Tag: 19th century

Masculinity, Southern Gentlemen, and the Strange Story of Alabama’s First U.S. Senator, William Rufus DeVane King

OR John Kerry Should’ve Grown A Beard: The North-South Manliness Inversion

A Post That Cites Its Sources…with Footnotes!

As I mentioned in the preceding post, the Nick’s Crusade blog is a history blog too. I think delving into history can be very valuable, not just because the strange doglegs and twists in the American story—history NEVER progresses in a straight line—are infinitely interesting, but because we become better thinkers and citizens the more we understand our prologue, the previous generations, the prior struggles, and what we’ve gained and lost since.

One thing we’ve lost—though we have gained from its absence in many ways—is the whole concept of the elite 19th century Southern Gentleman, the image of Southern aristocrats with smooth, un-calloused hands and clean-shaven plump faces, and the brutal slave-driving that made such lifestyles possible.  A lot of insight into that old image can be gleaned from the strange story of William Rufus deVane King of Alabama (my home state).

Art by Nick Dupree: Unlucky 13th Vice president, William Rufus deVane King, served only 45 days before dying of tuberculosis.  Only a few of the 45 days, his last days, were on American soil, as he returned from Cuba via Mobile, then died on his plantation near Selma. He is the only vice president from Alabama ever elected.
Art by Nick Dupree: Unlucky 13th Vice president, William Rufus deVane King, served only 45 days before dying of tuberculosis. Only a few of the 45 days, his last days, were on American soil, as he returned from Cuba via Mobile, then died on his plantation near Selma. He is the only vice president from Alabama ever elected.

William R. D. King—more typically referred to as just “William R. King”—was the first U.S. Senator from Alabama (alongside John Williams Walker, who was also sent to Washington—the state legislature electing two U.S. Senators per constitutional requirements—after Alabama was admitted to the Union in December 1819).  King also played a major role getting Alabama statehood done, and helped write the constitution of Alabama.  He named the city of Selma “Selma” meaning “high seat” or “throne” in the 18th century Ossianic poem The Songs of Selma, was president pro tem of the United States Senate, got into a Hamilton-Burr-style duel with Henry Clay,¹ and served as U.S. Minister to France and had other diplomatic posts in Naples and St. Petersburg.  As president pro tem of the Senate, he was behind the writing and passage of the Compromise of 1850 and more.  What’s odd is, he did all this while being…while being known by the public as super effeminate and flamboyant, and was re-elected again and again by the hardcore states’ righters in Montgomery (prior to the ratification of the 17th amendment in 1913, state legislatures elected U.S. Senators to represent their state).

I won’t say William R. D. King was gay, though it is very striking that, in a culture that almost never mentioned such things, contemporaries like Andrew Jackson publicly called him by derogatory names like “Miss Nancy,” and

Buchanan, 15th President of the United States (1857-1861) was also Minister to the UK (Court of St. James).
Buchanan, 15th President of the United States (1857-1861) was also Minister to the UK (Court of St. James).

powerful Tennessee Dem Aaron Brown (later appointed postmaster general under Buchanan) referred to him as “she” and “Aunt Fancy” and [Buchanan’s] “better half.”²  The Senators King and Buchanan were reported walking arm in arm around Washington, though that was common for men even in James Garfield‘s time 30 years later.  The rumors of King wearing 18th century powdered wigs and stockings long after they’d been abandoned in the 19th century are false,³ but there was definitely a lot of scandalous gossip in D.C. about his clothes and mannerisms.  And it’s well established that King did have a very intimate relationship with future-president James Buchanan, and something must have been unusual enough to’ve drawn derision. Nelson from the Simpsons, famously pointing out someone deserving derision Buchanan was sometimes ridiculed as “Mr. Fancy Pants” or “Granny Buck.”

Still, the serious historian demands a high standard of proof: the text document equivalent of “pics or it didn’t happen.” Though there is more material suggesting King was seen as gay than almost anyone else in the 19th century, it’d be unwise to say King was a homosexual with certainty.  I agree with the James Buchanan entry in glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture that:

In his The Invention of Heterosexuality Jonathan Ned Katz cautions against the application of contemporary terms regarding sexuality to other times and societies in which “[w]ays of ordering the sexes, genders, and sexualities have varied radically.” He further points out that in the “pre-Freudian world [of early-nineteenth-century America], love did not imply eros”–although neither, of course, was an erotic component excluded.⁴

As King’s effeminate manner is evident beyond a shadow of a doubt, I’ll ask a broader—and, I think, more interesting—question, on gender presentation widely-speaking: how is it that such an effeminate public figure got elected by the legislators in rough-and-tumble frontier Alabama?
The answer is, there was nothing odd about William R. D. King amidst the Southern slaver planter aristocracy of his generation. It only seems strange to us, seeing through the lens of the latter half of the 20th century and its mega-strict gender roles.  In the antebellum South, the elite planter could be flamboyant, his body unmarked by any of the wear and tear associated with daily labor, his beardless, cherubic visage and opulent clothing a sign of plantation riches, heralding social status as much as signaling the success—and therefore rightness—of the Old South.  That kind of presentation harkens back to the aristocratic plantation lifestyles of the 17th and 18th century colonies, when it was, if anything, MORE pronounced. The kind of luxurious appearance and elite manner King exemplified was not uncommon among antebellum aristocrats in cotton country, in fact, flaunting your aristocratic bona fides was cool.

