This suspicion, however, disregards the kaleidoscopic sectarian context of the period, as well as the critical capacity of believers. Spiritualism was a religious practice—as in other faiths, its followers sometimes engaged in conscious deception or unconscious self-delusion, while others developed ways to detect malfeasance. And as in most other faiths, its followers interpreted or directly communed with their divinities. Spiritualists, rather uniquely, considered every human soul to be available for consultation. This met a demand characteristic of their historical moment, for useful, direct answers to personal and political questions. Tired of clerics wrangling over ancient doctrines, Americans went straight to the source—the spirit of Jesus Christ for theological dilemmas, the spirits of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin for civic ones.
The practical orientation of spiritualism led some followers to meld the worldly and otherworldly in remarkably literal ways. Thomas Richmond described presidents, legislators and judges gathering in a Spirit Congress where the framers of the Constitution sat among an eclectic pantheon that included Moses, Joan of Arc and Mary Queen of Scots. In 1861, Richmond received notice that “the subject of the Rebellion was … under consideration,” and that he had the special task of communicating the Spirit Congress’s wishes to mortal leaders in the “lower realm.”
Spirits had not deigned to intervene for the preceding millennia of human history, but the injustice of American slavery provoked them to unprecedented action. They were aided by the arrival of Benjamin Franklin in the spirit world in 1790. According to many spiritualists, it was Franklin, tinkerer, entrepreneur and diplomat, who opened up communications between the living and the dead by inventing the “rapping telegraph.” This immaterial apparatus debuted in 1848, making contact with soon-to-be celebrity mediums Kate and Maggie Fox of Rochester, New York, and marking the beginning of spiritualism as a popular movement.
Not surprisingly, Franklin quickly stepped up as the spirit world’s chief strategist and emissary during the volatile 1850s. According to Richmond, spirit-Franklin engaged his services because Richmond was a practical man of business, more likely to win the trust of serious audiences. Through a writing medium, Richmond received detailed instructions about obtaining justice for African Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction: “Go personally to Washington,” Franklin implored, directing him to sit in particular House and Senate sessions—not to testify, but “to think, to be a battery of brain, mind, and thought through which spirit minds could act on other men’s brains.”
Unlike the abstract, moralizing exhortations of many spirit mediums, Richmond’s missives were tactical. Franklin had his amanuensis compose “scores of letters to Presidents, Members of their Cabinet, Members of Congress and Governors of States,” and counseled him to “set forth the absolute necessity” of arming slaves and “making use of all Southern resources that can be obtained.” Of course, abolitionists saw Southern secession as the final blow against slavery, and abolitionist mediums added to the chorus with calls for emancipation attributed to George Washington, John Adams, et al. Franklin’s very specific military instructions go much further, showing the desire and capability of the dead to actively intervene in mortal affairs.
It’s understandable that the image of a Spirit Congress would provide much-needed comfort amidst the terror of war; living leaders were untested by such trials, while Washington and his peers had united the country once, and could do it again. The conservative, nostalgic ideal of past American “greatness” underwent a mutant reanimation in the spiritualist effort to mobilize history in building a new and more equitable society. At the root of both conservative and radical impulses are phantoms whose putative intentions are impossible to disentangle from our own.
Most of the spiritualist mediums engaged as wartime prognosticators and intermediaries happily rested their case after 1865, moving on from abolition to other causes, such as women’s suffrage and temperance. Richmond, however, pressed on through Reconstruction. As spirit-Washington and spirit-Franklin well knew, military victory was only the beginning of a long process, and Richmond was happy to prod the slow machinery of earthly policymaking on their behalf. He soon turned his efforts towards impeaching Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, when Johnson refused to grant rights of citizenship to former slaves. From his sickbed after a bout of erysipelas, and then in the House and Senate chambers, Richmond propounded “the radical and just measures that had been determined on and adopted by the Spirit Congress … the same right and justice to the black man as the white.”
When Richmond’s account of this decade-long experiment in spiritual influence went to press in 1870, it was an extreme but evocative example of how sympathy could become a creative force for reconciling past and present. At the same time, it raises troubling questions for modern readers about why we seek to know the intentions of historical figures, and how we frame their influence on current events. The desire to redeem what we find distasteful in the past can lead down reactionary paths just as easily as reformist ones, as Robert Cox points out in his research on pro-slavery spiritualists who vied for influence within the movement. Recognizing the amphibious nature of spirit voices, “roaring radicals” of subsequent decades would turn more towards real-world political organizing, and the voices of Franklin and Washington faded from their lips.
The freshly sworn-in Judge Gorsuch promised little in his confirmation hearings, but he did elaborate on his commitment to originalism. Gorsuch acknowledged that he cannot access “the secret intentions of the drafters”; he rather seeks to “understand what the words on the page mean.” At the same time, he grants that centuries of legal precedent have shifted the accepted meaning of those words from their eighteenth-century connotations. Gorsuch spoke as though interpreting meaning and applying precedent were straightforward, practically automated functions—perhaps seeking to exorcise the living-or-dead document debate, and recast the law as a non-haunted, inorganic machine. A mechanical, objective judiciary seems more desirable than ever in this deeply partisan moment, but the “automatism” of spiritualist mediums suggests that even the most deeply felt certainty comes from a situated vantage point.
In 1867, a medium channeling John C. Calhoun noted that Americans “are perpetually looking toward the past, to know how to step into the future.” Yet history speaks in many voices, and as we translate those voices across time, the past becomes a moving target. The unverifiable spirit of Calhoun included himself when he declared that “men learn by the mistakes they have made.”
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If you liked this piece you might
also enjoy “Conflict and Consensus,”
a review published in our most recent issue,
and our web essay “Understanding Is Dangerous”
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