Monday, November 25, 2013

Doughfaces redux

Matthew Mason has an article in the current issue of the Journal of the Early Republic on the Missouri crisis as viewed from Maine. It's curious that whenever a scholar speaks critically of doughfaces, Matt takes it personally.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Looking North from Missouri

I had the honor to be invited to participate in the plenary session of this year's conference of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic on "Crossroads Missouri."  Other scholars spoke on looking East, West and South from Missouri; I was asked to look North.  My remarks are below.

For Americans, the West has been a glittering abstraction, more of a mystical concept than a place. And this mystification has two very powerful rationales.  First, it obscures both the horrendous costs of western expansion to the people who lived there, as well as the real costs of its rewards: the maldistribution of land and riches that turned land speculators into a class of superrich. Second, the West provided a dialectical escape hatch—a spurious one, as it turned out—to evade the inexorable conflict of North and South. Jefferson invoked this tone of mysticism repeatedly, most memorably in his First Inaugural Address, describing America as “a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” Jefferson is demonstrating impeccable logic: only a limitless West can reconcile the contradiction of North and South. But it is equally clear that the West that solves this equation is an imaginary number.

Both Northerners and Southerners projected their dreams for the future on the West, and these collided catastrophically over the question of Missouri statehood. The traditional historiography, following the Jeffersonian narrative, painted the movement to restrict slavery in Missouri as a Federalist gambit to regain sectional political power. More recent scholars have seen it as a sincere and broad-based effort to reclaim the national character and save the West from slavery. But nearly all observers, including myself, have paid only cursory attention to the interests and motivations of the Missourians themselves.


Looking North from Missouri inherently positions Missouri as South. That’s right, isn’t it? As the center of the storm over slavery restriction, it would seem only natural to identify Missouri as a southern state. But I will argue that Missouri is something else entirely, something extremely important to our understanding of America and the function of the west.

Read on...

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Abbé Weems?

After the breach with Great Britain, Americans wanting to become Episcopalian clergy were refused orders unless they took an oath of allegiance to the British crown. The famous Parson Weems, author of the children's life of Washington ("I cannot tell a lie"), was frustrated enough as a 25-year-old Episcopalian theological student to be willing to be ordained in the Catholic church. Below is the letter from Weems and his friend and fellow divinity student Edward Gant seeking advice from Benjamin Franklin:
No 170 Strand. July 9th 1784
Not having the honour to be known to your Excellency we should preface this with an Apology, but as it relates to a subject of public and Important Concern, we hope your Excellency will excuse form and Ceremony.
We are Natives of America and Students of Divinity, having no form of Episcopal Ordination in our own Country we Came to England more than a twelvemonth ago for Orders and have been all that time Soliciting the Arch Bishop but in vain. his Grace will not ordain us unless we will consent to take the Oath of Allegiance. Mr. Chase a Friend of ours advised us to write to your Excellency and acquaint you with the Deplorable Condition of our Church. Waving all Pathetic Discription, permit us to assure Your Excellency that of Sixty Churches in our State (Maryland) there are upwards of thirty vacant.
Romish Orders are Good. We shall take it as a great favour done to our selves and state if your Excellency will inform us as soon as possible whether we can take Orders in France.
Be pleased to Let us know very particularly what Oaths we must take and what Tenets we must subscribe. If the ArchBishop of Paris will ordain Us we will come over most Chearfully. Your Excellency will add to the Obligation by giving us a Speedy Reply. Mr. Adams has invited us to go over to Denmark, but the Orders from Denmark are not so Good as we wish them to be. We have the honour to be Your Excellency’s Most Obedient humble Servants
Mason Weems
Edward Gant
Endorsed: Edd. Gant July 9. 1784
Grant Wood, Parson Weems' Fable, 1939.
Oil on canvas, 38 3/8 x 50 1/8 inches. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. 1970.43.



