Friday, August 27, 2010


Ariadne and . . .

. . . Salome

Psychedelic Sallie

I have no idea how I took this photo. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wheat, Weed, and ObamaCare: How the Commerce Clause Made Congress All-Powerful

A nice - but depressing - video from Reason.

Monday, August 23, 2010


As always, click to enlarge.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Good Night . . .

. . . and sleep well.

Canals, Corporations and College

Lance Banning points out yet another interesting detail about the constitutional convention. On Friday September 14, 1787, James Madison endorsed Benjamin Franklin's motion to grant Congress the power to "cut[] canals" and proposed to add powers to charter corporations and establish a university:
Docr. Franklin moved to add after the words “post roads” Art 〈I〉 Sect. 8. “a power to provide for cutting canals where deemed necessary”

Mr Wilson 2ded. the motion

Mr Sherman objected. The expence in such cases will fall on the U— States, and the benefit accrue to the places where the canals may be cut.

Mr Wilson. Instead of being an expence to the U. S. they may be made a source of revenue.

Mr. Madison suggested an enlargement of the motion into a power “to grant charters of incorporation where the interest of the U. S. might require & the legislative provisions of individual States may be incompetent”. His primary object was however to secure an easy communication between the States which the free intercourse now to be opened, seemed to call for— The political obstacles being removed, a removal of the natural ones as far as possible ought to follow. Mr. Randolph 2ded. the proposition.

Mr King thought the power unnecessary.

Mr Wilson. It is necessary to prevent a State from obstructing the general welfare.

Mr King— The States will be prejudiced and divided into parties by it— In Philada. & New York, It will be referred to the establishment of a Bank, which has been a subject of contention in those Cities. In other places it will be referred to mercantile monopolies.

Mr. Wilson mentioned the importance of facilitating by canals, the communication with the Western Settlements— As to Banks he did not think with Mr. King that the power in that point of view would excite the prejudices & parties apprehended. As to mercantile monopolies they are already included in the power to regulate trade.

Col: Mason was for limiting the power to the single case of Canals. He was afraid of monopolies of every sort, which he did not think were by any means already implied by the Constitution as supposed by Mr. Wilson.

The motion being so modified as to admit a distinct question specifying & limited to the case of canals.

N— H— no— Mas. no. Ct. no— N— J— no— Pa ay. Del. no— Md. no. Va. ay. N— C— no— S— C. no— Geo. ay. [Ayes — 3; noes — 8.]

The other part fell of course, as including the power rejected.

Mr. Madison & Mr. Pinkney then moved to insert in the list of powers vested in Congress a power — “to establish an University, in which no preferences or distinctions should be allowed on account of religion.”

Mr Wilson supported the motion

Mr Govr Morris. It is not necessary. The exclusive power at the Seat of Government, will reach the object.

On the question

N. H. no— Mas. no. Cont. divd. Dr. Johnson ay— Mr. Sherman no. N. J— no. Pa ay. Del. no. Md. no. Va. ay. N— C— ay— S— C— ay. Geo— no. [Ayes — 4; noes — 6; divided — 1.]

"The great division of interests . . . lay between the Northern & Southern"

Lance Banning mines the records of the Constitutional Convention for all sorts of interesting tidbits. Did you know, for example, that James Madison told the convention that (in Banning's words) "[h]e had even been considering a rule that would assure the North and the South that each would dominate one house of Congress"?

Madison's comments on the subject came on Saturday June 30, 1787, during a speech in which he opposed the demand of the smaller states for protection against the larger states. There was no reason to think, Madison argued, that the small and large states had different interests that created a "danger of attack" against the former. "[T]he great division of interests" lay, rather, between the northern and southern states:
Wherever there is danger of attack there ought be given a constitutional power of defence. But [Madison] contended that the States were divided into different interests not by their difference of size, but by other circumstances; the most material of which resulted partly from climate, but principally from 〈the effects of〉 their having or not having slaves. These two causes concurred in forming the great division of interests in the U. States. It did not lie between the large & small States: it lay between the Northern & Southern. and if any defensive power were necessary, it ought to be mutually given to these two interests ["as a security agst. the encroachments of each other" is crossed out].
Madison had therefore considered proposing that the south "have the advantage in one House, and the [north] in the other":
He was so strongly impressed with this important truth that he had been casting about in his mind for some expedient that would answer the purpose. The one which had occurred was that instead of proportioning the votes of the States in both branches, to their respective numbers of inhabitants computing the slaves in the ratio of 5 to 3. they should be represented in one branch according to the number of free inhabitants only; and in the other according to the whole no. counting the slaves as 〈if〉 free. By this arrangement the Southern Scale would have the advantage in one House, and the Northern in the other. He had been restrained from proposing this expedient by two considerations; one was his unwillingness to urge any diversity of interests on an occasion when it is but too apt to arise of itself - the other was the inequality of powers that must be vested in the two branches, and which wd. destroy the equilibrium of interests.

