Fist Of History

November, 2014Archive for

American Protective League

Monday, November 24th, 2014


In 1917 the United States was faced with a challenge, on 2 April 1917 Woodrow Wilson had asked the United States Congress for a declaration of war, by 6 April 1917 he had it in hand, and the United States faced a war with Germany.  At the time the United States had a massive population of first and second generation German-Americans and concerns were raised that these individuals might form a solid source of sabotage and espionage against the United States.  Furthermore the U.S. government did not have the federal manpower to investigate the sheer number of individuals suspected, so a new organization was needed to fill this perceived gap in federal enforcement.  Fortunately an organization had already been created to handle just such a situation, the American Protective League, organized by an Chicago advertising executive named Albert M. Briggs and informally approved by Wilson on 30 March 1917 in a cabinet meeting to serve as a semi-official extension of the Justice Department.  The theory was that citizen volunteers could provide the needed manpower to allow the government to rapidly expand its ability to examine its citizen base for disloyalty and cut the risk of sabotage and espionage.


Claiming a peak membership strength of 250,000 members the American Protective League deployed its volunteers to serve as spies on the entire population of the United States, claiming that over 52 million Americans lived in a city which had an active American Protective League presence.  After quickly exhausting any risk of sabotage or espionage the American Protective League instead focused on rooting out domestic “disloyalty” and reported on individuals who shirked on voluntary activities to support the war, who broke food ration regulations, who engaged in “slackerism” or “defeatism” in vital war industries, and those who expressed “defeatism” or who supported “political views” that were in opposition to the goals of the United States in a time of war.  To put it more simply – anyone who didn’t have wholehearted support for the United States in World War I was subject to being reported to the Justice Department and pursued by federal agents.  Combine that with the broad sweeping powers granted to the government under the respective Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and you had a perfect combination for civilian participation and legal crushing of individual political and social rights throughout the United States.  But of course it got so much worse…


In 1917 and 1918 local police agencies used American Protective League members as auxiliaries or deputies, as the local laws permitted, to engage in more “direct action” activities to deal with “disloyalty.”  In Chicago the police used League members to beat members of the International Workers of the World (IWW members of “Wobblies”) who attempted to protest or hold meetings.  In Arizona members of the League, along with vigilantes, locked 1,200 IWW members and their “collaborators” (families) into box cars, rolled them over the border into New Mexico’s desert, and abandoned them with no food or water and a warning to not return on pain of death.  Local Arizona authorities supported, and applauded, the action.  In Illinois the army used support from the American Protective League to extract confessions from twenty-one African-American soldiers who were accused of “assaulting white women.”  No records exist on the methods used to extract these confessions.

As well throughout the United States members of the American Protective League made a point of hiding their members in key factories and production centers to sniff out any sense of disloyalty in the workforce.  They even got into such mundane activities as “helping screen jury members” prior to a trial, as testimony before Congress showed.

The American Protective League was disbanded after the war when the government no longer felt it necessary and the leadership of the Justice Department changed, however the government did maintain the extensive files the League’s members helped it collect.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the American Protective League, testimony before the House that discussed American Protective League Activities, entry at Sewanee University on the American Protective League, Salon article on the American Protective League, The Great Influenza by John M. Barry.

Net Neutrality and the Interstate Commerce Commission – a lesson from history [OPINION]

Friday, November 14th, 2014


Usually I try to avoid using the Fist to talk about current political issues by bringing history to bear, but in this case I decided it was appropriate to do so, as long as I flagged it as an opinion piece.  The current debate on net neutrality seems to rest, in part, on a debate about whether or not internet service providers should be forced to treat all content identically when delivering, i.e. if internet providers should be bound by the idea of the “common carrier.”  This in turn is challenged by others who argue that the government should not be allowed to get into the business of regulating the internet, should not treat internet providers as “common carriers”, and also it is perfectly reasonable for internet providers to charge different amounts based on the need, or ability to buy preferential treatment, of certain internet businesses over other internet businesses.  The last is the topic that I find personally most concerning, as the United States has dealt with this issue in the past, in the form of the Standard Oil Company, John D. Rockefeller (pictured above), and eventually the Interstate Commerce Commission.


John D. Rockefeller eventually formed the Standard Oil Company (unflattering depicted above) but he began building an oil producing combination through a combination of buying up local oil producers and negotiating special rates for his product to be shipped on the railroads.  Furthermore he negotiated that in the event his rivals product was shipped, the railroads would pay him a bonus equal to the difference between his special rate and his competitors shipping rate.  This plan was codified in the South Improvement Company.  (It also agreed to share all his competitors rates, shipping schedules, and costs with Rockefeller.)  In turn the oil traffic was divided up among the various member railroads to provide a fixed rate of shipment and a guaranteed market share to each member, cutting the “chaos of cost cutting competition.”

