America’s Long Journey: The Mormon emigration

Everybody knows that the Mormons are centered in Utah. Few know how they got there, or why. It wasn’t in order to establish the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The Mormons entered history in 1830, in upstate New York, when a man named Joseph Smith published The Book of Mormon and founded the Church of Christ. The little church attracted converts, and Smith sent out missionaries. As it grew, Smith moved it westward, relocating first in Ohio, then in Missouri. But soon Mormons and their neighbors were feuding, and in the fall of 1838, the church – now numbering some 8,000 – was forced to leave Missouri and relocate in Illinois, where they promptly began to build the city of Nauvoo. The church grew rapidly, fueled in part by immigration from Europe. But again, within a few years, there was trouble with their neighbors. In 1844, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob.

Brigham Young, who had been a close associate of Smith’s, and who was senior apostle of the Quorum of the Twelve, assumed the leadership of what was now called the Latter Day Saints, and decided to move west yet again, in an attempt to get beyond the reach of further persecution. He led them first to Nebraska, then, in 1847, to the vicinity of the Great Salt Lake, which he named Deseret, and which we know as Utah.

It was a meticulously planned operation. Young’s group was small and fast-moving, selected from among those in the temporary settlements they had constructed in Nebraska and Iowa. When he had selected their new site, he sent another 2,000, bidding them to do the work needed to support the thousands yet to come. So, they established farms, grew crops, and in general established preliminary settlements.

And then the Mormon community began to gather from all ends of the earth. Beginning in 1848, trains of emigrants followed the California Trail and the Oregon Trail to Fort Bridger in Wyoming, then took the trail to the Great Salt Lake. The Mormons organized a complete evacuation from their previous homes, leaving no one behind. By 1860, more than 43,000 Mormons had traveled this route.

The Westerns that portray wagon train emigrations never show people pulling or pushing handcarts, and yet about 3,000 of the Mormon pioneers came west doing just that. Those carts, pulled or pushed by two, three or four people, could carry up to 100 pounds of food, bedding, etc., and were no slower than the ox-drawn wagons that accompanied them carrying more food and supplies. These handcart pioneers, once they arrived in the valley, were given jobs and accommodations by individual Mormon families until they could become established. (One feature of their migration that shows both their sense of community and their enterprising spirit is the system of ferries run by the Mormon pioneers along the Mormon Trail. The ferries were free for Mormon settlers, but others paid a toll.)

Having failed to build Zion within the confines of American society, the Mormons began to construct a society in isolation, based on their beliefs and values. The cooperative ethic that Mormons had developed over the last decade and a half became important as settlers branched out and colonized a large desert region now known as the Mormon corridor. The Mormon villages were governed by bishops and were viewed as commonwealth. From 1849–52, the Mormons greatly expanded their missionary efforts overseas, and Young’s presidency (1847–77) saw more than 70,000 converts arrive.

But the country the Mormons had left behind caught up with them. After the Mexican War, the New Zion was no longer beyond the borders of the United States, but was again included within U.S. territory. Year by year, tensions between Mormons and their neighbors escalated, largely as a result of accusations involving polygamy and Young’s theocratic rule, until in 1857, President James Buchanan sent an army to Utah. A brief, mostly bloodless, conflict ensued, and was resolved by Young agreeing to step down as governor and be replaced by a non-Mormon. But of course he remained the power behind the throne until his death in 1877.

The one thing everybody knows or thinks he knows about Mormons is that they practiced polygamy. But what they may not know is that every wife was established in her own house, and no man was allowed more wives than he could afford to maintain. For single women without brothers or fathers to support them, plural marriage made economic sense, and in a culture strongly rooted in a sense of communality, it made social sense as well. However, the practice of plural marriage was never universal, and was finally abandoned in the years between the Civil War and the end of the century.



America’s Long Journey: The Oregon Trail

Before the transcontinental railroad, before the Civil War, before the Mexican War, Americans were moving toward the Pacific. How we came to acquire our share of the Oregon territory is a story we will tell below, but for now we’ll just talk about the days when the only overland route between the Missouri River (and points east) and the fertile lands of Oregon was a 2,000-mile wagon route through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho. Today, I- 80 follows the trail for a good way, and many of the towns it passes through grew up with the trail.

