Tocqueville

There is a scene in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-40) where he is sailing down the Ohio River. To his left is Kentucky, at the time a slave state, and it is a portrait of economic indolence, for the simple reason that slaves do not work any harder than they need to (since there’s no reward for it), while everyone else refuses to work, because that is what slaves do and it lowers your status. Thus the fundamental problem with slave societies – they are not economically efficient. But to his right is Ohio, and there it is all hustle and industry, because Ohio is a free state and there is an incentive to work – you actually get to keep the fruits of your labor, and prestige is bestowed by how much of them you can produce.

Not to diminish the moral crime of slavery, but I would say that America’s wealth and preeminence today are derived far more from what was going on in Ohio than in Kentucky.

Jackson and Polk

A recent trip through Tennessee allowed us to see two presidential museums: Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville and the President James K. Polk Home and Museum in Columbia.* Both are quite enlightening in their way.

The Hermitage, first acquired by Jackson in 1804, was little more than a log cabin until 1820, when he built a two-story Federal style mansion. This burned down in 1834, and was replaced by the Greek Revival building in the photo above. But this was simply the manor house for a thousand-acre plantation, with numerous outbuildings devoted to various functions –  including the housing of enslaved African-Americans, of whom Jackson owned up to 300 over the course of his lifetime. The whole thing is reminiscent of Mount Vernon or Monticello, other presidential plantations that one can visit. 

The visitors’ center gives more information on Jackson’s life and presidency. I did not know that he was a veteran of the Revolutionary War – he joined the militia in South Carolina at age thirteen, and was taken prisoner by the British shortly thereafter. A formative episode occurred when Jackson refused an order to polish the boots of a British officer, who then slashed him on the head and hand for insubordination. A Currier & Ives lithograph from the 1870s, “The Brave Boy of the Waxhaws,” depicts this event. Jackson carried the scars, and an abiding hatred for the British, for the rest of his life. 

Jackson’s mother managed to secure his release, but she died soon after from cholera, leaving Jackson an orphan (his father had died before Jackson was born). Despite having a rather ornery personality, he found a lawyer who took him on as an apprentice, and was admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1787. The next year he was appointed prosecutor of the western district (i.e. Tennessee), and moved to the new settlement of Nashville to take up the post. There he met Rachel Donelson Robards, whom he married despite that her divorce from her first husband had not yet been finalized, a situation that dogged him throughout his career. In 1796, he became a delegate to Tennessee’s constitutional convention, and on account of his participation there was elected the state’s first U.S. representative. Shortly thereafter, the Tennessee legislature elected him U.S. senator, but he grew bored with the job and returned to Tennessee to become a judge of the state superior court – and to engage in the sort of land speculation common on the frontier. It was at this point that he purchased and began to build up the Hermitage, but what really set him up for future notoriety was his election as major-general of the Tennessee militia in 1802. 

In this capacity, Jackson defeated the Red Stick faction in the Creek War at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1813, and most famously routed the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. This made Jackson a national hero.

He then proceeded to invade Spanish Florida in order to defeat the Red Stick refugees, runaway slaves, and Seminoles, some of whom were using it as a base to launch raids into Georgia. Jackson was ruthless and successful, and Spain relinquished control of Florida by the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819. For his efforts (not appreciated by everyone), in 1821 Jackson was appointed the first territorial governor of Florida, but the job was as appealing to him as being Senator from Tennessee, so he quit after a few months. Then followed his run for the presidency in 1824, when he was one of four Democratic-Republican candidates at a time when political parties seemed to be losing their importance. Jackson won the most popular votes, and the most votes in the electoral college, but he did not get a majority there, so the election was thrown to the House of Representatives. There, in a “corrupt bargain,” House Speaker Henry Clay, himself one of the four candidates, threw his support to John Quincy Adams, who was duly elected president – and who promptly appointed Clay Secretary of State. Stung by this rejection, Jackson almost immediately began campaigning for the presidential election of 1828. He won in a landslide, and then won again in 1832.  

Ralph Earl, The Tennessee Gentleman (detail), c. 1831.

