Confederates from Iowa:

Not to Defend, but to Understand

Author: David Connon (Page 1 of 5)

Much-maligned Democratic “Dirty dogs”: A review of Civil War Iowa and the Copperhead Movement

“Iowa nice” was in short supply during the Civil War.  Local politics reached new lows as Iowa Republicans demonized Peace Democrats (also known as Copperheads).

A colleague asked historian Hubert H. Wubben, “What can you say about Copperheads that Frank Klement hasn’t already said?”  (Klement had written the authoritative The Copperheads in the Midwest in 1960.)

To answer that question, Wubben borrowed from the scholarship of Leland Sage, the powerful arguments of Frank L. Klement, and the documentation of David L. Lendt.  Wubben also did original research.  The result was Wubben’s magisterial book, Civil War Iowa and the Copperhead Movement.[1]

This book tells the history of Iowa during the Civil War, from the perspective of the Democratic Party (and its various factions).  Starting in the 1850s, the author contrasts the divided Iowa Democratic Party with the vigorous and bold state Republican Party.

More recent scholarship by Mark E. Neely (The Fate of Liberty:  Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties) and William A. Blair (With Malice Toward Some:  Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era) serve to illuminate Wubben’s work.

An exception is Jennifer L. Weber’s Copperheads:  The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North.  She disagrees with Klement’s view that the Copperhead “fire in the rear” was mostly “a fairy tale,” a “figment of Republican imagination” comprised of “lies, conjecture, and political malignancy.”[2]

Weber’s argument could be stronger.  She seems to accept claims of the type that Klement had previously debunked.

Wubben has influenced nearly everything I’ve written and thought about Iowa Democrats in wartime, and about Iowa residents who left the state and served the Confederacy.  He notes:

Much of the story has already been told.  But not all of it by any means … Iowa’s history during the Civil War years will long remain fertile ground.[3]

I have documented 76 Iowa residents who left that state and served the Confederacy.  The stories of some Confederates from Iowa intersect with – and illuminate – Wubben’s work.

Historian Wubben combines extensive documentation, analysis, and persuasive reasoning.  I highly recommend his book.

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments and questions below.

[1] Leland Sage, A History of Iowa (Ames:  1974); Frank L. Klement, The Copperheads in the Middle West (Chicago:  1960); David L. Lendt, Demise of the Democracy:  The Copperhead Press in Iowa (Ames:  1963).

[2] Jennifer L. Weber, Copperheads:  The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North (Oxford:  2006), xi.

[3] Hubert H. Wubben, Civil War Iowa and the Copperhead Movement (Ames:  1980), xi.

The Architect of Andersonville Prison: A son’s quest to clear his father’s name

Mass imprisonment and poor supplies at Andersonville led to horrible cases of starvation.  The War Department publicized photos of emaciated soldiers, giving Andersonville an infamous and enduring reputation.

Historian Arch Fredric Blakey wrote a biography of Confederate General John H. Winder, who was later blamed for Andersonville.  Blakey writes:

To rescue a villain from history – to overturn a historical myth – is a difficult task.[1]

William Sidney Winder (“Sidney”), one of General Winder’s sons, spent years after the war ended, trying to rehabilitate his father’s name.

Family life and the law

Sidney grew up in a slave-holding military family in various Southern towns.  After attending Columbian College near Washington, D.C., Sidney practiced law in Keokuk, Iowa, from 1857 to fall 1860, and then he was an attorney in Baltimore.

William Sidney Winder

Sidney’s family became divided as war loomed.  His father, a career military officer, wavered between remaining in the U.S. Army and serving the Confederacy.  Sidney intended to fight for Southern independence, and his older half-brother remained a captain in the U.S. Army.

After Fort Sumter, North Carolina seceded, and Sidney’s father, John H. Winder, resigned his commission “with great regret” and became a brigadier general in the provisional Confederate army.

Sidney also joined the Confederate forces.  He was promoted from 1st Lieutenant to Captain and Assistant Adjutant General, eventually serving on his father’s staff.

Prison administration

General Winder became inspector general of prisons in the Richmond area.  When hungry housewives broke into shops, General Winder helped President Jefferson Davis put down the Richmond Bread Riot.

General John H. Winder

Late in 1863, the prisons in Richmond were seriously overcrowded.  General John H. Winder sent Sidney to Georgia to locate a site for a prison for Union POWs.  That order led to the infamous Andersonville Prison.

Andersonville

Sidney and his father tried to build and operate a prison that was spacious and relatively healthy, unlike the horror that became Andersonville.  However, they failed.

Andersonville Prison

Conditions worsened when, in December 1864, the North refused to resume the cartel (the exchange of POWs).  Prison populations continued to increase, in spite of insufficient resources to feed, clothe, and care for them.

General Winder proposed that the Confederates parole POWs and send them home without exchange.  That would have alleviated the problems at Andersonville, but his superiors rejected the idea, calling it “worse than evil.”

General Winder died a few weeks later in on Feb. 6, 1865.  Sidney went to Richmond, planning to resign, but instead he was charged with guarding the Confederate treasury and archives after the fall of Richmond.

Guarding Confederate gold and archives

Sidney and eight other officers eventually reached the David Levy Yulee plantation in Florida on May 22, 1865 – twelve days after Jefferson Davis was captured.

Author Blakey writes:

The group decided to bury the archives on the Yulee grounds [and allotted] one-fourth of the gold to support of Mrs. Davis and her children; the rest they divided equally among themselves.  Each officer received gold sovereigns in the amount of $1,995.

The nine officers surrendered and were paroled.  Sidney eventually resumed his law practice.

Focus on POW camps

Even before Appomattox, historian Marouf Hasian Jr. writes, “Northern presses were filled with lurid tales of lurid tales of victims of dysentery, scurvy, and gangrene” at Andersonville and other prison camps.  Writer Susan Sontag writes that “photographs of skeletal prisoners held at Andersonville inflamed public opinion.”[2]

Since General Winder was dead, the logical person to blame for Andersonville was commander Captain Henry Wirz.  Captain Wirz was given a military tribunal and hanged.

An uphill battle

Sidney maintained that he and his father had never been cruel to prisoners.  He and an uncle struggled to clear his father’s name.

However, Union officials who controlled the captured Confederate archives did not cooperate.  Without original documents, it was impossible to refute Union accusations that General John H. Winder was a cold-blooded mass murderer.

Sidney spent more than 10 years in a quixotic quest.  His health deteriorated, and he eventually withdrew from the world.  He died on February 25, 1925.

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments and questions below.

 

[1] Arch Fredric Blakey, General John H. Winder (Gainesville, FL.: 1990), xv.

[2] Marouf Hasian Jr., In the Name of Necessity:  Military Tribunals and the Loss of American Civil Liberties (Tuscaloosa, LA:  2005), 123; and Susan Sontag, quoted in Rea S. Hederman, Anthology:  Selected Essays from Thirty Years of the New York Review of Books (New York:  New York Review of Books, 2001), 106.

Lincoln on Trial: A review of All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime

It’s not often that a Supreme Court Chief Justice writes a book of history.  But when he does, it’s a book worth reading.

This is true for William H. Rehnquist’s All the Laws but One:  Civil Liberties in Wartime.  He uses an experienced jurist’s eye to discuss how the federal government handled civil liberties in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.  He also gives legal insights in terms that laymen can understand.

(Wikipedia)

In treating the Civil War, Rehnquist begins with Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus.  In one of the first test cases, Chief Justice Roger Taney rebuked Lincoln, telling him that it was unconstitutional for Lincoln to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.  Lincoln, of course, ignored Taney.

Rehnquist discusses the number of civil liberties violations under Secretary of State William H. Seward and then Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.  There was a huge increase of civilians imprisoned under the secretary of war.

