President Lincoln: Hero or Monster?

President Lincoln is the centerpiece of American mythology. Public schools teach us to adore him. His brilliance and leadership are hailed by historians and politicians. President Lincoln saved the Union, freed the slaves, and inspired a nation. Check out these glowing words from Roy Klabin at PolicyMic:

Abraham Lincoln is one of America’s most celebrated presidents, having led us though our most troubled times. He was made great not by the circumstances that he found himself in, but the fortitude and honor with which he navigated them. The Civil War that erupted, and the manner in which Lincoln quelled it, showed us that however varied the ideas within our flourishing democracy may become, our strongest virtue comes in sustaining our unity and resolving our differences.

Fortitude? Honor? Please. Unfortunately, the truth is far uglier. President Lincoln’s quest to “save the union” cost an estimated 750,000 lives (including my third great grandfather). He wanted to force African-Americans to resettle in Central America. And there is no evidence he helped to pass the 13th Amendment, despite what Steven Spielberg would have you believe. In fact, the only 13th amendment President Lincoln tried to pass was the Corwin Amendment, which sought to prevent interference with slavery. Here’s more on the mythology surrounding President Lincoln and the 13th Amendment from Thomas DiLorenzo at LewRockwell.com:

Steven Spielberg’s new movie, Lincoln, is said to be based on several chapters of the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns-Goodwin, who was a consultant to Spielberg. The main theme of the movie is how clever, manipulative, conniving, scheming, lying, and underhanded Lincoln supposedly was in using his “political skills” to get the Thirteenth Amendment that legally ended slavery through the U.S. House of Representatives in the last months of his life. This entire story is what Lerone Bennett, Jr. the longtime executive editor of Ebony magazine and author of Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, calls a “pleasant fiction.” It never happened…

There is no evidence that Lincoln provided any significant assistance in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives in 1865, but there is evidence of his effectiveness in getting an earlier Thirteenth Amendment through the House and the Senate in 1861. This proposed amendment was known as the “Corwin Amendment,” named after Ohio Republican Congressman Thomas Corwin. It had passed both the Republican-controlled House and the Republican-dominated U.S. Senate on March 2, 1861, two days before Lincoln’s inauguration, and was sent to the states for ratification by Lincoln himself. The Corwin Amendment would have prohibited the federal government from ever interfering with Southern slavery…

(See the rest at LewRockwell.com)

Protolanguages: Decoding Words from the Past?

Protolanguages are hypothetical ancestors of modern languages. For example, modern Maya, as well as other ancient Mesoamerican scripts (Olmec, Zapotec, Classic Maya to name a few) are believed to have descended from an original language called Proto-Mayan (see chart). Needless to say, decoding protolanguages is a massive undertaking. Here’s more on a new computer system which appears to do the job quickly and with decent accuracy from the University of British Columbia:

University of British Columbia and Berkeley researchers have used a sophisticated new computer system to quickly reconstruct protolanguages – the rudimentary ancient tongues from which modern languages evolved.

The results, which are 85 per cent accurate when compared to the painstaking manual reconstructions performed by linguists, will be published next week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We’re hopeful our tool will revolutionize historical linguistics much the same way that statistical analysis and computer power revolutionized the study of evolutionary biology,” says UBC Assistant Prof. of Statistics Alexandre Bouchard-Côté, lead author of the study…

(See the rest at University of British Columbia)

Does America need the Constitution?

No, according to Louis Michael Seidman. He wants to keep the government but toss the Constitution, arguing that it was written by a very specific set of people from a very different time period. So, rather than debate the merits of an issue, we debate what people who died a long time ago would’ve thought about it. He also makes the very good point that we shouldn’t depend on the Constitution to secure our natural rights like freedom of speech.

The issue with the U.S. Constitution (and really any written document) is that it can be tortured to mean just about anything. And since government has a natural tendency to grab power, politicians can easily interpret the Constitution in order to do so (case examples: the Commerce and the Necessary and Proper Clauses).

