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Posts Tagged ‘Pennsylvania’

Boring Built America

The National Park Service has a couple hundred small, unimposing, mundane historic sites spread all over the country. They don’t cover events of magnitude, like Pickett’s Charge or the Gold Rush or the battle of the Alamo, but they are loved by their local communities and tell important stories nonetheless. Hopewell Furnace, in rural south-central Pennsylvania, tells one such story: mundane, boring, but vital.

Hopewell was an early ironworks, a forging business operating in  the late 18th, early 19th centuries. There, you can learn how charcoal was made; how limestone was harvested; and how those two materials were combined in a blast furnace with raw ore to form iron, the metal that transformed the world. Mundane & boring? Sure. Hopewell is well-maintained, the people are pleasant, the visiting children seemed to like it, but it isn’t particularly exciting. But you know what? Boring isn’t so bad: it built and defended this nation for over 200 years now.

It shouldn’t be too great of a leap to understand that iron built America. We look at the musket-carriers of the Revolutionary War with great reverence, but if it wasn’t for places like Hopewell, there would be no iron or steel for the musket barrels, wagon wheels, and cannons. We were in the early days of being an industrial juggernaut, producing 30,000 tons a year at the beginning of hostilities. Iron built the weapons that fought off enemies, shot at brothers, and conquered new territory. But it didn’t stop there. Iron built the railroads, and the great engines that rode on them. Iron built the ocean liners that shipped our goods everywhere in the world. Iron built the buildings and skyscrapers that housed finance, engineering, science, and even religion.

Yes, it’s all very poetic. What’s not poetic is how mundane it all is. Hundreds of men crawled around in mines, breathing in noxious fumes and dust and working themselves to the bone to extract ore. Dozens more gathered wood and endured the laborious process of turning wood into charcoal. Others dug limestone from cliff faces. Then there were the oxcart drives and teamsters, hauling stuff to and fro. Awfully boring, awfully dangerous, awfully hard work, all necessary to the production of iron at Hopewell Furnace.

But that’s what built this country. Not politicians, not “captains of industry”, not wealthy elitists, nor Harvard graduates or published authors or generals or soldiers or even architects. All of those occupations are worthless without real people doing real boring, mundane, uninteresting, hard work. Even today, it’s the trades who continue to build stuff. Whether they live & work in Pennsylvania or Mexico or China, today the entire world is built by the hard working folks doing the most boring of tasks over and over and over.

Next time you’re bored, remember: boring built America. And if you’re going to do something boring & monotonous, at least make it worthwhile to someone.

[All pictures are mine and thusly copyrighted. A few more, in black & white, are here.]

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Links:

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

A Brief History of Iron & Steel

Pennsylvania Iron Furnace Sourcebook

Voluntary Simplicity

Google map to Hopewell Furnace

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Peace & Respect

In this blog, I try to recreate the thoughts, experiences & emotions I felt during a visit to each site in the National Park System.

On the day I visited Gloria Dei, the old Swedish church in Philadelphia, there were services going on. Therefore, I unobtrusively snapped a couple of pictures and moved on my way, as quiet as I could be. This post will reflect that visit: a few pics and a few  unobtrusive sentences.

Peaceful people practicing their faith in a peaceful manner need to be respected. Give them that respect, whether it’s in the NPS or not.

 

[This post is dedicated to the memory of David Ericson, formerly of Naugatuck, Connecticut. He was a church choir singer, Boy Scout leader, proud father, devoted husband, strong UCONN Women’s Basketball fan, the nicest guy I have ever worked with in a professional setting anywhere anytime, and a true-blue Swede. Rest in peace, Dave.

Photos on this post are mine and thusly copyrighted.]

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Links:

Gloria Dei Church National Historic Site

The Old Swede’s Church

Swedish Immigration in North America

Google map to Gloria Dei

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Preconceptions and Perceptions

I did not want to write this post on Gettysburg. I’ve been dreading it for some time, but now it’s time, and I have to write it.

Gettysburg marks the place of one of the primary events in American history: the end of the farthest advance for the Confederacy, the turning point for the war that saved the Union, a war whose dead were honored in one of the greatest speeches ever given on American soil. This post should be an amateur historian’s dream.

But I can’t write about any of that. Instead, my mind goes to stuff like this:

Threats to Gettysburg

Land Use: The Second Battle of Gettysburg

Gettysburg, Ground Zero: Secular Sacred Spaces

For years, I’ve been reading about overdevelopment near Gettysburg. Story after story, anecdote after anecdote, describing all the fast-food restaurants, shopping plazas, and apartment blocks rising up near the Hallowed Ground. The despoilment of the views, the crush of traffic, the smell of greasy, fatty fried foods wafting through the monuments. When I finally made it to central Pennsylvania, I had all that … stuff … in my head. And that’s exactly what I saw, exactly what I smelled, exactly what I felt. Every time I stopped to read a memorial to a state’s militia, I saw parking lots. Every time I tried to contemplate the pained or foolish decisions of a military commander, a billboard loomed in the background. Every time I wanted to quietly ponder the fate of a slaughtered battalion, I smelled the unforgettable, rancid stink of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was distracted and ultimately disappointed by my visit.

But then an odd thing happened. In researching this post, I decided to do a little googlemapping. A couple of clicks later, I found something amazing: the stretch of developed road, the concentration of fast-food restaurants, the prevalent strip-malls, are really only in a small corner of the park. I then drove to the park again, years after my first trip, to see it again for myself. Now that I have a few more historical park visits behind me, I feel I can honestly say Gettysburg isn’t that bad. Which begs the question: is this level of development really an impingement on Gettysburg, or is all the press about the impingement on Gettysburg causing an impression on the visitors that isn’t necessarily true?

I have to be honest with you and with myself: as smart as I think I am, as impartially observant as I want to be, as factual and non-judgmental as I should be, I am still a human being, and I can still be influenced by the media, by public opinion, by emotion, and by rumor. I now think that’s what happened during my first visit to Gettysburg, and alas, those preconceptions effectively ruined my trip.

The problem of “paving over our history” is real. Every year, more historically significant sites and buildings are demolished, defaced, or allowed to fall into decay. There are reports of this all over the country, from adobe churches in New Mexico to the World Trade Center Vesey Sreet staircase. They even want to build a casino near Gettysburg (a terrible idea in my opinion). We’re losing or despoiling our heritage. It’s a sad thing.

Or is it?

Like all great ideas, the desire to protect our historical heritage can be taken too far. We can’t stagnate, we have to continue to make progress, and change is part of progress. I once read there is no stability, no steady-state, there is no maintaining the way things are (or were). There is only advancement through change, or there is entropy and decay. The battle of Gettysburg was fought around the existing village of Gettysburg, it would have been unfair to prevent that village from growing over time simply to preserve a battlefield. If we try to hold things close, try to latch on to the past, try to keep everything the same, we’ll never move forward, and succumb to entropy and decay. The town of Gettysburg would have died in the name of “preservation”.

When it comes to history, it is important that we preserve what is truly important, the sites that mark the true turning-point events, sites that can teach our generation and all the future generations, and put the continuing story of America into the proper context. But we can’t preserve everything that once was, because then we’d have no room for what will come. Historic preservation is like every other good idea: it can be taken too far.

But can we at least get rid of some of the KFCs out there?

[Again, I visited this site before I got a digital camera. Everything’s from the National Archives. I know this post isn’t what some of you may have expected. Trust me, I love Civil War history. Check out my Antietam and Chickamauga posts.]

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Links:

No Casino Gettysburg

National Trust for Historic Preservation

Historic Preservation: Gentrification or Economic Development

National Archives Maps of Gettysburg

Appalachian Brewing Company

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Money Matters

Who is Albert Gallatin? And why does he have so many places named after him?

  • Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University
  • Gallatin Hall at Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Gallatin Hall at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • USCGC Gallatin, a Coast Guard cutter
  • Gallatin River, Montana
  • Gallatin Range, Montana
  • Gallatin County, Illinois
  • Gallatin County, Kentucky
  • Gallatin County, Montana
  • Albert Gallatin Area School District
  • Gallatin, Missouri
  • Gallatin Gateway, Montana
  • Gallatin, Tennessee
  • Gallatin Street in Washington, D.C.
  • Gallatin Street in Pico Rivera, California
  • Gallatin Street in Downey, California

Albert Gallatin was a statesman in the early years of this country. Born in Switzerland, he was an accomplished linguist, politician, diplomat, and educator. He was a Congressman, House Majority Leader, devoted anti-Federalist, and a sensible foe of an arrogant Alexander Hamilton. Personally ineffective as a businessman, he was nevertheless a sharp and shrewd operator in the ways of governance and policy. He became a Pennsylvania icon, and his home at Friendship Hill is regularly visited by schoolchildren and history buffs alike.

What made him famous, what keeps him known, what keeps him revered by fiscal conservatives, and what should make him revered by Teabaggers (if they stopped their fascination with unremarkable, fluffy windbags), was his leadership in fiscal matters for a fledgling government.

Albert Gallatin was our longest-serving Treasury Secretary, serving from 1801 to 1813 under Presidents Jefferson and Madison. During his term, he did something truly remarkable: he cut the national debt almost in half while at the same time financing the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the country.  This is still regarded as an outstanding achievement, and he is still regarded as our greatest Cabinet secretary. No other Secretary of any department has a site in their name in the National Park Service without having gone on to bigger things (like being elected President). And with a few exceptions (George Marshall, perhaps), I don’t think there are any Cabinet secretaries in our history who are more deserving of accolades than Albert Gallatin. [I’m interested in any reader thoughts on this question, feel free to post your own nominees in the comments.]


In Gallatin’s day, there was a completely different view on debt, especially amongst Jeffersonians. TJ himself wrote “there [is a measure] which if not taken we are undone…[It is] to cease borrowing money and to pay off the national debt.” This notion came from a very strong work ethic of colonial and founding generations of Americans, but also came from an understanding that monetary freedom = personal freedom. This is straight from pre-revolutionary experience: taxes were a form of tyranny, as was debt. Debt was an insidious instrument wielded by aristocrats to abuse the poor. Debtors prisons were very real and very dangerous, as were most lenders. The colonists knew that, in fact lots of colonists escaped to the New World to escape their debts. These colonial experiences translated directly into the thought processes of our early leaders.

Today, we don’t have that work ethic anymore. We began to believe that prosperity can be gained by financial legerdemain and borrowing. Thus,  we have a huge federal budget problem, and until recently, most people didn’t care, because they, too, live under tremendous debt.  Of course, the carpet got pulled out from under all of us starting in 2007, and we’ve paid a terrible price. Now we’re paying attention, and if you are truly paying attention, you realize we still have even more problems looming on the horizon, and one key part of those problems is our national debt.

Federally, 30% of the budget isn’t funded by anything, it’s paid for by borrowing. Who lives like that? I recently dug myself out of a debt I considered intolerable. Looking back on it, at my worst my total unsecured debt equaled about 40% of my annual income, and that was the result of about 15-20 years of irresponsibility. That’s only a few percent a year compounded, and I considered it very dangerous. No person can live at a 30% annual borrowing level for very long before receiving their comeuppance, and it’s not possible for a country to do that, either. The national comeuppance will be coming soon, of that there is no doubt. As it is, there are plenty of quite plausible conspiracy theories that China can one day metaphorically conquer the United States by simply calling in all our markers and bankrupting us. Of course, the likelihood of this is quite small because of other factors, but still, this debt burden is a major problem.

But here’s the bigger problem: today, the general public does not understand how debt works, how the federal budget works, and what the impact would be of the austerity program required to pay down this debt to a reasonable level. There is a great deal of fundamental, blatant stupidity on the part of the general public of all parties and independents. Organizations like the Tea Party and others are being dishonest when they say “slash and burn the federal government and pay it down”. “Cut our taxes” is equally stupid.

I say it’s stupid because it’s simplistic and understates the problem. It’s not just “tax & spend”. If one could simplify the real core of the problem right now, IMHO it would be honestly stated as follows:

Our government is completely entangled in, and nearly inseparable from, our very economy. The American people like it that way, our leaders are more than happy to enable that thinking, and we’re too stupid to realize we have to pay for it.

Take a good, honest look around. How much of our economy is based on federal spending? Roads, bridges, waterways, power generation, power transmission, water treatment, currency exchange, education, social welfare, health care — all of these things have some reliance on the federal government, either through direct spending and subsidy or through a regulatory structure required to keep every factory from turning in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company or every neighborhood from turning into Love Canal. We can’t simply “cut spending”, or “cut regulation”. Again, take a look: this is manifested in a lot of ways.

  • Manufacturing has moved overseas in tremendous numbers. So what’s left? Well, defense and pseudo-defense manufacturing. This stuff is still here because export laws prohibit companies from moving this stuff overseas. You cut defense spending (necessary for any honest austerity program), you effectively kill a significant quantity of remaining manufacturing. Manufacturing jobs are great jobs, for over 100 years entire families have risen themselves out of poverty thanks to manufacturing jobs. You kill them, you kill that rise and mangle our economy.
  • Farm subsidies provide significant portions of farmer incomes. Lots of farmers in this country use either farming subsidies directly, or rely on federal insurance programs to keep their livelihoods going. We kill those programs, we kill family farms.
  • About 20% of American adults don’t enough income to live. This is that wonderfully crappy 10% unemployment rate + social welfare programs + social security. These programs are a huge part of federal and state budgets. You cut that, you have millions of folks living on the beveled edge of survivability. We’ll have our own tin villages akin to those shown on late-night Save the Children infomercials.
  • People love pork projects. Oh sure, we all get upset when we hear about Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere. But let’s be honest: no one loves their pork like the voters who get it spent in their districts. We are being bribed by our own Congress and we love it.
  • Then there’s the chain-o’subsidies across all government entities. The feds subsidize state governments, states subsidize local governments, and local governments provide the things we need (fire, police, schools, snowplows, etc.). You start slashing the feds then the states go bankrupt, you start slashing the states and towns go bankrupt. It’s the domino effect of governance.
  • When something happens, Americans instantly start screaming “what is the government doing about it?” Listen to it, even the right-wing, supposedly “small government” folks cry out “where’s the government” when things happen. This is because, for generations, we’ve expected government to “do something”. We’ve simply lost our ability to help ourselves.
  • But then we have a situation where almost every government effort to “help” fails in some way. Katrina recovery was a disaster, the financial system bailout was wasteful and resulted in massive bonuses to bank managers, even our post-9/11 wars failed to catch or kill the folks responsible. Well, why do they fail? Incompetence? Probably, but let’s be honest: we get what we pay for and when it comes to governments, we don’t want to pay much. So we get crappy service, and then we complain and want to pay less so we get even crappier service. We are a world superpower but want a Wal-Mart government.

Albert Gallatin had it easy. In its youth, the federal government wasn’t intertwined in everything. He could easily chop out 1/3 of federal employees and not really hurt much of anything. He could slash-and-burn other spending and only irritate early 19th century lobbyists. The general welfare of the populace, which wasn’t very pretty back then (hard labor, tough living conditions, etc.), was effectively unchanged by those austerity programs. He also had huge tracts of cheap land he could chop up and sell at a profit to raise money for the treasury without raising taxes (he and TJ actually cut taxes during this time).

We don’t have any of that. We have a federal government intertwined in damn near everything, like some sort of symbiotic parasite from a Star Trek episode. You start cutting whole tendrils and the host body (our economy) will crash and die. We have to understand this reality and make smart, intelligent, responsible choices. We have first got to understand there are some functions that can only be accomplished by a sound, effective federal government, and then understand that government is ineffective in everything else. Then, bit-by-bit, we have to chop out those ineffective things in a manner that doesn’t bring everything crashing down. And we have to honestly allow this to happen even if it risks our own personal wealth or well-being, and we have to pay the amount of taxes required to make those necessary functions effective and actually helpful.

Gallatin lived in risky times, and if one can make any criticism of his work, it’s that he actually weakened the country and made us vulnerable for the War of 1812. We live in risky times of a different source, and the criticism I make of the “slash-and-burn” Tea Bagger mentality is that, too, can weaken the country and make us vulnerable to the next big crisis. Thomas Jefferson and Albert Gallatin were smart folks, we need their counterparts of today to step forward and act similarly smart.

And we, the American citizenry, must support responsibility, sensibility, and intelligence in our leaders.

[The daguerreotype photo of Gallatin is in the public domain. Photos are mine and copyrighted thusly. ]

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Links (lots of statistical & policy ones this time :yawn:)

Charts on US Government Spending

Congressional Budget Office report on manufacturing jobs

Illogic of farming subsidies

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Social Security Facts & Figures

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World War 0.1

I hate ignorance. I especially hate it in myself.

It’s one thing to not have all the facts, or to misinterpret the ones you have, or to not grasp the subtlety of a particularly complex situation. But to miss something important in its entirety, that’s ignorance. And to miss something important in your own chosen endeavor, that’s just negligence!

I went to Fort Necessity completely unaware of it’s significance. It was just a spot on a National Park Service map. I thought it had something to do with the Revolution or something. I was so undeniably, completely wrong, so utterly ignorant, it’s shameful. Fort Necessity, as it turns out, is probably the singular site in all the NPS that has truly global significance. This is a site that marks a minor event in American history, but a huge event in world history.

The events unfolded in this manner:

In the time before the American Revolution, England and France vied for the continent. England, of course, had the 13 original colonies along the Atlantic Ocean. France had her own territory, in the north along the Saint Lawrence Seaway and lakes Erie and Ontario, and a spot of land at the foot of the great Mississippi River known as Louisiana. England wanted to move into the interior, and France wanted to use the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to connect Quebec and New Orleans. For years, the two great powers, with centuries of enmity between them, would dance around each other in the New World.

In 1753, the governor of Virginia heard the French built forts on the south shores of the two big lakes, on land England thought was hers. The governor sent a small squad, led by a young lieutenant, George Washington, to warn the French of their trespass. Washington found himself rudely rebuffed by the French.

In 1754, newly promoted Lt. Col. Washington led a small regiment to help defend a small English fort near the Ohio River, only to find the French had taken over and built their own. Washington’s regiment made camp, and the young colonel thought to engage local Seneca chief Half-King and convince the French to depart. It was meant to be a parlay, backed by a subtle threat of superior numbers and a home-field advantage.

To this day, it is unsure who fired the first shot. It is often debated, but in reality, it doesn’t matter. What matters is a shot was fired. A skirmish erupted, and the young colonel was victorious. Thirteen Frenchmen lay dead, 21 were captured and led back to Williamsburg.

Here is where the tales diverge. In America, we are told that Washington, realizing a counterattack was imminent, led his regiment back into the wild and built a small palisade called Fort Necessity. Unable to solidify alliances with the local Seneca and other Indian tribes, Washington’s 300+ men fought and were defeated by 700 French and Indian troops. Washington had no choice but to surrender and take his men back to Virginia. It would be Washington’s only surrender of his entire career. The French and Indian War, as Americans would come to know it, would be fought, and the French would be pushed out of North America.