Monday, May 13, 2013

The paradox of consevative radicalism


In every country, conservatives harken back to their nation's origins. For most nations, that origin is a mythical foundation: Romulus founding Rome, Moses and Joshua founding Israel, the sun goddess Ameterasu founding Japan. When Americans turn to their founding for ultimate values, they find a revolution. So we have the unique situation in this country of the most conservative citizens also being the most radically anti-authority and anti-government. This is why the Federalists felt that we should hearken back to the British constitution, with its ancient roots (after all, a "revolution" is literally a return to the beginning). Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, thought we should have a revolution every couple of generations; felt the French Revolution had to be defended at ALL COSTS ("rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is"). There is a purity in such an outlook, but it does not do much to promote a comfortable life. It is no accident that the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, when he was apprehended, had a tee shirt on with Jefferson's statement, “Occasionally the tree of Liberty must be watered with the blood of Patriots and Tyrants.” That's pure Trotsky and Lenin, isn't it? I'll take Adamsite Federalism, or better still Monrovian National Republicanism. All honor to Washington!

Providence cardinal virtues

Nice the way the streets in Providence are named after virtues and positive goods: Hope, Benevolent, Benefit, Charity, Faith, Prudence, Justice, Clemence. The city's preeminent figure, slave-trading merchant and statesman John Brown, lived on Power Street.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Sandy Hook "truther" movement

I can comprehend why some people would be inclined to holocaust denial. To accept that human beings could conceive of and implement a system as insanely evil as the Final Solution is just too much for some decent souls to bear. But the purpose of the Sandy Hook truthers--I call them "lie-ers"--is not to vindicate slandered human nature but to--what? defend a Bushmaster against a bum rap, and pin the crime on some shady handguns who are getting off scot-free? (I thought guns didn't kill people.) There is no more evidence against the official story than in any confused and chaotic crime scene, and there is no hint of implausibility in the crime: gun did exactly what it was intended to do, kudos to the designer. It should not be necessary for me to note that a friend of mine was on duty in the ER of Danbury Hospital on 12/14 and will live with the horror of those children's macerated bodies for the rest of his life. There is a twistedness to the thinking of the conspiracists in this situation. It doesn't even rise to the dignity of paranoia. Instead, it's a deep-seated laziness of political non-thought that just reflexively rolls into the gutter of vapid anti-government sloganeering, never endangering a single pin. It's the intellectual laziness that really gets my goat. If thinking were work, these people would be on permanent disability.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Any idea what the pro-Proposition 8 attorney is talking about?


How does this guy's argument promote banning gay marriage? For that matter, what IS his argument, anyway? 


MR. COOPER: Yes, Your Honor. The concern is that redefining marriage as a genderless institution will sever its abiding connection to its historic traditional procreative purposes, and it will refocus, refocus the purpose of marriage and the definition of marriage away from the raising of children and to the emotional needs and desires of adults, of adult couples. Suppose, in turn —
JUSTICE KAGAN: Well, suppose a State said, Mr. Cooper, suppose a State said that, Because we think that the focus of marriage really should be on procreation, we are not going to give marriage licenses anymore to any couple where both people are over the age of 55. Would that be constitutional?
MR. COOPER: No, Your Honor, it would not be constitutional.
JUSTICE KAGAN: Because that's the same State interest, I would think, you know. If you are over the age of 55, you don't help us serve the Government's interest in regulating procreation through marriage. So why is that different?
MR. COOPER: Your Honor, even with respect to couples over the age of 55, it is very rare that both couples — both parties to the couple are, and the traditional — (Laughter.)
JUSTICE KAGAN: No, really, because if the couple — I can just assure you, if both the woman and the man are over the age of 55, there are not a lot of children coming out of that marriage.
(Laughter.)
MR. COOPER: Your Honor, society's — society's interest in responsible procreation isn't just with respect to the procreative capacities of the couple itself. The marital norm, which imposes the obligations of fidelity and monogamy, Your Honor, advances the interests in responsible procreation by making it more likely that neither party, including the fertile party to that —
JUSTICE KAGAN: Actually, I'm not even —
JUSTICE SCALIA: I suppose we could have a questionnaire at the marriage desk when people come in to get the marriage — you know, Are you fertile or are you not fertile?
(Laughter.)
JUSTICE SCALIA: I suspect this Court would hold that to be an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, don't you think?
JUSTICE KAGAN: Well, I just asked about age. I didn't ask about anything else. That's not — we ask about people's age all the time.
MR. COOPER: Your Honor, and even asking about age, you would have to ask if both parties are infertile. Again —
JUSTICE SCALIA: Strom Thurmond was — was not the chairman of the Senate committee when Justice Kagan was confirmed.
(Laughter.)
MR. COOPER: Very few men — very few men outlive their own fertility.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Does God hate flags?

