In the Darwinian Garden in Chicago (continued)

One of the most pleasurable aspects of our trip to Chicago and the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop was that Susan, Larry Arnhart, and myself were able to attend the play “In the Garden: A Darwinian Love Story” shortly after my interview with Dan Weinberg. The play is a dialogue, really, between Charles and Emma Darwin and the difficulties they had as a couple in coming to terms with his theory of evolution as it affected Emma’s faith in God.

Larry and I after the play

Larry and I after the play

I teach a course on Darwin and Lincoln at Lone Star College – Kingwood called “The Emancipators: Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and the Making of the Modern World”.  These men were born on the same day, February 12, 1809, and I use their lives as a kind of microhistory to explore the nineteenth century, a century that one recent book argues transformed the world.

Several years ago Susan and I visited Darwin’s home when we were in England and it was one of the most enjoyable aspects of our stay there. We were especially impressed with Darwin’s garden and, as Larry said as we talked with him about it, Darwin’s use of 153botany in his scientific work. All this is to stay that I think the title of the play could be interpreted as a reference to both the Garden of Eden and to Darwin’s Garden. If you look at the picture to the right, you can see the garden and the greenhouse Darwin used for his experiments behind the hedges.

The play was held in the Chicago Water Tower building, which was one of the few in the city to escape damage from the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. The set was very well done, with the action taking place in Darwin’s study. The playwright Sarah Gmitter, according to Larry, used to be a stagehand at the Looking Glass Theatre and this was her first production. There were approximately 75-100 people in attendance at 3:00 on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Chicago.

The play traces the relationship of Charles and Emma from their childhoods (they knew each other from an early age) to the death of their daughter Annie. Now, the playwright took some liberties with the historical record in that she placed Annie’s death after the publication of the Origin of Species rather than beforehand, but I don’t think that vitiated the importance of the issues at stake in the dialogue over science and religion. Having read a good deal on Darwin, I can attest that Gmitter used a significant amount of primary source material, which only added to the play’s interest.

There were two pieces of dialogue, both of them uttered by Emma, that I found particularly striking. One occurred when Charles and Emma were arguing about Darwin’s theory and its impact on people’s religious beliefs. She told her husband, “Charles, you insist that a finch needs thousands of years to change its beak, but expect a person to change her mind in the time it takes to read a single book.” The audience gasped (at least Larry and I thought so) when this beautiful line was uttered and the stunned expression on Darwin’s face was perfect. Later, after Annie’s death, Emma tells Charles that she has implored God in her prayers for an explanation of this tragedy. Charles asks her, “And what have you heard?” “I have heard silence,” Emma replies. Might I add at this point that another wonderful part of the play was that Emma is portrayed entirely and completely as Charles’ equal? Added to this was that Darwin, who is all too often demonized in American culture, is portrayed as human being struggling with issues of science, faith, knowledge, and, love. It is a warm portrayal and one that Americans would benefit from seeing.

So, “In the Garden” was unique in showing the excitement, indeed importance, of ideas. The Looking Glass Theatre has even held “Community Panel Discussion” after several performances in order to further respectful dialogue about these important topics. Overall, then, it was a highly intelligent play and one that I recommend wholeheartedly. If you visit Chicago, it runs until June 15, and I think you would find attending well worth your time. I can only hope it one day comes to Houston.


Loathing Lincoln in Chicago (continued)

One of the questions that was asked of Bill Blair and I on Saturday at the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop was how, during the Civil War, people in Massachusetts could call secession treason given that they themselves had publicly contemplated it themselves (six times, I think the questioner claimed).

Misc 2013 & 2014, Chicago 120Bill’s response was simply that people often contradict themselves (think Walt Whitman here) and it really is as simple as that. I agreed with Bill and added that I think offering secession as a threat, rhetorical or otherwise, is not quite the same thing as actually carrying it out as a program. Plus, one can never forget why the Confederacy seceded: to preserve slavery forever. Of course, Lincoln’s opponents today often say that secession was a constitutional right of the states and that if they had seceded it would have led, for various reasons, to the erosion of slavery in the Confederacy. Thus, the Confederacy’s cause was, in the words of philosopher Donald Livingston, “morally sound.”

This seems to me, and to many others, a rather dubious point (especially because the Supreme Court of the United States in 1875 settled the matter), but I wanted to posit that something else  is at work here. The use of secession as a rhetorical tactic is, I think, what Randall Kennedy recently called in a piece in Harper’s on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (a law that Lincoln critics such as Ron Paul and Thomas DiLorenzo still oppose), part of a “vocabulary of obstruction that remains very much with us today, a lexicon that relies strongly on claims to liberty (as opposed to equality) and states’ rights (as opposed bo federal regulation) and freedom of association (as opposed to inclusiveness).” I think Kennedy has a good point, and I’ve written about this previously and its rather unfortunate consequences for the United States here.

“Red, White, and Blue” and Abraham Lincoln

On Thursday, May 29, I’ll be taping a segment on an important and popular TV show here in Houston called “Red, White, and Blue.” I am not sure, yet, when my segment will air on television. This blog’s readers, however, can rest assured that I will let them know as soon as I know.

If you take a look at the link above, they have had guests that included Mayor Annise Parker, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, and, most recently, Republican Dan Patrick, perhaps the next lieutenant-governor of Texas.

The show is 30 minutes in length and the two hosts, one a liberal, the other a conservative, have a conversation with their guest about current issues or books. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what questions they have for me on Thursday regarding Lincoln’s enemies.

With Malice Toward One in Chicago

I’ve just returned from my stint in Chicago at the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop, where Dan Weinberg interviewed William Blair and I about our new books (I’ve taken today’s post headline from Bill’s volume – with one alteration). The three of us talked for an hour and I think it could have easily continued on for much longer. But then, I would think that, wouldn’t I?


Bill’s book focuses more on the 1860s than mine does and consequently we spent a good deal of time discussing the war years rather than afterwards. Still, I think our books complement each other quite well and I wanted to elaborate on this a little.

One of the questions Dan asked us at the end of our interview was whether the country was “lucky” to have had Lincoln as president. Both of us answered yes, although for different reasons. As Bill writes in the conclusion to his book (a book that should be of interest to all Americans interested in issues of civil liberties and presidential power in wartime. Please buy it and read it carefully. It is, quite simply, splendid):

“Was he [Lincoln] a dictator? No. Did he ignore the Constitution? No again. But did he allow policies and procedures of questionable constitutionalism – and even questionable need? Yes. . . . Lincoln . . . prevented the ship of state from sailing too far into unconstitutional waters.” (page 306-307)

This judgment aligns with my own. Indeed, I think it characterizes pretty well the position I laid out in my own book.

“Abraham Lincoln, other conservatives held, was no imperialistic dictator who emancipated slaves yet enslaved freed men. Dictators may hold elections, but they do not worry much about losing them, as Lincoln believed he would in August 1864, when the Union’s military fortunes were at low ebb. Nor do tyrants tolerate the type of vitriol and hatred that was leveled against the president throughout the war. Without question Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus remains rightly controversial, and his sometimes heavy-handed suppression of political opposition was unprecedented. In his book about presidential power Crisis and Command: The History of Executive Power from George Washington to George W. Bush (2009) Bush administration and Justice Departmentattorney John Yoo defended Lincoln’s presidency as great, or transformative, precisely because he used executive power so forcefully: ‘Lincoln’s greatness is inextricably linked to his broad vision of presidential power.’ Moreover, Yoo described Lincoln’s presidency in language that seemed to justify Bush’s actions in the War on Terror, writing that ‘the Unique nature of the Civil War forced the Lincoln administration to reduce civil liberties in favor of greater security.’ . . . Lincoln’s critics are right to recall the president’s civil liberties violations (although they are not as quick to note that the Confederacy likewise suppressed their people’s liberties). Libertarians oppose war for just this reason: they believe that war, in addition to its horrific violence and violation of [Murray] Rothbard’s nonaggression axiom, permanently enlarges the state and leads to a diminishment of freedom. Nevertheless, the situation Lincoln faced as president was unprecedented, as Lincoln himself acknowledged: ‘I can be no more persuaded that the government can constitutionally take no strong measure in time of rebellion, because it can be shown that the same could not be taken lawfully in time of peace, than I can be persuaded that a particular drug is not good medicine for a sick man, because it can be shown not to be good food for a well one.’ Today’s leaders abuse the historical record when they invoke Lincoln as precedent for their own domestic or foreign malfeasance. Even Yoo said as much: ‘Not every President is a Lincoln, and not every crisis rises to the level of the Civil War.’ Still, Yoo was being somewhat disingenuous here in that he imprudently saw relatively few, if any, constitutional limits on executive power (i.e., the unitary executive), whereas Lincoln prudently stressed those same constitutional limits on his own presidential office. Americans should therefore remind themselves of Lincoln’s words of the unparalleled nature of the crisis he faced in  the 1860s and resist the more boundless claims of his successors whenever they use the sixteenth president to justify their own civil liberties violations.” (page 321-322)

I’ll have further posts on our conversation in the next few days. I would imagine that soon enough the entire interview will be accessible online, at which point I will post the link.

Loathing Lincoln in Chicago

Just a reminder to everyone that I’ll be doing a “Virtual” Book Signing with the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago on Saturday, May 24, at 12:00 noon. Please log on and join  the conversation. And make sure to buy a book or two, if not for yourself, then for a friend or family member!

Also, my Monday evening talk with Egberto Willies on “Politics Done Right” is now  posted on YouTube.

Finally, I was just invited to do an interview on “Civil War Talk Radio” with Gerry Prokopowicz on Wednesday, September 24, at 6:00 p.m. CST. Mark that date and time on your calendar and listen in.


Talking about Lincoln: Update

I had my first radio interview last evening, on Egberto Willies “Politics Done Right” show on KPFT in Houston, Texas. It was a good experience and not a little nerve-wracking, but I think it went pretty well. The show lasted an hour and Egberto was gracious enough to give me plenty of time to talk (that is not to say, of course, that I wouldn’t have liked more!).

At any rate, I’ll be posting the podcast of this interview as soon as Egberto gets it to me. In the meantime, please sign up for the blog to receive emails.

UPDATE: 7:05 a.m. 5/20/14

Here is the link to the podcast of last night’s show. Please listen in and tell me how I did.

UPDATE: 2:21 p.m. 5/20/14

One caller on the show last evening had a query regarding a change in textbooks in Texas whereby slaves would now be called “unpaid interns.” That surprised me very much and I said so. I queried the Texas Freedom Network about this today, and Dan Quinn, their Communication Director, informed me that this story is more or less a hoax, or parody. Still, as Dan pointed out to me, one has to ask how our politics have gotten to the point where this is even remotely believable. Thanks to last night’s caller for bringing this to my attention.

Lincoln and the Republicans: The Party of Peace

It has been a commonplace among Lincoln’s enemies that he and the Republicans were the real instigators of the Civil War. Early in the twentieth century, for example, Mildred Lewis Rutherford, the historian-general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), wrote that “It was Jefferson Davis not Abraham Lincoln who pleaded for peace and did all to enforce it and Lincoln it was who refused four times to make it when he could.” In the 1930s the poet Edgar Lee Masters, in his scathingly critical biography Lincoln: The Man, called the sixteenth president’s war aims “imperial,” while in his book The Real Lincoln, economist Thomas DiLorenzo lamented that “Only in the United States was warfare associated with emancipation. . . . In virtually every other country of the world, slavery ended through either manumission or some form of compensation.”

But did Lincoln and the Republicans want war? Actually, no. In fact, as James Oakes (full disclosure: Jim was on my dissertation committee at the University of Houston and has from time to time given me good suggestions about Loathing Lincoln) shows in his excellent new book The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War, their entire platform was based on the peaceful yet “ultimate extinction” of American slavery. Here is Oakes on how the Republican Party – the abolitionist party, in my view – thought this would occur:

“What would it take to make the scorpion [American slavery] sting itself and die? . . . It looked something like this. Once the northern states stopped enforcing the fugitive-slave clause, the deterioration of slavery in the Border States would accelerate. The annual flight of slaves into the North, from Delaware to Missouri, would become a flood tide that southern masters would be unable to stop. The only way for Border State slaveholders to prevent a mass exodus of fugitives would be to sell off their slaves to the cotton states, or pack up and leave. But masters hoping to avoid the unprecedented insecurity of slavery in the Border States would be denied the option of carrying their slaves into the territories. Instead, each new territory would enter the Union as a free state. Meanwhile, the Border States – depleted of slaves and therefore slaveholders – would begin abolishing slavery on their own. This was not an entirely unreasonable expectation on the eve of the Civil War. Slavery had all but disappeared in Delaware and half of Maryland’s black population was already free. As this process advanced, the number of free states would grow steadily as the number of slave states inexorably declined, shifting the balance of power in national politics from slavery to freedom. All it would take was a shift from slavery to freedom in half a dozen states to make an abolition amendment feasible.

“Most antislavery advocates thought abolition would proceed on a state-by-state basis. As slavery became concentrated in the states of the Deep South, its intrinsic weaknesses would become more and more intolerable. Slavery’s economic vitality could no longer be sustained by steady infusions of fresh western soil. The borders of free soil would press ever closer to the edges of the cotton states – and the process of slavery’s internal dissolution that had already taken place in the Border States would commence in the Deep South. The slaves, restless and increasingly anxious for their freedom, now pent up and concentrated in the cotton belt, would become rebellious and even revolutionary. . . . The vise-like grip of the slaveholding minority within the southern states would give way as the slaveless white majorities asserted themselves, unwilling to be dragged down with slavery’s sinking ship. A homegrown antislavery party would finally emerge in the heart of slave country. The end would come when the slaveholders themselves awakened to the realization that their own future prosperity could only be ensured by shifting to free labor. Then the slave states would abolish slavery on their own. The scorpion, having stung itself, would die.”

Of course, this never happened,  because the one fundamental and irreconcilable difference between the Republican Party and those who later formed the Confederacy was that the Republicans believed that there could be no property in man, while the slaveholders believed otherwise. Here is Abraham Lincoln, speaking in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1860, on this point (many thanks to James L. Huston’s brilliant book, Calculating the Value of the Union, for alerting me to the significance of this speech):

“Now what is the difficulty? One-sixth of the population of the United States is slave. One-sixth of the population of the United States is slave. One man of every six, one woman of every six, one child of every six, is a slave. Those who own them look upon them as property, and nothing else. They contemplate them as property, and speak of them as such. The slaves have the same ‘property quality,’ in the minds of their owners, as any other property. The entire value of the slave population of the United States, is, at a moderate estimate, not less than $2,000,000,000. This amount of property has a vast influence upon the minds of those who own it. The same amount of property owned by Northern men has the same influence upon their minds. In this we do not assume that we are better than the people of the South—neither do we admit that they are better than we. We are not better, barring circumstances, than they. Public opinion is formed relative to a property basis. Therefore, the slaveholders battle any policy which depreciates their slaves as property. What increases the value of this property, they favor. When you tell them that slavery is immoral, they rebel, because they do not like to be told they are interested in an institution which is not a moral one. When you enter into a defence of slavery, they seize upon it, for they like justification. The result is, that public opinion is formed among them which insists upon the encouragement or protection, the enlargement or perpetuation of slavery—and secures them property in the slave.

“Now this comes in conflict with this proposition that we at the North view slavery as a wrong. We understand that the ‘equality of man’ principle which actuated our forefathers in the establishment of the government is right; and that slavery, being directly opposed to this, is morally wrong. I think that if anything can be proved by natural theology, it is that slavery is morally wrong. God gave man a mouth to receive bread, hands to feed it, and his hand has a right to carry bread to his mouth without controversy.

“We suppose slavery is wrong, and that it endangers the perpetuity of the Union. Nothing else menaces it. Its effect on free labor makes it what [William] Seward has been so roundly abused for calling, an irrepressible conflict. Almost every man has a sense of certain things being wrong, and at the same time, a sense of its pecuniary value. These conflict in the mind, and make a riddle of a man. If slavery is considered upon a property basis, public opinion must be forced to its support. The alternative is its settlement upon the basis of its being wrong. Some men think it is a question of neither right or wrong; that it is a question of dollars and cents, only; that the Almighty has drawn a line across the country, south of which the land is always to be cultivated by slave labor; when the question is between the white man and the nigger, they go in for the white man; when it is between the nigger and the crocodile, they take sides with the nigger. There is effort to make this feeling of indifference prevalent the country, and this is one of the things, perhaps, that prevents the sudden settlement of the question. Is it possible that a national policy can be sustained because nobody opposes or favors it? It may answer to serve the ends of politicians for a while, but it falls at last. There may be one way, however, to make it stand, and that is to make the opinion of the people conform to it; must be made to conclude that those who want slavery shall have it, and that it is simply a matter of dollars and cents. I do not believe a majority of the people of this nation can be made to take this view of it.”

In short, the slaveholders had enormous wealth invested in their institution, believed it right that one man could enslave another, and wanted this arrangement to persist forever. The Republican Party disagreed and had a peaceful program to begin the immediate work of eradicating this “monstrous injustice” from the United States. For this, Lincoln and the Republicans are labeled war-mongers, or imperialists, or people not all that interested in abolishing slavery, while their slaveholding American counterparts have been seen as fighting for “states’ rights” (e.g. the right of the states to hold property in man) or “self-determination,” (e.g. the right to hold property in man so that one man can determine anothers life prospects) or the right to be let alone (e.g. the right be let alone to hold property in man).




Lincoln, Race, and Genetics

The political philosopher Larry Arnhart has an interesting post on his website today discussing Abraham Lincoln, race, equality, and genetics. Check it out.

Larry was my anonymous reader with LSU Press for my manuscript. He waived anonymity after reading it and we have since become friends, sharing a common interest in Lincoln and, I might add, Charles Darwin.