Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Satan in American Politics: The Civil War

As the country lurches into an election year, and the rhetoric turns even uglier and more sour than it is now (!) I thought it might be fun to take a look back. We tackled presidential antichrists already, so I wanted to create a series of posts about Big Red and his role in American Politics throughout history. Above is an 1865 lithograph by John L. Magee of Philadelphia. Note the peacock feather. A possible explanation from Alarms and Discursions by GK Chesterton:

In a very old ninth-century illumination which I have seen, depicting the war of the rebel angels in heaven, Satan is represented as distributing to his followers peacock feathers--the symbols of an evil pride.

Below we have an opposing viewpoint, John Brown's Entrance Into Hell -- an 1863 song sheet by the printer "C.T.A." of Baltimore, MD (Maryland, you'll remember, stayed in the Union but had decidedly mixed loyalties).
The thing takes a foreboding turn when Satan announces:

You'll take your seat at my left hand,
Why I do this you'll understand;
Be not surprised, when I tell you,
Old Abraham is coming too.

So the devil has a space on his right side waiting for the president. C.T.A. prints this thing two years before Lincoln's assassination. And even before war had broken out people were using this kind of rhetoric. In 1858 a man named Abraham Smith sent a letter to Lincoln, then running against Stephen Douglas, stating:

But Douglas is a cuning dog & the devil is on his side-- As I view the contest (tho we say it is between Douglass & Lincoln --) it is no less than a contest for the advancement of the kingdom of Heaven or the kingdom of Satan -- a contest for an advance or a retrograde -- in civilization -- and the fate of Douglas or Lincoln is comparatively a trifle...

The misspellings and crazy punctuation are the author's own. Read the whole thing here. Lincoln received other letters like this. Professor Jupiter Hesser wrote to him, saying:

Fearlessly and in great power, a great number of the ablest Democrats, left their party, as soon she had nominated three canditates for the Presidency of the U. St., thinking -- that the Democrats Days are counted and, when I house, a party, is in discontent in itself -- its destruction is sealed. Woe! Satan knew, that he has little more time and is therefore doing the worst with the most powerful of maliciousness and spitefulness. When the Devil came to Christ in the West and showed him all the beauties of the world, if he falls down before him and adorse him -- he recieved a purpose what does the South more, or less to the Union through his satanic spirits of its leaders as to dictate with 6 or 7 Millions of inhabitans to the Union with 18-25 Millions of true Union men. If we would give up yet, we would be laught at to the end and foolt by every unjust, robbing, treacherous, (so called,) Democrats.

I think some of this found its way into one of Ann Coulter's books.

And the NY Historical Society has a collection of envelopes showing devilish versions of the state seals of the confederates. Here is Louisiana, North Carolina, and Florida. My favorite picture from this collection is this one of devils snatching Confederate President Jeff Davis away to hell:

I can't completely disapprove. The Confederate states kept millions of human beings as slaves, after all. This crime, as John Brown predicted, would only be paid off with blood.

It is important to keep in mind the power of these images, however. They help whip people into a frenzy. Which is great if you no longer want to settle things through politics. If you'd rather kill young men by the thousand and the ten thousand, all over the beautiful green places of our shared country. We don't want to do that anymore. Right?

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