February 20, 2009
In the battle between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln for the title "Greatest President," put me down for Washington, although the difference between the two probably isn't measurable by current instruments.
What puts Washington over the top is his entire body of work, as they say in the Hall of Fame voting. Being the first President, and being the pre-eminent political personage of that era, Washington knew that what he did would set the tone and set precedents for generations to come. And while the republic was resilient enough to withstand even major errors - the Articles of Confederation come to mind - getting things right at the beginning would help it weather storms down the road.
Washington got virtually everything right.
He won the Revolutionary War, and then refused power and resigned, preventing a military mutiny over pay in the process. He chaired the Constitutional Convention, his mere presence as the presumptive first President being enough to allow the delegates to create an executive strong enough to govern. As President, he helped establish a protocol that befits a democracy, helped establish the relationship between Congress and the Presidency, and once again, relinquished power when he needn't have, as an example.
Adams was a greater revolutionary than President, Jefferson a better philospher, Madison a greater draftsman. Of the early Presidents, perhaps only Washington's Presidency lived up to his prior life.
July 4, 2008
July 4, 1863
As we all celebrate the events of July 4, 1776, it's also worth considering the events of another July 4, 87 years later.
On July 1, 1863, things were looking grim for the Union. Southern armies had invaded the north and were tooling around western Pennsylvania. In the west, Vicksburg, the key to the Mississippi, still held out, and Union armies had made brilliant maneuvers but little actual progess. If the South could win a victory at Gettysburg, it might still hold Vicksburg. And if, at the end of the week it held both, it might be able to claim that it had made a nation.
As it happened, at the end of the week, it held neither. On July 3, the moments just before Pickett's Charge were to be known as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. I had the pleasure of touring the Gettysburg battlefield on July 4 about 15 years ago. To stare out across that expanse that those troops covered, in the midday heat, is to see that they never had a chance.
One day later, July 4, Vicksburg would surrender to Ulysses S. Grant, who would go on to enjoy some further military and political success back east.
On July 7, 1863, a crowd gathered outside the White House to serenade President Lincoln. Here is is response:
Fellow-citizens: I am very glad indeed to see you to-night, and yet I will not say I that you for this call, but I do most sincerely thank Almight God for the occasion on which you have been called. How long ago is it? - eight odd years - since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that "all men are created equal." That was the birthday of the United States of America. Since then the Fourth of July has had several peculiar recognitions. The two most distinguished men in the framing and support of the Declaration were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams - the one having penned it and the other sustained it the most forcibly in debate - the only two of the fifty-five who sustained it being elected President of the United States. Precisely fifty years after they put their hands to the paper it pleased Almight God to take both from the stage of action. This was indeed an extraordinary and remarkable event in our history.
Another President, five years after, was called from this stage of existence on the same day and month of the year; and now, on this last Fourth of July just passed, when we have a gigantic Rebellion, at the bottom of which is an effort to overthrow the principle that all men were created equal, we have the surrender of a most powerful position and army on that very day, and not only so, but in a succession of battles in Pennsylvania, near to us, through three days, so rapidly fought that they might be called one great battle on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of the month of July; and on the 4th the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal, "turned tail," and run...
This after Lincoln's disappointment in Meade's failure to chase and destroy Lee's army. The war would go on for almost two more years.
It's also worth looking at Lincoln's letter to Grant, dated July 13, 1863. Grant had audaciously run the river below Vicksburg's batteries overlooking the river, crossed the river, marched through the outlying swamps, and laid siege to the town.
My dear General,
I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did - march the troops, across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you got below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Guld, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.
Yours very truly
Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Harry Reid, take note.
November 1, 2007
Gen. Paul Tibbets, R.I.P.
Paul Tibbets, who piloted the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, has died at his home in Columbus, Ohio at the age of 92. By coincidence, I had just finished reading Bob Greene's book, Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War, half of which deals with Greene's friendship with Tibbets, and Tibbets's recollections of the war.
What's forgotten, and not mentioned in the AP story about Tibbets's death, is that he not only piloted the plane, he had to put together the entire team whose job it was to deliver the bomb to its target. Tibbets organized the unit near Wendover, Utah. It included not merely the flight crew of 14, but also logistical support, local and remote maintenance crews, flight planning, training, and practice.
It also included all internal and external operational security. Tibbets was the only man on the team of several thousand men who knew that they were planning on dropping an atomic bomb on the Japanese. He recalled sending men home for leave before Christmas of 1944, with instructions to talk to nobody - not even their wives - about their work. On trains and busses, the men sat next to plain-clothes intelligence officers, who reported back to Tibbets about the ones who talked. When men received phone calls or telegrams about babies born during their absence, they also received congratulatory meetings with Tibbets and his staff, just to remind them that they were watching. One wonders what the Senate Democrats would make of that today.
It was a complex, difficult undertaking for one man to get off the ground. Tibbets was 30.
The AP prefers to dwell on the controversy surrounding the Bomb, devoting most of the obituary to that controversy and Tibbets's role in it over the years. For me, it's never been close. Greene's book started as a series of columns in the Chicago Tribune, and it was the number of letters and phone calls from the children of servicemen whose lives were quite probably saved by the end of the war. He also mentions in passing the vast numbers of Japanese, including women and children, whom the Japanese generals were willing to sacrifice to their death cult, and whose lives were saved by their surrender.
(Also by coincidence, I had just finished watching The King and I on On Demand the evening before it was announce that Deborah Kerr had passed away. I hope I'm not reading The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost too soon to keep Rudy from benefitting from Charles Hill's sage advice.)
March 6, 2007
Arrived in the mail from the History Book Club:
A book of essays from the current Greatest Living Civil War Historian, having fought through a lengthy succession battle after the loss of Bruce Catton:
Not the basis of 300, nor the ancient Greek version of the classic board game:
Plus ca change:
A liberal with something good to say about a Republican:
and... Here's a hint: there's mostly good.
Now, if I can just find the time to read them...
June 16, 2006
A House Divided
The pressures of trying to produce a company report have me tied down, but Amy Oliver of the Independence Institute has pointed out that today is the 148th anniversary of Lincoln's "House Divided" Speech to the Illinois Republican Convention.
Best-known is the opening:
If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. "A house divided against itself cannot stand." I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new—North as well as South.
However, equally important is the closing. Here, Lincoln argues that while a political movement must be willing to accept help from all responsible comers, the leadership of a great cause must be entrusted to those who actually believe in it. Otherwise, it will eventually be betrayed by those who see a way to defend their true interests and values without actually delivering a victory:
Senator Douglas holds, we know, that a man may rightfully be wiser to—day than he was yesterday—that he may rightfully change when he finds himself wrong. But can we, for that reason, run ahead, and infer that he will make any particular change, of which he, himself, has given no intimation? Can we safely base our action upon any such vague inference? Now, as ever, I wish not to misrepresent Judge Douglas’s position, question his motives, or do aught that can be personally offensive to him. Whenever, if ever, he and we can come together on principle so that our cause may have assistance from his great ability, I hope to have interposed no adventitious obstacle. But clearly, he is not now with us—he does not pretend to be—he does not promise ever to be.
Our cause, then, must be intrusted to, and conducted by, its own undoubted friends—those whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the work—who do care for the result. Two years ago the Republicans of the nation mustered over thirteen hundred thousand strong. We did this under the single impulse of resistance to a common danger, with every external circumstance against us. Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought the battle through, under the constant hot fire of a disciplined, proud and pampered enemy. Did we brave all then, to falter now?—now, when that same enemy is wavering, dissevered and belligerent? The result is not doubtful. We shall not fail—if we stand firm, we shall not fail. Wise counsels may accelerate, or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later, the victory is sure to come.
While others of Lincoln's speeches are better-remembered, coming as they did during the crisis of the Civil War, Harry Jaffa considers this to be the most consequential of Lincoln's speeches.
As Don Fehrenbacher has written, everyone knew that a South that would not accept Stephen A. Douglas as leader of the Democratic Party, would never accept Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States. Yet the South was foolish in what it did. It actually looked at Douglas through the lenses Lincoln had kindly provided them in the debates, in the follow-up of the House Divided speech. Had they abated their demand for a slave code for Territories, they might have elected a President who might have found more certain means of guaranteeing the survival and success of slavery. Indeed, for all we know, slavery might be flourishing amongst us even now. That it does not, we have the House Divided speech to thank.
March 20, 2006
One of the best descriptions that I've found of the politics of 1860 comes from Bruce Catton's The Coming Fury, the first in his trilogy of the Centennial History of the Civil War. Now, Catton was a northerner, and had the North's views of the causes of the war, which differ considerably from the South's. They do, however, have the added advantage of being right. (For instance, if states' rights divorced from slavery really were the issue, why was the CSA Constitution mute on that point?)
The key thing to remember is that at each point in the crisis, the two sides failed utterly to understand each other. The North, in particular the Republicans, had no idea of the threat they represented in the minds of the South, in particular the newspapermen. Lincoln justified his refusal to elaborate on his views on the legal status of slavery on the grounds that anything he said can and would be used against him in the court of public opinion. What he didn't see was that while it couldn't affect the election (he wasn't on any Southern ballots, anyway), his silence could be twisted just as effectively as any words he might have used.
In fact, throughout 1860, the North continued to view secession as a threat, and then as a political maneuver, long after the fire-eaters had hijacked the process and driven Union sympathy to the fringe. There was considerable Union sentiment, but it was a mile wide and an inch deep, and once the step was taken, loyalty was going to be sectional rather than national. In fact, the border states - including Virginia - didn't secede until it was evident that force would be used to protect Federal property and keep the south in the Union.
For the South's part, they didn't understand the North's commitment to the Union, and its unwillingness to be coerced into committing large portions of its GDP and legal system to the support of a crumbling institution. It also probably overestimated Southern sympathy in the border slave states, which is odd, considering that that's where the Constitution Party, whos platform essentially consisted of wishful thinking about reaching another compromise, got most of its votes.
In fact, the one character who comes out looking the most sane, the most rational, and the most insightful, is Stephen Douglas. Douglas was the only candidate who was willing to conduct a campaign on the actual issues of slavery and potential secession, while all other parties talked around the first and ignored the second. By doing so, Catton points out, they left an electino process designed for national decision-making not having resolved anything.
One last point is also worth considering. Secession was brought about by a confluence of southern temperment, and a skillful manipulation of the political process. The fire-eaters, William Yancey chief among them, maneuvered to get a crisis, promoting a schism in the Democratic Party and willing the election of Lincoln. They did this because they rightly calculated that much of the South was tired of compromise and talk and wanted action and a resolution. Douglas's sin was, in Catton's words, that he was proposing a politician's solution at a time when the political institutions had ceased to function. The fire-eaters denied him the nomination precisely because they feared he might be able to bring such an agreement about. From their point of view, it was better to split the party in order to lose the election, and then let the fear of Lincoln do its work.
For that reason, elections need to be about what they're about. It's one reason "trangulation" and "the permanent campaign" are so damaging to the body politic, and it they probably have soemthing to do with why we're now 48-48 rather than 40-40.
November 7, 2005
Rubicon And Us
I've finally posted my review of Tom Holland's Rubicon. It's a good book, but more importantly, there's a reason the Founders studied this period. Not for nothing was Cato one of the most popular plays of the day. I know people are tired of hearing this, but just because we don't need to read this stuff in Latin doesn't mean we don't need to read it at all.
What does this have to do with us? Well, no, it doesn't mean that money is the equivalent of Legions, and that therefore, McCain-Feingold is saving us from Octavian Redux. It does mean that federalism and separation of powers are a good thing. Not because of concentration of power per se, but because smaller offices are less tempting to ambitious men. And if you've got a lot of small offices scattered all over the country, it's almost impossible to dominate them all.
Secondly, there's the importance of citizenship and engagement. Before baseball, politics was the great participatory sport. We find it hard to believe, but read just about any contemporaneous account. Read Washington Irving, or Tocqueville, or Dickens, and they all say the same thing. And not just blowing smoke, but informed debate.
The danger of uninformed, selfish engagement without virtue is that you end up with a mob that's easily led or bought off. And the more the point of political engagement becomes to secure favors and money, the less it becomes about building a community. Which means it becomes passive, and then disappears altogether.
So how do these threats manifest themselves to us? Ah, that's for another post.
October 5, 2005
I've been reading John Steele Gordon's An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power, over the last few days, and it contains a number of interesting nuggets.
The one that stands out, given the questions about Chief Justice Roberts and prospective Justice Miers, concerns the difference between political and judicial philosophy. Salmon Chase, as Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury, helped push through the first income tax to help finance the War of Northern Aggression. Later, as Chief Justice, he ruled it unconstitutional, although by then the war was over.
There is a difference between political and legal opinion.
Oh, yes. The book is very interesting, and hopefully I'll be posting a review shortly.
Power, Faith, and Fantasy
Six Days of War
An Army of Davids
Learning to Read Midrash
Deals From Hell
A War Like No Other
A Civil War
The (Mis)Behavior of Markets
The Wisdom of Crowds
When Genius Failed
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
Back in Action : An American Soldier's Story of Courage, Faith and Fortitude
How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?
Good to Great
Built to Last
Financial Fine Print
The Day the Universe Changed
The Multiple Identities of the Middle-East
The Case for Democracy
A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam
Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory
Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures
Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud