February 15, 2013

The Selfishness of Salmon Chase

Following on from seeing Lincoln on Saturday, I'm currently in the midst of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals- her account of the Lincoln administration. I remember it really as the book everyone talked about when Barack Obama appointed Hillary Clinton in 2008: apparantly Obama had read and reread it before he made that decision,. Whether that's true or not, the idea of writing a book which concentrates on the relationships between leading politicians rather than focussing on the heroic figure of Lincoln (or say in a British context Churchill) is interesting. That noone has done this for the 1940 cabinet is fascinating.

I'll write a bit more on that once I've finished the book though. Today I want to think about something else. Goodwin begins her book by taking us through the histories of the men who ran against each other for the Republican nomination for President in 1860: Abraham Lincoln, William H Seward of New York, Salmon Chase of Ohio and Edward Bates of Missouri. They are all fascinating characters but Chase is the one I'm going to write about tonight because one of the things that earned him his reputation was a case which I think offers a fascinating insight into his personality.

The case is that of a farmer called Van Zandt. I'm relying entirely on Goodwin here for her summary: basically Van Zandt picked up some slaves on an April night in 1841 and promised to help them escape to freedom. 2 slave catchers acosted him on the route and found the slaves and the owner of the slaves brought a suit against Van Zandt for harboring and concealing the slaves- essentially helping to 'steal' their property. The key thing about the case, which Salmon Chase took up in the Ohio courts and then Chase and Seward prosecuted in the Supreme Court, was that if he lost Van Zandt would be ruined.

What Chase did was bring a case which would almost certainly lose. As Goodwin argues it, he argued before the courts that slavery was unjust, unconstitutional and could not therefore be maintained in law. Think about what that argument is. Its an argument on principle. As soon as Chase made it, three things instantly followed from it. Firstly Chase acquired a reputation as a stalwart opponent of slavery who could make a principled argument against it- hence he obtained an appeal to others who shared his values. Secondly making that principled argument meant that the cause of American anti-slavery was pushed along- was articulated even to the highest cause in the land. Thirdly it meant that Van Zandt would lose his case- no court would strike down slavery as property on a case such as his- especially when that court as the Supreme Court had, had a southern majority.

Van Zandt was completely ruined- he lost his land, property, children and life. Chase went on to serve in the US Senate, in the governorship of Ohio, in the cabinet of Lincoln and on the Supreme Court. Slavery was abolished. I'm not saying that Chase was entirely selfish, Goodwin suggests that his ambition was married to his belief and that sounds right. What I'm trying to get at and what I think is interesting here is that Chase's strong belief, allied to his ambition, rendered him blind to the interests of the individual whose case he was defending. I'm not sure what I think of this as an individual act of morality but I think its revealing of the priorities of the man- who probably could think more about the abstract needs of the slaves than the concrete difficulties of the man in front of him.

February 12, 2013

A thought on Lincoln

At one point in the film Lincoln that Steven Spielburg has just released, Lincoln comes face to face with his great radical republican opponent Thadeus Stevens and they argue about slavery. Stevens says and I cannot remember the actual words, but near enough says that Lincoln is a compromiser. He argues that he had always known what was right and wrong and had fought for the repeal of slavery for years and years. Stevens compares himself to a compass which always points north, Lincoln he says veers about all over the map. The rejoinder from Lincoln is equally powerful. Daniel Day Lewis's Lincoln responds that yes he is compromiser: but he wants to get things done. He compares himself to a traveller, journeying with a compass. Of course he knows where north is but sometimes he has to go south and then east to go round a swamp, sometimes west to go over a mountain pass. He asks Stevens rhetorically what use it would be if the traveller confronted with a desert and a swamp which were impassable, just continued to assault them. A bit more subtlety and the traveller might find his way north.

In the context of the film- the debate matters because it sets up Stevens to later accommodate the northern moderates by implying that repealing slavery will not bring in black equality. I think there are some wider points that are interesting though that flow from the conversation. The most important and probably most surprising to modern ears is the simple fact that this conversation takes place in the film after the civil war. The North had won- and yet still the problems of the war had not gone away. Civil Wars don't resolve things in that way. The English Civil War is the same: you still had to think about the royalists in 1647. What Lincoln is arguing with Stevens about are two alternative attitudes about the end of an ideological civil war. The first attitude (associated with Stevens here) is the attitude which says, we won, we now go in, reorganise our opponents, impose military rule and hope that they come round to our view. The second attitude (associated here with Lincoln) is that we won- now we can begin negotiations again: maybe this time we can get free slaves- but we might not get black equality till further down the line.

I'm not going to say that one is right or wrong or works or doesn't work. The important thing I think here is that both courses of action have costs. What Lincoln as a film is good at is portraying that cost. So Lincoln's view has an obvious cost: it is what happened. In 1865 the black slaves were free. Blacks were not free really in the south though until the 1960s and the Civil Rights act. Jim Crow was able to rule in the south for a full century after Lincoln's abolition. On the other hand the film makes it clear just what the price of conviction was: hundreds of thousands died in the civil war and all that achieved was the abolition of slavery. How many more would have had to die in the occupation of the south that Stevens wanted. I expect almost everyone reading this has strong views one way or the other. I thought the excellent thing about Spielberg's film was that it allowed you to see the strengths of both cases.