Friday, August 13, 2010
Right Wing News has polled conservative bloggers -- not including me, probably because of my squishy positions on social matters -- and come up with a list of the "25 Worst Figures in American History." Uh, I have a question: Al Gore makes the list but Jefferson Davis doesn't? I mean, we used to want to hang that traitor from a sour apple tree, and now he does not even make the farookin' top 25? Do "conservative bloggers" in fact read less history than, er, conservatives?
Yeah, the list does seem to reflect a pretty shallow appreciation of US history.
But old Jeff Davis raises an interesting issue. How did our country survive the Civil War and knit itself back together within a generation or two, when other countries have preserved bloody feuds for centuries? (Think Ireland. Think Bosnia.) I think it is because of a kind of implicit social truce that grew up. The terms of the truce are simple: Even though the cause of the South is generally recognized to be wicked, we may still recognize their courage and dedication to their cause. We are allowed, in fact, to think of them as American heroes of a tragic and misguided type.
As someone descended from both North and South, I must say that the implicit truce has had much to commend it.
I think the list in question shows the influence of this implicit truce. The only Civil War era figure to appear, John Wilkes Booth, almost proves my point. He was nothing but a loathsome murderer -- not an honorable opponent in a terrible war.
Of course, lots of people nowadays do not hold with the implicit truce. They think any respectful remembrance of Confederates is nothing but a damnable celebration of racist atrocities. Bobby Lee, Adolph Hitler, same thing really.
Maybe the new attitude is okay, since the unifying work of the implicit truce is long accomplished. Or maybe it shows the same sort of historical tone-deafness as the present list.
What a ridiculous and unserious list. Except for a couple of names, it's basically a who's who of liberals we hate. Jane Fonda? C'mon! I've got no use for Fonda, never did. But to say that she is the 13th worst figure in American history is just stupid. Have these bloggers ever heard of Ted Bundy or Lee Harvey Oswald(both noticeably missing from the list).
Also, FDR is worse than Timothy McVeigh and John Wilkes Booth? This is why I have a hard time taking a lot of conservative bloggers seriously.
Besides being the best Secretary of War (before SecDef was a thing) that the United States ever had, Jeff Davis was widely acknowledged as a good man and a patriot even after secession. According to Shelby Foote's "Civil War: A Narrative", prior to the war itself, many Northerners lamented the fact that they had an unproven Lincoln while the Confederates had the established Jefferson Davis.
I'm not sure if you used the word "traitor" as a sort of nod to the sentiment of certain individuals towards the Confederacy, or whether you actually believe that he was one, but I think that the arguments of secession preclude the idea of treason based on the idea that there is no intent to aid a foreign power, but rather, to separate from an existing power.
In any event, the idea of condemning him for a government that supported slavery seems misguided, given the real factors that led to the Civil War. Slavery was, of course, wrong, but unfortunately, the idea that blacks were an inferior race was not exactly uncommon at the time. They were wrong on whether or not the government could intrude into something so dehumanizing as slavery, but it is unfortunate that many throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Confederates made some very good points vis a vis what was even then a growing federal government and the desire of some states for a central government with more authority.
Condemning him for secession is even more misguided, because, and I speak only for myself but perhaps this is what kept him off the list, Jefferson Davis led the initial push against larger federal intrusions into state affairs. He was also a reluctant secessionist, like Robert E. Lee, but given that 13 states and the territory of Arizona had secesh movements, it was hardly an isolated idea. We are now seeing the culmination of that century-long march towards a stronger central government in Obama's administration.
I guess the crux of what I'm trying to say is that he was very much a man of his time, but he was eminently American, and say what you want about him, but he no doubt thought he was following a course of action that the founders would have approved of.
I've been trying for years to enlighten TH about some of the nuances of the Civil War, but he's a total slave to Yankee propaganda. Even once referred to the Southern rebellion as an 'insurgency,' and spoke in glowing terms of Sherman's utterly repulsive and inhumane war cri- er, 'March to the Sea' which 'hastened the end of the war.'
My great-great grandfather died at Andersonville, and the ferocity of some of Sherman's March was partially inspired by the news of the death camp's conditions. As bad as Northern prisons were, they didn't have "deadlines" and other proto-Nazi concentration camp innovations.
I for one blame the so-called "man-of-honor" R.E. Lee for violating his oath taken at West Point more than Davis, who was a politician and had other mitigating factors.
Jefferson Davis was a senator who argued against secession but believed firmly in a state's right TO secede. When Mississippi left the Union, he left Congress.
After the war, he helped ensure the South wouldn't lose its voice in Congress and in government despite the "treason" they had committed. If not for him, then the Civil War might have reignited within a few years.
Sorry, couldn't resist (particularly after a walk at the beach with bicyclists whizzing past me).
Anyway, I thought that list was dumb.
Like several commenters, I had ancestors on both sides, and one on Jefferson Davis' Cabinet. The business of reading history thru the lens of our own preoccupations is lame.
When one visits Monticello now one is shown more about the slave quarters than about the Declaration of Independence or Jefferson's scholarly pursuits it seems, and endlessly regaled with stories about the Hemmings stuff.
It would be as if one walked into the White House today to see that infamous youthful picture of Himself toking (that was all over the internet) blown up to twice life size. Somehow, I don't think Himself would tolerate it for One Second.
Actually this post points out exactly the total depravity and cluelessness of the Republican party as "conservative".
From its inception, the Republican party was the party of progressives. It always has been. The Republican Party was not "conservative" in 1860! It advocated the end of slavery--that is progressive and leftist. It was Jefferson Davis who was a conservative!
You are only fooling yourselves. Slavery is an institution. It is not morally wrong. It is not evil. The posters here just show themselves candidates for cognitive dissonance. Advocating the end of slavery is not a "conservative" position. I don't know how you can square the circle but you like turning lead into gold and crap into sunshine. It is no wonder that America is so screwed up.
The Republican Party passed the graduated income tax and the passed the civil rights bill and the 14th Amendment--All progressive positions and then goes to Iraqi and Afghanistan and gives women the right to vote! The Republican party is no more conservative than the pope is a protestant. Republicans throughout history have been progressive and adopt later than sooner leftist positions anyway. Stop deceiving yourselves; you're liberals plain and simple.
Have not read the other comments.
But, I suppose the Confederacy in the end did exactly what George Washington did, i.e., openly and honorably declared independence and fought from what respectively they regarded as tyranny. Obviously why distinguishes them and is a legitimate basis for judging them historically; but I don't think Davis or Lee by any reasonable standard belong with Booth and Arnold in terms of emnity.
I'm pleased to be better informed about this view.
"Al Gore makes the list but Jefferson Davis doesn't? I mean, we used to want to hang that traitor from a sour apple tree..."
Al Gore doesn't deserve to be on such a list, unless it is a list of history's biggest asses.
What's up with your denigration of Jefferson Davis? Visit Richmond, take a tour of the confederate white house while it still stands...and perhaps pick up a lttle knowledge of history in the process.
A statement like that is a chink in your armour. Conservatives should use history as a drawing board...but that presumes we KNOW it...not just what we were force fed in a prep school.
"Worst" can take us (at least) two ways. Do we mean worst effects, which would then include the well-meaning Eli Whitney; or just most-miserable-SOB, regardless of whether they did much damage? I had fun with the question in 2006 and included
Lee Harvey Oswald
Nathan Bedford Forrest
with some dishonorable mention to Burr, Joe Kennedy, Margaret Sanger.
Yes, some of those do seem ridiculous at first glance, but I hope I made some case for them
As to FDR vs McVeigh, one can easily make the case that FDR did more damage than McVeigh. He also did more good. He was a more powerful figure, and the consequences are greater. The whole "I can't take conservatives seriously" motif, rests on a sense of social ridiculousness, not actual, er, thought. Try and be open-minded...tolerant...curious.
