O.P. Recommends: Patrick Deneen and Ezra Klein Discuss the Failures (and Successes?) of Liberalism

‘The Liberal Deviseth Liberal Things,’ memorial at St Bernard’s Well on the Water of Leith

I have not yet read the book and it may be some time before I get the opportunity, but as is the case so often these days as I work towards my doctorate degree, I rely on discussions with authors to keep up with what’s happening out there in the world of ideas. This little review is, therefore, of the ideas expressed in the context of this discussion only, not of those discussed in the context of the book.

Yesterday morning, as I walked to a class, I listened to this particularly fascinating discussion on Ezra Klein’s podcast: Patrick Deneen says liberalism has failed. Is he right?

Klein and Deneen base their discussion, in part, around the origins of classical liberal thinking, which include John Locke’s thought experiment regarding humankind ‘in the state of nature.’ This is the state of being prior to or outside civil government, and is a way to puzzle out which rights, if any, human beings have according to nature rather than according to civil law. Deneen points out, rightly I think, that this thought experiment is so artificial, so divorced from the actual reality of human nature, that it might lead to misleading results. Human nature, in fact, is bound up in ties to family, friends, society, the political sphere, and so on. To derive rights from the nature of the rootless individual is to derive them from a nature that is, well, not fully human. Liberalism, as Deneen defines it, is the prioritization of the rights and interests of the individual above all else, and points out that this is the central project of both the liberal and conservative parties of the United States. For the former, the personal and expressive life of the individual should suffer little interference from the state, and for the latter, the economic choices of the individual should suffer little such interference. Of course, this is a very rough characterization of the left-and-right political divide, and I suspect that Deneen would agree with my own observation that many on both sides of the political divide no longer seem to adhere very closely to these general principles.

As Klein points out, though there’s much to critique in Deneen’s views, his discussion of why so many people in liberal societies suffer loneliness, depression, alienation, addiction, suicide, and other ills, is often insightful and timely throughout. Deneen sees these as inevitable results of societal values that promote the rights and interests of the individual without sufficient, healthy checks on the single-minded pursuit of individual satisfaction and fulfillment. Human beings intimate ties to others to be happy and healthy, and it appears that without the corrective of social and spiritual concerns, the thoroughly liberal person (again, as Deneen defines it) may very well end up enslaved to the whims and vagaries of appetites, often unhealthy ones, unmoored from personal values or love and loyalty to others.

I consider myself more of a political liberal in many respects, and I felt myself recognizing that some of my reasons echo Deneen’s sentiments. For one, I believe that inherent to the ethos of personal responsibility, often cited as a core value of western conservatism, is taking individual responsibility for behaviors that contribute to larger problems. Further, if individuals continue to behave in a way that significantly erodes the healthy functioning of individuals, families, and societies, then people might have the right to demand that others change their behavior. For example, the degradation of ecosystems that sustain life, health, and happiness through thoughtless over-consumption is, then, it seems to me as it does to Deneen, at least as important a social issue as it is a moral and spiritual one. This is only one of the many matters on which Deneen, in this discussion, offers a timely and well-considered critique of many of the mores and practices the western world takes for granted.

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Happy Birthday, Philippa Foot!

‘Philippa Foot [, born on October 3rd, 1920, was] a philosopher who argued that moral judgments have a rational basis, and who introduced the renowned ethical thought experiment known as the Trolley Problem…’ William Grime’s New York Times obituary of this philosopher, far less widely known than she is influential, is an excellent introduction to the life and ideas of the brilliant Foot.

You can also learn more about Philippa Foot at

Is Goodness Natural? Philippa Foot was one of a group of brilliant women philosophers who swam against the tide of 20th-century moral thought ~ by Nakul Krishna for Aeon

Philippa Foot ~ by Martin L. White for Encyclopædia Britannica

Philippa Foot ~ Interview by Rick Lewis for Philosophy Now, conducted in the autumn of 2001

Philippa Foot (1920-2010) ~ by Lawrence Solum for Legal Theory Blog

Philippa Foot Obituary: A ‘Grande Dame of Philosophy’, She Pioneered Virtue Ethics – by Jane O’Grady for The Guardian, October 5th, 2010

Philippa Foot: Trolleys and Natural Goodness ~ by Edward Harcourt for Prospect magazine, Oct 7, 2010

Professor Philippa Foot: Philosopher Regarded as Being Among the Finest Moral Thinkers of the Age ~ by Peter J Conradi and Gavin Lawrence for The Independent, Oct 18th, 2010

and a multitude of citations in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries

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Happy Birthday, Mahatma Gandhi!

Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn in the late 1920's. Gandhi started the ultimate 'Shop Local' movement, in which he called on his fellow Indians to wear only homespun, locally made fabrics to counteract the British colonialist's exploitation of Indian textile worker

Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn in the late 1920’s. Gandhi started the ultimate ‘Shop Local’ movement in which he called on his fellow Indians to wear only homespun, locally made fabrics to counteract British colonialist’s policies which impoverished and nearly destroyed India’s textile industry. I founded an apparel and accessory line and boutique in the early 2000’s based on the same principles, carrying only locally and US-made products as an alternative to buying goods made in overseas sweatshops whose workers were unprotected by labor laws. Gandhi’s and my own approach were nationalistic and protectionist, which I no longer believe goes far enough in promoting equal human rights for all. While such approaches may be a good place to start in some circumstances, a better way to go about improving the lives and prospects of workers around the world is to require our governments to institute more comprehensive labor laws and rigorously enforce them. This must include holding companies responsible for the abuses of their contractors, of course, to actually be effective. But Gandhi did, I think, point us down the right path, towards consciousness about what we buy, why we buy it, and how our market decisions effect others.

There are very few non-Americans, outside of our mother country of Britain and our godmother France, who have had a greater impact on the history of the United States and our attitudes towards human rights than the incomparable Mahatma Gandhi. For someone who preached simplicity, often wearing nothing but a loincloth, weaving his own fabric, and living a severely rustic lifestyle to exemplify his own teachings, Gandhi was a very complicated person.

He was a human rights activist, politician, journalist, social and religious reformer, and to many, a sort of messiah. Originally a British loyalist, Gandhi’s studies and personal observations led him to change his own views, often radically, many times over the course of his long life. His beliefs in the revolutionary and morally suasive power of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance were and continue to be particularly influential in the United States, beginning with the mid-20th century civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr, Gandhi’s intellectual and spiritual descendant, emerged as the leader of this movement following his role in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. King’s and Gandhi’s ideas about the civil disobedience and non-violence, in turn, both incorporate Henry David Thoreau’s ideas from his landmark essay ‘Civil Disobedience’.

Here are excerpts on Gandhi’s influence on the American civil rights movement from the encyclopedia of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University:

‘Upon his death, Mohandas K. Gandhi was hailed by the London Times as ‘‘the most influential figure India has produced for generations’’ (‘‘Mr. Gandhi’’). Gandhi protested against racism in South Africa and colonial rule in India using nonviolent resistance. A testament to the revolutionary power of nonviolence, Gandhi’s approach directly influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., who argued that the Gandhian philosophy was ‘‘the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom’’ (Papers 4:478)…

Gandhi was born 2 October 1869, in Porbandar, in the western part of India, to Karamchand Gandhi, chief minister of Porbandar, and his wife Putlibai, a devout Hindu. At the age of 18, Gandhi began training as a lawyer in England. After completing his barrister’s degree he returned to India in 1891, but was unable to find well-paid work. In 1893, he accepted a one-year contract to do legal work for an Indian firm in South Africa, but remained for 21 years. It was in South Africa that Gandhi was first exposed to official racial prejudice, and where he developed his philosophy of nonviolent direct action by organizing the Indian community there to oppose race-based laws and socioeconomic repression.

Gandhi returned to India in 1914. In 1919, British authorities issued the Rowlatt Acts, policies that permitted the incarceration without trial of Indians suspected of sedition. In response, Gandhi called for a day of national fasting, meetings, and suspension of work on 6 April 1919, as an act of satyagraha (literally, truth-force or love-force), a form of nonviolent resistance. He suspended the campaign of nonviolent resistance a few days later because protestors had responded violently to the police.

Within the next few years, Gandhi reshaped the existing Indian National Congress into a mass movement promoting Indian self-rule through a boycott of British goods and institutions…’ (Continue reading)

I’ve included a list of links of many excellent online sources on Gandhi below, including journalist and social critic Christopher Hitchen’s critique. Gandhi did, at times, express ideas and make decisions that many regard as problematic to this day, such as his early rhetoric on black Africans and his relations with some of the women in his life, including his wife Kasturba. Gandhi was no plaster saint: like the rest of us, he struggled to find truth and meaning in a world of mutually contradictory yet worthy-seeming values, principles, and goals; sometimes, like the rest of us, he didn’t get it right, and sometimes, he was very, very wrong. True understanding, I believe, is never reached through uncritical hero worship, even of one as influential, internationally revered, and I believe ultimately beneficial to the intellectual, activist, and political history of human rights as Gandhi.

Appreciating Gandhi Through His Human Side ~ by Hari Kunzru for the New York Times‘ Books of the Times, Mar 29, 2011

Civil Disobedience ~ by Kimberley Brownlee for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Gandhi and Civil Disobedience ~ from the Constitutional Rights Foundation.

Gandhi the Philosopher: Better Known as the Face of Non-violent Protest, Gandhi Was Also a Surprising, Subtle Philosopher in the Stoic Tradition ~ by Richard Sorabji for Aeon

In Search of Gandhi ~ by Lalit Vachani, from BBC’s Radio Four Storyville Why Democracy? series

Life of Gandhi ~ a documentary by GandhiServe Foundation: Mahatma Gandhi Research and Media Service.

Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand (1869-1948) and India Trip (1959)two entries from Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Global Freedom Struggle: Encyclopedia of the MLK Research and Education Institute at Stanford University

Mohandas Gandhi ~ by Salman Rushdie for Time magazine, Apr 13, 1998

The Real Mahatma Gandhi: Questioning the Moral Heroism of India’s Most Revered Figure ~ by Christopher Hitchens for The Atlantic, July/August 2011 issue.

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Frederick Douglass in Newcastle upon Tyne, England

Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne banner in the Library of the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle, England

Wednesday, August 29th, 2018

Since my work on Frederick Douglass took me to the University of Edinburgh to live and study, I had expected to open my Douglass in the British Isles series in Edinburgh or at least one of the many cities in Scotland where Douglass traveled, lived, and worked. I have lots of that research already done and am raring to go. But there are some exciting things happening this fall and winter throughout Scotland in celebration of this bicentennial year of his birth that I’d like to include in my story, so I’m going to plan my trips around them and tell you all about that I’ve learned and experienced there. It just so happened, in the meantime, that I had the opportunity to travel to Newcastle for a couple of days. Since an especially important thing happened for Douglass in Newcastle, I decided to take the opportunity and start this series here.

I have a list of sites and events to explore for this story but my geographical information is very incomplete. So, I begin my inquiry at the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. It’s located in the Library on the top floor of the Great North Museum: Hancock at Newcastle University. I head east and north from Newcastle Central Station, taking my time and exploring a bit along the way. I know that this journey will take me to sites that are all pretty centrally located since Newcastle was much smaller then, later growing outwards from the older parts of town in all directions. I check out many of the city’s major historical structures, the Castle and its Black Gate, the Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas, remaining sections of its ancient city walls, and Grey’s Monument, making mental notes of the layout of old Newcastle along the way. I veer east from the monument and eventually, I approach the University from King’s Walk and admire the Arches, which access the Quadrangle from King’s Road across from the end of the King’s Walk. It’s a handsome red brick, three-story building with lovely details topped by a castellated decorative roof. It was erected in 1911 when this place of learning was still called Armstrong College. I turn right at the King’s Road and continue past campus buildings, ascending a short rise across the road where, to my left, I find a classical, clean-lined cream stone building with ‘The Hancock Museum’ engraved in the grey stone-edged roof. I pass museum case after museum case, exhibit after exhibit, of all manner of things with of scientific, historic, and cultural interest. I make a mental note to make time to return next time I’m in town.

The Arches, King’s Road, Newcastle University

A few floors up, I find a small cozy library stuffed with old histories, directories, and all manner of local records and documents. First another patron who, as she explains, spends a great deal of time in the collection, then the librarian, help me in my search. I’m here, first, to find out the precise locations of sites associated with Douglass in Newcastle. For three of them, I only have the name or description and the street that they’re on. For one of them, the street no longer exists under that name, so I’ll have to do some more digging. With the patron’s help, I locate an 1847 Newcastle directory. The directory gives me names and addresses of people associated with this story, but there are no maps or atlases to locate them on so that I can compare them with current street names and addresses. For maps, the librarian refers me to Newcastle City Library on New Bridge Street. It turns out to be an excellent resource, with a wealth of maps, directories, and more. By the time it comes to leave and rejoin my travel companion for dinner, I’ve gathered a good deal of information about the city, the places I’ve seen thus far, and the sites I’m seeking for my Douglass journey, though I have a bit more digging to do before I go and visit those sites tomorrow. On my way back, I chance to see a historical plaque, high up on near the corner of a building over a shop window, related to the stories I’m following. I make another mental note to return the next day, and I’ll tell you all about it then.

Summerhill Grove, looking east with Summerhill Park to the left, Newcastle

Thursday, August 30th, 2018

I begin my day with lots of coffee and more research, mostly online following up on yesterday’s discoveries at Newcastle City Library, and putting two and two together with previous Douglass research I’ve done. It’s a lovely day with a blue, puffy-cloud-scattered sky, balmy, with just enough coolness in the air to keep one from getting too warm on a brisk walk. I make my way north and east from the coffeeshop near Central Station, passing sections of the ancient city wall. At Westgate Road, I turn left. It’s a wide thoroughfare which takes me uphill past tree-lined Blandford Square and shops and eateries. At Elswick Road, I find I’ve overshot the mark a bit and make my way back west through a lovely old neighborhood. My destination, 5 Summerhill Grove, is on a quiet, pretty little street across from Summerhill Park. Part of the three-story red brick house is under repair, its left side fronted by scaffolding.

Frederick Douglass plaque at 5 Summerhill Grove, Newcastle

There’s a round black plaque to the right of the doorway. Placed by the City of Newcastle upon Tyne, it’s dedicated to Frederick Douglass. It commemorates the time he stayed here with the Richardson family, who spearheaded the effort to ‘formally buy his freedom in 1846.’ This was the home of Anna and Henry Richardson. Anna, her husband Henry, and his sister Ellen were abolitionists who aided others who had escaped from slavery as well. In addition to welcoming Douglass into their home and raising the money to purchase his freedom, they did the same for Douglass’ abolitionist colleague, fellow self-liberated slave, and fellow author William Wells Brown.

The Richardsons’ and their fellow abolitionists’ payment to Hugh Auld for Douglass’ freedom was controversial. Many abolitionists and fellow self-liberated slaves believed that buying Douglass’ freedom was tantamount to participating in the slave trade and acted as a tacit recognition of the legitimacy of trafficing in human flesh, regardless of intentions. Abolitionist and fellow activist in the ‘Send Back the Money!’ campaign Henry C. Wright made these arguments in a strong letter of rebuke to Douglass for accepting these arrangements on his behalf. Douglass responded affectionately but firmly to Wright. As Douglass saw it, this payment was no different in kind to the payment of a ransom or handing over money to an armed robber. The fault was not with those who pay such forms of ransom, the fault was with those who extorted money so that their fellow human beings could enjoy the life and freedom they were naturally entitled to.

Frederick Douglass inscription to Ellen Richardson, 1860, in a copy of My Bondage and My Freedom in the Fliegelman Collection at Stanford University (image credit S.U.)

The Richardsons were a well-to-do Quaker family who dedicated themselves to all manner of religious and moral societies and causes including antislavery and temperance work, making goods available not produced through slave labor, education for poor and working-class children, and religious improvement. Anna also visited prisons to offer cheer, comfort, and spiritual support. The Richardsons and their extended family, women and men alike, took leading roles in the church; for example, Ellen was an Elder for a time until her failing eyesight made it too difficult to fulfill that role. In accordance with Quaker beliefs, the women of the family were well-educated and very active in religious and public life even as they were responsible for keeping a well-run family home. Though city directories list mostly male members of the Richardson family as prominent members of religious and moral societies, Jonathan Mood of the University of Durham describes Anna, Ellen, and other women in the family as generally even more involved, especially in the correspondence and day to day running of things.

Like many others who benefited from their good works and generosity, Douglass never forgot what the Richardson family had done for him. In 1860, he sent Ellen a copy of his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom, dedicating it to her as his ‘friend and benefactress.’

5 Summerhill Grove in its row of houses, red brick with cream and white trim, Newcastle, England

Anna Richardson of Newcastle, image via Newcastle ChronicleLive.co.uk

5 Summerhill Grove, with scaffolding, Newcastle

I find the door of the house ajar, with a large black extension cord passed over the doorsill. I ring the doorbell, but there’s no answer. I knock and call, but still, no answer. Since the door’s open and there’s construction work apparently going on, it seems to me at first that the house is unoccupied. I enter and stop in the foyer, again calling out again to announce my presence and ask if I could take a look around. But only a few seconds reveal that, though the door was open and new appliances are in the foyer awaiting installation, the house appears to be occupied, or soon to be. From where I stand, it’s an attractive home with a high foyer, steep winding stairway through tall-ceilinged stories, and well-cared-for old wood floors. I can see, through an open door, a large windowed entryway to a sunny, tree-filled back garden. It looks like a cozy, cheerful home with lots of natural light. My history detective instincts have me agog with curiosity but since I’m still unable to discover anyone here after a few more calls and rings of the doorbell, I depart.

From here, I head to my next destination via St James’ Blvd, where I cut over to the narrow green park that runs along a long section of the ancient city walls and towers (including Morden Tower), past Chinatown, then east on Gallowgate, then north on Percy St. I’m led here by an entry in Hannah Murray’s site Frederick Douglass in Britain and Ireland which describes and maps out Douglass’ travels in the British Isles.

Leazes Park Rd, formerly Albion St, showing the approximate site of George and Ellen Richardson’s house in Newcastle. The nearest brick building on the right of the photo stands on or near where that house once stood.

One of the map’s entries for Newcastle reads: ’28 Dec 1846: Music Hall, Albion Street, evening. Meeting of the Newcastle branch of the Antislavery League. 700 people there.’ The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One, Volume I also lists two late December speeches in Newcastle, one on December 28th with no listed location, and one on December 29th at the Music Hall. Try as I might, I can find no evidence of a Music Hall on Albion Street in directories, maps, or other contemporary documents about the people and places in Newcastle. The only listed music hall in Newcastle is elsewhere, and I’ll tell you about that location shortly. However, I have found other intriguing clues which indicate that Douglass may have visited, attended a meeting, or given a talk at a location on this street.

From White’s General Directory of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne…, 1847, Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne Library

First, I consulted an 1847 Newcastle directory yesterday at the Antiquities Society for listings of locations on Albion St. There is no music hall or other public building listed there. It does, however, show that three George Richardsons lived at 9 Albion street, one ‘sen.’ (senior), one ‘jun.’ (junior), and one ‘gentleman.’ This likely describes a grandfather, father, and a grandson not yet employed, or perhaps a nephew or cousin. Then this morning, I found two more sources of information about the Richardsons of Newcastle: a website by a Benjamin S. Beck which has a series of pages detailing the genealogy and history of his family, especially the page ‘Children of George and Eleanor Richardson,’ and Mood’s journal article  ‘Women in the Quaker Community: The Richardson Family of Newcastle, C. 1815-60‘. The first of these list Ellen Richardson as living first at 9 and then at 21 Albion St. When Douglass was at Newcastle in 1846, Ellen was still living at no. 9. Though there are two address for Albion St over time, all of the sources I’ve consulted indicate that the family lived in the same home for a very long time. I suspect, then, that the two different addressed reflect only a change in the numbering over the years rather than a move to another nearby location.

Ellen and her sister-in-law Anna’s leadership in the anti-slavery movement in Newcastle may very well have meant that antislavery society meetings may have been held at Ellen’s family home on Albion St, and if so, Douglass would surely have attended if he was in town. However, an entry in the Newcastle Courant of Friday, Jan. 1st, 1847 specifies that the speech Douglass delivered for a soiree of the ‘the Newcastle branch of the Anti-Slavery League’ for 700 ‘members and friends’ was held at the ‘Music-hall’ on ‘Monday evening.’ December 28th, 1846 was a Monday, so it appears that both the December 28th and 29th speeches listed in the Frederick Douglass Papers were held at the Music Hall. This does not preclude Douglass giving a talk at an event held at the Richardsons’ home on Albion St, however, if such an event took place.

Albion St, Newcastle upon Tyne, from Thomas Oliver’s 1830 plan of the city at the National Library of Scotland

Even given the address at 9 Albion St, however, I still would not have enough information to find this location. That’s because, first, there is currently no Albion St in Newcastle. The man who helps me find sources at the Newcastle City Library, however, is able to help me with that one. He just so happens to have recently read something which informed him that the street once named Albion is now called Leazes Park Road. The maps room of the National Library of Scotland is able to provide the final piece of the puzzle. When I visit Albion St, I can only guess at the exact location given the maps, plans, and directories of Newcastle I find during my visit. In the following days, Louise and Rosemary help me locate a city plan and its guide for 1830-1831, also published by Thomas Oliver, which show that George Richardson lived at plot 352. The street has undergone very little change, if any, in its layout, and the nearest cross-street retains its old name. By comparing the location of the old map to Google Maps, I find that the Richardson family home used to stand on or near the place where 23 Leazes Park Road now stands, just south of the parking lot at the southwest corner of Leazes Park Road and Strawberry Place.

At the other side of the street at Leazes Park Rd and Strawberry Pl, there’s a nice roomy bar called Soho. The tablet I’m using for maps and photography is nearly out of power and I’ve forgotten to bring my portable charger, so I take a break with a pint of Guinness while it’s plugged in. As I wait, I read more about the Richardson family.

From William Whellan & Co.’s History, Topography, and Directory of Northumberland… and a History of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, National Library of Scotland

As mentioned earlier, Ellen, her sister in law Anna, her brother Henry, her brother George, and her father George were all very active in various societies. In addition to Ellen and Anna’s anti-slavery and charity work, the Richardsons were active in promoting their Quaker religion. White’s 1847 directory lists George Richardson, senior (or rather, his house), as the ‘depository for the bible society’ and Whellan’s 1855 History of Northumberland and Newcastle lists George (presumably junior) as treasurer of the Bible Society, with George Sr. serving as accountant and ‘depositary.’ Ellen, who never married, cared for her father after the death of her mother in 1846 (the same year she and Anna organized Douglass’ ‘ransom’) and dedicated herself to education and other worthy causes. She worked for the school for impoverished children called, quaintly to modern sensibilities, the Girls Ragged School, and made other efforts on behalf of impoverished members of the community as well. On November 5th, 1859, for example, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury about the plight of a large Jewish family, explaining why they were appropriate and worthy recipients of ‘parochial charity.’ She signed her letter ‘Ellen Richardson, Secretary to the Jubilee School.’ It just so happens that there’s a link between Ellen and two of the places I visited yesterday: in 1864, at a meeting held in the Castle, she donated a book of Arabic prayers and a document containing the seal of Elizabeth I to the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries. She lived a long life, dying at the age of 87 after a long-time chest ailment worsened as she developed other ailments. Mary Spence Watson wrote of her recently departed cousin ‘I believe she is the last proper Quakeress in Newcastle, & the last who wore the Quaker’s dress, & she was so splendid.’

Building at the corner of Grainger and Nelson Streets with a Giuseppe Garibaldi, Louis Kossuth, and William Lloyd Garrison historical plaque, Newcastle

Once my tablet has charged sufficiently, I continue my tour by heading east and south toward Grey’s Monument, erected honor of the second Earl Grey, who was instrumental in the passage of the Reform Act of 1832 and namesake of that delicious bergamot-flavored black tea. Besides vastly expanding the electoral franchise in Britain, the Reform Act also led directly to the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1832. At the monument square, I turn south down Grainger St then stop at the corner of Grainger and Nelson Streets. This is the place I spotted yesterday with the historical plaque above the shop window. The plaque reads: ‘To commemorate visits to this city and to a book shop in this house by Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1854, Louis Kossuth in 1856, W. Lloyd Garrison in 1876.William Lloyd Garrison was, famously, the abolitionist colleague and eventual ideological rival of Douglass who had given him his start in the movement only to later oppose Douglass’ moving on from Garrison’s abolitionist society to found his own paper The North Star, and Douglass’ newfound commitment to political activism and armed resistance to slavery. Since this city had a vibrant antislavery movement, Garrison visited Newcastle more than once in his multiple tours of the British Isles, including at least twice in 1846, so it’s a delight but no surprised to stumble across this plaque. I less expected to find, and am very interested to have done so, this link to Louis Kossuth, the revolutionary 19th-century Hungarian president lauded by Douglass and his colleague James McCune Smith as a great freedom fighter.

Facade of the old Music Hall at 10-12 Nelson Street, Newcastle, England

Behind me on the other side of the road and a few buildings west, I find my next destination: the facade of the Music Hall I mentioned more than once earlier in my story, at 10-12 Nelson St. According to Thomas Oliver’s reference book for his 1844 plan of Newcastle, it stood to the ‘east of the Primitive Methodist Chapel,’ which can still be seen in the 1896 Ordnance Survey I find later at the National Library of Scotland. According to Oliver, the Lecture Room was located underneath the Music Hall. It was in that room that Douglass delivered his 1860 speeches. Today, the only remnants of the Nelson St Music Hall and its rooms is its arch-windowed facade with the name and date carved in the front door’s pediment. There’s a City of Newcastle upon Tyne historical plaque on the building to the left of the doorway, like the one at 5 Summerhill Grove, but unfortunately The Alchemist, the bar and restaurant now occupying the spot, has placed a big umbrella right in front of it. I could crane my neck from under the umbrella just enough to read the plaque: ‘Music Hall, Nelson Street, Charles Dickens 1812-1870. Charles Dickens gave public readings of his works in this theatre during 6 visits to Newcastle between 1852 and 1867. “A finer audience is there not in England.” City of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Frederick Douglass ca. 1847-52, Samuel Miller, American 1822-1882, Art Institute of Chicago, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This is where Douglass almost certainly spoke at that 700-person antislavery event in December 1846, and where he did speak on February 19th and the 23rd, 1860. Douglass had returned once again to the British Isles that year, fleeing possible arrest and prosecution in connection with his militant abolitionist friend John Brown‘s unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry. While he was back in Britain, he embarked on another abolitionist speaking tour. In 1860, Douglass was dismayed to find that anti-black prejudice, which he was so grateful to find nearly absent during his last visit to the Isles fourteen years before, had become more commonplace in British sensibilities. Nevertheless, the talk was so highly anticipated that the event space was packed as full as could be and many who sought tickets had to be turned away. Douglass told the crowd that he feared that the ‘malign influence’ of the American slave system and its apologists were infecting the mother country even though she had already abolished it. Yet Douglass was here once again to seek British support for the cause. American slavery was proving so difficult to eradicate that American abolitionists needed the moral and religious example and support of their freedom-loving British counterparts more than ever.

Even with that support, however, it seemed that armed resistance may have been necessary to end slavery, and in that, Britain could lend its support by withdrawing its trade with and support to slaveholding states. Douglass ended his speech with a defense of Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in hopes of inciting a slave insurrection. Though Douglass had, in person, turned down his friend’s plea to assist the raid on the grounds he thought it unlikely to succeed, Douglass defended the raid’s practicability and propriety to his Newcastle audience. For one thing, he said, the location of Harper’s Ferry was in proximity to a series of mountain ranges perfect for insurrectionists to hide, plan their course of action, and attack from. For another, the raid and planned guerrilla war to follow was not the cruel and criminal attack on peaceable citizens as it was generally portrayed. Slavery was essentially a cruel and bloody system of oppression that placed all involved in it in a state of war already. Slave resistance was merely the counterattack by those who had been savaged in the first place.

Ordnance Survey of Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead and Environs 1896, showing the location of the Music Hall on Nelson St, here designated Central Hall, and the apparent site of the Salem Methodist Chapel, here designated Church of England Institute, at the National Library of Scotland

My last destination leads me just a little ways south and east to Hood Street. According to Oliver’s reference to his 1844 city plan, the Salem Methodist Chapel ‘forms the centre building to the north side of Hood Street; the front is of polished stone, with a recessed Grecian Doric portico of four columns, approached by stone steps.’ It opened its doors in 1836. There is a building at number 11, at about the right location but a bit further west than I’d expect from the 1896 ordnance survey, which has a small portico supported by two full Doric columns and two pilasters, with three steps leading to the modest-sized front entry. However, the building doesn’t seem otherwise to have the appearance of a church. Photos I find of old Hood St online from 1912 and onward, few as they are, don’t appear to show a church or other building with a Doric-column-decorated entryway. It appears to me that there’s nothing left of the old Salem Chapel.

Buildings on the center north side of Hood Street around the approximate site of the old Salem Chapel, Newcastle, England

Douglass spoke at the Salem Chapel on August 3rd and 13th of 1846 at meetings of the Newcastle Antislavery Society. On the first occasion, the 1200-capacity church was packed nearly to overflowing, evidence of the strong popular support in Britain, particularly Newcastle, for the abolitionist cause. Douglass, the only lecturer at the August 3rd event, opened his speech by pointing out the danger of characterizing too many things as forms of slavery that were not, in fact, comparable to American chattel slavery, with all its depredations and horrors, its thorough denial of the rights and humanity of a certain class of human beings. Since chattel slavery was far away and out of sight in the free British Isles, he could see how some Britons might tend to conflate slavery with such practices as the exploitation of workers, unjust taxation, or political disenfranchisement. However, Douglass stressed, to do so undermined the message and urgency of the antislavery cause.

Douglass’ impassioned plea against equating actual slavery with other forms of exploitation, coercion, or cruelty reminds me of the trend I see so often in our hyperbolic age with its outrage culture run amok. So many things are characterized as assaults, as rape, as silencing, or as other trespasses on human rights and dignity that in some ways serve to equate minor with egregious forms with minor or less egregious forms, or at least serve to confuse them in the public consciousness. For example, speaking disrespectfully to or groping women, however deplorable, is not akin to physically raping them. Aggressive speech, leering looks, and insults are not akin to physical assault. Promoting one set of views, however loudly, meanly, or distastefully is not akin to silencing competing views. There are plenty of grounds for demanding we treat each other in ways that respect human rights and dignity without conflating these important issues. In fact, conflating the less egregious wrongs we do one another with more egregious ones undermine human rights causes. When it’s not clear what precise harms we are arguing about, the degree to which they damage ourselves and others, and the rights we are violating when we inflict them, then the arguments against them are hard to craft and defend, and our efforts to counteract them are rendered scattershot and ineffective.

Constitution of the United States, first page of the original, provided by the National Archives and Records Administration, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Douglass went on to criticize the various ways the legal system of the United States systematically supported and protected the institution of slavery, from the federal Constitution to the laws of states and municipalities. To remove any doubts in the minds of his audience that he might be embellishing his rhetoric with hyperbole, he read out example after examples of such laws so that they could judge for themselves. Over time, Douglass changed his mind about the Constitution as a proslavery document. To Douglass, interpreting the Constitution correctly as an antislavery document meant it could no longer be used as a tool by proponents of the slave system. It also made local laws supporting slavery that much more egregious, since they not only infringed on the natural rights of black people, they infringed on Constitutionally guaranteed rights as well. Armed with this Constitutional interpretation, Douglass went on after his early years as an abolitionist moral suasionist in the United States and the British Isles to focus on political and social activism.

My search for Douglass in Newcastle has proved to be an invigorating and fascinating one, and he has led me to learn about and appreciate not only more about his own work and his circle of friends and colleagues, but about the history of one more great city as well. I look forward to my next adventure following Douglass in the British Isles, stay tuned!

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Sources and Inspiration

Alston, Charlotte. ‘William Lloyd Garrison visits Newcastle.’ Mapping Radical Tyneside website

Beck, Benjamin S. ‘Children of George and Eleanor Richardson.Ben Beck’s Website

Black Plaque № 48714.Open Plaques website

Richardson, Ellen. ‘The Board of Guardians: To the Editor of the Newcastle Guardian.‘ Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury. Saturday, 12 November 1859

Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey.‘ History: Past Prime Ministers at GOV.UK

Douglass, Frederick. ‘Antislavery Principles and Antislavery Acts.Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 2: 1847-1854

Douglass, Frederick, annotated by Henry L. Gates. Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1893). New York: The Library of America, 1996

Douglass, Frederick. ‘British Racial Attitudes and SlaveryFrederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 3: 1855-1863

Douglass, Frederick. ‘Frederick Douglass to Henry C. Wright, Manchester, 22 Dec 1846.’ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Three: Correspondence Volume 1: 1842-1852

Douglass, Frederick. ‘Men and Brothers.‘ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 2: 1847-1854

Douglass, Frederick. ‘Slavery, the Free Church, and British Agitation Against Bondage.’ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 1: 1841-1846

Frederick Douglass Speaks: 3 August 1846.’ Mapping Radical Tyneside (website)

Garrison, William Lloyd. ‘Letter from Mr. Garrison, Oct 1846.’ The Liberator, October 30, 1846

Garrison, William Lloyd. ‘Letter from Mr. Garrison, Liverpool, Oct 20, 1846.’ The Liberator, Nov 20th, 1846

General Directory of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead. Francis White & Co, 1847

Greenspan, Ezra. William Wells Brown: An African American Life. W. W. Norton & Company: 2014

Hodgson, Barbara. ‘Former Slave ‘Freed’ by Newcastle Couple is to be Honoured in Martin Luther King Anniversary Year.ChronicleLive, Nov 5, 2016

Hood Street.‘ Co-Curate (website)

Levine, Robert S. The Lives of Frederick Douglass. Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England: Harvard University Press, 2016. (Online via DiscoverEd)

‘Local & General Intelligence.’ Newcastle Journal, 25 February 1860.

‘London, Thursday December 31.’ Newcastle Courant, 1 January 1847.

Macartney, Carlile Aylmer. ‘Lajos Kossuth.’ Encyclopædia Britannica

Mood, Jonathan. ‘Women in the Quaker Community: The Richardson Family of Newcastle, C.1815-60.‘ Quaker Studies: Vol. 9: Iss. 2, Article 5

Murray, Hannah. Frederick Douglass in Britain, website http://frederickdouglassinbritain.com/

The Nelson Street ‘Music Hall’ of 1838.’ Gen UKI: UK and Ireland Geneology

O’Connor, Peter. ‘The Richardson Family Help Free Frederick Douglass: Oct 1, 1846 to 31 December 1846.’ Mapping Radical Tyneside (website)

Oliver, Thomas. Plan of the Town and County of Newcastle upon Tyne and the Borough of Gateshead… From an Actual Survey by T. Oliver. 1830

Oliver, Thomas. Reference to a Plan of the Town and County of Newcastle upon Tyne and the Borough of Gateshead… From an Actual Survey. Thomas Oliver, 43 Blacket Street: 1831.

Ordinance Survey, Newcastle, 1861-62

Ordnance Survey, Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead and Environs 1896 (revised 1894)

Pettinger, Alasdair. Frederick Douglass and Scotland, 1846: Living an Antislavery Life. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019 (forthcoming)

A Plan of the Borough of Newcastle Upon Tyne, Thomas Oliver,1844.

Quandrangle Gateway (The Arches).Historic England website

Reference to A Plan of the Borough of Newcastle Upon Tyne. Thomas Oliver, 1844

Society of Antiquaries.‘ Newcastle Journal, 3 November 1864

To commemorate visits to this city and to a book shop in this house by Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1854, Louis Kossuth in 1856, W. Lloyd Garrison in 1876.’ Open Plaques website

Tyne and Wear HER(7109): Newcastle, Nelson Street, Nos. 10 and 12, Music hall – Details.SiteLines (website)

Ward, Brian. ‘Frederick Douglass: The Ex-slave and Transatlantic Celebrity Who Found Freedom in Newcastle.The Conversation, Feb 21, 2018

Whellan, William & Co. History, Topography, and Directory of Northumberland… and a History of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne… London: Whittaker and Co, 1855

White, Francis & Co. General Directory of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead… Francis White, 1847

Wright, Henry C. ‘Henry C. Wright to Frederick Douglass, Doncaster, 12 Dec 1846.‘ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Three: Correspondence Volume 1: 1842-1852

Following Frederick Douglass in the British Isles

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my ninth philosophical-historical themed adventure following in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass throughout the British Isles. This series continues from and builds on my first Douglass series in the United States.

Frederick Douglass’s life story is inspiring and humbling in the strength, character, and dazzling intellect he reveals, rising to such greatness in the midst of such adversity. Born a slave on the eastern shore of Maryland in the early 1800’s, he was an autodidact, having overheard his master say that learning to read leads to learning to think, rendering a slave too independent-minded to submit to domination by another. Hearing this, young Frederick knew what he had to do. Attaining literacy and learning a skilled trade gave him the wherewithal to escape to New York City in 1838 at about 20 years of age. A few years later, as a result of an impromptu but impassioned and eloquent speech about the hardships of a life enslaved, he was recruited as a public speaker for the abolitionist cause. Douglass spent the rest of his life as an activist for all manner of human rights causes, from the abolition of slavery to universal suffrage to women’s rights and beyond.

Douglass is an especially compelling subject for a student of history and philosophy; observing the true nature and ramifications of slavery led him to think deeply about the most essential questions in human life, which, in turn, spurred him on to a life of thought and action on behalf of oppressed peoples. In these roles, Douglass had a heavy influence on American thought and on the course of American history. He asked, and answered: What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be a person of conviction and of faith? What are rights, and why are we entitled to them? What is dignity, and does possessing it entail certain obligations to ourselves and others? Given the frailties and strengths of human nature, how can we best live together and form just societies? What do the Constitution, its Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence really say about slavery, equality, and other human rights issues?

Following Douglass’ life and thought led me on a journey that took me much further than I could have imagined. I first came to Edinburgh as a student of philosophy following David Hume; now I live here, pursuing my higher education at the University of Edinburgh with Douglass as one of my primary subjects of inquiry. So I’ll continue my journey, which began in Oakland, CA and took me on a broad tour of the East Coast of the United States, then here to the British Isles. As I follow Douglass, I’ll visit landmarks associated with his life, places where he lived and died, worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested, to see for myself how the places informed the man, and vice versa.

Frederick Douglass in Newcastle upon Tyne, England

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

New Podcast Episode: The Bell Tower, Tower of London: Thomas More, Elizabeth I, and Other Histories, Part 3

Approaching the Lower Wakefield Tower, Tower of London, England

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

Saturday, May 4th, 2018, continued

After parting with Simon, Laurence and I step out of the Tower grounds for a quick lunch, though when we return, our first stop features sights and stories that could turn anyone’s stomach. As you may have guessed, it’s the torture room of the Lower Wakefield Tower. As the signage indicates, the chamber now dedicated to the history and artifacts of the Tower’s legacy of torture was likely not used for that purpose at the time. However, it’s well chosen for its current purpose. The underground stone chamber is entered via a series of short stairways and small narrow doorways, evoking an increasing sense of entrapment among stones as cold and impassive as were the torturer’s sympathies.

There is no direct link between this chamber and Thomas More or Elizabeth I, but both of them had strong associations with the use of torture… Read the written version here

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

The Bell Tower, Tower of London: Thomas More, Elizabeth I, and Other Histories, Part 3

Approaching the Lower Wakefield Tower, Tower of London, England

Saturday, May 4th, 2018, continued

After parting with Simon, Laurence and I step out of the Tower grounds for a quick lunch, though when we return, our first stop features sights and stories that could turn anyone’s stomach. As you may have guessed, it’s the torture room of the Lower Wakefield Tower. As the signage indicates, the chamber now dedicated to the history and artifacts of the Tower’s legacy of torture was likely not used for that purpose at the time. However, it’s well chosen for its current purpose. The underground stone chamber is entered via a series of short stairways and small narrow doorways, evoking an increasing sense of entrapment among stones as cold and impassive as were the torturer’s sympathies.

There is no direct link between this chamber and Thomas More or Elizabeth I, but both of them had strong associations with the use of torture. This comes as no surprise when it comes to Elizabeth, since, infamously, torture was used particularly often on political and religious prisoners during her reign. At the time, torture was regarded by many as an effective method of wresting confessions and information from accused enemies of church and state. Though it was illegal under English common law, torture or the threat of torture was nevertheless used in some cases, especially those in which the crime was considered particularly harmful to the state. England had been rife with religious and political turmoil for decades by the time Elizabeth ascended the throne, so there was a driving political interest in restoring order by cracking down on religious and political dissidents. Protestant Elizabeth reversed her elder sister and royal predecessor Mary I’s policies designed to restore England to Catholicism, religious ties which their father Henry VIII had severed so that he could divorce his wife and marry Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn. So, plots and intrigues against Elizabeth’s reign by papal loyalists abounded, and private citizens practiced their Catholic religion in secret since it was once again illegal.

Sign for the torture exhibit at the Lower Wakefield Tower, Tower of London

Elizabeth believed that national unity necessarily included unity of creed as well as nationwide fealty to her, and under her administration fines, imprisonment, torture, and even death were seen as effective deterrents to dissent and disloyalty. Many claim that Elizabeth harshly persecuted Catholics and other religious dissenters for practicing their faith at least as ruthlessly as Mary’s administration had persecuted Protestants, or at least that Elizabeth had failed to interfere when her officers did so. But other historians characterize Elizabeth’s suppression of Catholicism as comparatively mild except when it was linked to religiously-motivated plots to undermine or delegitimize her rule. Elizabeth had many friends who were known Catholics and dissenters and, especially earlier in her reign, rarely punished them for it so long as they kept their beliefs to themselves. She famously stated that she had ‘no desire to make windows into men’s souls.’ But those who were perceived threats to the security of Elizabeth’s throne were often dealt with ruthlessly, though Elizabeth herself was sometimes reluctant to order such punishment.

Regnans in Excelsis, Pius V’s papal bull excommunicating Elizabeth I

Initially more hands-off regarding the practice of religion by otherwise loyal private citizens, Elizabeth’s administration cracked down more severely on the practice of Catholicism after Pope Pius V excommunicated her in 1570. Prior to this excommunication, Elizabeth seemed to have considered the practice of Catholicism as a private matter of conscience so far as this didn’t interfere with their duties as loyal subjects. After the excommunication, however, English Catholics and Elizabeth were all placed in untenable positions. Pope Pius V was not content merely to banish Elizabeth from the Church; he called on Catholics to renounce their loyalty and obedience to her on pain of their own excommunication. In doing so, Pius bound politics to religion far more firmly than Elizabeth had done or wanted to do. Since Elizabeth believed in the legitimacy of her own reign and was bound to promote and protect it, she was unable to overlook this attack on her right to rule and felt forced to act.

More’s connection to torture may be much more troubling since he’s a Catholic saint, let alone given that he was in many other ways an admirable character. However, not all see More in such a glowing light. One of the most controversial facts about More is that he advocated torturing recalcitrant heretics. Some might find it more understandable that Elizabeth, as head of state responsible for enforcing the rule of law, would include torture as a tool of enforcement since it was at least somewhat consistent with the standards of the time. More likewise, in his tenure as Chancellor of England, was responsible for upholding the rule of law and maintaining national security, and in an era when church and state were so intertwined, this entailed enforcing religious uniformity. Neither More nor Elizabeth had access to the large modern body of evidence that torture is not, in fact, effective in gathering reliable intelligence, nor does it deter ideological extremism.

Pages from Thomas More’s A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, 1532

However, as writer Michael Shermer notes, even then, many doubted the rightness and effectiveness of torture, especially those who routinely heard startling and manifestly untrue ‘confessions’ extricated from those under duress. It seems that the otherwise kindly and intelligent More may have been capable of similar insights if he was not himself blinded by his own zealotry. More’s customarily mild and forbearing disposition may have given way to harshness in dealing with heretics because of his deep religiosity in his particular brand of Catholicism. As his biographer Peter Ackroyd writes, ‘More believed in the communion of the faithful, living and dead, while [to More, the heretical Martin] Luther affirmed the unique significance of the individual calling before God.’ According to author and Tudor specialist Melita Thomas, More regarded the Catholic Church as a community of souls whose unity with the divine was threatened by heresy much in the same way as a healthy body is threatened by disease. Like a cancerous tumor, heresy must be identified and ruthlessly cut off from the body of the church. In the case of heretics, there could be no mercy without sincere and complete repentance, since nothing less than the eternal salvation of souls was at stake. Thomas does not offer this as an excuse for More’s bloodthirstiness in this regard but as an explanation.

Historian Brian Moynahan is not among those who believe that this explanation excuses More’s advocation of torture for heretics. He believes that More was at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical in this matter. In more than one instance, More confessed to his daughter Margaret Roper his fear of the pain he might suffer if he was tortured or put to death for his refusal to swear to the Act of Succession, which, among other things, rejected papal authority over the Church in England. More’s refusal had already led to his imprisonment and, he was sure, would ultimately lead to his execution. In a letter to Margaret on the 3rd of June, 1535, More wrote that his interrogators made the point that More himself, when Chancellor, ‘examined heretics’ and ‘compel[ed] men to answer’ on pain of death. Why shouldn’t More himself, his interrogators asked, suffer the same treatment he had recommended for others? After all, those accused of heresy likewise refused to submit to the authority of the state and the church. More defended himself on the grounds that he could not submit since it was a matter of conscience. But, as his interrogators observed, his defense comes off like a case of special pleading since that was arguably true of accused heretics as well.

A door to the room with torture instruments and exhibits in the Lower Wakefield Tower, Tower of London

Besides, when it comes to those who we honor for their exceptional virtue and expansive moral imagination, commonly used defenses such as ‘well, they were a person of their time’ sound less convincing. The point of bestowing the status of sainthood or sage seems to be that those so honored are exceptional, that they should be able to reason and feel beyond the limitations of their own time, especially in matters of morals and justice. For example, I’ve never accepted the excuse that Thomas Jefferson’s slave-owning was just an understandable manifestation of his ‘being a man of his time.’ The plain fact is, Jefferson knew better but persisted in slave-owning (and -buying and -selling) anyway because freeing them would have caused him personal inconvenience. For both Jefferson and More, insights about the wrongness of their worst practices were available to them, so it’s not as if it’s a matter of 20/20 hindsight or unfair retroactive judgment according to new standards not yet conceived of at the time. As discussed above, torture was illegal under English common law and recognized by many as a cruel infringement on personal integrity, and an accomplished and well-read lawyer such as More was surely cognizant of this. It was also a common charge at the time that torture was used to force false confessions from people just as it was supposed to force true ones, a charge that Catholics later made against Elizabeth and her administration. It seems that Elizabeth and More, like Jefferson, failed their own best selves when it came to an important issue of justice and human rights, and they could and should have known better.

