The Representativeness of Extremes

One of the reenactments that will be ongoing during the next four years is simply unintentional.  That is, people (the media, bloggers, commentators, etc., as well as many other folks) will seize upon an expression of extreme views or extreme behavior and offer it as representative.  Lots of people do this.  White southerners risk being reduced in certain representations to a bunch of rabble-rousing rebels with more beer than common sense as they proclaim that it was all about states rights, for example, as the media seems intent on making sure to seek out those folks for commentary.  In turn, many of those folks (and others) talk about “Yankees” and “politically-correct leftist academics” and so on, being sure to draw clear (to them) distinctions between North and South, northerners and southerners (it’s never clear how many people west of the Mississippi fit into this scheme, nor does the typology make allowance for issues of ethnicity and race, although here and there you see religion sneak in, and rarely in a nice way).  The ongoing debate over how Americans should remember the Civil War is shaped fundamentally by the decision to focus on the extremes, especially as refined through the creation of self-serving stereotypes, and then claiming that those extremes are in fact representative.

This, of course, is a reenactment of how secessionists and abolitionists portrayed each other on the eve of the Civil War.  Secessionists crafted images of “black Republicans” intent upon the destruction of slavery (in marked contrast to more recent claims that Lincoln and company were not interested in slavery at all, except, perhaps, to destroy it in order to cripple white southerners).  Abolitionists and antislavery people portrayed white southerners as temperamental tyrannical hotheads who were bent on rule or ruin and who resolved differences through violence.  No wonder the Sumner/Brooks incident electrified the nation: Charles Sumner and Preston Brooks were ready-made to fit into these stereotypes.  Fire eaters portrayed John Brown as a sign of Republican intentions (even northern intentions), overlooking the fact that, if anything, Brown’s raid was a gift to northern Democrats, who used it to charge their Republican opponents with harboring similar intentions, while many Republicans (Lincoln chief among them) disavowed Brown’s act.

I was reminded of this when I saw a retired professional historian (and native white southerner) offer the following opinion on an internet discussion group:

John Brown had financial bankers who were not hanged, though they did move out of the country for a bit.  Moreover, upon his hanging, Brown was lionized as a hero/martyr in the north, as every textbook explains.

Some people in the North did lionize Brown: far more shook their heads at what he did, disavowed his act, or used it as political fodder with which to attack Republicans (which helps explain why Lincoln moved to disavow the act, because he was aware of the political damage caused by Brown’s raid).  As for what happened to the Secret Six, perhaps this “professional historian” ought to read the textbooks to see what they explain, instead of holding forth on what those textbooks say (this is a wonderful example of ineptitude born of a mistaken claim to expertise).  Several members did flee to Canada, but Thomas Wentworth Higginson stayed to face the music; Theodore Parker died after moving to Italy due to health reasons, and Gerrit Smith became so anxious about what might happen to him that he committed himself to an asylum.

What this southern-born professional historian has managed to do is to channel how secessionists and others portrayed support by some northerners for Brown into a representative sentiment that accurately describes how northerners (no qualification) reacted to Brown’s trial, sentencing, and execution.  In so doing, he misses making a much more sophisticated (and accurate) representation of the ways in which various northerners reacted to Brown’s raid, trial, and execution, and how in turn secessionists selectively drew on that reaction to craft an image of northerners as a whole … an exercise in stereotype creation that is essential to presenting someone as “the Other,” by the way.

We stand to make the same mistake today if we portray people with extreme views as representative of the sections/professions/groups they claim to represent.  We give them a power, an authority, a legitimacy that they cannot earn on their own.  Instead of standing back and trying to figure out how contending memories and understandings of the Civil War mesh and interact, we simply become part of that process.  It’s a fine balancing act: the internet gives a megaphone to those fringes, and one must choose when to give them a hearing, and when to understand that enough’s enough, that they’ve had their say, and it’s time to move on.  After all, most people would rather learn more about the Civil War than learn about what people have said about it.

We’ll see.

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6 thoughts on “The Representativeness of Extremes

  1. So does this mean slave owners had an irrational fear of the Federal government eventually trying to end slavery? I’ve read such an argument, but don’t really agree with it. Am I wrong to disagree?

    • The key word here is “eventually,” and, of course, it would have to be a “Republican-controlled” federal government. Most Republicans in 1860, concerned as they were by slavery’s expansion, really had no idea of what to do as a second step outside of waiting for things to develop. They certainly rejected the notion of encouraging slave uprisings or Brown-like violence. Moreover, slaveowners were far from unified on the issue of secession, although they based their opinions upon their understanding of the relationship between slavery, secession, and the chance of war.

      I don’t think secession was an irrational act, but Brown’s raid really helped secessionists out in terms of painting a picture of what might happen if Republicans took over. That’s one of the ironies here: today many people try to play down Republicans’ antislavery commitment, but secessionists played it up; today many people play down Republicans’ commitment to black equality, but at the time it was a main theme of northern Democratic rhetoric.

      • Okay, good… I’m not missing something.

        The extremes really couldn’t be ignored, be they radical abolitionists like John Brown or Fire-Eaters like Robert Rhett. Exaggerated they were by their adversaries perhaps, but it’s not like they didn’t believe what they said or failed to act on their beliefs. And newspapers were there to report on it.

  2. I still see some political opportunist in the mix. TRR Cobb & Robert Toombs naming two. But I admit to be overly cynical of politicians .

  3. I think you have your finger on the pulse of what is at stake this sesquicentennial, Brooks. We can either take the unique opportunity presented to us of a four year long commemoration of the most critical event in our country’s history to learn about who we are as a nation, and to, perhaps, even forge a new and stronger identity–because that is what this debate is truly all about at its most fundamental level, identity–or we can allow those who prefer to think in stereotypes to control our history and our future, and let the uncivil war and hatred between sections and races continue. It is up to us–to all of us–as Americans to make that choice.

    In other areas of the world, civil wars and their myriad legacies continue unresolved for centuries sometimes, so one hundred fifty years is no record. We could make it one, though.

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