Fist Of History

December, 2011Archive for

Andrew Jackson writes on special privilege – opinion piece

Friday, December 30th, 2011

On 10 July 1832 Andrew Jackson vetoed an act of Congress which sought to renew the exclusive charter of the Second Bank of the United States, it is a long veto message and, to be honest, is prone to rambling.  But within it Jackson lays out several key points of thought that today should still be points of consideration when the Congress enacts any new laws – mainly the idea that law should not be passed that circumvents key rights of the individual states and that Congress should not pass laws that limit the actions of future Congresses.  More critically though Jackson also argued that corporate entities should be linked to the communities in which they are created, he was worried about foreign investors outside the United States controlling its economic future, but his main argument applies even today.  Jackson argued that there was a danger to liberty if the financial institutions that served a community had no connection, no loyalty, to the community served, and if those institutions were only loyal to their stockholders they might provide a means to bringing down the United States, or at least its guiding principles.

Jackson also included some powerful comments at the end of his veto message about the nature of laws that the government should undertake, comments worth quoting in full I think:

It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society–the farmers, mechanics, and laborers–who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing. In the act before me there seems to be a wide and unnecessary departure from these just principles.

That quote above has been used by many different movements these days – arguing against the current movements in US law and the perceived orientation of the nation’s politics.  I find it fascinating that the same concerns dominating the news today affected the nation nearly two centuries ago.  But I also take some comfort from a later comment by Jackson in the same veto message:

I have now done my duty to my country. If sustained by my fellow-citizens, I shall be grateful and happy; if not, I shall find in the motives which impel me ample grounds for contentment and peace. In the difficulties which surround us and the dangers which threaten our institutions there is cause for neither dismay nor alarm. For relief and deliverance let us firmly rely on that kind Providence which I am sure watches with peculiar care over the destinies of our Republic, and on the intelligence and wisdom of our countrymen. Through His abundant goodness and their patriotic devotion our liberty and Union will be preserved.

Good government requires the election of good leaders, and the diligence of the citizens to keep them on track.  It did so in 1832, and it still does today.

If you have the time I recommend reading the whole of Jackson’s veto – hard to find but well worth it.  Full Text Here

Sources: Online copy of full veto message of Jackson, 10 July 1832 (http://millercenter.org/scripps/archive/speeches/detail/3636)

Greenback: The Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America, Jason Goodwin

Francesco Lupazzoli – a long-lived oddity of history

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

Unfortunately many details on Francesco Lupazzoli have not survived to be easily found but from what I was able to glean reading about him recently, he is a figure worth remembering in history.  Francesco was born in 1587 in Casale Monferrato, a small town/commune that was located in the Piedmont region of Italy, also known now as northwest upper Italy.  Francesco died in the year 1702 in Smyrna, a town located in Turkey.  He lived a total of 115 years and during that time had an impressive career.  What we know of his achievements included an apparently successful term of service during an Ottoman-Venetian War from 1645-1669, he impressed the Venetians enough that he was named consul to Smyrna in 1669, at the frisky young age of 82.  It was a token office because he was responsible for seeing to the needs of Venice’s merchants in the city, a total of three merchants by that point.  However in that office he caused his own share of political problems, apparently in the post-war situation an opportunity presented itself to promote Venice’s interests in Smyrna over those of Dutch merchants, Francesco lead an operation to deceive the Ottoman’s and gain some advantage over the Dutch, to the point that the Dutch were outraged and Francesco was forced out of political life by the 1680s.

However he bounced back and served as an official of Venice again in 1699, at the age of 112, and by all accounts returned to serve again in Smyrna.  The cause of his death at 115 years of age is not recorded but I personally like to think he died doing something awesome, like fighting a duel.  During his lifetime on a personal level he was highly active as well, he was married five times, outliving all of his wives.  He had a total of twenty-four legitimate children and one hundred and five illegitimate children, for a grand total of one hundred and twenty nine acknowledged off-spring.  He fathered his last child at the age of ninety-five, which probably means he outlived the first of his massive lifetime brood.  His last name meant “Lone Wolf.”

The only advice he left about his longevity was in regards to diet – during his lifetime he mainly ate bread, water, and fruit, with occasional soup and unseasoned roast meat.  He avoided dairy, stimulants, tobacco, and snuff.  Beyond that he apparently was just a tough bugger who wasn’t willing to die.

You have to admire someone who lived that long, during such a harsh century, and stayed that active up until his death.

Sources:  Eastward Bound: Dutch Ventures & Adventures in the Middle East, p 106 & Lords of the Horizon, p. 217

Merry Christmas All!

Sunday, December 25th, 2011

Source: Life Magazine, 1901

Caption: “Christmas Night: ‘Ancestral Greetings!'”

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and to all the joyous tidings of the season!  Nothing like Christmas…with ghosts!

Spencer M. Clark – Civil War Currency Lord & Sugar Daddy Extraordinare

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Ladies and Gentleman, meet Mr. Spencer Morton Clark, head of the newly formed Currency Bureau in the Treasury Department in 1861, he was the literal “money maker” of the US Treasury at the time.  Clark was responsible for producing the newest form of banknotes in the United States, federal banknotes, specifically the first incarnation of the ubiquitous “greenback.”  Up until the Civil War currency in the US was produced solely by private banks, each of which generated their own currency, backed by their own security reserves (gold, silver, external securities), and good over limited geographic areas.  But with the outbreak of the US Civil War the federal government was caught with inadequate reserves of coined money to meet their spending needs, and rather than resort to just increased taxation the US government turned to producing additional cash, backed by the faith and credit of the US government, and also usable to pay ones taxes and obligations to the government.  (In other words, modern money.  This gentleman was the person responsible for producing the actual physical bills.  He was also famous as the first person to hire women to work for the federal government, he hired young women to separate the sheets of bills.  He hired women, he said, because their work was neater and they were less “boisterous” than men.

What people didn’t realize for a couple of years was the other reason Clark hired female workers for these duties, he apparently enjoyed having a string of attractive young ladies available who he could seduce/coerce into having sex with him and other male employees at the treasury.  It became a minor scandal in Civil War Washington because female workers were known to often work late at the treasury, often leave work drunk, and Clark as well as other officers of the Treasury routinely spent the night with these young ladies at an infamous hotel known as the “Central Hotel” – well known to the people of the period as a place that rented beds for the night to whomever and asked no questions.  Now Clark got some negative press from this but his dalliances were generally tolerated, he didn’t land himself in real trouble until Clark did something very silly:

That right there is a five cent ($0.05) bank note – for complex economic reasons the US was short on small change at the time, and that is indeed Spencer Clark’s head on the bill.  As he was the currency lord and this was a new bill being issued, he figured “what the hell, I’ve got an awesome beard!”  Congress did not respond to this self-promotion well and seized the newly made currency and destroyed it.  They also passed a law prohibiting anyone being depicted on US federal currency until they were dead.  Clark was investigated by Congress, the minority report from the investigation found him officially an immoral man and a sugar daddy, but officially he was found to be a decent government figure who made a mistake (the above bill) and whose conduct was…questionable.

Unfortunately the report did not quote text from the testimony given by Clark’s former mistresses but by all reports of the period the relationships were “spicy.”  In some ways politicians never change.

Sources:  Greenback, Jason Goodwin; Congressional Edition, US Congress 1864; Spencer Clark on Wikipedia

Book Review – “The Forgotten Man”

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Full Title: The Forgotten Man, A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes

Printed in 2007 The Forgotten Man already shows a bit of age even only four years later, at several points within it Shlaes speaks of the improvements to the capital market, in particular in the mortgages industry, thanks to the bundling of mortgages lowering the risk to individual lending institutions to provide capital.  Leaving aside this interesting note, the book overall presents an overview of the Great Depression and the policies of Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt, at its heart it contends that these policies failed to alleviate the Great Depression and both administrations, by intervening in the economy in a poor manner/at all, at best lengthened the time period it took the United States to recover from the Great Depression and at worst aggravated the problems of the depression with their policies/economic tinkering.

First allow me to say that in one aspect Shlaes is correct, the policies of both administrations did harm to the economic recovery of the United States, if you narrowly define “recovery”, as Shlaes did, to the goal of returning industrial and agricultural productivity to pre-1929 levels.  That is the mark which Shlaes holds the policies of both Hoover and Roosevelt to in her analysis and in that she is correct, US production levels in all major economic measures remained lower during the 1930s than the heights they reached in the 1920s.  The problem that I had with Shlaes work however stems from her treatment of the 1920s, in her examination of this decade Shlaes paints a picture that is inaccurate through a sin of careful omission of certain facts.  For example she speaks warmly of the Ford Corporation and Henry Ford’s work to spread consumer goods, specifically automobiles, to the mass of the consuming American public, but omits to mention his $5/day revolutionary pay scale for his workers, a fact directly linked by many historians to his workers being able to buy his products.  Similarly Shlaes speaks often of the higher value consumer goods owned by more individual families in the 1920s and omits to mention how many of them achieved this material prosperity on borrowed capital, taking advantage of the same loose borrowing regulations used by stock-speculators to leverage small amounts of capital into large borrowed loans for playing the stock market.  Leveraging a small nest egg or a weekly paycheck to play the stock market on borrowed money is not that different from borrowing heavily against that same paycheck to buy a new refrigerator.

Which brings me to my major problem with Shlaes work, it is history with a lesson, a political lesson, it is history to teach those reading it of the magical corrective power of the markets.  Shlaes argues throughout her book that the New Deal policies of Roosevelt, in particular, were so damaging to the US economy because they kept labor prices high.  (Hoover gets less face time in the book but is blamed for the same actions, using moral force to pressure business into keeping wages high and therefore lowering employment.)  Shlaes argues that by government moral, and later legal force, wages were kept high and companies had to reduce their staffing to avoid an impact on their profits, because no company would ever consider taking lower profits.  (Not my argument by the way, that is directly from Shlaes.)  She argues throughout the book that if wages had been allowed to fall, as the market dictated, eventually they would have fallen to a point that labor was cheap enough employers would hire again, driving up production, and in turn by putting more buying power in more hands, pushing up demand.

The question raised by this though is demand for what, the very production Shlaes seeks to have boosted by the government taking a “hands off” approach to the markets was production in moderate to expensive cost consumer goods, the very items workers would need significant amounts of income to purchase.  A worker who once could have afforded such goods on debt, finding their paycheck cut by a third, would be less inclined to make such purchases until their original income levels were restored.  A pot of money for labor spread out too thin would not have ended the depression any more than concentrating more buying power in fewer hands ended the depression, Shlaes defeats her own points.  What is worse is that to teach her lesson about leaving markets to sort out issues on their own she makes no effort to document any positive effects from New Deal relief programs.  Shlaes focuses on how they hurt peoples dignity, created a class of individuals willing to support Roosevelt to keep their support payments coming in, but she never discusses how for many that government income stream allowed them to hold off starvation or complete collapse of demand.

This book is a valid one and one I would personally recommend people read, it does offer a valuable perspective on the New Deal that avoids the fawning outlook many historians have for that period of time.  However it should be read only in combination with at least one other, left leaning, history of the New Deal.  On its own this work, in my opinion, has too much of an agenda to provide a usefully neutral view of the Great Depression and the policies of that period.

Not everything in the 1890s was funny

Friday, December 9th, 2011

Source: Life, 1893 & History of the ASPCA (http://www.aspca.org/about-us/history.aspx)

One of the things about digging through old magazines I’ve found continually amazing is the cartoons, tiny moments captured that show issues that resonated with our predecessors, and captured well in a neat summary.  Considering Thanksgiving just passed a few weeks ago, I was reminded of this image.  It depressed the hell out of me when I first saw it, but I think it worth sharing to show how even over a century ago, an animal in distress could tug the heartstrings of those who saw it depicted.

I’ll leave you though with one happy note – this ran in 1893, by 1894 the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) had won the contract from the city of New York for handling the cities animal shelters, considered at the time a vast improvement.

“Ball Bearing” Shoes

Friday, December 9th, 2011

Source: Life Magazine, 1896

As far as I can tell, after researching these shoes, they didn’t actually have any sort of “ball bearing” inside of them, or built into them, in fact I can’t find any reason why they were called “ball bearing” shoes except that they were comfortable bike shoes designed to allow you to put more power in your down-pedal stroke.

This ad is actually part of a larger fad/trend from the 1890s through the 1900s, bicycles.  It was during a narrow period before automobiles were on the scene but the bicycle came into wide-spread use and popular culture.  More modern than the horse, more convenient for city use, the bicycle sparked a series of supporting industries in this period and went through a revolutionary period of development.  This, in turn, sparked a wide variety of ads promoting a huge assortment of different gearing, power transmission, and configuration systems – all promoting themselves as the best and most modern developments.  (Many of which you’ll see here, because they are amazing.)

Also, this fad lead to a wide assortment of “hilarious” cartoons about women in pants.  I kid you not.

Electrify Your Genitals!

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

I have long sought a good version of this image, I believe it would make probably one of the finest history themed t-shirts imaginable.  I just love the models expression of utter relaxation and happiness as electric lightening bolts not only come from the sides of his belt but, in an incredible concentration of electrical power, center on/above his genitals.  Truly one of the great therapeutic ideas of the 19th century, when in doubt, electrify it.  See the original ad it came from below.  Oh, and just so you know, this bad boy was for sale through the Sears Catalog!