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Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Soldier's Final Letter


The first major land battle of the Civil War, the First Battle of Bull Run, was fought on July 21, 1861, so we're coming up on its 150th anniversary next week. Soldiers preparing for the fight were of course well aware that they might not return from the battlefield, and prepared by writing letters home. Major Sullivan Ballou, of the Second Rhode Island Volunteers, wrote a loving letter to his wife Sarah on July 14, exactly 150 years ago. It's too long to copy in full, but I hope you will follow the link and read the whole thing. Have tissues handy.

Here is an excerpt:

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure - and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine 0 God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing - perfectly willing - to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.


But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows - when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children - is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?


I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death -- and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.


The Confederacy won the First Battle of Bull Run, and Major Ballou was among the dead. The terrible battle seems to have been the first time that both sides realized that this was not going to be a fun little war with lots of banners and glory, but a long and horrifying slog.



If you live somewhere around Virginia, I'm sure you've heard about it already, but there will be a lot of commemoration going on this year. A big re-enactment of the First Battle of Bull Run will be performed soon, so maybe you'll want to go and see it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A note from Jefferson Davis

After South Carolina seceded from the Union, Mississippi was the next to follow. Jefferson Davis, the senator from Mississippi, was chosen as President of the Confederacy, and wrote to former U. S. President Franklin Pierce about the impending war. (Pierce was from New Hampshire, but was a "doughface" --a Northerner who supported the Confederacy--which ruined his reputation.) Davis had served as Pierce's secretary of war; the men knew each other well and corresponded.

Here is the letter:

Washington D.C. Jany. 20. 1861

My dear friend,

I have often and sadly turned my thoughts to you during the troublous times through which we have been passing and now I come to the hard task of announcing to you that the hour is at hand which closes my connection with the United States, for the independence and Union of which my Father bled and in the service of which I have sought to emulate the example he set for my guidance. Mississippi not as a matter of choice but of necessity has resolved to enter on the trial of secession. Those who have driven her to this alternative threaten to deprive her of the right to require that her government shall rest on the consent of the governed, to substitute foreign force for domestic support, to reduce a state to the condition from which the colony rose. In the attempt to avoid the issue which had been joined by the country, the present Administration has complicated and precipitated the question. Even now if the duty "to preserve the public property" was rationally regarded the probable collision at Charleston would be avoided. Security far better than any which the federal troops can give might be obtained in consideration of the little garrison of Fort Sumpter. If the disavowal of any purpose to coerce So. Ca. be sincere the possession of a work to command the harbor is worse than useless.

When Lincoln comes in he will have but to continue in the path of his predecessor to inaugurate a a civil war and, leave a soi disant democratic administration responsible for the fact. Genl. Cushing was here last week and when we parted it seemed like taking a last leave of a Brother.

I leave immediately for Missi. and know not what may devolve upon me after my return. Civil war has only horror for me, but whatever circumstances demand shall be met as a duty and I trust be so discharged that you will not be ashamed of our former connection or cease to be my friend.

I had hoped this summer to have had an opportunity to see you and Mrs. Pierce and to have shown to you our children. Mrs. Davis was sorely disappointed when we turned Southward without seeing you, I believe she wrote to Mrs. Pierce in explanation of the circumstances which prevented us from executing our cherished plan of a visit to you when we should leave West Point.

Mrs. Davis joins me in kindest remembrance to Mrs. Pierce and the expression of the hope that we may yet have you both at our country home. Do me the favor to write to me often, address Hurricane P.O. Warren County, Missi.

May God bless you is ever the prayer of your friend

Jeffn. Davis


Looking back to people who felt that their actions were necessary and just at the time is always somewhat strange. Lines like "Mississippi not as a matter of choice but of necessity has resolved to enter on the trial of secession. Those who have driven her to this alternative threaten to deprive her of the right to require that her government shall rest on the consent of the governed..." have so much unintended irony that it's hard to look at them objectively. It always makes me wonder what our descendants will say about us.

The plantation pictured here is the Hurricane Plantation that Davis gives as his address. It belonged to his older brother, and a side division of the land called Brierfield was given to Davis.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

John Brown and Harpers Ferry


In October 1859 a zealous abolitionist named John Brown led a raid on the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to take weapons from the armory and rally the slaves there to a rebellion. It was an utter disaster; half of Brown's men were killed, and the other half were taken (by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee) and tried for treason. Of course, all were found guilty and executed.

As he lay in prison awaiting his execution, John Brown wrote to his minister, one D. R. Tilden:

Charlestown, 28 November, 1859

TO THE HON. D. R. TILDEN.

