O.P. Recommends, and Reflects On: Fugitive Slaves and the Politics of Slavery with Richard Blackett

As I go on one of my regular hill walks, I listen to Daniel N. Gullotta interview historian Richard Blackett for the Age of Jackson podcast. They discuss Blackett’s work on the history of slaves’ fleeing oppression from their native states in the antebellum United States of America. My recent dissertation work had led me to Blackett and I’m so glad it has, what an accomplished scholar! I’m so excited to delve further into his work in the coming weeks.

As I listen to this podcast discussion, I can’t help but be reminded of today’s migrants fleeing to American shores to escape danger and the lack of opportunity in their native countries. Though it was illegal to run away from slavery and for free people to assist them in doing so, I think most of us would now say these self-liberated people did no wrong even as they broke the law. What will we say looking back (perhaps decades from now, perhaps less) on harsh treatment of families and individuals fleeing death, destruction, and systemic robbery of cartels and gangs today? And how do we square a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ and the claim that all of these migrants entering without papers and outside official ports of entry are ‘illegal immigrants,’ when we have laws and practices that protect people seeking asylum? After all, asylum seekers are those fleeing dangers that are too immediate to wait in legal limbo, or can’t afford the cost of going through the process, or who have experienced nothing from government officials besides oppression or neglect. And how will we weigh the fact that these cartels and gangs exist in significant measure because of the black markets that inevitably spring up from U.S. drug prohibitions? After all, as history has revealed this happens with prohibitions of desirable commodities without any exceptions (that I know of). And to this, we add the fact that the U.S. citizenry provides such a vast and eager customer base? 

Does the moral duty of parents to protect and provide for their children, and of individuals to preserve their own lives, take precedence over the laws of their own and others’ countries? Are we justified in prosecuting, fining, and otherwise harshly treating people who make this moral choice to come here for the reasons described above? After all, our country is founded on the idea that the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is sacrosanct. If we let that go, we are no longer the United States of America as derived from the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and embodied in the Constitution of 1787. We’ll have become something else.

It’s certainly true that from the outset, our government and the American people have often betrayed the higher principles contained in those founding documents (slavery, Jim Crow, turning away Jewish asylum seekers fleeing the Nazis, the internment of Japanese Americans, protection of business interests at the expense of working people), but I believe we remain that country, and a great one, only so long as we wrangle within and amidst ourselves to do better. And it can be argued that it’s up to these migrants to stay in their own countries and reform them, starting a revolution if necessary. But how many of us would require it of ourselves when we know this may very well mean sacrificing the lives of our children, let alone ourselves, in the meantime?

Perhaps we should make our borders open to ‘willing workers,’ as Ronald Reagan liked to call migrants such as these, thereby forcing their governments to have to do better by their people if they’d like them to stay. After all, the people with the drive and energy to get themselves here, who vote for freedom and opportunity with their feet since they’ve been handed nothing on a silver platter, are the very people who embody those values that working Americans, immigrants and pioneers, runaways from slavery and oppression and the descendants of all of these, pride ourselves on.

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Photobook: Missouri Constitutional Rights Flag Captured by Union Soldiers on June 14th, 1861

Missouri Constitutional Rights Flag captured by Union soldiers on June 14th, 1861, Old State Capitol Building, Springfield, Illinois. The claim that the Southern states seceded primarily over states’ rights issues is an oft-repeated one, and I think a troubling one for two reasons. For one, it’s part of a long tradition of trying to sidestep or minimize the problems of race-based slavery and the resulting intransigent racism that has plagued our country since its formative years, often on the part of people who don’t want to support laws that promote racial equality. For another, this states’ rights claim was as disingenuous then as it is now: the Southern states seceded not because the federal government was trying to stop slavery in their states. There was, as yet, no concerted attempt to do so. They were incensed that the federal government, in their view, was not doing enough to enforce the legal right to own slaves in free states: by forcing local governments and private individuals, against their own philosophical and religious convictions, to return escaped slaves; to allow slaveowners to retain their rights to own slaves when they traveled and even moved to free states; and to extend the rights to own slaves to new territories.

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

New Podcast Episode: Hannibal and Florida, Missouri, in Search of Mark Twain

Mark Twain Memorial Bridge on the Missouri River, view from the riverside at the foot of Hill St, Hannibal, Missouri

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

Journal: Hannibal, Missouri, evening of July 31st, 2017

I’m sitting here on the waterfront between the Mississippi River and the train tracks, facing northwest. My back is leaning against a stone wall. The train whistle was deafening, but now the engine has passed and the freight cars are rumbling slowly by. The low, warm, dark peach last light of sunset is glowing gently through the steel truss bridge. I have a bottle of wine at my side and my laptop computer on my lap. The night is warm and humid. I’ve found a dark alcove beneath the park’s perimeter footpath so I can better see the last light of the sunset, and to avoid the clouds of mayflies swarming in the light around every post lamp.

Old town Hannibal is very old-timey America. Lots of brick, and false fronts, and clapboard siding. Look to the west end of the street and you’ll see a steep tree-covered hill with a perfect little white lighthouse perched on its side. The main street’s storefronts are mostly full, with antique and novelty shops, souvenir shops, cafes, ice cream and candy parlors, and bars and restaurants… Read the written version here

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Hannibal and Florida, Missouri, in Search of Mark Twain

Mark Twain Memorial Bridge on the Missouri River, view from the riverside at the foot of Hill St, Hannibal, Missouri

Journal: Hannibal, Missouri, evening of July 31st, 2017

I’m sitting here on the waterfront between the Mississippi River and the train tracks, facing northwest. My back is leaning against a stone wall. The train whistle was deafening, but now the engine has passed and the freight cars are rumbling slowly by. The low, warm, dark peach last light of sunset is glowing gently through the steel truss bridge. I have a bottle of wine at my side and my laptop computer on my lap. The night is warm and humid. I’ve found a dark alcove beneath the park’s perimeter footpath so I can better see the last light of the sunset, and to avoid the clouds of mayflies swarming in the light around every post lamp.

Hannibal, Missouri, view towards the lighthouse from Main Street, evening

John Marshall Clemen’s office across from the family home on Hill St, Hannibal, Missouri

Old town Hannibal is very old-timey America. Lots of brick, and false fronts, and clapboard siding. Look to the west end of the street and you’ll see a steep tree-covered hill with a perfect little white lighthouse perched on its side. The main street’s storefronts are mostly full, with antique and novelty shops, souvenir shops, cafes, ice cream and candy parlors, and bars and restaurants. Walk only a block or two south up the hill and it’s half ghost town. The economy of the historic downtown, like so many in America, appears to be driven by tourism.

I walked to the old town’s main sights earlier this evening: the great American author Mark Twain’s boyhood home, his father’s law office, and so on, and photographed their exteriors. I’ll go inside these places tomorrow.

I must go now, the mosquitoes have found me and they’re swarming, out for my blood. I’ll camp tonight near the caves, in the campground that a local man I chatted with earlier directed me to.

Samuel Clemens’ family home on the side facing Hill St, Hannibal, Missouri

Hannibal, Missouri, evening of July 31st, 2017

When I arrive in Hannibal (from New Salem via the 72 West), it’s in the soft light of early evening. It’s still pretty warm, the road food I brought with me, celery, peanut butter, apples, are softened, wilted from the heat of the day. The car’s air conditioning is good but I find I need to alternate with fresh air, even when it’s hot. The conditioned air is refreshingly dry on these muggy midwest summer days but after sitting in it for too long, I feel suddenly as if I’m desiccating. Then the windows come down.

I’m in an excited mood. There’s always a feeling of discovery in crossing a river, I think, even in these days when wide, smooth highway bridges can make you forget to notice what you’re passing over one. When you do notice, though, you get the feeling that a river crossing is significant, like an anniversary or a holiday. River crossings used to be difficult, and something deep within us remembers that. Anniversaries, holidays, rivers are all markers that remind us, with a jolt, that though we once came from someplace, sometime, we’re now somewhere else, sometime later. We humans like these markers and boundaries. They place us so that, for a moment at least, we’ve on one shore or another, no longer adrift.

And I recall that young Samuel Clemens, like young Abraham Lincoln, had once been a river craft pilot: Lincoln of flatboats, Clemens of steamboats. Both took their crafts to New Orleans, and both were amazed, delighted, and impressed by what they saw there… and sometimes dismayed. As President during the great American war over slavery, Lincoln had many occasions to recall his first sight of chained slaves on their way to market in New Orleans. While his parents hated slavery and taught him that it was wrong, it was this experience that revealed its horrific reality to him, especially upon recollection and reflection. After Samuel Clemens renamed himself Mark Twain, a riverboat pilot’s term indicating a safe depth for passage, he realized that the slavery he grew up with and took for granted was a great moral wrong. Few works of scholarship, art, or literature reveal this to the moral imagination as impactfully and durably as his magnum opus Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Home of Tom Blankenship on North St, Hannibal, Missouri. Blankenship was the inspiration for Huckleberry Finn’s character in the novel of the same name; there’s a placard in the window identifying it as the ‘Huck Finn House’.

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn sculpture, Hannibal, Missouri

I pull off on the side of North St, just north of N. Main St to stretch and look around. To my right, there’s a clapboard building on little grassy slope. I approach: there’s a plaque in the window identifying it as the ‘Huck Finn House.’ A little ahead of me to my left, there’s a little park with a sculpture on a pedestal in its center. I clamber onto the low wall surrounding it for a closer look. Yes, the two figures do portray Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. I return to the car, pull it into a nearby parking lot, tuck my laptop into my bag, and head towards Main Street. Before I leave the parking lot, a man and I exchange greetings. He’s organizing a town revitalization event. I can’t accept his kind invitation to attend, however, since I’ll be leaving town before it happens. But we chat awhile about Hannibal, its past and its future, and I follow his pointing finger to the main Twain sites. I visit and map them out in my mind so I can explore them tomorrow during business hours, and chat with some local ladies hanging outside of the Main Street Wine Stoppe.

Journal: Hannibal, Missouri, night of July 31st,  2017

I reach the campground. There are no lights on in the registration office; it’s clearly no longer staffed for the night. I enter the campground and choose a spot among many that lack registration cards clipped to the signs. I’ll pay in the morning. I set up my simple camp to the parking lights of the rental car. In my little niece’s cast-off backyard camping tent, I feel like Abraham Lincoln in a guesthouse. I sleep at an angle so I don’t have to double up my legs. Invariably, however, I wake up in this tent with my head pressing one corner and my feet another.

As I write, the sweat is rolling over me in big drops though this tent is lightweight and all the flaps are open, allowing the mesh panels to let in all the air that they’ll allow through. I unzip the tent’s front opening and stick my head out. It’s much cooler outside but I dare not leave the flap open given the ferocity of the mosquito attack earlier. Hope I can sleep.

Mark Twain Cave Campground, Hannibal, Missouri

Journal – Hannibal, Missouri, Tuesday morning, August 1st, 2017

I woke up rather early this morning and emerged from my tent to retrieve my little thermos of coffee and a bagel from the car. It was a beautiful morning. I felt very lazy and sat on the picnic bench for quite awhile watching my fellow campers rise, make breakfast, and walk their dogs. It’s one of the best campgrounds I’ve stayed in, spacious with roomy campsites, very well kept, lush with lots of trees. My coffee and bagel long finished, though, I finally bestirred myself and went for a jog, my stiffness and minor backache reminding me I haven’t gotten nearly enough exercise in the past week.  Then I took a shower, washing some of my clothes along with myself. This is one of my road trip tactics which allows me to travel without carrying along too much clothing. I went and paid for the campsite, since I arrived too late last night to do so, but decided against visiting the caves. They’re privately run and the entrance fees are higher than I want to pay; I’ve already seen some incredible caves on this trip and I’m trying to keep a lid on what I spend. After all, right now, I’m both homeless and jobless for the first time in a very, very long time. Somehow, that state of affairs feels okay.

View of Hannibal, Missouri, from the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse

Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse, Hannibal, Missouri

Right now, I’m at the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse, a little white wood structure built to honor the great author in 1935. It’s reached by 244 steps, which makes me happy. I’ve been missing my California hills and this climb is a break from the nearly unrelenting flatness of the Great Plains and the Midwest. My legs welcome the gentle, pleasant burn. I’m drenched with sweat before the exercise even begins; in fact, I never really dried off after my shower. It’s very humid and already very warm at 11 am.

I’m going down to go on the tour of Mark Twain’s childhood home, the fee there is very reasonable. I’m still deciding where I’ll head just after that…

Hannibal, Missouri,  August 1st, 2017

Descending from the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse, I stop at a sort of brick- and concrete- paved little park with a concrete railing on the southeast end. There’s a plaque on the railing that identifies it as the abutment of the first Mark Twain Memorial Bridge, built in 1935 to mark the centennial of his birth, dedicated in September 1836 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The one that crosses the Mississippi here now and which I gazed at the sunset through last night opened in 2000.

Paved park and remaining railing at the foot of the original 1936 Mark Twain Memorial Bridge, Hannibal, Missouri

I continue my descent to Main St, then buy my tour ticket at the Mark Twain Interpretive Center on Main St between North and Hill. It costs $11.00 and gives access to the Mark Twain, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher houses, the John Marshall Clemens law office and eventually, when it re-opens after restoration, Grant’s Drug Store. John Marshall Clemens, Sam’s father, was in turn (and sometimes, concurrently) a lawyer, farmer, land speculator, shopkeeper, court clerk, attorney general, and justice of the peace, and failed to succeed financially at all of them. He was a stern man with a cold and upright demeanor, very different than his vivacious, emotive wife Jane Lampton. The story that Twain later repeated was that this unlikely pair married upon Jane’s whim to spite another suitor, a move she later regretted. Husband and wife were respectful to one another but never warm or demonstrative. John died in 1847, leaving his family very badly off. It was up to the children to support the family then. Like all of his brothers, Samuel went to work in the newspaper trade at age twelve as a printer’s apprentice. He earned no wages then, only his board, food, and clothing, but this at least eased the burden on the family’s finances. Sam was able to continue his studies independently, part-time, so between that and his work immersed in communication, his skills in the English language apparently didn’t suffer a bit.

Model for a planned 1935 Mark Twain Centennial sculpture at Mark Twain Interpretive Center, Hannibal, Missouri

Samuel Clemens at fifteen, holding a printer’s composing stick with letters SAM. Daguerreotype, Hannibal, Missouri, 1850

In the Interpretive Center, I peruse photographs and informational placards about Samuel Clemens’ and his later alter ego Mark Twain’s life and work. I’m especially taken by a model for a planned 1935 centennial sculpture that never materialized. It features characters from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. I’m a bit surprised that since the artist chose to memorialize characters from only four novels, they chose to include many from Joan of Arc. It’s probably the most overlooked of all of his works to this day.

Twain’s fascination with Joan of Arc began, he reminisced, while he was still a printer’s apprentice. A loose page from a book about her blew off the sidewalk and into his face. He was intrigued by what he read, and when his bookworm older brother Henry assured him that Joan was a real person, young Sam sought out and read everything about her that he could find. She remained a lifelong fascination for him. Joan, written many, many years later between 1892-1895, was Twain’s own favorite of his own works, or among his favorites, depending on which of his statements you go by. But it was widely dismissed by critics and still baffles readers and scholars well over a century later. Why did this hard-bitten cultural critic, cynic, and skeptic write a tender and hagiographic historical novel about a medieval French Catholic warrior-saint, and why did this master of American English so love this child of his pen? Parts of the explanation can be provided by Twain’s romantic notions about the delicacy and purity of feminine nature, and his relationship to his daughter Susy. It was no secret that Susy was his favorite daughter, and this daughter, who largely inspired his conception of Joan, also favored this work of her father’s.

First Edition of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, 1896, cover

But Joan’s story is not only one of sweet, pure womanliness: it’s also a story of rebellion and staunch individuality. After all, she defied her parents, the local authorities, and the church to take up her greater task of defying and defeating the English in the Hundred Years’ War. After she was captured in battle, she remained steadfast in her unique sense of purpose, defying her judges in the court which finally sentenced her to death for heresy when she was only nineteen years old. This story must have resonated deeply with Clemens’ rebellious nature. Since his days as a teenaged printer’s apprentice under Joseph Ament, then as assistant printer and editor for his older brother Orion’s paper, then as a cub pilot on Mississippi steamboats after he left Hannibal, young Sam chafed under authority. After less than three years at his brother’s paper, which included his first published work, Clemens left Hannibal for St Louis early in the summer of 1853.

Like Twain, I’ve also had a lifelong fascination with Joan of Arc. I watched Ingrid Bergman’s portrayal of her innumerable times with my grandmother, who also insisted I read Twain’s Joan novel, which despite its flaws, I love to this day. Joan is the subject of one of my earliest portraits, and recently, I’ve brought her into my studies here at the University of Edinburgh. Like Twain, I also identify with her rebellious nature and staunch individualism.

Huck Finn / Tom Blankenship house, south view, and interpretive plaque historic photo, Hannibal, Missouri

I leave the Interpretive Center and take the self-guided tour, first to the ‘Huck Finn’ house where Tom Blankenship lived. Tom was young Sam’s playmate and the inspiration for Huckleberry Finn’s character. The Blankenship family was plagued by alcoholism and poverty, but Sam envied what seemed to him to be their free and easy lifestyle. The tidy clapboard structure atop its stone half-underground basement that stands here today only resembles the original dirty, ramshackle house of the Blankenship’s time here in shape and size.

Samuel Clemen’s home, right, and A.L. Hawkins Frazer’s, née Laura Hawkins (Becky Thatcher) home, left

Mark Twain visits his old family home in Hannibal, Missouri in 1902

Then I cross the picket-fenced lawn by the brick-paved walkway to the Clemens family home. Unlike the ‘Huck Finn’ house, this is the original building, thoroughly restored. However, I notice, it’s missing the window shutters that it had when Twain returned to Hannibal to visit his old family home in 1902 (see above). Perhaps the shutters were added after he lived here as a child. The rooms are furnished and decorated with period-correct furniture, textiles, clothing, and other objects. Each room also features a life-size sculpture of Twain as he appeared during his later years with his trademark bushy mustache and casual white suit with bow tie. The sculptures portray Twain in attitudes of reminiscing: sitting with his hands folded while gazing into space in one room, standing with one hand behind his back while gazing out of the window in another. Twain’s novels are heavily autobiographical, his characters based on members of his family, his friends, neighbors, employers, and teachers, mostly from Hannibal. This is especially true of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. I notice that the historical signs outside of the buildings included in this tour, which date to the 1930’s, present Twain’s characters as if they took part in the real-life history of the place. Here in Hannibal, as in Twain’s novels, life and artifice are presented together with no clear indication of which is fact, which is fiction.

Young Samuel Clemens’ bedroom, Mark Twain Boyhood Home, Hannibal, Missouri

‘Slavery in the Clemens Household’ placard in the Mark Twain Boyhood Home

Jane and John Marshall Clemens’ bedroom, Mark Twain Boyhood Home, Hannibal, Missouri

View of Becky Thatcher / Laura Hawkins house and John Marshall Clemens law office from the front bedroom, Mark Twain Boyhood Home

Left: a display in Laura Hawkins’ house. Right: interior view of Justice of the Peace Clemens’ office. Hill St, Hannibal, Missouri

Building at the southeast corner of Main and Hill which stands on the site of the second location of Joseph Ament’s paper the Missouri Courier. The offices were moved to the second floor of the building which originally stood here shortly after Samuel Clemens left his employ as a printer’s devil, from 1848-1850.

Mark Twain Museum on Main St, Hannibal, Missouri

Next, I briefly tour the ‘Becky Thatcher’ house. It was the home of Annie Laurie Hawkins, who most people called Laura. She was the neighbor and friend who Twain based the character of Becky Thatcher on in Tom Sawyer. Twain described Laura on many occasions as his first childhood love. They remained friends and kept in contact for life; Laura Hawkins, later Annie Laurie Hawkins Frazer outlived Twain by 18 years. The house has not been set up, like the Clemens house, to reflect how it may have appeared when little Laura lived here. It’s more like a gift shop – slash – museum, but according to the website, the planned decor and permanent exhibits are not installed yet.

I continue my tour next door to John Marshall Clemens’ Justice of the Peace office building. The one room open to the public is set up with some old furniture and books behind glass. If the furnishings reflect historical reality, it was a small and simple affair. Placards on the wall recount anecdotes from Clemens’ tenure there as a stern but fair man of common sense.

I continue east down Hill St towards the river, passing Grant’s Drug Store, which is under reconstruction, and turn right on Main St. Two blocks down, on my left, I enter the Mark Twain Museum at 120 N Main St.

The museum’s exhibits open with large blue-and-white gallery walls dedicated to original Norman Rockwell paintings and drawings for special editions of Tom Sawyer (1936) and Huckleberry Finn (1940). Rockwell was thrilled to be chosen to illustrate these new editions of what were already considered great American literary classics. It seems to me, as I’m sure it did then, that Rockwell was the obvious choice. His paintings were as nostalgically American as Twain’s resurrections of idyllic small-town childhood in these novels, and sure enough, he perfectly captured the tenderness and humor in Twain’s tales and characterizations. I remember my grandmother (the same one who urged me to read Twain’s Joan) sputtering with indignation when telling me of a woman who said that Rockwell was not an artist, but an illustrator. The woman not only considered these separate professions with different purposes but implied that the latter was inferior to the former. This was unforgivable to my grandmother, both in its snobbery and its slight to her favorite painter. I understand what the woman was getting at but I tend to agree with my grandmother. Rockwell has become unfashionable, to many, because of the nostalgia and sentimentality which pervade his work, but if we exclude Rockwell as an artist on those grounds, wouldn’t we be forced to exclude much of Twain? What people create who consider themselves artists, and who are considered as such by other people, has changed at least as many times over the centuries as opinions of what art really is and what it’s for. The woman seemed to have accepted a redefinition of art that excludes Rockwell, but I think any definition that succeeds in doing this is far too narrow. My grandmother did the same thing with the term music so that it excluded that wicked, sex-driven rock and roll.

Norman Rockwell exhibit at the Mark Twain Museum, Hannibal, Missouri

Beyond the Rockwell exhibit, I find one of Mark Twain’s white suit jackets in a glass case. With a small tear at the front, it’s draped on a form in front of a photograph of a mature Twain wearing it, or one very like it. According to the museum, it’s the only one known to exist. The white suit has become iconic of Twain since he wore one off-season to deliver a speech in support of copyright laws at a 1906 congressional committee meeting. The eloquent orator with his bushy white hair, flaring white mustache and eyebrows in a glowing white suit before a room of wintry black-clad men made a quite an impression. Twain was delighted with the effect and replicated it at other occasions where dark or formal clothing was expected. He wore a white suit for portrait sessions which resulted in some of the best-known images of him, and was buried in one as well. Though he adopted this devil-may-care look only for a short while before his death, it made an indelible impression on our collective memory of this oh-so-American personality. To this day, nearly all Twain impersonators wear a similar white suit.

Mark Twain’s top hat, baby Langdon’s death mask, and Olivia Clemens’ jewelry box, Mark Twain Museum, Hannibal, Missouri

Objects from Mark Twain Museum including top hat, pipe, miniature of Susy Clemens, and cast of Mark Twain’s hand

The museum is full of interesting objects and accompanying placards with anecdotes from the life of Twain and his family and friends. I look and read to my fill, then decide it’s time continue my journey following Twain. I return to the car and head southeast of Hannibal. Forty-five minutes or so later, I arrive in Florida, Missouri, the birthplace of Samuel Clemens.

Mark Twain Memorial Shrine at Mark Twain State Park, Florida, Missouri

Florida, Missouri, afternoon of August 1st, 2017

To be more precise, I visit Samuel Clemens’ two birthplaces. How can this be? Unusually for birthplaces, the building in which he was born has been moved about half a mile from its original foundation and now resides in an enormous structure built around and over it. Preserved from the elements, the faded, drooping, two-room little blue cabin is located within the Mark Twain Memorial Shrine at the Mark Twain Birthplace Memorial Site, next to Mark Twain Lake, in Mark Twain State Park. Clearly, the state of Missouri loves her illustrious native son.

Cabin in which Samuel Clemens was born, Mark Twain Memorial Shrine at Mark Twain State Park, Florida, Missouri

Interior of the cabin in which Samuel Clemens was born, Mark Twain Memorial Shrine at Mark Twain State Park

As with the Clemens’ home in Hannibal, the rooms are decorated with furniture and other period-correct items. The Clemenses didn’t live in the tiny village of Florida for long. The family had moved there in mid-1835 after briefly stopping in St Louis. They intended to settle there after John Marshall’s multiple failed attempts at farming and storekeeping, but the cholera epidemic raging through the city likely spurred them to move on again. They chose Florida because many members of Jane’s family had settled there. When they arrived, Jane was already pregnant with her sixth child. John Marshall earned his living here yet again by storekeeping, this time together with his brother-in-law, John Quarles, a man Mark Twain admired greatly. On November 30, 1835, Samuel was born, premature and sickly. Though many feared he wouldn’t last long, he would be among the four of the seven Clemens children that survived childhood.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens and his family at their Hartford, Connecticut home in healthier and wealthier times, Mark Twain Birthplace Memorial museum placard photo in Florida, Missouri

Besides the cabin, I find a wealth of artifacts from the life of Mark Twain with his wife and children. The artifacts together with the exhibits, the photographs and informational placards, tell of a life of harmony and plenty followed by sorrow and financial hardship. By the late 1860’s, Twain was making a decent living as a newspaper editor and in 1870, he married progressive, wealthy Olivia Langdon. Together, they established a lavish home in Hartford, Connecticut. It was designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter, ornately decorated by Louis Comfort Tiffany, filled with hand-carved and elaborate furnishings from all over the world, and occupied by Mark Twain and Olivia Clemens, their three daughters Susy, Clara, and Jean (their infant son Langdon died of diphtheria in 1872), and a bevy of servants. The family moved into the house with little Susy and baby Clara in the fall of 1874. While living here, Twain became a successful author and made an excellent income, he and his family enjoying the life of plenty with which they surrounded themselves. However, Twain’s enthusiasm for innovative scientific gadgets and hunger for more wealth led him to make a series of very costly and very unsuccessful financial investments, in which the family lost nearly all their money. To pay off their substantial debts and support the family, the Clemenses were forced to close down the Hartford home and move to Europe, where living expenses were generally much lower. There, Twain restored the family finances by a grueling series of speaking tours. Sadly, however, Susy contracted meningitis while she and Jean stayed behind with family in Elmira, New York. When learning of Susy’s illness, Olivia and Clara hurried back the United States to join her. However, they didn’t make it back in time. On August 18, 1896, Susy died at the Hartford home she so loved and missed. Thirteen years later, Jean also died, aged only 29, during an epileptic seizure.

Collection of objects from the Clemens’ family home in Hartford, CT, at the Mark Twain Birthplace Memorial Site Museum in Florida, Missouri. Clara, the only daughter to outlive Mark Twain and Olivia Clemens, provided the stories of the family memorabilia here

Pedestal marker at the original site of the cabin where Samuel Clemens was born, on what was South Mill St, Florida, Missouri

Granite pedestal marker at original site of Samuel Clemens’ birth cabin, South Mill St, Florida, MO, 2017 Amy Cools

Twain lost his beloved Olivia, or ‘Livy’ as he called her, in 1904. She was his constant and close companion, his main editor and critic, and the love of his life. For the six years he outlived her, Twain wandered, living sometimes in Europe, sometimes in New York City. Twain and his daughter Clara always had a fraught relationship: both were stubborn, strong-willed, and independent. But Clara had to do much of the emotional heavy work in the family. She looked after Olivia in her final illness while also helping to look after Jean, whose epilepsy rendered her both fragile and violent. She was also the go-between when her dying mother was kept separate, sometimes unsuccessfully, from her emotionally charged husband and his outbursts. Since her father’s death in 1910, Clara served as the caretaker and promoter of Twain’s legacy. Many of the artifacts I see here today are here thanks to Clara’s fundraising efforts, as are those that are preserved in the Hartford home and museum.

I leave the Birthplace museum and drive the half mile down the little county road that leads to the remnants of tiny Florida. Just off the road in a grassy field at what was once South Mill St, there’s a carved granite pedestal which marks it as the original site of Samuel Clemens’ birth. The pedestal used to support a bust of Twain, but the bust was also moved to the Birthplace museum to protect it from the elements. It’s a quiet, peaceful place here, with a few scattered homes and a church in view. It is now, as it was then, an improbable place to produce the restless, cosmopolitan iconoclast and self-created character Mark Twain.

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

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Sources and Inspiration:

The Mark Twain House and Museum website

Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse,’ Hannibal Parks and Recreation website

Paludan, Phillip Shaw. ‘Lincoln and Negro Slavery: I Haven’t Got Time for the Pain‘. Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association,
Volume 27, Issue 2, Summer 2006, pp. 1-23

The Routledge Encyclopedia of Mark Twain. Ed J.R. LeMaster, James D. Wilson. London: Routledge, 2013

Twain, Mark. The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Adapted for American English, an educational resource of The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State

Twain, Mark. Autobiography, Volume 1 and Volume 2, with an introduction by Albert Bigelow Paine. EBook produced by Don Lainson for Project Gutenberg Australia, 2002; original publication New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1924

Twain, Mark. Life On The Mississippi. EBook produced by David Widger for Project Gutenberg, 2006; original publication Boston: James Osgood & Co, 1883

Twain, M., & Paine, A. (1923). Mark Twain’s Letters (Definitive ed., Writings of Mark Twain ; v.34-35). New York: G. Wells.

Wecter, Dixon. Sam Clemens of Hannibal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1952

Wecter, Dixon. ‘Lincoln, Mark Twain, and the Human Race.’ The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Jan 1, 1942, Vol.2, p.157

Happy Birthday, Abigail Adams!

Abigail Adams, the earliest known image of her painted near the time of her marriage in 1764

Abigail Adams, born on November 22, 1744 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, was wife and chief advisor to John Adams, American founding father and second president; early advocate for women’s rights and opponent of slavery; self-taught intellectual; mother to many children including another American president; and something I just learned today, a savvy and successful financial speculator. She is one of the most well-known figures in American history because of the voluminous and well-preserved correspondence between her and her husband John. While she remained at home raising the children and managing their home, John was frequently away for extended periods on matters of revolution and state. Their letters are famous: they were loving and forthright with one other on a rare level, and the ideas and advice these two brilliant people shared with one another illuminate and inspire readers still.

Learn more about our wise and indefatigable founding mother Abigail Adams at:

Abigail Adams ~ by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider for The History Chicks podcast

Abigail Adams (1744 – 1818) ~ bio for the Adams National Historical Park, National Park Service website

Abigail Adams: American First Lady ~ by Betty Boyd Caroli for Encyclopædia Britannica

Abigail Adams: Revolutionary Speculator ~ Liz Covart interviews Woody Holton for Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History

Abigail Smith Adams ~ by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum website

First Family: Abigail and John Adams ~ by Joseph J. Ellis for the Philadelphia Free Library

How Abigail Adams Proves Bill O’Reilly Wrong About Slavery ~ by David A. Graham for The Atlantic

John Adams ~ Miniseries by HBO, 2008

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!

Photobook: Missouri Constitutional Rights Flag Captured by Union Soldiers on June 14th, 1861

Missouri Constitutional Rights Flag captured by Union soldiers on June 14th, 1861, Old State Capitol Building, Springfield, Illinois.

The claim that the Southern states seceded primarily over the Constitutional issue of states’ rights issues is an oft-repeated one, and I think a troubling one for many reasons. For one thing, it’s part of a long tradition of trying to sidestep or minimize the problems of race-based slavery and the resulting intransigent racism that has plagued our country since its formative years, often on the part of people who don’t want to support laws that promote racial equality. For another, this states’ rights claim was as disingenuous then as it is now: the Southern states seceded not because the federal government was trying to stop slavery in their states. There was, as yet, no concerted attempt to do so. They were incensed that the federal government, in their view, was not doing enough to enforce the legal right to own slaves in free states: by forcing local governments and private individuals, against their own philosophical and religious convictions, to return escaped slaves; to allow slaveowners to retain their rights to own slaves when they traveled and even moved to free states; and to extend the rights to own slaves to new territories.

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Are Human Rights Anything More than Legal Conventions? by John Tasioulas

Eleanor Roosevelt and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

We live in an age of human rights. The language of human rights has become ubiquitous, a lingua franca used for expressing the most basic demands of justice. Some are old demands, such as the prohibition of torture and slavery. Others are newer, such as claims to internet access or same-sex marriage. But what are human rights, and where do they come from? This question is made urgent by a disquieting thought. Perhaps people with clashing values and convictions can so easily appeal to ‘human rights’ only because, ultimately, they don’t agree on what they are talking about? Maybe the apparently widespread consensus on the significance of human rights depends on the emptiness of that very notion? If this is true, then talk of human rights is rhetorical window-dressing, masking deeper ethical and political divisions.

Philosophers have debated the nature of human rights since at least the 12th century, often under the name of ‘natural rights’. These natural rights were supposed to be possessed by everyone and discoverable with the aid of our ordinary powers of reason (our ‘natural reason’), as opposed to rights established by law or disclosed through divine revelation. Wherever there are philosophers, however, there is disagreement. Belief in human rights left open how we go about making the case for them – are they, for example, protections of human needs generally or only of freedom of choice? There were also disagreements about the correct list of human rights – should it include socio-economic rights, like the rights to health or work, in addition to civil and political rights, such as the rights to a fair trial and political participation?

But many now argue that we should set aside philosophical wrangles over the nature and origins of human rights. In the 21st century, they contend, human rights exist not in the nebulous ether of philosophical speculation, but in the black letter of law. Human rights are those laid down in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the various international and domestic laws that implement it. Some who adopt this line of thought might even invoke the 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who contemptuously dismissed the idea of natural rights existing independently of human-made laws as ‘rhetorical nonsense – nonsense upon stilts’.

Now, it is true that since the middle of the previous century an elaborate architecture of human rights law has emerged at the international, regional and domestic levels, one that is effective to wildly varying degrees. And for most practical purposes, it might be that we can simply appeal to these laws when we talk about human rights. But, ultimately, this legalistic approach is unsatisfactory.

To begin with, the law does not always bind all those we believe should abide by human rights. For example, some states have not ratified human-rights treaties, or have ratified them subject to wide-ranging exceptions (‘reservations’) that blunt their critical edge. A country such as Saudi Arabia can have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council yet persist in severe forms of gender discrimination – for example, prohibiting women from driving – because it made its acceptance of human-rights treaties subject to an override in the case of conflict with Islamic law.

Moreover, the international law of human rights, like international law generally, almost exclusively binds states. Yet many believe that non-state agents, such as corporations, whose revenues in some instances exceed the GDP of all but the wealthiest nations, also bear grave human-rights responsibilities. When manufacturers such as Nike use 12-year-olds to stitch soccer balls in Pakistan, or internet service providers such as Yahoo secretly hand over the emails of dissidents to the Chinese government, many critics decry not just corporate malfeasance but human-rights violations. And this is so even if the corporation has complied with the laws of the country in which it is operating.

It is precisely in response to the threat to human rights posed by corporations that the ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’ (2011), the brainchild of the Harvard political scientist John Ruggie, were established. Endorsed by the UN, the principles are not legally binding either on states or corporations. Instead, they aim to provide an authoritative statement of human-rights responsibilities that apply directly to corporations, quite apart from any legal obligations they might also bear. Ruggie’s ambition is that the principles will eventually inform corporate decision-making at all levels, illustrating the fact that human rights go beyond law and its enforcement.

Yet there is a deeper problem with identifying human rights with existing laws. Laws are the creations of fallible human beings. They might be good or bad, and so are always subject to interpretation and criticism in terms of independent moral principles. The international law of human rights, on this view, does not establish which human rights exist; instead, its goal is to implement moral rights we already possess, simply by virtue of our humanity. Slavery, torture and racial discrimination did not suddenly become human-rights violations only when they were legally prohibited. It is the other way round: we have human-rights law in order to give force to human rights that in some sense pre-exist their legal recognition. Unfortunately, no consensus has yet emerged among philosophers or anyone else on how human rights are to be defended as objective truths, independent of law.

The late American philosopher Richard Rorty sought a way out of this impasse. Although a staunch liberal, he turned his back on the philosophical enterprise of attempting to give a rational justification for human rights. He judged that activity to be pointless now that human rights are a deeply embedded fact of our culture, not just our law. How can we justify human rights when they seem more compelling to us liberal Westerners than any other idea we might use to justify them? The real task that confronts us, Rorty thought, was the practical one of enhancing compliance with human rights worldwide, not the intellectual one of grounding rights in the fabric of reality.

A similarly dismissive attitude is adopted by Ruggie, who conceives of his Guiding Principles not as reflecting ‘true’ moral demands, but as rooted in empirically measurable ‘social norms and expectations’. At a more sophisticated level, the late American political philosopher John Rawls, in his last work The Law of Peoples (1999), insisted that in a pluralistic world we cannot build our public commitment to human rights on any controversial account of the ‘truth’ about humanity or the good. We have to return, instead, to shared ideas embedded in the culture of a liberal democracy.

But is it enough to rely on the supposed fact that human rights are embedded in a liberal democratic culture? Or do we need to be able to step back from that culture and offer an objective justification for the principles embedded in it, as the philosophers have long supposed? The problem is that social expectations and cultural assumptions not only vary significantly across societies, but that they are fragile: various forces ranging from globalisation to propaganda can cause them to change dramatically or even wither away. Would rights against gender or racial discrimination disappear if sexist or racist attitudes come to predominate?

The question is not fanciful. Once apparently settled beliefs about the impermissibility of torture or the rights of refugees have recently suffered a backlash. There can be backsliding as well as progress, with no guarantees either way. Social expectations and deep cultural assumptions are no more a sufficient basis for human rights than the law is. There is a fatal contradiction in defending human rights against the rising authoritarianism of a ‘post-truth’ era while simultaneously abandoning the belief that our commitment to those rights is itself grounded in the truth, and being prepared to defend it on that basis.

My own view is that human rights are rooted in the universal interests of human beings, each and every one of whom possesses an equal moral status arising from their common humanity. In other words, in defending human rights, we will need to appeal to the inherent value of being a member of the human species and, in addition, the interests shared by all human beings in things like friendship, knowledge, achievement, play, and so on. And we will need to ask whether these considerations generate duties that are owed to each and every human being. This proposal is hardly uncontroversial. The appeal to the inherent value of humanity will be contested by some as a brute prejudice – a ‘speciesism’ on a par with racism. Similarly, the appeal to universal interests will be contested by those who think that human rights are ultimately about respecting individual freedom regardless of whether it advances the right-holder’s well-being.

Whether I’m right or not, I am convinced that we cannot sustain our commitment to human rights on the cheap, by invoking only the law or the assumptions of our liberal democratic culture. Only a deeper justification can explain why we are right to embody them in the law, or maintain a liberal democratic culture, in the first place. This has precisely been the aim of philosophical defences of human rights from the 12th century up until very recent times. To keep our human rights culture in good order, we cannot avoid engaging with the question of justification. And we should think of this not as the exclusive domain of professional philosophers, but as a process of public reasoning to which all citizens are called to contribute.Aeon counter – do not remove

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

~ John Tasioulas is the inaugural Chair of Politics, Philosophy and Law, and director of the Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre for Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London. He is working on his latest book, Human Rights: From Morality to Law (forthcoming, OUP). (Bio credit: Aeon)

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