“Kidnap” came from 17th-century abductors of the Virginia Company

A boatload of prospective wives arrives at Jamestown.

Now that school is starting up again, it’s time for children across America to return to claiming to read books. Of course, it’s vitally important that no person—child or adult—read a book for real, lest they become a nerd. Yet knowing things continues to have value. The trick is to get other people to read books and then explain the good parts to you. In this way did I learn an amazing fact from Slate’s Osita Nwanevu via Twitter, about the origins of the word “kidnap.” Nwanevu is reading The American Slave Coast by Ned and Constance Sublette, from which he excerpts this passage:

When the new “partners” of the Virginia Company arrived in America, they found to their dismay that they were conscripts, coerced into gang labor under martial law. Everything they produced was to belong to the company, so they had no incentive to work. Half or more of them died shortly after arrival. As word got out that Virginia was a death trap, agents, popularly known as “spirits,” went combing the street for potential indentured servants for the colony—a process that included abducting children, bringing the phrase “spirited away” into popular usage, as well as the word “kidnap.”

Now there’s a robust argument for privatization. Never forget that the United States began as a for-profit venture, and that for the first couple of centuries, more Americans were descended from abductees than from yeoman farmers. Also, the period the Sublettes describe roughly coincided with the writing of Shakespeare’s last plays.

If you want to understand early American history, the thing to remember is that it was the English Renaissance without the learning. The urban poor who composed the bulk of early colonial immigration were not much more than medieval. Particularly in the Chesapeake Bay area, where the Company emphasized profit above all else, they were woefully unsuited to life in a rural environment. The first rounds of settlers failed to plant crops or otherwise provide for the coming winter, in many cases just wandering off into the woods to search for gold.

In Jamestown, the death rate during the winter of 1607—known as the “starving time”—reached 68 percent. Better planning and a continual influx of willing immigrants, abducted English, European servants and African slaves kept the Chesapeake Bay colonies going for the next three decades, but the mortality rate hovered around 28 percent. Virginia was an investment for the Company and an abattoir for almost everyone else. Even as the introduction of tobacco farming gave the colony a sustainable economy and, eventually, a modicum of decent living, the distinction between rich and poor shaped everything.

Consider Bacon’s Rebellion. By 1676, Jamestown had a robust tobacco industry that continually moved settlement west. Tobacco quickly depletes the soil, and this depletion combined with increasing land prices near the coast to push newly freed members of Virginia’s growing servant class into Indian territory. Westward expansion led to conflict with the Doeg, causing poor planters along the frontier to complain that governor William Berkeley wasn’t doing enough to protect them. Led by Berkeley’s rival Nathaniel Bacon, several hundred of these frontiersmen took up arms against the colonial government, driving Berkeley from Jamestown and burning the capitol.

Historians cite Bacon’s Rebellion as a turning point in America’s development as a slave society. Realizing that their reliance on indentured servants kept renewing the class of disenfranchised whites, the wealthy landowners of Chesapeake Bay turned to slaves, who offered the same benefits but never had to be freed. The creation of a new caste of Virginian below the white indentured servant also replaced class conflict with race conflict. Poor farmers and laborers who saw the governing class of Virginia as their enemies now saw them as their fellow whites. The shift from indentured servitude to slave labor was a deliberate effort by the ruling class of Chesapeake Bay to reduce political instability.

Anyway, the colonists came to America looking for freedom, which didn’t exist in England, and were helped by friendly Indians, who definitely taught them to plant crops and love nature instead of groping for gold in the woods until they cannibalized one another to survive. The middle-school version of colonial history is not accurate, but it’s easy to remember. The other, more complete version is useful to remember when you hear some Tea Party type appeal to constitutional values and the spirit of early American “patriots,” whose loyalty to country more strongly resembled a psychotic commitment to profit during for the first couple centuries. The old way worked, in the sense that here we are today, but it was not anything a modern person would call good. The colonies we imagine we remember are mostly an Eden: useful as a metaphor for our failure to live up to our present ideals, but not something that actually existed.

Why is there a Confederate monument in Helena, Montana?

The Confederate Memorial Fountain in Helena—photo by Thom Bridge

The state of Montana did not participate in the US civil war. Montana didn’t become a state until decades later, in 1889, and even then it was about as far north of the Mason-Dixon line as states get. Although somebody in the Montana territory probably traveled south to fight on the side of the Confederacy, the war is only a part of this region’s history indirectly, in the same way as, say, the Boston Tea Party. There’s no statue of Sam Adams in Helena. Yet there is a memorial to Confederate soldiers, given to the city by The Daughters of the Confederacy in 1915.

In a letter to city commissioners, eight members of the state legislature’s American Indian Caucus recently asked that the fountain be removed. Helena Mayor Jim Smith opposes this idea. In his own letter, reported by Holly Michels in the Helena Independent-Record, he writes, “Fundamentally, I believe we ought to be very careful before we start obliterating history. That is what totalitarian regimes do.”

Let’s talk about what constitutes history, then. The notion that statues and fountains somehow stand between us and the “obliteration” of history is fatuous. I defy you to show me someone who only knows about the Civil War from a statue. And what information about history does the fountain in Hill Park convey? If you did not know anything about the past, all this monument would tell you is that there once existed a group called The Daughters of the Confederacy, and it dedicated a fountain in 1915.

That fountain is less a piece of history than a monument to one group’s understanding of it. The distinction is  important. The D of the C built this monument 50 years after the Civil War ended. That’s an astonishingly short time, like erecting a monument to the Wehrmacht in Paris in 1995. But it is still two generations after the Confederacy ceased to exist, and the fountain cannot meaningfully be called a relic of Civil War history. Instead, it is a monument to the City of Helena’s endorsement of the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1915.

That moment is also part of history, but it is not important in the same way as the Civil War. I don’t think anyone considers it a significant part of the story of Helena. It has purely symbolic importance, and what it symbolizes—then and now—is not something the city should support, even if only by inaction.

The Daughters of the Confederacy was founded to sponsor burials of Confederate veterans, erect monuments to them, and influence schools to teach Civil War history in ways that reflected favorably on the South. Its membership increased dramatically during the first two decades of the 20th century, going from 17,000 in 1900 to almost 100,000 by the outbreak of World War I. The fountain in Hill Park reflects the height of the Daughters’ influence. It also reflects a sympathy to their cause completely divorced from history.

Again, Montana played no part in the Civil War. If it had existed as a state, it would have almost certainly fought for the North. It had no historical ties to the Confederacy, in 1863 or in 1915. The fountain therefore suggests an affinity for some other aspect of the Daughters’ mission. It is hard to say what that could be other than white supremacy.

Many historians, including Princeton professor and Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson, consider the Daughters of the Confederacy a stalking horse for white supremacy. It’s not inconceivable that some of the Daughters are lineal descendants of Confederates who only want to memorialize their ancestors, but that argument breaks down in Montana. The further we get, geographically and chronologically, from the Confederacy itself, the more structures like this fountain become monuments to the idea and not the history.

That idea is repugnant. Confederate soldiers fought a war of treason against the United States in defense of slavery. There are a lot of good reasons to study that war and remember it, to literally memorialize the history. But there are only two reasons to memorialize the ideas: either you like the notion of exploiting and disenfranchising black people by force, or you like the notion of betraying the United States and killing its citizens.

There is a third reason, of course: you recognize that Confederate monuments have some vague appeal to disgruntled white people, and you’re pandering. I hope that’s what Mayor Smith is up to. I would hate to think he is a slavemonger or seditionist. He has probably just performed the same calculus the city fathers did in 1915. Most of Helena is white, and saying yes to some cracker nonsense will alienate fewer voters than saying no. The next step in this process, probably, is to prove him wrong.

Buzzkill chief of staff fires the Mooch

And I’ll need you out of the condo by the end of the month. Your mother and I have decided to rent it.

When Reince Priebus got fired last week for his role in the Bannon autofellatio scandal, he narrowly escaped becoming the shortest-serving White House chief of staff in history. That honor goes to James Baker, who left his position as Secretary of State to become George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff in August 1992. But Baker is a legend. He was Reagan’s boy in the eighties and came out of retirement because he was the best to ever do it. Priebus had the shortest tenure of any chief of staff who started at the beginning of a president’s term, when it could have gone so well. If only, he thought, screwing his magic monocle into his eye, we lived in a world where someone got fired even faster than me. And before you can say “spice rebus,” Anthony Scaramucci gets cut from his role as White House communications director.

That mischievous imp! The workings of fifth-dimensional magic are the only force I can think of powerful enough to dislodge the Mooch from his position as communications director. The only other possibility—the one thing I can think of, besides the machinations of an imp, that would account for all this—is that he directly communicated with the New Yorker about what stupid pussies his colleagues were. But that’s it. Those are the only two reasons I can think of.

Regardless, Scaramucci made it just 10 days in the West Wing before he started telling people to, if not literally go fuck themselves, at least listen to his descriptions of others doing that. The job makes people crazy. Either that or the multimillionaire founder of Skybridge Capital and personal friend of the president relished this opportunity to get up there for a week and tell it like it is, and he never thought of himself as other than temporary. History will have to wonder. In related news, the new White House communications director will be the first person to shout “Howard Stern’s penis” into the briefing room microphone.

High school student disputes scholar’s denial of “no Irish need apply”

"The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things" by Thomas Nast, 1871

“The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things” by Thomas Nast, 1871

Patrick Young, Esq. is one of several to report that a high school student has disproven University of Illinois professor’s Richard Jensen’s claim that signs reading “no Irish need apply” were a historical myth. Originally published in the Journal of Social History in December 2002, Jensen’s “‘No Irish Need Apply’: A Myth of Victimization” argues that the signs forbidding employment to Irish immigrants in the 19th century were “an enhancement of political solidarity against a hostile Other; and a way to insulate a preindustrial non-individualistic group-oriented work culture from the individualism rampant in American culture.” That’s kind of a bigoted thesis, bro. Unfortunately, Rebecca Fried’s article—which is extremely commendable and impressive for a high school student—doesn’t seem to disprove it.

Continue reading

South Carolina senate votes to take down Confederate flag, 30 or 40 cold beers

The South Carolina State House

The South Carolina Statehouse

In the third of three required votes, the state senate of South Carolina has decided 36-3 to take down the Confederate battle flag and one or two cases of cold beer. The three votes against came from Senate Majority Leader Harvey S. Peeler, Jr., Lee Bright, and Daniel B. Verdin III, with Deke the smell-hound abstaining. Senator Verdin called for a Confederate memorial holiday on which the flag could be flown, and Senator Peeler complained that “we won’t change history by removing the flag.” Senator Bright, on the other hand, felt that the problem with taking down the Confederate flag was that it would not stop gay marriage:

“This nation was founded on Judeo-Christain principles and they are under assault by men in black robes who are not elected by you…What I would like to see is these folks that are working in the positions that are doing …marriage certificates do not have to betray their faith or compromise their faith and in order to subject [themselves] to the tyranny of five… Our governor called us in to deal with the flag that sits out front. Let’s deal with the national sin that we face today. We talk about abortion, but this gay marriage thing I believe we will be one nation gone under, like President Reagan said.”

The senator’s speech concluded when the firecracker he was holding went off.

Continue reading