The first wagon train to take to the trail (which at that time extended to Fort Hall, Idaho) was organized in Independence, Missouri, in 1836, while the Texans were winning independence from Mexico. Year by year, more wagon trains came, starting variously in Missouri or Iowa or Nebraska and linking up with the trail somewhere along the lower Platte River Valley in Nebraska. And, year by year, the trails were cleared farther west, until they reached all the way to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. In time, the trail grew branches: the California Trail, the Bozeman Trail, and the Mormon Trail.

From first to last, between the 1830s and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, about 400,000 people traveled the Oregon Trail — settlers, ranchers, farmers, miners, and businessmen, and their families. Notice that last word. Unlike the stampede to California, which was mostly young single men, Oregon’s was a migration of families.

Why Oregon? Because early explorers, having seen few trees and little surface water on the great plains, had termed it the Great American Desert, and it didn’t seem a promising place to settle. Besides, until after the Civil War the plains were reserved for the Indians, and settlement there was illegal. In Oregon, land was fertile, free for the taking, and it came with tremendous natural resources, a climate free of the yellow fever and malaria then prevalent in lower latitudes, and only a few (nominally but certainly not rabidly) British settlers.

The first three wagons to reach the Columbia River by land, two families traveling together, arrived in September, 1840. In 1841 an emigrant group set out for California, but about half the party went instead to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, the first members of an organized wagon train to do so. The following year, another organized wagon train brought more than 100 pioneers. And then, in 1843, an estimated thousand emigrants set out for Oregon. A man named Marcus Whitman volunteered to lead them to Oregon, wagons and all. He believed the wagon trains were large enough that they could build whatever road improvements they needed. They made it as far as Mount Hood, then disassembled the wagons and floated them down the Columbia River and herded the animals over a rough trail. They nearly all arrived in the Willamette Valley by early October. The settlers organized land claims within the Oregon Country, allowing unmarried settlers to claim up to 320 acres and married couples up to 640 acres (one square mile, which was called a section). This was merely provisional, but the claims were eventually honored by the United States in the Donation Land Act of 1850.

In 1846, a road was completed around Mount Hood, thus completing a 2,000-mile wagon trail from the Missouri river. Over the years ferries were established on many rivers to help get the wagons across. These ferries increased the cost of traveling the trail by roughly $30 per wagon but could reduce transit times by a month, as well as preventing death by drowning at river crossings.

The Oregon Trail led to the development of the prairie schooner. Half the size of the larger Conestoga wagon the prairie schooner weighed about 1,300 pounds empty with about 2,500 pounds capacity and about 88 cubic feet of storage space in a box 11 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 2 feet high, and could easily be pulled by four to six oxen or six to ten mules.

The wagons cost between $85 and $170 new. One wagon could carry enough food for six months’ travel for four or five travelers as well as a short list of household and luxury items including clothing and ammunition. More than two thirds of the wagons were pulled by oxen, and most of the rest by mule teams. Although an ox team was about 10 percent slower than a mule or horse-pulled wagon (about 2 to 3 miles per hour) they were cheaper to buy ($25 to $85 per yoke versus up to $600 or more for six horses), easier to train, could pull more, survived better on the sparse grass often found along the trail, did not require oats or grain, and were often tamer and easier to handle after they were trained. (Novices could usually learn to handle a trained ox team in about a week.) They could be turned loose at night and easily rounded up in the mornings. Indians were usually less interested in stealing them. Ox drivers walked alongside the left side of their oxen team and used the voice commands “gee” (right) and “haw” (left) and a whip to guide them, snapping them in the air to get the animal’s attention.

The cost of traveling over the Oregon Trail and its extensions varied from nothing (if you hired on to help drive the wagons or herds) to a few hundred dollars. About 60 to 80 percent of the travelers were farmers and as such already owned a wagon, livestock team, and many of the necessary supplies. This lowered the cost of the trip to about $50 per person for food and other items. Families planned the trip months in advance and made many of the extra clothing and other items needed. If you had capital, you could buy livestock in the Midwest and drive it to California or Oregon for profit.

