Son of the South: Robert E. Lee
Clare Spark, “Margoth v. Robert E. Lee: Melville’s Poetry and Rival Conceptions of National Unity,”
paper for panel “The Nineteenth-Century Artist,” American Literature Association Meeting, June 1, 2002, Long Beach, California.
Dramatis personae. Two contending ideologies are limned in an unresolved civil war. Radical liberal combatants include John Milton and his character Mammon (Paradise Lost), Charles Sumner, antislavery Senator from Massachusetts (1851-1874), and Melville’s rootless cosmopolitans: Captain Ahab (Moby-Dick, 1851), and Margoth (Clarel, 1876). The organic conservative adversaries include Melville’s Robert E. Lee (“Lee in the Capitol,” Melville himself as author of the Supplement to Battle-Pieces, Aspects of the War (1866), Robert E. Lee, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., Henry Cabot Lodge, and Woodrow Wilson. [The term “organic” is affixed to the moderate men because they asserted the organic, spiritualized community against the depredations of mechanical materialism, the imputed weapon of the empiricist enemy, bearers of degeneration.]
I. Railroads and the liberal nation
The nineteenth-century American artist was situated on either side of the most difficult and unprecedented political conflict in the history of the human race: at bottom was a particular reading of the Constitution. Both the American and French Revolutions had advanced the theory and practice of popular sovereignty; moreover these human events were ruptures with the past that no Burkean gradualism could heal. The Civil War and its aftermath had pressed the novel question of equality to its logical conclusion: After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, were Americans finally prepared, as Senator Charles Sumner had urged, to act upon the premises of the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution? Where were our most accomplished artists moving? Would they follow Sumner’s road to equality before the law and the supremacy of the liberal nation, the overarching commonwealth that protected the human rights of every citizen without distinction of color? Note that Sumner referred to the equal rights of individuals, not of communities or states. Did not the Constitution, he asked in his speech “Are We A Nation?” (1867), empower the national government to create States as Republics that would similarly protect the rights of individuals? Or would former rebels reorganize state governments in their own interest?
Would nineteenth-century artists adhere to the feudal relic of States rights, that excuse for Secession; that doctrine that permitted Southern patricians to retain control of the freedmen until the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 60s, in yet another chapter of an unconcluded Civil War, hearkening back to the English Civil War of the seventeenth century? There could be no equivocation in this decision: conciliation and compromise with unrepentant cavaliers would lead only to Southern victory and the reinstatement of slavery by other means. What was Sumner’s vision for the South (and North)? Was this program vindictive and punitive as Northern Democrats and Andrew Johnson supporters in the Republican Party (and some contemporary Melville scholars, praising the moderation of Melville’s “Supplement” to Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War) have insisted? As opposed to Johnson’s plan of executive restoration (begun without participation of Congress), Sumner’s proposals for Congressional reconstruction demanded exclusion of rebels from government (for the time being), unrestricted black male suffrage, free public schools (to accompany suffrage), land for freedmen (for each head of household), removal of all discrimination and segregation, and the rights of blacks to sit on juries, and to serve as witnesses. The perfected Republic advocated by the Radical Republicans, with its emphasis on an excellent popular education for all, is still unrealized; its defeat by organic conservatives was one of the turning points in the history of our democracy. Perhaps had Sumner and his allies prevailed, had the liberal nation triumphed, we would not be reading diagnoses of his character as delivered by his (“pragmatic”) political enemies: “Hebraic” Sumner the neo-Jacobin, moral terrorist, fanatic, destroyer of the Union, stubbornly independent and individualistic, prolix, crazy, demagogic, tactless, Sumner the “nigger-lover”. Why, the man sounds like Melville’s Captain Ahab, as described by Ishmael and numerous literary scholars, taking railroading Ahab to be the essential American type, spawned by self-fashioning Puritan New Englanders (the Chosen People), and mowing down everything “spiritual” in its path.