As a restraint on government, the Constitution has proven remarkably ineffective. Then again, it’s not clear to me that a U.S. government without the Constitution would be much better. Here’s more from an interview with Seidman, conducted by Amy Crawford at Smithsonian Magazine:

What would we gain by giving up constitutional obligations?

It would improve deliberation and rhetoric about issues that divide us—gun control, for example. Now, to the horror of most of my friends, I am actually quite skeptical about gun control. But that’s a subject on which reasonable people can disagree. But what happens when you start thinking about constitutional obligations? All of the sudden the argument is not, “How are you going to enforce this? Would it actually prevent violence? Would it cause more violence?” The argument is about, “What exactly did the word ‘militia’ mean 200 years ago? What is the relationship between the ‘bear arms’ clause in the English Bill of Rights and the American Bill of Rights?”

Those are questions that historians ought to have some interest in, but they’re completely irrelevant to the issue of gun control in 21st century America. Without enlightening us, arguments of constitutionalism unnecessarily divide us. Now, all of the sudden, instead of talking about a policy decision that reasonable people could disagree about, we’re talking about whether one’s opponent is really an American, whether they are violating the document that defines us and creates us as a nation.

(See the rest at Smithsonian Magazine:

Calvin Coolidge: Did he save the U.S. Economy?

Amity Shlaes is out with her latest book, Coolidge, a new take on the controversial presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Conservatives love Silent Cal, giving him full credit for the Roaring Twenties. Liberals hate him, believing his free market policies caused the Great Depression. Shlaes falls firmly in the former camp. Personally, I think he’s partly responsible for both. That’s because the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression were caused by the same thing…rapid expansion of the money supply.

From mid-1921 to mid-1929, the money supply grew 61.8%, with much of that coming during Coolidge’s terms in office. All that money fueled a boom as businesses raced to invest it (aka the Roaring 20s). Eventually, too much money chased too few worthy investments. Poor businesses failed. The economy crashed and the money supply contracted. The Federal Reserve, just like today, mistakenly tried to reinflate the bubble in 1932 only to find itself unable to do so.

Still, Coolidge wasn’t a bad president. He cut the national debt and reduced tax rates. He avoided wars in Latin America. For more on Calvin Coolidge, see this interview with Amity Shlaes conducted by Ed Driscoll at PJ Media:

MR. DRISCOLL:  The Forgotten Man helped to place FDR into context by focusing on many personal histories of the 1930s, beyond the palace intrigue of Capitol Hill. These days, whatever collective history we have of the 1920s seems to come from The Great Gatsby, The Untouchables,and TV shows like HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.  How badly do people today misremember the decade of the 1920s ?

MS. SHLAES:  We really misremember it and then you want to ask why.  So Forgotten Man was about the misremembering of the 1930s.  Coolidge is about the misremembering of the 1920s.

So the cliches you describe, and they’re fun and amusing, are that it was all a lie or about guns and alcohol, something illegal and contraband, corruption resulting from prohibition.  Or it was all a lie; Gatsby wasn’t real wealth.  He was an illusion.  He was a shimmer in a champagne glass.  Right?

So when you go back and look at the ’20s — this is the era of Coolidge, you see a lot of real growth.  Things we would envy, we wish we could have, such as employment was often below five percent.  When you wanted a job you got one.  Wages rose in real terms.  Not a lot but consistently.  You can go back and look at that, even for unskilled workers.  Well, what else — interest rates were pretty low.  The budget was in surplus.  We didn’t have a deficit.  The federal debt was huge from World War I.  We were bringing it down reliably…

(See the rest at PJ Media)

Nine Men’s Morris – A Game for the Blizzard?

The snow is falling fast in New England and could reach two feet in depth by tomorrow. Power outages are a near certainty. For those of you looking for a way to pass the time, why not try your hand at an old board game, namely Nine Men’s Morris? Nine Men’s Morris is a strategy game that dates back to the Roman Empire. It became popular in England and eventually made its way over to the New World. It remained popular in America through the Civil War.

