Friday, April 30, 2010

A Visit to the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum...In Tennessee?

Tennessee seems like one of the most unlikely places for an Abraham Lincoln museum. But, believe me its there in Harrogate, Tennessee on the campus of Lincoln Memorial University and under the shadow of the Cumberland Gap. The story of how East Tennessee received the Lincoln Library and Museum is one that is little known except to serious Lincoln students. Apparently, in 1863 Lincoln and General Oliver O. Howard (later head of the Freedmen's Bureau) had a meeting where Lincoln expressed a desire to do something educationally for the large Union sympathizing population of East Tennessee. Howard eventually took Lincoln's wish to heart as he later helped found Lincoln Memorial University in 1897. Due to its name and historic association, LMU started receiving donations of Lincoln and Civil War memorabilia shortly after its founding. A special "Lincoln" room housed the collections for years until the current building was constructed in 1977.

I have passed through the Cumberland Gap countless times in my travels between the Tri-Cities, Tennessee area, where I used to live, and Kentucky and southern Indiana, to visit friends and family, but until last week I had never taken the time to stop and see what it has to offer. On a quick trip back from a visit down to Johnson City and Bristol, Tennessee to see some old friends, Michele and I dropped in for a look around.

I was pleased to meet Steven M. Wilson, who is the Assistant Director and Curator, at the front desk to take our admission ($5.00 each). I mentioned that I worked for the Kentucky Historical Society, so he made it a point to introduce us to Michelle Ganz, Archivist and Special Collections Librarian, who gave us a special tour of their excellent collections. Treats like this are rare for the regular public as museum curators and archivists are usually covered up with so much processing work that it is difficult to take time to show off their collections. But that certainly wasn't the case the day we visited. We were allowed to see first-hand some of their most rare treasures, as they had just had a Lincoln Symposium the weekend before and they had not returned a number of these gems to storage.

Some of the most impressive things we got to see were their image collections. One of their volunteers was processing a whole stack of Harper's Weekly images while we were there and Ms. Ganz also showed us a rare scrapbook collection that had been donated. Now, these weren't your everyday old scrapbooks. These had countless one-of-a-kind Lincoln and Civil War images and were in bound books of many volumes. Getting to see all of these invaluable collections was a real treat.

After our special "behind the scenes" tour we looked on our own through the museum gallery. There was what appeared to be a temporary exhibit on United States Colored Troops that was very informative, as well as a wealth of exhibits and artifacts on all things Lincoln. One of the neatest things they had on display was the cane that Lincoln has taken to Ford's Theatre the night of his assassination.

If you ever find yourself going through the tunnel at Cumberland Gap, travel on just a couple more miles and stop in to the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum. You'll wish you had stopped sooner. I know I did.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Visit to Henry Clay's Ashland

Today a colleague at work who occasionally reads my blog claimed that I was obsessed with John Brown. Of course, he's right. Since my earliest memories I have seemed to get focused on a topic and explore it to death. Back in the day it used to be snakes and dinosaurs, and for the time being its John Brown. But, I thought I take a break from the "bad old man" for a day or so and share a visit that Michele and I made last Friday to Henry Clay's Ashland (pictured above) in Lexington, Kentucky. I had visited Ashland back last August to do a teacher professional development session, but I didn't get the opportunity to go on a tour of the house at that time.

We arrived just before 2:00 pm and paid our admission price (they give a discount with AAA) and waited a few minutes before we were met at the front door by our guide (and site curator Eric Brooks). On the tour Mr. Brooks explained that he doesn't give many tours except for that time slot on Fridays, so we felt particularly honored to have such a virtual fountain of knowledge on all things Henry Clay.

It is difficult not to be impressed with the house's entrance hall. Beautiful woodwork surrounds you. Mr. Brooks quickly explained something of which I was not aware. He said that the original Ashland fell into terrible disrepair after Clay's death and that it was sold to son James Clay. James made the difficult decision to raze the house and then built anew on the old foundation; albeit with a slightly different architectural style. James resided at Ashland until 1862 when he fled the country for his strong Confederate sympathies.

