History in 200 Words; A Case Study (Pt. 1)

Published:June 20, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Each week, Encyclopedia Virginia publishes a feature called Virginia Vignettes. These are short paragraphs highlighting some bit of Virginia history and are often, though not always, culled from entries we are working on for the encyclopedia. You can keep up with the Vignettes by regularly visiting the website, by submitting your name to our mailing list (you’ll find the means to do so at the Vignettes site), by reading the various Virginia newspapers in which they are printed, or by taking note of this blog’s sidebar. You can’t possibly miss us, in other words.

With that in mind, it’s worth saying a few words about the challenges of presenting history in capsule form. A case study might be made of this week’s Vignette about Moncure Daniel Conway. More than most, Conway was the sort who contained multitudes (and if you dug that literary allusion, then you’ll appreciate the fact that he officiated at Walt Whitman’s funeral): He was a Unitarian minister who later rejected Christ’s divinity; he was the son of Virginia slave owners, the brother of two Confederate soldiers, the grand nephew of a U.S. Supreme Court justice who ruled with the majority in Dred Scott, and . . . wait for it . . . an ardent abolitionist. He also was a Transcendentalist, a free thinker, and a prolific writer—he penned everything from anti-slavery screeds to an important biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne—who has been described, by historian John d’Entremont, as “the most thoroughgoing white male radical produced by the antebellum South.”

Conway, in other words, was a big deal, and there is no way to neatly fold him up and fit him into 200 words. In this week’s Vignette, we mentioned his involvement in the case of fugitive slave Anthony Burns. In 1854, Burns was jailed in Boston, where Conway was going to school, and the city’s abolitionists made various attempts at freeing him, which included eventually storming the jail and accidentally killing a U.S. marshal. (I presume it was accidental, but that could open a whole other can of worms, as they say.) Conway was an abolitionist himself and even happened to know Burns—they were both from Stafford County. At a Fourth of July rally where William Lloyd Garrison famously burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution, Conway gave a speech declaring that “in Virginia, they not only had slaves, but every man with a conscience, or even the first throbbings of a conscience, is a slave.”

However, Conway did not—and for this, we thank an alert Vignettes reader—”participate” in the legal and even violent events of that summer. Such are the critical distinctions that can be lost in an effort to abbreviate. Of course, the web allows us to quickly tweak, append corrections, and then, at the expense of hundreds more words, explain ourselves. For that we are grateful.

Of course, not all distinctions are so easily made. Did Moncure Conway “smuggle” his father’s slaves to freedom during the Civil War or “lead” them? Either way, Father’s Day must have been awkward at their house. Stay tuned for Pt. 2.