Category Archives: History

Abraham Lincoln and the Confederate War of Independence

Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.  ~African Proverb

Introduction

For years I’ve had an abiding interest in the underlying causes of that watershed event in U.S history, the American Civil War of 1861-1865 – also known as the War of the States or the War of the Rebellion. As a military study it is  no less fascinating: a grand sweeping saga of tragedy and triumph replete with the old world charms of another age. Yet it is the political intrigues, the motives and the unfolding clash of two New World cultural identities under one constitution that interest me most. In pursuit of a greater understanding of the events my habit is to search for truths often obfuscated by what the “Readers Digest” condensed version of official history invariably presents to the general public. Given this rule it would serve no purpose to be anything but totally objective if I am to arrive at honest conclusions. No expert or panel of scholars can ever provide a definitive analysis of such a complex event let alone a lay observer like  me. However an outsider’s impressions combined with an impartial approach to research may, hopefully, produce something a bit different; another way of looking at the subject. I have called this blog post, Abraham Lincoln and the “Confederate War of Independence” for a very specific reason that – if I haven’t bored you to death with Sainter speak – will soon become clear.   🙂

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Servitude

Slavery has long been considered the root cause of the American Civil War by mainstream historians and the popular press even when all other factors have been taken into account. In my opinion a closer examination from a different perspective suggests otherwise. Here it is not my intention to expound on the repugnance of slavery and its inherant racism – it is obvious to all of us in this day and age – but it does make sense to review past attitudes towards servitude as a whole, not only in the South but especially the North. To do this we need to explore a few harsh realities of 18th and 19th century America.

  Though the slave trade was officially abolished throughout the U.S in 1807, slaveholding still existed domestically here and there in some Northern states up until the 1840s, with New Jersey the last to effectively emancipate in 1865 when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed that year. It should ne noted that both whites and free negroes used slave labour. Further to this the slave trade historically was not an all black and white affair. White indentured “servants” – slavery by another name – provided the main source of labour for the growing colonies, continuing well into the 19th century.

Redemptioners, also known as unfree labour, were forced to pay their passage to the U.S in wageless labour on arrival. These “White Cargo” servants were in the main  of  English, Scottish, Irish and German stock under the age of 21.  Redemptioners accounted for an estimated 80% of the total British and continental emigration to America prior to 1776. Abuse of the system caused many to die before either their 7 year contract was up or debt was paid. Some believe that at this time the term Redneck – akin to Redshanks or Redlegs in the Caribbean – came into usage to mock Irish indentured servants as “niggers turned inside out” because they’d been in the sun too long.

For the ordinary man in the street or on the farms, North or South, servitude was part of the fabric of their world. Secular and religious expediency saw to it that the future of the American colonies would be built on back breaking labour under brutal conditions, for black or white. In fact up until the 19th century, slavery (from the word Slav) was widely believed to be sanctioned by God in accordance with Old Testament scripture. The general attitude to negro slavery was thus, in truth, ambivalent, with the ordinary working class Protestant poor more concerned with large scale Catholic immigration or eking out their own meagre living. If a minority of Northern lower class whites backed black freedom it was generally out of self interest given that slave labour took jobs from free labourers and indentured servants. Slavery as a growing moral issue thus fell to a mixed minority of social reformers and upper class business elites  – the Abolitionists – with  backing from the Quakers and Baptists. The Abolitionist’s cause was noble but their motives were less so – only 30 years prior they had been exploiting the slave trade for profit. As Pennsylvanian historian and author, Douglas Harper, points out:

Early 19th century New Englanders had real motives for forgetting their slave history, or, if they recalled it at all, for characterizing it as a brief period of mild servitude. This was partly a Puritan effort to absolve New England’s ancestors of their guilt. The cleansing of history had a racist motive as well, denying blacks — slave or free — a legitimate place in New England history. But most importantly, the deliberate creation of a “mythology of a free New England” was a crucial event in the history of sectional conflict in America. The North, and New England in particular, sought to demonize the South through its institution of slavery; they did this in part by burying their own histories as slave-owners and slave-importers.

He goes on to say…..

Having solved its slavery problem by a very gradual emancipation, and by aggressively proscribing the rights of its free black minority, the North was content. Its ships continued to carry slaves to Southern ports, and slave-grown cotton to Europe. The North reaped the profits of the Southern plantations, and the federal government collected the tariffs. Any further effort made in the North toward resolving the slavery issue generally went into the pipe-dream of colonization and to making sure Southern blacks stayed there, or at least did not come north.

Historian Edgar J. McManus, author of A History of Negro Slavery in New York also wrote of motivating factors behind Abolitionism:

  “Upper-class whites were motivated by idealism, and their attitude toward the Negro was philanthropic and paternalistic. Members of the upper class supported Negro charities and schools much more generously than they supported organizations assisting poor whites.” This idealism, however, “had no counterpart in the lower classes, among whom could be found neither sympathy for the Negro nor understanding of his problems. From its inception, slavery had been detrimental to the working class. On the one hand, the slave system excluded whites from jobs pre-empted by slaves; on the other, it often degraded them socially to the level of the slaves with whom they had to work and compete in earning a livelihood.”

The salient point from those quotes is the clear divide in interests between the upper and lower classes. Abolitionism as proposed by a Northern patrician class was actually a vested interest not as altruistic as has been portrayed. Slavery as a factor in the conflict is not in doubt but it was far from being the sole motivator. As is nearly always the case in historic upheavals, trade and profit was also a major factor. In making this case the following extracts prove the folly of simplying the complex for the sake of a comfortable national mythology. 

  • From an article in the Washington Times by the African American economics professor, Walter Williams of George Mason University:  Most historical accounts portray Southern blacks as anxiously awaiting President Abraham Lincoln’s “liberty-dispensing troops” marching south in the War Between the States. But there’s more to the story. Black Confederate military units, both as freemen and slaves, fought federal troops. Louisiana free blacks gave their reason for fighting in a letter written to New Orleans’ Daily Delta: “The free colored population love their home, their property, their own slaves and recognize no other country than Louisiana, and are ready to shed their blood for her defense. They have no sympathy for Abolitionism; no love for the North, but they have plenty for Louisiana. They will fight for her in 1861 as they fought in 1814-15.” 
  • And this statement by Abraham Lincoln made in a speech in 1858 at Charleston Illinois while debating Senator Steven Douglas before a crowd of 15,000 people: “I am not now, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social or political equality of the white and black races. I am not now nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarriages with white people. There is a physical difference between the white and the black races which will forever forbid the two races living together on social or political equality. There must be a position of superior and inferior, and I am in favor of assigning the superior position to the white man.”

 Cometh the Taxman 

Even from the time of Independence the U.S economies of both the North and South were becoming increasingly polarised, the North tagging onto the Industrial revolution while the South remaining largely agricultural. In the years leading up to the Civil War the main source of income for the federal government were taxes in the form of import tariffs – income tax did not exist. Import tariffs as an economic tool could be used in a variety of ways to benefit various sectors depending on tariff levels and who assumed the burden as a percentage of federal internal revenue. They also became an effective form of protectionism against cheaper products from overseas – mainly from Great Britain.

In the tariff of 1816, tariff structure changed from revenue producing to protectionist to assist the industrialization of the North. It was aimed at the lucrative Southern market. By 1832, and to protect Northern manufacturers from cheaper products being purchased by the South from overseas, the U.S  federal government had introduced a series of tariffs on many imported goods needed by the Southern business sector, effectively forcing the South to pay much higher prices while at the same time penalizing British industry. By this time the Southern states – 25% of the population – accounted for 87% of federal tariff revenue. Inevitably the tariff “war” came to a head with the introduction of the infamous Morrill tariff of 1861. Columnist for the Times Examiner Mike Scruggs explains the effects on the economy of the South:

U. S. tariff revenues already fell disproportionately on the South, accounting for 87% of the total. While the tariff protected Northern industrial interests, it raised the cost of living and commerce in the South substantially. It also reduced the trade value of their agricultural exports to Europe. These combined to place a severe economic hardship on many Southern states. Even more galling was that 80% or more of these tax revenues were expended on Northern public works and industrial subsidies, thus further enriching the North at the expense of the South. 
In the 1860 election, Lincoln, a former Whig and great admirer of Henry Clay,  campaigned for the high protective tariff provisions of the Morrill Tariff, which had also been incorporated into the Republican Party Platform. Lincoln further endorsed the Morrill Tariff and its concepts in his first inaugural speech and signed the Act into law a few days after taking office in March of 1861. Southern leaders had seen it coming. Southern protests had been of no avail. Now the South was inflamed with righteous indignation, and Southern leaders began to call for Secession.

On the other side of the Atlantic, British trade with the South was being seriously affected. Charles Dickens, then the publisher of a news magazine called The All Year Round, published the following perspective, further validating the view that the War Between the States was in reality a tax burden and profit issue:

If it be not slavery, where lies the partition of the interests that has led at last to actual separation of the Southern from the Northern States? …Every year, for some years back, this or that Southern state had declared that it would submit to this extortion only while it had not the strength for resistance. With the election of Lincoln and an exclusive Northern party taking over the federal government, the time for withdrawal had arrived … The conflict is between semi-independent communities [in which] every feeling and interest [in the South] calls for political partition, and every pocket interest [in the North] calls for union … So the case stands, and under all the passion of the parties and the cries of battle lie the two chief moving causes of the struggle. Union means so many millions a year lost to the South; secession means the loss of the same millions to the North. The love of money is the root of this, as of many other evils… [T]he quarrel between the North and South is, as it stands, solely a fiscal quarrel.

The “fiscal quarrel” would therefore appear to be the primary cause of the Civil War – the case that has often been put forward by the Southern side of the debate – except for one snag: the fact that the South’s economy was inexorably tied to slave labour, and that the States and Confederacy constitutions all included amendments invariably specifying that “…citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired”. 

Effectively, slavery and tariffs are bound together. The Southern States seceded to protect their standards of living (justified) but based on the institution of slavery (not justified). Unfair tariffs as an issue proved to be the greater of the two but it is fundamentally inseparable from slavery as the one issue. However, in my conclusion I put forward that there was something even more profound and elemental to the lives and sensibilities of the men and women of the Confederacy that ultimately caused them to take up arms, and that profound feeling is still evident today in the resentment the South has towards the North and the Federal Government: the sovereign right to self determination.

Lincoln

Up to this point I’ve said little about Abraham Lincoln and nothing at all about the military conflict. The war itself is a vast subject on it’s own and I don’t propose to get into it here, but Lincoln should be explored given his pivotal role before and during the war, but  without going into too much detail as so much has already been written about him.

Abraham Lincoln has been described as everything from the Great Emanicipator and the saviour of the Union to a dictator and a monster. I don’t subscribe to such extreme views of the man either way. Lincoln was a politician first and foremost who typically mixed lies with the truth to achieve a political end –  there’s never been a politician born who wasn’t hypocritical at some time in his or her career.

Lincoln was a man of his time: patriarchal, parochial, pragmatic. Convinced of the white man’s supremacy. He had no love of people of colour, believing they were morally and intellectually inferior to the white race. Nevertheless this didn’t stop him from taking up the abolitionist cause  – a fair contradiction it would seem. These character traits say plenty about the man and will always be of historical interest, but they aren’t all that relevant when asking the fundamental question of the Civil War: was the war justified.

 I believe that Lincoln was right insofar as wanting to preserve the Union for unity’s sake and the dream of a prosperous future. I believe such a vision is vindicated by the greatness of the United States today. But I do not believe his prosecution of the war was justified. In fact it could have been avoided all together by either letting the Confederate States go or reaching a fair and equitable economic compromise. On the issue of slavery, Lincoln could have waited until the South abolished it of its own free will. Lincoln may have preserved the Union in a political and geographical sense but from my perspective he went about it the wrong way – parochially advantaging the North to satisfy powerful business interests and Republican Party economic ideals to the ultimate detriment of the South. Lincoln became a captive of ulterior motives that had nothing to do with the emancipation of slaves and everything to do with generating national wealth via the Industrial North.

I am of the view that political pressures from all sides affected his judgement, leading to a war that cost the lives of 620,000 soldiers and countless Southern civilians. Time was what Lincoln had on his side and he didn’t use it. A more equitable tariff arrangement was within his power but he didn’t explore it. Lincoln’s gravest mistake was not putting the whole of the country’s welfare first – rather, he saw the nation’s interests through the myopic prism of Northern industrialisation, believing it to be the appropriate avenue to future strength and prosperity. This by extension meant favouring Northern interests. Not a monster, nor an emancipator, but a fatally flawed politician who’s legacy in the pantheon of American presidents has been air brushed and manicured for the sake of establishing a mainstream, populist mythology. 

 There is another matter that must be taken into account: the United States Constitution – whether the U.S was (and still is) a consolidated and permanent federation or a league of sovereign states who’s own constitutions can legally nullify federal statutes. Did the South legally or illegally secede? Was it a revolution? I wonder, does it really matter? Should the complex world of constitutional legalities take precedence over the spirit of freedom that underpins the constitution?  What happens to the unalienable right to self determination as the core principle of liberty? Perhaps the greatest loser of the war was liberty itself.

Conclusion

 As I write this conclusion a rhetorical question keeps going through my mind: what is freedom. Is freedom the right to liberate a people by subjugating an entire population? Is freedom the right to enslave a people while bemoaning the loss of one’s own freedom? Is it right to disregard one freedom in the pursuit of another kind of freedom? It seems to me that liberty as envisioned by the American founding fathers is immutable; a right that is beyond negotiation or convenient interpretation. If freedom is a person’s birthright then surely it is the birthright of a people. Liberty is explicitly the unalienable right to self determination; to find one’s own way in the world in search of a more enlightened, just, equitable society – the very thing that the colonies fought for during the American Revolution.

  The self evident proof of Liberty should not be confused with causes and motives in the name of freedom. If Liberty is reduced to a political device then the case can be made that Adolph Hitler was justified in annexing Czechoslovakia because a small minority of Germans lived under Czech rule. We must not accept that liberty is good for one but not the other. Just as servitude in the North was wrong, and slavery in the South was wrong, so too was the obstruction of the South’s right to secede. Liberty must be perpetual, fixed, sancrosanct. As a duty we should resolve never to pevert it. If we allow the exploitation of Liberty to accomodate partisan, political ideology then we stand for nothing. And no one is free. No one is free because we remain chained to the same arrogance of “I know what is best for you” that is at the very root of all the mistakes that have gone before and are destined to be made forever.

 Elsewhere in my blog I have referred to the self righteous “moral superiority” of elite minority views that insist on what is best for us; those who believe that “my way is the right way”. No matter the assumed righteousness of the cause, even with the benefit of hindsight, we cannot allow one side to ride roughshod over the other side. Consensus comes not from the intransigence of two polarized opposites but from the middleground working outward in search of commonalities. Without the one taking the other by the hand then liberty loses and self righteousness wins. Consider that most quintessential of Southerners, Robert E. Lee. General Lee, who openly and publicly stated that he detested slavery as  a “moral evil”, nevertheless  fought with great distinction on the side of the South. Why? Because he refused to “raise a hand against my family” who’s sovereign right to self determination was being taken away.

