Saturday, January 29, 2011

Trivia VI, the family edition

More of the greatest running trivia game since Trivial Pursuit. There is no point in googling. Just guess. This one is all about families.

1. Who are Gershom and Elizier?
a. The sons of Elrond.
b. The sons of Moses.
c. The sons of Alexander the Great.
d. The sons of Saddam Hussein.

2. Who were Magni and Modi?
a. The sons of the Norse god Thor.
b. The first legendary tiger tamers in Ringling Bros. circus.
c. The sons of Jack Dempsey.
d. The only brothers (Gustaffson) ever to win NCAA wrestling championships in the same year.

3. Wendy, Michael and John’s parents were . . .
a. George and Mary Darling.
b. Bryce and Emma Darling.
c. John and Mary Darling.
d. Michael and Nanna Darling.

4. Peter Pan grew up in . . .
a. Hyde Park.
b. Kensington Gardens.
c. London Tower.
d. St. James Park.

5. These brothers have more home runs than any other brothers in baseball history.
a. Lloyd and Paul Waner.
b. Felipe, Matty and Jesus Alou.
c. Hank and Tommie Aaron.
d. Dick, Hank and Ron Allen.

6. Abraham, Sarah and Thomas were . . .
a. the patriarch, his wife and brother.
b. three first disciples to join the 11 after after Jesus’ death.
c. Martha Washington’s 3 children from her first marriage.
d. Lincoln, his sister and brother.

7. They are siblings.
a. Albert Brooks and Super Dave.
b. Scott Baio and Vampirella.
c. Angela Basset and Laurence Fishburne.
d. Rachel McAdams and Amy Adams.

8. They share a pedigree.
a. Seattle Slew and Barbaro.
b. Secretariat and Seabisquit.
c. Affirmed and Man o’ War.
d. Alydar and Affirmed.

9. These two were also related.
a. The Green Lantern and the Green Arrow.
b. Mr. Fantastic and Bruce Banner.
c. Caspar and Richie Rich.
d. The Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet.

10. They were cousins.
a. Zachary Taylor and James Madison.
b. Warren Harding and Grover Cleveland.
c. George Bush and LBJ.
d. James Monroe and Martin van Buren.

11. Julius, Adolph and Leonard were . . .
a. The real names of the Three Stooges.
b. The real names of the Ritz Bros.
c. The real names of Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning.
d. The real name of the Marx Bros.

12. Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia were . . .
a. The four daughters of Czar Nicholas II.
b. The four original female Flying Wallendas.
c. The four names assigned to positions in Mah Jong.
d. The four daughters in the 1938 movie The Four Daughters.

13. Jackie Gleason’s grandchild is . . .
a. Kiefer Sutherland.
b. Jason Patric.
c. Carrie Ann Moss.
d. Edward Norton.

14. This president’s son died in an accident on their way to his inauguration.
a. John Adams.
b. Abraham Lincoln.
c. Calvin Coolidge.
d. Franklin Pierce.

15. Presidents Jackson, Tyler, Benjamin Harrison and Wilson all . . .
a. Had no children.
b. Had a younger relative in congress while serving.
c. Had their wife die after they were elected.
d. Married after they were elected.

16. Agamemnon and Menelaos were brothers from this story.
a. The Iliad.
b. The story of Purim.
c. Brer Rabbit.
d. Egyptian Book of the Dead.

17. These actors are not siblings.
a. James Arness and Peter Graves.
b. Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
c. Shirley MacLaine and Warren Beatty.
d. Beau Bridges and Dennis Quaid.

18. This president had ten brothers and sisters.
a. James Madison.
b. James Monroe.
c. James Polk.
d. James Buchanan.

19. Perhaps the literary prototype of modern television show relatives who like to get others in trouble, Sid was the half-brother to . . .
a. David Copperfield.
b. Tom Sawyer.
c. Sherlock Holmes.
d. Alice (in Wonderland).

20. This Biblical hero’s daughters seduced him when he was drunk so that they could have children by him.
a. Moses.
b. Jacob.
c. David.
d. Lot.

1-b. Moses had kids? Yes, he did and those are their names. I couldn’t remember them and had to look in the Bible, so don’t feel bad. Elrond’s sons were Elladan and Elrohir. Alexander the Great had Herakles (no, not the mythological hero) and Alexander IV. Saddam’s sons were Uday and Qusay, killed together during the war.

2-a. Thor’s kids, both who survive Ragnar√∂k, the final battle of the gods. B and d are made up. D is only half made up; Dempsey had kids, but I have no idea what there names were.

3-a George and Mary Darling.

4-b Kensington Park as we learn in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.

5-c Hank and Tommie. No one even close.

6-d Lincoln and siblings. The patriarch’s brothers were Nahor and Haran. Martha Custis (Washington) had 4 children, but none with those names.

7-a Albert and Dave. The other three are just as likely, but they aren’t related. Super Dave’s and Albert’s real last name is Einstein. That’s right. Albert Brooks is really named Albert Einstein.

8-c Man o’ War was Affirmed’s great great great grandfather and War Admiral was his great great grandfather. Alydar and Affirmed was probably the greatest racehorse rivalry of all time. Affirmed was just consistently a little better. He beat Alydar in the three Triple Crown races, but all together by less than two lengths. But, here’s what you might not know even if you are a fan. Alydar was the favorite going into the Kentucky Derby and he actually beat Affirmed 3 times in their 10 races, including the very last one.

9-d I always imagined that Casper was Richie Rich’s ghost, but no. The Lone Ranger was created by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker. The hero was a Texas Ranger left for dead whose name was John Reid. Jon’s brother, who died in the same ambush, was Dan, whose son Dan was Britt Reid’s father. Britt Reid was, of course, the Green Hornet. How can they just say that? Well, the Green Hornet was also created by Trendle and Striker, so they could do whatever they wanted. Radio-wise, the Ranger is only 3 years older than the Hornet even though fictionally, he was two generations earlier. Hi-yo Silver, Away!

10-a Zach and James were 2d cousins, much closer related than FDR and Teddy Roosevelt. The others listed – no. I’ve given this one before, but it fit the category.

11-d Groucho was Julius, Harpo was Adolph (then Arthur) and Chico was Leonard.

12-a The Czar’s little girls. Come on – Anastasia! How big of a hint can I give you?

13-b Jason Patric. Not a great actor, but a great lineage. Do you remember when Julia Roberts dumped Kiefer Sutherland just before they got married (supposedly he cheated, but who knows) and she ran away with Jason, Kiefer’s close friend. It was a long time ago, but according to one interview with Kiefer, who had serious addiction problems, he forgives Julia, but not Jason. I can understand that. Guys have a code, or, at least they are supposed to have one.

14-d Pierce was on his way to Washington when their train derailed and his last living child died. However, the others all lost children while president. Adams was estranged from his grown son. Lincoln’s son was very young when he died and Coolidge’s son got a blister playing tennis which ended in blood poisoning.

15-c All of them.

16-a The sons of Atreus were Greek conquerors of Troy, of course, but their names do sound a little Egyptian, don’t they?

17-d This was an easy one. Dennis Quaid’s brother is Randy and Beau Bridges’ brother is Jeff. Who got that wrong? 'Fess up.

18-d But, only one of Pres. Buchanan’s brothers and sisters was alive by the time he got to the White House.
19-b Confession. I have never actually read any of the Tom Sawyer novels and don’t even know how I knew that.

20-d Lot’s daughters did this after they fled with their father and his wife had been turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at Sodom, which, if you recall, Jehovah had nuked in a snit. To be fair to his daughters, they were trying to keep the bloodline going, but it's one of the more disturbing non-fatal moments in the Bible.

Friday, January 21, 2011

First hand accounts of the 19th century

Slow as I am to catch on to some technologies, one thing has delighted me about email that I discovered a few years ago, about a year after I started blogging. You can write to professors, who are often authors, or even reporters, and they write back to you, often gregariously and personally. My experience in life has taught me that sometimes it takes people a while to get to know me (a morbid sense of humor, lack of common social skills and asking questions a little to direct at the wrong time – your basic Asperger Syndrome symptoms – might be the cause), but somehow in emailing, none of that is a problem.

A week or so ago I was communicating (email, of course) with an author of one of my favorite American history books, Joanne Freeman of Yale University, who wrote Affairs of Honor. I was asking her about something I had read in an article she had just published in The New York Times and she recommended to me a diary of a congressional clerk whose diary had been published under the name Witness to the Young Republic (1989). I Amazoned it and saw it was a truncated version of the diary of Benjamin Brown French, who I vaguely remembered reading about in Lincoln books. I only recollected that he was one of the few people I could think of who was quoted as actually having liked Mary Todd Lincoln and I knew he was at Lincoln's deathbed, but I couldn’t remember who he was otherwise. I plied through a few of my books and found a few quotes. It’s not that he had a very dramatic public life and I don’t think you would say anything he accomplished was “great.” His high point was as Commissioner of Public Buildings, first under his friend, Franklin Pierce and then others, including Lincoln. But he personally knew John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zack Taylor, Millard Fillmore, James Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant. He had the right to name drop and dramatic things happened around him all the time.

