Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Getting the Civil War Right and Wrong, A Reply to Jeff Schweitzer

By Alexander Marriott

As we approach the sesquicentennials of the Battle of Antietam (17 September), Lincoln’s provisional emancipation proclamation (22 September), and the Emancipation Proclamation (1 January), people are taking time to consider what the American Civil War was all about, it’s outcome and immediate (unfulfilled) legacy, and the continuing relevance it has in American life and politics today. One such person, scientist and former White House advisor to Bill Clinton, Jeff Schweitzer, recently penned a short essay for the Huffington Post entitled “Slavery and the Civil War: Not What You Think.” In the essay, Schweitzer (without one quote or appeal to supporting primary source evidence) tells us that “what we are all taught in school,” that “slavery was of course the central point of contention” is not accurate and is, at best, fundamentally misleading. While slavery was, indeed, a prime example of what motivated Southern anger and morally destroyed any and all sympathy one could reasonably have for the Confederacy then and now, it was not, argues Schweitzer, “the issue...per se.”

Then what was the war all about? “The war was fought over state’s rights and the limits of federal power in a union of states,” says Schweitzer, “The perceived threat to state autonomy became an existential one through the specific dispute over slavery.” Of course, historians and Americans hear this argument all the time—it is neither new nor original. What makes this particular appeal odd is that we usually hear this argument in a delimited and obvious number of places. First, many of the Confederate leaders—Jefferson Davis for instance—downplayed slavery as only a point of conflict in a larger more principled disagreement: “The right solemnly proclaimed at the birth of the States, and which has been affirmed and reaffirmed in the bills of rights of States subsequently admitted into the Union of 1789, undeniably recognize in the people the power to resume the authority delegated for the purposes of government. Thus the sovereign States here represented proceeded to form this Confederacy, and it is by abuse of language that their act has been denominated a revolution. They formed a new alliance, but within each State its government has remained, the rights of person and property have not been disturbed. The agent through whom they communicated with foreign nations is changed, but this does not necessarily interrupt their international relations.”[1] You would almost think there was no slavery.

Why did they do this if they were not sincerely correct (as most credible historians, myself included, maintain)? The first and most obvious reason had to do with foreign relations. The Confederacy’s surest path to independence was recognition and assistance from Great Britain—something that would have been quite out of the question had the chief public claim to the world for why the Confederates should prevail been the exaltation of human slavery. This is one of the reasons why historians focus so much on the contemporaneously embarrassing and revealing extemporaneous speech delivered by the Confederacy’s Vice President, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia in Savannah on 21 March 1861. At the end of explaining all the ways in which the new Confederate Constitution had allegedly remedied the errors of the Constitution of 1787 they had so recently abandoned, Stephens ended his elaboration in a remarkable indictment of Thomas Jefferson and full-throated defense of the Confederacy’s truly great innovation (it is a long speech, this is a long excerpt, but every utterance of it is absolutely essential):

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.

This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world.

As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature's laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made "one star to differ from another star in glory."

The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders "is become the chief of the corner" the real "corner-stone" in our new edifice.

I have been asked, what of the future? It has been apprehended by some that we would have arrayed against us the civilized world. I care not who or how many they may be against us, when we stand upon the eternal principles of truth, if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we are obliged to, and must triumph.[2]

Stephens’s elaborate and euphoric exaltation of the new era his government heralded was a public relations nightmare internationally. Great Britain, the world’s leading power and arch-foe of international slavery could hardly make any moves against Lincoln on behalf of a power that purported to be ushering in a new millennium of chattel slavery.

Of course, after the war was over and lost, Confederates for the most part began to clean up their historical legacies. Stephens went so far as to claim that his famous speech was not actually his at all. Jefferson Davis, till the end, pretended the whole effort had a larger more grandiose purpose and sympathetic historians have, ever since, taken him at his word.

