Cultural DNA

The Wayfinders. Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis. House of Anansi Press. Toronto. 2009.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Harper Collins. 2001.

The Wayfinders, based on lectures by Davis, forms a counterpoint to Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here. They reveal the “cultural DNA” that binds populations of humans together: language, myths, memories and mental maps of the world. This kind of inheritance is what enabled the ancient Polynesians to spread their DNA across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and allows their descendants to replicate their feats of navigation today. It also tells us that all across the world, those chains of inheritance have been and are being broken, as aggressive societies impose their own language and culture on the populations they conquer, enslave, displace or assimilate. This is much like the way conquerors have spread their genes into new territory. In the end only traces of both the biological and the cultural may remain, to be ferreted out by geneticists or anthropologists. Sometimes, though, survivors stubbornly retain their heritage, like the Basques in Spain and many native peoples around the world.

Great empires often produce great and stable cultures – the art, literature, philosophy and mathematics of China, India, Greece, Rome and the still growing body of European science, etc. These become even richer by mutual appropriation. Among the most enduring exchanges are the earliest: agriculture, animal domestication, wheeled transport, boatbuilding and metallurgy. Like the history of ancient DNA, the history of cultures shows patterns of repeated migration and assimilation or displacement over millennia. It seems though, that the asymmetry of power has at least in recent times, produced even more lopsided results for cultures than what Reich finds for genomes. Male conquerors, as I noted in the previous post, have spread a disproportionate share of their genes in the mixing of populations, but often the dominated population persisted through the maternal line. Only rarely did the invaders utterly eliminate the previous occupants of a territory.

More and more cultures are being completely wiped out by modern empires. Military might, coupled with schools to teach the language of the imperial power and religious conversion, forced or voluntary, can drive out languages and traditions. Within the borders of the parent nation states, local dialects and traditions have given way to a homogenized culture. That makes governance and commerce easier, but it destroys the particularity and richness of the land. The advent of compulsory schooling and of mass advertising pushes homogenization even further. Mass media and entertainment smooth out irregularities and quirks. While some people promote the preservation of local tradition, others decry the lack of common values and beliefs in the nation.

Davis tries to show how much is lost when the past is blotted out. Far from being primitive, he argues, these cultures drew on human capacities for learning and memory far beyond the accomplishments of those with modern education. We rely on the collective power of our culture and its embodiment in writing and technology that we don’t become as skilled and knowledgeable as those who lack such aids. We rarely know much about the natural world around us. Almost no “advanced” culture enables a person to survive on just what the land can provide. However productive our economies are, we leave untapped or simply obliterate most of nature’s variety. Witness the fact that a mere three or four species of domestic animals outweigh by an order of magnitude all the rest of the larger land animals on the planet.

Often the natural products do more for these cultures than nourish the body. They provide pathways into spiritual experiences that deepen connections to both the natural and human worlds. The power of the shaman has been a recurrent preoccupation of Davis, whose early popular works on ethnobotany and especially mind-altering plants, The Serpent and the Rainbowand One River, show how they shaped lives for thousands of years. The most important thing that people who still know the power of sacred plants, animals, rocks and places can remind those of us immersed in a globalizing, dominant culture is that we remain dependent on the earth and the functioning of the natural cycles of land, air, water and life. We disrespect and ignore this wisdom at our peril.

Unfortunately, to sustain itself materially, any meaningful culture needs land. We discovered this problem in the nineteenth century, when the reservations set aside for native Americans came under constant pressure from hunters, miners, loggers and farmers. The same is true today in South America, India, Africa.  The result is bloodshed and displacement. Only places that have no resources that the dominant culture wants are left unclaimed. Even here, proselytizing and poaching remain constant issues. Furthermore, given the often stringent demands of traditional ways, there is a continual drain on the population as its members drift away into the dominant milieu.

Mostly the old can exist only with the protection and support of the newer and more powerful, which is almost always accompanied by condescension or ambivalence. Davis tries hard to show why condescension is unjustified, but without the ability to maintain itself in its own territory, it seems to me that almost any culture will begin to seem simply quaint and curious. We may assimilate some music into our popular culture or convert some sacred plants into recreational drugs, even claim to try to follow the spiritual paths laid out by this or that shamanistic tradition. Only anthropologists are going to really study cultures on their own terms, as best they can.

Of course some cultures like Judaism have become integrated into the economic systems of dominant cultures, but with much the same dangers faced by tribal societies elsewhere. Isn’t that why the state of Israel has such fierce supporters? We see ethnic traditions preserved or revived by people long separated from their homelands. Costumes, folk songs, holidays, parades, fairs and so on remind us that there have been many distinct national and local ways of living. But much of this seems like once a year dress up, not a way of life now. Even religious distinctions are blurring as evangelical churches spread a homogenized, flavorless gospel. Their success is driven in part by politics and economics, aided by mass media. Ancient tradition loses out to a uniform set of wants and means of satisfying them.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods revolves around the slow dying out of the hundreds of local gods brought to the United States by immigrants from all over the world, from 14,000 years ago to the present. In his fantasy, these gods still linger on the fringes of society, fending for themselves as the flow of gifts and sacrifices from humans dries up. They know that if their names are forgotten, they will die. The novel concerns their efforts to recapture some of their old power and of a few humans who become entangled in the mythical struggle. Gaiman is a reader of Davis, I suspect, as well as a serious student of mythic traditions himself. The story, like most of Gaiman’s work, is fast moving, funny, violent and a pleasure to read. I also like the second book in this series, Anansi Boys.

