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Wirt in 32!

[ 77 ] October 16, 2013 |

Proceedings of the First United States Antimasonic Convention.

Looks like the House stenographer is about average in comparison to the insanity of the Republican side of the aisle

As the House finished their vote to reopen the federal government and raise the debt ceiling, the House stenographer decided it was a good time to let everyone know her feelings about God, Congress, and the Freemasons.

“He [God] will not be mocked,” the stenographer, apparently named Molly, yelled into the microphone as she was dragged off by security. “The greatest deception here is that this is not one nation under God. It never was. It would not have been. The Constitution would not have been written by Freemasons. They go against God. You cannot serve two masters. Praise be to God. Praise be to Jesus.”

And yes, I have historical anti-Masonic images ready to go at any time.

For the title reference, see here. William Wirt won an electoral college vote on the Anti-Mason ticket despite the fact that he was a former freemason who had no objections to it. Yes, the Anti-Masonic Party’s coherency left something to be desired.

The Republican Fight Song

[ 16 ] October 16, 2013 |

Woody Guthrie summed up the 2013 Republican Party without knowing it.

You Get Who You Vote For

[ 313 ] October 16, 2013 |

While I sympathize with the South Dakota ranchers who are suffering from widespread cattle die-offs in the wake of this month’s unexpected blizzard, it’d be easier to feel sorry for them if they hadn’t voted in the very people who are the reason why the government can’t help them now. We see this all the time of course–angry white people voting for right-wing Republicans because of government waste, but where’s my paycheck/national park site/whatever part of the government I like.

Similarly, I really don’t care that the Houston Chronicle regrets endorsing Ted Cruz. C’mon. Everyone knew this what Ted Cruz would be like in the Senate. It’s not like he ever hid it. I guess the Chronicle publisher and editors thought he’d be the kind of Republican who talked crazy but in the end did what business wanted. Since he just talks crazy, he’s no good for them. But I’m sure they’ll continue endorsing Republicans who hold 99% of the same policy positions as Cruz.

Warren Harding, The Second Son of God

[ 27 ] October 16, 2013 |

I am going through my old blog and finding some classics that deserve reprint. Yesterday’s Pierce post was one. Another is the obituary of Warren Harding in the Eatonville (WA) Dispatch. I found this while going through the paper looking for interesting stories about logging. This was way better than anything else in there. From August 10, 1923:

The death of President Harding is a personal loss. He loved people. That is why he was loved. Even with the reams of ‘copy’ that have been written on him, one realizes the barrenness of adjectives to describe this man.

A person will follow the even tenor of his way until confronted by an emergency. It is then that the test comes. Warren G. Harding’s elevation to the highest office in the gift of man brought out the where all could see the true character he possessed.

There was a beauty about his life which won every heart. In temperament, he was mild, conciliatory, and candid;* and yet remarkable for an uncompromising firmness.** His life was an open sesame to the hearts of others. *** He followed in the footsteps of his Master by letting the sunshine of human sympathy and happiness into the dark places of life.

It is impossible to think of him in death’s cold shroud of sororw [sic] **** and despair, but rather smiling on us from the sunset halo that marks God’s farewell to the day–smiling with all the well remembered grace of his manhood, love and devotion, and saying to us:

“The sunset speaks but feebly of the glories of another day. All is well.”

*Improper semicolon use was off the charts in the Eatonville Dispatch.

** I heard Harding’s many mistresses said similar things about his uncompromising firmness.

*** I hope someone says that my life was an open sesame to the hearts of others when I die. I have no idea what this means of course.

**** To say the least, editing was not the Dispatch’s strong suit.

This Day in Labor History: October 16, 1859

[ 65 ] October 16, 2013 |

On October 16, 1859, radical Republican John Brown and a small band of followers, both white and black, launched a violent attack against the American system of slave labor at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia). While unsuccessful (and insane if one assumes he wanted something other than martyrdom), Brown’s raid did more than almost anything else in the 1850s to highlight the differences between northern and southern labor systems and the moral bankruptcy of the latter. Agree or disagree with his actions, he made it almost impossible for northern whites to claimed to be abolitionists to hide behind gradual programs or a vague hope for the future. For southern whites, it was a call to arms against increasingly radical anti-slavery forces in the north and the desires of slaves to escape. For African-Americans, at least the few who had the opportunity to take advantage of Brown’s actions, it was the deliverance from a hell of forced labor and degradation for which they had prayed.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time revisiting Brown’s famous raids here. Most readers here have heard of his 1859 attack and many are no doubt familiar with his 1856 murder of slaveholders in Kansas that put him on the run. Rather, I’d rather explore Brown’s positions and words about the United States’ slave labor system.

