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.

Infant Nation

Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, by Gordon S. Wood. Oxford History of the United States. Oxford University Press.

Image: George Washington statue by Horatio Greenough in the National Museum of American History

This volume in the Oxford History of the United States covers the period from the ratification of the Federal Constitution to the end of the War of 1812. Like The Republic for Which It Stands, which I wrote about awhile ago, this is another broad-based account of a crucial period in the development of our nation. The themes are the emergence of a strong central government, the early development of political parties and sectional divisions, the rapid growth of population, and above all, the struggle over the meaning of liberty in a post colonial society.

The major players, of course, are Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, Marshall and Franklin. Wood, however, makes sure to feature the lesser actors, especially the anti-elitists, who formed the core of the early Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, in opposition to the aristocratic tendencies of so many of the founders.  The democratic, egalitarian tendencies of the state legislatures were a major concern for the leaders of the new federal government, who found their volatile politics threatening to stable government. There were very different views among even these federalists as to how far the Constitution permitted the Federal government to regulate the laws and policies of individual states.

At the same time these issues were before Americans, in Europe the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars presented difficult challenges in foreign policy. American elites, much like the British elites, were appalled and frightened by the Jacobins and the Reign of Terror. Anti-elitists found the fall of the Ancien Regime inspiring and even adopted the symbols and style of the revolutionary French. The slave revolt in Haiti, likewise stoked fears of uprisings in the slave states, of which there were still many in the north as well as the south.

All these problems led many to doubt whether the new republic could survive without strong measures to keep social order. The Alien and Sedition Acts, passed by the Federalists under John Adams’s administration, were a manifestation of these fears. They deepened the divisions between the Federalists and the emerging Republicans. There was also a split over the financial practices of Alexander Hamilton, who favored legislation to facilitate commerce and banking. Jefferson hated the man and his policies, fearing that they promoted elitism, bordering on aristocracy, and threatened his vision of a nation dominated by independent farmers. The Federalists in turn saw Jefferson as a dangerous Jacobin. Ironically, Jefferson himself was one of the most aristocratic of the founders.

One of the themes that I found most interesting and which was new to me was the challenge faced in establishing the rule of law in the new republic. A key question was what role English Common Law, the complex collection of precedents developed by English judges, would play at both the state and federal level. Many Americans perceived this law as favoring the government, property holders and lawyers over ordinary citizens. In several state legislatures efforts began to develop a comprehensive set of statutes to replace the common law, so that judges would be bound by clear requirements and not by arcane principles known only to themselves. Meanwhile, the federal courts had to be established, and a struggle ensued over what the Congress’s power to impeach judges meant, in particular, whether the notion that they held office on good behavior meant that they could be removed if Congress judged their decisions were wrong. Several attempts were made to remove early judges for such reasons, before the question was settled more or less in favor of judicial independence. In particular the appointment of John Marshall as Chief Justice by the outgoing President, John Adams, a staunch Federalist, gave the Supreme Court an able champion and a great consensus builder. Since he served until 1835, his influence firmly established the judiciary as a coequal branch of government. Among other key decisions, the protection of the rights of contract and of corporations reinforced property rights at a time when popular sentiment was against the large land speculators who were flocking to the western territories. His decisions also established the principle that the federal courts could overturn state and federal laws that conflicted with the Constitution. Wood does an excellent job of explaining these developments.

During this period, slavery was gradually disappearing in the northern states, and even many southerners, notably Jefferson, expressed the view that it ought to eventually end altogether. Unfortunately, this period was only a sort of interlude before the conflict burst forth and became the most divisive issue in the country. The combination of increased cotton production and rapid westward expansion changed the growing slave population in states like Virginia from a potential liability into an asset. More and more men, women and children were sold and shipped west to work the new lands, especially after the war of 1812.

The developing republic also saw the emergence of religious, social and economic patterns that were clearly distinct from both the colonial past and monarchical Europe. Wood devotes several chapters to describing these changes and the men and women who influenced them.

Wood ends his account with the conclusion of the War of 1812, from which the young republic was lucky to escape with no more than the destruction of its barely started capital city. The poor leadership and organization of the army led to several debacles. Only significant victories by naval forces, not at sea, but on the lakes bordering Canada, stopped British invasions. The American victory at New Orleans, after the war had already been settled by treaty, was turned into a major triumph, both for the future President, Andrew Jackson, and for the United States. Wood describes the deepening confidence and sense of standing as a nation among nations that followed. What had begun as a frail experiment in republican government was now secure, confident and aware of its future potential.

Rising from the Ashes

Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt. Penguin Press, 2005.

I listened to the Audible version. The thing that struck me the most about this history was how different things looked from a European perspective. I’m a baby boomer, who grew up and entered adulthood in the period the book covers. In the United States, the history of postwar was about America and its friendly European allies, aka NATO, facing off against the dreaded countries behind the Iron Curtain, specifically Russia, aka USSR.  We were good, believing in liberty and free enterprise; they were bad, being communists. The space race was the big story that captured my imagination, along with the parallel developments in strategic nuclear weapons, missiles, etc. As I became more politically aware, the Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty also began to concern me, followed by the environment.

Europeans, I learned from Tony Judt’s painstakingly detailed account, had a lot more to worry about and a more complicated relationship to the communist countries, many of whom were of course European themselves. Rebuilding economies, preventing a resurgence of fascism, establishing better social and political relationships and dealing with restive colonial possessions all mattered as much as the menace of communist dictatorship during the period from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet empire. Unlike the United States, where the Communist party was outlawed, Communist parties remained influential in many European countries outside Soviet control.

I will not attempt to summarize. This is a masterful account by a fine historian. I gained a whole new understanding of the complexities of European politics in that time, including the tumultuous late 1960’s, that throws light on what went on in the US in the same period. I am now largely in sympathy with his criticism of students’ and prominent intellectuals’ romance with third world revolutions, which I myself certainly felt in those days, even if I did not go much further than to canvass for Eugene McCarthy.

Some of the best chapters are on the events surrounding the breakup of the Soviet empire and the re-establishment of more or less democratic governments in the former satellite states. Judt gives a clear account of the causes and consequences of the tragedy of Yugoslavia. Likewise his account of how Spain, Portugal and Greece emerged from right wing dictatorships. He also covers the rise of anti-immigrant and racist sentiments, including the persistence of anti-Semitism. He does an excellent job of depicting the enormous diversity of Europe and Europeans, economic, social and cultural. The book makes clear how remarkable the achievement of European economic integration has been, as well as its limitations and the reasons for discontent with many of its features. This historical account makes it much easier for me to understand current events, like Brexit and the rise of ultra-nationalism.

There is much more: an enormous increase in affluence at most levels, changes in everyday domestic life, increasing travel and leisure and developments in popular and high culture. He discusses the changes in education, the rise of the welfare state and its dilemmas, the decline in birth rates and the decreasing influence of religion in many countries.

Overall, this is a great read for anyone wanting to understand more about the continent that gave us much of our American tradition and that constitutes one of our most important partners and rivals in the contemporary world.

What did Shakespeare know?

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt. W.W. Norton and Co. New York. 2004.

Image: Orson Welles as Macbeth, Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth (1948)

This is a very good read, full of interesting insights into Shakespeare’s life and works, even though it is often limited to speculation because of the scarcity of documentation. A more candid subtitle would be: How Shakespeare might have become Shakespeare.

Since this book has been in print for over a decade, and since it has been reviewed many times, I will only mention one bit that I especially liked. In the chapter on Shakespeare’s marriage, Greenblatt can tell us next to nothing about the sort of relationship that he had with Anne Hathaway, but he makes the claim that nowhere in his plays do we find a happily married couple. There are many pairs of lovers, who at play’s end get married, but we don’t see whether they lived happily ever after. In some cases, Greenblatt says, it seems unlikely or at least questionable that they will.

Among the couples who have been married for a longer time, he finds none who can be said to be faithful, loving and respectful of one another. Usually it is the husband who has other things at the forefront of his mind, like Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I. He loves his wife, but he puts little faith in her loyalty and discretion. I can’t think of a clear exception, but I intend to reread the plays with this question in mind. Meanwhile, he points out that there are two couples who seem strongly attached to each other: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and Gertrude and Claudius. Strongly attached, apparently fond of each other, but can people so enmeshed in evil of their own making be truly happy?

Greenblatt’s implied explanation is that Will and Anne were unhappy as husband and wife, and there are a few reasons to suspect they at least were not passionately fond of each other. There is, however, another possibility, summed up in Tolstoy’s opening lines of Anna Kerenina: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way (translated by Constance Garnett). So did Shakespeare not know what happy marriage was like, or did he just find it uninteresting?

If you are looking for a masterful but not overly scholarly literary biography of the Bard, I recommend this one. It might be read along with Park Hogan’s intriguing biography of Shakespeare’s great rival: Christopher Marlowe, Poet and Spy (Oxford University Press 2005).

Struggling for liberty, post Civil War

The Republic for Which It Stands, The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, Oxford History of the United States by Richard White. Oxford University Press, 2017, 968 pages.

I listened to the Audible edition, ably read by Noah Michael Levine. This is another entry in Oxford’s multi-volume history, which includes James McPherson’s excellent Battle Cry of Freedom, The Civil War Era. The author casts the history of the last third of the nineteenth century as a struggle among competing definitions of freedom. He builds much of his narrative around the way in which the ideals articulated by Abraham Lincoln shaped the struggles of the period. Republicans were the party of free labor, seen as the key to every man being able to build and maintain a secure home for his family. Free labor, which was taken to mean freedom of contract between employers and employees, was often invoked to justify government inaction in the face of unfair and exploitative relations. The ideal of the home drove both the efforts to support freed slaves and to acculturate Native Americans to the values and religion of whites, whether they liked it or not. Similarly, the home was man’s castle, but too often, it was the woman’s prison.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the future of millions of freed slaves was the most obvious problem facing the country. The efforts of the federal government to provide for these people and to protect them from the exploitation and violence they faced in the South were hampered by unwillingness to expropriate the lands of rebels, reluctance to maintain troops in the rebel states, and lack of resources to provide for the largely destitute freedmen. Racism contributed to northern indifference and southern resistance. On the other hand, the Republican Party saw the former slaves as a pool of potential votes. There was some success in the immediate aftermath of the war, but in the end, the “old barons,” the large landholders, were able to reestablish control in most of the South. The desire to put the freedmen to work and end their dependence on government provisions, forced most into labor or tenancy agreements that left them little better off than before emancipation.

Nevertheless they resisted the attempts to reduce them to something like their previous condition, and in some parts of the South, they were able to do so for awhile. As the old political order was reestablished, however, they were met with more and more violent repression. As the last federal troops left, the regime of Jim Crow was firmly established, cemented in place by disastrous Supreme Court rulings that allowed false promises of “separate but equal” to count for “the equal protection of the laws.” Despite the gains of the Civil Rights movement, generations later, the current Black Lives Matter campaign and the resistance it engenders show we remain short of the goal.

The other major issue was the future of the western states and territories, especially in the prairie and Great Plains. The Homestead Act and massive land grants to the railroads were intended to open up these regions to agriculture, as well as linking the Pacific Coast to the rest of the country. In the lands between the Mississippi River and the 100th meridian, this strategy was successful, leading to enormous demographic and economic growth. In the arid regions further west, it largely failed, as did efforts to remove the Plains Indians to reservations without bloodshed. Inconsistent policies and lack of understanding and respect for Native American cultures led to a string of broken treaties, wars and massacres by both sides. Railroads made the slaughter of the bison herds into a profitable business, and in the end the army forced the Indians into small reservations. [Ironically, the famous Buffalo Soldiers, black cavalry units including many Union Civil War veterans, were part of the forces deployed. According to one history I read, they suffered more violence at the hands of white townspeople in the communities they were protecting than from the Native Americans.]

In moving to the Gilded Age, White covers a vast array of developments, including the rapid rise of industry, especially steel and railroads, both for their economic importance and for their large role in the struggle for labor rights. He also details the conflict over monetary policy, especially as it split different interest groups and sections of the country and shaped the national political scene. He describes the rise of the temperance movement and the larger preoccupation with home and morality it was part of. White shows how all these developments were seen by the leading contemporary observers and activists. It is especially interesting to learn how the generation that had supported anti-slavery and free labor tried to understand the new realities that emerged with mass industrial employment, increasing immigration and rising wealth and consumption.

In thinking about all of these questions, it is impossible to miss the parallels to our era. We struggle with questions about rapid social and economic change, labor rights, the role of marriage and the family and immigration among others. One difference is that a populist insurgency has succeeded in electing its candidate President. So far though, there seems to be no stopping the momentum that is taking us back towards the economic inequality of the Gilded Age.

All in all, The Republic for Which It Stands is a detailed political, economic and social history that serves as a very readable (listenable) introduction to the periods it covers. There is a very extensive annotated bibliography. I’d like to try more volumes in this Oxford series.


Looking for the Logos of Lucre II: Bloodsucking Capitalists

Makers and Takers: How Wall Street Destroyed Main Street by Rana Foroohar. Crown Business. New York. 2016.

IMAGE: JP Morgan

Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century, depicts the rise of economic inequality in the developed world since the 1970s and warns of the increased political and economic instability this may cause. Rana Froohar’s account of the rise of finance in the United States during the same period shows in more detail how that instability has come about.

The book is billed as being written for the ordinary citizen, not the economically sophisticated, but you will find plenty of terms that are not explicitly defined, especially the bewildering variety of financial instruments – futures, swaps, etc. With that caveat, this is a quite readable book, with plenty of examples and sources to back up her points.    What follows are some of the things I took away from my reading. They are not in the order she presents things, but instead in a rough chronology.

To begin with, the slowdown in economic growth and rise in inflation, beginning in the late sixties, set off a search for higher-return investments. Higher returns, though, come with higher risks. Savings and Loan institutions, for instance, had to pay higher rates to attract deposits, but that meant also investing those deposits in less secure assets than home mortgages and car loans. The result was a Savings and Loan crisis (1980-1996) that required a taxpayer bailout of over a hundred billion dollars.

Starting in about the 1980s, tax laws have encouraged borrowing and favored capital gains over earned income. Cuts in top rates also let the upper percentiles of the population accumulate more wealth. Furthermore, economic ideology shifted towards the view that corporations exist only to increase the value of stockholders’ shares as rapidly as possible. “Markets know best” became the stock answer to all questions of economic policy.

Bill Clinton and his Wall Street insider Treasury Secretaries succeeded in changing banking laws to remove the prohibition on commercial banks selling securities as well as making loans. Banks got bigger: some, “too big to fail.” From 1995-2000, the dot com bubble was a further indication of the greater instability in the financial system.

The rapid growth of mortgages on existing houses and the complicated, high risk securities that were based on them led to a still worse crash in 2008. Rather than reining in that kind of speculation, lawmakers and regulators did little to change the incentives that lay behind the debacle or punish those responsible, even when fraud may have occurred.

Our current situation is easy credit, lax regulation and an ideology that favors shareholders over all others in deciding how publicly traded companies are run. Rather than serving as a means to channel money towards productive investments, the financial system is creating more and more debt based on existing assets. Corporate buyouts, often involving huge amounts of borrowing, are one example.

 Successful companies like Apple have lots of cash, but it is hoarded, especially in offshore banks, or plowed into financial investments like credit card lending, rather than into new plants, research and development or improving the condition of the workforce by raising wages and benefits. Boards of directors spend trillions on stock buybacks that help mainly wealthy shareholders, and the top executives, who are paid mostly with stock options.

The financial sector of the economy now receives almost a third of all corporate profits, triple its share as of the early 1990s. In return it delivers slow economic growth, flat wages and great risk of another crash. Most people have little or no retirement savings. What they do have is often in insecure, high fee investment funds that enrich their managers at the expense of their clients.

Thus, as Froohar explains, the financial sector, whose function was to enable money to flow into the hands of the productive in exchange for reasonable interest or dividends, has become an end in itself, growing larger at the expense of everyone else’s security and prosperity. The mutually beneficial fiduciary (trust based) relationship between society and bankers has been replaced by almost unrestricted exploitation of the economy and society by bankers. The popular discontent this leads to is evident all around us.

It seems to me, as an ecologist, rather than an economist, that the situation is like a beneficial symbiont mutating into a virulent parasite of its host. By taking more of the host’s resources and giving back less, the parasite can replicate faster, driving out the beneficial variety, but in the long run, the host population will become unstable and decline or even go extinct. That is unless the host evolves to resist the parasite.

The difference between the two scenarios is that while mutation and environmental changes are beyond the control of the players in the evolutionary game, the ethical, social and legal environment of business is subject to democratic process. The question is whether the majority can somehow prevent the wealthy from writing the rules to suit themselves. Donald Trump exploited popular discontent in his successful campaign against a candidate strongly identified with Wall Street. In office, however, his actions have been much more favorable to the extremely rich.

Could a leader like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, with new legislators committed to change, begin to turn things around? Will it have to wait for schools of business and economics to begin teaching about fiduciary responsibility to society as a whole, not just stockholders? Like a host lucky enough to mutate so as to resist its new parasite, our society might once again, as in the New Deal era, fight off this disease before depression, violent revolution or fascism set in.

Nearctic Travels: Shipwreck and Shakespeare

A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest by Hobson Woodward. New York. Viking Press. 2009.

[Image from A young people’s history of Virginia and Virginians. 1896 by D.H. Maury]

 Woodward tells the story of the Sea Venture, the flagship of the 1609 supply fleet sent by the Virginia Company to support its colony at Jamestown. Caught in a hurricane and run aground on Bermuda, Sea Venture’s crew and passengers survived and spent nearly a year on the islands, until they could construct two new ships to complete the trip to Virginia. Among the passengers was William Strachey, a down on his luck gentleman, who aspired to literary fame. He was made secretary to successive governors of the Jamestown Colony and sent an official report and a private letter describing the events of the voyage. Woodward believes, largely on the basis of textual similarities, that the private letter was a major source for The Tempest.

The first part of the book covers the experiences of the Sea Venture castaways from England to Bermuda and Virginia and back to England, using Strachey and other historical sources. The second part deals more speculatively with how Shakespeare composed The Tempest, drawing out in detail similarities and coincidences between Strachey’s letter and the plot, characters and language of the play. Woodward has little to go on here, but he at least makes a plausible case for Shakespeare having read a copy of Strachey’s account.

 My interest in this very readable book was sparked by its references to another passenger on the Sea Venture, Steven Hopkins. Described as a “shopkeeper from Hampshire” who knew the Scriptures well enough to become clerk to the minister aboard ship, he is notable for having attempted to organize a mutiny on Bermuda. His goal was apparently to remain on the island and not be taken to Virginia, on the grounds that the passengers’ contract with the company was voided by the shipwreck. He was informed on to the military commander of the expedition, Thomas Gates, who put him on trial for his life. According to Strachey, Hopkins was so eloquent in pleading that his wife and children back in Hampshire would be ruined if he were hanged that most of the gentlemen in the group argued for leniency. Gates relented, and Hopkins survived his time in Bermuda and Virginia and returned to England. He later joined the Mayflower, with his second wife and children. Though not a member of the Pilgrims’ sect, he was taken on as someone who knew the land and native people of Virginia, which is where the Mayflower was supposed to be going. Hopkins’s wife gave birth while at sea, and his family was one of only two not to lose anyone on the voyage. In Plymouth, he helped negotiate a treaty with the natives that remained unbroken for the life of the signers and also ran the settlement’s first tavern. His female descendants married into some of the leading families of Massachusetts. I find it amazing that this man was part of three of the most remarkable English ventures in North America, especially since I may be distantly related through a female ancestor from one of those New England families. I’m currently learning more about him, because whether or not we are related, his story deserves to be more widely known.

A Brave Vessel is well worth reading for a sea story, as gripping as Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, and as a look at the struggles of the English to establish a foothold in America. Woodward describes all the suffering that followed from the conflicts between colonizers and natives as well as within the English society attempting to transplant itself across the ocean. He also touches on the ecological and climatological factors that helped and hindered their efforts. The severe drought that bracketed the early years of the Virginia colony greatly increased the stress on both natives and colonists and led to the “starving time” in the winter of 1609-1610, which the arrival of the ships from Bermuda helped relieve. During those same months on Bermuda, the castaways lived well on fish, nesting seabirds and their eggs, green sea turtles, and the introduced pigs, left by earlier Spanish seafarers. The native plants, including palmetto and Bermuda cedar furnished food and drink as well as timber for building the two ships, Deliverance and Patience. The plenitude and mild climate of the islands undoubtedly were factors in Steven Hopkins near fatal desire to remain there.

 Bermuda became an English colony and suffered great ecological changes, including the near extinction of its endemic cedars and the cahow or Bermuda petrel, whose strange nocturnal calls helped give the islands their early reputation as haunted by devils. Bermuda’s roles in supporting the earliest ventures of England into North America and in inspiring one of the greatest English plays remain points of local pride. I wonder if Steven Hopkins dreamed of Bermuda during the dreary New England winters.

Palearctic travelers

The Horse, the Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony, Princeton University Press, 2007.

 This very rich and fascinating book details the development of our understanding of the history of the Indo European family of languages, from the latest common set of dialects spoken by people living in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian seas in southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia. David Anthony covers the time from the earliest diffusion of agriculture and domesticated animals out of Mesopotamia into southeastern Europe and the subsequent gradual spread out into the steppes. His key thesis is that the domestication of the wild horses of the steppes and their subsequent use as mounts, followed by the introduction of the wagon and the war chariot gave steppe tribes a mobility that enabled them to move long distances, eventually into central Europe and the Indian subcontinent, creating a bridge across cultural regions that by the late bronze age extended as far as China. Thus their language became the dominant family of languages over a vast geographic area.

 To begin with, Anthony, an archaeologist, provides an account of the linguistic evidence for a common ancestral language. The history was derived from careful analysis of phonetic and morphological changes among closely and distantly related languages. This work has been going on since the 18th century, when Europeans first began to suspect that their languages and those of India were akin to one another. This process is very much like reconstructing a biological lineage from genetic and morphological data on living or fossil specimens. It is always only the best hypothesis to explain the data at hand, but lots of work gradually leads to trustworthy results. Interestingly, linguists and evolutionary biologists employ many of the same computer programs. Anthony argues that with the predictive capacity of these explanations and the help of inscriptions dating to some of the earliest writing, we can be reasonably certain that we know some 1500 root words of Proto Indo European as well as many more terms derived from them.

 In a long series of chapters, he goes through the archaeological evidence to reconstruct the culture and characteristics of the speakers of Proto Indo European as well as how they came to be capable of leaving their steppe home and spreading out so far. Technological change is a key factor: the period covered extends from the late Neolithic to the Bronze Age. Tools, weapons, household goods and prestige items were all important. So was the domestication of the horse and the new kinds of both herding and livestock raiding that riding horses made possible. Climate change was another key factor: cold, dry periods favored herding over farming and led to wars that destroyed thriving agricultural settlements on the edges of the steppes. Cultural change was evident all along as settlement patterns, burial styles and material goods changed, indicating, according to Anthony, the rise of more male centered and hierarchical societies on the steppes – in other words the rise of the chieftain and possibly the priest, as had also happened in the city states of Mesopotamia. At some point the wheel spread into the steppe from the south.

 In the steppe, horseback riding and the wagon facilitated an mobile style of herding that also could be accompanied by cattle raiding, looting and trading, which in turn led some to accumulate greater wealth in herds and goods, including copper and bronze weapons and ornaments. Harsher climates also contributed to this increase in social inequality. Anthony argues from linguistic evidence that the speakers of Proto Indo European developed two key social systems that enabled them to dominate the cultures that they encountered in their expansion out of the steppe: patron-client and guest-host. The former stabilized and solidified the pattern of social inequality; the latter made possible firm alliances among groups from both similar and different cultures on the basis of reciprocal obligation (the Indo European root for “guest” and “host” is the same). These, plus the ability of mobile herders to make long distance migrations and easily establish themselves wherever pasture could be found, profoundly shaped the future history of Eurasia. Sometimes raiding and warfare must have been involved in the spread of these peoples, but not the sorts of mobile armies (think of the Mongol hordes) seen in the iron ages and Medieval times; those were a much later development. The primary way the Indo European culture spread, according to Anthony, was incremental. A few powerful chiefs established themselves in new territory, either as patrons or as guest/hosts, and their superior wealth, culture and technology gradually won over the locals. Horseback riding and chariots (possibly invented in the steppe) were rapidly adopted in Europe, the Middle East and China, while the Indo European language evolved into multiple major branches, eventually extending from the British Isles to India.

 Since the publication of this book, genetic studies of ancient Europeans have been published that are consistent with the overall picture given here. About the time suggested by Anthony for the initial spread of Indo European dialects into Eastern Europe, there was an significant spread of DNA, especially that of males, from the steppes north of the Black Sea into Europe. News reports from Science in 2015 and 2017 describes these studies as does a recent news article in Scientific American. The evidence, however, raises many questions. For instance, there are also significant indications that European genes spread into the steppes. This could be explained if long distance trading or raiding, involving wives or children brought back by returning parties were significant, as well as children fathered by the migrants/visitors in Europe. It doesn’t rule out long distance migration and colonization by steppe peoples as well, but it suggests that the picture was complicated. Genes, culture and language spread together, with or without large-scale migration, in Anthony’s scenario.

What makes Anthony’s account particularly cogent, and better than any of the news stories, is his attention to detail, particularly in laying out the linguistic and archeological evidence. It’s a lot to take in, but we can be grateful for his scholarship and willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries.