Primary Source: Selections from the Twelve Tables (ca. 450 BC) (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.4)

The earliest attempt by the Romans to create a code of law was the Laws of the Twelve Tables. A commission of ten men was appointed in about 455 BC to draw up a code of law binding on both patricians and plebeians. It would be the job of the consuls to enforce this law. The commission produced enough laws to fill ten bronze tablets. The plebeians were not satisfied, so a second commission of ten men was appointed in 450 B.C. and two additional tablets were added. Below are some selections from the Twelve Tables.

TABLE IV

1. Monstrous or deformed offspring may be put to death by the father.

2. The father shall, during his whole life, have absolute power over his children. He may imprison his son, or scourge him, or keep him working in the fields in fetters, or put him to death, even if the son held the highest offices of state.

TABLE V

2. The provisions of the will of a paterfamilias [head of the household] concerning his property and the support of his family, shall have the force of law.

TABLE VII

7. Holders of property along a road shall maintain the road to keep it passable; but if it be passable, anyone may drive his beast or cart across the land wherever hechooses.

TABLE VIII

1. Whoever publishes a libel shall be beaten to death with clubs.

12. A person committing burglary in the night may be lawfully killed.

13. A thief in the daytime may not be killed unless he carried a weapon.

23. Perjurers and false witnesses shall be hurled from the Tarpeian Rock.

26. Seditious gatherings in the city during the night are forbidden.

 

Review Questions

 1. What kind of power does a father have over his son?

2. What is the responsibility of someone who owns property along a road?

Primary Source: Exodus 20:1-17 (The Ten Commandments) (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.7)

1 And God spoke all these words, saying,

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

 12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

 13 “You shall not murder.

 14 “You shall not commit adultery.

 15 “You shall not steal.

 16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

 17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Moses and the Law (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.6)

Abraham’s son, Isaac, married a woman named Rebekah. Isaac and Rebekah had two sons named Jacob and Esau. Jacob had a total of 12 sons. When a famine struck in the Middle East, Jacob and his large family moved to Egypt. There, they were welcomed by the Pharaoh of Egypt and given land to settle on. As time went on, however, their numbers continued to increase. Eventually there were thousands of Abraham’s descendants, called Hebrews, living in Egypt.

Although the Egyptians had welcomed them at first, they started to fear the Hebrews because there were so many of them. They thought the Hebrews might someday outnumber the Egyptians and take over their country. The Egyptians decided to make the Hebrews into slaves. Even as slaves, though, the Hebrews continued to increase in numbers. Finally, the Pharaoh of Egypt ordered that all Hebrew baby boys should be killed immediately after they were born. He thought that by doing this he could stop the growth of the Hebrews and prevent them from taking over Egypt.

It was at this time that, in about 1400 BC, that Moses was born. To save him from the command of the Pharaoh to kill all Hebrew baby boys, his mother wrapped him in a blanket, placed him in a basket, and floated him down the Nile River. It just so happened that a daughter of the Pharaoh was bathing in the river at that time and saw the basket. She grabbed up the basket and decided to adopt the baby boy she found in it.

Moses was raised as a son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He knew, however, that he was really a Hebrew and he loved his people. One day, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. Moses was so angry at what he saw he attacked the Egyptian and killed him. Because he had killed an Egyptian, Moses ran away and went to live in the wilderness.

He lived there for a very long time, away from the cities of Egypt. He married a woman whom he met there and became a shepherd. While he was out in the field one day, however, he saw a very strange thing. There was a bush off in the distance that was on fire but was not burning up. He walked over to take a closer look. As he approached it, he heard a voice command him:  “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Moses obeyed and removed his sandals. The voice from the burning bush then told him “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses was surprised and afraid. The voice continued speaking. God told Moses that he was to go back to Egypt and tell the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go free.

Moses was scared, but he obeyed the voice anyway. He went to the Pharaoh and told the Pharaoh that God had ordered him to set the Hebrews free. The Pharaoh laughed at Moses and refused to allow the Hebrews to go. To convince the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go, God sent a series of ten plagues on the Egyptians. Each time, Moses was sent by God to warn the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go, but each time the Pharaoh refused. The ten plagues were:

  1. The water of the Nile River turned into blood.
  2. There were many, many frogs all over Egypt.
  3. The Egyptians were plagued with lice.
  4. Flies were everywhere and getting into everything.
  5. The cattle of the Egyptians became sick and died.
  6. Egyptians caught a disease that caused boils, large pus-filled bubbles, to appear on their skin.
  7. A storm that rained down hail and fire struck the land of Egypt, destroying things it fell on.
  8. A huge swarm of locusts ate up the crops and trees of the Egyptians.
  9. The entire country was dark as night even in the middle of the day.
  10. Finally, each of the first born sons of the Egyptians died.

Before the final plague, Moses warned the Hebrews to mark the doors of their houses with the blood of a lamb so that death would know which houses belonged to Hebrews. In that way, only the firstborn sons of the Egyptians would die and not the sons of Hebrews. Jews still celebrate this event today. The holiday is called Passover because on that day death passed over their houses and struck the Egyptians instead.

After this final plague, Pharaoh finally agreed to let the Hebrews go. As the Hebrews began their journey out of Egypt, though, the Pharaoh changed his mind. He led his army to chase down the Hebrews. He wanted to take them back to slavery. As Pharaoh’s army approached them from behind, the Hebrews were approaching the Red Sea. Moses called on God and raised his arms. When he did this, the sea split in two and allowed the Hebrews to walk through. Once the Hebrews had gone through, Moses put his arms down and the sea closed. Pharaoh and his entire army drowned.

Safely out of Egypt, Moses led the Hebrews to Mount Sinai. There, he went up on the mountain to speak with God and find out what the Hebrews should do next. He was up there so long the people thought that he had died. When he came back down to give them the Ten Commandments, Moses found the people worshipping a golden calf instead of God. For this, the Hebrews were forced to wander in the desert for 40 years before they were allowed to go to the land that God had promised to Abraham.

Eventually, Moses was able to lead them to this Promised Land and Joshua, a faithful follower of Moses, led the Hebrew army to conquer it. At least, the Hebrews were allowed to settle in the land that had been promised by God to their ancestor Abraham. They built cities there and began to follow the law that Moses had given them from God.

 

Review Questions

 1. Shortly before the birth of Moses, the Pharaoh ordered all newborn Hebrew boys killed. How did Moses’s mother save him from this command?

2. What sea did Moses part so the Hebrews could cross over?

 

Vocabulary Words

 Famine – a time when food becomes very rare

Primary Source: Selection from the Code of Hammurabi (1772 BC) (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.2)

21. If anyone breaks a hole into a house to steal from it, he shall be put to death before that hole and be buried.

22. If anyone is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.

195. If a son hits his father, his hands shall be cut off.

196. If a man puts out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.

197. If he breaks another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken.

198. If he puts out the eye of a freed man, or break the bone of a freed man, he shall pay one gold mina.

199. If he puts out the eye of a man’s slave, or break the bone of a man’s slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.

200. If a man knocks out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.

201. If he knocks out the teeth of a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a gold mina.

202. If any one hits the body of a man higher in rank than he, he shall receive sixty blows with an ox-whip in public.

203. If a free-born man hits the body of another free-born man of equal rank, he shall pay one gold mina.

204. If a freed man hits the body of another freed man, he shall pay ten shekels in money.

205. If the slave of a freed man hits the body of a freed man, his ear shall be cut off.

206. If during a quarrel one man hits another and wounds him, then he shall swear, “I did not injure him on purpose,” and pay the physicians.

207. If the man dies of his wound, he shall swear similarly, and if he was a free-born man, he shall pay half a mina in money.

208. If he was a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a mina.

209. If a man hits a free-born woman so that she loses her unborn child, he shall pay ten shekels for her loss.

210. If the woman dies, his daughter shall be put to death.

211. If a woman of the free class loses her child by being hit, he shall pay five shekels in money.

212. If this woman dies, he shall pay half a mina.

213. If he hits the maid-servant of a man, and she loses her child, he shall pay two shekels in money.

214. If this maid-servant dies, he shall pay one-third of a mina.

229 If a builder build a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.

230. If it kills the son of the owner the son of that builder shall be put to death.

231. If it kills a slave of the owner, then he shall pay slave for slave to the owner of the house.

232. If it ruins the things inside, he shall make compensation for all that has been ruined, and inasmuch as he did not construct properly this house which he built and it fell, he shall rebuild the house from his own means.

 

Review Questions

1. What is the punishment if a man knocks out another man’s eye?

2. What is the punishment for a builder who builds a house that falls down and kills the owner?

3. Do you think the laws of the Code of Hammurabi are fair or unfair? Answer in a paragraph.

Personhood in Roman Law (Personhood Part V)

The interpretation of early Christian beliefs about personhood into the law of the Roman Empire began very early in the reign of Constantine. On 21 March 315, for instance, only two years after he issued the Edict of Milan, which document granted official religious toleration to Christianity following the worst persecution the Church had yet endured, Constantine promulgated a law which ordered that “if any person should be condemned to the arena or to the mines … he shall not be branded on his face … so that the face, which has been made in the likeness of celestial beauty, may not be disfigured.”62 Although the interpretation of the doctrine of Imago Dei which this law offers is rather haphazard and peculiar, it is nonetheless significant that Christian anthropology, even if in an incomplete form, was being used as a source for Roman law at this early date. Just two months later, on 13 May 315, Constantine promulgated another law with made infanticide and exposure of infants illegal in the Roman Empire and appointed money from the imperial treasury be used to feed children whose parents could not feed them.63 Similarly, four years later, on 11 May 319, Constantine issued another law which forbade masters from mistreating or killing their slaves.64 Constantine also published a number of laws whose intent was to encourage slave owners to manumit their slaves and to make the process of manumission, formerly a complicated process under Roman law, as easy and desirable as possible for them. A law promulgated on 18 April 321, for instance, grants Christian clergy the right to legally free slaves whose owners wish to manumit them.65 Another law, promulgated in an attempt to prevent poor parents from selling their children into slavery and published on 6 July 322, stipulated that children whose parents are too poor to support them should receive their support from the imperial treasury.66 As significant as are these and other laws promulgated by Constantine, the most significant reform of Roman law in accordance with Christian beliefs came under the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Under the influence of his powerful wife Theodora, Justinian included in his extensive and thorough reforms of Roman law the promulgation of many laws protecting the rights of women and children. Among them were laws prohibiting forced prostitution, allowing marriages between members of any social class, banning infanticide, granting women guardianship over their children, and allowing women to more easily leave prostitution without being subject to continuing legal or social handicaps. In justifying the promulgation of such laws, Justinian echoed the words of Paul, proclaiming, “in the service of God, there is no male nor female, nor freeman nor slave.”67 The influence of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the massive product of Justinian’s comprehensive reform of Roman law, continues to the modern day. Later, in 797-802, a woman, Irene of Athens, would reign for the first time as empress regnant of the Roman Empire.68 She also convoked the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 787.

Notes

62 Codex Theodosiani 9.40.2, in Joseph Story, ed., Conflict of Laws (Clark: Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 1841).

63 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.1

64 Codex Theodosiani 9.12.1

65 Codex Theodosiani 4.8.1

66 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.2

67 Justinian, quoted in J. A .S. Evans, The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 37.

68 Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (London: Routledge, 1999), 73-94.

Personhood in Hebrew and Jewish Thought and Practice (Personhood, Part III)

The conception of personhood which developed in the thought of the Ancient Near East and early became a cornerstone of Jewish anthropology stood in stark contrast with these Greco-Roman understandings. Ancient Near Eastern thought had included a concern for social justice as a central feature from a very early date, as is evidenced by, for instance, texts like the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian law code dating to about 1772 BC. In the thought of the Hebrews, this concern for social justice became a near obsession and formed the basis of nearly all of their law. The first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, declares in its first chapter (verse 27) that “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him.”8 This idea, generally referred to under its Latin name as Imago Dei, permeated Jewish thought and practice concerning relationships between people. Every person was considered a bearer of the Imago Dei and, as such, entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of social or economic status, age, or gender. As scholar Thomas Cahill has succinctly stated, the “bias toward the underdog” throughout biblical law “is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law.”9

In direct contradiction to Aristotle’s belief that foreigners should be subdued and ruled by his own nation, the biblical injunction regarding treatment of foreigners orders that “you shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him,” adding a justification from the Israelites’ own history and an appeal to empathy: “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”10 In the following chapter of Exodus, the Hebrews are ordered to leave their fields uncultivated every seventh year so “that the poor of your people may eat” from what is left in it.11 The Book of Exodus also presents a view of slavery that is nearly opposite that of the Greco-Roman world. The text explicitly denies a master the right to kill his servant, commanding “if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished.”12 The text even goes as far as ordering that a slave who loses his or her eye or tooth because of violence by his or her master must be freed.13 The phrase “male or female” in verses like these is also indicative of the treatment of women in the legal code outlined in the Bible. The law, including both the privileges it confers and the responsibilities it demands, is made to apply equally to men and women, as in the verses cited concerning slavery. Certain special privileges are even afforded to women in order to prevent their oppression or marginalization in Israelite society; for instance, it is ordered that if a man takes a woman’s virginity outside of marriage, a state which thereby rendered her almost entirely unmarriageable in the Ancient Near East, he must take her as his wife and support her for the rest of his life.14 In addition, the Jews regarded infanticide as abhorrent. The Torah offers unequivocal condemnation of infanticide, referring to it as an “abomination,” and, again in contrast to Greco-Roman thought which commended the practice and even explicitly ordered it in certain instances, demands that it should never be performed. Although the Torah is ambiguous on its treatment of abortion and may even endorse it at several points,15 by the first century AD Jews generally understood the condemnations of infanticide in their law as encompassing abortion as well; the prolific first century Jewish author and historian Josephus, for instance, reports as the common Jewish belief and practice that “the law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind.”16 These Jewish tendencies toward a broad view of personhood and a consuming desire for social justice were part of the legacy of biblical thought inherited by early Christians. Especially significant is the early Christian development of the idea of Imago Dei, a concept which, in spite of its centrality in Jewish thought, had remained largely underdeveloped. It was in early Christianity, and in a synthesis of Hellenic and Hebrew thought, that followers of the biblical tradition would most fully explore what the Imago Dei consisted of and what were the implications of that idea.

Notes


8 Genesis 1:27 (New King James Version).

9 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 152.

10 Exodus 22:21 (NKJV).

11 Exodus 23:11 (NKJV).

12 Exodus 21:20 (NKJV).

13 Exodus 21:26-7 (NKJV).

14 Deuteronomy 22:28-9 (NKJV).

15 Prescriptions of capital punishment for adulterous wives in such verses as Deuteronomy 22:22-4, for instance, seem to have been intended to be carried out immediately upon discovery of the act with no delay to observe for signs of pregnancy to prevent the loss of the life of a fetus the woman may be carrying. In fact, these laws seem to have been formulated specifically for the purpose of preventing illegitimate heirs who might usurp the property of the woman’s husband. Numbers 5:11-31 even seems to prescribe some kind of abortion ritual for unfaithful wives in which the woman drinks “bitter water that brings a curse” (verse 19, NKJV) which “makes [her] thigh rot and [her] belly swell” (verse 21, NKJV) if she is indeed unfaithful. Significantly, this ritual is presented as a punishment for adulterous wives, not something to be desired, and, following this apparent abortion, “the woman will become a curse among her people” (verse 27), indicating an overwhelmingly negative attitude to abortion. Verses such as Exodus 21:22-25, which commands the execution of a man who causes a woman to miscarry through violence against her, seem, on the other hand, to assign the fetus a moral value equal to that of other human beings. Although the Hebrew Bible is ambiguous on this point, the logical development of its thought is captured by its actual subsequent development: a condemnation of abortion.

16 Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, par. 25 in William Whiston, tr., The Works of Josephus (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1987).

Personhood in Greco-Roman Thought and Practice (Personhood, Part II)

Demonstration of the very narrow understanding of personhood in Greek thought begins with the earliest texts of Western civilization, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to the poet Homer and composed in about the eighth century BC.1 Both works limit their purview to the lives of male Greek aristocrats. The concerns of women and children are treated only insofar as they affect the men. The concerns of slaves, of the poor, of the handicapped, and other such groups are never considered at all. The world of Homer is the world of a small but powerful elite class.

Later developments in Greek thought served to justify this narrow definition of personhood. Aristotle, for instance, writing in the fourth century BC, provided a succinct list of groups explicitly excluded from the category of personhood as well as a justification for the exclusion of each in his Politics: “Although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority; and the child has, but it is immature.”2 Because of their lack of “the deliberative faculty,” Aristotle claims that slaves, along with “brute animals[,] … have no share in happiness or in a life based on choice.”3 Similarly, says Aristotle, “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male.”4 In addition, Aristotle also excluded the lower classes, the poor and even laborers from his definition of personhood, arguing, for instance, that “the life of mechanics and shopkeepers … is ignoble and inimical to goodness.”5 Aristotle also placed the entirety of the non-Greek population into the category of those lacking “the deliberative faculty,” asserting that “barbarians … are a community of slaves” who should rightfully be ruled by the Greeks.6

These negative assessments regarding the personhood of women, slaves, children, barbarians, and others in the writings of Aristotle can be taken as representative of Greco-Roman thought more generally. The Leges Duodecim Tabularum, or Law of the Twelve Tables, for instance, a document of the fifth century BC which formed the foundation of Roman law, institutionalized the systematic marginalization and oppression of these groups within Roman society.7 In the Twelve Tables, the male head of household was granted the right to dispose of the women, children, and slaves within his household in the same manner as he treats animals and other property under his control, including the right to sell them and even to kill them; he is, in fact, ordered by the Tables to kill any children born with deformities (Table IV). Women, being property themselves, are denied the rights of property ownership (Table VI). Marriages between members of the aristocracy and members of the lower classes were banned outright (Table XI). In short, only an adult male member of the Roman aristocracy was granted full personhood in this initial document which governed and defined Roman society. This narrow understanding of personhood remained the standard understanding in the Roman Empire until the fourth century.

Notes


1 Harold Bloom, Homer (New York: Infobase Publishing, Inc., 2009), 205.

2 Aristotle, Politics, in Aristotle: II, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 1260a10-14.

3 Ibid., 1280a32-34.

4 Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, in Aristotle: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 737a26-7.

5 Aristotle, Politics, 1328b39-40.

6 Ibid., 1252b4-8.

7 The Laws of the Twelve Tables, http://www.constitution.org/sps/sps01_1.htm (accessed 24 March 2013).

Race and Representation in the Gilded Age: Popular Culture and Depictions of Marginalized Racial Groups

The end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth saw the rise of the first genuine popular culture in the United States. New advances in technology coupled with an increase of leisure time and extra money among a significant portion of the American population made this popular culture possible. Popular culture exerted a major influence on American life as its various mediums were used to create a cultural homogeneity which had not previously existed as well as to reinforce white cultural hegemony through propagating stereotypes about marginal groups.

An important distinction that must be made is that between folk culture and popular culture. As American cultural commentator Dwight Macdonald pointed out, “folk art grew from below” as the “spontaneous, autochthonous expression of the people” who were “without the benefit of High Culture.”1 In other words, in the absence of access to more refined artistic and cultural forms, folk art was a natural aesthetic outgrowth from people who wished to express themselves artistically. Popular culture, on the other hand, Macdonald goes on, “is imposed from above.”2 Its creation and dissemination are controlled by capitalists who “exploit the cultural needs of the masses in order to make a profit and/or to maintain their class-rule.”3 Popular culture, then, acts as “an instrument of political domination.”4 In this way, popular culture becomes the vehicle for the imposition of cultural homogeneity and the maintenance of hegemony.

The growth of the concept of “whiteness” in opposition to the ostensibly existentially opposed concept of “blackness” during the Gilded Ages provides one clear example of a case in which popular culture served this function. Richard L. Hughes, a historian whose work has focused on the history of American culture and society, has pointed out how the creation and dissemination of stereotypes about blacks created a sense of unity among the white audiences who viewed minstrel shows. According to Hughes, portrayals of blacks in popular culture “contributed to the growing sense of ‘whiteness’ among an ethnically diverse population in the urban North and … to a sense of a unique, albeit problematic, American national identity.”5 Blacks were often portrayed in minstrel shows and other venues of popular culture in ways that were comically over-the-top. Black characters were often bumbling, hopelessly ignorant, and obsessed with sex. An audience at a minstrel show might consist of individuals who were immigrants or the children of immigrants from such diverse nations as Italy, Poland, and England, nations with different languages, religious beliefs, and cultural traditions. The black, as he was portrayed in caricature at the minstrel show, presented such an obvious contrast with anything that any of them would consider normal or acceptable, however, that the contrast created a sense of unity among those of European descent. Thus, the concept of “whiteness” came to encompass a broad swathe of people with little else in common than ancestors who had come from the same continent and who now defined themselves in opposition to the similarly fabricated concept of “blackness.”

One ironic feature of popular culture, in the light of its functions and effects as a vehicle for white solidarity and black marginalization, is that many of the elements of popular culture derived from earlier expressions of black folk culture. Ragtime, for example, a form of music and dance that was particularly popular among young people during the Gilded Age, was derived from black folk music and dance. In other words, the origins of ragtime were in what Dwight Macdonald identified as genuine folk art; it was the product of people whose social status isolated them from the cultivated aesthetics of High Culture but who simultaneously felt the need for artistic expression. This authentic folk culture, however, was transformed into popular culture through its appropriation and adaptation by whites. Ragtime’s origins in black culture served both to attract the attention and cultivate the awe of white youths as well as to excite the repugnance of members of older generations. Ragtime was seen as shocking, immoral, and even dangerous.6 The lyrics of ragtime songs, as its detractors never tired of pointing out, included such themes as “‘hot town,’ ‘warm babies,’ and ‘blear-eyed coons’ armed with ‘blood-letting razors’” as well as other topics similarly offensive to bourgeois tastes.7 In addition, the dances associated with these songs often involved jerking movements of the hips and close contact between dance partners of opposite genders, which appeared lascivious and immoral in contrast with the more tame and subdued dances common among previous generations of the American bourgeoisie. All of these elements as well as their origins in African and African-American culture were viewed, according to Ellen M. Litwicki, a professor of American history, as a potential source of “moral depravity” for white youth who partook of popular culture.8 This identification of black culture with immorality was also used as a means by which to reinforce stereotypes of blacks and propagate racism, reinforcing the established atmosphere of subjugation and marginalization.

Reactions among African-Americans to the acquisition and transformation of black folk culture by white capitalists whose product was primarily targeted to audiences of white youth varied. Some African-Americans sought to work within the new milieu that was afforded to them by popular culture in order to secure a modicum of social respectability and a means of wealth acquisition that was not formerly available to them. Ernest Hogan, for instance, an African-American man who was one of the founding figures of ragtime, built his career on writing songs that portrayed stereotypes of blacks. One of his most popular songs, for instance, declared in its title that “All Coons Look Alike to Me.”9 Shortly before his death in 1909, Hogan expressed some ambivalence about his role in creating ragtime and about that song in particular. “With nothing but time on my hands now, I often wonder if I was right or wrong,” he told a friend.10 He concluded that in spite of the negative stereotypes such songs helped to propagate, the popularization of black folk culture which he played such an important role in was, in the end, a great boon to the culture itself, which “would have been lost to the world” had it not been popularized, as well as to the many black songwriters whose careers he made possible.11

Other African-Americans, however, particularly those of the middle class, viewed ragtime, along with minstrelsy and vaudeville, in overwhelmingly negative terms. According to historian Matthew Mooney in his survey of responses to American popular music in the first quarter of the twentieth century, “popular music in all its permutations was often subject to sweeping condemnations by … arbiters of Black middle-class propriety.”12 Black members of the bourgeoisie saw popular culture as a vehicle for “demeaning racial stereotypes” which served to undermine the progress that African-Americans had made since the Civil War and emancipation.13 In response to the new popular culture, the African-American bourgeoisie sought to displace blame for the creation and popularization of such musical forms as ragtime from blacks alone to the uncultured in general, black and white alike.14 They also sought to cultivate an appreciation for and African-American participation in venues of High Culture, such as more respectable forms of music and performance like opera. In large part, the vociferous opposition to popular culture espoused by many in the black bourgeoisie arose from a desire to minimize differences between themselves and whites by distancing themselves from supposedly low-class blacks and from traditional black culture. In so doing, they hoped to attain the measure of social respectability that might result from identification with the values and mores of the white bourgeoisie and thereby uplift the black race in general. A noteworthy similarly between those African-American bourgeois who opposed popular culture and those African-Americans such as Ernest Hogan who actively participated in it is that each attributes its respective stance on the issue to the desire of blacks to enter the American mainstream by attaining prestige and wealth. In spite of the divergence in approaches, the motivation was essentially identical for both parties.

Such prestige and wealth was also the motivation for those Native Americans who chose to participate in popular culture venues which presented the stereotype of the Indian as a warlike savage. Included among Native Americans who participated in Wild West shows, for example, are such prominent figures as Sitting Bull and Black Elk.15 According to Litwicki, the stereotyped roles in which Native Americans were depicted in the Wild West shows and which such Native American participants in those shows took part in “while degrading in many respects, were never as completely negative as those African Americans had to work within.”16 Indeed, unlike their black counterparts in minstrelsy and vaudeville who were forced to behave in ways that were entirely the product of white imaginations and which distorted the nature of black culture to an extreme degree, Native Americans were often able and delighted in the opportunity to share authentic representations of their heritage and lifestyle with white audiences, including their prowess as “warriors, riders, marksmen, and hunters” as well as traditional “dances, songs, and other aspects of their cultures.”17 Nonetheless, however, Native Americans were subject to the same disfiguring white consciousness as African-Americans and were expected to behave in stereotyped ways. Through their representations in popular culture, both Native Americans and African-Americans were dehumanized, stripped of individuality and personality, and replaced with caricatures that met white expectations, reinforced white superiority, and justified the continued marginalization of these groups in their exclusion from bourgeois respectability. This subjugation and marginalization frequently determined the course of government policy. The Wild West shows’ depictions of Native Americans as savages and their culture as backwards and primitive, for example, justified the continued attempts by the federal government to eradicate their traditional ways of life, cultural traditions, and tribal units by removing tribes from their ancestral homelands and children from their families, forcing young Native Americans to receive propagandistic education in which they were encouraged to act in accordance with white social expectations, and encouraging Native Americans to adopt the agricultural lifestyle of rural white farmers.18

Similarly, the stereotyped depictions of blacks in popular culture as comically ignorant, ugly, immoral, and sexually promiscuous and the idea of a “blackness” which differed ontologically and stood opposed existentially to “whiteness” which these depictions created and perpetuated justified the exclusion of African-Americans from the white mainstream of American society as well as the separation of blacks from whites more generally. This exclusion and separation was made law with the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that gave federal sanction to segregation as a constitutional practice.19

The origins, content, and effect of popular culture in the Gilded Age presents an important comparison with that of more recent American popular culture. Hip hop music, for instance, presents an insightful parallel to the story of ragtime. Just as ragtime emerged from black folk art, hip hop music began as a genuinely folk cultural form among African-American youth in impoverished urban centers. Just as ragtime was adopted, digested, and popularized by the incipient popular culture industry of the late nineteenth century, hip hop similarly became a product of popular culture at the hands of bourgeois, and generally white, capitalists. Both were viewed as repellent by parents and others of older generations because of their perceived immoral content and link with the criminality associated with black culture, both were consumed by eager white youths, and both served to bring a measure of fame, wealth, and even respectability to certain African-American individuals involved in their production while simultaneously reinforcing stereotypes of African-Americans more generally. In addition to this clear parallel between ragtime and hip hop, depictions of other marginal groups in contemporary popular culture also present interesting and insightful comparisons. Just as depictions of Native Americans in popular culture served to justify their exclusion from the mainstream of American society and the systematic destruction of their traditional way of life at the hands of the federal government, depictions of Hispanics in contemporary popular culture often reinforce stereotypes of Hispanics as ignorant, religious to the point of superstition, linked to the criminal drug trade, and, in the case of women, extremely sexualized. These depictions, in turn, influence laws and policies pertinent to, for example, immigration and education.

The impact that stereotyped depictions can have on laws, on lives, and on the individual psyches of members of marginalized and subjugated groups as well as on those of their hegemons should be carefully considered by the producers, distributors, and consumers of popular culture. The nearly ubiquitous presence of popular culture today makes a thorough examination of the influence of its content all the more important. Such an examination is most properly conducted in the light of the insights that can be afforded by an understanding of the origins of American popular culture in the Gilded Age and its perpetual use since that time as a tool for the creation of a false cultural homogeneity and the imposition of a cultural hegemony which is far more the product of the imaginations and aspirations of the moneyed classes and establishment power structure than an authentic democratic movement in aesthetics.

Notes


1 Dwight Macdonald, “A Theory of Mass Culture,” in John Storey, ed., Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader (Harlow: Prentice Hall, 1998), 23.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Richard L. Hughes, “Minstrel Music: The Sounds and Images of Race in Antebellum America,” The History Teacher 40:1 (Nov. 2006): 29.

6 Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 118.

7 “Musical Impurity,” Etude (January 1900): 16.

8 Ellen M. Litwicki, “The Influence of Commerce Technology, and Race on Popular Culture in the Gilded Age,” in Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 194.

9 Ibid., 196.

10 Karen Sotiropoulos, Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 118.

11 Ibid., 120.

12 Matthew Mooney, “An ‘Invasion of Vulgarity’: American Popular Music and Modernity in Print Media Discourse, 1900-1925,” in Leslie Wilson, ed., Americana: Readings in Popular Culture (Hollywood and Los Angeles: Press Americana, 2010), 7.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 8.

15 Litwicki, 202.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Edmund J. Danziger Jr., “Native American Resistance and Accommodation during the Late Nineteenth Century,” in Calhoun, Gilded Age, 180.

19 Leslie H. Fishel Jr., “The African-American Experience,” in Calhoun, Gilded Age, 157.

Dred Scott, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown

Although many events led up to the final outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, three of the most important, which occurred in successive years before 1860, are the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. These three events combined, and each coming upon the heels of the other, led to an exacerbation of the tension between the North and the South, heightening feelings on both sides. Although the Civil War had become a near-inevitability by the time that these events occurred and due to the ideological rift between North and South, these three events are important link in the chain of events that led to the outbreak of conflict.

The Dred Scott Decision in 1857 decided the case of Dred Scott, a slave who tried to claim his freedom on the basis that he had been taken and lived with his owner in a state in which slavery was illegal. The Supreme Court’s decision was that Dred Scott was not only not made free by virtue of having been taken into a non-slave state but in fact did not have the legal standing as a person according to the Constitution to even have brought his case to court. This decision was a shock to many Northerners and a major blow to the abolitionist cause.1 Abraham Lincoln was particularly incensed at the decision and reinvigorating in his zeal of stopping the expansion of slavery throughout the United States.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 occurred the following year. In the debates, Lincoln, a member of the Republican Party, represented the free labor ideology of the Republican Party, and Douglas, a Northern Democrat, reflected a belief in the primacy of States’ Rights. These debates were widely attended at each location at which they occurred and the full texts of the debates were published in newspapers across the country and read with great interest. It was largely on the basis of his performance in these debates that Lincoln was nominated for and elected to the presidency the following year. Many of his words in these debates were also used against him by his Southern opponents in their attempts to paint him as a radical abolitionist.

The straw that broke the camel’s back in the lead up to the Civil War is probably John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. John Brown led a group of both blacks and whites in a raid on a federal arsenal in an attempt to encourage a general slave insurrection throughout the South. Although John Brown’s raid failed to accomplish its intended effect and John Brown himself was hung for leading the raid, Brown can be seen as ultimately victorious in his goals. His raid increased the tension between North and South and led many in both regions to believe the ideological differences between the regions could only be decided through armed conflict. His raid, then, can be seen as one of the important causes of the Civil War.

Although the ideologies of North and South had created an ever-growing rift between the two regions, and conflict was nearly inevitable by the late 1850s, the Dred Scott Decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry are three events which exacerbated the tensions between North and South. These three events, which occurred in successive years leading up to 1860 and the outbreak of the Civil War, can be seen as steps that led to the process of secession. In this sense, they can be seen as three important causes of the Civil War.

1 Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 292-3.

Reconstruction Under Lincoln

The greatest mark of the Reconstruction Era is perhaps its failure to effectively unite and rebuild the United States after the Civil War. If President Abraham Lincoln had lived to serve out his second term as president, the Reconstruction Era would have been smoother in its goal of reintegrating the South back into the Union but would have been the same as that under Andrew Johnson in its failure to fully account for, reckon with, and make amends for the evils of the past. In this failure, it would have created a similar situation to that which did occur in which oppression and disenfranchisement followed slavery and in which the real work of achieving equality and justice for all was slowed and delayed until a much later date.

As historian Eric Foner points out, “Lincoln did not … believe that Reconstruction entailed social and political changes beyond the abolition of slavery.”1 In this belief, Lincoln failed miserably to understand human nature and societies or ignored reality in favor of his own hopes and ideals. Whatever the reason for his belief, such a course of action would have been a recipe for disaster. To simply end the war and to end slavery without simultaneously working to eliminate the root and underlying causes behind why a clearly unjust institution like slavery was able to flourish in the American South in the first place, to attempt to balance the injustice by providing some form of monetary compensation and/or education as well as full citizenship rights to those who had suffered such an injustice, and to institute the proper laws and organizations for preventing future injustice is a remarkably great oversight on the part of someone remembered for their wisdom and thoughtfulness.

Lincoln had begun his first term as president expressing a desire to maintain the Union in peace at nearly any coast. His approach throughout the Civil War had indicated “a desire to achieve peace as expeditiously as possible.”2 Similarly, his approach to Reconstruction was largely one without any “fixed plan” aside from reattaching the South to the United States as quickly and easily as possible. For the most part, this did not mean fighting to procure social justice for former slaves nor, for that matter, any significant change in Southern culture, in which a deeply-entrenched and violently hateful racism inhered.

This unwillingness by Lincoln to “rock the boat” is reflected in Lincoln’s views concerning black voting rights. In modern liberal democracies and republicans like the United States full citizenship is reflected in one’s right to participate in one’s government by voting and having the right to run for political office. If one cannot participate in government, one is not a full citizen, in any meaningful sense, of a democracy. Lincoln’s rejection, then, of full political enfranchisement for freed slaves was a rejection of their full citizenship and, by implication, of their full personhood.3

Although Lincoln is often hailed as hero for having ended slavery in the United States and this heroic image and reputation leads many to believe the post-war years would have seen greater achievements and improvements, the truth seems rather to be that Reconstruction would not have taken place much differently under Lincoln than under Johnson. Lincoln’s policies before and during the Civil War reflect first and foremost a desire to restore the Union. No doubt his post-war policies would have reflected the same desire. Reconstruction under Lincoln, then, might have seen a smoother transition of the South into the Union than occurred under Johnson but would have seen a similar, if not grater, intentional ignorance of justice for former slaves.

1 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 36.

2 Ibid., 73-4.

3 Ibid., 74.