Supporting the Iowa Railroad Bill of 1852, the fledgling Senator from Massachusetts had looked upon ever-enlarging democratic vistas: “It would be difficult to exaggerate the influence of roads as means of civilization¼where roads are not, civilization cannot be¼Under God, the road and the schoolmaster are two chief agents of human improvement. The education begun by the schoolmaster is expanded, liberalized, and completed by intercourse with the world; and this intercourse finds new opportunities and inducements in every road that is built.” Now, twenty-four years later, comes Melville’s most unbeloved character, the “geologic Jew” Margoth of Clarel, a hammer-swinging little man, and, like Sumner, another liberal avatar of capital, expanding markets, and common sense. Margoth, like Ahab or Sumner, recalls Milton’s rebel angel Mammon, “the least erected spirit”; declining the reverential glance upward, Margoth is “¼earthward bent, [who] would pry and pore.” Addressing pilgrims touring the environs of Jerusalem, he obnoxiously desecrates the Holy Land:
The bread of wisdom here to break,
Margoth holds forth: the gossip tells
Of things the prophets left unsaid—
With master-key unlocks the spells
And mysteries of the world unmade;
Then mentions Salem: “Stale is she!
Lay flat the walls, let in the air,
That folk no more may sicken there!
Wake up the dead; and let there be
Rails, wires, from Olivet to the sea,
With station in Gethsemane.” (Clarel, 2.21, 84-94)
Margoth goes off to “explore a rift”–a worrisome idea for Melville as conciliator of unhappily riven natural families of upper-class white people, persons who were, as Margoth’s parting glance would imply, “in decline.” (2.21, 105-111) In his unfinished tome, “The Philosophy of Politics”, Woodrow Wilson too would be fretting over deracinating modern inventions: “What effect may railroads (all the instrumentalities which make populations movable and detach from local connections and attachments) be expected to have on local self-govt., and in producing nationality?” In the same projected work, he defined “Political Liberty” as “Obedience to the laws of the social organism.” As his biographer explained, the Whole, not rule of the many, constituted the Nation. (Quoting Wilson) “It is for this that we love democracy: for the emphasis it puts on character; for its tendencies to exalt the purposes of the average man to some high level of endeavor; for its principle of common assent in matters in which all are interested; for its ideals of duty and its sense of brotherhood.”
Deploying biological metaphors in his description of “industrial development,” Wilson invigorated his prose and his wilting class with the concept of an inexorable life process tending onward and upward; but liberty (including the right to dissent) as a human right had disappeared, along with the concept of the liberal nation: in its place, consensus instructed by the empathic leader, attuned to different points of view. It is my argument here that Herman Melville, though his pre-Civil War texts are dotted with dark characters arguing the radical democratic side of the debate, and though he had strongly affirmed American chosen people as the vanguard of political liberty in White-Jacket (1850); in 1866 he unambiguously emerged as the moderate man, exponent of the “virtuous expediency” previously mocked in such works as Moby-Dick, Pierre and The Confidence-Man, often in blackface. It is disquieting for a Melville admirer to admit the possibility that his antebellum defense of non-whites had been motivated primarily by romantic primitivism, or that he had tuned out the “Declaration of Independence” that “makes a difference.” Though, as a good Christian he had constantly proclaimed the brotherhood of the human race, when faced with the actual possibility of black civic, political, and economic equality, of merging the interests of white and black in the People, that is, as discrete, individual citizens with equal rights, he ignominiously retreated to the poetic discourse of the racial community, going so far as to write
The blacks, in their infant pupilage to freedom, appeal to the sympathies of every humane mind. The paternal guardianship which for the interval Government exercises over them was prompted equally by duty and benevolence. Yet such kindliness should not be allowed to exclude kindliness to communities who stand nearer to us in nature. For the future of the freed slaves we may well be concerned; but the future of the whole country, involving the future of the blacks, urges a paramount claim upon our anxiety.
For Sumner and others, those estimable qualities of Christian character: benevolence and kindliness, had nothing to do with postwar measures to be taken, for these were the terms of slaveholders justifying their property in humans; “benevolence,” etc. were qualities imputed to slaveholders in their positive defense of the “peculiar institution” after 1830. Would Americans follow the duties imposed by the founding principles of the liberal nation, also “the whole country,” or not? Would they talk in the empirical and concrete language of political science, or in the poetic terms deployed by pseudo-democratic organic conservatives, Woodrow Wilson, for instance, that obscure the real (albeit sometimes shifting) structures and relationships of and within political and economic institutions?
