Sunday, March 30, 2014

Heard this one before?

Think back to Boston in 1767, before the Revolution.

The top 10 per cent of taxpayers in Boston held roughly two-thirds of the city’s taxable wealth.
And 30 per cent of men in Boston had no taxable property, and thus, were not eligible to vote.

Any part of this sound familiar?

Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492- Present (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 65.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

How many colonists actually saw an “Indian”?

As we study “first contact” and the tectonic engagement of two widely disparate cultures, it seems pertinent to ask: how many European colonists actually came face-to-face with a Native American, and vice versa?

I am fascinated by the demographic details of the experiences of Native Americans and Europeans in colonial North America. I'm interested in knowing more about the consequences of deadly epidemics that repeatedly reduced and devastated Native American populations. Various estimates suggest that up to 90% of the native American population died within a couple generations after the advent of Europeans, with the deaths attributable in small part to armed conflict and mostly to new diseases. Imagine that such a combination would reduce the current population of the United States from 318 million to about 30 million in the next 50 years. Would history books in the late 21st century be focused on any other topic?

My reading suggests that this wholesale reduction of Native American populations is typically noted, and the range of impacts is listed. It is acknowledged that diseases repeatedly eliminated whole families, destroyed kin networks, silenced whole villages, felled elders and chiefs and matriarchs, killed healers and others with special skills, and, most destructive of all, blanked out generational memories of tribal/clan traditions and stories that kept cultural and spiritual values alive. However, there is little reflection on how the philosophies and the world views, and the public and private aspirations, and the nightmares of the few survivors were affected. James Merrell suggests that 60,000 Catawbas were reduced, in merely 100 years, to a remnant population of only 500 in 1759. [1]  Death by disease is not, inter alia, simply a circumstance of history if it kills nearly everyone who lived within the span of memory of the few survivors. 

The magnitude of Native American populations, both before and after diseases took their toll, is a frame of reference in colonial history that I believe should receive more attention. Contemporary students have only limited awareness of the eventual minimal population numbers and sparse population densities of Native Americans throughout North America. For example, the celebrated and powerful Iroquois Confederacy in colonial New York had an estimated  combined population of  less than 22,000 when Europeans made first contact; an unrelenting decline of almost 80% reduced their numbers to only about 4,700 in mid-18th century. [2] In 1775 the largely British inhabitants of the New York colony outnumbered the Haudenosaunee about 8-to-1. [3] Analyses of alliances and the balance of power among Iroquois and Europeans do not typically make reference to these population data; such omission is a detriment to full understanding of military, political, commercial and social dynamics in the colonial era.

Population densities were quite low in colonial times. At the beginning of the 16th century, it's estimated that Northern New England Native American populations had a density of only 41 persons per 100 square miles; for comparison, an equivalent population in modern Massachusetts would be only about 4,328 people—in fact, Massachusetts today has 6.6 million residents. The English population in all of New England after 100 years of colonial settlement was only 93,000. [4] That’s just about the same as the current population of Brockton, MA. One wonders if any Native Americans and colonials seriously considering avoiding all contact with each other. It might have been relatively easy to do so for quite a long time.

I suggest that we too easily think of Native Americans and colonial Europeans as an undifferentiated mass that can be understood by characterizing groups. However, the fact of short life spans in the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries means that we should work hard at probing the evolving intentions and experiences of the relatively rapid succession of individuals who lived their lives and contributed in greater or lesser degrees to the making of "new worlds" on the North American continent. Average life expectancy of Europeans in the American Colonial era may have been under 30 years.[5] We can estimate that eight generations of Native Americans and Europeans lived during the period from initial settlement to the Revolutionary War. Manifestly, the Native Americans who dealt with the British after the close of the Seven Years' War (1763) were not similar to their own ancestors in the early 1600s. They had lived through many successive "new worlds." I think it's an error, for example, to blandly refer to the history, diplomacy and social/cultural dynamics of the Iroquois or the Catawbas without explicitly acknowledging that heterogeneous generations of them played their distinctly different roles in transforming their environment and their ways of life. In some traditional views, the European colonists were uniformly courageous, adventuresome, and hardy pioneers intent on creating the American dream. In fact, many of the European colonists were desperate escapees from Europe; their intentions were less exalted.

