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Friday, April 7, 2017

On the New Biography of Ulysses S. Grant: A Great Man's Legacy Refurbished

Just recently finished American Ulysses, A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, by Ronald C. White (Random House 2016), which I picked up mainly because White's A. Lincoln is one of my favorite Lincoln biographies.

I was not disappointed.  Indeed, I loved this book!  

What do you think of when you hear the name Ulysses S. Grant? If you're like I was before starting this biography, the thumbnail sketch you remember from school goes something like this: Great Civil War General (the General who Lincoln had been waiting for, finally, someone willing to fight). But had a drinking problem. And was a lousy President whose administration was rife with graft and corruption. Well, I no longer believe that thumbnail sketch, and I hope this book helps to restore Grant to his once vaunted and now long forgotten reputation. Clearly, he's been shortchanged, and clearly, this author came to love and admire him. Here's what I didn't know about Grant that I know now: 

  • The drinking claims were mostly rumor and innuendo, spread by military and political rivals. Other than a brief period of depression early in his military career, while stationed far away from his wife, Grant seems to have relied more on the consolations of literature than liquor to get through life's stressful patches. 
  • After marrying he inherited a slave from his Father-in-law. At a time when his poor economic condition might have been remedied by selling the slave, he instead took him to the courthouse and emancipated him.
  • He was the first President to mention Native Americans in his inaugural address, and he reformed the governmental agencies overseeing Indian affairs in an attempt to protect Native American rights. 
  • He was fiercely committed to civil rights for African Americans living in the South and to the dream of a nation where all Americans were treated equally before the law. Frederick Douglas considered him superior to Lincoln in this regard. 75 years before Presidents like Eisenhower and JFK sent the national guard to enforce desegregation rulings in Southern cities, Grant was sending federal troops to the region to protect black citizens from the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and from white attempts to suppress their votes. Alas, he was ahead of his time. The viciousness of white Southern Democrats and the apathy of white Northern Republicans meant that these policies ended with the end of his second term, as Americans were more concerned with a return to normalcy than following Grant's lead in supporting the rights of freedmen.
  • He was a trailblazer in establishing international tribunals to mediate disputes between nations, setting the example by agreeing to submit America's Alabama claims against Britain (for having built and sold raiding ships to the Confederacy) to such a tribunal. 
  • Having learned his military skills in the Mexican war, which he came to see as unjust, he sought to improve economic conditions in Mexico and supported efforts to establish a republican form of government in the nation. 
  • Yes, his second term was marked by the discovery of graft and corruption among certain of his appointees. But he was never implicated himself, and his own insistence that his administration investigate and prosecute corruption is what brought many of the scandals to light. 
  • His quiet leadership in the disputed election which occurred at the end of his second term, reaching out to both parties and both campaigns, and to the Republican controlled Senate and the Democratic controlled House, to agree upon the appointment of an independent commission to determine the outcome, averted a Constitutional crisis in a time when feelings about the Civil War were still strong enough to have otherwise led to a new bout of regional and political violence.\
  • A private trip he and his family took around the world at the end of his time in office turned into an unofficial goodwill tour for the United States, which substantially increased the standing of the nation abroad.
  • His memoir, written to provide for his wife, in a race against death as he was succumbing to throat cancer (shouldn't have smoked all those Cigars), was an economic sensation in its time, and is still considered today to be of landmark importance both as history and literature. Virtually every President who has written a memoir in the years since has mentioned Grant's memoir as the high mark against which all other entries in the genre are inevitably judged. 
  • His funeral procession became the largest public gathering to that time in American history. It was also a moment of national reconciliation, with many confederate veterans in attendance. The four leading pall bearers were two Union Generals and two Confederate Generals. 
  • For many years after his death, he was considered as part of a triumvirate of the three most important Presidents: Washington, Lincoln, and Grant. But in subsequent years, Southern scholars criticized the Union's march to the sea and the loss of life Grant was willing to impose and suffer to secure Union victory; and played up the scandals of his second term; while a nation not much interested in Civil Rights forgot his advocacy on behalf of the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. The old saying that the victors write the history, isn't always true. I'm glad I got to read this.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Founders' Forgotten Fears

Americans love to mine the lives and words of the founding generation for ammunition in many of our current political battles. That's healthy: certain arguments continue to endure in American life across generations, and as we continue to be inspired by the Declaration of Independence, and guided by the text of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, it's important to know and be familiar with the lives and political philosophies of the generation which bestowed those documents upon their heirs. 

But the founders lived in a very different world than the one they helped, in many ways inadvertently, to create.  And the more I learn about them, the more I find myself enjoying the study purely for its own intrinsic value and fascination, and without regard to seeking out ideologically useful quotes or allies.  It is fascinating to simply learn about their world and their lives more clearly, without worrying about any modern applications.  Why, for example, the Third Amendment?  And did they know how infrequently it would come up? 

Here are three things the founders feared, which, for better or worse, don't seem to agitate us much any more, examined here merely to better understand the world of Colonial America, and the mindset of its citizens, without any suggestion, one way or the other, that I agree or disagree with these points of view, or that they are or are not capable of any useful modern application: 

1. Democracy.  When the founders used the term "democracy" they intended it as a pejorative, synonymous with words like "anarchy" or the phrase "mob rule," and they viewed the rise of a democratic ethos in the country with the same degree of horror I now feel about the rise of enthusiasm for Sanders-style socialism among modern Millennials.  The founders opposed hereditary monarchy, but that didn't mean they were ready to turn the governance of the country over to the great unwashed. Even Jefferson, who would spin his Republican party as representing the majority of the common people, and accuse the Federalists, by contrast, of being the party of elitism, would opine that the voice of the people was not typically known for its wisdom. 

The golden mean solution, between hereditary monarchy and democracy, upon which the Founders originally hoped to build the new nation, was known as "filtration."  Indirect, representative, democracy, would ensure that the country's ultimate rulers were chosen through intermediate gatekeeper institutions, so as to prevent the vices of rule by the mob. And so: they created the electoral college, which was originally intended as much more than a mere mathematical exercise. As envisioned at Philadelphia, the members of the electoral college would be those whose lives of prominence proved to their fellow citizens that they were worthy to participate in selecting the American President, a choice which was not to be left to those citizens themselves. That you would have no earthly idea what "elector" you were voting for, whose name would not even appear on the ballot, was not really Madison's original idea. Similarly, for 125 years, until ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, Senators were not chosen by the direct democratic choice of the citizens living in a State, but by the State legislatures, ensuring a degree of separation between the legislators chosen by the people, and the U.S. Senators then chosen by those legislators.  This also provided some handy vertical checks and balances, intended to keep the Federal Government in check. 

We don't hear much about filtration any more (though George Will still likes to use the term), and most Americans are now pretty sure that democracy is what the founders sought to bequeath us. But were we to find ourselves in a face-to-face conversation with one of the founders, Alexander Hamilton let us say, freshly arrived by time machine into our living room, it's hard to say which side of that conversation would be more bemused and startled by tones with which the other used the term democracy.  

2. A standing military. Illustrating a point I have made elsewhere, about the dangers of speaking about the founders in the collective (, this next example is not necessarily true, to equal degrees, of all the founders.  But at least the Jeffersonian Republicans, if not always the Hamiltonian Federalists, were deeply concerned about the dangers of a standing military.  Steeped in Roman history, including the military exploits which allowed Julius and Augustus to turn the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, and aware that, for many years, the Praetorian Guard chose the Caesar, the founders were strongly aware, and many were deeply concerned, about the ways in which a country's military could take control of its civilian government, putting an end to self-rule.  Their solution: no standing military in peacetime. 

The founders, alas, could see into the past, but not into the future.  They were aware of the dangers of the Praetorian Guard, but could not foresee the power of biased journalism in an era of mass media communications, controlled by a tiny elite.  

Today, we still hold vigorous "guns vs. butter" debates about the proper scope and extent of our military vs. domestic spending, and we still argue with each other about the propriety of foreign military interventions.  We even have a growing chorus of both liberals and libertarians and now even Trumpian anti-globalist populists arguing we should dramatically downscale the presence of American military bases on foreign soil.  But it has been many, many, decades since any serious political voices in America have claimed that we should disband the military altogether, until the next war, let alone argued that this was necessary to prevent a military takeover of our governmental institutions.  To even suggest such an idea would strike most Americans today as grossly paranoid and delusional.  For that, we can largely thank the honorable way in which our military has comported itself throughout our history.

Unlike that of so many other nations over the course of the past 250 years, our own history offers few if any clear-cut examples of attempted military coups, led by successful or popular generals. Instead, again and again, our military has been a blessing to the nation, and its Generals, from Washington to Grant to Eisenhower, have for the most part respected and renewed the precedent and ideal of civilian control.  If fear of a standing military has subsided, we can thank our military itself for that fact. Over time, both the military's victory's and its deference, taken together, have largely obliterated this founding era fear.  The turnaround began when Madison was able to forestall complete disaster for America in the War of 1812, largely due to naval victories brought to him by ships he had voted against building when he served in Congress.  The Military Academy of West Point was seen, for many of its initial years, as a waste of money, and was often on the brink of political defunding, until its graduates proved, during the Mexican American War, and then the Civil War, the worth of professional training for military officers, by repeatedly outgeneralling the untrained political generals.  When we speak, today, of the debt we owe to our Veterans, we should be grateful not only for the lives they laid on the line to bring us ultimate victories in WWI, WWII, and the many battlefields of the Cold War, but also for having done so without becoming a threat to the sovereignty and self-government of the nation they had sworn to serve. 

3. The Rise of a Hereditary Aristocracy.  It will probably never be possible for Americans born after 1800 to understand the acute foreboding with which the Revolutionary generation viewed this threat.  It was in their minds all too likely that the work of the Revolution would be undone by the rise of an elite and hereditary aristocracy, to be treated with deference by the rest of the citizenry, and afforded special privileges and preferences under the law. And who could blame them for fearing this eventuality?  They were not only rebelling from a society in which such a hereditary aristocracy had been an ingrained element of societal order for as long as anyone could remember, but they were also well-read enough to know that the same had been true of virtually every society in the history of Western Civilization, from the Greek City-States to the Roman Empire, with aristocrats once again rising to power in the feudal Europe which succeeded to govern the middle ages after the fall of the Roman Empire.  

So great was this fear, that it almost prevented the formation of the Constitution.  George Washington's attendance at the Philadelphia Convention was vital to the success of that endeavor, especially as Hamilton and Madison, who had organized and called for the States to send delegates to the conference, had no intention of using the meeting for its advertised purpose.  Madison understood that his most important job, prior to the convention, was ensuring Washington's attendance, the only thing which could give the meeting any veneer of legitimacy for the radical and transformative work which he planned to accomplish once it was in session.  But there was a problem: a group of Revolutionary War Veterans had formed an organization which they called the Society of the Cincinnati, which was to hold its first meeting in Philadelphia at the same time as Madison and Hamilton's planned convention.  Washington had been invited to attend as the society's honorary first president.  But when word broke that future membership in the society would be bequeathed upon its initial members' first-born sons, Americans smelled a rat, and began castigating the society as the possible germ from which an American aristocracy might grow. Washington had to decline to attend the society's first meeting, to avoid being accused of seeking to establish an aristocratic body in America.  But to save face with his former compatriots, he offered an excuse which did not take any side in the criticism which the society's establishment was generating. This made Madison's job, of getting Washington to endure the awkwardness of setting aside that excuse to attend the Constitutional Convention, to be held in the same city and at the same time , infinitely more difficult.  That he somehow pulled it off anyway is one of many testaments to the man's political genius.  Without Washington's chairmanship of the convention's deliberations, ratification of the proposed Constitution by the States would likely never have occurred. With it, ratification became a foregone conclusion in many locales.  

John Adams, for his part, would go to his grave believing that the rise of an American aristocracy was inevitable, as the history of virtually every other nation he had ever studied amply demonstrated.  Rather than forestall it, he felt its inevitable rise should be accounted for in the government's structures, and he believed that this was the chief reason for states and the national government to have a bicameral legislature, as the Senate of any state or national government would inevitably become the place where the aristocrats' views were promulgated, to be checked and balanced against the commoners' assembly or congressional house.  His publication of these views, in a treatise on government published in his waning years after his retirement from public service, did more to damage his reputation, then and now, than perhaps any other act in his life.  At the time he was labelled, at best, a crank, and at worst, a monarchist. And today it is argued that Adams clearly became irrelevant after his initial contributions to the fight for a congressional resolution of independence, as his time abroad as an ambassador to the United States, separated him from the developing political philosophies of the younger minds who were writing the Federalist Papers, in which the need for checks and balances were based upon entirely new premises.  
This reaction demonstrates how early the fear of a rising aristocracy had waned once the Constitution was in place, as an increasingly larger and larger share of Americans, began demanding an increasingly egalitarian society, with such eventual consensus that the fear of any threat from an emerging aristocratic class soon dissipated. Today, we still worry about elites having too much power in our society, but these worries mainly focus on the very wealthy, or large multinational corporations.  If the wealth and power of these families and these corporations tends to be inherited, then the fears of an earlier generation about the emergence of an aristocracy may well still come to pass.  But nobody seems to think it will be titled or officially recognized; let alone given sole legal access to a Senate which has become the equivalent of the English House of Lords. Some might argue that an unnamed and invisible aristocracy might be even worse than an officially recognized one.  But until Bill Gates starts asking his fellow citizens to kiss his ring, the fear of an emergent aristocracy will likely remain in the past for some time to come.  

Sources: The Idea of America, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, and The Radicalism of the American Revolution, by Gordon S. Wood; American Creation and The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis; John Adams by David McCullough; Washington, A Life and Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow; Thomas Jefferson, the Art of Power by Jon Meacham; James Madison by Lynn Cheney.

Analogies, Similes, and Metaphors.

White privilege is to modern liberal orthodoxy what original sin is to the dogmas of creedal Christianity.  It's not your fault, but you're guilty anyway.

For people like me, a conservative Republican who disdains Donald Trump, but considered Hillary by far the greater evil, contemplating the next four years is a lot like the old joke about growing old. I don't relish what's coming but expect it to be far better than the alternative.

The Bundy family and the sovereign citizens movement are, to right-wing America, what Michael Brown and the Black Lives Matter movement are, to left-wing America.  Both groups rely on false narratives and incendiary rhetoric, to invite the radicalization of their followers.  Both groups received far more mainstream support from their most closely aligned political party and its media representatives than they should have.  And both groups have inspired and incited the murders of police officers.  If the Black Lives Matter movement has caused by far the greater harm, murder, and mayhem, that's only because they have more powerful forces in the mainstream media and in the universities on their side.

Listening to NPR cover a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama campaign event, is a lot like reading an article in the Deseret News about the First Presidency attending the groundbreaking for a new LDS Temple.  Very uplifting for the faithful, but not exactly journalism.

The left's obsession with the bizarre meme that Russia hacked the 2016 elections to give us Donald Trump, is akin to the right's obsession in 2008, with the bizarre meme that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.  Both claims are based on innuendo instead of hard facts, and both claims are a diversion from more important concerns, revealing more about the psychology of their most ardent proponents, than about the more important critiques which could be made of either politician.  Again, given its support in the mainstream media, the Russia-hacked-the-election mythos is doing far more harm. 

Attending a modern American university as a conservative must be very similar to attending divinity school as an atheist.  If you aren't seeking instruction in the tenets of social justice warriordom, let alone joining its priesthood, you must often wonder what on earth you are doing there.  

The role of the Southern Poverty Law Center in modern American politics is essentially the same as the role of the Grand Inquisitor in medieval Catholicism: to persecute heretics and others who dissent against the universal modern faith that everyone is required to believe in. 

On the New York Times, Part I

Every New York Times story regarding economics, politics, socialism, communism, or the economic conditions of foreign countries, should be required to be accompanied by the following disclaimer, at the beginning of the story: 

DISCLAIMER: You are about to read a news article published by The New York Times, concerning the politics or economics of a foreign country.  Before doing so, please be aware of the following facts: In the 1930s a Pulitizer Prize was awarded for a series of articles by Walter Duranty which were published in this newspaper. These articles contained glowing reports of life in the Soviet Union, which parroted Stalin’s lies and propaganda, and assisted Stalin in covering up the brutal measures he was employing to liquidate private ownership of farms by the Kulaks, an effort which led to a man-made famine which killed up to 12 million innocent people.  As the forced famine was going on, and was being reported on honestly by other news outlets, The New York Times ran articles which denied other reporters’ truthful reporting on the subject, and Duranty and the newspaper insulted the millions of victims by cavalierly proclaiming: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” The New York Times, May 14, 1933.  In 2003, Ukrainian descendants of the victims of the famine, now known as the Holodor, asked the Pulitzer Committee to rescind the Pulitzer for these New York Times published articles, and the Committee asked the New York Times to respond.  The New York Times retained an independent historian as a consultant, of its choosing, to study and report on the issue. The consultant chosen by The New York Times advised the paper that  the prize should be taken away "for the sake of The New York Times' honor."  The New York Times forwarded this report to the Pulitzer Committee, but included a cover letter in which the paper rejected its own consultant’s conclusions, and argued instead that rescission of the Pulitzer would set an unfortunate precedent. The cover letter also argued, without apparent irony, that rescission of the prize would be akin to the former Soviet airbrushing of history (with which The New York Times had so helpfully assisted the Soviet Union). The Prize was not rescinded.  Please carefully take this history into account before reading the following news article written by one of Walter Duranty’s ideological successors, now working as a reporter on this newspaper’s staff: