Moses’ Last Exodus

Wilmington, Del., Nov. 30, 1860

The knock came after dark. Hastening to answer it, the old Quaker found a familiar figure in the doorway: a tiny, dark-skinned woman, barely five feet tall, with a kerchief wrapped around her head. Someone who didn’t know her might have taken her for an ordinary poor black woman begging alms – were it not for her eyes. Wide-set, deep-socketed and commanding, they were the eyes not of a pauper or slave, but of an Old Testament hero, a nemesis of pharaohs and kings.

Harriet Tubman, circa 1860s.

Five others followed her: a man and woman, two little girls and, cradled in a basket, the swaddled form of a tiny infant, uncannily silent and still. They had braved many dangers and hardships together to reach this place of safety, trusting their lives to the woman known as “the Moses of her people.”

As politicians throughout the country debated secession and young men drilled for war, Harriet Tubman had been plotting a mission into the heart of slave territory. She did not know that it would be her last. Over the past 10 years, she had undertaken about a dozen clandestine journeys to the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland, the place from which she herself had escaped in 1849. She had managed to bring some six dozen people – most of them family and friends – across the Mason-Dixon Line into freedom, then across the Canadian border to safety. But Tubman had never managed to liberate several of her closest relatives: her younger sister Rachel and Rachel’s two children, Ben and Angerine. In the autumn of 1860, she decided to rescue them.

Slave ads from a newspaper on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, 1859.

Although it lay on the border between North and South and had few large plantations, the part of Maryland east of the Chesapeake Bay was an especially hazardous place to be a slave. Soil depletion and economic stagnation had left many local planters with more field hands than they needed – as well as chronically short of cash. By the mid-19th century, the Eastern Shore had become known as one of the nation’s principal “breeder” regions, where slaves were frequently sold to slave traders, speculators who sent them south to the burgeoning cotton and sugar plantations of the Gulf Coast. As a child, Tubman had seen two of her own sisters sold away, and heard her parents’ anguished tales of others taken before her birth. Four of her remaining siblings had escaped, three of them helped by their sister Harriet. Only Rachel had remained.

By this time, Tubman was well connected to the nationwide abolitionist movement, and before departing, she raised money for the trip (and for possible bribes along the way) from Wendell Phillips and other activists. She set out from her home in Auburn, N.Y., and by mid-November she was in Maryland.

Tubman arrived to learn that her sister would never know freedom: Rachel had died a short time earlier. There were still the two children, her niece and nephew, to rescue. Here too, Tubman failed. She set a rendezvous point in the woods near the plantation where the two were held, but they failed to appear at the appointed time. Tubman waited all through that night and the following one, crouching behind a tree for shelter from the wind and driving snow. At last she gave up. Ben and Angerine’s fate is unknown.

Ad for a runaway slave, in Macon (Georgia) Daily Telegraph, Nov. 30, 1860.

Tubman had, however, found another family that was ready to seek freedom: Stephen and Maria Ennals and their children, six-year-old Harriet, four-year-old Amanda and a three-month-old infant. (One or two other men may have joined them as well.) The fugitives made their way up the peninsula, traveling mostly by night. Once, they were pursued by slave patrollers alerted to their presence. The escapees hid on an island in the middle of a swamp, covering the baby in a basket. Eventually a lone white man appeared, strolling casually along the edge of the marsh, seemingly talking to himself. They realized he was an agent of the Underground Railroad, telling them how to reach a barn where they could take shelter.

As they continued on their journey, Tubman would go out each day in search of food while the Ennalses hid in the woods, their baby drugged with an opiate to keep it from crying. Returning at the end of the day, Tubman would softly sing a hymn until they heard her and reemerged:

Hail, oh hail, ye happy spirits,
Death no more shall make you fear,
Grief nor sorrow, pain nor anguish,
Shall no more distress you dere.

Even as the group approached Wilmington, it was not yet out of danger: Delaware was still officially a slave state. In fact, due to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the escapees could have been recaptured anywhere in the North and returned to bondage. Tubman herself could have been re-enslaved, or – as an abettor of fugitives – sentenced to spend the rest of her life in a Maryland prison. But at last, on the night of Nov. 30, she reached the house of the elderly Quaker, Thomas Garrett, a leading Underground Railroad “conductor” who would smuggle the Ennals family to relative safety in Philadelphia.

Although the Underground Railroad had already become famous – and, for many Americans, infamous – only a tiny percentage of slaves managed to escape to the North: estimates have put the number at just a thousand or so each year out of a total enslaved population of some four million. Still, these fugitives were a major bone of contention for disgruntled Southerners. An adult field hand could cost as much as $2,000, the equivalent of a substantial house. To Southerners, then, anyone who helped a man or woman escape bondage was simply a thief. But more infuriating than the monetary loss it occasioned, the Underground Railroad was an affront to the slaveholders’ pride – and a rebuke to those who insisted that black men and women were comfortable and contented in bondage.

In an 1860 speech, Senator Robert Toombs of Georgia thundered against Republicans “engaged in stealing our property” and thus “daily committing offences against the people and property of these … States, which, by the laws of nations, are good and sufficient causes of war.” As secession loomed, some Northerners attempted to soothe such fears. A New York Times editorial suggested not only that stronger efforts be made to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, but that the federal government compensate slaveholders for their escaped “property.”

Tubman was back in Auburn by Christmas Day, 1860, having conveyed the Ennals family safely to Canada. (Abolitionists often noted the irony of Americans fleeing the “land of liberty” to seek freedom under Queen Victoria’s sheltering scepter.) Her secret missions ended with the approach of war.

But one night in the midst of the secession crisis, while staying at the house of another black leader, a vision came to Tubman in a dream that all of America’s slaves were soon to be liberated – a vision so powerful that she rose from bed singing. Her host tried in vain to quiet her; perhaps their grandchildren would live to see the day of jubilee, he said, but they themselves surely would not. “I tell you, sir, you’ll see it, and you’ll see it soon,” she retorted, and sang again: “My people are free! My people are free.”

Sources: Kate Clifford Larson, “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero“; William Still, “The Underground Rail Road”; Sarah H. Bradford, “Harriet, the Moses of Her People”; Catherine Clinton, “Harriet Tubman, The Road to Freedom”; Fergus Bordewich, “Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America”; James A. McGowan, “Station Master on the Underground Railroad: The Life and Letters of Thomas Garrett”; “Speech of Robert Toombs, of Ga., Delivered in the Senate of the U.S. January 24, 1860”; New York Times, Dec. 10, 1860.

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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Cleopatra’s Guide to Good Governance

LET’S say you can’t readily lay your hands on “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” or those of Winnie the Pooh. And let’s say the political mood around you is bleak; gridlock is the order of the day. Why not turn to a different management guru, a woman who left some 2,000-year-old teachable moments, each of them enduring and essential?

At 18, Cleopatra VII inherited the most lucrative enterprise in existence, the envy of her world. Everyone for miles around worked for her. Anything they grew or manufactured enriched her coffers. She had the administrative apparatus and the miles of paperwork to prove it.

From the moment she woke she wrangled with military and managerial decisions. The crush of state business consumed her day. Partisan interests threatened to trip her up at every turn; she observed enough court intrigue to make a Medici blush. To complicate matters, she was highly vulnerable to a hostile takeover. Oh, and she looked very little like the other statesmen with whom she did business.

Herewith her leadership secrets, a papyrus primer for modern-day Washington:

Obliterate your rivals. Co-opting the competition is good. Eliminating it is better. Cleopatra made quick work of her siblings, which sounds uncouth. As Plutarch noted, however, such behavior was axiomatic among sovereigns. It happened in the best of families.

The royal rules for dispensing with blood relatives were as inflexible as those of geometry. Cleopatra lost one brother in her civil war against him; allegedly poisoned a second; arranged the murder of her surviving sister. She thereafter reigned supreme.

Does this suggest by extension that a family business is a bad idea? It does.

Don’t confuse business with pleasure. The two have a chronic tendency to invade each other’s territory. But what were John Edwards, Mark Hurd, Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer thinking?

If you’re going to seduce someone, set your sights high. Cleopatra fell in with the most celebrated military commanders of her day, sequentially allying herself and producing children with her white knights, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. As she demonstrated, the idea is to kiss your way up the ladder. Along the same lines, there was an ancient world equivalent of the hire-an-assistant-of-whom-your-spouse-can’t-be-jealous wisdom. Cleopatra surrounded herself with eunuchs. They got into less trouble than did other aides, or at least different kinds of trouble.

Appearances count. As President Obama has learned and unlearned, theater works wonders. You may campaign in poetry, but you are wise to govern in pageantry. Deliver carnivals rather than tutorials; a little vulgarity goes a long way. Just wear the flag pin already.

Leadership is a trick of perception, a bit of wisdom Shakespeare lent Henry IV, to pass along to Prince Hal. And if you intend to command, look the part. Work boots with a suit are always a nice touch when you’re the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in an occupied Middle Eastern country, for example. Make something of a spectacle of yourself. Yes, you can do that in jeans and a black turtleneck. In a televised world as in a pre-print era, it’s the stage management that counts. Literally or not, the idea is to create and star in your own reality show.

Go big or go home. Cleopatra appeared before Antony at an age when, according to Plutarch, “women have most brilliant beauty and are at the acme of intellectual power,” a moment every woman knows to be several years behind her. But no matter. Cleopatra took with her extravagant gifts, chests of money, rich textiles. She left behind the boxed sets of DVDs and scale models of Marine One. She traveled on a gilded barge with purple sails, amid a cloud of incense. She laid out carpets of roses. To Antony’s officers she handed around gem-studded vessels, couches, sideboards, tapestries, horses, torch-bearing Ethiopian slaves. It was not surprising that the most astute of Antony’s generals should several years later vouch for her military genius.


Never get involved in a land war in Asia. Millenniums before Wallace Shawn delivered up that pearl of wisdom in “The Princess Bride,” Cleopatra seems to have intuited as much. She nonetheless financed Antony’s military expedition to the restive area east of the Tigris, a multiethnic, multicultural region of shifting alliances, one that had resisted 30 years of Roman efforts at organization. The Roman general who had last ventured that way had not returned. His severed head wound up as a prop in a royal production of Euripides. His legions were slaughtered. Antony fared only marginally better. Asian allies double-crossed him. Guerrilla tactics and treacherous geography undid him. At the conclusion of a demoralizing campaign and a disastrous retreat he had lost some 24,000 men. Cleopatra bailed him out.

Underpromise and overdeliver. Cleopatra comported herself flamboyantly and delivered on drama. But occasionally — despite a huge staff that included pages and scribes, masseurs and tasters, lamplighters and pearl-setters — something slipped through the cracks.

Alas such was the case in her dealings with Cicero, who left only damning lines about the Egyptian queen, whom he would not deign even to mention by name. He had little reason to be inclined toward a rich and foreign female sovereign. But the animus derived from something else. Cleopatra had promised Cicero a manuscript — it may have been one from her library in Alexandria — on which she failed to deliver. The oversight sealed her fate for posterity. No one has ever paid so lasting a price for a forgotten library book.

It pays to sweat the details, as Newt Gingrich reminded us when he shut down the federal government in 1994, after he was assigned a lousy seat on Air Force One.

If you can’t pay your debts, debase your currency. Egypt’s economic affairs were dismal when Cleopatra ascended to the throne. She devalued the currency by a third. She issued no gold and critically lowered the value of her kingdom’s silver. And she ushered in a great innovation: she introduced coins of various denominations. In an early prefiguring of paper currency, the markings rather than the metal content determined their value. A coin might feel light in the hand, but if Cleopatra said it was worth 80 drachmae, it was worth 80 drachmae. The arrangement was both lucrative to her and encouraged an export-driven economy.


A friend of a friend may well be an enemy. Cleopatra’s charm was said to be irresistible, her presence spellbinding. But one person on whom she failed to work her magic was Herod.

Well before religion clouded the picture, the Queen of Egypt and the King of Judaea were rivals for Rome’s friendship. Cleopatra did everything in her power to frustrate Herod. She kept him as far from Antony as possible and claimed proceeds from Judaea’s most lucrative natural resources. At one point she incited a war between Herod and his Arab neighbors the Nabateans, ordering her commander in the region to prolong the contest as long as possible. She counted on them to destroy each other, which they did not. Cleopatra did supply Herod with further reason to malign her in Rome, however.

Good neighbors make good fences. Shortly after the war between Herod and the Nabateans, Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian soundly defeated Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. She retreated to Alexandria, from which she attempted several escapes. In one particularly bold maneuver, she dragged her Mediterranean fleet 40 miles overland in order to relaunch it, via the Gulf of Suez, into the Red Sea. Both the bravado and the engineering were staggering. Cleopatra essentially anticipated the Suez Canal.

The tribe on the far side of the Gulf was unfortunately the Nabateans, newly recovered from their costly war with Herod. They set fire to each of Cleopatra’s ships as it reached their shore.