As I look at the instruments of torture and the descriptions of how they were used, I find I have no stomach for lingering or for taking or sharing photos of the instruments or displays. It’s true that these artifacts and the uses to which they were put are of historical interest. But there are photos and articles galore featuring these dreadful things in books and on the internet, and I get the feeling that this room is more often a scene of gruesome entertainment than a place of somber reflection on humankind’s history of inhumanity to one another. I’ve no doubt the latter very often takes place here too, but perhaps the gloomy, creepy mood of the room puts me in a pessimistic state of mind. I’ve seen enough representations of these instruments and read enough about them already that I feel I’m learning nothing new nor am I having an experience of particular value in this room. I take no photos and beat a quick retreat.

Traitors’ Gate under St Thomas’ Tower, from inside the walls of the Tower of London. As you can see, the sky has a grayish cast to it: I took this photo last time I was here at the Tower in January

Elizabeth I When a Princess, c. 1546, attributed to William Scrots, via Royal Collection Trust

We leave the chamber and head toward the southwest corner of the Tower complex. On the way, we pass St. Thomas’ Tower, originally built in the 1270’s by Edward I, and the Traitors’ Gate below it. This is where both Elizabeth and More entered the Tower as prisoners. This wide arched entryway was built so that small boats could easily and securely enter the Tower and deposit their detainees. Then-Princess Elizabeth entered this archway by boat on March 18, 1554, as Mary’s prisoner. As discussed in the previous installment of my Tower visit story, Elizabeth had been connected to Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion, the purpose of which was to prevent Mary’s marriage to King Philip of Spain and to place Elizabeth on the throne. Elizabeth was reported to have said as she entered this gate, ‘Oh Lord! I never thought to have come here as a prisoner; and I pray you all, good friends and fellows, bear me witness, that I come in as no traitor, but as true woman to the queen’s majesty as any is now living.’ As our guide Simon told us earlier today, the truth of Elizabeth’s protestation of total innocence is still debated to this day.

When More entered Traitors’ Gate as Henry VIII’s prisoner on April 17th, 1534, he made no such impassioned protestations of innocence. Instead, as was his wont, More made a joke. When asked for his ‘upper garment,’ More offered his hat, though he would have known that what was required from him was his gown or outer coat. In addition to the warm coat he was loathe to give up, More also wore his gold chain of livery en route to the Tower, which appears to be a form of protest against losing his freedom and his job because he acted according to his religious beliefs. Simon told us earlier today that More’s chain is still worn by Mayor of London. The rooms in St. Thomas’ Tower over the Traitors’ Gate had just been rebuilt and refurbished as part of the many improvements Henry made to the Tower in preparation for Anne’s coronation celebrations. Since Henry’s desire to make Anne his queen was the impetus for More’s imprisonment here, the irony is a bit thick.

William Roper, by Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1535-1536, Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Returning to More’s stated fears of suffering and death during his imprisonment, he seemed nevertheless to refuse to let them rule his decisions, through sheer force of will. Prior to his entering the Tower, More said to his son-in-law William Roper on his way to Lambeth Palace where he had been summoned to take the Oath of Succession, ‘Son Roper, I thank our Lord the field is won.’ Ackroyd thinks More’s statement admits of two interpretations: that he had conquered his feeling for his family enough to be able to leave them behind if that’s what it took to stay true to his conscience, or that he had managed to conquer his fears on his own behalf so that he could better plan how to conduct himself. I’d like to think it was the latter. However, commenting as the direct observer when More made this statement, Roper believed it was the former.

Roper also made an important observation about More’s beliefs that landed him here in the Tower. Ackroyd, like Melita Thomas of Tudor Times, points out that More, as we have seen, believed strongly in the Church as a community. More believed further that its spiritual authority rests on its divinely-guided consensus expressed through papal decrees. Yet both Thomas and Ackroyd point out that More’s views on papal supremacy shifted somewhat over the years. Initially, Roper, also More’s earliest biographer, described it, More thought that insofar as he was also a temporal prince, the Pope’s authority should not be urged so strongly by Henry VIII in his 1521 treatise A Defense of the Seven Sacraments. Henry VIII consulted More as an editor and advisor for the work; More’s involvement was later used in the attempt to coerce and destroy him in the case that eventually led to his death. According to Roper, More was accused of ‘unnaturally procuring and provoking’ Henry to argue strongly in favor of the Pope’s authority, thereby putting ‘a sword into the Pope’s hands to fight against himself,’ Yet, as we see, More remembered that affair quite differently. When it comes to spiritual rather than temporal matters, More thought of papal authority emanating from, and therefore in some sense secondary to, the Church, the body of Christ on earth. But over time, More’s belief in the final authority of the Pope over the earthly Church strengthened to the point that he, at least in part, bet his life on it.

The Salt Tower and adjoining arched structure where menagerie was, Tower of London

Entry to the lower chamber of the Salt Tower, Tower of London

Turning left at St. Thomas’ Tower, we head for the Salt Tower at the southeast corner of the Tower compound. It was built in the 1230’s under King Henry III’s reign. Simon told us earlier today that this is the other prime candidate as the site of More’s imprisonment. It was also among the most secure chambers, so influential prisoners whose cases were most politically charged were often held here.

This is perhaps, then, the site of his daughter Margaret’s visits and where More received and composed letters to her, the closest of his children. From the beginning of his imprisonment, Margaret acted as the go-between for More and his family, relaying messages and news between them. Margaret had, rather slyly, made herself welcome as a visitor to the Tower by taking the Oath of Succession in full while adding the exculpatory clause ‘so far as will stand the law of God.’ While More was required to take the full Oath with no amendments or additions whatsoever, Margaret was allowed leeway in this because she was seen as ‘covered’ by her husband Roper’s swearing to the unalloyed Oath anyway. Since she was his wife and therefore, by law and custom, his subservient, his Oath applied to her as well. Since Margaret had taken the Oath, it was hoped that she could influence her father to do so. Until More’s imprisonment became more harsh and restrictive in the months preceding his death, Margaret was allowed a great deal of access to her father.

Left, Historical placard and right, lower chamber of the Salt Tower, Tower of London

Margaret Roper by Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1536, Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Margaret was highly educated, a rarity for Tudor women, studying Latin, Greek, philosophy, theology, science, and mathematics from an early age. She wrote letters to her father in Latin to improve her skills and became an expert in that language to the extent that she translated one of Erasmus‘ Latin works into English for publication when she was 19. She was also a well-respected scholar though little else of her work survives outside of her famous correspondence with her father. Among the many topics of their in-person discussions and letters, More and Margaret adapted fables he had told to her as a child to refer to the current political situation and his dispute with the king. She and More also composed a long letter in dialogue form to show clearly and compellingly why More felt he could not take the Oath of Succession without flouting his conscience and damning his soul.

More wrote a great deal when he was imprisoned as long as he had access to writing materials, a privilege denied him as the circumstances of his imprisonment became more severe as the pressure to conform was ramped up. In addition to his correspondence, More wrote religious treatises and two of his most famous works after UtopiaThe Sadness of Christ and the Dialogue of Comfort. In the latter, More retold, through one of its characters, a fable that his own mother told him, about a priest fox who hears a wolf’s and an ass’s confessions. Utopia, a tale of an imaginary land with a system of philosophically-derived, seemingly idealized customs and governance that are nevertheless as problematic as the idealized society in Plato’s Republic, reads like a fable as well as satire. As we can see, fables played a strong role in More’s imagination.

A view of the upper chamber of the Salt Tower, Tower of London

Memorial plaques at Tower Hill Scaffold Site near the Tower of London

Laurence and I explore the upper and lower chambers of the Salt Tower, examining the fascinating inscriptions and drawings carved into the walls by prisoners held in these rooms over the years. We continue on and explore other parts of the Tower unrelated to this story.

Our last stop pertaining to this exploration takes us outside the Tower walls to the Tower Hill Scaffold Site in Trinity Gardens, only a mile from where More had been born on Milk Street. Trinity Gardens is a pretty little park on a rise across the A100 / Tower Hill road from the Tower, dominated by the Tower Hill Memorial to those of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets who died in World War II. The Scaffold Site, small and somewhat easy to miss, is just to the east of the Memorial. A stand of palm trees that I had seen when here last in January helps me find the site again. It’s surrounded by a very low concrete wall or curb interspersed with short concrete obelisk-shaped posts. Bronze green-patinaed plaques contain some of the names of over 125 people (according to one of the plaques) that were put to death here over the space of around 400 years. Thomas More’s, Thomas Cromwell’s, and Thomas Wyatt’s are among them, three Thomases all closely connected to the histories I’m here to follow.

After one year and three months of imprisonment in the Tower, after persuasion, influence, separation from his family, financial pressure, and increasingly harsh confinement failed to bend him to Henry VIII’s will, More could no longer escape the executioner. More was executed on July 6th, 1535, just five days after his trial. Henry never took kindly to opposition from anyone, but the perceived lack of loyalty from his friends and those he had shown special favor in the past irked him most and provoked his harshest responses. Despite a long string of promises not to force his old friend More to betray his conscience, Henry ordered his execution after More refused to go along with Henry’s change of mind. Henry extended one mercy to More: instead of the protracted and agonizing traitors’ death by hanging, drawing, and quartering to which he had originally been condemned, More’s sentence was commuted to the relatively humane death by beheading. By all accounts, More died courageously, swearing his personal loyalty and friendship to Henry while affirming his primary loyalty to the will of God as he saw it. Characteristically, some of his last remarks were kindly and joking ones, apparently to cheer up the executioner, who More assured was simply sending him to heaven where he wanted to go anyway. More exhorted the executioner to escort him safely up the platform’s wobbly steps but to let him make his own way down afterward, and admonished him to strike carefully since More’s short neck might make him accidentally botch the job.

Scaffold Site at Tower Hill, to the north near the Tower of London

Margaret was not there to witness More’s execution. In my further research, I find that it’s still uncertain as to whether this was out of grief, or because she wasn’t informed in time to get there, or because she and the rest of More’s family weren’t allowed to attend. Despite her absence, More was no doubt comforted by the memory of his last encounter with her. Margaret waited among the crowd where she knew More would pass when he was returned to his Tower cell after his trial in Westminster Hall. Upon seeing him, she discarded the dignified bearing expected of her as a gentlewoman, pushing her way through the crowd and, recklessly, past his armed guards, and flung herself on More, showering him with embraces and kisses. According to Roper, there was scarcely a dry eye among those who witnessed this scene. Margaret was loving and solicitous of More’s legacy as she had been of himself. After his severed head had been displayed for a time, Margaret conspired to have it retrieved and it was buried with her. She quickly went to work collecting, arranging, annotating, and publishing a collection of her father’s works and letters. It’s as much the work of Margaret as anyone else that her father’s memory remained so prominent, and so positive, in English, Catholic, and Renaissance history.

UPDATE: in researching the practice and legality of torture in Tudor England, I found more information about the inscription I found as I left the Bell Tower chamber where Elizabeth was imprisoned which includes ‘In forture strange, My trouth was tried, Yet of my liberty ye denied…’ According to scholar Elizabeth Hanson, it was written in 1581 by Thomas Myagh, who had been imprisoned and tortured at the Tower under suspicion of involvement in an Irish rebellion against Elizabeth’s reign.

*Patron of this Tower of London journey: Laurence Murphy ~ With warmest gratitude, thank you!*

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~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

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Sources and inspiration:

Ackroyd, Peter. The Life of Thomas More. London: Chatto & Windus, 1998

Annual Survey of Visits to Visitor Attractions: Latest Results.‘ VisitBritain.org

Borman, Tracy. The Story of the Tower of London. London: Merrell Publishers Limited, 2015

Borman, Tracy. ‘The Tudors and the Tower.‘ Tudor Times website, 3 Aug 2015

Bowker, M. ‘Roper [née More], Margaret (1505–1544), Scholar and Daughter of Sir Thomas More.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Camden, William Norton, Robert; Hans and Hanni Kraus. The historie of the most renowned and victorious Princesse Elizabeth, late queen of England. Contayning all the important and remarkeable passages of state both at home and abroad, during her long and prosperous raigne. Composed by way of annals. Neuer heretofore so faithfully and fully published in English.
Sir Francis Drake Collection Library of Congress. London: Printed by N. Okes for B. Fisher; 1630

Collinson, Patrick. ‘Elizabeth I (1533–1603), Queen of England and Ireland.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

English Monarchs website: ‘The Bell Tower’ and ‘The Queen’s House

Erasmus, Desiderius, Margaret Roper, and Richard Hyrde. A Deuoute Treatise vpon the Pater Noster, Made Fyrst in Latyn by the Moost Famous Doctour Mayster Erasmus Roterodamus, and Tourned in to Englisshe by a Yong Vertuous and Well Lerned Gentylwoman of. XIX. Yere of Age. London: Thomas Berthelet, 1525

Freeman, Thomas S. (2002). ‘`As true a subiect being prysoner’: John Foxe’s notes on the imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth, 1554-5.‘ (Notes And Documents). The English Historical Review, 117(470), 104-116

Furness, Hannah. ‘Wolf Hall is ‘Deliberate Perversion’ of History, says David Starkey.The Telegraph, 26 Jan 2015

Graham, Beckett and Susan Vollenweider. ‘Episode 43: Elizabeth I, Part One‘ and ‘Episode 44: Queen Elizabeth 1, Part Two‘ for their History Chicks podcast

Guy, John. A Daughter’s Love: Thomas and Margaret More. London: Fourth Estate, 2008

Guy, John. ‘For What Did Thomas More So Silently Die?’ Lecture published at Tudors.org

Hanson, Elizabeth. ‘Torture and Truth in Renaissance England.’ Representations, no. 34, 1991, pp. 53–84

House, Seymour Baker. ‘More, Sir Thomas [St Thomas More] (1478–1535), Lord Chancellor, Humanist, and Martyr.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Jones, Jonathan. ‘Wolf Hall is Wrong: Thomas More was a Funny, Feminist Renaissance Man.‘ The Guardian, 29 Jan 2015

Marc’hadour, Germain P. ‘Thomas More.’ Encyclopædia Britannica

Massie, Allan. ‘Let’s Not Overlook the Gory Details of Gloriana.The Telegraph, 02 Jun 2012

More, Thomas. The Apology of Sir Thomas More, Knight. from The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Vol. 9. Yale University Press, published online by The Center for Thomas More Studies

More, Thomas. Conscience Decides: Letters and Prayers from Prison Written Between April 1534 and July 1535. Selected and arranged by Dame Bede Foord; preface by Trevor Huddleston; introduction by Germain Marc’hadour. London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, 1971

More, Thomas. The English Correspondence of Sir Thomas More, 1947 Rogers edition, Princeton University Press, published online by The Center for Thomas More Studies

Moynahan. God’s Bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible – A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003

Pius V. Regnans in Excelsis: Excommunicating Elizabeth I of England. 1570 (encyclical). From Papal Encyclicals Online

Roper, William. The Life of Sir Thomas More1556. Ed. Gerard B. Wegemer and Stephen W. Smith. From Center for Thomas More Studies, 2003

Shermer, Michael. ‘We’ve Known for 400 Years That Torture Doesn’t Work.‘ Scientific American, May 1, 2017

Stanford, Peter. ‘Sir Thomas More: Saint or Sinner?’ The Telegraph, 20 Jan 2015

Teysko, Heather. ‘Catholics in Elizabethan England.‘ Renaissance English History Podcast: A Show About the Tudors, episode 26, Jul 6, 2015

Teysko, Heather and Melita Thomas. ‘Tudor Times on Thomas More.’ Renaissance English History Podcast: A Show About the Tudors, episode 55, Sep 16, 2016

Tower Hill Memorial.Commonwealth War Graves Commission website

Weikel, Ann. ‘Mary I (1516–1558), Queen of England and Ireland.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography