Tag Archives: American history

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

Before Wounded Knee

wounded-knee-massacre

Photograph of civilians collecting the dead at Wounded Knee.

The Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890 is widely considered the end of military hostilities between the U.S. government and Native American Indian tribes. The Standing Rock protest today, however, is building up in similar ways to the Wounded Knee Massacre, and although there are key differences, it seems that the relationship between the U.S. government and American indigenous peoples has remained largely the same since 1890.

In 1888, a Paiute man named Wovoka began a religious movement centering around the Ghost Dance. Wovoka’s movement asserted that the Messiah would return as a Native American Indian and the continent would be freed from pioneering and settler oppression, and the Ghost Dance would usher in the Messiah’s return. The movement quickly swept across Native American communities, reaching the Dakotas by summer of 1890.

Followers of Wovoka such as Arnold Short Bull, brought the Ghost Dance to the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during a drought and amid numerous treaty violations, which included reduced food rations for the reservation and white settlement on land designated for Lakota use. The Ghost Dance accompanied federally sanctioned violence, starvation, and a small environmental disaster. The U.S. government was suspicious of the Ghost Dance as early as May of 1890, and continued to treat it as a militaristic threat rather than a religious movement. On October 30, an agent for the Pine Ridge office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs wrote a letter to the BIA commissioner indicating that, in his view after observing the Ghost Dance,

“. . . the only remedy for this matter is the use of the military, and until this is done, you need not expect any progress from these people; on the other hand, you will be made to realize that they are tearing down more in a day than the government can build up in a month” (Royer 65).

Here, the BIA acted as an observation tool for the U.S. government, keeping track of Native American Indians forced onto reservations with little water and food. A religious spectacle became a mode of unity, an expression of organization, which the government deemed, without question, a threat. Earlier, BIA commissioner R. V. Belt wrote in a letter dated October 17, 1890, that the Pine Ridge Agency should inform those

“. . . engaged in encouraging the Ghost Dance and other like demoralizing conduct, and inciting and fomenting dissatisfaction and discontent among the peaceably disposed Indians that [the Secretary of the Interior John Noble] is greatly displeased with their conduct” (Belt 75).

Belt went on to describe the Ghost Dance as “bad advice and evil,” and that the Secretary of the Interior will “exert whatever influence he may have over any of the Indians to turn their backs upon the medicine men who are seeking to divert the Indians from the ways of civilization” (75-76). There was a connection of correspondence linking BIA agents at Pine Ridge to the White House expressing anxiety about the Ghost Dance. These agents wanted “peaceably disposed Indians” who did not express discontent.

But all evidence suggests that they had every reason to express discontent. They were surviving a genocide, forced onto difficult land after military engagements against them, after numerous other massacres and battles. It seems that BIA agents and the U.S. government associated Native American discontent with militaristic hostility, conflating the two, because to the U.S., the moment a tribe became vocal, the moment its members made themselves visible, they challenged the established systematic erasure of an indigenous population and the colonial narrative of European settlement on an otherwise unpeopled land rich with untapped resources.

The Ghost Dance as a religious practice did not emphasize military struggle or armed combat. On October 31, Short Bull gave a sermon to his followers, referring mostly to the coming of the Messiah and mentioning combat only once, when he said,

“You must not be afraid of anything. The guns are the only things we are afraid of, but they belong to our Father in Heaven. He will see they do no harm. Whatever white men tell you, do not listen to them. My relations, this is all” (Sitting Bull 65).

Anxieties over Native Americans not listening to those attempting to defeat, control, indoctrinate, and relocate them culminated in the military’s arrival in November at Pine Ridge, to keep the peace. Following Royer’s suggestions, the military became a remedy to stop the Ghost Dancers from breaking down what the U.S. government had built up. Cavalry divisions arrived at Pine Ridge, forcing surrender and disarmament. On December 29, in the process of disarming a few Ghost Dancers, a rifle went off, and soldiers panicked after being informed that an armed insurrection would take place. Fueled by fear and rumors, soldiers fired at the Ghost Dancers, and a massacre ensued. There were casualties on all sides as some Ghost Dancers attempted to defend themselves. Estimates vary, but up to 300 Lakota were killed, most of them unarmed, many of them children.

The logic leading up to the massacre might be difficult to track, but was built on a number of assumptions. First, that Native Americans practicing a large, organized demonstration was the equivalent of cultural and military dissent, or in other words, a problem. Second, that the only way to “solve” the problem was through the use of military force. Third, that expressing dissatisfaction with an understandably bad situation was unacceptable.

One of the defining features of the 21st century is the blurring of police and military forces. In a post-9/11 surveillance state in which citizens and combatants are considered difficult to distinguish from one another, the police and military begin to serve similar functions. While this fact has become more obvious in recent years, and while there have been many instances in the U.S. in which the state treated its citizens as combatants, this has always been the case for Native Americans. Since the founding of the United States, Native Americans have always been designated a threat to westward expansion simply by their presence, their visibility, their voice. Historically, soldiers keeping peace and soldiers engaged in combat have served the same purpose for the U.S. when engaging its indigenous population.

I’m not a proponent of the notion that history repeats itself; I find it too simple. However, the events surrounding the Standing Rock protest are eerily similar to those that led up to the Wounded Knee Massacre: Native American Indians express discontent over treaty violations, land abuse, and environmental disasters, and as a reaction, a militarized police force steps in. Tensions have already resulted in violence against protestors and the arrest of journalists for covering the events. Contexts may be different, but the logical framework the U.S. uses to understand and address the protest remains almost identical to how the U.S. addressed and understood the Ghost Dance. Whether or not there will be another massacre remains to be seen.

Coleman, William S. E. Voices of Wounded Knee. University of Nebraska Press (2000).

Wounded Knee Massacre,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, 2011. Accessed October 30, 2016.

Samuel Huntington, Donald Trump, and the Repetition of History

HistoryIn one broad stroke, noted punchline and GOP Presidential overdog Donald I.C.U.P. Trump has resurrected a myriad of painful moments in U.S. history when he called for the “total and complete shutdown of all Muslims entering the United States” yesterday. His statements come at a time when most politicians have been giving historians stomach ulcers.

To begin with, Trump now represents the latest incarnation of anti-immigration Nativism. Initially opposing all immigration beginning in the 1850s, the Nativist movement was most successful in the late nineteenth century when the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 during the “yellow peril,” a prolonged period of xenophobia against migrants from East Asia, specifically (but not limited to) China. Such hostility resurfaced when President Roosevelt passed legislation to round up and intern all Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the United States during the Second World War.

In the past four decades, as numerous migrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America fleeing the drug wars and the effects of NAFTA entered the United States, xenophobic rhetoric prompted another wave of anti-immigration policies. For a long time, I thought Maricopa County Sheriff Joe “Tricky Dick” Arpaio embodied anti-immigration attitudes. And then Trump came along.

Trump has sewn together the ugliest components of American history into a monster that we call, most of the time, Donald Trump. Most recently, he has stapled onto himself an apparatus of xenophobia’s academic wing, an American scholar named Samuel P. Huntington (here is where you should spit on the ground). Huntington (spit) was a historian and theorist whose most notable argument, the Clash of Civilizations argument, outlined his conceptualization of a post-Soviet world: that cultural struggles would replace the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism. Huntington (spit) then proceeded to divide the world into seven or eight civilizations: “These include Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilization” (Huntington). Here, he divides the world into western culture, three religions, a Chinese philosophy (in a country ruled by communists), a continent, a country, and possibly another continent. The existence of Africa apparently confused the once-time director of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.

Samuel “P for Prick” Huntington (spit) argued that Islam and the West (apparently not defined by Christianity) have been in a continual cultural clash, and will invariably struggle against one another in the post-Soviet world.

Trump has unburied the Clash of Civilizations argument and stitched it into the nonsensical monstrosity of his platform, synthesizing it with so many other terrible moments in U.S. history ranging from internment to immigration blockades. Trump is the amalgamation of every sin the United States has committed. The argument itself is an insult to all of us.

The Clash of Civilizations argument requires the essentializing of both Western and predominantly Muslim states, as well as the reduction of 1.5 billion Muslims to a pre-packaged cultural image. There are many underlying assumptions here: that there are no Muslims in the west (false), that Islam is incompatible with the west (false), and that all western citizens fall into another pre-packaged image (false). In order for the Clash of Civilizations argument to work, every single American has to look, think, and act a certain way.

I believe Trump is the kind of American Huntington (spit) had in mind. A vote for Trump is a vote for our tarnished past. A vote for Trump is a vote for the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment, a militarized borderland, corporate colonization of Native lands, unsound control of personal privacy, and a legislated bigotry against Muslims that will only isolate Muslims globally, providing vulnerable populations for terrorist organizations to recruit from. A vote for Trump is a vote for Samuel P. Huntington (spit).

The world is not divided into a handful of civilizations. The world is a malleable collage of cultures, languages, religions, identities, all merging and overlapping. We need not clash. It is not inevitable, but a rhetoric of violent domination, surveillance, and authoritarianism will result in more bloodshed. Propaganda always results in violence, and Trump’s call for halting Muslims from entering the country is simply anti-Muslim propaganda. Propaganda against the United States contributes to violence against American citizens, just as propaganda against Planned Parenthood contributes to violence against doctors and patients, just as propaganda against Muslims contributes to violence against Muslims, and at the dizzying epicenter are the instigators of that propaganda, a historiography of hatred stretching back centuries.

We do not need to repeat history. We should strive to be better than our past. It’s not that hard to do if we pause and recognize that we are not chess pieces engaged in unending struggle. We are humans, insurmountably flawed but invariably changeable, improvable, and far more complex than the caricatures dripping out of what I will politely call Donald Trump’s mouth.

-jk