe out lobbying, on the grounds that it did damage to res publica.

Clearly a prolonged and messy process has intervened in the meantime, which we’ll consider in the next column, along with some of the criticism of Teachout’s ideas that have emerged since she began presenting them in legal journals a few years ago. Until then, consider the proposal that newspaper writer of the 1860s offered for how to clean the Augean stables of Washington: To clear out corruption, the nation’s capitol should be moved to New York City, where it would be under a more watchful eye. Brilliant! What could possibly go wrong?

 

 

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