My Dear Sir-- Your most kind and comforting letter of the 23d inst. is received. I have no language to express the feelings of gratitude and obligation I am under for your kind interest in my behalf ever since my disaster. The great bulk of mankind estimate each other's actions and motives by the measure of success or otherwise that attends them through life. By that rule, I have been one of the worst and one of the best of men. I do not claim to have been one of the latter, and I leave it to an impartial tribunal to decide whether the world has been the worse or the better for my living and dying in it. My present great anxiety is to get as near in readyness for a different field of action as I well can, since being in a good measure relieved from the fear that my poor broken-hearted wife and children would come to immediate want. May God reward a thousandfold all the kind efforts made in their behalf! I have enjoyed remarkable cheerfulness and composure of mind ever since my confinement; and it is a great comfort to feel assured that I am permitted to die for a cause, not merely to pay the debt of nature, as all must. I feel myself to be most unworthy of so great distinction. The particular manner of dying assigned to me gives me but very little uneasiness. I wish I had the time and the ability to give you, my dear friend, some little idea of what is daily, and I might almost say hourly, passing within my prison walls : and could my friends but witness only a few of these scenes, just as they occur, I think they would feel very well reconciled to my being here, just what I am, and just as I am. My whole life before had not afforded me one half the opportunity to plead for the right. In this, also, I find much to reconcile me to both my present condition and my immediate prospect. I may be very insane ; and I am so, if insane at all. But if that be so, insanity is like a very pleasant dream to me. I am not in the least degree conscious of my ravings, of my fears, or of any terrible visions whatever ; but fancy myself entirely composed, and that my sleep, in particular, is as sweet as that of a healthy, joyous little infant. I pray God that he will grant me a continuance of the same calm but delightful dream, until I come to know of those realities which eyes have not seen and which ears have not heard. I have scarce realized that I am in prison or in irons at all. I certainly think I was never more cheerful in my life.

I intend to take the liberty of sending by express to your care some trifling articles for those of my family who may be in Ohio, which you can hand to my brother Jeremiah when you may see him, together with fifteen dollars I have asked him to advance to them. Please excuse me so often troubling you with my letters or any of my matters. Please also remember me most kindly to Mr. Griswold, and to all others who love their neighbors. I write Jeremiah to your care. Your friend in truth,

John Brown.

I thought it was an interesting letter; assuming he was telling the truth about his feelings, Brown seems to have felt no fear for himself, only for his family (in fact he refused to escape when a friend arrived to help him get out of prison). I wonder how they fared afterwards--I would guess that they had to leave the area quickly.

On the day of his execution, Brown wrote, "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done." He was convinced that the only way to rid the country of slavery was through violence, and his actions did quite a lot to push the country toward civil war. People still argue today over whether Brown was a hero or a terrorist.

Years later, American soldiers turned a camp revival hymn known as Brothers, Will You Meet Us into a marching song called John Brown's Body. It went through several permutations (often quite vulgar ones) and settled for some time into this form:

Old John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,
While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;
But tho he lost his life while struggling for the slave,
His soul is marching on.
John Brown was a hero, undaunted, true and brave,
And Kansas knows his valor when he fought her rights to save;
Now, tho the grass grows green above his grave,
His soul is marching on.
He captured Harper’s Ferry, with his nineteen men so few,
And frightened "Old Virginny" till she trembled thru and thru;
They hung him for a traitor, they themselves the traitor crew,
But his soul is marching on.
John Brown was John the Baptist of the Christ we are to see,
Christ who of the bondmen shall the Liberator be,
And soon thruout the Sunny South the slaves shall all be free,
For his soul is marching on.
The conflict that he heralded he looks from heaven to view,
On the army of the Union with its flag red, white and blue.
And heaven shall ring with anthems o’er the deed they mean to do,
For his soul is marching on.
Ye soldiers of Freedom, then strike, while strike ye may,
The death blow of oppression in a better time and way,
For the dawn of old John Brown has brightened into day,
And his soul is marching on.
--by William Weston Patton

I'm sure that looks familiar, for a few years later Julia Ward Howe turned it into The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Birthday!


Happy Independence Day! I started this project one year ago, meaning to finish it today. But my plans have changed; I'm nowhere near 2011, for one thing, and I'd like to continue the project indefinitely. So stay tuned and we'll continue to learn about American history!

In honor of this day, I'll do the obvious thing and post the Declaration of Independence:





IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A little more of Robert E. Lee

In 1856, Robert E. Lee was serving in the US Army and was unable to be at home with his family as much as he wished. In a letter to his wife dated December 27, he wrote a bit on his feelings about the institution of slavery. The letter is not available online in full, but the most famous bit is excerpted here:

... In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.


I was surprised to find that Lee was--sort of--ot in favor of slavery. He spends the rest of the letter writing about his belief that slavery would only be abolished by God at some future time, and that abolitionist agitation was harmful to the welfare of slaves. Abolitionists, he considers, are interfering to no purpose (since slavery will not end until the time appointed), and he accuses them of intolerance: "Is it not strange that the descendants of those Pilgrim Fathers who crossed the Atlantic to preserve the freedom of their opinion have always proved themselves intolerant of the spiritual liberty of others?"

A little further investigation taught me that this opinion was not uncommon among Lee's set (religious slaveowners living in the border states). They didn't exactly approve of slavery, but they thought it was not their business to end it, either. Lee himself owned several slaves, and did not always treat them well. I am really going to have to read a biography of this man.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Robert E. Lee's Resignation from the U.S. Army


By the time the Civil War was starting, Robert E. Lee had served in the United States Army for about 25 years and had attained the rank of colonel. (The picture here is of Lee as a younger man in the U. S. Army.) He was a Unionist and did not agree with secession, but when his home state of Virginia voted to secede he was torn in two; he didn't support secession, but he could not fight against his home state and his own family. Lincoln offered him the post of field commander of the army, which he declined, and he decided to resign his commission. He hoped he would not have to fight at all, but Virginia named him commander of its army.

I read his letter of resignation from the Army, in which he expresses gratitude and his indebtedness to his superior officer. His feelings are muted by the formality of the letter, but it's easy to see something of what he felt.


Then there's his letter to his sister, Anne Marshall. Here, he's more personal and expresses something of his dilemma: "With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword. I know you will blame me; but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavoured to do what I thought right."

I've never read anything about General Lee's life; I think I'm going to have to get to know him a little better.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Henry Timrod: Ethnogenesis


Henry Timrod was a famous poet in the mid-19th century South; the Poetry Foundation calls him "after Poe, the most important Southern poet of the nineteenth century...he is not a major poet, but he is a significant minor poet." I'd never heard of him, but I don't know if that's because his strongly pro-Southern sentiment sank his reputation or because American literature is another area I'm not strong in. He was considered the unofficial poet laureate of the South.

"Ethnogenesis" was written upon the occasion of the First Southern Congress in February 1861 and was originally titled "Ode, on the Meeting of the Southern Congress." That extremely boring title does give you a clue about the poem: there are only a few kinds of odes, and this looks like a Pindaric ode, which means that it's a long poem with complex stanzas that don't have to match, which is composed to commemorate some heroic or highly emotional national event. A Pindaric ode may be a musical event with a chorus and dancers. So this poem ought to evoke triumph, national pride, and a general feeling of pageantry.

Timrod calls upon all the natural beauties of the South to celebrate its birth as a country. The cotton plant gets half a stanza to itself and is invoked as "the snow of Southern summers" to protect the land. Should the South be profaned by invasion, the very earth itself will rise up in self-defense to throw off the oppressing North's creed of avarice, while God will fight on the side of honor, purity, and the generosity of the South--which is destined to bless the whole world by giving work to the poor.

Most of Timrod's work sprang directly from the Civil War, and he died only a few years after it ended. I'm going to have to look further at his poetry. Meanwhile I'll quote the fourth and final stanza of "Ethnogenesis" here:

But let our fears -- if fears we have -- be still,
And turn us to the future! Could we climb
Some mighty Alp, and view the coming time,
The rapturous sight would fill

Our eyes with happy tears!

Not only for the glories which the years
Shall bring us; not for lands from sea to sea,
And wealth, and power, and peace, though these shall be;
But for the distant peoples we shall bless,
And the hushed murmurs of a world's distress:
For, to give labor to the poor,

The whole sad planet o'er,

And save from want and crime the humblest door,
Is one among the many ends for which

God makes us great and rich!
The hour perchance is not yet wholly ripe
When all shall own it, but the type
Whereby we shall be known in every land
Is that vast gulf which lips our Southern strand,
And through the cold, untempered ocean pours
Its genial streams, that far off Arctic shores
May sometimes catch upon the softened breeze
Strange tropic warmth and hints of summer seas.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Jefferson Davis' Inaugural Speech


Jefferson Davis was a senator for Mississippi and an influential man in Congress. I was surprised to find out that he was against secession; for a couple of years before the war he spoke in Northern and Southern states on behalf of keeping the Union together. Once his state seceded in January 1861, he spoke to the Senate urging peace. Davis was more pessimistic about the prospect of a war than most of his fellow Southern leaders were; he expected it to come and he was not hopeful about the South's ability to fight. He was evidently startled when representatives of the Confederate states elected him president, and he was unsure about his ability to lead. His first act was to send a commission to Washington in hopes of avoiding war, but the commission was refused.

Davis delivered his Inaugural Address on February 18, 1861. In it, he naturally does not express his fears for the future of the South. He first speaks about the Declaration of Independence and claims its inalienable rights for the South, saying that Southerners are merely asserting their rights and repeating the actions of the Revolution now that the United States has ceased to merit their consent to be governed. Davis expresses hopes for the future of the new Confederacy, for peace and for free trade. Over and over, he repeats that the South wants a peaceful start as a new country, and that if there is a war it will be the North's fault. Otherwise, he emphasizes, nothing has changed; the Constitution stands as the governing document of the Confederacy and everything can go on as usual, if only the danger of war can be averted.

Now of course Davis had a perfectly good point about the Declaration of Independence. The majority of voting Southerners wanted to secede, and under the philosophy outlined in the Declaration, they could do so. But it's also easy to see how that idea can get very damaging very fast; if every state could leave the Union when it had a grievance, then it would not take long for the Union to fragment into a whole lot of small, weak countries--each of which would then be at economic and political disadvantage. And they would probably fight with each other as well; it would not have been difficult to end up like 19th-century Europe, with constant wars in one place or another. So I can see both Lincoln's and Davis' point of view.

