Statues of Limitation

So we seem to be on our way to tearing down every statue related to the Democratic Party’s largest achievement in American history—the Confederate States of America. Funny how the Confederate battle flag, and now statues, didn’t start to come down until Republicans became ascendant in southern states. Democrats who had a monopoly grip on the South for decades had lots of time to take these steps, but didn’t. You’d almost think they were opportunists.

Rich Lowry pointed out that there is a statue in Baltimore of Roger Taney, and lo and behold it was taken down last night. Taney did more than perhaps any other figure to propel the nation into civil war with his reckless decision in Dred Scott that “the negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect,” which by implication legalized slavery throughout the entire U.S. and prohibited Congress henceforth from stopping its spread in the territories. All that was needed, as Lincoln pointed out, was one more case extending the principle Taney laid out to make slavery legal throughout the North. Had not the war intervened, maybe we would have had Ubergefell as the sequel to Dred Scott.

There may be a larger parallel between that time and today. I often like to share with students in class the summation of the defense lawyer in the case of Jacob Gruber, a Methodist minister who was put on trial in Frederick, Maryland, in 1818 on the charge of inciting a slave revolt. Gruber had spoken at a large outdoor meeting in Hagerstown about “the nation sin” of slavery, and as the large audience included several hundred slaves, Gruber was promptly arrested. Gruber’s was exactly the kind of abolitionist speech that Democrats in the 1850s like James Buchanan denounced as causing sectional rifts.

Here is the climax of the closing argument to the jury that Gruber’s defense attorney offered:

Any man has a right to publish his opinions on that subject [slavery] whenever he pleases. It is a subject of national concern, and may at all times be freely discussed. Mr. Gruber did quote the language of our great act of national independence, and insisted on the principles contained in that venerated instrument. He did rebuke those masters, who, in the exercise of power, are deaf to the calls of humanity; and he warned them of the evils they might bring upon themselves. He did speak with abhorrence of those reptiles, who live by trading in human flesh, and enrich themselves by tearing the husband from the wife—the infant from the bosom of the mother: and this I am instructed was the head and front of his offending. Shall I content myself with saying he had a right to say this? That there is no law to punish him? So far is he from being the object of punishment in any form of proceeding, that we are prepared to maintain the same principles, and to use, if necessary, the same language here in the temple of justice, and in the presence of those who are the ministers of the law. A hard necessity, indeed, compels us to endure the evil of slavery for a time. It was imposed upon us by another nation, while we were yet in a state of colonial vassalage. It cannot be easily, or suddenly removed. Yet while it continues it is a blot on our national character, and every real lover of freedom confidently hopes that it will be effectually, though it must be gradually, wiped away; and earnestly looks for the means, by which this necessary object may be best attained. And until it shall be accomplished: until the time shall come when we can point without a blush, to the language held in the Declaration of Independence, every friend of humanity will seek to lighten the galling chain of slavery, and better, to the utmost of his power, the wretched condition of the slave.

Such was Mr. Gruber’s object in that part of his sermon, of which I am now speaking. Those who have complained of him, and reproached him, will not find it easy to answer him: unless complaints, reproaches and persecution shall be considered an answer.

Students often assume that Gruber’s lawyer must have been Abraham Lincoln, as his argument sounds so much like Lincoln’s line of argument in the 1850s. Lincoln was precocious, to be sure, but since he was born in 1809, he would have been just nine years old at the time of the Gruber trial.

No; instead, Gruber’s lawyer was. . . Roger Taney.

Which leads to the next question: what the hell happened to Taney? That’s a long story, but can be summarized briefly by the proposition that Democrats ceased to believe that slavery was a national sin—indeed they came to believe it was a positive good. (See Calhoun, Alexander Stephens, George Fitzhugh, etc.), and the first version of identity politics was born. In other words, Democrats aren’t that much different today than they were in the 1850s. To put it still one more way, when thinking about what the hell happened to Taney, you can begin to make out parallels to what the hell has happened to Democrats more recently.

P.S. Gruber was acquitted.


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