28 February 2009

Pioneers, Laborers, Slaves

In the comments to yesterday's post, Doghouse Riley posed a question about President Obama's rhetoric in his Inaugural Address and campaign stump speeches. This portion of the Inaugural Speech is the one in question.
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted—for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things—some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.
President Barack Obama, Inauguration Speech

Doghouse asks whether Obama with his Ivy League education could possibly miss the problematic nature of these comments.

Perhaps I should discuss how this version of American history manifests itself in Howard Zinn, who sides with the Indians displaced by these settlers and their plows, but also sides with those toiling in sweatshops, and sides with the African slaves that endured the lash of the whip. Zinn's alliances in A People's History of the United States offer one benchmark for comparison. Doghouse is also pressing me to ask how the story in the ultra-conservative A Patriot's History of the United States supports or contests Obama's appeal to our national character.

Obama is a slick politician, and that almost assures us that he will take liberties with the history he should know. Does his account reveal that he is banking on our collective ignorance? Useful history comforts the afflicted, but it also afflicts the comforted.

In Obama's defense, I might point out the rhetorical pattern of his repetition of the "for us" and its long tradition. Its roots are found at least in part in the soil of African American forms of religious expression. In his effort to yoke together the "pioneers" with factory workers and slaves, he may be deviating from the pattern of his predecessors in the White House. His effort to put these disparate groups in front of the same cart goes against another pattern of historical memory.

I'm thinking, for example, of the anti-union statement from 1888 of Arthur Denny, one of the founders of Seattle:
The object of all who came to Oregon in early times was to avail themselves of the privilege of a donation claim, and my opinion to-day is that every man and woman fully earned and merited all they got, but we have a small class of very small people here now who have no good word for the old settler that so bravely met every danger and privation, and by hard toil acquired, and careful economy, saved the means to make them comfortable during the decline of life. These, however, are degenerate scrubs, too cowardly to face the same dangers that our pioneer men and women did, and too lazy to perform an honest day’s work if it would procure them a homestead in paradise. They would want the day reduced to eight hours and board thrown in.
Arthur A. Denny, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound ([1888] 1965), 13.
For Denny and his peers, there is a clear and unmistakable difference in character between the conservative pioneers that built Seattle and the laborers they now employ, especially when they manifest tendencies towards Socialism.

The Laws of Western Settlement

The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 was designed by Congress to encourage farmers to settle in Oregon--at that time all the lands now included in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and part of western Montana. The Act
... granted to every white settler or occupant of the public lands, American half-breed Indians included, above the age of eighteen years, being a citizen of the United States, ... and who shall have resided upon and cultivated the same for four consecutive years, ... one half section, or three hundred and twenty acres of land, if a single man, and if a married man, ... one section, or six hundred and forty acres, one half to himself and the other half to his wife, ...
Donation Land Claim Act
The major form of cultivation practiced by the first settlers on that portion of Puget Sound that became Seattle was the nurturing of further immigration so the value of their lands would rise, and rise they did. These hardy pioneers knew how to practice land speculation within the letter of the law, and they grew rich as a consequence.

The Donation Land Claim Act made federal law provisions (modified slightly) of the Organic Act drafted at Champoeg (now under the waters of the Willamette River) in 1843. This Organic Act was the beginnings of regional self-government. Among the flurry of legislation passed by the Republican Congress in the early years of the Civil War, the Homestead Act of 1862 extended this scheme to the Great Plains, and also applied to the Pacific Northwest. The Homestead Act went hand in glove with the Pacific Railway Act and the Morrill Act (authorizing land grant universities in western states) to enable yeoman farmers spreading across the continent. In 1887, Congress extended this yeoman farmer idea to the original inhabitants of western states in General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Severalty Act. It was a Homestead Act for Indians that had among its chief effects the reduction of American Indian land holdings on reservations from 150 million acres to 47 million acres.

27 February 2009

Presidential History and the American Character

History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry.
President Barack Obama, "Address to Joint Session of Congress"
Nope. It didn't happen. Like every President before him, President Obama stretched the truth so far that it became a lie.

In 1862 during the Civil War, Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act providing federal subsidies and land grants to private companies to stimulate the building of a transcontinental railroad. But, most of the construction took place after the war. The railroad was completed in 1869.

According to an old standard text, Ray Allen Billington, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (1949), the Central Pacific (the western line) had laid less than forty miles of track by the end of the Civil War.
The first track was laid in 1863 and inched forward slowly during the next years--twenty miles in 1864, twenty more in 1865, thirty in 1866, forty-six in 1867.
Billington, 644
The Union Pacific (the eastern portion) had easier terrain, but fared no better.
Construction was slow at first, as the company struggled to obtain workers and materials from a war-burdened nation; only forty miles of track stretched west from Omaha at the close of 1865.
Billington, 644.
The pace of construction picked up after the end of the war.
The Central Pacific built 360 miles of road in 1868, the Union Pacific 425. For a time, so great was the competition, they seemed destined never to meet; Congress had set no junction point and when the grading crews met they passed each other, laying out parallel roads a short distance apart. The farce only ended when Washington officials ruled the two roads must join at Promontory Point, a short distance from Ogden, Utah.
Billington, 645-646.
The last spike was hammered in a ceremony 10 May 1869.

Among the immediate consequences was the descent upon San Francisco of 9000 unemployed Chinese workers. It did not take long for California to pass laws restricting the rights of Chinese nationals, including the denial of citizenship to these migrant workers that had been imported when they were necessary to build the Central Pacific through the rugged mountains of California and Nevada. With the hardest work finished, these immigrant laborers were a burden to immigrants of European origin. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Irish, German, and Italian immigrants built the Union Pacific.

Corporate Welfare

Another legacy of the Pacific Railroad Act was the land grants. The initial law granted ten square miles of land for each mile of rail laid. This land was to be claimed in alternate sections to encourage development of the adjacent lands. This grand scheme of corporate welfare enables the paradox of the American West: "Fiercely independent region of the U.S. where the proud traditions of welfare logging, welfare mining and welfare ranching continue to this very day" (Tom Toles, "Editorial Cartoon," n.d.).

Billington's summary lays out the details regarding year by year miles of track laid. More recent histories of the West focus on the Western paradox. Richard White, "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West (1991) contrasts the Western rhetoric of self-reliance with the realities of Federal apropriations.
In the imagination of modern America, the West has come to stand for independence, self-reliance, and individualism. Rhetorically, at least, modern westerners see themselves as part of a lineage that conquered a wilderness and transformed the land; they spring from a people who carved out their own destiny and remained beholden to no one. . . .
The American West, more than any other section of the United States, is a creation not so much of individual or local efforts, but of federal efforts. More than any other region, the West has been historically a dependency of the federal government. . . . [in the nineteenth century] Westerners usually regarded the federal government much as they would a particularly scratchy wool shirt in winter. It was all that was keeping them warm, but it still irritated them.
. . .
After 1960 . . . westerners favored more individualist solutions. They believed that the proper role of government was creating individual opportunities and not mediating between social groups or providing services individuals had failed to secure for themselves. Although couched in terms of frontier self-reliance and older western self-images, western individualism in its most recent form is very much the product of an urban, prosperous, middle-class West whose very existence was the result of federal programs and policies.
White, 57, 576
Obama's effort to highlight the strength of the American character evokes the political fault lines that divide Americans and their representatives in Congress. The fantasy is comforting; reality differs.

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP