Monday, April 28, 2008

What Hath John C. Calhoun Wrought

Having discussed and quoted from John Caldwell Calhoun’s initial speeches against the war against Mexico, I thought I’d give you a real historian’s more balanced view of the South Carolina Senator’s multiple motivations:
Fundamentally, Calhoun was not interested in territorial acquisitions unless they promised to strengthen the power of slavery. Texas certainly did, but not California and New Mexico, which the South Carolinian foresaw would provoke sectional conflict while offering little practical likelihood of slavery’s extension. He worried that war with Mexico might jeopardize relations with Britain, on which cotton-growers so heavily depended. He also feared to acquire a Mexican population of mixed race that, if enfranchised, would breach the virtual monopoly of political power enjoyed by white Americans.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

"It is monstrous"

It is one of the great ironies of the antebellum period that John Caldwell Calhoun opposed the United States’ war against Mexico. After all, as President Tyler’s Secretary of State, Calhoun had help to engineer the annexation of Texas in 1844-45. A year later, he vainly tried to ward off Mr. Polk's war.

On Tuesday May 12, 1846, the United States Senate received from the House a bill entitled “An act providing for the prosecution of the existing war between the United States and the Republic of Mexico,” which provided in part:
WHEREAS, by the act of the Republic of Mexico, a state of war exists between that Government and the United States:

Be is enacted . . ., That, for the purpose of enabling the government of the United States to prosecute said war to a speedy and successful termination, the President be, and he is hereby, authorized to employ the militia, naval, and military forces of the United States, and to call for and accept the services of any number of volunteers, not exceeding fifty thousand, who may offer their services, either as cavalry, artillery, infantry, or riflemen, to serve twelve months after they shall have arrived at the place of rendezvous, or to the end of the war, unless sooner discharged, according to the time for which they shall have been mustered into service; and that the sum of ten millions of dollars, out of any moneys in the treasury, or to come into the treasury, not otherwise appropriated, be, and the same is hereby, appropriated for the purpose of carrying the provisions of this act into effect.

Senator Calhoun promptly rose to object. He focused on the statement in the Whereas clause that “a state of war” already existed between the two countries. This, said Calhoun, was a factual assertion that required study before the Senate could or should assent to it. He therefore demanded more time to study the underlying documents:
Mr. CALHOUN rose and said, he hoped, at least, one day would be allowed to those who were to vote upon this bill, as an opportunity to consult the documents which had been submitted to the Senate by the Executive, as containing the ground on which the bill was to pass.

Calhoun also suggested that time was needed because the “bill amounted to a declaration of war.”
Mr. C. had no objection whatever to voting the amount of supplies contained in the bill, or even a greater amount; but he was at present unprepared to vote anything which amounted to a declaration of war. The question was one of great magnitude, and gentlemen who entertained doubts respecting the facts on which the bill was founded, or in regard to the necessity or propriety of a declaration of war, should certainly have some short time allowed them for reflection.

Later that day, Calhoun rose again. This time he stated his objection more forcefully:
[Calhoun] was prepared to vote the supplies on the spot, and without an hour’s delay; but it was just as impossible for him to vote for that preamble as it was for him to plunge a dagger into his own heart, and more so. He could not; he was not prepared to affirm that war existed between the United States and Mexico, and that it existed by the act of that Government. How could he affirm this, when he had no evidence on which to affirm it? How did he know that the Government of Mexico would not disavow what had been done? Was he to be called upon to give a vote like this? It would be impossible for him to utter it, consistently with that sacred regard for truth in which he had been educated.

Calhoun’s closing begs to be read aloud. The Congressional Globe reports the speech indirectly. I have changed it to direct speech (and added some paragraph breaks) so you can declaim it yourself:
I have no difficulty as to my course. My mind is made up; it is made up inalterably; I can neither vote affirmatively nor negatively. I have no certain evidence to go on. Whether any one will go with me in this course I do not know; I have made no inquiries, and I do not know that a single friend will be found at my side. As to what might be said on such a course, and all that is called popularity, I do not care the snap of my finger. If I cannot stand and brave so small a danger, I would be but little worthy of what small amount of reputation I may have earned.

