Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Some Recent Reads on Ancient History

Although my blog is devoted mainly to American history focused on the Gilded Age, Progressive Era, and Environment (hence my picture of Theodore Roosevelt), I do teach Western Civilization and both halves of the U.S. survey course at a local community college. Here are two recent reads from the realm of Western Civilization:

Lars Brownsworth, Lost to the West. I wanted to bolster my knowledge of Byzantine history and turned to this book largely because I enjoyed Brownsworth’s podcast series “12 Byzantine Emperors.” Most of my knowledge of Byzantine history comes from Ostrowski’s books and some articles by other historians. As he does in his podcast, Brownsworth focuses on the emperors and empresses and provides little social history. Nor does he discuss political events outside the capital in any great detail unless it directly impacted the imperial palace. I took away four main things from this book. First, the Byzantines lived in a really tough neighborhood. Over their 1100 year history the Byzantines faced a constant stream of attack from Arabs, Bulgars, Crusaders, Goths, Hungarians, Mongols, Russians, Seljuk Turks and others before the Ottoman Turks finished them off in 1453. I found it quite remarkable they lasted as long as they did considering all this pressure. Second, there was a lot of ebb and flow. By this I mean things progressed, collapsed, and progressed again. For example, at various times Byzantines were interested in the classics and valued education and at other times they could care less. At times their economy did well and at other times it did not. In other words, while we might look at the larger trend and see Byzantine history as a steady decline since the time of Justinian, they certainly had their periods of revival. Third, how much the Byzantines considered themselves Roman. Brownsworth begins with Diocletian and reminds us that no matter what the western European historians thought, the Byzantines considered themselves Romans and not Greeks or anything else. For purposes of my Western Civ class, it means I need to make a better effort to include them in the some of my discussions. Fourth, I was surprised by the enormous impact disease had on the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire. Several times plagues devastated the Byzantine empire. Like those that ripped through the Roman Empire in the 3rd Century, the ones that struck the Byzantines hit at the worst possible moment. Being at the crossroads of Europe and Asia might have had some benefit regarding trade (at least until they contracted that out to Italian merchants) but it came at the cost of increased exposure to rapidly spreading viruses.

Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way. This is a much older book first published in 1930, but revised in the 1950s and republished in the 1990s. I struggled with her tone and writing style because she sounded to me like a bloviating windbag spouting all sorts of absolute statements, such as, “as is always the case.” Once I got used to the style, it was a little more bearable. Her basic argument is that the Greeks possessed a near perfect mixture of spirit (art for example) and the mind (intellect and science) until greed during the Age of Pericles ruined it for them. Western Civilization never recovered this balance, oscillating between periods of mind dominating the spirit and vice versa. She postulates at the end of the book that the Greeks lived during a unique time and place and their perfect balance between mind and spirit may no longer be possible. This makes them all the more valuable to study. I got lots of useful tidbits out of this book on certain personalities and how to weave together politics and philosophy. The Greeks were the original renaissance men with wide ranging interests in art, business, military affairs, and science. By Greeks Hamilton basically means Athenians. The Spartans are mentioned only in passing and in mostly unfavorable terms.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chester Arthur and James G. Blaine: The Conference of American States

When Chester Arthur became the twenty-first president of the United States upon the death of James A. Garfield he announced that he would retain his predecessor's cabinet. The move was part of an image makeover effort. Long regarded as a party hack with his hands in the cookie jar, Arthur had to demonstrate to the American people that he was up to the task of being president. He acted judiciously during his first few months of office and tried to display calm, conservative, competent judgement. Arthur's first public action as president was to appear at the centennial celebration of the Battle of Yorktown in October 1881. Like presidents before and after, he used a good military show and some patriotic flag waving to bolster his standing as commander-in-chief.

James G. Blaine was more than James A. Garfield's Secretary of State. He was the slain president's closest political friend, an advisor on domestic, as well as foreign matters, and major political figure in his own right. Blaine had his share of baggage, and allegations of corruption dogged him for years, but he had one of the sharpest political minds of his era and possessed an enormous store of charisma, an uncommon trait in the late nineteenth century. Blaine was an established leader of the Half Breed faction of the Republicans and long battled Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. Arthur was a friend and ally to Conkling and belonged to the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party. As vice president Arthur supported Conkling against Garfield in a nasty patronage battle over the New York Customhouse.

Now there was an uncomfortable situation in Washington. Blaine had to work for a man he detested, but he didn't want to rock the boat and be blamed for Arthur losing any public confidence. Arthur was stuck with someone who could easily overshadow him and one he did not like to boot. Perhaps in the uncomfortable pirouette Blaine got the upper hand. In November 1881, just a week before he resigned as secretary of state, Blaine prevailed on President Arthur to invite the nations of Central and South America to a conference to be held in the United States.

Blaine would have sought this conference had Garfield lived. He was long concerned about the growth of British trade, and what we today call soft power in Latin America. It greatly bothered him that the the British had more trade in our continent than we did. A conference would solidify the relationships between each the Latin American nations and the United States. In addition, it would create a more peaceful environment -- an important objective considering there was currently one war in South America and a threat of a least one more in Central America. Peace, especially if brokered by the United States, would  greatly improve trade prospects. Peace and cooperation would also reduce the possibility of any European intervention.

Although Arthur agreed to send the invitations out in November, he changed his mind in January 1882, citing as his reason a concern that such a meeting would anger the European powers. Blaine went ballistic when he heard this, he wasn't known as "Jingo Jim" for nothing. Blaine wrote a 13 page letter in the tone of the schoolmaster he used to be lecturing Arthur on the folly of his decision and the foreign policy disaster it would create. Blaine called it a "voluntary humiliation." Blaine made sure this did not remain a private dispute. He gave the letter to his friend Whitelaw Reid who published in the newspaper he edited, the New York Tribune. Arthur could not expect any help from Secretary of State Frederick Frelinghuysen who told a guest at a Washington dinner party, "Blaine may quarrel with me if he likes but I shall not with him." One imagines Frelinghuysen declining invitations from "Meet the Press", "This Week", and "Face the Nation".

Blaine wasn't the only one critical of Arthur. Diplomats criticized the president for leaving them hanging and others chimed in how weak it looked to cave in the face of imagined European opposition. Didn't they have their meetings and conferences also? It seemed a psychological violation of the Monroe Doctrine.

Arthur started to back peddle again. In April he told Congress it was their problem. He argued the situation was too tense in the Americas, but if the American people expressed a desire, through their elected representatives, then there should be a conference. When Congress did not vote on the conference by August 1882 Arthur officially withdrew the invitations, even though nine countries had already accepted.

On the one hand, this is a presidential abdication of foreign policy power that would have made any late twentieth or early twenty-first century president cringe. On the other hand, Arthur knew Congress unlikely to support the conference and it gave him the cover to wiggle out of it. Why did he want out of the conference so bad? Most likely to embarrass and discredit James G. Blaine.