Guns, Tyrants, and the Caning of Charles Sumner

January 16, 2011

Since early November, I’ve been too busy writing science books and celebrating holidays and birthdays with my family to allow myself time with my 19th-century friends. Today, the confluence of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Sumner (January 6), and the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, has inspired me to make a brief stop back at my blog.

I am continually amazed by the acceptance in this country of widespread ownership of automatic weapons—weapons designed with only one purpose: to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Is this love affair with violence peculiarly American? Probably not. But the dangerous and unwarranted interpretation of the Second Amendment to mean that all people except young children, convicted criminals, or people diagnosed as insane have a right to own all the weapons and ammunition they desire, and furthermore, that the government may not have any kind of database devoted to tracing said weapons, makes our country particularly susceptible to mass shootings. Sadly, this interpretation of the Constitution has been pressed so vigorously upon us by the National Rifle Association (ever since the specter of laws restricting or monitoring gun ownership was raised in the 1970s in the wake of three particularly wrenching public assassinations) that most people think there is simply no way out—no way our nation will ever pass sensible gun laws.

The destructiveness of our weapons is something new, but, of course, the urge to use them is not. Charles Sumner is a case in point—he was pummeled nearly to death by the cane of a political opponent. Sumner was elected Senator from Massachusetts after Daniel Webster became Secretary of State under Millard Fillmore. Webster, who had been a revered statesman in Massachusetts, had fallen from grace; he was widely reviled for his part in supporting the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850. Suddenly, enough people in Massachusetts embraced the anti-slavery movement to elect Sumner, an abolitionist, to the Senate. Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina took extreme umbrage at a two-day speech Sumner delivered in 1856 on “The Crime against Kansas” and took matters into his own hands. As Sumner was quietly working at his desk in the Senate chamber, Brooks sneaked in and beat him unconscious. Was Brooks ever punished for this act? Not at all! His constituents and other pro-slavery Southerners were delighted. They sent him fancy cane handles. They re-elected him. Congress never took action to censure him.

A few years later when John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln with the cry “Sic semper tyrannis!” he was acting in that same tradition. The “tyrant” had outlawed the right of Southerners to buy and sell, rape and exploit, control and destroy the lives of other people. In the process, he had deprived them of their “property.” Ah yes, the sacred right of property—shouldn’t that trump another person’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Many people of the South believed it should. And, alas, we have many people today who still believe that any elected official who fails to support their personal desires is a “tyrant.” A few of them go so far as to believe that killing people in government who say or do things that seem wrong-headed is a noble act.

Published in: on January 16, 2011 at 8:28 AM  Leave a Comment  

Birthday Thoughts for Louisa and Bronson Alcott

Today is the birthday of Bronson Alcott and his second daughter Louisa. I’ve been thinking about the Fruitlands experiment lately, and its sharp contrast with Brook Farm. Brook Farm, founded in 1841 in West Roxbury, was conceived as a new way for people to live together—a way to optimize each person’s potential for growth, a way to live with more joy. They practiced a kind of radical equality, attempting to bring labor and intellectual life into balance, departing from a traditional male/female division of labor, and placing a strong value on social relationships, conversation, entertainment, and fun.

Fruitlands was something altogether different. It was conceived as a kind of retreat from society, a place where people could live out their personal principles, striving for spiritual perfection with minimal interference from the world. The founders’ principles were extreme. “The entrance to paradise is still through the strait and narrow gate of self-denial,” Alcott wrote.  “Eden’s avenue is yet guarded by the fiery-sworded cherubim, and humility and charity are the credentials for admission.”

Charles Lane, Alcott’s partner in establishing the Fruitlands “consociate” community, advocated a strict policy of abstinence.  “Neither coffee, tea, molasses, nor rice tempts us beyond the bounds of indigenous production. No animal substances neither flesh, butter, cheese, eggs, nor milk pollute our tables, nor corrupt our bodies.”

By living on a simple diet, Alcott and Lane hoped to eliminate the need for trade. They did not believe in commerce, and they also supposed that a simple, austere diet (which, as far as I can tell, seems to have consisted mainly of apples and water) would minimize labor. Today’s PETA supporters would surely admire their desire not to harm or exploit animals in any way, but their hope of raising enough food for the community to live on without the use of animals for pulling plows and without using any animal products—not even manure for the fields—was clearly unrealistic. (Eventually, they did use an ox and a cow to help with the field work.) Another of Alcott’s ideals contributed to the community’s lack of food: He forbade the planting of such vegetables and roots as grow downward instead of upward into the air. There would be no root cellar stocked with potatoes, turnips, and carrots to provide for his hungry family. And he would not permit even canker-worms to be disturbed. The experiment, begun in 1843 when Louisa was ten, lasted less than one year.

Louisa was brought up on self-denial, but she longed for a life of plenty. On November 29, 1836, she celebrated her fourth birthday by passing out little plum cakes to the children at her father’s Temple School. It soon became clear that there were not quite enough cakes. If she gave the last one away, there would be none for her. Though little Louisa  felt she deserved it as the birthday girl, her mother made her daughter’s duty clear: “It is always better to give away than to keep the nice things; so I know my Louy will not let the little friend go without.”  Reluctantly, Louy surrendered the “dear plummy cake.”

To the end of her days, Louisa May Alcott strove to have enough to give away, and enough left for herself, too. The struggle was long and hard, but in this, she ultimately succeeded.

Happy birthday to dear hard-working Louisa May, and to her father Bronson, impractical idealist par excellence!

Published in: on November 29, 2010 at 7:50 AM  Leave a Comment  

Communications–Then and Now

I haven’t posted in a while partly due to a computer failure. I was quite astonished to realize the extent to which my computer—on the fritz, possibly never to be fixed—seemed to be my sole vital link to friends, family, and work. Very upsetting to realize all that might be lost! After a couple of false starts with my local computer repair place, the “geniuses” at the Apple store were (thankfully!) able to transfer the data to a new computer, though the old laptop was indeed dead—it could no longer “boot.”

This got me thinking about communications in general and the preservation of information. In the Special Collections at the Concord Free Public Library last Saturday, I was seated across from a young woman who was doing research on May Alcott’s European travels and was going through a file of old letters. As she transcribed from handwritten letters onto her computer, I asked whether the letter she was holding was written by May. “No,” she said, “Louisa wrote this one.” I happened to be reading Harriet Reisen’s biography of Louisa May Alcott just then, and felt a thrill at the sight of an actual letter LMA herself had written to her sister. The quality, size, and texture of the stationery, the color of the ink, the character of the handwriting itself—all these things were so evocative, so much a part of the experience of sending and receiving letters the old-fashioned way. What will the historians of the future have to work with, I wonder—and how much will be lost by the absence of letters as physical objects? For historians, the glorious physical artifacts of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries may prove to be the apex of preserved communications—though lacking in the audio and visual richness of the current era. (more…)

Published in: on November 20, 2010 at 11:06 AM  Leave a Comment  

Lucy Stone Is Dead!

On this date in 1893, news of Lucy Stone’s death flashed along the telegraph wires. The next day, newspapers around the globe carried the news. The Washington Post printed a five-paragraph piece about her life on the front page. Journalists predicted that history would “hail her as immortal.” On the day of the funeral, October 21, people began gathering outside the Church of the Disciples (founded by James Freeman Clarke) early in the morning even though the service would not begin until 2 PM. The church could hold only one thousand people, and everyone knew that many more would want to come. (more…)

Julia Ward Howe Died 100 Years Ago Today

Julia Ward Howe was remarkably alert  and engaged in life right up until her dying day. About a month before her death, according to her daughters, she was reading Theodore Parker’s sermon on “Wisdom and Intellect.” By this time, Parker, who died in 1860, had been gone fifty years! But he had been a great inspiration and mentor to her in the early days of her marriage, and his thoughts still held much power for her. She decided that “a little familiar book of daily inspiration and aspiration” might be made from his writings, and she wrote to Francis J. Garrison, the son of the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, suggesting this. She continued reciting to herself the odes of Horace (lyric poems in Latin), a practice she had continued throughout her life. She had memorized many of the odes and continued to memorize a new one even now. In late September, she was writing about religion for “one of the women’s papers,” and she was still enjoying music and playing the piano for friends. On October 5, she made the journey to Northampton to receive an honorary degree from Smith College. It was there that she heard her famous “Battle Hymn of the Republic” performed for the last time. She soon fell ill with bronchitis, then pneumonia, and on the morning of October 17, 1910, she breathed her last.

Published in: on October 17, 2010 at 6:39 PM  Comments (2)  

Lucy Stone Birthplace

When I was writing Stirring the Nation’s Heart, I was particularly amused by the story of the evening when Henry (Harry) Blackwell proposed to Lucy Stone.  On June 9, 1853, Blackwell’s sister Emily wrote in her journal, “Harry is wandering through Massachusetts searching for Lucy Stone.” When he finally found his way to the Stone family farmhouse on Coy’s Hill, he found Lucy in a Bloomer costume, standing on a table, whitewashing the ceiling.  He introduced himself as the brother of Elizabeth Blackwell, who in 1849 had been the first woman in America to earn a medical degree. Lucy admired Elizabeth Blackwell. She invited Harry to stay to supper and after supper took him up the hill to enjoy the view. Though Harry had only just met her, that was when and where he first proposed marriage.