The Rules for Nine Men’s Morris

You need pencil and paper to draw the board (see image). For playing pieces, use checkers (9 for each side). The goal of Nine Men’s Morris is to leave your opponent with just two pieces or block him from being able to make a legal move. The game has three phases: 1) Place checkers in open positions; 2) Move checkers to adjacent positions; and 3) Move checkers to any vacant position (this is only done when a player is down to just three pieces). Here are some more specific rules from Wikipedia:

Phase one: placing pieces

The game begins with an empty board. The players determine who plays first, then take turns placing their men one per play on empty points. If a player is able to place three of his pieces in a straight line, vertically or horizontally, he has formed a mill and may remove one of his opponent’s pieces from the board and the game. Any piece can be chosen for the removal, but a piece not in an opponent’s mill must be selected, if possible. Once all pieces have been placed, phase two begins.

Phase two: moving pieces

Players continue to alternate moves, this time moving a man to an adjacent point. A piece may not “jump” another piece. Players continue to try and form mills, and remove their opponent’s pieces in the same manner as in phase one. A player may “break” a mill by moving one of his pieces out of an existing mill, then moving the piece back to form the same mill a second time, or any number of times; and each time removing one of his opponent’s men. The act of removing an opponent’s man is sometimes called “pounding” the opponent. When one player has been reduced to three men, phase three begins.

Phase three: “flying”

When a player is reduced to three pieces, there is no longer a limitation of moving to only adjacent points: The player’s men may “fly”, “hop”, or “jump” from any point to any vacant point…

For more on Nine Men’s Morris, check out Wikipedia. Good luck to everyone in the path of the storm!

Blizzard of 1888: The Worst Blizzard of all Time?

Snow is starting to fall in northern New England as the region braces for an epic blizzard. Snowfall is expected to reach 2 to 3 feet when all is said and done. *Yawn* Unless things change dramatically, the Blizzard of 2013 will be nothing compared to the Great Blizzard of 1888. 125 years ago, 40 to 50 inches fell in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut over a four day period. Saratoga Springs received almost 6 feet!

The Blizzard of 1888 snowdrifts were epic. In Keene, New Hampshire, “drifts of hard packed snow from 12-15 feet deep were piled across the roads, and half way to the top of the second story windows.” And that was on the low end. Whopping 30 to 40 foot snowdrifts were common with the highest drift topping out at 52 feet (not the best day for residents of Gravesend, New York). Here’s more on the Great Blizzard of 1888 from Forgotten New England:

During New England‘s Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Great White Hurricane, over four feet of snow fell in Connecticut and Massachusetts.  The storm dumped as much as 40 inches of snow in New York and New Jersey.  In a world before road salt and snowblowers, the Great White Hurricane suspended communication and travel in the U.S. Northeast for nearly a week in March 1888.  History most remembers the particularly horrific conditions in New York City.  There, the New York World reported that almost two feet of snow had fallen amidst biting 50 mph winds and sub-zero temperatures.  However, the storm also wrought havoc in smaller northern cities along the US East Coast…

(See the rest at Forgotten New England)

 

The Turk: History’s First Chess Computer?

Two centuries before Big Blue, there was the Turk, history’s first chess computer. From 1770 to 1854, this mechanical marvel played and defeated all sorts of challengers, including many top-ranked chess players as well as Benjamin Franklin. It wasn’t until 1857 that the Turk’s secret was revealed…it was a giant fake. Here’s more from  Krešimir Josić at the University of Houston:

The Turk was touted as an early robot that could play chess at the highest level. Built in Vienna in 1770 by the inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen, the machine consisted of a large pedestal, housing intricate machinery on top of which stood a chessboard. To this box was attached the upper half of a men dressed in oriental robes and a turban. Each performance began with an elaborate introduction to convince the audience that the Turk is really a machine. The automaton would then face a challenger.

The Turk first dazzled the court of the empress Maria Theresa in Vienna. The machine moved its own pieces, and would instantly recognize illegal moves by its opponent. It offered a surprisingly good game of chess! The automaton soon became a sensation, toured Europe and North America, and was matched against some of the best chess players of the time…

(See the rest at the University of Houston)

 

How well does Congress reflect the People it “serves”?

How well does Congress reflect the people it “serves” (“rules” might be a better word)? Not very well, it turns out. How else could lawyers make up 37% of the U.S. Congress, both now and in 1789? Not to pick on lawyers either…out of the 209 “businesspeople” in Congress, how many do you think are clerks, bakers, entrepreneurs, electricians, etc.? I’m guessing the answer is a big fat zero. So much for James Madison’s dream of the House of Representatives being a lower house for “the people.” Here’s more from Constitution Daily:

With that in mind, the staff of Constitution Daily compiled a comparison between the First U.S. Congress and the current one, looking at the occupational breakdown between their members. The results were, in some ways, predictable, but there were still a few surprises. (Who knew there was a comedian among their ranks?)…

Although the First Congress had a limited variety of professions, the general make up of both are relatively similar. As you can see, from the time the First Congress met, law has been a top profession; in both bodies, about 37 percent of the members are lawyers. It makes sense–the people writing the laws need to have a deep understanding of how the legal system works. But do lawyers make the best politicians?

(See the rest including the breakdown at Constitution Daily)

Did Nazi Monks build a base in the Amazon?

Nazi monks operating in the Amazon? Secret plans for an air attack on the Panama Canal? Sounds like great Nazi fiction…but it’s a true story (well, at least in part).

In a declassified note to the Assistant Secretary of State, J. Edgar Hoover said, “As of possible interest to you, information has been received from a reliable confidential source that there are rumors current in Brazil as to a German air base, reported to exist in the Rio Negro district of the upper Amazon.”

And here’s more from Felipe Fernandes Cruz at The Appendix:

It was October 1941 and J. Edgar Hoover had just received a strange bit of war intelligence. A secret German air base was being built in the Amazon. This was particularly worrisome, since such an airfield could be used to launch a secret Luftwaffe attack on the strategic Panama Canal. This idea did not come out of the blue. Americans were at the time very concerned about German influence in South America. To monitor potential fascist agents, the Federal Bureau of Investigation collaborated with a Brazilian agency, the Departamento de Ordem Política e Social (Department of Social and Political Order, Brazil’s version of a secret police)…

(See more at The Appendix)

 

When did People Arrive in Ancient America?

Did people come to Ancient America thousands of years earlier than previously thought? The evidence is intriguing. It’s still too skimpy to convince the mainstream but at least it’s starting to get a fair hearing. Here’s more on the origin of Ancient America from Guy Gugliotta at Smithsonian Magazine:

For years adventurous divers had hunted fossils and artifacts in the sinkholes of the Aucilla about an hour east of Tallahassee. They found stone arrowheads and the bones of extinct mammals such as mammoth, mastodon and the American ice age horse.

Then, in the 1980s, archaeologists from the Florida Museum of Natural History opened a formal excavation in one particular sink. Below a layer of undisturbed sediment they found nine stone flakes that a person must have chipped from a larger stone, most likely to make tools and projectile points. They also found a mastodon tusk, scarred by circular cut marks from a knife. The tusk was 14,500 years old.

The age was surprising, even shocking, for it suddenly made the Aucilla sinkhole one of the earliest places in the Americas to betray the presence of human beings. Curiously, though, scholars largely ignored the discoveries of the Aucilla River Prehistory Project, instead clinging to the conviction that America’s earliest settlers arrived more recently, some 13,500 years ago. But now the sinkhole is getting a fresh look, along with several other provocative archaeological sites that show evidence of an earlier human presence in the Americas, perhaps much earlier…

(See the rest at Smithsonian Magazine)