Unsurprisingly, Herod was happy to escort the conquering Octavian directly to the Egyptian border. He saw to it that the Romans lacked nothing for the desert march ahead. Several weeks later Cleopatra was dead.


Control the narrative. Cleopatra understood well that the storytelling mattered as much as the decision-making, and that the best narrative is the easy-to-follow narrative.

She discovered early on that it helps to have a god on your side — or to claim to speak for one. She remained at all times on-message, truthfully and not. She cruised the Nile with Julius Caesar, a splendid advertisement of Egyptian abundance to her Roman visitor and of Roman military might to her people. After her defeat at Actium, she sailed back to Alexandria with head high, passing off a mission entirely botched as one expertly accomplished.

She astutely manipulated the nomenclature; as mission statements go, you can’t do better than the title she adopted at 32: “Queen Cleopatra, the Goddess, the Younger, Father-Loving and Fatherland-Loving.”

The problems came later. Her enemies wrote her history, reducing her shrewd politics and managerial competence to sexual manipulation. As one contemporary noted, “How much more attention people pay to their fears than to their memories!” It’s rarely about the library book, but so much easier to claim it is. And you never know who’s going to end up addressing posterity.

It could be Newt Gingrich.

Stacy Schiff is the author of “Cleopatra: A Life.”


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Dangerous Liaisons

A BRITISH ambassador to Venice in the 17th century observed that “a diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.” But for centuries, diplomats did more than lie. They bribed, they stole, they intercepted dispatches. Perhaps this will come as some consolation to the many American diplomats whose faces have been reddened by the trove of diplomatic cables released this week by WikiLeaks: whatever they’ve done cannot compare in underhandedness with what ambassadors did in the past.

In 16th-century London, for instance, a French ambassador paid another diplomat’s secretary 60 crowns a month to read the dispatches to which the secretary had access. By the 1700s, a large part of the British Foreign Office’s annual expenses of £67,000 was allocated for bribery.

But as a scene of diplomatic misbehavior, London could hardly measure up to Vienna. Prince Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, an 18th-century Austrian foreign minister, took no monetary bribes, but he accepted expensive presents like horses, paintings and fine wines from people who wanted to influence him. Viennese prostitutes also enjoyed unusual access to the diplomatic corps; one such woman, during the Congress of Vienna in 1815, received a salary from an adjutant of Czar Alexander I, and provided him with information she learned during her visits with other envoys.

These practices had begun in the Middle Ages, when negotiators of treaties would gather information about the host nation. They continued in the Renaissance with the advent of permanent embassies. And the belief that the ambassador was a legalized spy never left the hosts’ minds.

Accordingly, governments intercepted the correspondence of diplomats accredited to them. Specialists in curtained, candle-lighted “black chambers” slid hot wires under wax seals to open letters. Those in foreign languages were translated; those in code, decrypted. Their contents were then passed along to kings and ministers.

The black chamber of Vienna was the most efficient. It received the bags of mail going to and from the embassies at 7 a.m.; letters were opened, copied and returned to the post office by 9:30. When the British ambassador complained that he had gotten British letters sealed not with his seal but with that of another country — clear evidence that they had been opened — Kaunitz calmly replied, “How clumsy these people are.”

When the French ambassador to Russia, the Marquis de La Chétardie, in 1744 protested an order for him to leave, an official began reading him his intercepted letters, showing his meddling in Russian affairs. “That’s enough!” the marquis said — and began packing.

The mores of diplomacy began to change in the 19th century, pushed first by the spread of democracy and republican government. Public opinion came to regard it as wrong and unbecoming to a democracy to do anything illegal — in particular when representing itself abroad. Other factors in that change, according to the British diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson, lay in the emerging sense of the community of nations and of the importance of public opinion. As Lord Palmerston, the mid-19th-century British prime minister, maintained, opinions are stronger than armies.

This shift was exemplified by a growing belief that mail shouldn’t be tampered with. In Britain in the 1840s, there was a huge public outcry over the post office’s opening of the mail of the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini; at the time, the English historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay declared that it was as wrong to take his letter from the mail as to take it from his desk. And when the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations was passed in 1961, among its prescriptions was that “the official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable.”

Ambassadors now regard themselves as ladies and gentlemen. They do not lie. They do not steal. But in some ways, diplomacy has not advanced beyond the old ways. And diplomatic cables can always be intercepted or revealed — as WikiLeaks has demonstrated.

David Kahn is the author of “The Codebreakers” and “The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail.”


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Ten of the best Hamlets

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

Tom arrives in London and goes with his witless companion Partridge to see Garrick play Hamlet. Partridge is unimpressed. “‘He the best player!’ cries Partridge, with a contemptuous sneer, ‘why, I could act as well as he myself. I am sure, if I had seen a ghost, I should have looked in the very same manner, and done just as he did.'”

The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Mrs Malaprop naturally has a Bardic bent. Talking of Sir Anthony Absolute’s handsome son, she remembers Hamlet’s praise of his father only a little inaccurately. “‘Hesperian curls – the front of Job himself! – An eye, like March, to threaten at command! – A station, like Harry Mercury, new . . .’ Something about kissing – on a hill.”

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In Goethe’s Bildungsroman, the hero owes the formation of his character as much to Shakespeare’s plays as to any experience of the world. Wilhelm joins a theatrical company and stars in its production of Hamlet. Several chapters are devoted to scene-by-scene analysis of the play, leading to a triumphant performance.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Pip and Herbert Pocket watch the absurd Mr Wopsle play “that undecided prince” in a production heckled by a rowdy London audience. “On the question whether ’twas nobler in the mind to suffer, some roared yes, and some no, and some inclining to both opinions said ‘Toss up for it’ and quite a Debating Society arose.”

Ulysses by James Joyce

In the “Scylla and Charybdis” section Stephen Dedalus opines about the Dane, hinting at Shakespeare’s covert Catholicism. “Not for nothing was he a butcher’s son wielding the sledded poleaxe and spitting in his palm. Nine lives are taken off for his father’s one, Our Father who art in purgatory.” He reckons the play was written out of Shakespeare’s anger at being cuckolded.

“William Holds the Stage” by Richmal Crompton

William has set his heart on playing Hamlet in the school play and takes the stage, uninvited, to deliver the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. His recall is about as accurate as Mrs Malaprop’s, but still remarkable, as he delivers the speech while chased by stagehands.

