Sunday, March 18, 2018

Lieber’s Life and Letters

‘Yesterday and the day before, serious riots against the negroes. This evening they assembled to defend themselves. I went to see them. They were an uncommonly fine set of people, well formed and well dressed. There were white men there ready to assist them; the soldiers out. The mayor told them to be quiet, but if they were nevertheless attacked, to fight like good fellows. . .’ This is from the diary of Francis Lieber, born in Prussia 220 years ago today. He emigrated to Boston, and, in time, lay the foundations for academic political science in America, and its application to public life. Despite spending many years in the South, he was strongly opposed to slavery; he was also an ardent supporter of the Unionists, and during the Civil War was consulted frequently on legal issues.

Franz (later Francis) Lieber was born into a large family on 18 March 1798 in Berlin, then the capital of Prussia. In 1815, he interrupted his studies to volunteer for the Prussian army. He fought in the battles of Ligny and Waterloo, but was seriously wounded in the assault on Namur, and nearly died. After the war, he resumed his studies in Berlin. But he was an active member of the liberal student movement, which opposed the monarchy, which led to him being imprisoned and then barred from studying at a Prussian university. Instead, he crossed the border to Saxe-Weimar and enrolled at the University of Jena, where he obtained a degree in 1820. He moved to Dresden to take up further studies, but was drawn to fight, briefly, in the Greek War of Independence. He then spent one year in Rome tutoring the son of the Prussian ambassador, historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr, and writing about his experiences in Greece.

On the promise of a pardon, Lieber returned to Germany, yet he was soon imprisoned again. Subsequently, in 1825, he travelled to England, where he remained for two years, tutoring and writing for German periodicals. But, failing to secure an academic position, he crossed the Atlantic, armed with letters of introduction from Niebuhr, and settled in Boston where, initially, he ran a pioneering gymnasium and swimming school. In 1829, he married Matilda Oppenheimer (one of his former pupils in London, and the daughter of a German-born businessman). They had three boys.

By this time, Lieber had taken on the huge task of editing the 13-volume Encyclopaedia Americana, published between 1829 and 1833. For a while, he acted as a research assistant for Alexis de Tocqueville who was on a French mission to investigate the US penal system (see also Perfect order that prevails); and he published various pamphlets and essays, as well as translations from French and German. In 1835, he finally secured an academic position when South Carolina College offered him a new chair in history and political economy. He remained there for over 20 years, producing some of his best known works: Manual of Political Ethics (1838-1839), Legal and Political Hermeneutics (1839) and Civil Liberty and Self-Government (1853). Having been pardoned by Frederick William IV of Prussia, he undertook two journeys back to Europe, including Berlin, in the 1840s.

In the mid-1850s, Lieber fought to be chosen to replace the outgoing president of South Carolina College, even though his personal views (opposing slavery and anti-secession) were unpopular in the South. His bid was unsuccessful, so he resigned and moved to New York City. There he soon secured an appointment as professor of history and political science at Columbia College, where, among other things, he lectured on constitutional law. In the run-up to the Civil War, he founded the Loyal Publication Society which issued tracts for the Unionist cause. During the war, he was frequently consulted by the War Department in Washington DC on legal issues, and he authored important legal works such as Guerilla Parties, Considered with Reference to the Law and Usages of War and Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field.

After the war, Lieber continued writing on political issues, urging, fro example, free trade and civil liberties. He served in the War Department, helping organise captured Confederate archives, and from mid-1869, he acted as a diplomatic negotiator between the US and Mexico. The Civil War had been personally tragic for Lieber as two of his sons fought for the Unionists, and one, who was killed, for the Confederates. Lieber himself died in 1872. Steven Alan Samson provides this assessment of the man in the journal Humanitas (Volume IX, No. 2, 1996) as found on the National Humanities Institute website: ‘Unaccountably neglected for over a century, Francis Lieber, one of the first university-trained German scholars to migrate to America, served as a bridge between the intellectual and political cultures of Germany, England, and America. While cultivating an astonishing range of activities and interests, Lieber helped lay the foundation of academic political science in America and promoted its practical application to public affairs. His theory of institutional liberty, which attributes the rise of civil liberty to the development of an increasingly integrated complex of self-governing institutions, may be his most original contribution to the political science literature.’ Further information is also available online at Wikipedia, History of Economic Thought, Library of Congress, or The New York Times.

Ten years after his death, in 1882, the publisher James R. Osgood brought out The Life and Letters of Francis Lieber as edited by Thomas Sergeant Perry. The book is, essentially, a compilation of extracts from Lieber’s diaries (intermittently kept between 1816 and 1857) and letters, with a connecting narrative by Perry. This can be freely read online at Internet Archive or Googlebooks. Here’s a selection of extracts from Lieber’s diaries as reproduced by Perry.

18 September 1822
‘Went with Niebuhr and his family to Albano, to the palace of the Consalvi. Beautiful sunset and view of the sea. Marcus already says: “Il tuo caro Mare, il tuo Mare.” Pleasant reception at the palace. From my window a view of the town, Monte Sevello, the plain, and the sea. I thought, during these two weeks in Albano, I could forget everything connected with my experience in Greece, and breathe freely for a short time; and now comes the “Diario di Roma,” confirming the rumor that R. is in Argos.’

20 September 1822
‘With Niebuhr, Amalie, and Marcus to the Rotunda. The church door is ornamented with a beautiful frieze. Niebuhr thinks the old walls we saw were part of a bath built for the Germans in the time of Domitian.

