Chasing Smallwood –11. A House Divided

[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.]

.11. A House Divided

(9:15) Wound up typing in that piece, which maybe made it clearer in my mind.

Well, I do go on, I know. But it is important that you see that one difference between you and us, or you can’t really understand what happened. I mean, you can’t really know what we were thinking, why we were feeling this or that – and that means you won’t understand one thing that happened. You know what happened – or you think you do – but you don’t know what any of it meant. It is true, you see things clearer in hindsight – but only if you also understand how they looked in – not foresight so much as present-sight.

You are living a hundred fifty years on. You are living in the result of what happened, and six generations or whatever it is of consequences. But we were living in it. I can help you to understand, as looking through your life helps me understand. Two views are better than one, always – though it is true, one-view men are better at acting quick. They aren’t slowed down, sorting it all out.

Now, like I said, I was living mostly with the Indians. You might say trading was my excuse for living free. I told you, their name for me, Sees Clear, or Understands, you might say, or more like Experiences the World the Way We Do, I suppose. Anyway, Sees Clear sounds best in white. And it ought to tell you where I stood. I liked the Indian ways better than the white ways I had to follow in Iowa. But I was a white man, not an Indian, and I wasn’t any pretend-Indian either. Maybe a white Indian the way you talk about it – Indian in the way I see things, white the way I understand and live things. I know that ain’t the way you’d put it.

Every time I had to go back to the city – and that was two, three, four times a year, depending – things were different. Every time, things were getting a little more stretched.

I blame the slave-holding class. They knew what they were doing, and they did it for their own interests and not one other reason in the world. What they called the Southern way of life meant – them on top, and damn few of them. It meant rich white men owning women they could do what they wanted with, and some of those women were practically white. It meant having a stranglehold on everything, and nobody to say you nay except once in a great while the federal government, or, more likely, a few northern legislators, loud but out-voted, just annoying, especially as they’d be just nobody if they were in your society.

You don’t have much idea how few men ran things in those states. They modeled their government on England’s, which they admired, where for a long time a few tens of thousands of people governed millions – and fewer than a thousand men governed those tens of thousands, and a couple of hundred ruled the thousand.

Freedom? The freedom I saw in the South was mostly a few rich families. And they were free the way the old Romans were free – only in the background presence of [fear of] a servile rebellion. They admired the Romans, too, by the way, not despite slavery but because of it – it was about the only thing they could compare themselves to that gave them any comfort. Of course, the Romans didn’t have a part of their empire saying get rid of slavery. And that’s what drove these aristocrats just crazy. Crazy. And you can see it. They wound up pulling their own house down by their craziness.

What it came to was just what Seward said and Mr. Lincoln said after him – a house divided against itself could not stand. But that wasn’t because the North was out to destroy the South, or that the South intended to destroy the Union. It was just oil and water, and the closer they were pushed, the clearer it got that they wouldn’t mix.

Now, you know the history but most of your readers don’t. (And why do you suppose you were so fascinated with the Civil War from the time you were a kid?) This ain’t the place to recount it. I’ll just put it this way. The Compromise of 1850 wasn’t a last chance to save the Union – it was what you would call a symptom of the fact that the Union was on its last legs. Like I say, the Mexican War put the old Union out of business in one stroke. It just took a while for it all to play out.

You see, we in the North were willing to let slavery be, even if we hated it, even if we thought it was going to call the judgement of God down upon us – which it did! – because we didn’t really know what to do about the negro problem. If slaves had been white, they never would have served a day after 1776. But since they weren’t, and since they were here now, what were we to do? What were we to tell the Southerners to do? The best we figured was, stop the slave trade, stop slavery from expanding into new territory, and maybe it would die off by itself and the problem would go away. I know that sort of hoped the negroes would go away, but maybe you in your time aren’t so clear-sighted about your problems, either.

Well, stopping the slave trade was easier said than done – and there was Virginia doing a brisk trade in breeding slaves and selling them west and south. The Mother of Presidents, and it was making a business and a spectator sport of breeding people like they was horses! But even that we could put up with, until it came to the question of expansion.

You see, it came down to this. Either the country had to be all free or it had to be all slave. There just wasn’t any other way. Well, it could have divided into two countries, one free and one slave, but we couldn’t let that happen without admitting that the people couldn’t govern themselves, and that any government founded in self-government instead of government by kings and aristocrats had to fail. Mr. Lincoln said that in a few words in the Gettysburg address – whether any nation so conceived and so dedicated shall long endure.

But if we had to be one country, in the long run it had to become all free or all slave. That was the logic of the thing.

I’ll give you an example, the U.S. mail. Well, I was going to talk about how the southern states took to impounding the mail and censoring it, but I see you’re tired and maybe this isn’t what you want. But if you don’t understand why the expansion of slavery was the thing that destroyed the old Union and put us into a civil war that led to as much evil as it corrected, maybe, then you can’t understand why men like me that weren’t especially political and weren’t particularly fond of what we saw around us felt we had to risk our lives to stop it. The alternative was too hideous to be borne.

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