Category Archives: United States History

Misjudgments and Misdeeds of an Unseen Power Broker

Jefferson Morley, The Ghost:

The Secret Life of  CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton

(St. Martin’s)

James Jesus Angleton served as the Central Intelligence Agency’s head of counterintelligence — its top spy and effectively the number three person in the agency — from 1954 until he was forced into retirement in 1975.  Although his name is a less familiar than that of the FBI’s original director, J. Edgar Hoover, I couldn’t help thinking of Hoover as I read Jefferson Morley’s trenchant biography, The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton.  Both were immensely powerful, paranoid men who repeatedly broke or skirted the law to advance their often-idiosyncratic versions of what United States national security required.  Throughout their careers, both were able to avoid almost all attempts to hold them accountable for their misdeeds.  With the passage of four decades since Hoover’s death in 1972 and Angleton’s departure from the CIA three years later, we can see that the two men seem  embodied what has recently come to be known as the “Deep State,” a nearly independent branch of government in which officials secretly manipulate government policy, as Morley puts it, “largely beyond the view of the Madisonian government and the voting public” (p.xi).

Morley demonstrates that the notorious COINTELPRO operation, associated today with Hoover and arguably his most dubious legacy, actually began as a joint FBI-CIA undertaking that Angleton concocted.  COINTELPRO aimed to infiltrate and disrupt dissidents and included among its targets Dr. Martin Luther King, left leaning organizations, and Vietnam anti-war protestors.  The original idea that Angleton sold to a skeptical Hoover, who considered the CIA a “nest of liberals, atheists, homosexuals, professors, and otherwise feminized men who specialized in wasting the taxpayer dollar” (p.71), was that the Bureau would target subjects within the United States while the Agency would take the lead in targeting subjects outside the United States.

From there, the CIA and FBI collaborated on LINGUAL, an elaborate and extensive program to read American citizens’ mail, which Morley terms perhaps Angleton’s “most flagrant violation of the law” (p.82); and on CHAOS, an operation designed to infiltrate the entire anti-Vietnam war movement, not just people or organizations that engaged in violence or contacted foreign governments. Post-Watergate hearings brought the existence and extent of COINTELPRO, LINGUAL and CHAOS  to light, along with numerous other chilling exercises of authority attributed to the FBI and CIA, leading to Angleton’s involuntary retirement from the agency.

Morley, a freelance journalist and former Washington Post editor, does not make the Hoover comparison explicitly.  He sees in Angleton a streak of Iago, Othello’s untrustworthy advisor: outwardly a “sympathetic counselor with his own agenda, which sometimes verged on the sinister” (p.158).  Angleton served four American presidents with “seeming loyalty and sometimes devious intent” (p.159), he writes (of course, the same could be said of Hoover, who served eight presidents over the course of a career that began in the 1920s).

Writing in icy prose that pieces together short, punchy vignettes with one word titles, Morley undertakes to show how Angleton was able to elevate himself from a “staff functionary” at the CIA, a new agency created in 1947, to an “untouchable mandarin” who had an “all but transcendent influence on U.S. intelligence operations for two decades” (p.67).  At the height of the Cold War, Morley writes, Angleton became an “unseen broker of American power” (p.158).

But Morley’s biography might better be viewed as a compendium of the misjudgments and misdeeds that punctuated Angleton’s career from beginning to end.  Angleton’s judgment failed him repeatedly, most notoriously when his close friend and associate, British intelligence agent Kim Philby, was revealed to have been a Soviet spy from World War II onward (I reviewed Ben McIntyre’s biography of Philby here in 2016). The Philby revelation convinced Angleton that the KGB had also planted an agent within the CIA, precipitating a disastrous and abysmally unsuccessful “mole hunt” that paralyzed the CIA for years and damaged the careers of many innocent fellow employees, yet discovered no one.

The book’s most explosive conjuncture of questionable judgment and conduct involves Angleton’s relationship to Lee Harvey Oswald, President John F. Kennedy’s presumed assassin.  Angleton followed Oswald closely from 1959, when he defected to the Soviet Union, to that fateful day in Dallas in 1963.  Thereafter, Angleton tenaciously withheld his knowledge of Oswald from the Warren Commission, charged with investigating the circumstances of the Kennedy assassination, to the point where Morley suggests that Angleton should have been indicted for obstruction of justice.  The full extent of Angleton’s knowledge of Oswald has yet to come out, leaving his work laden with fodder for those of a conspiratorial bent who insist that Oswald was something other than a lone gunman, acting alone, as the Warren Commission found (in 2015, I reviewed Peter Savodnik’s biography of Oswald here, in which Savodnik argues forcefully for the lone gunman view of Oswald).

* * *

Born in 1917 in Boise, Idaho, Angleton was the son of a prosperous merchant father and a Mexican-American mother (hence the middle name “Jesus”).  At age 16, the young Angleton moved with his family to Milan, where his father ran the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce and was friendly with many leaders in the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.  For the remainder of his life, James retained a fondness for Italy, Italian culture and, it could be argued, the Italian brand of fascism.

Angleton attended boarding school in England, then went on to Yale as an undergraduate.  At Yale, he demonstrated a keen interest in poetry and came under the influence of the poet Erza Pound, who later became notorious for his Nazi sympathies (after an investigation led by J. Edgar Hoover, Pound was jailed during World War II).  Poetry constituted a powerful method for Angleton, Morley writes.  He would come to value “coded language, textual analysis, ambiguity, and close control as the means to illuminate the amoral arts of spying that became his job.  Literary criticism led him to the profession of secret intelligence.  Poetry gave birth to a spy” (p.8).

During World War II, Angleton found his way to the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor agency.  He spent the later portion of the war years in Rome, where he developed a friendship with Junio Valerio Borghese, “perhaps the most famous fascist military commander in Italy” (p.21).  Angleton helped Borghese avoid execution at the hands of the same partisan forces that captured and executed Mussolini in 1945.  Thanks to Angleton’s efforts, Borghese “survived to become titular and spiritual leader of postwar Italian fascism” (p.27), and one of the United States’ key partners in preventing a Communist takeover of postwar Italy.

Angleton prepared for his assignment in Rome at Bletchley Park in England, the center of Allied code-breaking operations during World War II.  There, Angleton learned the craft of counter-intelligence under the tutelage of Kim Philby, who taught the young American “how to run double agent operations, to intercept wireless and mail messages, and to feed false information to the enemy.  Angleton would prove to be his most trusting friend” (p.18).  After the war, Philby and Angleton both found themselves in Washington, where they became inseparable buddies, the “closest of friends, soul mates in espionage” (p.41).  Each saw in the other the qualities needed to succeed in espionage: ruthlessness, calculation, autonomy, and cleverness.

The news of Philby’s 1963 defection to Moscow iwas “almost incomprehensible” (p.123) to Angleton.  What he had considered a deep and warm relationship had been a sham.  Philby was “his friend, his mentor, his confidant, his boozy buddy,” Morley writes.  And “through every meeting, conference, debriefing, confidential aside, and cocktail party, his friend had played him for a fool” (p.124).  Philby’s defection does not appear to have damaged Angleton’s position within the CIA, but it set him off on a disastrous hunt for a KGB “mole” that would paralyze and divide the agency for years.

Angleton’s mole hunt hardened into a “fixed idea, which fueled an ideological crusade that more than a few of his colleagues denounced as a witch hunt” (p.86).  Angleton’s operation  was multi-faceted,  “consisting of dozens of different mole hunts – some targeting individuals, others focused on components within the CIA (p.135).  Angleton’s suspicions “effectively stunted or ended the career of colleagues who were guilty of nothing” (p.198).  To this day, after the opening of significant portions of KGB archives in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, there is no indication it ever had a mole burrowed into the CIA.  Angleton’s mole hunt, Morley concludes, “soaked in alcohol” and permeated by “convoluted certitudes,” brought Angleton to the “brink of being a fool” (p.126).

Just as Angleton never gave up his (witch) hunt for the KGB spy within the CIA, he became convinced that Harold Wilson, British Labor politician and for a while Prime Minister, was a Soviet Spy, and never relinquished this odd view either.  And he argued almost until the day he departed from the CIA that the diplomatic sparring and occasional direct confrontation between the Soviet Union and China was an elaborate exercise in disinformation to deceive the West.

While head of counterintelligence at the CIA, Angleton served simultaneously as the agency’s desk officer for Israel, the direct link between Israeli and American intelligence services.  Angleton was initially wary of the Israeli state that came into existence in 1948, in part the residue of the anti-Semitism he had entertained in his youth, in part the product of his view that too many Jews were communists. By the mid-1950s, however, Angleton had overcome his initial reticence to become an admirer of Israel and especially Mossad, its primary intelligence service.

But Angleton’s judgment in his relationship with Israel frequently failed him just as it failed him in his relationship with Philby.  He did not foresee Israel’s role in the 1956 Anglo-French invasion of Suez (the subject of Ike’s Gamble, reviewed here in 2017), infuriating President Eisenhower.  After winning President Johnson’s favor for calling the Israeli first strike that ignited the June 1967 Six Day War (“accurate almost down to the day and time,” p.181), he incurred the wrath of President Nixon for missing Egypt’s strike at Israel in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, were of the view that Angleton had grown too close to Israel.

Angleton, moreover, was almost certainly involved behind the scenes in a 1968 Israeli heist of uranium enriched nuclear fuel to build its own nuclear reactor, lifted from a Pennsylvania power plant known as NUMEC.  A CIA analyst later concluded that NUMEC had been a “front company deployed in an Israeli-American criminal conspiracy to evade U.S.. nonproliferation laws and supply the Israeli nuclear arsenal” (p.261-62).  Angleton’s loyalty to Israel “betrayed U.S. policy on an epic scale” (p.261), Morley writes.

* * *

Morley’s treatment of Angleton’s relationship to to Lee Harvey Oswald and Fidel Castro’s Cuba raises more questions that it answers.  The CIA learned of Oswald’s attempt to defect to the Soviet Union in November 1959, and began monitoring him at that point.  In this same timeframe, the CIA and FBI began jointly monitoring a pro-Castro group, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which would later attract Oswald. Although Angleton was a contemporary and occasional friend of John Kennedy (the two were born the same year), when Kennedy assumed the presidency in 1961, Angleton’s view was that American policy toward Fidel Castro needed to be more aggressive. He viewed Cuba as still another Soviet satellite state, but one just 90 miles from United States shores.

The Kennedy administration’s Cuba policy got off to a miserable start with the infamous failure of the April 1961 Bay of Pigs operation to dislodge Castro.  Kennedy was furious with the way the CIA and the military had presented the options to him and fired CIA Director Allen Dulles in the operation’s aftermath (Dulles’ demise is one of the subjects of Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers, reviewed here in 2014). But elements within the CIA and the military held Kennedy responsible for the failure by refusing to order air support for the operation (Kennedy had been assured prior to the invasion that no additional military assistance would be necessary).

CIA and military distrust for Kennedy heightened after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union faced off in what threatened to be a nuclear confrontation over the placement of offensive Soviet missiles on the renegade island.  Although Kennedy’s handling of that crisis was widely acclaimed as his finest moment as president, many within the military and the CIA, Angleton included, thought that Kennedy’s pledge to Soviet Premier Khrushchev of no invasion of Cuba in exchange for Soviet withdrawal of missiles had given Castro and his Soviet allies too much.  Taking the invasion option off the table amounted in Angleton’s view to a cave in to Soviet aggression and a betrayal of the anti-Castro Cuban community in the United States.

In the 13 months that remained of the Kennedy presidency, the administration continued to obsess over Cuba, with a variety of operations under consideration to dislodge Castro.  The CIA was also  monitoring Soviet defector Oswald, who by this time had returned to the United States.  Angleton placed Oswald’s’ name on the LINGUAL list to track his mail.  By the fall of 1963, Oswald had become active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, passing out FPCC leaflets in New Orleans.  He was briefly arrested for disturbing the peace after an altercation with anti-Castro activists.  In October of that year, a mere one month before the Kennedy assassination, the FBI and CIA received notice that Oswald had been in touch with the Soviet and Cuban embassies and consular sections in Mexico City.  Angleton followed Oswald’s Mexico City visits intensely, yet withheld for the rest of his life precisely what he knew about them .

From the moment Kennedy was assassinated, Angleton “always sought to give the impression that he knew very little about Oswald before November 22, 1963” (p.140).  But Angleton and his staff, Morley observes, had “monitored Oswald’s movements for four years. As the former marine moved from Moscow to Minsk to Fort Worth to New Orleans to Mexico City to Dallas,” the special group Angleton created to track defectors “received reports on him everywhere he went” (p.140-41).  Angleton clearly knew that Oswald was in Dallas in November 1963.   He hid his knowledge of Oswald from the Warren Commission, established by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the Kennedy assassination. What was Angleton’s motivation for obfuscation?

The most plausible – and most innocent – explanation is that Angleton was protecting his own rear end in an “epic counterintelligence failure” that had “culminated on Angleton’s watch. It was bigger than the Philby affair and bloodier” (p.140).  Given this disastrous counterintelligence failure, Morley argues, Angleton “could have – and should have – lost his job after November 22 [1963].  Had the public, the Congress, and the Warren Commission known of his pre-assassination interest in Oswald or his post-assassination cover-up, he surely would have” (p.157).

But the range of possibilities Morley considers extends to speculation that Angleton may have been hiding his own involvement in a Deep State operation to assassinate the president.   Was Angleton running Oswald as an agent in an assassination plot, Morley asks:

He certainly had the knowledge and ability to do so.  Angleton and his staff had a granular knowledge of Oswald long before Kennedy was killed.  Angleton had a penchant for running operations outside of reporting channels. He articulated a vigilant anti-communism that depicted the results of JFK’s liberal policies in apocalyptic terms. He participated in discussions of political assassination. And he worked in a penumbra of cunning that excluded few possibilities (p.265).

Whether Angleton manipulated Oswald as part of an assassination plot is a question Morley is not prepared to answer.  But in Morley’s view, Angleton plainly “obstructed justice to hide interest in Oswald.   He lied to veil his use of the ex-defector in later 1963 for intelligence purposes related to the Cuban consulate in Mexico City. . . Whoever killed JFK, Angleton protected them. He masterminded the JFK conspiracy and cover up” (p.265).   To this day, no consensus exists as to why Angleton dodged all questions concerning his undisputed control over the CIA’s file on Oswald for four years, up to Oswald’s death in November 1963.  Angleton’s relationship to Oswald remains “shrouded in deception and perjury, theories and disinformation, lies and legends” (p.87), Morley concludes.  Even though a fuller story began to emerge when Congress ordered the declassification of long-secret JFK assassination records in the 1990s,” the full story has “yet to be disclosed” (p.87).

* * *

The burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in June 1972 proved to be Angleton’s professional undoing, just as it was for President Richard Nixon.  The burglary involved three ex-CIA employees, all likely well known to Angleton.   In 1973, in the middle of multiple Watergate investigations, Nixon appointed William Colby as agency director, a man determined to get to the bottom of what was flowing into the public record about the CIA and its possible involvement in Watergate-related activity.

Colby concluded that Angleton’s never-ending mole hunts were “seriously damaging the recruiting of Soviet officers and hurting CIA’s intelligence intake” (p.225).  Colby suspended LINGUAL, finding the mail opening operation “legally questionable and operationally trivial,” having produced little “beyond vague generalities” (p.225). At the same time, New York Times investigative reporter Seymour Hersh published a story that described in great detail Operation CHAOS, the agency’s program aimed at anti-Vietnam activists, attributing ultimate responsibility to Angleton.  Immediately after Christmas 1974. Colby moved  to replace Angleton.

For the first and only time in his career, Angleton’s covert empire within the CIA stood exposed and he left the agency in 1975.  When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, his Department of Justice elected not to prosecute Angleton, although Morley argues that it had ample basis to do so.  In retirement, Angleton expounded his views to “any and all who cared to listen” (p.256).  He took to running reporters “like he had once run agents in the field, and for the same purpose: to advance his geopolitical vision” (p.266).

* * *

Angleton, a life-long smoker (as well as heavy drinker) was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986 and died in May 1987.  He was, Morley concludes “fortunate that so much of his legacy was unknown or classified at the time of his death..”  Angleton not only “often acted outside the law and the Constitution,” but also, for the most part, “got away with it” (p.271).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 10, 2020

 

2 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Biography, United States History

Reading Darwin in Abolitionist New England

 

Randall Fuller, The Book That Changed America:

How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation (Viking)

In mid-December 1859, the first copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species arrived in the United States from England at a wharf in Boston harbor.  Darwin’s book explained how plants and animals had developed and evolved over multiple millennia through a process Darwin termed “natural selection,” a process which distinguished On the Origins of Species from the work of other naturalists of Darwin’s generation.   Although Darwin said little in the book about how humans fit into the natural selection process, the work promised to ignite a battle between science and religion.

In The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation, Randall Fuller, professor of American literature at the University of Kansas, contends that what made Darwin’s insight so radical was its “reliance upon a natural mechanism to explain the development of species.  An intelligent Creator was not required for natural selection to operate.  Darwin’s’ vision was of a dynamic, self-generation process of material change.  That process was entirely arbitrary, governed by physical law and chance – and not leading ineluctably . . . toward progress and perfection” (p.24).  Darwin’s work challenged the notion that human beings were a “separate and extraordinary species, differing from every other animal on the planet. Taken to its logical conclusion, it demolished the idea that people had been created in God’s image” (p.24).

On the Origins of Species arrived in the United States at a particularly fraught moment.  In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown had conducted a raid on a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry (then part of Virginia, today West Virginia), with the intention of precipitating a rebellion that would eradicate slavery from American soil.  The raid failed spectacularly: Brown was captured, tried for treason and hung on December 2, 1859.  The raid and its aftermath exacerbated tensions between North and South, further polarizing the already bitterly divided country over the issue of chattel slavery in its southern states.  Notwithstanding the little Darwin had written about how humans fit into the natural selection process, abolitionists seized on hints in the book that all humans were biologically related to buttress their arguments against slavery.  To the abolitionists, Darwin “seemed to refute once and for all the idea that African American slaves were a separate, inferior species” (p.x).

Asa Gray, a respected botanist at Harvard University and a friend of Darwin, received the first copy of On the Origin of Species in the United States.  He passed the copy, which he annotated heavily, to his cousin by marriage  Charles Loring Brace (who was also a distant cousin of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery runaway best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin).  Brace in turn introduced the book to three men: Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, a part-time school master and full-time abolitionist activist; Amos Bronson Alcott, an educator and loquacious philosopher, today best remembered as the father of author Louisa May Alcott; and Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s best known philosophers and truth-seekers.  Sanborn, Alcott and Thoreau were residents of Concord, Massachusetts, roughly twenty miles north of Boston, the site of a famous Revolutionary War battle but in the mid-19th century both a leading literary center and a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment.

As luck would have it, Brace, Alcott and Thoreau gathered at Sanborn’s Concord home on New Year’s Day 1860.  Only Gray did not attend. The four men almost certainly shared their initial reactions to Darwin’s work.   This get together constitutes the starting point for Fuller’s engrossing study, centered on how Gray and the four men in Sanborn’s parlor on that New Year’s Day  absorbed Darwin’s book.   Darwin himself is at best a background figure in the study.  Several familiar figures make occasional appearances, among them:  Frederick Douglass, renowned orator and “easily the most famous black man in America” (p.91); Bronson Alcott’s author-daughter Louisa May; and American philosophe Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor and friend.  Emerson, like Louisa May and her father, was a Concord resident, and Fuller’s study takes place mostly there, with occasional forays to nearby Boston and Cambridge.

Fuller’s study is therefore more tightly circumscribed geographically than its title suggests.  He spends little time detailing the reaction to Darwin’s work in other parts of the United States, most conspicuously in the American South, where any work that might seem to support abolitionism and undermine slavery was anathema.   The study is also circumscribed in time; it takes place mostly in 1860, with most of the rest confined to the first half of the 1860s, up to the end of the American Civil War in 1865.  Fuller barely mentions what is sometimes called “Social Darwinism,” a notion that gained traction in the decades after the Civil War that purported to apply Darwin’s theory of natural selection to the competition between individuals in politics and economics, producing an argument for unregulated capitalism.

Rather, Fuller charts out the paths each of his five main characters traversed in absorbing and assimilating into their own worldviews the scientific, religious and political ramifications of Darwin’s work, particularly during the tumultuous year 1860.   All five were fervent abolitionists.   Sunburn was a co-conspirator in John Brown’s raid.  Thoreau gave a series of eloquent, impassioned speeches in support of Brown.  All were convinced that Darwin’s notion of natural selection had provided still another argument against slavery, based on science rather than morality or economics.  But in varying degrees, all five could also be considered adherents of transcendentalism, a mid-19th century philosophical approach that posited a form of human knowledge that goes beyond, or transcends, what can be seen, heard, tasted, touched or felt.

Although transcendentalists were almost by definition highly individualistic, most believed that a special force or intelligence stood behind nature and that prudential design ruled the universe.  Many subscribed to the notion that humans were the products of some sort of “special creation.”   Most saw God everywhere, and considered the human mind “resplendent with powers and insights wholly distinct from the external world” (p.54).  Transcendentalism was both an effort to invoke the divinity within man and, as Fuller puts it, also “cultural attack on a nation that had become too materialistic, too conformist, too smug about its place in history” (p.66).

Transcendentalism thus hovered in the background in 1860 as all but Sanborn wrestled with the implications of Darwinism (Sanborn spent much of the year fleeing federal authorities seeking his arrest for his role in John Brown’s raid).  Alcott never left transcendentalism, rejecting much of Darwinism.  Gray and Brace initially seemed to embrace Darwinian theories wholeheartedly, but in different ways each pulled back once he fully grasped the full implications of those theories.   Thoreau was the only one of the five who accepted wholly Darwinism’s most radical implications, using Darwin’s theories to “redirect his life’s work” (p.ix).

Fuller’s study thus combines a deep dive into the New England abolitionist milieu at a time when the United States was fracturing over the issue of slavery with a medium level dive into the intricacies of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.   But the story Fuller tells is anything but dry and abstract.  With an elegant writing style and an acute sense of detail, Fuller places his five men and their thinking about Darwin in their habitat, the frenetic world of 1860s New England.  In vivid passages, readers can almost feel the chilly January wind whistling through Franklin Sanborn’s parlor that New Year’s Day 1860, or envision the mud accumulating on Henry David Thoreau’s boots as he trudges through the melting snow in the woods on a March afternoon contemplating Darwin.  The result is a lively, easy-to-read narrative that nimbly mixes intellectual and everyday, ground-level history.

* * *

Bronson Alcott, described by Fuller as America’s most radical transcendentalist, never accepted the premises of On the Origins of Species.  Darwin had, in Alcott’s view, “reduced human life to chemistry, to mechanical processes, to vulgar materialism” (p.10).  To Alcott, Darwin seemed “morbidly attached to an amoral struggle of existence, which robbed humans of free will and ignored the promptings of the soul” (p.150). Alcott could not imagine a universe “so perversely cruel as to produce life without meaning.  Nor could he bear to live in a world that was reduced to the most tangible and daily phenomena, to random change and process”(p.188).  Asa Gray, one of America’s most eminent scientists, came to the same realization, but  only after thoroughly digesting Darwin and explaining his theories to a wide swath of the American public.

Gray’s initial reaction to Darwin’s work was one of unbounded enthusiasm.  Gray covered nearly every page of the book with his own annotations.  He admired the book because it “reinforced his conviction that inductive reasoning was the proper approach to science” (p.109).  He also admired the work’s “artfully modulated tone, [and] its modest voice, which softened the more audacious ideas rippling through the text” (p.17). Gray was most impressed with Darwin’s “careful judging and clear-eyed balancing of data” (p.110).  To grapple with Darwin’s ideas, Gray maintained, one had to “follow the evidence wherever it led, ignoring prior convictions and certainties or the narrative one wanted that evidence to confirm” (p.110).  Without saying so explicitly, Gray suggested that readers of Darwin’s book had to be “open to the possibility that everything they had taken for granted was in fact incorrect” (p.110).

Gray reviewed On the Origins of Species for the Atlantic Monthly in three parts, appearing  in the summer and fall of 1860.  Gray’s articles served as the first encounter with Darwin for many American readers.  The articles elicited a steady stream of letters from respectful readers.  Some responded with “unalloyed enthusiasm” for a new idea which “seemed to unlock the mysteries of nature” (p.134).  Others, however, “reacted with anger toward a theory that proposed to unravel . . . their belief in a divine Being who had placed humans at the summit of creation” (p.134).  But as Gray finished the third Atlantic article, he began to realize that he himself was not entirely at ease with the diminution of humanity’s place in the universe that Darwin’s work implied.

The third Atlantic article, appearing in October 1860, revealed Gray’s increasing difficulty in “aligning Darwin’s theory with his own religions convictions” (p.213).   Gray proposed that natural selection might be the “God’s chosen method of creation” (p.214).  This idea seemed to resolve the tension between scientific and religious accounts of origins, making Gray the first to develop a theological case for Darwinian theory.  But the idea that natural selection might be the process by which God had fashioned  the world represented what Fuller describes as a “stunning shift for Gray. Before now, he had always insisted that secondary causes were the only items science was qualified to address.  First, or final causes – the beginning of life, the creation of the universe – were the purview of religion: a matter of faith and metaphysics” (p.214).  Darwin responded to Gray’s conjectures by indicating that, as Fuller summarizes the written exchange, the natural world was “simply too murderous and too cruel to have been created by a just and merciful God” (p.211).

In the Atlantic articles, Fuller argues, Gray leapt “beyond his own rules of science, speculating about something that was untestable” (p.214-15 ).  Gray must have known that his argument “failed to adhere to his own definition of science” (p.216).  But, much like Bronson Alcott, Gray found it “impossible to live in the world Darwin had imagined: a world of chance, a world that did not require a God to operate” (p.216).  Charles Brace, a noted social reformer who founded several institutions for orphans and destitute children, greeted Darwin’s book  with an initial enthusiasm that rivaled that of Gray.

Brace  claimed to have read On the Origins of Species 13 times.  He was most attracted to the book for its implications for human societies, especially for American society, where nearly half the country accepted and defended human slavery.  Darwin’s book “confirmed Brace’s belief that environment played a crucial role in the moral life of humans” (p.11), and demonstrated that every person in the world, black, white, yellow, was related to every one else.  The theory of natural selection was thus for Brace the “latest argument against chattel slavery, a scientific claim that could be used in the most important controversy of his time, a clarion call for abolition” (p.39).

Brace produced a tract entitled The Races of the Old World, modeled after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which Fuller describes as a “sprawling, ramshackle work” (p.199).  Its central thesis was simple enough: “There is nothing . . . to prove the negro radically different from the other families of man or even mentally inferior to them” (p.199-200).  But much of The Races of the Old World seemed to undercut Brace’s central thesis.  Although the book never defined the term “race,” Brace “apparently believed that though all humans sprang from the same source, some races had degraded over time . . . Human races were not permanent” (p.199-200).  Brace thus struggled to make Darwin’s theory fit his own ideas about race and slavery. “He increasingly bent facts to fit his own speculations” (p.197), as Fuller puts it.

The Races of the Old World revealed Brace’s hesitation in imagining a multi-racial America. He couched in Darwinian terms the difficulty of the races cohabiting,  reverting to what Fuller describes as nonsense about blacks not being conditioned to survive in the colder Northern climate.  Brace “firmly believed in the emancipation of slaves, and he was equally convinced that blacks and white did not differ in their mental capacities” (p.202).  But he nonetheless worried that “race mixing,” or what was then termed race “amalgamation,” might imperil Anglo-Saxon America, the “apex of development. . . God’s favored nation, a place where democracy and Christianity had fused to create the world’s best hope” (p.202).  Brace joined many other leading abolitionists in opposing race “amalgamation.”  His conclusion that “black and brown-skinned people inhabited a lower run on the ladder of civilization” was shared, Fuller indicates, by “even the most enlightened New England abolitionists” (p.57).

No such misgivings visited Thoreau, who  grappled with On the Origins of Species “as thoroughly and as insightfully as any American of the period” (p.11).  As Thoreau first read his copy of the book in late January 1860,  a “new universe took form on the rectangular page before him” (p.75).  Prior to his encounter with Darwin, Thoreau’s thought had often “bordered on the nostalgic.  He longed for the transcendentalist’s confidence in a natural world infused with spirit” (p.157).  But Darwin led Thoreau beyond nostalgia.

Thoreau was struck in particular by Darwin’s portrayal of the struggle among species as an engine of creation.  The Origin of Species revealed nature as process, in constant transformation.  Darwin’s book directed Thoreau’s attention “away from fixed concepts and hierarchies toward movement instead” (p.144-45).  The idea of struggle among species “undermined transcendentalist assumptions about the essential goodness of nature, but it also corroborated many of Thoreau’s own observations” (p.137).  Thoreau had “long suspected that people were an intrinsic part of nature – neither separate nor entirely alienated from it” (p.155).  Darwin now enabled Thoreau to see how “people and the environment worked together to fashion the world,” providing a “scientific foundation for Thoreau’s belief that humans and nature were part of the same continuum” (p.155).

Darwin’s natural selection, Thoreau wrote, “implies a greater vital force in nature, because it is more flexible and accommodating, and equivalent to a sort of constant new creation” (p.246).  The phrase “constant new creation” in Fuller’s view represents an “epoch in American thought” because it “no longer relies upon divinity to explain the natural world” (p.246).  Darwin thus propelled Thoreau to a radical vision in which there was “no force or intelligence behind Nature, directing its course in a determined and purposeful manner.  Nature just was” (p.246-47).

How far Thoreau would have taken these ideas is impossible to know. He became sick in December 1860, stricken with influenza, exacerbated by tuberculosis, and died in June 1862, with Americans fighting other Americans on the battlefield over the issue of slavery.

* * *

            Fuller compares Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to a Trojan horse.  It entered American culture “using the newly prestigious language of science, only to attack, once inside, the nation’s cherished beliefs. . . With special and desolating force, it combated the idea that God had placed humans at the peak of creation” (p.213).  That the book’s attack did not spare even New England’s best known abolitionists and transcendentalists demonstrates just how unsettling the attack was.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 18, 2020

 

10 Comments

Filed under American Society, History, Political Theory, Religion, Science, United States History

The Power of Human Rights

 

Samantha Power, The Education of an Idealist:

A Memoir 

By almost any measure, Samantha Power should be considered an extraordinary American success story. An immigrant from Ireland who fled the Emerald Isle with her mother and brother at a young age to escape a turbulent family situation, Power earned degrees from Yale University and Harvard Law School, rose to prominence in her mid-20s as a journalist covering civil wars and ethnic cleaning in Bosnia and the Balkans, won a Pulitzer Prize for a book on 20th century genocides, and helped found the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she served as its executive director — all before age 35.  Then she met an ambitious junior Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, and her career really took off.

Between 2009 and 2017, Power served in the Obama administration almost continually, first on the National Security Council and subsequently as Ambassador to the United Nations.  In both capacities, she became the administration’s most outspoken and influential voice for prioritizing human rights, arguing regularly for targeted United States and multi-lateral interventions to protect individuals from human rights abuses and mass atrocities, perpetrated in most cases by their own governments.  In what amounts to an autobiography, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, Power guides her readers through  the major foreign policy crises of the Obama administration.

Her life story, Power tells her readers at the outset, is one of idealism, “where it comes from, how it gets challenged, and why it must endure” (p.xii).  She is quick to emphasize that hers is not a story of how a person with “lofty dreams” about making a difference in the world came to be “’educated’ by the “brutish forces” (p.xii) she encountered throughout her professional career.  So what then is the nature of the idealist’s “education” that provides the title to her memoir?  The short answer probably lies in how Power learned to make her idealistic message on human rights both heard and effective within the complex bureaucratic structures of the United States government and the United Nations.

But Power almost invariably couples this idealistic message with the view that the promotion and protection of human rights across the globe is in the United States’ own national security interests; and that the United States can often advance those interests most effectively by working multi-laterally, through international organizations and with like-minded states.  The United States, by virtue of its multi-faceted strengths – economic, military and cultural – is in a unique position to influence the actions of other states, from its traditional allies all the way to those that inflict atrocities upon their citizens.

Power acknowledges that the United States has not always used its strength as a positive force for human rights and human betterment – one immediate example is the 2003 Iraq invasion, which she opposed. Nevertheless, the United States retains a reservoir of credibility sufficient to be effective on human rights matters when it choses to do so.   Although Power is sometimes labeled a foreign policy “hawk,” she recoils from that adjective.  To Power, the military is among the last of the tools that should be considered to advance America’s interests around the world.

Into this policy-rich discussion, Power weaves much detail about her personal life, beginning with her early years in Ireland,  the incompatibilities between her parents that prompted her mother to take her and her brother to the United States when she was nine, and her efforts as a schoolgirl to become American in the full sense of the term. After numerous failed romances, she finally met Mr. Right, her husband, Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein (who also served briefly in the Obama administration). The marriage gave rise to a boy and a girl with lovely Irish names, Declan and Rían, both born while Power was in government.  With much emphasis upon her parents, husband, children and family life, the memoir is also a case study of how professional women balance the exacting demands of high-level jobs with the formidable responsibilities attached to being a parent and spouse.  It’s a tough balancing act for any parent, but especially for women, and Power admits that she did not always strike the right balance.

Memoirs by political and public figures are frequently attempts to write one’s biography before someone else does, and Power’s whopping 550-page work seems to fit this rule.  But Power provides much candor  – a willingness to admit to mistakes and share vulnerabilities – that is often missing in political memoirs. Refreshingly, she also abstains from serious score settling.  Most striking for me is the nostalgia that pervades the memoir.  Power takes her readers down memory lane, depicting a now by-gone time when the United States cared about human rights and believed in bi- and multi-lateral cooperation to accomplish its goals in its dealings with the rest of the world – a time that sure seems long ago.

* * *

Samantha Jane Power was born in 1970 to Irish parents, Vera Delaney, a doctor, and Jim Power, a part-time dentist.  She spent her early years in Dublin, in a tense family environment where, she can see now, her parents’ marriage was coming unraveled.  Her father put in far more time at Hartigan’s, a local pub in the neighborhood where he was known for his musical skills and “holding court,” than he did at his dentist’s office.  Although young Samantha didn’t recognize it at the time, her father had a serious alcohol problem, serious enough to lead her mother to escape by immigrating to the United States with the couple’s two children, Samantha, then age nine, and her brother Stephen, two years younger. They settled in Pittsburgh, where Samantha at a young age set about to become American, as she dropped her Irish accent, tried to learn the intricacies of American sports, and became a fervent Pittsburgh Pirates fan.

But the two children were required under the terms of their parents’ custody agreement to spend time with her father back in Ireland. On her trip back at Christmas 1979, Samantha’s father informed the nine-year old that he intended to keep her and her brother with him.  When her mother, who was staying nearby, showed up to object and collect her children to return to the United States, a parental confrontation ensued which would traumatize Samantha for decades.  The nine year old found herself caught between the conflicting commands of her two parents and, in a split second decision, left with her mother and returned to the Pittsburgh. She never again saw her father.

When her father died unexpectedly five years later, at age 47 of alcohol-related complications, Samantha, then in high school, blamed herself for her father’s death and carried a sense of guilt with her well into her adult years. It was not until she was thirty-five, after many therapy sessions, that she came to accept that she had not been responsible for her father’s death.  Then, a few years later, she made the mistake of returning to Hartigan’s, where she encountered the bar lady who had worked there in her father’s time.   Mostly out of curiosity, Power asked her why, given that so many people drank so much at Hartigan’s, her father had been the only one who died. The bar lady’s answer was matter-of-fact: “Because you left” (p.192) — not what Power needed to hear.

Power had by then already acquired a public persona as a human rights advocate through her work as a journalist in the 1990s in Bosnia, where she called attention to the ethnic cleansing that was sweeping the country in the aftermath of the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.  Power ended up writing for a number of major publications, including The Economist, the New Republic and the Washington Post.   She was among the first to report on the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, the largest single massacre in Europe since World War II, in which around 10,000 Muslim men and boy were taken prisoner and “seemed to have simply vanished” (p.102). Although the United States and its NATO allies had imposed a no-fly zone over Bosnia, Power hoped the Clinton administration would commit to employing ground troops to prevent further atrocities. But she did not yet enjoy the clout to have a real chance at making her case directly with the administration.

Power wrote a chronology of the conflict, Breakdown in the Balkans, which was later put into book form and attracted attention from think tanks, and the diplomatic, policy and media communities.  Attracting even more attention was  A Problem for Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, her book exploring  American reluctance to take action in the face of 20th century mass atrocities and genocides.  The book appeared in 2002, and won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.  It also provided Power with her inroad to Senator Barack Obama.

At the recommendation of a politically well-connected friend, in late 2004 Power sent a copy of the book to the recently elected Illinois Senator who had inspired the Democratic National Convention that summer with an electrifying keynote address.  Obama’s office scheduled a dinner for her with the Senator which was supposed to last 45 minutes.  The dinner went on for four hours as the two exchanged ideas about America’s place in the world and how, why and when it should advance human rights as a component of its foreign policy.  Although Obama considered Power to be primarily an academic, he offered her a position on his Senate staff, where she started working late in 2005.

Obama and Power would then be linked professionally more or less continually until the end of the Obama presidency in January 2017.   Once Obama enters the memoir, at about the one-third point, it becomes as much his story as hers. The two did not always see the world and specific world problems in the same way, but it’s clear that Obama had great appreciation both for Power’s intelligence and her intensity. He was a man who enjoyed being challenged intellectually, and plainly valued the human rights perspective that Power brought to their policy discussions even if he wasn’t prepared to push as far as Power advocated.

After Obama threw his hat in the ring for the 2008 Democratic Party nomination, Power became one of his primary foreign policy advisors and, more generally, a political operative. It was not a role that fit Power comfortably and it threatened to be short-lived.  In the heat of the primary campaign, with Obama and Hilary Clinton facing off in a vigorously contested battle for their party’s nomination, Power was quoted in an obscure British publication, the Scotsman, as describing Clinton as a “monster.” The right-wing Drudge Report picked up the quotation, whose accuracy Power does not contest, and suddenly Power found herself on the front page of major newspapers, the subject of a story she did not want.  Obama’s closest advisors were of the view that she would have to resign from the campaign.  But the candidate himself, who loved sports metaphors, told Power only that she would have to spend some time in the “penalty box” (p.187).  Obama’s relatively soft reaction was an indication of the potential he saw in her and his assessment of her prospective value to him if successful in the primaries and the general election.

Power’s time in the penalty box had expired when Obama, having defeated Clinton for his party’s nomination, won a resounding victory in the general election in November 2008.  Obama badly wanted Power on his team in some capacity, and the transition team placed her on the President’s National Security Council as principal deputy for international organizations, especially the United Nations.  But she was also able to carve out a concurrent position for herself as the President’s Senior Director for Human Rights.   In this portion of the memoir, Power describes learning the jargon and often-arcane skills needed to be effective on the council and within the vast foreign policy bureaucracy of the United States government.  Being solely responsibility for human rights, Power found that she had some leeway in deciding which issues to concentrate on and bring to the attention of the full Council.  Her mentor Richard Holbrook advised her that she could be most effective on subjects for which there was limited United States interest – pick “small fights,” Holbrook advised.

Power had a hand in a string of “small victories” while on the National Security Council: coaxing the United States to rejoin a number of UN agencies from which the Bush Administration had walked away; convincing President Obama to raise his voice over atrocities perpetrated by governments in Sri Lanka and Sudan against their own citizens; being appointed White House coordinator for Iraqi refugees; helping create an inter-agency board to coordinate the United States government’s response to war crimes and atrocities; and encouraging increased emphasis upon lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender issues (LGBT) overseas.  In pursuit of the latter, Obama delivered an address at the UN General Assembly on LGBT rights, and thereafter issued a Presidential Memorandum directing all US agencies to consider LGBT issues explicitly in crafting overseas assistance (disclosure: while with the Department of Justice, I served on the department’s portion of the inter-agency Atrocity Prevention Board, and represented the department in inter-agency coordination on the President’s LGBT memorandum; I never met Power in either capacity).

But the Arab Spring that erupted in late 2010 and early 2011 presented  anything but small issues and resulted in few victories for the Obama administration.  A “cascade of revolts that would reorder huge swaths of the Arab world,” the Arab Spring ended up “impacting the course of Obama’s presidency more than any other geopolitical development during his eight years in office” (p.288), Power writes, and the same could be said for Power’s time in government.  Power was among those at the National Security Council who pushed successfully for United States military intervention in Libya to protect Libyan citizens from the predations of their leader, Muammar Qaddafi.

The intervention, backed by a United Nations Security Council resolution and led jointly by the United States, France and Jordan, saved civilian lives and contributed to Qaddafi’s ouster and death.  ButPresident Obama was determined to avoid a longer-term and more open-ended United States commitment, and the mission stopped short of the follow-up needed to bring stability to the country.  With civil war in various guises continuing to this day, Power suggests that the outcome might have been different had the United States continued its engagement in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s death.

Shortly after Power became US Ambassador to the United Nations, the volatile issue of an American military commitment arose again, this time in Syria in August 2013, when proof came irrefutably to light that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons in his effort to suppress uprisings within the country.  The revelations came 13 months after Obama had asserted that use of such weapons would constitute a “red line” that would move him to intervene militarily in Syria.  Power favored targeted US air strikes within Syria.

Obama came excruciatingly close to approving such strikes.  He not only concluded that the “costs of not responding forcefully were greater than the risks of taking military action” (p.369), but was prepared to act without UN Security Council authorization, given the certainty of  a Russian veto of any Security Council resolution for concerted action.   With elevated stakes for “upholding the international norm against the use of chemical weapons” Power writes, Obama was “prepared to operate with what White House lawyers called a ‘traditionally recognized legal basis under international law’” (p.369).

But almost overnight, Obama decided that he needed prior Congressional authorization for a military strike in Syria, a decision taken seemingly with little effort to ascertain whether there was sufficient support in Congress for such a strike.  With neither the Congress nor the American public supporting military action within Syria to save civilian lives, Obama backed down.  On no other issue did Power see Obama as torn as he was on Syria,  “convinced that even limited military action would mire the United States in another open-ended conflict, yet wracked by the human toll of the slaughter.  I don’t believe he ever stopped interrogating his choices” (p.508).

Looking back at that decision with the passage of more than five years, Power’s disappointment remains palpable.  The consequences of inaction in Syria, she maintains, went:

beyond unfathomable levels of death, destruction, and displacement. The spillover of the conflict into neighboring countries through massive refugee flows and the spread of ISIS’s ideology has created dangers for people in many parts of the world. . . [T]hose of us involved in helping devise Syria policy will forever carry regret over our inability to do more to stem the crisis.  And we know the consequences of the policies we did choose. For generations to come, the Syrian people and the wide world will be living with the horrific aftermath of the most diabolical atrocities carried out since the Rwanda genocide (p.513-14).

But if incomplete action in Libya and inaction in Syria constitute major disappointments for Power, she considers exemplary the response of both the United States and the United Nations to the July 2014 outbreak of the Ebola virus that occurred in three West African countries, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.  United States experts initially foresaw more than one million infections of the deadly and contagious disease by the end of 2015.  The United States devised its own plan to send supplies, doctors and nurses to the region to facilitate the training of local health workers to care for Ebola patients, along with 3,000 military personnel to assist with on-the-ground logistics.  Power was able to talk President Obama out of a travel ban to the United States from the three impacted countries, a measure favored not only by Donald Trump, then contemplating an improbable run for the presidency, but also by many members of the President’s own party.

At the United Nations, Power was charged with marshaling global assistance.   She convinced 134 fellow Ambassadors to co-sponsor a Security Council resolution declaring the Ebola outbreak a public health threat to international peace and security, the largest number of co-sponsors for any Security Council resolution in UN history and the first ever directed to a public health crisis.  Thereafter, UN Member States committed $4 billion in supplies, facilities and medical treatments.  The surge of international resources that followed meant that the three West African countries “got what they needed to conquer Ebola” (p.455).  At different times in 2015, each of the countries was declared Ebola-free.

The most deadly and dangerous Ebola outbreak in history was contained, Power observes, above all because of the “heroic efforts of the people and governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone” (p.456). But America’s involvement was also crucial.  President Obama provided what she describes as an “awesome demonstration of US leadership and capability – and a vivid example of how a country advances its values and interests at once” (p.438).  But the multi-national, collective success further illustrated “why the world needed the United Nations, because no one country – even one as powerful as the United States – could have slayed the epidemic on its own” (p.457).

Although Russia supported the UN Ebola intervention, Power more often found herself in an adversarial posture with Russia on both geo-political and UN administrative issues.  Yet, she used creative  diplomatic skills to develop a more nuanced relationship with her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin.  Cherkin, a talented negotiator and master of the art of strategically storming out of meetings, valued US-Russia cooperation and often “pushed for compromises that Moscow was disinclined to make” (p.405).  Over time, Power writes, she and Churkin “developed something resembling genuine friendship” (p.406). But “I also spent much of my time at the UN in pitched, public battle with him” (p.408).

The most heated of these battles ensued after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2014, a flagrant violation of international law. Later that year, troops associated with Russia shot down a Malaysian passenger jet, killing all passengers aboard.  In the UN debates on Ukraine, Power found her Russian counterpart “defending the indefensible, repeating lines sent by Moscow that he was too intelligent to believe and speaking in binary terms that belied his nuanced grasp of what was actually happening” (p.426). Yet, Power and Churkin continued to meet privately to seek solutions to the Ukraine crisis, none of which bore fruit.

While at the UN, Power went out of her way to visit the offices of the ambassadors of the smaller countries represented in the General Assembly, many of whom had never received  a United States Ambassador.  During her UN tenure, she managed to meet personally with the ambassadors from every country except North Korea.  Power also started a group that gathered the UN’s 37 female Ambassadors together one day a week for coffee and discussion of common issues.  Some involved  substantive matters that the UN had to deal with, but just as often the group focused on workplace matters that affected the women ambassadors as women, matters that their male colleagues did not have to deal with.

* * *

Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016 left Power stunned.  His nativist campaign to “Make America Great Again” seemed to her like a “repudiation of many of the central tenets of my life” (p.534).  As an  immigrant, a category Trump seemed to relish denigrating, she “felt fortunate to have experienced many countries and cultures. I saw the fate of the American people as intertwined with that of individuals elsewhere on the planet.   And I knew that if the United States retreated from the world, global crises would fester, harming US interests” (p.534-35).  As Obama passed the baton to Trump in January 2017, Power left government.

Not long after, her husband suffered a near-fatal automobile accident, from which he recovered. Today, the pair team-teach courses at Harvard, while Power seems to have found the time for her family that proved so elusive when she was in government.  She is coaching her son’s baseball team and helping her daughter survey rocks and leaves in their backyard.  No one would begrudge Power’s quality time with her family. But her memoir will likely leave many readers wistful, daring to hope that there may someday  be room again for  her and her energetic idealism in the formulation of United States foreign policy.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 26, 2020

7 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, Politics, United States History

School Girls on the Front Lines of Desegregation

 

Rachel Devlin, A Girl Stands in the Door:

The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America’s Schools

(Basic Books)

When World War II ended, public schools in the United States were still segregated by race throughout much of the country.  Segregated schools were mandated by state legislatures in all the states of the former Confederacy (“the Deep South”), along with Washington, D.C., Delaware and Arizona, while a handful of American states barred racial segregation in their public schools.  In the remainder, the decision whether to segregate was left to local jurisdictions.  Racial segregation of public schools found its constitutional sanction in Plessy v. Ferguson, the United States Supreme Court’s 1896 decision which held that equal protection of the law under the federal constitution did not prohibit states from maintaining public facilities that were “separate but equal.”

But “separate but equal” was a cruel joke, particularly as applied to public schools: in almost every jurisdiction which maintained segregated schools, those set aside for African-Americans were by every objective standard unequal and inferior to counterpart white schools.  In 1954, the Supreme Court, in one of its most momentous decisions, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, invalidated the Plessy “separate but equal” standard as applied to public schools, holding that in the school context separate was inherently unequal.  The decision preceded by a year and a half the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott that made both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., household names.  The pathway leading to Brown was arguably the opening salvo in what we now term the modern Civil Rights Movement.

That pathway has been the subject of numerous popular and scholarly works, the best known of which is Richard Kluger’s magisterial 1975 work Simple Justice.  In Kluger’s account and most others, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and its Legal Defense Fund (LDF), which instituted Brown and several of its predecessor cases, are front and center, with future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, the LDF’s lead litigator, the undisputed lead character.  Yet, Rachel Devlin, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, maintains that earlier studies of the school desegregation movement, including that of Kluger, overlook a critical point: the students who desegregated educational institutions – the “firsts,” to use Devlin’s phrase — were mostly girls and young women.

Devlin’s research revealed that only one of the early, post-World War II primary and secondary school desegregation cases that paved the way to the Brown decision was filed on behalf of a boy.  Looking at those who “attempted to register at white schools, testified in court, met with local white administrators and school boards, and talked with reporters from both the black and white press,” Devlin saw almost exclusively schoolgirls.  This disparity “held true in the Deep South, upper South, and Midwest” (p.x). After the Brown decision, the same pattern prevailed: “girls and young women vastly outnumbered boys as the first to attend formerly all-white schools” (p.x).

Unlike Kluger, Devlin does not focus on lawyers and lawsuits but rather on the “largely young, feminine work that brought school desegregation into the courts” (p.xi).  She begins with court challenges to state enforced segregation at the university level, some of which began before World War II.  She then proceeds to a host of post-World War II communities that challenged racial segregation in primary and second schools in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  The Brown decision itself, a ruling on segregated schools in Topeka, Kansas, merits only a few pages, after which she portrays the first African-American students to enter previously all-white schools during the second half of the 1950s and into the 1960s.  The pre-Brown challenges to segregated public education that Devlin highlights took place in Washington, D.C., Kansas, Delaware, Texas and Virginia. In her post-Brown analysis, she turns to the Deep South, to communities in Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina.

Devlin’s intensely factual and personality-driven narrative at times falls victim to a forest-and-trees problem: she focuses on a multitude of individuals — the trees — to the point that the reader  can easily lose sight of the forest — how the featured individuals fit into the overall school desegregation movement.  Yet, there are a multitude of lovely trees to behold in Devlin’s forest – heroic and endearing schoolgirls and the adults who supported them, both men and women, all willing to confront entrenched racial segregation in America’s public schools.

* * *

School desegregation, Devlin writes, differed from other civil rights battles, such as desegregation of lunch counters, public transportation, and parks, in that interacting with white people was not “fleeting or ‘fortuitous,’ but central to the project itself.  School desegregation required sustained interactions with white school officials and students. This fact called for a different approach than other forms of civil rights activism” (p.xxiv).   But Devlin also emphasizes that this different approach gave rise to controversy among affected African-Americans.

In almost every community she studied, there was a dissident African-American faction that opposed desegregation of all-white schools, favoring direct pressure and court cases designed to force school authorities to make good on the “equal” portion of “separate but equal.”  Parents who favored this less frontal approach, while “willing to protest unequal schools, simply wanted a better education for their children while they were still young enough to receive it, not a long, hard campaign against a long-standing Supreme Court precedent” (p.167).  Devlin demonstrates that this quest for equalization, however understandable, was at best quixotic. Time and time again, she shows, the white power structure in the communities she studies had no serious intention of equalizing black and white schools.

Why girls and young women predominated in school desegregation efforts is as much a part of Devlin’s story as the particulars of those efforts at the institutions and in the communities she studies.  After WWII, she notes, there was a “strong, though unstated, cultural assumption that the war to end school desegregation was a girls’ war, a battle for which young women and girls were specially suited” (p.xvi).  With the example of boys and young men who had gone off to fight in World War II fresh in everyone’s minds, Devlin speculates, girls and young women may have felt an “ethical compulsion to act at a young age” (p.xvi).

Devlin was able to interview several of the female firsts for her book as they looked back on their experience in desegregating schools several decades earlier.  These women, she indicates, had been inspired as school girls “not only by a sense of obligation and individual calling but also by the opportunity to do something important and highly visible in a world and at a time when young women did not often earn much public acclaim” (p.225). The boys and young men she studied, by contrast, manifested a “desire to distance themselves from an overt, individual commitment to desegregating schools” (p.223).  Leaving was more of an option for high school age boys who felt alienated in newly desegregated schools.  They had “more mobility – and autonomy – than young women, and it allowed them to walk away from the school desegregation process when they felt it was not working for them” (p.196).   Leaving for girls “did not feel like a choice, both because they understood their parents’ expectations of them and because they had fewer alternatives” (p.196).

* * *

The pathway to Brown in Devlin’s account starts at the university level with Lucille Bluford and Ida Mae Sipuel, two lesser-known women who were denied admission because of their race to, respectively, the University of Missouri School of Journalism and the University of Oklahoma Law School.  Both saw their court cases overshadowed by those of men, Lloyd Gaines and Herman Sweatt, pursuing university level desegregation in court at the same time.  But while the two men’s cases established major Supreme Court precedents, both proved to be disappointing plaintiffs and spokesmen for the desegregation cause, in sharp contrast to Bluford and Sipuel.

Gaines was the beneficiary of one of the Supreme Court’s first major decisions involving higher education, Gaines v. Canada, where the Court ruled in 1938 that the State of Missouri was required either to admit Gaines to the University of Missouri Law School or create a separate facility for him.  Missouri chose the latter option, which Gaines refused.  But he thereafter went missing.  He was last seen taking a train to Chicago and was never heard from again.  Bluford, then a seasoned journalist working for the African-American newspaper the Kansas City Call, not only covered the Gaines litigation decision but also set out to gain admission herself to the University of Missouri’s prestigious School of Journalism.

Both “hardheaded and gregarious” (p.32), Bluford doggedly pursued admission to the university’s journalism school between 1939 and 1942.  In her court case, her lawyer, the NAACP’s Charles Houston, provided the book’s title in his closing argument when he told the court: “A girl stands at the door and a generation waits outside” (p.27).  When Bluford won a victory in court in 1942, Missouri chose to close its journalism school, citing low wartime enrollment, rather than admit Bluford.  But with her uncanny ability to find “significance in small acts of decency and mutual acknowledgement in everyday encounters” (p.11), Bluford turned her energies to reporting on school desegregation cases throughout the country, including both Sipuel’s quest to enter the University of Oklahoma Law School and the Kansas desegregation cases that led to Brown.

Sipuel agreed to challenge the University of Oklahoma Law School’s refusal to admit African-Americans only after her brother Lemuel turned down the NAACP’s request to serve as plaintiff in the case.  In 1946, she refused Oklahoma’s offer create a separate “Negro law school,” and two years later won a major Supreme Court case when the Court ruled that Oklahoma was obligated to provide her with legal education equal to that of whites.  Sipuel became the near perfect first at the law school, Devlin writes, personifying the uncommon array of skills required in that sensitive position:  “personal ambition combined with an ability to withstand public humiliation, charisma in front of the camera and self-sacrificing patience, the appearance of openness with the black and white press corps alongside an implacable determination” (p.67).

The “girl who started the fight,” as one black newspaper described Sipuel, became “something of a regional folk hero” (p.52) as a role model for future desegregation plaintiffs.  The “revelation that school desegregation was in their grasp came not from the persuasive power of NAACP officials and lawyers,” Devlin writes, but from the “‘young girl’ who would not be turned down” (p.37).  Sipuel went on to become the law school’s first African American graduate and thereafter the first African-American to pass the Oklahoma bar.

Sipuel’s engaging and exuberant public persona contrasted with that of Herman Sweatt, who sought to enter the University of Texas’s flagship law school in Austin.  In a 1950 case bearing his name, Sweatt v. Painter, the Supreme Court rejected Texas’ contention that it could satisfy the requirements of the constitution’s equal protection clause by consigning Sweatt to a “Negro law school” it had established in Houston.  The Court’s sweeping decision outlawed segregation in its entirety in graduate school education.  But although Sweatt did not go missing in action like Lloyd Gaines, he never completed his course of study at the University of Texas Law School and proved to be ill suited to the high-visibility, high-pressure role of a desegregation plaintiff.  He exuded neither Sipuel’s enthusiastic commitment to desegregated higher education, nor her grace under fire.

As the Supreme Court was rewriting the rules of university level education, dozens of cases challenging primary and secondary school segregation were percolating in jurisdictions across America, with Washington, D.C., and Meriam, Kansas, near Kansas City, providing the book’s most memorable characters.  Rigidly segregated Washington,  the nation’s capital, had several lawsuits going  simultaneously, each of which featured a strong father standing behind a courageous daughter.

First out of the gate was 14-year old Marguerite Carr.  Amidst much fanfare, in 1947 Marguerite’s father took her to enroll at a newly built white middle school two blocks from her home, where she faced off with the school principal.  When the principal told her, “you don’t want to come here,” Carr smiled, a “sign of social reciprocity, trustworthiness, a willingness to engage,” yet at the same time told the principal respectfully but firmly, “I do want to come to this school” (p.ix).  Carr’s combative response was pitch perfect, Devlin argues, meeting the “contradictory requirements inherent in such confrontations” (p.ix).

Marguerite’s court case coincided with that of Karla Galaza, a Mexican-American who had been attending  a black vocational school with a strong program in dress design until school authorities discovered that she was not black and barred her from the school.  Her stepfather, a Mexican-American activist, filed suit on his daughter’s behalf.  Simultaneously, Gardner Bishop surged into a leadership position during an African-American student strike challenging segregated education in Washington.  Bishop, by day a barber, was an activist who thrust his somewhat reluctant daughter Judine into the strike and subsequent litigation.  Bishop described himself as an outsider in Washington’s desegregation battle, representing the city’s African-American working class rather than its black middle class.  None of these cases culminated in a major court decision.

