Saturday, May 31, 2014

How did the Electoral College start to break down?

The first actual test of the new election system didn't go so great. 1789 and 1792 don't count, since you don't get credit for everything going swimmingly when there's only one candidate. After Washington retired, though, his vice president John Adams wanted to take his place, which set up a tense race, since he wasn't the only one. The major opposing candidate was Thomas Jefferson, who used to be secretary of state, but quit after Washington kept favoring the Federalists Adams and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton instead of him.

When Washington ran, the general agreement was that he would be president and John Adams would be vice president, and since everyone was on board with that, having every elector vote for him and most (but not all) of the electors vote for John Adams wasn't too difficult to arrange. The Adams-Jefferson race changed that, since barely more than half the electors favored Adams, which didn't leave much room for error.

The fundamental problem was that the electors couldn't vote separately for the president and vice president. As long as someone got a majority of the votes, that person was elected president, and the runner-up was vice president. If there were a tie, it would go to the House, and while this wouldn't be quite as embarrassing the third time around, it still wouldn't be good, and could get messed up pretty easily. So both Federalists and Republicans tried to arrange for all their electors to vote for the presidential candidate (Adams or Jefferson), and a couple to vote for someone who wasn't the vice presidential candidate (Thomas Pinckney or Aaron Burr).

This scheme failed pretty massively for both sides; Adams got 71 votes, but Pinckney managed 59, and he only managed that much because South Carolina, ordinarily a Republican state, cast 8 votes for him and Jefferson. Jefferson, meanwhile, managed 68 votes, and Burr was driven down to 30. Now, this seems pretty embarrassing, but remember that this was 1796, and they didn't have Skype, email, phones, or even the Pony Express. Good organization requires communication, and you try coordinating the actions of seventy people spread out over a thousand-mile coastline over the course of a month (the College had to meet on December 15, and the election was in early November) when your only option for telling them whom to vote for is a horse.

So Adams was elected president, and Jefferson accompanied him to DC as the vice president, followed by four solid years of bickering. The existing system for elections clearly didn't work too well, but Congress wasn't too interested in changing it. Rep. William Smith of South Carolina proposed an amendment distinguishing between ballots for president and ballots for vice president, but nothing happened. Would 1800 be any less chaotic than 1796?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Why was that Electoral College crap so complicated? Why didn't they pick something better?

The thing to understand here is that the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which is where all this got decided, was full of compromises. The idea when answering questions like "how should we elect the president? how long should he serve? should we even have one single president, or a committee?" wasn't to arrive at the objectively best solution, but something that as many people were okay with as possible. The structure of our government isn't the Platonic ideal -- it's what worked for most of us when it was passed.

The other thing to understand is how awful communication was back then. Most of the delegates were leery of having the general public decide big elections not because "lol John Q. doesn't know jack, stupid proles" but because the local newspapers that informed most voters tended to be sacks of crap. They didn't cover current events, and they couldn't be trusted to help people make an informed decision. Voting for members of the state legislature and House of Representatives was small enough that people could probably get a decent idea of what was going on.

The other major concern for a direct popular vote was regionalism: if a significant fraction of the people simply voted for a candidate from their state, national unity would be out the window. Yes, I know, I've banged this drum before, but it was a serious fear back then. Calling the former British colonies the United States of America didn't magically make everyone join together, and there were already tensions between the states over commerce, industry, and of course slavery.

Frankly, there were a few proposals for electing the president. Some wanted the governors to pick him, and Madison favored Congress having the responsibility. Nobody liked the idea too much, but having states send as many people as they had votes in Congress to decide who should be president seemed like the least bad option available.

More than a few people thought there was a decent chance that the Electoral College wouldn't have a majority for a single candidate; Madison was betting that this would happen nearly every time. There was a lot of contention over how the election would proceed in that event, since the general preference was for the House, which was closest to the people, to choose, but that kinda screwed over the small states. That concern got assuaged by giving each state delegation one vote, just like in the Senate, where each state got two votes; that arrangement was echoed in the Senate's role in the election process, since they chose the vice president, each senator getting one vote.

The Electoral College was a complex system, set up to try to keep as many people semi-satisfied as they could manage. It still practically fell on its face the first time there was an actual race, and had even bigger problems the next time. More on that tomorrow.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why didn't Washington run for a third term?

Because he didn't want to. Frankly, he had to be persuaded to run for reelection in 1792, but his advisers made the case that the country needed another four years of the Washington administration to glue it together that little bit more. Two terms was a reasonable time to serve, and he reluctantly acquiesced.

1796, however, was a different story. George was feeling increasingly unwell, coupled with the strain of having managed the national government for eight years, with decades of public service before. The newspapers were also getting on his nerves, having grown more prolific and vituperative since his first inauguration; that very stress was fueled by members of his administration, funding party publications and urging others to follow.

He was keenly aware that every action he took would set precedent; this was true for everyone, of course, but the President is a bigger single part of government than anyone else. They had fought a long, painful, and expensive war to break away from a monarchy, and set up a very weak government in the Articles of Confederation to guard against tyranny. The weaknesses of the Articles did not negate the fears that the men at the forefront of the development of American governance had about power. So he left after two terms, and his example set up such a pressure that nobody tried for a third term until Grant in 1880, and even then that was largely because prominent Republicans favored him for the nomination, and he needed the money.

Of course, another primary reason for his retirement was the physical deterioration I mentioned before. He was sixty-four in 1796, and he had spent twenty years fighting on the American frontier before the Revolutionary War began. Washington was not in good health, particularly his teeth, which had been giving him serious pain for many years. He ended up dying in December 1799, and while his final illness owed a great deal to spending several hours a day in the snow and not keeping dry, hands up everyone who thinks being president would have been easier on him than that.

The root of his departure was at least half principle, the same principle which led him to resign as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army once the war was over. It would have been easy for Washington to take power, but he retired instead. He only left retirement because they asked him to be the first president, and after those two terms, he went right back to his farm. This is not to be hagiographic, or portray civil service as something one should be reluctant to take part in, but giving up power is not a very common thing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

How did the first presidential election work? Did everyone just want George Washington, or what?

Pretty much, yeah. The idea when they were writing the Constitution was that Washington would come out of retirement and be president; national unity was a huge concern, and would be for the next several years, and he was the single most adored person on the continent. The real question was, who would be his vice president?

Despite Washington being a national figure, he was still from Virginia, and the smart money was on a northern man, to make sure New England and New York had as much of a stake in the nascent federal government. Quite a number of people fit the bill, but the consensus eventually came to John Adams of Massachusetts.

Now that the outcome was agreed upon, the task of arranging it began. This might sound like a subversion of democracy, but the process wasn't really all that people-powered to begin with. See, at that time the president and vice president were chosen by the Electoral College, a body made up of a delegation from each state. They were allowed one member per vote in Congress, so as many as they had representatives plus two for the Senate; how they chose who would be voting was entirely up to them, and most of the states restricted the influence of the voters.

Method of choosing ElectorsState(s)
each elector appointed by the state legislatureConnecticut
New Jersey
New York (a)
South Carolina
  • two electors appointed by state legislature
  • each remaining elector chosen by state legislature from list of top two vote-getters in each congressional district
each elector chosen by voters statewide; however, if no candidate wins majority, state legislature appoints elector from top two candidatesNew Hampshire
state is divided into electoral districts, with one elector chosen per district by the voters of that districtVirginia (b)
electors chosen at large by votersMaryland
state had not yet ratified the Constitution, so was not eligible to choose electorsNorth Carolina
Rhode Island

Every member of the electoral college had two votes, to be cast for two different people, at least one of whom had to be from a different state. Whoever got the most votes would be president, and the runner-up would be vice president; if no one got a majority, or if there were a tie, the election would go to Congress. Electing Washington was easy: everyone would cast one vote for him, unanimous election. Having Adams as the vice president was a little tougher, since if everyone voted for him as well, there would be that tie, which would be kind of embarrassing in the very first election.

