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The Billionaires Playground - 1890 - The Last Time the National Wealth was this Unbalanced

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Friday, April 01, 2011

BUYING SWAMPLAND

“Politics have no relation to morals”
Niccolo Machiavelli - “The Prince” - 1513
I would say that 1835 was, like most years, a revolutionary year in America. Inspired by gringo emigrants, Texas rebelled against Mexico. In Boston, five thousand bigots broke into a meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society, and dragged abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison through the streets at the end of a rope. In South Carolina 36 slaves and one 60 year old free-black carpenter were hanged for trying to organize a slave revolt. Down in Florida the Second Seminole War broke out when Native Americans refused to surrender their freedom and their homes. And along the shores of Lake Erie, free whites did their very best to start a war over possession of 268 square miles of swamp known as “The Toledo Strip”.
In truth, the Great Black Swamp was what film maker Alfred Hitchcock would call a "magoffin'. It was not what people were really fighting over, even tho it was what people were fighting over. It was not even much of a swamp by Louisiana standards. It was great only because it occupied a swath of land 40 miles wide and 120 miles long, in the northwest corner Ohio – which was a little far north for a swamp.
It was really a collection of ponds and marshes interspersed with hillocks, filled and drained by the 130 mile long Maumee River, which rose from the high ground around Fort Wayne Indiana and fed into Lake Erie. It's only claim to fame was that it formed a natural barrier between the state of Ohio and the territory of Michigan. The Black Swamp was certainly not desirable  farmland, but it provided a bumper crop of mosquitoes each summer, and they, and the malaria they carried, made life difficult for any intrepid surveyors who might set up their theodolites upon such soggy ground.
“Princes and governments are far more dangerous than other elements within society.”
Niccolo Machiavelli – “The Prince” – 1513
The first real attempt to draw the border was made in 1817, when Michigan Territory hired surveyor William Harris. According to the “Harris Line” the mouth of the Maumee River was in Michigan, below the swamp. In 1818 Ohio responded by hiring John Fulton to survey the border, which he found five miles further north, avoiding the swamp by going above it. Taken together the two lines bracketed the Great Black Swamp. And while the desire of a surveyor to avoid all those mosquitoes was understandable, the residents of Ohio and Michigan were confused. They appealed to Washington. But abiding by the political rule that whatever you do will make somebody angry with you, the Federal politicians decided to do nothing. After all, nobody would fight for ownership of a swamp. Would  they?
Then in 1825 the Erie Canal opened, connecting the port of New York City with the Great Lakes. It proved to be such an economic revolution that plans were immediately drawn up for a port at the mouth of the Maumee River, and a canal up that river to Fort Wayne, Indiana (statehood granted in 1816), where it would connect to another canal to be built down the Wabash River, to the Ohio and thence to the Mississippi. Those canals would make the port at Toledo (which was established by Ohio in 1832) the hub of transportation for the entire center of the continent. A Toledo lawyer, John Fitch, noted that already it was the general opinion that “no place on the lake except Buffalo will rival it.” Quite a claim to fame - almost as big as Buffalo. The politically active residents of Michigan Territory became convinced that Ohio politicians were trying to steal Toledo from them. Which was true.
The politics finally solidified when hot-headed 23 year old Stephen Mason became Territorial Governor of Michigan. He was a gift from President Andrew Jackson, a man who appreciated hot heads. And under pressure from other hot heads in the territory, Governor Mason issued the “Pains and Penalties Act” of February 12, 1835, making it illegal for a non-Michigan resident to enforce Ohio law in Toledo, Michigan Territory.
The Cleveland, Ohio newspapers called the Michigan claim to Toledo “as absurd as it is ridiculous.” And on February 23, the defiant Ohio General Assembly, playing to their own base, voted to “run the border” of the Fulton Line, meaning to mark it again as Toledo, Ohio, with stone posts that clearly said so. Then on April Fool’s day Michigan held local elections in the Toledo Strip. On April 6th Ohio held competing local elections in the Toledo Strip. Somebody was going to have to disappoint their supporters..
“Before all else be armed.”
Niccolo Machiavelli – “The Prince” – 1513
Two days later a Michigan Country sheriff and an armed posse of 40 men rode into Toledo to enforce the Penalties Act. Several men snuck into the home of Benjamin Stickney, who was an “Ohio patriot” or an Phio Nut - depending on which side of the border you lived on. He was also a major in the Ohio militia. Now, even allowing for how little humanity knew at the time about dysfunctional parenting, the level of strangeness displayed by Benjamin Stickney is staggering. This respected member of the Ohio community named his eldest son “Number One” and his younger son “Number Two”. Stickney also had a daughter, but for some reason we don’t know what he called her. I suspect it might have been “Light Sleeper”.
When the girl was awakened by a noise that night, she stepped into the hall to investigate. A creeping Michigan deputy clamped a hand over the startled child’s mouth, and held her silent, lest she shout a warning to her father. Alas, Benjamin Stickney would not have heard her, as he was not at home. So two of his house guests were arrested and taken north for arraignment. Two days later they were released on bail.
In handbills and letters to Ohio newspapers Major Stickney inflated the posse to 300 men “armed with muskets and bayonetts”, claimed that the deputies had tried to gouge out his eyes (he wasn't there)  and had “throttled” his daughter. He urged his fellow buckeyes to “turn out en masse to protect their northern border and restrain the savage barbarity of the hordes of the north.” Ohio Governor Robert Lucas, another Jackson Democrat, sent 40 men to guard his surveyors and ordered the 100,000 members of the state militia to assemble in the tiny town of Perryville, Ohio, just down the Maumee River from Toledo. Only 10,000 actually responded and most of them never got to Perryville, because they got lost in the swamp.
Meanwhile a Michigan posse, 30 strong, caught the Ohio “line runners” relaxing in camp on Sunday, April 21st . Most of the buckeyes broke for the woods, but nine of the protecting militia were caught in the open. When the Michigan posse fired a volley over their heads they wisely surrendered. All seven were unharmed but were arrested for violating the “Pains and Penalties Act”, and on Monday morning six were granted bail and two were released after a warning to behave. The only Ohioan who remained in jail was Jonathan Fletcher, a hot head who refused to post bail “on principle.” In the annals of Michigan this encounter was memorialized as the “Battle of Phillip’s Corner”, since the encounter had occurred in a field owned by Eli Phillips, who supported Michigan.
“The distinction between children and adults, while probably useful for some purposes, is at bottom a specious one, I feel. There are only individual egos, crazy for love.”
Niccolo Machiavelli – “The Prince” – 1513
The smell of gunpowder had brought a degree of sanity back to Governor Mason, and in the spirit of good will he suspended enforcement of his Pains and Penalties Act. But now it was the Ohio legislature’s turn to appease their base. Kidnapping was already illegal in Ohio, but buckeye politicians felt it necessary to pass a new law providing hard labor for kidnapping anyone from Ohio. And they made Toledo the capital of a new Ohio county.
In Toledo one observer noted “Men (were) galloping about – guns getting ready – wagons being filled with people and hurrying off, and everybody in commotion “ The little town of just 1,250 citizens had become a magnet for every nut case, political hot head and pugnacious drifter in the Midwest. In July, two Michigan deputies tried to hold an auction of property siezed for non payment of Michigan taxes, and a gang of Ohio “patriots”, led by Number Two Strikney, broke up the auction. So, on July 12th a Michigan arrest warrant was issued for the son-of-a-patriot, for disturbing the peace. Number Two, upon learning of the warrant, sent a message to the Michigan Sheriff to stay out of Toledo, if he wanted to live.
That threat set Michigan Governor Mason off again. He ordered 250 men into Toledo, under Deputy Sheriff Joseph Wood, to arrest Number Two and his "gang". Most of the Ohio “patriots” ran safely for the border, but Number Two didn’t make it. Sheriff Wood physically grabbed him and Number Two pulled what in Ohio was called a pen knife and in Michigan became a “dirk”. “Two” stabbed the sheriff in the leg and disappeared across the Maumee River. The wound was minor and the sheriff was able to ride back across the border that night, having paused to arrest Number Two’s father, Major Stickney, and drag him back to Michigan, tied to the back of a horse. But before leaving town the Michiganders also smashed the offices of the pro-Ohio Toledo Gazette, behaving, claimed the paper, worse than an “Algerian robbery or Turkish persecution.” It seemed the residents were finally running short of hyperbole. What was left but gunpowder?
“A wise ruler ought never to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interests.”
Niccolo Machiavelli – “The Prince” – 1513.
It was at this point that Andrew Jackson finally stepped in and on August 29th, 1835 removed Mason as governor of Michigan Territory. Jackson also let it be known that Michigan would only be allowed to become a state after they accepted that Toledo was a town in Ohio. It was a hard pill for the Badger rabble to swallow, particularly after all that rabble rousing, but as a sop for hurt feelings, the federal government granted Michigan the additional territory known as the Northern Peninsula. Michigan was finally admitted into the union, sans Toledo, on January 26, 1837.
So Ohio won. The canals were dug, and the buckeyes benefited from the taxes paid by the port at the mouth of the Maumee River. In 1842 1,578 barrels of flour and 12,976 bushels of wheat were shipped through Toledo, Ohio, and taxed.  By 1852 the totals were a quarter million barrels flour and almost two million bushels of wheat. But Toledo did not become the transportation hub for the Midwest, because canal technology was superseded by railroads, and Chicago superseded Toledo; none of which the Ohio patriots could have predicted in 1835.
Meanwhile, in 1844, a party of surveyors was marking out the second place prize for Michigan, the Upper Peninsula,  when they found their compasses spinning wildly. This was caused by one of the largest concentrations of iron ore ever found on the planet Earth, the Marquette Range, which was surrounded by one of the largest concentrations of copper ore ever found on the Earth. Beginning in 1847 and continuing over the next one hundred years and fifty years, over a billion tons of iron and several billion tons of copper were removed from those hills. None of the Michigan patriots could have predicted that, either.
The truth was the future contained a bounty beyond the imagination of the patriots who willing to kill each other in 1835, all for possession of a swamp – and not a great swamp at that. Does that make any sense?
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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

APRIL FOOLS DAY

I don’t approve of practical jokes. I seen nothing humorous in having your shoes set afire while you are wearing them. And dribble glasses are not only not practical they are also not funny - especially on “April Fools Day”, when every glass is a dribble glass and every shoe is a potential combustion chamber. And it turns out that this celebration of sociopathic behavior was invented by the French, a nation without humorous inclinations since Moliere slipped on a banana peel in 1673. But the story of April Fool’s Day began over a century before that comedic-tragic event, when in 1564 King Charles IX decided to follow Pope Gregory’s suggestion and begin the calendar on January rather than April. Why the French originally celebrated New Years Day on April 1st, I have no idea.
Now, in the 16th century, France had only one road. It came out of Paris, turned left, looped all the way around the city and re-entered on the other side of town. This tragic design error,(the world’s first Traffic Circle) made communication with the majority of the nation difficult (and introduced the phrase “Out-of-the-Loop”), and when combined with the French telephone system - which was in no better shape in the 16th century than it is today - meant that a lot of peasants never got the King’s memo concerning the calendar adjustment.
So as they had every year, thousands of these ill-informed peasants journeyed to Paris during the last week of March and on what they thought was New Year’s Eve, gathered in Bastille Square to say bonjour to 1565 and watch the guillotine drop on 1566. In unison they gleefully chanted, “Cing, quartre, trios, deux, un” and…No guillotine. No satisfying plop of a head into the basket. No Campaign corks popping. No le Dick Clark. Instead of cheers and shouts of glee, mass ennui broke out amongst the masses. Now anyone who has experienced the Parisian version of “good manners” can imagine what came next; the locals mocked the bewildered peasants and made them feel like complete Americans,…ah, I mean,fools. But the way they did it makes the word “odd” seem inadequate.
For reasons beyond understanding the Parisians snuck up behind their confused country cousins, surreptitiously stuck a paper fish to the bumpkin’s backs and then shouted in a loud voice, “Poisson d’Avril!”, which translates as “April Fish!”, and then collapsed in raucous laughter and shouts of “tres bien.”
Why would they shout “April Fish!”? I have no idea. But, perhaps the first Parisian to label his victim an "April Fool” immediately received a mouth full of fist, while calling the victim an "April Fish” confused him just long enough so that the prankster could escape.
I have long thought that this uncharacteristic outbreak of French “humor” was actually inspired by Charles’ Italian Queen, Catherine de Medici, who was already famous throughout Europe for her gastronomical gags, such as her duck a la cyanide with a hemlock sauce. Only a Medici could see the humor in humiliating the people who handled your food.
But however it started, the Parisians knew a good time when they saw it and they sent peasants on “fool’s errands”, and tricked peasants with “fool’s tales”, until every April 1st, France reverberated with gales of laughter and shouts of “Poisson d’Avril!” Good times. But eventually the Parisian bullies grew bored with taunting the unresponsive peasants and in 1572 they shifted their attentions to the Huguenots. But by then the tradition of humiliating people for your own amusement on the first day of April had become popular. And like Disco music and Special Federal Prosecutors, once invented some institutions have proven impossible to stop.
This holiday for the humor-impaired spread around the globe with the new calendar like a fungus, infecting and evolving a little in each afflicted nation. The Germans added the “Kick Me” sign, and a second day which they call “Taily Day”, to further enjoy the frivolity of bruised buttocks. Ahh, those Germans.
In Portugal, today’s innocent victim is hit with flour, sometimes while it is still in the bag - the flour not the victim. In Scotland the target is humiliatingly referred to as an “April Gawk” (?!), in England as a “Noodle” and in Canada as an “American.” I would have expected mental health professionals to call for a stop to this public insanity but evidently they are too busy setting their patients’ shoes on fire.
Not even a war could snap the world out of this cruel insanity. In what may have been the first time a practical joke qualified as a war crime, on April 1, 1915 a French pilot buzzed the German trenches and dropped a huge bomb, which bounced. Four years later the citizens of Venice awoke on April 1, to discover their sidewalks littered with cow manure, the "gag" of a visiting Englishman, Horace de Vere Cole, with too much time on his hands and too much money in his pockets. But then what can you expect from a man who would honeymoon on April Fool's day? Bad humor moved into the electronic age in 1957 when BBC Television News broadcast a report about the successful and bountiful Swiss harvest of spaghetti.  On April Fool's Day in 1992, National Public Radio in the United States, broadcast the announcement that Richard Nixon was coming out of retirement to run again for President, under the slogan, "I didn't do anything wrong and I won't do it again."
Some years later, ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Company, carried a report that the nation was about to switch to "Metric Time". The next morning would begin at midnight, but each minute would be made up of 100 milidays, each hour of 100 centedays, and each day would consist of 20 decadays. It is alleged that the following morning nobody in Australia showed up for work on time, but it is unclear if that was because the April Fools joke or merely because, being Australia, they all still had a hangover, mate.
Admit it; there is no defense against April Fool tomfoolery, except a preemptive strike. So button up your top button, zip up your pants, tie your shoes and look out for that cat. Load up your water gun, warm up your fart cushion and repeat after me; “Poison d’Avril, sucker!”
Funny, huh?
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Sunday, March 27, 2011

AMERICAN ARCHTYPE; PART FOUR

I think the breaking point for Governor Meriwether Lewis came when the Federal Government denied the bill he submitted for translating the territorial laws into French. It was only $18. And even in 1808 that was not much money – it would be about $245 today. It was just another example of the penny pinching of the bean counters in the new President James Madison's administration.
The politicians were not very kind to Meriwether Lewis. For risking his life and limbs in the wilderness for three long years, for being shot, for almost starving to death repeatedly and almost drowning several times, the Captain received $1,228 in back pay (equal to about $16,000 today) and a coupon good for 1,600 acres of Federal land. (The official price of which was just $2 an acre – so the equivalent of another $3,000.) Added to this would be his yearly budget as Governor of $2,000, ($26,000 today), out of which he had to draw his own salary and all incidental expenses, amongst which was now deducted that $18. So that was just another kick in the behind.
During their return voyage in 1806, Lewis and Clark had invited the Manndan Chief White Coyote to visit President Jefferson in Washington, and the chief had impulsively agreed. Jefferson was delighted, and the visit had cemented relations with the strongest tribe in the middle Missouri River country. But it proved difficult to get White Coyote and his entourage back home. An attempt in 1807 had been turned back by the Arikarass, at cost of the lives of three soldiers and the leg of a fourth man. More soldiers would have to be dispatched and bribes paid to allow the chief and his family to get home. But the price tag of this diplomatic mercy mission had risen to $7,000. Washington was appalled. And they sort of had a point.
See, Lewis had handed the problem over to the St. Louis-Missouri River Fur Company, a private company. One hundred fifty men had marched and paddled up the Missouri River to the Manndan villages. They had returned the chief, and had then continued on, trapping beaver, otter and bear. All the pelts were shipped back to the company warehouse in St. Louis. The profits had gone to the shareholders, but the bill had gone to the Government; sound familiar? And two of the shareholders in the St. Louis Fur Company were Governor Meriwether Lewis and his brother Reuben.
These details had been pointed out to the bureaucrats in Washington by the priggish Frederick Bates (above), Territorial Lieutenant Governor and envious enemy of Governor Lewis. Bates had kept Washington very well informed about every misstep made by the Governor. The result was that the Madison administration had begun going over the Governor's expenses with a fine tooth comb. They grudgingly paid most of the bill for White Coyote's return, but managed to find $940 they could refuse to reimburse Lewis. That was almost half his yearly budget! Worse still, the Madison administration had re-opened the books on the three year old Lewis and Clark Expedition, and were now demanding a detailed accounting as to why a budget of $2,500 had ended up costing $40,000. The biggest reasons was, of course, that an enthusiastic congress, at Jefferson's urging, had added those land grants for everybody. But the Madison administration had suddenly developed amnesia about that.
The reality was that the land grants had not cost the government a dime, except in the accounting ledgers of the bean counters. But over the summer it took a month for one of the bureaucrats' demands for more paperwork to travel from Washington to St. Louis, and at least another month for Governor Lewis to respond. In the winter there was no mail at all, and the misconstructions simply piled one atop the next. It was a system made for bureaucratic misunderstandings, and the denial of the $18 translating fee was just the final straw. Meriwether Lewis, Governor of the Territory, must return to Washington and make his case face to face with the Federal bean counters.
In mid-August of 1809 Meriwether Lewis signed papers granting William Clark and two other friends Power-of-Attorney, in case anything should happen to him on his trip back east. It was a standard precaution, like buying flight insurance in the 20th century. Lewis also sent a letter off to the Secretary of War protesting his treatment, and a letter to his mother, telling her he was looking forward to seeing her in Virginia.
The St. Louis Gazette reported on Monday, September 4th that Lewis had left town “in good health”. He left on a Kentucky Ark, twelve feet wide and thirty feet long, a flatboat which floated clumsily down the Mississippi. He was bound for New Orleans, where he intended upon boarding a sailing ship for the long voyage around the isthmus of Spanish Florida and then up the East Coast to Washington. But September was probably the worst time to be traveling by river in America.
It was the dry season. The river was low, and the flatboat ground methodically over every sand bar. It was brutally hot, the mosquito population feasted on every inch of bare flesh, and the trip was taking forever. It took Lewis over a week travel the 180 river miles to the tiny community of New Madrid. Here the boat put ashore for two days, to give Lewis a chance to recuperate. He was suffering from a recurrence of malaria, and in desperate need of a little air conditioning, which would not be invented for another century. He must have begun to think this trip was never going to end, and while in New Madrid he wrote and registered a new will.
On September 13th they shoved off again, but the heat had not lessened. Two days later the boat put in at the fourth of the Chickasaw Bluffs (and the future site of Memphis). Here Governor Lewis was carried off the river on a stretcher. He was met by Captain Gilbert Russel, commander of the sixteen man outpost at Fort Pickering. Russel immediately turned over his bed to the Governor. It was clear to Russel that Governor Lewis was not going anywhere for awhile.
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