Wednesday, March 14, 2012

America: Modes of Expansion

The three settlement patterns that emerged in the American colonies in the century or so before independence—New England’s attempt to copy its namesake across the Atlantic, the Tidewater economy of plantations feeding cash crops to Old World markets, and the fusion of immigrant traditions that was giving birth to American frontier society—were anything but fixed. By the time they had finished taking shape, they were already blurring into one another at the edges, and responding in various ways to the new influences brought by further waves of immigration. Still, the patterns are worth watching, because they played a significant role in shaping the modes of expansion that would define its age of empire in a later century.

The New England pattern, as already mentioned, had two sides with profoundly different possibilities for expansion. While many people from rural New England moved westward with the frontier, nearly all of them abandoned the settlement patterns of their home for the freer, more flexible frontier way of doing things; the village greens, town meetings and Puritan attitudes of the New England countryside sparked few imitations elsewhere. The waterwheels and shipyards of New England’s nascent mill towns and cities turned out to be a more enduring contribution, driving the first wave of an industrial revolution parallel to the one that transformed England not long before.

The frontier pattern also had a twofold form, though the dividing line there was different. The classic frontier society of independent subsistence farmers emerged at a time when the inland reaches of the middle colonies had no transportation links to the coast except a few muddy trails, and remained viable only when distance or geographical barriers replicated this condition. Elsewhere, as roads, canals, and (eventually) railroads began to wind their way westward, inland farmers discovered that there was ample money to be made by shipping grain eastwards for local use and export, and plenty of ways to spend that money on manufactured goods shipped west in exchange. That’s why the Appalachians, for example, which remain a challenge to transportation even today, kept the old frontier pattern long after the frontier itself had vanished out of sight over the western horizon, while upstate New York morphed into a prosperous mix of farms and mill towns as soon as the Erie Canal and a network of feeder roads opened it up to efficient freight transport.

In the Ohio River basin, the first of America’s many wild Wests, the industrial system from New England hybridized with the export-oriented reworking of the frontier settlement pattern to create a new and extremely successful human ecology. Along a network of navigable rivers and canals spilling north to the Great Lakes, towns sprang up, and those that had good sites for waterwheels—the prime mover of industry in the days before coal—normally transformed themselves into industrial cities as soon as population permitted. The space in between the towns was given over to small farms, most of them family-owned and operated, which produced nearly all the food needed locally and also raised grains and other bulk products for sale. It turned out to be very easy to extend this hybrid system further west across the northern and central Mississippi basin, and the idea that it could and should be extended straight across the continent ended up freighted with feelings of very nearly religious intensity as the 19th century unfolded.

The two parts of the hybrid—the rising mill towns and industrial centers, on the one hand, and the agricultural hinterlands on the other—had conflicting interests of great importance, but until 1865 both sides had a very good reason to find grounds for compromise. That reason, of course, was the existence of a radically different system of human ecology on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line.

The plantation economy of the Tidewater region, like the economies further north, adapted to changing conditions as westward expansion proceeded. Unlike New England’s rural economy, it could expand: across the southern half of the new nation, wherever climate and geography made it profitable to put large acreages into cash crop monocultures, above all cotton, plantations spread west. They had to spread, because the plantation economy had a critical weakness: like all cash crop monocultures from Roman latifundia to the latest agrobusiness models, Southern plantations stripped fertility from the soil. The equation’s a simple one: growing one crop repeatedly on the same acreage uses up the nutrient base of the soil, and in a farming economy dominated by cash, a farm that invests the money necessary to restore soil fertility will always be less profitable, at least in the short term, than a farm on new soil that concentrates on cutting costs and maximizing profit.

That specific equation is one form of a much more general rule. As providers of raw materials for industry in another nation, the plantations of the South were the business end of a wealth pump; the Southern states may not have been directly ruled by Britain but, economically speaking, they were as much a part of the British Empire as Canada or India. The Southern upper class, like upper classes in Third World nations today, benefited substantially from their role as guardians of the pump’s intake pipe, but the fertility stripped from Southern soils to provide cheap cotton for Lancashire mills still represented wealth pumped out of the Southern states for the benefit of Britain. New lands had to be brought into the system to keep the pump fed without beggaring those who fed it.

The expansion of the plantation system brought it into a complex relationship with the frontier society that moved westward ahead of it. Regions that were unsuited to plantation farming in the South, like regions that were difficult for transportation technologies in the North, became enclaves of the old frontier pattern, and where these were large enough, they became enclaves of support for the Union once the Civil War broke out—the northwestern third of Virginia, which broke away to become the state of West Virginia, and the eastern hill country of Tennessee were strategically important examples. Elsewhere, as plantations spread, the frontier society was absorbed into the plantation system. Some frontier folk rose to the top—Jefferson Davis, US senator and Confederate president, was born in a log cabin in rural Kentucky in 1808, when it was still well out on the frontier, less than a hundred miles from the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born eight months later. (One family went south, the other north; it’s by no means impossible that if the families had chosen differently, the two men might have ended up filling each other’s places.) Most of the others became the poor white not-quite-underclass of the rural South, and provided the South with the bulk of its soldiers in the Civil War, just as their equivalents further north made up a very large fraction of Union soldiers.

The plantation society, then, had to expand in order to survive. The mixed farming society further north was not quite so dependent on expansion, but desired it intensely, and population pressure from a booming birthrate and a steady flood of immigrants backed up that desire with potent economic pressures. While the Mississippi valley was free for the taking, both systems could expand without coming into conflict, but by the late 1840s people on either side were looking westward across the arid west to the Pacific, still distant but too close for comfort. That’s when the national debate over the shape of America’s human ecology—framed south of the Mason-Dixon line as a debate about local autonomy, and north of it as a debate over the ethics of slavery—began to spin out of control.

There were plenty of other issues involved, to be sure. Across the board, on almost every point of national policy that touched on economics, the measures that would support the plantation economy of the South were diametrically opposed to the measures that would support the industrial and farming economies of the North. Trade policy is one good example: to the North, trade barriers and protective tariffs to shelter rising industries from competition by the industrial behemoth of Britain were simple common sense; to the South, free trade was essential so that British markets would remain open to Southern cotton. The endless debates over Federal funding for canals and other internal improvements is another: investments that were essential to the expansion of the Northern economy were useless to the plantation system—which is why it was the North that wove a web of canals and railroads from the Hudson River to the upper Mississippi, while the South built few railways and fewer canals, and relied instead on shallow-draft riverboats that were adequate for getting cotton to market but for very little else, an economy that would cost the South terribly once war came.

Still, the issue that couldn’t be resolved short of war was the future shape of America’s territorial expansion. That’s why Southern leaders, for all their belief in the virtues of local autonomy, bitterly opposed any compromise that would give the people of each newly settled territory the right to decide whether or not slavery would exist within that territory. That’s why the South backed the annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico so fervently in 1844 and 1845, and why so many Southerners in the decades before the Civil War supported the Order of the Golden Circle, a society that advocated the outright military conquest of Mexico, Central America, northern South America and the islands of the Caribbean, so that the plantation economy would have ample room to expand. Meanwhile, north of the cotton belt, younger sons of farmers looked hungrily westwards at the Great Plains and imagined farms of their own, if only slavery could be kept out—and that, in turn, is what made “Bleeding Kansas” the scene of a decade of terrorism and guerrilla war between pro- and antislavery factions, and lit the fuse that finally went off at Fort Sumter.

By the time the war ended at Appomattox Court House four lean and bloody years later, four points had been settled for the foreseeable future. The first was that victory in the wars of the next century would be determined not by which side had the best generals—the South had them, hands down—but by which side had a bigger industrial base, a larger population, and a greater willingness to chuck the traditional rules of war and treat enemy civilians as a military target. The second point was that if wealth was going to be pumped out of the South, and of course it was, it was going to benefit the United States—more precisely, the industrial states of the North—rather than England or any other foreign power.

The third point was that the United States had become a major military power, capable of fighting and funding both sides of one of the 19th century’s biggest wars, and potentially capable of intervening in the affairs of Europe if it came to that. Every major European power had military attachés prowling the battlefields of the Civil War, and this was partly because that uncomfortable reality was beginning to dawn on politicians in Europe’s capitals. Partly, though, it was because the technological advances of the 19th century had as dramatic an impact on the battlefield as elsewhere, and the Civil War provided a disquieting glimpse of how repeating rifles, improved cannon, ironclad ships, and rail transport could transform warfare. Most of them drew exactly the wrong conclusions—a point we’ll discuss in some detail later on in this series of posts—but the fact that they were there points up the extent to which America, a backwater in world affairs fifty years previously, had become much less so by 1860.

The fourth point, though, was the most crucial for the theme we’re exploring here. The end of the war was also the end of the debate over the mode of American expansion. The plantation economy wasn’t abolished—textile mills in the North depended on Southern cotton just as much as mills in the English Midlands did—but the door was slammed on its hopes of expansion as a series of Homestead Acts threw open the Great Plains to the family-farm model of the Northern economy. Questions of public policy that had been central to prewar debates—trade policy, internal improvements, and the rest—were settled for the rest of the century to the North’s satisfaction. The wealth pump kicked back into gear without the safety valve of new lands, and the South’s relative prosperity in the prewar era gave way to a regional depression that didn’t end until after the Second World War. Meanwhile, protected by tariffs and trade barriers, supported by federal investments in railroads and the like, and buoyed by the wealth pump, the Northern economy boomed.

The settlement of the rest of the continent followed promptly, and it followed the Northern pattern. The military technologies that had broken the South were turned on those First Nations that still defended their tribal territories, with even more devastating effect. European military attachés—yes, they were still prowling around during the Indian Wars; the United States was a continuing object of interest to all the major European powers throughout the 19th century—wrote admiringly that the Plains tribes were the finest light cavalry in all of history, but they were still unable to hold their own against repeating rifles, Gatling guns, and a systematic campaign of extermination directed against the buffalo that provided the bulk of their food. As the tribes were driven onto tiny, barren reservations, white settlers streamed onto their land, laying out the same pattern of towns and farms that had succeeded so well further east. It would not succeed anything like so well on the plains, and further west it would not succeed at all, but the first signs of its failure went utterly unnoticed for many decades.

Still, in the age of the railroad, the West simply wasn’t that big any longer, and the shores of the Pacific put a hard limit in the way of further territorial expansion. During the heady days of the 1840s, when it was still possible to forget the cost of war, American politicians seriously debated the invasion and conquest of all of Mexico—they settled for half—and during the Oregon Territory controversy of the same decade, a substantial faction had demanded the seizure of what’s now the southern half of Canada’s four westernmost provinces, even if it meant war with Britain. Cooler heads prevailed in each of these debates, and by the last decades of the 19th century, nobody was seriously suggesting either option: Britain by then had far and away the world’s most powerful and technologically advanced military, and the idea of absorbing the rest of Mexico into an expanded United States ran headlong into a pervasive racism that would not have tolerated the idea of millions of Mexicans suddenly becoming American citizens.

The modes of expansion that defined 19th century America thus ended before the century did, and that hard fact ultimately launched America into its age of overseas empire. We’ll discuss that next week.


Those of my readers who might happen find themselves within reach of rural Pennsylvania over Memorial Day weekend this year might be interested to hear of a conference then and there that will discuss many of the themes I’ve been covering in this blog over the last half dozen years. Its name? The Age of Limits. I’ll be there, and presenting; so will Carolyn Baker, Dmitry Orlov, Gail Tverberg, and Tom Whipple, just to name the big name speakers. It’s intended for those who have grasped the fact that the age of abundance is ending, and want to discuss what can still be done as industrial society unravels. It should be a worthwhile time; I hope to see some of you there. Check out for the details.

End of the World of the Week #13

One of the embarrassments of history, at least for anyone who believes in the ability of human beings to learn from their mistakes, is the way that the same bad ideas keep on being rehashed under new labels every few decades. The so-called “Law of Attraction” marketed so vigorously a decade ago in a variety of New Age products—basically, the claim that if you want something bad enough, the universe is obligated to give it to you—is a case in point. The previous time it was new and hot was in the 1920s, and it helped feed the clueless optimism that drove the stock market bubble that crashed so disastrously in 1929; it became new and hot again during the last decade, and helped feed the same clueless optimism that drove the real estate bubble that crashed so disastrously in 2008.

Apocalyptic thought is well supplied with similar examples. One of them is the notion, very popular for centuries, that the Book of Genesis could be used as a template for the history of the world. Genesis describes the process of creation as taking six days, with a day of rest to follow; 2 Peter 3:8 states that a day of the Lord is as a thousand years; equate the Millennium, the thousand years of Utopia that’s supposed to follow the Second Coming, with the thousand-year day of rest at the end of the week of creation, and you’ve got a world history six thousand years long. Figure out the location of the present year in that six-millennia sequence, and you know the date of the Second Coming.

Of course that’s the difficult part, and for something like fifteen hundred years, prophets imitated Harold Camping by coming up with dates for the apocalypse, on that basis that rolled on past without any noticeable result. The apocalyptic frenzy around the year 1000 AD was driven by exactly this calculation; any number of prophets had insisted that the birth of Christ marked the beginning of the sixth day, so the end was clearly nigh. When it didn’t arrive, other prophets decided that the Crucifixion was the beginning of the sixth day, and predicted 1033 AD as the big date; they were just as wrong, of course, but it didn’t keep others from trying the same thing later on.