Anyway, Witness was whittled down from about 4000 pages to a little over 600 and I’m grateful. Exciting things can’t have happened everyday and there is more than enough here to enjoy of the first hand accounts that have so much more authority than the second or third hand biography. And, it has provided for me this week’s post, combing through my bookshelf for interesting little first hand observations from history.

I’ll start with Mr. French’s observations about a fight in congress he observed, violence in congress being the topic of Professor Freeman’s article I had read:

During Thursday another of those scenes, so disgraceful to the House of Representavies, occurred in that body. Mr. Wise had made some remarks to which Mr. Stanly alluded in a manner that W. thought malevolent & unkind. He went to Mr. Stanly’s seat to remonstrate with him when angry words passed between them, and Wise, as he says in his statement to the Committee, since called Stanly “ a mean, contemptible puppy and miserable wretch,” to which Stanly replied[.] “You are a liar,” when Wise struck him, and fight instantly ensued. Nearly all the members rushed to the spot where they were engaged. The House was in Committee[.] Mr. Samson Mason endeavoured for two or three minutes, in vain, to restore order. I was at the Clerk’s table where I could see & hear all that transpired. The Speaker crying at the entent of his voice[.] “Order – order – order,” exclamations from the crowd of “Damn him[,] down with him” –“Where are your Bowie knives”—“Knock him down,” etc. Mr. Clarke, the Clerk of the House, seized the mace & went into the midst of the melee & exclaimed[,] “Gentlemen, respect the symbol of authority, respect yourselves.” Mr. Arnold & Mr. W. O. Butler of Ky. Were seen in violent personal contest, & Mr. Houston of Ala. Held an uplifted cane over Mr. Arnold’s head, which some member arrested in its descent, & thus, probably saved Mr. A. a bloody coxcomb. In two or three minutes order was restored, mainly, I believe, by the exertions of Dixon H. Lewis, whose seat was at the head of the aisle where the tumult occurred, & who, as soon as he could[,] moved his tremendous form into the middle of the fight & instantly separated the first belligerents, & there he stood like an elephant among a parcel of dogs, keeping them all at bay, & separating any who seemed inclined to fight, until the House came to order.”

I can’t help smiling thinking of Dennis Kucinic clinging to the leg of Marsha Blackburn as she pulls Barney Franks hair, Boehner and Pelosi having a slap fight and Debbie Wasserman Schultz karate chopping Dan Issa, but, unfortunately for C-Span, we have become a very civilized nation.

In the midst of this, an officer from my center informed me that some important movement of the enemy was going on in his front, beyond that of the line with which we were engaged. Mounting a large rock, I was able to see a considerable body of the enemy moving by the flank in rear of their line engaged, and passing from the direction of the foot of Great Round Top through the valley toward the front of my left. The close engagement not allowing any change of front, I immediately stretched my regiment to the left, by taking intervals by the left flank, and at the same time “refusing” my left wing, so that it was nearly at right angles with my right, thus occupying about twice the extent of our ordinary front, some of the companies being brought into single rank when the nature of the ground gave sufficient strength or shelter. My officers and men understood my wishes so well that this movement was executed under fire, the right wing keeping up fire, without giving the enemy any occasion to seize or even to suspect their advantage. But we were not a moment too soon; the enemy’s flanking column having gained their desired direction, burst upon my left, where they evidently had expected an unguarded flank, with great demonstration."

Thus speaks Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Infantry of a little piece of action named Little Round Top, one of the most dramatic actions at Gettysburg, where he had his troops perform the “right-wheel forward” maneuver to head off General Le Bell Hood’s Alabamians charging up the hill to their front and flank. Let's keep going:

It was imperative to strike before we were struck by this overwhelming force in a hand-to-hand fight, which we could not probably have withstood or survived. At that crisis, I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough. It ran like fire along the line, from man to man, and rose into a shout, with which they sprang forward upon the enemy, now not 30 yards away. The effect was surprising; many of the enemy’s first line threw down their arms and surrendered. An officer fired his pistol at my head with one hand, while he handed me his sword with the other. Holding fast by our right, and swinging forward our left, we made an extended “right wheel,” before which the enemy’s second line broke and fell back, fighting from tree to tree, many being captured, until we had swept the valley and cleared the front of nearly our entire brigade.

Meanwhile, Captain Morrill with his skirmishers (sent out from my left flank), with some dozen or fifteen of the U.S. Sharpshooters who had put themselves under his direction, fell upon the enemy as they were breaking, and by his demonstrations, as well as his well-directed fire, added much to the effect of the charge.”

This from Chamberlain’s own papers, collected in Through Blood & Fire by Mark Nesbitt. Chamberlain, later a Major General and four time governor of Maine (beating the same poor guy three times in a row), and there for Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, got the Medal of Honor for Little Round Top, and we want our heroes to deserve their laurels. But, naturally, nothing can be simple, and Captain Holman S. Melcher later claimed that he was responsible for the famous bayonet charge, and there is some reason to believe it. Chamberlain acknowledges that his brave captain asked permission to charge and that he told Melcher that had already decided to give the order. Melcher ran to his troops and the “Bayonet” was very quickly heard down the line. Even Chamberlain stated in a speech that his order to charge with bayonets was never given or given imperfectly.

At Appomattox, he had his troops stand at attention and "carry arms" in tribute to the marching Confederate soldiers. It was not appreciated by Union soldiers, but, did not hurt his career or his popularity. I’ve been to Gettysburg three times now, to Little Round Top thrice, and along with the long rising plain where Pickett’s Charge failed, is my favorite spot - beautiful and interesting in its own right. I tried to imagine the scene where Chamberlain had his men honor their enemy, but wasn't sure where it took place. Probably should have asked.

Here’s a little Lincoln legend which came from the work of his law partner, Billy Herndon, a fascinating, if not so great western figure in his own right:

He [Lincoln], in the years . . . 1833 & 4 was in love with a young lady in New Salem by the name of Mis[s] Ann Rutledge. She accepted the overtures of Lincoln and they were engaged to be . . . married. This young lady was a woman of exquisite beauty, but her intellect was quick – sharp – deep & philosophic as well as brilliant . . . a short time before the marriage was to be she took sick with the brain fever and died in 4 or 5 days. Lincoln went & saw her during her sickness – just before her death. Mr Lincolns friends after this sudden death of one whom his soul & heart dearly & [?] loved were compelled to keep watch and ward over Mr Lincoln, he being from the sudden shock somewhat temporarily deranged. We watched during storms – fogs – damp gloomy weather Mr Lincoln for fear of an accident. He said “I can never be reconcile[d] to have the snow – rains & storms to beat on her grave.”

David Donald, the late renowned Lincoln scholar, shows how Herndon, set on making his career on his late partner’s biography ferreted the story out from old timers and Ann’s own family. Herndon sometimes thought his older partner’s glumness was due to constipation, but turned to the Rutledge story for an explanation. It was quite controversial as Mrs. Lincoln, no friend of Herndon’s, was still alive. Professor Donald is very skeptical of the whole story, which he describes as a “floating rumor” that grew into a “fixed romance.”

Bad as all slaveholders are, we seldom meet one destitute of every element of character commanding respect. My master was one of this rare sort. I do not know of one single noble act ever performed by him. The leading trait in his character was meanness; and if there were any other element in his nature, it was made subject to this. He was mean; and, like most other mean men, he lacked the ability to conceal his meanness. Captain Auld was not born a slaveholder. He had been a poor man, master only of a Bay craft. He came into possession of all his slaves by marriage; and of all men, adopted slaveholders are the worst. He was cruel, but cowardly. He commanded without firmness. In the enforcement of his rules, he was at times rigid, and at times lax. At times, he spoke to his slaves with the firmness of Napoleon and the fury of a demon; at other times, he might well be mistaken for an inquirer who had lost his way.”

. . .

I was glad to learn, in your story, how early the most neglected of God’s children waken to a sense of their rights, and of the injustice done them. Experience is a keen teacher and long before you had mastered you’re ABC, or knew where the “white sails” of the Chesapeake were bound, you began, I see, to gauge the wretchedness of the slave, not by his hunger and want, not by his lashes and toil, but by the cruel and blighting death which gathers over his soul.”

. . .

My term of actual service to Mr. Edward Covey ended on Christmas day, 1833. The days between Christmas and New Year’s day are allowed as holidays; and, accordingly, we were not required to perform any labor, more than to feed and take care of the stock. This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased. Those of us who had families at a distance, were generally allowed to spend the whole six days in their society. This time, however, was spent in various ways. The staid, sober, thinking and industrious ones of our number would employ themselves in making corn-brooms, mats, horse-collars, and baskets; and another class of us would spend the time in hunting opossums, hares, and coons. But by far the larger part engaged in such sports and merriments as playing ball, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whisky; and this latter mode of spending the time was by far the most agreeable to the feeling of our masters. A slave who would work during the holidays was considered by our masters as scarcely deserving them. He was regarded as one who rejected the favor of his master. It was deemed a disgrace not to get drunk at Christmas; and he was regarded as lazy indeed, who had not provided himself with the necessary means, during the year, to get whisky enough to last him through Christmas.”

