Washington Post Article on Lone Star Republic Diplomacy

The Washington Post has a great article on Texas diplomacy in the United States, when Texas was a country.


Happy Veterans Day

Happy Veterans Day, and thank you to all the vets who have served our country.

An excellent history of the holiday is available on the Veterans Affairs website.  In short, Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day, and was meant to celebrate the end of World War I.  In 1954, Congress changed the name of the holiday to Veterans Day.

I hope you enjoy the holiday.

The Worst Supreme Court Justice

Historians have contemplated ad nauseum who the worse President in U.S. history has been, but have given far less attention to identifying the worse Supreme Court justice.  When I say the “worst” justice, I look at several criteria: (1) whether the justice was biased, partisan, or partial; (2) whether the justice authored or joined poor decisions; and (3) the legacy of the Justice’s tenure.  By these criteria, Justice James McReynolds was the worst Supreme Court justice in our nation’s history.

First, Justice McReynolds was one of the most extreme partisans in the history of the court during his tenure from 1914 to 1941.  Although appointed by a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, McReynolds stymied much of the New Deal.  He voted to strike down the Social Security Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Federal Farm Bankruptcy Act, the Railroad Act, and the Coal Mining Act.  

Second, McReynolds was outwardly racist and anti-Semitic.  In 1938, when an African American lawyer argued before the Court, Justice McReynolds turned his chair 180 degrees, so as not to face the lawyer.  When Justice Brandeis was appointed to the Supreme Court, McReynolds refused to speak to him for three years, because Justice Brandeis was Jewish.  Upon Brandeis’s retirement, in 1939, McReynolds refused to sign a letter to him that was signed by the other justices.  When Justice Cardozo, who was also Jewish, was appointed to the Court, Justice McReynolds reportedly said “It seems that the only way you can get on the Supreme Court these days is to be either the son of a criminal or a Jew, or both.”  McReynolds refused to speak to Justice Cardozo – ever.  When a female would appear before the Court, Justice McReynolds allegedly remarked “I see the female is here again.”  

Third, Justice McReynolds is remembered for opposing the New Deal and for being racist and anti-Semitic.  It’s true that Justice McReynolds authored a couple of notable opinion concerning civil liberties, Meyers v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923), and Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510.  But he struck down legislation passed by Congress to alleviate the Great Depression, and damaged the Court’s reputation through his bigotry, and will forever be remembered for having done so. 

The U.S. has had plenty of other bad justices.  Abe Fortas was forced to resign from the Court because of an ethical scandal.  Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote the opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the separate but equal doctrine, and joined the majority opinion in Lochner v. New York, which struck down a law setting maximum hours for bakers, and served as the basis for a generating of decisions striking down progressive legislation.  But Justice McReynolds was the nation’s worst Supreme Court justice.


The Lawrence Massacre and General Order No. 11

In the early hours of August 21, 1863, as the townspeople awoke, 450 rebels swept into Lawrence, Kansas.  They rounded up the town’s able-bodied men, and shot them, as the city’s women and children watched.  Their gruesome work done, the rebels looted the city and set fire to it.   By 9 a.m., 200 men were dead and a huge portion of the city’s business district was in ruins.

The Union immediately plotted revenge.  General Thomas Ewing, Jr. issued Order No. 11,   which foreshadowed Sherman’s march and scorched earth warfare.  Ewing ordered residents from parts of four counties (three is Missouri, one in Kansas) expelled, as those counties were believed to be sympathetic to the Confederacy, and to have played a role in the Lawrence massacre.  Only those residents who could prove their loyalty to the Union were allowed to stay.

Then, General Ewing’s troops laid waste to parts of those four counties.  His troops burned homes and fields, and executed men.  The area was rendered virtually uninhabitable.

The four-county area is a time capsule that has been rich for archaeological work, and the Bates County Archaeological Field School has done some fascinating work in the area.  Their work has uncovered many 19th century structures and artifacts.  As their work progresses, it will be interesting to see if they can shed further light on the destruction of the area by Union troops.

19th Century Birtherism

President Obama is not the first president to be at the center of a birthplace controversy.  More than 100 years before Obama’s political enemies claimed he was born in Canada, President Chester A. Arthur’s enemies claimed he was born in Canada.  They may have been on to something.

Arthur’s father emigrated from Ireland to Quebec in 1818 or 1819.  Arthur’s mother was born in Vermont.  The two met while Arthur’s father was teaching in southern Quebec, and married in Quebec in 1821.  Their first child was born in Quebec shortly thereafter. 

Arthur’s father was a teacher, which led to a peripatetic existence, as the family followed him from one job to another.  During the 1820s, the family moved from Quebec to a series of towns in Vermont.  Eventually, Arthur’s father gave up teaching and became a Free Will Baptist minister.

The official story is that the Arthurs moved to Fairfield, Vermont in 1828.  Arthur claimed to have been born there two years later, in 1830.  In fact, the Arthur family Bible says he was born in 1829.  There are no official documents stating where he was born; Vermont did not begin keeping records of birth until 1857.

When Arthur ran for Vice-President as Garfield’s running mate in 1880, rumors cropped up that he was born in Dunham, Quebec, the town where Arthur’s father had emigrated to, and where Arthur’s parents were married.  Democrats hired Arthur Hinman, a lawyer, to investigate Arthur’s birthplace.  Hinman published a book, “How a British Subject Became President of the United States.”   According to Hinman, Arthur’s mother was visiting her father, who then lived in Dunham, Quebec, when Arthur was born (he claims Arthur was born in 1828).  A younger brother, who died in infancy, was born in 1830.  Himan claims that Arthur appropriated the birthdate and birthplace of the younger brother. 

Hinman’s investigation was surprisingly thorough, and his book well written.  Of course, he was not impartial, so his account must be viewed with some skepticism.  But neither Arthur nor his supporters released a competing account, and there are no official records supporting the claim that Arthur was born in the United States.  Moreover, it doesn’t help that Arthur lied about the date he was born.  So the question of where Arthur was born is likely to remain a mystery.



The District of Columbia’s Changing Boundaries

Originally, Washington, D.C. was comprised of land given by the states of Maryland and Virginia, measured 100 square miles, and included the city of Alexandria.  But in 1846, the federal government retroceded to Virginia the 31 square miles of land that had been taken from the state.

Several theories have been offered for why land was given back to Virginia, including that (1) the economy of Alexandria had stagnated, and giving the land back to Virginia would improve the economic prospects of the city; and (2) Alexandria had a slave market, and there was fear that abolitionists would push for the abolition of slavery in the District.

What I’ve not been able to determine is whether, during or after the civil war, Congress considered taking the land back from Virginia.  Perhaps the federal government had no use for it, but Congress had no problem altering Virginia’s boundaries, as the recognition of West Virginia plainly shows.

Hell on Earth: What it Was Like to Pick Cotton

Picking cotton is hot, dirty, back-breaking, monotonus work.  That work chewed up millions of lives from Ely Whittney’s invention of the modern mechanical cotton gin in 1793 well into the 20th century.

Typically, cotton is harvested in late August or in the fall.  In the deep south, temperatures are still very hot.  Mississippi’s average high in August is 92; in September, it’s 86; and in October, it’s 76, but temperatures frequently rise to the 80s and 90s.  Often slaves, and later sharecroppers, would pick cotton from sunrise to sunset.  In August, this would result in a 13 hour workday spent in the hot sun.

To pick the cotton, a worker would pull the white, fluffy lint from the boll, trying to not cut his hands on the sharp ends of the boll.  The average cotton plant is less than three feet high, so many workers had to stoop to pick the cotton.  As they picked, they would place the lint in burlap sacks carried on their backs.  So, not only would the worker have to pick the cotton, he would have to drag the bag along with him as well.  In a typical day, a good worker could pick 300 pounds of cotton or more, meaning that, in any given day, a typical picker would carry a substantial amount of weight, even if he emptied his sack several times.  Here’s a great video of an interviewer with a farmer who picked cotton by hand: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IW4dBODmN9o.