Opinion

Race the burr in America’s saddle

John and Mary Orson Rippey owned a farm in York County, where he was captain of his militia company during the Revolution. But they migrated north about 1800, to better farming soil around the Finger Lakes in New York.
John and Mary Orson Rippey owned a farm in York County, where he was captain of his militia company during the Revolution. But they migrated north about 1800, to better farming soil around the Finger Lakes in New York. Photo provided

The old saying about having a burr under the saddle keeps coming to mind when I read stories about angry racial tensions during the past few years and, in particular, during the current presidential campaign.

Because in America the burr under the saddle has been race — making the horse buck and kick — ever since the first slave was brought here in 1619. It never goes away. My own family, at least briefly, was complicit in owning slaves in York County, near the Susquehanna.

The specific words that kept the burr hurting until the Civil War were ‘three-fifths.’ That was the fraught compromise that brought northern and southern states together at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the deal in which a slave was counted as three-fifths of a person in calculating the population of a state for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives.

The word “slave” never appeared in the Constitution, but the deal resulted in the southern slave states controlling the federal government for 75 years.

John and Mary Orson Rippey owned a farm in York County, where he was captain of his militia company during the Revolution. Around 1800, they piled their stuff on wagons and migrated north, to better farming soil around the Finger Lakes in New York.

One of their grandsons — I’m named after him so I call him Old Rip — was my great grandfather. And after I read the diary he kept during the Civil War, he became my family hero because he went into harm’s way for a great cause. He was a young surgeon in the Union Army, first in an infantry regiment at Fredericksburg, then with a cavalry regiment in the Shenandoah Valley.

Long after the war, Old Rip rode a train to York County, trying to find more about his roots. He found that in 1783 John Rippey was assessed by the county “for 300 acres of land and 200 pounds of personal property, three horses and six persons.”

Asking around, Old Rip found that for a time the Rippeys apparently also had a tannery, and local lore had it that the slaves worked there and one was an expert in tanning.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly passed the Gradual Abolition Act in 1780 (New York followed in 1799). Benjamin Franklin and several other founding fathers from Pennsylvania who owned slaves freed them after the Revolution ended in 1783. The record is unclear on what happened to the Rippey slaves.

Of course, we don’t know what John and Mary Rippey thought about the morality of slavery when they owned slaves or when they took the bumpy trails to upstate New York. But they were churchgoing Presbyterians, and I haven’t a doubt that they did think about it, because it was always a burr under the saddle in the new republic. It hurt through historic, unpopular compromises, the Civil War, Jim Crow, Lynch Law, discrimination everywhere, and the first black president.

These musing kind of connected in my mind because I watch Pirates baseball on TV. ...

As a newspaper reporter in Providence, R.I., I had occasion to cover Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Ever since, I’ve always been uneasy about the safety of presidents. In my own lifetime, shots were fired at a president-elect and one president and missed; at two presidents, killing one, wounding one; and at two presidential primary candidates, killing one, crippling the other.

.... Watching the Pirates, a commercial appeared. A tough ex-Marine was doing a political Benghazi scene with a howling Hillary Clinton and thousands of white military headstones. He urged viewers not to sit out the election but to vote. Big words “Stop Hillary Now” appeared, with the round emblem of the sponsor, the National Rifle Association.

However, members of the NRA are no more likely than anyone else to shoot a president. My friend next door, sitting with his rifle in his treestand out in the woods, is not looking for a politician to stroll by.

As Mel Ayton notes in his 2014 book, “Hunting the President,” the Secret Service checks out thousands of threats to every president, nearly all from people with mental health problems, not political motives. Some are dangerously serious. Only the Secret Service knows how many death threats have already been made against Clinton and Donald Trump. It takes courage to run for president in America.

Ayton’s book doesn’t say so, but the problem is that anybody can obtain a handgun or rifle. This makes the terribly demanding profession of law enforcement even more hazardous for our police officers and Secret Service agents.

I’m sure Old Rip — who knew something about battlefield wounds — would pray that the race tensions under the saddle in this presidential election play out with ballots, not bullets.

The author, John N. Rippey, is a retired Penn State journalism professor who resides in Zion.

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