Vignettes from 1925

These are from various articles and authors in the May 1925 issue of H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury.


What shall the end be? Will that race of men who for a thousand years have asserted the “right of castle,” rejected governmental interference in domestic affairs, proclaimed the right of the free man to regulate his personal habits and to rear and govern his children in accordance with the law of conscience and of love, now become subject to a self-imposed statutory tyranny which from birth to death interferes in the smallest cocerns of life? Shall we endure a legal despotism, the equivalent of which would have provoked rebellion amongst the Saxons even when under the Norman heel?

I doubt not these statutory bonds will be eventually broken. The right of the free man to live his own life, limited only be the inhibition of non-infringement upon the rights of others, will again be asserted. But before that day arrives, will the splendid symmetry of our governmental structure have been destroyed?

Alas, my friend, there is yet no light at the end of the tunnel.  Next, from an article about the Mexican border towns entitled “Hell Along the Border,”

I have studiously observed the viciousness and even the mere faults of decorum in Juarez, largest of the corrupting foci, in season and out for a least twelve seasons. I have had my glimpses at the life of the equally ill-reputed Nogales, Mexicali and Tia Juana. I have been in confidential communication with habitual visitors to Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros, Piedras Negras, and Agua Prieta. And I can find in all these towns no sins more gorgeous than those enjoyed by every Massachusetts lodge of Elks at its annual fish-fries prior to 1920.

Regarding the evangelical clergy, the televangelists of the day, immortalized by Sinclair Lewis in his Elmer Gantry,

The net result, as I say, is to inspire those of us who have any surviving respect for God with an unspeakable loathing. We gaze on all this traffic and, without knowing exactly why, we feel a sick, nauseated revulsion. We feel as we felt when we were children, and had a bright glamorous picture of Santo Claus, with his fat little belly and fairy reindeer, and then suddenly came on a vile old loafer ringing a bell over an iron pot. It seems a blasphemous mockery that men can preadch such vulgar nonsense, call it religion, and then belabor the rest of us for not being washed in the blood of the Lamb.

Concerning the latest in the hotel trade,

Whatever I might write were the latest wrinkle would not be the latest wrinkle by the time these lines get into type. But one of the latest, certainly, is radio service in every chamber.

Of anthropology, from an article entitled “The New History,”

The anthropologists have paralleled the achievements of the archeologists by making careful studies of existing primitive peoples. Ten years ago we possessed in this field only the chatty introduction by Marett, and Professor Boas’ highly scholarly but somewhat difficult little book, “The Mind of Primitive Man.” Today we have admirable general works by Goldenweiser, Lowie, Kroeber, Tozzer, Levy-Bruhl and Wissler with several more in immediate prospect. These deal acutely and lucidly with primitive institutions.

As the cognoscenti among my readers are no doubt aware, this was written on the very threshold of anthropology’s spiral into the dark ages of the Blank Slate, from which it has only recently emerged.  The good Professor Boas played a major role in pushing it over the cliff.

Concerning the value of morality in regulating society,

Once we give up the pestilent assumption that the only effective sanctions for conduct are those of law and morals, and begin to delimit clearly the field of manners, we shall be by way of discovering how powerful and how easily communicable the sense of manners is, and how efficiently it operates in the very regions where law and morals have so notoriously proven themselves inert. The authority of law and morals does relatively little to build up personal dignity, responsibility and self-respect, while the authority of manners does much… I also venture to emphasize for special notice by the Americanizers and hundred-per-centers among us, the observation of Edmund Burke that “there ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. For us to love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”

and finally, from the collection of anecdotes Mencken always included under the heading Americana,

Effects of the Higher Learning at Yale, as revealed by the answers to a questionnaire submitted to the students there:

Favorite character in world history: Napoleon, 181; Cleopatra, 7; Jeanne d’Arc, 7; Woodrow Wilson, 7; Socrates, 5; Jesus Christ, 4; Mussolini, 3. Favorite prose author: Stevenson, 24; Dumas, 22; Sabatini, 11; Anatole France, 5; Cabell, 5; Bernard Shaw, 4. Favorite magazine: Saturday Evening Post, 94; Atlantic Monthly, 24, New Republic, 3; Time Current History, 3. Favorite political party: Republican, 304; Democratic, 84; none, 22; Independent, 3. Biggest world figure of today: Coolidge, 52; Dawes, 32, Mussolini, 3; Prince of Wales, 24; J. P. Morgan, 15; Einstein, 3; Bernard Shaw, 3. What subject would you like to see added to the curriculum: Elocution and Public Speaking, 24; Business course, 8; Deplomacy, 7; Drama, 4.

Times change in 85 years.

Of Thanksgiving, Socialism, and Historical Revisionism

 An interesting piece recently appeared in the New York Times entitled, “The Pilgrims were… Socialists?” Written by Kate Zernike, the NYT article was apparently intended as a response to the custom on the right of drawing attention to the relative success among the pilgrims of private ownership of land as opposed to the original communal arrangement, citing it as an example of the impracticality of socialism.  As such, it was unusually weak, even for the NYT, whose authors have long since ceased trying to preach to anyone but the choir. 

To get to the bottom of the story, let’s consider what the pilgrim sources actually said about the transition from communal to individual plots referred to above.  Although mentioned by colonist Edward Winslow and others, the most complete account is probably that in Governor William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, so I will quote him at some length.

According to Bradford, (Chapter 4 of the History)

All this will no supplies were heard of, nor did they know when they might expect any. So they began to consider how to raise more corn, and obtain a better crop than they had done, so that they might not continue to endure the misery of want. Aty length after much debate, the Governor, with the advice of the chief among them, allowed each man to plant corn for his own household, and to trust to themselves for that; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. So every family was assigned a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number with that in view – for present purposes only, and making no division for inheritance – all boys and children being included under some family. This was very successful. It made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could devise, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better satisfaction. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and instability; and to have compelled them would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

The failure of this experiment of communal living, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times – that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For in this instance, community of property (so far as it went) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort. For the young men who were most able and fit for service objected to being forced to spend their time and strength in working for other men’s wives and children, without any recompense. The strong man or the resourceful man had no more share of food, clothes, etc., than the weak man who was not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice. The aged and graver men, who were ranked and equalized in labor, food, clothes, etc., with the humbler and younger ones, thought it some indignity and disrespect to them. As for men’s wives who were obliged to do service for other men, such as cooking, washing their clothes, etc., they considered it a kind of slavery, and many husbands would not brook it. This feature of it would have been worse still, if they had been men of an inferior class.

If (it was thought) all were to share alike, and all were to do alike, then all were on an equality throughout, and one was as good as another; and so, if it did not actually abolish those very relations which God himself has set among men, it did at least greatly diminish the mutual respect that is so important should be preserved amongst them. Let none argue that this is due to human failing, rather than to this communistic plan of life in itself. I answer, seeing that all men have this failing in them, that God in His wisdom saw that another course was fitter for them.

In brief, it would seem that one would have to be foolhardy to challenge the assertion by conservatives that the early history of the pilgrims demonstrates the superiority of individual to communal ownership, or socialism.  They are merely letting Bradford speak for himself.  Be that as it may, the meme has been more visible than usual this year, and that apparently stuck in someone’s craw at the Times.  In any event, the editors decided to stick their necks out, knowing that most of the readers that remain to them would simply close their eyes and swallow. 

The article begins with a de rigueur swipe at the Tea Party movement:

In the Tea Party view of the holiday, the first settlers were actually early socialists. They realized the error of their collectivist ways and embraced capitalism, producing a bumper year, upon which they decided that it was only right to celebrate the glory of the free market and private property.

Here we see the convenient but bogus view on the left of the Tea Party as a monolithic whole, with a uniform view of all things.  I can think of no past association of human beings that has in any way qualified as a “movement” to which that description is less appropriately applied.  The Tea Party movement is a lose association of people who generally favor a smaller role of government in their lives, but who in no way can be said to uniformly believe some common orthodox doctrine, or even to agree on who their “leaders” actually are.  On the left, however, the Tea Party has been racked and squashed into a quintessential outgroup in keeping with the time-honored tradition of our species. 

The author then goes on to create some strawmen, who go well beyond Bradford’s simple claim about the superiority of private property to communal ownership to claim that the pilgrims embraced capitalism, and held their first Thanksgiving to “celebrate the glory of the free market and private property.”  The problem is that she can cite no examples on the right in which such claims are actually made, nor can I find any in a shakedown of the usual subjects.  For example, Rush Limbaugh’s offering for this year can be found here.  In it, he quotes Bradford at length, and mentions capitalism only once, and then merely as a system usually associated with private property.  There is nothing there to the effect that Thanksgiving was originally a “celebration of the glory of the free market and private property.”  Rather, according to Limbaugh, the pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving to “thank God for their good fortune.”

There is no more sign of Zernike’s “Tea Party version,” on the websites of Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Powerline, Instapundit, or any other conservative or libertarian blog I can find.  She claims that her “Tea Party version” appears in a one day course entitled “The Making of America,” by one W. Cleon Skousen, but there is no reference to Thanksgiving in the link she provides.  She also claims it appears in a post entitled “The Great Thanksgiving Hoax,” which celebrates the work of libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises, but here, again, there is no sign of the TP Version.  Zernike takes the trouble to pull a quote out of context from the latter:

Thus the real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them.

