How the 19th century Austrian secret service proved that people will give up private information if you save them time and money

The period between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the wave of "revolutions" in 1848 was one of repression, police action, and poorly organized, chaotic attempts at revolution that were quickly suppressed, with the exception of a few changes of government in France. That last year, 1848, was marked by much larger but still poorly organized and chaotic attempts at revolution, that resulted in retrenchment, and the replacement of the moderate monarchy of Louis-Phillipe with the less moderate if possibly more colorful Second Empire of Louis-Napoleon (there is no burden the people find more onerous than that of having to make choices).

Not that the repressive post-Napoleonic regimes were much more impressive than the attempts at revolt against them. According the Adam Zamoyski in Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Creation of the Modern State, 1789-1848 (I listened to the audio), every leader from Metternich and Tsar Nicholas I on down spent their time obsessing over large-scale conspiracies of Masons, French revolutionaries, and Illuminati that did not exist, without recognizing that the various civil disturbances that they had to keep dealing with were really a response to the hopes of liberation and national autonomy that had been raised by the events of the quarter century after the French Revolution, and then dashed.

And it is kind of weird to think that the period from the Fall of the Bastille to the exile of Napoleon Bonaparte to St. Helena is only 25 years long. In his superb podcast The History of the Twentieth Century, Mark Painter calls the Congress of Vienna "an attempt to hit Ctrl + Z on the French Revolution" (this is based on memory, and may not be word-for-word accurate). Unlike a typo, it kind of stuck around.

But, still, the state apparatus of control put in place over that period worked pretty well at keeping the regimes in place until after an entire century they were all dumb enough simultaneously to start a gigantic war that none of them could win, and all of the multinational empires came apart like tissue paper you left in your back pocket when you threw your jeans in the washing machine.

The inescapable attraction of cheap and fast

In addition to his diplomatic skill, Metternich had quite the reputation as a lover. He is around 60 in this portrait.

In addition to his diplomatic skill, Metternich had quite the reputation as a lover. He is around 60 in this portrait.

Intelligence, opening people's mail, breaking codes, and other familiar practices grew through this period, though they look fairly amateurish from the point of view of intel operations over the twentieth century and into our time. Much of the letter reading seemed mostly to provide princes and leaders with salacious material about colleagues and rivals for personal entertainment.

Prince Klemens von Metternich was the dominant figure in Austria, and he wanted to make sure he could read everyone's mail. How he managed this is entertaining, and instructive.

According to Zamoyski, in the early part of the period, during the 1820s:

Metternich...identified control of the postal service as a key element in the invigilation of Europe. In the course of the eighteenth century Vienna had, by providing the most efficient postal service throughout the Holy Roman Empire, gained access to the correspondence passing through central Europe. Although the Empire had been abolished, much of the post carried around its former territory still passed through Austrian sorting offices. Metternich managed to extend this to Switzerland, a natural crossroads as well as a meeting place for subversives of every sort. All Swiss post passed through Berne, whose postal service was in the hands of the conservative patrician de Fischer family, with the result that all mail between France, Germany, and Italy was accessible to the Austrian authorities. Most of the mail going in and out of Italy passed through Lombardy, where it came under Austrian police scrutiny.

Metternich attempted to extend this to the rest of Italy, but failed, due to Papal opposition. Incidentally,"invigilation" seems to now be used only for proctoring exams, but it should probably be revived in the Zamoyski's wider sense.

Later on, in the 1840s, Metternich had to work a bit harder:

To ensure that as much European mail as possible continued to pass through Austrian domains, Metternich saw to it that the Habsburg postal service was cheaper and faster than the alternatives.

This apparently put a huge strain on the intelligence operatives, who had to open, copy, reseal, and return mail of interest to the post office without incurring additional delay. Zamoyski has some fun with how overworked this small set of bureaucrats was.

People knew there was a good chance their letters were being read, and tried various subterfuges to make it harder, but they still used the Austrian post, because it really was cheaper and faster than the alternatives.

While entertaining, the book is fairly narrow on the topic of government responses to subversion, and is not anything like a general history of the period. It may go into more detail on surveillance that some readers (or listeners) might like, but I found it extremely entertaining. Zamoyski knows how to feed in a lot of information without getting tedious, a rare skill among historians.

What privacy do you give up for cheap and fast?

I'm not even sure that's worth asking, because it's pretty much everything, for all of us. Metternich seems to have pioneered this form of big data gathering.

Vicious Fights Over Oncoming Disasters: the Coming of World War II

It really doesn’t look like they’re getting along

It really doesn’t look like they’re getting along

In the two years leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR was a timid President, unwilling to take any chances. After winning the 1936 election in a stunning landslide, with increased majorities in both the House and the Senate, FDR pissed it away, first with his ridiculous plan to pack the Supreme Court, then by losing vast numbers of seats in 1938, campaigning vigorously but unsuccessfully against prominent members of his own party who he felt were less than committed to the New Deal.

FDR had clearly lost his mojo. He was terrified of opposition to aid to Britain against Germany, and so moved with glacial slowness, retreating quickly if he sensed opposition.

A viciously divided country

Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941, by Lynne Olson, goes through those two years almost day by day, describing the bad behavior on both sides. Everybody screamed at each other in apocalyptic terms, threatened opponents and their families, and ended lifelong friendships. And, given the state of the world 1939-1941, it's hard to claim that what they were arguing about wasn't important.

The typical narrative is dumb duped isolationists and noble staunch interventionists. But everyone still remembered the US's disastrous intervention in the Great War, which had killed more the 100,000 American soldiers on the other side of the Atlantic for very little visible benefit.

No more dumb wars

It's important to remember what a miserable botch the Great War had been, and how bad the consequences. It killed something between 15 and 19 million people, annihilated the political structure that had ruled Europe, and thus the world, for a century. Russia was a now a murderous Soviet dictatorship, Germany and Italy fascist and increasingly aggressive, France in a virtual civil war between communists and fascists. And no one could get their stupid economies moving again.

So the refusal to enter another such war had a lot to recommend it. Everyone knew that the sly and manipulative Brits wanted to trick good-hearted but slow-on-the-uptake American rubes into saving Europeans from the consequences of their own stupid decisions yet again.

Students opposed war in vast rallies. Ardent members of the America First Committee, the main isolationist lobbying group, included future Presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford. A recent article in The Atlantic about National Security Adviser John Bolton claims that "'America First' was the slogan of Nazi sympathizers during the 1930s". There were certainly Nazi sympathizers among members of the America First Committee, but the overall characterization is less than fair. Plenty of people opposed going to war while hating Nazis as much as anyone else. They might just have hated Communists too, and there was often no good reason for thinking they weren't as big a threat.

Not that the opposition to war was always entirely fact-based. Congressional hearings blamed the Great War on "war profiteers" in a weirdly Leninist analysis of the causes of US involvement.

Charles Lindbergh, theater and reality

Lindbergh was a what is now a fairly rare type of celebrity, one who was famous for having done something. He was a superb pilot, an excellent engineer, and a good manager, who promoted safe air mail, designed medical devices, and seemed to understand everything aside from his fellow human beings.

He never wanted to be a celebrity, and the celebrity culture of that time was just as intrusive, vicious, and absurd as it is now. He was harried and tormented, had his private activities photographed, and had to deal with constant false information about him. He and his wife Anne fled the country for long periods, just to have some peace and quiet.

