Secession: The Tower

secession: The tower

The Tower for  The American Renaissance Tarot

The Tower for The American Renaissance Tarot

I never imagined when I wrote this project five years ago that I would have “Tower”-like feelings about the USA. And yet, here we are, at a time when the corruption emanating from Washington almost makes it seem advisable to raze the whole American edifice and start fresh. Almost. I believe in the American experiment, and I hope that we can find our way again and come together in the common cause of our shared humanity. But lately things have been so ugly and divisive that our Tower card seems eerily relevant, in spite of the fact that it depicts a rift that in our nation that occurred over 150 years ago.

The Hanged Man for  The American Renaissance Tarot

The Hanged Man for The American Renaissance Tarot

Because this project shows the arc from Transcendentalism (Arcana I, the Magician) to Emancipation (Arcana XX, Judgement), and features the abolitionist movement that connected them, I knew I wanted the Tower card to depict the shattering epoch of Civil War. Literary treatments of the “War Between the States” abound. Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War may be my favorite work of his, and his haunting poem “The Portent” was our inspiration for Arcana XII, the Hanged Man (John Brown in our project). Whitman’s collection Drum-Taps is also lovely, and we used floral touches in our Judgement card in honor of Whitman’s elegy for President Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

8x10 Judgement.jpg

But because I also wanted The American Renaissance Tarot to serve as a compendium of great American writers of the nineteenth-century, I selected Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. to represent the Tower. Holmes was not only a medical doctor, he also belonged to a group of popular American poets called “Fireside Poets” because their lyrics were often read out loud as family entertainments. The group also included Longfellow (our Emperor), William Cullen Bryant (Death), John Greenleaf Whittier (the Missionary of Cups), and James Russell Lowell (the Pioneer of Swords).

Many people believe that the Civil War was fought over slavery, and they’re right. Our Devil card, Arcana XV, depicts the scientific racism of the mid-nineteenth century that was used to justify the keeping of slaves. Because, to be blunt, most American writers of the Civil War epoch would be considered “racist” by current definitions, I thought it wiser to demonize the ideas that appeared in tomes like Types of Mankind, rather than single out any one thinker for racist attitudes that were in fact very common for the times. But we did have a little fun anthropomorphizing one of the era’s prominent racist scientists as a vulture! I personally find our Devil card so disturbing that I haven’t shared it anywhere else.

8x10 Devil.jpg

The crass materialism of Arcana XV, the Devil, leads directly to the fiery eruption that we see in Arcana XVI, the Tower. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a Yankee born and bred, expressed his high-toned outrage over South Carolina’s secession in a topical poem entitled “Brother Jonathan’s Lament for Sister Caroline.” You can read the poem in its entirety here. “Brother Jonathan” was an early version of a homespun New England character that we now know as Uncle Sam. And while Holmes writing as Brother Jonathan makes some compelling points, part of the reason this poem is important is that an anonymous Southern poet, writing as “Caroline,” answered him.

Brother Jonathan in 1876

Brother Jonathan in 1876

I wanted to include a Southern voice in the Tower card because, although Caroline is clearly blinded by partisan zeal, she also has some legitimate beefs. You can read more in our sample chapter below, or check out her full answer to Brother Jonathan here. For the card imagery, we really exploited the conceit of a family rift in the poets’ personification of North and South as “Brother” and “Sister.” We’ve styled Caroline as a Southern belle done up in the colors of the South Carolina state flag. Brother Jonathan, a symbol of the Union, has been expelled from the Capitol dome with the same force as his fiery sister.

The chambered nautilus

The chambered nautilus

Fittingly, Holmes’ penned a poem about “a dome more vast” in 1858 that has proven to be one of the most enduring lyrics of nineteenth-century America: “The Chambered Nautilus.” I’ve got to hand it to our artist Celeste; when I returned an early draft of this card to her and said “put a spiral sea-shell in the sky,” she didn’t snap back and say that it couldn’t be done. Instead, she delivered, as she always does, and the outline of the nautilus shape in the heavens, as a symbol of growth and evolution, can give us a little hope when we raise our eyes above the carnage. Read “The Chambered Nautilus” in its entirety here, and check out the Tower chapter below for more literary interpretation.


            The Tower presages destruction and ruin.  It is represented in The American Renaissance Tarot by the Civil War, the greatest calamity the United States has ever faced.  The “War Between the States” consumed the country’s talent and resources, and devoured an entire generation of young men.  It remains America’s costliest war in terms of human casualties; at the time of this writing, the Civil War’s death toll is still more than that of all other American wars, combined.  It resulted in spectacular loss, not just of life, but of confidence in the democratic experiment that was the soul of the United States.  The war made beggars out of Southern aristocrats and tycoons out of Northern carpetbaggers.  As a consequence of the Civil War, four million slaves were freed – an epic liberation that effectively created four million displaced persons, an entire class of people unequipped with the skills to survive in society.  Black or white, Union or Confederate, slave or free, the Civil War turned every American  life upside-down and obliterated the foundations of the past.  The Tower card stands for sudden, sweeping change that leaves shock and trauma in its wake.  If you’ve drawn it, expect traditional orders to be toppled and old routines to be disrupted.  Just as the Civil War left the nation as it had once existed in ruins, the Tower can signal that your own life will be rearranged by the collapse of a structure on which you depend for stability. 

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. in 1853

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. in 1853

            Though the Civil War punctuated the literary renaissance that had flourished in the 1850s, both the Union and the Confederacy had their wartime bards.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-1894) was a medical doctor and professor at Harvard, as well as a popular literary figure.  A born-and-bred Bostonian, he responded to South Carolina’s secession in 1860 with a poem entitled “Brother Jonathan’s Lament for Sister Caroline.”  In it “Brother Jonathan,” an upright Yankee character who was the model for Uncle Sam, scolds his “stormy-browed sister” Caroline for her rashness in leaving the Union. Holmes captured the tragic mood of the nation by comparing the ideological clash of North and South to a rift between family members:

Has our love all died out?  Have its altars grown cold?

Has the curse come at last which the fathers foretold?

Then Nature must teach us the strength of the chain

That her petulant children would sever in vain.

Holmes may have been prescient in concluding that the fortunes of the warring siblings “must flow in one channel at last,” but an anonymous Southern poet was quick to point out Brother Jonathan’s hypocrisy.  In “Caroline’s Farewell to Brother Jonathan,” the writer alludes to the fact that the industrial North benefitted financially from the slave labor employed in the agricultural South: “[Your] conscience affects to be seared with our sin,/  Yet is plastic to take all its benefits in.”  Sister Caroline asserts her independence from the national family on the grounds that Brother Jonathan grows fat on her resources while imperiously strangling her property rights:  “Your palaces rise from the fruits of our toil,/  Your millions are fed from the wealth of our soil.” 

The burning of the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia, in 1865, a lithograph by Currier & Ives.

The burning of the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia, in 1865, a lithograph by Currier & Ives.

Few calamities threaten our stability so much as family turmoil.  When we clash with those on whom we depend for support, whether that support is emotional or economic or both, it can feel like the whole world is falling apart.  Though Holmes’s personification of the Union and Confederacy as siblings was a literary conceit, the Civil War did in fact pit family members on opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon line against each other.  The Tower’s appearance in a reading can reflect the influence of a family feud.  It’s likely that words said or deeds done in anger have caused irreparable harm, and there will be no restoration of the former relationship.  Entering into conflict with loved ones is always painful, but one of the positive aspects of the Tower is that it presents you with the opportunity to vent pent-up emotions.  The sectional differences leading up to the Civil War had been building up since the nation’s founding, and it took four years of bitter fighting, from 1861 to 1865, before all the pressure was released, the cumulative energy spent.  Traditional images of the Tower card depict the top of a tall edifice being blown off from within, because the card signifies that moment when feelings, opinions, or instincts have reached a critical mass under the surface.

Detail of the chambered nautilus sky from  The American Renaissance Tarot

Detail of the chambered nautilus sky from The American Renaissance Tarot

A more gentle metaphor for change is found in a poem that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. published just before the Civil War, “The Chambered Nautilus.”  A mollusk which creates a new pearlescent chamber within its shell every time it grows, the chambered nautilus evokes the idea that change is natural and constant, and that outer structures must continually expand to reflect inner evolution.  The structures erected and maintained by society are slow to change, but if we fail to make regular improvements to our world like the nautilus, the old edifices and institutions start to pinch and become oppressive.  The Tower confronts you when your resistance to change is so great that you invite large-scale catastrophe by failing to go with the flow.  As desperate and helpless as forced change makes us feel, we should strive to be like the nautilus, and renovate our homes, our temples, and our nations with every revolution in consciousness.

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,

As the swift seasons roll!

Leave thy low-vaulted past!

Let each new temple, nobler than the last,

Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,

Till thou at length are free,

Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!


Eruption           Violence            Destruction           Fall                        

Sweeping Change Conflict         Separation            Family Rift            

  Social Upheaval Venting Emotions

Hypocrisy Unmasked                    Devastating Realization

Forced Change                       Cyclic Growth                        A Dome More Vast