The next group, outside of bona fide Confederates, one usually sees this argument from are late 19th century reconciliation historians whose ideas—Civil War a tragedy with heroes on both sides, Reconstruction a horrible social experiment that did not end soon enough—lingered well into the 20th century (they are still with us in a marginalized, angry, and perniciously belligerent form). Why such people would endorse the notion that slavery was not the actual motivator behind the Confederacy and the Civil War is rather obvious given the aftermath of the war. While the North remained surprisingly committed to policing the South with an occupying army and guaranteeing the citizenship and voting rights of the freedmen, that effort eventually collapsed and white Northerners were all too willing to quickly slide back into a racially indifferent hands-off policy toward the Southern States—all of which were quickly “redeemed” by former Confederates completely uninterested in the civil rights of their poor black neighbors. Since whites nationally where not sufficiently outraged by this development to exercise federal power to do anything to stop it, the temptation to reconcile with Southern whites and share a common heritage that downplayed the festering problem of Black civil rights proved too good to resist. Slavery moved to the background—the war, indeed, was fought over States’ rights (right to do what precisely was left to the murky libraries that professional historians were content to ignore for decades).

The only people today that one usually sees this argument from are modern Southerners who, contrary to Schweitzer’s claim, are not taught the notion in schools that the war was all about slavery. One also sees it in “Politically Incorrect” histories published by hack historians looking to cash in on prejudice rather than scholarship and facts. It’s odd to see a modern Democrat on the Huffington Post repeating these tired lines from those whose motivations are typically soaked or tinged in racial animus.

I do not believe Jeff Schweitzer is a dupe or a racist. Instead, I think his essay has a very obvious contemporary political purpose that is revealed quite plainly to anyone familiar with the primary sources surrounding the Confederate theory of the Union and Constitution, as well as the intellectual justifications for nullification and secession. According to Schweitzer (and this is rather original, though it has been repeated by many on the Left, like Chris Matthews and Michael Lind), what was actually motivating the South was not some long gone moral crime like chattel slavery but something eerily familiar: “Specifically, eleven southern states seceded from the Union in protest against federal legislation that limited the expansion of slavery claiming that such legislation violated the tenth amendment, which they argued trumped the Supremacy Clause. The war was indeed about protecting the institution of slavery, but only as a specific case of a state’s right to declare a federal law null and void.” Now here is a claim that, surprise!, links a modern political agenda—the affinity of modern Conservatives, from Clarence Thomas to Ronald Reagan, for the tenth amendment as a tool to put the breaks on the federal government—to a cause that “was unjust, ... unseemly,” and “treasonous.”

But, since Schweitzer provides absolutely no evidence for this claim, what—if any—evidence is there that the Confederates believed the tenth amendment trumped the Constitution’s supremacy clause and allowed them to secede, and that this is why the war came? According to Schweitzer, the war could just as easily resulted from the Federal government passing a law to do anything that Southern states decided was beyond the pale (in the case of the war, of course, they seceded largely before Lincoln was even inaugurated into office, the rest after he called for volunteers after Sumter). This is a very large claim. Now, I, of course, believe that it is quite plain, historically, that the doctrines of secession and nullification were inventions of political expediency, first to try to scare off interference with slavery within the Union and finally as a way of getting out of the Union “legally.” That is, without a war that Southerners had known for nearly a century would destroy slavery entirely. I have covered this development broadly in a post entitled “The History of Nullification: Origins, Context, and Dangers (Part One)” and which will be completed shortly in a concluding essay.

As Mr. Schweitzer has provided no evidence to substantiate his claims, he is somewhat at my mercy, so I will be brief. First, let us consider the South Carolina declaration of why they were seceding. There is one, non-specified mention of the tenth amendment but that was not the linchpin of the South Carolinian argument. In fact, mention of the tenth amendment (“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”) was quite unessential for Confederates. They grounded their theory of secession on the nature of the Union as a compact between co-equal states. Much of the South Carolinian declaration thus hinged on the notion that if any of the parties violated the compact—in this case, Northern States hampering enforcement of the constitutionally legitimate Fugitive Slave law of 1850—the offended parties were free to exit: “We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted the open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”[3] Yet, Schweitzer claims that us reading these documents is simply tunnel vision: “We understandably focus on this specific while ignoring the broader issue in contest. But a subset of a set is not the set. An example of an issue in not the issue. Slavery was a specific issue of a perceived violation of a state’s rights, over which the country went to war. Claiming the Civil War was about slavery alone is like saying that the recent revolution in Egypt was about unseating Mubarek and nothing else.”

I will come back to this central claim about slavery in relation to the constitutional arguments that Confederates came up with to try to save it within the system and then from war outside the system in a moment. First let’s take a look at another state’s formal declaration of what it was doing and why: Mississippi. “Our position,” said the seceding delegates, “is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.” Here there is not one iota of tenth amendment talk—the entire salvo is slavery top to bottom. Mississippi purported to leave the Union as a harried fox pursued by ruthless dogs: “Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England.”[4]

So, slavery was merely a “specific issue”? Did those in the North reject the tenth amendment or believe that the Constitution’s supremacy clause was in conflict with it? If we take Lincoln’s first inaugural address as evidence, that seems entirely unlikely: “One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute. The fugitive slave clause of the Constitution, and the law for the suppression of the foreign slave trade, are each as well enforced, perhaps, as any law can ever be in a community where the moral sense of the people imperfectly supports the law itself. The great body of the people abide by the dry legal obligation in both cases, and a few break over in each. This, I think, cannot be perfectly cured; and it would be worse in both cases after the separation of the sections, than before.”[5] The only substantial dispute. Either Schweitzer believes Lincoln improperly diagnosed the problems of the Union—his perspicacity is one of the things for which he was and is most famous—or decided to gloss over the “real” issue at stake in the most important speech he had ever given in his life up to that point.

The constitutional filibustering of the Confederates, before and after the war, as well as their historical apologists, should not blind us to the plain truth that slavery—and its feared death through restriction to the States where it already existed, perpetually under real and moral assaults from the North—was what agitated Calhoun, Toombs, Stephens, Davis, Ruffin, Hammond, and all the rest of the intellectual leaders of the Old South. The Constitution first served Calhoun as an aegis through which he might carve out a space for slavery’s perpetual protection. In the decade after Calhoun’s death, most of his legatees gradually abandoned that notion and instead embraced an alleged Constitutional corollary of nullification that would allow them to legally break up the government while—hopefully—avoiding a war that was sure to destroy slavery. It was a long shot, but after Lincoln’s election provided evidence that the South could be forever dominated by a more dynamic, wealthier, and more populous North whose inhabitants had no interest in the peculiar institutions of the South, many Southern leaders felt it was a gamble they could no longer afford to ignore. And the war came. But the issue was—and always was, from Missouri, through the Nullification fight, and the crisis of 1850—slavery, slavery, and slavery. The rest was nefarious and obscuring subterfuge, and still is to this day.

[1] Speech in Montgomery, Alabama (Inaugural Address as Provisional President), 18 February 1861, Jefferson Davis: The Essential Writings, ed. William J. Cooper, Jr. (New York: Modern Library, 2004), 199.
[2] Alexander Stephens, “Corner-Stone” Speech, Savannah, Georgia, 21 March 1861, American Speeches: Political Oratory from the Revolution to the Civil War (New York: Library of America, 2006), 721-724.
[3] South Carolina Declaration of the Causes of Secession, Charleston, 24 December 1860, The Civil War: The First Year Told By Those Who Lived It, eds. Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean (New York: Library of America, 2011), 153-154.
[4] Mississippi Declaration of the Causes of Secession, Jackson, 9 January 1861, The Civil War: The First Year, 183-185.
[5] Abraham Lincoln: First Inaugural Address, Washington D.C., 4 March 1861, The Civil War: The First Year, 216.

History Guys

Check out the radio show I am doing with Daniel Roberts (M.A. History) loosely known as the History Guys. We chat mostly about History and Politics/Current Events, but we have call-in guests, humor, book recommendations, etc. We have a new show every Sunday at 5 PM Eastern / 2 PM Pacific -- beginning on September 1 we are switching to Saturday at 5 PM Eastern / 2 PM Pacific. Join us with questions on Facebook (History Guys with Alex and Dan) or Twitter (@AVM_Historian & @thelostclam) & on the show's blogtalkradio page. You can also listen live and ask questions and make comments in a live chat room. We welcome all input and interactions.

This Sunday we will be discussing Niall Ferguson's recent Newsweek op-ed about President Obama and the broader role Historians play in society and politics. We are also devoting the lionshare of our time to discussing the continuing legacy of the American Civil War.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Historical Apples and Oranges Served Over Vacuous Argumentum ad Misericordiam

Historical Apples and Oranges Served Over Vacuous Argumentum ad Misericordiam

Now that presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney has named his choice for the Vice-Presidential nomination—seven-term Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan—the long knives are out all across the punditry class, competing to see who first pierces the armor of the shiny new knight entering the lists. Some of these efforts are extremely silly. Take, for example, Katrina Vanden Heuvel’s Washington Post op-ed from August 14, where she condemns the “audacity” of announcing Ryan “on a ship named for the birthplace of progressivism, to Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.’” Of course, the battleship USS Wisconsin was apropos for Congressman Ryan because he is from Wisconsin (duh) and the Republican Party was founded there well before the intellectual poison known as Progressivism sprung from the land of badgers. As for Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man,’ since when has that piece of now classic American music from, perhaps, America’s greatest composer been owned by one group of partisans? Only Democrats can play it and appreciate it? Balderdash! Talk about small ball. Vanden Heuval has always been petty, but this is sad even by her sorry standards (which are few and far between).

But then there is Amy Davidson’s attempt in The New Yorker to make an odd historical comparison between the circumstances of a young Al Smith when his father died and the young Paul Ryan, similarly circumstanced, nearly a century later. The comparison, one is led to believe, illustrates how far the country has come because Al Smith had to drop out of school to support his family while Paul Ryan received Social Security survivor benefits that he saved and used to finance his education, support his family, and launch his political career. Also, Ryan’s great-grandfather founded a construction business that built roads, railroads, and airports, thus achieving success, says Davidson, due “to a multi-generation commitment, on the part of this country, to investment in infrastructure.” The differences between Smith’s situation when his father died and Ryan’s, suggests Davidson, shows just how great have been the results of the hard work of the New Dealers—results that Ryan may or may not now be threatening in some way. Obviously this suggestion is meant as tragic irony. But her historical evidence is shallow—based only on the Pulitzer Prize winning historical tour de force The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro—and misleading. While Caro’s book is important and excellent, its focus is not Al Smith, but Robert Moses—and his influence on and implementation of the supposed “multi-generation commitment...to investment in infrastructure” (more on this in a moment). But even her attempt to turn Caro’s description of Smith’s biography into an ad misericordiam justification of the New Deal is flawed at best. For instance, Davidson falsely claims, and pretends that it is based on Caro’s work, that Smith’s family was “destroyed financially by uninsured medical costs,” and that Smith’s childhood was lost to having to support his family. This is not only dishonest and misleading, it’s pure anachronism.

Our current exaltation of suspended adolescence lasting into the twenties certainly was not shared by the Americans of Smith’s era (or those of any era for that matter). Children going to work to supplement or provide family incomes was not unusual in rural or urban settings for many centuries. Alexander Hamilton, for instance, himself an industrious and useful worker from an early age, tried to sell the promotion of manufacturing to the congress on the grounds that it would provide useful employment for women and children: “It is worthy of particular remark, that, in general, women and Children are rendered more useful and the latter more early useful by manufacturing establishments, than they would otherwise be. Of the number of persons employed in the Cotton Manufactories of Great Britain, it is computed that 4/7 nearly are women and children; of whom the greatest proportion are children and many of them of a very tender age.”[1] As Davidson humorously points out while trying attack former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, even if Ryan had not received Social Security insurance payments, child labor laws would have prevented a young fatherless adolescent from being economically valuable and supportive of his family. The fact that Smith’s story led to a greater amount of political success than Ryan’s has so far (whose father undoubtedly paid far more in taxes generally and social security in particular than his son ever saw—thus if the government had merely left the man alone, he could have used that money to protect himself and his family against accidental hardships) Davidson brushes off since, allegedly and without any attempt to prove the statement, “the attrition rate in such circumstances [Smith’s situation in the late 19th century] is a whole lot higher.” Smith was the Governor of New York and twice the Democratic nominee for the Presidency in 1924 and 1928. But, Davidson assures us, Smith’s situation was truly very desperate and, despite his great success, we should take this 19th century example as if it were the opposite of what it actually is; that is, a great and inspiring story of hard work and perseverance in a time and economic climate of easy mobility and opportunity. We are, instead, supposed to treat it as a heart-breaking tragic failure of a society too callous for a proper “social compact.”

But how desperate was it really? There is no doubt that after Smith’s father died, according to Caro, the family was in a real financial pickle. But let’s travel through the story—the entire story—as Caro tells it, and keep in mind the economic realities of today. As many historians, such as David Beito, remind us, mutual aid was the norm in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Voluntary association and civic cooperation had a long pedigree in the United States and American lore. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, for instance, inspired countless volunteer fire brigades, libraries, hospitals, colleges, reading clubs, mutual aid societies, and innumerable other civic and charitable organizations. Al Smith’s family, it turns out, is unexceptionable in this regard.

We are also all at least vaguely familiar with the fact that the economy of the late 19th century and early 20th century was not hampered by onerous and encyclopedic regulations and taxes—thus creating a far freer market for every commodity, including labor. Smith and his family were, again, no exceptions in this regard. Their friends generously made sure “that funeral expenses were paid.” Then, the very night of the funeral, Smith’s widowed mother marched “to an umbrella factory and got a job that she could start the next morning.” When she found her earnings were not enough to support her family “she asked for piecework that she could do at home” which she received. She performed these jobs until her own health began to wane and then, with “the help of friends, she opened a tiny grocery and candy store in the basement of the building in which the Smiths lived, but it quickly became obvious that the store would never provide enough to support the family.”[2]

At this point, Al Smith, a few months past 13 and few more shy of completing the eighth grade at the catholic school he attended, went to work. First he worked at a trucking firm for two years at $3 a week. Next he became a shipping clerk for two years at $8 a week. Next he found employ at the Fulton Fish Market for $12 a week. After four years at the Fish Market, he found a job “carrying heavy pipes at a pump works,” for $15 a week. Soon thereafter Smith was noticed as a potential recruit by New York’s Democratic Tammany machine and the rest, as they say, is history. Given the nearly non-existent inflation of the period (in fact the late 1890s were a deflationary period in most respects, and contrary to goofball Keynesian economics of the 21st century, deflation was not perceived as a big problem—and, indeed, it was not a problem), Smith’s rise through the ranks of unskilled laborers—not to mention his meteoric rise to the very top levels of political power and prestige in the State of New York and the country—is remarkable, but hardly unique. Others may not have made it to the top of a major party’s national ticket, but getting ahead was not an impossible task for people in dire straits like Al Smith. In the span of eight years, from the age of thirteen to twenty-one, he increased his earnings 500% and was able to support his family on his own through hard work and an ease of entry into new jobs that the modern economy sorely lacks—and that was before he became a Tammany man and began developing connections to advance his economic fortunes. He did not complete a college education. And what of it? That had no impact on his fortune anymore than it did any number of other American success stories before or after. Davidson’s choice of Smith is bizarre. Conceivably the only reason he was chosen was that his father died before he reached the age of maturity, as did Mr. Ryan’s father. But Smith did better without Social Security than Ryan has done with it, so far anyway.

Unable to merely leave it at an extremely inapt and dis-analogous comparison, Davidson then makes this dubious argument: “It is possible that Ryan’s father, who was fifty-five and a high earner, paid more in than his son got out; but the point is that the social insurance—the social compact—was there whether he did or not.” So it’s morally justifiable to expropriate Paul Ryan’s father for three or more decades, hampering his ability to provide for his family in good times and bad, in order so that, should a tragic accident occur, his son can collect a fraction of the money his father lost over the years? Had Ryan’s father not died, his money would have been entirely lost and of no use to the people he valued most in his own life. Instead, at the point of a gun, it would have gone to complete strangers, both those in duress and the bureaucrats collecting and distributing the money. The “social compact,” aside from being philosophically dubious, is morally perverse. It also has nothing whatever to do with any American principles and ideals at the time of the Revolution or the Founding. In fact, it’s quite antithetical to them.

The other dig at Ryan in Davidson’s piece is that his family helped build roads and other civic engineering projects, like O’Hare Airport—part of the “multi-generation commitment, on the part of this country, to investment in infrastructure.” Supposedly this is meant to function as a mild jab at Ryan’s “hypocrisy;” since he allegedly is hostile to funding the very projects his family sought to build as a livelihood for generations. Here, curiously, Davidson decides that Robert Caro’s book is no longer useful. That’s odd given the subject matter of The Power Broker—New York’s sickeningly powerful unelected emperor of public works projects, Robert Moses. For instance, had Davidson read Chapters 37 & 38, carefully, it would be almost unfathomable that she could so glibly and foolishly pretend that the “investment in infrastructure” was some unalloyed venture in greatness.

In those two Chapters, Caro examines the wreckage unleashed on the residents in the way of just one mile of Moses’s 627 miles of roads in and around New York City. Moses’s Cross-Bronx Expressway inexplicably veered through a successful and vibrant neighborhood of more than 1,500 apartments and over 5,000 residents when it could easily have been routed two blocks south through an adjoining park. Despite efforts to publicize their situation, get engineers to examine and defend an alternate route, and exact promises from elected officials, Moses successfully threatened and cajoled anyone who got in his way (usually by promising to turn off the spigots of New York State and Federal highway funds).[3] He eventually succeeded in getting the city of New York to condemn the offending neighborhood, force out its residents one by one, and then demolish it and build his bizarrely uncharacteristic mile of curved expressway. Caro explains:

Moses angrily charge that the borough president was raising objections now only because it was an election year and there was “local opposition.” Any local hardship will be “mitigated,” if not entirely removed, “by the elaborate steps which we have taken to move tenants in an orderly way into public, quasi-public and other housing,” and should be disregarded anyway, he said. “This route will be the backbone of traffic for centuries after a few objecting tenants have disappeared from the scene.... You have from time to time remarked that I do not have to be elected to office. Perhaps that is why I am in a position to protect the really long-range public interest.” He used his old threat—“Only recently you lost a substantial amount of ... money in the Bronx” by “blocking the Bruckner Expressway”; the Cross-Bronx “will cost more than thirty million dollars additional.... Would you like to see the project, now half completed, abandoned and remaining state and federal monies spent elsewhere?”—and then escalated it by threatening to resign as Construction Coordinator (“I should not care to carry this responsibility any further if borough politics are to be injected into it”)[4]

The housing Moses pledged to help the evicted and homeless tenants move into was almost entirely non-existent. The contract from the city to assist the residents find these new homes, however, was not. It does not take much imagination to guess who was behind the company in charge of “distributing” the money:

The men who owned stock in Nassau Management [the company that won the contract to relocate residents evicted for expressway construction] thus made fortunes without risking more than a token investment. The ostensible key men behind the company—its founders of record—were two low-echelon City Housing Authority employees who quit the Authority to form the firm. But they were only front men. The key figures behind Nassau Management, men who would profit from the relocation of the East Tremont tenants, were William S. Lebwohl, counsel of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority; Samuel Brooks, assistant director of the Mayor’s Slum Clearance Committee; and Housing Authority chairman Philip J. Cruise—three of Moses’ key aides.[5]

On top of the clear cronyism and conflicts of interest was the scandalous and corrupt way this organization performed the job for which it was paid millions of taxpayer dollars:

It must have been an accident that the “East Tremont” office opened by the “highly efficient” Nassau Management Company was located not in East Tremont but in West Farms, another neighborhood, inconveniently far away for the 1,530 families the office was supposed to serve. It must have been an accident that the office was open only a few hours a day, that those hours were constantly changing, that no notice was ever given of what those hours were going to be, and that inquiring about them by telephone was almost impossible since the single phone number listed for the office seemed to be always busy—so that often East Tremont housewives, having made the long trek over to West Farms, found waiting for them only a locked door. It must have been an accident that there were never enough company representatives in the office, so that the housewives waiting for help had to wait on long lines.[6]

Robert Caro is certainly no right-winger, but his honest recount of the facts for which he found evidence presents a tale of horrors that only the most callous of statist goons would ignore to propagate the myth that without government action and control we did not and would not have roads, airports, universities, or social support organizations and networks. History not only firmly and completely refutes this sophistry, it also shines the light on the horrific waste and corruption of every government usurpation of these previously private and competitive sectors of the economy.

Davidson’s use of historical analogy is not only quixotic, it is quite simply and utterly inaccurate. It disproves her point—assuming she has one—that Al Smith’s situation was worse than Paul Ryan’s; that social security insurance payments extracted from the savings, insurance, and retirements of others are the only, or best, or most ethical manner for people to confront the adversity of losing a father. Furthermore, she ignores the only evidence she presents—Robert Caro’s brilliant book, The Power Broker—when it has inconvenient things to say that undercut her public works hagiography or even Al Smith’s meteoric rise from adversity through his own hard work. Engaging in anachronism—that is, pretending that 21st century American squeamishness about child labor was a common thing a century ago anywhere on earth, and then pretending it was some manner of unusual or bad thing that a thirteen year old boy would work to supplement or support the family income. It was not. Dropping historical context may cut it at The New Yorker, but it’s a clear sign that partisan hackery is afoot.

[1] Report on the Subject of Manufactures, 5 December 1791, Alexander Hamilton: Writings, ed. Joanne B. Freeman (New York: Library of America, 2001), 661-662.
[2] Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Vintage, 1974), 114-116.
[3] Ibid, 850-894.
[4] Ibid, 866.
[5] Ibid, 878-879.
[6] Ibid, 879.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

More bad news from the “Maddow” Dam

Yuma, Arizona

Friday, 16 July 2021

It’s more bad news at the Rachel Maddow Memorial Dam. Already the most expensive and elaborate government engineering project ever undertaken, the “Maddow” Dam, as most refer to it, has suffered another setback due to concerns for the fate of the endangered Bufo punctatus, or red-spotted toad. This is the third endangered species that has threatened the project in as many years.

Work has been called to a halt indefinitely as a new team of on-site evaluators are flown in from the Environmental Protection Agency to assess whether or not the taxpayer’s $105 billion has been for naught. As the agricultural hinterland surrounding the Colorado River Valley in the Sonoran Desert eagerly awaits the expected flood of irrigating water created by the reservoir behind the Dam, some ponder if the project will ever be finished.

“I just don’t know,” said local Yuman, Charlene Stevens, “We’ve seen this happen several times now and they haven’t even started pouring concrete yet.” But at least one resident, Bradley George—chairman of the Local Yuma Occupy Auxiliary 202—thinks the stoppage is a good thing. “We never wanted this here anyway,” George said in a phone interview with reporters, “it’s just another giveaway to the private contractors and agri-businesses that make money off of growing non-organic, non-local food. It’s for damn sure they didn’t get the toad’s permission.”

Undertaken at the end of President Barack Obama’s second term in 2016, the “Maddow” Dam memorializes the noted advocate of government engineering projects and former MSNBC show host who tragically died in 2015 while shooting an ill-fated commercial at the Hoover Dam. Many will remember the wave of support that swept over the country for a second, bigger, Hoover Dam project in the weeks that followed as the nation watched the recovery operation for the anchor’s remains—a three month endeavor that shut down most of the Dam’s power operations as the turbines were individually removed and cleaned.

That was over six years ago. While the Hoover Dam was built in little more than four years at $50 million ($800 million in 2016 dollars), the “Maddow” Dam is already well over it’s modestly ambitious original $2 billion outlay. The chief culprits for the cost and time overruns, so far, have been the repetitive and expensive environmental surveys, the first of which prevented groundbreaking for three years.

It also has not helped that while Hoover Dam was built two years ahead of schedule with cheap and eager labor from among the First Great Depression’s unemployed, the “Maddow” Dam project managers have been forced to pay “prevailing union wages” to everyone associated with the project. The most recent project manager for the Dam’s construction (he resigned when notified of the stoppage due to concerns over the red-spotted toad), Carlton Wellock III, told the Associate Press that managing the project was akin to “waiting in line at the DMV while slowly moving backwards as the song ‘My Sharona’ plays louder and louder, over and over again.” While some fans of The Knack have puzzled over the meaning of this, most have interpreted the statement as evidence of Wellock’s intense frustration.

As the workers take their most recent paid leaves of absence to await the findings of the EPA’s investigation of the “Maddow” Dam’s impact on the habitat of the red-spotted toad, many around the country wonder if this project will ever really get underway, let alone finished. The optimism associated with the project’s namesake about the ease with which these grandiose projects could be undertaken and completed seems largely absent six years and tens of billions of dollars later.

“Well, we can’t just give up,” President Palin said to reporters at her Press Conference on Wednesday, “the ‘Maddow’ Dam represents good old-fashioned American get-up-and-go.” When pressed about whether or not she plans to press Congress for more funds for a project already 52 times more expensive than originally planned, given her pledge to reduce the nation’s $24 trillion debt, the President replied: “You betcha!”