The Nineteenth

I missed this anniversary, two months ago now, but it deserves to be remembered. From CBS News:

19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote was passed 100 years ago today

The 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, guaranteeing American women the right to vote, celebrates a big birthday on Tuesday, as it was passed by both chambers of Congress 100 years ago on June 4, 1919. According to the National Archives, the House of Representatives first passed the amendment on May 21, 1919, and two weeks later, on June 4, the Senate followed with a vote of 56 to 25. The next year, following approval by three-fourths of state legislatures, the amendment was ratified into the Constitution.  

The opening of the Amendment’s text reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Since the 19th Amendment’s passage, women have helped inaugurate a new era of American politics. In fact, many historians can point a clear line from the passage of the 19th amendment to the passage of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s and the current movements seeking to offer greater federal protections for gay and transgender Americans.  

The 19th Amendment emerged out of the Progressive Era in American politics, a period of increased social activism and economic reform during the first two decades of the 20th century. Suffragists like Jeannette Rankin, the first female member of the House of Representatives, brought greater attention to the rights of women. Certain states like California, Washington and Arizona passed their own legislation granting women either full or partial suffrage in the early 1910s. Wyoming was the first to do so in 1869, when it was still a territory. 

The 19th Amendment changed the electorate forever. Some names are etched in the annals of American history: Winnifred Huck of Illinois, the first woman to win a special election to Congress; Gladys Pyle of South Dakota, the first woman elected to the Senate without previously been appointed; Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress; Patsy Mink of Hawaii, the first non-white woman and Asian American woman elected to Congress; Shirley Chisholm of New York, the first African American woman elected to Congress; and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Senate. 

And then there’s Nellie Ross of Wyoming, the first female governor, Sandra Day O’Conner, the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House. 

Some historic images may be seen at the link.

The Hunt for Silver

From Priceonomics (hat tip: Instapundit), a bit of interesting business history:

Until his dying day in 2014, Nelson Bunker Hunt, who had once been the world’s wealthiest man, denied that he and his brother plotted to corner the global silver market.

Sure, back in 1980, Bunker, his younger brother Herbert, and other members of the Hunt clan owned roughly two-thirds of all the privately held silver on earth. But the historic stockpiling of bullion hadn’t been a ploy to manipulate the market, they and their sizable legal team would insist in the following years. Instead, it was a strategy to hedge against the voracious inflation of the 1970s—a monumental bet against the U.S. dollar.

Whatever the motive, it was a bet that went historically sour. The debt-fueled boom and bust of the global silver market not only decimated the Hunt fortune, but threatened to take down the U.S. financial system.

The panic of “Silver Thursday” took place over 35 years ago, but it still raises questions about the nature of financial manipulation. While many view the Hunt brothers as members of a long succession of white collar crooks, from Charles Ponzi to Bernie Madoff, others see the endearingly eccentric Texans as the victims of overstepping regulators and vindictive insiders who couldn’t stand the thought of being played by a couple of southern yokels.

In either case, the story of the Hunt brothers just goes to show how difficult it can be to distinguish illegal market manipulation from the old fashioned wheeling and dealing that make our markets work.

More at the link. Stephen Green comments that: “Anyone ‘smart’ enough to try to get rich cornering the market for a natural resource ought to have a long talk with these guys. In the long run, it never works, as high prices cause people to find substitutes or new sources.”

Redoshi

That slaves were illegally smuggled from West Africa to the antebellum South, between the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, is remarkable (and outrageous, of course). The last such documented shipment arrived in Mobile, Ala., in 1860, aboard the ship Clothilda. Hannah Durkin, a researcher at Newcastle University, has now determined that one of the 110 slaves aboard, a twelve-year-old girl named Redoshi (who was renamed Sally Smith) was the last survivor of the illegal slave trade between Africa and the United States, dying in 1937. The National Post has more.

Kudzu

From Appalachian Magazine (hat tip: Funk Heritage Center):

Kudzu: The Vine that Ate the South

On the night of December 7, 1941, Americans went to bed with an uneasy feeling as rumors abounded that the Japanese Imperial Army would soon be staging an invasion of the nation’s mainland. Earlier that morning, the Asian nation had attacked Pearl Harbor without warning and American military officials feared that our nation’s west coast was ill prepared to thwart a large scale Japanese invasion.

In the end, these rumors proved to be nothing more than mere hearsay and less than five years later any fear of a Japanese military invasion was forever erased; however, unbeknownst to most, a Japanese invasion on the continental United States had already begun almost a century earlier and was sweeping across the heart of Dixie much like a trojan horse.

Read the whole thing, which notes that the turning point for kudzu was around 1970, when the government stopped recommending that people plant it for cattle feed and to lessen soil erosion, and reclassified it as a weed, since it seemed to have taken over everything at the expense of all the other plants.

The law of unintended consequences strikes again!

Kudzu is only the most well-known non-native species in the southeast. We visited Callaway Gardens three years ago and saw a display featuring all the popular plants that have been imported from elsewhere – largely East Asia. The display strongly favored planting native equivalents, lest the invaders end up completely taking over. China and Japan have a similar latitude and climate to the American southeast, and so some of their plants grow very well here, but these plants have no native predators, so they enjoy an advantage over native species. Native plants have evolved to an ecological niche, which includes other organisms eating them, so they’re in balance with other populations in their ecosystem.

But what I want to know is: do native North American plants function in the same way in China – are our species invasive over there? And if not, why are Asian plants so superior, so to speak?

(I assume that someone out there is writing a dissertation exposing the dark side of the native plant movement, linking it to the long American tradition of nativism and suspicion of the Other, of which Trump’s presidency is but the latest example, etc.)

The Late Roman Republic

The century from 130 to 30 BC marks the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire – that is, a polity ruled by an actual emperor, not just a large collection of territories, which it was already. In fact, Rome’s expansion to rule the entire Mediterranean basin outshot its ability to change its constitution peacefully. Eventually the constitution did get changed, but only after a century of intermittent civil war, and mostly as an expedient: Augustus held ultimate power, because that was better than chaos. Of course, Augustus’s rhetoric was that he “restored the republic,” but that was one of those statements that everyone had to publicly agree to, while simultaneously acting as though the reverse was true. If the President were to hold his office for life, and simultaneously act as Speaker of the House of Representatives and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, also for life, no one would think that the United States was still a republic in any meaningful sense, because there would no longer be any separation of powers.

At one point most educated people knew about the decline of the Roman Republic. It is an epic tale anyway, but it also provided instructive examples for subsequent generations. The biggest one, I think, is the notion that republics are inherently unstable, that in order to function properly they are too dependent on the personal integrity of their public servants, and it is only a matter of time before they break down into faction and civil war as human nature reasserts itself. It took a long time before people were willing to take a risk on republicanism again, at which time republican Rome served as an example of certain things to avoid: it is generally a bad idea that politicians should simultaneously act as military officers, for the obvious reason that they will be too tempted to use their armies to further their political ambitions. In the United States, you can seek a political career after a military one, but you have to resign your commission first.

But that was not the case in the first century BC. The days of Cincinnatus were long gone. The Senate called Cincinnatus (519-430 BC) out of retirement and granted him dictatorial powers to deal with a crisis. Cincinnatus did so with dispatch, and immediately resigned, even though he could have stayed on for the remainder of his six-month term. His name thereafter became a byword for civic virtue – a shining example of someone who served because it was his duty, and not because he was hoping to profit from the office. George Washington, because he resigned his command of the Continental Army, and because he resigned the presidency after two terms, is naturally known as the American Cincinnatus. A club for revolutionary war officers and their descendants took the name the Society of the Cincinnati in honor of Cincinnatus; the city in Ohio takes its name from this group.

Amazon.com.

But how can you compel politicians to act like this? Well, you can’t. All you can do is praise the people you would like to serve as models, and even then the narcissists and sociopaths who are attracted to power won’t care a toss about any “virtue.” It is very difficult anyway, over the long run, to enforce the custom of self-sacrifice for the greater good. Eventually it gets really old, both for individuals and for societies.

Thus, by 130 BC, the people who did very well out of the wars against Carthage and Macedonia were quite enjoying their power and wealth, thank you very much, and were not interested in giving it up. Some of them bought up land in Italy and worked it with huge gangs of slaves. There is no way that the independent yeoman farmer could compete with this, rather as America’s small-town mom-and-pop stores cannot possibly compete with Walmart and other big-box retailers. What could a plebeian do but sell out to the latifundia (as these plantations were called), move to the big city, and try to find some form of work there? Rome’s population ballooned during this time, mostly on account of poor people taking up residence in the slums of the city – a phenomenon noticeable in the Third World today.

The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius (d. 133) and Gaius (d. 121), deplored this situation and sought to arrest it. They both served as tribune – an office created in the early fifth century to act as a “voice of the people” against the patricians who dominated the Senate and all the other offices of state. Tribunes were licensed to “speak truth to power” and thus possessed sacrosanctity, a kind of diplomatic immunity: anyone harming a tribune could be instantly killed. This is why so many newspapers call themselves “tribune” – they are hoping that their readers will think of them as a fearless voice of the people against powerful interests.

The brothers Gracchi both promoted land reform. Generally, they wanted to limit the size of the latifundia, and redistribute the surplus to veterans, so that these people who had served Rome would at least have something to live on in their retirement. But the senators did not really appreciate this return of old Rome, the Rome of the independent plebeian farmer, and so contrived to have them both killed. Killed! Despite their sacrosanctity. This sad episode marks the beginning of a cycle political violence that was to plague Rome for a long time to come. It also reminds me of the story of Jacobo Árbenz, president of Guatemala 1951-54. Árbenz also proposed land reform – the government would buy up some of the extensive holdings of the United Fruit Company and redistribute it to landless Guatemalan peasants, compensating the company for the value of the land as it had been reported for tax purposes. Of course, the land was worth much more than that, and the United Fruit Company lobbied the US State Department to oppose the policy, on the principle that this was Communism! (“If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.”) The CIA then fomented a military coup, which installed Carlos Castillo Armas as president, who obligingly ended the proposed land reforms. Árbenz was not killed in the coup, but he died drunk and in exile in 1971, and Central America was made safe for American capitalism. This episode is not well known in America, but it is very well known south of the Rio Grande, along with all the other instances of American meddling in Latin America over the course of the twentieth century, for fundamentally selfish reasons.

One of the problems of the Roman latifundia is the same problem faced by all slave economies: the slaves represent a security risk. Naturally, they resent their condition, and if they outnumber their owners, they will take any chance they get to rebel. One of the most famous slave rebellions in history was that of Spartacus (d. 71 BC), a gladiator who organized his fellow gladiators at their school in Capua, who rose up and killed the owners, escaped from the school, and spent the next two years ravaging southern Italy, freeing latifundia slaves and killing anyone who opposed them, and amassing an ever-greater army. Eventually this force was defeated by Pompey and Crassus, two Roman generals who had been tasked with doing so. The body of Spartacus was never found, but some six thousand slaves were crucified along the Appian Way as a warning to survivors never to try such a thing again. Nevertheless, Spartacus became a hugely inspirational figure for slaves throughout history: Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, was sometimes called the Black Spartacus, as was Nat Turner, leader of a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831.

Amazon.com.

Communists were also inspired by Spartacus, on the principle that industrial workers were basically slaves. Thus we have Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht’s Spartacus League, a post-Great War Marxist revolutionary movement in Germany, the Soviet athletic club Spartak, and the Spartakiad, a communist answer the Olympic Games.

Wikipedia.

Of course, we also got a great sword-and-sandal movie out of it, and a more recent television series. The scene at the end of the movie, when all the slaves in turn proclaimed “I’m Spartacus!” in order to protect the real Spartacus, has been inspirational to subsequent films and to US Senators.

Pompey and Crassus subsequently dominated Rome as members of the First Triumvirate. The third member was of course Julius Caesar, a man of overwhelming ambition who was in the process of subduing Gaul and making sure that everyone knew about it. He would send reports of his exploits back to Rome to be read in the Forum; collected, these reports comprise Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a classic text for Latin instruction. Pompey and Crassus doubtlessly felt that an alliance with Caesar would be to their benefit. But Crassus was killed fighting Mithridates of Pontus, and Pompey, in Rome, grew suspicious of Caesar’s popularity and so recalled him from Gaul. Caesar did return, but at the head of his army. He had command of Legio XIII in Gaul, but not in Italy, so when he crossed the Rubicon River, which formed the boundary between the two provinces, he was in essence declaring war on the Roman state. Thus has “crossing the Rubicon” come to indicate an irrevocable decision, for which the only results can be death or glory. “Alea iacta est,” Caesar is alleged to have said as he entered Italy: “the die is cast” (“die” as singular of “dice,” and “cast” as in “rolled” – it’s not a reference to casting bronze or iron in a mould, as some people believe).

The HBO television series Rome at one point has Caesar’s lieutenant Marc Antony telling his boss that “some would call it hubris.” “It’s only hubris if I fail,” replies Caesar – and it’s true, ultimately Caesar won, against Pompey, against the forces of Ptolemy XIII in Egypt, and against Pharnaces of Pontus, a victory that was so easy that Caesar coined the memorable Laconic phrase “Veni, vidi, vici” to commemorate it. (“I came, I saw, I conquered” gets referenced every now and then, including in the movie Ghostbusters and by Hillary Clinton and Ludacris.) Caesar, it seems, was a master of rolling the dice.

Back in Rome, Caesar aggrandized himself, to the consternation of some people. He contrived to get the Senate to name him dictator for life, and he put his portrait on coins and named a month after himself (previously, only gods got such treatment). His relationship with the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra did not help on this front – her visit to Rome was a tableau of oriental decadence. Naturally, there was a great deal of alarm over this extremely un-Roman behavior, which led to a senatorial conspiracy to oust him. Since they couldn’t vote him out of office, murder was the only option. And so on March 15, 44 BC, in the Theater of Pompey, Caesar received 23 stab wounds from at least as many Senators, who hoped to prevent the republic from reverting to a monarchy. One of the conspirators, Marcus Junius Brutus, felt he had a reputation to live up to, since his ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus had taken a leading role in the overthrow of the original Roman monarchy in 509 BC. “Sic semper tyrannis!” Brutus is alleged to have cried as he stabbed Caesar, a line recycled for the motto of the Commonwealth of Virginia, with George III in the role of the “tyrant.”

Amazon.com.

“Brutus” has thus become a byword for “assassin,” for either noble or base motives. Perhaps the most famous example in American history, after Lee Harvey Oswald, is John Wilkes Booth, the murderer of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. Booth is alleged to have shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” as he shot Lincoln in the back of his head as he watched the play Our American Cousin from his box.

Wikipedia.

The most well-known representation of this historical episode in English is William Shakespeare’s 1599 play Julius Caesar. (Booth himself had acted in the play in the previous year, although not in the role of Brutus.) Julius Caesar is responsible for the popularization of the expression “the Ides of March.” The “ides” of a given month occurred halfway through it, i.e. the fifteenth on average. “Beware the Ides of March!” warns a soothsayer in Julius Caesar, advice that Caesar should have heeded, since eventually everyone’s luck runs out. The coin pictured above was issued by Brutus in the autumn of 44 BC, with a cap of liberty between two daggers, and the legend EID[IBUS] MAR[TIIS], “on the Ides of March,” a rather bold statement on his part.

But as it turns out, Brutus and Cassius did not have quite the support that they had hoped for. Caesar may have been a dictator, but he was a dictator with whom a lot of people agreed. An American might be conditioned to respond positively to the word “republic,” but in Roman terms “republic” meant “aristocratic control.” Caesar, for his part, was allied with the Populares, a party favoring the cause of the plebeians, as the Gracchi brothers originally were. So Caesar was a dictator who supposedly acted on behalf of the little guy. To illustrate this, Shakespeare has Marc Antony publicly reading Caesar’s will, which promises a certain amount of money to every Roman citizen, and which bequeathes his private parks for public use. Public opinion then turns decisively against the assassins. Historically, Marc Antony, Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian, and the general Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate, which defeated the forces of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.

American Greatness.

One cannot help but think that current American politics are a distant echo of the conflict between the Senate and Caesar. When President Trump declared this week that the situation at our southern border constitutes a national emergency, more than one of my Facebook friends specifically compared him to Caesar acting the dictator. This comparison is superficially true – Trump is certainly an ambitious egomaniac with Petronian tastes who has set himself up as an opponent of career politicians and other agents of the “deep state,” and who thus enjoys a great deal of support in flyover country on the supposition that he’s standing up for the ordinary people who live there. His emergency declaration, however, is well within recent constitutional history – indeed, according to the article from which the image above is taken, “Trump Is Bad at Being a Tyrant.” He deserves to be watched, of course, but in general his offensiveness seems far more aesthetic than legal.

In the 30s BC, the Second Triumvirate suffered the same fate as the First: one member (Lepidus) was sidelined, and the remaining two fell out with each other. At the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian’s general Marcus Agrippa defeated the forces of Marc Antony and of Cleopatra, with whom Marc Antony had taken up. Octavian chased them to Egypt, where they both committed suicide, Marc Antony by falling on his sword, and Cleopatra by venom from an asp.

Wikipedia.

Cleopatra has not served as much of an “example” for subsequent generations but she is one of the most fascinating figures of this period of history, and has been portrayed many times on canvas, stage, and screen, including in another play by Shakespeare.

Octavian, the last man standing, was still fairly young, and continued to rule for over forty years, finally dying in AD 14. Known to history as Augustus (meaning “revered,” a title bestowed on him by the Senate), he succeeded where Julius Caesar had failed. By holding several republican offices at once, and in perpetuity, by making sure that the Senate was packed with his supporters, and by having his Praetorian guard take out any potential troublemakers, he consolidated power for himself, and established a new arrangement for ruling the vast territories that Rome had acquired, an arrangement that was passed on to his groomed successor Tiberius. The shift from republic to empire is deplored in the extended Star Wars narrative, in which the Galactic Republic ruled by the Jedi is good, but the Empire that displaces it is very bad indeed. However, Augustus was not entirely self-serving in pulling a similar move, and enjoyed a certain amount of support in carrying it out, because at least he brought peace. He also had an eye for public relations: like his mentor Julius Caesar, he cultivated a certain image (in his case, as a “family values” candidate). He was also lucky in that his reign coincided with Latin coming into its own as a literary language. Thus Virgil’s Aeneid, composed between 29 and 19 BC, which not only glorifies Rome as such, but also specifically praises Augustus. When you set your story in the past, you can have your characters make very accurate predictions about the future, and when Aeneas visits the underworld in Book 6, the Cumaean Sybil tells him:

Now fix your sight, and stand intent, to see
Your Roman race, and Julian progeny.
The mighty Caesar waits his vital hour,
Impatient for the world, and grasps his promis’d pow’r.
But next behold the youth of form divine,
Caesar himself, exalted in his line;
Augustus, promis’d oft, and long foretold,
Sent to the realm that Saturn rul’d of old…

Shakespeare uses this technique in Macbeth, written to celebrate the accession of James I to the throne of England in 1603. Set in the eleventh century, the play nonetheless shows Banquo’s descendants with “two-fold balls and treble scepters” – a reference to the fact that James was king of Scotland and England (and by extension Ireland).

I hope this post serves as a demonstration of the double importance of history. The original events are important in themselves, and they also serve as a prism though which subsequent generations understand the events of their own times. So in studying the late Roman republic, not only will you learn about the republic itself, you’ll learn about the English Renaissance, the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, twentieth-century Communism, and even the present day.

Vikings in Boston

Yet another example of the American desire for Viking roots is detailed in an article on WBUR.org (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Vikings, Baking Powder And Poets: Boston’s Long And Confusing History With Leif Erikson

If you were to believe a small plaque on the grounds of Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, you’d think there was a time when the Vikings sailed the Charles River.

But there’s a reason you didn’t read that story in your American history books.

The plaque, which can be found if you walk along Fresh Pond Parkway with Gerry’s Landing Road to the left, reads, “On this spot in the year 1000 Leif Erikson built his house in Vineland.” One of our readers asked why the marker is there, and it turns out the plaque is not the only nod to the renowned Viking explorer that Greater Bostonians could spot across the region.

So we set off to break down the long timeline of Massachusetts’ complicated, largely unproven and definitely unorthodox infatuation with Erikson and Viking heritage.

Check it out.

Emperor Norton

A Wikipedia discovery:

Joshua Abraham Norton (February 4, 1818 – January 8, 1880), known as Emperor Norton, was a citizen of San Francisco, California, who proclaimed himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States” in 1859. He later assumed the secondary title of “Protector of Mexico”. Norton was born in England but spent most of his early life in South Africa. He sailed west after the death of his mother in 1846 and his father in 1848, arriving in San Francisco possibly in November 1849.

Norton initially made a living as a businessman, but he lost his fortune investing in Peruvian rice. Hoping that a Chinese rice shortage would allow him to sell at a steep profit, he bought rice at 12 cents per pound from Peruvian ships, but more Peruvian ships arrived in port which caused the price to drop sharply to 4 cents. He then lost a lawsuit in which he tried to void his rice contract, and his public prominence faded. He re-emerged in September 1859, laying claim to the position of Emperor of the United States.

Norton had no formal political power; nevertheless, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments that he frequented. Some considered him insane or eccentric, but citizens of San Francisco celebrated his imperial presence and his proclamations, such as his order that the United States Congress be dissolved by force and his numerous decrees calling for the construction of a bridge and tunnel crossing San Francisco Bay to connect San Francisco with Oakland.

On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed at the corner of California and Dupont (now Grant) streets and died before he could be given medical treatment. Upwards of 10,000 people lined the streets of San Francisco to pay him homage at his funeral.

Norton was buried in the Masonic Cemetery at city expense. In 1934, his remains, along with all others in the city, were transferred to a grave site at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, California.

The Centennial of the Armistice

Lapel poppy as sold by the Royal Canadian Legion.

For the past four years we have been observing the centennials of the various events that comprised the Great War, including the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916) and the Battle of Vimy Ridge (April 9, 1917). Today we mark the end of it: on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, an armistice went into effect, ending hostilities on the Western Front, which had thus far killed over three million people and wounded over eight million, all started by some damned fool thing in the Balkans. And, as everyone knows, the settlement that ended the war simply set the stage for the next one: the Treaty of Versailles was not as fair as Wilson had promised in his Fourteen Points, nor as punitive as it needed to be to ensure that Germany did not rise again. So just as the Great Famine of 1315-22 weakened the immune systems of a whole generation of Europeans, and made the Black Death of 1346-51 more virulent than it otherwise would have been, so also did the First World War lead directly to the Second, which then overshadowed it in cultural memory.

Garden of Remembrance, St. Paul’s Cathedral churchyard, City of London, November 11, 2010.

This is especially true in the United States, which only joined the First World War in 1917, and only as a result of a potential threat as revealed by the Zimmerman Telegram. The United States also joined the Second World War “late,” i.e. over two years after Germany invaded Poland, but it did so as the result of a direct attack on its naval base at Pearl Harbor. The Americans played a significant role in defeating Nazi Germany; they played an even bigger role in the defeat of Imperial Japan, including through the use of the atomic bomb, which they had developed at great expense. So it’s only natural that, to an American, the Second World War means more than the First.

The Cenotaph, Whitehall, 2018.

It’s somewhat different in Britain and the Commonwealth. Once the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, all the Empire, even the Dominions, immediately followed, and fought, and bled quite profusely, for the sake of Britain’s allies on the continent. For well-known reasons, the war bogged down into a bloody stalemate where the advantage was always to the defense, and it soon became obvious that this was going to be a war of attrition – the first side to run out of men and materiel was going to be the one to lose, and this is more or less what ended up happening. Four years of mass industrial slaughter on the Western Front was deeply traumatizing, and gave birth to rituals of remembrance that Americans generally don’t share: the sanctification of November 11 (at first designated Armistice Day, and now as Remembrance Day), the wearing of a lapel poppy* in the run-up to this, the ceremonial placement of wreaths of poppies at war memorials on the day itself, and the two-minute silence at 11:00 AM. (November 11 may be Veterans’ Day in the United States, but memorializing the war dead is the function of Memorial Day in May, which derives from the Civil War. The VFW occasionally sells poppies, but the practice is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in Canada or the United Kingdom.) Of course, as with the United States, the UK and its Commonwealth also remember the Second World War, and probably to a greater extent, given Churchill’s refusal to make a deal with Hitler, his inspirational speeches, the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, D-Day, and an unconditional surrender forced on a monstrously evil regime.

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey. Wikipedia.

All the same, the First World War does loom larger in the Commonwealth than in the United States. And it deserves to be remembered, in both places. As pointless as all the killing was, the Great War turned out to be the Great Divide, and represented the real end of the nineteenth century and the birth of the twentieth. When the dust settled, four empires – the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman – had fallen, and many smaller nations won their independence. Communists took over Russia, and the stage was set for what Henry Luce called the American Century. Women were granted the right to vote in both Britain and the United States. Perhaps most importantly, the Great War shattered European self-confidence, and caused the mainstreaming of skepticism, pessimism, and “uncertainty” (one of the reasons, unfortunately, why Britain and France did not stand up to Hitler until it was too late).

Diamond War Memorial, Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

So I was pleased to learn that a World War I memorial is being planned for Washington DC. From a BBC article about it published last year:

“The Great War” was overtaken in the national consciousness by the Great Depression and World War II, says Edwin Fountain, vice-chairman of the WWI Centennial Commission. The commission has been authorised by Congress to build the new memorial in Washington, DC, as well as increase awareness of the war.

“The Centennial is the last best opportunity to teach Americans that World War I was in fact the most consequential event of the 20th Century,” he says. “It had effects that we live and struggle with today, overseas and at home.”

“The debate about the role of America in the world, the balance between national security and civil liberties, the place of women, African Americans and immigrants in our society – all those issues were vigorously discussed during WWI.

“You cannot contribute to those discussions today without understanding our historical roots.”

Gable end mural, Northland St. (arbitrarily renamed “Thiepval St.”), Belfast, Northern Ireland.

At the same time, how the war was fought, and not just its aftermath, deserves closer attention too. If anyone knows anything about the Great War, it is an image largely created by Remarque’s great autobiographical novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Historian Dan Snow recently countered several myths about it, including that most soldiers died, that it was the bloodiest conflict in history to that point, that the upper classes got off lightly, and that soldiers lived in the trenches for years on end (in truth, they were cycled out regularly).

Mural, Glenwood St., Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Still, it was no picnic, as a recent article in the Economist reminds us:

The first world war was not just a grand tragedy. For the 67 million who fought, it was a sordid hellscape. Few of the ten million killed in combat died from a “bullet, straight to the heart”, as pro forma telegrams to relatives put it. Many more bled to death in no-man’s land, their wails lingering for days like “moist fingers being dragged down an enormous windowpane”, as a British lieutenant wrote of the Battle of the Somme. Traumatised survivors sometimes slept in open sewers, and begged for their mothers as superiors ordered them over the top.

They guarded what slivers of humanity and dignity they could. At Compiègne today visitors can view silver rings from the trenches bearing initials (LV, MJ, SH or G) or four-leaf clovers; pipes with marks worn where teeth once clenched; a tube of insect-bite cream; letter-openers fashioned from shell casings, the names of yearned-for correspondents etched into their blades (“Marguerite”, “Mlle Rose-Marie”). A certain stoic humour also played its part. “I was hit. I looked round and saw that my leg had shot out and hit the fellow behind me (who got rather annoyed about [it])” wrote Charlemagne’s great-grandfather in his diary in 1915, just outside Ypres.

The article goes on to note that (emphasis added):

The first world war happened because a generation of Victorian leaders took for granted the stable order that had prevailed in most of Europe for decades. They should have read their history books. Yet the war was also a tale of forces beyond the power of any leader, however well-read; of nations and continents not as trains on history’s railway lines, run by drivers and switchmen, but as rafts tossed about on history’s ocean, dipping at most an occasional oar into the waves. Fate was the real grand homme of the “Great War”. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 would not have happened had his driver not taken a wrong turning in Sarajevo. The German army’s initial advance was halted at Nieuwpoort by a Belgian lock-keeper who flooded the surrounding marshlands. Political twists in Berlin, not crushing defeat on the battlefield, pushed Germany to sue for peace in 1918.

I am chary of drawing “lessons” from history, but it seems in this case that history really does provide us with an instructive example.

Memorial to Lt. Col. John McCrae, Guelph, Ontario, 2015.

* The poppy as a symbol of remembrance derives from the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McCrae of Guelph, Ontario, who was serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and who died of pneumonia in January, 1918. He was by no means the only English-language war poet: the First World War produced a remarkable amount of poetry from the viewpoint of its participants, a product of the war taking place after the advent of mass literacy but before other forms of entertainment relegated poetry to a niche interest (see Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory for more on this). I was pleased to see the memorial to sixteen representative war poets in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey this summer, including the greats Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen.

Sadly, the poppy is “political” in some parts of the world, and not just because people believe that it justifies war. Among the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, the poppy represents “Britain’s War,” and thus represents British imperialism and British oppression. Nationalists, as noted, wear lilies in memory of the Easter Rising, and will generally refuse to wear poppies, even going so far as to taunt those who do.

The Irish in America

The Wikipedia category “Irish emigrants to the United States (before 1923)” contains some 872 entries – that is, people notable enough to merit a Wikipedia article. This is really quite remarkable. Two of them have recently been brought to my attention, and deserve to be better known. From Wikipedia:

Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore (1829-1892) was an Irish-born American composer  and bandmaster who lived and worked in the United States after 1848. Whilst serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, Gilmore wrote the lyrics to the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” This was published under the pseudonym Louis Lambert in September 1863…

In many ways Gilmore can be seen as the principal figure in 19th-century American music. He was a composer, and the “Famous 22nd Regiment March” from 1874 is just one example of his work. He held the first “Promenade Concert in America” in 1855, the forerunner to today’s Boston Pops. He set up “Gilmore’s Concert Garden”, which became Madison Square Garden. He was the Musical Director of the Nation in effect, leading the festivities for the 1876 Centennial celebrations in Philadelphia and the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886.

Ron Good adds (having heard RTE’s P.S. Gilmore: Ireland’s First Superstar):

He made adjustments to the inclusion of instruments in bands (i.e. the addition of woodwinds) which resulted what we know today as concert bands. He also used anvils specially made in England which gave off sparks when struck with the hammers of dozens of faux blacksmiths.  Also used artillery pieces to add excitement.

Also from Wikipedia, we have notice of:

Thomas Francis Meagher (“Marr”; 1823-1867) was an Irish nationalist and leader of the Young Irelanders in the Rebellion of 1848. After being convicted of sedition, he was first sentenced to death, but received transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) in Australia.

In 1852 he escaped and made his way to the United States, where he settled in New York City. He studied law, worked as a journalist, and traveled to present lectures on the Irish cause. He married for a second time in New York. At the beginning of the American Civil War, Meagher joined the U.S. Army and rose to the rank of brigadier general. He was most notable for recruiting and leading the Irish Brigade, and encouraging support among Irish immigrants for the Union. By his first marriage in Ireland, he had one surviving son; the two never met.

Following the Civil War, Meagher was appointed acting governor of the Montana Territory. In 1867, Meagher drowned in the swift-running Missouri River after falling from a steamboat at Fort Benton.

What a fascinating character.