Friday, March 27, 2015

Three Hundred Dollars

One would think I had learned enough, in a decade and a half of teaching, not to assign survey-level students a reading assignment over spring break, but this year hope triumphed over experience, and I found myself on the Monday after break facing fifty undergraduates who had not (with a few exceptions) bothered with the reading for our class discussion. Most of them didn't even bring their books to class. Facing the need to conduct a reading discussion under these unfavorable circumstances, I took the expedient of carefully reading aloud several passages from our assignment, the opening chapters of Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and inviting the class to consider several narrow but interrelated questions.

The reading concerned Harriet Jacobs's grandmother, Molly Horniblow, the slave of a hotel owner in early nineteenth-century North Carolina. Like many other urban masters, Horniblow's owner allowed her to earn money in her spare time, in her case by baking and selling crackers to townspeople. Provided she bought her children's clothing from the proceeds, Jacobs's grandmother was permitted to keep the rest of her baking profits, which she saved to buy her children's freedom. Having put aside three hundred dollars, probably the result of several years of “midnight bakings,” Horniblow was prevailed upon to loan her savings to her mistress, who promised to repay the loan but died before making good. Jacobs's grandmother applied to her mistress's son-in-law, Dr. Norcom (whom Jacobs called “Doctor Flint”), for payment. He, having spent the money on “silver candelabra” for his home, told Horniblow the estate was insolvent. Then Dr. Flint, as executor and Horniblow's new owner, sold his creditor at auction.

I asked my students to reflect on where that three hundred dollars came from, and what it turned into, and what it represented. Three hundred dollars probably represented more than six hundred nightly bakings: tens of thousands of crackers, thousands of hours of labor. It constituted a down payment on the freedom of Horniblow's children. And later, in the hands of an unscrupulous executor, it turned into an expensive adornment of a genteel house, a badge of irresponsible aristocracy. People in the antebellum South could turn their labor into food or money or other people's bodies; they could also, if they were white and had preferential access to the courts, turn that labor into luxuries for themselves and continued enslavement for those who trusted them. Capitalism can sustain remarkable acts of alchemy, but in the end those with the right connections or the socially correct skin color choose the final form that raw materials, capital, and lives will take.

The story ended, incidentally, not entirely unhappily. Horniblow's white customers flocked to the auction block on the day of her sale, and arranged for her purchase and subsequent freeing in a no-bid auction. Horniblow had earned more than cash with her midnight bakings – she had also earned the goodwill of the white community, who called her “Aunt Marthy.” As a free woman she became one of Dr. Flint's nemeses, feared by him for her physical courage and sharp tongue, and a source of protection for her teenage granddaughter Harriet when Flint decided to start playing Dangerous Liaisons. Money is but one form of credit in a capitalist society, and not always the most creditable one.


(The photo above is of Harriet Jacobs, not her grandmother, though the two probably resembled one another.)

Monday, March 02, 2015

Dancing Space Mice FTW

Earlier this semester I asked one of my upperclassmen, who had
just returned from a semester in Japan, where he had attended university in that polite and well-groomed country. He mentioned that he had been in a small city that was essentially a suburb of Tokyo, and I commented (having just visited Tokyo myself) that it was essentially an amalgam of small cities joined together into a larger unit.

"Just like Voltron!" another, slightly older student promptly observed.

I think he wins the discussion.


P.S.: Space Mice? Indeed.

Monday, February 16, 2015

President's Day: James K. Polk

James Polk has no large monuments dedicated to him, no presidential library burnishing his reputation, but he is an American president whom history buffs can't help bumping into. In high school I learned of Polk's role in acquiring Oregon and the Mexican Cession for the United States, though not about the sense of betrayal this evoked in Northern politicians, who resented Polk's reneging on his promise to acquire British Columbia as well. In college I came across George Alec Effinger's sci-fi story “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything,” in which omniscient aliens revealed that Polk, who had fulfilled all his campaign promises in one term, was the greatest American president. Who was I, mere Earthling, to argue? Effinger's story probably inspired They Might Be Giants' now-classic song “James K. Polk,” which I discovered in grad school and inflicted on my survey classes for several years.* On Facebook, I briefly indulged in the online version of Oregon Trail, in which Polk appeared as a minor tavern-lounger. And a few years ago, when I attended a stimulating NEH seminar at the University of North Carolina, a handsome statue reminded me that UNC had been the eleventh president's alma mater. Polk has been, as I say, a hard man to escape.

I hold no brief for Polk's personal or political virtue. The thin-skinned Tennessean was not merely a slave-owner but a slave-dealer, and his acquisition of New Mexico and California little more than military piracy, abetted by Mexico's political instability and its embroilment, as Brian Delay has ably shown, in a two-front war against the United States and the Comanches. I've not yet read through Tom Chaffin's new book Met His Every Goal?, but what I've seen of it suggests that Polk never even made the campaign promises that he fulfilled during his presidency, and he under-fulfilled two of those ostensible promises: acquiring Texas (actually accomplished by his predecessor, John Tyler) and acquiring all of the Oregon Country (he actually agreed to divide the territory with Britain). I will give Polk credit for one thing, though: his ability to endure intense pain. In his youth James suffered through surgery to remove bladder stones, an operation that probably left him sterile (he and his wife Sarah Childress had no children) and which, I suspect, left him with periodic discomfort thereafter. Polk's supporters called the Tennessean “Young Hickory,” in reference to his patron Andrew Jackson. Insofar as hickory trees were tough and given that Jackson also endured considerable pain (due to dental problems and several old dueling wounds), the nicknames were aptly-chosen. Lucky we are to live in a century with decent health care.

* In 2013 I had the pleasure of hearing TMBG perform this song live in Saint Louis. Achievement Unlocked.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Professorial Coup

If yesterday’s election in Greece has not left me enthused*, it has certainly intrigued me. While the Anglo-American press has characterized Syriza, the dominant party (149 of 300 seats) in the new Greek Parliament, as “radical leftists,” their platform seems more center-left than socialist. The Wall Street Journal, in a surprisingly sympathetic article** (paywalled, alas), observes that many of Syriza’s legislative candidates are college professors, which makes their so-called “Keynesian-Marxist” governing philosophy easier to understand. Professors tend toward what one might call actual conservatism: the desire to conserve and use old institutions and techniques that have worked well enough in the past. Whatever its flaws, Keynesian deficit spending works well enough at stimulating a depressed economy, provided someone is willing to loan the government enough money. (Of course, the “Troika” of European Commission, European Central Bank, and IMF are reluctant to do so.) I suspect, too, that college professors are more concerned by the high level of youth unemployment in Greece (40%, IIRC) than other professionals. No-one wants to consign their graduates to years, possibly decades, of unemployment. As for Syriza’s Marxism, I suspect we’ll see very little of it. It probably runs no deeper than the radicalism of Anglo-American students who dabbled in Marxism in the 1960s and became yuppies twenty years later, or of professors who called themselves “Marxologists” in the ‘80s and then spent their energy fighting over endowed chairs and parking privileges. I doubt we will see any Greek gulags. Unless they have decent faculty parking.

* Syriza’s coalition partner, the Independent Democrats, does not thrill me. They are center-right nationalists who don’t care for Germany, understandably enough in light of German bankers’ support for austerity, and oppose immigration, a somewhat more ominous position. They're still a better option than Golden Dawn.

** Charles Forelle, "Syriza's Rise Fueled by Professors-Turned Politicians," WSJ, 23 Jan. 2015.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Battle for New Orleans: Making Louisiana Safe for Slavery

As longtime fans of The Simpsons know, the Battle of New Orleans, whose bicentennial we celebrate today, occurred two weeks after the War of 1812 ended. This turns out to be one of things we know that just ain't so: Donald Hickey points out in Don't Give Up the Ship (U. of Illinois, 2006) that while British and American commissioners signed a peace treaty in December 1814, it did not go into effect until both governments legally ratified it in February, so the war legally continued for several weeks after Andrew Jackson's lopsided* victory. This observation raises an intriguing counterfactual question: if the British had captured New Orleans in 1815, would Britain have been able to retain the city, and a chunk of the Louisiana Purchase, as legitimate prizes of war? After all, the United Kingdom had not recognized the legitimacy of France's sale of Louisiana to the United States. The question becomes more interesting when we realize how close Britain came to capturing the vital seaport: as David and Jeanne Heidler recently observed**, though British troops failed to take New Orleans from the south, another army planned to move on the Crescent City from the less defensible north, via Mobile and Baton Rouge. British General John Lambert captured Mobile's harbor defenses in February, just before the war ended, and he and his colleagues would have stood a good chance of occupying New Orleans if the war had lasted a few more months.

I doubt, however, that Britain would have kept New Orleans for long. The Treaty of Ghent specifically restored the status quo ante bellum, denying Britain a legal right of conquest to Louisiana, and even if British officials decided to deny the validity of the Louisiana Purchase, doing so would have obliged them to return New Orleans to its previous European owners, the French. I doubt they would have found this an attractive alternative. More importantly, Whitehall's primary objective during and after the War of 1812 was the defense of its existing North American colonies, Upper and Lower Canada. It had authorized the attack on the Gulf Coast as part of a diversionary campaign to draw American forces away from the vulnerable Canadian provinces. Holding territory in the Gulf region would have interfered with Whitehall's post-war efforts to secure the U.S. - Canadian border through diplomacy (e.g. the Rush-Bagot agreement that partially demilitarized the Great Lakes). New Orleans might have provided Britain with a bargaining chip in future negotiations with the Americans, but I've seen no evidence that Foreign Office ministers were thinking this way in 1815.

I don't mean to suggest, though, that a hypothetical British capture and occupation of New Orleans would have had no consequences at all. But we need to move away from geopolitics and the American master narrative of war and expansion to determine those consequences. We should follow the lead of Alan Taylor, Gene Smith, and Nathaniel Millett, all of whom have drawn our attention to a previously under-studied aspect of the War of 1812: the decision by thousands of African-American slaves to treat the British Army as a liberation force, and to flee to the protection of their lines. Millett observes that Edward Nicolls (no relation) recruited runaway slaves into a British volunteer force after Britain seized Pensacola in 1814. In Florida hundreds of those freedmen subsequently formed an autonomous maroon community (the “Negro Fort”) which stood until American troops destroyed it in 1816; others took refuge with the Seminoles. Nearby Louisiana had a large (35,000) and restive slave population in 1815, and it is very likely that Louisiana slaves, by the hundreds if not the thousands, would have responded to a British occupation of New Orleans by seeking refuge with the invaders. How this would have altered the “big picture” of American history I know not, but consider: Louisiana had its own maroon communities in the late eighteenth century, and in 1811 had generated the largest slave revolt in North American history, the German Coast uprising. The state already had a culture of slave defiance, and it is probable that a slave exodus to British-occupied New Orleans would have strengthened this culture in the 1810s and '20s. In any case, abscondance and the possibility of liberation would have changed and improved the lives of hundreds of people, and that is as worthy of comment as speculation about the impact of a British victory on American national power. History is about people, not just nation-states.

* About 50 Americans were killed and wounded, versus more than 2,000 British casualties.

** "'Where All Behave Well:' Fort Bowyer and the War on the Gulf, 1814-1815," in Tohopeka: Rethinking the Creek War and the War of 1812, ed. Kathryn E. Holland Braund (U. of Alabama Press, 2012), pp. 182-199.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Big One, Plus One Hundred

Your humble narrator has not devoted much attention to this year's big centennial, the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, for which he offers this explanation: the critical events of the First World War rarely fit into a single day, but rather stretched over several days or weeks or (in the case of battles like the Somme) several months. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, to be sure, was exceptionally sudden, but it took another month for German leaders to goad Austria into picking a fight with the Russians and the Serbs. It took another week after that for France, Belgium, and Britain to enter the war, and when the first major engagement on the Western Front, the Battle of the Marne, erupted in September, it took the Allies another full week of barrages, alarms, and excursions to halt the German advance. One can't easily devote a day here and a day there to commemorating the anniversaries of important battles and events, as one can do with, for example, the Napoleonic Wars.

I can suggest one excellent recent book on the outbreak of the war, David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer (2004).* Contra Barbara Tuchman's classic but dated The Guns of August (1962), Fromkin observes that WWI resulted not from a series of interlocking blunders but from definite decisions by two of the Great Powers: Austria, which wanted to use the Sarajevo assassination as an excuse to crush Serb nationalism, and Germany, which made the price of its assistance an Austrian war against Serbia's ally Russia, whose growing economic and military might German generals feared. As Norman Stone pointed out in his own study of the war, Gavrilo Princip took the fall for a disaster that Germany would probably have engineered anyway. (World War One [Basic Books, 2009], p. 23)

For the war itself, Mental Floss's blogger Erik Sass has been doing a fine job summarizing the major developments of 1914, using seldom-seen photographs and witnesses from both sides of the battle lines. Among the events he's covered so far are the Battle of the Marne (5-12 September 1914), whose outcome he connects to two of the largest problems facing the commanders of wartime offensives: the huge advantage that rail transport (not to mention Paris taxis) gave defending armies, and the difficulty of coordinating the movement of multiple corps of soldiers. Sass also offers essays on the German capture of Antwerp (7-10 October), whose final days one observer described as a “glorious and fascinating nightmare”; the First Battle of Ypres (12 October – 12 November 1914), which sucked in a million soldiers and killed or wounded 300,000 of them, allegedly including several divisions of German college students; and the forgotten battles beyond Europe, like Qingdao, Basra, and Coronel. I look forward to his account of the famous “Christmas Truce” a few weeks hence.

Finally, while it is a trifle shallow, this Daily Mail article demonstrates that life in wartime Britain wasn't nearly as dowdy and stoical as Britons later remembered, unless there is something dowdy about cocaine, binge drinking, and casual sex.

The images above are from "Apocalypse at Ypres," the third Mental Floss link from paragraph three, and "The Marne Taxis," by Leon Loupy (

* One caveat to my review of Fromkin's book: the “cheering crowds” that greeted the war actually represented a small minority of their countries' populations, most of whom found the news bewildering or dismaying.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The 2014 Midterms: Everybody Knows

Since miscalculating the likely outcome of the 2006 midterm elections I have avoided discussing American electoral politics on this blog, apart from a snarky comment about the 2010 midterm elections. The 2014 midterms, which generated massive victories for the Republican Party at the state and federal levels, have also generated so much commentary that it almost seems unnecessary for me to add anything. I agree with The Hill and Juan Cole that the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate is unlikely to last, since the party will be contesting more than twice as many Senate seats in 2016 as the Democrats. It also seems unlikely that the Republicans will capture the presidency in 2016, partly because voter turnout will be higher among young people and minority groups (it can hardly be lower than it was this year, at 36% overall), mainly because the Republicans' anti-labor stance and reactionary social policies have effectively locked their forthcoming candidate out of states with 257 Electoral College votes.

The more troubling outcomes of the 2014 elections, in my view, are less visible ones. First, Republicans won control of more state governorships and state legislatures, increasing the number of each in their hands to 31 state houses and 68 of 99 state legislative chambers. As John Oliver points out, state governments pass ten times as many laws as the constitutionally straight-jacketed U.S. Congress, and now that it is even more firmly in the saddle at the state level, the GOP, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, will ride Democrats and social progressives “very hard.” Second, campaign treasurers and political action committees spent nearly four billion dollars on the 2014 elections, the largest figure ever spent on a non-presidential election in the United States. There is a connection, though not an immediately obvious one, between this figure and low voter turnout. Robert Reich points out that many younger and minority voters probably stayed home because high unemployment made it difficult for them to see what either party could do for them, and since many Democrats ran listless center-right campaigns to please their corporate backers. That same economy has, as most of my readers know, dramatically increased the wealth of the top 1% of Americans, and many of them have used that wealth to support candidates (mainly conservative) and policies that will line their pockets and suppress overall voter turnout. 2014 thus represented another milepost on our road to corporatist oligarchy.

Can progressives fight such trends? Not easily. Overturning the Citizens United decision with a constitutional amendment would help limit rich people's influence over elections, but federal constitutional amendments are hard to pass – the last one to pass both Congress and the states did so in 1971 – and I think it unlikely though not impossible) that one so inimical to the interests of lawmakers would succeed. In a previous blog post I suggested that progressives should focus on winning state elections, since that was where so much important legislation was passed, but I believe these are even easier to manipulate than federal elections, and oligarchs like the Koch brothers are happy to pour money into gubernatorial and legislative races. One must instead take action against the root cause of the problem, which is the maldistribution of wealth in the United States, and against its causes: incipient debt peonage for much of the 99 percent, the erosion of public education and infrastructure, the persistent belief – a lie since the 1970s – that the economic benefits of hard work accrue to anyone other than the rich, and the continued growth of massive industrial and commercial monopolies. Some of these causes we can only address through public action, but others we can at least begin to remedy through voluntary action.

That doesn't mean we can skip voting, of course, just that we can't assume it's enough.


(And, yes, the subtitle of this post refers to this classic song.)