On the question of Davis, I respectfully suggest that his principled position does not improve him as a figure in "American" history, even if it make us more willing to have him over for dinner or marry our daughter. Here's the truth of the matter: He tried to disunite the United States, and had he succeeded neither the rump union nor the confederacy would have been able to accomplish what the United States have done. Never mind that American slavery, which was really, really horrible stuff and should in no way be romanticized, would have survived for some time longer.
Oh, and I have deep Southern roots which I very much respect. My great-great-grandfather and my son's namesake fought for the Confederacy and eventually became mayor of Spartenburg. None of that changes the fact that the leaders of the Confederacy were pushing for policies that were enormously destructive of human life, both in the war they fought and the institution they chose to defend.
Slavery was "Really horrible stuff".
George Washington owned Slaves.
Thomas Jefferson owned Slaves.
The Bible states that "Learning is possible through the oppurtunity of leisure". The essence of slavery is that "oppurtunity of leisure". If some of the FFofA did not have slaves---they would not have found the time or the means to engage in political activity.
Unlike some here who have very good jobs making thousands of K a month, I'm a farm laborer. Agriculture is labor intensive. As the American Indians said, "Don't judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccassins".
Unlike many of you, I have walked that mile in the moccassins of the Agrarian life; cut hay for four months by a sythe in Switzerland, milked cows in Denmark and picked fruits and vegetables in Crete. I lived without electricity or running water in some of those places and you mean to tell me that "slavery is a mean horrible stuff"?
You have never grown your own food, slaughtered your own meat, tanned leather, made hay and stacked it in a barn. You live hoighty-toighty lives and sit in judgement on something you have no obvious clue. You never worked under the blazing sun from sunrise to sunset at hard back-breaking manual labor----and then suppose I have had time to engage in politics, read books, and help shape a country's future?
America was an agrarian nation and the freedom of many FFofA to engage in their revolution, to meet others, to pay expenses for books and education was all on the backs of slavery.
You have no concept of what it takes to live in THE REAL WORLD. How long can you survive without your precious high paying job? Slavery was the vehicle for others to have the ability to improve and advance themselves. Without it, the colonists would be living still in the stone age. Agrarianism is labor intensive and slavery gave the FFofA the LEISURE to pursue political aims. If there were no slaves, then there would have been no Thomas Jefferson or George Washington!
The Emancipation Proclamation was no more (or less) popular in the North than the South. It was not a social, humanistic document...it was a proposed economic action to punish one's enemy at the time.
Remarkable how many of us still think the Civil War was all about slavery.
And later I did think I would have preferred to have written that George Washington likewise to Jefferson Davis was fighting, inter alia, to own slaves without the leave of a "tyrannical" power [King George/the USA].
It's hypocritical to glorify a declaration of independence and to then impugn others for doing likewise.
Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee are not heroes of mine, but nor do I rank them in the pantheon of most infamous. What they did objectively (as possible) reviewed is only marginally different than what George Washington did. I remain persuadable, though.
Basic rule: Never create a "Top xx list of best/worst xxxxx"
You will gather worthless results, and foment hours of wasted haggling about who should be bumped up or down the list or voted off the island entirely.
Possibly the only thing the list illustrates is the focus on recent American culture (and I use the word only generically.)
Lindsey Lohan, Paris Hilton and the Kardashians should be on the list...doncha think?
"You have never grown your own food, slaughtered your own meat, tanned leather, made hay and stacked it in a barn"
The trouble is you couldn't possibly know this. Frankly, you sound like you've never been on a farm in your life. Did you go to some sort of farm history camp this summer?
Assistant Village Idiot:
Aaron Burr, Jr., Princeton graduate, was one of the USA greatest patriots. He fought courageously as a highly ranked officer in the Revolutionary Army and served honorably as New York Senator and Vice President.
The story as I've heard it in both history and historical fiction (Burr by Gore Vidal, one of the best books I've ever read) is that Hamilton, at Federalist Party function, implied Burr had sex with his own daughter. Burr demanded satisfaction and they fought a fair duel(arguably Hamilton only wrote he would shoot in the air in case he lost). He did lose.
Hamilton was a well-known sleaze and Burr a likewise well renown gentleman.
Aaron Burr, Jr., was very well liked by most of the founding fathers, naturally less so after 1804.
From history books; please stay with this because I'd like to defend his character. He's a hero of mine, however imperfect he was.
Where did you learn your history on Aaron Burr? And, please, instead of vacuous ridiciule, indicate what you find so terrible about him and I'll comment. I anticipate your wrong. If I'm wrong I'd like to find out.
He's the most lied about, slandered, half-truthed, etc. founding father (or brother if you prefer).
Bingo if it were not for what I hope will be is brief 2 years of broad power to effect the USA's course. In a way it serves as a foundation for another '94 wave if the Republicans can stop being as quasi-corrupt as Democrats when it comes to taxpayer money.
I just read the Wiki-Bio of Davis. They let him slide in '69 and a lot of Northern abolitionists funded his $100,000 bail (interesting); he led a productive life in the USA for another couple of decades.
George Washington commited treason, too.
The only book you've referenced was Vidal's book, which is historical fiction.
Most of my knowledge about Burr comes from reading various biographical books about the Founding Fathers. Every single book I've ever read on the period characterizes Burr as something just short of a scoundrel. A war hero who fell from grace as a result of greed, politics, and bad character.
His misdeeds are well documented:
1. Blatant insubordination as Jefferson's VP
2. Perfection of machine politics in New York to enrich himself and his cronies
3. Conspiracy to instigate a war with Spain to enable him to form his own kingdom in the southwest, aka the Burr Conspiracy.
4. His duel with Hamilton.
5. His financial mismanagement, which left him destitute.
Why would you believe the founding fathers admired him? By all accounts the founding fathers detested Burr. Washington never trusted Burr. Adams hated him. Jefferson dropped him like a hot potato. John Quincy Adams loathed him.
I confess that I have never read a biography of Burr, so by all means enlighten me.
Two further thoughts about Burr. My recollection is that the Constitution required amending (11) after Burr was VP because originally, no one thought anyone would want to be VP. Burr campaigned for it and won. The Constitution was amended so that the P and VP ran as a single ticket. Secondly, although some might find it amusing, Burr was named in a paternity suit in Paris in exile when in his 80's, itseems to me to be all of a piece.
Anon Attorney here. I posted the responses to Progressively Defensive about Burr.
@ Anon 3:47:00
Two further thoughts about Burr. My recollection is that the Constitution required amending (11) after Burr was VP because originally, no one thought anyone would want to be VP. Burr campaigned for it and won. The Constitution was amended so that the P and VP ran as a single ticket.
That's not quite correct. I think you meant to refer to the 12th amendment, which effectively put the P and VP on a single ticket. Previously candidates ran separately for P, and whoever came in second got the VP slot. This was put in place in the absence of a two-party system. However, with the rise of a two-party system it became possible for the P to be from one party and the VP from the other. (Adams-Jefferson). Burr and Jefferson were from competing wings of the same party. By all accounts, Jefferson detested Burr and essentially exiled him to the Senate.
Your probably right. those memrory circuits haven't fired in decades.
I would nominate Wilkinson, commander of the US Army, agent for the Spanish, with (again if I remember correctly) a hand in encouraging or fomenting Burr in his southwestern empire. Also would consider Taney for his role in the Dred Scott case.
Re: Hamilton v Burr, here's the original Got Milk? commercialGore Vidal
Vidal has Hamilton saying that Burr was shtupping his own daughter to make Hamilton into the villain of the story. The truth is that Hamilton thought Burr a scoundrel and thwarted him every chance he could. Hamilton even maneuvered to put Jefferson in the White House rather than Burr.
In the end, Burr picked the fight that led to the duel and shot to kill.
@ Anonymous, I'm Progressively Defensive, you're Anonymous.
I read a normal biography of Burr but I forget the author. It might have been this one:
But in any case, it was a Publisher's Weekly acclaimed one, I remember that.
In any case, I'll do my best to rebut the points made.
The worst thing he did was try to sleaze his way into the Presidency and that set Jefferson and Burr against each other in their term together. On the other hand, he was not technically wrong and he almost pulled it off; since Jefferson is one of the nastiest dirty politickers of all time, I think they squared off evenly slease-wise. Jefferson actually did act insuborinately to George Washington (secretly) and was far worse to Adams as his VP [I note in passing that it's ludicrous to impugn Burr for the love-child, if so, while Jefferson was raping 14 year old slaves.] It's not amusing as much as humanly in error.
Insubordination? He does not work for Jefferson like a Secretary of State or general, but for the USA voters. Especially then as Anon points out, VP was an independent post. I don't think even today one can be fired. He did what he wanted and was an exemplary President of the Senate by all accounts. He was voted a tribute for his management at the end.
Machine politics? Like George W. Bush and Barack Obama and every member of Congress? He was an excellent political operator, but so was Jackson, McKinley, FDR, etc.
He wanted to free Spanish America from tyranny like George Washington did for English America. Fremont and Polk did it later and are heroes. Had he succeed there'd be less misery north of Central America all around. He attempted to be their Robin Hood and this King of Spanish America is Jeffersonian slander. He wanted to conquer Spanish America, but to what end is he said - he said. I think he was cut from Simon Bolivar's cloth. He sought glory for spreading freedom as did all the men who risked their lives in 1776. Why presume he wanted to be king? There was a trial in a hostile environment and he was acquited of those treason charges.
He was a goof financially. So?
Hamilton was a dirtbag personally and had it coming. He, Jefferson, and Burr were as nasty as junior high school girls. As I recall he got someone else to challeng Burr right before in hopes of getting out of it. Burr beat him, too. [Requires confirmation, but 95% sure.]
Burr was great pals with Madison and Monroe (remember the Federalists and his rivals in the Republican party [Jefferson's Republicans] hated him, but his faction of the Republicans liked him. He got Madison out of a duel once and, best trivia, he introduced James Madison to Dolly Madison. Andrew Jackson and Marin Van Buren liked him, too.
He and Hamilton were co-counsel many times in New York City previous to their hostilities. They got along well for a while.
Says you. In truth no one knows for sure. Hamilton engaged in his typical slease to thwart Burr and he did something untoward. In any case, they fought it out. Why is Burr the bad one?
But I don't think for a second Hamilton shot into the air. He was a scoundrel for sure.
Anyway, Burr is worthy of an investigation and Vidal's Burr is really a fun quick read. It encourages a closer look at history itself and has some fun with our typical presumptions about the founding fathers, however accurate.
Burr outlived them all, by the way, even Chief Justice Marshall. He died in 1836.
He built the Upstate NY to NYC fresh water aqueduct [amazing benefit long term] and started Chase Manhattan Bank.
I'm tired so I might have not been as precise as I try to be.
Jefferson was insubordinate to Washington while Secretary of State is what I meant.
Vidal's time-line is accurate and his historical fiction is very accurate in all ways possible. It fit the biography I read exactly except for two places Vidal admits he departed. Of course, the dialogue is not verifiable.
I think Vidal and other historians have it firmly that Hamilton said something truly despicable about Burr at that particular Federalist meeting, whatever it was. I've had horrible life ruining lies told about me that I found out years later and it does make the blood boil.
Wait, what happened to Remember the Alamo. Tippacanoe and Tyler, too. Those were USA and democracy heroes. Burr's attempt on Spanish America was heroic and you must have proof before you accuse him of tyranny or treason.
One of the crazy things about slavery and the civil war is that if the if slaveholders had MBAs or a better understanding of business they could have seen that they did not need slaves to get rich from cotton farming. Cheap cotton clothing, driven by innovations in spinning and weaving machines was an unstoppable economic powerhouse during that period, comparable to the Medical Device industry that the Tigerhawk works in today.