• A series of recent, thoughtful essays in defense of the humanities prompted Iowa history prof Sarah Bond to share this quote from James Baldwin on Bluesky, calling it “the best reason for studying the humanities that I know of”:
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
• One of my favorite stories about Baldwin involves his surveillance by the FBI. James Campbell studied that extensive, intrusive, hostile surveillance:
Baldwin was certainly no stranger to activist causes, and that attracted FBI attention. As Campbell notes, his file with the agency was 1,750 pages long, opened in 1960 after Baldwin signed a petition for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. In 1963, the FBI added him to the Security Index, a “list of citizens who would be arrested first in the event of a state of emergency,” according to Campbell.
Arrested for what? That didn’t matter much to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. They’d come up with something. That was the point of that 1,750-page file. Surely if the FBI tracked this man long enough they’d find some evidence that would serve as the pretext for his arrest “in the event of a state of emergency.” What Hoover thought would constitute such a “state of emergency” I’ll leave to you to imagine. (If you’re guessing something really, really racist, you’re on the right track.)
Putting together such a file meant assigning some agent to do it. And that, in turn, meant that some agent in Hoover’s FBI was assigned the task of reading and studying everything James Baldwin wrote. The plays, novels, and stories, the essays, the articles, his correspondence — everything. In effect, then, some unsuspecting agent was basically assigned to take a graduate-level seminar in the collected works of James Baldwin.
And so part of what we have in that massive FBI file on Baldwin is a record of the gradual education of a G-man. This guy spent years studying the ferocious moral and intellectual clarity of Baldwin’s writing and — as anyone would — he found it persuasive and compelling. Much of that file seems to be the work of an agent who came to believe that James Baldwin was a very smart, insightful person who was usually right.
Some people would mistakenly describe this as the agent losing his objectivity. He got too close to his subject, they would say, and so he lost perspective. That’s backwards. He gained perspective and he found his objectivity. To study James Baldwin’s writing objectively ought to lead to the conclusion that he was a very smart, insightful person who was usually right. To come to any other conclusion would be — objectively — wrong.
If you doubt this, I invite you to try it yourself. Read everything Baldwin ever wrote and decide for yourself.
• Something like that is the reason I’m a big fan of Yale historian David Blight. Blight is a respected historian of the Civil War and a leading scholar of Frederick Douglass. As a good, “objective” scholar, he set out to ingest everything there is to learn about Douglass and thus, willingly or not, he has also come to ingest much of what there is to learn from Douglass.
This is what I’ve come to admire about Blight’s history lectures — many of which are available online as audio or video. He will, like all respectable “objective” historians, include discussion of “all sides” of the debates over slavery, but it’s always clear that Douglass’ side is the one Blight thinks was right.
And that, again, is objectively correct. Douglass was right. Almost always. To come to any other conclusion would be subjective nonsense. It’s not that Dr. Blight has a pro-Douglass bias, but that he has arrived at the correct conclusion that any unbiased observer will reach: Douglass was right.
• I bring up David Blight because John Fea sent me down a YouTube hole over the weekend by linking to this lecture on “John Brown’s Holy War: Terrorist or Heroic Revolutionary?” That video is listed as Lecture No. 9 and if you watch until the end YouTube will recommend other lectures in the series and you can wind up learning a lot of fascinating, important history while raking wet leaves on a Saturday.
Fea’s post linking to that video highlights Blight’s observation that the Dred Scott decision ended the possibility of “moderation” or “compromise” on the question of slavery in America. “That’s when you see danger,” Dr. Blight says, “in American political history. It’s when the side that loses a debate cannot accept the result.”
That reminds me of another clarifying observation from James Baldwin: “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
That gets at what Blight is saying by “cannot accept the result.” He’s not talking about a January 6-style rejection of legitimate election results, but about what happens when the “political debate” is concluded in a way that results in “the denial of one’s humanity and right to exist.”
When the debate concludes, as Dred Scott did, that you have “no rights which the white man’s Constitution was bound to respect” then you “cannot accept the result.” And you should not accept the result.
Blight discusses all of this to set the scene for his consideration of John Brown, which includes not just Brown himself, but also the five formerly enslaved Black men who died in Brown’s bungled raid on Harper’s Ferry. Two of them — Shields Green and Dangerfield Newby — were escaped slaves whose wives remained enslaved in Virginia. They had no legal or political hope of freeing their wives from captivity, rape, and abuse. The only hope they had was the slender, futile hope of John Brown’s reckless, ill-conceived adventure.
This is what Blight means by “the side that loses a debate cannot accept the result.” Not that your preferred candidate got fewer votes and so now you fear that your capital gains tax rate might marginally increase, but that you and your spouse have been officially deemed as non-persons and those you love are trapped in bondage that is perfectly legal, perfectly constitutional, and blessed by every respectable church.
So Shields Green and Dangerfield Newby died at Harper’s Ferry.
Viewed as objectively as possible, John Brown was a man who was extremely right about a few things and horrifically, disastrously wrong about others. He was certainly wrong about the prospects for conquering the state of Virginia with a Provisional Army of 22 men. He was wrong about Oliver Cromwell and his idiosyncratic theology was an unholy mess.
But John Brown was right about slavery. He was utterly right about it in a time when very few other white men were even partly right about it. What he said and believed about slavery was true.
John Brown was also a terrorist and a madman. But, again, the terrorist and madman was very, very right about the biggest moral question of his time, even as most religious leaders and intellectuals were very, very wrong about that same thing.
• Speaking of John Brown, I appreciate John Brown University in Arkansas for including this page on their website:
The school was founded by the radio evangelist John E. Brown in the early 20th century as a college for people who couldn’t afford college. This John Brown was an interesting guy — not nearly as interesting as that John Brown, but then who is?
That page from John Brown [Not That One] University is fun. It might have been even more fun if it said something like “John E. Brown never freed any slaves by hacking their enslavers to pieces with a broadsword …” but it’d probably be imprudent.
These days, JBU may be best known as the home of the Toilet Paper Game, an annual tradition sometimes called “the greatest technical foul in all of basketball.”
• Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology is about an hour west of here. Their web page about the school’s namesake does not say “Not that Thaddeus Stevens” because it is that Thaddeus Stevens. The one and only.
Stevens is another one of those people who, viewed objectively, was usually right. And America has never fully forgiven him for that.
Here’s a nice piece fromTracy Schorn at the Smithsonian on “Why America Is Just Now Learning to Love Thaddeus Stevens, the ‘Best-Hated Man’ in U.S. History.”
Schorn explains why most Americans learned about Stevens the way I did in school. I learned Thaddeus Stevens name, but not much more than just his name. He was briefly mentioned along with Garrison and a few other abolitionists as examples of unrealistic, irrelevant extremists and scolds who failed to persuade anyone.
The gist of that history was that Stevens can and should be forgotten and ignored. Sure, he was, technically, right. But what did that accomplish? I mean, besides the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments? And besides the way they utterly transformed the Constitution and the country? Stevens made it so that the Bill of Rights actually adheres to you as a citizen, he secured every civil right you can now claim to possess … but other than that what good did he do?
Both Schorn’s article and that bio at Thaddeus Stevens Tech note that Stevens died before the ratification of the 15th Amendment. It is, indeed, sad that he didn’t live to see that.
On the other hand, it’s also a blessing that he didn’t live to see the subsequent 150+ years of white supremacist judicial bullshit that has — successfully! — pretended the words “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State” mean something other than what they meant to Stevens and to any other literate person who understands English.
There’s a nice new statue of Thaddeus Stevens in Gettysburg and a new monument to him and his longtime partner, Lydia Hamilton Smith, being built in Lancaster. That’s good.
But really the best monument would be just to stop letting erudite liars like John Roberts and Sam Alito get away with pretending that the Reconstruction Amendments don’t exist.
(I recognize that I’ve discussed these four people in a different order than that suggested by the title of this post, but I’ve left the title in that order so that we can all sing it to the tune of “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” You’re welcome.)