Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Corporate State

Fred Clark, a Delaware-based journalist, has recently written an essay explaining why his home state, the first to ratify the Constitution and the last to outlaw flogging,* is the headquarters of 63% of the United States' Fortune 500 companies. State leaders credit Delaware's Chancery Court, which they describe as a font of wisdom on corporate law. More cynical observers, like Jonathan Chait in The New Republic (whose 2002 article Clark cross-references in his essay), instead give credit to Delaware's highly permissive general-incorporation laws and its lack of usury laws. Thanks to corporations' legal personhood and the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the U.S. Constitution, a company chartered in Delaware can operate elsewhere in the United States without having to worry about other states' more restrictive regulations. In return, Delaware derives a third of its budget from corporate charter fees - and the rest, I assume, from the state's tollbooth on I-95.


*Thus earning it a brief but favorable mention in Robert Heinlein's political science-fiction novel Starship Troopers (1959). Delaware outlawed flogging in 1971.

[Update, 10.26.11: Regrettably, the link to the above article is dead, though perhaps the author will eventually revive it. The title was "Print the Legend."]

Monday, August 24, 2009

Things I Learned at the SHEAR

The annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) is one I've taken care not to miss. It differs from other professional conferences in that A) it occurs in the summer, B) there is no job registry, and C) it has a single chronological and national focus (the United States, 1776-1861). Consequently, the convention primarily attracts people who want to attend panels and talk about history, as opposed to the American Historical Association and OAH conventions, which are full of anxious job-seekers and junior professors trying to shmooze. The SHEAR is one of the few conventions devoted almost exclusively to its attendees' intellectual development. Well, that and founder James Broussard's nickel-ante poker games, at which I've lost about $50 since 2002.

This year's SHEAR conference took place in Springfield, Illinois from July 16th through 19th. Given the location, it's not surprising there were several panels devoted to my academic specialties, the early American frontier and early U.S. - Indian relations. For me, it was a productive meeting. Herewith, some of the things wot I learned:

Robert Owens ("A Tale of Two Treaties"), comparing the 1768 and 1784 treaties of Fort Stanwix, asserted that U.S. Indian policy after the Revolution was "more evolutionary than revolutionary," a point with which I am inclined to agree.

Susan Gaunt ("Markets and Liberal Rhetoric in Post-Revolutionary Kentucky") noted that American boatmen taken prisoner by Spanish patrols on the Mississippi River were put to work building fortifications for Spain. This both demonstrated American weakness in the 1780s - the U.S. government couldn't protect its citizens' presumptive right to navigate the Mississippi - and Spain's fear of the United States' future power (hence the fortifications).

Kristopher Maulden ("They Want to Do You Justice") argued that the Federalists' war against the Northwest Indians in the 1790s was too destructive to be considered just - the War Department deliberately targeted cornfields and villages in order to starve Indians into submission. He observed that the Federalists were less interested in frontier justice than in state-building, which they could only accomplish by creating a monopoly of violence. Andrew Cayton noted in his comments, however, that Federalist state-building in the Old Northwest was rather minimally violent when one compares it to, for example, revolutionary state-building in contemporary France.

Gregory Nobles ("Looking Back at the Backcountry") reminded his audience of what Patrick Griffin called a "frontier commonwealth ideal," in his 2006 book American Leviathan, which I guess I'll have to re-read.

Patrick Bollinger ("Prophetic Tools") observed that Miami Indian leaders who opposed Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa's prophetic movement nonetheless used it to their advantage, warning American officials that their young men would "go to Prophetstown" unless the U.S. increased gift payments and moderated its demands for land.

Brad Jarvis ("Our Father in Detroit") described an unusual way of recording the terms of treaties: Ottawa chief Aulieauneay requested from Governor William Hull (of Michigan Territory) a silver gorget inscribed with the words "The Ottawa nation is entitled to $800 a year forever by the Treaty of Detroit." Jarvis also noted that the Ottawa nation had its own problems with the Shawnee Prophet, and that many wanted to destroy Prophetstown because 160 Ottawas visiting the town had died of influenza.

Rowena McClinton ("Demanding and Preserving Nationhood") observed that the Cherokees' efforts to preserve their tribal government persisted during the actual process of Removal (1838-39) - the Cherokee Light Horse Police made an effort to arrest and discipline Cherokees who became drunk and disorderly on the Trail of Tears.

And, finally, David Konig, in his comments on a panel on "women's legal troubles," argued that the law didn't just create winners and losers - it was also, like diplomacy and trade, a process of accommodation that reinforced social ties. I suspect it would be hard to convince anyone who's lost a lawsuit of that point, but it sounded good to me.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The News from Cahokia


In Salon.com, Andrew O'Hehir reviews, at length, Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi, Timothy Pauketat's new book about the largest pre-Columbian city in North America. Cahokia was the largest of a group of Native American city-states which flourished in the greater Mississippi Valley between 900 and 1300 CE, then rapidly declined, leaving behind enormous earthen temple mounds and immense archaeological remains. Pauketat's book makes at least three observations about the enigmatic metropolis that I hadn't read before. First, rather than growing slowly over time, Cahokia appeared quite rapidly: its founders built it around 1050 CE on the (razed) remains of a previous agricultural village. Second, the Cahokian priesthood and nobility practiced mass human sacrifice: excavations of Mound 72 in the late 1960s revealed the remains of more than 80 young men and women who were all killed at approximately the same time and buried with two high-status men, probably members of the nobility. Third, the sacrifices were probably linked to massive public feasts: another excavation in the 1960s uncovered a 900-year-old midden, so deeply buried that the contents were still decomposing (one can only imagine the smell - it must have been epic), filled with the remains of several thousand deer, various plant foods, and millions of tobacco seeds. The feasts that generated this garbage probably consisted of several days of communal gorging and smoking, and helped prop up Cahokia's civic morale – and palliated the hunger and hardship that otherwise were the lot of most of the city's residents. In sum, these excavations help explain why so many Indian "commoners," even those not held in slavery, were willing to live in a setting that must (given the Cahokians' lack of running water and concomitant problems with sanitation) have been unpleasant for them: it was a place of "pomp and pageantry," drama, excitement, and periodic excess, just like any other big city.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

War Toys

Via the Orwell Diaries weblog, a two-page newspaper illustration from July 19, 1939, displaying the entire British battle fleet, from destroyers to aircraft carriers. It's a very impressive panorama - too bad Hitler didn't read the Daily Telegraph.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Your Monthly Apocalypse: Late Paleocene Collision Edition

A follow up to last summer's Death from Above entry: a group of researchers has discovered a layer of "shocked"* microscopic diamonds, dating to 12,900 years ago (10,900 BCE), on Santa Rosa Island off California. The crystals, properly known as Lonsdaleite, are only formed on Earth under extreme conditions, like those of a "cosmic collision." Based on the discovery of other "shock-synthesized minerals" and soot at other American sites dating to the same period, Douglas Kennett of the University of Oregon has hypothesized that a large comet or meteor exploded over North America about 13,000 years ago, leading to a 1,000-year cooling period that may have wiped out mammoths and other mega-fauna on the continent.

This hypothesis remains controversial, because the megafaunal species in question had just survived several Ice Ages without incident. It still seems likelier, at least to this educated layman, that newly-arrived human hunters bore primary responsibility for the North American extinctions. An old but serviceable computer model, created by Paul Martin and James Moisimann, demonstrated that a very small initial population of Paleo-Indian hunters could have exterminated every large (450-plus kilogram) herbivorous mammal species north of Mexico within 1,000 years of their arrival in America. (Alfred Crosby, Throwing Fire [Cambridge UP, 2002], 57, 60-66.) Indeed, the cometary explosion discovered by Kinnett et al. may have given some large mammal species additional breathing room, by temporarily reversing the warming trend that had been shrinking the mid-continent "mammoth steppes" and leaving mammoths and other large herbivores more vulnerable to human predation. Still, this is an important story, and reminds historians and anthropologists to Keep Watching the Skies.


* I was going to call this entry "Shocked, I Say," but I've already used that title.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Oh, Those Wacky Enlightenment Types

From Richard Holmes' new book The Age of Wonder (reviewed in TIME Magazine, 3 Aug. 2009), this account of Humphrey Davy's early experiences with nitrous oxide, which he took in the company of friends Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

"I seemed to be a sublime being, newly created and superior to other mortals. I was indignant at what they said of me and stalked majestically out of the laboratory to inform Dr. Kinglake privately that nothing existed but thoughts."

I'm sure Kinglake appreciated the insight.

Davy, incidentally, was the inventor of the Davy safety lamp, which was of great use to 19th-century miners. Perhaps it shouldn't surprise us that his experiments with laughing gas would prove to be of more lasting utility, at least to dentists and college students.