This Land Is Ours. We Stole It Fair and Square.

Texas was part of Mexico until American newcomers decided to make it their own country. Whether the new Republic of Texas would join the Union and whether it would be a slave state were much-debated issues until 1845 when Congress agreed to admit Texas as the 18th state. We’d soon be at war with Mexico. (American politics hasn’t totally changed since 1845, although the Democrats eventually switched sides and became less warlike.)

From “Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster” by H. W. Brands:

Four months [after Texas joined the Union], James Polk made prophets of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster by commencing a war with Mexico. Polk’s war was a land grab wrapped in self-defense. Texas entered the Union with its southern boundary in dispute. The United States claimed the Rio Grande as the border; Mexico claimed the Rio Nueces, more than a hundred miles to the north. Mexico nominally claimed the rest of Texas as well, never having acknowledged the loss of its rebellious province. But though it responded to the American annexation of Texas by severing relations with the United States, it took no military action to challenge the new regime on its northern frontier. This frustrated Polk.

The president’s expansionist appetite grew with the eating; not content with depriving Mexico of Texas, Polk coveted California as well. He attempted to purchase California, but the Mexican government rebuffed him. Polk then sought a pretext for declaring war on Mexico. He sent troops to the disputed strip between the rivers, hoping to goad the Mexicans to attack.

Weeks went by and the Mexicans refused to take the bait. Polk, more vexed than ever, prepared a war message for Congress, in which he blamed the Mexicans for insults and injuries against American honor and interests. It was a flimsy document, as Polk himself recognized, but he was determined to have California and its Pacific harbors, by whatever means necessary.

Then, just as he was about to transmit his message to Congress, he received news that Mexican troops had finally engaged the Americans. “After reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil,” Polk told Congress. “War exists, and notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico itself.” For emphasis the president added, “The two nations are now at war.”

John Calhoun begged to differ. Polk wanted Congress simply to endorse his assertion that war existed and give him authority to prosecute it. Calhoun wasn’t going to be stampeded into anything. “The question now submitted to us is one of the gravest character, and the importance of the consequences which may result from it we cannot now determine,” he told the Senate. “The president has announced that there is war; but according to my interpretation, there is no war according to the sense of our Constitution.”

Calhoun didn’t challenge Polk’s account of the attack on American forces. Nor did he question Polk’s authority to resist and repel such attacks. But he distinguished hostilities from war. “It is our sacred duty to make war,” he told his fellow senators, “and it is for us to determine whether war shall be declared. If we have declared war, a state of war exists, and not till then.”

Calhoun succeeded in slowing the rush to war, but not by much. Congress debated the president’s request, with most of the negative comments coming from the Whigs [Polk, like Andrew Jackson, was a Democrat].

Some asked whether Polk had done all he could to avoid armed conflict; their strong implication was that he had not. A few went so far as to charge Polk with provoking the war. “This war was begun by the president,” Garrett Davis, a Kentucky Whig, told the House. Some inquired whether the Mexican attack, if it indeed had occurred as the president said, had been authorized by the Mexican government. Still others rejected Polk’s assertion that the soil on which the blood had been shed was American. Some said flatly that it was Mexican; others remarked that ownership was still in dispute.

But Polk knew the American political mind better than the dissenters did. He understood that the shedding of American blood—under whatever circumstances—created an irresistible impulse toward war. A negative vote could be characterized as an unpatriotic vote, and no lawmaker lightly risked that. The few surviving former Federalists remembered how their party had wrecked on its opposition to the War of 1812. In the end scarcely a dozen Whigs refused the president’s request. John Calhoun haughtily abstained.

Unquote.

Ulysses S. Grant fought in the Mexican War as a young lieutenant. Years later, he called it “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation”.

Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and Today

Having heretofore avoided reading a book about Reconstruction, one of the worst periods in American history, I decided to read a book about Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, two of the worst periods in American history (on the theory that reading a book about Reconstruction and something else would dilute the nevertheless disturbing account of Reconstruction).

The book was The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865 – 1896, by Stanford University historian Richard White. It’s one of nine volumes in the Oxford History of the United States. It’s got 872 pages of text and weighs 3 1/2 pounds.

It wasn’t what you’d call a “fun read”. This is part of the publisher’s summary:

At the end of the Civil War the leaders and citizens of the victorious North envisioned the country’s future as a free-labor republic, with a homogenous citizenry, both black and white. The South and West were to be reconstructed in the image of the North. Thirty years later Americans occupied an unimagined world. The unity that the Civil War supposedly secured had proved ephemeral. The country was larger, richer, and more extensive, but also more diverse. Life spans were shorter, and physical well-being had diminished, due to disease and hazardous working conditions. Independent producers had become wage earners. The country was Catholic and Jewish as well as Protestant, and increasingly urban and industrial. The “dangerous” classes of the very rich and poor expanded, and deep differences — ethnic, racial, religious, economic, and political — divided society. The corruption that gave the Gilded Age its name was pervasive.