I cannot agree to make war on Mexico by making war on the Constitution; and the Senate would make war on the Constitution by declaring war to exist between two Governments when no war has been declared, and nothing has occurred but a slight military conflict between a portion of two armies. Yet I am asked to affirm, in the face of the Constitution, that a local rencontre, not authorized by the act of either Government, constitutes a state of war between the Government of Mexico and the Government of the United States – to say that, by a certain military movement of General Taylor and General Arista, every citizen of the United States is made the enemy of every man in Mexico.

It is monstrous. It strips Congress of the power of making war; and, what is more and worse, it gives that power to every officer, nay, to every subaltern commanding a corporal’s guard. Do gentlemen call upon me to do this? Do they expect I am going to vote for a position so monstrous? If you force the question up me, I shall take my own course. If you want unanimity, you can have it; but if you choose to proceed on your own petty party views, be it so.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The LA Times Does History

According to the LA Times, George Washington served only one term as president:
In his portrayal of our second president, Paul Giamatti creates a man perpetually dissatisfied, disgusted by the preening ambition of politics even as he is infected by it. If his relentless crankiness was a bit hard for some of us to take in early episodes, in the second half of the series it makes much more sense. While exhorting angry men to throw off the shackles of tyranny offers many opportunities for rhetorical fabulousness, setting up a new government is a bureaucratic nightmare, with oversized personalities disagreeing over things both petty and fundamental. George Washington (David Morse) so quickly tired of the infighting among his Cabinet and vagaries of public opinion that he stepped down from the presidency after a single term. "I know now what it is like to be disliked," he says to Adams, his perpetually disliked vice president.
I don't think so.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Lincoln and the Decision for War, Revisited

Last month, I posted a positive review of Russell McClintock's Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession. At Civil War Books and Authors, Andrew Wagenhoffer has now published his review of the book, reaching a similar conclusion: "Highly recommended."

If I do say so myself (!), the two reviews complement each other nicely, emphasizing somewhat different aspects of the book; and together I think they give the prospective reader a good basis for deciding whether to add it to the list.

How Not to Interview for a Judicial Clerkship

A number of years ago, a judge on a state Supreme Court was interviewing a candidate to clerk the following year. At the time, the candidate was a pool clerk for a division of that state's mid-level appellate court, called the Appellate Division. (A "pool clerk" is a clerk assigned to the all of the judges, as opposed to a clerk who works for a particular judge.)

During the interview, the judge asked for a writing sample, and the candidate promptly produced a single sheet of paper that, upon examination, proved to contain a list of citations to perhaps twenty recent Appellate Division decisions, e.g., "Smith v. Jones, 200 App. Div. 1 (19xx)."

The following discussion ensued:


Um . . . this is a list of Appellate Division cases.




Um . . .


Oh, those decisions are all mine, every word. They don't write them. Most of the time, they barely read them.


Um . . .

Sunday, April 13, 2008

More on Lecompton

In a comment to an earlier post concerning James Buchanan, decon raised some issues about Lecompton and Buchanan that are worth exploring further. This is a very brief response to one portion of that comment.

The Republican party was born out the outrage in the North over Kansas-Nebraska in 1854-55. "Bloody Kansas" and the caning of Charles Sumner in May 1856 allowed the Republicans keep the pot boiling. But after that, the Republicans had few new issues. Northern Democrats were hopeful that the worst was over, and many Republicans expressed concern over the need to maintain momentum to have a chance in 1858 and 1860.

President Buchanan’s decision to endorse the Lecompton Constitution at the end of 1857 was a godsend for the Republicans because it provided them with a new issue with which to flog the Slave Power – and their northern Democratic lackeys. Lecompton was a disaster for the Democrats because it further decimated their northern wing, and alienated their southern wing from Stephen Douglas, laying the groundwork for the catastrophic 1860 Charleston convention.

But for Lecompton, Douglas would probably have gained the nomination of a united Democratic party in 1860. But for Lecompton, the Republicans might well have been defeated for the presidency in 1860. No Republican victory in 1860, no secession in 1860-61 . . ..

In short, consideration of “what ifs” relating to Buchanan’s handling of Lecompton strongly demonstrates how different history might have been, and how contingent history is.

Was the Compromise of 1850 a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

In defending Millard Fillmore’s performance in helping to engineer the Compromise of 1850, I have encountered flack on several occasions. The objections do not focus on Millard or the efficacy of his efforts. Rather, the complaints are, in effect, that the Compromise was a Bad Thing, not a Good Thing; therefore, Fillmore should be blamed, rather than praised, for his actions.

The proposition that the Compromise was a Bad Thing, in turn, appears to rest upon two assertions. First, if the North had held firm, and not appeased the South, the South would have capitulated. There would have been no war, and indeed, a firm, uncompromising position might have utterly discredited the proto-secessionists, eliminating the threat of war in the future. In short, if the North had not caved, not only would there have been no war in 1850-51, there might have been no war in 1860-61, or ever.

The second sub-assertion is that, even if war would have resulted, well, that was a risk worth taking. The North defeated the South when the South foolishly seceded in 1860-61, and the North would have won if the crisis had come to blows ten years earlier.

Both of these are, in effect, “what if” questions, and as such not susceptible of definitive response. Nonetheless, I’m in the midst of rereading David M. Potter’s The Impending Crisis, and I’m sure that I can do no better that he in discussing these issues. (Also, I’m sure that Professor Potter’s opinions are far more persuasive than mine.) So here, brief, is Professor Potter.

On the first sub-issue, Professor Potter clearly believes that, if the Compromise had not been reached, war would likely have resulted. Professor Potter noted, with apparent sympathy, that “Daniel Webster was not alone in believing that ‘if General Taylor had lived, we should have had civil war.’” Several pages later, he made his position clear (emphasis added):
No historian can declare with certitude [whether war would have resulted if the North had held firm]. What then can he say? He can say that in 1832 and again in 1861, people also faced crises in which some thought the danger of disunion was exaggerated, that it would die down if firmly handled and not encouraged by “appeasement.” In 1832 this proved at least partially right, though concessions were certainly made; in 1861, it turned out to be wrong. Were the dangers of 1850 more like those of 1832 or of 1861? In my opinion, the evidence, on balance, indicates that by 1850 southern resistance to the free-soil position was so strong and widespread that if the Union were to be preserved, the South had either to be conciliated or to be coerced. It is true that disunionists in the South began to lose ground to the southern moderates long before the Compromise was enacted, but I believe this was because compromise was confidently expected and the South distinctly preferred compromise to disunion.

On the second sub-issue, Professor Potter is more equivocal, but he clearly has doubts as to whether the Union would have prevailed in a military conflict in 1850-51:
If [Zachary Taylor] was wrong, his policy would have forced the North to face the supreme test of war for the Union before it had attained the preponderance of strength, or the technological sinews, or the conviction of national unity which enabled it to win the war that finally came in 1861.

* * *

[T]he decade of delay was also a decade of growth in physical strength, cohesiveness, and technological resources which enabled the Union to face the supreme challenge far more effectively.

More fundamentally, Professor Potter points out that that, when war ultimately came, it was the concept of Union that bound the North together. He doubts whether an uncompromising stance in 1850, which sacrificed Union before all other options had been exhausted, would not have been fatal to the North – and to the goal of ultimate abolition:
Even as for antislavery, it is difficult to see that the Compromise ultimately served the purpose of the antislavery idealists less well than it served those who cared primarily for peace and union, though it is easy to see why antislavery men found the medicine more distasteful. If, as Lincoln believed, the cause of freedom was linked with the cause of Union, a policy which dealt recklessly with the destiny of the Union could hardly have promoted the cause of freedom.

Into the Cart

Daniel Walker Howe gives a big thumbs up to Walter A. McDougall's new book, Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829 - 1877.

The fact that Professor McDougall (like Prof. Howe) apparently does not hide his "quirky" opinions under a bushel is what makes the book look particularly attractive. Provided it's well-argued and based on an intimate familiarity with the facts, history should be opinionated.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

"The cheek of every American must tingle with shame . . ."

Barcepundit points to the following unbelievable blast from the past:
The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.

Barack Obama on George Bush? Or was it Jack Murtha? Nancy Pelosi, perhaps? Could it be Michael Moore?

No, it's a Chicago Times' editorial. From 1863. Reacting to the Gettysburg address.

Buchanan and Douglas

Here is a scene I would love to have witnessed as a fly on the wall. It is the evening of December 3, 1857. Senator Stephen A. Douglas appeared at the White House to try to convince President James Buchanan not to back the Lecompton Constitution. The conversation became an angry confrontation:

Mr. Douglas, I desire you to remember that no Democrat ever yet differed from an administration of his own choice without being crushed. Beware the fate of Tallmadge and Rives [two politicians who had crossed Andrew Jackson].


Mr. President, I wish you to remember that General Jackson is dead.

Over the next five months, the Democratic party tore itself apart.

Jake Leg

I'm cooling my heels, waiting for the cable guy (really). I'm biding my time by reading and listening to a great CD, My Rough and Rowdy Ways, a compendium of (per the subtitle) "Early American Rural Music Badman Ballads and Hellraising Songs."

One of my favorites on the CD is a song called Got the Jake Leg Too, recorded in 1930 by the Ray Brothers, Will on fiddle and Vardaman on guitar, from Choctaw County in central Mississippi:
I went to bed last night, feelin’ mighty fine,
Two o’clock this morning, the Jake Leg went down my spine,
I had the Jake Leg too, I had the Jake Leg too.
I woke up this morning, I couldn’t get out of my bed,
This stuff they call Jake Leg had me nearly dead,
It was the Jake Leg too, it was the Jake Leg too.

The lyrics suggested that Jake Leg was some sort of alcohol poisoning, and the liner notes seemed to confirm this:
Got the Jake Leg refers to a deadly Prohibition-era drink substituter [sic] called Jamaica Ginger. Health authorities in 1929 and 1930 began to hear widespread reports of illness and death of desperate drinkers, and of the development of a muscle palsy which several songs refer to as "shakes" or "wobbles."

I then discovered that I had another "Jake Leg" song in my collection: Alcohol and Jake Blues, recorded by Tommy Johnson in December 1929.

It turns out there's quite a story behind Jake Leg, as this article from a Hospital and Health Magazine explains:
In the 1920s . . . low-income working-class people (especially men) in rural areas in the Midwest and South were hard-pressed to find affordable alcohol. One available product was a patent medicine, Jamaican Ginger, colloquially known as “Jake,” which contained ginger extract and 70 percent to 85 percent ethyl alcohol; it was a popular cure for nausea and diarrhea. It was also a popular cure for the Prohibition-induced shortage of booze. Federal authorities soon caught on and required that the amount of ginger in Jake be increased to the point that the stuff was undrinkable except in very small quantities, which was appropriate if it was really only being used as a medication.

However, demand for the more potent and drinkable stuff was still there, so Jake manufacturers tried to find adulterants that would make the product appear legitimate, but would allow for more alcohol and would mask the taste of the ginger. In 1930, a couple of Boston chemists-turned-bootleggers, Harry Gross and Max Reisman, hit upon the perfect adulterant: triorthocresyl phosphate (TOCP). An odorless, colorless, tasteless industrial chemical, it fit the bill precisely. Their firm, Hub Products, churned out hundreds of thousands of bottles of this adulterated Jake, which were widely distributed.

TOCP is a central nervous system poison.

Between 50,000 and 100,000 Americans, mostly low-income white and African-American men, drank enough of the bad Jake to develop partial paralysis. They lost control of the muscles in at least one leg, which forced them to walk by lifting the leg and slapping it down as though they were operating a puppet. This became known as the “Jake walk” or “Jake leg.” Most victims never recovered, and few, if any, received optimal medical care or even much sympathy because the gait was so distinctive that it was evident in their often-conservative communities how they had become disabled.

In 1931, Gross and Reisman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate federal law and were each fined $1,000 and sentenced to two years in prison. They avoided prison time by promising to help find some alleged New York bootleggers whom they claimed had really manufactured the tainted Jake. That claim was eventually proved to be bogus, and Gross was ordered to serve his term; Reisman never did.

See also this article, and there's a Wikipedia article as well.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

On James Buchanan

In a comment, Recon asked about James Buchanan. The low marks I give him do not relate to his actions in response to the secession crisis at the end of his presidency. In all fairness, the guy was leaving office, tried to send the Star of the West to relieve Fort Sumter, and did nothing to prejudice the options of his successor, whose problem this clearly was going to be.

No, my problems with Buchanan lie elsewhere:
[I] . . . am confident that James Buchanan (1857-61) is at or near the bottom of the barrel. After having improper communications with the Supreme Court in connection with the Dred Scott case, he handled the Kansas Lecompton Constitution dispute in the worst possible way, stubbornly refusing to take advantage of several opportunies to diffuse the crisis. In the process, he went out of his way to alienate and destroy the credibility of Stephen Douglas, the last best hope of the Democratic Party. He somehow managed to believe both that secession was unconstitutional and that there was nothing he could constitutionally do about it. To top everything off, until the waning months of his presidency his administration harbored the likes of Secretary of War John B. Floyd, who was both corrupt and actively working against the federal government.

Kenneth Stampp's excellent America in 1857 is particularly damning of Buchanan's handling of the Lecompton issue.

What Pulitzer Hath Wrought

I have mentioned Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought in a number of posts because it is magnificent. The book has now been awarded the Pulitzer prize for history, as well it should have. Congratulations.

So far, I have bought three copies. One for me, one for my mother-in-law, and the third for a friend of hers.

Thank God I'm Not A G** D*** Canadian

"Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don't give it any value."

Nice. Go suck an iceberg or something.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Colfax Massacre 2

At NRO's Bench Memos, Ed Whelan delivers a positive review of Charles Lane’s The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction.

The book is already on the list.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

"History has scarcely recognized the magnitude of his achivements"

In a recent post, I castigated a "professional historian" who, under the cloak of anonymity, made an ass of himself by characterizing Millard Fillmore as one of the very worst presidents, down there with James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce.

Now, it turns out, Doris Kearns Goodwin joins the ignoramus club. I listened the other day to a podcast of a lecture she gave at the Pritzker Military Library. At the beginning of her talk (at about 4:40 if you want to wince yourself) she explained that, after living with the "large figures" like Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, there was "no way" she was going to go back to write about "Millard Fillmore or Franklin Piece," rather than Abraham Lincoln.

Just in case more evidence is needed to demonstrate the alleged historian's utter ignorance, here is David M. Potter on Fillmore's firm and masterful handling of the Crisis of 1850; all emphases are added.

First, Fillmore moved decisively and effectively to pressure wavering Whigs to support the Compromise:
Before [Stephen Douglas] swung into action, Millard Fillmore has already moved decisively to the support of the Compromise. Immediately upon taking office, Fillmore accepted the resignation of his predecessor's entire cabinet -- he was the only vice-presidential successor who had ever done this. By bringing [Daniel] Webster in as secretary of state, he threw his support behind the Compromise, and the weight of the administration soon made itself felt among the Whigs.

Then Fillmore used both firmness and restrain to impel resolution of the impending conflict between Texas and New Mexico:
On August 6 [,1850, Fillmore] delivered a long message concerning the Texas-New Mexico boundary, which demonstrated how wholly needless the boundary crisis had been. Fillmore made it as clear as Taylor ever could have that the United States would use force if necessary to prevent any unilateral action by Texas against New Mexico, but he also implicitly promised that he would refrain from any unilateral action himself and that he would insist upon "some act of Congress to which the consent of the state of Texas may be necessary . . . or some appropriate mode of legal adjudication." Going beyond this pledge not to force the issue of the boundary, Fillmore also eloquently omitted all mention of statehood for New Mexico . . ..

Summing up, Professor Potter gives Fillmore the highest marks:
Thus, Fillmore settled a very inflamed crisis -- in some ways more explosive than the one on which Clay had been working -- and settled it with such adroitness and seeming ease that history has scarcely recognized the magnitude of his achievements.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Wilmot Proviso 5: "He approved with his whole heart"

When the freshman Congressman from Pennsylvania took his seat, the ground did not shake; the walls of the chamber did not collapse. So far as one can tell from the Congressional Globe, there was no uproar or outburst. In fact, what seems to have happened was . . . not much. The Chair simply called the next speaker.

Although subsequent speakers referred to Rep. Wilmot’s position and proposed amendment, what is surprising is how restrained most of the reactions were. Perhaps the Congressmen were so surprised by this unexpected turn that they tread cautiously, not knowing what to make of it.

The very next speaker, Washington Hunt of upstate New York, a Whig, spoke briefly to charge the president “with having intended war.” Rep. Hunt took the opportunity to endorse Rep. Wilmot’s position:
If the President desired peace on honorable terms with reference in the difficulties that then existed, Mr. H. would support him; but he was opposed to the acquisition of California, unless upon the terms proposed by the gentleman from Pennsylvania; the attempt to bring it in as slave territory would tend to a dissolution of the Union.

In light of Rep. Hunt’s somewhat provocative closing, even more remarkable was the muted reaction of the following speaker, Rep. Alexander Dromgoole Sims of South Carolina. Rep. Sims spent the first half of his remarks defending the president’s honorable and pacific intentions when the war began. Only thereafter did he address Rep. Wilmot’s proviso. But there was no table thumping or violent denunciation; Rep. Sims simply deplored intermingling “the exciting topic of slavery,” which he maintained was not directly relevant to the issues at hand, and had been offered merely as a tactic to defeat the appropriation request:
He regretted that the gentleman from Pennsylvania [Mr. WILMOT] had chosen to mingle with the question the exciting topic of slavery by the amendment which he had introduced; that he (Mr. S.) regarded the agitation of that subject as premature, and not properly connected with the appropriation asked for at this time. If this amendment should be adopted, he would be constrained to vote against the bill. He feared it was offered to defeat the appropriation. He regretted the factious opposition manifested.

The speaker who followed Rep. Sims was even more circumspect. Rep. Garrett Davis, Whig of Kentucky, castigated the president’s motives for beginning and prosecuting the war, and denounced any attempt to seize additional territory. The one thing he did not breathe a word of during his verbose presentation was slavery, or Rep. Wilmot’s amendment.

Not so former president John Quincy Adams, now a Whig Representative from Massachusetts, who rose next. Yet, despite his reputation as an antislavery advocate and leader of the prolonged fight against the Gag Rule, Rep. Adams spoke mildly. He approved of Rep. Wilmot’s amendment, but did not insist upon it. Provided that Rep. McKay’s bill was amended “so as to specify expressly that the money is granted . . . for negotiating peace with Mexico,” Mr. Adams
Would vote for it even without the adoption of the amendment of the gentleman from Pennsylvania, [Mr. WILMOT,] the object of which he approved with his whole heart; and he should like to see a resolution of the House added, interdicting the President of the United States from acquiring any territory which shall be the abode of slavery.

In explaining his reasoning, Rep. Adams did probe a sensitive point that grew in importance later on. Mexico had abolished slavery, Rep. Adams pointed out. To the extent that the United States acquired Mexican territory (other than Texas), Adams contended, slavery would remain illegal there, unless and until it was sanctioned by positive law. He could therefore vote for the appropriation, safe in the knowledge that he was not authorizing slavery in any new territory:
There are no slaves in California – slavery is abolished there; and if we were to make peace, and in that peace to acquire California, there could be no law of slavery established there, unless it was made an article of the treaty itself. This was reason sufficiently strong to induce him to vote for this bill without adding to it what the gentleman from Pennsylvania proposed, of which he entirely approved.

The heart of Rep. Adams’ objection to the original bill was that it failed to specify the purpose for which the funds could be used. Rep. McKay therefore rose to announce “that he had a substitute for the bill” that satisfied this objection by providing that the appropriation was made “to enable the President to enter upon negotiations for the restoration of peace with Mexico, whenever it shall be in his power to do so,” and
to enable the President to conclude a treaty of peace with the Republic of Mexico, to be used by him in the event that said treaty, when signed by the authorized agents of the two Governments, and being ratified by Mexico, shall call for the expenditure of the same, or any part thereof; full and accurate accounts for which expenditure shall be by him transmitted to Congress at as early a day as practicable.

The photograph is of Washington Hunt of New York.

Friday, April 04, 2008

61% of "Professional Historians" Are Morons -- and One Is a Particular Retard

HNN reports that 61% of "professional historians" opine that George W. Bush is "the worst [president] in the nation’s history." I would fulminate about this, but Robert K.C. Johnson has already done so:
I fear this finding says more about the groupthink that dominates the contemporary academy than it does about Bush's poor performance in office.

Consider the competition: 61 percent of polled historians consider Bush to have been a worse president than James Buchanan. That's the same Buchanan who: at the least benefited from and at the most surreptitiously schemed with Chief Justice Taney to produce the Dred Scott decision; tried to uphold a pro-slavery Kansas constitution; sought to acquire Cuba, with the expectation that the island could produce more slave states; tried to initiate a presidential war against Paraguay; and sat idly by as the Southern states seceded.

We expect historians, of all people, to eschew presentism in favor of some historical perspective. It's hard to see much historical perspective in a claim that Bush was a worse president than Buchanan.

Some of the rationalizations for the assertion that Bush was worse than Buchanan? Bush is "glib, contemptuous, ignorant, incurious, a dupe of anyone who humors his deluded belief in his heroic self," said one. "Just an immoral man," added another. A third: "Bush does only two things well. He knows how to make the very rich very much richer, and he has an amazing talent for f**king up everything else he even approaches."

Not exactly the most academic of analysis.

But one other "professional historian" made a particular ass of himself:
At least two of those who ranked the current president in the 31-41 ranking made it clear that they placed him next-to-last, with only James Buchanan, in their view, being worse. “He is easily one of the 10-worst of all time and—if the magnitude of the challenges and opportunities matter—then probably in the bottom five, alongside Buchanan, Johnson, Fillmore, and Pierce,” wrote another historian.

Placing Millard Fillmore on this list only demonstrates that the alleged historian doesn't know the slightest thing about that fine man.

Try my posts Millard Fillmore, Decisive Strategist and Millard Fillmore, Fulcrum of History, or simply click on the "Millard Fillmore" tag at the right side of the page.


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Colfax Massacre

Charles Lane's new book, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of Reconstruction, is at the top of my "to get" list. I mention this because Mr. Lane is currently guest blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy. Professor Volokh's post introducing Mr. Lane is here. Mr. Lane's posts to date are here and here.

Those of you who are interested in the Reconstruction period should take a look.

The Wilmot Proviso 4: "God forbid"

Casting about for a Democrat, the Chair recognized a freshman Representative from Pennsylvania, David Wilmot. David M. Potter explains why the Chair may have made the fateful choice he did:
With debate so stringently limited, the chairman of the Committee of the Whole must have wondered whether to recognize Wilmot or some other claimant. If he did, he may have recalled that the Pennsylvanian had been an exceptionally faithful administration man. Wilmot had voted for measures to carry through the annexation of Texas, already decided by the previous Congress; he had supported the Oregon compromise with its embarrassing retreat from demands for the boundary at 54° 40’; and most important, he had gone down the line for the administration’s tariff reduction when every other Democrat from Pennsylvania crossed party lines to vote against it.

“Within the allotted ten minutes,” in Professor Potter’s words, “Wilmot made a place for himself in history.” His opening sentences no doubt jolted the unsuspecting Chair, for Wilmot began by denouncing the President’s secrecy:
Mr. WILMOT regretted that the President had not disclosed his views. He disliked to act in the dark on this or any subject. If this had been done, and it had been expedient to have received and deliberated upon it publicly, they might have gone into secret session.

Rep. Wilmot’s next sentences were mysterious. While affirming that he believed that the war was “necessary and proper,” and that it was not “a war of conquest,” for that very reason he questioned why the President needed funds. Moreover, he indicated that he intended to offer an amendment, the substance of which he did not immediately disclose:
He would vote for this appropriation in case the amendment he intended to offer was adopted. He disagreed with some of his friends that this was an unnecessary war; he believed it a necessary and proper war. He believed it not to be a war of conquest; if so, he was opposed to it now and hereafter. If this country was now to be forced into such a war, he pronounced it against the spirit of the age, against the holy precepts of our religion; he was opposed to it in every form and shape. But he trusted that the President was sincerely ready to negotiate for an honorable peace.

But the President asked for two millions of dollars for concessions which Mexico was to make. We claim the Rio Grande as our boundary – that was the main cause of the war. Are we now to purchase what we claim as a matter of right? Certainly she was not to be paid for the debts she owes our citizens.

Rep. Wilmot went further: he would be delighted if the United States were to acquire California, provided that it were done “on proper conditions” and “by fair and honorable means:”
Mr. W. took it, therefore, that the President looked to the acquisition of territory in that quarter. To this he had no objection, provided that it were done on proper conditions. On the contrary, he was most earnestly desirous that a portion of territory on the Pacific, including the bay of San Francisco, should come into our possession by fair and honorable means, by purchase or negotiation – not by conquest.

To this point, auditors who did not know what was coming must have been totally befuddled. What on Earth was Wilmot talking about? Then he dropped his bombshell:
But whatever territory might be acquired, he declared himself opposed, now and forever, to the extension of this “peculiar institution” that belongs in the South. He referred to the annexation of Texas, and to his affirmative vote on the proposition connected with it at this session; he was for taking it as it was; slavery had already been established there. But if the free territory comes in, God forbid that he should be the means of planting this institution upon it.

(Emphasis added.)

Rep. Wilmot “concluded by offering an amendment . . . providing against the establishment of slavery, or involuntary servitude, in any territory which may be acquired,” the text of which was as follows:
Provided, That, as an express and fundamental condition to the acquisition of any territory from the Republic of Mexico by the United States, by virtue of any treaty which may be negotiated between them, and to the use by the Executive of the monies herein appropriated, neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory, except for crime, whereof the party shall first be duly convicted.

With that, the freshman Representative sat down.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Wilmot Proviso 3: The Whigs Whiff

After Hugh White concluded, the Chair of the Committee of the Whole, Democrat Moses Norris, Jr. of New Hampshire, apparently decided to maintain an appearance of debate by giving another Whig a chance to speak: the senior and conservative Robert Charles Winthrop of Massachusetts.

The Chair chose well. Rep. Winthrop, to be sure, complained about the President’s message and the proposed bill, but that was to be expected. He did not, however, take Rep. White’s incendiary approach. The primary thrust of Rep. Winthrop’s remarks was simply that the bill gave the president too much discretion. Use of the funds should be limited to establishing peace – adjusting borders but not taking vast swaths of territory. There was no mention of slavery; the whole presentation was soothing, subtle and urbane, unprovocative, entirely forgettable:
He cordially responded to the President’s desire to bring about a just and honorable peace at the earliest moment. Nothing would give him more satisfaction than to join in a measure honestly proposed for that purpose. He did not grudge the payment of the two millions. He would appropriate twenty millions for the legitimate purpose of a treaty of peace without a moment’s hesitation. And he still hoped that this measure might assume a shape in which he could give it his support. Limit the discretion of the President to a settlement of those boundaries which have been the subject of dispute. Hold him to his solemn pledges, twice repeated, that he would be ready at all times to settle the existing differences between the two countries on the most liberal terms. Give him no countenance in his design to take advantage of the present war, to force Mexico into the surrender, or even the sale, of any of her provinces. If anybody wants a better harbor on the Pacific, let him wait till it can be acquired with less of national dishonor. But whatever else you do or omit, give us at least to be assured that this appropriation is not to be applied in the annexation of another Texas, or even to the purchase of another Louisiana.

By the time Winthrop finished, the Democratic Chair of the Committee of the Whole was no doubt clapping himself on the back. Winthrop’s turgid presentation had quelled any excitement that Rep. White’s speech might have roused. Figuring he was on a roll, the Chair decided to call on one more conservative Whig, Joseph Reed Ingersoll of Pennsylvania.

Rep. Ingersoll did not disappoint. In his brief speech, Rep. Ingersoll offered a substitute bill. Rep. McKay’s bill was so vague that it did not even mention Mexico, specifying only that the funds be used “for the purpose of defraying any extraordinary expenses which may be incurred in the intercourse between the United States and foreign nations.” Rep. Ingersoll’s bill, while solidly pro-administration, was designed to tie the use of the funds to resolution of the Mexican War. After a vapid and sycophantic preamble (“this Congress meets with cheerfulness and concurs in the proposition of the President of the United States for joint action by the Executive and Legislature towards the accomplishment of an object which is alike consistent with humanity, wisdom, and justice”), the meat of the bill provided
That the sum of two millions of dollars be, and the same is hereby, appropriated out of any moneys in the treasury not otherwise appropriated, for the purpose of enabling the President to take measures for securing a speedy and honorable peace with the Republic of Mexico, for the satisfactory adjudication of all matters in controversy, and for the definitive establishment of the territorial boundaries between the two nations.

The Chair was presumably pleased. No problem here. How about one more Whig, perhaps from a slaveholding state? How about Henry Grider of Kentucky?

A good choice. Rep. Grider made Rep. Winthrop look like a lion of the House. He complained that the war had been “unnecessary,” but he was not even prepared to vote against the bill:
He knew there were well-founded apprehensions as to the manner to which this money would be apprehended, but he argued that the fact that the President might abuse his power was no ground for withholding this appropriation. The country were all desirous of peace.

Eureka! The Chair had given the Whigs their chance – and they had blown it. Now he could call on a Democrat. Let me see . . . Who should I choose?
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