Wednesday, October 26, 2016

King's Survey: Don't #$%&* with Me!


In which we see how the man who broke the mold of the Founding Fathers became the scariest, and most exciting, man in U.S. history

Did you all bring $20 bills? Hold them up.
—We’re going to get these back, right? My mom was worried.
Right, Ethan. Actually, I’m not collecting them. I just asked you to bring them today for a little exercise we’re going to do. Looks like a few of you don’t have one. That’s OK. You can share. Go ahead and put those bills on your desks. Now look at the figure in the middle of them. What do you see?
Yes. That’s what it says: Andrew Jackson. Seventh president of the United States. But what I’m really asking is what you see. What do you make of this portrait?
—Great hair.
—It is great hair.
—Looks like he’s wearing a cape.
—Is that a white collar under his shirt? And is that a tie sticking out between the cape?
—They didn’t wear ties back then.
—Back when?
—When Jackson was president.
—When was that?
—I dunno. A 150 or so years ago.
How about his face? What do you see in his expression?
—He looks pretty serious.
—His lips are tight. What’s the expression? His lips are pursed.
—I’m having trouble reading his eyes. He’s staring off into the distance. But I can’t quite tell how he feels about what he’s seeing.
Well, now, that’s an interesting question, Yin. Wait a second; let me get over to the Smart Board. I’m going to call up someone else on U.S. currencyAlexander Hamilton.
—I like Jackson’s hair better.
—Yeah, but Hamilton is kind of hot.800px-Alexander_Hamilton_portrait_by_John_Trumbull_1806
—Oh, he is.
—He’s a bastard.
—Oh, Ethan.
—No, literally. His mother wasn’t married when he was born.
—Yeah, yeah, we know. The “oh” was “how lame.”
Sadie, how would you characterize Hamilton’s expression compared with Jackson’s?
—Hamilton seems a little nicer. His lips look more like he’s smiling.
And his eyes?
—He seems …kinder.
OK, though I’ll note that a lot of people thought Hamilton was a bastard … in a different sense of the term. Anyway, here’s Abraham Lincoln on the $5 bill. What about his expression?
—Well, he looks serious, too. But I see kindness in his eyes as well. His eyes are darker than Hamilton’s. Maybe that’s why he seems warmer.
But Jackson’s eyes are dark.
—Yeah, but they’re harder to read. Maybe they’re just plain harder.
I agree. A sense of mystery. And hardness. You know what his nickname was? “Old Hickory.” You know why? Because hickory is one of the hardest woods in the forest. When I look at this portrait, I hear Andrew Jackson speaking. And do you know what I hear him say?
“Don’t fuck with me.”
—Mr. Abraham King! I am shocked. Shocked!
Don’t tell on me, Em.
—Your secret is safe with me, Mr. K. Sadie here is another question. Those eyes! Those hard eyes! (Stop laughing, Sadie.) I think we may have to swear some kind of blood oath with every member of this class. Either that, or pay a bribe. I’m thinking 20 bucks apiece should do it.
You’re so kind, Em.
—Just trying to help out.
I appreciate that. Fortunately, I have an understanding with Dr. Devens about this. I’ve explained to her that I have a pedagogical purpose in using the term “Don’t fuck with me” in the context of Andrew Jackson. Fortunately, she charges less than I would have to pay all of you. (Just kidding.)
So why do I want to use the phrase “Don’t fuck with me” in regard to Andrew Jackson? As far as I know, Jackson himself never spoke these words, which I believe are of distinctly 20th century vintage. It’s because I think it captures the visceral power and appeal of Jackson in way 21st century adolescents can understand. Jackson was one of the dominant figuresperhaps more accurately, he was one of the most dominant personalities­—in the 19th century United States. Maybe in U.S. history generally. He’s on his way out these days, and will soon be vanishing from the $20 bill. I hope we can talk a little about that. But first I want to explain the series of events that led to him being put on that bill in the first place.
You may remember we talked a little about Jackson already, when we did the War of 1812. Anybody recall that?
—He was the general at the Battle of New Orleans. Which the Americans won.
