JUNE 2020

JUNE   2020
He Has Dragged Us Back Forty Years.


Friday, November 16, 2012


I came across a great story about an enterprising San Francisco merchant who scattered $20 worth of gold dust on the cobblestones of a public street, and was sweeping it up and panning it out in a horse trough just as a boatload of eager new 49ers arrived from “The States”. To them it seemed the streets of San Francisco really were paved with gold. The shop keeper even helpfully directed the newcomers to a nearby store where they could begin getting rich by obtaining their own twenty cent prospecting pan - for a mere $15.00 each. The new arrivals bought every pan in the store, and the merchant got rich. It's a myth of course, but not by much. The Frisco store was owned by Sam Brannan (above). And in nine short weeks in 1848 this alcoholic womanizer sold enough mining pans and picks and shovels out of his Frisco and Sacramento stores to profit the modern equivalent of $9 million. And he used that fortune, and four lengths of rope, to grab as much power as quickly as he could..
Samuel Brannan got his grub stake as the first President of the Mormon mission to California, when he traveled to Sacramento to collect tithes from the 100 Mormon workmen, contracted to build Mr. Sutter's mill (above) on the American River. His timing was fortunate because he saw the gold nuggets the Mormons had just discovered. Now, Sam should have turned that tithe money over to the Church of Latter Day Saints, which had dispatched him to California in 1846. But in 1847 he had crossed the high Sierras, and met with the church's new leader, Brigham Young. Sam urged Young to continue on to paradise in California, but the Mormon Moses was inspired instead to remain in the Utah wilderness. Returning alone to California, this disillusioned saint saw the “first world-class gold rush” as his own message from God. He became a prophet of capitalism. And when the church asked for the tithes he had collected, Sam told them, “When Brigham Young shows me a purchase order signed by God, I'll show him the money.” Or so the story goes.
As one of Frisco's first millionaires, Sam was a natural for the town council. But it was not an easy job. In the first 24 months after Sutter's mill, San Francisco went from 1,000 to 25,000 residents. Then, in 1850, the new California legislature slapped on a $20 monthly “foreign miners tax”, which drove most non-American prospectors out of the gold fields. Frisco soaked them up. Twenty percent of the town were now Chinese, and another twenty percent spoke Spanish, and a surprisingly large percentage were Australians, transported from England, usually for the crime of being poor. Men outnumbered women in Frisco by a hundred to one, and 2/3rds of those few women were prostitutes. Half the population was sleeping in tents, the other half in ramshackle shanties or aboard the hundreds of ships, abandoned by their gold hungry crews, and left floating in the bay. And to make matters worse, the darn place kept burning down.
On Christmas eve 1849 a fire broke out that overwhelmed the towns 90 volunteer firefighters and devoured fifty buildings. During the inferno, capitalist were selling a bucket of water for a dollar each. On May 4, 1850, 300 houses and three lives were destroyed by another fire. This time entrepreneurs insisted on contracts paying $3 an hour to help the firemen. And when city council hesitated to pay their bills, some frustrated contractors threatened to start their own fires. At about eight on the morning of June 14th, it happened again, consuming another 300 buildings. And on September 17th, the fourth fire in nine months swept up Jackson Street and burned out 125 buildings and eight city blocks. Then on May 4, 1851, a heavy wind drove yet another inferno that devoured yet another18 city blocks, centered around the neighborhood called “The Barbary Coast”, or “Sydney Cove” - for the large percentage of Australians living there.
The entire city was made of wood and canvas, and the only source of heat and light were thousands of open flames, and the only potable fluid safe to drink was alcohol laced, so in retrospect conflagrations were inevitable. But rumors, and newspapers such as the California Star, owned by Sam Brannan, insisted that Frisco's 57 police officers and overworked judges were too corrupt to catch and punish the extortion- arsonists nicknamed “The Lightkeeper”.
At least a suspect was caught in the May 1851 fire, an Australian named Benjamin Lewis. He was even rumored to be a member of the gang, “The Sydney Ducks”. His trial on Tuesday, June 3, 1851 was interrupted by shouts of “Lynch the villian”. Court officials hoped Sam Brannan could calm the angry crowd, but instead he suggested that Lewis be handed over to “volunteer policemen” for trial and punishment. The crowd agreed, but the real cops managed to slip the defendant safely out of the court house. Within a few days, the evidence against Lewis collapsed, and all charges were dropped. But this only outraged the citizens of San Francisco even more. On Monday, June 9, 1851, a meeting was called at the California Engine Company by fireman George Oakes and merchant James Neall to organize a public response. They asked yet another volunteer fireman to head a vigilante committee – Samuel Brannan, of course.
The very next day a drunken John Jenkins (alleged to be another Sydney Duck) boldly strode into a shipping office on the Long Wharf, grabbed a small safe with $50 in gold coins inside, and walked out. As pursuers drew close he tossed the safe into the bay, then allowed himself to be taken into custody. Jenkins was certain his fellow Ducks would rescue him. But he had not been taken by police. Instead he was lead to the headquarters of the Vigilante Committee, a warehouse owned by Sam Brannan, directly behind the offices of his “California Star” In less than an hour a rump court was convened, and two hours later Jenkins was convicted. At two in the morning, Wednesday June 12th , John Jenkins was jerked aloft from a gallows leaning against the Old Mexican customs house on Portsmouth Square, right in front of Brannan's newspaper. The Australian hung there for two hours.
The next day, Thursday the 13th, the goals of the Committee were published in the pages of Brannan's "Star" and other papers. “The citizens of San Francisco,” it announced, “do bind ourselves, each unto the other...determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin, shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption of the police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice.” It had been written by Sam Brannan. Within days 700 citizens had joined the vigilante committee. 
Over the summer Brannan's vigilantes' were busy, dragging people into their headquarters,  interrogating them, and doling out punishments as deemed necessary. One man was whipped in Portsmouth Square, 14 were forcefully deported back to Australia, another 14 were ordered to leave California, 15 more were handed over to the real police, and 41 were allowed to leave, with a warning. It is not known how many other Australians were refused entry at the port, or the number who “self deported” out of fear. Then on July 11th, the committee detained and hanged accused murderer “English” Jim Stuart from the yard arm of a ship docked at the end of the Market Street wharf (below)
It should be pointed out, that the committee also organized nightly fire patrols, and offered a $5,000 reward for any information concerning the identify of “The Lightkeeper”. Fires diminished, in number and severity, but this success must have at least partly been due to the use of brick and mortar in new construction. But the $5,000 reward was never claimed, although at last, two Australians, Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie were arrested and convicted in the Vigilante court of arson as well as burglary and robbery Their execution was set for August 21st. 
The day before, the Governor, John MacDougal, issued a public proclamation, denouncing the “despotic control of a self-constituted association unknown to and acting in defiance of the laws in the place of the regularly organized government of the country.” He went further, and obtained a writ of habeas corpus (“prodcuce the body”) from a state Supreme Court Justice, and then served it himself on the sheriff, Jack Hays. That night the Governor, the mayor and the sheriff , along with three deputies, marched into the committee's headquarters and demanded Whittaker and McKenzie be handed over. The sleepy guards acquiesced, and by 3 AM the two Australians were heavily guarded in the city jail.
It was a clear and direct challenge to Brennan. But Sam waited until Sunday, the 24th, until he acted. That morning Sheriff Hays was lured out of town by an invitation to a bull fight. And at about 2 PM, as the prisoners were being allowed out of their cells to receive mass, 36 heavily armed vigilantes rushed the jail, grabbed McKenzie and Whittaker, and marched them back to Committee headquarters. In 17 minutes the men had been tried and convicted again, and hanged from the beams used for loading goods into a  wharehouse's second floor windows. Sam Brannan even addressed the crowd of 5,000 who come to cheer and to stare in shock at his audacity.
