To Bind Up The Nation’s Wounds

by Matthew Sitman

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I noted in my introduction earlier today that I don’t usually write about politics, that I prefer, especially when things get bad, to retreat into literature and poetry. This was my impulse when news of what happened in Ferguson first flickered across my screen – to my shame, I just wanted to avert my gaze. And I managed to do just that for a day or two, until it couldn’t be ignored, and it shifted from a “local story” to the topic that completely dominated my Twitter feed and Facebook page, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Ferguson, Missouri, was “just a place,” as the New York Times put it, until, suddenly, it wasn’t. That phrase gets more chilling every time I read it.

In what I’ve read about the killing of Michael Brown and its aftermath, certain issues have been front-and-center, with the widespread evils of entrenched racism and the militarization of the police being the most prominent. But I’ve also noticed something else going on, which is that more and more people seem to believe that Ferguson reveals something quite damning about America itself, that it points to deeper, systemic issues that go far beyond one killing in one town – that the disregard for black lives in America is a sin that undermines so much about what we like to believe about our country, and our hopes for its future. James Poulos gets at this well:

Americans—in and out of my Twitter feed—have begun to grasp that hideous possibility: that America has manufactured a violent and predominantly black permanent underclass, subjected to our malignant paranoia about crime, living slow-motion death sentences in ghettos from which no amount of presidential hope, change, or lecturing can release them.

Even more important, Americans have begun to understand that the scourge-ification of this underclass is inseparable from the realization of our worst collective nightmare—the scourging of America itself, the ruin of the promise of America that still strikes us in our gut as providential. The widespread belief, still largely subconscious or at least unspoken, that America is breaking, and that we deserve the suffering ahead.

He then turns to Lincoln to further develop this thought:

“Fondly do we hope,” Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural, “fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

We do not want this to be true. This is what we fear: that America, despite its brilliance and its progress, is inescapably complicit in the sin of slavery and racism, bearing a moral debt that cannot be repaid but in suffering and blood—as such debts are paid so routinely around the world which we pride ourselves, however rationally, on standing so far above.

I think it has to be clear by now that we do bear that moral debt and are complicit in the ongoing sin of racism and white supremacy, even if too few of us are willing to admit it, and what I found compelling about Poulos’ essay is that he points beyond policy questions to the deeper moral issues involved. I certainly hope the killing in Ferguson leads to policy changes, especially when it comes to the militarization of our police forces. With Freddie, I also hope that the protests in Ferguson are the first stirrings of “dragging the police back under community control.” But these reforms won’t really be enough, even if they do help. Ferguson is about more than a few police officers with big guns behaving badly.

What we need, in other words, is what Ta-Nehisi Coates described in his recent essay on reparations:

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

Beyond policy fixes is the necessity of a “national reckoning” with the reality of racial injustice in this country. More white people like myself should care about the criminalization of black men apart from when it’s trendy to mention it on Twitter. What I am concerned about is what happens after the situation in Ferguson is “resolved.” And I don’t see how we can really have that national reckoning apart from the ways Coates lays out in his essay, addressing the full breadth of the way blacks have been marginalized, punished, and plundered throughout our history. We can take away the police’s military equipment, but we also need “a revolution of the American consciousness.” The question we face is not just “Why do the police in Ferguson have that equipment?” but “Why did they turn those arms against black people?” Beneath policy debates lurks the problems of the human heart, and the hate and indifference residing there.

All this is another way of saying we need repentance, real repentance. I do not accept that the only way forward is through “suffering and blood.” To invoke the prophetic tradition both Lincoln and Poulos are leaning on, repentance can forestall the anger of the Lord. As the writer of the book of Jonah proclaimed, “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” And so if we’re going to revisit Lincoln, it’s worth mentioning the call that closed his second Inaugural address:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Let us turn from our evil ways and repent, and bind up the nation’s wounds as best we can. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay, if you haven’t already, and consider, as TNC suggests, supporting John Conyer’s congressional bill, H.R. 40. Keep tweeting about Ferguson, sure, but when your social media feed reverts to pictures of cats and snarky one-liners, remember what we saw and felt this last week. And one other thing: I want to hear from Dish readers about concrete ways they hope to “finish the work we are in” in the weeks, months, and years ahead. Write to me at dish@andrewsullivan.com with ideas and suggestions about how to do this, how you plan on being more than a spectator who simply waits to tweet about the next killing and the next protest.

