Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Why is New England only in the northeast?

How come only the states in the northeast are called New England? Thirteen colonies split off from Great Britain, right?


But the name “New England” was first used in 1616, and it didn’t expand beyond its region, since the Netherlands was already directly south in New Amsterdam in 1614 and France had Acadia to the north in 1604. Thus Virginians, for example, had no reason to connect themselves to New England as the name of a region.

New World recolonization — descendants of the original colonists were busily becoming smallpox victims from 1492 to roughly 1850 — took about 300 years, and England was one of four actors; the Netherlands claimed primarily the area around the port of New Amsterdam, France took most of east-central Canada down to what’s now Louisiana, and Spain took the western part of the continent.

John Smith named the area New England — because everything was getting named either Place I Am From or New [Place I Am From] — in 1616, and it stuck; many British merchants immigrated there up until the Revolutionary War. The French were busy with their foothold in Canada, where they had sailed in search of China (latitude had not been invented yet*); they discovered beavers and decided that was good enough. And of course the Dutch founded New Amsterdam, and Spain claimed Florida, since you should always look to diversify your land stock portfolio. Great Britain seized most of those lands eventually; Spain settling and losing Mexico and the western half of the U.S. will be the subject of another entry.

Meanwhile, back at the New England Ranch, the colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Providence Plantation, and Connecticut were the sole English-speaking settlements in the region until the Netherlands yielded what would be renamed New York in 1674, since Great Britain beat them in a war and the Netherlands chose to give up New Amsterdam and keep spice-producing lands in Indonesia.

New Hampshire got seeded in 1623, with a few batches of settlers going at once, though none of the colony names survived to become towns. New Jersey didn’t get started until 1665, with Elizabeth. Maryland was settled in 1634 to secure the Delaware region, followed by Pennsylvania in 1684; Delaware split from Pennsylvania in 1701. Vermont was an outgrowth of conflicting claims and settlements from New Hampshire and New York from 1724 to 1763. King Charles II consolidated the villages east of Connecticut into Rhode Island in 1663.

The kings of England changed American colonial boundaries for political or economic reasons. The initial colonies were granted land from eastern to western shore, but the thirteen colonies clung to the coast, since terrible transportation options heavily restricted supplying anything further inland (anyone who’s played Colonization can sympathize). King James II revoked Massachusetts Bay’s charter in 1684 because the Puritans refused to allow the Church of England any establishment**, and flouted colonial trade laws. That led to the Dominion of New England from 1686 to 1689, which combined the colonies from Delaware to Maine into a single unit. It was dissolved when James was deposed and William and Mary took the throne (one sat on the other’s lap, to avoid really nasty hip bruises), and while the other colonies of the actual region of New England returned to their previous forms, Massachusetts Bay expanded to include what is now Maine, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and chunks of every other neighboring state.

So the residents of the Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and arguably Vermont thought of themselves as New Englanders because the king of England said that was the region’s name, and those in New York, New Jersey, etc. did not. The area now called Maine was (re)colonized by residents of Massachusetts and split off in 1820 (more on that in another future entry), while Vermont was part of New York — and was one of the four states to be its own country (1777-1791) — before it was admitted into the Union in 1791 (after Quebec said no, and Vermont sighed and paid New York to stop whining).

You might say, “This is just a really long and convoluted ‘because’!” You’re right. Maine et al. are called New England because that’s what England decided the area was called, a century and a half before ruling almost the whole East Coast.

Once the colonies became these United States, New England stopped being anything but a cultural and geographic construct, but as the Patriots could tell you, it’s done well enough.

**They had founded the place, after all, so everybody had to go to church daily in deliberately uncomfortable clothes, and the CoE allowed a fancy new kind of underwear that didn’t ride up after hours working in the field.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Jefferson's newspaper was trash

Newspapers aren't very reliable sources of information these days; they're generally either too concerned with revenue or too friendly with the people they interview to get good information. Now, this might make you think longingly of Walter Cronkite, and bemoan the state of modern journalism. Don't worry, papers have been a lot worse than this.

For starters, the first printed matter in the New World meant for general consumption were largely trash. Many were practically tabloids, and all of them promoted an agenda. There was no tradition of the free, impartial press: the broadside was put out to further the interests of whoever wrote it or funded the enterprise. Oh, some of them claimed to be fair, not taking sides, but in the same sense in which I can claim to be an Olympic pole-vaulter.

This general philosophical difference between newspapers didn’t end when the British surrendered; initially there were 25 papers supporting the war, and 13 against. Instead, the goals shifted toward either of two setups:

1) A strong central government and alliance with Great Britain; or
2) States being the main governing bodies, opposing England and favoring France.

Having a strong central government was the governing philosophy of the Federalists, who held the presidency and much of Congress until 1801. Meanwhile, the Anti-Federalists favored the states, and continued to distrust England.

Washington himself was rarely the target of Republican polemics; he was well-liked, but he was nowhere near as active in the party as was Alexander Hamilton. Additionally, Washington was only clearly on the side of a strong central government during his second term, though he refused to admit it, and famously warned against forming political factions in his farewell address. This is odd, given that he in a political faction — and factions were clearly dominating in Philadelphia when he was president. (Congress moved to DC in 1801.)

Now, these names did not arise until around when President Washington was re-elected. The parties weren’t formal for a while, simply people who believed in similar things and began to gather to promote their beliefs. Remember, politics in a democratic society was a new phenomenon, and it wasn’t until 1795 that members of Congress were officially Federalists or Republicans*, rather than being identified as supporting the administration or opposing it.

The Anti-Federalists named themselves Republicans, emphasizing the desire for a republic, as opposed to a monarchy, which they accused Federalists of supporting, seeing a strong central government as little different from a king. Just the same, the main focuses of American politics -- power in government and foreign alliances -- became prominent in only the second session of Congress, and people did organize in support of them.

Once the Federalists and Republicans settled as the two major parties, the struggle in ink became even fiercer. The days of politicians -- trained in classic oratory -- publishing anonymously in the paper faded. But the wilder-than-today claims were amazing: They accused Jefferson of being prepared to have nuns prostituted, while Adams would teach “murder robbery”.

One of the means of support was founding newspapers to trumpet their views, for which wealthy party members would pay subscriptions, so that the editor need not back off from attacking members of the other party for fear of losing sales. The Gazette of the United States was perhaps the most prominent of the Federalist papers, and it quarreled viciously, bitterly, even leading to the point of libel with its Republican counterpart, the National Gazette.

In short, while freedom of the press was one of the first things added to the Constitution, the Founding Fathers were quick to ensure that some members of the press would be loyal only to their faction. It took a very long time to get better, for that matter; while William Randolph Hearst most likely never told his photographer in Cuba "You supply the pictures, I'll supply the war", his New York Journal and its rival the New York World most certainly contributed greatly to sparking the Spanish-American War in 1898, as was their intent.

The most trustworthy journalism today lies with the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, NPR, and the BBC, not with the papers. But frankly, newsprint has rarely been that reliable when it comes to the first half of the word.

Most facts in this post came from the excellent Infamous Scribblers, by Eric Burns, published by PublicAffairs in 2006.

*Note: I call them Republicans, since that’s what they called themselves, but their opponents labeled them Democrats, a pejorative referring to their worship of the common man, whom the Federalists did not trust with matters of governance. Historians have settled on the name Democratic-Republican, which nobody ever called anyone in 1789, so it seems unhelpful and stupid. However, my way could lead to confusion: to make this perfectly clear, the Republican Party of Jefferson and Madison has nothing to do with that of Lincoln and Taft.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Why are there two Dakotas?

It's a natural question: neither one has that many people, and it's not as if the combined state would be that big, particularly compared to next-door Montana. So why do we have North and South Dakota?

There are a few reasons that the Dakota Territory was split in half before admission into the Union, actually. There were two railroads through the territory: one in northern Dakota leading to Minnesota and Wisconsin, the other in southern Dakota leading to Iowa and Illinois. There was no steel connector between them, only a dirt road, and thus travel was extremely difficult and expensive, the easiest way to do so being a ticket to Chicago and then going back all the way west.

This separation also contributed to the sense of the residents that there were really two regions there, along with the more prominent reason that there were three major settled areas: the Black Hills, in the southwest; the southeast, around the then-capital of the territory, Yankton, and the northeast, around Bismarck, which would be the capital of North Dakota. Lastly, the land usage was quite different, being mostly farming in the north, and grazing in the south. That might not seem like a big deal to city-dwellers (like me), but farmers and ranchers have long had a testy relationship, and avoiding that conflict does seem like it would have been a good argument for the split.

So those were the geographic, sociological, and economic reasons for having a North Dakota and a South Dakota. But naturally, that's not the whole story. See, Dakotans started pressing for a split, and separate admission into the Union, in 1877. For the past few decades, states had been brought into the Union as pairs; before the Civil War, balancing slave states and free states was crucial, and afterwards, neither party wanted to give the other a structural advantage in either house of Congress. But the Dakota Territory was largely populated by Republicans, and from 1875 to 1888, at least one house of Congress was controlled by Democrats, usually the House. Admitting a single Republican state had little appeal to them, and getting two more was even less acceptable.

So for thirteen years Democrats blocked both separation and statehood, while the case grew stronger for the latter as the population increased from 14,000 in 1870 to 539,000 in 1890. People were flocking to Dakota in droves, largely on the strength of the arable land next to the railroads, and when Republicans took the House in 1889, North and South Dakota were admitted promptly, along with Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington later in the session. All six states sent Republicans to the House and Senate, though since the House was four and a half times as large as the Senate, and there were seven new Republican Representatives to the twelve incoming Republican Senators, the latter was rather more significant.

Most facts courtesy History of the Dakota Territory, Volume 2, by George Washington Kingsbury, published in 1915 by S. J. Clarke Publishing Company.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Government 101

Before I go into more complicated things, I should explain the basic structure of U.S. government. There are three fundamental levels: federal, state, and local. The federal government is in charge of the whole country, state governments are concerned with the state, and local governments focus on the city, county, town, or what have you.

The federal government, like state governments, is composed of three branches: executive, judicial, and legislative. The executive branch is headed by the president, or governor for states. It has most of the workers, since most government agencies are derived from cabinet departments. The legislative branch is Congress, or the state legislature. Everyone but Nebraska has two houses, almost always called the House of Representatives and the Senate. The judicial branch has the Supreme Court, twelve circuit courts, and ninety-four district courts. Not all states are organized the same way, of course, but you generally have a few levels of courts, to handle different sizes of cases.

The executive branch is in charge of enforcing the law, which means spending money when needed to pay personnel to inspect goods, pursue criminals, keep an eye on stock transactions, and so forth. The legislative branch makes those laws, which usually have to pass both houses of Congress with a simple majority -- 50% of those voting, plus 1 or rounded up. The judicial branch interprets the law, and can declare any law unconstitutional, in part or in whole.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Belated Introduction

This probably should have been the first post, but formality is not one of the goals here. My aim is information, with a hefty side of humor, or at least being more amusing than a newspaper or textbook.

I've been studying politics for the last eight years, getting a BA in political science along the way, and I've amassed a considerable archive of election lore along the way. My focus is primarily historical, though I do keep up with current events. It's not that I like the past more, but you can understand it better, because you've already seen most or all of the ramifications. Issues like gold-based money and protective tariffs are largely settled, and we can examine the elections where they were important without having to trail off because they're still developing, unlike, say, the role of evangelical Christians in the Republican Party.

There are many things I can talk about from scratch, of course, but my hope is that you folks will send me questions, so I know what you're curious or confused about.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The first questions

Washington -- the first president?

There's a deceptively sensible claim going around the web: Washington wasn't really the first president, because someone had to be president during the Revolutionary War, right? Well, no. Someone should have been president, but under the Articles of Confederation, which we used from 1781 to 1788, there was no strong executive branch, and barely anything at all worthy of the name. There was the title "President of the United States in Congress Assembled", but that job consisted of presiding over Congress itself, and lasted for only one year. No official before George Washington had the title of President of the United States, the responsibilities, or the powers. Claiming that Hancock (the most famous of the Congressional presidents) or Peyton Randolph (the first one) was President is inaccurate, using the strict interpretation of the word, and flat-out wrong, with the common understanding thereof.

State of Franklin

With the proposed division of California in the news, not that it's going to happen, some of the other proposed states come to mind. Franklin, for example, was made up of a western chunk of North Carolina, which was offered by the state to the federal government to pay for Revolutionary war debts. The arrangement got messed up, as was not uncommon in the days before we really got the country running smoothly and there was any way to communicate across great distance efficiently. Pretty soon, the residents of the region proposed that it become its own state, and named it in honor of Ben Franklin. They got fairly well organized, with leadership of the legislature and a governor elected, but when the Continental Congress couldn't muster a 2/3 majority vote to admit Frankland (as it was initially called), that was the beginning of the end. Raleigh got its act together and told the Franklinites that it wasn't going to happen, and eventually the area was ceded for good, and in 1796 became eastern Tennessee.

one vote matters?

Really, does one vote matter? After all, even in most town council races you have a few hundred being cast, and for the House of Representatives, you could easily have two hundred thousand. And yeah, statistically, one vote is extremely unlikely to be the difference between two candidates. Even a family would be hard-pressed to push someone over the top. One vote is a very small thing. So is one pint of blood donated, one child fed, housed, and clothed, one plastic bottle recycled, one tree planted. Voting is how we make democracy, and it takes a lot of people to do it.

Lame ducks

The term "lame duck" originally came from English finance in the 18th century, used to describe a stockbroker who defaulted on his debts. It took a while to come across the pond, but soon came to refer to a politician who was nearing the end of his last term, by either defeat or retirement. While a new Congress is elected in November of every even year, until 1933 they would take the oath of office in March, and the old Congress, sometimes with a different party in power, would nevertheless sit from December to February. That was and still is called a lame-duck session. Presidents are typically referred to as lame ducks after their second midterm, since there will be no more elections affecting their job. And yes, it is kind of a silly name, but there's a lot sillier than that in the world of politics.