Theodore Roosevelt: The Navy

As the latest zinger of the Obama Romney campaign has been that President Obama has somehow reduced the Navy to it's lowest level since 1917, it's appropriate to talk about the man himself who pushed for a robust Navy, Theodore Roosevelt.

TR was truly a Naval enthusiast, having authored a book on the history of Naval Warfare in the War of 1812 that was so well written it's still studied in the Navy today.  In addition to writing a best selling book on the Navy, he also served as Assistent Secretary of the Navy under President McKinley where he constantly lobbied President McKinley for a more robust Navy and foreign policy.

He viewed America's failures in the War of 1812 as due in large part to the lack of a Navy that could stand up to British might.  The British at the time were by far the largest and best Naval power in the world.  It was their Navy that build the empire on which the sun never set.  He felt the answer to avoiding  military defeat in another potential invasion from a rival power was to drastically increase the number of ships in the United States Navy as well as professionalizing the maritime military forces.

It's not too surprising then that TR pushed a strong Navy in his budget when he came into office.  The Navy was expanded from 59 ships before TR was the Secretary of Navy for McKinley in 1897 to 141 when McKinley left office in 1901. By the time TR left office as President in 1913, the Navy was up to 214 active ships.

By 1916 or 1917, the Navy ballooned to 342 active ships and then nearly doubled in the two years following.  This is where the comparison loses meaning.

There are a few major factors to why Romney's argument that a lower active number of ships in the Navy means America is projecting an image of weakness.

The primary factor is that in the turn of the twentieth century, wars were fought very differently than they are now.  For starters, there were no airplanes then.  Navies were the primary vehicle of empire building and they could be used both offensively and defensively.  The steam engine was invented, so the Navies also became much more reliable since they did not always need to also rely on good winds as the Navies have had to do in the past.  Having a lot of ships roving the North and South American coastline deterred europeon invaders and were good tools to enforce America's interests in Latin America.  Then as now, superior and more technologically advanced forces could easily win wars. 


The Income Tax

Wars were fought over it, philosophers argued about it then and still do now.  Taxation is something that's always been and still is controversial. 

The income tax has been one of the most controversial.  Many don't realize that the country actually didn't even have an income tax until 1913 through a constitutional amendment, well into the industrial revolution.  This was at a time where the role of government was even more unsettled than it is now.

The government was entering into areas of people's lives that would have been unthinkable by much of the population 10 or 20 years before.  The urbanization of America led to things such as the regulation of food, traffic laws, housing and labor protections.  All of these new ventures increased the demand for revenue, as did the concern among many in society to reduce the inequality that came about from the South's defeat in the civil war and new industries that earned vast fortunes for early tycoons in the oil, gas and railroad industry.

In addition, wealth was being created in very different ways than when America was an agricultural society.  In the 1700's, most income came from owning land and selling produce or renting it out.  It was easy for the the government to know how much income an acre of land would generate and tax it accordingly.  With the industrial revolution, the relationship between labor and capital was different.  In a minimal amount of space, fantastic wealth could be generated from a factory setting.  Much of this wealth was going un-taxed. 

It was in this environment of Teddy Roosevelt's term that the income tax started to be agitated for and was towards the end of Taft's term in 1913 that it was passed.  Up until this time, it would have been nearly unthinkable to tax the income that someone earned.  Land was taxed, there was a sales tax and a whole host of other random taxes, but income was not something people were used to having taxed.

There are still people to this day that insist the income tax is unconstitutional.  Wesley Snipes, the demolition man himself went to jail for tax evasion because he doesn't accept that the government has the right to tax his income.


#26: Theodore Roosevelt: The 47%

The contrast between the way politicians spoke 100 years ago compared with now is amazing.  There is of course the difference in tone and tenor, in the turn of the century, the art of speaking still mattered and political speeches were expected to be aspirational rather than populist.  Even blue collar people generally did not vote purely on "who they'd want to have a beer with".

The other striking difference of course was how honest people were in their views.  During this time, messages were less managed and in the absence of the 24 hour news cycle and the entire industry we have now of pollsters, strategists and media consultants, politicians were more likely to write their own speeches and less likely to mute their real beliefs to be more electable.  That's not to say they were less corrupt than they are now or better human beings or anything, you were just a little more likely to get the unfiltered version of their thoughts than you are now.

It took an unauthorized recording of Mitt Romney to confirm what he really thinks.  His view of America is one of makers and one of takers.  He believes that half of the country is unproductive and lives off the productive other half that pays income tax and does not rely on government programs such as social security, welfare, etc.  This "scandal" of the world hearing his real philosophy that he explained to his contributors is a legitimate debate the country should be having regarding what government should and should not do and the effect of entitlements.  Instead of arguing if his vision makes sense or is good for the country, the media focuses only on the horse race of the election on how it will appeal to minorities or how many percentage points his polling will go down.

In Theodore Roosevelt's day, he was much less afraid to lay out a bold, controversial vision for the country than today's politicians are.  His view of the 47% was very different from Mitt Romney's, although he had many political opponents that said openly the types of things Mitt says in private regarding the lower classes.  It's just amazing that Theodore Roosevelt spoke so forcefully on the need for government in people's lives when you factor in that he lost the support of his own party, it was a time when social darwinism was widely accepted by the upper classes and there was great concern for civil unrest that was being caused by anarchist and communist terrorists at the time.  In addition, social programs or the view that government should take care of people was still a very new and not universally held view. 

All these factors made it in-expedient for Theodore to give this speech, but he gave it anyway.  Listen not only to the message, but also the way he spoke to the American people as adults and not simpletons reading The USA Today they find outside the door of their hotel room:


#26: Theodore Roosevelt: A Life Well Lived

Teddy Roosevelt was like the Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man" of his time.  His life read like some blockbuster adventure novel and the facts and antedotes go on and on.

Here's a couple that I like:

  • He wore a ring made with Abraham Lincoln's hair.
  • A life long anti corruption crusader, he went against the NYPD and the NYC political machines and they attempted to frame him for prostitution and have thugs rough him up on multiple occasions.
  • He was definately pro conceal and carry, since he carried around a revolver to defend himself against his many political enemies.
  • He was a best selling author multiple times on subjects as varied as big game hunting, the wild West and Naval Warfare.
  • "The Naval War of 1812" was published by TR when he was only 23 years old, but is considered one of the best historical accounts of Naval Warfare ever written.  The U.S. Naval Academy still teaches from this book today.  This is somewhat amazing since TR was never in the Navy prior to him writing this book and only pursued the subject as an academic interest.
  • An avid hunter of all big game, TR ate the heart of the first elephant he killed.
  • In his african safari, it's estimated that his crew killed over 11,000 animals.  Although many of these animals were small mammals or insects, over 500 were big game animals such as elephants, rhinos and lions.
  • The african safari costed the equivelent of $1,800,000 in today's currency.
  • TR himself mapped a 1500 mile river in Brazil.  The river was renamed Rio Roosevelt in his honor.  He nearly died on this trip and on many others from infection and disease.
  • He lived a real cowboy's life in North Dakota.  During this time, he was appointed deputy sherrif and hunted down three people who stole his boat.  Instead of hanging them, as was the custom, he drove them back to town to stand trial, a 40 hour trip he made without sleep.
  • He wrote 35 books on various subjects, and unlike the half literate politicians of today, none of them were ghost written.  Few of them were even about politics.
  • Giving a speech, he got shot in the chest.  Rather than seek medical attention, he simply exclaimed "it will take more than that to stop a bull moose!" and continued with his speech.  He knew that since he was not coughing blood, the wound would not be mortal.
  • TR largely led and funded a volunteer regiment in Cuba during the Spanish American War.  The unit was largely successful and he personally led the charge to storm Spanish positions.

I'm not sure what else I can even say.  I'm sure that there's a lot of things that I'm leaving out, but I have to say that TR is in the running for the "Most Interesting President" award.


#26: Theodore Roosevelt: Out of Canaan, Into the Promised Land

Theodore Roosevelt was the Vice President to William McKinley and took office after McKinley was assassinated.

