The Age of Revolt 1.

            Where did “Trumpism”–the political movement–come from?[1]  It arose out of the profits and losses from globalization.  The costs were born by one segment of American society while the profits flowed to another segment.  The beneficiaries were, first and foremost, the “political, cultural, and financial elite.”  Their right to lead rested upon the pursuit of the common good. 

In theory, the free-trade policies pursued by a whole series of American administrations after the Second World War would benefit Americans.  They would allow the American economy to shift jobs producing low-value goods offshore and to redeploy assets toward higher-value jobs and goods.  For a long time, these policies had no costs for Americans.  The American economy emerged from the war with a long-term competitive advantage over anyone else.  It could have not only butter and guns, but low-end butter and high-end butter.  By the Sixties, that advantage had eroded badly.  As foreign competition began to bite, it turned out that a lot of people depended on those low-value jobs for their living and found it difficult to shift into high-value jobs. 

Globalization began to take a more serious toll on the American working class in the wake of the “Oil Shocks” of 1973 and 1979.[2]  That seems incomprehensibly long ago to most journalists and politicians, so they just ignore the larger story.  Then the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1994) reduced tariffs on trade with Mexico and Canada.  It accelerated the early wave of job-losses.  Already in the 1990s, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot could run for president, if not win, on the loss of blue-collar manufacturing jobs.  At the same time, China’s abandonment of suicidal Maoist economic policies and its entry into the World Trade Organization (1990) greatly accelerated the loss of jobs.  Those job losses not only tossed many workers into unemployment, they also left whole communities hollowed out and unable to address human problems.  They not only tossed workers into unemployment, they undermined the value of the homes that formed an important asset of many workers.  They not only tossed workers into unemployment, they also foreclosed the possibility of the children of the workers finding steady work at a living wage anywhere near their parents. 

Globalization may have eroded manufacturing jobs, but it created enormous opportunities for the American financial services industry.  Industrializing countries needed capital and expertise.  Wall Street could provide both, not least because of the inflow of Chinese profits to New York banks and to the swelling 401(k) savings of the Baby Boomers.  Increasingly “cosmopolitan” in its outlook, Wall Street also became increasingly influential over national economic policy.[3] 

The year 2008 marked a turning point.  A great deal of elite foolishness and some guile created the 2008 financial crisis.  That, in turn gave rise to revolts on the right (Tea Party) and left (Occupy Wall Street); and to the invasion of the political system by “outsiders” like Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.  Donald Trump, the ultimate outsider, was just a heart-beat away. 


[1] Gerald F. Seib, “Where Trump Came From—And Where Trumpism Is Going,” WSJ, 16-17 January 2021. 

[2] “In the wake of” does not mean “solely caused by.”   For more of my peculiar view of this process, see https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/03/02/american-union-stay-away-from-me-uh/  and https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/12/17/the-new-economy/

[3] For one highly critical view of this process, see Simon Johnson, “The Quiet Coup,” The Atlantic, 5 May 2009. 

The Asian Century 17b.

Yet, for historians—if not for political scientists or economists—there is reason for cautious optimism.  On the one hand, the historical record suggests that democracies can be slow to mobilize their strength, but better able to mobilize that strength over the long haul.[1]  If one looks at (or, much worse, had to live through) the period from 1930 to 1942, one could easily believe that the liberal system had shot its bolt.  Economic depression, the collapse of new democracies, the appeasement of authoritarian nations, and military defeat slammed confidence in the Western system.  Three years later Berlin and Tokyo lay in smoking ruins. 

Second, “there’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.”[2]  The recent unpleasantness at the end of the Trump presidency led journalists and public intellectuals to invoke the example of the disputed presidential election of 1876.  Squalid as were those events, they also helped settle a period of deep division within the United States and helped bring on a long period of rising power and prosperity.[3] 

American business may be resistant to government guidance on China policy, but it is resistant to government policy on many things.  Usually, the outcome is satisfactory to most people.  American society is immensely creative and innovative.  The rapid development of two vaccines for Covid 19 demonstrate that old truth.  Conversely, the many problems with distributing the vaccine fall to the responsibility of the state and federal governments.  Hardly cause for business to defer to the state.  During the pandemic, American businesses have moved rapidly ahead with collaboration software (like Zoom), direct delivery bypassing stores, and cloud computing to manage all of it.  Compare this with the PRC’s treatment of Jack Ma, the entrepreneur who created Alibaba and Ant.  He got “disappeared” for a while after he suggested that entrepreneurial innovation outstrips old ideas.  About the subordination of business to the state for example. 

America remains remarkably open to immigration.[4]  Immigration helps off-set the aging of the native-born population, while admitting large numbers of people eager to work and to create their own futures.  In contrast, the PRC oppresses its own people and violates international agreements, like the Anglo-Chinese agreement on Hong Kong, in order to get more people to oppress.  China is not a country of voluntary immigration. 

By any standard, China’s economic progress since the death of Mao has been extraordinary in statistical terms.  However, much of that progress came from moving peasants out of low productivity rural farming and into higher productivity urban manufacturing.  The government has used subsidies, entry into the world market, and massive intellectual property theft to push China so far forward so fast.  There is good reason to wonder if the PRC has reached the limits of what can be obtained by such methods.  Just when they’ve alarmed the US. 


[1] This is a central theme of Gordon Wright, The Ordeal of Total War, 1939-1945 (1968).  It remains the best single volume history of the Second World War. 

[2] Adam Smith.  I forget where I read it, but it stuck with me. 

[3] Richard White, the author of The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (2017), would wish to qualify this view if it ever came to his attention. 

[4] In 2017, 2018, and 2019, an average of 1,085,181 people obtained lawful permanent resident status each year.  In 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016, an average of 1,060,401 people obtained lawful permanent resident status each year.  See: https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2019/table1 

The Asian Century 17a.

            It is now commonly accepted that the United States (US) and the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) are strategic competitors.[1]  All eyes regard this competition, for they represent two different approaches to government and economic management.[2]  China combines an effective authoritarian government with state-managed semi-capitalism.  The US combines democracy with a regulated free market.  For the duration of the “Fifty Years War”[3] the United States represented the preferred wave of the future for an ever-growing share of the world’s population.  Is the US able to win a new competition or have essential elements of its previous strength dissolved?  Is China better able than were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to win a competition with the US?  It depends where you look. 

Does the Covid 19 pandemic of 2020 offer any insight into the relative positions of the US and the PRC?  The answer must be NO if examined in international perspective.[4]  Democratic Taiwan did better than the PRC; the United Kingdom did even worse than did the US in spite of doing all the things that Democrats criticized the Trump administration for not doing.  The explanation for the diversity of results may have something to do with an Asian culture of compliance with the public interest in comparison with a Western culture of asserting individual rights at the expense of the community. 

It is sad, but true that the Covid pandemic is a transitory event.  It has been deadly and disruptive in its impact, but in a year it will be history.  More fundamental issues should be alarming.  So far, China has won the trade war launched by President Trump.  During 2020 its trade surplus increased, as did the trade deficit of the US.  The Trump administration’s attack on Huawei Technologies led the PRC to pour resources into its semi-conductor industry.  American efforts to get other countries to join in exerting pressure on China signally failed.  European, South American, and Asian countries are so entranced by the promise of the China market that they seek to fill the gaps when other countries try to pressure China.[5]  Nor is American politics oriented toward pursuing a coherent industrial policy during peacetime.  One of Trump’s last acts as President was to see his efforts to encourage an American rival to Huawei come to grief.  Intel announced plans to offshore some of its chip production; while Cisco rejected government entreaties to buy either Nokia or Ericsson.  Here they put the bottom line ahead of national strategy.  One of Biden’s first acts as President was to cancel the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.  Here he put the demands of environmentalists over the interests of America’s Canadian ally (and over those of the American construction workers who had been building the pipeline). 

Finally, Chinese news media are portraying the riot at the Capitol as proof that American democracy is crumbling.  Many, here and abroad, would agree with this grim judgement. 


[1] Greg Ip, “China Played Its Hand Well in 2020.  Will It Keep Winning?” WSJ, 23-24 January 2021. 

[2] I’m not sure how Francis Fukuyama makes sense of this development.  Apparently, Hegelianism only takes you so far.  See Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man Standing (1992).  Still, he’s teaching at Chicago and I’m working at an educational wide spot in the road.  So,…

[3] The struggle from 1940 to 1990 between capitalist liberal democracy and autarkic dictatorships. 

[4] See: https://ourworldindata.org/covid-cases 

[5] For example, the European Union recently concluded an agreement with China to increase investment.  In doing so, they ignored a suggestion from Jake Sullivan, then President Biden’s national security advisor-designate that they should wait. 

My Weekly Reader 7 January 2021.

            The Enlightenment had a good year in 1776.  The year witnessed the publication of “The Declaration of Independence,” Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.  Smith attacked the prevailing “mercantilist” economic policies of the time, arguing that tariffs serve only politically-connected special interests at the expense of the larger community. 

            Broadly, for much of their history, Americans rejected free-trade as the best engine of prosperity.[1]  While James Madison advocated a ‘very free system of commerce” in the early days of the Republic, Alexander Hamilton preferred a mercantilist/protectionist line.  Tariff policy veered toward the Hamiltonian line once industrialization began, to the great distress of Southern cotton exporters.  After the Civil War, high tariffs became an article of faith among Republicans.  It is by no means clear that tariffs actually contributed much to American economic development in the “Gilded Age.”  Abundant natural resources combined with a scarcity of labor that put a premium on technological innovation probably did much more than tariffs.  Still, they didn’t hurt.  High tariffs as a protection against “unfair” foreign competition became a totem.[2] 

            Making a totem out of high tariffs came back to bite Republicans when passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (1930) coincided with the plunge into the Great Depression.  Even though the Federal Reserve’s tight money policy during the 1920s played a far larger role, the high tariffs and falling trade explanation was ready to hand.[3] 

After the Great Depression drove many countries toward high tariff walls and autarky, after the Second World War wrecked most world economies, Republicans and Democrats converged on a new orthodoxy of free trade.  The United States played the leading role in designing the new world order of the Bretton Woods System.[4]  Americans continued this drive through the 1990s, with successive “rounds” of multilateral tariff reductions and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

Some of the economic and social dislocations of recent decades loosened the post-war consensus.  Republicans still clung to free trade as tightly as they once clung to high tariffs, while Democrats lost the enthusiasm for free trade that inspired them from Franklin D. Roosevelt through John F. Kennedy.  More recently, populist uprisings in both parties have disrupted the march toward a still more integrated world economy.  Senator Bernie Sanders attacked free trade in general and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in particular during his run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.  Rival Hillary Clinton soon moved from being a leading proponent of the TPP to having her doubts to opposing it.  Donald Trump seized the Republican nomination in part by dint of his scalding criticism of NAFTA and Chinese trade practices. 

Will policy now snap back to normal under Joe Biden or are we at the dawn of a new era of managed trade?  The ability to formulate policies that help those displaced may hold the key.         


[1] Douglas A. Irwin, Clashing Over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy (2017).  Reviewed by George Melloan, WSJ, 29 November 2017. 

[2] Tax cuts as the solution to every problem has become a similar totem for Republicans since the Reagan presidency. 

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Availability_heuristic 

[4] The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Marshall Plan and support for European integration all were vital early contributions. 

Advice from a Guy Who Knows a Lot.

            Seen in a somewhat historical longer perspective than one gets in the daily media, Donald Trump’s four years as president aren’t quite the anomaly that they seem.  In terms of foreign policy, the Trump administration identified the key problems, but came up with some wrong solutions.[1]   The duty of the Biden administration will be to recognize where their predecessors saw the target, then figure out better ways of hitting it.  Robert M. Gates stands above the partisan fray, possesses deep knowledge of American foreign relations and of the instruments of those relation, and has exhibited a sense of patriotic duty that should command respect.[2]  While he has discreetly avoided making a direct statement on the Trump administration, he has some good advice for the Biden administration.[3] 

            First, Trump was right: the “friends and allies” don’t pull their weight.  The Trump solution was to deride them and walk away.  The Biden administration should apply serious pressure on burden-sharing.  It also needs to pressure Germany over its own deal with Russia over energy supplies.  It also needs to pressure Turkey over its purchase of a Russian air-defense system and its meddling in Libya.  The United States needs to nudge NATO countries like Turkey, Hungary, and Poland back toward democratic norms.

            Second, Trump was right: many international organizations are messed up.  The Nineteenth Century British radical John Bright described the Empire as “a gigantic system of out-relief for the aristocracy.”  The same judgement applies to international organizations and the European and Europeanized elites of the former colonial countries who staff those organizations.  The Trump solution was to denounce them and walk away.  The Biden administration should apply serious pressure on reform.  The Biden administration also needs to make a serious effort to keep China from gaining a leadership role in all these organizations, because they will just manipulate these organizations to advance China’s national interests. 

            Third, Trump was right: the existing instruments of American diplomacy and “soft power” don’t work well in the new international environment.  The Trump solution was to ignore those instruments, leaving hundreds of patronage positions empty and relying on personal loyalists to deal with foreign leaders or by seeking direct personal contact.  The State Department has been in decline as the leader of American foreign policy since the Kennedy Administration.  The Defense Department, the intelligence community, and—off and on—the National Security Council have all shouldered it aside.  The US lacks the economic resources to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.  America’s “strategic communications” are pathetic.  Just adding one more spending category to the wish-list of money to be raised by making the One Percent pay their “fair share” won’t be enough.  In every case, government partnerships with the private sector offers a better approach. 

            What if we have entered a post-Cold War era in which American leadership isn’t wanted? 


[1] Even that isn’t all that anomalous.  The George W. Bush Administration identified the correct problem in Muslim countries.  They are victims of long-term developments, rather than of brief experiences of Western imperialism.  The Bush Administration then came up with a disastrously wrong solution: knock over Saddam Hussein, declare democracy, put up some big box stores, and leave. 

[2] On Gates, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Gates 

[3] Robert M. Gates, “How to Meet Our Global Commitments,” NYT, 21 December 2000. 

The Asian Century 15.

            Analogies hand us a useful device for understanding the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar.[1]  The key thing is to pick the right analogy.[2]  In Summer 2019, Walter Russell Mead offered the early Soviet-American Cold War as a useful analogy for understanding the contemporary relationship between the United States and the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC).[3]  He emphasizes that the Soviet-American relationship plunged down-hill so fast that it caught the American public flat-footed.  Mead suggests that today China and the United States stand on the edge of a similar precipice.  If we go over the edge, no one can predict the duration or nature or outcome of the struggle. 

            Looking back at the Soviet-American rivalry for lessons, Mead asks about the impact of ideologies, the future “hot spots” of the competition, the impact on American society, the role of and impact on the high cultures (meaning higher education and technology) of the rivals, and how the densely woven relationship between China and America will affect and be affected by such a competition.[4] 

            Just as “the emperor counsels simplicity,” Mead counsels Americans to give much thought to understanding both themselves and China.  First, how do Chinese leaders see China and its place in the world?  Since the death of Mao, China has experienced tremendous economic growth under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.  That economic growth created a large and self-confident middle class.  Some observers, applying the analogy of the European bourgeoisie in the 18th and 19th Centuries, believe that this middle class is showing the first signs of restlessness with the Party’s leading strings.[5]  Will Beijing pursue an assertively nationalist foreign policy to squelch dissent?  What might be the outcomes of such a policy?[6]    

            Second, how can Americans forge a consistent and effective China policy when the country is so deeply divided?  Here Mead penetrates much less deeply.  On the one hand, the origin of our discontents has not yet found any satisfying explanation.[7]  On the other hand, he doesn’t broach the subject of whether America even has the resources to rise to the challenge.  So, coming to know ourselves may be a lengthy undertaking.      


[1] See: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/reasoning-analogy/ 

[2] Ernest R. May, “Lessons of the Past”: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy (1975). 

[3] Walter Russell Mead, “Americans Aren’t Ready for Cold War II,” WSJ, 11 June 2019.  It’s an encouraging choice of analogy in the sense that the Cold War never turned into a full-scale direct military conflict. 

[4] At this point, it might be useful to start building a library of Cold War history books.  Aaron L. Friedberg, In the Shadow of the Garrison State: America’s Anti-Statism and Its Cold War Grand Strategy (2000); John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries Into the Cold War (1989); and Geir Lundstad, East, West, North, South: International Relations since 1945 (2017) can all be recommended.   

[5] On the European analogies, see Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (1962); and William L. Langer, Political and Social Upheaval, 1832-1852 (1969).  Sure they’re “old” books.  That’s because a couple of really smart guys got there first.  Everybody since has been nibbling around the edges. 

[6] For this analogy, see Volker Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914 (1973). 

[7] Kevin M. Kruse and Julian Zelizer, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 (2020) and Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back (2012) fall into the Blame Republicans First camp.  Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2013); and Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (1999) are conservative interpretations of one theme in the conversation.  Reading the Conclusions and Recommendations of The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) would be a good way to begin. 

The First Draft of History.

            Journalism is said to be the “first draft of history.  It’s only the first draft because journalists commonly do what most historians would not.  Historians try to give a full picture of what happened and why.  Their approach is let the evidence talk to them, then build an argument based on as much evidence as possible.  They’re not supposed to leave out important facts that get in the way of an argument they want to make.  Even the best journalists can do this.[1]

            In 2006, House Minority-Leader Nancy Pelosi saw the opportunity to win control of the House of Representatives by steering toward the center.  She lined up a bunch of centrist candidates and defined an agenda focused on material concerns weighing on ordinary Americans.  The result?  The Democrats added 31 seats in the election and Pelosi became Speaker of the House.[2] 

            When Barak Obama won election as President in 2008 he carried additional Democrats on his coat-tails.  Pelosi joined the Senate Democrats and President Obama in passing the Affordable Care Act, legislation on climate-change, and other costly measures desired by the Democratic left.[3] 

            In the 2010 mid-term elections Democrat suffered heavy losses to Republicans.  Pelosi was relegated to House Minority Leader once again.[4] 

            After grinding her teeth in frustration at not banging the gavel for eight years, Pelosi steered her caucus back toward the center.  She recruited moderate candidates like Colin Lamb and Abigail Spanberger, and she talked down the demands for the impeachment of Donald Trump.  Result?  Democrats regained a clear majority in the House of Representatives and Pelosi got her old job back.[5] 

            From 2018 through 2020, the Democrat majority in the House of Representatives indulged in a frenzy of Trump-hunting and leftist legislation that could never pass the Senate or be signed by the White House.[6]  It only passed President Trump’s renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).[7]  This was one big thing done in cooperation with the Republican-dominated Senate.  Other than that, it’s difficult to think of any significant legislation passed by the Congress in two years.    

Strassel concludes that “America remains a center-right country, and there is great political upside for politicians who govern in a center-right fashion.”  Was this her starting point? 


[1] See Kimberley Strassel, “2020’s Biggest Election Loser’s,” WSJ, 6 November 2020.  NB: I have enormous respect for Strassel based on reading her tenacious “I smell a rat” commentary on the Russia investigation. 

[2] This was an off-year election, when the party in power normally loses seats in the House. 

[3] What this ignores is that Obama had run and won on the issue of universal health-care.  This wasn’t Pelosi’s issue.  Among the costly bills passed were the not-big-enough stimulus bill to pull the country out of the recession triggered by the 2008 financial crisis, and the bail-out of the auto industry. 

[4] What this ignores is the flight from Keynesian economics on the part of both the Republicans and the Democrats after the financial crisis.  While this spawned the “Tea Party” faction within the Republican Party, it also caused President Obama to do much less on economic recovery that he might have tried to do.  The recovery from the recession dragged on, antagonizing all sorts of people. 

[5] What this ignores is that the Great Recession spawned a Democratic “Tea Party” in the form of Bernie Sanders and “The Squad.”  Pelosi found herself under the same harassment as had John Boehner, her Republican predecessor. 

[6] Endorsing the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, while making a foredoomed effort to impeach the president. 

[7] What this leaves out is that the House and Senate also passed the CARES Act on Covid-related economic stimulus. 

My Weekly Reader 15 November 2020.

            The Covid-19 pandemic has sent people streaming to History in search of previous events to provide some guidance for the present.[1]  Applying to America the understanding of the impact of epidemic disease formulated by his Yale colleague Frank Snowden, law professor John Fabian Witt argues that “New germs help make new laws and institutions, yet old ways of doing things shape the course of epidemics and the ways in which we respond to them.” 

            Witt discerns two trends in the American government response to disease, beginning with the smallpox epidemic that coincided with the Revolutionary War.  One is the development of preventive measures.  These measures include things like draining marshes and bogs to rob mosquitoes carrying malaria, yellow fever, and dengue of their habitat; providing city populations with clean water to drink and to clean the filth off the streets in order to avoid cholera; and the screening of populations to prevent the transmission of disease.[2]  Government, what Witt calls the “Sanitationist State,” grew in power in response to the need to prevent disease.  At the same time, science and medicine advanced rapidly in their ability to provide government with the needed tools.  All of these efforts Witt sees as expressing liberal values of a free society. 

            In contrast, there are the coercive or authoritarian measures of a “Quarantinist State.”  Governments caught up in a desperate emergency may impose an “authoritarian and discriminatory control over people of color, the poor, and immigrant newcomers.”  Here it is hard not to think that Witt may be using epidemic disease chiefly as a metaphor to criticize other forms of expanded government power.  “America’s record on infectious diseases is filled with discrimination and authoritarianism….Each new infection presents a risk of entrenching existing inequities.”  The same might be said of any national security emergency.  Witt may be extending an earlier argument against John Yoo’s interpretation of the Constitution in the aftermath of the undoubted emergency created by 9/11.[3]  However, one could just as easily point to the USA Patriot Act and the revelations of Edward Snowden for further examples of what can happen under an “emergency” that never seems to end. 

            Witt raises vital issues.  A democracy is rule by laws, not by men.  A democracy’s laws define the operations of government during normal times.  An emergency is a departure from what is normal.[4]  What becomes of the rule of law during an emergency?  Can the courts grant broad discretion to government officials to deal with an emergency?  When should government officials surrender such discretionary power?[5]  Is it fair to judge the quality of a democracy by what it does in an emergency, rather than by what it does in normal times? 

            Happily, American presidents have always pulled back or were pulled back from the brink in previous emergencies.  Those were decisions taken by individual men.  We know less about the behavior of the career bureaucrats who operate the machinery of government.


[1] See, for example, John Fabian Witt, American Contagions: Epidemics and the Law from Smallpox to Covid-19 (2020), reviewed by Adam J. White, WSJ, 10 November 2020. 

[2] The case of “Typhoid Mary: in 19th Century New York City offers a revealing example. 

[3] See: https://harvardlawreview.org/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/witt.pdf 

[4] War, rebellion, natural disasters, and epidemic or pandemic outbreaks of disease are common examples of conditions which may justify declaring a “state of emergency.”

[5] Declaring a “state of emergency” or a “state of siege” is a common feature of anti-democratic coups. 

My Weekly Reader 21 October 2020.

            The Constitution reared up from a foundation of compromises.  Among these compromises was the toleration of slavery by states where it had little to no importance.  Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution required the return of any fugitive from “service or labor” to her/his master from another state into which s/he had fled.  In sum, the Union mattered more than did slavery or the enslaved people.  A law, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, defined the legal mechanisms for returning fugitives.  However, as opposition to slavery increased in the North, local governments and private citizens often refused to co-operate or even obstructed the slave-catchers operating among them.  Therefore, another compromise, the Compromise of 1850, introduced a much more rigorous Fugitive Slave Act.  The new Act further inflamed Northern opinion.  

            Northern opinion divided more than this brief sketch suggests.  Anti-Black racism ran neck and neck with abolitionism in many places.  Many parts of the North valued their economic connections to the South and to slavery.[1]  Competition between political parties sometimes diverged from principled stands on issues.  All these forces came together in New York City before the Civil War.[2] 

            The city’s government dangled as a puppet of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party organization.  Tammany pols played on the hostility to Blacks felt by the (predominantly Irish) immigrants they were organizing to vote early and often.  Judges and prosecutors had often crawled out of the same swamp.  New York City policemen sometimes moon-lighted as slave-catchers.  Businessmen who wanted to accommodate Southern customers turned a blind eye to it all. 

            Slave-owners would pay rewards for the return of run-aways, so Blacks in New York—people of color in an overwhelmingly White city–were deer in the jacklights[3] of slave-catchers.  This hunt only intensified with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which offered handsome fees to both slave-catchers and the judges who approved their transfer Southward.  Lured by the money, the slave-catchers sometimes kidnapped—and judges regularly approved the transfer of—free Blacks who were knowingly misidentified as fugitives.  Applying the term not just to New York, but to the whole of the North, one historian has labeled this the “Reverse Underground Railroad.”[4] 

            Highly publicized stories of free Blacks kidnapped into slavery appalled a growing audience of Northern Whites.  Five Black boys were kidnapped from Philadelphia in 1825, then four survivors providentially returned to tell their story of the Black “Trail of Tears” that ran from the Upper South to the new cotton lands of the Southwest.  In 1853, Solomon Northup wrote of his “12 Yeas a Slave.”  Not for nothing has Elizabeth Varon called her book on the Union troops Armies of Deliverance. 


[1] Banks financed the cotton trade and its spendthrift planters; insurers and ship-owners profited from the massive cotton exports. 

[2] Jonathan Daniel Wells, The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War (2020), reviewed by Harold Holzer, WSJ, 19 October 2020. 

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotlighting 

[4] Richard Bell, Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey (2019), reviewed by David S. Reynolds, WSJ, 17 October 2019.  . 

Reckoning with Racism.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has ordered the removal of the portraits of four previous Speakers on the grounds that they had supported the Confederacy, either before or after serving in the office she now holds.  “There is no room in the hallowed halls of Congress or in any place of honor for memorializing men who embody the violent bigotry and grotesque racism of the Confederacy.”[1]  This may seem to some to be more like virtue-signaling than substantive change, but it’s a first step.  The United States does need to consider the place of racism in its past and present.  One question is how much truth-telling people want or can stand.

In almost every presidential election from 1852 to 1860 and from 1880 to 1976, the states of the Confederacy and then the former Confederacy voted Democratic.  What is true of presidential elections is even more true of Congressional, state, and local elections.[2]  For most of this period, the Democratic Party was a Southern-dominated party.  Only under unusual circumstances did the Democratic party manage to break out of its geographic and cultural isolation to win large numbers of states in other regions.[3]

The point is that for a hundred years the Democratic Party anchored its electoral base in the old Confederacy.  At times and in terms of political representation, it existed almost entirely as a regional party.  After 1876, the federal government conceded virtual “”Home Rule” to the South.  Southern Democrats imposed “Jim Crow” laws,[4] disfranchised African-Americans,[5] created and celebrated the mythology of the “Lost Cause,”[6] put up statues to “Johnny Reb” and to Confederate generals, and lynched with abandon.[7]  Prominent Southern Democrats included Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, who had proudly led a bloody attack on freedmen before representing South Carolina in the Senate.[8]  At the Versailles peace conference, Woodrow Wilson vetoed a Japanese proposal for a “racial equality” statement in the Treaty.  During the Great Depression, much of the New Deal’s aid to Southerners either tacitly or explicitly excluded African-Americans.  Later, the men who murdered Emmett Till and the jury that acquitted them were Democrats.  These examples barely scratch the surface.

In short, and to put it mildly, the Democratic party long resisted racial equality.  Indeed, until within human memory, it formed one of chief institutional exponents of race hatred in the United States.  How to address this issue?

[1] Emily Cochrane, “Pelosi Removes Portraits Tied to Confederacy From Capitol,” NYT, 19 June 2020.

[2] For presidential elections, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solid_South#Solid_South_in_presidential_elections For gubernatorial elections, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solid_South#South_in_gubernatorial_elections

[3] Notably in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt’s insurgency split the Republican party, and between 1932 and 1948 when the Great Depression and the Second World War created a national emergency.

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Crow_laws

[5] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disenfranchisement_after_the_Reconstruction_Era

[6] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_Cause_of_the_Confederacy

[7] See, if you’ve got a strong stomach: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynching_in_the_United_States

[8] Maybe Speaker Pelosi could try to repeal the Tillman Act (1907).