Reading Henry David Thoreau’s Journal is one of my regular practices. The NYRB condensation of the massive work is my go-to edition: I’ve written about it previously. I find something of value on every page. And, as a whole, this blog, in case you haven’t noticed, has pretensions towards emulating Thoreau’s observations of the world, day by day, season by season.
And like Thoreau, I too am a political animal (as you may notice from my
id twitter feed), so I was struck by this journal passage from June 16, 1854:
“But what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them. We are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both rulers and ruled are without principle? The remembrance of the baseness of politicians spoils my walks. My thoughts are murder to the State; I endeavor in vain to observe nature; my thoughts involuntarily go plotting against the State. I trust that all just men will conspire.”
The background: in late May, 1854, the State of Massachusetts decided to return escaped slave Anthony Burns to Virginia under color of the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. This part of the Compromise of 1850 had set up federal commissions which could issue warrants, form posses, and force citizens to help catch runaway slaves (and fine and imprison them if they didn’t); it also denied jury trial and the right to testify to those accused of being runaways; they could be sent South on the basis of a mere affidavit. Long-free blacks as well as the more recently liberated were in effect re-enslaved by the law.
Burns had made it to Massachusetts on his freedom run only to be arrested in Boston, that beacon of liberty. The case radicalized many in the state, which was already a capital of Abolition: the perversion of slavery, thought by some to be contained south of the Mason-Dixon (although northern states had only outlawed the practice within the span of a generation or two), was quite clearly spreading across the nation. (Indeed, for the Slave Power to maintain its wealth and power, it had to spread, which was why the western territories were so contested.) On May 26th, abolitionists stormed the Boston courthouse where Burns was held in an unsuccessful attempt to free him. Thirteen ware arrested and one marshal was killed.
It has been fashionable to denigrate Thoreau – for he was made of the same contradictions, compromises, and hypocrisies as the rest of us, only more so because he made them manifest by writing for posterity and the little courts of opinion – but he fought the good and great fight of his time. His night in jail in 1846 wasn’t only for protesting the Mexican War, it was also to protest slavery. He defended John Brown. He, and his family, ran a waystation on the northward course of the Underground Railroad. He gave a fiery speech called “Slavery in Massachusetts” at a July 4th, 1854, anti-slavery rally in Framingham where William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the Slave Power’s charter, better known as the U.S. Constitution. Slavery was making anarchists of them all, and why not, since the State’s usual function is to protect the property of its masters.
The passions of the day would soon lead to the Civil War. Tragically, the unfinished Reconstruction failed to break the Slave Power completely, and a century of Jim Crow apartheid and Southern warping of the U.S. Senate followed. The struggle for liberation took many routes, via the great migration of blacks out of the South’s terrorist-based racial feudalism, and the Civil Rights movement in the South itself. But the blowback has never ended: the majority of poor people in this country are white, but it is poor blacks who are perennially stigmatized. Glenn Beck’s fantasy of a white Christian republic and the Mad Tea Party’s middle class white rage over other people’s entitlements (but never their own, of course) are only the great reaction’s most recent manifestations. Their vision of “restoring America” has a ghastly smell to it, like one of those special social events where a whole town would picnic with fried chicken and potato salad and sweet tea and the burnt body of a black man hanging from a nearby tree.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” wrote Thoreau, perhaps too kindly. For the majority usually don’t act at all, they follow with their heads low to the ground. Most Americans quietly sat out the Civil Rights struggle, just as a majority of northerners were not Abolitionists 150 years ago.
Rearguard actions are usually ugly; what was once called the “lunatic fringe” of the American Right is now its malignant center. When the Republican Party tied its destiny to the deep well of Southern hate in the late 1960s, it set the stage for today’s shitstorm.
It is educational to be reminded that Massachusetts elected a Know-Nothing – the nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-alien-religion bigots of the day – as governor in 1854. Now our Election Day is coming and the worst are full of passionate intensity, while most of the rest will probably stay at home. Anger is legitimate; we do suffer from a corrupted, corporate-controlled, and radically unequal society, but the rage of the right will not lead to justice. Far from it. The Tea Party movement is a stalking horse for oligarchy and plutocracy: it just puts a nastier face to the one percent that already owns most of the nation.
But Thoreau walked in fair weather and foul, and I follow him that way, too.