Book review: The Fiery Trial

The Fiery Trial both traces the evolution of Lincoln’s ideas and polices about slavery and that of the nation’s from the 1830s through the end of the Civil War. As usual what I thought I knew about Lincoln, slavery, and abolition turned out to be a bit simplistic. Reality is always more nuanced and complicated.

Foner provides a detailed walkthrough of the politics, history, and views about slavery from Lincoln’s time in Illinois through the remainder of his life. At times it did feel like I was trying to drink from a firehose. Foner patiently lays out the details, walking the reader through the ideas percolating in the nation and swirling around Lincoln. The details can be overwhelming and feel ploddingly tedious. But he is laying out an argument based on letters, speeches, and newspaper articles to show how Lincoln did not start out as the Great Emancipator. Far from it.

The picture painted of Lincoln is of a man with little interaction with blacks—slave or free. He just didn’t have opportunity to interact with them or give slavery much more than a passing thought until he moved into the presidency. Yes, he expressed that he personally was opposed to slavery, but fighting slavery was not his concern.

Lincoln was a product of his time and place. His time was one of slavery, the view that whites were superior, and that the Constitution protected slavery and states’ rights. In contrast, he was a firm believer in the Union and protecting it at all costs.

This book disabused me of many ideas. Nothing was black and white, so to speak. Rather than the war being about North vs. South, abolitionists vs. slaveowners, Foner shows a very nuanced political and social country. Democrats existed in the North. Some Democrats, like the future vice president and president Andrew Johnson, were Unionists, who sided with the North despite being racists, slaveowners, or supporters of slavery.

Not all Republicans were against slavery, or at least not strongly. Conservative, modern, radical. Lincoln fought to keep all stripes of Republicans united, not necessarily an easy task. He leaned to the conservative side, it seems, though led anyone who met him to walk away thinking that Lincoln believed what he himself believed.

Those who were against slavery varied too. I thought the US was divided between abolitionists and those who supported slavery. Ah, but that is too simplistic. The abolitionists were the radicals, the fringe element it seems in the North. Not all of those opposed to slavery were abolitionists, who wanted immediate, complete freedom of the slaves. Many advocated for gradual emancipation, where slaves would be freed over decades and generations—in one case slavery would die out by 1907!

And those supporting emancipation (not necessarily the same as being an abolitionist) didn’t always agree. Some advocated for compensated emancipation. In the modern era, compensation and slavery mentioned together refers to compensation paid to descendants of slaves for their labor. Nothing could have been further from this during the mid-1800s. Discussions, deals, and proposed laws covered how much to compensate slaveowners for their emancipated slaves. (In 1833, Britain abolished slavery and compensated slaveowners.)

Even if Americans believed in abolition or emancipation, they mostly did not want blacks to remain in the US. Blacks and white living in the same society was simply inconceivable to most Americans. The American Colonization Society was formed in 1817 and was going strong through Lincoln’s life. Lincoln himself was a strong proponent, unable to envision a non-white society. It wasn’t until near the end of the Civil War, after alternative lands to ship blacks to failed to be viable, that he quietly dropped the push for colonization. Of course, throughout all of this time very few blacks had any interest in emigrating. They saw themselves as Americans and wanted birthright citizenship and equality before the law in the US rather than colonization elsewhere.

I also had assumptions about emancipation, that freedom was tied to rights. But that was far from the truth. For Americans at the time, emancipation did not naturally lead to rights. Rights itself was a loaded term. Which rights? Most Americans who believed in emancipation or abolition agreed that blacks had the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Blacks were allowed to be free laborers. (At least in theory. In practice, things were a bit different.)

Few Americans wanted blacks to enjoy equality before the law or be citizens. And social equality? That was beyond anything that most Americans could handle. For blacks to be considered or treated as equals with whites was unthinkable to most.

The ways that rights were divided (economic, political, or social) and supported or not supported rather surprised me. I realized that I assumed that abolitionists were pro-black rights in my modern-day sensibilities. And yet the nuances make sense.

Despite Americans being opposed to slavery, they were still very racist. Racism was rampant whether in the South or the North, in abolitionist circles or colonization circles. This legacy haunts us today.

Lincoln, on the whole, comes out looking pretty darn conservation. He did not want a social or political revolution. He wasn’t looking to free the slaves or not free the slaves. For most of the time, abolishing slavery seemed irrelevant to him. He wasn’t necessarily more enlightened than his fellow countrymen. In fact, he seemed very cognizant of not getting ahead of public opinion. Abolitionist views slowly pushed him along, eventually dragging him to their views from decades earlier.