Though he had begun his Supplement by denouncing “a war whose implied end was the erecting in our advanced century of an Anglo-American empire based upon the systematic degradation of man,” and though he had not objected to the test-oath requiring loyalty to the Union for elected officials, he quickly hoped that “the oath is alterable.” These and other pro-Southern sentiments (“From reason who can urge the plea–/ Freemen conquerors of the free?”) explicitly aligned Melville, not only with his relatives and patrons, but with Andrew Johnson’s base of Northern Copperheads, Southern secessionists, and conservative Republicans, who were determined to rule the nation, reversing the Union victory; it was a coalition that would, over time, vastly enlarge the power of the executive branch over the People’s representatives in the legislative arm of government, rehabilitating the medieval notion of the good king, an older version of the people’s friend.
A few other scholars have protested this apparent turnabout in Melville’s political sympathies; the originality of my paper consists primarily in locating the currently dominant pedagogy of multiculturalism and ethnopluralism (sometimes known as “identity politics”) in the neo-feudal ideology of Southern agrarianism and localism; a progressive ideology that while not abjuring science and technology, kept scientific method’s implications for unbounded critical thought safely circumscribed, much as the Burkean T. S. Eliot would attempt in his proposal for limiting the number of “freethinking Jews” to protect community cohesion, or “equilibrium” as Southerners addicted to Gemeinschaft over Gesellschaft would understand the term. I will show that Melville’s character Margoth, the can-do apostate Jew and geologist of Clarel, stands in contrast to Melville’s fatalistic Robert E. Lee; that Margoth would prefer to build the railroad not yet taken. The epistemology of Margothian mechanical materialism, explicit in the thought of Charles Sumner, is countered by the organic conservative discourse of such other Lee admirers as Charles Francis Adams and Woodrow Wilson. By contrast with Melville’s Robert E. Lee or future organic conservatives, Sumner does not look to Providence or to a change of heart or to inter-racial or inter-sectional sympathy and understanding to effect the nation’s purposes; rather he would reconstruct Federal law, returning to the bedrock constitutional principles of the Republic and its most enlightened, most liberating ideals.
II. A Horse Named Traveler
In his testimony to the Joint Congressional Committee on Reconstruction (Feb.17, 1866), Lee delivered a barely concealed threat that if the South was not quickly restored to equal rights with the North, that it might well resume hostilities in alliance with a foreign power; moreover, although he did not repudiate either the Federal or Confederate debts, his willingness to pay both would have alarmed many Republicans. (He also wished that Virginia could “get rid of” its Negroes, who should be replaced with an immigrant white labor force.)
Melville had carefully read Lee’s “discreet” responses, which are “Briefly straightforward, coldly clear.” But in the notes to the poem, “Lee in the Capitol” (dated April 1866), Melville explained that he had taken the “poetic liberty” of imagining Lee’s hidden thoughts as he rides to and from the Capitol. The artist will uncloak Lee’s habitual “cold reserve” to reveal “feelings more or less poignant.” The specified emotions regard matters not disclosed to the Committee: the role of Fate in causing the war, and “Nature’s strong fidelity;/True to the home and to the heart”¼to “kith and kin.” Such “natural” feelings, perhaps Melville’s own as he writes the poem, should override all other considerations, whether they be legal or religious. Melville’s rectified Lee “waives” the notion that “vain intermeddlers” (a bumbling generation) caused the war; that both sides are equally to blame in “every civil strife.” Rather, Lee’s (unmuffled) voice declares, “But this I feel, that North and South were driven/ By Fate to arms.” Actually, when asked by the Committee whether he had ever thought that politicians had caused the war, Lee, the cool moderate, had answered “¼I did believe at the time that it was an unnecessary condition of affairs, and might have been avoided if forbearance and wisdom had been practiced on both sides.” Melville seemingly takes these and other words to heart as advice to guide future policy, for he has Lee warn the Committee, “Push not your triumph; do not urge/ Submissiveness beyond the verge.”
Assuming his own voice in the Supplement, and instructed not only by Lee’s warnings but by such events as the Memphis and New Orleans massacres of loyal whites and blacks, and numerous other instances of white rebel rage, Melville hopefully avers that the South is not required to be penitent: “It is enough, for all practical purposes, if the South have [sic] been taught by the terrors of civil war to feel that Secession, like Slavery, is against Destiny; that both lie buried in one grave; that her fate is linked with ours; and that together we comprise the Nation.” Melville’s concept of the reunited Nation is embedded in an irrational religious discourse grafted onto a political practice. A rational political practice is one in which facts are unflinchingly sought and examined; in which human political will and invention, not Providence, will solve problems and make history. In his essay, enthusiastically quoted at length in the Democratic New York Herald, Melville has lost himself in the real, not the imagined, Lee, applying the latter’s values and suggested tactics to conciliate a Southern planter class that does not consider itself to have committed treason, and that, if not appeased, might once again be taking arms against the tyrannical North, destroyers of the rule of law. Melville-turning-into-Lee has discarded the black mask; the Christian gentleman puts the all-white, (“temple-white”?) family first over abstract principles of natural right; now the true patriot speaks: Melville was no blind adherent, no zealot claiming that the rebel states are conquered provinces, subject to the founding principles of the liberal nation should they wish to return. Melville is no Charles Sumner or Thaddeus Stevens, insisting that emancipation was meaningless until freedmen possessed the full rights of citizens, and that the reconstructed South could not deviate from this crucial republican principle. For Melville, as a “practical” matter, the burden is on the patient, wise, and forbearing North to exercise Christian charity (with malice toward none), to bring the rebel states back into the Union. After all, the State’s rights argument was “plausibly urged.” Hence, there are no pending constitutional issues to be hammered out, since the South was “plausibly” within its rights to exercise the reserved rights of the states, including secession; anyway, slavery (a bad institution) was foisted upon the South; they too have great soldiers, many a mother is mourning her young rebel son’s untimely death, and “exterminating hatred of race toward race” might be aroused if “measures of dubious constitutional rightfulness” are invoked “to confirm the benefit of liberty to the blacks.” In the natural course of things, “our institutions have a potent digestion, and may in time convert and assimilate to good all elements thrown in, however originally alien.” (All this while the Fourteenth Amendment was on the table, reported to Congress by the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, April 30, 1866, and passed in mid-June. Melville’s essay implicitly aligns him with its opponents, who had insisted that it was a reserved right of the states to determine who was qualified for the franchise.) Again, more poetry than truth; more Machiavellian “reasons of state” than either Christianity or the rule of law. And for such a nation to cohere, its bonds had better be described through metaphor.
Melville’s advice to merciless Northerners in 1866 brings him into congruence with the Robert E. Lee as praised by Charles Francis Adams in 1902, a General Lee reconstructed as a national, not merely a sectional, hero. Melville’s poem had already begun that process of nationalizing Lee: “Our cause I followed, stood in field and gate–/All’s over now, and now I follow Fate./ But this is naught. A People call–/ A desolated land¼.” And, “Faith in America never dies¼.” Lee as Christian knight reversed fin de siècle decadence, for the prospect of an internationalized and militant proletariat loomed, the tools of science and rationalism in sometimes swarthy hands. To Adams (who had been a junior officer in the Civil War, and briefly commanded a Negro regiment, deficient, he said, as cavalry) Lee “represented, individualized, all that was highest and best in the Southern mind and the Confederate cause,–the loyalty to State, the keen sense of honor and personal obligation, the slightly archaic, the almost patriarchal, love of dependent, family and home¼a type which is gone,-hardly less extinct than that of the great English nobleman of the feudal times, or the ideal head of the Scotch clan of a later period.” In his Memorial Address (Nov. 15, 1915), delivered to the Massachusetts Historical Society, Henry Cabot Lodge rejoiced that the third and fourth generation of Adamses had thrown off the perilous Puritan “independence of thought” that had “developed in John Quincy Adams both mental solitude and minute introspection,” impeding decisive action.
Adams, like Melville, had tried to please everybody. Describing his family’s break with Charles Sumner, Adams cited Sumner’s abusive speech, “the Barbarism of Slavery”: “¼he should have said that which would have offended no man, and yet would have touched and appealed to all.” (Adams, p.53) An identical organic conservative discourse would be followed to the letter in Woodrow Wilson’s theory of the positive state. Unlike Sumner’s scientifically constructed liberal nation, Wilson’s mystical State expressed “an abiding natural relationship”; it was “a higher form of life”, and the source of spirituality for the lower, selfish, that is, overly self-directed, individual. Disavowing Jeffersonian notions of limited government and “scientific anarchy” (the consequence of epistemological materialism, abstract theories of rights, and ruptures with tradition), Wilson had explained in his notes for a Philosophy of Politics: “LIBERTY is to be found only where there is the best order. The machine free that runs with perfect adjustment; the skein free that is without tangle; the man free whose powers are without impediment to their best development.” (Bragdon, 261)
Wilson’s railroads were running on time. What would his renovated concept of Liberty mean to the labor movement? Just as the ideal ascetic Lee had nobly sacrificed his own antislavery and antisecessionist sentiments, indeed even his proffered career as leader of the Union armies, to bow to the laws of Virginia, President Wilson proclaimed in a folksy speech to the AFof L in Buffalo (1917) that workers and other protesters must remain “in harness”: “I want to express my admiration of [Gompers’] patriotic courage, his large vision, and his statesmanlike sense of what has to be done. I like to lay my mind alongside of a mind that knows how to pull in harness. The horses that kick over the traces will have to be put in corral.” Workers, like their socially responsible employers, would sacrifice some of their demands to travel with other adjustable classes for the sake of the commonweal, eschewing the mob spirit to “release the spirits of the world from bondage.” [The author breaks into song, “Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls: “I’ve got the horse right here/ his name is Paul Revere/, and there’s a guy who says if the weather’s clear, can do, can do, this guy says the horse can do/ if he says the horse can do, can do, can do¼.”]
