TOWTON 25

In its special Christmas issue, The Economist has a report on an archeological excavation in the Town of Towton, in England. This is where, on March 29th, 1461, the House of York defeated the House of Lancaster in the climactic battle in the War of the Roses, delivering the English crown to the Plantagenets. The article (unsigned, like all pieces in the magazine, preventing me from giving props to the author), talks about how the excavation has yielded a rich trove of information about the soldiers, the nature of the conflict, and the progress of the battle. The gentleman pictured at left–the late Towton 25, as he is now known–fought for the Lancasters, and apparently quite fiercely–before he was done in.

Here is how the piece begins: “The soldier now known as Towton 25 had survived battle before. A healed skull fracture points to previous engagements. He was old enough—somewhere between 36 and 45 when he died—to have gained plenty of experience of fighting. But on March 29th 1461, his luck ran out. Towton 25 suffered eight wounds to his head that day. The precise order can be worked out from the direction of fractures on his skull: when bone breaks, the cracks veer towards existing areas of weakness. The first five blows were delivered by a bladed weapon to the left-hand side of his head, presumably by a right-handed opponent standing in front of him. None is likely to have been lethal. The next one almost certainly was. From behind him someone swung a blade towards his skull, carving a down-to-up trajectory through the air. The blow opened a huge horizontal gash into the back of his head—picture a slit you could post an envelope through. Fractures raced down to the base of his skull and around the sides of his head. Fragments of bone were forced in to Towton 25’s brain, felling him. His enemies were not done yet. Another small blow to the right and back of the head may have been enough to turn him over onto his back. Finally another blade arced towards him. This one bisected his face, opening a crevice that ran from his left eye to his right jaw. It cut deep: the edge of the blade reached to the back of his throat.” [NB: The scientists believe he was hit by a poleax.)

THE PIPES OF CHRISTMAS

Was it a preview of a return to child-free late middle age? Hard to say for sure, but Ginny and I had a good time Sunday in Manhattan. First we had a leisurely stroll up Fifth Avenue for a tour of the Big Street’s holiday decorations (nice flags outside Cartier’s, nicer rocks inside), and then a very fine brunch at Cafe Boulud in the Surrey Hotel on East 76th Street. Ginny had the tarte flambee and the Maine Peekytoe Crab Benedict, and I had the charcuterie and the fines herbes omlette. Afterwards, we went around the corner to the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, right at 74th Street, and heard the Pipes of Christmas, a program of Christmas music played by bagpipe, brass and string instruments presented by the Clan Currie Society of Summit NJ. A very lovely program, perfect for the season, even if my favorite moment was the rousing rendition of “Scotland the Brave” that closed the show. Outstanding!

GREAT WEDDING CRASHER, BUT A BAD AMERICAN

In my most recent column for the Disunion series in the New York Times, I tell the following story about a wedding that was held in Washington in December 1860 that was interrupted by a bombastic guest, Lawrence Keitt, buoyantly booming out the news that South Carolina had seceded from the union.

Well, I was pretty happy that on a blog run by the estimable economist Brad DeLong, he quoted a blog called Lawyers, Guns and Money where a writer named Dave Noon called my little anecdote “one of the great wedding-crasher stories in US history, featuring one of the least remembered Worst Americans Ever.” Noon then goes on to tell us that the creepy Keitt “ranked among the finer B-list Slave Power deacons of his era. When Preston Brooks was clubbing Charles Sumner half to death in early May 1856, it was a liquor-fortified Keitt who — wielding a pistol or a cane of his own, depending on the account — helped prevent anyone from intervening on behalf of the Massachusetts Senator. After being censured by the House for his role in the assault, Keitt resigned and immediately stood for re-election; two years after being returned to his seat, he initiated a brawl on the House floor when he attacked Pennsylvania congressman Galusha Grow, a former free-soil Democrat who had joined the Republican party at roughly the same moment that Keitt was abetting the attack on Sumner. When the party of Grow and Sumner elected Abraham Lincoln in November 1860s, Keitt joined the congressional fire-eaters and abandoned his office for the second time in five years. His wife Susanna — also a piece of work — justified her husband’s (and her state’s) disunionism by characterizing the “Black Republicans” as “a motley throng of Sans culottes and Dames de Halles, Infidels and freelovers, interspersed by Bloomer women, fugitive slaves, and amalgamationists.”

Keitt, Noon tells us, organized the 20th South Carolina Infantry Regiment, which he led on a disastrous charge across an open field near Beulah Church in Virginia on May 31, 1864. His men were shredded and Keitt himself mortally wounded.

Also, a shout out to blogger John K. of the website J’s Theater, who today expressed at length his enthusiasm for the Disunion series: “I’m going to sing the praises of The New York Times today, and note that since October 30, 2010, it has been publishing one of the best and most informative series of articles, mini-essays, and nonfiction stories (tales, in the older sense), under the title “Disunion,” that I have read in any newspaper, journal or other periodical anywhere, ever.” To repeat: Best…Ever!

One more time for Susaana Keitt: “A motley throng of Sans culottes and Dames de Halles, Infidels and freelovers, interspersed by Bloomer women, fugitive slaves, and amalgamationists.” Can I get an Amen?

COMPARTMENTALIZING THE CIVIL WAR

Tonight in Charleston, The Confederate Heritage Trust is holding what it calls “a theatrical performance and secession ball’’ to mark the 150th anniversary of the secession of South Carolina from the United States. For $100, guests will see a 45 minute play “re-enacting the signing of the original Ordinance of Secession with Senators and famous individuals as actors in this performance,’’ including the current President Pro-Tempore of the South Carolina Senate, Glenn F. McConnell, who will portray the chairman of the secession convention. This will be followed by a dinner consisting of Beef Tenderloin, Grilled Chicken Breast, Shrimp & Grits, Andouille Sausages, assorted vegetables, Lowcountry Beignets and Apple Crumble, among other dishes. Modern or period formal dress is required. As a special added attraction, the actual original Ordinance of Secession will be available for viewing.

One of the organizers of the event, Jeff Antley, has said that the ball had nothing to do with current politics, but was being held to honor the delegates who voted unanimously to take South Carolina out of the union. “We’re celebrating that those 170 people risked their lives and fortunes to stand for what they believed in, which is self-government,” Antley told The New York Times. “Many people in the South still believe that is a just and honorable cause. Do I believe they were right in what they did? Absolutely. There’s no shame or regret over the action those men took.” Antley stressed that he was not defending slavery, which he called an abomination. “But defending the South’s right to secede, the soldiers’ right to defend their homes and the right to self-government doesn’t mean your arguments are without weight because of slavery.”

Mr. Antley, it must be said in the stongest and most uncertain terms, is wrong. The idea that the Civil War grew out of an argument over states rights is wrong. The Civil War started because seven states of the deep south seceded. Politically influential leaders in those states conspired to secede in the months prior to the 1860 election, and began the process of secession right after Abraham Lincoln‘s election; in the case of South Carolina, literally the day after Lincoln’s election. This is not because of anything Lincoln did or promised to do; indeed, he made it clear that he was disinclined and Constitutionally forbidden to do anything about slavery in any existing state. Moreover, Lincoln would be hamstrung by Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. But if the South had nothing to fear from the federal government, they were nonetheless scared: scared that John Brown‘s raid in 1859 was a harbinger of slave revolts to come, and afraid that long term political trends were not bending their way. The North was growing, and the South was not; if slavery was a stock, you would short it.

And this upset the slaveholders of the South, because they had a very good thing going. In 1860, cotton production was high, and so were prices. Slaveholders really didn’t see much opportunity to expand within the territorial United States, but they were eager to expand into the long-coveted Caribbean islands and the lands bordering the Gulf of Mexico—places where many a fortune had already been made with slave labor. “To the Southern republic bounded on the north by the Mason and Dixon line and on the south by the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, including Cuba and all the other lands on our southern shore,” went one toast of the time. In minds of the slaveholders who were driving secession, hearing northerners castigate slavery as evil certainly chafed, but the north’s ability to affect the self-government of a southern state was not close to being realistic. What was really at stake was the ability of slaveholders to conduct the business of slaveholding without any interference from anybody. Read the statements that the states made when they left. South Carolina: “The non-slaveholding states … have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery” and “have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes” and [once Lincoln is inaugurated], the slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.’’ Mississippi: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. … There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union.” Georgia: “A brief history of the rise, progress, and policy of anti-slavery and the political organization into whose hands the administration of the Federal Government has been committed will fully justify the pronounced verdict of the people of Georgia.” As Penn’s Stephanie McCurry writes in Confederate Reckoning, “What secessionists set out to build was something new in the hostory of nations: a modern proslavery and antidemocratic state, dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal. . . Theirs was a nation founded in defiance of the spirit of the age.”

At the secession convention being celebrated tonight, ninety percent of the delegates to that convention were slave owners. Sixty percent of them own at least twenty slaves. Forty percent of them own at least fifty. Sixteen percent of them own a hundred slaves or more. For Antley to say “Slavery is an abomination, but let’s celebrate these other things” is evidence of a morality so flexible that it doesn’t deserve to be called morality at all.

Astley is just one of many Americans who compartmentalizes the Civil War; it’s something we have done for years. In fact, the federal government does it. There are at least eleven United States military installations in the south–Fort Hood and Camp Maxey in Texas, Forts Lee, Hill and Pickett in Virginia, Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Polk and Camp Beauregard in Louisiana, and Forts Gordon, Benning and Rucker–named after Confederate generals. In Tennessee, there’s even a Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park, named after the fierce Confederate general who had been a slave trader before the war, one of the founder of the Ku Klux Klan after the war, and who was accused of murdering black Union soldiers at the battle of Fort Pillow. It’s high time some other heroes were celebrated at these public places.

It’s worth noting that there is no compartmentalization about World War II. 1999, British GQ cheekily included the Nazis on a list of the most stylish men of the 20th century; after the protests, the editor resigned. A couple of years ago, Bryan Ferry said he admired the films of Leni Riefenstahl and the buildings of Albert Speer; he was castigated. Earlier this year, an official of Human Rights Watch admitted that he collected Nazi memorabilia; within the month, he was out of a job.

But somehow, here, 150 years after the Civil War, slavery still gets a “but. . . . ”

THE TEA PARTY VS. THE CONSTITUTION

In an article that appeared in The Washington Post, Michael Waldman, a former speechwriter for President Clinton, points out that while members of the Tea Party and other right wingers like Michele Bachman say they are committed to upholding the Constitution, they in fact favor changing the Constitution in countless ways. Here are some Waldman has collected:

Change the 14th Amendment, which guarantees the rights of citizenship, such as equal protection of the law and due process, to anyone born in the US. Now Senators John Kyl and Lindsey Graham have suggested rewriting this provision to exclude children who were born in the US if their parents crossed the U.S. border illegally.

Repeal the 16th Amendment, which authorized the income tax. This one is an idea from Glenn Beck.

Overturn the 17th Amendment, which provides for the direct public election of US Senators. This was a key political reform of the Progressive Era, and a major step forward for democracy. Tea Partyers say this will give more power to state legislatures. Why they want to do that–instead of trusting the people–is a mystery.

Institute the so-called Repeal Amendment, which would give two-thirds of the states the power to nullify federal laws. History has shown that it’s a poor idea to allow state or regional interests to trump national interests. Moreover, this would allow a coalition of states populated by about a third of the population to nullify laws favored by the big states where the larger part of the population resides. As Waldman says, “This amendment, if passed, would mark the dismantling of the strong national government that has helped make the U.S. the most powerful nation in world history. It would turn back the clock not to before the New Deal, but to before the Civil War.”

Overall, says Waldman, “these constitutional forays would repeal some of the greatest advances in democracy.” In their attempt to fight big government, they are in fact undermining democratic reforms.

CSI 17TH CENTURY

According to an article by Joanne Impey of AFP on the website Deutsche Welle, “a team of scientists identified an embalmed head as that of King Henri IV of France, who was assassinated in 1610. . . .The head was apparently lost after a mob of revolutionaries desecrated the graves of French kings in the royal chapel of Saint-Denis near Paris in 1793.” Since then, the head had been in the hands of–get this–“secretive private collectors.” The head of the team that identified the head, forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier, found “features consistent with those of the king’s face were found including `a dark mushroom-like lesion’ near the right nostril, a healed facial stab wound and a pierced right earlobe. The color of the hair, and remains of a moustache and beard on the mummified head fit with the known appearance of the king at the time of his death. Many features matched those in portraits of the king.” Cutting wounds consistent with decapitation were also visible. Known as “Le Bon Roi Henri”, Henry promoted religious tolerance by issuing the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which guaranteed religious liberties to Protestants and ended more than three decades of warfare between Protestants and Catholics. As a reward, he was murdered at the age of 57 by Catholic fanatic Francois Ravaillac, who twice slashed the king in the throat during a procession. Henri IV was also known as “the green gallant”, the article says, because of his appeal to women. Why a guy who appeals to women is called The Green Gallant is still a mystery.

JOURNALIST OR TERRORIST?

I was sorry to see government officials like Eric Holder and Hillary Clinton overreacting to last week’s Wikileaks’ data drop, but it’s appalling to see CNN trying to poke a reaction by asking “Is Julian Assange a terrorist or a journalist?”, which the network did on a December 12th broadcast. FBI profiler Greg McCrary toed the party line and called Assange “the Robin Hood of data or information,” which is a quotable line but essentially meaningless and dumb. Thank goodness former CIA analyst Ray McGovern showed appropriate common sense and perspective. “Of course he’s a journalist,” McGovern. “Thomas Jefferson said that if it were a choice between a government and a free press, he’d pick a free press. This is what’s needed to preserve democracy. The idea is to tell as close to the truth as possible and not simply take notes on what the government is saying. That’s what Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have done to the embarrassment of the government because a lot of our dealings are kept in secret and need not be kept in secret.” McGovern then suggested that CNN follow WikiLeaks’ example. “Seek out the secrets,” he said. “Find out why it is that my tax-payer money is going to fund trafficked young boys performing dances in women’s clothing before the Afghan security forces who we are recruiting to take over after we leave. Take a look at the documents and see the abhorrent activities that our government has endorsed or done through its contractors. And then tell me you don’t think the Americans can handle that. Well, I think they can handle it.”

The best comment that I ever heard about Wikileaks was spoken about a year and a half before I ever heard of Wikileaks. When I visited him in London in 2009, my friend Tim O’Toole was talking about terrorism and the security response, but his comments were right on. “What’s really going on is that we are living in an era when there is a massive transfer of power from institutions to individuals. Technology gives individuals access to information, access to communication, the ability to form groups without the aid of institutions. And so you have Nick Leeson, who took down Barings Bank, one of the most successful banks in history, financed the wars against Napoleon, and it vanishes in a second because some individual was able to push some buttons. You have a situation where a blogger can have a bigger impact on an election than a major newspaper. You have a few guys with box cutters who turn a passenger jet into a cruise missile. It’s this ability of individuals to cause outcomes far beyond what any individual could have ever done before that has institutions so confused. Because change is coming so fast—meanwhile, we’re still holding governments responsible, and government officials take steps to demonstrate a feeling of control. And often they overreact. And so you have the Palmer raids, or Japanese internment, or McCarthyism. Every time there’s crisis, we swing wildly in reaction. It’s kind of what’s happening with Guantanemo now. So what should society do about this transfer of power? Well, we can’t handle it by suppressing liberty, because you never keep up, and every time we try. we become ashamed that we walked away from our principles. We need more liberty, to make it work for us, by welcoming all of the smart people of the world to our shores. We have to ride the wave as a society. If you try to suppress it, you’re doomed to failure.”