Thursday, August 28, 2014

Politics, yes….equality, no

There’s a new book coming out about President Lincoln and the notorious Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

This isn’t a book review—I haven’t read the book. I think probably I won’t read it.

I believe that the Proclamation is fundamentally a political (not philosophical) document, and I think it’s largely misunderstood. Of course, lots of folks think that “Lincoln freed the slaves,” when in fact the Proclamation is a very circumscribed and limited version of freeing the slaves: basically, it “freed” slaves in the Confederate states, where federal (Union) proclamations had no immediate legal effect. And, let’s be clear, the Proclamation did not make slavery illegal in the United States.

I continue to be fascinated by the myths of American history, and by the persistence of a number of authors in declaring that the Proclamation (and even the Declaration of Independence) were all about “equality.”  I think, in fact, in 1776 and in 1863 there wasn’t a whole lot of public discourse, or interest in, or advocacy of the notions of democratic equality and human equality as we understand the words now……

There weren’t a whole lot of folks who really wanted to make black people “equal” to white people, especially not Old Abe.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Book review: The Comanche Empire

Book review:

Hamalainen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

This book will change your mind about how the West was won.

Hint: The Comanches got there first.

The Comanches arrived obscurely in the American Southwest in 1706. 

This book provocatively makes the case that the Comanches created an imposing Southwestern American empire that spanned 150 years. They blunted the 18th century colonial ambitions of the Spanish in Mexico and the French in Louisiana, and stalled the westward thrust of Americans and the U.S. government until the middle of the 19th century. A broad coalition of Comanche rancheria chiefs throughout the territory of Comancheria first dominated the Apaches, eventually turned against their Ute allies, and commercially or militarily subjugated numerous lesser tribes.

Comanches managed a succession of peace treaties and conflicts with the Spaniards and completely blocked their repeated efforts to extend colonial settlements northward from Mexico. The political, commercial and military supremacy of the Comanches was based principally on their success in adopting and adapting Spanish horses for efficient transportation, military power and a thriving and lucrative trade in horses throughout the Southwest.

Hamalainen's central argument invites—indeed it provokes—a reasonable dispute about the credibility of his claim for a Comanche empire. In classical political or geopolitical usage, the claim is untenable, at least in part; the Comanche empire had neither fixed borders, nor a single self-sustaining centralized supreme authority, nor a durable bureaucracy, nor a definitive political structure.

Nevertheless, the Comanches had a respected, recurring broadly representative council of chiefs that planned and organized extensive raids, trading and other commerce, and military operations. Their hunting, pasturing and trading territories had indistinct geographic borders that were never surveyed or adjudicated; Comanches never sought to occupy and permanently control any specifically delineated territory. Hamalainen says they were "conquerors who saw themselves more as guardians than governors of the land and its bounties." Nonetheless, the geographical extent of the their domains was well known, respected and enforced by the Comanches.

Each Comanche rancheria had its own geographic territory, rigorous socio-military culture and hierarchical organizational. The situational circumstances of Comanche military superiority, their control of trade  and their ability through the decades to repeatedly impose and maintain obviously favorable terms in their treaty and trade agreements are undeniable evidence of the Comanches' extended dominance of terrain, physical resources, culture and commerce, and, not least in importance, the Spanish and French colonial enterprises that sought to compete with them.

For decades the Comanches set the terms of their success; no competing power could defeat them, and no Indians or Europeans could evade the Comanches' dominance in their domain. Thus, the Comanches created a de facto empire. Ultimately, they were marginalized by a combination of drought that constrained their bison hunting and weakened their pastoral horse culture, disruption of trade which limited their access to essential carbohydrate foodstuffs, epidemic disease that repeatedly reduced the Comanche populations, predatory bison hunting by the Americans in the early 1870s that wiped out this essential food resource, and, finally, by the irresistible tide of U.S. government-sponsored westward migration that pushed American citizens into Comanche territory.

Too bad the Comanches left no accounts of their own. It would be fascinating to hear this story in their own words.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Government financing for business

It’s the same old story, always has been….

A recent post on The Junto, a group blog on early American history, tells the little known story of government financing and support for private business enterprise—in the 1820s, when America’s first integrated “factories” were built in Lowell, MA.

The Junto report , also picked up by, spells it out:
Several of the private investors who organized the Lowell enterprise received $1 million from the national government, which agreed to pay off private claims against the Spanish government as part of the 1819 treaty under which Spain transferred Florida to the U.S. and agreed to favorable western boundary adjustments. I guess the Spanish government wasn’t planning to honor those claims. The Lowell owners also benefited directly from American government trade negotiations with Peru, and, specifically, U.S. intervention in support of American textile exports.

It’s been going on ever since then.

Let’s acknowledge government financing of American canals in the 19th century, land giveaways and other government financing for railroads, and, of course, the interstate highway system in the 20th century—you go ahead and add your own examples.

Too many politicians and business leaders today rally to the cry of “get government off the backs of business,” but it seems they forget to complain about the vast web of tax breaks that benefit individual companies and industries, and it seems they forget to refuse the government spending that “serves the public interest” and also materially benefits the corporate world.

It’s the same old story.

Monday, August 11, 2014

"You’re not too short to die…."

As we remember the guns of August, 100 years ago, we should also remember the stunning carnage that wiped out the professional armies of Europe in the first few months of World War I.

The first three months of the war killed just about every British soldier who was already in uniform before the shooting started on July 28, 1914.

In August of that year, the British army was rejecting recruits who were less than 5 feet 8 inches tall.

By October, British recruiters were taking every man at least 5 feet 5 inches tall.

In October, about 30,000 Tommies died on gruesome European battlefields.

In November, khaki uniforms were being handed out to enlistees who were at least 5 feet 3 inches.

I guess you know the rest of the story….

Source: Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States:1492 – Present. (New York, HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2005), 360.