Friday, June 23, 2017

“This Whole Horrible Transaction”

John Quincy Adams (1767–1848)
From The Diaries of John Quincy Adams 1779–1848

Drawing of the Slave Pen in Alexandria, 1862. The building sign in the illustration reads, incorrectly, “Pierce, Birch & Co. Dealers in Slaves”; the company’s actual name was Price, Birch & Co. (The slave trader James H. Birch is mentioned by Adams in the selection below.) Originally built as a private home in 1812, the compound was converted into a large slave jail and pen in 1828. The central three-story edifice still stands at 1315 Duke Street and is the home to the North Virginia Urban League and the Freedom House Museum. Image courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society.
Elected to the House of Representatives in 1830, former President John Quincy Adams almost immediately began presenting to Congress various petitions from citizens, nearly all of them demanding the abolition of slavery, and he insisted on First Amendment grounds that these documents be received by the House and referred to the proper committees. By the middle of the decade thousands of such petitions were flooding Washington. In May 1836 South Carolina representative Laurens Pinckney proposed three resolutions on the issue of slavery, the third of which advocated that all petitions, memorials, and resolutions relating to slavery be peremptorily tabled and not acted upon. Denied an opportunity to speak against the proposals, Adams demanded, “Am I gagged or am I not?” For each of the next four years, over his strenuous protests, the House successfully reintroduced what became known as the gag rule.

In June 1838 John Quincy Adams used a parliamentary maneuver to “ungag” himself, at least temporarily. The question of annexing Texas was under consideration by the Committee on Foreign Affairs, which moved to table it since there weren’t enough votes in the House for it to pass. Adams, who opposed annexation (since it would further tilt the balance of power to the slave states), took the opportunity to seize control of the House floor. Each morning for three weeks, from June 16 to July 7, he maintained a filibuster against a motion he in fact supported—tabling the question of Texas annexation—and delivered a series of speeches describing a long-standing “conspiracy” among the slave states to acquire Texan territory, upholding the propriety of women petitioning Congress, and declaring slavery to be a sin. His daily orations ended with the arrival of summer recess.

Midway through the filibuster, on June 30, Adams responded to an interruption by South Carolina representative Francis Wilkinson Pickens and described a notorious incident from the previous year.
I do not doubt in the least that he is, himself, a kind and indulgent master; so, I doubt not, are all the gentlemen who represent his State on this floor. They know not the horrors that belong to the system, and attend it even in their own State; and when they are stated by those who have witnessed them, he calls the whole a tissue of misrepresentation. . . . He does not know the profligate villain who procreates children from his slaves, and then sells his own children as slaves. He does not know the crushing and destruction of all the tenderest and holiest ties of nature which that system produces, but which I have seen, with my own eyes, in this city of Washington. Twelve months have not passed since a woman, in this District, was taken with her four infant children, and separated from her husband, who was a free man, to be sent away, I know not where. That woman, in a dungeon in Alexandria, killed with her own hand two of her children, and attempted to kill the others. She was tried for murder, and, to the honor of human nature I say it, a jury was not to be found in the District who would find her guilty. . . . The woman was asked how she could perpetrate such an act, for she had been a woman of unblemished character and of pious sentiments. She replied that wrong had been done to her and to them; that she was entitled to her freedom though she had been sold to go to Georgia and that she had sent her children to a better world.
The incident involving Dorcas Allen, the woman described by Adams, is described in detail in several fascinating entries of his diary. When he first came across the case in the newspaper, he asked for more information about it from his brother-in-law and business associate Nathaniel Frye, who seemed reluctant to speak on the subject. Adams gradually learned the complicated history of “this horrible transaction,” which would involve such luminaries as Francis Scott Key, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia; William Cranch, Adams’s cousin and the chief judge of the U.S. Circuit Court; and General Walter Smith, most famously the commander of a brigade of the district’s militia during the War of 1812. During the fall of 1837 Adams “imprudently” involved himself in the matter and became personally acquainted, for the first time, with the byzantine horrors of slavery. We present the relevant entries as they appear in the just-published Library of America edition of The Diaries of John Quincy Adams.

Notes: During this period (until 1846), a substantial portion of Alexandria and the surrounding area was part of the District of Columbia, which is why the case falls under the jurisdiction of district officials. In the first diary entry presented here, Adams mentions belatedly receiving issues of Niles’s Register, an influential Baltimore-based national weekly news magazine published by Hezekiah Niles. William Winston Seaton was co-publisher of the National Intelligencer, the dominant daily newspaper in Washington, DC. The entry of October 28 notes that the prosecutor of Dorcas Allen’s case entered a noli prosequi (nolle prosequi) on the second indictment, a legal term declaring an abandonment of all or part of a suit or action.

In each diary entry, the letter following the number refers to the time; thus the first entry was written at 5 in the morning on October 23. The entries, when possible, are presented in full. Certain passages, especially such recurring items as meteorological observations, records of social visits received and returned, and accounts of bills paid and due, have been cut; such breaks are indicated with the ≈ symbol.

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There was in the National Intelligencer this morning an advertisement, signed James H. Birch, and Edward Dyer Auctioneer — headed Sale of Slaves — A sale at public auction at 4 O’Clock this afternoon, of Dorcas Allen, and her two surviving children aged about 7 and 9 years. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Friday, June 16, 2017


Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?)
From Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs

Detail from “Union drummer boy John Clem at Point Lookout, Tennessee,” c. 1865–70, color lithographic print by James Fuller Queen (c. 1820–1886). At the age of 12, Clem served as a drummer boy for the 22nd Michigan at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863), where he gained fame for allegedly having shot and wounded a Confederate officer. Promoted to sergeant, he became the youngest noncommissioned officer in the history of the U.S. Army. Click on image to see full print. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
Ostensibly a topographic engineer responsible for drawing maps of the front lines, First Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce found himself deeply immersed in combat at the Battle of Chickamauga in northwestern Georgia, September 19–20, 1863—a virtual rematch between the armies led by Union general William S. Rosecrans and Confederate general Braxton Bragg, which had nine months earlier faced each other at the Battle of Stones River. “Chickamauga was not my first battle by many,” he recalled three decades later, “for although hardly more than a boy in years [he had just turned 21], I had served at the front from the beginning of the trouble, and had seen enough of war to give me a fair understanding of it.”

A horrific day of fighting was followed by “a night of waking.” The following morning the battle resumed; “the enemy came again and again—his persistence was dispiriting.” Bierce’s commanding officer sent him to get more artillery shells, and he soon returned with a skittish officer in possession of several wagons of ammunition. They hesitantly reached the top of the ridge overlooking the area Bierce had just left and “to my astonishment I saw the entire country in front swarming with Confederates; the very earth seemed to be moving toward us! They came on in thousands, and so rapidly that we had barely time to turn tail and gallop down the hill and away.” At about this time General Rosecrans fled to Chatanooga and telegraphed President Lincoln: “We have met with a serious disaster; extent not yet ascertained.” Yet, Bierce drily noted, “The rest of his army was standing its ground.” At the end of the day the victorious Confederates decided not to make a final attack to complete the rout (“I don’t know why they did not; probably they were short of ammunition”), and Bierce retreated with the defeated Union army to Chattanooga.

In 1889 Bierce reimagined Chickamauga in a short story of that name—told from the point of view of a six-year-old boy. It is, “in a way, his most American story,” writes biographer Roy Morris, Jr. “The new man in the new land, often depicted as a child to underscore both the purity and the vulnerability of an America groping its way across a hostile continent, has had many names in the national literature.” The boy’s misadventures in the Chickamauga forest also serve as “a perfect synopsis of Rosecrans’s blunder [and] mirror those of the Union army during the battle.”

In addition, Morris sees the story as a “virtual prĂ©cis of Stephen Crane’s more celebrated The Red Badge of Courage.” Although Crane himself acknowledged his debt to (and deep admiration of) Bierce’s stories, “the direct link between ‘Chickamauga’ and Crane’s great novel has rarely been noted by modern critics.” According to Richard Harding Davis, a mutual friend of both writers, Bierce read Red Badge when it was published in 1895 and begrudgingly conceded, “This young man has the power to feel. He knows nothing of war, yet he is drenched with blood. Most beginners who deal with this subject spatter themselves merely with ink.”

Within a few months Bierce apparently had second thoughts. After a reviewer compared Crane’s novel unfavorably to Bierce’s Civil War stories and further criticized two other new writers as being even worse, Bierce responded with his trademark bitterness.
That hardy and ingenious explorer, that sun-eyed searcher of the intense inane, that robber baron invader of literature's loud oblivion, that painstaking chiffonier of fame's eternal dumping ground has dragged to upper day two worse writers than Stephen Crane and names them out loud. I had thought there could be only two worse writers than Stephen Crane, namely, two Stephen Cranes.
Something more than envy of Crane’s success may have been at work here; Bierce may have also come to regard the younger author as a bit of a pretender. Shortly after Red Badge became a national phenomenon Crane published the story collection The Little Regiment and Other Episodes from the American Civil War. The younger author was born six years after the war ended; in an interview with Library of America, literary scholar S. T. Joshi reminds us that “Bierce was always insistent on the radical distinction between the ‘soldier’ and the ‘civilian,’ and he felt that the latter could never fully understand what the former had gone through.”

Note: The lines of poetry on the second page are from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), canto 3, stanza 38; the reference is to Napoleon.

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One sunny autumn afternoon a child strayed away from its rude home in a small field and entered a forest unobserved. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Bombers over London

From World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It

The Underworld: Taking Cover in a Tube Station during a London Air Raid, 1918, oil on canvas by British artist Walter Bayes (1869–1956). Civilians, mainly women and children, sheltering in the Elephant and Castle tube station. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
One hundred years ago, on June 13, 1917, German airplanes conducted the first—and most lethal—daytime bombing of London during the First World War. A correspondent for The New York Times witnessed the air raid and wired a detailed account that appeared the next day in the paper under the headline, “German Airmen Kill 97, Hurt 437 in London Raid.” The final toll from the bombings in London, Essex, and Kent was 162 dead, including eighteen children at the Upper North Street School in Poplar, and 432 injured. The Times headline writer added a subhead incorrectly indicating that a German plane had been shot down; in fact, all fourteen of the Gotha twin-engine biplanes returned to their base in Belgium.

Two weeks later, on July 1, The New York Times received from Berlin and subsequently published an article anonymously written by one of the German airman, describing the attack:
With a tremendous crash they strike the heart of England. It is a magnificently terrific spectacle seen from midair. Projectiles from hostile batteries are sputtering and exploding beneath and all around us, while below the earth seems rocking and houses are disappearing in craters and conflagrations, in the light of the glaring sun.

In a few moments all is over and the squadron turns. One last look at the panic-stricken metropolis and we are off on our home course.
       Memorial to children killed at
       the Upper North Street School.
          (London City government Flickr page)
The airman’s emphasis on the hypnotic spectacle of the bombing was echoed by the American journalist, but the reality of the event soon sunk in: “Watching the light and movement in the sky drama had so fixed one’s attention as to eliminate even a flashing thought of its meaning, but with silence came the swift running of ambulance cars, and pealing bells told of the ugliness of it all and its deep significance.” Yet the reporter seems to have anticipated the German airman’s fantasy of a London stricken by panic—which, of course, was the intent of the bombing—and points out how most of the city’s population soon went on with their daily lives. “There was no panic, merely intelligent interest and curiosity. ‘Observe the terrorized public,’ said a young officer, and his companion laughed.”

We present the riveting eyewitness account from The New York Times as our Story of the Week selection, which has been reprinted in the Library of America volume World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It. A. Scott Berg, editor of the volume, offers additional historical context in a brief headnote.

Note: The reporter incorrectly identified the planes as Taubes (p. 358), but—as indicated above—they were in fact Gotha G.IVs, with a crew of three and a top speed of 83 mph. The Hendon Aerodrome (p. 359) was an important airfield in London; it was closed in 1968. Archies (p. 362) was a common British term during the war for anti-aircraft guns.

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LONDON, Thursday, June 14.—There came to London yesterday the nearest vision of modern warfare that it has yet known. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, June 2, 2017

“Examine Well Your Heart”

Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804)
From The Essential Hamilton: Letters & Other Writings

Phillipa Soo as Elizabeth Schuyler and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton: The Musical. (Joan Marcus / The Public Theater)
I knew you’d fight until the war was won
         (HAMILTON: The war’s not done)
But you deserve a chance to meet your son
Look around, look around at how lucky we are
To be alive right now

Will you relish being a poor man’s wife
Unable to provide for your life?
         (From “That Would Be Enough,” by Lin-Manuel Miranda, from Hamilton: The Musical)
Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler first met in the fall of 1777, at a dinner in Albany at the home of her father, General Philip Schuyler, a commanding officer of the Revolutionary Army. They would not see each other again until a little more than two years later, in early February 1780, when Elizabeth visited relatives in Morristown, New Jersey. Her father had given her introductory letters to George Washington, whose troops were stationed nearby for the winter. Serving on Washington’s staff, Alexander inevitably encountered Elizabeth and, as a fellow aide said at the time, “Hamilton is a gone man.”

Later that month Alexander wrote to one of Elizabeth’s sisters—almost certainly Margarita, the youngest of the three Schuyler daughters in their early 20s. “I have already confessed the influence your sister has gained over me; yet notwithstanding this, I have some things of a very serious and heinous nature to lay to her charge,” Hamilton wrote in a letter laying out the “mischiefs” Elizabeth was guilty of:
She is most unmercifully handsome and so perverse that she has none of those pretty affectations which are the prerogatives of beauty. Her good sense is destitute of that happy mixture of vanity and ostentation which would make it conspicuous to the whole tribe of fools and foplings as well as to men of understanding. . . . In short she is so strange a creature that she possesses all the beauties virtues and graces of her sex without any of those amiable defects, which from their general prevalence are esteemed by connoisseurs necessary shades in the character of a fine woman. . . . She has had the address to overset all the wise resolutions I had been framing for more than four years past, and from a rational sort of being and a professed contemner of Cupid has in a trice metamorphosed me into the veriest inamorato you perhaps ever saw.
By the beginning of March, the couple were engaged to be married.

In his best-selling biography of Hamilton, Ron Chernow describes how the colonel “sometimes mooned about in a romantic haze, very much the lovesick swain” and during the year of their engagement sent to Elizabeth “the most candid letters of his life”—nearly two dozen of which have survived. Even though he was marrying into a rich family, it’s clear that “Hamilton was too proud to sponge off the Schuylers,” and one recurring theme of the letters is insecurity over his relative poverty. Yet the couple would prove to be well-matched; Chernow laments the fact that “she remains invisible in most biographies of her husband,” perhaps because she “was certainly the most self-effacing ‘founding mother.’” In her introduction to The Essential Hamilton, Joanne B. Freeman describes how Elizabeth became “a calming presence and a pillar of strength in Hamilton’s all too harried life. His letters to her show the highs and lows of their relationship, from their flirtatious courtship to their close companionship of later years.”

When Lin-Manuel Miranda was writing his now-famous musical, he was especially inspired by the letters to Elizabeth, particularly one sent in August 1780, which we present as our Story of the Week selection.
It kind of captures everything I love about Hamilton. He’s kind of arrogant, he’s kind of insecure, he’s unbelievably romantic, it’s funny, it’s sad, and it’s basically him saying to Eliza, “Don’t marry me if you think you can’t be happy broke—because we might end up broke.”
Miranda adapted a line from this letter (“Do you soberly relish the pleasure of being a poor mans wife?”) as a line of the song “That Would Be Enough.” Last summer, the week before the show’s final performance featuring the original cast, the actor read the letter from the Library of America edition of Hamilton’s writings to a crowd of hundreds of fans gathered on the street outside the Times Square theater. The video of Miranda’s reading is presented below, followed by the text of the letter itself in the usual Story of the Week formats.

Note: Lieutenant Colonel Richard Kidder Meade, mentioned on the first page of Hamilton’s letter, was an aide-de-camp to Washington. In 1780 he married Mary Fitzhugh Grymes Randolph, a widow. Portia was the daughter of Cato the Younger and the wife of Brutus, the leader of the conspirators who assassinated Julius Caesar. The postscript mentions a letter from John Mathews, a South Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress.

Following a brief introduction, Miranda’s reading of the letter begins at the 1:25 mark.

If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.