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Such Phrenology. So Railroad. Wow. by goosecommerce

Or, Meme Translation

Asa Whitney Doge

Today I found a portrait and detailed profile of one of the characters I’m currently writing about in the American Phrenological Journal.

Yes folks, in November 1849, Asa Whitney, railroad projector and lobbyist for humanity, was not only the man of the hour and talk of the town, but also the cover model for America’s leading pseudoscientific periodical. Reading what the nation’s foremost experts in head-bumps and skull-shapes had provided to the interested public concerning the former China merchant, it occurred to me that the phrenologist’s analysis might very easily be stripped of its Victorian vagaries, and translated into a jargon with more currency today; that is, into doge speak. Thus, the above.

(Also, per Gary Larson, it was late and I was tired).

Full cite (incl. original image):

“Article LXXI: Phrenological Character of Asa Whitney, with a Likeness,” American Phrenological Journal 11, no. 11 (November 1, 1849): 329–333.

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A Slaughter-Bench, Explained by goosecommerce

Or, Thoughts on Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (Knopf, 2012).

YuYuan Garden by Wolfgang Staudt, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  Wolfgang Staudt 

Odd as it is to say, it’s been a long time since a history book completely captivated my attention; and even longer since I lost a night of sleep to stay up reading one. I read history all day, everyday, but rarely for pleasure – one likes to escape, you know? But sometimes something special intervenes. Stephen Platt’s excellent account of the Taiping Rebellion is one such. While by no means an escape – the civil war he takes as his subject was one of the most brutal the world has ever seen – his book is as gripping and analytically sophisticated a piece of historical scholarship as I have ever read.

Platt’s book marries the deft use of “novelistic” tricks of popular historians with a serious and important new analysis of the Taiping civil war to construct a gripping narrative. The careful use of a judiciously chosen cast of characters – drawing from all factions in the war – allows Platt to draw the reader in to personal stories. But these are not just historical excursions for history’s sake, loosely connected. Rather, Platt makes a consistent, and convincing argument that the war should be seen as intimately connected to the other great civil conflict of the period – the American Civil War – by way of British foreign and economic policy. (Basically, he argues that the Brits got involved in the war – decisively, as it happened, on the side of the Qing – to protect their economic interests, partly out of pressure put on them by the loss of the American market).

In what I think is his greatest accomplishment, Platt makes all of these events make sense.*  That might sound like the first task of an historian – but believe me when I say that it is quite a feat, especially in this case. The caprice of the British public and the arrogance of some of their officials is paired nicely with the internal politicking of the Qing and Taiping courts. Each on its own is complex enough, but Platt is able to draw out the links between them, to explain the unfolding of events through these wavering intersections (which is not to say that events were rational; like all wars, this one was model of chaos). As someone who has mainly confronted the Taiping war through the garbled accounts of contemporary American observers, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to finally have some glimpse of the Taiping war as a coherent whole. (Okay, well I can: and just did).

I think part of the secret here is that, unlike other books on the war which analyze the particular cultural characteristics that motivated actors  – say, Jonathan Spence’s – this book concentrates on making the strange familiar, and not on delineating just how strange the the strange was. Thus we get a portrait of Zeng Guofan, commanding general of the Hunan army (the main Qing force), that depicts him as a deeply conflicted, even tortured scholar trying to follow duty wherever it led. The foreignness of Zeng’s worldview (from our contemporary, Western perspective) is only partially revealed in the denouement, when glimpses of Zeng through the eyes of Western and Chinese observers reveal a brutal, calculating man, working to protect his image and his family’s power from the still-smoking and blood-stained ruins of the rebel capital, Nanjing.

I’m no expert in the Chinese historiography, so I can’t comment on how Platt’s work succeeds of fails in that regard; certainly his pedigree as a China expert is impeccable, and Sinologists who’ve reviewed the book seem pleased. From my perspective as an Americanist with more than a passing knowledge of British and American sources relating to the period, nothing rang false. Sections of the book dealing with British perspectives on the war, or maneuvering in Parliament, or even American reactions to the Taiping all seemed judiciously written, and did not a make any claims that stepped beyond the evidence. The Chinese sections…well, Chinese history, in English, always seems lightly sourced to me – but I think that is an artifact of the available archives and my footnote fetish, not any sort of real criticism.

(If I have one criticism, it is that I wish Platt had refrained from including a poorly-argued NYT op-ed as part of his book publicity efforts. Affecting a Tom Friedman-level of rhetorical analysis is not only historical malpractice – really, is the Taiping rebellion in any way like China today? really? – it does his scholarly reputation no favors. Indeed, had I not already bought the book before I read that article, I would have never cracked the cover).

But if we judged all scholars purely by their malpractice on the op-ed page, then we’d read no one, ever. So, my recommendation is simple: whatever your speciality or your interests, go read Stephen Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, and have your understanding of 19th-century history, the global economy – and perhaps even your ideas about human nature – helpfully revised. And maybe your sleep disturbed, too.


*The petulant jerk who reviewed the book for the NYT seems to lack any sense of how complex this war was – how many people were involved, how difficult the sources are, how much violence deranges neat narratives. His complaints about how difficult his finely-tuned flâneur’s mind found the book reveal more about him, I think, than about the work under review.

Plus ça change, moins de rat musqué by goosecommerce
January 16, 2012, 1:23 pm
Filed under: Knowledge Droppings, Our Glorious National Heritage | Tags: , , ,

Or, America’s Continuing War on the Cute and Fuzzy

Also Known As: No Captain & Tenille Jokes Here, No Sirree

What is this thing called? by Stephen Begin, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Stephen Begin 

Everything old is new again. At least, so says Matt Yglesias. Slate’s economic analyst reports (base on an entertaining Wall Street Journal article) that muskrat pelts from the Upper Midwest are fetching record prices due to rising demand in China. Historically nimble as always, he notes that fur trapping was a key “motive for early (largely French) white exploration” in the former Middle Ground – and so this is yet more evidence that old patterns appear to be reasserting themselves: “Asian industrialization seems to be pushing America back to its roots as a natural resource extraction hub.”

He’s not wrong – but I think he misses an important historical trend line by stretching as far back to the heyday of the coureur de bois. Collecting furs was indeed a key part of French colonialism in North America, but the direct connection to Asian markets (specifically, Canton) was not made until the  American Revolution.

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A Song of Whales and Profits by goosecommerce

Or, Winter Is Coming (to New England)

Earlier this summer I read (consumed, devoured) the latest installment of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and perhaps that’s why I can’t help but see in my sources a certain Westerosian tinge now and again.

But honestly, I’m only reading that into it so far –- sometimes it’s just there. For example, doesn’t this French official make the semi-desperate, post-Revolutionary mariners of New England sound a bit…Ironborn?

“Those [states] that manage best are the Northern States; New England especially displays astonishing activity and resources: I am assured that this year Massachusetts alone has put to sea 900 ships of 70 to 180 tons. Forty have been Whaling in the seas off Brazil and on the coasts of the Country of the Patagonians up to the Falkland Islands. These voyages are long and perilous. But the Seafarers of the North are hardened to fatigue and to the Sea: they live with an extreme sobriety, and the size of the profits makes them scorn danger.1

A bit less raiding, I suppose. But is it so much of a stretch to think that Ahab’s ancestors, limned here, might have worshipped the Drowned God in a slightly different universe?

1.) François Barbé de Marbois to Comte de Vergennes [translation], Philadelphia, 14 July 1784, in Mary A. Giunta, et al., eds., The Emerging Nation: A Documentary History of the Foreign Relations of the United States Under the Articles of Confederation, 1780-1789, 3 vols. (Washington, D.C.: National Historical Publications and Records Commission, 1996), II: 418.

Image: Abraham Storck, “Walvisvangst bij de kust van Spitsbergen — Dutch whalers near Spitsbergen,” Stichting Rijksmuseum het Zuiderzeemuseum. 022296, Wikimedia Commons, accessed 16 September 2011.

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Antebellum America Runs on Dunkin’ by goosecommerce
September 9, 2011, 9:21 pm
Filed under: Archival Follies, Knowledge Droppings

Or, A Democratic Party Plank Worth Bringing Back

you moused over! good for you!

You may celebrate the Jacksononians for their commitment to democracy, or you may loathe them for their violent, heathenish, small government ways and fanatical campaign against of sensible currency regulation.

But whatever the case, I now offer you proof that must come together and appreciate their foresight in at least one area. For the Dems did get one thing right: America runs on Dunkin’! Or rather, cheap caffeine. Sweet cheap caffeine … And in the 1840s, that meant the cry of FREE COFFEE echoed throughout Congress’s halls alongside meeker requests for free soil and labor, etc.:

No person can deny that the Democrats came into power with professions against a tea and coffee tax; and it is equally undeniable that to the Democratic party is entitled the credit of keeping those articles free ever since the year 1832. Sir, this good old Democratic policy of keeping the foreign necessaries of life down as low as you can, has gained our party a great many votes; and both policy and justice require that we should not turn our backs upon it. Had Mr. Clay been for free tea and free coffee and Mr. Polk against it, who doubts but the election of 1844 would have differently resulted?

~John Wentworth, Free Tea, Free Coffee, Free Harbors, and Free Territory.: Remarks of Mr. John Wentworth, of Illinois, Delivered in the House of Representatives, February 2, 1847, Upon the Civil and Diplomatic Appropriation Bill, with His Personal Explanations, in Answer to the Attacks of the Washington Union. To Which Is Added a Portion of the Speech of His Colleague, (Mr. Douglass,) Touching the Course of the Union’s Reports Thereof (Washington, D.C.: Printed at the Office of Blair & Rives, 1847). Emphasis mine.

UPDATED:Turns out that coffee is still free! and tea nearly so (for some reason, only green tea imports are taxed, but then only at a very low 6.4% rate).

So it would seem that our current union still maintains some vestiges of the old, pure Democracy… or that modern governments are funded by income taxes rather than customs.

But definitely one of those, for sure.

Image: “Dunkin’ Donuts,” Steve Garfield /, Flickr, CC License

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How did knowledge drop in Early America? Part III by goosecommerce
August 9, 2009, 9:42 am
Filed under: Knowledge Droppings, Our Glorious National Heritage

Now a Regular Feature, Apparently


Some more evidence on how public documents generated by the nascent Federal State were spread around the new nation like so much fertile manure.

Exhibit A & A’

In August 1845, the State Department sent out a circular to the Presidents of “Colleges, Lyceums &c” informing them that “a box containing one set (17 volumes) of the Documents of the 1st session of the 28th Congress, and one volume of Nicolet’s Report, has been forwarded from this Department for you.”

Appended to the circular was a list of recipient institutions, by state. In New York, Union College, Hamilton College, Geneva College, Columbia College, and the New York Historical Society received copies; in Georgia, the University of Georgia and Georgia Historical Society garnered the same.

This pattern was repeated in each state; colleges and historical societies — and no other kind of institution, not even circulating libraries — got the goods.

A similar circular went out to “the Governors of all the States and Territories.” (The clerk did not feel the need to list all of these).

Exhibit B

In March 1843, when Anthony Halsey, corresponding secretary of the New York Mercantile Library Association, wrote to Daniel Webster, the Secretary of State, to ask the Department for “copies of Congressional Reports and other public documents for the past year,” Webster informed him that because “the distribution of the Congressional documents sent to this Department” was “regulated by law,” it was “not in my power to furnish the Mercantile Library Association with a Set.”

In explaining the reason for his request, Halsey noted that the MLA’s usual providers — congressmen — had neglected to donate these materials of late.

In Sum

It would appear that in the early 1840s, at least, “public” libraries were those held by colleges, historical societies, and state governments. There was a formal law (or laws) regulating free distribution of Congressional documents, etc. Libraries run by earnest and well-connected self-improvement types did not meet the standard set by this law.

More soon?

Previously: Part I, Part II


For circulars, roll 33, M40: Domestic Letters of the Department of State, 1784-1906, RG 59 (Washington: NARA, 1949);
On the mercantile library, roll 31, ibid. and roll 101, M179: Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, 1789-1906, RG 59 (Washington: NARA, 1963),/a>

Image cite: Walter Parenteau, “Sorted White Paper Pile,” Flicker, CC License

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How did knowledge drop in Early America? Part II by goosecommerce
July 26, 2009, 10:38 pm
Filed under: Knowledge Droppings, Our Glorious National Heritage

Because I know you were dying to find this out


Further reading in Cushing’s papers gives us some info at least approaching an answer to this query:

Dear Sir

I take an early opportunity to write to you on the subject of the Historical Society, agreeably to your obliging request. It was incorporated by the Legislature of this State, in the year 1809, when Clinton, Tompkins, Brockholst, Livingston, Bishop Moore, & other eminent men of that day, were among its active members. Its corporate name is, “The New York Historical Society.”

The Congressional Journals & Documents are regularly sent to the Society, but there are other publications to which we may be entitled – such as – the American State Papers, Diplomatic Correspondence, Gale & Seaton’s Debates, the Madison Papers, the Catalogue of the Library of Congress & of the State Department, &c.

I need not add, that should it be in your power to procure for our Library copies of any of these or other works published by Congress, you will confer a great obligation upon the Society.

The Library now contains about 12000 volumes, chiefly books of great value in connexion to the history of our country. Since my accession to the laborious office of Librarian, now nearly two years, more than a thousand volumes have been added, of which a great part have been donations; and it is my ambition to render it the most complete collection of books relating to America to be found in our country. …

~George Folsom to Caleb Cushing, New York, 11 Dec 1840, in Caleb Cushing Papers, Mss Division, Library of Congress

So: the New York Historical Society (or, as it affects itself to be now, the “New-York Historical Society“) was considered a “public” library eligible to recieve Congressional documents, though not by any means all government documents (hence the letter to Cushing).

Interesting. So “public” in the sense of being “public spirited” not, say, “open to the rabble,” like the later Carnegie-funded libraries would be. Now the next question is, how deep did this distribution go? Did libraries without the ambition to become the best collection of Americana also get government reports?

(Also: thanks to those who commented; I haven’t gotten a chance to do any secondary reading, but Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town is on my list)

More to come.

Image cite: marsi, “packing papers,” Flickr, CC License

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