Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Storm over Texas

In my most optimistic mood, I would like our presidential campaigns to be an
intellectual tour de force of opposing ideas and counterpoints. Let the nation chose between rival plans for the future. In someways this is how the father of our two party system envisioned elections. Martin Van Buren understood that if he created a political party on Jefferson's earlier model, an opposition party would naturally form. Van Buren constructed his party on powerful alliance between the small farmers of his native New York and the influential planters of Virginia. Although the opposition Whig Party had many disparate elements, a core ideology of economic nationalism came to define and unite them. Dubbed the Second Party System by historians, this division between Democrats and Whigs lasted two decades before the question of slavery in the territories wrecked it. In Storm over Texas, Joel Silbey locates the ground zero of this transformation in discussion of Texas annexation. Both Presidents Jackson and Van Buren considered Texas annexation a distraction from their more important economic agenda. It took a man without a party, John Tyler, to see Texas as a political life line. Not only did Tyler push the issue, his secretary of state, John C. Calhoun, turned it from a question of national expansion into one of sectional (read slavery) security. Tyler's 1844 re-election bid, such as it was, lasted only a few short, and early, months, but he had already poisioned the well. In 1844 James K. Polk defeated Henry Clay in one of the most important presidential contests in our history. It might have been a close race, hinging on a few thousand votes in New York, but it unleashed a sequence of events that led to Civil War. Had Clay taken occupancy of the White House, the future (our past) could have been very different. It is doubtful Clay would have sought territory from or war with Mexico. Who knows what would have have happened after that. On the other hand,as Silbey reminds us, Calhoun already released the sectional/slavery genie from the bottle. Silbey is a less critical of Calhoun for advancing something so obviously in his own political interests, than he is of Van Buren and his northern Democrat"Barn Burner" allies who got right down in the mud with the South Carolinian. Moreover, the patronage obsessed Barn Burners used the slavery issue to attack the president, thus further exacerbating the situation. The frame for future discussions and arguments had been built.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party, 1912

Just finished Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy by Sidney M. Milksis. The thesis is perfectly encapsulated in the title. In waging a presidential campaign of ideas over party, Theodore Roosevelt ushered in a new era of issues and personality-based elections. Parties were the clear loser in this new model. Institutional notions like loyalty and balance of faction became superseded by adherence to ideas. Natually, Miksis does not see the Progressive Party as a quixotic campaign of a retired pol, but a movement waiting its fulfillment. Progressives across the spectrum had gone on record in favor of a new political regime, one that sought to restrain the hands of the machine and replace the smoke filled room with an enlightented citizenry using tools of open democracy. Theodore Roosevelt certianly marched forward of Taft and Wilson in calls for primaries, referendum, and the like. One of the most interesting things about this campaign is how little Roosevelt stumped on his own past experience as president. Psychologically, this seemed to give him more space as an underdog and outsider (always the sweet spot in American politics), but it really was about chosing the direction of the country for the next generation. If the Progressive Party was more a baby in need of a midwife than it was Roosevelt's vanity campaign what happened after 1912? In addition to Roosevelt's abandonment, its constant infighting among diverse constitiuents, amd the Great War, one must add the progressive's strong belief in a candidate focused election, meaning they had no stomach for the gritty business of building a political party.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Environment and Warfare in the South Pacific

I am just finishing Eric Bergerud’s excellent Touched with Fire: The Land War in the South Pacific. This analysis focuses on the men, conditions, and structures of the opposing armies much more than on the generals and their plans. One of the best parts of this book is a chapter devoted to the unique environment of Papua/New Guinea, which was an active participant in the war as much as any other factor. Although small, there is a growing interest in examining the cross section between military history and the environment. My one big take away item for the role of the environment is that neither the Japanese nor the Americans/Australians were fully prepared for jungle warfare. It was an unfamiliar environment for both sides. Malaria and jungle rot (sounds like real horrible stuff) affected both sides. The torrential downpours and omnipresent mud tormented the combatants without discrimination. In fact, the allies were a little better prepared for it both logistically and medically than were the Japanese, although movement of supplies, including quinine, was slow in the miserable conditions. What made the Japanese soldier appear to be such better jungle fighters can be attributed to their intense indoctrination in the code of Bushido that they received in their training, not from some inherent predisposition to the terrain. This was an orchestrated effort by the army to counter the fact that their men were poorly equipped and supplied compared to their contemporaries (the navy definitely got the gravy in imperial Japan). Bergerud also discusses the native peoples of the region who wanted the war to go away. Australian Coast Watchers could survive in isolated regions, but the individual Japanese soldier and small patrols ran the risk of natives picking them off if they got the chance.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Chester Arthur: A Response to a Review

My book Chester Alan Arthur: The Life of a Gilded Age Politican and President
(Nova History, 2007) is ranked an awesome 4,316,629 in its list of sales figures. At various times a couple of years ago it was a little less than 2,000,000th place. Such are the sales figures of a lesser known president from a very small press. I would like to take a minute to address some of the comments by an anonymous reviwer who scored my book a 2 out of 5. 1. This was not designed to be a work of primary research, but a synthesis of existing scholarship. Although individual books are available for purchase, the plan is to sell the complete set to libraries as a reference tool. The synthetic approach works much better for those presidents like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincon, the Roosevelts, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, etc., who are the subjects of numerous biographies and are firmly rooted in historiographical debates. There were only two biographies of Arthur before mine, George Howe's A Quarter Century of Machine Politics and Thomas Reeve's Gentleman Boss. The former contains several errors, the latter is still the best biography of Arthur (as the reviewer and I agree). What I decided to do was to add in the thirty years of scholarship of the Gilded Age political environment that came after Reeves's work. This includes some excellent work by historians, such as Charles Calhoun, Justus Doenecke, Ari Hoogenboom, Allan Peskin, Mark Wahlgren Summers, to name a few. 2. Continuing on the subject of primary research, I did use what is left of Arthur's papers (he burned most if them, saving an odd collection of receipts, letters, and other documents), contemporary magazine and news paper editorials (especially the Nation), Richardson's Compilation of Messages and Papers, and published and unpublished collections of papers of Arthur's contemporaries. The fact that this project was designed by the publisher to be a quick summation of existing scholarship completed in two years, precluded me from an exhaustive examination of all primary documents that might have touched on Arthur's life. 3. I probably was a little negative towards Arthur, as the reviewer noted. There are two reasons for this. First, the truth of the matter is that I do not find him to have been a very good president. He was a horrible vice president, one of the worst in our nation's history. As veep, Arthur worked against Garfield at every turn of the very short administration. Arthur is generally credited as a machine politician turned civil service reformer. Historians consider it is strongest legacy. I disagree with this assessment. Garfield was shot by a delusional maniac who believed the president owed him an ambassadorship for making some speeches during the campaign. After he shot Garfield, Charles Guiteau shouted out Arthur's name, implicating the vice president. With weak influence in Congress, Arthur could do little to alter the shape of the Pendleton Act during the legislative process, and there was no way he could have vetoed it. As chief executive Arthur followed the letter of the civil service reform. He did not, however, follow its spirit. This, to me, makes a difference, undercutting the argument that he "converted" to reform. His hands were tied. He was weak and recalled the very unpleasant experience of Andrew Johnson. Nevertheless, he attempted to use patronage to build his Stalwart faction. That it never turned into the kind of debacle that bedeviled both Hayes and Garfield can be attributed to Arthur's political weakness. Matt Quay of Pennsylvania, for example, took all Arthur could give him, but turned around and betrayed him. There was nothing Arthur could do to retaliate. Second, my negative assessment of Arthur differs sharply with the two aforementioned existing biographies, which were largely positive. What is the point of writing a book that totally echoes another? There are a couple of points in which Reeves and I do disagree. Reeves does not think Arthur was serious about obtaining the nomination in 1884. To me it seems strange that Arthur devoted so much of his limited energy on something he did not want. To me at least, it was totally out of character. On another point I think that Arthur's treatment of the tariff is a more significant legacy. He preserved the protectionist system when it was under siege and blunted the strength of reform with a commission system. That system remained in place (excepting the short period of Woodrow Wilson's presidency) until the end of World War II.