To my annoyance the “Presidential Gallery” at the visitors’ center was closed, but presumably it would have dealt with Jackson’s boisterous inauguration, the Petticoat Affair, the battle over the Second National Bank, Cherokee Removal, the Nullification Crisis, and other things I vaguely remember from History 1. We did get to see a short film about his presidency, and it left me with the impression that he was a perfect embodiment of “he’s a nice guy, but don’t cross him.” He would not have been as successful as he was if had he not been immensely popular, but he also had a volcanic Scots-Irish temper, fought numerous duels, and held intense grudges (Wikipedia: “On the last day of his presidency, Jackson admitted that he had but two regrets, that he had been unable to shoot Henry Clay or to hang John C. Calhoun.”) One commentator in the film claimed that he represented “both the best and the worst” of the American national character. 

Lots of people liked to compare Trump to Hitler, but the parallels between Trump and Jackson are what always interested me. Both were extremely polarizing figures, rich but rough around the edges, with their base of support among commoners far from the centers of political power. (The difference is that Jackson was much more self-made than Trump, and had actual political and military experience prior to becoming president – which may be why Jackson got a second term while Trump didn’t.) 

Another thing that struck me as relevant was Jackson’s attitude toward political parties. He believed in them, and is considered the first Democratic president. The trouble is that he identified his party with “the People,” and a victory for the Democrats was a victory for “the People” – conversely, a defeat for the Democrats was a defeat for the People. Some would say that this attitude has not changed in almost 200 years. 

Jackson died at the Hermitage in 1845, and is buried on the grounds.

Right next to it is the grave of “Uncle Alfred,” Jackson’s “faithful servant.” Alfred was born into slavery on the plantation, and was put to work maintaining wagons and farm implements. After emancipation he continued to live there as a tenant farmer, and acted as a tour guide for people interested in seeing the Hermitage once it was turned into a museum in 1893. He died in 1901; his funeral took place in the main hall of the Hermitage, and he insisted on burial right next to Jackson, a wish that was granted. 

One interpretive sign mentioned that, in the late nineteenth century, Alfred was held up as a model ex-slave, who maintained affection for and loyalty to his old master’s family. I don’t doubt there were such people, but they’re not the whole story – apparently most of the slaves at the Hermitage sought refuge with Union troops when those troops were close enough. Jackson may have been a relatively benign slave master, but he had no compunction against chasing runaways, or offering rewards for whipping them. And in general, the enslaved people were simply invisible – more valuable than the cattle or the farming equipment, but otherwise treated as the property that they were. Modern researchers have had to work very hard reconstructing the identities of those who lived and worked at the Hermitage. One is reminded, once again, how great a moral crime slavery was. 

Jackson’s ally and protege James K. Polk won the presidency in 1844, somewhat by accident. The Democrats nominated him on the ninth ballot at their convention in Baltimore as a compromise candidate among their factions, and he went on to defeat Henry Clay in the general election that fall. He vowed to serve only one term, which he did – but that was enough to fulfill all his campaign promises, as his fans are proud to claim. 

Polk was born in North Carolina in 1795. In 1803, his family moved to the Duck River in what became Maury County, Tennessee, and came to dominate the county and its new town of Columbia. He received enough of an education that he could enroll in the University of North Carolina in 1816, and graduated with honors in 1818. He then moved to Nashville to apprentice as a lawyer, and upon being called to the Tennessee bar in 1820 he returned to Maury County to open a law office there. This practice provided him with a steady income, and the house museum in Columbia that one visits dates from this time (it is the only place where he lived, apart from the White House, that still stands). However, he always had political ambitions, and his marriage to the educated and graceful Sarah Childress in 1824 certainly helped on this front. From 1825 until 1839 he served in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he was eventually chair of the Ways and Means Committee and Speaker of the House. From 1839 until 1841 he acted as governor of Tennessee – always with Sarah’s unwavering and competent support.

Although he lost his bid for reelection as governor, and lost again two years later, fortune had bigger things in store for him. His presidency is most famous for its realization of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States had the right to dominate the North American continent from coast to coast. His administration accepted Texas as a state, thus provoking war with Mexico – which the United States decisively won, thereby annexing what became the American southwest. As an extension of Texas most of this had the potential to become slave territory, so Polk was practically obliged to offset it by coming to an agreement with Britain about the free Oregon Country. This large area spread from the Rocky Mountains westward, from the latitude 54º40′ in the north (the southernmost extent of the Alaskan panhandle) to 42º in the south (the northern boundary of California). It was jointly occupied with the United Kingdom, and although “54-40 or fight!” was apparently one of Polk’s campaign slogans (i.e. either we get the whole thing or we go to war for it), he came to a deal with the UK simply to extend the already-existing boundary between the United States and British North America at the 49th parallel all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Some people may have seen this move as an admission of weakness, but it established unquestionable American title to the Pacific northwest, out of which were carved the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. 