“Hamlet” by Boris Pasternak

All well-read Russians have been happy to discover their own predicament in the situation of the Great Dane. Pasternak’s narrator is an actor about to play the role: “I’ve slowly come out / To the stage, and leaning at the door, / Try to gasp in echo’s distant sounds, / What’s prepared for me in my life’s store”. Then he becomes the part. “It is defined – the action’s order, / And the road’s end . . . hypocrisy’s all over”.

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

Writer Bradley Pearson develops a tendresse for Julian, the daughter of a friend who is also a rival author. His affair with her would be sufficient revenge, but is twisted by his obsession with Hamlet. He can consummate his passion for the epicene Julian only when she dresses up as the prince.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

Hamlet’s antics as seen by two childhood friends, drafted in by Claudius to find out what the prince is up to. They’re as mystified by his words as the most befuddled A-level candidate, though they see he is “stark raving sane”.

Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis

The novelist admits that he thinks of himself as Hamlet. In Lunar Park a character called Bret lives on Elsinore Lane, goes to places like Fortinbras Mall, Osric hotel and Ophelia Boulevard. He is haunted (down the phone) by the spirit of his father, whose death he is called to avenge.


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Ten of the best fishing trips

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe Crusoe learns fishing when he is living as a slave in Moorish captivity. His skills come in useful once he is shipwrecked. “I frequently caught fish enough, as much as I cared to eat; all which I dried in the sun, and ate them dry.” He also hooks a dolphin.

“Point Rash-Judgement” by William Wordsworth The poet is walking with friends when they notice “a Man / Attired in peasant’s garb, who stood alone, / Angling beside the margin of the lake”. They moralise to each other about the fecklessness of someone who is enjoying such sport in the middle of the harvest, but then he turns towards them and they see he is “gaunt and lean, with sunken cheeks / And wasted limbs”. He is fishing because he is starving.

“The Fisherman” by WB Yeats Fishing can make you noble, it seems. Yeats recalls a man who went “To a grey place on a hill / In grey Connemara clothes / At dawn to cast his flies”. Silent and intent, “Climbing up to a place / Where stone is dark under froth”, he is contrasted with all the vain and clamorous men that the poet has known.

The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter Jeremy is a frog, who dons a Macintosh and galoshes to go fishing. A good thing too, because after catching and releasing a stickleback, he gets swallowed by a hungry trout. The trout finds the coat indigestible and regurgitates the fortunate Jeremy, who hops home resolved not to go fishing again.

“Big Two-Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway Nick Adams is off on his own, camping in the wilds of Michigan. He eventually catches a huge fish. “There was a heaviness, a power not to be held, and then the bulk of him, as he jumped.” Gradually you realise that the minute description of Nick’s pursuit is an evasion of the trauma of war from which he has recently escaped.

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan Much of this hippy classic was written during the author’s camping trip in Idaho, which features in the book. It is a collage of sketches and memories in which fishing recurs, a boyhood enthusiasm that focuses the author’s bucolic ideals.

“So Much Water So Close to Home” by Raymond Carver A woman finds out that her husband and his pals discovered the dead body of a woman floating in the water where they were fishing. It emerges that they decided not to let the discovery spoil their male-bonding trip, tethered the corpse for a couple of days and went on fishing. Her husband cannot understand her horror.

“Pike” by Ted Hughes Hughes invokes boyhood memories of fishing in a pike-patrolled pond. “It was as deep as England. It held / Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old / That past nightfall I dared not cast.” The boy fishes frozen in fear, thinking of the pike “That rose slowly toward me, watching”.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx Quoyle flees to Newfoundland and comes to rest in Killick-Claw, a town on the edge of the Atlantic suffused with the tang of fish. He works for the local newspaper, whose editor calls in sick almost every day so that he can go fishing. Quoyle is slowly reborn, finding out all about love and cod fishing.

The Human Stain by Philip Roth Roth’s novel ends with a fishing episode that is as far from philosophic serenity as you can get. Zuckerman finds Les Farley, whom he knows to be a killer, ice fishing on a secluded New England lake. On the ice next to him lies the ice-augur, his murderously sharp cutting tool. “And now you know my secret spot . . . You know everything . . . But you won’t tell nobody, will you?”


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A whole nother language

Embrace your inner American!

Lauren Collins, the New Yorker writer who profiled Benjamin Creme in the Nov. 29 issue, described the London-based spiritual leader as — among other things — “ruddy-complected.” I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the occasional typo, as well as the occasional F-word, in the magazine, but complected — that was a bit of a shock. Wasn’t that a word to avoid in polite company, hardly better bred than irregardless and ain’t?

Complected, our teachers told us, was a misbegotten monster. It seems to have been derived from complection, a once-familiar variant spelling of complexion, but the language didn’t need it; we already have complexioned, in use since the 17th century. And despite its appearance, it’s not related to the verb complect, which means “to interweave.”

Still, if complected had been a favorite of Jane Austen and Emily Bronte, it might be the standard form today. But in fact, the earliest citations of the word come from Lewis and Clark, who both use it in the journals of their transcontinental trek. In 1805, Clark recorded having “smoked in the pipes of peace” with the Flathead Indians, who were “Stout & light complected.” A few months later, in January 1806, Lewis described another tribe as “lighter complected…than the Indians of the Missouri.” An upstart American usage, and one that displaces the traditional complexioned: No wonder complected was labeled nonstandard and dialectal.

Does its New Yorker debut mean complected is finally getting some respect? Not necessarily. Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, ranks the word at stage 3 (out of 5) on his language-change index, the same level of acceptability as “a couple things,” “grow the economy,” and the spelling straightjacket. But he notes that complexioned outnumbers complected in print sources by 3 to 1, and he urges editors to hold the line.

The mavens at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage are (as usual) more tolerant. Complected, they say, is “not an error, not a dialectal term, nor an illiteracy,” but simply an Americanism, one used by some of our best literary authors. “There seems to be no very substantial objection to the term, other than the considerable diffidence American usage writers feel about Americanisms.”

But much as I admire Merriam-Webster’s usage research, this seems to oversimplify. It’s true that American usagists and literati of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were defensive about Americanisms, fearful of sounding like hayseeds to their British counterparts. They repudiated native coinages like editorial, locate, lengthy, enthused, dirt (for “earth”), and donate (“Good American, but not good English,” grumbled Ambrose Bierce).

But the label “Americanism” no longer embarrasses American writers. The anxiety flows in the other direction these days; it’s British readers who complain about Americanisms, British stylebooks that publish lists of American expressions to be avoided. Just last month, the Guardian’s David Marsh devoted his Mind Your Language blog to readers’ complaints about “ugly Americanisms.” “Recent examples include pony up, mojo, sledding, duke it out, brownstones and suck,” said one correspondent.

And in June, Matthew Engel of the Daily Mail surveyed hundreds of readers’ American-import peeves, including “autopsy for post-mortem; burglarized instead of burgled; filling out forms instead of filling them in; fries for chips; chips for crisps; and food to go as opposed to take away.”

At the Telegraph, the stylebook doesn’t rave about Americanisms, but it quietly reminds writers that an axe “is an implement used for chopping wood…not a verb,” that “people live ‘in’ not ‘on’ a street,” and that movie is only allowed for American films.

BBC News, on the other hand, has an entire stylebook section on Americanisms. “Head up, check out, free up, consult with, win out, check up on, divide up and outside of are not yet standard English,” it declares. Yes, we’ve adopted commuter and baby sitter, but “euthanise is not a verb you will find in any dictionary and it has no place in our output.”

Some Americans, it’s true, dislike some Britishisms — go missing and gobsmacked leap to mind — but few complainers, in my experience, object to (or even recognize) these terms as British. It’s their novelty or illogic or “ugliness,” not their origin, that annoys.

I don’t know if the New Yorker’s endorsement of complected is the start of something big. But if a new era is dawning — one in which Americans proudly embrace our linguistic inventiveness — I have some other nominees for a reputation rescue. “A whole nother” is a wonderfully useful expression, and surely good enough for journalism. There are good reasons for “it’s a ways away,” and for “way back” too (either in time or in a station wagon). Americans are apparently replacing the verb career with careen; I say, right on.

I’m not yet loving the AP’s newly approved drive-thru, I admit, and complected still leaves me cool. But maybe we can finally agree that the answer to Edwin Newman’s 1974 question — “Will America be the death of English?” — is a resounding no.


John Lennon wasn’t the pacifist we’ve turned him into

Of all the honorifics John Lennon amassed during his lifetime, he probably didn’t expect that he’d have a crater on the moon named after him. But last year, the International Lunar Geographic Society announced that a large depression in the moon’s landscape (almost four miles in diameter) would henceforth be known as the “John Lennon Peace Crater.”

Meanwhile, for two hours each night between Oct. 9 (John Lennon’s birthday) and Dec. 8 (the date he was killed), the Imagine Peace Tower, near Reykjavik, Iceland, beams a sharp blue light high into the sky in Lennon’s honor. And celebrations of Lennon’s utopian vision are hardly limited to the celestial realm. In Belfast, a man is currently crusading to make Lennon’s song “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” a worldwide number one hit before the new year. On the Web, fans have kept up a long-running petition supporting an international holiday for Lennon and his commitment to world peace. And last Oct. 9, when Lennon would have turned 70, Yoko Ono called upon his admirers to “Tweet a million wishes for peace for John’s birthday!”

Surely we’ll be hearing even more about Lennon as we approach the 30th anniversary of his assassination on Wednesday. At Strawberry Field, the landscaped memorial at Central Park situated across the street from the Dakota apartment building where he was shot, fans will gather around a mosaic of inlaid stones that spell the world “Imagine.” They’ll set up makeshift displays of candles, photos, and flowers, and they’ll sing anthems like “All You Need Is Love” and “Give Peace a Chance.” Lennon will be celebrated as a man who boldly proclaimed for peace in a world gone mad.

No doubt the tendency to remember Lennon in this way arises, at least in part, from a desire to underscore the tragedy and senselessness of his death. The idea that John Lennon, a man who stood for peace, was gunned down by a lunatic certainly makes for a powerful narrative. For many baby boomers, his assassination was a generation-shattering event (all the more so because it came about a month after Ronald Reagan was elected president). There is also no denying that in some of its iterations, the pacifism that Lennon championed can seem truly beautiful. So long as the world is plagued by hate and war, people are going to look fondly upon those who proselytize for peace and love.

Nevertheless, all of these well-intended tributes and vigils are off the mark. It isn’t just that they extol a naive style of pacifism (though there is that). They also ask us to genuflect before a highly idealized and simplified version of the slain Beatle. During his lifetime, Lennon was ambivalent about pacifism, and his public enthusiasm for the peace movement was fleeting and capricious.

Though he lived for 40 years, Lennon’s reputation as a peacenik derives from just a brief period in the very late ’60s and early ’70s, when antiwar attitudes were practically de rigueur among the hip cognoscenti. Until then, he had largely kept quiet about politics. The Beatles had originally fashioned themselves as bohemian, leather-clad rockers, but in early 1962, under the supervision of their savvy manager, Brian Epstein, they began styling themselves as teen idols. From then until Epstein’s death in August 1967, the group was under strict orders to avoid controversial statements of any kind, for fear of alienating part of their audience. Lennon may have been annoyed by this restriction, but for the most part, he acquiesced. In 1966, he provoked a minor controversy by letting it slip that the Beatles opposed the Vietnam War, but even then, he hardly sounded like an activist. “We don’t agree with it. But there’s not much we can do about it,” he said. “All we can say is we don’t like it.”

The peace protests that Lennon is best known for probably were not even his own ideas; more likely, they were Ono’s. In 1969, the couple staged their famous “Bed-Ins” for peace, sent “acorns for peace” to various world leaders, lobbied for peace while cloaked in a white canvas bag, and commissioned billboards in major cities across the globe, announcing “War Is Over — If You Want It.” Lennon lent a bit of his impish humor to these stunts, but (let’s face it), all of this was much more in keeping with the whimsically flavored avant-gardism for which Ono was already well known.

Then in 1972, Lennon abruptly terminated the activist phase of his career while under pressure from the Nixon administration. At the time, he and Ono were fending off a deportation order from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Lennon’s lawyer, Leon Wildes, advised that under the circumstances, it might be wise for him to clam up about his political views, and that is precisely what he did. Plainly put, the couple decided they’d rather live in New York than continue speaking out against the Vietnam War. After Lennon got his green card in 1975, he could easily have returned to politics, but he retreated instead into quiet domesticity.

Finally, even during the era when Lennon was politically outspoken, his thoughts about pacifism were inconsistent. In May 1969, when the cartoonist Al Capp interviewed Lennon and Ono during their famous Montreal Bed-In, the couple seemed committed to an absolutist position.

“Tell me how you would stop [Hitler],” Capp demanded.

“If I was a Jewish girl in Hitler’s day,” Ono replied, “I would approach him and become his girlfriend. After 10 days in bed, he would come to my way of thinking. This world needs communication. And making love is a great way of communicating.”

When Capp fumed that this sounded like “stark raving madness,” Lennon shot back “What’s mad about it?”

In the spring of 1968, however, Lennon was much less settled in his views about political violence. That is when he recorded “Revolution,” a song that was widely interpreted as a celebration of the hippie counterculture, and a toxic put-down of the confrontational politics championed by some New Leftists, who had recently clashed with authorities in the streets of London and Paris (and would soon be causing a ruckus at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago). Most people are familiar with the version of the song that was released as a 45 rpm — the one that begins with Lennon screaming abrasively over heavily distorted guitars.

But in another, slower version of “Revolution,” which appeared on the White Album, Lennon added a word to the lyrics: “When you talk about destruction/ don’t you know that you can count me out — in.” He added the “in,” he explained, because he “wasn’t sure” where he stood on the crucial question of political violence — hardly the position of a pacifist.

In the same song, Lennon delivered a famous zinger against Mao Zedong, the ruthless Chinese leader who was being celebrated by a few ultra-militant factions in the youth rebellion. Though some saw Mao as a potent symbol of revolutionary culture, Lennon seemed unimpressed. “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/ You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.”

But by December 1970, Lennon was backpedaling again. Now he seemed highly skeptical of peaceful remedies for social change. “I really thought that love would save us all,” he told Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner. “But now I’m wearing a Chairman Mao badge….I’m just beginning to think he’s doing a good job.” In retrospect, this sounds like the purest expression of radical chic. Lennon could not have known at this point that Mao was one of history’s greatest mass murderers. But nor could he possibly have believed that Mao was in any way a peaceful man. (“Revolution is not a dinner party,” Mao had famously said. “A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”) In the same interview, when asked about the possibility of a “violent revolution,” Lennon announced, “If I were black, I’d be all for it.”

Finally, it bears remembering that despite briefly campaigning for peace, and writing exuberantly about love, Lennon’s inner life was stormy and tumultuous. On this point, the historical record is so unequivocal that it is almost unseemly to delve into the details. Growing up, he is remembered as a garden variety, fist-fighting delinquent, and he continued in this vein until the first flush of Beatlemania. Armed with a caustic wit, he could be spectacularly cruel (particularly if he sensed weakness in any of his targets). With women, he was a notorious cad. By his own admission he was a lousy and distant father to his first son, Julian, and biographers agree that some of the storybook elements of his relationship with Ono are greatly exaggerated in the public’s mind.

None of this rests comfortably alongside Lennon’s reputation as a spokesman for nonviolence. But if people could bring themselves to delve a little deeper into Lennon’s life and thought, and stop dwelling on his soapiest platitudes from the Vietnam War era, they might still find his example instructive. One of the big themes of his career, after all, was his hostility to orthodoxies. This is a man who expressed cynicism about Jesus and his apostles, denounced the Maharishi as a fraud, and then, at age 31, turned his back on the Beatles.

Similarly, he never seems to have settled on a single viewpoint concerning pacifism, and at various other times, he found it personally necessary to mute some of his beliefs. But few of those who lived through the vertiginous ’60s are likely to judge him harshly on either count. His experience may even help us to understand just how harrowing and uncertain that decade was.

It’s harder to arrive at these insights, though, so long as Lennon’s admirers continue to freeze him in a brief moment of time when he was at his most gauzily idealistic. His stint as a carnival barker for the peace movement represents only a small fraction of his career. Everyone remembers one of Lennon’s most famous compositions, “Give Peace a Chance.” Another very good, but less heralded, song that he wrote, was called “Gimme Some Truth.”

John McMillian is an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University. His book ”Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America” is being published in January by Oxford University Press. Currently he is writing a joint biography of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for the Free Press.


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Going round in circles


In contradiction to most cosmologists’ opinions, two scientists have found evidence that the universe may have existed for ever

WHAT happened before the beginning of time is—by definition, it might be thought—metaphysics. At least one physicist, though, thinks there is nothing meta about the question at all. Roger Penrose, of Oxford University, believes that the Big Bang in which the visible universe began was not actually the beginning of everything. It was merely the latest example of a series of such bangs that renew reality when it is getting tired out. More importantly, he thinks that the pre-Big Bang past has left an imprint on the present that can be detected and analysed, and that he and a colleague in Armenia have found it.

The imprint in question is in the cosmic microwave background (CMB). This is a bath of radiation that fills the whole universe. It was frozen in its present form some 300,000 years after the Big Bang, and thus carries information about what the early universe was like. The CMB is almost, but not quite, uniform, and the known irregularities in it are thought to mark the seeds from which galaxies—and therefore stars and planets—grew.

Dr Penrose, though, predicts another form of irregularity—great circles in the sky where the microwave background is slightly more uniform than it should be. These, if they exist, would be fossil traces of black holes from the pre-Big Bang version of reality. And in a paper just published in, an online database, he claims they do indeed exist.

Once upon a time

The Penrose version of cosmology stands in sharp distinction to received wisdom. This is that the universe popped out of nowhere about 13.7 billion years ago in a quantum fluctuation similar to the sort that constantly create short-lived virtual particles in so-called empty space. Before this particular fluctuation could disappear again, though, it underwent a process called inflation that both stabilised it and made it 1078 times bigger than it had previously been in a period of 10-32 seconds. Since then, it has expanded at a more sedate rate and will continue to do so—literally for ever.

Dr Penrose, however, sees inflation as a kludge. The main reason it was dreamed up (by Alan Guth, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) was to explain the extraordinary uniformity of the universe. A period of rapid inflation right at the beginning would impose such uniformity by stretching any initial irregularities so thin that they would become invisible.

As kludges go, inflation has been successful. Those of its predictions that have been tested have all been found true. But that does not mean it is right. Dr Penrose’s explanation of the uniformity is that, rather than having been created at the beginning of the universe, it is left over from the tail end of reality’s previous incarnation.

Dr Penrose’s version of events is that the universe did not come into existence at the Big Bang but instead passes through a continuous cycle of aeons. Each aeon starts off with the universe being of zero size and high uniformity. At first the universe becomes less uniform as it evolves and objects form within it. Once enough time has passed, however, all of the matter around will end up being sucked into black holes. As Stephen Hawking has demonstrated, black holes eventually evaporate in a burst of radiation. That process increases uniformity, eventually to the level the universe began with.

Thus far, Dr Penrose’s version of cosmology more or less matches the standard version. At this point, though, he introduces quite a large kludge of his own. This is the idea that when the universe becomes very old and rarefied, the particles within it lose their mass.

That thought is not entirely bonkers. The consensus among physicists is that particles began massless and got their mass subsequently from something known as the Higgs field—the search for which was one reason for building the Large Hadron Collider, a huge and powerful particle accelerator located near Geneva. Mass, then, is not thought an invariable property of matter. So Dr Penrose found himself speculating one day about how a universe in which all particles had lost their mass through some as-yet-undefined process might look. One peculiarity of massless particles is that they have to travel at the speed of light. That (as Einstein showed) means that from the particle’s point of view time stands still and space contracts to nothingness. If all particles in the universe were massless, then, the universe would look to them to be infinitely small. And an infinitely small universe is one that would undergo a Big Bang.

Uncommon sense

It is well known that fundamental physics is full of ideas that defy what humans are pleased to call common sense. Even by those standards, however, Dr Penrose’s ideas are regarded as a little eccentric by his fellow cosmologists. But they do have one virtue that gives them scientific credibility: they make a prediction. Collisions between black holes produce spherical ripples in the fabric of spacetime, in the form of gravitational waves. In the Penrose model of reality these ripples are not abolished by a new Big Bang. Images of black-hole collisions that happened before the new Bang may thus imprint themselves as concentric circular marks in the emerging cosmic microwave background.

The actual search for such cosmic circles has been carried out by Vahe Gurzadyan of the Yerevan Physics Institute in Armenia. Dr Gurzadyan analysed seven years’ worth of data from WMAP, an American satellite whose sole purpose is to measure the CMB, and also looked at data from another CMB observatory, the BOOMERanG balloon experiment in Antarctica. His verdict, arrived at after he scoured over 10,000 points on the microwave maps, is that Dr Penrose’s concentric circles are real. He says he has found a dozen sets of them—one of which is illustrated. (The visible rings in the picture have been drawn on subsequently to show where computer analysis has found circle-defining uniformity.)

This is, of course, but a single result—and supporters of inflation do not propose to give up without a fight. Amir Hajian, a physicist at Princeton, for example, says he is concerned about distortions in the WMAP data caused by the satellite spending more time mapping some parts of the sky than others. Then there is the little matter of how the masslessness comes about.

Dr Guth, meanwhile, claims that a handful of papers are published every year pointing to inconsistencies between the microwave background data and inflation, and that none has withstood the test of time. Moreover, even if the circles do hold up, they may have a cause different from the one proposed by Dr Penrose. Nevertheless, when a strange theory makes a strange prediction and that prediction proves correct, it behoves science to investigate carefully. For if what Dr Penrose and Dr Gurzadyan think they have found is true, then much of what people thought they knew about the universe is false.


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‘Scratch Paper’ or ‘Scrap Paper’?

Andrew Marc Greene e-mails: “My son’s fourth-grade class was debating whether paper on which one scribbles offhand notes is scrap paper or scratch paper. Scrap paper describes where it comes from, and scratch paper defines what it’s used for. We were wondering if the phonetic similarity is just coincidence, or if one term was derived from the other.”

For speakers of American English, at least, the dividing line between scratch paper and scrap paper is none too clear. The linguist Bert Vaux conducted an online survey of American dialects from 2000 to 2005, and he included this question: “What do you call paper that has already been used for something or is otherwise imperfect?” More than 10,000 people responded, and the overall results were evenly split, with about 31 percent saying scratch paper and an equal number saying scrap paper. A third survey choice garnered 36 percent: “Scratch paper is still usable (for example, the paper you bring to do extra work on a test); scrap paper is paper that isn’t needed anymore and can be thrown away.”

Dig deeper into Vaux’s data, and you’ll find distinct regional patterns: respondents from the West and Midwest prefer scratch paper, while Northeasterners go for scrap paper. (Southerners are more likely to split the difference and choose the third option.) Outside of the United States, scratch paper is rarely used, and it gets marked as an Americanism in dictionaries from Oxford and Cambridge. British speakers plump for scrap paper — or if the activity of quick note-taking is foregrounded, scribbling paper. Likewise what some Americans would call a scratch pad is known in Britain as a scribbling pad or scribbling block.

Given this state of affairs, you might think scratch paper shows up much later than scrap paper in the documentary record. The Google Books database shows scrap paper in use from 1838, but surprisingly enough it also contains an instance of scratch paper from five years earlier, in colonial India of all places. The Bombay Gazette bemoaned that the books in the local literary-society’s library “have been most unmercifully scribbled on,” and “various attempts have been made to put a stop to such a scratch-paper practice.”

The Bombay example turns out to be something of an outlier, however. First, even if those library vandals were scratching away on book pages, that’s different from scratch paper in its later incarnation as cheap paper, loose or in a pad, for jotting notes. Scratch paper and its British counterpart scribbling paper did not truly take off until the late 19th century, no doubt helped along by advances in wood-pulp papermaking and the mass production of pencils. Scrap paper, meanwhile, had already been in circulation as a name for waste paper that could be recycled or reused, with note-taking emerging as one prominent type of reuse.

Scratch paper, then, likely owes some of its success in American usage to the fact that it happens to resemble the more widespread scrap paper. That would make scratch paper a potential “eggcorn,” to use a term coined by linguists for a misconstrued word or phrase that gets reshaped with a new semantic motivation. Scratch paper makes sense in a new way, as it describes the note-taker’s hurried writing rather than the cheap source of the paper. Since the two variants are now equally available to Americans, the choice between scrap paper and scratch paper ultimately comes down to a question of the medium vs. the message.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.


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Famine in Kansas

Atchison, Kansas Territory, Dec. 9, 1860

Street in Atchison, Kansas.

They converged from far and wide on the dusty border town: grim-faced men and women driving teams of staggering oxen; children whose bare and filthy feet were blistered by the hard-baked earth. Not long before, these same trails and same oxen had brought the settlers westward into new lives, new lands, the promise of plenty. Now misery and starvation drove them back, exiles retracing their steps east – fleeing, in the words of a New York Times writer, “as if Death were in the rear.”

A Chicago Tribune correspondent, freshly arrived in Atchison that day, found dozens lined up with their wagons along the Missouri River levees, awaiting handouts of free foodstuffs. “Such a scene!” he wrote. “Great, stalwart men, gaunt, lean, hungry, looking weary, sad, tired, and dispirited; poorly clad, and in all respects filling one with the conviction of suffering patiently borne and long repressed – men, some of whom I recognized, and all of whom bore the unmistakable character of sturdy industry and independence common to our western pioneers.”

An appeal from the Chicago Tribune.

Spotting the stranger’s notebook, the Kansans crowded around to share their stories. A settler from Butler County, G.T. Donaldson, told of crops devoured by grasshoppers, cattle felled by disease, and relentless drought that sealed the overall ruin. A “small, keen eyed” farmer named A.V. Saunders had driven his ox teams more than 200 miles to fetch provisions for his beleaguered rural community; after a week of waiting, he had finally been issued just 12 sacks of meal and eight sacks of potatoes for the 400 inhabitants. Another “forlorn looking man” made a particular impression on the curious journalist:

He was literally clothed in rags. Such a tatterdemalion one can scarcely conceive of. His garments, originally home-spun, had been patched with so many different materials, mostly varieties of bed-ticking and sacking, that the feeble threads would no longer hold together, and the shreds were flopping about him as he walked. His face was haggard and hunger-worn; cheek-bones protruded; flesh had shrunk away, and his eyes were hollow and eager, and had the terrible starved look in them which I saw once in a famine-stricken party of Irish, in ’47, and which I shall never forget. I will tell his story, as near as may be, in his own words:

‘My name is Abraham Huck. I’m from Ilenoy. Came to Kansas last March, and hired a place on Deer Creek, Anderson County…. I’ve got a wife and eight children. Left home last Sunday (six days before). Wife and one of the children’s with me. Left seven at home, with some turnips and a peck of meal.’

‘What,’ I said, ‘a peck of meal for seven?’

‘That’s all, Sir, and we’ve had nothing to eat on the road for three days, except the little I’ve begged. … I planted fifty-five acres [this year], and harvested five bushels of wormy corn.’

The reporter added, by way of comparison, that a peck of meal represented a week’s rations for a single slave in the cotton South.

Kansas seemed cursed by both nature and man. Beginning in 1854, the nation had watched in horror as struggles between pro-slavery and free-soil pioneers devolved into a nightmare of torched and looted towns, murdered civilians and anarchy cloaked in the false trappings of justice. The nation’s leaders, cynically viewing the territory as nothing but a square in the political chess match between North and South, had conspired in its ruin. “The game must be played boldly,” urged the town of Atchison’s namesake, a senator from neighboring Missouri. “If we win we carry slavery to the Pacific Ocean.” In another letter, to his Senate colleague Jefferson Davis, he wrote: “We will be compelled to shoot, burn & hang, but the thing will soon be over.”

There had indeed been shooting, burning and hanging – but the thing had not ended as quickly as Senator David Rice Atchison had anticipated. Nor had the pro-slavery forces won the game. In October 1859, a popular referendum finally declared the ravaged territory to be free soil, and a bill for statehood began making its way through Congress. At last peace came – along with settlers by the thousands.

And then the elements themselves conspired against the land. Like a modern-day version of plague-ridden Egypt, “Bleeding Kansas” became Starving Kansas. Rains ceased; from the spring through the autumn of 1860, barely enough fell to dampen the surface of the soil. Temperatures reached 105 degrees in the shade. “The hot wind sweeps over the land blinding one with the dust or blistering the skin,” one settler wrote. “The poor squatter looks to his withered crops and sits down in despair.” Another Kansan described the conditions as “only fit for a Hottentot, accustomed to the ardors of the Sahara.” As many as a third of the territory’s 100,000 white inhabitants packed up their scanty belongings and trudged back toward the eastern states whence they had come.

Some blamed politicians for these latest calamities, scarcely less than for the bloodshed of years past. “The ills which Kansas endures are very largely derived from the misgovernment of [James Buchanan’s] administration,” declared an editorial in The Times. “Drought is not a visitation of Presidents but of Providence; but the poverty which preceded the bad harvest, and which renders the people wholly unable to support the deficiency of breadstuffs, is well known to have originated chiefly in the … savage and vindictive mismanagement [that] the affairs of the Territory have been deliberately subjected to.” Other critics charged that Republicans shared the guilt: party leaders had initially downplayed the emergency’s severity, allegedly because they did not want to undercut political fundraising while the presidential election hung in the balance. (Campaigning in Lawrence at the end of September, William H. Seward declared sanguinely that he had “carefully examined the condition of … the river bottoms and the prairies” and concluded that “there will be no famine in Kansas.”)

In the weeks after Abraham Lincoln’s election, as the chill of impending winter began gripping the heartland, Americans had finally begun paying attention to the disaster in the Midwest. (Savvy Kansans whipped up interest by sounding the alarm that pro-slavery raiders – known as “pukes” – were once again preparing to invade.) From New York, Chicago and other cities, donations poured into Atchison, the western terminus of the railway and designated base of the relief efforts. On Dec. 12, at the urging of such leading antislavery Republicans as Horace Greeley and William Cullen Bryant, citizens held a rally at the Cooper Union in Manhattan and raised the respectable sum of $1,200 toward the cause. Even President Buchanan closed his annual message by turning his attention from the secession crisis and asking Congress to aid the Kansas sufferers, “if any constitutional measure for their relief can be devised.”

The grim headlines from Atchison, side-by-side with those from secession-mad Charleston, fueled Americans’ forebodings that their nation had entered its end times – perhaps even that God was meting out a terrible judgment for their sins, just as he had done to Pharaoh and the slaveholding Egyptians. The image of free American citizens emaciated and in rags – apparently fed and clothed even worse than Southern slaves – was terrible to contemplate.

“The men whom I see waiting here for their scanty supplies, are the bone and sinew of the West,” wrote the Tribune correspondent. “They are men who are blazing the way of the American people across this Continent, and are laying broad and deep the foundations of free institutions. It is a question for Americans to consider whether these men shall be sustained in this their hour of dire misfortune.” If they could not be, what hope was there for those free institutions themselves?

Sources: Chicago Tribune, Dec. 13, 1860; New York Times, Oct. 3, Nov. 1, Nov. 19, Dec. 10 and Dec. 13, 1860; Craig Miner, “Kansas: The History of the Sunflower State, 1854-2000”; Joseph G. Gambone, “Starving Kansas: The Great Drought and Famine of 1859-60” (American West, July 1971); James McPherson, “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era”; Lynda Lasswell Crist, ed., “The Papers of Jefferson Davis, 1853-1855”; Jay Monaghan, “Civil War on the Western Border, 1854-1865”; Sheffield Ingalls, “History of Atchison County, Kansas”; George W. Glick, “The Drought of 1860” (Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, 1905-1906); Thaddeus Hyatt, “The Prayer of Thaddeus Hyatt to James Buchanan, President of the United States, in Behalf of Kansas”; William H. Seward, speech at Lawrence, Kans., Sept. 26, 1860; James Buchanan, Annual Message to Congress, Dec. 3, 1860.

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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