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The Last Emperor of China and Lincoln’s Birthday

OK, everyone: mid-February and the world, as of mid-December when this is written, is still turning. And both Francisco Franco and Richard Nixon are still dead. And that gag is still pretty…silly.

But 12 February has a lot going on. On this day in 1553 Lady Jane Grey, the Nine-Days’ Queen of England, was beheaded in the Tower of London, no older than 17: her crime was being named in the succession by Edward VI on his deathbed, while Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, yet lived. Also on this day, in 1862, the fighting for Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in Tennessee began: when it was over, Ulysses S. Grant was a sensation, some 15,000 Confederates were taken prisoner, East Tennessee was open to invasion by the Union, and the stage was set for the titanic fight in the Tennessee pine barrens near a Quaker meeting house called Shiloh (which you can read all about in The Devil’s Own Day). Omar Bradley, the “GI General” of WWII fame and the last five-star flag officer in the United States, was born in Clark, Missouri on 12 February 1893. And the second Monday in February is National Clean Out your Computer Day, and 12 February is National Bread Pudding Day (for whatever reason). But today we’re talking about the rather hapless Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China, and about Old Abe…sort of.

His Confucian education taught him nothing of the outside world, of mathematics or business, science or even geography. 

Pu Yi, (or Puyi or any one of a score of different names) became the Xuantong Emperor of China on 14 November 1908, two months before his third birthday.  Only his wet nurse, Wang Wen-Chao, was allowed to accompany the toddler to the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City. As Emperor the boy loved to have his eunuchs flogged for no other reason than they were available. His Confucian education taught him nothing of the outside world, of mathematics or business, science or even geography.

His generosity attracted the attention of the Japanese, who became interested in Pu Yi as a possible pawn in their game of power politics in East Asia.

But change was coming to China. In October 1911 the army garrison at Wuhan mutinied, beginning the Xinhai Revolution. As the unrest spread to Peking and public opinion turned decidedly against the Qing dynasty, he was handed an instrument of abdication on 12 February 1912,  three days after his sixth birthday. The boy was kept as something of a pet, still served by a household agency in the Forbidden City, but he had no temporal power beyond his imperial apartments. He was restored to the throne for twelve days by a warlord in 1917 but was removed by another. In 1923, after the Great Kanto Earthquake devastated Tokyo and other cities, he donated some of his treasures to pay for disaster relief. His generosity attracted the attention of the Japanese, who became interested in Pu Yi as a possible pawn in their game of power politics in East Asia.

From the time he was ejected from the Forbidden City in 1923 until 1945, Pu Yi was a puppet of Imperial Japan.

Even though he had no real power, Pu Yi had been treated as an Emperor Emeritus of sorts since his abdication, but in 1923 another strongman took over Peking and abolished his titles and his household, and reduced him to a private citizen. He was expelled from the Forbidden City, fled to the Japanese Embassy, and thence to the Japanese concession in Tientsin. From the time he was ejected from the Forbidden City until 1945, Pu Yi was a ward/puppet of Imperial Japan.


 

Litho of a younger Lincoln
Looks much younger here than he would later as president.

And today, on 12 February, we recognize the birth of the 16th US president, Abraham Lincoln–or at least some of us do, like Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio and New York. But on last Indigenous People’s Day (9 October), some students at UW Madison got themselves together to protest the statue of Lincoln at Bascom Hall because:

 Everyone thinks of Lincoln as the…freer of slaves, but let’s be real: He owned slaves, and…he ordered the execution of native men….

I’m going to guess this one’s a “studies” scholar of some sort or another and not a history major. But, in 2017 at Madison, it’s hard to tell. The organization which led the protest, called Wunk Sheek, which says they “[serve] students of indigenous identity” on campus, covered the offending Lincoln bust with a black tarp briefly, made their speeches, doubtless did their drum-circle thing for the cameras, and left.

No evidence has ever actually surfaced of Lincoln’s ownership of slaves, though it must be conceded that his wife’s family were slaveholders.

As we all know now, because Lincoln didn’t issue his emancipation at his first inaugural, he absolutely, positively had to have owned slaves because…well, he just did. Case closed.  Arguments to the contrary will not be heard. The “Lincoln owned slaves” fantasy has been around for so long that it has become some sort of received wisdom. It likely has to do with Lincoln’s lawyerly care in eliminating the practice of slavery in the United States because he knew that, legally, whatever he did had to survive him. An outright emancipation was legally impossible, and nearly everyone at the time knew it. Only generations later did critics conclude that Lincoln simply had to have owned slaves because he moved so slowly in the emancipation. No evidence has ever actually surfaced of Lincoln’s ownership of slaves, though it must be conceded that his wife’s family were slaveholders.

When told that more hangings would have earned him more votes in the next election, Lincoln replied “I could not afford to hang men for votes.” Yup, pretty heartless.

Lincoln also heartlessly ordered the execution of 32 Dakotas in Mankato, Minnesota on 26 December 1862, for their roles in a peaceful eastern Sioux/Dakota demonstration that left some 800 Euro-Caucasian invaders of their ancient land…well, un-alive…in an event that the white-privileged history establishment calls the Sioux War of 1862. Well…no to the “ordered the execution,” trope, too. There were originally 303 of the Sioux leaders of the 1861-62 Sioux Uprising who were condemned to death by courts-martial and tribunals (it was in the middle of a civil war), but Lincoln commuted 264 of the sentences, and one was reprieved for other reasons. The remaining 32 were executed, but not on Lincoln’s express order.  When told that more hangings would have earned him more votes in the next election, Lincoln replied: “I could not afford to hang men for votes.” Yup, pretty heartless.

Now, officially, President’s Day will be next Monday, the Monday between Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthday. See you then. Stop by JDBCOM.COM some time.

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