(A fun fact: the British did not call the area the Oregon Country, but the Columbia District. Thus the part north of the 49th parallel, which the British retained, became “British Columbia.” Apparently before its admission to Canadian confederation in 1871, B.C. was sometimes called “British Oregon.”)

Other achievements of Polk’s presidency included the foundation of an independent treasury (a precursor to the Federal Reserve), the Smithsonian Institution, and the Department of the Interior, the issuing of the first U.S. postage stamp and a postal treaty with the U.K., the admission of Wisconsin and Iowa to the Union, the lowering of tariff rates, and the beginning of the construction of the Washington Monument. All this had an effect, which is apparent in the two portraits shown above, the first of which was painted at the beginning of his presidency, and the second at the end. 

Unfortunately Polk did not live long after he left office. He traveled by boat from Washington DC down the Atlantic coast, around Florida, to New Orleans, and thence up the Mississippi to Tennessee. Somewhere along the way he contracted cholera, and died of it in Nashville at age 53 on June 15, 1849. Polk thus set a number of presidential records:

• Shortest post-presidency (101 days)
• Longest surviving First Lady (42 years)
• First president to be survived by a parent (his mother)

Some others:

• Only president to have no children, either natural or adopted (it is reckoned that surgery as a teenager to treat bladder stones may have left him sterile)
• Youngest president elected until that time (49)
• The only president to have been Speaker of the House

I would be remiss in not mentioning that, like Jackson, Polk was a slaveholder, both in Tennessee and through the absentee ownership of a plantation in Mississippi. Although he recognized the evils of slavery he did not do anything to try to end it; in fact as speaker he instituted a gag rule to prevent the issue from being brought up in the House of Representatives. Polk’s personal slave, Elias Polk, was proud of his service to the former president and, following the Civil War, played the same “faithful servant” role that Uncle Alfred did for Andrew Jackson. But it’s useful to remember that the slaves at Polk’s Mississippi plantation, which he only occasionally visited, suffered an exceptionally high death rate. This is disappointing and an unquestionable blot upon the reputation of a man who had so many other accomplishments. 

It was fun to learn about both these presidents. The only drawback to these museums is that, being fundamentally house museums, they emphasize domestic affairs at the expense of a really detailed look at the president’s early life and time in office. But this is a minor complaint. See them if you can. 

* The earliest president to get a full-on NARA-sponsored Presidential Library and Museum is Herbert Hoover (1929-1933), and you can visit his if you’re ever passing through West Branch, Iowa. Presidents prior to him can have museums, but they’re variously run by states, the National Parks Service, universities, local history societies, or specific foundations; those presidents’ papers are also stored here and there. Such things were beyond the federal government’s concern in the nineteenth century. 

National Songs and Poetical Pieces

The book referenced below, Hugh Williams, ed., National Songs and Poetical Pieces Dedicated to the Queen and her Countrywomen (London: Hetherington, 1839), illustrates just how informative and fun primary sources can be. For instance, I was completely unaware of Nils von Schoultz (1807-38), a military officer of Finnish-Swedish origin who served in Poland against the Russians and who eventually ended up in the United States, became interested in the Canadian cause, and led a small force that invaded Canada in the wake of the failed Rebellions of 1837. These border skirmishes are designated the Patriot War, and I confess that I did not know about them either, although it makes complete sense that certain Americans would look with favor on the Canadian rebels and try to help them. Von Schoultz was a participant in the Battle of the Windmill in November 1838, during which time his force, having failed to take the town of Prescott, occupied a stone windmill at nearby Newport for four days before surrendering to the British (and Americans – apparently the United States government did not support this freelance invasion). Von Schoultz was put on trial, at which he expressed remorse for his actions and, contrary to the advice of his lawyer, future Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, pleaded guilty. As a consequence he was hanged at Kingston’s Fort Henry on December 8, 1838, at the age of 31. 

But that’s a somewhat neutral account, gleaned from the font of all knowledge. Here is how National Songs puts it:

There is a proud gratification in contemplating brilliant illustrations of the sprit of liberty, however melancholy, when clouded by the frowns, not of fortune, for liberty must eventually triumph, but of the hitherto overbalancing power of despotism.

