Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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.

Gavrilo Princip

July 9, 2015


In a somewhat controversial move, last week Serbia put up a monument in Belgrade commemorating Gavrilo Pricip. Who is Gavrilo Pricip and why would a monument to a Serbian hero be controversial? Well, Gavrilo Princip happens to be the man who started World War I by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and so was indirectly responsible for all the horrors of the twentieth century. Here is the story I read from the Associated Press.

Serbia on Sunday unveiled a monument to Gavrilo Princip, whose assassination of the Austro-Hungarian crown prince in Sarajevo helped ignite World War I and still provokes controversy in the ethnically-divided Balkans.

Hundreds of citizens attended the ceremony in central Belgrade held on the anniversary of the 1914 assassination which is also the Serbian national holiday of St. Vitus Day.

President Tomislav Nikolic described Princip — who is viewed as a terrorist by many outside Serbia — as a freedom fighter and hero.

“Today, we are not afraid of the truth,” Nikolic said. “Gavrilo Princip was a hero, a symbol of the idea of freedom, the assassin of tyrants and the carrier of the European idea of liberation from slavery.”

He added that “others can think whatever they want.”

Austria accused Serbia of masterminding the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Backed by Germany, Austria attacked Serbia, whose allies, Russia and France, were quickly drawn into the conflict. Britain, with its sprawling Commonwealth empire, and the United States also joined the fighting.

Princip’s legacy is also viewed differently by different nations in the Balkans, which remains a smoldering patchwork of ethnic and religious rivalries two decades after the end of the conflict in the 1990s that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

In Bosnia, Serbs regard Princip as a hero, while the country’s Muslims and Croats widely regard him as a killer and a Serbian nationalist whose goal was Bosnia’s occupation by Serbia. A century ago, Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats preferred to stay in the big Austrian empire that had brought progress, law and order.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik said during the Belgrade ceremony that the unveiling of the Princip monument amounted to “fighting for freedom today.”

World War I claimed some 14 million lives — 5 million civilians and 9 million soldiers, sailors and airmen — and left another 7 million troops permanently disabled. Princip, who was only 19, was immediately arrested and died in captivity months before the war ended.

If I had a time machine, I wouldn’t go back in time to kill Hitler or Stalin, or any other of the mass murderers who so afflicted the world in the past century. I would stop the man who set the stage that allowed such men to gain power in the first place. I would either take Princip’s gun away or jump in front of him and take the bullet he aimed at Franz Ferdinand.


Gavrilo Princip


Just think how different, and better, the world would be if World War I had been averted. The Communists could never have seized power in Russia if the Czar’s government hadn’t been fatally weakened and discredited by years of defeat in war. Russia was changing very rapidly in the years before 1914. Its economy was growing and it was becoming industrialized. It is likely that the Russian living in 1913 had a higher standard of living and was freer than any of his ancestors. The Czar was still an autocrat, but Russia had begun an evolution towards some sort of constitutional monarchy. If this process had not been interrupted by war and revolution, Russia would be a free and prosperous land today. Lenin would have died in exile and Stalin would have remained a petty criminal.

Without the defeat in World War I and the Versailles treaty, the Nazi Party would never have been formed and Kaiser Wilhelm would have remained in power. The German government was somewhat democratic with a Reichtstag elected by universal male suffrage, but there was little patience for radical parties which sought to overthrow the government. Hitler would have lived out his life as an itinerant artist in Munich.

It is commonly believed that the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with its large population of national minorities was on the verge of breaking up even before the war. It is possible that over the twentieth century such nationalist movements would have grown stronger until Austria-Hungary was obliged to grant independence to groups like the Czechs, the Slovaks, Croatians,and others. Then again, it is also possible that the Austro-Hungarian monarchy might have made concessions towards autonomy for various regions, perhaps causing the Empire to develop into a sort of Central European Federation. That was, in fact, what Franz Ferdinand was planning to do when he became Emperor. If Gavrilo Princip wanted to free his people, he might have been better off staying home that day.

He also should have stayed home that day.

He also should have stayed home that day.

Without World War I, France and Britain would not have seen whole generation of young men decimated in battle. Their finances would not have been stretched to the breaking point by the cost of that war and they might have been able to maintain their colonial empires for a longer time. This may not seem to be a good thing, but the colonial powers really abandoned their colonies too quickly and without as much preparation for independence as there might have been, not to mention infecting the newly independent nations with the European disease of socialism, which might not have been so virulent without the war.

Speaking of colonial powers, the Ottoman Empire would also have lasted longer. While the Ottomans were hardly models of liberal government, they did manage to keep the Middle East at peace. This means no Israel, but then there would not have been a Holocaust in Europe. Maybe the Zionists would have managed to gain autonomous status within the Ottoman Empire.

I am sure that not everything would have been better. Technology would not have advanced so rapidly without the stimulation of war. Democracy would have been slower to take hold, though there would have been no totalitarianism. The scientific racism held by most educated Europeans and Americans would not have been discredited by the atrocities committed in the name of the master race. And, it is likely that war would have occurred even if Gavrilo Princip had missed. Perhaps the war would have started in 1964 with atomic bombs. There is no way of knowing what would have happened.

Considering that World War I resulted in the deaths of untold millions both in the course of the war and the the war that followed as well as the murder of millions in the Holocaust and in the Soviet Union, I hardly think that Gavrilo Princip was a hero. He did not intend to set off the war that destroyed Europe, but he bears much of the responsibility for that war. I don’t think he deserves a statue in his honor.

Was the American Revolution a Mistake?

July 7, 2015

For Dylan Matthews at the answer to that question is yes.

This July Fourth, I’m celebrating by taking a plane from the US to the United Kingdom. The timing wasn’t intentional, but I embrace the symbolism. American independence in 1776 was a monumental mistake. We should be mourning the fact that we left the United Kingdom, not cheering it.

Of course, evaluating the wisdom of the American Revolution means dealing with counterfactuals. As any historian would tell you, this is messy business. We obviously can’t be entirely sure how America would have fared if it had stayed in the British Empire longer, perhaps gaining independence a century or so later, along with Canada.

Would we be better off today if the Revolution had not succeeded? Rather than celebrating our independence from the mother country, ought we to regret it? I am something of an anglophile, so I am a bit wistful about that regrettable separation myself. Sometimes I do think it would be nice to be part of the country that gave us Doctor Who and Mister Bean, not to mention the many more substantial gifts that the British have given the world. Still, that is not saying that we would all be better off, and it is possible that much that was good about the British Empire may not have come to be without the sentiments expressed by our founding fathers.

The best thing to have come out of England, except for the Magna Carta, the English language, etc.

The best thing to have come out of England, except for the Magna Carta, the English language, etc.

It is, of course, impossible to know what would have happened. It seems to me that much would depend on the way in which the American Revolution had failed. If King George and his ministers had been more statesmanlike and showed a better understanding of the sentiments of the colonists, and if cooler heads had prevailed in the colonies, the Revolution might have been averted altogether. Perhaps there might have been some trouble in 1775 which was quickly resolved by judicious compromises, in which case the North American colonies might well have developed somewhere along the lines of Canada or Australia. On the other hand, if the British had defeated the Continental Army in 1779 or 1780 and killed George Washington, things might have been very different. Years of war had increased bitterness on both sides and it is likely that the rebellious colonies would have been held as conquered and occupied provinces, much like Ireland. Like Ireland, there might have been continuing unrest and repeated rebellions. Since Mr. Matthews seems to take the former scenario, so will I.

Maybe this would have been the flag of the Anglo-American Empire

Maybe this would have been the flag of the Anglo-American Empire

Dylan Matthews gives three reasons for believing that the American Revolution was a mistake.

But I’m reasonably confident a world in which the revolution never happened would be better than the one we live in now, for three main reasons: Slavery would’ve been abolished earlier, American Indians would’ve faced rampant persecution but not the outright ethnic cleansing Andrew Jackson and other American leaders perpetrated, and America would have a parliamentary system of government that makes policymaking easier and lessens the risk of democratic collapse.

I believe all three reasons are mistaken. I do not think that slavery would have been abolished earlier, that the policy towards the Indians would have been greatly different if the American Revolution had not succeeded, nor do I believe that a parliamentary system of government is superior.

The main reason the revolution was a mistake is that the British Empire, in all likelihood, would have abolished slavery earlier than the US did, and with less bloodshed.

Abolition in most of the British Empire occurred in 1834, following the passage of theSlavery Abolition Act. That left out India, but slavery was banned there, too, in 1843. In England itself, slavery was illegal at least going back to 1772. That’s decades earlier than the United States.

This alone is enough to make the case against the revolution. Decades less slavery is a massive humanitarian gain that almost certainly dominates whatever gains came to the colonists from independence.

According to Matthews, the American Revolution was fought by White men, for White men and everyone else would have been better off if they had failed.

The main benefit of the revolution to colonists was that it gave more political power to America’s white male minority. For the vast majority of the country — its women, slaves, American Indians — the difference between disenfranchisement in an independent America and disenfranchisement in a British-controlled colonial America was negligible. If anything, the latter would’ve been preferable, since at least women and minorities wouldn’t be singled out for disenfranchisement. From the vantage point of most of the country, who cares if white men had to suffer through what everyone else did for a while longer, especially if them doing so meant slaves gained decades of free life?

Though he admits that abolishing slavery would have been harder if the North American colonies were still in the British Empire.

It’s true that had the US stayed, Britain would have had much more to gain from the continuance of slavery than it did without America. It controlled a number of dependencies with slave economies — notably Jamaica and other islands in the West Indies — but nothing on the scale of the American South. Adding that into the mix would’ve made abolition significantly more costly.

But the South’s political influence within the British Empire would have been vastly smaller than its influence in the early American republic. For one thing, the South, like all other British dependencies, lacked representation in Parliament. The Southern states were colonies, and their interests were discounted by the British government accordingly. But the South was also simply smaller as a chunk of the British Empire’s economy at the time than it was as a portion of America’s. The British crown had less to lose from the abolition of slavery than white elites in an independent America did.

It is not clear to what extent abolitionism would have gained any traction in Britain if a major part of their empire depended on slave labor and if the principles of equality and consent by the governed that were expressed so well by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence had remained unwritten. In any case, slavery would not have been confined to the South. In 1776, slavery was legal and accepted in all thirteen colonies. It was only after the American Revolution had been won that the first wave of abolitionism, prompted in part by the obvious hypocrisy of declaring all men equal while still holding slaves, led to the Northern states to abolish slavery. In 1787 the Continental Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, organizing the Northwest territories and prohibiting slavery. Most people believed that it was only a matter of time before slavery was ended in the South. This didn’t happen partly because of the invention of the cotton gin and partly because the expansion into the south west, where slavery hadn’t been prohibited, was made easier by slave labor.

It seems likely, then, that by 1834 slavery would still be legal throughout North America both in the original thirteen colonies and in the settled lands beyond the Appalachians. Would the British Parliament still have abolished slavery, knowing that such an act would lead to revolution in the colonies. We would have fought the American Revolution in the 1830’s instead of the 1770’s. It seems likely that the Parliament might have delayed abolishing slavery for many years rather than lose the colonies, especially if the French, no Louisiana Purchase, and the Spanish, no Florida cession and perhaps no revolutions in Latin America, maintained some presence in North America.

What about the Indians?

Starting with the Proclamation of 1763, the British colonial government placed firm limits on westward settlement in the United States. It wasn’t motivated by an altruistic desire to keep American Indians from being subjugated or anything; it just wanted to avoid border conflicts. But all the same, the policy enraged American settlers, who were appalled that the British would seem to side with Indians over white men.

American Indians would have still, in all likelihood, faced violence and oppression absent American independence, just as First Nations people in Canada did. But American-scale ethnic cleansing wouldn’t have occurred. And like America’s slaves, American Indians knew this. Most tribes sided with the British or stayed neutral; only a small minority backed the rebels.

Ethnic cleansing is a loaded word that is not particularly applicable to what occurred in the relations between the Indian tribes and the American government. It was never an official policy of the U.S. government to exterminate the Native Americans. Here is what the Northwest Ordinance had to say about the Native inhabitants of the Northwest territory.

Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.

Condescending, to be sure, but meant well. Unfortunately both Indians and settlers wanted the same lands so there was war and the Indians were defeated. This is bad enough but not the same as rounding people up and exterminating them in camps. But, who cares about accuracy when we have a chance to portray America as the Evil Empire? In any case, there is no reason to believe that the Indian policy, both intended or actual, would have been greatly different. The Proclamation of 1763 could not have been enforced for any period of time, given the demographic pressures that led the British colonists to want to expand westward. Matthews compares the treatment of the Indians by America and Canada, in Canada’s favor, but there were fewer settlers in Canada and the lands were less desirable.

Finally, the question of good government.

And parliamentary democracies are a lot, lot better than presidential ones. They’resignificantly less likely to collapse into dictatorship because they don’t lead to irresolvable conflicts between, say, the president and the legislature. They lead to much less gridlock.

In the US, activists wanting to put a price on carbon emissions spent years trying to put together a coalition to make it happen, mobilizing sympathetic businesses and philanthropists and attempting to make bipartisan coalition — and they still failed to pass cap and trade, after millions of dollars and man hours. In the UK, the Conservative government decided it wanted a carbon tax. So there was a carbon tax. Just like that. Passing big, necessary legislation — in this case, legislation that’s literally necessary to save the planet — is a whole lot easier with parliaments than with presidential systems.

This is no trivial matter. Efficient passage of legislation has huge humanitarian consequences. It makes measures of planetary importance, like carbon taxes, easier to get through; they still face political pushback, of course — Australia’s tax got repealed, after all — but they can be enacted in the first place, which is far harder in the US system. And the efficiency of parliamentary systems enables larger social welfare programs that reduce inequality and improve life for poor citizens. Government spending in parliamentary countries is about 5 percent of GDP higher, after controlling for other factors, than in presidential countries. If you believe in redistribution, that’s very good news indeed.

This is actually the best argument I could make against a parliamentary system. It is too easy to pass legislation. Under Britain’s current system all that is needed to make any changes imaginable is a majority in the House of Commons. There are no checks and balances. Any dictator would only need that majority to impose whatever rules he wanted. It is only tradition and the good sense of most Britons that has prevented anyone from trying, so far. I would be happier if the House of Lords had equal power with the House of Commons and the Monarch would still exercise a veto over legislation. This would be undemocratic, but many people confuse democracy with liberty, or ends and means. The end of government is the preservation of liberty. Democracy is only a means to that end. A democratic government can fail to preserve liberty and tyranny under a democracy is every bit as odious as any other kind. Frankly, I prefer freedom to efficiency in government.

After reading this article, I am not convinced that the American Revolution was a mistake. If anything, I am more grateful than ever that the founding fathers made the sacrifices they did to make the United States of America a free and independent country. I do not believe the world would have been a better place if the revolution had failed. It is more likely to have been less free and less prosperous. So, I will continue to celebrate the Fourth of July, while being grateful that the British are our best friends.

Besides, we would have him to look forward to as our next king.

Besides, we would have him to look forward to as our next king.


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