Sunday, August 31, 2014

By What Authority Do You Exist?

When a baby takes its first breath of air, it is not how legitimate the child is deemed to be by onlookers that determines whether it will live or die. Viability is an issue for survival. Legitimacy is not. And yet authorities have since time immemorial taken upon themselves the right to determine the legitimacy of children and nations.

Authority is a strange and mysterious topic. It is a concept resorted to during power struggles, but it purports to be about more than who is bigger and stronger. It is about legitimacy or lawfulness, but what can that possibly mean when the topic in question is anyone's right to exist?

When the British Mandate was lifted, it was not the Balfour declaration of 1917 nor the United Nations General Assembly's recommendation of partition in 1947 that created the State of Israel. It was winning the ensuing war  in 1948 that ensured its existence.

Yet the word "authority" is often  bandied about, when the existence of countries is in question. Take for instance James Monroe's envoy to Galveston, George Graham, who was sent by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to deal with Jean Laffite.  Here is the beginning of a letter Graham presented to Jean Laffite.

Image from Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain

Jean Laffite's initial response to this inquiry was short and sweet.

Image from Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain
When the reply came in the form of authorization from John Quincy Adams, the Secretary of State under James Monroe, Jean Laffite found himself being more circumspect and explaining that he was there to help the United States. But what did all this back and forth correspondence about authority really signify?

When someone asks you by what authority you exist, chances are what he really means is: Whose guns will protect you if I decide to do away with you? Is there anything else it could mean?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Universal Suffrage for Free People in New Jersey 1776-1807

                  At the time of the famous duel, women and blacks had the vote in New Jersey

The year 1807 was a very bad year for civil liberties in the United States. Thomas Jefferson was president, and he very nearly got passed a law to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. General James Wilkinson was on the rampage in New Orleans, establishing a de facto if not de jure state of Martial Law. Aaron Burr, once he was cleared of the charge of treason, was a penniless debtor, who would eventually be forced to flee the country in disgrace.  And in New Jersey, women and blacks lost the vote.

I bet that you didn't even know that women and blacks ever had the vote in any state of the Union prior to the Civil War! I bet you think that constitutional amendments on the Federal level were necessary for getting blacks and, later, women the vote. I bet they told you that in the civics class you took in high school. That is what certain "progressives" would like you to think. But back in early America, every state could decide for itself who was to have the right to vote in that state. In New Jersey, the qualification were as follows:

All inhabitants -- not all men, or all white men -- who were full age and owned property were allowed to vote. Now, it is true that married women did not own any property, because they were deemed to have given that over to their husbands, but all unmarried women who were of age and did own an estate worth fifty pounds were allowed to vote. And there was no racial designation for any of the inhabitants, so free blacks could vote.

How was New Jersey so forward thinking so early? Historians attribute it to the Quaker influence. The Society of Friends always believed that all people were equal. Among them, there were many women preachers and they had equal standing with men.

In order to vote in New Jersey, you had to be a free person and to own fifty pounds, to be over twenty-one and to have been a resident of the county in which you were voting for at least one year. That's it. No race or sex requirements. If anyone questioned your right to vote at the polls, here is the declaration you needed to be able to make:

Aaron Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1756. After the death of his parents and grandparents, he went to live in Elizabeth (town) in 1760. He grew up steeped in the belief that women and blacks should have equal rights as they were endowed with souls and minds like anyone else. When we realize that everyone in the state where he was raised seemed to be of the same belief, Burr's feminist and egalitarian views do not appear so unusual.

However, the year 1807 was a year of general corruption and disharmony in the union, and one of the results was that after a fixed election full of voter fraud, the rights of women and blacks were taken away.

By general corruption throughout the land, the people in New Jersey suffered a great loss. This situation was never subsequently reversed, for when blacks and women came to have the vote under the Federal constitution, the idea that they should not be unfree, in debt or the dependent member of someone else's household was no longer remembered. Therefore, debtors were allowed to vote away the rights of creditors and dependents were able to vote against the rights of the people who supported them financially, and eventually employees got to vote away the rights of employers. This is a loss of rights that very few are willing to even mention today.

A woman or a black person today is expected to be thankful for the progressive influence, without which no rights could have been granted. But in fact women and blacks who are not in debt lost their advantage over women and blacks who are in debt to vote for fiscally responsible policies.

1807 was a very bad year in America.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

What Was the War of 1812 About?

Two hundred years ago today the British burned down Washington. They invaded, and the Americans retreated. Dolley Madison saved the painting of George Washington, but that was a small consolation for all that was lost. Honor, hope, dreams.

Nobody remembers the War of 1812 today, except for a handful of historians, largely because there is no consensus as to what this war was about. Other wars carry handy labels:

The American Revolution -- "No taxation without representation."

The Civil War -- On the winning side it is known as "the war to free the slaves". On the losing side, it is known as "The War Between the States", and the cause is "States' Rights."

World War I -- "The War to End All Wars." People laugh, but they still remember that.

World War II -- "The War against the Nazis." I know that is not an official label, and of course that Japan was also involved, but when certain people cite WWII as a "moral war", that seems to be what they mean.

The undeclared wars that happened after WWII are as problematic as the Quasi-War with France. So is the Spanish-American War. But the War of 1812 is the one most people will readily admit that they know nothing about and never really understood.

It may very well have been the war to pay for the Louisiana Purchase. It was the war that was won by privateers, but it was also the war that put an end to privateering. It may have been the war that put an end to our belief that we could live without a standing army. Some see it as the second war of American independence, but ultimately it was a war that had us very much a vassal of Britain for quite some time. It was a war that was won in the Battle of New Orleans but lost in Ghent with the signing of a treaty that pre-dated that battle.

The Signing of the Treaty of Ghent.
Admiral of  James Gambier is shaking hands with U.S. Ambassador  John Quincy Adams

None of the American aims in declaring the War of 1812 were accomplished. No reparations were made by the British for the damage they did during the war, both by burning Washington and in all their other forays on American soil, including most notably The Sack of Hampton.

The War of 1812 may be neglected by history teachers in the schools because the way it was managed was embarrassing, but it is well worth studying in order to understand how we came to be where we are today.

To learn more about the war itself, and the part Jean Laffite played in it, read this novel.

The Battle Against Britain

For a better understanding of the aftermath of that war, read this one.

The War Against Spain

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Suspending Habeas Corpus: A Longstanding American Tradition

The right to a writ of  habeas corpus  has been suspended in 21st century America. Again. For some patriots, this is a shocking turn of events, but to most people, it is business as usual. And, in fact, it keeps happening over and over again and is an ongoing American tradition. Likewise, it is equally traditional, every time it happens, for those who care about the loss of civil liberties to act as if this is the first time it has ever happened.

When George W. Bush first suspended the right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus as part of his "War Against Terror", a war that his successor has kept in effect, government experts pointed out that Abraham Lincoln had done the same.

Not everybody, however, is surprised that Lincoln did this, as a sizable group of Americans feel that President Lincoln is known for overreaching and taking power for the executive branch, in contravention of constitutional guarantees. But most of those people would be shocked to learn that Thomas Jefferson was guilty of the same.

Recently, I came across a pamphlet consisting of two letters attributed to Joseph Alston, Theodosia Burr Alston's husband, and privately published in South Carolina in 1807. I am not going to reproduce everything in the pamphlet here, but I will provide a sample:

A few months since, and I hardly should have been persuaded that the subject of this letter could ever have engaged the pen of an American citizen. When I read the afflicting details of individual oppression, and of military violence which disgrace the history of almost every other country, I turned involuntarily to contemplate the delightful contrast provided by the admirable provisions of our constitution and laws, for the security of the citizen, and the strict subordination of the military to the civil authority. Unaffectedly as I sympathized with the victims of arbitrary power, strong as was my indignation against the oppressor, I could not avoid mingling with these generous feelings, something like the emotion of him, who  encircled by his family, and seated before the blazing hearth of his comfortable mansion, hears the pelting storm impotently rattle against his windows, or listens to the piercing blast, as it whistles along the distant heath.
At this point one might suppose one is reading a fictional work by one of the Brontës, possibly Charlotte in Jane Eyre. Were there really any heaths in post-colonial America?  The writer sounds so British and the prose is a bit purple. But no, it was Joseph Alston of South Carolina, or some member of his household, who wrote this.

When I extended my view from the constitution to the Laws to the disposition, the manners, the habits that characterise my countrymen, I beheld other and still nobler pillars supporting the temple which liberty had erected to justice, and in the conscious exultation of my heart, have not unfrequently exclaimed-- "Here we are safe! Unhappy man, whom flight has rescued from oriental or occidental despotism, wretched fugative [sic] from the north or the south, repose without fear in the sanctuary which heaven has provided for you. Here, here, oppression dare not, cannot show her hideous form!"
One can well imagine Joseph Alston frequently exclaiming this on his rice plantation. But I can't also help but wonder: did he really write this himself?

Little did I imagine that from meditations like these I should be roused by the daring and atrocious scenes lately acted in New-Orleans! Little did I imagine that I should so soon behold the constitution, upon which I proudly rested, bleeding under the poignards of its military assassins; the laws, to which I looked for protection, trampled upon;  the civil authority annihilated. Mark, Sir, the picture which General Wilkinson has presented to our contemplation! Encamped with his army, within sight of the enemy who had invaded our territories, he suddenly concludes with them an armistice and withdraws the troops. The surrounding country is astonished, but astonishment is quickly succeeded by  feelings of a different nature. By forced marches he proceeds to New-Orleans; --he arrives-- treason! rebellion! are sounded --and in an instant the whole city is in one scene of confusion, amaze and consternation. The approach of an army of 20,000 insurgents in announced! Camps are formed, the militia are enrolled, pickets are hastily thrown up, entrenchments made, spots marked up for batteries, in a word preparations for battle strike every eye and fill every heart with emotion. Armed vessels are equipped and dispatched up the river, guards are stationed at different points, with strict orders to suffer none to pass without  a permit from the General! Military law prevails!
The imposition of Martial Law is always the precursor to other, more specific violations of civil liberties. We see this happen today more often than is comfortable. It was not essentially different back in 1807. It starts with harassing the press.

The press ventures a comment about these measures, and it is put down; to doubt the reality of the danger is to be an accessory to the conspiracy, general words, long spoken, and perhaps misunderstood, or falsely  reported by malice, are conjured up as strong presumption of guilt, every man is surrendered to the mercy of his enemy, since to have a letter addressed to him is to be constituted a criminal. The people, agitated and full of suspense regard in awful silence the portentous looks of this new arbiter of their destinies, and tremble at every movement.
In this last paragraph, there is reference to several events that are explained in the margins. For instance the sentence about how having a letter addressed to a person  makes him a criminal refers to a draft drawn on Edward Livingston by Aaron Burr. Livingston owed Burr money. Burr needed the money repaid, so he had Erich Bollman deliver a letter from Burr to Livingston requesting payment. Livingston liquidated some assets and paid the debt to Bollman. When this happened, both Livingston and Bollman were accused of plotting to overthrow of the government. This event is described in detail in the biography of Edward Livingston. As to the words long spoken which are used as evidence, the footnote refers to a letter by General Wilkinson to President Jefferson in which he says: "writs of habeas corpus have been issued for the bodies of Bollman, Swartwout and Ogden, the two latter by Judge Workman, who is strongly suspected for being concerned with Burr in his conspiracy, as I have proof this man declared sometime since that the republican who possessed power and did not use it to establish a despotism is a fool." And so, based on this kind of evidence, various persons were summarily arrested,  and locked away. and shipped to Washington City by the General, in order to prevent them from establishing a "despotism". And one of the lawyers who attempted to defend the accused, a Mr.  Alexander, "was dispatched with others at a stormy and dangerous season, on a voyage to the U. States: happily for him he arrived safe: he was instantly discharged on a Writ of Habeas Corpus, and left at liberty to return to his business at Orleans, having merely been interrupted in his professional pursuits, for a few months, imprisoned part of the time, exposed to the dangers of a winter's passage from and to Orleans, put to some little expense, and obliged to traverse a distance of between two and three thousand miles."

--He issues his mandate, and various citizens of the United States are arrested: two gentlemen at the bar have the courage to demand a Writ of Habeas Corpus in their favor -- and one of them shares the fate of those he would have rescued from the prosecution, the other is denounced as a  traitor! The Judge, to whom the application was made, has virtue and spirit enough, in spite of the military despotism that surrounds him, to grant the writs, and the subjects of these writs, excepting one, are immediately removed to remote and secret places of confinement, and the court is insulted with the most trifling, unsatisfactory and illegal returns. The prisoner for whose removal there had not yet been time, is at length brought up, no cause for his confinement is shewn, and he is liberated. The Judge who has committed this daring outrage upon the orders of the commander in chief, is immediately declared to be strongly suspected of being himself a conspirator, and the prisoner he had liberated is again  arrested with new victims of suspicion and malice. Writs of Habeas Corpus are again applied for, again issued: Wilkinson, emboldened by the tame submission of the civil executive, which willingly crouches at his feet, no longer evades, but openly defies the order; 
What reason did General Wilkinson give for openly defying court orders to turn over the "bodies" of those arrested? He declared that the country was "menaced by insurrection" and that he would take and seize all others "of whose guilt he is assured."

And here, after recounting these facts, the letter turns to what should by now be the familiar lament of all freedom loving people when it turns out that the freedom they believed was theirs is not guaranteed or automatic or even eventually forthcoming:

Gracious God! In what times, in what country do we live? Have we been transported to the land of our ancestors? Has the elder Charles been restored to us, and is this an edict from the Star Chamber? Do we enjoy, in France, the halcyon days of that Louis whom the folly of posterity has surnamed the Great, and is this the new formula of a captilatory in justification of Lettres de Cachet?Or is it in poor, devoted Ireland that the sanguinary administration of the murderer of Orr and the prosecutor of Finnerty is restored, and is this a proclamation from the castle, announcing to a degraded and insulted people the return of the horrors of '97 and '98? Espionage systematised and encouraged, rewards offered for perjury, secret denunciations, arbitrary imprisonment and military law! No, we are neither in England nor in France, nor in Ireland. It is neither the sceptered Charles, the Great Louis nor the Earl of Camden who thus daringly tramples upon all law, and without trial, without even preferring an  accusation before any constituted tribunal,  consigns to prison, or the dungeon, the unhappy object of his suspicion or the unsuspecting victim of his malice. America -- America, the abode of Liberty, the empire of the laws -- is the scene of these outrages, the period of their perpetration the beginning of the nineteenth century! The perpetrator an officer of the United States Army!
Doesn't that sound like every lament against the recent loss of liberty we currently read on Facebook? It's the beginning of the 19th century, people! This shouldn't be happening.

Who wrote this little pamphlet? It is signed Agrestis,  but the attribution in the copy that I got is to Joseph Alston.

And yet I cannot help but wonder if Theodosia had a hand in writing this. There are a lot of learned references to the ancients, many quotes in Latin, and other scholarly touches that seem less likely to come from Joseph, the college drop-out,  than from his more erudite wife.

Was it in a moment of peace with the whole world, of profound domestic tranquility, in the midst of a people faithful to themselves and to their country that the cruel  and atrocious scenes acted in ancient Sicily were necessarily renewed in an American province? And is the salus populi now to be urged in vindication or the modern Verres under whose Praetorship, the unhappy objects of his tyranny, like the persecuted Sicilians neque suas leges neque nostra senatus consulta neque communia iura tenuerunt? Yes-- this plea has been urged! This plea has been advanced! A President of the United States condescends to be the apologist of these outrages, continues the offender in the high military command that enabled him to effect them, and Wilkinson triumphs in his guilt! Sacred Spirit of '76! Sleepest thou in the grave with Washington, Adams and their generous compatriots? Or dost thou  still linger in our land?
For a translation of that bit in Latin, probably by Cicero, you might refer to this site:

John Adams was still alive in 1807, so the part about him being in the grave with Washington seems a little premature. However, that's a mistake a contemporary might easily have made.

To be fair to Jefferson, the president referred to above as condescending to be an apologist for outrages,  he was not actually the first president to have violated the Spirit of '76. That would be Washington with his actions during the Whiskey Rebellion. And Adams was not much better, conducting an undeclared Quasi-War against France and promoting the Alien and Sedition Act  But when you are fighting to condemn the actions of one president, there is a temptation to paint all the others as saints. Unfortunately, we see that happening today, where if the current president is to be condemned, then the previous one is to be lauded, and vice versa,  when both are guilty of very similar behavior, though they belong to different parties.

The fact that America was only on its third president and already a constitutional crisis was at hand may have left the pamphleteer very little American history to rely on for argument's sake. But who has the author of this pamphlet chosen to  compare  General Wilkinson with? Gaius Verres, born 120 B.C. died 43 B.C. who, among his many corrupt practices,  used to accuse the slaves of wealthy landowners of conspiring with Spartacus in his slave rebellion. Is this likely to have been a preoccupation of Joseph Alston, the slaveholder and plantation owner? Or is it more likely to be something that his abolitionist, Latin-reading wife was thinking about?

The moral indignation and emotional tone also remind me of the letter Theodosia wrote to Dolley Madison later, when her father was in exile:

The offenses against which the person signing only as Agrestis complains were real. They did happen. It was as wrong then as it is now for the military to summarily arrest, indefinitely detain and deny a right to trial. But it is unclear whether the arguments made were effective, despite the obvious erudition and ardor of the writer. How many American voters regularly read Cicero in the original, even in 1807? What did most slaveholders think about Spartacus? Could Aaron Burr and his supporters have used a more populist writer to defend them?

Who do you think wrote that pamphlet? Is there any hope today for the vanished Spirit of '76?

Theodosia and the Pirates

If you want to read this pamphlet for yourself, it is available from Amazon:

A Short Review etc

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Honorable Way Out

There are many things in our culture that are disturbing to me, but the one that has been bothering me the most lately has been the disparagement of the concept of personal honor. At a time when men fought hand to hand for the defense of their country and their tribe and their family, there were killings for honor, and there was suicide for the sake of honor, and most people understood that just because a man had killed himself, this did not necessarily mean that he was mentally ill.  It also most certainly did not mean that he was a coward.

A certain celebrity recently took his own life. Many people are grieving. Some are angry. Some have called him a coward, and others excused his action as stemming from clinical depression. He didn't kill himself, they say. The depression did.

How many of these people realize how culturally constructed their view of suicide is? How many have contemplated the examples of suicide throughout the ages, and the many honorable men and women who took their own lives?

King Saul needed help to fall on his sword.  Hannibal took poison at the age of 65 when he saw that they were coming for him. Petronius slit his wrists and died luxuriating in the bathtub. The people of Masada committed mass suicide rather than surrender.Were these examples from history cowardly? Nobody thought so at the time. Did they involve mental illness? I don't think so.  Was it sad? Yes. But it was also honorable. What happened to the concept of honor? When did we lose it?

In 1929, when businessmen were casting themselves off rooftops, was there a massive case of clinical depression? Or were these men taking the honorable way out because they could not pay their just debts?

The idea of taking one's own life is scary, and most of us are incapable of it. To call someone a coward because he is able to do so seems to subvert the concept of bravery and cowardice. It is double think. It is cultural conditioning. It is based on the idea that our lives are not our own to dispose of as we wish. It suggests that no matter what happens, we have to submit. But ultimately the one way to avoid slavery after all other options are foreclosed has got to be to end it all. Why are the authorities so afraid of this that they have actually made laws against suicide?

While I realize that those who say it was depression that killed the celebrity are doing so in his own defense, I have to question that as well. What would be wrong with simply saying it was his right? That he didn't owe us anything? That it's none of our business why?

If you were facing an impossible situation, wouldn't you want a way out? Wouldn't you want to be part of a culture that respected your right to own your life? A culture that allowed you to decide when enough is enough?

When they were taking Captain DesFarges out to hang from the Revenue Service Cutter, because they had found him guilty of piracy, he asked for a gun so he could shoot himself and avoid a hanging. When that was denied him, he tried to drown himself in the river. They fished him out alive and hanged him. Do you think the Federal government was trying to save him from falling victim to a mental illness, or were they just insisting on killing him themselves in a much less dignified manner?

Death with dignity is a topic that Theodosia is obsessed with toward the end of The War Against Spain. She is so afraid of having Jean hanged after his capture, that she would rather hire a sharpshooter to have him shot, instead. Hanging was considered a dishonorable death. But some men do not find hanging to be such a very horrible end, and some even choose it as their way out.

The War Against Spain

Rather than judging others for the method they choose, would it not be better to make sure that they are honored for their courage, rather than condemned for their choice? Someday, each of us may be faced with a similar choice. We none of us know what we may do on that day.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Karl Marx and Jean Laffite: Owning the Means of Production

Was Jean Laffite a Marxist? I don't think so. I think he was a self-made wealthy person who believed in free enterprise, and who had a keen sense of the importance of property ownership. Reading his letter of protest to James Madison, you can see how pained Laffite was to have his property confiscated by the United States government.  Jean Laffite kept his money in a Swiss bank, divided it equally between the children of his two wives upon his death, and in all other respects followed the laws of contracts when divvying up the spoils on his privateering ships.The owner of the vessel was always paid a much larger share than the lowliest crew member, but each was paid a percentage of the take. Obviously property ownership was important to Jean Laffite, and he rewarded people based on their material contributions to the success of his ventures. He also donated money to causes he believed in, among them the liberation of slaves; and he took great pride in being able to do so.

But could Laffite  have supported Marx financially, as is suggested by some sources? I think that is entirely possible, given that what Marx may have said when he was young  and how it is interpreted today are two different things.

Young Karl Marx as he appeared in 1839

Young Karl Marx is to be distinguished from old Karl Marx. To read some English translations of Young Karl Marx's works, you might want to follow this link:

Could such an idealistic and ambitious young man have caught the eye of the aging Jean Laffite as someone whose cause was worth supporting?

Confession: I have not actually read Das Kapital.  I am also fairly sure that neither had Jean Laffite before he died, because this magnum opus by Marx  was not published until long after Laffite's death. But even if portions of it were available while Jean Laffite was alive, I am pretty sure he could not have read them, as they were in German.

If you would like to try reading it, Das Kapital  can be found free online here:;view=1up;seq=5

It's all very long and very detailed and kind of hard to get a feel for  in one sitting. For instance, in the passage below, Marx is talking about how gold is used as currency, where it derives its value from, whether it is in itself a commodity and how it empowers private people in private business.  He even quotes Christopher Columbus as saying that gold is a "wonderful thing"  in a letter from Jamaica dated 1503.

Even if Jean Laffite, who was himself by no means a scholar, had tried to read some of Marx's works in manuscript, he could have read for a long time without encountering anything that sounded the least bit "Marxist."

One of the catch-phrases of Marxism is that workers should own the means of production.  But what does that actually mean? And how would it apply to privateering?

It was during the industrial revolution that tasks such as spinning and weaving, which had formerly been performed privately in the home, came to be done in factories by workers who did not own the equipment on which they were working . In the United States, immediately after the War of 1812, many businesses were incorporated and investors contributed funds and received stock in return, for the purposes of textile production. During the Panic of 1819, when the United States repaid to Britain the debt that it owed to Napoleon for the Purchase of Louisiana, many of these businesses went bankrupt or were on the verge of bankruptcy, due to a shortage of specie. But in order to prevent a general economic collapse, instead of allowing all these businesses to fail, the government passed debtor relief laws whose overall effect was to go to fiat currency instead of specie based currency. In the Western territories, confidence in paper money was so low that people went back to the barter system, using whiskey to index the value of all other commodities. Jean Laffite lived through all of that. At the time of his death, he was probably also aware of the extreme conflict of interest between the industrialized northern states, as opposed to the agrarian south.

Jean Laffite used the term "wage slavery", which refers to people who are paid a wage for working in other people's businesses. rather than owning their own business and getting a share of the profits. He expressed in his journal a desire to liberate wage slaves. Marx is known to have written of the extreme tedium and soul destroying monotony of working in a factory as a mere laborer. Jean Laffite's crew members were anything but wage slaves. The work they did was exciting, and they were motivated to work hard because unless there was a prize, they got paid nothing. They were not marking time to earn money by the number of hours that they served. They were paid for results, not for effort!

But does any of that mean that Jean Laffite favored nationalizing the factories and letting the government run them? I don't think so. On the contrary, he probably favored the privateering model, which is one that acknowledged the rights of owners of ships to the greater share of the spoils, but paid each crew member a specified percentage of the take.

Who actually did nationalize all the privateering vessels? In Cartagena. it was Simon Bolivar who did this. The last vessel that Jean Laffite is known to have served on was the General Santander, which belonged to the government of Colombia. There Jean Laffite, for the first time in his adult life, did not own the means of production, but was a mere government employee. In the United States, privateering was greatly curtailed as well, giving rise to a national defense that consisted of both a standing army and a standing navy, and discouraged the private waging of war for profit.

Can any modern day American warrior say that he owns the war machinery that he uses?

Not  everything is as it seems. Nationalization actually takes the means of production out of the hands of the workers. Socialism is the very opposite of privateering. And it stands to reason that if Jean Laffite supported Marx's position on the workers owning the means of production, he thought it meant a restoration of privateering in all trades and business, rather more nationalization of ships and factories. Jean Laffite was no Marxist, as that term is currently understood.

And how about Marx himself? I have no idea. I would have to read all his works before I could form a coherent opinion on the matter. But I can tell you this: I have a really strong hunch that he did not want people living off hourly wages. He wanted them to own things.

One of the memes floating around the internet today goes something like this: "Jesus was not a Christian. Mohammad was not a Moslem. Buddha was not a Buddhist. They were just people who had something to say." Is it possible that Karl Marx was not actually a Marxist?

Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Private Fighter Pilots and Other Modern Day Privateers

Most of us have grown up in an era where the government monopoly on war machines was just a given. It was not even an issue for public discussion. We didn't question it, because it did not occur to us to question. That's how much the fabric of American society has changed since the War of 1812.

However, it used to be understood that private owners of war ships and cannons and other primarily military equipment were just as important if not more so than government funded combatants.

The second amendment is not specifically limited to any particular type of weapon. Arms include anything that can be used in battle, and it is not merely for self defense or for the defense of the country at large. In fact, there's nothing in the second amendment to indicate that such weapons are to be used in defensive maneuvers only.  A citizen could be envisioned to go on the offense, too, for the benefit of the national security.

Recently, I saw someone complaining that if Americans wanted to fight for their country, then they should join one of the Armed Forces of the United States. But there could be any number of reasons why they might not want to or might not be able, even if they did want to.

  • People in the armed forces have to give up many of their civil rights while serving. They are not allowed to publish their political opinions or to be actively engaged in the shaping of public policy. But a very patriotic person might want to serve his country while retaining his first amendment rights
  • The need to obey orders might conflict with the desire to allow one's own conscience to dictate what behavior is appropriate in any given situation. Refusing a direct order to fire at civilians can be problematic in a war zone. 
  • Sometimes very able bodied people are rejected by the military for failing to meet certain very strict physical criteria.

What if you wanted to be a fighter pilot and the United States Air Force rejected you? Maybe your vision wasn't perfect or some other aspect of your person or background was not completely up to spec. Should this be allowed to deter you from pursuing that dream?

While being a fighter pilot is not my personal dream, I have known a number of people who faced this dilemma. Should they be allowed to fly fighter jets outside the military? Can they in fact?

I did a search and found this:

If you are interested in this possibility, their site is here:

Somehow I feel that this is not a real opportunity for combat training, but if you know of other, better possibilities, please speak up in the comments.

The provision for letters of marque and reprisal is still there in the United States constitution. Could it apply to fighter jet pilots as well as ships' captains?

Friday, August 1, 2014

Should Smaller Countries Rely on the Beneficence of the United States?

If there is any lesson to be learned from the way Jean Laffite was treated by representatives of the United States goverment at Galveston, it is this: A very small country cannot expect to survive long if it chooses to become a satellite of the United States.

There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that in the tit-for-tat of diplomatic negotiation, the United States tends to make concessions to countries whose behavior and goals it sees as problematic and even threatening, while taking for granted that well-behaved satellites will stay in line.

My father, back when he still hoped that Israel would stop relying on US assistance,  explained it like this:

the entire article can be read in facsimile here:

When Uri goes to school, the teacher, Bracha, tells him that discipline, quiet and order are the keys to success. If Uri asked for my advice, I would tell him to ignore the teacher and do whatever he feels like. I know what the teacher learned in her pedagogical seminar: take the wildest boy, give him a position of authority, give him responsibility, imbue him with importance,  and he will help you to rule over the class. You will be able to handle the obedient children either way. Uri knows all that. He does not need my advice.
I'm not saying that it has to be this way. It is possible to manage a class, a family, a country or the world another way, too. The teacher, the head of the family, the government of the country,  the international authority can do so. But it's not up to Uri. He can only study the responses of Mrs. Bracha and learn that it is not the one who obeys her who is rewarded. In the area of international relations, it is not in Israel's hands. Israel can only determine that it is not in its best interest to obey international powers, even if their intention is for the good. The international powers have interests that are in conflict with those of Israel; at times the great powers do not even understand what is their own best interest. For its own sake, and at times even for the sake of the great power whose commands it disobeys, Israel must break out on its own.
 This same advice holds in every relationship, even the intimate ones. Those who are most secure in our love and most sure of our allegiance to them are the ones who tend to take advantage of us. Often family members show greater deference and concern toward strangers they are wary of than to those whom they trust and rely on. In a romantic relationship, the person who is most committed is the one with the least leverage. In business negotiation and at the diplomatic conference table,  it is the least well-behaved participant who has more of a chance to get what he wants.

In Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain, we learn this lesson over and over again. From the opening pages, where Theodosia's love for Jean leaves her unable to demand anything for herself, not even that he break his ties with the treacherous General James Wilkinson, to the many different moments when Jean offers his allegiance and his services to the United States only to be told that they would rather do business with Spain or Britain, to the final negotiations by Pierre for a safe conduct pass, which is only granted when Pierre hints that Jean could just hand over Galveston to Spain, we see how it all works. The one who loves the most is rarely found on top, and the United States gives in to empires it is afraid of and not to the friends that are helping it to resist them.

Could it be otherwise? Could unconditional love ever be rewarded? Could a pater familias, a governor or a ruler ever punish the disobedient and reward the good? Could justice be swift and unerring, and could there ever be someone we can count on not to betray our trust once we give it?

We do see that in the actions of Jean Laffite as he governs his own family, his captains and his  own little country. But Jean Laffite was not a world power, and he was fighting too many enemies on too many fronts, while not having enough allies he could count on. If the United States had feared Jean Laffite more, it would have respected him better. Because they knew they could always count on his loyalty, they were able to completely disarm him. In the long run, this was not in the best interest of the United States.