Got Burr?

A comedic follow up to Paul’s  post here on Alexander Hamilton.  Alternate history has always fascinated me.  What if Hamilton hadn’t been killed by Burr at that fateful duel on July 11, 1804?  Could he have led a revival of the Federalist Party?  Would he have finally achieved his lifelong ambition of military glory in the War of 1812?  If he had become a national hero in the War of 1812, would I now be blogging about President Hamilton?  So many possibilities snuffed out by the well aimed pistol of the worthless Burr.

Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 6:19 am  Comments Off on Got Burr?  
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We’ll Fight For Uncle Sam

Something for the weekend.  We’ll Fight For Uncle Sam sung to the tune Whiskey in the Jar.  A nice tribute to the Irish volunteers who were a mainstay of the Union Army of the Potomac.  The song is also celebratory of George Brinton McClellan who led the Army of the Potomac in 1861-62.  Little Mac was a good organizer and he made sure his men were well fed and clothed.  He took care of his men and they were fond of him as a result.  Unfortunately, though not a bad strategist, he was a lousy battlefield commander.  During the battles of the Seven Days, although McClellan outnumbered the Confederates under Lee, he allowed Lee to take the initiative and force him back from Richmond.  At Antietam, in spite of enjoying better than two to one odds,  McClellan’s uncoordinated attacks blew a prime opportunity for the Army of the Potomac to destroy Lee’s army.  As a battlefield commander McClellan was worse than having no commander at all. (more…)

Published in: on February 27, 2010 at 5:31 am  Comments Off on We’ll Fight For Uncle Sam  
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James Madison on Secession


James Madison in his old age lived through the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833.  He was against nullification and secession, which he saw lurking clearly in the background of the Crisis.  As the author of the Virginia Resolution of 1798 which contended that Congress had no power to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts, Madison had his own words thrown back at him, and he took pains in his letters to explain the differences between his Virginia Resolution and the revolution South Carolina was attempting to initiate.  I find his words on secession to be of great interest in light of the battle over the right to secede fought after Madison was long in his grave.  Here is a letter to Nicholas Trist on December 23, 1832 in which Madison makes his position clear.


Montpellier, Decr 23, 1832.

Dr. Sir I have received yours of the 19th, inclosing some of the South Carolina papers. There are in one of them some interesting views of the doctrine of secession; one that had occurred to me, and which for the first time I have seen in print; namely that if one State can at will withdraw from the others, the others can at will withdraw from her, and turn her, nolentem, volentem, out of the union. Until of late, there is not a State that would have abhorred such a doctrine more than South Carolina, or more dreaded an application of it to herself. The same may be said of the doctrine of nullification, which she now preaches as the only faith by which the Union can be saved.

I partake of the wonder that the men you name should view secession in the light mentioned. The essential difference between a free Government and Governments not free, is that the former is founded in compact, the parties to which are mutually and equally bound by it. Neither of them therefore can have a greater fight to break off from the bargain, than the other or others have to hold them to it. And certainly there is nothing in the Virginia resolutions of –98, adverse to this principle, which is that of common sense and common justice. The fallacy which draws a different conclusion from them lies in confounding a single party, with the parties to the Constitutional compact of the United States. The latter having made the compact may do what they will with it. The former as one only of the parties, owes fidelity to it, till released by consent, or absolved by an intolerable abuse of the power created. In the Virginia Resolutions and Report the plural number, States, is in every instance used where reference is made to the authority which presided over the Government. As I am now known to have drawn those documents, I may say as I do with a distinct recollection, that the distinction was intentional. It was in fact required by the course of reasoning employed on the occasion. The Kentucky resolutions being less guarded have been more easily perverted. The pretext for the liberty taken with those of Virginia is the word respective, prefixed to the “rights” &c to be secured within the States. Could the abuse of the expression have been foreseen or suspected, the form of it would doubtless have been varied. But what can be more consistent with common sense, than that all having the same rights &c, should unite in contending for the security of them to each.

It is remarkable how closely the nullifiers who make the name of Mr. Jefferson the pedestal for their colossal heresy, shut their eyes and lips, whenever his authority is ever so clearly and emphatically against them. You have noticed what he says in his letters to Monroe & Carrington Pages 43 & 203, vol. 2,1 with respect to the powers of the old Congress to coerce delinquent States, and his reasons for preferring for the purpose a naval to a military force; and moreover that it was not necessary to find a right to coerce in the Federal Articles, that being inherent in the nature of a compact. It is high time that the claim to secede at will should be put down by the public opinion; and I shall be glad to see the task commenced by one who understands the subject.

I know nothing of what is passing at Richmond, more than what is seen in the newspapers. You were right in your foresight of the effect of the passages in the late Proclamation. They have proved a leaven for much fermentation there, and created an alarm against the danger of consolidation, balancing that of disunion. I wish with you the Legislature may not seriously injure itself by assuming the high character of mediator. They will certainly do so if they forget that their real influence will be in the inverse ratio of a boastful interposition of it.

If you can fix, and will name the day of your arrival at Orange Court House, we will have a horse there for you; and if you have more baggage than can be otherwise brought than on wheels, we will send such a vehicle for it. Such is the state of the roads produced by the wagons hurrying flour to market, that it may be impossible to send our carriage which would answer both purposes.

Published in: on February 26, 2010 at 6:44 am  Comments (9)  
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Cotton Mather and Inoculation


Cotton Mather  in many ways represents some of the worst traits of the Puritans who ruled Massachusetts in the Seventeenth Century: fanatical, severe, dogmatic, usually blind to any side of an issue other than his own.   Completely unrepentant of his role in the Salem Witch Trials, Mather generally cuts a poor figure in early American history.  However, not always.  Narrow in most of his views, Mather possessed a good mind and a questioning spirit when dealing with issues outside of his religious beliefs. 

In 1706 Onesimus, a slave, explained to Mather how he had been inoculated against small pox as a boy in Africa.  When a smallpox epidemic hit Boston in 1721, Mather encouraged Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to try the procedure.  Boylston performed inoculations of cowpox on his own son and two slaves.  They all recovered in a week.  James Franklin, Ben Franklin’s older brother, in the New England Courant, published article after article denouncing inoculation and so inflamed public opinion that the selectmen of Boston banned the procedure.  (James Franklin was a chronic bomb thrower who loved nothing better than to whip up turmoil and thus to sell more issues of his paper.  He and Ben did not get along.)  Boylston’s life was in danger, and a hand grenade was thrown into Mather’s house for his championing inoculation and sheltering a clergyman who had undergone inoculation.  Stubborn as always, Mather remained an ardent supporter of inoculation.  Boylston fled to England, published his findings, and was elected to the Royal Society in 1726.  Mather died in 1728, as unrepentant about championing inoculation as he was in regard to the Salem Witch Trials.



Published in: on February 25, 2010 at 6:49 am  Comments Off on Cotton Mather and Inoculation  
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Jefferson: Science, Progress and Permanent Revolution

This will be the final post in my series on the political thought of Thomas Jefferson.  We have explored some of the key tenets of his political philosophy, and now we will see how they all fit together to mold what was a very radical vision of society.

In a letter to Benjamin Waterhouse, dated March 3, 1818, Jefferson wrote:

When I contemplate the immense advances in sciences and discoveries in the arts which have been made within the period of my life, I look forward with confidence to equal advances by the present generation, and have no doubt they will consequently be as much wiser than we have been as we than our fathers were, and they than the burners of witches.[1] (more…)

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 9:39 pm  Comments Off on Jefferson: Science, Progress and Permanent Revolution  
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The Horse Soldiers

One of the few Hollywood films to deal with actual combat operations in the Civil War, The Horse Soldiers (1959) is based on Harold Sinclair’s novel, and a first rate novel it is I might add, The Horse Soldiers (1956), a fictionalized account of Grierson’s raid in 1863. 

Perhaps the most daring and successful Union cavaly raid of the war, Brigadier General Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher who, after being bitten by a horse at a young age, hated horses, led 1700 Illinois and Iowa troopers through 600 miles of Confederate territory from southern Tennessee to the Union held Baton Rouge.  Grierson and his men ripped up railroads, burned Confederate supplies and tied down many times their number of Confederate troops and succeeded in giving Grant a valuable diversion as he began his movement against Vicksburg. 

John Wayne gives a fine, if surly, performance as Colonel Marlowe, the leader of the Union cavalry brigade.  William Holden as a Union surgeon serves as a foil for Wayne.  Constance Towers, as a captured Southern belle, supplies the obligatory Hollywood love interest.

Overall the film isn’t a bad treatment of the raid, and the period.  I especially appreciated two scenes.  John Wayne refers to his pre-war activities as “Before this present insanity” and Constance Towers gives an impassioned speech in which she refers to the Union soldiers as thieves in blue and motherless scum.  Both scenes ring home with authenticity.  Not a bad effort from the usual history manglers of Hollywood.

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 7:01 am  Comments Off on The Horse Soldiers  
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The Preamble

From Schoolhouse Rock.  For those preferring a more dramatic, or histrionic, reading:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.


Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 5:03 am  Comments Off on The Preamble  
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Alternate Georges

On the birthday of the Father of Our Country it is proper to take a moment and reflect that in all likelihood the United States of America would not exist today but for the leadership shown by George Washington during the Revolution.  The poets Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet explored long ago some of the many different paths the life of Washington might have taken which would have altered our history so profoundly.  We call Washington the Father of Our Country not to honor him, but as a simple statement of fact.

George Washington by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benét

Sing hey! For bold George Washington,

That jolly British tar,

King George’s famous admiral

From Hull to Zanzibar!

No–wait a minute–something’s wrong–

George wished to sail the foam.

But, when his mother thought aghast,

Of Georgie shinning up a mast,

Her tears and protests flowed so fast

That George remained at home.

Sing ho! For grave Washington,

The staid Virginia squire,

Who farms his fields and hunts his hounds

And aims at nothing higher!

Stop, stop it’s going wrong again!

George liked to live on farms,

But when the Colonies agreed

They could and should and would be freed,

They called on George to do the deed

And George cried “Shoulder arms!”

Sing ha! For Emperor Washington,

That hero of renown,

Who freed his land from Britain’s rule

To win a golden crown!

No, no, that’s what George might have won

But didn’t for he said,

“There’s not much point about a king,

They’re pretty but they’re apt to sting

And, as for crowns–the heavy thing

Would only hurt my head.”

Sing ho! For our George Washington!

(At last I’ve got it straight.)

The first in war, the first in peace,

The goodly and the great.

But, when you think about him now,

From here to Valley Forge,

Remember this–he might have been

A highly different specimen,

And, where on earth would we be, then?

I’m glad that George was George.

Published in: on February 22, 2010 at 5:40 am  Comments Off on Alternate Georges  

Gettysburg 1938

A video montage of coverage of the 75th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in 1938.  Seeing Union and Confederate veterans, some 1800 gathered,  jointly observing the anniversary is touching and brings home something very good about this country.  Most countries that go through a domestic bloodletting like the Civil War never really recover from it.  The passions unleashed are passed down like precious heirlooms from generation to generation leaving a legacy of hate that poisons a nation’s life.  America largely escaped that fate as the video above indicates.

FDR dedicated a monument at Gettysburg on this occasion which he accepted “in the spirit of brotherhood and peace”.  In America even a fratricidal Civil War ultimately became something that unfied us in common memories as the years rolled by.  I believe it was the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismark who remarked that God looks after fools, drunks and the United States of America.  He meant it unkindly of course, but in regard to our Civil War and its legacy, I think it is a sober assessment.

Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 6:09 am  Comments Off on Gettysburg 1938  
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The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Something for the weekend.  The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.  Not period music of course, but few songs better evoke the despair of Confederates in the aftermath of defeat.  The above version is the original one sung by The Band.  Here is the version that became the signature song of Joan Baez.

Published in: on February 20, 2010 at 6:01 am  Comments Off on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down  
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