So here we are.
One thing I appreciate is how Hollowell opens each lecture with a popular culture note specific to the time. This time, he starts with the poem, Bury Me In A Free Land, by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
Hollowell asks that we give attention to the imagery Harper paints.
I'd shudder and start if I heard the bay Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey, If I saw young girls from their mother's arms Bartered and sold for their youthful charms, And I saw her babes torn from her breast, Like trembling doves from their parent nest.
Hollowell expanded a bit on the Dred Scott case, which should be familiar to almost any American, but probably isn’t. Scott was a transplant slave in Illinois, a free state, when his master died.
When his master died, logically, he should be considered free (because Illinois is a free state, right?), but it doesn’t really work out that way. Not only was he answered “no,” to his liberation, but enough “no” was given to crawl his way to the Supreme Court (Scott v. Sandford) only to be rejected again. Chief Justice Taney illustrates clearly the “Catch 22” Scott found himself in: because he was a slave, he didn’t have the right to sue, and further, Scott was property; therefore, he could not become free. But there’s a kicker to the story that Hollowell brings up, but doesn’t expound.
Hollowell explains that when the master died, the mistress (the widow) kept Scott as a slave for 11 years until she remarried, then magically “released” Scott and his family from slavery. I’m wont to believe that she would have kept him on her own volition; however, Hollowell states that when she remarried, she set the Scotts free. This made me question whether she even had the right to release the Scotts (not just Dred, but the whole family), but couldn’t because she was not a male landowner, and therefore not a citizen. She was able to release the Scotts once she was under a new marital contract. Hollowell implies otherwise, though, so I’d like to know more about the situation.
Scott gets his freedom, then dies of Tuberculosis.
Hollowell gives a fairly detailed version of the story of John Brown, abolitionist (not to be confused with John Brown, slave trader of Providence and moniker of Brown Unviersity), and his absolutely insane plan to liberate slaves in Virginia. It’s one of those stories that reminds us how important planning, patience and communication is. I have a very concise version I like to tell that admittedly lacks nuance, but it’s basically: Brown, a champion of the cause set out on an insane idea (fine), did not inform those he wanted to liberate (questionable) so that when he got there, everyone was like whodis? and for obvious reasons did not join in Brown’s Liberation Army; Brown was swiftly detained and hanged.
Hollowell segues Brown’s death with Lincoln’s election, both in 1860.
I appreciate the metahistorical perspective Hollowell employs while discussing the Emancipation Proclamation. I mean, we can plainly see how a mandate is intentionally ignored when any American feels like it should be. Just look at the politicization of masks during our current pandemic. It doesn’t matter if wearing masks protects your neighbor: “If I don’t want to, I don’t have to” is the attitude that is clearly seen h/t to “heritage” from the post-war South. “It doesn’t matter that the North thinks I shouldn’t have slaves: I needs ’em.”
One thing that I totally forgot about is the Conscription Act: a mandatory draft where $300 could actually buy your exemption to fight in the war, and when Hollowell brought it up, I felt a fury brewing inside. To put it in perspective, $300 in 1860 is the approximate purchasing power of almost $10,000. There is no way the plain folk of the South could come up with that kind of money. The wealthy, as usual, could escape the horrors of war, while continuing to exploit the labor of the very issue the war was about. It’s astounding, really.
The last 20 minutes or so of the lecture should seriously be used in every goddamned barroom of every podunk dive bar on repeat forever. The Civil War is a matryoshka: within it is a class war, an economic war (“dey terk er jerbs”), social mobility, “otherness,” and plain fear. I wonder how many of the soldiers knew it. Would they throw their part in the war? Would they know that what they were fighting for was the Rich (and they were never going to get a piece of that pie)? Weren’t they all, in fact, slaves at some level?
The story of Abraham Franklin presents the social convergence of mobs, trophy killings, lynchings, and leading to groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
In what I’m seeing to be Hollowell’s storytelling style, this time he punched me in the gut with a barrage of Ugly American: hateful speech, acts of degradation, lynchings, assimilation to an idea that isn’t even theirs, a theater of fear, burning, looting, straight-up freaking out.
*note: It is important to recognize that my use of capitalization on certain adjectives is purposeful: it is not willy-nilly. Proper adjectives are based on the naming the characteristics of nouns: proper adjectives are a derivative of proper nouns.