Davis enlarges on the point by saying: "To increase the power, develop the resources, and promote the happiness of a confederacy, it is requisite that there should be so much of homogeneity that the welfare of every portion shall be the aim of the whole. Where this does not exist, antagonisms are engendered which must and should result in separation." Now this has been a popular idea at times, and it certainly appeals to many, especially oppressed minorities. But it also seems to me like a recipe for fragmentation, which leads to a lot of problems as well.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The South's Economic Argument for Secession

New Orleans Daily Crescent published an editorial titled "Economic Reasons for Secession" on January 21, 1861. It expressed indignation that the North should be so rude as to object to secession, while the South would be quite happy to let the North secede ("as in common decency they ought to do seeing that they are so unhappy about the countenance the Union is supposed to give to the institution of slavery...").

The writer then explains the reasons that the North is so angry at the idea of secession: because although the South is constantly called uncivilized and barbaric and poor, it is in fact the source of most of the Union's wealth, and secession would deprive the North of the "rich feast upon which they have so long fed and fattened." Since Northerners are descended from Puritans, they have a "love of mean tyranny and cold-blooded, inexorable oppression."

I can quite understand Southerners' anger and defensiveness at the constant accusations of barbarity; no one enjoys being called names even if they're true. However, given that slavery actually was a barbaric institution, the bits about feeding off the wealth of others and cold-blooded, inexorable oppression are painfully ironic.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Should New York City secede from the Union?


Here's an odd little proposal I found. In January 1861, with civil war looming, the mayor of New York City made a speech suggesting that the city secede from the Union and become a free city, thus preserving its valuable trade links with both sides. Mayor Fernando Wood had built up quite a political machine for himself, which the Republican state legislature was always trying to break down, so he had little sympathy with the Union cause.

Mayor Wood argues that New York City has drawn residents from every part of the Union, and has commercial interests in every state. Not only that, but New York has sympathy with the South:

With our aggrieved brethren of the Slave States, we have friendly relations and a common sympathy. We have not participated in the warfare upon their constitutional rights or their domestic institutions. While other portions of our State have unfortunately been imbued with the fanatical spirit which actuates a portion of the people of New England, the city of New York has unfalteringly preserved the integrity of its principles of adherence to the compromises of the Constitution and the equal rights of the people of all the States. We have respected the local interests of every section, at no time oppressing, but all the while aiding in the development of the resources of the whole country. Our ships have penetrated to every clime, and so have New York capital, energy and enterprise found their way to every State, and, indeed, to almost every county and town of the American Union. If we have derived sustenance from the Union, so have we in return disseminated blessings for the common benefit of all. Therefore, New York has a right to expect, and should endeavor to preserve a continuance of uninterrupted intercourse with every section.

Therefore, the city should seriously consider seceding from the Union and becoming an independent free city, able to trade with everyone. Wood strongly resents the perceived injustices the city has been laboring under, and claims that the rest of the state lives only to plunder New York's riches. (In those days before income tax, the Union depended on tariffs for tax income, and New York City was the main source of that money; if the city had seceded, it would have been a financial disaster for Washington DC.) He feels no obligation to the rest of the Union:

When Disunion has become a fixed and certain fact, why may not New York disrupt the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master – to a people and a party that have plundered her revenues, attempted to ruin her and a party that have plundered her revenues, attempted to ruin her commerce, taken away the power of self—government, and destroyed the Confederacy of which she was the proud Empire City? Amid the gloom which the present and prospective condition of things must cast over the country, New York, as a Free City, may shed the only light and hope of a future reconstruction of our once blessed Confederacy.

What an interesting idea! It actually had quite a lot of support in New York City, which was a bastion of anti-Republican and pro-Southern feeling. Merchants were terribly worried about losing Southern business, and workers feared that their jobs would disappear if freed slaves arrived, willing to work for less. But once the war actually started, New York citizens turned right around to support the Union, much to the fury of Southerners hoping for the city's support.

So Mayor Wood did not get his wish, but neither did he have to worry about losing income. The North's industrial expansion during the war provided New York City with plenty of business after all.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Government's Right to Self-Defence


As Americans got ready to go to war, James Russell Lowell--the editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine--wrote essay after essay on critical issues. "The Government's Right to Self-Defence" appeared in the February 1861 issue (which is not the one pictured here). In it, Lowell argued that the North had to defend the principle of majority rule, which the South had violated.

Lowell castigates President Buchanan for indecision and lack of action. It seems that everyone was angry at Buchanan for his refusal to act, which I can understand; the president's insistence on acting only according to the law was an excellent principle, but the country was in a situation that had not been properly provided for in the law. I'm not sure that Buchanan's ideals can really be called indecision, but that's what it looked like, and it's landed him on a lot of "Worst President" lists.

Lowell argues that the Southern states have shown their true autocratic colors by threatening secession. He says that as long as things were going their way, they were happy to endorse the idea of majority rule, but as soon as that stopped, they threw a tantrum and wanted to quit:

It cannot be too distinctly stated or too often repeated that the discontent of South Carolina is not one to be allayed by any concessions which the free states can make with dignity or even safety. It is something more radical and of longer standing than distrust of the motives or probable policy of the Republican Party. It is neither more nor less than a disbelief in the very principles on which our government is founded. So long as they practically retained the government of the country, and could use its power and patronage to their own advantage, the plotters were willing to wait; but the moment they lost that control, by the breaking up of the Democratic Party, and saw that their chance of ever regaining it was hopeless, they declared openly the principles on which they have all along been secretly acting.

Denying the constitutionality of special protection to any other species of property or branch of industry, and in 1832 threatening to break up the Union unless their theory of the Constitution in this respect were admitted, they went into the late presidential contest with a claim for extraordinary protection to a certain kind of property already the only one endowed with special privileges and immunities. Defeated overwhelmingly before the people, they now question the right of the majority to govern, except on their terms, and threaten violence in the hope of extorting from the fears of the free states what they failed to obtain from their conscience and settled convictions of duty. Their quarrel is not with the Republican Party but with the theory of democracy. ...

His conclusion is that the Republic is far too important to give up without a struggle, and that war is justified because secession is, itself, an act of aggression against the Union.

And lastly--don't you love Lowell's beard?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Back to the Civil War

I sort of skipped the Civil War by reading only some Lincoln and then heading over to read Thoreau, so I'm going to go back and spend some time in the actual war. Since I've always lived in California, I know quite a bit more about pioneers and missions than the Civil War.

Today I read President James Buchanan's Message to Congress of December 3, 1860. Lincoln had already been elected and Buchanan was finishing his term. He had spent much of his energy trying to hold the Union together, and got little thanks for it; his efforts angered both sides. This speech was a final plea to the people of the United States to avoid secession and war.

When I first started reading the speech, I thought Buchanan must be a Southerner and had to go look him up. I was surprised to find that he was from Pennsylvania. Buchanan was a lawyer, and for him all that counted was the law; his motto was "I acknowledge no master but the law." As President, he could not change the law, only execute it, and he stuck to that.

I thought Buchanan must be from the South because the first part of his speech rails against the Northern people for their 'interference' and constant agitation on the subject of slavery: "The immediate peril arises...from the fact that the incessant and violent agitation of the slavery question throughout the North for the last quarter of a century has at length produced its malign influence on the slaves and inspired them with vague notions of freedom." If the Northerners would just quit harping on about the evils of slavery and opposing the Fugitive Slave Law, then everything would be fine. Buchanan upholds the idea that every state in the Union is independent and the North has no business telling the South what to do, any more than they could interfere "in Russia or in Brazil."

The rest of the speech is a detailed exposition of the Constitution and the illegality of secession. Buchanan feels that secession would be illegal--but so would any act that forced a secessionist state back into the Union. He says that Congress has no power to declare or make war against a state, and that the Union was designed to be permanent. This is a bit of a dilemma, then, and he urges Congress to work towards reconciliation, mostly by telling abolitionists to be quiet and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law throughout the Union.

South Carolina seceded from the United States two weeks later.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Poetry from Chinese Immigrants


This is jumping ahead a bit, but what the heck. I ran across poems written by Chinese immigrants detained on Angel Island, and I thought I'd share.

The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and then another for all of Asia in 1917 meant that it was extremely difficult for Chinese citizens to emigrate to the US. They came anyway, lured by the hope of a better life. In 1910, the US Immigration Station on Angel Island opened and served as a detention center for Asians, most of whom would be sent back to their homelands. The station was crowded, and inmates sometimes scratched poems on the walls. Now those poems are being recovered, but it's a long project; many of the walls were filled in and painted, and the building was abandoned after World War II.

The poems are mostly written in classical Chinese style and express sadness, hope, and anger. They probably date from before 1930.

A collection has been published in Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940. More information and poetry is available at KQED's Asian Education site and the Ancestors in the Americas project.

There are tens of thousands of poems on these walls
They are all cries of suffering and sadness
The day I am rid of this prison and become successful
I must remember that this chapter once existed
I must be frugal in my daily needs
Needless extravagance usually leads to ruin
All my compatriots should remember China
Once you have made some small gains,
you should return home early.

Written by one from Heungshan



In the quiet of night, I heard, faintly, the whistling of wind.
The forms and shadows saddened me; upon
seeing the landscape, I composed a poem.
The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky.
The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp.
Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.
The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.


Instead of remaining a citizen of China, I willingly became an ox.
I intended to come to America to earn a living.
The Western styled buildings are lofty; but I have not the luck to live in them.
How was anyone to know that my dwelling place would be a prison?



Poem by One Named Xu From Xiangshan Encouraging the Traveler

Just talk about going to the land of the Flowery Flag and my countenance fills with happiness.
Not without hard work were 1,000 pieces of gold dug up and gathered together.
There were words of farewell to the parents, but the throat choked up first.
There were many feelings, many tears flowing face to face, when parting with the wife.
Waves big as mountains often astonished this traveler.
With laws harsh as tigers,
I had a taste of all the barbarities.
Do not forget this day when you land ashore.
Push yourself ahead and do not be lazy or idle.



Sadly, I listen to insects and angry surf.
The laws pile layer upon layer; how can I dissipate my hatred? Drifting in as a traveler, I met with this calamity. It's more miserable than owning only a flute in the marketplace of Wu.



This is a message to those who live here not
to worry excessively.
Instead, you must cast your idle worries to
the flowing stream.
Experiencing a little ordeal is not hardship.
Napoleon was once a prisoner on an island.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Herland


Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Gilman Perkins was a Victorian feminist writer, most famous for her rather creepy short novella The Yellow Wallpaper. Herland was published serially in 1915 in her magazine, The Forerunner, and was Gilman's attempt to show that only feminism and socialism together could produce a just and peaceful society. Three men on an exploring trip in Brazil find a long-lost civilization where, amazingly, there are no men. (The men were killed off 2000 years ago, and the women are miraculously parthenogenic, all descended from the single woman who developed that trait.)

This women-only society is the most peaceful and advanced ever seen. Without the constant pressure of sex roles, the women have banded together and planned their society. After over 1500 years of work, they have accomplished much. Motherhood is the focus of their society, which is centered around the children, and everything is done collectively. Working together, the women have eradicated disease, perfected education, psychology, and agriculture, and produced a society with almost no crime. They know little of the outside world, of course, but they are very wise in all other ways. And, not being burdened with expectations about feminine frailty, all of them are remarkably strong and athletic.

Of course, being a utopian novel, it's all rather idealized. The author wanted to sell socialism along with feminism, and she imagined the best result--an impossible result, given that human beings are supposed to make up the Herland society, but Gilman was a believer in social Darwinism and the improvement of the race. She used several progressive ideas of the time that proved less than beneficial in practice: in Herland, physical problems and bad characteristics have been weeded out by selective breeding, and criminal or anti-social acts are treated as illness instead of choice. Embarrassingly, she makes it clear that the citizens of this society are of European descent, and not native to South America.

Herland offers some really interesting ideas to chew on, though. The women of Herland have never had to worry about femininity or attracting men, or differentiating themselves from men in any way. The narrator of the story points out that in his own American society, women and men feel the need to differentiate themselves from each other, and so each side exaggerates certain characteristics and tends to see each other as women and men, instead of human beings with various preferences and talents. The women of Herland are unable to treat the three explorers as men; they don't know how. Two of the men adapt, but one cannot; he simply can't get away from his ideas about women, and fails to learn the lessons of Herland.

This was a thought-provoking book to read and offered a great window into early progressivist thinking about socialism. Gilman had all the most cutting-edge philosophies of the time covered: socialism, social Darwinism, and a form of nationalism as well as feminism. It's always interesting to me to see how fashionable ideas work out over time.

Two Native American Speeches

It's been a while since I read anything from my collection of speeches given by famous native Americans, so I thought I would dip back into that.

In 1837-38, there was a terrible smallpox epidemic all over the Great Plains area. The inhabitants of Fort Union all got sick and it spread to the Mandan tribe, as well as several others. Smallpox decimated the Native American population, which had little immunity, and efforts to inoculate some of them failed. The Mandan tribe shrank from 2000 people to less than 150, and the chief, Mato Tope (The Four Bears) gave this speech shortly before his own death from the disease.

It's a tragic speech, given by a chief who is watching the destruction of his people. He understandably blames whites for the epidemic and encourages his tribe to rise up against them. As it turns out, the Mandan tribe had to combine with two neighboring tribes for survival and eventually became known as the Three Affiliated Tribes or the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

A story has been spread that American soldiers deliberately infected the Indians with smallpox in 1837 by giving them diseased blankets. That story is apparently untrue; though it has been published by the well-known anarchist historian Ward Churchill, nearly all other historians disagree with his interpretation of the evidence. The sources do describe the people at Fort Union warning Native Americans not to venture near the fort and trying to inoculate them.




One of the most famous speeches by a Native American is Chief Seattle's 1854 Oration. It's often quoted, and so is a letter to President Franklin Pierce. However, as I looked into this speech's history, I found that it is almost certainly spurious. No original text can be found, and it was first printed 30 years later by Dr. Henry A. Smith, who doesn't seem to have attended any such event.

It's depressingly ironic that one of the best-known Native American speeches is almost certainly a fiction produced by a white man. There are many authentic records of eloquent Native American orations; we don't need to hang on to fakes.





Saturday, May 21, 2011

More Feminists!


I've been reading a bit from Lucy Stone, an important suffragette and abolitionist. She was the first Massachusetts woman to ever earn a college degree--she went to Oberlin, the first coeducational university, and graduated in 1847--and was the first known woman to keep her maiden name upon her marriage.

I just read Stone's last speech, which was delivered to the Congress of Women at the Chicago World's Fair a few months before her death. It is titled The Progress of Fifty Years, and simply describes the great progress of women's rights in America, starting with the opening of Oberlin College in 1833. This event, she contends, "lifted a massive load from woman. It shattered the idea, everywhere pervasive in the atmosphere, that women were incapable of education, and would be less womanly, less desirable in every way, if they had it."

From then on, the extension of women's rights could not be stopped. Stone lists the achievements of women who were pioneers in their fields, and the great difficulties they had to overcome. She comments, "I think, with never-ending gratitude, that the young women of today do not and can never know at what price their right to free speech and to speak at all in public has been earned."

Stone also says, "The idea that [women's] sphere was at home, and only at home, was like a band of steel on society...We pleaded that whatever was fit to be done at all might with propriety be done by anybody who did it well; that the tools belonged to those who could use them; that the possession of a power presupposed a right to its use." That second sentence, I think, sums up the feminist cause in a nutshell.

This would be a great speech to give to a younger audience to read, because it describes so well the extensive limitations on women throughout the 19th century, which are quite difficult to imagine today. Stone articulately points out that women had few legal right and could not speak in public or become doctors, lawyers, or indeed anything much outside of the home. It's also quite short and clear, without much Victorian elaboration; it would make an excellent piece for classroom discussion.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reconstruction: Suffrage for Women!


This week I read two speeches by the two most famous women's rights advocates in America: Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Susan B. Anthony spoke before the Senate in 1880, pointing out that women should be granted the vote because they already had a natural right to it, and that the government was acting unconstitutionally in blocking that right. She had quite a lot to say on the subject of citizenship, the granting of the vote to black men, and the payment of taxes. It's a very interesting speech and I'd encourage you to read it.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton gave her final address, The Solitude of Self, before Congress in 1892. Her point was that every human being, finally, is alone. Each one is unique, with a mind not open to anyone else, and no one can truly count upon the support of others. Therefore women ought to be allowed to vote, to get education for themselves, and to become self-sufficient, for who "can take, dare take, on himself the rights, the duties, the responsibilities of another human soul?"

Saturday, March 19, 2011

More Lincoln Speeches

More speeches from President Lincoln:

At the start of the Civil War, Lincoln addressed a special session of Congress and detailed the history of the final time before the outbreak of hostilities. He pointed out all the ways that the US government had bent over backwards to avoid a war, but the Southern states were determined and attacked Fort Sumter without provocation. I never knew how all that happened, so it was interesting. He then offered a legal defense of the reasons that secession was illegal and unconstitutional.

As it became clear that the war was not going to be short, Lincoln issued a proclamation of a day of prayer and fasting.

I actually read these a few weeks ago and then dropped the ball--again!--about posting. So I'll be reading post-Civil War material for the next few weeks.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Thoreau: Civil Disobedience and other essays

Somehow I wound up reading Thoreau instead of actual Civil War material. I don't even like him very much; he always sort of bugs me, with the ranting and the "simple life" in which someone else cooked his meals most of the time. So I'm trying to appreciate Thoreau better.

I read Civil Disobedience, in which he talks about his opposition to slavery and the Mexican War. He didn't approve of the American government, so he refused to pay poll taxes for several years. He figured that if everyone refused to support the government in wrong actions, it would have to give in. For his refusal to pay taxes, Thoreau was put in jail for a night. His aunt then paid the back taxes against his will, so he was released. A good deal of the essay talks about his night in prison and how much he liked it.

There's some good stuff in the essay. I like his maxim about the least government possible being the best kind. He expressed hopes that eventually a minimal government would give way to none at all, which seems a bit improbable.

I also read an essay about Slavery in Massachusetts, which was originally a speech castigating his fellow citizens for worrying about Nebraska when the Fugitive Slave Law was in effect right there in their own area. Another essay is a defense of John Brown, but I'm not done with it yet.

Then at the last minute, I read Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, which was largely designed to avoid a civil war. In it, he reiterates his opinion that a President has no right to abolish slavery (it had to be done by Constitutional amendment), and repeated over and over again that no one was going to attack the Southern states and that if they wanted a war, they would have to start it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Lincoln vs. Douglas

I've been reading some of Abraham Lincoln's presidential campaign speeches, which are largely concerned with his opponent, Judge Douglas, and the burning question of the day--whether slavery would be allowed to spread, or if it could be contained and eventually ended.




Some well-known quotations from Lincoln on his position about slavery are taken from these speeches, but I found that a single famous line by itself did not really communicate his opinion properly. He starts off his speech by saying that he does not want to interfere with slavery or abolish it, and that he does not feel that he has the power to do so anyway (which was true enough). Most of the rest of the speech is devoted to making it quite clear that he doesn't approve of slavery one bit, but he's primarily concerned with stopping Douglas and others from spreading the practice throughout all the States. After that, he thinks it would be Congress' job to foster an environment in which slavery would die out, preferably without starting a war over the issue.

I need to do quite a bit more reading on the Civil War--I haven't even really gotten started.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Two Feminist Speeches!


I have a Dover Thrift collection of great speeches by American women, so I read part of that this week. There are not a lot of feminist speeches before the Civil War, but one of them is a favorite of mine: Sojourner Truth's Ain't I a Woman? Sojourner Truth lived from 1797-1883. Born a slave, she gained her freedom in 1827 and spent most of her adult life working for abolition and women's rights. This famous speech was given in 1851 as a response to a clergyman who argued that "women were too weak and helpless to be given the right to vote." It's not long, so I'm going to quote the whole speech below.

The next speech is from 1854, by Lucretia Coffin Mott, a Quaker abolitionist and suffragette. Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she organized the 1848 Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention and published a famous treatise, "Discourse on Women." I guess I should read that too. The speech I read is called "Why Should Not Woman Seek to be a Reformer?" It lauds women's accomplishments and rails against the laws that made a married woman "a cypher"--according to the law, a married couple was one person, and that person was the husband. A wife had no rights or property of her own.

It's on to the Civil War in February! The Civil War is one of those things that I know shamefully little about.

AIN'T I A WOMAN?

by Sojourner Truth


Delivered 1851 at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin was written as anti-slavery propaganda for white Northerners who, I suppose, didn't know much about the realities of slavery. It was a huge success and was very influential for the abolitionist cause, though now its Victorian sentimentality comes off as melodramatic and overdone. Uncle Tom, who was written as a Christ figure, has gotten something of an unfortunate reputation as a weak and servile character. (Yes, he's not very realistic, but neither is anyone else!) The Uncle Tom character was absorbed into minstrel shows and so for years, the popular image of an "Uncle Tom" was very different than Stowe's original virtuous Christian hero.

As a novel, the characters are types and the whole thing comes off as unlikely. But accuracy wasn't the point anyway; she wanted to inflame feeling against slavery and so she succeeded at her task.

Interestingly, for much of the novel, slave owners are depicted as more virtuous than you might expect--certainly better than real slave narratives of the time showed. Nearly all of the slave owners are kind, well-meaning people; I suppose so that the targeted white readers would sympathize with them and not feel attacked, and so that Stowe could make one of her main points: no matter how kind an owner was, a slave could never feel safe. Those kind owners fall into debt, or hardship, or they get angry or they die, and then all the nice promises are meaningless if they aren't backed up with legal documentation. And anyhow, everyone would prefer freedom in poverty to slavery in comfort. So she wanted to really emphasize that even when slavery was used in an "ideal" way, as slave-owners often insisted was nearly always the case, it was still an awful system. I think she didn't want to give anyone a way to say "Well, if we just curb the abuses, it would work,"--she wanted to show that even the best possible case was hopelessly corrupt and wrong.

The book is full of unusually well-treated slaves brought up with educations by their owners (not usually their actual parents, for the separation of families is a major theme), who are then sold off to fates unknown. The plight of women is of particular concern; Stowe makes the girls' expected destinies very clear--though of course she never says anything outright. Her female characters are the ones who courageously figure out ways to run away from slavery and save their children, while Uncle Tom stays behind to bear the consequences. He could run, but he chooses not to in order to save others.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is really worth reading for the insight it provides into pre-Civil War America. I don't really think it's a work of great literature, but that wasn't what Stowe was trying to do. Reading it with its context and goal in mind is the way to do it. (Which puts me in mind of The Pilgrim's Progress, another popular classic that is classic because it was popular and hugely influential, not because it's a great literary work.)


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Frederick Douglass



This week I read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which is of course an excellent book that everyone should read. I'm not sure I have anything amazing to say about it; everyone knows this book already! I hadn't realized how young he was when he wrote it; he was not yet 30. So I'm putting in this picture of him as a young man, which I was not familiar with before.

To continue my theme, I'm going to read Uncle Tom's Cabin next.

Friday, January 7, 2011

New Republic in January

OK, we're back!

Way back when, I read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, which I highly recommend for reading about slavery. The author, who calls herself Linda in the book, tells the story of her life. As a young woman, she had the misfortune of being attractive, and her owner spent years trying to trap her into a relationship with him. She describes with regret the course that led her to decide to take up with a different white man in an attempt to get away from the owner. She bore him two children, but found that he was useless as a protector. Eventually she 'escaped' by hiding in a tiny shed loft--for seven years. She could peek out a little hole and see her children as they played, but they had no idea that she was near.

It's not an easy book to read, but it's well worth it. 'Linda' is an eloquent narrator.

This week, I decided to ease back into things by looking through my book of American letters. I read any letter dated between 1800-1860. One was a letter from Meriwether Lewis to the Oto Indians, and I realized that I don't know much about the Lewis and Clark expedition--someday I should read more on that. I liked a letter from a Norwegian boy during the Gold Rush, and one from Father De Smet giving advice on going West. There was a long letter from Frederick Douglass to his former master, and a humorous description from a young Abraham Lincoln of how he escaped matrimony to a young lady he didn't like as much as he thought he did (she turned him down, which bruised his ego a bit).

There is also a chapter of love letters from famous authors. The 19th-century style is a little syrupy to modern minds. Edgar Allen Poe in particular is enough to put you off him for life, but the interesting thing is that this terribly elaborate letter, all about how he can't live without her and has tried to commit suicide, is addressed to a married woman who had refused him, while he had another woman--who got letters that were just as fancy--whom he was also in love with. He didn't marry that one either, but fell for a third woman and was engaged to her when he died.