Sunday, October 12, 2008

Lincoln's adolescence and political consciousness

I visited my parents’ home in St. Louis this weekend. I brought the family to visit my old high school, the John Burroughs School. We met some old friends and looked around the campus. Springfield has an excellent elementary school, and the middle school that sits one block away from our home seems good enough, but I’m doubtful of the quality of the high schools, and so I’ve been thinking about whether my sons might be able to attend a school such as Burroughs. It seems unlikely, but I have thought about it.

Anyway, while here in St. Louis I get to look at a book I gave my dad at Christmas. This is Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis. Basically, this is a book that collects the raw material Lincoln’s law partner Billy Herndon collected about Lincoln in the late 1860s right up through the late 1880s. I found the following passage (in which I’ve corrected the spelling and grammar) to be especially interesting.

You wished me to tell you whether children [in the area where the Lincoln’s lived, near Pigeon Creek] around the years 1826 to 1828 had exhibitions [of their talents or abilities in rhetoric and learning]. [This would have been around the time Lincoln was 17-19, the last few years that the Lincolns lived in Indiana, before they moved to Illinois.] I have been studying about it, but I can’t remember whether they had exhibitions or speaking meetings. I think they had. I recollect some of the questions they spoke on: the bee and ant, water and fire; another was which had the most right to complain, the Negroes or the Indians….

This is from Elizabeth Crawford’s letter of 19 April 1866. Elizabeth was about three years older than Lincoln, and in 1826 she had moved to the Pigeon Creek area where her family were close neighbors to the Lincolns. Elizabeth’s husband Josiah sometimes hired Abraham to work for him, and the Crawfords campaigned for Lincoln in the 1860 and 1864 elections.

That last topic for a student exhibition is what caught my eye. Who had the most right to complain? Of course everyone who studies history knows that there was a long tradition of abolitionism. As Lincoln himself demonstrated in his Cooper Union Address in New York (27 February 1860), 21 out of 23 persons who signed the Constitution and also had opportunities to vote on slavery’s extension acted to prevent the spread of slavery (another 16 signed the Constitution, but never voted on questions of slavery’s extension). Lincoln’s father and probably his uncle’s children actually told people that one reason they left Kentucky was that they couldn’t stand living in a place that allowed slavery. I think it’s also pretty well-known that American Indians had well-wishers among the European-Americans. After all, a significant number of European-Americans living on the frontier married American Indians or became friends with them. Some missionaries came to respect and defend Indian Christians. Politicians stood up for Indians as well. The Senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, for example, attacked the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

What I hadn’t realized was that as early as the 1820s, popular sentiment among common people, including presumably some school teachers and their older students in Southern Indiana, were so strongly set against the injustices inflicted upon African-Americans and American Indians that in speaking exhibitions students would give comparative and evaluative analysis of the outrages and injustices. It’s possible that the events of 1861-1865 (the War of the Rebellion of the Southern Slaveholders) prompted Elizabeth Crawford to imagine the topics of exhibitions, or to confuse later topics with what she witnessed as a young woman. Even so, I find it interesting that in 1866 a woman, when asked to remember what sort of exhibitions children might have given 40 years earlier, recalled (whether accurately or not) that children considered the question of who had a greater right to complain, the African-Americans or the American Indians.

This reminds me of some oral history in my own family about progressive views of racial questions. My grandmother Nel (1914-2000) used to tell me about her mother, my great-grandmother Ruby (1891-1977) and Ruby's sisters, my grandmother's aunts. Evidently my great-grandmother and her sisters and mother enjoyed singing, and they attended concerts or shows up in Port Townsend, Washington where they lived. My great-grandmother Ruby was particularly fond of one song about a dying African-American child who was so psychologically damaged by racism and prejudices that the child expresses doubts that Heaven will allow a child with dark skin to enter. Evidently Great-Grandma Ruby sang this song often enough that my grandmother had learned it from her, and Nel could sing some of it. I can hardly imagine a more pathetic scene than a child on her deathbed expressing hope of gaining admitance to heaven, but being uncertain whether the European-American types who seem to run this mortal world would also hold sway in Heaven and impose similar racist rules about who could get in. That such a song was performed in the 1890s or 1900s in Washington State is interesting to me. (As an aside, one of the first Americans to settle in what later became Washington State, in the Oregon Territory north of the Columbia River, was the African-American George Washington Bush).

Considering this family history and the popularity of that song made me consider the contributions of radical immigrants from Europe. My great-grandma was a member of the Iffland family, and her father John Iffland (1855-1914) was a political refugee, more or less, who left Germany (in 1883) partly because of his opposition to Bismarck and Bismarck's militarism. The Ifflands were very progressive, or even radical for their day. My great-grandmother and all her sisters graduated from university or college (One of Ruby's older sisters was the first woman in Jefferson County, Washington to graduate from the University of Washington). John Iffland was also a Freethinker. Given such a background, I can well imagine the Iffland girls being sympathetic to the plight of African-Americans and Indians. Indeed, there are stories passed down in oral history and some heirlooms of Indian baskets describing friendships been the Iffland girls and local American-Indians living around on the Olympic Peninsula in the 1890s (probably Makah or "Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx"). I know also that the progressive German immigrants played a role in other aspects of American history. In St. Louis during the War of the Rebellion of the Southern Slaveholders it was the German immigrants who enlisted in the Union cause and helped keep the State of Missouri from going over to the Rebellion. I suppose many of these immigrants would have been recent arrivals, refugees from the Revolutions of 1848. I also recall that African-American poet Langston Hughes, in his early autobiography The Sea describes friendships with socialist immigrant children from Europe while he was attending high school in Cleveland, Ohio (in 1916-1920).

I guess all this goes to show that America has had a long tradition of domestic concern for the equality of humanity and the plight of oppressed minorities, and this tradition has been encouraged by the immigration into our society of many thoughtful people fleeing reactionary governments and bringing along their progressive idealism. Anti-slavery and anti-racism work has been going on for generations, and in teaching about this work we might include artifacts such as the poem The Dying Negro, the accounts of Thomas Morton's counter-cultural experiments in the 1620s, and the recollection of Elizabeth Crawford about the topics that young Abraham Lincoln may have discussed as a youth along Pigeon Creek in Indiana.

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