Wednesday, May 30, 2012

David Liss, The Whiskey Rebels (2008)

At the dawn of the American republic, the new nation was in a precarious financial condition.  The nation was indebted to France for financing the rebellious colonies during the revolutionary war, and the States were indebted to the soldiers of the continental army for war pay they never received.  What's the solution to reducing the national debt?  Why taxes, of course:  in this case, sin taxes on the production of whiskey that agitated a minority living in the woods of western Pennsylvania, which prompted the President of the United States, George Washington, to get on his horse as commander and chief, head west toward Pittsburgh and suppress the agitators.  And simultaneously, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed the creation of the Bank of the United States, partly owned by the United States, but further capitalized by private investment through the issuance of stock. 

If you believe that 21st century American politics and finance are riddled with corruption now, if you believe that taxes are not the price we pay for civilization, than not much has changed in 220 years or so since the era described in David Liss' work of historical fiction, The Whiskey Rebels.  While the Whiskey Rebellion sets the stage for Liss' storyline, this novel is thematically a continuation of Liss' interest in insider trading and market manipulation covered in the early London stock exchanges in The Paper Conspiracy.  (See November 16, 2011 post). As in The Paper Conspiracy, many of the protagonists are real, historical figures, and the story is at its core true. The key difference between the stock exchanges of early 18th century London and late 18th century Philadelphia and New York is that stocks are traded in coffee houses in London and taverns in New York and Philadelphia.   William Duer, a financial speculator, who caused the nation's first financial panic by trying to manipulate the market for government securities and bank stocks is a prominent figure here.  Alexander Hamilton, masterfully covered in Ron Chernow's recent biography, is more of a mystery in this story.

The Whiskey Rebels is a good read, but the interview with David Liss in the back of the paperback version of this novel is most interesting.  "What I think about the function of this historical novel," Liss says, "I tend to think about what it can do that history cannot.  I think if you want simply to learn about the root causes of the Whiskey Rebellion or the Panic of 1792, there are numerous excellent works that you can reference that can provide all the important information you need.  On the other hand, fiction can attempt to recreate the human experience of these events, the emotion context and specific subjectivity of living through such pivotal moments.  It is all guesswork, of course.  We can never really know how people in the past experienced their lives, but it is great fun, and interesting to try."  This statement speaks volumes about how the Bible was written.  (See May 22, 2011 post).

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Arthur Herman, How The Scots Invented the Modern World (2001)

Migration, when one first contemplates the subject, brings to mind human migration:  out-of-Africa, across the Arctic land bridge, the Silk Road, across oceans in boats, and perhaps some day to other planetary objects.   Reverting, however, to a theme that begins with the opening post in this blog, migration refers, at its most fundamental level, to the migration of information:  the migration of genetic information via biological mechanisms, such as sexual intercourse, and molecular mechanisms such transcription; the migration of culture and ideas and language through the movement of peoples; and to a lesser, but nevertheless equally significant extent, through the movement of other species and even atomic particles. (See August 15, 2011 post).

Arthur Herman's history of the Scottish Enlightenment, How The Scots Invented the Modern World, is a book about  the migration of people, culture, and ideas.  Herman's story begins in 1696, more than two decades after the death of Baruch Spinoza (see March 20, 2012 and March 12, 2012 post)  in The Hague, when a 19-year old Scottish theology student, Thomas Aikenhead, utters to some friends, while walking outside on a cold August evening in Edinburgh, "I wish right now I were in the place Ezra called hell to warm myself there."  The remark may have been intended as a joke, and his friends may have laughed, but it was repeated to local church authorities who did not find the remark to be humorous.  Others came forward and reported that young Aikenhead had told others that the Bible was not the literal word of god, but the invention of the prophet Ezra.  Aikenhead purportedly claimed that Jesus performed no miracles, and that reports of miracles were "cheap magic tricks."  Aikenhead reportedly said that the purported resurrection of Jesus was a myth, and that Moses had been a better magician and politician than Jesus.  Genesis was a myth as well.  He claimed that god, nature, and the world were one, and that had been the case for eternity.  Aikenhead must have heard about or read Spinoza.  These are Spinoza's ideas.  The migration of Spinozism across the North Sea is not a subject that Herman addresses in this book, but it is a subject that is central to Jonathan Israel's Radical Enlightenment, which covers the continental migration of Spinozism during the late 17th and 18th centuries.  The outcome was different, perhaps reflecting differences between Dutch tolerance and Scottish intolerance.  Spinoza was excommunicated by his community; Aikenhead was condemned to death. 

By the end of Herman's history of the Scottish Enlightenment, it is Scotland's culture of tolerance that has infected other parts of the globe, setting off liberation movements.  Indeed, only fifty years later David Hume expresses many of the same thoughts (see May 24, 2010 post), and he lives to a ripe old age.  The seeds of Scottish tolerance, Herman writes, were planted a full century before the death of Thomas Aikenhead and a century in advance of John Locke, when George Buchanan, a Scotsman and tutor to the boy who became  James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots, wrote the The Art and Science of Government Among the Scots.  All political authority, Buchanan said, ultimately belonged to the people, who "have the right to confer the royal authority upon whomever they wish."  James VI (he who was later James I of England for whom the King James Bible is dedicated) obviously disagreed and ignored his tutor.  But the Kirk --- the Church of Scotland --- did not disagree and the popular election of church elders and ministers was institutionalized in Scotland.
Just a few decades after the execution of Thomas Aikenhead, the Scottish assault on some of the basic tenets of Christianity resumed.  Deism was flowering in England at this time.  Scotland's Francis Hutcheson  was not only casting doubt on the trinity and the status of Jesus as the "son of god," but he also asserted that belief in Jesus was not necessary for salvation.  Hutcheson advocated "natural religion."  Man carries within him the spark of divine reason.  Man enjoyed natural rights in life and property.  Obedience to law was not established by submission to divine or kingly authority, but through common consent, including moral law.  Moral reasoning is a natural human faculty:  man carried with him the means to learn to be helpful to others, and in helping others, man finds pleasure.  Happiness --- the pursuit of happiness --- is found in making others happy.  Hutcheson's views were not entirely original, as the seeds had been planted by his teachers including John Simson at the University of Glasgow and Gershom Carmichael.  He was also influenced by the Earl of Shaftesbury.  It is Hutcheson who in 1729 refers to "unalienable rights" in An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue. An unalienable right is our sense of private of judgement:  our right to think our own minds.  An unalienable right "acts as an essential limitation on all governments," Hutcheson avers.  We begin to see here the beginnings of ideas that would migrate to the North American continent and prove influential in inspiring a new form of government based on liberty the consent of the governed.

Harry Homes, a Scottish lawyer, later known as Lord Kames, advanced a view of the history of man in four stages:  the hunter/fisherman stage; the pastoral/nomadic stage where men sought cooperation from other men, but without the need for a government except at the family level; the agrarian stage where cooperation was combined with a need for sanctions and the beginnings of a state; and the commercial stage, which featured greater networks of social and economic cooperation of increasing complexity, including contractual cooperation that required a means for enforcement, including new laws and agencies of the state.  This was the Scottish Historical School, which recognized the commercial stage as that beneficial confluence and linkage of industry, knowledge and humanity that made men free.  Kames felt that the most important human instinct is the sense of property and desire to own things, which is tied to our sense of self.  Property therefore became linked with self-worth.  Kames' student, David Hume, advanced the idea that the role of government was to check other people's avidity for our own personal property:  to protect the property rights of individuals.  Again, we see in this emphasis on individual property rights the beginning of ideas that would migrate to North America and become foundations of a new republican democracy.
The migration of Scottish people to North America was quite substantial.  Two hundred thousand Ulster Scots from Northern Ireland with their own brand of Scottish Calvinism migrated broadly to the American colonies and particularly across the southern colonies; Highlanders migrated to Canada and the American colonies.  They all brought with them their sense of independence and industry as well their cultural institutions that embraced self-governance.  

Herman cites the influence of Benjamin Rush, an Englishman with a Scottish education, and Scotsman John Witherspoon, as influential in helping to establish the values of the Scottish Enlightenment as part of the new American democracy.  Witherspoon became the President of Princeton University, who promoted a spirit of freedom of inquiry within the college.  He was later a signatory of the Declaration of Independence.  James Madison, a future President of the United States and one author of the American Constitution, was a student at Princeton at the time of Witherspoon's leadership.  Herman writes that Madison found himself drawn to another Scotsman, David Hume, an intellectual nemesis of Witherspoon because of Hume's views on "natural religion," which were antithetical to Witherspoon's Evangelical Christianity.  In a little-known essay penned by Hume entitled "The Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth," Herman says, Madison found his view that an extended republic might be most stable form of government of all.  "Although the people as a body are unfit for government," Hume wrote, "yet when dispersed in small bodies [such as individual states] they are more susceptible both to reason and order; the force of popular currents and ties is, in great measure, broken." In Hume's view, Herman says, the elite coordinate the movement of the various parts of the whole, rather than plotting its overthrow, and the parts "are so distant and remote, that it is very difficult, either by intrigue, prejudice, or passion, to hurry them into any measures against the public interest."  From this perspective evolved Madison's view of co-equal branches of government and and a government that pits smaller state interests against one another that results in either gridlock or compromise.  And within a polity that features gridlock or compromise, liberty is guaranteed.

Herman tells a good story, and if one has not fully appreciated the role of the Scottish people and persons of Scottish heritage in the spread of liberal ideas and the advancement of science and technology across the globe in the 18th and 19th century, they will now.  The more interesting phenomenon in my view is the broad concept of migration I outlined at the beginning of this post. This story is just one example of migration.  And it is myopic to think of migration in terms of this one example.  A broader, comparative approach would compare the migration of peoples, ideas, and cultures from other parts of the globe at the same time:  from Africa, from England, from the European continent and to understand how they collectively influenced North America; of Jews, of evangelical Christians, of deists, of Catholics, and even those whose persuasion some called atheism and others called "natural religion;" of those with property and those without property; of those who were indentured and those who came to govern.  One could walk away from Herman's story with the view that the Scots "invented" America, and we know that was not the case.  But they surely made a substantial contribution.