The First Moon Landing

Some of us are going to have an extremely difficult time believing it, but it was 42 [count `em: Forty-Two!] years ago today, 20 July 1969, that a man first walked on the moon!

“That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind,” said Neil Armstrong as he touched toe upon the lunar landscape. Watching this on television at our neighbors’ house, despite the noisy static — which makes the quote possibly a slight slip-up: if the “a” is not spoken, it’s a bit off — it was clear that the quote was intended to be a famous and inspiring legacy. The conquest of space was not simply an act American bravado, but a development that all human beings could share in.

At the time, the broadcast of the event gained the largest world-wide audience ever recorded. For a short while, millions of people around the globe were united in watching and celebrating an achievement of the most dramatic sort: new heights had been reached, and in a peaceful enterprise, albeit one that certainly had potential military implications. If you were old enough to have watched this momentous event, do you recall where you were at that time?

Certainly the race for the moon was an outgrowth of the Soviet/American Cold War, and the technological achievement served to impress the Soviets with how much a committed United States could achieve in an amazingly short time, but it was and is more than that. Mankind is a questing species. New horizons have alway beckoned. To paraphrase a quote from a television show that predates the moon landing, “Space is the final frontier.” It remains to be seen if we ever return.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.

— Seneca

The Extermination Of The Romanovs

Another hot July day, another revolutionary event. This one was far more in keeping with France’s hideous “Reign of Terror” than with America’s open Declaration of the reasons for rebellion. It was on this date, 16 July 1918, that the immediate members of the Imperial Family of Russia – The Romanovs – were exterminated.

In the central Russian town of Ekatrinaburg (City of Catherine The Great) agents of the Communist, Bolshevik power in Russia – fearing that they were losing the Civil War that arose in the aftermath of the fall of the Czar – carried out the merciless murder of Czar Nicholas II and his family. World War I was still raging unabated, and the West barely knew of what was taking place in Russia.

Nicholas and his family had been under house arrest since he had abdicated his throne on the Ides of March 1917 in the wake of a relatively bloodless, Republican/Socialist coup. The Russian Socialist Republican Government led by Aleksandr Kerensky were determined to keep the Czar and his family alive for two reasons: they wished to have negotiating power with other European nations after the War was concluded, and they considered the Czar innocent of corruption, though manifestly guilty of incompetence.

In November of 1917, the extreme radical faction of the Russian Socialists led by Vladimir Lenin (“Vladimir” means “world conqueror”) overthrew the Kerensky Government and instituted the “Soviet Union”, a union of socialist states formed “voluntarily” from the former limbs of the Russian Empire. This first Communist state in the world was tenuous at best, and the government was fearful of the power that still resided in the Imperial Czarist family. They therefore moved the family from Saint Petersburg to Ekatrinaburg in central Russia. They were lodged in the house of a local merchant, the Ipatiev house. Comfortable, to be sure, but no mansion, far less a palace.

A violent Civil War broke out in June of 1918 between the Bolsheviks (The Reds) and the royalists/moderates (The Whites.) In July, the White Russians were closing in on Ekatrinaburg and would likely be able to liberate and perhaps reinstate the Czar. Of course that was unthinkable to the Communists. So they hatched a simple, obvious plan: kill all the Romanovs.

On the night of 16 July 1918, the Imperial Family were gathered together under the pretext of having a photograph taken. The photograph, it was explained, was to assure the world that the Romanovs were alive and well. The Family, roused in the middle of the night, were relived to learn the reason.

They gathered in the cellar of that unimposing house in that unimposing central Russian city, and they posed. And they waited. They were arranged in two lines “for the picture” by two of their guards. Then the guards withdrew.

Suddenly, six or eight men burst into the cellar with machine guns. They enfiladed the posed family without hesitation. Nicholas, so often portrayed as weak or cowardly, threw himself over his son Alexei. But the family was butchered all the same. No one could have survived that hail of automatic weapons fire, and – just to be certain – the killers fell upon the bullet-riddled bodies with bayonets, stabbing anyone who moved or twitched.

The Last Czar and his family were no more; Imperial Russia was dead. But the enlightened, progressive, and humane Soviet state could never be seen as a party to such murder. That sort of brutality was outside of the philosophical belief of the Soviet Government. Thus for almost 75 years the murder was a secret: known to outsiders, but unproven. In July of 1977, the Communist Party of The Soviet Union decided to completely erase the traces of Ekatrinaburg and ordered the complete destruction of the Ipatiev House.

This order to attempt to erase history was resisted by the local Communist Party apparatchiks. They did not wish to take part. However the Siberian-born First Secretary of the Sverdlovsk Region finally yielded to the pressure from Moscow. Thus Boris Yeltsin, later famed for his resistance to the attempted Coup of 1991, and later President of Russia, managed the bulldozing and removal of the Ipatiev house and its details. Many years later Yeltsin acknowledged, “… sooner or later we will be ashamed of this piece of barbarism.”

No one was allowed to confirm the death of the Czar and his family, and no one was permitted to spread the word to the West. This unproven status led to the propagation of the Anastasia myth. But in 1992, Nicholas, Alexandra, and three daughters were conclusively identified using DNA matching techniques. Two of the Romanov offspring were not identified, however: Anastasia and Alexei.

Some believed that Alexei and Anastatia escaped, fled to the West. Some in Russia dream of the restoration of the Romanovs in some constitutional form. Several men and women have claimed to be the missing Romanovs or their children.

Myths still abound.

But in 2007, a group of amateur detectives found another cache of bones not far from where the original remains had been located. In April of 2008, it was announced that DNA testing performed by two separate laboratories in the United States had confirmed the remains as Maria and Alexei; this result was confirmed almost a year later by a Russian analysis. An Austrian study further confirmed the identification. It is now known that Czar Nicholas II, Czarina Alexandra, their four daughters and their son all definitely died in the bloody hecatomb in the cellar of the Iaptiev house. After 90 years, the Russian prosecutors officially closed this case.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

One man with a gun can control 100 without one.

— Vladimir Lenin


Further Reading:

The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, Robert K. Massie; Random House, 1995: ISBN: 394580486

Massie, who also wrote the powerful and informative Nicholas And Alexandra (Atheneum, 1967), which was a book of enormous impact when it was first published, delved into the final discovery and identification of the Romanov remains after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He discusses DNA evidence (HRH The Duke Of Edinburgh supplied a blood sample to assist with the identification) and other forensic data in a most informative and engaging way. A must.

The Escape Of Alexei: What Happened The Night The Romanov Family Was Executed, Vadim Petrov, Igor Lysenko, and Georgy Egorov; Harry N. Abrams, 1998: ISBN: 0810932776

A controversial account (it was lambasted by the Russian critics when it was published there in 1997) of the supposed survival of Alexei after the hecatomb of Ekatrinaburg. A Few current photographs of some folks who do indeed bear an uncanny resemblance to the 1918 Romanovs, plus some rather unconvincing special pleading for us to accept the authors identification of “the last Romanov Heirs” fail to convince. But there is good discussion of the events on 16 July 1918.

Russia Under Western Eyes: From The Bronze Horseman To The Lenin Mausoleum, Martin Malia; The Belknap Press, Harvard Press, 1999: ISBN: 0674781201

A nice survey of Western views of Russian from Peter the Great to the Fall of Communism.

Also worth looking into are Bruce Lincoln’s In War’s Dark Shadow (The Dial Press, 1983: ISBN: 0385274092) and Edward Crankshaw’s The shadow Of The Winter Palace (Viking, 1976: ISBN: 0670637823.) Of special interest is The Last Tsar, by Edvard Radzinsky; Doubleday, 1992: ISBN: 0385423713, a gripping account of Nicholas II’s last months.

The Fall Of The Bastille

In the days before central air conditioning, in the irritating heat of summer, people just seem to have been more ready to riot and revolt. Thus it comes as no surprise that today, 14 July, is the anniversary of one of the most famous and resounding revolutionary acts in history, the storming of The Bastille in Paris, in 1789.

The storming of The Bastille has enormous significance as a symbol of the common man rebelling against the tyranny and abuses of an autocratic and repressive regime. Images of vast mobs of Parisians storming the ancient fortress where hundreds of political prisoners were kept in squalid, miserable confinement have inspired literature, poetry, music, and, most importantly, action. The French consider the storming of The Bastille as the crucial moment when their revolution truly began, and as the turning point from monarchy to democracy. Bastille day is celebrated much as is the 4th of July in the United States, with parades, speeches, and fireworks displays. In 2004, for the first time ever, the Bastille Day parade in Paris was led by troops from the Queen of England’s own guards! (Now that’s an ironic turn of events.)

The fall of The Bastille ranks with the signing of The Declaration of Independence as a pivotal event in the history of human liberty and the progress of Freedom.

However, it should be noted, that the storming of The Bastille is an event far more fraught with symbolic significance than actual tactical impact. At the time the dread prison fell, it was hardly an indictment of the Royal government; the prison housed just SEVEN inmates: a “deviant” nobleman, two “mad men,” and four forgers. The aristocrat was the Compte de Solages; just two weeks before the prison was liberated, the infamous Marquis de Sade had been transferred from its confines. The inmates were hardly a mass of oppressed political opposition.

The mob which attacked The Bastille numbered perhaps a thousand people, the defenders numbered about 100. The mob commandeered muskets and cannon from other armories around the city, and the governor of the prison surrendered in the face of certain defeat. The mob immediately dragged him out and killed him, then surged in to free the prisoners. There was much disappointment when it was discovered how few the prisoners were, and what an uninspiring lot they were. Nevertheless, within three days, the mythologizing had begun. An almost entirely fictitious account, “Les Revolutions De Paris,” was published three days after the event, and the stature of the storming grew in symbolic importance with each passing month. By the first anniversary of the liberation, it had become the major national holiday in France, though it would not be officially designated until the mid 19th century.

The Bastille itself was not so very great a fortress in actuality. The term bastille is the French for a small “bastion,” a fortified gateway in the wall of a city or castle. When the structure was built in the late 1300’s, it was the gate into Paris at Rue Saint Antoine. When Paris grew outside its old walls, the fortress no longer served a defensive purpose, and it was used as a prison from the late 17th century. Though it often held political prisoners and writers deemed to have slandered the crown, it was evidently a rather decent place as prisons go, being the preferred place for convicted nobility to be incarcerated.

The castle no longer stands. The building was demolished soon after its fall. Today Paris has its Place de la Bastille on its site.

Whatever the realities, the symbolism of the French People defying a thousand years of Royal might and laying the foundations for a democratic government resonates with lovers of liberty everywhere. The Bastille stands figuratively as a warning to all governments that power ultimately resides with the governed, and a reminder to all people, that they are the governed.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

The Bastille, like death itself, equalizes all whom it engulfs.

— Simon Linguet,
Memoirs Of The Bastille
Published in London, 1783

Further Reading:

M. Linguet’s Memoires Sur La Bastille is available in French as a Google Books edition online. The text is scanned from an 1894 edition from the Stanfurd Library.

Citizens: A Chronicle Of The French Revolution, Simon Schama; Alfred A. Knopf, 1989: ISBN: 0394559487

Schama devotes fewer than a dozen pages to the storming of the Bastille, making it seem trivial in the context of this 875+ page tour de force. But one readily understands why: the event itself – no matter its drama or poetic potential – is really not key to the revolution. This is the most accessible and enjoyably readable major account of the French Revolution that I know of. Schama has an engaging narrative style, and he tells a good story. A must-read on the topic.

Tallyrand: The Art Of Survival, Jean Orieux, translated by Patricia Wolfe; Alfred A. Knopf, 1974: ISBN: 0394472993

This is a wonderfully detailled account of the life of one of history’s greatest and most mercurial masters of political survival. Tallyrand served the King, the Republic, the Emperor, and the restored Monarchy, changing his stripes as needed. Quite distinct from the often dry and tedious Annales school of French historianship, this biography makes for fascinating reading.

The Scopes Trial

“The net effect of Clarence Darrow’s great speech yesterday seems to be precisely the same as if he had bawled it up a rainspout in the interior of Afghanistan.”

— H. L. Mencken in The Baltimore Sun, 16 July 1925

It was eighty-six years ago today that the famous or infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” opened in the Rhea County Courthouse, Dayton, Tennessee. The trial — much dramatized on stage and screen — was a staged event, pure and simple. Tennessee’s legislature had passed The Butler Act that Spring, and governor Peay had signed it into law, with all parties assuming it would never actually be enforced (Governor Peay himself said “Nobody believes that it is going to be an active statute.”) The law prohibited any state school at any level from teaching the Theory of Evolution. The politicians were simply taking what they felt to be a symbolic stand.

The civic leaders of the tiny town of Dayton figured that actually conducting a trial based upon the law would bring nationwide attention to Dayton, and they hoped some measure of prosperity would follow. Dayton was missing out on the booming years of the “Roaring Twenties,” having lost about half its population in the preceding two decades. A spectacular “media event” would be just the thing to attract people to the town. So the movers and shakers of tiny Dayton approached the high school physics teacher and coach in town, John Scopes, to see if he would be willing to take part in this test case.

Scopes had occasionally substituted in Biology, and had used a standard state textbook in which Darwin’s theory was discussed, and so he had in technical fact violated the law. He was arrested under the statute and brought to trial. Much planning and preparation went into the trial to ensure maximum media interest. William Jennings Bryan, renowned orator, three time presidential candidate, and former Secretary of State, was invited to lead the prosecution. Though it had been more than thirty years since he had practiced law, he agreed, for he had organized and led the movement which resulted in the passage of The Butler Act. Upon learning that Bryan would be acting as prosecution, renowned attorney Clarence Darrow volunteered to provide the defense. Darrow was the most famous lawyer in the country, and well known for his opposition to intolerance.

The trial opened eighty-six years ago today with jury selection. Next, both sides presented their motions before the judge. The trial attracted so many people that the judge ordered it moved outdoors to the courthouse lawn, fearing that the building could not bear the strain of so many spectators.

The actual trial was somewhat anticlimactic: Scopes was indeed guilty, and would be convicted. The judge had denied Darrow’s request to allow expert testimony about evolution, reasoning correctly that The Butler Act itself was not on trial. Oddly, though, as memorably dramatized in the play “Inherit The Wind,” the judge allowed Darrow to call Bryan to the stand as an expert on the Bible. Darrow ran rings around Bryan, revealed Bryan’s inconsistency in his beliefs, and generally made Bryan look like a fool. Darrow made a great summation and then surprised everyone by asking that the judge direct the jury to return a guilty verdict. The strategy would do two things: it would permit a later appeal to a higher court wherein the law itself could be questioned, and it would deprive the great orator, Bryan, of delivering his summation.

Technically, Bryan had won. But in the court of public opinion he had lost. He was “a tin-pot pope in the Coca-Cola belt,” quixotically resisting modern science with feeble and pointless laws, as Mencken and other journalists portrayed him. Bryan, “The Great Commoner,” lifelong champion of the average American, gadfly against oppression and exploitation, had, it seemed, become myopic and foolish in his dotage. This assessment of Bryan’s involvement is very much the “textbook” interpretation of today. Bryan never had a chance to recover his dignity as he died in Dayton five days after the trial concluded.

The desired appeal of the conviction never happened due to a technicality which allowed the case to be vacated. The Butler Act remained on the books in Tennessee until 1967. The heritage of the Scopes Trial was not, however, the triumph of secular science over religious bias. In fact, in the aftermath of Scopes, textbooks across the nation began a retreat from addressing evolution, a retreat that is still with us today. In the forty-four years since 1967, many other states have attempted to implement modern variations of Tennessee’s Butler Act, and time and again, such attempts to legislate religious belief have been rejected by the Supreme Courts of these states or by the Supreme Court of the United States of America. But publishers of textbooks are catering to the prejudices of their markets, and monetary gain trumps educational principle every time.

The United States is the only developed country today wherein there is any such contention about the teaching of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Despite the fact that Science and Religion are distinct realms, and that Science cannot properly make any claims about enlightening religious beliefs any more that Religious beliefs are science, there is has been a rather odd resurgence of this debate in recent years. The current ploy has been to repackage Biblical Creationism as “Creation Science,” bizarrely attempting to give a cherished religious belief the color of actual science.

I have a great respect for religious faith, and I personally find no contradiction between my own faith and the revelations of Science. But then, I am no Biblical Literalist. The message of the Bible, I believe, is indeed Truth, but that message is completely and truly conveyed without every small detail being precisely and wholly true as the objective world defines factual truth. Indeed, I have always been puzzled by the notion of Biblical Literalism, for the Bible itself is by no means internally consistent, and it often contradicts itself. (Look at Genesis 1 & 2.) These contradictions do not in any way diminish the Truth of the Text, though they clearly show that word-for-word literalism is honestly insupportable and unnecessary. What’s more, the very fact that Jesus taught using parables, stories which illuminated a Truth yet which were clearly not literally true, illustrates that The Truth can be conveyed without minute, literal truths.

Proponents of “Creation Science” claim that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is merely a “theory,” trading upon the popular definition of a theory as simple speculation. For some reason, there is no such calling into question the validity and value of Newton’s Theory of Gravitation, nor Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. And though the indisputable fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun contradicts Psalms 93:1, 96:10, 104:5, I Chronicles 16:30, and Ecclesiastes 1:5, no one today seriously proposes teaching “Geocentric Theory” to school children. To do so would be to advocate the production of seriously miseducated students. So why such atavism with regard to Darwin’s theory?

I suspect the answer is one of simple pride. The usual (and erroneous) gloss upon the Theory of Evolution is that man descended from monkeys; whom among us would like to acknowledge *that* sort of family tree? I am at turns amused and appalled by a billboard which appeared around Dallas a few years ago, “If Man Descended From Monkeys, Why Are There Still Monkeys?” I am amused because the question is funny, appalled because the question betrays a complete ignorance of biology, Darwin or no Darwin. Those who have little more to take pride in than the simple accident of their births simply cannot bear the thought that their personal heritage is anything other than untainted by biological realities.

So, despite the eighty-six years that have passed since the Scopes Trial began, our biological education has nevertheless moved in the very direction that William Jennings Bryan so ardently advocated, and which Clarence Darrow so passionately opposed. The average American receives no training in evolutionary theory unless he or she enrolls in a biology class at the college level. Bryan and his Fundamentalist allies triumphed both in Dayton in 1925 and in the commercial court of textbook publishing, no matter the subsequent rulings of other courts. Scopes is with us still.

Thus, today, most of what anyone recalls about Bryan is his involvement in the Scopes trial. His legacy of courageous populism and his tireless efforts in support of Women’s Suffrage, The Forty-hour Work Week, the prohibition of Child Labor, the Direct Election of Senators, and many, many more progressive issues is all but forgotten. And if these legacies are occasionally remembered, his later-life adherence to fundamentalism is explained away as an aberration.

But it was no such thing.

As Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his superb essay “William Jennings Bryan’s Last Campaign,” Bryan’s anti-evolutionary stand was wholly in keeping with his principals. Bryan, champion of the common citizen, had seen Darwinism perverted into “Social Darwinism” which held that the rich were the successful in the struggle for survival, and that they therefore were worthy of their wealth, while the poor, crippled, and mentally defective, were doomed to failure and death. From this theory grew the Eugenics movement — breeding better humans selectively — which enjoyed much popularity until Hitler and his henchmen damaged its reputation for good. The notion of “survival of the fittest” became nearly a religious creed among the German General Staff during the First World War, and it was applied to the fitness of nations and used to justify atrocities against the peoples of France and Belgium as smaller, weaker states were less worthy of survival. Bryan was particularly influenced by Vernon Kellogg’s account of Social Darwinism’s impact upon the German High Command, Headquarters Nights. Kellogg described how a belief in Social Darwinism among the German General Staff had replaced Christianity and traditional moral values. The prominent thinking among the German officer corps was that any means required to secure the triumph of their superior nation would be justified by Darwin’s notion of “survival of the fittest.”

Of course, Darwin’s theory implies no such thing. It is a scientific explanation for observed phenomena, and it is not a moral prescription. (In the natural world, a “weak” and “lowly” creature may well be the fittest to survive in its niche. The typical lifeform on earth is a bacterium, after all!) But the idea that human society and social prejudices could be explained and justified using a “scientific” explanation had great appeal.

After World War I ended, Bryan saw the horrors that had been perpetrated under the guise of Social Darwinism, both at home and abroad, and his last great campaign was to oppose Social Darwinism. Bryan did not want the next generation of America’s leaders to emulate the German High Command. So Bryan not only rejected Social Darwinism but any aspects of Darwinism. He did so not because he favored scientific ignorance, nor because he wanted to deny religious freedom. Rather, Bryan was simply taking up one more cause in his struggle to ease the oppression and exploitation of the average citizen. Far from becoming a mere dottering, inconsistent fool at the end of his life, Bryan was standing by his principles, and as he saw it, trying to make the world a better place.

In taking a stand against the teaching of the Theory of Evolution, Bryan joined the forces of reaction and ignorance. His goal of fighting the oppression of the common man was completely in character for him; he never abandoned his fight. But in the case of the Scopes Trial, he did so in the most ignoble of ways, appealing to prejudice and fear to resist inevitable change. Despite his lofty motives, he ended up as a tragicomic caricature of himself. But he was not alone, and his type is legion even to this day: well-meaning in an earnest desire to ameliorate society’s ills, but shooting at the wrong target.

It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and end it as a buffoon.

— H. L. Mencken on Bryan

Further Reading:

There have been many excellent books, plays, and movies about the Scopes Trial. Here are some fairly brief but extremely worthwhile treatments of it:

Attorney For The Damned, Arthur Weinberg; University of Chicago Press, edition of 1989 [1958]: ISBN: 0226136493

This book covers Darrow’s most famous cases with extensive material from trial transcripts. The Scopes Trial is covered in about 50 pages as “You Can’t Teach That!”

Hen’s Teeth And Horses Toes, Stephen Jay Gould; Norton, 1983: ISBN: 039301716A

The essay “A Visit To Dayton” provides an excellent summary of the trial and its issues.

Bully For Brontosaurus, Stephen Jay Gould; Norton, 1991: ISBN: 039302961

The essay “William Jennings Bryan’s Last Campaign,” addresses Byran’s motives and his reasoning for his anti-evolutionary stand. I am deeply indebted to Professor Gould for helping me to make sense of what I had long considered an inexplicable aberration on Bryan’s part.

The Cross Of Gold!

We will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!

— William Jennings Bryan, the conclusion of The Cross Of Gold speech

It was 115 years ago today, 9 July 1896, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, that the relatively unknown former Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan stepped to the platform to deliver one of the most deeply moving political speeches in American History. Though Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech is little noted nor long remembered these days, for more than a generation it was this country’s premiere example of political oratory. Moreover, Bryan’s speech was so well received at the time that it was delivered that it changed the course of his party’s policies and platform, and resulted in his nomination for the Presidency at the age of 36! Never before nor since has someone so young been nominated, nor has any candidate been nominated under such circumstances: after the second ballot at the convention, Bryan was nominated by acclamation.

Bryan’s rise was possible in part because in that age before television and radio, oratory was a highly refined and widely appreciate art and entertainment, and Bryan was a great orator. He possessed a voice which author Edmund Morris likened to the great ranks of a pipe organ, and which he used to great effect during his amazingly energetic campaign. Bryan’s leap to the top was abetted by a divisive split within the Democratic Party. The party was split on the question of “bimetallism,” the use of a dual gold standard and silver standard for monetary policy. In our world of today where neither gold nor silver (nor aught but faith and credit) back our dollars, it is hard to understand the emotional and inflammatory nature of this question.

Alexander Hamilton had started the infant United States upon a bimetallic policy whereby the gold standard would be used in conjunction with silver to back United States Dollars. This standard valued gold at sixteen times silver. If the market caused gold to increase above this ratio, making it unprofitable to mint gold coinage, then silver would be the defacto standard. This flexible scheme helped to keep the money supply responsive and elastic. Financial historian Ron Chernow notes that bimetallism “was to become the curse of American financial history.” It did have inflationary potential, as the Federal Government had great reserves of silver and could coin it fairly freely (this was not quite the same as simply “print more dollars” but the impact was similar.) All the same, except for the Civil War years, this two-metal scheme was used from 1792 until 1873.

In 1873, Congress, acting for Eastern financial interests, demonetized silver and established a one-metal gold standard. This was considered both more modern (most Western European powers were taking similar steps about that time) and anti-inflationary. It had the immediate impact of tightening the money supply. In the commercial East, the impact was negligible, and the South was still so ravaged by the destruction wrought in the Civil War that the money supply itself was of small moment. But the West and Midwest, newly expanding in the post-Civil War era, were seriously and negatively impacted by the policy change. Populist Politicians of the 1870’s and later referred to the demonetization of silver as “The Crime of 1873.”

For the next 23 years, the Democratic party would be divided into those who favored the gold standard, such as President Cleveland, and those who favored bimetallism. During this time, the gold standard proved anti-inflationary; indeed, it was deflationary! During the years between 1875 and 1895, prices declined at a rate of about 1% per annum, while production in the United States was booming along at a rate of increase nearing 6% per annum. With production increasing and the money supply decreasing, prices fell sharply and 1892 saw the start of a depression so great that unemployment between 1892 and 1896 reached a high of nearly 20%. (This decade would have been remembered as “The Great Depression” but for an even greater one that started in 1929.)

In this context, Bryan’s impassioned plea for a return to Hamilton’s bimetallic scheme was of pressing importance to a great segment of American society. Bryan, dubbed “The Great Commoner,” represented the hopes and aspirations of the everyday working American. Though he was defeated in November of 1896 by William McKinley, he remained a potent enough political force to run twice more for president. His progressive views were so influential that both McKinley and Roosevelt took action to address concerns that were raised in Bryan’s campaigns. Bryan also served as Secretary of State under Woodrow wilson, resigning over Wilson’s handling of the Lusitania sinking.

It is profoundly ironic that Bryan is most remembered today for acting as prosecutor in the famed “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925, the trial testing Tennessee’s law prohibiting the teaching of the Theory of Evolution. It is hard for us today to conceive of how a man who was very nearly a social radical — he favored women’s suffrage, prohibition of child labor, the forty-hour work week, and prohibition, as well as bimetallism — could become so closely associated with Fundamentalism. But it was no contradiction as Bryan perceived it; he was being consistent and sticking to his principles and his lifelong commitment to helping the common man.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

When an international financier is confronted by a holdup man with a gun, he automatically hands over not only his money and jewelry, but also his shirt and pants, because it doesn’t occur to him that a robber might draw the line somewhere.

— Nero Wolfe

Further Reading:

There are a number of books devoted to Bryan and to the election of 1896, however, since Bryan was the loser, most of what I have read about him comes from references in books about related people or times.

“The Populist Moment: A Short History Of The Agrarian Revolt In America,” Lawrence Goodwyn; Oxford University Press, 1978: ISBN: 0195024176

An immensely dry account of Populist politics of the 1890’s, but an excellent source of information on a much-neglected aspect of American History. Recommended for the extremely interested.

“The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt,” Edmund Morris; Modern Library Paperbacks, 2001: ISBN: 0375756787

This is the first part of Morris’ planned three-volume work about Teddy Roosevelt, and as such is also a worthwhile account of the political and social aspects of America in the 1890’s. Bryan is just a minor mention among all the goings-on about Roosevelt, but this book is an enjoyable and informative read.

“1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft, & Debs – The Election That Changed The Country,” James Chace; Simon & Schuster, 2004: ISBN: 0743203941

This is a fairly light, easily readable treatment of another little-known era in American History, and is worth reading to gain a greater insight to how the ivory-tower, academically-minded president of Princeton became President Of The United States. In covering the background of Woodrow Wilson’s election, Chace examines the Populists and Debs. The book’s major drawback is lack of a bibliography.

“Alexander Hamilton,” Ron Chernow; Penguin Press, 2004: ISBN: 1594200092

Nothing about Bryan in this book, but a must read all the same. Chernow’s discussion of bimetallism amounts to less than one page in this more than 700 page book. But so what? This is one of the best, most comprehensive, and highly entertaining biographies I have ever read. It represents not only an authoritative account of one of our most unappreciated founders, but also a marvellous course in the early years of Our Republic.

Russia Rising

It was on this day – more or less – in 1709 that Russian forces under Tsar Peter The Great decisively defeated invading Swedish forces led by King Charles XII near the Ukrainian village of Poltava. (I say “more or less,” because on the Russian calendar of that era, the battle was recorded to have taken place on 28 June, but modern historians often use the adjusted, new style dating scheme to synchronize past events, hence 8 July.) This was the most important and most noted single engagement of The Great Northern War (1700 – 1721.) The outcome of the battle was somewhat ambiguous from one perspective: The war dragged on a further dozen years. Yet it was definitive in a far longer-ranging result: Imperial Russia, long a distant fringe at the very edge of Europe, now emerged as a major European power, and Sweden’s century of dominance of the Baltic region came to an end.

Poltava was the disastrous conclusion of a disastrous campaign. After subduing his enemies in Poland and moving his army of some 45,000 men into position to threaten Russia itself in early 1708, Charles decided to knock Russia out of the war once and for all with a crushing blow by capturing Moscow. Charles led his troops in an invasion of Russia in the Spring of 1708, crossing the Berezina River in late June of 1708. The Russians refused to meet the Swedish forces in a fixed battle. Instead, they continually withdrew, burning all of value as the went. This “Scorched Earth” policy left Charles’ army with little food and dwindling supplies a very long way from their resources. By early October a hard winter was already settling in over Russia. Charles gave orders for his forces to march to the Ukraine in hopes of finding grain and milder weather.

By all accounts the winter of 1708-1709 was one of the coldest – if not the coldest – in recorded history: birds fell frozen from the sky, brandy and schnapps froze in the bottle, and iron and steel shattered like glass. (Even in far-away Venice the winter was terrible, and for the only time in history, the brackish water in the lagoon of Venice froze over!) The invading troops, left without food or shelter in the wake of the Russian retreat, died by the thousands. By the following Spring thaw, Charles had less than half of the army he had started with.

By June of 1709, weather conditions permitted the effective movement of armies once more, and Tsar Peter marched 80,000 men into the Ukraine to do battle with the invaders. Peter’s army was well supplied, well armed, and, due to the intense efforts of Peter and his generals, well trained. Previously, the Swedes, with their superior military training and organization, had easily defeated the Russians. Charles was unprepared to meet a Russian army that could match his own. Add to this the fact that the Russians had at least a 4-to-1 numerical advantage and the outcome was inevitable. Charles’ army was utterly destroyed, and with it Sweden’s prominence in European affairs. Imperial Russia was firmly established as a major force in Europe.

One is tempted to wonder why Charles felt that an invasion deep into Russia was a sensible strategy: after all, Russian winters were famously fierce, and Spring thaws made military movement nearly impossible. Many of Charles’ advisors suggested a more practical scheme of blocking Russia at its borders. But Charles was determined to punish his enemies, and he pursued this goal with an almost pathological single-mindedness. His earlier encounters with Peter’s armies convinced him that victory would be swift and easy. As it was, Russia’s greatest and most reliable General helped to ensure the defeat of the Swedes: “General Winter.”

There is a lesson to be drawn from Charles XII’s experience, but it seems somehow that it is never learned by those who most need it. A little more than a century after Poltava, on 24 June 1812, Napoleon launched his own ill-fated attempt to capture Moscow with his Grand Armee of more than 600,000 troops. Though Napoleon did manage to reach Moscow, it was a vacant and burning ruin. Once again the Russians adopted a Scorched earth policy that denied the invaders all usable materials and food. Napoleon had to retreat, and of his vast army, only 22,000 returned.

Then, 129 years after Napoleon’s debacle, Adolf Hitler felt certain that he could succeed where Charles XII and Napoleon had failed. On 21 June 1941, Hitler’s army launched a massive invasion of Russia with some 3.2 million troops. The plan was far more ambitious than any earlier invasion of Russia, for Hitler aimed to make a three-pronged attack to capture Leningrad in the North, Moscow in the Center, and Stalingrad in the South. Hitler, confident of the weakness and disorganization of the Russian army, planned to have the campaign completed by September, and no provisions were made for winter warfare. As Hitler’s forces drove deep into Russian territory, the Russians used Scorched Earth tactics once more, and by fierce fighting turned Hitler’s planned lightning victory into a devastating standstill as winter set in.

In reality, of course, weather – even in Russia – takes no side in a war, and Winter alone could not halt invasions of Russia. Only determined resistance can do that. Yet the Russians are historically well-used to, and familiar with, their intense winters, and Russian armies have been able to maneuver in weather that has halted invaders. Yet if the past is a guide, in about 75 years, someone will once more try to invade Russia, confident of being able to achieve what so many others have failed to.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

What experience and history teach is this – that people and governments have never learned anything from history.

— Hegel, 1801

Grabbing A Chunk Of Paradise

The Main gate of the Iolani Palace, Honolulu, Hawaii.

It was on this day in 1898, that President William McKinley signed the Newlands Resolution, formally annexing the Republic of Hawaii to the United States. How on earth, one may ask, did the United States come to subsume an independent republic into its territory? And, if Hawaii really was a republic, why is the place still so plainly attached to its erstwhile monarchy? As with most such situations, the answer is complex, bordering on the Byzantine.

From the unification of the islands into the Kingdom of Hawaii under Kamehameha I, “The Great,” in the late 18th Century until the overthrow of Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani in 1893, Hawaii was a functioning and recognized, independent Kingdom. Its independence had been compromised in 1843 when Royal Navy Captain George Paulet demanded under threat of force that the Kingdom be ceded to Great Britain. Paulet was evidently not acting under orders. Official protests were lodged against this action by the monarchy, by France, and by The United States. Soon, Whitehall repudiated his action, and Hawaiian sovereignty was restored within six months. (It is also possible that Paulet’s action was simply a “testing of the waters” by The Foreign Office to see if objections would be raised by other Powers.) Though the Kingdom of Hawaii could not hope to stand up to the military might of any Western Power, it was protected by a simple aspect of political reality: as long as none of the Great Powers with interests in the Pacific would permit another one to gain an advantage, Hawaii’s independence was essentially assured.

It is also important to note that for most of the 19th Century, Hawaii was not an especially valuable territory from the perspectives of geopolitical concerns. Hawaii was extremely remote, and was not on the major Pacific trade routes used by sailing vessels (there is a reason it was not “discovered” until the late 18th Century, though the Pacific had been crossed and recrossed by European vessels for generations prior.) Hawaii was indeed a large and fertile land, and the islands did make a good whaling station (humpback whales congregate in the warm waters to breed each Winter) but it had few items of export value other than some native hardwoods. Hawaii was of greater interest to missionaries striving to save souls than to politicians maneuvering to gain global advantage.

The situation changed irevocably on 9 March 1862 with the first military clash of completely steam propelled, iron-clad warships at Hampton Roads, Virginia during the American Civil War. Almost literally “overnight,” wooden navies powered by wind and sail were rendered obsolete. The age of iron, steel, and steam had arrived, and with it the need for coaling stations across the globe. Nineteenth Century steamships burned coal. Lots of coal. And without a readily available coal supply, a navy’s ability to project its power was severely limited. In the last decades of the 19th Century, island after island – no matter how remote or small or barren or otherwise unprofitable – was taken over by one of the Western Powers, mainly to serve as coal and supply depots. Suddenly, remote Hawaii was viewed in an entirely new light.

In the days of sail, Hawaii made a useful watering and supply stop for whalers, but offered no significant strategic appeal; in the days of coal, Hawaii was perfectly located to permit a steam-powered navy to project its power across a vast region of the Pacific. Technological change had rendered Hawaii far too strategically valuable to remain independent for long. The United States, owing to its large resident population of missionaries and their descendents in Hawaii, enjoyed a strong commercial relationship with the Kingdom. Plantation crops had been developed for foreign trade, and by the 1870s, Hawaii supplied a huge volume of sugar to the U.S. at favorable rates. The Kingdom of Hawaii also retained close ties to Great Britain (as reflected in the odd fact that the State of Hawaii’s flag incorporates the “Union Jack” of Great Britain!) Many in Hawaii felt that it was inevitable that it would become a formal protectorate of one or the other of these nations.

By the late 1800s, though, with the rise of a unified Germany, an increasingly powerful Russia, and a rapidly modernizing Japan, there was simply no possibility that Great Britain would be allowed to formally extend its hegemony over so strategic a posession. No European Power wished to see Hawaii added to the British Empire. Similarly, it was unacceptable to established Powers that an “upstart” Japan should be allowed to commence building a Pan-Pacific Empire. It was equally unthinkable Hawaii should remain independent, playing one Power off another.

In 1887, European-American Hawaiian business interests backed by the paramilitary Honolulu Rifles, had forced King David Kalakua to acceed to the “Bayonet Constitution,” which essentially stripped the king of all power and disenfranchised all but the wealthiest land owners. The rolls of eligible voters were reduced to a fraction of what they had been under the 1864 constitution. In 1893, Queen Liliuokalani determined that it was necessary to restore the 1864 constitution, a proposal which was, not surprisingly, met with approval among the majority of Hawaii’s people. It is also not surprising that the proposal was absolutely repugnant to the business interests who had forced the 1887 constitution to be adopted. The coup which imprisoned Queen Liliuokalani was not only not
supported by the population, it was deeply unpopular.

At the time that Sanford B. Dole’s “Committee of Safety” with the aid of United States Marines dispatched by U.S. Consul John L. Stevens, imprisoned Queen Liliuokalani and declared the monarchy abolished in 1893, the majority of Hawaiians had no desire to see the monarchy ended. In fact, majority sentiment favored a re-empowered monarchy, the possibility of which led to Dole’s coup.

Dole and his oligarchy hoped to have the United States annex Hawaii immediately after the overthrow, confident that expansionist president Benjamin Harrison would favor such a step. However, Harrison lost his bid for reelection and president Grover Cleveland would not even consider such an annexation. The U.S. House of Representatives issued a resolution deploring the use of U.S. troops to overthrow a legitimate government, and Congress would not take any steps toward taking control of Hawaii.

The Committee of Safety therefore declared the Republic of Hawaii on 4 July 1894 with Sanford B. Dole as president. (Hawaii is one of only four states to have been an independent republic.) The republic bided its time until the United States elections of 1896 returned the Republican Party to power, and after the inauguration of William McKinley in March 1897, Dole commenced negotiations for annexation. Hawaii was formally annexed in 1898 and became a U.S. territory in 1901. Dole served as the first territorial governor.

There was a good deal of poorly documented, behind-the-scenes political gamesmanship among the Powers before this annexation was declared. Ambassadors from Japan formally objected initially, (though the objections were dropped, possibly in exchange for the promise of a favorable commercial treaty with the U.S.) while both Russia and Germany approved. Great Britain, aware that it would not be permitted such a prize, finally endorsed the United States’ action as being most favorable to the interests of Great Britain. France declined to either object or assent. The de jure government of The Republic of Hawaii was unquestionably in favor of annexation, and had little role in the final process. It seems that at no time were the wishes of the actual people of Hawaii even considered  …

Jamie Rawson

Flower Mound, Texas

Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom.  It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.

—  William Pitt, 1783

Further Reading:

Expansionists of 1898: The Acquisition of Hawaii and the Spanish Islands, (1936, Fourth printing) Julius Pratt;Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Company; ISBN: 0812962176

Professor Pratt’s highly readable and extensively researched account of the U.S. acquisition of Hawaii is a must for anyone interested in greater depth on the subject.  Pratt, perhaps unexpectedly, asserts that the drive for U.S. expansion was propelled “not by businessmen but by historians and other intellectuals, by journalists and politicians.”  

An American Classic, Or A Classic American?

It was on 6 July 1862 that Samuel Clemens published his first writing in Virginia City, Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise. He soon followed the custom of journalists of that era and subsequently published under the pen-name “Mark Twain.” “Mark Twain” is a term taken from Clemens’ four years on Mississippi river steamboats: the channels in the ever-shifting, muddy waters of the Mississippi, required navigators to frequently gauge the river’s depth by sounding, the dropping of a weighted line with fathom markings into the water; one fathom was “mark an,” two fathoms – safely navigable – was “mark twain,” and so on.

Clemens had left his job on the Mississippi to join his brother, Orion Clemens, to travel to Nevada Territory where Samuel hoped to strike it rich prospecting for silver in the Comstock Lode. That hope failing to bear fruit, Samuel took a job at the Virginia City paper to earn enough money to travel home. In one of those fortunate unplanned circumstances that seem so frequent in history, Clemens proved to have a natural aptitude for writing: he had a keen eye for the vivid details of life on the frontier, and he had a knack for spinning the humorous twist in his narrative. By 1865 he had moved on to San Francisco where he published “The Celebrated Jumping Frog Of Calaveras County,” which became a national sensation and made Clemens a celebrity.

Writing as Mark Twain, Clemens continued to write and publish until his death in 1910. His contribution to American literature is almost impossible to over-estimate. William Faulkner and Ernest Hemmingway both acknowledged their personal debt to Twain’s influence, and both described him as the founder of a truly American literature. Though he is most noted for “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” his works range from light, humorous pieces to serious political polemics. Some of his most controversial work, especially regarding religion, was not published until long after his death. Letters From The Earth was finally published in 1962, and just last November, the University of California published the first volume of a comprehensive three-volume edition of the The Autobiography of Mark Twain.

So well-known is Twain as the author of hundreds of oft-quoted epigrams and one-liners that many quotations that did not originate with him are frequently attributed to him (Ben Franklin enjoys the same reputation.) A small sampling shows the range of his interest and the keen edge of his wit: “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” “Truth is our most valuable commodity, so let us economize.” “Few things are harder to put up with than a good example.” “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” “Respect your superiors, if you have any.” “Suppose you were a congressman, and suppose you were an idiot. But I repeat myself.” “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great ones make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

And though it may be by a rather indirect route, we can thank President Abraham Lincoln for giving the world Mark Twain. Lincoln appointed James Warren Nye governor of the Nevada Territory, and Orion Clemens as Territorial Secretary. With Mississippi River traffic being much reduced by the outbreak of the Civil War, Orion invited his younger brother Samuel to accompany him out West. The rest, as they say, is history.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas


Never learn to do anything. If you don’t learn, you’ll always find someone else to do it.

— Twain

An Enduring Mystery

It was on 2 July 1937 that famed aviatrix* Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, made their final radio contact during their attempt to circumnavigate the globe along the Equator. Earhart and Noonan had departed from Lae, New Guinea on their way to tiny Howland Island, just north of the Equator (it lies at at 0 degrees 48 minutes North, 176 degrees 38 minutes West, almost exactly halfway between Lae and Honolulu, Hawaii.) Their aircraft was a Lockheed L-10E Electra, a twin-engine plane and Lockheed’s first to feature all-metal construction.

Amelia Earhart had a number of aviation firsts to her credit: she was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic (a year after Charles Lindbergh’s renowned solo crossing) and later became the first woman to make the crossing as a solo flight, a feat for which she was awarded The Distinguished Flying Cross. Garbed in heavy, unisex flight gear, Earhart bore an uncanny resemblance to Charles Lindbergh, and the popular press gave her the nickname “The Lady Lindy,” which enhanced her image. She was also the first person to make a solo flight from Honolulu, Hawaii to Oakland, California, and she held several aviation speed records. By 1937 Amelia Earhart was not only a celebrity but a genuine national hero. Her attempt to circle the globe was eagerly followed in the international press.

The round-the-world flight was not to be the first. That had been accomplished earlier, but it was to have been the first equatorial circumnavigation of the globe. Though it was promoted as a scientific mission, little hard science was actually performed during the journey, and it seems that it was designed to create publicity as much as anything else. Earhart had taken a position at Purdue University in 1935 as a counselor on careers for women, and it was Purdue which funded the purchase of her L-10E.

Earhart and Noonan’s final transmission indicated that they were low on fuel and that they believed they were at the charted position for Howland Island. The United States Coast Guard cutter Itasca, stationed at Howland Island in support of a tiny settlement that had been established there, was monitoring communications from the Electra, but there were several difficulties, including Earhart’s tactic of changing transmission frequencies periodically. Other radio posts along Earhart’s flightline may have received additional transmissions as well. But Earhart and Noonan never made it to Howland Island and safety.

The disappearance sparked what was then the largest and costliest search and rescue mission in history, but no trace of the Electra nor of Earhart or Noonan has ever been positively identified. As is inevitable in the case of a celebrity vanishing, many speculations, legends, rumors, and fictions have sprung up to explain Earhart’s disappearance: some claim she and Noonan were captured by the Japanese who were fearful of American espionage attempts, others offer the theory that Earhart engineered her disappearance so that she and Noonan could start a new life together under new identities. No tale is too fanciful or too far-fetched to be posited. Yet there is to this day considerable serious and scholarly inquiry as well.

The sudden and complete disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Frank Noonan remains fascinating because it remains unexplained and unresolved. Surely it cannot help matters that U.S. government documents concerning Earhart and her disappearance remain classified.

Jamie Rawson
Dallas, Texas

Adventure is worthwhile in itself.

— Amelia Earhart

*”Aviatrix,” the feminine form of “aviator,” is no longer used these days, but it somehow seems just the right word to invoke the image and impact of Amelia Earhart in her times: girded in a streaming silk scarf and flying goggles, staking her claim in the overwhelmingly male-dominated world of flight.