Friday, September 30, 2016

King's Survey: Party, a 4-Letter Word

In which we see politics befall the Founding Fathers
Portrait of Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
—Hey, Mr. K.
Yesterday you asked whether the growing rift between (Federalist) Alexander Hamilton and (Democratic-Republican, or just Republican for short) James Madison marked the beginning of party politics.
—I remember.
The short answer is no. And Emily has a wry expression on her face.
—Because now you’re going to give us the long answer.
Gotta earn my paycheck, Em. So here we go: It’s hard to call the Federalists and Republicans parties, because the Founding Fathers hated the very idea of parties. They believed any American involved in politics should put the country first, and if intelligent patriots of good will got together to solve a problem, an objectively fair solution would emerge. The idea that intelligent patriots of good will might actually have honest differences, that there might be more than one legitimate way to solve a problem, was hard for them to accept. And when confronted with this prospect, they tended to say the other guy belonged to a “faction,” a group of selfish intriguers who were pursuing their own agenda. The notion of a modern political party came later.
That said, there are threads that connect these factions to our modern political parties. The Democratic-Republican, or Republican, faction that was led by Jefferson with Madison as his lieutenant, was the party of the little guy. For most of U.S. history, being the party of the little guy was a matter of favoring limits on the government, because the perception was that government power tended to side with business interests against the people. That would change, and in our time, the little guyand galhas often favored more government rather than less. But that’s a matter of means. The end has always been the same: favoring ordinary people.
—So what does that make the other party? The party of Darth Vader?
Not exactly, Em. Hamilton’s faction, the Federalists, are the party of the big dogs—and little dogs who believe they will become big dogs. As we’ll see, there are philosophical connections that link them to a party known as the Whigs, and then later the Republican Party. The Federalists and these heirs have been the money party. The business party. The Federalists and their successors were the party of the strivers, like Hamilton himselfan immigrant who became a paragon, even architect, of the American Dream. They saw themselves as champions of opportunity, of the promise of success, variously construed, for those who were willing to work for it. For most of American history, these people believed the government needed to lend a hand to their enterprises, whether by giving them lucrative contracts, or in imposing taxes on foreign goods so that their own seemed cheaper and better, or other means. Later, once American business became a global force, they came to conclude that government should stay out of their way. But here too, the issue was means, not ends.
Let’s be clear: there were elements of hypocrisy and delusion in both these visions. Jefferson, who considered himself the champion of ordinary working people, was a rich slaveholder (as was Madison). And a strong strain of elitism and exclusion ran through every version of American politics that followed in their wake. And Hamilton, who himself was very honest in his public life (less so in his private life) labored on behalf of those more interested in a quick buck than earned rewards. The Federalists also kept on insisting, and getting, government help even as they complained about the way government constrained them. But these two visions of American life, and the conflict between them, have proven amazingly durable. As has the basis of that fight, whose essence is the proper role of government. In the early life of the republic, the Federalists wanted more, and the Republicans less.
There were other fights along these lines. One concerned taxes. There was all kind of debts in the infant nation. Some of it was personal debt. And some of it was government debt, notably state debt. But there were thirteen states, with widely varying situations regarding the debt. Some states, like Virginia, had little or none. Others, particularly Northern states, had a lot. Hamilton pushed for the U.S. government to absorb those debtsto make them national, rather than state debtsand he was actually eager for the government to borrow more money.
Why would he want that?
For a couple different reasons, Adam. One is that it would strengthen the indebted states financially and bind them to the nation. Another is that by borrowing money, and then paying it back, he would increase the financial community’s confidence in the nation. That money could be used, by the way, to strengthen the country in other ways, too, like supporting industry and building up its military.
—But how was the government going to pay back all that money?
At least three different ways. One was by selling land. The United States didn’t have much money, but it had a lot of territory that could be carved up and sold off for cash. Anotherand this is something I want you to remember kids, because it’s going to come up again and againwas by slapping taxes, or tariffs, on foreign goods coming into the United States. This killed two birds with one stone: it raised money, but it also made imports more expensive, which gave consumers an incentive to buy home-grown products. And helping industry grow was a big part of Hamilton’s program. Last but not least were consumption taxes, taxes on stuff you buy. The most notable of these was on whiskey, something a lot of people drank. But again, Hamilton was as at least as interested in the idea of vigorous government was he was actually raising money.
—How did the Madison crowd feel about this?
You tell me.
—They hated it.
Right. Why?
—Because it helped the rich. And it made the government more powerful.
Right. But this wasn’t just a philosophical argument. People in the states where there wasn’t a lot of debt resented having to pay for other states. And people really cared about that whiskey tax. Here’s the thing: whiskey was made from grain. Grain was really hard to move, and thus really hard to sell. (At this point, Americans depended upon water transportationshipping stuff was literally ten times more expensive by land than by sea, which is why rivers and coastline were so important, and determined where most Americans lived.) But distilling that graincorn into bourbon whiskey; wheat into scotch whiskey, rye into rye whiskeymade it much more compact, durable, and easy to sell. So taxing spirits, as they were called, really hit people where they lived, and they really objected to it. Out in western Pennsylvania, some farmers were so mad about this that they marched on the house of a particularly hated tax collector. Shots were fired, and following week thousands of insurrectionists gathered to attack Pittsburgh. In response to the Whiskey Rebellion, as it was known, President Washington raised an army that he personally led with Hamilton into Pennsylvania. By the time the government forces got there the rebels had dispersed; some were arrested, tried, and convicted, though Washington ultimately pardoned them. Federal authority had ultimately been affirmed. And Hamilton’s program, backed by Washington, prevailed. For the decade of the 1790s, the Federalist faction dominated the U.S. government.
So, Adam, let’s go back to you. Who are you with? Mr. Hamilton? Those angry farmers in western Pennsylvania? Someone else?
—Gosh, Mr. K. I don’t know. I understand Hamilton. But I also understand those farmers.
Are you being indecisive, Sadie?
—Do I have to decide?
No. You don’t. Understanding is enough, at least for now. That’s what you’re here for.
Now go.
Next: Where the hell is Narbone? 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

King's Survey: Speculating

In which we see Sammy the Speculator go to work on the national debt.
So here’s my question to you, kids: How are we going to keep this thing going? How are we going to keep the republic?
—Damned if I know, Mr. K.
—I’m with Ethan on this one, Mr. K. We don’t have enough information to even begin to answer that.
Not enough information, Sadie? What kind of information do you want? Would you like some statistics? Population figures, perhaps?
—No, more like: what are some of the issues? Give us one.
Any particular kind?
—I dunno. Something where people can’t agree about what to do.
How is that going to help?
—Well, if I know what the arguments are about, I may be able to decide who’s right.
So you want to hear about how other people are thinking.
—Yeah, Mr. K. Sadie's weird that way.
Indeed, Em. Is suspect you’re a little weird that way, too.
—Why thank you, Mr. K.
All right. Here’s something. At the end of the American Revolution, U.S. army veterans were all promised a bonus. A cash payment they were to receive for their service. Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, that the amount in question was a thousand dollars. Relatively speaking, it wasn’t a huge sum, but something relatively significant.
—Something you could buy a new computer with.
Sure, Ethan. Of course, it would have been more like something you could buy a new horse with, but you have the right idea.
Now here’s the rub. The government is saying two things. The first is: “We’re going to give you that money.” The second is: “We’re broke. So we don’t know when.”
—Wow. That’s pretty lame. How can they do that?
They don’t really have any choice.
—Can’t they just print the money?
There is no government money, Brianna. Banks issue bills, but the U.S. government doesn’t.
—Well then can’t they borrow the money?
Well, in order to borrow it, somebody has to lend it. And the U.S. government has already borrowed a lot. British banksmost of the banking that’s being done at this point is by British banksare not likely to lend money that’s not likely to make money, because they’ll worry they’ll never get it back.
—This isn’t helping, Mr. K. This isn’t an argument. It’s a problem. And I don’t see how we can solve it.
Well, Sadie, I’m Sammy the Speculator, and I’m here to help.
—Here we go.
That’s right, Em. Because I want to unlock the value of your money. Here you are sitting on a certificate that says you’re owed $1000. Which you might getsomeday. Or you might not. And if you do get it, who knows what it’s likely to be worth by then. Maybe there will be inflation. Or maybe (sorry to be indelicate) you’ll be dead. But I have an offer to make: If you sign that certificate over to meright here, right nowI’ll give you $200 in cash. On the spot.
—No way!
Now, Don’t be too hasty, Em. Two hundred dollars is nothing to sneeze at. Think of what you could do with that money. New shoes. For the whole family. Seeds. Cloth. Maybe some delicacies like tea, jelly, candy.
—Not a horse?
Sure. No young thoroughbred. But maybe a decent workhorse. Maybe you have some debts of your own. Be nice to get those off your books, wouldn’t it?
—I don’t trust you.
You don’t have to trust me. You sign the certificate, you get your money.
—Yeah, but what’s in it for you?
For me? Maybe $1000. Maybe nothing. Or something in between. Look: this could pay off for me big time. Or it might not. I’m in the risk business. It’s what I do. I’m not hiding anything here: I could really come out ahead on this deal with 500% profit. Or I could end up with nothing.
—You know something. You have inside information.
I don’t.
—I don’t believe you.
Don’t, then. Assume I’m lying. Even if I have inside information: is that likely to be any use to you? Maybe I have a secret. But if I do, it’s going to stay a secret. And if and when it ceases to be a secret, do you think you’ll be in a position to take advantage of the new information?
Well, that’s your choice. I’ll be leaving town soon. You can hold on to that certificate, and maybe you’ll find out tomorrow that there will be a payoff. Or the next day. Or the week after that. Or the decade after that. Or not.
—Don’t trust him, Em!
—Take the deal, Em!
—Keep the paper! He’s trying to screw you over.
I need a decision, Emily.
—I’ll take the deal. What the hell. It’s only money. Actually, I’m only doing it because I want to see what his angle is.
As you wish. Done.
Now: Kylie. Let’s talk. You’re a widow. A little less carefree than our friend Emily here. Your husband was a true patriot. Alas, he’s left you almost destitute. Three mouths to feed. You literally can’t afford to be like happy-go-lucky Emily. Fortunately, I’m here to help. Would you like to take me up on my offer?
—I guess so.
Not the most enthusiastic of endorsements, but I’ll take it. Adam, how about you?
—Well, I’m no widow.
No. Your husband also died in the war. But Pablo here as proposed to take you as his wife.
—I always knew Adam was hot.
Yes, well, Ethan, nothing makes a widow better-looking than a little money. Pablo marries Adam and he gets all that money. Sound good, Pablo?
—Sure. Very pretty.
So what do you say, Adam? You want to exchange your certificate for a quick $200 in cash?
—Sure. Anything for Pablo.
Excellent. I now have three takers. Oh wait: I forgot! Pablo, your wife was widowed, but you’re also a veteran. Will you also sell me your certificate for 200 bucks?
I’m on a roll! Jonquil? Is that shrug a yes?
Ladies and gentlemen, you saw that nod. And Ethan, how about you?
No? Oh dear Ethan, I hope you’re not being foolishly contrarian here.
—I want $300.
I’m afraid that’s not possible. Given my overhead and marketing expenses
—Three hundred. My final offer.
Very well, then. Three hundred.
—Hey! That’s not fair! Why does he get $300 when I only got $200?
Nature of the business, Em.
—That is so not fair, Mr. whatever-your-name is.
Sammy the Speculator, Ma’am. Jonah?
Absolutely not. My business model won’t sustain that price.
—Fine. $350.
I’m sorry, no.
—Fine. $300.
Let me get back to you after I finish. I’m not sure a second $300 payout is worthwhile. Yin, I now turn to you. Would you like to sell your certificate for $200?
—No. I’m not going to sell.
At all?
—At all.
—Me either.
—I’m with them.
Well, I guess that’s everybody. Jonah: $250.
Fine. (You coulda had the $300.) Now, remember: we started in on this whole thing because Sadie she needed more information about which direction she thought the country should go in. And here we come to a real debate of the kind she requested. You remember our friends Alexander Hamilton and James Madison? Who were they, again?
—They were Founding Fathers.
Yes. Can you be a little more specific?
—Weren’t they Constitution guys?
Right. They wrote The Federalist Papers.
—Oh yeah. With that other guy. James Jay.
John Jay. But yes. Madison and Hamilton were key players in framing and making the case for the Constitution. Now it’s 1790, and George Washington is President (he was chosen unanimously), and Hamilton is his right-hand man, just as he was during the Revolution, when Hamilton served on Washington’s staff. Hamilton is the new Secretary of the Treasury. Madison, for his part, is the protégé of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is Secretary of State, and Madison is a member of Congresshe’s essentially what we’ve come to know as the Speaker of the House.
So this is where I come into the picture. I’m Sammy the Speculator. I’ve racked up all these certificates I’ve bought from all of you at a discount. (By the way, one of my partners in crime, as it were, was Mrs. Abigail Adams, the husband of the vice-president, who bought these without his knowledge. She loved to invest family money.) The question at hand is: how many cents on the dollar should I get? Do I get the full thousand, which would mean something on the order of an $800 profit on my transactions with the Emilys and Kylies of the world?
Alexander Hamilton (and Mrs. Adams) says: Absolutely.
James Madison says: Are you out of your mind?
What do you say?
—I don’t think you should get anything.
Nothing, Brianna? Why not?
—Because you took advantage of those people.
—No he didn’t.
—Yes he did. He took, he, what’s the word, exploited them.
—He told them what the deal would be. He took a risk. He didn’t know what would happen.
—How do you know he didn’t know what would happen, Adam? These rich guys look out for each other.
—Hey, I don’t like the guy, either, Brianna. I took the deal, too. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think he shouldn’t get paid. Buyer beware.
—I don’t know if Mr. Sammy Speculator should get nothing. But I don’t know if he should get the full amount the way that the people who held on to their certificates did, either.
—You mean like you, Sadie?
—Well, yeah. But I wasn’t really thinking of myself. I was thinking that the people resisted the temptation should get rewarded for it.
—Yeah, well, Sadie, I’m a poor widow, remember? I had to sell. I was desperate.
—Yeah, Sadie.
—Oh, shush, Emily. You’re just feeling dumb because you sold yourself cheap.
—Sadie! I’m shocked! Shocked!
Mr. Hamilton understands that this situation is complicated. But he argues that the notion of who’s deserving and who’s not is beside the point. The nation is new. It’s weak. And it’s having considerable difficulty convincing foreign lenders and other commercial interests that the United States is a good investment. He wants to redeem the certificates for a hundred cents on the dollar because it will send a positive message to that investor class. It will make them feel more confident about the country, and that this in turn will help the country begin to realize its potential.
—Makes sense to me.
That makes you a part of an emerging Hamiltonian faction, Adam.
—What does Madison say?
What he says, Sadie, is that whatever message it may send to Mr. Hamilton’s rich friends, it sends a terrible message to the ordinary people of the United States. This is a nation of farmers and small producers, not a nation of bankers and speculators.
—So does he think the speculators should get nothing?
No, he actually agrees with you. He thinks they should get a discount on their discount, as it were. Original holders should get the full amount, and Sammy the Speculator should get 20-30%. Which would mean he breaks even, maybe comes out a little ahead.
—I like that.
—Me too.
—Me too.
Looks like a lot of you do.
—So is that what they do?
Nope. They redeem the certificates a hundred cents on the dollar to whoever has them.
Well, most of Congress finds Hamilton’s logic compelling. I also think there were some practical problems with Madison’s proposal. Like there would be no easy way to confirm that the holder of a certificate was really the veteran who originally received it. There might also be people who exchanged themremember, this was a time before there was really money in the way we have it todayto pay debts in ways that had nothing to do with Sammy the Speculator type stuff. Say Paolo here built a new barn for Jonah, for a thousand dollars. It would be a good way to pay.
—It’s interesting, because Hamilton and Madison were on the same side with the Constitution. But they’re on opposite sides here.
An excellent observation, Yin. Before the ratification of the Constitution, both of them were Federalists, and the people who opposed them were known as Antifederalists. But after the ratification of the Constitution, Federalists were increasingly people who were associated with Hamilton. And Madison, along with Thomas Jefferson, became his most vocal critics, even enemies. They were known as Democratic-Republicans, or just Republicans for short.
—Is this how we got the Democrats and Republican parties?
Well, not exactly, Sadie.
—Well, how then?
I’ll tell you tomorrow.
—But Mr. K! The suspense!
I know you’ll shoulder on manfully, Em.
—Thanks, Sammy. Short for Samantha.
Next: Party: a four-letter word

Monday, September 26, 2016

King's Survey: Redeeming Bonds

In which we students struggle with kinds of slavery, and different kinds of freedom

—Another poem on the Smart Board.
That’s right, Emily.
—In History class.
—You a poetry guy, Mr. K?
A little. You know I like Anne Bradstreet; we read a poem of hers earlier this semester. I also like Emily Dickinson; I hope we’ll get to her, maybe next semester.
—This one here is another woman. Strange spelling of her first name, though.
She was named after the slave ship that transported her to Boston. Go ahead and read it for us, Em.
On Being Brought from Africa to America

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
—That’s a weird poem.
Why do you say that, Adam?
—She’s saying she’s glad to be a slave.
Is that what she’s saying?
—She says that it was “mercy” that she came here.
Is that the mercy? Coming over here?
—I agree with Mr. K.
Really, Jonah? Am I saying anything to agree with?
—I mean that it isn’t being a slave that’s the mercy. It’s that she believes in God.
—This is kind of a dumb argument. She wouldn’t believe in God if she hadn’t come here. So that means she is glad she’s a slave.
Is that so, Em? Do you agree with Adam that the poem weird?
—It’s more than weird. It’s disturbing. It’s offensive.
At the risk of sounding dumb, I’ll ask you: what is it that’s offensive?
—It’s that she would be grateful to be a slave. For any reason.
I understand. But let me push a little further: stipulating that you find it unacceptable, what is her reason?
—Like Jonah said: it’s God.
Yes. But what about God? You want to weigh in, Sadie?
—Redemption. She’s saved.
Right. The reality of God and the savior, Jesus Christ, means that’s she’s saved. She has eternal life.
—Who would want eternal life as a slave?
—She won’t be a slave once she’s dead, Brianna. She’ll live forever. But she’ll be dead as a slave.
—That doesn’t make any sense, Sadie.
—I mean her spirit will live after her body dies. I have a question, Mr. K.
—When was this poem written? Can you give us a little background?
Phillis Wheatley was born in the early 1750s. She was from somewhere around modern-day Gambia or Senegal, in West Africa. She came to Boston in 1761 and was bought by a wealthy couple, the Wheatleys. Their daughter taught her to read. This poem was written in the late 1760s.
—She was writing poetry within a few years of arriving here and learning English?