Time is not of the essence when the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are at stake. By 1890, slavery and indentured unfree labour had been abolished throughout the Americas: Brazil, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, West Indies, Cuba…everywhere. It was done peacefully, and there was no segregation because of bitter resentment over a civil war. This would have been the fate of the South too. 

While researching I luckily stumbled across a site with the first pages of the reminiscences of a Confederate officer. Written in 1903 by Major-General John B. Gordon, it is refreshing for it’s measured fairness and lack of bitterness. Written in the beautiful language of the old South it conveys a highly pertinent message for the reader to reflect on. I will end this rather long blog essay with an extract. Thankyou for reading my post. – Wayne 

 The causes of the war will be found at the foundation of our political fabric, in our complex organism, in the fundamental law, in the Constitution itself, in the conflicting constructions which it invited, and in the institution of slavery which it recognized and was intended to protect. If asked what was the real issue involved in our unparalleled conflict, the average American citizen will reply, “The negro”; and it is fair to say that had there been no slavery there would have been no war. But there would have been no slavery if the South’s protests could have availed when it was first introduced; and now that it is gone, although its sudden and violent abolition entailed upon the South directly and incidentally a series of woes which no pen can describe, yet it is true that in no section would its reestablishment be more strongly and universally resisted. The South steadfastly maintains that responsibility for the presence of this political Pandora’s box in this Western world cannot be laid at her door….

 …slavery was far from being the sole cause of the prolonged conflict. Neither its destruction on the one hand, nor its defence on the other, was the energizing force that held the contending armies to four years of bloody work. I apprehend that if all living Union soldiers were summoned to the witness stand, every one of them would testify that it was the preservation of the American Union and not the destruction of Southern slavery that induced him to volunteer at the call of his country. As for the South, it is enough to say that perhaps eighty per cent. of her armies were neither slave-holders, nor had the remotest interest in the institution. No other proof, however, is needed than the undeniable fact that at any period of the war from its beginning to near its close the South could have saved slavery by simply laying down its arms and returning to the Union.

 During the entire life of the Republic the respective rights and powers of the States and general government had furnished a question for endless controversy. In process of time this controversy assumed a somewhat sectional phase. The dominating thought of the North and of the South may be summarized in a few sentences.

 The South maintained with the depth of religious conviction that the Union formed under the Constitution was a Union of consent and not of force; that the original States were not the creatures but the creators of the Union; that these States had gained their independence, their freedom, and their sovereignty from the mother country, and had not surrendered these on entering the Union; that by the express terms of the Constitution all rights and powers not delegated were reserved to the States; and the South challenged the North to find one trace of authority in that Constitution for invading and coercing a sovereign State.

 The North, on the other hand, maintained with the utmost confidence in the correctness of her position that the Union formed under the Constitution was intended to be perpetual; that sovereignty was a unit and could not be divided; that whether or not there was any express power granted in the Constitution for invading a State, the right of self-preservation was inherent in all governments; that the life of the Union was essential to the life of liberty; or, in the words of Webster, “liberty and union are one and inseparable.”

 To the charge of the North that secession was rebellion and treason, the South replied that the epithets of rebel and traitor did not deter her from the assertion of her independence, since these same epithets had been familiar to the ears of Washington and Hancock and Adams and Light Horse Harry Lee. In vindication of her right to secede, she appealed to the essential doctrine, “the right to govern rests on the consent of the governed,” and to the right of independent action as among those reserved by the States.

 There were those, a few years ago, who were especially devoted to the somewhat stereotyped phrase that in our Civil War one side (meaning the North) “was wholly and eternally right,” while the other side (meaning the South) “was wholly and eternally wrong.” I might cite those on the Southern side of the great controversy, equally sincere and fully as able, who would have been glad to persuade posterity that the North was “wholly and eternally wrong”; that her people waged war upon sister States who sought peacefully to set up a homogeneous government, and meditated no wrong or warfare upon the remaining sister States. These Southern leaders steadfastly maintained that the Southern people, in the exercise of the freedom and sovereign rights purchased by Revolutionary blood, were asserting a second independence according to the teachings and example of their fathers.

 But what good is to come to the country from partisan utterances on either side? My own well-considered and long-entertained opinion, my settled and profound conviction, the correctness of which the future will vindicate, is this: that the one thing which is “wholly and eternally wrong” is the effort of so-called statesmen to inject one-sided and jaundiced sentiments into the youth of the country in either section. Such sentiments are neither consistent with the truth of history, nor conducive to the future welfare and unity of the Republic. The assumption on either side of all the righteousness and all the truth would produce a belittling arrogance, and an offensive intolerance of the opposing section; or, if either section could be persuaded that it was “wholly and eternally wrong,” it would inevitably destroy the self-respect and manhood of its people.

 Truth, justice, and patriotism unite in proclaiming that both sides fought and suffered for liberty as bequeathed by the Fathers–the one for liberty in the union of the States, the other for liberty in the independence of the States.

 While the object of these papers is to record my personal reminiscences and to perpetuate incidents illustrative of the character of the American soldier, whether he fought on the one side or the other, I am also moved to write by what I conceive to be a still higher aim; and that is to point out, if I can, the common ground on which all may stand; where justification of one section does not require or imply condemnation of the other–the broad, high, sunlit middle ground where fact meets fact, argument confronts argument, and truth is balanced against truth.

  

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July 6, 2011 · 11:10 pm

The Convict Grave – A Perspective

Perspective inspired by the photo beneath.

Mortar, clay and cedar, tarnished moist and dead. No grass, clover, dew or air. Despoiled of distinction for an age. Prying shards of lamp light slash the aperture where no epitaph can be found, carved for the wretched anon beneath the crumbling brick sod. The hand that struck to snatch the life – for whatever reason – we cannot know. No purpose acquaints us, connects us with her humanity. No birds sing blissfully unaware of what travesty may have befallen, what tragedy may have ensued for peering eyes to bare witness to in perpetuity. Only nameless silence, solitude, bound to hidden remains forever unsung with nary a crusty word chipped into rock. What history was lived will remain obscured: the lineage, the trials and tribulations, the injustices or just desserts. No dignity here, only inevitable death and peering eyes, calculators, slide rules, plans. Lamp light. Ignominy in life and death. RIP.

 

In 1991, Sydney Town Hall underwent major restoration works. During excavations to lay new stormwater pipes under the Lower Town Hall, workmen discovered evidence of burials. Archaeologists were employed to excavate the site and record their findings.

Of the four graves discovered, only one was relatively intact. This grave is shown in the photograph. Excavation revealed a brick vault enclosing the remains of a wooden coffin set in clay. The coffin was made of Australian red cedar, and fastened with iron nails and brass tacks. Forensic examination of the skeletal remains revealed that the bone fragments belonged to a woman. Following the excavation, the remains were re-interred during a simple ceremony conducted by the Anglican Dean of Sydney. The grave was filled in with sand and the bricks rebuilt across the top of the vault.

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January 25, 2010 · 11:40 pm

Letters of the Ancient Romans

We all share an appreciation of what is good in both the very old and very new.

These days we worship at the temple of the techno-geek god who rewards us with an endless smorgasboard of new and improved whiz bang toys – the soft and the hard. With this comes the promise of convenience- a reduction in time wastage thereby giving us more leisure time, so we are told…Ironic considering  now we not only work more hours per week but even our leisure time is owned by these toys. It seems our age is increasingly becoming articulated by information overload as we take the many tantalizing turn offs along the super highway. As enriching as it is, it also has it’s drawbacks, but it is our thing in the 21st century.

