Text of the 2018 Convocation address, “Questions for Bates,” by Associate Professor of History Joseph Hall, delivered on Sept. 4:
Good morning. Happy New Year.
I want to begin with a few words of thanks, first of all to Walter for such wonderful remarks. You have a gifted classmate.
I want to also thank the Wabanaki peoples and the homelands that we sit and stand on, and the people whose labor has made our conversation today possible, including the sign language interpreters who are turning the words that you hear into words that you can see.
I’d like to thank the Class of 2018 for nominating me for this opportunity to speak with you all. I’m sorry they’re not here for me to extend my thanks in person, but it is truly an honor, and I am grateful to them for it.
I’d like to thank two students in particular, Tim Larson from the Class of 2005, and Emma Soler, who’s from the Class of 2020, both of whom have done important research that makes a lot of what I’m going to be talking about today possible.
To Caitlin Lampman, Michelle Belden, and Pat Webber, who all work in the Bates Muskie Archives and Special Collections, for providing access to the history that I’m going to be talking about. And last of all, of course, to you all for being here. It’s a pleasure to be here with you. I want to extend a warm welcome to all of you who are new, whether you’re in the Class of 2022 or new faculty or new staff. I hope your time here at Bates is much more than you expect.
Although I am certainly grateful for the chance to be here to speak with you all, I have to admit that I’m a little bit frustrated by the conventions that bring us here.
We all decided to come to Bates because it’s an institution that prides itself on small scale conversation, whether in our classrooms, dormitories, or departments and programs. Yet you as the Class of 2022 are going to begin and end your academic careers here dutifully listening to people garbed in velvet robes, standing behind large wooden lecterns, and not really having much of a conversation.
It’s not that I’m really opposed to velvet and wood. It’s not even necessarily that I’m opposed to lectures with large audiences. The problem is that what really excites me about being here with you all is the chance to actually to get to know you and to talk with you. The reason those conversations are particularly interesting is because within that intimacy, we have the opportunity to learn from each other but also, as in our mission statement, “to engage the transformative power of our differences.”
This kind of lecture, frankly, is not the kind of format where I’m expecting that we’re getting much in terms of intimacy or engagement. Let me just say right at the beginning, I don’t really care what you think about what I’m about to say. I am very interested in hearing what you want to do with what I have to say. What I want to do is think about questions, which are at the heart of any good conversation.
I’d like to think about what a question is — at its heart, it’s about a quest; that’s at the root of the word. The Latin quaerere, or quest, is at the heart of a number of words that we think about with questions, such as “query” or “inquiry.” The Latin quaerare means to seek or to inform oneself, to ask, but I want to think about “question” in terms of that idea of quest. When the Middle English used that word, they were invoking a certain kind of judicial understanding. You see that in the way we use the word “inquest,” or even “Inquisition.”
I’ll bet no one was expecting that. “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” In asking questions, it’s incredibly important that we remember that a quest for knowledge should not simply be a quest to prove yourself right, a quest to conduct an inquisition that seeks to stamp out ideas that differ from your own. To be inquisitive, not inquisitorial, is what I’m talking about here.
I also want to make clear that I think every question has the potential to lead to something big, to have something big at stake. I’m a firm believer, as I think are almost all of my colleagues, that there is no such thing as a stupid question. I’m sure many of you have heard that injunction many times. Many of you might, in fact, not believe it, because you think you’ve heard stupid questions and maybe even asked a stupid question. But let me ask you to think about it this way: If a question is an adventure or a journey, if it’s a quest, and if every journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step, then the converse means that every step has the potential to begin a journey of 1,000 miles — which is to say, every question has the potential to hold some much bigger questions at stake.
Let me put this in terms of a question that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’m going to need you to use your hands here.
How many of you have heard that Bates College was founded by Oren Cheney, who was an abolitionist?
All right, so many of you have. If you haven’t, that’s totally fine, but now you have. Oren Cheney was an important founder of Bates College. He was a Free Will Baptist. He believed deeply in the equality of all people, such that he believed that anyone should be admitted to what was, in 1855, the Maine State Seminary, regardless of their racial or gender backgrounds.
A second question. How many of you know that Bates College is named after Benjamin Bates, an industrialist who established the textile mills in downtown Lewiston?
All right, you guys are warming up. This is good. It’s in 1864 that Benjamin Bates is going to give the first $10,000 of what would eventually be a $200,000 set of gifts to Oren Cheney, so that the Maine State Seminary could become a liberal arts college named after Benjamin Bates.
Third question. How many of you know that the cotton textiles that Benjamin Bates and others are weaving in Lewiston are going to be made, until 1865, from cotton that is grown by enslaved people in the south of the United States?
Okay, so maybe not as many. That is, in a sense, an indication of some of the ways we talk about our history in this country.
These three questions are at the heart of what I think is perhaps, by now, an obvious question: If Oren Cheney was an abolitionist, deeply opposed to slavery, and Benjamin Bates was making his money weaving cotton grown by enslaved people, why was Oren Cheney taking Bates’ money?
And what does that mean for us?
We can start with Cheney’s own diary, which, fortunately, you can find in the Muskie Archives. It’s really a wonderful little artifact. It’s about three inches by five inches, a small leather-bound thing that he could stick in his pocket. When you open it, on each page would be the seven days of the week — Monday through Wednesday on one side, then Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday on the other page.
There’s only one year of this diary that still exists, which for me, is a fascinating question. For a man who keeps a diary so often — and we know that he did keep other diaries — why is there only one still remaining? The fact is, because it’s 1864, we have a chance to find out a little bit of what he thought when he first talked with Benjamin Bates about that first $10,000 gift that would make the seminary into a college. I want to read to you from that important day when Cheney and Bates first talked about that gift, March 4, 1864.
“Have had a long and pleasant call on Mr. Bates—says he will give $10,000—would rather have had another name—he cannot act as our agent as well as if on another name—but said it might be as well for us in the end—said should at some future time make us a donation. I asked, ‘Before your death?;’ He replied: ‘Perhaps so, I cannot say.’ Said now is the time to start subscription in Boston. Went to Concord, N. H. Stop with Bro. E. P. Prescott. Carrie and I called at the Millett’s.”
Hearing these words might seem rather unremarkable, but it’s extraordinary when you look at the diary, because here’s this incredibly small page, and Oren Cheney’s trying to fit all of these words on one third of it. You can see, as he’s writing, the penmanship gets tighter and tighter and smaller and smaller until he’s finally wrapping the words up around the page because he doesn’t have room to fit all the important things that Benjamin Bates is telling him on March 4th, 1864. Cheney, in what looks like fairly spare prose, is really, really excited. $10,000: He was going around very happy when people would give $100 or $10, and here’s a man giving $10,000 and offering the prospect of much more.
But he doesn’t say anything about slavery.
We know that Cheney had opinions about slavery. He was a member of the Free Will Baptists, which was one of the denominations so radical as to believe that God offered salvation to all people. If that was true, then slavery was, as Cheney put it in an opening editorial to the abolitionist newspaper Morning Star, “a giant sin against God and an awful crime against man.” Cheney was so deeply committed to abolitionism that he left Brown University because, as a student, he did not see it as abolitionist enough. Cheney believe deeply in abolitionism.
It’s worth noting that abolitionism was something of a fringe at the time — it’s easy to say we’re all abolitionists now, but roughly 2 percent of Americans living in the north of the United States were abolitionists in the 1850s. Just so you understand, the Libertarian Party polled 4 percent in the national election in 2016.
When it comes to talking about money made, at least indirectly but still fundamentally from slavery, there is silence.
There was controversy surrounding Bates’ establishment of this gift to make a college. The controversy lay not with slavery and money, at least as far as Cheney would remember it. The controversy lay in the fact that Cheney was accepting money to make a college in the first place. When Cheney established the Maine State Seminary in 1855, there were a number of Free Will Baptist seminaries in other parts of northern New England. All of them were thinking about becoming a college at some point, in a sense stepping up from being a post high school kind of school to being one that dealt more deeply in the liberal arts. Cheney actually assured a number of people, “Don’t worry, I’m actually looking into just establishing a seminary.” Yet here he is nine years later, looking for the money to make a college. A lot of people were incredibly unhappy with this. They were so unhappy that decades later, in 1907, when Emmeline Cheney, Oren’s wife, wrote a biography of her now-dead husband, she took an entire chapter to explain why it was that he had done what he did and to defend those decisions.
Cheney and his colleagues were also aware of the limits on the kind of money they could accept. Cheney’s successor and second president of Bates, George Chase, recalled in the 1880s that Free Will Baptists, when they were thinking about establishing Bates College, would have been reluctant to send their children to a college, “maintained by the fruits of slave labor.” What he was referring to specifically was that there had been a southerner, a plantation owner, who had offered money to an institution in New Hampshire. He had not actually followed through on that, but Chase was acknowledging that plantation owners, perhaps strangely, were interested in supporting an abolitionist institution, and that Bates College would have probably been very uncomfortable with that fact, had that plantation owner been interested in giving a donation here.
Here we have a college that is aware of some controversial elements of a decision to become a college, and is aware that slavery is actually a controversial piece of a foundation of a college — and yet when it comes to talking about money made at least indirectly but still fundamentally from slavery, there is silence.
I find that silence intriguing because it suggests just how deeply this nation — not just south but north, south, and west — depended on the enslavement of millions. Abolitionists, including mill owners, failed to disassociate themselves from ties to slavery. Emma Soler has done some wonderful research on this fact, to show that even a mill owner in Rhode Island would be anxious about how he was going to continue being an abolitionist, while he continued to weave cotton grown by the people he wanted to be free.
This failure to acknowledge or at least directly address these compromises raises for me another set of intriguing questions, and I want to take another moment to think about it etymology. “Intrigue” is a wonderful word. It comes from the Latin intricare, to entangle or to confuse. It’s worth thinking about intriguing questions, because it is those kinds of questions that are questions in which you find yourself entangled. To put it differently: In what ways are you inextricably tied to the questions that you pose?
It’s with that idea of intrigue that I point out that I did not title this talk “questions for Cheney” or “Questions for Cheney and Bates,” but instead, “Questions for Bates.” My real interest is not questions for them, although I would love to sit down in a room with both of them, but it’s for us.
When it comes to slavery, abolitionism, and racism, there are many contemporary entanglements for us to consider. As Bryan Stevenson, the director of the Equal Justice Initiative, pointed out in his Commencement address last May, “I don’t think we’re free in America. I think we’re burdened by our history of racial inequality. It’s in the air in Maine, just like it’s in the air in Mississippi. It doesn’t matter where you go, there is this contaminant that we’re all breathing in.”
You can see some of that contamination in the life of someone like Julie Lythcott-Haims, the author of the Common Read for this year, who, in many instances, recounts how she was silenced by the racism of others. That silence is not something that she bore alone or something that she suffered alone, even though I think she suffered it more than the other people around her. Everyone who was with her suffered it for not being able to benefit from the wisdom that she could offer, the trust that she could build, with those who instead were inflicting great pain on her.
It’s in the face of these problems that people like Lythcott-Haims and Stevenson point out that I wonder, can talking more fully about Oren Cheney, his vision and his compromises, and also his silences, help us see a little better this contaminated air and perhaps even hear a little better our awkward silences?
There’s a problem with this, and that’s that my question, at least for what I want to do right now is just too big. The amplification is too loud. You’re all sitting here very quietly, nicely regimented in your rows, and I’m stuck behind this big wall of wood. I would so much rather talk with you all in a smaller group, as I was able to do in April, when I talked about this with a group of prospective students.
I would like some of you to ask me, as some of them did, “What role did African Americans play an abolitionism?” “Why are you talking just about white men?” And for that matter, “What role do you play? What role does your background play, as a white man, in asking these questions and seeking these answers?”
Of course, there’s another big problem here, and that’s that these are only my questions. Your quest, your development, depends on your questions. I hope you get some of those questions and answers from the people around you.
Consider, for instance, asking Frankie Urueta, a custodian in the basement of Pettengill — when he gives you a fist bump, you’ll know who he is — why he wants Bates to host a powwow. Ask Michael Sergeant what he thinks about ranked-choice voting, or go listen to his podcast and then ask him. Ask research librarian Christine Murray anything. If you have time, ask her about how birds communicate. Let’s talk about what intrigues us, and remember, there really are no stupid questions.
Perhaps just as important, let’s find the space to do this. it’s so easy to say to stand here and say, “be curious, ask questions” when that does not help you get your homework finished. The dreams of September frequently wither under the obligations of October. If you are going to ask questions, ideally you’re going to have the space to do so in your classrooms. But there might be other questions that intrigue you that don’t fit in those spaces. I hope you do the work to make those spaces.
For my part, if you have a question for me, I’ll cut corners on my committee work right there. I might even cut some corners on my lecture for class tomorrow. For those of you who are in either of my classes tomorrow, you might see some of the effects of these questions in your syllabi. That’s not quite as much of a joke as I’d like it to be right now.
What it’s really about is you and the questions you want to ask. I hope I’m part of them. I hope others here are part of them. We have this wonderful opportunity in this wonderful environment to ask them.
I’d like to close with one last question: Does anyone have time to talk over lunch next week?