Saturday, January 24, 2015

War with Mexico Shapes History

Texas was a part of Mexico until 1836. It declared itself independent of Mexico, and after a brief war, established itself as a republic. Mexico begrudgingly allowed Texas to exist as an independent country, but when Texas joined the United States in 1845, Mexico decided to try to get Texas back.

President James Polk hoped to use diplomatic means to persuade Mexico to allow Texas to join the Union. He offered to buy large areas of land - what are now California and New Mexico - and thereby enrich the Mexican government, which was hoping to create a roadblock to Texas’s statehood by disputing the exact location of Texas’s southern border.

The Mexican government, already hoping to stop Texas from becoming one of the United States, was in no mood to sell other pieces of land to the U.S., even if such a deal meant millions of dollars for Mexico. As historians Allan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski write,

The question of Texas’s southern boundary aggravated the annexation issue. Texas claimed the Rio Grande, but Mexico insisted the Nueces River was the border. Accepting the Texans’ interpretation, Polk ordered Brigadier General Zachary Taylor to assume a position “on or near” the Rio Grande. Taylor stopped at Corpus Christi at the mouth of the Nueces, which was neither on nor very near the Rio Grande, but Polk acquiesced. However, on January 12, 1846, Polk learned his special envoy had failed to persuade Mexico to accept the Rio Grande boundary and to sell New Mexico and California. The next day he ordered Taylor to the Rio Grande. By late March the general’s Army of Occupation had concentrated opposite Matamoros. From Polk’s perspective Taylor had assumed a forward defensive position; the Mexicans considered Taylor’s advance an invasion.

While Zachary Taylor was maneuvering on Mexico’s northern border, diplomatic relations between the United States and Mexico went from bad to worse. Finally, gunfire erupted between groups of soldiers when the Mexican ambushed two of Taylor’s squadrons. Then actual battles took place. Finally, on May 13, Congress declared war on Mexico.

While the initial fighting took place on that northern border, General Winfield Scott was preparing for a landing and invasion into Mexico from the southeast. This would be a major amphibious operation, as Brion McClanahan writes:

Scott was sixty when the Mexican War began in 1846. His young man’s dreams of military glory had long departed; because of his age, Scott preferred that younger men take the reigns of battle in Mexico. But fate would intervene. Scott was sent to Mexico by President James K. Polk and commanded the southern arm of the two field armies. In 1847 he invaded Mexico at Veracruz - the first large-scale amphibious assault in American history, surpassed only by Operation Overlord (D-Day) in 1944. He punished the Mexican army and pushed quickly toward Mexico City. Scott was aided by the outstanding leadership of several subordinates, among them Robert E. Lee - Scott called him the finest soldier he had ever seen - and Thomas J. Jackson. Scott captured Mexico City within five months of landing on the Mexico beaches. He had become the conqueror of Mexico and a household name in the United States.

In addition to Robert E. Lee, other officers sent to Mexico were Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, and James Longstreet. Action in Mexico was thus a common threat, fifteen years later, among officers on both sides of the Civil War. Winfield Scott was by that time too old to be on active duty, but did function as a military advisor to President Lincoln. Zachary Taylor would die shortly after the war with Mexico and long before the Civil war.

Zachary Taylor would gain attention as a hero of the war, and subsequently elected president. Winfield Scott, however, may have been the better commander of the two, but got less attention in the newspapers of the day.

Winfield Scott, while not receiving the type of media attention which would get him into the White House, was still popular among ordinary citizens of the United States. He fit into, and simultaneously helped to shape, the concept of an American military hero. He was victorious, and yet scrupulous in his regard for human life. He was brilliant in his strategy and tactics, yet clear in his consideration for the rights and dignity of the inhabitants of the territories he conquered. Winfield Scott typifies what is most admirable in the American military tradition, and in the military tradition of Western Civilization: a frank acknowledgement that, while the evils of war are necessary, the evils of war also should be minimized. As historian Russell Frank Weigley writes,

Winfield Scott’s greatest campaign, from Veracruz to the halls of the Montezumas in the Mexican War, permitted him to wage limited war in the pre-Napoleonic, eighteenth-century style most congenial to him. He conducted the campaign with strict regard for the rights of the citizens of the invaded territories, with every effort to confine bloodshed and suffering to the enemy’s armed forces and to avoid inflicting them upon civilians. He imposed stringent regulations to compel orderly conduct from his soldiers in their dealings with the Mexican populace and to confine the opportunities for friction to the minimum necessary for the sustenance of his army and the morale of his troops. He forbade forced requisitions and insisted upon the purchase of supplies, this despite a most precarious logistical situation at the end of a long supply line across the Gulf of Mexico and through the yellow-fever belt of the Mexican coast. After he landed near Veracruz, he eschewed the sort of costly assault which his colleague Zachary Taylor had recently employed in similar circumstances to take the fortified city of Monterrey, preferring instead to save lives through a formal siege of the eighteenth-century style (with the ironic result that because Scott’s casualties at Veracruz were low, the American public inclined to believe that Taylor’s capture of the weaker defenses of Monterrey was a greater achievement; after all, the price was higher). Throughout his campaign, Scott avoided all-out battle whenever it was possible to do so and husbanded lives by substituting maneuver for combat with all the frugality of a general of the ancien regime.

Without detracting from the accomplishments of either Taylor or Scott, historian Irving Levinson offers a slightly different perspective on the war. It is all too easy to frame the narrative of a war as a struggle between two monolithic nation-states, and ignore the internal tensions within those states, and the effects of those tensions on the war. Levinson details the different segments of Mexican society, and how each had a slightly different stance vis-a-vis the war:

I contend that an additional force of Mexicans played a critical and heretofore unknown role. As the U.S. Army advanced towards Mexico City, the repeated destruction of Mexican military formations deprived Mexico’s repressive regime of the most important tool by which that nation’s rulers secured their dominant economic and political positions. Consequently and concurrently, a broadly based rebellion led by disenfranchised rural Mexicans erupted and soon posed so great a menace to the existing social order that those who ruled Mexico sought first peace and then aid from the United States to crush this uprising. In this new perspective, Mexico stands as a society whose distinct history and resulting characteristics defined the types of action open to both governments during the war. With that said, a brief description of the realities of the nation in which almost all of the fighting took place stands as our first task.

Although the war with Mexico was smaller, by various metrics, than other wars in United States history, it was significant. It gave us a president in Taylor, a presidential hopeful in Scott, a series of officers who would shape the Civil War, a clear example of the American ethic of humane treatment of civilians in wartime, and geographical boundaries which shape North America two centuries later.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Tuskegee Airmen - As It Really Happened

From the time at which both elementary schools and high schools began requiring classes which included “the civil rights movement” and “African-American History,” the famous ‘Tuskegee Airmen’ have become familiar icons alongside Rosa Parks, W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglas, and a host of other famous Black Americans. But aside from the vague notion that these airmen were pilots in WWII, the typical student has no detailed understanding of what they actually did, despite the fact that both documentary films and a Hollywood movie have portrayed their exploits.

Historian William Percy provides insight into who the Tuskegee airmen were, and what they did; this knowledge can transform them from one-dimensional characters in a rehearsed civil rights narrative into the three- or four-dimensional historical individuals they actually were.

The “airmen” actually included commissioned officers, an important step for African-Americans in the Army (no separate Air Force existed until after WII). Their exemplary work in a ‘semi-integrated’ setting, as Percy calls it, gave the Air Corps a head start over the other branches of the military in achieving further integration. The Army itself had operated in a highly segregated manner since the administration of Woodrow Wilson; soldiers recruited from the South, who had already lived under ‘Jim Crow’ laws, were familiar with the system, but soldiers from the North – both white and black – were sometimes surprised by the system, having attended, e.g., the integrated high schools in many Northern cities. Having served and fought in ‘semi-integrated’ settings, returning to segregated Army bases in the U.S. was a rude awakening for some of the airmen.

Higher officers in the Army Air Force, the AAF, acknowledged the accomplishments of the Tuskegee units – the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group – but saw the integration of African-Americans into AAF as a wartime necessity or a political statement, and seemed willing to return to the segregated status quo antebellum.

One reason for the success of the 332nd was their leader, Colonel B.O. Davis, Jr.; he was a West Point graduate and was praised by his superiors, General Eaker and General Dean Strother. The airmen compiled an impressive record; measured by nearly any statistic – number of missions, number of enemy craft shot down, number of medals earned, etc. – they performed as well as, or better than, other units. The only criticism made of them was that they might have more aggressively pursued enemy fighter planes; but this criticism fails to consider the fact that, to make such pursuit, they would have had to leave the bombers which they were escorting, and giving escort was their assigned task at that moment. Thus it was that no bomber escorted by the Tuskegee pilots was ever shot down by enemy fire: this unique statistic is one of their main claims to fame.

Various specific anecdotes serve to illustrate the heroism for which these men became known. On a sixteen-hundred-mile raid to Berlin, bombers were to be accompanied by three different fighter groups: one group for the first third of the mission, another group for the second third, and a final group for the remainder of the flight. The Tuskegee pilots were assigned to the middle third, but when the final group of fighters failed to appear at the rendezvous point to takeover escort duty and relieve the Tuskegee pilots, the Tuskegee fighters continued protected the bombers for the remainder of the mission, including shooting down at least three ME-262 jet fighters, a feat which earned them a Distinguished Unit Citation.

Among the white officers and white airmen of AAF, there were certainly some whose racists attitudes emoted a strong distaste for working with the ‘Negroes’ – the majority of white fliers, however, respected and appreciated the work of Black airmen and officers. High-ranking AAF officers, including even General “Hap” Arnold, visited the bases and praised the ‘Negro airmen.’ Aside from friendliness and praising the skill of the Black pilots, the crews of the American bombers realized that the Tuskegee airmen had saved their lives in many situations. When a bomber suffered either mechanical difficulties, or damage from enemy fire, and had to separate from the formation and return to its base alone, it was especially vulnerable to German fighters, and especially thankful for the protective escort of the Tuskegee fliers.

The 332nd Fighter Group was formed in January 1942 and arrived in Europe in January 1944. Initially, the 332nd was equipped with P-39 fighter which had inferior technical features, and the missions given to the 332nd were underwhelming, as William Percy notes:

Upon reaching their base of operations, the black airmen became thoroughly disgusted when they learned of their new assignment. Having been prevented from taking the 99th out of combat some months earlier, the AAF ordered the 332nd to carry out coastal patrol to protect Allied shipping between Naples and Anzio, a relatively uneventful and unimportant task. The G-3 study absolving the 99th of Momyer’s evaluations would not come out until March, so perhaps the AAF felt justified in giving the 332nd this duty. Davis felt that “to assign the group to a non-combat role at a critical juncture in the war seemed a betrayal of everything we had worked for, and an intentional insult to me and my men.” For the next three months, aside from an occasional ground-support mission over Anzio, the 332nd flew boring, routine patrols, during which time the group came into contact with only three German reconnaissance planes. To make matters worse, at the beginning of this assignment, the 99th had just scored its incredible tally of victories on 27 and 28 January, making the new arrivals yearn even more for actual combat.

Bombers needed protection, however, and the 332nd was re-tasked to escort them, was re-equipped with technically superior P-47 aircraft, and earned its fame protecting the vulnerable B-17 and B-24 bombers.

The 99th Fighter Squadron was older than the 332nd, having been founded in July 1941. The 99th trained at Tuskegee on a variety of non-combat ‘trainer’ aircraft – the BT-13 and the AT-6 – and was then equipped with P-40 fighters. The 99th arrived in Africa in April 1943. (The reader may recall a TV series from the 1960’s called “Rat Patrol” which captured the flavor of the North African Theater of combat.) After training briefly with the 27th Fighter Group, the 99th was assigned to the 33rd Fighter Group; the 99th was with the 33rd for only May and June of 1943. The officers of the 33rd alternated between ignoring the 99th and belittling it; while individual officers, and most of the airmen, of the 33rd were supportive of the 99th, the commander set a hostile tone. The 99th was reassigned to the 324th Fighter Group in June 1943. The 324th was somewhat better to the 99th:

Fortunately for the black pilots, their “direct” relations with the 33rd concluded at the end of the month. On 29 June, the 99th moved to El Haouria, Tunisia, on the tip of the Cape Bon Peninsula. Here it began operating with the 324th Fighter Group, which was engaged in the battle of Sicily. Assigned to its own base and flying almost exclusively its own separate missions, the 99th had even less contact with the 324th than it had experienced with the 33rd. Unlike the 33rd’s staff, however, the 324th’s intelligence officers fully credited the black squadron for its escort and ground-support missions over Sicily during the short time the two units “officially” operated together. In preparation for the invasion of Sicily, the 99th helped soften the German defenses by escorting medium bombers and dive-bombing and strafing enemy airfields, supply centers, and communication lines.

The 324th, however, seemed more puzzled than anything else at the African-American airmen, and largely ignored them, keeping them segregated and sending them on their own missions apart from the white squadrons. It was during this time, over Sicily, that the 99th got its first confirmed kill, and the highest officers visited the 99th to congratulate: General Eisenhower, General Doolittle, Air Vice Marshal Coningham of the RAF, and other superstars of air power. This demonstrated that the Tuskegee fliers were being supported and watched by the top-level officers, even if the mid-level officers seemed oblivious or antagonistic. (“Ike” Eisenhower also integrated ground troops during the Battle of the Bulge, long before President Truman’s postwar executive order to integrate the armed services.)

In July 1943, the 99th was reassigned back to the 33rd Fighter Group. This time, the 33rd was less hostile to the 99th; instead, the 33rd merely ignored the 99th. In October 1943, the 99th squadron was reassigned to join the 79th Fighter Group. Of the groups to which the 99th had belonged so far, the 79th was by far the best. The 99th was one of four squadrons in the group, and duties were assigned equally. In January 1994, the 99th had twelve confirmed kills in two days, establishing a level of performance comparable to any other unit. While with the 79th, the men of the 99th enjoyed a collegial and professional relationship with the white fighter pilots of the 79th’s other three squadrons; this marks a high point in race relations. Also while with the 79th, the 99th began upgrading to P-47’s to replace their P-40’s, a signal that highly-placed officers had confidence in the 99th and were investing in its future. In April 1944, the 99th was reassigned back to the 324th, were they were largely ignored by the white officers but continued to perform excellently, particularly in support of U.S. Army ground forces in Italy. In June 1944, the 99th was reassigned to the 86th Fighter Group. After June 1944, the 99th was assigned to the 332nd, where it would remain for the duration. With the 332nd, the 99th would have new duties as bomber escorts.

This dizzying summary of the 99th’s history and 332nd’s history suffices to demonstrate two points: first, that the Black pilots performed well; second, that some white officers were hostile and some were friendly. In any event, the Tuskegee fighter pilots certainly earned their places in the history books.

The value of William Percy’s article is this: it transforms vague icons into concrete data. References to “The Tuskegee Airmen” appear in every standard presentation about “the civil rights movement” and about “African-American History,” but remain merely imprecise allusions. It is a disservice to these warriors to allow them to remain icons; such symbols are instruments, carrying little meaning in themselves, and used for whatever goals various rhetoricians may choose. The Tuskegee Airmen were not merely symbols or metaphors, but rather real men, servicemen who saw combat. They are not merely tokens to be used in a game of civil-rights discourse; they protected their loved ones and their nation. Only a presentation of quantifiable and observable data, such as William Percy gives us, confirms that the Tuskegee pilots were and not merely figments in the imagination of some political leader who creates exhibitions and lectures for schoolchildren. The Tuskegee airmen were flesh-and-blood heroes.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Paine vs. Monarchy = Liberty vs. Tyranny

Among many other topics in his writings, Thomas Paine formulated arguments against monarchy and in favor of representative government. He articulated these arguments in different ways in different texts over the years.

In 1792, he authored a tract in response to a royal proclamation issued against seditious writings. He was among the targets, perhaps the chief target, of this royal edict. Paine's tract was printed and published in England, and its publishers were prosecuted as a result.

In this tract, Paine asked the reader to examine the notion of monarchy in the abstract, apart from “custom and usage.” He argues that familiarity lulls people into accepting that which is rationally unacceptable.

“Antiquity and precedent,” Paine writes, obscure the irrationality of the practice of granting sovereign governing power purely on the basis of inheritance. There is a linguistic element to this fallacy: merely because an individual has inherited a title such as ‘king’ or ‘lord’ does not in any way entail that this individual is more fit to govern than any other individual. Paine writes:

To say that the Government of this country is composed of King, Lords, and Commons, is the mere phraseology of custom. It is composed of men; and whoever the men be to whom the Government of any country is entrusted, they ought to be the best and wisest that can be found, and if they are not so, they are not fit for the station. A man derives no more excellence from the change of a name, or calling him King, or calling him Lord, than I should do by changing my name from Thomas to George, or from Paine to Guelph, I should not be a whit the more able to write a book, because my name were altered; neither would any man, now called a King or a Lord, have a whit the more sense than he now has, were he to call himself Thomas Paine.

It is also a politico-linguistic error, Paine continues, to label a segment of society as ‘commoners.’ He continues his argument by asking the reader to imagine that a country had to formulate its government ab initio. Given an abstract description of a hereditary monarchy, no nation would rationally and voluntarily adopt such a plan of government. Devastatingly, Paine proceeds to describe the English monarchy:

First — That some one individual should be taken from all the rest of the nation, and to whom all the rest should swear obedience, and never be permitted to sit down in his presence, and that they should give to him one million sterling a year. — That the nation should never after have power or authority to make laws but with his express consent, and that his sons and his sons’ sons, whether wise or foolish, good men or bad, fit or unfit, should have the same power, and also the same money annually paid to them for ever.
Secondly — That there should be two houses of Legislators to assist in making laws, one of which should, in the first instance, be entirely appointed by the aforesaid person, and that their sons and their sons’ sons, whether wise or foolish, good men or bad, fit or unfit, should for ever after be hereditary Legislators.
Thirdly — That the other house should be chosen in the same manner as the house, now called the House of Commons, is chosen, and should be subject to the control of the two aforesaid hereditary Powers in all things.

Paine goes on to discuss the absurdities of the monarchy, thus described, at length. While this 1792 text contains one of his most powerful arguments against monarchy, it is not his most famous or influential.

Among Paine’s many writings, two emerge as his most prominent: Common Sense and The Crisis. Both rallied support for the cause of independence at crucial moments during the revolutionary era. The former was written in 1776, and the latter was a series of articles written from 1776 to 1783. Both contained arguments against monarchy, as well as arguments on other topics.

The publication of Common Sense, according to British philosopher A.J. Ayer, “played a decisive part in persuading” the residents of North America to seek independence from England. But Ayer also opines that this, Paine’s most famous and influential argument against monarchy, is also his weakest. Paine’s writing mustered support for the cause of independence; Ayer, however, asks:

How did Paine achieve it? More by rhetoric, of which he was a master, than by force of argument. His arguments are on two levels, not always kept distinct. In part they are designed to prove the superiority in general of representative over monarchical or aristocratic forms of government. Here the thrust of the reasoning is mainly negative. The emphasis is laid rather on the evils of any form of hereditary government, especially monarchy, than on the merits of representative government, though Paine does use the argument that it will prove convenient ‘to leave the legislative part to be managed by a select number chosen from the whole body, who are supposed to have the same concerns at stake which those have who appointed them, and who will act in the same manner as teh whole body would act were they present.’ Evidently this argument applies only to a small and harmonious electorate. Paine makes a faint attempt to cope with this difficulty by proposing that as the electorate increases, constituencies should be multiplied and elections held more frequently, but already there is a narrow limit to the practicability of these reforms, unless we shift to a much greater degree of decentralization than anything Paine envisages.

Whether one favors Paine’s argumentation of 1792 or his argumentation of 1776, he not only lived during, but significantly shaped, the era in which nation-states began to reject monarchies, absolute or near-absolute, as a form of government. It can be reasonably argued that Paine’s influence could be detected around the globe for two or three centuries after he produced these texts.

While Paine’s argumentation was produced at a time when men were wresting freedom from monarchs, similar argumentation can be used to wrest liberty from non-dynastic bureaucrats, or to protect liberty from encroaching officialdom. Echoing Paine’s sentiments, but writing more than two hundred years later, Mark Levin notes that the freedom-seeking and liberty-conscious patriot, the citizen who wishes to protect his rights,

is alarmed by the ascent of a soft tyranny and its cheery acceptance by the neo-Statist. He knows that liberty once lost is rarely recovered. He knows of the decline and eventual failure of past republics. And he knows that the best prescription for addressing society’s real and perceived ailments is not to further empower an already enormous federal government beyond its constitutional limits, but to return to the founding principles. A free people living in a civil society, working in self-interested cooperation, and a government operating within the limits of its authority promote more prosperity, opportunity, and happiness for more people than an alternative.

A limited, clearly and effectively limited, government composed of freely-elected representatives, allowing for free markets and free speech, Levin continues, “is the antidote to tyranny precisely because its principles are the founding principles.”

Paine’s career reached its highpoint during the revolutionary era, 1775 to 1783. Thereafter, his influence and popularity declined, due to his misunderstood engagement with the French Revolution, and due to misunderstood attacks on religious institutions. Regarding the former, Paine was not a blind supporter of the atrocities committed by leaders of the French Revolution, and in fact attempted to persuade them into more humane measures. Regarding the latter, Paine was no atheist, but an exponent of some type of theism or deism, who criticized the human institutions and traditions of religion, not the existence of the deity they worshipped. But American readers were given superficial or inaccurate accounts of his activities, leading to a decline in his popularity.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Andrew Mellon's Economic Policies

Andrew Mellon was Secretary of the Treasury for more than ten years; he served under presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. His work helped to pull the United States out of an economic decline, and helped to generate a decade of prosperity for citizens at all income levels.

An insightful economist, Mellon approached his task systematically. Appointed by Harding at the very beginning of Harding’s first term, Mellon inherited a national debt of over twenty-six billion dollars: a staggering sum at the time. Tax revenue was anemic, and Mellon saw that high tax rates were dampening business activity. Cuts to the tax rates would energize business, which would in turn boost personal income for workers, and finally increase tax revenue to pay off the debt.

Mellon encouraged Congress to cut taxes; by 1926, income tax rates had fallen from a high of 50% to 20% in the highest brackets. Further tax cuts would be enacted, and by 1928, the national debt had fallen to 17.6 billion.

During the war, the United States had lent huge sums to various European nations. France, in particular, was teetering on the edge of economic collapse, and Mellon recognized that such a collapse would have ripple effects which would harm the U.S. economy. He achieved an agreement whereby some of debt would be forgiven. He calculated that the amount which the U.S. lost by canceling French debt would be less than the harm generated by a French economic breakdown.

Likewise, Mellon was instrumental to the design and implementation of the Dawes Plan. The plan, named after Coolidge’s vice-president Charles Dawes, stabilized the German economy by restructuring its debt, preventing both the outbreak of war and the serial collapse of several European economies; it was enacted in 1924, and revised in 1929 under the name ‘the Young Plan.’

In addition to cutting taxes, Mellon found ways to reduce government spending. He restructured the way in which paper money was printed, saving taxpayer dollars in the process.

Mellon’s years in government were at a time when a shift was taking place: earlier in history, the government’s revenues were largely from tariffs; later in history, a larger percentage of revenue would come from income tax. Whether Mellon encouraged this change, or whether it was taking place around him and despite him, is a matter open to debate. Did he welcome it, or simply acknowledge it as inevitable?

The tax cuts which Mellon persuaded Congress to pass were carefully calculated to ensure that taxpayers at the very bottom of the wage scale would benefit by being allowed to keep more of their earned wages. Mellon argued that unearned income could be taxed at a higher rate than earned income.

While Mellon agreed with Coolidge and Harding about the broad principles of federal policy, there were some differences. As historian Amity Shlaes writes,

As he got to know the Treasury secretary, Coolidge could see that he and Mellon came at the question of the budget and money differently. Coolidge believed that higher taxes were wrong because they took away from men money that was their property; he believed that lower rates were good precisely because they encouraged enterprise, but also because they brought less money. Low rates starved the government beast.

While Mellon’s policies were successful at rescuing both the American and the European economies, his embrace of a progressive income tax and his willingness to tax unearned income at higher rates than earned income may have planted the seeds for future economic difficulties.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Candidate Harding

Early in 1920, there was a large number of candidates seeking the nominations of both the Republican Party and the Democrat Party. Because President Woodrow Wilson was not seeking reelection, neither party had an incumbent, and the fields were wide open.

The differences between the candidates were sometimes ideological, as in the distinction between Warren Harding and Theodore Roosevelt, but sometimes the contrast was one of style, as in the contrast between Harding and Calvin Coolidge. In terms of policy, Harding and Coolidge were nearly indistinguishable, but in terms of oratory, Harding bested Coolidge in his ability to move crowds.

Harding interested the voters by speaking of an end to experimentation. Wilson’s administration was perpetually tinkering with the economy, with education, and with other policy topics. The voters were annoyed by regulation and by constant changes in regulation. Historian Amity Shlaes recounts a pivotal speech which brought Harding closer to the nomination:

Before a crowd of 100,000 Harding then gave his speech, far grander and more ambitious than Coolidge’s and of high quality. America must not expect too much or experiment too much, he said. He warned against change for its own sake. “No altered system will work a miracle,” he said. “Any wild experiment will only add to the confusion. Our best assurance lies in efficient administration of our proven system.” Harding might pursue some items on the progressive agenda. But he sought no Square Deal, such as Theodore Roosevelt had offered. What this administration wanted was to find its way back to the Old Deal.

After several ballots, the Republican Party nominated Harding. The 1920 election was a landslide. The other party got only 34% of the popular vote, and the only states it carried were the states of the old Confederacy. Civil War sentiments were still in play. A majority of African-American voters in the states of the deep South chose Harding, but the local governments there were in the hands of the Democrats, who kept many Black voters away from the polls, and refused to count some of the votes of those who did cast a ballot.

Harding would repay the electorate’s trust by deregulating markets, cutting taxes, cutting federal spending, and paying down the national debt. The result was a thriving economy, benefiting citizens at all income levels, low or high. Harding also worked to counteract Woodrow Wilson’s racist policies. Unlike Wilson, Harding was in favor of anti-lynching laws. The children of former slaves, the African-American voters of the deep South, had an effective ally in Warren G. Harding.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Harding Brings Normalcy

President Warren Harding popularized, but did not invent, the word ‘normalcy’ during the 1920 election. Most famously, he used it in a May 1920 presentation which affected the course of that election.

What did Harding mean? As a candidate for office, he was responding to the eight years of the Wilson administration. Those two terms were characterized by what one historian, R. Emmett Tyrrell, describes as “Woodrow Wilson’s excessive regulation of the economy.”

Beyond the economy, Wilson was also convinced that, as commander in chief during WWI, his “authority to exercise censorship over the press is absolutely necessary,” as Wilson said when urging Congress to pass the Sedition and Espionage acts.

Beyond economics and free speech, Wilson’s support of public education was fueled by his desire to control society. He wanted an education, not to give knowledge and skills enabling individuals to create and innovate, but rather to form the beliefs, values, and opinions of individual humans.

Wilson did not want an education which would give the citizen the tools to develop his own thought; he wanted to instill the Wilsonian progressive agenda into into individuals replacing their own thoughts. He did not want an education to empower the individual scientifically, artistically, and economically to design and originate; he wanted an education to transition the individual into a life of government regulation.

One belief of Wilsonian progressivism was that the government should empower “experts” to make decisions and take such choices away from the individual citizen, whether in the sphere of business, art, or natural sciences. He wrote that

“when I had to do with the administration of an educational institution, that I should like to make the young gentlemen of the rising generation as unlike their fathers as possible.”

Warren G. Harding presented himself to the voters as an alternative - as a chance to throw off the yokes and chains of Wilson’s control, to gain more freedom, and live in an atmosphere of ‘normalcy.’

How did Harding envision this “normalcy”? Normalcy was the calm and free foundation which would allow individuals to experiment, to create, and to innovate. A wave of inventions and discoveries - whether in mechanical technology or medicine - would be unleashed during the Harding administration.

Harding’s vision was one of freeing people to think, write, and invent. Both explicitly and by implication, Harding was - as an extension of his vision - more eager than Wilson to see African-Americans exercise their right to vote.

Even radicals would enjoy Harding’s normalcy. It was Woodrow Wilson and his appointee, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who had ordered the notorious “Palmer Raids” against suspected communists. Harding was much more relaxed about the communist threat. The best way to defeat it, he felt, was not to arrest communists, but simply to show that freedom allowed for a better life than communism could facilitate. Historian Amity Shlaes writes:

One word from the speech hung in the air: “normalcy” By normalcy, Harding did not mean that people should all be normal. He meant that the environment should be normal and relatively predictable. The old progressive swings in policy disrupted too much. A currency that changed value was a problem. Extreme Red-baiting was wrong; now that the war was over, it was time for compassion. Harding had taken a sentiment felt by everyone - that there had been too much upheaval - and broadened it into a plan. Sometimes the country felt normal now; but if it could get all the way back to normalcy then commerce could do the rest of the work. Then the knotty issues of money, prices, and even tariffs could be sorted out.

After Harding took office, the Wilsonian prudes scolded him because he occasionally drank whiskey - Wilson had pushed the Prohibitionist agenda and the Eighteenth Amendment. They were further delighted when several of Harding’s appointees were enmeshed in scandals - although the wrongdoing belonged to the appointees and not to Harding.

In August 1923, Harding died suddenly. His policies and vision, however, continued under the Coolidge administration. Together, the Harding and Coolidge years saw expanding freedom and prosperity for citizens at all income levels and in all demographic groups.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Progressivism and Public Education

The interplay between public and private education has changed significantly over the decades and centuries since 1776. Public schools in the United States did not appear in significant numbers until a century later. It was not until the late 1800s that public high schools were as numerous as private ones.

Prior to 1900, the distinction between private and public schools was mainly one of technical definitions; in practice, the distinction was often quite blurred.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1785 allotted a piece of land - the famous 16th section of each township - to be used for education. In some cases, schools were built on that land; in other cases, the land was sold to finance the construction of a school. Sometimes, the land was leased, and the revenues were used to fund education.

In many cases, the ongoing operation of schools, especially primary schools, was conducted in a way which corresponds neither to the twenty-first century notion of public education, nor to the twenty-first century notion of private education. Churches and clergy were frequently and influentially involved in the management and functioning of these schools.

Local pastors, ministers, priests, and other clerics were often chosen to supervise schools because they were frequently the only people in the county who had university educations. They had learned to read several foreign languages, were familiar with world history, and conversant with poetry and other forms of literature.

The voters of the counties were happy to see educated citizens involved in education, and didn’t mind that they happened to be associated with religious institutions. Even voters who weren’t church attenders or members of churches thought the arrangement proper. They thought that this was a contribution made by one segment of the community for the benefit of the entire community - the expertise of the clergy would benefit all citizens.

Education was provided by a sort of hybrid institution - neither clearly public nor clearly private. But it was clear that it was in no way managed by the federal government. Townships, cities, and counties managed the schools. State governments took, at first, little interest in education.

Around 1900, a shift in perceptions took place. The distinction between public and private education received more attention. Part of this shift was related to the Progressivist movement, led by men like Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson’s vision of progressivism was one of a technocratic paternalistic authoritarianism, in which a corps of elites would guide policy decisions, and the ability of voting citizens to affect policy would be reduced. Progressives wanted to utilize the educational system to sift out this elite class of leaders. Private schools, with their emphasis on charity and equality, would have to be separated from the public schools and pushed to the side. One constitutional scholar, Judge Andrew Napolitano, writes:

Public schools were an ideal place to weed out students in order to create an elite class of people, while relegating the rest to their rightful position in life. Woodrow Wilson stated in a speech to a group of businessmen prior to World War I, “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

Part of Wilson’s agenda was, of course, keeping African-American students out of universities. As president of Princeton University, he did exactly that, with shocking effectiveness. Woodrow Wilson worked to undo fifty years of civil rights progress.

Wilson’s predecessor in the White House, Theodore Roosevelt, had appointed a number of Black officials to high federal offices. Wilson mocked Roosevelt’s decision, using inappropriate and hateful racial epithets to refer to the African-Americans in Roosevelt’s administration.

While Teddy Roosevelt’s record on civil rights had some flaws, Wilson was determined to undo what good Roosevelt had done. Upon taking office in 1913, Roosevelt removed Blacks from significant federal offices, and re-segregated those branches of the federal government which had been desegregated and integrated in the prior decades.