In Europe, however, a totally different story is told. There, that ill-fated shot would be used as propaganda by both France and England to ratchet up tensions between the two European powers. The resultant battle between relatively small forces in North America would ignite a massive conflict on the European continent known as the Seven Years War. It was truly the first actual World War, involving many countries across Europe. On the one side, England and her allies (Prussia, Portugal, and some German states) would fight Austria, Sweden, Saxony and France. Russia, in typical fashion, would switch sides in the middle of the thing. Even the Dutch were involved when one of their own colonies was attacked in modern-day India.

This is the tale that Americans aren’t told. Hell, we’re barely taught anything about the French & Indian War! But the Seven Years War cost almost one and a half million lives. It redrew the map, not only in Europe and North America but even in Africa, the Carribbean, and the Indian subcontinent. It severely weakened France, factored in their decision to assist America in their battle for independence, and set the stage for the French Revolution. It ended the Holy Roman Empire entirely, and rose Great Britain to the role of the dominant maritime and colonial power in the world. They would rule large tracts of land from the southern tip of Africa through the Middle East to India, Australia, and Canada for two hundred years until a later World War would undo the effects of this first one or, as I call it, World War 0.1.

Fort Necessity taught me a lot about this period of world history, more than high school or college taught me. Americans aren’t taught this at all, except those who study third-year world history. It’s forgotten, lost, or simply uninteresting. I wonder if it’s ignorance or arrogance. Our own involvement in the Seven Years War was small, and when it did happen, we weren’t really America at that point, so in our eyes, it didn’t even matter. But there are events that happen outside of our cloistered continent that are important, even without us. We need to pay heed, observe and learn of those things outside of our borders (both borders of space and of time).

We are not the center of the universe. We are not even the center of the world. We cannot afford to pay attention to only those things that revolve around us.

[Pics on this post are mine and thusly copyrighted. More are here.]

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Links:

Fort Necessity National Battlefield

Seven Years War on Military History Online <– such an interesting site I added it to the blogroll

The British Empire Online

Google map to Fort Necessity

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Is It Time?

How long does it take for an event to move from the present into history?

I’ve listened to a lot of talks by a lot of historians. It never fails, someone will inevitably ask “how will history look back on the the events of today?” And historians almost always give the same reply: “well, we won’t know until enough time has past. Future historians will have to judge.” Yadda yadda yadda.

In Remembrance © 2009 America In ContextI’m wondering: has enough time passed to honestly and objectively look back on 9/11? There hasn’t been another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, but al Qaeda still makes is presence felt elsewhere.  The administration of President George W. “9/11” Bush is over, but the resulting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are still going on. And bin Laden is still out there, somewhere. We don’t know if he’s dying of cancer or plotting the next attack. So I’m not quite sure enough time has past to put 9/11 in its proper context, it seems like we are still living it today. If we are still living it, has it past into history? Hmmm….

Because I’m not sure it has past into history, I’m also not quite sure we can properly memorialize it. Time has to pass before one can honestly reflect on an event. There’s too much emotion otherwise, and you end up acting completely on impulse and make bad judgements that you then have to live with. So has enough time passed to build memorials, things that will stand for generations and generations? Will such a memorial teach the right lesson to those who weren’t here in 2001?

Jacket and Stuff © 2009 America In ContextThe Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial was built in 1982, seven years after the fall of Saigon. Here we are, eight years after 9/11, so maybe it is time after all. The only difference, of course, is the Vietnam War actually ended. The conflict itself was closed, the troops were brought home. The scars and carnage remained, but at least the nation had those seven years to reflect, and think, and figure out how those lost lives should be remembered. We now have one of the most moving memorials ever created on the west end of the National Mall.  I want the same thing for 9/11, a symbol that evokes the right emotion and conveys the right message to those who might visit it 20, 50, or 100 years later. I don’t want some rushed hunk of granite garbage that evokes a response of “WTF?”

Regardless of the answer to this heavy question, I do like the design for the memorial to Flight 93. I’ve reviewed it, and I’ve visited the site, and I have to give my own, “mouse that roared” thumbs-up to the proposed memorial in Shanksville, PA. I think it’s subdued enough, thoughtful enough, and emotive enough to qualify as a true, honorable monument to those 40 folks who gave their lives in a senseless, pointless act of violence. I especially like the groves of trees and the low, graceful lines of the design. It fits in with the landscape and the dignity we’d all like to see.

I don’t ask this often, but I hope you’ll take the time to visit the Flight 93 Memorial Project and make a  contribution to the creation of this monument. After wrestling with the issue during the crafting of this post, I think its time has come.

Sacred Ground © 2009 America In Context

[Pics are mine and appropriately copyrighted. More are here.]

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Links:

Flight 93 National Memorial

Flight 93 Memorial Project

Google map to the Flight 93 memorial

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For Your Consideration: The Greatest American

Some time ago, on a long-forgotten internet message board, someone posed a question: who was the greatest American in history?

Of course, the internet being the internet, the argument soon disolved into a flame war (I’m sure someone mentioned “abortion” somewhere and it just devolved from there). Somewhere in the fray, however, I made a case for Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Greatest American. Now you can’t answer a question without understanding a question so, as I did on that tiny little  message board, I’ll start off explaining my interpretation of that particular question.

Ike Earrings

Most folks, upon hearing that question, will instinctively think only in terms of America itself, as in “which American did the most for America”. A logical answer here would be Abraham Lincoln, a man who not only kept the Union from dissolving, but also had the guts and fortitude to fight the greatest evil America has ever wrought: the continuation of slavery nearly 9 decades into its existence. Slavery was an unholy abomination that should have been extinguished when Thomas Jefferson put the last period on the Declaration of Independence, but it was allowed to exist through the sheer audacity (and utter cowardice) of founders and legislators and presidents alike. No President stood up to slavery until Lincoln, and his actions saved our country. We were not only saved literally (by stopping secession), but also morally. We had no moral fiber as a nation until slavery was abolished. It is as simple as that.

Ike and 101st AirborneThe only problem I have with proclaiming Lincoln as the “greatest American” is his actions really only saved the country. When I hear “greatest American”, I think globally: which American did the most for the world? Now that is an entirely different question. Sure, some could extrapolate “well, America is the greatest country, and Lincoln saved America, so Lincoln is the greatest”. That not only shows a grotesque level of hubris, it’s not really accurate. America wasn’t a world player for nearly a century after Lincoln’s time. We were an isolationist nation. We were protected on two fronts by mighty oceans, and only had two neighbors. No threats = no conflict = no interest in the world. Plus we were a nation of immigrants, collectively giving Europe the big middle finger as we went on our way, making our own prosperity (and driving the native population into their graves, but that’s the subject for yet another post). Saying Lincoln was a great world figure is simply disingenuous.

So, if we honestly answer “which American did the most good for the world”, well, you can come up with a lot of answers. Many (and perhaps rightly) say medical pioneers like Jonas Salk or inventors like Thomas Edison or scientists like Robert Oppenheimer deserve the title.  I appreciate these picks, but I have to ask: is science purely an American endeavor? Isn’t science simply the discovery and application of facts, principles and theorems? What makes it uniquely American? Doesn’t science transcend nationality? Jonas Salk could just have easily have been German, or Spanish, or Japanese. I’m not at all denigrating the work of these individuals in making my pick, I’m actually elevating them beyond simply being Americans.  Well, I suppose Edison was truly American: he was an incredibly shrewd businessman and power broker who set out to destroy his competitors, but, again, that’s a subject for another post …

5 StarsThis leads me to my own approach to the “Greatest American” question. First, did the individual have a postive, global impact; and second, did the individual act with the best of our core American principles (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, etc.)? I say Ike deserves serious consideration as the Greatest American under that context, and I say it for one big reason: World War II.

World War II was the greatest conflagration the world has ever known. Never before, and thankfully never since, has the globe ever been covered in carnage and evil as horrid as during the period between 1939 and 1945. I don’t even know if people can comprehend that evil. I’m fairly convinced Americans can’t, we simply haven’t experienced war firsthand on our own soil since 1865. Let me tell you, it was nasty-horrid. And the Nazis, the Nazis were the worst. They epitomize evil to this very day. Every tyrant since 1945 is judged against Hitler, every evil movement has been compared to Nazism. These people were cold, heartless butchers; utterly disinterested in freedom and liberty; technocrats and bullies of the worst kind; the filthiest type of genetic bigots and medical torturers this world has ever seen. America saw this evil and (after much prodding by FDR) finally decided to confront it. But we brought more than men and equipment to Europe, we brought a secret weapon. We brought Ike.

Montgomery Eisenhower Zhukov de Tassigny

I don’t know if I’ll make many friends with this paragraph, and I don’t mean any disrespect to any man or woman who ever served in our Armed Forces, but an army isn’t worth a damn unless it has good, strong leadership. Throughout history, there are lots of stories of brave armies led to their defeat and slaughter by lousy generals; and plenty of other stories of underpowered armies led to victory by great generals. Anyone who’s read about our Civil War knows stories like these, and they occur in European history as well. Victory and defeat don’t rest on the shoulders of the soldier, they reside in the brains of the generals.

Ike was one of the better ones. I don’t think he’s rated as the greatest American general ever (I think that title tends to fall on Lee or Patton or even George Washington), but there can be no doubt he had the greatest challenge of any of them. He had to face a highly skilled, highly entrenched opponent, who had (in some cases) superior weaponry and better planning (at least in the early parts of the war). Not only that, he had to rescue no less than an entire continent from the greatest scourge mankind has ever seen. This was an enemy unlike any faced by Americans in our entire history. This was an enemy who actually sat down, in offices, using businesslike precision, and plotted the extermination of, by some counts, 11 million people! [See link below for more on this]. This was much, much more than simple warfare. The stakes were much higher.

Man of the Year

I’m hoping that, by now, you see why I’m nominating Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, as the Greatest American. Yeah, he didn’t beat the Nazis all by himself (no one achieves anything by themselves). Yeah, he made a lot of blunders and mistakes and some (like the continued delay of the invasion of Europe) probably led to further deaths in the Soviet Union.  I still think his achievement earns him the title of Greatest American. He was a fine president, the 50’s were a good time in this country. He sponsored the interstate highway system, connecting us in a way we never were connected before. He started the battle against Communism (although he didn’t act to combat McCarthyism). He tried to integrate our racially divided nation (with admittedly limited success). He even tried to warn us about the growing power of the military-industrial complex, you don’t hear too many politicians doing that these days.

Most impressive, in my view at least, he was a humble man. His retirement home, now the Eisenhower National Historic Site near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is probably the humblest house ever inhabited by any former President. Hell, it’s not much different than the farmhouse next door to my own boyhood home. Personally, I think humility is one of the best characteristics a human being can ever have. Arrogance is for assholes, humility is for great people. Personally, I think Eisenhower was more of the latter and less of the former.

Eisenhower Home

[I normally don’t ask for direct feedback on a post, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the “Greatest American” question. Also, I didn’t have a camera when I visited Ike’s house, all pictures on this post are public domain photos taken from the NPS or Wikipedia or other sources.]

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Links:

Eisenhower National Historic Site

PowerKills, R. J. Rummel’s works on democide

Atlantic Monthly’s Top 100 Americans and a contrary list

Google map to Ike NHS

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