Tyranny has recently added to its blood-stained catalogue, one of the brightest characters that ever humanity produced, freedom inspired, or history recorded. Where the Russian miscreant failed, English despots too well succeeded.

Neil S. Von Shoultz was a native of Poland, of prepossessing appearance and mild manners. His father was a major of a regiment at Cracow. His unfortunate and gallant son was compelled to emigrate to the United States in 1836, where congenial impulses for the suffering Canadians, led him to an untimely end, at the age of thirty-one.

He undertook an expedition for their liberation, and in command of a small body of American citizens, and Canadian refugees, gained a signal victory over a superior British force, at Prescott, U.C., on the 13th of November, 1838. The English afterwards returned to the charge with overwhelming reinforcements, and hemmed in, massacred and captured what remained of the small and exhausted band, previously cut off from all communication with the opposite American shore, by the conniving authorities of the United States, in opposition to the wishes of an indignant border population. The deceived, but not discomfited Schoultz, fought his way through the ranks of the enemy, but having become exposed to the horrors of a Canadian winter, without food or shelter, was eventually taken prisoner, and met with that sort of reward which successful tyranny had ever allotted to revolutionary prowess. He was tried at Kingston, on the 8th of December, 1838, by court martial, composed possibly of vagabonds whom he had lately put to disgraceful fight, or of their associates; and the HERO of PRESCOTT, under the matter-of-course sanction of Colburne and Arthur, was immediately put to death in cold blood.

“Colburne” is Sir John Colborne, acting Governor General of British North America; “Arthur” is Sir George Arthur, Lt. Gov. of Upper Canada. That’s a rather different perspective, eh?! The text goes on to excoriate President Martin van Buren for selling out these “true friends of liberty,” contrary to the supposed political principles of the great American Republic. It’s a reminder how, in the early nineteenth century, the conflict between “liberty” and “order” transcended national boundaries and even the Atlantic Ocean. The Congress of Vienna was not successful at putting that genie back in its bottle. 

I’m amused to discover that the author blames the “Canadian winter” for Schoultz’s defeat! Apparently it’s not just Russia’s greatest general

Then there are three separate poems that praise the “tricoloured flag.” According to one of them, the flag of Revolutionary France, a vertical tricolor of blue, white, and red, made tricolors symbolic of “liberty”:

Hail emblem of Liberty, spirit of light,
Thou sheerest my heart, and thou gladdest my sight
Thou beacon of hope to the good and the brave,
Thou foe to the tyrant, thou friend to the slave.
Ere long Britain’s sons shall awake from their trance,
And hail thy bright form like Republican France;
And the time draws nigh, when thy banner unfurl’d
Shall wave in proud triumph all over the world.
Hail tri-coloured flag!
Hail tri-coloured flag!

Note, though, that by the 1830s, tricolors did not necessarily represent republicanism. For instance, Louis-Philippe, France’s “citizen-king” who came to power in 1830, readopted the revolutionary tricolor to represent his regime, and the Belgians, whose state was born in the same year as the result of a rebellion against the Dutch, adopted a vertical tricolor of black, gold, and red, even though Belgium was a monarchy from the start.

But according to this collection, the flag adopted by British fans of “liberty” had a different set of colors. In the poem “The Tri-Colour!”, we read:

“Hark! hark! ’tis the trumpet of LIBERTY sounds,
As the tricolor flag is unfurl’d;”
With joy at its notes “every bosom resounds,”
While the echo is heard o’er the world.
Her cause is as pure as the deep azure sky,
It cheers like the bright sunny ray, –
Refreshing and lively as nature’s green dye,
Ever gentle, unchanging, and gay.

In other words, the British tricolor is to be blue (“azure”), white (“bright”), and green. One sees a fuller explication of this idea in the introduction to the poem “Freedom’s Tri-Coloured Banner,” which poem was:

Composed on the occasion of the Writer’s presenting the Metropolitan, Merthyr, Pontypool, and Carmarthen Associations each with the first projected Tri-coloured banner – composed of green, white and blue, symbolical of the aspect of nature – the green earth, the solar light, and the ethereal blue. A banner with colours as predominant as EQUAL RIGHTS are universal; and now about to supersede the blood-stained standards of the old world, of ancient and modern tyranny, and so form the emblem of freedom, of fraternity and happiness to the rising millions!

A footnote to the poem suggests that the stripes are to be:

horizontal, and in the following proportions: – grass green below, two ninths of depth; white, centre, four-ninths, and the rest deep sky blue. 

Furthermore:

The standard Radical flag will bear for its motto Universal Liberty along the center… with the Sun gilded on the upper staff quarter.

So of course I had to mash one up:

But I have not been able to find any other evidence for this flag, or any variants thereof, on the Internet. Note that it’s different from what Flags of the World claims was Flag of the English Republic:

Wikipedia.

And note that in both cases the stripes are horizontal, not vertical. This too is not necessarily republican, viz. the contemporary flags of the Netherlands and Russia, which were both horizontal tricolors representing monarchies, although horizontal stripes do allow for words and slogans to be written on them.

I would be curious to know just how popular Chartism (and/or English Republicanism) was in the 1830s. Did it command the sympathies of a majority of the working class? Or was it like the more recent anti-WTO or Occupy movements – something that got a certain amount of attention, but that was ultimately ignored by most people? 

UPDATE

To a post from a few years ago

Brilliant Maps.

This is what North America would have looked like had Nathaniel P. Banks’s Annexation Bill of 1866 passed into law, and been accepted by the United Kingdom. When I originally posted this, I noticed that Newfoundland (and Labrador) had disappeared, when that colony had an independent existence in 1866; I might had added that Vancouver Island was separate from British Columbia, and neither Canada West nor Canada East extended as far north as the map indicates. But I was not paying attention – the boundaries on this map were prescribed by the Bill itself, whose full text can be read on Wikisource. Banks wanted these states and territories admitted to the U.S. under the following conditions:

(1) New Brunswick, with its present limits
(2) Nova Scotia, with the addition of Prince Edward Island
(3) Canada East, with the addition of Newfoundland and all territory east of longitude eighty degrees and south of Hudson’s strait
(4) Canada West, with the addition of territory south of Hudson’s bay and between longitude eighty degrees longitude ninety degrees
(5) Selkirk Territory, bounded east by longitude ninety degrees, south by the late boundary of the United States, west by longitude one hundred and five degrees, and north by the Arctic circle
(6) Saskatchewan Territory, bounded east by longitude one hundred and five degrees, south by latitude forty-nine degrees, west by the Rocky mountains, and north by latitude seventy degrees
(7) Columbia Territory, including Vancouver’s Island, and Queen Charlotte’s island, and bounded east and north by the Rocky mountains, south by latitude forty-nine degrees, and west by the Pacific ocean and Russian America.

The bill was sent to committee and never made it out, and was not introduced to the Senate. One wonders why. The idea that the United States had a Manifest Destiny to rule the entire continent was especially powerful following the Civil War (thus the purchase of “Russian America” in 1867), and British North America, as representing the rump state of the previous regime, was especially illegitimate to a certain type of American expansionist. Banks was also interested in appealing to Irish Americans, who hated the British for obvious reasons, and northerners in general, who were peeved about Britain’s perceived support for the Confederacy in the late Civil War. But I guess this project was a step too far for other powerful people in Washington. I assume that they did not want to risk offending what was by that point the preeminent world power. 

I wonder what subsequent history would have looked like had Banks’s vision come to pass. I assume that the map would have undergone numerous changes, as the territories were subdivided and new states admitted to the Union. I think that Canada’s Francophones would have retained their culture and religion and would eventually have launched a secessionist movement against the United States, as they did against Canada in the 1960s. But would those who became English-Canadians have accepted their status as “Americans”? Much as I hate to say it, they probably would have eventually. There was always a strain of republican, pro-American sentiment among the Anglophones of British North America, and once the US replaced the UK as a world superpower, I think that this sentiment would probably have taken over and become their default outlook. And since the Annexation Bill would have passed prior to Canadian Confederation, people wouldn’t even be able to look back with fondness on a time when they had their own country, as Texans do. (Although I should think there would still persist some “northern” cultural characteristics, parallel to those of the Midwest, Pacific Northwest, New England, etc.)

The Four Chaplains

On this day in 1943 was sunk the SS Dorchester by the German submarine U-223, an example of a fairly regular occurrence in the Atlantic during the Second World War. The Dorchester was a passenger steamship requisitioned for the American war effort and was transporting U.S. troops from New York to Greenland; the whole thing was over very quickly, with the unfortunate result that 674 of the 904 men on board perished. 

Wikipedia.

This episode is famous for the actions of the Four Chaplains, who voluntarily gave up their own life jackets when the supply ran out. They joined arms and said prayers as they went down with the ship. Since that time they have become a symbolic of heroism and self-sacrifice; that two were Protestant, one Catholic, and one Jewish, has become an edifying example of “interfaith in action,” as the postage stamp says. (One could say that this story comes across as propaganda, an attempt at salvaging some inspiration from the usual wartime disaster, but it really happened, and it really is inspiring.)

Children by Post

Apparently, at one point you could send children through the mail. From Smithsonian Magazine:

One of the most overlooked, yet most significant innovations of the early 20th century might be the Post Office’s decision to start shipping large parcels and packages through the mail. While private delivery companies flourished during the 19th century, the Parcel Post dramatically expanded the reach of mail-order companies to America’s many rural communities, as well as the demand for their products. When the Post Office’s Parcel Post officially began on January 1, 1913, the new service suddenly allowed millions of Americans great access to all kinds of goods and services. But almost immediately, it had some unintended consequences as some parents tried to send their children through the mail.

“It got some headlines when it happened, probably because it was so cute,” United States Postal Service historian Jenny Lynch tells Smithsonian.com.

Just a few weeks after Parcel Post began, an Ohio couple named Jesse and Mathilda Beagle “mailed” their 8-month-old son James to his grandmother, who lived just a few miles away in Batavia. According to Lynch, Baby James was just shy of the 11-pound weight limit for packages sent via Parcel Post, and his “delivery” cost his parents only 15 cents in postage (although they did insure him for $50). The quirky story soon made newspapers, and for the next several years, similar stories would occasionally surface as other parents followed suit.

More at the link.

Penn Central Crash

In City Journal, a look back at the collapse of the Penn Central Railroad (hat tip: Instapundit), which provides some salutary lessons on how not to run a business:

After the merger [of the Pennsylvania and the New York Central], the railroads discovered that they had incompatible computer systems, which threw railyards into chaos and angered customers. The Penn Central’s three top officials, too, were incompatible. They “scarcely spoke to one another,” write Daughen and Binzen. Stuart Saunders, the board chairman, was a political guy. Alfred Perlman, the president, was a trains guy. These different outlooks could have complemented each other, but personalities got in the way. Rounding out this dysfunctional triumvirate was Penn vet David Bevan, the top financial official, perpetually “angry and humiliated” at not being picked for the top job.

Bevan had two ideas for keeping the cash-bleeding Penn Central alive: corporate diversification and financial trickery. If a railroad couldn’t make money, he thought, perhaps it could invest its cash in entities that could make money. The Penn had a head start in this; it already owned vast swathes of real estate around Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station, including five hotels and a share in Madison Square Garden, as well as the New York Rangers and Knicks.

Bevan added to this conservative legacy portfolio a bizarre array of new business interests, from an executive-jet company (he was its best customer) to pipelines, speculative land tracts in the southern U.S., and a travel agency. “Nobody . . . could name the 186 different companies . . . under the Penn Central’s umbrella,” Daughen and Binzen write. Under Bevan’s stewardship, these companies often sold stakes of themselves to one another, generating illusory paper profits. The Penn also had touchingly optimistic views about the future, booking years’ worth of profits, for example, when a third party agreed to buy a tract of real estate for which it wouldn’t actually be able to pay for years. Bevan was also determined to take some of the supposed profits of these deals for himself, setting up an “investment club” with several associates to buy and sell shares in these side companies before the much bigger Penn Central did, thus benefiting from the subsequent price changes.

These innovative methods didn’t generate the money that the Penn Central needed to balance the books, however. So Bevan turned to straightforward borrowing. With $1.5 billion in annual revenue, the Penn borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from the nation’s largest banks, including more than $100 million in the nascent “commercial paper” market. This market of short-term loans was meant not for permanent operating deficits but to cover temporary shortfalls like meeting payroll just before a customer paid for a big order. The banks didn’t ask questions, though, because Penn Central had such a solid reputation—and because it was such a good fee-payer.

This three-card monte game lasted—until it didn’t. At First National City, the predecessor of Citigroup, chief Walter Wriston was “furious at his loan officers for getting his bank so deeply involved”—$300 million in loans—“without knowing what a hole the Penn Central was in.” Members of the Penn Central’s august board were also mad—though many of them perhaps never thought to ask questions because they headed companies that were themselves customers of or vendors for the railroad.

The banks’ and the board members’ big idea was to ask the federal government for a bailout. President Richard Nixon vacillated but ultimately said no, on the basis of the now-quaint idea that Congress would have to agree, which it did not.

The railroad then declared bankruptcy in June 1970, having lasted just 871 days. “Never before had there been a cataclysm as stunning as this,” write Daughen and Binzen. “What had been conceived of as the most awesome transportation machine in the world had ended as the most monumental business failure in United States history . . . How the mighty fell: Stuart Saunders, businessman of the year in 1968, business bankrupt of the year in 1970.” Saunders had a rejoinder: “I didn’t have anything to do with the concept of the Penn Central.”

Read the whole thing

The Great Diamond Hoax of 1872

From Gail Heriot on Instapundit:

If you’ve ever been to NW Colorado, you may have seen Diamond Peak. If you’ve wondered if there are diamonds there, the answer, sadly, is no. But there is a story—one the San Francisco Chronicle called “the most gigantic and barefaced swindle of the age.”

It concerns two prospectors (or, more accurately, two grifters)—the flamboyant Philip Arnold, a Kentuckian born in the same county as Honest Abe Lincoln, and his taciturn cousin John Slack. Arnold had worked for a short while at the Diamond Drill Co. During that period, he had “acquired” a number of uncut industrial-grade diamonds. The diamonds were not especially valuable, but they looked impressive—enough so to thrill several San Francisco investors.

The cousins had a knack for causing such thrills. They told investors that they had found a huge diamond deposit. They appeared concerned—almost overly concerned—about keeping the location of their find secret. This only intrigued investors.

There’s a reason they called this the “Great” Diamond Hoax. Arnold and Slack could have taken the initial relatively modest amounts they were given as investments and run. But instead they traveled to London under assumed names, purchased more uncut diamonds and returned to San Francisco with more “proof” of their find. The list of willing investors grew and grew. It included Charles Tiffany, General George B. McClellan, and General (and Congressman) Benjamin Butler, among many other prominent citizens of the day.

These investors weren’t complete idiots. They insisted that a well-respected mining engineer be taken to the location and examine the evidence. But the engineer—Henry Janin—was duped by the diamonds and other precious stones that the cousins had “salted” the ground with.

The eventual hero of the story was Clarence King, a Yale-educated geologist, who was born on this day in 1842. He and his team of government surveyors had been carefully mapping out the large mountainous area around the so-called diamond field. They happened to be on the same train with Janin, who talked about what he had seen. King was alarmed at the story in part because he feared it would reflect badly on his work to have missed any evidence that such a find was possible.

Although winter was fast approaching, he took his team to the area Janin had described and eventually found the sign for the cousins’ claim. It didn’t take long for him to determine that it was an elaborate hoax. The diamonds and other precious stones were implausible places. The plausible places had no diamonds. The kinds of stones that were placed together would not be naturally found together.

He blew the whistle and the scheme came crashing down, much to the embarrassment of some of America’s most prominent citizens.

There’s more at Smithsonian Magazine

Some State Flags and Logos

Most states in the United States have seals depicting a composite or symbolic scene. Many states then proceed to use these seals as the basis of their flags. A good example would be the state of Minnesota:

Manifest Destiny for the win! Wikipedia.

But you call that a flag?! Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, more than half of all the states in the Union have flags of this nature. I need hardly point out that this is poor flag design. A flag should not be ornate – it should be simple and recognizable. If it is, a useful side effect is that it can inspire any number of logos based on it, all of which instantly suggest the state in question. What happy states are these!

Wikipedia.

Nashville Predators NHL team shoulder patch. icethetics.co

Tennessee Titans NFL team. Wikipedia.

1. The Tennessee flag features three stars in a circle. This beautiful and simple device has inspired a number of logos.

Wikipedia.

Baltimore Ravens NFL team logo. My Logo Pictures.

Wikipedia.

2. The Maryland flag is very distinctive, featuring the quartered Calvert-Crossland arms, which appear all over the place in that state. 

Wikipedia.

easternscheritage.com

discoversouthcarolina.com

3. South Carolina is instantly recognizable by its palmetto and crescent, which appear in many things associated with the state. 

Wikipedia.

4. Then there’s the three pillars and an arch of the state of Georgia. People don’t make nearly as much use of this as they ought to.

Wikipedia.

Arizona Coyotes NHL team secondary logo. Sportslogos.net.

Employeenetwork.com

5. Arizona’s starburst is very distinctive and has inspired a number of logos. 

Wikipedia.

Dallas Cowboys NFL team logo. Wikipedia.

Houston Texans NFL team logo. Wikipedia.

6. Texas is the Lone Star state, which makes Texan logos all too easy.

Wikipedia.

Columbus Blue Jackets NHL team logo. Wikipedia.

7. Another flag that deserves more use is that of Ohio, the only one in the Union that is not rectangular. 

Wikipedia.

logolynx.com

Bear Flag Museum.

8. California’s bear and star make for a nice combination.

Wikipedia.

9. Some folks like Rhode Island’s anchor, which is adaptable for all sorts of situations.

Wikipedia.

10. New Mexico’s flag, featuring the red sun symbol of the Zia people, can be employed to a certain effect. 

Wikipedia.

11. Indiana’s torch and stars device enjoys a certain popularity.

Wikipedia.

Colorado Rockies NHL team logo. Wikipedia.

12. Finally, there’s the stylized “C” of Colorado’s flag. This design dates from 1911 and seems quite ahead of its time.

Of course, many states still have recognizable logos or images, even though their flags aren’t that well designed. Wyoming and Pennsylvania (the Keystone State) come to mind:

Wikipedia.

“Bucking Horse and Rider,” a registered trademark of the state of Wyoming. Wikipedia.

Wikipedia.

And as the logos reproduced above for Indiana and Arizona show, a state’s outline provides a ready-made image for the state in question. Americans love these jigsaw-puzzle pieces. I think what makes American state outlines so memorable is the combination of straight with squiggly lines. Whereas it would take effort to distinguish between the shapes of (say) Staffordshire and Wiltshire, apart from Hawaii all US states have at least one straight border, “anchoring” their shapes so to speak in one’s memory (although the shapes of Colorado and Wyoming, both square quadrilaterals, suffer the opposite problem).

But the fact remains that the overall standard for US state flags is rather low.

University of Wyoming Athletics logo. Wikipedia.

UPDATE: You could read Wyoming’s bucking horse rider as either male or female, but the rendition above looks male to me, and I would be not be against inventing a variant that presents as female, perhaps through the addition of a ponytail. I’m surprised that the University of Wyoming, whose teams are the “Cowboys” and “Cowgirls,” does not do this already. Governmental usage could then alternate between the two renditions, which would be especially appropriate for the Equality State

Murdoch Mysteries

I was pleased to note a historically accurate Canadian red ensign flag in Season 11, Episode 16 of the Canadian television series Murdoch Mysteries, in contrast to an earlier appearance. The plot of this episode (“Game of Kings”) revolves around an international chess tournament taking place in Toronto in 1905. The players’ nationalities are represented by little tabletop flags. 

Constable George Crabtree has gone undercover as a Canadian entrant. His flag shows the original four-provinces shield devised for the Dominion of Canada in 1868, featuring the arms of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. It is true that Canada had nine provinces by 1905 (Alberta and Saskatchewan had been admitted on September 1 of that year, and Crabtree makes a reference to this in Episode 13 when, thinking he’s dying, exclaims “I’ll never see Egypt or any of those new provinces we have now!”). A nine-quartered shield for Canada was devised in the wake of this, but the original shield was still in widespread use until 1921. 

An American competitor is represented by a US flag with 45 stars on the canton (count them!), for the number of states in the union at the time – Utah having been admitted in 1896. Oklahoma (1908), Arizona (1912) and New Mexico (1912) would soon raise the total to 48.

Poland did not exist as an independent country in 1905, but a Polish player has entered the tournament and is represented by the flag of the Polish National Government 1863-64, which had been proclaimed following the January Uprising (although the bottom stripe, according to Wikipedia, should be blue).

Wikipedia.

The coat of arms is for “a proposed Polish–Lithuanian–Ruthenian Commonwealth which never came into being. It consists of the Polish White Eagle, the Lithuanian Pahonia and the Ruthenian Archangel Michael.”

Wikipedia.

Other Polish references in this episode include the Szczerbiec (the traditional Polish coronation sword) and the Husaria (Polish knights who wore decorative wings while mounted).