He really did what was expedient in a particular time and place. He let generals accept runaway slaves in some cases, turned a blind eye elsewhere, or removed them when they went too far by granting freedom. He weighed everything, I dare say, against what would have the best chance of keeping the Union together.

He did seem to carefully consider things and his thoughts did evolve with time—he eventually allowed blacks to serve in combat. But he did cling to ideas long past when he should have, such as the olive branch he extended to the border states for years to try to lure them into voluntary, gradual emancipation.

Often I wonder what post-Civil War America would have been like, what Reconstruction would have been like had Lincoln not been assassinated. Andrew Johnson, the racist Democrat from Tennessee who ascended to the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination, seemed to undo the promises of emancipation and the abolition of slavery. But after reading The Fiery Trial, I am not so sure that Reconstruction under Lincoln would have been the utopia I would have wished for. I suspect Lincoln would have been a lot more cautious, a lot more conservative than the myth of the Great Emancipator that arose after his death.

Book review: Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case that Propelled Him to the Presidency

Lincoln’s Last Trial recounts an intriguing murder trial in mid-19th century Springfield, IL. Most of the town knew each other all their lives. The families of the defendant and the victim were united through marriage. The lawyers knew each other. Some people had run against each other for elected office. It was an odd situation where friends and former colleagues were on opposite sides.

The trial is a vehicle to examine small town lawyering, legal norms, and Lincoln before he ascended to the presidency. Lincoln remains a mystery but points are drawn out based on this trial and previous trials where he was a prosecuting or defending lawyer. Lincoln, the book argues, wove an image of himself as a folksy, down-to-earth, small town lawyer. His clothes were worn and his hair askew. It turns out that he really did store his papers in his stovepipe hat.

But his rumpled appearance was a ruse. His modus operandi was to build a friendly rapport with the jury—he is just like them. He looks like them. He talks like them.

And yet. We know he is not like them. When situations warranted it, he dropped the ruse and defended positions in the courtroom with an articulate and polished force. During these times he was a sight behold. People flocked to the courtroom to see him perform. Or at least to see him perform in this murder trial.

The novel is based on stenographic notes that Robert Roberts Hitt had written during the trial. Hitt was trained in a new technique of note taking. The quality of transcripts that he produced was so outstanding that he was in high demand. He had transcribed notes for Lincoln in the past and was specifically called to record this trial.

It is all by a twist of fate that we have the details for the Harrison-Crafton trial. We only have the details thanks to his notes of the trial. Stored in a garage in California. Discovered by chance in 1989.

The book recounts interesting historical tidbits, not just about Lincoln, but about legal customs. Under Illinois law, defendants could not take the stand in their own defense. Without Harrison testifying that he knew about threats to his life, how would Lincoln prove that he acted in self-defense?

But most interesting observations about legal norms came from Hitt who had transcribed trials in large cities like Chicago. Hitt noted the differences between small town courtrooms and big city courtrooms. The norms of the former were likely formed by the informal rules of circuit trials, which often were held in impromptu places. Jurors asked questions of witnesses in the middle of the trial with no cause for concern. Witnesses were allowed to freely give their accounts of stories without interruption or objections.

Some descriptions made me laugh out loud. The trial, which involved two local families, was highly anticipated and well attended. The courtroom was packed and standing room only. As a nod to the customs of the time, normally gentlemen would give up their seats for ladies present. But this trial was too important. Men wanted to attend without standing the entire time.

“As he [Hitt] waited for the proceedings to begin, spectators filled all the seats and standing room in the back and on the sides of the courtroom. There were a few women among them, but Hitt noticed with some amusement that the seated men tried to appear natural as they desperately avoided meeting the eyes of a woman, lest he would be compelled to give up his precious seat. But in several instances they were unsuccessful and, with a defeated shrug gave up their seats and joined those standing.” (page 60)

In another case, the response to questions posed in jury selection showed a quick wit (or slow obtrusiveness) on the part of the potential juror. “…’Are you sober? [asked the lawyer to a potential juror.] To which came the response, ‘You mean, right now?’” (page 67)

Dr. Allen, a witness for the defense, was a good friend of Lincoln’s and encouraged him to go into politics. “Dr. Allen had organized and ran the first Sunday school in the village, which proved very popular, but also had founded the local Temperance Society, which was exceedingly less so.” (page 193)

Lincoln’s Last Trial shows us a Lincoln that we already know as well as one that we may not. Lincoln the everyman comes across as a shrewd political operator. He sized up situations, typically hiding his intellect but bringing it to play at key times. He was ever observant and he knew how to ingratiate himself. But he was also a man of integrity who would not defend someone he didn’t believe in or prosecute someone whom he thought was innocent.

The myth of Lincoln looms so large. How much of the image in the book depicts the real Lincoln and how much the legend that he became?

Book review: Our Family Dreams: The Fletchers’ Adventures in Nineteenth Century America

Often the names of streets, parks, and neighborhoods point to the history of a city. Fletcher is one such name. In exploring the local history of Indianapolis, I routinely encountered the name Fletcher.

I learned about the Fletcher family plot in Crown Hill Cemetery and heard stories during tours. I drove down Fletcher Avenue and found myself wandering Fletcher Place when I trekked the cultural trail. I discovered a stunning portrait of Louisa Fletcher, a descendant (granddaughter?) of Calvin Fletcher, who moved to Indianapolis in the early 1800s, at the IMA. Booth Tarkington, a playwright buried in Crown Hill and with a theatre named after him, was married to Louisa. Calvin’s diary is an early historical source of sorts of Indianapolis. Wherever I turn I seem to encounter the Fletchers.

Somewhere, I do not remember where, I learned about Our Family Dreams, an account of the Fletcher clan. I was immediately intrigued.

The book is a delight and a disappointment. A disappointment because it focuses on only the 19th century. I was left wanting more and wondering about the clan in the 20th century. (Louisa doesn’t appear in its pages.) A delight because it is a deep dive into the two Fletcher brothers (Elijah and Calvin) and along the way provides insights in 18th and 19th century life, the political and cultural realities of the country, and early Indianapolis.

Smith starts his story with the patriarch of the family, Jesse Sr., who moved to Vermont to start a farm. His life was consumed with hard work, but he never really got out of the shadow of debt. Despite (or perhaps because of) his poverty, he recognized the value of education, even for girls. Several of his children were educated, either through his direct financial support or from the support of older siblings who were educated and out in the world seeking success.

The focus on Elijah and Calvin provides a fascinating insight into different cultural areas in the US before, during, and after the Civil War. The Fletchers in Vermont were an anti-slavery family. When Elijah left home to seek his way in the world, he was headed to Raleigh for a teaching assignment but stopped short in Virginia, where he took to the southern way of life.

Calvin, in contrast, headed west, eventually ending up in the new city of Indianapolis, which was located in a nominally anti-slavery state. (Indiana’s status can be debated; the legislature was dominated by pro-slavery Democrats and Hoosiers along the banks of the Ohio River often sympathized and sided with pro-slavery sentiment. However, Indiana sent one the largest numbers of soldiers to fight in the Union Army and was constitutionally anti-slavery. See blog posts that mention slavery in Indiana.)

The two brothers stayed in close contact over the decades, each residing over family dynasties of a sort. Elijah quickly became a plantation owner in his own right. Calvin was a lawyer, farmer, landowner, and pillar of the community. Whereas Elijah supported and condoned the owning of slaves, Calvin in his legal capacities helped some slaves brought to Indiana attain their freedom. (According to Indiana law, when slaves were brought to the state for residency—as opposed to transiting through the state to another destination—they automatically gained their freedom. At least in theory according to the law. Reality was a different matter.)

Snippets in the stories about Calvin resonate with history that I have encountered in my explorations of Indiana. In Ohio, Calvin lived with and studied law with a lawyer, reminiscent of the tales I heard about how men studied law in Madison on the Ohio River. As a young lawyer, he rode the circuit in Ohio and Indiana.

His household, once he was established as a pillar of society, consisted not just of family but of servants. And he took in widows and orphans for periods of time. Although I hadn’t encountered other historical figures in my travels who housed random widows and orphans in their own home, it was not uncommon for wealthy men to establish special houses for widows where their basic needs were met.

The story about how Calvin ended up marrying his first wife was enlightening. He realized he needed a helpmate through life but was torn about who it should be. He approached the task of getting a wife more as a rational choice rather than a matter of the heart. He was clearly concerned about status—a wife could improve one’s status or hurt it. He was originally drawn to a student of his but she was from a poor, ignorant family. She would not raise his status, but she could be a project, a person for him to educate and mold. His dilemma seems strange from a 21st century perspective. Frankly, with his attitudes, he seems like a condescending jerk.

As someone in the early years of Indiana, he was, to my chagrin, a land speculator, even owning land as far away as northwest Indiana (Michigan City). (My disappointment is that he was part of land speculation in Indiana that stole land from the native Americans and sold the land for a tidy profit.)

He was anti-slavery but racist. He supported the liberation of slaves and their rights but like Lincoln, believed that once freed, they should return to Africa. He kept out of debates in the 1844 presidential election but refused to support the anti-slavery Quaker ticket. He thought, perhaps rightly, that the Quaker ticket would only succeed in splitting the other tickets. (Neither other ticket was ideal: Whig Clay from pro-slavery Kentucky or Democratic pro-slavery Polk.) He also employed former slaves on his farm.

Indiana was settled with lots of Germans and was populated with numerous breweries. German societies such as the Athenaeum in Indianapolis that celebrated culture and education were common, but at least in Calvin’s day, the Germans he encountered seemed not to be of this class. He viewed Germans as ignorant and backwards and thus looked down on them.

Calvin was involved in the nascent banking industry as a banking president. The early banking industry, as I learned in my explorations, was anything but above board. Banks were meant for the wealthy elite, not the common folk. Often they went belly up and were dens of corruption. Calvin though is portrayed as an above-board kind of guy. I wonder more about his role in the early banking industry in Indiana.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of what he described as internal improvements (what we now refer to as infrastructure projects.) He actually visited the Erie Canal in New York and thought that canals would be better than railroads. (Railroads would only last a couple decades, he thought. He must have realized the error of his judgement; he was at one point on a railroad board.) As with banking, I wondered what his involved in the doomed canal projects in Indiana was. Indiana’s ill-fated attempt to build canals throughout the state ended in failure and the state’s bankruptcy.

Smith mentions in passing the Panic of 1837 and how it contributed to a depression that lasted until 1843. Again, the early financial history of Indiana—and Calvin’s role in it—would be fascinating to learn. My impression is that the state bankruptcy due to the flawed investment in canals led to the panic and ensuing depression, but I am not at all certain that the banking industry didn’t contribute to it as well.

Calvin watched politics and society become more and more divided in the 1840s. He was a staunch abolitionist but not everyone (or most people?) in Indiana shared his views. The protestant churches started to split into northern and southern branches around this time period.

He was friends with Henry Ward Beecher, a Presbyterian minister who preached against slavery. (The Presbyterian Church split into northern and southern branches over the issue of slavery in 1861.) Henry is incidentally the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the anti-slavery treatise Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Calvin was not only an abolitionist, but he was active in temperance and education reform movements, the latter a topic dear to the Fletcher family in general. In the 1830s Horace Mann initiated educational reforms in Indiana. In 1852, Indiana finally established free education. (See blog posts about education in early Indiana.)

Through Calvin’s correspondences with his brother Elijah, we get a glimpse into the political and social realities of the decades leading up to the Civil War. Calvin feared that annexing Texas, which wanted to allow slavery, would lead to war in Mexico and upset the balance of slave vs. non-slave states. He ruminates on John Brown and his attack at Harper’s Ferry. His son Elijah, now a preacher in a church in New Albany in southern Indiana, recounts the pro-Confederate sympathies of his congregation. (Many Hoosier families along the Ohio River were split, with fathers supporting one side and sons the other. Despite this, pro-Confederate sentiments weren’t sufficient to support a Confederate raid into Indiana.)

The pro-Union governor Oliver Morton turned to wealthy businessmen and community leaders to help gather troops, supplies, and funds for the Civil War. One person that Morton turned to was Calvin, whom he enlisted to gather munitions.

Although in his 60s, Calvin traveled to Canada to gather munition for the cause. Given his advanced age (he died at 68), Calvin tried to avoid being further pressed into service. When Morton wanted him to travel with him to Terre Haute, he sent his son Miles in his place. On that trip, Miles was tragically killed by a passing train.

Calvin mentions the train that stopped in Indy on its way to taking the newly elected Abraham Lincoln to Washington DC. Given Lincoln’s status as saint in modern times and their (later?) shared abolitionist view, I expected Calvin to be pro-Lincoln. If anything, Calvin seemed lukewarm about Lincoln. He actually met Lincoln briefly at the White House, but the meeting did not leave him with a great impression either of Lincoln or his administration (!). (Interesting, brother Elijah met Jefferson at Monticello and was less than impressed by him.) When Lincoln’s funeral train stopped in Indy on April 30, Calvin and his wife did pay their respects as Lincoln laid in the Indiana statehouse.

The stories of his children are equally fascinating as the history he lived through. Although he attempted to instill deep morals in his children and prized education, on the whole his children did not turn out as expected. Those from whom he expected great things seemed to disappoint but those who seemed disappointing turned out quite well.

On the whole, his sons wanted to distinguish themselves in battle during the Civil War rather than stay and help with the family business. Calvin rarely mentions his daughters. Maria married Cyrus Hines (who served in the Civil War and post-war practiced law with Benjamin Harrison). After Maria died in childbirth, her sister Lucy married Cyrus—a marriage that Calvin disapproved of.

His son Billy, originally a disappointment, distinguished himself after being captured during the Civil War. He used his medical training to help anyone he could during confinement. Following the war, he became a respected pillar of society, setting up different institutions in Indianapolis.

Calvin also found himself trying to right the ways of errant siblings and nephews, which he wasn’t always successful in doing. His brother’s daughter Indiana pleaded with him to obtain a pass to the north for her. (She was located on her late father’s plantations during the war.) Understandable given his role helping Morton and the side he took in the Civil War, he mainly stayed silent, never satisfying her request. He and his branch of the family had chosen the Union. Elijah and his branch had chosen slavery and the Confederacy.

In all the book is a fascinating look into different political, societal, and historical elements of the US—all through the prism of the Calvin and Elijah Fletcher families. Much that is mentioned weaves with histories and customs that I learned elsewhere. The book did raise other questions and left me wanting to learn more about the Fletcher family and their role in Indiana and American history.

George Rogers Clark National Historical Park (and the Lincoln memorial)

The George Rogers Clark National Historical Park lies adjacent to the Wabash River in downtown Vincennes, Indiana. The park is located where the original fort in Vincennes that George Rogers Clark captured stood (Fort Sackville). The grounds are open from dust to dawn and make for a wonderful peaceful evening stroll by the river.

The historical park includes a memorial, a statue of Francis Vigo (who alerted Clark to the British recapture of Vincennes and who financed Clark’s expeditions), and a visitor center.

The memorial is reminiscent of memorials in Washington DC—a round structure akin to the Jefferson Memorial—with a large expanse of lawn leading up to it. The memorial was completed in 1933, long before any thought to accessibility—other visitors when I was there complained of the numerous steps and small entryway.

You can climb the stairs and walk around the memorial, taking in the images of settlers and Native Americans in the metal lattice over the entryway. Entry to the memorial is manned by the park system and tied to the visitor center hours. (Entry is free.)

Definitely go to the visitor center before entering the memorial. The visitor center runs a 30-minute film that provides a good background about George Rogers Clark, his actions in the western frontier during the Revolutionary War, and the significance of his actions. This movie will give you the information necessary to appreciate what you will see inside the memorial.

Inside the memorial stands a statue of George Rogers Clark. Around him on the inside of the rotunda walls are murals depicting important points in Clark’s campaign during the war. The murals done by Ezra Winter depict such scenes as Clark and his men entering Kentucky (which was part of Virginia), Cahokia (site of an important fort in Illinois), the Wabash (which was flooded when Clark and his men crossed it), Vincennes (the gateway to the west), Fort Sackville (the fort in Vincennes that the British surrendered to Clark) Marietta (the first permanent city in the Northwest Territory), and St. Louis (which opened the way to the west with the Louisiana Purchase).

Around the inside top of the memorial is carved “Great Things Have Been Effected By A Few Men Well Conducted. Our Cause is Just. Our Country Will Be Grateful.” The quote comes from Clark’s letter to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry. I found the quote much more meaningful in context:

“I know the case is desperate; but, sir, we must either quit the country or attack Mr. Hamilton [who is in charge at the fort]. No time is to be lost. Were I sure of a [British] reinforcement [at the fort], I should not attempt it. Who knows what fortune will do for us? Great things have been effected [sic] by a few men well conducted. Perhaps we may be fortunate. We have this consolation, that our cause is just, and that our country will be grateful and not condemn our conduct in case we fall through. If we fail, the Illinois as well as Kentucky, I believe, is lost.”

Just north of the memorial grounds a stone bridge spans the Wabash River. On either side of the bridge heading towards Illinois, carved into the stone, are huge images of Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet—both important Native Americans in the area who had dealings with the Indiana Territory Governor William Henry Harrison. (Harrison later became the ninth president.)

The bridge offers a lovely view of the memorial and the Wabash River. A quick ten-minute walk takes you to the Illinois side of the river where a memorial to Abraham Lincoln stands. (Unfortunately, when I visited, the memorial had been defaced with spray paint.) The bridge marks the spot where Abraham Lincoln crossed the river with his family during his twenty-first year. (Illinois may be the land of Lincoln, but Indiana is where Lincoln grew to adulthood—from age six to twenty-one.)

The George Rogers Clark National Historical Park—and Vincennes in general—is definitely a spot that American history buffs would enjoy. The employees of the National Park Service, who man the visitor center and the memorial, are quite knowledgeable and eager to share any and all information.