Fred Kaplan column: The press as the friend of the people: Monticello vs. Trump Tower
RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, Sep 1, 2018
Our Founding Fathers speak to us unequivocally on the subject of the press. For Thomas Jefferson, the free press was the friend of the people. Benjamin Franklin was a printer, publisher, and writer. John Adams, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton wrote regularly for the newspapers of their day. They disagreed about public policies. Still, they all believed that the best friend of a free society was a free press.
Perhaps the present resident of the White House ought to read Jefferson’s letter to Edward Carrington, a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress. It was written from Paris in January 1787.
On the brink of the French Revolution, Jefferson was serving as American minister to France.
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
To make his point, Jefferson favored a pithy generalization that overstated the point but made it effectively. These were, Jefferson of course knew, not binary and exclusive opposites. Government of some sort was unavoidable. But government without a free press was a danger and probably a tyranny.
Despite his general Francophilia, Jefferson had no doubt that Louis XVI’s regime was a repressive tyranny, anathema to American values. Like most autocrats, Louis believed that the highest priority of the press should be loyalty to its leader. In this regard, he was not alone in Europe.
Even in Great Britain, widely recognized even by the British-hating Jefferson to grant its citizens more civil liberties than any other European country, the free press, especially in times of national crisis, had to struggle to get itself printed and distributed.
Jefferson’s strong advocacy in early 1787 of a free press is deep background to the First Amendment. While he was still in France, the convention that created our Constitution met in Philadelphia. In the next two years the Constitution was amended to guarantee freedom of the press from government regulation of any sort. Jefferson approved. He didn’t always, of course, agree with what the press had to say about him, and he could be mistaken about facts or wrong in his judgments. That wasn’t the point. When an opposition political journalist accused him of having a black mistress, he felt vilified. But the journalist’s facts were basically correct. With his respect for facts and personal privacy, Jefferson’s response was the modern equivalent of “no comment.”
Jefferson himself never wavered in his commitment to three essential foundations of a free society: newspapers must be free to print anything about public figures; evidence-based facts should determine public policy; the electorate must be capable of critical and thoughtful reading. “The basis of our governments,” he wrote to Carrington, “being the opinion of the people ... I should mean [intend] that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” He would have been astounded at the notion of “false facts.” You are either telling the truth or lying. You either have evidence to support a claim of fact or you don’t. That Sally Hemmings was his mistress couldn’t be denied because it was a fact. Better, then, to keep silent.
The larger question of presidents and civil liberties has its complications. Still, never in American history until now has a president attempted to blame the messenger for the message. No previous president has attempted in a concerted way to undermine the First Amendment.
American presidents have had, by modern standards, numbers of lapses. Like most politician-presidents, even those whose faces get enshrined on Mt. Rushmore, the challenge of maintaining public unity in times of crisis sometimes stretches America’s commitment to civil liberties. John Adams supported the short-lived Sedition Act that attempted to suppress newspaper statements hostile to the government. During the Civil War Lincoln suspended habeas corpus (the right of the accused to have a speedy trial in which the state had to show lawful grounds for detention). FDR agreed to the internment in concentration camps of American citizens of Japanese origin. These presidents determined that the national crises they presided over required temporary modifications to our civil liberties. Not everyone agreed. And these modifications were not particularly thoughtful or sensitive.
Jefferson faced the same challenge during the lead-up to the War of 1812 when, between 1807 and 1809, he attempted to deal harshly with the rebellious reaction of many Americans to the embargo acts that severely restricted trade. He handled it badly, and the policy was counterproductive to begin with.
The only national crisis now is the attempt of President Trump to damage the First Amendment for personal political advantage. At the end of his second term, Jefferson was relieved to return to Monticello where, among other things, he happily read newspapers. When the current occupant of the White House returns to Trump Tower, he should be required to do the same, happily or unhappily.
Fred Kaplan, the author of “John Quincy Adams: American Visionary,” is writing “Jefferson’s Pen: The Biography of a Writer.” Kaplan may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through his website: fredkaplanbiographer.com.
- REVIEWS of LINCOLN AND THER ABOLITIONISTS
KIRKUS REVIEW [starred review]: "A fresh look at John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, abolitionism, and other related American history.The great 19th-century champion of black equality was not Lincoln, writes Kaplan (Emeritus, English/Queens Coll.; John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, 2014, etc.), who has authored biographies of both of his principal figures. In this insightful, often disturbing dual biography, he makes a convincing case that Adams, working decades before Lincoln, was the real hero. The ex-president returned to Washington as a member of the House of Representatives in 1830. He never liked slavery, but it was not a priority during his presidency. In 1836, enraged by anti-slavery petitions, Southern representatives passed the legendary "gag rule" that forbade their discussion. Galvanized to action, Adams fought, eventually successfully, to overturn it, thereby becoming abolition's leading spokesman until his death. Kaplan emphasizes that, unlike all other great men who disapproved of slavery (from Jefferson to Lincoln), Adams never qualified his opposition with racist rhetoric. A consummate politician, Lincoln could not offend Illinois voters who overwhelmingly considered blacks subhuman and loathed abolitionists. Lincoln publicly agreed, but his private writings give little comfort. He opposed slavery on humanitarian grounds, but, unlike Adams, "Lincoln would not go the next step…from antislavery moralism to antislavery activism." As the Civil War raged, Lincoln fended off abolitionists, aware that most Northerners continued to despise them. The Emancipation Proclamation, a feeble step, was, as he feared, widely unpopular, but it was also the beginning of the end of the practice of slavery. This is accepted history, but readers accustomed to the worshipful History Channel view will squirm to learn that Lincoln never believed that blacks could live among whites as equals. Adams believed, and Kaplan drives this home in a fine portrait of a great man far ahead of his time. An eye-opening biography from a trusted source on the topic.
PUBLISHER''S WEEKLY: In this elegantly written and thoroughly researched book, Kaplan (John Quincy Adams: American Visionary), professor emeritus of English at Queens College, relates how two presidents, Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams, thought about and dealt with slavery and race. Lincoln believed that African-Americans should emigrate to Africa or another homeland. Adams, meanwhile, was an ardent abolitionist who foresaw the eventual rise of a multicultural America. Kaplan contrasts their views and discusses the people and events that shaped their intellectual, political, and moral development. Among these figures is Dorcas Allen, an enslaved woman who killed her two children and whose trial ignited Adams’s passion against the peculiar institution, which reached its apotheosis in the famous Amistad trial of 1841. The murder of the impassioned antislavery preacher Elijah Lovejoy in 1837 in Alton, Ill., was influential in forming Lincoln’s opinions about African-Americans, slavery, and the law. The procolonization ideas of Sen. Henry Clay, Thomas Jefferson’s dour views on black intellectual capacity, and Frederick Douglass’s opposition to colonization also come under consideration. Kaplan presents a more complex Lincoln who “presided over the creation of a new reality that neither he nor anyone could fully embrace, or embrace in a way that would eliminate racial conflict.
BOOKLIST [starred review} : Americans remember Abraham Lincoln as a warrior against slavery and a martyr to the cause of its extermination, but as Kaplan shows in his new book, Lincoln’s decision to emancipate the slaves came after a long struggle with the South’s slaveholding elite and his own evolving beliefs. Kaplan has published acclaimed biographies of both Lincoln and John Quincy Adams, and his knowledge of both frees him to tell their intertwining stories with clarity and concision. While Lincoln was a conciliator, Adams was a truth-teller, and after serving as secretary of state and president, Adams, who died serving in Congress, was unafraid to speak out against slavery. Early in the nineteenth century, Adams already believed that slavery would be ended “only through a civil war,” but Lincoln believed abolitionism would destroy the union and set off “a hundred years or more of volatile racism.” Only when Lincoln concluded that freeing the slaves would wreck the Southern economy and free black men to join the Union army did he change his mind. Kaplan does not build up one man at the expense of the other but shows how both helped liberate our country from a horrifying institution.
THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH: While focusing on the great debate over slavery in the early 19th century, historian Fred Kaplan exposes the roots of today’s polarized political environment over race, equality and identity politics.
Surely that was his intent in “Lincoln and the Abolitionists,” since in his final chapter he refers to Ferguson, the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the police killings in Dallas last year. Anyone who wants to understand the United States’ racial divisions will learn a lot from reading Kaplan’s richly researched account of one of the worst periods in American history and its chilling effects today in our cities, legislative bodies, schools and houses of worship. Kaplan has written biographies before of both Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams, and he uses the writings of these two great leaders to delve into opposing views regarding what should be done about slavery and the 4 million American-born Africans in bondage…. As Kaplan makes clear, abolition was the polarizing movement of its day. He argues that virtually no one in the North or South considered Africans, whether slave or free, capable of being educated to the standard of white Europeans. Furthermore, freeing nearly 4 million slaves would undercut jobs for white workers and cause the collapse of the Southern agrarian economy. Yet some abolitionists, such as Elijah P. Lovejoy, who published the Alton Observer, were so committed to ending slavery that they inflamed pro-slavery mobs in Missouri and Illinois. In Lovejoy’s case, he was driven out of St. Louis. Lovejoy, whom Kaplan labels “the first American martyr,” resumed his newspaper campaign across the Mississippi River in Illinois. Lovejoy’s fervor attracted unfavorable attention from whites who had little sympathy with the abolitionist cause, and he was murdered by a mob in 1837. Kaplan dryly notes that the citizens of Alton “were being stained by a newspaper that encouraged a Negro insurrection ... and that advocated civil rights and equality for a despised and inferior race.” … [Kaplan’s] central point is strong — that the divisions that defined the national debate over slavery, abolition and the U.S. Constitution continue today and will long into the future.
THE NEW REPUBLIC: The Making of an Antislavery President. Fred Kaplan's new book asks why it took Abraham Lincoln so long to embrace emancipation…. Though Lincoln is remembered as the Great Emancipator, it is easy to forget that he won the presidency on a platform that not only opposed immediate emancipation, but also endorsed white supremacy. In deference to slaveholders, he pledged to uphold the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which forced the federal government to help slaveholders retrieve escaped slaves. He even promised anxious white northerners that he would oppose giving free blacks equal rights…. Recovering Lincoln’s racial politics, as well as his “excruciatingly slow” embrace of immediate emancipation—the abolitionist agenda he spent a life-time avoiding—is the central aim of Fred Kaplan’s Lincoln and the Abolitionists: John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War. Kaplan, an accomplished biographer of Lincoln and John Quincy Adams, covers well-worn territory. But he argues that it is particularly relevant now because of the deep racial prejudices that divide us still. “We do ourselves a disservice when we self-servingly massage the record,” Kaplan writes. Lincoln did not solve the nation’s race problem: “He left us with it.” That Lincoln’s most remarkable achievement, the emancipation of four million enslaved Americans, was made possible only by circumstances beyond his control, and entailed an accommodation of the nation’s racism, is not meant as an attack on Lincoln. Rather, Kaplan argues, if we “see Lincoln plain” we are able to see our present more clearly too….
THE WASHINGTON TIMES, 7/31/1007: Myths die hard. None have resisted truth more than the fables that sprang up after Abraham Lincoln’s death launched his hagiography as The Great Emancipator of the roughly four million African-Americans held as chattel slaves. History professor Fed Kaplan attempts to untangle the myths that blur a clear vision of America’s racial divide. It is a divide that came with the architecture of our national founding in 1786 and which muddy our attempts to heal that apparently worsening fracture in 2017. Mr. Kaplan has produced other biographies of Lincoln and John Quincy Adams, among others, and in this book he brings the two together as examples of men who abhorred the institution of slavery while shrinking from the prospect of the multi-racial society evolving around us today. Mr. Kaplan’s conclusion, simply stated, is that both Lincoln and Adams were like many opinion leaders of the day viewed slavery as a danger to preserving the still aborning American Union while not being particularly sympathetic to the individual plight of the bondsmen in their midst. Yet even that grudging disapproval of slavery was itself a complicated political opinion to hold during the early decades of the 19th century. That is the other point worth noting about this clearly written book. One cannot revisit the decades leading up to the Civil War without finding parallels with today’s political dysfunction with its violence-prone, gridlocked upheavals that have our two-party system swamped by rival waves of narrow-issue demagogues. Mr. Kaplan begins his examination in 1837 when Lincoln, a freshly-minted lawyer and member of the Illinois legislature introduces a bill that condemns slavery. Lincoln was what was called a “free-soil” Whig, one of the two main parties, and one that firmly opposed both slavery and abolition. As Mr. Kaplan explains, Whigs, “believed that the Constitution allowed the national government to control slavery, presumably with the consent of its residents, only in the District of Columbia. Otherwise, wherever it already existed it was untouchable. It could be deplored but not altered.” That same year John Quincy Adams was plaguing the pro-slavery delegates in the U.S. House of Representatives with a series of unsuccessful procedural moves to override the firm ban on even discussing slavery, let alone blocking its expansion into the newly admitted states of the Middle West. Adams, too, was a Whig, after having been something called a National Republican as president in the 1820s, and then an Anti-Mason before joining the loose and often fractious Whig Party. Like Lincoln, he too avoided the radical and unforgiving Abolitionists of his home state of Massachusetts. Mainly he, like Lincoln, was a firm Unionist. Only a strong and united people could hold and prosperously govern the vast continent spread before them like a banquet table for the taking. Slavery and the divisive passions it ignited was a threat to that Union. Better that economic consequences of a broad national expansion erode the financial support that slavery brought than to cause a national fracture which outright abolition would produce. Slavery was a dominating issue during these decades and Mr. Kaplan acknowledges that freely. But it was important in large part for its impact on other issues. Texas had just seceded from Mexico and slave-owning expansionists eyed, and other newly settled territories with greedy eyes. A war with Mexico was impending and that too would test national resolve. Waves of exotic immigrants — from Germany, and more disturbing from Ireland — fueled anti-immigrant passions. Dismantling the legacy of the Trumpian Andrew Jackson proved vexatious. Adams was still several years away from his legendary defense before the U.S. Supreme Court of the slaves who had escaped on the Amistad, a defense that has made him a Hollywood icon. But again, that praiseworthy defense was more grounded on a dispute over property rights than civil liberties. Still, from his seat in Congress he became ever more opposed to slavery and to the rush to expand U.S. territory westward for the stresses placed on national unity. As for the slaves themselves, Lincoln would remain tantalized by a popular scheme of the day to rid America of its slaves through projects to colonize new nations in the Caribbean and Africa, starting with the roughly 400,000 free blacks who would be given incentives to seek their fortunes elsewhere, anywhere but here. Liberia and Sierra Leone would be established under U.S. protection, but during his own presidency Lincoln could not muster the support or resources to pursue a greater effort. Mr. Kaplan has an interesting take on the Emancipation Proclamation that so defines what we think about Lincoln and race. In addition to calculating its strategic impact on the failing economy of the Confederacy, Mr. Kaplan also notes that the decree freeing bondsmen in the rebel territory explicitly did not affect those crucial states that had not joined the secession — Tennessee, Kentucky, and more closely at hand, Maryland and Delaware where a substantial population of slave owners also were pro-Union. What we have is a complicated tale that, thanks to this book, can be more clearly understood, and its similarities with today’s imbroglio will fascinate the reader.
THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW: July 16, 2017: I always hope not to be tempted to respond to reviews. But Eric Foner’s review (6/23/2017) of my Lincoln and the Abolitionists: John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War is a special case. He and I have a fundamental disagreement about Lincoln, race, and slavery. He argues in The Fiery Trial, Lincoln and American Slavery (2010) that Lincoln’s views about race and slavery evolved over time. I made it clear in my review of his book for the Washington Post that, despite his book’s merits, which are many, his main argument is unpersuasive: Lincoln always opposed slavery; he never favored citizenship for blacks, though he accepted some limited version as a necessary outcome of the war. Foner’s review of Lincoln and the Abolitionists restates the thesis of The Fiery Trial. It makes its case by misrepresentations of Lincoln and of what I’ve written. Lincoln’s greatness is not undermined by an attempt to see him clearly, with neither progressive nor idealistic blinkers, and neither Lincoln nor history benefit from Foner’s special pleading. Arguably our greatest president, Lincoln does not need to be vindicated or defended, and there is not the slightest bit of evidence on which to claim that Lincoln wanted or welcomed a bi-racial United States. My take on Lincoln, despite Foner’s claim, is deeply embedded in history, and of course racism “rises and falls over time.” But the evidence demonstrates that racism, at a fairly high level, has been a constant in American history. Fred Kaplan. Boothbay, Maine. [The following sentences were omitted from the published letter at the request of the Times Book Review editor: This is not a forum which allows me to go through Foner’s comments point by point. It seems to me, though, that he owed the readers of his review an acknowledgment that his review is, among other things, a response to my review of his book and that he is an interested party. He should have recused himself.}
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: July 11, 2017. Readers of Michael Burlingame’s review of “Lincoln and the Abolitionists: John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War” (Bookshelf, July 5) should test it against the book. The review is stuck in the trope that because Lincoln was always against slavery, which the book repeatedly affirms though the reviewer claims it doesn’t, that Lincoln was also in favor of civil rights for blacks and a multiracial America. He was not. He believed that blacks and whites could never live together peacefully as equals in America. He feared there would be at least a century of racial conflict if over four million blacks became American citizens. All his adult life he favored colonization for free blacks and former slaves until his last six months, when he accepted its practical and moral impossibility. It is the reviewer who is cherry-picking the record in the interest of an idealized Lincoln. Our aim should be a balanced, overall view that takes all of Lincoln into account. It is desirable to be a realist about Lincoln, not a fantasist. He was a great man and a great president, one of only a small number. But he wasn’t without flaws. And he was a man of his times. Fred Kaplan Boothbay, Maine.
Additional Response to WSJ Review: Readers of Michael Burlingame’s review of Lincoln and the Abolitionists, John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War (WSJ, 7/4/2017 [see Fred Kaplan, letter to the editor, 7/11/2017] should test it against the book. It’s hard for me to recognize that it’s a review of the book I wrote. It doesn’t recognize what the book’s actually about – its narrative and main claims. The review is stuck in the trope that because Lincoln was always against slavery, which the book repeatedly affirms, that Lincoln was also in favor of civil rights for blacks and a multi-racial America. He was not. He believed that blacks and whites could never live together peacefully as equals in America. He feared there would be at least a century of racial conflict if over four million blacks became American citizens. All his adult life he favored colonization for free blacks and former slaves until his last six months, when he accepted its practical and moral impossibility. In both of these regards, he was both wise and prescient. The reviewer is cherry-picking the record in the interest of an idealized Lincoln. And misleading his readers about the book. He seems not to recognize that Lincoln did everything possible to avoid the war, short of accepting secession, even if it meant the indefinite existence of slavery; that the language of the “Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation” attempted to cajole the seceding states back into the Union with the offer of a long-term toleration of slavery where it already existed; and that almost none of the major abolitionists approved of Lincoln’s policies until 1864-65, including Frederick Douglass, who is one of a large cast of historical figures in the book from Jefferson and John Adams to Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, David Walker, Andrew Johnson and Hannibal Hamlin. The reader would know nothing about the range of the book from reading the review, and the record does not support the reviewer’s attack on my claim that the major abolitionists, including Douglass, distrusted Lincoln until late in the war. Lincoln did play an instrumental role in having Hamlin dropped as his second term vice-presidential candidate and encouraging Andrew Johnson’s nomination. It would not have happened without his consent. He indeed wanted a Southern Unionist on the ticket. I state that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus “in the sensitive Baltimore-Washington area.” Burlingame thinks that this means that I claim he did not suspend it in other places. It doesn’t. The Dred Scot decision did mean that Southerners were legally entitled to take their slave property anyplace in the Union, impractical as that would have been if actually attempted. Though some of the items Burlingame points to as errors are not, those readers and reviewers who pointed out my error about Tennessee have my thanks. It is, though, absurd to judge the book (often sight unseen) by such matters. None of the few errors are relevant to what the book is about and its intellectual/historical argument. There is a larger context to my book and Burlingame’s review. Lincoln scholars especially (and non-scholars also) divide into three groups: Lincoln idolaters (a huge group), Lincoln haters (a small group), and Lincoln realists (also a small group). I belong to the latter. My book, Lincoln, The Biography of a Writer (2008) affirms Lincoln’s genius as a writer and politician. But for some of the idolaters, Lincoln can do no wrong, and many of the facts I point to in Lincoln and the Abolitionists they evade or explain away. That is an old story. It began in 1865. For example, the 1865 illustration that accompanies Burlingame’s review is a whitewash of the same illustration, as my caption in the book for the illustration makes clear, which, when first published in 1863, did not have Lincoln in it at all. Once assassinated, the idolatry began. The idolaters have a vested interest in an almost perfect Lincoln. In the latter part of the last century, numbers of black historians, led by Lerone Bennet Jr., highlighted Lincoln as a racist. Their claim has some merit, depending on how one defines “racist” and whether or not one takes the historical context into account, which I do. I think that claims on either side of this issue are useless. There are arguments on both sides, depending on where one puts the emphasis, and it makes no sense to judge Lincoln by twenty-first century standards. Our aim should be a balanced, overall view that takes all of Lincoln into account. A glorified a-historical idealization of Lincoln speaks to the difficulty America has had and continues to have about race. It is desirable to be a realist about Lincoln, not a fantasist. He was a great man and a great president, one of only a small number. But he was not without flaws. And he was a man of his times.
THE WASHINGTON POST, 7/28/2017. “Don’t continue to promote the mythical narrative around Lincoln.” Manisha Sinha’s review of my book, “Lincoln and the Abolitionists: John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War” [“Revising Lincoln’s stance on slavery,” Book World, July 16], stated that the book claims that Abraham Lincoln was an “incorrigible racist.” My book claims nothing of the sort. Lincoln had no doubt that blacks and whites were equal as human beings. He favored freedom for blacks. However, he opposed abolition and citizenship for blacks until the Civil War in its last year made that impossible in practice and principle. Until then, he favored colonization (the establishment of a country of their own in Africa or Central America) for all American blacks. This was not because he was a “racist,” a word that has to be defined and given historical context. He worried that large numbers of blacks and whites could not live together harmoniously in a white America that was pervasively hostile to black citizenship. He believed, until abolitionism was no longer relevant, that abolitionists were destructive extremists. There are details and evidence that the reviewer and I could argue about, but no reader could know from this misleading review the book’s central narrative, its scope or its nuances. I admire Lincoln for his actual virtues and accomplishments. But American blacks especially and all Americans have reason to resent the widespread false narrative about Lincoln, slavery, the abolitionists and race that this and other self-serving reviews promote. The myth does not set us free.