Henry David Thoreau: “Walden” (1854): Part One

I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstance, and they know whether they are well employed or not—but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them. There are some who complain most energetically and inconsolably of any, because they are, as they say, doing their duty. I also have in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters. (335)

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Walden by Henry David Thoreau probably is the central text in the American anarchist tradition, although Thoreau never used that word as far as I know. Walden describes the technical details about Thoreau’s two years living near Walden Pond in relative isolation from his neighbors (although he was in walking distance from Concord). He saw it as a successful experiment in self-sufficiency. He took pains to describe how his experiment worked and why his model of simplicity was preferable to the values embraced by industrializing America. He was not rejecting progress. He saw what he was doing as clearly improvements and developments, including building a house, raising crops, and experimenting in innovative techniques. Through it all, however, his pursued these improvements in respect to his own values, needs, and desires.

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I am not sure how applicable the way of life described in Walden is to our world. I am sure many anarchists today would accuse someone pursuing a similar experiment today of engaging in “lifestylism,” or point out how his privileged position (having access to Emerson’s land near Concord, being a white male, etc.). These critiques may be fair, but throughout Walden, Thoreau neither rejects the need to critique the world he lives in (the one that began again a mile from his house) nor turns his back on community and society.

Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath. I have no doubts that some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all the dinners which you have actually eaten, or for the coats and shoes which are fast wearing or are already worn out, and have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour. (328)

The opening chapter of Walden is the longest. Since it is such a doozy, I will focus just on it today. This chapter stands as one of the great individualist critiques of industrial capitalism. Its prominent place in the book reminds us that Thoreau is interested in the social relations at the root of the rapidly changing world that he lived in. The fact of rapid transformation makes the lessons of the elders meaningless to Thoreau. One problem that industrial capitalism is that is distances us from a knowledge of what is really needed for life and our own capacities. The appeal of the “frontier life” is that it articulates the boundaries of this need and individual potential. He uses the metaphor of being too “warm” to suggest the nefarious aspect of growing wealthy and pursuing luxuries. Intellectual labors have been similarly degraded into the pursuit of luxury, rather than philosophy. By dwelling on the question of necessity, Thoreau tells us that we are not actually that far from post-scarcity (and if we were in 1854 we certainly are now). Increased false needs, luxuries and the like, are one of the major chains preventing us from living freely. Another aspect of this is the feeling that production has value only for commerce. For an individual, the fact that someone does not want to purchase what another has created does not decrease the value of that thing for the creator.

Following this, he explores some of the necessities of life, such as clothing, shelter, and food. The purpose of economy must be to achieve these needs, but our understanding of our needs has been perverted. While some of his arguments about self-sufficiency are dated, others seem inspiring to me. The idea of people building their own home rather than accept a lifetime of debt to banks is not only admirable, but perfectly within the realm of possibility, especially is pursed in community solidarity. From our late capitalist perspective we can look at Thoreau’s model for individual self-sufficiency as a model for sustainability by limited consumption. It is also an argument against work. He insisted that he had to work for others only as a day laborer for a few days per year. Compare this to the endless wage slavery most people of the world face today (if they are the “lucky” ones with jobs). In short, limited needs means limited need to work and limited obligation to institutions indifferent to your survival. This is not an anti-social argument, but a foundation for a much more sociable experience. He does think it is hard for people of radically different values and strategies in life to work together, but he is open to people getting their “living together.” (379)

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He has a useful examples of the added benefit of a simple life. Two people want to travel. One walks, working along the way as necessary, but always making progress toward her goal. The second, works to save up enough to purchase a train ticket. Thoreau was unconvinced that the later would reach the destination first and would have a much less meaningful experience. Today, I guess few people still take the option of working on a merchant ship to see the world, but I think we can think seriously about travelling in lower tech ways. Two weeks on a train, instead of one day on a plane may seem rational and ensure I will miss the least amount of work, but I can think of much added value that could come from the slower option.

