Reappraisals (repost from 2011)

by John Q on November 22, 2015

As a followup to Corey’s post on Princeton, here’s something I wrote about Wilson in 2011. It’s striking how much the debate has moved on from where (in my perception, at least) it was in 2011.

As a very amateur analysis, I’d say that a triumphalist narrative of US history as Manifest Destiny (marred by some unfortunate episodes, best forgotten) is being replaced by one of struggles over slavery and war. In the process, lots of heroes become villains, while those who sought neutrality in the great struggles in order to pursue domestic policies, however laudable, shrink from giants to dwarfs.


As an Australian, I’m not much accustomed to think of political leaders in heroic terms[^1], something that reflects the fact that nothing our political leaders do matters that much to anybody except us, and even then most of the decisions that really mattered have always been made elsewhere. So, I’m fascinated by the US activity of ranking presidents and other political leaders, and eager to try my hand.

What has brought this to mind is running across George Will’s campaign against Woodrow Wilson, who always seemed to be presented in hagiographic terms until relatively recently. Much as it goes against the grain to agree with Will on anything, he surely has the goods on Wilson: a consistent racist, who lied America into the Great War, and used Sedition acts and similar devices to suppress opposition. His positive record appears to consist of a variety of “Progressive” measures (in the early C20 sense of the term) many of which were inherited from Teddy Roosevelt, and few of which were particularly progressive from a left viewpoint[^2], along with his proposal for the League of Nations, where he comprehensively screwed up the domestic politics, leading the US to stay out of the League.

Now that I’ve got started, what is it with the adulation of Clay, Calhoun and Webster? Sure, they were the leading figures in the US in the decades leading up to the Civil War, but isn’t that like saying that Clemenceau, Hindenburg and Chamberlain played comparable roles between 1919 and 1939?[^3]

And how about Thomas Jefferson? He was good in theoretical terms, but he was a slaveowner who (unlike Washington) could not even manage to free his slaves on his death. And except for the ban on the transatlantic slave trade, he did nothing to retard the growth of slavery and plenty, most importantly the extension of slavery to the Louisiana purchase, to expand it. He seems to bear as much responsibility for the Civil War as anyone.

I should say right off the bat that I’m not claiming anything about the way these figures are viewed by actual professional historians – I don’t know and would be interested to hear. But in general discussion, they seem always to be referred to in a kind of tone that suggests the inappropriateness of any criticism.

[^1]: Like most on the left side of Oz politics, I’m an admirer of our wartime Prime Ministers Curtin and Chifley, as well as the leading reformers of my own younger days, Gough Whitlam and Don Dunstan. But good as they were, they all made some big mistakes, and certainly no one would think of naming political philosophies for them (except perhaps pejoratively in the case of Whitlam).

[^2]: The rightwing animus against Wilson appears to relate to the establishment of such bodies as the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve. I don’t have any real thoughts about the FTC and, while I suppose a central bank is a necessary part of a modern economy, it’s not exactly a force for progress.

[^3]: Those comparisons (except perhaps with Hindenburg) are flattering to Calhoun, who was a figure of unmitigated evil, a warhawk, slaver and secessionist.

Update Over at Lawyers, Guns and Money, Robert Farley posts a very qualified defence of Henry Clay, while Erik Loomis is much more critical of my dismissal of Daniel Webster. In objecting to my comparisons of Clay and Webster to interwar European politicians including Neville Chamberlain, Loomis makes the observation

one huge thing in favor of the Compromise of 1850 is that the Union would have had much more difficulty defeating the Confederacy in 1850 than a decade later.

But this is precisely the argument made by Chamberlain’s defenders, who suggest that Britain couldn’t have fought Germany successfully in 1938. Still, you don’t have accept the Guilty Men caricature of Chamberlain to conclude that, in the only test that really mattered, he failed disastrously.



Watson Ladd 11.22.15 at 2:23 pm

And the price of this reappraisal is the revolutionary content of the American Revolution. There could have been no Reconstruction without the belief that all men are crated equal and endowed with inalienable rights. To remained US history as a tragedy of eternal racism rather then a revolution betrayed is to conceed the immutability of our present circumstances.

Today’s new narrative is suspicious of the possibility of freedom and equality, viewing racism as eternal.


Bruce Wilder 11.22.15 at 3:12 pm

. . . while I suppose a central bank is a necessary part of a modern economy, it’s not exactly a force for progress.

I doubt that anyone could tell you anything informative about the nature of progress.


yastreblyansky 11.22.15 at 3:19 pm

@1 Yes. As our increasingly crazy conservative faction in the US continues to develop a picture of the Revolution as a reactionary movement, run by religious maniacs and believers in liberty after the fashion of the barons at Runnymede, demanding freedom for the local squirearchy from regulatory regimes imposed from the remote capital.

I don’t care that much what happens to Jefferson, to say nothing of Woodrow Wilson, but I want my concept of revolutionary progressiveness back, and of a nation founded in Enlightenment ideals.


Anarcissie 11.22.15 at 3:53 pm

yastreblyansky 11.22.15 at 3:19 pm @ 3 —
Won’t you first have to rescue the notion of progress itself? After that, revolution and the Enlightenment. Critiquing these concepts at all seems to have led to their near-collapse.

Classical liberalism, though — anarchy above and slavery below. A hard case.


Scott P. 11.22.15 at 4:07 pm

Defeating Wilhelmine militarism was as much a moral imperative as World War II, so insofar as Wilson ‘lied us into war’ he deserves as much credit as Roosevelt did for aiding the British, declaring the Atlantic Neutrality Zone, etc. If you are going to ding Wilson do so for dragging his feet so that we didn’t get in until 1917.


John Quiggin 11.22.15 at 4:31 pm

@5 I think you mean “aiding British, French and Czarist imperialism to defeat Wilhelmine and Habsburg imperialism”


Pat 11.22.15 at 4:37 pm

I’m not going to write a brief for Wilson (the racism etc.), but this sentiment has always seemed odd to me:

… along with his proposal for the League of Nations, where he comprehensively screwed up the domestic politics, leading the US to stay out of the League.

Again, not defending Wilson’s strategy vis a vis the Senate, but surely it counts that (a) the president and the Democrats who followed him supported the treaty and (b) the Lodge’s Republicans opposed it? Unless I’m missing something, isn’t this criticism precisely analogous to the “Green Lantern theory” so despised by online lefties, the idea that if only Obama were more persuasive he could get the congressional GOP to accede to his agenda?


Anarcissie 11.22.15 at 4:40 pm

Scott P. 11.22.15 at 4:07 pm @ 5 —
As a person of working-class Irish descent with moderate moral and aesthetic preferences, I don’t see a lot of difference between the racist, genocidal British imperialism and the racist, genocidal German imperialism of the World War 1 era. It is true the Germans were more active then the British; the British already had their swag and could sit on it. From Mr. Wilson’s point of view, as a leader of the American ruling class, the financial and cultural connections between the US upper crust and the British upper crust would have no doubt defeated the connections with the German upper crust. So I think dingability depends on your point of view as to both depth and direction.


Pat 11.22.15 at 5:23 pm

John Quiggin @6, I believe the U.S. entered the war after Russia was no longer a Czarist nation. Not saying belief in Kerensky’s democratic potential wasn’t hopelessly naive.


geo 11.22.15 at 6:44 pm

The OP is true and perceptive as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. For nearly a century, Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy has been universally (in mainstream media and academia) held up as idealistic, as prime evidence of American exceptionalism. This is pernicious nonsense. See the passage from Christopher Lasch quoted @52 in Corey’s thread. And here is Chomsky, commenting on Wilson’s Nobel Peace Prize:

“Woodrow Wilson is the most honored of the presidential laureates and arguably the worst for Latin America.

“Wilson’s invasion of Haiti in 1915 killed thousands, restored virtual slavery and left much of the country in ruins. Demonstrating his love of democracy, Wilson ordered his Marines to disband the Haitian parliament at gunpoint for failing to pass “progressive” legislation that allowed U.S. corporations to buy up the country. The problem was remedied when Haitians adopted a U.S.-written constitution, under Marine guns. The achievement would be “beneficial to Haiti,” the State Department assured its wards.”

Wilson also invaded the Dominican Republic to ensure its welfare. Both countries were left under the rule of vicious national guards. Decades of torture, violence and misery there come down to us as a legacy of “Wilsonian idealism,” a leading principle of U.S. foreign policy.”


fs 11.22.15 at 6:47 pm

Thought that the Zimmermann telegram was a good enough reason without lying?


John Quiggin 11.22.15 at 7:21 pm

Pat @9 Scott P said “If you are going to ding Wilson do so for dragging his feet so that we didn’t get in until 1917.” So, I assume he was cool with the Czar.


Guano 11.22.15 at 7:35 pm

“So, I’m fascinated by the US activity of ranking presidents and other political leaders, and eager to try my hand.”

More fool you! I don’t see much point in it, though the context is interesting in every case. US presidents are not all-powerful and have to deal with a vast array of vested interests; how do you rank the ones who tried and were out-manoeuvred? Was Carter right to tell Americans that they had to reduce energy consumption, or stupid because that message was a red rag to a bull for powerful vested interests who could prevent his re-election?


Bloix 11.22.15 at 8:48 pm

“And except for the ban on the transatlantic slave trade, [Jefferon] did nothing to retard the growth of slavery and plenty, most importantly the extension of slavery to the Louisiana purchase, to expand it..”

Presumably you believe this because Corey Robin told you so. I’ve got to caution you, he’s not a reliable source.

In 1778, Jefferson sponsored a bill in the Virginia House of Delegates to prevent the further importation of slaves in Virginia. It passed, and Jefferson said that it “stopped the increase of the evil importation, leaving to future efforts its final eradication.”

In the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War, the British relinquished their claims to the Ohio Country – all the territory north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi, a huge area from what is now Ohio west to Illinois and north to Minnesota, which became known as the Northwest Territories.

To govern the new territories, Jefferson drafted what became the Land Ordinance of 1784. Jefferson’s draft provided that the new territory would be divided into states that would be admitted to the union, and that “after the year 1800 of the Christian era, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said States…” By a single vote the prohibition on slavery was deleted from the ordinance as passed.

In 1786, Jefferson said about that vote, “The voice of a single individual would have prevented this abominable crime; heaven will not always be silent; the friends to the rights of human nature will in the end prevail.”

Three years later, the Land Ordinance was modified by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Jefferson’s proposed prohibition on slavery was re-introduced, this time married to a fugitive slave provision to placate southern opposition, and this time it passed.

Without Jefferson, the settlement of the Midwest by free farmers and tradesmen from the Northeast could never have happened, and the sort of open warfare between slaveholders and free settlers that took place two generations later in Kansas and Missouri would have begun in Ohio and Indiana in the 1790’s.

Your statement that Jefferson was responsible for “the extension of slavery to the Louisiana purchase” is simply false. Slavery was legal and entrenched in Louisiana at the time of the 1803 purchase. French planters were already moving there, with their slaves, from Haiti. It is true that Jefferson did not eradicate it; he couldn’t have done so, and any argument that he could have is just green lanternism.


LFC 11.22.15 at 8:50 pm

geo @10
For nearly a century, Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy has been universally (in mainstream media and academia) held up as idealistic, as prime evidence of American exceptionalism. This is pernicious nonsense.

Sorry to be blunt, but I think this is about eighty percent B.S. At best, it’s quite misleading.

First, you’re confusing “idealism” as an analytical category with “idealism” as meaning something like “actionable belief in the ideals that leftists (or even liberals) have held for the last 150 or 250 [or whatever] years.” Wilson was opposed to what he (and some others) saw as ‘the Old Diplomacy’, the balance-of-power politics that he blamed, correctly or incorrectly, for leading to WW1. He wanted to replace it with an intl system based on some measure of self-determination for natl minorities and also on some form of ‘collective security’. (Unfortunately Wilson wasn’t willing to agree to a real enforcement mechanism for the League, but that’s another issue.)

Taken together, these attitudes distinguish Wilson from, say, Bismarck (or insert one of many other possible examples). “Idealism” here simply denotes that fact, plus Wilson’s rhetoric about democracy and making the world safe for it. Was that rhetoric hypocritical? In significant respects (cf the Latin American interventions, his actions on race, etc.), certainly. But that doesn’t mean that the sort of quasi-messianic ‘internationalism’ it represented was simply fake in its entirety; it did represent a different approach to the world than some other strains in US foreign policy thinking, but (as mentioned later) to call it “prime evidence” of US exceptionalism may be too strong. It also doesn’t mean incidentally that Wilson conducted what we wd consider a “moral” foreign policy. One can learn much from Randolph Bourne and other critics of Wilson’s decision to enter WW1. (But again, this doesn’t mean Wilson had the same attitudes as, say, TR, who was an unabashed, overt imperialist; rhetoric matters in certain respects.)

Now to ‘American exceptionalism’ and related matters. First, Chomsky is wrong to call “Wilsonian idealism” a “leading principle of US foreign policy.” It’s not a principle, at most it’s a set of attitudes, a worldview (and sometimes, to be sure, just used as a cover for typical nasty power plays). Second, it’s not completely unique to the U.S.

Since the founding, there’s a been a strain of messianism or quasi-millennialism in American thought about foreign policy (and other things) — the US was supposed to be an implicitly transformative example to the world (Winthrop’s ‘city on a hill’) and, in some versions, it was supposed to go beyond being an example and spread the putative benefits of its institutions to the rest of the world. These two impulses — the first largely separationist or ‘isolationist’ w/r/t the rest of the world at least outside the Western hemisphere, the second more activist — both represent strains of American ‘exceptionalism’. It long predates Wilson and goes back pretty much to the early republic. This is largely uncontroversial stuff and even a leftist like Perry Anderson signs on to this interpretation in his writing about the history of US foreign policy.

So, in short, Wilsonian “idealism” (1) is not synonymous with American exceptionalism, which long antedates it, and it’s ‘prime evidence’ only in that it partly embodies one rhetorical strand of American exceptionalism, (2) it’s not a ‘principle’ of US foreign policy but a set of (partly rhetorical) attitudes, (3) it therefore doesn’t really mean what you and Chomsky think, and (4) it’s not and never has been completely unique to the U.S.


Brett Dunbar 11.22.15 at 8:51 pm

The US entry into the first world war was fairly straightforward.

Germany started unrestricted submarine warfare. The Lusitania was sunk in 1915. The USA declared that it considered unrestricted submarine warfare an act of war and would declare war if it was not ended. Germany ended unrestricted submarine warfare. In 1917 Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. The USA then declared war. None of this involved any deceit on Wilson’s part.

Germany resumed a policy that it had suspended due to an explicit threat of war from the USA. The USA wasn’t bluffing. Germany was gambling that they could beat the Entante before the USA was able to field a significant army (based on experience with Britain this was expected to take a couple of years).


yastreblyansky 11.22.15 at 9:05 pm

Bloix @14
And his passionate outburst against slavery, censored out of the Declaration by the Continental Congress for fear of losing Southern votes:

He has waged cruel War against human Nature itself, violating its most sacred Rights of Life and Liberty in the Persons of a distant People who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into Slavery in another Hemisphere, or to incur miserable Death, in their Transportation thither. This piratical Warfare, the opprobrium of infidel Powers, is the Warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.

He clearly felt this, even as he ran a slave plantation himself!

Which means that people are extremely complicated, and the analysis of politics by personalities, while fascinating, doesn’t give good results.

Or what Guano @13 said. Carter is an elegant example of that. On the other side are truly powerful presidents like Johnson, who was really titanic, and has to be put on both ends of the list, for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and Medicare on the one hand and the catastrophe of Vietnam on the other,


Placeholder 11.22.15 at 9:30 pm

@ Bloix:
I think Robin’s thesis is that Jefferson moved towards racism as the sustaining force holding together the institutions of liberal republicanism with the institution of slavery. This culminates in the Lost Cause view that they were defending the principle “all men are created equal” and the north was betraying it.

Secondly, doesn’t the fact that the Confederate Constitution also included a slave-trading ban in Article I Section 9 undermine its role as a litmus test?


yastreblyansky 11.22.15 at 10:03 pm

Placeholder @17 on the second point, no. There’s a difference between 1778, when the slave trade was legal everywhere in the world, and 1860, when it was banned in most places and the ban was enforced by the British navy. The Confederate ban–only on international (basically Translantic) slave trading and not on internal trade, including with the Northern states–was probably necessary to attain recognition from Europe, especially Britain, which seemed likely to favor the Confederacy for its raw cotton supplies, but could not tolerate flouting of one of its biggest international commitments.


ozajh 11.22.15 at 10:11 pm

LFC @15,

While I understand your point about ‘the Old Diplomacy’, I’m not sure you’re picking the best exemplar here. The first two decades of the 20th Century would have been very, very different if Bismarck had still been the ‘Power behind the Throne’ in Germany.

Now, in reference to Note 1 to the original post, I share Professor Quiggin’s ambivalence about Whitlam. IMHO the sheer incompetence of his government was largely responsible for Kerr’s execrable decision in 1975. Yes, the ALP government introduced many much-needed reforms, exposed the ‘born to rule’ attitude of the conservative side. And the timing was certainly unfortunate. (I often wonder how Australian Politics would have progressed if Whitlam had won in 1969, with the Coalition back in power when the first oil crisis hit in 1973.)

But regardless of these points it was HIS government allowed the left-wing fiscal irresponsibility meme to gain full traction here, which placed significant constraints on the Hawke government later. (Wayne Goss had a similar problem in Queensland, because for all the personal corruption the Bjelke-Peterson government AS A GOVERNMENT had been very, very fiscally responsible. And yes, I am fully aware they had achieved this by their lack of services.)


John Quiggin 11.22.15 at 10:19 pm

@17 That’s a shortened quote, which reads rather differently in full. The text you’ve omitted is

And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

So, the slaveholders are the innocent victims of slave revolts.


Omega Centauri 11.22.15 at 10:20 pm

yast @18.
I hadn’t realized the confederacy had a ban on international slave trade. But, it probably wasn’t that much of a concession for them, their prime claim to wealth was the capital values of owned slaves. Maintaining a high market value of a commodity requires scarcity.


Bloix 11.22.15 at 10:45 pm

#21 – Jefferson did indeed live in mortal terror of slave revolts. But he did not for a moment believe that slaveowners were innocent victims. From Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781:

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal… The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other. For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another… And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”

American slavery was an evil that was exceedingly complex and emotionally fraught, not least for the people who lived it. It is a mistake for a person without deep and intimate knowledge of their experience to condescend to them.


LFC 11.22.15 at 10:56 pm

ojazh @20
The first two decades of the 20th Century would have been very, very different if Bismarck had still been the ‘Power behind the Throne’ in Germany.

Yes I tend to agree. Bismarck was an unusually skillful practitioner of the balance of power; in less skilled hands things didn’t work out so well. But if you don’t like Bismarck as exemplar of the balance of power there, substitute — I don’t know — the ‘statesmen’ and military/naval men (Tirpitz, Moltke, Fisher, etc) who were in power at the time, or whoever you feel comfortable putting there…


John Quiggin 11.22.15 at 11:04 pm

American slavery was an evil that was exceedingly complex and emotionally fraught, not least for the people who lived it. It is a mistake for a person without deep and intimate knowledge of their experience to condescend to them.

Does the bolded passage refer to slaves? If so, doesn’t honoring slaveholders condescend to them? As Jefferson himself says, slaves continuously resisted their oppressors with every weapon available to them, so any attempt to excuse those oppressors trivialises their suffering.

If you are saying that only a slaveholder can have a deep and intimate knowledge of the experience of slaveholders, is there any evil, past or contemporary, that can’t be excused in this way?


LFC 11.22.15 at 11:05 pm

Brett Dunbar @16
If you spend about fifteen seconds glancing at Wilson’s speeches in the relevant period, which I’ve assume you’ve done, you see that he didn’t limit himself to the unrestricted- submarine-warfare point but elaborated an entire rhetorical edifice about why the US was fighting. That’s where the (so-called) “idealism” (unfortunate term, actually) comes in. (Plus 14 pts, League, etc.)


geo 11.22.15 at 11:09 pm

LFC@15: you’re confusing “idealism” as an analytical category with “idealism” as meaning something like “actionable belief in the ideals that leftists (or even liberals) have held for the last 150 or 250 [or whatever] years.”

“Ideal” and “idealism” have a number of shades of meaning. According to my dictionary (American Heritage, 2nd ed.), the essential meanings of “idealism” is “the practice of conceiving things in ideal terms” and “the pursuit of one’s ideals.” Which leaves the meaning of “idealism” dependent on the meaning of “ideal.” The essential meaning of “ideal,” according to the same source, is “a goal of perfection in the form of a person or thing, sometimes imaginary.” I don’t see anything in these definitions that correspond to your “analytic category.” What do you mean by that phrase? (I assume you don’t mean “philosophical idealism,” which is neither here nor there.)

The everyday, most common meaning of “idealism” is “belief in and pursuit of an unselfish goal.” As applied to US foreign policy, it generally means the goal of fostering democracy and self-determination for other nations and people, even at the expense of the US “national interest.” This is the sense in which I was using it, in which Chomsky was using it, and in which virtually everyone uses it.

What you describe, accurately, as Wilson’s foreign policy, is accurately described as “liberal internationalism”: the attempt to achieve foreign-policy goals through international organizations, agreements, and other forms of cooperation. That is also a common, and accurate, description for US foreign policy (with the proviso that the US will usually pursue its goals unilaterally if international cooperation is unlikely).

“Idealism” and “liberal internationalism” are different categories. One can pursue an idealistic (ie, unselfish) policy unilaterally or cooperatively. Conversely, liberal internationalism can be the form in which one pursues either selfish or unselfish goals. In the real world, the US has pursued selfish goals (roughly, global economic integration) through liberal internationalism (ie, professed allegiance to, and occasional compliance with, international law and organizations). In the world of mainstream media and academic scholarship, the US has pursued unselfish goals (democracy, human rights, and self-determination everywhere) through liberal internationalism. This latter, illusory view is “American exceptionalism,” called “exceptional” because all other nations are supposed to have pursued primarily selfish goals, ie, their “national interest.” (I keep putting that phrase in scare quotes because it’s a mystification, for reasons I’ve argued at enormous length elsewhere on CT.)

That the real goal of American policy is a world open to economic penetration and control by (preferably, American) corporate and financial elites is the burden of Chomsky’s 50 or 60 books. That “American exceptionalism” means, in standard usage, the unique unselfishness of American foreign policy and international behavior seems to me too obvious to need demonstration. (In any case, I have to go offline for several hours.)

I’m not sure exactly where we disagree, but if you think any of the above is mistaken, please have at it.


Three Myths 11.22.15 at 11:13 pm

@7 Wilson had the votes to pass the treaty but instructed Senate Democrats to vote against it because he could not tolerate a single Republican reservation.

@15 Wilson cannot be credited with supporting national self-determination because his understanding of self-determination was limited democratic self-government. Wilson’s defenders say this absolves Wilson of any blame for the problems of national self-determination. Critics see it as evidence that Wilson was just another reactionary nineteenth century liberal.

@15 Balance of power was a fundamental principle of international law designed to prevent the emergence of a hegemonic state capable of unilaterally dictating what was legal. Wilson objected to this principle because it constrained his ability to dictate the terms of world politics. International law clashed with his authoritarian and reactionary approach to politics.

Those are the myths worth explaining. The myth that isn’t worth spending much time on is the notion of a moral equivalence between Germany and the Allies. Those who believe this are beyond the reach of facts or reason.


yastreblyansky 11.22.15 at 11:33 pm

John Quiggin @21
The part of the Declaration draft I left out wasn’t about slave revolts, but the attempt in 1775 on the part of the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, to recruit slaves and servants into the British army, with a promise of future freedom. Washington retaliated the next month by starting his own black recruitment drive. Jefferson wasn’t weeping for slaveholders but screaming treachery, and as usual making no attempt at all to be morally consistent.

I feel very stupid sitting here as a witness for the defense in Jefferson’s case, which is not what I meant. He is certainly my least favorite Founding Father, for the reasons everybody here understands and also for his total lack of a sense of humor. What I want to defend is not Jefferson the violently self-contradictory man but the ideas of the Revolution in which he played an important part; that’s where the understanding that slavery must be ended grew from, and Jefferson’s words (often) captured it.


Bloix 11.22.15 at 11:46 pm

#25 – Of course I am not saying what you attribute to me. I am saying that Jefferson was an extremely complex person who lived in a time of terrible contradictions. I have no interest in judging him. I read him and about him with horror and empathy.

You of course are entitled to judge him once you have made an effort to understand him. But what you’ve written so far is either wrong or just snark.

There is no person from the past who is not dishonorable in some respects by our standards, and no person alive today who is not dishonorable by the standards of the past. We must believe in our own morality and at the same time recognize that we are limited creatures no less than were our fellows who lived in the past. If you can’t understand this, then what you say about history is no more than preening.

Look, I know you’re an economist, not a historian, but make an effort here. I read your posts on economics, and I find them insightful and educational. I read your posts on history, and I roll my eyes. There’s something called a historical imagination. Try to develop one.


Rakesh Bhandari 11.22.15 at 11:51 pm

People forget Woodrow Wilson’s Marxist phase. Read pages 12-13 of his Division and Reunion. It’s available on google books.


Pat 11.22.15 at 11:56 pm

John Quiggin:

Pat @9 Scott P said “If you are going to ding Wilson do so for dragging his feet so that we didn’t get in until 1917.” So, I assume he was cool with the Czar.

Well, I don’t know what Scott P. was cool with, but I believe it’s more relevant that when Wilson called for a “world made safe for democracy,” he was talking about Russian democracy, two weeks after the czar’s abdication.

On that score it’s probably worth noting that England was a parliamentary democracy at the time—albeit one with imperialist ambitions—in contrast to Germany under Bismarck’s constitution, where the Reichstag really only held a limited veto power on the kaiser’s chancellor. I’m not an expert, but my understanding was that the Austrian government at the time resembled the German, and the French the English. And it’s certainly worth noting that Wilson’s letter precipitating the kaiser’s abdication was quite concerned with the difference between a monarchical and a democratic government (the former being warned it would not be allowed any but an unconditional surrender). And lo and behold, a democracy was what the Germans got!

I’m sure the submarines and the Zimmerman telegram weighed heavier on the decision to enter the war than any idealistic hopes for European democracy, but isn’t this worth being made at least part of the conversation?


yastreblyansky 11.22.15 at 11:57 pm

Omega @22
Indeed, it wasn’t any concession at all, since it had been illegal since 1809 and it wouldn’t have been easy to start up again. Also, I read one allegation that Virginia and Maryland had a surplus of slaves they wanted to sell southwards and they wanted the clause in order to avoid competition in the market. While South Carolina, ever advantaged in races to the bottom, protested against the clause on states’ rights grounds.


John Quiggin 11.23.15 at 12:05 am

@30 I’m going to invoke historical relativism in my own defence here. This post is from 2011. At that time, the celebration of Jefferson-Jackson day by the Democratic Party was a long-standing and AFAICT unchallenged tradition. No one (or no one I saw) was using word like “horror” in relation to Jefferson. Even Calhoun was still getting a free pass most of the time.

So, in the historical circumstances, it seemed more important to point out the reasons for horror than to stress the need for empathy.


Belle Waring 11.23.15 at 1:01 am

I feel like I’m not seeing enough “fuck Calhoun sideways with a lawnmower blade” sentiments here. And every third or fourth thing in the whole South is named after the bastard! What’s not named after Strom Thurmond, that is. Or McClellan; my family has old friends in and great love for McClennanville, S.C., a little shrimping village outside of Charleston with maybe 500 people in it, and all of them related to/intimately known by each other. Not to say you don’t see a lot of Jeff Davis and General Lee (one of my brothers best friends of youth was named Jefferson Lee H——-h, for a twofer). In honor of my sister, daughter of Edmund Kirby-Smith (great-grandson of same), I’m sort of duty bound to say everything in Sewanee should still be named after him, but I’ll concede it’s not a principled stand. Now that I come to think of it I think a focused national campaign to ensure nothing at all in our fair nation is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest would be pretty sellable, even in the South. People would grumble, but coming right out to represent the Klan isn’t cool unless you’re RZA. One can only get so much “the high school band played Dixieland while they tore our tattered flags and banners down” going for Forrest IMO. It could be the thin edge of the wedge.


yastreblyansky 11.23.15 at 1:09 am

Not to be a pedant, but McClennanville, SC is likely not named after George McClellan, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, but more probably reflects the prevalence of first-cousin marriage and paucity of surnames in the region, in addition to being spelled in a way that some would regard as significantly different.


StevenAttewell 11.23.15 at 1:31 am

@34 – it might be small-scale, but a lot of county Democratic Party Central Committees have been changing the name of those dinners for a couple years now in California. My county changed ours to Roosevelt/Hamer, I know there’s a JFK/RFK dinner in LA, there’s an Eleanor Roosevelt Dinner somewhere in Norcal, etc.


ZM 11.23.15 at 1:37 am

Thinking about re-appraisals, Woodrow Wilson was a fan of the children’s author Jean Webster who wrote Daddy Long Legs and Dear Enemy. I read these when I was in mid primary school, re-reading them a few years ago as an adult was weird (apart from just due to me reading one backwards from end to start — this is as they are epistolary novels so I read the last letter, then I read the second last letter, and so on back to the first letter of the book — I didn’t mean to do this, I was just flicking through the end but I got hooked and read to the beginning to see how it started) — because the former was more socialist than I remembered, and the latter was disturbingly in favour of eugenics, which I didn’t remember at all:

“The Fabian Society in the early 1900s advocated the ideal of a scientifically planned society and supported eugenics by way of sterilisation.

If you’d like to see the charming side of Fabian Socialism, you should read Jean Webster’s two delightful books: Daddy Long Legs and Dear Enemy. Both are epistolary novels written in the 1910s. One is set at a women’s college (Vassar-ish) and the other is set in an orphanage. The former presents a pretty picture of Fabian Socialism and the latter sweetly and ardently advocates eugenics.

They are the perfect distillation of a Woodrow Wilson style Progressivism, which wanted to purge America of any impure people and then, once America was properly populated with nice, WASP-y people, to impose a wondrous socialist vision upon them. Jonah Goldberg captures perfectly the time and the vision in Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change. ”

(Sorry, I know Jonah Goldberg is not the most well regarded around here, but I am Australian and don’t know very much about him to have an opinion)

It really was very odd reading Dear Enemy which favours eugenics since it is written in such a light girls children’s book tone — but this is a very odd fit with a book favouring eugenics, and the main female character who is pluckily running an orphanage is even dating a politician and tries to win him around to her views on eugenics.

When I read it I was so surprised at the eugenics theme I looked at Good Reads to see what other readers thought about this, and many people were very surprised to re-read a book they read as a child and find it advocated eugenics.

There has been recent debate in Australia over a television show called Kitchen Cabinet — which is a cooking and politics show: our host Annabel Crabb makes a dessert and goes to a politician’s house for dinner, and they cook and eat and chat. A recent episode with the past Immigration Minister caused no little controversy, as many people said she should not just cook and eat and chat with Scott Morrison but interrogate his actions when he was Immigration Minister (Australia has off shore detention of refugees in camps in Nauru and Manus Island in PNG).

Annabel Crabb said her show was to get to know the people behind the policies. I have sometimes watched the show, and she can draw the politicians out and get some interesting insights into their lives and careers. But it is frothy and light, and I think there is a good point to be made about whether that approach is suitable all around — like was a light hearted girls children’s book the appropriate venture for a plucky heroine who supports eugenics?


John Quiggin 11.23.15 at 1:44 am

@28 “moral equivalence”

I felt a sense of deja vu reading this comment thread. The appearance of this well-worn phrase crystallised what it reminded me of.


SamChevre 11.23.15 at 3:01 am

I’ve thought of Wilson as a terrible president since I started reading politics in my teens–largely because the first book I read was by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, who convincingly argued for it.

For me, his racism in US politics is part and parcel of the fundamental problem–he thought race-based states were a good idea. As applied to everything between Germany and Russia, they were foreseeably and predictably disastrous.


js. 11.23.15 at 3:06 am


Idealism has two main modern senses: (i) its original philosophical sense, in which, though with many variations of definition, ideas are held to underlie or to form all reality; (ii) its wider modern sense of a way of thinking in which some higher or better state is projected as a way of judging conduct or of indicating action. One of the critical difficulties of sense (ii) is that, especially in some of its derived words, it is used, often loosely, for both praise and blame.

There is idealism contrasted with MATERIALISM (q.v.): basically a philosophical opposition but in C20 especially extended, by the broadening of each term, to a distinction which is really that between altruism and selfishness: a distinction which whatever its other merits has nothing to do with the philosophical argument though it is often, in social
polemic, confused with it. Then there is idealism contrasted with realism:again originally a philosophical distinction, and having some related development to describe types and processes of art, but in common use, from 1C19 and especially in our own time, to indicate a contrast which is really that between impractical and practical, especially in the derived
idealistic and REALISTIC (q.v.). Then there is also idealism as a positive social or moral sense contrasted either with self-seeking or indifference or with a general narrowness of outlook. Since all these current uses coexist with a continuing and important philosophical argument, itself now quite exceptionally complicated, idealism is obviously a word which needs the closest scrutiny whenever it is used.


js. 11.23.15 at 3:24 am

And also: Fuck Calhoun sideways with a lawnmower blade.


LFC 11.23.15 at 3:36 am

geo @27
The everyday, most common meaning of “idealism” is “belief in and pursuit of an unselfish goal.” As applied to US foreign policy, it generally means the goal of fostering democracy and self-determination for other nations and people, even at the expense of the US “national interest.” This is the sense in which I was using it, in which Chomsky was using it, and in which virtually everyone uses it.

In a word, no. That’s not how *everyone* uses it. The word has a particular meaning in IR discourse, where it means, or used to mean, not “unselfish” but something fairly close to “liberal internationalism,” esp. if/as the latter is opposed to “realism.” Obviously Wilson thought democracy promotion abroad was in the US “national interest.” Altruism v ‘selfishness’ is not the right frame here.

If you meant to say Wilson’s foreign policy was not “unselfish,” I’d probably agree, but I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they talk about Wilson’s “idealism” in foreign policy. As someone who went through (for better or worse, prob. worse) a graduate program in IR, I certainly don’t think “unselfish” when I hear someone refer to Wilson’s “idealism.”

I can’t address the American exceptionalism and Chomsky points right now, sorry.


LFC 11.23.15 at 3:42 am

P.s. ‘Idealism’, along the same lines as I just sketched, is sometimes the label given to a bunch of basically liberal-internationalist Anglo-American writers of the period between the two world wars. People used to talk about a ‘debate’ in this period and after btw ‘idealists’ and ‘realists’, but that has been largely discarded as much too simplistic and homogenizing, though reference to it can still be found in some textbooks, probably.


LFC 11.23.15 at 3:51 am

Three Myths @28
Balance of power was a fundamental principle of international law designed to prevent the emergence of a hegemonic state capable of unilaterally dictating what was legal. Wilson objected to this principle because it constrained his ability to dictate the terms of world politics. International law clashed with his authoritarian and reactionary approach to politics.

If you mean to say the above is a myth, then I pretty much agree with you. E.g., balance of power was not really “a fundamental principle of intl law”, but something that wd take much longer to characterize properly. I’m sorry I got into this Wilson thing here. It seems to me there was a mix of hypocrisy and sincerity there, and geo was only emphasizing the former.


F. Foundling 11.23.15 at 3:53 am

@Three Myths 11.22.15 at 11:13 pm
>Balance of power was a fundamental principle of international law designed to prevent the emergence of a hegemonic state capable of unilaterally dictating what was legal. Wilson objected to this principle because it constrained his ability to dictate the terms of world politics. International law clashed with his authoritarian and reactionary approach to politics.

That’s a good point, but it needs a bit of fleshing out. What people commonly overlook is that the fundamental democratic principle of Balance of Power was formally enshrined in the First Article of the Universal Charter of the United Progressive Emperors, which had been meticulously designed by known left-libertarians Otto von Bismarck, Klemens von Metternich and Ivan the Terrible (who were, of course, inspired by Niccolò Machiavelli’s idealistic treatises on constitutionalism and human rights), in order to protect the sacred and God-given right of every sovereign and multipolar nation to freely and multilaterally annex Crimea. As Garibaldi is reported to have uttered right before he was guillotined by the redcoats: If I had a thousand lives, I would still use them all to refresh with my blood the tree of the Balance of Power!


LFC 11.23.15 at 4:11 am

@F Foundling
Amusing. I like the Garibaldi-being-executed-by-redcoats touch at the end.

Of course the ‘balance of power’ can be and has been practiced/embraced by both non-democratic and democratic (more or less) regimes, even though the latter usu. don’t go out of their way to crow about it. Yeah, Friedrich von Gentz, Metternich, and Bismarck were not democrats, but that’s sort of irrelevant in this particular context.

My understanding (I stand open to correction on this) is that Wilson opposed the balance of power as he thought it was being practiced in Europe bec. he thought it led to war (not b.c it was undemocratic). Wilson was basically wrong in that belief (in skillful hands, balance-of-power politics can have the effect of preserving great-power peace), but that Wilson was largely wrong as an empirical matter is irrelevant to the question of what ‘label’ to put on Wilson’s beliefs.


LFC 11.23.15 at 4:36 am

geo @27
Ok, last comment for a while:
You seem to think “American exceptionalism” means: Every country has pursued its “national interest” except the US, which has acted “unselfishly” to promote good things around the world with no thought for itself. But those who favor, e.g., the US spreading ‘democracy’ and ‘self-determination’ and human rights argue that that does redound to the US’s benefit and therefore is in its ‘national interest’.

There’s a fairly large lit. on ‘American exceptionalism’ and the phrase is not used there the way you’re using it, afaik. (See my earlier comment far upthread, I can’t bother to get the # now.)


yastreblyansky 11.23.15 at 4:36 am

ZM @38
Per Wikipedia, Theodore Roosevelt was a still bigger Webster fan than Wilson:

In June 1915, Glenn Ford McKinney was granted a divorce, and he and Webster were married in a quiet ceremony in September in Washington, Connecticut. They honeymooned at McKinney’s camp near Quebec City, Canada and were visited by former president Theodore Roosevelt,[4] who invited himself, saying: “I’ve always wanted to meet Jean Webster. We can put up a partition in the cabin.”

The article doesn’t mention Wilson, in contrast, at all.

Also, I learn that at the end of “Dear Enemy” the heroine concludes, “Privately, I don’t believe there’s one thing in heredity”, instancing a child at the institution where she works whose disposition is placid and sunny, though her mother, uncle, and aunt all died insane; so it may be that if you read the book from front to back instead of back to front it seems less pro-eugenics than it seemed to you.


TB 11.23.15 at 4:45 am

Watson Ladd @ 1
It’s ironic you bring Reconstruction into it, since Wilson played an important role in dismantling Reconstruction both practically and within American historiography.


F. Foundling 11.23.15 at 5:25 am

@LFC 11.23.15 at 4:11 am
Well, it seemed natural to conclude that balance of power must have been democratic, progressive and libertarian, if it was the legal antithesis of Wilson’s ‘authoritarian and reactionary’ policies.

More seriously, I think it’s fairly clear that having something like a League of Nations / the United Nations is *both* far more democratic and far better for world peace than not having it. In this, I think Wilson was right. However hypocritical Wilson might have been and however imperfect his initial achievement, I think that this was, objectively, a very important positive contribution of his, which shouldn’t be forgotten because of the now-topical racist stuff.

Done for a while.


ZM 11.23.15 at 5:40 am

yastreblyansky ,

I did read Dear Enemy front to back. I did not note that at the end of the book the female character renounces eugenics, after being pro-eugenics in the middle of the book. I suppose I could have missed this plot development due to being so scandalised by the support of eugenics in the middle of the book. There was really quite a lot of detailed support for eugenics in the middle of the book, and about sending people off to live in isolated farms where they couldn’t have children. If eugenics were renounced at the end of the book, I feel like it should have been renounced in as detailed a way as the pro-eugenics sentiments at the end of the book, as I left the book just thinking about the support for eugenics.

Re: Woodrow Wilson being a Jean Webster fan: “When the press badgered Woodrow Wilson at his home in Princeton on his presidential plans, the prospective candidate adroitly dodged the question by stating that he found it far easier to talk about the recent past than the immediate future. And he much preferred to discuss the book he had just finished reading, Daddy-Long-Legs, ‘the most charming story in years.’”

Then when the book was adapted for the stage Woodrow Wilson went to see the play in Washington and Jean Webster wrote in a letter that he “fell out of his chair laughing”.


geo 11.23.15 at 5:53 am

LFC: I guess we don’t agree on the meaning (ie, the standard journalistic and academic usage) of “American exceptionalism.” Here’s a long excerpt from something I once wrote on the topic:

“The academic and journalistic mainstream has no trouble making sense of American foreign policy. All other nations, they tell us, act out of self-interest; America alone acts out of idealism. We may have made mistakes, but our purpose has always been to support freedom, democracy, and human rights wherever they are endangered. Here are a few typical specimens of this view, which is often called “American exceptionalism.”
First, a column in the New York Times from September 1974 by a liberal commentator, William Shannon, reflecting on the Vietnam War: “For a quarter century, the United States has been trying to do good, encourage political liberty, and promote social justice in the Third World. But in Latin America, where we have traditionally been a friend and protector, and in Asia, where we have made the most painful sacrifices of our young men and our wealth, our relationships have mostly proved to be a recurring source of sorrow, waste, and tragedy. … Our benevolence, intelligence, and hard work have proved not to be enough.”
Here’s a very influential columnist, Joseph Kraft, a few years later: “The debacle in Vietnam showed that the United States has broken with its traditional policy of selflessly supporting the good guys.”
“For a more recent example, here is the first sentence of a scholarly article on the Bush Doctrine in the prestigious academic journal International Security: “The promotion of democracy is central to the George W. Bush administration’s prosecution of both the war on terror and its overall grand strategy.” The New Yorker writer George Packer characterizes the history of American foreign policy in these terms: “America has always swung feverishly between its individualism and its moralism – between periods of business dominance, when the rest of the world can go to hell, and bursts of reformist zeal, when America shines a light unto the nations.” In other words, we sometimes ignore the rest of the world, but when we pay attention, we always try to do good.
“Given a few days, one could find a hundred more examples. Even when it’s not stated explicitly, it’s taken for granted that American intentions are always good, American purposes always idealistic. Sometimes we screw up, because we’re so innocent and naïve, or maybe arrogant and incompetent. But even when, as in Vietnam, we have to drop millions of tons of bombs on people for their own good, it’s not a crime, it’s a tragedy. It can’t be a crime, because our intentions are so good.
“Before dismissing any opinion, no matter how foolish it seems, one should of course ask: “What’s the evidence for it?” Usually the reply includes one or more of the following examples. The first is Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was supposedly a noble, almost saintly idealist, who called for the self-determination of all peoples, though the crafty Europeans outmaneuvered him at Versailles, which doomed the world to another global war.
“But Wilson’s idealism was highly selective. Where the United States had no territorial ambitions, as in Eastern and Southern Europe, Wilson could be generous, at least rhetorically. But over here in our own back yard, in Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, when popular protests arose, Wilson sent in American troops, who devastated those countries and installed investor-friendly governments.”

As I noted here, I think that, given a few days, I really could find another hundred examples of “American exceptionalism” used in this sense.

I fear we may be straying off-thread with this little disagreement, so why don’t you take the last word?


Peter Erwin 11.23.15 at 12:31 pm

… who lied America into the Great War, …

I’m having a hard time thinking how that worked, actually. (Unless it’s in the vague sense of “broke his implicit 1916 campaign promise”, I suppose.)

I also find it difficult to imagine any plausible American president of the time keeping the US out of the war once Germany decided to start freely sinking American ships in 1917.[*] The only remote possibility might have been William Jennings Bryan, who was an avowed pacifist, but he was always a long shot to become president, and I’m not sure even he could have resisted calls for war once US ships started being regularly and deliberately sunk. (Now if the president at the time had been Teddy Roosevelt, the US might have entered the war sooner; he was agitating for war with Germany after the Lusitania was sunk…)

(The Germans assumed that opening up unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 would bring the US into the war. As Brett Dunbar pointed out @16, they assumed the US was incapable of being a real military threat in any reasonable period of time, and bet on being able to bring the UK to its knees before US intervention could have any effect.)

Wilson spent a fair amount of time trying to negotiate an end to World War I, which was largely futile because both sides believed that with a little more time, they would surely triumph, and were (particularly in Germany’s case) unwilling to surrender any of the gains they had made thus far.

[*] The Zimmerman Telegram made US entry into the war even more impossible to avoid, of course.


LFC 11.23.15 at 3:14 pm

geo @53
I was too sweeping @48 and I acknowledge that ‘American exceptionalism’ can be used in different ways. Moreover, there’s some overlap among the different usages, which complicates things further. One fairly common meaning, and the one I prefer, has to do with what one author calls the American “mythology of mission.”[*] The emphasis in this usage falls less on unselfishness and more on the U.S. as beacon/exemplar, etc.

*The phrase is from John Kane (an Australian, as it happens), and I’ll quote a passage from him a bit later when I have a couple more minutes, b.c I think he gives a pretty good, lucid summary.


Andrew 11.23.15 at 3:15 pm

The best short, fair take on Wilson that I know of is here:

Wilson deserves more credit for his handling of WWI and domestic politics than he gets. He was also a white supremacist and racist, albeit his views in this regard were moderate for his time. To me, this suggests we shouldn’t dismiss him as a scoundrel nor as an incompetent. But should we continue to honour him by naming buildings and schools after him? No – while our historical imaginations should judge people in the contexts of their times, our distributions of honours today should judge people by the context of our own day. And white supremacy of Wilson’s ilk doesn’t deserve to be honoured.


Andrew 11.23.15 at 3:15 pm

Gah, I didn’t erase the explicit link after embedding it. Sorry about that.


yastreblyansky 11.23.15 at 3:30 pm

ZM @52
I am sorry I was mistaken as to which book you were reading backwards.

As an Australian, you may perhaps be familiar with D.H. Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo (1923), dominated by the protagonist’s involvement an Australian fascist movement. In many ways it is an awful book, and the way the characters’ enthusiasm for fascism is described in the middle sections is really disturbing, because it’s so hard to distinguish from the author’s voice, but in the end we know how Lawrence felt about fascism as he observed it in Italy and Germany and we don’t call him a fascist (though we can certainly call him a racist).

Which might not seem to have a lot to do with the novels of Jean Webster (which I don’t know or care about), but it does relate to a couple of broader points.

You may as you say “not know very much about” Jonah Goldberg, but in referencing him through a long and unattributed quotation from the blog Bookworm Room (motto: “CONSERVATIVES DEAL WITH FACTS AND REACH CONCLUSIONS; LIBERALS HAVE CONCLUSIONS AND SELL THEM AS FACTS”, and a 2010 post calling out the comedian Jon Stewart for his failure to recognize the deadly peril posed to the US by socialism), you plunge yourself into the wrong side of a really stupid debate, in which Goldberg essentially argues that fascism, universally recognized to be a phenomenon of the right, is actually a phenomenon of the left, and particularly that liberal and progressive ideas lead directly to Hitler’s.

A big part of the Goldbergian analysis consists of drawing a picture of the eugenics movement in the early 20th century as a leftist movement, and tying it to Hitler’s enthusiastic eugenicism. The Fabian Society, Woodrow Wilson, and Margaret Sanger all approved of eugenicist ideas, the argument runs, so they are all the same as Hitler. It’s very offensive, and it’s also false.

The eugenics movement, in the first place, was not a partisan one, but had adherents on both sides of the aisle. The membership of the Eugenics Education Society (later Galton Institute) included two Conservative British prime ministers, Arthur Balfour and Neville Chamberlain, and the opposition included left or liberal icons like G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Day, and the great anthropologists Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. Another future Conservative prime minister, brought Britain as close as it was to come to mass forced sterilization (“I propose that 100,000 degenerate Britons should be forcibly sterilized and others put in labour camps to halt the decline of the British race”) as Home Secretary in the Liberal Asquith government in 1910-13, when he fought for a Mental Deficiency Bill, eventually passed in a less intemperate form. Conservatives and liberals together ruled 8 to 1 in favor of forced sterilization in Buck v. Bell (1927).

It was a conservative American president, Calvin Coolidge, who proclaimed, “Biological laws show that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races”, and while everyone on or near the left abandoned eugenics theory after the Nazi catastrophe showed where it leads, scholars on the right such as Hans Eysenck and Cyril Burt, often using fraudulent research, continued it–Charles Murray, beloved of the American conservative movement, continues to push it today.


Stephen 11.23.15 at 3:56 pm

Andrew@56: “our distributions of honours today should judge people by the context of our own day.” Are you then in favour of ceasing to name the US capital, and a US state, after a slaveholder?


Andrew Miller 11.23.15 at 10:30 pm

57: I don’t see renaming Washington DC or State as a live option in the USA right now. But if it were, sure, I’d endorse it. Why not?


John Quiggin 11.23.15 at 11:50 pm

As regards renaming the Jefferson-Jackson dinners, I’d suggest that the obvious replacement is Lincoln. It’s not like any other party has a claim to him.


LFC 11.24.15 at 3:52 am

Here’s the Google Books link to the passage on American exceptionalism from John Kane’s Between Virtue and Power (2008). Starts in the middle of p.27 and goes on to p.28.


Meredith 11.24.15 at 5:55 am

Shall we also rename the White House? It was probably named for the plantation house Martha Washington held from her first husband Custis — I say “held” because I assume that her sons by Custis actually stood to inherit it after her death. Shall we get into some gender issues? Yes, we should, them, too. (Women were not “owned” by anyone or absolutely barred from owning, but their rights to owning property were certainly limited.)

Some renaming is certainly in order (Calhoun everywhere is an affront, for obvious instance — especially in the North! but we’re talking southern NJ with Princeton, maybe not really the North, then or now), but more important is promoting a serious conversation with and about our past. This dialogue and set of dialogues are what matter — they constitute the “we” and “our.” It will take real work. The kind Bloix advocates and exemplifies in her comments here.

When I read JQ’s post, before reading comments, what most struck me (as it did some others above) was his lack of understanding of/feel for our Revolution, how it really did grow out of us and then form us — we are not of the royal Commonwealth (as admirable as that institution may have become — thanks in part to the work we American did in revolting). And how slavery formed us — us including the slaves and our descendants of slaves.

As for Henry Clay: I have been struck how the name Henry suddenly appears in my family in the 1840’s. In fact, Henry Clay ___. The simple Henry appears among northern abolitionist types, the full Henry Clay + surname with Baltimore family who moved to NYC in the late 1850’s. The extended Baltimore family are especially interesting. They will be very divided: in the combat, not so much brother against brother as cousin against cousin (and, I surmise, very conflicted brothers and sisters: my sons are fighting against my brothers and my brother’s sons!). Clay’s appeal lay (in part) in offering (so it seemed) a way out of the potential for those family divides. White family divides, yes.

Which makes me think about how many white people who opposed slavery in the 1840’s and 1850’s, whether avidly or not (“it will take time” — cf. MLK from the Birmingham Jail), also worried mostly about the Union. There is a reason the North was called “the Union” and its army the “Grand Army of the Republic.” Lately, I have been wondering if, while the revisionist South’s “state’s rights” argument is bogus, the North’s interest really was less, on the whole, in abolition (limiting slavery, yes, but that’s different from abolition) and more in the Union — see Clay.


Meredith 11.24.15 at 6:14 am

And, I’d like to add, most of these Henry’s were called Harry. There’s something hopeful in that.


Bill Benzon 11.24.15 at 10:36 am

It seems to me that what these reappraisals do is chip away at nationalist mythology. Where’s this going to end? With a new and revised nationalist mythology, or is the whole idea of nationalist mythology going to be discredited? If the latter, what then?

Meanwhile Tyler Cowen recently posted a link to a very interesting article, Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore, What’s Happening to the Number and Size of Nations? Opening lines: “Since the end of the Second World War, the number of independent states has nearly tripled. In the last thirty years, over thirty new states have become members of the United Nations. Separatist movements routinely receive strong support in regional and national elections.” And these new nations are smaller. Is the nation form collapsing or simply contracting to more ethnically and culturally homogenous states?

Or maybe even both?

And a couple of years ago I noticed a spate of books arguing that cities are where the action is. Nations are too unwieldy and a bit far from “the street”.

Is 19th C. style nationalism on the wane?


Bill Benzon 11.24.15 at 10:40 am

@Meredith: Back in 1964 John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie ran for President. The first line of his stump speech? “When I am elected President of the United States, my first executive order will be to change the name of the White House! To the Blues House.” That speech is full of interesting clauses: “One of the ways we can cut down governmental expenditures is to disband the FBI and have the Senate Internal Security Committee investigate everything under white sheets for un-American activities. Understand, we won’t take no ‘sheet’ off anybody!” I’ve got the whole speech around the corner: Election Special: The Blues House


Hidari 11.24.15 at 11:46 am

A lot of people getting very het up about the American revolution and I was wondering what people made of Gerald Horne’s new book?

“The successful 1776 revolt against British rule in North America has been hailed almost universally as a great step forward for humanity. But the Africans then residing in the colonies overwhelmingly sided with London. In this trailblazing book, Gerald Horne complements his earlier celebrated Negro Comrades of the Crown, by showing that in the prelude to 1776, the abolition of slavery seemed all but inevitable in London, delighting Africans as much as it outraged slaveholders, and sparking the colonial revolt. In the prelude to 1776, more and more Africans were joining the British military, and anti-slavery sentiments were deepening throughout Britain. And in the Caribbean, rebellious Africans were chasing Europeans to the mainland. Unlike their counterparts in London, the European colonists overwhelmingly associated enslaved Africans with subversion and hostility to the status quo. For European colonists, the major threat to security in North America was a foreign invasion combined with an insurrection of the enslaved. And as 1776 approached, London-imposed abolition throughout the colonies was a very real and threatening possibility—a possibility the founding fathers feared could bring the slave rebellions of Jamaica and Antigua to the thirteen colonies. To forestall it, they went to war. The so-called Revolutionary War, Horne writes, was in large part a counter-revolution, a conservative movement that the founding fathers fought in order to preserve their liberty to enslave others—and which today takes the form of a racialized conservatism and a persistent racism targeting the descendants of the enslaved. The Counter-Revolution of 1776 drives us to a radical new understanding of the traditional heroic creation myth of the United States.”


bob mcmanus 11.24.15 at 12:42 pm

67: Exactly. something I have been thinking for years, although I guess I have to say that protection of property/slavery was not the only and entire motivation for every rebellious colonist, and that liberalism/liberty/self-determination etc intersected with racism in complicated and not entirely disingenuous ways. Tom Paine was not quite the slaver.

65: Is 19th C. style nationalism on the wane?

The geographical mass mobilizations of the 19th and 20th modernisms are already gone. Appaduri’s various “spheres” are on the rise, remnant nation-states will try to leverage residual sovereignty, and I suspect units will be larger than cities (Varoufakis and Tsipras were trying to get Podemos, and it wasn’t Southwest Spain they were interested in), In the age of the internet and air travel, why can’t Austin, Barcelona, and Kyoto, or interest groups therein, form a nation?


John Quiggin 11.24.15 at 1:09 pm

@67 and 68 This was exactly the point of the OP. Rather than seeing the Revolution as uniformly heroic, and the ante-bellum period as one of steady progress driven by leaders like Clay, Calhoun and Webster, it seems to me that the emerging narrative is one in which the seeds of the Civil War, Reconstruction and subsequent struggles were ever-present in the institution of slavery.


LFC 11.24.15 at 2:03 pm

JQ @69
My sense is that what you refer to as an “emerging” narrative has already long since emerged, at least in the writings of historians. As has often been noted, the Constitution never mentions the word “slavery” but allowed for it in a few provisions, including the notorious ‘three-fifths’ clause. The non-use of the word “slavery” in the founding document while it allowed the institution to continue spoke volumes about the political tensions, ambivalences, and (not-so-embryonic) conflicts that eventually erupted in civil war.

As Robert Ferguson notes in the last chapter of his book The American Enlightenment (pb., 1997), Native Americans, blacks, and women all lost ground in the first decade or so of the early republic. I was just glancing at this and am not sure exactly how he elaborates on this point (since none of the groups had all that much “ground” to begin with). And even Arendt in her basically celebratory treatment of the American Revolution in On Revolution [published 1963?] (a book that I only read parts of and found quite trying) mentions, if I’m recalling it correctly, that the slavery issue carried the potential seeds of later conflict. It was hard to avoid noticing it, even when writing, as she did, a mostly positive account.


John Quiggin 11.24.15 at 5:01 pm

LFC @70 I agree, but “at least in the writings of historians” is doing a lot of work here.

Economists who study income distribution have known for at least 20 years that the US has less social mobility than do European social democracies. But the opposite was taken for granted in US public discourse until about 2011. I had to make the case at length in my 2010 book.

Similarly, I agree there’s nothing in the OP (from 2011) that would surprise someone familiar with the historical literature. But coming to the issue as an amateur, I was certainly surprised at the contrast between the hagiographic view of Wilson to which I was accustomed, and the far less appealing reality.


Meredith 11.24.15 at 5:32 pm

Bill Benzon @66 An interesting article but not the Dizzie Gillespie speech, which I haven’t been able to find (though I have enjoyed learning more about Dizzie Gillespie). Phyllis Diller as his running mate, no less! If the link is handy, please do share.


Dan 11.24.15 at 6:10 pm

“There is a reason the North was called “the Union” and its army the “Grand Army of the Republic.””

The Grand Army of the Republic was a veterans’ organization formed after the civil war was over.


Stephen 11.24.15 at 7:10 pm

Hidari@67: I doubt if any of that would have come as a surprise to Dr Samuel “Here’s to the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies” Johnson. As he wrote in, I think, Taxation no Tyranny: how is it that we hear the loudest whelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?

Of course, he was an English Tory, and therefore not considerable.


Stephen 11.24.15 at 7:31 pm

yelps, not wheels


Stephen 11.24.15 at 7:32 pm

yelps, not wheels, either. Damn all spellcheckers.


steven johnson 11.24.15 at 8:01 pm

In practice, remembering the words while eschewing memorials isn’t very easy. I suspect far more children actively read the second inaugural on the walls of the Lincoln memorial than a textbook, if textbooks have the second inaugural at all. As for the Cooper Union address? Akhil Reed Amar in his book on the unwritten constitution would rather include the Northwest Ordinance as on a par with The Federalist. Doing away with the visible memorials would almost always hasten the forgetting of everything, good and bad I think.

The notion that Princeton is one of the schools intended to train the ruling class I think confuses management with ownership. I suspect the socialization process relies very heavily on prep schools and clubs and weddings and whatever institutions serve the same functions as the Social Register. And I’m sure legacies are part of the machinery of class reproduction. But until the notion of a gentlemen’s C has disappeared I’m uncertain reforms in higher education can do so much as intimated. The scholar gentry have some power but, really, is it even reasonable to call them the ruling class?

As for Gerald Horne and the case that 1776 and all that was a counter-revolution? I doubt that imperial abolition of slavery was as unlikely as a Stuart restoration, but even after any concerns with keeping order in the American colonies had disappeared with their independence, the planter interest in the Caribbean alone kept slavery alive til 1833. Even the abolition of the slave trade, despite the usefulness of slave trade suppression as a legal weapon against Spain and Africans, had to wait til 1807.

In addition to the intrinsic difficulty of resting such a huge argument on a shaky counterfactual, there is the question of what best explains elite hostility. The Proclamation of 1765 closing the frontier has long been cited. Here we have an actual offense against speculators’ interests, instead of a prospective one. Somehow I too am inclined to grant something real more weight than a threat.

Further, there is the question of mass involvement in a mere elite struggle such as local American elites versus imperial elites. I’m sorry but I don’t think the masses start rebelling just because some rabble rouser wants to use them in an elite struggle. That may be the standard theory of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, but I believe people go to the streets and woods when they hope for something better for themselves, not their masters. You’re saying that New England, Samuel Adams the proto-Lenin manipulated the people by the vanguard party of the Committees of Correspondence (and their military wing, the Sons of Liberty.) And in Pennsylvania Benjamin Franklin cunningly devised one back room deal after another to lead the colony out of the empire, all to avenge his humiliation in the Cockpit in London. This is the great villain idea of history, which suffers all the defects of the great man idea, adding only cheap cynicism.

Worse yet, it is in the South, the region that has the greatest likelihood of resisting the supposedly anti-slavery crown, which had the most bitterly fought revolutionary struggles. The popular image of a bloodless American Revolution, one like the so-called Glorious Revolution, so unlike the English Civil War or the Great French Revolution, is false. Internecine strife between neighbors, bushwhacking, murders, atrocities, murderous petty fights prevailed in the South because it was the South where the loyalists had their greatest strength. (And New York City, the great southern entrepot that honored its long connections with the Draft Riots.)

Further, the meaning of historical events is to be found in outcomes, early and late. Slavery was a national institution before the American Revolution. And established churches were accepted nationally as well. Limited franchises were a norm too. Not so quickly as we today would like, but within living memory, universal suffrage for while males as the national norm. (Propertied women tended to lose their franchise, but there suffrage was not a right for women, but for their property. You cannot reasonably claim women as an estate lost status.) There were no established churches. And slavery was reduced to a section. It is a poor counter-revolution that can’t replace the chains of the past!

To be sure, the new republic was committed to redistributing American Indians lands to its citizens. I’m not quite sure who really thought that a bourgeois revolution would create an non-imperialist, pacifist state, except people terminally committed to the proposition that constitutionalism and individual rights and democratic elections are the essence of human liberation. The Empire was never committed to American Indian sovereignty, as the ghost of Tecumsh can testify.

And to top it all off, the old thesis was that the counter-revolutionary moment wasn’t 1776 but the ratification of the Constitution! Perhaps if Charles Beard had a statue somewhere people would remember his word? Perhaps celluloid could at least revive Gore Vidal’s words, Homage to Daniel Shays especially? Horne, I’m sorry but he’s not available by library loan, and I can’t see him as anything but a crackpot not even worth the Kindle price. The new Republic as the equivalent of the end of Reconstruction, a dirty deal that condemns masses of people to permanent inferiority is at least a defensible thesis.

Yet, even this needs a certain qualification I think. As a military tactic, the imperials set slaves free. The new Republic was of course instructed by the planters to seek redress, that is, the return of the slaves. It’s true I’ve not read the archives myself, but no historian I’ve read could cite anything to show that Washington and Hamilton were every seriously interested in pursuing this point. (Unlike that runaway Washington pursued, this wasn’t his pocket at stake.) Nor was it particularly important for their man Jay (who was deliberately made autonomous of slavery’s greatest defender…in the sense of being effective, that is…Thomas Jefferson, the titular Secretary of State.) Even the hyperlegalistic Lincoln, whose notion of democracy was an autodidact lawyer’s, could do so much.

Lastly, as for the notion that the Union was not worth fighting for? This is the same as saying the majority rule is not worth fighting for. There are constitutionalist, legalist, individualist arguments that true democracy rejects majority rule. I believe they are defective, and more importantly, deeply reactionary.


LFC 11.24.15 at 8:53 pm

Meredith @63
Lately, I have been wondering if, while the revisionist South’s “state’s rights” argument is bogus, the North’s interest really was less, on the whole, in abolition (limiting slavery, yes, but that’s different from abolition) and more in the Union

Abolitionists were always a minority, albeit a vocal and impassioned one, in the North, at least before the war. I would say that “the North’s interest” evolved as the war went on, shifting from a war mainly to preserve the Union to a war both for the Union and against slavery. Lincoln himself makes the shift at some point, culminating in the Emancipation Proclamation (even though it only freed slaves in the rebellious states, not in those border states that remained in the Union).

We’ve had Civil War threads here in the past, e.g. in connection w the Spielberg movie on Lincoln, where I’m sure all this was hashed out extensively. (Can’t say I remember the details of the discussions all that well, but whatever…)


Bruce Wilder 11.24.15 at 8:54 pm

Historical narrative, quite apart from its mythological functions in the culture, necessarily involves heroic compression. Squeezing vast and alien doings into a nutshell affords every new generation of ignoramuses examining the nutshell, endless opportunities to “discover” the past by inventing new ways of unpacking the clichés with which we summarize our heritage. Of course, new myth challenging old myth (in the present, of course, not the past) will generate the most heat and the least light.

The so-called Revolutionary War, Horne writes, was in large part a counter-revolution, a conservative movement that the founding fathers fought in order to preserve their liberty to enslave others—and which today takes the form of a racialized conservatism and a persistent racism targeting the descendants of the enslaved.

If you are going to construct a new myth, with as little bother as possible with actual history, there’s no more convenient method than a counterfactual teleology.

Gerald Horne complements his earlier celebrated Negro Comrades of the Crown, by showing that in the prelude to 1776, the abolition of slavery seemed all but inevitable in London, delighting Africans as much as it outraged slaveholders, and sparking the colonial revolt.

All historians, as the wag has it, remember the future and imagine the past. Using the “dénouement” of the story to select what to remember in retrospectively constructing the plot is a common method of compression. Taking it too far, which is easy to do and therefore often done, erases all traces of contingency from the past, leaving only an inevitable path of development, excusing all agency, responsibility and consequence. Combined artfully (or even hackishly) with the tropes of dramatic narrative, it can be quite persuasive, as dramatic narrative is a (if not “the”) form of moral discourse for the construction of myth.

Do we need myth? Do we need history? Do we need history to be myth? I guess maybe there’s something unsatisfying about always countering with some variation of, “it depends” or “it’s complicated”.


LFC 11.24.15 at 9:03 pm

You really like that Samuel Johnson quote. You’ve deployed it here on so many occasions I’m beginning to wonder if you think it contains the Key to All Mythologies, or at least the key to everything one needs to know about U.S. history. In fact some of the ‘yelps’ came from those opposed to slavery. As mcmanus observed upthread, Tom Paine was not a slaver.


LFC 11.24.15 at 9:08 pm

The (apparent, to judge from above) Gerald Horne thesis that fear of the imminent abolition of slavery, via order from London, sparked the Am. Rev. strikes me as near-total rubbish (near-total, like 90 percent). But hey, whatever sells books. I’m sure he has a gas bill, water bill, maybe kids he has to put through school, etc.


William Berry 11.24.15 at 9:23 pm

As usual, I lack the energy and passion to comment substantively and at length, so I am just going to second BW and LFC, close above.

A critical fact that gets in the way of Horne’s thesis: The Revolution began in Boston, not in Virginia. And the ratio of white “tories” to “rebels” was much higher in the slave-holding South than it was in the North.

The Beards’ capitalist revolt thesis, while itself incomplete, holds up better, I think.


Yastreblyansky 11.24.15 at 9:25 pm

That splendid old Tory Dr. Johnson was deploying a very National Review kind of rhetoric there against the revolutionaries (“you guys are the real liberty-haters”). I believe anti-slavery sentiment was a transatlantic phenomenon, most prominently of the “left”–Quakers, libertines and Freemasons, radical Whigs like Wilkes in England and Paine in America. It is certain that the northern states-colonies were where slavery was eradicated first, not England. Britain wouldn’t have abolished Caribbean slavery if not for terror at Sharpe’s rebellion in Jamaica 1832, the whole idea of England as an anti-slavery haven is silly.


John Quiggin 11.24.15 at 9:55 pm

@83 Yastreblyansky On the contrary, Johnson was a genuine and consistent opponent of slavery well before the American Revolution. His 30-year relationship with his black manservant Francis Barber, to whom he left much of his estate, is consistent with his political position.

The wish you express @3 to maintain the belief in revolutionary progressiveness requires you exclude at least some of the leading supporters of the revolution from your pantheon.


bob mcmanus 11.24.15 at 9:55 pm

Somerset v Stewart 1772 1772

“Even this reading meant that certain property rights in chattel slaves were unsupported by common law. It is one of the most significant milestones in the abolitionist campaign.

Some historians believe the case contributed to increasing colonial support for separatism in the Thirteen Colonies, by parties on both sides of the slavery question who wanted to establish independent government and law.[2] The southern colonies wanted to protect slavery and expanded its territory dramatically in the decades after independence was won.”


bob mcmanus 11.24.15 at 10:02 pm

“The Somerset case was reported in detail by the American colonial press. In Massachusetts, several slaves filed freedom suits in 1773–1774 based on Mansfield’s ruling; these were supported by the General Court (for freedom of the slaves) but vetoed by successive Royal Governors. As a result, some individuals in pro-slavery and anti-slavery colonies, for opposite reasons, desired a distinct break from English law in order to achieve their goals with regard to slavery.[2] Historians Alfred W. and Ruth G. Blumrosen suggest that this case increased support of the Southern colonies for independence, as they particularly wanted to protect slavery.”

“The case of Knight v Wedderburn in Scotland began in 1774 and was concluded in 1778, with a ruling that slavery had no existence in Scottish common law, which was part of Great Britain at the time. Some lawyers thought that similar determinations might be made in British colonies, which had clauses in their Royal charters requiring their laws not to be contrary to the laws of England”


Bill Benzon 11.24.15 at 10:35 pm

@Meriedith: Sorry about the link. Here’s the right one: Dizzy Gillespie speech:


steven johnson 11.24.15 at 10:37 pm

And, decades later the Dred Scott decision sparked Lincoln’s abolitionist assault on the South, which caused the Civil War!

The whole Wikipedia article makes it clear the Somerset decision was deliberately narrowly written precisely to ensure that it did not raise such specters over the empire’s colonies. However it wouldn’t be a bit difficult to quickly establish that it did by documenting the political resistance from other parts of the empire whose slavery was equally threatened (insofar as it really was) by Somerset.

Also, the Wikipedia article cited above references of course Gerald Horne in addition to the Blumrosens. The Blumrosens were not historians but lawyers (Rutgers.) Amazon has a cautious blurb from David Brion Davis saying nothing about revising views or deepening our understanding or shedding a light on overlooked aspects, nothing that he actually agrees with them. Davis does have a great deal of recognition as an intellectual and cultural historian. Wikipedia is silent on how much Horne depends on the Blumrosens.

The upshot is short enough: Still not buying Horne or the Blumrosens.


bob mcmanus 11.24.15 at 10:51 pm

“Dunmore is noted for Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, also known as Lord Dunmore’s Offer of Emancipation. Dated 7 November 1775, but proclaimed a week later, Dunmore thereby formally offered freedom to slaves who abandoned their Patriot masters to join the British. Dunmore had previously withheld his signature from a bill against the slave trade.” …Wiki, led here by David Brion Davis

How could this be legally possible for Dunmore? How was it possible for Lincoln?

The point of the Somerset and Scottish cases is that they said slavery had no basis in common law, and therefore without recompense or litigation or need for legislation the Crown and its representatives could legally and instantly emancipate all the slaves at the stroke of a pen. However improbable, it was an intolerable threat and danger.

The Revolution freed the Colonies from British courts. The Constitution essentially legalized slavery.


ZM 11.24.15 at 11:03 pm

bob mcmanus,

“The geographical mass mobilizations of the 19th and 20th modernisms are already gone. Appaduri’s various “spheres” are on the rise, remnant nation-states will try to leverage residual sovereignty, and I suspect units will be larger than cities … In the age of the internet and air travel, why can’t Austin, Barcelona, and Kyoto, or interest groups therein, form a nation?”

I think geographically connected nation states will continue for some time. What is interesting is how technology has meant NGOs like can have an international presence now, like for the global climate marches this weekend.

And how the possibility of cross-national grouping provided by technology (or made easier at least, I suppose Empire was an earlier form of this that required military support and lots of administrative personnel) is being adopted by NGOs, partnerships, and philanthropic groups.

Something interesting is that this sidesteps federal or state government in many cases, often being at the metropolitan city level (eg. Rockefeller 100 resilient cities programs, or C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group) or the local government level (ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability).


bob mcmanus 11.24.15 at 11:04 pm

Slavery at Common Law is pretty nuanced.

“Sir William Blackstone was in no doubt that “the spirit of liberty is so deeply ingrained in our constitution” that a slave, the moment he lands in England, is free”

“In the American colonies, it was widely assumed that positive law was needed to make slavery lawful, and various royal colonies passed laws to this effect.”

I have DBD’s Problem of Slavery In the Age of Revolution open at my desktop, and Davis is not a lawyer, and the law of Slavery was not really his primary focus. The lawyers possibly should be listened to here.


bob mcmanus 11.24.15 at 11:11 pm

90: I am still working at incipient and nascent political forms, recognizing of course that all the old forms will continue to exist.

Current reading includes Alexander Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization Foucault & Deleuze: Sovereignty => Discipline => Distribution as a periodization.

Too excited; gone


yastreblyansky 11.24.15 at 11:11 pm

That’s fair. And I shouldn’t have suggested Johnson was in any way insincere. I love Johnson (I use the Reynolds portrait as my gravatar) as a writer and man, without regard to his politics.

I certainly don’t include Jefferson in the “pantheon”, if that’s what you mean, as I tried to say above @29. I care about Northern Whiggery, not Jefferson’s hypocritical agrarian utopianism. He was a terrific writer, though–obviously far from being in Johnson’s class (or John Adams’s, for that matter), and he did recognize that slavery would have to end, and his writings and actions did in some important ways contribute to the end of slavery in spite of his total moral failure as a human being, and Bloix @14 was right, historically speaking.

Can’t stand Woodrow Wilson either, but that doesn’t make me want to give up the Fed or the income tax or stop wishing the Senate would have ratified the Versailles treaty.


yastreblyansky 11.24.15 at 11:23 pm

An explainer at the UK National Archives website makes it clear that the effects of the Somerset opinion were pretty limited, too:

Despite Lord Mansfield’s ruling, slave owners continued recapturing their runaway slaves and shipping them back to the colonies. Numerous newspaper advertisements of the time show that Black slaves were still being bought and sold in England. A few years later, in 1785, Mansfield himself ruled that ‘black slaves in Britain were not entitled to be paid for their labour’ (free Black people were, however, paid).

The legal status of African slaves in Britain and its colonies remained unclear until the early 19th century. In 1807, with the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, the slave trade became illegal; and 21 years later almost all Black men, women and children held in bondage in the British empire were granted their freedom.


yastreblyansky 11.25.15 at 1:52 pm

Also Wikipedia, on Stewart v. Someset:

In Massachusetts, several slaves filed freedom suits in 1773–1774 based on Mansfield’s ruling; these were supported by the General Court (for freedom of the slaves) but vetoed by successive Royal Governors. As a result, some individuals in pro-slavery and anti-slavery colonies, for opposite reasons, desired a distinct break from English law in order to achieve their goals with regard to slavery

The Massachusetts cases illustrate what the Northern revolutionaries regarded rightly as tyranny, and fought against (as does Dunmore’s 1775 veto, on which more here. Vermont and Pennsylvania abolished slavery before the war was over, in 1777 and 1780 respectively, and Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1783, Connecticut in 1784, and laggard New York and New Jersey in 1799 and 1804. (Canada, in contrast, took until 1819.) To the citizens of these states, the Revolution, far from consecrating slavery, was what made abolition possible.

Nor did Lincoln have any idea that “slavery had no basis in common law”; to the contrary, he believed the federal government had no constitutional authority to emancipate slaves as late as the First Inaugural, when he said so for the last time. What changed his mind is probably a pretty complicated question; it certainly wasn’t a rereading of Stewart v. Somerset.


Bloix 11.25.15 at 8:16 pm

#69 – “the seeds of the Civil War, Reconstruction and subsequent struggles were ever-present in the institution of slavery.”

Yes. You can see it in the mirror images of two of the most powerful statements ever made on any subject, Jefferson in 1781:

“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.”

And Lincoln, in 1865:

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.””

I have a little saying for my children and for foreign visitors I occasionally show around Washington: if there’s anything you don’t understand about America, the answer is “slavery.”


bob mcmanus 11.25.15 at 8:53 pm

I have a little saying for my children and for foreign visitors I occasionally show around Washington: if there’s anything you don’t understand about America, the answer is “slavery.”

Hey, although I said I thought the threat and danger of emancipation was important to the Revolution, I tried to make clear at 68 above that it was only a factor, and only an moment of a larger ideology.

The answer is property, and slavery as a form of property preceded slavery as racial hierarchy. Suggest Domenico Losurdo on a counter-history of liberalism and C.B. MacPherson on Possessive Individualism as places to start.


Bruce Wilder 11.25.15 at 9:01 pm

Just expanding on what has already been said:

Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island were slow to actually prohibit slavery; their legislatures moved thru a series of enactments, aiming to extinguish slavery as an institution in a series of measures in a so-called gradual emancipation as a way of reconciling those with a substantial property interest in slaves to the reform. One legal strategy was to convert slaves, or the children of slaves up to some age in early adulthood, into “apprentices”, another category under law for an unfree dependence and servitude. And, this could be embedded in a political strategy of racial hostility, that disenfranchised blacks or subjected free blacks to legal harassment. (Ontario [Upper Canada] enacted a similar measure for gradual emancipation in 1794.)

The size of the “property interest” in slaves and slavery seems to have correlated with the politics, so that gradual emancipation was more gradual, where the influence of that property interest was larger. New Jersey never actually prohibited slavery — there were still a couple dozen “apprentices for life” in the State to be counted in the 1860 census. New Jersey, along with slave states Kentucky and Delaware, would provide the George McClellan his only electoral college support in the 1864 Presidential election against Lincoln.

Sojurn is rarely mentioned in recounting the dates of northern emancipation, but created a shadow interest in slavery, even in States that nominally prohibited slavery. Sojurn permitted a slave owner bring slaves into a free state on a “temporary” basis. This was important to a port like New York, which was a point of transit for a large part of the oceanborne trade of the South, but it was also used in States like Illinois in its early years and California right up to the Civil War to permit fairly extensive use of slaves as farm labourers.

When you get into the ugly details, there’s a lot of rank hypocrisy as well as compromise between fundamentally incompatible conceptions. The idea that the slave owners have a right to compensation is often asserted with little apparent concern that the slave has had her life and work stolen. There’s also a remarkable concern that slaves will become dependent on the state or parasitic on the society, and voluntary manumission is regulated with that fear in mind. There’s a slowness to react when selling slaves due to be emancipated down South becomes an apparent abuse. Even the prohibition of the international slave trade by the high-minded British comes with considerable hypocrisy in its operation and enforcement, and the Americans, with Southerners dominating national politics up until the late 1850s, are even more conflicted.

There’s also tangential political and legal entanglement with other issues surrounding the emergence of a system of autonomous wage labor and a cash economy in agricultural goods and manufactured products. Issues like protecting merchant seamen against flogging or the New York rent wars resonate with the nascent politics of abolition, and antislavery sentiment is fueled by a sense that an conservative interest in slavery is naturally opposed to positive public measures of economic development, such as the promotion of public education.


Bloix 11.25.15 at 9:39 pm

#98- to be more blunt, before the Civil War, most people in the Northern states wanted to rid their states of slavery without creating a population of free blacks, and the way to do that was to tell slaveholders to move south or sell their slaves south. “Gradual emancipation” was an announcement that slaveholders had up to a certain date to get their property out of the jurisdiction.

Until our lifetimes, most white people held as their deepest belief that there were two choices: subjugation or separation. Perhaps most still believe it. After the Civil War the tide began to turn, but it turned back. It turned again with the civil rights movement, and it turned back again. Perhaps we are living in a third turning. The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.


Meredith 11.25.15 at 10:49 pm

Bloix@96: what about Native Americans? I ask, Bloix, out of genuine curiosity, since I assume you have thought about this, too. Not just the Indians who were enslaved, but the larger picture. (Thanksgiving, of course, makes me think of them in particular.)


Stephen 11.26.15 at 8:48 am

Yastreblyansky: whatever the legal state of slavery in England, it seems that in freedom-loving Scotland a form of enslavement (of Scots, by other Scots) was legal till 1799. Odd, that. See


John Quiggin 11.26.15 at 1:10 pm

The term “slavery” covers a wide variety of conditions. US slavery was far worse than the Code Noir slavery it displaced in Louisiana, for example.


Stephen 11.26.15 at 2:14 pm

bloix@96: if there’s anything you don’t understand about America, the answer is “slavery.”

True up to a point. But thinking of some of the things I don’t understand about the US –
The War on Drugs
Prominent, well-known leaders of criminal gangs
Bizarre and popular religions
Opposition to the idea of evolution –
I’m not sure how “slavery” is really the answer. Could you enlighten me?


Anarcissie 11.26.15 at 2:44 pm

Stephen 11.26.15 at 2:14 pm @ 103 —
Four of the five items you mention are connected with certain religious sects, which also generally supported racism->genocide+slavery at one time (partly on the authority of various passages in the Bible). As for the gang leaders, you must specify which ones. Perhaps George W. Bush, who was held to be ‘a man of God’ and claimed divine inspiration for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq?


Stephen 11.26.15 at 7:09 pm

Anarcasie: I submit that here is a difference between saying X, who supported Y, also supported slavery: and X supported Y because X supported slavery (which is what I take Bloix to have intended)..

Also: are you arguing that religious sects, bizarre from the non-US point of view, like the Mormons or Christian Scientists or Scientologists supported or do support slavery, and that is why they hold their views?

Or that support for Prohibition came from supporters of slavery?

As for your crack at GW Bush: I have no time for him whatever, but I don’t think anyone could regard him as the leader of a criminal gang after the fashion of Al Capone or various well-known New York Dons. You are welcome to regard him as far worse, but that’s not the point: I don’t see how slavery explains his actions. Do you?


Anarcissie 11.27.15 at 4:57 am

Stephen 11.26.15 at 7:09 pm @ 105 —
I was unclear. A great many religious groups did support slavery, but what I was getting at was the pervasive influence of religion and religious modes of thinking in the U.S. These dominated both the support and the opposition to slavery. Prohibition of alcohol and other drugs came along later, was connected as well with religious groups, and was often related to racial and religious prejudices. Or at least this is what I get out of my spotty reading, for example The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-vegetarian Critical Theory. As you may have heard, there was a political current which flowed into both feminism and abolitionism during the 19th century, so that the two movements both competed with and reinforced one another. Racism might be said to be the ear of the dog which, pulled, brings the dog along with it.

I didn’t know who you meant by gang leaders. I will have to meditate about Al Capone. There was probably a connection between being not White and not quite White enough (Italians, Jews, Slavs) which would connect to the history of Negro slavery.


Meredith 11.27.15 at 6:01 am

John Quiggin@102: this game of which Anglos were better and which worse re slavery, please, give it up. All Anglos were terrible. We could also play the game, which were worse re Native Americans? US Americans or Canadians? (Probably, Canadians, which wreaks havoc with the game being played here.) Let’s get the Spaniards in on the act, the French. Let’s get Australia in on the act, the Aborigenies!

What concerns actually underly this post?


John Quiggin 11.27.15 at 11:10 am

Meredith @107 I’m equally unclear about your concerns in commenting, but for the record, the treatment of indigenous people in Australia has been considerably worse than that in the US, Canada or New Zealand. The need for any kind of treaty was never recognised and land ownership rights were extinguished.

The apology described in this post is a recognition of this, and of the need not to sweep historical crimes under the carpet.


ZM 11.28.15 at 3:19 am


Yes the treatment of Indigenous people has been very bad in most colonial settler countries. As well as the treatment of Indigenous people in colonial Australia, Australia also had penal colonies in the early period and also indentured labourers from Pacific countries.

Looking at the OP John Quiggin wrote “As an Australian, I’m not much accustomed to think of political leaders in heroic terms…”

This is true, but I disagree with John Quiggin’s reasoning somewhat (“something that reflects the fact that nothing our political leaders do matters that much to anybody except us, and even then most of the decisions that really mattered have always been made elsewhere”) — I think this is less to do with the global import of Australiabut more to do with Australia being settled at a later period than the USA under different conditions in the UK and in this colony from the American one so the history was different, and the history-making was different too.

For instance, I was reading about the public trust doctrine for the VCAT case here — and I read an article about its use including in America in the Revolutionary period and it was used in a grand rhetorical sort of fashion by both sides in terms of responsibilities and accountabilities of government (and indeed now it is still well utilised legally in America) — whereas there were a couple of very prosaic cases involving the public trust doctrine in Australia in the period shortly before Federation (our equivalent of the Revolution) one being about the sale of some land in Albert Park in Melbourne (still a controversial public park due to being utilised for the Grand Prix motor racing event) and one about a coal mine in Sydney where the company proposed to put the industrial plant on the North Shore (a very well heeled area even then) which some people thought was the height of modernity and North Shore residents opposed vigorously.

But at the same time, although the public trust doctrine and the responsibilities of government is not really evoked grandly in Australia, the government provides more public services than the American government does.

There are some grander moments in Australian history, but even then they tend to be taken with a grain (or more) of salt — for instance a notable and praised speech by Prime Minister Keating on the treatment of Indigenous people — the Redfern speech — afterwards became the locus for public debate about Prime Ministerial speeches and their speechwriters (while I am sure no Australian Prime Minister will ever again choose a Historian for a speechwriter, I do hope someone makes a movie of this one day like The King’s Speech).

That speech was around the time of The History Wars, which centred around the treatment of Indigenous people in Australia and how to include this in our history writing. One of the major books of this dispute was called This Whispering In Our Hearts by Henry Reynolds, which was named after a political speech by Richard Windeyer in 1842, whose speech against Aboriginal Rights was said to have “distinctly proved not only that the Blacks have no right to the soil of Australia for want of settled occupancy and cultivation; but that they have no right even to the kangaroos more than we have, the game laws of England agreeing precisely with the great law of nature, that wild animals not confined by enclosure are not, and cannot be the property of any man. (Sydney Morning Herald 12 Sept 1842)”

But at the end of that powerful speech against Aboriginal Rights, Richard Wineyer said:

“How is it that our minds are not satisfied? …What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?”


Piquoiseau 11.28.15 at 10:45 pm

You know, I will make a narrow and qualified defense of Calhoun. He was pretty good during the early, “nationalist” phase of his career, when he aspired to the presidency. South Carolina’s aristocracy was willing to support a strong central government for a time, until events — Denmark Vesey’s planned rebellion, the Tariff of Abominations, the rise of northern abolitionism — led them to adopt an extremist position regarding federal power and slavery. Calhoun adjusted his principles accordingly.


steven johnson 11.28.15 at 11:45 pm

There was no large audience for abolitionism in the north until the Fugitive Slave Act brought Federal protection of slavery into the northern states. There was of course a very large and potentially powerful audience for abolitionism in the South, hence the censorship of the mails.

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