James McCune Smith Predicted African American Preeminence in U.S. Art and Culture

James McCune Smith Predicted African American Preeminence in U.S. Art and Culture

In the 1843 published version of his 1841 lecture “The Destiny of the People of Color,” African American physician, intellectual, author, classicist, and human rights activist James McCune Smith (1813–1865) reflected on the future of his oppressed people. From the midst of their shared struggle for freedom from slavery and prejudice, he found hope:

For we are destined to write the literature of this republic, which is still, in letters, a mere province of Great Britain. We have already, even from the depths of slavery, furnished the only music this country has yet produced. We are also destined to write the poetry of the nation; for as real poetry gushes forth from minds embued [sic] with a lofty perception of the truth, so our faculties, enlarged in the intellectual struggle for liberty, will necessarily become fired with glimpses at the glorious and the true, and will weave their inspiration into song. We are destined to produce the oratory of this Republic; for since true oratory can only spring from honest efforts on behalf of the right, such will of necessity rise amid our struggle. . . . In fine, we are destined to spread over our common country the holy influences of principles, the glorious light of Truth.(1)

McCune Smith’s predictions may have struck many readers as far too optimistic given the dire situation so many African Americans of his time faced, whether within the United States’ slave system or in the “caste” system it produced.(2) Even when not legally enslaved, nominally free African Americans were routinely denied access to education, lucrative jobs, good housing, transportation, and services, and they were almost universally denied equal political rights and representation. Yet McCune Smith’s observations of certain aspects of U.S. society and his political and sociological studies of past civilizations provided him with sources of hope and confidence for a better future for his people. This better future would center largely on the outsize role that African Americans would come to play, as they were sure to do, in the development of U.S. culture, especially in the artistic and intellectual realms.

In “Destiny,” McCune Smith expressed some of his observations within the context of analogies he drew from them. First, as a social and political activist as well as a devout Christian, McCune Smith observed that the clergy, largely excluded as they were from politics and the acquisition of wealth, nevertheless wielded great spiritual and moral influence. Therefore, they might have played more significant roles in the formation and development of U.S. society than those who wielded more direct political and economic power.(3) McCune Smith compared this soft power of the clergy to that which he believed African Americans held, or at least would come to hold. Likewise excluded from wealth and politics, in this case by law and by prejudice, African Americans had the moral sympathy of those who recognized that such oppressions contravened God’s law and the United States’ founding principles as outlined in the Declaration of Independence, which were likewise centered on moral, and therefore political, equality.(4) He predicted that as the general public recognized the logic and justice of arguments for equality, their sympathy must, then, necessarily increase, and with this, the moral influence of African Americans. As the above quotation confirms, McCune Smith saw the “influence of principles” as “holy,” and since the United States was founded on lofty principles rather than on nationality or ancestral considerations of birth and status, the principled fight for freedom and equal rights was holy as well—perhaps even more holy, and more inspirational, than the spiritual teachings of the clergy. Over time, this moral influence would change hearts and minds and bring about recognition of African Americans as human beings, equal in dignity and as deserving of rights as all other United States citizens.

None of this is to say that McCune Smith discounted the importance of direct political action or other sources of influence, such as increased access to the wider economy, greater social mobility, and more educational opportunities. He believed that African Americans had a right to these as well and worked hard throughout his life to facilitate their access to them.(5) Yet in “Destiny,” McCune Smith predicted that African Americans would likely win their equal place in United States society through moral victories first.

Looking to the past as well as the present, the classicist and political theorist McCune Smith drew another analogy: the struggle for equality by African Americans resembled freedom struggles in great republics of the past. As he observed, African Americans were routinely excluded from much of the “bustle of practical everyday life” within their own republic, the United States, through discriminatory laws and social practices.(6) African Americans were also, numerically, very much in the minority. Many other historical republics were founded on noble principles but oppressed those they conquered and enslaved; the latter usually represented the majority of the population, who rebelled once their oppression grew intolerable or a leader rose up to unite them. However, oppressed African Americans could not turn the tables on their oppressors by sheer force of numbers through violence or politics. Yet regardless, every republic that betrayed the principles on which it was founded inevitably came under the control of the people it had previously oppressed in one way or another.(7) McCune Smith believed that this same destiny awaited African Americans. It was their fate to dominate their oppressors, he insisted, because those oppressed by every republic throughout history, from the ancient Greeks onward, eventually did so.

Freedom from oppression did not historically come only from the downfall of oppressive republics. It also came from oppressed peoples finding their own ways to endure, then to succeed, and then finally to dominate. McCune Smith wrote,

The Jews, for example, in comparatively modern times have been persecuted and oppressed very much in almost every European kingdom. . . . And yet we find that the Jews, the so pitilessly oppressed minority, now hold in their hands the rule, the very fate of some of the kingdoms who were formerly foremost in persecuting them.(8)

Jewish people had found an avenue to freedom in finance, and Irish Catholics had found one through politics.(9) African Americans faced a different set of circumstances in their oppression, and they would therefore find another way. Because they were numerically a minority, and because the peculiar nature of their unconstitutional oppression primarily required intellectual and moral opposition, African Americans would also find themselves drawn to, as McCune Smith put it, “the more abstract studies,” removed from the mainstream struggle up the social ladder, fighting for justice all the while on intellectual grounds. In other words, instead of the struggle for rights and equality being a case of “might makes right,” African Americans could win only by demonstrating that, as McCune Smith phrased it, “right makes right.” Their bloodless victory would be not only a moral one but intellectual and artistic as well.(10) (McCune Smith came to believe that force was also necessary to end slavery; as it turns out, he was also prescient in that regard.)(11)

McCune Smith recognized signs that this African American artistic and intellectual revolution was not only to be glimpsed in the future; it was already beginning. For example, as he asserted in the quote which opened this essay, African Americans had created the first original form of U.S. music (more on this below), and they were “the source and subject of many essays, speeches, arguments &c., &c., which unfold with clearness and eloquence, true Republicanism to the prejudice-blinded eyes of the multitude.”(12) Though African Americans did not yet dominate the intellectual and artistic spheres, they had made inroads. This was especially impressive given the obstacles placed against their mere survival, let alone social, economic, and political advancement. African Americans largely refused to leave the land of their birth—because, as McCune Smith argued, “We are not a migrating people. The soil of our birth is dear to our hearts”; had shown their moral superiority over their oppressors by “returning Good for Evil”; contributed hugely to the nation through their labor; and flourished even in areas of the United States where the harshest and most prejudicial laws were arrayed against them.(13)

In many works throughout his literary career, McCune Smith would identify and celebrate the myriad ways in which African Americans took a leading and influential role in the development of U.S. art and culture, as well as the ways that people of African descent were influencing world culture more broadly. McCune Smith believed it was essential to explore, describe, and highlight the significance of the artistic and intellectual achievements of people of African descent throughout the world as well as in the United States to demonstrate how African Americans would come to dominate the nation’s artistic and intellectual culture. These demonstrations served not only to show how his optimistic predictions would come true for African Americans, but also to encourage them to “love, respect, and glory in our negro nature!” and thereby to not be dissuaded by prejudice from fulfilling their artistic and intellectual destiny.(14) As African Americans became more aware of the extent and significance of African contributions to artistic and intellectual culture around the world, their self-confidence would rise, enhancing their potential to fulfill McCune Smith’s predictions of their destiny in their own country.

In his “Lecture on the Haytien Revolutions,” published in 1841, McCune Smith celebrated the intellectual as well as the revolutionary legacy of Haitian freedom fighter Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803). Louverture’s legacy as a revolutionary was well known; McCune Smith believed it essential that his intellectual contributions be appreciated as well.(15) As well as being a skilled and inspired revolutionary leader, Louverture “had a mind stored with patient reflection upon the biographies of men, the most evident in civil and military affairs; and [was] deeply versed in the history of the most remarkable revolutions that had yet occurred amongst mankind.”(16) Louverture’s “lofty intellect” was expressed not in works of art and literature but in diplomacy, in his primary authorship of a new constitution, in his lawmaking, and in “his principles [which] were so thoroughly disseminated among his brethren.”(17) McCune Smith believed that much of the African American intellectual legacy would likewise be derived, directly and indirectly, from its own role in the struggle for freedom.

In his 1855 essay “The Critic at Chess,” McCune Smith described another way that people of African origin contributed to the arts, highlighting an example in which he believed Congolese warriors influenced white European literature. He perceived the rhythm and structure of a Congolese war chant within a stanza from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the Light Brigade.”(18) McCune Smith chose a quote from author Gustave d’Alaux to demonstrate the chant’s influential and liberating power: “When these incomprehensible words . . . rolled out on the midnight air . . . the old St. Domingo planter had need to count his slaves, and the patrol to be on the alert” as it “transformed indifferent and heedless slaves into furious masses.”(19) Tennyson, McCune Smith believed, recognized its rousing power and translated that within his own expression of military rhythm.

Artists and intellectuals of African descent, as McCune Smith would describe, also revealed their power to touch the heart and mind and inflame the imagination beyond the realms of war and politics. In another 1855 essay, “The Black Swan,” McCune Smith paid tribute to the “genius” of U.S. singer Elizabeth Greenfield and French author Alexandre Dumas. The essay revolves around McCune Smith’s review of a Greenfield concert he attended at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City, where the African American population suffered greatly due to legal and social discrimination, as they did throughout most of the United States.(20) Greenfield, whose popular moniker provided the title for the essay, nevertheless achieved a level of commercial success and widespread popularity few African Americans enjoyed, even in deeply prejudiced and segregated communities such as New York City. Dumas, McCune Smith wrote, was also a “first class original genius . . . of new proportions and unheard of fecundity of imagination” whose “grandest peculiarities are purely Negroid.”(21) Greenfield and Dumas were great artists whose ability to touch hearts and minds cut through and stepped over the petty boundaries that racial prejudice sought to erect around them. As pioneering music historian James M. Trotter wrote in 1878, “The haze of complexional prejudice has so much obscured the vision of many persons, that they cannot see . . . that musical faculties, and power for their artistic development, are not in the exclusive possession of the fairer-skinned race.”22 In his writings, McCune Smith showed how artists of African descent would open the people’s eyes and help them see past those prejudices: “True art is a leveler . . . never was the Tabernacle so thoroughly speckled with mixed complexions.”(23) As this example so well demonstrated, African Americans and peoples of African descent throughout the world would find that artistic and intellectual expression served as their most powerful weapon against oppression and marginalization in a prejudiced culture, and in dismantling the “caste” system that slavery had created.

Artists such as Greenfield and Dumas did not only break down racial barriers within their own times. As McCune Smith related, both artists, in part due to their unique racial heritage and their experiences in a prejudiced world, took their forms of artistic and intellectual expression to new heights, creating bodies of work that could only later be recognized for their true significance and thereby influencing and inspiring the work of future generations. McCune Smith wrote that Greenfield’s work as an innovative and consummate artist as well as an unapologetically “black woman” made her a “Priestess in the Temple” of the art world. She took her genre beyond what contemporary experience and sensibilities could appreciate, creating “a new revelation of Art [which] must be comprehended before it is chronicled in fitting terms.” Dumas did likewise with his literature, for which “the rules of European criticism are too small for the accurate measure of his proportions.”(24) Their accomplishments demonstrated the artistic and intellectual “influence which it shall be our [African and African American] destiny to possess.”(25)

McCune Smith believed that the analogies he drew among African American experience in the United States, the moral influence of the clergy, and various ways in which oppressed peoples liberated themselves; other lessons of history; and historical and contemporary examples of innovative and influential African-descended artists and intellectuals justified his prediction that African Americans would come to predominate in the development of many aspects of U.S. art and culture. Yet his predictions regarding the gamut of artistic expression and creativity were fulfilled to such a degree that even he, inspired with the confidence his words reveal, might marvel at it, as we can see in the following.

Since McCune Smith made his striking prediction nearly two hundred years ago, we have witnessed the rise to preeminence of African American artists, writers, intellectuals, ministers, scholars, orators, and poets. From journalists and educators Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells to activists, orators, and religious leaders Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; to intellectuals and authors W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou; to poets and playwrights Angelina Weld Grimké, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, and Audre Lorde, to name only a very few, African Americans of letters, ideas, and oratory have played central roles in U.S. arts and culture. McCune Smith himself came to play an essential if still underrecognized role in creating the “Republic of Letters” that he envisioned in his 1852 essay “The Black News-Vender,” which he described as “that glorious commonwealth, perpetually progressive, free from caste . . . which smiles upon all her citizens, if they be but true, which holds triumphant sway and is crowned with perennial laurel in the coming ages!”(26) That essay forms but a tiny part of McCune Smith’s innovative and expansive body of work, which includes writings in medicine, science, history, social and political theory, rhetoric, biography, and social commentary.

In addition to his predictions in “Destiny,” McCune Smith made several other significant observations. One was that African Americans had, in his time, invented the only uniquely American form of music. He did not specifically identify this form, but from the quote which opens this essay (“We have already, even from the depths of slavery, furnished the only music this country has yet produced”), we can infer he meant songs which enslaved African Americans used to lighten the drudgery of enforced labor and which would give rise to many other forms of African American music. (27) While referring to a singular form may have been close enough to accurate in 1843, the myriad types of music invented, developed, or hugely influenced by U.S. citizens of African descent have multiplied by orders of magnitude. If it seems impossible to name every influential African American of letters and oratory, it seems even more impossible to name every influential African American musical artist. Such artists of creative and diverse genius as Scott Joplin, Memphis Minnie, Rosetta Tharpe, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Prince, and Run-DMC created or refined genres of music that touch the heart, stir the soul, heat the blood, and move the body like no others. From spirituals to rap, from ragtime to jazz, from gospel to soul, from blues to rock-n-roll, from rhythm and blues to the Motown sound, from funk to hip-hop, these forms not only dominate American music but have become some of the most popular and influential throughout the world.(28)

McCune Smith saw much to be optimistic about in the long term regarding the great potential for human and specifically U.S. progress in interracial and intercultural connections, even as the political and social ramifications of race-based slavery and prejudice often left him weary, depressed, or in despair.(29) This potential would be realized most dramatically and forcefully, McCune Smith believed, in the realm of artistic and intellectual culture. The history of the United States following McCune Smith’s writings on African Americans in art and culture offers a multitude of vindicatory evidence of his deeply insightful predictions. While some fear the threat of artistic and cultural appropriation, African Americans have nevertheless “attain[ed] the influence” McCune Smith predicted.30 African Americans have indeed played a central and formative role in so many aspects of U.S. art and culture that a hypothetical United States devoid of their great contributions would be wholly unrecognizable and deeply impoverished.

The text of this article was originally published in Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies, Vol. 7 No. 1 (2020)

~ 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!

NOTES

  1. James McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” in The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist, ed. John Stauffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 59.
  2. In his essay “Civilization: Its Dependence on Physical Circumstances,” written in 1844 and revised for publication in 1859, McCune Smith defined “caste”—a term he used often—as “the general term for that feature in human institutions which isolates man from his fellow
    man” (James McCune Smith, “Civilization: Its Dependence on Physical Circumstances,” in The Works of James McCune Smith, 261).
  3. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 57–58.
  4. Ibid., 52–53.
  5. For more on McCune Smith’s community work and social justice activism and journalism, see Rhoda Golden Freeman, “The Free Negro in New York City in the Era before the Civil War” (Ph.D. diss.: Columbia University, 1966), 40–41, 46, 144–147, 184–186, 194, 196–197, 241, 247, 264, 270, 276, 305–306, 310, 352–354, 373.
  6. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 58.
  7. Ibid., 50–51, 54–55, 57–58.
  8. Ibid., 56–57.
  9. Ibid., 57.
  10. Ibid., 57–59.
  11. John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 124; James McCune Smith, “James McCune Smith to Gerrit Smith, 1 / 31 Mar 1855,” March 1, 1855, Box 34. Gerrit Smith Papers, Syracuse University Libraries.
  12. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 55.
  13. Ibid., 51–53, 56.
  14. James McCune Smith, “The Black Swan,” in The Works of James McCune Smith, 120.
  15. For more about McCune Smith’s “promot[ion] of the black leader as intellectual, urbane, and historically conscious,” see Philip Edmondson, “To Plead Our Own Cause: The St. Domingue Legacy and the Rise of the Black Press,” Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies 29 (October 2005): 137–138, 140–142.
  16. McCune Smith, “Lecture on the Haytien Revolutions,” in The Works of James McCune Smith, 39.
  17. Ibid., 41–45.
  18. James McCune Smith, “The Critic at Chess,” in The Works of James McCune Smith, 110.
  19. Quoted in ibid., 110–111.
  20. Freeman, “The Free Negro in New York City in the Era Before the Civil War,” 435–436.
  21. McCune Smith, “The Black Swan,” 120.
  22. James M. Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People (Boston: Lee and Shephard, 1878), 4, available via the Internet Archive at http://archive.org/details/musicsomehighlym00trot. As well as a music historian, James Monroe Trotter (1842–1892) was an educator, a Civil War veteran from the 54th Massachusetts regiment, a postal worker, and the next African American following Frederick Douglass to serve as recorder of deeds for Washington, DC (William J. Simmons, Henry McNeal Turner, and A. G. Haven, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising [Cleveland, OH: George M. Rewell, 1887], 833–842, available via the Internet Archive at http://archive.org/details/06293247.4682.emory.edu).
  23. McCune Smith, “The Black Swan,” 121.
  24. Ibid., 120–121.
  25. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 58.
  26. James McCune Smith, “The Black News-Vender,” in The Works of James McCune Smith, 190.
  27. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 59; Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People, 256, 263, 267, 324, 327.
  28. Burton W. Peretti, Lift Every Voice: The History of African American Music (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 170.
  29. D. W. Blight, “In Search of Learning, Liberty, and Self Definition: James McCune Smith and the Ordeal of the Antebellum Black Intellectual,” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 9, no. 2 (1985): 19.
  30. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 58. Many theories, characterizations, and posited examples of cultural and artistic appropriation are problematic in many respects, especially in the way they so often conflate or obscure the differences between influence and emulation, which empower the artist or culture, and exploitation and failure to give credit, which disempower the artist or culture. This is not to dismiss widespread failures to credit artists and cultures for their creations, particularly in the music and fashion industries, or the fact that such practices are particularly problematic when it comes to historically disadvantaged groups. McCune Smith hinted at this problem when he identified Tennyson’s possible and uncredited adoption of the rhythm and structure of the Congolese chant in his poem “Charge of the Light Brigade.” It is important, however, not to lose sight of the fact that such exploitations and failures to give appropriate credit often occur within the wider context of popular recognition, admiration, and influence these historically disadvantaged artists and cultures have achieved. McCune Smith’s remarks about Tennyson’s poem also reveal his evident pride and satisfaction in the inspirational and influential power of the Congolese chant, including within the work of that Western poet whom McCune Smith so admired (McCune Smith, “The Critic at Chess,” 109–111).

 

To Lockdown, or Not to Lockdown

Liberate Minnesota protest at the Governor’s Residence in St Paul, Minnesota by Lorie Shaull, via Wikimedia Commons

Protests which have recently arisen in parts of the United States and Brazil claim that economic disruption caused by lockdowns imposed to halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2 are more dangerous than Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Protestors in the United States, in public spaces and online, also argue that the lockdowns consist of unconstitutional violations on personal rights to move freely, to assemble, and to work, and that Covid-19 is not very deadly anyway. These protests are often joined by those who trumpet conspiracy theories. One is that the billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates helped create SARS-CoV-2 so that he could sell vaccines and/or implant subcutaneous dyes or capsules to track and spy on the world’s population. Another that all lockdowns are really seized opportunities by those who wish to turn their governments into massive, all-powerful police states.

The latter claim embraces and expands an element of fear shared by many on the left, right, and center. China’s stringent lockdown of Hubei province, which includes Wuhan – the city where the virus originated – appeared to many to be overly invasive, exemplary of authoritarian forms of government and, therefore, not to be replicated in free societies. Viktor Orbán and his government, through the Hungarian Parliament which they control, took advantage of the emergency to seize the power to ‘cancel all elections, suspend its own ability to legislate, and give the prime minister the right to rule by decree—indefinitely,’ as Anne Applebaum writes.

Fears that the lockdowns might lead to the erosion of civil liberties are not entirely misguided, even if overblown. Many democratic societies, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have instituted robust virus control policies which included contract tracing, targeted shutdowns, and quarantines without eroding overall civil rights or arbitrarily expanding government power. Not only have such policies been highly effective, they made total lockdowns unnecessary; because of them, relatively few have thus far had their rights to move freely, assemble, and work curtailed. The United States has long – since shortly after its founding, in fact – imposed restrictions on movement, assembly, and speech, and compelled citizens to take certain actions, during wars and public health crises without becoming an Orbánian- or Chinese Communist Party-style authoritarian regime, whatever extremists on the left or right would argue.

World leaders and heads of state and local governments acknowledge, as common sense indicates, that lockdowns cannot continue indefinitely: as members of a social species, most people need regular contact with others to maintain their mental health; most people need to get back to work to support themselves and their families; governments need tax revenue to maintain social welfare and defense systems, essential infrastructure needs workers and funds to maintain it; dental care, elective surgeries, and other deferred healthcare must be resumed before overall health deteriorates; and so on. The debate is not over whether lockdowns will be eased and lifted, but when and how, while minimizing suffering and death as much as possible along the way.

The debate is complicated by the fact that so little is still known about actual infection rates; how many people carry the virus without falling ill of Covid-19; actual death rates; and how these rates might change without nonmedical interventions such as lockdowns, quarantines, and voluntary and enforced social distancing. Early results seem to indicate what many have long suspected: the rates of all of these are significantly higher than official tallies indicate. A recent study at Stanford University, based on results from a new antibody test, indicate that far more people have been exposed to the virus, which, if so, may indicate that the death rate is far lower than initial estimates indicated. However, initial takeaways from the as-yet-not peer-reviewed study may be deeply flawed since it was not randomized, relied on a test whose accuracy is questionable, and cannot yet take into account actual rather than reported death rates since actual rates are still unknown. Some countries and municipalities which publish mortality figures without long lag times show large spikes in general mortality rates unaccounted for by confirmed Covid-19 deaths. This helps explain why so many places throughout the world are experiencing such dire situations as hospitals, morgues, crematories, and cemeteries are unable to keep pace with its ravages.

It is telling that countries and localities that have experienced the worst of the virus thus far are not reporting the kinds of anti-lockdown protests that are occurring elsewhere. Hard-hit western Europe and New York State, for example, know what it is to suffer mass casualties, and those who live in those places who would prefer to see the virus run its course in hopes to attain herd immunity – a still theoretical goal since we still know so little about how the virus affects those exposed to it, and those who have not yet – appear to be few and far between.

For those who insist that the lockdown cure is worse than the disease, they need to be honest about the risks and our still profound ignorance about how the virus affects people and how it might do if left to run through the population unchecked, or mitigated only by voluntary or limited measures. They need to acknowledge that the evidence regarding the mortality rate is still mixed; that even if the percentage of people who suffer and die from the virus is relatively small, the total number of casualties may still be unacceptably high if the majority of the population catches the virus; and that many who survive infection still suffer greatly from it, including damage to kidney, heart, vascular system, digestive system, and brain.

They need to understand that such arguments as ‘just because people die with Covid-19 doesn’t mean they die of Covid-19′ – another one I have frequently encountered on social media – are disingenuous and dangerous. They are disingenuous because people are routinely killed by disease or accident which is listed as the primary cause of death though they had another ongoing health issue. A person might have a suppressed immune system because of a condition or medication following a transplant or cancer, but their primary cause of death might still be Covid-19. Even if such a person caught the virus more easily or suffered worse effects from it than they might have otherwise, if they hadn’t caught it, they’d still be alive. The same goes for people who routinely live for years or decades with high blood pressure, obesity, heart or lung ailments, clotting disorders, old age, or other risk factors or disease. To argue that people with comorbidities did not really die of Covid-19, or that the virus merely hastened their inevitable deaths, is dangerous because it implies that the preservation of life in the face of disease or injury is itself pointless and unnecessary. Those who died of Covid-19 who had other risk factors – well, their deaths don’t count. Brush them under the rug.

In sum: when making an argument to extend or to lift lockdowns, be honest about what you’re arguing. If you’re arguing to extend the lockdown, acknowledge the side effects to physical and mental health, and to overall material and financial well-being. If you’re arguing to end the lockdown, don’t pretend that we know more than we do about the potential consequences, or pretend Covid-19 is not really such a big deal. No time is the time for lies, obfuscation, conspiracy theories, or hyperbole, but this is especially not it.

~ 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!

Camp Funston, at Fort Riley, Kansas, during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic

American Contempt

US Capitol Building under repair, Washington DC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Like so many others, I’m deeply disturbed, and yes, frightened, by the recent diatribe by the President of the United States against the legitimacy and patriotism of four United States Congresswomen, and by those who support his remarks. My native country has long been a beacon of hope and a refuge for those around the world who rejoice that there’s a country, founded and built by immigration, which is dedicated to universal principles of human rights. That beacon is currently being dimmed by the mud of hatred, bigotry, and distrust being flung around with wild abandon in this dark and dangerous time. These recent remarks of the President are the most egregious example of this, no less because of the enormous responsibility entrusted in him to represent all United States citizens and all who its laws protect.

In response, I make these points:

  1. Every United States citizen, with the exception of Native Americans and a few others, is either themselves, or a descendant of, people who did not ‘go back’ to their countries of origin to ‘fix’ them. (This is true of the President of the United States as well, whose own grandfather was a recent immigrant.) They elected, instead, to settle in the United States to build a better life for themselves, their families, and their posterity. A relative few have also made efforts to make things better in the countries of their ancestry or origin in some way, such as through charitable organizations or sending money to help their extended families, but most have dedicated themselves entirely to the fortunes and future of their adopted country. The ‘go back’ sentiment, therefore, is an expression of contempt for every citizen, as well as every legal resident and aspiring citizen-to-be of the United States.
  2. With the exception of those made through corruption and the outsize influence of monied special interests, every United States law and policy adopted or reformed is the result of the belief of citizens that the United States government is not doing right by its citizens in some way, and is not yet fully fulfilling its mission laid out in its Declaration of Independence or its Constitution. Whether those beliefs are correct or not is a matter of debate, not a question of ‘hating’ the United States. If it is, then the current President hates the United States, since he ran on a platform that its government was doing all manner of things wrong, and that it was a ‘swamp’ in need of reform. To advocate change and reform is what United States citizens do as a matter of course, from the American Revolution onwards. The idea that elected members of the United States government are ‘vicious’ for trying to change current laws or policies, as their constituents voted them in to do, is an expression of contempt for the United States’ democratic-republican system of government set up in the Constitution and reformed by its citizens through amendments over its history.
  3. Nearly every wave of immigration to the United States was met with hostility by many descendants of immigrants, though by no means all. These hostiles had grown complacent and entitled in their belief that the United States was their exclusive domain, though they descended from people who had been there for a very short time compared to the citizens of nearly every nation on earth. They attempted to justify their hostility on religious grounds, promoting hatred for Catholics, Jews, and others; on grounds of ethnicity or nationality, promoting hatred for Italians, Irish, and others; on racial grounds, promoting hatred for African, Asiatic, and other peoples; and on charges that immigrants were taking their jobs, promoting hatred for anyone new who competed with them in the job market. This sort of self-righteous, entitled, lazy-minded, hard-hearted bigotry, sadly, continues today, though many of these previously hated groups of people are now appreciated for their unique contributions and hard work in making the United States among the most dynamic nations on earth. The sentiment expressed in the idea that a foreign-born Congresswomen should be ‘sent back’ though she’s now a citizen through hers and her family’s efforts, and that three of these Congresswomen are ‘originally’ from elsewhere because their ancestors were, expresses the same contempt for immigrants and descendants of immigrants as the Know-Nothings, the Ku-Klux-Klan, the National Alliance, and all other groups and individuals who have characterized their fellow Americans as permanent outsiders because of their religion, ethnicity, original or ancestral nationality, or race, rather than their status as citizens or their desire and their efforts to make the United States their chosen home.

I may add to this as I have more time to reflect and write on these matters. I thank you, friends, for your patience in reading this, as I attempt to relieve my mind and soothe my heart a bit by putting these thoughts in writing.

~ 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!

Happy Birthday, Ida B. Wells!

Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, published, 1891, Image retrieved from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-107756, public domainIn the course of my journey following the life of Frederick Douglass in 2016, I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit the place in New York City where he may have first met the great Ida B. Wells. It was late 1892, and the fiery young newspaperwoman had published her controversial piece of investigative journalism in the New York Age on June 25, 1892. It was expanded and published as a pamphlet later that year as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

Many people at that time thought of lynching as an unfortunate and somewhat rare excess of race-hatred by frustrated Southern whites. And many more saw it as a lawless but not entirely unjustified species of vengeance against black men who had raped white women. But Wells (born in Mississippi on July 16th, 1862) would change all that. In early 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched after a dispute between themselves and white owners of a rival business. She was outraged and began an investigation of the practice and history of lynching.

When Wells wrote Southern Horrors, she had already been an activist and writer promoting black rights for many years. In 1884, she resisted being forced out of the first class train car into the ‘colored car’; she later sued the train company, won the first suit, then lost on appeal. This incident (which echoes Douglass’ train protest in 1841) led to many other lawsuits, articles, and activism against anti-black laws and social practices. In 1892, her investigation of lynching revealed to Wells that lynching was far from just vengeance for rape or other violent crimes; it served as vengeance for or a public warning against alleged insubordination or impertinence, petty crimes, idleness, drunkenness, and so on. It was also put to such uses as eliminating business competition (as was the case for Wells’ friends), getting rid of inconvenient owners of coveted land, or scapegoating black people for the crimes of others. She discovered that lynchings were not all that rare, either, and came to the conclusion that they constituted a form of social control that replaced the terrorism (the system of coercion which included whippings, deprivations, rape, and threats of being sold ‘down the river’) of slavery.

Douglass was inspired and energized by Wells’ writing and anti-lynching work, and his letter in praise of Southern Horrors served as the pamphlet’s introduction. He visited her in New York City where she was living for a little while as a writer for and part owner of the New York Age, which was (probably) published at the site I visited in Harlem. I also visited a second site that happened to be associated with Wells two days after my New York visit: she delivered one of her hard-hitting speeches in her speaking tour following the publication of Southern Horrors at Tremont Temple in Boston on Feb 13th, 1893.

Education was another driving force in her life. Her first job was as a teacher at age 14, and she taught for many years, over time supplementing her teaching with journalism, writing and editing for the Evening Star, The Living Way, and the Free Speech and Headlight. Another of her most controversial, consciousness-raising articles was published in 1891 in the Free Speech about the conditions in black schools: the poor quality of the buildings which housed them, and of the education and morals of the teachers and school boards who administered them. She was not fired outright, but the school refused to hire her for the next school year. She then went on to work full-time for the newspaper, promoting the Free Speech from city to city and writing articles along the way, until the Free Speech‘s offices and printing press were destroyed by angry whites after the publication of her ‘Lynch Law’ piece. Adversity only served to strengthen Wells’ resolve, each attack causing her to re-double her efforts on behalf of her people.

Wells went on to have a long and distinguished career in writing, investigative journalism, and activism for black rights and women’s suffrage. She worked with Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, toured the United States and Europe as a speaker and activist, founded Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club, served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council, founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League, and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), among many other things.

For a long time, Wells thought of marriage and romantic relationships as oppressive, where women were expected to defer to men and flatter their vanity. But one day, she met a man who must have made her feel very differently, an attorney, writer, and fellow advocate for black rights named Ferdinand Barnett. She married him and they raised four children.

If I ever manage to accomplish the tiniest fraction of what she did in my own life, I would consider myself a great success!

Here are some excellent resources for learning more about the brilliant and irrepressible Ida B. Wells:

Barnett, Ida Wells (1862-1931) ~ by Tyina Steptoe for BlackPast.org

Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. ~ by Ida B. Wells, Ed. Alfred Duster. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider, The History Chicks podcast episode 51

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by the editors of Encyclopædia Britannica

Ida B. Wells: Crusade for Justice ~ by Jennifer McBride for Webster University’s website.

New York Age ~ by Heather Martin for the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: K-Y

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases ~ by Ida B. Wells (1892) via Project Gutenberg

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ 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!

Happy Birthday, Julia Ward Howe!

Julia Ward Howe, ca. 1855

Julia Ward Howe, poet, and activist, was born on May 27, 1819, and lived a long life ever dedicated to social reform.

She’s best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the stirring Civil War anthem still sung at military events and in churches today; I remember singing it at Mass growing up. Filled with Biblical imagery, it reminds me of the Old Testament-inspired Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln. In it, Lincoln addresses the terrible costs of the war in lives and property, surmising that God’s justice may demand that ‘all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk., and …every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ in recompense for the terrible sin of slavery.

Howe wrote her Hymn in 1861, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was delivered in 1865. Lincoln is known to have heard the Battle Hymn and reported to have wept when he did. He was well versed in Scripture and references it liberally in his writings and speeches; nevertheless, he may also have had Howe’s Hymn in mind when he wrote his Address. In any case, both remain prominent in American historical memory. John Steinbeck uses her Book of Revelation-derived phrase The Grapes of Wrath as the title of his great novel about the suffering of Dust Bowl refugees fleeing to California. The great Leonard Cohen references her Hymn in ‘Steer Your Way’ from You Want It Darker, his final album released shortly before his death. Howe’s lyric ‘As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free’ became ‘As he died to make men holy, let us die to make things cheap’ in his stinging rebuke of hyper-materialism’s destructive exploitation of the earth to satisfy short-term comfort and short-sighted greed.

Julia Ward Howe postcard dated August 28th, 1903, from the Hutchinson Family Scrapbook in the collection of the Lynn Historical Society in Massachusetts. I was here in the spring of 2016 following the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass. The Hutchinson family dedicated their musical skills to the abolition movement and other reform causes and were friends with many prominent activists of their day. The scrapbook doesn’t note which member of the Hutchinson family Howe addressed this card to.

Read more about this great abolitionist, feminist, and author:

Julia Ward Howe, 1819–1910: Biography ~ Poetry Foundation

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) ~ by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum

‘The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,’ by Elaine Showalter ~ by Jill Lepore for The New York Times

Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, Volume 1 ~ by Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards, Maud Howe Elliott, and Florence Howe Hall, 1915

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ 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!

Happy Birthday, Karl Marx!

Marx by Sam Kaprielov, 76x61cm, oil on canvas, 2015, image used by permission of the artist

Marx by Sam Kaprielov, 76x61cm, oil on canvas, 2015, http://www.samkaprielov.com/

Born on May 5, 1818, few thinkers have been as influential as Karl Marx. Philosopher, theoretician of history, economist, sociologist, journalist, and revolutionary socialist, he was a prolific thinker and writer, widely lauded, criticized, and misunderstood, and all of these especially by those who claim to act in his name.

Too many of the latter have instituted some of the world’s most brutal and deadly regimes, which would have surprised and horrified Marx to no end. After all, his thought was informed and driven by the horrors of overcrowding, filth, pollution, and poverty that the industrial revolution and nascent, unregulated capitalism had wrought in English cities in his own time. While the value of his observations of the plight of the working poor are widely appreciated, as are his explorations of problems with and contradictions within capitalism that earlier thinkers such as Adam Smith had not identified or foreseen, there doesn’t seem to be much hope that his solutions would or could be implemented except by oppressive and tyrannical regimes.

In honor of his birthday, here’s a series of works about Karl Marx, a recent painting by an artist whose work my good friend introduced me to, and a song that I love.

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) ~ a brief bio at BBC: History

Karl Marx, 1818-1883 ~ by Steven Kreis for The History Guide

Karl Marx ~ by Jonathan Wolff for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Marx ~ Melvyn Bragg and guests Anthony Grayling, Francis Wheen, and Gareth Stedman Jones discuss Karl Marx for BBC’s In Our Time podcast and radio series

Karl Marx: Capitalism vs. Communism, Marx and Kierkegaard on Religion Part 1 and Part 2and Austrians and Marx ~ by Stephen West for Philosophize This!

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ 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!

Following in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Footsteps in London

Portraits of Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018

In honor of the great philosopher and founding mother of modern feminism Mary Wollstonecraft‘s birthday April 27, 1759, let me share the story of two 2018 visits to London in which I visited places associated with her life and legacy.

On January 11, 2018, I visited my friend Steven in London, who was studying history at King’s College after retiring from a successful law career. He kindly toured the city with me, showing me many of his favorite spots and accompanying me to others of my choosing, the latter mostly having to do with great thinkers and doers I admire and write about. It was great fun to run around London with a fellow energetic and restlessly curious traveler!

Among the sites I chose, the first stop was at the National Portrait Gallery to see the original 1797 portrait of Wollstonecraft by John Opie. It was painted when Wollstonecraft was pregnant with her daughter Mary, who would become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

Wollstonecraft’s portrait is hung among those of other British radicals, including that of her husband, eventual biographer, and father of her daughter Mary, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin. Below Wollstonecraft’s, I find a 1791 portrait by Laurent Dabos of her friend and ideological ally Thomas Paine. Both Wollstonecraft and Paine wrote in favor of using reason to design more just social structures and, contrary to Edmund Burke, in favor of the French Revolution. However, over time, Wollstonecraft and Paine found many reasons to become disillusioned with it. From an understandable and perhaps even laudable revolt against a massively unequal and unjust social system, the French Revolution developed into a wholesale bloodbath of the aristocracy and of real and perceived intellectual and political foes. For more connections between Paine and Wollstonecraft’s lives and ideas, please see my series ‘To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson.’)

Oakshott Court, London, at the site of 29 The Polyglon, where Mary Wollstonecraft died. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018

Portrait of William Godwin by James Northcote, 1802, at the National Portrait Gallery in London, England. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018

A few months later, on May 5th, my sweetheart Laurence accompanied me as I sought out two more sites, the day after we went on a fascinating tour of the Tower of London. Both are within easy walking distance of King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations. Our first destination was Oakshott Court, which stands at what used to be 29 The Polyglon, or Polyglon Square. Here, Wollstonecraft and her husband William Godwin settled in April of 1797 to enjoy a happy, if sometimes tumultuous, love. Wollstonecraft and Godwin had met many years before at a 1791 dinner held in honor of Paine, but had disliked each other at first. Both were passionate, opinionated people prone to speaking their minds, and they spent much of that first meeting arguing about religion. Godwin was also described by people who knew him as awkward with women. But the two had mutual friends and met again occasionally over the years, slowly warming to one another. In January of 1796, Godwin read Wollstonecraft’s travel book A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. As Godwin wrote in his biography of Wollstonecraft, the book increased his respect and admiration of her, and after she called on him in the spring of that year, they became real friends, then lovers.

At first, they lived apart. But when it became clear that Mary was pregnant, they decided to marry, though they both considered marriage an outmoded, superstitious, and even ridiculous institution. Wollstonecraft and Godwin decided that they didn’t want to subject their child to the social difficulties of growing up with unmarried parents. Godwin was also acutely aware of the struggles Wollstonecraft had faced raising her first daughter Fanny as a single mother, and wanted to spare her a repeat of that experience. Besides, Wollstonecraft gloried in the domestic lifestyle she and Godwin had settled into, so marriage didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice on her part. According to Godwin, they ‘declared’ their marriage in April 1797 though they had already married a short while before. They moved to the Polyglon house on April 6th, but their newfound joy was not to last long. The delivery of little Mary went well at first, but Wollstonecraft died 11 days later, on September 10, 1797, of an infection following the surgical removal of her undelivered placenta.

Old St. Pancras and churchyard, London, England. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018

Mary Wollstonecraft’s original sarcophagus at St. Pancras Old Church burial ground, London, England. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018

Laurence and I then headed a few blocks northeast to St. Pancras Old Church, just past the north end of St. Pancras International station and on the west side of the tracks. We were in search of the gravesite where Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Godwin’s second wife Mary Jane (Clairmont) Godwin were buried. I had read a description of the site but when we arrived, we found there was no map of the graveyard. It took some searching to identify it from the weathered inscriptions. Laurence spotted it first: a simple, tall, rectangular sarcophagus with a flared lid. Wollstonecraft and Godwin are no longer buried here: after Mary Shelley died in 1851, her parents’ remains were moved to join hers at the Shelley family burial ground at St. Peter’s in Bournemouth.

St. Pancras was a lovely place to be on such a lovely day; the leaves and grass were lush and green and lavishly sprinkled with flowers. I was happy to see that Wollstonecraft’s memory was still being honored, with flowers and other little tributes placed on the top. I suspect that it was Godwin who chose this elegant coffin and specially for Wollstonecraft, since she lived so independently of her family and was the first to be buried here. Its clean lines emphasize the carved text on the front: ‘Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of Vindication of the rights of Woman, Born 27th April 1759, Died 10th September 1797.’ This inscription also reflects Godwin’s intellectual love of Wollstonecraft. In the title of her biography, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, he repeated this emphasis on her immortal ideas contained in her most memorable work.

The churchyard at Old St. Pancras, London, with Wollstonecraft’s sarcophagus second from the right. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018.

Wollstonecraft’s life was short, only 38 years, but oh, how fully she lived it! For my take on her fascinating life, please see my essay ‘Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love.

For more about the indefatigable Wollstonecraft, please see:

Articles and essays:

Mary Wollstonecraft ~ by Sylvana Tomaselli for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Mary Wollstonecraft: English Author ~ by the editors for Encyclopaedia Britannica

Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759–1797) ~ by Barbara Taylor for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

and various excellent essays about Mary Wollstonecraft~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Books:

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft ~ by Claire Tomalin

Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman ~ by William Godwin

Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft ~ by Lyndall Gordon

~ 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!

Happy Birthday, James McCune Smith!

James McCune Smith, closeup of engraving by Patrick H. Reason

On this anniversary of Dr. James McCune Smith’s birth, I’d like to share the story of this great thinker and activist’s life and why I’ve chosen him as the subject of my Ph.D. studies. Rather, in a way, I think he chose me. While researching the life of his colleague, friend, and frequent star at Ordinary Philosophy Frederick Douglass, I came across McCune Smith and was drawn in by his intelligence, passion, writing styles, and fascinating life story. I’m now working on writing the first full-length biography of this great and far-too-little known pioneering African American physician, intellectual, activist, and community benefactor who also made important contributions to history, literature, anthropology, physiology, medicine, constitutional theory, and the emerging field of statistics.

McCune Smith was born in New York on April 18th, 1813, the son of self-emancipated slave Lavinia Smith and, likely, her former master, a merchant named Samuel Smith. From an early age, little James excelled in his studies at New York City’s African Free School No. 2 on Mulberry St. There, he was a classmate of, and over the years, a lifelong friend, colleague, and in some cases biographer of such luminaries as minister and activist Henry Highland Garnet, mathematician and educator Charles L. Reason, engraver Patrick H. Reason, and Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. All of these, as well as others among their classmates, went on to become leaders in the fight for abolition and equal rights.

Drawing of Napoleon Francois, Charles Joseph, by James McCune Smith, 1825. Published at O.P. with the kind permission of the New-York Historical Society

Upon finishing his studies at the Free School, McCune Smith continued his studies independently and with tutors, focusing on Greek, Latin, and the classics; over the years, he would come to be fluent in Greek and Latin, and to gain a working knowledge of French, German, and Hebrew. When his applications for admission were rejected from the medical schools at Columbia and Geneva in New York on account of his African ancestry, McCune Smith applied to the University of Glasgow in Scotland, which had no racial restrictions. He completed his bachelor’s degree there in 1835, his master’s degree in 1836, and his medical degree in 1837, receiving several honors along the way. Upon his return to his native New York City in 1837, he was said to be the most educated African American of his time.

Though he had enjoyed great freedom and opportunity in Scotland, McCune Smith decided to make New York City his permanent home. There, he continued the freedom struggle he had engaged in as a founding member of the Glasgow Abolition Society, this time in his native United States where he felt his efforts were most needed. While he was establishing his pharmacy and medical practice at 93 West Broadway St, McCune Smith also jumped right into political activism, fighting to remove the discriminatory $250 property qualification that applied only to black voters. He is most well known today for his activism in abolitionist societies such as the American Anti-Slavery Society, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, and the Radical Abolitionists, as well as his leading role in the Colored Convention movement. Yet much, if not most, of McCune Smith’s freedom struggle took place on a personal, community, and grassroots level. He fought for greater economic and educational freedom and opportunity for his fellow New Yorkers of color, regularly gave lectures to raise money for black charities, was a founding member of the Committee of Thirteen dedicated to helping those escaping from slavery, and was the attending physician to the Colored Orphan Asylum for over twenty years.

McCune Smith Cafe & Shop, Glasgow, Scotland, photo January 2019 by Amy Cools

McCune Smith married Malvena Barnet in the early 1840s and together they had (about) 11 children, five of whom survived to adulthood. McCune Smith and Malvena loved raising children and grieved hard over the loss of so many. It must also have been uniquely hard for McCune Smith in his role as a physician administering to children, not being able to save so many of his own from their ultimately fatal illnesses. Yet he managed to keep his hope alive and his energies up, leading an incredibly productive professional, intellectual, and creative life. In addition to his groundbreaking work as the first African American to have a case report presented to a mainstream medical association and to have an article published in a medical journal, McCune Smith wrote prolifically and brilliantly in statistics, several sciences, history, travel, and literature. His writing ranged from concise and clinical to lyrical; from erudite to plain and direct; from sharply critical to experimental; from sarcastic to witty; from righteously angry to tender; from wry to comical.

It was not only suffering the loss of so many children that could have kept McCune Smith down. The Colored Orphan Asylum that he had loved and labored for so long was burned down in New York City’s draft riots of 1863, leading McCune Smith to move his family to the safety of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. He felt frustration, anger, sorrow, and even despair at the intractability of racism and oppression directed at his fellow African Americans despite their abilities, potential, and invaluable contributions to American prosperity and culture. McCune Smith also suffered from bouts of heart disease, lung ailments, and edema for about twenty years, and though he had many health scares over that time, he always seemed to rally and push on. Yet as he wrote occasionally throughout the middle and later years of his life, McCune Smith suspected he would not live a long life. He was right. McCune Smith died of congestive heart failure on November 17th, 1865, at only 52 years old. He had lived to see the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War, and the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, but died just before that Amendment was fully ratified.

Please stay tuned for more about McCune Smith as I continue my research into his life, ideas, and legacy…

Sources and inspiration (not exhaustive by any means, but these are some readily available to share with you online):

AFS Bios: James McCune Smith’. Examination Days: The New York African Free School Collection

Associated Press. ‘White Descendants Gather to Honor 1st Black US Doctor, Put Tombstone on His Unmarked NYC Grave’. FoxNews.com, 26 September 2010

Lujan, Heidi L. and Stephen E. DiCarlo. ‘First African-American to Hold a Medical Degree: Brief History of James McCune Smith, Abolitionist, Educator, and Physician.Advances in Physiology Education 43, no. 2 (April 2019): 134-39

Morgan, Thomas M. ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865), First Black American to Hold a Medical Degree.’ Journal of the National Medical Association 95, no. 7 (July 2003): 603–14

Obituary of James McCune Smith’. The Medical Register of the City of New York for the Year Commencing June 1, 1866, 1866, 201–4

Smith, James McCune, and John Stauffer. The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006

~ 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!

Happy Birthday, Jeremy Bentham!

Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon at University College London, 2003 by Michael Reeve, GNU Free Documentation License Version 1.2

Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon at University College London, photo 2003 by Michael Reeve

Jeremy Bentham, the great English moral and legal philosopher born on February 15, 1748, was a very strange man. A brilliant one, but strange nonetheless. He was a precocious child and advanced in his studies very early, finding Westminster and Queen’s College at Oxford too easy and therefore rather boring. He was trained as a lawyer but decided not to practice law after hearing William Blackstone’s lectures. Blackstone’s treatise Commentaries on the Laws of England is still considered one of the most authoritative and foundational works on English law, so for a guy to consider them so flawed that he’d want to give up his career seems a bit… well, presumptuous. But he demonstrated his own great intellectual capacities through his lifetime of prolific writing, mostly on legal theory, moral philosophy, and social reform. In the end, he earned the right to a certain degree of arrogance.

Bentham is generally considered the father of utilitarianism, the moral philosophy which judges anything that can be judged as right or wrong, good or evil, according to how conducive it is to ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ Utilitarianism, then, is a type of consequentialism, which holds that a thing is right or wrong based on its consequent harms or benefits. Bentham did not invent the principles of utilitarianism; he discovered them in the writings of Cesare Beccaria (who authored the ‘greatest happiness’ axiom), David Hume, Claude Helvétius, and Joseph Priestley. But he spent a lifetime synthesizing these principles into a cohesive, fleshed-out moral philosophy founded on utility, whether a law or action increases or decreases pleasure or happiness. This principle can seem too subjective to apply to matters of law or public policy; after all, what makes one happy can make another less so, and how can we determine whether the happiness of one is greater, or more important, than the happiness of another? Bentham, careful and systematic in his approach to this as he was to everything else, devised his ‘Felicific Calculus’ to solve this problem. Bentham believed that pleasure, a natural phenomenon like everything else in the world, was likewise quantifiable. He hoped his method of assigning unitary measurements to pleasure, then determining their relative values through mathematics, was a way to make his moral philosophy practicable, conducive to real social reform.

To many, the idea that pleasure and happiness could be reduced to mathematical formulas seems very strange; some think he may have had Asperger’s syndrome or another cognitive feature that caused Bentham to view emotion with such scientific detachment. But as socially awkward as he and his ideas often were, his utilitarian philosophy led to him to some moral conclusions that we now consider extremely progressive and much more caring than those typical of his times. For example, he was an early proponent of racial equality, women’s rights, and animal rights. As to animal rights, just as for all classes of human beings, considering only the pleasure and pain of some sentient beings and not others when it comes to morals is unscientific and therefore unjustifiably biased. After all, animals, like all human beings, have feelings too, and their feelings are just as important to them as ours are to us. So, a moral system based on feelings must consider all equally important, so that one unit of pig happiness, for example, is just as morally significant as one unit of human happiness. The only correct way to balance them out in matters of morals and public policy is to apply the Felicific Calculus to determine how much pleasure or pain each experience in any given situation.

At the end of his long and productive life, the committed naturalist arranged to have his body publicly dissected, both for scientific inquiry and to provide an example to others; he believed that a perfectly good body should never go to waste and that everyone should donate their body to science. He also arranged to have his head and skeleton preserved, dressed in his clothes and stuffed to look as lifelike as possible, to be displayed in some public place. The preservation of Bentham’s head, with its glass eyes he had purchased some years before, left much to be desired; the expression it ended up with creeped people out. So his Auto-Icon, as he called it, sits today in its glass case at University College, London with a nice lifelike wax head in its place. His real head is safely stored away where students, who had stolen it over the years in a series of pranks, can no longer get to it.

Read more about the brilliant and eccentric Bentham at:

Jeremy Bentham – by James E. Crimmins for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Jeremy Bentham – University College London website

Jeremy Bentham on the Suffering of Non-Human AnimalsUtilitarianism.com

~ 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!!

Happy Birthday, Frederick Douglass!

Frederick and Joseph Douglass, from the Library of Congress archives, via Lion of Anacostia b

Frederick Douglass and his grandson Joseph, concert violinist who inherited his love of music from his grandparents, from the Library of Congress archives

Let us remember and salute the great human rights activist and Enlightenment thinker Frederick Douglass, on this near-anniversary of his birth.

The exact day of Douglass’ birth is unknown. We know the year, 1818, from his entry in the slave ledger of his master Aaron Anthony. His likely birth month, February, is an estimate. In his later years, Douglass chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14th because, he said, his mother Harriet once called him ‘my Valentine’.

Douglass is among my favorite people that ever inhabited the earth. He was born into slavery in Maryland, was mostly self-educated, escaped to freedom when he was 20, married the loving and strong Anna Murray, and became one of the most eloquent and influential advocates for civil rights in American, and, indeed, world history. He was an author, orator, preacher, activist, statesman, patriarch, musician, and world traveler. I had the joy of following the life and ideas of this motivated, resourceful, brilliant, complicated, and incredibly fascinating person through the United States, and now I’m continuing my research in Scotland, where he spent a relatively brief but very influential part of his life.

Here are a few links to some articles and works of art by, about, and inspired by the great Frederick Douglass, including my own work.

7 Haunts of Frederick Douglass in New York City ~ by Amy Cools for Untapped Cities

Frederick Douglass ~ by Melvyn Bragg and guests Karen Salt, Nicholas Guyatt, and Celeste-Marie Bernier for In Our Time

Frederick Douglass – by Ronald Sundstrom for Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Frederick Douglass  ~ Melvin Bragg discusses the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass with Karen Salt, Nicholas Guyatt, and Celeste-Marie Bernier for In Our Time

Frederick Douglass: In Progress ~ by Leigh Fought

Frederick Douglass Papers ~ at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Frederick Douglass Papers ~ at the Library of Congress

Frederick Douglass: United States Official and Diplomat ~ by the Editors for Encyclopædia Britannica

Frederick Douglass and a Valentine, Emily Dickinson and a Snake – by Rob Velella for The American Literary Blog

Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia – by John Muller

Frederick’s Song– Douglass’ words arranged and set to music by SayReal and Richard Fink

From Oakland to Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts I Go, in Search of Frederick Douglass – History of ideas travel series by Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy

Interview with Ken Morris, Anti-Slavery Activist ~ by Ken Morris and Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy Podcast

Interview with Leigh Fought on Anna and Frederick Douglass ~ by Leigh Fought and Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy Podcast

Frederick Douglass in the British Isles ~ History of ideas travel series by Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy in Scotland, England, and Ireland, 2018-2019

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ 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!