On the other hand we are fascinated by the lives and technology of antiquity and it’s inherent simplicity, it’s uncomplicated nature. Perhaps what also holds our fascination is the intuitive glimpse it provides, a deep recognition of what we are losing in our own time: a *long hand* way of living as opposed to our twitterized, shorthand cyberworld; supersized, and with instant everything. At a root level perhaps there’s a little bit of Amish in all of us; a yearning for a simpler, closer knit community of people we actually know rather than a thousand and one aquaintances we only think we know. How can we relate to that which we don’t understand?

In my opinion, the technology of any era defines the sociology of the day. The two go hand in hand – contemporaries – and reflect eachother. But even so, technology doesn’t change the psychology of people. We are what we are because of our humanness. I think this is well illustrated by the personal epistles of the ancient Romans. The letters show how little difference there is between peoples, no matter what time in history we belong to. Their virtues and vices, noble endeavours and petty jealousies are our own. And regrettably some of their more dignified qualities are less and less our own. By and large though it is the customs and culture of the ancient worlds that differentiate us.

While reading these ancient Roman letters I was immediately struck by their salutations and closes. With a few exceptions the salutations were formal, lengthy affairs while the closes ended with just one word, “Farewell.” Today we’d probably begin a letter with…”Dear Agnus, how are you?” Compare this with an opening from the 5th century Egyptian Claudius Terentianus, a soldier in the Roman legion:

 “Claudius Terentianus to Claudius Tiberianusl, his lord and dearest father, very many greetings. Before all else, I pray that you be strong and cheerful and well, together with our entire family, and I am pleased whenever I have news from you.”

With time to pause and think in a less complex world there is a deliberate consideration in their words that have a distinct charm all their own…and yet that practical Roman soul still show’s itself with that one stoical word at the end: “Farewell.” Roman heads are always held high in their letters.

The following is a letter from Tabetheus to her brother Claudius Tiberianus, in which our 21st century angst can be seen in hers even though the letter was written around 1,600 years ago. Different civilizations but same concerns.

“Tabetheus to Claudius Tiberianus, her brother, very many greetings. Before all else I pray for your health and I make obeisance for you in the presence of the lord Souchos. I was happy that you sent my son in order that I might greet him. But you have not . . . . For Saturnilus has not found out what I did for him. I bought three minai of linen and I sent them. Do not blame me if you did not deliver them to Metellus the soldier. I want you to write concerning a friend; deliver them to him immediately. I was much annoyed. I was able to send you the robe this year; I did not send it last year(?), but I sent and sold them to Kabin the attendant. When I went down from our home at Tonis and came to Saturnilus’s lodging and saw our things – may the evil eye not touch them, I did not approve that he, my son, should trust Menas. And after he had killed him, he told me not to be distressed; I told Saturnilus that I was sleepless from worry. Since you caused me damage to the extent of twelve hundred drachmai, let them go to my son’s ransom. And I went down to Alexandria with my son. For this reason a madness took hold of him, because he did not approve that he [i.e. Menas] and his family should consume the rations. If god wills and you receive the rations that I put up for you, do not you also . . . them. Concerning last year’s rations, I did not prepare them; . . . prepared them last year. I sent them from Alexandria as late as the second shipment upstream. And he became ill. I was tortured with the grief that he caused me, but I was utterly happy that he remained alive. I have insistently urged him, “Take a taste of Alexandria,” and he says to me, “I don’t want to.” I thank the gods that he is like you; no one can mock him. Salute all your people, each by name. How much damage have I incurred this past year on account of Saturnilus! Neither was he(?) liable for it nor was I, but I have incurred damage on every side. Farewell.”

We flatter ourselves about the advance of our species but it’s really our technology that progresses. People remain people throughout the timeline of history, regardless of the state of their civilizations. The only true differences between now and then are values and the speed of life. Here are a couple of casual letters fired off by Pliny the Younger in the 1st century AD of a still pagan Rome.

” TO CANINIUS RUFUS.
How is Comum looking, your darling spot and mine? And that most charming villa of yours, what of it, and its portico where it is always spring, its shady clumps of plane trees, its fresh crystal canal, and the lake below that gives such a charming view? How is the exercise ground, so soft yet firm to the foot; how goes the bath that gets the sun’s rays so plentifully as he journeys round it? What too of the big banqueting halls and the little rooms just for a few, and the retiring rooms for night and day? Have they full possession of you, and do they share your company in turn? or are you, as usual, continually being called away to attend to private family business? You are indeed a lucky man if you can spend all your leisure there; if you cannot, your case is that of most of us. But really it is time that you passed on your unimportant and petty duties for others to look after, and buried yourself among your books in that secluded yet beautiful retreat. Make this at once the business and the leisure of your life, your occupation and your rest; let your waking hours be spent among your books, and your hours of sleep as well. Mould something, hammer out something that shall be known as yours for all time. Your other property will find a succession of heirs when you are gone; what I speak of will continue yours for ever — if once it begins to be. I know the capacity and inventive wit that I am spurring on. You have only to think of yourself as the able man others will think you when you have realised your ability. Farewell.”

And the other side of Pliny:

” To Septicius Clarus.
What a fellow you are! You promise to come to dinner and then fail to turn up! Well, here is my magisterial sentence upon you. You must pay the money I am out of pocket to the last farthing, and you will find the sum no small one. I had provided for each guest one lettuce, three snails, two eggs, spelt mixed with honey and snow (you will please reckon up the cost of the latter as among the costly of all, since it melts away in the dish), olives from Baetica, cucumbers, onions, and a thousand other equally expensive dainties. You would have listened to a comedian, or a reciter, or a harp-player, or perhaps to all, as I am such a lavish host. But you preferred to dine elsewhere, — where I know not — off oysters, sow’s matrices, sea-urchins, and to watch Spanish dancing girls! You will be paid out for it, though how I decline to say. You have done violence to yourself. You have grudged, possibly yourself, but certainly me, a fine treat. Yes, yourself! For how we should have enjoyed ourselves, how we should have laughed together, how we should have applied ourselves! You can dine at many houses in better style than at mine, but nowhere will you have a better time, or such a simple and free and easy entertainment. In short, give me a trial, and if afterwards you do not prefer to excuse yourself to others rather than to me, why then I give you leave to decline my invitations always. Farewell.”

I’ll end the letters with this simple note from Aline to her husband (she calls him “brother”) who has gone off to fight in a Roman civil war:

“Aline to Apollonios her brother greetings. I am terribly anxious about you because of what they say about what is happening, and because of your sudden departure. I take no pleasure in food or drink, but stay awake continually night and day with worry, your safety. Only my father’s care revives me, and I hope to see you safe, I would have lain without food New Year’s Day, had my father not come and forced me to eat. I beg you to keep yourself safe, and not go into danger without a guard. Do the same as the strategos here, who puts the burden on his officers…”

The rest of the letter is fragmentary. No doubt it would have ended with one word. Farewell.

Empathy is the best word to describe what I feel; a recognition of myself in the letters. The times and social customs, though of great interest, are secondary to an affinity with these people who lived thousands of years before us. The papyrus that transports their world through time to us is also a bridge. And their words flag to us what must not be forsaken – the importance of truly touching one another – even as it is ironically being lost as our global village shrinks too fast for us. In the rush for global unity and oneness, perhaps true community is the thing that will suffer most.

Some useful links: 

http://tinyurl.com/m6lfts Women’s Letters From Ancient Egypt 300BC-800AD

http://tinyurl.com/nc4dod Roman Letters- History From A Personal Viewpoint

http://tinyurl.com/m8qcd8 Letters of Pliny the Younger

http://tinyurl.com/nsvnhv Claudius Tiberianus

http://tinyurl.com/m6sz3c Letters by Pliny (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus)

http://www.vroma.org/ The VRoma Project

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September 21, 2009 · 12:18 am