Archive for the ‘History’ Category

CAIR Demands Ben Carson Withdrawal

September 28, 2015

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has called for Dr. Ben Carson to withdraw from the presidential race because of his remarks on whether he would support a Muslim for president. Here is the article I read from CNS news.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) plans to call Monday for Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson to withdraw from the 2016 campaign after the retired neurosurgeon said Islam was not consistent with the U.S. Constitution and that he would “absolutely not” advocate having a Muslim in the White House.

“Mr. Carson clearly does not understand or care about the Constitution, which states that ‘no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office,’” said CAIR national executive director Nihad Awad.

“We call on our nation’s political leaders – across the political spectrum – to repudiate these unconstitutional and un-American statements and for Mr. Carson to withdraw from the presidential race.”

I can understand if Nihad Awad is more familiar with the details of Sharia law than the US constitution, but the provision barring any religious test does not apply to the voters. They can vote for, or against, a candidate for any office for any reason at all, including not liking the candidate’s religious beliefs. The constitution forbids the federal or state governments from imposing a religious test or qualification to bar candidates from running. For example, in the presidential elections of 1928 and 1960 the Catholics Al Smith and John F. Kennedy ran for the presidency. Many non-Catholic voters did not believe that a Catholic should serve as president and voted for their opponents. That was their decision to make. There was no religious test or qualification to bar either man from running.

Anyway, here is a transcript of some of Dr. Carson’s remarks. See if they are really so controversial, at least among sensible people not blinded by the fear of that bogeyman Islamophobia.

Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Carson was asked his views on the faith of an American president.

“Should a president’s faith matter – should your faith matter to voters?” asked host Chuck Todd.

“Well, I guess it depends on what that faith is,” replied Carson. “If it’s inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter. But if it fits within the realm of America and consistent with the Constitution – no problem.”

“So do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution?” Todd asked.

“No, I don’t. I do not,” said Carson, adding, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”

I am not sure that I would completely agree with Dr. Carson in saying that I would not under any circumstances vote for or support a Muslim candidate for office. Much would depend on the candidate. I am fairly certain, however, that I would not support any candidate of any faith which CAIR would support, given their links to the terrorist organization Hamas and the Islamic supremacist  views held by their founder.

Of course, a great many people in the United States expressed similar concerns about the first two Catholic candidates for president. For much of the history of the United States, it was taken for granted, by the Protestant majority, that Roman Catholicism was not compatible with American political values. Such concerns were enough to defeat Al Smith in 1928, among other factors. Kennedy, in 1960, felt a need to address a gathering of Protestant clergymen in Texas to assure them that as president he would put the constitution before his Catholic faith.

This wariness on the part of many Americans, although a product of anti-Catholic prejudice, was not entirely unjustified. Until Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church had not been a consistent supporter of the liberal, democratic values this nation was founded upon. (By “liberal” I mean, of course, the political ideology emphasizes human rights, democratic rule, and free market economic, the ideology of the founding fathers and the nineteenth century British Whigs, rather than the ideals of the socialist progressives who hijacked the term in the early twentieth century. Ironically, it is the conservatives in America that uphold classically liberal values, while the liberals in America cling to primitive collectivism) The Papacy had also been suspicious of every political idea that had been developed in the wake of the American and French revolutions, denouncing such ideas as democracy, government by the consent of the governed, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, as errors and part of the heresy of modernism. As late as 1864, Pope Pius IX had denounced all such modern, secular ideologies in his Syllabus of Errors, to the considerable embarrassment of American Catholics, who had been at pains to show that being a good Catholic was compatible with being a good American. It wasn’t until Vatican II that the Church became reconciled with liberalism.

Of course, the truth was that while American Catholics looked to Rome for spiritual leadership, few, if any, American Catholics took advice on how to vote from the pope. There was no movement among American Catholics to replace the constitution with a theocracy ruled by the Pope. Then too, the Roman Catholic Church was itself a major part of the Judeo-Christian heritage on which Western civilization was based, and this heritage included the concept of the human dignity of even the lowest person in society who had rights granted by his creator. If the Catholic Church was slow to accept the development of liberal ideas, Catholic philosophers had at least laid the basis for them. Even the concept of separation of church and state is implied in Christianity with Jesus saying such things as, “My kingdom is not of this world” and “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” and was enunciated in Pope Gelasius I’s Duo Sunt which held that princes and bishops each had their own separate spheres.

Perhaps the Muslims are in a similar position as Catholics before the election of Kennedy. Islam may seem incompatible with American political values, but that does not mean that individual Muslims may not be good Muslims and good Americans, just as many American Catholics were both good Americans and good Catholics. I am skeptical, though. Islam is not part of the heritage of our Western civilization and considering the utter failure of liberal democracy taking root in the Islamic world and the abysmal human rights records of most majority Muslim countries, one could make a very good argument that Islamic political values are opposed to and hostile to Western values. In Islam a person is a slave of God, not a son to be redeemed by sacrifice. Sons have rights, slaves do not. It is not surprising, then, that individual human rights have never been very prominent in Islamic political theory. Mohammed was a prince as well as prophet, so there is no concept of separation of mosque and state. It seems to me that while one can be either a good American or a good Muslim, it must be very difficult to be both a good American and a good Muslim. And, unlike the situation with the American Catholics, there are Islamic organizations, like CAIR, that would like to replace the constitution with Sharia law, and a disturbing number of American Muslims who support that idea.

I wouldn’t necessarily refuse to vote for a Muslim candidate on the basis of his faith, but I think that Dr. Carson is closer to the truth of the matter than CAIR, or the foolish would-be dhimmis who denounce honest discussion as Islamophobia.


Fourteen Years

September 11, 2015

It has been fourteen years since 9/11. We said that we would never forget, but I am afraid we are already forgetting. They are even starting to teach in colleges that it was our fault.  A person turning eighteen this year, old enough to vote, was only five on that fateful day. I don’t imagine that they would have any clear personal memories of that day, unless they or someone close was personally affected. I am afraid that we are trying to forget the most important lesson of 9/11, that the world is a dangerous place, and there are people out there who would like to destroy us, even if Barack Obama, the lightworker, is the president. Judging from the headlines, we are already relearning the fact that withdrawing from the world will not make the bad guys decide to leave us alone. Too bad the lightworker is incapable of learning from history. Even now he has made a deal with Iran with virtually guarantees that they will be able to develop nuclear weapons without interference from us. It may well be that the next 9/11 attack will be nuclear one.

Well, I will never forget that dreadful day fourteen years ago, no matter how long I live. We will just have to keep telling the story to the younger generations so they will not have to experience any such attacks for themselves. With that in mind, I am going to copy what I wrote two years ago.

On that Tuesday morning, I was at work, driving from Madison to North Vernon when I got a call from my wife. She asked me if I were listening to the radio. I was not. She told me to turn it on because something terrible was happening. I turned my car radio on and listened to the coverage of the attack.

I went about my duties at the stores in North Vernon in a sort of state of shock.  The North Vernon WalMart and Jay C played continuing news coverage of the day’s events instead of the usual soothing Musak. Not too many people were working or shopping in the stores. They were mostly just listening.

