Confederates from Iowa:

Not to Defend, but to Understand

Category: Slavery

Trained for war, but pursuing peace: Charles Mason, Jurist

If war is a continuation of politics by other means, as von Clausewitz suggests, Iowa Democrat Charles Mason saw both sides of the coin.[i]

Edging out Lee

Civil War buffs remember Cadet Charles Mason as besting Robert E. Lee in West Point’s Class of 1829.  Neither man had any demerits, but Mason earned slightly more points than Lee.

After West Point, Mason became a lawyer and then chief justice of the Iowa Territorial Court.  In 1839, he wrote the decision, “In the Matter of Ralph.”

Charles Mason (State Historical Society of Iowa)

Ground-breaking Iowa court decision

In this case, in 1834, Missouri slave-owner Mr. Montgomery gave his slave, Ralph, permission to buy his freedom for $550 by working in the Dubuque lead mines.  A few years later, Ralph hadn’t paid off his debt, so slave hunters arrested him.

A judge issued a writ of habeas corpus for Ralph.  The judge in 1839 persuaded the Iowa Territorial Supreme Court to hear Ralph’s case.

Ralph’s attorney argued that Ralph should be free, drawing upon American law, British law, Natural Law, and the Torah (Deuteronomy 22:15).

Chief Justice Charles Mason responded that slavery was illegal in Iowa based on the Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise (passed in 1820).

Mason explained that Ralph was free because “property, in the slave, cannot exist without the existence of slavery.”[ii]  Therefore, Ralph.’s former owner, Montgomery, illegally deprived “a human being of his liberty.”

Mason concluded:

It is proper that the laws, which should extend equal protection to men of all colors and conditions, should exert their remedial interposition.[iii]

Prophetic insight

Mason commented that this case involved “an important question which may ere long, if unsettled, become an exciting one.”  Over the next 22 years, tensions continued to rise over the expansion of slavery into the territories.

Charles Mason (Library of Congress)

Intervening years after Ralph

Mason became U.S. Commissioner of Patents in Washington, D.C., from 1853-1857.  He then returned to Burlington, Iowa, and served on the State Board of Education.[iv]

During this time, Mason’s beloved Iowa Democratic Party split into two embittered factions.  Republicans rose in strength, and Democrats became weaker and weaker.

Game-changer

When Confederate troops fired upon Fort Sumter in April 1861, Iowa Republicans flocked to enlist in the Union Army and Navy.  Many Democrats enlisted, too, men who supported using the sword to restore the Union.

Not long after Ft. Sumter, President Lincoln began suspending habeas corpus in the North.  This meant that federal authorities could arrest and imprison civilians, without any charges.  The civilians wouldn’t get a trial, and their civil liberties would be violated.

Many Democratic editors in Iowa complained about this, stating that only Congress could suspend habeas corpus.  Lincoln said he had authority to do it.  After all, he was commander-in-chief.

The former jurist analyzes secession

In summer 1861, there was an Iowa governor’s race, and Mason was the Democratic candidate.  As a conservative Democrat, Mason said the Union must be preserved, but he thought the war, at that time, was unwise and possibly illegal.

To examine Mason’s statement, it is helpful to remember President Lincoln’s first inaugural address.  Lincoln had said, “In contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union is perpetual.”[v]  According to this view, the Confederacy was made up of insurgents who lived in states that remained loyal to the Union.  Mason disagreed with this legal fiction.

Mason suggested that secession may represent “the uprising of a whole people against what they deem injustice and oppression.”  He also suggested it may be “the voice of one-third of the Sovereign parties to our present Constitution claiming the rights of securing the happiness of their citizens by changing the form of their Government in accordance, as they contend,” with the Declaration of Independence.

Mason agreed with Republicans that the Union must be restored.  But, he said, the federal government must first exhaust every possible means of compromise and conciliation.  Otherwise, the federal government was engaged in “naked, arbitrary, down-right coercion.”

Mason then predicted that “a republican government held together by the sword becomes a military Despotism.”[vi]

Republican newspapers and politicians called Mason a dis-unionist.  He felt great pressure and dropped out of the race.  A Republican became governor.

War-time activities

Mason advocated for peace, writing letters to editors and advising like-minded Democrats.  Late in the war, Mason returned to Washington, D.C., to practice patent law.[vii]

Prominent Iowa Democrats seemingly trusted Mason’s political insights.  A few of them who had Confederate sons asked Mason to intervene with federal authorities when those sons were captured by Union troops.

During the war, Mason read about his fellow West Point Cadet, Robert E. Lee.  Mason wrote in his diary:

General Lee is winning great renown as a great captain. Some of the English writers place him next to Napoleon and Wellington. I once excelled him and might have been his equal yet perhaps if I had remained in the army as he did.

