Chasing Smallwood –10. A Changed Country

[Wednesdays, I am posting pieces of Chasing Smallwood, an early book now out of print. This is a book about four interconnected themes:

  • how to communicate with the dead;
  • the life of a 19th-century American;
  • the massive task facing us today, and

the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]

.10. A Changed Country

[December 23, 2005] My friend, this sequence has been a great happiness to me, even in the midst of my usual angst. As you well know, I woke up with questions and – suggestions from you? We have interested others in your story, so, I’m ready if you are.

The closest I came to interacting with greatness was in talking Indian to young John Muir. The closest I got to being in the presence of transcendent greatness was listening to Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t know him – never even got to shake his hand – but he influenced my life in a way you will recognize.

I spent the 1850s mostly among the Indians, as best I could. The more I was among the white men, the less easy I felt – and mostly all during that time I felt like I was losing my country, just as you do now, and for more or less the same reason.

There was this machine and it was bearing down on all of us, and we didn’t seem to have anybody able to get us out of its way, or rather, to seize the machine and destroy it. As it turned out, the only way to destroy the machine was to build up another one and set them against each other – and then we had to learn to live with the one we’d built. But what else could we do? As it was, we were lucky to get even that much. Let me try to explain it as I lived it. It will explain a couple of things about Henry that you haven’t quite put in the right focus, too.

I told you, I came home to a different country. The Mexican War stirred everything up. If ever there was divine retribution for an act of aggression, it came from the Mexican War. Stealing that land from Mexico caused the Civil War; no two ways about it. We might have had the war anyway, though I doubt it, and we might have avoided it anyway [even after the Mexican War, I think he means], and I really doubt that – but Mexico sealed it.

Well, I’ve said several times now that I came home to a changed country. I mean by that, that the people were different. There were things moving inside people that hadn’t been moving before, or if they were there earlier they certainly weren’t obvious. People began seeing things different, and seeing is what makes the world people live in, ain’t it? Before there was more what you would call live-and-let-live. People were busy with their own lives, and politics was just one part of it, and not particularly an important part. If you was in a free state or a slave state, all right, but mostly you was in a United State, if you get what I mean. We was raised to think we were in a special place, doing a special thing. We the people were governing ourselves, and if the Kings in Europe didn’t like it, too bad. It was just a matter of time until we got rid of all of ’em. I don’t mean we would do it, of course. I just mean when the people saw it could be done, sooner or later they’d get a clear chance and they’d do it. We knew there weren’t going to be any new kings set up!

Slavery made us kind of uneasy, but it’s the kind of thing you’re stuck with and can’t figure out what to do about, and so we figured we’d let time sort it out. There weren’t a lot of abolitionists early on. For one thing we didn’t have television to put it in our faces every day. For another, there was the skin color and the fact they were from Africa, not Europe. That don’t seem as big to you as it did to us, and so you can’t understand us. You are at the end of the long process of absorbing differences and expanding your ideas of who you are. (I don’t mean the process is over, I mean it’s been going on for a long time.) We were at the beginning. It was a stretch for English Protestant America to learn to accept the Irish Catholics. The Louisiana Catholics would have been a problem if they hadn’t been all in one pocket, so to speak, but they were enough of a worry, speaking French! And Catholic too. How were they going to be made into good Americans? And in the 1840s we had this tide of new kinds of foreigners, some Catholic some not, but they didn’t speak English, they didn’t know English law, they had their own customs, they set up newspapers in their own language – here in America – that we couldn’t read. It was a lot to adjust to. We sort of had the idea that they would come over, learn about self-government and living free, and turn themselves into Americans. Well, mostly they did – but it hadn’t occurred to us that there would be all these differences in our face.

And then the negroes.

You don’t quite understand us on this.

The negroes were more difference than we were up to facing. Their skin color, their smell, their languages, their ways, all of it was so different! And of course they were slaves, so in the back of everybody’s mind was – what if they got a chance to turn the tables?

By the way, if it hasn’t occurred to you, the barriers between us and the Indians were the same things exactly, except the Indians weren’t helpless. But there it was: the color, the smell, the languages, their ways, and even their ideas of religion. And the Indians had a thing or two to revenge too, if they ever got the chance.

Now, I don’t say all this was in the front of our minds. It wasn’t. But it was there and if you don’t understand it, you don’t understand us. We couldn’t imagine different races living together on terms of equality. We didn’t see any examples of it anywhere around us or in history. Or if we did, we thought of it like Spain, as being one more reason why they didn’t amount to much next to us.

So even us abolitionists were not against slavery because we thought we could work out something where everybody would live together. We didn’t know what should happen, any more than Thomas Jefferson did. All we knew was that it was wrong and it ought to be stopped even if it couldn’t be ended. Stopped from spreading, I mean. And that’s how the Mexican War opened everything up.

I need a little break here. You did make clear something I hadn’t ever figured out or thought much about – why the abolitionists sort of fell down on the job after abolition. But I need a break. Coffee time, for one. And I’ll have a fast look at my email.

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