The number of deaths on the trail is not known with any precision. Estimating is difficult because of the common practice of burying people in unmarked graves that were intentionally disguised to avoid them being dug up by animals or Indians. Graves were often put in the middle of a trail and then run over by the livestock to make them difficult to find. Disease was the main killer of trail travelers; cholera killed up to 3 percent of all travelers in the epidemic years from 1849 to 1855. Indian attacks increased significantly after 1860 when most of the army troops were withdrawn and miners and ranchers began fanning out all over the country, often encroaching on Indian territory. Other common causes of death included hypothermia, drowning in river crossings, getting run over by wagons (believe it or not), and accidental gun deaths. Significant numbers suffered from scurvy, because of their typical diet of flour and salted pork/bacon. Some believe that scurvy deaths may have rivaled cholera as a killer, with most deaths occurring after the victim reached California.

For details of life on the trail, Google the Oregon Trial.



America’s Long Journey: The Mexican War


The story of how Texas won its independence in 1836 is told in its own section, below. From 1836 to 1845, Texas led a precarious existence as an independent republic, officially recognized by Great Britain, France, and the United States, but desiring to join the Union. When Texas did finally enter the Union as the 28th state on December 29, 1845, war with Mexico soon followed.

Here, as elsewhere, it is important to remember that hindsight varies with the times. Sometimes certainties are merely our own unconscious prejudices. It is tempting to see that war as simple American aggression against a relatively blameless neighbor. Indeed, many saw it that way at the time, and it shocked those who thought of the United States as a new beginning in world affairs. Emerson said it as part of a poem:

“But who is he that prates Of the culture of mankind, Of better arts and life? Go, blind worm, go, Behold the famous States Harrying Mexico With rifle and with knife.”

Most Whigs opposed the war, wanting to strengthen the economy with industrialization, rather than expand it. Most Democrats, on the other hand, supported expansion as the nation’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” At any rate it wasn’t as simple as President Polk made it out to be in his message to Congress, in which he said that Mexico had “shed American blood upon American soil.”

But whatever the ultimate rights and wrongs of the situation, Mexican actions in crossing the Rio Grande and attacking American soldiers had precipitated a state of war, and then the war had to be fought and won. Once it came to war, the situation had a logic of its own.

Mexico was in political chaos, insolvent, with no conceivable way to pay the many outstanding financial claims against it except perhaps to cede the territories of New Mexico and California in return for the American government undertaking to pay Mexico’s claims. These territories, though long part of Mexico, were largely frontier lands, unsettled, ungoverned, and unprotected, with Americans, rather than Mexicans, constituting much of the non-native population. The fear was that if the United States did not take possession, they might fall to the British Empire, then in its heyday.

What’s more, the people of Northern Mexico didn’t necessarily object to the transfer of sovereignty. In the 25 years since Mexico became independent in 1821, it had become less and less able to defend the northern half of the country. Comanche, Apache, and Navajo Indians, especially Comanche, engaged in large-scale raids hundreds of miles into the country, stealing livestock and killing thousands of people. When American troops entered northern Mexico in 1846, they found a demoralized people who offered little resistance, perhaps preferring their new masters to their old, perhaps not, but at any rate appreciating the greater security that the American military presence promised.

The genesis of the war was simple enough. Texas had won its independence in 1836 on the battlefield at San Jacinto, in which Sam Houston’s army captured Mexican president (and general) Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Santa Anna had signed the Treaties of Valasco, which recognized the Rio Grande as the boundary of the Republic of Texas, but the government of Mexico repudiated the treaties, did not concede the Texas independence, and insisted that in any case the Nueces River was the limit of the territory that it controlled de facto.

For political reasons, the Congressional resolution annexing Texas deliberately omitted any mention of the Rio Grande boundary, but when the Republic of Texas became the 28th state, the United States inherited its territorial claims. President Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to Texas, and by October 3,500 Americans were on the Nueces River, ready to occupy the disputed land. In November, Polk sent a secret representative to Mexico City to offer $25 million for the Rio Grande border in Texas, to forgive the $3 million owed to U.S. citizens for damages caused by the Mexican War of Independence [from Spain] 25 years earlier, and to pay another $25 to $30 million in exchange for the two territories of Alta California and Santa Fe de Nuevo México.

