Tag Archives: Civil War

The Assassination of Zachary Taylor

oswald2Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the internet and airwaves are awash in an orgy of commentaries and memorials. What can a digital humanist add to this conversation? Well, for starters, one could ask what the assassination of President Kennedy would look like in the age of social networks, smart phones, and instantaneous communication (bigbopper69: JFK shot in dallas OMG!!! 2 soon 2 no who #grassyknoll). NPR’s Today in 1963 project, which is tweeting out the events of the assassination as they occurred, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, may actually provide a good sense of what it was like to be there in real time. For those of us born decades after the fact, the deluge of digitized photos, videos, documents, and other artifacts enables a kind of full historical immersion that is not quite the same as time travel but close enough to be educationally useful.

One of the more interesting statistics to come out of this year’s commemoration is that “a clear majority of Americans (61%) still believe others besides Lee Harvey Oswald were involved” in a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy. Indeed, historical data show that a majority of Americans have suspected a conspiracy since 1963, at times reaching as high as 81 percent of respondents. This raises all sorts of interesting questions for our current moment, when rumor and misinformation spread as easily as the truth and technophiles celebrate the wisdom of the crowd while solemnly proclaiming the death of the expert. Especially after the recent revelations of unprecedented government spying, including secret courts and secret backdoors built into consumer software, Americans seem to have little reason to trust authority. So what is the role of popular knowledge in the age of digital history?

It would be easy to dismiss the various JFK assassination theories as just another example of what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Yet to do so would ignore the important function of rumor, gossip, conspiracy theories, and other forms of popular wisdom as material forces in the shaping of our world. 1 Getting at the truth behind major events is, of course, the prime directive of all good history, digital or otherwise. A certain degree of analytical distance, strict rules of evidence, and overt argumentation are what separate professional historiography from simple nostalgia. But what counts as truth can sometimes be just as revealing as the truth itself. The alleged assassination of President Zachary Taylor is a case in point.

When Taylor, the twelfth president, died suddenly of an unidentified gastrointestinal illness just sixteen months into his first term in office, rumors spread that he had been eliminated by political rivals. Taylor’s death, in July 1850, came at a time of heightened tension between supporters and opponents of slavery. Although a slaveholder himself and the hero of an expansionist war against Mexico, Taylor took a moderate position on the slavery question and appeared to oppose its extension into the western territories. His actions may have troubled some of the more ardent southern politicians, including Senator – and future Confederate President – Jefferson Davis. Not long after his predecessor’s tragic demise, newly-minted President Millard Fillmore signed the Compromise of 1850, which had stalled under Taylor’s administration. The legislation included territorial divisions and an aggressive fugitive slave law that helped to set the stage for the looming Civil War.

I will not rehash the specific circumstances of Taylor’s illness, which is conventionally ascribed to a tainted batch of cherries and milk. Suffice it to say that the rapid and inexplicable nature of his death, which fit the profile for acute arsenic poisoning, coupled with the laughably inept state of professional medicine, left plenty of room for speculation. 2 Members of the rising antislavery coalition, soon to be called the Republican Party, were suspicious that the President had met with foul play. Nor were their suspicions limited to Taylor. Over time, the list of alleged assassination victims grew to include Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and James Buchanan, among others.

Republicans worried that Abraham Lincoln would meet a similar fate after the contentious presidential election of 1860. Even before the election, letters poured in warning the candidate about attempts to poison his food and begging him to keep a close eye on his personal staff. I counted at least fourteen warning notes in a very cursory search of the Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Many of them mention President Taylor by name. “Taylor was a vigorous man, of good habits and accustomed to active life and trying duties,” wrote a supporter from Ohio, “and that he should fall a solitary victim to cholera, in a time of health, after eating a little ice cream is quite unsatisfactory.” After carefully studying the circumstances of Taylor’s death, another concluded that “the Borgias were about.” Yet another consulted a clairvoyant who warned of an active conspiracy to poison the President. In a speech responding to Lincoln’s assassination five years later, railroad magnate and women’s rights advocate George Francis Train mentioned in passing that slaveholders had “poisoned Zachary Taylor,” as if it were a matter of fact. 3

John Armor Bingham, one of the three lawyers tasked with prosecuting the Lincoln assassination conspiracy and the primary author of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution, reportedly spent some time investigating Taylor’s death. His research, presumably conducted during or shortly after the Lincoln trial in 1865, led him to believe that Taylor had been poisoned and that Jefferson Davis had helped to precipitate the plot. 4 It is a striking claim, if true. Davis was Taylor’s son-in-law by an earlier marriage, and the two were known to be friends. Indeed Taylor uttered his final words to Davis, who stood vigil at his deathbed. Bingham also suspected that Davis was involved in Lincoln’s death, which is unlikely, though not impossible, since there is evidence to suggest that Lincoln’s assassin had contact with Confederate spies in the period leading up to the attack. 5 Whatever the case, Davis was decidedly ambivalent about the effect of the President’s removal on the flagging war effort in the South.

Although historians have shown sporadic interest in Bingham – he was an early antislavery politician and U.S. Ambassador to Japan in addition to his important legal and constitutional roles – I could find no substantial information about his investigation into a conspiracy to murder Zachary Taylor. 6 The finding aids for Bingham’s manuscripts at the Ohio Historical Society and the Library of Congress did not reveal anything related to Taylor. A superficial perusal of similar material at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, which holds some of Bingham’s records pertaining to the Lincoln Assassination, also failed to turn up anything significant. Still, my search was limited to document titles and finding aids and did not dig very deep into the actual content of his papers. Perhaps some enterprising digital historian could investigate further?

Uncertainty about Taylor’s death continued to smolder until the early 1990s, when an assiduous biographer managed to secure permission to exhume his body and run scientific tests on the remains. Early results showed no evidence of arsenic poisoning, though later research concluded that those results were unreliable. According to presidential assassination experts Nancy Marion and Willard Oliver, there is no definitive proof either way, and thus the ultimate cause of Taylor’s death remains a mystery. 7 While I think the evidence for natural causes is persuasive, the assorted circumstantial and physical evidence for poisoning is certainly intriguing. More intriguing still is the fact that so many contemporaries, including major political figures, were convinced that Taylor had been intentionally targeted.

The confusion surrounding Taylor’s death speaks to the awesome influence of the “Slave Power Conspiracy” that gripped the nation for much of the nineteenth century. Aspects of this conspiracy theory could be extreme, but as the historian Leonard Richards has shown in great detail, the Slave Power was a quantitative reality that could be measured in votes, laws, institutions, and individuals. 8 Although historians can debate the extent to which it was a self-conscious or internally unified collusion, thanks to the three-fifths clause, the spread of the cotton gin, and other peculiarities of antebellum development, there really was a Slave Power in early American politics. Bingham may have been overzealous when it came to the sinister machinations of Jefferson Davis, but there is no question that Davis and his ilk shared a broadly similar agenda. Popular knowledge about the death of Zachary Taylor, whatever its veracity, reflected a real concern about the grip of a small group of wealthy aristocrats over the social, economic, and political life of the country, just as theories about the death of JFK reflect a real concern about the exponential growth of the U.S. national security state.

A few days ago, Americans celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, another epochal moment in their national history. Unlike the sadness and uncertainly surrounding the JFK assassination, this was a moment of optimism and unity, typified by the filmmaker Ken Burns, who solicited readings of the Address from everyone from Uma Thurman to Bill O’Reilly, including all five extant U.S. Presidents. Lost in patriotic reverie, it is easy to lose sight of the bitter, divisive, and bloody conflict that formed the broader context for that document. It is no accident, perhaps, that the recently unmasked espionage programs developed by the United States and Great Britain were named after civil war battles – Manassas and Bullrun for the NSA, Edgehill for the GCHQ. The choice of names appears to be intentional. Both battles were pivotal moments, the first major engagements in a long and destructive war that would result in the birth of a modern nation. Likewise, these surveillance systems appear to be the first step in a prolonged global war for digital intelligence. Is this evidence of a conspiracy? Or is it yet more evidence of the extent to which conspiratorial thinking has infiltrated modern political culture – just another example of the new paranoid style?

Notes:

  1. Clare Birchall, Knowledge Goes Pop: From Conspiracy Theory to Gossip (New York: Berg, 2006); Jesse Walker, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (New York: HarperCollins, 2013).
  2.  K. Jack Bauer, Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985), 314-328; Michael Parenti, History as Mystery (San Fransisco: City Lights, 1999), 209-239; Willard Oliver and Nancy Marion, Killing the President: Assassinations, Attempts, and Rumored Attempts on U.S. Commanders-in-Chief (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010), 181-189.
  3. “Geo. Francis Train,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 13, 1865.
  4. “Assassination of Presidents,” New York Times, Aug. 29, 1881.
  5. William A. Tidwell, April ’65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1995).
  6. C. Russell Riggs, “The Ante-Bellum Career of John A. Bingham: A Case Study in the Coming of the Civil War” (PhD Thesis, New York University, 1958); Erving E. Beauregard, Bingham of the Hills: Politician and Diplomat Extraordinary (New York: P. Lang, 1989); Gerard N. Magliocca, American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment (New York: New York University Press, 2013).
  7. Oliver and Marion, Killing the President, 181-189.
  8. David Brion Davis, The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969); Leonard L. Richards, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000).

The Rail Splitter Awakes

I wonder what bell hooks would say about Michonne’s “oppositional gaze?”

Longtime readers will remember that last year I pondered the connection between zombies and the slave trade. So it was pleasing to see the New York Times following a similar thread this week. As the author points out, though rooted in African tradition, zombies are a distinctly New World development, and the relationship between the undead and the enslaved is almost too obvious to mention. The evidence is ubiquitous, lurking just below the surface of our mass cultural consciousness. The wildly popular TV adaptation of The Walking Dead now stars Michonne, a ninja warrior who, among other things, sports her own zombie slave coffle. The two black men she pulls behind her are defanged and controlled by large metal collars and long metal chains that clank and clatter as they stumble along. Whether intentional or not, the echoes of racial slavery are conspicuous and searing – the show itself takes place in the Deep South. And the image of a powerful black woman dragging docile, neutered, and chained zombies across the southern landscape is stunningly poetic.

The living dead are more than just a metaphor for slavery and alienation. As I tried to suggest in my earlier post, they are an enduring artifact of the slave trade, a trade steeped in violence and death, whose legacies continue to haunt us to this day. Zombie folklore is complex and malleable. The ghostly return of the “Zombi” terrified New World slave societies as early as the eighteenth-century. As Francine Saillant and Ana Araujo show, the zombie myth can even serve as a form of empowerment. The seventeenth-century maroon warrior Zumbi is remembered in modern Brazil as a hero, a figure whose quest for autonomy transcends death itself. I’m still waiting for a long form treatment of this pressing and endlessly fascinating topic. In the meantime, the undead continue to beckon.

The 2012 blockbuster Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, based on the equally-popular mashup novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, does not attempt to present itself as serious history, which is probably a good thing. Like the forthcoming Tarantino flick Django Unchained, it eschews documentary realism in favor of highly stylized violence (Vampire Hunter director Timur Bekmambetov also directed the underrated minor masterpiece Night Watch). Still, there is something oddly compelling about the film’s portrayal of southern slaveholders as voracious vampires who literally drain the life force from their human property. As W. Scott Poole points out in his delightful review, there was “at least one case in Louisiana [in] which newly imported slaves became convinced that [their purported] masters were witches and vampires (after watching them drink red wine).” Although the real Lincoln was hardly a staunch egalitarian, the film offers up a more soothing alternate reality in which (SPOILER ALERT) Harriet Tubman rescues an axe-wielding Abe on the Underground Railroad and the two work together to save the entire Union cause. Despite her pivotal role in the story I would have liked to see more of Tubman, who was among the first American action heroes (just compare this sketch of her in battle fatigues to this image of Michonne). But I guess Harriet Tubman: Vampire Hunter would have been a little too transgressive.

There have been a spate of Lincoln-related movies lately, including The Conspirator, Saving Lincoln, and the forthcoming Spielberg epic Lincoln, which is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. It will be interesting to see how the emotionally earnest realism of the Spielberg film compares with Django, a spaghetti-western-inspired revenge story with shades of the Murrell Conspiracy. Grahame-Smith’s interpretation of the Civil War era offers something different insofar as it openly parodies Lincoln’s heroic mythology. At the same time, it could be read as reinforcing the image of the sainted leader. Whether slaying vampires or emancipating slaves, Honest Abe is always at the center of the action.

“The Great Man,” wrote historian Thomas Carlyle, “is a Force of Nature.” Caryle probably hated Lincoln. The only thing he despised more than elective democracy was slave emancipation, and he was a Confederate partisan. Even so, the nature analogy may be apt.  Abraham Lincoln is something like the black hole of nineteenth-century American history, an irresistible gravitational force pulling in anything and everything around it. Once you cross the event horizon of 1861, the beginning of the United States Civil War, it is nearly impossible to escape. Many of the giants in my field began their careers studying slaveholders or abolitionists and ended up writing Big Books on Lincoln and/or the Civil War. While these are certainly worthy topics, I have never found them particularly enthralling. The real war, I would argue, began in the 1770s and seethed for nearly a century, sometimes expressing itself culturally, sometimes politically, sometimes breaking out into open violence. The events of 1861-65 were important, but they were also the manifest symptom of a more extensive conflict, the final breaking out into the open of an ongoing, decades-long war over slavery.

The cult of Lincoln conceals the extent to which he was controlled by events running much deeper in the national and international political landscape and how his own deft strategizing intersected with those events to shape the outcome of the struggle. Although politicians and generals played a crucial role in the Civil War, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that grassroots developments were just as significant in determining the logic and pace of the radical changes sweeping the country. Data from the Visualizing Emancipation project, for example, clearly show that emancipation events – especially events classified as “African Americans Helping the Union” and “Fugitive Slaves/Runaways” – drastically increased in the ten months prior to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation cemented this momentum and allowed it to expand. Lincoln’s fictional alliance with Tubman in Vampire Hunter hints at this dynamic. Ultimately, however, the depiction of the sixteenth president as a flawless force of nature, almost single-handedly responsible for the Union victory, obscures a lot more than it reveals.

Abraham Lincoln as the Rail Splitter, a campaign newspaper published in Cincinnati, Ohio, October 3, 1860.

The larger-than-life image of Lincoln as a world-historical figure, as the “Great Emancipator,”as the free laboring “Rail Splitter,” which provides the grist for Grahame-Smith’s revision, did not just appear out of thin air following his martyrdom. It was actively disseminated during his lifetime by editors, politicians, and paramilitary organizations such as the Wide Awakes. The latter group, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands, saturated the northern and border states with Lincoln’s image and served as shock troops for the Union cause. In other words, Lincoln had a pretty efficient public relations machine. And this brings me to the digital humanities (how’s that for an overwrought segue?)

In a classic post on the Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing, Dan Cohen argues, among other things, that academic authors need to do a better job cultivating an audience for their work. This can be done in the digital realm, he suggests, by pioneering new curatorial frameworks, by developing new ways to disseminate, promote, and review scholarship online. Common-Place, Digital Humanities Now, and the American Historical Review prize for Best Digital Article represent promising steps in this direction. The last of these seems especially significant, since it will only accept work that is “impossible in print.” But offering up innovative work in a trusted and easily accessible format, carving out new spaces for the play of ideas, is only half the battle. As any Hollywood producer will tell you, films like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Lincoln, and Django Unchained are only as successful as their attempts to present a recognizable brand, stimulate public interest, and build an audience. Hollywood marketing is notoriously bloated and avaricious – sometimes far exceeding the size of a film’s actual budget. So I do not think academics would benefit from this model. But I wonder what would happen if professional historians had that kind of publicity? It might make the inevitable sequel, in which Frederick Douglass teams up with Frankenstein’s Monster to fight the Wolf Man, somewhat more palatable.

GIS in 1861

Enlightenment philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder claimed that “history is geography set in motion.” An early proponent of a kind of völkisch nationalism, Herder viewed history as a patriotic endeavor, and may not have even used this phrase in his work (I could not find any reference to it prior to 1897. Then again, my 18th-century German is a little rusty). Whatever its origin, I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately. My dissertation, which ranges from Nova Scotia to New Orleans, Missouri to England, Hartford to Sierra Leone, is in large part about what I’m calling “the geographies of abolition.” At the same time, I’ve been thinking about incorporating a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) component into the Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal.

So it was a neat coincidence to run across Susan Schulten’s insightful blog post about the 1861 map of the Slave Population of the Southern States. Part of a series of posts on the unfolding of the Civil War hosted by the New York Times, Schulten’s short essay shows how this single map became a political, social, and military force. Combining census data, geographical surveys, and statistical analysis, the map is a fantastic early example of GIS technology. Lincoln was fascinated with the map, a high resolution copy of which is available courtesy of the Library of Congress, and poured over it in the waning years of the Civil War.

Despite its special role in the history of the Civil War, the 1861 census map was hardly the first to chart the slave population, as well as the growing sectional consciousness, of the United States. Reynolds’s Political Map of the United States drew on the census of 1850 to compare “the principle statistics of the free and slave states” and was used as a propaganda tool by the nascent Republican Party in the election of 1856. This map also featured general statistics on slave ownership and the disproportionate influence of the Slave Power in government (the slave-holding states were colored dark black, a not-so-subtle commentary on their moral and economic standing).  Earlier still was Lewis’ Free Soil, Slavery, and Territorial Map of the United States, published in 1848 (copy available courtesy of Yale’s Map Department). Again, the slave states are painted a dark black and lengthy statistical analysis is employed to mobilize opinion against the Slave Power. In some ways, the Lewis and Reynolds maps are actually more revealing than the 1861 census map, because they focus attention on the uncertain fate of the western territories (a geographic area larger than both free and slave states combined). Certainly both maps were direct models for the more famous 1861 incarnation.

Schulten, an expert on the history of mapping, detailed the statistical and cartographic antecedents for the 1861 census map in a brilliant article in the journal Civil War History. Oddly, it is not cited or even mentioned in her NY Times post. Perhaps the editors thought it was too “scholarly” for a general audience? (I thought it was a damn good read.) In this longer piece, Schulten argues that the widespread use of statistical maps for policy ends was directly stimulated by the antebellum slavery crisis. And, along the way, she makes a convincing case for the role of mapping systems as both reflections of broader historical shifts and key political-historical forces in their own right. This is an insight worth keeping in mind as we barrel head-on through the GIS revolution.