Friday, February 9, 2018

Examining the Narrative: Women’s Suffrage

A survey of textbooks and history courses reveals the standard narrative given to students about how women obtained the vote in the United States: After nearly 80 years of agitation, suffragettes finally succeeded in gaining passage for the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, and suddenly, women across the nation could begin voting.

That’s the conventional version of the history, and it’s wrong.

The first clue that there’s something inaccurate about this story is that Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to be elected to the United States Congress, was elected in 1916.

It would indeed be odd if women were being elected to Congress at a time when women were not allowed to vote.

In fact, in Jeannette Rankin’s home state of Montana, women had been voting since 1914. Women in Montana had full voting rights, in every way equal to men, more than six years prior to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

But Montana was late to the party. Women had obtained full suffrage in Wyoming in 1869, and in Colorado in 1893. Utah and Idaho recognized full suffrage for women in 1896.

In fact, prior to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, approximately 85% of the women in the United States were enfranchised. There were only seven of the 48 states in which women did not vote (Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama).

Women were already voting from New Jersey and Delaware to Oregon and California, from Minnesota and North Dakota to Texas and New Mexico - long before the Nineteenth Amendment.

While responsible historians do not speculate about counterfactual situations, it is clear that in those seven states which had not yet enfranchised women, legislative movements were underway to do just that. Even without the Nineteenth Amendment, the franchise would probably have expanded to the last 15% of women in the United States.

To say that 85% of the women had the vote prior to the Nineteenth Amendment may even be too low, because the seven states in which they didn’t vote had an average population lower than the 41 states in which they did vote. It was possibly closer to 90% than to 85%.

In some regions, more women were voting than men! Especially during wartime, when many men were away from home.

Women’s ability to vote, then, is not due to actions at the federal level in the early 1900s, but is rather due to actions at the state level in the late 1800s.

The United States led the way. Other nations around the globe didn’t give women the right to vote until much later: Women in the U.S. had been voting for 24 years before women in New Zealand got the right to vote in 1893. Other nations - Austria, Australia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Netherlands, Sweden, etc. - waited until the early 1900s.

The political party which had been formed to abolish slavery in the United States, having accomplished that objective by 1863, made women’s suffrage its next major goal: the states which led the way - Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, and Utah - were largely populated by voters of that party.

While generations of schoolchildren have memorized the year 1920, it would be more accurate to cite 1869 as the year when women began to vote in the United States.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Thomas Paine on the Injustice of Monarchy

One major segment of Thomas Paine’s career was devoted to exposing the concept of monarchy as an institutionalized injustice. Paine’s earliest publications were newspaper articles starting in 1774, but he attained sudden fame in 1776 with the publication of Common Sense.

He went on to publish The American Crisis, a series of articles starting 1776 and ending in 1783. He subsequently published other books and articles.

The following passage is from a text in which he defends himself against the charge of libel - a charge directed against him by some who supported the British monarchy.

Notice how Paine unpacks his reasons for opposing hereditary government: monarchy leads to taxation, and taxation is oppression. Paine discovered an axiom of political economics: taxation does not lead to oppression, it does not enable oppression: it is oppression.

Monarchy also leads to poor education, to the neglect of the elderly and disabled, to a breakdown of diplomacy, and to more frequent and more vicious wars. Monarchy is an obstacle, Paine claims, to “peace, civilization, and commerce.” Monarchy is a “political superstition” which degrades humanity.

Monarchy leads to all these things, and monarchy is so closely associated with taxation that one might plausibly argue that taxation leads to all these things - indeed, that taxation is all these things. Paine writes:

If to expose the fraud and imposition of monarchy, and every species of hereditary government to lessen the oppression of taxes - to propose plans for the education of helpless infancy, and the comfortable support of the aged and distressed - to endeavor to conciliate nations to each other - to extirpate the horrid practice of war - to promote universal peace, civilization, and commerce - and to break the chains of political superstition, and raise degraded man to his proper rank; if these things be libellous, let me live the life of a libeller, and let the name of libeller be engraved on my tomb.

Paine’s attack on monarchy is so closely linked with his attack on taxation that it may well be impossible to separate them - both conceptually and in matters of concrete historical circumstance. Recall that it was taxation which sparked the hostilities in North America in 1775.

His later writings grew more diffuse as he wrestled intellectually with the machinations of the French Revolution, but even when he flirted with socialist or redistributionist economic schemes, Paine retained a healthy skepticism about taxation.

Note his use of the word ‘commerce’ in the text above: when the private sector is not fettered by taxation, prosperity and political liberty are the natural results.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

When Citizens Don’t Know That They’ve Been Robbed: Income Tax Withholding

Income taxes were first widely inflicted on American citizens after the passage of the sixteenth amendment in 1913, but in the early 1920s, income taxes were substantially reduced, freeing low-income and middle-income families from the burden.

The beginning of WW2 justified, perhaps, increased revenue to the federal government. In 1942, Congress decided to increase income taxes and expand them to those working-class families.

The choice of income tax, instead of sales tax or value-added tax, was fateful. The tax was intended to fund the war, which ended in 1945, but has continued for almost a century.

The damage caused by any tax is the impoverishment of citizens by means of government confiscation. But income tax, as structured in the United States, inflicts still other harms both to the individual and to the nation as a whole.

The reintroduction of income tax to the lower and middle classes was, as historian Amity Shlaes write, confused, chaotic, and traumatizing:

The new rates were law. But Americans were ill-prepared to face a new and giant tax bill. A Gallup poll from the period showed that only some 5 million of the 34 million people who were subject to the tax for the first time were saving to make their payment. In those days, March 15, not April 15, was the nation’s annual tax deadline.

To get citizens to hand their wages to the government, the withholding system was devised. Workers would, under this system, not receive their full wages.

Employers would pay part of the wages to the worker, and part to the government. In this way, the citizens would not ‘feel’ the loss of their wages, because they would never have received those dollars in the first place.

The ‘withholding’ system is a cruel deception, because it acclimates workers to lower wages. Rather than paying taxes, the wage earners never even receive their full pay.

The government become a trap which intercepts salaries on their way from the employer to the employee.

To be sure, the numbers remain the same whether a ‘withholding’ system is used, or whether the workers receive their pay and then send a fraction of it to the government as a tax payment.

But while the numbers remain the same, the psychology is quite different. In political science, perception is often more important than reality.

Over the decades, American workers have become so accustomed to confiscatory taxes that they are not at all surprised when they are hired for at a stated wage and then receive merely 70% or 80% of that stated amount.

This passive tolerance of theft is damaging to many aspects of the economy, including the relationship between employers, employees, and labor unions. It is also damaging to the political system as it fosters a submissive resignation to a greedy and thieving government.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Power of Text: The Declaration of Independence

The document which created the United States as a sovereign territory with its own self-determining government was also the document which contained within itself the seeds of liberty for future generations. That document was the Declaration of Independence, famously dated July 4, and it not only created a free and independent nation, but rather it also freed slaves and gave full legal equality to women, among its other achievements.

When that document was signed in 1776, actually a few days before July 4, it made the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage inevitable. By 1863, slavery would be a thing of the past, and by 1869, women would be legal and acknowledged voters.

(Many textbooks give the impression that woman began voting in 1920 in the United States. In fact, approximately 75% of women were voting before then.)

The debates and discussions of the 1850s show how the Declaration of Independence had made the end of slavery a historical inevitability. Lincoln’s drive toward abolition was fueled by the text of that document, as historian Mark Levin writes:

Many decades after America’s founding, Abraham Lincoln relied heavily on the Declaration of Independence and the principles embedded in it to provide the essential moral justifications for liberty, equality, and, of course, ending slavery - the natural and equal rights of the individual. Lincoln revered the Declaration and repeatedly quoted and referenced it in his speeches, debates, and writings before and after he became president.

Texts from the 1770s show that it was not merely an opinion or preference, among the Americans in general and among the representatives at the Continental Congress, but rather an explicit goal that slavery be ended. Lincoln was able to apply their words to achieve that objective.

He used it again and again as a cudgel against the proslavery forces and slavery accommodationists. For example, on August 17, 1858, in Lewistown, Illinois, Lincoln delivered a powerful speech during his campaign for the U.S. Senate against Stephen A. Douglas, in which he verbally brandished the Declaration in his condemnation of slavery.

Lincoln had dedicated himself, his political party, and his career to the abolition of slavery. Although his speeches remain admired for their brilliance, he used the words of others - the words of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, James Otis, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, etc. - to free the slaves.

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 is an organic outgrowth of the Declaration of Independence. The end of slavery was contained, if latently, in the text of July 4, 1776.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Roaring Twenties: How They Emerged from the Previous Decade

To understand the 1920s, one must first take a look at the years leading up to them. Ordinary citizens in the years from 1913 to 1920 in the United States were burdened with high taxes and shackled with regulations which limited their individual actions.

People in the 1920s could have a feeling of liberty because they were coming out of an era in which civil rights and personal self-determination had been restricted. As historian R.J. Unstead writes,

For many Americans, theirs was a society based on freedom and equality of opportunity.

From 1913 to 1920, President Wilson had introduced segregation into various offices within the federal government - offices which had previously been desegregated and integrated. The 1920s saw advances in civil rights for African-Americans.

Woodrow Wilson had also been enthusiastic in his support of the KKK. It is shocking to realize that a president of the United States would openly support the Ku Klux Klan. He promoted the film The Birth of a Nation and called the Klan a “glorious” organization.

Wilson also mocked President Theodore Roosevelt, who had invited leading Black citizens to the White House and appointed Blacks to major federal offices. Wilson reversed the gains which African-Americans had made prior to 1913.

In 1920, Americans elected a new president, Warren G. Harding, who took office in March 1921. Harding undid many of Wilson’s racist actions.

President Harding died suddenly in August 1923, but his successor, President Calvin Coolidge, continued working with Blacks on various civil rights issues.

When the KKK pressured Coolidge for support, he rejected such bullying, and openly mocked the Klan in his campaign slogans. He further irritated the Klan by becoming the first U.S. president to give a commencement address at a historically Black university.

Aside from racial questions, the 1920s saw other benefits for ordinary citizens. American benefitted from a balanced middle course between isolationism and an overly-ambitious internationalism, as R.J. Unstead reports:

They had rejected Woodrow Wilson’s dream that they should take on world leadership and sort out the troubles of a ruined Europe. What America wanted was a return to “normalcy”, to the task of building a free and prosperous society. “The business of the United States is business,” declared President Coolidge.

During the 1920s, the United States would work with Europe as a partner, not a boss. “By 1921, Americans had turned their backs” on Wilson’s hope that America would manage Europe.

If America had attempted to organize and direct Europe, it would have received the anger and contempt of other nations, it would have spent huge sums of money, it would have been dragged into regional wars, and it would have had to convince both Americans and Europeans that America had a moral right to supervise the rest of the world.

Wilson’s dreams had been too ambitious.

Coolidge, by contrast, worked with the Europeans on initiatives like the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the Dawes Plan, both of which averted the looming possibility of war.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact created diplomatic opportunities for nations to resolve disagreements without war, and the Dawes Plan healed economic problems which would have led to war. 1920s enjoyed not only civil rights and peace, but also prosperity.

Business boomed in the twenties. Income per head increased by a quarter; prices came down and wages went up, so that luxuries like cars, refrigerators and radios became necessities.

Economic innovations like purchases made on the “installment plan,” called “hire-purchase” in England, fueled growth. The Harding and Coolidge administrations lowered taxes, reduced the federal government’s spending, and reduced the national debt.

Lower tax rates left workers with more money to enjoy consumer goods. Working-class families could afford the new technologies of the era: telephones, radios, electric lights, and phonographs.

The twenties were prosperous years in the United States, output increased at a tremendous rate and wages were the highest in the world.

Blue-collar industrial workers were not poor: there was not a large income difference between the working class and the middle class. The upper end of the working class was, in fact, part of the middle class.

Reduced regulations created more jobs and better-paying jobs. “This was the era,” Unstead explains,

when skyscrapers changed the skyline of American cities, when films, jazz, sensational papers and the drama of Prohibition added to the excitement of life.

Prohibition was a leftover from the ‘Progressive’ movement of earlier years. Approved in 1919 and taking effect in 1920, it was clearly a policy failure within a year or two. One political task during the 1920s was to end Prohibition. The anti-Prohibition movement grew during the the decade, and Prohibition ended in 1933.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

World War One: The Officer Corps Develops Command and Control

In April 1917, the United States formally declared war. The first American troops arrived in Europe in June 1917, and their initial participation in combat at the front was in October 1917.

It was not until May 1918, however, that U.S. soldiers played a major role in World War One.

Compared to Austria, Serbia, Germany, France, and other nations, the United States had a relatively brief experience in the war; fighting ceased on November 11, 1918.

The American officers had, however, one thing in common with their counterparts in the armies of the other countries: nobody had even seen a war like this before, and nobody was sure how to fight it.

Many of these officers were experienced, but their experience was irrelevant. They’d been involved in combat in the Philippines and in Cuba as part of the Spanish-American War, and they’d fought Pancho Villa’s Mexican revolutionaries.

The trench warfare in Europe was a different situation. As historian Timothy Nenninger writes,

In World War I, the United States Army entered combat on the Western Front with an ill-defined idea of how to command troops on the battlefield. Although most senior leaders in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) had commanded in combat in Cuba, the Philippines, or Mexico, none had experience with large unit, high intensity combat as conducted in France.

Several factors made the ground war in Europe different. First, the size: millions of soldiers, millions of guns, billions of bullets.

The second factor which distinguished World War I from previous conflicts was mechanization. Although machine guns had been used in previous fights, only during WW1 did they become numerous and common. Tanks entered battle for the first time. Other new weapons included airplanes and poison gas.

Advanced and sophisticated levels of industrialization produced weapons capable of killing on a large scale.

A third factor was that the American officers weren’t accustomed to being part of a multinational coalition. Coordination with French and British officers was a new experience.

There are probably other factors which distinguish WW1 from previous conflicts. American officers studied quickly to gain insights into this situation, as Timothy Nenninger notes:

The lack of first-hand experience was mitigated in part by service school education, General Staff analysis and doctrine, and professional writing in service-sponsored journals and books on military art that provided some insight into modem war. But until the summer of 1918 all of the principal elements of the AEF's command process - organizational, doctrinal, technical, and personal - were untested.

Under the command of General John Pershing, the decision was made to keep the AEF together as a unit within the larger multinational coalition. Previously, the alternative route - embedding small groups of Americans inside French and British units, mainly as replacements to “fill the holes” - had been considered.

This decision shaped the American experience of WW1, and in fact created a distinctly American experience of WW1, being different than the French or British experiences.

How and how well the process worked depended on the knowledge, skill, and preparation of commanders and staff officers, and on their interaction. Although the AEF drew on the experience of other armies, how they applied that experience resulted in a distinctly American process of command.

For the U.S. military, WW1 constituted a challenge to develop new forms of command and control. American officers learned to operate in a large, mechanized, multinational context.

Friday, March 31, 2017

General John Pershing: Civil Rights Hero

General Pershing became most famous for leading the United States Army in World War One. But many years earlier, he took courageous steps to acknowledge the contributions of African-Americans in the nation’s military.

Having graduated from West Point in 1886, one of his earliest assignments was, according to historian Kevin Hymel,

with both the 6th and 10th Cavalry Regiments. The 10th was one of two black cavalry regiments commanded by white officers. Pershing was called “Black Jack” in reference to his service with the10th, and the nickname stuck long after he left it.

Pershing was proud of his service with the “Buffalo Soldiers,” the nickname given to the African-American cavalrymen. In 1898, when the Spanish-American war began, Pershing insisted on rejoining the Buffalo Soldiers as they went into action in Cuba.

In his own words, Pershing described what he saw as a wonderful unity among the soldiers:

Each officer or soldier next in rank took charge of the line or group immediately in his front or rear and halting to fire at each good opportunity, taking reasonable advantage of cover, the entire command moved forward as coolly as though the buzzing of bullets was the humming of bees. White regiments, black regiments, regulars and Rough Riders, representing the young manhood of the North and the South, fought shoulder to shoulder, unmindful of race or color, unmindful of whether commanded by ex-Confederate or not, and mindful of only their common duty as Americans.

Years later, when Pershing was commanding in Europe during WW1, his loyalty to Black soldiers would lead him to assignment them to meaningful combat roles. Pershing answered to President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson had reintroduced segregation into the civilian branches of the government.

As Commander-in-Chief, Wilson was not pleased to see African-American troops taking on significant military tasks. In assigning Black troops to the same types of duties as any other troops, Pershing showed that he was willing to risk Wilson’s displeasure.