I have been concerned with the fate of William Allen, lifetime Democratic politician and governor of Ohio from 1873-75, since it was announced that there was a movement to remove his statue from the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol building, where it has stood for 113 years. Each state is entitled to place in the hall two statues of
deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services such as each State may deem to be worthy of this national commemoration….
Allen’s statue joins that of President James Garfield in representing Ohio. Unfortunately, Allen held views that now mark him as “racist,” an unforgivable crime in our society today. Since there appear to be no extenuating grounds, he will have to go, forcibly deported to his home state, where hopefully there will be a few supporters left in his one-time residence of Chillicothe to take him back.
In classic liberal-bureaucratic problem-solving mode, a committee of lawmakers is soliciting names for a replacement. Thomas Edison seems in this article to have the most support (though he doesn’t seem to have lived in Ohio after age 10), and the Wright Brothers are strong candidates, but count on Jesse Owens and Annie Oakley to leverage the “diversity” factor and make a strong showing.
Allen was one of the memorable politicians of his time, a skilled orator, scrupulously honest and loyal, and a Jacksonian Democrat deeply devoted to his constituency. It is true that he does not emerge as a truly great figure. As his biographer wrote, “He was not the equal of Daniel Webster in scholastic acquirement; nor the peer of Henry Clay in oratory; nor the rival of John C. Calhoun in the subtlety of debate.” (1) As a senator he won renown for his speeches attacking the national banking system on behalf on Van Buren and for supporting U.S. annexation of the entire Oregon Territory. He emerged from retirement at age 70 to be elected governor of Ohio on an anti-corruption platform, and succeeded in lowering taxes, but fell out of public favor for his support of the inflationary policy of printing “greenbacks.”
All in all, an interesting and mixed legacy. However, the real problem for him today is the position on slavery he took as a “Northern Democrat” during the Civil War.
As a Democrat Allen believed in the policy of non-interference with the slavery question. He could not approve either abolition or the rising tide of free-soilism that was already invading his own section. Occupied in the past few years with foreign affairs, he failed to perceive that slavery had become the absorbing question of the day. He did not wish to yield to the slave owner nor to interfere with the latter’s property rights. He opposed all agitation on the subject. (2)
Allen initially supported the Lincoln administration in the Civil War, but “as the war progressed and abolition of slavery rather than the restoration of the Union became the evident objective, he changed to an uncritical [i.e. unconditional] opponent.” (3) His views were identical to those of a vast number of Northerners. His misfortune today comes from the fact that he expressed them in dramatic speeches.
In 1862, responding to the first Emancipation Proclamation, he conjured to his audience his horror at what liberation of the slaves might bring about.
“Every white laboring man in the North who does not want to be swapped off for a free nigger should vote the Democratic ticket,” commenced Allen. “He regarded the policy that the mad abolitionist fanatics were endeavoring to fasten on the country as destructive of the Constitution, the Union, and of the white man’s interests…. Suppose that the contemplated emancipation should be inaugurated successfully. Seven or eight hundred thousand negroes with their hands reeking in the blood of murdered women and children would present themselves at our Southern borders demanding to cross over into our state as Ohio’s share of the freed negroes – seven or eight hundred thousand negroes without money, without food, and without personal property of any kind, who, in virtue of nature’s law were compelled to eat and be clothed. Then would come the conflict between the white laborers and the negroes. The negroes would enter into such competition with the white laborers that the latter would have to abandon the field of labor here – make way for the negroes – or maintain their ground by waging a war on the negroes that would result in driving them from the state, or in their extermination.”
Allen added that “None of these fanatics who claim to be acting in behalf of philanthropy…would consent that their sons and daughters should intermarry with the negroes.” He imagined that the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued by Lincoln under pressure from the fanatics in the Republican party at an impractical time, “to teach the radicals that the measure could result in no good.” (4)
Allen obviously comes off here as someone appealing to the fears of his white constituents, not as someone moved by compassion for negroes; nor could his imagination extend to anticipating the nuances of how a black migration to the North would take place or what its consequences would be. In truth, he seems not to have grasped the unsustainability of the slave system, or why there was such bitter opposition to it. Still, we should not be too quick to judge him for his prejudices. Was he wrong to fear black migration to Ohio? It was to have consequences for places like Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Toledo that would have stunned Allen and his “section.”
Allen’s 1925 biographer tempered a general admiration for his subject with the conclusion that:
To the author, William Allen is an example of the leader who appeals to the emotions of his constituents rather than to their reason. He played upon their national passions, their unreasoning antipathies, their inherited prejudices and their unthinking desires. He seldom, if ever, tried to formulate their longings on the basis of calm, balanced judgment. He strove to discover and satisfy their wants with the blind devotion of the servant rather than the wisdom of the ruler. His career discloses vividly the power of public opinion, for good and evil, in the working of our government. When this public opinion is partly molded by leaders that strive to arouse the intellect, it is apt to be a thinking public opinion; but if the leader plays only on the emotions, these alone are likely to be stirred. The latter was Allen’s general procedure. (5)
Ironically, Allen’s limitations were grounded in his Democratic principles, and the appeal the early Democrats made to the intemperate desires of voters certainly has its echoes in present-day politics. It may be that someone can be found who is qualified to replace Allen in the statuary. The problem, though, is that we are not qualified to replace him. With our mindless march to the tune of “diversity,” we cast aside the memory of our forebears, condemning them to be replaced by a collage of predictable figures – black athletes, proto-femininists – that reflects the fantasies of a society in decline. I suggest to Ohio that they give Allen an extension. Fifty years, perhaps, would be enough time to see whether his proposed replacements stand the test of time, or whether even greater men emerge.
(1) Reginald McGrane, William Allen: A Study in Western Democracy, Columbus, Ohio: F. J. Heer (The Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society), 1925, p. 259.
(2) Fred Haynes, Review: William Allen: A Study in Western Democracy, The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 12, No. 4 (March 1926), p. 604.
(3) Ibid, p. 605.
(4) McGrane, p. 157-159.
(5) McGrane, p. 260.