The anti-slavery left, the free soil partisans of the north who were organizing into what would soon be called the Republican Party, had picked up on this. By the time Millard Fillmore—a northerner with pro-slavery sympathies—moved into the White House following President Taylor dying of dysentery in 1850, they had a name for his sort: doughfaces, an obvious allusion to the idle, beardless planter aristocracy.
The best explanation of masculinities of the 19th century and the politics of facial hair I’ve found, is in Adam Goodheart’s amazing book 1861:

It was no accident that Northerners who sympathized with slaveholders were called “doughfaces”: in the American context, beards connoted a certain frank and uncompromising authenticity. Nor was it a coincidence that “Honest Abe” began cultivating his famous beard as he prepared to take over the presidency from “Granny Buck.”⁵

Northern free-soilers began presenting themselves as everything opposed to those they framed as the effete, decadent planter class, or as they referred to them, “the slave party.” They cultivated an image marketed as everything opposite the idle, soft-handed, soft-faced rich Southern aristocrats, they were the candidates of rough-hewn common working men with beards! They [the first decades of Republican Party free soil candidates] were one of the Real ‘Merickens who crawled out of mama and into a log cabin, grew up ridin’ a blue ox and drinking hard cider, and as a man split rails with an axe in one hand while reading law with the other. In the case of Abraham Lincoln, this backstory was kind of true, and his 1860 presidential campaign leveraged that to. the. MAX. The Republican National Convention in Chicago that (unexpectedly) nominated Lincoln for president in 1860 was held in a massive, makeshift wooden “wigwam”—Chicago’s fire marshall didn’t get any sleep that week—and the crowd badgered Honest Abe to tell the convention his “clearing the land with an axe” story…again. The Fall campaign was almost singularly about the image of Lincoln “the rail-splitter,” and was used non-stop; I’m sure some folks didn’t even know his name, just knew “rail-splitter.” To focus on the frontiersmen ethos and related manliness, and all the subtle messages within that, while not mentioning free soil doctrine, abolition, or any of the issues currently boiling over was a brilliant stroke of campaigning genius, and stands out in political history.

Adam Goodheart’s 1861: The Civil War Awakening is the best, most quick-to-understand work of social history I’ve read to date, delving into what Americans lives were really like on the eve of the Civil War. It goes into the BIZARRE social arrangements of 1861 Washington, DC, where free blacks owned slaves, and in Goodheart’s descriptions, those slaves were better off than much of DC’s free black population, who were largely stuck below-subsistence-level in squalid shantytowns, and with no “owner” to vouch for them, they were “undocumented” in a way—my term—and had no real rights to move around in public spaces and were subjected to frequent stops and harassment by police. 1861 has a whole chapter on young James Garfield’s doings at the time, and the way passions were channeled into male friendships in his social circle since expressing emotions was quite circumscribed where women were concerned. I’d like to explore that more in another post.

What I discovered by looking back at William R. King vs. early Republican campaigns—and it’s exciting when you figure something out for the first time—is that the North and South have not only undergone a political transformation, there’s been a cultural inversion alongside it. First, the obvious political inversion. Look at the electoral map following Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential run. The liberal “free soil” north is ruby red, Republican. The South, pro-slavery, is the Democratic Party “solid south,” and with the exception of the fracturing of the Democrats behind several Southern candidates in 1860, then a period of Republican military rule and Republican-elections, “Reconstruction,” the solid Democratic south stays together a remarkably long time, from Andrew Jackson to like… John Kennedy’s run in 1960… Kennedy loses significant votes to Nixon in the Deep South, then in 1972 ALL Southern states peel off—a huge change from the results of the ’68 presidential election just four years before, when the solid south voted for the Dem, Humphrey, and the former-Dem-then-Dem-again, George Wallace—and REALLY break in Nixon’s favor, what with his infamous “southern strategy” and a Dem challenger perceived as wimpy. ’72 clinched the end of realignment, sealed the deal. Ever since, the South has been Republican red, with Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond and ex-Wallace supporters defecting to the GOP in droves and Lincoln’s states up north increasingly leaning Democratic; it’s a total inversion!

What I’ve realized is, it’s also a North-South inversion of the culture of masculinity. In short, northerners are framed as effete, wimpy, decadent, out-of-touch elites today, similar to the way northerners caricatured southerners in the first decades of Whig and Republican campaigns (1840-1870ish). Now, it’s southerners that seem to treasure uber-rigid common man masculinity, and William Rufus deVane King couldn’t get elected dog catcher in today’s Alabama; despite his great wealth, I doubt he could find a place in Alabama public life due to his…different gender presentation. Southerners of today expect a working man to run for office, someone manly and “like us,” the opposite of William R. King. Thomas Frank explored today’s Republican “backlash” against “elites” in his book What’s The Matter With Kansas. This “backlash” is far more determinative than people realize, and deserves much more examination.

John Kerry got the brunt of this backlash in the 2004 campaign, with Karl Rove using the words “effete, elite Massachusetts liberal!” every day. Kerry got Buchanan’ed! Today’s Republicans are as aware of Americans’ deep-seated resentment of “the idle rich” as their northern founders were!
John Kennedy did a modern version of the “Hard Cider Campaign” in 1960; you could call it the “high-ball glass and scotch campaign.” It worked. The “effete, elite Massachusetts liberal!” line was certainly attempted against Kennedy, but for the most part it failed to stick, and he won a majority of working class voters and held the bulk of the South. Kerry failed…failed BADLY to counter the “effete, wimpy, decadent, out-of-touch” frame employed against him. Maybe John Kerry should’ve tried some form of the Kennedy strategy. Maybe he should have gone full Abe, grown a beard and had the press film him chopping firewood.

What he tried instead, photos and videos of him “huntin” backfired terribly, making him look even more phony and out of touch.

Cartoon by Nick: 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, huntin...he says "I too enjoy leisure time practicing as a huntist!"
Cartoon by Nick: 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, huntin…he says “I too enjoy leisure time practicing as a huntist!”

Unfortunately, image matters and always has mattered in American politics. Today, it matters disproportionately, and 21st century Democratic candidates like John Kerry have been awful at it. He was completely unable to fight back against the opponent’s framing him as an elite, decadent aristocrat, just as King and Buchanan and other antebellum southern gentlemen were caricatured.

Southern politics and southern masculinity has shifted dramatically, and I wonder if we haven’t lost something important. I wonder if becoming much more rigid in gender expectations isn’t narrowing what’s possible in political life, excluding not just potential 21st century William Rufus Kings, but ANYONE who doesn’t look like a square, iron-jawed working man. We’ve narrowed potential in public life, and I think that’s always bad.



