". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

*Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America* by Henry Wilson

I have stumbled into the multi-volume history of The Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, by Henry Wilson, published in 1874 - 1875 (author's Introduction 1873).  The dates are important because the work was compiled and written during Reconstruction, and the author was a first-hand witness and participant to much of what he covers.

Contemporary scholarship does challenge some of what he writes of, such as his chapters on the Underground Railroad, particularly in terms of numbers of slaves making their way toward the North Star, and the stations. So it's unfortunate this work was written before Henry Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and others began teaching the methods of history as a discipline (which at least Henry Adams imbibed during his long stays in Europe from practioners there), so there are no sources cited, no footnotes.  But the Abolitionist passion breathes out of every sentence, nor is there any reason to doubt the accounts he provides of individual white people who did help escaping slaves in all the variety of ways open to them.  For one thing, as so much of this action took place across what was then still called the Northern Reserve -- western New York and northern Ohio -- there are many local archives that contain the newspapers, memoirs and other documentation for such events at Case University and other institutions.

Henry Wilson was elected Vice President of the U.S. on President Ulysses S. Grant's ticket.  He served as VP until he died, in harness.

Wilson is a fascinating figure, a life-long Abolitionist from Massachusetts, born in New Hampshire.  He was one of the Radical Abolitionists along with the more famous Thaddeus Stevens.  Like Stevens the winds of scandal blew about Wilson, though of different sorts of scandal than Stevens's.  Much information on Wilson can be found here.

It is good to remember the Aboltiionists, particularly when the Lost Causers who cling to the revisionism of the Civil War insist the war wasn't about slavery, and that the North, as racist as the South, didn't care about slavery.  My response to this supposedly killing argument is, "Remember the Abolitionists."  And nothing created Abolitionists out of northern racists faster than the Fugitive Slave Act.  Wilson documents this consequence in granular detail.

There is nothing like reading the actual words of the people who were participants and witnesses to the history they compile. And, in fact, not all northerners were racists, and nor were most of the Abolitionists. Wilson, for instance, during the war, wrote devastating articles about northern white racism, among other things detailing for publication his argument that members of the Union black regiments were treated as badly as prisoners of war, arguing for equal pay for equal rank for their military service. But then, like Stevens, he was dismissed as a Radical, an outlier, a danger to the Union and the Nation -- as was done in Speilberg's Lincoln with Stevens.

Fortunately, perhaps, Wilson died, before the Corrupt Bargain of 1876 that traded the end of Reconstruction for Hayes's election.

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