I think this is a fascinating question: from initial European settlement through the early years of the American republic, how many Native Americans were personally face-to-face with an Englishman or a Frenchman or a Spaniard, and vice versa? How many Europeans ever saw more than a few Native Americans during their lifetimes, and vice versa? Of course there was extensive trading and ultimately commerce, and there was some intermarriage, and social mixing, military alliances and armed conflict that brought some Native Americans and Europeans together. "New worlds" emerged because people came together, shared ways of survival and experienced mutual, social transformations. Nevertheless, I wonder if the multiple, transformative interactions were at the periphery of the lives of many or most of the individuals who lived during the transformations, but may not have felt much of the kiss, or the sting, of change.

1 - James H. Merrell, "The Indians' New World: The Catawba Experience," The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 41, no. 4 (October 1984): XX.

2 - Dean Snow, The Iroquois (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996), XX.

3 - The Papers of Sir William Johnson, Documents relative to the Colonial History of New York State, vol. 6, 993.

4 - William Cronon, Changes In The Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983), XX.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

. . . history that didn't happen . . .

Book review:
Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
261 pages

Dowd's "A Spirited Resistance" provides some examples of considering "history that didn't happen."
For every account of "history that happened" there might be a complementary book of "history that didn't happen."

It's important to emphasize that people and groups in the past continually faced decision options and critical choices and conflicting imperatives to act, as we do now. People and groups in the past continually made unique decisions in the face of uncertainties and competing exigencies, as we do now.

The "history" of an individual or a group is a distinct track, forward in time, of decisions and choices and events, some discretionary, some imperative, some unavoidably random. This process continues through a welter of known and unknown alternatives. This ever-changing process of life is unique in retrospect, but it is increasingly, incomprehensibly variable and complex as we consider the prospects for the future at any point in time.

Thus, the "history that happened" is one of the possible histories that could have happened. It never was inevitable. There is difficulty enough in reconstructing, analyzing and understanding the actual "history that happened." The discovery and illumination of the course of history, however well done, is profoundly insufficient for the student of history.

Any possible, speculative scenario of historical events is a "history that didn't happen." Any version of the "history that didn't happen" is potentially a compelling object of interest, and there are limitless different versions. There is an effectively boundless scope of interest in such histories, and a wide range of probabilities that they might have occurred.

To be clear, popular accounts of so-called "alternative history" or "what if?" history are not suitable exemplars of this theme. An historical treatment that focuses on a single, arbitrary "what if?" scenario for a known historical event or extended historical process is of course a "history that didn't happen," but it is a special case. For example, a speculative presentation of "The South Won The Civil War" can be entertaining overall, even instructive in detail, but it is flawed. The author has the benefit of hindsight and cannot avoid using it. Of necessity, the author must repeatedly, expansively and arbitrarily choose alternative versions of what actually happened; the probability of occurrence of such a single, massively multi-variable alternative actually is vanishing small. Why bother writing or reading it? One may imagine that simultaneous nasty influenza outbreaks might have sidelined all the generals in both camps on July 2 in Gettysburg. The probability of such a scenario is vanishingly small. This scenario may be entertaining, but it does not merit serious consideration. It is imaginable, but it adds little to our understanding of history. The popular "what if?" approach to history is almost always arbitrary, eccentrically narrow and overwhelmingly improbable.

A structured, exploratory consideration of "history that didn't happen" could be useful. Such a structured approach, for example, could include:
·                     examination of the knowledge, values and motivation of historical actors;
·                     identification of realistic, feasible alternative decisions and reactions that might have occurred at specific points in time or throughout an event in process;
·                     analysis of decision factors that were considered or ignored by the historical actors.

This approach envisions a retrospective presentation of history that illuminates reasonably feasible alternative courses of action, and clarifies possible explanations of why the actors did not make such decisions or pursue such courses of action. This concept does not assume and generally would avoid any attempt to prove that any particular alternative decision or action would have been better or should have been chosen. The point of this essentially objective reconsideration of history is to clarify the motives and expectations of the actors, and to gain a broader and deeper appreciation—in analytical contexts framed by hindsight—of what they thought was happening, what they wanted to happen and what they thought was possible or probable, all without the benefit of foresight.

A poignant example is Jared Diamond's question in "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." It includes a chapter on the almost complete deforestation of Easter Island and the cultural decline of its people who had depended on the trees for canoes, construction material and fuel. Diamond asks: "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?" (p. 114). By extension, what did the rest of the Easter Islanders say while he was doing it? Of course, with hindsight it's obvious that cutting down the last tree was not a good move. Was it obvious in the 17th century on Easter Island?  It would be interesting to attempt to reconstruct the ax-man's knowledge, values and motive: could he have not known it was the last tree? Was he concerned about preserving his
essential environment? Did Easter Islanders desire a tree-less landscape? Was the last tree worth a million bucks? Forward-thinking, environmentally sensitized Easter Islanders could have started planning earlier to figure out how to conserve a minimum number of trees or develop substitutes for transportation, construction and fuel. What are some possible elaborations about why that didn't happen? Was any such attempt actually made? Was tree-cutting strictly a commercial activity? Were there any social/religious/cultural imperatives regarding tree cutting? Was that ax-wielding Easter Islander a hero or a villain?

Now, back to Dowd and “A Spirited Resistance.” Apparently, a fundamental constraint to the success of the 18th century pan-Indian prophets on the East Coast was the persistent obstruction of many neutral or accommodationist chiefs who rejected their prophets' call for both violent and spiritual resistance to the Anglo-American authorities and settlers. These neutral chiefs sought to co-exist in relative peace with the Europeans. This internal division among the native Americans and the longevity of the ill-fated nativist movement suggests many questions.

In hindsight, it seems, at least superficially, that the ultimate dominance of the Europeans was inevitable. Did none of the chiefs in the late 18th century recognize this imperative? What arguments did both the nativist and neutral leaders use in their private councils to minimize their prospects for failure? How did their knowledge, values and motives sustain their doomed objectives for decades? Is it possible that the prophets might have been substantially successful if no internal Indian strife had existed?

Dowd says the inter-tribal and intra-tribal conflicts in leadership actually bolstered the motivation of the nativists, who argued that the neutral chiefs' failure to respect Indian cultural and spiritual values was partly to blame for the degradation of their culture and way of life. Did the neutral chiefs make the same criticism of the prophets? By implication, Dowd suggests that most nativist and accommodationist chiefs were doing their honorable best for their people. This viewpoint should be challenged; can it be confirmed? What was the motivation of the prophets and nativist chiefs? Did Tenskwatawa share personal attributes with Martin Luther King? with Billy Graham? with Elmer Gantry?

What primary military, political, economic and cultural factors were important to the neutral chiefs and to the prophets? Was their strife righteously motivated and conscientiously implemented? How much of it, if any, was simply opportunistic, localized internal wrangling for political power and personal prestige? Did the warriors and the people and the clans who actively supported the chiefs fully understand the implications of their commitments? Did the warriors follow Tecumseh for glory or for their informed vision of a better future? Did any Indian chiefs believe there was a third version of doing "the right thing"?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

American Revolution not about equality….

Book review:
Morgan, Edmund S. The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1977.

I like Morgan’s book. I re-learned some stuff I knew about the era of the Revolution, and learned a lot that I didn't know. He tells a coherent story; the links between events are made clear, as are the contexts in both America and in Great  Britain.

I wish there were books of this caliber about the Roman Empire, China, the Middle Ages, Egypt, the fertile Crescent….

I will say that Morgan’s prose is exuberant, perhaps he exaggerates intentionally to add color to his chronology, perhaps he’s a bit sloppy in hyping his romance with the American Revolutionary story.

There is a significant flaw in The Birth of the Republic. Morgan practically says that the rebellious colonists discovered the principal of human equality. Throughout the book he confuses “rights” with equality, and confuses “liberty” with “equality.” In fact, he allows himself to splurge with “Gunpowder is a great equalizer,” and actually says (p. 79) “The Revolution became a people’s war” ! Gee whiz….

Great Britain did not think the war was about equality. The King and parliament notably thought it was about getting the colonies to help pay for the expenses of garrisoning North America and prosecuting the Seven Years’ War.

There was less unity and singleness of purpose than Morgan describes. Neither the Revolutionary zealots nor the members of the Continental Congresses referred to themselves as "the founding fathers," and there never was political or philosophical unity among these men or among the colonies. There was a strong ideological consensus about bolstering and preserving the security of property, and of course there were economic motives that helped push the colonies into rebellion.

The Founding Fathers were generally wealthy, professional men or political leaders. Ultimately they were all politicians. There was sharp and prolonged disagreement among them on many issues. In fact, many delegates to the 1st and 2nd Continental Congresses were opposed to independence. (About 20% of colonial Americans were British loyalists).

I dispute Morgan's central theme. He argues that the concept of human equality was a central driving force in the Revolution and the creation of the constitution. I think he fails to make the case, and his preoccupation with equality mars the utility of his analysis.