1. Clay “believed the Globe to be an infamous paper, and its chief editor an infamous man.” King responded that Blair’s character would “compare gloriously” to that of Clay. The Kentucky senator jumped to his feet and shouted, “That is false, it is a slanderous base and cowardly declaration and the senator knows it to be so.” King answered ominously, “Mr. President, I have no reply to make—none whatever. But Mr. Clay deserves a response.” King then wrote out a challenge to a duel and had another senator deliver it to Clay, who belatedly realized what trouble his hasty words had unleashed. As Clay and King selected seconds and prepared for the imminent encounter, the Senate sergeant at arms arrested both men and turned them over to a civil authority. Clay posted a five-thousand-dollar bond as assurance that he would keep the peace, “and particularly towards William R. King.” Each wanted the matter behind him, but King insisted on “an unequivocal apology.” On March 14, 1841, Clay apologized…
Senate Historical Office. “William Rufus King, 13th Vice President (1853).” Senate.gov. (accessed May 6, 2013).
2. p. 189: Hernandez, David. Broken Face in the Mirror: Crooks and Fallen Stars That Look Very Much Like Us. Dorrance Publishing, 2010. http://books.google.com/books?id=OJ-0nNPAisgC&pg=PA189 (accessed May 6, 2013).
3. “Vice President King is sometimes confused with [signer of the Constitution in 1787 and Federalist presidential candidate] Senator Rufus King of New York. This confusion with the first King explains the rumors that persist to this day of the latter King’s wearing of ribbons, scarves and powdered wigs long after they were in fashion. Vice President King always wore the contemporary styles of the early-to-mid-1800s and he never wore a wig.” pp 13-14: Stern, Milton. Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady. 2005. http://books.google.com/books?id=5B9ngDFT2vgC&pg=PA14 (accessed May 7, 2013).
4. Rapp, Linda. glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Chicago, IL: glbtq, Inc., 2004. http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/buchanan_j,2.html (accessed May 6, 2013).
5. p. 113: Goodheart, Adam. 1861: The Civil War Awakening. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2011. http://books.google.com/books?id=bCPbnsUPhB0C&pg=PA113

Plug Uglies: top hat-toughs

Here’s a fascinating topic you won’t find elsewhere: the Plug Uglies.

The Plug Uglies were a gang of nativist thugs that ran Baltimore for nearly seven years uninterrupted in the 1850s. The American Party sprung from the grassroots in reaction to the flood of immigration in the mid-1800s, which meant you had a substantial population of “native” English-speaking Protestant young men unemployed or barely employed because of stiff competition from low-wage immigrant laborers who had more grasp of Gaelic or German than English. Jacksonian Democrats ended up spawning Democratic Party machines—New York’s Tammany Hall led by Boss Tweed for example—on the ward and city levels that provided jobs and patronage to the successive waves of immigrants in exchange for votes, often leaving existing populations feeling unrepresented.  As large populations of young males felt economically and politically displaced, especially when the main alternative to the Democratic Party, the Whig Party, went the way of the dodo bird, they began to organize a new political movement to express their frustrations (a major political realignment).  A lot of strands of issues were in play here that extend into the present.
Local gangs of angry young men formed to support their new party and confront existing parties’ power, with polls and punches.  The most vile anti-Catholic conspiracy theories imaginable spread like wildfire through these gangs, who came to believe that Irish Catholics and other “papists” were loyal to the Pope over the Republic.  “America for Americans” was their motto, and they figured only Protestants could be true, loyal citizens.  The American Party was also known as the Know Nothing Party (because of their vulnerable position as a fledgling third party and their penchant for murder and other crimes, they tended to only answer police inquiries with “I know nothing”).  Once in the Spring Hill College library I found note of Know Nothing violence: not long after the college’s 1848 switch to Jesuit administration, French Jesuits newly arrived to teach at Spring Hill were shot and killed; two priests cornered alone in the local wetlands killed by Know Nothings in as many years.

But develop the party did, growing up from the grassroots to become a major factor in politics, winning the mayor’s office in New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, among many others.  In 1854, Know-Nothing candidates even won control of the Massachusetts legislature.¹  The local grassroots backing for political parties in the mid-19th century has no equivalent today, especially when it comes to the American Party, which was a mass movement more organized than any grassroots thing today; Baltimore was divided into 20 wards, each with its own ward boss and political clubs (like the Plug Uglies, Rip Raps, Rough Skins, Regulators, Wampanoags, Calithumpians, Tigers, Butt Enders, Bloody Tubs, etc. supporting the Know Nothings, and also clubs for the opposing Democratic Party).  The clubs often started as offshoots of volunteer fire departments, though this was a joke; the “volunteer fire companies” created more fires than they extinguished. Maryland Know Nothings had councils at the ward, city and state levels to coordinate handing out patronage jobs, organize events and campaigns, and groom and endorse candidates, a massive and complex organization doing incredible feats of coordination.  36% of Baltimore government jobs during American Party control were distributed to Know Nothing gang members as patronage appointments, though 89% of the jobs given to such “rowdies” were low-wage working class jobs, especially as ward policeman and the like.² 
When Know Nothing thugs won an especially gory street battle against “upper class” voting rights reformers in New Orleans, the telegraph conveyed the news to Know Nothing clubs up and down the U.S., and Plug Uglies in Baltimore set off fireworks in celebration of the “triumph.” Affiliated gangs from Cincinnati and Philadelphia visited Baltimore several times throughout the 1850s to clink mugs and celebrate election “wins” in the center of American Party power. This was the most organized mayhem and thuggery EVER!

In New York City, the leading nativist “club” (gang) were the Bowery Boys, aligned with William “Bill the Butcher” Poole.  He was depicted in the book Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Asbury—informal, indeed, it’s quite heavily fictionalized, with much of the material acquired from interviews with aging gang braggarts in prison and some of it pure urban legend—and Daniel Day Lewis famously immortalized Bill in the Scorsese epic Gangs of New York (so loosely based

Daniel Day Lewis as "Bill the Butcher"
Daniel Day Lewis immortalized “Bill the Butcher” on the silver screen

on Asbury’s book that it is set eight years after the real William Poole’s death, and unlike Casablanca or The Godfather which won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay Adapted from Another Work, Gangs was honored with a Best Original Screenplay Oscar).  In the movie, Bill ran a small but formidable criminal fiefdom in the Five Points neighborhood, using the stovepipe hat-wearing Bowery Boys as muscle. In real life, William Poole was a member of the Bowery Boys but not a kingpin or neighborhood boss. He was involved in the Bowery Boys’ volunteer fire dept. that did more sabotaging and disrespecting rival gangs’ fire engines than actual firefighting. Bill campaigned for nativist candidates and his butcher shop—his nickname was literal, he cut and distributed meats to people who wanted to buy meats—became Know Nothing HQ. Among his contemporaries, he was most known for being really amazing at 19th century-style fists-3ft-out bare-knuckle boxing. Bill the Butcher was one of NYC’s most colorful characters, no doubt, but while the Bowery Boys shared the same habits, stovepipe hats, anti-immigrant sentiments and methods, their influence never even neared that of the Plug Uglies.

The Plug Uglies grew and grew to be the most powerful and feared club of nativist thugs in history, the term “plug ugly” itself becoming genericized to mean any such stovepipe hat-wearing street tough.   While the Bowery Boys cornered the market on crime in one neighborhood, the Plug Uglies ran an entire city, sometimes even nearing power in all of Maryland. Controlling the streets and only allowing wards to vote for American Party (know nothing) candidates was their path to power. One way they steered elections was especially extraordinary: they would “coop” any vulnerable immigrants, homeless people and men weaker than them in basements or shacks, 40-90 men to a shack, then herd them to vote over and over again in different wards wearing different clothes.  Edgar Allan Poe was slipped a mickey and “cooped” by Plug Uglies right before his death, and was seen at different polling places in unfamiliar clothes. Poe experts still speculate about the poet’s death. For her part, Poe’s cousin’s daughter and important Poe scholar Elisabeth Ellicott Poe, placed blame squarely on the Plug Uglies’ shoulders, writing a piece marking the centennial of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth and recounting his history, that “On the night of October 4, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe arrived in Baltimore from Richmond. He was going North to be married, and was last seen to alight from the Richmond train in Baltimore and go into a near-by saloon. What happened after that, in brief, was this: His drink was drugged under

Joke image: Lyrics from Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" "I'm just a Poe boy, from a Poe family," juxtaposed with an image of Edgar Allan Poe
“I’m just a Poe boy, from a Poe family.”

direction of a gang of plug-uglies and he was voted about the city next day in the elections as a repeater while still drugged. The plug-uglies were members of a secret political organization, and their lips were sealed. But a certain Passano of that society, in after years said that Edgar Poe was kept in his coop that night. After the plug-uglies had finished with the unfortunate man he was thrown carelessly into the street, left to die if he willed. …he never recovered sufficiently to give the details of his dreadful plight.”³

Back then, you brought your own ballot with you to the polls, and they were typically brightly colored and easily identified—the American Party’s ballot was emblazoned with red stripes—hardly secret balloting.  Plug Uglies would famously discourage any voter who showed up with a ballot in hand of another color, not the red-striped ballot, by shoving a shoemaker’s awl into them, sometimes kneeing unsuspecting victims with awls strapped to their knees, or throwing them out of the nearest window.  An allied nativist gang, the Blood Tubs, discouraged immigrants from voting by dunking them in tubs full of pig blood; seeing a guy or two returning to your neighborhood covered in gore really had a chilling effect. Controlling the voting was how Know Nothing gangs controlled city officials and thus Baltimore, lock, stock and barrel.

The shoemaker’s awl, a short (and easily-concealed) spike intended for poking holes in shoe-leather became the Plug Uglies’ symbol, both indicating their status as sons of the working class and for humorous effect.  Shortly before the presidential election in 1860, in one of their largest (and last) mass demonstrations, the Plug Uglies hired a blacksmith to pound out awls with his hammer and anvil in public, forging them en masse during the rally and handing them out to supporters.  They would march in massive torchlight processions, “grand illuminations,”

An awl
This is what a shoemaker’s awl looks like
carrying awls and awl signs and banners, one hugely inscribed with the words “with this [picture of awl] we will do the work,” more often an enormous banner depicting an awl and nothing else.  They would shout “the Third Ward is Awl right!” and “come and vote, there’s room for AWL!” while marching to polling places.

A large part of what makes the Plug Uglies interesting is their uniquely American sense of humor, common-man camaraderie, and that hard-to-capture spirit of Loki, chief of tricksters, pranks, disobedience, mayhem, chaos and the like, in Norse mythology.

This was a gang without parallel. The Plug Uglies had their own city, their own judges (who sometimes heard cases while inebriated), their own American Party mayor (Mayor Swann) and governor (Thomas Holliday Hicks), and they even had their own club song.  At the height of their influence, the Plug Uglies even had a Know Nothing presidential candidate, ex-president Millard Fillmore, and managed to sway Maryland’s votes in his favor in the 1856 presidential election, making Maryland the only state in the union he won.

Poor Millard Fillmore was the unlucky 13th President of the United States, only becoming commander-in-chief by accident when newly-elected president Zachary Taylor died of dysentery-like symptoms. President Taylor became ill after seeking solace from the oppressive heat of Washington, DC following his first

"You Have Died of Dysentery."
As the famed death screen from the Apple II game Oregon Trail said, “You Have Died of Dysentery.”

Fourth of July celebration as president (which included the groundbreaking ceremony for the Washington Monument) and downing cold milk and cherries to cool off. The milk was evidently even more disturbed by the heat than Taylor, as the new president quickly developed gastrointestinal distress. The not-so-knowledgeable doctors of the time sought to treat poor Taylor’s “bilious diarrhea” with calomel (mercury chloride, which causes mercury poisoning and vomiting) and ipecac, an emetic—vomit inducer—of such explosive power that under the auspices of modern medicine, it has been banned for many years. These lethal prescriptions, given in mega doses of 40 grains each, finished off President Taylor; that he endured as many days as he did can only be attributed to what a strong, big bear of a man he was.

So, Taylor’s vice president, the unremarkable upstate New York functionary Millard Fillmore, whose military feats’ greatest extent was leading a militia to defend Buffalo, NY from Mexican invasion during the same war Taylor won improbable victories at Palo Alto and Monterrey, became president, to general confusion, disbelief and shouts of “Millard what the who?” The entire cabinet resigned, and bad blood was high. Taylor, though a slave-owning Virginian himself, in fact the last slave holding president ever—and the last southern man elected president until LBJ, had always taken the Andrew Jackson position on Southern radicals, that secession was off the table, and anyone inciting rebellion would be hung without hesitation and he would gladly lead the Army into South Carolina himself. Taylor, “Old Rough and Ready,” the old Mexican War hero and tough, manly military man, was given the Whig Party‘s presidential nomination after much political wrangling and deal-making, then Whigs consolidated support behind the general during the campaign, with speeches on his behalf in every state and favor and trust growing up around Taylor. Presidential campaigns don’t just promote one candidate to chief executive, they build a national coalition with enough support to actually govern, a coherent governing coalition coalesces behind a specific president. No such Whig consensus existed for Millard Fillmore, and that Taylor died—just as William Henry Harrison, the only other Whig president died, early in his term—meant the death knell for the Whig Party (more on the Whig Party in a future post). Fillmore was the last president aligned with the Whigs.

Unlike Taylor, Fillmore was an early “Doughface,” a northerner with southern-sympathies, called doughfaces for leaning toward beardless southern gentility amid bearded, northern manly men⁴ (for more on politics, perceived masculinity and facial hair, check out my essay on the North-South manliness inversion). Not only was Fillmore a doughface, southern-sympathizing before the term doughface was even popularized, he was a doughman; I’d unequivocally call him America’s doughiest-looking president. The Fillsmorey Doughboy. And he was quickly despised by all sides.

Millard Fillmore, 13th President of the United States
Official White House portrait of Millard Fillmore

I don’t quite understand why Fillmore is consistently ranked as one of history’s worst presidents by historians. Yeah he inherited a bunch of intractable problems, and he wasn’t as well-suited as Zachary Taylor to steer a ship of state on the brink of sinking due to sectional strife, but who was?? He supported the Compromise of 1850 and was instrumental in its passage, which few historians denounce as totally terrible. Fillmore was responsible for California (in its present configuration, not split) being admitted as a U.S. state and a free state, the Mormons getting a territory of their own, Utah Territory with Brigham Young appointed territorial governor, and he got the Texans—who were preparing for war—to calm down and give up their territorial claims on much of eastern New Mexico, though they got to keep El Paso. All these accomplishments in one compromise bill. The worst thing that can be said of the Compromise is it included the loathsome Fugitive Slave Act, which required the North to aid in the capture and return of escaped slaves. This riled up the North, and northern Whigs like Abraham Lincoln began to think of third party efforts. But the Compromise was nothing as inflammatory as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which compelled settlers to flood into Kansas and out-vote and out-kill each other over the slavery question, and caused the Democratic Party to split, the last vestiges of the Whig Party to disintegrate, and a third party—the Republican Party, founded in 1854—to rise from its ashes with much the same platform, except a hard-line against slavery.

I also don’t understand what possessed Fillmore to run for president again on the Know Nothing ticket. Just the fact that he’s seeking a non-consecutive second term as President (a really weird feat, accomplished only once in American politics, by Grover Cleveland) is baffling enough. That his running mate was Andrew Jackson‘s nephew Andrew Jackson Donelson is

Poster heralding the American Party presidential ticket
American Party 1856 presidential ticket, Fillmore/Donelson

even stranger. Andrew Jackson had nearly nothing in common with the Know Nothing movement; in fact, it was Jacksonian Democrats brawling in the streets against the Plug Uglies. I suppose Millard Fillmore became an American Party candidate out of opportunistic urges, and because so many Whigs—the ones that didn’t flock to the newly-mobilized Republican Party anyhow—were absorbed into the American Party. Know Nothings didn’t stump on the issue of slavery, maybe that was appealing to Fillmore, but they took a strong pro-Union position, disagreeing with radicals on both sides. This was especially true of Baltimore Know Nothings, who described themselves as “warm friends and advocates of the Union against the fire-eaters and free soilers.” Of course, many American Party men held to crazy conspiracy theories that secession was an evil plot by the Pope to destroy the U.S., so placing them on a political spectrum or finding their views in relation to other parties of the era might be too strenuous.⁵

This part of the Plug Ugly official club song shows their support for Fillmore:

We don’t like the Demmy’s, for Fillmore is our boast,
And here in old Maryland he is a perfect host,
Nor do we love the Argus, with all its boasted eyes,
For our motto is “ever on,” root hog or die,
For we are the native party…

But as we are all natives; and proudly we can brag,
As true sons of America, we’ll fight beneath its flag,
Nor from the field of honor, never will we fly,
But as good Plug Uglies we’ll root hog or die.
For we are the native party…⁶

Go to the link in the 6 footnote for a much more complete rendering of the lyrics.

By “Demmy’s” it’s clear they mean the Democrats. “Nor do we love the Argus” took some research; the Argus is a giant with a hundred eyes in Greek mythology, and newspapers tended to take its name as a symbol of the reporter (some still bear the name). Apparently, the Daily Argus was a leading Democratic-leaning newspaper in Baltimore that the Plug Uglies disdained. “Root hog, or die” is an American idiom expressing self-reliance and hard-scrabble reality; root out your own living because no one’s going to do it for you. The idiom found its way into numerous 19th century and early 20th century songs.

Even after the 1856 election, shouts of “Go Fillmore!” were common among Plug Uglies. Typically, polite society doughy types like Fillmore were horrified at the “rowdyism” of the Plug Uglies and affiliated gangs. The public drunkenness and open carrying of revolvers (usually combined) put off more respectable Know Nothings. One Harry Shriver, in the mercantile business in Baltimore, left the American Party, denouncing its “informal rascality.” “I want to be an American, but not a friend of rowdyism.” To such polite society types, the Plug Uglies would say, “come on up, there’s room for AWL! Heh Heh!”

But the Plug Uglies had serious blood on their hands; gore and death isn’t so funny.  When the Plug Uglies launched a major riot in Washington, DC in 1857, the Rip Raps, and Shifflers from Philadelphia in tow, there was panic in the White House. President James Buchanan called in the U.S. Marine Corps, who didn’t play around; they shot to kill the attackers. Unfortunately, more Washingtonians trying to vote were killed than the nativist thugs bringing mayhem across state lines. See Know Nothing Riot, Washington, DC

Their most violent battles were what the Plug Uglies called “battle royals” against Democratic party groups; some election day brawls left both sides with a half-dozen of their brothers earless, limbless or deceased.  The worst of the battle royals accompanied the 1856 municipal elections. Rioting spread city-wide, with simultaneous brawls in multiple wards. One climatic ward battle was of such a grand scale that it included old artillery piece sending cannonballs into enemy lines.  The stovepipe hats the gangsters wore were part of the battle gear, not formal wear used to accessorize on the way to the ball, kiddos! They stuffed their top hats with leather and wool scraps to cushion the skull against blows, and pulled down the hats over their ears in hopes of keeping both ears.

Photography not being widespread in the 1850s, nor typically pointed at street toughs, I wasn’t able to find a picture of one. Thus, I’ve taken up the task of cartooning a member of the Plug Uglies based on contemporary descriptions, complete with awl:

Street tough in a top hat, his jawls covered in stubble and holding a homemade cigar, holding a shoemaker's awl
I should have made his hat bigger and pulled down around his ears, sigh.

The end of the Plug Uglies was the end of Baltimoreans’ patience with all their brawling and election day brutality. The testimony of gang violence and polling place thuggery on the day of the 1859 municipal elections to the Maryland legislature was so game changing and important that it was transcribed and widely distributed; I even have a copy (it’s easily found here on the Google). The fire companies run by “volunteers” (thug clubs) were replaced by a professional, city-run fire department. The city’s management and functions like city policemen were removed from local control and taken over by a panel of reformers who rooted out corruption. Many Plug Uglies skipped town, notably to Richmond, Virginia, to avoid prosecution under the new regime.

Ultimately, American politics also had little room for a party that was relatively silent on the slavery question that was tearing the country apart. While fire-eaters on one side argued for secession and free-soilers ranted against the “machinations of the Slave Power on the opposing side, the American Party’s leading voice in the U.S. Congress, Rep. Henry Winter Davis, often at the head of the table at even the most raucous Plug Ugly celebrations in Baltimore, instructed party men that the only answer to the slavery question was “to be silent.” That just didn’t fit the bill, and like the Whigs before them, the American Party shattered and was lost in the smoke of the Civil War and forgotten.

Of course, the Plug Uglies and affiliated gangs didn’t vanish overnight. Allan Pinkerton himself warned Abe Lincoln of a plot by Blood Tubs to kill the president-elect in Baltimore; for this, the Tubbers even merited mention in Shelby Foote‘s immortal series “The Civil War: A Narrative.” Some blamed the Plug Uglies for the deadly Pratt Street Riots of April 19th, 1861, when a secessionist mob attacked Union soldiers passing through Baltimore to get to Washington, DC, because whenever there’s blood in the streets of Baltimore, the Plug Uglies naturally come to mind.

A telegram unearthed by Harry Ezratty in his 2010 book Baltimore in the Civil War: The Pratt Street Riot and a City Occupied from the man in charge of Baltimore police, Marshall George Kane, shows Kane, not Plug Uglies more to blame: “Streets red with Maryland blood; send expresses over the mountains of Maryland and Virginia for the riflemen to come without delay. Fresh hordes will come down on us tomorrow. We will fight them and whip them or die.”⁷ Still, anti-secessionist Plug Uglies were deemed responsible in the popular imagination. In New York, the 6th New York Regiment sailed from Staten Island for immediate deployment, “death to the Plug Uglies” their slogan.⁸

Across North America, from New Orleans to New York, from Maryland to Manitoba, “Plug Uglies” became a synonym for 19th century thuggery and Baltimore got the worst reputation of any major U.S. port city. The gangs of The Wire weren’t the first to rule the roost in Baltimore. The Plug Uglies, Rip Raps, Blood Tubbers, etc. and their predecessors stretching back to the War of 1812 and beyond gave B’more its fearsome “Mobtown” reputation.

Guerrilla violence against immigrants, ward battles and mayhem, tubs of gore, public intoxication, forced intoxication then cooping, repeat voters, riots, awls aimed at buttocks with different politics, doughfaces and dysentery…you won’t find this in AP History! Hope you found it interesting.




1. “American Party”, Ohio History Central, July 1, 2005, http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=838
2. Towers, F. (2004). The urban south and the coming of the civil war. (p. 134). Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press. Retrieved from Google Books Preview, p. 133
3. Poe, E. E. (1909, February). Poe, the weird genius. Cosmopolitan magazine, XLVI(3), Retrieved from Google Books Preview, p. 252
4. Goodheart, A. (2011). Chapter three: Forces of nature. In 1861: The Civil War Awakening New York, NY: Knopf.
5. Towers, F. (2004). The urban south and the coming of the civil war. (p. 100).
6. Silberman, L. R. (2011). Wicked baltimore: Charm city, sin and scandal. (pp. 64-65). The History Press. Retrieved from Google Books Preview, chapter “Plug Uglies, Rip Raps, Bloody Tubs, Oh My!”
7. Ezratty, H. A. (2011). Baltimore in the Civil War: The Pratt Street Riot and a City Occupied (Kindle Locations 880-882). The History Press. Kindle Edition.
8. Hannings, B. (2010). Every day of the civil war: A chronological encyclopedia. (p. 81). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. Retrieved from Google Books Preview, p. 81

Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West—Nick explores a dusty, old-fashioned book of social history

This is the first in a series of book and article reviews I’ll write, taking you through the stacks and exploring old and not so old books about humanity’s story (history). In this case, I’m exploring a fairly rare social history from 1965, probably not something you’d find on the shelves of your local public library or Barnes & Noble. If you like this review, leave a comment below 🙂

Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old WestHeroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West by Jack Schaefer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s seldom that a historical writer captures both the close up, the individual stories, attitudes and essence of the people who contributed to an era, and the wide-view, what the society was like, simultaneously. But by telling the stories of how a diverse cross-section of men contributed to Western settlement, Jack Schaefer did just that with Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West. Schaefer offers detailed portraits of the good men that made building communities in the unforgiving wilds of the territories possible; as Louis L’Amour once wrote—and I’m paraphrasing from memory—”this was a big country and needed big men and women to fill it, big of spirit, big of heart” and it’s these “big” goodmen that Schaefer focuses on. The goodmen, instead of oft-discussed badmen, desperadoes like Billy the Kid, Black Bart, Jesse James and the Younger Gang, Butch Cassidy and “The Wild Bunch” gang and the whole rogues gallery of Western history, who were evidently the subject of frenzied interest at the time of this book’s first publication (1965). In the preface, Schaefer places himself squarely against what he dubs “the cult of the badman,” denouncing the “cultists” for capitalizing on the morbid interest in the “badmen,” who he says impeded growth out West, tearing down and attacking civilization.

This is a book about the goodmen who built the West, a book of lengthy, in-depth biographies of the unheralded pioneer mailmen, explorers, doctors, cowboys, etc. who made the territories livable. Schaefer is clearly drawn to men of extreme patience and fortitude, men of action, not of words. Thus he spends time profiling men like the nearly non-verbal John “Snowshoe” Thompson, a self-described “slow, simple Norski” who used Norwegian snowshoes and techniques to deliver the first mail and supplies (including life-saving medicines) from Nevada to California over the treacherous pass in the Sierra Nevadas. And man of few words and many cows, John Chisum, one of the first cattle barons. He begins the book with eccentric trapper James Capen Adams (“Grizzly” Adams) who spent almost all his life wordlessly among his favorite grizzly bears, in nature. This book made me think about how the Old West ethos, with its focus on action uber alles and the man of action eking out a living from undeveloped wilds as opposed to the buffoonish and idle man of words back east, changed what’s considered manly from the close of the Victorian era up into the present-day. Perhaps without intending to, Schaefer gives us insight into what would become the mold for “manliness” throughout the 20th century.

Why I gave this book Four stars: I’m a big believer that social history is where it’s at, that to really understand the people of a certain time and place, you need to read the words of the people who were there and learn from those everyday folks the rhythms of that past culture, how the society functioned, etc. This book does that. How new settlements functioned, how U.S. territories in the 19th century worked, really fascinates me. As always, the little details hook me; the fact that the biggest bear “Grizzly” Adams ever caught became the model for Charles Nahl‘s design of California’s bear flag (though keep in mind that there were literally over a dozen bear flag designs adopted to varying degrees until a standardized design was finally adopted in 1953), that bovine thievery was a problem, cows trying to break into horse stables and steal the horse’s hay a constant issue out west, that John Chisum maintained his wealth as a Texas cattle baron through the trials and tribulations of the Civil War because he had the foresight to realize that Confederate currency may not hold up, so whenever he got his hands on rebel money, he exchanged it for more cows as soon as possible. I love that stuff.

My favorite part of the book is its biography of Dr. Charles Fox Gardiner. Originally from New York, where King of England, Charles I, had granted the Gardiner family a private island off Suffolk County—Gardiner’s Island—in 1639. In the mid-1800s, Charles Fox Gardiner trained as a doctor in New York City, on Roosevelt Island—then known as Blackwell’s Island—at one of the predecessors of Goldwater hospital. Then he took his skills west to aid the frontier mining communities in Colorado Territory. That this book contained an account of pioneer medicine is why I picked it up. It doesn’t disappoint on that score.

Gardiner built a shanty for his office with a blue and gold sign outside. No one trusted the new guy initially, but slowly his reputation grew by word of mouth and he had a steady and growing practice on his hands. “Patient after patient was unable to pay, then out of nowhere one would pay $100. Unusual but fascinating,” Gardiner said. I found the insights into pioneer doctors fascinating, and I hope to find the book Gardiner himself wrote about his experiences, Doctor at Ridgeline, in an accessible format soon.

The downsides of Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West. come with the author’s old-fashioned views and ancient prejudices that really filter the content, and in some cases really stink it up, especially regarding the native tribes of the West. The only Native American “goodman” profiled is Chief Washakie, leader of the Eastern Shoshones. Washakie was indeed a great leader of the Shoshones, and a pivotal figure in not only American Indian history, but also of the Old West in whole. Indeed, we may not even know the name Shoshone today if not for Washakie; the loose band of Shoshone tribes may have been wiped out by enemy tribes, and probably wouldn’t have even become a federally-recognized tribe without his forceful leadership. Most important was his political skills; Washakie secured a large reservation, Wind River Indian Reservation, in what is now Wyoming, for his fairly small band of Eastern Shoshones because he was such a forceful and well-known leader and peacemaker for his people. Schaefer artfully highlights Washakie’s remarkable achievements, but disturbingly, Schaefer seems to herald Washakie more for his exceeding patience with the constant oppression, control and expropriation of lands previously reserved for the Shoshone. Every decade, Uncle Sam would bite off another giant piece of the land he’d promised to them, and one year they forced them to half the Wind River Reservation with the Arapaho, their ancient rivals. Washakie didn’t—probably couldn’t—fight back, and shared all he could with the Arapahoes.