I had to go to Seymour for a meeting that afternoon. On the way I noticed that some gas stations had raised the price of gasoline to a then unheard of price of $5 per gallon. At the meeting, no one wanted to discus the business at hand. Instead we talked about the terrorist attack. It seemed certain to us all that more attacks were on the way and that this time we couldn’t just launch a few missiles, blow up some tents, and then move on. We were in for a long fight.

I don’t remember much about the rest of that day. I went home but I don’t remember much about it.

I was once in the World Trade Center. I was in New York with some friends as a sort of tourist and we took the elevator to the top floor of one of the twin towers. There was a gallery up there where you could look out over the city of New York. The day was foggy so I didn’t see anything. They had a gift shop in the center section of the floor. It sickens me to think that the people who worked there went to work one morning, and then had to choose between burning to death or jumping, Not to mention the tourists, who only wanted to look at the city.

It still sickens me to think about the people who were only doing their jobs having to lose their lives.



He, Ze, and Thee

September 9, 2015

Students at the University of Tennessee have been asked to use a new set of gender neutral pronouns when appropriate, as reported by the Tennessean.

University of Tennessee students have been asked to use gender-neutral pronouns such as “ze.”

The University of Tennessee Office for Diversity and Inclusion is asking students and faculty to use the pronouns in order to create a more inclusive campus, multiple media outlets report.

“Transgender people and people who do not identify within the gender binary may use a different name than their legal name and pronouns of their gender identity, rather than the pronouns of the sex they were assigned at birth,” the University of Tennessee’s Pride Center Director, Donna Braquet, wrote on the university’s website Wednesday.

Braquet requested that teachers, rather than calling roll, will instead ask each student to provide the name and pronoun he or she — or ze — wishes to be referred by. She says it relieves a burden for people expressing different genders or identities.

“The name a student uses may not be the one on the official roster, and the roster name may not be the same gender as the one the student now uses,” Braquet wrote.

University spokeswoman Karen Ann Simsen said there is no mandate or official policy to use the language.

“The information provided in the newsletter was offered as a resource for our campus community on inclusive practices,” Simsen said.

Braquet said if students and faculty cannot use pronouns such as ze, hir, hirs, xe, xem or xyr, they can also politely ask.

“‘Oh, nice to meet you … What pronouns should I use?’ is a perfectly fine question to ask,” Braquet said.

This suggestion, although not any sort of official policy at the University has met with a certain amount of mockery at the expense of the ivory towered institution completely removed from common experience and it does seem to be more than a little silly to invent new pronouns, considering that something like 99.999% of the population is quite certain which gender they identify with.

Still, I must admit that the English language is somewhat lacking in certain respects when it comes to pronouns. English does not have a third person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or to refer to a single, generic person. For example which pronouns should be used in the sentences, “Every student will take ______ test tomorrow. ______ will receive a grade the day after”. In a mixed class, one might use “he or she” and “his or her” but these usages, while correct, seem awkward. “It” and “its” are the neuter pronouns but they are not used to refer to persons. The grammatically correct pronoun would be “he” and “his”, since in English, as in related languages the male pronoun is the default pronoun used to refer to a member of a mixed company, but this usage has become politically incorrect. The plural pronouns “they” and “their” are often used but that is grammatically incorrect when referring to single members of a mixed group, although such usage has been attested at least since the sixteenth century. Such new-fangled pronouns as xe or ze refer to a person of indeterminate or ambiguous gender rather than a generic person of either gender and have been invented and promoted by left-wing gender theorists and are likely to be resisted by more sensible people.I am not sure what the best solution to this problem is.

Another way in which the English language is lacking in regards to pronoun is that there is no distinction in number or case with the second person pronoun. English makes such distinctions in the first and third person, but not in the second person, except for the possessive case.


Thus there is no way, except in context, to determine whether a person is speaking to a single person or to a group of persons. Since most of the languages related to English do make this distinction and often have a more formal pronoun to use. German has ‘du’ for singular you, ‘ihr’ for plural you, and ‘Sie’ for formal use. Spanish has, depending on dialect ‘tu’ ‘vos’ or ‘usted’ for singular and ‘vosotros’, ‘vosotras’, or ‘ustedes’ for plural. Usted and ustedes are the more formal you but have replaced vos and vosotros outside of Spain. Latin also has tu and vos. This is called the “tu-vos” or “T-V”. In many languages which make the T-V distraction between singular and plural you, the plural you has come to be considered more respectful and is used to address one’s social superiors.

Modern English entirely lacks the T-V distinction, but this was not the case in early forms of English. Old English or Anglo-Saxon had a full complement of noun and pronoun inflections which Modern English has largely dropped, including a singular and plural you. English did not make the T-V distinction between formal and informal you until after the Norman Conquest when English speakers picked up the idea from the French speaking Normans. Here is the full set of Old English Pronouns.

First person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative ic, īc wit
Accusative mec, mē ūsic, ūs uncit, unc
Genitive mīn ūre uncer
Dative ūs unc
Second person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative þū git
Accusative þēc, þē ēowic, ēow incit, inc
Genitive þīn ēower incer
Dative þē ēow inc
Third person
Case Singular Plural
Masculine Neuter Feminine Masculine Feminine
Nominative hit hēo hiē hēo
Accusative hine hit hīe hiē hīo
Genitive his his hire hiera heora
Dative him him hire him him

Note that þ is pronounced “th” , so “you”in the nominative case would be thu and ye. They also had a dual form in the first and second person.

By Middle English the dual form was dropped and the pronouns are closer to Modern English

Personal pronouns in Middle English
The Modern English is shown in italics below each Middle English pronoun
Person (gender) Subject Object Possessive determiner Possessive pronoun Reflexive
ic / ich / I
me / mi
min / minen [pl.]
min / mire / minre
min one / mi selven
modern (archaic)
þou / þu / tu / þeou
you (thou)
you (thee)
þi / ti
your (thy)
þin / þyn
yours (thine)
þeself / þi selven
yourself (thyself)
Third Masculine
him[a] / hine[b]
his / hisse / hes
his / hisse
sche[o] / s[c]ho / ȝho
heo / his / hie / hies / hire
hio / heo / hire / heore

hit / him
hit sulue
us / ous
ure[n] / our[e] / ures / urne
us self / ous silve
modern (archaic)
ȝe / ye
you (ye)
eow / [ȝ]ou / ȝow / gu / you
eower / [ȝ]ower / gur / [e]our
Ȝou self / ou selve
Third From Old English heo / he his / heo[m] heore / her
From Old Norse þa / þei / þeo / þo þem / þo þeir þam-selue
modern they them their theirs themselves

So in Middle English, depending on dialect, nominative singular you is thou, thu, tu, or theou and nominative plural you is ye. The objective singular you is thee and the objective plural you is eow or you. The distinction between singular and plural you was retained in Early Modern English, which most people are familiar with as the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

Personal pronouns in Early Modern English
Nominative Oblique Genitive Possessive
1st person singular I me my/mine[# 1] mine
plural we us our ours
2nd person singular informal thou thee thy/thine[# 1] thine
plural or formal singular ye, you you your yours
3rd person singular he/she/it him/her/it his/her/his (it)[# 2] his/hers/his[# 2]
plural they them their theirs


Here singular and informal you is thou and thee while plural and formal you is ye and you. Most people today use thou and thee believing that they are the more formal and respectful way to address person, particularly in prayer. They have it entirely backwards. Somehow, between Shakespeare’s time and our own, the formal plural you has replaced every other second person pronoun.

I don’t think anyone who speaks English really misses the T-V distinction when it comes to addressing someone formally or informally. Most English speaking countries have become fairly democratic and have tended to eschew the idea social hierarchy implied by the T-V distinction. The inability to distinguish between singular and plural is another matter, especially in translation from languages that do make this distinction. English speakers are instinctively aware of the lack and are always trying to invent pronouns such as you all, y’all, you guys, or youse to make up for the perceived lack, only to be told by grammarians that such usage is informal and improper. Why? We do need the pronoun.  I would propose that we go ahead and make “you all” the formal second person pronoun with y’all, youse, etc as examples of informal or regional, but still acceptable usage. Formally recognizing existing usage would be better than inventing a whole new set of pronouns or trying to resurrect the older pronouns. I think, however, we can do without ze and xe.

The President’s Grandson

September 4, 2015

President Warren G. Harding was one of the most popular Presidents of the United States at the time of his death in office in 1923. Since his death, Harding’s reputation has declined precipitously to the point that he is now regarded as one of the worst presidents in American history. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The Teapot Dome scandal, which was only uncovered after Harding’s death has tainted his reputation, even though he was never implicated and was only made aware of the magnitude of the illegal dealings just before his death. It does reflect badly on Harding’s judgement of character that several of his appointees, including his Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, and Director of the Veterans’ Bureau, Charles Forbes, were sent to prison for crimes committed while in office. His Attorney General, Harry Daugherty, only narrowly escaped a prison term.

Warren G Harding

Warren G Harding

Throughout Harding’s presidency there were rumors of his affairs. The most persistent of these rumors  involved a woman named Nan Britton who claimed to have an affair with Harding throughout his presidency in her 1928 book, The President’s Daughter.

Nan Britton and Elizabeth

Nan Britton and Elizabeth Ann

Britton identified Harding as the father of her daughter Elizabeth Ann, and claimed that he had promised to support their daughter, but Harding’s wife, Florence, had reneged on the promise after his death. Nan Britton had no real proof of her claims and was generally dismissed as a liar or delusional. Now, however, as I read in this story I found in the Oregonian,  DNA evidence confirms Nan Britton’s grandson, Jim Bleasing, is indeed the grandson of President Warren G. Harding. There is a good story about this in the Oregonian.

Jim Blaesing has known since he was a boy that he was the grandson of Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States.

The Southeast Portland man was very close to his grandmother, who openly shared stories of her love for the man who took office in 1921. And it’s always bothered him that so many people had dismissed her as “delusional” or labeled her as money-hungry, a fame seeker.

Nan Britton was disbelieved not only by members of Harding’s family, who proclaimed the story of the 6½ -year love affair a lie, but the history buffs who vigorously tried to discredit her over the decades.

“It just kept yanking at me and bugging me,” said Blaesing, a 65-year-old construction contractor.

So he finally decided to do something: Get his DNA tested.

All of those doubters were silenced last week with news — first reported on the front page of The New York Times — that Blaesing is indeed the grandson of the late president. confirmed his relationship to Harding with a more than 99 percent certainty, by comparing Blaesing’s DNA with that of Harding’s grandnephew and grandniece.

There is a lot more there about Harding and his relationship with Nan Britton, but I am more interested in President Harding’s historical reputation. I am not sure he really deserves such a low ranking. If the Teapot Dome and other scandals count against President Harding, there are several solid accomplishments that in fairness ought to be held in his favor. If all too many of Harding’s appointees turned out to be corrupt or incompetent, some of the men he appointed to his cabinet have been among the best men who have ever served a president. These included Harding’s
Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, his Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, and his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. (Hoover’s lackluster tenure as president has tended to overshadow his very real accomplishments. In fact, Hoover was successful in every post he held except the presidency.)

In foreign policy, the Harding administration formally ended US involvement in World War I, a move necessary because the Senate had not ratified the Versailles treaty which ended the war. The State Department under Hughes began the negotiations that led to the agreement in 1924 to ease the burden of the war debts that the allies owed to the United States as well as the reparations applied to Germany. Hughes also participated in the disarmament talks which led to the agreement between the United States, Great Britain and Japan to limit the sizes of their navies. This did not turn out so well in hindsight, but no one knew that at the time, and Harding was eager to reduce the expenses that maintaining a large military entailed. Harding also curtailed US interventionism in Latin America, ending Wilson’s practice of invading Latin American nations on the slightest of pretexts.

In domestic policy, Harding inherited a nasty depression. Andrew Mellon proposed fighting the downturn with tax cuts. This policy seems to have worked well enough since the depression only lasted a year and there was an economic boom which lasted until 1929 and the Great Depression. It might seem that Harding’s record on the economy was rather better than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s. Like everyone else at the time, Harding believed that Blacks were inferior to Whites, yet he believed that they should be given a fair chance and equal rights under the law. Harding supported federal anti-lynching legislation, but was never able to get it passed because of opposition from the Democrats. Harding also pardoned Eugene Debs and other people who Wilson had put in prison for opposing US participation in World War I. Despite the scandals, Harding did have a solid record of accomplishments in his short tenure in the White House, so why the bad press?

I think that part of the reason that Harding has become unpopular, at least among progressive historians, is that he campaigned on, and largely governed on, the theme that it was time for America to return to normalcy. He did not call for the sort of fundamental transformation of the nation and the world that Progressive Era presidents as Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson had. Compared to those two, more activist presidents, the Harding administration must have seemed dull and contemptible to the sort of people who desired a continuation of the reforms of the Progressive Era.

There may also have been some snobbishness involved. Harding was not an intellectual as Wilson or a member of a prominent family like the Roosevelts. He came from Marion Ohio, a small midwestern town. He did not attend Harvard or Princeton but Ohio Central College. He worked his way up from humble origins as the owner and publisher of the Marion Star, a failing newspaper that he managed to turn around to become successful. Despite his success in business and later in politics, Harding preferred the small town life. Harding himself was not known to be corrupt but he was something of a “good old boy”, the sort of back slapping local businessman or politician who is friends with everybody and a member of the all the clubs and is always ready for convivial poker games. In other words he was Babbitt, the sort of comfortable, ordinary member of the middle class or bourgeois that the more progressive intellectuals have always disdained. This dislike for the unintellectual Harding may have helped not a little to color the opinion of historians against Harding, condemning him for faults they might have forgiven in a president they felt more affection for.

I wouldn’t make the argument that Warren G. Harding was a great, or even a particularly good, president. He was not really up to the job and he showed a terrible lack of judgement in some of his appointments. Still, he did less damage to the country than some presidents better regarded than he. We could do worse.

There is no Queen of England

August 30, 2015

One of my favorite movies is Megamind and this is my favorite scene from the movie.


The strange thing is that the statement made by Hal/Tighten, “There is no Queen of England” happens to be correct. There is, in fact, no such person as the Queen of England. She is as real as the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny. If that is true than who is this woman?


That is Her Royal Majesty Elizabeth II Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as well various former British colonies. England is, to be sure, part of the kingdom she reigns over, but England has not been an independent, sovereign nation since the Acts of Union in 1707. The United Kingdom is made up of three kingdoms, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and one principality, Wales united into one nation with a common government and Parliament.

England is the largest of the countries that make up the United Kingdom both in area and population and so has tended to dominate the kingdom to the point that British has largely become synonymous with English. It is the English language that is spoken throughout the British Isles while the various Celtic languages are either endangered or extinct. It is understandable, then, that the Queen of Great Britain should be referred to as simply the Queen of England.

The Kingdom of England that was united into the United Kingdom is generally held to begin with the Norman Conquest of 1066, though, of course British history stretches back to the Roman province of Britannia. Since the Conquest did mark a drastic shift in English history, culture and even language and every monarch since 1066 has been a descendant of William the Conqueror, so it seems fair enough to regard it as the establishment of the English nation as we know it today. The English language and people existed for many centuries before the coming of the Normans, however. It was the Angles and the Saxons who invaded Britain after the Romans withdrew in 410 who gave England its name and language. These Anglo-Saxon invaders either drove out or assimilated the Latin or Celtic speaking Romanized Britons. For some time, England was split into many, the traditional number is seven, petty kingdoms and subject to invasions by the Norsemen, but in the century before the Norman conquest began to be unified under the rule of Wessex, the one English kingdom that managed not to be conquered by the Vikings. The Norman Conquest unified England somewhat more firmly and while the Normans brought continental feudalism to England with its potential for disunity and English kings had some trouble keeping their barons in line, England remained a more unified state than France or Germany. In time, England grew strong enough to dominate the British Isles.

The English flag

The English flag

I referred to Wales as a principality, but that is not strictly accurate. Unlike the English and Scots, the Welsh never quite succeeded in coalescing into a unified, sovereign state and the country now known as Wales was divided into many small kingdoms or principalities after the withdrawal of the Roman legions. Although divided and apt to fight among themselves, the Welsh did manage to fend off the Anglo-Saxons, thus retaining their language and separate identity. There were various Welsh lords who were able to conquer much of Wales and receive the acknowledgement as overlord by other Welsh rulers, but such Welsh kingdoms never outlasted the lives of the first rulers.

The Normans had somewhat more success in subduing the Welsh. In 1216, the Welsh lords agreed to recognize Llywelyn the Great of Gwynedd as their Paramount Lord and King John of England gave him the title of Prince of Wales. This Principality of Wales only extended to about two-thirds of the modern Wales and the Princes of Wales were vassals of the English crown and while largely autonomous were not entirely independent. Even this limited independence was ended when England annexed Wales to the English crown in 1284. The custom of giving the heir apparent the title of Prince of Wales began in 1301. There were a number of rebellions by descendants of Welsh leaders but such rebellions were unsuccessful, but ultimately the Welsh descended Tudor, Henry VII, became King of England in 1485. His son Henry VIII united the governments and legal codes of England and Wales in 1542. Welsh nationalism has not played as prominent role in the politics of Wales as Scottish nationalism has had and there is little support for Welsh independence from Britain. Wales was granted a National Assembly with limited powers in 1999.

Welsh Flag

The Welsh Flag

The beginnings of the Kingdom of Scotland are somewhat obscure. The Romans conquered the southern part of Scotland, the lowlands, but were never able to extend their empire into the highlands. The Romans referred to the peoples North of their border as Caladonians, a term derived from a Celtic language, or  Picti, meaning the painted or tattooed ones in Latin. After the Romans withdrew from Britain there was a period of confusion and it seems that there were a number of kingdoms or tribal federations in Scotland. The word Scot is derived from Scoti, a name given to Gaelish raiders and invaders from Ireland. These Scoti gradually displaced and intermingled with the Picts and their many petty kingdoms were eventually united into the Kingdom of Alba by Kenneth MacAlpin in the ninth century. There followed a period of struggle against the Northmen and fighting for the crown by branches of the MacAlpin dynasty, but by the time of the Norman Conquest, Scotland had emerged as a rival kingdom to England.

Scotland was a good deal poorer and less populated than England and so was never really a serious threat to its southern neighbor. The Scots could raid and harass England’s northern borderlands, however, and the existence of an enemy on the Island of Britain always meant that England could never exert its full force against the French in their frequent wars. Indeed, France and Scotland were often allied together against England in what was often called the Auld Alliance. For their part, the English could invade Scotland and even conquer large parts of the kingdom but discovered that occupying a country is far more difficult than invading it. Scotland’s rugged terrain and stubborn people; even Scottish kings had difficulty controlling their subjects, soon induced the English to withdraw.

In 1371,Robert II the first of the Stewart or Stuart dynasty became King of Scotland. Robert Stuart’s great-great grandson James IV married Margaret Tudor, the daughter of Henry VII, King of England in 1503, linking the Tudor and Stuart dynasties. Their great grandson was King James VI of Scotland. As a descendant of Henry VII, James VI was the closest relative of Queen Elizabeth I of England and upon her death in 1603, James ascended to the English throne as King James I of England. Although the crowns of the two kingdoms of England and Scotland were united in the person of James VI and I in his person and in his heirs, the two kingdoms remained separate nations, each with its own Parliament, code of laws, and even state church.

The Scottish flag

The Scottish flag

The two kingdoms would have to wait a century before becoming united by the Acts of Union in 1707. Each kingdom had different reasons for desiring a united kingdom. The English were concerned that Scotland might choose a different monarch than England. James I’s grandson James II had been deposed the Glorious Revolution of 1685 by his daughter Mary I and her Dutch husband William III. William and Mary had no children and upon his death in 1702, Mary’s sister Anne became Queen. None of Queen Anne’s seventeen children survived to adulthood and since James II and his son James were Roman Catholic and so ineligible for the throne under English law, the next King of England after Anne would be George of Hanover, a great-grandson of James I. The Scottish parliament reserved the right to select its own King of Scotland so it was conceivable that the union of the two crowns could be ended as soon as Anne died. The English did not want that to happen. As for the Scots, union was desirable because Scotland had remained a poor and underdeveloped country compared to England. Since England and Scotland were separate nations the usual barriers to trade, like tariffs, were applied. Scottish nationals in England could be treated as aliens. Scottish merchants did not have full access to markets in England or England’s colonies in North America. Union with England was seen as a way to develop the Scottish economy and increase the standard of living to English levels.

Nevertheless, the Acts of Union were very unpopular in Scotland. It required clever parliamentary maneuvering, even outright bribery to get the Scottish Parliament to approve the Union. Scottish nationalism has continued to play an important part in Scottish politics. Jacobite pretenders from the Stuart family generally found considerable support in Scotland throughout the eighteenth century. More recently, there has been a growing Scottish National Party which is in favor of independence from the United Kingdom. Like Wales, Scotland was granted a Parliament with limited powers in 1999. The Scottish voters rejected independence from Great Britain in a referendum last year, but given that the Scottish National Party is the largest single party in the Scottish Parliament, it seems likely that the issue of independence will be revisited in the future. If Scotland were to become independent, they would probably retain the monarch, so the political situation in Britain would revert back to what it was before 1707, with Queen Elizabeth II of England becoming Elizabeth I of Scotland.

Last, there is the Kingdom of Ireland. Like the Welsh, the Irish never really cohered into a single kingdom. There was a High King of Ireland in the Early Middle Ages, but no high king really had much authority beyond his own realm. Such unity as existed in Ireland was destroyed after the tenth century by invading Vikings and later Normans from England. Henry II of England invaded Ireland in 1198 and made his son John Lord of Ireland. From that time the Kings of England also took the title of Lord of Ireland, whatever the Irish might have wanted, until 1542 when Henry VIII abolished the title of Lord of Ireland and proclaimed himself King of Ireland. Thus, the crowns of England and Ireland were united before the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland, although the Crown of Ireland was an English creation. Ireland was brought into the United Kingdom by the Act of Union of 1800, making it the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Crown and Parliament of Ireland were creations of England for the Protestant English and Scottish settlers in Ireland. The native Irish were Catholics and generally played no part in the government of Ireland before and after the Union. By the end of the nineteenth century, reforms in the British government restored many basic rights to the Catholics of Britain and Ireland, but many Irish began to want independence from Britain. After a long and bloody struggle, the United Kingdom granted Ireland Home Rule in 1920. In 1922, Ireland became a dominion of the British Commonwealth under the name of the Irish Free State and in 1937 the Irish voted in a referendum to become completely independent from Britain as the Republic of Ireland. The six northern counties of Ireland with a Protestant majority opted to remain in the United Kingdom in 1920 and now form the region of Northern Ireland. This decision was controversial at the time, particularly among Northern Irish Catholics and Irish nationalist who wanted an undivided Ireland and remains controversial to the present day, although the violence has declined. The strong majority of the people of Northern Ireland prefer to stay in the United Kingdom and there is little chance of Northern Ireland gaining independence or joining with the the rest of Ireland. Like Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland has a parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, with limited powers.

Northern Irland

Northern Ireland

So, there is no Queen of England because there is no Kingdom of England. Next time you happen to meet the Queen be sure to refer to her by her proper title as Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.


The Life and Death of Lenin

August 24, 2015

I am a fan of Isaac Asimov‘s science fiction stories, particularly of his Foundation series. In this series of books, a mathematician named Hari Seldon invents a way to predict the future through the mathematics of probability, which he calls Psychohistory.  It is not possible to predict the future actions of an individual person or even small groups of people. Psychohistory only works which large populations, entire worlds and nations. By using psychohistory Seldon learns  that the Galactic Empire, which has existed for thousands of years, is falling and the galaxy will enter into a dark age lasting for many millennia if nothing is done. It is too late to avert the fall of the Empire, but Seldon hopes to shorten the interregnum between the First and Second Galactic Empires to merely a thousand years by setting up two Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy that will preserve the scientific knowledge that would otherwise be lost and to lead the way to the reunification of the galaxy.

Could there really be such a method of calculating the future as Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory? In order for something like that to work, history would have to be determined by great economic and social forces and the choices of individuals, even great generals and kings, would have to be inconsequential. Carlyle’s Great Man Theory would have to give way to Spencer’s theory that even great men are mere products of their environment.

For my part, I do not believe that psychohistory could really be possible. I think that great men, and women, really do alter the course of history. There are just so many ways in which history could have turned out very differently, if the personalities of the persons involved has been different. Imagine the American Revolution without George Washington or Germany after the First World War without a Hitler. Then too, there ware the completely unpredictable workings of nature. Climate change has had a greater effect on the rise and fall of empires than is generally recognized. Diseases like the Black Death can appear due to chance mutations of a virus or bacteria and kill half the population of a continent with little warning.

I could give many examples, but the one that I would like to consider is the life and death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Bolshevik Party and the first leader of the USSR. Before the Russian Revolutions of 1917, there were many socialist factions seeking reform or revolution in Russia, some Marxist, some not. Among all these parties, Lenin’s party, the Bolsheviks were the most radically Marxist and the most given to violence and terrorism. Lenin and his lieutenants had no use for the kind of parliamentary reforms that more moderate groups wanted to bring to Russia, nor did he care for reforms to improve the conditions of the masses. Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted revolution.When the Czar was overthrown in February, 1917 and a republican Provisional  Government set up, the Bolsheviks played almost no role in the great affairs. Lenin was still in exile and wanted his party to have no part in bourgeoisie elections. The party would seize power in a Communist revolution.

It is important to understand that this decision to seize power was entirely Lenin’s. None of the other leading Bolsheviks thought it was a good idea and properly speaking, as good Marxists, the Bolsheviks ought not to have led a revolution at all. Marx has very definite ideas on how Communism was supposed to come about. He believed that every society moved through stages, from the primitive socialism of savages to the great slave states of the ancient world, to feudalism,  capitalism, socialism, and finally communism. Since Russia was still emerging from feudalism into capitalism, Lenin ought to have waited until capitalism was fully developed in Russia before leading the revolution. Lenin, however, realized that the Bolsheviks would never have a better chance for power than while the Russian government and economy were in a state of collapse.



Lenin’s rule as the first leader of the Soviet Union was a disaster for the Russian people. All of the totalitarian aspects of the communist regime that are usually attributed to Joseph Stalin’s tyranny had their beginnings with Lenin. Lenin was the one who setup the Checka, the secret police and it was Lenin who established the Gulags and the use of terror to subdue the population. Yet, despotic as Lenin was, Stalin was far worse and it was doubly unfortunate for the Russian people that Lenin’s premature death in 1924 led to the assumption of power by Stalin.


In the year before his death, Lenin was increasingly uneasy over events in the Soviet Union. The great revolution did not seem to be leading to a communist utopia but had exchanged the tyranny of the Czar with the tyranny of the commissar. Lenin began to consider ways of making the Soviet state more representative of the workers it purported to serve. Lenin was also becoming aware that Stalin, while a good man to have around in a revolution, was wholly unsuited to wielding power after the revolution. Lenin decided that Stalin had to be relieved of his powerful position of Party General Secretary. If Lenin had lived a normal lifespan, it is likely that he would have succeeded in unseating Stalin.  It is less likely that he would have made the Soviet regime in any sense democratic. Lenin’s own autocratic personality prevented him from ever really seeing that the cause of the increasingly oppressive regime was his own reluctance to allow anyone outside the Communist Party from gaining any real independence from the rule of the Party. Still, if Lenin had not died, the rule of the Communist Party, while still despotic, would not have reached the insane level of repression as it did under Stalin. The history of the twentieth century might have been very different, depending on whether Lenin lived or died.

Lenin was only 53 when he died following a series of strokes over the previous year which progressively weakened him. After his death, an autopsy showed that he had advanced arteriosclerosis in his brain with some blood vessels completely calcified. The arteriosclerosis was far worse than might be expected in a man of Lenin’s age, especially as he had none of the risk factors that might be associated with the disease. Lenin did not smoke, was moderate in his diet, and exercised regularly. He was under a considerable amount of stress as leader of a nation in a civil war and which had to be rebuilt almost from the ground up. Still, such an advanced case of arteriosclerosis at Lenin’s age is unusual, particularly considering that the worst buildup of plaque was in the blood vessels of his brain. The blood vessels in the rest of Lenin’s body were no more afflicted by the disease than might be expected by a man of his age and habits. Something strange was going on.

Recently, researchers have discovered that a mutation in a single gene can cause a selective buildup of the plaque that causes arteriosclerosis in the legs. Could Lenin have suffered from a similar genetic disorder that caused such a buildup in the brain? Lenin’s father also suffered from cardiovascular disease, dying of heart disease at the age of 54. While it is not yet confirmed that Lenin himself suffered from a genetic defect that specifically targeted the blood vessels of the brain, it is clear that there was some sort of hereditary predisposition for cardiovascular disease.

Getting back to psychohistory, I do not see how any method of predicting the future could account for the life and death of Lenin. It would not be difficult to predict the fall of the Czar many years before it happened. It may not have been too difficult to predict that the most radical faction of the revolutionaries seeking the overthrow of the Czar would end up in control. Other revolutions have seen similar outcomes. But how could anyone predict that a small splinter faction would end up seizing power in a coup? Remember that Lenin was the only Bolshevik who thought such a coup had any chance of success. If Lenin had still been in exile, the October Revolution wouldn’t have happened and either some other Marxist faction would have gained power, or the Provisional Government would have had time to get things settled down enough to establish a more permanent government. Even if it were possible to account for the rise of the Bolsheviks, how could anyone predict in advance that their leader suffered from a genetic defect that would kill him prematurely and pave the way for a psychopath like Stalin to gain power?

I think that it is clear that it is individuals who make history, either by the decisions of the great ones, or the actions of millions of lesser people. The social and economic forces that historians like Spencer believe that drive the course of history are nothing more than the trillions of actions made by billions of people over time with considerable influence brought on by unpredictable natural events. Psychohistory will probably have to stay in the realm of fiction.

The Demon Whisperer

August 10, 2015

They really don’t make popes like they used to. It is true that many of the Medieval and Renaissance Popes were very bad men and some were actually criminals. The Roman Catholic Church is fortunate that the general character of its popes seems to have improved considerably over the last few centuries. Modern popes may not be as interesting to read about as some of the more notorious popes of earlier ages, but they are perhaps more reliable in performing their pastoral and administrative duties. Still, if there are no remarkably bad popes in the present age, there are also no especially good popes either. Popes today are a rather bland lot compared to their predecessors. If there are no more Borgia Popes who assassinate their rivals or Great Schisms between rival popes, there are also no popes like Julius II who personally led armies into battle, Leo I who faced down Attila the Hun and convinced him not to sack Rome, or Gregory VII who made the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV stand in the snow for three days before granting him absolution. Popes were far tougher in the past.

The toughest of these medieval popes had to have been Pope Honorius III. He was not content to vanquish mere earthly foes but, according to legend, he actually summoned demons from Hell in order to battle with them and send them back. Even better, he wrote a book, or Grimoire, on summoning, controlling and banishing demons for the benefit of clergymen who might need such knowledge in their work.  Pope Honorius III was the Demon Whisperer, at least according to legend.

The Demon Whisperer

The Demon Whisperer

The sober facts about the life and papacy of Honorius III are impressive enough even without bringing in fantastic tales of his wrestling with demons to keep in spiritual shape. He was born Cencio Savelli in Rome in 1150. Savelli began his priestly career as canon of the Church of Sainta Maria Maggiore. In January 1188, he was made Camerlengo, or Chamberlain, of the Holy Roman Church. This post put Savelli in charge of Papal lands and finances and was perhaps a sign that he was considered honest and trustworthy. In February 1193, Savelli was made Cardinal Deacon of Santa Lucia and was acting Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church from 1194 until 1198. Savelli was dismissed from his post as Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church in 1198 and given the post of Camerlengo of the Sacred College of Cardinals, making him the treasurer of the College of Cardinals. In 1200, Pope Innocent III raiused Savelli to Cardinal Priest. Meanwhile, in 1197,  Savelli also managed to gain the post of tutor to the future Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.

On July 16, 1216, Savelli’s predecessor Innocent III died. Innocent III had been one of the most powerful and active popes of the Middle Ages and his reign would be a tough act to follow. Because of the unsettled political conditions in Italy, the College of Cardinals wanted to select a new pope quickly and they met only two days after the death of Innocent III, on July 18 at the city of Perugia. The College decided on Cencio Savelli as a compromise candidate acceptable to every faction and Savelli, somewhat reluctantly, was consecrated Pope Honorius III on July 24.

Honorius was a popular pope, at least in Rome where the Romans were pleased to have a local as pope. He was also known for his kindness and generosity which endeared him to the people of Rome. Like Innocent III, Honorius III was ambitious for the Papacy to play a leading role in European politics, but he proved to be less inclined to use coercion against the princes of Christendom, preferring to use persuasion. It may be that Honorius was too ambitious and tried to get too much done during his reign. He wanted to recover the Holy Land for Christendom and promoted the Fifth Crusade. This crusade involved a campaign against Egypt from 1218-1221 and ended in failure. Most of the rulers of Europe had their own difficulties at home and were not able or willing to leave their lands for any length of time. Honorius’s former pupil Frederick II became Holy Roman Emperor in 1220 and was an obvious choice to lead a crusade. Although he promised Honorius that he would go crusading in the Holy Land, Frederick II kept putting off and delaying his departure until after Honorius was dead.

In addition to promoting the crusades against the Infidel, Honorius also continued the French crusade against the Albigensians or Cathars begun by Innocent III. He supported the Reconquista of Spain from the Moors and missionary activity to convert the Baltic peoples, the last pagan holdouts in Europe. On a more positive note, Honorius endeavored to promote the spiritual reform of the Church. Honorius approved the Dominican, Franciscan and Carmelite orders and supported their reforming efforts. Honorius was a man of learning and strongly encouraged standards of education among the clergy, going so far as to dismiss illiterate bishops. He granted privileges to the Universities of Paris and Bologna and ordered arrangements made for talented young men who lived far from any universities to be taken to them and learn theology for the purpose of teaching in their own dioceses. Honorius himself wrote many books, including biographies of Popes Celestine III and Gregory VII as well as an guide to Papal finances. Even without the legends of wrestling with the supernatural, Honorius comes across as one of the more impressive figures to assume the Papal tiara.

Summoning Demons for Dummies

Summoning Demons for Dummies

It may have been Honorius III’s reputation as an author and scholar that gave rise to the legend that he wrote a grimoire and summoned demons in his spare time. Naturally, modern historians do not give any credence to such legends. The educated in our secular age reject outright any suggestion of the supernatural, especially stories of witchcraft and demon summoning and few are inclined to suppose there can be any truth to such legends. Aside from that, experts on the history and theology of the Roman Catholic Church point out that any work of witchcraft or magic, including the act of summoning demons, is and always has been strictly prohibited by canon law and it seems unlikely that a pope such as Honorius III, who was at pains to promote Catholic teachings would go against those teachings. Still, the idea of a pope relaxing by summoning demons and then sending them back to Hell is a strangely  appealing one, and I’d like to see one of these wimpy modern popes try to fight a demon.

One of Honorius's demons would chew him up and spit him out.

One of Honorius’s demons would chew him up and spit him out.

The Cadaver Synod

July 16, 2015

In the old days, popes were a lot more fun than they generally are nowadays. Twentieth and twenty-first century popes generally make nice speeches about helping the poor, ending war, and occasionally clarifying some bit of Catholic theology, not at all like the times when popes led armies into battle, appointed their relatives to all the top positions in the Church or had sex scandals with scores of mistresses and illegitimate children. The Papacy has become more tame and while that must be of considerable relief to the millions of Catholics who revere the Pope as the Vicar of Christ, it is a little disappointing to those who relish the scandalous or even the bizarre. Perhaps the strangest episode in the history of the Papacy has to be the notorious Cadaver Synod, the posthumous trial of Pope Formosus, in the year 897.


The term Dark Age is generally very inaccurate when applied to the entire Medieval Period from 500-1500, but the late ninth and tenth century was indeed a very dark time for Europe, perhaps the darkest period except for the aftermath of the destruction of the Roman Empire in the West in the fifth and sixth centuries. The Empire built by Charlemagne which included much of Western Europe was breaking up, divided between his grandchildren and great-grandchildren wh. fought among themselves incessantly. The all too brief cultural renaissance sponsored by the great king and emperor could not be maintained in a disintegrating empire and the progress made during Charlemagne’s reign was in danger of being reversed. The Carolingian dynasty had devolved from Charles the Great (Charlemagne) to Charles the Bald, Charles the Fat, and finally Charles the Simple. As if internal struggles did not create enough misery for the Europeans, invaders from every direction, the Vikings from the North, Muslims from the South and Magyars from the East, raided across Europe plundering and destroying at will.


The Papacy fared no better in this tumultuous time. The popes of this period were little more than the creatures of the nobility of the city of Rome, the Papal tiara being passed back and forth among the various Roman families. Most of the popes of this era were ineffectual, short reigned, decadent and corrupt, far worse than the notorious Renaissance popes who at least had political skill and patronage of the arts and sciences to recommend them. Not for nothing was this period called the “night of the Papacy”.

This was the background in which Formosus became pope. He was born in Ostia perhaps around the year 816. In 864, Formosus was made Cardinal Bishop of Porto, a suburb of Rome, and he was trusted with diplomatic missions to Bulgaria in 866 and the Franks in 869 and 872. He carried out missionary work among the Bulgarians and impressed them enough that they request Pope Nicholas I appoint him archbishop. Pope Nicholas refused since transferring a bishop from one see to another was a violation of canon law. Upon the death of Pope Adrian II, Formosus was a candidate for the Papacy, but John VIII was selected instead. Formosus seems to have had some sort of disagreement with John VIII, since he left his post as Cardinal Bishop and the city of Rome. Pope John order his return to Rome on pain of excommunication of various charges including opposition to the Holy Roman Empire, conspiring to seek the archbishopric of Bulgaria and the Papacy, and abandoning his post as Cardinal Bishop. His excommunication was withdrawn in 878 but he was forbidden to enter Rome or exercise his priestly functions. John’s successor, Marinus I was more favorably disposed towards Formosus and he restored him to his post at Porto in 883.


Pope Formosus, while he was still alive.

Pope Formosus, while he was still alive.

Marinus I and his two successors, Hadrian III and Stephen V had short reigns as Pope and by 891 the Papal throne was vacant once more. This time Formosus was elected Pope with no opposition. He would reign from 891 until his death in 896. As pope, Formosus was more involved with political issues, both secular and ecclesiastical, than pastoral matters. He was asked to rule on the status of Eastern Bishops ordained by an ousted Patriarch of Constantinople, and tried to settle a dispute over the crown of West Francia, or France. Formosus did not get along with the Holy Roman Emperor Guy of Spoleto and had to endure an invasion of Italy in 894. As if that wasn’t enough, Formosus had to contend with raiding Saracens ravaging the coasts of Italy.

Pope Formosus died in 896 after a short reign of a little less than five years. He wasn’t one of the more notable popes and it is likely that he would be altogether forgotten if it were not for his macabre posthumous career. Formosus was succeeded by Boniface VI who died after only fifteen days as pope and then Stephen VI who convened the Cadaver Synod. In January 897, Stephen VI had Formosus’s corpse disinterred, dressed in his papal vestments, propped up on a throne and put on trial . The charges were  transmigration of sees, from the Bulgarian affair, perjury, and serving as a bishop while a layman. Since Formosus could hardly be expected to answer these charges verbally, a deacon was appointed to answer for him. According to some accounts, when questions were put to Formosus, this deacon moved his head to indicate yes or no. Naturally, the court found Formosus guilty on all courts. Pope Stephen VI had Formosus stripped of his papal vestments and the three fingers of his right hand that were used for blessings cut off. He then invalidated all Formosus’s ordinations (except for his own ordination as Bishop of Anagni) and annulled all his acts and measures and had the corpse thrown into the Tiber.

You might think this would be the end of this bizarre affair, but Pope Formosus got revenge, of a sort. The strange trial of a cadaver turned public opinion against Stephen VI. Formosus’s body washed up on the banks of the Tiber and rumors began to spread that his body was performing miracles. A mob deposed and imprisoned Stephen VI and by August 897 he found strangled in his cell. Formosus was buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica. In December 897, Pope Theodore II nullified the findings of the Cadaver Synod and future posthumous trials were prohibited.

It is easy to smile at the antics of these Dark Age barbarians. Surely, in our more enlightened time, no one would dig up buried corpses and put them on trial. I am not so sure about that. As I write this, the city council of Memphis, Tennesee has just voted to exhume the corpse of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and move him from the park where he has been buried for the last one hundred and ten years. They also plan to remove his statue from the site and sell it. Forrest was not only a Confederate general, which is bad enough, but also one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, which makes him one of the most evil men in history, clearly unfit to be buried in a public place. There are no plans yet to put General Forrest on trial for hate crimes, cut off his hand that wielded his cavalry sword, and throw his body into the Mississippi, but in this current climate of anti-Confederate hysteria, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

The Election of 1840

July 12, 2015

People often complain that modern presidential politics is more about personalities than issues. The news media and the readers and viewers they serve seem less interested in what the candidates plan to do once in office and more interested in personalities, slogans, and sound bites. Political debates have devolved from the stately, informative Lincoln-Douglas debates in which the issues dividing the country were discussed at length to opportunities for politicians to deliver focus group tested zingers and one liners. People who idolize a past in which presidential candidates earnestly discussed detailed solutions for resolving the issues of the day had best not look too closely at the election of 1840. This was an election singularly devoid of any discussion of any issue except which candidate was born in a log cabin and drank hard cider. Actually, there was one serious issue which was beginning to divide the nation between North and South, but no one wanted to talk about it. Hint: it began with “S” and ended with “lavery”.

By 1840, the Jacksonian revolution was complete. Property requirements had been abolished in every state and every White male had the vote, beginning a new era of mass politics in the United States. The Whig Party had gotten its act together to form a truly national party and they learned enough from Andrew Jackson’s victories in 1828 and 1832 to understand the necessity of developing an organization for stirring up mass enthusiasm for their candidate and ensuring a good turnout at the polls on Election Day. The Whigs also learned to cast their candidate as a military hero and a man of the people. As events turned out, the Whigs had learned these lessons all to well as far as the Democrats were concerned.

The Whigs met in their national convention at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in December 1839, and nominated a military hero, William Henry Harrison over his rival Henry Clay. Harrison had been a senator from Ohio and governor of the Indiana Territory and had fought against the Indian leader Tecumseh, defeating his forces at the Battle of Tippecanoe. He had been one of the three Whig candidates in 1836 and since he had gotten the most votes of the three in that election, he seemed a good pick for 1840, even though at 68 he was the oldest man to be elected president until Ronald Reagan. Although Harrison had been born in Virginia, he was associated with the North so, in order to balance the ticket, the Whigs nominated the Virginian, John Tyler as his running mate. Tyler had served in both houses of Congress and as governor of Virginia. As a Democrat, he had supported Andrew Jackson at first, but turned against the president over state’s rights and the spoils system, and had joined the Whigs by 1835. His selection as the Whig’s vice-presidential candidate later proved to be not a particularly good idea.


For their part, the Democrats met at Baltimore in May, 1840, and easily nominated Martin van Buren for a second term as president. Van Buren’s Vice-President, Richard Mentor Johnson was still very unpopular in the South because of his romantic relationship with his slave Julia Chenn. Van Buren was reluctant to drop him from the ticket, but the Democrats simply refused to nomination Johnson for another term as Vice-President, so no running mate was nominated at the convention. They had an understanding that each state would vote for its own candidate and the Senate would pick the Vice-President, if van Buren won. Undaunted Johnson went ahead and campaigned for the vice-presidency as if he had been nominated.

Van Burn was fairly unpopular throughout the country as the economy was still in recession as a result of the Panic of 1837, so the election was Harrison’s to lose, provided he did not do anything divisive or unpopular like making any statements about the issues of the day, particularly the one involving the “S-word”. So, Harrison and his supporters made it a point to say very little. Instead, they promoted their candidate as a humble man of the people. It was one of Clay’s supporters who gave them the idea for their campaign theme. During the convention, he had said derisively of Harrison that  he would be perfectly happy living in a log cabin and drinking hard cider. Harrison’s supporters took this and ran away with it, tirelessly depicting their man as born in a log cabin and drinking simple hard cider, as opposed to the aristocratic van Buren who lived in luxurious mansions and drank only the finest and most expensive wines. The Whigs organized parades demonstrations, and gatherings with a log cabin theme and served hard cider while praising Harrison for his simple lifestyle. Along with the log cabin went the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”.

It was all a lie, though. Harrison had, in fact, been born into one of the wealthiest and politically prominent Virginia families with plantations and slaves. He had attended college and studied medicine, but it was not a field that appealed to him and upon the death of his father, he had left college to join the army. The aristocratic van Buren was the one who had been born in humble circumstances and had worked his way up in New York politics. But, politics and truth seldom intersect.

The Democrats responded by attacking Harrison’s age and military record. He was old and senile, they claimed and a vulgar, profane man who slept with Indian women while in the Army and then resigned his commission just a year before the War of 1812, abandoning his country in its hour of need.

It was not a close election. The Democrats were never able to muster enough enthusiasm for their candidate to match the Whigs and the faltering economy weighed down van Buren’s efforts at re-election. The popular vote was 1,275,390 to 1,128,854 or 52.9% to 46.8% in Harrison’s favor. A third party, the anti-slavery Liberty Party, with James G Birney as its candidate gained 6,797 votes, This was utterly insignificant at the time but the Liberty Party was a harbinger of the anti-slavery movement which would create the Republican Party and tear the nation apart. In the Electoral College, Harrison won 234 votes from all over the country, while van Buren only got 60 votes, winning New Hampshire, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.

The Election of 1840

The Election of 1840

William Henry Harrison did not have long to enjoy his presidency. After giving the longest inaugural speech in history on March 4, 1841 and a month later had died of pneumonia making the Harrison administration at only thirty days, the shortest in American history. Harrison was the first president to die in office, causing something of a constitutional crisis as it was not clear to what extent the vice-president assumed the powers and responsibilities of the presidency. Most of Harrison’s cabinet assumed that Vice-President John Tyler was only an acting president until such time as new elections could be arranged. Tyler, however, insisted that he was the new president upon taking the oath of office and with the support of  Chief Justice Roger Taney, his view prevailed. Tyler was not a particularly successful president since his political views were not much aligned with those held by his fellow Whigs in the cabinet or in Congress, or for that matter with the Democratic opposition, and this along with the then unprecedented manner in which Tyler became president made it difficult for him to get much done.


Conquest: The English Kingdom of France

July 10, 2015

The Hundred Year’s War is not really an accurate name for the medieval war between England and France. The war actually lasted one hundred sixteen years, from 1337-1453, and was not a continuous war but a series of conflicts, with off and on fighting depending on the belligerence of kings and the course of the plague. The war began when the last son of Philip IV of France died without issue. As the mother of the English King Edward III was Phillip’s daughter, Edward claimed the French throne, as well as his own. The French refused his claim, citing the Salic Law which prohibited royal inheritance by a female descendant of the king and gave the crown to a nephew of Philip IV, Philip VI. Naturally there was war.

After the death of Edward III in 1377, the fighting died down somewhat as both realms were more concerned with internal matters. Henry V renewed the fighting in 1415, taking advantage of  political unrest between branches of the French royal family, particularly the feud between the Armagnac or Orleans faction and the Burgundians. After his decisive victory at Agincourt, Henry V was able to compel the French King Charles VI to disinherit his own son, the Dauphin, later known as Charles VII, and declare Henry his heir. Henry V died in 1522 leaving an infant son Henry VI who became king of France upon the death of Charles VI later that year. Thus France had an English king from 1420 to 1450, at least in theory.

This English kingdom of France is the subject of Juliet Barker‘s Conquest: The English Kingdom of France, which covers the last part of the Hundred Year’s War. It is a fascinating story of a France almost completely defeated rising again to expel the invader, of a disinherited prince with no hope of gaining his throne turning the tide with the help of Joan of Arc, and of an infant king  with a faction ridden council of regents and a land worn out by fighting, growing up into a weak king willing to make peace at any price. It is a story of battles and sieges, of brave knights and treacherous mercenaries and family squabbles that affect the course of nations.


Juliet Barker makes this story come alive with the skill of a novelist. She brings out the personalities of the principals involved in the war and politics of the two kingdoms and describes the events in a way that excites the interest of the reader. By the time I was halfway through the book, I found the narrative so fascinating that I had trouble putting it down. If you like the Game of Thrones, you’ll surely love this history of a real life game of thrones. The only complaint I have is that the maps really weren’t enough. It might have been nice to include one or two maps showing the course of the various campaigns. Other than that, this was an excellent history of a long ago war.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 495 other followers

%d bloggers like this: