Are “Electable” Candidates Actually Electable? Part II: Swing State Electability

RS: Are “Electable” Candidates Actually Electable? Part II: Swing State Electability
From left, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and others participate in a news conference on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, May 5, 2015, to discuss support of keeping the A-10 military aircraft.  (AP Photo/Brett Carlsen)
Is “electability” a meaningless term? It is certainly an overused one, and overused words tend to lose their meaning even when they have something to tell us. In Part I, I looked at “electability” candidates in past Republican presidential primaries. But if we look at recent presidential, Senate and Governor’s races, we can get a better fix on what kinds of candidates win and lose in the 17 states that represent the outer limits of “swing states.” A lot of things matter in contested elections, notably the national political environment. But like it or not, good candidates is one of the things that matter. They may be conservatives or they may be moderates, and in a few cases in blue states they may even be liberal Republicans, but the answer for conservatives is not to ignore electability entirely but to develop and support conservative candidates who are winners.
One way we can do that is by running candidates with proven experience, as they tend to be less likely to make the mistakes that kill inexperienced candidates. As I noted in Part I, it is mostly a myth that the GOP has repeatedly nominated moderate losers in presidential contests because voters somehow got talked into thinking their opponents were too conservative; it has more typically been the case that we have nominated moderates because conservative opposition was divided or marginalized in the absence of a good conservative alternative, and our contested races have often been between two relatively moderate Republicans. That’s what’s so unusual about 2016, in which the voting begins with two viable and talented conservatives in the race (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) and real questions about the viability of any of the moderate (Christie, Kasich) and/or establishment (Jeb) candidates.
To complete the picture of electability, let’s look at the statewide races going back a decade, to 2006, the start of the current post-Bush-coalition political era, ranking statewide winners and losers by their percentage of the vote.

Continue reading Are “Electable” Candidates Actually Electable? Part II: Swing State Electability

Now With More National Review

As a reminder, you can follow me on Twitter @baseballcrank or bookmark these links to catch up on my latest work:
at RedState
at The Federalist
and now at National Review
Latest since my last post here:
RS: Eight Takeaways From Iowa As New Hampshire Looms
NRO: The Iowa Caucus Expectations Game: What Do the Republican Candidates Need?
RS: BREAKING: Projected Winners: Cruz & Hillary
RS: Tim Scott to Endorse Marco Rubio
RS: Media: On Today’s Glenn Beck Program
RS: Iowa Establishment Quislings Backing Trump For 30 Pieces of Ethanol?
RS: Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse Responded To Donald Trump and It Was PERFECT
RS: Michael Reagan to Donald Trump: You’re No Ronald Reagan
NRO: Last Night’s Debate Underlines Why Congress Is a Problem for the ‘Establishment’ Republicans
RS: Are “Electable” Candidates Actually Electable? Part I: Presidential Primaries 1948-2012
RS: Where Will The “Republican Regular” Voters Go?
RS: The Case For Marco Rubio Part II: The Salesman
RS: New Hampshire Poll: Hillary Up 17 With Women, Bernie Up 42 With Men
RS: GOP Big Money Goes After Marco Rubio
RS: ARG Polls Love John Kasich When Nobody Else Does
RS: Dear Ted Cruz, Donald Trump & Jeb Bush: Stop Trying To Extort GOP Voters Instead of Persuading Them

Michael Reagan to Donald Trump: You’re No Ronald Reagan

RS: Michael Reagan to Donald Trump: You’re No Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan Answering Questions from the Press

One of the hazards of trying to claim the mantle of a great man who is only fairly recently departed from the scene is that he still has family and friends around to set you straight. Donald Trump should remember that the next time he tries to insinuate that he’s anything like Ronald Reagan or has anything like Reagan’s approach to politics, leadership or conservatism. Don’t take my word for it; listen to Reagan’s son Michael.

The younger Reagan, himself a popular conservative author and talk radio personality, took to the pages of that venerable New Hampshire institution, the Manchester Union-Leader, on Tuesday to remind New Hampshire voters that The Donald is nothing like the man they set on the path to the Presidency with his primary victory in 1980:

Continue reading Michael Reagan to Donald Trump: You’re No Ronald Reagan

Are “Electable” Candidates Actually Electable? Part I: Presidential Primaries 1948-2012

RS: Are “Electable” Candidates Actually Electable? Part I: Presidential Primaries 1948-2012

RomneyMcCain

One of the siren songs raised in favor of moderate and establishment-backed candidates every primary election season is that they are “electable” and their opponents are not. Sometimes, this is frankly code for “not like those conservatives.” But if the idea that conservatives are unelectable is a fallacy, so too is the reflexive assumption that any candidate described as “electable” is actually the opposite, or is not any sort of conservative. History reminds us that good candidates win and bad ones lose, and while ideology can matter more or less depending where and when the election is held, neither conservatives nor moderates have any monopoly on winning elections. And if you look at the history of failed GOP “electability” candidates, you will find that they were usually moderates who faced significantly weaker and/or non-conservative opponents.

Let’s take a two-part walk through the history of electability arguments, starting with a review of the GOP primaries from 1948 to 2012. In the second part, I’ll look at statewide swing-state races over the past decade to consider what kinds of Republican candidates actually do win contested elections.

Continue reading Are “Electable” Candidates Actually Electable? Part I: Presidential Primaries 1948-2012

How and Why Ronald Reagan Won

RS: How and Why Ronald Reagan Won

Fifty-one years ago today in Los Angeles, a 53-year-old political amateur, Ronald Reagan, gave a half-hour nationally-televised speech, “A Time For Choosing,” on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s campaign in the following week’s presidential election. 16 years later, Reagan would win 44 states and an almost double-digit popular vote margin of victory, kicking off the most successful and conservative Republican presidency in U.S. history, leading to a 49-state landslide in 1984 and the election of his Vice President for a “third Reagan term” in 1988, the only time in the past 70 years that a party has held the White House for three consecutive terms.

Given the extent to which Reagan’s legacy still dominates internal debates within the GOP and the conservative movement, it’s worth asking ourselves: What did he accomplish? How did he do it? And what can we learn from him today?

Continue reading How and Why Ronald Reagan Won

The Rise & Fall of the Confederate Flag in South Carolina

RS: The Rise & Fall of the Confederate Flag in South Carolina

Nikki Haley RS Gathering

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, in the aftermath of the Charleston church shooting, held a press conference Monday with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and legislators from both parties calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from its place on the grounds of the state capitol. This is a good thing. Despite persistent efforts to use the flag as a partisan club, it is worth recalling some history on the matter.

Continue reading The Rise & Fall of the Confederate Flag in South Carolina

RedState and Federalist Roundup

I owe longtime readers here some explanation and apology – my work at both RedState and The Federalist is now exclusive, at least when first published, to those sites, and while I post links on Twitter and Facebook, I tend to forget sometimes to post links back here at the old stomping grounds. (I may well close the comments section here too soon, since the lack of activity means a high spam-to-real-comments ratio, and since most regular commenters by now know how to find me elsewhere).
Here’s my most recent posts over the past month, all of them on matters of politics and/or history:
RedState:
Ferguson, Missouri and the Fog of Partisanship and Ideology
93% of Democratic Senate or Governor Candidates Are White
Where I Was On September 11 (a repost of the annual remembrance)
Is The Democratic Party Proud of its History of Slavery & Segregation?
Mid-September Polls Are Not The Last Word On Senate Races
The Federalist:
History Is Not On The Democrats’ Side In 2016
Presidential Battleground States: A History

Obama Peddles Impeachment Conspiracy Theories To Raise Money

RS: Obama Peddles Impeachment Conspiracy Theories To Raise Money
Obama Impeach Me SignThe definition of a conspiracy theory is that it requires belief in a secret agreement among other people in the absence of of any evidence of such an agreement. President Obama and the Democratic Party are presently peddling a conspiracy theory that Republicans have a secret plan to impeach him from office. Their reason for selling this theory is nakedly self-interested: to raise money from gullible donors and drive turnout from excitable but poorly informed voters who may be unhappy with the President’s job performance but remain personally loyal to him.
Democrats, of course, are just cynically exploiting anything that can help them gain partisan advantage. What is much more disappointing is the media playing along with this agitprop campaign, in particular by hounding Republican candidates across the country to discuss impeachment and then turning their answers into “Republicans talking about impeachment” stories even if they strenuously deny that they’re interested in such a thing (or, as commonly happens, if they duck the question or offer vague answers designed to avoid alienating voters who might very much like to see the President impeached or at least see something tried).
Anyone who was not born yesterday knows full well that this is a conspiracy theory – that John Boehner and House leadership have zero interest in a futile and politically counterproductive effort to impeach an unpopular lame duck President; that they have no secret plan to do so; and that there is zero chance that the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over Articles of Impeachment, will ever vote out such Articles against President Obama. Nor, among the many outside groups that have become major players in Republican primaries and have been busily engaged in many conservative efforts to pressure Capitol Hill on other issues, is there any organized effort to get Boehner and House leadership to take any other position. Reporters would never ask questions to Democratic candidates, on zero evidence, about something with so little chance of ever happening; they should not abet this conspiracy theory by continuing to cover it as if it was anything but a conspiracy theory.

Continue reading Obama Peddles Impeachment Conspiracy Theories To Raise Money

A Timeline of Islamic Expansion In The Dark Ages

Let me put down here some facts that are worth returning to from time to time, as arguments over the history of Islam and Islamism are back in the news with today’s beheading in London. In debates over the history of tension between Muslims and Christians, the Crusades are often cited, out of their historical context, as the original cause of such clashes, as if both sides were peaceably minding their own business before imperialist Westerners decided to go launch a religious war in Muslim lands.
This is not what actually happened, and indeed it is ahistorical to treat the fragmented feudal states of the West in the Eleventh Century as capable of any such thing as imperialism or colonialism (although, as Victor Davis Hanson has noted, even in the centuries after the fall of Rome, Western civilization retained a superior logistical ability to project force overseas due to the scientific, economic and military legacies of ancient Greece and Rome). Moreover, when Islam first arose, much of what we think of today as Islamic ‘territory’ in Anatolia, the Levant and North Africa was Christian until conquered by the heirs of Muhammad, such that speaking of one side’s incursions into the other’s territory requires you to ignore how that territory was seized in the first place. That entire region had been part of the Roman and later Byzantine empires, and was culturally part of the West until it was conquered by Muslim arms – Rome is closer geographically to Tripoli than to London, Madrid is closer to Casablanca than to Berlin, Athens is closer to Damascus than to Paris.
All that said, it’s worth remembering that the Crusades arose in the late Eleventh Century only after four centuries of relentless Islamic efforts to conquer Europe, and the Christians of the Crusading era cannot be evaluated without that crucial context.

Continue reading A Timeline of Islamic Expansion In The Dark Ages

BASEBALL/42

Over the weekend, I went to see 42, the Jackie Robinson movie. A few thoughts, with spoilers for those of you who do not already know the story by heart (I can’t say my take here is that radically different from a number of other reviews I’ve read from other baseball writers):
1. The movie is a snapshot – not the full story of either Robinson’s life and career or the integration of baseball. It starts with Branch Rickey’s decision to bring a black player to the Dodgers in 1945, and ends with the Dodgers winning the 1947 NL pennant. Even within that snapshot, once Jackie makes the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal, almost nothing is shown of his 1946 season, and some other events are compressed (the Cardinals get off easy, as the film focuses on the Phillies as the main villians who threatened not to take the field against an integrated team). That keeps the plot and pacing relatively tight (even though the endpoint is no surprise), but it necessarily leaves off a lot of background and detail as well as the other storied chapters of Robinson’s career. And relatedly, the film is intended mainly to tell Robinson’s story to a generation of moviegoers who don’t know all the details, so there’s a bit of broad exposition that would not be necessary for people like me who are already steeped in the whole story.
2. The performances are everything they needed to be. Harrison Ford – while still recognizably Harrison Ford – steals every scene he’s in as Branch Rickey, and captures “Mr. Rickey’s” character and style (complete with his trademarks – his sermonizing speaking style and outrageously bushy eyebrows). Similarly, Christopher Meloni and John C. McGinley look, act and sound like the real Leo Durocher and Red Barber, other than Meloni being a lot bigger and bulkier than the diminutive Lip.
Chadwick Boseman has the unenviable task for a young actor of having to carry the film while competing with Ford and other more experienced actors, but while he doesn’t mimic Robinson’s high-pitched voice, he captures the man’s fierce competitive drive and hatred of segregation, and perhaps even more importantly he’s truly believable at bat and on the basepaths, where Jackie worked his memorable magic. More broadly, the baseball in the movie is really well-done: the players, the game and the parks all look like 1940s baseball. Brad Beyer as Kirby Higbe, for example, looks very much the part of your typical Sourthern farm boy turned power pitcher of that era.
In some ways, Jackie Robinson’s challenge in holding his temper in check and channeling it into the game reminds me of what I’ve written about George Washington; neither was the kind of man to meet adversity with Zen-like calm, but both managed to become complete masters of their own powerful emotional currents – anger, rage, despair – and present to the world a stoic face. That’s an incredibly impressive skill, for such a strong personality to remain so contained. The film captures that challenge, and takes some dramatic license to illustrate it with a scene (which almost certainly did not happen) of Robinson breaking down in the tunnel behind the dugout and requiring a pep talk from Rickey.
(Nicole Beharie is elegant as the still-elegant Rachel Robinson, but doesn’t really have much of a role to work with beyond the standard baseball-wife scenes. The film does spend some time with the Robinsons as newlyweds, which reminds me of an interesting question that I think I asked on Twitter a while back to not much satisfactory response: what is cinema’s most compelling black romantic couple? We can all name lots of famous onscreen romances, but it’s only much more recent films that have really developed those relationships between a black man and a black woman, and I can’t think of one that stands out as iconic. But there has to be one I’m not thinking of.)
3. The dialogue is frequently terrible, windy and too self-aware, and there’s a handful of scenes that are anachronistic in the way the characters speak and interact (men in the late 40s didn’t talk with each other about their feelings a lot, for example). While the usual rule in biographical films is to avoid mimicry, the best dialogue is actually characters like Rickey, Barber, Durocher and Happy Chandler speaking the way those men actually spoke (I sat through all approximately 478 hours of Chandler’s Hall of Fame induction speech in 1982). Branch Rickey really did talk as if he was orating for the history books; most of his players did not.
4. The movie’s inaccuracies were irritating but few and minor. Leo Durocher’s suspension for the 1947 season is portrayed as solely the result of his scandalous affair with Laraine Day, when in fact the stated reason for the suspension was over Durocher consorting with gamblers (Happy Chandler also cited “the accumulated unpleasant incidents in which he has been involved,” which also covered the affair and a variety of Leo’s other feuds). (I’ll forgive the filmmakers for sneaking into a night-time phone conversation Leo’s iconic “Nice guys finish last” line). Pee Wee Reese is given Gene Hermanski’s famous clubhouse wisecrack about how the Dodgers should all wear 42 when Jackie gets a death threat, so nobody could tell which one was him. Fritz Ostermuller’s family claims that the film inaccurately portrays him as a racist who beaned Robinson in a game. (The family of Ben Chapman, who eventually repented of his racist torments of Robinson late in life, could make no such claim). The film ignores Dan Bankhead, the second black Dodger who joined the team in late August. But on the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by the attention to getting details right that historians of the game would notice. The movie captured both the essential truths of Robinson’s battle against the color line and the twists along the way. Particularly interesting and mostly accurate was the differing motivations of the players who rallied around Robinson, from Reese’s reluctant solidarity (as a son of Kentucky) to the scrappy Eddie Stanky, who like his mentor Durocher would walk over fire for you if you were on his team and could help him win a ballgame.
Every generation learns history anew, and Jackie Robinson’s corner of history is one worth retelling. If you haven’t seen 42 yet, you should.

Reflections on the American Revolution, Part III of III: The Militia

herkimer.oriskany.JPG
How did thirteen colonies, with a barely functioning central government and a thrown-together, underfunded and poorly supplied army of constantly fluctuating size and composition, win the Revolutionary War? One reason was the colonies’ ability to rely on their common citizens to supplement the Continental Army with local militia. I’ve looked previously at the demographic and physical conditions and foreign alliances that shaped the war and the generals who led the armies. Let’s conclude this tour of the American Revolution with the militia.
The Militia: Americans then and now have had a romantic attachment to the citizen militia, epitomized by the Massachusetts “minutemen.” The importance of the militia as both a bulwark against tyranny and a line of national defense was, of course, famously the backdrop for the Second Amendment and other militia-related clauses in the Constitution (including allowing Congress to arm them and the President to command them at need “to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions”). Yet it was ultimately the Continental Army, not the militia, that had to do the bulk of the work needed to win the war. Nonetheless, the story of the American victory cannot be told without the militia.
Massachusetts: The militia’s finest hour came at the beginning, before there was a Continental Army: Concord and Bunker Hill. At Concord, in April 1775, the sudden appearance of the Massachusetts militia in significant force, firing largely from behind the cover of trees and stone walls, drove the (mostly inexperienced) redcoats back to Boston with surprising casualties. At Bunker Hill two months later, Massachusetts militia entrenched largely on high ground and firing from behind fortifications and stone walls inflicted a staggering casualty rate of almost 50% on the British regulars (even higher among the officer corps); the militia then beat a mostly orderly retreat when they were finally overcome. Those two battles left the British besieged in Boston, where they would remain for nearly a year until dislodged by Henry Knox’s artillery in March 1776. Bunker Hill also traumatized the British command, haunting their thinking about attacks on entrenched positions for the rest of the war. When the Continental Army was assembled to carry on the siege, much of its manpower and officer corps was drawn from the militia, including key leaders like Knox and Nathanael Greene. Moreover, the artillery that liberated Boston had been seized by militia in 1775 when Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, leading the Vermont militia (the Green Mountain Boys) in an expedition supported by Massachusetts and Connecticut militia, captured the lightly-defended Fort Ticonderoga. And without the militia, the army in 1775 would have been unarmed. The Continental Army being chronically short on supplies and having no official, standard weapon, recruits early in the war fought with whatever guns they brought to the army, either their own or those supplied by the state governments – but while that system was essential to forming an army from scratch, Washington found it unsatisfactory to carry on the war. As a 1981 U.S. Army study described the situation:

It was the policy of the Continental Congress in 1775 to “hire” arms, which meant encouraging each new soldier to bring his own gun, a practice that had been common in militia service. Having established this policy, Congress then left the task of equipping the troops to the Commander in Chief. More often than not, however, the men arrived at camp without arms. When Washington undertook to form a Continental Army from the forces before Boston in 1775, he initiated the first of several measures designed to arm his troops. He began by seeking to retain for the use of the new Continental force the muskets that the men hurrying to the defense of their country had brought to Cambridge. He ordered that no soldier upon the expiration of his term of enlistment was to take with him any serviceable gun. If the musket was his private property, it would be appraised, and he would be, given full value for it. All arms so taken and appraised were to be delivered into the care of the Commissary of Military Stores. To make doubly sure that the weapons would be retained for Army use, Washington threatened to stop the last two month’s pay due a soldier if he carried away his gun.

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Among the factors contributing to the shortage of arms in the spring of 1776 was the carelessness of the soldiers in maintaining their arms in good working order. An examination of the weapons of the army in New York revealed them to be in shocking condition. Washington issued an order to the regimental commanders to have the arms put in good order as soon as possible and to see that each musket was equipped with a bayonet. Those soldiers who had lost the bayonets they had been issued were to pay for new ones, and if any soldier had allowed his gun to be damaged by negligence, the cost of its repair was to be deducted from his pay. This order by no means eliminated negligence in caring for weapons. It persisted throughout the war….
To promote better care of weapons, Washington substituted a policy of purchasing arms for that of hiring them. During the first two campaigns of the war, it was the custom to encourage both the enlisted soldier and the militiaman to bring their own guns. But Washington soon came to link that policy with the lack of care the soldiers gave their muskets, for under it “a man feels at liberty to use his own firelock as he pleases.” Owners of guns took little care of them, retained them when their service expired, and even disposed of them whenever they pleased. As early as January 1776 Washington had indicated that he was ready to purchase any arms offered by a colony or an individual.
The system of hiring, however, continued until February 1777 when Washington initiated preparations for the next campaign. He informed Governor Trumbull of Connecticut that he now wanted guns purchased from owners on the account of the United States. Purchase, he wrote, would result in better care of the weapons and would eliminate many of the bad consequences of hiring arms.

There were other warning signs of the militia’s limitations in 1775 as well: the militia at Bunker Hill had strategic depth but failed to use it, being too poorly organized to bring reserve units into the fight in time, and the Green Mountain Boys didn’t linger to garrison Fort Ticonderoga once its liquor supplies had run out. An army constituted for the long haul would have to do better.
New Jersey: Problems persisted, but so did the militia’s contributions. Washington was disappointed when more New Jersey and Pennsylvania militia didn’t show up to assist his campaigns in the region between late 1776 and the summer of 1778. But the New Jersey militia played a valuable role in the series of skirmishes known as the New Jersey Forage War in the winter of 1776-77. Acting sometimes alone and sometimes with modest support from the Continental Army, the militia repeatedly staged ambushes and opportunistic attacks on British and Hessian detachments looking for food and forage for their animals, inflicting a slow bleed of casualties and leaving the enemy jittery and under-supplied: a classic guerrilla campaign, although the word hadn’t been coined yet. The New Jersey militia would eventually even draw praise from Washington, long a critic of militia, for its ongoing role in assisting Greene in turning back the final Hessian efforts in 1780 to assail Washington’s position in Morristown; Washington wrote of the militia after the Battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield that “The militia deserve everything that can be said on both occasions. They flew to arms universally and acted with a spirit equal to anything I have seen in the course of the war.”
Saratoga: Militia were also important to the pivotal Saratoga campaign. Allen and Arnold’s capture of Fort Ticonderoga had cut the British lines of communication in two, severing Guy Carleton’s Canadian forces from the Thirteen Colonies. General Burgoyne’s expedition, marching south from Canada, was designed to turn the tables. His aim was to seize control of the Hudson River valley and link up with Howe and Clinton in New York, reuniting the British forces while cutting New England off from the rest of the colonies. It started well, as such things often do; Burgoyne seized the forts in early July and scattered the Continental Army’s forces in the region with barely a fight. But Burgoyne didn’t count on the patriot militia.
Burgoyne’s plan called for him to link up with Barry St. Leger, who was marching southeast down the Mohawk River that runs through Western and Central New York and flows into the Hudson just north of Albany. The plan – and reason for the two British forces to march separately – was for St. Leger to gather with him the Iriquois Six Nations and the Loyalist militia. St. Leger laid siege to Fort Stanwix, which controlled the Mohawk River; to relieve the siege, local militia leader Nicholas Herkimer hastily raised about 800 militia, a few dozen Oneida Indians (one of the two Iriquois tribes that sided with the colonists) and wagonloads of supplies. St. Leger chose to meet Herkimer with a thousand men, the bulk of which were Mohawk and Seneca Indians, who ambushed Herkimer as his column wound through a densely wooded ravine on August 6, 1777. The result was the savagely bloody Battle of Oriskany, depicted above. The militia was caught by surprise, several key officers were killed in the opening volley, and Herkimer had his leg broken falling from his horse (he would die of the wounds a few days later). But the militia fought on, Herkimer directing the battle while propped against a tree and regrouping his men to counterattack after a downpour. The battle ended in a British victory, with enormous American casualties that broke Herkimer’s militia. But heavy losses from the battle demoralized St. Leger’s Indian allies and Loyalist militia, who had expected to play a support and ambush role and let the British and Hessians do the heavy lifting, and instead found themselves fighting a desperate, cornered militia at close quarters. Most of St. Leger’s support melted away, greatly weakening his force and leading to its ultimate failure to capture Fort Stanwix (which was relieved by Benedict Arnold on August 22).
While St. Leger was bogged down on his right, Burgoyne faced a second militia threat from his left that ultimately cost him nearly 1,000 casualties, more than 10 percent of his expedition. Approximately 2,000 New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont militia under John Stark (a veteran of Bunker Hill who had served for a time under Washington in the Continental Army before returning home), who raised this force in a little over a week, set out to harass Burgoyne’s advance. Burgoyne sent a detachment of Hessians – considered some of Europe’s best professional troops – to gather supplies and intercept Stark before he could do more damage or link up with the Continental Army. At the ensuing August 16, 1777 Battle of Bennington (actually located in present-day New York near Bennington, Vermont), Stark’s militia faced the Hessians in a pitched battle, albeit with the advantage that the Hessians arrived in two groups of around 600, allowing Stark to defeat them in detail with a large numerical advantage. Stark’s militia surrounded the elite Hessian dragoons holding an elevated redoubt; the Hessian commander, Friedrich Baum, was mortally wounded in a last, desperate saber charge, and hundreds of his men surrendered. Few of the Hessians made it back to Burgoyne’s army.
As Burgoyne marched south, weakened by the failure of St. Leger, the loss of the Hessians and the defection of his Native American allies and with the Americans felling trees in his path, the Continental Army under Horatio Gates was bolstered by the arrival of thousands of militia, to the point where Burgoyne may have been outnumbered more than two-to-one at the second and final Battle of Saratoga. Militia units fought in the line of battle with the Continentals at Saratoga, which rivals Yorktown as the most important American victory of the war. More important than anything the militia did at Saratoga itself, their presence on the battlefield gave weight to the Continental forces that Burgoyne could not overcome. His surrender on October 17, 1777 permanently ended the effort to divide the colonies and link up with the British forces in Quebec, and was crucial to bringing France into the war.
The South: In the South, the militia had to come more directly to the rescue of the regulars. When the British moved the focus of their offensive operations to the South in 1779, they found a Continental Army much less well prepared and led than Washington’s army in the north. Cornwallis routed the defenders of Savannah in 1779 and Charleston in May, 1780, followed shortly by Tarleton’s massacre of a smaller Continental Army force at Waxhaws. Horatio Gates attempted to replicate his victory at Saratoga by rallying the militia around a new Continental Army force, but was wiped out by Cornwallis’ army (under Lord Rawdon) at Camden on August 16, 1780 (Washington regarded Camden as another foolhardy attempt to rely on militia). Between Charleston and Camden, Cornwallis had captured over 6,000 prisoners, including most of the Continental Army left in the South. The road seemed open to claim the prizes of North Carolina and Virginia.
It didn’t work out that way. Heavy-handed Loyalist militias, first under Christian Huck and later Patrick Ferguson, combined with Tarleton’s brutality at Waxhaws, enraged the population of the Carolinas and Eastern Tennessee. The first militia victories, at Ramsour’s Mill in North Carolina in June and the killing of Huck in South Carolina in July, were small, almost spontaneous engagements (although a study of the records of the militia who fought Huck showed that a number were Continental Army veterans and most had been fighting the British in one form or another since 1775). A landmark of the growing resistance came in October 1780, when a muster of nearly a thousand militia from the Carolinas, Virginia and Tennessee cornered Ferguson in the forest at King’s Mountain near the North/South Carolina border, killing Ferguson and destroying his Loyalist militia. In November, Tarleton’s feared British Legion – including hundreds of British regulars – were bloodied and beaten by the militia at Blackstock’s Farm, South Carolina. There were scores of other, smaller ambushes and militia-on-militia engagements in this period, some with the character of a blood feud.
The militia’s victories in the Carolinas begat more American recruitment and more caution for Cornwallis, buying time for Greene to enter the southern theater in late 1780 and re-organize the regulars. But with only a small regular force of a few thousand men, Greene still needed plenty of help from the militia. At Cowpens, South Carolina on January 17, 1781, a combined force of militia and Daniel Morgan’s crack riflemen broke the back of Tarleton’s British Legion, killing or capturing more than 80% of Tarleton’s 1,150-man force and effectively ending British control over South Carolina. Probably less than half of the American force at Cowpens was Continental regulars. The major engagement of the campaign came at Guilford Court House, North Carolina on March 15, 1781, at which Greene (while nominally losing the battle) inflicted sufficient casualties to convince Cornwallis (himself down to less than 2,000 men) to fall back to Virginia, where he would consolidate his forces only to meet his great defeat. As at Saratoga, while the fiercest fighting was done by the Continental regulars, the militia were important at Guilford Court House for their sheer numbers; Greene outnumbered Cornwallis more than two-to-one with a force that was probably around 70-80% militia.
The West: Finally, the Western theater of the war was almost entirely conducted by militia; beyond Western New York and Pennsylvania, there simply wasn’t much the Continental Army could do to support operations in the West. The one time in 1781 when the army sent a detachment to assist George Rogers Clark in his campaigns in what became the Northwest Territory, they were defeated en route. This left Clark, a Virginia militia commander, to seize outposts in present-day Illinois and Indiana using Virginia and Kentucky militia. The militia also conducted both offensive and defensive campaigns in the West against the Native American tribes. (The Spanish also made use of militia in the West and South during the war, both in the defense of St. Louis and in Bernardo de Galvez’ campaigns in Louisiana and the Floridas).
The Militia, Assessed: The militia were never an adequate substitute for a regular army. Bennington and Bunker Hill notwithstanding, they were often not useful in conventional engagements, especially offensive operations. They maneuvered poorly (e.g, the failure of the militia to arrive in proper position to support the Continental Army at Germantown and Trenton), a key weakness in 18th century warfare, and when not fighting from cover like stone walls or trees they were notorious for breaking formation and running when charged by the enemy. Continental Army commanders had no end of frustration trying to get militia companies to carry out orders and assignments, or even to determine in advance how many militia would show up when mustered. Washington himself had despised the militia as useless ever since his experiences with the Virginia militia in the French and Indian War (beware of Washington quotes about the militia and the right to bear arms that you may see on the internet; several of these are apocryphal and at odds with his actual thinking). Militia units were usually more effective fighting other militia or Native Americans than regular soldiers. And being amateurs who often had families to support, they preferred to stick close to home; Clark was never able to get enough volunteers from the Kentucky militia to carry out his grand plan of a march on Detroit.
The 1779 Penobscot expedition, in which a force composed mainly of Massachusetts and Maine militia (supported by a small detachment of marines) was to make an amphibious landing in Maine and assault a British fort, was a textbook example of the kind of complex operation completely unsuited to militia: despite superior numbers compared to the enemy and some initial momentum, the unwieldy joint command co-ordinated poorly with its Continental Navy support, the Maine militia turned out in smaller numbers than expected, and the militia maintained an ineffective siege and cut and ran when counter-attacked. The commanders of the expedition, including Paul Revere, ended up being hauled before a court-martial, and Maine remained in British hands the rest of the war.
Getting the most out of militia units in battle required tactical flexibility. Daniel Morgan, at Cowpens, ordered the first line of the North Carolina militia to fire two volleys from an advance position and then make an orderly retreat to the rear, with the second line firing three volleys then doing the same; the regulars in the third line would absorb the British charge. Morgan had no faith that the militia could withstand a charge without breaking, and quipped that he made sure not to make a stand near a swamp so the militia couldn’t disappear into it at the first sign of the enemy. Herkimer, at Oriskany, had to order his men in the midst of battle to start fighting in pairs, taking turns shooting while the other reloaded, because they were vulnerable to tomahawk attacks while reloading.
But for all their drawbacks, the ability to put militia units in the field was undeniably important, at times crucial, to the colonial cause. The main reason is the balance of manpower. The British, as I noted earlier, usually had 25-30,000 soldiers to work with, of whom 22-25,000 were either British or Hessian regulars. The size of the Continental Army at various points in time can be hard to ascertain due to spotty records, desertions, illness and short enlistments, but its main body seems to have peaked with about 20,000 around the Battle of Brooklyn, and Washington usually fought with about 10-12,000 men at his larger engagements; aside from the large force assembled at Saratoga, the army rarely had more than 5,000 men in any other place, and more often the commanders outside Washington’s immediate vicinity had only a few thousand regulars to work with. The Continental Army usually fought with smaller groups of regulars than its adversaries, it lost more battles than it won, and when Washington’s main army wasn’t present, it almost never won a significant engagement without the presence of militia. The army simply couldn’t defend most of the countryside. The militia was a force multiplier that prevented the British from consolidating control, which in turn would have forced Washington to seek active battles he couldn’t win. But with the support of the militia, the Americans had the advantage: the British couldn’t easily replenish their manpower, which had to be requested from London and shipped across the ocean (this is why they relied on their own Loyalist militia), while the Americans could do so on short notice whenever local authorities felt the need, without even consulting Congress. Besides numbers, the militia harassed the British supply lines, also a vulnerability for an army operating thousands of miles overseas.
And the militia bought time. In the North, the militia confronted and bottled up the British in Boston and seized their Hudson River forts at a time when there was no regular army. In the South, the militia kept up the fight after the regulars had been crushed, buying time for Greene. In New York, the decentralized ability to rapidly raise militia companies to bleed and eventually outnumber Burgoyne’s army was essential to the pivotal Saratoga campaign after the regulars had been dispersed by Burgoyne’s advance.
The militia didn’t win the war, and would never have won it alone. But it is hard to see how there is a Yorktown, a Treaty of Paris and an independent United States without the efforts of thousands of militia from 1775 to 1782.

Reflections on the American Revolution, Part II of III: The Generals

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How did America win its independence? In Part I of this essay, I looked at the population trends, foreign alliances, and equipment and weather conditions under which the American Revolution was fought. Let’s add some thoughts on the leaders of the principal combatants: the American and British generals. The American command was far from perfect – but the war could have turned out very differently if the American side had not had the advantages of leadership it did, first and foremost the singular character of George Washington.
Washington, Washington: Any history of the Revolutionary War has to consider the unique leadership of George Washington. 43 years old when he assumed command, Washington came to the war with combat leadership experience from the French and Indian War, training as a surveyor that prepared him well to deal with maps and terrain, a decade of active fox hunting that had made him an excellent horseman, and experience in the Virginia House of Burgesses that had educated him in practical politics. Physically, Washington was a man of great strength, vigor and endurance and almost supernatural good luck. Washington’s robust constitution survived smallpox, diphtheria, multiple bouts of malaria, pleurisy, dysentery (in 1755, the 23-year-old Washington had to ride to Braddock’s defeat on a padded saddle due to painful hemorrhoids), quinsy (an abcess of the tonsils that laid him out in 1779) and possibly typhoid. In the rout of the Braddock expedition, Washington had two horses shot from under him and four bullet holes in his coat, yet neither then nor at any time during his military career was Washington wounded despite often being in the thick of battle and presenting an enormously conspicuous target (one of the tallest men in the Continental Army, in the most brilliant blue uniform, mounted on horseback).
But he had his weaknesses: he’d never had command of anything as large, diverse and complex at the Continental Army (whose very name bespoke its ambitions), and while Washington was smart, adaptable, detail-oriented and sometimes inspired, he was not a naturally brilliant military mind: his errors throughout the New York campaign would illustrate that he was no Napoleon, just as – in more fateful ways – Napoleon was no Washington.
I’ve noted before the success of Washington’s frequent tactic of hit-and-run attacks followed by retreats and more retreats. Washington’s overall long-term strategy ended up being one of simply enduring in the field, never putting his whole army at risk until he had the enemy trapped. But it’s crucial to always bear in mind that this strategy ran contrary to everything in Washington’s temperament. By nature, he was an aggressive, audacious military man who loved the offensive. Frequently throughout the war, Washington developed complex and daring offensive plans. Sometimes, as at Trenton in December 1776 and the following year’s effort at a coup de main at Germantown in October 1777, he put those plans in action. The attack at Germantown was designed to catch Cornwallis’ 9,000-man army by surprise with a numerically superior force and destroy it while it was divided from the rest of Howe’s army quartered at Philadelphia. The plan, calling for four columns to fall on the British more or less simultaneously, was too complex and ambitious (the largest Continental Army column arrived late and the two militia columns had little effect) and ended in defeat. But like the 1968 Tet Offensive, it was a morale and propaganda winner for the Americans just to mount such an assault. It raised the Continental Army’s morale, stunned the British command (which had thought Washington beaten and in retreat after the prior month’s defeat at Brandywine that had cleared the way for the occupation of Philadelphia) and, together with the victory at Saratoga, it helped persuade the French that the American war effort was serious and had staying power. Washington’s audacity on this occasion paid dividends even in defeat.
But at least as often, Washington allowed his war council (composed of his subordinates and, after the arrival of the French, Gen. Rochambeau, who made clear that he would defer to Washington’s ultimate decisions) to talk him out of his own overly ambitious plans even after he had drawn them up at length: a hazardous amphibious assault on Boston during the 1775-76 siege (complete with, in one version of the plan, a vanguard of soldiers on ice skates attacking across the frozen harbor); a march on the British war purse at New Brunswick with an army exhausted after Trenton and Princeton in January 1777; an attack on New York in 1780 or 1781 when Rochambeau wanted to chase Cornwallis to Yorktown instead. His willingness to listen to the counsel of cooler heads is what separated the practical Washington from more tactically brilliant but ultimately undone-by-hubris generals from Napoleon to Robert E. Lee.
Relatedly, Washington learned from his mistakes. The desire for decisive battle and protection of politically important turf had led him to risk annihilation of the largest army he would have during the war at the Battle of Brooklyn; thereafter, he would not stage a do-or-die stand to protect any particular spot of land. Washington had signed off on the disastrous 1775 invasion of Quebec; he would resist all further entreaties to stage a second offensive.
If Washington’s decisionmaking was sometimes imperfect, his temperament and leadership were flawless. Washington was neither deluded nor emotionless; time and again, his correspondence showed him verging on despondency at the condition of his army and the perils it faced, and we know he was capable of towering rages. But in the presence of his men (who were apt to get too high after heady victories and too low in defeat) and occasionally his adversaries, he never projected anything but steady confidence and endurance. Washington was not, perhaps, a nice man; even his close associates tended to regard him as the same distant marble statue we see him as today (Hamilton once bet a colleague at the Constitutional Convention a dinner if he’d go slap Washington on the back and act familiar with him; Washington pried his hand off and froze him with such a stare he told Hamilton afterwards he wouldn’t try it again for anything). But Washington put tremendous, conscious effort into acting the part of a great man at all times in order to become one. Washington had his vices, chief among them his ownership of slaves, but his virtues were almost a textbook of the qualities needed of the leader of a long, dangerous struggle through major adversity: perseverance, discipline of himself and others, attention to detail, fairness, integrity, resourcefulness, physical courage, endurance of hardship, and an unblinking practicality. There’s a great story about Washington breaking up a snowball fight that escalated into an enormous brawl between soldiers from Massachusetts and newly-arrived Virginia riflemen in Harvard Yard during the siege of Boston, possibly with racial overtones due to the presence of black soldiers in the Massachusetts regiment; a young observer recounted:

Reinforced by their friends, in less than five minutes more than a thousand combatants were on the field, struggling for the mastery.
At this juncture General Washington made his appearance, whether by accident or design I never knew. I only saw him and his colored servant…both mounted. With the spring of a deer, he leaped from his saddle, threw the reins of his bridle into the hands of his servant, and rushed into the thickest of the melee, with an iron grip seized two tall, brawny, athletic, savage-looking [Virginia] riflemen by the throat, keeping them at arm’s length, alternately shaking and talking to them.
In this position the eye of the belligerents caught sight of the general. Its effect on them was instantaneous flight at the top of their speed in all directions from the scene of the conflict. Less than fifteen minutes time had elapsed from the commencement of the row before the general and his two criminals were the only occupants of the field of action.

You didn’t mess with George Washington. But men would follow him anywhere.
Greene and Knox: The Continental Army’s leaders were a mixed bag, and more than a few of those who served with distinction are largely forgotten today. If there are two names besides George Washington that every American schoolchild should learn from the Revolutionary War, it’s Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox. Of all the Continental Army’s generals, only Washington, Greene and Knox served the entire duration of the war. While men like Charles Lee, Horatio Gates, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold contributed more than their share of ego, drama, and backbiting, both Greene and Knox were unswervingly, uncomplicatedly loyal both to Washington and the cause he fought for. In the long run, that served them better than any thirst for glory. Greene was offered the post of Secretary of War under the Articles of Confederation; when he declined, Knox took the job and continued to hold it under Washington’s presidency.
As soldiers, Greene and Knox were emblematic of one of the major characteristics of early America: they were self-educated, learning most of what they knew of military matters from books. Formal education was spotty in the colonies; even Washington, as a wealthy Virginia planter, never went to college and was mainly what we would call today “home schooled.” Yet early Americans didn’t let a lack of schooling bar them from the quest for knowledge. Ben Franklin had nearly no formal education at all, but by the closing decades of his public life was arguably the world’s most respected intellectual. Knox was educated at Boston Latin, but unschooled in war; his military experience was five years in an artillery company of the Massachusetts militia. Greene had neither schooling nor military experience, but read whatever he could get his hands on. At the outset of the war, they were young small businessmen: Knox a 25 year old bookseller from Boston, Greene a 32-year-old Quaker from Rhode Island who ran the family forge. Both prepared for combat by reading books on military strategy and tactics; had there been a “War for Dummies” in 1775, they would have read it without embarrassment. (Washington, too, ordered a number of military volumes when heading off to Philadelphia in 1775; as Victor Davis Hanson has noted, one of the distinctive features of Western civilization is a long written tradition of military science, allowing the widespread dissemination of the latest ideas about warmaking). Yet, self-educated though they were, they knew what they were missing: Knox spent years agitating for the establishment of an American military academy to teach the art of war, which would eventually be founded at West Point under the Jefferson Administration.
Knox pulled off perhaps the most remarkable and dramatic feat of the war in the winter of 1775-76, when a team led by he and his brother made the long, snow-covered trek from Boston to Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York, loaded up all its heavy artillery, returned with every single artillery piece intact, and then in one night in March set up the guns on Dorchester Heights, the peninsula overlooking Boston from the south. The British were staggered, and forced to evacuate. The full tale, as told by David McCullough in 1776, is as amazing as anything in American history, and I can’t hope to do it justice here. Knox would go on to prove himself time and again as the chief artillery expert in the Continental army from Boston to Trenton (where his guns commanded the center of the town) all the way through Yorktown (where the shelling of Cornwallis’ encampment brought him to his knees), and would be present for all of Washington’s major engagements. Knox’ amateurism led him astray on occasion; a few of the guns under his command exploded on their handlers in Boston and again later in New York, and he is generally credited with the misguided decision to send waves of troops against a barricaded position at Germantown on the basis of an inflexible application of the maxim (which he’d probably picked up from a book) about not leaving a fortified position to your rear. But his overall record was one of practicality, resourcefulness and unwavering dedication to the cause.
As for Greene, he too can be found at all Washington’s major battles of the first half of the war, as Washington’s operational right-hand man; the Quartermaster General of the Army after Valley Forge; the commander (with Lafayette) of the first joint operation with the French, a failed effort to break the occupation of Newport, Rhode Island; and finally Washington’s choice to assume command of the southern theater of the war after the serial failures of Robert Howe at Savannnah, Benjamin Lincoln at Charleston and Horatio Gates at Camden. The fiasco at Camden ended the military career of Gates, the victor of Saratoga, and left the Continental Army in the South in shambles, but it would prove Greene’s finest hour. Greene had little time to rebuild the shattered army; he rarely commanded more than a few thousand men, and often had to rely on the aid of the local militia. And yet, with a major assist from those militia, he staged a brilliant series of retreats and maneuvers to keep Cornwallis from taking control over the region or from capturing and crushing his army. It was Greene who said of this campaign, “We fight, get beaten, rise, and fight again.” After the costly March 1781 Battle of Guilford Court House, Cornwallis came to the decision that he needed to stop chasing Greene around the Carolinas and head north to Virginia, setting in motion the fateful chain of events that led to Yorktown.
Unfortunately, and characteristically of life in the 18th century, many of the leading figures of the Continental Army and Revolutionary militia did not live that long after the war’s end, including Greene, who died of sunstroke at age 43. Charles Lee died in 1782, Lord Stirling in 1783, Greene in 1786, Ethan Allen in 1789, Israel Putnam in 1790, John Paul Jones in 1792, John Sullivan and Francis Marion in 1795, Anthony Wayne in 1796, and Washington himself in 1799. While numerous places in the United States today bear their names (here in New York, Greene as well as Putnam, Sullivan and militia leader Nicholas Herkimer are the namesakes of counties), their popular memories today are less vivid than Revolutionary War figures like Alexander Hamilton who had more prominent political roles. But nobody aside from Washington himself contributed more to victory than Greene and Knox.
The European Adventurers: The American cause was, of course, aided as well by a handful of Continental European volunteers – Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, Casimir Pulaski, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Baron de Kalb (this is aside from some of the American leaders like John Paul Jones and Charles Lee who were native to the British Isles). Two of those, Pulaski and de Kalb, were killed in battle in the early unsuccessful battles of southern campaign, Pulaski at Savannah and de Kalb at Camden. Both Lafayette and Kosciuszko would return to try – with mixed success – to lead their own homelands to a republican future; Jones would serve in Catherine the Great’s navy after the war, terrorizing the Turkish navy and becoming an honorary Cossack in the process. Only von Steuben would enjoy a quiet life in his adopted country.
Lafayette’s exploits, especially during the Yorktown campaign, were significant and memorable, and in a general sense he contributed to the cementing of the alliance with France. And Pulaski played a key role in organizing the American cavalry. But von Steuben was likely the most important to the Continental Army’s victory.
In contrast to the self-educated citizen soldiers running the American army, von Steuben came from the opposite end of the 18th century military spectrum: born a sort of aristocrat and a Prussian army brat, he had served as a staff officer on the professional Prussian general staff, the first of its kind in the world, and been instructed by Frederick the Great himself. Unlike some of the other Europeans – but like Jones, who fled to America because he was wanted for the murder of a sailor he had flogged to death – von Steuben was no starry-eyed idealist. He was an unemployed professional soldier, deeply in debt, who came to the American cause only after running out of prospective employers in Germany, and was trailed by an unverified rumor that he was fleeing prosecution for being “accused of having taken familiarities with young boys.” He was passed off to Congress, perhaps knowingly and possibly with the complicity of Ben Franklin (who recognized his value), as one of Frederick the Great’s generals rather than a captain on the general staff, and even his aristocratic title had been inflated and possibly invented. He spoke little or no English and often asked his translator to curse at the soldiers on his behalf.
But whatever his background, von Steuben’s discipline and professional rigor was crucial. He established badly-needed standards for sanitary conditions in the army, introduced training in use of the bayonet, and taught the men the sort of manuevers that were essential to 18th century warfare. He is, on the whole, credited with the improved drill and discipline that emerged from Valley Forge and was displayed in the 1778 Battle of Monmouth. Monmouth, in combination with the French entry into the war, induced the British to mostly abandon the strategy of trying to hunt down Washington’s army and focus instead on offensive operations in the South. Von Steuben’s field manual was still the U.S. Army standard until the War of 1812. If Greene and Knox are emblems of traditional American virtues, the Continental Army’s debt to von Steueben and the other Europeans is emblematic of America’s adaptability and openness to the contributions of new arrivals.
The British Command: While there were many important figures on both sides of the war – I’ve only scratched the surface here on the American side – essentially all the important decisions on the British side were made by six generals: Gage, Howe, Clinton, Cornwallis, Burgoyne, and (in Quebec in 1775-76) Guy Carleton (Carleton also briefly commanded the British evacuation of New York in 1783 at the war’s end). Where they went wrong provides an instructive contrast with Washington’s command.
All six were professional military men, veterans of the Seven Years’/French and Indian War: Clinton, Cornwallis and Burgoyne had fought only in Europe, while Howe and Carleton had fought in the Quebec campaign that culminated in Wolfe’s capture of the fortified city, and Gage had been a part of the Braddock expedition and thus seen Washington up close in action. And by and large, with the arguable exception of Gage, they fought with tactical skill and professionalism against the Americans. Yet they have gone down in history as architects of a great failure, weak in comparison to predecessors like Wolfe and dwarfed by the likes of Wellington who succeeded them. Aside from Carleton, only Cornwallis really survived the war with his domestic reputation and career intact, going on to years of highly influential service as a colonial administrator in Ireland and India that shaped the Empire in important ways. Howe was the only other one of the six besides Cornwallis to command troops in combat again, for a time during the early Napoleonic Wars.
The British failure was partly a matter of the personalities involved, but also one of basic strategic incoherence. They never really had a fully thought-out strategy. Only Clinton and Cornwallis really seemed to understand the paramount importance of putting Washington’s army out of business early in the war, and their aggressive plans of flanking attacks and hot pursuits were frequently overriden by Gage and Howe, who were less apt than Washington to heed the good advice of their subordinates. Washington learned from his mistakes; Howe, in particular, did not, on multiple occasions settling down to stationary positions when he should have been finishing off Washington.
The British could have adopted a scorched-earth approach like Sherman in the Civil War; General James Grant urged the burning of major cities in the North, and in the southern campaign Banastre Tarleton’s forces (including Loyalist partisans) did what they could to spread terror in the countryside, including some notorious examples of bayoneting wounded or surrendering Americans. Cornwallis near the end of the war in Virginia would set thousands of slaves free as a foreshadowing of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, albeit solely for tactical purposes. But, as regular forces facing guerrilla insurgencies often do, they took a halfway path that was the worst of both worlds: heavy-handedness and occasional atrocities were crucial to raising the militia against Burgoyne in New York and Cornwallis and Tarleton in the Carolinas, yet they failed to pursue a sufficiently merciless approach to annihilate the Continental Army or destroy its economic base of support.
Like the Americans, the British were riven by petty jealousies and contending egos; unlike the Americans, they never had a Washington to keep those divisions from impeding operations, and unlike the Americans, their civilian government was too far away to provide supervision. Burgoyne’s appointment to lead the Saratoga expedition alienated both Carleton, who resigned in protest, and Clinton. In the case of Clinton, while he was usually right about tactics (notably his preference for outflanking the militia from the rear at Bunker Hill and for encircling Washington in New York), his flaw (which probably contributed to his advice being ignored) was his inability to work well with others. Though not entirely through faults of his own, it was Clinton’s failure to arrive with timely reinforcements that led to the surrenders of Burgoyne at Saratoga and Cornwallis at Yorktown.
The human element of good generalship can be fortuitous, but it is also a product of the civilian and military cultures that produce armies. In the long run, the Americans had a clearer strategy, greater unity of purpose and command and more adaptable leadership, and that made the difference.
In Part III: the role of the militia.

Reflections on the American Revolution (Part I of III)

I’ve recently been reading a fair amount on the American Revolution, especially David McCullough’s 1776 (which should be required reading for every American).* The more you read of the Revolutionary War, the more there is to learn, especially about the vital question of how the colonists pulled off their victory over the vastly wealthier and more powerful Great Britain. The standard narrative of the American Revolution taught in schools and retained in our popular imagination today overlooks a lot of lessons worth remembering about where our country came from.
The Population Bomb: In assessing the combatants and indeed the causes of the war, it’s useful – as always – to start with demographics. There was no colonial-wide census, but this 1975 historical study by the US Census Bureau, drawing on the censuses of individual colonies and other sources, breaks out the growth of the colonial population from 1630 to 1780, and the picture it paints is one of explosive population growth in the period from 1740 to 1780:
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The black population was principally slaves and thus – while economically and historically important – less relevant to the political and military strength of the colonies. But as you can see above, the main driver of population growth was the free white population rather than the slave trade.
Authoritative sources for the British population during this period are harder to come by (the first British census was more than a decade after the first U.S. Census in 1790); most sources seem to estimate the population of England proper between 6 and 6.5 million in 1776 compared to 2.5 million for the colonies. Going off this website’s rough estimated figures for the combined population of England and Wales (Scotland had in the neighborhood of another 1.5 million people by 1776), the colonies went from 5% of the British population in 1700 to 20% in 1750, 26% in 1760, 33% in 1770, and 40% in 1780:
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It was perhaps inevitable that this shift in the balance of population between the colonies and the mother country would produce friction, and of course such a fast-growing population means lots of young men ready to bear arms. Men like Franklin and Washington were already, by 1755, envisioning the colonies stretching across the continent for the further glory of the then-nascent British Empire; 20 years later, both were buying Western land hand over fist and picturing that continental vision as a thing unto itself.
The distribution of population among the individual colonies was somewhat different from today. Virginia (encompassing present-day West Virginia) was by far the largest colony and, along with the Carolinas, the fastest-growing, while Massachusetts, Maryland and Connecticut were much larger – and New York much smaller – relative to the rest of the colonies than today:
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This is one reason why Maryland gained a reputation as the “Old Line State”: it had the manpower to supply a lot of the Continental Army’s best troops. Connecticut was, in fact, seen as a crucial economic engine of the war, the most industrialized of the colonies at the time and mostly undisturbed by combat. That said, when you look solely at the white population, the southern states loom less large, and the crucial role of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts comes into focus:
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The smaller colonies present a similar picture:
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Note that Rhode Island, alone, lost population during the war, due to the 1778-1780 British occupation of Newport. That occupation had lasting effects. According to a 1774 census, Newport’s population before the war was more than twice that of Providence (more than 9,000 to less than 4,000) and it was a booming seaport; the city’s population dropped by more than half to 4,000, and it never really recovered its status as a port, losing business permanently to New York and Boston. Another lasting side effect: Rhode Island, founded by Roger Williams as a haven of religious tolerance and welcoming even to Jews and Quakers, forbade Catholics from living in the colony, but after the British abandoned Newport in 1780 and the French garrison took up residence, the grateful Rhode Islanders permitted the French troops to celebrate the first Mass in Rhode Island; today, it is the most heavily Catholic state in the union.
Britain’s population would surge in the 1790s, and by about 1800 there were a million people in London alone, the first city in world history confirmed to exceed that threshold. But that remained in the future; at the time, France’s population of 25 million and Spain’s of some 10 million would easily exceed that of George III’s domain. Moreover, like its colonies, England had a longstanding aversion to standing armies; while the Napoleonic Wars would ultimately compel the British Army (including foreign and colonial troops) to swell to a quarter of a million men by 1813, a 1925 analysis found that “[a]t the outbreak of the Revolution, the total land forces of Great Britain exclusive of militia numbered on paper 48,647 men, of which 39,294 were infantry; 6,869 cavalry; and 2,484 artillery,” with 8,580 men in America. And those forces were always stretched; according to this analysis of Colonial & War Office figures, the British never had much more than 15,202 redcoats in the American theater (including the Floridas, where they fought Spain), and never exceeded 30,000 troops in total, counting “Hessians” (companies of professional soldiers hired from the Hesse-Hanau, Hesse-Kassel, Brunswick and other German principalities) and American Loyalists (a/k/a “Tories”):
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The Close Call: More modern American wars like the Civil War and World War II eventually developed a momentum that made victory effectively inevitable, as America’s crushing material advantages came to bear on the enemy. By contrast, the Revolutionary War was, from beginning to end, a near-run thing (to borrow Wellington’s famous description of Waterloo). At every stage and in every campaign of the war, you can find both British and American victories, as well as a good many battles that were fought to a draw or were Pyrrhic victories for one side. The length of the 7-year war in North America was a burden for the increasingly war-weary British, for a variety of reasons, but a long war was also a great risk for the Americans: the longer the war ran on, the harder it was in terms of both finances and morale to keep the all-volunteer Continental Army in the field. Whole units dissolved en masse at the end of their enlistments throughout the war, and there were mutinies in the spring of 1780 and again in January 1781. As late as 1780, Benedict Arnold’s treason and debacles at Charleston and Camden, South Carolina put the American cause in jeopardy of being rolled up by the British, causing America’s European allies to strike a separate peace. At one point or another in the war, the then-principal cities of most of the colonies – Massachusetts (Boston), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), New York (New York), Virginia (Richmond and Charlottesville), Rhode Island (Newport), South Carolina (Charleston), Georgia (Savannah), Delaware (Wilmington) and New Jersey (Trenton, Princeton, Perth Amboy, New Brunswick) were captured and occupied by the British. Only Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina and New Hampshire remained unconquered, as well as the independent Vermont Republic (Maine, then governed by Massachusetts, was also under British control for much of the war; the failed Penobscot Expedition was aimed at its recapture, and ended with a disastrous naval defeat). In the spring of 1781, Thomas Jefferson – then the Governor of Virginia – escaped capture by Cornwallis’ men by a matter of minutes, fleeing on horseback as the government of the largest colony was dispersed. It was only the complex series of events leading to Yorktown in the fall of 1781 – Cornwallis retreating to Virginia after being unable to put away Nathanael Greene’s Continentals and the North Carolina militia, Washington escaping New Jersey before the British noticed where he was going, Admiral de Grasse bottling up Cornwallis’ escape route in the Chesapeake by sea, Henry Clinton failing to come to Cornwallis’ aid in time – that created the conditions for a decisive victory and finally forced the British to throw in the towel.
Moreover, a great many individual battles and campaigns throughout the war turned on fortuitous events ranging from fateful decisions to apparently providential weather. It is no wonder that many of the Founding generation (like many observers since) attributed their victory to the hand of God.
Weather and Suffering: Both the Continental Army and its British and Hessian adversaries endured conditions that no armies before or since would put up with, including a staggering menu of extreme weather ranging from blizzards to colossal thunderstorms to blazing summer heat. Ancient and medieval armies would not campaign in freezing cold and snow; modern armies (like the combatants at Leningrad and the Marines in the retreat from Chosin Resovoir) would at least face them with something closer to proper clothing and shelter. But both sides in the war suffered chronic shortages: the British from lack of food for their men and forage for their animals, the Americans from lack of clothing (especially shoes), shelter and ammunition. The British lost more sailors to scurvy in the war than soldiers to combat, and during the long siege of Boston they had recurring problems with their sentries freezing to death at night. Smallpox, malaria and other diseases were endemic and especially hard on European troops with no prior exposure (one of Washington’s great strokes of good judgment was having his army inoculated against smallpox, a disease he himself had survived and which left him pock-marked and probably sterile**). The British were rarely able to make use of their cavalry due to a lack of forage, and their infantry had other equipment problems:

[T]he flints used by the British soldier during the war were notoriously poor. Colonel Lindsay of the 46th lamented that the valor of his men was so often “rendered vain by the badness of the pebble stone.” He exclaimed indignantly against the authorities for failing to supply every musket with the black flint which every country gentleman in England carried in his fowling piece. In this respect the rebels were acknowledged to be far better off than the king’s troops. A good American flint could be used to fire sixty rounds without resharpening, which was just ten times the amount of service that could be expected from those used by the British forces. Among the rank and file of the redcoats, the saying ran that a “Yankee flint was as good as a glass of grog.”

The war was conducted during the Little Ice Age, a period of low global temperatures (it’s a myth that “climate change” is a new phenomenon or must be caused by human activity), and the winters of the period (especially 1779-80) were especially brutal. American soldiers and militia forded waist-deep icy rivers to reach the Battle of Millstone, marched miles without boots in snowstorms on Christmas Night after crossing the icy Delaware to reach the Battle of Trenton, and even tried (insanely) to lay siege to the fortified Quebec City in a driving snow on New Year’s Eve. These were only a few of the examples of Americans marching great distances in weather conditions that would defeat the hardiest souls. The British performed their own acts of endurance and valor; drive over the George Washington Bridge some time and look at the cliffs of the Palisades, and picture Cornwallis’ men scaling them at night to attack Fort Lee. Other battles were fought in heavy wool uniforms in the broiling heat, from Bunker Hill to much of the southern campaign, or in rains that left gunpowder useless, or – on the eve of the Battle of Brooklyn – colossal lightning strikes that killed groups of American soldiers in Manhattan. In the 1776 siege of Sullivan’s Island, the British were shocked to discover that their cannonballs wouldn’t splinter the soft palmetto wood from which the American fort was constructed, leaving the British ships to take a pounding from American artillery.
Except for Quebec, the weather – however hostile – nearly always managed to favor the American cause, rescuing the Americans when the hand of fate was needed most. McCullough recounts the especially significant shifts in the wind and fog that allowed Washington’s army to escape in the night, undetected, across the East River after the catastrophic Battle of Brooklyn, while the blizzard at the Americans’ backs was key to their surprise at Trenton.
The Allies: Most educated Americans still recall that France came to the aid of the fledgling nation after the victory at Saratoga, and played a significant role in tipping the scales in the war. In World War I, Pershing’s refrain of “Lafayette, we are here” was still a popular invocation of that collective memory. Besides French money and supplies and French land and naval combat at Yorktown, the French also stretched the British defenses with extensive campaigns in the Caribbean and with a threatened invasion of England. But as important as the French alliance was, the emphasis on France understates the role that other of America’s allies and Britian’s enemies played in the Revolution.
First and foremost, at least as history is taught here in the Northeastern U.S., the Spanish role in the Revolutionary War is scandalously underplayed. There are reasons for this: Spain was a less impressive international power in the late 18th Century than France and would become drastically less so by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and unlike the French, the Spanish rarely fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Americans or within the Thirteen Colonies. But Spain performed three vital roles in the war. First, under Bernardo de Galvez (namesake of Galveston, Texas, among other places), the Spanish Governor of the Louisiana Territory, the Spanish shipped significant war materiel up the Mississippi River through the American agent Oliver Pollock, supplementing the French aid that kept the American cause afloat. Second, after Spain’s 1779 declaration of war against Britain, Galvez opened a significant second front against the British-held Floridas (which then included, in the territory of West Florida, much of what is now the Gulf Coast of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi). Galvez was arguably the most successful commander of the war in North America, his multi-national, multi-racial force sweeping through the British defenses, preempting any British move on New Orleans and culminating the capture of Pensacola (then the capital of East Florida) in the spring of 1781. This campaign resulted in the Floridas being transferred from Britain to Spain in the resulting peace treaty; the absence of a British foothold on the southern border of the U.S. would have lasting consequences, and the Floridas would end up being sold by Spain to the United States in 1819. And third, the Spanish played a pivotal role in the Yorktown campaign, not only raising more funds in Cuba for the campaign but also providing naval cover in the Caribbean that allowed Admiral de Grasse to sail north and close off the Chesapeake just in the nick of time. (Spain also conducted a long, costly siege of Gibraltar that ended unsuccessfully and a successful assault on Minorca, both of which spread British manpower thin between 1778 and 1783).
The other main fighting allies of the American colonists were two of the Iriquois Six Nations in upstate New York, the Oneida and Tuscarora (the other four fought with the British), as well as a few other tribes on the western frontier. But other sovereigns caused the British additional problems. The Kingdom of Mysore, a French ally in Southern India, went to war with Britain (the Second Anglo-Mysore War) in 1780, inflicting thousands of casualties with innovative rocket artillery at the September 1780 Battle of Pollilur. The Dutch, who frustrated John Adams’ efforts to arrange financial assistance and an alliance until after Yorktown, nonetheless ended up dragged into the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War beginning in December 1780. (Some things never change: Adams was accused of unilateral “militia diplomacy” for ignoring diplomatic protocols and negotiating with the Dutch without consulting the French, but crowed after inking the deal in 1782 that “I have long since learned that a man may give offense and yet succeed.”). The Russians, then moving towards an alliance with Great Britain against the French, nonetheless pointedly refused to get involved; Catherine the Great refused a 1775 request in writing from George III that she send 20,000 Cossacks to America (necessitating the hiring of Hessians instead) and eventually joined the League of Armed Neutrality with the Dutch and others to resist British naval embargoes (the step that brought the British and Dutch to blows). Catherine II thought the British were fools for provoking the conflict and predicted from the outset that the Americans would win. All in all, the international situation by the end of 1780 left the British increasingly isolated and drove the strategic imperative to seek out a decisive battle in Virginia – an imperative that led Cornwallis directly into a trap of his own devising but which the American, French and Spanish forces sprung with great skill and coordination.
In Part II: Washington and the other American and British generals. In Part III: the role of the militia.

Continue reading Reflections on the American Revolution (Part I of III)

Republicans Must Retreat, Not Surrender, on the Fiscal Cliff

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It’s time for John Boehner and the House and Senate Republicans now engaged in the fiscal cliff negotiations to learn a lesson from George Washington: when faced with fighting a losing battle, the wisest course is to retreat rather than surrender.
Washington’s Retreats
George Washington didn’t get to be the Father of His Country by leading his often outnumbered and outgunned troops on suicide missions. Washington fought few pitched battles in the Revolutionary War, usually unsuccessfully (as at Long Island, Brandywine and Germantown). His signal successes involved surprise attacks (at Trenton) or trapping or cornering his foes without a full-scale open-field engagement (at Boston and Yorktown). Facing numerically superior forces, Washington often preferred to retreat to save his army from disaster, even after successful smaller engagements like the fight at Harlem Heights. Often in 1776 and 1777, as his army unsuccessfully sought to defend New York and Philadelphia from the steadily building British army, Washington would have his troops disengage and slip away in the dark, even at the cost of eventually having both cities captured by the enemy. For much of the war, Washington would resist Congressional entreaties to launch more ambitious offensives (such as an impractical invasion of Quebec), and at times would hastily abandon positions (like at Stony Point) that his men captured but could not defend.
Washington’s evasiveness – and his army’s endurance of hard marches in the snow at Trenton in the winter of 1776 and winter quarters in the bitter cold at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777 – enabled him to keep his forces together until they were strong enough to fight the British to a standstill at Monmouth and until the reinforcement of allied troops from France arrived. Washington’s subordinate Nathaniel Greene conducted a similar campaign in the South, harassing Cornwallis while losing most of his battles (as Greene wrote, “[w]e fight, get beat, rise and fight again”) but remaining on the run, avoiding a decisive engagement until Washington and the French could trap Cornwallis at Yorktown in September 1781.
Washington’s approach didn’t just help his army avoid annihilation or capture until it could grow stronger and obtain outside help. It also staved off an ever-threatened collapse in morale, as Washington’s men avoided more of the kind of disastrous routs that would lead to more desertions and fewer recruits. In time, it bonded Washington to his men, who grew to trust his judgment. Of perhaps particular interest to Boehner and McConnell, it also helped Washington avoid being replaced from his command by an antsy Congress. And in the end, it brought him victory.
Washington’s Surrender
The one thing Washington never did in the Revolution was surrender. Only once, at the outset of his military career, did he do that, and it ended in disaster for all involved. In 1754, Washington – then a Colonel in the Virginia militia under the command of the British royal governor – was sent to scout the frontier in what is now Western Pennsylvania, with orders that authorized him to fight anyone obstructing British settlements in the area. Finding the French in possession of a partially constructed British fort, Washington and his Iroquois allies launched an attack (begun under circumstances that are murky to this day) that ended up with the French commander, Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, being killed and scalped by the overzealous Iroquois leader, Tanaghrisson, possibly while attempting to negotiate a cease-fire. (“Overzealous” may be putting it mildly – Tanaghrisson split Jumonville’s head open and washed his hands in his brains. Boehner’s and McConnell’s issues controlling their caucus seem mild by comparison.)
The French in the area, under the command of Jumonville’s brother Louis Coulon de Villiers, launched a counterattack along with their own Native American allies, cornering Washington (now abandoned by the Iroquois) at Fort Necessity. Villiers threatened to storm the fort and let the Native Americans scalp Washington and his entire garrison, but since the two countries were not at war, he offered Washington safe passage with his men back to Virginia if he surrendered. The deal also included a prisoner exchange at the conclusion of Washington’s withdrawal from the area. Badly outnumbered, with rain soaking his ammunition and his men breaking into the fort’s liquor supplies, Washington capitulated – and signed terms written in French by a vindictive Villiers that would haunt him:

All Washington had to do was sign the terms of capitulation.
Washington, due to a mistranslation, thought he was confirming that his men killed Jumonville, or so he insisted the rest of his life. The actual French word, “l’assassinate,” was more loaded, meaning murder rather than just kill. To make things worse, the document also mentioned that Jumonville had been on a mission to deliver a communication from the French government to the British government; in other words, a diplomatic mission. Washington might have learned this earlier, had Jumonville’s letter been fully translated before Tanaghrisson acted, and been able to restrain the Indians. Tanaghrisson, who seems to have understood French, probably realized this.

Washington, duped, blamed his translator, Jacob Van Braam, and never spoke to him again. Neither side ended up honoring the remaining terms of an agreement negotiated in bad faith under duress. The succeeding controversy touched off the global war known in the U.S. as the French and Indian War, with dire results for all sides. For Washington, it meant being sent back to confront the French along with a British expeditionary force led by General Braddock. Braddock sought decisive battle and got it, with his expedition ending in a rout that killed its commander and required Washington to shepherd the remaining forces home safely. For the French, the war itself resulted in the loss of all their North American possessions. For the British, Braddock’s defeat convinced the colonials that they could handle battle as well as the British regulars, a discovery that would help trigger the American Revolution 21 years after the surrender at Fort Necessity (a revolution that itself would help contribute to the fiscal crisis that collapsed the French monarchy).
Today’s Field of Battle
The Legislative Terrain
The “fiscal cliff” negotiations, which by design were set for right after the presidential election, have been built around the legislative Doomsday Device constructed by the two parties in 2011 and having its roots all the way back to George W. Bush passing tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 that would expire in 2010 unless extended. The “cliff” refers to a bunch of things that will happen automatically without legislative action – signed by the President – to prevent them:

This cliff is composed of several parts.
1. The [temporary] payroll tax reduction passed in 2010 will end.
2. The temporary tax rates passed under President Bush will lapse.
3. Obamacare’s taxes will come due.
4. The Alternative Minimum Tax will expand to many more taxpayers.
5. Extended unemployment benefits will expire.
6. Some $78 billion in federal spending will be sequestered.
7. Medicare “doc fix” will expire.

By choosing to fight right after the election, Republicans took the risk that Obama would win and negotiate from what is likely to be the high point of his second term popularity. Each side holds hostages: Obama holds the extension of the tax cuts, especially the cuts for the top tax rates, which Republicans want; Republicans hold the extension of the debt limit. On the tax side, Democrats (in a sharp reversal from their position during the Bush years) profess to want to make the Bush tax cuts permanent below a certain income threshold, and have previously passed a bill in the Senate to do so. Obama’s hostages among the top rates include the capital gains rate, which is of particular importance to the economy:

The Senate-passed bill to extend Bush tax cuts for income under $250,000 ($200,000 for a single filer) applies to both the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, and thus also allows tax rates on capital gains and dividends over $250,000 to return to 20 percent. It would also reinstate separate tax provisions cutting the amount by which high earners can benefit from the personal exemption and itemized deductions.

On the spending side, the sequester cuts include dangerous cuts to defense spending, which Republicans want to avoid and which Obama professed to not want during the election campaign, and a variety of social-program spending the Democrats want to preserve. Items that could potentially be included in a deal range from entitlement cuts to eliminating deductions in the tax code. Different economists project various sorts of doom from “going over the cliff” or for pretty much any other possible solution; your mileage may vary as to how seriously to take these.
The Political Terrain
Republicans and Obama both have immediate political stumbling blocks and goals aside from their long-term policy interests. For Republicans, the top of that list is the Americans for Tax Reform no-tax-hikes pledge, which most have taken. Grover Norquist, the head of ATR, doesn’t wield all that much power by himself, but House and Senate Republicans who have taken the pledge can be in a very bad place with their own constituents (think: “read my lips, no new taxes”) if they break it without a really compelling reason to do so. No GOP-controlled House since the institution of the income tax has ever raised rates. But they also have one possible escape hatch: it’s not a real violation of the pledge for tax hikes to happen automatically without a vote, especially if Republicans have gone repeatedly on record trying to extend them.
Obama’s goal is twofold and related. First, he wants to break Republicans, and divide the party to it’s less able to resist him in his second term. And second, he wants to get the core of his economic agenda – the top-rate tax hikes and “Buffett Rule” tax hikes on investments – passed with GOP support so that he can spread the blame for the consequences. Obama may be slow to learn this lesson, but he understands that the game theory calculus from the 2009 stimulus – that the only safe place for Republicans is to wash their hands of his agenda – requires him to find a way to keep Republicans out of that place. Bipartisan cover is particularly important to Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2014 in Louisiana, Arkansas, West Virginia, South Dakota, and Montana (all states Obama lost twice), as well as states like North Carolina, Virginia, and New Hampshire. Like Villiers at Fort Necessity, Obama wants Republican signatures on a deal that can be used against them.
But that’s if there’s an agreement. If there is none, the political reality is that the media is prepared to blame the GOP for any failure to reach an agreement, pretty much no matter the course of negotiations, and in the immediate honeymoon period following Obama’s re-election, this will probably work. Democrats have internalized this argument, saying the GOP is checkmated. This has emboldened Obama. Treasury Secretary Geithner declared that the Administration would go over the cliff unless a deal included hikes on taxpayers above $250,000. Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted, as Obama had said repeatedly during the campaign, that Social Security would not be on the table. Dick Durbin says the White House told him the Medicare eligibility age is not on the table. And on the debt limit:

President Obama is saying flatly that he will not negotiate under any circumstances over raising the national debt limit….the President says he won’t negotiate under any circumstances. And his top advisors say he’s adamant on the point – not just because of the current impasse but to take hostage taking over the national debt off the table for good.

This is all consistent with Obama’s traditional approach of offering nothing of value to Republicans to get bipartisan deals done. As usual, Obama is attempting – even without control of the House of Representatives – to proceed on what I’ve described before as the annihilation strategy of winning legislative victories.
Learning To Retreat
Nervous Hill Republicans have taken all this as a sign that they must accept a deal, any deal, and that Obama has them over a barrel, even if it means trading tax hikes for the illusion of spending cuts. But that is the wrong approach. The GOP can always retreat – but it must be to more defensible ground.
As I have written before at length, you win battles in politics by picking fights you are willing to lose. As streiff’s analogy to Keyser Soze makes clear, that includes showing a willingness to stand back and let Obama shoot his hostages. But it doesn’t mean the GOP is holding a strong position, either. Some hardliners think “no surrender” means we have the leverage to win all kinds of concessions, and Phil Klein explains why this is madness, and specifically why just walking away completely could leave Republicans in a much worse position come January:

[Consider] the effect on [the GOP’s] low-tax brand from letting everyone’s taxes go up on Jan. 1. At that point, Obama can go on television and demand a $3.7 trillion tax cut for 98 percent of Americans. What happens to the brand if Republicans oppose a tax cut for the middle class because it doesn’t also lower rates on those with the highest incomes?
What happens when Harry Reid holds a vote on a bill that lowers rates on the middle class? Will Republican senators vote against it? If so, their challengers can run ads attacking them for voting against a massive middle-class tax cut. What does that do to the brand? And when, in all likelihood, such a bill passes with near-unanimous support in the Senate, what does it do to the House GOP’s low-tax brand if their members resist, bottle up or vote against the same tax cut?
The time for Republicans to win the tax debate was during the 2012 election. They lost. That doesn’t mean they need to give away the store, but it does mean that they’ll have to make some accommodation for reality.

Even Jim DeMint has argued that it’s more or less inevitable that Obama will get a tax hike, whether Republicans agree to it or not.
I highly recommend reading both Klein’s and streiff’s essays in their entirety, as they frame the two possible approaches to walking away from a deal, along with Drew M’s “Let it Burn” argument. Klein says the GOP should just pass an extension of the Bush tax cuts for everyone below $250,000, dare Obama and Harry Reid to oppose them, and leave town; streiff argues that Republicans should just let the whole cliff go into effect, tax hikes and all, because the cliff includes cuts the GOP couldn’t get at the bargaining table; Drew argues that voters simply need to see the consequences of electing Obama. I think Klein has the better argument, the one that places Republicans in the position George Washington would have appreciated: having retreated to more defensible terrain where they can use their leverage over the remaining hostage (the debt limit) to ransom the defense cuts and perhaps get some additional modest concessions, while making clear that it was the Democrats alone who chose to raise taxes. It now appears that Boehner is pushing a “Plan B” that could do something like that – making the Bush tax cuts permanent for everyone below $1 million.
Of course, a retreat does not mean the end of the fight. And while Republicans do not have great leverage, they still have an advantage that gets undercovered by the media: the Democratic camp itself is divided on what it can and can’t swallow. For example, Obama may be willing to accept letting the payroll tax cut expire, a move that is deeply unpopular with base groups like MoveOn.Org. Senate Democrats are also divided over “Chained CPI,” a method of restraining the growth of Social Security benefits. But the George Washington approach – engage, retreat, maneuver, and make the Democrats show their cards – is a better way to tease out those divisions than either a suicidal last stand or an abject surrender.

The Southern Strategy Myth and the Lost Majority

I recently finished reading Sean Trende’s excellent book The Lost Majority, which is a must-read for anyone attempting to intelligently discuss its subject: how winning political coalitions are built, maintained and undone in the modern American two-party system. Trende covers a range of topics. At the level of political science theory, he dismantles the theory of periodic realigning elections. In his historical analysis, he may surprise you by arguing that the most enduring coalition of the past century was assembled not by McKinley, FDR, or Reagan but Dwight Eisenhower. Looking to the recent past and future, he convincingly demonstrates that Obama’s 2008 coalition was always more fragile than Democrats at the time believed, and that there remain obstacles to the John Judis/Ruy Teixeira theory of an Emerging Democratic Majority. Trende’s major point is that all such predictions of enduring partisan majorities (he cites many dating back over the past century and a half) ignore the fact that political coalitions inevitably draw together factions with different interests and ideologies, and frictions within those coalitions inevitably offer opportunities for the other party to regain support.
But one of the historical narratives that Trende covers in depth is of particular interest because it remains a crucial part of partisan mythology today: the enduring myth of the Southern Strategy. On the occasion of Mitt Romney’s address to the NAACP, it is worth revisiting that myth today.

Continue reading The Southern Strategy Myth and the Lost Majority

Presidents By Birth Month

For your Presidents’ Week (or whatever they call it these days) enjoyment, the birth month of all the presidents, plus presidential candidates:
This is…not evenly distributed in terms of quality.
January: Nixon, FDR. McKinley, Fillmore
February: Reagan, Lincoln, W.H. Harrison, Washington
One of these things is not like the others. Then again, at least Harrison did no damage in office.
March: Cleveland, Tyler, Jackson, Madison
(Mitt Romney was born in March)
April: Grant, Buchanan, Monroe, Jefferson
May: JFK, Truman
(Rick Santorum was born in May)
June: George H.W. Bush
(Newt Gingrich was born in June)
July: George W. Bush, Ford, Coolidge, J.Q. Adams
August: Obama, Clinton, LBJ, Hoover, B. Harrison
Poor Benjamin Harrison, in this company.
September: Taft
There wasn’t room for another one.
October: Carter, Ike, TR, Arthur, Hayes, Adams
Character of this list changes a lot if you ignore History’s Greatest Monster.
November: Harding, Garfield, Pierce, Taylor, Polk
Pierce is the only one who was alive five years after being elected. Polk rather stands out in this crowd.
December: Wilson, A.Johnson, Van Buren

Great Moments In Senate Rhetoric

With the Washington Post debating the most underrated presidents, I’d put my vote for James K. Polk. Polk’s tactics remain controversial and he had no stomach for resolving the festering issue of slavery and its expansion, even as he forced the issue forward by massively expanding the country. Even for all that, though, Polk’s long-term impact on the nation in just a single term in office was massive and indisputably positive, scoring most of what is now Oregon and Washington from Great Britian without a fight (but not without some nervous moments) and adding Texas, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona and much of Colorado from a dysfunctional Mexico that could never have developed them. Polk, not Teddy Roosevelt, should be on Mount Rushmore.
Anyway, we think political rhetoric is harsh today, but this was a favorite example of mine from Robert Merry’s book on Polk. Senator Edward Hannegan of Indiana – a member of Polk’s own party – in a dialogue on the Senate floor, predicted that history would judge Polk (who had run on a promise to win the Oregon Territory, whose boosters used the slogan “54’40” or fight!”) harshly for settling for the Oregon territory only up to the 49th parallel:

So long as one human eye remains to linger on the page of history, the story of his abasement will be read, sending him and his name together to an infamy so profound, a damnation so deep, that the hand of resurrection will never be able to drag him forth. He who is the traitor to his country can never have forgiveness of God.

Ouch.
Polk, of course, did settle, more or less, for the 49th parallel. Footnote: after Hannegan was not renominated for another Senate term, Polk, on his way out of office, appointed Hannegan the US Ambassador to Prussia.

Cleveland on Marriage

A little history lesson, which of course you can interpret any way you like, but I think at least it’s a reminder that social-issue controversy – and strong rhetoric about the importance of marriage – is not a totally new thing in national politics. Here’s a passage from Grover Cleveland’s first State of the Union message, in 1885, at the height of the federal government’s effort to stamp out polygamy (some seven years after the US Supreme Court in Reynolds v US held that it was constitutional to ban polygamy). Mind you, this is a Democratic president who had just been elected in a campaign that featured extensive criticism of the unmarried Cleveland for fathering a child out of wedlock. It’s also an interesting reminder that the Mormon church was compelled, rather literally at gunpoint by the federal government, to abandon its original definition of marriage.
The last line gives you a sense of exactly how hard-line Cleveland was on this issue.

Continue reading Cleveland on Marriage

Iran 1953

Amir Taheri brings some perspective to the myths surrounding the CIA’s involvement in Iran in 1953, one of the talking points most cherished by Communists, Islamists and Chomskyites these past several decades (all of whom use basically the same propaganda script), and most recently Ron Paul and his acolytes. One of the key points is the extent to which Mohammed Mossadeq precipitated the crisis – much like the crisis a few years back in Honduras – by taking a variety of extralegal steps that presented a grave threat to the existing legitimate government of Iran.

Reagan Did Not Wait Until The Last Minute

The 2012 presidential election season has not been a normal one in many ways. History teaches us that every election season brings something new we haven’t seen before – but also that progress in electioneering, as in most walks of life, is more gradual than people are wont to predict. The candidate who says “this time, everything is different” or “the old rules don’t apply” or promises “new politics” or “fundamental change” is almost always selling a bill of goods to his or her supporters, and often to himself or herself. As conservatives, with a belief in experience as mankind’s best and only teacher, we should know better. One need only look back to 2010, when a popular wave brought victory mostly to candidates with the attributes and experience of traditonally successful candidates (Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey) and defeat to candidates who were genuinely unorthodox or similar to past losing campaigns (Sharron Angle, Carly Fiorina, Christine O’Donnell). The terrain shifted and new opportunities were created, but the basic rules of the game remained the same.
Even now, with the leading GOP contenders pouring money and manpower into the early primary states and the filing deadlines only a month away, we still have pundits and eager activists telling us that it’s not too late for new candidates to jump in. Please, Sarah Palin. Please, Chris Christie. Etc. It’s certainly true that a late entrant could yet generate enough support to shake up the fundamental dynamics of the race. It’s even possible that Rick Perry and Mitt Romney will prove vulnerable enough that a new entrant could still win. But let us not kid ourselves: the old rules still matter. It would be deeply unprecedented for a candidate in the modern (post-1972) age of presidential primaries to win the nomination without having laid any foundation of a national organization as late as the October before the primaries.
Some would have you believe that Ronald Reagan, who officially declared himself a candidate in November 1979, ran such a race. This is nonsense and historical ignorance.

Continue reading Reagan Did Not Wait Until The Last Minute

Cheesy

Great look back at Andrew Jackson’s enormous wheel of cheese. Yes, the White House had different problems in those days.
Speaking of the Jacksonian era, I’ve recently been reading “A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent,” which is an excellent look at the Polk Administration – Polk was without doubt our most underrated president, one of the five or six most consequential and accomplished presidencies and by far the most significant one-term president. Anyway, one thing that was a quite different problem, which modern presidents only think they would like to have: Polk faced a challenge early in his tenure owing to the fact that the editor of the essentially-official Democratic party newspaper was antagonistic to him, and he had to maneuver to oust the editor despite the fact that he was an old friend of Jackson, Polk’s mentor. We still have a variety of partisan and ideological media organs, but Polk’s experience illustrated the double-edged sword of the 19th century tradition of having a paper that was widely seen by the public as speaking for a party: if the party had competing factions, it could do disproportionate damage to party leaders on the wrong side of the split.

Rev. King’s Day

We celebrate today a national holiday in honor of an ordained minister of Jesus Christ.
There are three men in American history distinguished enough that they have been honored with a national holiday – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King jr. – but only Dr. King has been honored solely for his time as a private citizen, having never held public office or military commission.
Unsurprisingly, to be so honored, all three men hold lessons for conservatives and liberals alike. All were in some sense revolutionary figures, unwilling to sit quietly on the status quo for the sake of comity and going along to get along, even at the sake of personal danger and the making of many enemies. Washington took up arms against his own government, and forged a new nation unlike any that had come before. Lincoln led a new, sometimes hard-edged political party that challenged a deeply embedded evil afoot in the nation, never backing down from his anti-slavery convictions even when accused of fomenting violence by anti-slavery radicals, nor when half the country took up arms in rebellion rather than accept his election. And Dr. King challenged, with stubborn persistence, the equally entrenched legacy of slavery in the form of Jim Crow laws. Yet by the same token, none of the three was a radical. Washington, like others of his generation, saw himself not as author of a new order but the protector of an Englishman’s traditional liberties against novel encroachments such as new and unjust taxes. Lincoln, for all his hatred of slavery, was initially willing to accept the pragmatic half-measure of stopping its spread, and only came to the drastic step of emancipation in the midst of a horrible war. And Dr. King eschewed the call to arms of the African-American radicals of his day, pushing for reform through the system and calling on his fellow Americans not to reject their heritage but to live up to the promises of America’s founding documents and answer to their Christian consciences.
America has never been an exclusively Christian country – Washington, for example, famously helped set the tone for religious pluralism with his 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation at Newport, Rhode Island – but we have relied again and again on the Christian faith of so many Americans to form an essential part of our national character. We cannot know where Dr. King’s politics would have gone had he lived past 1968, and perhaps his legacy would be more complicated today if we did. Nor do we have any illusions that he was perfect; like many famous heroes of church and of state, and even prominent saints, he had his personal failings, such as plagiarism and adultery. But we know this much: it was no public office, no earthly wealth or power, but simply his faith in the redeeming power of Christ, for sinful men and sinful nations alike, that gave him the courage and the conviction to give moral leadership to a reluctant and at times bitterly hostile nation. Let us hope and pray we never run short of such inspiration.

It Was Ever Thus

Republicans, so long as I can recall, have faced an endless barrage of attacks from Democrats and their media allies derived from the theme that today’s Republicans are mean, scary extremists not like those Republicans of the past who won elections because they were moderate and civil and whatnot. The only really good Republicans, to these critics, are dead ones (or live ones who lose elections), although past Republicans do come in for some rehabilitation as soon as they can be used as a club against their successors – we’ve already seen some examples of George W. Bush being cited by liberals on issues like immigration and the Ground Zero Mosque controversy.
Now, it’s true, of course, that political coalitions grow and change all the time as different issues rise in importance, and that the GOP in particular has been influenced by the growth of systematic conservative thinking on a variety of fronts. But let’s not fool ourselves that this is a new development. In 1854, Abe Lincoln – six years before he became the first Republican president – was already defending himself against Democrat Stephen A. Douglas’ contention that Lincoln’s anti-slavery position on the Kansas-Nebraska Act showed him to be out of step with those sane, moderate Whigs of the past, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster (by then, both dead). Here is Lincoln’s response:

Continue reading It Was Ever Thus

America Begins

My RedState colleague streiff has a fascinating piece on the 255th anniversary of Braddock’s defeat and its importance to the Revolutionary generation and the rise of George Washington, then 23 years old and already a pivotal figure in the war between France and Britain known here as the French and Indian War (more background here and here on Washington’s role in touching off the war through the incidents at Jumonville Glen/Fort Necessity. Naturally, the tale includes many of the familiar templates of US-European relations that are with us still.

And Now I’m Back, From Outer Banks

So, we just got back last night from a week plus vacation, mainly in Duck, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Apologies for not setting up a guest blogger this time, I had anticipated doing a little blogging from vacation but we had the worst possible WiFi setup – I had internet access only up an observation tower on our rental house, and atop the tower it was too sunny to see the laptop screen by day and too dark to see the keys at night. (Also, I ended up doing more work on vacation than anticipated; it’s been that kind of year). So, I was able to use Twitter from my Blackberry, but no blogging. Hopefully, regular blogging will return shortly.
We did get a chance, on the way out of town, to check out Kitty Hawk, where the second set* of Wright Brothers chose for their spot to make aviation history, and you only have to fly a kite in the Outer Banks to see why they picked the spot – the wind conditions are perfect for effortless flight. Of course, my 4-year-old was able to walk the distance of the first flight in almost the time it took the Wright Brothers to get there by airplane. The first flight wasn’t that fast. But it is striking that it’s one of the very few great moments in scientific and technological history that was captured for posterity in photographs. And of course, as befitted (befat?) men of that era, everyone involved wore neckties, topcoats and top hats.
On the trip back, we caught the July 4 Mets-Nationals game at Nationals Park. It’s a nice place for a ballgame, with scarcely a bad seat in the house, notwithstanding that it was hot enough there Monday to melt the One Ring. I wouldn’t say it’s quite as attractive a venue as Citizens Bank or Citi Field, but it’s very wide-open, and when Craig Stammen is pitching (he’s in the rotation the day after Strasburg), you can have any seat in the house. We sat in the field-level right field seats (Section 135L), which were awesome until the heat became unbearable, then backed up to the covered seats at the top of the section.

Continue reading And Now I’m Back, From Outer Banks

Madison Was Wise: Lessons From Federalist No. 62

I wrote at some length earlier this week on the crucial role of the legislative filibuster in preventing transitory legislative majorities from saddling the nation with permanent legislation of great complexity. As with so many questions of great significance, the Founding Fathers had wise and useful foresight to offer on the dangers of frequent and complex changes in federal law. Let’s go to the words of James Madison in Federalist No. 62, his explanation of the virtues of the Senate:

Continue reading Madison Was Wise: Lessons From Federalist No. 62

Teddy Roosevelt on the Nobel Peace Prize and the Use of Force

Our second history lesson of the day: on the occasion of Barack Obama’s acceptance of the honor, it is worth looking back to a little history. Theodore Roosevelt, the first sitting President awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, did not attend the ceremony, but sent a telegram. But TR gave a Nobel lecture in 1910 – two years after leaving office, four years after winning the prize for mediating the end of the Russo-Japanese War, and four years before the world was plunged into The Great War – and his observations on peace are worth recalling, even as he was (at the time) optimistic about the possibilities for then-nascent international institutions:

In any community of any size the authority of the courts rests upon actual or potential force: on the existence of a police, or on the knowledge that the able-bodied men of the country are both ready and willing to see that the decrees of judicial and legislative bodies are put into effect. In new and wild communities where there is violence, an honest man must protect himself; and until other means of securing his safety are devised, it is both foolish and wicked to persuade him to surrender his arms while the men who are dangerous to the community retain theirs. He should not renounce the right to protect himself by his own efforts until the community is so organized that it can effectively relieve the individual of the duty of putting down violence. So it is with nations. Each nation must keep well prepared to defend itself until the establishment of some form of international police power, competent and willing to prevent violence as between nations. As things are now, such power to command peace throughout the world could best be assured by some combination between those great nations which sincerely desire peace and have no thought themselves of committing aggressions.

And so it is today; sometimes those combinations act through international institutions like the UN, sometimes they don’t – and the day is not on the horizon when we could trust such institutions with police powers of their own. Those of us who love peace, therefore, must continue to heed Roosevelt’s caution at how it is maintained.

Continue reading Teddy Roosevelt on the Nobel Peace Prize and the Use of Force

Ted Kennedy, Pro-Lifer

An observant reader notes that my description yesterday of Ted Kennedy’s support for legal abortion as “lifelong” is an overstatement. In fact, early in his public career, even Ted Kennedy had not yet embraced the casual cruelty of his party towards the defenseless unborn; indeed, Kennedy’s rhetoric in those early days, displays genuine compassion for the defenseless unborn. Given Kennedy’s centrality to Democratic strategy on this issue – he was the leader of the fight against the Bork nomination – it’s interesting to look back. Here’s Kennedy during his 1970 campaign for a second full term in the Senate:

Spaulding was what today would be called “pro-choice,” and Kennedy, at that time, was passionately opposed to abortion. So when the subject came up, the senator was in full voice. He screamed, “Don’t tell me there isn’t enough love in the world to care for all the unwanted babies.” He mentioned that adoption agencies had waiting lists.

In 1971, Kennedy put his pro-life convictions in writing to a correspondent on Long Island:

Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized – the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old….Once life has begun, no matter at what stage of growth, it is my belief that termination should not be decided merely by desire….I also share the opinions of those who do not accept abortion as a response to our society’s problems…When history looks back to this era it should recognize this generation as one which cared enough about human beings enough to…fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.

Sadly, Kennedy’s estimate of how much love there was in the world, and how much his generation should care about fellow human beings, dwindled with the years – I leave to the reader to speculate on his motivations in the regard, but two of the groups most ardently in favor of legal abortion (not to suggest that they are mutually exclusive) are Democratic presidential candidates and men who have a lot of sex with women not their wives and don’t especially like to pay the consequences. What is clear, however, is that the many years Kennedy spent trying to convince Americans that the pro-life movement was somehow extremist and anti-woman were really a renunciation of his own heart. Because once upon a time, Ted Kennedy cared about the unborn.

Pickled Yeltsin

I’ve always had a soft spot for Boris Yeltsin for his courage in standing up at a critical juncture to bring democracy to Russia and draw down the curtain on the Soviet empire; that alone will earn him a righteous place in the history books. Sad to say, though, Yeltsin’s second act as head of state had a lot to do with the conditions that have led to democracy’s long, slow demise in Russia; the man was just not cut out to run a country. A new book on the Clinton Administration has a telling anecdote:

Boris Yeltsin’s late-night drinking during a visit to Washington in 1995 nearly created an international incident. The Russian president was staying at Blair House, the government guest quarters. Late at night, Clinton told Branch, Secret Service agents found Yeltsin clad only in his underwear, standing alone on Pennsylvania Avenue and trying to hail a cab. He wanted a pizza, he told them, his words slurring.
The next night, Yeltsin eluded security forces again when he climbed down back stairs to the Blair House basement. A building guard took Yeltsin for a drunken intruder until Russian and U.S. agents arrived on the scene and rescued him.

In the Soviet era, one imagines that the head of state would have been better protected from himself by his own security.

American History Idol

Gallup has a poll out asking Americans to pick their greatest president from five choices: George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. (H/T) Now, there are fair arguments to be had in ranking these five. Washington’s greatness in establishing and embodying the office (I’ve been reading Akhil Amar’s book about the Constitution’s history and he argues – I’m sure he’s not the only one – that Article II was basically written with Washington in mind all the way down to the title of “President”) and in self-limiting his term, or Lincoln’s valiant effort to hold the nation together? Reagan, who got more things right and fewer disastrously wrong than FDR, or FDR, who faced graver challenges and had a more sweeping effect on the nation and the office? Was JFK a good president, or an ultimately inconsequential one who served less than a single term and left most of his work unfinished?
Sadly, the results don’t match up with serious answers to those questions. Lincoln ranks #1 overall, which is fine, but Washington is dead last. Among Republicans, Reagan is #1 (even as a big Reagan admirer, I find it a stretch to rate him over Lincoln and Washington), and far more ridiculously, among Democrats, Kennedy ranks first, with 35% of the vote.
Seriously….JFK? I mean, any thinking person who actually believes in what the Democrats profess to stand for has to prefer FDR to JFK. (Note that FDR and Reagan do best among people old enough to remember theier presidencies. Not so for JFK. Meanwhile, I don’t know if we should be optimistic that the youngest voters are the only ones with the sense to give some real support to Washington). Kennedy was glamorous, and he’s been lionized by a cult of personality ever since (I guarantee you there’s an enormous correlation between people who think JFK was our greatest president and people who are big Obama fans), but his actual accomplishments are thin – and not only that, but his actual platform would have him branded a neoconservative today, what with his call for tax cuts, aggressive building of nuclear weapons, confrontation with the Soviet Union, and escalation of the war in Vietnam (Kennedy was still publicly backing the war as late as his prepared remarks in Dallas the day of his death, Oliver Stone to the contrary), and use of the CIA to assassinate foreign leaders. You can certainly find some strains of liberalism in Kennedy, but not really any more than in George W. Bush – the actual policy differences between Kennedy and Bush are pretty minimal. Yet his legacy has almost nothing to do with what Kennedy did or what he stood for.

Valkyrie

Via Jonathan Last, an interview with Christopher McQuarrie, screenwriter of “Valkyrie” (which I have not seen, although I think I can guess how it ends). A lot of interesting stuff; I liked this:

Q. … Saw “Valkyrie” and really enjoyed it. What struck me was that the film is a throwback to a time before “Saving Private Ryan” — when movies about World War II didn’t have to be Big Important Statements and could just be thrillers.
A. Thank you. What we’ve been trying to get across — and what the criticism of the film seems to be — is that we had the audacity to make a World War II movie that wasn’t “important” — as in, a giant statement about war. I mean, what more do you need than a bunch of Germans trying to kill Hitler? Isn’t that all kind of obvious — do they really need to be sitting around talking about their objection to war?

Deep Throat’s Puppets

I had meant to link to this earlier – Stratfor had a tremendous writeup, on the occasion of the death of Mark “Deep Throat” Felt, on the real meaning of the revelation that Felt was Woodward & Bernstein’s source. Basically, it’s a reminder that anonymous sourcing is just another way for the media to be beholden to powerful figures, usually in the government, who are often acting in unsavory ways even when they tell the truth (and when a news report is anonymously sourced, there’s no way to have any conifdence that it is true). Stratfor focuses on the fact that Woodward and Bernstein were basically naive pawns in Felt’s continuation of J. Edgar Hoover’s power game – particpants in, not opponents of, the dirty tricks of the era. Here’s the key takeaway:

Continue reading Deep Throat’s Puppets

Christmas in June!

crazyeddie.jpgThe tradition of celebrating Christmas in December is, as most people familiar with the history of the early Church know, not based on a December birthday for Jesus – the Bible mentions nothing of the sort – but on accomodation of the Church calendar with the Roman traditional holidays around the winter solstice. The exact date of Christ’s birth has generally been lost to history. There are two documentable historical events, however, that the Biblical narrative can be tied to – the Roman census under Caesar Augustus, and the Star of Bethlehem.
Here you can read one of the latest efforts to nail down the latter, an atronomical historian trying to pinpoint the “star” as being a particularly close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in the night sky (such as we’ve been experiencing in less complete form the past few weeks – I had the kids on the lawn with the telescope a few weekends ago):

The researchers claim the ‘Christmas star’ was most likely a magnificent conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter, which were so close together they would have shone unusually brightly as a single “beacon of light” which appeared suddenly.

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Australian astronomer Dave Reneke used complex computer software to chart the exact positions of all celestial bodies and map the night sky as it would have appeared over the Holy Land more than 2,000 years ago.
It revealed a spectacular astronomical event around the time of Jesus’s birth.
Mr Reneke says the wise men probably interpreted it as the sign they had been waiting for, and they followed the ‘star’ to Christ’s birthplace in a stable in Bethlehem, as described in the Bible.
Generally accepted research has placed the nativity to somewhere between 3BC and 1AD.
Using the St Matthew’s Gospel as a reference point, Mr Reneke pinpointed the planetary conjunction, which appeared in the constellation of Leo, to the exact date of June 17 in the year 2BC.

It’s an interesting theory; such theories tend to be pretty common in Bliblical history, but as Reneke notes, astronomy is a fairly precise science, and identifying a specific astronomical event that fits so neatly with the Gospel account at least adds one small piece to a historical picture that is likely to remain somewhat elusive.