Posts Tagged ‘History’

‘Who controls the past controls the future’

October 2, 2014

Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.

==George Orwell, 1984 

So many people I know seem to have amnesia about the past.  I think this is both sad and dangerous.

I think history is the key to understanding almost everything—how different things were in the past, but how the present is a product of that past.  If you have that knowledge, you have a grounding that will help keep you from being swept away by the propaganda of Big Brother.

But if you don’t have an independent knowledge of history, Big Brother can manipulate you into believing almost anything.

The Democracy Now video above is about a controversy between the Jefferson County, Colorado, school board, and various public school teachers, about how history should be taught.   It’s an important topic.

The school board says the teaching of history should emphasize citizenship, patriotism, the merits of the free market, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.  I personally agree in principle with all of these, but I suspect my interpretation of these principles differs from the school boards.

What is the free market?  Do they think this is what the United States has now?  Do they advocate respect for all authority, or only legitimate authority?  If you respect all authority, what happens to individual rights?  Is patriotism loyalty to the government, loyalty to fellow Americans or loyalty to the Constitution?

And most important: Are these open questions or is there one and only one officially true answer?

The school board specifically opposes material that encourages or condones civil disorder, social strife and disregard of the law.  What, I wonder, do the members think should be taught about the Sons of Liberty, the Boston Tea Party and the Minute Men?

I think if a nation—any nation—is to exist, its children should be taught to be proud of the good things in their national heritage.  But they shouldn’t be shielded from the facts about the bad things.  And every nation, like every person, has both good and bad things in its past.  If children are only taught the good, they’ll become disillusioned and cynical when they finally learn the bad.


A David Graeber reader: links to articles

September 9, 2013


David Graeber’s Debt: the First 5,000 Years is a brilliant work that reinterprets history in a new way and shows how payment of interest-bearing debt has come to be regarded as the obligation that overrides all moral obligations.

Here is a set of links to articles that explain what Graeber is all about.  The first is an article in the New Yorker about who Graeber is.

David Graeber and the Anarchist Revival by Kalefa Sanneh for the New Yorker.

Next some links to Graeber explaining his ideas in his own words.

What Is Debt?: an Interview with Economic Anthropologist David Graeber

Debt: the First Five Thousand Years by David Graeber.  This is his outline of the basic idea of the book for the Anarchist Library.

And some links to critiques and reviews.

The Debt We Shouldn’t Pay by Robert Kuttner for the New York Review of Books.

David Graeber’s Debt: My First 5,000 Words by Aaron Bady for The New Inquirer.

The Very Last David Graeber Post by Brad DeLong.  A scathing critique of the concluding chapter of Debt by a professor of economics.

Debt: the First 500 Pages by Mike Beggs for Jacobin magazine.  Why he found Graeber’s main arguments “wholly unconvincing.”

In Defense of David Graeber’s Debt by J.W. Mason for Jacobin magazine.

And the full text of the book.

Full text of ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’  [added 4/29/2015]

The Constitutional remedy for voter suppression

July 30, 2013

      Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, some of the Republican-controlled state governments are going all-out to find ways of discouraging voting, especially by people in categories likely to vote Democratic.

There is a remedy for this already in the Constitution.  The Fourteenth Amendment states that when adults not convicted of a crime are denied the right to vote, then that state’s congressional representation should be diminished accordingly.  Here is the wording.

…When the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial Officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion or other crime, the basis of such representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

This by the way is the only provision of the Constitution that makes a distinction between the rights of men and the rights of women.  Susan B. Anthony objected to it for this reason, and she quarreled with her good friend Frederick Douglass for supporting it.  All this was resolved by the Nineteenth Amendment, stating that the right to vote cannot be abridged on account of sex.

This provision was never enforced.  In the years from 1880 to 1960, voter suppression in the South was much worse than it is now.  The laws and policies that kept black people from voting also kept poor white people from voting.  Fewer people voted in the 1928 presidential election in the 12 states of the former Confederacy than voted just in New York state; if this provision had been taken seriously, these states would have had less representation in Congress than New York.

I doubt the Roberts Supreme Court would be willing enforce it now.  Still, it would be interesting to see what would happen if voter suppression increases and somebody files a lawsuit.


Recommended reading 7/17/2013

July 17, 2013

Here are things I read recently that I found interesting.  Maybe you will, too.

Chalmers M. Johnson reviews ‘Gold Warriors’ by Sterling Seagrave and Peggy Seagrave in the London Review of Books (2003).

Gold WarriorsThis 10-year-old book review is utterly fascinating.  Gold Warriors: America’s Secret Recovery of Yamashita’s Gold tells the story of how the Japanese military looted the whole of eastern Asia of its treasure and buried it in hidden underground vaults in the Philippines, much as described in Neal Stephenson’s great thriller Cryptonomicon, and how some of it was discovered and used to fund top-secret activities of the Central Intelligence Agency.   Weird, but evidently true, according to Chalmers Johnson, an expert on China, Japan and U.S. policy in the Far East.

Are Corporations Trying to Distract Us With Social Issues While They Take Control of Our Economy? by R.J. Eskow on AlterNet.

Robert Frank, in What’s The Matter With Kansas? wrote about how Republicans persuaded “values voters” to base their vote on issues such as abortion, gay marriage and gun control rather than on their economic self-interest.  R.J. Eskow argues that the Democrats are doing just the same thing, except using the reverse side of these issues.   The problem for American voters is that the only meaningful choices the Democratic and Republican parties offer us are on issues that don’t threaten the holders of economic and political power.

Time to Fight for Something Better Than Obamacare by Alejandro Reuss for The Washington Spectator.

The Affordable Care Act will leave the United States with a certain number of people with good individual or employer-provided private insurance, a lot of people with bad private insurance, some people helped by Medicare or Medicaid and some with no insurance at all.  Should we be satisfied with that?  Alejandro Reuss argues that Americans should demand a single-payer system (Medicare for all).

Why the City of Miami Is Doomed to Drown by Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone.

Miami might well be doomed even if its leaders face up to the threat of rising sea levels and worsening tropical storms.  Which they aren’t.

The Expendables: How the Temps Who Power Corporate Giants Are Getting Crushed by Michael Grabel in ProPublica.  (Hat tip to Daniel Brandt)

Taken for a Ride: Temp Agencies and ‘Raiteros’ in Immigrant Chicago by Michael Grabel in ProPublica.  (Hat tip to Daniel Brandt)

It’s tough to be a temporary worker.  It’s infinitely worse to be an immigrant temporary worker.

Readings for Independence Day 2013

July 4, 2013


Some readings for American patriots.

Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies by Edmund Burke (1775)


Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions by the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls (1848)

Speech on The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro by Frederick Douglass (1852)

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness by Andrew Sullivan

Is the U.S. a land of liberty or equality? by Robert J. Samuelson

The Omega Glory by Maggie McNeill

Remembering the Harvesters on this Fourth of July by Gracy Howard in The American Conservative.

How Unreasonable Searches of Private Documents Caused the American Revolution by Juan Cole on Informed Comment.

A Persuasive Argument by Bert Likko for The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

The Declaration: a persuasive argument

July 4, 2013


These are the opening words of THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Bert Likko, writing for the League of Ordinary Gentlemen web log, said the importance of the Declaration was that it was A Persuasive Argument.

The proposition that things are or even can be self-evidently true is something that it seems to me philosophers debate to this day.  But who among the readership — a readership consisting of English colonists in the Americas and Europeans — would deny that people should have life that not be taken arbitrarily from them, and that people ought to be happy, or at least be able to pursue happiness? Who would not want life, liberty, and happiness for themselves, and not recognize a similar desire in others? Jefferson frames these unquestioned social goods as rights, and universalizes those rights.

What is radical, or at least radical enough, for 1776 was to do so on an individualized basis, claiming all men as equals to one another.  In a world still steeped with and ruled by hereditary nobility, it was a relatively well-accepted proposition that some people were just plain better than others by virtue of the accident of their births.   To say that all men are created equal denies the very concept of nobility and calls into question the concept of even a social elite.  […]


The Canadian roots of Labor Day

September 3, 2012

This is from the History Channel.

The fortunes of war

August 26, 2012

The following is from George Orwell’s “As I Please” column in the London Tribune for October 13, 1944

Recently I was told the following story, and I have every reason to believe it is true.

Among the German prisoners captured in France there are a certain number of Russians.  Some time back two were captured who did not speak Russian or any other language that was known either to their captors or their fellow prisoners.  They could, in fact, only converse with one another.  A professor of Slavonic languages, brought down from Oxford, could make nothing of what they were saying.  Then it happened that a sergeant who had served on the frontiers of India heard them talking and recognized their language, which he was able to speak a little.  It was Tibetan!  After some questioning, he managed to get their story out of them.

Some years earlier they had strayed over the frontier into the Soviet Union and had been conscripted into a labor battalion, afterwards being sent to western Russia when the war with Germany broke out.  They were taken prisoner by the Germans and sent to North Africa; later they were sent to France, then exchanged into a fighting unit when the Second Front opened and taken prisoner by the British.  All this time they had been able to speak to nobody but one another and had no notion of what was happening or who was fighting whom.

It would round the story off neatly if they were now conscripted into the British army and sent to fight the Japanese, ending up somewhere in Central Asia, quite close to their native village, but still very much puzzled as to what it is all about.

Here’s a similar story told a few weeks ago in The Daily Mail of London.

American paratroopers in Normandy in June 1944 thought they had captured a Japanese soldier in German uniform, but he turned out to be Korean.  His name was Yang Kyoungjong.

In 1938, at the age of 18, Yang had been forcibly conscripted by the Japanese into their army in Manchuria.  A year later, he was captured by the Red Army after the Battle of Khalkhin-Gol and sent to a labor camp.  The Soviet military authorities, at a moment of crisis in 1942, drafted him, along with thousands of other prisoners, into their forces.

Then, early in 1943 he was taken prisoner at the Battle of Kharkov in Ukraine by the German army.

In 1944, now in German uniform, he was sent to France to serve with one of the Wehrmacht’s eastern battalions made up of Soviet prisoners to defend Normandy at the base of the Cotentin peninsula.   After time in a prison camp in Britain, he went to the United States.  Yang settled there and died in Illinois in 1992.

via Mail Online.

Hat tip to SLICETHELIFE for Yang’s story.

I don’t draw any particular conclusions from these stories, except to take note of the tens of millions of people in the 20th century who were dispossessed, conscripted, uprooted, exiled and killed by totalitarian governments and global wars, and to be thankful I lived where I did when I did.   I hope that Mr. Yang had a good life in the United States.

The future of historical amnesia

August 13, 2012

I’m continually surprised at the number of people who know little and care less about events before they were born.  Since I was 30 or so, I’ve been muttering to myself, “Kids these days!  They think history began with the Kennedy assassination.” “…with Watergate.” “with the Reagan administration.” “…with the Monica Lewinsky scandal.” “…with the 9/11 attacks.”

Historical knowledge gives you a frame of reference for understanding the present, as well as providing a reminder that things weren’t always the way they were today.  Without knowledge of history and culture, I would be at the mercy of the advertising, propaganda and the mass media.  If I didn’t remember the Joe McCarthy era, or have knowledge of the internment of the Japanese during World War Two, Big Red Scare of the 1920s or the Alien and Sedition laws in the early days of the American republic, I might regard our present Homeland Security state as normal

My earliest historical memory is of World War Two.  I don’t remember Pearl Harbor, but I remember patriotically collecting scrap paper and metal, and I do remember how my third grade class was given the day off in honor of V-E Day.  My earliest memory of a political argument was from when I was in the sixth grade, and I argued for re-election of President Harry Truman against the challenger Thomas E. Dewey.

But World War Two didn’t occur merely because Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were evil people.  It had its roots in World War One and the blood-and-soil nationalism of the 19th century.  Truman and Dewey didn’t come out of nowhere.  They were the political heirs of Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, of the Great Depression and New Deal, and of the conflicts of the Populist and Progressive eras around the turn of the previous century.

It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect everyone to be as fascinated with history as I am.  But I continually find people who consider themselves to be highly educated who are ignorant of basic historical facts.  I wonder whether this historical amnesia is distinctively American or whether it is universal in the modern world.

Click on xkcd for cartoons and occasional infographics like the one above.

John Quincy Adams on Independence Day

July 4, 2012

John Quincy Adams gave a Fourth of July speech to the House of Representatives in 1821, with good advice to those who think it is the mission of the United States to impose our version of freedom and democracy on other nations.

America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government.  America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.  She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, equal justice, and equal rights. She has … respected the independence of other nations, while asserting and maintaining her own.  … …

John Quincy Adams

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.  But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.  She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.  She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.  She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.  The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.  The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished luster the murky radiance of dominion and power.  She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.

And later near the end of the speech.

Her glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of mind. She has a spear and a shield; but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace.

Click on Speech on Independence Day by John Quincy Adams to read the whole thing.  Hat tip to Daniel Larison.

Winston Churchill’s funeral

May 27, 2012

The British knew how to honor their fallen heroes.

I remember watching some of this on TV as a young man.   And Winston Churchill as a young man served in the Boer War.   History sometimes seems very short.

Hat tip for the video link to my friend Anne Tanner.

The epic history of oil

March 19, 2012

I finished reading Daniel Yergin’s The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, tells the story of the world oil industry from its beginning with the drilling of the first oil well in Titusville, Pa., in 1859 to Saddam Hussein’s failed invasion of Kuwait in 1991, with a brief epilogue bringing it up to date.  I’m now reading his current book, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World.

It is a big, detailed book which I would not recommend except to somebody such as myself with a lot of time on their hands.  I read it, even though it was published 20 years ago, because I believe the best way to understand something is to understand its history.

  The main things I took away from the book:
▪    An appreciation that the creation of the modern oil industry really was an epic achievement in terms of engineering, technology, organization and the enormous obstacles, both natural and human-made, to be overcome.
▪    An understanding of the central place of the United States in the history of the world oil industry, and of the oil industry in the development of the United States
▪    An understanding of the key importance of oil in world politics and military power.
▪    A  realization that the history of the world oil industry has always been a cycle of boom and bust, glut and scarcity, which makes the current runup in gasoline prices nothing new.

Nowadays I think of oil in terms of the Middle East, but for a century or more the United States was the main producer and exporter of oil.   In the earliest days most of the world’s oil supply came out of Pennsylvania, and the next big discoveries were around Baku in the Russian Empire and Borneo and Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies.  Texas and Oklahoma did not become important oil regions until late in the 1920s, and Saudi Arabia until after World War Two.

Cheap oil made possible much of what we regard as the American way of life.  The oil industry was created to provide kerosine for illumination, as a substitute for illumination.  But without a pre-existing oil industry, there would have been no auto industry, aviation industry or any other industry based on internal combustion.  Early U.S. preeminence in oil made possible our early preeminence in these other industries.  Our periods of greatest prosperity, especially the period from 1945 to 1973, coincided with low oil prices.

I tend to take fruits of oil-fueled industry for granted, but, as Yergin pointed out, there was a time when none of this existed.  Somebody had to think of drilling for oil instead of digging for oil.  Somebody had to think of setting up gasoline pumps instead of selling it in cans.  Somebody had to figure out how to drill for oil in the jungles of Borneo, the deserts of Persia, the bottom of Lake Maraciabo in Venezuela and the north slope of Alaska.  It really was an epic story.

Crude oil prices adjusted for inflation. Double click to enlarge.

We think of oil in terms of scarcity, but there have been times when an oil glut was considered the more serious problem.  This was the case during the Great Depression, when the Texas oil industry was collapsing under overproduction of oil.  The Texas Railroad Commission (which, despite its name, regulated oil) worked with the Roosevelt administration to set up a system of production allocations regulating what could be taken from each oil field.  The federal government restricted foreign imports to prevent Texas oil from being overwhelmed.

Texas increased and decreased production in order smooth out the cycle of boom and bust, so that oil-using businesses wouldn’t be ruined by sudden increases in oil prices nor oil producers by the sudden collapse.

This helps explain why Texas oilmen for so many years supported the Democratic Party.  When I first learned how this system worked, back in the 1950s, it seemed to me to be an example of government-protected monopoly working against the public interest.  After reading Yergin’s book, I can see the need for some entity to fulfill the function of the Texas Railroad Commission.  Price controls don’t work, as we Americans learned in the 1970s.  But it is a good thing to smooth out swings in prices when they are so wild that they periodically crash an industry.

In later years Saudi Arabia took over the function of swing producer, which partly explains the tight relationship between the U.S. government and the Saudi royal family since President Franklin Roosevelt’s first meeting with King Ibn Saud in 1945.  Saudi Arabia’s function as swing producer has been a great source of tension with Iran.  The Iranian government, which unlike Saudi Arabia rules over a large population who need jobs and income, has always wanted to maximize production and income, while the Saudis have been able to afford to take a longer view.

U.S. gasoline prices adjusted for inflation

There’s a lot more in the book.  I put it down with a greater awareness of how oil is intertwined with everything and what a radical change ending our “addiction” would be.

Click on The Stuff That Makes the World Go Round for Leslie H. Gelb’s review of The Prize in the New York Times.

Click on “the world’s most critical nonhuman economic resource” for a review of The Prize in The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty.

Click on Overdue Evaluation for a 2006 review of The Prize by Doug Merrill on the A Fistful of Euros web log.

Oil and world power

March 19, 2012

Oil was the key to world power during the 20th century.  It still is.  Reading Daniel Yergin’s The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power reminded me of just how much military and political power rest on oil.

The power of the 20th century British Navy rested on oil.  In the years leading up to World War One, the British Navy went from coal to oil because of the German naval buildup.  The British wanted something that would give their navy an edge.  Oil would give British ships greater range and speed than coal-fired ships.  But while the United Kingdom had coal mines within its border, it had no oil.

Britain needed a secure source of oil.  The British government decided for that purpose it needed to control the oil of Persia (now Iran).  This involved stopping the emerging Persian democratic movement, and installing a dictator with the title of Shah, and giving the British government control of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later British Petroleum, then BP), which held the British concession.  This drama was replayed in 1953, when U.S. and British intelligence services helped overthrow another democratic movement and installed the previous Shah’s son, with consequences that were felt in 1979 and to this day.

It was oil supplies from the United States, not Persia, that sustained Britain during the two World Wars, a reason why the “special relationship” was so important to the British government.  Yergin wrote that about 90 percent of Allied oil in the Second World War came from the United States.

The German army was severely handicapped by lack of oil in both world wars.  The main oil-producing European country prior to the discovery of North Sea Oil was Rumania, which was allied to Germany in both World Wars.  But the oil of Rumania was insufficient.  One of Hitler’s motives for attacking Russia in 1941 was to seize the oil of Baku; that is why he ordered his generals to break off the siege of Moscow and move south.  Yergin said the German army might have succeeded in Russia or North Africa if it hadn’t literally run out of gas.

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 after the United States threatened an oil embargo.  They hoped to cripple the United States naval forces long enough to seize the oil of the Dutch East Indies, and might have succeeded, according to Yergin, if they had launched another wave of attack and destroyed the oil tanks storing the U.S. Navy’s fuel reserves in Hawaii.   Instead the U.S. was able to mount submarine attacks to such a degree that most of the oil never reached Japan.

Russia under the Tsars, the Bolsheviks and their successors was always one of the world’s top oil and gas producers.  Whatever their government’s failures in economic policy, they always had that to fall back on.

Access to oil—specifically, to oil as a source of aviation fuel—is essential to U.S. world power.  Today the power of the United States rests on the U.S. Air Force, as much as British power rested on the Royal Navy.  Supremacy in the air gives U.S. forces the power to invade and occupy small countries almost at will, although not necessarily with success.  The U.S. Navy has nuclear ships, but the U.S. Air Force requires aviation fuel.  Someday there may be an alternative to gasoline for hand-based vehicles, but the Air Force will always need a secure source of oil to avoid being grounded.

When you think about the need for oil and access to oil, many world events are easier to understand.

“To My Old Master”

March 4, 2012

In August of 1865, a Colonel P.H. Anderson of Tennessee wrote to his former slave, Jourdan Anderson, to request that he come back to work on his farm.  Anderson had been emancipated, and was supporting his family with paid work in Ohio.  Anderson replied in a letter which had been making the rounds of the Internet:

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can.  I have often felt uneasy about you.  I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house.  I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable.  Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living.  It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee.  Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this.  I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me.  I am doing tolerably well here.  I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well.  The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher.  They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly.  We are kindly treated.  Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee.  The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson.  Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master.  Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville.  Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you.  This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future.  I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years.  At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars.  Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to.  Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio.  If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future.  We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows.  Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls.  You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine.  I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.

P.S.  Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

Hat tips to Ta-nehisi Coates and Letters of Note,

Click on What happened to the former slave that wrote his old master? for the rest of the story.

Romney would be one of richest Presidents

February 15, 2012

Double click to enlarge.

Mitt Romney, if elected, would be among the three or four richest Presidents in American history.  By one estimate, his estimated net worth would make him No. 3, behind Presidents John F. Kennedy and George Washington, but ahead of Thomas Jefferson.

Another estimate would put him behind Washington and Jefferson, but ahead of JFK.  Now these figures are at best informed guesswork.  Writers will differ on how to estimate the wealth of historic figures and as to how to state it in inflation-adjusted 2010 dollars.  What the figures do show, even if they’re not exact, is that Mitt Romney is a peer of the richest American Presidents in terms of wealth.

The 24/7 web site says the wealthiest American Presidents, at the peak of their wealth calculated in inflation-adjusted 2010 dollars, were as follows:

  • John F. Kennedy, estate worth nearly $1 billion.
  • George Washington, $525 million.
  • Thomas Jefferson, $212 million.
  • Theodore Roosevelt, $125 million.
  • Andrew Jackson, $119 million.
  • James Madison, $101 million.

These figures are the Presidents’ estimated net worth at the peak of their wealth, which did not necessarily last a lifetime.  Thomas Jefferson was rich during his lifetime, but he died broke and in debt.

Only a few Presidents have not been the equivalent of millionaires.  According to the 24/7 Wall St. web site, they were James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, U.S. Grant, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman.

Great wealth is not a reason to vote against against a candidate, in and of itself.  Our greatest Presidents have been found in all income categories.  All other things being equal, I would rather vote for a rich financier than for a candidate who begs rich financiers for money to campaign on.  Many Presidents of great wealth have been champions of the common people.  It just so happens that Romney is not one of them.

Click on The Net Worth of the American Presidents, from Washington to Obama to … for financial snapshots of the American Presidents from the 24/7 Wall St. web log.

Click on How Does Romney’s Wealth Compare to Other Candidates? for the source of the top infographic and background information.

Click on Romney Is Richest Candidate in a Decade for comparisons of Romney with recent wealthy candidates of the past decade.

Click on Tax rates of presidential candidates for effective income tax rates of the candidates.


Looking back on the Progressive Era

February 10, 2012

I first read RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY: A History of Modern American Reform by Eric Goldman when I was in college in the 1950s.  It is a history of American progressivism and liberalism from Grant to Truman.  Its pivot is the Progressive Era, 1890-1920.  I reread it a couple of weeks ago to see if it held any lessons for today.

The issues of the Progressive Era – corporate monopoly, Wall Street’s power, corruption, global trade, immigration, racial and religious prejudice, the gap between the haves and the have-nots – are still with us today, and our thinking on these issues has not gotten far beyond the ideas of the Progressive Era.

Goldman focused on the ideas of middle-class reformers and college-educated intellectuals, rather than insurgent farmers and industrial workers, which I think is justified, because few social reforms have ever been accomplished in the United States without the support of the middle class.

He did not attempt to define progressivism and liberalism, words which represented different things in different eras.  If there are any common threads at all in progressivism, they are sympathy for the underdog, opposition to the power of big business and a desire to improve rather than replace American capitalism and democracy.  Communism, anarchist and other radical ideologies are outside the scope of Goldman’s book.

At the dawn of the Progressive Era, the big banks, railroads and industrial corporations largely controlled government in their own interest.  Corruption was rampant; bribery was common.  What was even more powerful than money was what Goldman called “the steel chain of ideas.”  It was commonly accepted that regulation of economic activity was (1) unconstitutional, (2) contrary to the laws of economics, (3) contrary to Darwin’s principle of survival of the fittest and (4) contrary to God’s law—all arguments that are still made today.

Goldman devoted several chapters to reform interpretations of law, economics, Darwinism and the social gospel.  The common thread was the pragmatic philosophy that there is more than one way of looking at any thing, and you should choose the one that works best for the benefit of all.  John Dewey was the great exponent of this way of thinking.  The problem with this way of thinking, as Goldman pointed out, is that a pragmatist has to make a separate decision in each situation because on the circumstances of the particular case.   Pragmatism is not founded on a rock.  It is hard for pragmatists to stand up to absolutists.


The survival of letterpress

February 9, 2012

Click on Guardant Press for the web log of my friend David Damico, a dedicated teacher, graphics design expert and letterpress enthusiast.

Looking back on the Populist era

January 31, 2012

Political issues in the United States in the 1870s and 1880s were very like those of today—business monopoly, the power of banks and Wall Street speculators, declining income for working people, increasing concentration of wealth in the upper 1 percent, and a two-party system in which both parties were captives to corporate wealth.

John D. HIcks’ classic 1931 book, The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party, told the story of the political revolt of farmers in the Great Plains and the South against that system.  I read this book in hope that it would offer lessons for reform in the present day.

Unlike today, farmers who worked the land were a large percentage of the American people, and a majority in some states.   They organized politically and eventually formed a third party whose leaders were regarded as both dangerous revolutionaries and ridiculous crackpots.  The populist goal — an agricultural economic based on prosperous small independent farmers — was not achieved.

But over time many of their ideas came to be enacted into law.  The lesson of the Populist era is that political reform is more than the art of the possible.  Sometimes it takes leaders who are able to redefine what is possible.


Kodak and the Rochester mentality

January 21, 2012

Rich Karlgaard of Forbes wote in the Wall Street Journal that Eastman Kodak Co. might not have failed if it hadn’t happened to be located here in Rochester, N.Y.

He said Kodak needed to be in a place where “success is the norm and innovation is built into the ecology.”  And he said Kodak CEOs did not make the bold and drastic decisions that were necessary because of excessive concern for the welfare of their employees and the community.

I heard stuff like this a lot when I was reporting on Kodak for the Democrat and Chronicle in the 1980s.  When Kodak started to falter, Wall Street analysts called for layoffs – the bigger, the better, in their view – and they complained about Kodak’s generous employee benefits and separation packages, which took money they thought rightfully belonged the stockholders.

It is true that Kodak’s operations were much more concentrated in a single city than almost every other major manufacturing employees.  I no longer have the figures on hand, but my recollection is that 40 percent of Kodak’s employees worked in the Rochester area.  Kodak accounted for one out of every eight jobs in the Rochester area, and one out of every three manufacturing jobs.  All of Kodak’s CEOs, from the death of George Eastman in 1932 to the hiring of George Fisher from Motorola in 1993, were promoted through the ranks and spent most of their careers in Rochester.  Kodak and Rochester were very much identified with each other.

During the 1980s, Kodak management was well aware, as Karlgaard noted, that the days of film photography were noted.  CEO Colby H. Chandler tried to incubate new enterprises within the corporate framework, but fostering start-ups within the framework of a larger corporation proved hard to do.  The new enterprises were neither self-reliant nor free of corporate independence.

Perhaps – who can say? – it would have been better for Kodak to launch its digital imaging business in a new location as a separate corporation, far from Rochester corporate headquarters.  Another Rochester-based company, Xerox Corp., did just that, and it didn’t work out.

In a deliberate effort to escape the Rochester mentality.  Xerox relocated its headquarters to Stamford, Conn., and its research laboratories to Palo Alto, Calif., so as not to be limited by the mentality of any one place.  Douglas K. Smith and Robert C. Alexander in their book, Fumbling the Future, wrote that scientists at Palo Alto Research Laboratories in effect invented the personal computer, but Xerox never capitalized on their invention.  Perhaps — who can say? —  if Xerox factories, research laboratories and headquarters had all been in the same place, the divisions of Xerox might have been able to work together to turn research innovations into marketable products.


Six notable people to invite for dinner

January 10, 2012

An on-line poll asked viewers to name six notable historical figures whom they’d invite dinner.  One of the responders was Newt Gingrich.  He listed Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Winston Churchill and John Ford.

The composite consensus of top invitees, as I posted this,  consisted of Jesus of Nazareth, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Jackson.

As for myself, I in a way already have notable people as guests.  They are guests in my head.  That is to say, I have imaginary conservations with people whom I’ve read or heard about, but never met.  I do not of course mistake them for real people, but I can’t always predict their responses, and I sometimes change my opinion as a result of these conversations.

I have imaginary conversations with George Orwell, Henry Thoreau and Ayn Rand, but I probably wouldn’t invite them.  I don’t think they’d be the life of the party.  But I think I’d have a good time talking to Bertrand Russell, Michel de Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells and maybe Richard Feynman or William James.

Or maybe I should invite Socrates, Moses, Jesus of Nazareth, Mohammad, the Buddha, and Confucius and, if I am not too awestruck to open my mouth, ask them what they think of their professed followers.

What notable people would you like to have dinner with?

Click on Who are the six notable people you’d like to have dinner with? for the current version of the on-line poll.

Click on Dinner With Newt? A TIC Colloquium for thoughts about Newt Gingrich’s choices.  Stephen Masty, writing for the Imaginative Conservative, said it would be enlightening to ask all the Presidential candidates for their favorite imaginary dinner guests, more enlightening than the current debates, anyhow.  But the candidates would have to submit to lie detector tests to guarantee honest answers.

Of course the great thing about living in an age like this, when books are easily obtainable from stores, public libraries and the Internet is that you don’t have to meet great people in the flesh in order to interact with them.

“When you arise in the morning, give thanks”

November 24, 2011

Chief Tecumseh

I’ve always liked the following quote, which is attributed to Chief Tecumseh.

Live your life so the fear of death can never enter your heart. When you arise in the morning, give thanks for your life and your strength.  Give thanks for your food and the joy of living.  And if perchance you see no reason for thanks, rest assured the fault is in yourself.

I’m not sure the quote is correctly attributed, but I like it.


Racism and the four great Democrats

November 4, 2011

In the 1950s and 1960s in Washington County, Md., there was an annual Jefferson-Jackson Day picnic, in which Democrats would eat Southern fried chicken and corn on the cob, and listed to speeches about the four great Democratic champions of the common people.

We listened to praise of:

  • Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence, upheld religious and intellectual freedom and fought the powerful financiers represented by Alexander Hamilton.
  • Andrew Jackson, who championed the common people and freed the young United States from the grip of powerful national bank.
  • Woodrow Wilson, who fought corruption and monopoly and created a vision of a peaceful world based on independent, self-determining nations under the rule of international law.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal established firewalls and safety nets against a future Great Depression, and led the nation to victory in war against the Axis.

The Republicans had their Lincoln Day picnics, and listened to speeches in praise of the Great Emancipator.

As I grew older and read more history, I came to realize the importance of what was left out.  The first two were white Southern slaveholders and racists, the third was a white Southern segregationist and racist, and the fourth accepted white Southern racism as a permanent reality which he had to deal with.

The great humanitarian reformers that we Unitarian Universalists honor – Horace Mann, creator of the public school system; Theodore Parker, the abolitionist; Susan B. Anthony, the advocate of women’s emancipation; Samuel Gridley Howe, the champion of the blind, and so on – were almost all Whigs and Republicans.

The 19th century and early 20th century Democrats were the champions not of  all the people, but of the white working man and often of white supremacy.  They opposed a hierarchy of wealth, but not of race.  There was a difference.  But the great New England Unitarians and transcendentalists had blind spots, too.  They favored emancipation of black people in the South, but most of them were indifferent to the struggles of the Irish immigrants in their midst.  If some of them sought to erase distinctions based on race, most of them insisted on distinctions based on social class and formal education.


The rise of Theodore Roosevelt

October 28, 2011

I’m interested in the Progressive Era of a century ago because in many ways its issues were the same as those of today—immigration, globalization, foreign military intervention and corrupt relationships between government and monopolistic business.

Theodore Roosevelt, a many-sided, larger-than-life figure, was the leading personality of that era.  I recently finished reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris, which deals with TR’s pre-presidential career.  It is as readable as a good novel, and won the Pulitzer Price for 1979.  Morris later wrote Theodore Rex, about TR’s presidency, and Colonel Roosevelt, about his post-presidential career.

Roosevelt would not be considered a progressive today.  He was an imperialist and a warmonger, although, unlike most of today’s warmongers, he was eager to take part in the fighting himself.  He believed in British and American world supremacy, based on the superior qualities of the Anglo-Saxon “race”.

His pre-presidential progressivism consisted mainly in fighting for honest government, and in being willing to speak frankly of “the criminal rich class.”  In that era, mere honesty was important and rare, just as it is today.  It was necessary to break up the corrupt relationship between corporations and government before anything else constructive could be accomplished.

Most Americans know the story of how TR built himself up a weak, asthmatic young boy into a successful college boxer, cowpuncher, big game hunter and volunteer cavalry officer who led the Rough Riders in their famous charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.

The fact that he was a serious intellectual is not so well known.  He held his own with people like Henry Adams.  All his idle moments were devoted to serious reading.  Once he went on vacation for a month and, to pass the time, wrote a biography of Oliver Cromwell.  He wrote 14 books in all.  At least two of his work, The Naval War of 1812 and The Winning of the West, are read by serious historians today.

That’s not all.  He was a rancher who rode with cowboys in roundups.  He was a deputy sheriff who tracked down desperadoes and brought them to justice.  He made contributions to the science of ornithology and the art of taxidermy.  He was one of the founders of the U.S. conservation movement.  He had as wide a range of interests and as powerful an intellect as anyone who ever occupied the White House, with the exception of Thomas Jefferson.

Theodore Roosevelt – he hated to be called “Teddy” – does not fit into today’s liberal vs. conservative, Team Blue vs. Team Red categories.  It is good to be reminded that today’s political divisions are not eternal, and that the political divisions of the past cut across different lines.  It is also good to be reminded of what a real leader is like.


Our never-ending presidential campaign

October 27, 2011

I am old enough to remember when Presidential election campaigns started after Labor Day, and the Christmas shopping season started after Thanksgiving.  I get as tired of Presidential campaigns that start 18 months before the election as I do of Christmas shopping seasons that start around Halloween or sooner, but I don’t see what can be done about it.  Both politics and retailing are like an arms race.  If there is an advantage to getting a head start over your rivals, almost everyone will seek that advantage, and those who don’t will fall by the wayside.

Our system of selecting Presidents is directly counter to what the Founders intended.  They thought the office should seek the leader, not the candidate seek the office.  They would be horrified at the sacrifice of time, energy and dignity required of presidential candidates today.  They hoped to avoid a party system, in which members of each party sought to block the other party’s measures and support their own, regardless of merit.

When they wrote the Electoral College into the Constitution, they had in mind an alternate system in which citizens do not vote for candidates, but for electors.  The electors, presumably the leading citizens of the various parts of the United States, were supposed to meet, deliberate and choose as President the best-qualified person.

The only President ever chosen in the way the Founders intended was George Washington.  He did not campaign for office.   Washington was chosen because it was the consensus of the electors that he was the best person for the office.

That system quickly broke down.  In 1800, Federalist electors pledged to John Adams ran against Democratic-Republican electors pledge to Thomas Jefferson.   In the early days of the Republic, candidates were chosen by the congressional caucuses of the parties.  Caucuses were replaced in Andrew Jackson’s time by political party conventions, which were supposed to be more open to public participation.

In a way, the congressional caucuses and party conventions were a substitute for the Electoral College.  Leading political figures from various sections of the country came together and agreed on a candidate.  The public campaign did not begin until they made their choice.

In the 19th century and early 20th century, candidates maintained the convention that they did not seek the offices.  Generally the candidates stayed away from the conventions until a delegation came and notified them of their nominations.   They thought it undignified to actively campaign themselves.  Their supporters did most of the campaigning for them.

Presidential primaries were introduced during the Progressive Era around the turn of the last century, but they did not come to control the nominating process until 75 years later.  I remember how the 1956 Democratic presidential nomination went to Gov. Adlai Stevenson, even though Senator Estes Kefauver won a majority of the vote in primaries; leaders such as ex-President Truman dismissed the primaries as a “beauty contest.”  Senator John F. Kennedy’s victories in the 1960 Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries were important not because of the delegate votes he won, but because he showed party leaders that a Catholic could carry predominantly Protestant states.

Today both Democrats and Republicans have presidential primaries in all the states.  This is supposed to open up the process to public participation, but the unintended consequence is to create a need for the individual candidate to be able to raise money for the necessary advertising, publicity and campaign staff to get into the public eye.  The idea that the office should seek the candidate has been forgotten.  The political campaign is an ordeal that many qualified people would not want to go through.

In many ways the present system is worse than the old political machines.  Tammany Hall and Chicago’s Daley machine were corrupt, but at least they did things of tangible value for people in their patronage networks in return for their votes, which today’s media-based campaigners do not.

Sometimes I think we would be better off trying to go back to the original concept of the Electoral College.  Instead of voting for candidates directly, voters would vote for electors – one from each congressional district and two from each state – whose names would appear on the ballot without the names of a pledged candidate.  The electors would then meet and make their choice, which could be someone who had not actively put themself forward.

But as I think it over, I see that it wouldn’t work.  Powerful monied interests would know the sentiments of the individual electors, even if the average voters didn’t.  And the electors would wind up being as beholden to monied interests as candidates are today.

One advantage of the present presidential primary system is that it starts in small states—the Iowa caucuses, and then the New Hampshire primary.  Relative unknown candidates sometimes win in Iowa and New Hampshire, and this gives them the credibility to raise money.

In short, we have a badly flawed system, and all the past attempts to open it up have done nothing or made things worse.  I don’t have good ideas as to what to do to make things better.  Does anybody else?

Who’s writing the laws?

March 31, 2011

William Cronon is an outstanding historian on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin.  I own two of his books, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England, and Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Both made me see the relation of history to geography and the natural world in a new way.

William Cronon

Recently Prof. Cronon turned his attention to Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislative program, and found some interesting things about where they’re coming from.  Among other things, he found that the laws of Wisconsin are being drafted by an outfit called the American Legislative Exchange Council. I never heard of it before, but evidently it has been drafting model legislation for conservative legislators for 40 years, and claims a good success rate in getting its ideas enacted into law.  Proposals such as Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting law don’t come out of nowhere.  They are part of a concerted nationwide effort.

As Cronon emphasizes, there is nothing wrong with people banding together to advance a political program they believe in.  The rise of the conservative movement in the United States in the past 50 years is a remarkable success story, and worthy of emulation by those of us who want to move the country in a different direction.  At the same time, I wonder why I never heard of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Cornon posted his findings on his new web log.  I won’t try to summarize his post.  Click on Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn’t Start Here) to read it.   I strongly recommend reading the post in its entirety.

Wisconsin’s Republicans haven’t taken Cronon’s writings lightly.  The Wisconsin Republican Party has used Wisconsin’s Open Records Law to subpoena any of Cronon’s messages on his university e-mail account that may relate to Republicans and politics; they won’t say why.  Click on A Shabby Crusade in Wisconsin for the New York Times comment on this.



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