I frequently talk about my great-great-uncle, Martin Payne, who came to Albany in 1851 and served as a Linn County Commissioner in the 1870s. He was also one of the wealthiest farmers in the Valley until he moved into town in his old age. Martin died in a house on the corner of Fourth and Ferry Street (a block from City Hall) in 1900 at age 83.
Martin’s brother, Morgan, was my great-great-grandfather; and, unlike his youngest brother, he spent much of his life as a soldier. The Paynes apparently had a warlike gene that manifested itself in Morgan and two other brothers named John and William. Morgan served in the Mexican War, the Blackhawk War, and the Civil War before finally giving up soldiering after being wounded at age 60. William served as a sheriff in Indiana and was among the first to arrive on the scene when his brother John was shot on the Vermilion County Courthouse steps in 1863 in a fight over allegations that he was a Southern sympathizer.
Passion has always been a part of politics, and the Civil War should serve as a grim reminder of what can happen when reason gives way to hatred. According to published accounts of my great-great-uncle John’s death, he was shot because he was wearing a “butternut pin” on his lapel that signified he supported the Confederacy. There is some question whether he really was a Southern sympathizer because two of his sons were Union soldiers and my grandfather Morgan was a captain in the Union army.
The events in this story may seem like ancient history, but my grandmother, who died when I was in my early 20s, knew her uncles and probably heard about what happened from people who were actually there. That connection through someone I knew and loved makes the tragedy and the possibility that something like it could happen again seem less distant.
I have strong feelings about current political events, and I think we should all have the courage of our convictions. I also feel strongly that labels like Republican or Democrat should never be the cause for judgments that lead to violence. I would like to believe we have become more civil since the days of the Civil War, but I fear that the distance between peaceful and violent societies may be shorter than we realize.
My Uncle John’s tombstone is inscribed with the following quotation from English poet John Dryden:
“The brave man seeks not popular applause, nor over powered with arms deserts his cause. Undaunted, though foiled, he does the best he can. Force is of brutes, but honor is of man.”