THE FOUNDING FORTUNES: HOW THE WEALTHY PAID FOR AND PROFITED FROM AMERICA’S REVOLUTION

St. Martin’s Press in January 2020: THE FOUNDING FORTUNES: HOW THE WEALTHY PAID FOR AND PROFITED FROM AMERICA’S REVOLUTION

Pre-publication praise:

“An ingenious examination of how money played the central role in the founding of the United States … Shachtman emphasizes that [after the Revolution] no mass movement demanded change. The Constitution was championed “by a very small subset of the country’s wealthy.” They looked after their own interests, and their priorities were social order, contracts, collecting debts, and a strong currency. However, as the author shows, unlike the ultrawealthy today, most embraced equality of opportunity …. A provocative argument that wealthy men built America and did a good job.” – Kirkus Reviews

“I was raised to think of the American Revolution as a rare moment in history in which neither “cherchez la femme” nor “follow the money” would get you to the truth.  Yet in The Founding Fortunes, following the money reveals a gritty reality that we can’t access any other way.  It evokes the sights, sounds and psychology of the era more vividly than a whole shelf of books about lofty ideals and governance.”     – Peter Petre, former executive editor, Fortune.

THE MEMOIR OF THE MINOTAUR

New for September 2020: A novel to be published by MADVILLE PUBLISHING.

Praise from an early reader:

“Shares its form with other popular retellings of the monster narrative such as John Gardner’s Grendel … and the narrative voice has likenesses to the exuberance, bawdiness, and blasphemy of Salman Rushdie and John Barth …. Packed with actions both big and small as it deals with themes of power, violence, sexuality, and the role of storytelling, its most endearing quality is the hilarity and absurdity of our classical values interacting with our animalistic cores …. Ultimately, the book is riotous …. I had a great time with it.” 

THE FOUNDING FORTUNES: HOW THE WEALTHY PAID FOR AND PROFITED FROM AMERICA’S REVOLUTION

St. Martin’s Press in January 2020: THE FOUNDING FORTUNES: HOW THE WEALTHY PAID FOR AND PROFITED FROM AMERICA’S REVOLUTION

Pre-publication praise:

“An ingenious examination of how money played the central role in the founding of the United States … Shachtman emphasizes that [after the Revolution] no mass movement demanded change. The Constitution was championed “by a very small subset of the country’s wealthy.” They looked after their own interests, and their priorities were social order, contracts, collecting debts, and a strong currency. However, as the author shows, unlike the ultrawealthy today, most embraced equality of opportunity …. A provocative argument that wealthy men built America and did a good job.” – Kirkus Reviews

“I was raised to think of the American Revolution as a rare moment in history in which neither “cherchez la femme” nor “follow the money” would get you to the truth.  Yet in The Founding Fortunes, following the money reveals a gritty reality that we can’t access any other way.  It evokes the sights, sounds and psychology of the era more vividly than a whole shelf of books about lofty ideals and governance.”     – Peter Petre, former executive editor, Fortune.

August 15, 2019. Lecture on THE PHONY WAR, 1939-1940 at Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Hyde Park, NY.

June 9, 2019. Lecture on THE PHONY WAR, 1939-1940 at Hotchkiss Library of Sharon CT.

July 25, 2018. Lecture at Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library on ‘FDR and the Scientists.’

July 17, 2018. Lecture on ‘How the French Saved America,’ Bastille Day celebration at New York Union League Club.

Our Founding Fathers Feared a Trump

The Daily Beast is an American news and opinion website focused on politics and pop culture. In a 2015 interview, editor in chief John Avlon described The Beasts editorial approach: “We seek out scoops, scandals and stories about secret worlds; we love confronting bullies, bigots and hypocrites.”

Our Founding Fathers Feared a Trump (@The Daily Beast)

The Founders had a major fear for the future of the American republic: that it would collapse into tyranny.

Some day a leader would win an election for president and then use the power and resources available to him as chief executive to disembowel democracy to the point of transforming it into an autocracy. And they knew just what sort of character would do that: a flamboyant charlatan who lied at every turn, used those lies to channel resentments at the status quo into votes that sent him into office, and then did not scruple to abuse his new power to amass even more power. In short, they feared the election of a Donald Trump.

They knew a lot about tyrants. They had worked very hard to get out from under one, King George III of Great Britain. Since 1760, when he ascended to the throne, they had watched in horror as Great Britain’s limited monarchy and Parliamentary democracy, once revered as the best government in the world, slid into practices that history taught prepared the way for tyranny. Benjamin Franklin identified these in 1775 when he wrote home from London about the “extream Corruption prevalent among all Orders of Men in this old rotten State [and the] Numberless and needless Places, enormous Salaries, Pensions, Perquisites, Bribes, groundless Quarrels, foolish Expeditions, false Accompts or no Accompts, Contracts and Jobbs [that] devour all Revenue and produce continual Necessity in the Midst of natural Plenty.”

The Declaration of Independence featured the Founders’ long list of George III’s crimes against America, “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” Particularly galling was his “transporting large Armies of Foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny,” an action “totally unworthy of the Head of a civilized nation.” For George Washington, the hiring of the mercenaries was the final piece of evidence that George III had become a despot. Franklin, in designing a Great Seal for the new country, chose a biblical scene with the motto, “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”

The Founders knew a lot about past tyrants, from reading about those of ancient Greece and Rome, a knowledge reinforced by the 1776 publication of the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with its vivid examples of the failure and decadence of tyrants. It was further ratified by revivals of Joseph Addison’s Cato, A tragedy, about the Roman senator’s heroic resistance to the tyranny of Caesar. Washington is believed to have allowed the play to be presented to the troops at Valley Forge, to reinvigorate their motivation to fight on.

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and other Founders deeply researched past republics—what had been their good and bad parts, procedures, and policies, and identified two ways in which republics died.

The first was the tyranny of the majority, in which a majority, often led by a rabble-rouser, enforced its wishes on various minorities and made them subservient—Alexis de Tocqueville would later warn that this was the greatest danger inherent in American democracy. The second death was tyranny at the hand of someone initially selected by popular vote, who then seized enough power to rule alone, with little or no reference to either the majority or the minorities.

For Madison, these two tyrannies were the same; as he wrote in the 47th letter of The Federalist Papers, “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one or a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

In constructing the Constitution, Madison, Hamilton, lawyer James Wilsonand their colleagues were acutely conscious of how easily the people could be led, and led astray, as had recently happened in Shays’ Rebellion, put down just prior to the Constitutional Convention. They had also witnessed first-hand the failure of Pennsylvania’s Constitution of 1776, under which a too-active legislature, a weak chief executive, and a supine judiciary had accelerated the state’s descent into economic and civic chaos.

While Hamilton was all for a very powerful chief executive, possibly appointed for life, because he (and everyone else) knew that the fair-minded George Washington was going to become the first president—Washington had already refused the opportunity to become a king—Madison resisted pressure for a very powerful president just as strongly as he did efforts to create a dominant legislature, citing the bad example of Pennsylvania.

Delegate Patrick Henry, who had helped to ignite the Revolution with his line, “Give me liberty or give me death,” objected to the proposed Constitutionbecause it gave too much power to a president, warning that history showed that individual liberties were often lost through “the tyranny of rulers.” Madison answered him directly on the Convention floor, insisting that liberties were more frequently lost by “gradual and silent encroachments of those in power.”

The only way to guarantee the preservation of the republic and to prevent tyranny, the Constitution writers finally agreed, was through having separate legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and by embedding in the Constitution powers that enabled each to exert “checks and balances” on the others. Washington agreed, writing to Lafayette that under the new system America “can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an Oligarchy, an Aristocracy, so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the People.” He added that the Constitution had “more checks and barriers against the introduction of Tyranny… than any government instituted among mortals,” but that, given human nature, it was nonetheless a gamble.

Hamilton was even more explicit in Federalist 51, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

In short, the Founders knew that if the checks and balances proved to be not strong enough to restrain the executive, or if the legislative and judicial branches, convinced by a crisis, yielded too much power to the executive—well, that way lay tyranny, because a president would then be able to do whatever he pleased, even if in the process he destroyed the republic.

So they were grateful that as chief executive they would have a Washington, not some lesser, mere grasping mortal who every day in office would show to the world an increasing inability to resist the thrill of wielding ever more power while displaying all the signs of becoming a tyrant.

 

— Tom Shachtman

The American Prophet Who Predicted Trump

The Daily Beast is an American news and opinion website focused on politics and pop culture. In a 2015 interview, editor in chief John Avlon described The Beasts editorial approach: “We seek out scoops, scandals and stories about secret worlds; we love confronting bullies, bigots and hypocrites.”

The American Prophet Who Predicted Trump (@The Daily Beast)

Whether or not Donald Trump knows it, he’s running his presidential campaign out of Eric Hoffer’s playbook.

That would be The True Believer, published 65 years ago this spring, a book about mass movements. Hoffer’s big insight was that the followers of Nazism and Communism were essentially the same sort of true believers, the most zealous acolytes of religious, nationalist, and other mass movements throughout history. In 1951, it was stunning to Americans to be told that ultra-right-wing Nazis and ultra-left-wing Communists—their recent enemies of World War II and current enemies in the Cold War—were, according to Hoffer, cut from the same cloth.

“All mass movements,” he explained, “irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred, and intolerance.”

Hatred and hope were the most important lures, Hoffer contended, hatred much more than hope: “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.”

Trump’s followers have responded most enthusiastically to the candidate’s diatribes against such devils as Mexicans and other “illegal immigrants,” Muslims of any stripe, unattractive or pushy women, clueless policy-makers, “loser” opposing candidates, and reporters who ask him other than softball questions.

The pollsters tell us that Trump’s followers share a decided affinity for authoritarianism, as well as beliefs that government causes more problems than it solves and that immigrants (and people with darker skins, and women) have stolen their jobs and their futures.

More: Trumpsters have little regard for facts that contradict their stances. Hoffer could have predicted this. “It is the true believer’s ability to ‘shut his eyes and stop his ears’ to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacle nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence.”

 

— Tom Shachtman

Look Homeward, Obama

The Daily Beast is an American news and opinion website focused on politics and pop culture. In a 2015 interview, editor in chief John Avlon described The Beasts editorial approach: “We seek out scoops, scandals and stories about secret worlds; we love confronting bullies, bigots and hypocrites.”

Look Homeward, Obama (@The Daily Beast)

Later this week Barack Hussein Obama Jr. will visit Kenya for the first time as president of the United States. Years ago, he wrote about the village of Kogelo, near Lake Victoria, as the home of his father and his father’s extended family—as “Home Squared.” But this visit to Kenya will not be the kind of homecoming many in America might expect after so many years of misleading stories and paranoid fantasies about the president’s origins.

To understand his African origins, it’s important to understand how Barack Hussein Obama Sr., the president’s father, came to be in America in the first place, and how much distance he put between his son and Home Squared.

While in office, Obama has downplayed the Kenyan part of his background to the point of skipping the country on his four previous trips as president to sub-Saharan Africa. No doubt he was unwilling to feed the conspiracy theories of those pundits in tin-foil hats who have tried to portray him as a Kenyan-born socialist and Muslim.

Yes, the president is the son of a self-professed “African socialist” and the grandson of Onyango Obama, a convert to the Muslim religion just prior to the birth of the president’s father in 1936. But the tin-hats who wave those loaded words around have no idea what they meant to the president’s forebears or to his father’s Africa as it emerged from a century of bitter and often brutal colonization.

The conversion of Islam of the president’s grandfather did not run deep: Onyango quickly drifted away from the faith and did not raise his children as Muslims. By 1959, when Barack Sr. went to college in the United States, he had very little to do with religion. As most of us know, or should know, while at the University of Hawaii, the young Kenyan met and married Ann Dunham, a fellow student originally from Kansas, and their son, Barack Jr., was born there in Hawaii on August 4, 1961.

But how did Barack, Sr. get to that Pacific island 50th state of the USA in the first place? He owed his residence in Hawaii to the work of the African American Students Foundation, a project driven by American faith in democracy and the future of the emerging African people, as chronicled in my 2009 book, Airlift to America.

Founded by American entrepreneur William X. Scheinman and his close friend, Kenyan politician Tom Mboya, the AASF raised the money for its initial “airlift,” a term suggestive of the airlift that saved West Berlin from the communists a few years earlier. Baseball great Jackie Robinson, the hugely popular singer Harry Belafonte, and the actor Sidney Poitier signed an extraordinary fundraising letter, and in 1959 the AASF garnered enough donations to bring a planeload of East Africans to New York and to transport them to colleges throughout the U.S. mainland. Martin Luther King Jr. underwrote several airlifted students. Senator John F. Kennedy’s support for the airlift in its second year, 1960, positively influenced the black vote that was an important factor in his narrow presidential election victory.

Elizabeth Mooney, a pioneering American literacy specialist in Kenya who had taken an interest in the brilliant young Obama Sr., bought his ticket to Hawaii, but after he landed there the AASF supported him. And the organization’s files contain a half-dozen references to his time in Hawaii that reflect on his diligence, but also his personal troubles. There are checks made out to Obama Sr. for books and tuition payments, records of his receiving one of the Foundation’s Jackie Robinson scholarships, and copies of letters to Obama Sr. from Mboya, a fellow Luo tribesman. Mboya’s missives enclosed letters from the wife Obama Sr. had left behind in Kenya (along with children), pleading for his return.

The AASF airlift would be spectacularly successful in terms of what its graduates eventually accomplished. From the nearly 800 students in the program came the founding fathers and mothers of Kenya and its neighboring countries in East Africa. For a quarter-century, “the airlift generation” provided half of Kenya’s legislators and cabinet members, and many doctors, lawyers, and other leading citizens. Among the airlift graduates was Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts at reforesting East Africa.

When Obama Jr., was 2 years old, Obama Sr., left his American wife and son in Hawaii. They divorced shortly thereafter. He reappeared in Barack Jr.’s life only once, when the boy was 10, staying for a month, an occasion achingly remembered in the president’s 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father. In 1982, Barack Jr. was 20 and a student at Columbia when news arrived of his father’s death in a car crash in Kenya. After that event, Obama Jr. made his first visit to the country and became acquainted with his Kenyan relatives.

Yes, Obama Sr. did call himself an “African socialist,” but Kenyan socialism was not all that socialist, especially in the context of the times. Independent Kenya’s first leader, Jomo Kenyatta, found it important to state specificallythat the new country would not nationalize any industries, and to define African socialism as primarily devoted to righting the wrongs of the colonial period.

One of the bonds between AASF founders Scheinman and Mboya—and between Mboya and President Kennedy—was their belief that capitalism and democracy needed to be the twin pillars of Africa’s new nations. Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania was much more within the Communist orbit, and provided a very visible contrast to Kenya’s more capitalist version of African socialism.

Obama Sr., became a prominent voice for the Kenyan brand of African socialism. In a critique issued in 1965, he considered the important question, “How are we going to remove the disparities in our country, such as the concentration of economic power in Asian and European hands, while not destroying what has already been achieved?” His answer was to give the farmers more ownership and control over their land so they could make a better living.

Obama Jr. resembles his father in many ways, say men who knew the father well. Olara Otunnu, a Ugandan former undersecretary general for the United Nations, who interacted with Obama Sr. from their teenage years through to Obama Sr.’s death, was stunned by the physical resemblance of father and son: same physique, same gait, similar voice. Obama Sr., he recalled in an interview for my book, had “charisma, supreme confidence, and eloquence.” Otunnu added that it was a blessing the son had not inherited the father’s self-destructive flaws, a judgment echoed by other old friends of Obama Sr. who had been airlift participants.

“Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?” Thomas Wolfe asked in his novel Look Homeward, Angel. Before Obama Jr. ever became president that is what he went to Kenya to do. Now as he goes back, he can pay proper homage to what was, and was not, his heritage, unconcerned at last that his personal history will stand between him and the nation where he was born and elected twice to the highest office in the land.

 

— Tom Shachtman