I absolutely love this photo. Pictured below are two generations of the Chandler-Sampson family taking the time over the holidays to learn about their famous ancestor. The photo conveys the power of history and reinforces my firm belief that what we do as historians matters. I am sure my co-author, Myra Chandler Sampson, agrees. There is still time to pick up the most recent issue of Civil War Times at your local newsstand. I think it is safe to say that 2011 was a good year for Silas Chandler.
Please don’t hold your breath for an answer to this question. To be honest, I don’t really have any interest in debating it nor do I really care whether secession was/is constitutional. I suspect that apart from law school classes our answers to this question as both a historical and present proposition is largely determined by whether one believes that secession is necessary to correct some social or political problem. While I certainly see plenty of social and political problems that need to be dealt with, at this point it seems to me that they can be best addressed within our present constitutional framework.
I’ve always found the passionate identification with those white southerners who advocated Southern nationalism and secession in the years leading up to the Civil War to be disingenuous or at least open to scrutiny on a number of counts. In certain circles the question is debated in the abstract, but what I find troubling about the way I see many people play this game is the tendency to place themselves in a direct line to specific historical actors. They play the role of rightful inheritors of a certain argument or movement and in the process blur the distinction between the present and the past: In short, “What was their fight is our fight.”
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The Occupy Movement has not been on my radar much since it took to the streets on September 17, 2011. I’ve found it difficult to identify with their stated goals and tactics, though I certainly sympathize with the frustration expressed over the economic direction of the country. Today I learned that earlier this week the Occupy Movement in New York City marked the 300th anniversary of the city’s first slave market, which happened to be located on Wall Street near Pearl and Water. On the face of it you may not see anything suspicious; after all, it looks like they are encouraging the community and the nation to remember an aspect of the city’s past that is all too often ignored. The organization, including Chris Cobb and a small group of mainly white protesters along with City Council member Jumaane Williams have organized a petition to place historic markers to commemorate the neighborhood’s ties to the history of slavery.
While there doesn’t seem to be anything problematic, if you listen closely there is actually something quite disturbing about the way in which the Occupy Movement has chosen to frame this lesson in history and memory. Here is a short excerpt from the Huffington Post:
Cobb, who is white, said he sees clear connections between Wall Street’s role as an engine of the slave trade, the public’s ignorance of that history and what he describes as corporate America’s current exploitation of poor and middle-class workers. As Occupy Wall Street protesters have been evicted form public spaces across the country, the movement has shifted from static occupations to sporadic actions. Those efforts include occupying vacant and foreclosed homes, as well as attempts to shut down ports and to call attention to the situation of workers inside such esteemed intuitions as the auction house Sotheby’s.
“We were in the theory phase before the raid [on Zuccotti Park]. Now we are in the action phase, responding to the theory we were talking about,” Cobb said. Cobb sees the move to recognize and mark the slave market space as a natural next step in the effort to expose the evils of economic inequality. “It’s hard to talk about race with white people in general, because there are a lot of misunderstandings,” said Cobb. “But I think there is a place where a conversation can begin, and that is with fairness. It’s only fair that there be some recognition here.”
My concern is with the way in which the history of slavery and the slave trade in New York City is being connected to the agenda and economic outlook of the Occupy Movement. The petition itself says very little about the history that they wish to mark, but it is the close comparison made between the economic hardships that too many Americans are currently facing and slavery itself that is truly disturbing. We can certainly draw connections between Wall Street, the slave trade, the public’s ignorance, and the current economic hardships faced by middle-class workers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we will learn anything interesting. In fact, I would suggest that such vague comparisons have little to do with history at all.