Monday, June 7, 2010

June 7 1862: Political Invective in Amherst in the Old Days vs. Today

Radical students invite controversial speaker to Amherst. Surprise. Controversy ensues: another surprise.

As we've noted here (and many already knew), Amherst has in recent decades acquired a reputation as a contentious, cantankerous place, which spawns or even thrives on controversy (some justified, some not). In recent years, in particular, there have been growing expressions of concern about the tone of political debate, for example in the blogosphere.  Sometimes the controversy has revolved around outside speakers being allowed (or forbidden) to speak. 

This example, from nearly 160 years ago, shows that these concerns about civility are nothing new.  Amherst residents will be familiar with the work of Daniel Lombardo, former curator of Special Collections at the Jones Library, for his compilations of oddments and anecdotes from our history.  Others should get to know it.

On June 7, 1862, as the Civil War raged, the "Fighting Parson" and passionate anti-slavery activist William G. Brownlow came to town.  Here is an excerpt from Lombardo's account:
  Rev. Brownlow was invited to speak by the students of Amherst College, who sympathized with the persecuted Unionists of Eastern Tennessee, of whom Brownlow was a leader. Their invitation to him emphasized the "noble stand which you, though menaced and exiled by traitors, have maintained against the Rebellion."
He called the rebellion "the most wicked vile and devilish the world ever saw . . . instituted by men who are low and vile . . . the dregs of the streets and gutters."

  In a speech that was enthusiastically received with bursts of applause, Brownlow turned his wrath to certain Southern leaders.  He called Senator Mason of Virginia "a miserable, corrupt, whiskey-rotted, brandy-bloated, beef-headed scavenger . . . a miserable lying, pompous dog."  In a rather shocking opinion for a man of the cloth, Rev. Brownlow proclaimed that Mason "ought to have had a grind-stone tied about his neck, and sunk in the waters of Boston Harbor, as Adams and his comrades served the British Tea."

Mason left for Europe with John Slidell, whom Brownlow described as "a hideous Orang Outang."  For all senators who joined the rebel congress, Brownlow recommended that their "lying tongues ought to be plucked out of their mouths, and fed to mean dogs, and their bodies suspended by grass ropes to trees."

  It is evidence of the extremes of human emotions, and the breakdown of morality during war, that Amherst so warmly responded to a man who shouted, in a foreshadowing of Naziism, "I am an advocate of exterminating and wiping off from the face of the earth the whole infernal race of traitors and peopling the country with a better race of men if the rebellion continues."

  William Brownlow went on to become the governor of Tennessee in 1865, and a U.S. Senator in 1869.
—Daniel Lombardo, A Hedge Away:  The Other Side of Emily Dickinson's Amherst (Northampton:  Daily Hampshire Gazette, 1997), 25-26 

Strong stuff. Admittedly, likening it to Nazism is just stupid and sloppy, but one gets Lombardo's point.  Moral outrage is a double-edged sword, and when passion flares, we don't always wield it as wisely as we should.  Anyway, it's good to keep this account in mind whenever we worry about the current state of political debate here, just for a sense of perspective.

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