31 March 2008

Vertigo and the Sublime

I never read one book, but always have a half dozen or more going at once. I read some books in particular places, and carry others until I’m through with them. I have stacks of partly read books scattered from nightstand to throne room. I read much of Paul Schullery’s Cowboy Trout on several fishing trips last summer, and will finish it during the first or second angling expedition in the next month or so. I read most of Barry Miles, Zappa: A Biography last fall and eventually will read the last twenty pages. I’m in for the long haul on my readings of A Patriot’s History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, A History of the American People by Paul Johnson, and A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, which I’ve read previously. I could finish Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama today or tomorrow, but it might sit unopened for another week or so, as it has for the past several days. Due to my “Reading Challenge,” I’m going through Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions systematically at a page or two per day.

A few days ago, I started William Peden’s critical edition of Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982 [1954]). Jefferson writes about a sublime natural feature on some land that he purchased.

The arch approaches the Semi-elliptical form; but the larger axis of the ellipsis, which would be the cord of the arch, is many times longer than the {semi-axis which gives it’s height.} Though the sides of this bridge are provided in some parts with a parapet of fixed rocks, yet few men have resolution to walk to them and look over into the abyss. You involuntarily fall on your hands and feet, creep to the parapet and peep over it. Looking down from this height about a minute, gave me a violent head ache. {This painful sensation is relieved by a short, but pleasing view of the Blue ridge along the fissure downwards, and upwards by that of the Short hills, which, with the Purgatory mountain is a divergence from the North ridge; and descending then to the valley below, the sensation becomes delightful in the extreme. It is impossible for the emotions, arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here: so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing, as it were, up to heaven, the rapture of the Spectator is really indiscribable! The fissure continues deep and narrow and, following the margin of the stream upwards about three eights of a mile you arrive at a limestone cavern, less remarkable, however, for height and extent than those before described. It’s entrance into the hill is but a few feet above the bed of the stream.}
Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 24-25.

This version of the text differs from that found on the American Studies Crossroads Project’s hypertext version, which used an edition printed in Brooklyn by the New York Historical Printing Club in 1894. Notes on the State of Virginia was published without Jefferson’s name in France in 1785, then with his name by John Stockdale in England in 1787. The Stockdale edition became the definitive text, but Jefferson inscribed marginal corrections in his personal copy throughout the rest of his life. This marginalia is the basis for the deviations from the Stockdale edition that Peden enclosed in brackets.

Peden’s notes include Jefferson’s marginal comment.

This description was written after a lapse of several years from the time of my visit to the bridge, and under an error of recollection which requires apology. For it is from the bridge itself that the mountains are visible both ways, and not from the bottom of the fissure as my impression then was. The statement therefore in the former edition needs the corrections here given to it. Aug. 16. 1817.
Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 263.

Peden includes the Stockdale version in the balance of this endnote.

I suspect that Peden’s misspelling of “its” in two instances reflects changes in American English from the 1950s to today.

29 March 2008


Rick Perlstein has a new book coming out in May. According to History News Network, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America is the sequel to Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001).

In my view, Before the Storm is one of the most important books published that addresses the lasting impact of the Sixties. In a nutshell, the ground roots conservative movement that labored to achieve the nomination of Goldwater in 1964--all but written off at the time--forms the foundation of the coalition that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980, and dictates a large share of our political agenda today.

I expect that Nixonland will be a good read and offer tremendous insights into American politics from Nixon's first run for Congress to the current day.

August 2011 Update

Ezra Klein reported that President Obama is reading Nixonland. Following this story, Rick Perlstein wrote his first article for Time: "How Democrats Win: Defending the Social Safety Net" 18 August 2011.

28 March 2008

Fragments from Bartolomé de Las Casas

I have remarked previously that Voices of a People’s History of the United States (2004) by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove offers a generous selection from the writings of Bartolomé de Las Casas. There are extracts from The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account (1542) and In Defense of the Indians (1550). These are placed in company with extracts from the diary of Columbus and a brief passage from Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire (1982) in a chapter designed to correspond with chapter one of A People’s History. Both Voices of a People’s History and A People’s History have twenty-four chapters.

Zinn and Arnove’s assertion that Columbus “is universally portrayed as a heroic figure” (29) is much harder to swallow now than when Zinn wrote the first edition of A People’s History (1980). But they are describing his portrayal for generations of Americans up through the time they were in school. Several pages later, in the headnote to the selections from Las Casas, they observe that “the idealized, romanticized picture of Columbus has begun to be reconsidered” (35).