Mexicans refused to deal. When president Jose Joaquin de Herrera considered receiving the president’s envoy, he was accused of treason and deposed, and a more nationalistic government publicly reaffirmed Mexico’s claim to Texas.

At this, President Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor south to the Rio Grande, about 150 miles south of the Nueces. Mexico demanded that Taylor withdraw. Instead, Taylor constructed a makeshift fort on the banks of the Rio Grande opposite the city of Matamoros. On April 25, 1846, a 2,000-strong detachment of Mexican cavalry attacked a 70-man U.S. patrol, routing it and killing 16 American soldiers. American blood had been shed, to be sure. On American soil? Polk thought so, or pretended to think so, and sent a message to Congress saying so. Congress approved a declaration of war on May 13.

Santa Anna persuaded the Americans that he would work to sell the contested territory at a reasonable price, and he persuaded the Mexicans that he just wanted to fight for his country. Or course, as soon as he got command of an army, he double-crossed everybody, declaring himself president and trying to fight off the Americans.

In May, Taylor and 2,400 troops defeated 3,400 Mexicans in the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, in fierce hand to hand combat. Taylor’s troops crossed the Rio Grande and took the city of Monterrey, then in February, 1847, held the mountain pass at Buena Vista against an attack by 15,000 Mexican troops led by Santa Anna personally. A second army under General Winfield Scott was transported by sea to the port of Veracruz, and on March 9, 1847, Scott performed the first major amphibious landing in U.S. history, using specially designed landing craft and 12,000 volunteer and regular soldiers to offload supplies, weapons, and horses. Veracruz surrendered after 12 days. Scott then marched westward toward Mexico City, defeated Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo, captured Puebla, the second largest city in Mexico, and successfully stormed Mexico City in August.

Meanwhile, a U.S. cavalry force reinforced by a Pacific fleet had invaded western Mexico, lest Britain seize the area. California was won by army and navy operations, culminating in the treaty of Cahuenga on January 13, 1847.

President Polk achieved his goal of American territorial expansion to the Pacific coast. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo forced Mexico to cede Alta California and New Mexico to the United States in exchange for $15 million and the assumption by the United States of $3.25 million of debt owed by the Mexican government to U.S. citizens. Altogether, adding up territory lost by the secession of Texas, the territory ceded after the war, and the Gasden Purchase of 1853, Mexico’s land-mass was reduced by more than 55%. However, the land lost was mostly empty of Mexicans. Alta California contained only about 14,000 Mexicans; Nuevo México, fewer than 60,000. Of those, the great majority chose to remain where they were rather than relocate to the south.

With time and politics, the war came to be seen in the North as a Southern plot to gain new territory geographically suited for the expansion of Slavery, and that view, though not complete, was not wrong. The question of whether the newly acquired territories were to be free or slave brought the Union closer to Civil War. It might have come in 1850 – almost did – but in 1850 political opinion in the North had not been hardened by a decade of ever-increasing defiance, insolence, and invective hurled at it day by day by representatives of the South. That defiance stemmed from a sense of injustice, as the Southerners saw what looked to them like a conspiracy to deprive them of the spoils of a war that had been largely fought by Southern troops. President Ulysses S. Grant, who served in Mexico under General Taylor as a young army lieutenant, said in his Memoirs: “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.

America’s Long Journey: California and gold

In 1846, Alta California was a province of Mexico, as it had been ever since Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821. It was sparsely populated, Governed from Monterey, and was as remote from the nation’s capital and center of population as it was possible to be. Mostly it was a region of cattle ranches, trading cowhides and tallow with Boston merchants. (For a very interesting account of coasting along the California posts from San Diego to San Francisco, accumulating cowhides in the early 1840s, see Richard Henry Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast).

Native Californians revolted against the central Mexican government several times in the 1830s. (The Mexican government ended the final revolt, in 1836, by naming the head of the rebellion governor of the department.) But 1846 was a different story. This year, settlers raised the Bear Flag (featuring a bear, a star, a red stripe and the words “California Republic”) at Sonoma, and declared independence, then gave way to U.S. occupation during the Mexican War, as we shall see. Following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in January, 1848, Alta California became American territory. The newly acquired territory had a population of about 8,000 (plus about 100,000 Indians).

Then everything changed.

On January 24, 1848, less than two weeks before the signing of the treaty ending the Mexican War and making California American territory, a man named James Marshall found gold in the tailrace of a lumber mill he was building for Sacramento pioneer John Sutter. Sutter tried to keep it quiet, being more interested in agriculture than in fostering a gold rush, but the news got out. By March 1848, San Francisco newspaper publisher and merchant Samuel Brannan (after cornering gold prospecting supplies and setting up a store) was going around the city shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”

People came running. The first people to rush to the gold fields, naturally, were those who lived closest — California residents. Then they started to arrive from Oregon, Hawaii, and Latin America. A small number of “forty-eighters” arrived overland from the east. Some of them got rich pretty quickly, being able to collect in a month what it would take them a year to earn in wages back home.

As the news spread, people came from everywhere in the world. Estimates are that 90,000 people arrived in California in 1849—about half by sea, and half by wagon train along the California Trail. First to last, the hope of getting rich quick drew 300,000 people to California, not only Americans but Mexicans, Britons, Australians, French, and Latin Americans in the tens of thousands. Several hundred Chinese arrived in California in 1849 and 1850, and in 1852 more than 20,000 landed in San Francisco, forerunners of many more who would be recruited to build the western part of the transcontinental railroad. San Francisco alone went from 1,000 residents to 25,000 in two years, and by 1870 it had a population of 150,000.

The gold found and processed was worth billions in today’s dollars, but by 1850 most of the gold that could be recovered by simple methods like panning was gone, and what was left required technology, which required capital. As usual, most of the money made went to a relative few people. And, as usual, any Indians who were sitting on valuable land were evicted or murdered. (In twenty years, an estimated 100,000 California Indians died, 4,500 of them killed outright.) As to what the process of gold mining did to rivers and lakes, the less said the better. Large amounts of gravel, silt, heavy metals, and other pollutants went into streams and rivers, and 150 years later many areas still do not support plant life.

It is estimated that about half the gold-seekers made a modest profit, after taking all expenses into account. The people who made the real money were the merchants who sold the miners the goods they needed, and those who provided shipping, entertainment (including brothels, saloons and gambling houses), lodging, and transportation. By 1855, most people were making their living in the businesses that support ordinary life, most notably California’s second “Gold Rush” – large-scale agriculture.

California discovered gold in 1848, applied for admission as a state in 1849, and received statehood in 1850. As someone said, when a millionaire applies to join your club, you do not keep him waiting long.

America’s Long Journey: Compromise of 1850

What is called the Compromise of 1850 was a package of five bills on three different subjects, cobbled together as a package so as to resolve several difficult political issues that threatened the survival of the Union. Like most political compromises, it was heartily disliked by extremists on each side. Like most moral compromises, it was fragile and temporary, subject to destruction as events put the moral issue again squarely on the table.

The need for the compromise stemmed from the Mexican War of 1846-1848. As we shall see, that war was controversial from the onset, having been begun by an expansionist, slave-holding president, enthusiastically supported by the slave-holding South (which hoped that the nation would acquire territories that would become new slave states), and denounced by many in the North (including one-term Congressman Abraham Lincoln) as unjustified aggression against a weaker neighbor. The peace treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo took from Mexico essentially everything included in today’s map that is west of the Louisiana Purchase and south of Oregon territory.

The burning question arose: Was that new territory to remain free, as it had been under Mexico, or was it to become slave territory? Northern and Southern states squared off on the subject almost as soon as the war began, and the ensuing deadlock continue until 1850.

  • Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot repeatedly introduced the Wilmot Proviso, banning slavery in any new territory to be acquired from Mexico, but although the House concurred, the Senate repeatedly refused.
  • Douglas attempted to extend the Missouri Compromise line west to the Pacific, which would have allowed slavery in New Mexico, Arizona, and California south of Carmel-by-the-Sea (assuming the division of California into two states).
  • Lewis Cass of Michigan proposed the doctrine of popular sovereignty, soon adopted, as we have seen, by Douglas.
  • William L. Yancey of Alabama proposed federal legislation removing all Mexican anti-slavery laws and requiring that slavery be restricted before statehood neither by the federal government nor by territorial governments.
  • President Zachary Taylor (though a slave-holder) proposed that the entire area become two free states, called California and New Mexico, which would have avoided the question of slavery in the territories. But he died July 9, 1850, and his successor did not have his steel.
  • During the years of deadlock, the Whig Party broke up, the Mormons settled Utah, the California Gold Rush settled northern California, and New Mexico (under a federal military government) prevented Texas from extending its western boundaries to the Rio Grande. Finally, in January, 1850, Whig leader Henry Clay (a strong Unionist from a slave state) introduced a compromise bill. It was defeated, but Clay (who was dying) guided Senator Douglas in dividing the big bill into smaller pieces. The influence of the new administration was thrown in favor of the compromise, and Northern Democrats supported each bill, adding Southern Whigs or Southern Democrats bill by bill. All five were passed and signed into law in two weeks in September, 1850.

The Compromise:

  • Congress, since it could not unilaterally reduce the territory of a state, offered Texas a deal which the Texas State Legislature accepted. Texas surrendered its claim to New Mexico, and its claims north of the Missouri Compromise line, and in return received $10 million in 5% bonds from the federal government.
  • California was admitted as a free state, undivided, in accordance with the Constitutional Convention held there the in 1849 which unanimously voted to outlaw slavery.
  • New Mexico Territory and Utah Territory were allowed decide whether to become slave states, even though Utah and part of New Mexico were north of the Missouri Compromise Line. (In practice this was meaningless, but by the time the compromise was being voted on, the South was anxious to explicitly show that the Wilmot Proviso did not apply.)
  • The slave trade was banned in Washington D.C. (which mostly removed an irritation to Northern representatives, who objected to the sight and sound of slave auctions in the federal territory).
  • The Fugitive Slave Act required law-enforcement officials in free states to arrest anyone suspected of being a fugitive slave, on no more evidence than a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected runaway could not ask for a jury trial, nor testify on his or her own behalf. Anyone providing food or shelter to a runaway slave was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. And law-enforcement officers had the right to compel any citizen to assist! Ironic, isn’t it? all those politicians (excuse me, statesmen) concentrating on what they thought the issue of the day was, and in the middle of the debate – in order to gain the votes of a few Southern border-state representatives – they throw the Fugitive Slave Act into the mix.
  • As we have seen, the Compromise of 1850 did hold the Union together for a crucial ten years. But during the decade that ensued, North and South became ever more polarized as a result of the Fugitive Slave law. Even if Kansas-Nebraska had never been thought of, the Fugitive Slave Act by itself (in its effect on public opinion in the North, and the defensive reaction to that opinion in the South) would have assured that the issue of the expansion or elimination of slavery would not go away. “It is a filthy law,” Emerson recorded in his journal. “I will not obey it, by God!” Nearly as much as Kansas-Nebraska, the “filthy law” led straight to civil war.
  • Historian Mark Stegmaier: “The Fugitive Slave Act, the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, the admission of California as a free state, and even the application of the formula of popular sovereignty to the territories were all less important than the least remembered component of the Compromise of 1850–the statute by which Texas relinquished its claims to much of New Mexico in return for federal assumption of the debts.”

America’s Long Journey: Mrs. Stowe and Mrs. Hentz

Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) to depict the evil effects of the slave system. Two years later, Carolyn Lee Hentz published The Planter’s Northern Bride (1854) by way of rebuttal. The novels, like the novelists, are in many ways similar, but arriving at very different destinations.

The odd thing is how much the two women had in common. Both were deeply Christian teachers from Massachusetts who acquired national reputations by writing popular fiction while raising their families. They even became personal friends, in the years when they both lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. But they say that where you stand depends upon where you sit, and perhaps this is a case in point. Cincinnati is as far south as Mrs. Stowe ever traveled in her long lifetime, so her views of slavery were founded on what she learned from friends, from the news, and from fugitives and those who cared for them. Mrs. Hentz, in her short 55 years, lived in seven states, including Alabama, Georgia and Florida, and came to her understandings in a more first-hand fashion.

The Planter’s Northern Bride shows the South – shows slavery as an institution – as Southerners preferred to see it, master and slaves in a caring, interactive community relationship. Just as Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a mission to persuade readers that the slave system suffered from inherent evils that could be ameliorated but not removed, so The Planter’s Northern Bride had a mission to persuade readers that slavery provided fewer hardships and more security and community for its slaves than was enjoyed by free blacks, and for that matter poor whites.

She had a point. The arguments and portraits do ring true. They may be overdrawn, but that doesn’t make them intentionally distorted or false. There is no doubt that many a slave-owning family experienced just such community between master and slaves as she portrays. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Planter’s Northern Bride exudes passionate sincerity. Like Mrs. Stowe, Mrs. Hentz is in earnest, and you cannot doubt it.

But of course she goes too far. She believes, and intends you to believe, that left to themselves the slaves mostly are content with their lot in life, and it is only outside agitation that leads them astray. In her world, abolitionists are bigots, acting from ignorance or malice. Reading The Planter’s Northern Bride, you would never guess that Southern newspapers ran columns of ads describing runaway slaves; that cruel punishments could be exacted at the will of the master or (more commonly) the overseer; that hundreds of thousands of slaves were only awaiting a good opportunity to run away, as was eventually proved many times over during the Civil War.

And, while Southerners thought they were exalting an ideal of Southern Womanhood, they were actually exalting Southern White Women, and, more than that, Southern Rich White Women. The aristocratic Southern ideal, much like today’s de facto worship of the wealthy and famous, did not concern itself much with the great mass of the population except insofar as it supported or threatened life at the top of the pyramid. Northerners did something similar, only instead of concentrating on a numerically tiny elite, they identified with and promoted the interests of a broad, educated respectable middle class.

Nonetheless – and this is the reason for writing about these two books and their sincere and earnest authors – in their respective points of view and in the reaction each met you see the reasons for the war.

Mrs. Hentz shows eloquently and ably the plight of the working poor (black or white) in the North. She shows the perils of economic insecurity that later generations would come to know even better. Her indictments of the economic system that treats people as dispensable and disposable labor-inputs, rather than as fellow children of God are unanswerable. None of her points against free labor justify slavery. But they are irrefutable, and might better have been listened to!

Mrs. Stowe eloquently showed the inherent evils of the slave system, and without having to manufacture paper villains to do so. Her bill of particulars against the slave system did not justify the abuses of free labor. But they are irrefutable, and might better have been listened to!

Free labor or slave labor, America’s reality was not what Americans preferred to think it. Northerners criticizing slavery without condemning its practitioners – Southerners criticizing free labor without condemning its practitioners — might have groped their way toward constructive solutions. Working together they might have unknotted the worst of the tangles..

But, as in our own day (whenever this is read), it is easier to curse the darkness than to light a candle, because being willing to light a candle involves admitting to one’s own darkness, which is not the long suit of the politician or the reformer or the ideologue. Partisans of each system could see the mote in their neighbors’ eyes, but remained stubbornly insensible to the beams in their own. Think, if they had been willing to listen to each other, how much more clarity each could have obtained. Think, if they had been willing to work humbly together, how much they could have achieved to create a more perfect union.

But asking for that kind of intelligent open-hearted response is baying for the moon. The only really prominent politician who approached political life in that fashion was shot and killed in Ford’s Theater at the end of the war fanaticism had made.


America’s Long Journey: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of those books that everyone has heard about but few people have read. When it came out in 1852, defenders of slavery dismissed it as uninformed, unrealistic anti-slavery propaganda. In the 20th century, conversely, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was attacked as having created or perpetuated stereotypes. (In the 1960s, the ultimate insult for a black man was to be called an Uncle Tom.) But is either criticism justified?

