Category Archives: democracy

Religion and Rebellion in Afghanistan

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 122-124):

Until 1840 religion had played a minor role in internal Afghan politics because fighting had always been Muslim on Muslim. Raising the banner of jihad had been a popular way to mobilize Afghans outward for invasions directed at the polytheists on the Indian plain or their Muslim rulers. But the British occupation of Afghanistan in support of Shuja raised the question of whether his regime had lost the authority normally inherent to a Muslim ruler. If Shuja’s government was just a cloak for the rule of foreign infidels, then rebellion against it would be justified. The charge that the government had betrayed Afghanistan’s Muslims and deserved to be toppled was therefore a constant theme in the propaganda directed against the British and Shuja. It had surprisingly little resonance when the British first invaded. It gained traction as the occupation continued, particularly as the British began to direct more of the government’s workings themselves. Putting Afghan opposition in a religious framework also made it more difficult for the British to mobilize previously willing allies among the Ghilzai chiefs. These chiefs declared that it would be politically fatal to take a public stance against a popular jihad opposing foreign occupation when it was so strongly supported by their followers. Of course, as ibn Khaldun had observed, religion had always been the best way to unite tribes that were otherwise too divided to unite on any other basis. It also ennobled more self-interested political, economic, and personal motives. Shuja himself complained that “these men are not influenced by considerations of religion, they give their lives for the wealth of this world and do not fear death.” That may have been true, but leaping to a “defense of Islam” to justify resisting a regime in Kabul or its policies would henceforth become a sword that was rarely sheathed in Afghan politics, regardless of whether foreigners were actually present on Afghan soil.

The rebellions against the British did not originate within Afghanistan’s Durrani elite. Although those who had experienced a loss of power may have incited others to violence, they took on leadership roles only well after the fighting had started. Instead, the first rebellions were mounted by more marginal groups that had their own grievances. The most important of these were the Pashtun Ghilzai tribes to the east and south of Kabul, and the Tajik Kohistanis of the plains and mountains north of Kabul. Chiefs and clergy from these regions who mobilized their own fighters were at the center of the resistance, not the existing forces of the irregular cavalry that were commanded by the Durranis. The trouble was also localized. The Durranis in Qandahar did not rise at all until two months after Kabul had fallen and then failed to take the city. Nor were there uprisings among the Hazaras, the Uzbeks, or in distant Herat. But in spite of their crucial contributions to the success of the war, neither the Kohistanis nor the Ghilzais took the opportunity to put themselves into power. They instead sought out military and political leadership from the existing (and politically vacillating) Barakzai and Sadozai elite. For example, the Kohistanis initially raised troops in the name of Shuja until he denounced them for using his name and forged seals to justify their rebellion. When it became clear that Shuja was sticking with the British, the Ghilzais and Kohistanis then rallied around Akbar when he took command of the forces besieging their cantonment in Kabul. Although it was he who took the lead in dealing with the British politically, Akbar’s power then and in the months that followed depended more on his Ghilzai allies than his Barakzai kinsmen.

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Sweden’s Sture Age

From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 72-75:

Now Karl Knutsson was recalled to the throne for the third time. Although he was by no means a great man and suffered throughout his political life from his inability to win the love and trust of the peasants, as Engelbrekt had done, Knutsson has a place of honor in the story of Sweden; in his time, he provided a focal point for Swedish dreams of freedom and independence. Before he died in May 1470, Knutsson named Sten Sture as succeeding regent. Sture was never to seek the title of king and thus initiated the period which has come to be known as “the Sture Age.”

Christian, of course, was far from being reconciled to the turn of events in Sweden, and in the summer of 1471, his fleet set sail for Stockholm carrying with it a large and well-equipped army. Upon landing in Sweden the Danish forces were joined by the Unionist nobility, and the combined armies laid siege to Stockholm. Sture called upon the peasants of Svealand, the great province that stretches almost from the Baltic to the Norwegian frontier, to rally to the Swedish cause, and they came in the thousands. The rustic Swedish army then marched upon Stockholm, and on October 10, 1471, one of the great dates of Swedish history, they confronted the Danes on the heights of Brunkeberg, just beyond the northern wall of the city.

The battle that followed ended in a complete triumph for Sture’s legions. The Dannebrog, that miraculous standard, was captured by the embattled countryfolk; Christian himself was wounded, and the flower of Danish nobility was killed. This decisive victory gave Sweden peace with Denmark for a generation, and in thankfulness for the country’s deliverance, Sten Sture commissioned the German wood carver Bernt Notke to fashion a heroic statue of Saint George, the city’s patron saint. The statue was presented to Sture in the Church of Saint Nicholas, in Stockholm. It stands there to this day, gloriously ornate: Saint George, in splendid armor, his horse similarly caparisoned and plumed, rides with sword raised, while beneath the hoofs of his rearing steed writhes a dragon of singularly repellent aspect.

Christian, his military ambitions considerably reduced, now set himself to make Copenhagen a center of scholarship. Up to that time, no secular centers of learning existed in Scandinavia. Advanced education was offered in the north only under the aegis of the Catholic Church or pursued abroad, usually at the University of Paris. He declared his intention to found the first university of Scandinavia. Informed of this project, Sture resolved to beat his old enemy even in this, and in 1477, the great University of Uppsala, now a seat of learning renowned throughout the world, opened its doors to its first students. Copenhagen did not have its university until a year later. Under Sture’s guidance, Sweden began to emerge into the modern world. Six years after the foundation of the university, Sweden was given its first printing press, also at Uppsala, and regent and archbishop gathered around this mechanical wonder, which turned out the first printed book in Swedish in 1483.

In 1481, Christian I of Denmark died, and the Danes, anxious to restore the Union, proposed that the election of a successor should be postponed until representatives of all three Scandinavian nations could meet to thrash out a new constitution for the Union. A meeting was held at Halmstad in 1483, but it was attended by delegations from Norway and Denmark only, as Sten Sture boycotted the gathering. Christian’s son, John, was elected king of Norway and Denmark, but no word came from Sweden, where Sture was having trouble, as usual, with the nobility. This time, however, he held a weapon which kept them in check: The peasants idolized “Our Lord Sture” and whenever the nobles showed signs of serious opposition, Sture called a Riksdag. The solid backing which the peasants and small merchants gave him at these meetings, of which twenty were held between 1470 and 1497, was enough to intimidate the regent’s aristocratic enemies.

Peaceful progress was not destined to last long, however. In 1495, the Swedish nobles persuaded Russia to declare war on Sweden while they themselves joined forces with King John of Denmark, hoping that Sture would be unable to face a war on two fronts. The regent, however, got the better of the Russian forces in Finland; he then rounded on the Danes and the rebel Swedish noblemen, who were led by Svante Nilsson Natt och Dag. (The latter part of his name translates as Night and Day, a reflection of the blue and gold quarterings on his coat-of-arms.)

Civil war broke out in Sweden, and Sture had almost subdued the rebels when John of Denmark’s fleet appeared off the coast with a large sea-borne army. Once again, the peasants formed up behind their “Lord.” In a letter to the governors of Stockholm, the peasants of Dalecarlia wrote: “Dear friends, you all know that since he became our regent we have enjoyed law and order, and peace and quiet have reigned. You also know that the provinces and castles of our Fatherland were formerly in divers hands, but that they are now united because he ventured life and property in this cause. Since he has served us so faithfully, we cannot suffer him to be driven from the regency by force.” For all the support of the local peasants, however, Sture did not command sufficient forces to risk a pitched battle against John’s powerful array, and he fell back to Stockholm, where he was besieged. His pleas for reinforcements from other parts of the country seem to have gone unheeded, and in October 1497, Sture surrendered the city in return for a full amnesty for himself and all his followers. John was at once elected king of Sweden by the triumphant noblemen who had backed him.

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Origins of Scandinavian Emigration

From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 200-202.

The reign of Charles XIV also witnessed two interlinked events whose significance only later became apparent. In 1837, a Scandinavian emigrant to Illinois named Ole Rynning published in Sweden and Norway a book entitled A True Account of America for the Information and Help of Peasant and Commoner. The book sold in large numbers and inspired hundreds of families, especially in Norway, with dreams of settling in the New World. A trickle of Scandinavian emigrants began at once to cross the Atlantic – two shiploads had already sailed in 1825 and 1836 – but it was only after the ending of the Civil War and the opening of the American West to settlement that Norway was gripped by what became known as “the American Fever.”

Anybody who reads the works of Norway’s Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) or sees his plays cannot fail to be depressed by the straitlaced, puritan atmosphere under which his countrymen lived in the nineteenth century. Ibsen himself could not bear the moral climate of his own country and spent much of his adult life abroad. Thousands upon thousands of Norwegians resolved to escape, and between 1865 and 1914, 674,000 of them migrated to the United States – the total exodus from Norway in the century between 1836 and 1935 was 861,000.

Sweden, as was natural, thanks to its larger population, played an even more impressive part than Norway in the making of America. Official figures, which are probably on the low side, show that 950,000 Swedes emigrated to the United States (and to a much lesser degree to Canada) between 1851 and 1910. World War I more or less halted emigration from both countries and the tightening of United States immigration laws in 1924 has since imposed a permanent ceiling on the influx of all foreign-born peoples.

The Scandinavian newcomers settled largely in the states of the Middle West and Northwest, whose climate and landscape reminded them of home. Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, and the Dakotas were developed, largely thanks to Swedish and Norwegian workers, and Swedish colonies took root also in Maine, Massachusetts, and Nebraska. American visitors to Norway, in particular, will find it difficult to discover a Norwegian family that does not have relatives in the United States; thousands more Norwegians have visited America in the ships of their country’s great merchant fleet.

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Reasons to End the War of 1812

From The Age of Fighting Sail: The Story of the Naval War of 1812, by C. S. Forester (Doubleday, 1952; eNet, 2012), Kindle Loc. 3497-3519:

The object of every war, or threat of war, is, in a final analysis, to bring about such a state of mind in the other party that he does not want to make war. The will of the enemy is the ultimate objective, as Hitler was never tired of preaching, and as Clausewitz understood in those moments when he was not engrossed in the means to the exclusion of the ends. By 1814 both England and America had reached that state of mind. Mr Madison’s conversion was the product of many factors: the failure of the invasion of Canada, the emptiness of the Treasury (resulting from the British blockade) and the fall of Bonaparte. It must be remembered that Mr Madison took the important step of waiving his demands regarding impressment in June 1814. Yet it would be hard to withstand the conclusion that the greatest factor was the presence of a British squadron in the Chesapeake; it was with those topsails almost in sight that Monroe sent off the crucial dispatch. Naval and military factors brought about the British change of heart, the defeat at Lake Champlain, and the repulse—almost bloodless though it was—at Baltimore, and the continued presence of American privateers in British home waters. Finally it was the threat of further military operations—the continuance of the blockade and the menace of Cochrane’s roving army—that kept the American commissioners amenable and facilitated the negotiations.

Once peace came to appear desirable every step was taken to hurry its coming. Debatable questions were ignored or postponed for future discussion. Two hundred written words, even with all the ‘whatsoevers’ and the legal redundancies, affirmed the peace; hardly more were necessary to settle the very difficult questions arising out of a definition of the war’s end in all parts of the world, and a hundred words decided the fate of the prisoners. By contrast it took some thousands of words to set up a future commission to clear up the debatable points left over from the Peace of Paris, now thirty years old. The question of the Indians was solved—or postponed—by specifically including them in the treaty of peace, in two brief paragraphs. One single article, of fifty words, made declaration of the intention of the United States to abolish the slave trade; its presence was an indication of the power and determination of the benevolent enthusiasts of Britain as compared with the more fitful influence of the war party.

The shelving of the debatable points was denounced by some intelligent people on both sides of the Atlantic, on the grounds that it would lead eventually to a renewal of the war. They were proved in the event to be wrong; the memory of the profitless damage done by the war persisted, and was as influential in the minds of those responsible for keeping the peace as the knowledge of it had been in the minds of those responsible for making the peace. The boundary questions were settled amicably, and from there it was an easy step to the neutralization of the American-Canadian border, an achievement in the cause of peace so beneficial, and so far ahead of its time, as almost to justify the bloodshed and misery of the tragic war.

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Disadvantages of Privateers

From The Age of Fighting Sail: The Story of the Naval War of 1812, by C. S. Forester (Doubleday, 1952; eNet, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1237-1266:

American privateering had proved itself offensive beyond all expectation; it is possible that it might have been more offensive still. Certainly there were disadvantages regarding the system, of which the harassed British Government was not aware. It skimmed the cream of American seamen; Hull had no sooner taken up his new appointment in New York than he complained that such was the rush to enter into and to fit out privateers that he found it hard to find seamen for naval vessels or workmen for navy yards. It consumed stores and supplies of which the Navy felt the need. Competition between individual shipowners was liable to accentuate shortages and force up prices. But these serious disadvantages were only indicative of others, and any attempt to remedy all or any of them confronted the Administration with problems which it was peculiarly unfitted to solve.

Privateers sought profits; the national welfare was only incidental. Other privateers were business competitors, and only secondarily brothers-in-arms. It could easily happen that a successful owner would endeavour to preserve his trade secrets and to keep his knowledge of the enemy’s methods to himself. Undoubtedly he would seek prizes of commercial value; and the facile argument that the greater the commercial loss to the enemy the greater the effect on the war did not hold water. The capture of a homeward-bound East Indiaman would mean enormous prize money, and long faces in the City; but the capture of the coasting brig with Wellington’s twenty tons of shoes on board, although it would mean small prize money, would immobilize England’s one army in the moment of victory. There could be little doubt as to which capture would have the greater effect in inducing the British Government to consider peace on America’s terms; unfortunately there could be little doubt as to which capture a privateer captain would endeavour to make—unless he were both exceptionally patriotic and well informed, and prepared to ignore his owner’s demand for dividends and his crew’s clamour for prize money. Even in the Royal Navy there were continuous hints and complaints that captains and flag officers were tempted to neglect military duties in order to seek prizes, although the orders they received were backed by all the machinery of the Articles of War and with the death penalty looming in the background.

The question of discipline in privateers was always a serious one. The ship’s articles gave the captain considerable powers, and many captains were able to use those powers to the full, yet there were exceptions. Although there are accounts of desperate actions fought by privateers, there are plenty of accounts of only feeble resistance being offered, and sometimes none at all—more than one English captain reports coming alongside an American privateer to find the decks deserted, the whole crew having run below. The cynic may wonder at the strange quirks of human nature which lead men to give their lives for something as unsubstantial as the honour of their service while they are not prepared to risk them for solid cash, and yet, while wondering, the cynic must admit the existence and the power of those motives; the man who has struck a bargain to go privateering is likely, when faced by the imminent and unimagined danger of hard knocks, to plead misrepresentation and to regret and to go back on his purely commercial bargain.

The privateersman, even the veriest landsman, having entered in return for a share in the proceeds of a voyage, was likely to arrogate to himself the rights of a shareholder and to claim a voice in the management, especially with the tradition of the town meeting behind him; the tendency was almost inevitable and subversive of discipline, and it called for leadership on the part of the captain—and successes as well—to counteract it. The best of privateering captains had to make allowance for the possible restiveness of his crew in conditions of disillusioning hardship and disappointment.

Only the most radical measures on the part of the Administration could have minimized these disadvantages of the privateering system.

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Secessionist New England, 1812

From The Age of Fighting Sail: The Story of the Naval War of 1812, by C. S. Forester (Doubleday, 1952; eNet, 2012), Kindle Loc. 904-928:

OPINION in New England had been strongly against war. Just as during the days of Non-intercourse and Embargo some mercantile interests were prepared to evade the law and to continue commercial relations with Britain; at this very time the British forces in Canada were being fed on supplies sent up from America. There was intense dislike—hatred—of Mr Madison, his administration, and his principles. The political judgment of many in New England, shrewder in this case than Mr Madison’s, condemned Bonaparte for the unprincipled tyrant that he was; there were patriotic men who felt dismay at the prospect of aiding tyranny in a war against freedom. They knew a dilemma unknown to those who merely desired to make a profit; they were tempted to extricate themselves from it by secession from the Union. Political hatred, commercial interest, and distrust of Mr Madison’s judgment made a powerful combination; and this was in a country whose chief historical memory was one of successful rebellion against authority.

The beginning of the war had been gloomy. General Hull’s astonishing surrender at Detroit was a shattering blow to the hopes that had been entertained of an easy—even a bloodless—conquest of Canada. It was a moral disappointment as well as a military defeat, in that it proved that at least some elements in Canada were prepared to fight. It provided a further argument for those people who mistrusted Mr Madison’s judgment. The British Government, conducting a war for national existence, and aware of the existence of a potential separatist movement in New England, had no scruples in the matter. It was prepared to make use of any factor, a mere desire to make money or personal jealousy or local jealousy or actual treason, that would simplify its task. In the matter of blockade, in the matter of granting licences for American ships, and in the matter of trading with the enemy, its policy was not to rouse the antagonism of the mass of the people.

And the mass of the people might be swayed by an active and intelligent minority. There was a lack of the symbols and simplifications that could influence the unthinking; and the news from Detroit could implant the uneasy suspicion that they were on the losing side—and there was an absence of the inspiring leadership which could call forth the determination to see the matter through.

It was into this atmosphere that Hull returned with the news of his victory. He had two hundred prisoners to put ashore under guard. He had sent to the bottom of the sea the Guerrière, whose appearance, the cut of whose jib, had been familiar to so many in that seafaring community. He had in his power one of those lordly British captains whose bland—or not so bland—assumption of superiority had irked even an Anglophile society. He had scored a victory over the British Navy which had been victorious over every other nation on earth, and he had scored that victory by a bold and vigorous offensive in the face of peril. The news was exhilarating. There could hardly be a croaker to point out that this was no more than a pin-prick in the rhinoceros hide of British naval power. When even the well-informed could be carried away by enthusiasm the unlettered or unthinking masses were bound to be influenced yet more strongly. The quite serious danger of a pro-British (or anti-Washington) movement in New England began to decline from its peak, although it remained serious.

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Truman’s First Press Conference

From The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, by A. J. Baime (HMH Books, 2017), Kindle pp. 140-142:

At 10:30 a.m., dozens filed into the Oval Office for Truman’s first press conference. Standing behind his desk, he greeted reporters as they pushed into the room, which quickly grew uncomfortably crowded. Regular presidential press conferences were a tradition going back to Woodrow Wilson, who on March 15, 1913, set a precedent of welcoming newspaper reporters into his office to answer questions. Roosevelt had held two a week and had elevated these meetings to high art. Wielding his cigarette holder as if conducting an orchestra, he would deliver soliloquies that would entrance his guests, while almost always failing on purpose to answer any question posed.

On April 17 the largest crowd ever assembled for a presidential press conference pushed into the Oval Office—348 men and women reporters—all aiming to size up the new chief executive. Some were forced to stand on the terrace outside the president’s office—lucky ones, because the room got exceedingly hot.

“Good morning,” Truman said, “good morning.”

“Good morning, Mr. President,” someone in the crowd said. “Will you take it sort of slow for us today, please, sir?”

“Surely, surely,” Truman said. “Anything I can do to accommodate you.”

No one in the room could help making comparisons to Roosevelt. For one thing, this president was standing up. “We all knew that Roosevelt had gone to Groton and then Harvard,” recalled White House correspondent Robert Nixon, who was getting his first crack at Truman that morning. “That [Roosevelt] came from a quite old, well-to-do family; that he moved in what is known as the best circles all of his life . . . Truman was a small town, Midwestern Missourian of farm origin . . . The contrast was in appearance, voice mannerisms, and even their attire. President Roosevelt, while a casual dresser, was very well tailored . . . Truman dressed like he had just come off of Main Street in Independence.”

The new president called for attention. “The first thing I want to do to you is to read the rules,” he said. After telling the reporters what they already knew—everything he said was background material, no direct quotes were allowed unless there was specific permission—he began by announcing that most of the Roosevelt staff would stay on, and that Matthew Connelly had been appointed his confidential secretary. Truman read a letter aloud from Mrs. Roosevelt, thanking everyone for their wishes, “which have brought great comfort and consolation to all of us.” Due to the wartime paper shortage, Mrs. Roosevelt would not be responding to all correspondence. Instead, she had asked Truman to read her thank-you letter to the press.

Truman then opened the floor. He answered questions about reciprocal trade, race relations, the wartime ban on horseracing, and the historic United Nations Conference set to open in eight days.

“Mr. President,” said one reporter in the crowd. “Will Mrs. Truman have a press conference?”

“I would rather not answer that question at this time.”

At numerous moments Truman delivered witticisms that sparked laughter in the room. The Missourian had a simple way of speaking that amused his counterparts in the press. He whittled his ideas down to the fewest words and handed them over. Unlike Roosevelt, Truman actually answered questions, and if he chose not to, he said just that.

“His first press conferences were wonderful,” noted press secretary Daniels. At the end of this first one, something happened that had never occurred in any of Roosevelt’s meetings with the press: the room erupted in spontaneous applause.

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