The chapter on economy ends with a criticism of the reformism that was so popular in Thoreau’s day. He targeting philanthropy as essentially an outside imposition on people’s lives, full of moral baggage. He may have underestimated the horror of poverty, often making an assumption that a poor person may enjoy his life, but we can still take from him a belief that charity need not be presumptuous.

Following “Economy” is a series of shorter chapters that go on until the end of the book. They deal with a variety of topics. Sometimes building off of themes in the first chapter. They can, and should be, read in small chunks for various bits of applied wisdom. I think outside of “Economy,” which really is a primer for the rest, the chapters of Walden can be consumed freely and willfully. I, however, was systematic. I will talk about some of these seventeen chapters in the next post.

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James T. Farrell, “The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan” (1934): Studs’ Potential Chains

With their economic rise, the Negroes sought more satisfactory housing conditions. Besides, the black boys were happiest when engaged in the horizontals. That meant an increasing birth-rate amongst them, and another factor necessitating improved and more extensive domiciles. All these factors produced a pressure stronger than individual wills, and resulted in a minor racial migration of Negroes into the white residential districts of the south side. Blather couldn’t halt the process. Neither could violence and race riots. It was an inevitable outgrowth of social and economic forces. (457)

I open with this quote because, although it is told from the point of view of James. T. Farrell’s racist characters, it suggests the author’s politics. As much as the working class characters that populate his novels seem to deserve their fate, they were chained to specific institutional and economic realities. The escape route, tended to lead to disasters, but for some that may have been preferable to accepting the confines of these institutions.

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In my last post, I looked at some of the strategies of working class empowerment employed by Studs Lonigan and his friends in the James T. Farrell’s The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan. Lonigan’s commitment to whiteness and masculinity (as well as American jingoism) made it difficult for Lonigan to diagnosis the reasons for his personal immobility. We can add to this a whole host of personal failing. Even thought Studs was oblivious to the chains that bound him, the readers are not. The problem seems to be rooted in the culture of his upbringing and the options the working class communities of Chicago offered young men like Studs. He was given only three real options for community, social position, and respect outside of the streets and the pool-houses: the dialectic moralism of the Church, the banality of work, and family. I will call these “potential chains” because none of them trap Studs, but they remain ominous threats and the only sources for personal uplift offered by his community. It is easy to say that Studs should have suffered and accepted these options given to him, but this is hardly satisfying if we are after a truly free society.

We see many of the efforts of the Catholic church to hold onto Chicago’s young Catholics. Their efforts are not entirely without merit. Attempts to form clubs and hold dancers are authentic efforts to create community. The YMCA at one point attracts the men for health reasons, suggesting the Protestants were engaged in some of the same efforts. The problem was that it could not hold the men due to the strong moralism that all these actions involved. In a sense, it was a return to grade school for young men like Studs with the messages about the threat of hell, the need to live a godly life, and the generally authoritarian messages. Here is a sample of the rhetoric that I am sure rarely works on young men in their 20s.

For, my friends, your minds and your bodies are vessels of the Lord, given unto your keeping. They must not be abused. They are not tools for the indiscriminate enjoyment of what the world calls pleasure. There is one commandment which, above all, you must not violate. God says, clearly and without equivocation: ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery!’ If you do, the torments of Hell await you for all eternity! (494–495)

Studs does not turn from the church at all. Instead he bears it with indifference while asserting his identity in public. Studs’ pursuit of personal freedom was real but misdirected. The promise of a banal life of guilt being offered by the Church was certainly not for him. Studs is provided an alternative. During a conversation with “an atheist,” who introduces Studs and some of his friends to the problem of evil, Studs is at least given the tools to think more critically about the church. This may have set him on a more liberatory path. Instead he remains committed to his Catholicism even though it seems to run contrary to his values. Studs and his friends rejecting out of hand the ideas of others by labelling them “atheists” or “reds” is a common motif in the book and serve as a reminder that a more creative person could have escaped some of these chain (at least at the level of perspective).

Alongside the institution of the church is the promise of work. Studs and his friends are often casually employed. It is not so much that work was hard to get. When the men needed work or set their task to finding work they tended to get it. But no one seems to particularly enjoy the choices they were given, so they mostly fall into and out of employment. It seem to me that voluntary precarious employment is a form of resistance to the work ethic and the type of life work offers. It is not the most radical or liberating of choices (especially when the burden of support falls on someone else), but it is a clear rejection of the work regimen. The Greek socialist, Christy, is the model for a more radical escape from work. Unfortunately, his approach is not so different from the priest. Christy takes to lecturing Studs and his pals about Debs, the war, and capitalism while taking singular pleasure in mocking Catholicism for hypocrisy. Clearly Christy does not know the first thing about organizing working people. His language is good for organizing the converted, but fails to convince others, especially those who evade work anyways.

Bolshevism is going to be justice for the workingman. He will no longer be a slave, work ten, twelve hours a day and have his children starved and underfed. He will have opportunities. Bolshevism will not allow greed, not allow capitalists to steal all the money to crush people, kill them in wars, to waste their toil on jewelry for silly women and silly wives. Russia is trying to make a decent world. America is trying to make a world for greed, capitalists, crooks, gangsters, criminals, and kill the working-man, make him a slave. (476)

Work, for these men, is still a burden they can avoid using it when the need to. Much like the church, it is an institution that has failed to trap them.

The final ominous threat to Studs is family. As this novel makes clear, it is quite unfortunate how young people escape one family only to be inevitably drawn into a new one. Some of his pals marry (which brings up the need for a steady job) and Studs begins to get a bit serious about courting a women he fell in love with as a child, Lucy. This is a disaster when he nearly rapes her after a rather awkward date, where he spends more time showing his contempt for other men than his affection for Lucy. Studs Lonigan’s own incompetence forestalls the shackles of marriage and we suspect that is what he wanted anyway.

So when the novel ends, we learn that however legitimate his evasion of the church, work, and family may have been, Studs is running out of time to chart an independent path for himself. This was not possible for him, because in the end, Studs was a conformist. Smart enough to reject some of the values and expectations of his parents, but not smart enough to think for himself. He had enough inspiration from contrarians, but he could never turn that into something authentic and original and adapted to his own needs and temperament.

Frank Norris: “The Octopus” (1901): Part Two

He saw his wheat, like the crest of an advancing billow, crossing the Pacific, bursting upon Asia, flooding the Orient in a golden torrent. It was the new era. He had lived to see the death of the old and the birth of the new; first the mine, now the ranch; first gold, now wheat. Once again he became a pioneer, hardly, brilliant, tracking colossal chances, blazing the way, grasping a fortune—a million in a single day. (831)

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One thing that is immediately apparent in the second part of Frank Norris’ The Octopus is that the major imagery shifts from that of the malevolent railroad to wheat. This is both because Norris wants to highlight the major theme of “The Epic of Wheat” (left unfinished at his death) and because we see the characters, while not giving up the political battle against the railroad which is hoping to squeeze them to death, engaged in the act of producing and harvesting their crops. Through action, both political and productive, the farmers of the San Joaquin valley begin to form a culture of resistance. The two work together. By continuing to produce in the face of almost inevitable defeat, they empower and give more seriousness to their political struggle.

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Norris describes this dilemma at several times through different characters, but we see again and again, small producers struggling against forces much larger then themselves. But the wheat must be produced. Unlike industrial workers, withdrawing the labor was not possible. Is an almost a requirement for a promethean belief in the future if one wants to farm? Maybe, but for Norris the reality is more brutal. The wheat has to be produced and sold because the farmers had no other choice.

Every cent of his earning was sunk in this hop business of his. More than that, he had borrowed money to carry it on, certain of success—borrowed of S. Behrman, offering his crop and his little home as security. Once he failed to meet his obligation, S. Behrman would foreclose. Not only would the Railroad devour every morsel of his profits, but also it would take form him his home; at a blow he would be left penniless and without his home. What would then become of his mother—and what would become of the little tad? (855)

The farmers’ failure to defeat the railroad leads to their being driven down into almost peasant status. Norris’ diagnosis in the conclusion is that this defeat was inevitable due to overwhelming power of the railroad, which could defeat the farmers either as individuals (through land prices and freight rates) or even entire political organizations of farmers through political power and the law. Norris explores both of these losing battles that lead to both very real deaths, shattered dreams, and the end of the Jeffersonian ideal of the autonomous agrarian.

In the backdrop of everything is the emerging global system and America’s place in it as a producer of wheat and an imperial power in its own right. The Octopus is one of the better introductions to the study of America’s place in the industrial world order (if a bit too long for undergraduate courses). We are introduced to this theme most explicitly by the character Cedarquist, a shipbuilder and merchant. He makes his money off the international transport of wheat. He understands how high the stakes are in the global wheat market and feels that the farmers are incapable of understanding the opportunities available to them if they only dream bigger. What Cedarquist does not fully appreciate is that the farmers are already forced into a global market by the railroads. It is not clear that Cedarquist offers a better alternative to “the Octopus.” In his mind, his dreams cloud his mind of the brutal realities of the indebted and squeezed farmer, who had the play the game by the rules pre-set by the capitalist class. The dreams of Cedarquist to remake the market and save the besieged San Joaquin farmer strikes us as delusional. Nevertheless, his monologue is a useful introduction to the theme of the place of American wheat in the global economy.

As a market for our Production—or let me take a concrete example—as a market for our Wheat, Europe is played out. Population in Europe is not increasing fast enough to keep up with the rapidity of our production. In some cases, as in France, the population is stationary. We, however, have gone on producing wheat at tremendous rate. The result is over-production. We supply more than Europe can eat, and down go the prices. The remedy is not in the curtailing of our wheat areas, but in this, we must have new markets, greater markets. (819)

The solution is to open up China, which can also allow the farmers to bypass the railroads and the grain elevators of Chicago. It could have worked if the railroad was not already strangling the western farmer.

This hints at yet another theme that Norris is grasping at: the end of the frontier. He may have been aware of Frederick Jackson Turner’s historical work on the frontier and its importance to American history. It certainly seems he was aware of the themes, as a California writer. For Norris this was not simply a matter of the emergence of civilization, but the slow triumph of capital, of the institution over the individual. If we look at his work as a whole we find that Norris contuinly comes back to this power of external forces (habits, family, greed) over individuals but never is the institutional critique so strong as in The Octopus. Perhaps this is why I kept thinking about the television series Deadwood while reading this novel. They are thematically united.

Well, so much for Frank Norris. There are some essays at the end of the volume, but as a group they do not add enough to justify an entire post. They are mostly about he saw the craft of writing. I appreciated his call for an American epic, expressed in these essays, for I always am drawn to the promethean.

 

Frank Norris: “Octopus” (1901): Part One

Aren’t you ever going to learn any sense? Don’t you know that cheap transportation would benefit the Liverpool buyers and not us? Can’t it be fed into you that you can’t buck against the railroad? When you try to buy a Board of Commissioners don’t you see that you’ll have to bid against the railroad, bid against a corporation that can chuck out millions to our thousands? Do you think you can bid against the P. and S. W.? (661)

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Octopus, the title referring to the railroad trusts that dominated the American West in the late nineteenth century, is Frank Norris’ epic novel. It is the first part of his planned “Epic of Wheat.” Octopus would explore the production of wheat in the American west. The next novel (which is not collected by the Library of America so I will not read it now), The Pit, is about the processing and sale of wheat in Chicago. The unfinished final novel, The Wolf, would have looked at famine relief in Europe, ending the epic with the consumption of wheat. Norris died before he could begin work collecting material on the final novel. The trilogy was as much about power as it was about wheat. The Octopus was one of the best novels I have ever read on power of capitalism to squeeze and exploit producers and the difficulty of opposing that power from within the system.

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Much of the tension in the first half of the novel is about the different strategies of San Joaquin valley ranchers to oppose the growing power of the railroad over their lives. By the period described in the novel, the farmers of the west were transformed from subsistence farmers into petty businessmen cash croppers, tied into market networks that they did not create or control. From the perspective of the ranchers, the railroads are a malevolent force, an almost Lovecraftian horror.

Again and again, at rapid intervals in its flying course, it whistled for road crossings, for sharp curves, for trestles; ominous notes, hoarse, bellowing, ringing with the accents of menace and defiance; and abruptly Presley saw again, in his imagination, the galloping monster, the terror of steel and steam, with its single eye, cyclopean, red, shooting from horizon to horizon; but saw it now as the symbol of a vast power, huge, terrible, flinging the echo of its thunder over all the reaches of the valley, leaving blood and destruction in its path; the leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the monster, the Colossus, the Octopus. (617)

There is an entire host of issues brought up on the ranches by the presence of the railroad. The price of land is set by the railroad companies that claim that their “improvements” demand compensation in higher land prices and freight rates. The farmers, regardless of the success of a harvest, are tied to steady or rising rates. (The novel is set during some hard time for the ranchers, threatening smaller land holders with bankruptcy). Many of the farmers are indebted and are hoping for a “bonanza” year after a couple years of drought in order to pay off their debts. The high railroad rates threaten their recovery. Another issue had to do with ownership and pricing of land owned by the railroads but improved by the ranchers who leased the land. The railroads eventually threaten to sell this land to speculators. One of the more prominent men in the small community of ranchers, Magnus Derrick, had a history of being active in politics and sees the solution in political action. He hopes to elect members of the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Railroad Commission in order to keep the rates low. Others are more skeptical and confess the need to bride candidates directly to prevent them from becoming tools of the railroads. Another rancher, Annixter, reflects a more radical voice who sees politics as ultimately corruption and expresses total fatalism over their prospects of resistance. He refers to previous failed efforts to mobilize the regions farmers (perhaps suggest the era of the Farmers Alliance and the Populists although the inspiration for the plot took place around 15 years before those movements took off). Despite their differences, these ranches essentially are calling for a democratic economy in which they can have a say over the price of freight, which when rose too high means the difference between destitution and survival (regardless of how hard they work or how lucky they are in a harvest).

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The signs of a farming economy in transformation are everywhere in the novel and are particularly conspicuous in the descriptions of the technological transformations taking place on the ranches. At the same time, the collective efforts during the plowing season (described in chapter four of part one) harken back to old American values of cooperation and rural solidarity, something rapidly being undone by the forces of the railroads and industrial agriculture. The collective labor in raising a barn are other memories of the American agrarian ideal. The romantic side of American rural life is represented by the sheep rancher Vanamee and the poet Presely. He sustained a mystical relationship with the land, unlike the more business approach of the larger ranch owners, especially Derrick. He is also the one who sustained a real religious perspective, cultivated by his mystical relationship with the land.

What I found most striking in the first half of this novel is how fearful the ranchers were of the railroad. The language that runs through the novel is that of a horror novel. “[T]he leviathan with tentacles of steel, to opposed which meant to be ground to instant destruction beneath the clashing wheel. . . . A leviathan with a heart of steel, knowing no compunction, no forgiveness, no tolerance; crushing out the human atom with soundless calm, the agony of destruction sending never a jar, never the faintest tremor through all that prodigious mechanisms of wheels and cogs.” (719, 720) The three major responses Derrick (fight with reason and argument), Osterman (resist with all force), and Annixter (fatalism) are all logical responses to this overwhelming and malevolent power.

Part one of The Octopus ends with the organization of the ranchers into a political force. The railroad issues letters to the ranchers (who are tenants) that their land will be sold on the market at rates that none of them can afford (they were earlier promised 2.50 an acre). This emerges from rage over the railroads schemes and the charisma of Osterman. They form what is in essence a local farmers’ alliance. “Everyone one of us here to join it, to form the beginnings of a vast organization, banded together to death, if needs be, for the protection of our rights and homes. Are you ready? Is it now or never? I call for a League.” (797) Magnus Derrick is elected the president of this organization. The stage is set for an epic confrontation between producers and capital.

“Legal means first; if those fail—the shotgun.” (796)

Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the Second Administration of James Madison” (Part One)

The government expected no other difficulties in the Southern country, and had no reason to fear them. If new perils suddenly arose, they were due less to England, Spain, or the United State than to the chance that gave energy and influence to Tecumthe. The Southern Indians were more docile and less warlike than the Indians of the Lakes. The Chicksaws and Choctaws, who occupied the whole extent of the country on the east back of the Mississippi from the Ohio to the Gulf, gave little trouble of anxiety, and even the great confederacy of Muskogees, or Creeks, who occupied the territory afterward called the State of Alabama and part of George, fell in some degree into a mode of life which seemed likely to make them tillers of the soil. (771)

In the final quarter of his history of the Jeffersonian Republicans during the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Henry Adams breaks from tradition. Previously, he divided each term into two volumes, each covering a legislative session. In his coverage of the second term of Madison, however, he uses three volumes and spends most those three volumes on the first year and a half of that term, up until the Treaty of Ghent ends the War of 1812. He has little to say about the rest of Madison’s achievements (perhaps there were none) and instead centers on the changes to the nation since Jefferson took office.

My basic reading of Henry Adams history (see the previous six posts) has been a bit contrarian but largely supportive. He was writing a history of the United States in the world a century before it would become cool to do so. Indeed, it is now the newest way to be trendy enough to (with a little luck) land an academic post. My own book is in this tradition. Certainly, he is still too much in diplomatic history, but my placing much of the story in London, Paris, or Madrid, Adams was being quite forward thinking. While another great historian of the turn of the century, Frederick Jackson Turner, was looking to the frontier, Adams still saw the American story in an Atlantic context. Adams sees a general irony in the Jeffersonians. They came into office hoping to undo the Federalist project, but had more or less enshrined it by 1817, when Madison retired. Yes, the Federalists were defeated, but not because their ideas were destroyed. Instead, the Federalists were co-opted. This is a common enough occurrence in American politics that we need not dwell on it now. My contrarian reading has been that Adams missed a larger irony, and one much more destructive. What the Jeffersonians did not want to confess was that the United States was like Europe in imperial ambition. By doubling the size of the nation and then fighting what can only be looked at as a war of empire. Britain and the U.S. were fighting over who would dominate North America. In my last post I argued that the war, being fought with debt and by the working poor, should be eerily familiar to American readers. The U.S. made at least three invasions during the war with England. The first was in Canada, where the army announced their goal of spreading liberty. They also invaded the Northwest territories, finishing the job Harrison began in the war against Tecumseh. Third, they began the conquest of the southern tribes such as the Creek, beginning Jackson’s fatal work.

So, the War of 1812 was not the second war of independence, but the next in a series of wars for a North Americana empire. The first was the Revolutionary War, followed by the Whiskey Rebellion, followed by the Shawnee War. There is enough in the text to suggest Adams was aware of this, but was either too prejudice or too hesitant to point it out. Being written at a time when the United States was projecting its imperial power into the Pacific, we are right to question his oversight (others such as Mark Twain were not so blinkered.)

Well, the volume for today is devoted almost exclusively to 1813. To Adams’ credit, he spends much of this volume reporting on the violent and suppression of the Creeks during the war. Patriots often forget about Andrew Jackson’s activities prior to his 1814 victory in New Orleans. He was down there suppressing the Creek uprising against the United States. Apparently efforts at bringing the Creek into a grand coalition to oppose the expansion of the United States into the West had been going on for a while. Tecumseh had worked on it and left among the Creek many of his ideas, and more importantly likeminded leaders. The battle (or massacre) at Fort Mims was one of the great victories of the Creek in this uprising. Adams’ account of this is the first I have ever read, but it is a compelling read. The enslavement of all the blacks at Fort Mims by the Creek reminds us that one of the reasons the southern nations were seen by whites as more “civilized” is that they embraced agriculture and slavery.

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So, we certainly have wars of conquest going on. Despite the claim made my Adams that the only territory gained during the war was of Mobile (the Spanish Fort Stoddert), we should not forget these internal conquests of Indians. Tecumseh, of course, died during the war in similar actions in the Northwest.

Surrender of the Creek

Surrender of the Creek

Adams continues to point out of Republican ideology led to the government to try to fight the war on the cheap, ensuring that the poorest Americans would do the fighting and dying. Much of what the government dealt with during the war was how to fund the army. Keeping costs down, “doing more with less,” is not a recent delusion. “Even if the whole bounty were added to the pay, and the soldier were to serve but twelve months, he would received only twenty dollars a month and his land-certificate. If he served his whole term of five years, he received little more than twelve dollars a month. The inducement was not great in such a community as the United States. The chances that such a measure would fill the ranks was small; yet the measure seemed extravagant to a party that had formerly pledged itself against mercenary armies.” (883) “Mercenary armies,” of course, is code for a professional, trained, and paid army.

Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the First Administration of James Madison” (Part Two)

Politicians of the old school looked coldly on the war spirit. Nations like individuals, when driven to choose between desperate courses, might at time be compelled to take the chances of destruction, often destroying themselves, or suffering irreparable harm. Yet the opponents of war could argue that Americans were not placed between desperate alternatives. They had persevered hitherto, in spite of their leaders, in the policy of peace; had suffered much injury and acute mortification, but had won Louisiana and West Florida, had given democracy all it asked, and had remained in reasonable harmony with the liberal movement of the world. (374)

Henry Adams

Henry Adams

In 1811 and 1812, the Jeffersonian Revolution could be said to have died with the coming of war with England. If Henry Adams’ account is to be believed, it was less a problem of war itself, but the consequences of war such as a standing army, increased taxation, and acceptance of the fact that the United States would and could play the imperial game were more devastating to the imagination of the Republicans. They seemed to really believe, for a time, that the nation was not their parents’ children. There are three important themes that this volume of Henry Adams’ history covers: the war against the Shawnee, the war debate, and the first year of the war and the changes it brought to the political system.

Adams throws the relationship between the white Americans and the Indians into the background. It only emerges momentarily. Thus when it came time to document the Shawnee revolt, Adams had to go back and review Thomas Jefferson’s attitude toward them. While he believed that they should be brought into civilization, he was as brutal as any other president in the seizure of their lands. “His greed for land equaled that of any settler on the border, and his humanity to the Indian suffered the suspicion of having among its motives the purpose of gaining the Indian lands for the whites.” (348) Jefferson’s actions toward the Northwest territory Indians caused the Shawnee revolt as much as his foolish embargo pushed the nation to war. Both of these would be Madison’s job to clean up while Jefferson enjoyed blissful retirement. As anyone who has gotten this far into Adams’ history would expect, we learn much more about William Henry Harrison than we do about Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet. There is enough here, however, to know that the US policy toward the Northwest territory was imperial and violence was the end result of the U.S. greed for land. It was not so much one of the causes of the later War of 1812, it was a branch of the same tree.

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In regards to the build up to war, Adams is most fascinated by the irony of the Jeffersonian Republicans taking such a violent lead to war. Was their earlier passivity, reflected in the Embargo Act, a reflection of their earlier naivety. Was the violent calls for war issued from Congress in 1811 their true colors? He momentarily plays with the idea that 12 years is as long as any such revolutionary spirit can be sustained before more cynical forces take over. “After the Declaration of Independence, twelve years had been needed to create an efficient Constitutions; another twelve years of energy brought a reaction against the government then created; a third period of twelve years was ending in a sweep toward still greater energy.” (380-381) In any case, the war debates overtook all other Republican policies. Adams argues that the army bill that funded the war was really a revolution in domestic policy, sealing the final gap between the Federalists and the Republicans.

As for the war, Adams’ position is that the United States was unprepared for the conflict, particularly against a nation that had been at almost continual war against France for literally decades. The lessons of the American Revolution, a war of liberation, would not serve the United States in a war of empire. I am now thinking that it is interesting that historians called this the “Second War of Independence” in yet another attempt to avoid the confession that their republic had become an empire. A proclamation to the people of Canada painted the U.S. invasion of that territory as a liberation. “You will be emancipated from tyranny and oppression, and restored to the dignified station of freemen. . . The United States offer you peace, liberty, and security.” (503) How many people have heard those words as they looked down the barrels of U.S. rifles? Well, for better or for worse, the U.S. designs on Canada faltered.

War in Canada

War in Canada

Like other American wars of empire, the War of 1812 was fought with little sacrifice of the people. There was little physical damage and few casualties. “The country refused to take the war seriously. A rich nation with seven million inhabitants should have easily put one hundred thousand men into the field, and should have found no difficulty in supporting them.” (567) Instead, the was was fought by the poor, who needed the meager army salary. The patriotic but well-off served the nation by joining the militias for six months of voluntary service, although never saw action. (These were the G.W. Bushes of the 19th century.)

The year 1812 ended with the nation at war, Madison easily re-elected president, but deep discord across the nation over who will fight the war, what the war is being fought for, and who would pay for the war expenses. The pattern established in this conflict would be carried on in future American conflicts. The war will be paid with debt, fought by the poor, and in the end celebrated as a great victory of a united people.

Jacob D. Green: “Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green, a Runaway Slave from Kentucky” (1864)

About ten o’clock I stole out to the stable when all was still; and while I was getting on one of my master’s horses I said to myself—Master was in here at six o’clock and saw all these horses clean, so I must look out and be back time enough to have you clean when he gets up in the morning. I thought what a dash I should cut among the pretty yellow and Sambo gals, and I felt quite confident, of course, that I should have my pick among the best looking ones, for my good clothes, and my abundance of money, and my own good looks—in fact, I thought no mean things of my self. (960)

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Jacob Green, perhaps next to Ukawsaw Gronnisaw, is the most elusive of the authors of the slave narratives in this collection. Most of the authors were engaged actively in abolitionist work and therefore had fairly well-documented lives. What we know of Green comes from his escapes, which he documented in a short narrative. Despite coming at the end of a long tradition of American slave narratives, it is less politically conscious and seems to buck many of the conventions (such as an emphasis on hypocrisy or contradiction). Perhaps, for Green, these arguments had been made and defended. What strikes me, having read this the first time today, is that Green’s narrative is really an account of tricks, lies, schemes, and manipulation. If the background of his story was not so tragic it would almost work as a comedic adventure story. I kept thinking of England’s Jack Sheppard, the young working class man, who inspired the imagination of the English working class by escaping from Newgate a series of times before finally being murdered by the state. Both of stories of people in continual opposition to their situation and for that reason have a rightful place in folk mythology. I wonder why Green is not more well-known.

The schemes start from the first page, with a white boy stealing some corn and then trying to force some of the slave boys to take the blame. On the next page we see the lies of white religion. Here this is not presented as hypocrisy but rather as a vulgar attempt to deceive slaves. A page later we learn that Green’s mistress is an adulteress, keeping two lovers on the side, a situation that led to legal shenanigans when one put gunpowder into the other’s pipe. The first time Green was flogged, he was framed by his master’s son for firing a pistol. I could go on. These are just in the first few pages. They are building up to Green’s three major schemes, his escape attempts in 1839, 1846, and finally in 1848.

Although there is a rather playful side to Green’s narrative rooted in the mutual use of tricks, not far under the surface is the same descriptions of the horrors of slavery that define the slave narrative genre. One of the most memorable in this little book comes from Green’s experience in a slave auction. His was the closest I have seen in an original source describing how slaves were “packaged” during these auctions. He also dwells on the experience of an enslaved woman, Sally, who had to watch as her family was split up during one horrifying day at the auction. When she begged for her family to be sold as a unit, she was struck on the head and killed. Ruben, Sally’s husband then attacked his master, beating him to death, before being shot himself. Green later composed a long poem about Ruben’s death. In many ways, this is the true climax of the narrative. In comparison, Green’s final escape seems mundane. This climax is a reminder that violence was the reason slavery survived.

In a way, what Green is trying to say is that neither masters nor slaves were fooling each other. Both sides knew they were being scammed by the others. When the stakes were small (a night of freedom, stolen food) this could really appear to be a game. It was not a game, however. When the stakes were high, the brutal and tyrannical nature of the system came down on its victims, or in rarer cases the frustrations of those on bondage exploded. Green, the slave trickster, ends his tale with deadly seriousness.