Thursday, January 19, 2017

Performative Sovereignty and DAPL

Since 2013 I've been developing a book project on the relationship between Indian treaties and Native American sovereignty. It hasn't led to many publications yet, but last year Origins magazine asked me to write an essay on treaties, tribal sovereignty, and the NODAPL protests in North Dakota. I'm pleased to say the article is now live at this address, and I trust my readers will find it edifying.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Anti-Presidents Day: Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland persists in our popular memory as a bundle of colorful details. He became president in spite of a sex scandal, winning as the candidate of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” (a slogan that hurt his Republican opponent worse than Cleveland); served two non-consecutive terms as president, losing the office in 1888 despite winning the popular vote; and in his final term survived a secret operation to remove a mouth tumor. It would be nice to say that Cleveland, like his predecessor Chester Arthur, left behind a record of presidential accomplishments that merited his recovery from obscurity. Alas, in office the 22nd/24th president displayed the narrowness of vision and lack of creativity so typical of the White House’s denizens. Seeing himself as the heir of Jefferson and Jackson, he favored a small and inactive national government. President Grover opposed higher tariffs, Civil War veterans’ pensions, and federal disaster relief, which he claimed would “weaken the sturdiness of our national character,” and blocked federal monitoring of Southern elections (which would have benefited black voters). He also supported Big Business in most of its forms. He favored the deflationary gold standard, even during the depression following the Panic of 1893; used federal troops to help crush the Pullman Strike of 1894; and hobnobbed with bankers and other princes of the Gilded Age. Essentially, he governed as a Democratic-Republican, simultaneously promulgating an outdated Jeffersonian vision of federal governance and quasi-Hamiltonian policies that favored the rich. We could say that he typified an era in which the American electorate evenly divided their votes between Republicans and Democrats. Cleveland tried to appeal to voters from both parties. A trimmer is not a leader, however, nor is he usually someone whose presidency benefits large numbers of people. The best one can say about Cleveland is that he wasn’t a total disaster.

Democrats probably wouldn’t even agree with that assessment. GC’s weak response to the Panic of 1893 helped Republicans take control of Congress and recover the presidency. They would not relinquish the White House to a Democrat for another sixteen years.

That Cleveland’s untidy personal life had little bearing on his subsequent political career does bear some consideration. In Your Humble Narrator’s youth, politicos and the press believed that one sex scandal or unseemly divorce sufficed to ruin a person’s political ambitions, with Gary Hart and Nelson Rockefeller as Exhibit A. I doubt was ever really true, and certainly Reagan (divorced) and Clinton (obvious horndog) demonstrated its irrelevance by the last quarter of the twentieth century). What voters dislike far more than an adulterer is a liar, as James Blaine (“Continental Liar from the State of Maine”) discovered in 1884. Cleveland at least acknowledged that he’d fathered a child out of wedlock and paid child support, and this was good enough for the voters.

I imagine more Puritanical standards apply to female candidates for high office, American society being what it is. Whether these have any bearing on the election of a female president we will not know for at least another four years.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Great Peace That Made No Peace

Indian treaties don’t receive much attention in the United States. Their dates sometimes adorn out-of-the-way plaques and monuments, and their terms repose in the historical memories of the Indian signatories (and their descendants), but none occupy a place in the mainstream American narrative comparable to the 1783 Treaty of Paris or the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. In Canada matters are somewhat different: Indians appear in Canadian historical memory more as allies than adversaries, and at least one Native American treaty, the Great Peace of 1701, became memorable enough to inspire a postage stamp and a tercentenary celebration in the host community (Montreal). The pageantry of the treaty conference certainly must have impressed both the Montrealais and the Indian conferees: 1,300 Native Americans from forty nations canoed to the small town for three weeks of feasting, speech-making, wampum belt exchanges, and solemn promises. French officials constructed a meeting hall and a 9,000-square-foot open-air arena for the meeting, and both French officers and Native American leaders wore their best attire.

While some French demands, like the requirement that all of the signatories return their captives, proved difficult to meet, at length the Indian diplomats and French governor Louis-Hector de Callieres signed the agreement. The treaty ended the on-again, off-again war between France, its Indian allies, and the Five Nations of Iroquois, a conflict that had lasted for a century. New France now had a secure southern flank for the next fifty years, and more stability than it had enjoyed since its founding.

Whatever else the 1701 treaty may have established, however, a “Great Peace” did not really come out of it. French officials’ commitment to returning captives led Callieres and his successors to promise Indian slaves in place of those whom they could not return. This initiated New France’s sixty-year involvement in the North American Indian slave trade. Concurrently, New France took advantage of its new security arrangements to send troops and officials into its march lands, building up its outposts of Detroit, Michilimackinac, and Vincennes.  French officials’ desire to impose peace and order on this far-flung region drew France into the bloody Fox Wars (1712-30), which led to the death or enslavement of more than 2,000 Indians. And French authority began slipping nonetheless when Lakes Indians used the peace to travel to Albany or Oswego (via Iroquoia) to trade with the English. The lure of cheaper English goods undermined the commercial power of French traders, and in the 1740s some French allies openly rebelled against those traders and opened negotiations with the English colonies. 

It would be fairer to say the treaty marked a shift to a more openly imperialistic policy on France's part, whereby France sought to establish sovereignty over its Indian "subjects," and forcibly to prevent them from warring on one another or coming under the authority of another European sovereign. If so, the Great Peace of 1701 actually set New France on the road to a new confrontation with the English colonies, and ultimately to the war that brought about the empire's collapse. 

Sources: Richard Aquila, The Iroquois Restoration (U. of Nebraska, 1983), 60-66; Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance (UNC Press, 2012), 155-160.

Friday, December 09, 2016

The Habsburg Genealogical Implosion

Long after the end of its scions’ sovereignty, the Habsburg Dynasty remains famous for the grandeur and elegance of its imperial capitals, Madrid and Vienna in particular, and the tangled genealogy of its monarchs. Inbreeding narrowed the family’s cultural horizons and gave some members congenital physical defects as well. Ferdinand I of Austria, whose most memorable sentence was “I am the emperor and I want dumplings,” suffered from hydrocephaly and severe epilepsy. His parents were double first cousins and probably bequeathed their royal son more than his fair share of recessive genes. The Habsburg palme d’or in royal inbreeding and disability probably belongs to Ferdinand’s ancestor, Carlos II of Spain (1661-1700). Carlos’s maladies included vertigo, seizures, and an overdeveloped jaw that interfered with eating and talking. He probably also suffered from depression, impotence (he died without issue), and a learning disability – certainly he never received much formal education. Like Ferdinand’s, Carlos’s family tree had too few forks; where most people have 32 great-great-great grandparents, King C only had fourteen. His contemporaries thought him not so much inbred as “bewitched,” was the sobriquet they pinned on him when his back was turned.

Before dismissing Carlos as a useless idiot, however, let the reader note that his defects did not prevent him from moral reasoning or from making significant decisions. The last Spanish Habsburg’s most consequential decision was one he took when writing his will, wherein he left his throne to Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV. France’s political rivals, including England, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire, formed an alliance to prevent unification of the French and Spanish crowns. The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) ensued. Less opprobriously, Carlos’s mother bequeathed him a passionate hatred of Native American enslavement, and as king he issued two proclamations, in 1676 and 1679, that banned Indian slavery throughout Spanish America. His governors honored the ban primarily in the breach, but Carlos’s instructions did force officials to develop legal fictions and workarounds if they wanted to preserve slavery de facto. Let us give Bewitched Carlos credit for doing as much as any distant monarch could do to emancipate his subjects. (Andres Resendez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America [Houghton-Mifflin, 2016], 137, 145-146.)

Let me apologize, too, for not giving poor Ferdinand the credit he deserves. Despite his disabilities and speech defects, King Ferd could communicate perfectly well in writing, and after his abdication in 1848 he became a competent businessman; his successes in that field put him ahead of several American presidents. His physical disabilities, such as they were, did not prevent him from becoming an active sportsman or living a good long life – Ferdinand held on until the age of 82, something neither of my parents managed. Let us dine on dumplings in his honor.