Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Tag: history

Levi Coffin Reminisces

I’ve been reading Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, a book that appears to be out of print in the unabridged version I have. I found it in my parents’ house after they were gone. They used to say we were related to Levi Coffin, though I don’t know in what way, and it appears it would take a true genealogist to put all the connections together.

In any case, Levi Coffin was a devout Quaker and an important abolitionist. He frequently aided fugitive slaves crossing through his home state of Indiana from Kentucky. He was well known for being willing to give shelter to fugitives, often in groups of a dozen or more, when others in his community were afraid to cross the law. Slave hunters marveled at the way the trail of runaways seemed to end at the home of Levi Coffin; it was as if there were some kind of underground railroad between his house and Canada, and apparently Coffin was the President of this Underground Railroad.

Coffin’s autobiography offers much detail to a period in history that some in our time might wish to gloss over (Ahem. Texas? You listening?) He relates dozens of stories of the people he helped, of their sufferings, their oppression, their fears. Many were motivated to seek freedom by the possibility of being separated from family members. Some of those he assisted took the huge risk of going back to the places they’d come from to retrieve children or spouses still in slavery. Tragically, many didn’t succeed, if they tried.

Of course we all know that slavery was (and continues to be) terrible and tragic. What is striking to me as I read Reminiscences is the economic framework which perpetuated the system. Slaves were expensive, yet, I don’t get the impression everyone who owned a slave or two was wealthy. One price named was $750 for a slave known to have escaped twice, which brought the price of that person down considerably. A more valuable slave might have been traded for $1000 or more. According to Measuring Worth, that $750 might be equivalent to about $20,000 today. (See the site for detailed discussion of the various ways such a value can be calculated.) What would be comparable in price today? A new car?

Imagine all the work you’d have to do to acquire a new vehicle.

Now imagine it suddenly disappears. (And no, you don’t have insurance on it!)

Of course you’d be pissed. And what if some people from somewhere else decided that your ownership of that car was terribly wrong, and that all cars should be removed from their owners immediately? Even if you were sympathetic to that idea, it would be awfully hard to give up the investment. Maybe there could be some compromise, a gradual process which would lead to an end to the ownership of cars, but wouldn’t cause such an upheaval and sacrifice on the part of the owners. Wouldn’t that be reasonable?

Possibly, unless you were talking about actual people. People leading real lives. There can’t possibly be any excuse for holding real people in slavery for one more day, can there? Somebody might suffer an economic setback? How can that compare?

Yet, even among the Quakers, who were known for being against slavery two hundred years before it was abolished, there was division as late as the 1830s as to just how bad slavery was, and exactly how it ought to be rectified.

So my question is: With what tragedies are we complicit today, which are commonly framed as ethical dilemmas? For what inexcusable horrors are we offered gradual solutions that would be less economically stressful for those profiting from said horrors? What atrocities are so embedded in our lives that we can’t imagine simply walking away from them?

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Melch Reads Les Miserables

S'pose if I'm serious about learning history, I should pick up one of these Will Durant ones.

S’pose if I’m serious about learning history, I should pick up one of these antique Will Durant print books.

It was my aim to learn about the French Restoration by reading Les Miserables. Turns out the book is chock-full of references to people and events, but no explanation of what any of them means. Guess next time I read this book I’ll get the annotated version, not the free one from the very admirable Project Gutenberg. But still, it’s quite a work, and I’m enjoying it a heckuva lot. Take these quotes:

This one shows an interesting view into Hugo’s ideal of womanhood.

She had always been predestined to gentleness; but faith, charity, hope, those three virtues which mildly warm the soul, had gradually elevated that gentleness to sanctity. Nature had made her a lamb, religion had made her an angel. Poor sainted virgin! Sweet memory which has vanished!

You should see this lady later, when she’s taking care of her blind brother.

Course Hugo never holds back from, well, anything, he pretty much says everything about everything, and in a lot of words, but in particular he never flinches from laying out his politics. In this quote, Jean Valjean has served twenty years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry family (and later, trying to escape). He gets out and finds no one will give work or rent a room to a convict, and here he’s musing on his past.

Whether there had not been more abuse on the part of the law, in respect to the penalty, than there had been on the part of the culprit in respect to his fault. Whether there had not been an excess of weights in one balance of the scale, in the one which contains expiation. Whether the over-weight of the penalty was not equivalent to the annihilation of the crime, and did not result in reversing the situation, of replacing the fault of the delinquent by the fault of the repression, of converting the guilty man into the victim, and the debtor into the creditor, and of ranging the law definitely on the side of the man who had violated it.

And later,

He asked himself whether human society could have the right to force its members to suffer equally in one case for its own unreasonable lack of foresight, and in the other case for its pitiless foresight; and to seize a poor man forever between a defect and an excess, a default of work and an excess of punishment.

But there is another side.

The ingenuous police of the Restoration beheld the populace of Paris in too ‘rose-colored’ a light; it is not so much of an ‘amiable rabble’ as it is thought. The Parisian is to the Frenchman what the Athenian was to the Greek; no one sleeps more soundly than he, no one is more frankly frivolous and lazy than he, no one can better assume the air of forgetfulness; let him not be trusted nevertheless; he is ready for any sort of cool deed; but when there is glory at the end of it, he is worthy of admiration in every sort of fury. Give him a pike, he will produce the 10th of August; give him a gun, you will have Austerlitz. He is Napoleon’s stay and Danton’s resource. Is it a question of country, he enlists; is it a question of liberty, he tears up the pavements. Beware! his hair filled with wrath, is epic; his blouse drapes itself like the folds of a chlamys. Take care! he will make the first Rue Grenetat which comes to hand Caudine Forks. When the hour strikes, this man of the faubourgs will grow in stature; this little man will arise, and his gaze will be terrible, and his breath will become a tempest, and there will issue forth from that slender chest enough wind to disarrange the folds of the Alps. It is, thanks to the suburban man of Paris, that the Revolution, mixed with arms, conquers Europe. He sings; it is his delight. Proportion his song to his nature, and you will see! As long as he has for refrain nothing but la Carmagnole, he only overthrows Louis XVL; make him sing the Marseillaise, and he will free the world.

Here’s one more, just for fun. It’s not in vogue these days to speak of people as products of their social class, especially in America, but, strangely, it has a timeless quality, and calls to mind some modern people. Read it and see if if makes you think of anyone you know. (He’s talking about the infamous Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, petty scamming innkeepers.)

These beings belonged to that bastard class composed of coarse people who have been successful, and of intelligent people who have descended in the scale, which is between the class called ‘middle’ and the class denominated as ‘inferior,’ and which combines some of the defects of the second with nearly all the vices of the first, without possessing the generous impulse of the workingman nor the honest order of the bourgeois.

Don’t look at me, I’m just minding my own business, running my little motel out here in Kansas . . . .

Unsupported musings on the history of war, by Melch

I’ve been thinking about history, about certain threads that run through the weave of it, not events but rather sorta big ideas, or deep ideas, underlying motives, maybe. It’s about war and how people fight.

At least the box turtle could get out of some mud, if she wanted to.

In the middle ages, much of conflict was based in strong defenses. You placed your castle in a high place where you could see and defend against the enemy. Castles got bigger and more complex and became places where a whole village could hole up for weeks or months, to wait out their enemies within thick stone walls. Conflict on the ground also emphasized defense. Sure, soldiers had ridiculously long lances, and crossbows, but they were wearing so much armor that if they fell off their horses they couldn’t get up. If they fell face down in a mud puddle they’d just drown there. Least that’s what I’ve heard.

So you can see the limits of this defensive approach to war and battle. The people in the castle had to wait for their attackers to leave, while the enemy could go round up some friends, or go out for tea, pick up some groceries and a video, grab a beer at the local pub, and come back to the castle refreshed and ready for battle, should the inhabitants finally get tired of sitting inside with nothing to do. (Don’cha like how I work in a reference to the twentieth century?) Because of this problem, castles were eventually abandoned altogether, and the offensive approach to war rose to dominance. Firearms were invented, so people could shoot one another without getting too close. Then tanks, which took the defenses of the castle on the offense. Airplanes were developed to drop bombs and warheads on people from the sky. Biological and chemical weapons took advantage of the physical vulnerabilities inherent in the human body. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, offensive attacks were so sophisticated that a man could sit in a comfortable office and with a few keystrokes send unmanned craft over oceans and continents to target a particular person or place and destroy it/him/her. They probably never knew what had hit them.

Around this time, some people were starting to wonder if any of this was really a good idea after all. They figured they had a choice, to continue on an endless path to nowhere and develop ever-more-sophisticated ways to attack and kill people, or to rethink the whole idea of war and conflict altogether. Maybe getting along was underrated. Did anybody in any of these wars really know what they were fighting for, after all? Sure, everybody likes to talk about freedom, or security, but how free, or secure, is anyone, when drones can find you, anywhere in the world, and kill you in your house while you sleep?

So that was the choice people had, in the early twenty-first century. To keep up the good fight, the expensive, dangerous, never-see-the-end-of-it fight, or to figure out how to quit fighting, to find better things to do, to choose cooperation over conflict. To commit to peace. And here I am, at the other end of the century looking back, sitting at what used to be a crossroads in those days, and what did they choose? Well, look at the history, and you tell me.

Respectfully, Melchisedek Weaver, Strong City, Kansas

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