Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Lincoln and the Patronage

In American history, we often learn about the patronage system (or the spoils system) through the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, satirized in the political cartoon above. Most simply, the patronage system was the handing out of government jobs by the winning political party to people in the party who helped in creating the victories in elections. The words about the spoils in the cartoon did not originate with Jackson, but with New York Senator William L. Marcy who said in an 1832 speech defending Jackson’s political appointment of Martin Van Buren as a minister to England, that New Yorkers “boldly preach what they practice. When contending for victory, they avow their intention to enjoy the fruits of victory, and if defeated they expect to retire from office. They see nothing wrong in the rule, that to the victors belong the spoils of the enemy.” We do not often think of Abraham Lincoln as a willing participant in such a system. Did not Lincoln himself say in 1861 that the Civil War was “essentially a People’s contest” and that the Union’s purpose in the war was to defend “that form, and that substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men---to lift artificial weights from all shoulders---to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all---to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life”? Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals has been much discussed lately for the purposes of drawing a connection between Obama’s cabinet appointments and those of Lincoln. The fact that Lincoln put his main competitors (to call them rivals is a bit disingenuous because, as Timothy S. Good reminds us in his recent book, Lincoln was not a rival to any Republican candidate in 1860 in any sense except for his superior character), Edward Bates, Salmon P. Chase, and William H. Seward, for the Republican nomination in 1860 in his cabinet seems to belie the notion that Lincoln rewarded supporters with jobs.

However, when looking at Lincoln’s correspondence or his day to day activities, we can see that he expended much energy in carrying out politics as usual under the patronage system. In actuality, Lincoln during his first term was the worst offender of the spoils system of any President. The turnover in jobs from the previous administration was nearly absolute. In carrying out such a purge, he handed out jobs to friend and foe alike with the intent of keeping as many people faithful to the Union as possible. Having both Congressmen and commoners in his debt surely helped Lincoln secure a second nomination in 1864. Lincoln’s skillful use of the patronage did not apply as far as the so-called Indian System (then Office of Indian Affairs, now Bureau of Indian Affairs) was concerned.

Lincoln’s knowledge of the Indians was scarce before taking office. Although he had enlisted in the Black Hawk War (1832), he experienced no combat. Lincoln did seem to share the common prejudices and feelings about the Indians as “savages” standing in the way of Westward expansion and with it, civilization—this view continued unto his death. Lincoln also campaigned for Whig presidential candidates who had been Indian fighters: William Henry Harrison (Tecumseh’s War-Battle of Tippecanoe) and Zachary Taylor (Black Hawk War; Second Seminole War). The tragedies which resulted from Lincoln’s lack of care in handling Indian affairs were written about by David A. Nichols in his Lincoln and the Indians. I will take up this much neglected aspect of Lincoln’s Presidency substantially in my dissertation.

To stick to the topic of patronage, it will suffice to say that Lincoln initially perceived the offices of the Indian System in the same manner as any of the other political offices he had at his discretion to allocate. Through his handlers at the Chicago convention in 1860, Lincoln offered to exchange the positions of the Secretary of the Interior and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for Indiana’s 26 nomination votes (both Doris Kearns Goodwin and Timothy S. Good skirt the Indian issue by stating such offers were unessential to Lincoln’s nomination). The men who filled these positions, Caleb B. Smith and William P. Dole, respectively, were professional politicians with no experience in Indian affairs. Some of the men Lincoln appointed to be Indian agents had never even met an Indian. Getting a job as a superintendent or agent in the Indian system could be extremely lucrative as agents sometimes engaged in wholesale theft of Indian annuities—Simon Cameron, whom Lincoln appointed Secretary of War despite pointed opposition, was possibly among these unscrupulous agents as a federal commissioner. He allegedly defrauded the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) Indians of $66,000 in 1838. Cameron resigned in less than a year because of more corruption allegations. Caleb Smith and William Dole, however, lasted longer. Smith resigned in protest when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. During his time as Secretary of the Interior, Smith wholeheartedly endorsed expansionism. In 1862, he stated “The rapid progress of civilization upon this continent will not permit the lands which are required for cultivation to be surrendered to savage tribes for hunting grounds”. Smith’s replacement, John Palmer Usher, joined Dole, currency comptroller Hugh McCulloch, and Lincoln secretary John Nicolay in buying land in Kansas in 1864 which was to be held in trust for the Sac and Fox Indians. The Indian system was also a pathway to upward mobility by the time Lincoln took office. Simon Pomeroy had used the system to enrich himself and become a US Senator from Kansas (1861-1873). The first two governors of Minnesota, Henry Sibley and Alexander Ramsey (later Secretary of War for Rutherford B. Hayes), had also risen through the system. Both of these Minnesota men would play a role, Sibley as colonel of the state militia and Ramsey as Governor of Minnesota, in the Sioux Uprising of 1862 (precipitated by the cheating of the Santee Sioux out of annuities since 1851).

Lincoln was not ignorant of the extreme corruption of the Indian system in Minnesota but he was left to deal with the fallout: 400 to 800 Minnesota civilians were dead, along with 70 to 100 Sioux, and 77 US Army soldiers. Three hundred and three Sioux had been tried, in some cases in trials averaging 10-15 minutes in length, convicted of murder or rape, and sentenced to death. Lincoln personally reviewed the sentences and commuted all of the sentences but 38—which still makes Lincoln responsible for the largest mass execution in US history. Lincoln then removed all of the Sioux from Minnesota and their reservations were abolished. The Ho-Chunk were also expelled from Minnesota in 1863. The reform of the patronage system would have to wait, and obviously the consequences (which I have only hinted at here) were dire for Indians, until 1883 with the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act (it took until the Grant administration in 1873 to even create the Federal Civil Service). The Bureau of Indian Affairs however, has remained a controversial agency to say the least.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Lincoln and the Theatre

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre and became almost instantaneously upon his death on April 15, preserved in memory. During their Easter sermons, Christian ministers did not hesitate to suggest that Lincoln, who was shot on Good Friday, died to redeem the sins of the United States in a similar way to how Jesus died to save humanity from its sins. The symbolic portrayals of Lincoln did not end in the Christian churches. Passover having ended, rabbis in synagogues suggested Lincoln as a Moses figure who did not reach the Promised Land with his people whom he had freed. The irony of the situation, as Harold Holzer points out, is that Lincoln “died in a sinful playhouse.” Lincoln did not see the theatre in this light. He loved the theatre and it presented him with an opportunity to relieve stress. He was most fond of Shakespeare’s plays and saw several of them as President in which John Wilkes Booth’s brother Edwin Booth, a highly acclaimed tragedian actor, played roles.

The play Our American Cousin has become famous in American history although most Americans have never seen the play performed nor do they know that it was a satirical play (based on negative European stereotypes) about Americans (an opera about the play and the Civil War has recently come out called Our American Cousin which was written by the American composer Eric Sawyer and poet John Shoptaw). Be that as it may, the night Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth while Lincoln attended the play, Our American Cousin, it had become very popular and had been performed for “upwards of one thousand nights” by April 14, 1865.

There was another play on the bill listed for Saturday, August, 15, 1865, which was not performed which is worth pointing out: The Octoroon; or, Life in Louisiana by Dion Boucicault. This play was also a hit in the United States, first opening in New York in 1859. In a nutshell the plot of the play goes like this: the nephew (George Payton) of a Louisiana plantation owner returning home from France discovers the plantation will have to be sold because of his late uncle’s mismanagement. George falls in love with one of the slaves (Zoe, the octoroon) who is the daughter of his uncle—George is unaware of her racial status. Another man (Jacob McClosky) who helped ruin Payton’s uncle’s finances wants Zoe for himself (though she rejects him) and plans on selling the plantation and the slaves and acquiring Zoe during the sale and taking her as a mistress. This plot would have been thwarted by a letter from a debtor of Payton’s uncle but McClosky literally kills the messenger, a slave boy (Paul). An Indian (Wahnotee) discovers the body of his good friend but Wahnotee’s English is so bad that he cannot explain what he has seen. Later after George finds out that he can’t legally marry Zoe, Zoe is sold to McClosky on a steamboat. Finally it is realized that the slave boy Paul is missing. Wahnotee arrives on the boat, drunk, and tells them the boy is dead. McClosky calls for Wahnotee to be lynched. Another character asks accusingly if there will be one law for whites and another for Indians. The delay in trying to give Wahnotee a fair trial brings forth pictorial evidence that McClosky is the real killer. McClosky is later killed ignobly by Wahnotee to blindly avenge his friend Paul. The play was not without controversy (not about the Indian of course).

Based on press reports some people thought the play, which opened after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, was an abolitionist work. Others felt it was pro-slavery. Modern commentators point out that the play had different endings. In Britain, the play had a happy ending with a so-called “mixed-race” marriage, which would have been referred to as miscegenation (after 1863-the word was coined by Democratic journalists at the New York World in a pamphlet hoax which tried to harm Lincoln’s reelection bid) in the American South, between Zoe and George. In the United States, the play ended with the death of all the major actors in the play on board a steamboat which explodes (not that far-fetched of an idea, 1/3 of all steamboats built in the 1850’s exploded).

On the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, we should probably spend less time thinking about the play that Lincoln saw before his death with its well worn European notions of Americans as bumpkins and more time pondering the more engaging play which was not put on because of Lincoln’s death. The fact that Irish born Boucicault deliberately changed the ending of The Octoroon depending on the differing sensibilities about race amongst his audience tells us something about both the British and American theatergoers. That people continue to ignore the depiction of the Indian in the play as well as questions about justice for Indians in the USA (much the same way too many people don’t know what to make of the “metaphysics of Indian-hating” in Melville’s The Confidence-Man, tells us something about ourselves.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Lincoln in American and Hawaiian History and Memory (James Oliver Horton Lecture)

Photo courtesy of Alejandro rcenas

In keeping with his conviction that the presentation of public history (because it is the primary way that the average Americans learn history) needs to be done well, famed American Historian and Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission member, James Oliver Horton gave a public lecture today on the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa campus on “Lincoln in American and Hawaiian History and Memory,” which I attended and report on below.

Mentioning Lincoln in conjunction with Hawaiʻi, as I stated in a previous post, is not something most Lincoln scholars do. According to Horton, Lincoln Bicentennial Commission Co-Chair Harold Holzer (author or editor of 31 books--and counting--on Lincoln) was baffled and intrigued about the connection. The nexus is not immediately obvious or ample. During his talk, Horton covered some of the same ground about the tangible links of Lincoln to Hawaiʻi which can be found in his article, “Hawaiʻi and the Lincoln Bicentennial: Remembering a Special Relationship.” However, it is the unique history of Hawaiʻi and concepts of race which Horton discussed which make the subject of his lecture pertinent not only for the memory of Lincoln but also for discourses about public history and memory on the mainland United States.

Horton narrated the story of Anthony Allen to elucidate this point of making a connection between American and Hawaiian history and memory. Allen was an ingenious African American born into slavery in New York in 1774. After being freed from slavery in the early 1800s, Allen joined the crew of a whaling ship in Boston which travelled to various locations in the Americas, China and finally Hawaiʻi where Allen disembarked in 1810. Allen became a steward to King Kamehameha I (aka Kamehameha the Great) who granted Allen six acres of land. According to Allen’s letter to his former master’s son which Horton cited, Allen married two Hawaiian women, “as is the custom.” Allen also had a keen eye for business and owned among other things, a hospital (quite possibly the first in Hawaiʻi in 1823) and a bowling alley. One can hardly imagine such a success story for Allen had he remained in the USA. While Allen was making a fortune in Hawaiʻi, the then former President James Madison (who bequeathed his slaves to his wife in his 1835 will) wrote in 1819 to Robert J. Evans: “To be consistent with existing and probably unalterable prejudices in the United States freed blacks ought to be permanently removed beyond the region occupied by, or alloted to, a White population”. James Monroe who became President directly after Madison supported African colonization of blacks (Lincoln was also in favor of colonization before he became known for his role in emancipation, as one can see from his reverence for the American Colonization Society in his 1852 eulogy for Henry Clay).

During the Civil War, the Hawaiian Kingdom declared its neutrality. Despite that fact, some Hawaiians fought for the Union in the Civil War. A Union General, Samuel Chapman Armstrong (born and raised in Hawaiʻi by his missionary parents), who was in command of a regiment of black troops found “several Hawaiian soldiers among the Negro regiments.” This identification should not come as a surprise given the ideas of race in the US in the middle of the 19th century. Confused Americans mustering Hawaiians into the ranks assigned descriptions such as “copper,” “mulatto,” “yellow” and “black” to the complexions of the Hawaiians. Indeed, in 1850, the Hawaiian Prince Alexander Liholiho, who would later become King Kamehameha IV, experienced American racism first hand on a trip in New York when he was thought to be black and nearly removed from a train car. Horton also related a story that an American who met Prince Alexander felt that the prince would fetch $1,000 at a slave auction in South Carolina.

It is these kinds of stories, and there are more to tell, which force us to engage elements of both American and Hawaiian history and memory that are often overlooked, forgotten or are generally unknown. As James Horton attempted to show, the commemoration of Lincoln and the issues of his day through the history and memory of the USA and Hawaiʻi is still relevant to us during the presidency of another President with a connection to Hawaiʻi, Barack Obama, whose term in office coincides with the upcoming sesquicentennial of the American Civil War (2011-2015).

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era (Book Review)

Barry Schwartz, Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

Lincoln and the study of memory is a burgeoning aspect of Lincolniana. Barry Schwartz, who wrote Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory in this field, now returns with Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America. The first book deals with the interesting trajectory (not always upward) of the Lincoln memory following Lincoln’s assassination to 1922—the year of the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The newer offering continues with the Lincoln memory from 1922 to the apex in 1945 and then subsequent decline. In the preface, Schwartz promises another foray into Lincoln and memory (concerning the Gettysburg Address) in the future. He states: “academic and media professionals making the Gettysburg Address into an addendum of the Emancipation Proclamation and a prologue to twentieth-century civil rights legislation will be challenged” (pp. xii-xiii). This book is obviously going to be a different approach to the speech than what one can find in the works of Gary Wills or Gabor Boritt.

Because of the cliffhanger ending in 2000 with Schwartz’ Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory, the book which turned into the post-heroic era Lincoln book I have before me was much anticipated. At least it was much anticipated until I saw the title and started reading (Nota Bene: reading this book was made more difficult due to: embarrassing typos throughout the book despite a long delay in publication; footnotes, in which Schwartz tries to almost write another book, being located at the back of the book instead of the bottom of the page where they belong [for shame University of Chicago Press, you used to know better]; and, no bibliography [flat out unacceptable]).

In Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era, Schwartz is at his best (as he was in the first Lincoln book) when he is digging up and utilizing a vast and varied amount of materials to talk about the Lincoln memory. Speeches, sermons, political cartoons, paintings, statues, posters and more all have a role to play in assessing what Lincoln meant to the people who viewed these symbols and the conditions which allowed the symbols to be made. Schwartz in this sense owes a debt to Merrill Peterson and his book Lincoln in American Memory which Schwartz rightly describes as “the most comprehensive chronicle of Lincoln texts and symbolism” (p. 116).

Peterson also presents a problem to be overcome for Schwartz, i.e., Peterson doesn’t deal with individuals and how they felt about Lincoln. Schwartz’ willingness to use any materials to get the job done brings him astray when he tries to find out what “ordinary Americans” think about Lincoln by focusing on opinion surveys. Schwartz’ use of newspaper propaganda produced during the World War II era helps make the case for Lincoln being effectively used to sell US participation in the war. By contrast, survey data showing that Lincoln has remained ranked first in Presidential greatness among respondents although Lincoln’s overall percentage has declined does not bring home the point that Lincoln’s prestige and that of all Presidents has declined. We should never lose sight of the fact that during his lifetime Lincoln was one of the most unpopular Presidents of all time. When Schwartz harps on the data showing that blacks of all ages are less favorable to Lincoln than whites, he never once attempts to delve into the black experience to see what the data might mean.

Instead, Schwartz comes off as a bit of a generational warrior who blames the ‘Uncommitted Generation,’ aka: ‘Generation X’, ‘Generation After’, and the ‘Generation with No Name’ for the irreversibility of the reverence of Lincoln to anything like the heyday of the early to mid 20th century. Four generations are covered by Schwartz in this book: “G.I. Generation” (1930-1945), “Rights and Justice Generation” (1945-mid 1960s), “Boomer” or “Rebellious Generation” (mid 1960s-1980s) and the aforementioned Gen X (1980s-today?). Obviously, if 1945 is the high point of the reverence of Lincoln, the three generations which come after that date are irreverent to varying degrees, with the ill-defined last generation taking the brunt of the blame. To return to the point about African Americans, Schwartz is completely unaware of the “Hip Hop Generation” (black Americans born 1965-1984). As Bakari Kitwana, who helped coined the phrase at The Source magazine, pointed out in his book, “Just as Black baby boomers were mostly defined by the civil rights and Black power movements, Black twenty-somethings were more than just Generation Xers in Black face” (p. xiii). M.K. Asante, Jr. has recently written about the “Post-Hip-Hop Generation” and the disowning of the Hip Hop Generation label as the commercialization of the art form stands for something which does not represent a growing number of young blacks. There is a great deal of meaning lying in such experiences which go a good deal further than surveys in figuring out why a picture of Lincoln or any other President is no longer hanging on the walls of most black families.

Does the rampant cynicism about the impossibilities of the American Dream myth which was sold to the baby boomers mean Americans value heroes less? Or, perhaps Americans just put less stock in bogus meaning narratives than they used to. None of the surveys employed by Schwartz or talk of the “acids of equality” can explain the appeal of the message of overcoming a “spiritual depression” from the Tyler Durden character in the novel Fight Club (later made into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton) to a generation starved for meaning, even if they don’t buy into the destructive impulse.

Lincoln remains ubiquitous in American society, but is he still a hero? Schwartz says that “Americans revered and emulated Abraham Lincoln as long as they could agree on what he stood for” (p. 201). But he also points to the paradox of Lincoln’s changing image in the post-heroic era, if Lincoln is seen to represent equality of all persons; then Lincoln’s own greatness is diminished so that others can take their place beside him (p. 218). This is no recent feat of multiculturalism or toleration of others’ cultures as Schwartz wants to suggest. For example, Schwartz himself presents this point with his description of a set of cartoons from the Polish-American press: “Immigrants and their children were eager to contribute to the war [World War II], but American symbols made sense to them only when joined to traditional symbols of their own” (p. 72). The cartoons in question were labeled in Polish and paired Lincoln with a Polish hero, Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko, who fought in the Continental Army in the American Revolution. For Polish immigrants Lincoln’s importance to liberty was not evident enough and had to be mediated through a Polish hero with some concrete connection to the United States and Lincoln (they share February 12 as a birthday and were both anti-slavery).

If Schwartz wants to claim that Lincoln still has plenty to say to us today, shouldn’t he work at demonstrating that fact to Generation X by mediating Lincoln in a way that he can seem heroic to a generation which has no direct experience of slavery, Jim Crow, or the Civil Rights movement, instead of berating the generation as vulgar? Ultimately, Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era will probably be a disappointment to those who read and enjoyed Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory.