Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘US history’

Eugene V. Debs – Socialist Candidate Extraordinare

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

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As the 2016 election cycle for the United States gets solidly underway the left is currently charmed with a Socialist-Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders, a long-serving Senator and solidly left/progress candidate running for the Democratic nomination for President.  Many argue Sanders is not really a viable candidate, but it seems an excellent time to remind the nation of the great “unifying candidate for the Socialists” of the early 20th century, Eugene V. Debs.


Eugene V. Debs began his political career with a short term in 1894 with a successful run as a Democrat for the Indiana State Legislature, but he grew disillusioned with politics under the conventional parties and slowly shifted towards support of Socialism as both a political ideal and a political party to support.  Debs had been on the radical side of politics for his entire life, as a founding organizer for various labor groups, a major leader in the Pullman Strike of 1894, and by 1900 a candidate for President running with the newly fledgling Socialist Party of the United States.


Debs lost, of course, getting only around 89,000 votes or 0.6% of the total popular vote.  Debs ran again in 1904, 1908, 1912, and his last Presidential run was in 1920.  The number of popular votes he gained during that period rose, by 1912 he topped out at over 900,000 votes, winning approximately 5.99% of the total popular vote.  Debs all time high vote count was in 1920, when he again topped over 900,000 votes, an impressive vote total considering his entire campaign was run while he was serving a ten year sentence in federal prison for violating the Espionage and Sedition Act of 1918.


Debs overall was an unsuccessful candidate and was released from prison in 1921 by the winner of the 1920 election, Warren G. Harding.  Debs though throughout his campaigns was known as a fiery orator, a passionate believer in the cause of social equality, and with the Socialists Debs was able to put significant pressure upon both the Republican and Democratic parties to embrace reform in several key areas including:

  • Voting rights for women
  • Child labor laws
  • Workers right to organize unions

Overall Debs, and the Socialists, successfully performed the role of gadfly for the elections of 1912 and 1920, pushing both parties slightly more towards the left than they otherwise might have moved, and in the 1912 election taking part in one of the most complicated elections in modern United States presidential history.


I’d like to close though by focusing your attention on the 1912 and 1920 elections – in which Debs got over 5% of the total popular vote.  According to the regulations of the current Federal Election Commission:

Minor party candidates and new party candidates may qualify for partial general election funding, based on their party’s electoral performance. Minor party candidates (nominees of parties whose Presidential candidates received between 5 and 25 percent of the vote in the preceding election) may receive public funds based on the ratio of their party’s vote in the preceding Presidential election to the average of the two major party candidates in that election. New party candidates (nominees of parties that are neither major parties nor minor parties) may receive public funds after the election if they receive 5 percent or more of the vote. The amount is based on the ratio of the new party candidate’s vote to the average vote of the two major party candidates in that election.

If Debs had run as successful a campaign today as he had run in 1912 and 1920, a period when his vote gains were based solely on public rallies, whistle-stop tours, and newsletters the Socialist party would have fun public support, and media access, under current rules.  Furthermore the Socialist Party was denied access to the mass media super-star of the day, radio, and still managed to gain enough votes with a progressive sharp-left platform to be noticed on a national level.

The moral of this entry – and the moral each entry in this series will return to – minor parties can make a difference, and more critically, can have a real impact in United States politics.

Sources:  FEC regulations, Wikipedia on Eugene V. Debs, entry on Eugene V. Debs in the Debs Foundation, PBS entry on Eugene V. Debs


Douglas MacArthur and the Bonus Army

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014


In the last entry I wrote about Japan and its problems controlling its army in Manchuria in the 1930s, and I alluded to the fact that other nations had similar issues, specifically the United States and its handling of the Bonus Army in 1932.  I also tossed up the picture above of General Douglas MacArthur, a pivotal figure in the events of 1932 and the use of United States soldiers to disrupt a camping protest group of U.S. World War I veterans in and around Washington D.C.  But before I go into more detail it is critical to first admit something and then elaborate a bit on General D. MacArthur.  My admission – for a variety of reasons as both a person, and a historian, I really dislike General D. MacArthur.  I strongly feel that many of his actions in the 1930s, in World War II, and in the Korean War are questionable at best and downright villainous at worst.  As well most agree that General D. MacArthur is a complex figure and his actions need to be seen in that light – he is a figure that you either love or hate once you get to know him, or at best you are left puzzled about how you feel about him.


The events of the 1932 Bonus Army march on Washington are fairly straightforward, a large protest march made up of World War I veterans and their families in 1932 arrived in Washington to petition the government, (and protest by their presence), for an early payment of a one-time bonus they had been promised in the 1940s for their World War I service.  The argument made was the out-of-work men and their families needed the money in 1932 and not down the road.  They set up a camp outside of Washington D.C. and also began to camp out in empty spaces in various federal buildings within the city itself.  Initially the Bonus Army was tolerated in the city, the police chief of Washington D.C. instructed his officers to bee cooperative, the government did not force them out of the spaces they were filling, and MacArthur initially dispatched camping supplies and mobile kitchens for the camping Bonus Army marchers to use.  (When Congress complained the kitchens were withdrawn.)  The House of Representatives passed a resolution approving partial payment of the bonus and things were looking up for the Bonus Army marchers, until the Senate rejected the bill and then went into recess, effectively ending any chance of the bonus being paid.  Many in the Bonus Army left at that point, but some stayed, and this is where things start to get complicated.


Someone in the federal government decided that the Bonus Army should be evicted from the federal buildings, most likely that choice was made by Herbert Hoover, but the record is unclear on who else had a hand in it.  Hoover’s motives are also unclear, we simply don’t know if he was worried about an uprising, reacting to events in the city, or tired of the protest.  After a shooting incident between police and Bonus Army when some squatters were being cleared out of a federal building, tensions got even worse and Hoover decided to deploy the U.S. Army, working with the Washington D.C. police, to clear out the all the individuals camping out within the city of Washington D.C. itself.  The army moved in to clear out the squatters, using mounted cavalry with sabers drawn, tear gas, and clubs to move people out of the federal buildings.  MacArthur was “present” and was possibly directing the soldiers but was not officially “in command” of the military action, however he played a key role, possibly, in the events to come.  The soldiers were successful in pushing all Bonus Army protestors out of the city proper and over bridges to their larger encampment outside the city.

MacArthur may have given them a few hours or as little as twenty minutes, sources are unclear, they are also unclear if MacArthur gave the order to proceed, advised whomever was in command to proceed, or sat back and watched what happened next.


Someone, probably MacArthur, disobeyed a series of orders given by the Secretary for War, on behalf of the President, to allow the protestors to escape to their larger camp outside the city and not pursue them.  U.S. soldiers crossed into the larger camp which was cleared with violence and set on fire.  Several individuals died in the confrontation and the Bonus Army camp burned into the night.  Why was this done?  No one really knows.  Some think MacArthur was concerned about a possible “Communist Threat” represented by the Bonus Army or that the protest was an effort to overturn the U.S. federal government.  Others that MacArthur wanted to simply get the job done in one clean sweep and not leave stragglers who might try to re-enter the city.  Some argue that we shouldn’t even look at MacArthur as he wasn’t really in command of what happened, he was merely there as Army Chief of Staff “observing” these terrible events.

Bluntly put, we’ll probably never know the truth, if such a thing exists, for who ordered what and at what time.  All we do know is people died and a camp was burned on someone’s orders and it wasn’t those in charge of the military.  Hoover and the Secretary of War tried several times by direct orders to stop what was happening but instead were presented with an action by the military and were effectively told:  “Choices were made, things happened, and there is nothing to be done about it.”  On a smaller scale but I’d argue very similar to what the Japanese Army in Manchuria said to its civilian leadership.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the Bonus Army and Douglas MacArthur, PBS the American Experience on the Bonus Army and Douglas MacArthur, and NPR article on the Bonus Army to the GI Bill

Conservatives – not always halting progress

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

So this entry is a reaction to the following text that was part of a larger, pro-animal rights screed on Facebook:

“It was liberals who ignited the American Revolution! Liberals who crafted our Constitution! Liberals who opposed slavery! Liberals who fought for blacks to vote. Then for women’s suffrage! Liberals ended child labor, legalized unions, enacted Social Security, lead the fights for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights!

Conservatives were opposed to all these things!

As Tories, conservatives opposed the  American Revolution. As Democrats they supported slavery and opposed giving African-Americans the right to vote. (Most people don’t know that the Republicans were the liberals in 1860, when Lincoln was elected. The last liberal Republican president was Teddy Roosevelt.)

As Republicans, conservatives opposed women’s right to vote. They were opposed to going to war against Hitler! Liberals fought for integration, conservatives fought to keep segregation.

Republicans and conservative Democrats opposed civil rights! They now oppose women’s rights to equal pay, gays’ rights to marry and adopt children, and animal rights!

I ask this simple question: When, in history, have Conservatives ever been right about anything? Think about it:  Conservatives opposed the American Revolution. They supported slavery. They opposed women’s suffrage. They opposed unions. They opposed child labor laws. They opposed Social Security. They opposed World War II. They opposed integration. They opposed civil rights. They opposed inter-racial marriage. They opposed voting rights. Now, they oppose gay rights and animal rights. They have been a drogue anchor on the ship of civilization. They have delayed, but not prevented, social progress.”

Written by one Roland Vincent, link located here

The problem with this viewpoint, which is not uncommon, is two fold, first it is not entirely accurate as it simplifies a series of very complex historic situations and second, it is a tautology as defined, any politicians supporting the above causes were “liberals” and those who opposed them “conservatives” – but the argument that conservatives have always been on the wrong side of history and positive progress is also overly-simplistic and, bluntly put, often wrong.  Now some of his points are valid but some aren’t, and in fine Fist tradition lets present a blow-by-blow breakdown:

Liberals and the American Revolution – the author posits that Conservatives all stood behind the King and Liberals sparked the American Revolution, in that particular conflict individuals who supported the King were labeled “Tories” by those in favor of Revolution, their name for themselves though was “Loyalist” and many of them had supported other efforts that helped lay the groundwork of opposition to the British Crown, including the anti-British goods boycotts that successfully ended certain detested tax laws imposed by the British parliament.  Many Loyalists started out in the American Revolution trying to find a middle-ground that would maintain a connection to the British Crown but carve out a new unique space for the American colonies, it was over the course of outright rebellion that such efforts were squeezed out and a viewpoint of either for or against the war and Revolution became the only solution discussed.  (For the record had the American Colonies remained part of the British Empire slavery might have been prolonged in the British Empire, rather than ended in 1833 with a gradual and peaceful ending.  Wikipedia entry here.)


An example of the complexity of this issue can be found in Benjamin Franklin (pictured above) – who in the 1760s and early 1770s acted as an agent of moderation and reconciliation between the American colonies and the British crown, he initially supported the 1765 Stamp Act as a legitimate effort of Britain to gain extra revenue.  When the American colonists reacted with overwhelming negativity to this action Franklin argued for the British Parliament repealing the tax, when they did, he considered it a mark the system worked politically.  It wasn’t until 1774 when Franklin was publicly humiliated in front of the British parliament over some private letters he leaked that reflected poorly on the Massachusetts colonial leadership that he switched outlook entirely from pro-Crown to pro-Revolution, a position he maintained for the rest of his life.  Which raises the question – does this kick him over to the Liberal camp, was he a secret Liberal the whole time, or are we seeing someone who shifted in their outlook on a complex issue?  (Source here.)


Liberals crafted the Constitution – the “Father of the Constitution” and the “Father of the Bill of Rights” is James Madison (pictured above), also the fourth President of the United States.  His plan, the “Virginia Plan”, was the instrument that was used at the 1787 Constitutional Convention as the foundation of the modern Constitution that the United States still operates under.  Which by the above argument should make Madison a solid “Liberal” however throughout his political career he detested the idea of “excessive democracy” – meaning legislators that passed laws focused mainly upon their constituents demands rather than the long-term good of the state or nation, Madison believed that legislators should be detached, above political concerns, floating above the vulgar needs of the masses.  He is also the creator of the three-fifths compromise that defined African-Americans for taxation, representation, and census purposes as 3/5 of a human being and for his entire life legitimately felt that African-Americans were not only inherently inferior to Caucasians but that bondage was their natural position in the world and the best possible position for them in the United States.  He felt that their welfare was best protected by their limited representation in government (as 3/5 of a person, to remind you again gentle reader) – and that as slaves they should rely on their masters to protect them from excesses of the law.  Both of these life-long outlooks would seem to move Madison more towards the Conservative side of the equation.  (Wikipedia entry on Madison here.)  [As a bonus point many of the more Liberal members of the original American Revolutionaries, like Patrick Henry, were anti-federalists and opposed the new Constitution as taking too much power to the center, so one can argue that many Liberals of the period sharply opposed the new Constitution.]


Liberals opposed slavery/Liberals supported the Black Vote – Broadly this is correct, the Republicans (the Liberal party of the 1860s) were instrumental in backing the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives, however the amendment was also supported by several powerful Democratic (Conservative) elements in the nation, including the Tammany Hall machine that dominated New York politics (run by Boss Tweed, pictured above.)  Passage was supported by sixteen Democrats, and all the Republicans in the House, and although the sixteen Democratic supporters were mostly lame-ducks after the 1864 election, not all of them were.  (Wikipedia entry here.)  Liberals (Republicans again) were strongly in favor of providing African-Americans with the vote through the Fifteenth Amendment but its passage was fiercely opposed by many Woman’s Suffragist supporters (very Liberal) for providing African-American men with the vote ahead of Caucasian women, leading to some of the most ugly racist rhetoric you’ll see coming out of this period.  The debate split the suffragist movement and two key, very Liberal leaders of the cause for women’s voting, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth C. Stanton, considered the Fifteenth Amendment a gross insult to women and only reluctantly, decades later, embraced it.  (Wikipedia entry here.)


Liberals gave Women Suffrage – Actually no, the 19th Amendment was favored by both Conservatives and Liberals and was passed in May 1919 by a House and Senate dominated by the Republican Party (by the above rhetoric Conservative again.)  The states mostly ratified it quickly but the key final ratification was by Tennessee, where a highly Conservative young voter switched his vote unexpectedly in favor, leading to the that state being the final key approval needed to make the 19th the law of the land.  (The representative passed it in part due to a letter from his mother advising him to do so.)  (Wikipedia entry here.)  [The above image is of the Speaker of the House in 1919, Frederick Gillett, a Conservative, signing the legislation proposing the 19th amendment after the House passed that bad boy.]


Liberals ended child labor, legalized unions, enacted Social Security, lead the fights for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights – so first lets get the following out of the way, the author is correct on the following points:  ending child labor, legalizing unions, enacting Social Security, and leading the fight on women’s rights (1970s-1980s) and gay rights (1970s – 1990s) he is correct, Liberals get a clear support point on this.  On the first three FDR was a key figure in the 1938 shift to the left of the New Deal that lead to all of those major social reforms and they passed due to a uniform position of power in the legislature held by Democrats.  Now during this period the Republicans went through a centrist period, which is too much detail for this entry, but I’ll give liberals these without opposition.

But when it comes to Civil Rights the happy harmony train has to come to an end, both Liberals and Conservatives alternated between getting cuddly with Civil Rights and backing away from it, due to the support the Democratic Party (Liberals) had from the Solid South (very not Liberal on this issue.)  From Roosevelt through Kennedy you have Democratic Party Presidents who were extremely cautious about doing anything to antagonize the South and Civil Rights languished under their watch.  It wasn’t really until Lyndon Johnson got into the Presidency that the Civil Rights movement got a serious kick of federal support.


The last liberal Republican president was Teddy Roosevelt – this argument just annoys me to no small end and is a commonly held up troupe on the Internet.  The above is William Howard Taft, president immediately after Teddy Roosevelt and a trust-busting, pro-corporate income tax, pro-law, anti-politics, and pro-federal budget President one has to see Taft as a generally Progressive President.  More critically he was a crap President on politics because he believed in the rule of law, the rule of efficiency, and the rule of competence over political gains in most situations.  This, of course, made him terrible at the parts of the job of President that most people actually dislike publicly but embrace privately, the wheeling and dealing for the party that backed the candidate into office.  (Wikipedia entry here.)


They were opposed to going to war against Hitler – Actually no, the U.S. isolationist movement in the United States pulled support from many sectors, including Conservatives and Liberals.  However of particularly fascinating note is first that the Stimson Doctrine, which was created in 1931 and attested that the U.S. would not recognize territorial gains through aggressive military actions, was created and supported under the Herbert Hoover administration, a staunch Republican and a poster-boy (unfortunately) for “out-of-touch economically” Republicans with the rise of the Great Depression.  Furthermore when Roosevelt attempted to pass legislation through Congress allowing the President to “consult” with other nations dealing with aggression the move died in Congress, in part due to strong opposition from highly Progressive (read Mega-Liberal) Senators Hiram Johnson of California, William Borah of Idaho, and Robert La Follette of Wisconsin.  Senator La Follette (pictured above) is an interesting example of this period’s political complexities, in 1926 he got into office as a Republican but in 1934 and 1940 he got into office as a Progressive and was a leading member of the Wisconsin Progressive Party.  That political party collapsed and in 1946 he ran as a Republican again and lost.  He was a staunch isolationist and yet was a major supporter of organized labor.  Conservative or Liberal I leave as an exercise to the reader.  (Wikipedia entry on La Follette Jr. here and article on 1930s U.S. isolationism here.)

One could argue though that in all of this I have merely refuted his individual examples but not his core points, that I have not proven any case where Conservatives lead the way to social progress, to which I respond as follows:


Richard M. Nixon – poster boy of the Conservative forces in the U.S. in the late 1960s, elected by his so-called “Silent Majority” who wanted to see a return to “law and order” and an end to rioting and the domestic unrest riling the U.S. over many issues including Vietnam, Civil Rights, and Women’s Rights, just to name a few.  A President so manipulative he was nearly impeached and remains the only President to resign from office.  He also happened to be the key leader in passing/creating:

  • the Environmental Protection Agency
  • the Clean Air Act of 1970
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration
  • Endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment
  • Philadelphia Plan (first Federal Affirmative Action plan)
  • Normalized relations with the Peoples Republic of China
  • Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and reduced tensions with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic

(Wikipedia entry on Nixon here.)

Bottom Line on it all – nothing is simplistic and arguing that one broad political movement is “opposed” to progress while another is “supporting” progress is overly simplistic, the reality in U.S. history is far more messy, far more nuanced, and far more fascinating.

Weird History – the Mexican Revolution and invading the United States

Friday, March 1st, 2013

That is Venustiano Carranza, President of Mexico from 1917 to 1920 and a key figure in the Mexican Revolution.  But today we are going to focus on one particularly unusual scheme he had a hand in developing, the Plan of San Diego.  This plan, in essence, was a mix of insane political vision, odd nationalism exciting idea, and political bargaining chip to try to force the government of the United States into recognizing Carranza as the leader of Mexico during its revolution.  In essence this plan called for an invasion of the southwestern United States, from California to Texas, by Mexican revolutionary forces who would work in combination with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in these territories to remove these territories from the control of the United States government.  The heart of the plan was very simple, use a combination of fast raids and guerrilla tactics to undermine the limited US military forces in the region and slaughter every Anglo male in the region above the age of sixteen.  The plan was supposed to begin on 20 February 1915 but was thwarted by a combination of its discovery and very aggressive policing actions by the Texas Rangers.

Along with the fact that it was absolutely insane and had no real chance of succeeding – but it actually wasn’t supposed to succeed in taking land back from the United States – what it was supposed to do was force the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, into extending recognition to Carranza’s government in Mexico.  The plan provoked a series of raids by Mexican revolutionary forces into the southwestern United States, raids that did a fair amount of property damage and resulted in the deaths of twenty-one American citizens.  Wilson responded by mobilizing the national militia (today National Guard) to the border but he also extended recognition of Carranza’s government.  Granted this was due to several intersecting factors but slowing down the raids was part of it, as Wilson had an eye on events developing in Europe at the time and did not want to get enmeshed in a war in Mexico.  Which is where the really weird train begins to pull out of the station.

The man on the horse pictured above is Pancho Villa, a major figure in the Mexican Revolution and a powerful leader in his own right in northern Mexico.  In the early stages of the Mexican Revolution he was considered one of the finest generals in Mexico but by 1915 he’d opposed Carranza in the field and lost several key battles, resulting in his movement being in decline by 1915.  With the raids across the US border taking place that year, and President Wilson sending US troops to the US-Mexican border, Villa saw an opportunity to provoke an incident, force the US to intervene into northern Mexico, and hopefully spark a broader conflict between the United States and Mexico.  (The theory was that sad conflict would bring down Carranza’s government, and Carranza, and give Villa a new lease on power in Mexico and a chance to be a key player in whatever government appeared in Mexico to replace Carranza.)  On 9 March 1916 Villa launched a raid with one hundred of his best cavalry raiders on Columbus, NM, where he killed eighteen Americans and did a large amount of damage to the town.  The US 13th Cavalry unit chased him off though, killing eighty of the hundred raiders.  But Villa got his intervention – President Wilson sent a powerful force of US Army regulars into northern Mexico to hunt for Villa were they spent almost a full year looking for him and not finding him.  However Villa’s hoped for confrontation between military forces loyal to Carranza and the US Army didn’t happen, Carranza avoided confronting the American forces roaming around his country and Wilson didn’t want a war with Mexico as he was still focused on Europe.

But Villa’s actions and the subsequent US entanglement inspired a 1917 power-play attempt by Germany that made this chain of events even stranger.

Arthur Zimmerman, pictured above, sent a telegram in January 1917, right when the US was beginning to wrap up its military intervention in Mexico, to Carranza offering German support if Mexico would invade the southwestern United States.  This support included recognizing the territories Mexico seized, providing Mexico with unlimited arms and supplies for the operation, and post-war economic goodies.  Now if you think about it this plan is pretty much identical to the Plan of San Diego mentioned above.  Germany was in no position to help Mexico and Carranza, after a short period when Germany’s proposal was “studied”, rejected it as unrealistic.  However the British government had intercepted the telegram and gave it to the US government, the public outrage in the United States provoked by this German threat helped propel the United States into World War I.

But there is one more strange twist to all of this…

Meet Albert P. Fall, US Senator from the newly admitted state of New Mexico and “special friend to the oil industry” in Washington DC.  Now how he fits into all of this is interesting – Carranza had used his position as leader of Mexico to impose new taxes and regulations on the US oil industry in Mexico.  In the period of the revolution, 1910 – 1920, the US was importing around 70% of its total oil consumption from Mexican oil fields.  The oil companies hated the idea of any new taxes being imposed upon them so they pushed Senator Fall to advocate for radical solutions to the problems Carranza was imposing on their industry.  Senator Fall, in good form, in 1919 through 1920 advocated that the US government simply invade, and seize, northern Mexico to help secure the border from threats of raiding and other dangers.  Like foreign nations using Mexico as a springboard to invading the US, or to prevent a Mexican invasion that might slaughter Americans in the southwestern United States.  Where it gets really weird is plans by the US government to seize northern Mexico, which were loosely kicked around prior to this during the earlier Mexican revolution, were part of what sparked Villa’s raid into New Mexico.

What closes out our oddness in this linked chain of events is how Senator Fall ended his career – in resignation and humiliation as one of the key players in the infamous Tea Pot Dome scandal where he was kicked out of office as the Secretary of the Interior for taking kickbacks to illegally lease US government lands to…the oil industry.

Sources: Wikipedia entries on Albert B. Fall, the Plan of San Diego, Pancho Villa, Arthur Zimmerman, and The Mexican Revolution, 1910 – 1940, by Michael Gonzales

Great New England Hurricane of 1938

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

In the great tradition of the argument that history repeats itself, and in nod to the surge in storm photos circulating with the landfall of Hurricane Sandy, it seemed as good a time as any to pass on the legacy of another great New England storm, the Hurricane of 1938 (nicknamed the Long Island Express because our ancestors were witty.)  The storm built up between 10 September to 20 September 1938 and came ashore on 21 September 1938.  It basically pummeled New England for a few days, racing along the coast and particularly pounding Long Island, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.  (New York City got a glancing smack and some rather severe flooding.)

The hurricane today is considered a Category 3 hurricane and cost between six to eight hundred lives.  It also destroyed a total of 57,000 homes and caused a total, in 2012 dollars, of $4.7 billion in damage.  It also knocked out power for much of the reason, sunk or wrecked 3000 ships, tore up local railroads, and smashed up forests throughout the region.  It was up to that point one of the most powerful storms to hit New England and remains, to the present day, one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the region.  Damage was reportedly still visible in some wild areas as late as 1951 and a few island communities were so badly destroyed that they were abandoned.

On a weird note it also had an impact on the movement of the US strategic gold reserves into Fort Knox, in 1938 the US government was busy shipping gold reserves from all over the East Coast of the United States to Fort Knox for safe-keeping in its new mega-strongbox.  The hurricane hit in the middle of some of these shipments, stranding them at train depots, the government was able to resume gold shipments once the storm flooding subsided.

Two final thought to close on though – first I particularly like the last image above because that building is being burned intentionally to clear the way for newer construction.  Badly damaged in the hurricane it needed to be removed, and because people rebuild after major storms.  Second the hurricane of 1938 came at a time of economic hardship for the United States, the Great Depression, (technically the second surge of that economic downturn from 1937-1939 but lets not quibble), a time when the US economy was weak, people were out of work, and the resources to deal with a crisis like this were less than are present today.  Yet the people of the United States overcame the destruction then and I believe we’ll do so again.  Hurricane Sandy coming ashore is being greeted by many pundits and commentators as a great fist slam into the economy, and in the short term it well may be.  But in the long term, people rebuild, the regroup, and they come out often ahead after such a disaster.

Sources: Wikipedia entry on the Great Hurricane of 1938, History channel on the Hurricane of 1938

Embargo Act of 1807

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

This is one of those classic historical moments in the United States that links so well to current debates regarding the impending 2012 election, the old battle between the ideal of limited federal government and activist federal government.  In short, the first view argues that the federal government represents a dangerous potential concentration of power and therefore its influence should be carefully controlled and focused in the narrowest possible fields of endeavor.  The second view, in contrast, argues that the federal government represents the greatest concentration of resources in the nation and those resources should be used to collectively improve the nation through projects that enhance the well-being and are to large in scope for a smaller entity to undertake successfully.  Both views have the merits and hazards, what is of particular note though is the first view is closely associated with Thomas Jefferson, a view he espoused throughout most of active political life.

With the notable exception of enforcing the Embargo Act of 1807 – the Embargo Act was an effort under President Jefferson to punish both France and England for encroaching upon US neutrality during the Franco-British Wars of the period.  (Specifically the British effort to contain Napoleon’s remodeling of the balance of power in Europe.)  The idea was by withdrawing US trade from the global markets, and forbidding foreign nations to trade with the US, would hurt both France and England and bring them to a point of being willing to cease violating US neutrality and also halt perceived insults by both nations upon the dignity of the US.  This plan failed miserably on multiple levels – most merchants in the US who could simply ignored the law, smuggling abounded, and the US forfeited its growing trade connections with South America by keeping its merchant fleet in harbor.  The English simply expanded into the abandoned US South American trade and ignored the embargo, the French already being under an English trade embargo hardly noticed a change.

Within the United States the embargo caused massive hardship and economic loss, the entire nation felt the pinch of the loss of the export business and the shortage of imported goods.  But with the act being flaunted regularly with smuggling and exceptions Jefferson sought two solutions – first asking Congress to pass increasingly harsh modifications to the law to shut down loopholes, and second to expand the size of the standing army from 2,800 soldiers to 30,000 soldiers, a request Congress denied.  Jefferson’s plan with that massive expanded army was to use the new military forces to police the harbors and ports of the United States to enforce the Embargo Act.  Jefferson was ready, since it served a political end he felt justified it, to squeeze federal intervention and oversight into every port, warehouse, and home on the US coastline, if necessary, to stamp out the smuggling he felt was undermining the effectiveness of the Embargo Act.

The Embargo Act was ended in 1809 when Jefferson was leaving office, it had cost his political party, the Democratic-Republicans, considerable political influence in the government and the Presidency.  It also had no impact on the English or the French, both continued their war and policies that ignored US neutrality.  What it did show though was that no matter the political stripe or philosophy of a President any US chief executive can be expected to expand the role of the federal government, if they feel that expansion justifies a higher end, even one who is the central icon of the ideal of limited federal government.

Sources: Wikipedia entry on the Embargo Act of 1807, Pearson Education blurb on the Embargo

State Weirdness! New York’s “notch” of Massachusetts

Saturday, July 28th, 2012

This is a map of Columbia county, New York, and if you look closely you’ll notice in the southeast corner a cute little “triangle” of land, a little bump in an otherwise straight border.  This little bump in the border didn’t exist until 1853, from the forming of the country in 1776 through 1853 that little notch belonged to Massachusetts.  It wasn’t considered an important chunk of territory until a small settlement within it, Boston Corner, began to take advantage of a slight geographic oddity.  There is a fine road that runs through that territory that links New York to Connecticut, a road that happened to just run through part of Massachusetts.  Boston Corner was squarely on this road, and separated geographically from Boston itself, separated by a nasty set of mountains.  Due to this fact Boston Corner enjoyed the ability to provide services to travelers between New York and Connecticut but also was beyond the easy reach of Massachusetts law enforcement and their courts.  Due to the mountains the government of Massachusetts simply ignored Boston Corner.

Boston Corner enjoyed its semi-ignored status deeply – providing gambling, illegal prize fighting, and a haven for violent criminals.  Efforts by New York or Connecticut to impede the lawlessness in Boston Corner were blocked by the fact that warrants issued by either state couldn’t be enforced in Boston Corner, because said warrants had to come from the courts of Massachusetts.  This lawless state continued until 1853, Boston Corner even obtained its own railroad stop by that point and had really taken off as a tiny haven of illegal fun and festivities.

The prize fight mentioned above took place between two famous champions battling for a $2000, Morrissey was the favorite of the heavily betting, and tipsy, crowd of three thousand spectators.  The battle did last for thirty seven rounds, at the end of which the fight was broken up by the referee and the two fighters trainers jumping into the ring.  Sullivan had been doing well till then, but due to a technical glitch, the referee declared Morrissey the winner.  The crowd did not take kindly to this and rioted, smashing up Boston Corner and overwhelming what local resistance was in place.  The townspeople couldn’t call for any additional aid, New York was in this case quite respectful of the fact that Boston Corner was under the control of Massachusetts.

After this riot the state of Massachusetts, the state of New York, and the people of Boston Corners decided this was stupid, the townsfolk appealed to be placed under New York’s control and both states agreed.  Which resulted in that weird little triangle.

Oh and a final point – the sign you see above is wrong on one key point – the fight took place in 1853, not 1883.

Sources: How The States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein, Boston Corner on Wikipedia, and The Battle of Boston Corners.

Detroit and Time Zones – Local History Moment

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

While reading the book Fordlandia I came across a fascinating tidbit that Detroit, originally, was on Central Standard Time rather than Eastern Standard Time.  Detroit went with local time, then Central Standard Time, then another bout with local/solar time, before finally shifting over to Eastern Standard Time.  What is particularly fascinating is the reason why Detroit switched over – a mix of fashion and economic interests that oddly came together.  The economic interests were that business leaders in Detroit wanted that cities industries and factories working, time wise, in close harmony with the financiers and banks in New York City.  Specifically to better attract capital from New York City these business leaders felt that having Detroit work on the same time-table would make it more appealing for investments.

Fashion wise – the elite of Detroit wanted their city associated more with the East Coast than with Chicago.  Why, so far, is a topic for future research.

This lead to some humor poked at Detroit’s residents by the New York Times, including the following commentary:

Latterly all Detroit has been using Central time, and it has served very well, but many Detroiters, who have New York tastes and hate to be called Westerners, demand the establishment of Eastern time.  Their arguments in favor of this change are interesting.  A man who begins his daily work at 9 o’clock Eastern time will be only 8 o’clock Central time.  But, on the other hand, if he stops work at 6 o’clock he will really be at liberty at 5, and thus gain a whole hour at the end of the day.  Many other equally lucid arguments are advanced to support the adoption in Detroit of Eastern time. “Voting For Time,” New York Times, 26 October 1908.

The US federal government put a stop to these shenanigans with the passage in 1918 of the Standard Time Act (a.k.a. the Calder Act) which set the time zones of the United States as they are today.

Sources: Wikipedia entry on US Time Zones; “Voting For Time,” New York Times, 26 October 1908; “Michigan’s Early Time,” New York Times, 19 September 1885; “Adopting Standard Time,” New York Times, 9 December 1883.

United States – Civil War – States Rights

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

From a book that I just finished on the period in the history of the United States between Fort Sumter and Bull Run, Dissonance:

“In essence, slavery i snot simply enslavement.  Any monster can enslave another person, chaining him or her to a radiator or a piano leg (of, if one chooses to be cynical, to a variety of social arrangements based on threats).  But for a system of slavery to exist in a society, it must be enforceable by law – like the ownership of any possession – a horse, for example.  Once the necessary laws are in place, a police force is involved: the executive branch of government.

As soon as America had even a single state without slavery (that is, with laws prohibiting the institution), the subject – from a legal point of view – grew unstable.  If a runaway escaped from a slave state to a state without slave laws, did that person become free?  Were law-abiding citizens of a free state obligated to return this human being to his or her “owner” far away – much as they might return a stolen carriage (especially since the out-of-state “owner” could not legally own anyone in a free state)?”

The author goes on from there and describes how the framers of the Constitution argued that indeed, free states had to return runaway slaves, and how the United States government until the 1860s followed a policy of enforcing the return of runaway slaves.  But the analysis provided above blew my mind, for years I’ve wrestled with how to frame a response to people who argue states-rights was the cause of the United States Civil War over slavery – a foolish position but one I’ve had difficulty properly expounding upon in the past.  But this argument does it for me neatly because it takes the argument “it was over states rights – the right to own slaves” to a higher level and actually links it all together for me intellectually.  The issue is the right of the states – in how they interact with each other and with the federal government.  The slave holding states versus the free states were divided fundamentally prior to the United States Civil War and that divide tore across the entire fabric of the nation – for one part of the population a right to property they held, under their law, was simply denied to them in another state.  In turn, for those in free states, they were being asked to uphold in many cases the right of a state other than their own, a right contrary to their own legal code.

An issue that touches on similar legal ground today is the controversy over allowing homosexual couples to marry – traditionally states recognize each others acts of marriage – that is why a married couple who were legally wed in one state can move to another state and do not have to marry each other, nor does changing states negate the standing marriage.  Homosexual marriages challenge that convention, some US states have banned it, others permit it, so what happens when a homosexual couple in a state that permits their marriage then relocates to one that either doesn’t grant such marriages or, worse, banned them.  Take that same controversy today and whip the emotional load associated with the issue up to a fever pitch.  Slavery ignited passions on both sides of the ideological divide to fanatical levels in the early to mid 19th century, as honestly it should have.  For slave holders in the United States anti-slavery sentiments became an attack on their property, culture, way of life, and value code.  For abolitionists in the United States slavery became a barbaric, vile, ancient custom that had no place in the culture or society of the United States and, for the most extreme, was a legal institution so vile those who benefited from it should receive no recourse or compensation when their “property” was freed.

It is an issue that literally tore the country in twain in 1861 and prior to that in the 1850s threaten to cleave the nation several times.  (By the way for those of you who feel passionate when the Supreme Court makes a ruling you disagree with sharply, read up on the Dred Scott decision sometime, took place in 1857.  In it the Supreme Court, in a ruling probably with more politics than law in it, not only ruled slaves could never be taken away from their owners but also: slavery could not be prohibited by Congress in the federal territories, African-Americans had no right to sue in the courts, and African-Americans who were slaves or descendents of slaves could never be US citizens.  Put simply – the Supreme Court took a bundle of political compromises that had held the nation together for decades on this issue, set them on fire, and told half the nation “Screw you bitches, slavery is in, American, and cannot be contained!”  In reaction emotions were quite heated.)

Book Review PortionDissonance: The Turbulent Days Between Fort Sumter and Bull Run by David Detzer, 2006.  Fabulous book, very human, an incredibly skilled way of telling the story of these days with a human face upon them.  I’ll be reading more of Mr. Detzer’s work and I highly recommend his book, even if you are not a history buff.  This is a toe-grit history at its finest, it uses the personalities and stories of the people involved as an engine to tell the broader historical narrative.

War of 1812 – Reflections on a Legacy

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

It is March of 2011 – currently making news around the nation is the hundred and fifty year anniversary of the wave of secessions that sparked the outbreak of the American Civil War – you can fully expect over the next few years to have a regular wave of commentary and news stories about reenactments of the US Civil War, the major events and battles of the Civil War being hashed out again, and of course controversy about the meaning of the US Civil War and the conduct of its key leaders on both sides.  All well and fitting, a good dialogue about the US Civil War will be useful and 2012 – 2015 does neatly fall into that one hundred and fifty year mark, I look forward to commemorative currency releases and modified US currency by private mints – perhaps will see a re-release of Confederate paper money, a fun collectible of many years.  However amidst the wave of excitement over the anniversary of the US Civil War the bicentennial of another, just as critical, US war is being drowned out, the bicentennial of the War of 1812.  There are some local commemorative events being planned, the City of Niagara Falls is putting forward a major commemorative tourist initiative for example, but nationally this is a war which the US has semi-forgotten, which is not surprising considering the conduct of the war but also sad because of its incredible importance in shaping our modern nation.

First off the name of the War of 1812 is an odd one – think about it for a moment, most US wars are named after the antagonists in the war or in the case of multi-combatant wars a catchy summary name is given.  World War I (formally the Great War) and World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the War with Mexico, the Spanish-American War, names that mark with whom we fought or signifying a major engagement.  The War of 1812 we have a date, you have to dig just to find out with whom we went to war.  A more proper, but less tongue rolling name, would be the Second Anglo-American War, this was a conflict between the United States and the Kingdom of Great Britain over a series of unresolved issues from the First Anglo-American War (also known as the American Revolution.)  Of particular import for the newly fledged United States was the impact of policies by the British government upon US shipping – the British navy regularly searched and boarded US ships and seized sailors for service in the British navy, under the argument that said sailors were escaped British seaman being returned to their legal duty.  (Often, honestly, they were not and the British navy was just filling its voracious appetite for sailors.)  There were issues regarding the presence of British military forces in territory that was supposed to have been fully turned over to the United States after 1783 – forces in the upper portions of the modern Midwest that threatened to undermine US political control of the region.  Great Britain was also channeling weapons to native tribes in the area as well, fomenting resistance to the rule of the United States over its newly acquired territories.

But this war came in the midst of a period of overall major changes for the United States and it helped redefine how our nation handled itself and it represented some incredibly close calls for the United State as a nation – some historians have called it the Second American Revolution and in many ways their catchy label is a valid one.  During this war the United States faced serious internal divisions over the war, politically waging it was a charged issue and many in the United States felt disconnected from the war, especially in the (at the time) populous and economically important New England states.  This discontent led to a threatened secession by many of the New England states in 1815, the news of the signing of the treaty ending the war forestalled what might have lead to a collapse of the United States as a nation in 1815.  From 1812 to 1815 the United States saw serious armed invasions on its shores, including in 1814 a major assault upon the territory of the United States from three directions – through upper New York southwards, along the coast line against Washington D.C. and against Baltimore, MD, and from the south against New Orleans.  In fact the capital itself was burned by the British after their successful routing of US military forces protecting the capital, an event that scattered the national government and put local authority in control of the war effort temporarily.

The War of 1812 also is filled with stirring stories as well – such as the defense of the Great Lakes by a US admiral commanding a fleet of ships built on-location and defeating the British Navy on station on the lakes, a victory critical to the future economic development of the United States.  All the commerce that flows along the Great Lakes today, including through the St. Lawrence canal to the Atlantic Ocean, all of that is because the United States gained control of the Great Lakes.  The War of 1812 also shifted the United States away from the ideal of a decentralized nation with a minimal federal government to one in which the central government had more authority, more resources, and more power.  It even profoundly impacted how the United States addressed issues of national defense and the role of the military.

Over the next few months I’ll be writing a series of posts on this war – both its impact and some of the major interesting events that occurred during the War of 1812 – in the hopes of bringing people’s awareness of it up.