British North America

Courtesy Ron Good, an article from the New Yorker sure to gin up controversy:

WE COULD HAVE BEEN CANADA

Was the American Revolution such a good idea?

And what if it was a mistake from the start? The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the creation of the United States of America—what if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries. No revolution, and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No “peculiar institution,” no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath. Instead, an orderly development of the interior—less violent, and less inclined to celebrate the desperado over the peaceful peasant. We could have ended with a social-democratic commonwealth that stretched from north to south, a near-continent-wide Canada….

Justin du Rivage’s “Revolution Against Empire” (Yale) re-situates the Revolution not as a colonial rebellion against the mother country but as one episode in a much larger political quarrel that swept the British Empire in the second half of the eighteenth century. Basically, du Rivage thinks that the American Revolution wasn’t American. The quarrels that took place in New York and Philadelphia went on with equal ferocity, and on much the same terms, in India and England, and though they got settled by force of arms and minds differently in each place, it was the same struggle everywhere. “Radicalism flourished in Boston, Bristol, and Bengal, while fears of disorder and licentiousness provoked rural elites in both the Hudson Valley and the English shires,” du Rivage writes. “As radical Whigs gained strength in North America, the political culture of the British Empire became increasingly Janus-faced.”

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: The author asks:

Why is it that, until now, the Civil War cast such a long, bitter shadow, while the Revolution was mostly reimagined as a tale of glory? One reason, too easily overlooked, is that, while many of those who made the Civil War were killed during it, including the Union Commander-in-Chief, none of the makers of the Revolution died fighting in it. The Founding Fathers had rolled the dice and put their heads on the line, but theirs was the experience of eluding the bullet, and, as Churchill said, there is nothing so exhilarating as being shot at without result. Of how many revolutions can it be said that nearly all its makers died in their beds? In the American Revolution, the people who suffered most were not the people who benefitted most, and the lucky ones wrote most of the story. Like everything in history, amnesia has its own causality.

I would go further and suggest that the postwar settlements had a lot to do with it. Former Loyalists were expelled from the new American republic; a lot of them moved to Canada, leaving behind a more ideologically uniform country. The Civil War saw the attempted secession of eleven American states. This attempt failed, but there were simply too many former Confederates to expel them all – reintegrating them into the Union became a priority, at the price of allowing them to wax nostalgic about their Lost Cause for all time.

Exam Question

At heart, what was the Renaissance? How did it contribute to the Reformation?

The Renaissance was fundamentally a rebirth of classical Latin – or rather, the Latin of the first century BC, particularly as it was composed by Cicero (and perhaps Virgil, Livy, Ovid, and other Augustan writers). To Francesco Petrarca, who lived in the fourteenth century AD, this was the pinnacle of its development and worth returning to. Language changes over time, of course – on the ground, Latin morphed into French, Spanish, and Italian – but even as a formal, learned language it changed, such that the Latin in daily use by the medieval Church was not quite the same as the one employed in the Senate House to expose the conspiracy of Cataline. I’m sure that any fourteenth-century reader would have noticed this difference, and not very cared much, but Petrarch cared a great deal. To him, every linguistic change since Cicero was necessarily a debasement, a corruption. (Cicero did employ certain rhetorical effects that had fallen out of use.) The venality of the Church, and its stultifying bureaucracy in which Petrarch worked, seemed to be reflected in the prosaic Latin it used.

Thus, to Petrarch, it was a cultural imperative to revive Ciceronian Latin. This project was slightly risqué – Cicero was a pagan, and the Church did not recommend that Christians read too much pagan writing. As it happens, the Church was right – Petrarch almost single-handedly started a vogue for the revival of Ciceronian Latin – and of necessity a revival of the pagan idea of making something of yourself. No longer did life need to be a vale of tears so that one’s heavenly reward could be all the sweeter; now, people started to claim that God had given them talents, and they glorified God when they developed those talents. This is not necessarily anti-Christian, and indeed the Pope later became one of the greatest Renaissance patrons of all, but it did entail a certain skepticism towards traditional Christianity, and the Church that sponsored it. That Lorenzo Valla, using humanist philology, proved conclusively that the Donation of Constantine was a fabrication, is emblematic of this. Emperor Constantine (d. AD 337) did not actually grant to the pope the rights to the papal states, nor the right to name the western emperor. The pope himself invented the notion in the eighth century.

A similar philological critique was launched by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, who set himself the task of publishing an authoritative edition of the New Testament in Greek. To this end he collected as many manuscripts as possible which, he discovered, did not necessarily agree with each other. To help determine which was the original reading, he adopted the “principle of maximum embarrassment” – that is, the reading that was most likely to be true was the reading that the Church liked the least. In other words, Erasmus implicitly accused the Church of being a bad steward of the Bible. And just as Italian humanists returned to Cicero for his Latin, and for his ideas about human nature, so also did Erasmus believe that this original text ought to be the main arbiter of Christian practice. Thus did Erasmus write Praise of Folly, a scathing attack on the mechanistic, superstitious, non-Biblical Christianity he saw around him. Instead, he believed that everyone should have access to the Bible, so that they could consume the word of God directly.

These two strands, skepticism towards the claims of the Roman Catholic Church, and the idea that we should go back to the Bible to determine our own Christian practice, came together in the program of Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. Everyone knew that the Church was corrupt, in that it often did not live up to its own ideals, but Luther went further than that, and identified non-Biblical Christian practice (starting with purgatory and indulgences) as part of that corruption. If he wasn’t going to be elected Pope, the next best thing would be to get certain German princes to declare their territories free from the Pope’s writ, and reorganize the church there according to his own understanding of Christian practice. And if Luther could do this, then so could others – with or without the support of the local government authorities.

In this way did the Reformation grow out of the Renaissance.

Radium Girls

From Buzzfeed, courtesy Elizabeth Keohane:

The Forgotten Story Of The Radium Girls, Whose Deaths Saved Thousands Of Workers’ Lives

During World War I, hundreds of young women went to work in clock factories, painting watch dials with luminous radium paint. But after the girls — who literally glowed in the dark after their shifts — began to experience gruesome side effects, they began a race-against-time fight for justice that would forever change US labor laws.

Read the whole thing.

Fenian Raids!

An article in the National Post today revisits a somewhat-forgotten chapter in Canadian history: the Fenian raids of the 1860s and 70s. These were conducted by the Fenian Brotherhood, a group of American-based Irish republicans who attacked Canada (at the time either a British colony or a dominion of the British empire) in the hopes that they could exchange it for Irish independence. (The title, as many commenters point out, is silly. Just because Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen does not mean that Saudi Arabia attacked the United States on 9/11.)

Ireland likes to brag that they’ve never invaded anyone. Too bad they invaded Canada

In 2015, Ireland’s justice minister Frances Fitzgerald attended a Dublin citizenship ceremony and proudly told 73 people that they were now citizens of a country that didn’t invade things.

“Ireland has never invaded any other land, never sought to enslave or occupy,” she told the crowd of newly-minted Irish.

It’s a uniquely Irish boast. On a continent jam-packed with invaders, the Emerald Isle is known to count itself as one of the few that has resisted the urge to charge onto foreign soil and plant a flag or two.

Too bad it’s not true.

Go back 150 years to the frontiers of Canada, and you’ll find no shortage of armed, rowdy, top-hatted militants who would beg to differ that they weren’t an invading army of Irishmen.

“Canada … would serve as an excellent base of operations against the enemy; and its acquisition did not seem too great an undertaking,” wrote Irish nationalist John O’Neill, an architect of what are now known as the Fenian Raids.

The plan was simple: Take a bunch of Irish veterans of the American Civil War, take over Canada and then tell Queen Victoria she could have it back in exchange for an independent Ireland.

That, or the whole thing would just be a good chance to shoot up some relatively undefended British land.

The wildly optimistic planners of the scheme figured they would only need about two weeks to take over Kingston, Toronto and the other major centers of what is now Southern Ontario.

From there, they would commandeer some ships, slap together a navy, sail up the St. Lawrence and demand the surrender of Quebec. Then, once the Atlantic Coast was swarming with Irish privateers, the English would have to deal.

The invasion’s organizers, the Fenian Brotherhood, even began funding the effort by selling bonds that would be promptly repaid by a future Irish Republic.

But like most rebellions throughout Irish history, the “invade Canada” scheme was big on romance but very deficient in strategic planning.

Although the Fenian Brotherhood had envisioned vast columns of battle-hardened Irish-Americans streaming into Canada, their peak showing was only about 1000. Of those, many forgot to bring guns, and many more deserted as soon as they hit Canadian soil.

All told, Fenian conquests added up little more than brief occupations of a customs house, some hills, a few villages and Fort Erie.

More at the link, and at Wikipedia.

Saul or Paul?

From Cory Schantz, an interesting article on The Gospel Coalition, emphasizing that Saul did not “change his name” to Paul upon becoming a Christian, but was always known by both names – “Saul” being the Hebrew form of it, and “Paul” the Greek.

When Saul/Paul launches his Gentile-focused ministry among primarily Greek-speakers (beginning with Acts 13:9), it’s natural for Luke, the author of Acts, to begin referring exclusively to him by his Greek name. Nor is it surprising that he’s later referred to as “Paul” in Jerusalem, since there were Greek speakers there too. Indeed, Luke could be making a thematic point by shifting from Saul to Paul around chapter 13, given the broader theme of Acts (e.g., 1:8). After all, the church’s nucleus is shifting from predominantly Jewish-centered Jerusalem to the Greek-centered “ends of the earth,” such as Rome.

I suppose that Jesus’ renaming “Simon” as “Peter” may have prompted a similar notion with Saul/Paul. Even the initial letters are the same! And we can make a similar pun as the one seen in Matthew 16:18, at least in Latin:

Tu es Paulus et super hoc paulum adificabit ecclesiam meam.

That is, “you are Paul, and on this little bit I will build my church” – something like the mustard seed in Matthew 13.

Exam Question

Both the Vikings (around the year 1000) and the Spanish (from 1492) were Europeans who set foot in the New World. But a majority of the people in the New World now speak Spanish as their native language, while virtually no one speaks Old Norse. What explains the Spanish success at colonization?

This question uses language as a gauge of colonial success, but does it deserve to be? A fuller picture involving law, religion, technology, music, clothing, and other folkways might be more useful. There may, after all, be something “recessive” about some languages. As we learned in class, everywhere the Vikings settled, whether northern England, Ireland, Normandy, or Russia, saw them lose their language within a generation – often without them losing their fighting spirit! The only place this did not occur was Iceland, where there was no local population to get absorbed into. If the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was not abandoned, it is entirely possible that John Cabot, when he arrived in Newfoundland in 1497, would have been surprised to meet blonde-haired Beothuks employing Viking technology. That might indicate some colonial success. Similarly, in Latin America, Spanish may have extinguished native languages, but many native customs continued unmolested.

Be that as it may, it is manifestly apparent that the Spanish colonial enterprise was more successful than the Viking by any number of metrics. L’Anse Aux Meadows was occupied for perhaps five years, and the two small Greenland settlements were abandoned in the fifteenth century, while much of the New World was “New Spain” from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. What explains the difference?

One explanation might be simple geography. Greenland and Newfoundland, even in the medieval warm period, did not have as much to offer in terms of exploitable resources as Central America and the Caribbean. Similarly, the Aztec and Incan empires were already civilized, and all the Spanish needed to do was replace the rulers at the top to win the whole thing; the conquering had already been done for them. Such conditions did not prevail in the extreme northeast.

But differences in time are probably more significant. The five-hundred year gap between Leif Erikson and Hernán Cortés saw the advent of a number of technological and cultural changes that gave an impressive advantage to the Spanish in their colonial endeavors. The medieval silk road that flourished under the Mongols gave Europeans a taste for Asian luxury goods, and the advent of the Ottoman Empire, which impeded this traffic, impelled Europeans to find alternate routes to Asia. Various technologies borrowed from the Arabs and/or developed through Mediterranean commerce allowed Europeans to sail longer distances out of sight of land, such as lateen sails and fixed rudders (allowing ships to tack against the wind, and obviating the need for galley crews), the astrolabe (for determining latitude), the magnetic compass (for determining cardinal directions when the sun or stars are occluded), or the traverse board (for plotting distance traveled). Such technologies allowed for a transatlantic voyage, something the Vikings were not capable of. That it was the Spanish who discovered the New World is also no accident – the union of Castile and Aragon, and its 1492 defeat of Grenada, completing the reconquista, gave it an overweening sense of self-confidence. God was on their side! The fact that Portugal was establishing a route to Asia down the coast of Africa make the Spanish fearful, and willing to gamble on a trans-Oceanic route. This is another difference between 1000 and 1500 – states were simply more powerful, and in competition with each other.

But perhaps the most significant event to occur in Europe between 1000 and 1500 was the Black Death. Europeans alive in 1500 were the descendants of people who had survived the plague (and other diseases like smallpox and swine influenza). They could still die from these diseases, of course, but they had a much greater chance of surviving them than did the native Americans, whose bodies were more evolved to counter parasites than microbes. This biological weapon (coupled with other weapons like firearms and steel swords, the other points of Jared Diamond’s triad, and domesticated fauna like attack dogs and ridable horses), gave the Spanish, and eventually other Europeans, an overwhelming advantage at conquest and colonization.

Congratulations, Graduates!

Four history majors walked across the stage yesterday, set up for the first time on Ken White football field. Congratulations, Cole, Ray, Hayden and Kyle!

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Cole Gregory, cum laude, Phi Alpha Theta, History Program student of the year.

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Ray Hodges.

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Hayden Mills, magna cum laude, Phi Alpha Theta.

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Kyle Walker, magna cum laude, Phi Alpha Theta, history program student of the year.

Angel Roofs

From my friend Tim Emmett, pastor of the Waleska UMC, an interesting gallery on BBC Travel of photographs of angel roofs, which were a regular feature of late medieval English church architecture. The first caption reads:

Think of medieval England’s finest gems, and castles probably come to mind first. But the country has another type of treasure that few people know about: angel roofs. Built between 1395 and the English Reformation of the mid-1500s, these roofs are decorated with intricately carved wooden angels. Only 170 survive today. Because so little of the art from England’s medieval churches survived the Reformation, that still makes these cherubim “the largest surviving body of major English medieval wood sculpture”, writes photographer and expert Michael Rimmer in his book The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages.

Click the link to see a collection of Rimmer’s photographs. I had no idea these were a thing, nor that the Reformation had such a problem with them (after all, angels were biblical – unlike saints!).

The Queer Middle Ages

From my friend Bill Campbell on Facebook:

Today’s bit of “you couldn’t make this up” medieval weirdness: The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ruled that “All the faithful of both sexes, having reached the age of discretion, must confess to their own priest at least once per year.” But “own priest” seemed to rule out confessing to a friar, and this caused lots of problems. In 1379, one enterprising English Dominican, Richard Helmslay, tried to cut this Gordian knot by arguing that the law really only applied to hermaphrodites – that is, the faithful of “both sexes”. (The bishop was not amused.)

Younger Dryas and Gobekli Tepe

Interesting new theory: a comet killed off the wooly mammoth – and impelled the rise of civilization!

Experts at the University of Edinburgh analysed mysterious symbols carved onto stone pillars at Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey, to find out if they could be linked to constellations.

The markings suggest that a swarm of comet fragments hit Earth at the exact same time that a mini-ice age struck, changing the entire course of human history.

Scientists have speculated for decades that a comet could be behind the sudden fall in temperature during a period known as the Younger Dryas. But recently the theory appeared to have been debunked by new dating of meteor craters in North America where the comet is thought to have struck.

However, when engineers studied animal carvings made on a pillar – known as the vulture stone – at Gobekli Tepe they discovered that the creatures were actually astronomical symbols which represented constellations and the comet.

Using a computer programme to show where the constellations would have appeared above Turkey thousands of years ago, they were able to pinpoint the comet strike to 10,950 BC, the exact time the Younger Dryas begins according to ice core data from Greenland.

The Younger Dryas is viewed as a crucial period for humanity, as it roughly coincides with the emergence of agriculture and the first Neolithic civilisations.

Before the strike, vast areas of wild wheat and barley had allowed nomadic hunters in the Middle East to establish permanent base camps. But the difficult climate conditions following the impact forced communities to come together and work out new ways of maintaining the crops, through watering and selective breeding. Thus farming began, allowing the rise of the first towns. 

Emphasis added. There’s more at the link. Gobekli Tepe has been noticed earlier on this blog.