One thing that summary leaves out is that the period also included “taming the West”, more appropriately described as inflicting cultural devastation and mass murder on the American Indians. It also leaves out the horrors inflicted on former slaves (and some of their white supporters) in the South, the stunningly successful effort to undo the results of the Civil War using a biased legal system and more mass murder (there were places in states like Alabama and Mississippi where maybe 1% of black citizens cast ballots).

Two of the big political issues of this period were tariffs (what taxes should be applied to imports) and money (whether it should be based on gold or silver). Corruption in government, recurring financial panics and the economics of farming were also major concerns. But in some ways, American politics looked a lot like today, with inequality, the power of big business and limits on immigration being major issues. 

These two illustrations show something else that hasn’t changed. The first shows the presidential election of 1896; the second shows the one we had last year. 

1896_large 2020_large

The big difference between the two maps, of course, is that between 1896 and 2020 the two parties switched sides. Partly because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Southern racists became Republicans (not what you’d expect from the Party of Lincoln) and Northern and west coast liberals became Democrats.

Can Biden Finally Get Us Past Reagan?

God, I hope so. According to one view of American history, Joe Biden could be extremely important. He could be our first truly “post-Reagan” president. From Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times:

During Donald Trump’s presidency, I sometimes took comfort in the Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek’s concept of “political time.”

In Skowronek’s formulation, presidential history moves in 40- to 60-year cycles, or “regimes.” Each is inaugurated by transformative, “reconstructive” leaders who define the boundaries of political possibility for their successors.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was such a figure. For decades following his presidency, Republicans and Democrats alike accepted many of the basic assumptions of the New Deal. Ronald Reagan was another. After him, even Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama feared deficit spending, inflation and anything that smacked of “big government.”

I found Skowronek’s schema reassuring because of where Txxxx seemed to fit into it. Skowronek thought Txxxx was a “late regime affiliate” — a category that includes Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover. Such figures, he’s written, are outsiders from the party of a dominant but decrepit regime.

They use the “internal disarray and festering weakness of the establishment” to “seize the initiative.” Promising to save a faltering political order, they end up imploding and bringing the old regime down with them. No such leader, he wrote, has ever been re-elected.

During Txxxx’s reign, Skowronek’s ideas gained some popular currency, offering a way to make sense of a presidency that seemed anomalous and bizarre. “We are still in the middle of Txxxx’s rendition of the type,” he wrote in an updated edition of his book “Presidential Leadership in Political Time,” “but we have seen this movie before, and it has always ended the same way.”

Skowronek doesn’t present his theory as a skeleton key to history. It’s a way of understanding historical dynamics, not predicting the future. Still, if Txxxx represented the last gasps of Reaganism instead of the birth of something new, then after him, Skowronek suggests, a fresh regime could begin.

When Joe Biden became the Democratic nominee, it seemed that the coming of a new era had been delayed. Reconstructive leaders, in Skowronek’s formulation, repudiate the doctrines of an establishment that no longer has answers for the existential challenges the country faces. Biden, Skowronek told me, is “a guy who’s made his way up through establishment Democratic politics.” Nothing about him seemed trailblazing.

Yet as Biden’s administration begins, there are signs that a new politics is coalescing. When, in his inauguration speech, Biden touted “unity,” he framed it as a national rejection of the dark forces unleashed by his discredited predecessor, not stale Gang of Eight bipartisanship. He takes power at a time when what was once conventional wisdom about deficits, inflation and the proper size of government has fallen apart. That means Biden, who has been in national office since before Reagan’s presidency, has the potential to be our first truly post-Reagan president.

“Biden has a huge opportunity to finally get our nation past the Reagan narrative that has still lingered,” said Representative Ro Khanna, who was a national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. “And the opportunity is to show that government, by getting the shots in every person’s arm of the vaccines, and building infrastructure, and helping working families, is going to be a force for good.”

A number of the officials Biden has selected — like Rohit Chopra for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Gary Gensler for the Securities and Exchange Commission and Bharat Ramamurti for the National Economic Council — would have fit easily into an Elizabeth Warren administration. Biden has signed executive orders increasing food stamp benefits, took steps to institute a $15-an-hour minimum wage for federal employees and contractors, and announced plans to replace the federal fleet with electric vehicles. His administration is working on a child tax credit that would send monthly payments to most American parents.

Skowronek told me he’s grown more hopeful about Biden just in the last few weeks: “The old Reagan formulas have lost their purchase, there is new urgency in the moment, and the president has an insurgent left at his back.”

This is the second Democratic administration in a row to inherit a country wrecked by its predecessor. But Biden’s plans to take on the coronavirus pandemic and the attendant economic disaster have been a departure from Obama’s approach to the 2008 financial crisis. The difference isn’t just in the scale of the emergencies, but in the politics guiding the administrations’ responses.

In “A Promised Land,” the first volume of his presidential memoir, Obama described a meeting just before he took office, when the economic data looked increasingly bleak. After an aide proposed a trillion-dollar rescue package, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, began “to sputter like a cartoon character spitting out a bad meal.” Emanuel, according to Obama, said the figure would be a nonstarter with many Democrats, never mind Republicans. In Obama’s telling, Biden, then vice president, nodded his head in agreement.

Now Emanuel, hated by progressives, has been frozen out of Biden’s administration, and the new president has come out of the gate with a $1.9 trillion proposal. In addition to $1,400 checks to most Americans and an increase in federal unemployment aid to $400 a week, it includes a national $15-an-hour minimum wage, something dismissed as utopian when Bernie Sanders ran on it in 2016.

What has changed is not just the politics but the economic consensus. Recently I spoke to Jared Bernstein, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers . . .  When Biden was vice president, Bernstein was his chief economic adviser, and he said the meetings he’s in now are very different from those he was in during the last economic crisis.

Back then, Bernstein said, there was a widespread fear that too much government borrowing would crowd out private borrowing, raising interest rates. That thinking, he said, has changed. As Biden told reporters this month, “Every major economist thinks we should be investing in deficit spending in order to generate economic growth.”

It’s not just that the Democratic Party has moved left — the old Reaganite consensus in the Republican Party has collapsed. There’s nothing new about Republicans ignoring deficits — deficits almost never matter to Republicans when they’re in power. What is new is the forthright rejection of laissez-faire economics among populist nationalists like Senator Hawley of Missouri, who joined with Sanders to demand higher stimulus payments to individuals in the last round of Covid relief.

That doesn’t mean we should be optimistic about people like Hawley, who wouldn’t even admit that Biden won the election, helping the new administration pass important legislation. But Republicans are going to have an increasingly difficult time making a coherent case against economic mercy for the beleaguered populace.

“This idea that the inflation hawks will come back — I just think they’re living in an era that has disappeared,” Elizabeth Warren told me.

However popular it is, Biden’s agenda will be possible only if Democrats find a way to legislate in the face of Republican nihilism. They’ll have to either convince moderates to finally jettison the filibuster, or pass economic legislation through reconciliation, a process that requires only a majority vote. Where Congress is stalemated, Biden will have to make aggressive use of executive orders and other types of administrative action. But he has at least the potential to be the grandfather of a more socially democratic America.

A moderate president, says Skowronek, can also be a transformative one. “It’s a mistake to think that moderation is a weakness in the politics of reconstruction,” he said, noting that both Abraham Lincoln and Roosevelt were “viciously” attacked from the left. “Moderation can stand as an asset if it’s firmly grounded in a repudiation of the manifest failure and bankruptcy of the old order. In that sense, moderation is not a compromise or a middle ground. It’s the establishment of a new common sense.”

There is, of course, no guarantee that Biden will fully rise to the moment. Skowronek has always expected that eventually American politics will change so much that the patterns he identified will no longer apply. “All I can say is that so many of the elements, the constellation of elements that you would associate with a pivot point, are in place,” he said. In this national nadir, we can only hope that history repeats itself.

The American Project

You’ve probably heard of the “1619 Project”, even if you’ve never read it. I have a subscription to The New York Times but avoid the weekly magazine section. That’s where a series of articles was published last year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first Black slaves being brought to Virginia in August 1619. The Project’s other purpose was to show the many ways slavery has affected this country up to the present day.

The 1619 Project has been celebrated and criticized and used by Republicans for their usual nefarious purposes. The Washington Post has an interesting article called “How the 1619 Project Took Over 2020”. The title is an exaggeration but the article nicely summarizes how a series in the Times Sunday magazine became a big deal.

Americans, being citizens of a forward-looking country, are relatively ignorant of our history, so any significant effort to inform us about our nation’s proud but checkered past, like the 1619 Project, is a positive development. 

What went wrong in this case is that the Times writer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who initiated the project and won a Pulitzer Price for her efforts, wrote this:

One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” [at a time when] “Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution.

A well-known Princeton historian, Sean Wilentz, strongly objected to this characterization. From the Washington Post article: 

This, Wilentz argues, is patently false: Other than a few lonely voices, England remained committed to the slave trade in 1776. The abolitionist movement didn’t take hold in London for more than a decade — and then it was inspired by anti-slavery opinions emerging from America.

Professor Wilentz and three other historians wrote a letter to the Times and the controversy took off from there, exacerbated as usual by right-wingers, including, of course, our Controversialist-In-Chief. The controversy could probably have been short-circuited early on except for the actions of an egotistical Times editor, who overreacted to the historians’ letter, viewing it as an attack on the entire project instead of acknowledging the error. (Egotism and refusal to admit error are defining characteristics of Times editors.)

The Times has a statement saying “the 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine . . . [that] aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative”. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of those consequences and contributions. I remember reading Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice in college and being shocked when he said the relationship between Black and White Americans was central to this country’s history. The more I’ve learned about America, the more I’ve agreed with him. (I wish I could find his exact words. Is it predictable that there is no Kindle edition of Soul On Ice?). 

Yet the language that upset the historians, including the statement that “we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not . . . believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue” remains. That’s odd for what the Times says is “an ongoing initiative” (see “egotism and refusal to admit error”).  Meanwhile, Republicans claim Democrats all believe the United States began in 1619, not 1776.

Reading about the 1619 Project today got me thinking about America’s founding. That led me to a site run by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, “an educational agency of the Commonwealth of Virginia”. Although Spanish explorers founded our longest lasting city, St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, it’s generally agreed that the arrival of the English in Virginia’s Jamestown marked the beginning of what became the United States. Here’s some of the chronology from the Jamestown-Yorktown site:

1570-1  Spanish Jesuits set up a mission on the York River . . . Within six months, the Spaniards were killed by local Indians.

1585-7  Three separate voyages sent English explorers and settlers to the coast of what is now North Carolina, then known as Virginia. John White, who . . . had gone back to England for supplies, returned in 1590 and found no trace of the settlers.

1607  On May 13, nearly five months after departing from England, an expedition of 104 colonists arrived at a site on the James River selected for settlement. . . . The group named their settlement for King James I.

1608  Captain Christopher Newport, . . . who had sailed back to England, returned to Virginia in January with settlers and goods. It was the first of a series of regular arrivals in the colony.

1613  Pocahontas, a daughter of Powhatan, powerful leader of 30-some Indian tribes in coastal Virginia, was kidnapped by the English.

1619  The first representative legislative assembly in British America met at Jamestown on July 30. The first documented people of African origin in Virginia arrived in late summer aboard an English ship flying Dutch colors.

Wow. Notice that last sentence? The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is missing something, or maybe these “people of African origin” arrived in Virginia because they’d heard about the so-called “New World” and wanted to check it out for themselves.

Putting aside the racists in charge of the Jamestown chronology, or rather taking note of their attempt to whitewash history, I wondered how we should remember America’s founding. Although we tend to think it was an event, it was actually a process. In fact, we might say the process continues.

1607  An English expedition settled in Jamestown.

1619  The first African slaves were brought to America.

1620  The Plymouth colony was established in Massachusetts.

1763  The French and Indian War ended.

1776  The Declaration of Independence was adopted in Philadelphia.

1781  The British surrendered at Yorktown, ending the Revolutionary War 

1788  The Constitution was ratified, taking effect in 1789.

1791  The Bill of Rights was ratified.

1803  The United States and France agreed to the Louisiana Purchase.

1830  The Indian Removal Act became law (leading to, among other things, the Trail of Tears)

1865  The Civil War ended.

1868  The 14th Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship and equal protection under the law to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States”, was adopted.

1869  The transcontinental railroad was completed.

1920 The 19th Amendment, allowing women to vote, was adopted.

1924  The Indian Citizenship Act was passed (because the 14th Amendment wasn’t enough).

1933-1939  The New Deal was enacted.

1964 The Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, became law.

1965 The Voting Rights Act was passed (although Republicans on the Supreme Court improperly declared it unnecessary in 2013)

2016 A Black American was elected president.

Other milestones along our path to becoming the United States of America are yet to occur. (It’s 19 days until the first Tuesday in November.)

Relevant Comments from the Last Century

Ken Makin of the Christian Science Monitor says that, at times like this, it’s too easy to quote the final words of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, when King looked forward to the day “all of God’s children … will be able to join hands and sing … Free at last! Thank God almighty, we’re free at last!” Mr. Makin suggests we remember some of Dr. King’s other, more specific words.

From his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?:

Ever since the birth of our nation, white America has had a schizophrenic personality on the question of race. She has been torn between selves – a self in which she proudly professed the great principles of democracy and a self in which she sadly practiced the antithesis of democracy. This tragic duality has produced a strange indecisiveness and ambivalence toward the Negro, causing America to take a step backward simultaneously with every step forward on the question of racial justice, to be at once attracted to the Negro and repelled by him, to love and to hate him. There has never been a solid, unified, and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans.

From his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, the day before he was shot:

Let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor [the mayor being one of our “sick white brothers”]. They didn’t get around to that.

And from the “I Have a Dream” speech five years earlier:

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.