The Dangers of Historical Symbolism

Posted by the chieftain of seir on Mar 19th, 2006


The Dangers of Historical Symbolism


A history in which every particular incident may be true may on the whole be false. ~Thomas Babington Macaulay


The study of history is the study of symbols. We cannot hope to study everyone who fought in one battle, much less everyone who ever lived. Instead, we must focus our attention on those things that seem to us to be good symbols for those things that we wish to understand. When we wish to understand the little people we cast about for good representatives of the little people. When we wish to understand what we believe to be great events of a time we look for people that we deem to be key to those events. Even the process of determining what the great events of a time are is a process of searching for good symbols that will help us understand the time as whole. Since we are not omniscient, this reliance on symbols for our understanding of history is unavoidable.

But that does not mean that we should be blind to the dangers of historical symbolism. It is all too easy to decide on a symbol and what that symbol means, and then interpret all other information in light of that symbol. Such a method gives us the comfort and ease of already having a system to assign meaning to all new information. But while it may make the digestion of new information easier, it also deprives us of benefit from the new information. Information that already has a pre-defined meaning does not lead to an increase in understanding. Information only has value to those whose understanding is changed by it. We would hope that historians fall into the latter class and not the former. But this is often not the case.

In theory, historians chase after the most obscure facts so that they may have a good understanding about what information best symbolizes the whole that they seek to know. By imparting to us this symbolization of what they know, they hope that we can get the benefit of the historians’ understanding without having to know all the information they know. But in practice, historians’ symbolization seems to be a very poor representation of the facts they possess. I think this because historians tend to collect information that never increases their understanding. There are many places in history which bear this observation out. I think that one of the best examples can be found in the persons of John Brown and Levi Coffin.

Every school child in America has been taught about John Brown. At the very least they have been taught about his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Often they have been educated on his exploits in Kansas as well. On the other had almost no one has ever heard of Levi Coffin. Even history buffs would draw a blank at his name. The closest Levi Coffin comes to John Brown’s type of fame is this famous picture. But few people know that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was based on real people. Even fewer people know that the real Eliza was fleeing to Levi Coffin’s house. To understand why this disparity in fame is significant, you need to compare the information that is available about them to what historians chose to portray.

Levi Coffin and John Brown had two things in common. They where both born in the same era, and they were both born into religious families that hated slavery. After that, their lives are a study in contrasts. Levi Coffin was born in the South, but John Brown was born in the North. John Brown was an advocate of violence who put his beliefs into practice. Levi Coffin was Quaker who put into practice his pacifist principles. John Brown was a failure in business. Levi was a successful businessman. Levi Coffin’s concern for slaves led him to spend much of his own money. John Brown funded most of his various projects by getting other people to give him money. I have never read anything that indicated that John Brown successfully helped any slave gain his freedom. It is estimated that Levi Coffin helped over 3,000 slaves gain their freedom. It is the large number of slaves that he helped to escape that earned Levi Coffin the title “President of the Underground Railroad.” It was given to him not by friends or admirers but by those who were trying to catch slaves.

They gave him that title because while Levi Coffin lived in Newport, Indiana, not a single escaping slave was recaptured in that city. Of course, Levi was not the only one responsible for that success, but the he was the main organizer. It was his house that was the Grand Central Station that a number of the lines of the Underground Railroad converged on. He bought shoes, clothes, and other things the slaves who came to him needed. He often sheltered them in his own home for extended periods of time while they built up their strength and received medical care. Sometimes, when he could not find any volunteers, he paid people to help the slaves escape. Levi sold his own successful business to start another one for the sole purpose of selling cotton goods that were not made with slave labor. That store did not bankrupt him due to his business savvy, but he did not make money while he was operating it. With the end of slavery, Levi worked hard to raise money to help educate the freed slaves and to provide them with their basic needs. Because of all his labors for slaves and former slaves, Levi did not die wealthy even though he was an extremely successful businessman.

Compared to all that, what did John Brown do? Did he do more than this to help the slaves? No, John Brown’s fame rests on his intentions, the people he killed, and the manner in which he died. In his own day, his raid on Harper’s Ferry was talked about in every newspaper in the nation. His words at his trial were reported, his actions debated. He forced a nation to confront how divided it was. People who disapproved of violence (William Loyd Garrison and men like him) came to his defense while he was on trial for violence. Men who had no use for religious beliefs (Transcendentalists) praised him even though his actions were undertaken in the name of God. On the other hand, some people for whom the violent defense of their rights was the highest duty of mankind (most southern slave holding men) condemned him. People who talked about the evils of oppression (those in the South who fired the first shots of the civil war to free themselves from Northern dominion) condemned John Brown. John Brown was a very divisive man, and because of that he is an excellent symbol of times that he lived in.

Certainly, Levi Coffin can hardly compare with John Brown as a symbolic representation of the times they both lived in. Far more people in the North were willing to march against the South than were willing to risk going to jail for harboring a slave. Far more people were willing to demonize the South than were willing to pay extra for goods that were not made with slave labor. Nobody went to war singing songs about Levi Coffin. And when the war was all over, few were concerned with educating the freed slaves or providing for their basic needs. Yet a history that makes John Brown known far and wide but neglects to tell of Levi Coffin is fundamentally a false history though every fact in it is true.

Such a charge may seem extreme, but would we call it a true history if we focused on Hamilton and ignored Jefferson? Would it be true history if we discussed the making of the US Constitution solely as a product of the Federalists and ignoring the role of the Republicans? What if we went back further in time and we told the story of American Revolution as if the Federalists could take all the credit for what the Americans did? Even though the Federalist ideas were the ones that did the most to shape America, it is obvious that leaving out the Republicans creates a false history. Not only would it hinder our understanding of that time period of history, but it would also neglect many debates that are still relevant today.

Levi Coffin and John Brown are just as symbolic of an ideological contest as Hamilton and Jefferson. The fact that Levi Coffin is missing from the history books is symptomatic of an ideological contest that is ignored by historians. If you look at the people in your average history book who campaigned against slavery, you will find that they all have a connection to John Brown. William Loyd Garrison knew Brown and published a defense of his character after the raid. Fredrick Douglass knew Brown, and after the Civil War he argued that John Brown did not die in vain. The Transcendentalists admired John Brown and attended lectures that Brown gave. Their admiration continued after his raid, with Emerson comparing the gallows that John Brown hung on to the cross.

What these people all had in common were unorthodox religious beliefs. For example Garrison was violently against all organized religion. Emerson denied the deity of Jesus. The closest that any of Brown’s friends came to belonging to an established religion were those who were Unitarians. These beliefs translated into a radical vision that wished to remake America in all aspects. These beliefs led them to fight for the right of women to vote just as hard as they fought to do away with slavery. They led Garrison to burn the Constitution of the United States as a convenant with hell. They lead some Transcendentalists to embrace socialism. This is not to say that everyone in this group had the same political views. For example, Fredrick Douglass came to disagree with Garrison over the Constitution. But they were all radical in their beliefs, at least for their time. Furthermore, they all disliked the orthodox religious beliefs of their day.

But contrary to what you might think from reading the history books, these people did not represent all of the people who were anti-slavery. In fact, there was another side to the anti-slavery moment that was orthodox in its doctrine and conservative in its politics. These people were not merely a subset of the radicals, for the orthodox opposition to slavery was older than the radicals. At the very start of this country, John Wesley was in the South and borrowing the language of the book of James in promising hell fire to those who kept slaves. And though many Methodist kept slaves, many also kept to the teachings of their founder and opposed slavery throughout this country’s history. Nor were these conservative anti-slavery people absent during the time of John Brown. If you read a history of Garrison you will find mention of his falling out with Lewis Tappan. But rarely is anything explained about who Lewis was or what he believed. Which is strange, since Lewis was at least as influential in his time as Garrison. It was Lewis who was instrumental in getting the slaves of the Amistad released. It was Lewis who funded the most widely circulated anti-slavery newspaper. It was Lewis who worked hard to convince orthodox churchmen of the immorality of abiding by the Fugitive Slave Act. But Lewis, a devout Calvinist, could hardly be described as liberal even in his own day.

If I were to name all the big-name, respectable, orthodox believers who opposed slavery, I would have to write a book. It is simpler to prove how widespread the orthodox opposition to both slavery and radicals was by looking at the Millerites. Most people would consider the Millerites crackpots and even many orthodox Christians would be embarrassed to claim them. But the Millerites were not a separate sect of Christianity, but rather a group of orthodox believers who found the arguments of William Miller convincing. There was nothing that separated William Miller’s beliefs from other orthodox Christians, except for one thing. Miller became convinced from his study of the Bible that Jesus was about to come back soon. In fact, he gave the date of October 22, 1844 for when he thought Jesus would return. Over a million people are said to have attended his various lectures. For the purpose of my argument there are only three noteworthy things about Miller. He was an anti-slavery man as Garrison himself attests. He was popular, as can be seen by the numbers of people who attended his lectures. He thought that religious beliefs of men like Garrison were so horrible that they were a sign of the end of time.

To quote Miller

The unwillingness of men to hear sound doctrine, taught us by Paul, 2 Tim. iv. 1-4, “I charge thee, therefore, before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom. For the time will come, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” My brethren, need I say one word on this passage? There is none of you so blind, but you see that this passage does actually describe the most fashionable preaching at the present day. How many thousand do run after that kind of preaching which is only relating fables, and that doctrine which gives all power to man?

Later on, Miller becomes more explicit about what he means by that, saying

“Can ye not discern the signs of the times?” Let me give you one rule by which you may know a false doctrine. They may have many good things in their creeds, they may be very plausible in their arguments, and after all deceive you. But examine them closely, and you will find they will deny, ridicule, or try to do away some prominent doctrine of the Bible, such as the divinity of Christ, his second coming, office of the Holy Spirit, eternal punishment, doctrine of grace, election, conviction for sin, regeneration, repentance, or faith. And when you hear or see them make light or scoff at any thing of this kind in the word of God, go not after them, nor bid them God speed. “Can ye not discern the signs of the times?”

That such man as William Miller, who could almost serve as caricature of the ignorant, intolerant, fundamentalist preacher, would have such a large following and be anti-slavery does not fit into the common view of the time. The only fundamentalist that is commonly portrayed as being anti-slavery in history is John Brown. But it is doubtful that men like Miller would have considered Brown orthodox because the mark of a fundamentalist is that he does not tolerate what is considered heresy. John Brown, however, never seems to have had a problem with the beliefs of Garrison and the like. In fact, he may very well have shared them. Whatever John Brown’s beliefs really were, the fierce contest between Protestant orthodox believers and their liberal counterparts in the years leading up to the Civil War tore apart almost all of the denominations.

Even the Quakers were not immune to this contest. Around the same time that William Miller started preaching, the Quakers split into two opposing factions. One faction was called Hicksite. They were what would be called today a “liberal” faction, the Quakers like Lucretia Mott who were part of the circle that supported Garrison and John Brown. The other faction called itself the Orthodox Friends, and was what we would call the conservative faction. It was to this faction the Levi Coffin belonged to. This struggle between Quakers was almost exactly the same as wider struggle amongst all Protestants. Just compare the words of Miller to a pamphlet written by orthodox Quakers against Hicksites.

Like Miller our anonymous orthodox Quaker author believed that the correct doctrine was very important, saying,

If we “search the Scriptures,” we shall find from the highest authority, that faith, or belief, in the fundamental doctrines of the gospel, is an indispensable preliminary to becoming real Christians. Thus our blessed Lord told Nicodemus – “He that believeth on him (viz. Jesus Christ,) is not condemned, but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” When the Jews asked him “what they should do that they might work the works of God,” he replied, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom God hath sent.” And on another occasion he told them, “If ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins.” Again, to Martha he says, “He that believeth in me, though he were dead yet shall he live, and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” When he sent forth his eleven disciples to preach his gospel to every creature in all the world, he solemnly declared, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not, shall be damned.” We have then the most conclusive testimony from the mouth of Him who could not lie, who came to be our Saviour, and who will be our judge, that a belief in the doctrines of that gospel which he sealed with his blood, is essentially and indispensably necessary to our salvation. Let us not, therefore, deceive ourselves with the presumptuous idea, that we may deny with impunity, or that we are at liberty to choose and carve for ourselves, and say we will believe a part and deny a part.

Both the Orthodox Quakers and Miller identified the same opponents, thought the Quakers were better educated than Miller. Here is a partial list of the men they held to be teachers of false doctrine.

Lord Herbert, who wrote in 1663, taught that repentance was the only propitiation, that the Christian doctrine of atonement, granted pardon on too easy terms, and derogated from the obligations of virtue – that we cannot be ascertained that the Scriptures are a revelation, and if we could ascertain it, we know not that the translations are correct; and hence he says, is the necessity of rejecting all systems and forms of religion and adopting the one universal, natural religion, written upon the hearts of all men by the divine finger. – Hobbes asserts that the only assurance for the authenticity of Scripture is the authority of the church or commonwealth – and that the New Testament was never received as of divine authority until declared to be so by the councils – Blount taught that there was no necessity for a Mediator between God and man, and that the belief of such a necessity was derogatory of his Infinite Mercy – Toland declared that there were no mysteries in religion, nor anything contrary to, nor above reason, and that no Christian doctrine can be called mystery. – The Earl of Shaftsbury wrote much to discountenance a belief in the authority of Scripture and in the truth of the Christian religion as there set forth – frequently repeating the charge of corruptions and interpolations in the Bible. – Collins declared that all those who contend for the faith of the Gospel, as contained in Holy Scripture are enemies to a just liberty of thought, and to free examination and inquiry – and that the books of Holy Scripture were corrupted and altered by the early fathers and clergy to suit their own notions. – Woolston says that many of the facts recorded in Scripture are mere allegorical allusions to the work of religion in the heart, and that literally taken they are absurd and fictitious; that the history of the life of Christ is only an emblematica or allegorica representation of his spiritual life in the soul.

Just as the John Brown, Garrison, and all the rest of that circle shared a set of common beliefs, so too did most of the orthodox anti-slavery people. Levi Coffin was aware of this divide and he took great pains in his memoirs to make it clear that he shared a common faith with all orthodox believers regardless of their denomination. To quote but one instance in his memoirs,

A few days after Uncle Tom’s death, an old lady, a prominent member of Ninth Street Baptist Church, called to see us, and said: “I have been thinking that you and your wife will occupy a high place in heaven for nursing and taking care of Uncle Tom.”
I replied: “Thou hadst better advise us not to depend on works for salvation. If we have true faith, we shall do good works. We have done no more than our duty; works without faith will not save us.

I have taken such pains to demonstrate the hostility of the orthodox to the liberal because historians portray ideological contest of the time as being John Brown and all his liberal friends vs pro-slavery thinkers and clergy. But as I have tried to show, there was a third party in that debate that also had a significant following. In fact, my reading of history leads me to believe that the majority of the opponents of slavery were orthodox believers. Any history of the slavery debate that includes Garrison and Brown should also included Coffin and Tappan. To do otherwise is to fundamentally mislead people as to the nature of the anti-slavery debate. But even though all historians of the period are aware of the facts that I have presented, they persist in presenting the anti-slavery debates as being between John Brown &co and the South. To do otherwise would challenge their own view of history and force them to question their own beliefs.

The “conservative” or the “liberal” historians both have reasons to hold onto this South vs John Brown &co divide. The Conservatives fall into this arrangement because such a divide makes it easier to justify the South in their own minds for they can make the South out to be the defenders of the American way with a little slavery thrown in. Their argument tends to run “Sure slavery was not good, but look at who was opposing them. Mr. Brown, the murder, who thought he had God’s sanction, Mr. Garrison who burned the constitution and wanted to do away with government, and the Transcendentalists who wanted to do away with religion and destroy the family unit.” The liberal, on the other hand is the intellectual heir of Garrison, the Transcendentalists, and others of that type. It is natural for them to identify all opponents of slavery with their own school of thought and to assume that all who oppose their school of thought are the heirs of those who fought for slavery. The question these historians would ask is, what difference would it make to give equal time to orthodox Christian opponents of slavery? Would portraying their contributions have changed how destructive the Civil War was? Would it have changed the fact that many clergy in the south supported slavery?

The answer to these questions depends a lot on what you think history is for. Is it healthy to portray our nation’s current simplistic conservative vs liberal divide as governing this nation’s whole history? Is there profit in having an accurate understanding of how larger portions of the north came to see slavery as an evil? Is there any benefit to exploring differing ideas of how people reacted to what they regarded as evil? If you would answer those questions the way I would, then it is obvious why it important to include the orthodox Christian opponents of slavery.

3 Responses

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Says:

    I hope that your little paper will encourage people to study the history of the Underground Railroad and all those who were apposed to slavery. Such a study would undoubtedly benefit all who undertake it. But I must say that I think that you are a little too hard on the professional historians. First of all I think that the line between the orthodox and the unorthodox is a little harder to draw than you seem to imply. The Tappan brothers were willing to work with Garrison until Garrison insisted fighting for the right of woman to vote as well freedom for the slaves. I am not sure that they ever saw the gap between themselves to be quite as great as you say.

    That being said, it can not be denied that such a division as you talk about existed. But you fail to mention that fact that most those you would probably consider orthodox were so concerned with personal righteousness that they failed to work for social change. Often times the only hope they held up for the ultimate ending of slavery was return of Jesus. Even when they thought their actions might help, their naivety and their overriding concern with being pure prevented them from attempting any effective action. In short, orthodox Christians have historically been more concerned with being right, than with doing actions that might truly help the oppressed. Thus, they were often historically insignificant in spite of their numbers.

    Levi Coffin fell into the trap that I have just described. He certainly helped slaves run away, but the Underground Railroad would have hardly ended slavery. He would not fight for the slaves. He would not encourage other people to fight for them. For his overriding concern was not to end slavery but to live a life that was pure in his eyes. Yet if everyone had believed as Levi had believed slavery would still be here today. For the only thing that Levi did that could possibly be construed as attempt end slavery was his efforts to get people to only buy goods made with free labor.

    But this was naïve. Evil is not the result of economic forces. Slave master did not rape their slaves because it was profitable. Slaves were often treated in ways that were not economically intelligent just because of the evil that is in man. Just as Nazi Germany gave priority of trains hauling Jews to their death over trains hauling war material even when they were losing the war. Economic forces would have never ended the slavery.

    John Brown was right. Sometimes violence is the only way defeat intractable evil

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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