African-American women working in cotton field. Not sure of date, but typical of slave labor.

Brown had called for armed resistance to slave labor since at least 1851. Speaking to the United States League of Gileadites, a radical anti-slavery organization he founded to mobilize African-Americans, Brown talked about how to resist the Fugitive Slave Act. Brown told 44 attending free blacks that if one was arrested, “Let no able-bodied man appear on the ground unequipped, or with his weapons exposed to view; Let that be understood beforehand.” As we know from Harpers Ferry and Kansas, Brown had no problem putting this into effect. And we can certainly condemn his violence. But let’s step back and remember just how horrible slavery was. On December 20, 1858, Brown, who had briefly returned to Kansas, led a party into Missouri to free slaves. They liberated 11 slaves and killed a slaveholder. He then took them north, helping to deliver a baby from one of the ex-slaves, and got them into Canada after an 82-day trip. Were his actions justified?

This is from his letter to the New York Tribune, justifying his actions. “On Sunday, September 19, a negro man called Jim came over to Osage settlement, from Missouri, and stated that he, together with his wife, two children, and another negro man, was to be sold within a day or two, and begged for help to get away.” Brown and his friends gathered other slaves and helped them to freedom? If a slave holder was killed in such an action, is this a reasonable price? As Brown put it, “Now for a comparison. Eleven persons are forcibly restored to their natural and inalienable rights, with but one man killed, and ‘all hell is stirred from beneath.'” If one has the opportunity to free people from slavery, what is less moral? Saying no or killing a single white person in the process of saving eleven black people? For Brown, the answer was obvious.

John Brown in Kansas

When Brown launched his raid on Harpers Ferry, the South recognized it for what it was–a direct and violent attack upon their system of forced labor they had based their economy around for two hundred years. John Brown was their greatest fear and railroading him to the hangman’s rope was the obvious result (even if it also served the national political ambitions of the Virginia governor).

Frederick Douglass, who of course knew the horrors of the slave labor system first hand, lauded Brown’s ideology, if not his strategy. Douglass and Brown had known each other since 1847 and while they did not see eye to eye on many things, they were allies. While Douglass disagreed with the attack on the federal arsenal (he fully supported freeing slaves and starting a hideout in Appalachia), he was close enough to Brown that he had to flee after the raid. With an arrest warrant out for him, Douglass crossed into Canada. Douglass’ own assistant, Shields Green, joined in the raid. In fact, Douglass knew about the attack before it happened. Brown had directly recruited him, saying “I want you for a special purpose. When I strike the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them.”

On the other hand, William Lloyd Garrison was outraged by the use of violence, calling it “misguided, wild, and apparently insane.” It took until the South seceded and ending slavery seemed possible before northern whites began embracing Brown as a harbinger of free labor. During the Civil War, “John Brown’s Body” became an anthem for the Union army and abolitionists who could not countenance violence in 1859 felt like they were honoring their fallen martyr by using the violent ends Brown died for to end slave labor.

For early African-American scholars of slavery like W.E.B. DuBois, Brown was nothing short of a hero for doing so much to free their people. Here is DuBois from his 1909 biography of Brown:

“Was John Brown simply an episode, or was he an eternal truth? And if a truth, how speaks that truth to-day? John Brown loved his neighbor as himself. He could not endure therefore to see his neighbor, poor, unfortunate or oppressed. This natural sympathy was strengthened by a saturation in Hebrew religion which stressed the personal responsibility of every human soul to a just God. To this religion of equality and sympathy with misfortune, was added the strong influence of the social doctrines of the French Revolution with its emphasis on freedom and power in political life. And on all this was built John Brown’s own inchoate but growing belief in a more just and a more equal distribution of property. From this he concluded, — and acted on that conclusion — that all men are created free and equal, and that the cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.”

For the words of John Brown and other primary sources on his life and attack on Harpers Ferry, see Jonathan Earle, John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with Documents. Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, is an excellent history of the events, with special attention paid to the issues I highlight here. I borrowed from both books to write this post.

This is the 79th post in this series. Other posts are archived here.

Tarred and Feathered

[ 67 ] October 15, 2013 |

Tarring and feathering has vague connotations of American revolutionaries standing up to Tory oppression or something. Well, here is what tarring and feathering is really like. John Meints, a German-American farmer, was subjected to this treatment during World War I for the heinous crime of not subscribing to a war bond drive.

That’s some patriotic American mob violence right there. Scary stuff. Good image for teaching.

Today’s Winner

[ 101 ] October 15, 2013 |

Today’s winner for random congressional Republican being a callous jerk during the government shutdown goes to New Mexico’s Steve Pearce, for suggesting that furloughed government employees just go get themselves a loan.

Did one of Pearce’s buddies in the loan industry actually write this Facebook post for him?

How a Government Shutdown is a Win for Republicans, Part 40000

[ 52 ] October 15, 2013 |

One reason Republicans are in no hurry to reopen the government is that it in itself accomplishes major aims of the party. Among the many examples of this is throwing the operation of federal public lands back to the states, as we are seeing with states taking over the operation of some national parks:

But the use of state funds to pay national park staff fuels the arguments of people like Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who believe states should have more control of federal land. “’If anything,’ the shutdown has shown that states and localities may be able to manage the properties better than the federal government,” he told E&E News.

Though the state control issue has reared its head around the West for years, the momentum is strongest in Bishop’s home state, where in March 2012 Governor Gary Herbert signed a law requiring the feds to turn ownership of some 20 million acres over to Utah by December 31, 2014. Utahans have also recently tried to limit federal land agencies’ ability to enforce the law, declare state jurisdiction over “mismanaged” federal forests and limit federal management of endangered species – and keep the feds from having any input on these proposals. Now, state Rep. David Lifferth is drafting a bill that would allow Utah to operate its national parks if the feds are unable to do so.

“The federal government is dysfunctional,” Lifferth recently told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We need to be prepared for any eventuality … in the event the federal government can’t live up to their obligations, we need to be prepared at a moment’s notice.”

Thus the shutdown helps push the agenda of the Sagebrush Rebellion’s children and their corporate supporters in the West. More broadly, the worse Republicans can make government operate, the more people they can convince that government is worthless and cannot be redeemed and we need to look for other answers. I’d posit that the long-term success of this program is quite evident among sections of the left that sees the government getting in the way of individual rights and turning toward anarchist methods and goals rather than central planning and socialism.

Franklin Pierce Sex Jokes

[ 45 ] October 15, 2013 |

Joke from an 1850s quasi-pornographic newspaper:

“Why is Ex-President Pierce like the privates of a man?

Because he went in Hard and came out Soft.”

I’m not actually sure what the joke means. Perhaps monetary policy. But any Franklin Pierce sex joke must be shared.

From Donna Dennis’ Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York.

All the Links

[ 24 ] October 13, 2013 |

I’ve been out of touch because I’m in Tucson giving papers on logging history/eating burritos/hiking in the desert. I could provide you some links I like. Or I could just send you to all the links at The New Inquiry’s always awesome Sunday Reading. So go there and read some stuff.

Also, a little Sunday sermon to go along with your Sunday Reading.


[ 270 ] October 10, 2013 |

Lydia DePillis embraces the job-destroying self-checkout counters at grocery stores. I’ve railed against this before for stealing jobs from workers, often unionized workers affiliated with the UFCW. I usually like DePillis’ writing, but this shows the same blindness toward real workers in real jobs that affects the rest of Wonkblog. Most of the writers are good on larger policy issues. But they do a terrible job connecting these larger policy goals with the actual lived lives of the American working class. This is especially true when technology comes into play, which is always and uncritically embraced as a positive good in our technological fetish society. Sometimes at Wonk Blog, this inability to connect policy and real workers comes through in Dylan Matthews’ open anti-unionism (at least in fact whenever labor struggles come up, if not in theory), more often in this kind of blissful ignorance how the embrace of a certain type of technology that seems so cool (and allows us to ignore real humans and of course creates higher profits for grocery store gazillionaires) actually affects the American working class.

Being a grocery store clerk is no one’s idea of an easy or particularly enjoyable job. You spend a long day on your feet, dealing with cranky people, mean people, crazy people, people who don’t know what they are doing, technological problems, jerk managers, etc., etc. But as a unionized position, it is a way for everyday people without college educations to rise into something like the middle class. The United Food and Commercial Workers helped make this happen. I’m writing from an airport and I have to run to a plane so I can’t look this up, but I would be very curious to see how unionized shop owners have embraced these technologies and how many union jobs have disappeared because of them. DePillis doesn’t mention or consider these issues at all.

In other words, you have to deal with the working class as they are, not the abstracted working class you wish you have. If you choose to embrace these technologies, you have a moral duty to at least be aware of the impact upon working people and then deal with that fact.

This Day in Labor History: October 10, 1917

[ 51 ] October 10, 2013 |

On October 10, 1917, the red light district of New Orleans, known as Storyville, closed due to the efforts of reformers seeking to eliminate vice from the city. During the Progressive Era, this was happening all over the country. The net effect was not to end sex work, but rather to change the working conditions of sex workers, making their lives and work much more dangerous and deadly.

Prostitution was a common, open, and public part of American urban life since at least the American Revolution. The 19th century city was full of houses of prostitution. Sometimes they were tolerated, sometimes they were not. Sometimes, such as happened in Providence in the 1840s, they became sites of anti-Irish violence since the Irish often became prostitutes.

1787 woodcut of prostitutes

The meaning of prostitution was also different than today. Sex work could take any number of forms. Some women were full-time prostitutes. Other were so-called “charity girls,” who would trade sex (in some form or another) for a good time out. Others sold their bodies once a month in order to make ends meet when their regular jobs (which were often seasonal and inconsistent anyway) could not. But it’s important to understand that prostitution was a sensible economic proposition for the 19th century working class woman. With few appealing options, low pay, and dangerous working conditions in so-called legitimate work, prostitution might not seem so bad.

The red light districts really took off in the 1880s and 1890s. This was the period of sexual double standard, when chaste Victorian women were supposed to disdain sex (including in marriage for the most part) while men had animal lusts that had to be satisfied. If that wasn’t going to happen even within marriage, it had to happen somewhere. And that’s where legalized (or quasi-legal) prostitution came into play. The districts published pamphlets advertising the different services brothels provided. They often operated in questionable legal circumstances, so it was a world of bribes, corruption, and toleration.

Interior of the Everleigh Club, Chicago’s most exclusive brothel, circa 1900.

Who became prostitutes? Mostly it’s who you would expect. Immigrants. Working-class whites. Women who were raped as young girls. Women whose families had abandoned them in childhood. Orphans. Single mothers with young children. African-Americans. What the red light districts did was not only to concentrate this work in particular urban zones, but also to provide a measure of safety. A woman selling sex in true privacy is a woman in tremendous danger. Brothels provided real safety. This is hardly to say that all brothels provided good working conditions. Quite the opposite. Some brothels specialized in sex that wasn’t necessarily safe. Others had madams that treated workers poorly, beat the women, etc. Drug abuse was common and the job put great toil on bodies. On the other hand, you were far less likely to be murdered or brutalized by a client in a red light district brothel, simply because there were other people around, including your friends and coworkers.

However bad conditions in some brothels were, it’s also important to remember how bad working conditions were in general. People died on the job all the time. Capitalists had no particular interest in keeping workers alive and certainly wouldn’t invest in doing so. Unions fighting for better lives for workers were routinely crushed. The poor died of tuberculosis, among many other diseases, in huge numbers. So as bad as these brothels might sound, once we take our moral repulsion for sex work out of the equation, it really isn’t any worse than any other Gilded Age work for women. In fact, it could be quite a bit better–for a few there was a real chance to make big money, even if for obvious reasons it wasn’t going to last forever.

And yet some brothels actually did provide relatively good and safe working conditions. Many brothels were owned by women, one of the only economic opportunities for female ownership in the Gilded Age. The women formed a community of sorts that included mutual support, strict rules for clients, visits from doctors, bouncers if the men got too rough, and police protection if it was necessary. This meant women worked in conditions as clean and safe as possible.

The red-light districts came under attack during the Progressive Era. An increasingly politicized and mobilized group of middle-class women, with some important support from men, attacked the sexual double standard. But this wasn’t how we oh so liberated people might want it attacked today. No, it was to apply chastity to men. This made sense though in one very important way–men consorting with prostitutes literally implanted venereal disease in the bodies of their wives. In a Victorian society where one could not talk about such things, you had women dying of advanced syphilis and gonorrhea. This finally led to great outrage and organized attempts to shut down the red light districts, including public protests and shaming police and politicians who supported it. They forced the police to organize vice squads and pass ordinances ending the houses of prostitution.

That outrage combined with the fear of white slavery. Were some women working in the sex trade against their will? Yes, certainly. Were there scary Chinese or Italian men drugging our innocent white women heading off the farms and into the cities and forcing them into hellish lives? Meh; it’s really hard to know. What we do know is that the middle-class flipped out over the idea during the 1900s and 1910s. This led not only to the Mann Act, most famously used against the boxer Jack Johnson for daring to marry a white woman and not care what anyone thought, but to a whole cultural enterprise dedicated to it. This includes the famous 1913 film Traffic in Souls. Despite what this clip claims, I think it actually is a scene from that film (although it’s been several years so I’m not sure). In any case, it gives you a good idea of the mania surrounding this.

Yet these Progressives hadn’t really thought through what they were advocating. They hadn’t at all considered where the women would go once the brothels closed. A few people saw the contradictions clearly. When a group of women went to the mayor of Toledo and urged him to close down the city’s red light district, he made them an offer. If each one of the women took one prostitute into their employ, he would personally employ two. The women thought he was crazy. They just assumed if you got rid of prostitution it would disappear. They left the meeting thinking him an incorrigible enemy of their cause.

When Washington closed its red light district in 1914, a group of prostitutes wrote an open letter. They asked:

Knowing that public opinion is against us, and that the passing of the Kenyon “Red Light” Bill is certain, we, the inmates of the underworld, want to know how the public expects to provide for us in the future?

We do not want “homes.” All we ask is that positions be provided for us. The majority will accept them. We must live somehow. We are human. With all the resorts in nearly all the large cities closed, it is useless for us to leave Washington.

How many citizens will give employment to women in our class? Very few would be so liberal minded. They would consider us a detriment to their business. If we must reform, you who recommend these reforms, help us to lead a better life.

In years past, it has been tried and as soon as previous reputations were discovered, our positions were made unbearable. Then, through necessity we had to return to the old life.

Progressives had no answer for these questions.

Storyville itself isn’t particularly more significant than other red light districts with one big exception. I used it because I could find a solid date for its closure. I could have picked Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, or whatever. What was interesting about Storyville though was the special place it held in the American mind. The U.S. has always had a particular city dedicated in the national imagination to exotic sex. Until 1917, that was New Orleans because of its unique (for the U.S.) racial mixing. When Storyville closed, that site moved to Havana, where it remained until 1959. With Castro and Las Vegas rising at the same time, it moved to Nevada after the Cuban Revolution, where it more or less remains today. As New Orleans was more commited to sex tourism than much of the U.S., it took the Wilson Administration, very concerned about the moral purity of the military shipping to Europe, to force its closing. Storyville today is basically the Iberville Housing Project.


The real effect of eliminating the red light district was not for prostitution to disappear. This seems self-evident, but as we have seen, was very much not obvious for Progressives, who often had a really naive view of human behavior generally. It was to put women on the street. Where they are beaten and raped and killed.

This isn’t necessarily a call for a return to the red light district. But it is an example of how criminalizing work because of our moral compunction does not eliminate the work. It simply moves it underground, where working conditions get worse and these workers die.

I strongly recommend Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918 if you are interested in this topic.

This is the 78th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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