Journeys Written in DNA

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich. Pantheon. 2018.

Image: pixabay.com and pmgimage.com

When I spent a summer on the campus of Saint John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1987, one of the groups meeting there was comprised of researchers working on planning the Human Genome Project. The project, which ran for about fifteen years, starting in 1990, cost several billion dollars and produced a single composite DNA sequence for Homo sapiens. Hard to believe that today, thousands of sequences are run routinely at a cost so low that you can get your own sequence in one to two days for $1000.

David Reich provides an account of the recent developments in studying ancient DNA, which is beginning to provide a picture of the evolution of our genus, Homo, over the last 50-150 thousand years, roughly the time that enough DNA remains in old bones or teeth to allow sequencing. The field is rapidly expanding, as more labs open across the world to explore the accumulated human remains in museums, as well as newly excavated material.

Among the findings he reviews are the discovery that early modern humans did indeed hybridize with the archaic populations of Homo that were already in Europe and Asia when the first Homo sapiens moved out of Africa. These earlier people included the Neanderthals and the newly recognized Denisovans. Another finding is that the spread of Indo-European language and culture was indeed accompanied by a spread of people with steppe genotypes into Europe as far west as the British Isles ( see my post on The Horse, the Wheel and Language) The modern human population of Europe turns out to have been the result of multiple waves of migration, bringing not only cultural innovations like farming, but also new human lineages that displaced or blended with the earlier people.

In fact, everywhere that geneticists examine ancient genomes, they find that multiple migrations have shaped human destiny. In North and South America, the most recent areas of human occupation, at least three different migrations can be seen in the genes, and there is still much more work to be done. Likewise, the Indian subcontinent holds a story of migration of Indo-European speakers from the steppes of Central Asia, displacing and blending with the earlier Dravidian language speakers. East Asia has similar patterns, spilling out into the Pacific. These are truly epic journeys of the human species.

Reich discusses the implications of these findings at length. The chapter on genetics and inequality was particularly interesting. The subject is the differences between and within sexes in numbers of offspring produced, as shown by the frequency of distinct gene sequences from a single ancestor among descendent populations. Because men can produce offspring with very little direct effort compared to women, it is possible for men to have many more children in a lifetime. I recall my world history teacher in high school saying that Augustus the Strong of Saxony, “only had about four hundred children.” Circumstantial evidence suggests that Genghis Kahn, thirteenth century Mongol conqueror is the male ancestor of millions, though this is disputed. Certainly, powerful rulers, if fertile and with access to a succession of willing or unwilling consorts, can father many, many sons and daughters.

Reich cites data that indicate that a number of individuals were the fathers of similarly large numbers of descendants during the period between five thousand and three thousand years ago as Neolithic farming peoples began to feel the effects of new technologies: pastoralism, the horse, the wheel and metalworking. In The Horse the Wheel and Language, David Anthony discusses the idea that the new technologies made it possible for tribal chiefs to accumulate power, wealth and prestige. Such men may have led aggressive expansions into new territory, like Genghis, fathering enough descendants for their distinctive Y-chromosomes to show up in genetic analyses. When peoples mix by this mode of male driven conquest, the result is that Y- chromosomes are from the conquering group, while mitochondrial DNA, which is maternally inherited, is from the original inhabitants.

I heard a similar idea many years ago in a seminar on the shift from mother goddess based religion to male sky god religions. Anthony suggests this too in his account of the steppe peoples whose culture and Indo-European language spread widely in this period. The long ago speaker attributed it to mining for metals de-sanctifying the earth, but I suspect it more likely related to the technologies listed above allowing a subset of males to accumulate power. There are now many other cases, from ancient China to medieval Ireland documented by genetic researchers.

Another point Reich makes is that genomics can become a very touchy issue for contemporary descendants of our diversified ancestors. Ethnocentrism is alive and well, from scientists from India who maintain that there were no migrants from the Asian steppes to Navajo elders who refuse to countenance genetic testing arguing that they already know how the Dine were created. Origins are disputed territory: how many Americans still believe in Adam and Eve? Reich points out the falsity of the politically motivated myths of Aryan origins promulgated by German nationalists and still alive today. These crumble in the face of incontrovertible evidence that the modern inhabitants of Northern Europe originated from an amalgam of previous populations with invaders from Central Asia. Migration and mixing of populations and cultures, as we know only too well, is often seen as a threat.

Reich is sensitive to the ethical issues raised by these powerful technologies. He finally consulted a rabbi on the question of whether it was morally right to disturb the dead to obtain genetic material from bones. The answer: only if the knowledge gained will contribute to human  understanding. On the even more fraught question of what population wide genetic studies may reveal about average differences between identifiable groups of people, Reich says two things: First, the question must be faced with accurate data, lest it become the province of pseudoscientific or politically motivated interpretations. Second, whatever the facts are, we know that all groups contain a wide range of potentialities, all of which deserve a chance to be fully realized. Even if a person is not in the upper percentiles of learning ability or athletic ability, the human capacity for hard work makes it possible to succeed. I think Reich means that while  admire the extreme standouts, the Einsteins and Usain Bolts, the bulk of the useful work in the world gets done by those of us closer to the average.

Finally, Reich discusses individual genetic testing. He is in favor of the study of DNA at the population level for medical reasons and also at the individual level, if this helps reduce the incidence of illness caused by recessive mutations. He doesn’t object to individual testing to discover ancestry, but he is not interested in learning about his own genetic background. He seems to feel that focusing on our own unique genomes distracts us from the heritage we share with everyone else, of which the most important part is non-genetic. The simple fact that we are alive tells us that we come from an unbroken genetic line of survivors. Being able to claim descent from particular populations really doesn’t prove much of anything about your own worthiness. Moreover, making such claims can lead to embarrassment, as Elizabeth Warren has discovered.

Humans have been evolving culturally for much longer than the period for which we can get DNA data. Given how much of our behavior is learned, it is likely that our cultural milieu has been a major part of our environment for a long time. Cultures evolve. In doing so, they change the selective environment for humans and the things that live with them. Cultural change drives natural selection. That is, culture shapes our genes indirectly through natural selection as much as genes shape our culture.

As a social species, cultural traditions matter as much or more than our particular DNA in shaping how we live. Many of us, however, know very little of that tradition, or only slivers of it, dependent on our nationality, ethnicity, religion or profession. Too many people grow up with almost no knowledge of any tradition. Even though he professes no religion now, Reich was raised in a deep cultural tradition, Ashkenazi Judaism. He recognizes that all human populations have come out of similarly rich traditions. Together, they represent the most important heritage of the human species; as much as DNA, they are who we are and how we got here.

The Journeys of Holling C. Holling

Paddle to the Sea. 1941. Tree in the Trail. 1942. Seabird. 1948. Minn of the Mississippi. 1951

Each of these books tells a story about travelers. Paddle to the Sea is a small wood carving of a Native American in a canoe, placed by its maker into the water north of Lake Superior. Paddle finds his way to the Gulf of St. Lawrence after years of travel through each of the Great Lakes in turn. Seabird follows the career of a boy named Ezra on a New Bedford whaler and his son’s on yankee clippers, accompanied by a carving in walrus ivory of an ivory gull. Father and son grow to manhood in the age of sail, but the story ends with Ezra’s great-grandson still carrying the white bird as he pilots airplanes over the ocean.  Minn is a snapping turtle, who hatches in Lake Itasca, headwaters of the Mississippi, and who travels slowly south, ending up as a moss covered ancient in the deep backwaters of the Delta. Only the tree in the trail stays put; it begins as a young cottonwood sapling by a tributary of the Arkansas River near present day Great Bend, Kansas. It is witness to generations of Native American Buffalo hunters, the arrival of the Spanish and then the Americans – trappers, traders, settlers and all along the Santa Fe Trail. After hundreds of years, the dead tree is carved into an ox yoke and travels the Santa Fe trail at last. All the books are filled from beginning to end with the natural and human history of the places the travelers pass through. These books are about journeys, but even more about the passage of time.

As a child, I loved Holling’s illustrations, both the large color ones on nearly every other page and the monochrome drawings that filled the margins – maps and diagrams of everything from whales to ships to arrowheads and rivers. I’ve never had difficulty picturing the outlines of the Great Lakes, because Holling, in Paddle to the Sea, provided an object to fit each shape: A wolf’s head for Superior, a summer squash fruit with leaves for Michigan, a trapper carrying a pack of furs for Huron, a lump of coal for Erie and a carrot for Ontario. The forms connected to the regional economies: trapping in the north woods around Superior and Huron, farming in  the midwest around Lake Michigan and in the lake plain of central New York, heavy industry from  western Pennsylvania through northern Ohio to Michigan. Even Lake St. Clair, by Detroit, had a shape like a heart: that region was at the time Holling wrote and illustrated, the industrial heart of the continent.

His marginal illustrations include beautiful maps, both historical and contemporary of the regions his travelers pass. He shows how glaciation shaped the upper Mississippi and the Great Lakes. Showing the history of Minn’s evolution, he goes back to the age of dinosaurs, and there are numerous geological diagrams. his painting of the 1811 New Madrid Earthquake in Minn of the Mississippi is unforgettable.

He illustrations and drawings take you back in time through the history of the regions he depicts.  He illustrates whaling ships and steamboats and covered wagons, often in great detail, showing the different types and how they were used. There are diagrams, beautifully lettered, showing the parts of tools and machines, plans for corrals, sawmills, river locks and how pearl buttons were cut from mussel shells.

In his scenes of life, whether aboard ships at sea or in the bayou country of Louisiana, Holling illustrates the people with sympathy and an absence of satire or irony (he studied anthropology as well as art).  He draws plants and animals in great detail (he was a taxidermist at the Field Museum in Chicago when he was young) and with the same sympathy as his people. Landscapes, wild, rural or industrial are usually shown from a human perspective, as if one were in the scene, with dramatic effect when he shows storms, floods or wildfires. Much of what he depicts he had seen firsthand; he and his wife and collaborator, Lucille Webster Holling, were great travelers themselves.

The Hollings left a legacy of beautifully illustrated books for children. While in many respects, the world they show has changed tremendously since they were published in the 1930s to 1950s, they are still wonderful. There is a love of the natural and the human  coming through these pages that is impossible to miss.

[Here’s another fascinating bit from Wikipedia: “Holling wrote and illustrated a full-page Sunday comic strip titled The World Museum. Each strip included a diorama, which could be cut out and assembled into a 3-D scene of, for example, a buffalo hunt or an undersea panorama.”]

Note: I first found Holling’s books when I was in grade school in the Mary Bailey Pratt Children’s Library in Chapel Hill NC. The library was housed on the upper floor of the elementary school on Franklin Street. It was there, as well as at home, that my love for books developed, thanks to the librarians, especially Mrs Hardee. I worked for her at least one summer, learning how to care for the books. Books with pictures by great American illustrators from N. C. Wyeth to Doctor Seuss, made up a large part of the collection, and two large, framed watercolors, done years before by a student, hung on the wall opposite the desk. One was of Ichabod Crane, walking down the road, reading a book, the other was of Tom Sawyer, heading off to go fishing. After the old school was demolished in the late 1960s, I wondered what had become of those pictures. Years later, I was delighted to find them hanging in the new Chapel Hill Public Library children’s section.

Tunnel into Hell

Under the Wire: Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment by Paul Conroy. Weinstein Books. 2013.

Image: Flickr 8210896317

I listened to the Audible edition.

Marie Colvin, war correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, was killed on February 22, 2012, in Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, Syria. The Syrian Army had laid siege to the area after its residents resisted the Assad regime’s violent suppression of initially peaceful dissent. Colvin and the author of this account, photographer Paul Conroy, had been sent in on assignment to get the story on the impact on the civilian population.

To reach Baba Amr, the two had to enter Syria illegally from Lebanon, cross territory patrolled by the Syrian army and sneak into the besieged town through a storm drain several kilometers long, used by the rebel forces for resupply and to evacuate wounded fighters and civilians. The trip by car or pickup truck over rough roads or no roads at all, often under fire, as well as the foul, claustrophobic tunnel was the stuff of nightmares.

Once in, they found themselves at the “media center” where a few other journalists and a staff of activists for the resistance put out a stream of reports and YouTube videos to try to focus attention on the brutal assault by the government forces, especially the many civilian casualties. They reported from the makeshift hospital, which tried, with little equipment and few drugs, to treat the often horrifically wounded victims. After filing their first story, they were advised to get out before the army made its final assault. Having retraced the arduous route in, they were dismayed to learn that no assault had taken place.

Marie Colvin was determined to go back and Paul Conroy reluctantly agreed. When they returned to the media center in Baba Amr, the bombardment was even worse. Colvin filed another report and then gave live interviews to several broadcast outlets, including CNN. These, which were undoubtedly monitored by Syrian intelligence, probably had something to do with the next day’s tragedy.

On the 22nd, Colvin, Conroy and four French and Spanish journalists were about to leave for the hospital when Conroy, an artillery spotter in his days in the British army, became alarmed. He realized that the shells were falling in a pattern that meant the gunners were zeroing in on the media canter. Confusion followed as some fled the building, while others stayed put. It mattered little: multiple shells scored direct hits. Colvin and Remi Ochlik, the French photographer, died instantly. Conroy, the French reporter, Edith Bouvier, and the Syrian translator, Wa’el were all seriously wounded.

The survivors spent a further week trapped in the city under constant barrage, receiving minimal medical treatment. Conroy was evacuated through the tunnel, which had been blasted shut but was reopened. To escape he had to drag himself, with a horribly torn leg and other serious wounds, through a muddy passage barely wide enough for his body. The Syrian resistance managed to get him to comparative safety in Lebanon. Even there  agents of the Assad regime were looking for him. The British embassy arranged for his evacuation to London, where he spent a year in hospital. All the other journalists and the translator also eventually escaped and recovered.

As an account of Marie Colvin’s last assignment, this is a gripping read. It was the final gamble in decades of risk taking, from Chechnya to Sri Lanka to Lybia, for the sake of getting the story from places where governments were doing dirty work and trying to prevent the rest of the world from learning about it. In East Timor, she went beyond just reporting. Her refusal to leave the refugees whose plight she was covering probably saved fifteen hundred lives. In at least one case it was clear that government forces deliberately tried to kill her, despite knowing she was a journalist. In that incident in Sri Lanka, she lost an eye. She is deservedly a legend in a profession of many heroes.

What bothers me about this book is that it not only pictures the brutality of the Assad regime and the murder of innocent civilians, but it also makes the Syrian resistance fighters, particularly the Free Syrian Army into heroes. In a sense that is true: lightly armed forces defending their territory against a brutal aggressor. What Conroy doesn’t remind us of, however, is how the Syrian civil war began. Assad was faced with a peaceful uprising and, predictably, I would say, chose to use force to put it down. In response members of the army, police and security services defected and formed armed resistance groups, including FSA. Opposition to Assad was highly fractured, however, and there was never much chance of a unified opposition. The subsequent history of the conflict, in which the siege of Homs was an early episode, is one of calamity for Syria and its people.

My question is why resort to armed resistance? Was there an alternative? We see this again and again across the world, and the consequences are never anything but misery for most of the people caught up in the conflict. Marie Colvin’s dispatches could have just as easily come from Gaza, during one of the so-called “defensive” attacks by the Israeli army (which their generals refer to as “mowing the lawn,” according to The Guardian, 7 January 2019). They could come from the Saudi war in Yemen, to cite another current conflict.

Reports like those of Colvin and Conroy too often offer us easily identifiable villains. Someone in the book expressed the hope to see Assad and his government in the dock at the International Criminal Court. That at least would be justice, but graphic accounts of war crimes make us hope to see the villain blasted to bits or executed like Muammer Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. So long as those in power know this is how we feel, they will do everything to avoid having to give up. The one instance I can think of where a brutal regime gave way to a fairly stable democracy is South Africa, where somehow the white leadership was convinced that it was safe to yield to black majority rule.

What do the people of the Middle East have to do to become convinced that they can settle political, social and economic and break down barriers, without the other side trying to destroy them? The problem is that the United States, Russia and China continue to rely mainly on threats of violence and take sides in these regional conflicts. The solution has to begin with the most powerful players.