Niebuhr says nothing can be accomplished for the welfare of Italy until the priesthood is suppressed. This could be done gradually by allowing the monks to leave the cloisters with a pension. If a whole cloister should disperse, a certain sum should be divided among the monks in proportion to the income of the cloister. The princes, for instance the Chigi and their descendants, might be taxed for this purpose.’

22 September 1822
‘Went early in the morning on horseback to Ariccia, Genzano, and Velletri. This is the capital of the ancient Volscians, and is beautifully situated on a hill. By way of Giullianello to Cora - cyclopean walls, Temple of Castor and Pollux. Bought Niebuhr a knife which had only been used at sacrifices in time of peace.’

14 June 1823
‘A delightful interview with the great artist Cornelius, whom I found surrounded by his pupils and full of hope for the growth of art in Germany. His wife is a charming woman, so full of her recollections of Rome that we naturally found much to talk about, and it was a great enjoyment to me. Cornelius is finishing his Olympus, and means to begin upon his Neptune. He says the work of Giulio Romano at Mantua is full of original Ideas, equal for originality to Raphael in the Farnesina.’

28 June 1826
‘With Rouquette to the British Museum; meagre, with the exception of the Elgin marbles. What a delight to see these! . . .’

7 July 1826
‘Went to see the Tunnel, a most remarkable work, worthy of the old Romans. . . Mr. Greaves offers me a situation near Plymouth. He is secretary of an infant-school society. We shall see. “No history. We don’t care about history.” I meet everywhere with great kindness; tickets to the Dulwich Gallery are given to me, also to Lord Stafford’s collection, which is not open to the general public.’

15 September 1826
‘With Mr. Greaves to the Refuge of the Destitute, where he wishes me to give instruction in gymnastic exercises gratis. This is a good idea, and I am willing to do it.’

19 October 1826
‘A note inclosing £10, and the words in a disguised handwriting, “Won in a wager by an absent friend,” is sent to me by two-penny post. I cannot find out from whom it comes.’

3 October 1829
‘Arrived in Boston. Many visitors to welcome us. We unpack the large chest from Hamburg. Ce sont les plaisirs de mariage.’

6 December1829
‘Preparing my lecture for the Boston Society of Useful Knowledge.’

14 February 1830
‘I write down my plan for a geographical, statistical, and ethnographical periodical. Letter from Carey. He says he has already printed four thousand copies of the first volume of the “Americana.” ’

30 September 1830
‘Ashton, my famous barber-philosopher, said to-day: “Whenever I go to a sick person I get half a dollar. From poor people I never take anything, never; but then I don’t go to them.” We see a great deal of De Beaumont and De Tocqueville.’

11 October 1830
‘Was introduced to the President. He has a noble, expressive countenance; invites me to dinner on Thursday. . .’

19 October 1830
‘The meeting [in New York, about founding the University of the City of New York] was satisfactory. When I came into the room with Doctor Wainwright I was received with the words that they had heard I was to speak on German Universities, and all were anxious that the meeting should be opened by my exposition; so I read my remarks and thanks were voted to me, and the whole matter was referred to the committee of arrangement for farther consideration. Then I spoke freely in reply to some questions, and I felt how bold I was with my poor English. I dine to-day at Mr. Gallatin’s; you know whom I mean, the former minister to London. I feel quite clerical among all the reverend black-coats.

20 January 1832
‘Birth of a little daughter. I send the second part of my article “Napoleon” to Joseph Bonaparte
 [elder brother of Napoleon]. . .’

14 May 1832
‘Letter from Joseph Bonaparte. He says that the article on Napoleon in the Americana is the freest from all prejudice and most truthful of all he had ever read on the subject.’

4 August 1832
‘Swam in the swimming-school with Mr. Audubon, the ornithologist, who has just returned from Florida, where he shot birds and painted for his large work. He discovered many new birds, and is now going to the Bay of Fundy, whence an English revenue cutter will take him to Labrador. On these expeditions he lives like a savage, shooting and fishing, and immediately painting whatever new bird he meets with. This must necessarily produce a valuable work. Doctor Spurzheim is staying at our boarding-house in Boston; he has many very correct ideas. . .’

4 October 1834
‘I have suffered much in these days. I cannot yet write without a bleeding heart. Sent yesterday my “Letters” to Murray in London, with my conditions, and the “United States Gazette” containing my biography.’

14 August 1835
‘Yesterday and the day before, serious riots against the negroes. This evening they assembled to defend themselves. I went to see them. They were an uncommonly fine set of people, well formed and well dressed. There were white men there ready to assist them; the soldiers out. The mayor told them to be quiet, but if they were nevertheless attacked, to fight like good fellows. . .’

14 October 1835
‘It is painful to write in a journal alter hopes have been blighted, of which the preceding pages show so many traces, and when we are living in a particularly dull period; but I must take courage, and who knows how, some time or other, these very pages may become interesting to us. My work goes very slowly through the press. . .’

20 July 1855
‘Again in Philadelphia. Made the acquaintance of Allibone, writer of the “Critical Dictionary of English Literature.” He has an excellent library for it. He rises early, writes until ten o’clock, from ten to one is at his counting-house, and writes again until late in the evening. He is a merchant, and does a large business. How curious and interesting. He spoke to me always as one of his “teachers;” has studied my “Political Ethics,” and my “Pardoning Paper” attracted him much. He was present at the convention where it was first read. . .’

18 May 1857
‘Unanimously elected Professor of History and Political Science in Columbia College. Immense number of letters of congratulation and papers; North and South speak highly of the appointment. House-hunting all the time.’

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