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Friday, April 05, 2013


I often hear Tea Party politicians called  "fire brands". The original definition is a piece of kindling, bit of burning wood used to start a larger fire. It is a phrase you hear with increasing frequency, and yet it seems we have forgotten the agony a political fire can cause, consuming our homes and our lives.  And thus, a firebrand is also a perfect description of a dangerous politician. And the most famous firebrand of American politics, one of the first self described political fire starters, was William Lowneds Yancey.
Yancey’s (above) South Carolina family were strongly pro-Federalist, and at an Independence Day celebration in 1834 the young man told a crowd, “Listen, not then...to the voice which whispers…that Americans…can no longer exist…citizens of the same republic…”  He also championed the Federal Union as editor of the newspaper the “Greenville Mountaineer”  - at least until 1835, when he married an Alabama widow with an Alabama plantation and 35 slaves. The ownership of human beings converted Yancey to pro-slavery.  And then the Panic of 1837 wiped out cotton prices and with them William Yancey’s new found fortune and social status. This traumatic event also converted Yancy into a radical.
Yancey went back to the profession that he knew best, and in 1838 he bought a failing newspaper. Needing to make money quickly, Yancey's very first editorial was sure to please the money people of Alabama - a passionate defense of slavery. In a followup editorial he even favored reopening the slave trade with Africa, which had been closed down by British Naval patrols since 1819. Yancey publicly opposed the compromises of 1850, which sought to establish a balance between slave states and “free” states within the Union. By now anything short of total domination by slave states was not a cowardly compromise  in Yancey’s view.
Also in 1838 the true nature of the man was revealed, when an alleged political insult led to a street brawl between Yancey and his wife’s uncle. Yancey shot the man dead on the street. He later justified this hot blooded murder, writing he had been,  “Reared with the spirit of a man…and taught to preserve inviolate my honor…”,  which seems to me like lousy justification for murder. He was convicted of manslaughter but served only a few months before being pardoned. His reputation as a murderous hot head did nothing to prevent him from being elected to first the Alabama legislature and then, in 1844,  to the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 1858 Yancey wrote what Horace Greeley called, ‘The Scarlett Letter’, in which he invented the term "fire eater" to describe himself.  He pledged that with like minded southerners, he would, “…fire the Southern heart – instruct the Southern mind - …and at the proper moment, by one organized, concerted action, we can precipitate the cotton states into revolution.” This was why Yancey was called the “Orator of Secession”. He worked hard to split his own (Democratic) party on the issue of slavery, believing the election of a Republican (anti-slavery) presidential candidate in 1860 would radicalize the south. He was, in the words of that genius Bruce Catton, “…one of the men tossed up by the tormented decade of the 1850’s (John Brown was another) who could help to bring catastrophe on but not do anything more than that.”
That the North had twice the population of the South, that the North had ten times the industrial and agricultural capacity, that slavery was already dieing in the South, that the North would not fight to end slavery but would fight to preserve the union, that Lincoln did not believe the Federal government had the power or the right to outlaw slavery, all this meant nothing to Yancey. Yancey wanted secession not despite the destructive effects it would have on the South, but, it seemed, almost because of them. President-elect Abraham Lincoln described the problem of dealing with hot heads like Yancey. "Not only must we do them no harm, but somehow we must convince them that we mean to do them no harm". Does this sound anything like the Tea Party Congress, to you?
Once war broke out Jefferson Davis sent Yancey (above) to England to seek recognition. A diplomatic mission seemed like an odd choice for this particular man, so perhaps Davis really had little hope of Britian ever recognizing the Confederacy, and he just wanted to be rid of Yancey. The Prime Minister eventually met with Yancey, but then asked if he had been serious about his call for a resumption of the slave trade. Yancey denied it, but that question indicated there was no chance that England would recognize the South, as long as Yancey represented a significant political voice. Yancey returned home in frustration and defeat. He now served in the Confederate Senate, opposing Davis’ power to draft troops and blocking Davis’ attempt to form a Confederate Supreme Court in the spring of 1863.