But, wait, I'm getting ahead of the story. Henry Clay was born in Hanover County, Virginia in 1777. He received an excellent education, as one of his teachers was George Wythe; former teacher of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Clay moved to Kentucky in 1797 and married two years later. By 1809 the main structure of Ashland was constructed, and a couple of years later he added symmetrical wings designed by famed architect Benjamin Latrobe (who designed the Capitol building in Washington DC). Clay and his wife Lucretia lived at Ashland until his death in 1852. After the Civil War Ashland was bought by John Bryan Bowman. In 1882 it was bought by one of Clay's granddaughters and her husband. In 1950 Ashland became a historic house museum, as it remains today; a memorial to one of America's premier statesmen, and probably the grandest U.S. Senator in history.

We were afforded a close look at the old house as each room was explained. We saw rare Clay relics including a book that was given to Abraham Lincoln by Clay in the 1840s. Probably what I enjoyed the most were the Clay family stories. Henry Clay Jr. had a difficult time living up to his namesake and it seems he tried to make a name for himself by fighting in the Mexican-American War. The senior Clay as a vehement opponent of the war and Mr. Brooks explained that this was one few issues on which Clay the younger did not follow his father's advice. Clay Jr. met his end by being bayoneted to death at the Battle of Buena Vista. I guess he should have listened to Pops.

I was pleased to find that Ashland doesn't dodge Clay's slave owning. But, really it would be pretty difficult since compromising national slavery-related political issues is what Clay was known for. The "Great Compromiser" didn't get his name by deciding what color of drapes to buy. Mr. Brooks explained that Clay owned a large number of slaves himself. His ownership varied usually between 40-70 slaves, which made him one of the largest owners in Kentucky. Clay granted a small number of his slaves their freedom during his lifetime, and at least one apparently refused freedom when it was offered. Learning more about Clay's stance on slavery was quite interesting. He strongly felt that both slavery and Union could exist in the United States, but he also was a primary founder of the American Colonization Society, which attempted to return African Americans to the land of their ancestors.

Clay died in Washington DC in 1852 and was returned to Kentucky for burial in the Lexington Cemetery. Mr. Brooks explained that Clay's funeral drew what is probably still the largest crowd for a funeral in Kentucky history.

Other than a couple of the other visitor's inconsiderate cell phone ringing, our tour was fantastic. I highly recommend seeing Ashland for yourself. Not only is the house a wonder to see, the grounds are also interesting to explore (the ice houses are cool-no pun intended). I think you will come away with a greater appreciation and understanding of this important Kentuckian and American. I know I did.

Here is a neat video about Ashland I found on Youtube:

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Did the Vice President Adivse Clemency for John Brown?

Native Kentuckian John Cabell Breckinridge was the youngest man ever elected vice president when he won the office in 1856 at the age of 35. Breckinridge would run unsuccessfully for president in 1860 on a divided Democratic ticket, but later would become a Confederate general and the Confederate Secretary of War.

In the fall of 1859 a letter appeared in the Frankfort Yeoman newspaper anonymously signed, "Kentucky Gentleman." The article quickly reappeared in several other papers and it was claimed that Breckinridge was the author. Breckinridge later denied the claim in the Lexington Kentucky Statesman.

Whether Breckinridge wrote the article or not is difficult to determine. It was certainly produced by someone of more than average intelligence and access to historical and current information, due to a number of its references.

In the article, the author (whoever it was), compared John Brown's role in Kansas to the Indian attacks on early Kentucky settlers. He wrote, "Charred ruins and the unburied bodies of murdered men indicated his presence as surely as similar remains did that of the remorseless savage to the pioneers of Kentucky." But, he explains that references to Brown's Kansas forays are not meant to encourage his hanging. He writes that Brown certainly deserves to die for his actions at Harpers Ferry, "if ever a traitor; and a murderer and a robber did," but if he was spared, "it would place the South upon a vantage ground in the eyes of the whole world; it would show that the spirit of Legree [slavemaster Simon Legree from Uncle Tom's Cabin] does not pervade our people; that conscious of the rectitude and humanity of our institutions, we can afford to be magnanimous to the very Barabbas of our enemies." The author summarized, "he is the very fittest subject upon which to display the chivalric sentiment of the South."

The writer's main reason for advising clemency is clearly stated in the following paragraph. "If old John Brown is executed there will be thousands to dip their handkerchiefs in his blood; relics of the martyr will be paraded throughout the North; pilgrimages will be made to his grave, and we should not be surprised to hear of miracles wrought there, as at the tomb of Thomas A'Becket [saint and martyr of Catholic and Anglican churches]. The blood of this martyr would be as seed to this fanatical church, as as that of Joe[esph] Smith [Mormon founder] to the Church of Latter-Day Saints. It could be called to attention of the purity of their faith; and Governor Wise would be compared to Julian the Apostate [Roman emperor who rejected Christianity], or Grahame of Claverhouse [persecutor of the Scottish Converters].

The author closes the article by claiming that clemency is in keeping with the "spirit of the times." He says that if European despots can free thousands "with a single dash of the pen," then "think of the shame which must rest upon the Commonwealth of Virginia with a million of freemen, themselves the sovereignty, and a quarter of a million of slaves held under patriarchal rule, whose loyalty under temptation is an astonishment to many who call themselves patriots; we say, think of the shame that must rest upon her, if her security demands and receives the blood of, one old brave bad man."

If Breckinridge did write the article then he was wise to deny it, for claiming its authorship would have certainly undermined his Southern base of support in any future political endeavors. But, regardless of who penned it, it is interesting to see the intelligence, logic, and reasoning that it contains belonged to a Southerner. It shows that not all Southern men during this particular time period were violent and reactionary.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Louisville" Demanded John Brown's Sentence Commuted

Sorry for the week-long hiatus on blogging, but I have been enjoying a most welcome vacation. During my respite I was fortunate enough to visit a few historical locations that I hope to share in a few future posts. But, for this post, I wanted to share another letter I came across in the Governor Wise papers that was sent to him anonymously and with only the location (Louisville), and the date (November 28, 1859), as indicators of its origin.

I found numbers of letters, especially from Northerners, that threatned the safety and or life of Wise (and even his family) should the Governor go through with the execution of John Brown, but I only found one from a slave state; this one. It seems that some people felt that Brown's actions were wrong and that he should be punished, but that his deed did not warrant a capital punishment.

I found it interesting that this particular letter starts off quite respectful, but quickly turns threatening toward the governor. The writer, apparently a slaveholder, explains that he has slaves, but that he would not demand blood should they be taken from him. More than once he uses Biblical references and curses to remind Wise of the importance of his decision.
Here is the letter, edited for spelling and punctuation:
Louisville, Nov. 28, 1859
Gov. Wise
Dear Sir:
I feel I cannot rest satisfied or die happy should I fail to speak a word in behalf of those unfortunate men held at Charlestown under sentence of death.
I do not in any degree justify that insurrection at Harpers Ferry, but it does not present so sickening a picture to the conation of man as hanging coolly five human beings, and I earnestly entreat you as you regard your future happiness to commute their punishments. If you do not darkness and confusion will come over you and the vengeance of blood will forever be at your heels. I demand their release from the gallows; justice demands it and all that is sacred cries for mercy. You will never see another happy day should you persist in hanging those men. Your bed will henceforth be a bed of thorns and each day will dawn darker and darker upon you until your miserable life will end and you will never hear amidst the torments of the damned. So beware of your [illegible]. I have slaves but should they all be taken from me I should not require the blood of a fellow man. I did think you would commute their punishments, but I see by the papers that you intend on carrying out your hellish purpose; but remember, you will be a vagabond and fugitive on earth and mildew will come over your posterity.
I deeply regret that I have written at so late a day. May God in heaven influence you to act in accordance with the Gospel. He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"A Southern Planter Arming His Slaves to Resist Invasion"

