Category: History

Masculinity, Southern Gentlemen, and the Strange Story of Alabama’s First U.S. Senator, William Rufus DeVane King

Posted by – May 7, 2013

OR John Kerry Should’ve Grown A Beard: The North-South Manliness Inversion

A Post That Cites Its Sources…with Footnotes!

As I mentioned in the preceding post, the Nick’s Crusade blog is a history blog too. I think delving into history can be very valuable, not just because the strange doglegs and twists in the American story—history NEVER progresses in a straight line—are infinitely interesting, but because we become better thinkers and citizens the more we understand our prologue, the previous generations, the prior struggles, and what we’ve gained and lost since.

One thing we’ve lost—though we have gained from its absence in many ways—is the whole concept of the elite 19th century Southern Gentleman, the image of Southern aristocrats with smooth, un-calloused hands and clean-shaven plump faces, and the brutal slave-driving that made such lifestyles possible.  A lot of insight into that old image can be gleaned from the strange story of William Rufus deVane King of Alabama (my home state).

Art by Nick Dupree: Unlucky 13th Vice president, William Rufus deVane King, served only 45 days before dying of tuberculosis.  Only a few of the 45 days, his last days, were on American soil, as he returned from Cuba via Mobile, then died on his plantation near Selma. He is the only vice president from Alabama ever elected.

Art by Nick Dupree: Unlucky 13th Vice president, William Rufus deVane King, served only 45 days before dying of tuberculosis. Only a few of the 45 days, his last days, were on American soil, as he returned from Cuba via Mobile, then died on his plantation near Selma. He is the only vice president from Alabama ever elected.

William R. D. King—more typically referred to as just “William R. King”—was the first U.S. Senator from Alabama (alongside John Williams Walker, who was also sent to Washington—the state legislature electing two U.S. Senators per constitutional requirements—after Alabama was admitted to the Union in December 1819).  King also played a major role getting Alabama statehood done, and helped write the constitution of Alabama.  He named the city of Selma “Selma” meaning “high seat” or “throne” in the 18th century Ossianic poem The Songs of Selma, was president pro tem of the United States Senate, got into a Hamilton-Burr-style duel with Henry Clay,¹ and served as U.S. Minister to France and had other diplomatic posts in Naples and St. Petersburg.  As president pro tem of the Senate, he was behind the writing and passage of the Compromise of 1850 and more.  What’s odd is, he did all this while being…while being known by the public as super effeminate and flamboyant, and was re-elected again and again by the hardcore states’ righters in Montgomery (prior to the ratification of the 17th amendment in 1913, state legislatures elected U.S. Senators to represent their state).

I won’t say William R. D. King was gay, though it is very striking that, in a culture that almost never mentioned such things, contemporaries like Andrew Jackson publicly called him by derogatory names like “Miss Nancy,” and

Buchanan, 15th President of the United States (1857-1861) was also Minister to the UK (Court of St. James).

Buchanan, 15th President of the United States (1857-1861) was also Minister to the UK (Court of St. James).

powerful Tennessee Dem Aaron Brown (later appointed postmaster general under Buchanan) referred to him as “she” and “Aunt Fancy” and [Buchanan’s] “better half.”²  The Senators King and Buchanan were reported walking arm in arm around Washington, though that was common for men even in James Garfield‘s time 30 years later.  The rumors of King wearing 18th century powdered wigs and stockings long after they’d been abandoned in the 19th century are false,³ but there was definitely a lot of scandalous gossip in D.C. about his clothes and mannerisms.  And it’s well established that King did have a very intimate relationship with future-president James Buchanan, and something must have been unusual enough to’ve drawn derision. Nelson from the Simpsons, famously pointing out someone deserving derision Buchanan was sometimes ridiculed as “Mr. Fancy Pants” or “Granny Buck.”

Still, the serious historian demands a high standard of proof: the text document equivalent of “pics or it didn’t happen.” Though there is more material suggesting King was seen as gay than almost anyone else in the 19th century, it’d be unwise to say King was a homosexual with certainty.  I agree with the James Buchanan entry in glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture that:

In his The Invention of Heterosexuality Jonathan Ned Katz cautions against the application of contemporary terms regarding sexuality to other times and societies in which “[w]ays of ordering the sexes, genders, and sexualities have varied radically.” He further points out that in the “pre-Freudian world [of early-nineteenth-century America], love did not imply eros”–although neither, of course, was an erotic component excluded.⁴

As King’s effeminate manner is evident beyond a shadow of a doubt, I’ll ask a broader—and, I think, more interesting—question, on gender presentation widely-speaking: how is it that such an effeminate public figure got elected by the legislators in rough-and-tumble frontier Alabama?
The answer is, there was nothing odd about William R. D. King amidst the Southern slaver planter aristocracy of his generation. It only seems strange to us, seeing through the lens of the latter half of the 20th century and its mega-strict gender roles.  In the antebellum South, the elite planter could be flamboyant, his body unmarked by any of the wear and tear associated with daily labor, his beardless, cherubic visage and opulent clothing a sign of plantation riches, heralding social status as much as signaling the success—and therefore rightness—of the Old South.  That kind of presentation harkens back to the aristocratic plantation lifestyles of the 17th and 18th century colonies, when it was, if anything, MORE pronounced. The kind of luxurious appearance and elite manner King exemplified was not uncommon among antebellum aristocrats in cotton country, in fact, flaunting your aristocratic bona fides was cool.

The anti-slavery left, the free soil partisans of the north who were organizing into what would soon be called the Republican Party, had picked up on this. By the time Millard Fillmore—a northerner with pro-slavery sympathies—moved into the White House following President Taylor dying of dysentery in 1850, they had a name for his sort: doughfaces, an obvious allusion to the idle, beardless planter aristocracy.
The best explanation of masculinities of the 19th century and the politics of facial hair I’ve found, is in Adam Goodheart’s amazing book 1861:

It was no accident that Northerners who sympathized with slaveholders were called “doughfaces”: in the American context, beards connoted a certain frank and uncompromising authenticity. Nor was it a coincidence that “Honest Abe” began cultivating his famous beard as he prepared to take over the presidency from “Granny Buck.”⁵

Northern free-soilers began presenting themselves as everything opposed to those they framed as the effete, decadent planter class, or as they referred to them, “the slave party.” They cultivated an image marketed as everything opposite the idle, soft-handed, soft-faced rich Southern aristocrats, they were the candidates of rough-hewn common working men with beards! They [the first decades of Republican Party free soil candidates] were one of the Real ‘Merickens who crawled out of mama and into a log cabin, grew up ridin’ a blue ox and drinking hard cider, and as a man split rails with an axe in one hand while reading law with the other. In the case of Abraham Lincoln, this backstory was kind of true, and his 1860 presidential campaign leveraged that to. the. MAX. The Republican National Convention in Chicago that (unexpectedly) nominated Lincoln for president in 1860 was held in a massive, makeshift wooden “wigwam”—Chicago’s fire marshall didn’t get any sleep that week—and the crowd badgered Honest Abe to tell the convention his “clearing the land with an axe” story…again. The Fall campaign was almost singularly about the image of Lincoln “the rail-splitter,” and was used non-stop; I’m sure some folks didn’t even know his name, just knew “rail-splitter.” To focus on the frontiersmen ethos and related manliness, and all the subtle messages within that, while not mentioning free soil doctrine, abolition, or any of the issues currently boiling over was a brilliant stroke of campaigning genius, and stands out in political history.

Adam Goodheart’s 1861: The Civil War Awakening is the best, most quick-to-understand work of social history I’ve read to date, delving into what Americans lives were really like on the eve of the Civil War. It goes into the BIZARRE social arrangements of 1861 Washington, DC, where free blacks owned slaves, and in Goodheart’s descriptions, those slaves were better off than much of DC’s free black population, who were largely stuck below-subsistence-level in squalid shantytowns, and with no “owner” to vouch for them, they were “undocumented” in a way—my term—and had no real rights to move around in public spaces and were subjected to frequent stops and harassment by police. 1861 has a whole chapter on young James Garfield’s doings at the time, and the way passions were channeled into male friendships in his social circle since expressing emotions was quite circumscribed where women were concerned. I’d like to explore that more in another post.

What I discovered by looking back at William R. King vs. early Republican campaigns—and it’s exciting when you figure something out for the first time—is that the North and South have not only undergone a political transformation, there’s been a cultural inversion alongside it. First, the obvious political inversion. Look at the electoral map following Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential run. The liberal “free soil” north is ruby red, Republican. The South, pro-slavery, is the Democratic Party “solid south,” and with the exception of the fracturing of the Democrats behind several Southern candidates in 1860, then a period of Republican military rule and Republican-elections, “Reconstruction,” the solid Democratic south stays together a remarkably long time, from Andrew Jackson to like… John Kennedy’s run in 1960… Kennedy loses significant votes to Nixon in the Deep South, then in 1972 ALL Southern states peel off—a huge change from the results of the ’68 presidential election just four years before, when the solid south voted for the Dem, Humphrey, and the former-Dem-then-Dem-again, George Wallace—and REALLY break in Nixon’s favor, what with his infamous “southern strategy” and a Dem challenger perceived as wimpy. ’72 clinched the end of realignment, sealed the deal. Ever since, the South has been Republican red, with Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond and ex-Wallace supporters defecting to the GOP in droves and Lincoln’s states up north increasingly leaning Democratic; it’s a total inversion!

What I’ve realized is, it’s also a North-South inversion of the culture of masculinity. In short, northerners are framed as effete, wimpy, decadent, out-of-touch elites today, similar to the way northerners caricatured southerners in the first decades of Whig and Republican campaigns (1840-1870ish). Now, it’s southerners that seem to treasure uber-rigid common man masculinity, and William Rufus deVane King couldn’t get elected dog catcher in today’s Alabama; despite his great wealth, I doubt he could find a place in Alabama public life due to his…different gender presentation. Southerners of today expect a working man to run for office, someone manly and “like us,” the opposite of William R. King. Thomas Frank explored today’s Republican “backlash” against “elites” in his book What’s The Matter With Kansas. This “backlash” is far more determinative than people realize, and deserves much more examination.

John Kerry got the brunt of this backlash in the 2004 campaign, with Karl Rove using the words “effete, elite Massachusetts liberal!” every day. Kerry got Buchanan’ed! Today’s Republicans are as aware of Americans’ deep-seated resentment of “the idle rich” as their northern founders were!
John Kennedy did a modern version of the “Hard Cider Campaign” in 1960; you could call it the “high-ball glass and scotch campaign.” It worked. The “effete, elite Massachusetts liberal!” line was certainly attempted against Kennedy, but for the most part it failed to stick, and he won a majority of working class voters and held the bulk of the South. Kerry failed…failed BADLY to counter the “effete, wimpy, decadent, out-of-touch” frame employed against him. Maybe John Kerry should’ve tried some form of the Kennedy strategy. Maybe he should have gone full Abe, grown a beard and had the press film him chopping firewood.

What he tried instead, photos and videos of him “huntin” backfired terribly, making him look even more phony and out of touch.

Cartoon by Nick: 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, huntin...he says "I too enjoy leisure time practicing as a huntist!"

Cartoon by Nick: 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, huntin…he says “I too enjoy leisure time practicing as a huntist!”

Unfortunately, image matters and always has mattered in American politics. Today, it matters disproportionately, and 21st century Democratic candidates like John Kerry have been awful at it. He was completely unable to fight back against the opponent’s framing him as an elite, decadent aristocrat, just as King and Buchanan and other antebellum southern gentlemen were caricatured.

Southern politics and southern masculinity has shifted dramatically, and I wonder if we haven’t lost something important. I wonder if becoming much more rigid in gender expectations isn’t narrowing what’s possible in political life, excluding not just potential 21st century William Rufus Kings, but ANYONE who doesn’t look like a square, iron-jawed working man. We’ve narrowed potential in public life, and I think that’s always bad.



1. Clay “believed the Globe to be an infamous paper, and its chief editor an infamous man.” King responded that Blair’s character would “compare gloriously” to that of Clay. The Kentucky senator jumped to his feet and shouted, “That is false, it is a slanderous base and cowardly declaration and the senator knows it to be so.” King answered ominously, “Mr. President, I have no reply to make—none whatever. But Mr. Clay deserves a response.” King then wrote out a challenge to a duel and had another senator deliver it to Clay, who belatedly realized what trouble his hasty words had unleashed. As Clay and King selected seconds and prepared for the imminent encounter, the Senate sergeant at arms arrested both men and turned them over to a civil authority. Clay posted a five-thousand-dollar bond as assurance that he would keep the peace, “and particularly towards William R. King.” Each wanted the matter behind him, but King insisted on “an unequivocal apology.” On March 14, 1841, Clay apologized…
Senate Historical Office. “William Rufus King, 13th Vice President (1853).” (accessed May 6, 2013).
2. p. 189: Hernandez, David. Broken Face in the Mirror: Crooks and Fallen Stars That Look Very Much Like Us. Dorrance Publishing, 2010. (accessed May 6, 2013).
3. “Vice President King is sometimes confused with [signer of the Constitution in 1787 and Federalist presidential candidate] Senator Rufus King of New York. This confusion with the first King explains the rumors that persist to this day of the latter King’s wearing of ribbons, scarves and powdered wigs long after they were in fashion. Vice President King always wore the contemporary styles of the early-to-mid-1800s and he never wore a wig.” pp 13-14: Stern, Milton. Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady. 2005. (accessed May 7, 2013).
4. Rapp, Linda. glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Chicago, IL: glbtq, Inc., 2004.,2.html (accessed May 6, 2013).
5. p. 113: Goodheart, Adam. 1861: The Civil War Awakening. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2011.

Famous 8th century Umayyad mosque destroyed in Syrian crossfire

Posted by – April 28, 2013

Over the years, this blog has covered many things, and one of those, historical blogging, has accounted for a lot of my best stuff, like my essay on Zheng He and the Chinese Age of Discovery, my six-part series “Are We Rome?” (examining the Roman invasions of what’s-now-called Iraq) and most recently, my in-depth exploration of the Know-Nothing party of the 1850s… so, in my history blogger hat, I want to mention that the Syrian civil war has recently partially destroyed one of the most famous mosques of the Islamic Golden Age, the Great Mosque of Aleppo, a cultural and artistic treasure built in the 8th century. The war that has been destroying Syrian society, has now taken a World Heritage site (and rare extant example of Malmuk architecture) down with it.

The Great Mosque’s famous minaret, rebuilt to a towering height in the 11th century following damaging Mongol invasions, is lost completely.

The work of the Islamic Golden Age getting torn down by infighting and fratricidal war… seems more than a little symbolic.

This portion of Crash Course World History #14 covers the achievements of the Islamic Golden Age really well. The intellectual achievements of the Abassids included basically inventing modern medicine and mathematics, and their preservation of the texts of the greatest Greek, Roman, and Indian thinkers and reintroduction of these to Mediterranean Europe… would trigger the Renaissance.
It’s ironic that the Muslim thinkers that praise the Islamic Golden Age the most, touting its superiority over Europeans of the same period (middle ages) and calling for a return to the Caliphate and so forth, writers like Sayyid Qutb¹, are the same guys spurring the jihadists and the radicalization that is literally bombing Golden Age monuments to dust. The newest, most extremist branches of Salafi Islam have been notorious for destroying great cultural treasures, like the Buddhas of Bamiyan, or more recently destroying some of the sacred sites of Timbuktu, taking apart certain Islamic Golden Age shrines and masoleums with axes and shovels.

I have a lot of old content commenting on the Middle East in historical context, click the Middle East tag to access it.

There will be more new history content here—in-depth explorations of U.S. political history—with the Real Policy Differences video series. Here’s a sneak peek of some of the cartooning I’ve done for the series.

Stay tuned!


1. Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-winning book The Looming Tower covers the roots of the modern jihadist movement and al-Qaeda, with a detailed chapter on Sayyid Qutb, the founding father of the Egyptian jihadist movement. Wright chronicles Qutb’s time in the United States, where he became radicalized observing decadent 1950s New York City, and the women of Colorado.

A Note on Robert Bork and the End of Busing as a Desegregation tool

Posted by – April 9, 2013

It’s been a while since I blogged about racism, but this blog has a broader mission to shine a light on the concerns of unheard, marginalized groups everywhere, which is why, in the past, I’ve written about things as far-flung and diverse as an effort to fund safehouses for LGBT youth being hunted down by Islamist death squads in Iraq and the violence against raw food shops and consumers in California, where the government effectively acted as enforcers for big agribusiness, helping them shut down the competition.

As the new About page says:

This blog is a safe space, where I highlight unreported and under-reported issues effecting people with disabilities and other underrepresented groups and the U.S. as a whole.

I really want to give underreported and unreported stories some space. That is what I think the blogosphere should be, a megaphone for the people the news media ignore.

Under racism, in the past I’ve spotlighted the legacy of slavery and the Capitol building, an anti-Latino death squad who were ignored by the media even after killing a family, and more.

Recently, comments on C-SPAN’s BookTV sparked my interest, because Appellate Judge Frank Easterbrook said something very revealing. He talked about how he and then-solicitor general Robert Bork crafted the legal reasoning that now is the dominant precedent that prohibits or stifles desegregation across America. And no one noticed. Segregation and the laws around it deserve more discussion.

This is a clip I made of Judge Easterbrook’s comments, which reveal a history few know about ( allows you to make your own clips now!) During a discussion of Robert Bork’s last, posthumously published book “Saving Justice,” Frank Easterbrook reveals how he and Robert Bork’s reasoning that school segregation “by personal choice” is not a violation, though so inflammatory in the ’70s the DOJ ordered it shredded, is now the opinion affirmed by the Supreme Court.

Click here to see the clip (which, for some reason isn’t embeddable).

Even Robert Bork thought the anti-busing opinion should be shredded at the time; according to Judge Easterbrook, Bork was worried it would empower violent bigots in the ongoing Boston busing conflict.

Somehow, this opinion was unearthed from the bowels of hell and embraced by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has again and again affirmed this radical-right reasoning that school segregation doesn’t hurt anyone and is just fine as long as the state isn’t forcing it and it’s “segregation by private choice.”

The nail in the coffin for desegregation seemed to come from Bork and Easterbrook’s brief.

With my own eyes, I’ve seen the retrenchment of segregation in the South. My hometown of Mobile, Alabama was once a good example of relative-racial harmony; Mobile boasts it was the only major city in the Deep South never to suffer race riots. Leaders on both sides of this peaceful, heavily Catholic city made negotiation work instead of the conflagration everywhere else. My college, Spring Hill College (“The Jesuit College of the South”) was praised in MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail for being the first university in the Deep South to integrate, in 1954. When the KKK tried to burn a cross (highly blasphemous) on campus in response, students chased them off with rocks and baseball bats, a couple of Jesuit priests in tow. We showed how possible integration could be; we showed that not everybody in the Deep South supported the Klan. (Also, people tend to see the world through the lens of their hometown values and upbringing, and this post gives you insight into mine, where I am coming from).

It’s been sad watching my hometown leave behind their powerful legacy of peaceful desegregation without discussion, following the other Southern cities. Accelerating subsequent to the 1991 Supreme Court ruling Board of Education v. Dowell, which—in a 5-3 decision—lifted integration-busing court orders (Thurgood Marshall, on the verge of retiring, wrote the dissenting opinion) busing has been jettisoned as a relic, and the busing-integrated high school I went to, John Shaw High School, was shuttered.

There’s been a retrenchment of racial segregation throughout the South—and elsewhere too (see this article about Omaha dividing into separate segregated school districts at the request of the black minority). The reasons for re-segregation are complex and difficult to talk about; it’s clear that both communities are fueling this trend. Black communities may dislike sending children on hour-long bus rides, among other things, while white communities may want to wall off their children from the kinds of things going on in the black ghettos (which may or may not be a true perception, because in MY high school, the white kids were the ones dealing drugs).

Some relevant sources:
Justices Rule Mandatory Busing May Go, Even if Races Stay Apart – New York Times 1991 (reported on the announcement of the Board of Education v. Dowell ruling)
Schools Resegregate, Study Finds – New York Times 2003
Fighting School Resegregation – Editorial – 2003
and a ton more sources are available on the Google

According to a 2003 Harvard study, following the flurry of court rulings against busing, black students were less integrated at the turn of the millennium than in 1970, “a year before the Supreme Court authorized the busing that became a primary way of integrating schools.” These trends have accelerated unabated since 2000. In many of these segregated communities, a kid has a better chance of winning the lottery than meeting a person of different ethnic background than them. It looks as though our broken judiciary will allow entire states to re-segregate, decades of progress down the tubes, because we’ve made the democratic choice for that kind of society. And in a democracy we should be able to choose that; but let’s not be blind to the destructive potential of segregation: the damage to the children socially and emotionally, the distancing of racial communities, the retrenchment of a U.S. caste system. A growing body of social science research is reaching the conclusion that school desegregation should get some credit for the drop in urban crime in the ’90s and ’00s, and that the rise in crime in recent years can be partly blamed on re-segregation (Source: Slate: Resegregation has led to a spike in violent crime).
We need to be honest about the prejudice, the pre-judging we’re all capable of, and try and do what’s right. Separate but equal can never be equal, and invites a myriad of problems.

My younger brother Jamie, who’s also on a vent, said of visiting one high school, “I felt like the little white chunk no one wants at the bottom of the can o’ pork ‘n beans.”
That isn’t good, but it is the reality in the 2000s and 2010s….

Mobile has its first black mayor now, and peace and negotiation is still the order of the day for the most part, but in places like Atlanta and New Orleans the intensifying of segregation has communities on both sides simmering with racial tension. Racial violence in Atlanta isn’t yet “only of interest to historians.” Economic and social segregation in New Orleans, not to mention the strict geographic segregation—so extreme you wouldn’t believe it—has racial discord at all time highs. Hurricane Katrina (which I barely survived in Mobile) not only devastated New Orleans bow to stern, it opened up a LOT of old wounds. Surprisingly virulent racist memes have come back, big time; too often, Louisiana whites have welcomed that stuff back with open arms.

Libertarians like Ron Paul are right to point out that laws alone can’t turn hearts and minds around, and that’s an important point, but laws provide enforcement of equal opportunity against the worst injustices. Laws that have dis-empowered the most egregious offenders, especially vis a vis voting rights and equality under the law, have driven most of the progress we’ve seen.
Bork and Easterbrook’s brief provide a window into how we got to where we are. And where we are, and the legal opinions behind it, deserve re-examination.


Plug Uglies: top hat-toughs

Posted by – January 20, 2013

Here’s a fascinating topic you won’t find elsewhere: the Plug Uglies.

The Plug Uglies were a gang of nativist thugs that ran Baltimore for nearly seven years uninterrupted in the 1850s. The American Party sprung from the grassroots in reaction to the flood of immigration in the mid-1800s, which meant you had a substantial population of “native” English-speaking Protestant young men unemployed or barely employed because of stiff competition from low-wage immigrant laborers who had more grasp of Gaelic or German than English. Jacksonian Democrats ended up spawning Democratic Party machines—New York’s Tammany Hall led by Boss Tweed for example—on the ward and city levels that provided jobs and patronage to the successive waves of immigrants in exchange for votes, often leaving existing populations feeling unrepresented.  As large populations of young males felt economically and politically displaced, especially when the main alternative to the Democratic Party, the Whig Party, went the way of the dodo bird, they began to organize a new political movement to express their frustrations (a major political realignment).  A lot of strands of issues were in play here that extend into the present.
Local gangs of angry young men formed to support their new party and confront existing parties’ power, with polls and punches.  The most vile anti-Catholic conspiracy theories imaginable spread like wildfire through these gangs, who came to believe that Irish Catholics and other “papists” were loyal to the Pope over the Republic.  “America for Americans” was their motto, and they figured only Protestants could be true, loyal citizens.  The American Party was also known as the Know Nothing Party (because of their vulnerable position as a fledgling third party and their penchant for murder and other crimes, they tended to only answer police inquiries with “I know nothing”).  Once in the Spring Hill College library I found note of Know Nothing violence: not long after the college’s 1848 switch to Jesuit administration, French Jesuits newly arrived to teach at Spring Hill were shot and killed; two priests cornered alone in the local wetlands killed by Know Nothings in as many years.

But develop the party did, growing up from the grassroots to become a major factor in politics, winning the mayor’s office in New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, among many others.  In 1854, Know-Nothing candidates even won control of the Massachusetts legislature.¹  The local grassroots backing for political parties in the mid-19th century has no equivalent today, especially when it comes to the American Party, which was a mass movement more organized than any grassroots thing today; Baltimore was divided into 20 wards, each with its own ward boss and political clubs (like the Plug Uglies, Rip Raps, Rough Skins, Regulators, Wampanoags, Calithumpians, Tigers, Butt Enders, Bloody Tubs, etc. supporting the Know Nothings, and also clubs for the opposing Democratic Party).  The clubs often started as offshoots of volunteer fire departments, though this was a joke; the “volunteer fire companies” created more fires than they extinguished. Maryland Know Nothings had councils at the ward, city and state levels to coordinate handing out patronage jobs, organize events and campaigns, and groom and endorse candidates, a massive and complex organization doing incredible feats of coordination.  36% of Baltimore government jobs during American Party control were distributed to Know Nothing gang members as patronage appointments, though 89% of the jobs given to such “rowdies” were low-wage working class jobs, especially as ward policeman and the like.² 
When Know Nothing thugs won an especially gory street battle against “upper class” voting rights reformers in New Orleans, the telegraph conveyed the news to Know Nothing clubs up and down the U.S., and Plug Uglies in Baltimore set off fireworks in celebration of the “triumph.” Affiliated gangs from Cincinnati and Philadelphia visited Baltimore several times throughout the 1850s to clink mugs and celebrate election “wins” in the center of American Party power. This was the most organized mayhem and thuggery EVER!

In New York City, the leading nativist “club” (gang) were the Bowery Boys, aligned with William “Bill the Butcher” Poole.  He was depicted in the book Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Asbury—informal, indeed, it’s quite heavily fictionalized, with much of the material acquired from interviews with aging gang braggarts in prison and some of it pure urban legend—and Daniel Day Lewis famously immortalized Bill in the Scorsese epic Gangs of New York (so loosely based

Daniel Day Lewis as "Bill the Butcher"

Daniel Day Lewis immortalized “Bill the Butcher” on the silver screen

on Asbury’s book that it is set eight years after the real William Poole’s death, and unlike Casablanca or The Godfather which won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay Adapted from Another Work, Gangs was honored with a Best Original Screenplay Oscar).  In the movie, Bill ran a small but formidable criminal fiefdom in the Five Points neighborhood, using the stovepipe hat-wearing Bowery Boys as muscle. In real life, William Poole was a member of the Bowery Boys but not a kingpin or neighborhood boss. He was involved in the Bowery Boys’ volunteer fire dept. that did more sabotaging and disrespecting rival gangs’ fire engines than actual firefighting. Bill campaigned for nativist candidates and his butcher shop—his nickname was literal, he cut and distributed meats to people who wanted to buy meats—became Know Nothing HQ. Among his contemporaries, he was most known for being really amazing at 19th century-style fists-3ft-out bare-knuckle boxing. Bill the Butcher was one of NYC’s most colorful characters, no doubt, but while the Bowery Boys shared the same habits, stovepipe hats, anti-immigrant sentiments and methods, their influence never even neared that of the Plug Uglies.

The Plug Uglies grew and grew to be the most powerful and feared club of nativist thugs in history, the term “plug ugly” itself becoming genericized to mean any such stovepipe hat-wearing street tough.   While the Bowery Boys cornered the market on crime in one neighborhood, the Plug Uglies ran an entire city, sometimes even nearing power in all of Maryland. Controlling the streets and only allowing wards to vote for American Party (know nothing) candidates was their path to power. One way they steered elections was especially extraordinary: they would “coop” any vulnerable immigrants, homeless people and men weaker than them in basements or shacks, 40-90 men to a shack, then herd them to vote over and over again in different wards wearing different clothes.  Edgar Allan Poe was slipped a mickey and “cooped” by Plug Uglies right before his death, and was seen at different polling places in unfamiliar clothes. Poe experts still speculate about the poet’s death. For her part, Poe’s cousin’s daughter and important Poe scholar Elisabeth Ellicott Poe, placed blame squarely on the Plug Uglies’ shoulders, writing a piece marking the centennial of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth and recounting his history, that “On the night of October 4, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe arrived in Baltimore from Richmond. He was going North to be married, and was last seen to alight from the Richmond train in Baltimore and go into a near-by saloon. What happened after that, in brief, was this: His drink was drugged under

Joke image: Lyrics from Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" "I'm just a Poe boy, from a Poe family," juxtaposed with an image of Edgar Allan Poe

“I’m just a Poe boy, from a Poe family.”

direction of a gang of plug-uglies and he was voted about the city next day in the elections as a repeater while still drugged. The plug-uglies were members of a secret political organization, and their lips were sealed. But a certain Passano of that society, in after years said that Edgar Poe was kept in his coop that night. After the plug-uglies had finished with the unfortunate man he was thrown carelessly into the street, left to die if he willed. …he never recovered sufficiently to give the details of his dreadful plight.”³

Back then, you brought your own ballot with you to the polls, and they were typically brightly colored and easily identified—the American Party’s ballot was emblazoned with red stripes—hardly secret balloting.  Plug Uglies would famously discourage any voter who showed up with a ballot in hand of another color, not the red-striped ballot, by shoving a shoemaker’s awl into them, sometimes kneeing unsuspecting victims with awls strapped to their knees, or throwing them out of the nearest window.  An allied nativist gang, the Blood Tubs, discouraged immigrants from voting by dunking them in tubs full of pig blood; seeing a guy or two returning to your neighborhood covered in gore really had a chilling effect. Controlling the voting was how Know Nothing gangs controlled city officials and thus Baltimore, lock, stock and barrel.

