Monday, February 25, 2013

The Legend of General Braddock’s Lost Treasure

In 1755 war raged across the American frontier. The English colonies were locked in a death grip with the French and their Indian allies. In February, 1755, English General Edward Braddock landed at the port of Alexandria, Virginia with orders to march on the French Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) and destroy the main French army.

Braddock’s troubles started almost immediately. He could never get used to the terrain and distances of America. Heavy rains from April to June made the land between Alexandria and the fur trading town of Winchester a sea of mud. He began building a road westward. The pace was agonizingly slow. The heat and mud slowed the army at every step. Especially troublesome was the artillery that Braddock had brought from England (four howitzers, four 12-pounders, and four six pounders).

By the ninth day of the march, Braddock’s army had only traveled twenty seven miles to the village of Newgate (renamed Centreville in 1798). Here he turned northward, but the cannons and wagons became hopelessly mired in mud and clay.

In an act of desperation, Braddock took aside a small group of soldiers and buried two of the brass six pounders. The cannons were buried pointing skyward. Dismissing all but a few trusted officers, Braddock poured $30,000 in gold coins, money to be used to pay the troops, into the open ends of the cannons. The mouths of the cannons were then sealed with wooden plugs.

The General carefully noted the location of the treasure, “50 paces east of the spring where the road runs north and south.” The road of which he spoke is now called “Braddock Road”, where the road runs north to intersect U.S. Rt. 29-211 in Centreville, Virginia.

Braddock marched on to disaster in Western Pennsylvania. Ambushed in the thick forests, the red-coated British were easy targets for the concealed French and Indians. Braddock and the trusted officers who had witnessed the burying of the treasure were killed in battle.

Braddock’s papers were sent to England. Years later an archivist found the account of the buried gold located in Virginia. A special committee was dispatched to search for the gold, but returned to England empty handed. So, to this day, two brass cannons filled with gold are said to lie beneath the soil of Virginia.

Gold, Murder and Monsters in the Superstition Mountains
Arizona’s Superstition Mountains are mysterious, forbidding, and dangerous.  The Superstitions are said to have claimed over five hundred lives.  What were these people looking for?  Is it possible that these mountains hide a vast treasure?  

Friday, February 22, 2013

Divorce in Victorian Times

Horace Greeley

Laws concerning divorce varied widely among the states throughout much of American history. In New England, where the Puritans had defined marriage as a civil contract rather than a religious sacrament, secular law had provided for divorce as early as the 17th century. Like any other contract, the marriage bond could be broken when either of the contracting parties failed to meet the obligations it imposed. Adultery, impotence, desertion, or conviction for serious crimes, were all grounds for divorce. Additionally, wives could obtain a divorce on the grounds of non-support.

In most states in the early 19th century, an act of the legislature was required to end a marriage. As the century progressed divorce laws became more liberal. During the 1850s, Indiana was widely condemned for its liberal ways. A couple in Indiana could obtain a divorce on any grounds that a judge ruled “proper”. Indiana judges were far more permissive than the New York City judge who in 1861 refused to grant a divorce to a wife whose husband had beaten her unconscious in an argument over letting the family dog sleep on the bed. The judge advised the woman that “one or two acts of cruel treatment” were not proper grounds for divorce. Indiana’s liberal stance on divorce attracted a flood of applicants from other states. The influential newspaper editor and future presidential nominee, Horace Greeley denounced Indiana as “the paradise of free-lovers” whose example would soon lead to “a general profligacy and corruption such as this country has never known.”

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Free Love in Victorian Times

Victoria Woodhull
"High priestess of Free Love"

In the state of New York, the Oneida Community, founded in 1848, described marriage as, “contrary to natural liberty....a cruel and oppressive method of uniting the sexes.” This group practiced a form of community marriage where each woman was married to every man and each man to every woman. The Oneida Community “[rejects] conventional marriage both as a form of legalism from which Christians should be free and as a selfish institution in which men exerted rights of ownership over women”. The movement’s founder, John Humphrey Noyes coined the term “free love” and found scriptural justification for the concept: “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30). The Oneida Community lived together as a single large group and shared parental responsibilities.

The concept of “free love” blossomed outside of the Oneida Community. Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president (1872), was called “the high priestess of free love”. In 1871, Woodhull wrote:

“Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere. And I have the further right to demand a free and unrestricted exercise of that right, and it is your duty not only to accord it, but, as a community, to see that I am protected in it. I trust that I am fully understood, for I mean just that, and nothing less!”

Woodhull received fewer than sixteen thousand votes nationwide. Most Americans rejected alternative forms of marriage and pressured young people to marry conventionally. A man's credit rating depended in part on whether or not he was conventionally married and had children.

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Monday, February 18, 2013

The Social Purity Movement and Family Planning

By the 1870s, couples in all classes were choosing to limit and plan family size “by a variety of methods within a culture of abstinence”. “Considerate” husbands, who did not insist on intercourse, were admired, not least because of the high mortality rate among pregnant women. It was perhaps a good thing that husbands had decided to privately abstain from sex, since by the mid 1870’s the United States government had invaded every bedroom in the nation. In the 1870’s a “social purity movement”, spurred on by evangelical Protestant moral reformers launched a crusade against vice, including contraception, which was considered to “lead to lewd, immoral behavior and promote promiscuity”. It is not surprising that such a movement arose. The industrialization that swept America during and after the Civil War ushered in morality problems such as widespread prostitution. As urbanization flourished so did prostitution. The majority of prostitutes were young, illiterate, and poor. Higher wages for less work appealed to many young women. With little in the way of birth control, frequent pregnancies occurred among prostitutes. Since being pregnant would put them out of work, abortion became the alternative for the tens of thousands of prostitutes in America’s teeming cities. The moral laxness sweeping much of America began to impact public opinion. Social purity advocates proclaimed, “Social crimes like infanticide, that were once placed on the same level as murder, are now not only looked upon with complacency... but are defended on principle by certain theorists.”

The social purity movement successfully pressured Congress into passing the Comstock Act (named after the movement’s leader Anthony Comstock) in 1873. The Comstock Act was a federal law which, among other things, prohibited mailing, “any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion”, as well as any form of contraceptive information. Twenty four states passed similar state laws (collectively known as the Comstock Laws), sometimes extending the federal law by outlawing the use of contraceptives, as well as their distribution. The most restrictive state laws of all were in Connecticut. Married couples could be arrested for using birth control in the privacy of their own bedrooms, and subjected to a one-year prison sentence. As late as 1960, thirty states had statutes on the books (inspired by the Comstock Laws) prohibiting or restricting the sale and advertisement of contraceptive devices.

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Thursday, February 07, 2013

Flowers in the Dustbin by James Miller (Book Review)

This book raises the question of the relationship of rock and roll to American values. Does it represent the zenith or the nadir of American culture? Miller tends to portray rock and roll as “all about disorder, aggression, and sex: a fantasy of human nature running wild to a savage beat.” (Miller, 88) Miller contends that what was unruly was not rock and roll as a cultural form, but rather the central fantasy it was exploiting. . .the fantasy of renouncing the pleasures of the mind for the pleasures of the body. (Miller, 336, 51) In the nineteenth century technology exalted human reason, but by the end of the twentieth century technologies had become so complex and inhuman that they made a mockery of the individual. The creation of the atomic bomb made technology terrifying without being uplifting. Miller hypothesizes that rock and roll represented a youth movement impulse to seek “redemption through Dionysian revelry.” (Miller, 354)

Miller’s view could be accused of lacking historical perspective. One could argue that rock and roll, with its anti-establishment impulses, represents nothing more than the most recent example of the long debate over the nature of freedom in America. For example, Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne and other nineteenth century writers perceived “the opposing forces of civilization and nature” in American culture. One of the traditional exemplars of American freedom has always been the rugged individual on the fringes of society (e.g. the lone hunter of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, Natty Bumpo) who finds fulfillment in the wilderness free from any compulsion exercised by a superior authority. The wilderness allowed the individual to “step out of ordinary time and into the sacred time of an eternal present.” In this view, man finds highest freedom as he steps “out of historical time into the eternal now” (David Nye, American Technological Sublime,25). This sounds very much like the drug culture of the 1960s that was bent on changing American life and creating a new way of being through drugs and “psychedelic music that expands your consciousness.” The rugged individual reappears in a new guise, as a psychedelic musician, but continues to reflect Jean Jacques Rousseau’s notion of the “noble savage”, finding freedom in a state of nature, uncorrupted by society.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

At America’s Gates by Erika Lee (Book Review)

Lee’s central argument is that the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 set America on the path to becoming a “gate keeping” nation. The Chinese Exclusion act, and its implementation, set the future pattern for the treatment of many other immigrants to America. Immigrant identification papers, border patrols, internal surveillance and harassment, and deportation were all administrative devices created by the Government in response to Chinese immigration (Lee, 42). Lee argues that America’s view of immigrants is ambivalent, and that although we are a nation of immigrants we are also a gate keeping nation. This ambivalent attitude shaped and continues to shape American immigration policy (Lee, 251).

Lee points out that admission and exclusion define national identity (Lee, 22). So then why do nations admit or exclude immigrant populations? One should first look to economic, political and social relationships for the answer. How fast can a nation safely assimilate an immigrant population without causing economic, political or social disorder? The pragmatic power relationships of a given time will determine how far “the gate” is opened to immigrants. The need for cheap labor in the nineteenth century allowed the door to swing open.

The Chinese came to America for economic gain, most with the intention of returning to China. In some ways this resembles a reverse form of economic imperialism. Just as the western powers went to China (and elsewhere) for quick profits and an improved standard of living for the mother country, so did the Chinese “fortune hunters”, come to the “Golden Mountain” (the United States), in search of quick profits. According to Lee, Chinese sojourning in America was, “...a strategy to preserve or increase wealth and to accumulate lands in the homeland....” (Lee, 122).

In an era before the establishment of a minimum wage or social safety nets, American workers rightly feared an influx of cheap foreign labor. Although it is unfair to criticize Lee for the book “she did not write”, a history of immigration would be more informative if it presented a more balanced view of the fears and concerns of those who opposed immigration and how and why these views changed as power relationships and pragmatic imperatives changed (e.g. the triumph of unionism).

As a study in inter-group power relationships Lee’s book is fascinating. The Chinese immigrants had little political power and were racially and culturally stigmatized. Despite these handicaps, as a group the Chinese were very resilient in the face of the organized discrimination of the state and the dominant society. Using a form of passive resistance (e.g. learning the loopholes in the laws, entry via Mexico and Canada) the Chinese continued to evade immigration laws. The tactics of the Chinese community is an interesting example of the “agency” of disempowered groups and the “tools of the weak.”

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