Author Archives: Stan Deaton

The Law of Unintended Consequences

The Supreme Court’s decision was highly anticipated—and was leaked before the Court’s announcement. The Court would be ruling on the most contentious issue of the age, one that had threatened to tear the country apart for decades. When it was announced, one side hailed it as the final word on a divisive subject, finally laying the issue to rest. The other side exploded in moral outrage, charging the court with action far beyond its jurisdiction by trying to solve a complex and difficult political issue, overturning a long-standing precedent, and vowed to disregard the ruling and take the appeal directly to the American people.

Sound familiar? It was March 6, 1857, and the case was Dred Scott v. Sanford.  It has often been called by historians “the worst Supreme Court decision ever handed down.”

Dred Scott was an enslaved man who lived in Missouri (a slave state) with an Army surgeon, Dr. John Emerson. Emerson took Scott to the free state of Illinois and then on to the free territory of Wisconsin, where Scott married his wife, Harriet Robinson. Four years later they returned to Missouri with Emerson. After Emerson’s death, his widow refused to sell the Scotts their freedom. With the help of anti-slavery lawyers, Scott sued, claiming that his residence in Illinois and Wisconsin meant that he was free. The case worked its way through state courts. Mrs. Emerson eventually transferred Scott’s ownership to her brother, John Sanford, who lived in New York state, moving the suit into Federal jurisdiction. The case finally made its way to the Supreme Court, presided over by Chief Justice Roger Taney of Maryland.

Missouri applied for statehood in 1820 as a slave state, which would have upset the Congressional balance of power between free and slave states. Maine came in as a free state at the same time, but Congress, passing the Compromise, ruled that all future territories west of Missouri and north of Missouri’s southern border at latitude 36°30′ would be free. The Missouri Compromise had held for 37 years, even as the agitation over slavery in the western territories had fiercely divided the country.

The Taney Court, in a 7-2 decision, handed down its decision on March 6, just two days after pro-slavery Pennsylvania Democrat James Buchanan’s inauguration as the 15th president.

Taney could have ruled that Scott, being Black and enslaved, was not due his freedom and left it at that. But Taney went much further, ruling that Black Americans—whether enslaved or free—were not citizens, had never been citizens, and would never be, ignoring the precedent that African Americans were citizens in several states already. Not being citizens, he ruled, they had no standing to sue in any court in the United States and in fact had “no rights which any white man is bound to respect.”

Again, Taney and his majority could have stopped there. But Taney wanted to put an end to the acrimonious debates threatening to rend the Union asunder. He ruled that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 forbidding slavery in the western territories had been unconstitutional, that Congress never had the right to forbid or abolish slavery in any territory. Slavery followed the flag.

Associate Justice James Moore Wayne of Georgia played a large role in pushing the Court to go farther than simply issuing a narrow ruling. Hoping that the Court could do what politicians seemingly could not—settle the slavery question for good—Wayne was instrumental in persuading the Court to rule the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, and his concurring opinion went farther in supporting Taney’s than any other justice’s.

The White South embraced the decision as an answered prayer while a storm of anger swept across the North. Georgia’s Robert Toombs bragged that he would call the roll of his slaves under Boston’s Bunker Hill Monument, while abolitionists exploded in outrage when they read newspaper headlines that boasted, “The Triumph of Slavery Complete.” Northern Free-Soilers and champions of popular sovereignty—the right of citizens in each territory to decide the issue for themselves—thought the ruling a blow against democracy. Ultimately the decision split the Democratic Party into irreconcilable factions while uniting the nascent Republican Party in opposition to what it considered an outrageous case of judicial overreach that had no moral validity and insulted freedom-loving Americans everywhere.

The decision proved to be a disaster for the Supreme Court and the proslavery advocates who celebrated it. The Court’s reputation was damaged, and far from quelling the slavery issue, the decision backfired, pushing the country ever closer to Civil War. That conflict did exactly what Taney had denied possible: It destroyed slavery and, through the Reconstruction amendments, made citizens of the formerly enslaved, in the process forever altering the relationship between the Federal government and the American people.

The Black struggle for full citizenship during the era of Emancipation and Reconstruction would lead to the great Civil Rights revolutions of the 20th century—and, ironically, the heavily politicized Dred Scott case helped pave the way.

Podcast S6E2: Johann Neem: History and Democracy

In this episode Stan interviews Dr. Johann Neem, historian and author, whose research focuses on the history of American democracy. They discuss history in the public realm, why history has become so controversial in recent years, and where it’s all headed.

Dispatches from Off the Deaton Path: Veterans Day

Stan explores the origins of Veterans Day 100 years in the aftermath of World War I, and how Savannah has honored and memorialized those who served and died for their country.

The Capacity to Wear Glory With Grace

Like most people who attended the University of Georgia before 1988, I only knew Vince Dooley as one of 80,000+ fans sitting in Sanford Stadium. On football Saturdays, he was the man running up and down on our sidelines, chopping at the air with his fists, frequently grimacing with clenched teeth, or kicking phantom field goals as he urged his team on. Before every game at his weekly press conference, he would downplay the Dogs and their chances, while he always talked about their next opponent as if they were the ’72 Dolphins. You would, occasionally, see him walking across campus, with the most instantly recognizable profile in Georgia. Long before my tenure there and for a few years after, he was always coaching on the Bulldogs sideline, for 25 seasons, until he stepped away voluntarily in 1988, the winningest coach in UGA history.

While I was watching all those games, it never occurred to me that one day Coach Dooley and I would actually become friends. As is well known, Coach was passionate about history, and through the invitation of GHS President and CEO Todd Groce nearly 20 years ago, Coach got involved with the Georgia Historical Society. We invited him to speak at the Georgia Day luncheon, and he killed it, as he always did. Todd asked him to serve on our Board, he accepted, and from that point on he became among the best friends and loyal supporters this institution has ever had. He served on our Board for many years, served as Board chairman from 2016-2018, and was inducted as a Georgia Trustee by GHS and the Office of the Governor in 2011.

This also meant that he was a regular visitor to our Savannah headquarters, and I never missed an opportunity to bust his chops when he was in the building. I well remember the first time I met him.

He had come to the GHS Research Center while preparing for a speech he was giving to the Hibernian Society here in Savannah just before St. Patrick’s Day. Todd called down to my office and asked if I’d like to meet Vince Dooley. I was upstairs before he hung up. Coach greeted me warmly after Todd told him I was a double-Dog and asked what years I was there; 1982 to ’88, I replied. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “those were good years.” Indeed they were. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Every time I saw him, he wanted to talk history, and I wanted to talk football. His recall was incredible. No matter what game I brought up from his long tenure, he could talk about it in detail—the plays he called on this down or that, what it was like coaching against the Bear or Bobby Dodd. The 1965 trip to the Big House at the University of Michigan. The Appleby to Washington stunner in the 1975 GA-Florida game. Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott, 1980. Kevin Butler’s 60-yarder against Clemson, 1984. The first night game at Sanford Stadium, September 6, 1982. And by the way, he often corrected me as to dates if I got my years mixed up. Beyond remembering his own games, Coach was a student of the history of college football nationally and could talk widely of games, players, and coaches from the early decades of the sport.

I’ll never forget the first time his name popped up on my cell phone. I was doing laundry one evening in my garage when my phone rang, and I looked down to see “Vince Dooley.” Needless to say, those calls never went to voice mail: “Hey Coach!” “Stan, Vince Dooley,” he’d say in that inimitable gravelly voice, as though I wouldn’t know who he was otherwise. I cannot for the life of me remember what he wanted in that first call, but I’ll never forget that moment.

Over the years my colleague Laura and I always marveled that we were so fortunate to spend so much time with this living legend. He had us over to his house in Athens, showed us through his beloved gardens, introduced us to family, had dinner with us, signed footballs and books for us, invited us to speak to his book club. When my father died last year, he took the time to send a very moving personal note.

He was a living legend, yes, but through all the time I got to spend with him, the thing I remember most about him was his humility and his kindness to everyone that met him. He was, until January of this year, the only man who ever won a national football championship at Georgia, and until the day he died he was the physical embodiment of the state’s flagship university. He was revered, beloved, and worshipped for those things. Fame doesn’t usually rest easy on anyone’s shoulders, and that could have been an incredibly heavy burden to bear. But Coach Dooley, a United State Marine before he was a legend, embraced all of it and seemed to carry it lightly through all those years.

Naturally, he couldn’t go anywhere in Georgia without being recognized by everybody. It would have driven me crazy, but he loved it. He never got tired of it. He couldn’t eat a meal without it being interrupted several times, but he always patiently signed autographs, shook hands warmly with strangers, smiled for selfies.

I well remember being with him once in Athens, and we stopped at a Subway to eat lunch. The poor guy behind the counter got so nervous taking Coach’s order that he couldn’t function properly. Coach responded instantly, reaching over to shake his hand, introducing himself and making small talk, putting the kid at ease. He left him grinning from ear to ear. This particular living legend was always approachable, engaging, and humble. As was said of Jackie Robinson, so was it true for Vince Dooley: he had the capacity to wear glory with grace.

There won’t ever be another like him. Nothing against Kirby Smart, or any other UGA football coach, past, present, or future. But there won’t ever be another one who spends 25 years coaching at the state’s flagship university, wins like he did, steps down in his late 50s after shaping countless young lives, and then spends the next 30+ years continuing to learn, to teach, to give, to serve, to influence all around him, all while drawing from a seemingly bottomless reservoir of energy, time, talent, and kindness.

Traveling the state, making new friends, taking selfies, shaking hands, signing books, telling stories, spreading goodwill everywhere he went—just by being himself, Coach Dooley made the rest of us feel better and be better, and that’s no easy or common thing.

What I shared with him was not exclusive to me: after his death everyone on social media posted a picture of themselves with Coach Dooley. He certainly won football games that we’ll all remember; in the immortal words of Bud Robertson, oh my goodness yes. But Coach Dooley was so much more than that. There’s an old saying that people won’t remember what you said to them, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.

And therein lies Coach Dooley’s true genius: He made us feel, all of us, that we were his friend, that we were important to him, that he enjoyed our company. What a gift to have and to share, and he did it freely and without hesitation long after most of us would have fled to the hills, and he did it every day until his very final days.

I only knew Vince Dooley as a coach from afar, way up in the student section, and I never played for him. But somehow, through the blessing of working for the Georgia Historical Society, I was lucky enough to get to know this man of incredible accomplishment through the playbook of friendship.

As E.B. White wrote so eloquently, “You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.” Thank you, Coach Dooley, and Godspeed.

Major League Sour Grapes

The Philadelphia Phillies are National League champions? The same team that finished in third place in the National League East?

According to Major League Baseball, they are. MLB, in its infinite wisdom, expanded the baseball playoffs this year to three wild card teams in each league, to join the three division champions, up from two wild cards in previous years.

Wild card teams are made up of the three best teams in each league that didn’t win their divisions. It was originally designed when first implemented in 1997 to reward the best second-place team but was then expanded to two and now three in each league. It’s designed to create and prolong fan interest as the season goes along in cities whose teams are not in a division race, and in that regard it’s working.

They are, literally, wild cards, mixed in with the division winners in the playoffs, and, as in poker, they can create chaos and havoc with the established order of the universe. That’s what happened this year.

The Phillies were the 6th and lowest seed in the National League. To get to the World Series, they beat the NL Central Division champion St. Louis Cardinals in a best-of-three series, then beat the NL East champion Atlanta Braves in a best-of-five, then beat the 5-seed San Diego Padres—another wild card team—in the National League Championship Series. The Padres, by the way, finished an astounding 22 games behind the LA Dodgers in the NL West, a very, very distant second place. They then got hot and beat the Dodgers in a short best-of-five series and the regular season was rendered moot.

The problems here are legion. First, as I pointed out in a previous post, baseball’s season is 162 games long, roughly 6 months, the longest of any major North American sport. After 162 games, you know which teams are the best. There aren’t any secrets in MLB. After 162 games, the Phillies finished firmly in third place in the National League East, 14 games out of first place. In other words, not even close to being division champs. As their seeding suggests, they were the 6th best team in the entire league over 6 months.

But they were just good enough to secure that 3rd and final wild-card spot, and they made the playoffs. Then they got hot and beat teams in a short series that were much better than they were in the regular season, and here we are.

And as often happens in the playoffs, teams that weren’t hot during the season can get hot in a short series. Other hot teams suddenly can’t hit or pitch. Some teams’ bats go cold, their pitching misfires, the bullpen melts down. (See Braves, Atlanta.)

Other teams who languished along for 6 months barely winning more than they lost can get into the playoffs now, get hot for three weeks, and win a championship. This has happened for years in pro hockey (the NHL) and basketball (NBA and WNBA), and now it’s happening in Major League Baseball.

No doubt this creates interest in cities like San Diego and Philadelphia, both of which city’s teams were nowhere near first place for most of the season. But it’s also made the regular season irrelevant, it seems to me, as it is in those other leagues. Now you just have to be good enough to grab that 6th seed, and anything can happen, in part because you don’t have to win a best-of-seven series in every round.

Unencumbered by the thought process, here’s what I would suggest to baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred when he calls: the wild card teams should start the playoffs by playing each other—6 vs. 5 in a one-game playoff—with the winner advancing to play the 4-seed in a one-game playoff. (I would make this round a best-of-seven, but that would keep the division winners on ice for too long.) The winner of the wild card tournament then moves on to play the highest-seeded division winner in a best-of-seven. There should be some reward for winning your division, and the road should be extremely hard for a wild card team to get to the World Series. No way should the Championship Series have not one but TWO wild card teams. They didn’t earn an easier path through all those 162 games when they had infinite opportunities to show they belonged. If a wild card team is going to win, it shouldn’t get away with getting hot in a very short series against higher-seeded division winners.

There are those who will say this is sour grapes, that I’m just unhappy that my beloved Braves got beat by a team that finished 14 games behind them in the regular season. That this is a classic case of, if you don’t like the outcome then attack the process. And they’d be absolutely right. The same thing happened in 1997, the first year of the Wild Card, when the second-place Florida Marlins beat the division-winning Braves and eventually won the World Series. What was the point of the regular season if a second-place team was actually champion? The wild card teams have gone on to win the World Series 6 other times in the 25 years since then—the Angels in 2002, the Marlins again in 2003, the Red Sox in 2004, the Cardinals in 2011, the Giants in 2014, and the Nationals most recently in 2019. Those teams were at least the best of the second-place teams.

And I’m well aware that the Braves won just one more game last year than the Phillies did this year. The difference, of course, is that last year’s Braves were NL East division champions, not 3rd-place finishers. Beyond that, though, their stories are remarkably similar—nobody picked the Braves to win anything last year or to get past the mighty Dodgers or the Astros, but they got hot just when they needed to. It all came together in the playoffs, as it has this year for the Phillies. Clearly getting hot for a few weeks is more productive than killing yourself to win a division title that is relatively meaningless in the new baseball universe.

It would be very unsporting of me to say that I hope that the American League champion (and AL West division winning) Houston Astros destroy the third-place Phillies in the World Series that starts on Friday, just to maintain the order of the baseball universe. Very unsporting. So, I’ll just leave it to your imagination as to what I might be wishing for in this series. If the Phillies win, they will indeed be World Series champions, if not the best team in baseball. I’ll leave it at that.

Waiter, I’ll have one order of grapes—and please make them very, very sour.