The NAACP later chose Spotswood Bolling as the lead plaintiff over a handful of girls in the lawsuit that accompanied Brown to the Supreme Court.  The young Bolling was another elusive male plaintiff, dodging all reporters and photographers.  His discomfort with the press “sets in high relief the performances of girl plaintiffs with reporters in the late 1940s (p.173),” Devlin argues.  Girls and young women “felt it was their special responsibility to find ways to address such inquiries. Bolling evidently did not” (p.174).   But the case bearing his name, Bolling v. Sharp, decided at the same time as Brown, held that segregation in Washington’s public schools was unconstitutional even though, as a federal district rather than a state, Washington was not technically bound by the constitution’s equal protection clause.

In South Park, Kansas, an unincorporated section of Merriam, located outside Kansas City, Esther Brown, arguably the book’s most unforgettable character, led a student strike over segregated schools.  Brown, a 23-year-old Jewish woman, committed radical and communist sympathizer, cast herself as merely a “housewife with a conscience” — a “deliberately humble, naïve, and conservative image” (p.108) that she invoked constantly in her dealings with public.  Lucille Bluford covered the strike for the Kansas City Call.  Bluford and the “White Mrs. Brown,” as she was called, subsequently became friends (Esther Brown was not related to Oliver Brown, the named plaintiff in the Brown case).

During the South Park student strike, Esther Brown went out on a limb to promise that she would find a way to pay the teachers herself.  She organized a Billie Holiday concert, but most of her fund raising targeted people of modest means – farmers, laborers, and domestics.  She eventually persuaded Thurgood Marshall that the NAACP should initiate a court case, despite Marshall’s initial reservations — he was suspicious of what he described as a “one woman show” (p.125).  Although the lawsuit was filed on behalf of an even number of boys and girls, Patricia Black, then eight years old, was chosen to testify in court — “setting another pattern of female participation for the cases to come” (p.111).  Black, who wore a white bow in her hair when she testified, reflected years later that she had been “taught how to act,” which meant “having manners . . . sitting up straight . . . making eye contract, being erect, and [being] nice” (p.139).

The South Park lawsuit led to the NAACP’s first major desegregation victory below the university level.  Black grade school students successfully entered the white school in the fall of 1949. The South Park case also inspired the challenge to segregated schooling in Topeka that culminated in the Brown decision.  At the trial in Brown, a 9-year-old girl, Kathy Cape, accepted the personal risk and outsized responsibility of testifying at the trial, rather than  the named plaintiff Oliver Brown, a boy.

With the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown meriting barely more than a page, Devlin turns in the last third of the book to the schoolgirls who entered previously all white schools in the aftermath of the ruling.  Here, more than in her earlier portions, she describes in stark terms the white opposition to desegregation which, although widespread, was especially ferocious in the Deep South, where the “vast majority of school boards angrily fought school desegregation with every resource available to them” (p.192).  Devlin notes that between 1955 and 1958, southern legislatures passed nearly five hundred laws to impede implementation of Brown.

In New Orleans, three girls, Tessie Prevost, Leona Tate and Ruby Bridges, were chosen to be firsts as eight year olds at Semmes Elementary School.  Years later, Tessie described to Devlin what she, Leona and Ruby had endured at Semmes.  Administrators, teachers, and fellow pupils “did everything in their power to break us” (p.213-14), Prevost recounted.  Even teachers incited violence against the girls:

The teachers were no better that the kids. They encouraged them to fight us, to do whatever it took.  Spit on us. We couldn’t even eat in the cafeteria; they’d spit on our food – we could hardly use the restrooms  . . . They’d punch you, trip you, kick you . . . They’d push you down the steps . . . I got hit by a bat . . . in the face . . . It was every day. And the teachers encouraged it . . . Every day.  Every day (p.214).

The New Orleans girls’ experience was typical of the young firsts from the other Southern communities Devlin studied, including Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Albany, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina.  Nearly all experienced relentless abuse, “not simply violence and aggression but a systemic, all encompassing, organized form of endless oppression” (p.214). Throughout the South, black schoolgirls demonstrated an extraordinary ability to “withstand warfare within the school when others could not,” which Devlin characterizes as a “barometer of their determination, courage, ability, and strength” (p.218).

* * *

Devlin acknowledges a growing contemporary disillusionment with the Brown decision and school integration generally among legal scholars, historians and ordinary African-Americans.  But the school desegregation firsts who met with Devlin for this book uniformly believe that their actions more than a half-century earlier had “transformed the arc of American history for the better” (p.268).   Even if Brown no longer occupies quite the exalted place it once enjoyed in the iconography of the modern Civil Rights Movement, the schoolgirls and supporting adults whom Devlin portrays in this deeply researched account deserve our full admiration and gratitude.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 8, 2020

 

11 Comments

Filed under American Society, United States History

Stirring Rise and Crushing Fall of a Renaissance Man

 

 

Jeff Sparrow, No Way But This:

In Search of Paul Robeson (Scribe)

            If you are among those who think the term “Renaissance Man” seems fuzzy and even frivolous when applied to anyone born after roughly 1600, consider the case of Paul Robeson (1898-1976), a man whose talents and genius extended across an impossibly wide range of activities.  In the 1920s and 1930s, Robeson, the son of a former slave, thrilled audiences worldwide with both his singing and his acting.  In a mellifluous baritone voice, Robeson gave new vitality to African-American songs that dated to slave plantations.  On the stage, his lead role as Othello in the play of that name gave a distinctly 20th century cast to one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters.  He also appeared in a handful of films in the 1930s.  Before becoming a singing and acting superstar, Robeson had been one of the outstanding athletes of his generation, on par with the legendary Jim Thorpe.  Robeson  further earned a degree from Columbia Law School and reportedly was conversant in upwards of 15 languages.

Robeson put his multiple talents to use as an advocate for racial and economic justice internationally.  He was among the minority of Americans in the 1930s who linked European Fascism and Nazism to the omnipresent racism he had confronted in America since childhood.  But Robeson’s political activism during the Cold War that followed World War II ensnared the world class Shakespearean actor in a tragedy of Shakespearean dimension, providing a painful denouement to his uplifting life story.

Although Robeson never joined a communist party, he perceived a commitment to full equality in the Soviet Union that was missing in the West.  While many Westerners later saw that their admiration for the Soviet experiment had been misplaced, Robeson never publicly criticized the Soviet Union and paid an unconscionably heavy price for his stubborn consistency during the Cold War.  The State Department refused to renew his passport, precluding him from traveling abroad for eight years.  He was hounded by the FBI and shunned professionally.  Robeson had suffered from depression throughout his adult life.  But his mental health issues intensified in the Cold War era and included a handful of suicide attempts.  Robeson spent his final years in limbo, silenced, isolated and increasingly despairing, up to his death in 1976.

In No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson, Jeff Sparrow, an Australian journalist, seeks to capture Robeson’s stirring rise and crushing fall.  The book’s subtitle – “In Search of Paul Robeson” — may sound like any number of biographical works, but in this case encapsulates precisely the book’s unique quality.  In nearly equal doses, Sparrow’s work consists of the major elements of Robeson’s life and Sparrow’s account of how he set about to learn the details of that life — an example of biography and memoir melding together.  Sparrow visited many of the places where Robeson lived, including Princeton, New Jersey, where he was born in 1898; Harlem in New York City; London and Wales in Great Britain; and Moscow and other locations in today’s Russia.

In each location, Sparrow was able to find knowledgeable people, such as archivists and local historians, who knew about Robeson and were able to provide helpful insights into the man’s relationship to the particular location.  We learn for instance from Sparrow’s guides how the Harlem that Robeson knew is rapidly gentrifying today and how the economy of contemporary Wales functions long after closure of the mines which Robeson once visited.  Sparrow’s travels to the former Soviet Union take him to several locations where Robeson never set foot, including Siberia, all in effort to understand the legacy of Soviet terror which Robeson refused to acknowledge.  Sparrow’s account of his travels to these diverse places and his interactions with his guides reads at times like a travelogue.  Readers looking to plunge into the vicissitudes of Robeson’s life may find these portions of the book distracting.  The more compelling portions are those that treat Robeson’s extraordinary life itself.

* * *

            That life began in Princeton, New Jersey, world famous for its university of that name.  The Robeson family lived in a small African-American community rarely visited by those whose businesses and lives depended upon the university.  Princeton was then considered,  as Sparrow puts it, a “northern outpost of the white supremacist South: a place ‘spiritually located in Dixie’” (p.29).  William Robeson, Paul’s father, was a runaway former slave who earned a degree from Lincoln University and became an ordained Presbyterian minister.  His mother Maria, who came from an abolitionist Quaker family and was of mixed ancestry, died in a house fire when Paul was six years old.  Thereafter, William raised Paul and his three older brothers and one older sister on his own.  William played a formidable role in shaping young Paul, who later described his father as the “glory of my boyhood years . . . I loved him like no one in all the world” (p.19).

William abandoned Presbyterianism for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, one of the oldest black denominations in the country, and took on a much larger congregation in Somerville, New Jersey, where Paul attended high school.  One of a handful of African-American students in a sea of whites, Robeson excelled academically and played baseball, basketball and football.  He also edited the school paper, acted with the drama group, sang with the glee club, and participated in the debating society.  When his father was ill or absent, he sometimes preached at his father’s church.  Robeson’s high school accomplishments earned him a scholarship to nearby Rutgers University.

At Rutgers, Robeson again excelled academically.  He became a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and was selected as class valedictorian.  As in high school, he was also an outstanding athlete, earning varsity letters in football, basketball and track.  A standout in football, Robeson was “one of the greatest American footballers of a generation,” so much so that his coach “designed Rutgers’ game-plan tactics specifically to exploit his star’s manifold talents” (p.49).  Playing in the backfield, Robeson could both run and throw. His hefty weight and size made him almost impossible to stop.  On defense, his tackling “took down opponents with emphatic finality” (p.49).  Twice named to the All-American Football Team, Robeson was not inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame until 1995, 19 years after his death.

After graduation from Rutgers in 1919, Robeson spent the next several years in New York City.  He enrolled in New York University Law School, then transferred to Columbia and moved to Harlem.  There, Robeson absorbed the weighty atmosphere the Harlem Renaissance, a flourishing of African-American culture, thinking and resistance in the 1920s.  While at Columbia, Robeson met chemistry student Eslanda Goode, known as “Essie.”  The couple married in 1921.

Robeson received his law degree from Columbia in 1923 and worked for a short time in a New York law firm.  But he left the firm abruptly when a secretary told him that she would not take dictation from an African-American.  Given his talents, one wonders what Robeson could have achieved had he continued in the legal profession.  It is not difficult to imagine Robeson the lawyer becoming the black Clarence Darrow of his age, the “attorney for the damned;” or a colleague of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the 20th century’s legal battles for full African-American rights.  But Robeson gravitated instead toward singing and acting after leaving the legal profession, while briefly playing semi-pro football and basketball.

Robeson made his mark as a singer by rendering respectable African-American songs such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” that had originated on the plantations — “sorrow songs” that “voiced the anguish of slavery” (p.81), as Sparrow puts it.  After acting in amateur plays, Robeson won the lead role in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, a play about inter-racial sexual attraction that established Robeson as an “actor to watch” (p.69).  Many of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance criticized Robeson’s role in the play as reinforcing racial stereotypes, while white reviewers “blasted the play as an insult to the white race” (p.70).  An opportunity to star in O’Neill’s Emperor Jones on the London stage led the Robesons to Britain in 1925, where they lived for several years.  The couple’s  only child, Paul Jr., whom they called “Pauli,” was born in London in 1927.

Robeson delighted London audiences with his role in the musical Show Boat, which proved to be as big a hit in Drury Lane as it had been on Broadway.  He famously changed the lines to “Old Man River” from the meek “I’m tired of livin’” and “feared of dyin'” to a declaration of resistance: “I must keep fightin’/Until I’m dyin'”.  His rendition of “Old Man River,” Sparrow writes, transported the audience “beyond the silly narrative to an almost visceral experience of oppression and pain.”  Robeson used his huge frame, “bent and twisted as he staggered beneath a bale, to convey the agony of black history while revealing the tremendous strength forged by centuries of resistance” (p.103).

The Robesons in their London years prospered financially and moved easily in a high inner circle of respectable society.  The man who couldn’t rent a room in many American cities lived as an English gentleman in London, Sparrow notes.  But by the early 1930s, Robeson had learned to see respectable England as “disconcertingly similar” to the United States, “albeit with its prejudices expressed through nicely graduated hierarchies of social class.  To friends, he spoke of his dismay at how the British upper orders related to those below them” (p.131).

In London, as in New York, the “limited roles that playwrights offered to black actors left Paul with precious few opportunities to display any range. He was invariably cast as the same kind of character, and as a result even his admirers ascribed his success to instinct rather than intellect, as a demonstration not so much of theatrical mastery but of an innate African talent for make-believe, within certain narrow parameters” (p.107). Then, in 1930, Robeson received a fateful invitation to play Othello in a London production, a role that usually went to an actor of Arab background.

Robeson’s portrayal of Othello turned out triumphal, with the initial performance receiving an amazing 20 curtain calls.  In that production, which  ran for six weeks, Robeson transformed Shakespeare’s tragedy into an “affirmation of black achievement, while hinting at the rage that racism might yet engender” (p.113).  Thereafter, Othello “became central to Paul’s public persona,” (p.114), providing a role that seemed ideal for Robeson: a “valiant high-ranking figure of color, an African neither to be pitied nor ridiculed” (p.109).

While in London, Robeson developed sensitivity to the realities of colonial Africa through friendships with men such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, Jomo Kenyatta, and Kwame Nkrumah, future leaders of independence movements in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana, respectively.  Robeson retained a keen interest in African history and politics for the remainder of his life.  But  Robeson’s commitment to political activism seems to have crystallized through his frequent visits to Wales, where he befriended striking miners and sang for them.

Robeson supported the Welsh labor movement because of the “collectivity it represented. In Wales, in the pit villages and union lodges and little chapels, he’d found solidarity” (p.149).  Robeson compared Welsh churches to the African-American churches he knew in the United States, places where a “weary and oppressed people drew succor from prayer and song” (p.133).  More than anywhere else, Robeson’s experiences in Wales made him aware of the injustices which capitalism can inflict upon those at the bottom of the economic ladder, regardless of color.  Heightened class-consciousness proved to be a powerful complement to Robeson’s acute sense of racial injustice developed through the endless humiliations encountered in his lifetime in the United States.

Robeson’s sensitivity to economic and racial injustice led him to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, which he visited many times and where he and his family lived for a short time.  But a stopover in Berlin on his initial trip to Moscow in 1934 opened Robeson’s eyes to the Nazis’ undisguised racism.  Nazism to Robeson was a “close cousin of the white supremacy prevailing in the United States,” representing a “lethal menace” to black people.  For Robeson, the suffering of African Americans in their own country was no justification for staying aloof from international politics, but rather a “reason to oppose fascism everywhere” (p.153).

With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Spain became the key battleground to oppose fascism, the place where “revolution and reaction contested openly” and “Europe’s fate would be settled” (p.160).  After speaking and raising money on behalf of the Spanish Republican cause in the United States and Britain, Robeson traveled to Barcelona, where he sang frequently.  Robeson’s brief experience in Spain transformed him into a “fervent anti-fascist, committed to an international Popular Front: a global movement uniting democrats and radicals against Hitler, Mussolini, and their allies” that would also extend democracy within the United States, end colonialism abroad, and “abolish racism everywhere” (p.196-97).

Along with many progressives of the 1930s, Robeson looked to the Soviet Union to lead the global fight against racism and fascism.  Robeson once said in Moscow, “I feel like a human being for the first time since I grew up.  Here I am not a Negro but a human being” (p.198).  Robeson’s conviction that the Soviet Union was a place where  a non-racist society was possible “sustained him for the rest of his political life” (p.202).   Although he never joined a communist party, from the 1930s onward Robeson accepted most of the party’s ideas and “loyally followed its doctrinal twists and turns” (p.215).  It is easy, Sparrow indicates, to see Robeson’s enthusiasm for the Soviet Union as the “drearily familiar tale of a gullible celebrity flattered by the attentions of a dictatorship” (p.199).

Sparrow wrestles with the question of the extent to which Robeson was aware of the Stalinist terror campaigns that by the late 1930s were taking the lives of millions of innocent Soviet citizens.  He provides no definitive answer to this question, but Robeson never wavered publicly in his support for the Soviet Union.  Had he acknowledged Soviet atrocities, Sparrow writes, he would have besmirched the “vision that had inspired him and all the people like him – the conviction that a better society was an immediate possibility” (p.264).

Robeson devoted himself to the Allied cause when the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves on the same side fighting Nazi aggression during World War II, “doing whatever he could to help the American government win what he considered an anti-fascist crusade” (p.190).  His passion for Soviet Russia “suddenly seemed patriotic rather than subversive” (p.196-97).  But that quickly changed during the intense anti-Soviet Cold War that followed the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Almost overnight in the United States, communist party members and their sympathizers became associated “not only with a radical political agenda but also with a hostile state.  An accusation of communist sympathies thus implied disloyalty – and possibly treason and espionage” (p.215).

The FBI, which had been monitoring Robeson for years, intensified its scrutiny in 1948.   It warned concert organizers and venue owners not to allow Robeson to perform “communist songs.”  If a planned tour went ahead, Sparrow writes, proprietors were told that they would be:

judged Red sympathizers themselves. The same operation was conducted in all the art forms in which Paul excelled.  All at once, Paul could no longer record music, and the radio would not play his songs.  Cinemas would not screen his movies. The film industry had already recognized that Paul was too dangerous; major theatres arrived at the same conclusion. The mere rumor that an opera company was thinking about casting him led to cries for a boycott.  With remarkable speed, Paul’s career within the country of his birth came to an end (p.216).

In 1950, the US State Department revoked Robeson’s passport after he declined to sign an affidavit denying membership in the Communist Party.  When Robeson testified before the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) in 1956, a Committee member asked Robeson why he didn’t go back to the Soviet Union if he liked it so much.  Roberson replied: “Because my father was a slave . . . and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you.  And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?” (p.228). Needless to say, this was not what Committee members wanted to hear, and Robeson’s remarks “brought the moral weight of the African-American struggle crashing down upon the session” (p.228-29).

Robeson was forced to stay on the sidelines in early 1956 when the leadership of the fledgling Montgomery bus boycott movement (which included a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) concluded that his presence would undermine the movement’s fragile political credibility.  On the other side of the Cold War divide, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered a not-so-secret speech that winter to party loyalists in which he denounced Stalinist purges.   Sparrow hints but doesn’t quite say that Robeson’s exclusion from the bus boycott and Khrushchev’s acknowledgment of the crimes committed in the name of the USSR had a deleterious effect on Robeson’s internal well-being.   He had suffered from bouts of mental depression throughout his adult life, most notably when a love affair with an English actress in the 1930s ended badly (one of several Robeson extra-marital affairs). But his mental health deteriorated during the 1950s, with “periods of mania alternating with debilitating lassitude” (p.225).

Even after Robeson’s passport was restored in 1958 as a result of a Supreme Court decision, he never fully regained his former zest.  A broken man, he spent his final decade nearly invisible, living in his sister’s care before dying of a stroke in 1976.

* * *

                     Sparrow describes his book as something other than a conventional biography, more of a “ghost story” in which particular associations in the places he visited form an “eerie bridge” (p.5) between Robeson’s time and our own.  But his travels to the places where Robeson once lived and his interactions with his local guides have the effect of obscuring the full majesty and tragedy of Robeson’s life.  With too much attention given to Sparrow’s search for what remains of Robeson’s legacy on our side of the bridge, Sparrow’s part biography, part travel memoir comes up short in helping readers discover Robeson himself on the other side.

 

 

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

October 21, 2019

 

 

6 Comments

Filed under American Society, Biography, European History, History, Politics, United States History

Public Intellectual Within the Portals of Power

 

 

 

Richard Aldous, Schlesinger:

The Imperial Historian (W Norton & Co.)

                Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007) is best known today for serving as a presidential advisor to President John F. Kennedy and, after Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, writing what amounted to a quasi-official history of the short Kennedy presidency, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.  Schlesinger entered the White House in 1961 as one of America’s most accomplished 20th century historians, with highly regarded works on the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt already to his credit; and as a political activist who had helped define post-World War II anti-communist liberalism and advised the unsuccessful 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns of Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson.  Schlesinger thus personified what we might today term a “public intellectual,” a top-notch historian who also engaged in politics throughout his adult life.

                Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days received favorable reviews, became an immediate best seller, and won the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for biography.   But the book has not aged well, and today is often dismissed as hagiography.  It helped cement Schlesinger’s reputation, deservedly or not, as an acolyte of the Kennedys, their pit bull defender in the court of public opinion.  A Thousand Days and Schlesinger’s post-White House years raise the question whether historians can enter the public arena as political actors, yet remain true to their calling when they seek to write about their real-world experiences.  Richard Aldous, author of an incisive analysis of the relationship between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, reviewed  here in June 2013, wrestles with this intriguing question in his biography, Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian. 

                Aldous suggests that Schlesinger might fairly be considered the last of the “progressive” historians, a group that included Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard and his father, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., himself an eminent professor of American history at Harvard University.  The younger Schlesinger  “believed in the uses of history and in useful history” (p.191), Aldous writes.  But was he a “great and important historian, a model of how academics and public service can mix?” he asks.  Or “was he a popularizer and court historian held captive to the Establishment that nurtured his career?”  (p.2-3).  No clear-cut answer to this question emerges from Aldous’ study, but he explores its implications adeptly in this crisply written and thoroughly researched biography, arranged chronologically (assiduous readers of this blog will recall Schlesinger’s collection of letters, reviewed here in December 2015).

                Along the way, Aldous traces the several paths that Schlesinger traveled to become one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals of the post-World War II era.  He provides good if not necessarily fresh insights into the personalities of Stevenson and Kennedy, the two stars to whom Schlesinger hitched his political wagon, coupled with one more  tour of the Kennedy White House (another such tour is Robert Dallek’s Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House, also reviewed here in December 2015).   The post-White House years in Aldous’ account were less kind to Schlesinger, who found his unabashed liberalism yielding to other approaches to politics and the writing of history.

* * *                

                  Readers may be surprised to learn that Schlesinger was not born a “junior.”  As a teenager, he determined to change his name from Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger to Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr.  It was an odd change, since Bancroft was not merely his mother’s maiden name.  She was descended from one of America’s greatest 19th century historians, George Bancroft, a man whom Schlesinger later came to revere as a prime example of an “historian-participant.”  But the name change symbolized the extent to which Schlesinger was beholden to his father, who never lost his grip on his son.

                 Young Arthur was a gifted student who skipped grades and thus was two years younger and significantly smaller than his classmates in secondary school.  He performed brilliantly but was socially awkward due to the age difference.  When it came time to go to university, there was no real choice.  He went to Harvard, where he took many of his father’s courses and was, as Aldous puts it, a “homing bird, happy living in his father’s intellectual coop,” (p.28).  Schlesinger and John Kennedy, born the same year, were contemporaries at Harvard but had little interaction.  Schlesinger was a serious student, Kennedy significantly less so. 

                 Schlesinger graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1938, and even then had been spotted as an upcoming historian slated for distinction in the field.   His father had steered him to a senior thesis on an obscure 19th intellectual, Orestes Brownson, which led to a book on Brownson published in 1939, the first of many for the budding scholar.  His father pulled the appropriate strings for its publication (which Aldous’ compares to Joseph Kennedy’s efforts on behalf of his son John’s senior thesis on the 1938 Munich crisis, published as Why England Slept).  In his work on Brownson, Schlesinger sought to demonstrate how venal and anti-democratic business interests worked against the interests of common people, a youthful perspective that would be reflected in his subsequent studies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt.

                As war loomed in Europe, Schlesinger spent the academic year 1938-39 on a fellowship at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, after graduation from Harvard.  He returned to Harvard for graduate studies, where his seminal work on Jackson began to take form.   American entry into World War II in 1941 precluded him from putting the final touches to his work, and bad eyesight prevented him from enlisting in the armed forces until nearly the end of the war.   But Schlesinger had a series of desk jobs during the war years, in Washington, D.C., and London.

                Among them was a stint at the Research and Analysis section of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the CIA.   There,  he analyzed Nazi propaganda, which he considered a waste of time.  Aldous recounts how a disagreement with Maurice Halperin, head of the OSS Latin America desk, over how to characterize a change of governments in Bolivia resulted in an altercation between the two that may have involved physical blows and led to a less-than-favorable performance evaluation for Schlesinger, who was chided for his lack of “cooperativeness” (p.82).  Halperin was subsequently exposed as a Soviet spy, reinforcing Schlesinger’s conviction that there could be no accommodation between American liberalism and Communism.

                After the war, Schlesinger returned to Harvard, where he finished The Age of Jackson.  The work challenged the then widely held notion of Jacksonian democracy as a regional phenomenon confined primarily to the western frontier.  For Schlesinger, Jacksonian democracy was national in scope, characterized by a vigorous federal government countering entrenched business interests on behalf of urban workers and small farmers across the country, including in the Northeast.  Schlesinger won a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Jackson at the impossibly young age of 29, aided in part by his father’s lobbying on his behalf.  While not determinative, the senior Schlesinger’s efforts marked another instance, Aldous writes, of Arthur Jr. “living on the inside track, a placement that had served him well throughput his rise to national prominence, so often giving him a head start in an always-competitive race” (p.102).  The Age of Jackson was criticized in subsequent years for ignoring issues of Indian removal, race and gender, criticism that its author admitted was valid.  But Schlesinger’s study remains, Aldous indicates, the point of reference against which other studies of the Jacksonian era continue to be measured.   

                Schlesinger’s first volume of The Age of Roosevelt,  The Crisis of the Old Order, appeared in 1957, with The Coming of the New Deal appearing in 1959 and The Politics of Upheaval in 1960.  Schlesinger never completed the last two volumes in what he had envisioned as a five-volume series.

* * *

                No ivory tower recluse, Schlesinger in 1948 joined famed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and a group of other prominent Americans, including John Kenneth Galbraith, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Reuther, to form the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a group that sought to mobilize support for what became mainstream American liberalism of the 1950s.  The ADA championed a strong federal government to regulate capitalism, assist those working within the capitalist economy, promote civil rights, and advance the national interest, while respecting civil liberties yet taking a vigorous stand against Communism at home and abroad.  

                The following year saw the appearance of Schlesinger’s The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, his first overtly political tract, in which he made the argument for liberal democracy as the only viable option for the post World War II era between the totalitarian temptations of Communism on the left and Fascism on the right.  The Vital Center turned out to be among Schlesinger’s “most enduring works” (p.139).   It was also a product of Schlesinger’s friendship with Niebuhr, another well-placed mentor for the rising academic star as he sought to influence the contemporary political debate.  Niebuhr gave Schlesinger “both the confidence and the intellectual underpinning” for The Vital Center, “which in turn would do more than perhaps any other book to popularize the theologian’s ideas” (p.137).

                Schlesinger moved even more directly into the political arena during the presidential campaigns of 1952 and 1956, supporting the candidacy of Adlai Stevenson.  Stevenson ran twice for president against American war hero Dwight Eisenhower, and lost by substantial margins each time. Schlesinger thought Stevenson had a chance to win the 1956 election because of Eisenhower’s heart attack the previous year, with lingering questions about his health and physical stamina giving the Democratic nominee a glimmer of hope.  Schlesinger entered into the Kennedy world during the 1960 presidential primary campaign as an intermediary between Stevenson, again a candidate, and Kennedy.

* * *

                Although Kennedy and Schlesinger hit it off well almost from the beginning, many within the Kennedy clan looked at him suspiciously, as a Stevenson infiltrator within their camp.  Schlesinger’s primary contribution to the 1960 general election between Kennedy and then Vice-President Richard Nixon was a book, Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make any Difference, cobbled together quickly to dispel the notion that there was no substantive difference between the two candidates.   Schlesinger’s work, effusive in its praise for Kennedy, ’showed him “writing at his most brilliant and polemical best” (p.214), Aldous observes.

                 After Kennedy defeated Nixon by a narrow margin in the 1960 presidential election, Schlesinger eagerly accepted an offer to work at the White House.  Kennedy and Schlesinger reached what Aldous suggests was an implicit understanding that Schlesinger would at some point use his White House experience to write The Age of Kennedy, preserving – and perhaps defining – Kennedy’s legacy.  His official title at the White House was “Special Advisor to the President,” but it was a position that lacked both clearly defined duties and a place in the White House hierarchy, a formula that guaranteed confusion and friction with other White House officials.  Schlesinger and Theodore Sorenson, Kennedy’s long-term assistant, bumped heads frequently over speechwriting responsibilities as they both sought the president’s attention and favor.  Unlike Sorenson and most of the other officials with whom he was competing for presidential attention, Schlesinger had no staff at the White House.  It was therefore more difficult for him to stay in the loop on the key issues that were reverberating through the administration. 

                 Schlesinger often worried that Kennedy was “no liberal” (p.224) and, throughout his White House years, came to feel that he was an “embattled liberal minority in the White House, constantly forced to fight [for] his corner as the administration settled into an essentially conservative character” (p.266).  Still, Schlesinger wrote memos to the President – lots of them, long ones, and on a wide range of subjects.  Even Kennedy, who appreciated Schlesinger’s sharp intellect in a way that many of his subordinates did not, “seemed to tire of Schlesinger’s barrage of ideas and proposals” (p.302).  In the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, however, in the early months of the Kennedy presidency, Schlesinger wrote what in retrospect appears as a remarkably prescient memorandum. 

                Schlesinger’s memorandum tried to convince the president not to go forward with the operation, arguing that insufficient attention had been afforded to the operation’s long-term political implications.  At one point, he thought he had convinced the president, only to be told subsequently by brother Robert Kennedy that he should keep his doubts to himself.  The operation turned into a spectacular failure, a serious blot on the young presidency, and Schlesinger came to regret that he had too dutifully followed Robert’s directive to fall into line.  

                Schlesinger had no role during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.  He attended none of the major meetings, which were so secret he “did not even know that they were taking place”  (p.289).   Moreover, he showed little interest in Vietnam during his time in the White House, although he became a passionate opponent of the war during the Johnson years.  The major substantive area where he arguably had the greatest impact was on Berlin.  After Kennedy’s disastrous confrontation with Soviet Party Secretary and Premier Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961, Schlesinger pleaded with the President to reject the views of several hawks in the administration pushing for military solutions to the Berlin crisis (Kennedy’s meeting with Khrushchev is the subject of Frederick Kempe’s Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, reviewed here in February 2013).  When the Soviets erected the infamous Berlin Wall in August of that year, Kennedy’s restrained response reflected the views Schlesinger had expressed a few weeks earlier.

                Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 provided urgency to Schlesinger’s long-planned project to write The Age of Kennedy as a complement to his works on Jackson and Roosevelt.  Schlesinger’s “entire life had prepared him for this moment” (p.2), Aldous writes.  If he had been somewhat of an outlier in the Kennedy White House, he moved front and center in the Kennedy circle in the aftermath of the assassination.  The “legacy project mattered for everyone: for [Kennedy’s wife] Jackie in reinforcing the Camelot myth; and for [brother Robert], who had to position himself in relation to the dead president, not just the living one.  At stake was the political agenda for the ‘60s” (p.317).   Although Schlesinger stayed briefly into the Johnson administration, he left in the winter of 1964 to concentrate on the book. 

                 A Thousand Days, appearing in 1965, became the vehicle by which Schlesinger worked through his shock, depression and grief in the aftermath of the assassination.  Schlesinger termed his work a memoir rather than comprehensive history, “only a partial view” (p.319) which emphasized what he had seen first hand.  The book placed Kennedy squarely within the progressive tradition of Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt, rendering him arguably more liberal than he actually was.  Like Jackson and Roosevelt, the Kennedy in A Thousand Days, was “tough-minded” and “pragmatic” (p.326), ready to take on the moneyed elite for the benefit of the many.

                Eminent historian James MacGregor Burns, writing in the New York Times Book Review a month after delivering a withering review of a similar work by Theodore Sorenson, found that A Thousand Days had captured the “sweep and the ferment of the thousand days,” placing the Kennedy presidency in the “widest historical and intellectual frame.”  A “great president,” Burns concluded, had “found – perhaps he deliberately chose – a great historian” (p.331).  But by the end of the 20th century, views on A Thousand Days had changed.  Typical were the 1998 observations of acerbic critic Christopher Hitchens, who termed the book a “court history” which served as the “founding breviary of the cult of JFK” (p.320).  Yet, to Aldous A Thousand Days still constitutes a “foundational text on the Kennedy administration.  Not only did Schlesinger establish the ‘first draft’ of history on the Kennedy years, but he offered an invaluable personal account of life on the inside. . . [T]he book remains a must for any historian working on Kennedy” (p.387). 

                 Much to his father’s dismay, Schlesinger had resigned from the Harvard faculty in 1962 to stay at the White House after taking the maximum allotted leaves of absence from the university.  He thus had no home to return to in 1965 when he finished A Thousand Days.  Just weeks prior to the book’s publication, moreover, the senior Schlesinger died suddenly of a heart attack, a devastating loss for Arthur Jr.  Later in 1965, the younger Schlesinger moved to New York to take a teaching position at City University of New York (CUNY).  In the same period, Schlesinger’s marriage of 25 years to wife Marian came unraveled.  Aldous does not dwell on Schlesinger’s personal life, but makes clear that his marriage was at times turbulent, enjoying more downs than ups.

                 Schlesinger had by this time become a vehement critic of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War.  In 1967, he published a critique of the war, The Bitter Heritage, an “undisguised attack on the Johnson administration” and its “heedless military escalation” in Vietnam (p.342).  He supported Robert Kennedy’s short-lived presidential campaign in 1968, and was again gripped by depression and grief when he too was assassinated in June of that year.  The death of the second Kennedy, along with that two months earlier of Martin Luther King, Jr., represented the “destruction of a broader idea,” bringing to an “ugly, violent end the optimism that framed much of Schlesinger’s life” (p.349).  For Schlesinger, the 1960s had become the “decade of the murder of hope” (p.351). 

* * *

                 Schlesinger continued to write while teaching at CUNY, but never finished The Age of Roosevelt, and never published anything approaching The Age of Jackson in stature.  In 1973, in the midst of the Watergate crisis, he produced The Imperial Presidency, a work that upbraided Johnson and Nixon’s presidential usurpations, while largely absolving Kennedy of any such transgressions (the book’s title appears to have yielded Aldous’ strained subtitle, which seems off point as applied to Schlesinger the historian).  In 1978, Robert Kennedy and His Times appeared, a biography Schlesinger had reluctantly agreed to write in the aftermath of the younger Kennedy’s assassination a decade earlier.  The work was greeted with mostly lukewarm reviews.

                Schlesinger supported George McGovern’s 1972 bid for the presidency, which he lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon.  He had to strain to generate enthusiasm for the last two Democratic presidents of his lifetime, Southerners Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton  (Clinton, Aldous reports, searched in vain for his own Schlesinger to “take care of the history,” p.387).  Neither espoused the pragmatic federal activism that Schlesinger had championed since the late 1940s.  Schlesinger further worried that the Democratic Party’s emphasis upon what we would today call “identity politics” – highlighting the interests of minorities, women, gays – risked undermining its capacity to unite working and middle class voters across racial and ethnic lines.  And he similarly worried that the emphasis on race, gender and sexual orientation in the writing of history had superseded his more traditional approach.

* * *

                 Schlesinger died in 2007, just short of his 90th birthday.  Although “perhaps the most famous historian of his time,” unlike most of  his fellow historians, Schlesinger was, Aldous writes, “never quite sure whether his loyalties lay mostly with his profession or with the people whose lives he chronicled” (p.2-3).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 10, 2019

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized, United States History

A History of Overcoming Obstacles

 

 

Herb Boyd, Black Detroit:

A People’s History of Self Determination

(Amsted/HarperCollins)

          Detroit, once known as the “automobile capital of the world” and, during World War II, as the “arsenal of democracy,” is today more readily written off as the quintessential urban basket case.  Census figures alone provide a good part of the reason.  From a population that reached nearly 2 million in 1950, by the year 2000, that figure had dropped by almost exactly half, to about 950,000.  This precipitous drop continued into the present century – today, Detroit’s population is estimated to be about 675,000.  But population drop is only one part of a story that can be told from many perspectives.   

             In Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self Determination, journalist, activist, and Detroit native Herb Boyd tells the story from the perspective of the African-Americans who have been part of the city’s building blocks from its earliest days in the early 18th century, when it was a French trading settlement along the straits that link Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, up through the present, as a majority black city.  Boyd describes his book as the first to consider black Detroit “from a long view, in a full historical tableau” (p.14). 

          Through his treatment of 18th and 19th century Detroit, Boyd introduces his readers to numerous African-Americans who have been overlooked or neglected in earlier histories of the city.  Their stories are ones of survival, thriving, and even heroism in the face of the overwhelming odds which racism placed upon 18th and 19th century African-Americans in Detroit and throughout the United States.   But Boyd’s story takes off in the early 20th century, as Detroit’s intimate connection to the American automobile industry took hold, offering unparalleled employment opportunities for Detroit’s African-American community.    

          Over half the book addresses Detroit’s history in the nearly three quarters of a century since the end of World War II, and it is largely a dispiriting story.  After roughly two decades of unprecedented prosperity in the 1950s and early 1960s for Detroit’s working classes, black and white, the city went up in flames in a devastating 5-day riot in July 1967 and has not been the same since.  The riot accelerated the already on-going flight of the city’s white population to the suburbs.  They were joined by many of the businesses that had provided jobs to the city’s working class, black and white, thereby decimating the city’s tax base.  Detroit hit what Boyd considers its nadir in 2013, when it ignominiously filed for bankruptcy, the largest city in the United States to do so. 

          Boyd finds in 21st century Detroit all the indicia of a Third World city, comparing it explicitly to Dhaka, Bangladesh, with its “concentration of poverty compounded by a declining tax base, spreading squalor, inadequate health facilities, and high infant mortality” (p.283).   Since Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy, Boyd sees some signs of hope, especially in the revitalization of its downtown and midtown business areas, thanks to the efforts of several creative business entrepreneurs.  But daunting challenges remain, especially in the blighted neighborhoods beyond the city’s inner core.

* * *

            Boyd’s opening chapters emphasize how slavery was a fact of life in Detroit in the 18th century and into the early years of the 19th century.   By the time Michigan became a state in 1837, slavery had largely disappeared from Detroit but the city’s African-American population still faced enormous obstacles in exercising the rights and enjoying the freedoms that white Detroiters took for granted.  In the years before the American Civil War (sometimes called the “War Between the States”), Detroit and neighboring Canada became important end points in the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used to escort African-American slaves to freedom.   Boyd details the heroic contributions of many Detroiters to the success of the network, with William Lambert standing out. Lambert was a “phenomenal” conductor on the Underground Railroad, “assuring the safety of runaway slaves during their stay in Detroit and then escorting them to freedom across the river” (p.35).  The general consensus among historians is that some 40,000 men, women and children passed out of bondage through Lambert’s “gentle and caring hands” (p.36).

          Detroit emerged as an industrial center during the last quarter of the 19th century.  Although industrialization provided Detroit’s black workers with increased employment opportunities, most had “little choice but to accept menial jobs as immigrants slowly replaced black workers as longshoremen, coopers (barrel makers), barbers, cooks, teamsters, and doormen.  It made little difference if the newcomers were not fluent in English” (p.54).  As the automobile age dawned during first two decades of the twentieth century, Detroit became a preferred destination for the many African-Americans fleeing the American South, attracted by the opportunities that the burgeoning automobile industry offered.  “When considering all that Detroit has meant to America,” David Maraniss wrote in Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story, reviewed here in November 2016,  “it can be said in a profound sense that Detroit gave blue-collar workers a way into the middle class.” 

          But Boyd emphasizes how Detroit’s African-Americans had to struggle far more than whites throughout the 20th century to gain a share of this middle-class prosperity.  Among Detroit’s automobile manufacturers, Ford Motor Company “quickly surpassed all other companies in the number of African American employees” (p.94).  Some manufacturers, Dodge in particular, preferred Eastern European immigrants, even those who couldn’t speak English, to native-born African-Americans. The relationship between black Detroiters and the automobile companies could thus not help but be troubled, a “classic black-and-white battle and clearly an unequal one” (p.69).  

          In the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression hit black Detroiters harder than any other ethnic group.  As labor unrest became a fact of life in industrialized Detroit, black workers were often reluctant to participate in strikes against the automobile companies.  Many felt uncertain about the promises made by the emerging United Auto Workers (UAW).  “After all,” Boyd writes, there was a “four-century history of white betrayal to counsel hesitancy and prudent neutrality.   A few blacks even went so far as to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ford’s security forces as they brutally attacked union members, and some joined the legions of strike breakers who dared to cross the picket lines surrounding the plants” (p.133).  

          Many African-American men from Detroit went off willingly to fight World War II and acquitted themselves honorably in combat.  Their absence meant openings for women in the factories, including a dramatically increased number of black women.  But in the middle of World War II, tensions between black and white Detroiters exploded on a sweltering summer Sunday afternoon in June 1943.  A misunderstanding on the city’s recreational playground, Belle Isle, cascaded into an orgy of racial violence that spread across the city and turned into one of the most devastating civil disorders  to that point in American history, which Boyd painstakingly details.  

         The 1943 disorders were far from the first in the city’s history, and underscored how stark racial conflict between blacks and whites constitutes an inescapable part of Detroit’s history.  Other disorders, in 1833, 1863, 1925, and 1941, had also scarred the city’s landscape physically and psychologically, with the worst still to come.

* * *

          Although Detroit began losing population sometime in the early 1950s, the two decades following World War II were years of extraordinary prosperity in the city and the United States as a whole.  As Detroit’s automakers met Americans’ seemingly insatiable desire for new cars, a middle class lifestyle became a reality for more and more of the city’s working population, black and white.  In the early 1960s, Detroit was selected as the US nominee in the competition to host the 1968 Olympics.  Although the games were ultimately awarded to Mexico City, the city bested other American competitors for the nomination in no small part because a slew of high-minded officials in the public and private sector had carefully cultivated an image of the city as a model of racial progress for the nation.   

          Detroit in the early 1960s felt the full force of the Civil Rights Movement.  In June 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King led approximately 125,000 people in what was known as the “Walk to Freedom,” in which King delivered a speech that presaged his “I Have A Dream” address at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington two months later.  Later that year, Malcolm X, who had grown up in nearby Lansing and had lived in Detroit for a while, delivered one of his most noteworthy speeches, “Message to the Grass Roots,” which emphasized community control as the key to black advancement, a notion at the core of what was coming to be known as the Black Power Movement. 

          But the five days of looting, arson and violence in July 1967 permanently shattered Detroit’s image as a bastion of racial progress.  The disorder left 43 dead and 473 injured.  More than 7,200 persons were arrested, with some 2,500 stores vandalized or destroyed.  Overall damage was estimated to be somewhere between $40 and $80 billion.  In the aftermath of the 1967 disorders, Detroit was moving inexorably toward becoming a majority black city. The city elected its first African-American mayor, the cantankerous Coleman Young, in 1974.   Young went on to serve four additional terms as mayor, dominating the city’s political landscape until 1994.  His outsized persona also dominates Boyd’s narrative of the final quarter of Detroit’s 20th century.    

          Young was what an earlier generation of blacks called a “race man,” with a combative, take-no-prisoners style that, as Boyd puts it, was “emblematic of a Detroit toughness, a self-determinative disposition that continues to resonate from those who experienced his furious passage” (p.9).  When first elected mayor, Young “wasn’t naïve about his victory, feeling that the city was his because the whites no longer wanted it” (p.231).  Young forged alliances with key Detroit business leaders, which led to the building of a new sports arena and glittering skyscrapers downtown.  But he was frequently criticized for ignoring the city’s residential neighborhoods, black and white (one scathing critique is Paul Clemens’ Made in Detroit: A South of Eight Mile Memoir, reviewed here in 2012). 

          Many black middle class Detroiters joined in the exodus out of the city during Young’s rein, while powerful drug-dealing gangs came to dominate more and more neighborhoods and the citywide crime rate increased alarmingly.  One particularly painful reminder of the crime increase occurred in August 1994, when civil rights heroine Rosa Parks was mugged in her home by an intruder and robbed of $103.  “The irony of the attack was inescapable,” Boyd writes.  “Here was a woman who had risked her life to bring an end to a segregated society, an avowed nonviolent opponent of racism and discrimination, now waylaid by one of her own.  It was a horrible moment that circulated around the globe but with a particular resonance of despair in Detroit” (p.280-81). 

          By 2000, black middle class flight from the city exceeded white flight.  Politically, things seemed to go from bad to worse in the new century, as symbolized by the disheartening regime of Mayor Kilwame Kilpatrick.  Elected in 2001 at the age of 30, Kilpatrick appeared to be a young man on the rise, with charisma, oratorical skills and connections to the national Democratic Party elite.  But allegations of multiple forms of corruption hounded him from the very beginning of his term.  The most graphic involved Kilpatrick’s extramarital affair with his chief-of-staff, which Kilpatrick attempted to hide and lied about under oath, forcing his resignation, a guilty plea to several felony charges, and 120 days in jail. 

          Kilpatrick’s fall from grace, Boyd concludes, served as “another reminder of the city’s Third World circumstances”  (p.325).   In Detroit, as in Dhaka, Bangladesh, there was “very little left of a once prosperous manufacturing base, where residents purchase most goods from other countries and seldom own or control the means of production” (p.321-22).  Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy closes out Boyd’s narrative of downward spiral.  

          In recent years, mortgage and financial giant Quicken Loans has taken a lead role in the revitalization of the city’s downtown business district, where it established its headquarters,  accompanied by pledges to help employees find housing nearby.  Shinola, a Detroit manufacturer (not the defunct shoe polish company), produces not only watches, its main product, but also bicycles, leather goods and other items, offering myriad employment opportunities to Detroit residents.  And Boyd even sees cause for optimism in Detroit’s recent election of a white mayor, the first since 1974, who won “because he earned the black vote” (p.338).  But dozens of formerly vibrant residential neighborhoods beyond the downtown and midtown business districts remain severely blighted or nearly uninhabited.   

          Boyd steers away from a “big picture” attempt to dissect and explain Detroit’s precipitous post-World War II fall, a ground many other writers have treaded upon.  “I leave it to the social scientists and economists,” he writes, to “assess the damage, how it got there, and what can be done to restore and sustain the city” (p.338).  But a macro-theory explaining the fall can nonetheless be pieced together from his narrative, consisting most prominently of the following:

  • White racism/white flight: whites over the course of several decades “voted with their feet,” showing that they preferred to live in communities closed to blacks, outside the city limits; scores of businesses followed, decimating the city’s revenue base;

  • The devastating 1967 riot accelerated white flight and set the city on a downward course that, more than a half-century later, has yet to be fully reversed; and

  • Fiscal mismanagement and outright corruption within city government in the years Detroit was seeking to recover from the 1967 disorders, up to the 2013 bankruptcy. 

          Boyd gives less emphasis to changes in the automobile industry.  But Detroit’s famed Big Three automakers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, were generally outperformed by foreign competition during the 1970s and 1980s, while many of their key facilities left the city for the suburbs and beyond.   Then, in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown, General Motors and Chrysler themselves filed for bankruptcy.

* * *

           Boyd also elaborates throughout on how black churches served as institutional anchors for the city’s African-American community from Detroit’s earliest days, and he provides rich detail on the dynamic African-American music scene that flourished throughout Detroit’s history.  In the initial decades of the 19th century, prior to the American Civil War, Detroit’s Second Baptist Church became the “social, political, and economic bedrock” where black Detroiters could seek refuge from the ravages of the day.  “Here they could find succor and salvation from the slights of poverty, the insults, and the racism that were so much a part of their daily travails” (p.49).   

          In the 20th century, during the Civil Rights fervor of the early 1960s, the charismatic Reverend Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, minister at New Bethel Baptist Church, led the behind-the-scenes organization for the June 1963 Walk to Freedom and served as one of Dr. King’s key Detroit allies.   Franklin competed with the Reverend Albert Cleage for control over the details of the Walk and, more generally, for control over the direction of the quest for racial justice and equal opportunity in Detroit.  Cleage, whose church became known as the Shrine of the Black Madonna, founded on the belief that Jesus was black, sponsored Malcolm X’s November 1963 speech.

          In the post-Civil War decades, Detroit was awash in marching bands whose styles were subsequently popularized by John Phillip Sousa.  Through the work of Detroit organist, pianist, and composer Harry Guy, Detroit was arguably the birthplace of ragtime music, more frequently associated with Scott Joplin.  In the 20th century, Detroit came to rival such centers as Memphis and New Orleans as centers for the blues.  It was also a hothouse for jazz throughout the 20th century, from the “hot jazz” of the 1920s and 1930s to the “cool jazz” of the 1950s.

          But as the 1950s ended, Detroit’s music scene came to be dominated by marketing genius Berry Gordy, as he put together the popular music empire known officially and affectionately as Motown.  Gordy aimed to promote his Motown sound with white and black listeners alike.  His team included a mind-boggling array of stars (one who eluded him was Reverend Franklin’s daughter Aretha, who recorded instead for the Columbia and Atlantic labels).  He ran his popular music business like an automobile factory, Boyd writes playfully.  “When the song rolled off this assembly line of musicians and arrangers, the finished product was like a new Cadillac” (p.183).  Gordy stung the city psychologically in 1972 when he joined the exodus of businesses out of Detroit, moving his Motown empire to Los Angeles.

* * *

          In this comprehensive account of the African-American contributions to Detroit’s good and not-so-good times, Boyd shines light on a community that has always been “vigorous and resourceful” (p.26), as he puts it at one point, with a glorious tradition of “getting up off the floor [and] coming back” (p.339).  He writes about his native city’s downward spiral with circumspection, providing the details objectively, much like a physician reporting to family members on a seriously ill patient.  But there is more than a wisp of sadness and regret in his account of Detroit’s years of decline.  How could it be otherwise?

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 12, 2019

5 Comments

Filed under American Society, United States History

Medieval Scholar On the Front Lines of Modern History

 

Robert Lerner, Ernst Kantorowicz:

A Life (Princeton University Press)

          Potential readers are likely to ask themselves whether they should invest their time in a biography of a medieval historian, especially one they probably had never heard of previously.  Ernst Kantorowicz (1895-1963) may be worth their time because he was more than just one of the 20th century’s most eminent historians of medieval Europe, a scholar who changed the way we look at the Middle Ages, although for many readers that alone should be sufficient to warrant their time.   But Kantorowicz’s life story is only in part that of an academic.  It also encompasses some of the 20th century’s most consequential moments.

             A German Jew, Kantorowicz fought in the Kaiser’s army in World War I, then took up arms on three separate occasions on behalf of Germany in the chaotic and often violent period immediately following the war.  After the Nazis took power, Kantorowicz became one of the fiercest academic critics of the regime.  Forced to flee Germany in 1938, Kantorowicz wound up in the United States, where he became, like Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein and scores of others, a German Jewish émigré who enriched incalculably American cultural and intellectual life.  He landed at the University of California, Berkeley.  But just as he was settling comfortably into American academic life, Kantorowicz was fired from the Berkeley faculty when he refused to sign a McCarthy-era, Cold War loyalty oath – although not before distinguishing himself as the faculty’s most vocal and perhaps most eloquent opponent of the notion of loyalty oaths. 

          In Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life, Robert Lerner, himself a prominent medieval historian who is professor emeritus at Northwestern University, painstakingly revisits these turbulent 20th century moments that Kantorowicz experienced first hand.  He adds to them his analyses of Kantorowicz’ scholarly output and creative thinking about medieval Europe, by which Kantorowicz earned his reputation as one of the “most noted humanistic scholars of the twentieth century” (p.387).  Lerner also demonstrates how Kantorowicz transformed from a fervently conservative German nationalist in the World War I era to an ardently liberal, anti-nationalist in the post-World War II era.  And he adds to this mix Kantorowicz’s oversized personality and unconventional personal life: urbane, witty, and sometimes nasty, Kantorowicz was a “natty dresser, a noted wine connoisseur, and a flamboyant cook” (p.4) who was also bi-sexual, alternating between men and women in his romantic affairs.  Lerner skillfully blends these elements together in this comprehensive biography, arranged in strict chronological form.

          Although Kantorowicz’s life’s journey encompassed well more than his time and output as an academic, he was a student or teacher at some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions: Heidelberg in the 1920s, Oxford in the 1930s, the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1940s, and the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, in the 1950s.  His stints in Heidelberg and Oxford produced the two major influences on Kantorowicz’s intellectual life: Stefan George and Maurice Bowra.  In Heidelberg, Kantorowicz fell under the spell of George, a mesmerizing poet and homoerotic cult-like leader who espoused anti-rationalism, anti-modernism and hero worship.  In the following decade at Oxford, he met Maurice Bowra, a distinguished classicist, literary critic, and part time poet, known for his biting wit, notorious quips, and “open worship of pleasure” (p.176).  George and Bowra are easily the book’s two most memorable supporting characters. 

          Kantorowicz’s life, like almost all German Jews of his generation lucky enough to survive the Hitler regime, breaks down into three broad phases: before, during and after that regime.  In Kantorwicz’s case, the first may be the most captivating of the three phases.

* * *

          Ernst Kantorowicz was born in 1895 in Posen, today Poznań and part of Poland but then part of Prussian Germany.  The son of a prosperous German-Jewish liquor manufacturer, Kantorowicz volunteered to fight for the Kaiser in World War I.  Wounded at Verdun, the war’s longest and costliest battle, Kantorowicz was awarded an Iron Cross for his valiant service on the Western Front.  In early 1917, Kantorowicz was dispatched to the Russian front, and thereafter to Constantinople.   In Turkey, he was awarded the Iron Crescent, the Turkish equivalent of Iron Cross.  But his service in Turkey came to an abrupt end when he had an affair with a woman who was the mistress of a German general. 

          In the immediate post-war era, Kantorowicz fought against a Polish revolt in his native city of Posen; against the famous Spartacist uprising in Berlin in January 1919 (the uprising’s 100th anniversary last month seems to have passed largely unnoticed); and later that year against the so-called Bavarian Soviet Republic in Munich.  In September 1919, Kantorowicz matriculated at the University of Heidelberg, ostensibly to study economics, a sign that he intended to take up his family business from his father, who had died earlier that year.  But while at Heidelberg Kantorowicz also developed interests in Arabic, Islamic Studies, history and geography.  In 1921, he was awarded a doctorate based on a slim dissertation on guild associations in the Muslim world, a work that Lerner spends several pages criticizing (“All told it was a piece of juvenilia . . .  [C]oncern for proof by evidence and the weighing of sources were absent.  Nuance was not even a goal;” p.65). 

          Kantorowicz in these years was plainly caught up in the impassioned nationalist sentiments that survived and intensified in the wake of Germany’s defeat in the war and the humiliating terms imposed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles.  In 1922, he wrote that German policy should be dedicated to the destruction of France.  His nationalist sentiments were heightened in Heidelberg when he came under the spell of the poet-prophet Stefan George, one of the dominant cultural figures in early 20th century Germany.

          George was a riveting, charismatic cult figure who groomed a coterie of carefully selected young men, all “handsome and clever” (p.3).  Those in his circle (the George-Kreis in German) were “expected to address him in the third person, hang on his every word, and propagate his ideals by their writings and example” (p.3).  George read his “lush” and “esoteric” poetry as if at a séance (p.69).  Since George took beauty to be the expression of spiritual excellence, he often asked young men to stand naked before the others, as if models for a sculptor. 

          George was “firmly antidemocratic” and rhapsodized over an idealized leader who would “lead ‘heroes’ under his banner” (p.80).  By means of George’s teaching and influence, the young men of the George-Kreis were expected to “partake of his wisdom and become vehicles for the arduous but inevitable triumph of a wonderfully transformed Germany,” (p.72), a land of “truth and purity” (p.3).  George urged Kantorowicz to write a “heroic” biography of 13th century Holy Roman emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), at various times King of Sicily, Germany, Jerusalem and the Holy Roman Empire.  George considered Frederick II the embodiment of the leadership qualities that post-World War I Germany sorely lacked.

          Kantorowicz’s esoteric and unconventional biography came out in 1927, the first full-scale work on Frederick II to be published in German.  Although written for a popular audience, the massive work (632 pages) appeared at a time when German scholars recognized that the work had filled a void.  Out of nowhere, Lerner writes, along came the 31 year old Kantorowicz, who had “never taken a university course in medieval history” (p.107), offering copious detail about Frederick II’s reign.  Although the book lacked documentation, it was obviously based on extensive research.  The book proved attractive for its style as much as its substance.  Kantorowicz demonstrated that he was a “forceful writer, taken to employing high-flown rhetoric, alliteration, and sometimes archaic diction for dramatic effect” (p.101). Moreover, he utilized unconventional sources, such as legends, prophecies, manifestoes, panegyrics, and ceremonial chants.

           But Kantorowicz’s work was controversial.  Being published without footnotes led some to charge that he was making up his story, a charge he later rebutted with copious notes.  Others found the biography too enthusiastic, and insufficiently dispassionate and objective.  To many, it seemed to celebrate authoritarianism and glorify German nationalism.  Kantorowicz portrayed Frederick as a tragic hero and the idealized personification of a medieval German nation.  Although not religious, Lerner finds that Kantorowicz came close to implying that the hand of God was at work in Frederick’s achievements.  Early versions of the book carried a swastika on the cover, and the Nazis seemed to like it, even though written by a Jew.  Their affinity for the book may have been one reason Kantorowicz later sought to put distance between himself and the work that established his scholarly reputation.

          In 1924, while preparing the biography, Kantorowicz traveled to the Italian portions of Frederick’s realm, where he was deeply impressed with the remains of the ancient Greeks.  The journey converted him into a Hellenophile, a lover of ancient Greek civilization.  From that point forward, even though Kantorowicz’s publications and his academic life continued to center on the Middle Ages, his emotional commitment lay with the ancients, another indication of George’s influence. 

          In 1930, Kantorowicz’s work on Frederick II earned him a teaching position at the University of Frankfurt, only 50 miles from Heidelberg but an altogether different sort of institution.  Prosperous merchants, including many Jews, had founded the university only in 1914, and it was among the most open of German universities to Jewish scholars.   In the winter of 1932, Kantorowicz acceded to a full professorial position at Frankfurt.  But his life was upended one year later when the Nazis ascended to power, beginning the second of his life’s three phases.

* * *

          Ever an elitist, Kantorowicz looked down upon the Nazis as “rabble” (p.159), although there is some indication that he initially approved of the Nazis’ national-oriented views, or at least found them substantially co-terminus with his own.  But by the end of 1933, his situation as a Jewish professor had become “too precarious for him to continue holding his chair” (p.158), and he was forced to resign from the Frankfurt faculty.  He found plenty of time for research because he could no longer teach, comparing himself to Petrarch as a  “learned hermit” (p.185).

            After resigning from the faculty at Frankfurt, Kantorowicz gained a six-month, non-paying fellowship at Oxford in 1934.  The fellowship transformed Kantorowicz into a life-long anglophile and enabled him to improve his English, a skill that would be vital to his survival when he had to flee Germany a few years later.  Almost everyone Kantorowicz met at Oxford was on the political left, and the German nationalist began unmistakably to move in this direction during his Oxford sojourn.  Renowned French medievalist Marc Bloch was at Oxford at the same time.  The two hit it off well, another  indication that Kantorowicz’s nationalist and anti-French strains were mellowing. 

            But the most lasting relationship arising out of Kantorowicz’s fellowship at Oxford was with Maurice Bowra, as eccentric in his own way as George.  An expert on ancient Greek poetry, Bowra was famous for his spontaneous, off-color aphorisms.  Isaiah Berlin termed Bowra the “greatest English wit of his day” (p.176). Bowra was as openly gay as one could be in 1930s England, and had an affair with Kantorowicz during the latter’s time at Oxford.  Although their romance cooled thereafter, the two remained in contact for the remainder of Kantorowicz’s life.  Lerner sees Bowra replacing George as the major intellectual influence upon Kantorowicz after his stint at Oxford.   

            Back in Germany by mid-1934, Kantorowicz received the status of “professor emeritus” that provided regular payments of a pension at full salary “as if he had retired at the end of a normal career” (p.186).  That Kantorowicz remained in Germany in these years demonstrated to some that he was a Nazi sympathizer, a view that Lerner vigorously rejects.  “No German professor other than Ernst Kantorowicz spoke publicly in opposition to Nazi ideology throughout the duration of the  Third Reich” (p.171),  Lerner insists. But Kantorowicz barely escaped arrest in the wake of the violent November 1938 anti-Semitic outburst known as Kristallnacht.  Within weeks, he had fled his native country  — thereby moving into the third and final phase of his life’s journey.

* * *

            After a brief stop in England, Kantorowicz found himself in the fall of 1939 at the University of California, Berkeley, where he gained a one-year teaching appointment.   Until he was awarded a full professorship in 1945, he faced unemployment each year, rescued at the last minute by additional one-year appointments.  The four years from June 1945 until June 1949, Lerner writes, were “probably the happiest in Ernst Kantorowicz’s life.”  He considered himself to be in a “land of lotus-eaters . . . Conviviality was unending, as was scholarly work”  (p.294).  He was smitten by the pretty girls in his classes, and had a prolonged affair with a cousin who lived with her husband in Stockton, some 50 miles away, but had a car.  By this time the fervent German nationalist had become, just as fervently, an anti-nationalist well to the left of the political center who worried that the hyper-nationalism of the Cold War was leading inevitably to nuclear war and identified strongly with the struggle for justice for African-Americans.     

            Substantively, Lerner characterizes Kantorowicz’s scholarly work in his Berkeley years as nothing short of amazing.  He began to consider Hellenistic, Roman and Early Christian civilizations collectively, finding in them a “composite coherence” (p.261), perhaps a predictable outgrowth of his affinity for the ancient civilizations.  Kantorowicz’s perspective foreshadowed the late 20th century tendency to treat these civilizations together as a single “world of late antiquity.”  He was also beginning to focus on the emergence of nation states in Western Europe.  In part because of uncertainty with the English language, Kantorowicz wrote out all his lectures, and they are still available.  Browsing through them today, Lerner writes, “one can see that they not only were dazzling in their insights, juxtapositions, and sometimes even new knowledge but also were works of art, structurally and rhetorically” (p.273). 

            If the years 1945 to 1949 were the happiest of Kantorowicz’s life, the period from July 1949 through August 1950, one of the hottest periods in the Cold War, was almost as trying as his time in Germany under the Nazi regime.  Berkeley President Robert Sproul imposed an enhanced version of a California state loyalty oath on the university’s academic employees, with the following poison pill: “I do not believe in, and I an not a member of, nor do I support any party or organization that believes in, advocates, or teaches the overthrow of the United States Government by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional means” (p.313).  The oath affected tenured as well as non-tenured instructors — it was no oath, no job, even for the most senior faculty members.

           Kantorowicz refused to sign the oath. One Berkeley faculty member recalled years later that Kantorowicz had been “undoubtedly the most militant of the non-signers” (p.317).  Invoking his experience as an academic in Hitler’s Germany, Kantorowicz argued that even if the oath appeared mild, such coerced signing was always the first step toward something stronger.  He termed the requirement a “shameful and undignified action,” an “affront and a violation of both human sovereignty and professional dignity,” requiring a faculty member to give up “his tenure . . . his freedom of judgment, his human dignity and his responsible sovereignty as a scholar” (p.314). Professional fitness to teach or engage in research, Kantorowicz argued, should be determined by an “objective evaluation of the quality of the individual’s mind, character, and loyalty, and not by his political or religious beliefs or lawful associations”  (p.326).

             In August 1950, Kantorowicz and one other survivor of Nazi Germany were among several Berkeley faculty members officially expelled from the University.  Their dismissals were subsequently reversed by a state court of appeals in 1952, but on the technical ground that the university couldn’t carve out separate oaths for faculty members.  The California Supreme Court affirmed the decision in October 1952, which entitled Kantorowicz to reinstatement and severance pay.  But by that time he had left Berkeley for the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey (technically separate from Princeton University).

          The Princeton phase of Kantorowicz’s life seems drab and post-climatic by comparison. But in 1957, while at Princeton, Kantorowicz produced The King’s Two Bodies, his most significant work since his biography of Frederick II more than a quarter of a century earlier.  Using an “astonishing diversity of sources” (p.355), especially legal sources, Kantorowicz melded medieval theology with constitutional and legal history, political theory, and medieval ideas of kingship to generate a new vision of the Middle Ages. 

          Kantorowicz’s notion of the king having two bodies derived from a Tudor legal fiction that the king’s “body politic” is, in effect, immortal.  In The King’s Two Bodies, Kantorowicz found a link between the concept of undying corporations in English law and the notion of two bodies for the king.  Because England was endowed with a unique parliamentary system, Kantorowicz maintained that it was “only there that the fiction of the king never dying in the capacity of his ‘body politic’ was able to take shape” (p.351).  With new angles to legal history, political theory, and ideas of kingship, The King’s Two Bodies constitutes one of Kantorowicz’s “great historiographical triumphs” (p.355), as Lerner puts it. Appreciation for Kantorowicz’s last major — and most lasting — contribution to medieval scholarship continued to increase in the years after its initial publication.  

            Kantorowicz’s articles after The King’s Two Bodies revolved in different ways around the “close relationship between the divinity and the ruler, and about the vicissitudes of that relationship” (p.363).  In late 1962, he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, yet  went about his affairs as if nothing had changed.  He “carried on earnestly with his dining and imbibing.  As usual he drank enough wine and spirits to wash an elephant” (p.376).  He died in Princeton of a ruptured aneurysm in September 1963 at age 68.

* * *

            Some readers may find that Lerner dwells excessively on academic politics – a dissection of the letters of recommendation on behalf of Kantorowicz’s candidacy for a position at Berkeley spans several pages, for example.  In addition, the paperback version is set in small type, making it an eye-straining experience and giving the impression that the subject matter is denser than it really is.  But undeterred readers, willing to plough through the book’s nearly 400 pages, should be gratified by its insights into a formidable scholar of medieval times as he lived through some of the most consequential moments of modern times.  As Lerner aptly concludes, given Kantorowicz’s remarkable life, a biography “could not be helped” (p.388).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

February 13, 2019

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Biography, European History, German History, History, Intellectual History, United States History

100% American?

 

Linda Gordon, The Second Coming of the KKK:

The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition (Livernight Publishing)

            The Ku Klux Klan, today a symbol of American bigotry, intolerance, and domestic terrorism at its most primitive, had three distinct iterations in United States history.  The original Klan arose in the American South in the late 1860s, in the aftermath of the American Civil War; it was a secret society that utilized intimidation, violence, assassination and other forms of terror to reestablish white supremacy and thwart efforts of recently freed African-American slaves to exercise basic rights.  This iteration of the Klan faded during the following decade, but not before helping to cement the regime of rigid racial segregation that prevailed in the American South for the remainder of the century and beyond.  Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Klan resurfaced in the South, again as an organization relying upon violence and intimidation to perpetuate white supremacy and rigid racial segregation, this time in the face of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the era. 

         The Ku Klux Klan, today a symbol of American bigotry, intolerance, and domestic terrorism at its most primitive, had three distinct iterations in United States history.  The original Klan arose in the American South in the late 1860s, in the aftermath of the American Civil War; it was a secret society that utilized intimidation, violence, assassination and other forms of terror to reestablish white supremacy and thwart efforts of recently freed African-American slaves to exercise basic rights.  This iteration of the Klan faded during the following decade, but not before helping to cement the regime of rigid racial segregation that prevailed in the American South for the remainder of the century and beyond.  Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Klan resurfaced in the South, again as an organization relying upon violence and intimidation to perpetuate white supremacy and rigid racial segregation, this time in the face of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the era. 

          In between was the Klan’s second iteration, emerging in the post-World War I 1920s and the subject of Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition.  Gordon, a prominent American feminist and historian, portrays the 1920s Klan as significantly more complex than its first and third iterations.  Although bigotry and intolerance were still at the heart of the 1920s Klan, it directed its animosity not only at African-Americans but also at Catholics, Jews, and immigrants.  Gordon considers the second Klan to be a reaction to the supposed licentiousness of the “Roaring Twenties” and the rapidly changing social mores of the decade.   With a central mission of purging the country of elements deemed insufficiently “American,” the Klan in the 1920s sought to preserve or restore white Protestant control of American society, which it saw slipping away.

            As the reference to the “American Political Tradition” in the sub-title suggests, much of Gordon’s interpretation consists of an elaboration upon how six distinct American “traditions” came together to give rise to the Klan’s rebirth after World War I: racism, nativism, temperance, fraternalism, Christian evangelicalism, and populism.  She also includes a final section on how, despite ostensible similarities, the Klan differed from the European fascism that came to power in Italy and was bubbling in Germany in the same time frame.  Although it shared with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany a vision for the future based on “racialized nationalism,” the Klan’s nationalism melded racism and ethnic bigotry with evangelical Protestant morality.  The second Klan thus turned its enemies into sinners in a manner that set it apart not only from European fascism but also from the first and third Klan iterations.

            The 1920s Klan was anything but a secretive organization.  It elected hundreds of its members to public office, controlled newspapers and magazines, and boasted of six million members nationally.  It was a fraternal organization with innovative recruitment methods and a decentralized organizational structure, only marginally different from the Rotarians and the Masons.  Whereas the Klan in its first and third iterations was a distinctly southern organization, the 1920s Klan flourished in northern and western states as well as the American South; it was particularly strong in Indiana and Oregon. 

            In Gordon’s interpretation, the Klan in the 1920s further differentiated itself from its first and third iterations by engaging only rarely in what she terms “vigilantism” — overt intimidation and violence.  Readers expecting a gruesome recitation of middle-of-the-night lynchings, the Klan’s trademark form of domestic terrorism, are likely to be disappointed by this volume.  She rarely mentions the term “lynching.”  The primary incident of overt intimidation she highlights is one already familiar to many readers: the Klan’s nighttime assault in 1925 on the Omaha, Nebraska, house of the family of Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X.  Klansmen on horseback surrounded the Little house, shattered the windows and forced the family to flee Omaha.  The assault, Gordon indicates, was “typical of the northern Klan’s vigilantism – usually stopping short of murder or physical assault, but nevertheless communicating a credible threat of violence to Klan enemies.  The vast majority of Klanspeople never participated in this vigilantism” (p.94).  

            But what about vigilantism in the South?  Gordon hints at several points that murder and physical violence may have been more extensive in southern states than in the North and West (e.g., vigilantism was the Klan’s “core function” in the South, whereas Klan organizations in the North and West “rarely” engaged in violent attacks; p.206).  But she barely treats the American South, focusing almost exclusively on northern and western states, thereby leaving readers with the sense that they may not have received a full account of the vigilantism of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, and that a book which delved more deeply into the 1920s Klan in southern states might have been altogether different from this account.

            At least in northern and western states, Gordon argues, the Klan’s views were not out of step with most white American Protestants, the majority group in the United States in the 1920s.  “Never an aberration” in its prejudices, the second iteration of the Klan was, “just as it claimed, ‘100% American’” (p.36).  But in enunciating values with which a majority of white American Protestants of the 1920s probably agreed, the Klan:

whirled these ideas into greater intensity.  The Klan argued that the nation itself was threatened.  Then it declared itself a band of warriors determined to thwart that threat.  In the military metaphors that filled Klan rhetoric, it had been directed by God – a Protestant God, of course – to lead an army of right-minded people to defeat the nation’s internal enemies (p.36). 

* * *

            Antagonism to diversity, a “form of pollution, uncleanliness,” is key to understanding the Klan in the 1920s.  “Fear of heterogeneity” underlay its “extreme nationalism and isolationism; Klanspeople saw little to admire in any foreign culture” (p.58).  The Klan viewed Catholics as threats because their religion was global, making Catholics subservient to Rome and disloyal to America  —  “underground warriors for their foreign masters” (p.45).  The Klan charged Catholics with what amounts to “unfair competition,” alleging that emissaries of the Pope in Rome had helped Catholics “take over police forces, newspapers, and big-city governments” (p.203). 

            Jews were guilty of a different kind of foreign allegiance, to a “secular international cabal of financiers who planned to take over the American economy through its financial institutions” and establish a “government within our government” (p.49).  Jews did not produce anything; they were mere financial middlemen who contributed no economic value to the United States.  The Klan blamed the Jews for the decline in morality, for women’s immodest dress, and for the debasement of the culture coming from Hollywood.   But, “in one remarkable silence about the Jews,”  Klan discourse “did not often employ the reverse side of classic anti-Semitism: that these dishonest merchant capitalists were also Communists” (p.49).  

            Among immigrants, the Klan targeted in particular Mexicans, Japanese, Chinese and East Asians, along with Southern and Eastern Europeans (which of course included many Catholics and Jews).  Exempted were what it termed “Nordic” immigrants, generally Protestants from Germany, the Scandinavian countries and the British Isles.  The Klan argued “not only for an end to the immigration of non-‘Nordics’ but also for deporting those already here.  The date of their immigration, their longevity in the United States, mattered not” (p.27).  No matter how long such immigrants remained in the country, they could never become fully American.

            With rites based on Bible readings and prayer, the second Klan’s religiosity “might suggest that it functioned as a Protestant denomination.”  But the Klan was “not a denomination,” Gordon writes.  It sought to “incorporate existing Protestant churches, not replace them, and to put evangelism at their core.  It was in many ways a pan-Protestant evangelical movement, that is, an attempt to unite evangelical Protestants across their separate denominations” (p.88).  The Klan relied heavily upon evangelical ministers for recruitment, a mobilization that “foreshadowed – and probably helped generate – the entry of Christian Right preachers into conservative politics fifty years later” (p.90).  The 1920s “may have been the first time that bigotry became a major theme among [evangelical Protestant] preachers” (p.91).   

            The Klan joined enthusiastically with evangelical Protestants to support Prohibition, the anti-alcohol movement that succeeded in enshrining temperance into the American constitution in the form of the constitution’s 18th amendment.  For a full 14 years, from 1919 to 1933, the Klan theoretically had constitutional sanction for its vision of a world without alcoholic beverages.  Defense of Prohibition was universal among the Klan’s diverse chapters, and in Gordon’s view was “arguably responsible for the fact that many relatively tolerant citizens shrugged off its racist rhetoric” (p.95).  Supporting Prohibition, the Klan blamed its enemies for violations.  In Klannish imagination, “Catholics did the drinking and Jewish bootleggers supplied them” (p.58).

            The Klan also joined with many women’s groups in supporting Prohibition.  Klanswomen formed a parallel organization, Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK), which Gordon finds close in outlook and approach to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, one of the major groups backing the 18th amendment.  The WKKK supported woman’s suffrage – for white, Protestant women.  Klanswomen also supported women’s employment and even called for women’s economic independence.  Although outnumbered about 6 to 1 in the Klan, women contributed a new argument to the cause: that women’s emergence as active citizens would help purify the country, bringing “family values” back into the nation’s governance.  Women engaged in charitable work on behalf of the Klan, raised money for orphanages, schools and individual needy families, and placed Protestant bibles in the schools.  Women often led youth divisions of the Klan.  Without women’s long hours invested in Klan activties, Gordon argues, the second Klan “could not have become such a mass movement” (p.129). 

            But, in an organization based on male hierarchy which played specifically to white Protestant males’ anxiety over loss of privileged status in the new and unsettling post-World War I years, many women rose to national prominence as leaders of the Klan’s second coming.  Perhaps the most striking characteristic of such women was their “entrepreneurship,” which involved “both ambition and skill, both principle and profit . . . Experienced at organizing large events, state-of-the-art in managing money, unafraid to attract publicity, they were thoroughly modern women” (p.122-23).  Gordon seems unsure how to present these strong, assertive women who freely embraced the Klan creed of bigotry and intolerance.   The Klanswomen’s activism “requires a more capacious understanding of feminism,” she writes.  Their “combination of feminism and bigotry may be disturbing to today’s feminists, but it is important to feminism’s history.  There is nothing about a generic commitment to sex equality that inevitably includes a commitment to equalities across racial, ethnic, religious or class lines” (p.123).  At another point, she admonishes readers to “rid themselves of notions that women’s politics are always kinder, gentler, and less racist than men’s” (p.110).

            In its economic values, the Klan was wholly conservative.  It was devoted to the business ethic and revered men of great wealth, with its economic complaints invariably taking the form of “racial and religious prejudices”  (p.203).  The Klan sought to implement its vision of a white Protestant America “without fundamental changes to the political rules of American democracy.  The KKK was a political machine and a social movement, not an insurrectionary vanguard” (p.208).   What made the Ku Klux Klan so successful in the early 1920s was an aggressive, state-of-the-art approach to recruiting:

Far from rejecting commercialization and the technology it brought, such as radio, the Klan’s system was entirely up-to-date, even pioneering, in its methods of selling.  From its start, the second Klan used what might be called the social media of its time.  These methods – a professional PR firm, financial incentives to recruit, advertisements in the mass media, and high-tech spectacular pageants – produced phenomenal growth for several years (p.63).

            The Klan in its second iteration faded quickly, beginning around 1925.  By 1927 Klan membership had shrunk to about 350,000.  Several highly publicized scandals and cases of criminal embezzlement among Klan leaders, exposing its leaders’ crimes, hypocrisy, and misbehavior, induced the Klan’s precipitous fall in the latter portion of the 1920s, along with the “profiteering” of Klan leaders — “gouging members through dues and the sale of Klan paraphernalia” (p.191).  Power struggles among leaders produced splits and even rival Klans under different names.  Rank-and-file resentment transformed the Klan’s already high turnover into “mass shrinkage as millions of members either failed to pay dues or formally withdrew” (p.191). 

            But the longest-term force behind the Klan’s decline may have been the increasing integration of Catholics and Jews into American society.  The “allegedly inassimilable Jews assimilated and influenced the culture, both high-brow and low-brow.  The alleged vassals of the pope began to behave like other immigrants, firm in their allegiance to America” (p.197).   By contrast, the Klan “never gave up its hatred for people of color.  As African-Americans moved northward and westward, as more Latin American and East Asian immigrants arrived, the latter-day Klan shifted toward a simpler, purer racial system, with two categories: white and not white” (p.197-98).

* * *

            Despite its precipitous decline, the Ku Klux Klan in its second iteration triumphed in many respects.  The biggest tangible Klan victory was in legislation restricting immigration.  Although the Klan was not solely responsible, its propaganda “surely strengthened racialized anti-immigrant sentiment both in Congress and among the voters” (p.195).  Less tangibly, the Klan “influenced the public conversation, the universe of tolerable discourse” (p.195).  The second Klan “spread, strengthened, and radicalized preexisting nativist and racist sentiments among the white population.  In reactivating these older animosities it also re-legitimated them.  However reprehensible hidden bigotry might be, making its open expression acceptable has significant additional impact” (p.195).   In this sense, Gordon’s compact and captivating interpretation serves as a reminder that the Klan remains a presence still to be reckoned with today, nearly a century after its second coming. 

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

January 28, 2019

11 Comments

Filed under United States History

A Tale of Three Cities’ Spaces and Places

Mike Rapport, The Unruly City:

Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution

In The Unruly City: Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution, Mike Rapport, professor of modern European history at Scotland’s University of Glasgow, provides a novel look at three urban centers in the last quarter of the 18th century: Paris, London and New York.  As the title indicates, the century’s last quarter was the age of revolution: in America at the beginning of the approximate 25-year period, as the 13 American colonies fought for their independence from Great Britain and became the United States of America; followed by the French Revolution in the next decade, which ended monarchial rule, abolished most privileges of the aristocracy and clergy, and uprooted deep-rooted social and cultural norms.  Great Britain somehow avoided any such an upheaval during this time, and that is one of the main points of the story. 

But radical democratic movements were afoot in all three countries, favoring greater equality, a drastically expanded franchise and opposition to entrenched privilege  – objectives overlapping with but not identical to those of the revolutions in America and France.  How these democratic impulses played out in each city is the real core of Rapport’s story — or, more precisely, how these impulses played out in each city’s spaces and places.  In examining the contribution of each city’s topography – its spaces and places — to political outcomes, Rapport utilizes a “bottom up” approach which emphasizes the roles played by each city’s artisans, small shopkeepers, and everyday working people as they struggled against entrenched elites.  Rapport thus brings the perspective of an urban geographer and demographer to his story.  But there is also a geo-political angle that needs to be factored into the story. 

The French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War, in which France and its archenemy Britain vied between 1756 and 1763 for control of large swaths of the American continent, ended in ignominious defeat for France.  But both Britain and France emerged from the war with staggeringly high debts, triggering financial crises in both countries.  A decade and a half later, in 1777, monarchial France lent assistance to the American colonies as they broke away from Britain.  The newly formed United States of America in turn largely supported the French Revolution when it broke out in 1789, and sided with revolutionary France when it found itself again at war with Britain in 1792.  Rapport’s topographical approach, with its concentration on the cityscapes of Paris, London and New York, provides a fresh perspective to these familiar late 18th century events.

In the final quarter of the 18th century, Paris and London were sprawling nerve centers of venerable, centuries-old civilizations, while New York was far smaller, far younger, and not quite the nerve center of an emerging New World civilization.  In 1790, moreover, in the middle of Rapport’s story, New York lost its short-lived position as the political capital of the newly created United States of America.  But Paris was different from both New York and London in ways that are consequential for this multi-layered, complex and ambitious tale of three cities. 

Although France’s revolution was nation-wide, its course was dictated by events in Paris in a manner altogether different from the way the American Revolution unfolded in New York.  France in the last quarter of the 18th century lived under a monarchy described alternatively as “despotic” and “absolute.”  It benefitted from nothing quite comparable to America and Britain’s shared heritage from England’s 1688 “Glorious Revolution,” which established critical individual rights and checks upon monarchial power, all of which were “jealously defended by British subjects on both sides of the Atlantic and enviously coveted by educated, progressive Frenchmen and -women” (p.xv). Democratic radicalism in France thus had an altogether different starting point from that in America or Britain, one of the reasons radicalism fused with revolutionary fervor in France in a way it never did in either America or Britain.  These divergences between France on the one hand and America and Britain on the other help explain why Rapport’s emphasis on urban spaces and places serving political ends works best in Paris.   

Rapport resolutely links phases of the French Revolution to discrete Parisian spaces and places: giving impetus to the revolution’s early stages were the Palais-Royal, a formerly aristocratic enclave on the Right Bank, and the artisanal district of the Faubourg St. Antoine, located just east of the hulking Bastille fortress; Paris’ central market, Les Halles, and the Cordeliers district, centered around today’s Placed de l’Odéon on the Left Bank, sustained the revolution’s more radical stages.  The distinct character of these sections of Paris, Rapport writes, goes “a long way to explain how the events unfolded and where much of the revolutionary impulse came from.”  Their geographical and social makeup made Paris a “truly revolutionary city, with a popular militancy that kept politics on the boil with each new crisis.  This combination of geography, social structure and political activism distinguished the Parisian experience from that of London and New York” (p.202). 

When he moves from revolutionary Paris to New York and London, Rapport’s urban topographical approach seems comparatively flat and somewhat forced.  He shows how New York’s Common, located near the city’s northern limits in today’s lower Manhattan, became the focal point for the city’s’ rising democratic fervor and its resistance to British rule.  In London, he focuses upon St. George’s Field, functionally similar to New York’s Common as a location where large groups from all walks of life and all parts of the metropolis gathered freely.  St. George’s Field, which today encompasses Waterloo Station, became the center of mass demonstrations in support of democratic radical John Wilkes, who was jailed for seditious libel in a prison overlooking this largely undeveloped, semi-rural expanse.   But the most compelling story for New York and London is how the democratic energy in the two cities stopped short of the thorough social and cultural uprooting of the French Revolution, much to the relief of elites in both cities.     

* * *

By the fateful year of 1789, Paris’ Palais-Royal, then an “elegant complex of colonnades, arcades, gardens, fountains, apartments, theatres, offices and boutiques” (p.127), had become a combative pubic gathering place where journalists and orators “intellectually pummeled, ideologically bludgeoned and rhetorically battered the old order” (p.125).  Questions involving royal despotism and the rights of citizens were debated and discussed across Paris and throughout France, but “nowhere did these great questions generate more white hot fervor than in the Palais-Royal”(p.127).  The Palais-Royal gave political voice to the insurrection against the monarchy and inherited privilege that broke out in Paris in the spring of 1789 and spread nation-wide.  Without the “contentious cauldron” of the Palais-Royal, Rapport concludes, it is “hard to imagine the insurrection unfolding as it did – and even having the revolutionary results that it did” (p.145),

The Faubourg St. Antoine contributed “special vigor” (p.126) to the 1789 uprising, which resulted in a transfer of power from the King to an elected chamber, the National Assembly, and the subsequent July 1789 assault on the Bastille. An artisanal district famous for its furniture and cabinet makers, Faubourg St. Antoine’s topography and location, Rapport writes, made the neighborhood “especially militant” (p.137) because it was conscious of being outside the old limits of the city.  There was nothing in either New York or London to match the Faubourg’s “geographical cohesion, its homogeneity, its separateness and its defensiveness” (p.137). In Faubourg St. Antoine, a political uprising became a social and cultural upheaval as well.  As “bricks and mortar places,” Rapport writes, both the Palais-Royal and the Faubourg St. Antoine had a “material impact on the shape and outcome of events” and played outsized roles in marking the “final crisis of the old order” (p.126),

As the revolution became more radical, the central market of Les Halles, “the belly of Paris,” also played an outsized role.  Les Halles was the largest and most popular of several Parisian markets.  Its particular culture and geographic location gave Les Halles a “revolutionary dynamism” (p.177) that bound together those who lived and worked there, especially women.  A coordinated women’s march, fueled by food shortages throughout Paris, emanated from Faubourg St. Antoine and Les Halles in October 1789.  The march ended in Versailles, where the women invaded the National Assembly and gained an audience with King Louis XVI.  The King agreed to give his royal sanction to a series of revolutionary demands and, more to the point, promised that Paris would be supplied with bread.  Later the same day, the women forced the King and his family to return to Paris, where they lived as virtual hostages in a city whose women had “demonstrated their determination to keep the Revolution on track” (p.183).

In the aftermath of the march, the National Assembly, instilled by fear of the “unpredictable, uncontrollable force of popular insurrection” (p.185-86), restricted the vote to “active” citizens, adult males who paid a set level of taxes, only about one-half of France’s male population.  The subsequent move to expand the franchise in 1789-90 originated in the Cordeliers district, an “effervescent combination of an already articulate, politicized artisanal population, combined with the concentration of a sympathetic radical leadership” (p.188).  After Lucille and Camille Desmoulins, husband-and-wife journalists from the district, wrote an important article in which they attacked the restriction of the franchise – “What is this much repeated word active citizen supposed to mean?  The active citizens are the ones who took the Bastille” (p.190) – the Cordelier district assembly in June 1790 proposed that all males who paid “any tax whatsoever, including indirect taxes, which included just about everybody, should have ‘active’ citizenship” (p.188-89; notwithstanding the thorough uprooting of the French Revolution, there was no move to extend the franchise to women).   

The Cordeliers district narrowed the political divide between social classes in no small part because of the Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, founded in the heart of the district.  Made up of merchants, artisans, tradesmen, retailers and radical lawyers, the Society also encouraged women to attend its sessions.  It saw its primary purpose as “rooting out the threats to the Revolution” and “challenging the limits placed on political rights by the emerging constitutional order” (p.191).  Its influence “rested in its distinctly metropolitan reach” and in having its roots in a neighborhood whose “social and political character made it a linchpin binding the axle of middle-class radicalism to the wheels of popular revolutionary activism” (p.195-96).  As the revolution entered its most radical phases, the Cordeliers district proved to be “one of the epicenters of the metropolitan outburst,” unlike any other district in Paris, bridging the “social gap between the radical middle-class leadership of the burgeoning democratic movement and the militants of the city’s working population” (p.195).    

            No specific Parisian neighborhoods are linked to the turn that the Revolution took in 1793-94 known as the Terror, “synonymous with the ghastly mechanics of the guillotine” (p.223).  This phase occurred at a time of multiple crises, when the newly declared French Republic grasped at repressive and draconian means to defend itself.  Driven by the  “blunt, direct and violent”  (p.226-27) radicals who called themselves sans-culottes (literally, those “without breeches”), the Terror was the period that saw King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette executed, followed by a chilling string of prominent figures deemed “enemies of the revolution” (among them prior revolutionary leaders Maximilian Robespierre and Georges-Jacques Danton, along with Cordelier journalist Camille Desmoulins).  Rapport’s chilling chapter on this phase serves as a reminder of the perils of excessive revolutionary zeal.

Throughout the Revolution, all sections of Paris felt its physical effects in the adaptation of buildings for the multitude of institutions of the new civic order. The process of taking over buildings in every quarter of Paris  — churches, offices, barracks and mansions — not only “made the Revolution more visible, indeed more intrusive, than ever before, but also represented the physical advance of the revolutionary organs deeper in the neighborhoods and communities of the capital” (p.226).  The “physical transformation of interiors, the adaptation of internal spaces and the embellishment of the buildings with revolutionary symbols, reflected the radicalism of the French Revolution in constructing an egalitarian order in an environment that had grown organically out of corporate society based on privilege and royal absolutism” (p.310).  In New York, the physical transformation of the city was not so thoroughgoing, “since the American Revolution did not constitute quite such a break with the past” (p.171).     

* * *

New York in the late 18th century was already an important business center, the major gateway into the New World for trade and commerce from abroad, with a handful of powerful, well-connected families dominating the city’s politics.  Although its population was a modest 30,000, diminutive in comparison to London and Paris, it was among the world’s most heterogeneous cites.  In its revolutionary years, New York witnessed what Rapport terms a “dual revolution,” both a “broad coalition of colonists against British rule” and a “revolt of the people against the elites,” which blended “imperial, local and popular politics in an explosive mix” (p.2). The contest between the “people of property” and the “mob” was about the “future forms of government, whether it should be founded upon aristocratic or democratic principles” (p. p.28-29), in the words of a future New York Senator.

The tumultuous period that ended with independence in 1783 began when Britain sought to raise money to pay for the Seven Years War through the Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed a duty on all legal documents (e.g., deeds, wills, licenses, contracts), the first direct tax Britain had imposed on its American colonies.  Triggered by resistance to the Stamp Act, the dual American revolution in the years leading up to war between the colonies and Britain moved in New York from sites controlled by the city’s elites, especially the debating chambers of City Hall, to sites more accessible to the public, in particular the open space known as the Common, along with the city’s taverns and the streets themselves. 

More than just a public space, the Common was “also a site where the power of the state, in all its ominous brutality, was on display” (p.18).  Barracks to house British troops had been erected on the Common during the Seven Years War, and it was the site of public executions.  It was on the Commons that the Liberty Pole, the mast of a pine ship, was erected and became the city’s most conspicuous symbol of resistance, a “deliberate, defiant counterpoise” (p.18) to British state authority.  The first Liberty Pole was hacked down in August 1766, only to be replaced in the following days.  This pattern repeated itself several times, as the Common became the most politically charged place in New York, where a more militant, popular form of politics emerged to challenge the ruling elites.

  It was on the Common, at the foot of the Liberty Pole that New Yorkers received the news in April 1775 that war with the British had broken out in New England.  In 1776, George Washington announced the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence on the same site. During the war for independence, the Liberty Pole became the symbolic site where people declared their support for independence – or, in many cases, were compelled to do so.     

In 1789, after the American colonies had won independence from Britain, the Common served as the start and end point of a massive parade through New York City in support of a proposed constitution to govern the country now known as the United States of America, at a time when the entire State of New York was wrestling with the decision whether to become the last state to ratify the proposed constitution.  The choice of the Common as the parade’s start and end point was, Rapport writes, highly symbolic, “connecting the struggle for the Constitution with the earlier battles around the Liberty Pole” (p.162).  Dominated by the city’s tradesmen and craft workers, the parade was a “tour of artisanal force” that “connected the Constitution with the commercial prosperity upon which the city and its working people depended,” serving as a reminder to the city’s elites that the revolution had “not just secured independence, but [had also] mobilized and empowered the people”(p.163).

The parade from the Common through New York’s streets also demonstrated the degree to which democratic radicalism in New York had been tempered.  The city’s radicals, aware that New York’s prosperity depended upon good commercial relations and a thriving mercantile community, “reached beyond mere vengeance and aimed at forging a more equal democracy, in which the overmighty power of the wealthy and the privileged would be cut down to size, allowing artisans and ‘mechanics’ to enjoy the democratic freedoms that they had done so much to secure” (p.156). 

With their vested interest in the financial and commercial prosperity of the city, New York’s radicals were not yet ready to call for “leveling,” or “social equality,” among the greatest concerns to the city’s privileged classes.  In London, too, democratic radicalism stopped short of a full-scale challenge to the social order. 

* * *

While Britain was attempting to rein in America’s rebellious colonies, a movement for democratic reform emerged in London, centered on parliamentary reform and expansion of the suffrage.  The movement’s unlikely leader was journalist and parliamentarian John Wilkes, who symbolized “defiance towards the elites and the overbearing authority of the eighteenth-century British state” (p.35).  The liberties that Wilkes defended began with those specific to the City, a small and nearly autonomous enclave within metropolitan London.  Known today as London’s financial district, the City in the latter half of the 18th century was a “lively hub of activity of all kinds, not just finance but also highly skilled artisans, printers and merchants plying their trades” (p.37).  It had its own police constables and enjoyed privileges unavailable elsewhere in London, including direct access to King and parliament. 

Wilkes, writing “inflammatory satire,” excoriated the government and campaigned for an expansion of voting rights with a mixture of “irony, humor and vitriol” (p.42).  Wilkes tied his in-your-face radicalism to a defense of the traditional liberties and power of the City.  But his radicalism caused him to be expelled from the House of Commons, then tried and convicted of seditious libel.  For London’s working people, Wilkes became “another victim of a harsh, unforgiving system that seemed staked in favor of the elites” (p.51).  Wilkes was jailed in a prison that overlooked St. George’s Fields, London’s undeveloped, semi-rural gathering point on the opposite side of the River Thames from the City.  St. George’s Fields came to represent symbolically a “departure from the narrow defense of the City’s privileges towards a broader demand for a national politics more responsive to the aspirations of the people at large” (p.44).   

When authorities failed to release Wilkes on an anticipated date in 1768, a major riot broke out in St. George’s Fields in which seven people were killed.  Mobilization on St. George’s Fields on behalf of Wilkes, Rapport writes,  “brought thousands of London’s working population into politics for the first time, people who had little or no stake in the traditional liberties of the City, let alone a vote in parliamentary elections, but who saw in Wilkes’s defiance of authority a mirror of their own daily struggle for self-respect and dignity in the face of the overbearing power of the state and the social dominance of the elites” (p.44).

Once freed, Wilkes went on to be elected Lord Mayor of the City in 1774 and chosen also to represent suburban Middlesex in Parliament.  Two years later he was pushing the altogether radical notion of universal male suffrage. But, rather than attacking the privileges of the City, the movement in support of Wilkes fused with a defense of the City.  This fusion, in Rapport’s view, “may be one reason the resistance to authority in London, though certainly riotous, did not become revolutionary . . . Londoners were able to make their protests without challenging the wider structure of politics” (p.52-53).   By coalescing around the figure of John Wilkes, the popular mobilization “reinforced rather than challenged the privileges that empowered the City to resist the king and Parliament” (p.56).

As revolution raged on the other side of the English Channel after 1789, many in London believed that that Britain’s 1688 revolution “had already secured many basic rights and freedoms for British subjects; the French were starting from zero” (p.257).  Arguments about the French revolution and criticisms and defense of the British constitution were kept within legal boundaries in London.  It was the British habit of free discussion, Rapport concludes, “alongside, first, the commitment to legality among the reformers and, second, the relative caution with which . . . the government proceeded against them that ensured that London avoided a revolutionary upheaval in these years” (p.221).

* * *

Rapport sets a dauntingly intricate task for himself in seeking to demonstrate how the artisanal and working class populations of Paris, New York and London used each city’s spaces and places to abet radical democratic ideas.   How those spaces and places helped shape revolutionary events in Paris from 1789 onward and thereby transformed the city are the best portions of his work, insightful and at times riveting.  His treatment of New York and London, where no such physical transformation occurred, has less zest.  But the tale of three cities comes together through Rapport’s detailing of moments in each place when “thousands of people, often for the first time, seized the initiative and tried to shape their own political futures” (p.317).

* * *

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C. USA

December 31, 2018

2 Comments

Filed under British History, French History, History, United States History