Apr 272011
 
 
Before the U.S. was an industrial capitalist country, the richest citizens were often real estate magnates whose large landholdings reaped great profit in the form of cotton.  As such, real estate — land — was much in demand — because this was the obvious path to wealth.  Alabamans of the time were frustrated, then, by the land that lay undeveloped within their state, and they clamored for this to be made available for sale.  When gold was discovered in some of this area, locals ratcheted up their demand for access.
 
The problem was that this territory belonged to the Muscogee Nation.  The founders of our country had signed treaties outlining the Indians’ domain and recognizing their authority over it.  Under pressure from demanding citizens, the State of Alabama moved to take control of the land anyway.  The Muscogee reacted by barring sale of property within their territory to whites (or non-citizens of the Muscogee Nation).  When the same occurred to the Cherokee Indians in Georgia, that nation appealed to the Supreme Court, which sided with them.  President Andrew Jackson elected to defy the Court’s ruling and instead of protecting the Cherokees and Muscogees from encroachment by Georgians and Alabamans, he oversaw a mass deportation of the Native Americans to “resolve” the problem.
 
At that time (in 1837), Opothle Yahola was 39 years old.  He had lived his life to that point on his ancestral lands and likely expected to be buried there.  Instead, he was rounded up with thousands of others and dragged off to foreign lands in the west.  He traveled the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma with 8,000 other Muscogee, without any of the possessions they were forced to leave behind.  Traveling slowly by land, some of Yahola’s group would arrive several months later in a land completely unfamiliar to them to begin again.  Many others died along the way due to disease and starvation.
 
At his mature age, then, Yahola — rather than benefiting from his years of labor and accumulations — worked with his family to build a new home, break ground, and re-establish their government in a new place.  However, less than thirty years after resettling in this new territory, Yahola’s life was upended once again.  The southern states seceded from the Union and Confederates in Oklahoma went on the offensive.  Their activity threatened the safety and livelihood of Yahola and his neighbors.  So, Yahola, now 63 — led a large group north, seeking refuge and aid from the federal government in Kansas.  They were chased by Confederates and fought back three attacks from their pursuers during their flight.  After losing 2,000 of their group, they made it to Kansas.  Yahola died there in a refugee camp with many other Muscogee, succumbing to illness due to the poor conditions and lack of supplies at the hoped-for safe haven (where many of the Indian refugees were forced to endure amputations of their limbs that had frozen from exposure).
 
Bitter remnants of Yahola’s band joined Union forces — including a “colored” regiment from Kansas that became the first group of black soldiers to fight in the war for the U.S. — to retake the land that was all they had after resettlement.  Not only did these loyalists face white Confederates, they also now faced their own nation, which had thrown in with the Confederacy after it promised them autonomy and freedom from further encroachment (an appealing promise from a new government without a proven track record of breaking its word to them like the U.S. government).  The “white man’s war” that Yahola had resisted now drew them in and pitted them also against their own in a bitter contest that guaranteed failure despite the outcome.
 
And, that was the outcome.  When the final Confederate general — ironically a Cherokee named Stand Watie — surrendered to Union forces in June 1865, the beginning of the end of Indian autonomy in Oklahoma was at hand.  The U.S. government demanded land concessions from the Muscogee and other nations after the war as punishment for their rebellious elements.  Yahola’s loyalty meant nothing to a government that saw only Watie, et al’s fierce resistance.  Even after this new forfeiture, the onslaught of white invasion did not stop.  Before another thirty years passed, the Oklahoma Territory would be opened to white settlement, and in forty, the Muscogee Nation (again, like its peers) would be swallowed up by the State of Oklahoma, admitted to the Union in 1907.  The Civil War for the nations, then, marked the start of their assimilation and the end of their independence.  Life for the Muscogee would never again be what Yahola had known as a young man and died trying to maintain.
 
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P.S. There will be a re-enactment of the Battle of Honey Springs — the last decisive battle in Indian Territory — on April 29-May 1, 2011 near Rentiesville, Oklahoma.  The cost for adults is $5.00 and children under 12 are admitted free.
 Posted by at 11:08 pm
Apr 212011
 
 
Part of the reason the view of history as a social science fails to compel me is that it seems so purposeless.  What’s the point of objective knowledge about people who lived before you?  You aren’t going to get at any unimpeachable laws that will hold true for human behavior by looking at that.  Different people do disparate things.  You can’t formulate from this any rules that hold for all persons any more than you can write one history that covers everything and every view — even in a particular period and location.  It’s like finding the perfect cup of coffee — perspectives and individual choice matter.  If you’re going to put all your faith in immutable axioms, you might as well reject the notion of free will and embrace pre-ordination (even if of a secular sort).
 
Still, historians practice as if they were going to get at something of value by using a social science approach.  Actually, in the U.S., I think they do it just because that’s how they understand the job to be done.  I don’t think they actually think about the usefulness of their work (aside from being generally informative and instructive) or the point of the whole damn thing.  American historians are probably only slightly more introspective than their fellow citizens — which is to say they are critical couch potatoes.  They do not tend to the philosophic for the most part (but there are always exceptions, see above).  Most of them aren’t serious students of historiography, much less philosophy of history.  You’re good at being a historian.  It’s a good job.  It has security.  It’s interesting.  That’s about the extent of it.  You don’t have get all metaphysical to do the actual work.  I don’t know why you should expect scholars to be any more conscious about their work than an accountant or doctor.
 
The thing is that sixteen years ago an angry, cruel man blew up the Murrah Building in downtown Oklahoma City.  One hundred and sixty-eight people were killed as the steel and concrete exploded over busy city streets.  Many of the dead were children whose parents kept them at a daycare on the second floor.  The peace and the hearts of the people living in Oklahoma then were irreversibly broken by unexpected and jarring domestic terrorism.  We grieved together — glued to the news for every detail about the thing we could not comprehend.  Our people volunteered, gave blood, wept, consoled and did just about anything they could do in response.  For thirty days afterwards, we drove our cars with the headlights on as if we were in a funeral procession…all the time.  It was comforting to share your grief and connection to the community around you.  It was reaffirming.  Every year, on April 19th, Oklahomans commemorate that horrible day and remember those lost, and in doing so, we are reaffirming our community all over again.
 
Our history is with us and we value it not because it gives us some insight into the nature of social relations or leads us to some important principle.  Here, history connects us to one another.  It is what we all share — however we interpret that experience.  It is this commonality that makes us a community.  There isn’t anything scientific about that or in keeping this memory.  We use it to define who we are as a group of human beings — not as a social organism.  If you’re trying to find some insight into social relations by looking at the bombing, you’ve rather missed the pain/humanity/tragedy of it, and I can’t think that there’s anything to that kind of history.
 
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 Posted by at 12:22 am
Apr 022011
 
 
All things have their place in history, and when they occur very much shapes how they occur.  Even similar events unfold differently based on their temporal placement.  For example, the First Barbary War fought against pirates from Tripoli in the early 19th century — though between peoples of the same territories — was distinctly disparate from the military action taking place in Libya today (2011).   There has been a lot of history between the two skirmishes.
 
Most especially, what has changed is the presidency and the primacy of the federal government.  Thomas Jefferson, Commander-in-Chief of the Barbary War, believed in small government so as not to intrude on the rights of white men of property to do what they wanted (including owning slaves, beating their wives, and monopolizing industry).  He was an anti-federalist who championed the Bill of Rights as a check on centralized government.  Jefferson remains one of our most notable presidents — a champion of democracy (as it was understood in that day).  However, the power — and size — of the federal government was not then what it is now.  Really, the most powerful men of that time were judges (which is why Jefferson was so intent to throw out the appointments of John Adams, leading to the Supreme Court’s resolution in Marbury v. Madison).
 
Some sixty years later, the bloody Civil War would decide that the Union was inseparable and that the federal government was superior to that of the states.  The tumultuous events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries would demand stronger leadership from the federal executive in the wake of that war.  As our economy realigned and freed blacks struggled to find their place in society, someone had to keep the peace and protect the disadvantaged.  The executive branch blossomed — adding a Commerce Department, the Department of Justice, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to name a few.  Presidents struggled with competing demands over how to resolve bitter, violent, and costly strikes that developed with the new industrialization.  It was then contingent upon the federal government — with its far-reaching fingers — to take action.
 
Meanwhile, the quest for empire began, and when Teddy Roosevelt took over the White House, he strengthened the presidency significantly.  He didn’t shy from military actions abroad and claimed America’s status among the leading nations of the time.  Two world wars later, the office of the president would be even more powerful.  The second Roosevelt saw to that, with his expansive action to combat the Depression and then as part of his wartime powers.  The strong executive was here to stay then.  The Cold War assured that presidents thereafter would not play second fiddle to judges or Congressmen — their position as Commander-in-Chief and treaty negotiator assured that.  Eisenhower led us into a police action in Korea without a nod from Congress via a declaration of war.  The precedent was set and undeclared wars became the tool of the anti-communist movement.
 
And then came the clusterfuck that was Vietnam.  Lyndon Johnson tricked Congress into authorizing military action there and it gave him essentially a blank check with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  The war dragged on, grew bloody, and refused to be resolved.  The leak of the Pentagon Papers demonstrated to the public and Congress how they were being manipulated by the president in order to pursue his plan in Vietnam.  Ultimately, this cost Johnson his position and gave the U.S. a blow from which it still struggles to recover.  To keep this kind of thing from happening again, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973.  Approved by both houses of Congress, the resolution requires a president to get approval to take any military action that isn’t a response to an immediate security threat (read: attack).  If undertaking any deployment, a president is required to notify Congress about it within forty-eight hours and the action cannot last longer than sixty days without legislative consent.  Of course, Richard Nixon vetoed the resolution — but the veto was overridden.  No president since has conceded that Congress’ authority in the matter is superior to his own, and notifications in keeping with the resolution are carefully worded so as to make it clear that the executive is advising the legislature rather than obeying it.
 
So, sending troops to Libya today is a little more complicated than it was back in Jefferson’s time.  His administration did not have to function under the shadow of Vietnam — or Lyndon Johnson….or even of Teddy or Franklin Roosevelt.  That makes the obligation on Obama a whole different ball of wax.  Indeed, Teddy Roosevelt — free of the War Powers Resolution — could make a bold statement with his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine declaring the American hemisphere “ours” to protect from outside intervention.  Perhaps defending Venezuela from our friends the British and Germans is different than protecting Libyan citizens from their own despot, but no one checked Roosevelt’s authority to act there.  Clearly, the ensuing century has made all the difference, and the Obama administration has a different burden of history.
 
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 Posted by at 10:07 am