Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

United States Colored Troops Support Amendment 62

Posted in African Americans, Media, Memory by Andy Hall on July 30, 2010

Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry.
Library of Congress.

I don’t like to get too much into present-day politics on this blog, but when folks drag historical figures (real or imagined) into the fray, it becomes fair game for commentary. Personhood Colorado, an anti-abortion group looking to amend that state’s constitution to designate a fetus a “person” under law, has a new radio ad in which an actor portrays a runaway slave who joins the Union Army to fight in the Civil War:

I’m George Stevens and I’m a person. I was held as property as a child. Even before my birth I was called a slave in an America you wouldn’t recognize. But folks like you helped me escape North to freedom and in 1864, I joined the infantry to fight for my country. I fought so all slaves would be recognized as persons, not property. And we won. But today in Colorado, there are still people called property – children – just like I was. And that America you thought you wouldn’t recognize is all around you and these children are being killed. This November, vote “yes” on Amendment 62. Amendment 62 declares unborn children persons, not property. And that’s the America I fought for. . . .

I’m sure “George Stevens” was chosen as a sufficiently common name to allow the producers to avoid having to answer for pinning any specific individual, even a long-dead one, to this cause. According to the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, there were at least ten “George Stevens” serving in black U.S. regiments during the war, and at least one more among state troops, in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry.

There seems to be a lot of this going on lately, latching on to specific historical figures for a sort of endorsement-from-beyond-the-grave. I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill, homage to leaders of the past in a gauzy, feel-good sort of way, but taking actual (or in “George Stevens” case, fictional) historical figures and presenting them as explicitly endorsing a particular candidate or position. In many of these cases, it seems, the pairing of the candidate and known, established positions of the historical figure are dubious, or even amusing. Rand Paul, the GOP Senate candidate in Kentucky who has questioned the propriety of the Civil Rights Act and has defended the right of private businesses to discriminate based on race — though he’s also said “it’s bad for business” if they do — published an editorial in the Bowling Green Daily News in which he wrote that “when I read history I side with abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas,” apparently forgetting the spelling of “Douglass.” Rick Barber, running in the GOP primary for a congressional seat in Alabama, famously ran an ad where he sits in a bar, surrounded by colonial revolutionaries like Sam Adams and Ben Franklin and asserts that the American Revolution began as a protest over taxes, seemingly unaware that it was about taxation without representation, a legitimate problem that Barber’s own candidacy would seem to disprove on its face. Not quite satisfied with that bit of whiplash-inducing logic, Barber followed up with an ad in which he asked Abraham Lincoln (“Hey, Abe!”) the Great Emancipator’s view on federal income taxes, to which the sixteenth president ominously intones, “slavery!” As with his previous ad, Barber’s history here is a little off, given that the Lincoln administration imposed the first income tax in U.S. history. Oops.

I don’t mind it so much when modern politicians make reference to historical figures, when the parallels actually, you know, make sense, when the current issue or policy position shows a clear and logical lineage. But these recent examples are just silly, made more so by the dissonance between the positions actually taken by the historical figures whose mantles they claim and the modern-day political positions they’ve been exhumed to endorse. Does anyone actually believe that, in their own day, Franklin and Adams would have been considered to stand on the “conservative” side of the political spectrum, or that Douglass favored the federal government keeping out of civil rights issues? Did George Washington really support the idea of violent overthrow of a republic’s elected government? (“Gather your armies!”) And remind me again — what does the historical record say about Private Stevens’ (Stevenses?) position on abortion? I hate to generalize, but I’ve never got the idea that the political forebears of the Tea Party movement — prime backers of both Rand Paul and Rick Barber — were big fans of either Lincoln or strident abolitionists like Douglass, neither of whom were shy about using the force of the U.S. government to pursue their objectives. Is it worth noting that at the same time Personhood Colorado is making a direct and explicit parallel between itself and the abolitionists of 150 years ago, its allies in Washington D.C. are lynching their opponents in effigy?

This is all pretty ridiculous, over-the-top political theater, and I suspect that the vast majority of people see it that way, including those who happen to agree with the candidate in question on the issues. But I’m skeptical that it wins elections. There’s some evidence of that; for all the cable-news airtime and YouTube play Barber’s ads got — over 380,000 views and counting for the “gather your armies!” spot — he got a thumpin‘ a couple of weeks ago in the primary runoff with Montgomery City Councilwoman Martha Roby. And Personhood Colorado may need an entire regiment of “George Stevenses” to pass their constitutional amendment — the last time it came up for a vote, in 2008, it got crushed almost three-to-one.