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Archive for March, 2006

Over My Shoulder #16: Michael Fellman (2002), The Making of Robert E. Lee

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is another passage from from Chapter 4 (Race and Slavery) of Michael Fellman’s The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000) (see also GT 2006-02-24: Over My Shoulder #12). Here’s some more on the Lees, slavery, and the slaves at Arlington. It’s mostly about Robert E. Lee’s wife Mary, but be sure to note Robert’s sanctimonious attempts to dissuade her from even taking the modest step of ransoming a slave from an especially cruel slave-driver. (In this matter is everything to be yielded to the servant, & nothing allowed to the master? Well…) It would be interesting to know whether the two white strangers were connected at all with the Norrises’ attempted escape the following year or the anonymous letters to the New York Tribune about their capture (which were, like most 19th century letters to the editor, published anonymously). In any case:

Lee’s views on slavery were considerably influenced by the opinions and activities of his wife and his mother-in-law, both of whom were deeply involved in the American Colonization Society, an early form of ambiguous antislavery activism, which sought to free the slaves by sending them back [sic] to Africa. As a young married woman, this project was a commitment of Mary’s heart and nost just her head. She wished to nurture, educate, and catechize the family slaves right away, in preparationfor eventual manumission and export. She wrote her mother in 1831, I hope that we may be able to do something in time for the spiritual benefit of those neglected slaves and for their eventual freedom. Because on these terms liberty meant expulsion of the entire inferior black race with whom whites could never imagine cohabiting on an equal footing, such colonizationism was racist antislavery doctrine.

In her diary for the 1850s, Mary frequently discussed the project. She joined her mother, she wrote, in the hope that one day all their slaves would be able to emigrate to Africa, so that they could carry light & Christianity to that dark heathen country. Nevertheless, admitting to a presentiment that she would not live long enough to carry out this grand scheme, she proposed to try it gradually. She picked her slave William and his family to act as pioneers, a kind of pilot project. And then she stated the larger purpose of the heart that lay behind her social project: What is life worth unless you can accomplish in it something for the benefit of others, especially of those so entirely dependent upon one’s will and pleasure.

Mary’s body servant, Eliza, was another pet project. I have always promised Eliza her freedom to emigrate to Africa in a few years. … If she will go to Africa she can have her freedom, Mary Lee wrote in her diary in 1853. She feared, however, that Eliza might marry here and be unwilling to go, especially if she should marry a free man. In the event, Mary Lee noted in 1860 that Eliza had her freedom and that she now lived in Newport with her husband. Somehow, Eliza had secured her freedom while avoiding being shipped back [sic] to Afirca. Such was the outcome favored by the vast majority of manumitted slaves, whatever the desires of their former masters.

As an interim measure on her slaves’ path to freedom and repatriation, Mary Lee, with the help of her daughters, set up a school for slaves, almost certainly a Sunday school, on the Arlington plantation. This was an unusual move, because the overwhelming majority of slave owners feared rightly that literacy would give slaves acces to seditious abolitionist materials, which would lead them to demand or seize their freedom. In 1819, this concern had led the Virginia legislature to outlaw education for blacks, but several of Virginia’s clergymen continued to encourage Sunday schools, arguing that the gentry class would answer to God, not to the legislature. It is not clear how many slaveholders in addition to the Lees followed this path of circumspect lawbreaking.

At least occasionally, Agnes Lee taught in this school for slaves in the mid-1850s. In her journal, she expressed her attitude and that of her father toward her students. I must put down my pen … & go teach my little scholars. We have a considerable number of ebony mites as Papa calls them & as no one knows as much as another it makes their instruction very tedious. Off to school she went, only to find an empty room. Well! I have gone down, I insist upon teaching them in classes & yet only one of my class ever arrived [in] time so I have employed this odd moment in writing.

Agnes’s pen dripped racial condescension even as she earnestly broke the law. Her view on her pupils’ tardiness reflected the Southern white contempt for slaves’ perceived lack of punctuality (although it must be noted that Northern factory managers had the same complaints about their workers, who also thus resisted discipline and set their own work schedules). The amused phrase ebony mites also demonstrated her father’s doubts about a project in which he disbelieved, although he did nothing to stop it, probably regarding it as harmless. While influenced by Mary’s colonizationist project, he was generally rather skeptical of its value, and sometimes he doubted whether Mary’s do-goodism was a very wise course. In one rather complex case in 1841, Robert attempted to dissuade Mary’s project of buying a slave off an unkind master in order to free him. In judging of results you must endeavour to lay aside your feelings & prejudices & examine the question as thus exposed. In this matter is everything to be yielded to the servant, & nothing allowed to the master? What will the effect of the precedent be on the rest [of the slaves and on] your father and his authority? Lee promised that he would comply with her wishes, but he urged her to consider well upon the matter & act for yourself.

After her father’s slaves became hers and Robert’s, Mary hardened her attitude toward them. On February 10, 1858, when Robert was trying to sort out the chaos on the other Custis plantations, Mary wrote an old friend about his efforts in trying to reduce these very complicated affairs into some order: It is very unsatisfactory work for the servants here have been so long accustomed to do little or nothing that they cannot be convinced of the necessity now of exerting themselves, in order to speed up the accomplishment of the promise of freedom in the will. Actually, Mary was being illogical, as the promise had been given unconditionally, albeit for five years down the line. Then Mary continued, unless there is a mighty change wrought in them I do not know what good they will do themselves, but at any rate we shall be relieved from the care of them which will be an immense burden taken from our shoulders. Actual experience in manumission was hardly proving to be the fulfillment of the colonizationist dreams of years past.

Over the next week, Mary continued to brood. On February 17, she wrote to W. G. Webster that two white men had been constantly lurking about with the servants & telling them that they had a right to their freedom immediately & that if they would unite & demand it they would obtain it. Only the merciful hand of a kind Providence … prevented an outbreak. Their freedom is a very questionable advantage to any but ourselves who will be relieved from a host of idle & their useless dependents. Of course, colonization had always promised masters relief from their slaves, but here Mary Lee dropped the charitable aspect of the project—the rationalization that it was intended for the good of blacks—and treated manumission as a racial safety valve for white masters.

Not colonization but her father’s will had freed these slaves, and Mary was retrospectively exasperated with him. My dear father in his usual entire ignorance of the state of his affairs has left provision in his will which it will be almost impossible to fulfill even in double 5 years. Just sending them out of the state, which Virginians freeing their slaves were required to do, would be prohibitively expensive, she believed. She then drew the sarcastic conclusion that we should be most deeply indebted to their kind friends the abolitionists if they would come forward [and purchase their] freedom at once.

It even gave Mary Lee a certain perverse satisfaction to note the virulent racism in Canada, that land of freedom to which thousands of slaves had fled, when she visited some hot springs there in 1860. There are a great number of runaways here, but I have not met with any acquaintances, Mary Lee wrote her daughter Annie. The white people say that before long they will be obliged to make laws to send them all out of Canada, so I see no place for them but Africa. I am told they suffer a great deal here in the long cold winters. After enticing them over here the white people will not let their children go to the same schools or treat them as equals in any way. Amalgamation—interracial marriage—is out of the question tho occasionally a very low white woman marries a black man. Either blacks had to be dominated by kind masters within slavery, or else they had to be returned to Africa. They could never live in equality with whites anywhere in North America, and freedom would bring them only into a condition worse than slavery. The Canadian racism she observed confirmed Mary’s beliefs in white supremacy and black degradation.

As the Civil War approached, given their experiences, both the Lees were disgusted with slavery. At the same time, they were prepared to defend it as the only viable safeguard of white control over blacks until that distant day when the South might be whitened through complete African repatriation [sic].

—Michael Fellman (2000), The Making of Robert E. Lee. New York: Random House, ISBN 0679456503. 67–72.

Over My Shoulder #15: Robert Whitaker (2002), Mad in America

You know the rules; here’s the quote. This is again delayed (this time, by the belated Tyrannicide Day celebration of going to see V for Vendetta on opening night; in case you’re wondering, it’s very good, but you should read the comic book, too, or you’ll miss out on a lot of good stuff). This week’s reading is from the bus on the way to work: a long passage from the first chapter of Robert Whitaker’s Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill (2002). Whitaker is explaining the historical backdrop of Benjamin Rush’s European medical training:

One of the first English physicians to write extensively on madness, its nature, and the proper treatment for it was Thomas Willis. He as highly admired for his investigations into the nervous system, and his 1684 text on insanity set the tone for the many medical guides that would be written over the next 100 years by English mad-doctors. The book’s title neatly summed up his views of the mad: The Practice of Physick: Two Discourses Concerning the Soul of Brutes. His belief—that the insane were animal-like in kind—reflected prevailing conceptions about the nature of man. The great English scientists and philosophers of the seventeenth century—Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, John Locke, and others—had all argued that reason was the faculty that elevated humankind above the animals. This was the form of intelligence that enabled man to scientifically know his world, and to create a civilized society. Thus the insane, by virtue of having lost their reason, were seen as having descended to a brutish state. They were, Willis explained, fierce creatures who enjoyed superhuman strength. They can break cords and chains, break down doors or walls … they are almost never tired … they bear cold, heat, watching, fasting, strokes, and wounds, without any sensible hurt. The mad, he added, if they were to be cured, needed to hold their physicians in awe and think of them as their tormentors.

Discipline, threats, fetters, and blows are needed as much as medical treatment … Truly nothing is more necessary and more effective for the recovery of these people than forcing them to respect and fear intimidation. By this method, the mind, held back by restraint is induced to give up its arrogance and wild ideas and it soon becomes meek and orderly. This is why maniacs often recover much sooner if they are treated with tortures and torments in a hovel instead of with medicaments.

A medical paradigm for treating the mad had been born, and eighteenth-century English medical texts regularly repeated this basic wisdom. In 1751, Richard Mead explained that the madman was a brute who could be expected to attack his fellow creatures with fury like a wild beast and thus needed to be tied down and even beat, to prevent his doing mischief to himself or others. Thomas Bakewell told of how a maniac bellowed like a wild beast, and shook his chain almost constantly for several days and nights … I therefore got up, took a hand whip, and gave him a few smart stripes upon the shoulders… He disturbed me no more. Physician Charles Bell, in his book Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting, advised artists wishing to depict madmen to learn the character of the human countenance when devoid of expression, and reduced to the state of lower animals.

