Tag Archives: American history

The Oil Party of 1973

Gas rationing in Portland, Oregon, in December, 1973, as a response to the oil embargo.

Gas rationing in Portland, Oregon, in December, 1973, as a response to the oil embargo. Courtesy of the National Archives.

“For we have only just begun our confrontation with our imperial history, our imperial ethic, our imperial psychology. It is perhaps a bit too extreme, but if so only by a whisker, to say that imperialism has been the opiate of the American people.” -William Appleman Williams, 1980.

“Words like ‘monopoly,’ ‘cartel,’ and ‘block’ thereafter achieved a remarkably sudden if selective currency, although very rarely did anyone speak of the small group of American multinationals as a cartel, a designation reserved for the OPEC members.” -Edward Said, 1981.


On December 16, 1973, a few thousand Americans celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party by filing onto an imitation eighteenth century shipping vessel called the Beaver II and dumping oil drum barrels into the Boston Harbor. Onboard the ship was an effigy of Richard Nixon in a crown with the names of oil companies written on it. This Boston Oil Party coincided with a city-wide celebration of the 1773 Tea Party, for which Bostonians reenacted the original tea-dumping protest with empty boxes, to avoid pollution, and hurried through their reenactment as demonstrators made their way to the ship chanting “Nixon, Exxon, ITT: Drive the tyrants in the seas!” (Hall 125).

An article on the event published a day later in the New York Times reports that from “a powerful loudspeaker operated by the People’s Bicentennial Commission, the organizers of the demonstration, on the fourth floor of a nearby warehouse, a voice asked: ‘How many people think he should be taken to the boat and hung?’ An enormous cheer broke out.” But only the effigy was hung as demonstrators began another call-and-response chant: “Down with King George, Down with King Richard!”

The People’s Bicentennial Commission, or PBC, was, as Simon Hall puts it, a group of disaffected “veterans of the of the civil rights, student, and antiwar movements” founded in late 1971 “with the goal of democratizing the US economy” (117). The Oil Party drew American leftists who were frustrated with the rhetoric of the New Left’s response to the Vietnam War, which was grounded in a critique of American imperialism. The BPC was instead self-consciously American, in ways that are confusingly familiar to those of us in the twenty-first century: They waved “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and protested unfairly taxed resources. While ideologically opposite from the Tea Party of the early Obama years, the BPC had basically the same idea decades earlier: to locate solutions to present problems squarely in the past.

The BPC’s founder, Ted Howard, wanted to identify in US history an American tradition of protest to critique what he saw as simply a sudden turn in the wrong direction. Their target was Richard Nixon, the oil companies, and the military-industrial complex that exercised imperialism, most recently in Chile by supporting an anti-democratic coup against the newly elected Salvador Allende.

Nixon’s foreign policy, though, was a resurgence of Eisenhower’s, who himself had clashed with protestors during the Great Depression. Eisenhower vowed to prevent communist influence in nonaligned nations, but not through direct military action. Unlike Truman, who invaded Korea, Eisenhower preferred to make cosmetic changes through CIA influence. As a tool, he utilized the CIA to train rightist protestors in Iran, Guatemala, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo whenever these countries tried to nationalize one or another resource for their own benefit, rather than the benefit of American businesses. Kennedy and Johnson returned to direct action in Vietnam, and in reaction to the war’s unpopularity, Nixon returned again to Eisenhower’s brand of covert influence.

In October of 1973, Arab nations in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), decided to work together to combat this kind of imperialism by placing an embargo on the US, to protest American financial support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The result was a financial panic with national repercussions.

To express their outrage, the Oil Party drew a connection between Nixon and King George III, in part of a long, ongoing dialogue in which Americans see their present in someone else’s past. Recently, it has become popular to compare the US to empires in antiquity. Cullen Murphy’s 2007 book Are We Rome? is one example, and much more recently the far-right has drawn this comparison to support dictatorial leadership, going so far as to compare Senator Mitch McConnell to Julius Caesar. Likewise, Yale’s The Politic published an interview with Donald Kagan in 2011 in which Kagan compares America to the Athenian democracy.

The parallels between Athens and Rome are easy to make, but are hardly original. William Appleman Williams observes in Empire as a Way of Life that the Founders “knew the ideas, language, and reality of empire from their study of the classic literature about Greece and Rome. . . It became, indeed, synonymous with the realization of their Dream” (viii).

To be fair, Kagan also notes that the Founders studied the Athenian democracy, but he emphasizes that they wanted to craft a state that would be resilient to conflicts like the Peloponnesian War between Athens and neighboring Sparta, claiming that because “democracies are commercial republics. . . they require the approval of the population to wage war, and that checks them because the people may have contrary wishes.” His point here seems somewhat naive. Where was this “check” during American influence campaigns in Iran and Chile? Where was this “check” during drone strike campaigns in Pakistan and Libya?

