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, 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.