Tag Archives: History

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

1917: The July Scandals

Eastern Front 1917

Russian soldiers held captive by the German military in Poland, July, 1917. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

By summer in 1917, the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet were stuck in gridlock in the capitol, and Russia continued to lose ground and soldiers’ lives in the Great War. Meanwhile, Bolshevik influence had grown in response to the stagnant leadership of Alexander Kerensky. On July 16, demonstrations against that stagnation began as striking workers and mutinying soldiers took to the streets of Petrograd (again), and Bolshevik involvement and scapegoating led to the arrest of Leon Trotsky and the exile of Vladimir Lenin (again). These protests, known as the July Days, were largely a response to the failed July Offensive, or the Kerensky Offensive, earlier that month, which was a setback for the Russian military (again).

The July Days are often called a turning point in the Russian Revolution, a moment when it became clear that the inertia of the Provisional Government meant bloodshed abroad and hunger at home. However, the July Days occurred amidst the political chaos of the summer of 1917, between the scandal of Kerensky’s rise to power and his decision to recommit to the War, the Bolshevik attempt to organize Soviets while maintaining party loyalty amid party in-fighting, and a coup in August against the Provisional Government known as the Kornilov Affair. The July Days were part of an ongoing political inertia that tended toward reinstating old forms of violence.

Trotsky, in his memoir, describes the events leading up to the July Days, writing that “a declaration that I had submitted concerning Kerensky’s preparation for an offensive at the front was read by the Bolshevik faction at the congress of the Soviets. We had pointed out that the offensive was an adventure that threatened the very existence of the army” (Trotsky).  The Bolsheviks’ opposition to the war would be vindicated after the Kerensky Offensive proved unsuccessful. Between July 1 and July 19, several Russian military units initially made advances toward  the western Ukrainian city Lviv, but German and Austo-Hungarian forces gradually repelled them, prompting a retreat beyond the previous Russian line. By the end of the offensive, the Russians “fell back more than a hundred kilometers” (Storey 127).

The Kerensky Offensive damaged the military’s already waning morale, and was a political disaster for Kerensky, precipitating more mutiny and disorder in the army. Russian soldiers and citizens alike turned against Kerensky during the Offensive, sparking the days-long demonstrations in July. The Bolsheviks were hesitant to support the protests, but quickly endorsed them when they began. The All-Russian Congress of Soviets had made clear in their demands that they wanted “democratization of the army” and “the earliest conclusion of a general peace without annexation, indemnity, and on the basis of self-determination,” which became an increasingly popular set of demands after the Kerensky Offensive. Furthermore, Bolshevik membership rose “from 80,000 in April to 200,000” by August (Treadgold & Ellison 102), but in the wake of the July Days, other scandals damaged the Bolsheviks as well.

The demonstrations were unsuccessful, in part because Russian military units pulled from the front were sent to quell the protests, and fired upon violent demonstrators, resulting in civilian casualties in the hundreds (again). Around this time, the Provisional Government accused Lenin of being a German spy, and the accusation was based on fairly compelling evidence. In April, Lenin had arrived in Russia with several other politically exiled Russians on a sealed train from Switzerland. The trip was funded by the German government as a military tactic, hoping that Lenin’s revolutionary leadership and anti-war agenda would convince the post-Tsar government to withdraw. The Kerensky government announced it would investigate Lenin’s German funding, and the crowds turned. Loyalists raided the leftist magazine Pravda‘s headquarters, and Lenin went into hiding when “it was revealed that he was receiving financial support from the German government” (Keegan 339). In the raid on Pravda and other Bolshevik strongholds, authorities “attempted to arrest the leaders–but caught only Anatole Lunacharsky, the mildest of them, and Trotsky” (Treadgold & Ellison 101). The Bolsheviks now had damaged reputations and no leadership in the capital.

The Kerensky government was weakened by its failed military offensive, and Kerensky’s opposition was weakened by political scandals involving Lenin’s connection to an enemy regime. By August, the unstable Provisional Government would face a coup from within its own military led by General Lavr Kornilov, and Kerensky would have to free Bolshevik political prisoners, including Trotsky, in order to sustain his almost vanished good standing with the Petrograd Soviet. But in July, 1917, the situation in Petrograd seemed frustratingly repetitive, with a heavy-handed leader responding to protests with arrests and military force, and a bloody setback on the Eastern Front. Where Russia would find itself next was not the question. The real question was whether or not Russia would go anywhere at all.

Keegan, John. The First world War. Vintage Books, 2000.

Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

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


1917: The Peasants Go to Petrograd


Peasant, Victor Vasnetsov, 1878.

Discussion of the Russian Revolution tends to focus on Petrograd and urban workers. Almost from the beginning of the February Revolution, the Soviets and Provisional Government directed most of their energy toward those striking in the capital or the military.

Alexander Kerensky, a centrist leader between February and October, writes in his 1927 account of the Revolution, The Catastrophe, that no “mention of [the land] is to be found in the declaration of the Provisional Government made public on the day of its assumption  of office” and that it was not until April 2 that “the Provisional Government promulgated its agrarian reform, which was to give all the land into the hands of those who worked it” (Kerensky 121-122). He then quickly moves on to discuss industrial reforms.

Lenin and Trotsky were divided about the role Russian peasantry would play in a socialist revolution. Trotsky did not want to count on peasants to unite alongside workers. On the other hand, in his April Theses, Lenin contends that “the class-conscious proletariat can give its consent to a revolutionary war” only if “the power passes to the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants aligned with the proletariat” (Lenin). He also called for the nationalization of all land. It is important to note, however, that Lenin’s emphasis is on the power of the workers and peasants united, which suggests he did not see them as a unified class but as two separate categories. The distinction between worker and peasant was taken for granted in 1917, in part because of the peasantry’s history.

Donald Treadgold and Herbert Ellison note that in “1900, 80 to 90% of the Russian people were peasants” who had, since the medieval period, been subjugated to serfdom (20). Tsar Alexander II initiated sweeping economic and agrarian reforms, including the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, and that “at that time the Russian peasants were liberated either from private landlords, to whom about half of them had been in virtual personal bondage, or from the state, which controlled the other half” (20). Despite the 1861 emancipation, two years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, Russian peasants remained tied by debt and poverty to communes and landowners, much like the development of the American South’s economy after slavery, which utilized debt peonage  and Jim Crow laws as another form of bondage.

The Russian government in the nineteenth century exerted bureaucratic organization over the post-serfdom peasantries across the empire. Specifically, three years after emancipation, peasants were organized into zemstvos. A zemstvo was “an elective body instituted in 34 provinces within European Russia in 1864, empowered with certain local administrative responsibilities and assigned limited taxing authority but were nevertheless still controlled largely by landed gentry (Miller 6).

In other words, after emancipation, Russian peasants were granted a means of local self-regulation, almost a kind of proto-Soviet, but because this means came from the top-down, it was more a way to appease peasants rather than give them any real power. Still “at the mercy not only of meteorological factors as they affected harvests, but also of the equally unpredictable predatory depredations of local officials” (130), Russian peasants lived 53 years under a new, more covertly oppressive system until 1917 when more radical reforms were possible. Nevertheless, because peasants had not participated in the February Revolution in a city whose leaders had a history of giving peasants one freedom in exchange for new forms of exploitation, there was a clear divide between workers, striking in Petrograd, and peasants, growing food for the war that never seemed to end.

A 1909 book entitled The Terror in Russia: An Appeal to the British Nation details the Tsardom’s ruthlessness, including the “drastic measures” taken as a response to “a famine in several provinces of European Russia” (Kropotkin 70). These measures allowed for “a wholesale flogging of the peasants, men and women alike. . . in order to obtain the arrears” of peasants who, because of the famine, were behind on debts owed to landowners (70-71). The famine itself is more important to note, because the response of the government outweighed any potential protection peasants’ zemstvos might have offered. By 1917, the situation had not changed, because the system had not changed.

Peasants grew restless in the countryside waiting for Petrograd’s dual power to enact real reforms, but many peasants participated in the smaller revolutionary acts of organization and asserting their collective authority. Just as workers’ Soviets emerged, many peasants’ Soviets formed as well. In May of 1917, the leftist-dominated All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies met in Petrograd to represent the interests of peasants, though in part the meeting reemphasized the sense of alienation that many politically minded peasants felt. Nothing constructive had come from the Tsar’s reforms, the Provisional Government was stalled except to continue the war effort, and the Bolsheviks, who promised land redistribution, had made little progress.

The vast majority of imperial Russia’s population was not entirely neglected by the Revolution, but because of a long history of poverty, rural isolation, and top-down oppression coupled with a Marxist investment in industrial workers over rural workers, peasants had a difficult time making their desires known, if those desires could actually be expressed in a uniform way. Peasants’ Soviets could only make so much noise in the ongoing political crisis that took place, almost daily, in the Russian capital.

Kerensky, Alexander. The Catastrophe. D. Appleton and Company, 1927.

Kropotkin, Peter. The Terror in Russia. Methuen & Co., 1909.

Lenin, Vladimir. “April Theses,” in Pravda No. 26, April 7, 1917.

Miller, Burton Richard. Rural Unrest during the First Russian Revolution. CEU Press, 2013.

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