Economics

Recruiting for the Continental Army–the true story (sorry, Adam Ruins Everything!)

Posted on April 7, 2018. Filed under: Colonial America, Economics, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

In part one of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode and its myth-creation promoted as myth-busting, we focused on the premise of the episode—that everyone in the Continental Army during the Revolution whether a drunk, or an immigrant, or a farmer, was there for mercenary reasons only; as Adam puts it, “to get paid.”

The episode quickly “proves” this by moving on to characterize George Washington as a criminal.

Narrator: But I thought these people had so much of that patriotic spirit.

Adam: They weren’t. George Washington himself said, “it grieves me to see so little of that patriotic spirit, which I was taught to believe was characteristic of this people.”

As we mentioned in part one, Adam Ruins Everything always posts its sources on-screen so you can check them. Here, the citation is “The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, U.S. Government Printing Office.” This is less complete than his sources usually are, including those posted later in this episode—no date of the “Writings” publication, no editor. Under Washington’s words, it says “George Washington, 1775.”

This Washington quote is taken wildly out of context, as we’ll see below. For now, let’s continue.

Adam: Without the support of the people, Washington and the Continental Congress were desperate for an army, so they resorted to shady recruitment practices to raise their ranks.

Washington: Let’s go trick some rubes into fighting against their will! [evil laugh]

Narrator: Come on: how shady could they possibly have been?

Adam: First, they offered money to bribe the potential recruits.

Washington to a man in tavern: Look, I know you don’t want to fight, but maybe my friend Mr. Washington can change your mind? [holds a dollar] …I’m bribing you.

Man: Bribe? Why didn’t you say so? Gimme a gun, I’ll shoot those red jackets.

Adam: But the Continental Army didn’t have enough money to actually pay the soldiers, so most received IOUs.

Washington: Here you are! You can cash it in at the end of the war… if we win. And if you don’t lose that [piece of paper]. Washington runs away …And if you survive!

So Washington himself went into bars to recruit drunks through bribes that could not be paid in cash… Unwilling to suspend our disbelief on this one, we did some research.

We quickly found the source cited: John Smith, Jr. Journal of the American Revolution, Feb. 2015. This is a reputable journal. The article is online at the site All Things Liberty,  it’s called “How the Revolutionary War was Paid For,” and it tells a different story. Smith gives six ways the U.S. tried to pay for all of the expenses of the war, including soldiers’ and officers’ pay: Congress and the states printing money, we got loans from Europe, and just as during WWI and WWII, wealthy Americans bought war bonds.

But the other ways to try to pay were debt certificates:

3 // The 13 States Issued Their Own Debt Certificates (14%): Most of these were like state-issued war bonds. Also called “bills of credit,” they were “interest bearing certificates” with the buyer putting up their land as collateral. The patriotic buyer would then (or so they were told) get their principal back plus interest – assuming America won the war! As support for the common defense, states would also issue these as “requisition certificates” to vendors or suppliers to pay for food and supplies if the Continental Army happened to be camped in their state.

4 // Congress Issued Its Own Debt Certificates (10%): These certificates were also called (in politically correct verbiage of its time) “involuntary credit extensions” because they paid no interest and their value, tied to the Continental dollar, dropped like lead daily. These were mostly given out by the Continental Army quartermaster corps to citizens when buying or confiscating materials. In the last two years of the war, the Continental Army soldiers were also paid in these, so you can see why there was much grumbling – and mutiny. Some discharged soldiers sold their certificates to investors for literally pennies on the dollar.

In fact, what we call IOUs or debt certificates were common in colonial America, and most often called “bills of credit,” as Smith points out. There was very little cash money in the colonial world. Americans exchanged/bartered goods and services in 9 out of 10 transactions. Bills of credit were IOUs—if you needed something that couldn’t be traded for, or you didn’t have enough to trade, you gave a bill of credit to the merchant, with an agreed-upon time when he would call in the payment.

So no American would have been outraged or confused by being given a bill of credit. The problem was that men enlisting as soldiers were leaving their families with fewer goods and services to trade, since their labor was missing to create goods and perform services. So they would have much preferred it if the Continental Congress could have given their families the bills of credit, to use to get food and other necessaries, or if they could have been paid in food and cloth, directly going to their families.

The problem was not the IOU, it was the fact that it was for cash, which already had a limited value in the colonial world. On top of that, the cash value was low—almost worthless—because the dollar was so unstable. Printing money to use in most transactions was unheard of. Each colony minted its own coins, and during the war printed its own money. Money printed in Maryland could not be used in Virginia. The federal government’s dollars were new to all the colonies, of course, and not trusted. So paying soldiers in cash, and a new kind of printed “dollar”, would have been a problem even in the best of times.

But the Continental Congress could hardly come up with cloth and food for all of its soldiers’ families—it would have to mandate that the new states provide these, but it did not have the power to do so. And none of the states could do it, in part because because both food and cloth would have to come in large part from the people who should have been receiving it—soldiers’ families—and in part because the state governments were notoriously opposed to spending one (not yet existent) dime on the war.

Smith continues:

…In July 1777, a Continental dollar had already dropped two-thirds of its value. …By 1780, Congress revalued its dollar as officially only one-third of its 1775 value. But the new and improved dollar still plummeted to the point where, by 1781, it took 167 dollars to equal the previous one dollar. So what did Congress do? They couldn’t tax, so they printed even more dollars to be able to buy an ever-shrinking amount of goods and services. Prices were skyrocketing with severe depreciation and hyperinflation happening everywhere. States were still demanding that taxes be paid. It was a crisis, which threatened the existence of the new republic.

By 1781 and in desperation, Congress put strong-willed financier and Congressman Robert Morris into the new office of Superintendent of Finance. Some of the first emergency actions Morris took were to devalue the dollar, and then he squeezed about $2 million in specie from the states. But in a very controversial move, he suspended pay to the Continental Army enlisted soldiers and officers. Instead, he decreed that the army be paid in debt certificates or land grants until the peace treaty was signed. In 1782, the new consolidated national debt was so enormous that Morris suggested Congress only pay the interest on the debt, saying (this may sound familiar in today’s world) “… leave posterity to pay the principle.”

So we see that it was not just enlisted men but also officers whose pay was suspended in 1781. Long before then, soldiers had told their families that it was up to them to keep them supplied, and those families did so. They traveled to winter camps to bring supplies, and often stayed with their men as camp-followers over the winter, when there was no farm work. Martha Washington was one of the women who banded together to do washing and cooking for the enlisted men in winter camp, including at Valley Forge.

To say, as this episode does, that Washington deliberately lied to/bribed men to enlist when he knew they would not be paid is ludicrous. On a completely practical level, Washington didn’t recruit anyone. He was head of the army. On the moral and truthful level, he had no way of knowing how those IOUs would fare. He didn’t know his own pay would be cut off when the dollar sank.

More importantly, to insist that men enlisted in the CA strictly for the money is not only ridiculous but provably untrue.

Men enlisting in the Continental Army early on did so for a few reasons—the same mix of reasons that still moves people to enlist in the armed forces ever after. They wanted adventure. They wanted to defend their country (even if, to them, that was just their state). Their friends and relatives enlisted, and they wanted to be there with them. They didn’t want to be cowards. They thought it would end quickly.

When the war did not end quickly, and winter dragged on, most men left the CA when their one-year or six-month term of service was through. But even at the time, they were condemned for it. In December 1776, Thomas Paine called them out in The Crisis:

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

Those summer soldiers and sunshine patriots did not sign up to get rich. They signed up for patriotism, glory, and adventure. Even mercenary soldiers at that time did not get rich in military service.

Patriotic men were recruited not by George Washington in a bar but created years before 1775, by men they respected and honored all their lives: ministers.  New Englanders had been primed with local patriotism for a century before 1775, and specifically primed to resist and, if necessary, to fight British attacks on their long-held liberties for about a decade before actual fighting broke out in 1775. In 1774, during the hardships brought on New England by the Intolerable Acts, the minister at Wethersfield, Connecticut added this to his sermon on Matthew 10:28:

I say Unto you, my friends, be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that, have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom you shall fear: fear him, which after he hath killed hath the power to cast into hell, yea I say unto you fear him.

…In this day of our public trouble when we are threatened with being deprived of those immunities and Liberties with which God & the Constitution have made us free. Let us not be so afraid of man that killeth the body & hath no more that he can do as to offend God by tamely giving up any part of that freedom with which he has blest & intrusted us as a talent improvable to the happiest purposes. But may we obey God rather than man & stand fast in the Liberty wherewith he has made us free. May we account no exertions, no Self-denials, no Sacrifice too great upon this occasion. And whilst we are taking the most probable & vigorous methods to preserve our freedom may we diligently seek after and cultivate that fear & trust in God… We shall see our desire upon our enemies & experience his Salvation.

In New England, patriotism as defined by the willingness to oppose any law or action from Britain that interfered with inherited political processes and liberties was alive and well long before 1775, and this—not “getting paid”—did inspire many men to enlist.
In “Why the Patriots Really Fought,” Justin Ewers includes another pastor in his analysis: “Life, for my Country and the Cause of Freedom,” wrote Nathaniel Niles, a pastor in Norwich, Conn., in 1775, “Is but a Trifle for a Worm to part with.”

Over 30,000 men enlisted in Washington’s army in the first year. That’s an enormous number that could never have been recruited in bars. They were there not for the money and clothes they were promised, but because they were patriotic. The problem is they were not professional soldiers.

When those men’s year or half-year of fighting was up, most went home, which seems at odds with their patriotism. But we have to remember that these were not professional soldiers, and more than that, there was no understanding of how long the war would go on—no one, on either side, would have guessed seven more years—and serving for one year was indeed a real sacrifice of time, labor, family safety, and, crucially, health. “Just one year” is easy for us to say. But one year in a colonial army was a lifetime.

A side note is that the men who enlisted in the first year were well aware that, in 1776, the fighting was all in New England, and mostly in Massachusetts, and their families were suffering. They could continue to fight at home by providing food and shelter when the British were doing their best to destroy both, and by defending their towns from British attacks.

This is when Washington wrote the words ARE quotes about grieving over a lack of patriotism, in a letter written during the winter of 1776/7, after his inexperienced army had for the most part fought bravely as it was pushed out of New York and into New Jersey.  As Ewers describes it,

During the long retreat, Washington learned a hard lesson about the staying power of patriotic soldier-farmers. “These men,” he wrote, “are not to be depended upon for more than a few days, as they soon get tired, grow impatient and ungovernable, and of course leave the Service.” From a high of 31,000 troops, by year’s end, Washington’s force had dwindled to fewer than 3,000. Many of the men had enlisted for six-month terms. When their contracts expired, they went home.

That winter, Washington pleaded with Congress for a real army, one that wouldn’t rely on farmers’ idealism to survive. “When men are irritated, & the Passions inflamed,” he had written to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, “they fly hastily, and chearfully to Arms, but after the first emotions are over to expect that they are influenced by any other principles than those of Interest, is to look for what never did, & I fear never will happen.”

Washington knew militiamen had their reasons for keeping their service short, of course. They had farms and businesses to run and families to feed. Still, when the states began to struggle to re-enlist enough soldiers to keep the war going, Washington was disappointed. “No Troops were ever better provided or higher paid, yet their Backwardness to inlist for another Year is amazing,” Washington wrote. “It grieves me to see so little of that patriotick Spirit, which I was taught to believe was Charackteristick of this people.”

The point is that Washington did not grieve over the lack of patriotism of men at the start of the war, as ARE says. He wasn’t complaining that men would not enlist to fight. He was made aware a year later, during winter camp in NJ, that the men who “flew hastily, and cheerfully to Arms” because of their “emotions”—i.e., patriotism—were not willing to actually, permanently sacrifice their families and their livelihoods for their country. Their patriotism was too shallow. It was easy to promise to fight in 1774; in 1776, after tough fighting, it was easy to say “I kept my promise to fight; now I’m going home.” Few men were like Washington—willing to stay and fight as long as it took to win or die trying.

And note this important item: Washington’s assessment of a lack of true patriotism, that is willing to sacrifice all, came after a year of fighting, in 1776—not at the start of the war, when the army was first formed, as ARE argues.

As the first recruits left, the make-up of the army changed. As Ewers says,

…after the first year of fighting, the nascent Continental Army was forced to leave its now mythic origins behind. The high-minded middle-class farmers went home, and a new army was formed, made up mostly of poor, propertyless laborers, unmarried men in their early 20s who took up arms not to defend some abstract ideal but because they were offered money and land. The militias would supplement this core of increasingly professional soldiers throughout the war, but the Army would never again look the way it did on the road to Boston. By 1778, the average Continental soldier was 21 years old; half the men in the Army were not even of English descent. “The folks who made the long-term commitment,” says James Kirby Martin, a professor of history at the University of Houston and coauthor of A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763 – 1789, “were the folks who didn’t have another alternative.”

If ARE wanted to jab at the Continental Army for being full of “rubes” and drunks and mercenaries, he should have focused on the later army, not the first recruits.

To sum up:

  1. ART mis-uses the Smith article, which never a) accused Washington of criminality, and b) points out that many attempts were made to pay the soldiers, but the weakness of the Continental Congress, which was forbidden to raise taxes, made that impossible.
  2. ART mis-uses and perhaps misunderstands the Washington quote.
  3. The first recruits were indeed starry-eyed patriots who had been prepping for this war for many years in New England.
  4. The show does not understand the financial world of colonial America, nor
  5. the real reason why soldiers did not get paid as they should have been after the war.

