The Baker Oration: A Spiritual Congress on American Affairs
Channeling the spirit of Union Col. E. D. Baker, Frances Whipple became one of the earliest prominent voices for abolition in California politics.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Frances Harriet Whipple Green MacDougall has got to be one of my favorite people from the past. She led a fascinating, energizing, and thoroughly libertarian life stretching from one end of the nineteenth century to the other, and from Rhode Island all the way to San Francisco. We have covered her earlier life already: specifically, her books Memoirs of Eleanor Eldridge and Eleanor’s Second Book and her commentary on the Rhode Island Dorr War. Now, we move to her later years in what was undoubtedly a lifetime spent in search of reform. Whipple was, it seems, from a very young age a feminist, an advocate for worker’s rights and labor reform, an antislavery activist, and a political radical. In 1845—fresh off of publishing a history of the Dorr War and a volume of antislavery articles—she married Charles Green. She divorced him two years later, probably because of domestic violence. Over the next several years, Frances added yet another ism to her repertoire: Spiritualism, an electric faith for the Industrial Era. She spent the rest of her life seeking assistance from the dead to change the world for the living.
Whipple first encountered Spiritualism while living with her sister’s family in Pomfret, Connecticut in the late 1840s, where she met Samuel Brittan. Brittan was one of the founders of American Spiritualism, which combined ideas from the Swedish scientist and mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), and the German physician and hypnotist, Franz Mesmer (1734–1815). Spiritualists did not necessarily believe in the Christian God (though they may well have), but the key article of their faith was that human spirits could live on after death and communicate with the living to help direct human development. The religion exploded across the “Burned‐Over District” of New York and coastal New England in 1848, after the “Hydesville Raps”—a supposed series of otherworldly communications centered in Kate and Margaret Fox’s house, where the spirit made a series of smacking noises. The Fox sisters became famous mediums, travelling the country doing seances, and whole trains of other colorful and freethinking individuals followed suit: There were “spirit batteries” who charged their auras to speak with the dead by telegraph, there were “magnetic healers” who used the arts of Mesmerism to cure a variety of old‐timey sounding maladies like rheumatic fever, there were practitioners of “automatic writing” who allowed spirits to directly access their subconscious, there were sex‐magician Rosicrucians, and binge‐reformists like Frances Whipple.
After publishing for Britain’s Spiritualist journals for many years, Whipple moved to California in 1861 shortly after the beginning of the Civil War. She immediately started writing for an award‐winning paper, The Hesperian, and for the Pacific Monthly, but she attained real local fame during the evening of March 5, 1862. That night, she delivered a funeral oration for Colonel E. D. Baker, a former California politician who was killed at Ball’s Bluff, Virginia on October 21, 1861. But this was no ordinary funeral speech for a departed local icon. Whipple had been carefully constructing the document over an extended period through a series of spiritual communications with Baker himself. Baker would appear (in some form or another) in her home and dictate the speech night after night. His spirit made sure that Whipple constructed his sentiment correctly, that she fully explained the process by which spirits live on after death, and that she write her own personal introduction to the audience. Baker’s overall message was shockingly similar to the set of ideas around which Frances had built her entire life and career: antislavery now, spontaneous and popular republicanism, and the infinite wisdom of the ages.
By Mrs. Frances H. Green
The Baker Oration: Power and Permanence of American Institutions
Delivered at Platt’s Hall on Wednesday Evening. March 5, 1862. San Francisco: Commercial Steam Presses, Valentine & Co. 1862.
“They never fall who die In a great cause. The block may soak their gore; Their heads may sodden in the sun; their limbs Be strung to city gates and castle walls— But still their spirit walks abroad. The years Elapse, and others share as dark a doom. They but augment the deep and sweeping thoughts Which overpower all others, and conduct The world at last to freedom.”
–Byron’s “Doge of Venice”
It is but justice to myself, as well as to the world, to state how the following work came to me. Being at the house of a friend one evening in the last part of December, it was announced to me that Colonel Baker was present and wished to communicate. He then said he was going to give me an Oration on the American Union. He made quite a speech at the time, giving precise directions in regard to the place and manner of the performance, and various preliminaries, all of which were faithfully carried out.
The very instant that these things were told me, I recognized a remarkable influence I had felt for some time, and which had promised to present me with a very important work which I should know as soon as it came. I did so, and directly gave some broad and characteristic traits of the man, and especially of his power and sentiment as a Statesman, which have since proved, by the best authorities, to be absolutely true, though I knew nothing of him at the time, but that he was a person of much consequence in California, who was brought home to his untimely grave not long after my own arrival.
From this time he visited me daily—almost hourly—till I became so accustomed to his presence, that he seemed far more like a living man, than a spirit. During these interviews his character was unfolded with great accuracy, especially his genial and poetic nature. His presence was always beautiful and healthful, and it was a pleasure to do as he wished.
The inspiration, or spiritual influence of this work was given in the writing, and apparently in the natural state. During this process he was with me, I think, most of the time, suggesting points in regard to it, and expressing his opinion, as it proceeded. He very carefully superintended its criticism and revision, and finally approved and endorsed it.
It may be, and is, subject of wonder with many, that he should have chosen one so incapable of representing his great oratorical power. To such I answer, it was not a matter of taste, but of necessity. He had a great and important message for the world, and he was bound to deliver it. To find a perfect instrument for such a purpose, would be extremely difficult; and what he says is probably true, that he took the best he could reach and control. In fine, I do myself verily believe these things, herein stated, to be true.
In introducing the following discourse to the Public, it is necessary to give a few words of explanation. The authenticity of its reputed origin has been questioned on the ground of essential difference with the known course, both of opinion and of action, in the person from whom it claims to be derived. Baker, they will tell you, was not an Anti‐Slavery man. In reply to this, I affirm, that in principle he was—in policy, I am sorry to say, he was not always where he ought to have been. But, thank God, though Baker sometimes shirked the truth, he never defended falsehood. Though he was not always loyal to the highest right, he was NEVER the Champion of Wrong.
I need not tell you that in the pursuit of office, or any of those grand objects which the Politician seeks under the highest and most exciting stimuli, he too frequently loses hold of his early integrity. The idea of right becomes insensibly clouded, until at length, if he be not a terribly earnest and sincere man, he becomes the victim of his own sophistry, and he ceases to perceive the absolute power of Truth and Rights. He reasons only relatively. You will hear him talk hours of relative degrees of Wrong, when a single word might have cut to the very heart of the matter at one stroke. Speaking of any great Social Evil which has become a pet of the Public, as Slavery, he will tell you of fifty things that are worse. And thus, indirectly he defends it. And such are the worst enemies of Truth. The bold assault can be met and parried, but the smooth and wily windings of the Sophist, will take you under the fifth rib; and, logically, you are a dead man before you know it.
A politician is a moral barometer, and he is expected to indicate the exact degree of party feeling. But here the crooks and shams of the world will not pass current. Self‐deceit and subterfuge are alike impossible. There are no wrong ends placed before us, and hence false motives lose their power. Everything is seen in its real character. In the clear light of spiritual truth, there are no masks, no disguises. This will be understood as applying to a sphere of considerable intelligence and integrity. If a person could stand up here with all these great lights shining around and into him, and say one word, direct or indirect, in defence of Slavery, he must have a harder face than I have ever seen. On the contrary, all the power of the Spirit World goes dead against it, seeing as we now can, how it cramps and impedes the most forward Nation under Heaven, we consider it the greatest clog in the wheels of Progress.
In reviewing our earthly course, we feel regret in proportion as we have wandered from the direct way. Along with this comes the desire to retrieve. Not only the uncompleted work, but the work that is better and truer than we have ever done, we wish now to do. We feel an irrespressible desire to speak the unspoken word, to strike the unattempted blow. We desire to enlighten and encourage those we leave behind; and by a confession of our own faults, show them how to correct theirs. It is this which has brought, and must still bring me to you. Spirits are not divested of responsibility toward the world they have left.
One word more, and I have done. It has been said that this Discourse is treasonable. But Treason I would beg leave to suggest, is not absolutely always wrong. It is relative rather, and depends upon its associations for its character. Treason to Wrong is Right. This the brave old poet and patriot Milton, will tell you, when he says: “Since therefore the law is chiefly right reason, if we are bound to obey a magistrate, as a minister of God, by the very same reason, and the very same law, we ought to resist a tyrant and minster of the Devil.”
Again, affirming that the following document has the sanction of the highest Spiritual Intelligences, unto this testimony I affix my hand, confirming and endorsing the same.
EDWARD D. BAKER.
San Francisco, March 15th, 1862.
The Baker Oration.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Citizens of San Francisco:–
Before entering on the main subject, permit me a word of explanation concerning the reasons of this REUNION.
I was, as you well know, called away abruptly, and from the midst of life. A memory of promise, rather than of great achievement, lay behind; a mountain of unattempted work, towered up before. The yet unabated power of life had been germinating, growing, clasping whatever they could reach—still putting forth toward the unbloomed blessings of the great unexplored Beyond. Think ye that any bullet, blade, or bayonet, could, in an instant of time, sever all these—germs, buds, blossoms, tendrils of the soul?
Nothing is more false than this assumption.
The uncompleted Life is attached to everything around it, by the radiation of ten thousand vital interests, which are, so to speak, offshoots of the soul, and partakers of its own immortal energy. If the Life be a working and aspiring power, it will reach out still farther, still more resolutely, and shape the future by the irrepressible emanations of its own will.
You cannot crush all of life at one blow. If you cut down a green tree, though you sever the trunk, you do not kill the roots. Their unexhausted vitality will assert itself. They will push forth at random, and live their allotted term, in some shape, or by some means. But if the tree dies of itself, altogether, either by old age or disease, the separation is complete, and the transition perfect.
The human soul, as you may see by this, is not an abstract, essence, or organism, boxed up in a six‐by‐two, or five‐by‐one and a half apparatus, of insurmountable outline. Ay, by its love, its hope, its faith, its will—ay, by its necessities, more than all, it creates and sustains innumerable relations with things around, as well as beyond itself. And these ties are not independent abstractions, but they are actual emanations of its own substance—essences of its own power, and hence partakers of a nature immortal and indestructible as itself.
When the spirit is prepared for transition by the gradual operartion of age or disease, it retracts its tendrils; it reabsorbs its emanations. Like one about to take a long journey, it calls home all it may want by the way. It gathers back all that properly belongs to it—that it may go forth free, and leave no essential thing behind.
But when the cord of life is severed suddenly, there is no time for retraction. The process is wholly unnatural, and the violated law claims its own. This is the secret of Ghosts and Apparitions, with which the history of the World teems. The spirits of persons who die by accident, crime, or any other untimely means, come back, because the unsevered ties of Earth draw and compel them to return.
It has been a subject of regret, with many intelligent and benevolent minds, that I ever exchanged the Forum for the Field. But however disastrous it may seem, and in fact is, by that movement I have been thrown into the line of a truer promotion. I have been translated from the Lower to the Upper House, where not the affairs of the Nation only, but of the World, are discussed and ordered.
Imagine, if you can, the august character of that Assembly, where Cicero, Clay, Chatham, Demosthenes, Emmett and Webster, are among the Speakers; where Solon is Secretary; where Sydney, Washington, Milton, Franklin, and Toussaint, are a Committee on American Affairs; where William Tell and Leonidas are Door‐keepers; and the glorious old Greek, who sang of “Freedom with the Morning Stars,”—Homer, presides.
What could be given, or expected, more than the merest shadow of the scope, aims and plane of thought that must distinguish such an Assembly? This is no fable; no picture of excited Imagination. There are absolutely organizations of spiritual power, where the affairs of Earth are continually canvassed, and measures are taken to regulate and control them. And it is something more than mere egotism, or even patriotism, to declare that the present War in America is the subject, of all others, that now most engrosses the attention of these august Minds.
Could you enter into the spirit of their counsels, you would enlarge your ideas of Christendom; you would pull up your old stakes, and stake our larger for the boundaries of the Civilized World.
Here are many Representatives from Heathen and Savage Nations; and many, also, from unfortunate conditions in the so‐called Civilization. Their very names may have died out from Earth, and perished with them. In their limited spheres of Knowledge and Use, they lived and died—unknown to fame, and unhonored by history. And yet, in their genuine love of Good, in their aptitude for Truth, and, above all, in their reaching and aspiring power, they have unfolded Beauty and Wisdom, that rank them with the Highest. And this should comfort and strengthen all earnest and aspiring souls. They know not the power that is in them.
Citizens of San Francisco! I bring with me, to‐night, a grander company than you have ever yet welcomed within your walls: Statesmen, Philosophers, Prophets, Poets, Martyrs, Heroes, and Demi-gods—they who lived, and they who died, for the genuine love of Right. Could you see and know them, the house would not hold you—the city would not hold you; you would flock from every quarter, to salute and entertain guests so glorious.
You might not, indeed, compliment them with floating flags and triumphal arches; but you would seek, every man, to come with clean hands, with pure hearts and uplifted eyes, with aspiring and reverent souls.
Could you only comprehend how they are working in and through you—to repress evil, to unfold good—you would not so contract, you COULD not so debase yourselves. Could you see how benignly they bend from their beautiful spheres, to reach and move you, you would come out, with one mind, to meet and to work with them. The temptations of Policy, the corruptions of Lucre, and all the belittling finesse of World‐Craft, would be left behind.
I will now endeavor to translate, or transfer to you, the sense of the House, which I have the honor to represent—the SPIRITUAL CONGRESS ON AMERICAN AFFAIRS. In a general way, it may be said that the sentiment of the Spirit‐World, in regard to this subject, is the sentiment of the Declaration of Independence, of the American Revolution, and of all clear‐seeing, right‐minded people, since that period, and before. It may be resolved into one word—Humanity. This, in its most liberal sense, includes everything of right, power, possession, in the Individual, in the Nation, and in the Race. It involves the security of Life, Liberty and Happiness. Whatever comports with, or promotes these—at least in a general and generous sense—must be in harmony with it, and therefore true, whether it be national, sectional, social or individual. Being true, it is founded in the indestructible elements of things, and therefore cannot be lost. Whatever conflicts with, or is subversive of these, is false, unnatural and monstrous; and though, by a forced power, it may be sustained for a while, it must, ultimately, pass away and perish.
Here, it may pertinently be asked, What was the sentiment of the American Revolution: And, strange as it may seem in this enlightened Nineteenth Century, when, in a general way, we take it for granted we known everything, it is not only necessary to ask this question, but to ANSWER it. There are very few who absolutely know—of who, if they do know, have anything of a realizing sense of the actual basis of power in the Institutions we have fostered so reverently, and defended so bravely.
An acquaintance with the State‐papers, letters, and other public documents, both public and private, of the times, will show that, in principle, the Anti‐Slavery and Revolutionary movements were identical, and had the same supporters. A single exception to this may be safely challenged, in all their ranks, either North or South, a few extracts will suffice to show the general character and tone of this sentiment.
Washington, in a letter to Sir John Sinclair, said:
“There are in Pennsylvania, laws for the gradual abolition of Slavery, which neither Virginia nor Maryland have at present; but which nothing is more certain than they must have, and at a period not remote.”
In a letter to the Marquis De La Fayette, he says:
“The benevolence of your heart, my dear Marquis, is so conspicuous on all occasions, that I never wonder at any fresh proof of it; but your late purchase of an estate in the Colony of Cayenne, with the view of emancipating the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity. Would to God a like spirit might diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country!”
William Pinckney said before the Maryland House of Delegates, in 1789:
“I have no hope that the stream of general liberty will forever flow unpolluted through the mire of partial bondage, or that they who have been habituated to lord it over others, will not, in time, become base enough to let others lord it over them. If they resist, it will be the struggle of pride and selfishness, not of principle.”
Luther Martin, also of Maryland, said, in 1787:
“Slavery is inconsistent with the genius of republicanism, and has a tendency to destroy those principles on which it is supported—as it lessens the sense of the equal rights of mankind, and habituates us to tyranny and oppression.”
Alexander Hamilton, in 1784, speaking to an American Tory, said:
“The fundamental source of all your errors, sophisms and false reasonings, is a total ignorance of the natural rights of mankind.”
“The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”
John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States under the Constitution of 1789, while acting as Minister Plenipotentiary in Spain, says, speaking of the Abolition of Slavery, in a letter from that country:
“Till America comes into this measure, her prayers to Heaven will be impious. This is a strong expression, but it is just. I believe that God governs the world; and I believe it is a maxim in His, as in our courts, that they who ask for equity, ought to do it.”
The brave and noble Warren, who fell at Bunker Hill, gives the following remarkably strong and clear testimony in this behalf:
“That personal freedom is the natural right of every man and that property or the exclusive right to dispose of what he has honestly acquired by his own labor, necessarily arises therefrom, are truths that common sense has placed beyond the reach of contradiction. And no man, or body of men, can, without being guilty of flagrant injustice, claim a right to dispose of the persons, or acquisitions of any other man, or body of men, unless it can be proved that such a right has arisen from some compact between the parties, in which it has been explicitly and freely granted.”
The sentiments of Jefferson, in regard to this subject, are well known. But the following extract from his Notes on Virginia has such a terrible point for these times, I cannot refrain quoting it:
“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure, when we have removed their only firm basis—a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?—that they are not to be violated, but with his wrath? Indeed, I trouble for my country, when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever; that, considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference. The Almighty has no attribute that could take sides with us in such a contest.”
De Witt Clinton, of New York, speaking of European Despotism and American Slavery, gives the following pointed, as well as comprehensive, home‐thrust:
“Have not prescription and precedent, patriarchal dominion—divine right of kings and masters—been alternately called in to sanction the Slavery of Nations? And would not all the despotism of the ancient world have vanished into air, if the natural equality of mankind had been properly understood and practiced? This declares that the same measure of justice ought to be measured out to all men, without regard to adventitious inequalities, and the intellectual and physical disparities, which proceed from inexplicable causes.”
But I forbear. These are the sentiments of the Revolution, taken at random from the North and South; and the testimony of the States themselves, even to South Carolina, was equally strong and pointed.