Stanton decided that civilians could be tried before military commissions, that is, courts-martial for civilians.  These arrests and trials took place while the civil court system — state and federal – were operating throughout the North.

Rehnquist also discusses General Ambrose Burnside’s arrest of former Congressman Clement C. Vallandigham, and the treason trials of Democrat Lambdin P. Milligan and others in Indianapolis.  The Civil War section ends with Ex parte Milligan, in which the Supreme Court rebuked Lincoln, deciding that the Bill of Rights is still in force during wartime.

The author compares government conduct during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.  The biggest difference, he explains, was as follows:

The Lincoln administration relied on presidential authority or on the orders of military commanders to curtail civil liberties, while in the 20th-Century wars, the executive branch resorted much more to laws passed by Congress.

I highly recommend this thoughtful book.

Fortune favors the bold: From Iowa to Arizona, one man’s tale

Winchester Miller and his wife, Melinda Young, started married life as farmers in Van Buren County, southeast Iowa, in 1857.  Melinda bore two sons, and Winchester eyed the lingering California Gold Rush.

The North-South conflict heated up, and voters elected Lincoln president.  Winchester and Melinda said goodbye to both sets of their parents and left for California.

Heading South

The Millers took the southern route through Texas.  When Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter, authorities didn’t let the young family proceed further.

Winchester and Melinda settled in Texas.  A daughter was born in 1862.  Later that year, 27-year-old Winchester enlisted as a private in the 17th Texas Infantry.

Winchester Miller, a well-armed man (Tempe Daily News)

He moved through the ranks, rising to 3rd Lieutenant and then 2nd Jr. Lieutenant.  In 1864, Melinda became pregnant again.  Nine months later, she died in childbirth, leaving three young children.

Kayaks to Iowa

The war ended, and Winchester returned home.  He couldn’t care for his children alone.

Winchester saddled up a horse and a mule for a 700+ mile journey to Iowa.  He rode the horse with his small daughter in his arms.  His young sons rode in “kayaks” — tough rawhide boxes draped over both sides of a mule.

Once they arrived in Iowa, he divided up the children between his in-laws and his parents.  Winchester then headed to California, again through Texas.

“Nerve of Iron”

Discovering that the Gold Rush was over, Winchester moved to Arizona.  He became Maricopa County Sheriff.

(Tempe Historical Society)

Winchester later told a friend that “it was necessary” for him to hang two American Indians.  Some 250 fellow tribe members wanted to avenge their death, so they came looking for Sheriff Miller.

Winchester’s friend shared the following tale with an Arizona historian:

One day not long after he had given the two Indians their quietus, as Miller was standing in the yard near his house, his quick eye noted rising in the distance a great cloud of dust rapidly approaching … Stepping into his house … [he] took his rifle from its peg, buckled on two cartridge belts, stuck in a couple of six shooters and a knife, and returned to the yard.

Winchester claimed to have single-handedly held off the warriors for two days. Reportedly, “Ever afterwards, both Indians and Mexicans held Winchester Miller in great respect.”[1]

End of days

Winchester married a local woman, farmed, and had more children.  One of his Iowa sons, at age 15, rejoined his father in Arizona.

Winchester was active in Democratic Party politics.  He also helped found Tempe, where he died on November 29, 1893.

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I want to thank Jared Smith, curator at the Tempe History Museum, for generously sharing photos and information about Winchester Miller.

 

 

 

[1] Thomas Edwin Farish, History of Arizona, Vol. VI (Phoenix:  1918). 104-108.

Tiptoe on the edge of an abyss: A review of The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War

A parable:  Joke-telling Abraham Lincoln (Republican) in a stovepipe hat; sober-minded Jefferson Davis (Ultra-secessionist Democrat); and diminutive Stephen A. Douglas (national Democrat) stood at the top of a cliff.  Davis threatened to jump off the cliff, and Lincoln scoffed at that absurd notion.