We’ve gone on at length here so we’ll stop, but if 45 seconds of video from ART can provoke this much correction, we fear for our next posts. But we’ll keep on, because we want ART to know that myth-busting is important.

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Race and the “hardworking middle class”: Obama’s Farewell Address

Posted on February 20, 2017. Filed under: Economics, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to post four in our close reading of President Obama’s farewell speech, now available at The New York Times since it has been ousted from whitehouse.gov. We left off in our last post promising to get to President Obama’s frank address of race, so let’s begin.

There’s a second threat to our democracy. And this one is as old as our nation itself.

After my election there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent…

(APPLAUSE)

… and often divisive force in our society.

Now I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say.

(APPLAUSE)

You can see it not just in statistics. You see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum. But we’re not where we need to be. And all of us have more work to do.

—The last comment is important. Older members of the HP who describe their childhoods in the 1970s to teenager today may as well be talking about another planet. While it’s true that hidden racism is no better than outright racism, it’s easy to forget what outright racism represents: a consensus that there’s nothing wrong with it. Overt racism is a sign that people feel comfortable expressing racism; they don’t expect anyone to challenge or reproach them. In America 50 years ago, it was okay to be openly, outrageously racist. In America today, it isn’t, because those 50 years were spent stripping away the social justifications of and legal supports for racism. The biological arguments for racism, the “oh come on, it’s just a joke” arguments for racism, the “this is the way it’s always been” arguments, the “this is how God intended” arguments—all were at last relentlessly, righteously assaulted as the nation pushed to live up to its mandate of liberty and justice for all.

But, as the president says, that doesn’t mean racism ended. Racism will never end. It’s part of human nature. And that means the fight against racism must never end. We have to rise above our nature. All of us will always have more work to do, but if we do it, we will get closer to being free of racism, as close as it is possible to come. We cannot afford to have the work of the last 50 years undone by anti-Americans who want to go back to the old days. Their mythical view of an all-white America that was happy and strong and rich would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous to this nation.

If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.

—This single sentence says so much. Here the president is frank about how neo-conservatives and white supremacist/fascists do indeed frame every economic issue. This began with Reagan. His 1984 “Morning again in America” ad (you can find it easily on YouTube) was 90 seconds of showing only white Americans while a voiceover talked about hardworking people buying houses and getting married and thriving. (Yes, for exactly two seconds a black and a Latino child are shown watching an American flag being raised. But apparently when they grow up these non-white children will not contribute to America’s wealth, strength, and happiness.) Since then, “hardworking” and “middle-class” have come to be code words for “white” and “native-born”. Anyone who isn’t hardworking and middle-class is a non-white criminal. In the last presidential campaign, these ceased to be unspoken codes, as neo-conservatives and fascists and other Trump supporters applauded his description of Mexicans, Muslims, and other non-white immigrants as criminals, and stood by Trump’s refusal to call the KKK a hate/terrorist/white supremacist group.

If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce.

(APPLAUSE)

And we have shown that our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.

So if we’re going to be serious about race going forward, we need to uphold laws against discrimination — in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system.

That is what our Constitution and highest ideals require.

—A loud minority of Americans want a zero-sum game. They feel that any and every advance by people unlike them (non-white, immigrant) comes only at their expense. If anyone else wins, it’s because they lose. That’s why they want to repeal laws against discrimination, ironically by claiming those laws discriminate against whites/white men/native-born white Americans. These people are Americans in name only, as they would violate our Constitution to enrich and (so they think) protect themselves.

But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face. Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change.

We have to pay attention and listen.

—It’s hard to feel a lot of compassion for white men in western society. They still have every advantage when it comes to being educated, hired, well-paid, catered to politically, and identified as the “average person”. White men do still have all the advantages, even after 50 years of economic, cultural, and technological change. Again, it’s the zero-sum mentality at work: any change for white men is seen as an alarm bell that the God-ordained proper world order is being destroyed. Not all white men feel this way. But the ones who do should only be paid attention and listened to as part of an effort to re-educate them to be Americans.

For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.

(APPLAUSE)

For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles, who it was said were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.

(APPLAUSE)

So regardless of the station we occupy; we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.

(APPLAUSE) (CHEERING)

And that’s not easy to do. For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.

And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.

—Bubbles have always existed. They’re not the product of social media. Newspapers in the 19th and early 20th centuries in America were always firmly ideological—Republican or Democrat, nativist or pro-immigrant, for blacks or for whites or for Jewish people, etc. But the harm of bubbles is intensified by social media. Now we don’t even have to know that we are buying “our” paper for “our” people; we can go online to a site that pretends to be objective while it peddles ridiculous and harmful, divisive and undemocratic opinions, or, more and more often, lies. People become used to arguing with other people only when they leave those social media bubbles, not within them, and the right to argue a point is confused with the right to win an argument. It’s enough to make one wonder whether the “information wants to be free” movement that destroyed paid journalism was an anti-democratic plot after all…

Next time: the third threat to American democracy

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Go see Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality

Posted on September 21, 2015. Filed under: Economics, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

We read a review of this site and went to check it out. Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality allows you to drill down into any demographic you are interested in to see how it has fared economically since the early 20th century (the graph time frames vary).

The site’s author, Colin Gordon, has written three books on business and politics in the U.S. Some of the charts come with video and animation to break them down. A few are very technical, but links to corresponding data help make sense of them. There’s nothing like the starkness of a graph to eradicate rhetoric and campaign blather about increasing prosperity for all…

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The Washington Redskins–no more?

Posted on June 19, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Economics, Politics | Tags: , , , |

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has ruled (we think that’s the word) that Washington, DC’s NFL team, the Redskins, can no longer trademark that name, saying: “the term ‘Redskins’ was disparaging of Native Americans, when used in relation to professional football services”. Five Native Americans brought the case to the Patent Office saying the name is disparaging. The upshot is that the team can no longer control who uses the name or profit from its use. (The image of the “redskin” that goes along with the name is still, somehow, protected.)

The team’s owners are contesting this, and will appeal; in fact, this decision seems to have been made before and overturned by a federal district court. So there is a chance that the name will go on, and continue making money for the team.

The list of team names, from professional sports to high school, that use Native American references is very long. “Indians” is a name used by hundreds of school teams; “Chiefs” and “Braves” are second in popularity. In most cases, it seems clear that the name was chosen to represent the team’s strength and fearlessness, and was considered a shout-out to the Native Americans who possessed those qualities. Usually the image that represented the team was a chieftain in full feather headdress, or a “brave” with one feather. On the high school level, the image was usually neutral; it’s at the college and professional level that they are uniformly racist (one notes the Cleveland Indians image and the (now defunct) Philadelphia Warriors image in particular).

In the case of the Washington team, its owners have leaned heavily on the historical defense: any name that’s 80 years old must be innocent. This is an oft-used argument that we cannot make sense of. There are many words that have been around a long time that are slurs. In 1890, Webster’s dictionary listed “redskin” as a “contemptuous” term for Native Americans. That predates the team choosing it as its name. But the league is standing by it: Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs, said the name is not a slur:

“The team name is the team name as it has been for 80-plus years. And what we need to do is get beyond sort of understanding this as a point-blank situation and understand it more as a variety of perspectives that all need to be addressed, that all need to be given some weight, so that at the end of it we can come to some understanding that is appropriate and reflects the opinions of all. I think that is part of the issue with the question is that it is constantly being sort of put into a point-blank, yes-or-no, yes-or-no kind of context when that’s not the reality of the situation that we’re dealing with.”

Often here at the HP we present a block quote and break it down through analysis. We’ve done it for George Washington and William Jennings Bryan. Now we will attempt to do it for Adolpho Birch:

“The team name is the team name as it has been for 80-plus years.”

—If something is old, it can’t be racist. People in olden times were not racist.

“And what we need to do is get beyond sort of understanding this as a point-blank situation and understand it more as a variety of perspectives that all need to be addressed, that all need to be given some weight, so that at the end of it we can come to some understanding that is appropriate and reflects the opinions of all.”

—Instead of the name being… black and white, as it were, it is a complex issue where everyone’s opinion has equal weight and a solution exists that will please and reflect the wishes of everyone, even if they are diametrically opposed.

“I think that is part of the issue with the question is that it is constantly being sort of put into a point-blank, yes-or-no, yes-or-no kind of context when that’s not the reality of the situation that we’re dealing with.”

—The question of the name is an issue that is usually described as dichotomous, dichotomous, dichotomous when that’s not realistic.

We can see that our analysis makes good sense of Birch’s sputtering and panicky nonsense. The answer to “is that name racist” cannot be “yes” or “no”. That’s too point-blank. Reality is that nothing is ever clear, even to people who are clear that the name offends them. In “reality”, the only virtue of Birch’s “argument” is that it puts the onus of the racism on us, the public who have sat back and accepted the racist team name for so long. For 80 years, the team was allowed to perpetrate racism, and that’s not just the team’s fault.

So it can only be hoped that a district court does not overturn this latest ruling, and that a point-blank rebuke to the league’s and the team’s “complex” defense of a “contextual” racial slur is taken down.

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The Slaughterhouse Cases, or, corporations are actually people

Posted on February 27, 2012. Filed under: American history, Economics, U.S. Constitution |

Hello and welcome to this post on the 1869 Slaughterhouse Cases, legal decisions that changed the nature of business in the United States forever. It’s hard to believe that such a ground-breaking series of legal cases can be so invisible to the general American public today, but it’s sadly true. So we’re going to take a good look and see how we started down the path of legal rights for corporations and corporations being given the rights of individual citizens.

America, and then the U.S., had been viewed as a land where everyone had the right to rise by working hard from the start of European settlement. The immigrant, the poor person, the obscure and uneducated could always better their lot and improve themselves by working. Only in the U.S. was land freely available and relatively cheap, so anyone could farm if they really worked at it. Only in the U.S. were factories abundant, so anyone, even the unskilled laborer or the city poor, could earn a living wage. One of the most persuasive arguments anti-slavery groups made in the antebellum period was that slave labor robbed free men of the chance to work; the Free Soil political party made right-to-labor its main plank. The U.S. could only be great so long as its citizens had the opportunity to contribute their honest toil to the economy and improve both themselves and their nation.

But until 1869, no official body had made the claim that individuals had a legal right to pursue their occupation, no matter the consequences to others. Everyone had the opportunity to work, but no one had the legal protection to work in any way they saw fit. That would all change with a group of butchers in Louisiana.

In the mid-1800s, many butchers worked just north of New Orleans, throwing their offal into the Mississippi River. The end result was that low tide meant the reek of rotting animal carcasses filled the city, and the city’s drinking water was irredeemably polluted with blood and feces. To remedy this situation (at least for New Orleans), the city government requested that the butchers move their shops south of the city. But this wasn’t the simple offer it seemed: the land south of the city that the butchers were to remove to was owned by the state, which demanded a high rent for the new space. The butchers, fearing bankruptcy if they had to pay the high rents, sued the state and the corporation it had set up to administer the land.

Their claim was not just that the rents were unfair and that the state-owned company had no competition and could therefore raise the rents as high as it liked. That would be simple extortion. Instead, they took their argument to a new level by saying that they had a constitutionally protected right to pursue an occupation, and that forcing them to move deprived the butchers of their right to do their work as they saw fit. If they felt that working upriver from the city of New Orleans was good for their business, then any attempt to remove them—for any reason, even the disease their offal brought to the residents of the city—was an unconstitutional attempt to deprive them of the right to work.

The lower courts which heard this case found in favor of the state, but the butchers persisted, and in 1873 they took their case all the way to the Supreme Court. They also came up with an argument worthy of that highest of courts: the lawyers for the butchers actually went so far as to bring in the newly passed Fourteenth Amendment to support their case. This Amendment was meant to extend federal protection to formerly enslaved black Americans by overriding any possible state or local laws that would deny them due process and basically re-enslave them. The Slaughterhouse lawyers applied it to say that the state was depriving the butchers of their right to work and make a living while denying them due process under the law. You can’t just tell people to move because they’re poisoning a city’s water supply, the lawyers said; you have to take into consideration those people’s right to make a living, and if moving their business will harm that living, they can’t be made to move. People have a constitutionally protected right to work.

The Court found in favor of the state once again, but only by a 5-4 margin. It did not reject the butchers’ claims that they had a constitutional right to practice their profession in the way that seemed best to them. It decided, rather, that the Fourteenth Amendment was only about federal protection of citizenship; it was meant to preserve the citizenship of formerly enslaved people against state laws. Slavery was now illegal, and could not be reinstated by state laws. The butchers had not been deprived of their citizenship. The right to work could be managed by each state as it saw fit, and in the case of the butchers, the state had a clear right to uphold the common good by removing a clear threat to the public health—New Orleans had suffered nearly a dozen cholera outbreaks since 1832, which were clearly related to the offal in the drinking water. The state has a right and a duty to protect its citizens, stated the majority opinion, and the butchers must go.

But the minority opinion latched on to the idea that businesses themselves had a right to exist. Justice Stephen Field wrote in the dissenting opinion,

“It is contended in justification for the act in question that it was adopted in the interest of the city, to promote its cleanliness and protect its health, and was the legitimate exercise of what is termed the police power of the State. That power undoubtedly extends to all regulations affecting the health, good order, morals, peace, and safety of society, and is exercised on a great variety of subjects, and in almost numberless ways. All sorts of restrictions and burdens are imposed under it, and when these are not in conflict with any constitutional prohibitions, or fundamental principles, they cannot be successfully assailed in a judicial tribunal.  With this power of the State and its legitimate exercise I shall not differ from the majority of the court. But under the pretence of prescribing a police regulation the State cannot be permitted to encroach upon any of the just rights of the citizen, which the Constitution intended to secure against abridgment.

…It is contended in justification for the act in question that it was adopted in the interest of the city, to promote its cleanliness and protect its health, and was the legitimate exercise of what is termed the police power of the State. That power undoubtedly extends to all regulations affecting the health, good order, morals, peace, and safety of society, and is exercised on a great variety of subjects, and in almost numberless ways. All sorts of restrictions and burdens are imposed under it, and when these are not in conflict with any constitutional prohibitions, or fundamental principles, they cannot be successfully assailed in a judicial tribunal. ” [my italics]

The subtle change going on here is evident, first in the phrase “the just rights of the citizen”. While Field most likely meant it to refer to the men who worked at their jobs, later corporate lawyers and big business owners would morph “citizen” to mean the business itself—the corporation. If a person has the right to work, then doesn’t a business have the right to exist, so it can provide that work? And if a business has a right to exist, it has the right to operate in any way it sees fit. Successful business was determined by profits, and if a profitable company pursued certain business tactics like monopoly or price-fixing or child labor, who could tell that company it had to stop? It was providing work for thousands of people, creating jobs, and fueling the economy. What outside body could decide that those profitable tactics were wrong? How could anything that made money, jobs, and materials be wrong? The law as people knew it simply did not apply to business. Business was a new class of citizen.

Secondly, the right of a government to impose restrictions in the name of the common good and public health and safety is unimpeached only when it is “not in conflict with any constitutional prohibitions”. But if corporations have a constitutionally protected right to exist and conduct business as they see fit, then no government can impose any restrictions on them.

Field went even further, invoking the spectre of  “involuntary servitude” and using language [in italics] that seemed to refer to the forced removal of the butchers and the restriction that they work only in one allotted location:

“[It is] clear that [the words “involuntary servitude”] include something more than slavery in the strict sense of the term; they include also serfage, vassalage, villenage, peonage, and all other forms of compulsory service for the mere benefit or pleasure of others. Nor is this the full import of the terms. The abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude was intended to make every one born in this country a freeman, and as such to give to him the right to pursue the ordinary avocations of life without other restraint than such as affects all others, and to enjoy equally with them the fruits of his labor. …A person allowed to pursue only one trade or calling, and only in one locality of the country, would not be, in the strict sense of the term, in a condition of slavery, but probably none would deny that he would be in a condition of servitude. He certainly would not possess the liberties nor enjoy the privileges of a freeman. The compulsion which would force him to labor even for his own benefit only in one direction, or in one place, would be almost as oppressive and nearly as great an invasion of his liberty as the compulsion which would force him to labor for the benefit or pleasure of another, and would equally constitute an element of servitude.” [my italics]

(It is bitterly ironic that slavery would come up in this case, as one of the lawyers for the butchers was John A. Campbell, who had resigned from the Supreme Court to serve the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War and spent his post-war career thwarting black Americans’ attempts to enjoy the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment.)

The door was now open to other lawyers representing much bigger clients than the Louisiana butchers to claim that any restrictions on big business was tantamount to slavery. Price-fixing, monopolies, hostile takeovers, graft, child labor, inferior-grade materials (including foodstuffs), corrupt trusts, and other practices would all be protected or ignored by the law on the grounds that these were the necessary components of successful corporations. The U.S. government was particularly susceptible to this argument in 1873. Determined to grow the economy after the Civil War, and devastated by the financial panic of 1873 itself, the government was more willing to let profitable corporations do whatever it took to build the economy.

So corporations began to take on the rights of citizens, and very protected citizens at that, while workers, small businessmen, consumers, and others were relegated to second- or third-class citizens. It would take decades of Progressive reforms, beginning in the late 1800s and lasting into the mid-20th century, to undo the damage and make corporations accountable to the law.

We are seeing a pendulum swing now, though, in the early 21st century, as corporations have gained the status of private citizens so far as political campaign contributions go, and the federal government is loathe to tax corporations appropriately. Who knows what the next Slaughterhouse Case will be?

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The Cross of Gold, the 1896 presidential election, Scopes, and beyond

Posted on February 14, 2012. Filed under: American history, Economics, Politics | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our series on William Jennings Bryan’s famous 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech brings us to the 1896 election, for which Bryan was the Democratic candidate. He ran against Goldbug William McKinley who, like most Republicans, blamed the Democrats and their bi-metallism platform for the economic Panic of 93. The McKinley campaign issued fake dollar bills that read “IN GOD WE TRUST…FOR THE OTHER 53 CENTS” to illustrate the Republicans’ belief that a dollar backed by silver instead of gold would only be worth 47 cents. McKinley looked for support not only from the big businessmen, financiers, and bankers Bryan decried in his Cross of Gold speech, but also from rich farmers, skilled workers, and small businessmen who had more to gain from reducing the flow of currency and curbing inflation.

McKinley was successful in winning this portion of the electorate, which included the wealthy farming states of the Great Lakes region and gold-mining California. McKinley’s alliance with stable, wealthy sections of the populace seemed more promising for the nation’s economic future than Bryan’s rag-tag army of small farmers, coal miners, and social reformers. The 176 electoral votes won in the poor southern and midwestern states that went to Bryan in the election could not match the 271 electoral votes of the wealthy northern and eastern states, and California that went to McKinley.

President McKinley was blessed by incredible good luck: shortly after his election, word of the gold finds in the Klondike reached the continental U.S. California’s gold had pretty much dried up, and McKinley had been faced with the problem of getting enough gold to replace the silver he was going to remove from the currency. That problem was solved by the Klondike, and McKinley was credited at the time with restoring the boom economy.

Bryan ran against McKinley once again in 1900, still pushing for bi-metallism and the little guy, and accusing McKinley of imperialism because of the Spanish-American War of 1898. McKinley won easily, as gold and the war were both very popular with the average American. 1908 saw Bryan run once again, and once again advocating silver while attacking the Republicans for trust-busting that helped big business and hurt small business. His slogan was “Shall the People Rule?” Their response was to elect William Howard Taft in a landslide.

After 1908, Bryan gave up his attempts on the presidency and became a much sought-after public speaker. He was asked to deliver his Cross of Gold speech hundreds of times, and he did so, never tiring of its populist message, and taking heart from its continued popularity. He was made Secretary of State in 1913 by President Wilson but resigned after Wilson declared war on Germany in 1915. Bryan continued to promote reform politics, supporting both Prohibition and women’s suffrage.

But his most famous second act was acting as the prosecution counsel in the famous 1925 Scopes Trial (the Scopes “Monkey Trial”) in which Tennessee teacher John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution. Bryan’s reputation made him a seemingly knockout choice, but he was humiliated and outwitted by defense counsel Clarence Darrow, and while the jury returned the guilty verdict everyone had expected they would, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling on a technicality. If you have ever seen a cartoon or show that has a southern lawyer facing a big-time lawyer, and the southern lawyer says “Now, I’m just a country lawyer, but…” then tells a folksy anecdote, then goes in for the kill on the uppity, smug lawyer, that is a reference to Darrow’s skewering of Bryan. It’s unfair in that the big-time lawyer is usually represented as a rich, big-city, corporate lawyer, which is a 180 from who Bryan was, but that is the image that has gone down to posterity. Bryan’s reputation was shattered by the daily newspaper accounts of his humiliations in court at the hands of Darrow; fortunately for him, Bryan did not live long with the embarrassment. He died from complications from diabetes five days after the trial ended.

Thus the curtain closes on Bryan and the Cross of Gold. He recorded the still-popular speech in 1921, and you can hear it here. It’s worth our while to understand this speech and its importance, and to see that while Bryan never won the presidential office he sought, his ideas and reforms were in large part successful, and part of our lives today.

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The Cross of Gold speech: a close reading

Posted on February 8, 2012. Filed under: American history, Economics, Politics | Tags: , , |

Part 3 of our series on William Jennings Bryan’s famous 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech focuses on the text of the speech itself. We’ve looked at the battle over bi-metallism fought by Silverites and Goldbugs that the speech addresses in part 2, and now we’ll see how Bryan lays out his argument for silver.

The text is from History Matters; the following are excerpts, not the entire text (it’s too long for us to consider here). All italics are my own unless noted. So let’s begin:

“I would be presumptuous, indeed, to present myself against the distinguished gentlemen to whom you have listened if this were but a measuring of ability; but this is not a contest among persons. The humblest citizen in all the land when clad in the armor of a righteous cause is stronger than all the whole hosts of error that they can bring. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty—the cause of humanity. When this debate is concluded, a motion will be made to lay upon the table the resolution offered in commendation of the administration and also the resolution in condemnation of the administration. I shall object to bringing this question down to a level of persons. The individual is but an atom; he is born, he acts, he dies; but principles are eternal; and this has been a contest of principle.”

—Remember that Bryan was speaking at the Democratic National Convention, so the distinguished gentlemen his audience have already listened to are the candidates vying to become the party’s presidential nominee, and their supporters. Bryan, while a Democrat, was in spirit a Populist; he was a supporter of the “common man”, the farmer and laborer, as opposed to the big businessman, banker, and machine politician. He immediately begins by positioning himself as a somewhat common man who has every right to speak to such a high-powered convention because he is “clad in the armor of a righteous cause”. He may be but “an atom”, but he speaks in the name of an eternal principle “as holy as the cause of liberty” itself, and, indeed the cause of humanity itself. Anyone who studies rhetoric will see a master practitioner in Bryan. He is in just one paragraph humble yet charged with integrity, a defender of humanity. Anyone who could listen to him and not choose the “resolution in condemnation of the [current president’s] administration”, the resolution against the gold standard, is basically an inhuman criminal.

“Never before in the history of this country has there been witnessed such a contest as that through which we have passed. Never before in the history of American politics has a great issue been fought out as this issue has been by the voters themselves.”

—Never? There’s never been such a great issue as this? Not federalism, states’ rights, or slavery? Technically Bryan is covering himself by saying that this issue will be fully decided by votes, not war or acts of Congress. But all the same it’s a dramatic overstatement.

“On the 4th of March, 1895, a few Democrats, most of them members of Congress, issued an address to the Democrats of the nation asserting that the money question was the paramount issue of the hour; asserting also the right of a majority of the Democratic Party to control the position of the party on this paramount issue; concluding with the request that all believers in free coinage of silver in the Democratic Party should organize and take charge of and control the policy of the Democratic Party. …Our silver Democrats went forth from victory unto victory, until they are assembled now, not to discuss, not to debate, but to enter up the judgment rendered by the plain people of this country. …Old leaders have been cast aside when they refused to give expression to the sentiments of those whom they would lead, and new leaders have sprung up to give direction to this cause of freedom. Thus has the contest been waged, and we have assembled here under as binding and solemn instructions as were ever fastened upon the representatives of a people.”

—This is the important point: the bi-metallist platform of the Democratic party is the result of grass-roots activism; the “common men” of the party, the voters, have sent the clear message that they want the party to support silver coinage. Party leaders who wouldn’t go along with the people were voted out, and new leaders, like Bryan, voted in. Thus, Bryan, and his listeners, are under “binding and solemn instructions” to support silver. This is how Bryan represents the cause of humanity, and liberty: he is truly a representative of the majority of the people of his party, who lives only to do their will.

“The gentleman who just preceded me [Governor Russell] spoke of the old state of Massachusetts. Let me assure him that not one person in all this convention entertains the least hostility to the people of the state of Massachusetts. But we stand here representing people who are the equals before the law of the largest cities in the state of Massachusetts. When you come before us and tell us that we shall disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests by your action. We say to you that you have made too limited in its application the definition of a businessman. The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. The attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis. The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain. The miners who go 1,000 feet into the earth or climb 2,000 feet upon the cliffs and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured in the channels of trade are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world.”

—Bryan claims that farmers, small businessmen, miners, and common laborers are just as important to the U.S. economy as big businessmen, bankers, lawyers, and Wall Street traders because the former does the exact same thing as the latter: they generate wealth. They put money into the economy. They grow the economy. But he goes further: the small businessman and farmer are actually better than the bankers and big bosses because the little guy actually does real work—he “by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth”. Big guys grow fat off the sweat of the little guy’s brow. Bankers don’t do anything but collect interest, bosses make money off their workers. Miners risk life and limb, while traders sit in nice rooms betting on what the market will do. Does the trader really deserve as much respect and consideration as the miner? Bryan thinks not.

“Ah, my friends, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose—those pioneers away out there, rearing their children near to nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds—out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their children and churches where they praise their Creator, and the cemeteries where sleep the ashes of their dead—are as deserving of the consideration of this party as any people in this country. It is for these that we speak. We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!”

—Here Bryan builds on his theme of the virtue of the laborer and takes it into truly melodramatic realms. The little guys are all pioneers and mystical seers, “rearing their children near to nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds”, and can be found “out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their children and churches where they praise their Creator, and the cemeteries where sleep the ashes of their dead”. Apparently only country people love nature, provide an education for their children, love God, and bury their dead. Since the little guys of the Democratic party voted for silver, Bryan and all the leaders of the party are speaking for these people, but it goes beyond that; suddenly, Bryan and his audience are those people. “They” turns to “we” as Bryan goes on: “We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity… We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!” For someone who started out assuring a Massachusetts Democrat that no one in the room had any hostility toward the east coast, Bryan has quickly turned the east coast into a hideous “them” who the Democrats are not just fighting but defying.

“Mr. Jefferson, who was once regarded as good Democratic authority, seems to have a different opinion from the gentleman who has addressed us on the part of the minority. Those who are opposed to this proposition tell us that the issue of paper money is a function of the bank and that the government ought to go out of the banking business. I stand with Jefferson rather than with them, and tell them, as he did, that the issue of money is a function of the government and that the banks should go out of the governing business.”

—If putting democratically elected government representatives rather than rich, corrupt bankers,  in control of U.S. economic policy was good enough for Thomas Jefferson, it’s good enough for Bryan.

“The gentleman from New York says that he will propose an amendment providing that this change in our law shall not affect contracts which, according to the present laws, are made payable in gold. But if he means to say that we cannot change our monetary system without protecting those who have loaned money before the change was made, I want to ask him where, in law or in morals, he can find authority for not protecting the debtors when the act of 1873 was passed when he now insists that we must protect the creditor.”

—A New Yorker (of course–east coast!) says he’ll go along with bi-metallism, which reduces the value of the dollar, only if contracts that were signed before the bi-metallism law is passed are mandated to be paid in gold. So if I lend someone $10 in gold, I want them to repay that loan with ten valuable, gold-backed dollars, not ten silver-backed dollars that are only worth about $6 in the international markets. This would basically protect banks, the enemy of the farmer and small businessman who have to borrow a lot of money under the gold standard. But Bryan says, You’re very concerned about protecting lenders—why didn’t you care about protecting borrowers during the Crash of 1873, when many were forced into bankruptcies as banks called in loans? The New Yorker, of course, is biased against the little man.

“Now, my friends, let me come to the great paramount issue. If they ask us here why it is we say more on the money question than we say upon the tariff question, I reply that if protection has slain its thousands the gold standard has slain its tens of thousands. If they ask us why we did not embody all these things in our platform which we believe, we reply to them that when we have restored the money of the Constitution, all other necessary reforms will be possible, and that until that is done there is no reform that can be accomplished.”

—Why is the party focusing its entire platform on one issue, bi-metallism? Doesn’t the country have other problems that need to be addressed? Bryan replies that bi-metallism is the source of nearly all the problems in the country: debt, small business failure, monopoly, etc. If silver is restored, “all other necessary reforms will be possible.”

“Why is it that within three months such a change has come over the sentiments of the country? Three months ago, when it was confidently asserted that those who believed in the gold standard would frame our platforms and nominate our candidates, even the advocates of the gold standard did not think that we could elect a President… Mr. McKinley was nominated at St. Louis upon a platform that declared for the maintenance of the gold standard until it should be changed into bimetallism by an international agreement. Mr. McKinley was the most popular man among the Republicans ; and everybody three months ago in the Republican Party prophesied his election… Why this change? Ah, my friends, is not the change evident to anyone who will look at the matter? It is because no private character, however pure, no personal popularity, however great, can protect from the avenging wrath of an indignant people the man who will either declare that he is in favor of fastening the gold standard upon this people, or who is willing to surrender the right of self-government and place legislative control in the hands of foreign potentates and powers…”

—Goldbugs had this 1896 election locked up with their pro-gold Republican candidate McKinley, and were sure bets to steamroll the Democrats into accepting the gold standard as well, but the sheer and pure power of the People, the little guys, won out. McKinley’s “personal popularity, however great”, cannot protect him from “the avenging wrath of an indignant people”. McKinley’s decision to act bilaterally with the United States’ international trading partners and adopt a currency policy that everyone agreed on, was in effect a move to “surrender the right of self-government and place legislative control in the hands of foreign potentates and powers…” Thus the rise of the Democrats, against all odds, in the election.

“If they tell us that the gold standard is the standard of civilization… we can tell them this, that they will search the pages of history in vain to find a single instance in which the common people of any land ever declared themselves in favor of a gold standard. [This] is a struggle between the idle holders of idle capital and the struggling masses who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country; and my friends, it is simply a question that we shall decide upon which side shall the Democratic Party fight. Upon the side of the idle holders of idle capital, or upon the side of the struggling masses? [The] sympathies of the Democratic Party, as described by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses, who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party. There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.”

—The only people who want the gold standard are the parasitic, idle, undemocratic rich. There is no trickle-down economics, where legislation that makes the rich richer also benefits the poor (“their prosperity will leak through on those below”). What does exist is poor men working their way up the ladder through their smarts and hard work and democratic principles, which benefits the whole nation.

“You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

—Immediately after this, Bryan will insist once again that he accuses the east coast of no wrong; it is clear, however, that this is a west v. east battle for him, great cities against small farms, “broad and fertile prairies” against cities. Farms are the backbone of the economy and the virtue of the nation, and it is farms that are irreplaceably important, not cities and banks and smokestacks.

“If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

—There is power in our union: the battle for silver will be won by the little man, the “producing masses of the nation”, and not the inactive parasites sitting on their golden thrones in New York or Boston. The poor man will not be crucified with a crown of thorns, will not be sacrificed to the gold standard; and since the little guy is humanity, “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

One can only imagine the torrential applause this speech was concluded with. Bryan was elected the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, and newspapers across the country reverberated with the story and the speech, which was reprinted ad infinitum. Next time, we’ll see how it all played out.

Next time: the 1896 election

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Silverites, Goldbugs and the Cross of Gold

Posted on February 2, 2012. Filed under: American history, Economics | Tags: , , , , |

Part 2 of our series on William Jennings Bryan’s famous 1896 Cross of Gold Speech provides background on the issue at the heart of that momentous address to the Democratic National Convention.

When gold was discovered in California in 1848, there was a Gold Rush that opened the west and changed the nation. When silver was discovered in the west in the 1860s, however, there was no Silver Rush. For decades the federal government had valued silver at 16:1 against gold—that is, it took 16 ounces of silver to equal 1 ounce of gold in value. It was much more lucrative to find gold than silver.

But the U.S. was not on the gold standard. Anyone could turn in gold or silver in any form—jewelry, bars, coins, etc.—to a U.S. Mint and receive dollars for their metal. Gold and silver could both be turned in for dollars, and this is called bi-metallism. Our currency was backed by silver and gold.

This system was threatened, however, by the Gold Rush. Gold flooded the market, making silver relatively scarce. While the Mint still offered the 16:1 ratio, silver could be sold privately for more—12:1, 10:1, etc. People stopped taking their silver to the Mint and began hoarding it or selling to it private or foreign buyers.

Such was the situation when silver was discovered in Nevada in the 1860s. While there was no Silver Rush, silver did begin to flood the market, and those private buyers and great 12:1 deals for silver dried up. Now you had to take 20:1 or 25:1 deals. But the U.S. Mint was still offering 16:1, and people who found themselves with too much silver on their hands flocked back to the Mint to turn it in for dollars. As a result, more silver dollars were minted.

All of this silver being turned in for dollars was good news for westerners, rural farmers, and the poor because it put more dollars into circulation. You can’t spend your silver jewelry, but you’ll spend the dollars you get for it. More money in circulation means there’s less of a need for people to borrow money, and that drives down interest rates. Farmers who needed to buy the new farm equipment that the Industrial Revolution was making necessary could buy it without going into debt with a loan. Poor people could buy more goods. These were the Silverites, who welcomed the liquidity of bi-metallism during a silver boom.

But not everyone was happy. The heart of business in the U.S. was in the east, on Wall Street and in the big industrial cities, and eastern banks had made fortunes loaning money to westerners, especially farmers, and charging high interest rates. With the boom in silver, that was diminished, and big business cried foul to the government through its lobbyists. These were the Goldbugs, who wanted to make dollars scarce by stopping the conversion of silver to dollars.

The situation came to a head in 1873. All that basically worthless silver pouring into the federal government for a decade had caused an economic crisis. The dollar was being backed more and more by silver, and less and less by gold. And since silver had lost so much value, the dollar might lose its value abroad. If a European won’t buy your silver, they’re not going to accept your silver-backed dollars. So Congress passed the Coinage Act of 1873, which stated that the dollar would no longer be backed by silver, eliminated the silver dollar, and severely limited how much silver Mints were allowed to accept from the public. Bi-metallism was over.

Silverites called it the  “Crime of ’73,” and claimed that justice was thwarted by rich businessmen. Goldbugs celebrated this embrace of the gold standard and claimed it was “sound money” policy.

Now you see what Bryan is driving at. He was from Nebraska, a western farming state whose people were hurting from the clampdown on silver. In his speech he is saying that he will not let the U.S. crucify the common man on a cross of gold—he will not let the government stay on the gold standard at the expense of the poor, the farmer, the western rancher or small businessman. If elected president, he will bring back bi-metallism, the dollar will be backed by gold and silver, and there will be more dollars in circulation, reducing debt.

Next time: close-reading the speech

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The “Cross of Gold” speech: what is it about?

Posted on January 27, 2012. Filed under: American history, Economics, Politics | Tags: , , |

Welcome to a series on William Jennings Bryan’s famous 1896 Cross of Gold speech. This speech, delivered at the Democratic National Convention, helped win the Bryan, former Representative to Congress for Nebraska, the presidential nomination of the Democratic party. It’s a very famous speech and it was powerfully delivered, and was so popular that for decades after the convention Bryan was asked to deliver the Cross of Gold speech, and did.

But let’s start by being frank: this speech suffers, for the 21st-century reader, from two major drawbacks: first, and foremost, it never makes clear what on Earth the problem is that it’s addressing; and second, it is written in the bombastic 19th-century style that thrives on rhetorical flourishes and long, drawn-out analogies. Thus it’s hard for modern-day readers to make much headway through Cross of Gold. One might read the entire speech and not understand what issue Bryan is addressing. The reason for this is that by the time he gave this speech, the issue of coining silver v. remaining on the gold standard had been a violently contested political, social, and economic issue for decades. Bryan’s audience didn’t need a lesson on what the issue was. Everyone in that convention hall knew what their party’s stand was on silver, and all Bryan had to do was to reinforce the righteousness of that stance by talking about how it would help the farmer and other “common men”. It would be like giving a speech today where you just kept saying “Tea Party ideas”—your audience would know what that shorthand means. You wouldn’t have to explain it. You could just talk about how a) harmful or b) good those ideas were, depending on your political stance.

But today, we know little about the savage war over the coinage of silver, and this has created a terrible vacuum where we continue to study Bryan’s famous speech with almost no background on what it was addressing and no conception of what it means. It has become a ritual with no meaning. Let’s rectify that here.

We’ll move into the background of the speech next time with a history of the battle between Silverites and Goldbugs, as they were called, and the principles they were fighting over. It is actually fascinating, and focuses on themes that are still very much front-and-center in 21st-century U.S. politics, including “class warfare”, business v. individual rights, how much control the federal government should have, financial booms and busts, and more.

Next time: Silverites v. Goldbugs

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Taxation = Slavery

Posted on August 1, 2011. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Civil War, Economics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

As always, when history is being made in the present, or the present is clearly marked in a historical cycle, we delve into it here on the HP.

In this case, it is the debate in Congress over whether to raise the debt ceiling or default. The main sticking point has been the refusal of a sizable minority of Republicans, mostly belonging to the Tea Party faction, to allow the federal government to collect tax revenue. This group demands tax breaks for the wealthy, including corporations, and the maintenance of tax loopholes that allow millions of dollars of tax revenue to go uncollected.

This is not the place to go into the details of their platform, or the response by moderate Republicans and Democrats. Here, the issue is the extreme instransigence of the Republican minority on the issue of taxation. It has become, to them, a crime for the government to raise taxes or even to collect taxes. To them, there is no compromise on taxation: you are either for it (and therefore un-American) or against it. Again, we’ll leave aside for this post the historical fallacy of anti-tax advocates calling themselves “Tea Party”; read about that here. For now, we’ll focus on the black-and-white issue they have turned taxation into. It’s hard to think of a time when Congress was so completely divided, so unwilling and unable to compromise on an issue; when you look back at our history, only one comparable time comes up—the slavery debates of the late 1850s.

You could not compromise on slavery during those Congresses. You were for it or against it, and this divide worked its way into many other, seemingly unrelated issues, and the uncompromisable issue of slavery could not be resolved. Congress could no longer function to govern the country, and civil war ensued at the 1860 election.

Today, Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on taxation is quite similar to those Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on slavery. But there are two key differences: first, the American people were becoming just as divided over slavery as their representatives; second, slavery really is an issue you can’t seriously compromise on.

Americans in the 1850s didn’t want to fight a war over slavery, but they were rapidly becoming more polarized over it. Even those who didn’t particularly want abolition for morality’s sake blamed slavery for all of America’s ills, and would have gotten rid of it for economic or political reasons. Their representatives’ furor over slavery was not out of line, then, with Americans’ feelings about slavery. It does not seem accurate to make that claim today. Many Tea Party Congress members have said their constituents contacted them to say it’s okay to raise taxes to avoid default, but those members refused to do so out of principle. The extreme polarization in Congress today does not really have its roots in how Americans are feeling.

And taxation is not slavery. It’s not a black-and-white, moral issue that no one can take a moderate stance on. The government raises taxes in order to provide services. It’s a very simple and fundamental tenet of government. We have representation to our government to decide what services and how much taxation, not to stop the collection of tax revenue.

The taxation issue is part of a larger move to reduce the federal government to a negative function: the federal government will not provide social services (no Medicare, Social Security, Head Start, etc.), will not regulate business (protect the environment, police Wall Street, etc.), will not really legislate (instead, Constitutional Amendments will be put in place to handle social issues), amd will not extend civil rights to immigrants, gay people, etc. All it would do under this plan, apparently, is fund wars.

No one really wants to live in that world. It is undemocratic, and unself-sustaining. This experiment with such negative chaos is a dangerous one. The first experiment ended in civil war; it remains to be seen where we are headed in the next 20 years.

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