One of the greatest of American thinkers declared: “It is as though Nature needs must make men narrow in order to give them force.”W.E.B. Du Bois got hundreds of things right, but I think he got that one wrong.
To explain why ia mn ow going to attempt a high-wire act rarely performed with success: I am going to ask Americans to find inspiration in the life of a morally tainted United States senator.
For nearly 30 years, William M. Stewart held the office of senator for the state of Nevada. His conduct in office set a wobbly example for American youth (or their elders, for that matter). The title of Russell Elliott’s biography of Sen. Stewart — Servant of Power — packs a lot of character traits into three words.
The head of the Central Pacific Railroad, Collis P. Huntington, accurately took the measure of a man who was more than willing to use his position for personal gain. “We must fix it so that he can make one or two hundred thousand dollars,” Huntington wrote to a partner. “It is to our interest and I think his right.”
Stewart was the key figure in the creation of the 1866 and 1872 Mining Laws that gave companies untrammeled access to the wealth of the subsurface minerals, without requiring a royalty for, or any other revenue to, the national government. In a succinct choice of words, biographer Elliott referred to the “often unethical methods used to achieve his ends,” as well as the abundance of “incidents of questionable behavior.”
And yet there was another dimension to Stewart’s historical legacy.
As a key feature of reconstruction after the Civil War, radical Republicans undertook to extend the right to vote to African American men. Sen. Stewart took on the job of merging a multiplicity of drafts and proposals into the Fifteenth Amendment, declaring that the right to vote would not be constrained by “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
“In addition to his work in phrasing the proposal,” his biographer wrote, “Stewart’s participation in the debates and his excellent work as floor manager for the bill in the Senate were key ingredients in the success of the measure.”
Historical figures are forever playing this trick on us. Despite our best efforts to confine them to one category or classification, the multiple meanings of their lives disrupt our efforts to keep people like Sen. Stewart narrowly defined.
He was, it turns out, the servant of power and of the powerless, bribing state legislators to get the of job of senator, following the orders of mining and railroad company magnates, and advocating for the rights of freed slaves.
One narrow category is not sufficient to hold this forceful fellow.
This is a valuable recognition for our intemperate and quarrelsome times, when the custom, of seeing human identity as unitary, consistent, and narrow, begs for rethinking.
And so, inspired by reflections on Sen. Stewart, I propose an experiment.
When you greet a fellow human being, try skipping the usual salutation, “How are you today?”
Instead, opt for a question more likely to provoke an answer worth hearing: “Who are you today, and is that who you were yesterday, and who you expect to be tomorrow?”
And now to note one more interesting aspect of Stewart’s career: In 1868, he voted to impeach President Andrew Johnson. In his autobiography, he referred to the president as “the most untruthful, treacherous, and cruel person who has ever held a place of power in the United States.” Our ancestors, in other words, did not sit around waiting for posterity to invent the satisfying practice of the pot calling the kettle black.