Thanks to Mr. Lou DeCaro for commenting on the last post and identifying the artist of that cartoon as David Hunter Strother. Virginia Unionist Strother was a correspondent for the Harper's magazines (no relation to Harpers Ferry) before the Civil War who went by the pseudonym of Porte Crayon. His travel adventures throughout the South are almost as interesting and entertaining as those of the more well known Northerner Frederick Law Olmsted. Strother went to Charlestown, Virgina to report on the Brown trial and did a number of articles and sketches of Brown while there. Strother was also related to Brown's prosecutor Andrew Hunter and was allowed to be present when Brown was interviewed by Hunter and Virginia governor Henry A. Wise.

I had recently ran across another image that I thought I would share that Strother did in the wake of Harpers Ferry, and was published on November 19, 1859 in Harper's Weekly. In this picture, titled "A Southern Planter Arming His Slaves to Resist Invasion," the white planter, his wife, and young son are surrounded by their "faithful" slaves. This image is much like the previous cartoon in that it attempts to convey the idea that slaves would not support an abolitionist insurrection, but would rather rally to protect their masters.

It is interesting to see that the slaves are all armed with crude farm implement weapons such as hoes, hatchets, pitchforks, and grain knives, while it appears that the youngest slaves shown seem to be bringing the only military-type weapons (sword, gun and powder pouch) to the master. It is purely speculation on my part, but it would have probably gone against Strother's personal beliefs to present an adult slave with a gun. Also of significance are a couple of faithful hunting dogs looking up respectfully toward their owner.

Beyond claiming that it was a terribly oppressive labor system, it is personally difficult for me to generalize on the subject of slavery. There were just so many different dynamics that made individual situations specific. Geographic location, owner and owned personalities, type of labor (agricultural or industrial and domestic or field duties) all made for unique situations. Would slaves have rallied to protect their masters? I have no doubt that some would and did. Would slaves have rallied to kill their masters? Some did or at least tried to (see Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, and Denmark Vesey). Did some slaves try to resist or escape the oppression of slavery? Thousands of runaways and runaway advertisements are proof positive that they did. Did some slaves resist emancipation when it was offered? Some few probably did.

Obviously, images are powerful conveyors of information. The thoughts and sentiments that pictures present are sometimes just as, or more effective than text. It was William M. "Boss" Tweed (of the New York City political machine Tammany Hall) that later complained of political cartoons about him, "Stop them damn pictures! I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A John Brown Political Cartoon

Political cartoons can make for some of the best primary sources available to teachers and students. Images such as these are particularly excellent for visual learners. They also tend to stimulate conversation and critical thinking in students. One must keep in mind though that political cartoons are usually produced to present a particular point of view; they aren't usually intended to be "fair and balanced." In fact, they can sometimes be down right propagandist; often to encourage action on the part of the viewer, or to focus attention on an individual or event.

Political cartoonists usually draw images that are exaggerated and incorporate symbols, make use of stereotypes, and have some level of humor, and or irony to deliver their specific point of view. If you understand and look for these artistic concepts then political cartoons can be a very useful medium to learn history.

In this particular cartoon, titled "A Premature Movement," a disheveled and elderly John Brown, with rifle in hand, is encouraging an African American, most likely a slave, to take one of his pikes and follow him. The caption says, "Here! Take this and follow me. My name's Brown." The slave, labeled Cuffee in the caption, responds, "Praise God! Mr. Brown dat is impossible. We ain't done seedin' yit at our house."

By the use of the image, the title of the cartoon, and the caption, this artist clearly shows that he thinks Brown was "premature" in believing that slaves would leave their masters and follow him to freedom. The wording in the slave's caption indicates that the artist believes that slaves have more loyalty to their owners than to a rifle-wielding crazy looking old man. The phrase "We ain't done seedin' yit at our house," makes one think that the slave imagines his master's home and fields are his own; "we," and "our" being the choice words.

Political cartoons have been around for hundreds of years and continue to make people think about current events and issues. Their unique ability to deliver points of view in the past, as well as in the present, make them a popular medium that will likely keep us thinking into the future.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

More on the John Brown Hanging Rope

I was delighted to receive the microfilmed version of letters to Virginia governor Wise about Harpers Ferry on interlibrary loan from the Library of Virginia recently, and I was even more pleased to find a number of letters from Kentuckians expressing their opinions on the affair.

A letter that I was especially looking for was fortunately included; it was from Zeb Ward, "late keeper of Kentucky penitentiary." The letter was sent from Ward's home in Versailles, Kentucky on November 23, 1859, and formally addressed Wise as "His Excellency."

Here is the body of the letter:
"I send you by Adams Express [the UPS of this era] this morning a rope made expressly for the use of John Brown & Co. Kentucky will stand pledged for its being an honest rope - I had it made in her behalf and send it to show we are willing and ready to aid our mother State in disposing of those who may attempt to destroy & overthrow her government I hope you will use it.

The hemp of which it is made was grown in Missouri - a state that Brown had troubled much, and made at Frankfort Kentucky I had it made for the express purpose - & I hope you will pass it over to the proper authorities to be used"

A letter such as this is invaluable to the researcher. It clearly states at least this person's feelings on the issue and shows that this individual felt so strongly as to act on those feelings.

I found it interesting that Ward mentioned that the rope was made of Missouri hemp. Kentucky was just as well known, if not more so, for its hemp than Missouri. It would be fascinating to know if he used Missouri hemp solely due to Brown's previous association with that state as he seems to indicate, or if he used it just because that is what he had on hand. Since he mentions that the rope was made in Frankfort, it was most likely made at the state penitentiary. Ward was the former keeper of the facility, and one of their major prisoner manufacturing operations there during the antebellum era was rope making.

I will try to share a few other letters that I found over the next several posts; some of which are proving quite difficult to transcribe due to their author's poor handwriting, the condition of the microfilm, and the fact that copies were made from the microfilm machine. I prefer to transcribe whole manuscripts rather than bits and pieces, simply for the reason of gaining a better understanding the author's context and line of thinking. It is often easy to misinterpret a writer's intention by just picking and choosing passages that are the most legible.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Three Similar Depictions of John Brown on the Way to the Gallows

A moment that never happened appears in three of the most famous images of John Brown on the day of his execution. In all three Brown is shown leaving the jailhouse in Charlestown, Virginia (now West Virginia) on his way to be hanged. Surprisingly, all three were made at different times. The earliest, made in 1863, seems to have inspired the other two. Apparently the artists took Brown's special request three days before his execution to heart. In that request Brown asked that "his religious attendants" be only "poor little, dirty, ragged bare headed and barefooted slave boys and girls; led by some old grey headed slave mother."

The image above, "Last Moments of John Brown," is probably the most recognizable of the three. It was painted by Thomas Hovenden in 1885 and depicts a bound Brown descending the jailhouse steps and stopping briefly to kiss a black child held up by its mother. Soldier guards hold back the crowds below the steps as almost everyone in the image focuses on Brown and the child.
The image above, "John Brown on His Way to the Execution," was first painted by Louis Ransom in 1860, and then printed by Currier and Ives as a lithograph image in 1863. This look also presented Brown on the jailhouse stairs. A frowning soldier waits for Brown as officials point the way. A sarcastic Virginia state flag floats behind Brown's head with its motto "Sic Semper Tyrannis" (thus always to tyrants) clearly visible. On the steps is the African American mother and child, while a statue of a "blind justice" is on the left bottom corner.

This last image, "John Brown's Blessing," was painted by Kentuckian Thomas Satterwhite Noble (see December 26, 2009 post) in 1867. Noble grew up the son of a Kentucky hemp planter and served in the Confederate army during the Civil War. If Noble held prejudices against abolitionists and African Americans they certainly do not come across in his artwork. This image of Brown, like the other two, shows the black mother and child, but this time Brown places his hand on the child's head as a blessing. Soldiers that look like they would be more correct for a Revolutionary War or European painting appear behind Brown. One reference to the image states that the attire of the soldiers is correct for one of the militia units that guarded Brown, while another states that the soldiers are dressed as Continental soldiers to symbolize the disparity between the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence (all men are equal) and the reality of 1859 Virginia.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Another Adelbert Volck Image: "Worship of the North"

A few posts ago I showed an image of a demonically influenced Lincoln working on the Emancipation Proclamation by Adelbert Volck. I wasn't aware that Volck produced so many images during the Civil War, but this is one that caught my eye as well. I am not sure if I would consider this a political cartoon or not. It is certainly a political commentary, but I don't know if it was supposed to be humorous when it was drawn in 1863 or not.

The image is titled Worship of the North, and incorporates many of the Republican and abolitionist personalities of the era. This image shows a host of individuals gathered around the "shire of the Negro," (with a bust of Lincoln on the right corner) labeled the "Chicago Platform," and says "The End Sanctifies the Means." The Chicago Platform refers to the Republican convention in 1860 that ended with Lincoln's nomination for president. An ominous John Brown pike rises from behind the seated black man. In front of the shire is an alter upon which the white man has been sacrificed to the various ills of the day. Those labeled ills included "Negro Worship," "Spirit Rapping," "Free Love," "Socialism," "Atheism," "Rationalism," and "Puritanism."

Henry Ward Beecher serves as the white man's sacrificial agent, holding a raised knife. Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner holds a torch to light up the bloody work. New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley holds a censer that emits a snake, and John Brown (St. Ossawattomie) stands on a pedestal to the right of the "Negro shrine." Other "worshipful" individuals pictured include: Vice President Andrew Johnson, General Winfield Scott, General Henry W. Halleck, General David Hunter, a kneeling and prayerful General Benjamin F. Butler, General John C. Fremont in buckskins, Massachusetts governor John Andrew, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

My interpretation of this image is that Volck believes that the Union war effort is largely a war to elevate the black man at the expense of white men. His choice of depicted individuals bears this out. While abolitionists and emanicpationists dominate the image, others personalities are merely supporters of the Union war effort and are implicated by that support.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Pennsylvania Democrats React to Harpers Ferry

I am sorry that my "historical thoughts" have not been so random lately. Much like America in the winter of 1859-60, I have had John Brown on the brain. Part of the reason for that is because I have been doing research on how Kentuckians reacted to the Harpers Ferry raid, and part of it is because I just plain find it an intriguing story.

In doing my research I have found any variety of responses to Harpers Ferry. From outright contempt, to down right praise. Of course, how one reacted to the Harpers Ferry affair often had to do with where one came from....not always...but generally.

The best exception to that rule related to political parties. Northern Democrats sought to label John Brown as a Republican - a Black Republican at that - in effort to make political capital in the upcoming 1860 election. The Republicans had officially stated in their political platform that they were only against the extension of slavery into the territories; that they did not wish to meddle with the institution where it already existed. That fact did not matter to the Democrats; they were more or less for popular allow the people the opportunity to decide if slavery should exist in a territory or not. To the Democrats, North and South, anything that hinted of anti-slavery or abolition was ties to the Republican party. In addition, John Brown never claimed to be a Republican, he and those of his temperament, such as Frederick Douglass, considered the Republican party in 1859 as to passive on the slavery issue.

The image above was printed in the Pennsylvania Statesman newspaper, a sheet that was supportive of Kentuckian, and then current Vice President John Breckinridge, for the Democratic nomination in 1860. The image is titled "Black Republican Argument," and the outline is the actual-size shape of the blades on the pikes that Brown had made to issue to the slaves he hoped would flock to his cause during the Harpers Ferry raid.

Propaganda pieces were not then, and are still not, new today. You have to admit though, this image effectively conveys the message that the Democrat party wanted to express with very few words; regardless of how incorrect it truly was.