Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ice Crystals


The Snow Cat Sleeps


Salome and Ariadne Sense that Spring Is Nigh




Monday, February 21, 2011

Buffon's Beasts and Jefferson's Moose

Via Boingboing, I found this wonderful entry at BiblioOdyssey featuring illustrations from "a 1753 work called 'Collection des Animaux Quadrupèdes' which forms part of an enormous 36-volume series ('Histoire Naturelle') issued over a forty year period by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon."

The name "Buffon" was familiar, and sure enough upon checking I confirmed that it was Buffon who had claimed that something about North America produced small, weak and degenerate plants and animals - including human animals. At American Scientist Keith Thomson describes Buffon's assertions:
Buffon was not the first to assert American degeneracy, and this idea was not based on natural history alone: Politics also played a part. Buffon's immediate source was a book by a Spanish naval officer, Don Antonio d'Ulloa (Relación histórica del viaje hecho de orden de su Majestad a la América Meridional, 1748). d'Ulloa's thesis was that the human condition in the Americas was degenerate as a result of a long history of colonialism, slavery, exploitation of natural resources and subjugation of the native peoples. To d'Ulloa, it was natural that America lacked the large mammals of the Old World and was rife with noxious insects and poisonous reptiles.

Buffon, focusing on North America, developed d'Ulloa's observations into a complex theory in which climate played a central role. In his ninth volume, published in 1761, Buffon compared mammalian species and noted examples in which the same species lived on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. He claimed the New-World versions were always smaller and weaker. European livestock exported to America were always stunted. Species indigenous to the New World were always smaller than comparable species in the Old World (the largest American mammal was the tapir, nowhere near the size of an elephant). Of American Indians, he wrote, "the organs of generation (of the savage) are small and feeble. He has no hair, no beard, no ardour for the female. Though nimbler than the European, his strength is not so great. His sensations are less acute; and yet he is more timid and cowardly." And so on.
All of which roused a perturbed Thomas Jefferson to refute Buffon's claims by, among other thing, arranging to have the carcass of a moose shipped to Paris:

When he arrived [in Paris], Jefferson sent Buffon a copy of [his] Notes [on the State of Virginia] and the skin of a large panther, and was subsequently invited to dine with Buffon at the Jardin du Roi, Paris's magnificent botanical garden. Of that meeting Jefferson later wrote, "in my conversations with the Count de Buffon . . . I find him absolutely unacquainted with our Elk and our deer. He has hitherto believed that our deer never had horns more than a foot long." So Jefferson decided to show him a full-grown American moose. He wrote to General John Sullivan, president (governor) of New Hampshire, for help in getting a large specimen, instructing him that the bones of the head and legs should be left in the skin so that it could be mounted in a life-like manner. Eventually a "seven-foot tall" moose was collected in Vermont and shipped to Paris.

Many years later, Daniel Webster told the story that Jefferson had had the moose set up in the hall of his apartment and invited Buffon to see it. Confronted with that stark refutation of his earlier thesis, Buffon was said to have exclaimed, "I should have consulted you, Monsieur, before I published my book on natural history, and then I should have been sure of my facts." It would be nice if this story were true. In fact, Buffon, by this time old and sick, was away from Paris when the moose arrived in October 1787. Jefferson sent it to Buffon's long time associate, zoologist Louis-Jean-Marie D'Aubenton, for the great man to see when he returned. Although most of the hair had fallen off the hide, the antlers sent by Sullivan were from a smaller animal and the whole carcass was probably rancid, Jefferson was "in hopes that Monsieur de Buffon will be able to have it stuffed, and placed on his legs in the King's Cabinet."
The illustration at the top is courtesy of peacay's Flickr photostream.

Addendum: If you're looking for more detail, try Keith S. Thompson's longer paper, Jefferson, Buffon, and the European View of America.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Real Lincoln Quote?

At her site, Wisconsin lawprof and blogger Ann Althouse spots a pro-union protest sign that purports to quote the Great Emancipator: "All that serves labor serves the nation. All that harms it is TREASON! — Abraham Lincoln."

OK, you Lincoln scholars, fire up your engines. Is the quote real or bogus?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Sequence of Lines Traced By 500 Individuals

A Sequence of Lines Traced by Five Hundred Individuals from clement valla on Vimeo.

Really enjoyed this. H/T Boing Boing.

Did Southerners Cite Aristotle?

Southerners in the antebellum period famously invoked the Bible to justify the institution of slavery. One would think that they would also have cited Aristotle, who concluded in Book 1 of the Politics that slavery could be "advantageous and just":
But we must next consider whether or not anyone exists who is by nature of this character, and whether it is advantageous and just for anyone to be a slave, or whether on the contrary all slavery is against nature. And it is not difficult either to discern the answer by theory or to learn it empirically. Authority and subordination are conditions not only inevitable but also expedient; in some cases things are marked out from the moment of birth to rule or to be ruled.
And yet, I have never run across a single instance in which a southerner cited or quoted Aristotle in support of the peculiar institution. Have you?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Russell McClintock on "Seward's Folly"

I rarely have anything good to say, here or anywhere else, about the New York Times, but it's been doing a nice job with its Disunion series, which "follows the Civil War as it unfolded." I believe I've read just about every piece, and they've been of uniformly high quality.

I mention this now to highlight one of the most recent articles, Seward's Folly, tracking the back-room maneuverings of that most enigmatic of figures, New York Senator and incoming Secretary of State William Henry Seward. The piece is written by Russell McClintock, the author of a fine book on the North during the secession crisis, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession. If the Disunion series or other sites that have sprung up to follow the Secession Winter 150 years after the fact, such as The Long Recall, have piqued your interest in this fascinating period, Dr. McClintock's book would be an excellent starting point.

The hanging nature of the piece suggests that Dr. McClintock will be contributing more articles on Seward's machinations to the Disunion series. If so, I look forward to them. For a prequel, I invite you to try my What the Hell Happened to William Seward?

About the illustration, entitled Letting the Cat Out of the Bag! (1860):
A figurative portrayal of the rift within the Republican party resulting from the nomination of Abraham Lincoln for the presidency in 1860. Here New York senator and would-be nominee William H. Seward watches as the radical antislavery senator from Massachusetts Charles Sumner releases a snarling cat, the "Spirit of Discord," from a "Republican Bag." The cat bolts toward New York "Tribune" editor Horace Greeley and Lincoln, who wields a rail in his defense. Greeley exclaims, "What are you doing Sumner! you'll spoil all! she aint to be let out until after Lincoln is elected,--" Lincoln, also alarmed, rejoins, "Oh Sumner! this is too bad!--I thought we had her safely bagged at Chicago [i.e., the Republican national convention at Chicago], now there will be the old scratch to pay, unless I can drive her back again with my rail!" Sumner replies, "It's no use talking Gentlemen, I was'nt mentioned at Chicago, and now I'm going to do something desperate, I can't afford to have my head broken and be kept corked up four years for nothing!" The mention of his broken head refers to the widely publicized 1856 beating inflicted on Sumner by South Carolina congressman Preston S. Brooks. (See "Arguments of the Chivalry," no. 1856-1.) Seward warns, "Gentlemen be cautious you don't know how to manage that animal as well as I did, and Im afraid that some of you will get "scratched." Henry J. Raymond, editor of the "New York Times," stands in background shouting, "Scat!--scat!--back with her, or our fat will all be in the fire."

Monday, February 14, 2011

"Whereas, I Love You"

William Lee Miller's Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress includes a nice collection of quotes about John Caldwell Calhoun. The Harriet Martineau quote is well known - in fact I've cited it before - but the others may be less familiar:
Calhoun was a major figure not only in South Carolina but in national politics as well. The modern historian David Potter has called him "the most majestic champion of error since Milton's Satan." The English reformer Harriet Martineau, who became acquainted with him on her visit to the United States in 1835, wrote - a famous quotation - that Calhoun was "a cast-iron man, who looks as if he had never been born and could be extinguished." James Henry Hammond, who hoped to be the Calhoun of his generation, said in Charleston on the occasion of Calhoun's death in 1850 that "Mr. Calhoun had no youth, to our knowledge. He sprang into the arena like Minerva from the head of Jove, fully grown and clothed in armor: a man every inch himself, and able to contend with any other man."

Hammond's eulogy, claiming almost every virtue for his subject, did twice concede that Calhoun had no wit or humor. The historian Merrill Peterson, writing in the late twentieth century, said of Calhoun: "Intensely serious and severe, he could never write a love poem, though he often tried, it was later said, because every line began with 'whereas.'"

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Crazy Still

Be my Valentine?

The Poughkeepsie Convention: Irrelevant But Important

On balance, I think single-state secession is probably unconstitutional. And yet the thing continues to nag at me.

The Constitution nowhere says, in so many words, that once you're in, you're in forever. Yes, that conclusion can be teased from - implied from - various provisions. But, assuming the Constitution is forever, isn't that fact almost certainly the single most important reality of the document? Shouldn't readers and prospective voters have been placed on explicit notice, if that was the intent? It all feels a little, how should I put this, sleazy, sort of like the bait-and-switch tactics that might be employed by a used car salesman.

Likewise, you'd think that, if you were a delegate at one of the state ratification conventions in 1787-1788, the single most important question on your mind would be, Hey, is this thing forever? And if people understood that it was forever, don't you think that opponents, at least, would be shouting that fact from the rooftops? "Don't think that, if you ratify, you can ever get out! You and your children and your children's children will be bound unto the last generation!"

And yet the record is strangely silent. To the best of my knowledge, not a single Anti-Federalist intoned such warnings. And likewise, no Federalist, to the best of my knowledge, asserted that ratification was an unalterable act, with one exception, at the end of the New York Convention, after ten states had already ratified the Constitution - and when it was too late.

All of this leads me to infer that one of two conclusions must apply: either everyone understood that ratification was forever - it wasn't necessary for opponents to make the argument, everyone already knew it - or no one (or virtually no one, and virtually wasn't talking) did.


In one sense, the closing weeks of the convention called to decide whether New York would ratify the United States Constitution are irrelevant. On June 24 and July 2, 1788, news had arrived in Poughkeepsie, where the delegates were assembled, that New Hampshire and Virginia had ratified the document – the ninth and tenth states to do so.

Article VII provided that “[t]he Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.” By its terms, the document, and the new government it created, would go into effect whether New York ratified it or not.

At the same time, both opponents and proponents of the Constitution at the Convention recognized that New York's decision was fundamentally important. Both pros and antis recognized that New York, as an emerging commercial powerhouse occupying a crucial swath of land that divided the New England states from their more southerly brethren, potentially held the key to whether the new government would, as a practical matter, succeed. In the words of Yale Lawprof Akhil Amar,
Then, New Hampshire and Virginia voted their approval – enough to put the document in operation, but only among the states that ratified it. At this point, all eyes turned to Poughkeepsie, where New York's ratifying convention was being held and where the Constitution's anti-Federalist opponents initially held a commanding lead. Without the acquiescence of New York – with its critical harbors, rivers and landmass – could the Philadelphia blueprint really work as planned?
The closing weeks of the Poughkeepsie Convention – roughly July 14, 1788 through July 26, 1788, when the Constitution was approved by a razor-thin margin – are also inherently dramatic. The positions taken and arguments advanced shed light, I think, on what both advocates and opponents understood the nature of the proposed new government to be.

I have been over some of this ground before. But having now laid my hands on Volume XXIII of The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, covering ratification by New York from July 14, 1788, I propose to take a new look at some of the key events in those closing weeks. In particular, I hope to examine what those events suggest about the most important constitutional issue of the nation's first seventy-five years: the propriety of single-state secession. In a nutshell, did the members of the Poughkeepsie Convention – and by implication the members of other conventions that had already approved the Constitution – understand that ratification was a permanent and un-recallable act (except, perhaps, through the amendment procedures of Article V)?

Learned commentators - including the aforesaid Prof. Amar - have argued that the debates in the Poughkeepsie Convention's closing days demonstrate that it was generally understood that the Constitution, once ratified, was (in the words of James Madison) "in toto and for ever." I, too, took this to be the case. But upon continued reflection I think the evidence is far more ambiguous. Indeed, I believe a powerful case can be made that, until the very end at least, no one - proponents or objectors - understood this to be so. And this suggests that those who had voted on the Constitution at earlier conventions - those of the ten states that had already ratified the document - didn't understand it either.


As of mid-July 1788, the pro and anti forces at the Poughkeepsie Convention were locked in a desperate struggle. The antis, headed by John Lansing and Melancton Smith, had arrived at the convention on June 17, 1788 with a large majority. The news from New Hampshire and Virginia had weakened their resolve somewhat, but they fought on and appeared to continue to hold the upper hand. On July 14, only the impassioned pleas of the leaders of the pro-Constitution forces, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton (“the american Cicero”, in the words of David S. Bogart, who witnessed Hamilton's performance that day), persuaded the convention, sitting in Committee of the Whole, to adjourn for the day before taking a key vote that Federalists knew would go against them.

The positions of the parties as of mid-July boiled down to whether ratification should be conditional or not. The antis no longer advocated outright rejection. Instead, they argued that the Constitution should be ratified, but only on condition that the document be amended in a number of respects. On July 11, and again on July 15, Melancton Smith had introduced the resolution that served as the focal point of the battle.

Smith's resolution was a complex and subtle piece of work, which I will examine in my next post on the subject.

"A significant portion of this nationalist movement may instead be the result of a biased amendment procedure"

Lawprof and blogger Michael B. Rappaport has an interesting new article out: Reforming Article V: The Problems Created by the National Convention Amendment Method and How to Fix Them. Here's the abstract:
The amendment provisions of the United States Constitution have a serious defect. Although some commentators claim that the supermajority rules in these provisions are too strict, that is by no means clear. Rather, the clear defect in the amendment provisions is that the only effective way they provide of amending the Constitution requires Congress’s approval and therefore Congress enjoys a veto over all amendments. While the Constitution does formally allow the state legislatures to seek to amend the Constitution through a national convention, that amendment method is broken. Not only has the national convention method never been used to pass an amendment or even to call a convention, the state legislatures are unlikely to ever use this method, because of the state legislatures’ fear of a runaway convention that might seek to enact constitutional amendments that they strongly dislike.

This congressional veto over amendments has significant normative implications. It suggests that the Constitution cannot be amended in a way that will constrain congressional power. It also makes it unlikely that the Constitution can be amended to limit the federal government or to expand state authority, because Congress is unlikely to support these changes. While it has often been assumed that the increased nationalism of the Constitution and government over the course of American history reflects changes in technology and values, a significant portion of this nationalist movement may instead be the result of a biased amendment procedure.

In addition to exploring the normative implications of the broken amendment procedure, the article also proposes a new amendment method. Under this state drafting procedure, an amendment would be enacted when it was approved by two thirds of the state legislatures and was ratified by three quarters of the states through either state conventions or ballot measures. Finally, the article argues that this reform of the amendment procedure could actually be passed under the national convention method and proposes a strategy for enacting it.
Don't take my word for it. The article is Lawrence Solum's Download of the Week.

I was looking for an appropriate illustration and noticed that Wikipedia has this series of, I guess they're sort of flow charts, purporting to illustrate the various "plans" presented during the Philadelphia Convention. They look cool, although I don't have any idea what they mean. The one at the top illustrates the Virginia Plan.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

"Mr. Wilberforce, make we free!"

Back when I was in high school, I was a big fan of Matthew G. Lewis's 1796 Gothic novel The Monk:
"The Monk" is Matthew Gregory Lewis's 1796 novel which is the tale of a monk who is tempted by carnal desire and led down a ruinous path of ungodliness. Ambrosio, a pious, well-respected monk in Spain, is lustfully tempted by his pupil, Matilda, a woman who has disguised herself as a monk. Having satisfied himself with her, he is overcome with carnal desire for the innocent Antonia. With the help of Matilda, who is actually Satan in disguise, Ambrosio seduces Antonia, a seduction that would ultimately lead to his downfall. Recognized as one of the first novels of the gothic genre, "The Monk" is a classic tale of the tragic ruin that may befall one tempted by desire.
I was therefore surprised and delighted to see "Monk" Lewis turn up in 1816 Jamaica as a witness to the connection between abolitionist agitation and slave revolt in the Caribbean. The following is from Edward Bartlett Rugemer's The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War:
But the planters had a point [that abolitionist agitation was responsible for slave rebellions]. In 1816 the absentee planter and gothic novelist "Monk" Lewis traveled to Jamaica to visit the sugar plantation he had recently inherited. In the journal he kept during his travels, published in 1834, Lewis recorded the following song, which an overseer had found upon the mysterious "King of the Eboes," who was arrested for plotting a rebellion.

"Oh me good friend, Mr. Wilberforce, make we free!
God Almighty thank ye! God Almighty thank ye!
God Almighty make we free!
Buckra in this country no make we free!
What negro for to do? What negro for to do?
Take force with force! Take force with force!"


Early on in Edward Bartlett Rugemer's very-good-so-far The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War I encountered the following startling item:
The sloop Mary Ann, for example, owned by the Browns of Providence, Rhode Island, sailed to Surinam in 1766 with a cargo that included tobacco, candles, staves, hoops, bricks, horses, pigs, onions, axes, empty hogsheads, barrels of pork and beef, ship bread, flour, butter, oars, tar, and oysters. Such a cargo would have taken months to assemble . . ..
Oysters? After a couple of weeks to a couple of months on the dock, then, say, a month at sea? I think I'll pass.
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