Thursday, January 29, 2009

USH8: Robber Barons and the Gilded Age

Kenneth Davis points out that "In thirty-five years, from the Civil War's end to the twentieth century, America moved with astonishing speed from a war-torn nation of farmers to an industrial empire..." Howard Zinn's way of putting this is: "Between the Civil War and 1900, steam and electricity replaced human muscle, iron replaced wood, and steel replaced iron." Much of this was due to the industrial revolution--or more precisely, the 'Second Industrial Revolution', a revolution less of waterwheels and textile mills, and more of petroleum and steel--and the railroads built with petroleum, coal, and steel, as well as the banks filled with the money from petroleum, coal, steel, and especially the railroads. And all this industrialization made a lot of money for a few men who took advantage of all this. The polite term for them is 'Captains of Industry' but because of the unscrupulous dealings these men used to acquire their wealth, they're more commonly known as the Robber Barons.

While the modern railroad was invented and developed in Great Britain, and the first major US line ran through Maryland, the railroad became an important part of US history with the development of the 'Transcontinental Railroad' from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California. As I noted in my post of 1/17/09 ('The Nation Grows'), in the early part of the nineteenth century a doctrine known as 'Manifest Destiny' became popular. As the US stretched toward the Pacific Ocean, the desire grew to have a way of getting from coast to coast. Although talk of a cross country railway began in the 1830s, the building of the transcontinental railroad began in earnest during the Civil War. The railroad was completed in 1869. Wikipedia states: "Complete travel from coast to coast was reduced from six or more months to just one week."

The first beneficiary of the railroad was a financier named Thomas Durant, who owned the Union Pacific railroad, as well as a company called Credit Mobilier which was supposed to be responsible for the construction of the track. Credit Mobilier got ninety-four million dollars for the work--but it actually cost them only forty-four million. Durant used the company to pay himself a fortune. Massachusetts Congressman Oakes Ames was also a director of the Union Pacific and gave shares of Credit Mobilier to other congressmen and various politicians to avoid any investigation. When this became known it caused a major scandal. Ironically, Durant left Union Pacific and financier Jay Gould became the dominant stockholder. Gould had already made money from the Erie Railroad and playing with the price of gold. Along with Union Pacific, he got control over three other western railroads and eventually well over a tenth of the country's rail lines. He also controlled the Western Union telegraph company. In 1886, railroad workers across the southwestern portion of the US struck against the lines he owned. He hired strikebreakers and Pinkerton detectives to break up the strike--with rather violent methods.

One of Gould's rivals was a man who started in the ferry business, Cornelius Vanderbilt. He began working on ferries as a boy and at 16 started his own ferry, between Manhatten and Staten Island, NY. During the war of 1812, he shipped supplies to US forts and in 1818, he got involved in steamboat travel, starting with ferries and eventually offering a travel route to California (cutting through Nicaragua) during the gold rush and competing with trans-Atlantic steamships. He also got involved as a director of the Long Island Railroad and from there began building his railroad empire, eventually leaving steamboats to concentrate on rail travel. He helped build the Grand Central Depot (eventually called Grand Central Terminal) and eventually extended his lines out to Chicago. This led him into conflict with Jay Gould, a conflict he lost. (His son, William would also get into conflict with Jay Gould, this time over who would own Western Union--Vanderbilt won this one, but Gould made the money out of the situation. These 'barons' weren't nice to anyone--including each other.)

But probably the top railroad and financial baron of them all was John Pierpont Morgan. JP Morgan began his career by financing the selling of defective guns during the Civil War. These rifles were bought from an army arsenel for $3.50 apiece (5000 of them), 'remachined', and sold back to the army for $22 each. They often blew off the thumbs of the soldiers firing them. He developed a railroad empire by acquiring lines (he gained control of the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad, taking it away from Jay Gould in 1869) and consolidating companies. By 1900, he owned almost half of the country's tracks. This was all done through the banking firm of J.P. Morgan & Co., one of the largest and most powerful banks in New York, and eventually the world. In 1895, when the US treasury was almost out of gold, Morgan led a syndicate of bankers that traded $65 million in gold for bonds, which they then resold making a profit of $18 million. In 1900, Morgan met Andrew Carnegie at a dinner party. Morgan asked Carnegie how much he would want for his steel company. Carnegie grabbed a piece of paper and wrote '$492,000,000'. The deal was closed without lawyers or a written contract and from that JP Morgan created US Steel.

Andrew Carnegie was a true case of working his way to the top. He was born in Scotland, came to the US at thirteen and immediately went to work at a cotton mill. By the time he was seventeen, he was working for a telegraph company. He became a telegraph operator and worked his way up to superintendent. He began investing in the railroads and related industries and did well with this. He invested in land in Pennsylvania where oil was found. Soon, he was a millionaire. He visited London in 1872 and saw the newly developed Bessemer method of steel production and soon left the railroad business and involved himself in the iron and steel industry. He eventually consolidated everything into the Carnegie Steel Company, which is what he sold to JP Morgan. He is often known as a philantropist today because he gave almost every cent he made away. (Unfortunately, this was sullied by a strike at the Carnegie Steel plant in Homestead, PA, that occurred while Carnegie was away in Scotland. One of his managers, Henry Clay Frick, cut the pay of the workers and demanded they drop their union. When they didn't go along, Frick locked them out and brought in strikebreaking workers. This led to a confrontation between the Pinkerton guards and the union workers. Yes, this is similar to the situation I described above with Jay Gould. This time it ended up in a battle where many of the workers were killed. This infuriated Alexander Berkman, an anarchist who believed violent acts would encourage the workers to revolt. Berkman got into see Frick and shot him three times. The workers, rather than arising, beat Berkman unconscious. Frick survived the shooting and Berkman spent fourteen years in prison. Carnegie, as I said, was in Scotland during the strike but he, as well as Frick, was very much against the union and the violence upon the workers became part of Carnegie's reputation.)

Perhaps the richest of these 'Barons' was John D. Rockefeller who began his career as a bookkeeper. Supposedly, in an early position he was asked to evaluate the monetary potential of oil for an interested company. The story is that he told them that it had no future, and then bought himself a refinery. In 1870 he created Standard Oil of Ohio which he built into an empire. At one point it controlled 80-90% of the US refineries; eventually Standard Oil became a 'trust', an idea cooked up by Rockefeller's lawyers, which made the Standard Oil Trust into 'holding company' that was controlled many other corporations, including the Chase Manhatten Bank. This was a way to get around the anti-monopoly laws that soon was copied by hundreds of others, including JP Morgan (which is how he controlled so much of the US railways). By the turn of the century Rockefeller had gone on to other pursuits (notably philantropy) and he was worth millions. Standard Oil reigned supreme until they were found guilty, in 1911, of violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and broken into several smaller companies.

I could go on to detail Andrew Mellon, Henry Ford, Marshall Field, William Randolph Hearst,etc (not to mention the Vanderbilt and Rockerfeller sons), but you get the idea. This was a time referred to as The Gilded Age (taken from the title of a novel co-authored by Mark Twain). It was a time of extreme wealth and opulence and a time when thousands upon thousands of workers died building railroads, mining coal, and mining iron. While the 'Barons' made fortunes, immigrants, working women, and even children toiled in mills and sweatshops. The railroads wiped out the last of the native lands and corruption was the order of the day. It was a time when the tycoons seemed out of control. It made the technology fortunes of the 1980s and 1990s seem minor by comparison.

And where was the government through all this? Kenneth Davis points out that the late nineteenth century hosted a number of the weakest presidents in US history: Andrew Johnson, US Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison. The ones that weren't outright corrupt had little sway over these economic empires.

But there were those who had enough. Next: the farmers revolt!

Quote of the Day: "...upon the sacredness of property civilization itself depends--the right of the laborer to his hundred dollars in the savings bank, and the equally legal right of the millionaire to his millions." - Andrew Carnegie

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Wikipedia, various articles (especially the ones on the First Transcontinental Railroad, Robber baron, Gilded Age , and the various industrialists )
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

Sunday, January 25, 2009

USH7: Utopian Communities and New Religious Groups

Something else that isn't usually highlighted in mainstream history texts (at least the ones taught from in high school) is the upswelling of new ideas about spirituality and ways of living that occurred in the nineteenth century. In particular, various types of intentional community were tried: some religious and some secular, some long-lasting and some very short-lived, and a number of them referred to as 'utopian communities'.

Quite a few non-mainstream religious groups came to America during the colonial times, among them were the Quakers (mentioned already) and 'Anabaptist' groups such as the Amish, the Mennonites, and (later) the Hutterites. And, in 1774, an offshoot of the Quakers, the Shakers (originally called the 'Shaking Quakers') came to this country. All these groups are still around (although the Shakers have all but died out).

In 1803, the Harmony Society came to the United States from Germany. They had split off from the Lutherans, and in 1805, the Harmony Society was formally organized in the town they called Harmony, Pennsylvania. The Harmony Society formed a community where they put all their belongings in common, and later embraced celibacy. When they began having troubles with their neighbors they sold the settlement to some Mennonites and moved to Indiana where they founded a second town, which they called New Harmony. In 1824, after again having problems with neighbors, they sold New Harmony to Robert Owen and William Maclure (see below) and moved back to Pennsylvania, where they founded a third town which they called Economy. In 1832 the community divided, due to disagreements.

William Kephart points out that western New York in the 1820s was called the "burned-over district" because it 'burned-over' with religious enthusiasm. It may have been the most intense build-up of religious ideas and organizations in US history. "The Millerites proclaimed that the world was coming the end. Emanuel Swedenborg announced that he had communicated directly with God. Ann Lee's Shakers renounced sex and marriage, and formed a nearby settlement. Jamima Wilkinson, ruling by revelation, built her colony of Jerusalem. John Humphrey Noyes started the Oneida Community. The Fox sisters, claiming to have communicated with the dead, founded the modern spiritualist movement. All of this occurred in Western New York between, roughly, 1825 and 1850."

Kephart goes on to mention that out of all this also emerged the Mormons, founded by Joseph Smith in 1830. Due to persecution the Mormons moved from New York, to Ohio, and then Missouri, and then Illinois. They encountered severe harrassment in each state and in Illinois Joseph Smith was shot and killed. A new leader, Brigham Young, emerged and led them west past the Rockies, to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, where they settled, and which became their base for spreading around the world.

But religious groups weren't the only new communities being built. Robert Owens, an English 'utopian socialist', who had already tried a few experiments in socialism in Scotland, founded one of the first utopian communities in New Harmony, Indiana in 1825. As I mentioned above, he and William MacLure bought the village from the Harmony Society. It was a spectacular failure. A.J. Macdonald, writing in the 1840s, said, "Mr. Owen said that he wanted honesty of purpose, and he got dishonesty. He wanted temperance, and instead, he was continually troubled with the intemperate. He wanted industry, and he found idleness..." Peyton Richter points out that in spite of this, many of New Harmony's educational reforms were influential in American society.

In 1841, Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane tried a similar, but even less well thought out, experiment in community in Harvard, Massachusetts. Called Fruitlands, it lasted less than eight months. Alcott's daughter, writer Louisa May Alcott, wrote that "...the failure of an ideal, no matter how humane and noble, is harder for the world to forgive and forget than bank robbery or the grand swindles of corrupt politicians."

That same year, several miles away in West Roxbury, a Unitarian minister founded the Brooks Farm Institute. It began as a religious community, based on ideas from Unitarianism and Transcendentalism, but in 1845 it was transformed into a Phalanx (a utopian socialist community derived from the ideas of Charles Fourier). Unfortunately, in 1846, the unfinished main building caught fire and was destroyed. The community fell apart not too long after. Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the members of the community, later wrote a novel, The Blithedale Romance, based on his experiences there.

A group of communities were founded on the principles in the book, Voyage to Icaria, written by French utopian socialist √Čtienne Cabet. The first attempt, by a group that read the book, was in Texas in 1848 and it lasted only three months. The second was by Cabet himself in Nauvoo, Illinois (a city founded by the Mormons), and it lasted eleven years, although the members threw Cabet out midway through. A third community, in Cheltenham, Missouri, lasted six years, and a fourth Icarian community, founded in 1852 in Corning, Iowa, made it through storm and schism until 1898 (although much of the younger members left in 1878 and eventually founded a California community called Icaria Speranza, which existed from 1881 to 1886). One of the key principles in the book was the idea of "to each according to his [sic] need, from each according to his capacity". Cabet described his social movement as 'communism'.

As mentioned above, John Humphrey Noyes began the Oneida Community in the middle of New York state, in 1847. (That was the year Brook Farm collapsed, and Richter claims that Noyes saw Oneida as "a transmigration of Brook Farm".) Noyes had begun a religious and economic communal experiment in sharing (which came to be called 'Bible Communism') in Putney, Vermont. The town was a lot more conservative in 1847 than it is today and when it apparent that the 'Perfectionists' (as Noyes called his brand of religion) were sharing spouses as well as material goods, Noyes was arrested for adultery. He was released on bail and left for New York with his followers. At Oneida, the community thrived. They never had trouble finding members and had a steady stream of visitors (according to one account, on a day in July, 1863, there were "between fifteen hundred and two thousand" visitors). The community lasted until 1881--although it began falling apart in the 1870s. They practiced 'economic communism', 'Multiple Marriage' (also known as 'Complex Marriage'), and 'Mutual Criticism', and by many accounts, were one of the most happy and prosperous communities of the nineteenth century.

Also in 1847, a community was formed in Ohio by Josiah Warren, who had lived in New Harmony but rejected Owen's cooperative vision in favor of an individualist anarchist philosophy he called 'Mutualism'. The name of the new community was actually called "Utopia". It lasted through the 1860s.

Warren founded a second community on Long Island, New York, called "Modern Times" in 1851. This community also fell apart in the 1860s--apparently the Civil War was a factor in the dissolution of both communities.

Another religious community, Amana, was a group of communal villages in Iowa, founded in 1855 by a German religious group called the Community of True Inspiration, which had tried a similar experiment, called Ebenezer, in western New York state from 1843 to 1854. The community was able to retain a communal structure until 1932 and the Amana church continues to today. (Incidentally, although the Oneida community dissolved, their silverware business continues on, and, similarly, one of the businesses of the Amana community continued, and is now a division of Whirlpool.)

Finally, in 1895 an anarchist community was formed in Washington state, called Home Colony. It lasted twenty-four years. Emma Goldman and Marxist union organizer William Foster were frequent visitors. Home to "anarchists, communists, food faddists, freethinkers, nudists, and others...", legal problems, internal disagreements, and the conservative atmosphere of the early twentieth century led to its downfall.

As usual, I don't have the space to detail much about any of these groups or communities. For those wanting more information, Kephart's and Richter's books (and the articles on Wikipedia) give a lot more details. I just want to make it clear that intentional communities are not a twentieth century phenomena, and that a lot more happened in the nineteenth century than the Civil War and Robber Barons. The expansion of the United States (see my post of 1/17/09) might not have been a good thing for the Native Americans but it gave room for all sorts of groups to emerge. As should be clear in the stories above, many of these groups solved their problems with unfriendly neighbors by moving west. Maybe the true downfall of the Home Colony was that by the twentieth century, there was nowhere further west to move to. (They were on the Puget Sound--the only thing west of them was the ocean.)

