Presidents Christmas Special

It's that time of year and it's a good time to reflect on some of the interesting facts on the religious views of our past presidents.

Many on both sides of the political spectrum like to use the dead to serve the political ends of the living, but the truth is often more interesting than legend.

Some quick tidbits:

George Washington outlawed the practice of burning an effigy of the pope on Guy Fawkes day when he was trying to build support of his revolution among French Catholics in the north and Canadian territories.

John Adams was a Unitarian, a religion that even now is considered a sort of Hollywood type church. He was originally going to be a preacher, but left to pursue the practice of law which he believed was a higher calling.

Thomas Jefferson considered Jesus to be the greatest philosopher of all time, but rejected his divinity and miracles. He went as far as creating his own rational bible in which he blacked out all the miracles and had the gospels end with the stone being rolled in front of Jesus' tomb.

James Polk's father was a deist and much of his views on religious tolerance were formed when his minister refused to baptize him unless his father converted.

Andrew Jackson was heavily influenced by Old Testament teachings and would frequently refer to enemies as worshipers of Baal or Mammon.

20% (11) of the US Presidents were Episcopalian even though they only comprise 1.7% of the current US Population.

Christmas was not even a national holiday in the United States until Ulysses S. Grant declared it as such in 1870.

With that in mind- remember that history is never as clear cut as you think!

Merry Christmas-



James Polk: A Modest To Do List

I was surprised to learn that Polk is widely considered one of the most influential presidents of all time, but after reading this book I understood why.

Here's the platform he campaigned on:

1) Lower Tariff's
2) Restructure National Banking System
3) Take California from Mexico through peaceful or other means
4) Secure Oregon Territory and border with Canada/British

Polk promised all these things during his campaign, and unlike the vague and unachievable campaign promises of today, he put his credibility on the line and actually did them in the one term of office he served.

He kick started the industrial revolution by lowering Tariffs for manufacturers, averted financial disaster by restructuring his mentor Andrew Jackson's broken banking system. He stretched the borders of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, securing California which would eventually become one of the largest economies in the world in its own right. Oh yeah, and he averted what would have been a costly drawn out war with Great Britain through tough but fair negotiations.


John Tyler: This is Your Life

As I tried to think of things to write about Tyler, I could think of few positives about the man, at least in the view of history.

It's hard to say what public opinion would have said about him at the time. Maybe he would have been thought of by his southern colleagues as a true defender of the Republic and enemy of the 'Tyranny' of the national bank and northern meddling in southern affairs.

Now, however, the consensus view of history is that his great legacy was the following:

1) He seized power after Harrison died and maintained the presidency. (until this point, most thought that the vice president would simply serve as acting presidency until another election was arranged) He was referred to as 'His Accidency' to his death.

2) He tried to be a national cheer leader for the institution of slavery going as far as hiring foreign secret agents to promote it in London and Paris newspapers. He supported and signed the joint resolution on the acquisition of Texas to expand the slave holding republic in the South.

3) He agreed to run on the Whig ticket while refusing to adhere to almost any of the party's beliefs (internal improvements, protection of manufacturing interests etc) It was well known at the time he was nominated that he was really a Southern Democrat, but it was thought that putting him on Harrison's ticket as VP wouldn't hurt anything since even in the event of Harrison's death, he wouldn't really become president (SEE NUMBER 1)

4) When he made the decision to stay in Office, he was abandoned by both major political parties, the Whigs because he was a Democrat and the Democrats because he ran as a Whig. Except for Daniel Webster, his entire cabinet resigned.

5) He ultimately betrayed his own country, defecting to the Confederacy during the Civil War (he died soon after)

When Tyler died, the United States didn't even officially mourn his passing. I can't say I do now either.


John Tyler: Letters to the Land of the Rising Sun

John Tyler suffered from the same view as Europe that the non European world was the white man's burden. In fairness to him, his ignorance of Asian and African cultures continued will into the 20th century in America, but we still have to shake our head at some of the things he said.

In a letter to the Emperor of China, which was at the time, one of the most powerful and richest countries in the world, Tyler sounds as though he's talking to some tribe of hunter gatherers that have no written language.

Here's a piece of his letter that was featured in Edward Crapol's biography:

"China is a great empire, extending over a great part of the world. You have millions and millions of subjects. The twenty-six United States are as large as China (?), though our people are not so numerous. The rising sun looks over the great mountains and great rivers of China. When he sets, he looks upon rivers and mountains equally large in the United States."

This sounds like Jackson's letter to the Seminole Indians explaining that they need to join their great brothers west of the Mississippi where the Great Creator wants them to live in peace and abundance.

Maybe any president around Tyler's time would have had the same stereotypes about the Chinese being little more than barbarians, but it's just striking that this letter was actually an official correspondence.


John Tyler: World Opinion

We all think that W. must have been the president to make the worst impression abroad in the history of these United States, but Tyler may have given him a run for his money.

In a time when the great empires of Europe, France, England and some of the German kingdoms were outlawing slavery in their territories, Tyler was sending secret agents over to the UK to promote it with propaganda and letters to the editor in British newspapers written under false names.

He actually appointed an 'ambassador' to slavery in the UK who would put a good face on the peculiar institution. While the UK was certainly not blameless for historical atrocities during the period of the mid 1800's, it can certainly take credit for the abolitionist movement that spread to the North.

Instead of heading the call of historical inevitability though, Tyler dug in and was determined to prove to his friends abroad that slavery was not only necessary, but also was righteous. He used the same pseudo science Jefferson used in his 'Notes on the State of Virginia' to try and prove his racial points.

I guess Tyler's refusal to admit that slavery's days were numbered is similar to Tea Partiers that refuse to believe pollution and global warming exist. They hold this view because it's more convenient for them if pollution doesn't exist, that way they can continue their life style unfettered by the inconveniences and moral dilemma of causing harm to their world.


John Tyler: Not the best Judgement

Tyler may be remembered as many things, an unrepentant pro slavery man, the last vestige of ante bellum southern society, a traitor to the country, but there was one thing he was good at, and that was entertaining.

Sadly, even though this was his strength, it's also something that he's negatively remembered for.

On the deck of "The Peacemaker", a massive warship, John Tyler threw a party for a bunch of diplomats, senators and much of his cabinet. The party was kicked off by having the Peacemaker fire off a bunch of rounds from its huge 12 inch diameter cannon.

After the guests had watched the display for an hour or so, they went below deck for dinner and more champagne (Tyler's favorite drink)

After more merriment, Tyler gave several toasts and then the dinner was started. A while later, they noticed they were passing Mount Vernon and requested a final gun salute to George Washington. As if from some novel, the Captain of the ship initially refused saying "No more guns tonight", but the Secretary of Navy pulled rank and insisted that there would be more guns that night.

As you can imagine, something horrible happened. The massive cannon exploded, killing the secretary of Navy, a couple members of Tyler's cabinet, a diplomat and the father of his future bride to be (30 years younger than him) who was in attendance (Tyler comforted her in her grief and they later married)

Tyler was spared from the explosion because he stayed below deck to listen to a song his son in law was signing.

Amazingly, this wasn't the low point in history of Tyler's career. That would come later where he actually joined the confederacy in betrayal of his country.


John Tyler: Opportunist

John Tyler like most politicians of his day was not satisfied with the vice presidency.

Probably even more so than politicians of our day since in the 1830's, it was believed that in the event a vice president stepped into office after the death of the president, he'd merely act as the steward of the state until another election could be arranged.

We're probably much more concerned about who a presidential candidate is now than they would have been in Harrison and Tyler's time since we know that the VP will at the very least, finish out the term of the deceased president and potentially run for re election. Harrison supporters most likely wouldn't have had these Sarah Palin type concerns since they thought the worst that could happen was that the party would simply pick another candidate to run in a second election.

It's not as though he could have an alternative reading of the constitution, take the reins of power and refuse to step down could he? Well, yes he could apparently.

Immediately after news of Harrison's death came to him in his home in Virginia, Tyler returned to Washington and had himself sworn in. At this point, it wouldn't have been a clean process to unseat him from power, so people (most people anyway) grudgingly accepted.

This would not stop his enemies from addressing correspondences to him addressed to 'The Acting President' and people referring to him as 'His Accidency'.

It's ironic that Tyler set the precedent for a peaceful, orderly transfer of power in the United States since he took office against the will of almost his entire cabinet and leading members of his own party.


#10: John Tyler: The Southern Strategy

We all know one of the most famous slogans in American Presidential Politics, Tippecanoe and Tyler too- but how did we get to the point that this became such an iconic slogan? The answer is old fashioned message control and ticket management behind one of the country's first national opposition parties, the Whig party.

I spoke before about how in the late 1830's and early 1840's, the country was largely divided into three sections, The North, The South and The West (although this meant mostly what we would call the Midwest today).

The Whig party put a candidate in the field (Harrison) with a lot of things going for him, War Hero that killed Tecumseh and his 'nation of tribes', executive experience being the Governor of the Indiana territory and someone that didn't have a lot of dirt on him (not much was known of him nationally other than that he was a war hero). He was also a Virginian, even though he left his home state at a young age.

Harrison had the West (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan etc) locked up, he had a small contingent in the North tired of what they viewed as Jackson and Van Buren's populist policies and he had a fair showing in the South. Harrison needed to do something to win over either the North or South to really lock up the presidency.

They opted to nominate John Tyler, the tried and true Southerner that was really more of an old time republican than a Whig, but they were willing to compromise.

The move paid off in that the Whigs won the election of 1840 but would come back to haunt them a month later when Tyler expectantly stepped into the power vacuum as president when Harrison became the first president to die in office.


Harrison: Regional Realities

From the 1820's on, the nation was progressively more defined by regional differences and identities.

Instead of Nascar Dads, Soccer Moms, immigrants, etc. the country was divided in a large part by geography with the Northeast, the South and the 'West' making up the primary designations of political loyalty.

The south, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia etc. was run by the slave holding old money class of people. Many of the economic reforms in manufacturing and other industries never arrived there, making the landholding aristocracy more powerful and the poorer whites in a constant state of dependence. Blacks obviously were in the ultimate state of dependence there.

The Northeast, New York, Massachusetts, Maine etc. also had an established power structure since it was one of the oldest parts of the country, but it also had a new merchant and business class that was gaining more influence than it ever had in generations past. The improvements to transportation were making it ever richer compared with their southern, more feudal counterparts.

As the value of American currency plummeted during Jackson's disastrous war against the National Bank in the 1830's, the Northeast continued to export and bring in much needed gold and foreign currency into its economy. This kept their economy more stable as the south, which was a net importer of materials fell apart.

The West was dominated by 'new men' from both the south and north. They were speculators, homesteaders and entrepreneurs. They were generally in favor of a strong central government for security against the Indians that populated the land and 'internal improvements' such as rail roads, canals etc. that improved transportation.

Harrison was ultimately a candidate that could appeal on at least two out of three of the levels having been the governor of Indiana a true westerner but having been born in the Tidewater district of Virginia also sufficiently southern. Family title played big in the south and this was the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. From the North's perspective, he was attractive because he was not viewed as a complete southerner having made his way in the unsettled lands of Ohio and Indiana.

He also made the Northeast a little more comfortable because although he owned slaves, he was in a large part silent on the issue and didn't challenge the notion that it should not expand and would eventually be fazed out.

To cement his victory in the south however, the Whigs put John Tyler on the ticket. A southern gentlemen that was a sort of Sarah Palin to the ticket. Most Whigs understood he was really a Democrat and not a Whig, but thought that with the upside he'd bring to getting them elected, what's the worst that could happen?

Barely a month after Harrison took office in 1841, they found out.


Harrison: Temperance

Harrison was an unlikely advocate for moderation in all things.

The fact that his early history involved coming out to the unsettled Northwest Territories (now Ohio and Indiana) after joining the military due to the difficulty of obtaining wealth in his home state of Virginia gives him a Jacksonian frontiersman feel.

He ran for one of the first effective opposition parties under the 'log cabin and hard cider' campaign which denoted a sort of good old boy/Fox News Tea Party type marketing effort.

He won the campaign in a large part because of his bravery and selfless risk taking in the battle against Tecumseh's multi tribe fighting force during the War of 1812.

All of these things would have us guess that he was more populist in nature, a real man's man. But Harrison would have preferred to be a scholar like Quincy Adams or Jefferson had his circumstances allowed it rather than a military hero like Washington or Monroe.

When he first came out to the territories to lead the army there, he was appalled by the excesses he saw in the alcohol abuse of both his own men and the resident creek Indians, the constant dueling and the lack of discipline at the military camps.

He implemented severe penalties for dueling, passed such progressive reforms as refusing to allow white merchants to accept the clothes off the tribesman's backs for alcohol (it was apparently a problem at this time that there were a bunch of Indians running around naked because they pawned their own clothing) and punished drunkenness severely.

Harrison also did his best to treat the Indians fairly, at least compared to Jackson and the other Indian fighters of the time (I know that's a pretty low bar) and even court martialed his own men when they practiced indiscriminate killing of tribesmen in retaliation for Indian raids on the white settlements.

The idea of such an Indian fighter having such a temperate lifestyle just amuses me. Hardly what I expected from 'Old Tippecanoe'.


Harrison: The View from Main Street in the 1930's

Truth and memory are subjective things that change from century to century and decade to decade. This could not have been driven home to me more obviously than when I read this book.

As you probably know from 7th grade history class- Harrison was only president for a few weeks. He famously caught pneumonia after giving his inaugural speech outside in foul weather and died shortly thereafter. It's not surprising then that my choices were limited as far as books. Turns out there's only one Harrisonphile out there and the book he wrote was from 1939.

Everything about this book seemed dated, from the crude racial language to the author's old timey name- Freemen Cleaves.

What was more interesting than the book itself though, was reading a view of historical events that for the most part changed in the last 25 years or so. This author's view of the Battle of Tippecanoe was quite different than our current guilt ridden view of our interaction with the Native people's of the United States.

Tecumseh, the Shawnee Chief that helped to unite several tribes in the Midwestern United States against American expansion is now remembered as something of a folk hero. In the historical re enactments such as the ones my family and I used to watch in southern Ohio, he's usually the 'noble savage' fighting uncouth settlers to maintain his people's benign way of life.

In this author's mind though, he was barely more than a terrorist and lacked the self control that the noble whites could exercise over themselves. The Indians were constantly shifting sides from supporting the British to the US, from anger to passivity. The alcoholism that ravaged their people is treated almost as a character flaw of the hapless 'redskins'.

In addition to his dim view of the 'redskins', he also seemed to have a dark view of mixed race people, referring to them as 'mulattos', octoroons or quadroons (I actually had to google the last two to find out what they even meant).

It's easy to write off this man's unpolitically correct views as extremely racist, but we have to remember that his views were the status quo of the American white population when he wrote this book in the late 1930's. In fact, this guy actually was from suburban New York, so it's not like he was some KKK member from Mississippi or anything like that.

If we want to judge this guy's views on non white Americans as a relic of the past, we should really ask ourselves just why is it that a significant portion of the American population doesn't think that Barack Obama is a 'real' US citizen? Would we learn that we're less evolved than we thought?


William Henry Harrison: Not an Idiot

If you're like me, you grew up thinking that Harrison was an idiot.

Any guy who's best known for giving his inaugueration speech outside in the cold who catches pneumonia and dies a month later must be an idiot right?


Harrison was sort of a mix between the idealism of Thomas Jefferson and the political realism of Martin Van Buren. He carried with him the speeches of Cicero and other Greek classics, but was not above trafficking in populism to win votes during his presidential election (the log cabin and hard cider campaign)

He's a hard guy to pin down, he was known as an Indian fighter famous for defeating Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe, but in his private correspondences, he chastises his colleagues for not honoring Indian land treaties that they signed and committing atrocities against tribes.

