A Working Holiday

Map of US Territorial Acquisitions (Credit: National Atlas of the United States via Wikimedia Commons)

New Year’s has often been a working holiday for American statesmen.  More than a day of moral resolution, January 1st marks the anniversary of several bold, ambitious actions that have opened new eras and horizons for Americans as a people.

1. SCOUTING THE WEST

New Year’s Day in 1803 found Thomas Jefferson secretly laying the groundwork for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a scheme that had to be covert because it proposed scouting out vast tracts of land that at the time belonged to other countries.  The French lands now referred to as the Louisiana Purchase would not belong to the United States until the spring, while the Oregon Territory would remain the property of England for many decades.  Yet Jefferson was undeterred in his determination to familiarize himself with, and strengthen American claims to, these unknown neighboring regions.

So he began crafting a confidential message to Congress, describing the possible benefits of reconnoitering these lands and asking for an appropriation of the $2,500 necessary to supply the journey.   Congress looked with favor on his request, thus inaugurating a initiative that pioneered knowledge of the West’s lands, resources, and native peoples.

A map from the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Courtesy of Yale University Library via Wikimedia Commons).

The government was rewarded with a treasure-trove of maps and documents that facilitated its later dealings with, and gradual displacement of, native American tribes.  Today, we tend to discount the expansionist ambitions that motivated Jefferson, instead lauding the Expedition as an early model of the many progressive scientific projects and surveys the US government would subsequently fund.

2. FREEING THE SLAVE

Sixty years later, President Lincoln spent New Year’s Day greeting callers to the White House and putting his signature on the final version of his Emancipation Proclamation, which was sent out over the telegraph wires later that day.  Not unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition, Lincoln’s statement had had a long fruition, with earlier drafts of the measure being floated and discussed the previous fall.  Lincoln’s determination to associate the waging of the Civil War with the moral cause of ending slavery marked a tipping point in the long struggle to secure for African-Americans personal freedom and civil equality, a struggle begun decades earlier and continuing on for more than a century, even down to today.

Watch meeting in Massachusetts

The executive order, which famously declared the freedom of all slaves held in rebel states, was on display at the National Archives in Washington yesterday, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary.  Though limited in its scope and practical effects, the proclamation spelled liberation for a people who had suffered oppression since colonial times.  Lincoln’s deliberate blow to slavery paved the way for its complete and permanent abolition, accomplished through the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

3. WELCOMING THE IMMIGRANT

Finally, on New Year’s Day in 1892, the first immigrant (of some 16 million) passed through the doors of Ellis Island.  It is commonly said that “American is a nation of immigrants,” but the establishment of Ellis Island and other formal points of entry gave that rite of passage a dignity and regularity that was previously missing.

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1905 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Located near the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island bestowed welcome and the necessary paperwork on immigrants who had previously been less distinguishable from American citizens.  At a time when many born Americans went through life without the legal documentation of a birth certificate, Ellis Island conferred a bureaucratic identity on the newly arrived, routinizing a more paper-bound and legalistic conception of Americanness that is with us still.  Today, however, Ellis Island stands as a cherished symbol of the rational means the government employed to bind its disparate population into one people.

May these complex and impressive projects inspire today’s political leaders to lift up their sights and grapple bravely with the issues confronting the nation now.

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Was American Greatness Built on Fiscal Folly?

The US Capitol in the 1830s (Courtesy Cornell University Library via The Commons on Flickr)

Is American greatness based on extravagant decisions that make no economic sense?  I’m pretty sure the answer is yes.

Our history is littered with “go-for-broke” projects that were hailed as sure-fire disasters at the time.  They would never have had a chance if our ancestors had had to defend themselves against the hand-wringers and economic rationalists who control American decision-making today.

Here is a short list of things that would never have happened because they entailed excessive risk, uncertain returns, irrevocable loss, or extravagant outlays.  In some cases, the day of exoneration for these decisions didn’t arrive for decades.  In the meantime, the country and its leaders endured ridicule as well as some terrifying liabilities.

1.  The Revolution.  It should have been a doomed undertaking.  The rebellion was impulsive and deepened into a pitched struggle that lasted eight years.  During that time, the colonies held it together with a more or less powerless committee that they tried to dignify with the name of the Continental Congress.   The war was fueled largely by reckless borrowing and the issuing of funny money.  The country organized under the Constitution largely because the new structure promised impecunious states debt relief.  Burdened from the outset with staggering debts, we became the US because there was no other way.

2.  The Louisiana Purchase.  Jefferson’s famous 1803 purchase was another patent error we wouldn’t think of committing today.  True, he acquired all that land west of the Mississippi, out of which 14 or 15 perfectly good states were made, —but he agreed to pay France an amount of money that was two times our entire federal budget at that time.  How could that be wise?

3.  The founding of Washington, DC.  Another ghastly boo-boo.  Instead of putting the capital near one of the existing states or cities, our frivolous forefathers insisted on mapping out a whole new city, and on a ridiculously grandiose scale, too.  Ignoring the fiscal realities, they threw away dollar after dollar building up an unduly magnificent city—it was all too European.  Yet, lo and behold, the iconic city they built is a global symbol, anchoring a metropolitan region of some 5 million people that is one of the most dynamic in the US today.

4. Seward’s Folly.  The Alaskan Purchase.  Another instance of classic fiscal adventurism.  Another expenditure the US didn’t need, especially not in 1867, when the government was laden with debt from the Civil War.  Critics argued that Alaska was inconvenient, and unnecessary; its only asset was a population of fur-bearing animals, whose value was declining.  That was before the gold was discovered, or the oil.  Purchased for 7.2 million dollars, Alaska today has a $49-billion GDP.

5. Ending slavery.  This, surely, was the most economically reckless action in American history.  For in putting an end to slavery, the US deprived one class of white Americans of millions of dollars of “property” and put an end to a convenient labor system they were accustomed to.  The gradual recognition that the slaves in our midst had a moral and political claim to be treated differently—that, in fact, Americans of all races are entitled to full civil and political equality—is one of the costliest convictions at which we’ve ever arrived.   Yet like many of our other decisions that “made no sense,” this one was essential to our national integrity.  And it highlights, in a way that the other items on my list do not, why economic rationality alone has never been, and should never be, the transcendent value in a republic like ours.

So, to my contemporaries I say—yes, cut away the waste and the unnecessary—but never disavow that go-for-broke mentality.  It’s part of the folly that made us great.

Image: The U.S. Capitol in 1830s Washington, D.C.
from this source.
  For a photograph of the Capitol from this period, click here.