Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Thank You Senator Alexander

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn)
On January 21, 2013 President Barrack Obama was inaugurated to begin his second term as the leader of the free world.  There were many moments on this historical day, but the one that will stick in my memory for sometime was the brief speech made by Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.   Here are Senator Alexander's thoughts,

Today we praise the American tradition of transferring or reaffirming immense power as we inaugurate the President of the United States.
We do this in a peaceful, orderly way. There is no mob, no coup, no insurrection. This is a moment when millions stop and watch. A moment most of us always will remember. A moment that is the most conspicuous and enduring symbol of our democracy. How remarkable that this has survived for so long in such a complex country with so much power at stake—this freedom to vote for our leaders and the restraint to respect the results. Last year, a tour guide at Mt. Vernon told me that our first president, George Washington, posed this question: "What is most important of this grand experiment, the United States?" And then Washington gave this answer: "Not the election of the first president, but the election of its second president. The peaceful transition of power is what will separate this country from every other country in the world." Today we celebrate, because this is the 57th inauguration of the American president.
Senator Alexander reminded me of the finer qualities of  great statesman.  He was like Douglas in 1861 pledging his support for Lincoln to maintain the Union.  This prompts me to ask, "What does saving the Union mean?"  The answer, so beautifully rendered by Senator Alexander, is that preserving the Union meant protecting "this freedom to vote for our leaders and the restraint to respect the results."  Indeed preserving the Union distinguished the United States from other nations in "the peaceful transition of power." 

If the seceding states had grasped this grand idea of accepting Lincoln's election and shown restraint and respect for the results, we might have avoided the devastation that the Civil War wrought upon this country.  Perhaps, we needed the sacrifice of 750,000 Americans to maintain Washington's vision of American leadership.  

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Year of Meteors by Douglas R. Egerton

Douglas Egerton's Year of Meteors presents the events leading up to and following the 1860 election.  It is an excellent history of the campaigns of Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency.

Stephen Douglas
Egerton's work begins with events in April - June 1861 that end with Stephen Douglas's death at 48 years.  Lincoln was stunned by the death of the long-time political rival.   Douglas died a bitter man convinced that "leaders of the secession movement" had orchestrated the Republican victory by willfully dividing the Democratic Party.   Douglas put the blame on two "fire-eating" secessionists: Robert Barnwell Rhett and William Lowndes Yancey.   From this introduction, Egerton takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride of political intrigue and back-room bargaining to the events leading to the Civil War.

At the heart of the struggle was the debate on the extension of slavery into the western territories.  On the one side, Robert Rhett through his paper, the Charleston Mercury, advocated the "formation of a Slave Republic" and contrasted the differences between the societies of the North and South.  On the other, were Republicans who refused to see the country become a slave-based economy and give into the demands of slave-holding states. 

Abraham Lincoln
The path to the election starts with the notion that it will be a contest between the Democrat front-runner Douglas and his Republican rival, William Seward.  Neither had counted on the political turmoil created by the southern Democrats and Seward's missteps that produced a Lincoln victory even before election day.  The author explains how Rhett and Yancey became convinced that the slave-based economic and social system could not be sustained in the Union.  Therefore, they plotted to destroy the Democratic party and virtually guarantee the election of the Republican candidate.  Thus armed with this unfavorable outcome, the southern states, led by South Carolina, would simply leave the United States and form their own group of slave-holding states.  The flaw in their thinking was that the Northern states would let them leave without a fight.

We follow the party conventions and learn about the formation of new parties, The Constitutional Union and Liberty Party. Egerton explains how disagreements with the Democratic party concerning the expansion of slavery with the Northern branch favoring state-by-state determination and the Southern part demanding the freedom to carry their "property" and economic system into the west destroyed party unity and ended up offering two separate presidential candidates.

The author also discusses the last-minute "compromises" proposed by Kentucky Senator John Crittenden which was based on the Missouri Compromise that limited slavery to below the 36 degrees, 30 minutes parallel and the 1861 Peace Conference.  The refusal of the states that had already seceded to alter their position doomed both of these efforts to failure.

The Year of Meteors is an intriguing history of the politics in the 1860 election. 

Douglas R. Egerton is a professor of history at Le Moyne College and author of five books.

We rate Year of Meteors


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Abolitionists on PBS

This week (check your local listings) PBS begins a three-part series called The Abolitionists.  The series combines historic photographs and living history recreations to tell the story of fight to end slavery.

Frederick Douglas
The story focuses on the five leading protagonists of the movement to emancipate blacks and end slavery: Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, John Brown, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Their stories bring the struggle to end this institution to life.   You might want to read about these characters before you watch the first episode toinight.

The documentary opens with a segment on the deeply religious Grimké. The vocal abolitionist had no concern about renouncing her heritage as a member of a rich, plantation-owning clan in Charleston, S.C. As a daughter of privilege, Grimké saw the horrors of slavery firsthand and became one of the most outspoken foes of slavery. See preview of Chapter 1.

Uncle Tom's Cabin
As usual PBS provides a fine web site to support the series.  Please see  Why We Made The Abolitionists, The Abolistionist Map of America, and Teacher's Guide.

Set your video to record this series or order you own copy for $19.99 from the PBS Store.