Robert E. Lee (Library of Congress)

Final thoughts

Iowa Peace Democrats, also known as Copperheads, were soundly defeated during the war.  Sometime after Appomattox, Mason wrote in his diary, “I played the game of life at a great crisis and lost. I must be satisfied.”[viii]

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

[i] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ:  1984), 87.

[ii] Eastin Morris, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Iowa, Vol. I (Iowa City:  1847), 1-7.

[iii] Henry K. Peterson, “The First Decision Rendered by the Supreme Court of Iowa,” The Annals of Iowa 34 (1958), 304-307.

[iv] Richard Acton, “Charles Mason,” The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, http://uipress.lib.uiowa.edu/bdi/DetailsPage.aspx?id=253

[v] Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address,” in editor Andrew Delbanco, The Portable Abraham Lincoln (New York: 1992), 197.

[vi] “Judge Mason, acceptance of the nomination for governor of Iowa,” Dubuque Daily Herald, 8/11/1861.

[vii] Richard Acton, “Charles Mason,” The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, http://uipress.lib.uiowa.edu/bdi/DetailsPage.aspx?id=253

[viii] Charles Mason, Charles Mason Remey, The Life and Letters of Charles Mason:  Chief Justice of Iowa, 1804-1882 (Washington, D.C.:  1939).

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.

“Black Hawk” bond: The intertwined lives of an Iowa legislator and his “servant”

The Union defeat at Bull Run shocked many Iowans.  In contrast, Iowa State Legislator James H. Williams had “the biggest drink of brandy” to mark “the glorious [Confederate] victory.”

Two days later, James returned to his native Virginia, leaving behind a successful law practice in Dubuque and a future in the Iowa Democratic Party.  He returned to his slave-owning family in Woodstock in the Shenandoah Valley.[1]

James H Williams 1869 cropped from Phil Williams

James H. Williams

Four months later, on November 27, 1861, James became a recruiter for Chew’s Battery, 7th Virginia Cavalry.  To celebrate, his father gave James a body servant named John Jackson.[2]

“Black Hawk”

James became an artillery lieutenant, and he ate meals with a mess of other men.  Body servant John Jackson, nicknamed “Black Hawk,” fixed their meals.

Chaplain James Battle Avirett visited James’s mess on occasion.   Forty years later, Rev. Avirett discussed John Jackson in a letter to Confederate Veteran:

The old cook of the mess, commonly called ‘Black Hawk,’ was the faithful depositary of the officers’ watches and money when the fight was on.  Highly respected and as trustworthy as he was during that fearful struggle, ‘Black Hawk’ still ministers as a trusted servant in the family of the late Gen. James H. Williams of Woodstock, Va.[3]

John Jackson remembers:  Two opportunities for freedom

Seven years later, in 1912, John Jackson, using the nickname “Black Hawk,” wrote the following to Confederate Veteran:

I thank you for putting my picture in your magazine. I am proud of my war record.  I was given when a young man by my old master, Samuel C. Williams, who was a member of the Virginia Secession Convention, to his oldest son, who was then Lieut. James H. Williams, of Chew’s Battery, and I stood by him and his brothers until the close of the war.

I was taken prisoner twice, captured once with the watches and money of our boys and others of the Williams mess upon my person, given into my care when the battle began.  I escaped and returned with watches and money all safe …

The picture you published was taken while Dr. Averitt was on a visit to Mrs. James H. Williams at Woodstock, Va.  I was not Dr. Averitt’s camp servant, nor was he ever a member of the Williams mess … Rev. Dr. Averitt was often our guest.

Like the rest of the veterans, I am growing old; but I am with my people in Woodstock, where I was born.[4]

Rev. Averitt (seated) and John Jackson ("Black Hawk") standing

Mystery

I haven’t found any documentation of why John Jackson continued to work for James H. Williams after the war ended.  There is always a certain amount of mystery involving relationships of the past.

Perhaps John Jackson evaluated his experience, training, and job opportunities in the war-ravaged Shenandoah Valley.  If James treated his former body servant with respect and kindness, perhaps John Jackson decided his best option was to stay put.  One thing is certain:  Their story reflects the complexity of their intertwined American lives.[5]

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[1] James H. Williams diary entry, 7/22/1861, James Harrison Williams Diaries, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library; 1860 Census, Schedule 2, Slave Inhabitants in Woodstock, Shenandoah County, Virginia, pg. 5, 7/10/1860, Samuel C. Williams (James H. Williams’s father).

[2] “John Jackson Dead,” Shenandoah Herald, 3/12/1920.

[3] James B. Averitt, letter to editor of Confederate Veteran (Nashville, 1905), Vol. XIII, 7/17/1905.

[4] “Black Hawk,” Confederate Veteran (Nashville, 1912), Vol. 20, 410.

[5] Marc Wortman, “Why was Robert Webster, a slave, wearing what looks like a Confederate uniform?”, October 2014, Smithsonian Magazine, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/why-was-robert-webster-slave-wearing-what-looks-confederate-uniform-180952781/ , viewed 7/24/2016.

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Thanks for reading my blog!  Please leave any comments below.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Good books about early Iowa, the Underground Railroad, and the Civil War

I am a fan of well-documented books with solid reasoning.  I recommend the following books about early Iowa history, the Underground Rail Road, slavery, causes of the Civil War, reasons for enlisting, and the U.S. Constitution:

Early Iowa History

Bright radical star cover from AMAZONRobert R. Dykstra, Bright Radical Star:  Black Freedom and White Supremacy on the Hawkeye Frontier (Cambridge, 1993).  This detailed, thoughtful book covers from 1833 (when Iowa Territory was officially open to settlement) to 1880.

Morton M. Rosenberg, Iowa on the Eve of the Civil War:  A Decade of Frontier Politics (Norman, 1972).  Rosenberg discusses 1850s Iowa demographics and politics.

Chandler C. Childs and Robert F. Klein, ed., Dubuque:  Frontier River City (Dubuque, 1984).  This book aptly covers Dubuque’s early history, stretching from 1830 (territorial days) through 1857.  It reminds me that Dubuque Democrats of this period called their city “The Gibraltar of the Iowa Democracy.”

Iowa Underground Railroad

Necessary Courage SoikeLowell J. Soike, Necessary Courage:  Iowa’s Underground Railroad in the Struggle Against Slavery (Iowa City, 2013).  This is a good introduction to the Iowa Underground Railroad.  Soike is a veteran UGRR researcher and former director of the Iowa Freedom Trail project.

Bill Silag, Susan Koch-Bridgford, and Hal Chase, eds. Outside In:  African-American History in Iowa, 1838-2000 (Des Moines, 2001).  I especially appreciated chapters two through four, covering Iowa Territorial Census figures, the Underground Rail Road (written by scholar G. Galen Berrier), and African-American legal history, starting with the Iowa Territory.

Slavery

Civil War as a Theological CrisisMark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, 2006).  Noll does an excellent job of presenting the biblical texts quoted by abolition-minded ministers, and passages quoted by pro-slavery ministers.  I found the most compelling abolition argument (derived from Scripture) to be more nuanced than the proof-texts cited in support of slavery.  In open debate, crowds in the 1840s and 1850s seemingly had little patience for nuanced arguments.

Eugene D. Genovese, A Consuming Fire:  The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (Athens, 2009, original ed. 1998).  Genovese offers compelling and reasoned insights into Southern perspectives on slavery.

Causes of the Civil War

The impending crisis AMerica before the Civil WarDavid M. Potter, The Impending Crisis:  America before the Civil War, 1848 – 1861 (New York, 2011, original ed. 1976).  As a boy, I enjoyed Bruce Catton’s Civil War trilogy.  As an adult, I appreciate Potter’s profound insights and compelling logic regarding the causes of the war.

Donald E. Reynolds, Editors Make War:  Southern Newspapers in the Secession Crisis (Carbondale, 2006).  Reynolds creates a picture of the changing political face of the South as it headed toward Fort Sumter.  Editors Make War is a well-written combination of quotations and analysis.

Reasons for Enlisting

James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades:  Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford, 1997).  This thoughtful book draws upon the correspondence of many Union and Confederate soldiers.  McPhersons examines reasons why men enlisted and why they continued fighting at different stages of the war.

U.S. Constitution / Civil Liberties

Constitutional problems under lincolnJames G. Randall, Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln (New York, 1926).  This thought-provoking book is rich in detail.  It covers a host of topics, ranging from the legal nature of the Civil War to habeas corpus, illegal arrests, martial law, and more.  It was interesting to see how President Abraham Lincoln framed the argument over secession in such a way that readers would conclude that secession was an illegal revolution.

Mark E. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty:  Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York, 1991).  Neely records how the Lincoln administration dealt with civil liberties, often trampling on them for various reasons.  He charts how the president quickly responded to new situations, beginning in the earliest days of the war.  Overall, Neely justifies the actions of Lincoln and his administration.  I highly recommend this richly detailed book.

Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press (New York, 1951).  I was interested to read about the opposition press in the North during the Civil War.  Harper paints a picture of the Federal government suppressing many newspapers.  A number of newspapers were barred from the mails, editors were arrested, and in some cases, Union soldiers destroyed printing presses.

What about you?

Have you read any books on these topics that are well-documented and have compelling arguments?  Please leave a comment!

Next Week

Next week, I plan to recommend more books related to the Civil War.  Topics will include Copperheads, Civil War medicine, foreigners in the Confederacy, the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy, and Confederate national identity.

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