The Indian leaders that met such humiliations with arrows and repeating rifles aren’t mentioned here. It’s also sucky that this book doesn’t profile a single woman; that amounts to cleaving the history of the West in half! Going in with a wide open mind, one can still appreciate this stuff. But no mind is open enough to like the biography Schaefer includes on Valentine T. McGilicuddy. I thought the chapter on McGilicuddy would focus on his years as a trailblazing frontier Army surgeon and surveyor, but is mostly an account of McGilicuddy’s long tenure as Indian Agent on Pine Ridge Reservation in the Dakotas; it’s one of the more offensive views of Indians you’ll find, paternalistic, infantilizing, ugh. You can skip this chapter if you’d like. But it’s also historical evidence of how loathsome the reservation system has been.

It can be invaluable to read older perspectives. I give this four stars because it’s a rare social history, with great detail of how it really was in biographies of (in order of appearance) Grizzly Adams, George A. Ruxton, John “Snowshoe” Thompson, John Phillips, Washakie, John S. Chisum, Thomas J. Smith, Valentine T. McGillycuddy, Charles Fox Gardiner, and Elfego Baca. Definitely worthwhile for Wild West aficionados and history buffs.

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Senate, In Capitol Built By Slaves, Passes Resolution Apologizing For Slavery

Last Thursday, on the eve of Juneteenth, the celebration of the end of slavery, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution apologizing for slavery and the “Jim Crow” laws that oppressed ex-slaves and their descendants for roughly a century.

Twelve million Africans were shipped to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries.  At the start of the Civil War, blacks made up 1/3 of the Souths population.
Twelve million Africans were shipped to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

The resolution (full text), which also has a cowardly disclaimer at the bottom stating the apology can’t be used to substantiate any restitution claims against the U.S., cites the fact that “Africans forced into slavery were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized, and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage” and lauds African-Americans for exemplifying “the strength of the human character and provid[ing] a model of courage, commitment, and perseverance.”

But the resolution neglected to mention one big fact: the Senate building that they stood in to vote in favor of this apology was built with black slave labor!

In 2005, Congress appointed a task force to research the subject, which issued a report in conjunction with the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, finally bringing a measure of scholarly rigor to bear on the topic.

The task force acknowledged it was not able to tell the full story. “No one will ever know how many slaves helped to build the United States Capitol Building — or the White House,” says the 2005 task force report, entitled History of Slave Laborers in the Construction of the United States Capitol.

This, the Capitol building, was built by slaves
This, the Capitol building, was built by slaves

But the task force did find plenty of evidence of slave involvement in the Capitol’s construction. Perhaps the most compelling evidence were records of payments from the commissioners for the District of Columbia — the three men appointed by George Washington to oversee the construction of the Capitol and the rest of the city of Washington — to slave owners for the rental of slaves to work on the Capitol. The records reflect 385 payments between 1795 and 1801 for “Negro hire,” a euphemism for the yearly rental of slaves.

Slaves were likely involved in all aspects of construction, including carpentry, masonry, carting, rafting, plastering, glazing and painting, the task force reported. And slaves appear to have shouldered alone the grueling work of sawing logs and stones.

Slave crews also toiled at the marble and sandstone quarries that provided the stone to face the structure — lonely, grueling work with bleak living conditions in rural Virginia and elsewhere. “Keep the yearly hirelings at work from sunrise to sunset — particularly the Negroes,” the commissioners wrote to quarry operator William O’Neale in 1794.

The commissioners’ use of slave labor was unremarkable for the time. When the Capitol was constructed, from 1793 to 1826, the building trades in almost every colony augmented the work force with slave labor. This would have been especially true in the Potomac region — the home of about half the 750,000 African-Americans living in the United States, according to the 1972 book Free Negroes in the District of Columbia, by Letitia Woods Brown.

Most of the slaves who worked on the Capitol are known by first name at best — the records refer to a

Atop the Capitol dome, stands The Statue of Freedom
Atop the Capitol dome, stands The Statue of Freedom

payment of $13.00 to slaveholder Teresa Bent for “Nace,” for example, and $23.00 to Elizabeth Brent for “Harry” and “Gabe.”

But one particular slave, Philip Reid, achieved some renown as an individual. He was a slave laborer for Clark Mills, who was hired to cast the Statue of Freedom, the Capitol’s crowning feature. The government paid Reid $1.25 a day for his work.

The statue, a draped female figure holding a sheathed sword in one hand and a laurel wreath in the other, stands atop the Capitol dome, 288 feet above the site of Obama’s swearing in.

Source: PolitFact | The legend of slaves building Capitol is correct

The resolution should have also included, “Whereas, Africans, without any remuneration, built the Capitol building we now work in each day…”

People should know ALL of their history.

Inside the Senate

Spanish-American War Coming Up on History Channel

In my last post, I talked about the Spanish-American War.

I think the best parallel to the current Bush wars is not Vietnam, but the Spanish-American War, which was also fought with an all-volunteer military, and justified by an incident (Remember the Maine!) that the target of the war (Spain) may not have actually been responsible for. We then annexed Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam and also removed Spanish despotic rule in the Philippines, which left us bogged down against an indigenous guerrilla insurgency there, a whole new war (the
Philippine-American War) that, at its peak, involved a surge of 126,000 U.S. troops, led to atrocities on both sides and didn’t really completely end until we promised Philippine independence in 1913.

Of course, precise parallels are impossible; each situation is unique–but I still think looking at history is instructive.

Tuesday night at 9 ET / 8 Central, a special on the Spanish-American War is airing on the History Channel. I’ve set my DVR to record it. I hope ya’ll check it out.
The Spanish-American War: First Intervention