Cliopatria: A Group Blog
Aaron Bady (∞); Chris Bray (∞); Brett Holman (∞); Jonathan Jarrett (∞); Robert KC Johnson (∞); Rachel Leow (∞); Ralph E. Luker (∞); Scott McLemee (∞); Claire B. Potter (∞); Jonathan T. Reynolds (∞)
Ken Hite is well-known by a tiny community of tabletop role-playing gamers, yet essentially unknown outside that little world. For several years now, Ken’s been writing a brilliant column called “Suppressed Transmission” for the online gaming magazine Pyramid. Alas, Pyramid is accessible to paid subscribers only. Ken’s column is a crazy grab-bag of historical mysteries, occult synchronicities in myth and literature, and gonzo alternate histories. While ostensibly written to provide fodder for role-playing scenarios, Suppressed Transmission is really just fine reading for anyone interested in the weirder side of history.
A typical column might recount the story of Red Mercury, the Big Rock Candy Mountain, or the desert of Takla Makan. (Those links just go to Wikipedia, which is pretty great, but not as fun as Ken.) Another column might imagine an alternate mystical-gnostic Christianity splitting off under Pope Valentinus in 141 A.D., or a world in which the wildest dreams of the Italian futurists came true. Hite’s readers knew all about the Chicago Murder Castle of H.H. Holmes five years before The Devil in the White City. Would-be Erik Larsons, Tom Standages, etc. could do much worse than mining Ken Hite's column for topics for future historical best-sellers. Better yet, Ken should write his own.
Every Halloween, Ken really cuts loose with a column called “Clio’s Nightmares” that offers three or four truly twisted takes on history. This year he retold the Star Wars saga using real-life historical figures from the 10th century Holy Roman Empire, mashed up the Napoleonic Wars with a dark Golden Bough-spin on Peter Pan (Admiral Nelson is Hook, snicker), and— ah, but it doesn’t work if I just give away all the premises like that. This is the sort of thing that either delights you or doesn’t, and you really have to read it yourself to find out.
“Alternate history” isn’t really the right word for what Hite does. (He’s not the only one doing it, I should note, but he is one of the masters.) These aren’t the sort of counterfactual histories where you posit one pivotal change and then try to construct the most plausible outcome. They’re more like remixes or mashups. “You can’t make this stuff up,” Ken always says, and indeed he does begin with historical facts. They’re like the raw material, the samples he loops to lay down a beat. Then he layers other histories on top of them, like bass and melody, riffing on synchronicities and similarities. What does it mean, for instance, that Vlad “Dracula” Tepes, King Arthur Pendragon, and the Cherokee leader Dragging Canoe all have surnames or nicknames meaning “son of the dragon”? If you answered, “nothing, really,” you're absolutely right—but you're not getting into the spirit of things.
The goal of the game is not historical accuracy but historical audacity, not plausibility but performance. As in the musical mixing done by DJs and mashup artists, there is a set of regular referents and even clichés. Foucault's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco, is an ur-text for this kind of play. “You can tell [a lunatic],” Eco wrote, “by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.” Sure enough, for this kind of historical play the Templars are the well-worn equivalent of James Brown saying “Good Gawd!”
I can’t, as I said, link you to this year's Clio’s Nightmares. Or I can, but you'll only be able to read the first few lines. I can link to the full text of one of Ken’s early columns—“Six Flags Over Roswell,” which relocates the mythical Roswell UFO crash into six different eras of U.S. history. It's a fun read, but I don't actually think that particular column does justice to Ken's full cleverness or ambition. In his later pieces, you're as likely to find a close reading of Christopher Marlowe or an investigation of Islamic mysticism as you are alien-controlled conquistadors. I can point you instead to Matt Rossi's “Encyclopedia of Heresies.” Matt plays in the same sandbox as Ken, and is second to nobody in deranged erudition. But if Ken is like Fatboy Slim, hitting you with a radio-friendly three-minute single, Matt is more like Paul Oakenfold, spinning out a six-hour set of slow-building trance. And not everybody is up for 20,000+ words on the Cathar heresy. The first few years of Ken’s columns have been collected into two fine books. (Matt Rossi also has a book of columns that I really need to pick up.) I wish there was a better name and a bigger market for what these guys do. They look a little like gaming publications, but they’re really not. They’re a crazy genre all their own.
I'm always curious what other historians will make of this scene, where people muck around in history for purposes so different than our own. The party line is that professional historians don’t approve of such tomfoolery. I understand why, and why we need to draw very clear lines between what we do in our day jobs and this kind of historical play. Ken himself is very thoughtful and tries to be responsible with history. Still, his work does demonstrate that with a library card, a good search engine, and the right kind of mind, one can wreak all manner of mischief on and with historical “facts.”
Professional academic history is only a tiny fraction of what people do with history in their lives. To those of us inside the guild, that’s both a blessing and a curse. Some people watch the Hitler Channel or read giant biographies of the Founding Fathers. Some people dress up like Civil War soldiers and spend their weekends in muddy ditches playing dead. Some people twist the facts of history for pernicious, hateful purposes. But some people do it just for fun.
[Crossposted at Old is the New New.]
Some spine-tingling Victorian examples of all things gruesome, gory, and ghostly:
- In search of a little blood-sucking? If you have ample leisure, you can always try reading the endless saga of Varney the Vampire (1845; volume ed. 1847). The first online edition, with illustrations, is here. J. S. Le Fanu's novella Carmilla is a must for any vampire aficionado. For another female vampire, try Mary Braddon's "Good Lady Ducayne" (PDF). While most of us think of Edith Nesbit as a children's novelist, she also wrote a number of horror stories, including this vampire tale, "The Haunted House" (PDF). Remember that Dracula blogs! If you want to read Dracula in one go, there's an e-text here; don't forget to visit his homepage.
- Are horrific tales of murder more your thing? The Victorians, of course, have the ultimate serial killer--Jack the Ripper. Penny Dreadfuls brings us The Whitechapel Murders, in six parts. While you're visiting the site, be sure to drop in on the Sweeney Todd page. Crime Library hosts articles on a number of, um, unpleasant Victorian folks, including Dr. Thomas Neill Cream and Mary Ann Cotton. Other upstanding Victorian citizens make an appearance at the History of the Metropolitan Police.
- Nothing more Victorian than a good ghost story, of course. (Somewhat inconveniently for our purposes, however, ghost stories were a Christmas tradition.) My students tell me that J. S. Le Fanu's "An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street" ought not to be read while alone at night. We all like to make fun of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, but that doesn't make "The Haunted and the Haunters" any less effective. Meanwhile, M. R. James' "'Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come to You, My Lad'" reminds us that there are times when packing a Latin grammar can come in handy. Incidentally, who knew that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote horror poetry? For many more Victorian ghost stories, visit Gaslight, HorrorMasters, and The Literary Gothic.
[X-posted from The Little Professor.]
On first glance, he looks like a good choice for Bush. Alito is top sirloin from the conservative perspective, as opposed to the spam-like mystery they perceived in Harriet Miers. Also, while very conservative, he tends to be cool in presentation. It sounds like he can give a pretty good “Here, I stand” presentation to the Senate without coming across as crazy.
That will make it tough for ideological opponents—which probably includes me though I will reserve judgment until I learn a bit more about him. Americans don’t like obvious ideologues, but they do like firmness. Most Americans also don’t know much about the relationship between court decisions and rights, except for really big decisions like Roe v. Wade or Brown v. Board. If he doesn’t break down and start drooling while discussing how he’ll get the King James Bible back into the schools or if something equally bizarre in his past doesn’t come back to haunt him, then opponents will have a lot of trouble raising public opposition.
Alito might lose anyway, particularly if he indicates some lack of support for women’s rights (aside from abortion). One of the true sea changes of the past thirty years has been the growth in publicly active, conservative women who don’t like Roe v. Wade but who otherwise want to be equals in the public sphere. If I were getting to question him, the evolution of the rights of women is where I would focus my questions.
I have followed the case through the excellent blog [verbal privilege] of Elizabeth, who has written with great insight into this matter from Istanbul: See here and here, esp.
In this weekend's Guardian, is the text of a speech given by Pamuk at the occasion of accepting the 2005 Friedenspreis, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. It is essential reading - covering nationalist shame and pride, the power of a novelists imagination and the connective tissue between East and West.
We've arrived at a point where we must choose between the power of a novelist's imagination and the sort of nationalism that condones burning his books. Over the past few years, I have spoken a great deal about Turkey and its EU bid, and often I've been met with grimaces and suspicious questions. So let me answer them here and now. The most important thing that Turkey and the Turkish people have to offer Europe and Germany is, without a doubt, peace; it is the security and strength that will come from a Muslim country's desire to join Europe, and this peaceful desire's ratification. The great novelists I read as a child and a young man did not define Europe by its Christian faith but by its individuals. It was because they described Europe through heroes who were struggling to free themselves, express their creativity and make their dreams come true, that their novels spoke to my heart. Europe has gained the respect of the non-western world for the ideals it has done so much to nurture: liberty, equality and fraternity. If Europe's soul is enlightenment, equality and democracy, if it is to be a union predicated on peace, then Turkey has a place in it. A Europe defining itself on narrow Christian terms will, like a Turkey that tries to derive its strength only from its religion, be an inward-looking place divorced from reality, and more bound to the past than to the future.
In the Ivy Leagues: Benjamin Weintraub,"In Memoriam: Barrington Moore, Jr.," Harvard Crimson, 28 October; and
Andrew Mangino,"Robert Kagan ‘80 Follows Father But Forges Own Path," Yale Daily News, 27 October.
Thanks to Alfredo Perez at Political Theory Daily Review for the tips.
In the Bush Leagues: Lewis L. Gould,"Stop the Campaigning," Washington Post, 30 October. Gould argues that non-stop campaigning has kept the Bush administration from governing. Meanwhile, Josh Marshall is doing a good close reading of the Liddy indictment.
Museum Front: Roberta Smith,"Renaissance Radiance, Gilded in Gothic," New York Times, 28 October, reviews the opening of a remarkable exhibit of Fra Angelico's work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Blake Gopnik,"Out of Turkey: Sultans of Bling," Washington Post, 30 October, reviews a spectacular exhibit of the robes worn by the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire four and five centuries ago at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery of Asia Art.
Plagiarism Front: So, you're Thomas Matrka. You've done a Master's degree in electrical engineering at Ohio University and been admitted to doctoral study there. But you're thinking about going elsewhere because you've found massive plagiarism in theses and dissertations accepted by the school of engineering over the last 15 years: verbatim text in copied quotations, paragraphs, pages, chapters, consecutive chapters, and identical bibliographies. One person didn't even bother to correct a typo in a purloined passage. The local press covers the story here and here. I purloined it from Hiram Hover.
Scooter Front: There will be barrels of ink spilled and considerable bandwith taken up by the Plame investigation before it's over, but I've seen three pieces that are worth reading: 1) Michael Kinsley's"Throw Another Plot on to Boil," Washington Post, 28 October; 2) Joe Strupp,"Carl Bernstein Finds Plame Parallels to Watergate,"* Editor & Publisher, 27 October, in which Bernstein says"We are obviously watching ... the implosion of a presidency ..."; and 3) the astute observations of one of Andrew Sullivan's readers. I hope that you had an opportunity to watch Patrick Fitzgerald's press conference yesterday. This is a very smart, tough lawyer, whose values are well placed and who gives us confidence that the system can work.
*Update: By contrast, Bernstein's Watergate partner, Bob Woodward, has become an administration lapdog.
Today's Tomorrow's Professor mailing was Lee Shulman's Carnegie Perspectives essay on accountability and feedback in medical education and practice. He highlights the"Morbidity and Mortality" debriefings and a particularly vigorous response by JHU to a consistently flawed protocol: clear guidelines, clear supervision, and responsible parties were given direct access to report to figures with the authority and will to deal with those who flaunt safety guidelines. I was struck because one of my consistent concerns about academia is that it is very hard to admit to failure, or even partial success, very hard to ask for help without calling ones own competence into question, very rare to establish clear guidelines or to have any kind of authority figure able to impose order.
Now, I'm not giving up on academic freedom, mind you; I really don't want administrators -- or education departments -- dictating pedagogy or content on a regular basis. But there is a fantastic lack, in academia, of useful guidance on methods, of frank discussions of teaching issues, and routine feedback from peers is nonexistent. We've all heard tales of dramatic pedagogical failures, from skipping classes (I'm talking faculty, here) to off-topic blather, about which even top administrators can do very little without significant legal expense. I think we need to be a little less picky about our autonomy and privacy, provided that we can also be a bit more open-minded and less punitive about the experiments -- failed, misguided, or frighteningly successful -- of others.
Our"stock in trade" is our ethical and intellectual work. We need to check each other, to maintain standards, to keep cheating or just mediocrity from being routinely rewarded.
Is it" coming out week" by the way? A major sports star and a major screen talent [hat tip to Anne Zook, who also found this devastating interview recently, which relates to this] both came out of the closet this week, one lesbian, one gay male. Both have long-time partners, and both sound very relieved.
China is braindraining the US to fuel its growing universities.
In only a generation, China has sharply increased the proportion of its college-age population in higher education, to roughly 20 percent now from 1.4 percent in 1978. In engineering alone, China is producing 442,000 new undergraduates a year, along with 48,000 graduates with masters' degrees and 8,000 Ph.D's.
As the article makes clear, it's unlikely that the humanities and social sciences will really flourish without much greater freedoms in the areas of speech and publishing, but some really top-notch physical and information scientists are helping to raise the profile of China's schools. Even in technical fields, though, pressure to produce can be counterproductive (as it often is here, as well)
"At Princeton one mathematician spent nine years without publishing a paper, and then solved a problem that had been around for 360 years," Mr. Yang [who leads a small experimental university in Ningbo] said, a reference to Andrew J. Wiles and his solution to Fermat's last theorem in the early 1990's."No one minded that, because they appreciate the dedication to hard work there. We don't have that spirit yet in China."
Similarly, Ge Jianxiong, a distinguished historical geographer at Fudan, said Chinese culture often demands speedy results, which could undermine research."In China projects are always short-term, say three years," he said."Then they want you to produce a book, a voluminous book. In real research you've got to give people the freedom to produce good results, and not just the results they want."
Mr. Ge added that education suffered here because"it has always been regarded as a tool of politics."
South Korea might have to make do without Windows if their anti-trust regulators insist that features like IM and Media Player be unbundled.
Japan is considering modifications to its constitution, unamended since 1947. Most of the international attention is focused on the Constitutional legitimation of Japan's large and advanced military forces. Though I haven't found the draft language for the revised Peace Article, yet, the Draft Preamble (translation by Mutant Frog Travelogue) tries to be very reassuring. My Frog in a Well colleague Tak discussed draft changes to the"symbolic emperor" section over the summer as well, and is not at all reassured.
Pranab Bardhan,"China, India Superpower? Not So Fast!" YaleGlobal, 25 October, argues that China and India are not near world super power status, for lots of reasons. Thanks to Matt Yglesias for the tip.
"Fear and Loathing in the Middle East," On the Face, 26 October. At Brian's Study Breaks, Brian Ulrich calls it"the best post I've read on the Arab-Israeli conflict all year" and I've learned to take Brian's recommendations on such things very seriously.
So, yes, the New York Times is reporting that I. Lewis"Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, is likely to be indicted today in the Valerie Plame affair and that Carl Rove, the President's chief political adviser, will remain under investigation. More cautiously, the Washington Post merely reports that the NYT said what it said. Hang onto your hat. It could be a lively day in Washington.
Finally, Brandeis's Nathanael Robinson at Rhine River and Michigan's Andrew Israel Ross at Air Pollution are in search of the 19th century Europeanist history bloggers and readers. If that sounds like you, stop by and say"hello" to them.
A few thoughts:
1. Charles Krauthammer was either influential or had an inside source. He suggested this approach to withdrawal on the 21st.
2. In a crass political way, I was getting to like her. At least I was beginning to suspect that she was not an ideologue. Of course, that brings up one of those conscience questions: Is it better for the Court to get a competent conservative or a not-so-competent person a bit closer to my perspective? It looks like I will not be tested this time.
3. The next nominee is likely to be a doozy. Really Bush has no option but to throw sirloin to the dogs of the right in the form of a new Scalia.
Tristram Hunt,"Quo Vadis America?" The Observer, 23 October, previews a new eleven part series on Rome produced by BBC and HBO. Comparative empires, anyone?
Tom Reiss,"The First Conservative: How Peter Viereck Inspired – and Lost – a Movement," New Yorker, 24 October, has touched off a fascinating disputation about the place and legacy of the Mt. Holyoke historian and poet in late twentieth century American conservatism. The article isn't on-line, but you can read a precise of it here. John J. Miller's"Veering Off Course: The New Yorker tries to revive Peter Viereck," National Review, 26 October, sees in Reiss's article another attempt to undermine the Bush administration (as if it weren't doing quite enough of that on its own). Viereck and Reiss seem to me to have been right all along. There is nothing conservative about capitalism's reckless abuse of human communities in the name of profits. A more obscure historian put it more eloquently:"... industrial capitalism has been the radical force in American society, generating social change of unforeseen consequence, heedlessly disruptive of human community." Thanks to Dave Merkowitz at Cincinnati Historian for the tip.
Gail Russell Chaddock,"Their Clout Rising, Blogs are Courted by Washington's Elite," Christian Science Monitor, 27 October, comments on the increasing influence of political blogs in the nation's capitol. Thanks to Orin Kerr at The Volokh Conspiracy for the tip.
Lang had the opportunity to see the true future city unfold before his eyes when he hid from the Nazis in Los Angeles and filmed thoughtful noires. Against the backdrop of criticism and the decline of the efficient Red Car system (links to histories and bibliographies) (immortalized by another film, Who framed Roger Rabbit?), Los Angeles broke from the pattern of American cities reaching to the sky to create, what Edward Soja has called, the postmodern city.
But here is the kicker: Los Angeles is the densest city in the United States (HT: Kevin Drum).
Los Angeles is not a particularly good example of urban sprawl. Take the part about being unplanned. The truth is that New York, Chicago and most of the older American cities had their greatest growth before there was anything resembling real public planning; the most basic American land planning tool, zoning, did not come into widespread use until the 1920s.
L.A., by contrast, was one of the country's zoning pioneers. It has had most of its growth since the 1920s, during a period when planning was already important, and particularly since World War II, when California cities have been subject to more planning than cities virtually anywhere else in the country.
Then there is the part about how the city is too dispersed. Although it is true that the Los Angeles region in its early years had widely scattered settlements, these settlements were not particularly low in density. Since World War II, moreover, the density of the Los Angeles region has climbed dramatically, while that of older cities in the North and East has plummeted. The result is that today the Los Angeles urbanized area, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, has just over 7,000 people per square mile Â by a fair margin the densest in the United States.
Perhaps that should have been obvious. In the absence of high-rise appartments and office buildings (except in a few places) Angelenos settled into a pattern of narrow plots of land that limited the amount of undeveloped space. My wife calls them"postage stamps." But it also kept houses close together.
Technology, once used to drive human beings, air and power upward and light downward and inward, allowed people to move outward and away from one another, sometime isolating themselves from each other in otherwise contiguous spaces. The city retained its importance, as William J. Mitchell has written in Placing Words, by creating contexts for social and cultural relations -- spaces wherein signs and relationships find meaning:
Architecture no longer can (if it ever could) be understood as an autonomous medium of mass, space and light, but now serves as the constructed ground for encountering and extracting meaning from cross-connected flows of aural, textual and graphic, and digital information through global networks.
The skyscrapers that have been built outside already built up areas (as in Southeast Asia) represent prestige rather than utility. As the topography of ideas has been raised by technology, the topography of architecture has decreased.
Sprawl, as Geinter has noted, has been part of the urban tradition. Even to some degree urbanization avoided, as much as possible, increasing heights, both for health reasons and to maintain the visual character of the city (as I wrote here about Paris). The preoccupation of urban planners in Europe was to allow as much open space as possible so that light and air can get to street level, and the monumental architecture was still visible. Indeed, if there is anything tall in Berlin, it is either a shopping center in the west or a piece of technology in the east.
How funny that if it were not for the smog (as much a result of geography as the automobile), Los Angeles would have achieved these health concerns. What Los Angeles did not do, as is the cases of suburban sprawl, is drive people away from one another. A density of social relations still exists.
The stratospheric city may have been an historical phase in which the quest for prestige and utility found common ground upon which to build and the legitimacy to overcome public health concerns. It gave way to the edgeless city, driving outward rather than upward.
- Review of Edward Soja's Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and Imagined Places
- Article on Los Angeles in Motion Pictures (requires Project Muse subscription)
- About Architecture's A Brief History of Sprawl
(Crossposted from The Rhine River.)
How big a threat is it? This article in The Week magazine reminds us that the threat of a widespread epidemic remains a potential threat, not an imminent one. The problem is that the transition from potential to imminent can be sudden, so we need to be prepared. But a quick and wrong reaction might just make things worse.
Despite the concerns, let’s try to remember just how amazing this all is. When the SARS epidemic threatened, it was remarkable at how quickly scientists learned to detect it and how this knowledge made possible restricting its spread and so avoiding a pandemic. This time we are a step ahead of that. We are monitoring animal vectors to make sure that a mutation does not wreak havoc.
Maybe the virus will mutate into a danger, maybe not. Maybe the response will be adequate, maybe not. But no time in the history of the world has the world’s community been better informed about the potential for an epidemic than we are today. Given all that’s wrong out there, this is worth a bit of celebrating.
Congratulations: To history blogger Josh Marshall, whose Talking Points Memo is featured this week by the Washington Post. Josh is a Princeton graduate with a doctorate in early American history from Brown. Launching his blog just after the presidential election in 2000 has led him to a very promising career in journalism. If not for that, Marshall says that he would probably still be in academia. After all, he still reads more history than current affairs, but his blogging and journalism entrepreneurship has recently created an impressive current affairs site, TPM Café, which features several regular and many guest contributors.
Charles C. Mann Replies: On Monday, in reference to Charles C. Mann's new book, 1491, I praised its challenge to received ideas about what life in the western hemisphere was like before the European incursion. My reservation about the native Americans not having the wheel prompted Mann to reply as follows:
... in case you are interested my book has a section (pp. 222-224, also pp.19-20) on whether one can interpret the failure to use the wheel as an indication of native technological inferiority (which I take as your belief). My argument is: only very cautiously, and probably not in this case.
Societies tend to place disproportionate value on the technologies in which they excel. Sixteenth-century Europeans by most measures were world leaders in technologies involving wheels, pulleys, and that sort of thing (see Kenneth Pomeranz's Great Divergence for a discussion of this). But they were latecomers to other types of scientific and technical developments. The very late and reluctant adoption of zero (actively battled by the Roman Catholic church until the 15th c--see Tobias Dantzig's Number: The Language of Science) is perhaps the foremost example of the former, and the failure to invent the moldboard plow (see Needham) is an example of the former. Meanwhile, Indian societies had less use for wheeled vehicles because they lacked draft animals. And so on.
As I point out, the question,"which is worse off, a culture that can't readily multiply or divide or a culture that can't push around stuff in carts?" isn't really answerable in a straightforward way. So: I may be exaggerating (or, since I'm reporting other scholars' claims, THEY may be exaggerating) native accomplishments, but I don't think denigrating them for lacking wheels is a good way to prove it.
Mann's thoughtful reply is indicative of the challenge his book offers. I could quibble that wheels turned out to have many more uses than merely"pushing around stuff in carts" and wonder whether having wheels and draft animals is a chicken and egg argument, but I admire his determination that we look at the world in ways we haven't yet done.
Indemnification, Please: I thought that The Drunkablog's reference to Cliopatria as"that cesspit of laughter and sin, the History News Network blog Cliopatra" must surely refer to some other unfortunate blog, but the link does, indeed, lead here. Like many of those who link to her, jgm misspells Cliopatria's fair name. Her reputation, however, will cost you.
Good Wishes: Finally, best wishes to Dave Merkowitz at the University of Cincinnati who goes up for his doctoral exams on Monday!
Marginalia: Interesting as the article and the inquiry it discusses is, I was disappointed that Jennifer Howard's"A U. of Toronto Professor Puts Marginalia at the Center of Her Work," CHE, 21 October, (subscriber only) failed to mention Zoltan Haraszti's John Adams and the Prophets of Progress (Harvard UP, 1952) as a pioneering work that used the marginalia by Adams in books by other people to help us understand his thinking. As the bibliography at Wikipedia suggests, Haraszti's book ought to be re-issued. I wouldn't say that about many 50 year old works of history.
When There's No Evidence: There's been an interesting exchange at H-AmStdy and H-Slavery. A Communications professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, inquired for a Master's degree student about surviving evidence of the use of quilts as markers on the underground railroad in ante-bellum America. It's a notion that was given popular circulation in a book by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond Dobard, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (Doubleday, 1999). Subsequently, the notion has taken root in elementary and secondary curricula, on the internet, and in public memorials. We apparently even have a museum in Atlanta that claims to exhibit its work. It's appropriately located near Underground Atlanta, where tourists get fleeced in even worse causes.
Scholars have repeatedly debunked the notion. Reputable historians like David Blight and Paul Finkelman point out that in all their research in ante-bellum and post-bellum primary sources they've never come across reference to the use of quilts as underground railroad markers. There is no known source of reference to the notion prior to 1929, by which time virtually everyone who might have participated in the underground railroad was dead. Tobin and Dobard cited quilt patterns that are not even known to have existed in the ante-bellum period. Finkelman points out that if the underground railroad had been so substantial a phenomenon as its latter-day promoters sometimes claim, the border states of Delaware, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri would have been emptied of slaves by 1860. Tobin and Dobard claim African origins for quilt patterns that have no clear African origin, but, even if they had an African origin, what would that have to do with an underground railroad in the United States? The really interesting question, as one person noted, is why do we have a felt need to believe that quilts were used as markers on the underground railroad.
Farewell: To Rosa Parks. I did not know Mrs. Parks well, though I met her several times. She was a gracious, modest woman of rare courage. The whole nation owes her a debt of gratitude. Well done, thou good and faithful servant of the Lord. Thanks to my virtual son, Chris Richardson, for the tip.
Humor on the Left: Look, I've been as critical of the Bush administration as any Republican could ever be. I'm a left-wing Republican, after all, have never voted for a Bush, and got into academic difficulty, in part, for signing a petition objecting to an honorary degree for GHWB. But what passes for popular humor on the left is sometimes nauseating. When Al Franken jokes about executing GWB, Rove, and Libby for treason, it just isn't funny. I've said it before and I'll say it again, somebody should sue Al Franken for posing as a comedian. But my virtual son, Andrew Ackerman, just sent me an e-mail wishing me a Merry Fitzmas!
He's making a list -- checking it twice –Now, that's funny!
Gonna find out who's naughty and nice ...
Pity Party: Finally, you can forget about that pity party for Clayton Cramer. After three years of claiming that his book on guns in early America was blacklisted by leftist, gun-hating academics and publishers, Clayton now says that he's got a publisher and an offer of a $30 grand advance. He doesn't say who the publisher is because the contract's not yet signed.
Update: Cliopatria readers are guessing who Clayton's publisher is. So far, the nominees are:
Alfred A. Knopf (doing penance for publishing the 1st edition of Arming America)
LoomPanics (check out the list for guns and"head for the hills")
Regnery (if they like Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin, they'll love Clayton Cramer)
Soft Skull Press (doing penance for publishing the 2nd edition of Arming America).
I'm about to get myself in trouble again. As regular readers know, I helped develop PCC's consensual relationships policy last year. (See here.) Now, I've been asked by the Academic Senate to chair a related committee looking into revamping the college's "nepotism" policy. The problem is that some of my colleagues don't want to prohibit what I consider to be one of the most flagrant examples of nepotism: having one's own children enrolled in one's classes, and grading their work.
I've been adamant about the issue of consensual amorous relationships. I don't think it's possible for a professor to evaluate fairly the work of his or her spouse or lover. Even if it were possible (and I don't think it is), the simple perception of wrongdoing that would arise in the minds of the other students is reason enough to consider such relationships between teachers and current students to be inadvisable and unethical. In the years we spent developing the policy (between 2001-2004), my colleagues and I encountered some opposition to the idea of banning faculty-current student romantic and sexual relationships, but most folks on campus seemed supportive.
But here at the community college, I can think of several examples -- from within my own department -- of young people enrolled in a parent's course.
One of my colleagues has taught three of her four children in recent years. This problem is much more common at a community college than it might be at a four-year school, where many students are living away from home. At PCC, a large percentage of our students still live with Mom or Dad, and in more than a few instances, are being taught by Mom and Dad.
I've been making the argument for years that teaching and evaluating one's children is analogous to teaching and grading one's lovers. I see no reason to believe that you can be fairer to your child than to your sexual partner. What's more, while it is at least theoretically possible to keep one's romantic affairs a secret, it's utterly impossible to disguise the fact that one student is your son or daughter! And again, there's the issue of perception: it doesn't ultimately matter whether or not you can separate family loyalties from the quality of a student's work; what matters is whether or not other students perceive a bias.
I've been candid about my own reasons for getting involved in developing a consensual relationships policy. I've admitted past wrongdoing in this area, and I've made amends. But a few of my colleagues are vigorously defending the idea that while it may be unethical to teach a lover, it is perfectly acceptable to assign grades to one's own children. I am dumbfounded, failing to understand the reasoning that suggests that there is ultimately anything less offensive about having one's child in class than having one's sexual partner. In informal discussions with other colleagues, I have found that the majority take my side and support the idea of a ban on PCC faculty members teaching and evaluating the work of their own children. Such a ban, like the consensual relationships policy, would not involve any retroactive discipline for those who had taught their kids in the past. But it would draw a clear and bright line for the future..
I'm curious to know what Cliopatria readers think. Do you agree with me that teaching one's kids is as unethical and problematic, both in terms of evaluation and perception, as teaching one's sexual and romantic partners? If not, why not? Am I missing something here, perhaps because I am not yet a parent? In the meantime, I'm going to work hard to make sure that the nepotism policy comes down as firmly as possible against the practice of profs teaching and grading their own children.
Our friend and colleague, Wilson J. Moses of Penn State, checks in with an addition to the symposium on Sean Wilentz's"Bush's Ancestors." It being Wilson Moses, the contribution is well worth going back to read. Has the man ever said the expected thing?
The meltdown of Bush administration initiatives will apparently continue into the coming week. When there are harsh words like those from such prominent conservatives as Charles Krauthammer and George Will and open discussion of a Miers withdrawal in the Washington Times, you almost have to believe that it is only a matter of time. On another front, you may want to keep your browser pointed to the New Yorker for its publication on Monday of Jeffrey Goldberg's"Breaking Ranks." It will apparently outline severe criticism by Brent Scrowcroft of national security policy in the Bush administration.* Then there is the likelihood that independent counsel Patrick Fitzgerald may finally tip his hand in the Plame investigation before the term of his grand jury expires on Friday. It should make for an interesting week.
Click more to read the responses of Jonathan Dresner, K. C. Johnson, Ralph Luker, Caleb McDaniel, Wilson J. Moses and Greg Robinson. As well as Marc Comtois and Louis Proyect's contributions on their own blogs.
Jonathan Dresner: Meaningless Tradition As I've said before, everything has antecedents: there is nothing purely original and there's no question that an historian can't complicate by talking about what led up to it. Sean Wilentz traces the conservative movement -- the alliance (or intersection, or both) of anti-regulatory business owners with religious social moralists -- back from the Buckley-era to the immediate post-Revolutionary age. I don't think he went back far enough: the movement stretches back to the dawn of human history.
I'm frankly surprised that Wilentz doesn't go back at least into the revolutionary period, though perhaps the founders were too deistic and humanistic for their anti-oppressive zeal to fit the conservative mold but their successful revolution clearly set the tone for the movements he tracks forward. Clinton Rossiter said that"Conservativism is the worship of dead revolutions" but perhaps openly citing the founders would belie the supposedly unthreatening, moderate model conservativism which builds movements that rule rather than overthrow regimes. In any event, I think they are the clear predecessors of the early 19th century Whigs.
Of course, the pro-business, pro-Christian Revolutionary movement could have claimed a distinguished tradition of its own: the early modern European city, which ruled itself as a sort of Christian free enterprise zone. After all, the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution were sponsored by mercantile urbanites -- free-trade, free-thinking Christians -- which William Buckley and Sean Wilentz should be proud to call forebears. The burghers and Medici and Hanseatics were the heirs of a glorious history of tax evasion and private law, often cloaked in religious terms and blessed by the Church, which arose in the latter days of Rome (Western Rome, of course; Eastern Rome had a less distinguished pro-business history and is therefore justifiably neglected in Western historiography) and whose tax-free latifundia and pro-military, pro-Vestal politics clearly set the standard for future generations of Buckleyites.
Well, lest the 'conservative' of the age of Roman decline feel like an innovator or interloper, he could hearken back to the Optimates party, protectors of property, propriety and privilege against those proto-liberal crypto-Dem Populares (hey, liberals need ancestors, too!), the Gracchi (the Clintons of the Roman Republic, though their opponents didn't stop at character assassination). The Optimates, of course, probably cited as their model those Athenian" cultural conservatives" who so wisely voted for the death of atheistic, anti-traditionalist Socrates and who drove his communist/fascist follower Plato from the city; those same Athenians, of course, in their pro-merchant, pro-small farmer incarnations helped to fight off the tax-heavy, over-regulated Persian Empire....
I think Wilentz is blinkered by his Americanist training: World Historians can clearly see that the Buckley/Rove Conservative Movement has a 2500 year history (at least!) of consistent pro-religious, pro-business, limited-government advocacy. And it's been so effective....
K. C. Johnson: Sean Wilentz’s essay performs an important service in reminding us how the conservative intellectual tradition is not well understood—either by conservatives themselves or by the academy. As a big fan of Daniel Walker Howe’s Political Culture of the American Whigs, I’m intrigued, though not entirely convinced, by Wilentz’s decision to position the Whigs as among Bush’s ancestors.
The parallels between the Whigs and modern Republicans that Wilentz points out are compelling. Both employed a faux populism in their national political campaigns to obscure a fundamentally upper-class mindset. Both parties unabashedly embraced a pro-business perspective, with the differences in their specific policies explicable by the differences in the eras. And both adopted social policies that were heavily influenced by the religious revivalism of the time.
There seem to me, however, three significant differences between the two parties. First, as Wilentz notes, the Whigs originated in opposition to what they perceived as the excessive executive authority of Andrew Jackson, and they maintained this vision of a weak presidency for most of their party’s history. (William Henry Harrison’s cabinet government represented an extreme version of this philosophy.) At the same time, empowering Congress—and the pragmatism and spirit of compromise required to achieve legislative success—formed a critical element of the Whigs’ approach.
Ronald Reagan’s importance to the modern conservative movement personifies the contemporary right’s celebration of a strong presidency. And regardless of the merit of his policies, George W. Bush has been a stunningly powerful president—going five years without having to veto one bill, dramatically expanding executive authority after 9/11, and seeming to defy the Supreme Court with his handling of the Guantanamo prisoners issue.
A second significant difference exists in political stability. Wilentz notes that both the Whigs and the modern Republicans suffered from serious ideological divides, caused by tensions left over from the formation of the governing coalitions. I’m not sure I agree. The Whigs clearly were a divided party—on lines both sectional and ideological. The modern GOP, however, strikes me as about as cohesive a national party as we’ve seen in the United States since 1901. A few prominent moderates represent old Union states, but their numbers are very small. In the Senate, I would classify only three Republicans as true moderates—Lincoln Chafee, Olympia Snowe, and John McCain. The number of House moderate Republicans is scarcely higher. In both congressional politics and national elections, GOP strength in the South, Rocky Mountains, and Plains States means that it no longer needs its old Union state base to prevail. The Whigs never enjoyed a political situation of comparable luxury.
Finally, it seems to me that we need to draw some distinction between the role of religion/moral issues between the two parties. The Whigs’ moralism sometimes translated into cultural conservatism—as in the quotes Wilentz supplies in his article, or in the temperance movement. Yet with abolitionism or the women’s suffrage movement, Whig moralism also could move in a more left-wing direction. The contemporary GOP, on the other hand, has embraced a more politicized, exclusively right-wing version of religion.
Ralph Luker: Reviewers of Sean Wilentz's new book, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln have already noted its linear descent from Arthur Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson. It's a worthy tradition and Wilentz improves on it on matters that have always bothered me about Schlesinger's important book. It was, in every sense, a political tract, voting for the Democrats - from Jackson to FDR - as they say, on every page. With the passage of time, however, Schlesinger's failure to acknowledge Andrew Jackson's treatment of the Cherokee and that he was, after all, a slaveowner made his book increasingly unsatisfactory. When the noble Democrats failed miserably in the 1850s and the Republicans seized the mantel of reform, Schlesinger's narrative simply petered out - not with the bang of civil war, but the whimper of wait 'til the next century.
Wilentz is well aware of the inadequacies of Schlesinger's old narrative and apparently places the inadequacies of Jacksonian volksdemocracy at the heart of his new work. Yet, when it comes to reading the history backwards, as he does with Schlesinger, in this article, some of the old problems remain.
To begin with, as Eric Foner noted in his review of The Rise of American Democracy, Wilentz is remarkably unsympathetic to Andrew Jackson's rival, John Quincy Adams. Here, in"Bush's Ancestors," Adams gets no credit as a major figure in the Whig Party. The article might actually have been strengthened had Wilentz given Adams some space. In his inaugural address, Adams II outlined an ambitious program of internal improvements (including the founding of a national university), that might pre-figure early twenty-first century big government conservatism. Thus, I think, that Wilentz's emphasis on the Whig's"attack on big government" is simply misleading. If anything, the Democratic Party of the 1830s and 1840s was more strongly committed a weak federal authority and defending the power of the states within a federal union. As Wilentz points out, unlike the Federalists of the first party system, the Whigs accommodated themselves to a democracy of"just plain folks," but I'm not so sure that" conservative populism" is any more superficial than"Jacksonian populism." Andrew Jackson was, after all, the master of a plantation and owner of chattel slaves. The aw' shucks demeanor of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush no more prevents us from knowing that they were of a privileged elite than it prevented Jackson's generation from knowing that about him.
Had Wilentz given more attention to John Quincy Adams, he might have credited him with returning to Congress in old age and there becoming a major voice for political anti-slavery. If the Whigs were more inclined to moralism than were Jacksonian Democrats, one really ought not simply hold it up to mockery, to give them credit for that. While Jacksonian Democrats looked to fighting a war with Mexico to spread white democracy across the continent, conscience Whigs objected to the war and, increasingly, voiced their reservations about the extension of slave labor into the West.
In some ways, it is the kinship of what passes for" conservatism" in twenty-first century America with the Jacksonians, rather than the Whigs, that is most distressing. There are the unconstrained visions of empire, the willingness to make war abroad, the indifference to exploited black and Hispanic labor at home, the lack of attention to domestic infrastructures, and the shameful elevation of cronies and drones to high office. Where is John Quincy Adams just now, when we need him?
Caleb McDaniel: Professor Wilentz's stimulating essay argues that the Whig Party of the 1830s and the post-Reagan Republican Party share in common"a venerable if loosely knit philosophy of government," which Wilentz describes as a"blend of businessman's aversion to government regulation, down-home cultural populism and Christian moralism." But comparing Whigs and Republicans got me thinking about an additional ingredient in the ideological blend of modern Republicanism that Wilentz does not discuss, which (for want of a better term) I'll call"militant nationalism."
Since Reagan, the Republican Party has often won victories by playing to a particular kind of popular patriotism, a patriotism that views American democracy as exceptional in the world and exportable to other countries, by force of arms if necessary. Those ideas also have venerable roots in American political culture, dating back to the antebellum period. And they have been especially prominent in Republican discourses about the present foreign policy goals of America in the Middle East. But it's a bit more difficult to trace Republican views on foreign policy and nationalism back to Whiggery than it is to draw parallels between the two parties' very similar blend of populism, moralism, and anti-regulationism.
It was the Democratic Party that boasted the most ardent Western expansionists in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Partly this was because Jacksonian Democrats believed, like Jeffersonians before them, that a constantly moving frontier would create opportunities for agricultural development, whereas bottling up the population in eastern cities would serve the interests of manufacturers and businessmen who supported the Whigs. In that sense, the Democrats' expansionism can be seen as part of the general opposition to big business, as opposed to small landowners, that Professor Wilentz attributes to them in his essay.
Yet it is also clear that many expansionist Democrats wanted to annex western territories like Texas in order to create opportunities for the expansion of an agricultural economy based on slave labor. And many were willing, if necessary, to fulfill America's continental aspirations--its"Manifest Destiny"--by force of arms. James Polk, the President who provoked war with Mexico and entertained the thought of annexing not only Texas but large swaths of northern Mexico, was a Democrat. And the reason why John Tyler was barely considered a Whig was because he favored, like Polk, the annexation of Texas.
In defending war with Mexico, Polk and his Democratic supporters often argued that the conquest of Mexico would plant America's republican institutions south of the nation's border, help democracy spread throughout the lands of Spain's decaying empire, and depose a despotic dictator. (Sound familiar?) While for some expansionists, perhaps, this was a disingenuous way of rationalizing a grab for land, many expansionists clearly believed that part of America's"manifest destiny" was to spread the blessings of American democracy to the world and to topple dictators in both hemispheres. The most colorful species of Democratic expansionist were the renegade filibusters who hatched elaborate plans for invading Latin American nations like Cuba and liberating them for annexation to the United States.
To be sure, there were Whigs aplenty who shared the view that America's democratic institutions should be spread to the countries of the Old World. As Secretary of State in the early 1850s, Daniel Webster favored giving national succor to freedom struggles in Europe against the evil empires of Russia and Austria. And many Whigs were as likely as Democrats to say, when the United States' brash foreign policies were criticized,"Our Country, Right or Wrong," and to silence critics of the Mexican War as treasonous fanatics.
Nonetheless, in the national debates that ensued over the Mexican War, the hawkish expansionists tended to come from the Democratic ranks, whereas the Whigs--partly because of their pro-business interests and basic economic conservatism, and partly because of their antislavery tendencies in the 1840s--fought Texas annexation and became the most vocal critics of Polk's war. Most Whigs, while every bit the nationalists that Democrats were, tended to believe that American strength and freedom could best be projected into the world by force of example, rather than by"boots on the ground" in the halls of Montezuma or on the shores of Tripoli. They too thought that America would one day cover the continent--heck, they elected Zachary Taylor, the conqueror of Mexico City. But many Whigs--or at least more prominent Whigs than prominent Democrats--thought that the genius of republican institutions would win out over"barbarism" and"despotism" through a peaceful clash of ideas, not through a bloody clash of civilizations.
That dovish reticence informed Lincoln's opposition to the Mexican War as a Congressional Whig in the mid-1840s, and it also helps explain his desire to have the Confederacy fire the first shot on Fort Sumter before calling for recruits. Never a preemptive warrior, Lincoln was at his most Whiggish when he viewed war with a tragic fatalism. He was a consummate former Whig when he concluded from his forays into American history that republican institutions were fragile even at home, and that the best way to make sure"government by the people" did not perish from the earth was to dedicate his own nation to a constant rebirth of freedom, rather than to crusade around the world for the induced birth of other governments of the people.
I'm beginning to ramble, and playing a bit fast and loose with generalizations, so let me conclude: A central tenet of modern Republicanism is the view that American democracy has already been more or less perfected. Our most important mission now is to export democracy with the use of hard and soft power. When President Bush hammers that tenet, I've argued, he's echoing expansionist Democrats, rather than Whigs. Perhaps that raises the larger question of just how much modern Republicanism owes to the nationalistic ideology of Jacksonian Democracy as well.
To borrow an old chestnut, Whigs tended to envision a nation that progressed through time. Their concern was always with how to modernize American economy and society without setting either loose from their traditional moorings. Democrats, convinced that America had already reached, in the Revolution, the end toward which history was progressing, envisioned a nation that now progressed through space. Modern Republicans curiously combine elements of both those views. On the one hand, like Whigs, they worry that traditional"social values" are being threatened by modern science and society; their quarrel is with time. But on the other hand, like Democrats, they have a supreme confidence that American democracy is the crowning achievement of history and is only threatened by the despotism that still exists elsewhere in the world; their quarrel is with other bodies in space. (Perhaps the fitting allusion here is to President Bush's use of post-September 11 political capital to call ... for a war in Iraq and a return to the moon.) While Professor Wilentz convincingly shows that President Bush's ancestors were Whigs, perhaps his ideological family tree includes Democrats as well.
Wilson J. Moses: My definition of the"American political tradition" differs radically from than that of my esteemed colleague, Sean Wilentz, whose case-book on the early republic I continue to use and with enthusiasm. But I am, as many know, a supporter of the Hamiltonian tradition and no admirer of Jeffersonian or Jacksonian democracy, and one need only read the first paragraph or Wilentz's recent New York Times article to see that he repeats the most appalling errors of Arthur M. Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson. The basic reason for my hostility to Jeffersonian democracy is not some puerile reaction to Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, or his undocumented love affair with Sally Hemings. I repeat it is not for these reason that I find Jeffersonian democracy repugnant. My reasons for hostility to Jeffersonianism are threefold. First I am appalled by Jefferson’s and Jackson’s antiquated and dishonest thinking with respect to government regulation of the economy. Second, I object to Jefferson’s, and Jackson’s, hypocritical and demagogic manipulation of the"leather aproned" handworkers, for whom they had only the profoundest contempt. Third, I object to that dangerous lie in the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal.” This denial of inequalities, is at the root of America’s continuing refusal to address inequalities, and of its failure to maintain a system that provides for the health, education, and welfare of the economically handicapped, the racially disadvantaged, and the physically disabled.
The paranoid anti-governmental tradition is founded in Jeffersonian hypocrisy, Jacksonian demagoguery, Wilsonian arrogance, and Reaganite reactionism. This tradition has mouthed anti-governmental shibboleths, but has always increased the police state powers of the federal government. It is the tradition associated with Athenian slaveholding, with Jeffersonian assaults on civil liberties, with Jacksonian cynical manipulation of the mob, and ironically, but inevitably with suppression of the rights of the individual. By contrast, the benevolent elitist tradition of the Whigs is founded in the enlightened despotism of Hamilton and Washington, the centralism of Lincoln, the industrial democracy of both Roosevelts, and the neo-federalism of Eisenhower. This tradition has utilized elitist means towards egalitarian ends. It is this tradition that freed the slaves, by the fiat of a military tyrant; ended segragation by mandates of the least democratic branches of government; and regulated the economy through benevolently elitist bureacracies. Thank God for the tyrannical judicial activism of Earl Warren, and the despotism of Herbert Brownell!
The problem of equality in America cannot be solved by admitting more women and minorites to Stanford, but by destroying that system of privilege that presupposes that persons admitted to Yale are smarter, more creative, or more skilled than those who attend San Diego State. If we want to discourage elitist privilege, we need to stop making inculcating hero worship for the likes of Ronald Reagan, and Oprah Winfrey, Noam Chomsky, Yo Yo Ma, Peyton Manning and Condoleeza Rice. We should admire the genius of such persons, and have the honesty to admit that they are better than us, but we cannot continue to hold them up to our children as the embodiment of behavior to which most of them cannot reasonably aspire.
Most people, whether commoners or kings, are destined to mediocrity, and that is why kingship, contrary to Thomas Payne's fulminations, is not such a bad idea after all. Kings and queens are usually not brilliants like Frederick II, but normals like George III and George Bush, very ordinary people, and thus well-qualified to embody the mundane fears and banal joys of ordinary people.
Greg Robinson: Sean Wilentz’s article “Bush’s Ancestors” cleverly attempts to connect George W. today’s Republican Party with the generation of Whig politicians whose heyday came in the generation before the Civil War. It is a nervy generalization, and Wilentz does hit a core of truth when he shows how both The Whigs of the 1840s and the Republicans of the age of Reagan concealed their focus on aiding the rich by attacking the government and presenting themselves as the allies of the people. One is reminded of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr’s. famous thesis in The Age of Jackson that the 1830s represented a forefunner of the New Deal in the attack on entrenched privilege by an aroused democracy led by a strong President. However, Professor Wilentz’s deft performance conceals as much as it enlightens.
First, while Conservatives are dominant in the Republican Party, which can lay claim to being the majority party since 1980, the Whigs of the 1840s were undoubtedly the minority party. The only two Presidential elections the Whigs won were due more to the individual popularity of the former Generals the Party put up than the brilliant attractiveness of their program, and there was a Whig speaker controlled the House for only eight years of their existence. Even within the Whig Party were serious divisions and shadings of opinion, of the sort that Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay managed to defuse. While Henry Clay could enforce discipline in the Senate, no Whig leader succeeded in setting the party agenda as closely as a small group of Republicans has. The Whigs are arguably much closer in this respect to Canada’s new Conservative Party, whose chiefs have experienced far greater internal and interpersonal dissension over less drastic ideological differences.
Another important difference concerns immigration. In the antebellum era, as today, there arose a fundamental contradiction between the desire of businesses for cheap immigrant labor and the political imperatives of nationalism, which was resolved through thunderous speeches and large-scale inaction. While the Democrats of the 1840s made new immigrants a formidable voting bloc in their coalition, Whigs courted nativist voters by their attacks on the newcomers, especially the Irish. Whiggish extremists ultimately joined together to form the openly xenophobic American (i.e. Know Nothing) Party. In contrast, Ronald Reagan received a majority of the Roman Catholic vote, and George W. Bush has wooed Hispanic and other immigrant populations. (Of course, any antebellum U.S. political leader who requested the political support of the Pope, as Bush did in 2004, would have been hounded from office faster than you can say “Osama Bin Laden”). Finally, the moral that Wilentz takes from his comparative study is unclear. With one breath, he states that today’s Republicanism is a more powerful and successful ideology than Whiggism, and one that cannot be dismissed as a mask for privilege. On the other hand, he points to the ease with which the Whig Party disintegrated as an object lesson for Republicans in the instability of their similar, if modernized, ideas. Yet if Mr Wilentz is clear on his sense of the links between today’s Conservatives and the Whigs, he is much less so about the connection between the Whigs and post-Reconstreuction Republican Party, which appealed to many of the same constituencies and proved a durable ruling party for half a century.
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