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.

Interstellar Visitor, or Where is the Space Force when We Need it?

https://www.quantamagazine.org/interstellar-comet-oumuamua-might-not-actually-be-a-comet-20181010/

It may seem a bit eccentric to introduce a world shaking story on an obscure weblog, but Nearctic Traveller believes his discriminating readers deserve to be the first to know. As the attached story from Quanta reports, the first interstellar object detected in our solar system has left in its wake a great mystery.

First described as an asteroid, then as a comet, and finally as a weird hybrid, tumbling through space, it came from parts unknown and departed thence before earth based astronomers could get a proper fix. Given its unprecedented characteristics, an effort was made to monitor any radio signals emitted from the object, but none were detected.

As it happens, during the near approach to earth by the “object,” I was contacted by a colleague, a quantum physicist, at our local university who wanted my help. It turned out that during the course of an experiment on quantum entanglement, she had received a strange message, in plain text English, via her apparatus’s computer output. It specifically requested to be connected to an ecologist, so naturally, she thought of me. I was soon receiving the communication via my old Mac, and sitting at my desk, I carried on the following conversation with what claimed to be the interstellar exploration ship, @3*776=$£9{¥}457, which we had begun calling Oumuamua, a word in the language of Hawaiʻi, meaning scout, which they found singularly appropriate. What follows is a transcript of the conversation.

NT: May I ask why you have chosen to communicate with just one and, candidly, one entirely uninfluential earthling?

O: We were prepared to announce ourselves, but for reasons we will explain as we go along, have decided to postpone our visit. We gleaned enough from your communications being beamed promiscuously into space, to see that our expedition is premature. Therefore we have maintained our concealment, which was facilitated by our decision not to thaw the bulk of the expedition. That was the ice, which some of your astronomers will have noted, that failed to form a tail as we rounded your sun, because we kept it frozen. Of course we ourselves send no signals by radio, preferring the secure means of quantum entanglement.

NT: I heard that there was a mysterious force that seemed to be influencing your orbit.

O: that would be our cosmic string drive, which enables us to journey among all the 23 dimensions of space. You physicists are still muddling through the theory, but the simple way to explain is that we can wind up many strings, rather like the rubber band powered airplane models you play with, and as they unwind, sail through space to any dimension and system we wish to visit. The tumbling you noted is caused by the lumpiness of the twisted strings.

NT: Did you find anything distinctive in our broadcasts?

O: No, though some of the crew enjoy watching reruns of Star Trek during down time. Its heart is in the right place, but the conception of what lies beyond your world is hilarious.

NT: Well, welcome to the solar system. Have you been here before?

O: Yes, on several occasions. We conducted a preliminary reconnaissance about a billion of your earth years ago [hereafter, EYA] to verify what our instruments indicated, that a biosphere was present on your planet. We checked back some time around one hundred million EYA and found only large, rather disagreeable lizards, and thinking that it might speed things along, sent a large asteroid your way. Following that event, we returned some one million EYA, to find things perking along nicely, with bipedal, dexterous, bionts, who showed signs of making tools and engaging in symbolic communication. Having allowed what we believed was sufficient time for this organism to develop, we returned just over two hundred EYA. It was a most interesting occasion, as we could see that people, as we designate you and your kind, had achieved a number of milestones in government, science, technology, etc. although your ethical and cultural development was still pitiable. Not there there was any lack of enlightened individuals, simply that as a collective you were still as nasty and brutish for the most part as on our previous visit.

NT: So, why did you return now?

O: We are incurable optimists and thinking that you would soon be in a position to meet all your material needs, we believed that this would lead you to a more just and equitable society. Then you might be ready to deal with the fact that you are by no means alone in the cosmos.

NT: And what, if anything, have you concluded?

O: We are sorry to report that far from making you better, the possibility of freeing yourselves from want has led to insatiable desire for material means to a goal you seem unable to define. Moreover, you have become more violent, and turn your ingenuity towards developing both weapons of mass destruction and more effective devices for personal aggression. I could go on, but as an educated person, you are surely well aware of what we learned.

NT: Alas, you are correct, but isn’t this simply the heritage of our evolutionary past?

O: Indeed, but we had hoped that in learning of that past, you would also become aware of the need to transcend it. Rather than doing this, most of you refuse to believe even the obvious scientific truth of your evolution and instead, cling to tribal myths. These unfortunate conclusions are in line with several reports we received of you from beings living on different worlds, in different dimensions. One was based on an encounter between inter dimensional bionts and a Mr. Lemuel Gulliver, we believe, from your planet, just before our last visit. The leader of one of these groups, who talked to this Gulliver about his home country, was forced to “…conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” Another contact was about 85-90 EYA, when a certain biont, of rather unusual, but not unprecedented qualities, named Archie, had radio communication with the outpost of another interstellar organization, based on Mars at the time. They provided us with the following transcript of part of the conversation:

tell us all about

your planet said mars

well i said it is

round like an orange

or a ball

and it is all cluttered

up with automobiles

and politicians

it doesn t know where it is

going nor why

but it is in a hurry

it is in charge of a

two legged animal called

man who is genuinely

puzzled as to whether

his grandfather was a god

or a monkey

i should think said mars

that what he is himself

would make more difference

than what his grandfather was

not to this animal i replied

he is the great alibi ike of

the cosmos when he raises hell

just because he feels like raising hell

just because he feels like

raising hell

he wants somebody to blame it on

can t anything be done about him

said mars

i am doing the best i can

i answered

but after all i am only one

and my influence is limited

NT: So how does you disappointment affect us? Do you plan to destroy the human race?

O: I hope you see that you are projecting your own subconscious barbarity onto us. We are not a violent race of bionts, as you seem to so often fantasize about coming to wipe you out.

NT: Good to know. What is it you want from me?

O: We have concluded that your case may be hopeless, so we’d like to know what you, as an ecologist can tell us about your planet’s current condition. Since we aren’t ready to make a full, on the ground reconnaissance now, we feel it would be useful to have a somewhat reasonable member of your species fill us in on the present state of your biosphere. That way, when we return shortly, after your inevitable demise, we can reconstruct the biosphere as it existed prior to your final destructive acts. We know from experience that enough genetic material will survive for our engineers to rebuild and make a nice home for a deserving species whose own planet is facing some catastrophe.

NT: Why not simply suck up all our data from the internet?

O: Surely you jest. Not even a hyper intelligent race of interstellar bionics, like ourselves, can find the truth in all that rubbish.

NT: Well, I admit it would be a problem, but I feel a scruple about helping, since I think we prefer to try to save ourselves and our biosphere. I understand you don’t like to waste a good planet, but neither do we. Besides, the new tenants, if they do move in, might prefer to do their own decorating.

O: That is a good observation. We will leave it up to them. We wish you success, of course, and we are really sorry we can’t share any of our technology, which might be of real assistance. among other things we have infinite, non-polluting energy supplies in a whole range of sizes that can be manufactured for about one of your dollars each. But you see of course that it would invariably fall into the wrong hands. Let your people know this was our last visit, if you think you can endure the abuse you’ll be subjected to. @3*776=$£9{¥}457, signing off for good.

There you have a true and complete account of the communication I received. My colleague, who prefers to remain anonymous, vouches for the truth of this report in a document in my possession, which I will show to the Secretary General of the United Nations on request. Further verification of previous contacts can be found in the following sources:

Marquis. Don. Archie hears from Mars in the lives and times of archie and mehitabel New Edition. Doubleday and Co. 1950.

Simak, Cliffiord. The dusty zebra in The Worlds of Clifford Simak, Simon and Schuster, 1960. Also in The Dusty Zebra, Kindle edition, Open Road Media Sci-Fi and Fantasy, 2017. [An account of an attempt in the 1950s by another interstellar group to establish commercial relations. This proved disastrously premature.]

Swift, J. A voyage to Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels (numerous editions)

 

Playful Explorations

Atom Land: A Guided Tour Through the Strange (And Impossibly Small) World of Particle Physics by Jon Butterworth. The Experiment. New York. 2018.

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2017.

Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts. Bloomsbury USA. 2015.

 These three books form a progression from the most concrete to the most abstract or, taking a different point of view, from the most serious to the most playful. At the same time all three are in different ways, highly imaginative.

The first is an account of particle physics, framed as a voyage into the unknown waters of the atomic and subatomic scales in the natural world, accompanied by charts at the beginning of each section that map physicists’ increasing knowledge as they probe matter at ever higher energies. The classes of particles recognized by current theory are shown as islands, while the forces that link them are shown as connections – electromagnetism as bridges traversed by cars, the strong force as sea lanes crossed by boats and the weak force as airplane routes. Butterworth describes the steps by which these waters were charted, from the development of the atomic theory of matter to the Standard Model, which culminated recently with the finding of the Higgs boson, using the Large Hadron Collider.

This model is a triumph of the partnership between theoretical and experimental physics, relying on both advanced mathematics and powerful machines, such as particle colliders  for achieving high energy at incredibly tiny scales and sophisticated detectors for examining the resulting products. Both the mathematical calculations and the engineering are among the most challenging being carried out anywhere in the world, and it is an open question how much deeper we can push these explorations.

Butterworth concludes by describing some of the conjectures and hints of what lies beyond (at even higher energies) cast in the form of sailors’ tales of the prodigies and monsters found in uncharted waters, like dark matter and energy, super symmetry and string theories. His account spares his reader all but the most basic mathematics and yet provides a very helpful overview of the current theory of our physical universe as well as an enjoyable tale.

The second book is a biography of the pioneer of communications theory, Claude Shannon, mathematician and engineer, whose work helped provide the basis for today’s digital computers and the entire structure of information technology built on their power. Shannon is a man who loved both thinking and tinkering and who was fortunate to be brilliant enough to be allowed to make those activities his career, without having to worry too much about where it all led. His most influential work, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, changed the way communications engineers thought about their work by eliminating the focus on the mechanism (telegraph, telephone, radio, television) and instead considering the fundamental logic of information. Among his key contributions were a focus on probability and his demonstration that all messages can be reduced to simple binary codes, consisting of “bits.” His basic measure of information is familiar to me from my days as an ecology graduate student, because it can be repurposed as a way of measuring species diversity in samples of organisms. This was one of my first experiences with the idea that information is a property of more than just human communications. The authors discuss the way in which the concept of information ( especially its conceptualization as uncertainty or randomness) pervades many aspects of modern science. They warn that this may prove just another version of the old “clockwork universe,” an example of the tendency to imagine nature in terms of our own inventions. Still, there is no doubting the extent of Shannon’s influence.

Despite his reputation, and despite being associated with many of the greatest minds of the twentieth century at Bell Labs and MIT, Shannon preferred his private family life and his playful activities, from robot building to unicycle riding, over fame and influence. He and his mathematician wife, Betty, spent much time devising toys and games, some quite sophisticated, including one of the earliest chess playing computers. He could accomplish amazing results with erector sets and a few switches and relays, like a juggling robot, dressed to look like W.C. Fields. He had earned, in the eyes of his employers, the right to pursue these activities by his amazing early achievements. Perhaps as robots and IT gradually take away the need for so many to spend lives in repetitive toil, more of us will be able to enjoy such a playful existence.

The last book suggests what a life of pure play might look like. I heard and saw John Conway at my institution many years ago giving a talk and demonstration on knots. It was a virtuoso performance, culminating it a dance in which a group of volunteers from the audience followed his directions to turn themselves into an amazingly elaborate pattern while joined together by a web of pieces of rope. I don’t recall the final result except that it was quite astonishing. Conway is widely known as the inventor of Conway’s Game of Life and of surreal numbers, among the numerous mathematical subjects that have engaged his attention over the years. The game of life has become a staple among computer pastimes, both because of the fascinating and sometimes beautiful patterns it generates and because of the way it models self replication and the universal Turing machine (the mathematical essence of computers). Indeed, as the Wikipedia article on the game notes, with those two properties, it can be thought of as modeling life itself, at least as mathematically defined.

Conway is in Roberts’ account perpetually at play, and like a heedless child, he leaves messes everywhere he lights. His offices at various venerable centers of mathematical research have been famous for the nearly impenetrable heaps of toys, games and paper constructions he accumulates. Conway loves games (he sees every game as a number, indeed games for him seem to underlie numbers, and provide a basic way to conceive of his surreal numbers). His method of solving problems is frequently to construct something or use a game as a model. His play leads to real mathematical discoveries, however, and other mathematicians, including some far more serious in demeanor than Conway, have been eager to collaborate with him on major projects.

Roberts biography is interspersed with accounts of her interactions with Conway during the time she was gathering material from and about him. Someone referred to the book as “metabiography,” since its making is part of the story, and it certainly manages to convey some of the strangeness of a life so dedicated to play. Mathematics, like tinkering, is one of the most primal forms play can take. When our educators come to understand that learning is about how to live and not just how to earn a living, they will have new and even better reasons to be sure everyone learns the fundamentals. We all need math to open up the horizons of beauty and pleasure.

 I know I’m going to keep rereading these books and also plunge into the colder waters of Wikipedia to try to better understand some of the concepts presented, but for now, I will post these impressions.