Author Harriet Beecher Stowe was a New England-born abolitionist, to be sure. And, it is true that she wrote the book while living in Maine, and that she never lived in the South. However, she had lived for several years in Cincinnati, Ohio, just across the Ohio River from slavery, and she and her husband Calvin Stowe had harbored fugitive slaves, whose stories they learned. One additional source of inspiration was The Life Of Josiah Henson (1849), a first-person account by a former slave. Another was American Slavery As It Is (1839), co-authored by abolitionist Theodore Weld, his wife Angelina Grimke and her sister Sarah Grimke, compiled from firsthand accounts of slavery. In 1853 Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, documenting the novel’s veracity by citing “real life equivalents” for each major character in the novel, which itself became a bestseller..And, in that same year of 1853, a free Negro named Solomon Northrup published his own story, 12 Years a Slave (which became a bestseller), documenting that the fiction accurately represented the facts.

Now, as to stereotypes? In the novel, Uncle Tom was portrayed not as a doormat but as a noble and long-suffering Christian. (The whole point of the book was twofold: to show slavery as it really was, and to show Christian love overcoming even slavery. Tom consistently stands up for his Christian beliefs, and in the end is killed for refusing an order to whip other slaves.) Eliza, the slave who escapes to the North with her five-year old son, was based on an account Mrs. Stowe heard from one of her husband’s friends. Simon Legree, the cruel slave owner whose name became a synonym for cruelty (a Northerner by birth, a fact often forgotten or unknown to the book’s critics) may have used methods more typical of overseers than of slave-owners; but the historical record records the same and worse. Stereotypes, after all, are based on reality. That’s how they become stereotypes.

And it should be remembered that Arthur Shelby, Tom’s Kentucky owner, was described as kind; that Shelby’s wife didn’t want him to sell Tom; that their son George saw him as a friend and mentor; that Augustine St. Clare, Tom’s second owner, recognized the evil in slavery but depended on the system for his wealth. In other words, Mrs. Stowe did not portray slave-owners as monsters, but as individuals. Topsy, the slave girl who famously says she just “growed,” is very much not a lovable stereotype, but a severe trial on Miss Ophelia, St. Clare’s New England-born abolitionist cousin, who – model for so many people to come! – hates slavery but also can’t stand the slaves themselves.

I will not summarize the book. Instead, I recommend that you give yourself a treat and read it. The novel helped focus Northern anger against slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law, thus aiding the abolitionist movement. An unintended effect of the book was to energize defenders of slavery, as well, and thus to increase polarization around the issue. In November, 1862, when she and two of her children met President Lincoln at the White House, Lincoln greeted her (or so her son reported, years later) by saying, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Regardless whether he did or didn’t say it (historians are undecided) he would have been justified in doing so.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was yet another consequence of the accursed Fugitive Slave Act that was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850 (see below). The act energized Mrs. Stowe to begin write a story centering on the problem of slavery, and the following year, in June, 1851, the story began to appear in weekly installments of the antislavery newspaper National Era. It continued week by week for forty weeks, and then in May, 1852, John P. Jewett published it in two volumes, and it began its unprecedented press run.

In its first year of publication, it sold 300,000 copies in the United States. Within five years of its publication in 1852, it had been translated into 20 languages, and in time it was translated into almost every language on Earth. In Great Britain, authorized and pirated editions together amounted to another million copies sold. The only book that outsold Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the 19th century was the Bible.

Partly, this was because of political passions of the day, but partly, it was because of its sheer literary skill. This is not a tract, using cardboard characters and contrived situations to attack Southerners or slave-holders or the white race. Instead, it is an accurate portrayal of the slave system as it existed, and as it warped the lives of everyone entangled in it, slave or free, black, white, or mixed-race. It still makes powerful reading today, a century and a half after slavery was abolished. Queen Victoria wept when she read it, and you may too. As famed critic Edmund Wilson wrote, “To expose oneself in maturity to Uncle Tom’s Cabin may … prove a startling experience.”