Last week Jon and I went out to West Brookfield, Massachusetts, to find the site of the farmhouse. We got directions from a librarian in West Brookfield’s charming little public library and headed out west of town to  Coy’s Hill. I was very hopeful about what I might see there, though I already knew the house was no longer standing. Here is what is left of the house.




Near the road is a stone marker.



And an informational sign board.

But if you climb Coy’s Hill today, there is no view to admire. Just a tangle of trees, rocks, and dense undergrowth—along with various old sofas, rusted lawn furniture, and other unwanted household items that people have dumped there over the years. Back in Lucy’s day, the hills were cleared for pastures, orchards and farmland. From Coy’s Hill, she could see fourteen villages in the surrounding hills and valleys. Some of those villages are most likely submerged under the nearby Quabbin Reservoir now. Lucy and her sisters liked to climb the hill to watch the sunset. I had hoped we might at least get a glimpse of the neighboring hills—maybe even Quabbin–but no luck. Nor did we  find Coy’s Brook, which “bubbled along the edge of the property” in Lucy’s day according to biographer Andrea Moore Kerr.

It was a little sad to see the place so altered, but nonetheless a beautiful time of year to travel to central Massachusetts. And it satisfied my curiosity about what West Brookfield is like today. I only wish the visit might have done more to help me truly understand and visualize what the place was like in the 1800s.

Published in: on October 16, 2010 at 9:58 PM  Leave a Comment  

The Well-Furnished Mind

I heard a quote on the radio attributed to Frank McCourt, the gist of which was “if you want to make up your mind, you first need to furnish it.”

One of the intriguing things about Theodore Parker was how well furnished his mind was. He was a voracious reader, and preferred to read everything in the original. Before he arrived at Harvard he could read Latin, ancient Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and German. In 1834, he decided to teach himself how to read a language a month. He worked on Arabic, Swedish and Danish, Persian, modern Greek, Anglo-Saxon, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Chaldic, Coptic, and “Icelandish.” For the most part, he had a reading knowledge only, and had little ability to speak other languages–not surprising since he was almost entirely self-taught. Pretty impressive, nonetheless!

Parker began collecting books from the time he first had a bit of money to spend as a youth and continued through the rest of his life. One of his friends, Christopher Cranch, drew a cartoon of Parker in Europe eagerly racing into a bookshop to seize upon the latest scholarly tomes with a manic gleam in his eye. Surely there was some truth to this depiction, since Parker collected a library of 13,000 volumes, all of which he was reputed to have read, by the time he died (in his late forties). I haven’t done the math, but that doesn’t seem quite possible, especially since he also made ample use of libraries and wrote enormous numbers of discourses, reviews, letters, etc., himself. But whether he could have read all 13,000 is irrelevant to the point here–his well-furnished mind. One reason a heretic like Parker had so much persuasive power was because his ideas were so well founded and so well thought out. No taking the well-worn path! He was committed to free inquiry and freedom of conscience. He had another formidable strength as well. He was committed to speaking to everyone, not just those who understood and enjoyed scholarly exchanges. He applied his theological and philosophical studies to real life in the here and now; he made it interesting and compelling to a wide range of readers and listeners. A remarkable achievement!

Published in: on August 28, 2010 at 11:08 AM  Leave a Comment  

Women Get the Right to Vote

On this date in 1920, the 19th amendment was certified, and women had the right to vote at last. The struggle had been a long one, and the women profiled in my book figured prominently in it. But some of the men were important to the struggle, too, notably Theodore Parker.

“I have preached against oppression in every form: the tyranny of man over woman; of popular opinion over the individual reason, conscience, and soul. I have preached against the tyranny of public law when the law was wicked.”

Parker inspired and aided many strong women as they struggled to claim their individuality in the face of the kind of cultural oppression they faced–an oppression similar to what we see in much of the Muslim world today. When the young Julia Ward Howe was struggling in her new marriage to a man who insisted she give up her intellectual aspirations and her poetry writing, she had the good fortune of becoming friends with Parker and his wife while the two couples were in Rome in 1844. Theodore Parker assured her that pursuing her own intellectual and literary calling could not be wrong. Louisa May Alcott, who attended his services in the 1850s, when she was just setting out as a young working woman, found encouragement in his support for women, and found his prayers to “Our Father and our Mother God” “inexpressibly sweet and beautiful.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton was living in Boston when she was twenty-five years old, a young wife and mother. A friend who knew she was in a “transition stage of thought” on religious matters took her to a series of discourses on religion by Parker. She found him the most impressive speaker she had ever heard and went to hear the entire series of “sermons” again when he delivered them in Charlestown.

Whenever there is a serious imbalance of power in society, it takes the support of independent and compassionate people from the side where power resides, as well as the determination and hard work of the disempowered, to make change. The first minister known to have spoken out publicly for the rights of women was Samuel J. May (the older brother of Abigail May Alcott, who was the mother of Louisa May). Like Parker, Sam May was also in the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery. I imagine, like Parker, he too continued to harbor some of the prejudices of his time and place in history. How could he not? We all are limited by our own upbringing and cultural milieu. But advancement depends on people like Parker and May who can rise above their prejudices to stand tall on the side of  justice. Thank goodness they have continued to appear throughout history,

Happy 200th, Theodore Parker!

Today marks the 200th anniversary of Theodore Parker’s birth. On Sunday, I planned a service at First Parish in Concord to celebrate the life and legacy of this major figure in the history of Unitarianism–a very small remembrance, especially when compared with the attention and excitement surrounding Margaret Fuller’s bicentennial in May–though we did sport memorial nametags, courtesy of my friend Victor Curran, and enjoyed a lovely bicentennial birthday cake at coffee hour.Boiling Parker’s life and legacy down to a small sermon was an interesting exercise. Fortunately, I had a lot of practice after writing the stories for Stirring the Nation’s Heart at about the same length. The opening words, readings, and prayer allowed me to introduce other material, just as my introductions and quotation sections in the book allowed me to expand each small story into a bigger picture–so in the end, though I had never written a sermon before nor planned a church service, it was a remarkably familiar process, and a  joyful event.

I’ve recently read Dean Grodzins’ massive (and excellent) biography, American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism which covers Parker’s life up until the time he left his small Unitarian church in rural West Roxbury and began preaching at the Melodeon Theater in Boston. The biography ends just as his major work for social justice–especially for the abolition of slavery–begins.

It took me a very long time to read that book: 500 pages, each jam-packed with information. In the middle of things, I took a break and read Henry Steele Commager’s breezy 1936 biography of Parker–a gossipy, chatty sort of book, with no particular attention paid to factual accuracy. Such different approaches!

As a tribute to Parker, I’ll put in a couple more posts this week, touching on a few of the many things I had to leave out of both sermon and book.

Published in: on August 24, 2010 at 7:48 AM  Leave a Comment  

Lucy Stone’s Birthday

Today is Lucy Stone’s birthday. She was born early on August 13, 1818. It is said that when her mother discovered she had given birth to a girl, she exclaimed, “Oh, dear! I am sorry it is a girl. A woman’s lot is so hard.” Fortunately for us, that little girl was destined to make “woman’s lot” a lot better for future generations.

I’ve been thinking about traveling out to West Brookfield to see the site of the Stone family farmhouse. I had hoped to see the farmhouse itself, but, alas, discovered that it has burned down. I’ll see only a plaque and an informational signboard if I go–but perhaps I can at least hike up Coy’s Hill and get an idea of the view that Lucy Stone and Harry Blackwell went up to see after supper that evening in 1853 when he first proposed–and was rejected. It took him several years to erode Lucy’s stone-hard (and principled) resistance to marriage. She felt honor-bound never to submit to marriage as long as the laws remained outrageously unjust to women. When she finally married Blackwell at 7 AM on May 1, 1855, in that same farmhouse on Coy’s Hill,  the ceremony began with the reading of a protest they both had signed.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson (best know these days as the man who corresponded with and eventually published the poems of Emily Dickinson) conducted the ceremony. The marriage made big news throughout the country because of Lucy’s fame as the country’s leading women’s rights spokesperson. The protest stirred great interest. It was the first time many women and girls actually read a point-by-point recital of the laws that made wives the property and legal chattels of their husbands. At that time in America, a woman resigned her legal existence entirely when she married. Though some opponents of women’s rights crowed with delight that Lucy Stone had married at last, she probably turned more women into protesters when she and Blackwell publicly spelled out their reasons for refusing to abide by the marriage laws as they then existed than she ever had by refusing to marry altogether.

Published in: on August 13, 2010 at 9:31 PM  Leave a Comment