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

George Washington, the First Vaxxer

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.”

George Washington, the First Vaxxer (@The Daily Beast)

At a time when anti-vaxxer hysteria is colliding in the headlines with public alarm at the possibility of a global Ebola epidemic, it is bracing to read historian Tom Shachtman’s account of another time in this nation’s history when Founding Father George Washington kept his head (public hysteria was not invented yesterday) and insisted that his army be inoculated against smallpox, thus saving the lives of thousands of soldiers and in the process indirectly safeguarding the young nation he was charged with defending. Here’s an excerpt, adapted by Shachtman for The Daily beast, from his latest book, Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment.

In early January 1777, General George Washington decided to take an action that would later be deemed his most important strategic decision of the war, even though it had nothing to do with the positioning of his troops, and to take it on the basis of his scientific understanding of the situation: he was going to order the inoculation of all Continental troops and recruits against smallpox. For an agonizing 18 months he had been wrestling with the decision, knowing it would mean having to counter the express orders of the Continental Congress and the decrees of the legislatures of half the rebelling colonies.

It would be a daring, possibly dangerous move because, a quarter-century before the introduction of the Jenner “cowpox” vaccine that would make immunity to smallpox widely available, smallpox was still the biggest killer of the age. It had been so for the American colonies since the earliest days of European settlement: once or twice every decade, smallpox would sweep through cities and countryside, causing between 10 and 20 percent of all deaths in the years it appeared.

In July 1775, when Washington had first taken command of the Continental Army, outside of Boston, smallpox was rampant in the city. Reporting to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, Washington wrote that he and his staff had been “particularly attentive to the least Symptoms of the Small Pox; hitherto we have been so fortunate as to have every Person removed so soon, as not only to prevent any Communication, but any Apprehension or Alarm it might give in the camp. We shall continue the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous enemy.”

Vigilance, yes; but taking the most aggressive action—not so much. While Washington was acquainted with a technique for protecting people against smallpox, he would not then use it, partly because it was deemed illegal by the Continental Congress and colonial legislatures, and partly because many physicians believed the technique did more to spread the disease than to halt its progress.

The technique, called “variolation,” was a form of inoculation in which pus from an infected person was inserted under the skin of an uninfected one; that gave the inoculee a mild case of the disease and, after the passing of a period of high communicability, lifetime immunity. But although championed by such scientific heroes as Benjamin Franklin, and undergone willingly by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and other leaders, variolation was castigated as unsafe for the community because the patient had to be isolated for a week prior to the inoculation and two weeks or more after it. Congress had forbidden military doctors to administer it and forbidden army officers to take variolation or have their subordinates do it, on pain of being cashiered.

During the first year of the Revolutionary War, Washington’s tactic of isolating army patients of smallpox didn’t stop the disease; that year, smallpox caused the deaths of more Continental troops than died on the battlefield.

Washington had his own immunity to smallpox, acquired in the “natural way,” through having survived a case of smallpox when still a teenager; the pock marks on his face were its testament. When the British abandoned Boston in the spring of ’76, Washington ordered that all the first Continental troops to enter the city have pock-marked faces, and that among their first tasks was the removal of any infected civilians.

After Washington’s victory in Boston, the remaining nine months of 1776 were among the most difficult for the commander and the American cause, with significant losses in the New York area in the summer and fall. He and the troops then retreated across New Jersey to a winter redoubt.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts had seen the light in regard to smallpox: after the military action had moved away from the area, and wanting to prevent a resurgence of the epidemic, the Massachusetts authorities lifted their ban on variolation and an orgy of it ensued—nearly 5,000 of the Boston area’s 10,000 inhabitants were inoculated in a relatively short period of time.

For Washington, the advent of winter meant fewer battles and more time for uninterrupted thought. During it, he reached two linked realizations that thereafter shaped his strategy: first, that preserving his forces was more important than controlling territory, and second, that to properly preserve those forces he would have to prevent them from dying of smallpox.

The scientific evidence on which he would base the decision was accumulating. The Massachusetts mass variolations proved it could be done. On a personal level, he had more evidence. He had his wife, Martha, inoculated in Philadelphia, and she came through the process healthy. But he also knew that the moment for ordering mass variolation would have to be opportune. Knowing that Congress would not be easily convinced, he softened them up by repeatedly petitioning for permission to allow troop detachments on their way to join the main army to skirt smallpox-prone Philadelphia. Each time, when he made these requests, Congress acceded to them, but still did not relent and issue a general order to inoculate the troops. Indeed, the idea of mass inoculation seems not to have occurred to the delegates, not even to the handful of physicians among them.

Military victory always gives a field commander added clout with his civilian overseers. Washington’s shocking success in the December 1776 raid across the Delaware River to seize Trenton had that effect—and he decided to seize the moment to unilaterally decree inoculation for smallpox as the policy of the army.

There then arose another roadblock in the path toward troop immunization, the result of intrigue among the fraternity of physicians in Philadelphia that led to a change in command of the medical services. Dr. John Morgan, perhaps the best-trained physician in the colonies, was then the leader. Dr. William Shippen Jr., Morgan’s rival since the days when they had both been at prep school, successfully connived to replace Morgan by accusing him of poor management bordering on dereliction of duty. Washington did not like the change but accepted it. He knew Shippen, who had recently inoculated Martha, and he was on even more familiar terms with Shippen’s brothers-in-law, the Lee family of Virginia. Partly to win Shippen to his position on mass variolation, Washington confided to him that he was going to petition Congress to raise the pay of surgeons willing to travel with the troops. But the main point of Washington’s argument to the new chief medical officer was, as he would soon put it, “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure [inoculation against smallpox], for should the disorder infect the Army… and rage with its usual Virulence, we should have more to dread from it than from the sword of the enemy.”

Shippen’s initial answer to Washington’s request on mass variolation was a surprising but logical no; the doctor objected to it on the grounds that provision for post-inoculation isolation was inadequate, which might spread rather than limit the disease. During the remainder of January, Washington deferred to Shippen’s caution, but as February began and renewed outbreaks of the disease confronted the army, he overruled Shippen’s caution.

He had to inform Congress, but he decided to do so by burying the smallpox-prevention decision in the middle of a long letter to Hancock about other matters. Even so, the first draft of the paragraph about mass inoculation, written on February 5, contained a dollop of self-doubt: “The small Pox is making such Head in every quarter that I am fearful it will infect all the Troops that have not had it. I am divided in my opinion as to the expediency of innoculation, the Surgeons are for it, but if I could by any [other] means put a Stop to it, I would rather do it. However I hope I shall stand acquitted if I submit the Matter to the Judgment and determination of the medical Gentlemen.”

Washington re-read the draft of the paragraph and judged the wording as too weak, that his “divided opinion” or his deference to the “surgeons” might provide Congress with reason to order him not to inoculate, or a way to use the doctors to gainsay him. That would not do. So aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman was instructed to cross out that wording and substitute a stronger one, making the tenth paragraph of Washington’s February 5, 1777 letter to Hancock read: “The small pox has made such Head in every Quarter that I find it impossible to keep it from spreading thro’ the whole Army in the natural way. I have therefore determined, not only to innoculate all the Troops now here, that have not had it, but shall order Docr Shippen to innoculate the Recruits as fast as they come in to Philadelphia. They will lose no time, because they will go thro’ the disorder while their cloathing Arms and accoutrements are getting ready.”

Not waiting for a reply from Congress, the next day Washington issued unequivocal instructions to Shippen to begin mass variolation for smallpox.

The entire inoculation campaign was carried out in secret to prevent the British—and American Tories—from finding out about it and taking advantage. Small groups of Continental officers at a time were permitted to leave the Continental Army’s main camp to go to Philadelphia for the inoculation process; and physicians were dispatched to Kingston, New York and to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to set up facilities for inoculation, isolation, and recuperation. The isolation sites were mostly in private homes and churches.

Not all of Washington’s field commanders immediately agreed to the procedures. When there were objections, Washington’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, writing while the commander-in-chief was ill for a few days, reinstructed such officers as General Alexander McDougall and Major-General Adam Stephen on the unyielding nature of Washington’s demands for inoculation. To Stephen, in answer to an objecting letter to headquarters from Colonel Andrew Ward, a Stephen subordinate, Hamilton penned the most complete articulation of Washington’s reasoning:

His Excellency desires that this objection, with respect to Colonel Wards regiment, should cease; and that they may immediately be admitted to the benefit of innoculation, in the usual proportion. He begs also that the present opportunity, while the roads continue incommodious for any movements of the enemy, may be improved to the greatest advantage, as we do not know how long it may last; and shall have no time to spare, even if the utmost diligence is used …. Let this be urged upon the Doctors, and every thing else done which may be conducive to dispatch, in a matter of so great importance.

Washington also convinced Governor Patrick Henry to repeal Virginia’s law against inoculation. Troops traveling north from the Carolinas were soon stopping in Virginia to be inoculated before continuing on.

In the spring of 1777, the Continental Congress, acknowledging Washington’s success with mass variolation, at last issued a formal inoculation order. Before the end of 1777, nearly 40,000 troops had been inoculated. In the year following the start of mass inoculation, the infection rate from smallpox in the Continental Army fell from 17 percent to 1 percent.

Inoculating the American troops against smallpox effectively shielded Washington’s army from being decimated by disease until the arrival of foreign arms made it possible for them to turn the tide of battle in America’s favor. Nothing that Washington did had a greater impact on the outcome of the war than his actions to protect his troops from death by smallpox.

Adapted by Tom Shachtman from his book, Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment, recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

The “Arab Spring” of 2011 and the “Chinese Spring” of 1911

The op-ed page of The Lakeville Journal has won the top prize for op-ed pages of 2011 at the New England Newspaper and Press Association (NENPA); I am pleased that one of my columns was at the top of the award-winning page. That one was about the Arab Spring of 2011, and a cautionary antecedent, the Chinese democracy uprising of 1911.


“Well Doctor, what have we got — a monarchy or a republic?” Ben Franklin was asked by a female onlooker on the last day of the American constitutional convention in 1787. “A republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin responded.

Maintaining a republic, of course, is the true problem; and it was on display, recently, as in Warsaw, President Obama pledged, along with some European nations, a substantial sum of money to support the emergence of democratic institutions in the countries that have awakened in the Arab Spring. While in Poland the president also commemorated the “Polish Spring” uprisings of the late 1980s that led to the downfall of Communism in Soviet Union and its satellite states – as though that is the model for what should happen in Tunisia and Egypt, perhaps even in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, should they throw off authoritarianism.

But Poland’s emergence as a democratic republic in the wake of a popular uprising is the exception, not the rule.
Much more relevant and common are historical uprisings that presented a moment of happiness – and of opportunity – for democracy and capitalism, but that soon disappeared. One that has been all but forgotten in the modern world, but whose failure is instructive, is the attempt at instituting democracy in mainland China, begun in 1911.

It would be nice to be able to call it the “Chinese Spring,” but it actually began in the fall, and lasted about eighteen months. In a half-dozen provinces in southern China, revolutionaries led by the American-trained medical doctor, Sun Yat-Sen, and the charismatic newspaper editor, Song Jiaoren, succeeded in a rebellion. It had two bases: one, a pledge to unite China’s five ethnic groups (the majority Hans, and the minority Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, and Muslims) under one banner, and to let all have a share in ruling. The second base was Sun’s principles, modeled on Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” This promise enthralled a Chinese populace that had been under the dominion of the Qing Empire for nearly three centuries, and under other emperors for 4,000 years prior to that.

In a moment when the Qing were torn between the conservatives loyal to the dowager queen, and the more liberal elements of the regent, there was some space for a genuine revolution. It was led more by Song than by Sun. Song Jiaoren, pledged to representative democracy, set about convincing Beijing to institute it. His main enemy, the Qing’s man Yüan Shi-kai, was a good general and a fierce administrator, but when he realized that the government’s scattered forces could not immediately defeat the rebels, he offered Song a deal: Yüan would become the president of a republic, in exchange for overthrowing the monarchy and for instituting democratic elections for a legislature that would share power with the executive. Song agreed. Sun Yat-Sen was off in America, raising campaign funds.

On February 12, 1912, the last Qing emperor, an under-aged boy, abdicated, the regent went into internal exile, and the Republic of China was declared. Elections were scheduled for the end of the year. Still, Yüan grumbled, “I am a president who presides over nothing and commands nothing,” and chafed under a constitution he found too restrictive. Nonetheless, for the rest of the year, the country was caught up in election fever, with public debates, editorials, and the like. The results astounded everyone when they were announced in February 1913. The Nationalists won 269 out of 596 seats in the lower house, and 123 out of 274 in the upper, and would be in power. It was clear that the 32-year-old Song would become the country’s premier. But on March 20, 1914, Yüan had Song Jiaoren assassinated.

After that, without effective top leadership, the Nationals were quickly run off. Authority was stripped from the legislature. Yüan used money from a five-power foreign consortium to pay warlord armies to best the Nationalists’ forces in battle. By October of 1913, Sun Yat-Sen had retreated to Japan, to begin once more his revolutionary quest. Within another year, Yüan Shi-kai tried to become emperor himself. When he died in 1916, without having accomplished that last goal, warlord control of China returned with a vengeance, and held sway through the 1920s, the 1930s, and until 1949 and the Communists’ victory in the long Chinese civil war.

— Tom Shachtman

A Dozen Ways To Eliminate The Middle Class

Here’s an article that was first in The Huffington Post and then reposted on many other sites.

Cleaning out my files at year end of 2010, I came across notes that I wrote in early 2002 on a dozen ways to eliminate America’s middle class through the actions of government and private industry. I must have put the notes away because it did not seem possible that all these things could come to pass. How silly of me! In the past decade more than 90 percent of American families experienced severe economic shocks, and that the damage was particularly bad in households earning between $60,000 and $100,000 per year.

Here’s my list of killer actions:

  • Suppress unions. From the 1930s on, unions have been the principal route out of poverty for tens of millions of Americans. Since 1983, membership has been declining, and is now around 12-13 percent of the workforce. Fewer union members equals fewer people in the middle class.
  • Substantially reduce dividends paid by public companies. Stockholders used to rely on dividends to build a nest egg for a downpayment on a home or a fund to send the kids to college. When the average dividend dropped below the rate of inflation, accumulation by dividends became impossible.
  • Lower interest rates on bonds, deposits, and CDs to laughable levels.
  • Fire middle managers and at the same time raise compensation for upper-level managers. Decades ago, the top manager made 40 times the salary of the factory floor worker; now the multiple is 500, and the growth has been provided mostly by firing the managers in between the top and bottom levels.
  • Shift the burden of health care costs from businesses to employees. Medical costs alone don’t cause people to fall out of the middle class; it is the burden of carrying overpriced health care.
  • Underfund pension plans, and don’t punish companies that fail to make their contributions. When an employer inadequately funds its employees’ pension plan, retirees fall out of the middle-class because the money they had counted on receiving has vanished.
  • Raise college tuition to the stratosphere. Even public college costs today are so high that almost no middle class families can pay for college out of current income, and are forced to take out second mortgages so that their children can obtain a sheepskin.
  • Make greed more attractive. When the upper ranks of earners are not taught to be satisfied with a million dollars a year but insist on making ten, rather than being content to share the extra nine with fellow employees, everyone else loses.
  • Make debt attractive. Ease the way for the middle class to spend money through credit and debit cards, and extend credit to people who are less than credit-worthy, thus driving up credit-card rates and greasing the skids toward impoverishment. Then tout second mortgages as a way to consolidate credit-card debts; and then decrease the value of the homes on which the second mortgages have been based.
  • Allow the economy to become over-dependent on consumer spending, and encourage citizens to buy disposable consumer items. The middle class used to be known for its affinity for real property and big-ticket items. But when you don’t buy the refrigerator and instead buy suits, pairs of shoes, and electronic toys (all made in China), not only don’t you have the refrigerator, but the U.S.-based refrigerator-manufacturing plant shuts down for lack of customers, throwing a couple of more thousand people in Michigan out of the middle class, too.
  • Embrace a tax policy inconsistent with the growth of the middle class, for instance, not permitting tax deductions for such middle-class-boosting expenses as life insurance premiums, college tuition payments, and commuting expenses.
  • Facilitate and protect a bought-and-paid-for Congress beholden to the wealthy for their campaign expenses.

— Tom Shachtman

The Warbabies’ Adult Rite of Passage

Here’s an op-ed of mine from The Lakeville Journal. It was inspired by my, gulp, 50th reunion from high school, and many people have said that it touched a nerve ….


My high school class’s fiftieth reunion was this weekend. An older male friend laughed when I told him of the impending occasion, and called fiftieth high school reunions “the only adult rite of passage,” with the implication that the event was to be gotten through, endured rather than enjoyed.

Before attending, I agreed with him. As with most people, my time in high school had been intellectually and emotionally exhilarating and troubling in equal measure, and although I looked forward to renewing acquaintance with some childhood friends with whom I had lost touch, there were other classmates who I didn’t care if I ever saw again. And I’d have to see girls that I’d embarrassingly pined over and boys I’d secretly envied. Now they would all be thin, dark-haired, sexy, wealthy, and have incredible accomplishments to their names.

“Do you have your own hair and your own teeth?” a female friend asked me gently when I expressed my apprehension. “You do, so you’ll be fine.”

Our high school, on the South Shore of Long Island, was relatively small, 212 in our graduating class, and most of us classmates had been in school together since junior high. That middle school had been fed by three elementary schools, so we had known some of our classmates since we had been in second or third grade. On my block, seven of the eleven houses held children who were in my class in elementary school and who were my companions during a decade of schooling.

We were warbabies, born in 1941 or 1942; our parents had moved to this suburb, ten miles or so beyond the New York City limits, at the end of the 1940s or in the early 1950s, from Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. They chose it because its public school system was very good, and New York City’s was not.

Our parents had come, that is to say, for us. They felt in their hearts that the most important thing they could give us was a good solid education, and they were determined that we should have it.

That conviction had been drummed into them by their life experience. Born in the Teens and Twenties, they had grown to adulthood in the Depression, which had seared many of them. A goodly proportion of them were children of immigrants. Their struggles had generated in their minds a version of the dream that John Adams had expressed at the time of the American Revolution: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.” I now think of this as the germ of the great American immigrant dream: That the first generation does manual labor so that the second generation can be managers and entrepreneurs, and so that the third generation and beyond can become artists, professionals, do whatever they please and can imagine striving for.

I have long held the concomitant belief that my generation of middle-class Americans – we warbabies, we sons and daughters of the American suburbs who trooped off to college as the 1960s were a-borning – that we have been the most privileged and lucky generational cohort ever to have existed on earth. Our children may have it even better, but we were the first.

During 99 percent of the twenty thousand years of recorded human history, most people did drudge work, tilling farms and the like, all of their lives. This began to change with the industrial revolution and radically altered only in the last half of the 19th century, when big cities grew up and provided millions of non-farm jobs for the multitudes. But then came a series of debilitating wars and economic depressions that curtailed many dreams.

And then we warbabies arrived, billowed to suburbia on the wings of the three-generational dream to take advantage of a good educational system and to nurture great expectations. Unlike our grandparents and parents, who had a limited number of opportunities to seize, we had millions of them. And seize them we did. We were able to because we were so well equipped, having been stuffed full of good learning and a great work ethic during high school, and coached and groomed and sent through college on our parents’ nickels, and then out into the world, to do the one thing that our parents required of us: to truly fulfill our dreams, whatever they might be. Business success. Artistic success. Professional success. Familial success.

I had a wonderful time at my reunion, and so did everyone else. We were all friendly, geared to enjoy ourselves, and we did. It was lovely to see so many old comrades – who looked marvelous, by the way. I was thrilled to hear what each had to say as we each took the microphone for a minute or two and spun an incredible variety of stories of fulfillment, ninety of them, each different from the next. Oh, I’m sure there was some excess bragging, but in the speeches and in the answers to the questionnaires that were made into a commemorative booklet there was very little can-you-top-this, and a lot of it’s-been-a-hell-of-a-ride. We made lunch dates, reciprocal promises of visits, renewed acquaintance with a greater dollop of affection than we had allowed ourselves fifty years ago, when as teenagers we were all into expressing our individuality and differentness one from another.

As senior citizens this weekend, some of us were tickled pink by the extent of what we had in common, and our collegiality. Those who had hardly passed a word with one another fifty years ago, at the reunion were not only congenial but also interested in what the other person had to say.

Certainly that attitude is attributable to our having matured; but it is also, and more importantly, testament to our having gained a benevolent and grateful sense about the world, a sense pushed into full bloom by this once in a lifetime rite of passage. What a gift to have given ourselves!

— Tom Shachtman

Rereadings: Machiavelli’s The Prince, Part I

Youth is wasted on the young. Really? That’s one of those myths – “If you build it they will come” is another – that wormed its way into our culture without our giving it enough thought. The young do appreciate their youth; they don’t care for certain other aspects of life, perhaps because they lack the experience to do so. Reading is one of those. Of course the young do read, and so do the rest of us, regularly – newspapers, magazines, websites, e-mails, tweets, crime novels. The Classics are another matter. Which is why, upon reaching a ripe age and on realizing how many important books I either never read or was forced to read in college and never appreciated, I decided to embark on a Year of Reading Dangerously. I shall report to you, now and then, from that far country.

In this column and the next, I reread one of the most dangerous books ever penned, The Prince. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote it as a series of letters in 1513, and its chapters were circulated for years before being first printed as a book in 1532, five years after his death. This is one of those books more talked about than read. We equate it with the adjective Machiavellian, loosely defined as a condition of amorality. We think we know that its writer counsels his unnamed prince in violent and cunning ways to amass, perpetuate, and wield power without regard to justice or conscience.

At 80 pages, The Prince can be read in a single sitting, although – like fudge – it is best in small bites. The book is a series of brilliant analyses of the human condition and of how autocratic leaders can use those understandings to temporal ends. All states, Machiavelli writes – bear in mind that this is 500 years ago — are either Republics or Princedoms, and all Princedoms are either hereditary or newly-won; he speaks only of Princedoms, having discussed republics in previous works. Actually, Machiavelli favored having more republics but lived in a world in which there were very few.

The precision and clarity of his language, even in translation, is breathtaking. Here’s how he counsels a prince not to wait to address the ills of a newly-won state: “For the distempers of a State being discovered while yet inchoate, which can only be done by a sagacious ruler, may easily be dealt with; but when, from not being observed, they are suffered to grow until they are obvious to everyone, there is no longer any remedy.”

Machiavelli advocates the use of “violence,” stern measures to quell incipient rebellions, foreclose possibilities for usurpers, and to keep the populace in line, while also advocating the doing of demonstrably good works and charity in the service of retaining power, making the people happy, and perpetuating the princedom past the prince’s lifetime.

This approach may seem overly tough and dictatorial to us, but in Machiavelli’s time Europe was a series of princedoms and fiefdoms and there seemed no alternative way of governance. He drew his examples from Italy, France, and Germany in the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. His knowledge of these matters, some of it firsthand from his years as a counselor – and from his years in prison – imbues the tract with authority and sagacity. Machiavelli didn’t see all autocrats as villains or as necessarily having to be cutthroat. He counsels princes who have come by their princedoms by “wickedness and crime” to quickly shift over to benevolence, lest they be as quickly overthrown. You can read into the book both a paean to the need for federalism, and the need for small, self-governing units. You can find in it advice on being a good leader, and advice on learning how, when, and why to follow.

This is as keen an observer of the human condition as ever wrote. He asserts that if you gain your princedom with the aid of the nobles, you must thereafter be wary of them because they think you are no better than they; but if you win your princedom with the aid of the people, you will be even more alone, although it will be easier to satisfy the demands of the many than the demands of the few.

A lot in the book still resonates; politicians, CEOs, and anyone who has a bit of power and now and then has need of using it should read the book, if only to understand from it the basic reasons for having democratic governance and institutions, and the reasons against the arbitrary use of power.

Next time, more about The Prince, including Macaulay’s analysis of why the book came to be so detested, and its author’s name, synonymous with villainy.

— Tom Shachtman