But Athens may be a useful comparison. Like America during the Cold War, Athens controlled trade routes and islands with their powerful navy. In his account of the Peloponnesian War, the ancient historian Thucydides describes one episode in which the island of Melos wanted to be neutral, to the ire of Athens. This scene, known as the Melian Dialogue, is re-imagined hauntingly in the British film The War that Never Ends, with Michael Kitchen, Stephen Moore, and Oliver Ford Davies:

The Melian Dialogue is one of the most accurate summations of US foreign (and domestic) policy throughout the Cold War, although George W. Bush would provide a much simpler summation decades later: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” This strategy left no room for nonalignment, and those who tried for independence, like Melos, like Chile, Iran, and the OPEC nations, would find themselves ruined in the wake of American interventionism.

The Oil Party of 1973 was a reaction to the flaws of this policy, but failed to address the broader scope of it. OPEC’s protest had lasting consequences because it struck the heart of the empire: Wall Street. This is perhaps why the Oil Party faced no consequences for calling for the hanging of a sitting US president. The impact of their protest was short-lived and limited, seeing a temporary corrupt leader when the oil embargo should have prompted them to look inward at their own democracy.


Hall, Simon. “‘Guerilla Theater. . . in the Guise of Red, White, and Blue Bunting’: The People’s Bicentennial Commission and the Politics of (un)-Americanism.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 52 no. 1, 2018, pp. 114-136.

Said, Edward. Covering Islam. Vintage Books, 1997.

Williams, Appleman Williams. Empire as a Way of Life. Oxford University Press, 1980.

 

Locating Gabriel Over the White House

Gabriel Over the White House 2

“The soldiers threw tear gas at them and vomiting gas. It was one assignment they reluctantly took on. They were younger than the marchers. It was like sons attacking their fathers. . . MacArthur was looked upon as a hero. And so the bonus marchers straggled back to the various places they came from. And without their bonus.” -Jim Sheridan in Hard Times, by Studs Terkel


Less than a month after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration on March 4, 1933, MGM released one of the first films to directly confront the Great Depression: Gabriel Over the White House. A fictional president named Judd Hammond, played by Walter Huston, is revealed to be a self-absorbed, party-loyal moron who ignores the protests of impoverished WWI veterans marching on Baltimore demanding fair compensation for their service, a direct reference to the historic Bonus March of 1932.

Spoiler alert: the film gets weirder. Hammond races his car, crashes, and is temporarily comatose. When he wakes up, he becomes possessed by the Angel Gabriel. Now under spiritual control, Hammond confronts the marchers, promising to create for them an “army of construction” to guarantee employment.

Facing impeachment from congress, he declares martial law and embraces accusations of dictatorship, proclaiming that he believes “in democracy as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln believed in democracy,” that his will be “a dictatorship based on Jefferson’s definition of democracy: a government of the greatest good for the greatest number.” Hammond then creates a Federal Police to round up and publicly execute Prohibition-era bootleggers, many of whom are portrayed as immigrants. The film’s climax is an international summit held at sea, where Hammond annihilates empty warships using an ultra-powerful Naval Air Force bomb, to force the international community into a permanent peace, warning that “the next war will depopulate the Earth [with] invisible poison gases, inconceivably devastating explosives, [and] annihilating death-rays.” Terrified, the international community agrees to their universal disarmament.

Gabriel Over the White House portrays a Washington insider who abolishes the law to solve several national crises, the logical antithesis of a later Depression-era film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which a Washington outsider masters the law to solve a small local problem. Ideologically, these films are worlds apart, but they both praise the same three American leaders: Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.

The film’s backstory is worth revisiting. After being fired from Paramount, producer Walter Wanger began working for MGM to make ends meet. When Wanger secured the rights to the story of Gabriel Over the White House, he pushed the film into production as quickly as possible on a budget of just over $200,000, “to avoid the scrutiny of [MGM manager] Louis B. Mayor, a dedicated Republican” (Carmichael 164). By February of that year, a month before FDR’s inauguration, the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst began aggressively micromanaging the script’s content.

Hearst and Wanger had ties dating to 1917, and after he began working for MGM, Hearst offered him financial support. Hearst, who disliked FDR but supported his running mate John Garner, was unusually interested in the film. He “ordered his own production company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, to take over production,” and it is “believed that Hearst himself wrote some of the speeches for President Hammond” (Shindler 112).

Several MGM managers took issue with the script’s political nature. Some worried that its portrayal of Congress as incompetent would motivate Congress to censor Hollywood in retaliation, while others decried its positive portrayal of dictatorship. The film seemed to communicate directly to FDR that he should solve the Depression by becoming a fascist: Hearst was a casual admirer of both Mussolini and Hitler, but in early 1933, such admiration was quite common. Both dictators would eventually be Time‘s Person of the Year.

By March, 1933, Mussolini had been in power eleven years, Stalin roughly eight, and Hitler barely a month. There were not yet wars, purges, or camps. Totalitarianism to many looked like a safe, if drastic, solution, and many Americans wanted a similarly authoritative leader to take charge and solve the economic crisis, regardless of ideology. The film is more a response to Hoover’s failings than FDR’s potential, and arguably its most important scene is its version of the Bonus March.

In the film, the president hears the pleas of protestors marching on Baltimore and responds by creating a federal jobs program. In 1932, the real Bonus Army marched on Washington and were met with a brigade of cavalry and tanks led by Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower. At least one marcher died as a result. What little action Hoover took was one injustice on top of a dozen other injustices during the early years of the Depression. Ironically, Hoover’s response would become a defining tactic of totalitarian regimes: military action against civilian protest.

The most compelling scene is the one that corrects this recent injustice by presenting a fantasy of what Hoover should have done, which accounts for the film’s success and FDR’s own warm reception to it. We know that FDR planned to take critical economic action long before taking office. He stated in his inaugural address that Americans should treat the Depression “as we would treat the emergency of a war.” But FDR also took the time to write Hearst to say that he thought the film was “an intensely interesting picture and should do much to help” (Carmichael 174).

FDR admired Hammond’s decisive rhetoric, though it’s impossible to discern how much Gabriel Over the White House, and by extension Hearst, influenced his policies. Maybe it inspired his Works Progress Administration or his later war policies, or maybe it had no influence whatsoever.

There is at least one key difference between FDR and Hammond. While declaring martial law, Hammond cites Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln; in his inaugural address, FDR makes no reference to any of these presidents. Hammond’s dictatorship is self-consciously all-American.

As president, Washington led the militias of several states to stop a tax protest in rural Pennsylvania called the Whiskey Rebellion, making him the only sitting president to lead troops into battle (against tax protestors, no less). Jefferson attempted to use the navy to force peace with Barbary Coast pirates, and later invoked executive privilege when he refused to hand over subpoenaed documents to the Supreme Court during the investigation of his own Vice President for treason. During the Civil War, Lincoln pushed a de facto martial law through congress and suspended Habeas corpus for Confederate soldiers. The difference with Hammond is that he does all of these things simultaneously.

The underlying assertion of Gabriel Over the White House is that an American totalitarian does not need to import an ideological foundation from abroad. The seeds are already sown in a long chain of temporary American totalitarianisms in which presidents responded to crises with extralegal overreach. Hammond’s presidency is a Frankenstein’s monster of cobbled together, home-grown authoritarianism. An American totalitarian will not look like Mussolini, Stalin, or Hitler, but will instead look just like Hammond: very American, and very familiar.


Carmichael, Deborah. “Gabriel Over the White House (1933).” Hollywood’s White House, ed. Peter C. Rollins & John E. O’Connor. University of Kentucky Press, 2003, pp. 159-179.

Gabriel Over the White House. Directed by Gregory La Cava, MGM, 1933.

Shindler, Colin. Hollywood in Crisis. Routledge, 1996.

Terkel, Studs. Hard Times. Pantheon Books, 1986.

 

 

Breaking the Sphere

Distribution of Population in 1890, US Census

Population density of the United States according to the 1890 census (xciv).

“Nearer the soil, Western life told quite a different story. There was more homesteading after 1890 than before. A number of extractive industries–timber, oil, coal, and uranium–went through their principal booms and busts after 1890. If one went solely by the numbers, the nineteenth-century westward movement was the tiny, quiet prelude to the much more sizable movement of people into the West in the twentieth century.” -Patricia Nelson Limerick, 2000

“Whereas the traditional notion poses the common as a natural world outside of society, the biopolitical conception of the common permeates equally all spheres of life, referring not only to to the earth, the air, the elements, or even plant and animal life but also to the constitutive elements of human society, such as common languages, habits, gestures, affects, codes, and so forth.” -Hardt & Negri, 2009.


American historians at the turn of the century rushed to interpret the 1890 census as one of the most important moments in US history. Frederick Jackson Turner argued in 1893 that the census marked the “closing” of the frontier, and Charles Beard would later write in 1933 that this “closing” was one third of a “triple revolution in agriculture” between first the abolition of slavery and third the “subjection of farmers to the process of capitalist economy” (Beard II 271).

But closure is only an interpretation of the census report’s findings. Comprised of twenty-five volumes, the introductory preface to the first volume, called “Progress of the Nation,” instead declares the following: “Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent and its westward movement it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in census reports” (xxxiv). The 1890 census declared simply that it would no longer record a frontier line.

Previous reports had actually measured frontier lines. According to the 1890 census, “the length of the frontier line in 1880 [was] 3,337 miles” (xxxvii), was 1,178,068 miles in 1870 (xxvi), and so on. The wording in the proclamation about 1890 is telling. The frontier line had been “broken into by isolated bodies of settlement,” a phrasing that hides those who actually went into the frontier while framing it as a fragile object that has been broken. The writing goes out of its way not to implicate settlers in the population increase, instead referring to “isolated bodies of settlement” to suggest groups of people who then share responsibility for settlement.

The frontier line was a literal demarcation between “settled” and “unsettled” land, which the census defined simply by population density. One table (xxxiii) lists the population density of each state and territory. In Utah, for example, the “Total area of settlement [of] 2 or more [people] to the square mile” was 27,580 square miles; the total area containing 6 to 18 people per square mile was 1,208, and the area consisting of 18 to 45 people per square mile totaled 718. There is nothing listed for a population density of more than 45 people in Utah, as opposed to Pennsylvania, which totaled 35,152 square miles inhabited by 45 to 90 people.

Equating settlement with population density meant that 718 single square miles of Utah inhabited by at most 45 people each was enough to make the territory “settled.” According to the census, every state or territory in the west had enough population density to qualify as such. If 27,580 people could survive in Utah, it was no longer legally recognized as wilderness. This implicitly established an evaluative scale for the economic potential of land. While it mattered to the federal government who was on what land (women, Native Americans, and other groups were recorded, though they could not legally vote in 1890), what was just as important was how many people were on the land, which became the primary distinction between wilderness and settled society.

By highlighting the experiences of people considered between the boundaries of wilderness and settlement, Beard and Turner both pioneered an early vision of social history that emphasized the experiences of workers and farmers. But they also left much to be desired. Another American historian a generation later, Staughton Lynd, writes that Beard and Turner, “the twin giants of modern American historiography. . . systematically minimized [slavery’s] importance” in their analyses (Lynd 135-136), and Patricia Nelson Limerick critiques Turner’s limited vision of the frontier.

For Turner, the frontier was the state of nature, which reinforced a Eurocentric understanding of the west’s indigenous communities, but for Beard, the frontier was essentially the commons. He writes of the 1890 census that “the disappearance of cheap or free land” was a tragedy because “by one legal phrase or another and by administrative procedure, the federal government prepared the way for the rapid seizure and exploitation of all the remaining lands on the western frontier” (II 269-270). In this sense, the closing of the frontier meant the privatization of the commons just before the Gilded Age. For Beard, this closure was a penultimate phase, rather than a finalizing one.

But Beard still treats the land the way Turner does, as free to white settler colonization. Both historians are in agreement with the census report’s declaration that the frontier was broken because of population growth, and all three tend to treat this breaking as a step in progress. Once this frontier was broken, they reasoned, it could be used. In this sense, “settlement” was about the deployment of a workforce, the presence of a monitored population subject to US law.

Though it is limiting to conflate the frontier with the commons, its perception as such explains why many progressive historians responded to its perceived closure as a significant turning point. If the frontier was acted upon as a kind of commons, then its closing would have spelled good news for those in power in the United States, because it finally meant access to the entirety of its previously obscure resources. By measuring the frontier by population density, this good news for those in power meant comparatively bad news for most settlers and signified apocalypse for Native Americans. The closing of the frontier was a process of opening the west to the full violence of what Wallace Stegner labeled “the path of empire.”

Yet another American historian, William Appleman Williams, calls this process of expansionism the defining feature of American history, declaring that the “culture has been unable, after almost 300 years, to develop any conception of success—or fulfillment—except the idiom of the endless chase itself. It was all a footnote to Madison: ‘extend the sphere’” (Williams 124). America, including any articulation of the frontier, is about growth for its own sake, and transforming the meaning of growth into the converse meaninglessness of satisfaction or stasis.

The frontier at the turn of the century, then, was considered the absence of influence, extended and measured through the strategic quantification of mouths to feed per square mile. This created an official policy in the US government of no longer marking the existence of a frontier in its regularized measurement of the country. The absence of the frontier meant the dissolution of both land and people (as Beard and Turner failed to recognize) not subject to American expansion, beyond the scope of the sphere. When the century ended, many historians seemed to wonder how much more of the continent the US could break.


Beard, Charles. The Rise of American Civilization. MacMillan Company, 1933.

Hardt, Michael, Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Harvard University Press, 2011

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Something in the Soil. W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Lynd, Staughton. Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution. Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.

United States. Census Bureau. “Population Part I.” 1895.

Williams, William Appleman. Empire as a Way of Life. Oxford University Press, 1980.

Giving to a Part the Strength of the Whole

The American High Commission 1871

American High Commission Negotiating a Treaty in Washington, with Hamilton Fish sitting in the middle.

“Though he did not get his way on Santo Domingo, Fish would shape the Monroe Doctrine more than any other American in the 1870s. A forgotten figure today, Fish was the longest-serving secretary of state in the nineteenth century. . . His foreign policy vision rested upon the pillars of rapprochement with Great Britain and ‘informal imperialism’ in America’s growing sphere of influence.” -Jay Sexton, 2011


In 1871, President Grant sent an investigative commission to Santo Domgino (what is now the Dominican Republic) to explore the possibility of annexing the country. The commission came two years after Grant proposed the idea to Congress as part of the post-Civil War Reconstruction effort, arguing that that annexing Santo Domingo could create a new state for freed slaves to inhabit, an idea that the assistant secretary of the commission, Frederick Douglass, also supported.

Grant and Douglass, in their respective memoirs, make similar defenses of their mutual support. In the end of his 1885 memoir, Grant writes that after the Civil War, African Americans “now should be considered as having as good a right to remain here as any other class of our citizens. It was looking to a settlement of this question that led me to urge the annexation of Santo Domingo” (761), and adds that at the time, the Dominican president Buenaventura Baez favored and even requested annexation.

Grant goes on to write that freed slaves “would go there in great numbers, so as to have independent states governed by their own race. They would still be States of the Union, and under the protection of the General Government; but the citizens would be almost wholly” of the same race. This passage is immediately followed by a long description of the development of the Western Frontier during Grant’s military and political tenure, and there is no textual transition between these two moments. To Grant, the Frontier and Santo Domingo were part and parcel.

Frederick Douglass echoes this sentiment almost point for point in his 1892 memoir. He emphasizes a similar claim that Baez wanted annexation and adds, “there was no more dishonor to Santo Domingo in making her a State of the American Union, than in making Kansas, Nebraska, or any other territory such a state. It was giving to a part the strength of the whole” (Douglass 409). Like Grant, Douglass believed that the creation of states specifically for freed African Americans would be a cause of Reconstruction, granting land and governance to a vulnerable population eager to leave the ruins of the hostile South.

Despite an initial treaty between Grant and Baez failing to pass through Congress, Grant organized an entourage for the commission. In addition to Douglass, there was the Radical Republican Senator B.F. Wade; the historian, diplomat, and co-founder of Cornell University A. D. White; the physician Samuel Howe; and a diplomat to Colombia, Allan A. Burton. Grant cherry-picked these scholars and activists largely for their Republican leanings.

Allan Nevins, in his 1937 900-page biography of Grant’s Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, provides one of the most detailed assessments of the commission. Nevins writes that in addition to the above five main members, there were “geologists, mineralogists, and other scientists, [and] ten newspaper correspondents” onboard (497). He goes on to describe B. F. Wade as “a Manifest Destiny man” and write that Howe was “carried away by humanitarian zeal for the Caribbean” (498). Fish himself was a quiet imperialist who influenced decisions behind the scenes, favoring annexation as an extension of the early nineteenth century Monroe Doctrine to protect (meaning control) the Western Hemisphere.

All five members returned to the US favoring annexation. On page 35 of the report, they conclude that “the annexation of Santo Domgino to the United States would be hardly less beneficial to the [Haitian] than to the Dominican people. . . This would end the exhausting border warfare” between the two republics sharing the island, by essentially forcing a regime change in Santo Domingo. Douglass and and Burton then go on to offer their “full and complete concurrence with the statements made.” So it was that in 1871, five abolitionists all agreed that annexing and colonizing a Caribbean republic would bring peace and stability, law and order.

There is, however, another chain of events that preceded the commission. Nevins notes that “two Yankee rovers and speculators, William L. Cazneau and Joseph Warren Fabens” who had “been in Texas just before its annexation and had seen the handsome fortunes made there by land speculators” had, before the Civil War, attempted to form economic treaties with Santo Domingo (252). When the first treaties failed, Cazneau “purchased a plantation near Santo Domingo City” and was joined by Fabens in 1859 (253). They wrote directly to Hamilton Fish encouraging annexation, but the Civil War interrupted their plans. A decade later, when the issue came up again under Grant, their investments in Santo Domingo had grown. Though they were not direct members of the commission, they were in contact with a geologist onboard named William Gabb, who worked alongside Wade, the “Manifest Destiny man.”

An even more obscure text, Melvin Knight’s 1928 The Americans in Santo Domingo, is more explicit. Knight writes that “Fabens and Cazneau were all stockholders in the National Bank of Santo Domingo” along with an unknown list of other stakeholders, which was “never published in full, but it was publicly charged in the newspapers, without provoking libel suits, that high officials of the Dominican Government were included” (Knight 8). The 1871 commission, then, followed the gradual investment in Dominican land by American capitalists, who had direct contact with the scientists onboard the commission, who concurred with Grant’s entourage that annexing Santo Domingo would be simultaneously an extension of Manifest Destiny, a defense of the Monroe Doctrine, and a major contribution to Reconstruction.

But it was clear by 1870 that Grant’s plan would not pass Congress, and the report became a way to justify itself by offering scientific and geopolitical evaluations of a neighboring republic. An ideological split within the Republican party between radicals and moderates led to Grant rapidly losing allies, though Fish remained a staunch, pro-expansionist supporter. This division would stall much of the real progress made in Reconstruction, and would contribute to the abandonment of Reconstruction altogether in 1877 as a compromise between moderate Republicans and southern Democrats.

Though the commission was an act of empire-building, it should also be understood, from Douglass’s perspective, in the context of Reconstruction. At the time, the South was occupied by Union soldiers tasked with keeping the peace, which meant protecting freed slaves from reactionary Confederate violence. Douglass supported the expansion that he otherwise opposed in previous and later iterations (Mexico and Haiti respectively) because he, and many others, had essentially greeted Union soldiers as liberators. He fully supported Grant’s coalition of Radical Republicans, who applied a uniquely American capacity to sustain contradiction to Reconstruction: the South became a frontier, and empire became a force of liberation. Douglass was swept up in the possibilities that fused imperialism with abolitionism.

A handful of Americans stood to benefit from the annexation and occupation of a foreign territory, for neither the first nor the last time. But the commission also demonstrates the similarities between three narratives in American history: the colonization of the western frontier, the power of financiers, and the Monroe Doctrine. All three became entangled in the Reconstruction Era, and frontier logic, as boiled down to Manifest Destiny, became a diagnostic tool as much as the Monroe Doctrine, an immaterial policy with material consequences.


Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, 1962.

Grant, Ulysses S. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Harvard University Press, 2017.

Knight, Melvin M. The Americans in Santo Domingo. Vanguard Press, 1928.

Nevins, Allan. Hamilton Fish. Dodd, Mead & Company, 1937.

Sexton, Jay. The Monroe Doctrine. Hill and Wang, 2011.

Panic in the Era of Good Feelings

Stock Exchange

Trading at the New York Stock Exchange, 1889.

“The Constitution was essentially an economic document based upon the concept that the fundamental private rights of property are anterior to the government and morally beyond the reach of the popular majorities.” -Charles A. Beard, 1913

“Beard described his ideal world as ‘a workers’ republic’. . . He possessed a radical analysis; he proposed public alternatives to private property; what he lacked was a radical politics to implement his ideas. This was a task he left to others.” -Ellen Nore, 1983


In early 1817, a handful of stockbrokers in New York City, meeting on Wall Street, drafted the Constitution of the New York Stock and Exchange Board, adding amendments throughout the year. In US history, 1817 is also considered the beginning of the “Era of Good Feelings,” marked by growing nationalism and economic expansion under president Monroe and, to a lesser extent, his successor John Quincy Adams, who helped draft the Monroe Doctrine. The era of Jacksonian populism, often portrayed as a backlash to Monroe/Adams republicanism, immediately followed. Common to both eras were regularized economic “panics” in 1819, 1825, and 1837, the defining feature of a longer era of contentious economic expansion.

Initially, brokers in New York signed a contract in 1792 called the Buttonwood Agreement to manage war-related securities investments. After the War of 1812, brokers wanted a more complex contract. In 1817, two Buttonwood signers, Nathan Prime and John Benson, were elected president and secretary of the freshly consolidated Board, and helped establish a “tradition whereby brokers on the exchange had a more privileged position than outsiders who simply dealt with or for the public” (Geisst 15).

This specialized privilege is evident in the text of the 1817 Constitution, which includes an amendment deeming that “no member of this Board, nor any partner of a member, shall hereafter give the prices of any Stock, Exchange, or Specie to any Printer for Publication.” Brokers, then, incorporated a means of controlling the flow of information into their constitution.

Walter Werner and Steven Smith detail the extent to which brokers secluded their operations, writing that not only “did keeping membership exclusive maintain the price-fixing cartel, it also sustained the practice of charging outsiders higher commission rates” (Werner & Smith 29). Stockbrokers initially restricted financial information as another commodity. Information, both factual or rumored, was central to nineteenth century America, such that by 1832, newspapers “generated only 15 percent of the revenue of the post office but 95 percent of the weight transmitted by horse and stagecoach” (Lepler 14). But controlling information to make it easier to exploit outsiders was part of a larger trend in risky land investments related to western expansion.

Even the newly established national bank began participating in rampant land speculation, resulting in the Panic of 1819. George Dangerfield suggests in his 1952 text about the era that the 1819 panic marked a downward spiral, writing that when “the prosperity began to collapse, nationalism as a unifying principle faded with it; and sectionalism, or the maneuvers of different sets of social and economic arrangements, took its place” (175). The republic into which Prime and Benson brought their Stock Exchange was economically centralized and nationally unified. Power was concentrated among landowners (southern slave owners, western frontier colonists, and northern investors) whose elected representatives did nothing to regulate the banking system that corresponded to the landowners’ aggressive, often militaristic expansion. Dangerfield describes this as a land bubble that burst in 1819.

Reaction to the land bubble’s bursting resulted in hostility toward the national bank. Jackson rode this hostility into the White House in 1828, and after reelection “ordered all federal deposits withdrawn from the bank as a sign of his lack of support” (Geisst 19), as part of his supposedly populist agenda. The national bank closed, causing smaller banks to close, which in turn prompted widespread payment suspensions, sparking the Panic of 1837.

The use of the word panic was a popular indictment of political leadership. Jessica Lepler notes that in the Jacksonian era, Americans used the word panic because “it implied individual innocence. By turning to the term panic in May 1837, rather than revulsion, crash, or the times, American authors blamed their troubles on collective forces beyond the control of all but political elites” (4). Monroe and Adams let wealth stratify, but under Jackson, the next panic was worse.

What is clear is that the national bank and private investments were so inseparable that by the time Jackson leveled the former out of populist extremism, the latter was unable to sustain itself for much longer. The federal government was often criticized in the early nineteenth century for its “relations with wealthy merchants and bankers” and for allowing “the commercial class [to operate] without much government interference” (Geisst 21). This is often misconstrued as a conflict between government and private enterprise, but this interpretation misses an important point.

Here, Charles Beard’s 1913 An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States provides a useful framework for understanding that the US Constitution was written for the same reason stockbrokers wrote their own constitution on Wall Street. Hardt and Negri nod to Beard’s framework when they argue that constitutional republics were designed to protect private property first and foremost. They note that “Behind every formal constitution. . . lies a ‘material’ one” which, as Beard points out, foregrounds the economic interests of its drafters, including land, slavery, and securities (Hardt & Negri 10). The republic was created to protect its creators’ property rather than the general population. When it could not protect investors from their own rampant speculation, those investors blamed the republic rather than their own practices.

Jacksonian populism was not the antithesis to Monroe/Adams republicanism, but the transformation of it. Giovanni Arrighi notes in The Long Twentieth Century that by the 1790s, “civilians were mobilized to sustain indirectly, and often unknowingly, the war-making and state-making efforts of rulers” (50), leading to inter-state systems taking on the previous tasks of monarchs through “the democratization of nationalism” (52). Individual states took on the task of governance for the ideological reasons Beard examines, which led to nationalist cooperation to accumulate capital. State-making became a civilian matter, and those civilians reacted negatively to the Panics of 1819 and 1825 by directing their state-making capacity toward localized interests, what Dangerfield calls “sectionalism.” This is how the Era of Good Feelings became, rather than precipitated, Jacksonian populism.

Wall Street survived Jacksonian populism because it acted, from its inception, as a state in itself, no more responsible for national financial panics than any other individual state. The Commonwealth of Wall Street took on the same duties of state-building as New York or Virginia.

Ellen Nore states that Beard’s analysis is only a framework for understanding national problems, but she also hints that Beard’s analysis implicitly invites radical solutions. Beard indicts the Constitution as a financial agreement between brokers, such that panic is inherent in its logic. One way to escape such panic, at least, is to imagine life beyond the rigid logic dictated by the past.


Arrighi, Giovanni. The Long Twentieth Century. Verso, 1994.

Beard, Charles A. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the U.S. Macmillan, 1925.

Dangerfield, George. The Era of Good Feelings. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952.

Geisst, Charles R. Wall Street: A History. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Hardt, Michael, Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Harvard University Press, 2011.

Lepler, Jessica M. The Many Panics of 1837. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Nore, Ellen. Charles A. Beard: An Intellectual Biography. Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

Werner, Walter, Stephen Smith. Wall Street. Columbia University Press, 1991.

The 1796 Treaty of Peace and Friendship

By Gardner Weld Allen (1856-1944) - Our Navy and the Barbary_Corsairs_1904

Decatur’s Squadron Off Algiers, by Gardner Allen Weld, 1905.

On June 7, 1797, the US Senate ratified a treaty with Tripoli, which President John Adams signed into law three days later. This Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1796 was one of four maritime agreement between the infantile United States and the Maghrib States (Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis), known in the west as the Barbary Coast. These treaties were meant to protect American ships in the Mediterranean from pirates operating in the region.

The treaties soon failed, largely because of the toll of payments owed to the Maghrib States and the pirates’ continued ransoming of American sailors. President Adams opted to pay the ransoms and tributes, but his slave-owning Southern successor Thomas Jefferson refused to pay the North African states, sparking a war during the first year of Jefferson’s presidency, the first of two conflicts known as the Barbary Wars.

Late during the Obama Administration, several commentators on both the left and right compared Obama’s foreign policies to the Barbary Wars. An article in The Atlantic called US involvement in the 2011 Libyan Civil War “The Third Barbary War.” Others compared the Barbary pirates to ISIS, while those on the far right erroneously claimed that Jefferson went to war with Islamic terrorists.

Both camps miss the point: as usual, those on the right conflate terrorists with literally every other state-with-Muslims-in-it in history, while liberal commentators misrepresent Barbary piracy as comparable to religious terrorism. Historian Max Boot notes that both the US and Britain utilized piracy in the same ways, noting that “the corsairs of North Africa were no more–and no less–piratical than Sir Francis Drake or Sir John Hawkins. . . both of whom operated as privateers” and that “the US government was so attached to this practice that it refused to sign the 1856 Declaration of Paris outlawing privateering as a weapon of war” (8).

Furthermore, twenty-first century US Middle-Eastern policy differs ideologically from Jefferson’s. Edward Said points out that in the US, unlike Britain and France during this period, “there was no deeply invested tradition of Orientalism. . . the imaginative investment [in the Orient] was never made either, perhaps because the American frontier, the one that counted, was the westward one” (290). The US was interested in controlling the narrative, and therefore the economic value, of the American West (e.g. the Louisiana Purchase) rather than North Africa, which is perhaps the opposite of the Bush/Obama/Trump era.

While the Barbary Wars are easy to exploit for ideological op-eds, the pre-war treaties are more instructive. Specifically, the 1796 Treaty demonstrates that the early US conceptualized itself on equal footing with other seafaring powers, and was willing to alter the national identity it presented to that end.

Consisting of twelve articles, the 1796 Treaty proclaims first that there “is a firm and perpetual Peace and friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and subjects of Tripoli of Barbary” (Article I) and that the two states should avoid naval conflicts with one another. As such, the Treaty states that trade “is on the same footing with those of the most favoured nations respectively (Article IX).

Article XI is now controversial for its implications, and is worth quoting at length: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of [Muslims],-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any [Islamic] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Here, the US emphasizes at length that it does not have a bias against the Maghrib States on religious grounds. Yet Article XI is still out-of-place. In a strictly economic treaty, the US stresses religious difference, or its indifference to religion. Despite Article XI’s clear message, there is overwhelming evidence of a legalized bias against non-Christians after Independence. Gaustad and Schmidt write that “Delaware’s 1776 constitution required all public officials to swear their belief ‘in God the Father, in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost.’. . Pennsylvania in 1790 vowed to deny state offices to any atheist as well as to anyone who did not believe in ‘a future state of awards and punishments.’ Only Protestants could be elected in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Georgia–according to their constitutions” (131).

And yet, in the 1796 Treaty, the US publicly reshaped its cultural identity in order to make the treaty more appealing. American culture warriors insist that national identity is non-negotiable, but Article XI contradicts this at an international level. In contrast, the US crafted its national identity as an open slate, not just for states but as a union. From the beginning, malleability was intentional, not a growing list of exceptions to the rule. Malleability was the whole point of America.

I want to argue here that the US had a global consciousness from its inception, and not just when it entered World War One. Instead, it built its global consciousness on the trading and military strategies of Britain and France, as well as its own perception of itself as a frontier space, as a blank chalkboard upon which its leaders could draw and erase American identity.  Like the imagined Frontier, America was made to sustain multiple contradictions in what it was. A savage but easily conquered wilderness, a piratical state against piracy, not built on Christianity but where only Christians can be elected.

The land-owning businessmen who created America self-consciously crafted a flexible state that was easy to change as needed. The problem is that the mechanisms of change, of political dynamics, are still in the hands of economic elites.

The Barbary Treaties demonstrate a deliberate American flexibility, an exchange of identity for financial expansion. If this flexibility is more openly acknowledged, even utilized–if we finally recognized America’s founding blankness–then more people might be able to survive and even thrive in America. Until then, the nation is a chalkboard ruled by people who only know how to use the erasers.


Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace. Basic Books, 2002.

Gaustad, Edward S. & Leigh E. Schmidt. The Religious History of America. Harper Collins, 2002.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1994.

 

Coming Home for Christmas After the Boston Tea Party

destruction-of-tea

The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor, by Nathaniel Currier, 1846, Hand-Colored Lithograph

On December 16, 1773, the Sons of Liberty checked their phones for messages about the plan. Some Tweeted about it as they crept on board the British ship; others posted Instagram pictures of the tea crates they dumped into the Boston Harbor, one after another. #coffeefromnowon. #revolution. #dumptea. Throughout the night, several Sons posted updates on the SoL Forum. Meanwhile, crate after crate of imported tea splashed into the salty, frigid water.

John Adams live-tweeted the affair with considerable criticism, but a new hashtag surfaced: #sitdownjohn. Frustrated, he stayed inside while the protest unfolded. Several Native American pages posted their own frustration that the Sons of Liberty were dressing up as Mohawks, pointing out the inaccuracies and retribution the British might take against them, but the protest continued unabated. Some tagged King George in their posts.

The next morning, King George deleted his Twitter account, then reopened it again to post “Not cool” several times. The Sons of Liberty felt like they had accomplished a good shaming.

A week later, Sons and Patriots returned home for Christmas. The media expressed a disorganized uproar about the protest, with Loyalist blogs calling the Sons of Liberty terrorists and the Sons of Liberty tagging everything #donttreadonme and #goteabagyourself. Some Sons returned to divided families: a Loyalist cousin here, a Quaker moderate in-law there.

It was particularly awkward at the Adams Christmas Party. Refusing to yield his position, John spent the entire time standing up, while his cousin Sam spent his time in a corner liking and retweeting every post of a tarred-and-feathered British tradesman. John called it grotesque of him to like so much shaming; Sam told him to stop shaming him for his views. Sam pointed out that John defended the Red Coats after the Boston Massacre three years earlier, calling him out for defending people who killed Americans; John called out Sam for passively defending a whiny group of protestors. Meanwhile, Abigail Adams drank whiskey in the billiard room and thought very seriously about tarring and feathering both John and Sam. She was, after all, ashamed of both of them. They liked the shock and awe of sharing listicles reinforcing their stances, like preaching to two different choirs. “Ten Horrible Things King George Has Done in Ireland,” “Nine Ways the Revolution Fails at Intersectionality,” “You Won’t Believe the Feathers on This Loyalist Cuck.”

Abigail had visited a Boston general hospital weeks earlier after a tax collector she had befriended was tarred and feathered at the docks. She remembered the way the hot tar stuck to his skin, the difficulty of pulling it off, the way it stuck to doctors who tried to remove it, making him untouchable, unapproachable. He refused to speak to Abigail for her husband’s politics, and instead stared at the ceiling while doctors treated his burn wounds.

Sam called John a feisty little tea drinker, and John called Sam a caffeinated warmonger. They were on the verge of tarring each other right there at the party, and if they did, Abigail knew that she would pull the dried tar from both morons while they lay side by side, listening to each other’s crying. Even that, she posted on Tumblr passive aggressively, wouldn’t get them to meet one another halfway.

-jk