The shoemaker’s awl, a short (and easily-concealed) spike intended for poking holes in shoe-leather became the Plug Uglies’ symbol, both indicating their status as sons of the working class and for humorous effect.  Shortly before the presidential election in 1860, in one of their largest (and last) mass demonstrations, the Plug Uglies hired a blacksmith to pound out awls with his hammer and anvil in public, forging them en masse during the rally and handing them out to supporters.  They would march in massive torchlight processions, “grand illuminations,”

An awl

This is what a shoemaker’s awl looks like

carrying awls and awl signs and banners, one hugely inscribed with the words “with this [picture of awl] we will do the work,” more often an enormous banner depicting an awl and nothing else.  They would shout “the Third Ward is Awl right!” and “come and vote, there’s room for AWL!” while marching to polling places.

A large part of what makes the Plug Uglies interesting is their uniquely American sense of humor, common-man camaraderie, and that hard-to-capture spirit of Loki, chief of tricksters, pranks, disobedience, mayhem, chaos and the like, in Norse mythology.

This was a gang without parallel. The Plug Uglies had their own city, their own judges (who sometimes heard cases while inebriated), their own American Party mayor (Mayor Swann) and governor (Thomas Holliday Hicks), and they even had their own club song.  At the height of their influence, the Plug Uglies even had a Know Nothing presidential candidate, ex-president Millard Fillmore, and managed to sway Maryland’s votes in his favor in the 1856 presidential election, making Maryland the only state in the union he won.

Poor Millard Fillmore was the unlucky 13th President of the United States, only becoming commander-in-chief by accident when newly-elected president Zachary Taylor died of dysentery-like symptoms. President Taylor became ill after seeking solace from the oppressive heat of Washington, DC following his first

"You Have Died of Dysentery."

As the famed death screen from the Apple II game Oregon Trail said, “You Have Died of Dysentery.”

Fourth of July celebration as president (which included the groundbreaking ceremony for the Washington Monument) and downing cold milk and cherries to cool off. The milk was evidently even more disturbed by the heat than Taylor, as the new president quickly developed gastrointestinal distress. The not-so-knowledgeable doctors of the time sought to treat poor Taylor’s “bilious diarrhea” with calomel (mercury chloride, which causes mercury poisoning and vomiting) and ipecac, an emetic—vomit inducer—of such explosive power that under the auspices of modern medicine, it has been banned for many years. These lethal prescriptions, given in mega doses of 40 grains each, finished off President Taylor; that he endured as many days as he did can only be attributed to what a strong, big bear of a man he was.

So, Taylor’s vice president, the unremarkable upstate New York functionary Millard Fillmore, whose military feats’ greatest extent was leading a militia to defend Buffalo, NY from Mexican invasion during the same war Taylor won improbable victories at Palo Alto and Monterrey, became president, to general confusion, disbelief and shouts of “Millard what the who?” The entire cabinet resigned, and bad blood was high. Taylor, though a slave-owning Virginian himself, in fact the last slave holding president ever—and the last southern man elected president until LBJ, had always taken the Andrew Jackson position on Southern radicals, that secession was off the table, and anyone inciting rebellion would be hung without hesitation and he would gladly lead the Army into South Carolina himself. Taylor, “Old Rough and Ready,” the old Mexican War hero and tough, manly military man, was given the Whig Party‘s presidential nomination after much political wrangling and deal-making, then Whigs consolidated support behind the general during the campaign, with speeches on his behalf in every state and favor and trust growing up around Taylor. Presidential campaigns don’t just promote one candidate to chief executive, they build a national coalition with enough support to actually govern, a coherent governing coalition coalesces behind a specific president. No such Whig consensus existed for Millard Fillmore, and that Taylor died—just as William Henry Harrison, the only other Whig president died, early in his term—meant the death knell for the Whig Party (more on the Whig Party in a future post). Fillmore was the last president aligned with the Whigs.

Unlike Taylor, Fillmore was an early “Doughface,” a northerner with southern-sympathies, called doughfaces for leaning toward beardless southern gentility amid bearded, northern manly men⁴ (for more on politics, perceived masculinity and facial hair, check out my essay on the North-South manliness inversion). Not only was Fillmore a doughface, southern-sympathizing before the term doughface was even popularized, he was a doughman; I’d unequivocally call him America’s doughiest-looking president. The Fillsmorey Doughboy. And he was quickly despised by all sides.

Millard Fillmore, 13th President of the United States

Official White House portrait of Millard Fillmore

I don’t quite understand why Fillmore is consistently ranked as one of history’s worst presidents by historians. Yeah he inherited a bunch of intractable problems, and he wasn’t as well-suited as Zachary Taylor to steer a ship of state on the brink of sinking due to sectional strife, but who was?? He supported the Compromise of 1850 and was instrumental in its passage, which few historians denounce as totally terrible. Fillmore was responsible for California (in its present configuration, not split) being admitted as a U.S. state and a free state, the Mormons getting a territory of their own, Utah Territory with Brigham Young appointed territorial governor, and he got the Texans—who were preparing for war—to calm down and give up their territorial claims on much of eastern New Mexico, though they got to keep El Paso. All these accomplishments in one compromise bill. The worst thing that can be said of the Compromise is it included the loathsome Fugitive Slave Act, which required the North to aid in the capture and return of escaped slaves. This riled up the North, and northern Whigs like Abraham Lincoln began to think of third party efforts. But the Compromise was nothing as inflammatory as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which compelled settlers to flood into Kansas and out-vote and out-kill each other over the slavery question, and caused the Democratic Party to split, the last vestiges of the Whig Party to disintegrate, and a third party—the Republican Party, founded in 1854—to rise from its ashes with much the same platform, except a hard-line against slavery.

I also don’t understand what possessed Fillmore to run for president again on the Know Nothing ticket. Just the fact that he’s seeking a non-consecutive second term as President (a really weird feat, accomplished only once in American politics, by Grover Cleveland) is baffling enough. That his running mate was Andrew Jackson‘s nephew Andrew Jackson Donelson is

Poster heralding the American Party presidential ticket

American Party 1856 presidential ticket, Fillmore/Donelson

even stranger. Andrew Jackson had nearly nothing in common with the Know Nothing movement; in fact, it was Jacksonian Democrats brawling in the streets against the Plug Uglies. I suppose Millard Fillmore became an American Party candidate out of opportunistic urges, and because so many Whigs—the ones that didn’t flock to the newly-mobilized Republican Party anyhow—were absorbed into the American Party. Know Nothings didn’t stump on the issue of slavery, maybe that was appealing to Fillmore, but they took a strong pro-Union position, disagreeing with radicals on both sides. This was especially true of Baltimore Know Nothings, who described themselves as “warm friends and advocates of the Union against the fire-eaters and free soilers.” Of course, many American Party men held to crazy conspiracy theories that secession was an evil plot by the Pope to destroy the U.S., so placing them on a political spectrum or finding their views in relation to other parties of the era might be too strenuous.⁵

This part of the Plug Ugly official club song shows their support for Fillmore:

We don’t like the Demmy’s, for Fillmore is our boast,
And here in old Maryland he is a perfect host,
Nor do we love the Argus, with all its boasted eyes,
For our motto is “ever on,” root hog or die,
For we are the native party…

But as we are all natives; and proudly we can brag,
As true sons of America, we’ll fight beneath its flag,
Nor from the field of honor, never will we fly,
But as good Plug Uglies we’ll root hog or die.
For we are the native party…⁶

Go to the link in the 6 footnote for a much more complete rendering of the lyrics.

By “Demmy’s” it’s clear they mean the Democrats. “Nor do we love the Argus” took some research; the Argus is a giant with a hundred eyes in Greek mythology, and newspapers tended to take its name as a symbol of the reporter (some still bear the name). Apparently, the Daily Argus was a leading Democratic-leaning newspaper in Baltimore that the Plug Uglies disdained. “Root hog, or die” is an American idiom expressing self-reliance and hard-scrabble reality; root out your own living because no one’s going to do it for you. The idiom found its way into numerous 19th century and early 20th century songs.

Even after the 1856 election, shouts of “Go Fillmore!” were common among Plug Uglies. Typically, polite society doughy types like Fillmore were horrified at the “rowdyism” of the Plug Uglies and affiliated gangs. The public drunkenness and open carrying of revolvers (usually combined) put off more respectable Know Nothings. One Harry Shriver, in the mercantile business in Baltimore, left the American Party, denouncing its “informal rascality.” “I want to be an American, but not a friend of rowdyism.” To such polite society types, the Plug Uglies would say, “come on up, there’s room for AWL! Heh Heh!”

But the Plug Uglies had serious blood on their hands; gore and death isn’t so funny.  When the Plug Uglies launched a major riot in Washington, DC in 1857, the Rip Raps, and Shifflers from Philadelphia in tow, there was panic in the White House. President James Buchanan called in the U.S. Marine Corps, who didn’t play around; they shot to kill the attackers. Unfortunately, more Washingtonians trying to vote were killed than the nativist thugs bringing mayhem across state lines. See Know Nothing Riot, Washington, DC

Their most violent battles were what the Plug Uglies called “battle royals” against Democratic party groups; some election day brawls left both sides with a half-dozen of their brothers earless, limbless or deceased.  The worst of the battle royals accompanied the 1856 municipal elections. Rioting spread city-wide, with simultaneous brawls in multiple wards. One climatic ward battle was of such a grand scale that it included old artillery piece sending cannonballs into enemy lines.  The stovepipe hats the gangsters wore were part of the battle gear, not formal wear used to accessorize on the way to the ball, kiddos! They stuffed their top hats with leather and wool scraps to cushion the skull against blows, and pulled down the hats over their ears in hopes of keeping both ears.

Photography not being widespread in the 1850s, nor typically pointed at street toughs, I wasn’t able to find a picture of one. Thus, I’ve taken up the task of cartooning a member of the Plug Uglies based on contemporary descriptions, complete with awl:

Street tough in a top hat, his jawls covered in stubble and holding a homemade cigar, holding a shoemaker's awl

I should have made his hat bigger and pulled down around his ears, sigh.

The end of the Plug Uglies was the end of Baltimoreans’ patience with all their brawling and election day brutality. The testimony of gang violence and polling place thuggery on the day of the 1859 municipal elections to the Maryland legislature was so game changing and important that it was transcribed and widely distributed; I even have a copy (it’s easily found here on the Google). The fire companies run by “volunteers” (thug clubs) were replaced by a professional, city-run fire department. The city’s management and functions like city policemen were removed from local control and taken over by a panel of reformers who rooted out corruption. Many Plug Uglies skipped town, notably to Richmond, Virginia, to avoid prosecution under the new regime.

Ultimately, American politics also had little room for a party that was relatively silent on the slavery question that was tearing the country apart. While fire-eaters on one side argued for secession and free-soilers ranted against the “machinations of the Slave Power on the opposing side, the American Party’s leading voice in the U.S. Congress, Rep. Henry Winter Davis, often at the head of the table at even the most raucous Plug Ugly celebrations in Baltimore, instructed party men that the only answer to the slavery question was “to be silent.” That just didn’t fit the bill, and like the Whigs before them, the American Party shattered and was lost in the smoke of the Civil War and forgotten.

Of course, the Plug Uglies and affiliated gangs didn’t vanish overnight. Allan Pinkerton himself warned Abe Lincoln of a plot by Blood Tubs to kill the president-elect in Baltimore; for this, the Tubbers even merited mention in Shelby Foote‘s immortal series “The Civil War: A Narrative.” Some blamed the Plug Uglies for the deadly Pratt Street Riots of April 19th, 1861, when a secessionist mob attacked Union soldiers passing through Baltimore to get to Washington, DC, because whenever there’s blood in the streets of Baltimore, the Plug Uglies naturally come to mind.

A telegram unearthed by Harry Ezratty in his 2010 book Baltimore in the Civil War: The Pratt Street Riot and a City Occupied from the man in charge of Baltimore police, Marshall George Kane, shows Kane, not Plug Uglies more to blame: “Streets red with Maryland blood; send expresses over the mountains of Maryland and Virginia for the riflemen to come without delay. Fresh hordes will come down on us tomorrow. We will fight them and whip them or die.”⁷ Still, anti-secessionist Plug Uglies were deemed responsible in the popular imagination. In New York, the 6th New York Regiment sailed from Staten Island for immediate deployment, “death to the Plug Uglies” their slogan.⁸

Across North America, from New Orleans to New York, from Maryland to Manitoba, “Plug Uglies” became a synonym for 19th century thuggery and Baltimore got the worst reputation of any major U.S. port city. The gangs of The Wire weren’t the first to rule the roost in Baltimore. The Plug Uglies, Rip Raps, Blood Tubbers, etc. and their predecessors stretching back to the War of 1812 and beyond gave B’more its fearsome “Mobtown” reputation.

Guerrilla violence against immigrants, ward battles and mayhem, tubs of gore, public intoxication, forced intoxication then cooping, repeat voters, riots, awls aimed at buttocks with different politics, doughfaces and dysentery…you won’t find this in AP History! Hope you found it interesting.




1. “American Party”, Ohio History Central, July 1, 2005,
2. Towers, F. (2004). The urban south and the coming of the civil war. (p. 134). Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press. Retrieved from Google Books Preview, p. 133
3. Poe, E. E. (1909, February). Poe, the weird genius. Cosmopolitan magazine, XLVI(3), Retrieved from Google Books Preview, p. 252
4. Goodheart, A. (2011). Chapter three: Forces of nature. In 1861: The Civil War Awakening New York, NY: Knopf.
5. Towers, F. (2004). The urban south and the coming of the civil war. (p. 100).
6. Silberman, L. R. (2011). Wicked baltimore: Charm city, sin and scandal. (pp. 64-65). The History Press. Retrieved from Google Books Preview, chapter “Plug Uglies, Rip Raps, Bloody Tubs, Oh My!”
7. Ezratty, H. A. (2011). Baltimore in the Civil War: The Pratt Street Riot and a City Occupied (Kindle Locations 880-882). The History Press. Kindle Edition.
8. Hannings, B. (2010). Every day of the civil war: A chronological encyclopedia. (p. 81). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. Retrieved from Google Books Preview, p. 81

Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West—Nick explores a dusty, old-fashioned book of social history

Posted by – April 9, 2012

This is the first in a series of book and article reviews I’ll write, taking you through the stacks and exploring old and not so old books about humanity’s story (history). In this case, I’m exploring a fairly rare social history from 1965, probably not something you’d find on the shelves of your local public library or Barnes & Noble. If you like this review, leave a comment below 🙂

Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old WestHeroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West by Jack Schaefer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s seldom that a historical writer captures both the close up, the individual stories, attitudes and essence of the people who contributed to an era, and the wide-view, what the society was like, simultaneously. But by telling the stories of how a diverse cross-section of men contributed to Western settlement, Jack Schaefer did just that with Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West. Schaefer offers detailed portraits of the good men that made building communities in the unforgiving wilds of the territories possible; as Louis L’Amour once wrote—and I’m paraphrasing from memory—”this was a big country and needed big men and women to fill it, big of spirit, big of heart” and it’s these “big” goodmen that Schaefer focuses on. The goodmen, instead of oft-discussed badmen, desperadoes like Billy the Kid, Black Bart, Jesse James and the Younger Gang, Butch Cassidy and “The Wild Bunch” gang and the whole rogues gallery of Western history, who were evidently the subject of frenzied interest at the time of this book’s first publication (1965). In the preface, Schaefer places himself squarely against what he dubs “the cult of the badman,” denouncing the “cultists” for capitalizing on the morbid interest in the “badmen,” who he says impeded growth out West, tearing down and attacking civilization.

This is a book about the goodmen who built the West, a book of lengthy, in-depth biographies of the unheralded pioneer mailmen, explorers, doctors, cowboys, etc. who made the territories livable. Schaefer is clearly drawn to men of extreme patience and fortitude, men of action, not of words. Thus he spends time profiling men like the nearly non-verbal John “Snowshoe” Thompson, a self-described “slow, simple Norski” who used Norwegian snowshoes and techniques to deliver the first mail and supplies (including life-saving medicines) from Nevada to California over the treacherous pass in the Sierra Nevadas. And man of few words and many cows, John Chisum, one of the first cattle barons. He begins the book with eccentric trapper James Capen Adams (“Grizzly” Adams) who spent almost all his life wordlessly among his favorite grizzly bears, in nature. This book made me think about how the Old West ethos, with its focus on action uber alles and the man of action eking out a living from undeveloped wilds as opposed to the buffoonish and idle man of words back east, changed what’s considered manly from the close of the Victorian era up into the present-day. Perhaps without intending to, Schaefer gives us insight into what would become the mold for “manliness” throughout the 20th century.

Why I gave this book Four stars: I’m a big believer that social history is where it’s at, that to really understand the people of a certain time and place, you need to read the words of the people who were there and learn from those everyday folks the rhythms of that past culture, how the society functioned, etc. This book does that. How new settlements functioned, how U.S. territories in the 19th century worked, really fascinates me. As always, the little details hook me; the fact that the biggest bear “Grizzly” Adams ever caught became the model for Charles Nahl‘s design of California’s bear flag (though keep in mind that there were literally over a dozen bear flag designs adopted to varying degrees until a standardized design was finally adopted in 1953), that bovine thievery was a problem, cows trying to break into horse stables and steal the horse’s hay a constant issue out west, that John Chisum maintained his wealth as a Texas cattle baron through the trials and tribulations of the Civil War because he had the foresight to realize that Confederate currency may not hold up, so whenever he got his hands on rebel money, he exchanged it for more cows as soon as possible. I love that stuff.

My favorite part of the book is its biography of Dr. Charles Fox Gardiner. Originally from New York, where King of England, Charles I, had granted the Gardiner family a private island off Suffolk County—Gardiner’s Island—in 1639. In the mid-1800s, Charles Fox Gardiner trained as a doctor in New York City, on Roosevelt Island—then known as Blackwell’s Island—at one of the predecessors of Goldwater hospital. Then he took his skills west to aid the frontier mining communities in Colorado Territory. That this book contained an account of pioneer medicine is why I picked it up. It doesn’t disappoint on that score.

Gardiner built a shanty for his office with a blue and gold sign outside. No one trusted the new guy initially, but slowly his reputation grew by word of mouth and he had a steady and growing practice on his hands. “Patient after patient was unable to pay, then out of nowhere one would pay $100. Unusual but fascinating,” Gardiner said. I found the insights into pioneer doctors fascinating, and I hope to find the book Gardiner himself wrote about his experiences, Doctor at Ridgeline, in an accessible format soon.

The downsides of Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West. come with the author’s old-fashioned views and ancient prejudices that really filter the content, and in some cases really stink it up, especially regarding the native tribes of the West. The only Native American “goodman” profiled is Chief Washakie, leader of the Eastern Shoshones. Washakie was indeed a great leader of the Shoshones, and a pivotal figure in not only American Indian history, but also of the Old West in whole. Indeed, we may not even know the name Shoshone today if not for Washakie; the loose band of Shoshone tribes may have been wiped out by enemy tribes, and probably wouldn’t have even become a federally-recognized tribe without his forceful leadership. Most important was his political skills; Washakie secured a large reservation, Wind River Indian Reservation, in what is now Wyoming, for his fairly small band of Eastern Shoshones because he was such a forceful and well-known leader and peacemaker for his people. Schaefer artfully highlights Washakie’s remarkable achievements, but disturbingly, Schaefer seems to herald Washakie more for his exceeding patience with the constant oppression, control and expropriation of lands previously reserved for the Shoshone. Every decade, Uncle Sam would bite off another giant piece of the land he’d promised to them, and one year they forced them to half the Wind River Reservation with the Arapaho, their ancient rivals. Washakie didn’t—probably couldn’t—fight back, and shared all he could with the Arapahoes.

The Indian leaders that met such humiliations with arrows and repeating rifles aren’t mentioned here. It’s also sucky that this book doesn’t profile a single woman; that amounts to cleaving the history of the West in half! Going in with a wide open mind, one can still appreciate this stuff. But no mind is open enough to like the biography Schaefer includes on Valentine T. McGilicuddy. I thought the chapter on McGilicuddy would focus on his years as a trailblazing frontier Army surgeon and surveyor, but is mostly an account of McGilicuddy’s long tenure as Indian Agent on Pine Ridge Reservation in the Dakotas; it’s one of the more offensive views of Indians you’ll find, paternalistic, infantilizing, ugh. You can skip this chapter if you’d like. But it’s also historical evidence of how loathsome the reservation system has been.

It can be invaluable to read older perspectives. I give this four stars because it’s a rare social history, with great detail of how it really was in biographies of (in order of appearance) Grizzly Adams, George A. Ruxton, John “Snowshoe” Thompson, John Phillips, Washakie, John S. Chisum, Thomas J. Smith, Valentine T. McGillycuddy, Charles Fox Gardiner, and Elfego Baca. Definitely worthwhile for Wild West aficionados and history buffs.

View all my reviews

Did You Know? Imperialist Aggression and Exploitation: The History of U.S. – Latin American Relations

Posted by – July 11, 2011

With love and thanks to everyone who has made my current, first semester back to college (online) possible…

The History of U.S. – Latin American Relations: An Overview
Nicholas F. Dupree

The history of U.S.-Latin American relations is a long and bloody one checkered by imperialist aggression and exploitation. The United States had a head start building its democratic institutions because it spawned from Britain, a constitutional monarchy whose fledgling parliamentary democracy was far ahead of most of the world at the time, and the U.S. built on that with a constitution and a government based on a revolutionary ideology. American revolutionaries, like the French revolutionaries that followed, were driven to spread their pro-freedom, anti-monarchist ideology, but unlike France’s First Republic, America’s first republic was not only more moderate, it could quickly stabilize amid its isolation and relative lack of competitors for the continent. Surprisingly rapidly, the United States was moving aggressively west and south to spread their revolutionary state and colonize land held by loosely organized indigenous tribes and a Spanish Empire spread thin and in relative decline.

Early on, America’s founding generation had their eyes (and territorial ambitions) pointed South. Presidents Jefferson and John Adams saw Cuba and Puerto Rico as “natural appendages” of North America that should break away from Spanish influence and join the United States. John Quincy Adams thought Cuba an “apple” fallen from the North American tree and that it should end its “unnatural connection” with Spain and rejoin its source, America. (Smith, 2007, p. 25) Thomas Jefferson had an impressive collection of Iberian writers in his library at Monticello, and actively promoted learning of the Spanish language.

“Spanish,” he wrote in a note accompanying a Spanish-language dictionary that he gifted to Peter Carr in 1787; “Bestow great attention on this, & endeavor to acquire an accurate knowledge of it. Our future connections with Spain & Spanish America will render that language a valuable acquisition. The antient [sic] history of a great part of America, too, is written in that language” (Works V: 322).1

But alongside the founding generation’s interest in Latin America, loomed skepticism. The prevailing views of the time included deep doubts about the ability of newly independent Latino populations to adopt republican values and effectively govern themselves, given racial and cultural differences and the dark legacy of oppression and violence from Spanish colonization. “I fear the degrading ignorance into which their priests and kings have sunk them, has disqualified them from the maintenance or even knowledge of their rights, and that much blood may be shed for little improvement in their condition. Should their new rulers honestly lay their shoulders to remove the great obstacles of ignorance, and press the remedies of education and information, they will still be in jeopardy until another generation comes into place, and what may happen in the interval cannot be predicted, nor shall you or I live to see it,” Thomas Jefferson wrote (Smith, p. 46) in an 1811 letter to Dupont de Nemours.2

John Quincy Adams echoed Jefferson’s views (p. 46), and as the United States became a power on the world stage competing for land and resources, it sought to seize them without seizing the diverse populations that lived there. “By the late 1830s, the idea of manifest destiny signified a racist nationalism that preferred to incorporate into the Union ‘unsettled’ and ’empty’ lands—such as those taken from Native American peoples and, soon thereafter, Mexico.” (Loveman, 2010, p. 57) After the “Mexican Cession” of 1848, in which Mexico “ceded” 55% of its territory to the United States, the limits of Manifest Destiny were undecided, and the question of further annexation was fiercely debated among the varying factions in Congress, especially in the Senate. Seizing “Mexico proper,” including the entirety of the Yucatan peninsula, and Cuba, were both the subject of heated debates, but ultimately they were just too different for Congress and the public to support annexing. Cuba was too black (Smith, p. 26) and Mexico was too Indian: as the New York World wrote, “Mexicans are Indian, aboriginal Indian, and they must share in the destiny of the Indian.” (p. 49) Neither Mexico nor Cuba were incorporated into the United States, despite an unprecedented surge in U.S. imperialism in the 1890s and early 20th century that brought U.S. borders to their greatest territorial extent after Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii and more were brought under U.S. control. American militarism and expansion were led by William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt at the helm of a newly modernized and powerful army and navy, and like-minded Republicans like Albert Beveridge and Orville H. Platt at the helm in the Congress. These American imperialists believed, in the words of Senator Beveridge, that “God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation. No. …He has made us adept at government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples.” (p. 51) This view would have driven even more aggressive expansion had their not been deep anxieties among the people and their Congress over “inferior peoples” becoming U.S. citizens. “Racism cut at least three ways. It inspired and justified American territorial expansion, but it also limited its reach due precisely to the indisposition of many Americans to incorporate into the Union “inferior peoples” as equals and citizens. It also underlay the slave/free divide in American domestic politics.” (Loveman, 2010, p. 57)

Once the United States had emerged as a 20th century world power after McKinley and Roosevelt’s wars of expansion, it was ready to put the Monroe Doctrine’s shaky record keeping European powers out of the Hemisphere throughout the 19th century behind it and enforce a U.S. sphere of influence in the Americas in earnest. The U.S. positioned itself to defend its gains in the new global race for land, resources, arms, military bases, trading-posts and colonies, called the “Great Game” in Britain, and the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine was designed do just that: no opportunistic Europeans would bring their game into the U.S.’ backyard. Roosevelt’s Corollary insisted that the United States could intervene in any Latin American republic where instability reigned; the U.S. would send troops anywhere in the Americas where European powers could possibly see an opening due to unpaid debt or revolutionary turmoil. And send troops they did: TR sent troops to seize the “Isthmian Canal” in Panama and took over the customs collections of the Dominican Republic until debt to the U.S. and other great powers (Netherlands and France) were paid in full. (Smith, pp. 56-57) A similar scheme of occupation and repayment was imposed in Haiti with much less success. (p. 60) The customs repayment scheme actually led to war in Nicaragua, where the Americans’ fears of the “Bolshevist” revolutionary government of Mexico establishing its own “sphere of influence” and “primacy” over Central America (p. 67) collided with the Nicaraguan people’s anger and aspirations to be free from the yoke of crushing debt, and a guerrilla insurgency erupted (p. 59). President Coolidge only withdrew the Marines from Nicaragua in 1924 after imposing a fraudulent election that ousted disobedient liberals in favor of pliant “conservatives” led by Adolfo Diaz, who would focus on debt repayment. The Marines came back five months later amid rumblings of possible rebellion against Diaz and further unrest. U.S. efforts to “break kneecaps” in Central American and Caribbean states for payment due didn’t end until the Great Depression and looming threat of World War II necessitated it.

The last Marines withdrew from Nicaragua in 1933, and the Marines’ nineteen-year occupation of Haiti ended in 1934. The Great Depression made such foreign entanglements financially untenable, and Americans looked to the prospects of increased inter-hemispheric trade to aid recovery (p. 74) Soon, the U.S. would concern itself with an even more dire task, countering Axis attempts for world domination; with German and Italian fascists competing to influence fledgling republics in Latin America, Washington could ill-afford its previous “Big Stick” foreign policy. Brazilian trade with Germany was at an all time high, and the Ação Integralista Brasileira (AIB) “formed in 1932 as a deliberate imitation of the Fascist parties of Benito Mussolini in Italy and Salazar in Portugal,” (Leonard, 2007, p. 145) had taken over Brazil’s government, given themselves unlimited “emergency powers,” and decreed the Estado Novo, “the new state,” along the lines of Portugal’s integralist Estado Novo. Brazil was obviously part of Hitler’s empire-building strategy; in Congress, a young Fiorello LaGuardia ranted against Brazilian collaboration with Nazi Germany (Smith, p. 76). Chile remained neutral at this time, having strong ties with the German military and an active German-Chilean minority, and still embittered over the Americans’ siding against them in the 1879-83 War of the Pacific and the U.S. adoption of the Smoot-Hawley tariff, which had hurt Chile economically. (Leonard, p. 162-165) And Argentina, despite being a “closet ally” who supplied the Allies with crucial food during the war, (p. 184) was bogged down in a power struggle with its Nazi-sympathizing military, who were devoted to ultra-conservative, virulently anti-Semitic Argentine Catholicism (p. 188). Ultimately, Argentina didn’t end diplomatic ties with Germany until January 1944 (pp. 162-163).

But Mexico, so important to U.S. national security for its bountiful oil reserves and immediate proximity along the U.S. border with the American Southwest, was Washington’s most pressing concern in the lead-up to World War II. The Cårdenas administration (1934-1940) was just stabilizing and consolidating control over a Mexican polity that for decades had been in revolutionary flux (p. 17). Mexicans were beginning to interpret the European battle between the communists and fascists, especially the Spanish Civil War, through their unique revolutionary lens, and whether Mexico would side with the United States was unclear during Lázaro Cárdenas’ rule as he remained neutral. “Capitalists, businessmen, Catholics, and middle-class Mexicans who opposed many of the reforms implemented by the revolutionary government sided with the Spanish Falange” (p. 18) i.e., the fascist movement, and Nazi propagandist Arthur Dietrich and his team of agents in Mexico successfully manipulated editorials and coverage of Europe by paying hefty subsidies to Mexican newspapers, including the widely-read dailies Excelsior and El Universal (pp. 18-19).

The situation became even more worrisome for the Allies when the major oil companies boycotted Mexican oil following Lázaro Cárdenas’ nationalization of the oil industry and expropriation of all corporate oil properties in 1938, (p. 19) which severed Mexico’s access to its traditional markets and led Mexico to sell its oil to Germany and Italy (Smith, p. 79). In Mexico and throughout Latin America, Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” was necessary at such a delicate time, and in the case of the Mexicans, ultimately led to the Douglas-Weichers Agreement in June 1941 that secured Mexican oil only for the United States, (Leonard, p. 21) and the Global Settlement in November 1941, a rare example of the U.S. putting national security concerns over fairness for American oil companies (p. 22-23).

But such “Good Neighbor” agreements and “soft power” influence were self-interested in the end, accomplishing the abrupt end of German Fifth Column activities in Mexico, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, all nine Central American and Caribbean republics declared war on the Axis nearly in unison in a show of seldom-seen Hemispheric solidarity (Smith, p. 86). Unfortunately for Latin America, the United States’ inter-American strategy would drastically shift as soon as their interests did.

The post-war world, with Russia and the United States locked in a Cold War that threatened to involve, if not destroy, every state on the planet, was not kind to the republics of the Americas. Washington soon divided Latin America simplistically along “with us or against us” red lines, and fear of communist infiltration, both real and used as a political football, was rampant. During the 1952 U.S. Presidential Election, Republican nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower accused the incumbent Democratic party of pushing Latin Americans into the arms of wily Communist agents waiting to exploit local misery and capitalize on any opening to communize the Americas (Smith, p. 127). From that point on, the “Big Stick” foreign policy came back to Latin America in various forms and guises until the ’90s, with the U.S. consistently backing the same type of elite-led fascist regimes they were trying to undercut during WWII.

Up to the time of Reagan and the Iran-Contra scandal that embarrassed the United States on the world stage, U.S. foreign policy supporting fascist local elites as long as they were suitably pliant and reliably anti-communist was commonplace. One would hope that the current non-interventionist tack toward Latin America under the Obama administration is due to assessment of tough historic lessons learned and not mere economic constraints. Future repeats of the George W. Bush approach to the Americas, with “second acts” for several notorious Iran-Contra figures (see Observers Warn of U.S. Manipulation in Nicaragua) and the CIA’s Venezuelan Coup Attempt of 2002, is certainly cause for concern. The future of U.S.-Latin American relations I’d like to see, is one where Simon Bolivar’s famous statement “the United States seems destined by Providence to bring misery to the Americas in the name of liberty”4 seems something solely relevant for historical background, instead of something that’s directly related to current events and threatens to crop up again in U.S. Foreign policy at any moment.

Works Cited

Leonard, T. M., Bratzel, J. F., Rankin, M., Smith, J. & Scheinin, D. (2007). Latin america during world war ii. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Loveman, B. (2010). No higher law: american foreign policy and the western hemisphere since 1776. Chapel Hill, NC, USA: The University of North Carolina Press.

Smith, P. H. (2007). Talons of the eagle: dynamics of u.s. – latin american relations (RFB&D Daisy Audiobook),


1: Bauer, Ralph. (2009). Thomas Jefferson, the hispanic enlightenment, and the birth of hemispheric american studies Dieciocho: Hispanic Enlightenment, 32(1), Retrieved from

2: Ibid.

3: Garcia-Navarro, L. (2006, November 2). Observers warn of u.s. manipulation in nicaragua. NPR, Retrieved from

4: LaRosa, M., & Mora, F. O. (2009). Neighborly adversaries: readings in u.s.-latin american relations [2nd Edition]. (RFB&D Daisy Audiobook),

Best Of Nick’s Crusade Blog, So Far

Posted by – April 10, 2011

I’m happy that some of my blog posts have become particularly well-trafficked resources on the interweb. I’ve often written about historical topics that interest me, and, oddly enough, those posts get more hits than posts about disability, politics and injustice, the main subjects of my Nick’s Crusade Blog.

This is a survey of the most viewed posts ever on this site…

China’s Age of Discovery: The Voyages of Zheng He

This post, about the explorer Zheng He and the voyages of his grand treasure ships, is usually the most viewed post for any given week. Not only does the post shed light on the way-ahead-of-their-time ways that the Yongle Emperor projected power and influence with technology like the printing press and an enormous Navy (techniques that would seldom be used with such sophistication until the 19th century) but it also remains very relevant because it details a Chinese period of prolonged international engagement, trade and wealth only rivaled by the high water mark of Chinese power today. The end of the treasure ships, with hardliners burning them as an isolationist backlash swept the empire, illuminates a pattern you see over and over again in Chinese history: after the inevitable bust comes following an economic boom, Conservative Confucians take over and crackdown on trade after a harsh isolationist reaction. Today, China-watchers and investors, and indeed the PRC regime, worry about another cycle of isolationist backlash cropping up if Chinese people in the underdeveloped heartland don’t feel enough improvement in their lives from foreign trade and become angry.

The Griffin Was Based On A Real Creature!

Rivaling “Zheng He” for the Top Search term leading people to my blog is “griffin” or related key words. This post is shockingly well-visited, and it’s one of the quickest ones I’ve written. I saw a program on the History channel about mythical creatures that suggested the Griffin came from ancient Scythian warriors who came upon dinosaur skulls and spread stories about Griffins to intimidate enemies, and decided to blast a quick blog post. I guess people really like Griffins.

Donald Duck As A Nazi. Really.

This post, coming in a distant third in views, generates hits from the sheer bizarreness of the video it highlights, a war propaganda-era Disney short with Donald Duck dreaming he is a Nazi. Even though the film is clearly meant to mock and underline the failures of the Nazi system, seeing Donald in a Nazi uniform is still WEIRD!

Special mention: Vigorously Insisting On A More Perfect Union: Fighting Cuts, Demanding Universal Health Care

This blog post of mine was published by the Greenhaven Press imprint of Gale Publishing in their Opposing Viewpoints Series, which is heavily used both in libraries and high school and college courses, to introduce differing views of the issues. it’s in the 2008 edition of Opposing Viewpoints: Health Care, if anyone is interested.

Also check out my comic art, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders vs. Zombies over at — it’s can’t miss!


Boardwalk Empire, Corruption, And Incentives For Public Servants

Posted by – October 18, 2010

Like described by Abby Jean on the Feminists with Disabilities blog recently, I’m obsessed with public policy.

It’s true. I am a policy wonk. I am endlessly interested in it. I read about it, think about it, talk about it and … write about it. (As in, what I’m doing right now.) And I do all of this because I think it’s immensely important. Crucially important. Vitally important.

Public policy is how the government – whether local, state, provincial, federal, or any other level – takes action on a particular issue. It covers a whole huge range of potential state actions – allocating and spending money, setting and enforcing professional guidelines and standards, creating agencies and staff, structuring tax incentives, even defining what constitutes criminal behavior. That’s an extremely big category that clearly has an enormous and unparalleled effect on the world.

Excerpted from I Love Policy | FWD (Feminists With Disabilities) by Abby Jean (not me)

I am captivated by political decision making, how it works and the impact it has on our lives. True, I am super nerdly; I can’t read something or watch a movie without ideas about the history of policy and the effects it has had firing around in my brain. That means the new HBO series Boardwalk Empire is like catnip for me. It brings the history of the ’20s and its politics to life in lush, vivid photography and provides fascinating context and insights into Prohibition, the mafia, suffragettes, corrupt politicians and politics of the era, fashion, the flapper girls, and the feminism of the era. The intense dissimilarities and the intense similarities the ’20s have with life today also really draw you in. Recently *yet another* economic study confirmed that the 2000s have the most unequal division of wealth in U.S. history, excepting the 20s. Unprecedented corruption is similar, struggles over prohibition similar too. What isn’t similar is the feeling of free-wheeling American personal freedom, including the “feminine liberation” of the time that went the way of the stock market after the Great Depression, and the economic boom that brought incredible opportunities–people are super nostalgic for those dissimilarities.  I heart the show; it’s triggered a major ’20s obsession for me.

I especially liked last week’s episode, it took us inside the back room and explicitly explored policy and the politics of divvying up new state-level funding for highways; we got an anatomy of the back room deal.   Notorious Jersey City machine boss Frank Hague was pitted against the show’s principal protagonist (and anti-hero) “Nucky” Thompson, the machine boss of Atlantic City, and Republican Senator Walter Edge trying to arbitrate between them.  Hague wants all the road appropriations to go to Jersey City, and Nucky wants everything to go to Atlantic City, where he says he has new hotels (at this point in the timeline, the Ritz-Carlton Atlantic City had recently opened) but tourists can’t get to them because the current roads to South Jersey are so muddy and inadequate.  Both men are corrupt bosses used to getting everything they want (and expect to skim off a nice slice of any new funding for themselves) and compromise is difficult to impossible.  Nucky pretty much created Edge’s political career, serving as his campaign manager and using his money and connections to win him the gubernatorial race (then he moved from the governor’s mansion to the U.S. Senate) so Nucky expects him to go to bat for Atlantic City, but Hague tipped the Democratic vote for Edge, crucial to win anything; Edge has presidential ambitions and can’t afford to alienate either of them, so he plays the diplomat.   The fact that Nucky, Hague and Senator Edge were all REAL POLITICIANS and that the dynamics at play are real (Nucky really was Edge’s campaign manager, etc.) makes it all the more riveting.

Here’s a clip from that scene.

Fair Use law lets me use this copyrighted material because its 1) a really brief clip and 2) used for the purpose of critique (i.e. it’s legal for the same reason Roger Ebert or Jon Stewart showing a clip in order to comment on it is legal).  See Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video.

80 Second Clip from HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”: Back room Dealing

Coarse language warning: Nucky drops many F-bombs on Frank Hague in this clip, he thinks Hague just wants “a payoff” and is really frustrated and angry.

So,  after watching this scene, my policy mind started buzzing.  The corrupt incentives of the 1920s were perhaps different than the corrupt incentives of today. Both Nucky and Hague are motivated by corruption, but that corruption is motivating them to fight really hard for highways going to their respective counties (unquestionably a benefit for the economy and the average voter).  In cases like this, is corruption helping the public?

These are the questions I wrote this post to ask: Did the certainty that they would get a hefty slice of any new project make them fight harder than politicians today to get projects for the public good?

Should we incorporate such incentives into the current system, like bonus pay or free stuff or public accolades if a politician helps the general population?   Because right now, we have a system of open, legal bribery; ALL the incentives and thus, inevitably, ALL the policymaking energy is lined up against efforts to help normal constituents, and lined up for the special interests that give money to elect candidates. I always refer to this as giving “campaign bribetributions.” It’s essentially bribery, it totally skews the system so that the corrupt incentives make the government serve powerful private interests first and the public good only accidentally, but it remains completely legal.

At least in this scene, the corrupt incentives make public officials do something for the public good. I am desperate to address the crisis of campaign bribetributions making government only serve moneyed interests (not democracy but bribeocracy). If the powerful will never let us remove campaign bribetributions from our system, how do we realign the corruption to serve the people NOT just narrow interests with fat stacks of $$$$???


It's all about the Benjamins.

Donald Duck As A Nazi. Really.

Posted by – August 8, 2009

The media was once controlled by the government. During WWII, the Walt Disney Co. was under U.S. government contract for 32 short propaganda films at $4,500 each, which would save the studio after they spent four times their budget on Fantasia, which had pushed them close to bankruptcy. The films did their best to boost support for the war effort, increase military recruitment and morale, and counter Nazi propaganda.

Donald Duck starred in at least eight of these government-sponsored shorts and his popularity boomed. The most bizarre film was Der Fuehrer’s Face, based around the popular Spike Jones parody song “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” which reached #3 on the charts. In this film, Donald Duck is a

Screenshot from Der Fuehrers Face (1943)

Screenshot from Der Fuehrer's Face (1943)

Nazi. Yeah, you didn’t misread me; in this short, Donald Duck wears a Nazi uniform, does the “Heil Hitler” salute dozens of times, and helps build shells for the German Army. The point of the film is to show that “Nutzi Land” (Nazi Germany) is no Aryan paradise; it’s a totalitarian nightmare characterized by forced worship and dronish obedience to authority (hence Donald must give the “Heil” salute every time he sees a picture of the Führer (Adolf Hitler), harsh wartime rationing meaning little food, and grueling 48-hour work days on an assembly line no one can keep up with (think of Lucy and Ethel failing at packaging candy on a faster and faster conveyor belt). It’s also an actual nightmare that Donald wakes up from at the end. I totally get the purpose of this cartoon, and Disney gets the message across with some classic animation, but it’s still unsettling to see a Nazi Donald Duck heiling Hitler so much. It’s definitely jarring, especially completely outside the context of 1943 media.

Disclaimer: in the opening sequence, Japanese emperor Hirohito is playing a Sousaphone, and is depicted in an exaggeratedly ethnic and buffoonish way, typical of wartime cartoons, and today may be offensive.

Here is Der Fuehrer’s Face in high definition, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short and was later named #22 on the 50 Greatest Cartoons of All-Time list.

More videos of Donald Duck’s WWII shorts:

In-Depth Nick Analysis: Who Are The Basij? The Group That Stopped A New Iranian Revolution

Posted by – July 17, 2009

If you’re like me, you’ve been closely following reports of the attempts at “soft overthrow” by “Green Revolution” protesters clogging the streets in Iran (properly pronounced E-ron, though I admit even I mangle it frequently). Twitter, bloggers (Nico Pitney blogging at HuffPo, Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic) and various print news web sites (TIME, Reuters) have provided much more coverage of these historic events than the perennially shameful television news media, who only bring us vapid “infotainment.” As the first street revolution in the Islamic world since the Cedar Revolution (Lebanon) and the Tulip Revolution (Kyrgyzstan) in spring of ’05, both of which forced their regime to resign, it should’ve garnered much more TV time than it did. As keepbreathing said on the Respiratory Therapy 101: Just Keep Breathing blog “If only the Iranian police had killed Michael Jackson, maybe the world would pay more attention to the travesties going on in that formerly great nation.”

Just as in Kyrgyzstan’s revolution, in Iran, mostly young people, tired of decades of authoritarian rule, took to the streets en masse to overturn a fraudulent election that had ratified the rule of a dictator. In Kyrgyzstan, the protests were so loud, the people so united, that old Soviet boss Askar Akayev saw his power base erode to the point that continuing in office was too risky and untenable; protesters seized the presidential offices, and he ended up escaping to Russia. In Iran, this didn’t happen; the regime didn’t budge. Why? Because the entrenched support base loyal to the regime, especially the Sepah (Revolutionary Guards) and the Basij, wouldn’t allow it.

A photo of Basij volunteers drilling in their drill uniforms.  (Credit: Vahid Salemi / AP)

A photo of Basij volunteers drilling in their drill uniforms. (Credit: Vahid Salemi / AP)

Who are the Basijis? The best way for an American to understand them is as a combination of the Boy Scouts, the revolutionary Minutemen, the Taliban and the legend of the Persian Hashshashins (Assassins) who would take themselves out with their foes. The Basijis are a volunteer militia operated as an auxiliary of the Sepah, and take orders directly from Sepah commanders and the Supreme Leader, not the president. The Basijis are mostly religious youth, and they are charged with protecting the regime, along with Shia Islam and its people’s “virtues.” To show their Islamic virtue they may work in mosques, help elderly people cross the street, give gasoline to people stranded in their cars on the side of the road, or, on the other side of the coin, intimidate and assault Iranians dressed in “immoral” attire, and haul suspected dissidents into the nearest police station. The Basij responds to threats to the regime within and without; they played a key role in the Iran-Iraq war, with mass “human wave” martyr attacks by teenage Basijis to clear minefields and terrify Saddam’s troops, and they have often crushed Iranians citizens’ demonstrations, most notably during the uprising that followed the June 12 rigged election of this year, and the student protests of July ’99.

The founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini founded the Basij (pronounced BAH-siege) when he became leader of the new Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. It was a shrewd move. Khomeini knew that he would always have a lot of enthusiastic extreme-fundamentalist young men on his hands, and it’s smarter to protect your Right flank, honor them and harness their energy to protect the regime, than it is to let them fester ignored until they become something that could overthrow him. In Persian, the Basij (literally, “Mobilization”) are also called Basij-e Mostaz’afin, “Mobilization of the Oppressed,” and there is a clear “class warfare” element to them. The Basijis are mostly poor, young, and fundamentalist, and they are often pitted against the mostly secular, modernizing upper class. President Ahmadinejad was a Basij, with the Basij culture and chip on the shoulder, and he framed the rich elite as decadent, corrupt, and “oppressing” the hard-working, pious, rural poor.

Ahmadinejad and fellow Basij veterans, in ceremonial uniform

Ahmadinejad and fellow Basij veterans, in ceremonial uniform

For Iran’s rulers, this has them sitting pretty: in addition to having the judiciary, military and local officials firmly behind them, they can rally a religious proletariat to the defense of Islamic government whenever needed, with angry young Basijis as the head of the spear. Despite dissent from other Ayatollahs (Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, Ayatollah Mohajerani, Ayatollah Rafsanjani), the government’s lessened legitimacy and growing feeling in Iran’s cities that the current regime’s enforcers (Sepah, Basij, local police) are no better than the Shah’s brutal secret police (the SAVAK) that they united against in 1979, this regime is deeply entrenched, and the Persian people* will likely be watched over by Ayatollah Khomeini’s evil glare everywhere for years to come.

For more information on the Basij:
The New Yorker: Jon Lee Anderson: Understanding The Basij

Basij Violence In The News:
LA Times: Tehran’s streets erupt after a key cleric speaks

From The Miami Herald, a cartoon showing New Boss, Same As The Old Boss, the Islamic Republic attacking their own people just as the Shah did

From The Miami Herald, a cartoon showing "New Boss, Same As The Old Boss," the Islamic Republic attacking their own people just as the Shah did

Contrasting brave Iranians willing to protest despite very real risk to life and limb with couch potato Americans doing little for their freedom, I feel like I’m in a nation of proles. Like Iranians, we Americans used to be a proud and revolutionary people. I hope that isn’t completely dead.


*For the uninitiated, Iranians are sometimes still referred to as “Persians,” and their country was called “Persia” by outsiders from the 5th century BC up until 1935, when Reza Shah Pahlavi issued a decree requesting everyone use Iran, meaning “the land of Aryans,” which Iranians had been calling their country since about 1000 BC. For more information, see Iran Naming Convention. Iranians are an Aryan/Indo-European people, and in physical appearance, look little different from the related Caucasians in the nearby Caucasus region. They are white people. Too many Americans lump Iraq and Iran together and say “bomb all them A-rabs,” which couldn’t be more wrong. Iranians are not Arabs, have a proud history and culture totally distinct from Arabs, speak a language (with grammar similar to many contemporary European languages) unintelligible to those who only understand Arabic, and Iranians’ bitter rivalry and wars with the proto-Arab and Arab peoples of the Fertile Crescent span back to the first written records of the region recorded by Sumerians. Saddam Hussein was infamous for his hate of Persians.