Good, Jonah. Anybody remember the rest of his background? No? Let me remind youwell, let me round out the picture a little bit. Jackson was born in Carolina (note I don’t specify North or South, because as far as I can tell no one knows; his family lived in the interior, near Georgia, where the borders weren’t clear) in 1767. Jackson’s father died a few weeks before he was born. He was nine years old at the time of the Declaration of Independence. As you may remember, the center of the action in the Revolutionary War shifted to the South in 1780, when Jackson was thirteen. He enlisted in a local militia with his brothers. One brother was killed in battle; Jackson and his other brother were captured and imprisoned, where they caught smallpox. Their mother managed to get them out, but his brother died soon after, and his mother perished tending to wounded soldiers shortly after the Battle of Yorktown. Jackson was now an orphan, and swore his hatred of the British for the rest of his life. He spent the rest of his childhood with two uncles, piecing together enough of an education to present himself as a country lawyer (there were no law schools in those days).
Jackson was a child of the American frontier, and among the first pioneers to settle what became Tennessee, the 15th state in the Union in 1796 (after Kentucky and Vermont followed the first 13 as a pair five years earlier). Jackson was one of the founders of the city of Memphis. I’m a little murky on the details of a lot of this, in part because I’m no Jackson scholar, but also because, well, there’s just plain a lot of murkiness surrounding this. Seems like there were deals, and threats, involving the Cherokee and Chickasaw Indians. Jackson soon became a major slaveholder as well.
Jackson may have been a lawyer and a businessman, but the work for which he was best known was as a soldier. He was a member of the Tennessee militia when the War of 1812 broke out. As was true of the Revolution, the War of 1812 had lots of political and military implications for U.S. relations with Native American people. Many Indians, sick of literally getting pushed around, saw the war as an opportunity. In 1813, a faction of the Creek Indians known as the Red Sticks, led by a chief named Red Eagle, massacred hundreds of white and black settlers at Fort Mims, near modern-day Mobile, Alabama. Jackson was charged with defeating the Red Sticks, and led U.S. forces to victory at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. Though he let Red Eagle live, he imposed harsh terms on the Red Sticks. The Creeks had a term for him, “Jacksa Chula Harjo” which translates to, "Jackson, old and fierce.”
—Don’t fuck with me.
Exactly, Chris. From there, Jackson went to New Orleans, where he facedand very soundly defeateda larger British force that landed just after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed (but before news had crossed the ocean). The Brits described Jackson as “tough as hickory,” and the name stuck. Jackson became internationally famous.
—Don’t fuck with me, Great Britain.
You’ve got it. In the years that followed, tensions remained in the American southwestby which I mean Georgia, Alabama, and the Florida panhandle, parts of which were claimed by the United States, though most of Florida belonged to Spain. There were multiracial, multinational, attacks back and forth borders. (By way of illustration, Jackson’s adversary Red Eagle was partly white, and I’ll remind you that the army that Jackson led in New Orleans was multiracial.) In 1817, Jackson was ordered to fight the Seminole Indians, who made raids across the Spanish Florida border, as well as preventing fugitive slaves from escaping to Florida. In retaliation for a Seminole attack, Jackson proceeded to flagrantly violate Spanish sovereignty in Florida, capturing the city of Pensacola and putting two Brits who had collaborated with the Seminole to death.
—Don’t fuck with me, Seminoles!
—Don’t fuck with me Spain! Protect your fucking border!
—Don’t fuck with me, Great Britain!
—We already said that.
—Don’t double fuck with me, Great Britain!
—This is getting to be a little much.
—Isn’t that the point?
It is, Em, though I will confess to some ambivalence in encouraging our loose tongues with my little Jackson slogan. All joking aside, Jackson’s brazen disregard of international law, not to mention basic humanitarian decency, is raising alarm in Washington. There are some members of the presidential administration of James Monroe, who succeeded James Madison after the War of 1812, who want Jackson to be punished for his transgressions. Monroe himself has been giving mixed signals on Jackson’s behavior. In what will be one of the great ironies of American history, though, Jackson has an influential champion: Secretary of State John Quincy Adams.
Let me take a minute here and talk about Adams. First of all, do you recognize the name?
—Is he related to John Adams? His son, maybe?
That’s right, Ethan. JQA, as he was known, was born in 1767, Just like Jackson. But while Jackson’s life was hardscrabble and violent, JQA’s childhood was positively aristocratic by comparison. The second child and oldest son of the formidable John and Abigail, JQA was a child prodigy. He was seven years old when his mother took him to witness the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. He was ten when his father took him to Paris as part of the American delegation seeking recognition from France (the ship that father and son sailed on was chased by the British). At 14, he was appointed to serve as a translator (to French, the language of diplomacy) on a mission to Russia. (He would later hang out with his friend, the Emperor Alexander I, when Napoleon invaded that country.) JQA worked as his father’s secretary before returning to the states to attend Harvardafraid he was getting a little too refined, his parents wanted him to attend a local schooland train as a lawyer. President Washington appointed him as the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands when he was still in his twenties. Over the course of the next twenty years, he held a series of posts, among them a professorship at Harvard and a seat as the United States Senator from Massachusetts. He turned down a slot on the Supreme Court. During the Monroe Administration, JQA was Secretary of Statea position that already long been regarded as a springboard to the presidency.
—You said Adams stood up for Jackson?
Well not quite in those words, Yin.
—Seems odd that a diplomat would defend Jackson’s behavior.
It is odd. But diplomats and politicians are often juggling multiple agendas, and Adams senses opportunity in Jackson’s behavior. American leaders had been trying for years to get Spain to sell Florida to the United States without success. But Spain’s grip on this piece of North American territory was insecure, as attested by the porousness of a border routinely crossed by Native Americans, runaway African Americans, and now Jackson himself. Adams positioned himself as good cop to Jackson’s bad cop: maybe you should sell Florida while you still can, before the situation gets out of hand and a loose cannon like Jackson does something we may all regret. The fruit of such negotiations is the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, in which Florida’s territory is finally transferred to the United States. Not that this pacifies the region. The U.S. army will continue fighting in Florida for the next quarter century, notably two more wars against the Seminoles and their great multiracial leader Osceola, who successfully resisted U.S. control until his capture in 1837, when he was taken despite a flag of truce.
—Is that how we get the University of Florida Seminoles?
It is, Jonah. And a county in Florida that’s named after Osceola.
—Where is that? Is it near Disneyworld?
Naturally, Kylie. In any event, JQA’s machinations in Florida were of a piece with his broader foreign policy agenda of enhancing U.S. standing in the Western Hemisphere generally. It was during the Monroe administration that the British government approached the United States and said, basically: “Hey: you don’t want other European powers reasserting themselves in the Americas and neither do we. We could make a statement to this effect, but it would look better if we did it togetherBritain as the big kid on the block, and the United States as the little guy. What do you think?” It was Adams who framed the U.S. response for the Monroe Administration, which was for the United States to go ahead and make its statement on its own in what became known as the Monroe Doctrine, which said that the U.S. would regard any outside power coming into the region as an act of aggression requiring intervention. Since this stance suited Britain’s position in the region, it tacitly agreedand lent its considerable naval power to make the Monroe Doctrine effective in a way the United States alone never could. It marked the rapprochement between the U.S. and Britain that would gradually strengthen over the course of the next century.
—What’s Andrew Jackson doing while all this is going on?
Getting ready to become president, Jonah.
—When is this?
—That’s when Jackson becomes president?
That’s not what I said.
—So when did he?
Stay tuned.
House work: the presidential election of 1824