III. The country-club pedagogy of American literature
Twenty-one years earlier, Wilson the professor had assumed a less populist tone in his advice to the classes, but his fears of degeneration in the body politic were already intense: science-sniffing horses were breaking out of the corral. Representing the American Whig Society at the Sesquicentennial Celebration at Princeton University, a quaking Wilson addressed his magnificently dressed international audience, October 21, 1896; his topic “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” “The Old World trembles to see its proletariat in the saddle¼.” “The literature of your own race and country” would instruct the masses, and neutralize “the work of the noxious, intoxicating gas which has somehow got into the lungs of the rest of us, from out the crevices of [the scientist’s] workshop…I should tremble to see social reform led by men who have breathed it; I should fear nothing better than utter destruction from a revolution conceived and led in the scientific spirit¼.Do you wonder, then, that I ask for the old drill, the old memory of times gone by, the old schooling in precedent and tradition, the old keeping of faith with the past, as a preparation for leadership in the days of social change?” Closing his remarks, a calmer Wilson elaborated his pacific model of the perfected university, breeding ground for democratic leaders to be trained in the ascetic ideal, hence liberated from Sumner’s ruptures, Margoth’s foul wind[s], and the example of Europe’s runaway horsy proles. Serving “the nation,” it would be
the home of sagacious men, hard-headed and with a will to know, debaters of the world’s questions every day and used to the rough ways of democracy: and yet a place removed–calm Science seated there, recluse, ascetic, like a nun, not knowing that the world passes, not caring, if the truth but come in answer to her prayer; and Literature, walking within her open doors, in quiet chambers, with men of olden times, storied walls about her, and calm voices infinitely sweet; here ‘magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn,’ to which you may withdraw and use your youth for pleasure; there windows open straight upon the street, where many stand and talk, intent upon the world of men and affairs. A place for men, and all that concerns them; but unlike the world in its self-possession, its thorough way of talk, its care to know more than the moment brings to light; slow to take excitement; its air pure and wholesome with a breath of faith; every eye within it bright in the clear day and quick to look toward heaven for the confirmation of its hope. Who shall show us the way to that place?”
With science safely closeted and purified, the South would rise again. Wilson’s home was a typically Southern one: quieted, for a time, but not subdued. In the late 1930s, one writer stated flatly that the South had justifiably hated the North, and without remission:
The late war had seemed to them a test between the strength of men and the strength of things, between a spiritual philosophy and a materialistic philosophy; and they were convinced that the result of it would be the extinction of everything they valued. They felt that more-and-more and not better-and-better was the inevitable motto of the new order; and they believed that such a premise was comfortable only with the standardized and the un-polite; the essentially un-human.
The genteel South, like much of the anti-consumerist, anti-commercial 1960s counter-culture and New Left, would not be railroaded by Yankee Puritans; would not be uplifted by “geologic Jew[s]” into the modern age.
Sumner’s speech, delivered to the New York Young Men’s Republican Union, Nov. 19, 1867, can be read on the internet: http://www.umdl.umich.edu/cgi-bin/moa/sgml/moa-idx?notisid=ABJ1723. The same principles are enunciated in Sumner’s speech, Feb. 1869, advocating a much stronger Fifteenth Amendment than the one adopted; in Harold M. Hyman, The Radical Republicans and Reconstruction, 1861-1870 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967): 484-491. See David Herbert Donald, Charles Sumner (N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1996): 219-237, for the events leading up to Sumner’s famous speech of 1852, “Freedom National, Slavery Sectional,” that argued that the Constitution did not condone or allow slavery, citing the Sommersett Case of 1772 in England, which ruled that slavery, to be legal, must be affirmed by positive law. Sumner was attempting to declare the Fugitive Slave Law (upheld by Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of Massachusetts and Melville’s father-in-law) unconstitutional. Sumner had been making the same constitutional argument constantly prior to his entry into the Senate (1851), beginning in the Fall of 1845, setting Massachusetts on fire with antislavery fervor, according to one biographer, Archibald Grimke (1892).
Compare to Donald Davidson, “Expedients Versus Principles–Cross Purposes in the South,” Southern Review Vol.2 (1936-37), 651. Decrying the habit of South-bashing in Northern newspapers, Davidson complained, “Denunciations of the older Klan disguised the working alliance of Radical Republicans and the Robber Barons. ¼”Urban-industrialized society” demolishes “whatever stands in its path.” The claim of collusion between the radicals and crooked capitalists is challenged in Stanley Coben, “Northeastern Business and Radical Reconstruction: a Re-examination,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, XLVI (June 1959).
See also David Herbert Donald, Charles Sumner (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), for epithets directed against Sumner, e.g. footnote, pp.4-5. Based on the belief that Sumner’s mother, Relief Jacob “’was probably of Jewish descent,’” Frank Preston Stearns (1905) attacked “’the Hebrew element in Sumner’s nature; the inflexibility of purpose, the absolute self-devotion, and even the prophetic forecast.’ Such a theory of inherited racial traits is, of course, highly unscientific. But in any case, the Jewish strain in Sumner’s ancestry is dubious. At no point in his career, when virtually every other possible weapon was used against him, were anti-Semitic charges raised.” On the same page, Donald reports that Esther Holmes, the mother of Sumner’s father (who had been born out of wedlock) was rumored to have had some “Indian or negro blood.” Donald presents Sumner as having covered up his genealogy. Having denied that antisemitic charges were made, on p. 239 (second volume), Donald, while comparing Sumner (who wished to bar all ex-Confederates from government) to the more flexible Thaddeus Stevens, states “He announced principles, as from on Mount Sinai, and deplored the compromises needed to transform ideals into legislative reality.” Opposite p.228 (second volume), in a chapter entitled “Very Like Robespierre,” a cartoon “Free Soil Her” (1864) is shown in which Sumner is kissing an ape-like black woman, with the rhyme: “In vain you’ve preached your precepts round,/ Throughout this whole great Yankee nation;/ I think that you should prove them first,/ And early try amalgamation.” See also caricature opposite p.197, “I’m Not to Blame for Being White, Sir!” Sumner gives alms to a black child, while turning away from a white urchin.
David Donald’s antipathy to Sumner is well known, but his criticisms were preceded, almost to the letter, in Anna Laurens Dawes, Charles Sumner (N.Y.: Dodd, Mead, 1892); Dawes viewed Sumner as archetypal Puritan/American, a prophet and our greatest orator, but not a statesman. Harold M. Hyman countered Donald’s statement that Sumner was “a man inflexibly committed to a set of moral ideas as basic principles,” observing that “in wartime matters Sumner was an immensely effective and intensely practical politician. As a combination, zeal and expertness are hard to beat.” In The Radical Republicans and Reconstruction, 1861-1870 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967): 103.
Also, on “bloody Jacobins,” see Patrick Riddleberger, 1866: The Critical Year Revisited (Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois UP, 1979): 225, for the Herald’s characterization of the Radical’s campaign in the elections of 1866. They were provoking another “reign of terror” in which Northerners would be fighting each other, were they to win.
The sub-text of the animus against Sumner is two-fold; first, as part of a historiographic trend claiming that extremists provoked the Civil War [see Hyman, “Introduction,” Radical Republicans]; and second, as an attack on laissez-faire by the progressive movement. The latter is summed up by Hardin Craig, Woodrow Wilson at Princeton (Norman, OK: U. of Oklahoma P., 1960): 14. “[Wilson believed] that universities should devote themselves always, regardless of other obligations, to the wise and proper service of the state, a belief that runs all through his university career.” Or, “’The chief end of life” is “to discipline men to serve the state, religiously, loyally.’” (10). “Order” for Wilson means “a sense of unity in human existence and in the universe itself.” (11) Leadership should make it clear that “Democracy is not a natural instinct of men–quite the contrary–and the doctrine of laissez-faire is its ruin.” (19). But the national government is not the chief focus of loyalty. Referring to Wilson’s article, “The Study of Administration,” (1887), Craig comments: “This article seems to suggest in education, as in all great social undertakings, a confederation of parts rather than a centralization of power, and a wide union of tolerated divisions of prerogatives in pursuit of common purposes ‘in honorable equality and honorable subordination.’ In other words, educational institutions should assume a form and operation not unlike his idea of the American system of government.” (22-23). Contrast this deified state and its “confederation of parts” to Sumner’s concept of the supreme central government as protector of individual development, and enforcer of “absolute equality before the law” in the states.
In “The Course of American History,” 213-247, Wilson adjusts the prior materialist formulation of American history as a (sectional) battle between [Hebraic] Puritans and Southern slaveholders to control the labor system in the Western territories. This domineering (i.e., Whiggish) narrative, Wilson claims, was a creation of New Englanders who dominate the writing of history. Following his former student, Fredrick Jackson Turner, he shifts the axis from North versus South to East versus West, with the ever- receding frontier shaping American character. And East and West are not in conflict, but interact upon each other, staving off both decadence and overly Jacksonian political styles and objectives (i.e., the negative State).
Wilson emphasizes the importance of the middle states, ostensibly neglected by the New Englanders (aka “the chosen people”). What makes Lincoln the greatest American President and “supreme American” is 1. his ability to synthesize the conservative East and vigorous West; and 2. to understand and appreciate the point of view of all Americans, including most importantly, the South; moreover Lincoln is the great autodidact, bringing harmony instead of endless conflict into his (unfinished) life (206-208). (Autodidacts had been the object of horrified scrutiny since the invention of the printing press, and as materialists had been characterized as archetypal assassins.) Lincoln is contrasted to Thomas Jefferson, an example of “mixed breed” (187) because he had imbibed the French revolutionary spirit, and was hence, in Wilson’s words, “un-American.” (198) Jefferson, like other troublemakers, was impractical and given to abstractions. (196-199). What was at stake here? Supporting Burke, Wilson eschewed “government by contract” in favor of “government by habit.” (155)
“The history of a nation is only the history of its villages writ large.” (214). Wilson’s advocacy of local history (the “vital” kind) is of a piece with his progressivism, also localist, in contrast to the big Leviathan state that increasingly characterized the New Deal in the late 1930s. Literary historians as well as historians of science should read the Wilson essays in tandem with the pro-fascist writers of American Review, edited by Seward Collins in the mid-1930s that attempted to unite the English Distributists, New Humanists, Southern Agrarians, and Neo-Thomists in a revolutionary conservative synthesis. The empiricism of St. Thomas Aquinas was constantly praised, along with the classical notion of the rooted individual as it had existed in the High Middle Ages. It is out of this intellectual tradition, I believe, that the cultural approach to history (to use Carolyn Ware’s phrase) was derived, setting itself against the dangers of “scientific” history that could lead the investigator, Ahabishly, god-knows-where. Such are the wondrous ways of the moderate men, and it seems to me to be the way of those who aspire to activism as historians; that is, their reforms entail non-structural adjustments (ethnopluralism and inter-racial understanding, for instance) that presume harmony as the outcome.
By the time that Melville wrote the Supplement, Johnson had asserted an imperial power in the presidency in his Message to Congress, vetoed the Civil Rights Bill and Freedmen’s Bureau Bill (the latter move subverted his own precedent in readmitting Tennessee). Both bills were passed by Congress over his veto. See Riddleberger, 79, 96-97, 125.
Also, compare Wilson’s view of executive leadership with Anna Laurens Dawes, Charles Sumner, p. 160-161: discussing Sumner’s conflicted relations with other Republicans during the first phase of the war, she writes, “Now more than ever Sumner showed what some one has called his “capacity for loving the absolute right abstracted from its practical use.” The old Puritan blood in him asserted itself, and with power in our own hands, he deemed it criminal as well as weak not to compel the end desired. He did not stop to consider whether we possessed anything more than the semblance of power, and he would not take into account the conservative necessities of responsibility. The process of educating and representing a whole people, and so ruling them, was abhorrent to him. He believed, as all his ancestors had done, that only his own faction could be right, and he followed that most specious of false maxims in national morals,— that the right was always the shortest line between the two points. These sentiments he did not hesitate to express in public and private.” [Sumner, along with a few others, had wanted immediate emancipation of all slaves, both as “a war measure” and as “a constitutional duty.” (184-185)]
Lee’s comment on removing “the colored population” referred also to his prewar support for “gradual emancipation.” Cf. Garner, attributing this belief to Melville, p.27. On Lee’s postwar white supremacist racial attitudes, see Michael Fellman, The Making of Robert E. Lee (N.Y.: Random House, 2000): 271-273.
Similarly, Woodrow Wilson in his Division and Reunion, 1829-1889 (1893) constantly invokes the threatening character of a black multitude, suddenly freed, and susceptible to demagoguery and crime; giving this as one reason to explain why Southerners maintained slavery (111,114). For instance, slaves were a small part of the Northern population, but in the South: “¼the sentiment which had once existed in favor of emancipation had given way before grave doubts as to the safety of setting free a body of men so large, so ignorant, so unskilled in the moderate use of freedom.” (114). In his description of Reconstruction, he takes the point to poetic heights: Referring to the consequences of the “Thorough” policy of the Republican Congress: “[Thorough’s] practical operation was of course revolutionary in its effects upon the southern governments. The most influential white men were excluded from voting for the delegates who were to compose the constitutional conventions, while the negroes were all admitted to enrollment. Unscrupulous adventurers appeared, to act as leaders of the inexperienced blacks in taking possession, first of the conventions, and afterwards of the state governments; and in the States where the negroes were most numerous, or their leaders most shrewd and unprincipled, and extraordinary carnival of public crime set in under the forms of law. Negro majorities gained complete control of the state governments, or, rather, negroes constituted the legislative majorities and submitted to the unrestrained authority of small and masterful groups of white men whom the instinct of plunder had drawn from the North.” (223). Page numbers are from the Collier edition, 1961.
“I am introduced to you as the President of the United States, and yet I would be pleased if you would put the thought of the office into the background and regard me as one of your fellow citizens who has come here to speak, not the words of authority, but the words of counsel; the words which men should speak to one another who wish to be frank in a moment more critical perhaps than the history of the world has ever yet known; a moment when it is every man’s duty to forget himself, to forget his own interests, to fill himself with the nobility of a great national and world conception, and act upon a new platform elevated above the ordinary affairs of life and lifted to where men have views of the long destiny of mankind.”
Wilson goes on to describe the sneaky ways of German industry that, through government subsidy, has been able to beat out the competition and dominate the markets of the world. He then puts down the fatuous dreamers of Russia who have been “compounding” with Germany. We must stand together against the German menace. Then:
“While we are fighting for freedom, we must see, among other things, that labor is free, and that means a number of interesting things. It means not only that we must do what we have declared our purpose to do, see that the conditions of labor are not rendered more onerous by the war, but also that we shall see to it that the instrumentalities by which the conditions of labor are improved are not blocked or checked. That we must do. That has been the matter about which I have taken pleasure in conferring from time to time with your president, Mr. Gompers; and if I may be permitted to do so, I want to express my admiration of his patriotic courage, his large vision, and his statesmanlike sense of what has to be done. I like to lay my mind alongside of a mind that knows how to pull in harness. The horses that kick over the traces will have to be put in corral.
…Nobody has a right to stop the processes of labor until all the methods of conciliation and settlement have been exhausted….[He will tell the capitalists the same thing at some future date; meanwhile] Everybody on both sides has now got to transact business, and a settlement is never impossible when both sides want to do the square and right thing.
[We must negotiate face to face, for that makes hatred impossible.] So it is all along the line, in serious matters and things less serious. We are all of the same clay and spirit, and we can get together if we desire to get together. Therefore, my counsel to you is this: Let us show ourselves Americans by showing that we do not want to go off in separate camps or groups by ourselves, but that we want to co-operate with all other classes and all other groups in the common enterprise which is to release the spirits of the world from bondage. I would be willing to set that up as the final test of an American. That is the meaning of democracy. I have been very much distressed, my fellow citizens, by some of the things that have happened recently. The mob spirit is displaying itself here and there in this country. …There are some organizations in this country whose object is anarchy and the destruction of law, but I would not meet their efforts by making myself partner in destroying the law. I despise and hate their purposes as much as any man, but I respect the ancient processes of justice; and I would be too proud not to see them done justice, however wrong they are.
….the fundamental lesson of the whole situation is that we must not only take common counsel, but that we must yield to and obey common counsel….”