Jack Garvey: Why Here? Why Newburyport?

Jack Garvey, local legend, flutist, projectionist, and gadfly, reached out to voice his take on The William Lloyd Garrison Annual lecture, and why Garrison is still relevant. Here it is:

So far, four writers have clearly and convincingly covered Now in the need for re-confirming the legacy of William Lloyd Garrison.  May I offer one entirely devoted to Here?

A year before America’s Golden Calf descended the escalator and smashed the tabloids, a front-page headline appeared on the Daily News:  “Caleb Cushing tops list of important residents.”  

To commemorate the Port’s 250th anniversary, “local historians” had chosen Newburyport’s “most accomplished and most colorful public figure.”  Having read Cushing’s biography, Broken Glass, I wondered if the choice was an outright repudiation of Garrison—whose advocacy of human rights, we must remember, threatened what at the time were regarded as property rights.

Cushing’s foremost commitment was to Northern businesses in the triangular slave trade, of which he was part.  Unavoidably, that led him to defend the “rights” of slaveholders to protect their “property.”  A close friend and political ally of Jefferson Davis, Cushing supported the Slavocracy for years before the war, and maintained secret correspondence with Davis during it—violating Lincoln’s wartime order, also known as treason.

Before long, a letter (“Cushing a poor choice”) from one Jay Harris detailed the Mayor/Governor/Mass. Supreme Court Justice/U.S. Rep./U.S. Attorney General’s decades-long “staunch support for the rights of slaveholders.”  In a guest column following that, I called it akin to picking Neville Chamberlain rather than Winston Churchill as Britain’s most “accomplished” prime minister because he served more years in parliament, held more offices.

My headline, “Garrison 51, Cushing 1,” referred to two recent histories of the era: Waking Giant:  America in the Age of Jackson (2008), by David S. Reynolds, and Ecstatic Nation:  Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 (2013), by Brenda Wineapple.  The two books combine for 51 references to Garrison, including five that extend several pages.  Cushing’s name appears once.

That might suggest what national historians think of our local choice.

Curiously, the Custom House’s then curator and director were the only two living historians quoted in the initial report, one of whom defended Cushing as an advocate of “popular sovereignty,” apparently unaware that the term was a euphemism for “states’ rights,” itself a euphemism at the time for the Slavocracy.

But the Port has far more historians that have written books, held events, served as sources for numerous media reports.  Because the 2014 choice was made in their name, they are implicated whether they want to be or not. What say they?

Moreover, before Newburyport looks to Garrison to stem today’s Confederate tide, shouldn’t we be accountable for our own unwitting, inattentive role in it?

Until then, in a new age when Confederate flags appear not just in the streets of DC, but on porches and on bumpers right here in the Merrimack Valley, Cushing remains Newburyport’s foremost citizen.

What say we?

2 thoughts on “Jack Garvey: Why Here? Why Newburyport?

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