JULY 2020

JULY   2020
Everything Old Is New Again!


Friday, November 18, 2011


I am not surprised that it was old John Crittenden (above) who offered the last  chance to avoid the violence and bloodshed of the American Civil War. He was from the border state of Kentucky, and was used to straddling fences. He had spent his entire life as a politician, devising one compromise after another. But having brought America to precipice of civil war by one compromise piled upon another, he could see no solution except by another compromise. But the unpleasant truth was and is, that a compromise is not a solution. It is a way of avoiding a solution. And for four score years America had been avoiding the solution to slavery.
From March 4, 1837, when Andrew Jackson handed over the Presidency to Martin Van Buren, until March 4, 1861 when Lincoln took the oath, eight men occupied the White House. Two of them had died while in office – William H. Harrison and Zachary Taylor. But of the remaining six - Van Buren, Tyler and Polk, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan (above) - not one of them won a second term. For two decades the American electorate was constantly looking for something else.
The summer of 1860 the Northern Democrats nominated Senator Stephen Douglas, The Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell (but only because their first choice, John Crittenden, said he felt he was too old), the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln (above), while the Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckenridge. Reading the election results did not seem to make anything clearer. As Bruce Catton, points out in “The Coming Fury”, “Breckenridge, the supposed candidate of the secessionists, had indeed carried 11 (slave) states, but he had lost such powerful slave states as Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri…”
But of course, the American electoral system is not merely a popularity contest. With 293 Electoral votes available, the winner in 1860 had to secure at least half – 146 1/2 votes. Douglas won 12, Bell won 39, and Breckenridge won 73. But Abraham Lincoln won 180. As Wikipedia points out, Lincoln would have still have won in the electorial college “…even if the 60% of voters who opposed him nationally had united behind a single candidate.” Still, there were many who simply refused to see any clear choice in those numbers.
In the lame duck congress, convened after the Republican victory, Senator John Crittenden (above) rose to offer the nation one more chance to avoid a bloodbath. The old man – at 73 he was the oldest man in the Senate –had crafted a course of action he was assured would placate the firebrands in the South. And all that was required were six amendments to the American Constitution.
First, slavery would forever be prohibited north of the Missouri border, all the way to the Pacific. But in exchange for this, black slavery would be likewise forever “protected” south of that line. Secondly, slavery was to be permitted on all military bases, even in Free States. Thirdly, slavery would be allowed in Washington, D.C. Fourth, the interstate slave trade was to be unimpeded, even in the Free States. Fifth, the Federal government must compensate all slave owners for all runaway slaves. And sixth, no further amendments restricting slavery could ever be considered. This was to become part of the bedrock foundation document of the United States of America. It was called the Crittenden Compromise.
The offer of this “compromise” produced, amongst other effects, a powerful debate on the floor of the Senate, between the advocates for slavery and the sworn enemies of the institution. Republican Senator Edward Baker of Oregon, a long time close friend of President-elect Lincoln, demanded to know where in the constitution South Carolina had the right to secede from the Union. He was answered by Senator Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana, a Jew described by a Republican senator as “A Hebrew with Egyptian principles.” The states, said Senator Benjamin, “…have reserved to themselves under the Constitution….every right not expressly denied to them by the Constitution”. Thus, their right to secede was to be found “…in the ninth and tenth amendments to the Constitution.”
But the “charismatic and controversial” Senator Baker (above) disagreed, contending the constitution “…is made by the people…not the States.” The inveterate gambler then went over to the attack. Enumerating the six proposed amendments, and the Northern “sins” they were to rectify, Baker pounded home his point. “…you say we rob you; you say we intend to establish a cordon of Free States around you; you say that we are persistent in what we do on this point…you say that the difficulty seems to arise chiefly from a difference in our construction of the Constitution.” Judah Benjamin interjected, “The charge is not that Congress does it, but that the States do it.”
Baker swirled his cape in front of his opponent. “Very well,” he said. “The great champion of the South… admits that there is no ground of complaint that the Federal Government ever has attempted to interfere with the existence of slavery….But it is said that the Northern States, the Western States, in other words, the Free States, do so interfere. Again we deny it. The fact is not so. The proof cannot be made.”
Senator Benjamin (above) now thought he had his Northern foe pinned. He reminded the Senate of the raid against Harpers Ferry by John Brown. And then, he added, “A man…in Massachusetts who, in public speeches, declared that he approved of (John Brown)… and the people of Massachusetts, by an enormous majority, elected him their Governor.” Judah then charged that “…it is the desire of the whole Republican party to close up the Southern States with a cordon of Free States…”
Baker was now moving like a picador, pricking his foe, and feeding his temper. “See how gloriously we advance, step by step,” he announced grandiously. “We abandon now the charge that Congress does it; we abandon now the charge that States do it; we abandon now the charge that the individual members of the Northern and Western communities as a body desire to (do it)…but we insist tenaciously...that, as a people, we desire to circle the slave States with a cordon of free States, and thereby destroy the institution of slavery…” But was that, asked Baker, a reason to destroy the union of states? “I say, yes,” blurted out Benjamin. Replied Baker, “And I say…no!”  The issue of slavery was never so clearly defined as in this confrontation on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
The Republican Party rejected the compromise, disingenuously describing it as so badly written that it “…amounts to a perpetual covenant of war against every people, tribe and state owning a foot of land between here and Tierra del Fuego.” But the New York Times would later (February 6, 1861) more accurately denounce Senator Crittenden’s work because if was intended as "...a device to destroy the Administration in advance of its accession to power…And when the Democrats demand its adoption by the Republicans, they demand, in effect, that they shall abdicate the government which has been committed to their hands, and put in power, not the Democratic Party, but the (Breckenridge) faction” of the Democratic Party.
In the end, none of the words mattered. The Republicans made certain the Crittenden Compromise was never officially considered by the entire Senate, even though they never offered an alternative. And when, in January, Crittenden presented his “Compromise” again, this time to the new Congress, the new Republican majority replaced it with an assertion that, as Lincoln phrased it, “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” It was a fundamental point upon which Lincoln and the Republican Party were not willing to compromise.
Just short of a year after the great debate, Edward Baker, serving as a colonel in the Union Army, would die in a foolish and pointless battle at “Ball’s Bluff” in Virginia (above). Willie, the President’s eldest son, composed a poem in his memory. “There was no patriot like Baker, So noble and so true; He fell as a soldier on the field, His face to the sky of blue. No squeamish notions filled his breast, The Union was his theme, 'No surrender and no compromise...”
Judah P. Bejamin would later be known as “the Brains of the Confederacy.” After resigning from Congress he would become first the Confederate Attorney General, then its Secretary of War, and in 1862 he was named Secretary of State, and remained in that post until the end of the war, when he managed to escape to England. There he passed the bar and established a pofitable practice. He died in 1884, in Paris.
In a way, it was the great compromiser, John Crittenden, who suffered the most because of the war he had tried so hard to avoid. He was able to keep the war out of his own state. But one of his sons and a grandson fought for the South, while two other sons and another grandson fought for the union. The old man was exhausted by his life’s work, and died while running for re-election, in July of 1863, three weeks after the great Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. And what we remember is that for all its pain and horror, for its 600,000 dead on both sides, the Civil War gave birth to the America dream we share today. Can any of us honestly say we would have prefered an America in which John Crittenden had been succesful and the war had been avoided, all in the name of compromise?
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Wednesday, November 16, 2011


I understand why Republicans have such naive faith in capitalists. Certainly, the businessmen or women who risk their own futures on the vagaries of markets, deserve universal respect. But it seems to me that the farther you get from the pain of your own mistakes the less you are a capitalist, and the more you become an elitist. As proof, I present to you a German flute maker who made his fortune in England, and doubled it by investing in the American fur trade; John Jacob Astor (above). He made in his life time the modern equivalent of $110 billion, so much money that his fortune survived two hundred years, it survived two "great depressions", four generations of 20th century “death taxes” and two world wars, so that his distant heirs are still enjoying its benefits. Astor’s “genius” was that he saw the American fur trade was not about fur, it was about dope. And he got the Army and Navy, anybodies army and navy, to protect hs investments.
See, just like 21st century China,  post-revolutionary war American didn’t have enough domestic customers to support a native industry. America then, like China today,  had to be an exporter. Her nearest customers were in Europe, who were interested in furs. But by 1810, hunters had so decimated eastern populations of beaver, otter, squirrel and fox in North America, that trappers were shipping furs fifteen hundred miles across country just to reach an Atlantic port. Overland transportation costs now made American fur a luxury item in Europe. But - and realizing this was Astor’s genius -  the west coast of North America was still filled with fur, swimming and walking around. And just across the Pacific were millions of Chinese opium addicts. And Astor saw the connection between those two. And he was willing to use the Army and Navy - anybodies army and navy - to protect his investments.
Plugged into the global English banking system, Astor realized he could buy furs in the Pacific Northwest from native Americans for the price of some fish hooks and iron axes, sell them in China and Japan for working capital, with which he could buy Afghanistan opium, which could be sold in China at an enormous profit. All he had to do was buy enough British politicians to get them to send the Royal Navy to force the Chinese to leave his opium fleets alone. That was what the British meant by Freedom of the Seas. And the real magic was that Astor never had to go to any of those places himself and look dead otters or dead addicts in the face. He hired others to do that. Of course, it turns out, working at a distance has its own price.
To put his plan in motion Astor first hired Wilson Hunt, who was a New Jersey businessman (and a junior partner), at the head of 64 French Canadian trappers, to head overland for the Columbia River. And then he convinced the U.S. Navy to loan him Lieutenant Jonathan Thorn, hero of the battle of Tripoli. The problem for Astor, was that neither of these guys had any business running anything.
Thorn left first, on September 8, 1810 in command of the 290 ton, 10 gun ship, the Tonquin. She carried 34 seamen, French Canadian trappers and clerks, and everything needed to set up Astor’s fur collecting station at the mouth of the Columbia River. But barely had they passed out onto the Atlantic when Captain Thorn turned into Captain Bligh. He cursed the crew for singing a sea ditty. And when Alexander McKay, another junior partner in the venture, commented on the lousy food, Thorn called him “the most worthless human who ever broke a sea biscuit.” That night McKay wrote in his notebook “I fear we are in the hands of a maniac” McKay had no idea.
Wilson Hunt and his party left St. Louis on October 21, 1810, but traveled only 450 miles up the Missouri River before winter forced him to camp just south of present day St. Joseph, Missouri. They were paddeling  birch bark canoes and the plan was to follow the Lewis and Cark trail over the Rocky Mountains. But over the long dark winter months Hunt started to think for himself, a mistake which was to prove disastrous.
By early December, when the Tonquin stopped for fresh water in the Falkland Islands, the passengers had begun speaking only French in the presence of Captain Thorn, because they wanted to insult him and they knew he did not speak French and hearing it but not being able to understand it, drove him crazy. He paid them back by acting the petty tyrant. When five of his passengers went sightseeing and missed his deadline to return, Thorn weighed anchor and set sail, leaving them desperately rowing for three hours to catch up. He would have abandoned them to their fate, had not the wind fortuitously shifted and allowed the exhausted Canadians to collapse, vomiting, back on board. Everybody now had a thorn in their side; Captain Thorn
On Christmas day this unhappy ship rounded Cape Horn, at the southern tip of Africa, and on the 12th of February 1811, after stops in India and China to confirm business arrangements, the Tonquin anchored off Hawaii, for pork and water and to pick up a few additional workers. Thorn had by now convinced himself that his crew and passangers were about to break out in an armed rebellion. His opportunity for dealing with this perceived threat arrived on March 22, 1811, when the Tonquin stood off the mouth of the Columbia River, at a cape with attractive title of Desperation Bay.
Captain Thorn ordered his first mate, Ebenezer Fox, to take four of the Canadian landlovers and find a route over the treacherous sand bar at the river’s mouth. (Even today, the U.S. Coast Guard station at Desperation Bay responds to 400 calls for help every year.) Fox begged to be allowed to replace the Frenchmen. “I am to be sent off, without seamen, in boisterous weather, and on the most perilous of missions.” Captain Thorn bellowed back, “Mr. Fox, if you are afraid of water, you should have remained at Boston. I command here! Mr. Fox, do not be a coward. Put off!” At about 1:00 p.m. Mr. Fox and the Canadians did just that, and were never seen again.
The next day Captain Thorn dispatched another seaman and three unhappy Hawaiians to find a passage. They also disappeared into the surf. Only now, with the ranks of his opponents thinned, did the captain dispatch able seamen. With difficulty they found the opening in the bar, and led the ship to the safety of the bay. The survivors were overjoyed to be on dry land and away from the insane Jonathan Thorn. Wrote one of the party, “The loss of eight of us within two days was deeply felt.” They immediately began building a fort, which they christened with the name of the man who signed their pay checks (and who had hired Captain Thorn!); Fort Astor.
Captain Thorn did not wait for the construction to be completed. Before the supplies had been completely unloaded, he sailed north, intending on returning in a few weeks. Mr. McKay, ordered to accompany the madman north, handed over his journals and bade his friends goodbye. “If you ever see us again it will be a miracle” were his parting words.
There was no miracle. Off Vancouver Island Captain Thorn applied his powers of diplomacy to a local tribe, who in response butchered the entire crew (including Thorn). Somehow fire reached the ship’s magazine, and the resultant explosion killed most of the avenging natives as well. Thus ended the naval and diplomatic career of Lt. Jonathan Thorn, dispensing death to everything and everyone he touched. He also left 16 survivors back at Fort Astor, stranded on the lonely west coast of North America, without enough supplies and with no way of communicating their plight to anyone who cared to listen.
Meanwhile, as you may remember, Wilson Hunt was leading a party of 65 French Canadian trappers out of Missouri. And after thinking the thing over carefully, Mr. Hunt decided not to follow the trail blazed by Lewis and Clark. With the arrival of April 1811, he bought horses from the local indians and mounted up his French Canadian trappers, each of whom had been hired because of their skills in handeling a canoe.
By September of 1811, these miserable men had got as far as the North Fork of the Snake River (also called Henry’s Fork), in present day Idaho. Here Mr. Hunt faced an open rebellion from his French Canadians, who found their thighs badly chaffing. So they gave their horses as gifts to the local Indians, and the trappers set about constructing birch bark canoes. This proved to be a bad idea. Just two days after launcing their tiny armada, two canoes over turned, dumping all their food and supplies into the river, and two men were drowned. The river was alternated between cascades, rapids and rock stewn shallows. Progress was so slow the party quickly cleaned out every edible creature within reach of the river. In desperation, the starving Canadians split up into four groups. One turned back for civilisation, stumbling upon the broad South Pass through the Rockies along the way, while the other three groups headed further down the "...accursed mad river.”
Unfortunatly they now discovered the Snake River Gorge, Quickly they were trapped in a quarter mile wide abyss, between 700 foot high walls of solid basalt. There was nothing to eat here beyond the fish in the river, of which there were very few. As Richard Neuberger would write, “It was a winter of famine, and they boiled their buckskin footgear and drank the fetid broth. Two more voyageurs were swallowed up by rapids and another went mad.”
The survivors finally exited this purgatory by climbing out of the canyon. Again under Mr. Hunt’s command, they scattered in search of food. Luckilly they were stumbled upon by compasionate Indians, who fed and re-clothed the men before passing them on, tribe after tribe, until they were welcomed, each sad ragged party after the other, by the survivors of Astor’s ocean going disaster. Of the 64 who had set out from St. Louis in the fall of 1810, 45 staggered into Fort Astor, the last arriving in February of 1812…just in time for the war of 1812 between the United States and Great Britian.
Having believed Astors advertising campaigns, Captain William Black, of HMS Raccoon, was startled at what he saw. “Is this the great Fort Astoria I have heard so much of around the world?", wrote Captain Black. "Good God, I could batter it down with a four-pounder in two hours!”  He did not have to. The Astorians, as they referred to themselves, surrendered without a shot, secure in the knowledge that whatever nation’s flag was flying over the fort it remained the private property of an English citizen who had hired French Canadians and Americans to do his dirty work. The war was, at worst, an inconvenience to such an international corporation.
When the Treaty of Ghent ending the war was signed in December of 1814, it included a special clause which specifically transferred Astoria from Britain back to the United States, where Mr. Astor had now taken up residence. Average men and women might occasionally die for a flag, but for corporations,  money always trumps patriotism.
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Sunday, November 13, 2011

AIR HEADS - Part Two, Headwinds

I believe Bob Fowler was confident on September 23rd , when he finally took off from Colfax, California, (alt. 3,306 feet) in the Sierra foothills. He certainly looks confident in this photo. His confidence was, however, seriously misplaced. He had just fixed his airplane after his first crash, and immediately he was airborne, at six thousand feet up the Sierra Nevada mountains, Bob hit headwinds that his 40 horsepower Cole motor just couldn’t overcome. He was forced to return to Colfax.
That same day (September 23rd) back East, the little jockey Jimmy Ward was following the “iron compass”, as pilots referred to following railroad lines. In this case he was tracking the Erie Railroad westward out of Middletown, N.Y.  James landed and refueled safely, as he had planned,  at Callicoon, N.Y.(above), at 10:05 A.M. He refueled again at Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, and took off again at 2:15 P.M.
Two hours later, after avoiding crowds waiting for him at other landing fields, the shy James touched down on a farm outside of Owego, N.Y. Here the Jockey hitched a ride into town, where he ate a quick dinner while a local mechanic refueled his plane. He wanted to make it to Corning, N.Y. before dark, so he hurried his take off. But as the Jockey lifted into the air his engine coughed, his wheels snagged a fence and he was yanked to an abrupt halt. His lower left wing was bent, his wheels destroyed. Jimmy Ward was unhurt, physically, but it would take a crew from Curtiss Airplane almost two days to repair the damage.
 Back out in California, bright and early on the September 24th , Bob Fowler tried again to get over the Sierra. This time he got as high as as Emigrant Gap just below the Donner Pass, 7,500 feet above sea level, before the headwinds again forced him to retreat to Colfax.
On the 25th Bob reached 8,000 feet...before running into those darn headwinds again. This time Bob decided to land at Emigrant Gap, in order to get a head start start the next day. But flying in the thin air at high altitude was a skill not yet mastered by anyone, including Bob, and while turning around his wings lost lift and he plowed into the trees. They had to send out a search party to locate him, and when they did he had two broken wings and and two broken propellers - well his Cole Flyer did. Bob himself was somehow uninjured, but for the time being his continental flight was… waiting for repairs, again.
Back in Owego, the repaired Jimmy Ward’s Curitss airplane managed to limp into Corning and then on to the village of Addison, N.Y. (above) late on September 25th. He was now 300 miles and 10 long days out of New York City. But at this rate it could take him the better part of a year to reach California. Anxious to make up for lost time, at 7:18 A.M. on the 26th, James took off from Addison. And about five miles west of town he crashed again. He had to walk almost the whole way back to town. This was getting really hard.
To make it seem even harder, at a local hotel, Jimmy‘s wife, Maude Mae, overheard gamblers taking five-to-one odds that her husband would be dead before he reached Buffalo, New York. Maude May knew that Jimmy was not actually planning on heading to Buffalo, but she also knew that town was still 60 miles further to the west. And, since at the rate Jimmy was making progress toward California he could have been out run by a Conestoga wagon, and what with the rate Jimmy was crashing, Maude Mae figured the gamblers were being a bit optimistic at figuring Jimmy's lifespan. So Maude Mae decided to be practical - leave it to a woman to destroy a daredevil sporting event with practical thinking. Maude Mae spoke to Jimmy that night. And after his long walk and his two crashes over the previous four days, Jimmy was inclined to listen to the advice given by his wife.
Jimmy's manager announced his decision to the press the next morning. He was dropping out of the race. Later, Jimmy Ward would explain his decision in less than pragmatic terms. “…it was a plain case of a jinx”, he said.  And then he went on to prognosticate. “Rodgers is a mighty fine fellow, " said Jimmy, "and I wish him all kinds of luck, but he won't reach the coast within the specified time. To win that $50,000 he's got to complete his journey by Oct. 10th.  He can't do it. He'll get through all right, but not by that date.” Given this skill at fortune telling,  I am surprised that Jimmy Ward had no inkling that just seven months later Maude Mae would have him arrested in Chattanooga and charged with bigamy. She had discovered that Jimmy had never been legally divorced from his first wife. Poor Maude Mae. Poor, Jimmy Ward. And  he may have been the pilot with the most brains. Without his brains, the race went on. 
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