Friday, September 14, 2007

A Handout for History's Sake

Rick Outzen, publisher of the estimable Pensacola Independent News, writes with some sympathy this week of witnessing the "tear filled downfall" of Escambia County administrator George Touart; a downfall, it should be added, the Independent News helped precipitate when it joined forces with the Pensacola News Journal to expose Touart's web of previously-undisclosed business interests with county vendors, developers, and fellow pols.

That's all behind us, now, except for the inexplicable eagerness of county commissioners to wrap George in a gilt parachute as he heads out the door. Many may wonder what it is about this county that it fires the good ones with not much more than a kick in the pants as they tumble out the door, but when the political temperature grows too hot almost invariably it will usher the bad ones out with a healthy stipend and the sound of trumpets and high praise.

Though it isn't intended to answer that question, along the path of promoting a severance package for George, there is this short passage in Outzen's eveningtide memoir:
George Touart was the hometown boy who came back to run Escambia County. His family is old, old Pensacola. When the first city jail was built in 1836, Fransisco Touart (George's great, great grandfather) was the jailer and lived on the second floor with his family. Since then, there have been a long line of Touarts in local law enforcement in the surrounding areas.
That historical allusion rings a bell with us. Given the vagaries of spelling customs when Pensacola was a territorial frontier town, it seems quite possible -- we'd like to say almost probable -- that Outzen's "Fransisco" Touart is the very same Pensacola jailer, "Francis Toward", who was on the job in 1844 when Jonathan Walker was captured at sea and jailed for "slave stealing."

Now, there's a reason to offer George some compensation, if the county commissioners are feeling generous!

Back in the mid-1840's Walker, an avowed abolitionist, picked up a small ship in Mobile after it had been in dry dock for repairs. He then put in at Pensacola to gather provisions for the long haul around the "cape of Florida" on his way back north. Seven local slaves begged him repeatedly to hide them aboard so they might reach freedom.

Unfortunately, the alarm went up almost the moment the ship was out of sight. Walker, his ship, and the runaway slave crew were spotted a few days later and taken into custody in south Florida.

The arrest and lengthy pre-trial detention of Jonathan Walker on various charges related to "slave stealing" became notorious in the antebellum North. Eventually, Walker was convicted in a hurried show trial, placed in a pillory, pelted with rotten eggs, permanently branded with the infamous "S.S." ("slave stealer") on one hand and fined a sum of money so high as to be patently ridiculous. Then he was released and quickly headed for home.

The whole saga inflamed abolitionist passions and shamed the South. So notorious became the story of Jonathan Walker and his branded hand, repeated from every abolitionist pulpit in the north, that it has been said only the later publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and the (tardy release) of the Dred Scott decision by the execrable Roger Taney managed to eclipse it in the minds of anti-slavery forces, everywhere.

John Greenleaf Whittier even wrote a much-loved poem about the celebrated abolitionist ("The Branded Hand") that turned Walker's grisly punishment into a badge of honor:
Then lift that manly right-hand, bold ploughman of the wave!
Its branded palm shall prophesy, "Salvation to the Slave!"
Hold up its fire-wrought language, that whoso reads may feel
His heart swell strong within him, his sinews change to steel.

Hold it up before our sunshine, up against our Northern air;
Ho! men of Massachusetts, for the love of God, look there!
Take it henceforth for your standard, like the Bruce's heart of yore,

In the dark strife closing round ye, let that hand be seen before!

And the masters of the slave-land shall tremble at that sign,
When it points its finger Southward along the Puritan line
Can the craft of State avail them? Can a Christless church withstand,
In the van of Freedom's onset, the coming of that band?

For many months before the trial Walker had been kept in chains in a small, filthy, cramped cell across the courtyard from the main jail building in Pensacola. On the top, second floor of that building lived constable "Francis Toward" and his family for the first six months of Jonathan Walker's pre-trial detention. For at least half a year the abolitionist prisoner's view of life on this earth was mainly confined to what he could see through the small window opening of his cell.

As it turns out, what he saw was mostly a first-hand view of the daily activities of the town constable, his wife, their slave cook, and their various children. Nearly a third of the book Walker wrote later, "The Trial and Imprisonment of Jonathan Walker at Pensacola, Florida, for Aiding Slaves to Escape from Bondage" consists of Walker's daily diary entries and observations of the numerous beatings constable Toward administered to his wife and various slave prisoners in the open-air courtyard; beatings the wife gave to the slave cook; beatings the constable and his wife gave to their own children; and beatings the slave cook gave to her own child, or to the Toward children when ordered by the constable or his wife.

Insofar as Walker could observe, everyone with even a tiny bit of power was beating up on someone with less.
It may be thought that those whippings were of no great severity, and merely administered as a parent would correct a child; but to test the quality let a person be covered only with a thin cotton frock, and let a woman, excited to uncontrolled passion, apply a raw-hide switch to the back of the other with her greatest strength from twenty to fifty blows, and they would not need a repetition of it to ascertain its mildness. (chap. 10).
As Walker concludes elsewhere, "If any parents, guardians, or masters wish their child, minor, or servant, to hate them with perfect hatred, let them flog them!"

At first blush, this may not seem to have much to do with our own George Touart. At most, if Rick Outzen has it right, he is only the "great-great-grandson" of the brutal constable and shrewish wife described in Jonathan Walker's diary and book. The sins of the great- great- grandfather surely are not visited on our own George Touart. He has plenty enough of his own, as it happens, anyway.

But if we think of George as a kind of proxy, a stand-in for those poor wretches, white and black, whom his distant relatives (as we suppose) 'whipped' so unmercifully in full view of Jonathan Walker, giving our soon- to- be- departed county executive a little charity might be in order. Not for anything George did. More as penance for what the county allowed his distant relatives to do.

Let's just not make a habit of it. And don't add any interest, please.

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