Guest Blog on Insurrection (from 1861)

May, 2021

Washington — Apropos the January 6, 2021, insurrection, the following is a look-back at the insurrection of 1861.  It is from the Civil War diary of our cousin, David Hunter Strother (also known as Porte Crayon), now several generations removed.  But we are of like mind in our common observations of insurrectionists, then and now (emphasis added).  

January-February, 1861

Martinsburg, Virginia —  … South Carolina has actually seceded! and what of that? South Carolina is a great way off, and has been threatening Secession for thirty years or more. The Toryism of 1776 has never died out in South Carolina, nor have her gentry ever fully acquiesced in our republican form of government. It is high time the questions between her and the country were settled. I wish she had made up her mind to try conclusions with Andrew Jackson when she had her hand raised to pluck the forbidden fruit. Does she think it more nearly ripe now? or that the present “Old Man” won’t throw stones? I’ll vouch for it, that if he does not, somebody will.

…I am rather glad South Carolina has taken this decisive step. Her arrogance and rashness have arrayed even her Southern neighbors against her. She will not be supported by a single State. I have not heard a voice raised in her behalf. Even those who have heretofore been most vociferous about Southern rights unite in condemning her premature presumption. A ship of war in the harbor of Charleston, and a battalion of nation troops thrown into the forts, will quench South Carolina as briefly as one may snuff out a tallow dip with his thumb and finger.

…”Sedition is like fire, easily extinguished at the commencement, but the longer it burns the more fiercely it blazes.”

… South Carolina is not quenched, and there seems to be no disposition on the part of those in power to out the extinguisher on her.

… As she pursues her course of presumptuous madness with impunity other States are following her example.

… Each day brings tidings of fresh outrages and humiliations heaped upon the Government, seizures of arsenals, arms, forts, dockyards, and vessels – of traitorous officers surrendering their charges without defense – of faithful officers arrested and thrown into prison, besieged in forts where they are cut off from supplies and assistance – our national flag hauled down and trampled in the dust, with all its glorious historic memories, to be replaced by some tawdry rag flaunting an obscure device known only to local office-holders and militiamen.

The effect of this state of things is distinctlible in the time of opinion around us. State Sovereignty dogmatism is becoming daily more open and arrogant. County court metaphysicians are modifying their Unionism with “ifs” and “ands” and “peradventures” – small anglers in the mud-puddle of village tavern opinion are drawing in their lines and changing their bait – petty politicians are craftily trimming their sails that their cock-boats may run with the rising wind. But while the weak-kneed are thus tottering, and trimmers fluttering in the breeze, the storm serves to fan to fiercer flame the indignation of all true men. All eyes and hearts are now turned toward Washington, expectant, eager, hopeful. There centres the power which in its infancy has met and twice foiled the giant of Great Britain, which in the very wontonness of its lusty youth made a holiday frolic of throttling poor Mexico. What will the Government do in this crisis?

…Is it secret sympathy with treason or mere driveling that tells the American people “the Government has no right to coerce a State?” – a nation that for more than eighty years has maintained fleets and armies, has waged wars and made peace, has collected customs and coined money; whose commerce covers the globe, whose flag is known and honored wherever the sun shines; whose power and civilization are acknowledged by the proudest and most enlightened peoples; whose future promises to surpass in grandeur all that history has yet recorded. Such a nation has not the right to suppress domestic insurrection! So vast an aggregation of power, prosperity, and hope must submit quietly and unresistingly to perish at the bidding of a local faction, a confederacy of visionary schemers, conceited dogmatists, self-deluding and self-stultifying economists – base huxters, who unblushingly pretend to barter the national honor and safety for the advantage of cheap negroes and a good cotton market; unprincipled politicians, whose vulpine instincts have warned them that the power and places which they had so long abused and so deeply corrupted are about to be withdrawn from their keeping!

Is nothing lawful or constitutional but the outrages of revolutionary mobs, the violation of solemn oaths, the plundering of national property, and the babbling of seditious orators?

Is the Government we have loved and trusted indeed so pitiable and impotent a sham? Have the founders, whom we have been accustomed to regard as wise and good men, really put such a scurvy trick upon us? Have we built houses, laid up wealth, begot children, acquired honors, and recreated in boasting and self-glorification under the delusion of a Political Idea that would disgrace a council of Pottawatomies?

Such are the questions that loyal Virginians in the bitterness of their humiliation now all each other, as the daily mails bring in the accumulating details of rebel outrage, arrogance, and menace, responded to only by governmental acquiescence, deprecatory remonstrance, and despicable compromise.

— David Hunter Strother, "Porte Crayon"

Head-Scratching over Rural Nebraska

May, 2021

Lincoln — Rural Nebraska interests gained special attention this month in the Nebraska legislature, but in head-scratching ways.  

Rural regions have been losing population disproportionately.  In response, the Nebraska Farm Bureau made a presentation to the legislature's redistricting committee, asking that it make rural representation in legislative bodies a priority over other considerations, so as to stem the decline of rural voices.  

But it's the height of irony for the Farm Bureau to make that argument without acknowledging that the depopulation has been in large part due to the "get-big-or-get-out" farm policy long embraced by the Farm Bureau itself.  This was the doctrine first enunciated so pithily by the Nixon Administration's Earl Butz and repeated more recently by the Trump Administration's Sonny Perdue.   A lot of farmers got out, and now the Farm Bureau is pleading for the legislature to make up for it.  This is akin to the old saw about the child who murdered his parents but pleaded with the judge for mercy because he was an orphan.  

But reaction to another legislative development prompts downright forehead slapping.  A Lincoln Journal Star editorial commended the legislature for advancing, 43-0, a measure to develop local farm-to-school markets.  It offered, however, this analysis:

"[W]e question why local schools haven't always purchased from in-state farmers and why such an apparent no-brainer requires state legislation.  We are in the midst of America's breadbasket, aren't we? Farming and ranching represent a large chunk of Nebraska's economy and keep the state economy churning....

"[W]e'd still be remiss for questioning the need for appropriating about $100,000 annually, to hire a statewide coordinator for the program.  It seems that Nebraska's farmers would need no prodding in applying to be included in this networking opportunity....  In a $9 billion budget, $100,000 is a drop in the bucket. ... This is a worthy project, but it’s a shame it will take additional spending to make it happen."

Either this is written with tongue well into cheek or there is a serious need for the author to brush up on agriculture in Nebraska.  Part of the Butz vision (see above) was for Midwest farmers to produce crops for export markets, to plant corn and soybeans "fencerow-to-fencerow."  Nebraska consumers, including schools, would import food from other states rather than depend on local food from diversified farms, many of which disappeared.

As to spending $100 thousand to try to re-establish farm-to-school markets, it must be noted that the state has already spent hundreds of millions on research and extension to promote the Butz view of the world.  And in fairness to Earl Butz, a Purdue University economist before he became U.S. secretary of agriculture, his path was already partially cleared by another Purdue Ph.D., his predecessor as Nixon's first ag secretary, Clifford Hardin.  The East Campus at the University of Nebraska has erected larger than life statues to three Nebraska-linked U.S. secretaries of agriculture who espoused the export-import, get-big-or-get-out model for Nebraska agriculture. 

As a farm youth once myself, participating in 4-H and FFA, I remember the shift from small, diversified farms to single-crop production, enabled by chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  Many farmers welcomed it.  No more crop rotation requiring out-of-production fields for summer fallow, or raising legumes to plow under as fertilizer.  No more chores around the farmstead, taking care of chickens, hogs, and cattle.  Freedom in the wintertime to go to Arizona.  And bowl games.  Fewer neighbors, though.  

I have it on good authority that some on the East Campus, reconsidering, may have assisted in encouraging the farm-to-school bill.  Good for them.     


The Arc of the Moral Universe

May, 2021

Lincoln and Washington — Nearly a year ago in these pages I suggested replacing, in the U.S. Senate Reception Room, the portrait of Senator John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, with a portrait of Senator George W. Norris, of Nebraska.  (I know the room well, having worked as Senate staff for several years and as a federal agency liaison to Congress for several more.)

Calhoun (1782-1850) advocated for slavery in the 19th century and was noted for his political theories of nullification and secession.  Norris (1861-1944) was a champion for rural America in the 20th.  Norris was chosen by a Senate committee in the 1950s for representation in the ornate room, one of only five selected from among all senators who had ever served, but intra-party wounds in his home state were still fresh; Nebraska senators Carl Curtis and Roman Hruska blocked the choice.  

A saying attributed to several individuals, in various forms over two centuries, is that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.   Left unanswered is who does the bending, which is where my personal interest in these portraits enters the equation.

When the ancestors of Senator John C. Calhoun moved from Pennsylvania to South Carolina in the early days of our country, they stopped for a generation in Virginia.  Among those who remained longer, in Pendleton County, Virginia, was William Calhoun, who married my 3rd great-grandmother.  They named their son, born in 1840, John C. Calhoun, after his father's famous South Carolina cousin.  The Virginia namesake of the senator was my 2nd great-granduncle, half-brother of my 2nd great-grandfather, Sampson Zickafoose.  He and Sampson enlisted in the Confederate army in 1861.  

They both died in the summer of 1863: namesake John C. at the Battle of Williamsport, covering Lee's retreat from Gettysburg, and Sampson, most likely of disease.   

When Sampson's son Clark Zicafoose married Susan Wimer in 1880, he married into the Strother family, which had abolitionists in its ranks.  Susan's ancestors included Anthony and Frances Eastham Strother, who gave up their slaves when they became abolitionist Baptists many years before the Civil War.  They are my 5th great-grandparents.  (Not all in the Strother family were abolitionists, however;  President Zachary Taylor, my 1st cousin five times removed, was a slave-owner.)

Clark Zicafoose and Susan Wimer Zicafoose migrated to Nebraska in the 1890s, first to Lancaster County and then to Red Willow County, where they lived outside McCook, home of George Norris.  Clark died in 1927 but Susan lived until 1941, long enough to see rural America benefit from Norris's creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA).  Clark and Susan Zicafoose were probably supporters of George Norris, of their hometown.  My father, born in 1912 in McCook to their daughter, Mae Zicafoose Oberg, was a great admirer of Norris.  

Which brings us to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.  One hopes that the insurrectionists were not inspired to invade the Senate chamber by the Calhoun portrait in the Reception Room.  Nothing in the investigations so far suggests it, but it could have been a provocation.  (The invaders did, however, damage a bust of Zachary Taylor in a Senate hallway during their rampage, probably without knowing who he was.) 

I don't believe the moral arc bends itself.  It is bent toward justice, or not, by choices, including the choice of which people to honor even within one's own family.  Sampson Zicafoose and his half-brother John C. Calhoun, Confederate soldiers, have headstones in recognized cemeteries in Pendleton County, now West Virginia.  Sarah Strother* Wimer, of the abolitionist Strothers and my 2nd great-grandmother, has none.  Her gravesite is in a family plot somewhere nearby, the exact location of which is in doubt.  

I would like to find it, perhaps put a headstone there, and bend the arc toward justice a little within my own family.  A good occasion for the attempt would be a U.S. Senate decision to put the portrait of John C. Calhoun in a museum and install instead a portrait of George W. Norris.  It's long overdue. 


* The spelling changed to Strawder at some point, likely a phonetic rendering.  We don't know the sentiments of Sarah Strother Wimer (1830-1875), herself, about slavery or the Confederacy.  Her husband Peter B. Wimer was a Confederate soldier from 1861-1863, like their neighbors near Dry Run, Sampson Zicafoose and John C. Calhoun.  Her cousin, however, the estimable David Hunter Strother, well-known as "Porte Crayon," was a Union army brevet general.