Monday, February 25, 2008

A Penny for Your Thoughts

I can't believe Brian Dirck hasn't spotted this one yet:

"Lincoln portrait made out of pennies"

Saturday, February 23, 2008

When Good Amps Go Bad IVb

Here is the second half of the Parts Connection Assemblage ST-40 Power Amplifier Construction and Operation Manual (pages 14 through 24):

When Good Amps Go Bad IVa

On the theory that someone, somewhere, some day, may need to refer to the old Parts Connection Assemblage ST-40 Power Amplifier Construction and Operation Manual, here it is. This post contains images of pages 1 and 3 through 13 (page 2 is blank). The following post contains images of pages 14 through 24.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

George Bancroft, Secession Apologist?

Scarcely do I learn who George Bancroft is, when he starts popping up everywhere.

Russell McClintock relates that on March 16, 1861, "William Howard Russell, the celebrated war correspondent of the London Times," arrived in New York. George Bancroft was "[t]he first notable he spoke with."
Bancroft talked at length about the [secession] crisis but seemed unable to come to any conclusions; while believing that "the republic, though in danger, was the most stable and beneficial form of government in the world," he was insistent that "as a Government it had no power to coerce the people of the South or save itself from danger."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Just so you know which side I'm on.

A Different Civil War "What If"

I referred recently to my fondness for a good "what if," which has the virtue of illustrating the contingent nature of history (and being a lot of fun). Early on in his Lincoln and the Decision for War, Russell McClintock provides a great one, and meditates on its meaning.

On December 2, 1860, in response to requests by Major Robert Anderson for reinforcements and permission to transfer his garrison from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, President Buchanan, to his credit, directed Secretary of War John B. Floyd to issue an order for reinforcements. As it turned out, Floyd was able to convince the president to defer making a decision until he consulted with General Winfield Scott -- a "laughable suggestion."

But what if the order had been given and carried out? "[T]he entire course of the crisis, and possibly U.S. History, would have been radically different in ways impossible to know." South Carolina certainly would have attacked the forts in December 1860 rather than in April 1861. Buchanan, not Lincoln would have been in charge, with public opinion on both sides less formed than it was four months later.
An attack may have rallied a united South and forced a divided North reluctantly to acknowledge South Carolina's independence, or it may have alienated the other Southern states, rallied the North, and led to a quick campaign that would have settled the issue of secession for good but left underlying sectional issues -- read: slavery -- unaffected. Or, as would happen several months later, an attack may have rallied both sides and sparked a long and horrific civil war . . ..

Civil War "what ifs" typically focus on whether the war could have been avoided altogether, or whether the Confederacy might have prevailed. But this one strikes me as a very close-run thing -- and fascinating to think about.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

When Good Amps Go Bad III

I hope you haven’t been holding your breath waiting for the next installment of the story of my attempt to repair my Assemblage ST-40 amplifier. It’s been a while. Earlier posts are here and here.

Briefly, after determining that my problem was a shorted power transformer, I contacted PartsConnexion (PCX), the de facto (but not de jure) successor to the old Parts Connection, which had marketed and sold the kit. In a series of emails, the president, Chris Johnson, told me that the transformer had been custom-made by Hammond. Chris said that the price that Hammond would charge for new units would be prohibitive unless he purchased a number of them (I forget how many). He said that several others had committed to purchase units if PCX ordered them, and asked whether I would commit as well. After checking with Hammond (which confirmed that the model was custom-made and that the price of a single unit would be an order of magnitude greater than the price Chris mentioned), I agreed.

Presumably Chris gathered the minimum number of orders he felt he needed and placed the order with Hammond, which then manufactured the new batch of transformers. Last week I received word that PCX had shipped the transformer, and it arrived the other day.

Now, unfortunately, you may have to bear with me again. Although I’m chomping at the bit, we have houseguests this weekend. It’s therefore uncertain whether I’ll have time to get to the project. We’ll see. In the meantime, you can look at the pretty picture of the new transformer at the top of this post.

Global Warming Claims Another Victim

I guess it wasn't beauty killed the beast after all:
LEGENDARY Nessie hunter Robert Rines is giving up his search for the monster after 37 years.

The 85-year-old American will make one last trip in a bid to find the elusive beast.

After almost four decades of fruitless expeditions, he admitted: "Unfortunately, I'm running out of age."

World War II veteran Robert has devoted almost half his life to scouring Loch Ness.

He started in 1971. The following year, he watched a 25ft-long hump with the texture of elephant skin gliding through the water.

His original trip was to help another monster hunter with sonar equipment and quickly identified large moving targets.

He was smitten and returned the next year, which is when, he says: "I had the misfortune of seeing one of these things with my own eyes."

Since then, he has been obsessed with tracking down the creature with a staggering array of hi-tech equipment. It was this gear that took the famous "flipper" picture that year which created a stir around the world.

Despite having hundreds of sonar contacts over the years, the trail has since gone cold and Rines believes that Nessie may be dead, a victim of global warming.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

"A Robert Johnson Sampler"

For years, one of my favorite pieces of electronic music has been a work called "A Robert Johnson Sampler," by Neil B. Rolnick. Rolnick took excerpts from Johnson recordings and then slowly mutated them electronically.

Although I have the the piece on CD (it appears to be out of print), I've discovered that Rolnick has posted it on the internet, at his website. Go to the "music" page, and scroll down, or go directly here to the MP3 recording to listen.

The image is of a Hellhound, courtesy of this site.

"He has evidently got the bowel complaint"

I'm about one-third of the way through Russell McClintock's Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession. I may try to write something a little more informative about it, but the bottom line is that it's a fine, carefully-researched, well-written book -- sort of the equivalent, from the Northern perspective, of Daniel Crofts' highly praised Reluctant Confederates.

For now, I'll content myself with passing on this mind-blowing quote, taken from a mid-December 1860 letter written by a Massachusetts Douglas supporter complaining about President Buchanan's timid response:
[T]he best thing that could now be done for the Country would be to Send down to Washington a delegation of Old Women, armed with Six pieces of . . . diaper to clout Mr. Buchannan, double and triplicate and to pin them on his posteriors with a wooden skure [skewer?] instead of a diaper pin for he has evidently got the bowel complaint.

I'm not sure exactly what the correspondent is proposing to do with or to poor Mr. Buchanan, but I suspect it's not good.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Margaret ("Peggy") O'Neill Eaton

While looking for a picture of Andrew Jackson's wife, I stumbled across a picture of Peggy Eaton that begins to explain why John Eaton pounced on her when her first husband died. Earlier posts about Mrs. Eaton are here and here.

Truth Is an Absolute Defense

From time to time, you see discussions about who was the most maligned president, which was the dirtiest presidential campaign, etc. Daniel Walker Howe suggests that, in making these assessments, it's worth remembering that some slurs are deserved:
[T]he presidential campaign of 1828 was probably the dirtiest in American history. It seems only fair to observe that while hostile stories about Adams were largely false, those about Jackson were largely true. An exception was the charge appearing in an Adams paper that Jackson’s mother had been a prostitute.

The picture is of Rachel Jackson, slut and bigamist.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Right to Bear Arms in Reconstruction

One of the more interesting briefs filed in the Heller case – the case pending in the Supreme Court concerning whether there is an individual right to bear arms – is one filed by the the Institute for Justice.

The brief is somewhat off the beaten track, because it does not concern the original meaning or understanding of the Second Amendment. Instead, it focuses on the understanding of the Second Amendment held by the members of the 39th Congress shortly after the end of the Civil War. As such, it should be of significant interest to students of the Civil War and particularly Reconstruction.

I believe that the better argument is that the original Second Amendment was intended and generally understood to convey an individual right. But whatever one's views on that question, the evidence is overwhelming that members of the 39th Congress understood the Second Amendment as doing so.

What the brief documents is the powerful evidence demonstrating that that Congress was irate that southern states and communities were disarming freedmen and Republican sympathizers, leaving them to the tender mercies of gangs of murderous thugs. Rightly or wrongly, Congressional Republicans believed that the Second Amendment embodied an individual right to personal security and regarded these actions of southern states as clear violations of this right. Reconstruction era Republicans did not view the Second Amendment as tied to membership in state militias -- to the contrary, state authorities and “militias” were the problem. It was the need for freedmen and southern Republican sympathizers to protect themselves, their homes and their families against state and state militia violence that was the concern.

As the brief explains, the Republicans responded by enacting legislation and by proposing a constitutional amendment. Both the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866 and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 contained provisions that were plainly premised on the belief that the freedmen were being deprived of their constitutional right to bear arms, and were designed to remedy that unconstitutional outrage as Congress saw it.

The belief that the southern states were violating the Second Amendment likewise contributed to the core of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, proposed by the same 39th Congress later in 1866. Among other things, members of Congress made clear during debate that that Section 1 of the Amendment was designed to insure that the Second Amendment – understood as the right of individuals to possess and use firearms for the protection of themselves, their homes and their families – was applicable against the states.