Like Jackson, he came out west (Ohio was still the frontier when he went out there in the late 18Th century) but was not the brawling, risk taking man's man Jackson was.

He was a frontiersman who was against the excesses of drinking, gambling and dueling that he saw in his militia troops.

In short, he was a complicated individual. He did a whole lot of stuff before he was president, it's sad that he was able to do so little while he was president.


Martin Van Buren: Party Animal

I'm not just calling Van Buren a party animal because the term 'booze' was coined because of the E.B. Booz liquor company which supplied the log cabin shaped liquor bottles in his unsuccessful campaign against the Whigs.

Van Buren helped to form one of the first truly national movements in America. To this point, with some exceptions, most politics were defined by regional interests. The Federalist party, or what little was left of it at this point represented the Northeastern manufacturing interests. The Democratic-Republicans represented the Southern agricultural interests.

At one time to be from Massachusetts was to be a Federalist, to be from Virginia was to be a Republican (different meaning then). Van Buren changed all that.

He had modern advances in technology and transportation on his side. Now was the heyday of steam ship travel, the start of efficient train travel and the golden age of party newspapers.

Presidents and politicians in the northeast or Virginia in the early 1800's would never have dreamed of taking months off to travel out west to Ohio or down south to Georgia. To do so would have presented great risks, been excruciatingly slow, uncomfortable and cost prohibitive.

Now, if Van Buren wanted to consult his mentor Andrew Jackson on a policy matter, he could board a train to Tennessee and be back to Washington D.C. in a matter of days, not months.

Newspaper presses started to cater more towards general political sentiments than regional interests. They were also becoming easier to operate and could get readers undivided attention, unlike the political pamphlets of the early 1800's which were only read by those already inclined to agree with them.

These are the tools that allowed Van Buren to forge his national democratic party and are the same tools that the Whig party, copying his methods would use to defeat him four years after took office.


Martin Van Buren: O.K.

Few people who say 'ok' reflexively to a question realize that the term comes from Van Buren.

He used to sign his letters 'O.K.' which stood for 'Old Kinderhook' (his hometown in NY)- one of his many nicknames. This one was use mostly by his operatives to give a homey feel to his policies (think Old Hickory for Jackson or the fireside chats of FDR)

For whatever reason, the phrase stuck around for much longer than people's memories of the president.

Some other interesting nicknames of Van Buren (he had many)

"The Careful Dutchman" (his native language)
"The Little Magician" (he was a kingmaker and very short)
"Martin Van Ruin" (Whig critics name for him due to the Panic of 1837)
"The Red Fox of Kinderhook" (the best kind of nickname, used by friends and enemies)


Martin Van Ruin: Specie Circular

Political Cartoon "The Ghost of Commerce"

Martin Van Buren's presidency was dominated by an economic crisis that known as the Panic of 1837.

It's hard to say if government policy was completely to blame for this economic crisis, but it's fair to say that Martin Van Buren was unjustly blamed for it with his Whig Party critics calling him 'Martin Van Ruin'.

The crisis stemmed from land speculation in taken Indian Lands. If you recall from my posts on Jackson, the Indians by this time were mostly pushed out of the South and East. Jackson's poor Democratic constituents rushed in to purchase cheap land from the government and homestead it.

Speculators got in on the act buying and selling large parcels of this land to resell to people looking to come out and ranch or farm on it. Many of these speculators borrowed from state banks whose paper currency was not backed by specie (gold and silver). This led to massive inflation and a devaluation of paper currency.

In response, Jackson towards the end of his second term issued the Specie Circular act which required that Federal (old Indian) lands be purchased by gold or silver. This essentially froze the credit markets (similar to the credit freeze that escalated the 08' banking crisis, but actually imposed by the government) since the state banks and the borrowers were relying on and trading in drastically inflated paper money they issued.

It's fair to say also that in not renewing the National Bank's charter in his crusade against the bankers and moving the Fed's reserves to state banks, Jackson created the conditions that the state banks could cause this credit bubble.

Van Buren was caught between a rock and a hard place, since he did not want to take responsibility for the crisis himself and did not want to sell out his old friend Jackson. He could have done better in the PR department as he was the first man to really start a political machine, but this was his undoing. The Jackson administration had made so many enemies, the opposition had a very easy time covering the story in their partisan newspapers.

It's the economy stupid. Martin Van Buren was doomed to be a one term president.


Martin Van Buren: A Few Words

(From the White House Historical Association)

As Jackson's Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren was the Super Ego to Jackson's Id. While Jackson was known for challenging his opponents with the (actual) threat of bodily harm, Van Buren was much more likely to invite them to dinner.

His style was not of a gentleman of rank and status like Jefferson and Washington but also was not the hard charging, take no prisoners strategy of Jackson. He was much more of a political animal, understanding that he could not always make a stand on his own pure principals and that sometimes you have to make an alliance with your opponent to get what you want.

This dedication to preserving the peace helped him serve as a moderating influence in the Jackson administration, curbing some of Jackson's wilder instincts. It also helped him serve as a fixer in the constant infighting in the cabinet. He befriended the scandalized Peggy Eaton who had embroiled the administration in sex scandals and who the cabinet members' wives had shunned.

He helped to found the Democratic Party (he and Jackson called it The Democracy) which was not quite like Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi's party, but still was a political party in the true sense. He united slave owning interests in the South with populist interests in the North, creating the first truly National party.

He has the ironic distinction of being the first President born an American citizen and the only president ever whose native language is something other than English (Dutch). Lou Dobbs and his Birthers would be very confused!


Andrew Jackson: Indian Policy- Could the results have been different?

The American Indian Policy of the early 1800's was similar to most other European powers of the time. That's to say that there was forced or nearly forced assimilation of religion, agriculture and laws. Native Peoples were expected to adopt the language and customs of the more powerful colonizer in a very short time frame, often within a lifetime of running into the foreign power.

This is different than in the Ancient world where for example, the expanding Roman Empire would often let native religion and customs flourish, assimilating the natives over several lifetimes. This assimilation was often carried out through incentives such as positions of influence that were rewarded or simply leading by example and making the natives wish to adopt customs of 'civilization' rather than doling out punishments. The military would often resettle lands that were conquered and over 100 yrs or so, the conquered lands began to look more roman and less 'barbarian'.

I think to look at the possibilities for the way things could have turned out differently in America greatly depended on the individual Indian Nation/Tribe.

I'm of the belief that tribes like the Apaches in the Southwest never could have lived peacefully amongst settlers. This is because their way of life was nomadic and there wasn't really a concept of land ownership or boundaries like there is in Western Culture. Raiding rival tribes was an accepted part of life. There's no possible way that the American people, who came West precisely to own and homestead land could ever have lived in peace with them.

In fact, if you want to look at an ancient parallel, you could look to the Germans in the Roman Empire who even when defeated, Rome could never truly colonize and assimilate until very late in its history. This is because their entire way of life depended on warfare. Agriculture and settlement were actually forbidden by the chieftains because they were afraid that it would make their people too peaceable and unprepared for war.

I do however believe that relations between the '5 civilized tribes' could have gone very differently than they did. The Cherokee, Chicksaw, Choktaw, Seminole and Creek tribes had all adopted regular, settled agriculture to varying degrees. These are the nations that the Supreme Court and many leading citizens of Jackson's time wanted to maintain treaties and trade with.

In my opinion, if it weren't for such a pro Indian removal Executive in the White House at this time that marshaled the US Army for his purposes, these tribes could have remained in the Southeast through the Civil War and possibly to this day. I would also say that if it weren't for the British and Spanish manipulating and convincing the Seminoles and Creeks to fight the United States in the War of 1812, sympathy for Jackson's policies would most likely have been less.

These tribes had villages and cities, some had adopted the Christian religion to varying degrees, many had adopted the Western form of dress and many had learned English, conversed regularly and traded with the White settlers that lived near them.

