Tuesday, April 22, 2014

John McCain=James Buchanan? Mitt Romney=Stephen A. Douglas?

The lament that the extremist party in American politics failed not because of its extremism, but because it wasn't extreme enough, is an old one. The classic statement of it comes from Charles Chauncey Burr, editor of the rabid Copperhead organ The Old Guard, reviewing "How the Democratic Party Fell to Pieces" in August, 1866:

     "Like the old Whig party, the Democratic party split and went to pieces upon the negro. It was held together by the cohesive power of official plunder for one or two presidential terms, after it had ceased to be a great national party united upon the basis of common principles, although its principles were not so various as its policy. The southern section of the party, under the masterly leadership of Mr. Calhoun, was firmly and tenaciously grounded upon the principles of Jefferson and the Revolutionary fathers, in relation tot he vital principles of State sovereignty and self-government. In theory the northern Democracy adhered to these sacred principles, but practically, it abandoned them in almost every campaign. While its public profession of principle was adverse to the Free-soil and every other type of Abolition heresy, its policy was directed in a manner that was intended to catch Free-soil and Abolition votes. Its campaigns were no longer conducted to vindicate a great principle, but to palliate a growing Abolition sedition. Instead of meeting this sedition boldly and refuting its monstrous delusions, it set about to wheedle and to cheat it. The Democratic stump speakers of the North, were almost invariably in the habit of beginning their harrangues by assuring the crowd, that they 'were as much opposed to slavery as any man.' And in this way the Democratic party itself, gradually became rotten with the sin of Abolitionism. There was occasionally a Democratic speaker, who had the wisdom to foresee that this cowardly and lying policy would, in the end, destroy the Democratic party. But his voice was less than one crying in the wilderness. Thus gradually the Democratic organization of the North ceased to be a great defense of the vital principles of a free government, and became a mere machine to catch votes, by going half-way over to the abominations of Abolitionism itself. And thus while the shallow leaders of the Democracy imagined that they were cunningly absorbing the Abolitionists, the Abolitionists were all the time absorbing them. And in this way a heresy, which was at first despised by every body, except a handful of such wretches as Garrison and Phillips, was gradually made great and powerful, even by the connivance of the northern Democracy itself. Instead of honestly standing up to battle for the truth, it went meanly about fishing for Abolition votes. Those of hte party who had the intelligence and virtue to fall out against the invidious Abolitinizing process, were denounced as 'impractical' and 'indiscreet.' Knavery alone was 'practical,' and cheatery and falsehood 'discretion.'"--The Old Guard, August, 1866, pp. 449-450.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

God bless the Texas School Board.

God bless the Texas School Board.

They recognized that Jefferson was anathema to Christianity and banned him from the curriculum. 

By contrast, most evangelicals in America are shackled to Jefferson.  "If Jefferson is wrong, America is wrong." Given that choice, since America is God's chosen country--or perhaps rather, since God is America's chosen deity--Thomas Jefferson must perforce be a Christian. This skeptic, infidel, deist, materialist, must be twisted into a Christian.

What does a Christianity look like that supports Thomas Jefferson as a devotee? Precisely like David Barton's Wallbuilders. A "wall of separation" transmuted into a wall of union. 

It's a good thing Voltaire didn't write the Declaration of Independence.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Checkers or chess?

Ted Cruz has weighed in with his latest verbal assault on President Obama, asserting that he is not in the same foreign policy league with Vladimir Putin:

"The world has seen some great chess matches, and yet in the geopolitical stage, it is almost as if the Russians have a renowned grandmaster playing chess and the United States is playing checkers,”
 What a devastating diss. After all, chess has lots of different kinds of pieces that move in all kinds of different ways, while checkers just has boring round black and red disks that can only use the black squares. Boy, that Putin is certainly a lot more sophisticated than checkers-playing Obama.

Maybe, maybe not. Edgar Allan Poe, in the introduction to his "Murders in the Rue Morgue," had this to say about chess versus checkers (formerly draughts):

 [T]o calculate is not in itself to analyze. A chess-player, for example, does the one, without effort at the other. It follows that the game of chess, in its effects upon mental character, is greatly misunderstood. I am not now writing a treatise, but simply prefacing a somewhat peculiar narrative by observations very much at random; I will, therefore, take occasion to assert that the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess. In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex, is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound. The attention is here called powerfully into play. If it flag for an instant, an oversight is committed, resulting in injury or defeat. The possible moves being not only manifold, but involute, the chances of such oversights are multiplied; and in nine cases out of ten, it is the more concentrative rather than the more acute player who conquers. In draughts, on the contrary, where the moves are unique and have but little variation, the probabilities of inadvertence are diminished, and the mere attention being left comparatively unemployed, what advantages are obtained by either party are obtained by superior acumen. To be less abstract, let us suppose a game of draughts where the pieces are reduced to four kings, and where, of course, no oversight is to be expected. It is obvious that here the victory can be decided (the players being at all equal) only by some recherché movement, the result of some strong exertion of the intellect. Deprived of ordinary resources, the analyst throws himself into the spirit of his opponent, identifies himself therewith, and not unfrequently sees thus, at a glance, the sole methods (sometimes indeed absurdly simple ones) by which he may seduce into error or hurry into miscalculation.
 But as greatly superior as checkers is to chess as a game of analysis, whist (essentially, poker) is far preferable.

Whist has long been known for its influence upon what is termed the calculating power; and men of the highest order of intellect have been known to take an apparently unaccountable delight in it, while eschewing chess as frivolous. Beyond doubt there is nothing of a similar nature so greatly tasking the faculty of analysis. The best chess-player in Christendom may be little more than the best player of chess; but proficiency in whist implies a capacity for success in all these more important undertakings where mind struggles with mind. When I say proficiency, I mean that perfection in the game which includes a comprehension of all the sources whence legitimate advantage may be derived. These are not only manifold, but multiform, and lie frequently among recesses of thought altogether inaccessible to the ordinary understanding. To observe attentively is to remember distinctly; and, so far, the concentrative chess-player will do very well at whist; while the rules of Hoyle (themselves based upon the mere mechanism of the game) are sufficiently and generally comprehensible. Thus to have a retentive memory, and proceed by "the book" are points commonly regarded as the sum total of good playing. But it is in matters beyond the limits of mere rule that the skill of the analyst is evinced. He makes, in silence, a host of observations and inferences. So, perhaps, do his companions; and the difference in the extent of the information obtained, lies not so much in the validity of the inference as in the quality of the observation. The necessary knowledge is that of what to observe. Our player confines himself not at all; nor, because the game is the object, does he reject deductions from things external to the game. He examines the countenance of his partners, comparing it carefully with that of each of his opponents. He considers the mode of assorting the cards in each hand; often counting trump by trump, and honor by honor, through the glances bestowed by their holders upon each. He notes every variation of face as the play progresses, gathering a fund of thought from the differences in the expression of certainty, of surprise, of triumph, or chagrin. From the manner of gathering up a trick he judges whether the person taking it, can make another in the suit. He recognizes what is played through feint, by the manner with which it is thrown upon the table. A casual or inadvertent word; the accidental dropping or turning of a card, with the accompanying anxiety or carelessness in regard to its concealment; the counting of the tricks, with the order of their arrangement; embarrassment, hesitation, eagerness, or trepidation -- all afford, to his apparently intuitive perception, indications of the true state of affairs. The first two or three rounds having been played, he is in full possession of the contents of each hand, and thenceforward puts down his cards with as absolute a precision of purpose as if the rest of the party had turned outward the faces of their own.

I've come to regard Poe's prefaces as the heart of his tales, particularly in the Dupin "detective stories." We have failed to understand Poe if we think that is all  they are.


Sunday, February 02, 2014

William H. Seward on Slavery and "the Negro"

Mrs. Archibald Dixon, author of The Missouri Compromise and its Repeal (1899), included this description of a dinner party attended by Senator Seward and Senator Dixon (a Kentucky Whig) in early 1854:

     As usual the negro was under discussion, and Mr. Seward said to Mr. Dixon: "Your lands down there are too fine to be given over to such an inferior and degraded race as the negroes. There are too many poor white men in the North who want them, and we mean to have them." Said Mr. Dixon: "What, then, will you do with the negroes?" He replied: "We will drive them into the Gulf of Mexico, as we are driving the Indians into the Pacific Ocean. Set them free, and in fifty years there will not be a negro left!" Mr. Dixon exclaimed, "God! man, you ought to be hung!"
     The cruelty of the proposition shocked him, and his amazement was equal to his horror at hearing such a suggestion from a man whom he had supposed to be actuated, however mistakenly, by sentiments of humanity towards the negro. I can never forget Mr. Dixon's expression as he told me of the remark, and I could easily imagine the vehemence of feeling conveyed in his reply to Mr. Seward. (p. 239)
Allowing for the self-serving nature of the anecdote, on the parts both of Mr. and Mrs. Dixon, it offers an interesting perspective on Seward, then four years from his famed "irrepressible conflict" speech.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Republicans and deficits

I think it's worth reposting this essay from 2001.  Time to think seriously about budgets and deficits.  Highlighting not mine.

[ although the following article was originally titled "Bush's River Boat Gamble—And Why Republicans Love It", I've renamed it to give potential readers a better idea of what is being offered for their consideration. The author is no relation to Steve Forbes. He is a lecturer in history and associate director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University,", it might better be called

"Why Republicans want your Government to be Broke"

by Robert Forbes
(sometime in 2001)


        Now that President Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut has been signed into law, the pundits and the experts have declared that the surplus is dead–and that that's a good thing.  Suddenly, politicians and economists who have for years stressed the urgency of fiscal discipline and the need to slash spending have found a new fondness for deficits.  It's a strange turnaround, to say the least.
        Why do President Bush and his allies want to knock the federal budget into the red?.  It's a familiar claim these days that Bush developed his $1.6 trillion tax cut plan to fend off a primary challenge from Steve Forbes, and continued to push it out of a stubborn consistency.  Others say that the slowdown in the economy makes a federal surplus dangerous and counterproductive.  Such views overlook the thirty-year commitment of conservative Republicans to preventing the accumulation of a budget surplus.  The reasons for this seemingly irrational policy are not hard to find if one looks to earlier American history.
        A federal surplus, as nineteenth-century slaveholders knew and feared, carries with it the potential for social transformation on a huge scale.  James Madison suggested that the government emancipate the slaves and relocate them to Africa.  The cost he projected as a staggering $600 million; but "happily," he wrote, the expense was not a problem because the nation's greatest resource, its public lands, were worth three times that amount.  Nine northern states called for just this policy in 1825.
        John Quincy Adams, the most strongly nationalist president between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, urged that the United States apply the tremendous power it derived from its liberty to "ends of beneficence"–toward building the nation's infrastructure, chartering a national university, promoting scientific expeditions, and responsibly managing the country's natural resources.  For his proposal, Adams incurred the wrath of reactionary southerners and their Northern allies, who believed that national spending constituted a deadly threat to the slaveholding status quo.
        Adams was replaced by Andrew Jackson, a staunch friend of slavery.  But Jackson's policy of fiscal restraint, which first endeared him to slaveholders, later terrified them as the federal debt diminished.  An ally of South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun described the imminent extinction of the debt as "a crisis in the history of nations" that would shatter Jackson's Democratic Party, because a surplus would invite steps to end slavery.  Many anti-tariff South Carolina "nullifiers" explicitly declared that it was not federal power that they most feared, but the federal revenues that an increased tax on imports would generate and that would serve as a tempting catalyst to social change.  For this reason, most Southern leaders supported giving away the public lands to settlers at virtually no cost. ( for those unfamiliar with its precise meaning, "nullification"means "the action of a state impeding or attempting to prevent the operation and enforcement within its territory of a Federal law".)
        Quietly and without fanfare, the Clinton administration reversed thirty years of deficit spending and put the government in the black.  One would think that this would be the ideal time to resume John Quincy Adams's conversation about the proper means of applying American power toward "ends of beneficence."  Some commentators have begun this discussion, moving beyond the usual formulas of paying down the debt and shoring up Medicaid and Social Security.  Groups like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have promoted such uses as extending health coverage to the uninsured, reducing poverty, and investing in education, research, and the nation's infrastructure as appropriate ends for employing the surplus.
        These ideas are unlikely to receive a serious hearing, however.  Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, long an opponent of large tax cuts, cast a pall over spending for the common good by arguing that large surpluses "distort the structure of private economic growth."  Spending is bad, he asserted, because it leads to deficits – a somewhat Orwellian formulation when offered in defense of tax cuts.  Yet Greenspan made no objection to a hundred billion-dollar missile defense system that seems to have no feasible mission other than shooting down the nation's growing budget surplus.  Missing entirely from Greenspan's speeches has been any discussion of identifying common national priorities or addressing national needs.  Today, as the New York Times reports, "deficits are respectable again." Increased federal spending, even on basic human needs, isn't.
        What would an America look like that had the fiscal means to provide such benefits as health care, decent housing, and a first-rate public education to all of its citizens?  For the first time in our nation's history, we are on the cusp of finding out.  But as ever in the past, powerful forces are fighting to ensure that scarcity prevails.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Doughfaces redux

Matthew Mason has an article in the current issue of the Journal of the Early Republic on the Missouri crisis as viewed from Maine. It's curious that whenever a scholar speaks critically of doughfaces, Matt takes it personally.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Looking North from Missouri

I had the honor to be invited to participate in the plenary session of this year's conference of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic on "Crossroads Missouri."  Other scholars spoke on looking East, West and South from Missouri; I was asked to look North.  My remarks are below.

For Americans, the West has been a glittering abstraction, more of a mystical concept than a place. And this mystification has two very powerful rationales.  First, it obscures both the horrendous costs of western expansion to the people who lived there, as well as the real costs of its rewards: the maldistribution of land and riches that turned land speculators into a class of superrich. Second, the West provided a dialectical escape hatch—a spurious one, as it turned out—to evade the inexorable conflict of North and South. Jefferson invoked this tone of mysticism repeatedly, most memorably in his First Inaugural Address, describing America as “a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” Jefferson is demonstrating impeccable logic: only a limitless West can reconcile the contradiction of North and South. But it is equally clear that the West that solves this equation is an imaginary number.

Both Northerners and Southerners projected their dreams for the future on the West, and these collided catastrophically over the question of Missouri statehood. The traditional historiography, following the Jeffersonian narrative, painted the movement to restrict slavery in Missouri as a Federalist gambit to regain sectional political power. More recent scholars have seen it as a sincere and broad-based effort to reclaim the national character and save the West from slavery. But nearly all observers, including myself, have paid only cursory attention to the interests and motivations of the Missourians themselves.


Looking North from Missouri inherently positions Missouri as South. That’s right, isn’t it? As the center of the storm over slavery restriction, it would seem only natural to identify Missouri as a southern state. But I will argue that Missouri is something else entirely, something extremely important to our understanding of America and the function of the west.

Read on...