Friday, March 31, 2006

The Debate Over Gilbert Stuart's Birthplace

Who made Stonehenge and how? Was there really an Atlantis? Where was Gilbert Stuart born?: Such are the great questions of our time. With spring comes the opening of the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum. While the stuff found in the museum is authentic, the whole "birthplace" thing seems to be up for debate:
Web sites list the artist, famous for his portraits of George Washington and other Colonial-era notables, as having been born in a number of places, ranging from Saunderstown, which is the village in North Kingstown where the museum stands, to Narragansett, which could be a reference to the area at the time, to Newport, where his mother originated, to simply, Rhode Island.

One reference says 'near Narrow River, head of Pettasquamscutt Pond,' spelled that way, with an extra s, which also describes the area of the museum. Several references list North Kingston, spelled that way, too. But perhaps the liveliest reference is a supposed direct quote from Stuart found in an American Heritage Magazine article.

'When he was in England, Gilbert Stuart used to tell inquirers that he had been born 'six miles from Pottawoone and ten miles from Pappasquash and about four miles from Conanicut and not far from the spot where the famous battle with the war-like Pequotes was fought.' '

'I think he meant that he was born in the middle of nowhere,' said O'Connor.

Suggesting to supporters that Stuart was born anyplace else, other than in the red house, would be something of a powder keg proposal.

'His father was running the snuff mill, so that's where the family lived. It's an interesting question, isn't it,' said Harriet Powell, a museum volunteer from North Kingstown. 'How do you determine these things? There were no videos.'

So why is she still convinced?

'I read it.'

A 1941 book written by the Pettaquamscutt Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Facts and Fancies Concerning North Kingstown, Rhode Island, includes an essay written by Alice H. Durfee Greene which notes that 'Norman M. Isham, an authority on Colonial architecture,' restored the house in the 1930s after a committee was formed through the South County Art Association to save it because

it "was rapidly falling into ruin."

But it doesn't say how they knew it was his birthplace -- though it does note that Stuart was baptized in the Old Narragansett Church on Palm Sunday, 1756.

"He was certainly baptized here, there's no question about that," said Henry Beckwith, of North Kingstown, whose grandmother wrote the 1941 essay in the book, and whose family has been connected to the Old Narragansett Church, St. Paul, and the birthplace, for generations.

As to how he knows that Stuart was born there, he, too, said: "I read it."

North Kingstown historian G. Timothy Cranston said that while Stuart's birth doesn't seem to be recorded at the North Kingstown Town Hall, "That's not unusual for the time. I suspect that he was born here, because they were living here at that time period. They couldn't just hop in a car and drive to Newport."

The argument from tradition still holds, especially absent any proof otherwise. Besides, does anyone really care? Probably a few historians who would like to be accurate. It makes for a nice, interesting low-key debate, though. Should they really claim it's his birthplace without any real proof? If everyone accepts that it is, is it?

Comparing Bush and Truman

Alan Dowd, though he's not the first (or here; and here for a rejection of the comparison), compares Bush and Truman:
Contrary to what most history books tell us, Truman's doctrine wasn't a postwar panacea or readymade roadmap for waging the Cold War. Instead, as Derek Leebaert explains in The Fifty-Year Wound, the Cold War's first four years--which coincided with Truman's first four years as president--'were filled with starts and stops rather than any considered policy or long-range goals.'

Nor did Americans immediately rally around Truman's battle plan. As historian Walter LaFeber recalls, Truman's critics 'tore apart' his doctrine and policies. They warned that Truman would weaken the Constitution, over-inflate the presidency, militarize U.S. foreign policy. and destroy the United Nations. (Sound familiar?)

When Truman left the White House, he was generally considered neither particularly successful nor popular. His decision not to seek a third term (even though he was the last president permitted to do so) was evidence of his waning political strength. Yet today, he is ranked among America's greatest presidents.

This is not to say that Bush is destined for a Trumanesque legacy, of course; but neither is he doomed to failure. Tomorrow's historians--not today's polls or pundits--will render the final verdict."
Of course, it seems as if some historians have already rendered their final verdict, huh?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Oh No, not the Treaty with Tripoli/Christian Nation argument again!!!!

The Introduction to Frank Lambert's new book, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, is available at the Princeton University Press web site. The book looks like an interesting read, but Lambert appears to have fallen for same old Treaty of Tripoli example that I tackled (rather extensively) last year. Lambert is clear in delineating the difference between freedom of religion and the establishment of state religion, but then relies on a familiar interpretation of the aforementioned Treaty:
By their actions, the Founding Fathers made clear that their primary concern was religious freedom, not the advancement of a state religion. Individuals, not the government, would define religious faith and practice in the United States. Thus the Founders ensured that in no official sense would America be a Christian Republic. Ten years after the Constitutional Convention ended its work, the country assured the world that the United States was a secular state, and that its negotiations would adhere to the rule of law, not the dictates of the Christian faith. The assurances were contained in the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797 and were intended to allay the fears of the Muslim state by insisting that religion would not govern how the treaty was interpreted and enforced. John Adams and the Senate made clear that the pact was between two sovereign states, not between two religious powers.

[Original citations were removed because they weren't made available on the referenced web page-MAC]
Like I said, I dealt with this extensively, but Carl Pearlston provided context more concisely:

The first treaty was with Morocco in 1786, negotiated by Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. It was written in Arabic with an English translation. The treaty language assumes that the world was divided between Christians and Moors (Moslems), e.g. "If we shall be at war with any Christian Power ... .", "... no Vessel whatever belonging either to Moorish or Christian Powers with whom the United States may be at War ... .", " their enemies Moors or Christians." These along with numerous references to God, e.g., "In the name of Almighty God,", "... trusting in God ...", "Grace to the only God", "...the servant of God ...", "... whom God preserve ...". are the only references to religion in this treaty of Peace and Friendship.

The next was the Treaty of Peace and Amity with Algiers in 1795,written in Turkish. The only reference to religion was in Article 17 which gave the Consul of the United States "... Liberty to Exercise his Religion in his own House [and] all Slaves of the Same Religion shall not be impeded in going to Said Consul's house at hours of prayer... ." The Consul's house was to function in lieu of a Christian church.

The Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation with Tunis in 1797 was in Turkish with a French translation. It begins "God is infinite.", and refers to the Ottoman Emperor "whose realm may God prosper", and to the President of the United States "... the most distinguished among those who profess the religion of the Messiah, ...." Other than a reference to "the Christian year", there is no further mention of religion.

The Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Tripoli was signed in 1796 in Arabic, and was later translated into English by Joel Barlow, United States Consul General at Algiers. Except for the typical phrases "Praise be to God" and "whom God Exalt", there is no reference to religion other than the aforesaid remarkable Article 11, which reads,

"As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, — and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan (sic) nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

The treaty, with this language, was submitted to the Senate by President Adams, and was ratified. Thus, opponents of the 'Christian nation' concept point to this seemingly official repudiation of the very idea. Yet the language is less a repudiation of the role of Christianity in the nation's heritage than a reminder that there was no national established church in the United States as there was in the European states with which Tripoli had previously dealt. This provided reassurance to the Moslem Bey and his religious establishment that religion, in of itself, would not be a basis of hostility between the two nations. None of the other similar treaties with the Barbary states, before or after this treaty, including the replacement treaties signed in 1804 after the Barbary Wars, have any language remotely similar.

Pearlston also mentions the questions regarding the provenance of Article 11, into which I also delved. Again, I'm not arguing for a "Christian Nation," I'm just trying to point out that this Treaty with Tripoli is not the magic bullet that some seem to think.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Historic Preservation as an Economic Engine

Here in Rhode Island, it was recently announced that a major development was going to built in Providence thanks in no small part to the availability of historic preservation tax credits.

A Baltimore-based developer plans to transform a string of mill buildings along the Woonasquatucket River into a $333-million neighborhood. Dubbed the American Locomotive Works, it is the largest single investment in Providence since the Providence Place mall. . .

Struever's first Valley Street project, the Rising Sun Mills, is marked by a glitzy sign with 9-foot high illuminated letters. The company also is developing The Plant on Valley Street and Royal Mills at Riverpoint in West Warwick. The firm's total investment in Rhode Island is a half-billion dollars, not including its proposed $138-million project to develop the Heritage Harbor Museum at the former Narragansett Electric Co. power plant in Providence.

At a news conference today with Governor Carcieri and Mayor David N. Cicilline, the company plans to announce its intentions to refurbish 26 historic buildings on the former U.S. Rubber, American Locomotive Works and Nicholson File sites. The project also includes 380,000 square feet of new construction.

Struever has partnered with Rhode Island's prominent Licht family, which controls most of the land for the project. The developers plan to use historic tax credits and seek $41 million in public subsidies for infrastructure improvements.

As for the historical importance of the buildings being renovated:

THE OLDEST BUILDING on the ALCO site was built in 1885 for the Rhode Island Locomotive Works, which eventually was purchased by American Locomotive Works. At one point, the company contracted with a French firm to build the luxury Berliet automobile. Struever hopes to resurrect a test track that circled the building and create a pedestrian path.

The complex was sold to a rubber manufacturer in 1896 and eventually became U.S. Rubber Co., which made military balloons during World War I and golf balls, bath caps and tires. During World War II, the company employed 3,200 people. Licht Properties bought it in 1975.

Licht bought the Nicholson File Co. mill complex in 1960. The first building on that site was built in 1865 and grew as the company became the most successful maker of machine-made files, at one point employing 1,200 people in 1916. It closed in 1958.

And there was this ironic twist:

"I'm excited to see these old, old historic buildings [that] had a legacy of one type being now converted and being the future of not only the city, but the state," Governor Carcieri said.

Carcieri, who has threatened to cut back the state's historic tax-credit program, said ALCO was the perfect, neighborhood-transforming use of the credits. Struever will be using $30 million in state historic tax credits.

Carcieri initially supported the historic tax-credit, but real-world budget shortfalls have caused him to re-evaluate his stance:
In 2001, the state increased the amount of income tax credits developers can take for revitalizing historic properties to 30 percent of the total value of the project. Spurred by the generous incentive, developers -- many from across the country -- flocked to Rhode Island, unveiling plan after plan to renovate old mills and historic buildings statewide.

It adds up to about $ 840 million worth of proposed investment that will create condos, apartments, shops, restaurants -- and jobs -- from West Warwick to the Olneyville section of Providence. In return, the developers expect to collect about $ 148 million worth of historic preservation tax credits from the state by 2007, according to the state budget office.

Since 2004, state legislators have warned about the impact the tax credits could have on state revenue. A one-year moratorium on the program was proposed by legislators in 2004.

Developers said it would stall development. Governor Carcieri called it "short-sighted" and predicted the number of people applying for tax credits would eventually slow down. The moratorium wasn't approved. The number of developers applying for credits continued to increase.

Last month, Governor Carcieri suggested reducing the state's historic tax credit, which is one of the most generous in the nation. The tax credit program is expected to require the state to lose $ 84.6 million in income during this fiscal year. The state budget office projects it will cost the state $ 260 million in lost tax revenue by 2011 -- much more than the state expected to shell out for the program. Although Carcieri hasn't yet introduced legislation to change the historic tax credit program, the state budget office is analyzing it.

Republican Carcieri is being opposed by the Democrat dominated legislature, but in the past they have been reluctant to find cuts from some of Rhode Island's bloated government programs to "pay for" such things as the historic tax-credit. Like many others, I support the current level of the historic tax-credit and think that instead of looking to cut this economic engine, the Governor should look towards reducing spending in other areas (which he has proposed and was rewarded with a pummelling) and the Legislature should--in good faith--assist him. But don't count on it during an election year.

Clearing the Desk

Here are a couple things that piqued my interest that I didn' t have time to blog about extensively during the last couple months.

Lee Harris argued that Hegel was a proponent of Turner's frontier thesis before Turner and that--contrary to popular belief--Hegel was not a determinist and the conflation of his ideas with Marx is unfortunate.

Michael Barone talked about the role that history plays in the politics of delegitimization. According to Barone:

FDR encouraged the idea that history is a story of progress toward an ever larger and more generous government. That version of American history was propagated by a brace of gifted historians and in most mainstream media.

For decades afterward, presidents were judged by the FDR standard... Ronald Reagan wrote a different version of history. Like FDR, he showed that a strong and assertive America could advance freedom in the world. But unlike Roosevelt, he saw government at home as the problem, not the solution, and he utterly refuted the liberal elites who said that low-inflation economic growth was no longer possible and that America was on the defensive in the world.

With these two "standards" as background, Barone delves into the Republican attempts to delegitimize President Clinton and the Democrat attempts to delegitimize President Bush.

R.I. Moore wrote a book review of two important new books on the Middle Ages, Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages and Julia M. H. Smith's Europe After Rome.

The Maine Journey: Experiences In Maine

The Maine Journey: Experiences In Maine is a side-project dedicated to an educator who had an impact on my life. Now that I've wrapped up my studies, I finally have time to get to other things, and this project is at the top of the list. It's a very simple site and right now I'm just focusing on transcription. If you're interested in Maine and reading about the structure of an innovative educational venture designed by a small town teacher, take a peek.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Kevin Phillip's America: A Theocratic, Oil Hungry, Debt Ridden Empire

In his NY Times review, Alan Brinkley summarizes the unholy trinity found in Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy :
Phillips is scathingly critical of what he considers the dangerous policies of the Bush administration, he does not spend much time examining the ideas and behavior of the president and his advisers. Instead, he identifies three broad and related trends — none of them new to the Bush years but all of them, he believes, exacerbated by this administration's policies — that together threaten the future of the United States and the world. One is the role of oil in defining and, as Phillips sees it, distorting American foreign and domestic policy. The second is the ominous intrusion of radical Christianity into politics and government. And the third is the astonishing levels of debt — current and prospective — that both the government and the American people have been heedlessly accumulating. If there is a single, if implicit, theme running through the three linked essays that form this book, it is the failure of leaders to look beyond their own and the country's immediate ambitions and desires so as to plan prudently for a darkening future.
Thus, according to Brinkley's review, Phillips believes:

1) OIL: The Iraq War was all about oil. Even though this desire for a secure source of oil has been the prime mover of American foreign policy for 30 years, the presence of so many oil men in the Bush Administration has served to increase and expand these efforts.
The United States has embraced a kind of "petro-imperialism," Phillips writes, "the key aspect of which is the U.S. military's transformation into a global oil-protection force," and which "puts up a democratic facade, emphasizes freedom of the seas (or pipeline routes) and seeks to secure, protect, drill and ship oil, not administer everyday affairs."
2) RELIGION: According to Brinkley, "Phillips brings together an enormous range of information from scholars and journalists and presents a remarkably comprehensive and chilling picture of the goals and achievements of the religious right."
Prophetic Christians, Phillips writes, often shape their view of politics and the world around signs that charlatan biblical scholars have identified as predictors of the apocalypse — among them a war in Iraq, the Jewish settlement of the whole of biblical Israel, even the rise of terrorism. He convincingly demonstrates that the Bush administration has calculatedly reached out to such believers and encouraged them to see the president's policies as a response to premillennialist thought. He also suggests that the president and other members of his administration may actually believe these things themselves, that religious belief is the basis of policy, not just a tactic for selling it to the public. Phillips's evidence for this disturbing claim is significant, but not conclusive.
3) DEBT: We have government debt, corporate debt and personal debt. This "national debt culture" is:
a product of the "financialization" of the American economy — the turn away from manufacturing and toward an economy based on moving and managing money, a trend encouraged, Phillips argues persuasively, by the preoccupation with oil and (somewhat less persuasively) with evangelical belief in the imminent rapture, which makes planning for the future unnecessary.
Of the three points of Phillip's polemic, I find the 1st paranoid, the 2nd hyperbolic, and the 3rd sound. Concerning the first, there have already been plenty of arguments about the War for Oil, etc. and I simply don't feel like getting into it. The sides are pretty well entrenched. As for the second, I'll defer to Joseph Bottom (via Ralph Luker). Finally, as a fiscal conservative, I don't buy into a "national debt culture" either and likewise don't practice a "personal debt culture." Now, a little debt is OK (if it was good enough for Alexander Hamilton, it's good enough for me) and I also have debt (a mortgage), but I pay off my credit cards monthly and try to keep the debt to a minimum. I think that Phillips' may be onto something here because a majority of Americans--both personally and corporately--apparently have no problem carrying what would be deemed excessive debt. Is it any surprise that they don't worry very much when their government acts in the same manner?

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Iraq War and "What if...?"

Michael Barone points to a couple excercises in counterfactual history by the American Enterprise Institute and by Gerard Baker. The not-surprising conclusions drawn by each support the argument that Iraq is better off because of the removal of Saddam Hussein. Barone also points out that recent polling has indicated that the American people continue to look at the Iraq War as a positive for both the Iraqi people and for U.S. national (and world) security. The use of counterfactuals as a historical analytic tool is and has been up for debate. They may be no more accurate than Gateway Pundit's list of incorrect Iraq War predictions .

These two types of speculation--predictions about the outcome of a particular decision or event and predictions of the possible outcome of viable alternative(s)--are similar but also different in a key aspect. Predictions made about the outcome of the "road taken" can eventually be confirmed or proven incorrect. Predictions about the "road not taken" will always remain speculative. Simply put, counterfactuals never have to face the facts. Nonetheless, I think that conterfactuals can help the historian analyze the "why" of why a person or group made a particular decision at a particular time. The key to the plausibility of the counterfactual argument is the degree to which the speculator is familiar with both the decision maker(s) and the context in which the decision was made. Thus, just like in other historical (or political) writing, the "believability factor" gets back to the veracity and bias of the counterfactualist.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Medieval Islamic Conquest

While poking around some of my medieval stuff, I came across some descriptions of the Islamic conquests. One of the factors that facilitated the success of the spread of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries was that the Byzantine and Persian empires had beaten each other up so much that they were weakened. In the case of the Byzantines, this meant less attention paid to the Western Empire, which had actually ocurred after Justinian. The Persians were similarly ignorant of what Mohammed was doing in their backyard. Thus, Islam rose up and expanded in the wake of a war between two medieval super powers. This struck me as at least tacitly similar to Bin Laden's call to establish the Caliphate in the wake of the Cold War. Just a thought....

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Unrighteous Traffick: Slavery in Rhode Island

The Providence Journal is publishing a series on the place that slavery holds in RI history, calle The Unrighteous Traffick. The index to the text of the series can be found here (here's part 1 and part 2 with 5 more to follow). (There is also a multimedia presentation that can be found at the "front page" of the ProJo website). I suspect that most Americans don't associate Rhode Island and slavery, but as a vital link in the Triangular Trade, RI certainly played it's part. Newport came of age during this time and was one of the hubs of the trade. How could a colony found on the ideals of religious freedom as espoused by such as Roger Williams or Anne Hutchinson simultaneously encourage and profit from chattel slavery? I suspect the series will help answer some of these questions.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Master of Arts in History: Complete

Well, after 3 years, I've finally completed my part-time pursuit of a Master of Arts in History. As I noted before, my MA Thesis is complete. Since that post, I successfully passed (with distinction) my 1 hour, Comprehensive oral exam (3 Professors vs. me) on American History. As a non-traditional student, I took a truly non-traditional approach. I majored in American History and minored in Medieval History and was allowed to write my thesis on a Medieval topic. I think that--because I wasn't as "boxed in" as many typical graduate students--I was able to convince the program director to follow this course. The fact that I also took a couple supplementary American classes also helped. So, in a sense, I had a double major of American and Medieval History. Most of all, I had fun. I'll graduate magna cum laude in May with an MA in American History, an ability to translate Latin and as a member of Phi Alpha Theta. OK, enough self-congratulation, but this is a long way from where I started my college career (with markedly less inspiring academic results--let's just say I survived)! Someday I hope to go for a PhD, but with two young children and a full-time career as an engineer, that'll simply have to wait. Meanwhile, I'll keep doing scholarly work and work toward publication. And I'll also keep blogging.