So it was decided that some electors would vote for Washington and someone else, so Adams would get a comfortable second place. Massachusetts and New Jersey voted only for Washington and Adams, and everyone else cast a few ballots for another man, sometimes more than one, usually people from that state who deserved recognition (a phenomenon that would come to be known as 'favorite sons', and happen more in the party nominating convention). Some, like John Jay and George Clinton, would later achieve high office (Chief Justice and Thomas Jefferson's second Vice President, respectively).

(North Carolina and Rhode Island hadn't ratified the Constitution yet, so they didn't get to vote. New York had done so, but the legislature was so dysfunctional, as it had been for years and frankly continues to be, that they couldn't agree on whom to appoint as electors.)

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

Before the Civil War, there was no single day for remembering soldiers who died in war; people just did their own thing, for their own relatives. This changed in the aftermath of the Civil War, probably in part because far more people had died than in all the other wars combined. A need arose to commemorate the deaths, and in 1865 the federal government began creating national cemeteries to bury soldiers.

General John Logan, at that time the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans organization, called for a Decoration Day on May 30, 1868, to remember the fallen boys in blue. ('Decoration' referring to wreaths and pictures and the like decorating graves, not military awards.) It was already a tradition in the southern states, having started in 1866, but different states picked different dates, going from late April to early June.

Initially, Decoration Day ceremonies were half an excuse for bashing the Confederacy, its soldiers, and its leaders. However, it also strengthened a sense of national unity and goodwill, and by the time Reconstruction ended, the latter was a much larger part of the events than the former, frequently commemorating the dead of both sides.

Memorial Day became a more common term, first arising in the 1880s, and overcoming Decoration Day after World War II, with official recognition by President Johnson in 1967. For a century, the date was May 30, but in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved Memorial Day, Washington's Birthday, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day to Mondays, so people would have three-day weekends. (Largely federal employees, since they're the only ones who have to get those days off, but a fair number of businesses are closed on those days as well.)

Now, we all love three-day weekends, but the VFW has pointed out that getting the Monday off is kind of missing the point of the day itself; some holidays are primarily about not working, but this isn't one of them. The original date was pretty much arbitrary, apart from being good for having flowers in bloom and not being the date of any actual battles. Donald Inouye, a WWII veteran, introduced a bill changing the date back every year, from 1987 until he died in 2012.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

What's the Emancipation Proclamation, and why did it matter?

The standard three-second spiel you get in school is "Lincoln freed the slaves". Unsurprisingly, it's a lot more complicated than that, but it's hard to get much nuance in when you have to cover two hundred years in nine months.

The Civil War began largely because the slave states were terrified that Lincoln would outlaw slavery; he had expressed only an opposition to extending slavery to the territories and new states, but given his antipathy towards the practice, their fear was somewhat justified. There was also the issue of tariffs: charging a tax on imported goods, and thus forcing the consumer to pay more. Northern industrialists wanted to protect their developing factories from cheap products brought over from England, but the South was mostly plantation-based, and didn't want to pay more for clothes and machinery. Tariffs weren't directly part of the conflict, but the argument certainly heightened the tensions between the two sides.

The banner of states' rights was certainly trumpeted as justification for secession, but slavery advocates had consistently argued for a state's right to allow slavery, and against a state's right to ban it. The Confederate Constitution did not allow a state to ban slavery, and in fact required both states and the country as a whole to protect it.

The Emancipation Proclamation did free slaves but it only covered the parts of the country that were in active rebellion; slave states that had not seceded, like Maryland and Delaware, were unaffected. Lincoln declared that this was an exercise of his power as commander-in-chief of the Union Army, and the order also allowed ex-slaves to join the military. This prompted the flight of hundreds of thousands of slaves in the Confederacy, and by the end of the war nearly two hundred thousand black men had served in the Army or Navy.

Shockingly, the Confederacy got really mad at this, and said any black soldier would be summarily executed if captured; Lincoln countered with a promise that one rebel soldier would be executed for every soldier illegally killed, and one would be put to hard labor for every soldier enslaved. (Shooting a guy who's shooting at you is just fine; shooting a guy who's unarmed and helpless is quite something else.) The threat was carried out when the Union knew about executions and slave-taking, and the Confederacy didn't exactly back off, but it didn't happen as much as you would think.

Unfortunately, being in the Army and officially having the protection of the U.S. government doesn't mean nobody's going to be a jackass. While eighty black soldiers received commissions as officers, that's a very small fraction of the number above who served, and until April 1864 black soldiers were effectively paid $7 a month, to the white soldiers' $13.

The Emancipation Proclamation, as a war measure, was inherently limited, and Congress passed the 13th Amendment, banning slavery throughout the country, to extend and solidify it.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Why have there been so many presidents from Ohio?

A cursory glance at presidents listed by home state reveals a somewhat surprising statistic: seven presidents have called Ohio their home, and six of those were born there. Seven out of forty-three doesn't really seem like a fair share, especially considering that while Ohio's been one of the more populous states since the 1830s, it never managed a sixth of the country's population. So what's going on?

Looking at a list of the presidents by home state makes it a little more clear: from Ulysses S. Grant to Warren G. Harding, every president was from a swing state*. Looking at each election makes it even more clear; Republicans nominated someone from a swing state in every election from 1868 to 1920 (with the exception of James G. Blaine of Maine in 1884, which they lost), and Democrats did so a substantial majority of the time. Three of the four times they didn't were for William Jennings Bryan, who was a magnificent Nebraskan orator who nevertheless got spanked all three times. In 1920, both Warren G. Harding and James Cox were from Ohio.

So the answer is: for fifty years, both parties nominated people from swing states, and Ohio was a popular choice for the Republicans, who won most of those elections, albeit often narrowly. Ohio's dominance is, however, mitigated somewhat by Grant being an Illinois native, and it was listed as his home state in 1872. The delegates at the 1868 convention cannot have considered him to be an Ohioan, since three-term Ohio Senator had a plurality of votes for the vice-presidential nomination for the first four ballots, and nominating two men from Ohio would have denied them that state's votes in the Electoral College*. Grant still would have won easily without Ohio's 21 votes, since he beat Horatio Seymour of New York 214 votes to 80, but that's the election, not the convention.

Grant was nominated based not on his Ohio residency, which borders on the fictitious, but because he was seen as winning the Civil War. Garfield, in 1880, had served nine terms in the House, and was preparing to take a seat in the Senate, but was commonly addressed and referred to in the convention as General, since he had served as a Major General during the Civil War, and that title was seen as far more prestigious than a member of the House. Frankly, that's probably a pretty common opinion these days, what with Congress being literally less popular than diarrhea.

*New Jersey, New York and Indiana were swing states in the late nineteenth century, and Grover Cleveland lost reelection to Benjamin Harrison in 1888 because he couldn't keep the latter two states in his column. In fact, they were the only states to change sides from 1884 to 1888, and 1888 was also the first election since 1876 and the third ever in which the candidate who won the most popular votes didn't win the election.

*Each elector gets two votes, at least one of which must be cast for someone from a different state than his own. If both people on the ticket are from the same state, then the electors from that state cannot cast both votes for both people on the ticket. The most likely outcome in the case of a massive screwup like that, assuming one of the people on the ticket cannot hastily obtain legal residence in any other state, would have been for all the electors to vote for someone else for Vice President, since it was not a highly respected position back then, and losing that while winning the Presidency would have been very much preferable to the opposite.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Kooky Traditions: The Candy Desk

We tend to think of the government, and particularly elected officials, as being stodgy old corrupt boring people, but very little of that is actually true. (Old I'll give you pretty much right off the bat, since the average age hovers a little under 60, and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Frank Lautenberg of California died in office at nearly 90.) The story here begins in 1965, with a freshman senator from California named George Murphy.

George was a big fan of candy (and I can hardly criticize him for that, having a bag of gummi bears on my desk as I write this), and he started stashing some in his desk, although you're not allowed to eat on the Senate floor. Then he moved to a desk with rather higher traffic, next to one of the main doors, and started passing out his delicious treats.

Pretty soon, they started calling it the Candy Desk, and when Murphy lost reelection in 1970, other Republicans took up the baton. Paul Fannin of Arizona was the first one to do so, storing sugary snacks in his desk for the entirety of his third term. It got passed around quite a bit after that, and the desk itself was a bit mobile too, staying around that area but not being nailed down to a specific senator's working area until 1981, when Roger Jepsen of Iowa got bags of hard candy.

The heyday of the candy desk came during Rick Santorum's tenure; he held the spot from 1997-2007, when Bob Casey beat him by seventeen points. During that decade, Hershey shipped him a hundred pounds of their products four times a year, plus Just Born sending in Mike and Ikes and such. After he lost, Craig Thomas of Wyoming had the desk, but there was no single company in Wyoming big enough to hand over hundreds of dollars of candy for the Senate's enjoyment. And yes, it had to be in Wyoming, because the only reason this worked in the first place was a Senate rule allowing members to distribute products of their home state for the chamber's enjoyment. They got around this by having smaller stores give a little bit each, but Thomas died a few months later anyway.

The current occupant is Mark Kirk of Illinois, who brings gum, popcorn, jelly beans, and tootsie rolls. Democrats have another, less well-known version; the Conference Secretary, currently Patty Murray of Washington, keeps a desk in front stocked with candy that Jay Rockefeller buys with the money people give him. Rockefeller is retiring this year, and if Republican Shelley Moore Capito wins, there may be a bit of a scramble on the part of Democrats with a partisan sweet tooth.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

How do we amend the Constitution?

Well, it's a difficult process, and that's kind of the point; when an amendment is added, the fundamentals of American law shift, in a way that no branch can ignore. The consequences might be relatively minor, as with the 27th amendment prohibiting Congress from raising its own pay until after the next election, or they might be huge, as with the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote in all elections.

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress; provided that no amendment which may be made prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any manner affect the first and fourth clauses in the ninth section of the first article; and that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.

Either way, the basic process isn't too complicated: both the Congress and the states must agree decisively that the amendment is needed. There are two ways to achieve each objective, making for four paths total, but all but one of our amendments gone through the same one.

First, we need the approval of Congress; this can come either from a 2/3 vote in favor in both houses, or a 2/3 vote in favor from a convention called by Congress at the request of the legislatures of 2/3 of the states. The former is straightforward, while the latter is a little more vague. Who would be at this convention, and how many people would be there be? There is no answer, because it has never happened, and Congress has never passed legislation addressing the question either.

Second, we need approval of the states, which can be simple majority votes, but those votes have to take place in 3/4 of the states, either in the legislature itself, or in a state ratifying convention. The same question applies for the latter, and while a few states have enacted laws providing a general method for the conduction of those conventions, for the most part it's up to each state to decide how to do so, if Congress does it again. Congress only specified conventions once, for the 21st amendment, fearing that the criminals making enormous amounts of money from liquor's illegality would pressure state legislators to keep it that way, but conventions would be less susceptible to that.

All well and good, that's how it works. How can I make that happen? you might be thinking, assuming there's an issue dear to your heart that would require a constitutional amendment to correct. The single most crucial thing here is organization; no one ever got an amendment alone. It's quite possible that there's already a group dedicated to your cause, and whether or not there is, you'll have to work very hard to persuade Congress and your state to take it up.

Say you're not up for quitting your job to work on this, or making it your second job. How can you do anything?

  • Well, you can contact your representatives, but to make that remotely effective you'll have to get a whole lot of other people to do the same -- Twitter and Facebook help a lot here.
  •  This is primary season, so if your state hasn't had them yet, you can vote for people who support your stance on this issue; the most important part here is telling the incumbent "You lost/gained my vote because you don't/do support X!" And yes, this requires you to vote, since politicians have no reason to care about anything you say if you're not part of the political process. 
  • Find someone in the legislature who agrees with you, even if they don't represent you, and cheer that person on. 
  • Do as much research into the topic as you can, so you can make an informed case for it, and address counterarguments.
  • Officially, counties and cities have no role in constitutional amendments, but that doesn't mean they can't influence the legislature. Talk to your board of supervisors or whatever your local government is, and ask them to approve a resolution calling for your amendment.
  • If you live close to your state capital, you might be able to attend hearings on legislation relating to your issue; if you also have a dogged crusader for your issue and intimate knowledge thereof, it's just faintly possible that you might be able to testify on the subject.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How did the 17th Amendment get ratified?

The 17th Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in 1912 and promptly ratified by the states, shifting the power to elect senators from the state legislature to the people of the state. This came after nearly a hundred years of efforts to do so, all of which had been ignored in the Senate.

The idea initially was that the House, directly elected by the people, would represent them, and the Senate, a cooler and more temperate body, would represent the states. While the loose association of the Articles of Confederation was undesirable, and on the delegates' minds in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, many of them feared that the states would be swallowed up by the federal government, and their rights and powers usurped, so they divided the Congress in part to assuage that concern.

How did that change? Why did the state legislatures want to give up that power, and how did anyone persuade the Senate to go along with it?

It seems odd at first, but the momentum began with the states; from 1891 to 1905, 20 different states deadlocked on 46 senatorial elections. Three years later, Oregon enacted open primaries: the legislature would still have the final choice, but the people of the state chose the nominee for each party. Other states followed that example, with some opting for the same primary approach, and others deferring the entire election to the people.

The state legislatures being the impetus isn't so surprising, actually; since they were elected directly by the people, they could in theory reflect the people's wishes. In addition, while electing a senator only had to be done twice in six years, thus ideally occupying very little of their time, it became a major issue, overshadowing the more boring things like water use, mineral rights, tourism, that made up more of the business they wanted to conduct. Sparked in part by William Randolph Hearst's enthusiastic promotion of the idea, state legislatures began reforming their own senatorial elections, and calling for an amendment requiring popular election.

The beginning of the end for legislative elections came in 1910: 31 states passed resolutions petitioning Congress to propose a constitutional amendment, and ten senators opposing reform were defeated in their reelection attempts. The majority of the Senate that still didn't like the idea saw the 27 states calling for a constitutional convention, with four more ready to do so, and finally, grudgingly, approved the 17th amendment, fearing the drastic changes that might threaten their privilege in a convention they could not influence.

The first draft prohibited federal intervention in cases of racial discrimination against voters; Southern Representatives didn't want the gubmint forcing them to let folks other than whitey into the polls. The Senate passed a version without that rider, and the House went along with it, sending it out to the states in May 1912. Less than a year later, the 36th ratification came in, and the Senate became a body fully elected by the people.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Why did Russia sell Alaska, and why did the US buy it?

Russia colonized Alaska in the first place mainly because it was the only place they could reach that didn't have six other nations elbowing each other in the face to claim land there. We all laughed at Tina Fey, but Russia is pretty much right next to Alaska, a lot closer than any of the European colonial nations to the Americas, which just about makes up for how long and cold the winter is. There used to be a whole lot of seals and bears in Alaska, neatly making up for thousands of years of killing everything that could make a pair of mittens in Siberia. So people started making their way east, and making a fair amount of dough skinning the wildlife.

The Russian Empire got antsy about Alaska not too long after the Crimean War against Great Britain, from 1853 to 1856; British Columbia was right next door, and when they found gold people started coming there enough that the crown established a full-fledged colony. Tsar Alexander II figured that next time Russia went to war with England, they'd probably lose Alaska anyway, so selling it would at least give them some cash for their trouble.

So they started trying to get some interest from England and the US in 1859, but we were busy with the Civil War (it hadn't started yet, but flames were in the air and it would have taken a miracle to stop) and England didn't much care, so nothing happened for a few years. In that time, Russia also borrowed a crapload of money, and now really needed to sell Alaska.

William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State, got a lot more receptive after the war ended, and agreed on a price of $7.2 million, a bit more than 2 cents per acre for a place twice as big as Texas. There was a lot of grumbling in the press over this, since we were hardly pressed for space or flush with cash as it was, but on the upside, Russia liked us a lot more, and hemming in British Columbia made annexing it eventually more of a possibility. (Spoiler warning: we didn't.)

Still, those two justifications probably wouldn't have been enough without the fur trade: Russia had set up 23 trading posts, and around 10,000 people lived in Alaska where the harvesting company was working. We started charging an annual $50,000 fee for being allowed to club seals, and $2.625 per skin; with a hundred thousand skins per year, it would be around twenty-five years to recoup the costs of the purchase, assuming more people didn't move there to hunt seals, and nobody found gold.

Of course, we did find gold in Alaska, first in Klondike and then in Nome. Around a hundred thousand prospectors trekked up there from 1896 to 1899, but less than half of them made it, since traveling up through Canada was an incredible pain in the neck at the time. Maybe four thousand people actually made any appreciable money on the gold rush, and everyone else ended up with plenty of pain, but no gain. Of course, the real victims here were the natives, since they weren't allowed to buy land (and thus couldn't mine without risking getting pushed off), and the miners wrecked the environment something awful.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Why are presidents limited to two terms?

Because George Washington ran twice and then retired. This was hailed as an immensely humble and self-sacrificial act, since he could have gotten reelected indefinitely due to getting most of the credit for winning the war, but he didn't want to run for the second term in the first place. He only did it at all because the vast majority of his advisers told him that he was still needed in office, for national unity. Washington was certainly a more unifying figure than Jefferson or Adams, who ran against each other in 1796, so that's pretty plausible.

Washington served two terms, and in those days people were awfully eager to follow his example, so from then on the tradition was not to run for a third term. Jefferson left the White House after two, as did Madison, Monroe, and Jackson. After Jackson left, several men in a row went for only one term, though that tended to be more a matter of an inability to be renominated and increasing strain of keeping the nation together.

Ulysses S. Grant was the first to buck the trend; he initially succeeded Andrew Johnson from 1869 to 1877, and then duly left office and spent three years traveling the world. On his return, many colleagues urged him to run again, and he got pretty close to the nomination at the convention, but never managed more than 312 votes, 67 short of what he needed. James Garfield was chosen instead, and shot a year later; the bullet didn't kill him, but massive infections from several doctors poking around with filthy hands finished the job. (Not joking about any part of that.)

Two terms were again the norm, until Roosevelt, having been in the White House from 1901 to 1909, got pissed at his protege Taft, and ran against him. Taft, as the incumbent, managed to have sufficient party loyalty at the convention to vote to accept pro-Taft delegations from the wavering Roosevelt states, and narrowly kept the Republican nomination, though when Roosevelt formed the Bull Moose party and stayed in the game, it was pretty clear that neither of them could win.

It was the other Roosevelt who finally outlined the need for change; granted, his situation was unusual, following the popularity of resolving the Great Depression with an antipathy for changing presidents in the middle of a huge war, but he established that third and even fourth terms were possible. Nobody wanted that to happen again, since that ran perilously close to an indefinite presidency. So they started drafting the 22nd amendment, barring anyone who had served more than a term and a half from running again; it didn't apply to Truman, who was halfway through his only rightful term when it was ratified in February 1951, but he lost the New Hampshire primary anyway, and pulled out of the race.

Section 1. No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.
Section 2. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several states within seven years from the date of its submission to the states by the Congress.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Why wasn't the Bill of Rights part of the Constitution?

Because it was the last motion proposed at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and the delegates were mostly satisfied with what they'd drafted; most of them also thought it was unnecessary, since the states protected individual rights, and there was no reason to specify a list of freedoms the federal government could not violate when it was not authorized to take any away.

Now, the Convention was called in the first place because the Articles of Confederation, which had been the basis of the federal government's operation since 1781, was proving quite inadequate for governance. States were not required to provide tax revenue, which in turn had no effective mechanism for management or expenditure. Four years after the end of the Revolutionary War, they were still paying it off. Regular bills could only be passed with nine out of thirteen states consenting, and amendments had to be unanimous.

So in 1786, Virginia called for a convention addressing interstate conflicts, which itself passed a resolution calling for a convention to improve the Articles of Confederation. Once that convention began, however, it was clear that most of the delegates regarded the Articles of Confederation as fatally flawed, and their goal was to create a new document that would fit their needs better.

The convention devoted itself to working out several key points of the structure of the federal government, and its relationship with the states; the idea that the legislature would be separate from the executive and judiciary was already accepted, as was having two houses in that legislature -- one representing the common people, and the other being a more elite, thoughtful chamber. As they settled the details, the delegates got more irritated and weary (you try sitting in a closed room with no AC in Philadelphia in August), and wanted to send the final draft out. That last motion mentioned above was about civil trials; George Mason proposed a bill of rights dealing with the rights of the people, but the only other vote for that was Elbridge Gerry's. The draft was approved and sent to the states; then the fight for ratification began, but this is not the time to cover that in detail.

The Constitution was ratified by the requisite nine states in September 1788, many with the understanding that a series of amendments protecting the rights of the people would be high on Congress' priority list, and more followed thereafter. Many opponents of the bill of rights began to support it, recognizing that many people wanted that explicit protection, and desperately wishing to avoid another constitutional convention setting them at square one. James Madison was one such opponent, and he submitted twenty proposed amendments to Congress; that was condensed and cut into twelve amendments by the House and Senate committees.

The first two were never approved; the other ten are what we have today. Article the First, as it is known by historians, dealt with Congressional apportionment; Article the Second prohibited Congressional pay raises from taking effect until after the next election, and was initially unable to garner even majority support, with six states ratifying it; Ohio joined that list in 1873, and Wyoming in 1978. Over the next 14 years, a movement spearheaded by Gregory Watson managed to push it through thirty more state legislatures, and in May 1992 it became the Twenty-Seventh Amendment. Unfortunately for its proponents, Congress is just as able to increase its cost of living adjustments, and while Watson and Congressman Bob Schaffer of Colorado challenged those automatic increases, the Supreme Court ruled that Schaffer had no standing, as he could not demonstrate any harm from a higher COLA.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

How does DC's government work?

The idea was that we needed a single place to base the national government, but putting it in a state would create all sorts of funky problems; for one thing, relying on the state's defense forces would either be inadequate or a burden on the state. The Constitution provided Congress with the power to create the capital, and govern as it saw fit:
To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States.
The Residence Act of 1790 did just that, cutting chunks out of Virginia and Maryland that formed a square ten miles on each side. This area then contained the cities of Georgetown and Alexandria, and construction began on the federal city of Washington east of Georgetown in 1793, after a couple of years designing it and picking the exact place.

Things muddled along from there, with DC returning the part that originally came from Virginia in 1846, and Washington and Georgetown governing the area jointly with mixed success. After the Civil War, people started coming to DC a lot more, and in 1870 the district had a population of 132,000, though the infrastructure was laughably unable to deal with that many. Some members of Congress, with the sense we've come to expect, proposed that the capital be moved due to the lack of proper roads and sanitation, rather than, you know, fix them.

That didn't happen, but in 1871, Congress combined Georgetown, Washington, and the rest of the district (where nobody much lived) into a single city for the whole district. The Organic Act (bills establishing an agency's authority over federal lands are always called organic acts) also established a new legislature, with an eleven-member upper house appointed by the President and a lower chamber consisting of 22 elected delegates. President Grant appointed a member of that upper house as governor in 1873, but after Alexander Shepherd spent three times as much money as was actually in the budget trying to make the place less of a craphole, Congress rescinded all home rule privileges. For the next century, DC would have a board of commissioners running the place, with two members appointed by the President with Senate confirmation, and one from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Well, okay, not quite a century. In 1967, Johnson revised this to eleven people (nine in the council, one mayor, and his assistant), but they were still all appointed by the President. Six years later, DC finally got the right to elect its own leaders.

The 1973 Home Rule Act, which is still in effect, established a mayor and a thirteen-member council, eight of whom were elected by the wards and five at-large. Unfortunately, the whole thing was still hamstrung; Congress could veto any act of the council, and in fact DC's budget is included in the national bill. In addition, DC's council can't tax anyone who works in DC but doesn't live there, and cannot tax federal buildings. Of course, nobody can do that, and the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program exists to supply funds to make up for the lack of property taxes, but according to the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), DC doesn't get as much as it needs, since the formula doesn't take into account the constraints DC operates under which no state has.

Basically, DC has the government that Congress allows, and there is no way for residents to petition for change, since the elected delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, cannot take part in any vote where her input would change the outcome, thus eliminating any actual influence she could have in the body.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why didn't Canada join the Revolution?

Because a lot of things that pissed off the proto-rebels were for the benefit of the colonies Great Britain had recently taken from France, and there wasn't any sense of community between the two groups.

Quebec was largely French, and what wasn't French had come from GB recently, which was very much not the case with Massachusetts et al. Thus, there was little cultural connection, and much less discontent with the tyrannical colonial overlords, since GB was also a lot nicer to Quebec in terms of actual representative government.

The Quebec Act of 1774 pretty much solidified the divide; the British and French legal systems were given equal weight in Quebec, tithes to the Catholic Church became mandatory, and the province expanded east to Labrador and west to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The last part was the worst, since it meant the thirteen colonies couldn't settle there themselves. Quebeckers very much liked this, but Ben Franklin organized the first Continental Congress largely in response to the Intolerable Acts, of which this was the fifth and last.

Relations between Quebec and the United Colonies went downhill from there, and in 1775 American armies invaded Quebec, taking Montreal but being halted at Quebec City; once the British navy came in the spring, they fell back. In Nova Scotia, privateers raided small outposts, and any chance of bringing the Canadian colonies into the American fold disintegrated with the New England sympathies burned and robbed.

Once the war began, Canadian settlers were also the sole traders with England in the New World, which boosted their economy nicely, and British forces ensured the safety of fur transportation. Plenty of pro-British colonists in the rebellious provinces moved to Canada, moving the popular sentiments of both regions further apart.

So, Canadians didn't join the Revolutionary War because they didn't have good reason to do so, and plenty of reason to stay with the Crown. This isn't to say that the people of the former French colonies particularly liked Great Britain, but the Americans were a lot less appealing, especially once the raiding and invading started. The Continental Congress mostly liked Canada okay, despite the religious and cultural divide, inviting the province to join in the Articles of Confederation (which accepted Canada as a member if it ratified the Articles), which never happened; there were no such special accommodations in the Constitution.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Was John Quincy Adams one of the Founding Fathers?

"Is X part of group Y?" tends to be a difficult question to answer when there are multiple definitions for group Y; West Virginia is frequently classified as Southern despite splitting off from Virginia to join the Union. There is no strict definition of the Founding Fathers; there were a lot of men centrally involved in the transition from thirteen interconnected colonies under the British Crown to thirteen states banded together under a single government. However, the general idea is men who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and/or the Constitution.

It's important to remember also that the men who participated in this process were not friends. Oh, some of them were, but they were different people, with different occupations (although most of them had legal knowledge, and by the end practically all of them had served in government one way or another), and different interests. They quarreled over the power of the federal government, both in terms of its general ability to require things of the states and the people, and actual specific things that it would be allowed to do. They fought over commerce in the colonies, and to what degree which American industries needed to be protected from established manufacturing of goods overseas -- British lumber and French wine were a threat to American lumber and wine. And, of course, they fought over slavery, though many northern men still owned slaves, working in their houses. So when people invoke "what the Founding Fathers meant/wanted", there isn't really any such thing; they were not a monolithic group that agreed on everything, or even many things.

Anyway, we've got something of a definition of the Founding Fathers; did John Quincy Adams sign any of those documents? Of course not. Quincy was only nine years old when the Declaration was written, and twenty-one when the Constitution was ratified. He was with his father John Adams learning how American government was going to work for much of this period, but that doesn't make him influential in the process.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

What's the Cabinet about?

Well, the word itself comes from sixteenth-century England; normally, the monarch would be advised by the Privy Council, but smaller conversations would take place in a cabinet, which back then had more of a connotation of a very small room, which might also have been called a closet, a study, or an office.

In the United States, the purpose of the Cabinet is twofold; each member directs part of the executive branch (largely carrying out the desires of the president), and advises the president on matters pertaining to that area. The secretary of every executive department (State, Treasury, Commerce, etc.) is part of the Cabinet, along with a handful of others: UN Ambassador, Trade Representative, Chief of Staff, Small Business Administration ... Administrator, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the Vice President.

All of those posts have to be confirmed by the Senate with a majority of the vote, with the exception of the Vice President, who is normally elected, and the Chief of Staff, part of the Executive Office of the President. They also all serve at the pleasure of the President, again except for the Vice President, meaning that he can request their resignation at any time, though most secretaries spend two to five years in the job anyway. This is as opposed to regular civil servants, below the level of Deputy Secretary of [department] for [area], who don't require Senate confirmation, typically work through multiple administrations, and cannot be fired without justification.

The first cabinet was quite small: State Secretary Thomas Jefferson, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, War Secretary Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. Initially, the Attorney General had no department, and wasn't even a full-time job, serving primarily as legal advice and taking care of legal matters, which is probably why the job title wasn't Secretary of Justice. That's far from true nowadays, but it would seem no one has been sufficiently bothered to want to change it. The War Department also got renamed to the Department of the Army in 1947, with the Navy and Air Force split off into their own departments, all answering to the Secretary of Defense, which became the executive department in 1949.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Did Spain really blow up the Maine?

The Maine started out as an armored cruiser, commissioned in 1895 in response to the Brazilian battleship Riachuelo and general Latin American naval buildups in the 1890s. She managed the exceptionally neat trick of being outdated before she was done, mostly because people started using armored cruisers as quick trade enforcers rather than mini-battleships during her three-year construction time. But hey, it's not like they were building a man o' war.

In 1898, Cuba was in the last months of its war for independence from Spain, helped considerably by Spain's simultaneous struggle to keep control of the Philippines. The Maine trundled on down to Havana from Key West, to make sure that all the plantations American companies bought didn't get mysteriously set on fire, and on the night of February 15, exploded, killing most of the crew.

The general reaction was that Spain had done it with a bomb or mine, despite the lack of evidence for any conclusion at all (hard to get forensics teams into a war zone). The New York Journal and World, owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer respectively, pushed that idea for all they were worth, being unconstrained by little things like 'facts' and 'not setting their pants on fire'. There were already plenty of hawks urging war with Spain (and ideally US possession of Cuba) and in April, the McKinley administration did, indeed, declare war, though the Maine wasn't named in the resolution Congress passed.

So was Spain responsible? Frankly, we still don't know, and it's likely we never will, but the evidence we do have makes it sound awfully improbable. The 1898 investigation, conducted by Spain, pointed out that none of the characteristics of a mine detonation were present. An aquatic explosion would have caused a column of water and plenty of dead fish in the area, neither of which were there. Havana was calm that night, so subsurface waves couldn't have pushed the mine into the Maine, and neither could wind; that left electrical detonation, but there weren't any cables either. Lastly, mines didn't usually blow up munitions compartments, but the Maine's were wrecked.

The American investigation said it was a mine, but the whole thing was designed to come to that conclusion. For starters, the board was filled with junior officers -- hard to tell a superior officer he screwed up. Secondly, there was only one guy giving testimony on explosions, and he basically just said "Nope" when they asked him if a fire in the fuel stores could have blown up the ammo dumps. Last, the records from the investigation don't actually draw logical lines from the testimony of the divers who went down to look at the wreck and the committee's claim that it was totally a mine, you guys.

There's been more investigation since then, and a couple of things came to light. One, when the Maine was being built, the Navy switched from anthracite coal, which didn't make much smoke, to bituminous, which burned hotter (letting the ship go faster), but also let off gases, and two guesses what happens to the fumes from coal. Multiple fires were reported on ships using bituminous coal from that time.

So while we don't really know, smart bet's on the coal catching fire, spreading to the gunpowder, and the whole thing going to hell in a handbasket from there.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What about Wilson in 1912?

Like Lincoln, Wilson faced a divided opposition, with liberal Republicans favoring Roosevelt and conservative Republicans solid on President Taft. Like Lincoln, he got well under a majority of the vote, although he nearly made it to 42%. Unlike Lincoln, his divided opposition wasn't particularly regional, and while he was particularly strong in the South, he wasn't too weak anywhere.

Once again, the easiest way to make Wilson lose is to tip the contest into the House; since Wilson got 435 electoral votes, it's going to take some work to get down to 265. After we pick off the low-hanging fruit, we'll start making broader assumptions to cut his total more.

Idaho -- Wilson 33,921; Taft 32,810. 435 to 431.
Illinois -- Wilson 405,048; Roosevelt 386,478. 431 to 402.
North Dakota -- Wilson 29,555; Roosevelt 25,726. 402 to 397.
Massachusetts -- Wilson 173,408; Taft 155,948. 397 to 379.
Wyoming -- Wilson 15,310; Taft 14,560. 379 to 376.
Iowa -- Wilson 185,325; Roosevelt 161,819. 376 to 363.
Rhode Island -- Wilson 30,412; Taft 27,703. 363 to 358.
Connecticut -- Wilson 74,561; Taft 68,328. 358 to 351.
Maine -- Wilson 51,113; Roosevelt 48,495. 351 to 345.
New Hampshire -- Wilson 34,724; Taft 32,927. 345 to 341.

That's about all we can do easily. Now, what if Taft had stuck to his base of the northeast and Roosevelt provoked Wilson into displaying his southern roots more openly? Larger shifts in New Jersey and the Mid and Mountain West become more plausible.

Oregon -- Wilson 47,064; Roosevelt 37,600. 341 to 336.
Montana -- Wilson 27,941; Roosevelt 22,456. 336 to 332.
Kansas -- Wilson 143,663; Roosevelt 120,210. 332 to 322.
New Jersey -- Wilson 178,289; Roosevelt 145,410. 322 to 308.
New Mexico -- Wilson 20,437; Taft 17,733. 308 to 305.
New York -- Wilson 655,573; Roosevelt 390,093; Taft 455,487. 305 to 260.

There we go. Wilson drops all the way to 260, Roosevelt is at 168 (or 213), Taft is at 97 (or 52). The election goes to the House, which has a Democratic majority elected in 1910. Unfortunately for Wilson, a lot of that majority is in unanimous Southern delegations, which still only give one vote each, while Illinois' 14 Republicans overrule the 11 Democrats. Republican majorities: CA, CT, DE, ID, IL, IA, KS, MA, MI, MN, MT, NV, NH, ND, OR, PA, SD, UT, VT, WA, WI, WY: 22 states. Maine, New Mexico, and Rhode Island were evenly split, and the other 23 were Democratic. Nobody's got a majority of the delegations, so nobody can win on the first ballot.

It is difficult to say who could have turned this into a victory -- Wilson can depend on the loyalty of the Democratic delegations, for the most part, but Roosevelt and Taft would have warred bitterly. It's certainly possible, though, that Roosevelt's men could have won Taft-loyal Republicans over with promises of the president's ear, along with ample amounts of patronage; in the actual election, Taft knew he was going to lose, so he likely would not have had as much will to try to come back from a distant third place in the House.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Could Lincoln have lost in 1860?

There's no exact answer here -- you can never be sure what might have been. But given that he got just under 40% of the popular vote and 180 out of 303 electoral votes, at first glance it seems quite possible.

That 40% figure is a little misleading, though, because a lot of that 60% of the vote he didn't get was in the South, and he wasn't even on the ballot in most of the slave states. His 40% of the vote nationwide was concentrated in the North, and he got pretty good majorities in every state he won but New Jersey, Oregon, and California.

The Democratic Party got incredibly fractured, splitting its voters into four camps: those that went with Republicans, those that opposed slavery but still favored Douglas and his platform, those that liked slavery, and those that just wanted to keep the country together. This isn't to say that Democrats were the only ones not voting Republican, since in the chaotic electoral environment a few minor parties were still around, like Free Soilers, American, Free Silver, etc., but Democrats and Republicans were the two big base factions.

The Democratic Party's convention was the biggest disaster any party has ever seen; there were 57 rounds of balloting, and while Douglas was ahead in every single one by close to 100 votes, he needed a 2/3 majority to win, and most of the delegates from the slave states that bothered to come hated his guts. After those 57 ballots, they decided to try again in a month and a half; this time, the slave state delegates walked out when the convention wouldn't approve a platform plank calling for slavery in all the territories, and with them gone Douglas got the nomination easily. It was a hollow victory, though.

Without the slave states, Fremont would have beaten Buchanan, and Douglas just lost them all.

The slave states had their own convention ten days later, and nominated John Breckinridge, Buchanan's vice president. Breckinridge was virtually certain to win the vast majority of the South, but even if he won the entirety of the region, that wouldn't be enough.

The few who were left, mostly Southern Whigs and anti-immigrants who didn't like Douglas, Lincoln, or Breckinridge, formed the Constitutional Union Party, devoted to "the Union as it is, and the Constitution as it is". An admirable effort to keep the country together, which did decently in the border states, but there were no more compromises palatable to slave states and free states.

As it happens, keeping Lincoln from winning on election night isn't that difficult: if nobody gets a majority of the electoral vote from the College, the top three candidates go to the House. So the task here is to find 29 votes that Lincoln barely won; if he goes down to 151, that's just short of a majority.

Most of those are pretty easy; Lincoln won Illinois' 11 votes with 172,000 votes to Douglas' 160,000. New Jersey had more votes for Democratic electors, but the Southern Democratic faction chose several people for their slate, so the votes got split. Lincoln got 4 votes from that mixup. In Oregon, Lincoln got 5,329 votes against John Breckinridge's 5,075, adding 3 to his total. Lastly, California tossed 4 votes into Lincoln's pile, despite him beating Douglas' 37,999 by 734. Put all those states into the other columns and Lincoln loses 22 votes, still distinctly under the 29 we need.

That's not a huge problem, but it does mean this scenario gets less likely. We've gone from "minor changes in the campaigns" to "several skilled former Whigs decide Douglas has a better plan than Lincoln". However, given the chaos in the electoral system (one major party splits into two pieces, the other is running in its second election), it's still not too implausible.

The next closest state that Lincoln won actually brings us over the top: Indiana had 13 votes at the time, taking Lincoln down to 145 votes. However, he garnered 139,000 votes, beating Douglas' 115,000 by a much larger margin than everything else combined. This isn't too bad: Lincoln's two biggest losses in this scenario are Illinois and Indiana, so having Northern Democrats surge there and Republicans falter is far from an outlandish scenario.

So. Lincoln gets 145 votes, Breckinridge gets 77, Bell gets 51, and Douglas brings up the rear with 40. With this scenario, the House chooses between Lincoln, Breckinridge, and Bell -- the House elected in 1858, with one vote per state. There, Republicans had the majority of the delegations from CT, IN, IA, KS, MA, ME, MI, MN, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, TN*, VT, and WI -- seventeen states, just over half the thirty-two then in the Union. However, since NJ, TN, and IN didn't vote for Lincoln in this scenario, they might feel obligated to consider the outcome of the state's vote. The most likely outcome here is still that Republican operatives convince Northern Democrats that Lincoln is a safer bet, and that Douglas cannot keep the South in the Union.

The vice presidency is a different scenario; each Senator gets one vote, and Republicans had only 23 out of 62 seats. Moreover, while the House could pick from the top three candidates, the Senate was limited to only two: Lincoln's running mate, Hannibal Hamlin, and Breckinridge's running mate, Joseph Lane. Here this post becomes almost entirely speculation: the House would likely have chosen first, since Lincoln would already have been close to winning, and his victory likely still would have spurred Southern secession. This would have reduced opposition in the Senate, both from southerners no longer being there to cast a vote against Hamlin, and from northerners fearful of splitting the Union.

But what if Douglas did better still? Lincoln took New York 362,000 to 312,000 for the fusion ticket; had his campaigners turned off the Democrats more, and failed to get out the vote as effectively, its 35 votes would have split 18 to Douglas, 10 to Bell, and 7 to Breckinridge. We now have 110 for Lincoln, 84 for Breckinridge, 61 to Bell, and 58 for Douglas. The most plausible state to change to bring Douglas into the House is Virginia, in which Breckinridge and Bell both got over 74,000 votes, but Bell beat him out by only 156. Giving that to Breckinridge is extremely easy, which puts the totals at 110 for Lincoln, 99 for Breckinridge, 58 for Douglas, and 46 for Bell.

This situation takes a lot of leverage from Republicans, since there's now one more state that can't be counted on to be in their corner, and Lincoln is a lot closer to equaling Breckinridge than doubling him. Still, northern support is needed for any candidate to win, and Douglas has a better claim on it than Breckinridge. In real life, Kentucky Senator John Crittenden offered several Constitutional amendments protecting slavery after Lincoln's victory, in an attempt to preserve national unity. Douglas might have been able to secure Southern delegations with that promise, along with his full support for pro-slavery Joseph Lane of Oregon as vice president.

So there you have it. A slim theoretical scenario for Lincoln's loss, and secession might have been somewhat assuaged. Not fully, of course, but with a much smaller Confederacy, the Civil War could have been shorter and less bloody.

*-Tennessee had 7 out of 10 Opposition members, which at the time was an organization opposing slavery in the West. Grouping them with Republicans here is arguable, but plausible.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

McCulloch v. Maryland: Federal supremacy and taxation

Banking has always been a hot topic in this country, but in the early days of the republic, the focus was less on Wall Street ruining the economy and getting off scot-free and more on banking services. The financial sector barely existed here at the time, and there was a serious concern that the American dollar would be an unstable currency. Couple that with the general need for someone to make loans, both for ordinary people and for the government, and you had a pretty good case for a bank big enough to take care of all these things, chartered and overseen by the government.

There was a hefty fight to establish it, since it doesn't say in the Constitution that Congress can start a bank, and a whole bunch of people thought it would be helping out people who were already rich a whole lot more than anyone else. Those objections had some validity, but both houses of Congress passed the bill, and the First Bank of the United States came into being in 1791. Unfortunately for the first bank, its charter lasted twenty years, and in 1811 there were a whole lot more people who had those earlier objections, and it took five years to assuage their doubts and begin a Second Bank of the United States.

In 1817, Maryland passed a law taxing any bank that did not first obtain approval from the state government, which, fair enough, the Second Bank of the United States hadn't done before it set up a Baltimore office. James William McCulloch, the head of that branch, refused to pay, particularly since there weren't any other banks hit by the law and there was no justification for the tax, and appealed after the Maryland Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state in 1818.

There were a few issues at stake here.

1. Can Congress create a bank?
2. Are the states the highest authority, since they ratified the Constitution, thereby giving it authority?
3. Can Congress exercise a power not explicitly in the Constitution?
4. Is the Necessary and Proper clause limited to essential government functions, or broader?

Chief Justice John Marshall resolved all four questions in favor of the bank.

Congress created the First Bank of the United States, after a great deal of debate by extremely distinguished legal minds. They didn't find a problem, Marshall said, and therefore history backs a bank.

The states ratified the Constitution through the people of each state, from whom the federal government derives its governing power. Therefore, the people are sovereign, not the state.

Marshall admitted that the Constitution does not explicitly say Congress may establish a bank, but the power was implied by its collective authorities.

The Congress shall have Power ... To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.
Marshall contended that the clause would be quite insufficient, and the government hamstrung, if its powers were limited to activities listed in the Constitution and immediate relatives. Any action intended to serve a power of the government and not explicitly prohibited was permitted. Therefore, the state of Maryland was not taxing an unconstitutional institution imposed on its sovereignty by a lower or equal power, and the tax was not constitutional.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Why does Missouri have that little hook into Arkansas?

Initially, it didn't. Missouri's proposed southern border was a straight line at 36°30′, aligned with the boundaries between Kentucky and Tennessee, and Virginia and North Carolina. The eastern border was simply the Mississippi River (which has changed location slightly since 1817), which is a major reason why that notch got cut.

See, in 1811 there was a nasty earthquake on the eastern side of that red region. A lot of the folks there moved away, and a fellow by the name of John Walker bought up a lot of their land (probably for a song). Since it had the St. Francis River on the west and the Mississippi River on the east, irrigating it was about as easy as can be, and pretty soon Walker had a profitable estate.

Then there were rumblings about Missouri getting admitted as a state, and Walker heard about the line putting his land into Arkansas. He wasn't too happy about that, since Missouri had a lot more natural resources, with the rivers to boot. So he went and talked about the land that he owned having closer ties with the Mississippi River towns of Cape Girardeau, Ste. Genevieve and St. Louis in Missouri than with Arkansas, and Congress cut that notch there.

Oh, there's a story about people living in the bootheel who didn't want to live in Arkansas with its bears and panthers and copperhead snakes, and another about a surveyor who was in love with a Missouri widow who lived in the bootheel, but not much evidence for either. Not to say that those couldn't have been true owing to their silliness, because Walker's situation isn't a whole lot more sensible, but there you have it.

Facts herein are from How the States Got Their Shapes, Mark Stein, 2008, published by HarperCollins Publishers.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Where did the Whigs come from?

Whigs came from opposition -- specifically, opposing Andrew Jackson, after he decisively beat John Quincy Adams in 1828 and easily won reelection in 1832. Jackson stood for the common man, state power, and the power of the executive branch (like most presidents). Adams’ supporters took the name of Whig, since it was often used to describe people who supported the colonies in the Revolutionary War.

The 1824 election itself featured four candidates: Adams, Jackson, Henry Clay, and William Crawford. Jackson got the most electoral votes and popular votes*, garnering 99 of the former and 41% of the latter, but since no one got a majority of the 261 votes then in the College, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. Since Jackson got the most electoral votes and won the most states, one would think that he would eventually win there, and according to his supporters, the fact that he didn’t was a travesty.

 Clay came in fourth, so he wasn’t an option for the House, which was required to pick one of the top three candidates. Since Clay had a lot more common politically with Adams than Jackson, he told his supporters to vote for Adams, who subsequently appointed him Secretary of State. That was later termed the ‘corrupt bargain’, and doubtless was a factor in his 12-point loss four years later.

Initially, Adams’ supporters were simply known as Adams men, and Jackson’s frequently as Jacksonians (they later became known more as Democrats), but soon the former assembled a coalition called the National Republicans, reflecting their focus on national unity and federally financed infrastructure development. National unity was something of a concern still in American politics, since in 1824 the four candidates had won little more than their own regions.

(Adams of Massachusetts, Jackson of Tennessee, Crawford of Georgia, and Clay of Kentucky)

After two successive losses against Jackson, the National Republican Party collapsed, and rebranded itself as the Whigs, with rather more success, electing William Henry Harrison in 1840 and Zachary Taylor in 1848; both died in office.

Friday, May 2, 2014

How did the Whig Party end, anyway?

The Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 rang the death knell, though the party was already weak, in part because it was organized poorly and in part because the growing immigrant and Western populations preferred Democrats. Thing is, Whigs opposed slavery, but they also favored a more modern economy, rather than primarily farming, and the development of a strong mercantile sector, which neatly screwed over people who would stay on the bottom rung.

The problem was slavery: the struggle over slave and free states could not be settled permanently, and the time of nation-binding compromises was ending:

1) Three-Fifths Compromise (1787): States paid taxes and were assigned seats in the House of Representatives based on all of their free population and three-fifths of their enslaved population. The South wanted all the slaves to count as people for politics and none of them to count as people for taxes based on population.

2) Missouri Compromise (1820): Maine was admitted as a free state, and Missouri as slave, with slavery banned in states north of 36°30′, Missouri’s southern border.

3) Compromise of 1850: Texas gave up claims on New Mexico and lands north of 36°30′. California was admitted as a single free state despite being right on top of that line. The New Mexico and Utah territories could choose to permit slavery, despite the line running through the former and below the latter. The slave trade was banned in D.C.

The end began innocently enough: plenty of farmland was just waiting to be cultivated in the Great Plains, but settling it required a concerted program to get people in there growing corn and wheat. The railroad companies wanted this more than anybody, since more farmers in the territories meant more freight to get paid to transport. The prime mover was Stephen Douglas: railroad enthusiast, top Senate Democrat, wannabe President (along with nearly every other member of Congress), and fervent believer that each state had the right to decide for itself whether or not to allow slavery.

The Missouri Compromise in 1820 had settled tensions between the North and South until the Mexican-American War, banning slavery in every state north of Missouri’s southern border (36°30′) except Missouri itself and admitting Missouri as a slave state paired with Maine as a free state. The next major deal Congress had to broker to keep everyone from each other’s throats was the Compromise of 1850, the most relevant part in this case being that the New Mexico and Utah Territories, despite being north of Missouri in part or in whole, could decide to allow slavery. That wasn’t going to happen, since desert plantations grow sand and the residents didn’t want slaves anyway, but the principle was established.

To get the Southern support he needed for a railroad, and to promote the principle of popular sovereignty, Douglas proclaimed that Nebraska would allow slavery when admitted to the Union if the residents voted for a state constitution that allowed it. Douglas’s railroad bill ignored the Missouri Compromise rather than outright contravening it, hoping to avoid pissing off supporters, but that wasn’t good enough for Southern Whigs, who wanted to take some of the slave-supporting vote. Senator Dixon of Kentucky added an amendment repealing the 36°30′ line as a boundary against slavery, and Alabama Democrat Philip Phillips did the same in the House.

Party leaders, including President Franklin Pierce, decided to make the bill a matter of party loyalty, in part attempting to negate the Whig political move. After four months of debate/arguing among free-staters, popular sovereignty supporters, and slavers, the bill passed both houses. In the Senate, free states split 14-12 in favor, while slave states supported it 23-2. Democrats in the House were of two minds, Southerners backing it 57-2 and northerners again split 44-42 in favor; Whigs were much more mixed, with the northern contingent casting all 45 votes against, but the rest voting 12-7 for. Both parties split on the issue, but the Whigs were more solidly against it; many nay voters joined the infant Republican Party, which had been founded on opposition to slavery.

The Democratic Party became dedicated to the South, while the Republicans dominated the North. The country was becoming starkly divided, and in only six years, that divide would become a bloody reality.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Can Texas split into five states?

Can Texas really divide into five states?

Yes. But so can Rhode Island.

Technically, any state can divide itself into however many states, with the approval of its legislature and Congress. The popular claim is that Texas can do so on its own — without congressional approval.

The popular claim is wrong. It dates back to a misreading of an amendment attached to Texas’s second annexation treaty.

First, here’s some background on the fight for Texas statehood:

Texas’s annexation was controversial. From 1812 to 1850, Congress admitted states in pairs, one slave and one free. Michigan and Arkansas were already continuing the balancing act when Texas broke from Mexico in 1836. But no territory in the north was ready for admission with Texas. The only plan was to admit Texas as a slave state without a corresponding free state to balance it out in the Senate.

Indiana/Mississippi, 1816/1817
Illinois/Alabama, 1818/1819
Maine/Missouri, 1820/1821
Arkansas/Michigan, 1836/1837
Florida/Iowa, 1845/1846
Texas/Wisconsin, 1845/1848

(Wisconsin would have been 1846, but the first constitution was rejected by the voters, so they had to wait; the admission itself was not in question, merely the timing.)

This plan was a nonstarter for two reasons:

1) The Senate didn’t want to upset the delicate balance; men like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay spent a long time in the Senate trying to ease sectional tensions and avert or delay war (without which it would have come sooner than 1861).
2) Mexico was still pissed about Texas seceding, and annexing Texas would start a war the Democrats and Whigs didn’t want to fight.

Both sides argued for years — the fight cost President Martin van Buren the renomination in 1840 because Southern Democrats wanted another big slave state, and van Buren wasn’t having it. (For more on presidents heeding Southern Democrats on race issues, see Roosevelt, President, Franklin Delano.)

Now, the idea that Texas could splinter into five states comes from a House amendment attached to a treaty President Tyler introduced to annex Texas. That treaty did not address admitting Texas as anything but one state. The final law concerning Texas entering the Union contained this language, which is the only thing addressing the subject ever signed by the president (bolding mine):

Third- New states, of convenient size, not exceeding four in number, in addition to said state of Texas, and having sufficient population, may hereafter, by the consent of said state, be formed out of the territory thereof, which shall be entitled to admission under the provisions of the federal constitution. And such states as may be formed out of that portion of said territory lying south of thirty-six degrees thirty minutes north latitude, commonly known as the Missouri compromise line, shall be admitted into the Union with or without slavery, as the people of each state asking admission may desire. And in such state or states as shall be formed out of said territory north of said Missouri compromise line, slavery, or involuntary servitude, (except for crime,) shall be prohibited.

Texas is allowed to carve chunks off itself, but those chunks don’t automatically become states; the process is the same as it is for every other state. Moreover, that treaty stopped meaning anything when Texas seceded and was readmitted after the Union won the Civil War; the resolution allowing Texas to have members of Congress again said nothing about splitting off more states.

Thus, only Congress can allow Texas to slice chunks off itself and have them admitted into the Union as separate states, with their own delegations to Congress.

What do you want next? Vote for:

A) The day the Whig Party died
B) Our almost three-term presidents
C) Why we vote for Senators

D) Something in the comments

(The saga continues.)