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The Rise of the Billionaires Leaves the Middle Class Stranded

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Friday, February 12, 2010

FAMOUS AMOS

I contend that, politically speaking, Amos Kendall was one of our founding fathers. The fact that he was born a generation too late to experience the revolution is irrelevant. This child of poor parents from Massachusetts, by dint of his intellectual brawn and his drive to succeed, reshaped the political landscape in America and created the Democratic Party in his own image. He is mostly forgotten today in part because for the next hundred years, his sins became the Democratic Party’s sins. He was a partisan in the extreme and his politics were always personal. He never forgot and he never forgave. He served two presidents, and one of his enemies, President John Quincy Adams, said that those two chief executives were merely, “…the tools of Amos Kendall, the ruling mind of their dominion.”
Amos was tall, thin, asthmatic and prematurely white haired. He was also a puritanical workaholic and a hypochondriac with such a talent for venom that he carried a pistol for protection; although he was so nearsighted it is unlikely he could have hit anything. In the election of 1828 it was Amos’s talent for invective which made Andrew Jackson President.
Amos, working under the guiding hand of campaign manager Martin Van Buren, eviscerated the incumbent, John Quincy Adams (above), day after day on the pages of his newspaper, “The Argus of Western America.” According to Amos, Adams was effete and too European. (Sound familiar?) Adams had permitted the rape of an American servant girl by the Russian Czar (a complete fabrication). He was living lavishly while average Americans suffered (an exaggeration). Adams had even, charged Amos, brought gambling into the White House. (Adams had bought a pool table and a chess set). Thanks in large part to Amos’ constant attacks, Jackson easily won the election. And when Jackson moved into the White House, Amos came with him.
Officially, Amos was given a vague job in the Treasury Department. But it was just a cover for his real career in Washington. According to Virginia Whig Henry Wise, Amos was…”the President’s thinking machine and writing machine and his lying machine… Nothing was well done without him”. English journalist Harriet Martubeau, while visiting the United States in 1834, noted, “I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the invincible Amos Kendall, one of the most remarkable men in America. He is supposed to be the moving spring of the administration; the thinker, planner, and doer, but it is all in the dark.” And Virginia Democrat Colonel Augustine Clairborn described Amos as a “…little whippet of a man” who was “...the Atlas that bore on his shoulders the weight of Jackson's administration. He originated, or was consulted in advance, upon every great measure.”
Before Jackson (above), a President would look to his cabinet for advice. But cabinet members had to be approved by the Senate, and often saw themselves as the President’s future competitors. And Jackson did not intend on letting his opponents or his competitors give him advice. This produced a situation in which, wrote Nicholas Biddle, “The kitchen predominates over the parlor”. There was bitterness in that description, since Jackson and Amos were intent upon dismantling the Bank of the United States and firing its president, who was Mr. Biddle. And they succeeded. But, whatever the spirit, Amos was a member of the original “Kitchen Cabinet”, “the common reservoir of all the petty slanders which find a place in the most degraded prints in the Union”, according to Mississippi Whig George Poindexter.
During Jackson’s second term Amos was appointed the Postmaster General, and proceeded to empty the bureaucracy of every Wig sympathizer, replacing them with reliable Democrats. And every Wig contractor had their mail contracts cancelled, unless they hired only Democrats (duplicated in Republican Tom Delay's 2000-2004 K Street Project). Amos had thus created the “Spoils System”. This politicizing of entire departments of government was justified by New York Democratic Senator William Learned Macy, this way; “If (a politician is) defeated, they expect to retire from office. If they are successful, they claim, as a matter of right, the advantages of success. They see nothing wrong in the rule that to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.” The President himself argued, “In a country where offices are created solely for the benefit of the people, no one man has any more intrinsic right to official station than another.” The speaker was Andrew Jackson, who innocuously described this conversion of government into plunder merely as the “rotation in office”. But the brain behind the argument was Amos Kendall.
It was Amos who ran Martin Van Buren’s (above) successful Presidential campaign in 1836. And when the “Little Magician” took the oath of office in March of 1837, it looked as if the Democrats would rule Washington permanently. But the destruction of the Bank of the United States came back to bite the Jackson Democrats.
During the first three weeks of April 1837, 150 businesses failed in New York City, wiping out $100 million in wealth. By the end of that summer unemployment nationwide had topped 10%, and mobs were raiding food warehouses. Van Buren’s only response to the “Panic of 1837” was to cut government expenditures, so tightly that they even sold the tools used to construct roads and bridges. As Republicans today might note, this action only deepened the depression, and insured that in 1840 the Whigs elected William Henry Harrison President.
Amos tried to go back to running newspapers. But the economic depression inspired at least in part by the Democratic economic policies, had become too deep. His publishing ventures failed. Then in 1845 Amos became Samuel F. B. Morse’s business manager. He helped Morse create and run the International Telegraph Company (it would later become International Telephone and Telegraph). This venture finally made Amos a wealthy man. He retired in 1860.
While Amos had been running the Post Office, he had decreed that local postmasters could refused any mail which they deemed to be either abolitionist or proslavery. That was a purely political decision, made because the Democrats in the 1830’s were pursuing a “Southern Strategy”, which sought to shore up their base of support in the South. The postmaster's decision was just one of the myriad of compromises which brought on the American Civil War, and certainly not the most important one. Still, it must be counted against Amos that while he never owned slaves, he did nothing to encourage slavery’s demise, when he had the chance. It is to Amos’s credit that, when the war finally came, he publically supported the Union cause, which, for a Democrat who was unending in his criticism of the Lincoln administration, was not an easy thing to do.
The amazing Amos Kendall died on November 12, 1869, at sixty years of age. An obituary writer tried to explain his extraordinary career by listing his fields of endeavor. Amos had been “a newspaper editor, party organizer, political propagandist, postmaster general, telegraph builder, and promoter of language for the deaf.” Amos had helped found, and had left most of his fortune to Gallaudet University, the unofficial national school for the deaf. And that is to his credit as well. But the Democratic Party that he founded has changed so much in the last 150 years, as to be all but unrecognizable. Still, he was a midwife at the birth, and that deserves to figured toward his credit, as well.
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

FOOD FIGHT

I can’t help feeling a little sorry for Merzifonly Kara Mustafa Pasa (above). He looks so sad in his portrait. He comes down in history as despised for his petty meanness and infamous for his avariciousness. But the truth may be that his greatest sin historically was having been born with the perfect skills to be a second in command. He was a brilliant organizer. His attention to detail and precision was legendary. He could calculate a bribe as quick as greased lightening. But what he needed was a firm will to make the right decisions. Unfortunately, his Sultan, Mehmed IV, had an ambition for war but found he didn’t like living in a tent. So in 1683 he went home from the war early. And that left Kara Mustafa alone at the top, a Grand Vizier with no limits on his fastidious obsession with detail, with profit, nor on his blind faith in violence as a negotiating position.
Sultan Mehmed IV (above) was always trying to convince people that he was who his titles said he was. He made his first entrance into history as an infant when his father, in a fit if temper, threw his baby son down a toilet. The servants rescued the boy, but Mehmed bore the scar from that experience, physically on his forehead (ala Harry Potter), and figuratively on his ego, his entire life. Instead of a cold simple diplomatic declaration of war - or more practically, a disarming surprise attack - on March 31st, 1683 Mehmed sent Austrian Hapsburg King Leopold I a letter dripping with adolescent bravado.
Mehmed IV informed Leopold (above), “…We will destroy your little country with our Army… Above all WE order you, to wait for us in your city…so WE can behead you…We will exterminate you and all of your followers, as you are the lowest creatures of God, as all unbelievers are, and erase you from the face of the earth. WE will expose the big and little to gruesome pains first and than give them to a vicious death. Your little Empire, I will take from you and its entire population I will sweep off the earth.”
In the realm of braggadocio Mehmed IV letter has to rank right up there with George Bush’s 2004 invitation to the Iraqi resistance to “Bring it on.” Still, it wasn’t as if either side needed a reason for this new war. The Christians and the Muslems had been butchering each other in the Balkans for 300 years, since the fall of Constantinople. In the first century of these wars Vlad the Impaler (Christian) made his reputation having 20,000 Ottoman P.O.W’s impaled on stakes. And then he had lunch. Things just got worse from there. As Andrew Wheatcroft explains in his recent book, “The Enemy at the Gate”, “Many of the horror stories of these wars are true: the massacres and the atrocities, the endless lines of newly enslaved Hungarians in Sarajevo on their road of tears to Istanbul….The Hapsburg armies also flailed men alive, impaled prisoners, took slaves, raped captives. Savagery was a weapon of war used by both sides.” This was ethnic cleansing practiced by experts.
During the winter of 1682-83 Kara Mustafa prepared the way to war. He oversaw the building and repairing of roads and bridges up to the border between Austria and Ottoman Hungry. Supply depots were established for ammunition and food. And then, in early May of 1683, an Ottoman army of 150,000 men under the direct command of Mehmed IV marched easily from Istanbul to Belgrade, just 300 miles from Vienna.
But after reaching the border between war and peace the Sultan handed over command to Kara Mustafa and returned to his hunting parties in Istanbul. And from this moment things started to go wrong with the expediction.
A month later, now under Kara Mustafa’s command, an advance guard of 40,000 Tartar cavalry reached the outskirts of Vienna. Remembering the note from Mehmed, King Leopold gathered up 80,000 of the residents of Vienna and ran to the west, to Linz, leaving just 5,000 citizens behind in the Austrian capital, defended by 11,000 soldiers and 370 cannon.
Kara Mustafa felt he had to offer the commander of Vienna a lesson in Ottoman diplomacy. The lesson was proffered in the little village of Perchtoldsdorf, 6 miles east of Vienna, where King Leopold had a summer estate.
On July 16th, called upon by Mustafa to surrender, the citizens first tried to defend their town, and only when that proved hopeless did they surrender. It was too late. Mustafa released his troops who “…massacred the surrendered garrison with their sabers, slaughtered noncombatant civilians, and then incinerated a church and tower packed with women and children.” (World History of Warfare; Archer & Ferris)
However this bravado did not have the intended effect of destroying the enemies’ will to fight. “The Viennese responded by impaling severed Turkish heads in full view of their trenches and later flayed live captives.” (ibid) Mustafa had no choice now but to lay siege to Vienna.
And here technology was on the side of the defenders, thanks to the invention of the “trace italienne”, also known as the Star Fort. This design replaced vertical masonry walls which had defended Constantinople and which were easily knocked down by sold artillery shot.
Instead, as Wikipedia explains, “forts became both lower and larger in area…” Low brick curtain walls filled with earth absorbed enemy shells. Cannon embrasures allowed defenders to safely target any enemy artillery positions. An exterior ditch or moat kept enemy cavalry and troops at a distance. Mustafa would either have to accept the massive causalities of a direct assault or take the time to undermine the forts. With odds in his favor of 800 to 1 the direct assault might well have worked. But Kara Mustafa instead ordered his men to begin digging.
All through August the Ottoman engineers tunneled, hollowing massive galleries underneath Vienna’s outer defenses. In early September, when these were packed with gunpowder and exploded, an almost 12 mile line of fortifications simply collapsed; the fall of Vienna was only a matter of time. The defenders were almost out of food. Then, on September 6, 1683, as the Austrians prepared for the literal last ditch defense of their city, out of the muddy waters of the mighty Danube River, arose a hero; Jan Sobieski, King of Poland.
Sobieski’s original not-so-heroic plan had been for an alliance between himself, France and the Ottomans against Leopold’s Austria. But finding Mehmed IV was not interested in sharing the booty from Vienna , Sobieski joined up the Austrians instead. The newly christened “Holy League” had about 80,000 men outside of Vienna, still giving Mustafa a numerical advantage of almost 2 to 1. But the Ottoman army was divided between fending off Sobieski and attacking Vienna. Mustafa refused to delay his assault. The last fortress had already been undermined, the charges planted and the fuses set. Whatever happened with Sobieski’s army, the final act of the siege would be played out on September 12, 1683.
The Polish King chose as his battle ground a hill (Kahlen Berg) rising 1,500 feet above the Danube flood plain just outside the walls of Vienna. On this hill a large part of the Ottoman army was camped, including Mustafa’s own red tent. But anticipating Sobieski’s plan, at four that morning, Mustafa launched a spoiling attack against the League’s troops.
As the armies threw themselves against each other all morning long on the hill, the Ottoman engineers were finishing their preparations underground. At about one that afternoon they lit the fuses and sealed the mine from their end. But an Austrian counter-mining operation then broke into the underground gallery and at almost the last second stopped the fuses. Vienna would not fall this day. Kara Mustafa had run out of time.
Sensing the Ottoman forces were exhausted, at about five o’clock Sobieski launched a massed cavalry attack (20,000 men and horses), led by his distinctive “winged angels”. The Polish riders slammed into the Ottoman troops, and swept them from the hill.
By 5:30 Sobieski was entering Mustafa’s personal tent and the Ottoman army was in full retreat toward the twin cities of Buda and Pest. Kara Mustafa had lost 15,000 dead and wounded and 5,000 captured, while the “League” had 5,000 dead. As history tells the tale, Sobieski got the glory while the Hapsburgs got the empire.
To celebrate the miracle of victory the bakers of Vienna invented a new pastry, twisted into a crescent in rememberance of the Ottoman crescent flags. In Austria the pastry is called a “Vienniuserie”. When Marie Antoinette introduced the treat to France in 1770, it was given the name by which the rest of the world knows it; the “croissant”. A more suspect legend says Sobieski introduced the bagel to commemorate the stirrups of his victorious cavalry, and that Europe’s first taste of cappuccino was in bags of coffee left behind by the fleeing Ottoman troops, or perhaps what was left behind was some tasty “Vienna Roast” coffee. There may be an element of truth in some or all of these stories, but true or not, they are legendary.
Mustafa regrouped his forces at Belgrade, and put them into defensive positions, in case the Austrians tried to quickly follow up their victory. But Sobieski and Leopold’s armies were as exhausted as the Ottoman troops, and the Hapsburg prince was not interested in taking undue risks. Leopold knew that time was on his side, now.
The final casualty of the battle of Vienna was Kara Mustafa himself. On December 25, 1683, a date with little meaning to a Muslim, the soldiers came for him. He waited for them with his collar open, and stretched his neck so they might wrap the traditional silk rope around his throat. Ever attentive to details, his last words to the assassins were, “Be certain to tie the knot correctly.”
Then several men pulled the knot tight until the life was squeezed out of him. His decapitated head was carried to Istanbul and presented to Mehmed IV in a velvet bag.
His grave was disgraced and lost by conquering Hapsburg armies a generation later, and his headstone now rests in the Bugarian/Turkish border town of Edirne, as either a warning or a promise, depending on which side of the border you are standing on.
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Sunday, February 07, 2010

A WOMAN SCORNED

I don’t know if Solomon Porcius Sharp could have been President, but a man who had the job, John Quincy Adams, described the Kentucky lawyer as, “The brainiest man that ever came over the Allegheny Mountains.” The 38 year old had already served two terms as a Congressman, four years as Attorney General for Kentucky, and now was starting his second term as a state legislator – so the boy was not lacking for ambition. He spent his last day on earth, Sunday, November 5th, 1825, conferring with allies to stand for Speaker of the Kentucky House. Every indication was that first thing Monday morning, he would easily be elected. It seemed possible his next stop would be the United States Senate, and then, possibly, the White House; except, an ex-girlfriend of his had other plans.
Her name was Anna Cook, and in her youth she had been a real Southern Belle from Bowling Green; educated, witty, flirtatious, with a passion for men and gambling. Like all gamblers, the more Anna gambled the more she lost. By 1825 she was a spinster approaching forty, and her rose had withered a bit. A critic described her as short, with dark hair and eyes, a few missing teeth, stoop shouldered and “in no way a handsome or desirable woman.” But inside Anna there still burned a passion, which had metamorphosed into a burning fierce hatred of Solomon Sharp. It is impossible to say with certainty how she came to obsess on the up and coming politician, but when Anna’s young husband, Jereboam Beauchamp, had proposed to her, Anna had accepted on the single condition that he first promised to kill Mr. Sharp.
Five years before Anna had attempted to derail Sharp’s political career by charging he had fathered her stillborn child. But Sharp’s allies had responded that the dead child had been born with black skin, and could not be the child of a white politician. With no living male relatives to defend her honor against the racial insult, and her reputation in tatters no matter which side was believed, Ann had withdrawn to her mother’s plantation, where Mr. Beauchamp had sought her out. He was a neighbor in Bowling Green and had been a law student in Sharp’s office. And, to hear him tell it, the hypocrisy of the political attack and counter-attack had awakened an almost religious hunger for justice in the twenty-two year old, or so he said. To call their marriage an affair of the heart seems somehow to have missed the point. And after their 1824 wedding, as soon as it was convenient, Jereboam traveled to Frankfort, looking to settle the score with Mr. Sharp and fulfill his promise to his new bride.
Of course there might have been another explanation for the timing of Jereboam’s expedition to Frankfort, besides convenience. The week before, on October 25, 1825, a warrant for Jereboam’s arrest had been issued by the sheriff in Bowling Green. It seemed a single woman named Ruth Reed was suing Jereboam for child support. Our defender of the honor of chaste womanhood was alledged to be a dead-beat dad.
Frankfort, was a wooden town of just 1,500 souls when Jereboam arrived in November of 1825. It had been established at a ford across the Kentucky River, and was named for Stephen Frank, an early settler killed in an Indian attack. The village became the state capital because local boosters contributed $3,000 in gold to the state treasury, and property for public buildings. Frankfurt was in 1825 (and remains) one of the smallest state capitals in the Union. There were few brick structures in town, and fire was constantly updating the architecture. Earlier in 1825 Frankfort had burned down its sixth state capital building, and was currently renting a Methodist Church for that purpose. Directly across the street from this temporary cathedral of democracy was the rented abode of Solomon Sharp and his wife and children.
Jereboam waited in the shadows of the church until Sharp returned to his Madison street home, sometime after midnight on November 6th, 1825. Then, as the clock approached two in the morning, he knocked on a side door. When Sharp responded, Jereboam identified himself as “Covington.” Having opened the door, Solomon was evidently suspicious and said he did not know any one by that name. Jereboam then cut the conversation short by thrusting a dagger into Solomon’s neck, severing his aorta. Solomon Sharp was dead almost before he hit the floor. Jereboam then fled into the night. The first political assignation in American had just been committed.
There were, of course, elaborate conspiracy theories which sprang up around the assignation of Solomon Sharp, spurred on the victim’s politics and the $4,000 reward offered. But the police stuck to what they could prove, and four nights after the murder Jereboam and Anna were both arrested in Bowling Green, as they prepared to flee to Missouri. There was almost no physical evidence tying Jereboam to the murder, and what there was the cops lost. They never even found the murder weapon. And although Sharp’s widow identified Jereboam’s voice as the one she heard call out “Covington”, she had initially identified it as the voice of one of her husband’s political opponents. But several witnesses testified that Jereboam had repeatedly threatened to kill Solomon, and after a 13 day long trial, the jury had no doubts. On May 19, 1826, after just one hour of deliberations, they returned with a verdict of guilty.
In his jail cell Jereboam wrote out a lengthy confession, filled with all the drama and heroics he clearly wanted to believe had characterized his life and reputation. According to his diatribe, Solomon had repeatedly admitted his crime against Anna, and in the final moments of his life had begged for mercy. Even if true, how that justified the cold blooded murder of a father and husband, Jereboam did not attempt to explain. And it simply did not matter, because, as one commentator has pointed out, it was at this point that the entire affair “went from tragedy to romantic melodrama.”
Anna had been allowed to share her husband’s cell each night, coming and going during the day. Into this place of confinement she snuck a bottle of laudanum, a potent mixture of 89% grain ethanol, 10% opium and 1% morphine. The lovers intended a joint suicide, but instead produced only a double regurgitation marathon. The absurdity of that sickening episode was matched only by the ineptitude of the jailers, because, just two days later the pin-headed penitenciariests allowed Anna to carry a knife into the cell. Jereboam stabbed himself in the abdomen. Anna then grabbed the knife and stabbed herself in the stomach. If it was a race, she won. She died an hour later. He died on the scaffold, two hours after her.
The cost of Anna Cook’s revenge was three lives, her own and the lives of two men she professed, at various times, to have loved. And I suspect she thought that was a fair trade. And that is the real tragedy in this Kentucky story.
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