Now the South Improvement Company never took off, Rockefeller’s rivals called foul and public pressure, along with near violence in some areas, led to the collapse of the scheme.  Rockefeller though simply continued with his previous method of operation, including negotiating secret deals and rate rebates so that his oil shipped at lower prices than his competitors, despite it being the same oil.  This in turn was the foundation upon which the Standard Oil monopoly was based, and although it was later broken up through the Sherman Anti-Trust Act this naked favoritism in the use of a commonly valued commodity moving network led to the Progressive’s pressuring the United States government to reform railroad.


This led to the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 and, with it, the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission.  Now the commission was not all success and wonder, it ended up becoming to some a major regulatory burden on the free market and a point of protection for the industries it was trying to regulate, but what it did do was eventually force a system of uniform rates on the railroads and made them into a true “common carrier” of cargo.  This was done solely to prevent a future deal in which “sweetheart” deals could be struck by some companies to gain favor in using a common freight delivery system over their competitors, competition considered unfair.  Considering the role the internet plays in commerce today, and its commonalty with the railroads of the past, it seems to my eye history provides a solid lesson in what happens if regulation to enforce uniform rates and fair access is not enforced.

Hint – it ends up with a lot of independent producers being gobbled up by one sneakier/more success competitor that uses rate manipulation to gain an edge.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on South Improvement Company, Interstate Commerce Commission, Interstate Commerce Act, John D. Rockefeller, two different articles in the Marquette Law Review on the Interstate Commerce Act, a Wired article that discusses the connection between the act and the internet, and a contrary blog post on the subject

Heinkel He 162 – Germany’s Super-Cheap Jet Fighter

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014


By 1944 Nazi Germany was facing a rather serious problem, the combined British and United States heavy bomber attacks on occupied Europe and Germany were proving disruptive to Germany’s ability to wage war, more critically though the widespread deployment of the United States P-51 Mustang had led to the German air force suffering massive casualties in both pilots and equipment.  The need appeared for an aircraft that met three seemingly conflicting design goals:

  • A high-speed fighter capable of evading the P-51 Mustang and being able to attack massed bomber formations successfully
  • A high-performance fighter capable of succeeding in a dogfight with a P-51 Mustang
  • The new plane had to be made of non-strategic materials as much as possible, with a preference for the use of wood as much as possible
  • The plane had to be cheap enough that it was cost-effective to simply ditch damaged planes and replace them with an entirely new fighter
  • The plane had to be simple enough to fly that it take minimal training to fly it successfully

Despite the challenging requirements every German aircraft manufacturer submitted a design, due to the expected high volume of fighters produced, the winner of the contest though was the entry by the Heinkel corporation, specifically the eventually designated He 162 (pictured above.)  A light-weight fighter the Heinkel He 162 is the epitomizes the idea that “four out of five ain’t bad.”

The aircraft had an impressive top speed and test pilots who took the Heinkel He 162 into the air described it as a pleasure to fly, nimble and reactive.  It also featured an advanced retractable landing gear system that didn’t require hard to maintain parts, had a decent armament, and was constructed of a blend of wood and metal that was cost effective.  In fact the only goal it utterly failed on was being simple to fly – due to a combination of its design and sensitive controls it required a highly experienced pilot to operate the aircraft successfully.  It also had one other minor problem…

Bei Mödlingen, unterirdische Flugzeugproduktion

The Heinkel He 162 was a hybrid plane of metal and wood, wooden wings and secondary structures attached to a metal aircraft body, and to achieve this production quickly and successfully the German manufacturers used glue.  Unfortunately the glue they had to use was not particularly good and the wings had a penchant for falling off – when the plane was taking off, flying, landing, sitting still on a calm day, the wings would just drop off the plane.  The production timeline for the fighter though was so tight and the need so great the German air force did not pull the fighter from production or deployment due to this (and other design problems) – units simply had to “make do” as best they could under the circumstances.

Although only moderately deployed before the end of the war had Germany had more time, and more trained pilots, the Heinkel He 162 might have been a useful addition to its air defense that was viable, rather than insane like some other ideas that appeared in the increasingly desperate years of 1944 and 1945.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Heinkel He 162 and an entry in German Aircraft of the Second World War, including Helicopters and Missiles


Danegeld (otherwise known as Taxes Never Die)

Monday, November 10th, 2014


Danegeld (Dane Gold) was a tax paid by the English between the late 10th century and the end of the 12th century – a tax based upon land holdings.  Originally the Danegeld was first collected in 991 AD when the English king, Ethelred the Unready (pictured above) lost a key battle against Danish raiders and was advised by Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury, to pay off the Danes rather than having them trash the countryside in a raiding frenzy.  This payment of about 6,600 pounds of silver, about three tons total, was sufficient to convince the Danes to leave rather than trashing the English countryside.


In 994 AD the Danes returned under their king Sweyn Forkbeard and laid siege to London, where they received another massive payoff in silver sufficient to convince the Danes of two valuable lessons:

  • Raiding is less productive than forcing the locals to pay you not to raid their countryside
  • Being really terrifying can produce large amounts of money without incurring the expense of actual conquest

Using this successful capital raising plan the Danes proceeded to extract increasing large payments from the English:

  • In 1007 AD the Danes agreed to a two year peace in exchange for about 27,000 pounds of silver, or roughly 13 tons of silver
  • In 1012 AD after the Danes raided and killed the Archbishop of Canterbury and burned the abbey they got a payment of 36,000 pounds of silver, or roughly 18 tons of silver
  • In 1016 AD a Dane became the king of England and, after paying off his invasion forces, paid the Danes about 54,000 pounds of silver, or roughly 27 tons of silver


Now in 1066 William the Conqueror took over England and was a powerful enough military force, plus changes in Denmark, that Danish raids on England were far less of a threat.  However the newly established Norman aristocracy/monarchy looked upon this huge amount of silver regularly raised and figured “I want to get some of that.”  So the Dangeld was maintained as a new tax to be paid directly to the English/Norman crown, for use by the king on whatever projects happened to fit his fancy.  From 1066 through to the late 12th century this tax funded foreign conquests, internal military activities, and infrastructure improvements that interested the king.  The tax was collected using the same method as previous collections of Dangeld and only ended when a new system of taxation was designed that rested upon the consent of Parliament and involved taxing a larger overall economic base, taxes on “moveable” property.  It also reflected a change in tax philosophy with the Parliament consenting to taxes, but not granting individual exemptions to influential groups or individuals.

Now I would argue what was key in this taxes history is the name, Danegeld, because of the necessity of extracting the tax to buy off Danes people found the silver, and once they were used to paying the tax they kept on doing so as an expected cost of life even when the threat of raiding had ended.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Danegeld, entry on Studies in the History of Tax Law, entry in Encyclopedia Britannica on Dangeld.


Election Fun – 19th century style

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014


In honor of the 2014 election I thought it fitting to talk about elections during the “Good Old Days” of democracy, specifically the early to middle 19th century in the United States.  Back in those days voting was not really an “individual” activity but was considered more of a “community endeavor” in which your vote was a broader reflection of the general feelings of your neighbors and those who made up your social and economic class.  Enforcement of this outlook came from many sources, including pressure and patronage from your local political machine, active pressure from the clergy on the subject, and of course the very real possibility of being brutally beaten for voting incorrectly.

19th century street gangs played a pivotal role in many local urban elections, through the fine tradition of “cooping” – an activity in which these adorable ruffians would grab random citizens who were unwilling to exercise their right to the franchise, beat the crap out of them, often force alcohol down their throats, and then deliver them to the polling station where they could cast their ballot with the help of the street gang members.  To further enhance their voting presence the street gangs would often take the drunken and injured voter back outside of the polling place, change their clothing and give them a free shave or haircut, and then run them through the ballot lines again.  Quite often with the help of these “voting enhancement” gangs some citizens got to vote a large number of times throughout the city.  One theory on the death of Edgar Allan Poe is he was a victim of a street gang helping him exercise his franchise in this manner.


Another fine 19th century voting service provided for the general citizens was ballots with built in extra-convenience, specifically ballots were printed by local party organizations and came with the entire parties ticket pre-printed on the ballot to assist you in speeding your way through the polls.  If a citizen happened to want to split their votes in most electoral districts this was considered undesirable and inefficient and was simply not an option in early to mid 19th-century elections.  After all a voter was encouraged to support a specific party in its totality as this further assisted the efficiency of local government on many levels.  The parties also helpfully printed these prepared ballots on colored paper, to allow for easier identification of which party you happened to be supporting.  As an added bonus hired street thugs who stood outside the pooling place could tell, based on the color of the ballot paper you were carrying, if you were voting for the right party in the right district.  Often those who misunderstood how this arrangement operated were escorted, violently, from the voting booth before they could cast an incorrect ballot.

Ah the good old days of elections – so efficient, so streamlined, and so much more of a community building experience for everyone!

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the Death of Edgar Allan Poe, Cooping, the Five Points Gang, and Straight-Ticket voting