Once upon a time, in a small Maryland town on the Chesapeake Bay called St. Michaels, a teenaged slave named Frederick Douglass beat up a white farmer named Edward Covey who had been hired to "break" the difficult boy. That fight was a turning point in Douglass’s life, liberating him from fear and instilling self-respect, and it set him on a path that would lead him out of slavery and into a career as the preeminent African American spokesman of the nineteenth century.
The fight took place at Covey’s home, a relatively modest brick manor called "Mount Misery," purportedly because of the gloomy temperament of the Englishman who originally built it in 1804. Today, the home is owned by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who bought it in 2003 for $1.5 million, and now uses it as a weekend retreat (closer to Washington D.C. than is his other vacation home in Taos, New Mexico). The house, which had been a bed-and-breakfast before Rumsfeld acquired it, has five bedrooms, five fireplaces, four bathrooms, and sits on four beautifully landscaped acres. Recent renovations to Mount Misery were overseen by the Secretary’s wife, Joyce Rumsfeld.
Clearly there’s a story here, one involving race and power and history, but just what that story amounts to is not entirely clear. Not many people have taken note of the case, given the surfeit of other matters to worry about nowadays, and those few who have taken note tend to fall into either of two camps. A handful of lefty bloggers have suggested that there’s something sinister about the historical coincidence, and that it’s "not surprising" that Rumsfeld now owns the house where so many slaves were beaten and broken. On the right, meanwhile, a few commentators have suggested, predictably, that the New York Times somehow endangered national security by including a photograph of Mount Misery (from the end of the driveway) in its recent puff-piece about St. Michaels as an up-and-coming resort community. And that’s where the debate, such as it is, stands, having petered out into simplified perspectives on either side.
Some context, as always, is helpful. First, St. Michaels, whose local economy long depended upon crabbing and oystering in addition to farming, has undergone a remarkable transformation. In 1833, as Douglass recalled in My Bondage and My Freedom, "[t]here were a few comfortable dwellings in it, but the place, as a whole, wore a dull, slovenly, enterprise-forsaken aspect." Moreover, a "drinking habit" had set in among the population, such that "it was admitted, by the few sober, thinking people who remained there, that St. Michael’s had become a very unsaintly, as well as an unsightly place." In the decades following the Civil War, it began to appeal to well-heeled folk from nearby cities who wanted a place to get away to. More recently, although its population still barely clears a thousand inhabitants, it has become quite fashionable indeed, with a number of high muckety-mucks having bought in. In addition to Rumsfeld, these include Vice President Dick Cheney and White House press secretary Tony Snow, among others. It’s uncertain whether the town’s drinking habit has abated any.
We also need a good sense of who Edward Covey and Frederick Douglass really were. Covey, as Douglass describes him, was a man unusually fit for his job as a tamer of slaves. Cruel, hypocritically religious, hyper-vigilant, and unyielding, "[h]e knew just what a man or boy could do, and he held both to strict account" and "had the faculty of making us feel that he was always present." We have no other writings, unfortunately, that might contradict such a description, but we also have no good reason not to believe Douglass’s account. And one thing is certain: Covey played a vital and malignant role in the power structure of a slave society. As for Douglass himself, it is important to have a clear understanding of just how central, and remarkable, a figure he was in American history. Born a slave, he went on to become one of the antislavery movement’s most effective orators; an independent writer, editor, and publisher; an influential autobiographer who powerfully shaped African American literature; a tireless campaigner for civil rights after the Civil War; Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia; U.S. Marshal; and U.S. ambassador to Haiti, among other positions of public service.
So what does the purchase and refurbishing of the house by the Rumsfelds tell us? Why should we care? Why does it matter?
On a crude, practical level, perhaps it doesn’t matter. There’s certainly no shortage of other things to be concerned about right now, and the question of which politician owns what building can seem trivial next to such problems as global warming or religious war in the Middle East.
On a deeper level, however, the fate of Mount Misery represents something troubling. We might be tempted to see it as symbolizing the perseverance of a caste system whereby the poor, the weak, or the oppressed are made to work and fight and die while the privileged few reap the benefits. Donald Rumsfeld is no Edward Covey, of course, and no one is suggesting that he doesn’t work hard or that he advocates racial supremacy, but he does, by all accounts, evince the same overbearing personality whose power is based on intimidation and on the subservience of others, and he does work for an administration whose policies have been deeply harmful to the African American community. Although not put quite so explicitly, this is evidently the perspective shared by those liberal bloggers who see something "fitting" in the Rumsfeld-Mount Misery connection. But it doesn’t really get to the heart of the issue, for it leaves off at questions of race and power, as reflected in personality, without fully addressing the historical problem.
Here’s the rub. What the current state of Mount Misery (and its previous incarnation as a B-and-B) represents is an attitude toward history in which the meanings of past events, people, and places do not deserve our preservation, respect, or full understanding. It represents, in particular, an attitude toward American history in which legal property rights take precedence over the uncodified right of the people to their shared cultural past. From this view, the old Covey house in St. Michaels, Maryland becomes just another piece of real estate on the "free" market, while anything that may have transpired there is erased, forgotten, or – more accurately – absorbed and homogenized into the modern story of American progress.
Secretary Rumsfeld himself might be responsive to such an argument. On April 29, 2005, during an award ceremony for Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld had this to say about history: "History is not always generous to the men and women who help to shape it. Great abolitionists like John Quincy Adams and Frederick Douglass would not live to see full equality for African Americans that they had envisioned and fought to bring about." (Read the full transcript of the event, if you can stand it, on the Department of Defense website at http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/2005/tr20050429-secdef2622.html).
Indeed, history has not always been generous to its shapers! And one of the main reasons for that is not just that the historical course of events transcends the contributions of any single individual, but that we who are responsible for preserving and understanding history often fail to give its major figures their just due. Rumsfeld strained to make this point about Wolfowitz ("History will see Paul as one of the consequential thinkers and public servants of his generation"), but perhaps he should have looked closer to home, so to speak.
For would not the most fitting outcome for Mount Misery be as a museum wherein a key moment from the country’s past can find its rightful place in the public memory? The old Covey house, and the fight between slave and slave-breaker that took place there, are together emblematic of two of the fundamental themes of American history – on one hand, the horrors of bigotry, racial oppression, and legally sanctioned violence, and on the other hand, the nobility of the struggle against unjust authority. Our democracy has had to fight many such battles, and Douglass’s defeat of Covey symbolizes perhaps the most important dimension of the struggle, that of the fight against America’s own internal anti-democratic forces. Rumsfeld professes, certainly sincerely, to want to promote democracy around the world, and to fight for it if necessary. The Secretary and those close to him personally and philosophically, could help to honor the tradition in which they see themselves by honoring Douglass’s lonely personal battle against tyranny. They can honor that battle by preserving Mount Misery as a public site of contemplation, where the meanings of democracy and despotism are given a human face, and a very American face. That would help keep St. Michaels from becoming merely a resort for the wealthy. That would help preserve its soul.