The Toxic Vibe at Antietam

A view of "Bloody Lane" from the observation tower.

Every Civil War battlefield is poignant, preserving within itself a base, murderous vibe.  Each speaks to us in its own way of American folly.  Nowhere is the vibe more toxic than at Antietam.

What led Americans to murder one another there in record numbers?  They had lost patience over a complex problem that they failed to solve politically, and each set of murderers would be damned before they would see their opponents prevail.  And so they were.

In a quiet corner of rural Maryland just off the Potomac River, legions of Union and Confederate soldiers—Americans all—converged in cornfields and country lanes outside Sharpsburg, shooting, bombing, and bayoneting one another in a merciless bloodbath.  It was just one day in a civil war that lasted four years and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men, scarring their families and traumatizing a proud, optimistic nation.  There in the vicinity of Antietam Creek, on September 17, 1862, some 23,000 Americans were wounded or killed.

Masses of dead Americans lying in a field after Antietam in 1862

They were the victims of party politics.  The lofty language Lincoln and others used to give meaning to the Civil War tends to obscure the truth that the war was a travesty, a rebuke to the pretensions of republican government.  The Civil War was the nasty afterbirth of a colossal political deadlock that upended the political system and plunged the nation into catastrophe.  We rarely acknowledge the deeply shameful character of this domestic rumble. The nation’s leadership class so failed the people that at last they and their states lost patience, gave up negotiating, and gambled on settling their differences by force.

When the Civil War broke out, the United States was a young, forward-looking nation.  Its people were migratory and accustomed to risk.  They were experimental, improvisational, adept at breaking with established ways.  Yet, when it came to slavery, their leaders were blinkered.  They were irresponsible and cowardly.  (Historian James G. Randall once dubbed them “the blundering generation.”)  In the first half of the 19th century, when other countries were advancing toward the gradual abolition of slavery (often in their colonial possessions), a generation of American leaders proved incapable of finding a peaceful way past white Southerners’ longstanding reliance on negro slaves.

An enormous literature catalogs the reasons these “antebellum” statesmen failed.  Slavery was deeply rooted in the South’s colonial past. The slaveholding class perceived owning “property” in slaves as vital to Southern prosperity, which was based on export commodities (chiefly tobacco and cotton).  White Southerners also enjoyed more than their fair share of representation in Congress, thanks to the three-fifths clause of the Constitution.

Northern politicians meanwhile turned a blind eye to slavery (the “peculiar” institution), in part because of the North’s own variety of anti-black feeling, but also because agitating for change with respect to slavery threatened the solidarity of the political class across the North-South divide.  No one in power could envision the US with a large free black population.

Northern Democrats, whose party was pro-slavery, were keen to steer clear of the slavery issue because they wanted to remain in power.  They wanted their party to remain dominant and keep control of the White House.  They were committed to preventing the federal government from infringing on the rights of slave-holding states or individual slaveholders.

In short, until the rise of the Republican Party in the late 1850s, slavery was an uncomfortable issue that no mainstream politician wanted to face.  Slavery, that “fire bell in the night,” as Jefferson memorably described it circa 1820, was so potentially divisive a matter that, for many decades, American statesmen conspired to keep it from interfering in national life.

Politically, this strategy of avoidance allowed northern and southern states to enjoy a balance of power.  As territories were settled and new states admitted to the Union, Congress passed various measures in an attempt to ensure that the number of free and slave states would remain equal.  The Missouri Compromise (1820), the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 were all constructed along these lines.

When an initially tiny group of antislavery politicians succeeded in organizing the new Republican Party and putting their candidate Abraham Lincoln in the White House in 1860, Southern legislators were certain they knew what the future held.  They were convinced that the Republicans’ success (though attained solely with the support of Northern states) presaged slavery’s doom—and their own.  Southern leaders who might have stayed in power to mitigate the effects of this untoward political development, recoiled against their minority status.  Fearful and defiant, they withdrew from national politics.  Then they went home and convinced their states to withdraw from the Union.  In doing so, they placed themselves on the wrong side of history, failing their states and fellow-citizens, and spinning a narrative of bitterness and alienation that some Southerners continue to lean on today.

Suddenly, because of all that, the residents who had heretofore ferried back and forth across the Potomac on their daily errands became mortal enemies.  Confederates blew up the bridge at Shepherdstown, Virginia, that was normally used to get to the Maryland side.  Then, after the bridge was gone, tens of thousands of troops who were part of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia waded across the river at night to wage war in what was called the Maryland Campaign.

Lee sought to attack and defeat the Union Army on northern soil, but, even at this early point in the war, his soldiers and he may well have sensed the terrible futility and shamefulness of their resort to violence—the civic degeneration that “freed” them to attack their erstwhile compatriots, whose ancestors had fought with theirs to attain independence in the American Revolution.  Having disavowed their faith in federal politics and the Constitution, Southern “rebels” now poured their energies into slaughtering whomever they encountered in the “bloody cornfield.”

After both sides sickened from their atrocious duties, Lee’s forces retreated back across the river into rebel territory, an admission that their aggressive foray against the defenders of federalism had failed.

In retrospect, we can see how the visceral drama and valor of the Civil War took the heat off “the blundering generation.”  We do not excoriate the political establishment of that time for failing to hang together, for their cowardly abandonment of the federal system.

Because the Civil War at last secured the great goal of emancipation, we can easily be fooled into thinking of it as a noble, progressive event.  It’s blasphemy to admit the war was a terrible disservice to the nation, which would have been better off abolishing slavery by consensual means.  The partisan and sectional conflict leading up to the Civil War exposed frightening vulnerabilities in our Constitutional system, vulnerabilities that are still there, waiting for a freak combination of circumstances to exploit them again.

Sadly, the resort to force did not “settle our differences.”  A vast change in our internal relations occurred when slavery ended, but, as for the necessary change of heart, we’re waiting for it still.  Southern slaveholders never assented to slavery’s end.  Northerners never got serious about the concessions that might have induced the South to give up an immoral labor practice at odds with the nation’s ideals.  Ultimately, enslaved blacks attained freedom despite violent Southern opposition, engendering animosities that confound Americans still.  Still, America lacks consensus on racial equality as a fact and a blessing; still retrograde elements valorize their resistance to modern popular will.

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How wonderful it would be

Man cutting out stars in a flag factory (Courtesy Library of Congress)

“It would just be so wonderful if the answers could actually come from the South itself,” Isabella Wilkerson said.  She was talking about the Charleston shootings, the Confederate flag, and the influence the South’s slave-holding past continues to have on the region.  The race hatred that motivated a young white gunman to kill nine African-Americans in their own church is an extreme manifestation of the bitterness and resentment still lingering in some hearts after the Civil War—a conflict whose one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary the nation has just observed.

That long-ago conflict determined the superior power of the federal government over the states, while putting an end to Southern slavery.  The citizens of the sections warred against one another, one side sold on the merits of federalism, the other desiring to preserve states’ autonomy.  The South went to war over the right to pass and uphold whatever laws it pleased—specifically those that sanction chattel slavery.

The Union’s victory invalidated the rebels’ arguments, while setting up an asymmetrical dynamic vis-à-vis the South that persists.  In the wake of this rebuke, the federal government (in the so-called “Reconstruction” era) ruled Southern state governments for ten years, fearing that, if given political autonomy, the states would use it to resurrect slavery.  Later in the century, Southern states achieved something approximate through the Jim Crow laws.  During the civil rights era of the 1960s, the federal government again intervened to help secure and uphold black Southerners’ claims to legal and civil equality.  This legacy of intervention achieved progress by coercion–an achievement very different than that of racial reconciliation and political healing from inside.

When I traveled to Mississippi in the early 1990s, I was shocked to encounter whites who felt they couldn’t ‘win’ because of the weights the Civil War had placed on them.  They still felt diminished and beaten, and still resented and feared the state’s large black population, which could attain hegemony if empowered.  Enmeshed in an archaic social paradigm, they still regarded their black brethren as something other than Southern and equal.

The Southern tendency to predicate the present on this past is a baleful impediment to Southern progress.  It is, moreover, a baleful impediment to the vitality and strength of the entire country.  People of all sections are affected by the conditions prevailing in this one region.  Just imagine the transforming effects upon the entire nation if the South were finally to heal its own historical wounds!

Above: A man cuts out stars for a flag with a machine, in a photograph probably taken in 1909.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Humanitarian Sensibility

woodcut of kneeling man in shackles
The humanitarian sensibility is the capacity to be moved by suffering we are not experiencing ourselves. It is especially remarkable when the suffering that moves us is remote, not present to our senses, but requires an imaginative empathic response.  The desire to relieve distant suffering or right abstract wrongs is an outgrowth of the humanitarian sensibility.  It is an active and extended form of charity.

The humanitarian sensibility is not innate–it is a product of culture, and not found in all societies, but where it is present it has profound consequences, both in the present and historically.  We can see it operating to various degrees in the Syrian refugee crisis, just as we can discern its utter absence in the perpetrators whose violence has led millions to flee Syria and its environs.  Historically, the humanitarian sensibility has powered innumerable movements, including the drive to abolish slavery in the Western world, beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The humanitarian impulse, though not peculiar to the West, is a living expression of Biblical precepts and the natural rights tradition on which democratic government rests.  It carries the Biblical injunction to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ to its farthest possibility, leading Westerners to battle hunger and disease afflicting other continents, to give to Haitian disaster relief, to correct cleft palates and blindness wherever they are found, and to support female rights and rights activists like Malala Yousafzai.  The drive to minister to the world is noble, but it is not universally shared.  And in the US, we can see the limits of that sensibility, as when our government turned away children from Latin America, who came here seeking refuge from the violence and exploitation of the drug trade.

Image: from this source.
The emblem of the beseeching slave with the question “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”
first gained circulation in the 1780s as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England.
The design was rendered in many forms,
on coins, in ceramic by Josiah Wedgwood, and as a woodcut, as here.
This powerful graphic appealed to viewers to look beyond differences of race and condition
to acknowledge the common humanity that linked free people with the enslaved.
This particular woodcut appeared on an American broadside to illustrate
John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1837 poem, ‘Our Countrymen in Chains.’

The Dream of Emancipation

Thomas Nast, "Emancipation: The Past and the Future," colored wood engraving, 1865 (Library Company of Philadelphia).
All the fervent hopes associated with the end of American slavery animate this colored engraving of Thomas Nast’s “Emancipation: The Past and the Future,” published in 1865.

Better than pages upon pages of tracts and editorials, this vivid artwork expresses the moral convictions and sentiments that led Americans of 150 years ago to get rid of slavery, and, beyond that, to envision a society in which all people would equally enjoy certain basic rights.

Freeing the slaves was one thing: it was quite another for white America to embrace a vision of political equality that would extend to Americans of another color.  Yet this northern Americans did right after the Civil War (1861-65), amending the Constitution to secure positive legal equality for former slaves and all persons of color.  Proponents of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—which abolished slavery, promised citizens equal protection under the law, and extended voting rights to blacks—believed that these measures would guarantee the liberty of former slaves and their descendants, opening the way for their sharing in the blessings of prosperity and peace.

In that sense, the so-called Reconstruction Amendments, passed between 1865 and 1870, represent the high-water mark of nineteenth-century America’s quest for racial equality.  That quest, which had begun in earnest in the 1830s, was an essentially moral and intellectual movement, a movement that a generation of writers, moralists, orators, newspaper publishers, and outspoken clergymen advanced.  For many decades they labored hopelessly and alone.  Abolitionists were marginal and dangerous figures.  Politicians wanted nothing to do with their cause.  Statesmen were uniformly loathe to disturb slavery: it was essential to the US economy; therefore, it was far better to let it be.

Only the abolitionists persistently and inconveniently refused to be silent.  For decades, their cause, their dream of banishing slavery once and for all, was a fringe movement, something entertained only in truly radical minds.  Those who demanded abolition were literally playing with fire, and sometimes the fire found them, as when their offices were burned, or when their efforts to keep the courts from returning fugitives slaves to their masters caused riots.

The belief that slavery had to end and that, once it did, the only proper course was to recognize black Americans as citizens, gradually gained some political traction, though it remained a minority view.  Radical Republicans like Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts would not rest until they had expunged slavery from the Constitution and enshrined the principle of racial equality in its place.  After the war, Northerners succeeded in amending the Constitution as they did only because the South was relatively disenfranchised and in a state of social and economic disarray.

The amendments were right, but they remained radical: like many of our nation’s founding principles, the Reconstruction amendments spelled out an ideal, one that has proved elusive, for decades more inspirational than real.

But the dream of it, the dream of racial inclusion and equality: that dream has made all the difference, both during Reconstruction and subsequently.  The Americans who struggled, 150 years ago, to codify this radical vision and make it more real were the forerunners of modern civil-rights heroes like Martin Luther King.  That dream continues to inspire all people of conscience to practice mutual respect, and to be true to the radical principle of equality that ennobles us all.

Item: from the collections of  The Library Company of Philadelphia.
Click the print to enlarge it.

Nast’s drawing telescopes all the horrifying aspects of slavery.  At left, the capture and abduction of Africans from their native lands; the break-up of their families; their sale on the auction block to American owners;
the powerlessness of male and female slaves in the face of their owners’ will;
their forced labor, the fruits of which now belonged to their owner;
and the absence of any recourse except to the ear of God,
to end the injustices and torment of being enslaved.
Only Liberty (at the top of the print) could dispel these grave moral and social sins.
Nast imagined a future in which newly freed people would enjoy everyday blessings,
such as (at right) having intact families, sending their children to school,
being paid wages for labor performed,
and owning something themselves instead of being owned.

Hello, February

Ice skating; The Lincoln Memorial in the background, Washington, DC (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

February is seldom as fun as I hope it will be.  I dream of escaping to the sledding hill or spending an afternoon out ice-skating, but instead I end up trapped at my desk, thinking of dead presidents, the white and black races, and slavery.

Its calendar page filled with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, the birth and death dates of Frederick Douglass, and the observance of Black History Month, February is a minefield of historic associations, of significance buried but waiting to explode.  Continue reading

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.

Echoes of an Uncompromising Time

Lithographed "Diagram of the Federal Government and American Union, 1862 (Courtesy Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons)

The tantrums.  The bad manners.  The stubbornness.  The ruptures.  I read the news and think of the Civil War times.

Fortunately, no single issue divides us geographically, as slavery did then; otherwise, there are startling similarities between the politics of that time and what we have now.

The 1850s were a cataclysmic time, as events intensified the need to solve the ‘problem’ of slavery, an entrenched point of controversy which for decades had defied solution.  Since the time of the Founding, some 60 years before, statesmen on different sides of the issue had found ways to compromise so that the nation could keep functioning.

Compromise was ‘good’ in the sense that it averted political paralysis or the breakdown of the Union, but ‘bad’ in the sense that it was merely a ‘settlement’—an agreement that temporarily put the issue to rest, without resolving it once and for all.

Compromise kept the nation and its government going, however.  It allowed the two major political parties (Whigs and Democrats then) to enjoy a fine balance of power.  But the possibility that one party might gain ascendency over the other, and thus resolve The Issue in their favor, raised the stakes on every controversy.  Every political battle was fought as though it were the ultimate one.

Little did the parties know that, in the coming decade, their organizations would be shattered into pieces—one party split in two, the other dead.  A new party would be born.

Or did they know?  It seems they suspected.  Yet, rather than rearrange their parties around The Issue, they, too, like us, engaged in a politics of avoidance.  Politicians tried to suppress slavery.  They introduced the gag rule in the House.  They devised temporary fixes.  Above all, they hoped the uncomfortable problem would go away.  That it would be resolved sometime, in the future, by someone; but not by them.

The repeated return of The Issue gradually wore civility away.  Eventually, politicians on the two sides of the slavery issue stopped socializing.  Their insults grew more personal, causing violence and occasional invitations to duel.  Content with power, the parties were fearful of what an ultimate resolution of the Issue would mean.

People in the states grew restive, too.  Being more particularized, they were not content with some of the federal compromises.  There were the same charges then: that federal action was a threat to their way of life.

Slaveholders worried that they would be deprived of their property; they railed against a federal government that would drain their prosperity away.  Abolitionists in the North were also unhappy: they didn’t want to have to return fugitive slaves to the South, as federal law decreed.  So they began to work against the federal law, not only in the courts, but by subverting it too.

Opinions became polarized, varying sharply depending on what part of the country you were in.  Countrymen looked on their opponents as people with whom they had nothing in common.  States began crafting arguments to justify their leaving the Union, growing weary of the yoke of federal compliance, and certain life would be better if they could have their own way.

Never had there been such partisan strife.  It was a time when the weaknesses of our political system lay fully exposed; when our parties, our leaders, and our devotion to the Union failed us.  It was an uncompromising time that left us divided in two.

Image: N. Mendal Shafer,
“Diagram of the Federal Government and American Union,”
1862 lithograph, from this source.
A shout-out to the Wikimedian who prepped this image
and made it so easy to find—thank you.

RELATED:
Susan Barsy, Parties Made New: Our Critical Elections, Our Polity.
Susan Barsy, A World Without Lincoln, Our Polity.
Paul Finkelman, Lincoln’s Letter to the Editor, New York Times.

Biden’s Arrow Hits Home


Joe Biden has mastered the political stump speech.  Watch the whole of his controversial campaign speech in Danville, Virginia, and you’ll see a great piece of Americana: a politician who knows how to work a crowd, seeking votes in a way that’s entertaining and folksy.  Biden’s allusion to slavery was hardly a gaffe; it was a logical and powerful way to get across a larger point about class and how Republicans have treated it for several decades.

We know Biden’s speech was a big success, because he was immediately excoriated as a dunce and a racist.  Blowback dominated the media for several days.  Romney huffily declared that Democrats had hit a new low and tried to get us to believe that Biden was a dangerous man whose message of division somehow “disgraced” the presidency.

Both sides questioned old Joe’s fitness and utility: Could he fill the presidential shoes if necessary?  Shouldn’t Obama drop him in favor of the sure-fire Hillary?  Democrats behaved predictably, too: instead of championing Biden and endorsing his underlying point, they grew sheepish.  If only they learned unity, the race wouldn’t even be close.

Puncturing the politics of avoidance
Yes, Biden hit a nerve, and he did it by puncturing the politics of avoidance that has been gripping the country.  Ever since the Reagan era, when Republicans managed to yoke together with one seamless ideology the economic interests of the elite with the social and moral concerns of people far more ordinary, class has been diminished as a potent source of political energy.  Republicans wish their supporters to believe that the interests of the wealthy and the less-so are the same.  To the extent that Democrats can pry this apart and present an alternative vision of class in American society, they will gain an important advantage over a Republican party that’s badly weakened already.

After all, this election is not “about jobs” or “the economy,” as Republicans say so blandly: it is about economic inequality and the role of the super-wealthy in our economic life.  It is about whether people like Mitt Romney, who has the whole world as his oyster, care about this nation’s economy and its ordinary people.

Romney would like voters to believe that his interests and theirs are just the same: that, if you feed the interests of his class, all will benefit; the interests of all classes will be served.  If that were the case, the recession would be ending, because American elites can write the script of the unfolding story.  They can decisively aid in restoring the nation’s economic health.  Leaders of America’s corporate class already have far more power than the president to see to it that Americans are more fully employed.

A party that’s drifted from its noble beginnings
Biden’s bald reference to slavery may well have pricked the conscience of Republicans who know how far their party has drifted from its noble beginnings.  In Lincoln’s time, Republicans were not only the champions of abolition: they were devoted to egalitarianism and to securing better economic prospects for lower-class whites.  The most radical Republicans advocated for full racial equality, a bracing proposition given the time.  Republicans were the ones who wanted to discuss such forbidden topics as slavery; it was Democrats who were proponents of silence, who wanted all discussion of “the peculiar institution” gagged.

Yet even then there were Republicans, such as Horace Greeley, who would not join the anti-slavery fight because they doubted whether the nation’s growing free-market system held out a sufficient promise of prosperity to American workers—even when those workers were white.  In the meantime, the persistence of slavery in America proved beyond a doubt that powerful elites, if left to their own devices, could not always be counted on to do the right thing.

Perhaps it was all that history that gave Biden’s arrow such a powerful zing.

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.