But Sam Brannan (above) had finally gone too far. The Democratic Governor had an ally, in the local United States Military Commander, William Tecumseh Sherman, who noted in his autobiography decades later, “As (the Committee) controlled the press, they wrote their own history, and the world generally gives them the credit of having purged San Francisco of rowdies and roughs; but.... the same set of..rowdies that had infested the City Hall were found in the employment of the "Vigilantes”.”
How the message was delivered  is not known, but clearly a message was delivered. Quietly, the Committee did not meet again for five years, and never again under the leadership of Sam Brannan. That September, the sheriff was reelected. And Sam sailed for Hawaii, where he bought more land. He did not return to San Francisco for the better part of a year. In 1853 he was elected to the state Senate. But by then his church had excommunicated, or disfellowshipped, him, because of his vigilantism. Any dreams he had harbored about higher office would always break on the same rock.
Sam continued to build his fortune until until 1872, when his wife Anna could take his infidelities no more, So numerous were Sam's marital transgressions that the judge in their divorce awarded Anna half of all of Sam's wealth, in cash. Selling his properties left him almost bankrupt. Sam bought a small ranch outside of San Diego, remarried and made enough speculating in Mexican lands to pay his debts. But Sam left his new wife with nothing when he died in 1889.
The Democratic machine Sam had put in place continued even in his absence, in part by another outburst of vigilantism in 1856. More miscreants and arsonists and murderers were hanged, and more were chased out of town, but this time they were usually Chinese. But the Barbary Coast remained the same sinful place, and 'Frisco politics remained dirty. In the meantime, about 14 billion in early 21st century dollars were dug out of the California gold fields, and almost all of it had passed through San Francisco. In retrospect it seems that by building his political power on fear, Sam Brannan had tried to grab too much too fast. And he didn't get to keep any of it.
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Wednesday, November 14, 2012


I don’t understand why anyone believes any of the popular myths about Thanksgiving. The truth is our Puritan forefathers were a humorless bunch who showed their devotion to God by going hungry, not by eating. They would have considered our average Thanksgiving dinner an insult to God. Their God was not interested in contentment, just punishment and fasting. And the only feasts they had were in the late  summer, when food was plentiful. By late November they were already deep into their grain stores, and watery stew. They would only say thanks if they were staving to death!
The real mother of Thanksgiving was actually the widow who wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and other innocent poems, Sarah Hale. She was the 19th century version of Martha Stewart. For forty years Sarah was the editor of the prestigious “Godey’s Lady’s Book” magazine. And each November Sarah would bombard her 150,000 subscribers with recipes for Roast Turkey, Turkey stuffing, Turkey gravy, and Turkey stew. Now a lot of selling and some kitchen chemistry was required because 19th century turkeys were scrawny and almost exclusively dark meat. Sarah championed turkey because her middle class homemakers were on tight budgets, and per pound the randy, strutting bird-brain turkey cost less than half what a chicken might.
But the real revolution came when, in 1934, the United States Department of Agriculture discovered the key to making turkeys palatable; artificial insemination. In 1932, before the breeding revolution, the average American ate just two pounds of turkey a year. Today, that amount is closer to twenty pounds. Turkey farmers across America, are very thankful for that big government intervention. So are most turkey eaters, although they don't seem to know it.
But the increased popularity of turkey has come at a price - no sex for the turkey. Today’s buxom white breasted Tom Turkey is too obese to climb atop an equally buxom white breasted hen. Without human intervention, the Thanksgiving turkey would have have gone extinct - Ah, ceste se la guerre. But this brings us to my real topic, which is the year when Thanksgiving became a real de la guerre; 1939
It was the third year of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second term as president. And Republicans were determined (read terrified) that he might want a third term. However they were not in a good position to prevent it, holding only 177 seats in the House of Representatives (to 252 Democrats) and a paltry 23 seats in the Senate (to 69 Democrats). But then in August, Roosevelt handed Republicans an early Christmas present.
In July Franklin had received a visit from Fred Lazarus (above), head of the Federated Department Stores, the single biggest retail chain by volume in America. He controlled Macy’s and Bloomingdales in New York City, Filenes in Boston, and Strauss in Brooklyn. Fred pointed out to the President that in 1939, November would have five Thursdays; the second, the ninth, the sixteenth, the twenty-third and the thirtieth. And Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation calling for a day of Thanksgiving -  first issued after the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and re-issued by Presidents every year since - specifically designated Thanksgiving as the final Thursday in November. That final Thursday would be, in the case of 1939,  the 30th . The last time Thanksgiving had fallen on the fifth Thursday in November had been 1933. That year the Christmas shopping season, which traditionally began the day after Thanksgiving, was just 20 shopping days long, and had proven disastrous for retailers. Of course, there had been the Great Depression that year, but retail business folks are like farmers, they always worry about the rain. Did it come too early, or too late? Is it too much, or too little? Anyway, Lazarus wanted Roosevelt to move the Turkey Day forward one week, to give merchants another week to tempt their customers into spending on Christmas. The President had also heard from lobbyists at the National Retail Dry Goods Association, as well as executives from Gimbels and Lord & Taylor.
Being a long time politician, Roosevelt listened to the business community. And at a Press Conference held August 14th, he said, “I have been hearing from a great many people...complaints that Thanksgiving came too close to Christmas”. Roosevelt reminded the press corps that Thanksgiving was still not an official holiday, and that each year the President picked the date for it. And, since "experts" believed that adding another week to the shopping season would increase sales by 10%, Franklin announced that this year of 1939,  he was moving Thanksgiving to Thursday, November 23rd., the fourth Thursday in November.
The first alarm went off  the very next day, when Fred Lazarus ran into his younger brother Simon. Simon Lazarus was ranting over the change because it had disrupted his Ohio State Universities’ Thanksgiving day football game. “What damn fool got the president to do this?” Simon barked at his brother, who, in fact, was the damn fool himself. But that was just the beginning.
The Republican attorney general for Oregon, turned to poetry. “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November; All the rest have thirty-one; Until we hear from Washington.”  A shopkeeper in Kokomo, Indiana preferred to protest in prose. He put up a sign in his window which read, “Do your shopping early. Who knows, tomorrow may be Christmas.” Republican Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire urged the President to simply abolish winter by fiat. And Methodist minister Norman Vincent Peal got very outraged, charging it was  “…contrary to the meaning of Thanksgiving for the president of this great nation to tinker with the sacred religious day with the specious excuse that it will help Christmas sales. The next thing we may expect Christmas to be shifted to May 1st to help the New York World’s Fair of 1940.”  Did anybody point out to Norman, that the bible never mentioned which Thursday Thanksgiving should fall on?
Twenty-three governors went with the President’s switch, and twenty-two did not. Texas and Colorado couldn’t make up their minds and recognized both days as the holiday in question, although the Republican Governor of Colorado, Ralph Carr, announced he would eat no turkey on the 23rd. The 30th was labeled as the Republican Thanksgiving, while the 23rd became the Democratic Thanksgiving, or, as "Nucky" Johnson, the recently indicted Republican mayor of Atlantic City called Franklin Roosevelt’s holiday, “Franksgiving”.
There were a few real problems hidden under this haze of invented political outrage. Calendars could not be changed in time for the 1939 switch over. And schools were suddenly uncertain of vacation schedules. Some families found their bosses forced their holiday dinners to be split between the two dates. But it turned out that the real problem had been identified by Simon Lazarus, the angry brother - football.
The headline in the New York Times said it all; “PRESIDENT SHOCKS FOOTBALL COACHES” The coach of Little Ouachita college in Arkansas warned, “We'll vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football.'” Chairman of the Athletic Board at New York University wrote to Roosevelt, “…it has become necessary to frame football schedules three to five years in advance, and for both 1939 and 1940 we had arranged to play our annual football game with Fordham on Thanksgiving Day…” And then Roosevelt had changed the date!
A Gallup poll found that 62% of Americans wanted the President’s decision reversed. But it was too late for Roosevelt to change his mind in 1939. And FDR was too stubborn to admit defeat in November 1940, which also had five Thursdays, and was a Presidential election year. Despite the addition of even more politics into the mix, nine states switched from the Republican Thanksgiving (the last Thursday) to the Democratic one (the fourth Thursday) in 1940. That left just sixteen celebrating the “old” Thanksgiving. And that seems to have been enough of a victory for Roosevelt, that looking ahead to November 1941 (which surprisingly also had five Thursdays), he asked New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to study the sales figures. Was that extra week of shopping really helping the economy? In fact it had, but not very much; certainly not enough, considering all the angst and confusion the move had cost.
In early May of 1941, LaGuardia’s report informed the White House that “the early Thanksgiving date has not proved worthwhile".  So on May 20th 1941, Roosevelt set Thanksgiving 1941 back to the last Thursday in November. And in a rational world, that would have settled that. But, of course, politicians are not rational beings.
Being lawmakers the politicians in the House of Representatives decided to get involved by writing a law. House joint resolution 41 justified itself by pointing out that there was nothing to designate the day as a holiday except the annual President's Proclamation (which Roosevelt had mentioned at the start of this mess!). Henceforth,said the Representatives, the last Thursday in November would legally be Thanksgiving. But when HR 41 got to the Senate, those gentlemen felt compelled to improve upon it.  They did this by changing one little word. Thanksgiving would now be, not the last Thursday in November as the House had intended, but the fourth Thursday in November. As Connecticut Senator John A. Danaher pointed out, in four out of five years, the last Thursday in November was the fourth Thursday in November, anyway. The House went along and Roosevelt signed the new law into effect on December 26, 1941. And amazingly, since that date, the Republicans had been determined not to notice that Roosevelt and the merchants had won.
No matter what conservative sympathizers may chortle about on their blog posts, Roosevelt got his (meaning the merchant's)  earlier date for Thanksgiving, and that extra week before Christmas.  They got it by calling it something else, so the Republicans would swallow the common sense of it without chocking on their own press releases. And that is something we can all be thankful for, in four years out of every five years, anyway.
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Sunday, November 11, 2012


I think there are times when you can say death is a release. And Patrick Henry's death may have been one of those. At the urging of George Washington, in the spring of 1799, Patrick stood for election one more time, for the Virginia House of Delegates. He ran as a Federalist. That may seem an odd political affiliation for a man who had opposed the new Federal Constitution, and Hamilton's Bank of the United States because they made the Federal government too strong. But what convinced him to join with Washington in supporting a strong central government was the threat of war with France – which never came. Patrick won his last election, but he never occupied his seat. He died of stomach cancer on June 6, 1799. His second wife, Dorothea, quickly married Patrick's friend, Judge Edmund Wilson, thus protecting the family investments from predators who might have cheated a naive widow. It is amazing to me the lengths to which men in western cultures had to go to, to avoid recognizing and treating women as equals.

George Washington, father of the nation, speculator and southern aristocrat, slave owner and builder of the American Republic, died in December of 1799. He was no less complex then any other man of his or any other age. But he had dedicated his life to service, which meant not that he forced others to do what he knew was right, but that his service enabled others to stumble toward a solution of their own, which most could agree upon. And that is the difference between those who toil for the good of the nation, and those who claim to do what is best for all, usually while serving only themselves. And that is what raised George Washington above his age, and made him the true father of our country. I think there are times when a life is gift to others. And George Washington gave us one of those gifts. Please remember to say “thank you” to him, at least once a day.
You might say something else to the memory of James Gunn. Once the details of the Yazoo Land sale became public, Senator Gunn was almost universally despised. But he still had six years to serve as a United States Senator. He spent most of that time demanding and handing out petty political favors. Most of his fellow Senators shunned him as much as possible, and toward the end of his term he announced he was “disgusted with everything connected with public life” - it was certainly disgusted with him. At the end of his term, in March of 1801, he returned to the old state capital of Louisville, Georgia and at the end of July 1801, in a room full of people, James Gunn died so quietly no one in the room noticed he was dead for several minutes. That would have galled him. One obituary called him “General Yazoo”, a reminder of his ego and those runaway slaves he had butchered so many years before. A kinder obituary hoped he was “beyond the reach of friendship, or of hatred.” I doubt that would be true, until everyone he cheated had died, which would take several more decades at least.
In January of 1798 James Jackson was elected Governor of Georgia. In his first two year term he over saw the creation of the new Georgia constitution, and personally wrote sections 23 and 24, which, again, voided the Yazoo land sales. He tried to drive a final stake through its heart by adding to the new document a proviso that “no...order shall pass the General Assembly, granting a donation or gratuity in favor of any person whatever...” except by a two-thirds vote. Jackson was elected to a second term, mostly by blaming the entire Yazoo mess on the Federalists. And with Thomas Jefferson and his Republicans winning the White House in 1800, Republican Governor Jackson guided the final disposal of the dreaded temptation of the Yazoo Lands to the Federal Government, in exchange for $1,250,000.
And when the “Prince of Duels” died on March 19, 1806, no one was more surprised and disappointed than James Jackson himself that he met his demise in bed, rather than on a 'Field of Honor'. I'm sure the constant brawls and dueling wounds contributed to his inability to fight off his last brief illness. We all die from our live's accumulated wounds. But a life spent fighting evil demands a final Homeric battle, and a Homeric conclusion, which James Jackson did not get. Death rarely offers nobility because the instant of death is the end of context.
The native American claims to the Yazoo lands they had been living on when Columbus stumbled upon America, were squeezed out of existence over the next fifty years. Washington wanted the “Five Civilized Tribes” as they were called, out of the way. Jefferson started the wholesale buying and stealing of their lands. And Andrew Jackson finished it in 1838 with the original “Trail of Tears”. The road to the next “Indian Territory” beyond the Mississippi River (now that Indiana was ethnically cleansed), was marked by a line of graves. Out of an estimated 17,000 Cherokee and their slaves forced on the trail, some 4,000 died, or in at least one case in southern Illinois, were murdered. We know of this latter episode of genocide because the murderers filed a $35 claim with the Federal Government to dispose of each their victim's bodies. Similar ethnic cleansing was suffered by members of the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Creek tribes. This people were murdered for their lands. There was no better justification for their murders.
Ninety percent of the lands beyond the Apalachicola River, what would became the states of Alabama and Mississippi, would still be bought by speculators, but from the Federal government. And the next generation of Americans would risk their fortunes to build dams and levees, to drain the Yazoo swamp lands and keep the river to a path, and would finally lay bare some of the richest agricultural soil in the world. It was here the next generation of Americans would grow cotton, which would be shipped to England and made into garments which would clothe the British Raj on the Indian sub-continent. There were profits aplenty for everybody, except, of course, for the slaves who picked the cotton.
And for the speculators who started it all. Patrick Henry,. David Ross, Robert Morris, John Nicholson, James Wilson and James Gunn, all failed to profit from their roles in the Yazoo Swamp land deal. Most lost everything. The profit making would be up to the next generation of “land jobbers” as they were called, in this case John Peck, and his partner in “the legal crime”, named Robert Fletcher.
Peck had been one of the original 1797 investors in the New England Mississippi Company, AKA the Upper Mississippi Company, AKA the Virginia Yazoo Company. And in 1803, seven years after the Georgia legislature had canceled the 1795 Yazoo land sales, Peck sold 13,000 acres in the companies' territory to Robert Fletcher for $3,000, or about 4 1/3 cents per acre. If the sale had been legitimate, it would have been about the only time in the history of the Yazoo speculation, that a seller not under threat of bankruptcy, had sold his shares for less than he had originally paid for them.
Which meant, of course, that the sale was a fraud – as the parties later fully acknowledge. It was the final act in a founding fatheres' farce designed by Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, who had died in 1798. Yes, he had risen from beyond the grave to complete Patrick Henry's swamp-land deal to the American tax payers - a capitalist hero.
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