It's very easy to imagine if not for the forced resettlement, these tribes holding on to much of their culture and evolving and modernizing along with the White Settlers. It's interesting to think about what the country would look like now if the Southeast were some sort of semi autonomous or fully autonomous country.

I think that most of the Tribes would simply have been eventually annexed by the United States and would be sort of like Puerto Rico or Hawaii today- places with their own history and identity, but also are undeniably American.

It's a shame that the populists and speculators won the day in Jackson's time and the stage was set for ethnic cleansing and the forced removal of people from their land.


Andrew Jackson: Indian Policy

Map of the Trail of Tears showing the path that the Cherokee nation had to take to where they resettled in Oklahoma.

from mapoftheunitedstates.org

To the Native Americans in this country, Andrew Jackson is like Hitler. I've talked before about how some tribes will make efforts not to accept twenty dollar bills and the long running campaigns to remove him from the twenty dollar bill.

Jackson got his start as the famous Indian Fighter in the Tennessee Militia in skirmishes with the Creek Indians who had sympathies towards the British after the War of 1812. He later fought the Seminole Indians in Spanish Florida, nearly leading to renewed war with the British when he executed two British Citizens whom he accused of spying.

He capped off his reputation as the enemy of the Indians by siding with the State of Georgia in the 1830's when the State, having found gold on the Cherokees' land, wanted to kick them out. The surprising thing about this is that the Supreme Court at the time actually ruled against the State interfering on Indian lands due to previous treaties and Jackson went against it, eventually putting in motion the Trail of Tears, where thousands of Cherokees who were forced off of their land by the US Army died of exposure, disease and starvation in their forced Western march. The friend of democracy was not a friend of judicial supremacy apparently.

It's without a doubt, that Jackson certainly is the poster boy for the horrible policies against Indians, but I have to wonder if he's to some degree a scapegoat or convenient target. Jackson's views were extreme compared with people like Jefferson and Q. Adams who favored peaceful relations and coexistence or at least tolerance of Indians that abandoned their hunter gatherer ways and adopted agricultural practices. However, they weren't that far out of the mainstream.

Several groups favored abandoning previous Treaties that U.S. had agreed to and favored the policy of pushing Indians off their land. The poor who Jackson identified with had much to gain in homesteading fertile land that was once held by the Creeks, Cherokees or Seminoles. Wealthy land speculators wanted to buy and sell huge swaths of land for development and banking interests wanted to lend to those speculators. Religious interests feared that the Indians among them would erode morality.

Even the most compassionate/law and order whites usually only favored tolerating the presence of civilized, agriculture based tribes, not groups that still made a subsistence from hunting and gathering.

Jackson, in carrying out the policy of forced removal with the Trail of Tears, was simply removing the pretense of law and order that his predecessors had clung to. In his mind, he was bringing democracy to the masses (whites at least).

He also justified these policies as more than simple land grabs by making flimsy arguments that it's in the Cherokees' best interest to move West where tensions with the White Man would cease and they could live their own way of life (never mind that the Whites were causing most of the tension).


Andrew Jackson: The Irony of Paper Money

(from getjacksonoffthe20.net)
very subtle!

There's two major reasons why it's ironic that Andrew Jackson is on the twenty dollar bill.
First and most obvious-he hated paper money.

Jackson was an opponent of the central banking system which printed currency and one of his major legacies was to not renew its charter and remove its gold deposits to state banks.

Andrew Jackson was a populist and always was suspicious of power in the hands of the elite. He saw the bank as something that could buy influence of politicians (there was probably some truth to this) and something that was inherently undemocratic as it could print money without oversight of elected officials (also some truth to that)

He favored an economic system with gold and other precious metals as the currency. He felt that these are the only monetary instruments that cannot be manipulated by powerful interests.

Second, there's the fact that Indian reserves to this day will often not accept twenty dollar bills.

Why do you ask? Well, his policies towards the Indians are worthy of an entirely separate blog post. Remember the Trail of Tears? That's Jackson.

This is doubly ironic due to the fact that Jackson would most likely not want to accept his own twenty dollar bill due to his stance on paper money vs. gold.


Andrew Jackson: SEX Scandals

Peggy Eaton (from academicamerican.com)

Apologies to any new readers, that was just a cheap trick to get you to visit this blog.

Sex scandals have been around for all of American History- certainly there was Sally Hemings with Thomas Jefferson and in almost every Presidential Election- there were accusations from the opposition candidate that their rival had sired children with their slaves (with the exception of John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams since they were the only Presidents so far to not own slaves)

Two major scandals dominated Jackson's administration.

The first I think would even be hard to take even in today's much more forgiving world. Jackson had married a woman before she was technically divorced from her husband. There's lots of opinions on this- for example some feel that in the frontier, marriage could be annulled by mutual consent, some claim that the woman was in an abusive relationship etc...

But seriously, can you even imagine if a presidential candidate married someone before they were legally divorced from their spouse???

Jackson was called a bigamist and adulterer as well as home breaker and wife stealer. In the end, his wife died right before he took office and he blamed the whole affair (no pun intended) on John Quincy Adams' political operatives. Both men went to their death as bitter enemies.

Secondly, there was Peggy Eaton. Peggy was the wife of Jackson's Secretary of War.

The accusations against her were basically that she was a loose woman. She had been married to a man in the Navy who had ended up killing himself and the rumor was that it was because he was distraught over his wife's infidelity.

She was the daughter of a Washington Inn Keeper and would always flirt with the politicians that came in, striking up conversations with men she found interesting. This being un-natural for a woman of these times only fueled the rumors.

The cloud that followed Jackson into the White House would have eventually dispersed, had the feelings on this woman not led to an internal squabble between the wives of his cabinet members.

In those days, there was great importance put on woman calling on or receiving other women of their social rank as guests. Peggy Eaton felt that since she had married into political prominence, she was entitled to be treated as a lady of distinction. The other wives of the cabinat members however, felt that it would insult their virtue to associate with such a woman and refused her visits.

I won't go on anymore about the nuances of the Petticoat Scandal except to say that it ends with an armed posse, one of Jackson's cabinet members fleeing D.C. for his life as Jackson looks on, and the Eatons living an alcohol fueled retirement where they consumed on average two bottles of wine and one bottle of rum a day, an excessive amount even for the times. (I should mention that the cocktail was invented as a breakfast drink in the 1800's)

I can promise you though- as we're getting into the time of cheap, partisan newspapers, the sex scandals will become much more visceral from here on out, and the whisper campaigns will eventually become the shouting matches that we're all so familiar with.


Andrew Jackson: Hatred of the British

From a very young age, Jackson held a deep seated, Mel Gibsonish hatred of the British.

He volunteered at the age of thirteen to be a courier in the revolutionary War. He and his brother were captured and brought in front of a British Officer who ordered Jackson to clean his boots. Jackson refused and the officer then became upset, striking Jackson in the head with the flat part of his saber and leaving a scar running the entire length of his face for the rest of his life.

In prison, he and his brother nearly starved to death and became infected with small pox from the unsanitary conditions. His brother ended up dying on the journey back home after his mother won their release.

His mother died not too long after that and even if it was not directly caused by the British, he at least somewhat blamed them.

Jackson saw the British encroachments on American sovereignty such as the capture and impressment of American sailors after independence was won and saw many of the Indian revolts in the West as evidence of British aggression (he was probably right as often as he was wrong about this)

I think that if we try and look for the root cause of all his hatred of the British, we could also look to where his parents came from, Northern Ireland. I assume that his mother (his father died before he was born) had tales to tell of British Atrocities over there as there were many at the time.

Also, the class system created by the British Empire in which well born, educated elites rose to the heights of power and the lower classes toiled away in subservient roles created an environment that held Jackson, a poor self educated orphan, back.

He was a man that saw the world in black and white, and to him, the new Zion in which he lived was good, while the old world was corrupt and evil.

Does it still make sense for people to have this view of American Exceptionalism in the world of today? Can America have the moral superiority when it's not the underdog anymore?


Stop Calling People Hitler

Politics in America has always been nasty. Even in the 'deferential' age of Jefferson, Adams and Washington, insults were thrown freely around.

But the duels and accusations of tyranny notwithstanding, it seems that the politics of the masses in this country have gone a little extreme lately.

People are being whipped up by the poor man's revolutionaries at Fox News like Glenn Beck or Shawn Hannity. Soccer moms, Nascar dads and otherwise normal individuals are going to town halls and city council meetings and shouting down politicians and their 'Nazi' health care plan. Barack Obama is portrayed with a Hitler mustache on effigies and signs by people protesting his 'socialist Nazi policies'. Never mind the fact that Hitler was a fascist, but I don't think many of these people paid attention in history class anyway.

Do they realize if they want to throw the Nazi card down that shouting down all opposition politicians was also the method of Hitler's Brown Shirts and not to mention the revolutionary guard in Iran? The only reason that you make a show of carrying assault rifles outside some political event is intimidation, not sticking up for your rights.

I'm not going to cut the liberals a break on the Nazi card either. Many of their ilk carried around the famous Bush Nazi merchandise as well. All of their leftist Hannity equivalents like Olberman and Michael Myers would have you believe that Bush stole Christmas (the secular part of course since they don't believe in religion) and was going to put everyone into concentration camps any day.

My point is that although strong words in politics are sometimes needed, I think that people need to dial it down a little bit on both the right and the left.

Adolph Hitler's insane policies of racial extermination directly or indirectly led to the deaths of between 50 to 70 MILLION PEOPLE from combat, starvation, exposure and simple mass murder. He tried to wipe an entire race of people from the planet and take Europe's historical anti semitism to its 'final solution'.

I hardly think that disagreeing with Barack Obama's Public Heath option or George W. Bush's tax policy is justification to call either one of them the name of the most infamous mass murderer that ever lived.

That seems like an unforgivable insult to the memory of the millions and millions that died in that war and also to the millions of people that were lucky enough to survive it.


Andrew Jackson: Anger Problems

from The Washington Post

Jackson duels with Charles Dickinson- getting wounded but killing him.

Andrew Jackson followed what we might call gut feelings politics. He saw black and white, and not a whole lot of nuance in between.

As our former president said, you were either with him or against him. It's not surprising therefore that he didn't take criticism or insults very well.

He had fought in two duels, one in which, recognizing that he was a bad shot, allowed his opponent to fire first, then, holding the wound to avoid passing out from the loss of blood, slowly aimed and fired killing the man.

The second duel was fought when he was a lawyer working on one of his early cases. He felt the other lawyer had insulted him in front of the judge and challenged the man to a duel right then and there in front of the judge and jury. Perhaps he had grown some wisdom by then since he and the other man decided to simply point their pistols up in the air and fire to satisfy honor.

When South Carolina threatened to secede he told the instigator that he would personally come down to the state and hang him from the tallest tree if he continued talk of the state withdrawing from the Union.

He once chased an enemy on the street with a bull whip. As a judge in Tennessee when a fugitive refused to appear in front of the court, Jackson personally hunted the man down and brought him into custody at gun point.

After an assassination attempt, he swung at his attacker with a cane and had to be restrained by his cabinet.

He was not a man to be trifled with.


Andrew Jackson: Humble Beginnings

I'll come right out and say it, I don't like Andrew Jackson and I don't like the populist era of politics that he ushered in.

However, I have to respect that he was the first American president to live what we would call the American Dream.

Previous to Jackson, all presidents had come from distinguished families. Jackson, though, was what the Romans would have called a 'new man'. He was the first in his family to do anything of real acclaim and obtain the status of the upper class.

His father died the year he was born and his mother died of a cholera epidemic when he was 14. He was raised as an orphan from the age of 14 by a not so thrilled family.

Although he had private tutors, he had none of the formal education that Jefferson, Madison and the Adams' had enjoyed. He had no family members in politics and no real connections in the professional world.

He drank excessively, gambled and fought. He wasn't what you might call presidential material.

At some point however, he decided to pursue a law degree, move to the great west (Tennessee at the time), eventually becoming a judge, general of the state Militia and eventually, President of the United States.

Whatever we might think of the man, it's still kind of amazing that he rose as far as he did.


John Quincy Adams: Rivalries

Like many of his predecessors, John Q. Adams had an intense rivalry and almost personal hatred of the man who would defeat him after one presidential term- Andrew Jackson.

Q. Adams was a Puritan, one of the last well known gentlemen from the 'deferential age', was Harvard educated and steeped in the classics.

Andrew Jackson was self taught, had not been to school, and was a frontiersman that had fought in two duels and had a bullet lodged near his chest to prove it. He was what the Romans would have called a 'new man'- someone that came from obscurity but rose to a high political rank.

Even beyond the difference in backgrounds, Jackson's political beliefs were about as different as possible from Q. Adams. Where Q. Adams saw a mob, electioneering and backwardness, Jackson saw democracy.

Jackson ran against Q. Adams when Q. Adams won his first term and lost. Jackson called it a 'corrupt bargain' and blamed Q. Adams for essentially going against democracy and making political bargains with Henry Clay to secure the presidency.

During the election after Q. Adams first term, things got very personal very fast. Jackson was called a bigamist (when he married his wife, she was technically still married to another man) Jackson took offense to this and his wife, who had a very hard time enduring these kinds of politics ended up getting sick and dying.

Jackson personally blamed Q. Adams, although it was most likely political operatives that he wasn't directly controlling that caused these accusations to be published. Q. Adams wanted to explain his position to Jackson after the election in D.C., but Jackson never bothered to 'call' on Q. Adams which was a big deal and big time snub to a gentleman of those days.

Q. Adams, like his father with Thomas Jefferson, ended up leaving D.C. in the middle of the night rather than staying in Washington to view Jackson's inaugural. There were only three presidents in all of American history to do this, and one was Q. Adams' father.

On not attending the Harvard award ceremony of an honorary degree to Jackson, Q. Adams said " As an affectionate child of our Alma Mater, I would not be present to witness her disgrace in conferring her highest honors upon a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and could hardly spell his own name."


John Quincy Adams: Union Forever

John Q. Adams, like Jefferson and the presidents before him could see that the country was becoming ever more divided.

I've written before that the issue of foreign sanctions on imported goods almost made the Northeast and his home state of Massachusetts secede early in the history of the country, long before slavery became the most divisive issue of the day.

As abolitionists in the North grew more determined and pro slavery elements in the South grew more divisive, he could see that there was a rift taking place between regional factions and interests that would tear the country apart.

If he had continued Jefferson and Madison's policies on relying heavily on state funded and run militias, it would have only accelerated the rift. Most of Q. Adams policies during his presidency sought to increase the power of the federal government and thus strengthen the national identity of Americans.

After his presidency, he became ever more anti slavery and in the last years of his life, he influenced Abe Lincoln who would later be president to use War Powers to eliminate slavery in the South when Civil War broke out.

"The preservation of the Union is to me what the destruction of Carthage was to Cato, the conclusion of every discourse."


John Quincy Adams: Life Experiance

John Q. Adams lived an amazing life. At a time where most American citizens never made it out of their own county, much less state, Q. Adams traveled the world.

He had diplomatic posts in France, Britain, Russia, Germany and The Netherlands. That would be an amazing career even today in the era of jet travel! At the time, intercontinental travel by sea took months and was dangerous even on ship worthy vessels.

When most Americans were illiterate, he spoke fluent or nearly fluent French, German, Russian, Dutch as well as Greek and Latin.

He chaired the first Smithsonian committee and made great scientific advances in weights and measures as well as planting the seeds for the first Astronomical observatory.

He was one of the first Americans to have his image recorded by Daguerreotype (a precursor to the photograph).

He was born in the Revolutionary period, came of age right after America won its independence and died right before the Civil War.

He is believed to be the only American to have known all the Founding Fathers personally and also have known Abe Lincoln. Lincoln became an Illinois congressman shortly before Q. Adams died and was influenced by Q. Adams in eliminating slavery during the Civil War.

Wherever people want to rank Q. Adams' presidency, I think you'd almost certainly have to rank him first in living an interesting life.


John Quincy Adams: Foreign Policy

Q. Adams greatest lessons on international relations were likely learned when he was abroad as a young man with his father to France and Britain on diplomatic missions with the likes of Benjamin Franklin and John Jay.

It was there that he learned the massive array of languages (7 if you include Latin and Greek) and saw the terror that ambitious foreign policies could reap on countries. He saw the needless destruction of cities, towns and lives and witnessed the even bloodier revolutions (he was a critic of the French Revolution like his father) that could occur when citizens sought to unseat their rulers by force and create populist utopias.

He felt the United States had enough problems of its own, with internal divisions between the different geographies threatening to tear it apart and external enemies looking to take advantage of any weakness. The best option was to focus on security at home, improve the armed forces but deploy them only for defensive missions. Abroad, he felt the United States should maintain relations with Europe, but not enter into any military agreements or treaties for 'wars of intrigue'.

These fundamental beliefs led him as Secretary of State in the Monroe administration to work with James Monroe to craft what's now known as the Monroe Doctrine.

My favorite quote of his best sums up his beliefs "America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

It's sadly ironic that the Bush administration called the policy of pre emptive strikes in the Middle East extensions of the Monroe Doctrine, both Q. Adams and Monroe would roll in their graves if they heard that.


John Quincy Adams: Slavery

Early in his career and even during his presidency, John Q. Adams didn't express much of a view on the issue of slavery, other than he felt it shouldn't be allowed in the new states of the union.

This isn't surprising for a man of his times, since being in the Northeast, he probably didn't feel it had much of a direct effect on him and he wasn't a direct witness to its horrors. He, like many of his contemporaries felt that abolitionists were radical and even seditious, since they were pushing the fragile United States ever closer towards open Civil War.

However, late in his life he had a change of heart. As a lawyer, he represented the escaped slaves from a Spanish Slave ship in the Supreme Court case United States vs. The Amistad Africans and won their freedom by arguing that although the United States allowed internal slavery, it had joined other countries in preventing the international slave trade.

He also defied the infamous Congressional gag order that the Southern congressional delegation had put in place before the Civil War prohibiting the discussion or legislation regarding slavery in Congress. My favorite example of this is when he continuously would propose to introduce petitions on slavery from current and former slaves in the Southern States forcing the Speaker to shout him down and prevent the democratic process. This united Northern abolitionists and even Southern libertarians against the gag order in particular and the pro slave delegation in general.

John Quincy Adams views on slavery and race were complicated and changed over time, but he certainly was more enlightened on the subject than most of his contemporaries.


John Quincy Adams: Liberal or Conservative?

It's interesting to go back and find the 'conservative' and 'liberal' causes of early American history because we would hardly recognize them as fitting in the modern era.

John Q. Adams was pro national bank, pro tariff, pro internal improvements (think national works projects for infrastructure), anti Indian removal and late in his career as a congressman Anti Slavery.

Tariffs of course helped the domestic manufacturers, internal improvements helped the country in a general sense, the idea of being against the forced removal of 'civilized' Indians who had abandoned their nomadic ways and had taken up agriculture and railing against slavery would all seem in the modern era to be liberal ideologies, not conservative. However, Q. Adams was derided by the southern Jeffersonians as anti Democratic and monarchical for these beliefs.

In those days, the 'populist progressive' would be someone that was for a small federal government, state militias instead of standing armies and who was willing to clear away the settled Shawnee, Creek, Seminal and Iroquois Indians to make room for the poor white man.

When you look at the important policy makers of early American history, the idea of Liberal vs. Conservative rings hollow and you're forced instead to look at their specific beliefs on specific issues to really understand them.


John Quincy Adams: Not a politician

Q. Adams viewed public service as an obligation, not something to 'electioneer' for.

He was apart from his family for years when he was called to service as a foreign diplomat in London, France, Germany and Russia and expressed much regret in letters home.

He'd constantly talk of retiring to pursue intellectual pursuits, only to be named the Secretary of State and then President.

He finally looked forward to an enjoyable retirement as a relatively old man for the times after one term of the Presidency when he lost to Jackson but was compelled by his fellow citizens a short time later to serve out the remaining years of his life as a congressman where he literally died at his desk.

He hated populism and referred to political rallies as 'mobs'. In a letter home to his wife, he remarked how pleased he was that an actually impromptu celebration for him in Massachusetts after his one term in the presidency resulted in "no violence".

He did so little to help his political situation, that friend and rivals actually referred to him as Macbeth.


John Quincy Adams: Scholarly Man

John Quincy Adams in my opinion is the last of the deferential society, thinking man presidents for a long time. The next presidents really played up their appeal to the common man- Jackson's nickname was 'Old Hickory' or 'The Hero', Van Buren was 'Old Kinderhook' (created the saying O.K.), Harrison was 'Old Tippecanoe'.

John Quincy Adams could not have been more different than the populist presidents that followed. He was steeped in the Roman and Greek classics, like his father John Adams. He also spoke fluent French, German, Russian and even some Dutch as well as complete fluency in Greek and Latin.

He read so much that he actually was nearly blind in his old age. He was a Renaissance man that wrote scholarly works on Astronomy and had a huge part in ushering in an era a standardized weights and measures through his own research and read the great works of Philosophy by night.

Barack Obama may have been the president of the Harvard Law Review, but he has a long way to go before he's as much of an intellectual as Quincy Adams.


James Monroe: Monrovia

Did you know that the city of Monrovia in Liberia is named after James Monroe?

James Monroe supported the idea of sending freed slaves back to Africa and aided the efforts of the American Colonization Society in the 1820's to help slaves establish a new country there and the city is named in his honor.

This seems radical and tinged with racism today and it probably was, but at the time when the South was willing to secede to preserve their 'Peculiar Institution' of slavery, this was about as compassionate as it got.

The idea of a bunch of former slaves who were considered property recently forming their own sustainable society with little to no resources seems doomed to failure, but it's important to note that the country of Liberia still exists today even if it has suffered its share of civil strife through the years.


James Monroe: Made in the Revolution

It's easy to understand why Monroe was more of a national security president than his predecessors. He had fought as a young man in the Revolutionary War and had a very real perspective on the need for the nation to protect itself from foreign invaders.

Adams, Jefferson and Madison had their philosophy and had been the intellectual foundation of the country and it's system of checks and balances and general idea of what it was to be, but Monroe had a personal appreciation for the value of a strong military and the price paid in gold and treasure for becoming embroiled in foreign affairs.

Monroe like most of the Revolutionaries would be something of a radical in his early years and came to strive for security in his later years.

To me, he's immortalized in the painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware (he's holding the flag on the boat going through the icy waters)


James Monroe: The Monroe Doctrine

I've heard the phrase 'Monroe Doctrine' many times before reading about James Monroe, but never had a full understanding of what it meant.

In the political climate of the Cold War in the twentieth century or the current War on Terror, it was usually thrown out there to indicate the the US has a precedent for proactively attacking forces hostile to it to defend its interests.

In the Cold War, it was often used to justify invading countries that could be overthrown by our Soviet Rivals. In the War on Terror, it's been used by the Bush administration to justify overthrowing the Iraqi government to prevent that country from potentially harboring terrorist elements.

This isn't a value statement on the Cold War or the War on Terror, that's for another post, but it should be noted, that both these representations of the Monroe Doctrine are completely misguided.

The Monroe Doctrine was essentially a belief that Old World powers were no longer to be accepted in North America with the exception of British Canada. At the same time, it was a belief that America should not meddle in European affairs and wars of intrigue.

This policy of self defense at home and neutrality in abroad is the opposite from proactively attacking those hostile to us abroad that characterized the Cold War and the current War on Terror.

The Monroe Doctrine fit perfectly with protecting a still ascendant but not yet world power of America from the disastrous European wars that were tearing apart the continent and threatened to undermine our sovereignty. It was not a policy of American imposing its will on the world to protect its interests and was implemented at a time when very recently our Capital had been in flames.


James Monroe: Era of Good Feelings

Monroe was the fourth president to come from the Old Dominion state and the third in a row after Jefferson and Madison.

The country up until this time was very much regionally defined, politicians were expected to be loyal to their fellow Virginians and Monroe was no exception. As most Americans, Monroe idealized Washington who by his time had become an almost mythical figure, his mentor was Jefferson whom he studied law under and Madison was at different times was a friend and a rival.

He came to power in the midst of the War of 1812 after serving as Secretary of State in the Madison administration. Up until this point, the Secretary of State was normal successor to the current President. Jefferson, Madison and Monroe had all served in the post.

Monroe appointed John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, signaling a major change in the regional factionalism that had defined politics up until that point.

It should be noted that John Quincy Adams actually did become President after Monroe, continuing the normal path to succession. Much is written about the era of good feelings (reduction in Partisan politics) occurring around the time of Monroe's Presidency, but I believe not enough credit is given to him personally for helping to usher in this era through his cabinet appointment of a northeasterner.


James Monroe: Practical Man for Practical Times

Up until Monroe, with the exception of Washington, the presidents tended to be more philosophical than practical.

Adams, Jefferson and Madison had all had an aversion to doing the necessary things to strengthen America's ability to defend itself.

For Adams, the country was still very much new and he had more pressing and basic things to put in place before he could think about warding off the great powers of Europe. The best he could really hope for was coexistence with the great powers of the world insofar as they would not invade the United States.

Jefferson's reason for not strengthening the military were more philosophical than the reasons John Adams had. He was a Republican in the old sense and believed in militias over professional standing armies. He feared that by creating a 'standing army', America would grow imperial ambitions and would come to be ruled by the Army and not the people.

Madison's reasons for not taking the necessary steps for increasing America's security position in the world earlier were more puzzling. He shared some of the philosophical sentiments with Jefferson on skepticism of a huge military, but he also was a co author of 'The Federalist', a publication that argued for the adoption of a National Constitution and pointed out the weaknesses of regional militias in times of war. The War of 1812 with Britain was plagued with 'faulty intelligence' and reports it would be a 'slam dunk', so that could be a reason resources weren't poured into strengthening the military sooner.

When Monroe came in, he had a clear vision for a national army and the ability to support America's desire to keep foreign governments out of the western hemisphere with action.


Democrats and Republicans Destroying this Country

I've talked about how I admire politicians from early American history because even though they're not the marble statues we make them out to be now, they at least tended to fight for what they legitimately believed. Parties existed, but they wielded nothing like the power they do now.

Recently it's come out that Nancy Pelosi most likely had known about the torture that was taking place in 2002. Suddenly, the Democrats have backed off the calls for torture investigations because their own speaker could be portrayed in an unflattering light.

This is a sad demonstration that Democrats and Republicans do things that are good for their parties, not the American people. Investigations (Watergate, Monicagate etc.) are not really for finding the truth, but are only ways for one party to damage another.

It's very simple, she was hedging her bets in 2002 in case another building came down, so that if it did, no one could say that she was 'soft on terrorism'. She either felt that the CIA was doing something wrong and didn't say anything to not damage her political career or she felt that torture was justified and has now abandoned that position since it's politically expedient.

The two parties feel they own this country and the sad thing is, the voters always affirm their view.


James Madison: No Good Soundbytes

Madison is a hard guy to write about, at least it's hard to write about his presidency.

Everyone knows Madison as one of the founding fathers, he was responsible for the bill of rights, much of the wording of the constitution and worked with Hamilton and Jay on the Federalist papers to support the passage of the constitution.

But when it comes to him as an executive, he's harder to write about. Maybe it's because he wasn't as much an ideologue as the previous administrations, maybe it's because he didn't have an identifiable plan when he came into office or tried to do too much, but whatever it was, I can't define him in one sentence.

Washington was the father of the country and set about to form the idea of America, Adams tried to put in place checks and balances and help build up national power while preserving the uneasy peace with Europe, Jefferson was a 'man of western waters' and wanted to increase the land holdings of the U.S. to make his agrarian, democratic dream possible. Even Monroe who came after him you could say was the National Security President and Jackson was the Populist President.

This does not mean he was a bad president, if anything, maybe he was less image and legacy conscious than the other presidents, or maybe he felt his legacy was already secure as a Founding Father.

After reading this book about Madison, I feel like I just watched a really good movie and someone asks me what it was about, but I can't explain it.


James Madison: War of 1812- Burn this Mother Down

Before and during Madison's time in office, the relations between the United States and Great Britain became worse. The British continued 'impressment' which was a policy of conscripting U.S. sailors against their will to serve in the British Navy.

This aggravated Madison and Jefferson before him. For a long time, Adams was able to hold off the populist rage against Britain and resist war. Jefferson imposed the disastrous tariffs that almost made New England secede. Madison continued these restrictions on trade and the conflict eventually reached a boiling point.

Madison and the nationalist Republicans pushed for war and sold it to the American people by convincing them that they could easily invade British Canada and force them to come to terms.

The American people weren't completely sold on the idea of a fight with the British (still the most powerful military in the world) but went along with 'Mr. Madison's War' as they called it. The Republicans now had their war, but the problem came when they didn't properly fund the Army, preferring to rely on militias for ideological and economic reasons.

The militias turned out to be ineffective as an invading and national defense force since they often refused to fight outside of their own state. The irony of this is that Madison wrote about this problem in the Federalist papers describing the Militias as inadequate for national defense.

Detroit was captured along with Washington D.C. and the White House was burned to the ground. Right before he torched the place, Admiral George Cockburn (yes, that's his real name) held up his glass and gave a toast to 'Jemmy's health. For some reason, I don't remember seeing the White House in flames in my early history classes.


James Madison: The Arlen Specter of his times

James Madison is a fascinating figure in our history. He is best known for the large part he played in drafting the constitution and writing the federalist papers. He was also of course, the fourth president of the United States.

When Madison came to the office of president, there were two primary political parties- the Federalists and the Republicans.

In a nut shell, the Federalists tended to think of America as a nation, while Republicans thought of the United States as several more or less autonomous Republics working together for common good. You could say they thought of the U.S. more as a league of states than as a nation.

The Republicans, being for local rule over national, also tended to be against standing armies and a national banking system.

Madison, in trying to drum up support for a national constitution, worked with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton to release the Federalist Papers in New York, writing under the pseudonym Publicus (public man).

The Federalist Papers argued that the articles of confederation were not sufficient for the new nation to handle national defense, taxation issues and internal strife from competing states for what was then the new nation and that a new Constitution was needed to define federal power and offer a national solution to many of the problems the country was facing.

This isn't surprising except for the fact that Madison was a Republican, not a Federalist.

I think that this says a lot about Madison's own philosophy and politics of the time which tended to be more personal and less dogmatic, but that's for another post. It is, however, ironic that the second Republican Virginia Triumvirate member (Jefferson and James Monroe being the others) wrote the most eloquent supporting document for Federalism ever written.


Embargoes- Then and Now- Cuba

The United States badly overplayed its hand when it sought to punish the European world powers in the early 1800's and it's just as naive now to think that embargoes can work in the twenty first century.

Let's look at the effectiveness of embargoes against communist countries such as Cuba or North Korea.

There's a few easy to understand problems with imposing restrictions on trade with communist countries. It validates their world view that the United States is punishing the world through it's financial might and limits the channels in which foreign currency and goods can flow into those countries.

Communist dictators like Castro or Kim Jong Il control their people in much the same way that middle eastern dictators do- they take their money straight off the top rather than relying on the tax base of an economically productive society.

In the middle east, democracy doesn't flourish because the welfare of the citizens of those countries doesn't matter to their leaders since they can take their money straight out of oil export revenues. Whereas in democratic countries, unhappy citizens would throw out the current administration if they're unhappy, in those societies- the people need to simply not be angry enough to revolt.

Command economies that have limited amounts of goods flowing into their country through UN approved channels can also behave in this fashion since it will ultimately be up to them to distribute that 'aid' to their people who not coincidentally tend to be favored political allies.

Corruption flourishes in the dark and open trade policies shine light on the dark places of the world. Embargoes are nothing more than ceremonial statements by weak leaders.


Thomas Jefferson: Adventures in Embargoes

For being an agrarian philosopher that hated cities and manufacturing, Jefferson had a curious obsession with embargoes.

Understanding that the United States could not stand up to fight another war against Europe, he felt that commerce was the best way to punish European aggression. This is a curious choice since the US was not quite the economic powerhouse it is today. Until around the turn of the 20th century, Argentina was a trading partner with Europe on roughly equal footing with the United States.

The policies led to huge economic hardships for the average citizen, especially in the Northeast. It's hard to believe that if a few things had gone a little differently, the civil war may well have been started by the North for economic reasons instead of by the South for the slavery issue.

It's harder still to believe that after trading embargoes were proven ineffective time and again, future administrations continued to try and use them as a policy tool. Even in the 5 mile an hour era of the early 1800's, the powers of the day could substitute American goods for Canadian, imagine how easily it is now in the age of high speed Internet and global shipping networks.


Thomas Jefferson: Slavery

It's become en vogue in the last part of the 20th century to tear down the myths of the founding fathers. I think that now every college freshman who protests the WTO knows that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and is rumored to have fathered an illegitimate child with Sally Hemmings.

To be sure, Thomas Jefferson was a man of his times as much as he was an enlightened agrarian philosopher.

His views on slavery were mixed, he felt that it was at once the greatest evil in the world but at least subconsciously acknowledged that his life of learning and agriculture would have been impossible if not for the cheap (free) labor of the slaves. Giant country estates growing tobacco and other crops do take a lot of work after all, and a farmer that does all that work can't very well be a Virginia gentleman and scholar due to time constraints.

I don't want you to think that Jefferson's conflicted views on slavery came from his view of the African slaves as his fellow man though. In his 'Notes on the state of Virginia'- he makes it clear that he doesn't view them as intellectual equals and explains that they need 'guidance'.

It's too hard to psycho analyze Jefferson's racial views in one blog post, this subject could fill books, but it's interesting that as he grew older, he grew more depressed when he came to the understanding that Southern slavery, not Northern anger over the embargoes against commerce with Europe were going to tear the country apart.


Todays Credit Crisis: I Want To Believe

No- I'm not talking about the iconic phrase that preceded all X Files episodes, I'm talking about the essence of what created this mortgage crisis- the desire to believe in the wisdom of home ownership no matter what.

Let's recap how this whole thing went down:

1) The government told banks that they had to give home loans to people who generously could be said to not be good loan candidates. They passed laws that if banks want to build a branch in a community, they have to give loans to that community. (community reinvestment act)

2) To make this possible, Politicians created programs like the FHA and all those friendly sounding names like Fanny and Freddy Mack to help either buy up mortgages that banks originate or help them absorb some of the risk (banks haven't traditionally given loans to people they thought could not pay them back after all)

3) In an environment where almost anyone who had a pulse but not necessarily a job could get a mortgage, demand for houses increased and it drove the housing prices higher.

4) In the euphoria and belief that housing prices could only go up- Wall St. stepped in to buy up the mortgages from banks and sell them to Hedge Funds that were looking for a quick return.

5) The Insurance companies wanted in on the action, so they started selling 'insurance policies' to protect holders of mortgages from default.

6) The willing market to buy mortgages from banks and mortgage originators as well as the 'insurance' against default- led to an environment where there was no reason to have any kind of underwriting standards. The more aggressive lenders were not going to hold onto the loans they were making, so therefore had no reason to responsibly underwrite.

7) Years ago, it was pretty clear this thing was unsustainable, some companies got out of the business or expressed concern, but then the ratings agencies, hired by and working for the insurance companies and banks stepped in to give them 'AAA' ratings. They were the best independent ratings that money could buy.

8) In the name of 'free trade'- the government stopped looking into the legitimacy of these companies and ratings for even the most basic level of truth. It didn't hurt that the banks, insurance companies and ratings agencies were giving millions and millions of dollars to these politicians.

9) The money train came to a stop when the housing market stopped going up, the ratings were found out to be a fraud and half the loans that were being made were fraudulent. Not wanting to be the last person to hold the hot potato, banks stopped lending not only to their customers but also each other.

10) New homes that were already built sat empty, driving down the housing prices further. Also- in an effort to generate cash flow the only way they knew how, some home builders actually accelerated their home building, further driving the home prices down.

11) The mortgage holders that financed 100% of the value of their home in the easy credit market the government created now owed much more on their home than they could sell it for. They either walked away or if they got in trouble with money, had to declare bankruptcy since they could no longer refinance.

I don't care how shocked and appalled Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi appear to be in their show trials of the CEO's they bring on. They can complain about the greed of Wall St. all they want- but they sure were happy to take their campaign contributions (bribes)

It's ironic that both government interference AND indifference caused this crisis. But hey- they were just promoting the American dream right?


Thomas Jefferson: Shay it ain't so rebellion

Well- I said in a previous post that in today's bad financial market, at least we don't have to pay our creditors in gold.

It's also better for the fact that there has not been an armed insurrection (yet).

The credit crisis as a result of Jefferson's disastrous financial policies was so bad that in New England, one in every four men joined the armed rebellion.

Daniel Shay, a former captain and sort of Robin hood type folk hero insighted the public to armed rebellion because in his view, the government wasn't 'bailing out the people'.

Farmers were losing there homes and land and the 'Shaysites' felt that the government shout issue paper money or suspend bankruptcy proceedings to help them out.

I hope these Jack Cafferty 'tea parties' don't get so bad as to start an armed rebellion.

It's interesting to think about how different the country would look had there been a Civil War stated so early in American history.


Thomas Jefferson: America's First Credit Crisis

I suppose it's human nature for people to think that they're living in unprecedented times, but the credit crisis that we're going through now has been repeated many times in world history and even American history.

It's no surprise that the first major crisis occurred under Thomas Jefferson's watch as he was a great lover of embargoes against then world power Great Britain and a hater of the banking industry.

Britain, the biggest trading partner with America at the time, upset over the increasingly punitive measures against its commerce and what it felt was the arrogance of its former colonial possession, chose to retaliate by requiring all importers of British goods to pay in gold at time of purchase.

Since the banking industry was in disarray with two presidents, Adams and Jefferson who did not even want a national banking system, this caused a major problem. Compounding the economic crisis, most of the importers of British goods had the credit lines they were purchasing goods with eliminated by this policy.

This made the importers cut the credit lines of the large wholesalers, who cut the lines of the merchants, who then squeezed the small farmers and manufacturers that were buying their goods.

This led to deflation and a 'liquidity crisis' that stopped many companies from going into business, people lending to each other etc. It also led to a major armed regional rebellion, but that's for another post.

Times may be bad, but at least we don't have to pay in gold bullion yet.


Thomas Jefferson: Pirates?

If you're like me, when you picture America in the late 1700's and early 1800's, you don't picture swashbuckling battles with pirates. However, that was one of the main foreign policy challenges of the young republic.

Early on, the vast ocean that protected America from foreign attack also made its shipping more susceptible to attacks by pirates.

The 'Barbary states' which were mainly in territories in North Africa which are now Libya, Algeria and Morocco became so bold at one point that they demanded tribute from the United States Government in order to offer 'protection' of its ships in the Mediterranean.

At that point, Jefferson, failing to create an international alliance with France or Britain, actually declared war on the Barbary states. We invaded Tripoli (sound familiar?) and threatened to topple the war lord/sheik in charge there unless they released our ships and stopped attacking our commerce.

It's funny that even today, piracy in the traditional sense exists in the age of airplanes and GPS. It's hard to imagine how much of a threat it was when a compass and the stars were the height of navigation technology.