Frederick Douglass Chambersburg and Gettysburg PA Sites

A view of the John Brown House in Chambersburg, PA

A view of the John Brown House at 225 E. King St, Chambersburg, PA

Twelfth Day, Thursday March 31st

It’s breezy, overcast, and warm the day I drive south from Rochester to Washington D.C., with a first stop in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania to visit two sites of special interest for my Frederick Douglass journey.

The first is a two story clapboard house at 225 E. King St, where John Brown rented a room in Mary Ritner’s boarding house in the summer of 1859, and where he planned his doomed raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Unfortunately, I’m visiting during the off-season: the house is closed until the tourist season starts in May, but I find a blog with two nice photos of the interior posted. It happens to be a blog dedicated to Fredrick Law Olmsted, the great landscape architect who designed Highland Park, site of Frederick Douglass’ statue and memorial in Rochester.

Douglass had met Brown in September of 1847 while he was on a speaking tour, on the recommendation of other abolitionists. Brown had already developed a reputation as an especially fierce and dedicated one. In 1837, he had declared publicly “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.” By the time Brown met Douglass in 1847, he had already been engaged in activism for several years; for example, as you may remember from the account of my day in Lynn, MA, Brown used to speak at that town’s Sagamore Hall, which burned down in 1843, though there’s no evidence of their ever having met in Lynn. Brown invited Douglass to have dinner with him and his family in his plain, working-class Springfield Massachusetts home. He had started out as a tanner by trade, and after some financial failures, had become a successful merchant at that point. Douglass was at first surprised by the disparity between Brown’s ‘Spartan’ home, in such contrast to his prosperous-looking business office downtown, and then impressed by the fiery, righteous, single-minded, Biblically-minded (in the Old Testament sense) radical.

Douglass was still a pacifist Garrisonian at that time, but was as convinced as Brown that the political system was incapable of ending such an embedded, prejudice-ridden, and profitable (in certain contexts, such as the heavily agricultural South) system as slavery. Douglass and Brown likely had a lively discussion that evening in Springfield and on many occasions to follow, how slavery might be ended outside of the political system, and debated the relative merits of war and peace in reform. Brown visited Douglass at his South Avenue Rochester home on more than occasion and stayed with Douglass there awhile in early 1858 writing up a constitution for his planned mountain community of self-freed ex-slaves.

John Brown House (2) in Chambersburg, PA

Another view of the house where John Brown boarded in Chambersburg, PA

Douglass quoted Brown in his Life and Times as saying ‘God has given the strength of these [Alleghany] hills to freedom; they were placed here for the emancipation of the negro race; they are full of natural forts… The true object to be sought is first of all to destroy the money value of slave property… by rendering such property as insecure.’ So in 1847, he had already been planning to help slaves escape and remain free. In his remarks to Douglass, Brown displayed the fanaticism of the zealot in proclaiming that God not only ordained his plan, but placed just the right landscape right there where he could carry it out. But he also revealed his pragmatism and his business sense, which allowed him to astutely identify one of the bulwarks of slavery, the financial interests of a predominantly agricultural economy, then come up with a practical solution for undermining that bulwark. Slaves not only provided the necessary labor for these large farms, especially for labor-intensive crops like cotton, but were the dominant form of investment for Southern capitalists and living collateral for debt endemic to an agricultural economy. But if the financial incentive for slavery was removed by removing investment security, Brown thought, the institution would wither away.

Poster of Shields Green in David Anderson's Nazareth College office

Poster of Shields Green in David Anderson’s Nazareth College office

But as you may have thought many times up to this point, it’s time I stop referring to the Harper’s Ferry plan and raid before explaining what it was and how it all went down.

Douglass and Brown’s mutual friend Shields Green accompanied Douglass from Rochester to Chambersburg in August of 1859, in response to John Brown Jr’s appeal for personal and financial support for Brown Sr’s soon-to-be-enacted operation. It had been postponed the year before due to an opportunist who volunteered his services to the venture then blackmailed potential supporters with threats of reporting the conspiracy, which in the end, he did. Douglass, now a longtime supporter and friend of Brown’s and sympathetic to his overall project of helping slaves escape, wanted to find out how the plan was progressing, how it may have changed, and how much support it had gathered. Along the way, Douglass gave some lectures as a cover for the purpose of his trip to Chambersburg and collected funds for the venture.

Quarry site historical marker where Douglass and Brown met, Chambersburg, 2016 Amy Cools

Quarry site historical marker where Douglass and Brown met in Chambersburg, PA, in August of 1859

The old Quarry site is generally listed as the place where Southgate Mall now stands at W. Washington St, but that’s not quite where you find the historical marker, though it is nearby. To find the marker, go to the east end of the bridge where Lincoln Highway (30) crosses over Conococheague Creek, between Cedar Ave and S. Franklin St. Loudon St is the next street to the north of W. Washington, and a broad open parking lot runs along the creek between the two, behind what’s currently a Rent-A-Center.

Portrait of John Brown by Born Torrington in National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of John Brown by Ole Peter Hansen Balling, 1872, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC

Douglass met with Brown here, who was outfitted as a fisherman, a perfect disguise for a creekside meeting. They, along with Green, and Brown’s secretary John Kagi, sat on the rocks and discussed and argued about Brown’s plan for the raid, apparently all night, and continued to meet and discuss the raid over the next couple of days. Brown intended to seize and occupy the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, with the small force of 22 men he had convinced to fight with him, and hold it as a symbol of righteous revolt against an evil government which had betrayed and oppressed so many of its people. This, in turn, was intended to inspire courage and anger in the slave population, and spark a mass exodus from bondage. It’s easy to picture Brown, of the deepset eyes, lined face, and flowing beard, playing the part of the angry Moses. From what he heard of the plans now, which had come to sound very much like an outright rebellion, Douglass thought the raid would certainly fail by provoking an aggressive military response. He also feared that its failure would set back the abolitionist cause in the long term by provoking a political response to increase legal protections of slavery as well.

By this time, Douglass’ view on violence had shifted: he had come to accept that violence is sometimes necessary and justified if great enough injustices or harms are being done and if other means have been tried and failed. So it wasn’t the proposed violence alone that made him oppose the plan, it’s just that he thought this particular plan would fail. Though he refused to join the raid, he later spoke of John Brown as a martyr, and always had a high opinion of his moral integrity and courage. As David Anderson of Nazareth College discussed with me in our interview, Shields Green stayed behind to join Brown in the raid. Douglass described Green in his Life and Times as ‘a man of few words, and his speech was singularly broken; but his courage and self-respect made him quite a dignified character.’ ‘Dignified’: high praise from Douglass, who valued that quality so much and took great care to nurture and project it in his own person. Shields Green survived the raid, but was captured and executed ten days later. 

Both Brown and Douglass, as you can see if you read Brown’s own speech at his trial, and as you can gather from Douglass’ Life and Times discussion of Brown, insisted that the Harper’s Ferry plans all along were only to encourage individual slaves to escape, then provide the means to defend themselves and other escapees along the route east and north. They claimed that a general slave insurrection was never part of the plan. But as was the government’s position, it all looked very much intended to spark a rebellion. I would add, it would have been a justified one if one ever could be, far more justified than the United States’ original rebellion against the British. Systematized forced labor, wage theft, rape, child-stealing, complete disenfranchisement, imposition of hunger and thirst, beatings, and enforced ignorance is a more dire set of provocations than unpopular taxes imposed without sufficient representation, in my view.

Chambersburg Map of 1894, Old Jail, Franklin County Museum, 2016 A Cools

Chambersburg Map of 1894, from the Franklin County Museum in the Old Jail, 175 E. King St.

I make a brief stop in the Franklin County Museum in the Old Jail building right down the street from the John Brown house at 175 East King Street, where I find a nice map of old Chambersburg. The town was burned by a rogue contingent of the Confederate army on July 30, 1864 (some soldiers were horrified at the senselessness of this attack against civilians and did their best to help save lives and possessions), but the Old Jail and the John Brown House both survived.

I grab a cup of coffee and jot down some notes, then continue on my way east to Washington D.C. via (you may have guessed it) Gettysburg, about 35 minutes away. Though this place is central to the legacy of Douglass’ friend and hero Abraham Lincoln, the link to Douglass’ life and ideas is a little more indirect. But I find this fascinating essay by David Blight, noted Douglass scholar. It’s a perfect accompaniment for this account, since it so well explains how Lincoln’s and Douglass’ ideas converged ever more closely as the Civil War continued, and really ties the places and themes I explore in this day’s journey together very well. Here’s a selection from that essay:

‘…Lincoln asked Douglass to lead a scheme reminiscent of John Brown and Harpers Ferry. Concerned that if he were not reelected, the Democrats would pursue a negotiated, proslavery peace, Lincoln, according to Douglass, wanted “to get more of the slaves within our lines.” Douglass went North and organized some twenty-five agents who were willing to work at the front. In a letter to Lincoln on August 29, 1864, Douglass outlined his plan for a “band of scouts” channeling slaves northward. Douglass was not convinced that this plan was fully “practicable,” but he was ready to serve. Because military fortunes shifted dramatically with the fall of Atlanta, this government-sponsored underground railroad never materialized. But how remarkable this episode must have been to both Douglass and Lincoln as they realized they were working together now to accomplish the very “revolution” that had separated them ideologically in 1861. Garry Wills has argued that Lincoln performed a “verbal coup” that “revolutionized the revolution” at Gettysburg. By 1864, that performance reflected a shared vision of the meaning of the war. Ideologically, Douglass had become Lincoln’s alter ego, his stalking horse and minister of propaganda, the intellectual godfather of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural.’ – from ‘“Your Late Lamented Husband”: A Letter from Frederick Douglass to Mary Todd Lincoln

I arrive at Gettysburg, and it’s cloudy, a bit gusty, and dropping scattered rain, but not cold. The air feels soft, and the light’s getting a bit low.

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA

David Wills House where Lincoln stayed, Gettysburg PA, 2016 Amy Cools

David Wills House where Lincoln stayed in Gettysburg, PA, the night before he delivered his address

David Wills House historical marker, Gettysburg PA, 2016 Amy CoolsThe drive through the park is lovely, the grass is green, the park and its structures are beautifully maintained. I stop for a map, then head straight to the David Wills House. I arrive too late to go inside, however, though I do find another excellent blog, packed with photos of every part of the interior; scroll to the bottom of the page to find links to all of the posts in the series. Thanks, good people of the Gettysburg Daily!

Lincoln stayed the night before delivering the Gettysburg address, and likely gave it a final edit here. The house was packed with dignitaries and visitors here for the great event, the dedication of a national cemetery at the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Lincoln’s host David Wills was an attorney who had overseen the effort to recover the hastily buried bodies from the battlefield and re-inter them with more care at a specially dedicated Soldier’s National Cemetery to the east of the battlefield. This was no mean feat, as over 3,000 soldiers were killed in the Battle of Gettysburg, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863.

Lincoln’s address was not the only one delivered that day; orator Edward Everett’s was two hours long and well-received. But Lincoln’s brief speech, with its readily memorizable brevity and eloquence, made it the one that not only made it into most of the newspapers first, people could quote from it and recite it to one another straight away. And Lincoln’s high-pitched voice carried very well. Short but eloquent speeches had become a hallmark of Lincoln’s style, as had religious and dramatic themes which were very familiar to the public, references that resonated with them and could convey volumes in only a few well-chosen words. Lincoln had become, at this point, a masterful rhetorician, and his address transformed, for so many distraught and angry Americans, a senseless slaughter into a noble sacrifice.

The Gettysburg Address on the Wills House wall

The Gettysburg Address on the Wills House wall

David Wills House sign, Gettyburg, PA, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Gettysburg Train Depot, built in 1859, where Lincoln arrived on August 18th, 1863

Gettysburg Train Depot, built in 1859, where Lincoln arrived on November 18th, 1863

I head two blocks north to 35 Carlisle St, where the old Gettysburg Railroad Station still stands. Built in 1859, it also served as a field hospital and military transport during the Civil War. The Gettysburg Daily blog also includes a wealth of detailed photos of the Gettysburg depot and the original location of the tracks that Lincoln’s train rolled in on near dusk on November 18th, 1863.

Gettysburg Address historical marker at Gettysburg National Cemetery

Gettysburg Address historical marker at Gettysburg National Cemetery

My last site to visit for the day takes me about a mile south, from Baltimore Street to Steinwehr Avenue to Taneytown Rd, aka Highway 134. There’s a handsome but simple old stone wall, originally built in 1864 and restored in 1980. There’s a gate about three quarters of the way down on my left, and a parking lot across the street on my right. I’m so glad I’m not continuing my drive yet, it’s just too nice outside to be content in a car. The clouds have cleared a little, and the setting sun makes quite a show on the clouds still there on the horizon, and the rain has gone.

I enter the gate and find that Gettysburg National Cemetery is one of the most moving and beautiful monuments I have ever visited, more than I expected. The flowering trees are in bloom, in every shade of pink, white, and cream, among the evergreens and those which are still bare of leaves or buds. It’s peaceful in the low warm light of the evening.

Headstones in Gettysburg National Cemetery

Headstones in Gettysburg National Cemetery

Headstones in Gettysburg National Cemetery (2), photo 2016 Amy Cools

Soldiers National Monument, Gettysburg National Cemetery, photo by Henry Hartley, shared under Creative Commons Lic. 2.0

Soldiers National Monument, Gettysburg National Cemetery, photo by Henry Hartley, shared under Creative Commons License. 2.0

The sun in sinking fast, and the gates will be closing soon. I could continue my way down the path which winds around to my left to the tall white stone Soldiers National Monument, near the site where Lincoln delivered his address. But it’s a ways down and in the interests of time, I decide to start with a closer monument, to the right after you enter the gate. It’s a monument dedicated to the Gettysburg Address itself. The taller central stone is fronted by a strongly executed bust of Lincoln, flanked by two large plaques on the curved sides carved with stars and ceremonial hatchets. One plaque contains the Address, the other contains a selection from David Will’s letter to Lincoln, inviting him to participate in the dedication ceremony and to make some remarks. The letter was sent to Lincoln only 17 days before the ceremony, and scholars debate on the significance of the last-minute invitation. National cemeteries were a new thing, run by the states, and their dedications were usually officiated over by more local dignitaries; Wills may have thought it unlikely that the President, burdened with war cares, would be able to make it, only fully realizing Gettysburg’s true political significance as the event day drew near. In any case, Lincoln did grasp it, and contrary to popular mythology, prepared his remarks very carefully, as was his wont.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address Memorial at Soldier's National Cemetery

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address Memorial at Soldier’s National Cemetery

I find I’ve been lingering for awhile, and it’s closing time. I’m reluctant to go, but I suppose it’s for the best. I’m hungry and I don’t want to be searching for my lodgings late at night. So I continue the two hours further south to Washington D.C., looking forward to my next day’s adventures after a good night’s sleep.

Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunesLooking out of the Gettysburg National Cemetery gate, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

 

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and Inspiration:

An Official Invitation to Gettysburg.’ American Treasures of the Library of Congress online exhibition

Blight, David W. ‘“Your Late Lamented Husband”: A Letter from Frederick Douglass to Mary Todd Lincoln‘. In The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website

Brown, John. ‘Address of John Brown to the Virginia Court…‘, Boston, Massachusetts, circa December, 1859. On The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website

Burning of Chambersburg Historical Marker.Explore PA History website

The Cotton Economy in the South‘. American Eras, 1997, c. Gale Research Inc, via Encyclopedia.com

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Re-published 1993, Avenal, New York: Gramercy Books, Library of Freedom series.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Franklin County Historical Society: ‘Old Jail‘ and ‘John Brown House (Ritner Boarding House)‘, website

Gettyburg Daily, assorted articles on the David Wills House, Abraham Lincoln, and Gettysburg (scroll down to see list)

Gettysburg Lincoln Railroad Station‘, Destination Gettysburg Philadelphia website

Gettysburg National Cemetery‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

John Brown (abolitionist)‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Linder, Douglas. ‘The Trial of John Brown: A Chronology.’ Famous Trials, an educational and non-commercial site maintained at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School

McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

The Register of the Lynn Historical Society, Volumes 8-12, by Lynn Historical Society

Resisting Slavery: St. John’s Congregational Church.’ in Our Plural History, a project of Springfield Technical Community College, MA

Rodríguez, Arlene. ‘Resisting Slavery: John Brown‘. in Our Plural History, a project of Springfield Technical Community College, MA

Shields Green‘. In Ohio History Central

The United States v. John Brown (all articles), 2010. University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law website

Wills, Garry. ‘The Words That Remade America: The Significance of the Gettysburg Address.’ Adapted from his book of the same name for The Atlantic, 2012

Happy Birthday, Jean-Jacques Rousseau! / O.P. Recommends …Rousseau on Nature, Wholeness and Education by Michele Erina Doyle and Mark K. Smith

Jean-Jacque Rousseau's Tomb in the Parthenon, Paris, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s tomb in the crypt of the Parthenon, Paris, which I visited in 2015 during my travels there following the life and ideas of Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson in Paris

I found this article I really enjoyed, called Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Nature, Wholeness and Education by Michele Erina Doyle and Mark K. Smith, and thought I’d share it with you in honor of his birthday. I regret I ran out of time to write an original one, but Doyle and Smith’s is excellent and I’m so glad to have discovered it! You’ll also find links below to more great resources to introduce you to the life and ideas of this strange and interesting man.

The article begins, ‘Why should those concerned with education study Rousseau? He had an unusual childhood with no formal education. He was a poor teacher. Apparently unable to bring up his own children, he committed them to orphanages soon after birth. At times he found living among people difficult, preferring the solitary life. What can such a man offer educators? The answer is that his work offers great insight. Drawing from a broad spectrum of traditions including botany, music and philosophy, his thinking has influenced subsequent generations of educational thinkers – and permeates the practice of informal educators. His book Émile was the most significant book on education after Plato’s Republic, and his other work had a profound impact on political theory and practice, romanticism and the development of the novel….’ Read more:

Learn more about Rousseau:

Bertram, Christopher, ‘Jean Jacques Rousseau‘. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Cranston, Maurice. ‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Swiss-Born French Philosopher.’ In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Delaney, James J. ‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (1712—1778)‘, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Doyle, Michele Erina and Mark K. Smith (2007) ‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Nature, Wholeness and Education’, from The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education

West, Steven. Three episodes from the Philosophize This! podcast: Rousseau Government Pt. 1, Rousseau pt. 2, and Rousseau pt. 3 – The General Will

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Grace Lee Boggs! Bio and Book Review by Ashley Farmer

Grace Lee Boggs, By Kyle McDonaldm creativecommons.orglicensesby2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped“The Power And Importance Of Ideas:” Grace Lee Boggs’s Revolutionary Vision”

In the opening lines of her autobiography, Living for Change, Grace Lee Boggs remarked: “Had I not been born female and Chinese American, I would not have realized from early on that fundamental changes were necessary in our society.”[1] A daughter of Chinese immigrants born in 1915, who, by her account, became a philosopher in her 20s and an activist in her 30s, Boggs remains one of the greatest radical theorists of the twentieth century.

Born in Rhode Island, Boggs spent her childhood in New York City, working in the two restaurants her father owned in Times Square. At the age of 16, she left home to attend Barnard College, and afterward, Bryn Mawr, where she earned a PhD in Philosophy in 1940. Philosophers like Hegel helped her “see [her] own struggle for meaning as part of the continuing struggle of the individual to become part of the universal struggle for Freedom.”[2] Boggs moved to Chicago in 1940. She began working with the South Side Tenants Organization set up by the Workers Party, a Trotskyist group that had split off from the Socialist Workers Party. Her time in the Windy City proved transformative. For the first time she was talking and working with the black community, getting a first-hand sense of what it meant to live within the confines of segregation and discrimination, and learning how to participate in grassroots organizing.[3]

It was also during her tenure with the Workers Party that she met Caribbean radical C.L.R. James, and began a “theoretical and practical collaboration that would last twenty years.”[4] As part of a small wing of the workers Party led by James and Raya Dunayevskaya, Boggs became a leading theoretician, co-authoring texts like State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950). Through James, she came into contact with a number of black writers and activists who expanded her perspective. She relocated to Detroit in 1953, where she would organize with, and marry, James (Jimmy) Boggs.

During the 1950s, Boggs, “mainly listened and learned” to the black activists around her in an effort to better understand the black condition. It would take several years before she decided that she had been “living in the black community long enough to play an active role in the Black Power Movement that was emerging organically in a Detroit where blacks were becoming the majority.”[5] Living and working in what was considered to be an epicenter of black radicalism, Boggs engaged in a combination of theorizing and protesting, authoring texts with James Boggs, meeting and organizing with Malcolm X, and mentoring young radicals like Muhammad Ahmad (Max Stanford), leader of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM).

Her liberation theory was grounded in her study of philosophy and honed through her experiences organizing with and for black communities. It was also constantly evolving. Boggs emphasized dialectical thinking, arguing that reality is ever changing and that we must “constantly be aware of the new and more challenging contradictions that drive change.”[6] This reciprocal process drove her expansive vision of revolution. In her final book, The Next American Revolution, she explained her latest concept of revolution:

The next American Revolution, at this stage in our history, is not principally about jobs or health insurance or making it possible for more people to realize the American Dream of upward mobility. It is about acknowledging that we as Americans have enjoyed middle-class comforts at the expense of other peoples all over the world. It is about living the kind of lives that will not only slow down global warming but also end the galloping inequality both inside this country and between the Global North and Global South. It is about creating a new American Dream whose goal is a higher Humanity instead of the higher standard of living dependent on Empire.[7]

Boggs consistently offered a holistic vision of revolution and concrete steps through which to build it. She argued that achieving this goal meant more than organizing or mobilizing to petition the state or “changing the color of political power,” but rather growing food, reinventing education, developing Peace Zones in local neighborhoods, and creating restorative justice programs. She saw the seeds of revolution everywhere and showed us how, by practicing dialectical thinking, breaking down divides and categories, and building on rather than replicating older political models, we might “grow our souls.” She mirrored this in her own life, constantly “combining activity and reflection.”[8] Her willingness to do the work, her ability to listen and learn from black activists, her commitment to living in the communities in which she organized, and her openness to revising her politics, and values, made her an effective life-long ally of the black community and theoretician of liberation and revolution.

As she noted, often, “in the excitement of an emerging movement, we tend to want to be part of the action, and we underestimate the power and importance of the ideas in our heads and hearts.”[9] Upon her death, it’s important to revisit the ideas in her head. She left us a roadmap for revolution through ideas and action, one that anyone could be a part of if they were clear about the stakes of the transformation and that fundamental change is necessary.

~ Ashley Farmer is an historian of African-American women’s history. Her research interests include women’s history, gender history, radical politics, intellectual history, and black feminism. She earned a BA in French from Spelman College, an MA in History from Harvard University, and a PhD in African American Studies from Harvard University. She is currently a Provost Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at Duke University. In August 2016, she will be an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and the African American Studies Program at Boston University. This bio and more about Ms. Farmer are to be found at her personal website

~ Originally published at the African American Intellectual History Society blog, republished under the Creative Commons license

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), xi.

[2] Ibid., 30-31.

[3] Ibid., 36.

[4] Ibid., 43. James and Boggs “went their separate ways in 1962.”

[5] Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 66.

[6] Ibid., 62.

[7] Ibid., 72.

[8] Ibid., 164.

[9] Ibid., 80.

Happy Birthday, Aimé Césaire!

Aimé Fernand David Césaire, photo credit manomerci.comAimé-Fernand-David Césaire was a poet, playwright, philosopher, and politician from Martinique. In his long life (1913-2008), Césaire accomplished much in each of these roles, a rare feat as they rarely coincide in one person!

In turn mayor of Fort-de-France, deputy to the French National Assembly for Martinique, and President of the Regional Council of Martinique, this prolific writer and intellectual was also co-founder of Négritude, a ‘literary movement of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s that began among French-speaking African and Caribbean writers living in Paris as a protest against French colonial rule and the policy of assimilation.’ (Encyclopædia Britannica). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Négritude as ‘the self-affirmation of black peoples, or the affirmation of the values of civilization of something defined as “the black world” as an answer to the question “what are we in this white world?”’. The term was chosen so as to be provocative, a way of re-claiming the word nègre, which had become a racial slur, while simultaneously shocking those who heard or read it into paying attention. Through his philosophy, political writing, and especially his poetry and plays, the world pays attention still.

Learn more about the great Aimé Césaire through the resources below; an excellent place to start is with Meredith Goldsmith’s article from The Poetry Foundation.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Aime Cesaire‘. In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Chidi, Sylvia Lovina. The Greatest Black Achievers in History, chapter 1

Diagne, Souleymane Bachir, ‘Négritude‘. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Goldsmith, Meredith. ‘Aimé Fernand Césaire‘, 1913–2008. In The Poetry Foundation

 

Happy Birthday, W.V.O. Quine!

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine (cropped)

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine

The emphases in my own education in philosophy were Ethics, Politics, and Law, so I didn’t spend as much time studying Willard Van Orman Quine’s great contributions to philosophy as I would like. However, if my focus was Mathematical Logic, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, or Philosophy of Science, I would have spent a lot of time with the prodigious output of his remarkable intelligence. But one of his important observations is brought up in introductory philosophy classes generally, an epistemological (having to do with knowledge) quandary: Given that science continuously makes new discoveries, sometimes in the process overturning and replacing earlier theories, how can we ever say that we actually know anything about the world? Science relies on the fact that all theories are subject to revision, expansion, and being proved wrong. Does this mean, then, there’s no such thing as knowledge, since, in theory, anything we claim to know may be disproved by later discoveries?

For Quine, there is no dividing line between science and philosophy; they are interconnected ways of discovering and understanding the world. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, Quine ‘denies that there is a distinctively philosophical standpoint, which might, for example, allow philosophical reflection to prescribe standards to science as a whole. He holds that all of our attempts at knowledge are subject to those standards of evidence and justification which are most explicitly displayed, and most successfully implemented, in the natural sciences. This applies to philosophy as well as to other branches of knowledge.’ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says further, ‘…Quine often appeals to [Otto] Neurath’s metaphor of science as a boat, where changes need to be made piece by piece while we stay afloat, and not when docked at port. He further emphasizes that both the philosopher and scientist are in the same boat (1960, 3; 1981, 72, 178). The Quinean philosopher then begins from within the ongoing system of knowledge provided by science, and proceeds to use science in order to understand science. …his use of the term “science” applies quite broadly referring not simply to the ‘hard’ or natural sciences, but also including psychology, economics, sociology, and even history (Quine 1995, 19; also see Quine 1997). But a more substantive reason centers on his view that all knowledge strives to provide a true understanding of the world and is then responsive to observation as the ultimate test of its claims…’

Oh, and he played the mandolin and piano, and learned a lot of languages just so he could deliver his lectures in the native language of the audience. Whatta guy!

For more about the great W.V.O. Quine, please visit the excellent sources below; a good place to start is the New York Times article.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Hylton, Peter, ‘Willard van Orman Quine‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Sinclair, Robert. ‘Willard Van Orman Quine: Philosophy of Science‘, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine. In The Basics of Philosophy: A huge subject broken down into manageable chunks

Willard Van Orman Quine. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000: Philosopher and Mathematician. Website

W. V. Quine, Philosopher Who Analyzed Language and Reality, Dies at 92.’ New York Times, Dec 29, 2000

Affirmative Action and Balance

Justice et inégalité - les plateaux de la balance by Frachet, Jan 2010, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsThe recent Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, et al., was a cautious but significant one in favor of affirmative action. As Adam Liptak writes in his New York Times article ‘Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action Program at University of Texas‘, while ‘not all affirmative action programs will pass constitutional muster… the ruling’s basic message was that admissions officials may continue to consider race as one factor among many in ensuring a diverse student body.’

This opposes the central tenet of affirmative action opposition: admission to universities can only be based on merit, which in turn is determined mainly by grades buttressed by the quality of relative achievements; therefore, only color-blind admissions criteria are just and fair.

But as we all well know, educational institutions have been generally the purview of the wealthy, the connected, and the white for most of our history. Opponents of affirmative action say the only way to correct this historic injustice is to remove considerations of race and wealth in the admissions process itself, relying on other methods of promoting equal opportunity in education so as to make historically disadvantaged groups equally capable of high test scores and advanced achievement.

But I don’t agree, and am a proponent of some types of affirmative action, including the University of Texas’ well-designed and balanced method, for many reasons.

For one, some sort of affirmative action appears necessary to balance the historical wrongs of our educational system. I picture a classic scale, with a neutral, color-blind system based on merit alone as its fulcrum. For most of our history, the weights of racial, social, and economic privilege were piled almost entirely on one end. If the weights hadn’t been placed all at one end over time, then sure, color-blind admissions criteria might be fine. Opponents of affirmative action argue that the balance has already been corrected by other methods, such as a free public educational system, anti-discrimination laws, certain welfare and scholarship programs, and so on. But if it’s really been balanced, why the continued disparity in outcomes, within the schools and in relative chances of success after graduation in so many arenas of life? Putting the idea that some races are just naturally more gifted and capable of achievement than others aside for the moment, which I’ll consider shortly and (spoiler alert!) reject, the failure of equality in outcomes strongly suggest that color-blind policies don’t balance it all out. I think they are again, at best, the fulcrum of the scale, the default position. But the fact that race, money, and connections have been piled on one end over the centuries can’t be undone, so the balance can’t be reached by simply removing the weight of history. The weights with which to balance the other side are also selective policies, this time favoring those who are not part of historically advantaged groups, such as the wealthy, connected, and white. Of course, merit must count, as it’s always done; it would be a disservice to students to remove the challenge and expectation of excellence that propel learning and achievement, and this Supreme Court agrees. But it’s become clear that test-based merit can’t be the only consideration if we wish to right the balance.

To return to the idea that some racial and ethnic groups are naturally more intelligent or capable of advanced achievement than others: this claim has been shown by science and history to be deeply flawed, to say the least. All racial and ethnic groups have produced too many individuals of great intellectual ability and advanced achievement to make this claim convincing to anyone but the most hardened racists, and civilizations throughout history, made of up people of all races, have taken turns outperforming others in innovation and intellectual advances throughout world history. While test scores have shown that many racial and ethnic groups do, at times, perform lower on tests, the results change dramatically as the social circumstances of the test-takers do. If the ability to score high on tests is changeable, then it’s not likely to be simply genetic. And this is assuming that performance on such tests is the same thing, or a direct predictor of, merit as it relates to education, which is a huge and I think unjustifiable assumption, but this is a topic outside of the scope of this essay.

Furthermore, studies have also shown us is that student success and failure can depend not only intelligence and socioeconomic background, but on expectations of success on the part of teachers, of families, of communities, and most importantly, of the students themselves. To claim that a student has an equal opportunity to succeed whether or not they are part of a student body that includes a significant number of others like them, racially or otherwise, is untenable. There are a few particularly individualistic personalities who can and do achieve highly despite isolation on campus, despite racism, classicism, legal discrimination, and so forth. But as members of a highly social species, most human beings rely much more on the opinions of their fellow human beings, and on feelings of companionship and belonging. And when a student looks around campus and sees few or no-one like them, it’s unlikely they’ll expect to succeed where those like themselves have not.

The Supreme Court recognizes this simple fact: color-blind admissions programs are not always just in a society that’s not and never has been color-blind. Admissions programs admit real students into real campuses where they help prepare them for success in the real world – an often racist world. If an admissions program doesn’t succeed in making a campus look like an institution of a free and democratic society which values opportunity for all, it’s unlikely it could be a just and fair one.

Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Affirmative Action: Court Decisions.’ National Conference of State Legislatures website

Booth, Margaret Zoller and Jean M. Gerard. Self-esteem and academic achievement: a comparative study of adolescent students in England and the United States, Sept 2011

The Black-White Test Score Gap. Edited by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips,
Brookings Institution Press, 1998.

Lindsey, Brink. ‘Why People Keep Misunderstanding the ‘Connection’ Between Race and IQ.’ The Atlantic, MAY 15, 2013

Liptak, Adam. ‘Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action Program at University of Texas‘. The New York Times, June 23, 2016

Tauber, Robert T. Classroom Management: Sound Theory and Effective Practice. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007

New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass Seneca Falls, Canandaigua, Honeoye, and Mt Hope Cemetery Sites

Women's Rights National Historical Park headquarters, Seneca Falls NY

Women’s Rights National Historical Park headquarters, Seneca Falls NY

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Eleventh day, Tuesday March 30th

It’s a beautiful, clear sunny day, and the chill of the morning gives way to a balmy afternoon. I drive about an hour east and slightly to the south, through the lovely Finger Lakes region of New York to Seneca Falls.

I’m here to visit what’s now the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, which is headquartered at 136 Fall Street in Seneca Falls. I begin with the reconstructed Wesleyan Church next door at Fall and Mynderse Streets, the site of that momentous occasion which brings me here. I’ve long wanted to visit this place and had hoped to do so during my history of ideas travel series about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but didn’t have enough time during that trip to make the journey, about a five hour drive from New York City one-way. But here I am at long last…. Read the written account here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!