No Wonder New Jersey Has an Inferiority Complex

Intellectually outclassed by men like [James] Madison [of Virginia] and [James] Wilson [of Pennsylvania], lacking an alternative to the Virginia Plan, most members from the smaller states squirmed silently through the [constitutional] convention's early days.

Some Articles on the Panic of 1837

Lawprof Rick Hills has a new post at Prawsblawg that refers the Panic of 1837: Van Buren to Pennsylvania: Drop Dead. The post also contains links to two articles that I found interesting: Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., Democracy and Laissez Faire: The New York State Constitution of 1846, and Alasdair S. Roberts, "An Ungovernable Anarchy": The United States' Response to Depression and Default, 1837-1848. Both articles are brief (5 and 7 pages respectively) and well worth a look.

Although not its main point, the Roberts article explains the double-whammy nature of the Panic of 1837 - an initial depression that began in May 1837 and eased somewhat in 1838 and 1839, followed by an even deeper downturn that arose out events in 1839 but whose impact was felt beginning in 1840. As I explained in Henry Clay, President, the early timing of the Whig presidential convention - held before the full impact of the second wave of the Panic was felt - probably denied Henry Clay the presidency in 1840.

About the illustration, entitled Specie Claws:
A melodramatic portrayal of the plight of the tradesman during the Panic of 1837, whose financial distress the artist ascribes to Loco Foco politics and the effects of the Specie Circular, or "Specie Clause." Though a product of the Jackson administration, the measure was also associated with the monetary program of Jackson successor and protege Martin Van Buren. Designed to curb inflationary speculation, the circular stipulated that only specie (i.e., gold or silver) be accepted as payment for federal lands. Radical Democrats, or "Loco Focos," of New York supported Van Buren's anti-Bank fiscal policies. The panic depressed the economy for several years, and caused widespread unemployment. A despondent tradesman, or mechanic, sits at a table in his humble dwelling, a copy of radical Democratic newspaper the "New Era" on his lap. On the wall behind him are prints of Jackson and Van Buren. Strewn at his feet are his tools, and his toolbox is empty but for "Loco Foco Pledges." He laments, "I have no money, and cannot get any work." Beside him are his wife and children. His wife, holding an infant, says, "My dear, cannot you contrive to get some food for the children? I don't care for myself." The children speak: "I'm so hungry," "I say Father, can't you get some "Specie Claws?" and "Father can't I have a piece of bread?" The landlord's agents appear at the door with a warrant of "Distraint for Rent." One says, "I say Sam, I wonder where we are to get our Costs." Weitenkampf tentatively dates the cartoon 1838.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Fragment on Shall and May

Nora Rotter Tillman (dubbed "the final non-appealable authority in the Tillman household on all disputed points of usage") and Seth Barrett Tillman have produced a nice essay warning against the dangers of assuming that words used in the Constitution meant then what they mean to us now. Here's the opening of A Fragment on Shall and May:
Recently Professors Randy E. Barnett and Sotirios Barber, two commentators with very different views with regard to how the United States Constitution should be interpreted, have expressed the view that "words have not, for the most part, changed meaning [since 1787]. Most of the meanings [of the words of the Constitution] have not been changed." We suggest that the American English of the founding generation was a more capacious language than its modern successor and that which came into being after Noah Webster's publication of his grade school primer, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, in 1783, and his Dictionary in 1806. As we explain more fully below, where a word once had multiple meanings, but only one variant is now remembered and understood, we may be seriously mistaken when we ascribe near certainty to our understanding of how a constitutional term was used.
As the title suggests, the Tillmans explore, by way of example, the extent to which there really was a difference between the words "shall" (which we think of as mandatory) and "may" (which we think of as permissive). The article is only eight pages, so you should go read it for yourself.

As a postscript, the thought is nagging at me that I've seen a similar suggestion made concerning the terms "shall" and "ought". Many early state constitutions used the term "ought" in the context of defining rights (in the form "the legislature ought to protect free speech"), whereas the corresponding provision in the federal constitution uses the term "shall" ("Congress shall make no law respecting, etc."). The point was (if I'm not imagining it) that "ought" may have had a mandatory connotation similar to "shall", in which case the state constitutional provisions were not merely precatory.

The photo of the picture of John Witherspoon is by Cliff1066.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

James Madison Doubts

Probably the most startling provision of the Virginia Plan presented to the Constitutional Convention by Edmund Randolph (although most presume that it was largely James Madison's work) on May 29, 1787 is the Sixth Resolution, which, among other things, proposed to grant Congress the power to veto state legislation and to use force against a state that “fail[ed] to fulfill its duty.”
6. Resolved that each branch ought to possess the right of originating Acts; that the National Legislature ought to be impowered to enjoy the Legislative Rights vested in Congress by the Confederation & moreover to legislate in all cases to which the separate States are incompetent, or in which the harmony of the United States may be interrupted by the exercise of individual Legislation; to negative all laws passed by the several States, contravening in the opinion of the National Legislature the articles of Union; and to call forth the force of the Union agst. any member of the Union failing to fulfill its duty under the articles thereof.
In The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic, however, Lance Banning points out something I hadn't noticed: Madison expressed his doubts about the last provision – authorizing the “National Legislature” “to call forth . . . force” against a state – within forty-eight hours.

On May 31, 1787, the members of the convention, sitting as a committee of the whole, turned to “[t]he (last) clause (of Resolution 6. authorizing) an exertion of the force of the whole agst. a delinquent State.” Madison immediately moved to defer consideration because “he doubted” its “practicability,” “justice” and “efficacy”:
Mr. (Madison), observed that the more he reflected on the use of force, the more he doubted the practicability, the justice and the efficacy of it when applied to people collectively and not individually. -, A Union of the States (containing such an ingredient) seemed to provide for its own destruction. The use of force agst. a State, would look more like a declaration of war, than an infliction of punishment, and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound. He hoped that such a system would be framed as might render this recourse unnecessary, and moved that the clause be postponed. This motion was agreed to nem. con. [without dissent].
Seizing on the phrase in Madison's explanation doubting the provision's “justice . . . when applied to people collectively and not individually”, Prof. Banning suggests that Madison was beginning to rethink his “assumption that the Union would remain confederal in some of its essential principles” and was starting to think about “the concept that the central government should act exclusively on the people, not on the states.”

Maybe as I read on I'll become convinced, but it's hard to draw this principle out of Madison's vague explanation. After all, Madison spoke of “practicability” and “efficacy”, not just of “justice.” It's not at all clear to me why the distinction between “a declaration of war” and “an infliction of punishment” is consistent with this thesis. And Madison's last point certainly suggests that that he still conceived the union as a “compact[]” that might be dissolved by breach.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


At Big Hollywood, Leo Grin recently finished posting a seven-part series on the classic movie Shane. If you loved the move before, you'll appreciate it even more after you this tribute and analysis. Among many other things, the series explains how the scene at the top of this post was shot.

The link above is to the seventh and last installment. You can find links to the six earlier parts by scrolling down the page.


Everyone in the blogosphere has already commented on the Atlantic article about Iran, The Point of No Return. In the odd chance you haven't read it yet, you should. Since I have no particular insights (only the conviction that the Israelis would be insane to rely on our feckless president to take military action against Iran), I'll simply raise a pedantic word usage question.

Early in the article, the author imagines telephone calls placed by Israeli officials to the White House and Pentagon advising that Israel was in the process of launching attacks on Iran. The description includes the following sentence (emphasis added):
In these conversations, which will be fraught, the Israelis will tell their American counterparts that they are taking this drastic step because a nuclear Iran poses the gravest threat since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people.
The context suggests the author and editors think that "fraught" means something like "very tense" or "very strained". But to the best of my knowledge fraught has no such meaning, and a check of dictionaries discloses none. Alternatively, was a phrase such as "with tension" inadvertently dropped?

Did the sentence and usage of fraught not strike anyone else as strange? Any other thoughts?

The picture at the top, of Israeli jets flying over Auschwitz, is presumably the one referenced several times in the article.

VJ Day in Kodachrome, August 14, 1945

VJ Day, Honolulu Hawaii, August 14, 1945 from Richard Sullivan on Vimeo.

Just a stunning clip of VJ Day in Honolulu, sixty five years (and one day) ago. As I watch it I keep wondering how many of the people in the film would have died in the invasion of Japan if the war had not ended when it did. Many thanks to Richard G. Williams, Jr. of the Old Virginia Blog for posting this.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

"Take as much as you want"

I was reminded recently of the story of the woman who asked Thaddeus Stevens for a lock of his hair. By way of background, Stevens was totally bald and wore a wig that was apparently recognizable as such on sight. Here is a version I found in Ballou's Monthly Magazine (1891):
Thaddeus Stevens, it is narrated by a New York paper, was sitting in his office one day chatting with a few friends, when an old lady wearing a poke-bonnet and blue goggles, and carrying a green umbrella, walked into the room. She looked about her as if in search of some one, and then asked solemnly, "Can you tell me where to find Thaddeus Stevens, the Apostle of Liberty?"

"I am Thaddeus Stevens," replied the owner of the name curtly — for he was not a man given to sentiment.

"Are you Thad-de-us Stevens, the Apostle of Liberty?"

"I suppose I am, ma'am."

"Well," said the old lady, "I came from Bucks County to see Thaddeus Stevens, the Apostle of Liberty, and to take home with me a lock of his hair."

"The Apostle of Liberty" took off his red wig and handed it to her.

"There it is, ma'am," said he. "Take as much as you want."

John Tyler, Babe Magnet

Have you noticed that virtually all 19th Century women look like dessicated prunes or bags of dough? While preparing my last post, I happened to take a look at the portraits of President John Tyler's two wives. I think he had an eye for the babes. Wife no. 1 looks a little severe, but it's probably just the formal pose, and there is a hint of a sultry pout. Wife no. 2 has sort of a weird thing going on with her neck, but I'm guessing that's some Mannerist-type affectation of the artist. Anyway, she was thirty years younger than President Tyler was (24 vs. 54 when they were married), so he was doing OK.

John Tyler, Sr. Initiates the Annapolis Convention

Thus far - I'm only in early 1787 - Lance Banning's The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic is proving to be a wonderfully detailed, largely chronological examination of the development of Madison's political views, in an attempt to cast light on the so-called James Madison Problem. But since this is a blog, I often like to focus on the trivial.

Banning relates, for example, that none other than John Tyler, Sr. - the father of the tenth president - was the instigator of the call for the meeting of state representatives that became the Annapolis Convention. The Convention itself was pretty much a bust, except that the delegates issued a call for another convention to meet in Philadelphia in May of the following year.

At all events, the Annapolis Convention had its genesis in a resolution that the senior Tyler introduced in the Virginia legislature on December 1, 1785. After the Virginia House defeated resolutions spearheaded by Madison to instruct Virginia's delegates to the Confederation Congress to move for federal power over trade, on the last day of the session the House revived and passed Tyler's resolution "to appoint commissioners to meet with delegates from other states to recommend a federal plan for regulating commerce."

The degree of Madison's involvement in the creation and passage of Tyler's resolution is apparently unclear. Prof. Banning opines that Madison "may . . . have arranged for Tyler to propose the resolution of December 1; and he was probably responsible, at minimum, for the revival of the latter's motion on the session's final day."

Ironically, the Tyler resolution passed by the House was (or at least turned out to be) far more revolutionary than the Madison resolutions that it voted down. Madison was proposing to try to work within the existing Confederation Congress to amend the existing Articles of Confederation to grant that Congress increased powers. Tyler's resolution suggested (and ultimately accomplished) an extra-legal solution outside the Congress and the Articles.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Robert E. Lee Was Out of His Mind

Alert readers may have noted that I went to Gettysburg several weeks ago. I'd never been before - yes, I know, shame on me. But let's not talk about me; let's talk about Robert Edward Lee.

Having now seen the site, it took me all of five seconds to conclude that Gen. Lee was out of his frickin' mind ordering Pickett's Charge across that space. I know all the excuses. He had confidence in his men. The artillery barrage should have softened them up. Longstreet was being a pain in the ass. Stonewall was dead. Lee had a bad day.

You bet he had a bad day. The man clearly was in the midst of a psychotic episode thinking that his troops could traverse that distance in any force and then overwhelm the Union line.

End of story . . . except more pix below. Click to enlarge.

"If Congress . . . can not now be trusted with the power of . . . enforcing this opinion, let them be otherwise constituted"

In The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison & the Founding of the Federal Republic, Lance Banning argues that, at the conclusion of his tenure with the Continental and Confederation Congresses (1780-1783), there were "few signs, as yet, that [James Madison] would favor, much less author, any plan for sweeping constitutional reform."

What pushed Madison in that direction was his growing realization during his service in the Virginia legislature beginning in 1784 that the States were unable, under the Articles of Confederation, to force the British and other European powers to dismantle the mercantilist barriers that prevented Americans from exporting their agricultural produce. Citing and applying the arguments of Drew McCoy (discussed in this recent post), Prof. Banning argues that Madison believed that the failure to obtain adequate export markets threatened the republican experiment, and that the failure of the States to cooperate with each other to achieve this goal by confronting the British and others eventually led Madison to the conclusion that a stronger federal government with authority over commerce was necessary (emphasis added):
A healthy public life had economic preconditions, and a sound political economy for the United States demanded demolition of the mercantilist barriers that all of the European powers - and Britain most injuriously of all - had placed around themselves and their possessions. When Madison reentered the Virginia House of Delegates [in 1784] . . . he was hopeful that this goal, along with other changes, could be gained within the framework of the current federal system. The failure to achieve it, together with the implications that this failure seemed to hold for both Virginia and the Union, would become the single strongest impetus for his conclusion that a strictly federal government was not just self-destructive, but a peril to the revolutionary order. From this thought, in turn, would come his dedication to a thoroughgoing structural reform.
Among other things, Prof. Banning cites this August 7, 1885 letter to James Monroe, which he characterizes as "the earliest in all of [Madison's] surviving papers to suggest that mutual hostilities resulting from the separate regulations of the states and from repeated failures to achieve unanimous agreement to amendments of the present system [the Articles of Confederation] might require complete reconstitution of the current federal Congress or replacement of that Congress altogether by a 'medium' that would elicit greater trust" (emphasis added; paragraph breaks added):
Dear Sir

I received the day before yesterday your favour of the 26th July. I had previously recd. the Report on the proposed change of the 9th. art: of the Confederation, transmitted by Col: Grayson, and in my answer to him offered such ideas on the subject as then occurred. I still think the probability of success or failure ought to weigh much with Congress in every recommendation to the States; of which probability Congress, in whom information from every State centers, can alone properly judge.

Viewing in the abstract the question whether the power of regulating trade, to a certain degree at least, ought to be vested in Congress, it appears to me not to admit of a doubt, but that it should be decided in the affirmative. If it be necessary to regulate trade at all, it surely is necessary to lodge the power, where trade can be regulated with effect, and experience has confirmed what reason foresaw, that it can never be so regulated by the States acting in their separate capacities. They can no more exercise this power separately, than they could separately carry on war, or separately form treaties of alliance or Commerce. The nature of the thing therefore proves the former power, no less than the latter, to be within the reason of the fœderal Constitution.

Much indeed is it to be wished, as I conceive, that no regulations of trade, that is to say, no restrictions or imposts whatever, were necessary. A perfect freedom is the System which would be my choice. But before such a system will be eligible perhaps for the U. S. they must be out of debt; before it will be attainable, all other nations must concur in it. Whilst any one of these imposes on our Vessels seamen &c in their ports, clogs from which they exempt their own, we must either retort the distinction, or renounce not merely a just profit, but our only defence against the danger which may most easily beset us.

Are we not at this moment under this very alternative? The policy of G. B. [Great Britain] (to say nothing of other nations) has shut against us the channels without which our trade with her must be a losing one; and she has consequently the triumph, as we have the chagrin, of seeing accomplished her prophetic threats, that our independence, should forfeit commercial advantages for which it would not recompence us with any new channels of trade.

What is to be done? Must we remain passive victims to foreign politics; or shall we exert the lawful means which our independence has put into our hands, of extorting redress? The very question would be an affront to every Citizen who loves his Country.

What then are those means? Retaliating regulations of trade only. How are these to be effectuated? only by harmony in the measures of the States. How is this harmony to be obtained? only by an acquiescence of all the States in the opinion of a reasonable majority.

If Congress as they are now constituted, can not be trusted with the power of digesting and enforcing this opinion, let them be otherwise constituted: let their numbers be encreased, let them be chosen oftener, and let their period of service be shortened; or if any better medium than Congress can be proposed, by which the wills of the States may be concentered, let it be substituted; or lastly let no regulation of trade adopted by Congress be in force untill it shall have been ratified by a certain proportion of the States. But let us not sacrifice the end to the means: let us not rush on certain ruin [collapse of the Confederation] in order to avoid a possible danger [consolidation]. I conceive it to be of great importance that the defects of the fœderal system should be amended, not only because such amendments will make it better answer the purpose for which it was instituted, but because I apprehend danger to its very existence from a continuance of defects which expose a part if not the whole of the empire to severe distress.

The suffering part, even when the minor part, can not long respect a Government which is too feeble to protect their interest; But when the suffering part come to be the major part, and they despair of seeing a protecting energy given to the General Government, from what motives is their allegiance to be any longer expected. Should G. B. persist in the machinations which distress us; and seven or eight of the States be hindered by the others from obtaining relief by fœderal means, I own, I tremble at the anti-fœderal expedients into which the former may be tempted.

As to the objection against intrusting Congress with a power over trade, drawn from the diversity of interests in the States, it may be answered, 1. that if this objection had been listened to, no confederation could have ever taken place among the States, 2. that if it ought now to be listened to, the power held by Congress of forming Commercial treaties by which 9 States may indirectly dispose of the Commerce of the residue, ought to be immediately revoked. 3 that the fact is that a case can scarcely be imagined in which it would be the interest of any 2/3ds of the States to oppress the remaining 1/3d. 4. that the true question is whether the commercial interests of the States do not meet in more points than they differ.

To me it is clear that they do: and if they do there are so many more reasons for, than against, submitting the commercial interest of each State to the direction and care of the Majority. Put the West India trade alone, in which the interest of every State is involved, into the scale against all the inequalities which may result from any probable regulation by nine States, and who will say that the latter ought to preponderate?

I have heard the different interest which the Eastern States have as Carriers pointed out as a ground of caution to the Southern States who have no bottoms of their own agst their concurring hastily in retaliations on G. B. But will the present system of G. B. ever give the Southern States bottoms: and if they are not their own Carriers I shod, suppose it no mark either of folly or incivility to give our custom to our brethren [fellow states] rather than to those who have not yet entitled themselves to the name of friends [Great Britain].

In detailing these sentiments I have nothing more in view than to prove the readiness with which I obey your requests. As far as they are just they must have been often suggested in the discussions of Congress on the subject. I can not even give them weight by saying that I have reason to believe they would be relished in the public Councils of this State. From the trials of which I have been a witness I augur that great difficulties will be encountered in every attempt to prevail on the Legislature to part with power. The thing itself is not only unpalatable, but the arguments which plead for it have not their full force on minds unaccustomed to consider the interests of the State as they are interwoven with those of the Confederacy much less as they may be affected by foreign politics whilst those wch. plead agst. it, are not only specious, but in their nature popular: and for that reason, sure of finding patrons.

Add to all this that the mercantile interest which has taken the lead in rousing the public attention of other States, is in this so exclusively occupied in British Commerce that what little weight they have will be most likely to fall into the opposite scale. The only circumstance which promises a favorable hearing to the meditated proposition of Congs. is that the power which it asks is to be exerted agst. G. B, and the proposition will consequently be seconded by the animosities which still prevail in a strong degree agst. her.

I am My dear Sir very sincerely Yr friend & servt.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Thomas Jefferson and Internal Improvements

Drew R. McCoy's The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America barely touches on the subject of “internal improvements.” But Prof. McCoy offers an intriguing hint that federal funding of internal improvements was not necessarily anathema to Jeffersonian Republicanism – or to Thomas Jefferson himself.

First, as I suggested in an earlier post, commerce formed a crucial element of Republican political economy. True, the term “commerce” was hopefully limited to the international export of America's agricultural surplus. But even so, American farmers could not export their bounty unless they could get it to a port; and they could not get those goods to port without adequate roads and canals and navigable rivers. Does that not suggest that the federal government had a role to play in building those roads and maintaining those rivers and ports?

Prof. McCoy implies that the answer to this question was “yes” (emphasis added):
Like most Americans . . . [James] Madison always realized that the viability of landed expansion in America was contingent on the ability of new settlers to get their surpluses to market. If frontier farmers had no way of marketing what they produced, there was little incentive to emigrate to the West at all. A non-existent or inaccessible market would turn those who did settle the frontier into lethargic subsistence farmers instead of industrious republicans . . . [and] they would degenerate into a socially and politically dangerous form of savagery. Expressions of this concern often accompanied appeals for the construction of “internal improvements” - roads and canals – that would rescue the fringes of American settlement from this danger by integrating them into a commercial economy.
Even more startling (to me at least) is Prof. McCoy's quotation from a remarkable letter from Thomas Jefferson himself to Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours. The letter, dated April 15, 1811, makes fairly clear that Jefferson believed that the federal government should fund internal improvements (emphasis added):
We are all the more reconciled to the tax on importations [i.e., tariffs], because it falls exclusively on the rich [Jefferson assumes that imported goods are luxuries purchased only by the wealthy], and with the equal partition of intestate's estates, constitute the best agrarian law. In fact, the poor man in this country who uses nothing but what is made within his own farm or family, or within the United States, pays not a farthing of tax to the general government, but on his salt; and should we go into that manufacture as we ought to do, we will pay not one cent. Our revenues once liberated by the discharge of the public debt, and its surplus applied to canals, roads, schools, &c., and the farmer will see his government supported, his children educated, and the face of his country made a paradise by the contributions of the rich alone, without his being called on to spare a cent from his earnings. The path we are now pursuing leads directly to this end, which we cannot fail to attain unless our administration should fall into unwise hands.
"Jefferson unequivocally opposed Henry Clay's 'American System,' which called for the creation of an integrated economy based on a national bank, a protective tariff for manufactures, and a program of federally sponsored internal improvements." But this does not eliminate the possibility that Jefferson's objection was not to the internal improvements aspect of Clay's program. Certainly the Hamiltonian national bank and tariffs designed to foster English-style manufactures were guaranteed to raise Jeffersonian hackles. Were internal improvements guilty only by association?

Monday, August 09, 2010

An Update on "Bounties"

I'm pleased to see that the Constitution of the Confederate States of America line-by-line comparison site (well worth bookmarking) has changed its description of the reference to "bounties" in the first subsection of Article I, Section 8. The description now reads as follows (emphasis added):
Lastly, the CSA essentially bans trade protectionism by saying that tariffs cannot be imposed on foreign goods for the sole purpose of protecting local industry. It also bans "bounties" from the Treasury, which at the time was the term used to describe government subsidies distributed to offset the costs of managing certain uncompetitive industries.

Southerners had often been prevented from buying cheaper foreign goods because of such Yankee projectionist measures.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Constitution as Remedy for Dangers to Republicanism

Drew R. McCoy's The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America is dense and slow reading. Prof. McCoy builds his arguments methodically and reinforces and illustrates each point with copious supportive references and contemporaneous quotes. And although I am only now getting to the “good parts” (I'm about half-way through), I'm pleased to report the book is wonderful.

After explicating and exploring some of the basic components of and assumptions underlying late Colonial era Republicanism, Prof. McCoy begins to explain how those elements expressed themselves in the political developments of the early Republic, beginning with James Madison's advocacy of a stronger federal government – an advocacy that manifested itself in the drafting of the Constitution.

Madison's intellectual framework included largely conventional views on Republicanism. To survive, a Republic required virtuous citizens – independent farmers who owned their own land – and needed to retard, to the extent possible, the development of a landless urban underclass whose members could serve only as subservient employees in the production of manufactures – mass produced fineries and luxuries.

Two additional elements were essential to defer the probably inevitable decay. The first, space, may be familiar to you. As population increased in older areas of the county, making it impossible for all to find land, the surplus population could occupy new land in the west.

The second element may be surprising: Madison and many others viewed international commerce as a crucial factor in the country's ability to succeed in its Republican experiment. Industrious American farmers naturally produced bounteous harvests that left ample surplus for export to Europe. If denied this opportunity, the farmer risked lapsing into sloth and indolence, ultimately reverting to a rude and uncivilized state.

Ironically, the success of the Revolution imperiled the Republican experiment. Following America's independence, British mercantile laws operated to deprive American farmers in the 1780s of their ability to export their surplus. Spain's closure of New Orleans to American trade eliminated that avenue as an outlet. Even worse, the unavailability of New Orleans was discouraging the surplus population of the eastern states from settling in distant territory within the Mississippi watershed, threatening the county with an excess landless populace that would strangle the Republic at birth.

Prof. McCoy argues that a new federal government with greater powers was Madison's proposed solution to these problems:
A stronger national government with the power to raise revenue and regulate commerce would ideally be capable of resolving the foreign policy problems that threatened to prematurely age the county. Such a government could pave the way for western expansion by dealing forcefully with threatening foreign powers like Spain, but even more important, it could fulfill the commercial promise of the Revolution by forcing the dismantling of the restrictive mercantilist systems that obstructed the marketing of American agricultural surpluses. . .

. . . America needed open markets as well as open space to make republicanism work. Perhaps a government strong enough to encourage the proper form of western expansion and force free trade could answer the dilemma of population growth in an agricultural and republican nation – at least for the foreseeable future.
About the illustration, by William Charles, entitled A Boxing Match, or Another Bloody Nose for John Bull (1813):
The artist gloats over naval losses suffered by England early in the War of 1812, in particular the defeat of the warship "Boxer" by the American frigate "Enterprise" in September 1813. King George III stands at left, his nose bleeding and eye blackened, saying, "Stop...Brother Jonathan, or I shall fall with the loss of blood – I thought to have been too heavy for you – But I must acknowledge your superior skill – Two blows to my one! - And so well directed too! Mercy, mercy on me, how does this happen!!!" On the right, his opponent James Madison says, "Ha-Ah Johnny! you thought yourself a "Boxer" did you! -- I'll let you know we are an "Enterprize"ing Nation, and ready to meet you with equal force any day." In the background, on the ocean, two ships are engaged in battle.

Thursday, August 05, 2010


Men by inaction degenerate into oysters.

"Contemporary Americans , , , presume an unjustified familiarity with their Revolutionary forbears"

I was taken by the opening sentences of the Introduction to Drew R. McCoy's The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America:
Contemporary Americans all too often presume an unjustified familiarity with their Revolutionary forbears. It is easy to assume that our basic concerns were theirs, and especially that our understanding of the American Revolution and its legacy accurately reflects the meaning and significance they attached to it. While most of us recognize that our modern world of experience would be utterly foreign to the eighteenth-century mind, few acknowledge how frightening and utterly distasteful twentieth-century America might appear to the members of a Revolutionary generation that was steeped in the values and assumptions of a quite different age. It may be reassuring to think that modern America represents the fulfillment of the original spirit of the Revolution, but such a presumption is both dubious and dangerously misleading.
The illustration, entitled The Prairie Dog sickened at the sting of the Hornet – or a Diplomatic Puppet exhibiting his Deceptions!, has nothing to do with the post other than the fact that it refers to Thomas Jefferson. I saw a copy of the illustration at Frances Hunter's American Heroes Blog (highly recommended) about a week ago and have been hunting for an excuse to reproduce it here ever since:
James Akin's earliest-known signed cartoon, "The Prairie Dog" is an anti-Jefferson satire, relating to Jefferson's covert negotiations for the purchase of West Florida from Spain in 1804. Jefferson, as a scrawny dog, is stung by a hornet with Napoleon's head into coughing up "Two Millions" in gold coins, (the secret appropriation Jefferson sought from Congress for the purchase). On the right dances a man (possibly a French diplomat) with orders from French minister Talleyrand in his pocket and maps of East Florida and West Florida in his hand. He says, "A gull for the People." . . . The print was probably published in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where Akin was working in 1804-6.
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