(Photo: Demonstrators wrote messages while protesting on August 15, 2014, the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. By Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images)

Your Other Blogger For The Week

by Matthew Sitman

Hey Dish readers – I’m Matt, the Dish’s literary editor and, this week, guest-blogger. Most of my work usually appears on the weekends, especially Sundays, so I tend to be responsible for the posts about religion that readers seem to either love or hate, and my deepest interests lean much more toward theology, poetry, and literature than politics. That means writing more about politics over the next few days will be a bit of an adventure for me. Usually I find politics, and the way we argue about politics, terribly depressing, which provides a lovely excuse to retreat into old books. I hope this lack of immersion in punditry gives me a fresh perspective on the events of the day while guest-blogging, but I suspect Dish readers will let me know if it doesn’t.

Prior to joining the Dish team two years ago, I was a Ph.D. student at Georgetown University studying political theory, but I never finished my doctorate, making me something of an academic refugee. My research interests mainly concerned the relationship between political thought and theology, with a particular focus on the Reformation. I won’t bore you with too much more about that, but the questions that led me to that topic still are what I think about the most. Above all, I’m fascinated by religion’s place in the modern world, and I’m drawn to writers who examine that subject with verve and creativity. To that end, I have an essay, coming out very soon in Deep Dish, on the poet Christian Wiman that explores his approach to Christianity.

I grew up in a small town in rural central Pennsylvania, and neither of my parents and none of my grandparents went to college. This means that I always remind myself what a privilege it is to spend my days reading and writing and thinking about books. I hope my enthusiasm and gratitude for getting to do so is apparent during my week of guest-blogging.

Somerset Maugham’s Path To Salvation

by Matthew Sitman

I hadn’t realized that one of my favorite novels, Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, turned 70 this year. It’s not a very hip book to love these days, but it charms me in so many different ways – Maugham’s sketches of life in Paris, the knowing observations and incorrigible social climbing of Elliott Templeton, and, above all, the spiritual pilgrimage of protagonist Larry Darrell. In the novel, Larry is a military pilot whose jarring and scarring experiences during the Great War set him on a search for meaning – he comes back from Europe refusing to hold a conventional job or settle down and marry, instead pursuing a peripatetic, bohemian life of voracious reading and wide traveling, including to India, where, not to give too much away, he finds enlightenment. It’s a convincing account of how someone becomes a saint, how a “conversion” can happen. Mick Brown, noting the novel’s anniversary, offers some background on its writing:

Maugham may have been successful, but he was far from happy. The jaundiced tone that infects his work reflected his view of the human condition. His time as a young doctor in the slums of London had disabused him of a belief in God. But behind the carapace of cynicism, the search for faith, or meaning without faith, would be a recurring theme in his life and work. “It may be that my heart, having found rest nowhere, had some deep ancestral craving for God and immortality which my reason would have no truck with,” he wrote in his memoir Summing Up.

When in December 1937 Maugham set off for India, on the journey that would plant the seed of The Razor’s Edge, he was furnished with introductions to wealthy maharajas from his Riviera neighbour the Aga Khan, but his steamer trunk was also laden with books on Hindu philosophy and L D Barnett’s translation of the Upanishads. He was in search of more than just material.

Readers and critics have long speculated about whom Larry was based on, with Christopher Isherwood – another novelist who turned to the East for wisdom – usually being mentioned. I’m fairly certain that’s not right; Isherwood denies it, and Maugham, to my knowledge, never indicated that was the case, though the two did know each other. Instead, Brown makes a convincing argument that, in part, Larry was based on an experience Maugham had on his trip to India described above, where he met Alan Chadwick, a British disciple of the guru Ramana Maharshi:

Chadwick told Maugham that he considered Ramana to be the greatest spiritual figure since Christ, and described how he passed his days in the ashram. He spent many hours sitting in the hall with the Maharshi, though he seldom spoke more than a few words to him in a week. The rest of his time was spent reading, riding his bicycle and in meditation. He told Maugham he was trying “to realise the self in him in communion with the universal self, to separate the I that thinks from the self, for that, he said, is the infinite”. Maugham was bemused. “I had thought to discover something of the truth about him from what he looked like and from what he said,” he wrote, “but I came away completely puzzled.”

Maugham and Chadwick had been talking for some time when something curious happened: Maugham fainted.

He was carried into Chadwick’s hut and laid on a pallet bed. At length he recovered consciousness, but felt too unwell to move. Ramana had been told what happened and that Maugham was not well enough to see him. Instead, Ramana came to the writer. “His mien was cheerful, smiling, polite,” Maugham remembered. “He did not give the impression of a scholar, but rather of a sweet-natured old peasant.” For a few minutes, Ramana gazed with a “gentle benignity” at Maugham, then shifted his gaze, and sat in motionless silence for perhaps a quarter of an hour, before asking whether Maugham wished to ask any questions. Maugham replied that he felt too unwell to say anything, whereupon Ramana smiled and said “silence is also conversation”.

You should read Brown’s wonderful short essay, and then turn to The Razor’s Edge itself. And if you still want more, read Isherwood’s terrific article that describes why Maugham’s book is so successful as an account of the religious search, “The Problem of the Religious Novel,” which can be found in his collection The Wishing Tree: Christopher Isherwood on Mystical Religion. I recommend them especially because, like many Americans today, Maugham and Isherwood had reacted against institutional Christianity, yet still hungered for meaning, still searched for God. And they managed to find in variants of Hinduism an alternate spirituality – non-dualistic, less moralizing, and more concerned with practices like meditation – that gave them what they needed. The spiritual life of both men, especially Isherwood, totally fascinates me, because they side-step the tropes and dead ends of so many American religious debates. They offer an account of the religious life that seems new and fresh, reminding those of us who have well-worn arguments about Christianity ingrained in our psyches to see, as if for the first time, why the path to sainthood is one worth treading and what it might look like.

Another Round On The Political Roots Of Atheism

by Matthew Sitman

Last Sunday we featured Nick Spencer’s argument that the rise of modern atheism had less to do with the advance of science than the fallout from the entanglement of religion and politics in early modern Europe. Kenneth Sheppard pushes back with a number of qualifications and questions:

It is an oversimplification to suggest, as Spencer does, that the major scientific developments of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and nineteenth centuries were “hardly atheistic at all.” Yes, Copernicus was a priest. So was Galileo. Yet David Wootton has argued that Galileo was in fact a closet unbeliever (Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, Yale, 2010). Yes, Bacon argued that his new natural philosophy was really an aid to theology. But did all his contemporaries think likewise? Christopher Riggs has argued that Bacon’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, was an unbeliever for reasons related to the new science (The World of Christopher Marlowe, Faber and Faber, 2004). What about more challenging examples, such as Hobbes or Spinoza? Surely it would be difficult to sustain the claim that their deeply heterodox – and perhaps atheistic – views had nothing to do with recent developments in science? No, the history of science does not fully explain the history of atheism, but it is misleading to suggest that the two are unrelated.

Spencer is right to look to politics as an alternate source for an explanation of atheism’s history, but he does so in rather simplistic terms. Apparently atheism emerged in France because of its supposedly intellectual and political backwardness, was avoided in Britain because of its antipathy to absolutist and revolutionary France, and was effectively negated in America because of the separation of church and state. But this way of looking at the history of France, Britain, and America rests on taking French anticlericalism, British whiggism, and American exceptionalism at their word. What evidence does Spencer offer here, other than a series of declarative statements with fairly thin evidentiary argumentation?

Sheppard is definitely right to point out how complicated this period of history was, especially with regard to religion. In my previous life as an academic, I studied early modern political thought, which led me to explore a number of the personalities and issues he mentions, though admittedly my focus wasn’t on the history of science. But to take an example he mentions that I did study with some care, Thomas Hobbes, I’m still conflicted about where to draw the line between mere heterodoxy and a more subversive atheism, or how to determine when the appearance of piety was, well, just that – an appearance, undermined by the many subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle criticisms he leveled against traditional Christianity, or the way he reworked Christian doctrines almost beyond recognition.

And let’s say Hobbes was an atheist; it’s still worth noting that half of his masterwork, Leviathan, takes on the rhetoric of religion, discussing everything from angels to what Hell might be like. His arguments about the Bible amount to one of the first examples of the historical-critical method – and yet his political vision culminates in a “Christian commonwealth.” Transposing our categories and preoccupations onto the past is always problematic, but it seems to me that it’s especially fraught when it comes to religion in the early modern period. Hobbes is just one example of this. Sheppard mentions others, and still more examples could be multiplied.

So I’m inclined to agree with Sheppard that we should avoid oversimplification, and I’d go further and say that that’s case whether you want to argue, as Spencer seems to, that the emergence of modern science owes much to the work of believers, or, from the opposite point of view, you want to claim modern science constituted a break with our benighted religious past, our emergence from the fog of superstition and credulity. For me, the more I read about this period of history, and the more I’ve realized the complicated ways religion interacted with science, politics, and culture, the more I’ve become resistant to linear narratives from partisans of both faith and unbelief. We tend to want all good things to come from those in the past who seem to be on “our side” – but that’s just not the case.

All that said, I still would argue that Spencer does seem to be onto something when it comes to the impact of politics on the rise of atheism, Sheppard’s questions notwithstanding. The former’s argument reminds me of this passage from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:

Christianity, which has declared all men equal in the sight of God, cannot hesitate to acknowledge all citizens equal before the law. But by a strange concatenation of events, religion for the moment has become entangled with those institutions which democracy overthrows, and so it is often brought to rebuff the equality which it loves and to abuse freedom as its adversary, whereas by taking it by the hand it could sanctify its striving.

What Tocqueville realized, much like Spencer, is that when Christianity was put in the service of a political regime – here, he especially means undemocratic forms of government, whether aristocracy or monarchy, or some blend of the two – its eventual fall meant it took Christianity down, too. It became impossible to separate, practically speaking, religious faith from the oppressive and unjust regimes with which they were in bed. When throne and altar are joined, a protest against the former can’t help but implicate the latter.

Tocqueville was writing as someone who thought religion was good for democracy, and so his description is as much a warning as it a dispassionate reading of the past. He was admonishing Christians especially not to put themselves on the wrong side of the real moral, political, and scientific advances of his day. The psychological thrust of his point seems true to me: the more religion meddles in political affairs, or the more religious leaders seem obtuse and retrograde, the more it gives people reasons extraneous to the core tenets of the faith to reject it. Political trends shift without warning, leaders fall out of favor, revolutions happen – why hitch Christianity to any cause that doesn’t directly relate to the message of Jesus? Tocqueville insisted, again and again, that Christians, especially ministers, distinguish between what was and what wasn’t essential to the Gospel. If they didn’t, Christianity increasingly would lose its credibility. It’s hard to see how he’s wrong on this point. It seems axiomatic to me that the horrible behavior of far too many Christians over the last few centuries contributed to religion’s relative decline in the West.

