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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

February 15, 2011: Null Set

One of the great challenges that faces any AmericanStudier (and perhaps any historian at all, but I can only speak to analyzing the history and culture of this nation) is the question of how much emphasis we should put on the motivations behind historical actions (whether individual or communal), and in particular on those motivations that seem more noble or impressive to us. There is for example the case of John Brown (on whom more in a future post, as I can’t do much justice to his complexities here): he was without question a domestic terrorist, one who killed families in Kansas and soldiers in Harper’s Ferry with equal self-righteousness; it’s true that he did so out of impassioned opposition to slavery, a perspective that of course I share, but does that truly distinguish him from a Timothy McVeigh or a Nidal Hasan? Those men likewise felt righteous passion for their causes, and does my disagreement with them really differentiate their acts from Brown’s? Is it enough that history has proven Brown right, if his action still ring so violent and extreme?
Much less extreme, but in its own way just as vexing, is the early 19th-century question of nullification. In the early 1830s, that term was used by two very distinct local communities to argue for why and how they should resist the federal government and defy their constitutional and legal requirements: then-Vice President John Calhoun deployed the term in 1832 to argue for South Carolina’s ability to resist a federal tariff imposed by his own boss, President Andrew Jackson (Calhoun would leave office that same year to serve as a Senator from South Carolina, hastening his transformation into a fire-breathing Southern supremacist and predecessor to and icon for the secessionists); and members of Massachusetts’s Mashpee Native American tribe, led by my earlier blog-subject William Apess, argued in 1833 that the tribe had the right to nullify federal and state laws and operate under its own sovereignty, a proposition which resulted in the short-lived but prominent Mashpee Revolt and for which Apess argued at length in his Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts, Relative to the Marshpee Tribe (1835). The difference in impressiveness, to my mind, between Apess (whose inspirational qualities I have already highlighted in this space) and Calhoun (about whom I might someday write more, but it is enough here to reiterate that he would become the icon of the secessionist South) is emblematic of the larger distinction that I would make between these two causes and their respective contexts and meanings in their own era and beyond.
Well, kind of. It’s the “and beyond” where the real difficulties lie—because I know that Calhoun’s version of nullification would lead in another decade or two to the arguments for “states’ rights” that really meant “slavery in every sense or bust,” and I know that Apess’s version would lead to nothing more than entirely sympathetic resistances to removal and reservations and land theft and the laundry list of other government abuses of Native Americans. But do those applications or extensions of the idea differentiate the earlier moments and arguments themselves? After all, Calhoun based his own theory of nullification at least in part on Thomas Jefferson’s ideas in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, those impressive resistances to the Alien and Sedition Acts for which I had much praise in one of my earlier blog posts; so does that extension render Jefferson’s version similarly problematic? I certainly still prefer his ideas and perspective to those behind the Alien and Sedition Acts, but it could indeed be argued that those ideas did include within them the seeds for Calhoun’s secessionist nullification. Perhaps then nullification does have potential value and appeal, since both Jefferson and Apess’s versions seem worthy of admiration; but then we’re back to Calhoun’s, and the question of whether there is any way to distinguish his much more troublingly divisive and ultimately destructive ideas from those other men’s and communities’.
I don’t have any definite answers to these questions; I did start by saying this was a great challenge, after all. Neither do I believe we AmericanStudiers and historians can or should pretend that actions and events exist outside of motivations and morality, that we can analyze Calhoun (for example) outside of the contexts of slavery and secession. We can, though, seek to understand as fully and honestly as possible his arguments and ideas in their own moment, even if we are compelled to note that their further development was deeply detrimental to our nation. Just as, if we are to be equally honest, we can admit that John Brown’s actions were hugely destructive and detrimental as well, if driven by much more sympathetic and even noble motivations. It’s a tough gig, this AmericanStudying, but a pretty important one too I’d say. More tomorrow, on the photographer and ethnographer whose flawed but irreplaceable masterwork opened up an America many had never known.
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      The full text of the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification (1832):
2)      One of a few primary sources on the Mashpee Revolt at this site:
3)      OPEN: Complicated stuff here; what are your thoughts?

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