Happy Birthday, Robert Ingersoll!

Statue of Robert G. Ingersoll in Glen Oak Park, Peoria, Illinois

Robert G. Ingersoll, orator, lawyer, politician and Civil War veteran often called ‘The Great Agnostic’, was a very famous man in his time but rather forgotten today. He was born on August 11, 1833 and died almost 66 years later. Among other things, he was a vocal and consistent advocate for abolitionism, women’s rights, freethought, and scientific progress. While very liberal and broad-minded, he was a dedicated family man. While his views are as progressive as could be for a person if his time, he was what we might call a square. Besides his unabashed and very public religious skepticism, he lived a life that even Victorian standards would consider altogether decorous and blameless, despite frequent attempts to discredit his views by finding something scandalous to publish about his personal life.

Ingersoll was a great friend of many of the era’s most interesting and influential people including Walt Whitman and Thomas Edison, who made two recordings of his voice with his new invention, the audio recorder.

He was also an admirer and promoter of the memory of Thomas Paine. Though Paine was a founding father of the American cause for independence with his great pamphlet Common Sense and other writings, he had long fallen out of favor in American public memory following the publication of The Age of Reason, his diatribe against religious orthodoxy and superstition, as he perceived it.

Robert Ingersoll in 1868

In the time Ingersoll enjoyed fame as an orator, freethought ideas had become more acceptable as a matter of public discourse. It was still generally unacceptable to be an out-and-out atheist, but even these could become popular speakers if they were eloquent and interesting enough. In fact, they were often considered novel and exciting, and free speech was enjoying one of its heydays in the United States in this period sometimes called The Golden Age of Freethought. This was a time when public speakers provided a very popular form of entertainment. Many of that era’s important thinkers and activists made their living, or much of it, through public speaking: Ingersoll himself, abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass, and feminist, atheist, and civil rights activist Ernestine Rose among them. Rose was also a famous orator in her day, pre-dating Ingersoll by almost a generation but like him, eloquent, witty, and a champion of Paine. She generally spoke only of topics related to her social justice causes, but Ingersoll and Douglass, like many famous orators, spoke on a wide range of topics such as Shakespeare (both men were big fans), science, politics, and much more.

For more about the eloquent and brilliant Ingersoll, please see the links to excellent online sources and to my own writings about Ingersoll below. Last year, I followed the lives and ideas of Robert Ingersoll, Frederick Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln in Peoria, Illinois, where Ingersoll lived and worked for many years; all three men admired and were inspired by one another. It was a most fascinating journey.

By Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy:

Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 1
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 2
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 3

Review: The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, by Susan Jacoby

By others:

Robert G. Ingersoll: American Politician ~ by the editors for Encyclopaedia Britannica

Robert Ingersoll, the ‘Great Agnostic’ ~ by John Kelly for The Washington Post

Robert Ingersoll: Intellectual and Moral Atlas ~ by Tom Malone for The Objective Standard

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) ~ at SecularHumanism.org

That Old-Time Irreligion: ‘The Great Agnostic,’ by Susan Jacoby ~ by Jennifer Michael Hecht for The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review

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

O.P. Recommends: Speaking Ill of Hugh Hefner, by Ross Douthat

‘No doubt what Hefner offered America somebody else would have offered in his place, and the changes he helped hasten would have come rushing in without him.

But in every way that mattered he made those changes worse, our culture coarser and crueler and more sterile than liberalism or feminism or freedom of speech required….

Now that death has taken him, we should examine our own sins. Liberals should ask why their crusade for freedom and equality found itself with such a captain, and what his legacy says about their cause. Conservatives should ask how their crusade for faith and family and community ended up so Hefnerian itself — with a conservative news network that seems to have been run on Playboy Mansion principles and a conservative party that just elected a playboy as our president.’

Read this article in full in the New York Times‘ Opinion Page for Sep 30th, 2017

~ One thing I’d like to make clear: I don’t at all endorse the ageism I discern in many of the articles I’ve read that are critical of Hefner, including this one. So many of these writers imply that Hefner’s sexuality was distasteful, at least in part, because of the physical attributes associated with aging. For example, Douthat mocks Hefner’s ‘papery skin’ and ‘decrepitude’ as if they were among those things the reader should be disgusted by. I don’t believe it’s any more justified to stereotype older people as it is to stereotype women based on narrow conceptions of what desirable or likable people should look like.

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

‘Free Speech’ is a Blunt Instrument. Let’s Break It Up, by Robert Simpson

April 15, 1967, Spring Mobilization to End the War, San Francisco

Free speech is important. It guards against governments’ dangerous tendency to repress certain kinds of communication, including protest, journalism, whistleblowing, academic research, and critical work in the arts. On the other hand, think of a doctor dispensing bogus medical advice, or someone making a contract that she plans to breach, or a defendant lying under oath in court. These all involve written or spoken statements, but they don’t seem to fall within the domain of free speech. They are what the legal theorist Frederick Schauer at the University of Virginia calls ‘patently uncovered speech’: communication that warrants no special protection against government regulation.

However, once we extrapolate beyond the clear-cut cases, the question of what counts as free speech gets rather tricky. A business whose website gets buried in pages of search results might argue that Google’s algorithm is anti-competitive – that it impedes fair competition between sellers in a marketplace. But Google has dodged liability by likening itself to a newspaper, and arguing that free speech protects it from having to modify its results. Is this a case of free speech doing its proper work, or an instance of free speech running amok, serving as cover for a libertarian agenda that unduly empowers major corporations?

To answer this question, we need a principled account of the types of communication covered by free speech. But attempts to provide such an account haven’t really succeeded. We can pick out cases on either side of the divide – ‘Protections for journalism and protest? Yes! For perjury and contracts? No’ – but there aren’t any obvious or natural criteria that separate bona fide speech from mere verbal conduct. On the contrary, as theorists have told us since the mid-20th century, all verbal communication should be understood as both speech and conduct.

Some authors see these definitional difficulties as a fatal problem for the very idea of free speech. In There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing Too (1994), the American literary critic and legal scholar Stanley Fish argued that ‘free speech’ is really just a rhetorically expedient label that people assign to their favoured forms of communication. There’s a grain of truth in this; but it doesn’t change the fact that governments still have a tendency to repress things such as protest and whistleblowing, and that we have good reasons to impose institutional safeguards against such repression if possible.

Instead of throwing out free speech entirely, a better response might be to keep the safeguards but make their sphere of application very broad. This is roughly what happens in Canadian law, where nearly any type of conduct can fall within the constitutional ideal of ‘free expression’, provided that it is trying to convey some kind of meaning. The downside is that if nearly anything can qualify as ‘expressive’ in the relevant sense, then we cannot categorically privilege expression itself as an inviolable norm. WhistlAll we can ask lawmakers to do is factor in the interests that such expression serves, and try to strike a balance with all the other, competing interests (such as ‘equality’, for example, or ‘national security’). While such trade-offs are standard in Commonwealth legal systems, they have the unwelcome effect of making it easier for governments to justify their repressive tendencies.

I’d propose a third way: put free ‘speech’ as such to one side, and replace it with a series of more narrowly targeted expressive liberties. Rather than locating actions such as protest and whistleblowing under the umbrella of ‘free speech’, we could formulate specially tailored norms, such as a principle of free public protest, or a principle of protected whistleblowing. The idea would be to explicitly nominate the particular species of communication that we want to defend, instead of just pointing to the overarching genus of ‘free speech’. This way the battle wouldn’t be fought out over the boundaries of what qualifies as speech, but instead, more directly, over the kinds of communicative activities we think need special protection.

Take the idea of public protest. Standard free-speech theory, concerned as it is with what counts as speech, tends to draw a line between interference based on the content of the speech, such as the speaker’s viewpoint (generally not allowed), and interference that merely affects the time, place and manner in which the speech takes place (generally allowed). But this distinction runs into trouble when it comes to protest. Clearly governments should be blocked from shutting down demonstrations whose messages they oppose. But equally they shouldn’t be able to multiply the rules about the time, place and manner in which demonstrations must take place, such that protests become prohibitively difficult to organise. One reason to have a dedicated principle of free public protest, then, is to help us properly capture and encode these concerns. Instead of seeing demonstrations as merely one application of a generic free-speech principle, we can use a narrower notion of expressive liberty to focus our attention on the distinctive hazards faced by different types of socially important communication.

If this all seems a bit optimistic, it’s worth noting that we already approach some types of communication in this way – such as academic freedom. Universities frequently come under pressure from political or commercial lobby groups – such as big oil, or the Israel lobby – to defund research that runs counter to their interests. This kind of threat has a distinctive underlying causal mechanism. In light of this problem, universities safeguard academic freedom via laws and regulations, including guidelines that specify the grounds for which academics can be fired or denied promotion. These moves are not just a specific implementation of a general free-speech principle. They’re grounded in notions of academic freedom that are narrower than and distinct from freedom of speech. My suggestion is that all our expressive liberties could be handled in this way.

The subdivision of expressive liberties isn’t going to magically fix all the genuinely controversial issues around free speech, such as what to do about search engines. However, we don’t need to resolve these debates in order to see, with clarity and confidence, that protest, journalism, whistleblowing, academic research and the arts need special protection. The parcelled-out view of expressive liberties captures the importance of these activities, while sidestepping the definitional problems that plague standard free-speech theory. These are not merely theoretical advantages. Any time a country is creating or revising a bill of rights, the question of how to protect communicative practices must be considered afresh. Multiple expressive liberties is an approach worth taking seriously.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Robert Simpson is a lecturer in philosophy at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He writes regularly about social and political philosophy. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers


Frederick Douglass Albany, Troy, and Syracuse NY Sites

A view of Albany, NY, 2016 by Amy Cools

A view of downtown Albany, New York, looking west

Eighth Day, Sunday March 27th

I get up very early and leave Cambridge (where I’ve been staying while visiting Boston and Lynn) and this time, instead of heading north, I head west across upstate New York. I’ve never visited this part of the country before. My friend who I’ll be staying with in Rochester laments that I’m visiting at the least advantageous time of year for beauty’s sake: the snow is gone, and having scrubbed the trees bare, leaves the trash it’s been concealing exposed, and there’s not a hint of green nor bloom yet on the branches. But I still think it’s lovely, with a sort of stark gray beauty, and enjoy the day’s drive of about 325 miles.

A view down State Street looking toward the Hudson River, Albany NY

A view down State Street looking toward the Hudson River, Albany NY

My first stop is Albany, a city on a hill with beautiful architecture. There were some ardent abolitionists here, and it had one of the main stations on the Underground Railroad on the route Frederick Douglass was connected to. Douglass named Stephen MyersLydia and Abigail Mott (who he entrusted with the education of his daughter Rosetta for a time) and William Topp in his autobiographies as some of the key figures here in the cause of the liberation of black people. But Douglass had some very unflattering things to say about Albany too: as he wrote in 1847, he observed a lot of racism here, especially in the wealthier families enriched directly or indirectly from slaveholding, and in the press. He was warmly welcomed by the congregation of the Baptist Church on State Street, but as of this time I can’t confirm its location: the current Baptist Church on State Street, Emmanuel, didn’t move there until 1869, and the Baptist church I found dating from his time was not on State St.

Tweddle Hall, inscribed 1754 Old Tweddle Hall, from Albany Institute of History & Art Library

Tweddle Hall, inscribed ‘1754 Old Tweddle Hall’, from Albany Institute of History & Art Library

I wander the downtown area for a little while, glad to stretch my legs, admiring the grand city center buildings, soaring churches (mostly built in the mid to late 1880’s), old stone and brick row houses, and the lovely view east where the hill slopes down to the Hudson River. Then I head to my main destination, the site where Frederick Douglass spoke at the American Equal Rights Convention at Tweddle Hall, held November 20th and 21st, 1866. Tweddle Hall once stood at the northeast corner of State and Pearl, and originally built in 1860, it burned down, was rebuilt once in 1883, then replaced in 1927 by the Bank Building which now stands here.

Douglass had long been an ardent champion of the women’s rights movement; he had been the first to back Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s call for women’s suffrage at the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 (more on this story in an upcoming account).

But here in Albany, a serious split in the women’s rights movement began with the debate over the 15th Amendment. The American Equal Rights Association had formed earlier that year, on May 10th in New York City. The Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention reformed itself as the AERA, dedicated equally to black and female suffrage following the 14th Amendment, which for the first time specifically linked the word ‘male’ to the right to vote. While the 14th Amendment didn’t specifically guarantee the right to vote to all males, it did limit representation according to the number of adult males allowed to vote, overturning the hated 3/5ths compromise clause of the Constitution which granted representation, albeit reduced, to non-voting ‘persons bound to service for a number of years’, in other words, slaves.

Bank Building at NE corner of State and Pearl, site of old Tweddle Hall, 2016 Amy Cools

Bank Building at northeast corner of State and S. Pearl, site of old Tweddle Hall

The proposed 15th Amendment, as written and as it was eventually passed, would guarantee the right to vote to all citizens regardless of ‘race, color, or previous condition of servitude’, leaving the ‘male’ link to voting from the 14th Amendment intact. Douglass’ biographer Phillip S. Foner describes Douglass’ position on the 15th Amendment as: ‘to women the ballot was desirable, to the Negro it was a matter of life and death.’ Douglass thought it was absolutely imperative that black people get the right to vote even if it meant putting aside other great political causes for the moment. Adding women’s right to vote to the 15th Amendment would make it so much more controversial that it surely wouldn’t pass. After all, it wasn’t only black men who were still suffering great oppression and failing to enjoy the rights the Civil War victory was supposed to have won them; black women suffered worst of all because they had no legally protected voters to represent them. To many in the women’s rights movement, this was an unpardonable breach of loyalty from the man who had been their dedicated champion from the beginning. But Douglass still supported the AERA, joined in their petitions, and even acted as a representative and as a Vice President over the years.

Unfortunately, as the political struggle for racial suffrage gained more traction than woman suffrage, some of the feminist political rhetoric took on a racist character, saying, for example, that suffrage for educated, civilized white women should take precedent over suffrage for uneducated, ‘degraded’ black people. Sadly, even his old friends and allies Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton stooped to this rhetoric, though in later years Stanton redeemed herself somewhat by warmly, and wittily, congratulating Douglass and Helen Pitts on their January 24th, 1884 marriage: ‘After all the terrible battles and political upheavals we have had in expurgating our constitutions of that odious adjective ‘white’ it is really remarkable that you of all men should have stooped to do it honor.’ Perhaps his good example of loyalty to her in later years, despite her earlier racist comments, helped her overcome the worst in her character that angry disappointment can tend to bring out even in the best of us.

Liberty St at Franklin, Troy NY, two blocks east of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church site

Liberty St at Franklin, Troy NY, two blocks east of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church historical marker site

I return to my car and drive about 15 minutes north along the Hudson River to Troy, another northern New York State former industrial town which has clearly suffered a long and steady decline. But it’s full of lovely old buildings and has an interesting history; for example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended Troy Female Seminary. It’s also a college town; when I stop for coffee and to do some research, I find myself among many college age students spending late Easter morning studying (though I suppose they’re on spring break, what good students!) and hanging out.

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church, Collection of the Rensselaer County Historical Society, Troy, NY 2

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in a later incarnation as a laundry. This only known surviving photo is in the collection of the Rensselaer County Historical Society, Troy, NY

I’m headed for the site of Liberty Street Presbyterian Church, which Albany’s Times Union newspaper reports was on the corner of Liberty and Franklin Streets – which may not actually be the right street corner, as I discover when fact-checking and doing extended research for this account, more on that in a moment. The Liberty Street Church used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad, ran by pastor Henry Highland Garner from 1838 to 1848.

I’m looking for this site today because the 1847 National Colored Convention was held here, where the ultimately unsuccessful movement to start a national, unified Negro League movement began. According to John Cromwell in his 1914 book The Negro in American History‘…the very first article in the first number of [Douglass’ paper] the North Star published January, 1848, is an extended notice of the National Colored Convention held at the Liberty Street Church, Troy, New York, October 9th, 1847′. Nathan Johnson, who the Douglasses made their first home with in New Bedford, was president of the convention. Frederick Douglass was one of the Massachusetts delegates to this convention. He still espoused Garrisonian principles at the time (he changed his mind later), which, among other things, held that moral suasion and non-violent boycotting of politics were the most effective ways to end slavery. He called on his fellow black people everywhere to leave their churches if they were segregated or supportive of slavery in any way, and stressed the importance of education and self-improvement to stand as living testaments against the prejudices of white people. However, for a variety of reasons, it proved too difficult to unite the scattered, disenfranchised black community together into one unified movement. Those who were free shared the tactical and philosophical disagreements of white members of the abolitionist movement; those who were still enslaved or suffering the worst hardships of poverty, illiteracy, and other innumerable forms of intimidation and oppression found it difficult or impossible to participate.

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church Site (according to historical marker), photo by Howard C. Ohlhous 2016

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church Site with historical marker, photo by Howard C. Ohlhous 2016

So why might I be at the wrong street corner here at Liberty and Franklin? Because my additional research for this account prior to publication pulled up two locations for the old church, rather than the one I had initially pulled up. A couple of secondary and tertiary sources, which I find first and which guide my day’s search here, list the location as Liberty at Franklin: the newspaper, and this booklet for a historical project from 2008. I don’t yet have enough evidence now to prove definitively which is correct, though I believe one much is more likely. The crossing of Liberty and Franklin Streets is unmarked; Franklin is a narrow little street that runs between 2nd and 3rd, between the three story brick building and the two story white board one with the bay window. It’s a rather shabby little street corner now, the buildings here now don’t appear to be all that old.

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church Marker at Liberty and Church Streets, photo by Howard C Ohlhous

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church Marker at Liberty and Church Streets, photo by Howard C Ohlhous

Yet the historical marker for the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church is placed at Liberty and Church Streets, two blocks east of here. Oddly enough, the creators of the Spectres of Liberty project describe the site in their booklet as located on Liberty at Franklin, yet they hold their ‘Raising the Ghost of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church‘, a super cool historical art event, at the marker site. Could it be that the street names have been changed or reassigned? A city map / atlas from 1845 reveals that the street names and locations are the same here today as they were then.

In case the historical marker is placed incorrectly (update: the Rensselaer County Historical Society assures me that the marker is at the correct site) and this does turn out to be the correct site, which corner of Liberty and Franklin could it have been on? Comparing the photo to the streets now, there’s one clue that might help me: the fire hydrant shown in the photo. There is no fire hydrant now, but there is a capped water supply pipe which could have supplied it; unless it’s torn up and moved, this would remain a permanent fixture. It’s in the sidewalk in front of the three story red brick apartment building on the northwest corner of the street. If this is the same water supply, that would place the church on that corner with its narrower pointy side facing on Franklin and its long side facing Liberty. However, when I look more closely at the photo I’m referring to (the only known surviving one, it’s in the Rensselaer Historical Society collection), the site where the historical marker is located, two blocks east at Liberty and Church looks more like the correct location, if the placement of the fire hydrant and the street pole are the same today.

So why include my story of possibly looking in the wrong place (which, as it turns out, I do)? Well, this travel series is the story of a journey, and journeys often include wrong turns, misreading of signs, incorrect maps, bad directions, and so forth. Each of these is a learning experience, and I hope you don’t mind that I take you along with me as I learn. As we’ve just seen, there are conflicting sources of information out there, and the lesson I learn here: triple-check all sources!

Wieting Hall Site, Syracuse NY,

Wieting Hall Site,  111-119 W. Water St at S. Salina off Clinton Square, Syracuse NY

Wieting Opera House on Clinton Square in Syracuse, New York, 1898

Wieting Opera House on Clinton Square in Syracuse, New York, 1898

My last destination of the day is the site of Wieting Hall, at 111-119 W. Water Street in Syracuse, NY. The hall, which was first built in 1851, burned down in 1856 and was rebuilt as an opera house in 1857, burned and rebuilt yet again in 1881. Its builder and public-spirited owner Dr. John Wieting was a stoic yet tenacious man, responsible for its every incarnation. As you can see, what stands here now is not nearly so inspiring, in looks or in history.

On Nov 14th, 1861, Douglass was scheduled to deliver a speech on the Civil War and why the slaves needed to be freed en masse for the Union to win, one of his many appearances in Syracuse. Syracuse was another important stop on the underground railroad. However, as we’ve seen throughout this travel series, just because New York and other Northern states were free did not mean that all people here wanted black people to be armed, to enjoy civil rights, or even to be emancipated. Many in Syracuse were abolitionists and many others were not; racism was endemic in both of these groups.

According to Foner’s biography, an angry protest was planned: many townspeople were prepared to drive him and the other abolitionist speakers from the city. However, to his great credit, mayor Charles Andrews and Dr. Wieting refused to be intimidated, insisting that the talk take place as planned. They believed (as I agree all Americans should) that even unpopular speech should be protected speech, and their Syracuse was not to be a place where free speech could be squelched by threats. So 50 – 100 police were stationed (depending on the source) along with armed members of the Second Onondaga Regiment. When Douglass spoke, the crowd was well-behaved and respectful, be it because they actually did respect him and his right to speak, or because they were not allowed to be otherwise.

Clinton Square and Jerry Rescue Monument, Syracuse NY

Clinton Square and Jerry Rescue Monument, at S. Clinton and W. Water Streets, Syracuse NY, with Wieting Hall site in the background

Jerry Rescue Monument, Syracuse NY, photo 2016 by Amy CoolsAs I have plenty of daylight left, I wander through lovely Clinton Square, clearly a site in the process of restoration. The large rectangular concrete center used to be a part of the Erie Canal, a waterway route to the center of the city, and a place to ice skate when frozen over in winter (part if it is still filled with water and turned into a wintertime outdoor skating rink today!)

I discover a monument near the southwest corner of the square, erected in 2001 and dedicated to the October 1st, 1851 rescue of William ‘Jerry’ Henry. An escaped slave from Missouri, he was arrested as part of the effort to enforce the much-hated Fugitive Slave Act, enacted on September 18th, 1850. Many Northerners, abolitionist or not, thought it an intolerable intrusion on the legal autonomy of states and on freedom of conscience. Though the orator and statesman Daniel Webster (who, as you may remember from the second of my Lynn accounts, supported it as an acceptable compromise for preserving the Union) warned that the Fugitive Slave Act would be rigorously enforced here in Syracuse, it was vigorously defied on that October day. Attendees of the Liberty Party state convention (the party of Gerrit Smith, Douglass’ friend and mentor who we’ll learn more about soon) broke into the jail and freed Jerry, hid him in town for a few days, and smuggled him to Canada. This event would be long celebrated by abolitionists and champions of human rights, Douglass among them, as a triumph over oppression and in thanks to those who risked themselves to help a fellow human being in need.

Jerry Rescue Monument Plaque, Syracuse NY, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Jerry Rescue Monument Plaque in Clinton Square, Syracuse NY

Yellow house I stay at in Syracuse, NY, photo 2016 by Amy CoolsSo ends my tale of today’s adventures. I’m going to spend the night in a rented room in an old yellow house near beautiful Syracuse University, the most charming place I stay throughout the trip, with the exception of my new friends’ house near Baltimore and my old friends’ house in Rochester. Stay tuned for my continuing adventures following the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Amendment XIV: Citizenship Rights, Equal Protection, Apportionment, Civil War Debt‘, Constitution Center website

Amendment XV: Right to Vote Not Denied by Race‘, Constitution Center website

American Equal Rights Association‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Beauchamp, William Martin. Past and Present of Syracuse and Onondaga County, New York: From Prehistoric Times to the Beginning of 1908 (Volume 2). SJ Clarke Publishing Co: New York, 1908.

Blassingame, J. (Ed.). The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. 4 volumes, and The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 2: Autobiographical Writings. 3 volumes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979-1999 (including a letter to Sydney H. Gay, dated Oct 4th 1847)

‘Courtesy of the Rensselaer County Historical Society: Rev. Henry Highland Garnet’. The Amistad CommissionNew York Department of State website

Cromwell, John Wesley. The Negro in American History: Men and Women Eminent in the Evolution of the American of African Descent. J.F. Tapley Co: New York, 1914

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies (includes Narrative…, My Freedom and my Bondage, and Life and Times). With notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Frederick Douglass Escapes Slavery, Becomes Leading Abolitionist‘, Onondaga Historical Association website

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

Garrison, William Lloyd. The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Volume IV: From Disunionism to the Brink of War, 1850-1860. Edited by Louis Ruchames

Hallaron, Amy. ‘Artist’s magic lives on in Troy‘, Times Union, Albany, Monday, January 16, 2012

Jerry Rescue‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Jerry Rescue Monument‘, #44, Freethought Trail website

‘Liberty Street Presbyterian Church (African)’, Historical Marker Database (source of marker photos)

Lydia and Abigail Mott‘, Underground Railroad History website

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

Proceedings of the National Convention of Colored People and Their Friends; held in Troy, NY; on the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th of October, 1847.’ Colored Conventions website, University of Delaware

Rittner, Don. Albany, Then & NowArcadia: Charleston SC, 2002

Robinson, Olivia, Josh MacPhee, and Dara Greenwald. Spectres of Liberty: The Raising of the Ghost of the Liberty Street Church. Websitebooklet and video

Stephen Myers‘, Underground Railroad History website

Susan B. Anthony Boldly Writes the Speaker of the House Asking for a Public Endorsement of Women’s Suffrage‘, pamphlet for 1866 Convention and signed letter, RAAB collection website

Troy, N.Y., from actual survey‘ (map / atlas) by S.A. Beers, civl. engineer. Depicts: 1845

Upstate New York and the Women’s Rights Movement‘, University of Rochester / River Campus Libraries website

Wieting Opera House‘, #51, Freethought Trail website

Self-Soothing by Way of Erasing the Complexity of Human History, by Clay Jenkinson

Statue of Thomas Jefferson at his Memorial in Washington D.C., photo 2015 by Amy Cools My beloved mentor in the humanities, Everett C. Albers, taught me the most important of all lessons: “Judgement is easy, understanding is hard.”

You probably have been following the recent spasm of righteousness on some of our college campuses. Some students wish to erase all traces of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University, because he was a racist who undid what little integration his predecessors had managed in the federal government; because he was a sexist, who actively worked against women’s suffrage. Some students wish to have statues of Thomas Jefferson removed from the campus of the University of Missouri, because he was a racist, a slaveholder, and a sexual predator (if you read the Sally Hemings story in the darkest possible way). Some students at Oxford University wish to erase all traces of Cecil Rhodes, after whom Rhodesia was named, because he was a racist and an imperialist.

And so on.

It is true, by our standards as exemplars of perfect enlightenment, these men were all racists and indeed apartheidists. I have a close connection with two of them: Jefferson, whom I have been studying for thirty years, and Rhodes, whose scholarship I freely accepted back in 1976, and under whose financial legacy I studied for four wonderful years at Oxford University. I know the life and achievement of Woodrow Wilson less well, but I have read a handful of books about him over the years.

I regard this growing trend of purification rituals as wrong-headed and misguided for a number of reasons. I’ll list them as briefly as possible.

1. What will they say of us? Sometimes I try to anticipate what the righteous ones of the future will say about us? I met a petrochemical engineer a number of years ago. We talked for several hours about oil as a miracle carbon. I asked her what the epitaph of Western Civilization would be. She said. “They burned oil.” This morning I’m wearing shoes, socks, boxers, trousers, and a shirt, not one item of which was made in the United States. If I could trade each item of clothing back to the factory of its manufacture, I doubt that I would sleep well tonight. I’m with Jesus, John 8:7, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

2. The whole man theory. As Jefferson wisely explained to his daughter Martha (see above), every human being is a mixed bag: enlightenment and blind prejudice, generosity and narcissism, benevolence and malevolence, good day and bad day, clarity and blind spot, outstanding in some ways, deplorable in others. Think of Lance Armstrong, Bill Cosby, Benito Mussolini, Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher, for example. In selecting our culture heroes, we have to assess the whole life and the entire achievement.

Jefferson was a racist and a slaveholder. These factors should weigh heavily in any rational assessment of his life and character. But we must also place in the balance his magnificent labors as a benefactor of humankind: decimal coinage, the rectangular survey grid system, separation of church and state, the University of Virginia, the organizational principle of the Library of Congress, the Louisiana Purchase, the design for the Capitol at Richmond, VA, fundamental work in paleontology, the Declaration of Independence, and the software of the American dream.

For all of his faults–and they do not begin and end with slavery–is Jefferson, in the final analysis, a benefactor or a degrader of humankind? On balance, how shall we evaluate him? Looking at his whole 83 years, his mass of writings, his range of practical achievements, his acts of greatness and his weakest moments, how shall we finally assess him?

3. Hamlet’s view. When the aging courtier Polonius tells Hamlet he will treat the visiting theater group “according to their desert,” Hamlet responds passionately: “God’s bodykins, man, much better! Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping.” — Precisely. Where does this erasure of the past, more reminiscent of Stalin’s USSR and Orwell’s 1984 than of an enlightened democracy, end exactly? George Washington was a slaveholder. Lincoln had race views that would get him razed from Mount Rushmore by the narrowly righteous. Elizabeth Cady Stanton said remarkably ugly things about African-Americans when black men got the vote but white women did not in the wake of the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt was an adulterer. Theodore Roosevelt was at times a warmonger. His views on American Indians are so dark at times that one hates even to read them in a scholarly arena. John F. Kennedy, LBJ, Ronald Reagan, Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, (where does this list end?) broke their marriage vows. Martin Luther King was a womanizer and he plagiarized his doctoral dissertation. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush evaded military service during the Vietnam War. Presidents Obama, Clinton, and GW Bush smoked dope. JFK dropped acid in the White House!

The only political figure I know who seems to have passed the righteous test in full purity is Jimmy Carter. That alone should give us pause. Where does this wave of righteous expurgation end?

4. ‘Tis better to wrestle than erase. My mentor Ev Albers believed that the duty of the humanities scholar is to examine and explore, to try to put any text or historical act or individual in its context, to try to understand how things shook out as they did and not otherwise. The duty of the humanist is to explore the past for its complexity, richness, unresolvedness, nuance, paradox, and problematic nature, and not to engage in the lazy enterprise of making glib judgments. Judgement is easy, understanding difficult. It does no good to portray Jefferson as a lover of liberty who unfortunately was born into a world of slavery, but who treated his slaves well and tried to change the world of Virginia and the United States to the extent that he could; and equally it does no good to portray Jefferson as a contemptible hypocrite who talked the language of liberty and equality, but who was quite content to breed slaves for the marketplace, and who dismissed African-Americans as physically and mentally inferior. One could make either argument plausibly enough, for there is a huge and not always consistent body of evidence in Jefferson writings and actions.

But surely we gain more by wrestling with the paradoxes in Jefferson’s life, illuminating, clarifying, teasing out nuance, attempting to understand his own (changing) thinking about race and slavery, his own strategy for preserving his reputation as an apostle of liberty while buying and selling human beings, who, as he freely acknowledged, “did him no injury.” After spending thirty years thinking and writing about Jefferson, I am not at all sure I understand his relationship to race and slavery. I’m not done trying. But I refuse simply to condemn him before I fully understand him.

We cannot understand ourselves if we do not understand the unresolved and perhaps unresolvable complexities of our heritage. Jefferson’s greatest biographers have said that the contradictions and unresolved principles in his life (1743-1826) are also the contradictions and unresolved issues in the American experiment. To understand ourselves, we must try to understand him. To judge him in a simplistic and self-satisfying way, means that we are short-circuiting our attempts to understand ourselves.

It would be insane, I think, to refuse to name an elementary school Martin Luther King, Jr., because he broke his marriage vows, or plagiarized his dissertation. It would be equally insane to remove Jefferson’s statue from the campus of the University of Virginia or the University of Missouri or William & Mary. Much better to use the “offending” icons as a text to discuss, debate, wrestle with, maybe even throw eggs at on occasion. But to remove those statues because Jefferson has disappointed us, US!, is to lose an opportunity for a very serious conversation about the dynamics that produced the America of 2016.

The Culture of Outrage represents a very dreary path in our pursuit of happiness and justice. In my view, on the whole, all things considered, Thomas Jefferson (as well as Woodrow Wilson, though I’m not quite as sure about Cecil Rhodes) must be seen as a net benefactor of humankind. But I would not remove a statue of Jesse Helms, George Wallace, or for that matter Pitchfork Ben Tillman from its pedestal. Better to deliberate and debate, perhaps at the top of our lungs, than to erase that which we think we have transcended.

– Clay S. Jenkinson is the author, educator, and scholar who created The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and is a sought-after historical impersonator, speaker, and media commentator, providing a deep but playful context to today’s events. (Bio credit: The Thomas Jefferson Hour, edited by A.C.) To discover more about Clay and his work, please visit http://jeffersonhour.com/


Further Reading:

» American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph Ellis
» Thomas Jefferson: America’s Paradoxical Patriot, by Alf Mapp, Jr.

Argument & Censorship, Opposition & Oppression, by Eric Gerlach

A friend of mine passed me an article about millennials and George Orwell, which claimed that young people on the internet are bullying others mercilessly who are out of step with the dogmas of the left.  This is hardly a new claim about millennials, as many since the 80’s have said that “political correctness” is oppressive and invoked 1984. While I agree that militant dogmatism is found on both sides of the aisle, I think what irked me most about the article was the comparison to Orwell and claims of censorship regarding heated exchanges online between free individuals.  At a time when many are confusing arguments and boycotts with fascism, I feel that a distinction needs to be made between opposition and oppression, between argument and censorship.

If someone argues with you, and continues to argue with you, they are not censoring you.  They are speaking with you.  They are opposed to your beliefs, but not necessarily opposed to you speaking. They may not be good at listening, and they may give you little chance to speak, but they are engaging you in a conversation, even if it is a terrible one. Often, they are hoping to hear the reasons you won’t change your mind, to change your mind, and then hear you say that your mind has been changed.  When I receive critical comments, I am irritated, but I have not been censored.  Nietzsche said that one should appreciate one’s enemies, as they help one to grow stronger, which I find to be an inspirational strategy for getting the most out of one’s beliefs.


Eric Gerlach teaches philosophy and the history of human thought at Berkeley City College. This piece was originally published on April 16 at his excellent blog Eric Gerlach, ‘A Skeptical & Global Guide to the History of Human Thought’, which I highly recommend, and re-published here with the author’s permission.

Ordinary Philosophy Recommends: IQ2 Debate – Are Liberals Stifling Intellectual Diversity on Campus?

Office for Emergency Management War Production Board Free speech doesn't mean careless talk circa 1942 1943 Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsWhen I first read the title of this debate, my immediate reaction was ‘Yup!’

I consider myself more of a liberal than otherwise, yet I found myself generally in agreement with the proposition ‘Liberals are stifling intellectual diversity on campus’.

Many of the examples of effective censorship were already familiar to me: the students who called for UC Berkeley to dis-invite Bill Maher to deliver a commencement speech; constant overzealous insistence on ‘politically correct’ terminology; the perceived need to prefix nearly every class lecture or statement with ‘trigger warnings’ so that students’ feelings, apparently of the delicacy of fine china within their tender little minds, wouldn’t suffer in the slightest.

If I sound sarcastic in the latter remarks, it’s intentional: all this hyper-sensitivity, I fear, is helping to dumb down public discourse, which is especially worrisome in the very institutions whose mission it is to enlighten. It’s important to understand the difference between respect for others, which I think includes the respect for their intellect which informs open and honest discourse, and the squeamish fear of arousing any emotional response beyond placid approval.

To be fair, there’s plenty of non-liberal censorship going on too, as the debaters against the motion pointed out, and were some examples of purported liberal censorship that I don’t think are valid. For example, Kirstin Powers, in favor of the motion, referred to universities refusing to approve student club constitutions that require their members or leaders to hold certain beliefs, such as at Vanderbilt University. I don’t think this is an example of censorship at all. The reasons students are not allowed to command belief in their members are derived from generally applicable laws and principles that prioritize full participation in the public square. An institution that accepts money and resources from the public, such as a university, is well within its rights to say that a club can’t accept those resources and then turn around and allocate them in a discriminatory way. Likewise, the university, and in turn its approved clubs, can’t command their members not to believe certain things either. The students who decide to join these clubs will thus freely self-select their own membership, and those who join who hold dissenting beliefs will bring in a little healthy debate and strengthen the club’s own grasp of the ideas they promote. That’s how the marketplace of ideas works.

Likewise, the students who call for dis-invitations of speakers they don’t agree with would show themselves much more faithful to true liberal values if they support the right of people with opposing views to speak at their campus. If they disagree with the views and actions of the speaker, they should show up to the speech and challenge the views of the speaker in person, in the question and answer session, or with signs for the speaker and audience to read, or if no other means of expression is available to them, plainly express their dissent by getting up en masse and walking out.

Sources and Inspiration
‘Liberals are Stifling Intellectual Diversity on Campus’, Intelligence Squared U.S. debate, Feb 24, 2015.

‘Vanderbilt University: Refusal to Approve Constitutions of Student Groups that Require Leaders to Share Beliefs’, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) website, 2012.