Wheatley was a prodigy. Her owners were as amazed as you are. They arranged with some English friends to publish Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. Actually, there was widespread disbelief that a Negro slave could write a book. That’s why they also arranged for her to meet with a distinguished panel of Bostonians that included John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, and a series of other luminariesmany of them soon to be avowed enemies in the Revolution. After interviewing her, they signed a document attesting to her talent, a testimonial included in her book.
—That’s pretty incredible.
Yes, Kylie, it was. Wheatley was taken to London, where she met Ben Franklin, who was impressed. When the Revolution broke out, she wrote a poem in honor of George Washington, who invited her to meet him, something she did just before he left Boston for New York in 1776. About the only person who didn’t believe Wheatley was for real was Thomas Jefferson, who rejected the notion that a Negro could possibly produce a work of art.
—What did she say about Washington?
Here, I’ll call it up on the Smart Board. I’ll read the last stanza:
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.
—I don’t know if I like this, either.
Like what, Em?
—The poem.
What don’t you like?
—It’s not so much what it says. It just seems … stiff. “Proceed great chief!” It’s so phony.
Well, the tone is typical of 18th century poetry. Actually, Wheatley has been criticized for being a little too derivative, too imitative, of poets like Alexander Pope, the leading British poet of the time. But again, this tendency is indicative of what we’ve been discussing: her uncanny ability to pick up language. Yes, Adam.
—I still think it’s a little sick that she’s saying she’s OK with slavery.
I understand that view. And indeed, many African Americans in the last two centuries have shared it. The black literary critic Henry Louis Gates has called this piece “the most reviled poem in African American literature.” But I don’t think that’s the whole story here. Here: let me call up yet another Wheatley poem. This one was written in honor of the Earl of Dartmouth, the man who ran the effort to defeat the American Revolution (and the man for whom Dartmouth College is named):
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent's breast?
Does this change your mind any, Adam?
—Doesn’t really change I think about the other poem.
Fair enough. Let’s go back to that. So far we’ve been focusing on the first half. Now let’s look at the rest of it. The next line is
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
What does this mean?
—She’s saying other people are racist. That they view black people as evil.
Good, Jonquil. See that she uses quotation marks: she’s speaking in someone else’s voice, presumably a white person. Now let’s zero in on the final lines:
Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
So what is she saying here?
—She’s saying that even black people can go to heaven.
Yes, Jonquil. Negroes black as Cain can be refined and join the angelic train. Question: Who was Cain?
—That’s from the Bible.
Correct, Jonah. Can you be more specific? Anyone?
—Wasn’t there a brother thing? Cain and Abel?
—Cain killed Abel.
Right. Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain was a farmer, Abel a shepherd. They both made offerings to God, but God was more impressed with Abel’s gift than he was with Cain’s. A jealous Cain killed Abel. When God asked Cain were Abel was, he replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (The correct answer, of course, was yes.) God cursed Cain by forcing him to wander the earth. So what does Wheatley mean when she describes “Negroes black as Cain?”
—That they’re cursed. To wander across the ocean.
—Yeah, but even though they’re cursed they can still be saved.
Good. Oh, by the way: “Cane” here is also a pun. Can you figure out what for?
—Candy cane?
—Sugar cane?
Right! Why is that relevant here?
—Because sugar is sweet?
Not exactly. What do you know about slavery? What kind of work did slaves do?
—They picked cotton.
Well yes, but that was later. I guess we didn’t really cover this. Slaves in the Caribbean in particular processed sugar cane. It was backbreaking work. Remember how we talked about the colonists’ mania for tea? A lot of them had sugar with that tea. Sugar was relatively new in the western world in the 18th century. People were crazy about it. So it fueled the slave trade. Sweetness rested on a foundation of brutality. So you’re right in that there is (ironic) relevance here. And another thing: what color is sugar?
Yes. But that’s after it’s processedor, to use Wheatley’s term, “refined,” which is what we typically use in everyday life even now. But what color is sugar first?
—That’s pretty funny.
—It isn’t funny, Jonah.
—No, I mean it’s cool. I mean clever. It’s cool symbolism. She’s a good writer.
 Now let’s approach this from another angle. That second to last line has four commas. There’s one after each of the first three words: “remember,” “Christians,” and “Negroes.” What does a comma do?
—It makes you stop.
—No that’s a period. A comma more like makes you slow down.
It can also change the way you read a line. Is Wheatley telling Christians to remember Negroes? Or Negroes to remember Christians?
—There’s also italics.
That’s a good point, Kylie. I should have mentioned that. Both Christians and Negroes are italicized. So is Cain. Who is it that Wheatley is comparing to Cain? Are Negroes black as Cain? Or are Christians (which is to say born sinners) black as Cain?
You think so, Kylie?
Kylie, tell me what you really think. Don’t take your cue from the content or tone of my question.
—I think she’s saying both. I think she’s saying that both black and white people are like Cain.
Is she also saying that black and white people can “join the angelic train?”
And where is that train going?
—To heaven?
Are you asking me or telling me, Kylie?
—Um, telling you, I guess. Both Negroes and Christians—I mean white Christians and black Christians—can go to heaven.
Understood. One more question, Kylie: Do you like this poem?
—Do I like it?
Yes. I’m asking if you like it.
—I don’t know.
—Why is her saying “I don’t know” good?
Because, Adam, she’s giving me her honest judgment. It appears that figuring out what she thinks and saying so doesn’t come naturally to her. It does seem to come naturally to you. You’ve been clear from the start that you don’t like this poem. Is that still the case?
—Yeah, it is.
Even though I’ve given you evidence that Wheatley is not the uncritical advocate of slavery you fear that she is?
—I still don’t like it.
Is that because the quantity of the evidence is insufficient? Or is it because the quality of that evidence is insufficient?
—I’m not sure. I think what may bother me is the way she uses her religion to justify slavery.
Is that what she’s doing?
—Basically, yeah. I get that she is critical of slavery, but she’s basically saying that doesn’t matter. It’s not important. Believing in God is what matters.
Is believing in God a problem?
—Well, hey, people can believe what they want. I just think people sometimes use religion as a crutch.
A crutch.
—Yeah. When they can’t deal with reality they turn to God.
Which is counterproductive. Might even make it easier to enslave people.
Brianna, you’re nodding your head.
—I think he’s right.
And Emily, you’ve been in the Adam camp from the start of class. Are you still are, right?
Fair enough. Do the rest of you? Are we agreed that the Phillis Wheatley we meet in this poem is a talented, but sadly misguided, girl of about your age?
—I’m not sure I want to say that.
Why not, Yin?
—It seems harsh. She’s doing the best she can with a bad situation. Doesn’t seem fair to say she’s making things worse.
—I’m not saying she’s making things worse.
—You just said she’s making it easier to enslave people, Adam.
—Mr. K. said that. I didn’t.
—But you agreed.
—I meant more that the people who are enslaving her are taking advantage of her.
They’re taking advantage of her emotional vulnerability, Adam? They’re exploiting her faith?
—Yeah, I guess you could say that.
And her faith is a form of weakness?
—I dunno. That’s a tough one. But yes, I guess it is.
—I think it’s really wrong to judge.
Don’t we have to, Yin?
—Why do we have to judge? We don’t know what she was dealing with.
Well, that’s certainly true. None of us are eighteenth century slaves. And this of course is a poem; by definition the portrayal here has been edited, has been manipulated, in some way. (I’m assuming the voice we’re hearing here is that of Wheatley herself, which might be a mistake.) In fact, we know this isn’t the whole story in the World of Wheatley: I’ve shown you that she has expressed different sentiments about slavery in a different poem that was published in the same book. So we can’t jump to any conclusions. That’s exactly what I’ve been working toward trying to get some of your classmates to avoid. And yet …
—And yet what?
Well, I don’t know that you’re dealing with either, Yin.
—I don’t understand your point.
Well, look: I’m your teacher. You’re my student. As such, I’m expected to treat you like every other student. But at the same time, in talking with you, in dealing with you, I have to make decisions about who I think you are: what you want to hear from me, what you need to hear from me, what I think will work best in educating you within the boundaries set by the law, by the school, and the limits of our respective abilities. (“You,” by the way can be a particular student, the particular set of students I have in the room, adolescents generally, or some other group of people.) I have to make judgments based on incomplete information. This is something every single one of us does every single day. Right now it’s my job to do it. You can see I handled Kylie differently a minute ago than I handled Adam. And you’ll note that I haven’t asked Paolo over there, who’s been silent today, and can remain so if he’d like, any questions. I’m guessing that this is not the right moment to put him on the spot by demanding he say something. But I’m guessing it is the right moment to remind him that I know he’s here, and to refocus what may or may not be his flagging attention. I’m exercising my professional judgment here to the best ofdare I say?God-given ability.
Might I make mistakes in making these various choices? There’s no doubt about it. Maybe I’m selling Kylie a little short in my estimation of her willingness to take a firm positionor maybe, as you’re arguing, my insistence on taking a position is misplaced. Maybe I’ve hurt Adam’s feelings in ways I failed to anticipate or will never realize. And maybe Paolo is bursting at the seams ready to say something, or maybe I’ve made it less likely, rather than more likely, that he’ll do his homework tonight. Care to weigh in, Paolo? You can just shake your head.
That’s a no. Back to our friend Phillis Wheatley. There are lots of ways to read this poem, and to go back to Emily’s initial observation, we’re reading it in a History class rather than an English class. I mentioned the English poet Alexander Pope in passing, but the truth is that I’m not interested in the aesthetics of this poem. I’m much more interested in it as a snapshot of a life in motiona life in the past that we’re making a necessarily partial effort to understand. I told you that as a teacher I have to exercise my professional judgment. Right now I’m trying to get you to exercise your personal judgment. Note that key verb: exercise. My hope is that by asking you to do this regularly, in this figurative gymnasium we call a classroom, you’ll get better at doing it when you leave. But let me replace that word “hope” with a different one: faith. It’s my faith that this little ritual we’re doing will allow us to get betterin multiple senses of that term. Perhaps that’s my crutch, Adam.
—Mr. K., what became of Phillis Wheatley?
The story is not an especially happy one, Sadie. She did receive her freedom, but that appears to have been something of a mixed blessing, because she struggled to survive. She tried, and failed to get a second book published. (So many of her poems were written in honor of prominent people, I suspect, because she depended on patronage, as so many artists do in one form or another.) In 1778 Wheatley married a man named John Peters, about whom not much is known, although he was apparently frequently in debt. Phillis Wheatley, now Peters, had three children with whom, all of whom died in childhood. The third died in childbirth, taking the poet with her, in 1784. She would have been about 35 years old.
—That’s so sad.
Yes, in some ways it was. On the other hand, a slave who wrote her way to freedom and produced work that’s still being read centuries later ain’t a bad lifetime’s work. Many of us would consider ourselves lucky and satisfied to have done the same, whether or not we were slaves.
Of course, there were other ways a slave could do meaningful work. We don’t know the names of most of the people who participated in the Stono slave rebellion of 1739 in South Carolina (it was apparently led by a man named Jemmy), or the New York uprising of 1741, or the followers of Gabriel Prosser who led another revolt in Virginia in 1800. Many of them died in unsuccessful fights for freedom. Which would eventually come. Their voices may be a little harder to hear. But with a discerning ear, you might be able to apprehend them, and evaluate their stories like we just did Wheatley’s. Or the far more ordinary voices of those around you. They might prove to be more interesting and unexpected than you might think.
See youI mean hear youtomorrow.
Next: Speculating on the new republic