I had planned to blog about this being the 234th anniversary of the ratification of the United States Constitution today, but some of my #OnThisDay blog posts have not gone over very well.
U.S. President Joe Biden signed Juneteenth into law as a federal holiday last week. It was celebrated on Saturday, June 19 as an official holiday for the first time. This seemed like a more timely topic than the ratification of the United States Constitution.
When I heard of Juneteenth
I’m not sure, but I think last year was the first I’d heard of Juneteenth. Or maybe it was mentioned on a news broadcast a year or two before that. The first time I heard of it is immaterial. My point is that I was approximately 65 years old when I first heard of the celebration, and that is inexcusable.
In order to understand the significance of Juneteenth, one must know about the Emancipation Proclamation.
What the Emancipation Proclamation Did and Didn’t Do
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. In part, it declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
Word of the freeing of the slaves spread slowly. Communication was much different in 1863 than in 2021. Plus, the Confederate States of America did not recognize Abraham Lincoln as their president.
The Emancipation Proclamation was limited in ways that are often glossed over. It only applied to the states that had seceded from the United States. That meant that slavery was still legal in the border states. Southern secessionist states that had come under Northern control by January 1, 1863, were also exempt. Additionally, the freedom of the slaves depended upon the eventual military victory of the United States over the Confederacy.
The Emancipation Proclamation gave the Northern troops and citizens an added incentive for victory over the South. As Northern troops advanced, the freedom of slaves expanded. The Proclamation also made it possible for black men to join the United States Army and Navy.
What is Juneteenth?
I’m ill-equipped to explain Juneteenth, but this is what I’ve learned so far…
Federal troops reached Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, and made it known to slaves there that President Lincoln had declared them free on January 1, 1863 – some two-and-a-half years earlier.
Since June 19, 1866, June 19 has been celebrated as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, and Juneteenth by black Americans. Most of their white counterparts, though, remained ignorant of the date’s significance until very recent history.
I don’t recall the mention of June 19, 1865 or Juneteenth in any history text book I ever had in elementary school, high school, or college.
Why is that?
The answer is simple. History books have always been written by white men. (I started to say “white people,” but “white men” seemed more accurate. I don’t remember ever having a history textbook written by a woman.)
That’s why the American populous has not been taught about the accomplishments of black Americans. It’s why it is now necessary for us to have Black History Month in February.
Where do we go from here?
As long as black and brown Americans are by in large excluded from the decision-making process (such as voter suppression) and are elected to public office in miniscule numbers compared to their proportion of the population, the entire population will suffer. We’ll continue to just learn the history of white America. We’ll all suffer because the talents and ideas of black and brown Americans will be excluded from the workings of government and business.
It’s not enough not to be a racist. We must strive to be anti-racists. And beyond that, those of us who are white need to take anti-racism a step further. We need to be allies. That means when we’re in a situation where someone says something derogatory about people of another race, it is incumbent upon us to speak up against such talk. We need to have the courage to speak up for our fellow human beings who are being maligned.
Our silence is not only complacency, it signals our agreement, compliance, and acquiescence.
Our silence will convict us.
Instead of making snide remarks or having malevolent thoughts about the new Juneteenth holiday, let’s embrace it and learn from it.
Since my last blog post
Our almost-13-year-old rescue dog is hanging in there. The week before last, he spent four days in the hospital due to erratic glucose levels. He’s a diabetic. We’re starting to understand how sick he can become in just a matter of minutes.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read. Among other things, I’m reading The Girls in the Stilt House, a debut novel by Kelly Mustian. She really has a talent for painting pictures with words.
Those of you living in the northern hemisphere, I hope you have a pleasant summer. Those of you living in the southern hemisphere, I don’t envy you. You know I’m not fond of cold weather.
Wherever you live, make the most of this week. I intend to get back to work on my historical novel.
I read more books than usual last month. Today’s post is about the four books I read that were not historical fiction. If you missed my blog last Monday about the five historical novels I read in April, here’s the link to it: 5 Historical Novels I Read in April 2021.
Let’s jump right in!
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,”by Zora Neale Hurston
I’m not sure how this 2018 book escaped my attention for three years. I’m just glad I stumbled upon it recently.
Edited by Deborah G. Plant with a foreword by Alice Walker, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” is author and cultural anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston’s account of her numerous conversations with a man who was on the last slave ship from Africa to the United States.
Bringing slaves into the United States was made illegal in 1808; however, the trade was not completely stopped just by making a law. In 1859, two brothers originally from Maine and their business partner originally from Nova Scotia, illegally transported 130 African slaves from the coast of Nigeria to Mobile, Alabama on board a ship named Clotilde. Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” is the story of a 19-year-old man who was on that last slave ship to come to the United States.
The man’s name was Kossola, but his American name was Cudgo Lewis. Zora Neale Hurston found out about him, and a benefactor made it financially possible for her to go to Alabama for an extended time in order to meet Kossola and form a relationship of trust with him in order to hear and record his life story.
Kossola’s story of life in Africa, his capture, and his Middle Passage transport to Alabama is bone chilling. The details of how he was captured by the army of the king of Dahomey aligns with the historical record of that ruthless African king and his blood thirsty army of women and men.
What an amazing gift Ms. Hurston left for us! We are fortunate that Kossola lived long enough that Ms. Hurston was able to visit him a number of times over a three-month period in 1927 and put his words on paper. Publishers wanted Ms. Hurston to “correct” Kossola’s words to proper English, but she stood her ground and insisted that his words by pronunciation be preserved in the book.
I couldn’t help but think about the blog post I wrote two weeks ago (Censorship and Reader Sensitivities) and how appropriate I think it was for history’s sake for Kossola’s words to be recorded exactly how he said them.
There is an extensive appendix in the book. Included in it are a couple of children’s games from Africa, parables that are original with Kossola (from his own life experience), and various Bible stories told in Kossola’s own words.
There is also an extensive Afterword in the book about Ms. Hurston’s research and some debate about her motives and accuracy. It seems that Kossola had become known as the last surviving slave from the last slave ship to America and there were others who wished to interview him. It was Zora Neale Hurston who was most successful in gaining his trust and recording his story. Ms. Hurston is remembered for his illustrious career as a social scientist, but she was just getting started in 1927.
Just As I Am, by Cicely Tyson
I got on the waitlist for Cicely Tyson’s memoir the minute I heard about it. The book was on order by the public library, so I had to wait a while for it. In the meantime, Ms. Tyson died at the age of 96. I’d been a fan of hers since her performance in the movie, Sounder, in 1972. I was blown away by her portrayal of Miss Janie Pittman in the TV film, The Autobiography of Miss Janie Pittman.
Just As I Am was an interesting read. I learned about Ms. Tyson’s childhood in East Harlem, New York, and how her parents doted on her. She was their middle child, but she was born with a heart murmur that caused the doctor to predict she wouldn’t live more than three months. No wonder they treated her like a princess.
But there was a dark side to Ms. Tyson’s childhood. Her father was a womanizer. Her mother was a strict disciplinarian. Her parents had violent fights and Ms. Tyson was often caught in the middle.
Ms. Tyson had a sixth sense. Even as a child, she knew some events that were going to happen in the future because she could smell it (as was the case of a fire) or sense it in another way. Her mother was also blessed with a sixth sense, so the fact that Cicely had the gift was no big deal.
Early in the book, Ms. Tyson wrote about racial discrimination and our common humanity. It really struck a chord with me because I was reading that chapter the morning after the Zoom meeting of a group I’m in during which we had discussed racial prejudice and our common humanity. I couldn’t wait to tell the others in the group about the first chapter in Just As I Am.
She writes about what a rude awakening it was for her one day when she witnessed her mother and a group of other Black women on the street in New York City being looked up and down and evaluated by white people seeking a domestic laborer. It hit her as being no different from the way slaves were treated on the auction block a century earlier, and it made an impact on her life that she never forgot.
The 1920s and 1930s were her childhood and youth decades. What an interesting era! Although the Roaring 20s became the Great Depression in the 1930s, most people of color in the United States didn’t enjoy the abundance of the Wall Street in the 20s. And they had always been at an economic disadvantage, so the Great Depression wasn’t too much worse than what they were already experiencing.
It was in 1934 that the Federal Housing Administration instituted the practice of redlining to prohibit people of color from purchasing homes in middle class and wealthy neighborhoods. On the other hand, that era produced Black writers like W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes. It was the age of jazz and the Harlem Renaissance.
On the flipside were the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment from which the United States is stilling feeling ramifications and probably always will. That horrible experiment on Blacks today makes many people of color afraid to take the Covid-19 vaccine.
As you see, I could go on and on with examples of the backdrop of Ms. Tyson’s childhood, but perhaps you’d rather read the book for yourself.
Throughout the book, Ms. Tyson gives God credit for leading her. She speaks of an unflinching faith in God that sustained her from childhood until her last days. Events that others might have called coincidences, Ms. Tyson recognized as the hand of God working out her life’s journey. That’s how her modeling career came about, and that’s how her acting career fell into place without her even knowing that’s what she was meant to do.
This was an entertaining and enlightening read about a woman I have long appreciated as an actress without knowing anything about her background.
The Endless Sunset, by Laleh Chini
This most recent novel by Laleh Chini is about war and one young woman’s experience in Poland during World War II. It is written in person from that woman’s point-of-view. Hanna Przybylski reminisces about the lovely and peaceful city squares and bustling marketplaces in Warsaw of her growing-up years in the 1920s. Her mother was an artist. When her mother has a second child, a girl named Lena, when Hanna is 11 years old, they think their family and their lives are complete. The Great War was over and life is good.
Everything starts to unravel when Lena is a toddler and their mother dies. When the father remarries just three months after the mother’s death, Hanna’s life spirals downward. When Hanna is 16 years old, Germany started bombing Warsaw. World War II is beginning and will further disrupt Hanna’s life. What I’ve shared just covers the first 17% of the book.
What will become of Hanna and Lena? Will Hanna become responsible for more children than Lena? Will they flee Poland for a safer place? Will there be people to help them along the way? Will their father care what his daughters do? Did he and his second wife have children? Will Hanna survive World War II?
You’ll have to read The Endless Sunset to find out. The book is enriched by illustrations by Nihuel Navarro, whose website can be found at nihu.artstation.com.
Dictionary of Americanisms (1848), by John Russell Bartlett
I was expecting this book to take the form of a dictionary; however, the majority of it is narrative.
Near the end of this book there is a short section about some words that were “charged upon us as Americanism” but they are actually derived from English provinces. Examples are expect for suspect, reckon for think, and guess for suppose. These “Americanisms” come from Kent and Derbyshire in England.
The book continues with some words that were apparently Americanisms when the book was written in 1848, but they don’t make sense to me today. Among them are clever for good natured; desk for pulpit; and improve for occupy, or employ.
The book pays its respects to the clergy for starting and continuing to use solemnize for to make serious. Other Americanisms the writer didn’t appreciate at all included transpire for happen, and temper in the sense of passion or irritation.
Jumping on “educated men, and particularly … the clergy,” the writer bemoans the evolution of some nouns into verbs such as to fellowship, to eventuate, to doxologize, to happify, and to donate.
The author would, no doubt, be horrified at the evolution of American English since 1848. This book is proof that American English is forever changing. The words in common usage in 1848 that grated on the nerves of the dictionary author, have for the most part fallen by the wayside today.
By far, my favorite “new” word after reading this dictionary is happify!
Since my last blog post
I continue to have good books to read – in fact, more than I have time to read. I’m also doing some scrapbooking.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have at least one good book to read. Try to get caught reading, since May is Get Caught Reading Month!
If you don’t have a hobby, find one. It will enrich your life.
Note: In addition to being “Get Caught Reading Month,” May is Short Story Month.
I try to plan my blog topics well in advance so I’ll have time to devote to writing each one. The fancy name for it is “editorial calendar.” Today was a day I had trouble settling on a topic. I’d made a list of possibilities, but none of them really grabbed me.
Reading Mr. Howell’s blog posts got me thinking about book censorship and the closely-related topic of cultural appropriation and reader sensitivities.
The very idea of a book being censored or people demanding that certain books be banned from public libraries, school libraries, and bookstores really gets my ire up. Book censorship is a slippery slope. Images of book burnings in Nazi Germany come to mind.
The American Library Association’s (ALA) annual list of the top books requested for banning or restricted reading is fresh on my mind. Here’s the link to the ALA’s website where you can see the list: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee is consistently on that list. It’s on the list the ALA published earlier this month. One reason given for its being requested for banning is that the lawyer who represents the black man in court is white. The story is set in Alabama in the 1930s, so it is true to the time and place that the lawyer and all the jurors would be white. Racial injustice is the core theme of the novel. The book was published in 1960, and little had changed by then.
I believe we can learn the lessons of history by reading good historical fiction. It’s one thing to read a list of laws governing people of color in the United States in the 1930s, but how better to illustrate and shine a bright light on the laws – written and unwritten – prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1965 than to bring them to life on the pages of a novel and the subsequent movie based on that book?
Being a black man, Mr. Asim offers a different perspective than the one I can offer. His words made me stop and think. Perhaps I had read To Kill a Mockingbird with naive blue eyes. Mr. Asim is one of the most influential African American literary critics of this generation. If you’re not familiar with his work, please visit his website: https://jabariasim.org/about_jabari_asim/.
Among Mr. Asim’s sentences that made me reconsider my stance are the following: “Mockingbird, like Uncle Tom before it, often strikes me as a form of literary ointment for white guilt, meant to soothe outbreaks of conscience while dispelling perceptions of how pervasive white supremacy is. Its homespun patter and deep-fried homilies enable many readers to overlook its sketchily drawn black characters—little more than archetypes—and bask in the glow of Atticus Finch’s exemplary moral courage.”
Also, this: “Some days I can ignore Mockingbird’s mostly pedestrian prose and regard it as a cleverly subversive send-up of white racism, minus Mark Twain’s stylistic flair but dutifully echoing his irreverent tone.”
And this: “Other days I marvel at Mockingbird’s apparent prescience when, years before Fox News and talk radio, Atticus Finch says to his brother, ‘Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand.'”
What is To Kill a Mockingbird‘s place, then? It’s likely to be debated for decades to come.
Self-censorship, Cultural Appropriation, and Reader Sensitivities
Being a writer can involve self-censorship, and there are degrees of that when it comes to reader sensitivities. I’m not a published novelist, but as I work on my historical novel I’m ever-cognizant of reader sensitivities.
Most of us practice self-censorship in our communications with others. Some people who should self-censor are sadly unaware. As a writer, I feel the need to self-sensor. I don’t use racial slurs in my speaking or thinking, but that doesn’t mean I won’t need to include one in my writing in order to be true to time and place. It doesn’t mean I condone the use of such words. My challenge in writing a novel presented from multiple points-of-view is having the audacity to put myself in the skin of a person of color – especially a person of color who is male and enslaved in the United States in the 18th century.
Doing so is somewhat akin to cultural appropriation, which is a dominant culture adopting a practice that is inherent in or associated with a minority culture. I’m not doing that in my novel, but I am attempting to write thoughts, emotions, and conversations of three people of color. I want to be aware of possible reader sensitivities, but I don’t want that awareness to fundamentally change my writer’s voice.
I’m writing a novel set in the North and South Carolina backcountry in 1769. It includes two black male slaves, one free black woman, a Frenchman, and a number of white Scottish and Irish settlers. I’ve been working on this novel for many years. If I were to look at my first draft, there would be many cringe-worthy words and scenes. I started out really over-doing writing accents phonetically. It was tedious to write, and I’ve since learned that it’s not appropriate. It can be degrading, and it can be exhausting for the reader.
I’ve grown as a person and as a writer since I started the book probably a decade ago. I’m striving to make the final product true to the time and place. I’ve done extensive research – even into the laws on the books in South Carolina in 1769 that governed the fabric of the clothing slaves were permitted to wear.
If and when my novel is published, I hope no one’s sensitivities will be offended, but that’s probably wishful thinking. I’m attempting to write a book that will be entertaining and educational. I hope it will be a book that will cause readers to put themselves in the skin of the various characters and come away with an appreciation of history.
An Earlier Blog Post about Cultural Appropriation in Writing
Author and administrator of the “Writers on the Path to a Page-Turner” Facebook group, Barbara Kyle, wrote the following: “The move to self-censorship for fear of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a sad state of affairs. Author Morgan Jones eloquently champions the opposite position: ‘Fiction remains the best means we have of finding connection where there seems to be none; and the novel, of all forms, encourages a search that’s deep and sustained. By reading (or writing) one, you’ve travelled somewhere else. You’ve moved, if only slightly, towards others. In a world that finds and increasingly exploits division and difference, this in an invaluable, precious exercise.”
I think writers would do well to keep in mind the following question asked by John. W. Howell in his March 24, 2021 blog post referenced in my opening paragraph today: “Am I knowingly or unknowingly writing characters or a story which casts aspersions on anyone relative to their race, nationality, gender, sexual preference, religion, disabilities, or age?”
Mr. Howell goes on to say, “The key to the question is we may write something that we didn’t think would discriminate but did that exactly.” He also said, “The caution here is that if you are not part of a group you are writing about, be very diligent in your research. Some would say unless you are a part of a group, don’t write about them. I disagree since I do not want to believe that writers can only write what they know.”
In his follow-up blog post on April 12, 2021 (also referenced above in my opening paragraph), Mr. Howell gave Gone with the Wind as an example of a book that could be criticized on several fronts due to its glorification of the Southern plantation. A little later in his blog post he said the following: “Maybe because I’m an author, I hate to see a book be declared undesirable, but it does seem that we should embrace a discussion of any book that is outside our social norms. Include in the discussion why a text no longer reflects current attitudes. If we were to discuss why certain depictions in a book are wrong, we all would better understand each other. Maybe, more importantly, we could learn more about what actions and depictions are especially hurtful.”
I agree with Mr. Howell on that. Let’s not ban books from our library and bookstore shelves. Let’s read and discuss them and, thereby, learn to do better.
Since my last blog post
I enjoyed all the beautiful azaleas in our yard. I don’t think they’ve ever been prettier. All good things must come to an end – or so “they” say. Wednesday afternoon brought snow 100 miles away in the North Carolina mountains, and Thursday and Friday mornings brought record-breaking below freezing low temperatures to my house. I hope this was winter’s last gasp.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have at least one good book to read this week. I have more books checked out from the library than I can possibly read. It’s a nice dilemma to have.
Enjoy a relaxing hobby.
Note: Tomorrow is National Tell a Story Day in the USA. Don’t tell a lie. Tell a story. Tell a young person about one of your good memories. It will give them something to remember you by.
Note: Ironically, Wednesday is the anniversary of author Harper Lee’s birth in 1926. Some literary critics say a person who writes just one novel (such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) is not a great author. (I know, I know. Her unpublished manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015, so she actually wrote two books.) My example is still valid. Ms. Lee died in 2016, and until 2015 she was known as an acclaimed author who wrote “only” one book. I’m not saying the historical novel I’m writing is a great novel, but it gives me hope to know that Harper Lee “only” got one novel published during her lifetime. If I only get one novel published, I’ll be more than happy.
Note: Watch out for May! It arrives on Saturday. May is “Get Caught Reading Month”. Start making your plans for getting caught.
The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when southerners fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Fort Sumter was, of course, a United States military fort on the coast of South Carolina.
The American Civil War was the culmination of the falling apart of a nation.
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops to US Gen. U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, but fighting continued for a while west of the Mississippi River. U.S President Andrew Johnson declared the war over in all states but Texas on April 2, 1866. After accepting the new state constitution for Texas, President Johnson officially declared the insurrection over on August 20, 1866.
The exact number of deaths in the American Civil War is unknown, but it seems to be agreed upon that it was at least 620,000 and as high as 750,000.
In 1999, I compiled a booklet, “Rocky River Presbyterian Church and the War Between the States,” about how the American Civil War affected Rocky River Presbyterian Church in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. Established in 1751, in 1860 the congregation had 616 members. 440 of them were White and 176 of them were Black. The congregation lost 72 men in the Civil War. Their average age was 28. The youngest was 16 and the oldest was 44. Of the 72 who died, 52 died between January 1862 and November 1863. I’ve tried to imagine what an emotional impact that had on this farming community, but I can’t.
I researched each of the 72 men and boys in published genealogies, church records, census records, etc. in an effort to put names and real people on the statistics. Some families were hit especially hard, losing several sons.
Another local loss
In addition to the numerical and economic loss those 72 men and boys cost the congregation, the war resulted in a radical and racial change in the church’s make up. In 2004, I compiled another booklet, “Slaves and Free Blacks Known to be Associated with Rocky River Presbyterian Church Prior to 1870.” My purpose was to compile in one document all known records about the slaves and free Blacks who were communing and/or baptized members of the congregation from the earliest extant church records (1835) through 1870.
I was astounded when the project was finished to find that I had a list of 917 slaves and 11 free Blacks. In addition to the church membership rolls and Session disciplinary trial minutes, I searched the 1860 and 1863 Cabarrus County Tax Assessment Lists – which listed every slave living in the county at those times—and the US Census records for Cabarrus County from 1870 and 1880. (By the way, the county tax assessment lists recorded not only the names of each slave under his or her master’s name, but also included each slave’s age, physical condition, and value. They are sobering documents.)
In 1867, present-day Bellefonte Presbyterian Church was formed by former Black members of Rocky River. The White pastor of Rocky River, being a product of the place and time, was hurt when the Black members of his congregation chose to go two or three miles up the road to establish their own church. Unfortunately, he saw them as children who didn’t know what they were doing. He didn’t understand why they didn’t want to stay at Rocky River and continue to sit in the balcony while the White members sat downstairs on the main floor of the sanctuary. No wonder they left! That’s easy for us to see today.
How racism continues to this day
Southerners tend to romanticize about the Civil War, but I doubt there was anything romantic about it at the time. The wives, mothers, sisters, and younger brothers were left behind to try to farm the best they could, not knowing when or if their loved ones would come home. I would not have wanted to be alive during that time.
All four of my great-grandfathers and one of my great-great-grandfathers fought on the losing side in the American Civil War. They were farmers in North Carolina. They did not own slaves. In trying to put myself in their places in that place and time, I can’t help but think they didn’t have much choice in joining the North Carolina Troops when the war began.
One was a boy of 16, no doubt out on a bit of an adventure with his neighborhood friends in the same company. He wrote letters to his parents and sister asking them to send him socks. One was in the 1st NC Cavalry and survived a severe head wound at Gettysburg that left him with headaches and a convulsive disorder for the rest of his life. One had restricted use of one of his arms for the rest of his life due to injuries sustained in the Seven Days Battle of Richmond. One was in Charleston at the end of the war and walked the 200 miles home. One of my great-great-grandfathers was a man in his early 50s – much too old to go off to war, but that’s what he did. It’s hard to find the romance in any of that. They came home defeated, with perhaps a little worthless Confederate currency, only to have to go back to eking out a living by farming in a broken economy.
They were not the ones who built monuments to Confederate leaders. They did not raise the Confederate battle flag by their houses to show their Southern pride. They just went back to the hard-working lives they’d known since birth and tried to live out their lives as law-abiding American citizens.
I don’t know what any of those five ancestors of mine thought about race. I can’t sit in judgment of any of my ancestors any more than I can take credit for anything good they accomplished in their lives. Each of us is accountable for our own ideas, beliefs, and actions.
Where do we go from here?
Until Americans have an honest discussion about slavery and the ramifications of it… until people across the country study the facts and recognize that slavery existed in some northern states… until people across the country realize that northern states benefitted from the slavery in the South because the slaves picked the cotton that was sent to northern textile mills to be turned into fabric for people there to sell and wear at a low cost due to slavery… until people across the country accept each other and fight for all citizens to have the same rights and chances to excel… until as individuals we admit our prejudices and have the courage to speak up when we see racial injustice… I’m afraid the American Civil War will never be over.
My heart sinks at the sight of the Confederate battle flag because, to people of color, it is a symbol of hate. I didn’t see it that way when I was growing up because I was White, but I do now. When you know better, you should do better.
As Americans, it’s easy for us to sit back, protected by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west and criticize the Arabs and Jews in Israel holding grudges over wrongs committed centuries ago, but many Americans are unwilling to forgive and forget when it comes to our own Civil War after 160 years. We can’t see the plank in our own eye because we’re concentrating on the speck in someone else’s eye.
Since my last blog post
We finally got to bring our diabetic dog home from the hospital last Thursday. He was hospitalized for eight days with bronchial pneumonia. We’re so thankful for the good care he received at CARE (Charlotte Animal Referral & Emergency) once again.
Until my next blog post
Continue to celebrate D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything And Read) Month. I hope you have at least one good book to read this week.
Make time for a hobby.
Note: The two booklets I referenced in today’s blog, “Rocky River Presbyterian Church and the War Between the States” and “Slaves and Free Blacks Known to be Associated with Rocky River Presbyterian Church Prior to 1870,” are available through http://www.JanetMorrisonBooks.com. Click on “Rocky River Presbyterian Church Booklets.”
In doing the research necessary to refresh my memory enough to write today’s blog post, I discovered just how close the United States came to failing in the 1780s. As a younger student of history, I didn’t grasp the fragility and gravity of the situation. In an effort to stabilize and save the new nation, a constitutional convention was called for in the spring of 1787. Today’s blog post will attempt to give you an idea about what necessitated that convention which opened 233 years ago today.
It was a contentious time. It was a time of trial and error as the former colonists, who had just won a war for independence from Great Britain against all odds, faced the difficult work of creating a nation and there was no guide book for them to follow.
The Articles of Confederation
The Continental Congress agreed on “Articles of Confederation” in November 1777. The document formed more of an alliance than a nation. The Articles gave Congress the power to wage war, conduct diplomacy, and arbitrate disputes between the various states. Each state had one delegate. Going to war required nine of the 13 votes in favor. All 13 states had to ratify the Articles of Confederation in order for them to go into effect. Any amendments also required unanimous votes.
Congress could not, under the Articles of Confederation, enact laws. In fact, it had to rely on the states to recruit soldiers for the Continental Army. States were free to regulate trade and enact laws and the Congress had no power over them.
State boundaries needed to be established and states needed the authority to maintain authority within those boundaries. The Articles of Confederation left too much to chance and interpretation.
How could the 13 states go about forming a union with only the Articles of Confederation holding them together? They feared creating a Congress strong enough to interfere with issues within the individual states. After all, they knew what life was like under a strong central government. In today’s vernacular, they would have said, “Been there. Done that.” They knew what they didn’t want in a national government, but it wasn’t easy to agree on what they wanted or needed.
Small states wanted a federal government that could control westward expansion. They feared that, without a strong central government, states like Virginia and New York would prosper financially from selling their western lands and, therefore, become more solvent and more attractive to settlers than the smaller states.
Virginia and New York eventually relinquished their claims on “western lands.” That was enough to persuade Maryland to ratify the Articles of Confederation on February 2, 1781 –finally making ratification of the Articles unanimous and complete.
To begin to address the problems associated with western expansion, Congress started establishing temporary territories that could later become states. I’ll get into some of the details of how that was carried out in a blog post planned for July 13, 2020 on the anniversary of the adoption of the third Northwest Ordinance in 1787.
By the end of 1776, 10 states had adopted constitutions. Connecticut and Rhode Island still operated under their charters. Massachusetts didn’t adopt a state constitution until 1780.
Most of the state constitutions began with a stated bill of rights. A free press, freedom of religion, the right to petition, trial by jury, and due process under the law were the items most states included in their constitutions. Most of them made it clear that the people wouldn’t stand for hereditary offices. In other words, there would be no American aristocracies.
In reaction to the royal governors the states’ residents had suffered under, the state constitutions limited executive power. They limited who could vote: only white men who owned enough property to support a family. It was believed if a man had a landlord, he would not be free to vote his own mind. Several states restricted those men who could serve in their legislatures to the very wealthy.
After the Revolutionary War
Although the Americans won the war for independence, they had paid a big price in deaths and the economy. The new country had no silver or gold mines to back an economy. Fortunately, many British and other European merchants offered American businessmen credit because they were eager to reestablish trade with their former clients. However, the British blocked America from trading with the West Indies. That restriction was instrumental in plunging American merchants into debt in the years after the war.
A recession followed the war while the new country tried to get on its feet. There were economic inequalities between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” so not much has changed in two and half centuries.
Frustration increased as states racked up debt and taxed citizens. In Massachusetts, South Carolina, and New Hampshire farmers began to mobilize much as the Regulators had prior to the revolution. They went so far as to block county courts from meeting so farm foreclosures could not be processed. Some states chose to forgive debts in an attempt to avoid armed conflict. Seven of the 13 states started printing paper money.
Conservatives started having misgivings about the outcome of the war. They saw many states as being too democratic, and they started calling for a Constitutional Convention.
James Madison’s input
James Madison was turned to for advice. He had studied state governments and concluded a popular majority could govern every bit as tyrannically as a monarch. He said that the rich minority should be protected from the poorer majority.
Conventional wisdom of the day was that a republic had to be small so representatives could really know their constituents. Madison bucked that theory. To quote from Pulitzer Prize winning historian Alan Taylor’s book, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, Madison thought that if voters had a larger population from which to elect their leaders, “the purest and noblest characters” would be elected to office. (I wonder if he would still hold to that belief today.)
Madison met with Alexander Hamilton and 10 other “nationalists” in September 1786 to draft an appeal to Congress to call for a constitutional convention. Congress wanted the Articles of Confederation to remain but agreed to call a convention to write amendments. Congress also stipulated that the amendments would have to be approved by Congress and each state legislature.
The nationalists feared that the country would plunge into anarchy and the result would either be a monarch or a splintering of states into several confederations.
What happened 233 years ago today?
A Constitutional Convention was scheduled to open on May 25, 1787 in Philadelphia with the purpose of revising and strengthening the Articles of Confederation. However, what happened over the next four months was the drafting of the United States Constitution.
Every state except Rhode Island sent delegations to the convention. James Madison convinced George Washington that he should attend as a Virginia delegate. As a group, the 55 delegates were elitists. More than half of them held college degrees. More than half of them owned slaves. None represented the populist views of the farmers and other citizens of modest means.
The convention was held in what is now known as Independence Hall. On the first day, George Washington was unanimously elected to preside over the group. The doors and windows were kept shut and they agreed to a strict code of secrecy. No outsiders were allowed inside.
What transpired over the next four months?
Delegates came and went as the weeks went by. In fact, all 55 were never in attendance at the same time. Though multiple delegates came from each state, each state was allowed only one vote. Just as seems to be the rule instead of the exception with American politicians in 2020, they talked a good talk about “the common good,” but they all fought for their own state’s interests.
“The Virginia Plan” was presented on May 29. It called for a bicameral legislature with both houses having a number of representatives based on population. It called for a powerful national government with an executive branch and a judicial branch in addition to the legislative branch. Smaller states didn’t like the Virginia Plan.
The “New Jersey Plan” was presented in mid-June. Under that plan, there would be only one legislative body and much of the government would continue as it was under the Articles of Confederation.
Believing both plans were weak, Alexander Hamilton presented is own plan on June 18 in a five-hour harangue. He maintained that Great Britain had the best government in the world and that America should copy it. Under Hamilton’s plan, the electoral college would elect the president and senators and they would serve for life! Only the House of Representatives would be elected by popular vote of the people. Congress would not have the power to override a presidential veto. All state governors would be appointed by the national government.
For the next month, the delegates debated the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan, not thinking the majority of citizens would accept the British model championed by Alexander Hamilton. They were essentially deadlocked until Benjamin Franklin and the Connecticut delegation presented a plan whereby there would be a bicameral legislature. Each state would have equal representation in the Senate, but representation in the House would be based on population. That compromise plan was adopted on July 16 by a vote of five to four. The Massachusetts delegation could not agree on which way to vote.
The following day, July 17, seven of 10 delegations voted against Hamilton’s idea that the national government should be able to veto state laws. They also voted to prohibit states from issuing paper money.
Another point of contention for the convention was slavery. Slaves made up about four percent of the population of northern states and about 40 percent of the population of Southern states. Southern delegates wanted a national government strong enough to protect their property rights but not strong enough to emancipate slaves.
Since virtually all the delegates regarded blacks as inferior to whites, the debates came down more to regional interests than the morality of slavery. The compromise that was struck was the “three-fifths clause” which said that three-fifths of slaves would count in the allocation of congressional seats and presidential electors. In essence, it meant that a slave was considered to be only three-fifths of a person.
In August, 1787, as the hot and humid Philadelphia summer dragged on, there was heated debate over the future of the slave trade. The Georgia and South Carolina delegates wanted to continue to bring slaves from Africa, but the upper-southern states had more slaves than they needed. They wanted to be able to sell their slaves to planters in the Lower South when the African slave trade ended.
But the South Carolina and Georgia delegates valued continued slave trade more than they valued the national union. They threatened to pull out of the convention. By doing so, they called the bluff of Northern delegates who prospered from the slave trade through their shipping and shipbuilding interests. The Northern delegates wanted the national government to enact “navigation acts” that would favor northern vessels over foreign ones and would increase shipping costs for Southerners.
Slave-holding states lobbied for a fugitive-slave clause under which northern states were required to return runaway slaves to their owners. Euphemisms were used in the constitution they were drawing up in order to avoid using the words “slaves” or “slavery.”
The United States Constitution, therefore, protected slavery through the three-fifths clause, the “fugitive-slave clause, and by approving the slave trade for an additional 20 years. These compromises proved to be short-sighted. They appeared necessary to preserve the union, but they set the United States on a long-term racial division that still exists 233 years later.
The convention spent more time figuring out the national legislative branch than it did the executive branch. It was assumed that George Washington would be the first U.S. President, so the constitution created a strong executive. Both houses of Congress would need a two-thirds majority vote to override a Presidential veto. The president and vice-president would be elected to four-year terms and could be reelected indefinitely. State legislatures would choose the electoral college and that group would elect the president and vice-president.
Not much time was spent on the judicial branch. A Supreme Court would be created and Congress would have the power to create courts that would serve subordinately to it. It was made clear that state laws and courts would be trumped by U.S. laws, treaties, and the U.S. Constitution.
US Constitution signed on September 17, 1787
After numerous heated debates, 39 of the 42 delegates who had hung in there that long, signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787. The governor of Virginia refused to sign it. Fellow-Virginian George Mason said he’d rather chop off his hand than sign it. Alexander Hamilton wasn’t pleased with the final document, but he signed it because he feared the alternative was anarchy.
As difficult as the convention had been, the hard work lay ahead as each state had to ratify the Constitution. It would take a year to accomplish that, but that is a story for another day and another blog post.
Since my last blog post
I’ve spent more time reading nonfiction than fiction. My brain is tired. I’m listening to Long Bright River, by Liz Moore.
Until my next blog post
I look forward to concentrating on reading fiction in the coming days.
I hope you have a good book to read.
If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have quality creative time.
Thank you for taking time to read my long blog post today. It was longer than I wanted it to be, but I concluded that anyone truly interested in the topic would read it and anyone not interested in the topic wouldn’t read it no matter how short or long it was. I hope I judged correctly.
Let’s continue the conversation
What jumped out at you in today’s blog post? What surprised you?