Like a couple other Vice Presidents in American history, his political party attached him to the presidential ticket as a political dead end where they thought he'd not be able to do any more harm to the party.

There was a somewhat similar situation to this in the Lincoln/Andrew Johnson administration in the 1860's and the William Henry Harrison/ John Tyler administration in the 1840's, so this was not an entirely unknown trick in the political machine tool belt.  It was thought throughout the 1800's and early 1900's that being nominated to the Vice Presidency was a complete dead end that a politician could never recover from.  It was even still being decided at this time whether it was even completely constitutional for a Vice President to take power after the death of a sitting President.  Many constitutionalists at the time thought that a special election should be held during which time, the Vice President simply makes sure the ship of state doesn't sink.

What annoyed the political establishment so much was that TR had fought the New York machine for his entire political career.  As police commissioner, he attempted to curb the corruption and bribery that the NYPD which was being used to reward the machine's friends and punish its enemies.  Later, as a celebrated author, war hero and anti corruption crusader, he was elected governor of New York and pushed the Republican party even further in trying to end the party machine's influence.

This plan of course backfired when McKinley was shot by a self professed anarchist and TR assumed power.  Unlike McKinley, TR didn't just tweak the direction of the United States away from isolation and towards a more robust foreign policy.  He truly created trans formative change in domestic policy and redefined the idea of government.   None of this would bode well for the old order of the kingmakers that ran both parties, however, in creating the grandfather of Lyndon Johnson's great society, it could be argued that TR merely created a new breed of political elites.  But that's a post for another time...

In a sign of how much America has changed since the beginning of the Gilded Age proceeding TR, here's a film clip of his "Shall We Prepare" speech:


William McKinley: In his own voice

The final speech of William McKinley is available at the Library of Congress website.

After reading about William McKinley's "front porch" campaign in Niles, Ohio, I expected his actual speech delivery would be more like George W. Bush than F.D.R., but I was wrong.

Maybe it's because he was from outside the East coast, or that he ran an everyman type campaign.  The way he speaks is probably typical of important men at the turn of the twentieth century, but by today's standards it sounds like the monocle guy from monopoly.

What he says and proposes are exactly what he did prior to giving this speech (he was assassinated shortly after this) .  He calls for the expansion of the Navy for the purposes of defending the economic interests abroad.  This fits perfectly in line with the Spanish- American war and the seizure of Cuba, Guam and the Philippines.  Although McKinley ushered in the execution of America's imperial ambitions, it's interesting that he doesn't say we should enhance our military power solely for the purposes of being powerful as seems to be done today.

He also calls for the protection of both labor and industry, a position that would be almost unthinkable for either political party nowadays. 


William McKinley: Spanish American War

One of the main arguments the book I read on McKinley made was that he, and not Theodore Roosevelt was the first modern president.

One of the main things the author does to back up this claim is to illustrate how McKinley, like modern presidents, heavily relied on the military to carry out the government's foreign policy objectives.

William McKinley certainly did rely on the scaled up armed forces to carry out his political goals, but I think that rather than emphasizing military adventurism as a "modern" phenomenon, it's more important to realize that at this point in our nation's history, we turned away from the Monroe Doctrine and started to more willingly enter into entangling alliances.

He intervened in Cuba, which has parallels to the Vietnam conflict.  The Spanish American War even had it's own Gulf of Tonkin type causus belli with the sinking of the battleship Maine off the coast of Cuba.  Most accounts seem to hold that the ship blew up because of an accident, not a Spanish attack, but this did nothing to dissuade the pro war newspapers from describing this as another act of Spanish aggression.  Ultimately, the United States swept through Cuba and secured a treaty within three months, winning control not only of Cuba, but also Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

The war up to this point had been very successful and helped bring McKinley's successor, Theodore Roosevelt even more national fame when he left his post as Secretary of Navy to lead the "Rough Rider" regiment to victory in Cuba.

The problems came when the United States took control of the Philippines, liberating the residents from Spanish control, but facing a homegrown insurgency not long after the Spanish left.  We don't read about the Philippine-American war very often in our history books, but it was one of the largest issues of the late 1800's and early twentieth century.  The United States army was stuck there for over a decade, fighting a homegrown insurgency made up of religious fanatics (sound familiar?).  Estimates of civilian and military casualties are all very political and imperfect, but some estimates say as many as 35,000 Fillipino soldiers died and as many as 200,000 civilians died either directly from the war or indirectly from actions the Americans took.  In addition, torture such as the "water cure" (an early form of waterboarding) is believed to have been commonplace along with scorched earth policies that allowed the burning down of entire villages.

The story was the same then as it is now.  The United States could have held the high ground after they reached a strategic goal and the Spanish withdrew  from Cuba.  But just as we feel we need to bring democracy to the middle east now, Americans back then thought along the same lines and wanted to completely topple the Spanish empire.  The cost in blood and treasure and moral authority however, was much more than the United States paid the dying Spanish empire to acquire the Philippines. 


William McKinley: Dangerous Times

Although William McKinley ran an everyman, "morning in America" type campaign, the times he lived in were very dangerous.

It's astonishing to think that a middle aged person in McKinley's age could have remembered so many presidents being assassinated in their life time. If you think about it, an adult in McKinley's age could have been a child during the Civil War and remembered Lincoln being assassinated in 1865. They would have remembered Garfield being killed in 1881 as a young man or woman in their 20's or early 30's and then would witness McKinley being assassinated in 1901 as a person in their 40's or 50's.

If you read American history ahead a little bit, the same person would have witnessed the assassination attempt on Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 when he famously continued his speech and yelled, "It takes more than that to stop a Bull Moose" with a bullet in his chest that was prevented from killing him by a manuscript he had in his breast pocket.

This means that a person who was a young child when Lincoln was assassinated that lived to the age of 65 or 70, would have remembered 4 out of the 12 presidents during their lifetime either being killed or having attempts on their lives.

It's easy for the instability of this time period to be overshadowed by the twentieth century with its Great War, Second World War and 50 year Cold War where many Americans thought they were in imminent danger of nuclear annihilation. It's even easy for this period to be overshadowed by our current National Security State, but we shouldn't forget just how dangerous the times were that the Gilded Age and early twentieth century presidents lived in.


A Little Something for the Ladies

In light of the contraception debates that have been raging like an STD in the Republican Primaries, I thought it would be good to write about the general history of women in American politics up until the turn of the twentieth century, the period of history that this debate belongs in.

Like all societies everywhere, American politics were dominated by men in its early history.

To get a sense of how little women's roles were considered in political decisions during the founding of the country, you only had to look at the exchange of letters between John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams. On the formation of the constitution and laws of the newly formed United States, Abigail basically wrote in a letter that she hoped that John would work to give women the same protections under the law that men would receive. He replied by writing ""As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh...Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems."

Beyond the total exclusion of women from the conversations that were taking place about what the new country should and should not become, you can also look to the women that were celebrated during early American history as being influenced by the male view of what they should and should not be. "Molly Pitcher" fetched water during the revolutionary war. Betsy Ross was a hero because of her sewing skills with the American flag.

As the country progressed and people started to move into cities from the countryside, women's roles increased. In early American history, they were not expected to do much more than work alongside their men as colonial farm wives and run the family's domestic affairs (unless they had slaves of course). Women however always played a large role in the family's religious upbringing, and that's the device that they started to make inroads to political power through.

The first two major issues that women played a large role in were the temperance movement which was a precursor to the prohibition movement and the abolition of slavery.

The temperance movement was an easy cause for women to get involved in as they were the unfortunate recipients of their husbands' abuses of alcohol. At a time in early American history when whiskey was literally used as currency and men had total control over their wives and daughters, this had to be an issue near and dear to their heart. The movement started out during the religious revivals of the mid 1800's as a way for man to become closer to God, but it was enthusiastically taken up by the women of the church as a way to improve family life through the reduction of drunkenness. This was a controversial issue at the time especially among immigrants and the heavy drinking population (the mixed drink was invented in America as a suitable breakfast drink).

Around the same time, northern women started to become involved in the slavery abolition movement as well. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and it wasn't uncommon for religious women to support both the temperance and the abolition causes as ways to improve the morality of the human race.

After a generation or two of women being active in issue politics, they started to agitate for the women's suffrage movement. By this time, it was too late for men to tell their wives to stay in the kitchen and they were ultimately successful although not until the end of World War I.

This is roughly the point we're up to in American history at the turn of the century. Great job ladies, you've come a long way.


Modern Elections in Context

The Miller Center has a great blog called "Riding the Tiger" which was a reference to the Truman quote "I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed." Enjoy.

Riding the TigerLink


William Jennings Bryant: Cross of Gold

Thus far in American history, the words of Presidents have been able to be read and it's been imagined what they must have sounded like. I'm now finally, in 1895 to a point where it will become easier and easier to hear speeches of historical figures in their own voice.

William McKinley's Democratic opponent in the 1895 presidential election, William Jennings Bryan was considered the greatest orator of his time and the audio recording of this speech shows why.

The "Cross of Gold" speech was primarily about one of the greatest political issues of the late 1800's, the gold standard which led to a stable U.S. currency vs. a bimetallic standard which would lead to a weaker dollar and would favor the borrowers who were primarily farmers and other "common" people. It's one of the best known speeches in American history and the entire transcript and full audio are available at this website.

Bryan was first and foremost a populist and came down squarely against the gold standard that favored the creditors and the wealthy.

This speech had so many common political themes, not just rich vs. poor and inflation vs. a stable currency, but other modern issues as well. The income tax, which was declared unconstitutional at the time, the battle over how to identify the rich; as job creators vs. vulture capitalists, the 99% etc. Business vs. labor and the difference between being a radical and a mainstream liberal. It's really striking to listen to this speech and see how similar the conversation was of a comparatively agrarian America with such a simpler economy compared with the service driven, global economy we have now.

The major difference between then and now was that politicians would commonly praise the regular people they were supposed to represent, but would never be expected to speak like them. You didn't have a George W. Bush going pheasant hunting and saying y'all in presidential speeches or anything of the sort. In fact, even Barack Obama who's probably the best orator we've had in the last twenty years (I still think Reagan was better) would have seemed overly casual at this time.

I miss the days when Presidents or candidates for President were expected to be smarter, not dumber than the populace.

Here's some excerpts of the "Cross of Gold" speech:

On the income tax:

They tell us that this platform was made to catch votes. We reply to them that changing conditions make new issues; that the principles upon which rest Democracy are as everlasting as the hills; but that they must be applied to new conditions as they arise. Conditions have arisen and we are attempting to meet those conditions. They tell us that the income tax ought not to be brought in here; that is not a new idea. They criticize us for our criticism of the Supreme Court of the United States. My friends, we have made no criticism. We have simply called attention to what you know. If you want criticisms, read the dissenting opinions of the Court. That will give you criticisms.

They say we passed an unconstitutional law. I deny it. The income tax was not unconstitutional when it was passed. It was not unconstitutional when it went before the Supreme Court for the first time. It did not become unconstitutional until one judge changed his mind; and we cannot be expected to know when a judge will change his mind.

The income tax is a just law. It simply intends to put the burdens of government justly upon the backs of the people. I am in favor of an income tax. When I find a man who is not willing to pay his share of the burden of the government which protects him, I find a man who is unworthy to enjoy the blessings of a government like ours.

On radicalism:

The gentleman from Wisconsin has said he fears a Robespierre. My friend, in this land of the free you need fear no tyrant who will spring up from among the people. What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of aggregated wealth.

On labor relations:

If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.


The Ballad of William Henry Harrison

Gail Collins wrote a column today that referenced the ill fated William Henry Harrison speech that ultimately resulted in his demise.

How could I not share this!



#25: William McKinley: The Front Porch Campaign

The presidential campaign of William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan in 1896 is legendary and was close, even by Bush V. Gore standards. McKinley won most of the delegates, but only captured 51% of the vote.

McKinley was seen as a sort of honest, good government type candidate. His positions were fairly moderate on many of the great issues of the day such as the gold standard and foreign intervention and were fairly progressive on other issues such as race or ethnic relations. He wasn't known as a great speech maker or a person that could electrify crowds, putting him at a disadvantage to William Jennings Bryan who was known as one of the best orators of his day, in the same league as JFK or FDR would have been during their time.

The fact that McKinley was sort of a Nixon and Bryan was a JFK in terms of oratory flourish put him at a disadvantage and led him to remark "I might just as well set up a trapeze on my front lawn and compete with some professional athlete as go out speaking against Bryan. I have to think when I speak."

The crazy thing is that he actually did wage a campaign from his front porch. Bryan had the South and the West locked up going into the race because of the influence of the Democratic party there and spent most of the campaign traveling around the midwest and northeast. McKinley however, brought the voters to him.

Working with the railroads who supported his campaign, he organized delegations from throughout the country to arrive at his home in Canton, Ohio. After getting off the train, the delegations would be accompanied by marching bands for the walk to McKinley's home and would pass under banners with his portrait. Once at the home, McKinley would greet them from his porch and would answer prepared questions that a spokesman for the delegation would ask. Since the delegations were pre-screened and their travel was subsidized by the campaign, the front porch speeches had a "town hall" feel to them. This was a brilliant strategy since McKinley could increase the number of supporters he spoke to as there was no travel time required and the pre-planned nature of the event allowed him to control his image and present himself in the most favorable light.

Much of Bryan's time was taken up from the travel required and he would occasionally venture into unfriendly venues where he would be forced to defend rather than promote his positions.

McKinley's campaign staff laid down the ground work for the modern presidential campaign, while their approach wasn't great for citizens seeking honest answers to candidate's stances on the issues, their influence on shaping the approach to American elections cannot be denied.


Politicians, Catholics and "Religious Freedom"

The recent debate over religious freedom regarding Catholic institutions and providing birth control is interesting. Normally, religious freedom means that the government cannot dictate a state religion or make religious beliefs illegal. It can deem the carrying out of those beliefs illegal such as human sacrifice or polygamy, but it cannot tell people what they can and cannot believe.

As such, it seems like a leap of faith (no pun intended) to declare that the idea that the government can pass a mandate that requires insurance companies to cover birth control for women an assault on the church. Just think, the Catholic Church went from having it's member's discriminated against and being barred from politics for their obedience to the foreign pope in the 1800's to playing the martyr in the 21st century because their for-profit self insured hospital networks and universities are forced to provide insurance coverage that includes birth control.

Putting aside the fact that:
1) Catholic Hospitals and Universities are not churches and live in the secular world
2) Many of the employees at these institutions are not Catholic and thus not bound by management's moral convictions
3) No devout Catholic will be forced to wear condoms or take the pill as a result of this legislation
4) Most Catholics are on birth control until they decide to have children.

It seems a far cry that suggesting that the Catholic affiliated hospitals and universities having to abide by the same laws as everyone else is the same as religious persecution. It also leads to a great debate on who is the Catholic Church anyway?

Judging on the lack of families with 10 kids in Mass every week (I'm Catholic) I'd say that maybe two percent of the attending members actually believe in the fiction that God and not the parents should decide when they have kids. In addition, the Church TEACHES the rythm method, which was the highly imperfect birth control method of the medieval ages. Aren't the pill and condoms just more technologically advanced alternatives?

Based on all these points, I'm very upset at the church's continued search for irrelevance in modern times and at the politicians providing coverage for the out dated beliefs for the child less old men that run the Church.

There are real issues of religious persecution and intolerance in the United States, but this is not one of them and is not healthy for anyone other than the politicians who will continue fighting the culture wars of the 1960's at any cost.

Benjamin Harrison: The Start of the Welfare State

Referring to politicians trying to create a "welfare state" are charged words these days and were in the late 1880's as well. The reason that these are controversial words today though have much less to do with why they were in Benjamin Harrison's time during the late 1800's.

Today, most Democrats and Republicans accept that free trade or something close to it should be an aspiration of public policy. That is why "welfare state" is code for one politician accusing another of not following the universal truth that free trade is gospel.

In reality, we don't have anything close to free trade due to millions and millions in lobbying money that flow to politicians pockets, misguided government incentives and the revolving door between corporate board rooms and government political positions, that's a post for another time.

In the late 1800's, the great debate on whether competition and international free trade were good or not was still being decided. Some politicians were in favor of tariffs to limit competition to America's young manufacturing industries, while others were against protectionist measures because they wanted to keep the prices of imported goods as low as possible.

The reason that the "welfare state" was something to be avoided had more to do with many of the founding fathers and the philosophers that inspired them preaching that a good citizen should be self sufficient and that dependency on government was just another form of tyranny. Socialism was not considered a pariah because of what it would do to people's wallets, but because dependency on government largesses would lead to a natural erosion of rights.

That is why it took over 100 years after the founding of the United States to start introducing many of the types of social programs we now consider commonplace. Grover Cleveland's opposition to Benjamin Harrison's support of pensions for Civil War Veterans might seem over the top now, but then played on people's deeply held fear of government dependency.

While free trade is almost a religious imperative in today's America, independence from the government dole was the religion of Harrison's day.


#23: Benjamin Harrison: Sherman Silver Purchase Act

Benjamin Harrison was a big supporter of the Sherman Silver Purchase act. This and his support for the McKinley Tarriff Act were the two major reasons that Grover Cleveland was able to defeat him and win a second non consecutive term.

In the later 1800's, farmers were faced with what was the sort of foreclosure crisis of our day. They owed much more on their farms than they could pay to the banks that lent them the money to buy the farms. This was due to a variety of factors, land speculation, the price of wheat and other crops, and drought all combined to make the perfect storm to hurt the farmers. It's important to realize that at this point in the country, farmers held more than the symbolic political value than they do now since the majority of people that lived outside cities farmed.

The farmers wanted some kind of relief of their debts, similar to how homeowners are now asking banks to take a write down on the mortgages they hold when the homes that secure the mortgages go down in value.

At they same time as the economic crisis was unfolding, mining interests were discovering huge caches of silver in America. So much silver in fact, that the metal had plunged in value due to all the supply that flooded the market. The farming and the mining interests jointly decided that if the U.S. Government were to be required to purchase silver and use it to back its currency, the price of silver would be artificially inflated and the value of the U.S. dollar would go down, since silver is a less valuable material than gold, which the dollar was based on at the time. The inflated value of silver would make the vast silver reserves of the mining companies more valuable and the lowering in value of the dollar would mean that it was easier for the farmers to pay the large debts they've built up.

John Sherman pushed through this legislation requiring the government to purchase massive quantities of silver with Benjamin Harrison's support. The problem came when investors overwhelmingly would exchange their silver notes for gold which they were allowed to do under the law. Many of these investors were overseas and this ultimately depleted the gold reserves of the United States.

It got so bad, that the iconic banker, J.P. Morgan stepped in and made a massive loan of gold to the U.S. Treasury to save the country from bankruptcy. Imagine that, a bank bailing out the U.S. Government instead of receiving a bail out!

These were certainly chaotic times, the nation went from debating how to use the huge surplus it built up over the years from tariffs on imported foreign goods to barely being able to pay its bills.


#23: Benjamin Harrison: The Great Tariff Debate

Today free trade is an almost universal value among our politicians, however; in the late 1800's it was not. Free trade has become such and aspiration and accepted goal that in this modern age, stuff seems to be made and imported to America while jobs seem to be exported.

I'm not writing this blog to take a view on free trade as a goal, but it's just interesting to look back at our own country's history when views that are now commonplace and largely bipartisan were still competing with alternate ideas.

Benjamin Harrison came down firmly on the side of protectionism. While "protectionist" might now be considered a slur to a political view, whether it be on the importing of goods or foreign policy, it was not considered an insult then.

Harrison's support of the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890 was one of the defining elements of his presidency. This act seems extreme by today's or even recent history's standards. Duties on imported goods, including raw materials were increased by up to 50%. The goal of this of course was to raise revenue for the government and decrease the amount of competition to America's developing manufacturing sector.

Historically, the northern part of the United States supported tariffs and the southern part deplored them since it was an economy based on agriculture that imported most of it's manufactured goods. The "Tariff of Abominations" in 1828 is considered one of the major events that led to the South looking to break away from the North (in addition to slavery obviously).

As anyone would expect, this tariff was loved by northern manufacturing interests but hated almost universally in the South as well by regular consumers in the North that relied on imported goods or raw materials. Most economists agree that it was a cause leading to the depression of the 1890's since it was essentially a 40-50% tax on any imported goods.

The unpopularity of this issue and Harrison's support of the Sherman Silver Act were what ultimately led to Grover Cleveland defeating him to serve his second, non consecutive term.

While it's interesting to think about the tariff and how views on free trade have changed over time, it's even more interesting to ponder the second debate the tariff led to. What to do with all that money in the surplus of the U.S. Treasury from the protective tariffs? Can you even imagine the country with huge cash reserves rather than a crushing debt in this day and age?

Maybe Harrison's policy of protectionism went way too far in trying to drastically reduce imports, but maybe our own policy of giving Americans incentives to buy imported goods and American corporations to export jobs goes too far in the other direction. If we weren't beholden to the World Trade Organization and slightly increased our tariffs, maybe we'd be having a debate not on which government programs to cut, but which ones to add with all that money in the U.S. government's coffers like they did in Ben Harrison's day.


Haley's Barbour-ism

At a time when we've become so desensitized to the high level corruption and bribery through super Pacs and lobbyists, it's refreshing to see local level corruption get some national attention.

The New York Times on Friday ran an article about pardons that Haley Barbour, the former governor of Mississippi had given out in his last days in office.

The governor pardoned over 200 people, with roughly 40 of the pardons for people convicted of violent crimes that included murder, rape and assault. The common element most of these pardons had in common were that the convict had a connection, familial or otherwise, to the powerful Republican political class or Haley Barbour himself.

One of those pardoned was a man convicted of a DUI related death of an 8 year old boy who happened to be a member of the Hill Brothers Construction Company, big campaign donors for conservative causes. The article also mentioned that another member of that same family was pardoned for Federal Tax Evasion by George W. Bush.

It's amazing what money can buy you. To think that you can refuse to pay your taxes and LITERALLY get away with murder. All this time, I was thinking that political contributions could only get you financial gain and the ability to write laws. The fact that lobbyists not only tell politicians what laws they want but also actually write the verbiage that the politicians then cut and paste into their bills was as far as I thought the culture of corruption would ever go.

It's not like Southern politics have ever been clean, but this should raise the eyebrows of anyone that thinks no one is above the law. At a time when we have unlimited money and corporations are people, this seems only like the logical outgrown. After all, corporations are people and can only be expected to ask for favors for their no good nephew.


#23: Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland in 1888, after he served one presidential term. Cleveland then defeated him in 1892 when he ran again on the Democratic ticket. This makes him the only presidential candidate I know of to both win and lose a presidential election to the same person.

Presidential power at this time was not quite as concentrated as it is today, so it wasn't unusual to see ex- presidents jump back and forth between private life and politics. Today, it seems that if you've served as president, you can only go on speaking tours or make ceremonial appearances at public events as though you're American royalty.

Cleveland largely disappeared from the limelight after Harrison defeated him during the term that Harrison served and took a regular job at a law firm in New York for a couple years until he played the old "I have no choice but to run again" card when he saw what he felt were the ruinous effects on the economy of Harrison's policies. Harrison worked for a law firm as well after he was defeated by Cleveland. Today they would have certainly made a good living as professional pundits on Fox News or MSNBC, but at this time it seems they had to support themselves like regular people.

Politics at the upper levels didn't pay quite as well in the late 1800's as it does today. There was probably more graft and money changing hands at the lower/local levels, but the higher offices of president, senators and congressmen were expected to take a pay cut to serve in politics.

The millions of dollars that presidential candidates now have funneled to them both before and after presidential elections from super pacs and lobbyists make me almost nostalgic for the days when you had to buy your way into city council.