I read Spencer, then, like Tocqueville, to have the present in mind almost as much as the past – or rather, to find in the broad patterns of the past a real lesson worth pondering. Any sweeping statement about “religion and politics” in the past can be quibbled with, as Sheppard shows. And certainly the advance of science makes unbelief possible in new ways as more and more of the world gets explained apart from the divine – I wouldn’t argue against that at all. But I wonder what emotional resonance this has, especially for those outside the confines of elite intellectual circles, compared to seeing priests cozy up to corrupt and brutal rulers in the 18th century, or, today, seeing hucksterish reverends preach nonsense about gay people or the age of the earth? Such actions go a long way toward making decent people everywhere doubt the truth of Christianity, or any religion.

A Short Story For Saturday

by Matthew Sitman

It seems fitting to feature a story about depression this week, and few wrote about what it feels like with more acuity than David Foster Wallace. Here’s the opening paragraph of his “The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands In Relation To The Bad Thing” (pdf), published in 1984 in The Amherst Review:

I’ve been on antidepressants for, what, about a year now, and I suppose I feel as if I’m pretty qualified to tell what they’re like. They’re fine, really, but they’re fine in the same way that, say, living on another planet that was warm and comfortable and had food and fresh water would be fine: it would be fine, but it wouldn’t be good old Earth, obviously. I haven’t been on Earth now for almost a year, because I wasn’t doing very well on Earth. I’ve been doing somewhat better here where I am now, on the planet Trillaphon, which I suppose is good news for everyone involved.

Read the rest here. Check out another story of his we highlighted, “The Depressed Person,” here. Previous SSFSs here.

Back Hair Is Beautiful

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All my previous criticisms of Slate BLT columnist Mark Joseph Stern have now been rendered moot and I withdraw every single one of them (well maybe not on Brendan Eich). For it is a far far better thing that he does now than he has ever done, declaring of his own hairy back, that “from this day forward, I refuse to be ashamed of it”:

All other once-taboo forms of body hair now have their partisans, from pubes and armpits to feet and faces. The gay community, especially, has embraced hairy chests, hairy privates, and hairy faces as part of its self-acceptance ethos. But there has been no such renaissance for back hair. Beauty blogs and fitness forums, even open-minded ones, universally malign it. (GQ flatly issued this Kantian edict: “Back hair is never sexy.”) Gay men, except perhaps for a certain subset of deeply dedicated bears, quiver at the sight of it. And back hair has the dubious distinction of being the one type of body hair that straight men—who generally get carte blanche in the personal grooming department—might actually consider to be embarrassing.

This is a strange and unacceptable state of affairs. There’s nothing inherently gross or dirty about back hair, no reason why it should be singled out for near-universal abhorrence—especially when its close cousin, chest hair, remains so widely beloved and even fetishized. It wasn’t always this way, either: As recently as the 1970s, erstwhile James Bond Roger Moore could flaunt his hairy back on the big screen—In a sex scene! In a close-up!—without losing his sex symbol status.

But those of us who grew up after 1979 have been brainwashed to despise any hair that sneaks below the neck. Most male movie stars today have the hairlessness of a pre-pubescent boy, somewhat freakily accompanied by the abs of a body builder. Even the furriest of modern idols, our Jake Gyllenhaals and Jon Hamms, boast perfectly smooth backs and shoulders. Hollywood and glamour magazines have colluded, insidiously and insistently, to convince us that the hairy chest/hair-free back combination is a naturally occurring phenomenon.

One of the greatest bodily regrets of my life – apart from having my foreskin chopped off as an infant because it was allegedly too ample – is that I have no back hair. My brother? An ape. God knows why this aspect of manhood has loomed so large in my erotic imagination … but there we are. The earliest porn I ever saw I had to create myself. I drew sketches of the men I longed for in a scrapbook and they were all covered in fur. Maybe it’s because body hair is such a powerful visual indicator of testosterone and maleness; maybe I’m just a perv. Or maybe because when a man allows his body to be what it is, and doesn’t try to micromanage every inch of it, he’s inherently sexier than the manscaped, plucked and trussed twink version.

Congrats, Mark. And keep keeping it real.

(Photo: the hubby by Ric Ide Photography for Tim-scapes in Provincetown.)

More Than Pulling Strings

by Matthew Sitman

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Eric Bass, a puppeteer, explains why the assumptions behind phrases like “puppet government” or “played him like a puppet” misunderstand what the art is all about:

As puppeteers, it is, surprisingly, not our job to impose our intent on the puppet. It is our job to discover what the puppet can do and what it seems to want to do. It has propensities. We want to find out what they are, and support them. We are, in this sense, less like tyrants, and more like nurses to these objects. How can we help them? They are built for a purpose. They seem to have destinies. We want to help them arrive at those destinies.

A simple example: What are the properties of a ball? It rolls, and sometimes it bounces. To put a ball onstage and have it never bounce or roll is a denial of what that ball is. Even if the ball does nothing, it can be said to be waiting to roll or bounce. A figurative puppet’s properties may not be quite so obvious, but they are there, and so is its character.

Analyzing the character will not get us very far. We have to discover who our performing partner is. This is true of its actions, its gestures, and its voice. Our cleverness in thinking of great things for the puppet to do or say will not help the puppet live. They will only draw attention to ourselves. If we try to impose them on the puppet, the piece we are performing will not be about the puppet at all. It will be about us, the manipulator. Or it will be about the conflict between us and our puppet.

The practice of our art, then, requires that we be the exact opposite of a controller. In fact, it requires that we step back and allow our puppets to perform their roles, their actions, their moments of life on the stage. It requires from us a generosity. If we try to dominate them, we will take from them the life we are trying to give them.

(Hat tip: Prufrock. Photo by Wolfgang Lonien)

When Your Next Step Could Be Your Last

by Matthew Sitman

Byliner has unlocked Brian Mockenhaupt’s The Living and the Dead: War, Friendship, and the Battles That Never End for Memorial Day, which follows three soldiers in Afghanistan – Tom, Ian, and Jimmy – and the way battle shapes their lives. Here’s a glimpse of the gripping story Mockenhaupt tells:

With the mine detector, his rifle, ammunition, grenades, body armor and helmet, two radios, the bomb jammer, water, and medical supplies, Ian carried close to 90 pounds, more than any other Marine in the patrol.

He could handle the load: at five foot seven, he had weighed 150 pounds when he entered the Marines in 2007, but he had since bulked up to 205. He figured carrying extra weight would increase the patrol’s overall effectiveness—a weaker and overloaded Marine falling behind put everyone at risk. Besides, that way other Marines couldn’t complain about their lighter loads, or not being able jump across canals with the awkward weight.

Ian turned south, onto a tree-lined road that split two muddy fields. In a month the fields would be thick with waist-high poppy plants.

Tick tock.

Fifty yards up, the road crossed a canal just in front of a large, high-walled compound to the left.

“Muller,” Tom said, “slow it up a bit.” The patrol had stretched out after the Afghan soldiers, farther back, stopped to question a farmer. Tom and Matt picked up their pace and closed the distance with Ian, who worked the mine detector back and forth.

Tick tock.

Holly sniffed the air, five feet behind Ian, as he stepped onto the dirt bridge that spanned the canal.

Tick tock.

Tick.

Matt still can’t figure out how Holly wasn’t killed.

For the rest of the holiday weekend, you can read the rest here. Purchase The Living and the Dead as a Kindle Single here.

He Certainly Did More Than Paint

by Matthew Sitman

In a long review of three recent books about John Quincy Adams and his wife, Louisa Catherine, Susan Dunn considers the accomplishments of his post-presidential career, which saw Adams return to public life as a member of the House of Representative and take up the abolitionist cause:

Though launched anew upon what he called “the faithless wave of politics,” Adams had a John_Quincy_Adams_1843guiding star, a clear path forward: the battle against American slavery. In 1831 and again in 1832, he dined with an impressive young Frenchman who queried him about the culture of democracy in America. “Do you look on slavery as a great plague for the United States?” asked Alexis de Tocqueville. “Yes, certainly,” Adams replied. “That is the root of almost all the troubles of the present and fears for the future.”

Ending slavery became Adams’s great mission. But because he understood that slavery was the one issue that could tear apart the union, he decided that, instead of taking it on frontally, he would attack it on the flanks. He aggressively defended the right of abolitionists to petition Congress and denounced the “gag resolution” that mandated the tabling of all petitions and propositions relating in any way to slavery, and he opposed Texas’s admission to the union as a slave territory. Invoking the immortal values of the Declaration of Independence, taunting his foes, barely surviving a censure resolution, he became known to sympathizers, as Robert Remini noted in his excellent short biography of Adams, as “Old Man Eloquent” and to southerners as “the Madman from Massachusetts.”

In 1847, Abraham Lincoln, a freshman congressman from Illinois, took his seat alongside Adams in the House of Representatives. John Quincy, whose mother had taken him more than seventy years before to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill from atop Penn’s Hill in Quincy, was a living link between the revolutionary generation that created a republic tragically flawed by its compromise with slavery and Abraham Lincoln, who would end slavery and rescue the republic from its own undoing.

Focusing on Fred Kaplan’s biography, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, Carol Berkin emphasizes that “John Quincy did not find his independent voice until he was in his 70s,” when his anti-slavery activism reached its peak:

As Kaplan lays out the events that heightened Adams’ commitment to abolition, the narrative’s tempo increases and the story unfolds more powerfully. It culminates with the Amistad trials, which revolved around 53 Africans seized by Portuguese slave traders. Sold to Spanish planters, they were loaded onto the Amistad to be sent to Caribbean plantations. They rebelled, killed the captain and attempted to sail to Africa, but the ship was seized by an American brig off the U.S. coast. The Africans were imprisoned in New Haven, Connecticut. As the planters, the Spanish government and the brig captain argued over who owned this human property, abolitionists insisted the Amistad passengers were free individuals, kidnapped illegally.

When the case came to the Supreme Court, it was Adams who argued — and won — the defendants’ case. This, at last, was Adams’ moment — not a tribute to his father’s memory but a declaration of his own commitment to human equality and justice.

(Image: John Quincy Adams in 1843, via Wikimedia Commons)

Government Is Not The Problem

by Matthew Sitman

Arguing that “American conservatives are in danger of appearing as though they had no positive idea of government at all,” Roger Scruton makes the case for the necessity and goodness of government:

The truth is that government, of one kind or another, is manifest in all our attempts to live in peace with our fellows. We have rights that shield us from those who are appointed to rule us—many of them ancient common-law rights, like that defined by habeas corpus. But those rights are real personal possessions only because government is there to enforce them—and if necessary to enforce them against itself. Government is not what so many conservatives believe it to be, and what people on the left always believe it to be when it is in hands other than their own—namely a system of power and domination. Government is a search for order, and for power only insofar as power is required by order. It is present in the family, in the village, in the free associations of neighbors, and in the “little platoons” extolled by Burke and Tocqueville. It is there in the first movement of affection and good will, from which the bonds of society grow. For it is simply the other side of freedom, and the thing that makes freedom possible.

Rousseau told us that we are “born free,” arguing that we have only to remove the chains imposed by the social order in order to enjoy our full natural potential. Although American conservatives have been skeptical of that idea, and indeed stood against its destructive influence during the time of the ’60s radicals, they nevertheless also have a sneaking tendency to adhere to it. They are heirs to the pioneer culture. They idolize the solitary entrepreneur, who takes the burden of his projects on his own shoulders and makes space for the rest of us as we timidly advance in his wake. This figure, blown up to mythic proportions in the novels of Ayn Rand, has, in less fraught varieties, a rightful place in the American story. But the story misleads people into imagining that the free individual exists in the state of nature, and that we become free by removing the shackles of government. That is the opposite of the truth.