Tag Archives: History

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.

 

 

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.

Imagining the Frontier Before Drawing It

“Up to our own day, American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.” -Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893

“Like many historians, Turner was interpreting the past in light of recent events. This presentism had great benefits and also great risks. History was bound to to go on. . . Turner himself moved on. In his later essays, he kept adding ‘more history’ as it accumulated. . .” -Patricia Nelson Limerick, 1987


On February 19, 1807, Vice President Aaron Burr was captured after escaping his earlier arrest when President Jefferson accused him of treason for his role in a conspiracy to colonize parts of Mexico. Seven days later, on February 26, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and the members of his expedition into the Southwest (which Jefferson ordered) were captured by Spanish authorities and taken to Chihuahua, then under Spanish control. He used the opportunity to analyze New Spain’s weaknesses for the possibility that the US would try to colonize parts of Mexico. The American Frontier, as Turner insists in his “Frontier Thesis,” shaped American historiography, but in 1807, what became the frontier was a highly militarized border zone.

The Pike Expedition began the year Lewis and Clark returned from their own expedition to the Northwest. Exploring modern-day Colorado, Pike lost members to abandonment or bad weather while wandering across the porous border into Mexico.

In his journals, Pike kept careful account of what he encountered, gathering information about local governments and geography. On their way to Chihuahua, Pike notes on March 27 that he “saw the Gazettes of Mexico, which gave rumors of colonel Burr’s conspiracies, the movement of our troops. . . stated in so vague and undefined a manner, as only to create our anxiety without throwing any light on the subject” (Pike, Journals, 240). He later notes on April 24 that he was reprimanded for discussing “subjects of religion or politics” but that he was held as a guest “under coercion of the Spanish government” and not as a prisoner of war. Pike then writes that he patriotically declared to Spanish authorities (over dinner with them): “To my government I am certainly responsible, and to no other” (246).

Because he was so dedicated to his government, Pike ended his 1810 account of his expedition by offering one final conclusion about US-Mexico relations:

Should an army of Americans ever march into the country, and be guided and governed there by these maxims, they will only have to march from province to province in triumph, and be hailed by the united voices of grateful millions as their deliverers and saviors” (Pike, Expedition, 806). As Vice President Dick Cheney put it two centuries later, “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” This is how the US framed the frontier at the beginning of the nineteenth century: as a foreign nation in need of democracy and order.

Spanish colonial officers were suspicious of Pike’s discussions of politics with the locals because they feared that the US, which had separated from the English crown, would inspire Mexico to separate from the Spanish crown, as independence became increasingly popular in the region. Coupled with vague rumors that rogue US politicians planned to conquer sections of North America for themselves, the Spanish authorities had good reason to be suspicious. In 1810, independence movements spiraled into nationalist protests and a bloody war, forcing Spain to grant Mexican independence in 1821. Years later, the US would follow Pike’s advice and invade Texas and northern Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846. Unlike Pike predicted, though, the US military was not greeted as liberators.

Meanwhile, Aaron Burr and his compatriots were punished for trying to instigate exactly what Pike recommended. Jefferson’s exertion of control over who could, and who could not, conquer parts of New Spain demonstrates his role in creating the concept of the “American frontier” as a strategic borderland, rather than a raw, untamed wilderness.

New Western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick notes that the “opening of the Mexican borderlands to American colonists and merchants made the region into what it remains today: a true frontier, in the European sense, in which two nations confront each other and compete for control” (228). She goes on to detail Burr’s plot, alongside General James Wilkinson, to colonize parts of the continent and create a new nation using the available resources, admitting that when “Zebulon Pike set out to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas River in 1806, he might have been acting as Wilkinson’s agent” (229).

Intelligence about the borders of New Spain, then, became part of the ideological basis for the American frontier. The distance between Arkansas and Chihuahua was labeled the frontier because it was a borderland rather than a boundary, like the no-man’s land between trenches on the Western Front in World War One. Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” says more about how Americans viewed themselves in the 1890s than in the 1810s. The frontier was framed as contested territory. By the time Turner delivered his thesis, there was no longer a contest in federal or popular imagination.

But the frontier was also about quantification. First, the US had to map, measure, and count everything available in the frontier space, to determine where the gold, silver, copper, fur, timber, coal, and indigenous communities could be found, and where they could be removed to. Knowledge of the land preceded the frontier, rather than the other way around. This is the way American contradiction manifests in the frontier thesis: Americans wanted to discover land that had already been discovered, to be given access to the land they were told to imagine. A blank map could not be tolerated. It had to be filled out.


Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Legacy of Conquest. W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Pike, Zebulon. The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Harper, 1895.

Pike, Zebulon. The Southwestern Journals of Zebulon Pike, Ed. Stephen Hart & Archer Hulbert. University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In The Early Writings of Frederick Jackson Turner, Ed. Everett E. Edwards, University of Wisconsin Press, 1938.

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.

 

1917: All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Eastern Front 1914

Russian troops on the Eastern Front, 1914.

On December 17, 1917 (December 4 in the Old Russian calendar), an armistice between the Central Powers and the Bolshevik government in Russia began, temporarily ending a long and bloody German advance and initiating peace negotiations between Russia and the Central Powers. Though official peace through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk would not take effect for another three months, Russia was essentially out of the Great War, almost a year after anti-war protests in Petrograd led to the February Revolution. Meanwhile, the ill-reported Russian Civil War between the Red Army and the White Army was only just beginning. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

The conflict was a civil war as well as a proxy war. The Reds constituted the Bolsheviks and their allies. The Whites were an amalgamation of pro-monarchists, proto-fascists hoping to establish a military dictatorship, moderate leftists opposed to communism, and troops from the Allied Powers, all of whom wanted to prevent a socialist regime from succeeding. Months earlier, the Allies had praised the Tsar’s abdication, and the US had been the first to recognize the post-Tsarist government. Now, as the revolution pushed Russia out of the war, the Allies directed their praise elsewhere.

The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, found themselves isolated, their new government shaky, threatened by violence from all sides. The Civil War lasted from late 1917 (or 1918, depending upon which historiography one chooses) to 1922, ending just two years before Lenin’s death. Trotsky’s 1920 book Terrorism and Communism offers an instructive perspective into this period. In Chapter Four, Trotsky examines the American Civil War as an example of state-sanctioned terrorism from both sides, including Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and the repressive violence in the Confederacy against pro-Union sentiments. Trotsky describes Confederate vigilantes running a campaign of terror against those in the Southern States who were seen as disloyal to the South, which he compares to the terror employed by the White Army, writing that the situation in the South was “extremely reminiscent of the scenes which day by day took place in the camps of Denikin, Kolchak, Yudenich, and the other heroes of Anglo-Franco-American ‘democracy'” (Trotsky).

One figure he lists, Alexander Kolchak, is notable for his temporary military dictatorship in Siberia, the Civil War’s Eastern Front. Kolchak was a former admiral in the Russian Navy who, shortly after the October Revolution, joined the White faction in Siberia known as the “directory.” As the White Army became more authoritarian, Kolchak’s supporters overthrew the directory and established a military dictatorship on November 18, 1918, seven days after the armistice in Europe. Kolchak appointed himself “supreme ruler and commander-in-chief” of a White faction in Omsk, Siberia, creating the kind of regime Kornilov failed to make in August, 1917. Under Kolchak, political opponents were imprisoned, peasants were exploited, and unarmed civilians were shot by the hundreds, all to support the White Army. David Fogelsong points out the degree to which the US supported such leaders, writing that with “support from the State Department, the Treasury Department, and the White House, the Russian embassy was able to send millions of dollars of supplies to White forces in the Russian Civil War, particularly those in Siberia” (Fogelsong 69).

The state of Russia between 1918 and 1922 was disconnected and malleable. Mark Steinberg’s description is particularly useful: “But the civil war was a more complex and varied experience than this simple binary of Red versus White suggests. The history of the civil war included terrorism and armed struggle by Socialist Revolutionaries, anarchists, and socialists opposed to both Bolshevik ‘dictatorship’ and the return of right-wing dictatorship that the Whites seemed to represent; ‘Green’ armies of peasants who fought against both Reds and Whites, mainly depending on who presented the greater immediate threat to their autonomy” were among those involved (97). The Russian Civil War more closely resembled Balkanization between ideologically opposed factions funded by competing stakeholders, comparable to Iraq and Syria today. The Reds met counter-revolutionary violence with pro-revolutionary terror in their effort to hold the country together. Trotsky’s comparison to the American Civil War is justified, then, as well as instructive: the successful regime employed violence in much the same way the defeated faction did, ending life to preserve it.

Giorgio Agamben writes that the First World War “coincided with a permanent state of exception in the majority of warring countries” (12), so much so that he describes the period following the War as “a laboratory for testing and honing the mechanisms and apparatuses of the state of exception as a paradigm of government” (6) in which governments utilize “states of emergency” to exert tightly-crafted control over populations so that, gradually, the defense of democracy from external or internal threats can only succeed with the suspension of democratic institutions. Trotsky’s description of the American Civil War, and of political terror in general, is stunningly close to Agamben’s analysis of the same conflict.

Continuing in Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky writes that the “degree of ferocity of the struggle depends on a series of internal and international circumstances. The more ferocious and dangerous is the resistance of the class enemy who have been overthrown, the more inevitably does the system of repression take the form of a system of terror” (Trotsky). He justifies state-sanctioned terror because it matches and counters the terror of the White Army, evident in Kolchak and others. This is, notably, the exact same logic the United States uses to justify torture, drone strikes, and military invasions in the “war on terror.” Agamben’s theorized state of exception, though, is also evident in the rule of the Tsars. Nicholas II and Tsars before him utilized violence to control the terror that anarchists created in the nineteenth century through their attempts to assassinate Russian monarchs using explosives. From both Trotsky and Agamben, we can observe that political violence invites further political violence, resistance invites counter-resistance, and fear invites oppression.

It is tragic, then, that the majority of people who sided with the Bolsheviks wanted an end to the violence of the Great War and its imperial regime. They got what they wanted, hard-fought and seized from ruthless power brokers in the monarchy and its constellation of landlords. But the Great War ended without ceasing, always lingering over the rest of the twentieth century.

If World War One was fought by empires, colonialists, and alliances between the two, these systems arguably sustained themselves after Armistice. Empires and colonists worked together to create what Agamben calls a permanent state of exception, which the Red Army wanted earnestly to oppose. Empires and colonists likewise worked together to end the Revolution, and in so doing, dragged the Revolution into their own system, so that in order to preserve itself, the USSR chose to employ imperialism and colonialism, in Hungary, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan. The same can be said of Britain, France, and the US, who exercised imperialism and colonialism in Egypt, Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, and Afghanistan. The tragedy is that the Bolsheviks invited a permanent state of exception into their anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist regime.

Agamben’s assessment of the Great War explains the development of Stalinism as a post-war phenomenon, rather than a mutant strain of Leninism. Rather, just as emergency powers and the war on terror are the suspension of democracy in democracy’s defense, Stalinism can be seen as the suspension of Leninism in Leninism’s defense against the White Army, both an external and internal threat.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was overshadowed by the fragmentation of Russia. For a moment, though, there was a temporary peace, or at least the hope for something longer lasting than an armistice. That hope for a lasting peace has haunted a peaceless world for ninety-nine years. A peaceful world is unlikely to emerge by next year’s hundredth anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars. But what do we actually gain by giving up and giving into cynicism? Peace is elusive and unsustainable, a moving target. Haven’t we had centuries of target practice already?


Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Fogelsong, David. America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism. University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Steinberg, Mark D. The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921. Oxford University Press, 2017.

1917: To Free Russia

Four Horseman of the Apocalypse

Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, Viktor Vasnetsov, 1887.

The American journalist and socialist John Reed, who went to Russia to cover the revolution, interviewed Alexander Kerensky in late 1917, though the interview was published in The Liberator in 1918, after the October Revolution, which may have shaped its publication. Kerensky’s role as the de facto of the Provisional Government, a political body formed to stabilize the country in the wake of the February Revolution. Kerensky took power in spring, survived a coup and military defeats in summer, and by autumn he had come to embody the political and economic stagnation that led many Russians to revolt against Tsar Nicholas II in the first place. Kerensky continued the war effort (with disastrous results), censored critics by shutting down newspaper presses, exiled Bolsheviks whom he then appealed to for help after the failed Kornilov coup, and devoted most of his energy to sustaining his government at the cost of reforms and peace.

Reed writes of the interview that, as of its writing on “October 23, Kerensky is alone. . . In the midst of the class-struggle, which deepens and grows bitterer and bitterer every day, his place becomes more and more precarious” (Reed). Noting that Kerensky has become a symbol of the revolution’s failure for the working classes and a symbol of the failed war effort for the Allies, Reed adds grimly that “Kerensky will fall, and his fall will be the signal for civil war.”

It is interesting to note Reed’s carefully sympathetic treatment of Kerensky, presenting him as optimistic but naive. At one point in the interview, he asks Kerensky what he thinks his “purpose” is in the Provisional Government, to which he responds, “Just to free Russia.” This statement contrasts his continued, if not obsessive, involvement in World War One as well as his stagnant approach to Russia’s colonies, from Ukraine to Chechnya, from Scandinavia to Central Asia, vying for autonomy after centuries of Tsarist control.

Russia’s colonies fared variously, if not disproportionately, between February and October under the Provisional Government. Treadgold and Ellison note that historically, the “tsars had recognized no such entity as Ukraine. During the nineteenth century Ukrainian intellectuals had gathered to work for the cause of their new nationalism” (Treadgold & Ellison 108), and that the Provisional Government halfheartedly recognized but questioned an autonomous Ukraine. Central Asian communities pushed for greater autonomy as well. In May, 1917, an all-Russian Muslim Congress organized and met in Moscow, where they “proclaimed the emancipation of Muslim women, and established a religious administration independent of state control for all Russian Islam” (110), viewing the revolution as an opportunity to reevaluate and reaffirm post-Tsarist identities.

Historically, the Tsarist regime exercised a frontier settler colonialism, comparable to the settler colonialism the US exerted over Native American land, with similar tensions. In 1916, an “anti-Russian uprising took place” between Kazakhs in modern-day Kazakhstan and Russian colonists, “which the Russian tsarist military suppressed brutally, forcing some 300,000 Kazakhs to flee” into China (Peimani 124). While this kind of behavior was typical of imperial Russia, Kerensky’s hesitation to grant full autonomy was perceived by many Kazakhs, among others, as a continuation of the old guard. The bloodletting between Russian settlers and Kazakhs returning from China continued well into 1917, long after Kerensky stepped in to free Russia.

Russia’s southern colonies were not at the forefront of revolutionary discussions. Even the Bolsheviks did not explicitly prioritize the autonomy of Central Asian territories. In his 1916 essay “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Lenin writes that “Russian Socialists who fail to demand freedom of secession for Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, etc. etc.–are behaving like chauvinists, like lackeys of the blood-and-mud-stained monarchies and the imperial bourgeoisie” (Lenin), and though Kazakhs, Chechans, Tartars, and other Central Asian groups might be included in Lenin’s use of “etc. etc.,” and though their freedom is logically consistent with Lenin’s argument from the same essay that “Imperialism is the highest stage of development of capitalism,” their absence is disappointingly consistent with the attitude of most Russian revolutionaries at the time.

It is certainly consistent with the attitude Kerensky had toward Russia’s colonial borders, who were not wholly unrepresented in the Soviets, but their calls for autonomy were overridden and often ignored. Kerensky’s Provisional Government was intended to restore order, which for starving urban workers was at least briefly productive. But for displaced, colonized peoples, restored order meant a reinstatement of the colonial status quo. And the bloodletting, much like the war, continued.

John Reed writes that Kerensky called himself a “doomed man” in late October, while simultaneously claiming his role was to free Russia. To free Russia from what? Himself? The stalled change he oversaw? The war he perpetuated? If Reed’s portrayal is accurate, Kerensky became a variation of his own stagnation, able to recognize that he, like his regime, was temporary, even doomed. That his fall would precipitate the Russian Civil War, which it eventually did.

Did Kerensky know he would fall? Did he think he could sustain the Russia he presided over? Did he believe he could save Russia by remaining in power, or did he believe that he could save it by finally beginning to dismantle the state’s violence after three years of war and three centuries of imperialism? What does it take to show political leaders that they are poisonous to the countries they oversee? Kerensky, like most inept, corrupt, or failed leaders, chose to stay in power, and the ensuing frustration with what was perceived as his cryptic neo-tsarism precipitated the October Revolution, not an act of taking power but recreating it where it was stalled, stored, rendered useless beyond repair.


Peimani, Hooman. Conflict and Security in Central Asia and the Caucuses. ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2009.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000