As I quoted in an earlier post about militarization of environmental conflict:

[militarized approaches to conflict lead to] “antagonistic interactions, of the kind that now plague the Middle East and parts of Africa. Small countries are led to play the game because of the fear, too often realized, that stronger powers, and especially, superpowers, will simply impose their will by threat or violence (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, etc.) It also encourages destructive insurgencies, leading ultimately to collapse of states (Somalia, Libya, Syria, Lebanon) …Without structures of genuine equity, supported by collective guarantees and a system of settling disputes that doesn’t rely primarily on crippling sanctions, threats and force, we will not see much progress towards protecting our earth’s life-support systems.”

and I would add the protecting lives of vulnerable human beings.

 

Before the Storm

The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861(Oxford History of the United States) new editionby David M. Potter, 2011

I listened to the Audible Edition. Image : Library of Congress.

This volume of the Oxford History of the United States traces the events that led up to the American Civil War. It begins with the election of a new President in 1848, amidst the conflict over the issue of slavery in the territory acquired in the Mexican War. After an epic legislative struggle, the Compromise of 1850 allowed among other things, the admission of new free states, but gave to the slave interest the Fugitive Slave Act

At this stage in the intensifying struggle over possible extension of slavery, there were three answers proposed. One was to recognize that the Constitution protected the rights of slaveholders in US territories, a view favored by many southerners. The second solution was enactment of something like the Wilmot Proviso (which had been proposed in the run-up to the Mexican War) forbidding slavery in the new territories, accepting that it was up to Congress to regulate slavery in the territories, which was the view of abolitionists. The last was “popular sovereignty” – meaning the voters in each territory were free to decide whether slavery was legal. This was put forward by those eager for compromise.

The Compromise was made possible after Millard Fillmore replaced Zachary Taylor, who died in office. Stephen Douglas successfully pushed the separate parts of the deal through Congress at the behest of Henry Clay.  After the debates 1850, the great old compromiser Clay, along with John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the most recognized pro and anti slavery leaders, passed from the scene, but the debate over slavery was not settled. New leaders, like Douglas, William Seward and Jefferson Davis, to name a few, continued to contest the issues. The publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act in the North and filibustering by a number of prominent southerners, aimed at annexing Cuba and other territory as slave states, deepened tensions in what was becoming a more definitively sectional conflict.

Douglas, whose great ambition was to secure the construction of a Pacific Railroad benefitting his home state, Illinois, was the force behind the Kansas/Nebraska Act of 1854. Douglas found himself caught in trap: to get needed support for his proposals he was forced to offer inducements to slave state Congressmen. The deal reached, which created separate Kansas and Nebraska territories, where slavery would be decided by popular sovereignty, amounted to abandonment of Missouri Compromise of 1820.

The fight over slavery in the territories was more symbolic than real. Slavery had little role to play in the west beyond Texas, and very few slaves were held in Kansas. The point seems to have been to establish that Congress could not regulate slavery there and to try to maintain some sort of balance in the Senate between slave and free state votes, since the rapid demographic increase of the North seemed certain to give the free states control of the House. The result, however, was “Bleeding Kansas,” a conflict marked by fraud and violence as abolitionists and pro slavery men alike supplied men and guns  to try to win the contest. Popular sovereignty degenerated into near anarchy.

The elections of 1852 and 1856 marked the death of the Whig Party and the brief rise of Know Nothings (aka American Party). Potter makes clear that the important change was the replacement by 1860 of the parties that had crossed sectional (North/South) boundaries, namely the old Democrats and the Whigs, with parties that were essentially sectional in their outlook. Northern Democrats lost most of their representation in Congress by the late 1850s, as first the Know Nothings, the Free Soil Party and then the Republicans defeated them. The northerners, including especially Douglas, continued to influence presidential politics, because the states had representation at Democratic Party conventions.

The next blow to compromise came with the decision in the case of Dread Scott. Potter depicts Chief Justice Roger Taney as not the monster I imagined. A Maryland Catholic who had freed his own slaves, Taney hoped to settle the slavery issue. He and his fellow justices chose to decide Scott’s case on a broad basis, rather than the narrow one available to them. Potter draws a fascinating parallel to Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. Both cases were decided on broad Constitutional grounds, and both decisions provoked fierce resistance and support. Potter is careful to say that while Brown was the right decision, Dred Scott was wrong. Among other things, it denied that any African, slave or free could be considered a citizen of the United States and also ruled the Missouri compromise was unconstitutional. Potter shows clearly the flaws in the arguments and the unfortunate consequences. I also learned from this account that Dred Scott and his family were freed in 1857, but that he died a year and a half later.

After Dred Scott, the South was on the losing end of a number of fights, including the admission of Kansas. President Buchanan recommended admission based on a pro slavery Constitution. The whole process by which it had been adopted appeared to northerners to have been tainted by fraud, however, and with support of northern Democrats, Republicans in the House rejected it.

John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, despite the swift federal response and Brown’s execution, fed southern outrage and fears of slave insurrection provoked by northern abolitionists. The South  then lost the fight over the speakership of the House in 1859/60. Many saw this as a harbinger of future legislative defeats.

The presidential election of 1860 amounted to two separate contests in north and south. The Democrats had split at Charleston in April 1860 and failed to reunite at Baltimore in June. Lincoln the Republican faced Douglas the northern Democrat, while John C. Breckinridge the southern Democrat was opposed by John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party. There was a clear threat by many southerners to secede if the Republicans won. Douglas’s heroic efforts to save the union after Lincoln’s election became a sure thing were an aspect of this election that I had not known about. He shifted his campaign to the South, telling his hearers that Lincoln was not a danger to them, but few were convinced.

According to Potter, sectionalization was clearly in ascendancy by 1860. It was driven to some degree by cultural and economic differences, but slavery was the ultimate issue. Slavery had led the South to develop a system of white supremacy, which in a vicious circle, justified continued enslavement. This system discouraged universal education and promoted social hierarchy. Even today in parts of the South some aspects of this culture remain with us, I think. Southern desire to be respected by the North, coupled with a feeling that instead they were looked down on, deepened their resentment. This also is a divisive factor in our politics today. Potter, however, reminds us that at the same time, culturally, North and South were more similar in 1860 than before or after. Americans were still mostly farmers, egalitarian, independent and Protestant. They shared a reverence for the revolution and the founding fathers. The Confederacy adopted the United States Constitution as its provisional constitution.

What finally drove the South to succeed was the evident loss of power once the Whig and Democratic parties ceased to function as engines of national unity. Republicans were essentially entirely northern. Lincoln did not campaign in the South and wasn’t even on the ballot in the lower South. In southerners’ view, Lincoln’s acceptance of states’ right to regulate slavery was overshadowed by his belief that slavery, as a moral wrong, was on the way to ultimate extinction. This power shift, which was manifested in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1860, was driven by the demographic growth of the free states.

Why secede? Several southerners pointed out that slavery was safer in the union that out. If they split, there could be no more return of fugitives from the north. There would remain a continued danger of insurrection (a huge fear in the South, probably unwarranted) There would be loss of commercial relations and of the western territories as possible new slave states. There was a near certainty of strife and probable defeat. On the other hand, even though if southerners in Congress could block anti slavery legislation, the Lincoln administration might use its appointment powers, especially  for postmasters, to undermine the southern power structure, controlled by the big planters. Incendiary ideas might be spread, leading to slave uprisings.

Lincoln’s election was followed almost immediately by action in South Carolina. There were many who favored waiting until the rest of the southern states were prepared to act in concert, but as things developed, South Carolina acted alone. The rest of the lower south states followed, and by February had formed the Confederacy. What remained to be seen was whether the upper South and border slave states would follow. Buchanan, the lame duck president, tried to find a way, through Congressional action to placate the South and even bring back the states that had seceded. A range of concessions was offered, but nothing that could gain assent from the new Republican Congress. Buchanan, a known supporter of slavery, had insufficient influence over the staunchly anti slavery majority. Lincoln, meanwhile, kept quiet throughout most of the time between his election and inauguration, offering neither reassurance to the wavering southern states nor a clear indication of how he would respond to secession. His intentions and character were so little understood, even among Republicans, that William Seward, Lincoln’s choice for Secretary of State, imagined that he would be a sort of prime minister to the inexperienced President. Think George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

During this time, the potential flashpoints for war were becoming apparent: two forts, Sumter in South Carolina and Pierce in Florida, were held by small garrisons of US soldiers. The seceded states demanded that they be handed over. Instead, the federal government made plans to hold and resupply, if not reinforce, them. The local forces of the states prepared to seize both, and by the time Lincoln took office, it was too late to reverse the course of events. Lincoln tried to diffuse the crisis in his inaugural address, acknowledging the controversy that had occupied the past decade. He reaffirmed his commitment to leave slavery in the states alone, along with his belief in the inviolability of the Union. He stated that the federal government would not take aggressive action. Despite his conciliatory position, in little over a week, Fort Sumter had been forced to surrender. The Civil War had begun.

The Impending Crisis is an excellent account of the deep complexities, political and cultural that led up to the bloody disaster, which as we all learned, gave birth to a new and freer country. Unlike the earlier and later volumes in this series, The Impending Crisis does not cover the economic or social developments during the 1850s. While these must pale before the momentous events leading up to the Civil War, I would still like to have a sense of how the country changed in those years. What, for instance, was the impact of California gold on the economy? Perhaps there are other sources that describe how progress in industry and communications, etc. formed the basis for the North’s success and the South’s ultimate failure in the conflict.

The Fall and Rise of China

Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Ageby Stephen R. Platt. Knopf. 2018.

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdomby Simon Winchester. Harper. 2008.

These two books bracket the time from when China began a long decline in power and prestige to its gradual emergence after the Second World War. The first book, Imperial Twilight, recounts the conflict with England over trade, especially opium, during the first four decades of the nineteenth century. The second, The Man Who Loved China, tells the story of an Englishman, Joseph Needham, whose lifelong quest was to discover and document the science and technology developed over millennia of Chinese history. Both make fascinating reading.

These books reveal the appalling ignorance about China that prevailed in even the most advanced western country, England. Some of this was of China’s own doing: the emperor and his court discouraged, even forbade, teaching Chinese to foreigners. About the only way to learn Chinese in the early 1800s was to study with the Jesuits in Paris, who had been able to maintain a tenuous presence in the country since the sixteenth century. No other foreigners were admitted. Trade was conducted through a single port at Canton (Guangzhou) where the different European countries were allowed to establish “factories,” with a limited staff. Trade was carried out in pidgin[derived from the Chinese pronunciation of “business”] a simplified amalgam of English, Chinese and additional European languages.

From the mid-seventeenth century on, the British East India Company dominated the trade, mainly in tea, but also silk, porcelain and other goods. Silver, obtained from the sale of English goods in various countries, was exchanged, because China was mostly not interested or did not allow English or other European goods in. Attempts to establish more extensive diplomatic and trade relations were failures, in some cases humiliating failures, for the English. Platt describes these efforts in interesting detail, as well as some unofficial, but heroic efforts by others to penetrate the country.

Looking for something they could sell in China, the Company settled on opium, which could be produced in India, by the Company or native suppliers. This proved extremely lucrative but also roused the ire of the Chinese government, which saw the growing consequences of addiction. The trade benefitted the Chinese merchants, and smugglers when the government tried to crack down, too much to stamp out. Meanwhile, the emperor was in an increasingly weak position as a series of internal rebellions and spreading corruption wasted resources and undermined authority. British ambitions began to focus on winning more freedom to operate in China, and, even though the Company really did not want conflict, the eventual result was the Opium Wars. When they ended, China was defeated and forced to make large concessions to several European powers as well as England and the United States. It took China a century to recover its full independence and then under Communist rule.

Opium was one of the weapons the West employed, intentionally or not, to force an opening to China, and now we see, probably not intentionally, China’s revenge. Fentanyl,  the synthetic opioid which is causing much death and misery here in the US, is produced largely in China. Again, a big part of the problem is our own weakened position in the world and the futile policies by which we try to combat drug addiction. Let us hope that the clash of imperial ambitions, China’s and ours, do not end as tragically as they did in the 1850s.

Joseph Needham travelled in China as the dragon was once again stirring, to speak metaphorically. Western influence was still strong when he began, and a new factor had complicated the picture: Japan’s imperial ambitions, which it first directed towards China. Much of Needham’s work was tied to western efforts to maintain influence in China in these changed circumstances. A biochemist at Cambridge, Needham first encountered China through graduate students who came there in the late 1930s. One of them, Lu Gwei-djen, taught him the basics of Chinese and became his longtime collaborator and mistress. Needham served in Chongching as British scientific liaison from 1942-46. He travelled extensively, meeting many scholars and scientists and gathering the collection of texts that formed the basis of his research after the war. These travels were incredibly challenging and often dangerous, barely avoiding capture or death at the hands of the Japanese as well as the primitive infrastructure of remote areas.

In 1948, back in Cambridge, he began the project that filled most of the rest of his life: Science and Civilization in China, a multi volume work that covers almost every aspect of science and technology and that revealed just how much the Chinese had discovered, invented and applied. A Christian Marxist, Needham remained a friend to China, including leaders of the communist government, especially Zhou Enlai. This got him into trouble in England and the US, particularly over his participation in a commission to investigate alleged American use of bio weapons during the Korean War. He was able to continue his work, however, until his death in 1995, and the project continues today. All in all a remarkable life.

China has rapidly achieved economic development, based heavily on western methods, but it would be foolish to think all they have done is imitative. The tradition of science and technology Needham documented is a reflection of the genius of a civilization quite distinct from the West, and we have yet to see the end of it.

American Awakening

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe. Oxford History of the United States. Oxford 2007

Image: Camp Meeting by A. Rider and H. Bridport, circa 1829

I listened to the Audible edition. This volume in the Oxford History of the United States, subtitled “The Transformation of America,” describes the momentous changes that occurred between the end of the War of 1812 and the US victory in the Mexican War in 1848.

Howe, like the other authors in the series, covers a wide range of topics. The transformative changes occurred in many areas, from economics to religion. Among the most significant was the Second Great Awakening, the protestant religious revival that swept the country, especially after 1820. Howe emphasizes its millenarianism: the expectation of the end of the world as described in Revelation, according to some, but to others not the end but the complete transformation to a peaceful and just world, governed according to Protestant, democratic principles. The Great Awakening stimulated numerous communal experiments, most of which did not last very long, but which left their marks on both culture and geography.  A development which particularly struck me was the rise of Mormonism. Howe depicts Joseph Smith with much more sympathy and respect than Sidney Blumenthal in A Self-Made Man, where he is described essentially as a charlatan and sexual predator. Howe calls the Book of Mormon an American epic, praising its literary qualities (I may have to check that for myself – my previous look into it left me feeling it was a parody of the King James Old Testament)

A second transformation was in political parties, which began to take on modern form. This started as early as around 1800, but with the decline of the Federalists after the War of 1812, James Monroe and others hoped that parties would wither away and usher in an Era of Good Feeling, and indeed, the period is sometimes called that. But it was not in fact nearly so copacetic. The split between Jeffersonian democratic republicans and their opponents, especially in New England, took shape in stronger organizations that formed around supporters of John Quincy Adams, heir to the Federalists, and Andrew Jackson, popular hero of the war of 1812. The Adams vs Jackson struggle occupied much of Adams’s presidency, and led to the failure of much of his agenda.

In fact, the first modern national political convention was not organized by either the Democrats or Whigs, as the parties came to be called, but by the splinter Anti-Masonic Party in 1831. Freemasonry, which many of the founders had belonged to, came to be seen as both anti-Christian and elitist, and the party enjoyed modest success among more democratic elements for a short while in the 1830s.

Jackson’s election in 1828 was driven by populist sentiments throughout the country, including distrust of political and financial elites and federal government power. Jackson himself was no great believer in democratic process, however. He used his power in ways that often undermined the rule of law. His successor, Martin Van Buren rode the wave of his popularity as well as employing his own immense political skills, but his presidency foundered on the rock of economic crisis, caused in large part by Jackson’s financial policies.

Hard times from 1837 to the early 1840s led to the success of the Whigs in putting William Henry Harrison, into office, whereupon he died and was succeeded by John Tyler. Harrison’s supporters had outmaneuvered Henry Clay’s to win him the nomination. Tyler, although chosen as vice president to mollify his friend, Clay, did not support many of the Whig party’s policy preferences, and his presidency had little success.

The election of 1844 was a turning point in US history, according to Howe. A dark horse candidate was selected – James K Polk. He narrowly defeated the Whig Henry Clay. Had the close election gone the other way, Howe thinks Clay might have prevented the Civil War. Instead “Little Hickory,” as Polk was known, went on to achieve his major goals: settling the Oregon question with Great Britain, annexing California and New Mexico as well as Texas from the Nueces River to the Rio Grande, lowering the tariff and creating a system of sub-treasuries. In terms of his own program, Howe thinks Polk was our most successful president.

These party and personal struggles revolved mostly around three or four big issues: banking, the tariff, internal improvements and expansion of territory and slavery. Jackson his supporters distrusted banking, especially the Bank of the United States. They wanted hard money, gold and silver, but there was a chronic shortage of these until California gold began to flow after 1850, so paper money was the only real option. Once he vetoed the renewal of the Bank’s charter, Jackson had to rely on private banks to hold and lend federal funds, without the close oversight that the Bank of the United States had provided. Since much of the lending supported the trade in cotton, a worldwide drop in prices triggered panic and the Hard Times that began after Jackson left office.

The debates over the tariff and internal improvements reflected the mostly sectional interests of manufacturing and commerce versus plantation agriculture. By the time Polk succeeded in lowering the tariff, it had ceased to be the divisive issue that almost tore the nation apart during the Nullification Crisis. Debates about internal improvements were more about who should pay than the old disagreement between Hamilton and Jefferson about a commercial versus an agrarian economy. National planning and financing, which Adams had hoped for and that Clay supported, were rejected. Jackson, who felt improvements were a state or private responsibility, vetoed several major proposals, but he allowed others and continued to support the work of the corps of Engineers, begun under Adams.

The expansion and slavery issue was the one that persisted beyond the period of this history and led to the Civil War. It began with the Indian removal crisis. This came to a head under Jackson, who condoned Georgia’s refusal to abide by treaties that allowed the Native Americans to remain in the southeast, while ceding much of their land. White racism was undoubtedly as much a factor as economic interest and helps account for Jackson’s failure to insure that the Creeks and other tribes had adequate provisions for their forced march to Indian Territory. There was nevertheless considerable support for the Native Americans among whites, including the US Supreme Court, whose decisions Jackson ignored. The moral outrage of his opponents became a source of partisan animosity.

Indian removal permitted the spread of cotton into the vast territory of Alabama and Mississippi, creating a renewed demand for slaves, reversing a trend that had begun in the eighteenth century and cementing the southern opposition to any form of emancipation. Texas, which split from Mexico in 1836, became the focal point of southern ambition to expand into new lands suitable for cotton and slavery. Whether to annex Texas thus became a point of contention between north and south. There was support from expansionist northern Democrats, despite their distaste for slavery, enough to help get Polk elected in 1844. Once Texas was added to the union, imperialism focused on Oregon, northern Mexico, especially New Mexico, and California.

The Mexican war was Polk’s ambition, strongly opposed by Whigs and memorably by Thoreau in his “On the duty of civil disobedience.” By deftly acceding to sharing Oregon with Britain, Polk insured that his imperial ambitions could move forward without interference from the greatest imperial power of the time, and he soon devised a pretext for war. It was his fortune and misfortune to have as capable military leaders, two Whig generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. They overcame both the geography of Mexico and the stubborn resistance of its people. Mexico was left in such a helpless position militarily and financially, that it had no choice but to cede a vast chunk or its territory to the conquering United States.

Despite his success, Polk chose not to run in 1848, and as he had feared, one of his generals, Zachary Taylor was nominated by the Whigs and won.

The power of the United States was on display in the war, but it stemmed from the peaceful development of revolutionary means of transportation and communication. The building of canals, turnpikes and the railroads made it possible to have strong connections between producers and consumers of agricultural products and manufactured goods despite the distance. Likewise, the development of newspapers, the postal system and, in the 1840s, the telegraph, linked markets, facilitated political organization and brought citizens closer to one another. In this way, doubts that an extensive territory could be governed democratically began to fade. Manufacturing was especially facilitated and the economy began to grow more rapidly. An influx of immigrants both aided development of an urban working class but also deepened social divisions. This was even more rapid after 1848 and the failed revolutions in Europe. The Know Nothing Party would develop in response, and nativism has continued to shape our politics down to the present, with Trump’s Muslim ban and border wall. Then the religious suspicion was directed against Catholicism, now the target is Islam. The ethnic prejudice was against the Irish, now Hispanics.

Howe ends by pointing to a development that had little impact at the time, but which marked the beginning of one of America’s great contribution to human freedom. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention marked the beginning of more than a century and a half (so far) of advocacy for equal rights for women. Beginning with the words,

“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed,”

the convention’s declaration echoed Jefferson, identifying the cause as a continuation of the struggle that began in 1776. While almost nothing tangible resulted at the time, or indeed until much later, aside from important ongoing legal reforms, the idea of completing the work of liberation became a touchstone for causes, most notably abolition of slavery, but also temperance, education reform and more that reflected the millenarian hopes engendered by the Second Great Awakening. In Howe’s view then, the religious revival that began the period gave at the end a vision of a future that reasserted America’s role as a beacon of liberty. It might also be thought of a guide through the darkness that followed as sectional divisions hardened and civil war became essentially unavoidable.