Lindbergh thought the US should not get entangled in European conflicts, and should devote its efforts to built up its own military.

But he was the most famous isolationist, so he was eventually persuaded to become spokesman for the America First Committee. His speeches revealed that he shared the antisemitism popular at the time (and since), and the exposure did serious damage to his reputation.

But the notion that he was, or could have been some great political force seems absurd. Lindbergh was brilliant, ice cold, always in control, and did not care what other people thought. The contrast between him and the equally brilliant improviser, manipulator, and mountebank FDR could not be greater, save for one feature they shared: the fact that no one, even their intimates, ever could penetrate to who either of these men really was.

We always end up getting pushed around by these twisted, secret men, with their mysterious and ambiguous motivations. But Lindbergh was just the mascot of America First, not its leader or its ideologist. Still, as the book's cover shows, having these two men represent the struggle for decision makes good narrative sense.

A deep dive into a forgotten period

The book clearly has our own period in view. The divisions were deep and, while people more and more felt that the US had to play a role in the war, the move toward deciding what to do was slow and never complete.

It was only the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, followed four days later by the German declaration of war on the US, that resolved the situation.

If Hitler had not done this—and he really does seem to have done it in a kind of offhand way, like impulsively buying a Swiffer vac online—the US might not have gotten involved in the European war. Really no one was interested in sending troops to Europe. That was the old world, the Pacific was the new one.

But after that, everyone was all in, isolationism forgotten. Men who were isolationists days before gave fiery speeches in support of the war, and all was forgotten, and everyone could get on with remodeling themselves as the Greatest Generation.

The book is real pleasure, and follows things through as they happened, without a lot of discussion of what is going to happen in the future. It lets you see how contingent these decisions always are.

But the fact that Japanese made the decision for us has left us with a poor model for how to deal with such deep and intractable conflicts. None of our current struggles, whether about global warming, the changing racial and social composition of American society, or whether to spread the gains from growth more widely, will have that kind of fait accompli that takes the decision out of our hands.

What do you think the US would have done if Hitler had left well enough alone?

Would we have allowed the defeat of Britain? Would we have supported the devolution of European empires? Would we have become a more Pacific Ocean power, eventually intervening in China?

Alien robots at Shasta Dam: the Untold Story

I was just checking Shorpy over the weekend, when I was struck with this image of robots coolly firing at the Army troops desperately holding them off. As I remember, this happened around 1940, but was suppressed because rising tensions with the Japanese took priority. The robots were eventually domesticated, and used for construction purposes.

Cable-firing robots attack! (Click to open a larger view on the Shorpy site)

Cable-firing robots attack! (Click to open a larger view on the Shorpy site)

I love the angle of the photo, by Russell Lee, for the Farm Security Administration.

What they actually are is almost as interesting. Shasta Dam was concrete. A large central tower was built next to the concrete plant. It was connected by cables to a total of seven towers like the two above, which actually moved on tracks, as you can see in the image below.

One of the moveable towers from a different angle

One of the moveable towers from a different angle

Large buckets were filled with concrete at the plant, then cranked across to one of the towers, where it was dumped to form blocks fifty feet square and five feet deep, which make up the dam. I don’t know how often this particular method was used to build dams, but it has a real dieselpunk charm.

The mama robot feeding her young

The mama robot feeding her young

Lee’s photograph of the dam under construction is itself a wonderful image, worth clicking through to Shorpy to see in full.

Shasta dam under construction

Shasta dam under construction

Grief and intellectual absolutism

I’m reading Anne Somerset’s Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, another consequence of my viewing of the movie The Favourite (my review here). So far, it’s nicely written, detailed but not a grind, and an interesting insight into what happens when a really normal person with some health problems becomes monarch of a significant kingdom. It’s also an insight into the precarious feeling of the political environment after the Glorious Revolution. That James II’s son and Anne’s half brother, James Edward Francis Stewart, the Pretender, might actually become King was a real possibility.

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, meditating on how to get back at someone

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, meditating on how to get back at someone

As The Favourite shows, a lot of Anne’s emotional life was tied up with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. They had been close since Sarah was 13 and Anne eight, when Sarah became a maid of honour to Mary Beatrice of Modena, second wife of James II, Anne’s father (this was in 1673, long before he had his brief run as king).

The formerly close relationship ended in the early 1700s, during Anne’s reign. Though intelligent and witty, Sarah had always been hard to get along with. She became an ardent Whig, while Anne leaned Tory. Sarah would not leave this alone.

The historical significance of the deaths of children

In 1703, Sarah’s only surviving son, John, caught smallpox at Cambridge, and died. Sarah was overcome with grief, and, even though Anne had suffered her own griefs, with a son who had died at 11 and a number of children who had died young or been stillborn, this did not lead Sarah to a common sympathy with her. In fact, according to Somerset, “…Sarah’s grief had acquired a competitive edge. She came to believe that Anne’s suffering when her children died had not been nearly as intense as hers.”

Most of us have known someone like that.

But it seems that the grief had a significant effect on her personality:

Sarah’s bitterness at the loss of her only son stifled her generosity of spirit. Now, intolerance and inflexibility, became her dominant traits. By her own account, she had never derived much emotional satisfaction from her friendship with Anne, but henceforth it was validated in her eyes principally by her belief that she must mould Anne to her will and thus aid not only her husband [the Duke of Marlborough] and Godolphin [First Lord of the Treasury] but also the political party she favored [the Whigs]. Finding in politics an outlet that distracted her from her grief, Sarah devoted herself to it with febrile energy, seeing things in absolute terms that left no room for nuance. It became increasingly hard for her to accommodate any form of disagreement, or to concede that other people’s beliefs had any legitimacy at all.

It made her a familiar tiresome partisan. How often are these inflexible people riven with grief, or some other strong emotion or experience that has eroded parts of their personality? I don’t know that this is a common cause of tiresome political absolutism, and even knowing its very real cause couldn’t have made Sarah anything but a real pain to deal with, but it is an interesting thing to think about.

Sarah never recovered her old personality, though she lived until age 84. I think it is probably vain to think that any of our more pointlessly ardent political absolutists will either.

What effect have personal tragedies and experiences had on the way you relate politically?

And do you really think you are able to tell?

Constants of Civilizational Collapse as Explained by T. B. Macaulay

When I am bored, frustrated, or distracted, I sometimes comfort myself with the mandarin prose of the 19th century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. His lengthy but balanced sentences, his piercing (if sometimes show-offy) erudition, and the clarity and firmness of his positions always calms me down with a sense of Victorian certainty.

Yesterday I was looking at his essay on “War of the Succession in Spain”. After seeing The Favourite ( my reaction to the movie here), I renewed my interest in the late Stuart period and its virulent political polarization. Rumbling beneath the action of the movie are the battles of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), and their costs.

Charles II, the inbred last Hapsburg King of Spain, whose death without heirs started the War of the Spanish Succession

Charles II, the inbred last Hapsburg King of Spain, whose death without heirs started the War of the Spanish Succession

As it happens, Macaulay wrote a review of a book by Lord Mahon, History of the War of the Succession in Spain, and I decided to goof off by reading it. As with all Macaulay essays, he spends a little time on the book and its author, then goes off to tell the real story, the one the author somehow cloddishly missed in their urge for publication. Mahon does not come off that well.

But Macaulay, a man with a real sense of the political, an ardent Whig, with all the devotion to political progress that implied at the time, can really dig into the underlying themes of history. He spends some time describing the vast power and culture of Spain in its heyday, when it ruled nations around the world. Then he goes through the political collapse that led to its becoming a battleground for other rising powers. For his emotional reaction, he somewhat sardonically quotes Isaiah: “But how art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, that didst weaken the nations!”

“All the causes of the decay of Spain resolve themselves into one cause, bad government.”

After Macaulay tells us that, he provides an obituary not just of Imperial Spain, but of any nation that is not careful to maintain its political institutions:

The effects of a change from good government to bad government are not fully felt for some time after the change has taken place. The talents and the virtues which a good constitution generates may for a time survive that constitution. Thus the reigns of princes, who have established absolute monarchy on the ruins of popular forms of government often shine in history with a peculiar brilliancy. But when a generation or two has passed away, then comes signally to pass that which was written by Montesquieu, that despotic governments resemble those savages who cut down the tree in order to get at the fruit. During the first years of tyranny, is reaped the harvest sown during the last years of liberty.

That’s worth reading carefully. There’s a lot in this paragraph. I think his observation, that burning the stored power of a state can give a very bright light, is key to some of what we are experiencing now.

Not every prognostication of doom and destruction resonates with our current political moment, no matter what people may claim, but this one certainly does. Institutions take constant, unrewarding, and often frustrating maintenance. As always, maintenance receives no great plaudits. It is the province of those who hold doing their duty as the highest good, and who rely on the respect and cooperation of those who understand how important their quiet hidden work is.

Beware the leader who cuts down the long-maintained fruit tree and says, “It used to be hard work to get at that fruit, but I alone have made it easy for you, my people.” And, yes, “savages”, probably did not do this, unless they were raiding someone else’s orchard, but the point stands.

Doing the Locomotion: Saratoga Spring and New York City

A few more Shorpy photographs of people walking, these focused a bit more on male style.

Previous locomotion entry.

Dress like you mean it

I do tend to notice men's dress, and here are a couple of good examples.

The end of the Nineteenth Century was right about now

The end of the Nineteenth Century was right about now

The coolest man in town

The coolest man in town

Saratoga Springs is a resort town, known for its horse racing. Here is everyone strolling in the shade of the elms, in 1915.

I’d love a look at the headlines

I’d love a look at the headlines

This couple is quite elegant, but I think the male far outshines his mate. Everything about him is sharp.

Meanwhile, right behind them: newsies! They really did dress like that. The more sophisticated older one is leaning casually against a tree, leg up, while the younger ones try to impress him with their street smarts.

Everyone has somewhere to be

Everyone has somewhere to be

Not just the clothes, but how you wear them

Not just the clothes, but how you wear them

Finally, the heart of purposeful walking, New York City. Here is a picture of the intersection of Seventh Avenue and West 125th, in 1938. Again, a lot of people, but I love this other gracious gentleman. Both he and the boulevardier in Saratoga Springs show that it's not just the clothes, but the way that you wear them. And, really, a hat helps, even though that is no longer permissible, and just makes you look like you're losing your hair.

Where is she going tonight?

Where is she going tonight?

But I also always like this cheerful lady right behind him. I wish I knew her.

I wish I knew them all, and it is a bit chilling, sometimes, to realize that they are all long dead.

Do you look at pictures of the past?

What kind of thing do you look for when you do? I also look at machinery, architecture, and trains.

Doing the Locomotion: Chicago and Boston

I've previously mentioned my love of the website Shorpy, with its cleaned up and sharpened historic photographs. I visit almost daily.

One thing I like to look at in the image is what people were up to when they didn't know they were being observed, and particularly how they walk, stand, or lounge. These photographs are almost all urban photographs, so I am probably missing some great rural ambling. But here are some of my favorites, pointing out various individuals of interest. My computer wallpaper is a rotating selection of Shorpy images, these among them.

Each picture links to the much larger image on the Shorpy website, as they request. Most of those images are very high resolution, and can be further expanded. Read the comments. Shorpy has some of the most attentive and well-informed commenters around, if a bit overly concerned with makes of automobiles.

Today I'll cover Chicago and Boston. Later, some places in New York.

That Toddlin' Town

For some reason, my eye has been caught most often by people near where I grew up, in Chicago.

Chicago, Wabash, 1900

Chicago, Wabash, 1900

Here, for example, is the Wabash Avenue L in 1900. It seems to be mostly about rails and facades, but an attentive commenter picked out this lady.

We’ll never know where she was headed

We’ll never know where she was headed

This is probably not the main character of a story, but a supporting player who rivets the attention whenever she's onstage. Where did she go once she strode off the edge of this photograph?


Also in Chicago, this time under the L, in 1940, are people dressed in the much lighter summer clothes of four decades later.

Chicago, Under the L, 1940

Chicago, Under the L, 1940

My eye is instantly riveted by this lady, who really knows how to make getting from one place to another an adventure. Her way of moving is even more impressive when you reflect that she's doing it in heels across paving stones and streetcar tracks.

“Don’t just get somewhere,  go  there!”

“Don’t just get somewhere, go there!”

And, finally, a scene before the war. Another summer afternoon, just a year later than the previous one, right after work. You see women in summer dresses, older men in hats, younger men bareheaded. Everyone's going somewhere, but in no rush, so I haven't picked anyone out in particular.

A Chicago, the summer before the war

A Chicago, the summer before the war

Businesslike Bostonians

This shows the end of Bromfield Street in 1908, right where it joins Washington Street. The street looks pretty much the same today. Marliave is still there. That's the Granary Burial Ground at the far end.

A bit less horse poop, but much the same in 2018

A bit less horse poop, but much the same in 2018

I hope she made it on time

I hope she made it on time

It looks like the morning commute. My eye is always caught by this lady, hustling to work, not particularly enjoying herself. I've never figured out if that's her lunch she's carrying, her purse, or a beer stein.

He, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about getting there on time. They’ll wait.

He, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about getting there on time. They’ll wait.

Meanwhile, the men look more relaxed. This older gentleman, very well dressed, is looking at the scene, while the two younger men behind him, saunter toward Tremont Street, one with his hands in his pockets.


Then here is what is now Dewey Square, in front of South Station, 1905. The Station has lost much of its bulk over the years, so each wing is shorter, and the elevated train is gone. I actually like elevateds, but most people find them noisy and unsightly. If they're paid for and are working, I'd keep them. Boston went through a lot of effort to bury theirs, and at great expense, though this one was gone long before that.

In the summer months there is a great farmers’ market here

In the summer months there is a great farmers’ market here

“He had pies in both hands, I’m telling you….”

“He had pies in both hands, I’m telling you….”

Lots of people walking in various ways, but I like these two, who, yes, are standing, not walking: a cop in a classic custodian helmet (now associated only with Keystone Kops) and a shorter guy with something to say, standing on a slight slope so that he has a comic look perfect for one of those Mack Sennett two reelers.

The Crises of the Stuart Century: Wrap Up

If you need to catch up, my posts about the Crises of the Stuart Century were:

Yep, that pretty much covers it.

Yep, that pretty much covers it.

So why am I going on about the various political conflicts during the seventeenth century? Well a number of reasons, and it might be useful to go through them, so you understand what I'm about, as well as how what I'm about influences my work.

  1. It's interesting. Now, this is largely subjective. Usually, when people talk about why they don't like history, they mention "memorizing dates". People learn sports stats, the details of who wrote a favorite song and under what circumstances, or how to roast a goose. To think productively about something, you have to know something about it. Yes, I know this is probably an unpopular and even problematic attitude nowadays. Nevertheless, it remains true.I happen to enjoy learning about the actions and misbehaviors of influential or interesting people of the past, and the characters of 17th century England were certainly interesting. To celebrate, I just put on Edward German's "Nell Gwyn Overture", a cute piece of incidental music from 1900. Let not poor Nelly starve--if she could have gotten royalties from her future fame, Charles would not have had to make this plea to his brother James on his deathbed.

  2. It tells us a lot about the origins of our political system. Yeah, I know. That sounds a bit too wholesome and improving. Still, it really is fascinating to try to inhabit the mental world of people who don't know that someday there will be filibusters and primaries. Now, yes, a narrative of steady progress toward freedom is not tenable. But still, it is startling how every attempt to reassert Royal prerogative was successfully opposed, sometimes with violence, sometimes with Parliamentary maneuverings. People recognized rights, and defended them. Reading their arguments, seeing their positions, and understanding their ambitions, shows us what is functional in a political system, and what isn't.

  3. It reflects our own time, sometimes in disturbing ways. This is what struck me the most as I read the book. The Stuart century starts with a fairly ordinary royal administration under James I. Then it falls apart into brutal civil war and ends in a military dictatorship. The large-scale collapse of civil government, leading the widespread violence and death, in a country not threatened from outside, is quite disturbing, though it did come in the middle of a century that seemed devoted to senseless ideologically and theologically driven violence. In England ideology and interest overwhelmed a sense of common nationhood. And, after all that, no one had a working government model to replace the one that had been destroyed. A military dictatorship ensued, but only because they had a supernaturally skilled military and political leader, Oliver Cromwell, to be military dictator. And he never came up with a system that would go of itself. Once he died, they had no choice but to return to the royal system they had so violently destroyed.

But once you've killed a King, and run things pretty successfully without one for awhile, can a King ever feel completely secure? The body politic under Charles II was disordered, violent, moody, and more than a little deranged. And their King and his brother, the heir, were both in the pay of the King of France. Patriotism doesn't pay the bills after all. So vast conspiracy theories convulsed the nation, leading to riots and executions. Our petty Vince Fosters and Seth Riches have nothing on Edmund Berry Godfrey lying in a ditch on Primrose hill, impaled on his own sword, or the attempted assassination of both the King and his successor.

When the next crisis came, a major part of the ruling clique invited a foreigner to come in and replace their legal monarch, and then just brazened it out: "I really don't get what you're going on about". We call this coup the Glorious Revolution, and, in fact, its somewhat low origins do not prevent this new period from being the fount of much of our thinking on the legitimacy of democratic government.

Then, safe at last, everyone, or at least everyone with the leisure to indulge themselves, sank into childish and vicious party rivalries over issues of little ultimate significance. That's the happy ending!

The Hobbes metric

Thomas Hobbes lived from 1588 (when his mother was supposedly frightened into labor by news of the approach of the Armada) to 1679. Someone similarly long lived born in 1625, the year Charles I became King, would have lived to 1716, two years into the reign of George I, the first Hanoverian monarch. King Charles would have been executed when they were 24, Cromwell become Lord Protector when they were 28, Charles II King when they were 36, and the Glorious Revolution when they were 63. Someone who lived in interesting times.

Do you think you'll see anything like that amount of political change over your life?

For all its flaws, our system has been remarkably stable. What are the chances that that will continue?

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 4, Whigs vs Tories

This is the fourth in a series of posts on crises in the Stuart period that have contemporary resonance, based on the book A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky

Is this choice really so hard?

Is this choice really so hard?

OK, so this one is not so much of a crisis as the previous ones. It didn't lead to a bloody civil war, it didn't result in show trials, it didn't cause the existing power structure to switch out their chief executive for the ruler of a sometimes-hostile foreign power. The savagery of the conflict between the nascent political parties, starting under Charles II and reaching maturity as a recognizable party system under Anne, indicates a more functional political system, where the savagery become more rhetorical. While there would be riots and civil broils aplenty over the coming centuries, including invasions by the "OMG, would you jerks go away already?" Stuarts, there would not again be a serious internal threat to the system. Still, it was savage, and in a way that looks uncomfortably familiar.

So let's go back to the reign of Charles II.

Exclusion, and the birth of the Whigs

In the late 1670s, the paranoia of the Popish Plot united with the Exclusion Crisis, that is, the desire to keep Charles's Catholic younger brother James from taking the throne on Charles's death. Charles had no legitimate children, and while his Protestant oldest bastard, the Duke of Monmouth, was popular, there was never any serious possibility of the succession going to him—he did try to invade on James's accession, and was quickly defeated.

A series of Test Acts banned Catholics from serving in various offices. And in 1679, at the height of the Plot, elections returned a highly anti-James Parliament, which promptly proposed an Exclusion Bill. Charles dissoved this Parliament, and there was a frenzied second election. It is now that something like an organized political party, soon to be called the Whigs, emerged. The Whigs met in London coffee houses and at the Green Ribbon Club. They orchestrated what Kishlansky calls "a lurid press keep up interest in the Popish Plot long enough to influence the October elections", and won a strong majority in favor of Exclusion.

Charles had the power to prorogue Parliament, and used it—seven times over the next year. It worked. The derangement of the Popish Plot receded somewhat. And the King's supporters imitated the Whig political organization, and thus the Tories were born.

When Parliament finally met in late 1680, the Tories had some power too. According the Kishlansky, "the governing class was now irredeemably divided". Tory propagandists associated Whigs with the revolutionaries who had killed Charles's father. Over the next five years, Charles regained a lot of his power. He purged the judiciary of anyone not loyal to him, and these judges then made possible "capital convictions for sedition and ruinous judgments for slander" against the King's opponents. Then the Rye House Plot (1683) gave Charles cover for arresting and purging his opponents.

The maturing of party politics under Anne

By the early eighteenth century, under Queen Anne, the party system had reached maturity:

...Whigs and Tories were no longer opprobrious labels (after Scottish and Irish brigands, respectively): they were organizations whose opposition dominated the political life of the nation...local officials were purged and repurged...electoral contests for borough offices gradually replaced rotational systems, and party affiliation infected every aspect of social life from patronage to friendship and distorted every market from commodities to conflict politicized England....the parties were divided over matters of outlook, principle and instinct. There was remarkably little overlap.

This blend of policy debate, red-faced rage, and team sport is incredibly familiar. For late Stuart England, party politics was like a new disease, against which the people had no antibodies. And like such a disease, it ran through the population, and then became endemic, flaring up periodically, like the Plague.

Flare ups are still inevitable. The idea the people will settle down to push forward consistent policy agendas without conspiracy theories, claims that their opponents are secretly aliens or perverts, or attempts to politicize mundane daily activities like eating dinner and going to musicals, has always been a pipe dream of people who (like me) seem to lack the gene for team spirit.

This party system survived the end of the Stuarts and the advent of the Hanoverians. Given the civil conflict and outbreaks of violence it replaced, it's hard to wish it had not appeared. When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they believed they had created a system immune to such shenanigans. They were so wrong so fast, you have to wonder why we think they were so smart.