In fact, the posts author, Richard Maybury, explicitly states that the first Thanksgiving was not held for that reason earlier in the post.  The statement above reflects his contention that the celebration would not have continued to the present day but for the abundance made possible by the change in system, not some revisionist interpretation of the intent of the pilgrims themselves as implied by Zernike.

The rest of the article is more of the same.  Zernike takes issue with Bradford himself:  

…historians (here the usual anonymous ‘experts’ make their usual appearance) say the Pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism.

Since the pilgrims themselves saw the difference in systems as one between property held in common and helf by private owners, apparently they never read the books of the expert historians. 

“It was directed ultimately to private profit,” said Richard Pickering, a historian of early America and the deputy director of Plimoth Plantation, a museum devoted to keeping the Pilgrims’ story alive.

True, as far as the shareholders were concerned, but completely beside the point as it relates to the distribution of property in the colony itself.

The arrangement did not produce famine. If it had, Bradford would not have declared the three days of sport and feasting in 1621 that became known as the first Thanksgiving. “The celebration would never have happened if the harvest was going to be less than enough to get them by,” Mr. Pickering said. “They would have saved it and rationed it to get by.”

Again, this flies in the face of the source accounts of Bradford and others, who explicitly and repeatedly asserted that the harvests of 1621 and 1622 were not “enough to get them by,” and who noted in passing that grain was, in fact, rationed.  It always helps to actually read the book.

The competing versions of the story note Bradford’s writings about “confusion and discontent” and accusations of “laziness” among the colonists. But Mr. Pickering said this grumbling had more to do with the fact that the Plymouth colony was bringing together settlers from all over England, at a time when most people never moved more than 10 miles from home. They spoke different dialects and had different methods of farming, and looked upon each other with great wariness.

Again, completely at odds with Bradford’s own account, according to which the cause of the grumbling was the system of distribution, and in no way supports Pickering’s fanciful revisionist version.

Bradford did get rid of the common course — but it was in 1623, after the first Thanksgiving, and not because the system wasn’t working. The Pilgrims just didn’t like it. In the accounts of colonists, Mr. Pickering said, “there was griping and groaning.”

This in the teeth of Bradford’s own, explicit assertion, quoting Plato, that the original system, in fact, didn’t work, and that the new system initiated a new era of abundance.

The real reason agriculture became more profitable over the years, Mr. Pickering said, is that the Pilgrims were getting better at farming crops like corn that had been unknown to them in England.

This “real reason” seems to have escaped Governor Bradford, who was actually there, but was, apparently, not as clever at ferreting out hidden causes as Mr. Pickering.  Before finally fading away with a homily about the Iraq war, Ms. Zernike continues,

The Tea Party’s take on Thanksgiving may have its roots in the cold war.

and, once again quoting the ubiquitous Mr. Pickering,

“What’s going on today is a tradition of conservative thought about that early community structure,” Mr. Pickering said.

No, in fact, no “tradition of conservative thought” is necessary.  All that’s needed is to actually read Bradford’s History, where the assertion that private ownership proved superior to communal ownership is simply and clearly stated.  It’s hard to imagine why anyone would even bother to dispute the point, unless, of course, in spite of its abject failure wherever it’s been tried, they still retain a defiant faith in socialism.  I don’t doubt that, while it’s quite extinct among Chinese Communists, and even North Korean absolute monarchists, it lives on in blithe disregard for the events of the last 50 years in the breasts of a subspecies of American journalists.

For that matter, it seems to live on in Europe as well.  As often happens, the usual suspects at Der Spiegel have picked up on the NYT article, repeating it almost word for word in places, and then adding some thigh-slapping embellishments of their own for their credulous readers, ever eager as they are to read anything that portrays Americans as “weird,” “absurd,” or “crazy.”  In an article written by Marc Pitzke entitled, “Tea Party and Thanksgiving: How the Pilgrim Fathers Abolished Socialism,” he serves up the usual “Tea Party as monolith” gambit, and then assures his fans that the “Tea Party thesis,” has been “gleefully plucked to pieces” in Ms. Zernike’s lame offering.  Taking care not to let Bradford speak for himself on the matter of communal versus private ownership, he, too, quotes the omniscient Mr. Pickering’s irrelevancies about shareholders.   Aware of the lack in Germany of any source of information that could seriously challenge the mainstream narrative about things American, Pitzke goes Ms. Zernike one better, describing the Tea Party movement, which represents a quarter of US citizens, give or take, as an “arch conservative” group, and, better yet, “a rebellious wing of the Republican Party.”

In pointing out the absurdities of the Left, it would be unfair to leave the impression that the Right is any better.  Their fanciful assertions that Ronald Reagan or, in the case of Catholics, the pope, defeated Communism single-handedly, and that Thomas Jefferson was a good Christian, are at least as dubious.  And the moral of the story?  Read the source material and make up your own mind.

Jesus Interrupted: Bart Ehrman and the Contradictions in the Bible

The fact that there are many contradictions in the Bible has been known to scholars for centuries.  Martin Luther famously called the Book of James ” an epistle of straw” with “nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it . . . [It is] not the writing of any apostle,” added that the Book of Esther was “without boots or spurs,” and called the authorship of the Pentateuch and several other books into question.  The great 18th century atheist Jean Meslier cited numerous contradictions, as did Voltaire, and German scholars in the 19th century pretty much demolished the notion that the Bible is the “inerrant word of God.”  Enter Bart Ehrman and his remarkable book, Jesus, Interrupted.  Ehrman goes through many of the most important contradictions, noting how easy it is to see them if the books of the Bible are read side by side, or “horizontally,” as he puts it.  Beyond that, he guides the reader on a tour of the historical Bible, describing what we know about the authors, why they often weren’t who they claimed to be, and why it’s important to consider what each of them believed about Jesus and was trying to accomplish in writing their books.  In a word, he describes the Bible as very much a human rather than a divine product.

As I do not believe in supernatural beings myself, what surprised me about all this was not the fact that there are many contradictions in the Bible, but Ehrman’s claim that this historical-critical approach to it has been taught to most of the graduates of our religious seminaries for the better part of the last century.  Most of our clerics are well aware of the facts, accept them, but, for one reason or another, have decided not to pass the word along to their flocks.  In Ehrman’s words,

…the basic views that I’ve sketched here are widely known, widely taught, and widely accepted among New Testament scholars and their students, including the students who graduate from seminaries and go on to paster churches. Why do these students so rarely teach their congregations this information, but insist on approaching the Bible devotionally rather than historical-critically, not just in the pulpit (where a devotional approach would be expected) but also in their adult education classes? That has been one of my leading questions since I started writing this book.

Ehrman is a refreshing author to read.  He comes from an evangelical Christian background, but eventually became an agnostic, although not, as he claims because of any doubts about the divine authorship of the Bible.  Unlike some of the “new atheist” authors, he doesn’t write with his Amity/Enmity Complex on his sleeve.  In reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, for example, one often gets the impression spittle is literally flying off the pages as he rants about the “American Taliban” of evangelical Christians, getting so carried away in the process that he repeats an urban legend about how James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, had  told the U.S. Congress that protecting the environment was not important because Jesus would come back soon.  Ehrman, on the other hand, not only does not condemn Christian belief, but claims that the realization that the authorship of the Bible is human rather than divine need not undermine those beliefs.  In his words,

Some readers will find it surprising that I do not see the material in the preceding chapters as an attack on Christianity or an agnostic’s attempt to show that faith, even Christian faith, is meaningless and absurd. That is not what I think, and it is not what I have been trying to accomplish.

I have been trying, instead, to make serious scholarship on the Bible and earliest Christianity accessible and available to people who may be interested in the New Testament but who, for one reason or another, have never heard what scholars have long known and thought about it.

I suspect many evangelical Christians will agree with my own conclusion that this is rather an understatement of the degree to which the conclusion that the Bible is not only not divinely inspired, but full of contradictions, undermines Christian faith.  To believe that is to believe that, for more than a thousand years, God stood idly by and did nothing in particular to prevent generations of clerical charlatans from bamboozling his moral flock regarding matters that would have a critical bearing on their fate in the hereafter.  It is to believe that, 2000 years after the time of Christ, one can be a Christian, independently of any reliable information about what the man actually said and what his appearance on earth actually meant, just by making things up as you go along. 

I personally prefer to apply Occam’s razor.  The simplest explanation for all these Biblical contradictions is the conclusion that Christ was just another Middle Eastern soothsayer, like legions of others who flourished in the region for hundreds of years before and after his death, differing from them only in the fact that he was the most successful of them all.  It’s unsettling and a little scary to think that the great majority of the human beings on the planet actually believe in imaginary super beings. It’s more or less equivalent to the realization that we’re inmates in a giant asylum. 

It didn’t take Darwin to reveal all these religious impostures for what they are.  Meslier did a perfectly adequate job of it in his Testament more than 250 years ago.  The writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and the rest are really just afterthoughts.  In spite of all their repetition of the obvious, our religious disconnect with reality continues unabated.  If we set any value on our own survival as a species, apparently it will be necessary for us to somehow find a way to become more intelligent.

The Chinese Sense our Weakness

Now they’re demanding a triple kowtow from one of our allies. Turkey has noticed the same thing. They’re demanding an apology from another of our allies for daring to react to a deliberate Turkish provocation. I’m surprised they bother with our allies. Why not just demand an apology directly from the US government? After all, we are without peers when it comes to groveling before our enemies. Vietnam would do well to take heed as China bullies her in the South China Sea. If she leans on us for support, she will be leaning on a weak reed. She should have learned that from her own history.

What Hath God Wrought: Slavery Beyond Political Correctness

Works of history reflect not only the times they purport to describe, but also the times in which they were written, and the nature of the people who write them. Seen in that light, the authors who wrote during the so-called “Dark Ages” were a great deal more interesting and entertaining than their counterparts today. You’ll have to look long and hard for a contemporary work that has anything to compare with Procopius‘ touching firsthand account of a boy abandoned by his mother in a country swarming with hostile invaders or his vignettes of the wild barbarians serving under his general Belisarius in the so-called “Roman” army, Bede’s wonderful story of Pope Gregory’s encounter with the Angle slave boys, or Gregory of Tours’ chatty, gossipy accounts of the doings of Queens Brunhilda and Fredegund in his “History of the Franks.”  Pick up a typical history today and what you’ll find is a morality play written by some hidebound ideologue who has never heard of confirmation bias, and whose apparent reason for writing is to make sure you can distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys.”  Journalists are the worst offenders.  Their shallow bowdlerizations of the lives of the people they write about to make sure they fit neatly in the “saint” or “sinner” slots are painful to read.

College professors with their relentless political correctness come in a close second.  Victor Davis Hanson just penned a vignette of the tribe that seems a tad overcritical, but probably gets their abject fear at being considered “illiberal” and politically heretical by their colleagues about right.   However, unlike journalists, most of them have a deeper knowledge of the subjects they write about than one finds in a typical newspaper article.  As a result, they can occasionally be very useful as “sources of the sources.”  Take, for example, Daniel Walker Howe’s “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.”  In it one finds the usual heroes and villains, all chosen according to the most up-to-date political standards.  However, Howe has a deep knowledge of the intellectual, literary and religious trends of the period he writes about, and mentions a great many of the people who played a significant role in shaping those trends at the time, but are mostly forgotten today.  Since most of them wrote well before the 1922 copyright threshold, it’s not necessary to rely on Howe’s ideologically filtered picture to learn who they were and what made them tick.  You can let them tell their own story, because much of what they wrote can be found among the invaluable collection at Google Books. 

Consider, for example the issue of slavery.  Opposition to the South’s “peculiar institution” was crystalizing during the period Howe describes, and he mentions a number of people, mostly forgotten today, who had witnessed the reality of slavery firsthand, and wrote about what they had seen.  They included Fanny Kemble, a British actress who married a southern gentleman while visiting the United States.  When he subsequently inherited a plantation in Georgia with many slaves, she insisted on accompanying him there, and wrote an account of her experiences.  On one occasion she asked a young woman about her reasons for running away:

She told it very simply, and it was most pathetic. She had not finished her task one day, when she said she felt ill, and unable to do so, and had been severely flogged by Driver Bran, in whose ” gang” she then was. The next day, in spite of this encouragement to labor, she had again been unable to complete her appointed work; and Bran having told her that he’d tie her up and flog her if she did not get it done, she had left the field and run into the swamp. ” Tie you up, Louisa!” said I; ” what is that ?” She then described to me that they were fastened up by their wrists to a beam or a branch of a tree, their feet barely touching the ground, so as to allow them no purchase for resistance or evasion of the lash, their clothes turned over their heads, and their backs scored with a leather thong, either by the driver himself, or, if he pleases to inflict their punishment by deputy, any of the men he may choose to summon to the office; it might be father, brother, husband, or lover, if the overseer so ordered it.

Accounts of beatings like this, a daily occurrence on large plantations, are pervasive in the source material of the time, the descriptions have much in common, and it’s clear they weren’t all made up by abolitionist demagogues.  It is unlikely the slaves could have been driven to work without them.  Kemble’s book also has several interesting descriptions of the demoralizing effect that slavery had on the white population.  For example:

On our drive we passed occasionally a tattered man or woman, whose yellow mud complexion, straight features, and singularly sinister countenance bespoke an entirely different race from the negro population in the midst of which they lived. These are the so-called pine-landers of Georgia, I suppose the most degraded race of human beings claiming an Anglo-Saxon origin that can be found on the face of the earth—filthy, lazy, ignorant, brutal, proud, penniless savages, without one of the nobler attributes which have been found occasionally allied to the vices of savage nature. They own no slaves, for they are almost without exception abjectly poor; they will not work, for that, as they conceive, would reduce them to an equality with the abhorred negroes; they squat, and steal, and starve, on the outskirts of this lowest of all civilized societies, and their countenances bear witness to the squalor of their condition and the utter degradation of their natures. To the crime of slavery, though they have no profitable part or lot in itj they are fiercely accessory, because it is the barrier that divides the black and white races, at the foot of which they lie wallowing in unspeakable degradation, but immensely proud of the base freedom which still separates them from the lash-driven tillers of tho soil.

Kemble’s work was published in Great Britain in 1863, and did much to discourage British intervention on behalf of the Confederacy.  Theodore Weld was co-author of a compendium entitled, “American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand WitnessesIt includes numerous similar eyewitness accounts.  For example:

There was a slave on the plantation named Ben, a waiting man. I occupied a room in the same hut, and had frequent conversations with him. Ben was a kind-hearted man, and, I believe, a Christian ; he would always ask a blessing before he sat down to eat, and was in the constant practice of praying morning and night.— One day when I was at the hut, Ben was sent for to go to the house. Ben sighed deeply and went. He soon returned with a girl about seventeen years of age, whom one of Mr. Swan’s daughters had ordered him to flog. He brought her into the room where I was, and told her to stand there while he went into the next room : I heard him groan again as he went. While there I heard his voice, and he was engaged in prayer. After a few minutes he returned with a large cowhide, and stood before the girl, without saying a word. I concluded he wished me to leave the hut, which I did ; and immediately after I heard the girl scream. At every blow she would shriek, ” Do, Ben ! oh do, Ben!” This is a common expression of the slaves to the person whipping them : ” Do, Massa !” or, ” Do, Missus!”

After she had gone, I asked Ben what she was whipped for : he told me she had done something to displease her young missus ; and in boxing her ears, and otherwise beating her, she had scratched her finger by a pin in the girl’s dress, for which she sent her to be flogged. I asked him if he stripped her before flogging; he said, yes ; he did not like to do this, but was obliged to: he said he was once ordered to whip a woman, which he did without stripping her : on her return to the house, her mistress examined her back; and not seeing any marks, he was sent for, and asked why he had not whipped her : he replied that he had; she said she saw no marks, and asked him if he had made her pull her clothes off; he said, No. She then told him, that when he whipped any more of the women, he must make them strip off their clothes, as well as the men, and flog them on their bare backs, or he should be flogged himself.

Ben often appeared very gloomy and sad: I have frequently heard him, when in his room, mourning over his condition, and exclaim, ” Poor African slave ! Poor African slave!” Whipping was so common an occurrence on this plantation, that it would be too great a repetition to state the many and severe floggings I have seen inflicted on the slaves. They were flogged for not performing their tasks, for being careless, slow, or not in time, for going to the fire to warm, &c. &c.; and it often seemed as if occasions were sought as an excuse for punishing them.

Samuel Gridley Howe was famous as an educator of the blind and mentally disturbed. One of his letters describes slavery at its “best,” in the Charleston Slave Depository:

The only clean, well organized and thoroughly administered institutions which I have seen in the South are the Slave Depositories, if I may so call them. That in Charleston is a large, airy building, with ample court-yard and well ventilated rooms. Every part is kept scrupulously clean; everything is well adapted to its purpose; every officer is active and energetic; its tread-mill and its whipping post are the ne plus ultra of their kind. Into this place are brought for safe keeping and for board the gangs of slaves which are to be sold in the market. To it also a master may send his slaves to be boarded merely, or to be conf1ned and whipped, or punished by solitary confinement. They pay 18 cents per day for board and the privilege of the tread-mill,and 25 cents extra for each whipping. The gangs for sale and the mere boarders are not punished however, nor even confined, except at night. On the contrary, they are incited to walk about in the courtyards ; they are well fed, they lodge in large, airy, clean rooms, and are daily promenaded in clean clothes to take the air, even out into the country. ” They are happy,” says the slave-holder, and he says but the truth; they are happier, urges he, than the free blacks of the North or than the negro in Africa — and it may be too true; but in this he speaks his own condemnation and shows the brutalizing effects of a system which can make a human being content in such utter degradation.

It seems to me that firsthand accounts like this are a great deal more effective in explaining what slavery was and why a great war was fought to end it than any book of history written a century and a half later could ever be.  Of course, slavery and the fight against it wasn’t the only thing going on in the period Howe describes.  Read his book, and you will turn up any number of thinkers who can tell you a great deal more about the times they lived in and the things that mattered to them then any modern history.  Thanks to the Internet, you can find many of their works on line, and let them tell their own story.

God Save us from the Fury of the Northmen…

The Danewirk (hattip Biopix)
While we’ve been obsessing about Ahmadinejad, they’ve been busy.  Now the entire eastern seaboard of the US is within range of Danish missiles. Well, according a very modest statement by the guys at Copenhagen Suborbital about their amazing “amateur” rocket, tomorrow’s unmanned test launch is “only” supposed to reach an altitude of 30 km. Go, baby, go!

There’s more cool news from Denmark.  Back in the day of Charlemagne, there was a wall across the base of their peninsula with only one gate in it.  Ten feet thick and 19 miles long, the Danevirke, or “Work of the Danes” is the largest earthwork in northern Europe.  According to Germany’s Spiegel, after seaching for it for a century, archeologist have now found the “gateway to the Viking empire.”

The “Reconciliation” of Stalin and Trotsky

Trotsky was perhaps the brightest, and certainly the most readable, of the old Bolsheviks. However, unlike Bukharin and several other former comrades, he has never been formally rehabilitated, perhaps because he was never tried, but simply murdered at the behest of Stalin. According to an article that just appeared in The Moscow News, at least a part of the Russian left is now considering a “reconciliation” between the two. It quotes Darya Mitina, one of the leaders of the Russian Communist Youth and a former State Duma deputy to the effect that,

It is my dream to once see a memorial in a quiet part of Moscow, depicting Trotsky and Stalin sitting across from each other.

That would certainly justify a famous remark by Karl Marx,

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

The proponents of such a “rehabilitation” would do well to actually read Trotsky, starting, perhaps, with “The Stalin School of Falsification.” Sometimes he could be remarkably prophetic. Here’s what he had to say about the historical fate of Communism in “In Defense of Marxism,” a collection of his letters and articles published shortly after he was murdered by Stalin in 1940.

If, however, it is conceded that the present war (WWII) will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative: the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signalizing the eclipse of civilisation.

Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale.

If (this) prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous this perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.

“Ended in a Utopia” could be said of many revolutions, and Stalin was not unique.  Revolutionary euphoria is a perfect vehicle to power for unscrupulous leaders who care more about personal aggrandizement than noble ideals.  You say you want a revolution?  Be careful who you pick to lead it.

Slavery and Fanny Kemble’s Journal

Google Books is one of several wonderful resources a click away on the Google home page.  You can find almost any book of any significance printed prior to 1922 there in digital form.  One of them is the Journal of Fanny Kemble, an English actress who married an American on a visit to this country.  When he inherited a large plantation in Georgia worked by slaves, she insisted over his objections on moving there and witnessing the system for herself.  Her Journal, written in the form of letters to a northern friend that were never sent, was the result.  Its descriptions of the squalor and misery of slavery exploded the myth of the “happy negroes” in the antebellum South and, published in England at a critical point in our Civil War, did much to prevent Great Britain from siding with the Confederacy.  A brilliant woman who eventually divorced her husband and took up the abolitionist cause, she analyzed the reasons for the demoralization, not only of blacks, but of their white masters as well caused by the South’s “peculiar institution” with rare insight.  I recommend the book to anyone who wants to get a closer look at the ugly face of slavery than the dispassionate descriptions in history books, or who needs yet one more data point confirming what the Civil War was really all about.  You can find it here.

Fanny Kemble

Minnesota in 1854: An Account by a Remarkable Englishman

The easy availability of a vast library of books is not the least of the Internet’s many gifts. If you find a reference to some interesting volume published before 1922, you are more than likely to find it among the online collection at Google books. Recently, for example, I happened to see a reference to an account of the Earl of Elgin’s mission to China and Japan in the years 1857-59 by one Laurence Oliphant. It was mentioned in one of the great British literary reviews of the 19th century, and described in such favorable terms as to pique my interest. In searching the author’s name at Google Books, I found not only the work in question, but any number of others attributed to the same author, including descriptions of travel in the southern regions of Russia, describing conditions there in 1852, just before the onset of the Crimean War, Palestine, and of no small interest to myself, as I grew up in Wisconsin, an account of an expedition through Canada to our neighbor state of Minnesota by way of Lake Superior in 1854.

I was pleased to find the book as entertaining and skillfully written as the earlier work about the Far East described in the British review, and highly recommend it to the attention of the interested reader. There are many insightful comments about social, economic, and political conditions in the U.S. at the time. Midwesterners will enjoy the many details and anecdotes about the rough and ready life in Wisconsin and Minnesota at a time when the region was still considered the “far west.”

For example, when Oliphant and his three companions climbed off their steamer at Superior, Wisconsin, they discovered that the only hotel in town was a large barn, which doubled as a carpenter shop and land office. Guests were expected to bring their own shavings to sleep on, should they be lucky enough to find an unoccupied spot. The author gives an interesting account of an expedition with a local realtor to have a look at some promising building lots in the growing metropolis:

…we commenced cutting our way with billhooks through the dense forest, which he called Third Avenue, or the fashionable quarter, until we got to the bed of a rivulet, down which we turned through tangled underwood (by name West Street), until it lost itself in a bog, which was the principal square, upon the other side of which, covered with almost impenetrable bush, was the site of our lots.

Oliphant goes on to describe a harrowing journey with two Canadian voyageurs in a birch bark canoe through swamps and over rapids to the headwaters of the Mississippi, from which they descended to St. Paul, the up and coming capital of the Minnesota territory. They were pleased to find it a great deal more civilized than Superior, with a hotel that was passable, even by European standards. Oliphant recounts that the guests would rush through their evening meal in typical American fashion. The process of digestion, however, was another matter. The men would retire to the front porch, where they would lean back in chairs, criticize the passers-by, and pontificate on the politics of the day at their leisure.

Among the topics of conversation was the issue of slavery, and while latter day Marxists and sentimental writers about “southern heritage” have “proved” that the Civil War was not really about slavery using any number of facile and unconvincing arguments, there was no confusion about the matter at the time, whether among opponents or proponents of slavery or European observers. Oliphant described an exchange on the subject between an eastern Yankee and a scowling Texan, and observed,

Whatever may be the views of Americans upon the great question of slavery, which seems destined, before long, to split the Union, they do not scruple to avow themselves annexationists.

The great question of slavery will lead to an explosion which it is to be hoped will not terminate in a Kilkenny-cat process.

The author and his friends took a river steamboat to Galena, Illinois, a point which was already connected to the rest of the country by rail. Apropos railroads, he notes in passing,

…we have no business to question the engineering performances in a country in which there are already 21,310 miles of railway laid down, or about 2500 miles more than the whole of the rest of the world put together.

The story of Oliphant doesn’t end with travel stories. Strangely enough, this obviously intelligent and articulate writer later went completely off the deep end as an adherent of the then-fashionable “spiritualist” craze. Among the collection of his works available at Google Books, one will also find a remarkable production entitled, “Scientific Religion, or Higher Possibilities of Life and Practice through the Operation of Natural Forces.” Published in 1888, it is full of revelations about “dynaspheric forces, the vital atomic interactions between the living and the dead, the transmutation of material forces by conversion of moral particles, Magnetic Conditions in the Holy Land,” and any number of similar ravings, all of which have so far failed in their author’s evident intent of enlightening future generations.

Those who pique themselves on the supposedly high intelligence of humankind would do well to read such stuff occasionally. Oliphant was a man of no mean intellect, possessed of remarkable insight and powers of analysis in his description of life in the United States of his time, and the political affairs then current. He also published ravings about “spiritual forces” that even a child would laugh at today. Those who consider themselves infallible would do well to recall that they belong to the same species (starting, of course, with me).

Steamboats docked at St. Paul, 1858

Of Democrats, Republicans, and the Liquidation of Liberty

The values of the Enlightenment can be summed up in one word; Liberty. The term includes freedom of thought and freedom of action, the latter freedom precluding only acts that physically harm others. The American Revolution represented a remarkable and, it would seem, historically anomalous victory of Liberty. Liberty is no more a good in itself than any other human value. I must admit, however, that I have an emotional attachment to it, and will regret its passing for what one might call sentimental reasons. In fact, we may be witnessing its demise.

Both of the great political parties in the United States embrace Liberty as a slogan. Both promote policies that assume its liquidation. The Democrats promote the cancerous expansion of state power. As the greatest and most consistent proponent of Liberty among our founding fathers, Thomas Paine, put it, “That government is best which governs least,” and “There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.” Today, the Democrats represent the polar opposite of his point of view regarding government. In an earlier post, I quoted Benjamin Franklin’s response to a scornful attack on the American Revolution in a letter from some of our British enemies:

The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states. We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.

Today, the Democrats are but the latter day incarnation of the evil Franklin and Paine recognized so clearly.

As for the Republicans, never has a party brayed the word “Liberty” so loudly while so actively subverting it in practice. They demand torture, imprisonment without trial, and punishment without due process of law for anyone they choose to call a terrorist, all in the name of “security.” When it comes to freedom of conscience, they have become the mirror images of the British Tories who were the great enemies of our Revolution. As I write this, their demands for the liquidation of that freedom are becoming ever more explicit. Consider, for example, these words in the latest platform of the Republican Party in the state of Maine:

Reassert the principle that “Freedom of Religion” does not mean “freedom from religion.”

As if to punctuate the absurdity of this remarkable version of “Freedom of Religion,” the authors of the Maine platform actually quote Jefferson in the same document.  If ever a man was thoroughly and diametrically opposed to everything today’s Republicans stand for in matters of religion, it was Jefferson. 

It may be that Liberty can only exist in a state of unstable equilibrium in human societies. If so, it had a good run in America.  To the extent that I experienced it, I count myself fortunate.

Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine