I wrote my first letter to the editor before I was ten, and I’ve been writing them about every ten years since. Here’s my latest.  The Washington Post column I was responding to seems to be no longer on the paper’s web site or anywhere else on the Internet, for that matter.

Like my previous letters, this one was not published.

Dear Sir:

Mr. Brag Bowling [Civil War 150, “No Abolitionist He,” Mar. 4] offers the South’s rejection of the Corwin Amendment as evidence that it wasn’t fighting to preserve slavery but “for a higher purpose, their political independence.” (The 1861 Corwin Amendment would have prevented any future Constitutional amendment from allowing Congress to end slavery in any state.)

While many Southerners didn’t trust Northern promises to uphold slavery in states where it existed, the South seceded over the Republicans’ promise to stop slavery’s spread into the nation’s considerable western territories.  The territories had been the national slavery debate’s political focus from the time of the Northwest Ordinance (1787) to the Missouri Compromise (1820), the Wilmot Proviso (1847), the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), and Bleeding Kansas (1854 – 1858). One need only peruse Donald Reynolds‘s excellent book Editors Make War: Southern Newspapers in the Secession Crisis to get an idea of how quickly the South turned to secession as a result of the Republicans’ 1860 electoral success and their commitment to stop slavery’s spread.

I’m a Virginian who, like Mr. Bowling, had forefathers who fought for the Confederacy, but I cannot honor – much less reinvent – the Confederacy’s motive.


  1. My fellow Virginian, you hoped for publication of actual historical fact, lucidly recounted?

    Historical fact no longer exists, as such. Such facts are more accurately described as failed memes. In random fashion, they transit websites, blinking on and off. They are but individual nucleotides, rent from DNA-strand context to quiver, powerless, in State’s cytoplasm. Some thank Lynne Cheney for the lysis of history; others, the immense power of WHATEV.

    End of rant!

    I am v. curious about your first letter, age ten. What motivated entrance into the public sphere? Ah letters to the editor: poems of public discourse, exercises in theory of mind, and more effective than the vote. Time to search for an anthology of same.

  2. This is embarrassing. I just now checked my facts; it turns out I was not under ten but was fully thirteen. I also wrote a radio station — WGH, a pop station in my hometown of Newport News, Virginia — and not a newspaper.

    My embarrassment stems not from these inaccuracies but from that first letter’s inaccuracy. I wrote WGH a letter decrying their decision not to play the Buoys’ song “Timothy.” I didn’t understand why a remorseful song by a druggie about his fellow drug user’s overdose was too sensitive a matter for the public’s ear. I learned weeks later, though, that the remorse in “Timothy” stemmed from the singer-narrator’s realization that he had eaten Timothy. I had misunderstood the lyrics.

    As Emily Litella would say, “Never mind.” I’m glad that letter wasn’t published.

  3. I feel your pain, Ms. Litella. Ignore the sniggles.

    But surely this is perfect letter: an unreliable narrator inadvertantly makes his very point. How could a song possibly be deemed noxious, when the offending lyrics are opaque to the protected class?

    I missed this tune, and controversy, entirely. Once again, the nation’s midsection trails half a decade behind the coasts. Can we take a moment to mourn the lost society that sought to protect its youth, albeit ham-handedly? Timothy today would be a gore-spurting video-game, marketed to fourth-graders.

    1. I love your point about the letter! (You should be writing my “John field notes”: your point is the one I labored for several paragraphs to make this morning.)

      When they say that about midsection and coasts, I don’t think they had Chicago and Newport News, Virginia in mind. My favorite disk jockey, “The Mouth of the South” Larry O’Brien, for instance, left WGH for the big time — WCFL Radio in Chicago — about the same time I wrote the “Timothy” letter. (Along the Atlantic coast, I’d still listen to Larry at night skipping off of the ionosphere somewhere over Ohio or West Virginia thanks to the 50,000-watt “Voice of Labor,” and I was amazed how much he had cleaned up his act and made himself more presentable for the big city.)

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