American Elephants

Turning to My Favorite Author for Guidance by The Elephant's Child

I frequently say that Leftists don’t understand the free market — that’s why they are Leftists.

Kathy Shaidle remarked a while back: “None of this should surprise anyone. Contrary to what they tell you (and tell you and tell you) Progressives don’t have principles. Rather they have faddish opinions that are highly unstable and often contradictory.”

Here’s John Steele Gordon from An Empire of Wealth:

The willingness to accept present discomfort and risk for the hope of future riches that so characterized these immigrants and the millions who would follow over the next two centuries has had a profound and immeasurable effect on the history of the American economy. Just as those who saw no conflict between worshiping God and seeking earthly success in the seventeenth century, those who sought economic independence in the eighteenth had a powerful impact on the emerging American culture.

And this:

People with an economic advantage, however “unfair” that advantage may be, will always fight politicians as hard as they can to maintain it. Whether the advantage is the right to another person’s labor, or an unneeded tariff protection, or an exemption from taxation makes no difference. And because the advantage for the few is specific and considerable while the cost to the disadvantaged many is often hidden and small, the few regularly prevail over the many in such political contests.

and one more:

Masterpieces created by a committee are notably few in number, but the United States Constitution is certainly one of them. Amended only twenty-seven times in 215 years, it came into being just as the world was about to undergo the most profound – and continuing– period of economic change the human race has known. The locus of power in the American economy had shifted from sector to sector as that economy has developed. Whole sections of the country have risen and fallen in economic importance. New methods of doing business and economic institutions undreamed of by the Founding Fathers have come into existence in that time, while others have vanished. Fortunes beyond the imagination of anyone living in the pre-industrial world have been built and destroyed. And yet the Constitution endures and the country continues to flourish under it.

Slavery in America, and How it Happened. by The Elephant's Child

I am reading An Empire of Wealth by John Steele Gordon, and I am finding the book immensely rewarding.  It is history leavened by the economics that moved events, and I recommend it.

In Virginia, on July 30, 1619, the first representative assembly in America met in a church at Jamestown. Three weeks later, a Dutch ship sailed into the Chesapeake, the captain intent on selling his cargo of human beings to the planters who were desperate for laborers to work the expanding tobacco fields.  The men on board had come from Africa where they had been sold to the captain.

Yet, Gordon explains, they were not quite slaves. The planters purchased their indentures, not the men.  When they finished their term of servitude, they would be free, just as English indentured servants were.  Even later in the 1680s, indentured servants outnumbered slaves. An indentured servant cost about 15 pounds to purchase four years of his labor. A slave cost 25 to 30 pounds but was bound for life.  Gordon went on to make some important points:

It is hard for us, who are the beneficiaries of so much hindsight, to understand, but people in the seventeenth century did not regard slavery as a moral issue. It would be the middle of the eighteenth century before the idea that slavery was inherently and ineluctably immoral took hold.  Once born, that idea then spread very quickly throughout both Europe and America.  At least it did among the nonslaveholding parts of society, for economic self-interest is always a severe impediment to clear thinking on the moral and political aspects of an issue.

In the seventeenth century, when most people felt one’s “station in life” was determined by God, slavery was regarded as nothing more than a personal misfortune, not the abomination we see it as today.  Nor were slavery and race, at least at first, intertwined.  In the middle of the seventeenth century a black man named Anthony Johnson owned a 250 acre tobacco plantation on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and at least one slave.  He regarded himself, and indeed he was largely regarded by his neighbors as an equal.  He had no hesitation asking the court to enforce his rights when his slave ran away, and enforced they were.

But as the number of black slaves increased steadily both absolutely and as a percentage of the population, while tobacco began to be less profitable per unit of labor as the market reached saturation, attitudes changed.  Strictures on the activities of slaves, and of free blacks as well, increased as the fear of rebellion and the economic necessity to get more work out of the slaves increased.  By the beginning  of the eighteenth century blacks could not assemble in groups of more than four and needed written permission to leave their home plantations.  Patrols enforced the new strictures.  Discipline increased as well.  One “unhappy effect of owning many Negroes” planter William Byrd wrote, “is the necessity of being severe.  Numbers make them insolent, and then foul means must do what fair will not,”

“Racism,” Gordon added, “became a cancer in the body politic and would cost much blood and much treasure to excise.” Slavery became the answer to a chronic American economic problem — a shortage of labor.

Seems helpful to understand the accurate history of how it came about, though it doesn’t make it any more palatable. Perhaps we can forego dismissing all of the Founding Fathers because some of them owned slaves.

People forget that the Moslem nations of the Mediterranean conducted raids into Europe and England to capture slaves. Before the introduction of the full-rigged ship, ships were propelled by galley slaves, often of enemy nations.  American Indians owned slaves, and some tribes  like the Kwakiutl in the Northwest conducted large slaving raids down the Western Coast.

America Became A Great Power Through the Creation of Wealth by The Elephant's Child

Here’s the book to refute every notion of Obama’s Class Warfare theme — the true history of how America came to be a great power, and why: John Steele Gordon’s An Empire of Wealth:The Epic History of American Economic Power. As the blurb from Ron Chernow says; “In this grand scale synthesis charting the evolution of American enterprise, he manages to please, educate, and enlighten us on every page.” I recommend it highly, and can hardly put it down.

Two of the most significant technological developments in human history had brought the European medieval world to an end by the beginning of the sixteenth century and made the settlement of the New World possible. The printing press had greatly reduced the cost of books, and thus of knowledge. In the mid-fifteenth century there had been only about fifty thousand books in all of Europe, m ost of them controlled by the Church, which ran the universities. By the end of the century there were more than ten million books in Europe, on an endless variety of subjects, many of them technical and agricultural. They were largely in the hands of the burgeoning merchant class and the landed aristocracy. The Church’s monopoly of knowledge was broken and, soon, so was its monopoly or religion, as the Protestant Reformation swept over much of northern Europe in the early sixteenth century, setting off more than a century of warfare as a result.

The other great invention of the late Middle Ages was the full-rigged ship, capable of making long ocean passages. As late as 1400, European ships were mostly small and single-masted, not very different from those that had been used by William the Conqueror almost four hundred years earlier to cross the channel to England. But by 1450, far larger ships with three and sometimes four masts had appeared, and they were pushing out the boundaries of the world known to Europeans.

They had need to. In 1453 the Turks had taken Constantinople, the ancient capital of the eastern Roman empire. A Muslim power now sat athwart the trade routes to the East,m extracting taxes on all goods that passed. More, the Turks were expanding into Europe itself, and by the middle of the sixteenth century would be at the very gates of Vienna. Christendom felt itself under attack as it had not since the Dark Ages a thousand years earlier.

And the full-rigged ship meant the Europeans could reach India and the Spice Islands, then Columbus, the New World, and eventually — us. Mr Gordon traces the spreading effects of new technologies and how new economics — like the invention of double-entry bookkeeping and the joint-stock company — changed the world of commerce, which in turn initiated other changes.

The book is fascinating and exciting and flows into the history of how America’s power and dynamism came to be. This is a wonderful time to be reading this book, published in 2004 before the notion of “fundamentally transforming America” was inflicted on an unsuspecting country.

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