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Posts Tagged ‘American history

“The entire empire has sunk into a quagmire of extravagance from which they cannot extricate themselves”*…

If you ever visit Rome, and wander through the Colosseum or Circus Maximus, it’s hard not to be struck by a sense of fragility and impermanence. Here are the remnants of the most powerful and complex of ancient European societies, now reduced to ruin and rubble. How did this once proud and mighty empire crumble?

Joseph Tainter’s 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies has an answer to that question, and to similar questions you might ask about the collapse of other ancient societies (Mayan, Incan, Babylonian etc). His book is widely cited and discussed among those who are interested in the topic of civilisational collapse. Having now read it, I can see why. Tainter presents his views with a logical simplicity that is often lacking in these debates, only setting out his own theory after having exhaustively categorised and dismissed alternative theories. What’s more, his own theory is remarkably easy to state and understand: societies collapse when they hit a point of rapidly declining marginal returns on their investments in problem-solving capacity.

Despite this, I have yet to see a really good summary of his theory online. I want to provide one… I’ll try to focus on the essential elements of Tainter’s theory, and not on his dismissal of rival theories or his detailed case studies. I’ll also aim to be critical of the theory where needed, and to provide some reflections on whether it can be applied to contemporary societies at the end. These reflections will be somewhat idiosyncratic, tied to my own interests in democratic legitimacy and technology…

Academic and blogger John Danaher (@JohnDanaher): “The Collapse of Complex Societies: A Primer on Tainter’s Theory.” To observe the obvious, Tainter’s theory is usefully– provocatively– applied to (large) organizations and their “problem-solving capacity” (e.g., innovation and competitive responsiveness) as well…

(Via Matt Webb, whose contextualization is fascinating…)

* Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem

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As we deliberate on decline, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that George Washington was elected President of the United States by a unanimous vote in the Electoral College.

Washington’s inauguration

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“History is what we choose to remember”*…

In the mid-1940s, Edmund S. Morgan, a mild-mannered young historian, was teaching at Brown and making a name in the quiet field of early American studies. Having published a slim, well-received collection of essays on the New England Puritans, he might have seemed the very model of the unassuming scholar at the outset of a modest career, satisfied to refine the work of great forebears in a narrow field. That wasn’t Edmund Morgan. The Second World War was over. The United States was developing an energetic vision, which would come to fruition in 1960 with the election of John F. Kennedy, of its new global leadership role. In keeping with that vision, Morgan launched a bold new interpretation of the nation’s founding.

Throwing out elder historians’ prevailing focus on the founding generation’s self-interest (Clarence Alvord had said that George Washington became a patriot to defend speculations in Indian land) and on its class conflicts (Carl Becker had said that the Revolution was not only over British rule but also over the rule of elite Americans), Morgan sought to identify the grand principles that the revolutionary generation agreed on. “What the colonists had to say about Parliamentary power and about their own rights deserved to be taken seriously,” he explained later.

As the U.S. began to exercise new power around the world, Morgan set out to show that the protests in the 1760s and ’70s against the Stamp Act and other British policies offered slam-dunk evidence of a founding American consensus on principles of rights. Inherent to the American character, that consensus unified the colonists, he said, inspired the Revolution, and brought about the United States. In the larger context of his work, and the work of similarly minded colleagues, the lesson was that the founding American commitment to rights persisted in postwar U.S. commitments to modern liberal democracy.

The impact of this interpretation was by no means limited to the late 1940s and the 1950s. Historians who built out what Morgan largely began—what became known as the consensus approach—turned early American history into a booming field and made big names for themselves. Born about a century ago, in Morgan’s generation, were Douglass Adair, Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter, Forrest McDonald, and Bernard Bailyn. Born in succeeding decades were Pauline Maier, Gordon Wood, Carol Berkin, Sean Wilentz, and Akhil Reed Amar, among others. As dissertation advisers for scores of scholars, many of them have held great sway in their profession.

Even more striking is their success in shaping conceptions of the American founding widely held among the American public. That power and some of its complications were seen in recent controversies involving two of the younger members of the group (though not young anymore), Wood and Wilentz. In late 2019, Wilentz organized a letter, also signed by Wood and three other historians, criticizing The New York Times Magazine’s much-discussed 1619 Project, which frames slavery, racism, and Black Americans’ struggles for equality as the key drivers of American history. The signers said the 1619 Project ignored objective historical fact and was steeped in politically influenced bias. In early 2020, Wilentz followed up with an essay in The Atlantic whose title put the issue bluntly: “A Matter of Facts.” Because these objections to the 1619 Project were made not on the basis of a competing framework but on the basis of plain fact revealed by deep expertise, they struck many readers as insurmountable on their face.

That’s how consensus history works. Anyone hoping to explore the depths of America’s not-so-consensus-filled past will run into this presumption, on the part of widely respected scholars, of their superior objectivity as a basis for higher authority. The roots of that presumption can be found in the approach launched by Edmund Morgan about 70 years ago…

William Hogeland (@WilliamHogeland) explains how not to learn about the American past: “Against the Consensus Approach to History.” Eminently worthy of reading in full (soft pay-wall).

* “In fact, the past is not history, but a much vaster region of the dead, gone, unknowable, or forgotten. History is what we choose to remember, and we have no alternative but to do our choosing now.” -Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis

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As we ponder our past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1653 that a Dutch settlement on the southern tip of Manhattan Island was incorporated as New Amsterdam. It became the seat of the colonial government in New Netherland… and in 1664, after the English took over from the Dutch, New York City.

The Castello Plan, a 1660 map of New Amsterdam (the top right corner is roughly north). The fort gave The Battery its name, the large street going from the fort past the wall became Broadway, and the city wall (right) possibly gave Wall Street its name.

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Happy Groundhog Day!

“We shall go wild with fireworks”*…

 

tgatl4kQFS7AUlHzCifW_fireworks-web

 

Every Fourth of July, half a million people trek out to San Diego’s parks and beaches to watch the Big Bay Boom, one of the West’s biggest fireworks displays. But in 2012, the show became an international punchline when a glitch caused 18 minutes of pyro to go off in a blinding, deafening 30 seconds. It would become one of the loudest, most epic fails in Internet history, tweeted and viewed around the world…

 

On this pandemic-attenuated Fourth, a blast from the past: “An Oral History of the Great San Diego Fireworks Fail of 2012.”

On vaguely-related note, this short video, reputedly the most watched news clip ever:

* Natsuki Takaya

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As we light the fuse, we might recall that it was on this date in 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…

Use it or lose it.

505px-United_States_Declaration_of_Independence source

 

“To treat the founding documents as Scripture would be to become a slave to the past”*…

 

Constitution

 

As historians from James MacGregor Burns to Jill Lepore remind us, the United States was– and is– an experiment.  The Constitution was the collective best effort of the Framers to write the first draft of an operating manual for the society they hoped it to be– a society unique in its time in its commitment to political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people– what Jefferson called “these truths.”

But like any wise group of prototypers, they assumed that their design would be refined through experience, that their “manual” would be updated… though even then Benjamin Franklin shared Jefferson’s worry [see the full title quote below] that American’s might treat their Constitution as unchangeable…

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.  -Benjamin Franklin, letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy (13 November 1789)

The Framers expected– indeed, they counted on– their work being revised…

Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.   -Thomas Jefferson, letter to H. Tompkinson (AKA Samuel Kercheval) (12 July 1816)

Jesse K. Phillips has found a beautifully-current– and equally beautifully-concrete– way to capture the commitment to learning and improving that animated the Framers: he has put the Constitution onto GitHub, the software development platform that hosts reams of (constantly revised) open source code (and that was featured in yesterday’s (Roughly) Daily.)

[Image above: source]

* “To treat the founding documents as Scripture would be to become a slave to the past. ‘Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched,’ Jefferson conceded. But when they do, ‘They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human [and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment].”‘

― From Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States

 

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As we hold those truths to be inalienable, we might recall that it was on this date (which is, by the way, Fibonacci Day) in 1644 that John Milton published Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England.  A prose polemic opposing licensing and censorship, it is among history’s most influential and impassioned philosophical defenses of the principle of a right to freedom of speech and expression.  The full text is here.

409px-Areopagitica_1644bw_gobeirne source

 

 

 

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito”*…

 

mosquito

 

A month after the opening salvos of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the newly appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army, George Wash­ington, had a request for his political masters in the Continental Con­gress. He urged them to buy up as much cinchona bark and quinine powder as possible. Given the dire financial pressures of the squabbling colonial government, and the dearth of pretty much everything needed to fight a war, his total allotment was a paltry 300 pounds. General Washington was a frequent visitor to the quinine chest as he suffered from recurrent bouts (and reinfection) of malaria since first contracting the disease in 1749 at the age of seventeen.

Luckily for the Americans, the British were also drastically short of Peruvian Spanish-supplied quinine throughout the war. In 1778, shortly before they entered the fray in support of the American cause, the Spanish cut off this supply completely. Any available stores were sent to British troops in India and the Caribbean. At the same time, the mosquito’s mer­ciless, unrelenting strikes on unseasoned British troops lacking quinine during the final British southern campaign — launched in 1780 with the capture of Charleston, the strategic port city and mosquito sanctuary­ — determined the fate of the United States of America.

As J. R. McNeill colorfully contours, ‘The argument here is straight­forward: In the American Revolution the British southern campaigns ultimately led to defeat at Yorktown in October 1781 in part because their forces were much more susceptible to malaria than were the American. . . . [T]he balance tipped because Britain’s grand strategy committed a larger proportion of the army to malarial (and yellow fever) zones.’ A full 70% of the British Army that marched into this southern mosquito maelstrom in 1780 was recruited from the poorer, famished regions of Scotland and the northern counties of England, outside the malaria belt of Pip’s Fenland marshes. Those who had already served some time in the colonies had done so in the northern zone of infection and had not yet been seasoned to American malaria.

General Washington and the Continental Congress, on the other hand, had the advantage of commanding acclimated, malaria-seasoned colonial troops. American militiamen had been hardened to their sur­roundings during the Seven Years’ War and the turbulent decades head­ing toward open hostilities against their king. Washington personally recognized, albeit short of scientific affirmation or medical endorsement, that with his recurrent malarial seasonings, ‘I have been protected be­yond all human probability or expectation.’ While they did not know it at the time, this might well have been the Americans’ only advantage over the British when, after twelve years of seething resentment and discontent since the passing of the Royal Proclamation [of 1763 that prohibited land sales to colonists], war suddenly and unexpectedly came.

The Americans’ secret weapon– an excerpt from Timothy C. Winegard’s Mosquito: A Human History of of our Deadliest Predator: “George Washington, Mosquitoes, and the American Revolution.”

[via the ever-illuminating Delanceyplace.com]

* Dalia Lama XIV

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As we douse ourselves in DEET, we might recall that it was on this date in 1781– before the fall of Yorktown, but after a decisive week of fighting– that General George Washington wrote to the President of the Continental Congress to give an account of the recent action.  Three days later the Siege of Yorktown (as it became known) ended with the surrender of British forces under General Cornwallis.  It was the final major land battle of the Revolutionary War; the capture of Cornwallis and his army prompted the British government to negotiate an end to the conflict.

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Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, by John Trumbull

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