Estimating the Dead

The passage they offer from The Devastation of the Indies focuses upon depopulation and Spanish cruelties. Bartolomé de Las Casas depicts the islands of the Caribbean as a paradise formerly heavily populated by peoples that were “docile and open to doctrine, very apt to receive our Holy Catholic faith” (36). Las Casas arrived in Hispaniola in his eighteenth year in 1502, and claims to recall such a population of Indians that “it is as though God had crowded into these lands the great majority of mankind” (36). He offers general estimates of the aboriginal population of three million on Hispaniola (36), as many as one million on San Juan and Jamaica (40), and “a countless number” on the island of Cuba (42).
We can estimate very surely and truthfully that in the forty years that have passed, with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slain more than twelve million men, women, and children. In truth, I believe without trying to deceive myself that the number of the slain is more like fifteen million.
Las Casas, in Voices of A People’s History, 37.
Few scholars today accept these numbers, although Zinn advances them in A People’s History with minimal discussion and argument, as noted in “Howard Zinn on Depopulation.” Las Casas’s tendency toward hyperbole should give us pause. When Las Casas declares that Hispaniola “was perhaps the most densely populated place in the world” (35), we might take it as an effort towards census. But we find more exceptionalism on the next page: “of all the infinite universe of humanity, these people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient and faithful” (36). They lack only the gospel, or “they would be the most fortunate people in the world” (36). The Spanish, on the other hand, are the world’s most vile sinners: “their insatiable greed and ambition [is] the greatest ever seen in the world” (37). The most people, who are the most innocent, were abused by those with the most greed. Did Las Casas have enough experience throughout the world to render such judgment? Such comparisons come not from his breadth of knowledge, but from the ethnocentrism and cultural arrogance that he both advances and critiques.

Spanish Cruelties

Las Casas blames the killing and cruelty on the Spanish motives, and the opportunities for wealth out of proportion to individual merit.
Their reason for killing and destroying such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold, and to swell themselves with riches in a very brief time and thus rise to a high estate disproportionate to their merits.
Las Casas, in Voices of A People’s History, 37.
He illuminates Spanish greed through a story of Hatuey who fled to Cuba from Hispaniola with many of his people in hopes of escaping the cruelties. Upon learning that the Spanish were coming to Cuba, he conducted a ceremony designed to appeal to the European god.
He had a basket full of gold and jewels and he said: “You see their God here, the God of the Christians. If you agree to it, let us dance for this God, who knows, it may please the God of the Christians and then they will do us no harm.” And his followers said, all together, “Yes, that is good, that is good!” And they danced round the basket of gold until they fell down exhausted. Then their chief, the cacique Hatuey, said to them: “See there, if we keep this basket of gold they will take it from us and will end up killing us. So let us cast away the basket into the river.” They all agreed to do this, and they flung the basket of gold into the river that was nearby.
Las Casas, in Voices of A People’s History, 40-41.
Later Hatuey was burned at the stake, but was given the opportunity to convert to Catholicism when he was “tied to the stake.” When told that Heaven was populated by Christians, he declared a preference for Hell. Las Casas comments, “Such is the fame and honor that God and our Faith have earned through the Christians who have gone out of the Indies” (41). Las Casas is clear. His concern was to save the souls of the Indians. This mission was rendered more difficult by the rapid depopulation of the aboriginals at the hands of Spanish who should have been model Christians, but appeared rather to be servants of their own greed.

25 March 2008

Notebook Artifact: Summer 1995

Written in a spiral notebook 28 June 1995, Fort Loudon Lake, Tennessee.

What we call history and what we call the novel are more recent than what we call the Columbian encounter. When Natives embrace writing and written genres, we cannot affirm that what they embrace is wholly Western because these forms emerged in a world deeply infused with economies and ideologies formed in contact with multiple non-European worlds. (Even the Renaissance and subsequent Reformation owe much to the deepening interchange between Christian and Muslim words that characterized the late-Middle Ages.) However, we might examine how “history” and the “novel” were formed as Western constructs during an imperial age, and how they must be reformed in our own and future ages. While American Indians were always present as the Other in history and the novel as we have received them, they now speak as agents who employ and transform these genres. Still, the Natives of today do no share the same world as their ancestors any more than Europeans and Americans share the same world as Europeans of the sixteenth century. Still yet, there is enough continuity with the past in present-day native communities that many writing as Natives offer perspectives that must be distinguished from the perspectives of European Americans.

American Indian fiction and American Indian history are deeply European American discourses. These discourses must be transformed by Natives, as well as by non-Natives writing about Natives, in order to more accurately render the worlds of the indigenes of North America—past and present. One location of transformation may be the construct that distinguishes “history” from “fiction”.

This is not to say that we must lose our ability to distinguish what is true or accurate from what is not. Rather, truth must be seen from other points-of-view. Truth may be situational, rather than empirical. It may be experiential, rather than objective.

I am not advocating that we abandon the practice of history, especially not ethnohistory and the new Indian history. I am advocating that the truth-claims of these genres of writing do not necessarily have priority over the truth-claims of fiction. In fact, certain so-called novels by contemporary American Indian writers, if not more truthful and more accurate than what we call history, at least offer necessary truths that cannot be accommodated within the constrictions of history as it is currently understood. It is possible, therefore, that some of the best work in American Indian history in our day is packaged as fiction, and is thus too much ignored by historians.

Literary critics, on the other hand, who often believe they already understand these truths of fiction, too easily posit themselves as more enlightened than historians. Yet, without the groundings in material realities and the ability to step back from their subject matter that are second nature to the historian, they are equally restricted by their conventions of analysis. Despite a strong movement toward several forms of interdisciplinary multiculturalism in literary studies, the offerings of historians have been too much ignored. In taking fiction seriously as history, it is imperative that we remember the conventions of history as they have been received.

There remains a crucial difference between the food obtained by such human constructs as the atlatl, bow and arrow, gun, and slaughterhouse, and the food consumed by Peter Pan and the Lost Boys in one of their imaginary meals. Too often, in extolling the truth-value of fiction, it is easy to forget the difference between the death of the Jim Loney of fiction and the many real persons who have died similar deaths.

23 March 2008

Spiral Notebooks

A bit more than twenty years ago I started carrying a spiral notebook with me almost constantly. I usually wrote in it while reading—taking notes, jotting titles and authors of other texts that I planned to examine, proposing theses, writing initial drafts of key paragraphs, outlining course syllabi, composing poems, …

The habit of always having a spiral notebook with me has ceased since computers have become ubiquitous. These days I’m more likely to carry a notebook manufactured by Gateway than one made by Mead. Still, I have not entirely abandoned the practice. My computer bag has room for a spiral notebook and a ballpoint pen, and I still use them. Too often, however, it is easier to open Word and start typing.

As created text morphs from rough notes to polished prose, much is lost. Some of the loss is beneficial, but not all. My initial condemnation of some book or article may give way to cautious acceptance of another scholar’s perspective, or exuberance for a fresh approach may become the jaded recognition that notions discredited long ago might be resurrected once their refutations have been forgotten. My spiral notebooks preserve a record of these journeys. Those saved as files, even when new drafts have new names, are quickly lost. I’ll never again see the notes I saved just a few years ago on 5 ¼ inch floppies, for example.

Sometimes notebooks from decades ago are painful to read because they reveal astounding ignorance. Such humbling reading, however, can put into perspective my frustration with younger scholars (or with aged ones still pushing discredited ideas that I too once cherished). Other times reading these old notebooks offer fresh recollections of knowledge I’ve lost.

18 March 2008

Reader Response, Polls, Goals

Patriots and Peoples has been online nearly four months. Initially I thought to create a public notebook along the lines of the notebooks I’ve filled much of the past twenty years. These are the simple spiral bound sort in which I take notes on my reading, write drafts of future articles, create bibliographies of books and articles to read, and even pen the occasional poem. Sometimes the writing is of a personal nature, sometimes it takes an objective tone. I conceived Patriots and Peoples as a focused continuation of this practice in a new format, one that is readily shared.

I quickly realized that the nature of a public blog discourages writing that is too rough—and much of that in my stack of spiral bound notebooks is terribly unpolished. It became clear that Patriots and Peoples could adopt a flexible, often informal tone, but that some of the standards for published scholarship would apply, including laborious grammar, syntax, and spell checking. Such practices as noting authorship and publication information for texts and ideas taken from others is second nature. Information without a source is none such; it is rumor, hearsay, propaganda.

After attracting one or two readers, I hungered for more. I have had modest success attracting a few. According to Technorati, this blog climbed into the top million in just over two months of existence. Then Reuters picked up my story "Origins of Malaria," bringing a few new readers while offering future prospects of many more.

Poll Results

Within a few days of starting Patriots and Peoples, I set up two reader polls. These asked whether the respondents had read Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen's A Patriot's History of the United States, in one poll, and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in the other. The answer selections revealed the underlying questions was one of evaluation. Identical possible answers were offered to participants: no; yes, and I think it is terrific; yes, and I think it is okay; yes, and I disagree with its slant; yes, and I think it is terrible. Do readers of these books like them, and how strongly?

The raw data is tabulated in the table below.







Not Read















The data suggest that nearly half (48.5%) of those that have read Zinn’s A People’s History think it is terrific. Alternately, it suggests that my blog is more successful attracting readers that like Zinn than attracting those that dislike his work. The latter appears consistent with the overwhelming proportion of respondents that have not read A Patriot’s History (72.2%). Readers of A Patriot’s History, on the other hand, appear evenly split between those that like it and those that do not. But, ten responses are too few to warrant any conclusions.

We might say that these two polls show that readers of Zinn that also read this blog generally consider A Patriot’s History a book of merit, while there are very few readers of Schweikart and Allen that are also readers of this blog.

Blog Focus and Goals

More than half of my posts so far have addressed Schweikart and Allen’s text, while approximately one quarter have concerned Zinn. I have been critical of both texts, but my criticism of A Patriot’s History has been more extensive and detailed. Still, twice I have dealt with both books together on a particular topic and found Schweikart and Allen a little better than Zinn either in accuracy (“Sixteenth Century Spain: Contrasting Images”) or in attention to a topic that I believe merits attention (“November 29: This Day in History”).

Although I’ve assigned Zinn’s text in a college history course, I bought Schweikart and Allen only when I examined it closely enough in the bookstore to observe apparent distortions of a field in which I have at least minimal competence (a subject upon which I lecture several times per year): depopulation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. As should be clear to regular readers by this point, my initial sense that A Patriot’s History evinced serious and significant flaws in its representation of this scholarship has proven an accurate assessment. Nevertheless, Schweikart and Allen’s text has facilitated the augmentation of my knowledge in this field. Zinn has much less to say on this topic, presenting debatable figures with minimal discussion.

I am not predisposed to accept the perspectives in A Patriot’s History without the full measure of skepticism. But I am no less skeptical of Zinn's claims. I make clear to students reading Zinn for my classes that I think of it as a readable text with which they could find much to disagree. In the discussion of Zinn's insights and distortions, both consequences of his biases, history students develop critical perspectives both on the past itself and upon the processes of attempting to represent it accurately. Both books merit extensive criticism, unless one would prefer to ignore them altogether—an approach that more than likely goes hand in hand with ignoring this blog as well. Both books also have their merits and their enthusiastic readers.

Both A Patriot's History and A People's History contrast markedly with the standard textbooks that pretend to be neutral or objective are which are generally unreadable. Few such textbooks ever appear on the shelves of a bookstore that is not either a college bookstore where the customers are driven with minimal choice, or used bookstores that lack standards for rejection in their buying practices. Big Box bookstores and smaller local ones readily stock Zinn's People's History, as well as some of his other texts, and they readily stock Schweikart and Allen's Patriot's History too.

I am disappointed that I have attracted to Patriots and Peoples so few readers of A Patriot’s History. Hopefully more will come in time. Of course, A People’s History was first published in 1980, while A Patriot’s History was released in 2004. Zinn’s text has had far longer to attract readers. From a modest effort to keep a public notebook, my writing here has provoked the hope of stimulating conversation among and between conservatives and liberals. Those that see in either book an antidote to prevailing biases in history and public discourse are my ideal readers.

The Problem of Inconsistency

I managed to sustain a steady output of two to three articles per week from mid-November to the beginning of February, and then had an unproductive gap. I hope the productivity is returning, but knowing my patterns, I can be assured that dry spells will come again. These are not planned vacations, but times when certain forms of writing elude me. Sometimes I cannot write at all. Call it writer’s block if you will; it can be an infuriating malady.

Democracy and Military Prowess

Slowly, I am working my way back to a point that I began to address in early December last. In “Superior European Technology” I noted the reliance of Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen upon Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson for a key point in their argument regarding the reasons for European success in the conquest of the Americas. In a post focused more on the current situation in Iraq than Schweikart and Allen’s A Patriot’s History, I stated the scope of my initial interest in Carnage and Culture.

At the very least, my assessment of A Patriot’s History requires me to study Hanson’s first chapter, wherein he lays out his thesis in detail; chapter six, which explains the success of Cortés in Tenochtitlán; and the epilogue.
Victor Davis Hanson on Iraq
Hanson’s book captured my interest, however, and I have read and reread not three chapters but five, and have started looking through the rest of the book. Back in December I thought I would post a sequence of three articles on Carnage and Culture sometime in January. Now in mid-March, I seem to be getting close. I plan to offer an Overview of the book first, followed by a detailed examination of the Conquest of Tenochtitlán, then my assessment of the Use of Hanson in A Patriot’s History.

Before posting any of those three, I offer this footnote to those articles that will follow.

Brasidas’s Speech to the Peloponnesians

My effort to come to grips with Hanson’s argument in Carnage and Culture keeps bringing me back to his discussion of a speech recorded in History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.

In Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, nearly 2,500 years ago the Spartan general Brasidas dismissed the military prowess of the tribes of Illyria and Macedonia, who confronted his Spartan Hoplites. These men, Brasidas says of his savage opponents, have no discipline and so cannot endure shock battle. “As all mobs do,” they changed their fearsome demeanor to cries of fright when they faced the cold iron of disciplined men in rank. Why so? Because, as Brasidas goes on to tell his soldiers, such tribes are the product of cultures “in which the many do not rule the few, but rather the few the many” (Thucydides 4.126).
Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 6.

Hanson has thus highlighted in Thucydides a passage seeming to suggest that at the onset of Western Culture, military strength was linked to democracy in which “the many rule the few,” conferring advantage over those where “the few rule the many.” The tradition of democracy is but one of the cultural advantages that Hanson argues has favored the West in battle through two and a half millennia. That chiasmus (the few over the many/ the many over the few) makes for a terrific quote, so I went to the source, as is my habit.

There’s the rub.

The venerable translation of Richard Crawley, available from Project Gutenberg as an eBook since 2004, contains the words quoted by Hanson, but with a notable difference.

The bravery that you habitually display in war does not depend on your having allies at your side in this or that encounter, but on your native courage; nor have numbers any terrors for citizens of states like yours, in which the many do not rule the few, but rather the few the many, owing their position to nothing else than to superiority in the field.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley
Their bravery stems from citizenship in a state in which the few rule the many, not the other way around as Hanson suggests. While Hanson has Brasidas stating that the few ruling the many is the source of weakness of the tribes his men faced, Crawley has the few over the many as the source of strength of the Greeks. Indeed, George Grote’s A History of Greece (1870) finds in this passage from Thucydides support for another Western tradition: might makes right. The few rule the many because strength is a legitimate source of power.

But there is another point in the speech of Brasidas which deserves notice: he tells his soldiers—“Courage is your homebred property: for ye belong to communities wherein the small number governs the larger, simply by reason of superior prowess in themselves and conquest by their ancestors.” First, it is remarkable that a large proportion of the Peloponnesian soldiers, whom Brasidas thus addresses, consisted of Helots—the conquered race, not the conquerors: yet so easily does the military or regimental pride supplant the sympathies of race, that these men would feel flattered by being addressed as if they were themselves sprung from the race which had enslaved their ancestors. Next, we see here the right of the strongest invoked as the legitimate source of power, and as an honourable and ennobling recollection, by an officer of Dorian race, oligarchical politics, unperverted intellect, and estimable character.
Grote, A History of Greece, vol. 6, 224-225.

Translations differ, of course, so I did not rest. Two more nineteenth century translations connect military prowess to the few governing the many, and doing so because their strength is meritorious. The 1873 translation by Henry Musgrave Wilkins states:

I say, then, that you ought to fight bravely on the field of battle, not in reliance on the constant presence of allies, but from your own inborn valour, undismayed by any foreign force, however multitudinous; for you do not come from those political communities in which the multitude rules the few, but from states wherein the many are governed by the few, who acquired their power solely by their military prowess.
“Speech of Brasidas,” in Speeches from Thucydides, trans. Henry Musgrave Wilkins, 165-166.

Peithō’s Web offers the second edition of the Jowett translation (1900).

For you ought to fight like men not merely when you happen to have allies present, but because courage is native to you; nor should you fear any number of foreign troops. Remember that in the cities from which you come, not the many govern the few, but the few govern the many, and have acquired their supremacy simply by successful fighting.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Benjamin Jowett.

Rex Warner’s modern translation also connects national power to the power of the few in authority. As the Penguin Classics edition since 1972, it gets wide circulation.

The reason why you are expected to be brave in war is not because you have allies with you on every occasion, but because of the courage which is your birthright. It is not your way to be frightened of numbers on the other side, you who come from states where it is not the many who rule the few, but rather the other way about, and where to fight and to conquer has been the one and only basis of national power.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner, 341.

Hanson may be correct. Errors in translation have been made often, and frequently the errors get perpetrated in new translations. However, since his reading of the text departs significantly from the plain sense of the most widely available editions of Thucydides, it seems to merit at least a footnote in his text. Carnage and Culture is steeped in Greek literature throughout. He appears quite conversant with the full range of ancient Greek texts. This familiarity and frequent reference is as it should be given both the nature of Hanson’s argument and his position as a professor of classics. Yet, if he mentions anywhere which translations he employs or that he makes his own, I have not found it in the notes.

04 March 2008

Sixteenth Century Spain: Contrasting Images

Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Cortés’s Castilians fought from a long tradition of tactical adaptation based on individual freedom, civic rights, and a “preference for shock battle of heavy infantry” that “grew out of consensual government, equality among the middling classes,” and other distinctly Western traits that gave numerically inferior European armies a decisive edge.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 7.

Spain was recently unified, one of the new modern nation-states, like France, England, and Portugal. Its population, mostly poor peasants, worked for the nobility, who were 2 percent of the population and owned 95 percent of the land.
Zinn, A People’s History, 2.

Was there a middle class in sixteenth century Spain? What civic rights existed for Spanish peasants? Neither Howard Zinn’s emphasis on gross disparities of wealth, nor Schweikart and Allen’s image of Spanish proto-republicans offers substantive information concerning the European society that initiated the centuries long conquest of the Americas. The portrayals of American indigenes vacillate between prelapsarian hunters and farmers living in harmony with pristine nature and brutal, warlike savages. Likewise, sixteenth century Europeans are caricatures offered in fleeting images.

Zinn’s image of the desperate circumstances of the Spanish peasantry obscures both the existence of large commons in early modern Spain and clear evidence of rights of citizenship. David Erland Vassberg’s The Village and the Outside World in Golden Age Castile: Mobility and Migration in Everyday Rural Life (1996) points out that commons were “under the jurisdiction of a powerful city, bishop, military commander, or noble lord” (7), but does not quite present the image conjured by Zinn’s word “owned”. Vassberg also supports part of Schweikart and Allen’s emphasis on civic rights. Sixteenth century Spanish villagers knew theirs.

Rural people of the day were keenly aware of their citizenship rights, locally and in federations. For example, in 1542 a villager testified that he was a native of La Bóveda, but was currently a vecino of Villaureña, and of the Tierra of the city of Toro (Zamora), where he had certain rights.
Vassberg, The Village and the Outside World, 7.

Vassberg also notes that diversity existed among Spanish villagers in different geographical areas from “independent landowners” to “landless wage-earners” (11). Zinn’s emphasis on disparities of wealth may hold true for Andalusian peasants, but not for Basque farmers. Schweikart and Allen’s tradition of civic participation finds further support in Vassberg’s text.

Since the High Middle Ages the monarchs of Castile had recognized the right of municipal self-government, and had accepted the principle (although they occasionally violated it) that local offices should be held by local citizens, with preference to the native-born. … The right to local self-government was regarded as the natural birthright of every Spaniard. We can see that in the actions of the conquistadores in the New World: one of the first things that they did everywhere was to set up municipal governments, following the Spanish model familiar to all of them. … Although they were divided by social and economic inequalities, rich and poor felt united by strong bonds of mutual privilege and responsibility.
Vassberg, The Village and the Outside World, 12-13.

During the Reconquest, “settlers moving into new areas were typically allotted lands; therefore, the norm in these medieval settlements was for vecinos to be adult male property-owners (Vassberg, 16). This practice seems to render Zinn’s 2 percent figure unlikely, although it seems a reasonable figure for feudal societies. It may be worth noting that an article claiming to be “the first quantitative assessment of Castilian ennoblement,” published in 2007 would make it unlikely that Zinn’s figures could be any more than a crude guess.* In any case, Zinn’s figure may be more accurate for the seventeenth century than for the fifteenth and sixteenth. There certainly was a polarization between rich and poor in Spain during its decline from preeminent power during the days of Columbus and Cortés. Indeed, migration patterns that resulted from conquests in the Americas were one of the contributing factors to the seventeenth century crisis that included urban decline, economic stagnation and ruralization, and consolidation of polarized class structures. These are central themes in The Castilian Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: New Perspectives on the Economic and Social History of Seventeenth-Century Spain (1994), edited by I.A.A. Thompson and Bartolomé Yun Casalilla.

The performance of the Castilian economy was thus [due to economic and geographic centrality of the new global economy] a crucial factor in the performance of all the other major European economies. For the first three-quarters or more of the sixteenth century Castile’s population multiplied, the arable was extended, agricultural production increased, the level of urbanisation rose, the manufacture of silks and woollens flourished in the great textile centres of Toledo, Granada, Segovia and Cordoba; wool exports remained buoyant until the 1590s, and traffic with the Indies until the 1610s. In the last quarter of the sixteenth century this expansion first petered out and then fell back on itself. The progressive downturn of the Castilian economy was arguably one of the triggers of the general crisis of the European economy in the seventeenth century, the mark of the shift of economic preponderance from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and the archetypical model of the ‘failed’ economy.
Thompson and Casalilla, Castilian Crisis, 2.

Spain’s initial success in the colonizing enterprise may have produced the opposite of its desired goal of extending national wealth. This lesson should give us pause when we think we comprehend our own long-term economic self-interest.

Academic Tribalism: Neglect of Spain

Americanist historians as a group often seem ignorant of Europe, although some take a few courses in European history as graduate students. In this ignorance, historians reflect the sort of knowledge that characterizes the United States population as a whole. We are a provincial people. But, historians of England, France, and Germany often are lacking appallingly in knowledge of Spain as well. Academic specialties in the past of certain nations generally develop through cultivated gaps in knowledge regarding others. Thompson and Casalilla note the effects of superficial analysis.

[T]he failure of the Spanish economy has in a long tradition that extends from the seventeenth century to the second half of the twentieth been explained in terms of arbitrary government, a bad religion, the tyrannical Inquisition, reactionary hidalgo values, the wretched laziness of the people, the absence of a capitalist and entrepreneurial spirit and other failings of the national character, as much as in terms of objective economic analysis.
Thompson and Casalilla, Castilian Crisis, 3.

Why was Spain's early lead eclipsed by France and England, which became the dominant power? Schweikart and Allen, for their part, emphasize England’s “adoption of the joint-stock company as a form of business,” its greater openness to “risk taking and innovation,” and “property rights and political rights” that grew out of labor scarcity (15-16). England’s state sponsored pirates also played a significant role in retarding the growth of Spain’s American colonies (11-12), they suggest. Zinn, for his part, is less concerned for the differences among European colonizing powers than for their shared ideologies of supremacy over indigenous peoples.

However, in a strange twist of ideologically driven scholarship, Zinn’s greater attention to the works of Bartolomé de Las Casas does more than shelves of work by conservative writers to advance the idea that “concepts of equality and freedom” are central to European thought.

Even if the curriculum were confined to thought strictly European in origin, it would still present a rich variety of conflicting ideas, including the very concepts of equality and freedom from oppression invoked by those who would reorient the curriculum.
Statement of the National Association of Scholars

Conservatives claiming left-wing bias in the Academy chant this mantra while scholars focused upon the ideologies of European global hegemony delve into the writings of Las Casas. While Schweikart and Allen decry the “crescendo of damnation” (7) of Columbus and his heirs during the quincentennial, the 1991 publication Rethinking Columbus: Teaching about the 500th Anniversary of Columbus’s Arrival in America offers a synopsis of Las Casas’s History of the Indies: “The Spanish Fight for Justice in the Indies” (82-83). Conservative pundits claim that liberation from slavery was a European idea, a point they allege left-wing scholars suppress, but Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States (2004) includes ten pages from the writings of Las Casas (35-44).

European Political History

The long road to American democracy as a fit product for export may have grown from seeds planted in ancient Greece, but there were many setbacks along the way. England’s thirteenth century Magna Carta was one episode, later muted by the tyranny of the Crown. Likewise, thirteenth century Spain showed more incipient democracy than would be true three centuries later.

There were early Reconquest towns and villages that functioned as direct participatory democracies: all the citizens of a place would meet in open assembly (concejo general de vecinos, or concejo abierto) to make governmental decisions. But with population growth, and the increasing complexity of municipal life, the open assembly was gradually supplanted by the governing council (concejo reducida, or cabildo). This council was increasingly dominated by the local socioeconomic elite, especially the hidalgos. The old direct democracies had largely disappeared by the mid-1300s, but they survived much longer in certain small and remote villages where universal poverty encouraged the maintenance of egalitarian customs.
Vassberg, The Village and the Outside World, 15.

Neither A Patriot’s History nor A People’s History offers sufficient detail regarding the worlds of colonizing Europeans to locate their partially accurate facts in a trustworthy narrative. The Spanish conquistadors and the Indians they subjugated lived in and produced a richly varied world that defies the gross generalizations of ideologically driven histories.

* Mauricio Drelichman, “Sons of Something: Taxes, Lawsuits, and Local Political Control in Sixteenth-Century Castile,” The Journal of Economic History 67 (2007), 608-642.

03 March 2008

Fundamental Questions: Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson’s majestic A History of the American People (1997) purports to address three fundamental questions. These questions concern expiation of national sins, the balance of moral ideals and practical needs, and a sense of national mission. Rooted in these questions are fundamental assumptions.

Expiation of Sins

Johnson assumes that taking possession of the North American continent proceeded through injustice to its indigenous inhabitants. He also assumes that American self-sufficiency was rendered possible through the suffering of enslaved labor. These assumptions are well-supported historical generalizations, although some balk at their expression. In a dissenting opinion, for example, Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist deployed the moniker “revisionist history” as a pejorative description of specific allegations of injustice towards the Lakota and other Native peoples of the northern Plains.

I think the Court today rejects that conclusion largely on the basis of a view of the settlement of the American West which is not universally shared. There were undoubtedly greed, cupidity, and other less-than-admirable tactics employed by the Government … but the Indians did not lack their share of villainy either. It seems to me quite unfair to judge by the light of “revisionist” historians or the mores of another era actions that were taken under pressure of time more than a century ago.
U.S. v. Sioux Nation 448 U. S. 371, at 435

More recently, Michael Medved has suggested that there was little out of the ordinary in the American institution of slavery, expiating the sins (as Johnson would have it) by noting that all have sinned. Medved’s distortions are well enough exposed by Timothy Burke that there is no need to rehash them here.

The point is that such exceptions as Rehnquist and Medved stem from a handful of ideologues that cling to a peculiar conservatism; these do not negate Johnson’s assumption in his first question. Has the United States “expiated its organic sins” (3)?

Moral Ideals and Practical Realities

Johnson’s first question, he suggests, logically leads to the second. Has the United States found the correct mix of “ideals and altruism” with “acquisitiveness and ambition” (3)? Despite origins in “sin,” the United States is steeped in the eighteenth century ideals of liberty and equality. It is true that it was formed by merchants and planters that intended their government to protect property and commerce. Competing self-interest was the necessary “hidden hand” behind healthy economic growth, according to a leading theory of the day. But, did the society created by these American colonials become one in which “righteousness has the edge over the needful self-interest” (3)?

Johnson seems to suggest that if the balance is right, the sins of dispossession and slavery are expiated.

Sense of Mission

The third question ties together the first two. Has the “republic of the people,” rooted in “an other worldly ‘City on a Hill’,” proven “to be a model for the entire planet” (3)? The notion of racism as a national sin reveals a secular application of religious themes. The third question reveals the heart of this trope. From its origins in Puritan New England, as expressed by Cotton Mather (quoted in “From Chiasmus to Columbus”) and his predecessors, the sense of divine mission became secularized.

The Puritan settlers that debarked from the Arbella in 1630 began in congregation as hearers of John Winthrop’s seminal sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” In this sermon, Winthrop referenced Matthew 5:14 in a line that has become one of the most frequently repeated sentiments in American rhetoric. The twin notions that America is an example to the world, and that God is the protector of this nation get invoked with regularity in public discourse. An old book sitting on my shelf explains the theme.

Every President, from George Washington to Lyndon B. Johnson, has included in his inaugural address one or more references to his and the nation’s dependence upon God. These statements have become the documented and lasting records of the religious expressions of our presidents.
Benjamin Weiss, God in American History, 47.

Johnson was President when Weiss published his book in 1966, but subsequent Presidents have not deviated from the pattern. Some, to be certain, sound more like preachers than others. Historiann pointed out in reply to my article “A City on Hill” in January that Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Speech must be remembered in this context.

The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the "shining city upon a hill." The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we'd call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.
Reagan, “Farewell Address”

Of course, Winthrop was a Puritan, not one of the early Pilgrims that came ten years earlier. One benefit of living through the Eighties with a keen ear and a sense of the past is freedom from all expectations that President Reagan would ever be correct in his summary of historical particulars. Nevertheless, the larger sentiments he expressed were shared by enough shakers and movers that the erroneous details are insignificant.

Despite the omnipresence of God in such rhetoric, the question Johnson asks assumes that this sense of mission became secular. It has not become thus without considerable resistance from true believers, so some confusion remains. Earlier in his address, Reagan emphasized the core values.

Countries across the globe are turning to free markets and free speech and turning away from ideologies of the past. For them, the great rediscovery of the 1980s has been that, lo and behold, the moral way of government is the practical way of government: Democracy, the profoundly good, is also the profoundly productive.
Reagan, “Farewell Address”

One gets the impression from Paul Johnson’s beginning that his final answers to all three questions are affirmative.

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