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“Truth Goes Marching”

Mary Todd Lincoln

Historian Janus Adams reflects on two Civil War exhibits in New York, featuring John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. In a footnote she finds her key to women’s truth, hiding in the margins of history and giving us insight into the issues of today.

In exhibits at the New York Historical Society, two men are eerily and deftly paired: John Brown, the abolitionist credited with firing the opening shot of the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln, the president who waged and won it. These in 2009: bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, sesquicentennial of John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry, inaugural year of our first African American president.

As uncanny as the intersections of history, taken together, these exhibits are notable for the surprising light they cast on their true subject: the state of New York—indeed, the state of the Union with its financial interests in preserving slavery and the longterm impact of that duplicitous history.

Winding a path from “Lincoln and New York” to “John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legacy” leads the visitor from arguments over slavery to the bigger human rights picture framing issues to this day.

One small fragment brings a largely missing piece of the puzzle into focus: the role of women.

In big bold block type: JOHN BROWN STILL LIVES.

In small type at the bottom of the notice: All are invited, not excepting Ladies; that word “not,” bold and italicized.

It’s a telling footnote. The Civil War marked a turning point in U.S. history—a war that sowed seeds of change across race, caste, class, and gender.

Before the war, the rights of man (i.e. white men of privilege and property) roamed free as far as they didn’t impinge upon other white men of privilege and property. Indeed, the all-American penchant for “law and order” deprived infinitely more people than it enfranchised in a word “citizen,” a protection denied people of color and white women.

“And do remember the Ladies,” Abigail Adams wrote in 1776, chiding her husband John, Founding Father and future president off to “Phyladelphia” for revolution. “I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs.”

Her unheeded call—the first known to link the shared plight of women and blacks—would come back to fuel the unfinished revolution, the Civil War. Carrying the torch, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton launched the women’s movement in 1848 with the first Women’s Rights Convention. They’d met at the 1840 World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London where their mistreatment—silenced and segregated behind a curtain at the hands of their own men and fellow abolitionists—would change that movement and stir conscience to the greater cause.

For no matter what men say in public, preening for the brotherhood, it is what they hear in private that informs their passions.

What Lincoln heard in private was the voice of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, his closest and most loyal political partner and advisor. Born in Kentucky, a slave state, her pro-union, pro-Lincoln stand alienated her from a family—divided as the nation—that took casualties on both sides. But who was Mary Todd’s most loyal partner and advisor?

Elizabeth Keckley: her dressmaker, friend, and confidante. An ex-slave beaten and sexually molested by her owners, she well knew the perilous intersection of race, gender, and power. Founding the Contraband Relief Association to aid escaped slaves during the war, she engaged Mrs. Lincoln in the plight of the refugees and counted the First Family among her donors.

John Brown, supported by his wife and daughters, was moved by the voices of the enslaved. But why would others risk their lives in his ill-fated attack on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry?

In answer, a letter found after the siege on the body of Dangerfield Newby read: “Dear Husband. I want you to buy me, for if you do not get me some body else will.” Harriet Newby’s owner had agreed to sell her and her seven children to her husband, Dangerfield. He was betrayed and the price upped. When her letter was made public, Harriet was sold downriver never to be heard from again.

Before the war, African Americans, as decreed by the Supreme Court, were “so far inferior that they have no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” Native Americans were to be slaughtered in the ongoing land-grab to the point of genocide. Women were oppressed in a campaign code-named “chivalry.”

After the Civil War, after Brown and Lincoln, things changed. Human rights, rights of, by, and for every person—an opportunity squandered by the Founders and denied by the Constitution—took its rightful place front and center.

Post-war “freedom amendments” granted black male citizenship and suffrage—rights denied Native Americans until 1924 and abridged until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Women won suffrage in 1920, but the Equal Rights Amendment has yet to be enacted—a fact that reflects a status quo that still denies women ownership of our own persons and exposes us to political expediency. Witness the national health care debate with attacks by the “Stupak amendment” making abortion a wedge issue and a Catholic Church unable to protect its children that yet excludes women from leadership.

Despite the “divide and conquer” battles of racism, sexism, and nationalism, the ongoing linked movement for human rights has improved the lives of every American.

“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,” the song is sung. “But his truth goes marching on.” So too our truths, as women—uncannily yet deftly positioned in the cosmic order of things—pulled from sidebars and bottom lines, bearing witness, telling the tale.

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” said Dr. King—a charge worth noting in 2009; what would have been his 80th birthday, one more remembrance in this anniversary year of milestones and trajectories.

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