Across the street from Westboro Baptist Church

Great story on Huffington Post on the latest and most colorful protest against the infamous hate church in Wichita.

How Doctors Die

Physicians don't go through the torture of long, extended periods of incapacity before death. Some refuse the very treatments they themselves discovered. Interesting discussion on Martin Bayne's blog.  For more on Martin, "The Voice of Aging Boomers" and a first-hand champion of good assisted living, see this article in today's New York Times.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cracked 6000!

As of today, my blog has 6,006 views. Thanks, readers!

Friday, March 08, 2013

Old School

What Rand Paul did yesterday was not about right or left, nor about Barack Obama. It was about the rule of law and the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. I'm a left-leaning Democrat and I salute him for his act and his convictions. This was an important issue, and the tactic worked: after 13 hours, the Attorney General said the words: The President does not have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil.

Meanwhile, the Republicans perpetrated another unmanned drone filibuster against yet another appellate court nominee. The contrast is instructive.


Sunday, March 03, 2013

Slavery without race; abolitionism without race?


After an interesting Shabbat discussion at Eliezer, Ben Karp Facebook-messaged me a query from Ken Perkins:

Rob, Ken asks:
"Question: What is the relationship between abolitionist movements in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and its colonies, and the extent to which slavery had been "racialized" in many of those places? If slavery had been more "equal opportunity" (e.g., significant numbers of Black or Native American slave owners with large plantations of White slaves in the Deep South), how would this have changed the dynamic of abolitionism?"

My response:

Big question. There are at least a couple of books embedded there. A few observations in the direction of formulating a hypothesis:
First, while I don't believe there was a full-fledged ideology of race at the time, the African origins of New World slaves probably camouflaged the extent of the institution to a degree: they tended not to be considered. That changes over the course of the 1760s-90s, as Africans become extremely visible in England (Albert Gronniosaw, Phillis Wheatley, Cuguano, Equiano). Ironically, the result is that black slaves become kind of fetishized, depersonalized (e.g. the Wedgwood "Man and a Brother" kneeling slave image), fully associating slavery with blacks and in effect "racializing" abolition. (This is what makes modern slavery so invisible, btw--we don't see it when it's happening to Ukranians or Thais.)
I think that blacks enslaving whites in the Lower South is too great a counterfactual to process meaningfully. But there is a more accessible example: the enslavement of Europeans and Americans by the Barbary pirates. They made an outcry, threatened to convert to Islam, etc., and were always a "policy issue" for their native governments, but I don't think they ever became a "movement" in the way that African abolition did.
One can also look at the non-racial defense of slavery by figures such as the Florida planter Zephaniah Kingsley, who felt that the American racializing of slavery was absurd and counterproductive, and who ultimately moved with his black wife and mixed-race children to the West Indies to escape American prejudice (and its threat, as he saw it, to the safety of the slave regime).
The racialization of slavery, then, led to a shorthand racialization of abolition on the one hand. On the other, it ensured that free blacks would always be tarred with the stigma of slavery until slavery itself came to an end. In most slave societies, the manumitted class identifies fiercely with the master class, to distinguish themselves from their slave roots. In America, this was impossible because of the racial binary. Thus in two directions--anti-slavery and anti-black--the racialization of slavery pointed powerfully to slavery's demise.
We have a modern test case to determine whether this is generally so or not. Will it be possible to mount a global movement against slavery when slavery has no "racial" component, as in the present post-Cold War world? Or will slavery return to its classical status of a ubiquitous condition that anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time can fall into?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Vacant Pope

No, this is not Francis Bacon, just a straight photograph.


"They deserve a vote!"

BagNews has a moment-by-moment breakdown in screenshots of Obama's call for a vote on gun violence legislation during his State of The Union address on Tuesday. Here's the climax, when Speaker John Boehner finally drags himself to his feet along with all the other listeners in the House chamber:
Congratulate the Speaker on his implicit pledge to schedule a vote: call 202-225-6205.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What is fundamentalism?

I'm not sure what to make of this capsule bio from a user on a Spanish-language learning site:


Hola! Me llamo William. Soy de Florida de Los Estados Unidos. Me gusta aprender español. Religious Beliefs: I believe the Bible. Period. I believe the Earth and universe were created in 7 literal days not too many thousands of years ago. I consider the fossil record to be a result of Noah's Flood, not billions of years of evolution. I reject outright ideas that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, that life arose from non-life, or that all living things evolved from a common ancestor. In establishing rock ages, scientists don't have facts. They have facts + assumptions = guesses. All they can do is measure the current amounts of various isotopes in a rock. They can never know how much of each isotope the sample STARTED with. Nor can they know how much of the isotopes in question entered or left the rock after formation. Without that information, all they can do is guess at the age of the rock. Fossilization is a process that requires rapid burial. If an animal or part of an animal is not buried rapidly, it cannot fossilize as it will be eaten or it will decompose. Yet, evolution would have us believe the very rock layers that contain the fossils developed slowly. I do accept that species can experience variation within their species (also called micro-evolution) to a point but will reach certain limits. For example, all the different finches Darwin discovered in the Galapagos had a common ancestor...a finch! I don't believe the DNA information storage-retrieval-blueprint-maintenance system, which is responsible for encoding all kinds of amazing things including the human brain, could have arisen by pure chance. DNA ENCODES an organism. The only encoding systems whose origins we know of were all designed. (The alphabets, computer languages, jpeg encoding, mpeg encoding, etc.) I don't believe the human vision system, which, at the eye, focuses and separates light into intensity, blue, red, and green components, converts those components to electro-chemical impulses (data) and then sends them to the visual cortex to be recombined -- bearing in mind, too, that the visual cortex receives input from two 2D devices (each eye) and from that input assembles a single 3D, high-definition, color image. When scientists try to prove that the eye was not designed, they always gloss over the retina saying utter nonsense like "First you get a row of light sensitive cells" like a retina is no big deal. But, that's like proving that flat screen monitors weren't designed by saying, "First you get an LCD matrix." The only thing analogous to the eye, whose origin we know, is the modern digital camera (coverts light to electrical impulses and sends those impulses to a computer for further processing), and it was designed.

Obviously, this fellow is a lot more complicated--and intelligent--than the stereotype of the fundamentalist. It's worth thinking about what makes William tick--and what it is that we believe, "period."

"The Enlightenment’s ‘Race’ Problem, and Ours"

Justin E.H. Smith gets it.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Could Garfield have been a great president?

I think it might have been possible. From James A. Garfield's inaugural address:

  "The will of the nation, speaking with the voice of battle and through the amended Constitution, has fulfilled the great promise of 1776 by proclaiming 'liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.'

James Abram Garfield, 1831-1881
  "The elevation of the negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787. No thoughtful man can fail to appreciate its beneficent effect upon our institutions and people. It has freed us from the perpetual danger of war and dissolution. It has added immensely to the moral and industrial forces of our people. It has liberated the master as well as the slave from a relation which wronged and enfeebled both. It has surrendered to their own guardianship the manhood of more than 5,000,000 people, and has opened to each one of them a career of freedom and usefulness. It has given new inspiration to the power of self-help in both races by making labor more honorable to the one and more necessary to the other. The influence of this force will grow greater and bear richer fruit with the coming years."
Tragically, the nation never got the chance to find out if Garfield had what it took to lead the country out of the disaster of "Redemption," since an unbalanced madman (Charles G. Guiteau was not just a "disgruntled office seeker"!) took his life (he was shot just four months after taking office, though he lingered for two and a half months). Two opportunities to get Reconstruction right were thwarted by assassins' bullets. 

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Did man create God or vice-versa? Does it matter?

The argument over whether God exists is frequently a stale and fruitless exercise in dueling talking points, sound bites, and idées fixes, that begin and end with the certitude that the opposing side is made up of idiots who are incapable of understanding self-evident truths. In this vein, "samearl" writes, in response to a Huffington Post piece on the Prime Mover argument for the existence of God, "Jehovah was created a few thousand years ago by a tribe of bronze age sheepherders as one of their gods. He started to grow in prominence when certain sects began to give him more importance and had him say "Ye shall have no other gods before me.'"

I would like to posit that it actually makes no difference whether God created mankind, or mankind created God. The whole "creation" bit, while  interesting ontologically, is pretty much irrelevant theologically.


One cam make a very good case that humans created the multiple deities of the ancient world. Many of these are functional gods: you pray to Demeter to bring the harvest, to Tlaloc to make rain, to Hapi to cause the Nile to flood. (This is an oversimplification but gets to the essential point.) 

So we can see why humans would find it useful to invent these gods, and pray to them. 

What about God, singular, the God of the Hebrew scriptures and their offshoots? Let us stipulate, for the sake of argument, that Man invented God. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Observation on Darwinism

The discovery in the mid-nineteenth century of the unbroken link between animals and the human species could have had one of two results. It could have caused humans to regard the animal kingdom with a new regard and respect as sharing in our dignity. Instead, it could be taken to demonstrate our own essential animality. But to believe that we are "no better than the animals" while retaining, in fact, our superior intellect and power to control our environment--that was the worst possible outcome, for by such a belief we reduced ourselves to moral brutes while remaining physical sovereigns.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Google Salute to Martin Van Buren


Great ad. It should be noted, however, that Van Buren was distinguished for more than his truly epic facial hair. As even most biographers of Andrew Jackson have to admit, it was his vice president who gave us the political system we live under today--for better or worse.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Edward Bates on Black Citizenship

Terrific blog post by Mike Vorenberg on the Times' "Opinionator" blog:

Attorney General Edward Bates
Though it is forgotten today, Attorney General Edward Bates's opinion in the Selsey case revolutionized American citizenship. Two weeks after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a headline in The Detroit Free Press asked, “Is a Negro Eligible to the Presidency?” The editorial that followed offered an unequivocal “Yes.” A fiercely pro-Democratic paper, The Free Press despised the fact that the presidency, along with “all official positions,” could now “be open to the nigger.”In the early weeks of 1863, such racist invective peppered the rhetoric of those disgusted by Lincoln’s edict of Jan. 1. But The Free Press was not talking about the Emancipation Proclamation when it declared “negro” eligibility for the presidency a “monstrous result.” Rather, it was talking about a document that history has tended to neglect, even though at the time many saw it as a critical adjunct to the Proclamation: the opinion of Attorney General Edward Bates declaring that free African-Americans born in the United States were citizens.

Read the rest here.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Have a little common sense!

Just because some people have nails driven into their skulls, should we ban nails? Just because some people are garroted with piano wire, should we ban pianos? Just because some people are plunged into boiling oil, should we ban olives? Just because some people have their tongues and teeth pulled out by the roots, should we ban pliers? Come on, sheeple!