Monday, October 24, 2016

King's Survey: Compromised Situation


In which we see a nation and a political, and moral, crossroads

—What about it?
It’s the inescapable subject of American history, Sadie. There are so many things to talk about, not all of which relate directly to slavery. But sooner or later we’re always led back to it. It’s always part of the story.
—And where in the story are we?
Well, we’re in 1819, Emily. By this point the nature of American slavery had really changed since the Constitution had been ratified thirty years earlier. You’ll remember that it was a contentious issue. But the Founding Fathers expected it to die out. Then, in the 1790s there was a technology game-changer: Connecticut inventor Eli Whitney unveiled his Cotton Engine, or Cotton gin. Before the cotton gin came along, it had been very tedious and difficult to remove the seeds from cotton, making it an impractical as a crop. But now, suddenly, it’s something like ten times easier to harvest cotton in such a way that it can be turned into cloth. And the appetite for it is insatiable. That’s especially true in England, where the Industrial Revolution has gotten underway and textile factories are at the core of it.
Even with this new invention, cotton remains a very labor-intensive crop. Now, suddenly, the demands for cheap labor becomes extremely insistent. In places like England (and increasingly, in the Northern states), low-paid factory work becomes widespread. In the South, though the new cotton economy greatly enhances the value and demand for slavery. This is especially true because the new western lands that are opening upAlabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, western Tennesseehave rich soil that can sustain cotton (though cotton also has a way of wearing out soil). The heart of this region, by the way, is known collectively as the Mississippi Delta: another way in which rivers are central to the fate of American civilization.
After bottoming out in the 1790s, slavery begins growing again in the early nineteenth century. Even places not part of the new boom, like Virginia, are benefiting by exporting their slaves to these new slave states. Now we’re beginning to see massive new plantations, worked by hundreds of slaves. There were never all that many of themonly one quarter of Southern white families owned slaves at all, and only about 2% of slave owners fell into the plantation categorybut they were prominent in terms of their visibility and influence.
Which bring us back to the source of that big river, Missouri. Look at this map. Where is Missouri?
—Well, it looks like it’s pretty much in the middle.
Right. But what’s around it in 1819, which is were we are now?
—Well, there’s Illinois—
Right, Jonah, which became a state in 1818
—And Tennessee. And it looks like a little piece of Kentucky. And some territory that isn’t anything yet.
Yes. Below it is Arkansas, which will become a state in 1836. Above it is Iowa, which came into the Union in 1846. To the left, or west of it is the Kansas-Nebraska territory, about which we’ll have a lot more to say later. But tell me, Jonah, are Kentucky and Tennessee slave states or free states?
—Slave states?
Right. And Illinois?
—A free state?
Yes, though there are transit laws in Illinois that allow slaveholders to keep their “property” for up to a year there. So based on what you just told me, do you think Missouri, which as applied for admission to the Union, should be a slave state or a free state?
—Well, I don’t think any state should be a slave state.
No. I mean as a matter of geography: would you think Missouri would logically be slave territory or free territory?
—I can’t really tell.
Good answer. In fact, Missouri, whose eastern border is marked by the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, could really go either way. It not a cotton powerhouse like Mississippi, which entered the Union in 1817, or Alabama, which does so in 1819. But you can profitably deploy slaves there in way that would harder than it would, in, say, Vermont (remember that most slaves in New England were typically individual household servants, not farm workers). I think we can say that slavery is a workable proposition from an economic standpoint. I think we can also say that it’s not a workable proposition from a moral standpoint, though, alas, morality is not as often a basis of action as we might like. My question to you at the moment is this: is slavery workable from a political standpoint?
—This is another one of your hard questions, Mr. K. How are we supposed to know?
What do you want to know, Sadie? What would help you figure this out?
—I’m not sure. Here’s a question: How many free states and slave states are there now?
At this point, there are eleven free states and ten slave states. Why do you ask? Have I just given you an argument for Missouri to come in as a slave state?
—You know, you’re making me think that was a bad question. We shouldn’t be thinking this way.
Well, again, Sadie: we shouldn’t be thinking in these terms morally. But should we not be thinking of them politically?
—I think Sadie’s right. The conversation should be about ending slavery entirely. That’s what would really be best for the country.
Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Representative James Tallmadge of New York.
—That’s funny. He looks like Brianna to me.
Yeah, well, appearances can be deceiving. Representative Tallmadge has just introduced a bill into the House that would ban slavery from Missouri. Do we all support it? Looks like we do. The idea has gotten extra support from Senator Rufus King of New York, a signer of the Constitution, who has told us that he sees no reason why this can’t be done legally.
—That’s funny. He looks like Chris to me.
—Just call me King, guys. Senator King.
Yeah, well, appearances can be deceiving. Here’s the problem: Southerners in Congress are militantly against the idea. They get strong support from former president Thomas Jefferson, who calls the controversy “a firebell in the night” and counsels the slaveholding states to hold firm.
—They’re always doing this.
Are you saying we should call their bluff, Sadie? Are you prepared to let the Union break up over it?
You know, we’ve been here before. Back in 1790, a group of Quakers brought a petition before Congress to end slavery. Benjamin Franklin, at the very end of his life, supported the idea as president of the President of the Abolitionist Society. But James Madison, who was Speaker of the House, managed to sweep the measure under the rug, in part because he was afraid the country was too fragile for such a debate so soon after the struggle to adopt the Constitution, which had almost fallen apart over slavery. Given that you all know there was a Civil War, do you think we would have been better off had we had it out back then?
—No way.
You first, BriI mean Representative Tallmadge.
—It was always wrong. And the longer you wait the worse it is. Look at the Civil War. That was a disaster.
—The country was just too fragile. Slavery was wrong, was terrible. But you act too hard and too fast and you wreck everything.
—Look at the wreck that happened because you didn’t do anything!
Adam, Benjamin Franklin thought the country could handle it. Doesn’t that count for something?
—How old was Franklin at that point?
He was about 84 years old. What does that have to do anything?
—Well, he was not really that active at that point, was he? James Madison was really running things then.
—Didn’t Madison own slaves?
Yes, he did, Brianna/Tallmadge.
—So of course he wants to prevent anything from happening!
Adam: let me ask you this: If we assume for the moment that Madison was right, and the country couldn’t handle it in 1790, what about thirty years later? Was the country strong enough for a showdown in 1820?
—That’s really hard to say.
It is. We of course can’t test out that scenario. And it was at least as hard a call for people at the time, too. It’s the kind of situation people have to grapple with often: do we have it out now? Do we wait? There are no clear-cut answers.
—So what ended up happening?
The man of the hour turned out to be Henry Clay, about whom I’m going to have more to say in the coming days. Clay was the Speaker of the House in 1819-20. He crafts a proposal that works like this: We bring Missouri in as a slave state. Then we break off Maine, which has long been an appendage of Massachusetts, and bring it in as a free state in the name of balance. Then we draw a line that begins at the southern border of Missourito be known as the 36°30′ line, referring to its latitude. Territories that come into the Union below that line (Arkansas, 1836) will be slave states, while those above it (Michigan, 1837) will be free states. As you can see, Missouri juts pretty far North. But most of the states that come in after this, among them Wisconsin and Iowa, will be free states. Crisis averted?
—More like crisis postponed.
But maybe Clay bought time, Sadie? We know a war came. But maybe better leadership later might have brought about a better outcome?
—I don’t think so. In any event, look what happened: now slavery is in more areas than it was before. It’s more legal. How is that a good thing?
Hard to argue with that rhetorical question. What I will observe, though, is that there was a widespread sense of relief as a result of the deal, which has been known both as the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1820. There was anger, resentment, and sorrow among African Americans and their supporters. But most people were glad to focus on something elseanything else.
We’re going to shift our gaze, too. But we can never get too far away from this. It haunts us. Always.
Next: Hard as Hickory

Friday, October 21, 2016

King's Survey: THE Ditch

In which we see how New York dug itself into global pre-eminence

Erie Canal
Erie Canal at Brockport, New York. Buildings date from the 1850s.

I have a question for you, Paolo.
—OK, Mr. K.
What’s a ditch?
—A hole in the ground. For water.
Good. Do you know the name of a really long and wide ditch? Big enough for boats?
—I dunno.
Fair enough. Anyone? What’s another name for a really big ditch?
Excellent, Sadie. A canal.
Behold, my friends, the Hudson River. As you can see, it’s not an especially long one. But the Hudson was important because it connected two the key cities of New York and Albany (and kept going North from there, which is one reason why it was actually known at this time as the North River, and also why it was of such strategic importance during the French and Indian War as well as the Revolution). Now there is a tributary, a river that connects to the Hudson at Albany. It’s known as the Mohawk River, because it ran through territory that had been controlled by that tribe of the Iroquois Confederation. The Mohawk runs west from Albany, but at this point, it was difficult for boats of any size to get very far. But what if we were to widen the Mohawk and stretch it by making a canal that ran straight across to Lake Erie? Wouldn’t that be cool?
—Yeah, it would.
—As long as I didn't have to do it.
Yes, Chris, a big job. And it’s more complicated than I’m making it sound, because you would need not only a canal, but a system of mechanisms known as locks to regulate the flow of water. So there’s some technology involved as well as the brute force of digging a huge ditch. But so what? We can do this! And when you consider these newfangled boats developed by this guy named Robert Fultonthey use steam, not wind, to power them really fastthis canal idea is really exciting, don’t ya think?
—Sounds like a lot of money.
—Em’s right. Seems like a nightmare
Oh, c’mon kids! Don’t be such naysayers! This is a good idea! A really, really good idea! As for who will dig the ditches, that won’t be a problem. We’ll get Negroes. Even if we have to pay ’em, they shouldn’t cost much.
Do you have to pay them?
Probably. Slavery is still legal in New York circa 1820, but it’s being phased out based on when you were born. But that’s all right. Their labor is cheap. Also, there’s been a lot of people from Ireland coming over lately. A disagreeable lot, I will admit: they smell, they drink, they reproduce like rabbits. But they’re desperate for work. They don’t get along with the Negroes too well, though interesting things happen when they sing and dance together in their spare time. Jigs and such. A Celtic-African hybrid culture.
—OK, Mr. Racist. But where is the money going to come from? Sounds like a good idea. But who’s going to pay for it?
Well, kids, who do you think should?
—The government?
You mean the federal government, Kylie? That sounds sensible to me. I mean, something like this would be great for the national economy. Unfortunately, the presidential administration of James Monroe in Washington wants nothing to do with this. They say it’s a local project. And too much money. Too many opportunities for corruption. It’s not just the president. Many members of Congress won’t go along with it, either.
—Could the state government pay for it?
A good question, Adam. The governor of New York is DeWitt Clinton. He was vice president under Jefferson, and he’s crazy about this idea. He’s pushing for it, hard. And he’s got some money authorized for it. But not enough. So he goes to investors and asks them to put some money into the project, too. And so it is that between 1817 and 1825 the Erie Canal gets built, to be paid for with fees on those who use the canals, some of which will pay back the investors at a profit. But before we go further with that, let me ask: was this a good way to get the project done?
—Does it matter?
Maybe not, Em. But maybe big infrastructure projects like this should belong to the people and not undertaken for profit. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad it got built. But I wonder if this should be a model for the future.
—I agree with Mr. K. Government shouldn’t just go to the highest bidder.
—Maybe you’re right, Adam. But like I said: how much does it matter? The important thing is that the canal got built. You could say you wish America was communist or socialist or whatever. But that’s just not how we do things. I live near a park. At the park entrance there’s as sign from the law company that pays for the garden or the cleanup or whatever. If they’re willing to do that, more power to ’em.
—Yeah, but you don’t know how long they’re going to do that. And you also don’t know what their motives are. Maybe they rip off people and they use this park thing as a way to detract from what they do wrong.
—So you would rather have a worse park because of what a company might be guilty of?
—I think we’d be better of if we taxes ourselves to pay for our parks.
—Would you pay higher taxes for my park?
—That’s the whole idea behind taxes. We all pay for everything, even if we only use some things.
—I get it, Adam. I do. I just think that if it’s the difference between getting a park or a canal or whatever and not getting those things, I’m not going to worry too much about how it gets done.
Anybody else want to weigh in on this good exchange? No?
Let’s move on, then. Without rejecting Adam’s argument, let’s take Emily’s fork in the road and emphasize that the project did get done. And its impact was immense. The Erie Canal was a turning point in the history of New York City. After the canal’s 363-mile completion in 1825, New York was now the nexus between Europe and the North American interior, and became the largest city in the United States, a position of preeminence from which it never looked back. But it wasn’t just the city that was transformed. Upstate New York, a rich agricultural region, also established a foundation for future industrial growth in cities like Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester. With the Great Lakes as a conduit feeding into the Erie Canal, it became possible to move massive quantities of goods from the whole Midwest, which also transformed that whole region.   It became the nexus between Europe and the American interior, with the Great Lakes as the aquatic bridge that connected the Midwest to the Northeast.
There are a number of morals to this story, kids. One is that geography, and ecology are very important, but that they aren’t everything. Human ingenuity, in the form of a will to get a job done, was important. So was technological innovation in the form of locks and steamships, which greatly amplified the impact of digging a ditch. There was another amplification as well: beginning in the 1830s you start to get a truly revolutionary technological innovation in the form of railroads. Railroads snap the tether that binds cities to water. Chicago will ultimately become the great metropolis of the American interior, and that will be because it becomes a gigantic railroad basin the way the Mississippi River is an aquatic basin. But it wouldn’t have become that great railroad basin without those initial links to the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal.
—You sound so excited Mr. K.
Well, I am kinda excited, Em. There is something wonderfulI mean that in the most literal sense, that I am filled with a sense of wonderabout the huge transformations, the gigantic shifting plates, that are beginning to snap into place in the United States as it heads into its adolescence. But since you’ve brought me to my senses, I guess I better pause here to note that not everything is so wonderful. There are problems, and threats, on the horizon. And technology, a source of great hope and excitement in some respects, can be deeply troubling in others.
—What was the problem?
What do you think? What’s the nation’s biggest problem? What’s always been its biggest problem?
Next: Compromising situations

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

King's Survey: Wet Highways

In which we see that history is really geography

OK kids, so here’s the deal: Until about 200 years agowhich is to say for thousands of years of Native American life, and a couple centuries of Euro American liferivers were the highways of this continent, the easiest way to move around. Jonquil, I’ve got a map on the Smart Board of North American rivers. Tell me anything that strikes you.
—What strikes me?
Yes. What do you find interesting?
—Well, it looks like there’s a lot of them.
Indeed there are. And these are only the major ones. Any that strike you as particularly interesting?
—The Missouri River looks pretty big. It covers a lot of ground. It’s up there in Montana, maybe Idaho, and it goes all the way down to … duh. Missouri.
It’s hard to see its origin amid the cluster of other rivers, like the Illinois and the Wabash. The Missouri River is big. When Lewis and Clark undertook their big mission to explore the Louisiana Purchase in 1806, they took a team of forty travelers and traced the path of the Missouri. Anything else that strikes you?
—Well, there are a lot of big ones. The Platte River, the Arkansas River, the Red River, the Brazos River. I hadn’t really heard of them.
—There’s the Rio Grande down in Texas. It seems well-named.
Indeed it does, Ethan. The Rio Grande is also notably wide in some places. It forms the border between Texas and Mexico. Which appears to make sense. But as we’ll see, that border wasn’t necessarily obvious. There were those who thought it should be the Brazos River.
—That’s a big difference in terms of how big Texas turned out.
—One of the things that really surprises me is that the rivers you hear a lot about, like the Hudson and the Potomac, don’t seem like much of a big deal. They seem really small and short.
Yeah, but remember, Em, that those rivers are along the Atlantic. New York and Washington are coastal cities.
—Is Washington really a coastal city? I’ve been there a couple times and don’t remember seeing the ocean.
Well, there’s Chesapeake Bay. Which is an economic as well as an environmental ecosystem. There was some effort in the 19th century to connect the Chesapeake with the Ohio River. You can see that the Ohio is pretty significant. It empties into the Mississippi. Look more closely: you’ll see a lot of rivers empty into the Mississippi. It’s like the drain of North America. There are no cities on this map, but can any of you tell me which city sits at the mouth of the Mississippi?
—New Orleans?
Good, Jonquil. New Orleans, Louisiana. It stands to reason that a city in that location would be pretty important, right?
—Well, they did call it the Louisiana Purchase, right?
Exactly so. They didn’t call it the New Orleans Purchase, though.
—Yeah, but Louisiana was like a whole region, no? New Orleans was just a single city. It must have been important.
It was important. It is important. We know that among other things, New Orleans is a multi-racial, multilingual entrepôt.
—What’s an entrepôt?
What does it sound like Kylie?
—I take French. “Entre” means between.
Right. Between what?
—Cities? Ports?
Good. New Orleans was, and is, a major international port. Let me ask you something. Is it the biggest?
—You mean now?
Yes. And two hundred years ago? Was there ever a time you know of when it was?
—In the United States, you mean?
Yes. But you can also see that New Orleans occupies a strategic place in the Americas generally.
—Gonna take a wild guess here, Mr. K., and say the answer is no.
Well, aren’t you a lucky one, Kylie.
—Yeah, well, no one’s luckier than me that way, Mr. K. I’ve got a 50% success rate.
I suppose not, Em. New Orleans was never the biggest. But don’t you think it should’ve been? It sits at the end of the basin into which all these rivers run, and it sits roughly in the middle of the continent. Once the United States made the Louisiana Purchase and the nation controlled most of the territory on the continent, shouldn’t it have become the biggest? The terminal of the biggest superhighway in North America? The Mississippi?
—Not necessarily. You’ve been saying all along that England is where all the trade is. Facing the Atlantic is more important than facing the Gulf of Mexico.
That’s a fair point, Adam. And when you look at the cities that at some point were the largestBoston, Charleston, Baltimore, Philadelphiathey all did face the Atlantic in some form. But the country is changing now. And if people like Thomas Jefferson get their wayand we know that the Jeffersonian crowd is now running the countrydon’t you think there should be more effort to develop the interior? I still don’t get why New Orleans isn’t more valuable.
—Maybe it has something to do with slavery?
A good question, Yin. But if anything, slavery is a reason for a port to grow. The international slave trade, which once made cities like Newport (which, you’ll note is in Rhode Island, not a slave state) legally ended in 1808. But the cotton business is huge: England has an insatiable appetite for American cotton, and a lot of it is indeed headed out from New Orleans. And yet even much of that trade will ultimately end up going North. Why? What’s wrong with New Orleans?
—Who says anything is wrong with New Orleans? Look at Chicago. It sits right there on one of the Great Lakes. It’s also in the interior. Why aren’t you talking about that?
Well, now, Adam, it’s funny that you should bring that up. You’re right: Chicago is near water. The Chicago River runs right through the middle of the city and connects it to Lake Michigan. Of course, right nowwe’re like in the 1810s nowChicago doesn’t exist. When it is founded, in 1833, it’s a tiny village next to the much bigger town of Galena. Eventually, Chicago will become important, and its proximity to water will be a big part of the reason why. And I’m going to get to that. But first let me note that we’ve been having a little argument here. I keep telling you that these interior cities have great potential, and you keep telling me that the Atlantic seaboard is more important. Fine: I’ll concede that point. But let me ask you this: Wouldn’t it be great if there was a port city that could do both: connect the Atlantic and the interior? Wouldn’t that be cool?
—Is there a river that does that?
—So then why are you asking?
Why do you think?
—I have no idea.
But you’re curious, right?
—I guess.
Next: New York ditch

Monday, October 17, 2016

King's Survey: The Dumbest War

In which we see a foolish war, and its less foolish legacy.

John Archibald Woodside, "We Owe No Allegiance to No Crown" (1814)

England and France are at it again, kids. It’s been going on, more or less continuously, for almost twenty years now.
—When are we?
We’re in 1807, Jonah. Well into Thomas Jefferson’s second term.
—So easy to lose track of time.
When you’re having fun.
—Yeah, sure.
So it’s 1807, England and France are still fighting, and President Jefferson thinks he has a solution for the United States. Rather than take sides, or worry about getting caught in the middle, the United States should simply opt out. He backs the passage of the Embargo Act, which prohibits trade with England and France. Jefferson likes this law because it serves his domestic agenda as well: he wants the United States to be more self-sufficient. Developing internal trade is good economics as far as he’s concerned.
—Sounds reasonable. Does it work?
What Jefferson doesn’t quite getor maybe what he doesn’t quite care aboutis that shutting down trade is terrible for the New England economy. The United States is still in effect a British colony when it comes to pretty much any kind of manufactured good, and that’s not something that can be changed by a law. The region goes into a severe depression. New Englanders flout the Embargo Act, especially in terms of trade with Canada, which make the Jefferson administration mad but unable to do much about it.
Jefferson finishes his second term in 1809. His chosen successor is James Madison, who wins easily, notwithstanding the lack of votes he gets in New England. Madison, of course, has long been the architect of Jeffersonianismhe’s been the one to frame and implement Jefferson’s ideasso his administration is one of continuity more than change. But that means dealing with a lot of the same problems, notably how do to deal with the ongoing problem of the Orders in Council, that British habit of pulling over American ships and forcing sailors to join the British navy. By this point, there are some new faces on the scene, like Representative John Calhoun of South Carolina, and Representative Henry Clay of Kentucky, who are pushing for a hard line with the British. They’re known as War Hawks.
The Madison administration stumbles along with this issue until 1812 (the year Madison is up for re-election, which he secures, on pretty much the same terms that had prevailed in 1800, 1804, and 1808), when the United States declares war on Great Britain. I call the War of 1812. The dumbest war in American history.
I say so for a couple reasons, and the first is this: Britain had just agreed to stop the impressment (as it was known) of Americans, but the news didn’t reach Congress before the war broke out. So the two sides went to war even though the reason they went to war was no longer happening.
—You don’t hear much about the War of 1812. What happened with it?
Well, it was kind of a mess. The British were distracted by the ongoing fallout from the French Revolution, which had moved into a climactic phase: 1812 was the year Napoleon invaded Russia. The United States thought it could take advantage of this by invading Canada, a campaign that went poorly. Americans never understood that Canadians were just not interested in joining the United States. There was also a lot of naval warfare on the Great Lakes, which went relatively well. But overall, the first half of the war was pretty much a draw.
But then the situation abroad changed. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was a disaster. He wrecked the French army, which was driven back to Paris. Napoleon himself was driven into exile. Now the Brits could really focus their attention on the United States. An invasion force was dispatched to Washington, and it wrecked the city (the White House was set on fire, and President Madison had to flee). The Americans managed to defend Baltimore, an event memorialized in the Star Spangled Banner, a set of lyrics written by Francis Scott Key that was set to a saloon song.
—Wow. That sounds pretty bad. How come we didn’t lose?
Here’s the thing: by 1814, Great Britain had been at war almost continuously for 25 years. The British public was exhausted. So the government decided to open negotiations with the Americans in the Belgian city of Ghent. There a deal was cut where the Brits agreed to do what they had already agreed to do: stop with the impressment of U.S. sailors. Which they didn’t need to do any more anyway. (Napoleon came back once more, and was defeated once more, at the Battle of Waterloo. But that happened later.) And so, in December of 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed.
Which brings us to one more dumb aspect of the War of 1812.
Yes, Adam?
—Were there many people who fought in the Revolution who fought in the War of 1812?
Not many. The two wars were almost 40 years apart, after all. But I can think of one person who was involved in both. He was a child when the Revolution happened. He saw his brother killed, and his mother died taking care of American soldiers on a prison ship. He himself was caught by the Brits, and when a British soldier told him to polish his boots, the kid in effect told him to you-know-what himself, he got slashed in the face with a scar he had for the rest of his life.
Now, in January of 1815, the kid has become an American general. He’s assembled a multiracial forcered, white, and blackto face a British invasion of New Orleans. None of these people has gotten word of the treaty, so the British proceed with the attack. And they are utterly crushed by the Americans. One of the greatest military victories in the nation’s history.
—What a waste.
Yeah, Sadie, it was, like I’ve been saying, kind of dumb. But it wasn’t necessarily a waste. Had the Americans lost, it’s easy to believe that the British would have tried to renegotiate the treaty. In any event, the Battle of New Orleans was a tremendous morale boost for the United States. It inaugurated a period known as the Era of Good Feelings, that would last for the rest of the decade. And it made that general, a man named Andrew Jackson, a force to be reckoned with in years to come.
The Battle of New Orleans was important for another reason as well. It really marked the end of this period I’m talking about when the United States was buffeted by stronger powers. From this point on, it would be more and more in control of its destiny. A new era was dawning.
—And another class is ending.
Go forth, young Americans.
Next: The Transportation Revolution