Quote of the Day: "The one form of alternative family that has been acknowledged by historians--possibly because it's too obvious to ignore--has been the utopian community of the nineteenth century." - Karen Lindsey

William M. Kephart, Extraordinary Groups
Karen Lindsey, Friends as Family
Peyton E. Richter, UTOPIAS: Social Ideals and Communal Experiments
Wikipedia, many articles (especially the ones on Commune (intentional community) and List of anarchist communities, as well as articles on the individual communities and the individuals involved with them )

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

USH6: An Uncivil War

The objections to slavery in this country go a long way back. The abolutionist movement in the United States had its start with a society that was formed mainly by Quakers of Philadelphia in 1775. That same year, Thomas Paine wrote an article on "African Slavery in America", which advocated freeing the slaves and abolishing slavery. By 1790, the Pennsylvania Quakers and Benjamin Franklin, who disagreed with them on most matters of war and state, were petitioning Congress together to end slavery.

As I mentioned in my last posts, one of the ongoing tensions as the US expanded was the issue of slave states vs. free states. The war with Mexico was seen by abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and James Russell Lowell, as well as iconoclast Henry David Thoreau, as a ploy to extend and spread slavery.

But it wasn't just the abolitionists that opposed slavery. The slaves themselves didn't like it much. Resistance to slavery took the forms of revolting and running away.

There were numerous slave uprisings: a thousand slaves attempted an assault on Richmond, VA, in 1800; 400-500 slaves revolted in New Orleans in 1811; and hundreds of blacks were involved in a plot to burn the city of Charleston, SC, in 1822 (details aren't clear on this one because court records were destroyed, lest other slaves get ideas). The most famous of the slave uprisings was in 1831 when Nat Turner and seventy other slaves went on a rampage in Southampton, VA, killing fifty-five white folks--men, women, and children--and sending fear throughout the South.

As far as running off, one of the main avenues for the slaves to escape was the Underground Railroad, a network of houses (known as 'stations') willing to hide runaway slaves and people who led them from house to house by night (known as 'conductors). The most famous of the conductors was Harriet Tubman, who escorted over 300 slaves north to freedom. Slavery was fought by the abolitionists of the north and those slaves who could get free in the south, but the southern slave holders weren't about to give it up.

When California requested admission to the US in 1849 (as a free state) it set off a chain of events that culminated in the 'Compromise of 1850', a series of bills which admitted California, made provisions for Texas, New Mexico, and Utah, and contained the 'Fugitive Slave Act'--an act that offered federal help in retrieving slaves. This last act infuriated the abolitionists. Now no escaped slave was ever safe. Several attempts by federal marshalls to recapture slaves were thwarted by mobs that overwhelmed the marshalls or broke into prisons and helped the ex-slaves make it to Canada. The southern states were outraged by this, but Canada refused to return the slaves.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, was inspired by the indignities of the Fugitive Slave Act. This novel, filled with descriptions of the horrors of slavery, had an influence almost as big as Thomas Paine's Common Sense. It galvanized and polarized the nation. Lincoln reportedly credited Harriet Beecher Stowe with some responsibility for starting the Civil War.

Another major step to the war was the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court in 1857, which basically said that slaves had no rights at all, they were just a piece of property belonging to the slaveowner. This further upset the anti-slavery people in the North, and made them determined to end slavery. On the other hand, when John Brown, a militant (and some would say fanatic) abolitionist and fifteen others, white and black, attacked and occupied the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, VA, with the intention of starting an uprising of the slaves, it inspired fear throughout the South. And when northerners expressed grudging admiration for the audacity of the scheme, southerners felt there was no place for them in the Union.

The last straw was the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Scared that he and the Republican party would make them free the slaves, and that the banks of the North, who dictated the prices of the crops of the South, could force plantation owners into a situation where they would be the slaves, several southern states, beginning with South Carolina, announced they would secede from the Union. The Civil War had begun.

It lasted four years, from April, 1861, to April, 1865. Over 600,000 soldiers died in the war. In fact more soldiers died in some of the battles than were killed in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined. Generals that worked together to battle the Mexicans in the last war were now leading the attacks against each other. It tore the country apart. Ironically, just over a week after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, President Lincoln was assassinated while watching a play at Ford's theatre.

Lincoln is touted as a 'great man' and it appears that he had some pretty good qualities, but reading the historical record makes it clear that he didn't free the slaves until it was politically expedient. In fact, in one of this election speeches he claimed that "...I am not... in favor of ... the social and political equality of the white and black races..."

Political expediency also defined the period after the war and Lincoln's assassination, an era called Reconstruction. Yes, black people made progress during this time. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, abolished slavery, promoted racial equality, and gave black men the right to vote. And they not only voted, they ran for office, getting elected to state legislatures, as well as Congress. But often, it seemed, the intent of some of the reforms was less to advance equality and more to punish the South and to assert the political superiority of the northern states.

A couple of terms that I heard of before but didn't know what they meant: 'Carpetbaggers' were northern whites who went south and ran for office, using black votes to get in office; and 'Scalawags' were white, southern-born Republicans, viewed as traitors to their region and race. And, unfortunately, black political power was short-lived. Although there were two black US senators and twenty black representatives in the 1870s, by 1902, they were all gone.

Howard Zinn talks about what he calls 'The Other Civil War' that was also going on at the time, class struggles of the nineteenth century that are left out of most history books: the 'Anti-Renter' movement in New York state during the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s; the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island in the 1840s which struggled against state laws that said only land owners could vote; early attempts to build trade unions; the Riot of 1835 in Baltimore when the Bank of Maryland collapses and depositers felt fraud had taken place; the New York City Flour Riot of 1837; strikes by women mill workers; the shoeworkers strike of 1860 that started in Lynn, MA, and spread throughout New England; strikes that occurred throughout the Civil War period, including one spate of labor uprisings that a newspaper of the times referred to as "The Revolution in New York". Union troops were used for strike breaking. They were also used (fresh from the battle at Gettysburg) to quell an anti-recruiting riot in New York City in 1863 that may have led to as many as four hundred people being killed, many of them black (this was a riot by poor and working-class whites against both the rich and against black folks who they thought were taking their jobs). There is a lot more but I've already written a lot more than I intended to. Read A People's History of the United States for more detail.

Quote of the Day: "...though we are not white, we have accomplished much. We have pioneered civilization here; we have built up your country; we have worked in your fields, and garnered your harvests, for two hundred and fifty years! And what do we ask of you in return? ... we ask you now for our RIGHTS...." - Henry MacNeal Turner

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Staughton Lynd, Nonviolence in America
Wikipedia, various articles (mainly one on Abolitionism )
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

Saturday, January 17, 2009

USH5: The Nation Grows

Kenneth Davis points out that the time between George Washington's inauguration in 1789 and Abraham Lincoln's inauguration in 1861 was "only seventy-two years"--basically the time between 1937 (the year of the Hindenburg disaster) and now, but in that time the United States went from thirteen small states to a nation that spanned the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. And all that land was stolen from the native people.

It began with the Louisiana Purchase, in 1803, when France sold the US the lands that they claimed to own for fifteen million dollars (which, as Davis points out, comes to about four cents an acre). President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, along with forty others, to explore this new land--and with help from a French-Canadian fur trapper, Toussaint Charbonneau, and his 'wife' Sacagawea (actually a Shoshone woman he purchased from a rival tribe that had taken her captive), they made it all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back (with Sacagawea providing proof of their "friendly intentions" to any Indians that they encountered.)

As the US government began taking the land from the Indians, some of the Indians began fighting back. A Shawnee chief named Tecumseh began organizing an Indian confederation to oppose the expansion of the whites. Unfortunately, his brother, Tenskwatawa (aka 'The Prophet') ordered an attack, in 1811, on US troops stationed near the gathering place of the Indian warriors near the Tippecanoe River, which led to their defeat by General (later President) William Henry Harrison. (Reportedly, when Tecumseh met with Harrison he was told that "Your father requests you to take a chair." Tecumseh responded to the condescending demand by saying, "My father! The sun is my father, and the earth is my mother; I will repose upon her bosom.")

Bizarrely, land-greedy congressmen decided that Tecumseh's uprising was a British plot. That plus the fact that the English were taking Americans from ships and 'impressing' them into the Royal Navy to fight the French, led to the War of 1812, which began with an unsuccessful US attempt to invade Canada. The whole thing was pretty much a stalemate--the Americans losing many of the land battles but winning much of the naval conflicts. The US captured and burned many buildings in what is now Toronto and the British, in retaliation, marched in to Washington, DC, and torched the White House and the Capitol building. The biggest US victory, the Battle of New Orleans, occurred after the war was over (but unfortunately, with the slow communications of the day, neither side knew it).

In 1818, Andrew Jackson (whose battles with the Indians earned him the native nickname of Long Knife) began conducting raids into Florida, harrassing both the Seminole Indians (burning their villages) and the Spanish (seizing their forts). By 1819, the Spanish were sick of it and sold their Florida territory to the US. Jackson then became the territory's governor.

The US was growing, and tensions within it grew as well. The issue of slavery and the political power of the 'Free States' versus the 'Slave States' was one of the divisive issues (more on that in my next post). The political power of these states came to a head with the Missouri Compromise of 1820--a decision that Missouri could be a 'Slave State' but nothing else north of its southern border could. On the other hand, the power of the US government (and the beginning of the American Empire) grew with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, a speech given by President James Monroe, but largely written by then Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, in which the US declared it wouldn't tolerate European interference with governments in the western hemisphere. It began as an isolationist statement, but eventually became a rationale for our own interference with the governments of the western hemisphere.

As the US kept growing, it kept moving the native people to new locations and taking their land, breaking treaty after treaty. The government decided to name this the Indian 'Removal' bill. One of the worst examples of this was when the Cherokee were forced out of Georgia in 1838 and made to march all the way to Oklahoma. Four thousand of them died along the way; this became known as the Trail of Tears.

Meanwhile, we were invading Mexican territory. Americans had been invited to settle in the Mexican territory of Texas, but when they tried to secede in 1836, Mexican President Santa Anna led his troops into Texas and cornered the Americans in a mission in San Antonio called the Alamo. They held out and the Mexicans slaughtered them. Santa Anna also slew hundreds more in a town called Goliad, but Texans attacked the Mexican army while they were taking a siesta, and screaming "Remember the Alamo" killed or captured hundreds of the Mexicans. One of their captives was Santa Anna. The Texans declared themselves a republic and petitioned to join the US.

In 1846, President James Polk provoked a war with Mexico to solidify our claims to Texas and extend its borders. When the war was over, in 1848, the US had won 500,000 sq miles of territory from the Mexican government, lands that stretched from Texas to California. We now spanned the continent from coast to coast.

Two famous quotes from the time were mentioned in both Davis's and Zinn's books. The first was from journalist John O'Sullivan, who in 1845 wrote that it was "...our manifest destiny to overspread the continent..." Unfortunately, this was adopted by other publications, and 'manifest destiny' practically became an American credo. The other quote was from a newspaper which claimed in 1848, when we paid Mexico $15 million for the lands we drove them out of, "We take nothing by conquest...Thank God."

(I see eerie parallels with the recent Israeli campaign against the Palestinians in Gaza--and with their whole attitude toward Palestine in general. "We want your land; get out or we'll kill you." It worked for us, now it's working for them. It's horrible.)

Quote of the Day: "Indians are not deceitful. The white men speak bad of the Indian and look at him spitefully. But the Indian does not tell lies. Indians do not steal.
"An Indian who is as bad as the white man could not live in our nation... The white men do not scalp the head; but they do worse--they poison the heart..." - Chief Black Hawk

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Wikipedia, various articles (in particular one on the Lewis and Clark Expedition and one on Sacagawea.)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

USH4: Founding a Nation

So, why did the colonists revolt anyway? Once they learned how to live in the new land, things should have been a lot better. Sure there were those pesky Indians to wipe out (see my last post), but by and large (according to what I thought I learned) things were pretty stable.

Most sources date the source of the American Revolution to the English victory against the French in 1763. In this country the war was called the French and Indian War (not because the French were fighting the Indians but because the English and the colonist were fighting both); in Europe, it was known as the Seven Years War. The end result was that English now controlled all of North America east of the Mississippi valley.

But all was not happy and prosperous for the colonists. It was not only blacks that were serving their white masters (again, last post) but by white indentured servants--poor whites who agreed to pay the cost of their voyage by being a servant for five to seven years. In fact, well over fifty percent of the colonists came as servants. Even when the servants were freed, they often remained poor. As one author put it: "Class lines hardened during the colonial period..." In New England had small and poor 'yeoman' farmers and wealthy merchants. For the middle Atlantic colonies, "Large farmers and merchants became wealthy, while farmers with smaller farms and artisans only made enough for subsistence. The Mid-Atlantic region, by 1750, was divided by both ethnic background and wealth." And "The Southern Colonies were mainly dominated by the wealthy slave-owning planters in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. ... Planters used their wealth to dominate the local tenants and yeoman farmers."(These quotes are from Wikipedia.) All was certainly not happy and prosperous in the colonies. As Howard Zinn states: " 1760, there had been eighteen uprisings aimed at overthrowing colonial governments. There had also been six black rebellions from South Carolina to New York, and forty riots of various origins." Not happy and prosperous by a long shot.

The English victory over the French actually made things worse. In order to finance the costs of the war as well as the overall defense and administration of the colonies, the British government enacted a series of taxes, beginning with the Sugar Act of 1764. The response from the colonists was outrage and the declaration of "No taxation without representation." Here in the Boston area, two different groups were upset. Colonial leaders, such as James Otis, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock, were looking to gain power at the expense of the British. Meanwhile, the 'lower classes' were very upset, besieging town meetings (a quote from the governor of Massachusetts at the time: "the meanest Inhabitants... by their constant Attendance there generally are the majority and outvote the Gentlemen, Merchants, Substantial Traders and all the better part of the Inhabitants.") and having all sorts of grievances against the wealthy. The Boston leaders (now calling themselves 'The Sons of Liberty') worked on redirecting this class fury toward the British. The Boston Massacre of 1770 provided the opportunity. To keep things going, a protest was devised in 1773 against the East India Tea Company. This became the famous Boston Tea Party. The British responded with what became known as the 'Intolerable Acts', to which the colonists responded by holding a 'Continental Congress' which stood up for the rights of the colonists. The situation was a powder keg waiting for a match. The Sons of Liberty were watching for the British to try something. When troops of Redcoats marched in April of 1775 to Concord, Massachusetts, to seize "a rebel arsenal" they were met by Minutemen (a local militia trained to respond on "a minute's notice") in Lexington and in the confrontation shots were fired, leading to the deaths of eight of the Minutemen. The Redcoats continued to Concord but the colonists began using guerrilla tactics (sniping from behind barns and stone walls) and by the end of the day the British had lost seventy-three soldiers. The Revolutionary War had begun.

A second Continental Congress, in May of that year, declared their intention to separate from the British. The next year, 1776, brought two stirring documents crying out for independence, liberty, and even egalitarianism. The first was Thomas Paine's pamphlet, Common Sense, published in January, which not only declared that "Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation..." but actually states that "...Government even in its best state is but a necessary evil..." It was a widely read and compelling argument for independence, but it upset men like John Adams who saw it as too "democratical". In July, the Continental Congress published the Declaration of Independence which declares that "...all men are created equal..." Unfortunately, it also declares that the native people are "merciless Indian Savages".

By 1781 the war was effectively over and in 1783, Britain signed a peace treaty with the new government. But what was this government? The Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, combined the various states into a "into a loose confederation." It turned out to be a government nobody liked, but there was a major disagreement about what was wrong with it. The more well-to-do felt the state governments were too lenient with taxpayers and those in debt, while 'ordinary citizens', farmers in particular, felt the burdens of debt and taxation too demanding. The most famous of the rebellions that followed was the so-called Shays's Rebellion. There had already been rebellions in several towns in Massachusetts, as well as Rhode Island and New Hampshire, but when Daniel Shays marched from western Massachusetts to Boston with a thousand armed men, the troops were called out.

In 1787, there was a convention in Philadelphia to create a new plan of government and revise the Articles of Confederation. One historian (James McGregor Burns) described the delegates as "the well-bred, the well-fed, the well-read, and the well-wed." Another (David Beard) pointed out that the majority of them were lawyers and most of them were quite wealthy. Alexander Hamilton, one of the more conservative delegates, claimed that the problem they were facing was "an excess of democracy", and James Madison stated that the "evils which... produced this convention" amounted to "Interferences" with "the security of private rights..." Woody Holton, in his book Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, points out that most of the wonderful things we like about the Constitution are really either taken from the Articles of Confederation or, more likely, in the Bill of Rights, which the Framers of the Constitution passed, against their wishes, in order to secure passage of the Constitution. The Founding Fathers appeared to have wanted the Constitution to make sure that their wealth wasn't too threatened.

Incidentally, even that Bill of Rights wasn't that useful. The First Amendment, providing freedom of speech and the press, was soon negated by the Sedition Act of 1798 (passed by John Adams administration).

To keep this post within bounds, I will wind up here. The Founders of the US were hardly the enlightened souls they are made out to be. (Some things I found out in my research make George Washington appear to be an embezzler and Abigail Adams out to be a securities speculator. Who knew?) What is clear is that this country was not founded with the poor or working class in mind, just as it wasn't founded with any thought for the native people or the slaves taken from Africa. And with the exception of wealthy women, such as Abigail Adams (and she had to fight to be remembered), women were more or less excluded as well. (Charles Beard noted that four groups "were not represented at the Constitutional Convention: slaves, endentured servants, women, men without property. And so the Constitution did not reflect the interests of those groups.") This was a government created by and for well-to-do white men.

Quote of the Day: "In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited powers into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could." - Abigail Adams

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution
Russ Kirk, 50 Things You're Not Supposed to Know 2
Wikipedia, various articles (in particular one on the American Revolution and one on Colonial history of the United States)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

Friday, January 9, 2009

USH3: Finding a New World

A lot of American History textbooks begin with the stupid question of 'Who Discovered America?'

I'll give you a clue: it wasn't Christopher Columbus, or Leif Erikson or lost Irish voyager. As Kenneth Davis puts it: "The true 'discoverers' of America were the people whose culture and societies were well established here while Europe was still in the Dark Ages, the so-called Indians."

Columbus, for example, was met by members of the Arawak tribe when he first landed in the 'New World' (on the one of Bahama Islands). They brought him gifts. He wrote: "They would make fine servants..." He took some of them prisoners and sailed off to more islands (Cuba, Hispaniola) where he took more prisoners--all the while searching for gold, which he was led to in the rivers of Hispainola. He was amazed by their willingness to share whatever they had and told the court in Madrid they could have " much gold as they need... and as many slaves as they ask." In fact, the ongoing enslavement of the native peoples is one of the dirty little secrets of American history.

The colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth and other places carried out what amounts to a genocidal war against the natives without whom they would have never survived their first years in the new world. Yes, there were atrocities by the Indians, but there is no doubt that the settlers went after them with a vengence. Estimates are that there were 10 million Indians living "north of Mexico when Columbus came"--over time that would be reduced to less than a million, an eradication rate of 90%.

One exception to this was William Penn and the Quakers who believed in and respected the rights of the Indians. Before he even came to the new world, he sent them a letter offering them justice and friendship, and he signed it, "I am your loving friend, William Penn." The Quakers apparently kept peace with the Indians and when warfare did break out between the local colonists and the nearby tribes in the mid1700s, Quaker families were spared.

Slavery of the Africans also started during this period. Apparently the Portuguese took slaves from Africa a good fifty years before Columbus came to the Bahamas. In 1619, the first slaves arrived at Jamestown.

This was how it all began. Studying early American history quickly makes it clear that whatever oppression the colonists were fleeing from, the colonization of America was for the benefit of the Europeans and the Europeans only.

Quote of the Day: "Why will you take by force what you may have quietly by love? Why will you destroy us who supply you with food? What can you get by war?..." - Powhatan

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Russ Kirk, 50 Things You're Not Supposed to Know 2
Staughton Lynd, Nonviolence in America
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

Monday, January 5, 2009

USH 2: What I thought I knew...

I knew a little bit about US history before I started doing this research. Or at least I thought I did.

I thought that the founding of the United States was by idealists who had good ideas but conveniently ignored that the continent was already occupied. Don't get me wrong, I didn't think the 'Founding Fathers' were saints, but I felt their motivations were good ("All men are created equal"), if clouded by sexism and racism.

I didn't know of much that happened around then, other than the pilgrims, the colonists, and the revolutionary war--and, other than a bunch of presidents, the next big event was the civil war. Well, there was the war of 1812, but that seemed like a rematch/rehash of the revolutionary war. I heard about Shay's Rebellion but couldn't have said what it was. I knew about the Monroe Doctrine and what it was, but had no idea of the historical context.

The Civil War was followed by reconstruction and Jim Crow and then we were into the Twentieth Century and World War I. (I think I thought of a lot of history as a series of wars--at least, it seems like that was what I was taught.)

World War I had spawned the Roaring Twenties--a decade that included freethinkers and expatriot writers. The wild economic scene led to the Great Depression, which brought a lot of union organizing in the Thirties--this and the Sixties were the most radical of the decades in the US. The Forties was dominated by World War II.

The Fifties were a complex decade--on the surface, the calm, controlled Eisenhower years--but
underneath there was massive unease, from the rejection of all this by the 'Beat Generation' to the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. Most of all, this was the decade when McCarthyism and anti-communist hysteria trounced the Left in this country. By the beginnings of the Sixties people were afraid to have any radical leanings for fear that they would be denounced as "Communists". It was in this vacuum that the student movements of the Sixties were born.

There's a number of pieces in my head that don't fit into this history: Emma Goldman, Sacco and Vanzetti, and the various socialist and anarchist organizers in the early parts of the century; the Russian Revolution and its impact on the United States; and the Spanish Civil War and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

I am well aware that this is an oversimplified view of history. I will be researching the founding of the US, the history of the eighteen and nineteen centuries, the social movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as political and economic currents in recent American history in order to understand how we got to our current situation. While I'm not totally clear about all the historical alleyways I may explore, I plan to move along, roughly chronologically, but often moving back and forth to look at economics, electoral politics, and social movements as I make my way to the midtwentieth century, and at that point focus on how we got to the 'Sixties', how we got from the sixties to the eighties, and how we got from the eighties to today--and what this all means for where we go from here.

I'll begin with the founding of the nation.

Quote of the Day: "History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are." - David McCullough

Thursday, January 1, 2009

US History 1: Why?

For folks following this blog, what I am about to do may seem an abrupt change of direction. I claim to be 'Offering Some Tools for Creating a World that Works for Everyone'. So why am I now devoting months to looking at the history of the United States?

It started when I decided to pursue a question that I'd been asking myself for a while: What happened in the 1980s? I was a child of the 60s and saw that as a time when social change became the theme of American life. I also saw the '70s as a time of turning inward, of learning about ourselves and personal growth, as well as a time of spawning new movements (the women's movement, gay liberation, the ecology movement, the 'no nukes' movement). So I thought that the eighties would be the 'We Decade'--a time when we merged the personal and the political, the outer and the inner. Instead the '80s became more of a 'Me Decade' than the seventies ever were. Affluence was the order of the day and suddenly high technology was everywhere. Even technologies that had been around forever (like cable TV which was developed in the 1950s) suddenly became unbelievably popular--not to mention personal computers, CDs, VCRs, answering machines, etc, etc. The decade began with the election of Ronald Reagan and went downhill from there. (The music was great, though.) So what the heck happened?

I started studying the history of the 1960s and 1970s looking for clues. Then I went back to the 1950s and McCarthyism. Then to the 1930s and labor activism. Then it was the Roaring Twenties. I thought I could confine it to a history of the twentieth century but there was this progressive activism by farmers in the 1890s. Then I started learning about alternate views of the founding of the US. I decided to stop there while I could--before this turned into a blog on the history of the world and I'd have to devote the rest of my life to it.

My intention is to use the next quarter of a year (until spring, basically) to analyze US history to see what we can learn from it that will help those of us in this country (as well as others in the world who, given the dominance of the American empire, worry about what the US will do next) to learn where things came from, and maybe give some clues as to where it may be possible to go next.

I was going to use a lot of references (footnote like things) but decided that they are too distracting and unnecessary. If you want to find out my source for a piece of information, email me. For the first couple of posts I can send you my original version with the reference marks left in. I am putting a list of the references that I used at the end of each post.

I am also playing with my 'Quotes of the Day'. Some of them may be historical quotes and others may be song lyrics that I like and/or think are appropriate. A few may be from something else. At this point I have only a vague idea of where things may go, so I will be learning as I am sharing. And, unfortunately, given the amount of work these posts require, I am going to be publishing a new post once every four days--not once every three days as I said previously.

Quote of the Day: "But you who dream of liberty must not yourselves be fooled, Before you get to plea for freedom, you have agreed to being ruled, And if the body stays a shackle then the mind remains a chain..." - Ferron