The brief falls down however, when it comes to explaining how the Reconstruction era understanding of the right to bear arms affects, or should affect, our interpretation of the Second Amendment itself. After all, as the brief concedes, what applies to the District is the Second Amendment itself, not the Fourteenth.

The brief seems to argue that the understanding of the right to bear arms that underlies the Fourteenth Amendment should somehow relate back to the meaning of the Second Amendment. This is, in effect, Professor Amar’s “doctrinal feedback effect” theory, which I discussed (and expressed confusion about) here, here and here.

The brief’s discussion of the issue strikes me as evasive at best. Here is the core of the argument:
The amendments to [the Constitution] are, of course, part of the essential intrinsic context of such a document. The Constitution following an amendment is, in many ways, a substantially different document than it was just prior to amendment, and the internal context even for provisions not expressly altered by the amendment nonetheless changes, and changes the interpretation of such provisions. Cf. United States v. La Franca, 282 U.S. 568, 576 (1931) (Statutes after amendment “are to be read, as to all subsequent occurrences, as if they had originally been in the amended form”). And insofar as an amendment was made with reference to earlier provisions, the amendment will control over such earlier provisions . . ..

The passage sounds very learned and sophisticated; the citations (I have omitted one) render it imposing. But when you cut through it, I’m not sure it says anything. If you understand it, by all means, tell me!

I readily admit that, if you assume that the Second Amendment did not originally convey an individual right of personal security, the alternative is awkward and unsatisfying. It is downright weird to posit that the Second Amendment itself grants no individual right against the federal government (including the District), but that the Second Amendment, as incorporated into the Fourteenth, does grant an individual right against the States. However, until someone points me to a comprehensible theory supporting the “doctrinal feedback effect," that is what I’m left with.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

War and Peace . . .

War . . .

and Peace . . .

. . . at my sister's house.

George Bancroft, Presidential Confidant

At Wig-Wags, Rene Tyree recently published several posts on George Bancroft. In all honesty, I'm not sure that I had ever heard of Bancroft before. If I had run across his name, I hadn't retained it.

As a result, I immediately thought of Rene's posts when, a few days ago, I read this dramatic scene in Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought:
No president has ever played his cards closer to his chest [than James Polk]. Even in his diary Polk did not let his guard down. He confided the objectives of his presidency to only one person besides his wife: George Bancroft, the New England intellectual who shared his vision of America's imperial destiny and whom he was about to name secretary of the navy. The new president slapped his thigh and avowed, "There are to be four great measures of my administration," Bancroft recalled:

The settlement of the Oregon question with Great Britain.
The acquisition of California and a large district on the coast.
The reduction of the Tariff to a revenue basis.
The complete and permanent establishment of the Constitutional Treasury, as he loved to call it, but as others called it, "Independent Treasury."

Judged by these objectives, Polk is probably the most successful president the United States ever had.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

“What Ifs” and Historical Inevitability

I get the sense that many historians frown on “what ifs,” and I’m not sure why. True, “what ifs” can be silly, when they posit technologically or otherwise impossible scenarios of the “What if the Confederates had nuclear weapons at the Battle of Gettysburg?” variety. But I think that a good “what if” can provide both a lot of fun and valuable lessons.

One great value of a well-crafted “what if” is that it can bring home just how contingent history is. In a recent post, for example, I mentioned the possibility that Henry Clay could well have been elected president in 1840, rather than William Henry Harrison. What might the consequences have been? Would the annexation of Texas and war with Mexico have been deferred or avoided? How about the Civil War? (I speculate on some of these things here before collapsing into incoherence.)

I raise all this because Daniel Walker Howe is apparently not one of those historians who turns up his nose at a good “what if.” His What Hath God Wrought includes what amounts to a “what if” discussion about a closely related issue: What if Henry Clay had been elected president in 1844? Professor Howe clearly believes that history would have been very different. After concluding that Clay might well have won the election – that is, we are talking about a highly plausible “what if” – he continues:
The consequences of the election of 1844 went far beyond Texas annexation, important as that was [in other words, Clay clearly would not have annexed Texas]. If Henry Clay had won the White House, almost surely there would have been no Mexican War, no Wilmot Proviso, and therefore less reason for the status of slavery in the territories to have inflamed sectional passions. . . . President Clay would probably have strengthened the Whig Party . . .. In the South, he would have encouraged moderation on the slavery issue, including the acceptance of an alternative future characterized by economic diversification and, in the long run, the gradual compensated emancipation which he advocated all his life. There might have been no reason for the Whig Party to disappear or a new Republican Party to emerge in the 1850s.

After quoting Horace Greeley, Professor Howe even raises the possibility that Clay’s election in 1844 might “have avoided the Civil War of the 1860s.” (To this I would add Gavin Wright’s suggestion that, if the Civil War could have been avoided in the 1860s, it might never have been fought at all. See here and here.)

I’m not sure I agree with all of Professor Howe’s predictions. It seems to me that (for example), even with Henry Clay as president, compensated emancipation and colonization were unattainable pipedreams. Then again, thinking and arguing about such things are what make “what ifs” so much fun.

But I do emphatically agree with the broader lesson concerning the uncertainty of history that Professor Howe draws at the end of his discussion:
We too readily assume the inevitability of everything that has happened. The decisions that electorates and politicians make have real consequences.

While I’m at it, I might as well pass on a couple of Professor Howe’s sources, cited in an accompanying footnote, that look interesting:

Gary Kornblith, “Rethinking the Coming of the Civil War: A Counterfactual Exercise,” JAH 90 (2003): 76-105.

Robert Cowley (ed.), What Ifs? of American History (New York 2003) (which apparently includes an essay by Tom Wicker on the question, what if William Henry Harrison had not died in office).

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

More Pronunciations

According to Daniel Walker Howe:

1. Henry David Thoreau pronounced his name "THAW-roe."

2. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow pronounced "Hiawatha" "Hee-awatha."

Who knew?

How Large Was Xerxes' Army? 2

In the Histories, Herodotus asserts that Xerxes had over five million men (combatants and non-combatants) with him when he arrived at Thermopylae. In an earlier post, I referred to a theory by which Herodotus – who did not speak Persian, after all – arrived at such an impossible number in part through a misunderstanding, mistakenly believing that units of 1,000 men were in fact units of 10,000 men.

Robert Strassler’s remarkable The Landmark Herodotus includes an essay devoted to this topic. In “The Size of Xerxes’ Expeditionary Force,” Michael A. Flower has no doubt that Xerxes’ forces must have been orders of magnitude smaller:
The requirements of supply, maneuverability, logistics, finance and command and control would have made it impossible for Xerxes to have led an army even a quarter of the size of the one that Herodotus has given him.

Professor Flower, however, apparently rejects the idea that the miscalculation was based on the mistake described above:
How can we arrive at a more realistic figure? One very simple solution has been suggested. It is to suppose that the Greeks consistently misinterpreted a Persian chiliad (a unit of 1,000 men) as a myriad (a unit of 10,000 men), and thus one should divide Persian numbers by ten. That would given an original invasion force of 170,000 infantry. But even that is too large an army, given the inevitable problems of logistics, supply, and command. Other solutions must be sought.

In the end, a range of considerations leads Flower to the conclusion that Xerxes’ land army was probably no more than 80,000 infantry plus 10,000 cavalry, and perhaps as few as 40,000 to 50,000 infantry. On the naval side, Flower guesstimates that Xerxes’ fleet consisted of 300 to 600 triremes rather than the 1,207 claimed by Herodotus (and by Aeschylus) – a number that looks suspiciously like the number of ships that Homer says sailed for Troy.

I won’t go into greater detail because I want to motivate anyone who has an interest in Xerxes and Herodotus to run out and buy The Landmark Herodotus. It is true that The Landmark Herodotus represents a substantial investment: it currently sells at Amazon for $29.70. The Penguin paperback, in contrast, is only $8.00. Even so, if 300 has piqued your interest in Xerxes and the Persian invasions of Greece, I encourage you to consider the Landmark version.

Even if you’re generally familiar with some of the basics, ancient Greek history is strange and distant. We tend to portray the Greeks as our immediate cultural ancestors, and we can certainly see reflections of ourselves in them – that is why they have garnered so much attention and fascination over the centuries. But at the same time, the ancient Greeks are profoundly alien. In many ways, the more you learn about the Greeks, the more you realize how utterly different their views and assumptions concerning the world were from ours. (Take a look, for example, at this recent paper on The Laws of War in Ancient Greece.)

Herodotus compounds the difficulty, in several ways. First and foremost, he was composing for a contemporary audience of fellow Greeks. It was unnecessary for Herodotus to spell out his basic assumptions – about religion, morality, politics, geography, history and a host of other issues – for auditors who shared a common culture.

Second, Herodotus’ Histories are not simply an annalistic recital of events during a discrete period. Herodotus is historian, geographer, ethnographer, archaeologist, travel reporter and a few other things wrapped into one. Names of persons, places and regions race by. His delightful stories are by turns largely fictional or based in substantial fact. At times displaying logic and analysis, at others profound gullibility, he can leap from then-recent history to legend, myth and folk-tale without batting an eye.

In short, it is all too easy to read the Histories – and even enjoy them – without appreciating half of what Herodotus is saying. But to really understand the author, the work and the earthshaking events he is describing, the reader needs a lot of help. That is what the Landmark supplies. The maps alone are worth the price of admission. There are scores of them interspersed with the relevant text, so you don’t have to go around hunting for them, as well as dozens of helpful pictures and illustrations. Hundreds of annotations accompany the text providing background and explanation. At the end, there are twenty-one essays (including the essay on the size of Xerxes’ forces, discussed at the beginning) that analyze topics from the Spartan state and Greek religious festivals to the nature of hoplite and trireme warfare. A Glossary explains terms from Achaimenids to tyrant, and there is an index that is compulsive in its detail and completeness.

The picture at the top purports to depict Aeschylus (not Herodotus), who fought at Marathon, and whose play The Persians forms another primary source for the history of Xerxes' invasion.

Monday, February 04, 2008


According to Wikipedia, this picture of Mohammed dates from approximately 1315.

"Quinzy" Copies the Declaration

Here’s a fun little article that I missed: a rare 1824 copy of the Declaration of Independence was recently found behind a filing cabinet at the Supreme Court. (The quotes below are from an article in a legal newspaper, which I couldn't find online, not the linked article.)

What makes the article nice is that it involves our old friend, John Quincy Adams. In 1820, "Quinzy", who was then serving as Secretary of State to President James Monroe, became concerned about the condition of the original 1776 Declaration, which “had been furled and unfurled, and was already beginning to fade.” Adams therefore “hired a D.C. engraver named William Stone to execute a small number of copies to be sent to the states, to members of Congress and to the Supreme Court.” Elsewhere, the article indicates that 200 copies were made.

The “wet-transfer method” that Stone used “damaged the original further by drawing some of its ink away to make a copy.” However, the resulting vellum copies, completed and distributed in 1824, “are as close to the original declaration as you can possibly get,” according to one dealer. “They give you goose bumps when you see them.”

The restored and reframed copy now hangs “near a ground-floor elevator [in the Supreme Court building] where it can be viewed by visitors to the Court.”

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Don't it make my brown eyes blue

I thought this was pretty cool: Blue-eyed humans have a single, common ancestor:
New research shows that people with blue eyes have a single, common ancestor. A team at the University of Copenhagen have tracked down a genetic mutation which took place 6-10,000 years ago and is the cause of the eye colour of all blue-eyed humans alive on the planet today.

Which means that "One Million Years BC" is more accurate than "Clan of the Cave Bear."

Friday, February 01, 2008

A Two-Term Henry Clay Presidency?

Some time ago, a participant at Civil War Talk asked a "what if" question about a Henry Clay presidency:

How would have the political situation had developed by 1860 with a two-term Clay Administration rather than the a Jackson one, or even more intriguing a Whig dominated two-term Clay Administration in the 40's?

I began by addressing the question, when Clay might have been elected:
Boy, that's a tough "what if." Since it's vaguely relevant, I'll begin by noting that Clay's best chance of winning the presidency probably came in 1840 -- the year he wasn't nominated. The Whigs held their convention in December 1839 and nominated Harrison. There was a brief economic recovery in 1839, and the perception at the time was that Harrison was more electable. In 1840, the economy collapsed again. If the Whigs had held their convention in mid-1840, the Whigs' concerns about electability would have been less, Clay would likely have been nominated and would likely have won. . ..

I raise this to tout Daniel Walker Howe's magnificent new book, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 -- and to pat myself on the back. Although Professor Howe does not specifically address whether Henry Clay might have won in some year other than 1840, he certainly endorses the ideas (a) that the timing of the Whig convention was crucial to Clay's failure to secure the Whig nomination that year, and (b) that Clay would probably have won if he had been nominated:
As a Whig presidential victory came to seem inevitable [as the economy continued to worsen during 1840], the significance of the early date of the Whig convention became apparent. Some Whig politicians, particularly in the North, had supported Harrison for prudential reasons but would actually have preferred Henry Clay as the true embodiment of the party's principals. Now it seemed clear that Clay too would have won the election -- and that he would have gained the nomination had the convention been held later when the full impact of the Panic of 1849 had been felt. Clay himself complained bitterly that he had been "always run by my friends when sure to be defeated, and now betrayed for a nomination when I, or any one, would be sure of an election."
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