The Privateers of Black Rock Harbor

On Wednesday, May 30 I’ll be giving a presentation at the Fairfield Museum and History Center on the privateers that sailed in and out of Black Rock Harbor.

There’s a fine line between a pirate and a privateer — and it’s as thin as a piece of paper issued by the government. Come hear how such Fairfield luminaries as Thaddeus Burr, Samuel Smedley, and Caleb Brewster as well as many other “gentlemen of fortune” banded together to attack the British on the high seas during the Revolutionary War.

I’ll talk about the differences between privateers, pirates, and traditional navies; how the booty from captured ships was divided not only between the owners and the crew but between the officers and sailors themselves (a scheme that relates back to the Golden Age of Piracy); and how many of the privateers in Black Rock didn’t sail aboard large ships but rather hunted in wolf packs of armed whaleboats.

The lunchtime presentation starts at 12:30pm. Full details here.

Remember That Thing I Wrote

Woman pouring alcohol from a cane into her Coca-Cola.
Library of Congress, 1922

Here’s a blast from the past: I just learned the entry I wrote on the Prohibition of Alcohol for the Cato Institute’s Encyclopedia of Libertarianism was put online last summer. Way back in 2008, I was asked to contribute a thousand words on the subject as a result of an article I had written in Reason on Prohibition in and around New York City, but until now the Encyclopedia was only available in very expensive print.

America’s discomfort with alcohol developed in the mid-19th century. Previously, alcoholic beverages were an established facet of American society: George Washington operated a whiskey distillery, Thomas Jefferson dabbled in viticulture, and Samuel Adams had his brewery. Hard cider and rum enjoyed mass appeal, and rum was a common barter item in the cash-strapped New World. Even religiously rigid groups such as the Puritans and the Quakers stressed moderation rather than abstinence.

Not long after the book was published, I read a review of it on a libertarian website which spent a disproportionate amount of pixels criticizing my entry. The issue lay in my very different interpretation of how Prohibition’s repeal came about in 1933. The standard libertarian narrative states that repeal occurred once politicians realized they stood to make more money by taxing alcohol rather than banning it, and therefore as rational actors they responded to market incentives and re-legalized booze, albeit under heavy regulatory control.

It’s true there were some politicians at the time who justified repeal to their constituents with such logic, but the real story is a lot more messy and, frankly, human. While in the beginning Prohibition was popular among certain groups of Americans, opinion had turned against it by the end of the 1920s, mainly because of its association with crime and violence. Arguably the biggest turning point was the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of seven gangsters in Chicago, which seems quaint considering how habituated we are today to an endless stream of violence, imprisonments, and overdoses in the name of the War on Drugs.

By 1932 — an election year — politicians had jumped upon the issue, which (if you read my entry) ranked higher in people’s minds than the economic crisis. At the Republican convention, Herbert Hoover, who was a staunch temperance man, refused to buckle to overwhelming public pressure for all-out repeal, so as a compromise the Republicans chose a “moist” platform, which called for the legalization of beer and wine but a continued prohibition of hard spirits. Like most compromises, this satisfied no one; the American public wanted full repeal while the Anti-Saloon League and their acolytes wanted to stay the course.

The Democratic convention followed afterwards. Seizing the opportunity, Democrats voted on a full repeal platform, and a group of them opposed to presidential contender Al Smith (who was Catholic and had enemies within the party) offered the nomination to Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. on the condition that he switch his stance from dry to wet. FDR was never one to let personal principles interfere with his ambition and flipped on the spot. Of course, he won the 1932 election, and before the end of his first year in office, the 21st Amendment had been ratified by the necessary 36 states.

I learned long ago to ignore that certain stripe of economist-slash-libertarian who assumes people are automatons single-mindedly programmed to chase dollar bills. My experience in anthropology and history has taught me that while, yes, humans are generally rational, the internal code that dictates that rationality is often a mix of fear, love, sex, vengeance, and a whole host of emotions beyond a simple appetite for monetary advantage. A man who pushes his child out of the path of a runaway car is not motivated by his economic desire to avoid hospital bills.

Anyway, I’m glad to see my entry finally made available to the wider world, even if its dated style has far too many thuses and therefores. Weren’t we just talking about writers being embarrassed by older work?

As American as Apfelkuchen

Immigrants aboard an Atlantic liner, 1906, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62–11202

Somewhere along the roller coaster of Super Bowl LI as the New England Patriots dug themselves out of a 25-point hole to win Tom Brady his thumb ring, Budweiser ran a one-minute commercial that reawakened a dormant resentment.

The commercial, with its fairly high production values, depicts a coming-to-America narrative of a young German immigrant circa 1850. His ship encounters a storm, knocking him from his bunk, which leads to stitches for a scalp wound. After having his entry papers stamped, he’s shoved on the street by nativists and told to go back home. His paddle wheeler burns and he’s forced to abandon ship, finally arriving cold and wet on the muddy banks of St. Louis. In a saloon, a stranger named Anheuser kindly buys him a beer, and our hero introduces himself as Adolphus Busch. Cut to the company logo.

The resulting #BoycottBudweiser movement went flat less than 24 hours after the bottle was opened but in the meantime, infuriated viewers — doubtlessly more than a six-pack into the evening — fired off angry tweets about Muslims, illegal immigrants, and keeping America safe, all the while disregarding the images before their bloodshot eyes that Busch was (a) very probably not-at-all Muslim, (b) entered the US legally with his paperwork in order, and (c) had designs no more sinister than brewing a low-APV lager. But such is 2017, wherein Americans are assumed to have appeared on the continent spontaneously like mice from dirty laundry and an immigrant’s story, once a plaque of honor showcased on the wall of the American Dream, is now dismissed as agenda-driven propaganda.

More than 300 years after William Penn organized a group of German “atheists” to emigrate to his colony (German law only recognized Catholics and Lutherans, and Penn recruited Quakers, Mennonites, and others), it seems German immigration still raises hackles in America, even though 49 million identified as having German ancestry in the 2013 census — more than 15 percent of the nation and the largest ancestry group tabulated.

One would imagine a story like Busch’s would suggest that twenty, fifty, or a hundred years from now a president surnamed Rodriguez or Gupta or Farooq will be no less strange than one named Eisenhower; and that whatever concerns one might have about the assimilation of Hispanics and Muslims into American culture would disappear like a sauerkraut-topped hot dog eaten under a Christmas tree. But the animosity that erupted, however briefly, on February 5 toward a German immigrant story is emblematic of an American nativism once believed as extinct as a Know-Nothing but actually resurgent in the 21st century.

We may assume prejudice is always founded upon visible and obvious distinctions. Yet the English — and, in turn, their heirs among colonial America and the United States — have never needed much excuse to look down their noses at other cultures. In a 1753 letter, Benjamin Franklin complained about German immigrants that, “Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation,” before tallying a menu of deficiencies.

At the battle of Shiloh, the Confederate Henry Stanley (yes, that Stanley, of Livingstone fame) was outraged that Germanic Federal soldiers had the audacity to capture him, saying, “They were apparently new troops, from such back-lands as were favoured by German immigrants; and, though of sturdy build, another such mass of savagery and stupidity could not have been found within the four corners of North America.”[1] That he felt free to write such in a memoir published in 1909 suggests sympathetic rancor still existed in the breasts of at least some of his readers a half-century later.

The Native American Party, which eventually morphed into the American Party or the “Know-Nothings” due to the semi-secretive nature of their proceedings, held their first convention in 1845. Their Declaration of Principles celebrating nativism is a scratchy wax cylinder looped endlessly during a Certain Somebody’s 2016 campaign:

  • “The almshouses of Europe are emptied upon our coast.”
  • “[T]he lives of our citizens have been attempted in the streets of our capital cities by madmen just liberated from European hospitals.”
  • “[T]he punishment of crimes has been commuted for banishment to the land of the free; and criminals in irons have crossed the ocean to be cast loose upon society on their arrival upon our shores.”

Immigration was fine and dandy in the days of Georgie W. and Tommy J., said the Know-Nothings, but now times and the types of immigrants are different. Foreigners didn’t assimilate, or if they did, they usurped and warped supposedly pristine republican processes by lobbying for their interests (e.g., New York’s Tammany Society). Democracy itself and “the civil institutions of the United States of America” stood “in imminent peril.”

Immigrants at Ellis Island, circa 1907–1917, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62–26543

To be fair, contemporary worries about non-assimilation and even German separatism were not fabricated whole cloth. In the 1830s groups like the Giessen Society and New York’s Germania Society dreamed of establishing miniature Deutschlands in Texas and the wide-open west. Some of these were to be founded on the same republican principles that had booted many exiles from the Old Country in the first place; some were socialist utopianism; and still others were intended to duplicate feudal caste systems. None of the schemes amounted to much, foundering as they did upon the apathy of a population more interested in homesteading than nation-building.

In the late 1800s, German-Americans circled the wagons around their language with newspapers and preservation groups, a phenomenon to be expected among older generations anxious by fading traditions (like jellyfish, Old World languages don’t last long on American shores — today only about 40 percent of third-generation Hispanics speak Spanish and even fewer can read it).

Even so, the physical manifestation of German settlers’ support networks into towns and communities ratcheted up xenophobia among native born. In an 1849 speech, a Kentucky congressman complained about German enclaves “living in isolation; speaking a strange language, having alien manners, habits, opinions, and religious faiths, and a total ignorance of our political institutions; all handed down with German phlegm and inflexibility.” He suggested instead they emigrate to South America where they could “aid in bringing up the slothful and degenerate Spanish race; here their deplorable office is to pull us down.”[2]

As the temperance movement gained speed during the 19th century, it became increasingly unclear whether ethnic Americans were targeted for their drinking habits or whether prohibition was a way to target ethnics. German beer gardens and saloons were the suns of orbiting ethic working-class identity — part bar, part function hall, part clubhouse, and all community center. The same could be said for Irish, Italian, Jewish, and every other stripe of immigrant establishment. Through prohibition, reformers sought to dissolve ethnic identity by throwing bleach on what they saw as dirty and foreign.

German-Americans were fond of the “Continental Sunday,” that is, church services in the morning followed by an afternoon of foamy steins at a biergarten submerged in gemütlichkeit and oompah music. In 1855, the Know-Nothing mayor of Chicago, disgusted by all the brewskis and tubas around him, closed the city’s beer halls on Sundays, resulting in the Lager Beer Riot. By the First World War, the Anti-Saloon League used anti-German hysteria to curtail beer manufacture by lobbying for the Food and Fuel Control Act, which prohibited the use of grain for distillation and gave the President control of beer and wine production. It was essentially a test run for Prohibition.

The revelation that some American brewers had been funding the National German-American Alliance, a civic group, which in turn had bought a pro-Kaiser newspaper, knotted the association between Germanic culture and sedition in John Q. Public’s mind. “Everything in this country that is pro-German is anti-American,” read one League pamphlet.[3] Businesses with “German” in their name rechristened themselves, Germanophonic newspapers declined, and those who spoke both Deutsch and Englisch became strictly monolingual in public. The WASPs were allowed to keep their country clubs and Methodist meeting halls while ethnics were supposed to retreat inside their homes, stare at the walls, and be silent.

There was another reason why many Americans disliked German immigrants, one that is subtly referenced in the Budweiser commercial when young Adolphus Busch is standing at the rail of the paddle boat, dreaming his sudsy daydreams, and smiles at a black passenger. German immigrants, for whatever reason — religion, politics — were hardcore abolitionists. Those German Quakers of William Penn’s? In 1688 they issued the first recorded protest against slavery in North America, and eventually guilt-tripped their English coreligionists — who were ambivalent about the slave trade — into embracing abolitionism wholesale. Anti-slavery views became synonymous with German identity; one traveler to antebellum Texas reported never meeting a single slave-owning German. During the Civil War, German-Americans disproportionally volunteered for Northern service — although for some it was simply because they needed a job after rolling off the boat.

The Atlantic Garden, a beer garden in NYC’s East Village, 1871, New York Public Library

A question sometimes asked in the scholarship of American-German history revolves around the so-called “spiritual drain” the many waves of immigration may have had on Germany. “The Nazi assumption of power might not have been possible if so many of the ‘good’ Germans had not fled in revolt against Prussian authoritarianism, against the militarism and nationalism which began rising in Germany during the middle of the nineteenth century,” wrote historian Richard O’Connor.[4] We can leave that answer to Man in the High Castle fanfic. Yet according to The Economist, German-American households have incomes above the national median, are more likely to be college graduates, and less likely to be jobless. This certainly has less to do with wizard magic in the blood than it does with a strong ethic and tradition passed through the generations, parent to child, beginning with those first immigrants. If one possesses the mindset to do a foreign country some harm — as many modern nativists seem to have — might not a strategy of “spiritual drain” be attractive? Suppose for a minute that if we took all the Syrian doctors and Iraqi professors and anyone else who has the gumption and wherewithal to show up here, PhD or otherwise, wouldn’t that be to our advantage and to the old country’s detriment?

The fickleness of the mob can turn on 10 pfennigs, and as #BoycottBudweiser proved, the old prejudice against Germans is still a warm ember that can be used to light fires against other groups today. Nativists will cherry-pick facts and deploy statistics but ultimately theirs is an emotional, even hysterical, ideology: if a beer commercial about white immigration unhinges you, then no amount of reason will soothe your terror of the brown hordes.

The German philosopher Carl Schmitt (and BTW *cough cough* a Nazi) believed that the political identity of a group coalesces around what its members believe is normal and right; and what is normal and right to them is itself defined in opposition to the customs and morals of another group. By defining their identity as a denial of their own immigrant roots — or at least by crowning their genealogies with white Stetsons — modern nativists defend themselves from every criticism: to point out deficiencies in their beliefs or toward history for counter-arguments is, on a certain level, to attack their very identity, which is almost always fated to fail. Ask any stand-up comedian and she’ll tell you that you it’s tough to mock a deeply held idea without also mocking the people who hold it.

My dad, who as a lifelong Democrat and civil servant probably has the most reason to feel anger at current events, remains blithe and unfazed these days. This too shall pass is a common saying of his, a result of seventy-odd years of human observation. This too shall pass — or, as I like to paraphrase, I will shit on your grave. Today’s outrage over bathrooms is often too inconsequential or boring to merit a sentence in tomorrow’s high-school history text. We German-Americans may have faded into the wallpaper but we’re still here nevertheless, still winning simply by hanging around centuries after the haters passed out blotto on the couch. There’s no reason why anyone else can’t do likewise.

[1] Henry M. Stanley, The Autobiography of Henry Morton Stanley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909), 200–201.

[2] Richard O’Connor, The German-Americans: An Informal History (Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1968), 75.

[3] Michael A. Lerner, Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 32.

[4] O’Connor, 9.

Cross-posted on Medium.

Schemes of the Blackest Dye

Next Thursday I’ll be a panelist at the Fairfield Museum for a discussion of espionage in Connecticut during the Rev War. I’ll be joined by UConn’s Rachel Smith, who dissects the show TURN at her blog, TURN to a Historian, and Black Rock historian Robert Foley.

From Nathan Hale to the Culper spy ring to conspiracies big and small, Connecticut and the coast of Long Island seethed with skulduggery in large part because only about two-thirds of the population felt the red, white, and blue — the rest still pledged fidelity to the House of Hanover. Smedley and friends once caught some Loyalists on the Sound who, upon interrogation, confessed a “Scheme of the blackest dye”:

John McKey of Norwalk later testified that on April 15, a Charles McNeill of Redding approached him saying that a colonel in the British army had in his possession lieutenant’s commissions for each of them. The British were galvanizing the loyalists into a fifth column to be called the Royal Americans. Their first job was to construct an intelligence network that would relay information about Continental troops to the British.

Plots! Treachery! Whaleboat battles! Next Thursday, April 7, at the museum. It’s free! modestly priced!

JAR Annual 2015 Available for Pre-Order

JAR2015_300x450The 2015 edition of the Journal of the American Revolution is now available for pre-order.

Every year, Westholme Publishing releases a reprint collection of essays that first appeared on the Journal website. This year’s volume includes my essay about the whaleboat raiding that occurred on Long Island Sound, where Patriots and Loyalists alike gave as good as they got:

“[T]wo boates crossed on the fourteenth instant,” wrote Caleb Brewster to New York governor George Clinton in the summer of 1781. “[They] went up about twelve at night to the houses of Capt. Ebenezer Miller and Andrew Miller, demanded entrance which was granted, as soon as the door was opened they demanded his arms which he gave up; his son hearing a noise below stairs got up out of bed shoved up the chamber windo. One of the party without ever speaking to him, shot him dead in the windo …”

During the Revolution, American Patriots employed a number of tactics to overcome their extreme disadvantage in the face of the overwhelming power of the British navy: a Continental navy, state navies, and privateers (some with Continental commissions and others commissioned by states). The whaleboat raiders — or “armed boats,” as they were called at the time — were a low subclass of the state-commissioned privateers, and as I point out in my essay, it’s questionable whether many of the raiders had commissions at all. In the chaos of war, the only equipment you needed to go robbing and pillaging on the opposite shore was a boat and some buddies, and if New England in 1776 was anything like New England in 2015 where every third house has a tarp-covered boat in its driveway, then this was not a high benchmark to reach. It probably attracted some men of dubious character.

The Annual Volume 2015 also includes essays from such notables as J.L. Bell, Benjamin Huggins, and JAR editor Hugh T. Harrington. Out in May, it makes a great Father’s Day gift!

Condemning the Past

Gordon S. Wood on the criticisms levied by academics against his fellow early American historian and mentor Bernard Bailyn:

College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.

Wood is certainly not happy with this state of affairs. Yet it’s gratifying to see him correctly diagnose the disease — that academics wallow in “condemning the past for not being more like the present” — even if we disagree about the prescription.