Stephen A. Douglas believed Davis and knew that if Davis jumped, he would drag Lincoln and Douglas with him in a horrible, bloody crash.  Douglas believed that only he could stop Davis from jumping.

Thought-provoking

Historian George Fort Milton describes the lead-up to the Civil War in The Eve of Conflict:  Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War.  Weighing in at almost 600 pages, and published in 1934, this book has forever changed how I look at the causes of the war.

Prior to reading this book, I thought that the war basically occurred because of disagreements between Republicans (led by Lincoln) and Ultra-Secessionists (led by Jefferson Davis).  Author Milton demonstrates that the national Democratic party, led by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, had a reasonable chance of holding the country together as late as March 1860 (about a year before Fort Sumter).

Bitter enmity

Milton describes how the Buchanan administration mortally opposed Stephen A. Douglas and the national Democrats.  The Buchanan machine naturally allied with the Ultra-Secessionist Democrats to defeat Douglas, thereby allowing Lincoln to be elected president.

The author describes the political strategies of all three groups as they engaged in hardball.  In retrospect, the gamesmanship was breathtaking.

Clash of Ideas

Lincoln had stated in his “House Divided” speech:

…A house divided against itself cannot stand.  I believe this government cannot permanently endure half slave and half free … It will become all one thing, or all the other.

Douglas responded that Lincoln actually predicted the following:

A war of sections, a war of North against the South, of the Free States against the Slave States – a war of extermination to be continued relentlessly until the one or the other shall be subdued and all States shall either become free or become slave.

Lincoln rejected Douglas’s claim and said:

There is no danger that the people of Kentucky will shoulder their muskets, and, with a young nigger stuck on every bayonet, march into Illinois and force them upon us.  There is no danger of our going over there and making war upon them.

With hindsight, we see that Lincoln’s remark was recklessly confident.

A different view of “Honest Abe”

Douglas experienced Lincoln as a shrewd debater when they competed for a U.S. Senate seat.  This experience enabled Douglas to say the following:

When I make a mistake, as an honest man I correct it without being asked to, but when he, Lincoln, makes a false charge, he sticks to it and never corrects it.

A fresh look

In The Eve of Conflict, we see Douglas step out the shadows as a living, breathing, witty politician.  By the end of the book, Douglas has become a statesman, and I share Milton’s admiration of Douglas.

I found the over-arching sense of story, the quotations, the insights, and the analysis to be very compelling.   I highly recommend this book.

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Thank you for reading my blog!  Please leave any questions and comments below.

Madison County mystery: Hard-scrabble farmer turns dedicated Confederate soldier

Many Americans named children Napoleon Bonaparte in homage to the great French general.  One of those children had a shadowy journey into the Confederate service.

Napoleon Bonaparte Morgan was a Virginia native who had nine brothers and sisters.  They moved to a farm in Madison County, Iowa, southwest of Des Moines, before the Civil War.

N.B. Morgan worked as a laborer on his father’s farm.  The Morgan family, like many Iowans, struggled financially in the lingering Panic of 1857.  N.B. Morgan had no land or possessions to his name.

Five months after Southerners fired upon Fort Sumter, 25-year-old N.B. Morgan fought for the Confederacy at the Battle of Lexington, Missouri.  He had enrolled in the 1st Missouri Infantry (later to become the 2nd Missouri Infantry).

It’s unclear why N.B. Morgan entered the Confederate service.  He may have simply needed a job.  Once he donned a gray uniform, N.B. Morgan climbed the ranks, being promoted 4th Sergeant by August 1862.

The next year, on May 16, 1863, he fought at the Battle of Champion Hill, at Baker’s Creek, Mississippi.  He “lost [a] thumb and two fingers” of his right hand, and Union troops captured him. He was immediately paroled, but he was exchanged four months later.  Back in his unit, Confederate doctors declared N.B. Morgan “unfit for field duty,” so he became a quartermaster.

The following year, 1864, N.B. Morgan was demoted to private and became a “wagon master.”

Unidentified teamster — note the bullwhip (Library of Congress)

On Oct. 5, 1864, N.B. Morgan was captured at Alatoona outside of Atlanta.  He ended up in Camp Chase prison, Ohio.  A month later, N.B. Morgan applied to take the oath of allegiance.  But the prison authorities held him until the war was over.

Apparently, N.B. Morgan steered clear of Madison County for a few years and lived in Warren County.  He ran a sawmill, and he still had no personal estate or real estate.

Twelve years after the war ended, in 1877, N.B. Morgan served as street commissioner for the brand-new town of St. Charles in Madison County.  Two years later, he ran a hotel in town.  Thereafter, he fades into obscurity.

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I want to credit Madison County historian Walt Libby with discovering Napoleon Bonaparte Morgan.

Thank you for reading my blog!  Please leave any questions and comments below.

When words broke bones: A review of The Civil War: A Book of Quotations

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” an ancient writer tells us.  In a sense, words inflamed the country and, in 1861, flared up into Civil War.

Like a good interviewer, Bob Blaisdell quotes many people in The Civil War:  A Book of Quotations.  The characters range from famous to common folk, and we encounter the intensity of those days through their eyes.

The quotations allow us to get at the personalities, the humanity, and the complexity of the whole affair.  Blaisdell aptly places the quotes within summaries of each stage of the war.

Changing opinions

Some characters had mistaken judgment, and others changed their minds.  For example, Robert Toombs advised Georgians (on December 24, 1860) that a vote for secession “will be your best guarantee for liberty, security, tranquility, and glory.”

Republican Senator William H. Seward said on January 12, 1861, before the war began, “I do not know what the Union would be worth if saved by the use of the sword.”   Seward and other Republicans drastically “changed their tune” after the first cannonballs smashed into Fort Sumter.

The nature of war

This book invites questions about the nature of the war.  For example, President Lincoln said, in the midst of a bloody campaign:

We accepted this war for an object, a worthy object, and the war will end when that object is attained.  Under God, I hope it never will until that time.

Three days later, on June 19, 1864, Mrs. Sarah Butler, wife of Union General Benjamin Butler, wrote her husband:

What is all this struggling and fighting for?  This ruin and death to thousands of families?  … What advancement of mankind to compensate for the present horrible calamities?

My recommendation

This book helped me look at the Civil War in a fresh way, and it stimulated my thinking.  I highly recommend The Civil War:  A Book of Quotations.  It has a little something for everyone.

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Thank you for reading my blog!

 

Gentlemen, Don’t do this: A Cautionary Valentine’s Day Tale

On their wedding day, Nancy and John Shipley had great hopes and dreams.  They married amidst the gloomy financial Panic of 1857.  Twenty-five-year-old John and 19-year-old Nancy thought the best was yet to come.

But hard times became harder.  Some men lost fortunes, others lost land.  A history of neighboring Scott County notes, “Work became very scarce.”

Heading to Memphis

John and Nancy headed to Memphis, Tennessee, a town that was fairly booming.  Companies were engaged in construction, and steamboat manufacturing, repair, and reconditioning.

And baby makes three

Nancy conceived and came back to Muscatine to deliver their son, William Everett Shipley, born in June 1860.  Nancy and the baby rejoined John in Memphis.  Nancy felt their marriage was “happy and contented.”

Unidentified family (Library of Congress}

Back to Muscatine

After Lincoln was elected president, South Carolina threatened to secede in mid-November 1860.  John sent Nancy and five-month-old William back to her parents’ home in Muscatine.  She supposed it was “because of the political troubles.”   Nancy’s parents supported her and the infant.

Missing her husband

Nancy missed her husband, so she returned to Memphis five months later, in April 1861, around the time of the firing upon Fort Sumter.  John immediately sent her back to Muscatine, saying she “might find it difficult to get back.”  A few weeks later, John enlisted in the Tennessee Infantry.  He stopped sending letters, and he didn’t send any child support.

What happened to Nancy and John?

Nancy’s father went to Confederate-held Tennessee, the following spring of 1862.  He saw John’s “manner and action” and thought “his affections were entirely alienated from his wife and child.”  His conclusion?  John was devoted to “the Southern confederacy.”

Mutual friends said that John had been promoted.  He was now a captain and Acting Commissary of Subsistence (who provided food to soldiers).  But he still didn’t send money to support Nancy and their son.  Of course, John was paid in Confederate dollars that Nancy couldn’t spend.

Unidentified Confederate soldier (Library of Congress)

Bad press

The Muscatine Journal reported that John was in the Confederate Army, and had been captured at Island Number 10.  (He wasn’t captured.)

The Journal also stated that the 11th Iowa Infantry lost half of their officers at Pittsburgh Landing.  Local passions burned against rebels and their families and supporters.

The marriage ends

The next year, on January 14, 1863, Nancy filed for divorce, claiming “desertion and abandonment of her and their child.”  Her lawyer said that John was serving “a nefarious cause.”

Nancy believed that John had sent her back to Muscatine in order to “free himself” from his responsibilities, and to aid the Confederacy.  She obtained a divorce on June 1, 1863, while John was in Shelbyville, Tennessee.  Nancy soon married another Muscatine man.

John’s motives are a mystery.  One descendant implied that John’s drinking was a factor in the divorce.

Captured!

Two years later, Robert E. Lee surrendered, and Jefferson Davis fled Richmond, heading for the Deep South.  In the manhunt that ensued, Union Brigadier General W.J. Palmer captured John near Athens, Georgia, on May 8, 1865.

Post-war career in Muscatine

After the war, John returned to Muscatine and worked as a bookkeeper and insurance salesman.  In 1893, he was elected to one term as Muscatine City Treasurer.

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Thank you for reading my blog!  This article was originally posted in early February 2016.  Please leave any comments below.

Huck Finn’s dilemma, Part Two: When conscience and Scripture seemed to collide

In Part One, Huck Finn and abolition-minded Christians agonized over slavery and the state of their own souls.  They were torn between heart/conscience and Bible verses that seemed to support slavery.

Troubled Christians were able to look back to Protestant Reformer Martin Luther for a way forward.

Martin Luther (by Lucas Cranach)

Test of conscience

Martin Luther’s life was at stake in 1521 during his trial for heresy and revolution.  Luther told the Holy Roman Emperor:

My conscience is captive to the Word of God … to go against conscience is neither right nor safe …[i]

Martin Luther

Luther later advised:

Treat a [Bible] passage like Moses did the rock in the desert, which he smote with his rod until water gushed out for his thirsty people.[ii]

Luther was determined to find the deeper truth – and a principle for living – in Scripture.  Fast-forward 330 years:  Abolition-minded Christians fervently hoped to find a Bible-based argument against American slavery.

The pro-slavery tradition of Bible interpretation

Seemingly, the deck was stacked in favor of pro-slavery Christians.  Many ministers quoted Old Testament verses about owning slaves, and they mentioned the first slave-owning patriarch, Abraham.

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ and his apostles never condemned slavery (although they had plenty of chances to do so).   Instead, the Apostle Paul wanted to send an escaped slave back to his master.

The verdict was clear, many ministers said:  Anyone who opened the Bible could read straightforward verses in favor of slavery.

A pro-abolition Bible argument

In contrast, some ministers, professors, and rabbis gave a sophisticated, nuanced Bible argument against American slavery.  These men admitted that the Old Testament gave approval for buying non-Hebrews as slaves, but never for selling them.

Historian Mark A. Noll explains:

This provision for servitude depended on the distinction in ancient Israel between the people of God and ‘the heathen.’[iii]

Capstone of the pro-abolition Bible argument

Tayler Lewis was a Dutch Reformed layman and professor of Greek and Oriental Studies at New York University and at Union College.  He explained that Jesus opened the door to salvation to everyone.  Therefore, there are no longer any “heathen” whom it is acceptable to enslave.

Dr. Tayler Lewis (Find a Grave)

Scholarship required

The Bible’s nuanced pro-abolition argument depended upon four different things:

  1. Patient reflection on the entire Bible, not simply “proof-texting” individual verses;
  2. An expert level of knowledge of slavery in the Ancient Near East and in the Roman Empires;
  3. Knowledge of conditions in the Slave States; and
  4. A sophisticated interpretive practice to replace a “common sense” approach to scripture.

Battle Royale

The pro-abolition argument lost the battle of public opinion for four main reasons:

  1. Biblical defenders of slavery lumped together nuanced arguments with arguments of radical abolitionists who attacked the authority of Scripture. Pro-slavery Christians said they were defending the Bible.
  2. Slave-owners benefited from the “peculiar institution.”
  3. Many Protestant denominations said that anyone could open the Bible to any page and understand what was on the page. According to this view, no one needed bishops or church hierarchies to interpret the Bible.
  4. Racism was widespread, North and South. If a person believed that whites were superior to blacks, it was very hard to accept a nuanced, sophisticated Bible-based abolition argument.

Foreign perspectives:  Corporate, not individual interpretation

Historian Noll explains that, outside of the United States, Bible interpretation respected the traditions of Christian communities more than an individual’s grasp of Scripture.  Bible interpretation in Europe and Canada had a context of history, tradition, and a respect for formal learning.

Many European Christian scholars, unburdened by racism, concluded that American slavery was unbiblical and sinful.[iv]

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I am indebted to Rev. David Brooks for a thought-provoking question.  I drew heavily from Mark A. Noll’s excellent book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.  I highly recommend that you read it.

[i] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand:  A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville:  1950), 144.

[ii] Heiko Augustinus Oberman, Luther:  Man Between God and the Devil (Berlin:  1982; English edition, New Haven:  1989), 224.

[iii] Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, North Carolina:  2006), 48.

[iv] Ibid., 40-41, 45, 48-50, 121.

Huck Finn’s dilemma: When conscience and Scripture seemed to collide, Part 1

Loyalty, love, and sin come to life in Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Set in the shadow of the Fugitive Slave Act, Huck Finn helps his friend, Jim, escape from slavery.

Late in their journey, Huck wants to be “saved” from his sins, but he remembers a preacher who said the Bible approved slavery.  Did Huck need to hand Jim over to a slave-catcher to be “right with God”?

Mark Twain (Library of Congress)

Huck talks with himself

Something inside me kept saying, “There was the Sunday school … they’d a learnt you, there, that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was, and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come … It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all.

I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie-and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie- I found that out …

At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter- and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather, right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing …

At last I struck the time I saved him … and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”- and tore it up.”[1]

Abolition-minded Christians shared Huck’s agony to some degree.  Their consciences and hearts said that slavery was sinful, but they couldn’t point to a simple Bible verse or passage to prove their point.  In contrast, Southern ministers thundered out Bible verses in support of slavery.

Fugitive Slave Act

Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, requiring all Americans to help return slaves to their masters.  Quaker Jesse Macy called the Fugitive Slave Act “one of the most barbarous pieces of legislation ever enacted by a civilized country.” [2]

Jesse Macy (Wikipedia)

Pro-abolition Christians remembered Bible verses such as “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (II Peter 2:13, King James Version).  How could they refuse to obey the Fugitive Slave Act and still be good Christians?

Two weeks from now, Part II

In Part Two, I will discuss why the pro-slavery tradition of Bible interpretation was so strong. I will also share a pro-abolition Bible argument from Scripture that was available in the 1850s.

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Thank you for reading my blog!

[1] Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York:  1884 and 1918), 294-297.

[2] Jesse Macy, The Anti-Slavery Crusade:  A Chronicle of the Gathering Storm (New York: 1919), 109.

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