The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861

Book Review of The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861 by Stephen B. Oates
The Approaching Fury

Given the current lackluster state of recently released films, let me revert to a book review. While relaxing last week on Marathon in the Florida Keys, I re-read The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861, written by Stephen B. Oates. Mr. Oates tells his story from the position of 13 prominent players in the period of time leading up to the Civil War, and it is written as if they are being personally interviewed.

While the book covers a lot of ground which includes the Lincoln/Douglas debates in 1858 where Douglas defeated Lincoln in the Senatorial contest, its concentration on the depths of racism in our entire country is chilling beyond words. While slavery ended in 1865, racism sunk its evil claws into the heart of many Americans and it is clear that it resonates to this very day.

Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, is quoted as saying “Slavery is a hideous evil, a foul plot of the country. It makes a mockery of our sacred creed embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” Commenting on the immortal phrase that “all men are created equal”, he affirms that when he included those words in the Declaration, “I meant all men, not just white men.”

However, it is astonishing to learn that many famous Southerners rejected that conclusion. For example, John Calhoun, the legendary senator from South Carolina, stated that “the sentiments in the Declaration had to be discredited and destroyed. A good example is the assertion that all men are born free and created equal. This is an illogical absurdity.” Then the infamous George Fitzhugh, a Southern philosopher who supported slavery, noted that “Northern women…were the deformed offspring of the obnoxious doctrines of liberty and equality and one more proof of the unnatural tendencies of Free Society.”

Fitzhugh was joined by the Confederacy’s Vice President, Alexander H. Stephens, who noted “with us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the Negro. Subordination is high place.” He proceeds by noting that the Confederacy’s “Cornerstone rests upon the grave truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural condition.”  And it should not be forgotten that the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, endorsed Stephens’ statements.

However, the diabolical spread of racism didn’t end at the Mason/Dixon line. As an example, both Lincoln and the memorable Kentucky senator Henry Clay embodied the principle that the only way to solve the slave crisis was through colonization. They both sought a plan where free slaves were deported to Liberia in Africa, with Clay noting that their “wretched condition is the inevitable consequence of liberating members of an inferior race and allowing them to remain among the superior race with its unconquerable prejudices.” And yet these two men joined the founder of the famous newspaper “The Liberator”, William Lloyd Garrison, by adamantly opposing slavery.

Mr. Oates makes clear in his book that Lincoln ran as a Republican president who sought to keep slavery confined to the specific Southern states where it existed, expecting that it would slowly disintegrate over time. Disunion and war became inevitable when the South sought to expand slavery to new western states, something that Lincoln sought to prevent.

It is important to recognize that the deep emotional beliefs set out in Mr. Oates’ book resonate to this very day. Clearly, the hatred of black Americans permeated both the North and the South for centuries, and to assume that it somehow disappeared when the South was defeated is fundamentally absurd.

Without saying more, look at what happened when Lincoln was assassinated and his successor aggressively allowed ex-Confederate slave owners to resume control of their large plantations. Slavery may have ended, but it was quickly followed by the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow legislation, segregation and the thousands of black Americans left hanging from trees that took place through the middle of the 20th century. Black activists, including Martin Luther King Jr., were gunned down, and the racism lying at the heart of the American condition remained alive and well.

The lamentable reality that I learned from this penetrating book was that we never found a way to compensate the 4 million black slaves who allegedly were freed in 1865. After kidnapping them and bringing them to America we proceeded to destroy the definition of marriage and family while forbidding all of them to learn to read and write.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, set out the best form of reparations for aiding the freed slave by urging a solution to “Let our churches receive these poor sufferers in the spirit of Christ. Let us receive them to the educational advantages of Christian Republican society and schools until they have obtained somewhat of a moral and intellectual maturity.” Our national failure to listen to her words is reflected by the failure seen in many of our major cities around the country.

I learned this firsthand when I taught the fifth grade at a public Indianapolis grade school off the corner of 25th and Martin Luther King in Downtown Indianapolis in 1969-1970. I was the only white male teacher in the school that contained all black students. Tragically, I noted then that a large percentage of the students would drop out of school as soon as they reached the permissible legal age. When these kids left school, they were literally thrown out into the street. No longer able to advance in our society, many turned to violence and crime. As a result, a great part of our country continues to blame urban crime on the inferior nature of African Americans while expanding a prison system that has symbolically replaced the Antebellum plantation society.

Mr. Oates’ book reminds me to urge all of you to support a national policy where all of our major metropolitan areas in our country have public schools from Kindergarten to the 12th grade that last 12 months a year. Summer vacation, an outdated principle founded on the agrarian principle that kids needed to work on the family farms, no longer has any meaning. To dramatize the meaningless nature of summer vacations, name another profession that is forced out of work from May until September of every year?

Though the bottom line is that such a policy would represent a valid payment of reparations for what we did to African Americans for centuries, we continue to stand by and do nothing. As I am writing this review in the middle of April, there have been multiple shootings and killings in Indianapolis over the past two weeks. Though we know that guns, drugs and an all-but hopeless life lies at the heart of this problem, why is it that our response is reflected by the fact that our President and Vice President will speak at the NRA convention here in Indianapolis at the end of April?

In looking for an answer, The Approaching Fury reminded me of the old phrase “Those who don’t remember history are condemned to repeat it.” In that regard, think of the role that South Carolina has played in our national policy to this very day.

First, Charleston was the major port where slaves were imported from Africa for centuries. Additionally, the state attempted to challenge the Union with what is known as the Nullification Act of 1822 that President Jackson was forced to suppress. Next was the fact that South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks almost caned Massachusetts Senator Sumner to death in the Senate in the 1850s for delivering his “Crime Against Kansas” speech a few days earlier. Finally, South Carolina was not only the first state to secede from the Union in 1860, but also fired the first shot of the Civil War when it attacked Fort Sumter.

All of this is important when you consider the fact that President Trump’s first selection for Attorney General was Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, named after both the Confederate President and the General who fired on Fort Sumter. In addition, look at the role that Senator Lindsey Graham is playing on a national level today while former South Carolina Congressman Mike Mulvaney has been selected to serve as the President’s Chief of Staff. And let’s not forget that it was South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson who yelled “You lie!” during a State of the Union Speech by President Obama.

History indicates that we should be a bit careful when we don’t challenge national leaders, and it is time to honor the thoughtful words of Harriet Beecher Stowe.