Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Execution of Slave Trader Captain Gordon

Execution of Slave Trader

From History Net, "Hanging Captain Gordon," by Ron Soodalter, Originally published on , on 18 August 2009 --  On a February day in 1862, a slight, bearded prisoner stood beneath the gallows in a New York City prison courtyard, facing death. Captain Nathaniel Gordon was surrounded by Marines and a crowd of invited "guests"—mostly reporters, politicians and officials. Convicted of "piratically confining and detaining negroes with intent of making them slaves," Gordon was about to become the only man in American history to be executed for the crime of slave trading. The Slave Trade Act of 1794, enacted only five years after George Washington's inauguration, prohibited exporting slaves from the United States to any foreign country, also declaring it illegal to "build, fit, equip, load, or otherwise prepare" a vessel within U.S. borders for slave trading. The first action taken by any nation against slave traders, it marked the first in what was to be a series of increasingly restrictive laws directed against the lucrative slave trade, culminating in the Piracy Act of 1820, which stated that any U.S. citizen on the crew of a foreign ship, or anyone serving on a U.S. ship that seized a "Negro or mulatto…shall be adjudged a pirate…and shall suffer death."

Why were such laws passed even though the South still depended on slave labor throughout the first half of the 19th century? In fact, by 1820 most Southern planters felt they already had enough slaves. White Southerners were terrified that the population of slaves and free Blacks might grow to outnumber their own. They were well aware of what had happened in Haiti only a few years earlier, when the slave population took over the entire island. There had also been sporadic slave revolts in various spots throughout the Southern states in 1800, 1811 and 1831—small, to be sure, and quickly and brutally put down, but frightening nonetheless.

So America's need for slaves was dwindling. Laws forbidding trafficking were enacted, and the slave trade should have come to an end. But while the Southern states' demand lessened, Brazil and Cuba were increasingly in need of slaves to work sugar cane and coffee plantations. The bounties paid for workers there were not as high as the price tags fetched on the auction blocks of Charleston, Mobile or Atlanta, but they were still enough to attract thousands of ships to Africa's coastal slave markets.

And while the newly enacted American laws should seemingly have discouraged slave traders, the U.S. government did virtually nothing to enforce them early in the century. Ships by the thousands sailed from New York and New England for the African coast, packed their stifling holds with slaves, then delivered them to Rio de Janeiro and Havana. Arrests were few, convictions even fewer. Why bother to enforce laws that merely prohibited bringing slaves from Africa to a foreign country when there was no law preventing selling them from, say, Virginia to Louisiana?

That was the situation until 1842, when the American government signed a treaty with England resulting in both countries forming an armed fleet—an "African Squadron"—to curb slave traffic. The British squadron was incredibly successful; within a six-year period it captured more than 500 slave ships transporting some 40,000 captives. In that same period, however, its American counterpart captured just six vessels—one per year. In over four decades not a single slave trader was hanged, and few were punished at all.

Atlantic Dock, Brooklyn

For slave traders, even one successful voyage was profitable beyond all reason. In the mid-1800s, a slave purchased in Africa for approximately $40 worth of trade goods would bring an estimated $400 to $1,200. That means a cargo of, say, 800 slaves would bring between $320,000 and $960,000.

Attrition was the inevitable result of any slaving voyage. The death rate among captives varied, depending on the length of the voyage, the severity of conditions and the callousness of captain and crew. It averaged 17.5 percent among American slavers; out of every 1,000 Africans shipped as slaves, approximately 175 perished of disease, thirst, starvation, suffocation, exhaustion, suicide and sometimes simply despair.

Newly freed Africans aboard a slaver, 1860.

Slaver captains were a hardy lot, seemingly inured to the suffering they inflicted. Nathaniel Gordon's ancestors had come to the colonies in 1621, and made their living from the sea ever since. He had already commanded at least three slaving voyages before his capture. On his fourth he sailed to the Congo River, where in August 1860 he crammed nearly 900 Africans—half of them children—into the hold of his small ship Erie and bore away for Havana, Cuba. The New York Times would later report: "Had he reached the port of destination with the usual proportion of living Negroes, an immense fortune would have been made, and in that event, as he declared, he would have returned to the United States rich and contented….But it was ordained otherwise."

Captured by a ship of the African Squadron, Gordon was taken to New York City for trial in federal court—ironic, since New York had long been the epicenter of the U.S. slave trade. It had financed, fitted out and sent forth more slaving expeditions than any other American port. Slavers had typically been given a token slap on the wrist thus far. The U.S. attorney had no particular interest in prosecuting slaving cases. President James Buchanan, who occupied the White House when Gordon was arrested, had declared that he would never hang a slaver. It seemed Gordon had nothing to worry about.

But after the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, a strongly Democratic, Southern-leaning New York City found itself with a new Republican U.S. attorney, Edward Delafield Smith, who entered office determined to put an end to the slave trade. And Smith made Nathaniel Gordon his personal demon.

Charged under the 1820 Piracy Act, Gordon had a veri­table "dream team" defending him, under the leadership of a brilliant former judge, Gilbert Dean. But the arguments that had for decades served to set slavers free no longer worked. It took over a year and two trials, but Smith won his conviction. On November 30, 1861, Judge William Shipman, trying his first slave trade case, sentenced Gordon. His pronouncement of judgment rings with a sense of outrage that still reverberates nearly 150 years later, beginning ominously: "You are soon to be confronted with the terrible consequences of your crime." Gordon was scheduled to be hanged on February 7, 1862.


The only avenue of appeal was the president. Although only a year into his first term at the time, Lincoln had already earned a reputation for his liberal use of the power to pardon. Some saw this as proof that he was a compassionate man, but others—including Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Attorney General Edward Bates—viewed him as a sentimental meddler who was undermining military discipline and the sanctity of the courts. The president, Welles confided to his diary: "is always disposed to mitigate punishment, and to grant favors. Sometimes this is a weakness." Bates opined that Lincoln had only one failing: "I have sometimes told him…that he was unfit to be entrusted with the pardoning power because he was almost certain to be affected by a touching story."

There were three areas in which Lincoln's pardoning power pertained. The first related to cases in the civil courts, including the slave trade. According to State and Justice Department records, Lincoln reviewed 456 civil cases, and in 375 of those pardons were granted.

Second were military cases—and here is where Lincoln was most often criticized for interfering with discipline. The president did in fact pardon many boys who had fallen asleep on guard duty or had deserted. His inclination toward mercy was certainly not lost on his generals. In 1864 William T. Sherman, for example, expressed his frustration on this subject in a letter to the judge advocate general, revealing that he planned to "ex­ecute a good many spies and guerillas—without bothering the President….we all know that it is very hard for the President to hang spies, even after conviction, when a troop of his friends follow the sentence with ear­nest…appeals." When Joseph Hooker sent an envelope to the president containing the cases of 55 convicted and doomed deserters, Lincoln merely wrote "Pardoned" on the envelope and returned it to Hooker unopened.

The third class of cases calling for Lincoln's clemency had to do with those rebelling against the government. Lincoln's attitude toward the South reflected the greatest expression of his mercy. He wanted nothing more than a return of the seceded states to their former place in the Union, and was "ready at any time to grant a general amnesty with a remission of all penalties except the loss of property in slaves, if the measure would hasten the return of peace and the end of the Confederacy."

None of this is to imply that Lincoln was always a soft touch, however. An old friend wrote that the president "would strain a point to be kind, but he never strained it to breaking. He would be just as kind and generous as his judgment would let him be—no more."

When Lincoln's friend, Illinois lawyer and congressman Henry Bromwell, visited the White House late in the war, Lincoln complained to him of the constant pressure to pardon or reprieve men: "I reckon there never was a man raised in the country, where they are always butchering cattle and hogs and think nothing of it, that ever grew up with such an aversion to bloodshed as I have and yet I've had more questions of life and death to settle in four years than all the men who ever sat in this chair put together. But, I've managed to get along and do my duty, as I believe, and still save most of them….But…there are some cases where the law must be executed."

Thus Lincoln emerges as a man who is empathetic and kind, but he is also the leader of a powerful, war-torn nation, keenly aware that his decisions inevitably have to reflect that nation's greater good. And so it would be in the case of Nathaniel Gordon.

Once it became apparent that an American might actually go to the gallows for slave trading, Lincoln faced tremendous pressure. Members of Congress sought clemency for Gordon, as did some of Lincoln's friends. Petitions containing thousands of names arrived on the president's desk, earnestly beseeching him to pardon the slave trader or grant him a reprieve. The arguments ranged from the sentimental—"Please consider his innocent mother, wife and child"—to the legal—"You can't kill a man for violating a law that has been a dead letter for over 40 years!" And for every supplicant seeking pardon for Gordon there was another one seeking the death penalty. The New York Times opined on January 28, 1862: "…it is more than high time to assure mankind, that we do in all honesty regard man-stealing as a crime of the utmost atrocity….Every consideration of justice…and of public policy demand the execution of the sentence of the law upon [Gordon]; and we doubt not the President will so answer the prayer of these petitioners."

In late January 1862, the slaver captain's counsel, Judge Dean, went to Washington to urge the president to pardon or reprieve his client. U.S. Attorney Delafield Smith visited the president as well. Fearing that public pressure might influence Lincoln to spare Gordon's life, Smith had hurried to the White House to implore him not to interfere with justice in this case. One of Smith's assistant U.S. attorneys described the prosecutor's meeting with the president.

When he met Mr. Lincoln, as he afterward reported to me on his return, Mr. Lincoln took out from his desk the reprieve already prepared and laid it before him. He picked up a pen, which he held in his hand while he listened to the argument of Mr. Smith on the imperative necessity of making an example of this man Gordon, in order to terrorize those who were engaged in this business.

Mr. Lincoln listened to him very patiently and with a sort of wail of despair (as it was afterward described), flourishing the pen over the reprieve he said: 'Mr. Smith, you do not know how hard it is to have a human being die when you know that a stroke of your pen may save him.' He threw down the pen….

The prosecutor need not have worried about Lincoln's resolve. In fact Lincoln from the beginning had no intention of sparing Nathaniel Gordon's life. On February 4, just three days before Gordon was scheduled to die, the president wrote, "I think I would personally prefer to let this man live in confinement and let him meditate on his deeds, yet in the name of justice and the majesty of law, there ought to be one case, at least one specific instance, of a professional slave-trader, a Northern white man, given the exact penalty of death because of the incalculable number of deaths he and his kind inflicted upon black men amid the horror of the sea-voyage from Africa." And three years later, shortly before his own death, he told Congressman Henry Bromwell: "There was that man who was sentenced for piracy and slave-trading on the high seas. That was a case where there must be an example and you don't know how they followed and pressed to get him pardoned, or his sentence commuted, but there was no use of talking. It had to be done; I couldn't help him."

Despite his resolution, Lincoln apparently felt he had to make some sort of response to the public outcry. He chose to issue Gordon a two-week reprieve. In his statement, Lincoln wrote that Gordon might have been misled by his counsel and his supporters into expecting a commutation. He proposed to give him time to make "the necessary preparations for the awful change which awaits him…I do hereby grant unto him a respite…until Friday, the twenty-first day of February…." Attorney General Bates had advised Lincoln against the two-week reprieve, concerned that it would be generally misread as an opportunity for Gordon's proponents to plead the slaver's case anew—and he was right.

Meanwhile, the White House was submerged in a miasma of fear and anxiety that had nothing whatsoever to do with Nathaniel Gordon or the war. Two of the Lincoln sons, 8-year-old Tad and 11-year-old Willie, had become seriously ill, probably from typhoid. Tad would improve, but Willie's condition continued to worsen. Of all the president's children, Willie was apparently the closest to his father in manner as well as nature, and Lincoln clearly adored the boy. On Febru­ary 18, Attorney General Bates wrote in his diary: "The President's 2nd son, Willie, has lingered on for a week or 10 day(s), and is now thought to be in extremis. The President is nearly worn out, with grief and watching."

Just the day before, Lincoln had received a pleading letter from Rhoda E. White, the wife of a New York judge, who had traveled to Washington with Captain Gordon's wife and mother to plead for clemency. She wrote the president: "I would not intrude upon the sanctity of your sick room and upon your hours of grief but for the sake of Mercy, and for the sake of an afflicted mother and wife who are bowed down with sorrow and look to God and to you to lift the heavy burden they are suffering under."

The president refused to see the women, but they were granted an audience with Mary Todd Lincoln. Gordon's wife Elizabeth presented the first lady with a poem she had written, beginning:


Within your power it lies to save My husband from an early grave; And rescue from a life of shame, The wife and child who bear his name. Mary Lincoln later attempted to discuss the cause célébre with her husband, but in the words of the U.S. marshal assigned to the Gordon case, "The President…would not allow his wife to broach the subject, and poor Mrs. Gordon returned to New York heartbroken and disconsolate." The night before his scheduled execution, Gordon attempted to cheat the gallows by smoking cigars soaked in strychnine. But prison physicians found him in time and managed to revive him. At noon the next day, the marshal raised his sword, and Captain Nathaniel Gordon died on the gallows. New York attorney and diarist George Templeton Strong commented tartly on the slave captain's execution: "Gordon, poor wretch, made a pitiful exit. He went to the gibbet half-dead with a dose of strychnine…and more than half-drunk with brandy. The doctors dosed him with stimulants and thus kept life in his body for the law to extinguish in due form."

Why did Lincoln refuse to spare Gordon's life? There were several reasons, one of them personal. Lincoln had always been clear on his feelings toward the institution of slavery, writing, "I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any abolitionist." But he made no secret of his position on slavery's legality where it already existed. In 1858 he stated: "I have said it a hundred times, and I have now no inclination to take it back, that I believe there is no right, and ought to be no inclination in the people of the free States to enter into the slave states, and interfere with the question of slavery at all. I have said that al­ways." If slavery was to end, it must be through the force of law, and he was prepared to put aside his personal views—strong though they might be—in deference to it.

Lincoln had no such ambivalence regarding the slave trade; he abhorred it, and more to the point, the law forbade it. In a speech in Peoria, Ill., in 1854, he suggested that Southerners, like Northerners, saw the slave trader as an arch villain. "The poor negro," he said, "has some natural right to himself…those who deny it, and make mere merchandise of him, deserve kickings, contempt and death."On one of the numerous occasions when the president was asked to consider mercy for the convicted slaver, he responded, "I believe I am kindly enough in nature and can be moved to pity and to pardon the perpetrator of almost the worst crime that the mind of man can conceive or the arm of man can execute; but any man, who…can rob Africa of her children to sell them into interminable bondage, I will never pardon."

What's more, with Gordon's execution the president could at least achieve one clear-cut victory in the world's eyes at a time when military triumphs were rare. Lincoln was far from pleased with the war's progress in early 1862. Union defeats at Bull Run and Ball's Bluff had stunned the nation. And Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan was already showing the arrogance and unwillingness to fight that would so infuriate the president over the next several months.

In Gordon's case Lincoln could show Congress, the military, the nation at large and the whole world that the new government had the requisite commitment and fortitude to take a dusty but potentially powerful law and allow it to work in the manner intended by its authors. As The New York Times put it, "Henceforth the Government of the United States washes its hands completely of all complicity in the Slave-trade."

There was another major reason for the president's refusal to grant Gordon mercy, one that would not become evident until the slave trader had been in his grave for two months. It involved reaching an accord with Britain. Relations between the United States and Britain had been strained since the start of the Civil War. Largely for economic reasons, the British government expressed sympathy for the South. Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone stated in the fall of 1862: "There is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South…have made a nation….We may anticipate with certainty the success of the Southern states so far as regards their separation from the North."

Any British attempt to stop a suspected slave ship flying the American flag was still viewed as an act of outright aggression. But the U.S. Navy was now devoting its energies to the war, and maritime efforts to end the slave trade had practically ground to a stop. Lincoln took steps to correct this. Through Secretary of State William Seward, the president quietly began negotiating a treaty with Lord Lyons for Britain's help in suppressing the slave trade.

London, it can be presumed, had been following the Gordon case with some interest; the new administration's level of commitment to the enforcement of America's slave laws would let Britain know just how serious Lincoln was about eradicating slave traffic. On March 8, the London Daily News published a lengthy article reflecting the British response to Gordon's execution. It read, in part:

It is an index of the quality of Mr. Lincoln's government, of its strength of principle, and the consistency of its policy, and it marks the end of a system….Those who knew President Lincoln well said that he would not lose the precious opportunity to strike a blow at a system which costs hundreds of lives yearly….They said Gordon would certainly be hanged. They were right, and from the Bight of Benin to the Coast of Cuba the man-stealer will tremble.

This was the British response that Lincoln had sought. It paved the way for the Seward–Lyons agreement, which helped to end the slave trade.

Finally, Lincoln refused to save Nathaniel Gordon because, at bottom, the sentence he received was just and appropriate. This was not a case of some unfortunate 16-year-old falling asleep on picket duty or a green soldier running away from the terrors of battle. There was nothing in Gordon's heinous offense or his established history as a slave trader that could arouse the remarkable compassion for which Lincoln would become so well and rightly known. (source: History Net)

Edward A. Pollard - The Lost Cause

"The Lost Cause"  --  Edward A. Pollard wrote the "new southern history of the war of the Confederates" in 1866. Below are excerpts from that text. A former newspaper editor, Pollard criticized Davis for being a weak leader. Pollard was later named professor of Southern history at the University of Virginia.

Mr. Jefferson Davis had resigned from the Senate of the United States to encounter a responsibility and accept a trust the greatest of modern times. Public opinion in all the seceded States had long designated him as the leader of their new destinies. A convention of delegates from the then eight seceded States assembled in Congress at Montgomery, Alabama, on the 4th of February, 1861, for the purpose of organizing a provisional government. This body adopted a Constitution for the Confederate States on the 8th of February. On the 9th of February, Congress proceeded to the election of a President and Vice-President, and nnanimously agreed upon Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, for President, and Alexander O. Stephens, of Georgia, for Vice-President.

Edward Alfred Pollard was a pro-slavery lawyer, writer, journalist and U.S. Congressional Judiciary Committee Clerk who became a principle editor of the Richmond Examiner at the beginning of the Civil War.

The framers of the new government at Montgomery studiously adhered, in the main features of their plan, to the Washington model ­ but the Constitution adopted by them differed in some particulars from that of the United States. And it is to be remarked that at every point of difference it made an undoubted improvement, or corrected some acknowledged evil of former times. The Confederate Constitution absolutely prohibited the over-sea slave-trade; that of the United States did not. It permitted cabinet ministers to take part in the discussions of Congress. It prohibited bounties or duties to foster any branch of industry. After a specified time the post-office was required to cover its own expenses. No extra compensation was to be paid to any contractor. The President was to hold office for six years, and was not to be reeligible. The subordinate government officers were not to be removed by the President without a report to the Senate giving his reasons. The right of property in slaves and that of taking them into any Territory were expressly stated; but in this, it was claimed that no new principle was adopted or laid down, which did not already exist in the Constitution of the old Union.

CSA  Jefferson Davis,President, and Alexander O. Stephens, Vice-President

The choice of President was thought at the time to be quite as fit and admirable as the other work of the Convention. But of this, the most serious doubts were hereafter to arise. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States, was a name that was associated with much that was brilliant and honourable in the history of the old government. He had served that government in the field and in council. IIe had received a military education at West Point; had served in the Mexican War, at the head of a regiment of volunteer riflemen, winning distinction at Monterey and Buena Vista; and had been called to the cabinet of President Pierce, as Secretary of War; in the administration of which office he increased the strength of the United States army, proposed to abolish the permanent staff-organization for one of details on staff-duty, and sent to the Crimea a commission to report upon the state of the science of war, and the condition of European armies. He re-entered political life as a Senator in Congress. In that highest school of debate in America, he was distinguished for a style of polished and graceful oratory; and speaking in moderate rhetorical figures, and in subdued tones, he was never the flaming fanatic or popular exhorter, but just the speaker to address with agreeable effect a small assembly of intelligent and cultivated persons.

Mr. Davis was a man whose dignity, whose political scholarship, whose classical and lofty expressions, whose literary style-unexcelled, perhaps, in the power of statement by any contemporary model,-whose pure morals, well-poised manners and distinguished air, were likely to adorn the high station to which he had been raised, and calculated to qualify him, in many striking respects, as the representative of the proud and chivalrous people of the South. But these accomplishments concealed from the hasty and superficial view defects of character which were most serious, indeed almost vital in their consequences, and which were rapidly to be developed in the course of his administration of the new government. His dignity was the mask of a peculiar obstinacy, which, stimulated by an intellectual conceit, spurned the counsels of equal minds, and rejected the advice of the intelligent, while it was curiously not inconsistent with a complete subserviency to the smallest and most unworthy of favourites. His scholarship smelt of the closet. He had no practical judgment; his intercourse with men was too distant and constrained for studies of human nature; and his estimate of the value of particular men was grotesque and absurd. The especial qualifications of a great leader in the circumstances in which Mr. Davis was placed would have been strong and active common-sense, quick apprehension, knowledge of men, and a disposition to consult the aggregate wisdom of the people, and to gather the store of judgment from every possible source of practical advice within its reach. Mr. Davis had none of these plain qualities. He had, instead of these, certain elegant and brilliant accomplishments, which dazzled the multitude, confused the world in its judgment of his merits, and gave him a singular reputation, in which admirers and censors were strangely mingled: one party, looking at a distance, extravagant in its praise, the other, having a nearer view, unlimited in its condemnation.

No one who lived in Richmond during the war can ever forget these gloomy, miserable days. In the midst of them was to occur the ceremony of the inauguration of the Permanent Government of the Confederate States. It was only a difference of name between two governments, one called Provisional and the other Permanent; for Mr. Davis had been unanimously elected President, and there was no change either of the organic law or of the personnel of the Administration. But the ceremony of the second inauguration of President Davis was one of deep interest to the public; for it was supposed that he might use the occasion to develop a new policy and to reanimate the people. The 22d of February, the day appointed for the inauguration, was memorable for its gloom in Richmond. Rain fell in torrents, and the heavens seemed to be hung with sable. Yet a dense crowd collected, braving the rain-storm in their eager interest to hear the President's speech from the steps of the Capitol. "It was then," said a Richmond paper, "that all eyes were turned to our Chief; that we hung upon his lips, hushing the beating of our heavy hearts that we might catch the word of fire we longed to hear-that syllable of sympathy of which a nation in distress stands so in need. One sentence then of detiance and of cheer-something bold, and warm, and human-had sent a thrill of lightning through the land, and set it ablaze with the fresh and quench less flame of renewed and never-ending fight. That sentence never came. The people were left to themselves."

PRESENTATION TO JEFF DAVIS  --  DINAH. "Hi! Massa! De SWAMP ANGEL send his compelmurts wid dis here fine punkin, smokin' hot, and hope to visit you hisself in Richmond, by 'm by!" (Harper's Weekly 26 September 1863)

The Confederate President offered but little of counsel or encouragement to his distressed countrymen. He declared that the magnified proportions of the war had occasioned serious disasters, and that the effort was impossible to protect the whole of the territory of the Confederate States, sea-board and inland. To the popular complaint of inefficiency in the departments of the Government, he replied that they had done all which human power and foresight enabled them to accomplish. He lifted up, in conclusion, a piteous, beautiful, appropriate prayer for the favour of Divine providence. (source: Virginia Xroads)

Tuesday April 13, 2010, The Cobert Report, "The Word - The Lost Cause"
Every time Southerners try to celebrate Confederate heritage, Yankees ruin it by mentioning the s-word.

Cotton Was King

From the New York Times Disunion, "When Cotton Was King," by Gene Dattel, on 26 March 2011 --  COTTON, SLAVERY, THE CIVIL WAR  --  Looking forward from the dawn of the American republic, it was easy to assume that slavery would soon fade away. Slaves were primarily used to produce staple crops like tobacco, rice, indigo and sugar, all of which were in decline under competition from the Caribbean. Without these, slavery could not survive.

“Slavery in time will not be a speck in our country,” opined Oliver Ellsworth, a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Indeed, it was that assumption that allowed the anti-slavery delegates to cede easily to a compromise in writing the Constitution: slavery would never be mentioned, but it would be given legal protection. Founding a nation, Ellsworth and others decided, was more important than eradicating a “moral anachronism.”

That assumption, however, proved disastrously wrong, thanks to a new, much more valuable cash crop then still on the horizon: cotton. Over the next 70 years this new cash crop would revolutionize the American economy and breathe new life into the institution of slavery. On the eve of the Civil War, far from facing imminent decline, slavery, and the cotton economy that depended on it, was going strong.

In 1787, there was virtually no cotton grown in America. Two things, however, quickly changed that. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin allowed cotton production to go from a process limited by manual labor to an industrial machine, allowing a person to “clean” 50 pounds, rather than one pound, of cotton a day. And of course, the cotton gin didn’t remove manual labor from the process; it just shifted it. In fact, this labor-saving device extended slavery by creating a labor shortage in the cotton fields.

The mass production of cotton was accompanied by a dramatic 90 percent drop in the price of a cotton textile garment. This in turn led to a consumer revolution whose raw material was slave-produced cotton – 80 percent of which was produced in the South. As a result, American cotton production exploded from almost nothing in 1787 to over 4.5 million bales, at 500 lbs. a bale, by 1860. On the eve of the war, cotton comprised almost 60 percent of America’s exports.

Slavery expanded accordingly. The number of slaves increased from 700,000 in 1787 to over 4 million on the eve of the American Civil War; approximately 70 percent were involved in some way with cotton production. Indeed, so closely tied were cotton and slavery that the price of a slave directly correlated to the price of cotton (except during years of excessive speculation). Interestingly, slaves were considered too valuable in the cotton states to be used for dangerous work in the malarial swamps that bordered levees and canals. Irish immigrants were the truly expendable class.

The expansion of cotton meant the geographic expansion of slavery as well. In its wake, cotton dragged its enslaved laborers to the rich states in the country’s then-southwest where it could be grown more easily. It was “as if this plant-king,” wrote historian W. B. Hammond, “were literally leading the human captives in his train.” Gavin Wright, an economic historian, observed that the “slave economy ultimately came to resemble the geography of natural cotton-growing regions.” In other words, slavery only spread where cotton could be grown. Harriet Beecher Stowe captured this well in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” when slaves were “sold down the river” to work on cotton plantations.

Increased cotton production, not optimum efficiency or profit, became an obsession. A Northern traveler in 1834 noticed this singular goal: “To sell cotton in order to buy negroes – to make more cotton to buy more negroes, ‘ad infinitum.’” Today, we call this leverage. Although risky, cotton’s revenue stream and collateral made credit available, which in turn facilitated more production. During the antebellum period, financing utilized tragic human collateral to expand a horrific institution.

As one might expect, if the price of cotton went down, so did the price of a slave. Or, as Stowe astutely asserted in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” if ”something would bring down the price of cotton once and forever, … [it would] make the whole slave property a … [burden] in the market.”

One of the main arguments made by Southern sympathizers and other critics of Abraham Lincoln, at the time and in the 150 years since, was that the Civil War was unnecessary; like the founders, they have argued that slavery would have died out on its own. This was, too, a core assumption of many Republican leaders at the time: that if the expansion of slavery could be checked, then it would eventually wither away.

But nothing about the cotton economy of 1861 pointed that way. On the eve of the Civil War there was no perceived threat to the existence of slavery; on the contrary, production levels had never been higher, and despite occasional drops in price, cotton was proving a reliably stable profit engine. Indeed, slave-produced cotton had become a formidable political and still-growing economic force: as early as 1838, a partner of Nicholas Biddle, America’s finance king, paid homage to cotton as a weapon: “Cotton … will be much more effective in bring … [England] to terms than all the disciplined troops America could bring into the field.” In 1858 James Henry Hammond, a senator from South Carolina, asked, “Would any sane nation make war on cotton? … No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is King.” The ubiquitous faith in cotton made slavery seem impregnable.

Not only Southerners, but Northerners as well understood the consequences of the linkage between cotton and slavery – much better than their revolutionary-era predecessors. William Henry Seward, an anti-slavery unionist and Lincoln’s secretary of state, described this catastrophic miscalculation. The founding fathers, he wrote in 1860, “did not see … the reinvigoration of Slavery consequent on the increased consumption of cotton.” In 1861, the real and imagined rule of King Cotton meant that slavery had a firm economic hold on the American psyche – North and South. Slavery, realists understood, would not die willingly. (source: New York Times Disunion)

The Georgia Cotton King of California

From the Los Angeles Times, "A land rich in lore, rich in cotton, poor in spirit: The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire; Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman," on 12 October 2003, by Malcolm Margolin -- After an abortive trip to the Central Valley, Ansel Adams wrote: "I have returned from 1,000 miles of haze, smog, [and] general dullness.... Might be rich, but it ain't attractive."

Although I have fought against this kind of smug dismissal for years, citing the rich if often hidden cultural and natural features of the valley, Adams' words came to haunt me on a recent drive through the Boswell cotton farms of Kings County at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. The most graceful things in sight were crop-dusters swooping and diving, puffing out clouds of sweet-smelling defoliant over acres of cotton. Previously sprayed cotton plants, their leaves chemically burned off, their brown stalks and white bolls withered and bare, awaited the behemoth mechanical harvesters being readied in corporation yards.

Large bodies of water, superficially inviting, turned out to be semi-toxic evaporation ponds into which chemically laced water is pumped. The centers of such towns as Corcoran and Alpaugh were deserted, shops vacant, many of the houses woefully dilapidated. A quarter of the population of Kings County lives below the poverty level; the official unemployment rate has hovered intractably at 16% for a decade; the incidence of teenage pregnancy surpasses that of such Third World countries as Namibia and Haiti. The sprawling Corcoran Prison -- housing Juan Corona, Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, along with 6,000 other tortured souls -- instead of being shocking seemed to fit right in.

Welcome to the richest farming land the world has ever seen.

The relationship between agricultural wealth and the degradation of culture and environment is a central theme in "The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire," a passionate, fair-minded, thought-provoking and groundbreaking book by Times reporter Mark Arax and The Times' business editor, Rick Wartzman. At its center is James "Jim" Boswell, the biggest farmer in America, owner of more than 200,000 acres of America's richest farmland. Boswell, the world's biggest cotton farmer, also grows more irrigated wheat, safflower and seed alfalfa than anyone else in the country. Among his investments was the conversion, in partnership with Del Webb, of a failing cattle ranch near Phoenix into the wildly successful Sun Valley retirement community.

Jim who? If the Boswell name doesn't ring a bell, this is no accident. The company has no public relations department -- this huge empire is run with only 300 salaried employees -- and secrecy is a family obsession. "As long as the whale never surfaces, it is never harpooned" is how one family member put it. And yet, the authors somehow managed to win the trust of Boswell, who grudgingly agreed to be interviewed.

Dressed in a plaid shirt and old chinos, driving a beat-up Dodge truck, Boswell, now 80, is presented as a man with boundless energy and limitless testosterone -- "an old cowboy," as he apparently sees himself. When he was on the board of General Electric, Chairman Reg Jones described him as a man out of "the Old West -- a shooter, a fisherman, a hiker of trails." Jack Welch, GE's former chief executive, characterized him as "a maverick sort of guy." His favorite reading is Range, a magazine devoted to Western cattle grazing. But images can be deceiving. Boswell is also a Stanford graduate and a member of both the Aspen Institute and the exclusive Bohemian Grove.

The book's story line, in other words, has all the makings of yet another cliched CEO celebrity biography: A colorful old character, secretive, tough as nails, full of zest and contradiction, makes hundreds of millions of dollars by being the worst bully in the neighborhood. Fortunately, "The King of California" goes far beyond that genre, quickly leaving the personality of Boswell behind to follow two rich streams to their headwaters and explore topics essential to our understanding of California.

One line of investigation takes us to Boswell's birthplace, Greene County, Ga., and his ancestors' cotton plantation with 33 slaves. In the 1920s one family member, Col. J.G. Boswell -- Jim's uncle, after whom he was named -- headed west, eventually buying land in Kings County, where he could grow cotton far from the boll weevil then devastating the South. Operating out of Los Angeles, the colonel later married Ruth Chandler, daughter of Times publisher Harry Chandler, thereby linking the most well-connected of Southern California families with the agricultural wealth (and water resources) of the Central Valley. When the colonel died in 1952, he left his company to his nephew Jim, who greatly increased the size of the enterprise.

One can hardly imagine a more technically advanced farming operation. A 12-inch satellite receiver sits atop each 18-row planter, taking signals on how to drop the seeds: one seed planted every inch, 30 inches between rows, 65,000 plants to an acre. Yet for all its robotic mechanization, one feels the residue of plantation-style life and morality, something feudal with more than a hint of racism. One also feels the shadow of cotton. The book's title refers not just to Boswell but also to King Cotton. Whether in the plantations of the South where it fostered a slave economy, in England where it triggered the Industrial Revolution or in the Central Valley of today, cotton has a long history of dominating the social as well as the physical landscape.

The other stream this wide-ranging book traces is the history of Kings County. The Boswell farming empire is on the bed of Tulare Lake, once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. Its 800 square miles, fed by the Kings, Kern, Kaweah and Tule rivers, were once rimmed by an extensive jungle of 10-foot tule reeds and the villages of Yokuts Indians. It was home also to tens of thousands of geese, ducks, swans, cranes, pelicans and other birds. Using crude nets, 19th century fishermen could scoop up 3,000 pounds of fish in a single haul, and San Francisco restaurants served Tulare Lake turtles by the hundreds.

In a manner richly anecdotal, hugely sympathetic and always engaging, the authors plunge headlong into the history of how Tulare Lake was drained and converted to farmland. Vividly rendered are events that transformed the valley, including the formation of the Mariposa Battalion to support miners in their battles with Indians, a deadly dispute over railroad land at Mussel Slough and the Cotton Strike of 1933. The past comes alive as the authors reconstruct the entertainment of previous eras: the jackrabbit drives, the dog and badger fights, the performance in 1929 of a Georgia minstrel show. A visit to a black community church, where people -- drawn to Tulare Lake by visions of a better rural life -- had been left behind by technology to live in utter poverty, is especially poignant, as is the portrait of a Mexican woman waking up at 4:30 a.m. to make tortillas for her farm-working family. Here one feels the book's pulse, a deep, passionate, big-souled immersion into the rhythms, tonalities, sadness and perseverance of something that one senses as truly Central Valley.

The major feature of this history is, of course, the damming of the rivers that flowed into Tulare Lake and the control of its waters. The stakes were enormous: the Kings River alone irrigates more land than any other river in the world except the Nile and the Indus. One of the great gifts of this book is an intelligent, nuanced, lucid discussion of how this water came to be seized by such large farmers as Boswell. Although California's water wars have been covered elsewhere, I do not know of any writers who have done so with more capaciousness, thoughtfulness, originality or integrity than Arax and Wartzman.
Photo of four men conversing.

The history of water control can be described as a clash of ideas. From the East came the idea of the small family farm embodying Jeffersonian ideals of civic and moral virtue, as encapsulated in the gospel of the 160-acre limit, the acreage allotted in the Homestead Act and later encoded into water reclamation law.

But small family farms had never been a major part of California history. The earliest European settlers were not independent yeomen but Franciscan monks who established huge ranches and farms around the missions. The Spanish and Mexican governments gave spacious land grants to its retired soldiers and others -- 8 million acres to only 800 people -- so that when the U.S. took over in 1848, parts of the state were already divided into mammoth holdings. In the Central Valley, cattle ranchers Henry Miller and his partner Charles Lux bought distressed land from the Spanish and Mexican land grantees, eventually accumulating 1.3 million acres. Other immense holdings went to the railroads, so that by 1871 more than 9 million fertile acres were owned by 516 men.

Added to this history are matters of farming economics and technology. Are small family farms viable on the flat, irrigated acres of an old lakebed? If cotton is indeed a good crop for the area, it is difficult for a farmer to survive on small acreage when the margins are so tight and the needs for equipment investment so huge. Also, in an area still subject to periodic flooding, a large landowner can construct levees and shunt some of the water to certain parts of a property, leaving other areas arable. A small farmer would have no such flexibility and would likely lose everything in years of flood.

Although arguments for and against the 160-acre limit have raged for decades, agricultural empires were not built on intellectual niceties. The dynamiting of levees; the terrorism of corporate farmers against union organizing, intimidation and outright murder; the near-total contempt for health and environment; the cynical manipulation of legislative and legal bodies; and a wiliness in capturing government subsidies were among the tools that built the farming empires of the Central Valley.

As for the centerpiece of the story, Boswell hardly seems likable. But neither is he an embodiment of evil. Arax and Wartzman acknowledge his work on behalf of the Nature Conservancy, his insistence on paying his salaried employees relatively well, his other charitable deeds. Yet while the authors make heroic efforts to be impartial, one cannot help but feel moral outrage seeping through the paragraphs -- outrage at people's dreams turned putrid and a landscape poisoned in the midst of such stunning agricultural wealth.

"The King of California" is a thoroughly moving, deeply rendered and utterly trustworthy book. Perhaps because of the authors' backgrounds as reporters, one feels that this multilayered account is rooted not in ideology or advocacy but in anecdote, history and a sense of dispassionate investigative reporting. Its implied conclusion is thus all the more powerful: that however arguable the case for bigness, its consequences have been and continue to be hugely and reprehensively destructive.  (source: Los Angeles Times)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Helen Keller: Freedom Fighter

Statue of Helen Keller in Washington, DC

From the Jacksonville Times Union "South Wire: The forgotten Helen Keller: Socialist, anti-war, founder of ACLU," by the Associated Press, on 16 May 2005  --  TUSCUMBIA, Ala. - It's impossible to miss the ubiquitous brown signs for Ivy Green, birthplace of Helen Keller. She's the pride of this northern Alabama town. People here celebrate her with an annual festival and performances of "The Miracle Worker" play, and her childhood home is preserved like a shrine.

Visitors learn that her father was a captain in the Confederacy. They see the water pump where the blind and deaf child made the connection that things have names, with teacher Anne Sullivan spelling w-a-t-e-r into her hand. Photos of the adult Helen with U.S. presidents hang in a museum.

Confederate J.L.M. Curry

Not on display are Keller's membership in the Socialist Party, her letters praising the work of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, her anti-war essays or much about her as a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Alabama's favorite daughter was left of center, to say the least. Very different from the political conservatism so dominant in her home state.

But her politics didn't keep Keller off the state quarter. And her statue will soon appear in the U.S. Capitol, replacing educator, congressman and Confederate Gen. Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry as one of Alabama's two entries in the National Statuary Hall. Supporters say that's because Keller is universally beloved for her courage over adversity, her championing of the underdog, her indomitable brilliance.

Some historians have a slightly different take. They agree she was one of the country's most remarkable women, but say Alabama history tends to freeze her at age 7 or gloss over her adulthood complexities. Most people have no clue she was a leftist.

"What we do is we sanitize people to make them heroes or heroines... And, frankly, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Society needs more heroes and heroines," said Auburn University history Professor Wayne Flynt, who described Keller as a "crusading socialist" in his latest tome, "Alabama in the 20th Century."

"She was very politically liberal for her time, and that's what makes her controversial in Alabama today," Flynt said. "Does Alabama really want an extremely liberal woman who was a suffragist, who was a pacifist and didn't want to go to war, who attacked big business for child labor?"

The state Legislature has approved the Keller statue, as did a congressional committee. With Alabama first lady Patsy Riley promoting it and raising funds, the project is moving swiftly and with little opposition.

The idea to replace Curry with Keller started at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind. Then-President Joe Busta helped push through supporting legislation three years ago.

The plan for the statue is to display the 7-year-old Helen at the backyard water pump.

"It's the image that's best known throughout the state, the country and the world. That singular moment at the pump where she makes the connection to language," said Busta, now vice president of development and alumni relations at the University of South Alabama.

Keller will be one of the few women displayed at the Capitol and the first person ever with disabilities.

"That's heavy stuff," Busta said. "She not only represents us well, but she represents all in our state and country and world with disabilities."

Some of Keller's relatives still live in Alabama. Great-nephew William Johnson Jr., a Tuscumbia lawyer, remembers visits with his grandmother's famous sister. But conversation was not political. He was 25 when she died in 1968, so he did not know her during her most active days. But he believes her socialism faded as she aged and as times changed.

"Her early radical political views came about in the earlier 1900s to 1925. I don't know whether it was a phase. In any event, she apparently didn't pursue it in her more mature years. Everybody gets to be a radical when they're young," Johnson said.

It would be fair to view that side of her as "almost a historical relic," he said.

But not one of the relics chosen for display at Ivy Green. An adult Helen is pictured reading a Braille Bible. A white-haired Helen is framed with her favorite scripture, the 23rd Psalm.

Ivy Green Director Sue Pilkilton said few visitors seem interested in Keller's politics, and besides, she said, Ivy Green's role is to preserve her birthplace and the water pump, where the "miracle" happened.

But Pilkilton has her own beliefs. She sees Keller as a Christian socialist, looking out for the less fortunate. If her views ever strayed into the extreme, it was likely because she was influenced by radicals around her.

"We've got to remember, Helen, being deaf and blind, someone always had to be the one talking with her, telling her views, telling her feelings." Pilkilton said. "She could read only what people gave her. ... There wasn't much for the blind in that time."

Suggestions that she was a puppet or a plagiarist dogged Keller while she was living. But her writings describe a voracious reader of American and German books, and newspapers from all over the world. Keller often disagreed politically with her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy, who stayed with her as an adult, among the companions who finger-spelled books to her.

Macy's husband was a socialist, and Keller's doubters believed he influenced her. She responded to her critics in the 1912 essay, "How I Became a Socialist."

"Mr. Macy may be an enthusiastic Marxist propagandist, though I am sorry to say he has not shown much enthusiasm for propagating his Marxism through my fingers," she wrote. "Mrs. Macy is not a Marxist or a socialist."

Keller joined the Socialist Party in 1909.

"There's no arguing that," said Victoria Ott, an assistant professor of history at Birmingham-Southern College who specializes in Southern women.

Ott ticks off the progressive movements of the early 1900s with which Keller was associated: the women's suffrage movement, the birth control campaign, the NAACP. Some of Keller's harshest words were against war and the businesses that benefited from it.

"In spite of the historical proof of the futility of war, the United States is preparing to raise a billion dollars and a million soldiers in preparation for war," she wrote when the United States entered World War I. "Behind the active agitators for defense you will find J.P. Morgan & Co., and the capitalists who have invested their money in shrapnel plants, and others that turn out implements of murder."

The American Civil Liberties Union grew out of groups that had defended the rights of conscientious objectors during World War I, and in 1920 Keller was one of the founding members.

Keller further blamed greedy industrialists for allowing dangerous work conditions that caused blindness and perpetuated poverty.

"Why is it that so many workers live in unspeakable misery? With their hands they have built great cities, and they cannot be sure of a roof over their head. They have gone into the bowels of the earth for diamonds and gold, and they haggle for a loaf of bread. They plow and sow and fill our hands with flowers while their own hands are filled with dust," she once said, according to a collection of quotes assembled by the Birmingham-based Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education.

More than once, she said that without her family's relative prosperity, she would never have had the privilege of schools and teachers, unavailable to the impoverished masses.

After World War II, Keller was best known for visiting veterans who had lost their sight in the war. Some argue that her focus on veterans changed her pacifist views, signaling the end of her left-wing phase.

"I don't consider it a phase," Ott said. "I consider that she's maturing as an activist and going into different areas."

Left-leaning movements, the ACLU, advocates for the blind and disabled, feminists and, of course, Alabama, all try to claim Keller. In the upshot, it can seem as though interest groups have appropriated Keller to be what they want her to be. Or maybe, because she was so accomplished and dynamic with a range of passions, she was all those things.

"Part of what's going on here, she lived 88 years and the political context of the United States in the 19-teens is very different from the political context of the U.S. in the 1950s," said Kim Nielsen, a history professor at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, author of "The Radical Lives of Helen Keller."

Post World War II, "everyone was expressing their political views differently," Nielsen said.

The Roosevelt administration ushered in an era of social welfare programs, labor protections and increased public education, Nielsen pointed out. Of note, one of the most famous quotes concerning Keller came from FDR, "If Helen Keller's for it, I'm for it." In her day, Keller recognized that many people disagreed with her.

"She read people she agreed and didn't agree with, people who changed her mind, She loved to have people around her who argued with her because she enjoyed it," Nielsen said. "What was really frustrating to her was when people did not take her seriously in her politics because of her disability."

Historians and people at the American Foundation for the Blind say there seems to be a renewed interest in Keller. New books are out, and now Alabama is honoring her with the quarter and the statue. Still, there remains a lot of ignorance about who she was and what she cared about.

"We do not know the fullness of her life," said Martha Bouyer, supervisor of secondary social studies for Jefferson County Schools.

She flipped through a fourth-grade text, which said little beyond the childhood miracle and Keller's work for the deaf and blind.

"You know how people want to clean up history, sanitize it and strip away things that others might find offensive?" Bouyer asked. "But the total person made Helen Keller and made people want to honor her all over the world, and to pull away any of that would be a disservice to her."  [source: Jacksonville Times Union; Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.]


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