It was during debate over the court when Yancey and Benjamin Hill of Georgia got into a brawl on the Senate floor. It was almost a repeat of the 1838 shooting.  When the hot headed Yancy reached for his gun,  Hill grabbed the only weapon he had at hand - an ink stand. He beaned Yancey on the head with it, cold cocking him.. The Confederate Senate censured Yancey and took no action against Hill.
So it seemed that even his political allies and friends did not like William Yancey very much. And this was the man the South had staked its future upon. I believe it was William Yancey whom Jefferson Davis was thinking of when he said the epitaph of the Confederacy should be, “Died of a Theory.’
After censure, Yancey returned to Alabama,  where he died in July of 1863, just 2 weeks before his 49th birthday. He had lived just long enough to see the twin defeats of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, which together sealed the doom of the Confederacy. But even then the fire brands kept fighting.
The product of William Yancy's life’s work was the death of 750,000 young men and perhaps a million civilians - the vast majority of them southerners -  the  total abolition of slavery in America and the ultimate victory of Federalism over State’s Rights. It is an estate today's firebrand's of the Tea Party ought to take note of.  But I doubt they will.
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Wednesday, April 03, 2013


I was listening to John Brennan's nomination hearing to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and he was being questioned about drone strikes against alleged terrorists where ever and when ever the President wants to kill them, when it occurred to me that there is just about no country on the face of the earth in which American soldiers have not killed or been killed. It seems we have taken on the intellectual and cultural mantle of an “American Empire”, which was to be expected, I guess, since we learned from the British, who openly sought an empire back in the good old days of “fuzzy-wuzzies” and empires being a good thing. The Brits, by their own count, have invaded 90% of the roughly 200 countries on this earth - not bad for a small damp island with a big navy, off the northwest coast of Europe. And that percentage grows more amazing, the more you think about it.
Sure, the Brits spent most of the 11th and 12th centuries fighting in France and Belgium and Germany, and part of the 15th attacking the Netherlands. But they also once owned the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and Pakistan. And from the 18th through the 20th centuries they invaded South Africa, Portugal, Spain, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Nepal, most of the countries in Central and South America and assorted Pacific Islands. They occupied several cities in China, and fought two wars to conquer Afghanistan and two more to force Chinese Emperors to accept opium from Afghan poppy fields. They invaded Cuba in 1741, the Philippines in 1762 and Iceland in 1940. They even attacked little Denmark twice, in 1801 and 1807. Whew!: this could take us forever, so let us try a shorter route.
The 22 countries that the British do not admit invading are – Andorra. Belarus, Bolivia, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Guatemala, Ivory Coast, Kyrgyzstan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mali, the Marshall Islands, Monaco, Mongolia (maybe they didn't and maybe they did twice), Paraguay, Sao Tome and Principe, Sweden, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Vatican City. And that brings up the most interesting question (at least to me) about this record of British avarice and aggression; why not? Why did those empire hungry imperialists miss these 22 spots while invading everywhere else in the world? Well, it seems the first requirement for British intervention was a coastline.
Andorra is a tiny landlocked country sitting 6,500 feet up in the Pyrenees mountains between Spain and France. Similarly, the Duchy of Lichtenstein, is high in the Alps between Switzerland and Italy. Neither country has a sea coast, and no major resources. Since the 16th century Andorra has been governed jointly by a local bishop and a French nobleman, who morphed into the President of France. In the 19th century a German prince bought Lichtenstein as a summer retreat. In both countries democracy made the citizens stock holders, thus protecting the property owners' investments. In 1934 a Russian con man named Boris Skossyreff staged a coup and declared himself the King of Andorra. He was promptly arrested - by the police. So it appears the English never invaded Andorra or Lichtenstein because it wasn't easy to reach, there was no profit in it, and...they didn't want a felony arrest on their record.
The three countries of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan fall into the same category; plus their entries in the British Foreign Office Guide Book probably start with, “Nothing but trouble”. They are all mountainous with (again) no sea coast, filled with stubbornly independent peoples and with no resources you could profitably get out. The same was true for the homeland of Genghis Khan, but the English still came close to invading Mongolia, twice. The first time was in the 1850's, during the 2nd Opium War, when the British chased the Chinese general Prince Sengge Rinchen all the way to the border, and maybe over it. Then again, in 1918, the British shipped a few thousand troops “unfit for combat” in France, out to Vladivostok to guard the Trans-Siberian railroad for the White Russians who were fighting the communist. They got close to the border with Mongolia, but it seems unlikely they would have crossed it except by accident. Eventually common sense reared its ugly practical head and in 1920, the British went home.
Tiny Luxembourg (998 square miles) also has no coastline. It sits smack-dab between France and Germany. Until 1890 the King of the Netherlands was also the Duke and ruler of Luxembourg, so it has only been an independent country for a little over a century. In that time both the English and Luxembourg were aligned with the French. In both world wars the Brits took the northern flank in the Allied line, leaving the French (or the Americans) to devastate Luxembourg, retreating and advancing back and forth across it. Paraguey, in South America, is larger (157,000 sq miles) but also lacks a coastline, and it seems the British never had a reason to invade Paraguay. I say “seems” because the national historical archives of Paraguay, which would have recorded any British invasions, are kept in vaults in Rio de Janiro, Brazil, where Paraguayan historians need a passport to even look at them.
The island nation of Sao Tome and Principe has nothing but coastline, but the British decided not to invade this archipelago of dead volcanoes 140 miles off the coast of Nigeria in Africa, because from day one it also looked like nothing but trouble. The Portuguese stumbled on the place early in the 15th century, and it seemed perfect for growing sugar cane, with rich volcanic soil and an entire continent of potential slave labor just over the horizon. But once captured, the slaves kept revolting. The plantations switched to growing coffee and chocolate, but slavery remained a lousy business model until 1875 when the locals replaced it with contract labor that looked a lot like slavery, and that didn't work either. There were strikes and worker revolts into the 1950's when out of desperation the country decided to try democracy. In 1974 Portugal gave the islands their freedom, and by 1991 they were holding better elections than the state of Florida. Their chocolate crop today is sold mostly to the English candy maker, Cadbury, so the Brits got control of the place without having to invade it.
Sweden was a completely different situation. They also have a coastline, and Sweden once actually declared war on England, on November 17, 1810. But the only causalities were 30 Swedish draft resisters who were shot by their own soldiers. And the Swedes only went to war with England because they first lost a war with Napoleon, over some ports they owned on the Baltic coast of Germany, which he wanted. In the peace treaty Bonaparte forced the Swedes to declare war on Britain. But the Swedes went out of their way not to offend their new “friendemies”, and the Brits, who already had their hands full with Napoleon, happily went along with the farce. And when Napoleon decided to invade Russia, Sweden quietly declared peace with England on July 18, 1812. After the war the Swedes gave up their claim to the German ports, and that was how they avoided later being invaded by the English; call it a preemptive peace.
The most curious island state to not be invaded by Britain is the Marshall Islands, which were named after English Naval Captain John Marshall. He commanded the HMS Scarborough, one of the first ships that carried convicts banished to Australia in 1788. After dropping off his load of unwilling settlers, he sailed out across the Pacific, where he charted what came to be called the Gilbert and the Marshall islands. He didn't discover either archipelago, and the British never claimed them, but John Marshall's charts were the most well known, and so they got named after him. But other than a few copra plantations, there was no profit there.
And then there is the tiny Principality of Monaco, running barely 2 ½ miles along the Mediterranean Sea. Despite this inviting coastline, the British never invaded because Monaco was owned by the the Grimaldis family out of Genoa, Italy, who pledged themselves vassals of the French Kings. This gave them support from both France, which hugs Monaco on three sides, and Italy, just 9 miles to the west. This met England's third rule for nonintervention, which says never make two nations mad at you at the same time. After 1815, when Napoleon was finally locked up, the Congress of Vienna placed Monaco under the protection of the Prince of Sardinia. He quickly bankrupted the place, and then abandoned it. Things were so bad neither the French nor the Italians wanted Monaco, and the Grimaldis, who still owned most of the land, were so desperate that in 1856 they took a chance on two brothers, Francois and Louis Blanc, who offered to build a gambling casino there. The Monte Carlo casino was so successful, that ten years later the locals stopped paying taxes, and they still don't pay them today. It became a vacation spot for the English upper crust, thus invoking the fourth rule about empires never building latrines up stream from where they throw dinner parties.
And then there is Vatican City, which is in fact just a small neighborhood in the middle of Rome. The complication is that Catholicism is the largest business in Italy, and Rome has always been a one industry town. Since Benito Mussolini signed a treaty with the Vatican in 1929, that 110 acres (half of which is gardens) has the veneer of nationhood. Its as if the Bronx was smaller and had their own flag. But it meets the English nonintervention rule of never pissing off a billion religious devotees.
So there are the British rules for building and maintaining an empire; never invade a country you can't easily get into and out of, you can't make a profit in, that would anger too many other countries, or a country you can influence without invading them, or a country that would make a billion religious devotees very angry with you. Under these rules, American interventions in Korea and Granada were sensible, Iraq was just stupid, and Afghanistan and Vietnam would have made sense if they had been brutal and short.
This foreign policy stuff is not that hard. Its when you blend emotion and ego into the arguments, that it gets difficult.
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Sunday, March 31, 2013


I blame the current sorry state of American government on John Dickinson (above), President of Pennsylvania. On the morning of June 20th, 1783, some 400 long suffering soldiers of the Continental Army surrounded Independence Hall in Philadelphia and refused to let the Congress out, until they had voted to give the soldiers' their back pay. The politicians negotiated their way out of this difficulty without parting with any money. But the effrontery by working stiffs directly petitioning their government so angered Alexander Hamilton that he dispatched a note to Dickinson, demanding that he call out the state militia to arrest the army. Dickinson refused.
So, like a boarder sneaking out on the rent, overnight the Continental Congress slipped across the Delaware River to Princeton, New Jersey, just to avoid paying their own army. And for the next 13 years the American government wandered the eastern seaboard avoiding debt collectors, both foreign and domestic. And to prevent such effrontery  from ever happening again, in 1800 they built their own city, where they had to ask no one's permission to arrest people trying to hold them accountable. And thus was born the Federal District of Columbia, and the city of Washington, as a direct of result of the lesson taught by John Dickinson – that government, like many people, provides justice only when forced to – or when it is to their advantage.
There was already a town in the new district, called Funkstown. But that village disappeared after the owner, Jacob Funk, was paid off - unlike those Continental soldiers. Thus Washington was founded on the principle of payoffs to the land owners, and a cold shoulder to the working stiffs. Pierre L'Enfant designed the nation's capital on the square, ten miles on each side. But geographic reality required that it be balanced for all time on the southeast corner. There were named avenues running North-west to South-East and lettered streets (minus a “J”) running East-to-west, starting with “A” along the Potomac. The entire lopsided place was lorded over by the Capital, perched proudly atop Jenkins Hill.
Oddly, the plan for the city had no space set aside for the sinew and sweaty realities that make all cities possible. In the 18th century that meant fetid livestock yards, noisome smithies, reeking slaughter houses, putrid tanneries and malodorous glue factories. The 19th century added the town's rancid gas plant, surrounded by mounds of sooty black coal, fed by belching steam engines puffing clouds of black soot right into the center of town. The reeking vaporous working class neighborhood where all that stink eventually settled was almost a mile from the capital, but a mere two blocks from the White House, which showed where on the social totem pole the Founding Fathers placed the chief executive. The constant clouds of vile vapors gave a fit nickname to this sorry section of town - Foggy Bottoms.
But the expansion of Washington and its government by the Civil War brought gentrification to Foggy Bottoms, driving the stink further out into Maryland and Virginia. Thus the Bottoms' primary artery, K Street, could stretch its golden mile from Washington Circle on the west to Vernon Square on the east, with nary a sniffle or a gag between. And in 1880, along the very center of that route, between 16th and 17th streets, adjacent to an alleyway, Mr. J.B. Edmonds, decided to build himself a house.
Edmonds told people he was a retired banker, and he was. But he was also a land developer from Clay County, Iowa. He had been the first mayor of the county seat of Spencer,  Iowa, so he was no stranger to politics, either. Just the year before he had also begun publishing a magazine called “The Owl”, which promoted immigration and farming into western Iowa. All things considered I would say it seems unlikely that the 35 year old Edmonds had moved to Washington to retire, as he claimed. He had been proffered a job in the administration of President Chester A. Arthur, as one of the three commissioners for the district. It was one of those jobs that Dickinson had taught the government it needed for its own protection.  But in truth I suspect Edmonds was not that interested in either retirement or governing the District. He had come to Washington to pursue an active career as a lobbyist. He just had too much pride to admit such a disingenuous occupation in public.
His brand new three story Victorian house at 1625 K Street (above), complete with servant's quarters in the attic, and faced with a green sandstone, had cost him $17,000, the equivalent of almost half a million dollars today. So it seems that whatever Edmonds' s endeavors in the nation's capital were, they paid very well. Edmonds lived in his home until his death at the age of 55, in 1901.
His widow, Lydia, held onto the property, but she rented the house out to the newly elected Senator from Maryland, "Fighting" Senator Louis Emery McComas of Maryland (above) and his wife. He proved to be an honest politician and thus a one term Senator. However he had earned the respect of some, and in 1905 President Teddy Roosevelt appointed him to the Washington, D.C., District Court of Appeals. Two years later Senator McComas was dead, and Lydia moved back into the Little Green House on K street.
The City of Washington began the first decade of the 20th century with 279,000 residents, two thirds of whom were described as “white”. People then still expected to live within walking distance of where they worked. In 1900 there were only some 8,000 automobiles and just 10 miles of paved roads in the entire country. That year there were 96 people killed in automobile accidents nationwide - compared to 115 lynchings. But by 1906 enough automobiles had arrived that the District felt required to establish a top speed limit of 20 miles an hour on city streets. And in 1907 the District of Columbia issued its first license plate. That change was happening became evident in 1910 when there were only 76 lynchings nationwide, compared to some 1,700 deaths in automobile collisions.
By 1910 Washington, D.C. had grown to 331,000 people, while the racial mix had stayed about the same. Nationwide, over that decade, life expectancy had increased by about a year. Salaries had risen from an average of $670 a year (for a 59 hour work week) to $750 a year. And there were still over 2 million unemployed in America.
And then there came the leap year of 1912. That was the year New Mexico and Arizona became states. It was the year that 30,000 textile workers staged the Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. It was the year that first lady Helen Taft planted the first cherry tree in Washington. It was the year that the United States Marines pulled off a triple play, invading Honduras, Nicaragua and Cuba. It was the year the Titanic sank off of Newfoundland. And that November Teddy Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote and allowed the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, to be elected President. Thirteen days after that election day, on November 18, 1912, Lydia Edmonds died in the little green house on K street. She left behind an estate valued at half a million dollars, equal to $11 million today. It would appear that being a lobbyist paid really well, even in the 19th century.
In the new century, using that same little green house on K street as a balancing point, lobbyists were going to reach new heights of wealth and influence, on their way to establishing a government of the lobbyists, by the lobbyists, and for the lobbyists.
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