Like all wild animals, lunatics needed to be dominated and broken. The primary treatments advocated by English physicians were those that physically weakened the mad—bleeding to the point of fainting and the regular use of powerful purges, emetics, and nausea-inducing agents. All of this could quickly reduce even the strongest maniac to a pitiful, whimpering state. William Cullen, reviewing bleeding practices, noted that some advised cutting into the jugular vein. Purges and emetics, which would make the mad patient violently sick, were to be repeatedly administered over an extended period. John Monro, superintendent of Bethlehem Asylum, gave one of his patients sixty-one vomit-inducing emetics in six months, including strong doses on eighteen sucessive nights. Mercury and other chemical agents, meanwhile, were used to induce nausea so fierce that the patient could not hope to have the mental strength to rant and rave. While nausea lasts, George Man Burrows advised, hallucinations of long adherence will be suspended, and sometimes be perfectly removed, or perhaps exchanged for others, and the most furious will become tranquil and obedient. It was, he added, far safer to reduce the patient by nauseating him than by depleting him.

A near-starvation diet was another recommendation for robbing the madman of his strength. The various depleting remedies—bleedings, purgings, emetics, and nausea-inducing agents—were also said to be therapeutic because they inflicted considerable pain, and thus the madman’s mind became focused on this sensation rather than on his usual raving thoughts. Blistering was another treatment useful for stirring great bodily pain. Mustard powders could be rubbed on a shaved scalp, and once the blisters formed, a caustic rubbed into the blisters to further irritate and infect the scalp. The suffering that attends the formation of these pustules is often indescribable, wrote one physician. The madman’s pain could be expected to increase as he rubbed his hands in the caustic and touched his genitals, a pain that would enable the patient to regain consciousness of his true self, to wake from his supersensual slumber and to stay awake.

All of these physically depleting, painful therapies also had a psychological value: They were feared by the lunatics, and thus the mere threat of their employment could get the lunatics to behave in a better manner. Together with liberal use of restraints and an occasional beating, the mad would learn to cower before their doctors and attendants. In most cases it has appeared to be necessary to employ a very constant impression of fear; and therefore to inspire them with the awe and dread of some particular persons, especially of those who are to be constantly near them, Cullen wrote. This awe and dread is therefore, by one means or other, to be acquired; in the first place by their being the authors of all the restraints that may be occasionally proper; but sometimes it may be necessary to acquire it even by stripes and blows. The former, although having the appearance of more severity, are much safer than strokes or blows about the head.

Such were the writings of English mad-doctors in the 1700s. The mad were to be tamed. But were such treatments really curative? In the beginning, the mad-doctors were hesitant to make that claim. But gradually they began to change their tune, and they did so for a simple reason: It gave them a leg up in the profitable madhouse business.

In eighteenth-century England, the London asylum Bethlehem was almost entirely a place for the poor insane. The well-to-do in London shipped their family lunatics to private madhouses, a trade that had begun to emerge in the first part of the century. These boarding houses also served as convenient dumping grounds for relatives who were simply annoying or unwanted. Men could get free from their wives in this manner—had not their noisome, bothersome spouses gone quite daft in the head? A physician who would attest to this fact could earn a nice sum—a fee for the consultation and a referral fee from the madhouse owner. Doctors who owned madhouses mad out particularly well. William Battie, who operated madhouses in Islington and Clerkenwell, left an estate valued at between £100,000 and £200,000, a fabulous sum for the time, which was derived largely from this trade.

Even though most of the mad and not-so-mad committed to the private madhouses came from better families, they could still expect neglect and the harsh flicker of the whip. As reformer Daniel Defoe protested in 1728, Is it not enough to make any one mad to be suddenly clap’d up, stripp’d, whipp’d, ill fed, and worse us’d? In the face of such public criticism, the madhouse operators protested that their methods, while seemingly harsh, were remedies that could restore the mad to their senses. The weren’t just methods for managing lunatics, but curative medical treatments. In 1758, Battie wrote: Madness is, contrary to the opinion of some unthinking persons, as manageable as many other distempers, which are equally dreadful and obstinate. He devoted a full three chapters to cures.

In 1774, the English mad trade got a boost with the passage of the Act for Regulating Madhouses, Licensings, and Inspection. Thenew law prevented the commitment of a person to a madhouse unless a physician had certified the person as insane (which is the origin of the term certifiably insane). Physicians were now the sole arbiters of insanity, a legal authority that mad the mad-doctoring trade more profitable than ever. Then, in 1788, King George III suffered a bout of madness, and his recovery provided the mad-doctors with public proof of their curative ways.

Francis Willis, the prominent London physician called upon by the queen to treat King George, was bold in proclaiming his powers. He boasted to the English Parliament that he could reliably cure nine out of ten mad patients and that he rarely missed curing any [patients] that I had so early under my care: I mean radically cured. On December 5, 1788, he arrived at the king’s residence in Kew with an assistant, three keepers, a straight waistcoat, and the belief that a madman needed to be broken like a horse in a manège. King George III was so appalled by the sight of the keepers and the straight waistcoat that he flew into a rage—a reaction that caused Willis to immediately put him into the confining garment.

As was his custom, Willis quickly strove to assert his dominance over his patient. When the king resisted or protested in any way, Willis had him clapped into the straight-waistcoat, often with a band across his chest, and his legs tied to the bed. Blisters were raised on the king’s legs and quickly became infected, the king pleading that the pustules burned and tortured him—a complaint that earned him yet another turn in the straight waistcoat. Soon his legs were so painful and sore that he couldn’t walk, his mind now wondering how a king lay in this damned confined condition. He was repeatedly bled, with leeches placed on his templates, and sedated with opium pills. Willis also surreptitiously laced his food with emetics, which made the king so violently sick that, on one occasion, he knelt on his chair and prayed that God would be pleased either to restore Him to his Senses, or permit that He might die directly.

In the first month of 1789, the battle between the patient and doctor became ever more fierce. King George III—bled, purged, blistered, restrained, and sedated, his food secretly sprinkled with a tartar emetic to make him sick—sought to escape, offering a bribe to his keepers. He would give them annuities for life if they would just free him from the mad-doctor. Willis responded by bringing in a new piece of medical equipment—a restraint chair that bound him more tightly than the straight waistcoat—and by replacing his pages with strangers. The king would no longer be allowed the sight of familiar faces, which he took as evidence that Willis’s men meant to murder him.

In late February, the king made an apparently miraculous recovery. His agitation and delusions abated, and he soon resumed his royal duties. Historians today believe that King George III, rather than being mad, suffered from a rare genetic disorder, called porphyria, which can lead to high levels of toxic substance in the body that cause temporary delirium. He might have recovered more quickly, they believe, if Willis’s medical treatment had not so weakened him that they aggravated the underlying condition. But in 1789, the return of the king’s sanity was, for the mad-doctors, a medical triumph of the most visible sort.

In the wake of the king’s recovery, a number of English physicians raced to exploit the commercial opportunity at hand by publishing their novel methods for curing insanity. Their marketing message was often as neat as a twentieth century sound bite: Insanity proved curable. One operator of a madhouse in Chelsea, Benjamin Faulkner, even offered a money-back guarantee: Unless patients were cured within six months, all board, lodging, and medical treatments would be provided free of all expence whatever. The mad trade in England flourished. The number of private madhouses in the London area increased from twenty-two in 1788 to double that number by 1820, growth so stunning that many began to worry that insanity was a malady particularly common to the English.

In this era of medical optimism, English physicians—and their counterparts in other European countries—developed an ever more innovative array of therapeutics. Dunking the patient in water became quite popular—a therapy intended both to cool the patient’s scalp and to provoke terror. Physicians advised pouring buckets of water on the patient from a great height or placing the patient under a waterfall; they also devised machines and pumps that could pummel the patient with a torrent of water. The painful blasts of water were effective as a remedy and a punishment, one that made patients complain of pain as if the lateral lobes of the cerebrum were split asunder. The Bath of Surprise became a staple of many asylums: The lunatic, often while being led blindfolded across a room, would suddenly be dropped through a trapdoor into a tub of cold water—the unexpected plunge hopefully inducing such terror that the patient’s senses might be dramatically restored. Cullen found this approach particularly valuable:

Maniacs have often been relieved, and sometimes entirely cured, by the use of cold bathing, especially when administered in a certain manner. This seems to consist, in throwing the madman in the cold water by surprise; by detaining him in it for some length of time; and pouring water frequently upon the head, while the whole of the body except the head is immersed in the water; and thus managing the whole process, so as that, with the assistance of some fear, a refrigerant effect may be produced. This, I can affirm, has been often useful.

The most extreme form of water therapy involved temporarily drowning the patient. This practice had its roots in a recommendation made by the renowned clinician of Leyden, Hermann Boerhaave. The greatest remedy for [mania] is to throw the Patient unwarily into the Sea, and to keep him under Water as long as he can possibly bear without being quite stifled. Burrows, reviewing this practice in 1828, said it was designed to create the effect of asphyxia, or suspension of vital as well as of all intellectual operations, so far as safety would permit. Boerhaave’s advice led mad-doctors to concoct various methods for stimulating drowning such as placing the patient into a box drilled with holes and then submerging it underwater. Joseph Guislain built an elaborate mechanism for drowning the patient, which he called The Chinese Temple. The maniac would be locked into an iron cage that would be mechanically lowered, much in the manner of an elevator car, into a pond. To expose the madman to the action of this device, Guislain explained, he is led into the interior of this cage: one servant shutsthe door from the outside while the other releases a break which, by this maneuver, causes the patient to sink down, shut up in the cage, under the water. Having produced the desired effect, one raises the machine again.

The most common mechanical device to be employed in European asylums during this period was a swinging chair. Invented by Englishma Joseph Mason Cox, the chair could, in one fell swoop, physically weaken the patient, inflict great pain, and invoke terror—all effects perceived as therapeutic for the mad. The chair, hung from a wooden frame, would be rotated rapidly by an operator to induce in the patient fatigue, exhaustion, pallor, horripilatio [goose bumps], vertigo, etc, thereby producing new associations and trains of thoughts. In the hands of a skilled operator, able to rapidly alter the directional motion of the swing, it could reliably produce nausea, vomiting, and violent convulsions. Patients would also involuntarily urinate and defecate, and plead for the machine to be stopped. The treatment was so powerful, said one nineteenth-century physician, that if the swing didn’t make a mad person obedient, nothing would.

Once Cox’s swing had been introduced, asylum doctors tried many variations on the theme—spinning beds, spinning stools, and spinning boards were all introduced. In this spirit of innovation and medical advance, one inventor built a swing that could twirl four patients at once, at revolutions up to 100 per minute. Cox’s swing and other twirling devices, however, were eventually banned by several European governments, the protective laws spurred by a public repulsed by the apparent cruelty of such therapeutics. This governmental intrusion into medical affairs caused Burrows, a madhouse owner who claimed that he cured 91 percent of his patients, to complain that an ignorant public would instruct us that patient endurance and kindliness of heart are the only effectual remedies for insanity!

Even the more mainstream treatments—the Bath of Surprise, the swinging chair, the painful blistering—might have given a compassionate physician like Rush pause. But mad-doctors were advised not to let their sentiments keep them from doing their duty. It was the highest form of cruelty, one eighteenth-century physician advised, not to be bold in the Administration of Medicine. Even those who urged that the insane, in general, should be treated with kindness, saw a need for such heroic treatments to knock down mania. Certain cases of mania seem to require a boldness of practice, which a young physician of sensibility may feel a reluctance to adopt, wrote Thomas Percival, setting forth ethical guidelines for physicians. On such occasions he must not yield to timidity, but fortify his mind by the councils of his more experienced brethren of the faculty.

—Robert Whitaker (2002), Mad in America, pp. 6–13.

This book is one of the only things I’ve read that ever made me cry.

Further reading

Over My Shoulder #14: Robin Morgan (1981), Blood Types: An Anatomy of Kin

You know the rules; here’s the quote. This one has been delayed from Friday to Saturday by the government attacks on women at a International Women’s Day commemoration in Tehran. So in commemoration of those women, and of what they put their bodies on the line for, here’s something on the theme of feminist internationalism, women, and governments. This is bus reading, collected in Robin Morgan’s The Word of a Woman: Feminist Dispatches 1968–1992 (ISBN 0-393-03427-5): specifically, Blood Types: An Anatomy of Kin a meditative discussion on family, identity, sex, and race, written in 1981.

Mary Daly’s turn-the-concept-inside-out phrase, The Sisterhood of Man seems not only a hope but a dynamic actuality—since it’s grounded not in abstract notions of cooperation but in survival need, not in static posture but in active gesture, not in vague sentiments of similarity but in concrete experience shared to an astonishing degree, despite cultural, historical, linguistic, and other barriers. Labor contractions feel the same everywhere. So does rape and battery. I don’t necessarily always agree with many feminists that women have access to some mysteriously inherent biological nexus, but I do believe that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was onto something when she signed letters, Thine in the bonds of oppressed womanhood (italics mine). Let us hope—and act to ensure—that as women break those bonds of oppression, the process of freeing the majority of humanity will so transform human consciousness that women will not use our freedom to be isolatedly individuated as men have done. In the meanwhile, the bonds do exist; let’s use them creatively.

Not that the mechanistic universe inhabited by the family of Man takes notice of this quarky interrelationship between the hardly visible subparticles that merely serve to keep Man and his [sic] family alive. No, such particles are unimportant, fantastical, charming perhaps (as quarks or the fair sex tend to be). But they are to be taken no more seriously than fairytales.

Yet if Hans Christian Andersen characters so diverse as the Little Mermaid, the Robber Girl, the Snow Queen, and the Little Match Girl had convened a meeting to discuss ways of bettering their condition, one could imagine that the world press would cover that as a big story. When something even more extraordinary, because more real, happened in Andersen’s own city for three weeks during July 1980, it barely made the news.

Approximately ten thousand women from all over the planet began arriving in Copenhagen, Denmark, even before the formal opening on July 14 of the United Nations Mid-Decade World Conference for women. The conference was to become a great, sprawling, rollicking, sometimes quarrelsome, highly emotional, unashamedly idealistic, unabashedly pragmatic, visionary family reunion. In 1975, the U.N. had voted to pay some attention to the female more-than-half of the human population for one year—International Women’s Year—but extended the time to a decade after the indignant outcry of women who had been living, literally, in the International Men’s Year for approximately ten millennia of patriarchy. Still, here we were, in the middle of our decade, in Copenhagen. We came in saris and caftans, in blue jeans and chadors, in African geles, pants-suits, and dresses. We were women with different priorities, ideologies, political analyses, cultural backgrounds, and styles of communication. The few reports that made it into the U.S. press emphasized those differences, thereby overlooking the big story—that these women forged new and strong connections.

There were two overlapping meetings in Copenhagen. One was the official U.N. conference—which many feminists accurately had prophesied would be more a meeting of governments than of women. Its delegates were chosen by governments of U.N. member states to psittaceously repeat national priorities—as defined by men.

The official conference reflected the government orientation: many delegations were headed by men and many more were led by safe women whose governments were certain wouldn’t make waves. This is not to say that there weren’t some real feminists tuckd away even in the formal delegations, trying gallantly to influence their respective bureaucracies towards more human concern with actions that really could better women’s lives. But the talents of these sisters within were frequently ignored or abused by their own delegations for political reasons.

A case in point was the U.S. delegation, which availed itself greedily of all the brilliant and unique expertise of Koryne Horbal (then U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women), and of all the groundwork she had done on the conference for the preceding two years—including being the architect of CEDAW, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women—but denied her press visibility and most simple courtesies because she had been critical of the Carter administration and its official policies on women. But Horbal wasn’t the only feminist within. There were New Zealand’s member of Parliament, the dynamic twenty-eight-year-old Marilyn Waring, and good-humored Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo, former prime minister of Portugal, and clever Elizabeth Reid of Australia—all of them feminists skilled in the labyrinthian ways of national and international politics, but with priority commitment to populist means of working for women—who still managed to be effective inside and outside the structures of their governments.

The other conference, semiofficially under U.N. aegis, was the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Forum. It was to the Forum that ordinary folks came, having raised the travel fare via their local women’s organizations, feminist alternative media, or women’s religious, health, and community groups. Panels, workshops, kaffeeklatsches, cultural events, and informal sessions abounded.

Statements emerged and petitions were eagerly signed: supporting the prostitutes in São Palo, Brazil, who that very week, in an attempt to organize for their human rights, were being jailed, tortured, and, in one case, accidentally executed; supporting Arab and African women organizing against the practice of female genital mutilation; supporting U.S. women recently stunned by the 1980 Supreme Court decision permitting federal and state denial of funds for medical aid to poor women who need safe, legal abortions—thus denying the basic human right of reproductive freedom; supporting South African women trying to keep families together under the maniacal system of apartheid; supporting newly exiled feminist writers and activists from the U.S.S.R.; supporting women refugees from Afghanistan, Campuchea [Cambodia], Palestine, Cuba, and elsewhere.

Protocol aside, the excitement among women at both conference sites was electric. If, for instance, you came from Senegal with a specific concern about rural development, you would focus on workshops about that, and exchange experiences and how-to’s with women from Peru, India—and Montana. After one health panel, a Chinese gynecologist continued talking animatedly with her scientific colleague from the Soviet Union—Sino-Soviet saber-rattling forgotten or transcended.

Comparisons developed in workshops on banking and credit between European and U.S. economists and the influential market women of Africa. The list of planned meetings about Women’s Studies ran to three pages, yet additional workshops on the subject were created spontaneously. Meanwhile, at the International Women’s Art Festival, there was a sharing of films, plays, poetry readings, concerts, mime shows, exhibits of painting and sculpture and batik and weaving, the interchanging of art techniques and of survival techniques. Exchange subscriptions were pledged between feminist magazines in New Delhi and Boston and Tokyo, Maryland and Sri Lanka and Australia. And everywhere the conversations and laughter of recognition and newfound friendships spilled over into the sidewalks of Copenhagen, often until dawn.

We ate, snacked, munched—and traded diets—like neighbor women, or family. A well-equipped Argentinian supplied a shy Korean with a tampon in an emergency. A Canadian went into labor a week earlier than she’d expected, and kept laughing hilariously between the contractions, as she was barraged with loving advice on how to breathe, where to rub, how to sit (or stand or squat), and even what to sing—in a chorus of five languages, while waiting for the prompt Danish ambulance. North American women from diverse ethnic ancestries talked intimately with women who still lived in the cities, towns, and villages from which their own grandmothers had emigrated to the New World. We slept little, stopped caring about washing our hair, sat on the floor, and felt at home with one another.

Certainly, there were problems. Simultaneous translation facilities, present everywhere at the official conference, were rarely available at the grass-roots forum. This exacerbated certain sore spots, like the much-ballyhooed Palestinian-Israeli conflict, since many Arab women present spoke Arabic or French but not English—the dominant language at the forum. That conflict—played out by male leadership at both the official conference and the forum, using women as pawns in the game—was disheartening, but not as bad as many of us had feared.

The widely reported walkout of Arab women during Madam Jihan Sadat’s speech at the conference was actually a group of perhaps twenty women tiptoeing quietly to the exit. This took place in a huge room packed with delegates who—during all the speeches—were sitting, standing, and walking about to lobby loudly as if on the floor of the U.S. Congress (no one actually listens to the speeches; they’re for the recrd).

Meanwhile, back at the forum, there was our own invaluable former U.S. congresswoman Bella Abzug (officially unrecognized by the Carter-appointed delegation but recognized and greeted with love by women from all over the world). Bella, working on coalition building, was shuttling between Israelis and Arabs. At that time, Iran was still holding the fifty-two U.S. hostages, but Bella accomplished the major miracle of getting a pledge from the Iranian women that if U.S. mothers would demonstrate in Washington for the shah’s ill-gotten millions to be returned to the Iranian people (for the fight against women’s illiteracy and children’s malnutrition), then the Iranian women would march simultaneously in Teheran for the hostages to be returned home to their mothers. Bella’s sensitivity and cheerful, persistent nudging on this issue caused one Iranian woman to throw up her hands, shrug, and laugh to me, What is with this Bella honey person? She’s wonderful. She’s impossible. She’s just like my mother.

The conference, the forum, and the arts festival finally came to an end. Most of the official resolutions were predictably bland by the time they were presented, much less voted on. Most of the governments will act on them sparingly, if at all. Consequently, those women who went naively trusting that the formal U.N. procedures would be drastically altered by such a conference were bitterly disappointed. But those of us who went with no such illusions, and who put not our trust in patriarchs, were elated. Because what did not end at the closing sessions isthat incredible networking—the echoes of all those conversations, the exchanged addresses—and what that will continue to accomplish.

Robin Morgan (1981): Blood Types: An Anatomy of Kin, reprinted in The Word of a Woman: Feminist Dispatches 1968–1992, pp. 115–120.

Over My Shoulder #13: Jill Lepore’s New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan

You know the rules; here’s the quote. Lucky #13 was either airplane reading or bus reading; I don’t recall precisely what I was reading when. In either case, though, it’s from the Preface to Jill Lepore’s new book, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan. It’s the story of something that many of us know about, and some other things that almost all of us have forgotten, but need to remember. Thus:

This book tells the story of how one kind of slavery made another kind of liberty possible in eighteenth-century New York, a place whose past has long been buried. It was a beautiful city, a crisscross of crooked cobblestone streets boasting both grand and petty charms: a grassy park at the Bowling Green, the stone arches at City Hall, beech trees shading Broadway like so many parasols, and, off rocky beaches, the best oysters anywhere. I found it extremely pleasant to walk the town, one visitor wrote in 1748, for it seemed like a garden. But on this granite island poking out like a sharp tooth between the Hudson and East rivers, one in five inhabitants was enslaved, making Manhattan second only to Charleston, South Carolina, in a wretched calculus of urban unfreedom.

New York was a slave city. Its most infamous episode is hardly known today: over a few short weeks in 1741, ten fires blazed across the city. Nearly two hundred slaves were suspected of conspiring to burn every building and murder every white. Tried and convicted before the colony’s Supreme court, thirteen black men were burned at the stake. Seventeen more were hanged, two of their dead bodies chained to posts not far from the Negroes Burial Ground, left to bloat and rot. One jailed man cut his own throat. Another eighty-four men and women were sold into yet more miserable, bone-crushing slavery in the Caribbean. Two white men and two white women, the alleged ringleaders, were hanged, one of them in chains; seven more white men were pardoned on the condition that they never set foot in New York again.

What happened in New York in 1741 is so horrifying—Bonfires of the Negroes, one colonist called it—that it’s easy to be blinded by the brightness of the flames. But step back, let the fires flicker in the distance, and they cast their light not only on the 1741 slave conspiracy but on the American paradox, illuminating a far better known episode in New York’s past: the 1735 trial of the printer John Peter Zenger.

In 1732, a forty-two-year-old English gentleman named William Cosby arrived in New York, having been appointed governor by the king. New Yorkers soon learned, to their dismay, that their new governor ruled y a three-word philosophy: God damn ye. Rage at Cosby’s ill-considered appointment grew with his every abuse of the governorship. Determined to oust Cosby from power, James Alexander, a prominent lawyer, hired Zenger, a German immigrant, to publish an opposition newspaper. Alexander supplied scathing, unsigned editorials criticizing the governor’s administration; Zenger set the type. The first issue of Zenger’s New-York Weekly Journal was printed in November 1733. Cosby could not, would not abide it. He assigned Daniel Horsmanden, an ambitious forty-year-old Englishman new to the city, to a committee, charged with pointing out the particular Seditious paragraphs in Zenger’s newspaper. The governor then ordered the incendiary issues of Zenger’s newspaper burned, and had Zenger arrested for libel.

Zenger was tried before the province’s Supreme Court in 1735. His attorney did not deny that Cosby was the object of the editorials in the New-York Weekly Journal. Instead, he argued, first, that Zenger was innocent because what he printed was true, and second, that freedom of the press was especially necessary in the colonies, where other checks against governors’ powers were weakened by their distance from England. It was an almost impossibly brilliant defense, which at once defied legal precedent—before the Zenger case, truth had never been a defense against libel—and had the effect of putting the governor on trial, just what Zenger’s attorney wanted, since William Cosby, God damn him, was a man no jury could love. Zenger was acquitted. The next year, James Alexander prepared and Zenger printed A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger, which was soon after reprinted in Boston and London. It made Zenger famous.

But the trial of John Peter Zenger is merely the best-known episode in the political maelstrom that was early eighteenth-century New York. We are in the midst of Party flames, Daniel Horsmanden wrly observed in 1734, as Cosby’s high-handedness ignited the city. Horsmanden wrote in an age when political parties were considered sinister, invidious, and destructive of good government. As Alexander Pope put it in 1727, Party is the madness of many, for the gain of a few. Or, as Viscount St. John Bolingbroke remarked in his 1733 Dissertation upon Parties: The spirit of party … inspires animosity and breeds rancour. Nor did the distaste for parties diminish over the course of the century. In 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote: If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.

Parties they may have despised, but, with William Cosby in the governor’s office, New Yorkers formed them, dividing themselves between the opposition Country Party and the Court Party, loyal to the governor. Even Cosby’s death in March 1736 failed to extinguish New York’s Party flames. Alexander and his allies challenged the authority of Cosby’s successor, George Clarke, and established a rival government. Warned of a plot to seize his person or kill him in the Attempt, Clarke retreated to Fort George, at the southern tip of Manhattan, & put the place in a posture of Defence. In the eyes of one New Yorker, we had all the appearance of a civil War.

And then: nothing. No shots were fired. Nor was any peace ever brokered: the crisis did no so much resolve as it dissipated. Soon after barricading himself in Fort George, Clarke received orders from London confirming his appointment. The rival government was disbanded. By the end of 1736, Daniel Horsmanden could boast, Zenger is perfectly silent as to polliticks. Meanwhile, Clarke rewarded party loyalists: in 1737 he appointed Horsmanden to a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. But Clarke proved a more moderate man than his predecessor. By 1739, under his stewardship, the colony quieted.

What happened in New York City in the 1730s was much more than a dispute over the freedom of the press. It was a dispute about the nature of political opposition, during which New Yorkers briefly entertained the heretical idea that parties were not only necessary in free Government, but of great Service to the Public. As even a supporter of Cosby wrote in 1734, Parties are a check upon one another, and by keeping the Ambition of one another within Bounds, serve to maintain the public Liberty. And it was, equally, a debate about the power of governors, the nature of empire, and the role of the law in defending Americans against arbitrary authority—the kind of authority that constituted tyranny, the kind of authority that made men slaves. James Alexander saw himself as a defender of the rule of law in a world that, because of its very great distance from England, had come to be ruled by men. His opposition was not so much a failure as a particularly spectacular stretch of road along a bumpy, crooked path full of detours that, over the course of the century, led to American independence. Because of it, New York became infamous for its unruly spirit of independency. Clarke, shocked, reported to his superiors in England that New Yorkers believe if a Governor misbehave himself they may depose him and set up an other. the leaders of the Country Party trod very near to what, in the 1730s, went by the name of treason. A generation later, their sons would call it revolution.

In early 1741, less than two years after Clarke calmed the province, ten fires swept through the city. Fort George was nearly destroyed; Clarke’s own mansion, inside the fort, burned to the ground. Daniel Horsmanden was convinced that the fires had been set on Foot by some villainous Confederacy of latent Enemies amongst us, a confederacy that sounded a good deal like a violent political party. But which enemies? No longer fearful that Country Party agitators were attempting to take his life, Clarke, at Horsmanden’s urging, turned his suspicion on the city’s slaves. With each new fire, panicked white New Yorkers cried from street corners, The Negroes are rising! Early evidence collected by a grand jury appointed by the Supreme Court hinted at a vast and elaborate conspiracy: on the outskirts of the city, in a tavern owned by a poor and obscure English cobbler named John Hughson, tens and possibly hundreds of black men had been meeting secretly, gathering weapons and plotting to burn the city, murder every white man, appoint Hughson their king, and elect a slave named Caesar governor.

This political opposition was far more dangerous than anything led by James Alexander. The slave plot to depose one governor and set up another—a black governor—involved not newspapers and petitions but arson and murder. It had to be stopped. In the spring and summer of 1741, New York magistrates arrested 20 whies and 152 blacks. To Horsmanden, it seemed very probable that most of the Negroes in Town were corrupted. Eighty black men and one black woman confessed and named names, sending still more to the gallows and the stake.

That summer, a New Englander wrote an anonymous letter to New York. I am a stranger to you & to New York, he began. But he had heard of the bloody Tragedy afflicting the city: the relentless cycle of arrests, accusations, hasty trials, executions, and more arrests. This puts me in mind of our New England Witchcraft in the year 1692, he remarked, Which if I dont mistake New York justly reproached us for, & mockt at our Credulity about.

Here was no idle observation. The 1741 New York conspiracy trials and the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials had much in common. Except that what happened in New York in 1741 was worse, and has been almost entirely forgotten. In Salem, twenty people were executed, compared to New York’s thirty-four, and none were burned at the stake. However much it looks like Salem in 1692, what happened in New York in 1741 had more to do with revolution than witchcraft. and it is inseparable from the wrenching crisis of the 1730s, not least because the fires in 1741 included attacks on property owned by key members of the Court Party; lawyers from both sides of the aisle in the legal battles of the 1730s joined together to prosecute slaves in 1741; and slaves owned by prominent members of the Country Party proved especially vulnerable to prosecution.

But the threads that tie together the crises of the 1730s and 1741 are longer than the list of participants. The 1741 conspiracy and the 1730s opposition party were two faces of the same coin. By the standards of the day, both faces were ugly, disfigured, deformed; they threatened the order of things. But one was very much more dangerous than the other: Alexander’s political party plotted to depose the governor; the city’s slaves, allegedly, plotted to kill him. The difference made Alexander’s opposition seem, relative to slave rebellion, harmless, and in doing so made the world safer for democracy, or at least, and less grandly, both more amenable to and more anxious about the gradual and halting rise of political parties.

Whether enslaved men and women actually conspired in New York in 1741 is a question whose answer lies buried deep in the evidence, if it survives at all. It is worth excavating carefully. But even the specter of a slave conspiracy cast a dark shadow across the political landscape. Slavery was, always and everywhere, a political issue, but what happened in New York suggests that it exerted a more powerful influence on political life: slaves suspected of conspiracy constituted both a phantom political party and an ever-threatening revolution. In the 1730s and ’40s, the American Revolution was years away and the real emergence of political parties in the new United States, a fitful process at best, would have to wait until the last decade of the eighteenth century. (Indeed, one reason that colonists only embraced revolution with ambivalence and accepted parties by fits and starts may be that slavery alternately ignited and extinguished party flames: the threat of black rebellion made white political opposition palatable, even as it established its limits and helped heal the divisions it created.) But during those fateful months in the spring and summer of 1741, New York’s Court Party, still reeling from the Country Party’s experiments in political opposition, attempted to douse party flames by burning black men at the stake. New York is not America, but what happened in that eighteenth-century slave city tells one story, and a profoundly troubling one, of how slavery destabilized—and created—American politics.

— Jill Lepore (2005), New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (ISBN 1400040299). xii–xviii.