A nar­row cat­e­gory is not suf­fi­cient for this force­ful fel­low

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIV­E - By Patty Lim­er­ick Patty Lim­er­ick is fac­ulty di­rec­tor and chair of the Cen­ter of the Amer­i­can West at the Univer­sity of Colorado.

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.

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