These are all from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which details his life in slavery through his escape. Almost every paragraph of the book is interesting, but much of it painful to read. His real last name was not Douglass, but Bailey. When he was safe in the north, he let a host, Mr. Johnson, chose his name (Johnson was much too common). Mr. Johnson was reading The Lady of the Lake, a poem by Sir Walter Scott, and he chose the name of a father and daughter in it, James and Ellen Douglas, Douglas being a well known Scottish clan. I have no idea why Frederick's last name had two s’s at the end. I guess someone didn’t spell so well. Douglass escaped long before the Civil War and the 13th Amendment. It is ironic that he became free not by escaping or when all others did, but when he was purchased from his owner by European friends.

November 13, 1861

I wish here to record what I consider a portent of evil to come. The President, Governor Seward, and I, went over to McClellan’s house tonight. The servant at the door said the General was at the wedding of Col. Wheaton at General Buell’s and would soon return. We went in, and after we had waited about an hour, McC. Came in and without paying any particular attention to the porter, who told him the President was waiting to see him, went up stairs, passing the door of the room where the President and Secretary of State were seated. They waited about half-an-hour, and sent once more a servant to tell the General they were there, and the answer coolly came that the General had gone to be.

I merely record this unparalleled insolence of epaulettes without comment. It is the first indication I have yet seen of the threatened supremacy of the military authorities.

Coming home I spoke to the President about the matter but he seemed not to have noticed it, specially, saying it was better at this time not to be making points of etiquette & personal dignity.”

The legendary snub of President Lincoln by General McClellan, who must rank as one of the most arrogant and incompetent generals in our history. We must, excepting those who still wish the Confederacy a different result, be glad for the day the President had it and busted him (although he briefly let him back) and that he was able to defeat him in the 1864 election.

John Hay was a fascinating fellow and I read a volume of his diaries and letters edited by Tyler Dennett under the title Lincoln and The Civil War long ago. The fact that his father had an office next door to Lincoln’s in Springfield, Illinois and that he himself was a school buddy of Lincoln’s private secretary, John Nicolay, made his career. Serving as a secretary of Lincoln’s might have been the highlight of any man’s career, but he was in government except for a few years ever after and was McKinley’s and TR’s Secretary of State.

October 19, 1863

The President told me this morning that Rosecrans was to be removed from command of the Army at Chattanooga. Thomas is to take his original army and Grant to command the whole force, including Hooker’s and Burnside’s reinforcements. He says Rosencrans has seemed to lose spirit and nerve since the battle of Chickamauga. I told him that I believed Thomas would fail in attack, like Meade and others. The vis inertiae which prevents those fellows from running when attacked will prevent them from moving in the initiative.”

What a propitious moment – Grant to command the whole Military Division of the Mississippi! Some thought General George Thomas was slow to move, others that he was a, if not the, main reason for Grant’s success, though they were not on great terms. But, Hay was certainly wrong about Thomas that day as Chattanooga was probably his greatest moment. Thomas’ lack of interest in self-promotion or military promotion, for that matter, makes him even more sanguine than his boss and may be why most people have never heard of him (although this blog’s incendiary commenter, Bear, is a big fan).

April 28, 1864

The Pres tells a queer story of Meigs. When McClellan lay at Harrison’s landing, Meigs came one night to the President & waked him up at Soldiers’ Home to urge upon him the immediate flight of the Army from that point – the men to get away on transports & the horses to be killed as they
c[ould] not be saved. ‘Thus often,’ says the President, ‘I who am not a specially brave man have had to sustain the sinking courage of these professional fighters in critical times.’”

And well presidents might always have to, I think, as it is the general, not they, who is sacked and ridiculed when things don’t go well and bears the images of his dead troops ever after.

Here’s one about family love and respecting your elders:

The picture you have drawn of that slovenly German Gelehrte whose highest delight is to lecture boys about a rhetoric of which he never could practice either the style or the action or the voice or the art, and then gloating over his own foolish production in private, instead of rolling on the ground with mortification as his grandchildren would do – this picture grinds the colery into my esophagus, but it is not so hideous as the picture of his voting for the Embargo under the preposterous and the dishonest pretene that it was a measure of resistance, although he knew Jefferson was a temporizer by nature. Even that is not so bad as his voting for the Embargo under the preposterous and dishonest pretence that it was a measure of resistance, although he knew Jefferson better than anyone else did, and (like Hamilton) knew that Jefferson was a temporizer by nature. Even that is not so bad as his going to caucus to nominate a candidate for the opposition party, an act which scandalized even his admiring mother to hot and just remonstrance. And even this is not so bad as his jumping at the Russian mission and deserting his self-evident duty in Massachusetts at the time of the utmost difficulty and under the hottest kind of fire, avowedly because he wanted to escape attack – my teeth chatter at this exhibition. Yet worse follows! To see him dawdle on in Russia under one pretense or another when his mother and father pray him to come home, and he had ceased to be useful where he is, but during all these years, while the young Americans like Clay are forcing the country to assert some shadow of self respect, I do not see J. Q. A. open his mouth, and his one allusion to the war is to call it a rash act. Finally, I see him find his chief delight in quarreling with foes and friends alike, but still clinging to Europe, until Monroe makes him his tool to break down treacherously the Virginia dynasty which gave Monroe all the credit the idiot ever had.”

That’s from ground breaking historian Henry Adams’ critique of his brother Brooks’ biography of their grandfather, former President John Q. Adams. Henry spent 80 pages tearing it apart. You can tell there is some warmth lacking in this relationship. Gelehrte in the first sentence means academic, pundit, savant or scholar. JQA taught rhetoric at Harvard and Henry doesn't seem to have much appreciation for him there either. I think the grinding "colery" in his esophagus is celery, but that neither makes much sense or is certain.

Last, this is from the diary of Zenas Leonard, who spend over 5 years as a mountain man including in the service of Joseph Walker, in my opinion the greatest of mountain men for reasons stated in my post of February 28, 2008, King of the West. This memoir, Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard, is filled with his participation in Indian fights, a bison hunt, getting chased by a grizzly, a bear and bull fight, river crossings and all the other things you usually only read about in adventure novels. He lived it.

Capt. Walker then gave orders to some of the men to take the bows of the fallen Indians and put the wounded out of misery. The severity with which we dealt with these Indians may be revolting to the heart of the philanthropist; but the circumstances of the case altogether atones for the cruelty. It must be borne in mind, that we were far removed from the hope of any succour in case we were surrounded, and that the country we were in was swarming with hostile savages, sufficiently numerous to devour us. Our object was to strike a decisive blow. This we did – even to a greater extent than we had intended.”

Leonard returned home five and a half years later to shocked parents who had believed their son long dead on his adventure. After a visit he returned west, but only as far as Missouri where he became a trader servicing those still trapping and adventuring. The era of the mountain men was nearly over, but the trails they blazed were the paths of later pioneers who crossed the west with their wagons and boots on the way to Oregon and California. When the so called “Great Pathfinder,” John Fremont, made his first trip out west, Leonard had been back from his trip with Cap’n Walker for seven years.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Melian reasons to read Thucydides

I remember being in law school, still living at home, and a friend from school came over (actually the only one from law school who ever came over and I think it was just once). He looked at a book I had laying around – I’m sure it wasn’t on a shelf because I didn’t have any – and started laughing. It was Thucydides' Peloponnesian War. I had really enjoyed it, but he thought it was ridiculous, just too funny, and couldn’t imagine why anyone would like it. He is still laughing about it over a quarter century later and always calls it "The Greek Alphabet" for some reason - I think to mock it. Of course, most of the world probably agrees with him. But, since they still publish this old book occasionally, I can’t be alone. Last year’s Oxford World Classic edition was ranked 208,191 on Amazon when I checked last week. That doesn’t sound too good, but their Iliad, published a year earlier was ranked 482,048. I’m not sure it really means much because their Epic of Gilgamesh, also published in 2009, was ranked much higher than either at 7,015, and I’m pretty sure very few people have even heard of that epic (but see my post on 7/11/07 and 9/23/10 regarding the ancient Sumerian hero whose stories preceded The Iliad possibly by two millenia).

Anyway, the copy of Thucydides I had and still have - now on a bookshelf - is Thomas Hobbes’ translation. Yes, the same Thomas Hobbes who wrote that the life of man was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes was a pretty educated guy, a contemporary at one point or another with Shakespeare, Milton and John Locke, and a math tutor for the Prince of Wales who would become Charles II in the Restoration. Hobbes' most famous work, The Leviathan, from which I quoted above, tries to analyze the various forms of government. Hobbes was a monarchist and had lived through England’s brutal civil war. However, his less than angelic view of men might also be due to his having translated Thucydides. After all, like most wars, it was also brutal, and didn’t show the Greeks, or men in general, at their best. It would be no surprise that on translating it he asked himself - is this really the best we can do? His answer was no and he at least tried to tell us how to improve ourselves. Both Thucydides and Hobbes were considered political realists. If that doesn’t mean anything to you – think Machiavelli. There is a link among the three of them starting with the ancient historian.

But, I find myself starting to think about Hobbes now, so I will instead head back to Thucydides before I totally switch topics (you have no idea how often that happens with these posts) and just sum up Hobbes for you – people aren’t so nice by nature so we have to have a social contract and monarchy is the best type of government to achieve it – done.

There are two dialogues in Thucydides work which everyone acknowledges are, at best, paraphrased (that is, no one was taking down what Pericles said at the moment he said it - if they are not totally made up) and which are at least occasionally still discussed outside of classics departments. Foremost of the two is Pericles’ funeral oration, but I’ll be writing about the lesser known Melian Dialogue here.

In a nutshell, the Peloponnesian War was a conflict between the two major Greek powers in the 5th century B.C., Athens and Sparta and their various allies. The Greeks had already narrowly defeated the Persians, who had invaded in the early part of the century, and were led in many important aspects of the earlier war by Athens, particularly at sea, although Sparta is deserving of praise for their leadership at Thermopylae and Palataea – the beginning and the end. After the war was over, a number of city states – not including Sparta - organized the Delian League, which was headquartered at the traditional birth place of Apollo and Artemis on Delos (whose magnificent gleaming white ruins in a deep blue sea setting I visited about 2500 years later in 1992). After a while Athens not only dominated the league, but turned it into an Athenian Empire. No one is completely sure of the real cause of the war, but the consensus guess is that it was probably due to Spartan concern about Athen’s growing power. Sparta was still Greece’s greatest land power, as Athens, with its then impregnable long walls and famous harbor, was the dominant sea power.

The first part of the war started in about 459 B.C. and ended 14 or 15 years later. They then had peace for about 15 years after which it started again in 431 B.C. and lasted for another 26 years or so, ending in 404 B.C. Sometimes only the second part is called the Peloponnesian War. Summing it up in a paragraph means I have to leave out all the fascinating stuff, and there was a lot. But, the Melian (which rhymes with Delian) Dialogue happened in this way.

The island of Melos (Milos to us) is part of the group of islands known as the Cyclades (Santorini and Mykonos being the most famous islands in the chain, both visited by a very impressed yours truly) and now primarily a tourist destination. The Venus de Milo in The Louvre comes from there. Many of the islands in Greece were colonies of major cities and Melos was no exception, being founded by Spartans. It was in the western part of the island chain facing the southern peninsula known as the Peloponnese where the Spartans lived. A little more than halfway through the second and longer part of the war, and not too long after a major Spartan victory, some Athenians visited Melos and demanded that they become a tributary.

Although a Spartan colony, the Melians had steered clear of the conflict between the two great powers, preferring to remain neutral, and asked why they could not remain so. The following is a my vernacular interpretation of various translations of the dialogue which Thucydides, who was certainly not there, relates. Although many names are dropped in Thucydides, he clearly does not know who, in particular, the following discussion occurred between them. This is not my translation but my rendition of other people's translations. I have modernized it as Hobbes' and other translations of this stuff can often sound stilted, and no translator of Thucydides' entire work that I have read had a really modern ear. I will try my best to retain the full sense of it. Don’t look to be electrified by the language. It's not poetry. This is about the ideas.


Athenians. Since we aren’t going to negotiate in front of your people, so that we can’t speak without interruption and fool them with our unrefuted seductive arguments - for we all know this is the reason only a few of you are listening to this – why don’t you take an even more cautious method? Don’t make any speeches yourself, but argue with us at whatever point you like, and settle each one before going further. What do you think of that?

Melians. That’s fine. We don’t object to quietly arguing among ourselves, but given your military preparations, we can’t agree with what you say, because you can’t be the judges in your own conause, and all we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is war, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, or on the other hand, slavery.

Athenians. Well, if you have agreed to meet to reason based on your future predictions, or for any reason other than to consult with us for the safety based on the facts, we will end the discussion. Otherwise we will go on.

Melians. It’s natural for men in our position to think and speak of alternatives with good reason. However, you are right – we are here to talk about our safety, and we can do it your way.

Athenians. We’re not going to trouble you with a lot of nonsense about our having a right to our empire because we overthrew the Persians, or that we are attacking you because of something wrong that did to us, and make a long speech you won’t believe anyway. In turn, instead of thinking you will influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, even though you are a Spartan colony, or that you didn’t do us any harm, we hope you’ll try something that will work, and look to what we both care about. You know, of course, that the question of what is “right” in this world is between equals only, for the strong do that which they can and the weak suffer that which they have to.

Melians. We think, at any rate, it is practical – and here we are doing what you want, and only speaking about our interest and not about right - that you do not destroy our common protection, which is the privilege of invoking what is fair and right in moments of danger, and even to profit by arguments which aren’t really true if they can pass at all. And you are as much interested in this as anyone, because if you go down hard everyone is going to take vengeance on you and everyone in the world will take notice.

Athenians. If our empire ends, it ends. So what? Even if a rival empire like Sparta was our real enemy here, it’s not as bad as being vanquished by your own subjects. We’ll take the risk. So, we’re going to show you that we come here for our own empire’s sake, and say what we will about the preserving your country; as we would like to make you our subjects without a fight, and preserve you for both our sakes.

Melians. How good could it be as good for us to serve you as for you to rule us?

Athenians. Because it’s better for you to submit before the worst happens to you, and we will gain by not having to destroy you.

Melians. So why won’t you agree to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, and not an ally of either of you.

Athenians. No good. Your hostility wouldn’t be as much as a problem as your friendship, because your friendship would make us look weak to our other subjects, and having you as an enemy make us look strong.

Melians. Is that what your subjects think of as fair, putting people who have nothing to do with you in the same category as your own colonists or conquered rebels?

Athenians. As far as right goes they think about one as much as the other, and the ones who maintain their independence are strong, and if we don’t molest them it’s because we are afraid. So not only will we expand our empire, but we’ll be more secure by subjecting you to us. The fact that you are islanders and weaker than others makes it all the more important that you don’t succeed in frustrating the lords of the sea.

Melians. But why do you think there isn’t security for you if you do it our way? If you won’t let us talk about right and only about your interest, at least listen to us explain ours and try and show you how our interests are the same. Won’t you be making every other neutral your enemy by attacking us in fear you will attack them? Won’t you make even more enemies for yourself and force those who never would have thought of it becoming one otherwise.

Athenians. It just so happens that those who live on the mainland don’t really concern us. The freedom they have keep them from taking any precautions. It’s the islanders like you who are outside the empire, and our subjects under our thumb who are more likely to be hasty and bring both of us into clear danger.

Melians. So, if you can risk all that for your empire and your subjects risk so much to destroy it, how craven and low would it be for us at liberty not to do whatever we can before we let ourselves become subject to you?

Athenians. If you are smart you will realize that it’s not an even fight and the prize and penalty aren’t honor and shame, but, but a matter of your destruction if you resist those so much more powerful than you.

Melians. True, but sometimes luck in war is more important than who has the more men. To give up would be to despair, while doing something about it gives us hope that we can stand up tall.

Athenians. You can hope, that’s a comfort, but it’s really for those who have have something so that if they lose something, it won’t be everything. But, those who do tend to overdo it, and put all their eggs in one basket, only seeing their mistake when they are ruined, but until then, they have too much hope. Don’t let this happen to you, because, let’s face it, you are not strong and would have to have everything go in your favor. Don’t be vulgar either and give up the security that’s available, and then when final hopes fail, turn to magical prognostication and seers, and the other nonsense people turn to when their hopes are destroyed.

Melians. We are all to well aware of the problems we will have if we go up against your might and money, unless we can do so on a level playing field. We believe the gods might grant us the same fortune as you, since we are in the right and fighting against those who aren’t, and our lack of strength will be compensated by Sparta’s alliance, and they are bound, if only by embarrassment, to come to the aid of their own kind. So, we think we have reason to be confident.

Athenians. Why can’t we hope for the same favor of the gods as you do? Our attitude and conduct is consistent with what people believe of the gods, and the way they act among themselves. The men we know and we think the gods rule where they can as a matter of nature. We didn’t create this and weren’t the first to act upon it. It was like that before us and it will be like that after us. We just do what we know you and anyone else would do if they had our power. So, we’re not worried about the gods disfavoring us. As far as the Spartans are concerned, and your belief in what embarrassment will make them do, bless your simple hearts, but we don’t envy you your mistake. The Spartans are the best men around when it’s their interests or laws in question. You could say a lot of how they conduct themselves with others, but it’s easiest to say that it is clear they equate honor with what’s agreeable to them, and just what is the most practical. That really shouldn’t give you much confidence and it’s not reasonable to count on it.

Melians. But it is exactly that reason which will prevent them from betraying us, their colonists; their practicality, for they will not want to lose the trust of their Greek friends and give aid to their enemy.

Athenians. So you don’t think that being practical goes along with security, and that things like justice and righteousness are accompanied by trouble. The Spartans do not like trouble.

Melians. Except we are fairly close to them in proximity and we think it makes it more likely they will help us than others, as it is just easier for them, and our kinship makes their faithfulness a certainty.

Athenians. Okay, but allies don’t look for goodwill from those who want their protection, but superior power. The Spartans are more that way than anyone else. They have such distrust about their own assets they only attack a neighbor if back by allies. And, while we rule the seas, it is really unlikely they will come over one to an island.

Melians. But they have others to send. The Cretan Sea is broad and it is tougher for those who rule it to find others, than it is for those who wish to move around them in secrecy. And, if the Spartans don’t succeed in this, they will attack your land and those of your allies left who Brasidas didn’t get. Instead of fighting for foreign places, you will be fighting for your own country and league.

Athenians. They may try to invade us, but you’ll learn like everyone else, we don’t withdraw from a siege out of fear. But it strikes us that even though you say you will look to your safety you haven’t said one thing along those lines which might make men think you are trying to save them. Your strongest points are based on hope and predictions about the future, and you have too few resources compared to what we have, to win. You are being foolish unless after we leave you come to your senses. Don’t be caught up in the idea of disgrace, which when resorted to in times of danger is disgraceful itself even when too plain to miss, and is fatal. Too often clear eyed men who know what they are doing, by virtue of being disgraced, even just the name of it, become seduced by the word and go down in disaster, which is a worse disgrace than if they had suffered some misfortune. If you get good counsel, you won’t go down this road and you won’t think it a disgrace to submit to the best city in Greece, when all it asks is a reasonable offer to become a tributary ally and will still get to enjoy your own land. Don’t be blind to a choice between war and security. One thing is sure – those who do not yield to equals, but who make terms with their betters and act with moderation to those below them, are most successful. Think it over after we leave and consider again that this is for your country which you are doing so. It’s the only one you got and it fortune or loss depends on your determination.


It is hard to say what all of this should mean to us today, which is why this stuff is often left to philosophers and so called pundits. "I don't know" is a safe answer.  Making analogies between modern and ancient events is fraught with problems. Analogies of any type are difficult in argument. I often say to my friends I debate with that it puzzles me how I can do so well with analogies on standardized tests yet somehow, when I make an analogy in an argument - it is always called faulty by my opponent. Usually the attack is that there is some difference between the two parts of the analogy. Well, of course there is. It's an analogy. It's not the same thing.

So, I won’t try to compare the peril of the Melians to one single modern day event, but pull a few ideas from it.

I’ll start with framing the debate. The Athenians come to the Melians home armed. They start off the hostilities even as they invite the Melians to negotiate. But, right away they tell the islanders, don’t go arguing what you think is going to happen in the future and don’t try to tell us what we are doing isn’t just. We are only going to talk about the interests of the parties.

Being an attorney for a while, I long ago learned that framing the debate in a case, a trial or a motion is key to winning. If you make the case about the issue you think is important, you have a far better chance of winning. Take the O.J. case, for example. The legal question really was - did O.J. Simpson murder his wife and Ron Goldman? But, the defense attorneys, most of whom were not very adept, including the legendary F. Lee Bailey, and only excepting the two New York lawyers, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project, made the case about the police – were they competent? Were they racist?

The same is true about politics. When the immigration debate of a few years ago heated up, the opposition was successful in changing the debate to whether the legislation was – one word – amnesty. In the health care debate, they tried this with the idea of "death panels," which, although popular with some, didn’t catch on the same way, and may have backfired among others. I’m not debating the merits of either pieces of legislation right now, just debating the debate.

Straightforwardness – or, sincerity. Give it to the Athenians. They made no pretense of anything. We aren’t going to tell you we are entitled to our empire because we defeated the Persians or that we have right on our side - we are just more powerful than you and we are going to take what we want, either peacefully or not. I’m not praising their aggression. It’s hard to judge right or wrong at the remove of 2400 years anyway, as neither the leaders of Athens or Sparta would be candidates for a Nobel Peace Prize today. But, there is something to be said for sincerity. Kurt Vonnegut, the great comic writer who passed a few years ago, tells a story in one of his books that I have seen repeated over and over again on the internet, although often with other people being reported to have written it or with some political point he didn't make added in. You can research it for yourself, but the overarching point was, when you are making a speech, it often doesn't matter so much what you say. What matters is that your audience believes you to be sincere.

When I was a starting out I worked for two attorneys. One was quite famous and had that type of charisma on trial that very few attorneys in the whole country could ever hope to match. One day someone asked his partner, who was a successful lawyer in his own right, but not with the trial abilities of his partner, how that felt to him. I'm positive he never read Vonnegut, but he answered that he didn’t try to be charismatic with a jury; he just tried to show them he was sincere. I never forgot it and it is what I have sought to do any time I try a case before a judge or jury. And, it really doesn’t matter that much what else you do - rage, argue, even cry. If the jury thinks you are sincere, they won’t mind. Once in a trial I hurled my pen across the room. The jury later told me and my opponent they loved it because they knew it was genuine (it was).

Power rules. The main point of the dialogue though, is the analysis of what kind of behavior you should exhibit towards others with whom you are in conflict. My modern English interpretation is: "You know, of course, that the question of what is 'right' in this world is between equals only, for the strong do that which they can and the weak suffer that which they have to."

That doesn’t sound like the glorified cardboard cut out Athenians we learned about in high school – those masters of democracy, mind and body. By our standards the real Athens of the Golden Age was a small but vicious city state which was, like most civilizations, primarily interested in its own survival and prevailed over its enemies by energy, cunning, martial skill, discipline and power.

The Athenians here tell us that this is the rule of gods and men to take what they can. No doubt, there are many countries in the world which see America in this fashion now. No doubt the leaders of Iraq under Hussein saw us in this fashion and Iran and many other nations do now. It is forever argued by countries without the bomb, why is it okay for you to have it, but not us? If we say it is because we can be trusted with it and they can't, they reply that we were the only ones to use it in war.  

It might be argued that the rule set out by the Athenians against the Melians is in fact the basis of international law to this day; that in matters of great concern to them, Russia and China and the U.S. negotiate with each other, but dictate to the others; that the permanent members of the Security Council are more equal than all other countries in the U.N. put together. In fact, though the members of the U.N. have to follow rules, those with the power to do otherwise do so. Iraq went into Kuwait because they could. We and our allies threw them out, because we could. While you could make an argument that the world organization - the U.N., has changed this to some degree with various treaties, you could also argue that it is obeyed by powerful nations when they want, and obeyed by the smaller nations when powerful ones give them no choice. And that comes down to what the Athenians said over two millennia ago.

The odds. Were the Athenians right? Is it better to submit to the odds and be subjects than to be destroyed. Well, the Melians told the Athenians they would not submit. The United States is only a nation because we bucked the odds against what was then the most powerful military force in the world. And, as the Melians counted on, luck and allies played a big role for us.

But, it didn't work out that well for the Melians, even if the gods, fortune, justice and the Spartans were on their side. Although it took quite a while, inevitably, as the Athenians said they would, they destroyed the Melians, slaughtering each grown man and selling all of the women and children into slavery. In their case there were no Melians left to feel good about the honor they saved. Today, although they often horrify us, there is also grudging respect for peoples who refuse to submit even unto the death.

In movies, the underdog usually wins. But even in real life, it doesn’t always work out that the stronger side wins. Japan wasn’t expected to win in the Russo-Japanese War and but essentially did. Although it was eventually a negotiated peace, Japan had won against all odds by an early surprise attack and were so enthralled with their success that they tried to do the same thing 36 years later against us. And, of course, we ourselves in the founding era, and Israel and other countries now, have survived despite overpowering odds.

Hubris – There’s something about watching the arrogant bully taking a fall that we all appreciate. And, at the end of the Peloponnesian War, that’s what happened – again, despite what you might have learned in school. The mighty Athenian navy, which had already been humbled at Sicily in the midst of a truce in the war with the Spartans, was also defeated at the end of the Peloponnesian War by a conglomerate of Spartan led allies, including Greece's traditional enemy - the Persians. When Sparta came to the walls of Athens in 404 B.C. this time, Athens surrendered.

Then again, it wasn't really all that bad. Sparta, in a sense became Athens' protector. It did not take the revenge on her that Athens had taken on the Melians, or the one that Sparta’s allies Corinth and Thebes wanted – to slaughter them all. Sparta merely knocked down their walls and imposed on them an oligarchy of 30 men – a tyranny that lasted only one year before the Athenian democrats rid themselves of the tyrants and went back to their former ways, albeit without their former power. Athens did have a little renaissance, but, as we know, the next century belonged to Macedonia.

There are a few good works on the war, but, aside from directly reading Thucydides, who just might be too archaic sounding for many people, I recommend Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War as the best available work on the subject, much more comprehensive and interesting to me than the Victor David Hanson’s more popular work, A War Like No Other.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Political update January, 2011

Yeah, you, Yoo

I was watching John Yoo on a panel give a talk at a meeting of appellate judges.  If you recall, he was the "bogeyman" from the Bush administration, a deputy assistant attorney general, the one who wrote the legal briefs (two briefs signed by his boss, and Yoo's own letter) claiming the legality of the administration's use of what most people call torture. He is now a professor at Berkeley Law School now. But, at the time the brief was made public, he was criticized by many, including legions of law professors and even the successor to Yoo's own boss, who called them onesided and withdrew them (causing him a short tenure due to hostility in the administration). A few things struck me immediately while watching Mr. Yoo. First, he looks so young. Wikipedia tells me he is 43, but he looks like he is in his 20s. There is no overarching point to this. I'm just saying good for him and I'm jealous. Second, he was very mild mannered, funny and self-effacing and made jokes about his reputation (paraphrasing - "some people think my copy of the constitution has a pullout with secret rules others don't have"). I like him more than anyone else there.

I can read your mind - Ted Bundy was likeable and Hitler's secretaries like him. Fine, we all know you can be very civil and still be a bad guy. I think we need to pay a lot of attention to that, as we are conditioned to think of bombastic orators as the enemy.

I have never read Yoo's memos, so I can't give an opinion on it. I am saying he seemed very nice and you can make your own judgments about what you think of him.  He certainly made the point that lots of our presidents did what they thought they had to do in times of crisis, and he and most of us are glad for it. I'm sure that is true for many of us. For example, how many Americans are cursing FDR because he was sending Britain ships when America was legally a non-combatant? Or think it was wrong for Lincoln to suspend habeas corpus until congress came back in session during the early days of the civil war? Not so many probably. These are examples he raised, among others. We are always more judgmental about recent actors than old ones.

Personally, I am against the use of torture except in that rare ticking time bomb situation which seems to happen a lot in entertainment and not so much, if ever, in real life. And no one can tell me waterboarding or putting someone in a cage where they can't straighten out and the like isn't torture in plain language, whatever the legal definition. If the legal definition is different than the plain meaning of the word, then I am for changing the legal definition. It's like Justice Potter Stewart wrote about pornography - he couldn't define it - but he knew it when he saw it. Of course, if there is going to be prosecution, we need a more precise definition. Additionally, I don't believe we were restrained by international or domestic law as has also been suggested by the Supreme Court when it comes to non-governmental enemy combatants.

Anyway, he made a nice impression.

I think I like this guy

You know who else I think I like - this John Boehner, the new speaker of the house. I liked how he said before the election that he wanted to change congress's rules to make it more transparent and it looks like he is trying. First, I love the idea of congress lowering their own expenses by 5% voluntarily. Sure, maybe it seems a little symbolic but that leaves them with only, eh . . . about $1.5 million per member.

Second, I admire that finally, despite what the other side did, they are planning on open rules (meaning they will take Republican amendment suggestions when legislating) and that they are going to put everything they can on the internet so that the few who are interested can actually read them. We've all seen the power of Wikipedia. 2,000,000 people thinking about something can provide a lot of observations and ideas.

Of course, when the Democrats took power in '06, they also said they were going to regularly have open rules right after they covered just a few things. And the Republicans whined although the honest ones (like David Dreier) whined but acknowledged they had been unfair themselves. Eventually, when the Democrats saw that the Republicans weren't going to just go along with them easily, they backed off. We'll see if that happens again and I expect judge them on it in the next election.

Back to health care

According to Messrs. Boehner and Cantor, the Republican leadership, they were pledging that the rules would be open but the very first bill - the one to repeal the health care law - no. A couple of nights ago I watched the emergency meeting of the rules committee, which went on into the night and which had members questioning other members as witnesses. They might as well have just made speeches, although I guess it made for more dramatic C-Span coverage.

The Democrat on the committtee berated the Republican witnesses for not having an open rule for this one bill, claimed they were backing off their promise right away and that this would have terrible consequences for people who were already relying on the health care law and had made changes based upon it. For example, will Medicare patients have to give back money? Will those who were offered and accepted retirement packages have to give them back?

Mostly, the hearing was committee members questioning other members. The Democrats were affronted. Congressman Jim McGovern (who worked for George McGovern and looks like him, but isn't related) was almost apoplectic. Friday, Jim DeFazio of Oregon on the house floor Friday was actually apoplectic. The Republicans were sanguine, but I thought did a bad job defending their decision to do this with a closed rule. Virginia Fox, on the committee, did point out that none of the hours of hearings they had on health care reform under the Democrat house was for the bill they actually voted on. That was actually a senate bill that was given a house number and there was only one hearing one it - and that was in the rules committee. When the act it went to the floor with 8 Republican amendments, somehow those amendments got lost, and were never voted on. And they did mention the Nancy Pelosi comment that they had to pass it to find out what was in it. I've never seen a list, but that has to be up their with the most offensive thing on process ever spoken by a U.S. legislator.

I couldn't watch the whole hearing - even insomniacs must sleep sometime, but, this is what I would have said if I were a Democrat:

"This is about politics, isn't it? The first shot in the campaign for the '12 presidential race. You claim you want to repeal and replace? Okay, so where's the replace part? If we are going to have hearings for replacement legislation, why in the world would we repeal now, leaving the public completely at see as to what plans to make now. Uncertainty for the six months or year while we debate a replacement law, will be worse than an imperfect law. Moreover, when the Republican bills come to vote, they will be scored by the very same Congressional Budget Office - and you will ask us to believe it. But, right now, the CBO is telling us that this will be a 230 billion dollar loss over a decade. You complain and complain that the deficit is too high, as opposed to when you were in charge and Dick Cheney said deficits didn't matter. You can't justify this, and so you remain silent. Are you really going to tell young men and women that they can't stay on their parent's policies until they are 26 and can get jobs in this terrible economy? Are you really telling parents that some of their children will die because their children have pre-existing conditions? Yes, you are."

If I were a Republican, I'd argue:

"Amazing. You didn't give us open rules when you were in charge, despite your promises to do so, and now you are complaining that we are not giving you an open rule on one bill. I admit, we made the same complaint when you took over, and we had been just as bad. That's over with. There is a reason we are doing it this way. The passage of health care reform in 2009 was done without hearings on the bill we voted on, without real opportunity for amendment, after the president promised there would be an open process. We know from this past election that the dramatic election of so many Republicans was mostly based on our promise that we would repeal a costly an unconstitutional act. We are keeping that promise. You can say all you want about the CBO scoring the health care reform act as reducing the deficit. But, the CBO was presented with smoke and mirrors. We all know that Medicaid's actuarial office has said it isn't so - the bill will create greater deficits and costs will go up. You can say all you want that we want people not to have health care. That's good politics but the opposite of our goal. We want it to be a system where people are free to make choices, which is financially sustainable and we don't need to fund it by printing money or borrowing from other countries. If we don't pass replacement bills, Americans will remember it. Remember, we are asking members to vote on a one page repeal, not over 2000 pages of legislation you claim we already had hearings on and debated, which was so long no one read it before the vote and which only passed with the help of huge legislative bribes putting some states in a better position than others. Let's put a law, badly conceived and passed without regular process away in the same fashion it was passed."

I'm neither a Democrat or a Republican, but it would be disingenuous and pointlessly moderate not to say when I think one has the better of an argument. In my humble opinion, the Democrats made a huge mistake with their health care legislation both in the process and substantively. It is certainly not what a majority of Americans want or think will benefit them.

But, and this is why I am usually in favor of split power, the Republicans need the Democrats to motivate them to find ways so that we can coverage the insurance gap for millians of Americans (I don't care what the number is - millions is sufficient) in a fiscally sound way. The sooner they do this, the sounder their chances in 2012 will be.

The irony here is that unless their is a sea change, the Senate will not even take up the bill. Harry Reid and other leaders have said they will not do so with any bill that takes away consumer protections. Were it to pass, politics might require the president would sign it, but, it's not getting there. But, again, very dramatic C-Span coverage and it is the first shot in the campaign for president in 2012.

For once, Americans seem to be paying attention. If the Republicans do not make suggestions for real health care reform which make sense to us, and if they do not keep their promise as to having open and transparent government - independents like myself aren't going to like it much. The question is - which party will really work to do what Americans want? Right now, led by Rep. Boehner, it seems like Republicans better what Americans, and especially independants want, but we'll see. I put it past no political party to trip over themselves in their effort to take power.

Holy congress, Batman

Pew Forum did a report on the religious make up of the 535 members of the House and Senate, as they've been doing for a while now. Here's some stuff from their report which may interest you:

"The 112th Congress, like the U.S. public, is majority Protestant and about a quarter Catholic. Baptists and Methodists are the largest Protestant denominations in the new Congress, just as they are in the country as a whole.

A few of the country's smaller religious groups, including Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Jews, have greater numerical representation in Congress than in the general population. Some others, including Buddhists and Muslims, are represented in Congress in roughly equal proportion to their numbers in the adult U.S. population. And some small religious groups, such as Hindus and Jehovah's Witnesses, are not represented at all in Congress."

Because I am incapable of making a spreadsheet. The major categories are in bold. The subcategories aren't. Blue is the percent in congress and red the percent in the population.
Religion        % in congress/% in country
Protestant    57.8/51.3
 Baptist    12.7/17.2
 Methodist    9.5/6.2
 Presbyterian    8.4/2.7
 Anglican/Episcopal    7.7/1.5
 Lutheran    4.9/4.6
 Other protestants    13.7/19.8
    (unspecified other protestants    10.8/5.1)
Catholic    29.2/23.9
Mormon    2.8/1.7
J. Witnesses    0.0/0.7
Orthodox    0.9/0.6
Other Christian    0.6/0.3
Jewish   7.3/1.7
Buddhist    0.6/0.7
Muslim    0.4/0.6
Other world religions    0.0/0.3
Other faiths   0.4/1.2
Unaffiliated    0.0/16.1
Don't know/refused    1.1/0.8

Most interesting there - Anglicans/Episcopal members are over 5 times their proportion in the population. Jewish members are between 4 and 5 times their proportion. Only Presbyterian members, over 3 times their proportion, even come close to those two groups.

But, looking in the opposite direction, the unaffiliated group in general is more than 16 times greater than it's congressional representation (you can't multiply/divide by zero). I note that atheists number (1.6% of the general population) number approximately the same in the population as Jews (1.7%), but there are 39 Jews in Congress and 1 atheist (Pete Stark is an atheist, but because he is also a Unitarian, he is assigned to "other faiths" by Pew). Similarly, there are 2  1/2 times as many atheists as Muslims (.6) in our population, but twice as many Muslims in congress. Then again, roughly 30% of the country consider themselves as indepenent, but the very few independents in congress are very closely tied to a party.

With respect to Protestants, there were 1 1/2 times as many of them who were Republicans compared to Democrats. 12 of the 13 Jews were Democrats. Significantly more Catholics were Democrats than Republicans, while the reverse is true for Baptists.

Of course, over time, the Protestants have lost power in congress - 17.2% since '60-'61, but you can find where much of that loss going to Catholics and Jews, who have gained 10.4% and 5%, respectively.

More at

And . . .

Still expecting someone significant to throw their hat into the ring for '12 (no, not you, Michelle Bachmann). Looks like they learned their lesson from last time - two years is too much.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The story of Partisanship: American beginnings

To live is to experience; to experience is to form opinions; to form opinions is to be biased (Heraclitus - not really; I just made that up, but it sounds like something one of those old philosophers might have written). My bias tends to be that there is often some better middlish ground between dogmatic political positions in a society (always exceptions, of course), and whether there is or not, the best way to communicate a position is through reason and persuasion and not by sloganeering, name calling and demonization. I am somewhat in the minority with this position, and partisans on the right and left continue to believe that they will win unending victory for their side, despite over two centuries of back and forth without victory. While I would like the discussion to be more civil and less destructive, I don't kid myself that this is ever really going to happen, certainly not in my lifetime. Perhaps the best I will ever have is this revolving door of power grabs with intermittent power sharing in between. And over all, I do think we are doing a pretty good job despite our problems.

But, whatever happens, I admit the hypocrisy and ugliness of partisanship has a fascination for me, and I like to whine, scold and opine upon it. I decided to write a few posts on the topic, and this is the first, discussing some of the beginnings of it under our constitution. I have written elsewhere on what I mean by partisanship (again, as opposed to ideology) and will not repeat it here, but I am talking about demonization, character assassination, underhanded attacks and the like. One example might be - it is a matter of ideology whether you believe the health care reform act was a good idea or a bad one. Some conservatives calling end of life counseling the rise of "death panel" or liberals accusing the conservatives of wanting poor people to die faster are examples of partisanship.

Anyway, the best place to start is the beginning, as someone said (I forget who, but someone).

George Washington has a solitary place in American history. Such was his prestige, so forever unique his position as the first executive officer, so lionized by his success in the war, so respected was he for his demeanor and character, that to assail him publicly was just not effective for anyone opposed to him. He was the first and last non-partisan president, at least in the sense that he was the unanimous winner of the electoral college receiving 1 vote from each of the 69 electors his first term and nearly the same his second. Under the system at that time, the electors cast two votes each - John Adams, already a legend himself, became the vice president because he had the next highest amount - only 36 of 69 electors in 1788 - with the nine other candidates splitting the rest. Not that he was really opposed by Adams or any of the others, as they were really running for vice president.

Though federalists and anti-federalists (far fewer) now existed, they really weren't yet parties in the sense that they are today. Washington was a federalist - that is - he was one of those who supported the adoption of the constitution so that they could strengthen the federal government. Still, though he could be described as philosophically a federalist and a whig, it was his intention to be impartial, and to seek some kind of golden mean from what he believed was wise governance.

"To please all is impossible, and to attempt it would be vain. The only way, therefore, is . . . to form such a government as will bear the scrutiny of criticism, and trust to it the good sense and patriotism of the people to carry it into effect . . . ." 

His farewell address (published, not spoken) contained the following, written for him most likely by Hamilton, who finished it for him in 1796 (partially using a Madison draft made in 1792):

"They serve to organize faction; to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of the party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modified by mutual interests. However combinations and or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp to themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have listed them to unjust domination."

But, this was long after Jefferson and Hamilton had driven him to distraction with their internecine warfare. Both were in Washington's cabinet, the offices established by congress, Jefferson as secretary of state and Hamilton the secretary of treasury until both quit in Washington's second term, Jefferson first. It was to their time as officers that some scholars trace the beginning of American party politics. To do so ignores Madison's opposition to Hamilton's seminal plans in the house and the federalists and anti-federalist battles in the convention when the constitution was hammered out. The central dispute over state rights has never been resolved.

Hamilton and Jefferson were to lead their parties until Aaron Burr, politically enemy of both, but Jefferson's vice president, put Hamilton down in a duel. No doubt, Jefferson was outmatched in the cabinet, and he was perhaps wise to leave. Washington was highly susceptible to Hamilton's energetic persuasion and Henry Knox was almost as much under Hamilton's spell as Madison was Jefferson's ("Knox joined Hamilton in everything" - Jefferson; "Knox as [Hamilton's] shadow, follows the substance" - Madison). Whereas Jefferson was timid in debate, Hamilton was like an unquenchable fire. Hamilton's recent biographer, Ron Chernow, aptly describes him as a "human word machine".

And so the two sides battled over a National bank, the public debt, honoring securities, manufacturing and the deal breaker after Jefferson had left office, the Jay Treaty, which was perceived by Jefferson and his followers as foolishly knuckling under to Britain. 

There was no need for Washington to use his cabinet as a council, but he decided to anyway, particularly during a crisis. Almost inevitably, Hamilton would get his way time and again.

Perhaps Hamilton, an unrepentant anglophile, struck first, although it is difficult to tell at this stage. The foreign affairs issue of the day almost always involved Britain, with whom relations were still strained, and France, ostensibly America's ally, who were virtually always at war or near war until the defeat of Napolean in 1815. Jefferson correctly understood that Britain meant to surround the United States by forming agreements with the forming territories on either side (Kentucky and Vermont not yet states) and wanted to negotiate with Spain to cede them Florida and Louisiana (which he accomplished almost by accident when president). Moreover, while Jefferson was a Francophile, he sought a commercial treaty with Britain on even terms and wanted to remain neutral were Britain and Spain to go to war.

But Hamilton, a schemer every bit Jefferson's equal, if not intially superior to him, had already had secret meetings with George Beckwith at the time he first reported a conversation with him in 1790 to Washington and Jefferson. Later, sent by Washington to sound out Beckwith, Hamilton played his own game. We know from Beckwith that Hamilton not only warned him about Jefferson (although not Washington), he also told him he would keep him advised of any developments. It does not appear from what we know that he was playing the double agent on behalf of Washington either.

The same year, at one of the most famous dinners in history, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton worked out some of their difficulties concerning the public debt and funding of the government in Hamilton's favor, in exchange for the nation's capital eventually moving from Philadelphia to a spot on the Potomac River. Not surprisingly, it was representatives from Maryland and Virginia who switched votes, giving Hamilton his way. And Jefferson was pleased for the time. But, by 1792, he declared himself a "dupe" for Hamilton's "schemes," and that he had not fully understood them.

By then, Jefferson and Hamilton were deep in a subtle war under Washington's nose for the direction of the country. Jefferson, the loser in almost every political battle with Hamilton, had also grown colder to Washington. He found his administration too far from his republican principals and did not appreciate his public levees and use of a horse drawn carriage, among other trappings. But, it was Hamilton who really drew his ire. They continued to have to completely different views of Great Britain, and where Jefferson correctly recognized that Britain had no intention of helping America or treating her fairly (although his idea of peaceful coercion would later not only fail, but nearly destroy America when he was president), Hamilton again interferred in foreign affairs, possibly leaking information to Britain's envoy.

It seemed the two could agree on nothing, neither foreign or domestic. By 1792, they had made it a proxy war in the press, Hamilton hiding behind a federalist publication, John Fenno's Gazette of the United States, and Jefferson behind Philip Freneau's National Gazette.

Jefferson here made a crucial mistake. He had borrowed a copy of Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, which he was in sympathy with, from a printer and decided to drop a note with it stating his pleasure that it would be published against "the political heresies which have sprung up among us".  He was referring to writings of the vice president, John Adams, who was still perhaps his best friend in the world. He told Madison (I believe nothing Jefferson says) that while he would call Adams a heretic to his face, he did not mean to publish, and he did his best to make up with Adams (they would later split for a long time when they competed the second time for the presidency in 1800, but became bosom pen pals again in 1812 until their death on the same day in 1826). But, he could not make up with Hamilton who was in reality the leader of the only party until then - the federalists.  With Freneau's Gazette, the second party, led by Jefferson and seconded by Madison, came to life. Call it the Democrat-Republican party, the Republican-Democrat, the Democrat, or the Republican, as you like.

Meanwhile public attention, thanks to Jefferson's goof (if it was a goof) brought the matter to Washington's attention and the stern president, demanded an explanation. On September 9, 1792, Jefferson wrote a letter to him which is astonishing for its revelation of the bitterness between the two men - as descriptive of Hamilton's nefarious activities as it was of Jefferson's whining impotence in the face of a younger but more energetic enemy. It is too long to include in full here, but as it is one of the most fascinating letters in our history, and shows how even great men, no matter how dignified and worshipped, are subject to vanity and and pride, I will give much of it and highlight the really good stuff:

"When I embarked in the government, it was with a determination to intermeddle not at all with the legislature, & as little as possible with my co-departments. The first and only instance of variance from the former part of my resolution, I was duped into by the Secretary of the Treasury and made a tool for forwarding his schemes, not then sufficiently understood by me; and of all the errors of my political life, this has occasioned me the deepest regret. It has ever been my purpose to explain this to you, when, from being actors on the scene, we shall have become uninterested spectators only. The second part of my resolution has been religiously observed with the war department; & as to that of the Treasury, has never been farther swerved from than by the mere enunciation of my sentiments in conversation, and chiefly among those who, expressing the same sentiments, drew mine from me. . . . That I have utterly, in my private conversations, disapproved of the system of the Secretary of the treasury, I acknolege & avow: and this was not merely a speculative difference. His system flowed from principles adverse to liberty, & was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic, by creating an influence of his department over the members of the legislature. I saw this influence actually produced, & it's first fruits to be the establishment of the great outlines of his project by the votes of the very persons who, having swallowed his bait were laying themselves out to profit by his plans: & that had these persons withdrawn, as those interested in a question ever should, the vote of the disinterested majority was clearly the reverse of what they made it. These were no longer the votes then of the representatives of the people, but of deserters from the rights & interests of the people: & it was impossible to consider their decisions, which had nothing in view but to enrich themselves, as the measures of the fair majority, which ought always to be respected. -- If what was actually doing begat uneasiness in those who wished for virtuous government, what was further proposed was not less threatening to the friends of the Constitution. For, in a Report on the subject of manufactures (still to be acted on) it was expressly assumed that the general government has a right to exercise all powers which may be for the _general welfare_, that is to say, all the legitimate powers of government: since no government has a legitimate right to do what is not for the welfare of the governed. . . . To say nothing of other interferences equally known, in the case of the two nations with which we have the most intimate connections, France & England, my system was to give some satisfactory distinctions to the former, of little cost to us, in return for the solid advantages yielded us by them; & to have met the English with some restrictions which might induce them to abate their severities against our commerce. I have always supposed this coincided with your sentiments. Yet the Secretary of the treasury, by his cabals with members of the legislature, & by high-toned declamation on other occasions, has forced down his own system, which was exactly the reverse. He undertook, of his own authority, the conferences with the ministers of those two nations, & was, on every consultation, provided with some report of a conversation with the one or the other of them, adapted to his views. These views, thus made to prevail, their execution fell of course to me; & I can safely appeal to you, who have seen all my letters & proceedings, whether I have not carried them into execution as sincerely as if they had been my own, tho' I ever considered them as inconsistent with the honor & interest of our country. . .  So that if the question be By whose fault is it that Colo Hamilton & myself have not drawn together? the answer will depend on that to two other questions; whose principles of administration best justify, by their purity, conscientious adherence? and which of us has, notwithstanding, stepped farthest into the controul of the department of the other?

To this justification of opinions, expressed in the way of conversation, against the views of Colo Hamilton, I beg leave to add some notice of his late charges against me in Fenno's gazette; for neither the stile, matter, nor venom of the pieces alluded to can leave a doubt of their author. . . I have never enquired what number of sons, relations & friends of Senators, representatives, printers or other useful partisans Colo Hamilton has provided for among the hundred clerks of his department, the thousand excisemen, custom-house officers, loan officers &c. &c. &c. appointed by him, or at his nod, and spread over the Union; nor could ever have imagined that the man who has the shuffling of millions backwards & forwards from paper into money & money into paper, from Europe to America, & America to Europe, the dealing out of Treasury-secrets among his friends in what time & measure he pleases, and who never slips an occasion of making friends with his means, that such an one I say would have brought forward a charge against me for having appointed the poet Freneau translating clerk to my office, with a salary of 250. dollars a year. . .  I hold it to be one of the distinguishing excellencies of elective over hereditary succesions, that the talents, which nature has provided in sufficient proportion, should be selected by the society for the government of their affairs, rather than that this should be transmitted through the loins of knaves & fools passing from the debauches of the table to those of the bed.

And so on. It's a great read and I recommend it (you can find it online). Hamilton responded the same day, and if not as long or poetically, with the same argument - it's not me; it's him:

". . . "I do not hesitate to say that, in my opinion, the period is not remote when the public good will require substitutes for the differing members of your administration . . . . I find myself placed in a situation not to be able to recede for the present. . . .

But when I no longer doubted that there was a formed party deliberately bent upon the subversion of measures, which in its consequences would subvert the government; when I saw that the undoing of the funding system in particular (which, whatever may be the original merits of that system, would prostrate the credit and the honor of the nation, and bring the government into contempt with that description of men who are in every society the only firm supporters of government) was an avowed object of the party, and that all possible pains were taken to produce that effect, by rendering it odious to the body of the people, I considered it as a duty to endeavor to resist the torrent, and, as an effectual means to this end, to draw aside the veil from the principal actors. . . .

Nevertheless, I pledge my honor to you, sir, that if you shall hereafter form a plan to reunite the members of your administration upon some steady principle of coöperation, I will faithfully concur in executing it during my continuance in office; and I will not directly or indirectly say or do a thing that shall endanger a feud. . . ."

In other words, he wasn't going to stop unless he believed Washington fixed the problem - which was Jefferson, although he offered himself as a mutual sacrifice, if necessary.  And, he didn't stop. If anything, in typical Hamilton fashion, he got worse. While not the great lyricist that Jefferson was, he could write a compelling argument faster and longer than seemed humanly possible and continued to bash Jefferson in Fenno's Gazette. Jefferson left his counter-attacks to his supporters. He was at his best when pulling strings behind the screen and he did in fact do so. Madison and Monroe came to Jefferson's aid and congress split between the two, and the two parties were solidified.
Both Hamiton and Jefferson believed that the union itself was at stake and that the other side would be the reason for its downfall. Partisans almost always believe that. Listen to the rhetoric today. However, at the birth of the union, when there was more grounds to worry, Washington was concerned about that too. But it was the parties warring in the press - the partisanship, and the feelings which it aroused in the public - which he believed might end it, not the competing philosophies.

I leave off here for now and will return to pick up my assault on partisanship in the future. But, if you've read this blog before, you may wonder why I seem to press upon Jefferson's flaws so often and not give Hamilton his due as often, as, at least initially, he was the worse of the two and certainly Jefferson's equal. There are reasons. For one thing, Hamilton finally undid himself. His sexual affair in the midst of his warfare with Jefferson, and his being successfully blackmailed by his lover's husband, came back to haunt him when another Jeffersonian journalist, James Callendar, threatened to out him later in the 1790s, and suspicion came upon his acts as the former secretary of treasury. His defense was interesting to say the least. He deliberately outed his adultery himself in a pamphlet in order to defend himself professionally (and fairly, it appears - he was not corrupt). He obviously considered this so important - and I'm not judging - that it was worth humiliating himself, his wife and family in so publishing. I wrote about his affair and what it wrought on March 28, 2008 in An Early Sex Scandal - another fun with the forefathers post, and it's a fascinating story. In defending himself in this fashion, he destroyed his chances of ever further elective office, had he even wanted it, although he continued to remain politically active, dominated the federalists, and for two years even secretly controlled President Adams' cabinet. But, for the public, he was done.

And while his political philosophy still holds great sway in our country in opposition to that of Jefferson's, particularly through the opinions of the future Supreme Court chief judge, John Marshall, a Hamilton protege, he has not ever enjoyed the fame that Jefferson does. It is Jefferson who is on Mount Rushmore and is undoubtedly ranked higher in America's Olympian pantheon than Hamilton. Both, whatever their faults, were great men in their own way, and perhaps character flaws such as their must often be part of the package.

Both Jefferson were abolitionists in their words, the difference being that Jefferson was a slave owner, did not free most of his many slaves when he could have, even after his death, and acted to continue slavery for the south, despite his own protestations. I do not feel bad about despising this failure, particularly as he himself considered the institution barbaric and he held himself in such high regard.

And, of course, Jefferson did get to be vice president and then president, stabbed President Adams in the back when he was vice president, nearly destroyed the economy of our country while president himself and so mangled relations with Great Britain (policies continued under Madison) that we ended up in another war with them (you can find fault on Britain's side too, of course). I could go on with an impressive list of character flaws, but I've done this elsewhere. Jefferson outlived Hamilton by 22 years, becoming and old man who covered his mistakes and faults under the guise of sage, and left a long history of duplicity and partisanship behind him.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .