Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Quiz

OK, let's see what you know. Nothing too hard, mind you, but tricky. What do the following antebellum American politicians have in common?

David R. Atchison (Missouri)
John Bell (Tennessee)
John M. Berrien (Georgia)
John Minor Botts (Virginia)
William G. "Parson" Brownlow (Tennessee)
John M. Clayton (Delaware)
Schuyler Colfax (Indiana)
John J. Crittenden (Kentucky)
Andrew Curtin (Pennsylvania)
Millard Fillmore (New York)
John P. Hale (New Hampshire)
Eugenius Aristides Nisbet (Georgia)
Godlove Orth (Indiana)
Thaddeus Stevens (Pennsylvania)
Henry Wilson (Massachusetts)
Felix Zollicoffer (Tennessee)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Secret Ballot

At the Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Adler recently posted a short item indicating that electronic voting machines might generate information that would allow officials to identify who voted for whom.

Which got me thinking . . . where does the idea of the secret ballot come from, and why is it such an article of faith today? Jonathan called even the possible breach of secrecy "disturbing." But why?

To the best of my knowledge, before the Civil War voting was an intensely public act. The best description of the process of voting before the War that I have read is contained in a book by Christopher Olsen, which focuses on Mississippi. There, particularly in rural areas, the local polling station was often a local plantation house. The senior election inspectors, appointed by the county board of police, were respected local citizens, often the owner of the plantation and other neighborhood planters. The assistants and clerks who checked election records and recorded votes might be their sons or the sons of other planters, usually in their twenties and making their entry into the public sphere.

Parties and candidates printed their own ballots, with only that party's candidates named. The ballots were often different colors or sizes, making them easily recognizable. As the voter approached the porch, ballot in hand, the owner might well greet him by name and shake his hand, ask for his family or comment on the weather, and offer him food and drink. The other inspectors would do likewise. They might also introduce the voter, if he were relatively new to the area, to the younger members of the gentry who were serving as clerks.

After a clerk checked his name against the county records, the voter then handed his ballot to the returning officer, also a wealthy member of the local gentry. The officer certainly knew at a glance which candidate's ballot he was receiving. In addition, because most preprinted ballots did not name candidates for all offices (particularly the myriad of local offices), some voters might ask for help in writing additional names on the ballots they were turning in. The returning officer then took the ballot and placed it in the box.

In short, one's vote was not secret in the slightest: in excess of a dozen members of the local gentry might know which candidate's ballot was being cast. Nor is there any evidence that anyone thought that voting should be secret, or believed that that fact impinged in the slightest the democratic nature of Mississippi society. Voting was a public, ceremonial act, not a private one.

I have no doubt that voting in say, New York City or Springfield, Illinois, differed dramatically in many respects. But I have no reason to believe that it was not equally public and not secret.

All of which brings me back to the initial question. Why and how did it become such a bedrock article of faith that the secret ballot is an essential element of democracy? More importantly, does that assumption stand up to scrutiny?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Death of Maximinus Daia

The other death, after that of Galerius, that seems to have given Lactantius the most delight, was that of Maximinus Daia.

Daia -- full name Gaius Valerius Galerius Maximinus -- was born circa 270. The son of Galerius's sister, he was adopted by Galerius. When Galerius became Augustus in 305, Daia became Caesar.

During the incredibly confusing series of maneuvers following the death of Constantius I Chlorus in 306, Daia vied for power against Maxentius, Severus, Licinius and Constantius' son Constantine. Since Constantine is known to history as "the Great," you may suspect that Daia did not prevail.

His end came in 313. On April 30 his army was crushed by that of Licinius near Perinthus, in what is now Thracian Turkey. Daia fled first to Nicomedia, and then to Tarsus, in Cilicia (on what is now the south-central Turkish coast). There, according to Lactantius, Daia poisoned himself, probably in July or August 313. Lactantius gleefully reports that Daia died only after suffering excruciating torment:
There [in Tarsus], being hard pressed both by sea and land, [Daia] despaired of finding any place for refuge; and in the anguish and dismay of his mind, he sought death as the only remedy of those calamities that God had heaped on him. But first he gorged himself with food, and large draughts of wine, as those are wont who believe that they eat and drink for the last time; and so he swallowed poison. However, the force of the poison, repelled by his full stomach, could not immediately operate, but it produced a grievous disease, resembling the pestilence; and his life was prolonged only that his sufferings might be more severe.

And now the poison began to rage, and to burn up everything within him, so that he was driven to distraction with the intolerable pain; and during a fit of frenzy, which lasted four days, he gathered handfuls of earth, and greedily devoured it.

Having undergone various and excruciating torments, he dashed his forehead against the wall, and his eyes started out of their sockets. And now, become blind, he imagined that he saw God, with His servants arrayed in white robes, sitting in judgment on him. He roared out as men on the rack are wont, and exclaimed that not he, but others, were guilty. In the end, as if he had been racked into confession, he acknowledged his own guilt, and lamentably implored Christ to have mercy upon him. Then, amidst groans, like those of one burnt alive, did he breathe out his guilty soul in the most horrible kind of death.

A Bountiful Harvest

Thank God I have a 79 year old mother in law who labors like a serf.

Lions and Crocodiles and Buffalo, Oh My!

I know, I know, nature videos are a dime a dozen. Watch this one anyway.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (c. 250 - c. 325) was a rhetorician from North Africa who became a convert to Christianity. I recently ran across Lactantius' De Mortibus Persecutorum, which has got to be one of the stranger works ever written. As the title suggests ("On the Deaths of the Persecutors"), the work concerns itself with the manner in which various persecutors of Christians died. What the title does not convey is the glee with which Lanctantius recounts the stories he relates.

In the 280s and 290s, the Emperor Diocletian realized that the Roman Empire was too big for any one man. In order to address this, as well as the secession problem, which had bedeviled the Empire from its inception, Diocletian created the Tetrarchy. He appointed a trusted general, Maximian, as co-ruler, bearing the title Augustus. The two Augusti then appointed sub-emperors, titled Caesari. Diocletian appointed as his Caesar the general Galerius (full name Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus). (Maximian appointed as his Caesar Constantius, the father of Constantine the Great.)

In 305, Diocletian and Maximian retired as Augusti. and Galerius and Constantius moved up and became the new Augusti, or co-emperors. The latter, in turn, appointed new Caesari. Diocletian and Galerius were primarily responsible for the eastern half of the Empire. Maximian and Constantius were primarily responsible for the western part.

Meanwhile, beginning in 303, what Chistians call the "great persecution" began. In fact, the vigor with which Christians were persecuted varied greatly in different parts of the empire. Galerius seems to have been the only one of the four tetrarchs who pursued the persecution with unrestrained zeal. As a result, Galerius became despised by Christians in general, and by Lactantius in particular.

Galerius died in the year 311. Scholars have speculated that it was some form of bowel cancer. Whatever it was, Lactantius described the progression of the disease with gleeful delight:
And now, when Galerius was in the eighteenth year of his reign, God struck him with an incurable plague. A malignant ulcer formed itself low down in his secret parts, and spread by degrees. The physicians attempted to eradicate it, and healed up the place affected. But the sore, after having been skinned over, broke out again; a vein burst, and the blood flowed in such quantity as to endanger his life. The blood, however, was stopped, although with difficulty. The physicians had to undertake their operations anew, and at length they cicatrized the wound. In consequence of some slight motion of his body, Galerius received a hurt, and the blood streamed more abundantly than before. He grew emaciated, pallid, and feeble, and the bleeding then stanched. The ulcer began to be insensible to the remedies applied, and a gangrene seized all the neighbouring parts. It diffused itself the wider the more the corrupted flesh was cut away, and everything employed as the means of cure served but to aggravate the disease.

“The masters of the healing art withdrew.”

Then famous physicians were brought in from all quarters; but no human means had any success. Apollo and Æsculapius were besought importunately for remedies: Apollo did prescribe, and the distemper augmented. Already approaching to its deadly crisis, it had occupied the lower regions of his body: his bowels came out, and his whole seat putrefied. The luckless physicians, although without hope of overcoming the malady, ceased not to apply fomentations and administer medicines. The humours having been repelled, the distemper attacked his intestines, and worms were generated in his body. The stench was so foul as to pervade not only the palace, but even the whole city; and no wonder, for by that time the passages from his bladder and bowels, having been devoured by the worms, became indiscriminate, and his body, with intolerable anguish, was dissolved into one mass of corruption.

“Stung to the soul, he bellowed with the pain,
So roars the wounded bull.”

They applied warm flesh of animals to the chief seat of the disease, that the warmth might draw out those minute worms; and accordingly, when the dressings were removed, there issued forth an innumerable swarm: nevertheless the prolific disease had hatched swarms much more abundant to prey upon and consume his intestines. Already, through a complication of distempers, the different parts of his body had lost their natural form: the superior part was dry, meagre, and haggard, and his ghastly-looking skin had settled itself deep amongst his bones while the inferior, distended like bladders, retained no appearance of joints. These things happened in the course of a complete year; and at length, overcome by calamities, he was obliged to acknowledge God, and he cried aloud, in the intervals of raging pain, that he would re-edify the Church which he had demolished, and make atonement for his misdeeds; and when he was near his end, he published an edict of the tenor following [the edict in effect decriminalized Christianity].

Galerius, however, did not, by publication of this edict, obtain the divine forgiveness. In a few days after he was consumed by the horrible disease that had brought on an universal putrefaction.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Did Millard Fillmore Ever Endorse the Wilmot Proviso?

Here's a little mystery.

Elbert Smith asserts several times in his The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor & Millard Fillmore that, before he was nominated for the vice presidency in 1848, Fillmore expressed support for the Wilmot Proviso. For example, on page 165, Smith asserts that "Fillmore had once been a vocal supporter of the Wilmot Proviso, but listening to Clay and Webster eloquently denounce it [during the senate debates leading to the Compromise of 1850] . . . had undoubtedly helped influence him to consider it as unnecessary." On page 23, Smith states that "Conscience Whigs [at the 1848 Whig convention] . . . knew that Fillmore had consistently supported the Wilmot Proviso."

Are these statements true? Michael Holt seems to disagree.

In his The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (pp. 357-58), Holt describes efforts of Democrats to locate "incriminating evidence" on Fillmore. They found some. Among other things, Fillmore "had consistently voted against the gag rule." In addition, "they found and printed an 1838 Fillmore letter to abolitionists endorsing congressional abolition of both slavery in the District of Columbia and the interstate slave trade."

What southern Democrats did not find, apparently, was any evidence that Fillmore had ever endorsed the Wilmot Proviso. "Southern Whigs . . . bombarded Fillmore with questions after the convention about whether he had ever publicly endorsed the Proviso, and they expressed enormous relief when he replied he had not."

Conceivably, with a lot of stretching, these statement are reconcilable. Perhaps Fillmore privately endorsed the Proviso to friends, but left no public paper trail. Alternatively, perhaps Smith or his source took Fillmore's letter endorsing abolition of the interstate slave trade as roughly equivalent to endorsement of the Proviso. Or perhaps Holt simply fails to tell us that Fillmore's denial was a lie (although I find that hard to believe).

Can anyone out there solve the mystery?
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