Are you a team player?

It doesn't really matter which team you support, as long as you support it fervently.

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 3, The Glorious Revolution

This is a continuation of my series on the Stuart century, responding to A Monarchy Transformed by Mark Kishlansky

Best rebranding of a high-level takeover  ever

Best rebranding of a high-level takeover ever

After Charles II died, in 1685, his Catholic brother took the throne as James II. Charles had had numerous children by various mistresses, but his own wife, Catherine of Braganza, had proved incapable of carrying a pregnancy to term. Charles had himself promised his paymaster, Louis XIV, that he would convert to Catholicism at some point, but there is no sign he ever did so. James, on the other hand, was an ardent Catholic. This irritated Charles, who knew better than to take religion too seriously, and he insisted that James raise his two daughters, Mary and Anne, as Protestants, and it is as Protestants that each would become Queen.

But it isn't just that James II was a Catholic, though that aroused the most passionate popular opposition. He was also an absolutist, who wanted to recentralize power and push back against Parliament.

A slight detour to New England

Here in New England, where I live, this led to the creation of the Dominion of New England, on the model of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (when an English King copies the administrative structures of Spain, you know you've got trouble), unifying the Mid-Atlantic and New England colonies under the notorious Governor Edmund Andros.

For years there was a diner on Trapelo Rd. in Belmont, MA, called the Andros Diner. I presume it was named after the Cycladic island by its Greek proprietors, not the Governor, but it always seemed a bit tone deaf. I'm pretty sure children are no longer taught to execrate the tyrannical Andros (my children certainly seem pretty indifferent), but this attempt to revoke the colonial charters and centralize the administration of the colonies was part of the long history that led to the Revolution.

But Kishlansky, despite teaching at Harvard, spent no time at all on New England in his book. But what Andros, at James's orders, attempted in New England, James tried himself in old England. Stuarts could never stand alternative centers of power, but were never effectual in manipulating and co-opting them. Instead, they just tried to squash them, which led to one execution and one deposition among the six Stuart monarchs, along with a lot of political chaos for the rest, not a sterling record.

None dare call it treason

Angry at James, and worried that he would have a male heir with his second wife, the Catholic Mary of Modena, a substantial group of wealthy and powerful men, already being called Whigs (we'll see a lot more of them when I get to the reign of Anne), conspired to replace him with a foreign but Protestant monarch, William of Orange, the ruler of the Netherlands, with which England had fought three wars between 1654 and 1672. It definitely helped that he was married to James's Protestant daughter Mary, and that she would become Queen.

One reason the politics of ancient Greek city states were so volatile was that the wealthy of a city felt more connected to the wealthy of another than they did with the politically violent rabble in their own home town. And while the Greek poleis all shared a common culture, language, and contempt for all those losers in the world who who would never have the right to compete in the Olympic games, going to other cities to get help in internal political conflicts didn't seem like that big a deal, and it happened fairly frequently. For example, before Athens was a democracy, Sparta intervened to help depose the tyrant Hippias and (unsuccessfully) try to install someone they liked better. Later Persian intervention in the Peloponnesian War and in other conflicts always made those conflicts both worse and longer-lived. But internal conflict among the Greeks suited the Persians just fine. They couldn't defeat the Greeks militarily, but fortunately volatile and fratricidal Greek politics gave them a cheap way to keep the Greeks busy, at least until Alexander showed up.

Getting back to England, prior to the nobles who conspired to bring William over, a similar group of English nobles had conspired with the Scots against James's father, Charles I in the 1630s. In The Count of Monte Christo Alexandre Dumas wrote “The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates," quoted, I see, in Die Harder. The apposite quote is from the Elizabethan writer John Harington:

Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

In both cases, the wealthy and powerful conspired against their own government with a foreign power, because they felt that this was made necessary by powerful forces within their own country that were taking it to its doom. And both times, they succeeded. Arguably, the result of their actions is the democratic form of government we now enjoy and whose fragility we fret over.

"The culmination of decades of manipulation of English public opinion"

In late 1688 William issued a declaration that his invasion was necessary to "preserve and maintain the established laws, liberties, and customs" of England. According to Kishlansky "the declaration was a masterpiece of propaganda, the culmination of decades of Dutch manipulation of English public opinion".

Still, landing with Dutch troops in Torbay was a daring move for William, and if James had used his larger army effectively, he could well have crushed the invasion force. But several of his key commanders went over to the invader, and James eventually fled, to create an alternate court that political romantics could daydream about for nearly a century to come.

This crisis and its resonance

No one ever seemed to find the behavior of the oppositions of Charles I and James II treasonous or even outrageous. A large number of people were willing to put up with even the military intervention of a foreign power if it supported the right side. Of course, nationalism wasn't anything like the powerful organizing force it became in the nineteenth century.

I won't spend a lot of time belaboring the modern parallels, but it's worth thinking about.

Whose intervention would you accept if it enabled you to defeat the people you know are going to destroy your country?

And after you succeeded, would you be proud of this, or would you let it gently evaporate from the pages of the official history textbooks?

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 2, Plots and Conspiracies

This is the second in a series of posts on crises in the Stuart period that have contemporary resonance, based on the book A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky

Charles II's reign is usually remembered for licentiousness, disease, and corruption, as well as for the Great Fire. But it was torn by two major conspiracy scares, the Popish Plot (1678-1681) and the Rye House Plot (1683), where many people were arrested, tried, and imprisoned, exiled, or executed.

The Popish Plot

They called him "Titus the Liar"...long after it didn't really matter

They called him "Titus the Liar"...long after it didn't really matter

Exactly what actually planned by anyone and who was actually guilty of anything is completely unclear. The Popish Plot was started by a genuinely odious mountebank and opportunist named Titus Oates, 29 and newly returned from abroad, where he had been rejected by several Jesuit schools. Oates seems to have been a brilliant confabulator. He had an almost supernatural talent for discerning what someone wanted to hear, a seemingly total recall of the details of every lie he told, and an ability to rapidly incorporate new events into his growing story. He was helped out by the fact that, if you accuse enough people, one of them will have done something suspicious that can be worked into the story.

Everyone was terrified of Catholics, the enemy within, and the knowledge that the childless King's heir was his younger brother James, who had become Catholic, put everyone on edge. Charles was not theologically reliable himself—and both brothers were in the pay of Louis XIV (though seldom providing value for money, pretty much the story of the Stuart dynasty as a whole). When the man to whom Oates had gone twice to swear evidence, Edmund Berry Godfrey, was found face down in a ditch on Primrose Hill, seemingly murdered, a crime that has excited a lot of speculation from that day to this, it seemed to be evidence that Oates was telling the truth.

At least 15 people were executed, accompanied by mass demonstrations. Other informers, seeing a good opportunity, jumped aboard the conspiracy, informing on their neighbors, who were arrested in their turn. It became a crime to even deny the existence of the plot. Informers, mobs rampaging through the streets, the terror of arbitrary arrest: various people used the panic for their own purposes, but this was not any kind of top-down state terror. In fact, King Charles was really in part the target, and his attempt to have Oates arrested was unsuccessful. This was a genuine mass movement started by one failed seminary student, who struck a match amid a huge stack of dried kindling.

The frenzy went on for nearly three years. Oates was eventually disgraced, rejected by many of his former allies, who now found him inconvenient.

The Rye House Plot

In 1683 Charles found a pretext to strike back at his enemies. There was a plot to murder both him and James simultaneously, as they were returning from a horse race in Newmarket. Though there were definitely several groups who were plotting rebellion against the Stuart monarchy, no one has ever known how well-organized this particular operation was. It served as an excellent opportunity for Charles to get his own back, harking back to the grandaddy of all anti-Stuart plots, The Gunpowder Plot, and use the fear of conspiracies to move against his enemies, which included much of the population of London. This frenzy was directed at Dissenters, those Protestants who were not part of the state Anglican church, including many Quakers. Again, many arrests and executions. This time the operations really were top down, directed by Charles himself.

It doesn't take social media to get rumors, fake news, mobs, violence, and intergroup strife. But it's definitely worth taking a look at the reign of Charles II to get a good sense of how various forces can try to take advantage of inchoate rage and panic to achieve their own ends. I'd like to think we were beyond mass arrests, perjured evidence, and panicky magistrates trying to calm down the mob before it turns on them, but sometimes I am not so sure.

What kind of Plot do you think would be most suitable for our own touchy era?

And will the first one be against our monarch, or be run by him?

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 1, The Civil War

I recently read A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714, by Mark Kishlansky. It's part of The Penguin History of Britain series. The book is from 1996, and it looks like the series is getting a refresh. I don't know if there will be a new edition of this book, however, since Prof. Kishlansky died a few years ago.

I quite enjoyed it. It's almost entirely a political history of the Stuart century, from the accession of James I (and VI of Scotland) to the death of Anne. Don't read it for insights into the literature, architecture, or science of the time, interesting though all of those were. Kishlansky barely mentions any of them. Religion does get covered, mostly because of its strong influence on politics.

That's William III. Don't worry, we'll get to him

That's William III. Don't worry, we'll get to him

But I was actually reading it for the politics. I'm interested in the nature of political legitimacy, when people accept it, and when they reject it--and the Stuart period has multiple collapses of legitimacy. I'm apprehensive of our own time, and want to see how other eras handled it and what the consequences were.

I see four periods during the Stuart century that can provide us with some ways to view our own time: The English Civil War, the two great conspiracy panics of Charles II's reign (the Popish Plot and the Rye House Plot), the Glorious Revolution where some rich people used the panic of the population to dethrone their legitimate monarch and invite the ruler of a frequently hostile foreign power to take over the position instead, and the savage beginnings of recognizably modern party conflict during the reign of Anne. The Stuarts were frequently annoying and usually infuriating, but they were never dull.

The biggest one comes first: the English Civil War.

Pulling out the guns

I've always been interested in the English Civil War, the most violent of these collapses of legitimacy, but I've never really understood it. I read A Monarchy Transformed to read about it in the context of its entire era. I do understand it a bit better, but I now know it's going to be a long road.

James I took over a kingdom where the incumbent, Elizabeth I, had been kicking the can down the road for decades.It was like inheriting a vehicle whose frugal previous owner had not done any maintenance, never changed the oil, and bribes the inspector at emissions testing time as cheaper than doing the necessary work. So James had trouble with financing, as did his son Charles I after him.

Not that their notoriously expensive art-collecting lifestyles didn't contribute. It isn't hard to imagine a monarch who did a better job managing Parliament, wars, the Scots, the Irish, and religious strife better than Charles I. But it is hard to imagine one who comes through the crisis unscathed.

Eventually, everyone pulled out their guns, got into their gangs, and fought it out. Not satisfied with one bout of civil war, they took a break and had another. It's important to remember how brutal and bloody this all was. According to Geoffrey Parker in Global Crisis, his global history of the 17th century,

[The English Civil War]...killed about 250,000 men and women in England, Scotland and Wales, or 7 percent of the total population...Between 1640 and 1660, several hundred thousand men and women were maimed or rendered homeless; and tens of thousands more were taken prisoner and enslaved by the conquerors....

Civil wars are the most brutal of wars.

Then the victors killed the King, because he really was just so damn annoying there really wasn't much else they could do. I'm sure most of them knew it was a bad idea, but Jesus, what a pompous jerk. Even the fact that both he and his sidekick Archbishop Laud were both really short, around my height, doesn't make me sympathize with either of them.

OK, he's dead. Now what?

But then what? Between various Parliamentary factions, religious groups, and the Army, there was constant mistrust, hostility, and conflict. Eventually a charismatic leader, Oliver Cromwell, became dictator and turned England into a successful bully that punched way above its weight in European affairs.

But neither he nor Parliament ever created a functioning political system to replace the previous one, so when he died, there was nothing to do but ask Charles's son, Charles II, to come back and pretend nothing much had happened. Successful Truth and Reconciliation efforts require a small bit of Truth and a whole lot of Reconciliation, ignoring a lot of past bad behavior until everyone involved is dead, and this one was surprisingly successful.

But why did everyone start killing each other in the first place?

But it's hard to really see the hostility that led to the death of seven percent of the population in a few short years (something like 22.5 million dead in a proportional conflict in the United States in 2018, if you want a cheery number). Oh, you read about squabbles about altar rails and ship money and Catholicism, but that seems like the usual incomprehensible issues people in the past seemed to get so exercised about. But under all that was clearly a lot of rage.

Of course, it might be that the islanders were just getting competitive with the Continent, where the Thirty Years War had become the bloodiest European conflict before the Twentieth Century. Keeping up with the Hapsburgs, and all that.

After an earlier squabble with Parliament, Charles I dismissed it and ruled on his own for the next eleven years, the period of Personal Rule (or the Eleven Years' Tyranny, if you want to be a sorehead about it). Things actually looked OK. Harvests were good and there were no big disasters, so it seemed to be working. But underneath the surface the finances were just not adding up. And there was no way to raise taxes without Parliament. Afterward, people probably looked back at this period with longing, thinking about how good life had been, even as the foundations had slowly collapsed.

So a halcyon period can conceal the rot that causes its structure to collapse. And this particular collapse was horrendous. I think it was worse than our own Civil War...but maybe more like any future civil war we might have. No one in the future will really understand what we were fighting about either. I'm not sure I do, and I live right here.

Will we feel lucky if we get our own Cromwell?

Why does everyone think that if we get rid of our clunky, old-school political system, we can agree on a shiny, efficient new one?

Next time: Conspiracy theories and more conspiracy theories. OK, Plots.

One man, one proxy

Often when people, at least some leftish people of my acquaintance, get a political result they don't like, they start talking about flaws in how votes are counted. Proportional representation! Elimination of the Electoral College! Epistocracy! There has to be something to straighten things out.

But, of course, both sides were aiming at a target in a known location. To try to redraw the target around where you arrow hit and saying that location makes more sense ignores the fact that, if you do, your opponents will also be aiming at that target next time, and there is no guarantee at all that you will still get closer to it than they will.

Still, there have been interesting oddball ways of counting votes and assigning representation in history, and while they will not change our politics, our fiction can certainly still use them. Colonial Maryland had, at least for awhile, a particularly interesting system.

You can exercise your vote, or assign it to someone else

The Founding of Maryland

The Founding of Maryland

According to Edmund Morgan, in his book on the rise of the necessary myth that representative government actually represents us all, Inventing the People, The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, colonial Maryland in the 1630s experimented with an interesting proxy system for voting.

If you were an adult male, you could go to the assembly yourself. Or you could assign your vote to someone else, who would go to the assembly, and vote his vote and yours and those of anyone else who had given him their proxy.

As Morgan describes someone going to the assembly with these proxy votes:

He did not represent anyone who had not specifically and individually empowered him; and a man could even change his mind, revoke the assignment of his vote, and attend in person...One could also transfer one's proxy, as it was called, from one man to another after the session began.

So the assembly did not have a specified number of attendees, but was attended in spirit by everyone who had entrusted his proxy to someone else.

The result was a politically bizarre situation: within the assembly some men had only their own vote, while others had the votes of all their proxies in addition to their own. On one occasion an aspiring politician named Giles Brent had enough proxies (seventy-three) to constitute a majority of the assembly all by himself.

The personal connection

Inventing the People really digs into how weird the idea of representative government really is--and how conceptually fragile. It is a mutually agreed-upon fiction. If we cease to agree, the fiction disappears. The book, while written in 1988, has a lot to say to our current era, where a lot of people are questioning the fictions essential to the survival of our system of government.

Remember how that snotty kid pointing out that the Emperor wore no clothes caused the government's collapse, and his country's conquest by brutal and oppressive neighbors? I bet he's sorry now.

What makes you feel genuinely represented?

Do you expect your elected representative to do exactly what you want, or are you hiring a skilled expert to make decisions that you recognize you are too lazy or ignorant to make yourself?

The passions of Chalcedonians and Monophysites

Every commentator notes how partisan the American public has become. Positions seem continually more extreme, blue is bluer, red is redder, and no one is interested in what the other side has to say.

This may well be true. I live in a genteel blue area, and do know a lot of people with predictable doctrines (and many women I encounter specify adherence to these doctrines as a prerequisite for dating them), but no one seems particularly enraged at their opponents or uncomprehending of their positions.

So that leads to the natural question: what would the period after the Council of Chalcedon have been like if someone in Late Antiquity had invented Twitter?

Chalcedon, in 451, established the Orthodox definition of the nature of Christ, the same definition used by modern Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. But some found this an unwelcome compromise. Their position was known (I gather pejoratively) as Monophysitism. Their descendants are Coptic and Oriental Orthodox churches, including the Ethiopian, Armenian, and Syriac churches.

Christological wrangling seems to have fallen out of fashion (I gather it really requires Greek to be clear enough to fight about), and I won't go into the details they were squabbling about here. But they really did take it seriously, and the more heavily Monophysite areas of Egypt and Syria were always in conflict with Chacedonian Constantinople, Asia Minor, and Balkans. They would denounce each other, riot against each other, depose each other's bishops, and write endless screeds against each other.

Periodically, an Emperor would try to do something about it. Zeno came up with the Henoticon, which tried, unsuccessfully to paper over the differences by being unclear about what they were. Anastasius, a pious Monophysite, had no patience with extremists and exiled both overzealous Monophysites and Chalcedonians, finding them both tiresome. Justinian, who knew everything, tried to persuade everyone to an elaborate compromise position involving the Three Chapters (something else probably not worth the effort to understand), but even this late antique Woodrow Wilson was unable to achieve his goal. Justinian's Empress, Theodora, was a fervent Monophysite, and never compromised either.

Anastasius, by the way is one of my favorite Emperors. He took office at age 60, ruled for over a quarter of a century (491-518), and left the Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire by this point) prosperous and with a huge cash surplus, which unfortunately enabled his overactive successor Justinian to finance his endless wars. History tends to overvalue the flashy Justinians and undervalue the "how about we focus on reestablishing coinage with consistent value and stay away from overheated rhetoric" Anastasiuses.

When the Arabs invaded in the early 7th century, they conquered the Monophysite areas, which has been atributed to the inhabitants' hatred of Orthodoxy, but I think this is mostly a matter of geographical chance. It's just that they failed to conquer the Orthodox heartland.

The conflict between Chalcedonian and Monophysite wasn't all in good fun, but it wasn't a civilizational fissure either. Both inhabited a unified empire, honored the same Emperor. and got on with things. If they had spent their days tweeting about consubstantiality, they might have ended up hating each other enough to break up the Empire long before it finally fell to overwhelming force.

So, yeah. I'm with Anastasius. Sure, think those people are clueless idiots, and their doctrines are abhorrent. But we have a nation to run, jobs to do, food to cook, and beaches to lie on with our dates or our families.  Dammit, did that seagull just steal my sandwich? That's what I really need to worry about.


The kind of sentence I like

From Song of the Vikings, by Nancy Marie Brown:

They brought home bright-colored cloaks and tunics and hose in the brilliant scarlets and leaf-greens of the alum-fixed dyes that were all the rage in twelfth-century Europe; an ell of scarlet wook sold for six times the equivalent length of undyed gray.

Alum is what is called a mordant (a lovely word that, according the Griffin Dyeworks, comes from the French "to bite"): something that gets dye to actually stick to the fabric. I love the detail because it relates to culture, fashion, and technology, and, of course, status, which depends on all of those.

The "home" here is Iceland. The subtitle of the books is "Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths". It is a biography of Snorri Sturluson, the 13th century literary and political genius who seems to have given form to a lot of what we now accept as the standard Norse myths, even as his political machinations contributed to chaos in Iceland, his murder, and the eventual loss of Iceland's independence and its rule by the King of Norway.

His era, called the "Sturlung Era" after his family, is when family and regional sagas were written down in the form we now know--13th century views of events and personalities in the 10th and 11th. Snorri seems to have written Egil's Saga, one of the longest and best known. A story does not tell itself. It says something about both the teller and the listener. The people of the contentious and threatened Sturlung Era looked back to the Saga Era and tried to understand how they had ended up where they were.

This is all research for the book I'm working on. It is not set in Iceland, but is definitely inspired by it. Brown does mention, among things, that Iceland's climate does not allow honeybees to survive. I definitely have bees in my book (growing out of my story "The Forgotten Taste of Honey"), so there you go: not Iceland.



Getting into political theory

I've never been taken any classes in political theory. Or political practice, for that matter. How polities are best structured, what institutions help make you rich, what other ones lead to stagnation or eternal conflict, how even originally good institutions decay over time, what makes people accept a government as legitimate, how people can take the stability of their society for granted until it all dissoves around them....

Well, for some reason, I am thinking about those things now. My current reading is Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order, the first of two volumes, this one covering the history of state building up to the French Revolution.

Thick, dense, and tremendous fun, so far. He spends a great deal of time on China, and a lot on India as well, and lets the Roman Empire kind of take care of itself.

One big theme is the negative effects what he calls patrimonialism has on state building and strength. Loyalty to your relatives is natural. Successful states are, by that token, deeply unnatural. They break the link between family and political authority. He posits that feudalism in the West, essentially a contractual relationship, formed a stable base on which more complex polities could be built. There is certainly a lot of the personal in feudalism, as there is in any relationship between people. But it started the West down a road where the important thing was office and not person.

I don't want to oversimplify. Fukuyama gives a good deal of attention to what characterized each type of government, how it grew out of its circumstances and history, what expectations people had of the systems under which they lived, and how, inevitably, changing expectations weren't met by the existing system.

How the Mamelukes and Ottomans built successful systems based on giving political power to high-status slaves (to eliminate the risk of patrimonialism), only to have these systems eventually fracture as these successful slaves found ways to pass their wealth and power on to their descendants, may seem to have little to do with our current troubles, but seeing how many different ways there are to deal with a recurrent problem is definitely enlightening. It's easy to be distracted by the immediate details. What are people really after? How different is that, really, from one age to another? What mechanisms slow people down from destroying the system that benefits them so much? I won't say prevents--nothing has ever prevented societal collapse.

I'm not done yet, and need to think it through once I am, but there is a lot to like about this book.

Greetings from 1933

In my reading on the 1933 Union Station Massacre in Kansas City, I also learned some things about the country at that time.

First, it was a desperately corrupt place. Entire cities were run by the mob, or other criminal enterprises, and everywhere else seemed strongly affected by organized crime of various kinds.  We tend to underestimate the parasitic load of corruption through most of the twentieth centurey, from concrete contracts to uneven enforcement of the law, a load that, despite a lot of rhetoric, is way lower now than it used to be.

For example, the two federal agents who grabbed Frank Nash in Hot Springs faced a gantlet of corrupt police forces on their way out of town. All of their movements were known, though they threw off pursuit by telling one bunch of corrupt cops they were heading to Joplin, when they actually went to Fort Smith, to catch the train to KC. Of course, they didn't do themselves any favors by then answering the questions of a curious reporter, revealing who they were and where they were going. They proved that not all publicity is good publicity by walking into the ambush when they got there the next morning.

KC, or course, was run by the Prendergast machine. The local mob boss, Johnny Lazia, held court at the Fred Harvey restaurant at the train station. Though the Fred Harvey company (famous for its Harvey Girls) is long gone, the restaurant at Union Station is still a going concern, though I suspect it doesn't resemble Lazia's late-night hangout much, and I don't know who actually runs it. I had lunch there with some old friends from college.

Lazia supposedly gave sanction to the Massacre, and helped clean up afterward. Like many of these guys, he was killed by his fellows, rather than by the cops or the feds, the next year.

Another thing was how dangerous driving was. Now, most of the driving in the various books I read is being done by desperate and low-attention-span thrill killers and bank robbers. Still, they keep spinning out, going off the road, crashing into things, and ending up in ditches. Just as one example among many, Clyde Barrow missed a sign warning of a missing bridge and drove off into a dry river bed--on June 10, a week before the Massacre, to show how everything was happening at once. Bonnie's leg was severely burned by spilled battery acid, and she was never really able to walk again. She was carried, or hopped around on one leg.

Roads were poorly marked, curves sharp, lights rare, and car tires exploded or shredded unexpectedly. No seat belts. And, yeah, people were insane drivers. As with homicides, the 1930s were a peak in automobile vehicle fatalities. The rate for most of that decade was near three per thousand population. The current rate is a third that, and there are vastly more cars per population than there were then. The death rate per million vehicle miles was around 15 in the 1930s. Now it is one.

And people, lacking other distractions, really got into things. If a bank robbery got at all delayed, the street outside would fill with curious onlookers. Posses were a real thing, and bandits were pursued by huge numbers of armed citizens, as the Clyde gang was in Dexter, Iowa, where they had camped out to recuperate. And as I mentioned before, people weren't shy about taking souvenirs, whether it was blood, bullets, or clothing.

It was a wild time, and weirder than we usually think.

Forgotten History: the Union Station Massacre

Before I went out to Kansas City for Worldcon this year, I read up on the city and its history, and became fascinated by an event known as the Union Station Massacre. This shootout, on June 17, 1933, was the high-publicity rollout of the bank robbing, kidnapping, and mayhem that roiled the Midwest until the end of 1934. The marquee stars included John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, the Barkers, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd.

In fact, almost all the mythic actions of these celebrity criminals fall into these couple of years. Dillinger's first bank robbery was four days after the Massacre, on June 21, 1933, and he was dead by July 22, 1934. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow met in 1930, but Clyde didn't start killing people until 1932. They were killed on May 23, 1934. Romantic hero Floyd was killed on October 22, 1934, the twitchy killer Nelson on November 27 of that year, and poor clueless Ma Barker and her son Fred on January 16, 1935. The only high-profile freelance Public Enemy left was the sinister sociopath Alvin Karpis (aka "Old Creepy"), the last member of the Barker gang, and he was arrested on May 1, 1936, after a long period on the run.

But, aside from Pretty Boy Floyd (and this is debated, part of what makes the story interesting), none of these were involved at Union Station. So what happened? What made the morning end with four dead cops in the parking lot in front of Union Station, Kansas City?

A cop and a couple of federal agents (not yet called FBI) went to Hot Springs, Arkasas and kidnapped a known escaped bank robber named Frank Nash. They had to "kidnap" him because enforcing laws across state lines was incredibly difficult at that time, and Hot Springs was a completely criminal enterprise, a kind of gangster Riviera, and they knew they would be prevented if they went through channels. They got on a train the Union Station and called some locals to help them transfer their prisoner from the train to a car and thence to Leavenworth.

But the word got out, and three criminal associates of Nash decided to rescue him, with tommy guns. The result was a shootout that left four cops, both local and federal, dead, along with Nash, and two wounded. The shooters fled.

To show how different things were back then, locals picked up and pocketed the bullets and other detritus of the shootout as souvenirs, while newspaper reporters rearranged the dead bodies to make better photos, getting blood on their pants cuffs. Crime scenes seem to have been complete free-for-alls at this time. Remember, when the airship Shenandoah crashed in southern Ohio in 1925, thousands of locals came and looted the wreckage (though that they also looted the dead bodies of the crew seems to be untrue).

Coming only two days after the high-profile kidnapping of William Hamm, president of the brewery, by the Barkers and Karpis, in St. Paul, Minn,  this really made people see the country as in the grip of a wave of crime--and they weren't wrong. The homicide rate peaked at nearly 10 per 100,000 population in the early 1930s, a rate it would not reach again until the high-crime 1970s and 80s.

This is when J. Edgar Hoover professionalized what would become the FBI--and brilliantly managed its PR, turning it from a bunch of bureaucrats to a professional national police force, and the heroic agency of movies and TV. The Massacre not only kicked off the crime wave, it kicked off Hoover's career.

One of the shooters was a former sheriff named Vern Miller. After he escaped from an ambush at a Chicago apartment building, he vanished, to turn up dead in a ditch near Detroit, presumably the victim of competing criminals. But the other two? Oddly, their identification was never completely clear, even though the shootout took place in a crowded train station in mid-morning of a business day. Pretty Boy Floyd was strongly implicated, but refused to admit culpability as he lay dying of a belly wound in an Ohio cornfield. A man named Adam Richetti was eventually executed for his participation, but whether he was even there that day is hotly disputed.

I had never heard of this event before deciding to go to Kansas City, but am now a big fan. I visited the station a couple of times to see where it happened, and examined what is claimed to be a bullet chip in the front of the station (well, maybe....though it's probably just a random chip).

All the photos of the aftermath show the station parking lot with the bullet-riddled vehicle. I thought they faced city streets and buildings. Instead, turning in the other direction shows you the impressive World War One Memorial, with its Art Deco tower and veiled sphinxes, opened in 1926. It's a dramatic setting for a dramatic crime.