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 (http://www.worldwar1.com/heritage/marnetaxis.htm).

* 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 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 percent 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 one percent 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.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Campaign 1776: Hallowing the Small and the Great

I am of two minds regarding the recent launch, by the Civil War Preservation Trust, of Campaign 1776, the Trust's effort to preserve battlefield land from the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. On the one hand, I have a 21st-century bourgeois appreciation for conservation: preserves and parks and historic sites improve the quality of life in their region, and tend to increase property values as well, not a bad thing in a depressed national real-estate market. Also, as a student of mine observed just the other day, most Americans learn more history from battlefields and museums and non-written media than from books. Experiential learning is very powerful, and actually visiting a historic site and walking over the landscape (or treading the boards within a historic house) gives one a visceral appreciation for the events associated with that site. Visiting the U.S.S. Constitution or the Paul Revere House in Boston, for example, allows one to see how cramped were the private and maritime spaces in which eighteenth-century Anglo-Americans spent their time. And many people who have visited the Gettysburg battlefield, your humble narrator included, have come away convinced the place is haunted, even if the battle itself wasn't the turning-point that its boosters claim. So, two cheers for battlefield preservation!

But I'll reserve the third cheer for the time being, because public history is a difficult enterprise to conduct properly, and the leaders of Campaign 1776, while energetic and well intentioned, don't (yet) seem to have thought too deeply about the lessons they want to impart to the public.

Based on their website, it looks like Campaign 1776 wants to present a very conventional, top-down account of the Revolutionary War, one which focuses on the heroism of specific leaders, lumps common soldiers together into a largely nameless mass, downplays the motives of British and Loyalist and Native American combatants, and assumes that the Revolutionary War consisted of regular soldiers maneuvering and fighting one another. The Campaign’s discussion of the Battle of Princeton, for instance, focuses on Washington’s endurance, Mercer's heroism, and the historical intersection between the battlefield and Princeton College, rather than on the bush-whacking campaign that Patriot militia units in New Jersey conducted against the British army after the battle. As David Fischer points out (Washington's Crossing, OUP, 2004), this campaign drove Britain out of New Jersey for most of the rest of the war. A focus on the Continental Army disregards the central role that rebel militia played in winning the war: they attacked British outposts and foraging parties, terrorized Loyalists into flight or surrender, and made it impossible for Britain to control the countryside, except a few frontier zones dominated by royalists. Militiamen were, in John Shy’s words, the “sand in the gears of the [British] pacification machine” (A People Numerous and Armed, Univ. of Michigan Press, 1990, p. 237).  It’s difficult, however, to memorialize the actions of a para-military organization that fought few set-piece battles. It’s harder still to build memorials to naval victories or to grants of foreign aid, which is why I also suspect Campaign 1776 will spend little time emphasizing the role that France played in winning the American victory, particularly during the Battle of Yorktown.

From a practical standpoint, though, one thing Campaign 1776 might consider doing is emphasizing the experiences of ordinary soldiers - regulars, volunteers, and militia - in the battles whose sites they are now helping to preserve. The War for American Independence left behind a massive and, for its time, unique body of records dealing with the experience of enlisted men: the pension applications that war veterans filed under the 1818 and 1832 federal pension acts, which fill nearly 900 reels of microfilm at the U.S. National Archives. These applications included veterans’ names, states of residence, and accounts of the battles and engagements in which they served. I don’t ask, of course, that Campaign 1776 plow through thirty or forty thousand records, but other scholars have already mined some of the pension files – John Dann, for example, read all (!) of the Revolutionary War pension applications and later reprinted several dozen of them in The Revolution Remembered (Chicago, 1980). Surely it would not be difficult, as these doughty preservationists raise funds to buy land they regard as “hallowed” – literally, made holy – by American soldiers, for them to remind the public that not everyone who fought at Monmouth or Yorktown was a Great White Man, and that we can recover and retell the life stories of many of the ordinary soldiers and militiamen who took part.

Also, I would like to see Campaign 1776 inform Glenn Beck fans that their movement simultaneously supports conservation, which Beck’s followers associate with the evil Agenda 21 conspiracy, and preserving the memory of the first generation of American heroes. Then we can watch the Beckians’ heads explode from the contradiction, just like in Star Trek.


And, yes, the image above is of British soldiers, or more precisely British-soldier re-enactors. Their story, and that of their Loyalist and Native American allies, also deserves telling to the public, but that's an issue for another day.

Monday, October 13, 2014

1592 and All That

By 1592, a century after Columbus’s first voyage and nine decades after his death, Spain had created an empire as vast and ruthless as the Mongols’. Spanish officials and soldiers ruled much of the Western Hemisphere, from Florida to Peru, and Spain’s banners flew over much of western Europe as well. By then, too, Spain’s imperium was beginning to suffer from imperial overstretch: King Felipe II’s finances were deteriorating, his New World subjects were dying en masse from smallpox and enslavement, and Dutch rebels and English heretics preyed on his European provinces and American treasure ships. It was in this context that the engraver Theodore de Bry published one of the more influential visual representations of Columbus’ “discovery.”

De Bry (1528-1598) made the picture for a series of illustrated volumes on the European voyages of discovery. It shows a well-dressed Columbus, accompanied by soldiers, encountering a party of Indians, who present him with gifts of jewelry. To one side several Europeans erect a cross, legitimizing the Spanish conquest, while in the background other Indians flee from other disembarking explorers.

I learned of this engraving from a recent article by Michiel van Groesen, who notes that De Bry’s engraving established an iconic image of Columbus’s landing that recurred in European illustrations throughout the eighteenth century. Van Groesen suggests that De Bry wanted an illustration that appealed to Europeans’ superiority complex, emphasizing their material culture (clothes, weapons, ships) as well as their more confident bearing and Christian faith. At the same time, though, De Bry had a less-than-favorable view of the Spanish, having been driven from his native Liege for practicing a faith (Calvinism) that Spain considered heretical. Hence, there are at least a few subversive elements in the picture: some of the Indians are clearly frightened by the intruders, and their offering of gold reminds viewers of Spain’s greed. Since De Bry was publishing his books for Europeans of all confessions and nations (so long as they could read Latin), he didn’t want to alienate Spanish or Catholic readers, but there is at least a whiff of the “Black Legend”* in this ostensibly celebratory engraving. 

* Introduced by the reformed encomendero and slave-owner Bartolome de Las Casas, whose accounts of Spanish cruelty in the Caribbean De Bry covered and illustrated in his series.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Giving Currency to Native American Women

Indian Country Today has proposed removing Andrew Jackson from the 20-dollar bill, on the grounds that Americans should not so honor an Indian hater and genocidaire, and recommends replacing him with a Native American leader. Though I believe many other people deserve the blame for Indian Removal, I have no brief for Jackson and no problem finding new heroes for our national currency. I do, however, find ICT's list of suggested replacements a bit dispiriting, even stereotypical: ten Indian men, mostly from the West, nearly all of them war leaders. Perhaps the authors were looking for well-known people and figured most readers could not identify Native women or civil leaders, but there is something to be said for using currency to popularize less well-known leaders who nonetheless reflect useful virtues: endurance, business acumen, organizational ability, political activism, and artistic virtuosity. To this end, let me propose the following substitutes:

Matoaka, alias Rebecca Rolfe, alias Pocahontas. Powhatan chief's daughter, endured captivity under the English, converted to Christianity, and became a diplomat and traveler – one of the first Native Virginians to visit London.

Weetamoo, or Wettimore, Wampanoag sachem, wife of sachem Quannopin, co-leader of the insurgency known as King Phillip's War (1675-77). Captive Mary Rowlandson described her as haughty but a snappy dresser, which, given Rowlandson's Puritan worldview, is probably an exaggeration.

Nonhelema, or Catherine Grenadio, Shawnee businesswoman who provided intelligence to the Americans during the Revolutionary War, sold cattle to the Continental Army, and attended the Fort McIntosh (1785) treaty council.

Gertrude Bonnin, alias Zitkala-Sa, Sioux activist who attended Earlham College, taught at Carlisle Industrial Training School, later proponent of cultural preservation and organizer of the National Council of American Indians.

Maria Martinez, Pueblo ceramicist who rediscovered the thin-walled, shiny black pottery-making technique for which Pueblo potters would become famous.

Wilma Mankiller, author, Alcatraz occupier, and first female principal chief of the western Cherokee Nation.

Mildred Loving, Rappahannock woman, identified as black under Virginia law, who became one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case Loving versus Virginia (1967), legalizing interracial marriage. Putting her on American currency would cause Sean Hannity's head to explode.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Hostage Situation

Those familiar with U.S. Indian policy know that few elements of it have generated as much controversy as education. Until recently, schools for Native Americans were almost exclusively run by whites, who sought to turn Indian children into Anglo children. Boarding schools like Carlisle Indian School, with their uniforms and short haircuts, their military-style drill and ban on Native languages, sought, in the words of Carlisle's founder, to “kill the Indian and save the man" - the normative man being, in this case, a white one. Earlier missionary-run academies had similar goals, though they pursued them without the same level of military discipline. Only a few Indian nations, like the Cherokees, maintained control over their own educational system prior to the late twentieth century.

The early years of American Indian educational policy have received less attention from scholars, though Margaret Szasz has written thoughtful monographs on colonial Indian education, Bernard Sheehan and William McLoughlin have noted the obvious cultural imperialism in early nineteenth-century “civilization” policy, and Christina Snyder is completing what will surely be an exciting and thought-provoking study of Richard Johnson's Choctaw Academy. Here I want to add just a small observation on the earliest years of U.S. Indian schooling, more specifically the era of the American Revolution and the quarter-century following it: even before it began paying missionaries to set up Indian schools, the federal government had been placing Native American leaders' sons with white families who took charge of their education. During the Revolutionary War Congress paid Indian agent George Morgan to board and train the sons of prominent Delaware chief White Eyes, and in the early 1790s Secretary of War Henry Knox placed about twenty Iroquois, Creek, and Cherokee children with Pennsylvanian Quaker families, who agreed to train the boys as farmers and the girls in home economics. While I have not been able to determine if all of these children came from prominent families, at least a few of them, including the nephews of Creek "Beloved Man" Alexander McGillivray, did. Knox's successors continued the practice into the early nineteenth century, when Secretary Dearborn, for instance, took charge of educating the sons of Chickasaw magnates William and George Colbert.

I want to suggest here that this policy grew not out of cultural imperialism (though there was some of that), nor benevolence, but rather out of an old imperial custom: taking the children of conquered peoples' leaders as hostages. Education allowed empires to impress their customs and values on those who would eventually grow up to govern subordinate nations, and it also gave them an excuse to hold children whose vulnerability would deter their parents from rebelling. Twenty-seven hundred years ago, the Assyrians took “aristocratic children” from conquered provinces to Ninevah for schooling, and the Romans and Byzantines educated elite youths, like Herod Agrippa (well known to fans of I, Claudius) and the Gothic princeling Theodoric*, in their capitals. I suspect medieval courts followed the Roman example, and when the English began colonizing Ireland in earnest, they on at least one occasion (1615) took hostages from the children of northern Irish landowners and brought them to England for indoctrination. The American Revolutionaries recognized the political value of the practice, and when the United States' demands for adult hostages from the Great Lakes Indians (1784-86) generated hostility, officials like Henry Knox switched to a subtler approach. The War Department never acknowledged it was essentially holding chiefs' children as hostages, but a Spanish observer in New York City suggested Knox was doing something of the kind when he took custody of Alexander McGillivray's nephews.

By the early nineteenth century missionaries were beginning to establish schools in Indian communities – at Springplace in the Cherokee nation, for example – and the War Department provided these schools with subsidies, at first sporadically and then to the amount of $10,000 a year under the Civilization Act (1819). I suspect that prominent Native American parents supported these schools because they taught some skills, like textile-making and English literacy, that they considered valuable. They also gave them more control over their children, whom they could more easily bring home than if they had moved to Pennsylvania. I also suspect many had come to recognize the implicit danger in allowing federal officials to take their children away, however willingly, for education and training, though some allowed their older children to attend boarding schools like Choctaw Academy and the ABCFM's Foreign Mission School. If the War Department no longer placed Indian children with white families in the east, it was because officials recognized the United States' growing power lessened the need for hostage taking, and because they now primarily valued the cultural-imperialist aspect of education. The militarized boarding-school era lay several decades in the future, but one could by the 1820s begin to perceive its outlines.     

Sources: On Assyrian, Byzantine, and English education of hostages, see Simo Parpola, “Assyria's Expansion in the Eighth and Seventh Centuries and Its Long-Term Repercussion in the West,” in William Dever and Seymour Gitlin, eds., Symbiosis, Symbolism, and the Power of the Past (Eisenbrauns, 2003), 99-111, esp. 101-102**; Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders (Oxford UP, 2014), 471-475 of 9215 (Kindle); Tim Harris, Rebellion: Britain's First Stuart Kings, 1567-1642 (Oxford, 2014), p. 163. I discuss Knox's placement of Indian children with Quaker families in Red Gentlemen and White Savages (Virginia, 2008), pp. 122-123, 178. For the War Department's education of the Colbert brothers' children see Henry Dearborn to William Claiborne, 6 Dec. 1802, and Dearborn to George Colbert of 24 Sept. 1805 and 17 Sept. 1807, all in War Department, Letters Sent, Indian Affairs (Washington, DC: Natl. Archives Microfilm M-15), 1: 297, 2:110-111, and 2:307. Rowena McClinton has translated and published two volumes of diaries on the Moravian mission and school at Springplace: The Moravian Springplace Mission to the Cherokees (Nebraska, 2007).

* Theodoric's case also suggests one of the dangers of educating potential enemies: they might acquire technical skills that make them a potent threat in the future. As an adult Theodoric returned to Constantinople with an army and threatened the city's aqueducts, whose importance he had learned during his “internship.” The emperor became so eager to get rid of him that the Byzantines cleared the way for Theodoric to invade Italy and establish his kingdom there. (Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome, 985 of 9215.)

** My thanks to Corinna Nichols for this source.