14 April 2015

Without God and the Bible Part 3: The Politician


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ynopsis: In our previous episodes we’ve seen how a playwright cooked up a proposition (It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being) as part of an argument for the existence of God and assigned it to Washington in a book intended for the instruction of children. This proposition was then chiseled from its context and simplified by a preacher (It is impossible to govern the universe without God) more interested in human government than in cosmological questions. There are two more men who will hack away at this bit of pyrite—a politician and a lawyer. Today’s installment will look at the (small) contribution of the politician—Henry Wilson.
Now I don’t want to make assumptions about the knowledge (or lack thereof) of my readers, but I’m betting you have no idea who Henry Wilson was. Even assuming that you live in the United States and were afflicted by what passes for American history in most schools, he wasn’t exactly a household name. And yet during the Grant administration he was a heartbeat away (as they say) from the presidency. Even his being one of the handful of vice-presidents (like George Clinton and James Sherman) who died in office doesn’t exactly make him stand out.
And yet … and yet … this guy was an important figure in his time. Practically an embodiment of the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches-by-his-own-bootstraps fantasy that left behind a trail of broken people in the wreckage of their broken dreams, Henry Wilson—originally named Jeremiah Jones Colbath—was born into the sort of bleak poverty that dehumanizes the best of us. He educated himself by omnivorous reading while indentured to a neighboring farmer who could never spare him for school attendance, rose to be a major figure in the Senate, and might well have made it to the presidency had things gone a bit differently.
A man of his time—and in some ways a man out of his time. At a time when women were somewhere between property and second-class citizens he went so far as to introduce a bill that would allow them to vote. Even though not (apparently) convinced that the descendants of Africans brought to America as enslaved laborers were intrinsically on a par with the descendants of Europeans he nonetheless believed that all should be treated equally under the law. He helped repeal laws that prohibited interracial marriage and kept black kids from attending public schools. Much of his political career was devoted to preventing the expansion of slavery at all costs.
Wilson looked at slavery as America’s original sin whose taint brought on the cataclysm that was the Civil War. In his three-volume History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America (yes, Wilson—despite his lack of formal education—was an historian), he wrote
In the lights of the present, it is now more clearly seen that the dark spirit of slavery was the inspiration of these crimes against the peace, the unity, and the life of the nation, and that these sacrifices of property, of health, and of life were the inflictions of the Slave Power in its maddened efforts to make perpetual its hateful dominion. These bitter fruits of the seeds sown in colonial times afford another signal illustration of the truth of the inspired declaration that “righteousness exalteth a nation, and sin is a reproach to any people.” [I, v]
He wrote with a kind of controlled fury about an institution he obviously loathed. “God’s Holy Word declares that man was doomed to eat his bread in the sweat of his face. History and tradition teach that the indolent, the crafty, and the strong, unmindful of human rights, have ever sought to evade this Divine decree by filching their bread from the constrained and unpaid toil of others.” Knowing abject poverty first-hand himself he had absolute contempt for “caste and privilege, those deadly foes of the rights and well-being of mankind, which can exist only by despoiling the many for the benefit of the few.” The American system of slavery “reduced man, created in the Divine image, to property. It converted a being endowed with conscience, reason, affections, sympathies, and hopes, into a chattel. It sunk a free moral agent, with rational attributes and immortal aspirations, to merchandise.” It was a “system antagonistic to the doctrines of reason and the monitions of conscience, and developed and gratified the most intense spirit of personal pride, a love of class distinctions, and the lust of dominion.” He contrasted the arrival of a Dutch ship in James River in August 1619 “with its ill-starred burden of wretchedness and woe” with that of the Mayflower “with its freight of learning and Christian civilization”. Here were “the seeds of a system destined, after a struggle of two hundred and forty years for development, expansion, and dominion, to light the fires of civil war, and perish in the flames its own hand had kindled.”
He traced the rise and fall of the Slave Power (as he termed it) through two volumes and died while working on the third. The first volume ended with the admission of Texas as a slave state, and the second with the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. The third volume, issued posthumously, covered the Civil War and its immediate aftermath.
The annihilation of slavery became the reason for his political existence.
I saw slavery beneath the shadow of the flag that waved over the Capitol. I saw the slave-pen, and men, women, and children herded for the markets of the far South; and at the table at which sat Senator Morris of Ohio, then the only avowed champion of freedom in the Senate of the United States, I expressed my abhorrence of slavery and the slave-traffic in the capital of this democratic and Christian republic. I was promptly told that ‘Senator Morris might be protected in speaking against slavery in the Senate; but that I would not be protected in uttering such sentiments.’ I left the capital of my country with the unalterable resolution to give all that I had, and all that I hoped to have, of power, to the cause of emancipation in America; and I have tried to make that resolution a living faith from that day to this [applause].
The “Senator Morris” mentioned here was, by the way, not only an implacable opponent of slavery, but also the father of the B. F. Morris who was the subject of the previous piece in this series.
The two men, B. F. Morris (1810-1867) and Henry Wilson (1812-1875), were contemporaries, both involved in the anti-slavery movement, and for all I know may well have known one another. (I have no evidence of that, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.) They are connected here through an action taken by Wilson on 23 December 1866. On that date he lectured the Natick YMCA on the subject of “The Testimonies of American Statesmen and Jurists to the Truths of Christianity.” We live in a “Christian republic” he told them, whose founders “have borne testimonies to the vital truths of Christianity.” At a time when “the providence of God, the religion of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the inspiration of Holy Writ, [are being] doubted, questioned, denied” it is necessary to recall what these “men of varied and large experience, accustomed to the classification and comparison of facts, the sifting and weighing of evidences” have said. And then he quoted them. At length. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the lot. One after another. At the end he urged his audience to “remember, ever and always, that your country was founded, not by ‘the most superficial, the lightest, the most unreflective of all the European races,’ but by the stern old Puritans, who made the deck of ‘The Mayflower’ an altar of the living God, and whose first act, on touching the soil of the New World, was to offer on bended knees thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God.” It must have been a hideously tedious evening. The American Tract Society, however, liked the speech well enough to have it printed up as a tract for general distribution.
You’re probably way ahead of me on how this speech connects Wilson and Morris, but I’m going to spell it out anyway: Wilson lifted most of his material from Morris’s book, The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, published a mere two years before his speech.
If you’re willing to take my word for it, feel free to skip the next several paragraphs; otherwise follow along for some evidence of the connection. Wilson’s use of Morris betrays itself again and again. Morris is sloppy; he changes words in his sources, and he runs material together from different documents as though they were a single seamless quotation. Wilson is even sloppier; he repeatedly takes quotations that are adjacent in Morris and runs them together sans ellipsis or any other indication (however illegitimate) that his source material is stitched together from different originals. Here, for example, is what Morris wrote on pp. 604-5 about Martin Van Buren (bolded material being paralleled in Wilson):
When entering upon the responsibilities of his office, [he] said,—
      I only look to the gracious protection of that Divine Being whose strengthening support I humbly solicit, and whom I fervently pray to look down upon us all. May it be among the dispensations of his providence to bless our beloved country with honors and length of days; may her ways be ways of pleasantness, and all her paths peace.”
      Similar sentiments were officially announced in all his messages. Mr. Van Buren publicly testified to the value of the Christian religion by joining the Dutch Reformed Church in the autumn of 1860. He died inspired with the immortal hopes of the gospel, saying “the atonement of Christ was the only remedy and rest of the soul.”
And here is what Wilson has for Van Buren:
I only look to the gracious protection of that Divine Being, whose strengthening support I humbly solicit, and whom I fervently pray to look down upon us all. The atonement of Christ is the only remedy and rest for the soul.
Wilson has here plucked out adjacent sayings quoted by Morris and run them together as a single quotation. (This is even more significant when you remember that Morris appears to be the first writer to report Van Buren’s reference to “the atonement of Christ.”) Again, here are two adjacent quotations given by Morris as by James Monroe:
      “With a firm reliance on the protection of Almighty God, I shall forthwith commence the duties of the high trust to which you have called me.”
      Deeply impressed with the blessings which we enjoy, and of which we have such manifold proofs, my mind is irresistibly drawn to that Almighty Being, the great source from whence they proceed, and to whom our most grateful acknowledgments are due.
And again Henry Wilson runs them together as one in his version:
James Monroe assumed the duties of fourth president of the United States with the expression of a “firm reliance on the protection of Almighty God. Deeply impressed with the blessings which we enjoy, and of which we have such manifold proofs, my mind is irresistably drawn to that Almighty Being, the great source from whence they proceed, and to whom our most grateful acknowledgments are due.”
Again, on John Adams. Morris (pp. 117-8):
The Christian religion,” Adams said, “as I understand it, is the brightness of the glory and the express portrait of the character of the eternal, self-existent, independent, benevolent, all-powerful, and all-merciful Creator, Preserver and Father of the universe, the first good, the first perfect, and the first fair. It will last as long as the world. Neither savage nor civilized man, without a revelation, could have discovered or invented it.” “Religion and virtue are the only foundations, not only of republicanism and of all free governments, but of social felicity under all governments and in all the combinations of human society. Science, liberty, and religion are the choicest blessings of humanity: without their joint influence no society can be great, flourishing, or happy.”
And Wilson:
The Christian religion, as I understand it, is the brightness of the glory and the express portrait of the eternal self-existing, independent, all powerful and all merciful Creator. Preserver and Father of the Universe; it will last as long as the world. Neither savage nor civilized man, without a revelation could have discovered or invented it. Religion and virtue are the only foundations, not only of republicanism and of all free governments, but of social felicity under all governments and in all the constructions of human society.
The likelihood of such connections happening by chance is minimal. Henry Wilson’s criminal ineptitude in his treatment of quotations is amazing, but is a matter of fact. As an historian Wilson should have known better; his treatment of quotations here is absolutely inexcusable. I can only suppose that as this was merely a throw-away speech for a YMCA event that Wilson felt lower standards applied. (If so, shame on him.) Or maybe he merely delivered a speech written by some minor functionary.
In any case, here is his treatment of Washington:
It is impossible to govern the world without God. It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits and humbly implore his protection and favor. I am sure there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs, than those of the United States; and I should be pained to believe that they have forgotten that agency which was so often manifested during the revolution; or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of Him, who is alone able to protect them. He must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.
To create this concoction Wilson indulged in an extremely dubious procedure. In Morris (p. 510) he found Washington quoted as saying “It is impossible to govern the universe without God.” What Wilson decided to do (and as a historian he really should have known better) was to create a frankenquote out of parts of other sayings. Starting with this piece he changed the world “universe” to “world”, added to it a fragment hacked from Washington’s first Thanksgiving Day Proclamation (Morris, p. 275), and then took an earlier frankenquote from Morris (pp. 32-33) that had joined fragments from two different letters, one to John Armstrong on 11 March 1782, and the other to Brigadier-General Nelson on 20 August 1778. Wilson’s dependence on Morris is manifest—not that that excuses him for this fakery.
As far as his effect on this quotation is concerned, though, it all boils down to one thing. He took Morris’s It is impossible to govern the universe without God and turned it into It is impossible to govern the world without God. A change of one word. The manifold glories of the universe reduced to a single chunk or rock hurtling through space. It is an odd change in one respect, and I have no explanation for it. Why world? You’d think nation would be a better choice. Did he avoid nation because he was about to use the phrase “duty of all nations” in the bleeding member from the butchered Thanksgiving Proclamation? Even so, why not country or people? I mean, he was screwing around with it anyway. It’s not like he had any integrity to maintain here.
Well, some mysteries are beyond the reach of historical investigation, and this may well be one of them. Nearly three decades will pass before the last of our four men gets his grubby hands on it. And that, friends, will be the subject of our next installment, Part 4: The Lawyer.

Sources:
Elias Nason and Thomas Russell, The Life and Public Services of Hon. Henry Wilson (B. B. Russell, 1872)
“Wilson, Henry,” The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography: Being the History of the United States as Illustrated in the Lives of the Founders, Builders, and Defenders of the Republic, and of the Men and Women who are Doing the Work and Moulding the Thought of the Present Time (J. T. White Company, 1895), Volume 4, pp. 13-14
William M. Thayer, Turning Points in Successful Careers (T. Y. Crowell, 1895), pp. 247-256
Mark O. Hatfield, with the Senate Historical Office, Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993, (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997), pp. 233-239
Thomas G. Oey. Review of Myers, John L., Henry Wilson and the Coming of the Civil War. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. July, 2007

1 comment:

sbh said...

Next post in this series:
Part 4: The Lawyer

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