It’s not often remembered that Archbishop James Ussher, who notoriously calculated the date of the Creation using the Bible as his guide, was still working under the Book of Genesis paradigm. His date of 4004 BC for the beginning of the world implies that 1996, exactly 6000 years later, would mark the Second Coming. Those interested in exact dates will probably want to know that God said "Let there be light" at 9:00 am on October 23, 4004, so the end certainly should have arrived at the same date and time in 1996. That it didn’t can probably be credited to the essential cussedness of things.

—story from Apocalypse Not


Joel Caris said...

Thank you, JMG. I'm really appreciating this American history lesson and it's giving me a new view on this country of mine. I must admit I never much enjoyed history in school--I imagine due largely to the sheer boredom of the presentation. Histories like what you're writing here I find much more fascinating, and I'm learning quite a bit more from this. It's a bit embarrassing, however, to be reminded of how little I know.

It's fascinating to consider how things would have fallen if the plantation model had taken hold as our expansion mode.

As a lifelong resident of the west, and having rarely even traveled outside of it, I would love to hear more about why the towns and farms model didn't work out here. I would assume infrastructure and geography would be a large part of it. Will you be writing more about that later? Ever since I read your post on why you moved out to Cumberland, I've been occasionally mulling what might happen out here in the NW as we work our way through the decline. I hope I'm able to make a go of it out here for however long I stay kicking on this planet. The NW is my home, I love this landscape, and I would hate to have to move away from it.

Of The Hands

LewisLucanBooks said...

Books, books, books. Conrad Richter wrote a trilogy of novels (The Awakening Land is the name of the trilogy. Individual volumes are: "The Trees", "The Fields" and "The Town.") about the settling of the Ohio valley. The last volume won a Pulitzer Prize.

Also done as a so-so TV mini-series staring Elizabeth Montgomery and Hal Holbrook.

A bit late in the year, but put it on your next winter's reading list.

John Michael Greer said...

Joel, depends on where you are. West of the mountains, where the rainfall is high enough, the Northern model would work tolerably well -- in fact it was getting established when the shift toward overseas empire changed settlement patterns into their modern form. East of the mountains, that's the arid West pattern, which was short term for several reasons -- we'll get to those -- but there are other viable patterns that can replace it. More on this later.

Lewis, thanks for the recommendation! I'll put it on the list.

Brent Ragsdale said...

Being from Eastern Kansas, I was fairly aware of the history and conflict you outlined so eloquently. I too am committed to my area, but I've noticed that 'Long Emergency' aware people seem to share similar biases favoring their own locations. Given enough rain, I think Kansas City could do well if we can bolster our local rail lines to move workers to the fields and food to the city. What frightens me most is the drought computer models I've seen lately. I'm looking forward to your posts to come, and your upcoming interview with KMO on the C-realm podcast.

SquarePeg said...

JMG, just a heartfelt thanks for brightening up every Thursday in grey old London Town. All of the very best.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

The environment that people find themselves in, conducts subtle changes on those same people. Perhaps it is because people in general are reasonably adaptable?

Glad you mentioned soil fertility. Monocultures are like strip mines and every year there are diminishing returns/yields per acre. The only reason big agribusiness can produce so consistently is because of applications of super phosphates and a heavy usage of oil. Neither will be widely available in a low energy future.

Even today, it is unrealistic for organic farmers to return an income commensurate with industrial agriculture. It is simply not possible and it is the elephant in the room that few people want to talk about. Very little produce or organic matter leaves this property. I'm unsure even after years of work here as to how to achieve this without strip mining the soil.

Sure, the farmers of forty centuries ran a very cohesive and tight ship in a very localised economy. Fortunately, I don't have to face the inevitable discussions with the neighbours about: "Yeah, you can take these eggs, but you must bring your humanure wastes back here in return". An interesting discussion to be sure, and one that must be had sooner or later on an individual or national level.

Thanks for the fascinating history lesson. I'm really enjoying this series of posts.

If you ever get around to having any free time, check out Robert Hughes "The fatal shore", which is a history of the transportation of convicts from the UK to Australia. He writes in a similar style to your own and doesn't shy away from the hard topics / questions.



russell1200 said...

The South most certainly did not univerally have the best generals of the war. The South lost the Western theater because of amazingly poor generalship - General Pillow being the worst of many. Even McClellan, when he was in the Central theater (WV) had enormous success - before he came East. After the Union's Generals from the West came East, either by transfer or by marching, the generalship becomes pretty much even. At that point you have the slogging match - a slogging match after the South has lost half it territory.

On a different note. The Comanche Empire, combined with the Pueblo revolt, was a key ingrediant to keeping the Mexican model from pushing North. The Comanche had replace the partially agrarian Apache as the dominant force in the Southwest in the 18th century. What was very fortunate for U.S. interests is that the empire peaked out in the 1840s. Comanche success was their demise. Their horses competed with the Buffalo for winter grazing, and led to an enormous population collapse. By the time the U.S. government forces show up in force, they were well past their peak. If you look at the early experience of the Texans, where they have to go hunting in groups of over a dozen just to stay safe, it is easy to see events going a different way if the timing had been different.

phil harris said...

I like very much your ecosystems approach, and as a non-American I really got for the first time the "almost religious intensity" of 19thC American interior expansion.

The Great Plains is next week? I should not jump the gun, but there is a wonderful and technically accurate work of agricultural history.
‘On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment’, Cunfer 2005; preview in googlebooks.

I quoted from page 219 of Cunfer's book at the beginning of Part II of my guest post that Gail Tverberg had asked me for. She edited and put the post on The Oil Drum in March 2009.

I had quoted in Part One some estimates of amounts of soil nutrients removed from soils by different crops. I stuck to food, but leafy crops such as tobacco take out a lot of nutrients. The Great Plains were not exempt from loss of soil fertility and stability and this is covered in detail by Cunfer (ref. above). Empire-scale wealth-pumps it seems need to either break new ground or deal very lightly with perforce very large supporting rural populations when/if these latter have found a sustainable ecology (ancient sustained civilizations in China, India for example). Was always a bumpy ride.

That was the old days; now America is different, of course. (Ouch!)

Merle Langlois said...

Thank you for this recent series on American history JMG. In Canada they don't really teach American history (or at least my impoverished rural schools never taught it). Whenever American history is mentioned it just seems that they negotiated with us for pieces of land only suitable for strip mining and that they did everything faster and with more gusto than we did.

This series makes me want to learn a bit about Canadian history and early settlement patterns. One thing that has always boggled my mind is how you can take a nearly identical parcel of land on one side of the Canada/US border and have hundreds of people or a giant strip mall or a skyscraper sitting on it, and an identical parcel of land on the other side of the Canada/US border and it's 99% of the time a field of industrially farmed staple crops. I'm curious as to how the Americans were able to fill up their country so crazily fast? Maybe it was higher immigration back in the day.

Amy said...

I just wanted to say thanks for this history lesson - my 5th great-grandfather arrived here in 1774 and fought in the Revolution for the South Carolina militia. He and the family then moved westward through Kentucky and eventually to Indiana, where our family has been ever since.

I've been muddling away at writing a novel based on these events, and your post has filled in some blanks in my knowledge.

Jim Brewster said...

This series of posts has me musing (no, really obsessing) about geography, hydrology, cultural, and political boundaries within the American empire. I'm attempting to put some of it down in my blog http://gracefuldecline.blogspot but I am struggling to trim some of the shagginess as I delve into the history of border skirmishes, rivalries, and canal-building schemes in the Susquehanna Basin.

If you look at a map of the eastern US, you see some organic boundaries, which generally follow either river courses or watershed divides, representing natural patterns of human settlement. Other boundaries are arrow-straight survey lines, representing hasty arbitration, either because the land was unclaimed or had rival claims. If the republic ever breaks apart again, these may have to be revisited.

The Ohio River just happens to correspond reasonably well with a westward extension of the Mason-Dixon line (originally surveyed for conflicts having nothing to do with slavery), so did become the N-S boundary.

An interesting artifact of the age of hasty surveys is that the biggest river system on the Eastern Seaboard, the Susquehanna, is neither a state border nor a central feature of a single state. Also because of the way it is politically divided, the non-tidal and tidal (i.e. Chesapeake Bay) portions are usually thought of as separate entities. This has had interesting political, economic, and ecological results over nearly three centuries, and may prove more interesting again in the future.

A couple of good books covering different aspects of this topic:

Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake by J Brubacher

Walkin' the line : a journey from past to present along the Mason-Dixon by W Ecenbarger

Any recommendations for other sources for history and geography?

This is just one example of what I am calling the fractal nature of empires. Colonial America, even as it was part of the British Empire, was made of little empires pumping wealth from their hinterlands, coming into conflict with neighboring empires, reaching some level of hierarchy or parity and uniting against the next common rival. New York -vs- Philadelphia becomes North -vs- South, etc. Maybe more fancifully it is like the NCAA tournament, but once you get to the final that's the beginning of the end of a civilization. But in the case of empires in decline the process goes somewhat in reverse, with long-dormant conflicts likely to reappear. Balkanization anyone? True, differences in history and society will mean differences in how things play out...

Just heard on NPR the other day, they're improving the Panama Canal to accommodate larger ships from China. The port of Savannah, GA is gearing up while LA/Long Beach is scrambling to increase capacity so as to hold on to more of the traffic. Internal rivalry is alive and well.

Yupped said...

Interesting as always. I’ve been enjoying this round of posts, but haven’t had much time to comment now that the ground is warming up.

You’re doing a wonderful job of illustrating how economic and social systems expand as a matter of course to get more resources, until they can’t, at which point they fail. And this has been the pattern of development in the US just as it was in Europe and everywhere else, forever. And now it seems that, on a worldwide scale, the whole industrial/consumer system is hitting the expansion end-point.

When you see this happening, systematically, on a worldwide scale, again and again, it does kind of make you shake your head and want to hide. But underneath the systems, there are real people doing the expanding, or promoting it, and that’s what drives it. At the same time, there are many people whose priority was not expansion. Lots of people in those New England market towns, for example, opted for a more steady-state life, focusing on local agriculture and fishing, or whatever, and made their peace with a more steady state existence. So there is an urge to expand and a readiness to accept limits, to even thrive within limits. It’s easy to forget that looking at history’s comings and goings.

Jim R said...

One little nitpick here, JMG.

You write "Southern plantations stripped fertility from the soil."

The Mississippi Delta, which makes up a largish fraction of Louisiana and Mississippi, is (or was) replenished annually by a mighty river. New layer of topsoil, new fertility. Year after year. Sugar cane was the cash crop in warmer parts of the Delta, while cotton was grown further north (still true today, btw). It resembles the Nile Delta that way.

In the non-delta reaches of Mississippi, sorghum and corn were grown, for a much smaller cash reward. And, of course, they promptly farmed away the topsoil.

(off-topic) After the Civil War, Mississippi was an enthusiastic participant in the railroad bubble, by the way. A map from 1910 shows the state crisscrossed with tracks, nearly as numerous as paved roads today.

Bob Sonnenberg said...

Great series of posts. I would like to see all of these posts set down in book form. Thanks.

Matt and Jess said...

Thanks for this! This made a great read this morning. I also have always lived in the West and it's forever echoing around in my head the bad things you've mentioned about it before, something about dropping dead before you'd live in Colorado? Anyway, I'd think that the primary detraction is water. Other than that, it's kind of still like the frontier here in Colorado. There's a continuous argument between those born here and those who've moved here recently...there's a lot of both, but even those who were born here probably didn't have family here until earlier last century. Anyway, I look forward to reading more!

Bilbo said...

I am currently reading Why America Failed by Morris Berman where he talks extensively about the same time period. He calls the Northern culture the hustling culture where all parts of society strive in one way or another to get ahead. He calls the South the only real alternative to the hustling culture and the hustling culture is the root cause of failure of America and the emptiness of soul.

I tend to think he ignores how warlike the South was and still is. Even today a far larger proportion of our volunteer army comes from the South.

You can listen to podcast of all this here:

John Michael Greer said...

Brent, a bias toward one's own location isn't a bad thing, in most cases; I suspect that it'll be possible to pull through the next few decades in most corners of the country, though not all. Water's one of the major issues, though.

Peg, thank you!

Cherokee, in many traditional farming systems, humanure was an item of trade. I recall reading about a Renaissance-era French peasant who made a good living collecting it from inns frequented by the nobility, and selling it as premium fertilizer to farmers -- since aristocrats were better fed than the rest of society, the logic went, their manure was worth more to the soil.

Russell, of course the South had bad generals; my take, though, is that if their generalship on average was as bad as the Union's during the first two years of the war, they'd have lost in 1862. We'll be talking about Grant and Sherman, especially the latter, later on.

Phil, it's a wise empire that leaves its own peasants alone, and concentrates on pumping wealth out of foreign nations. Sooner or later, though, that degree of wisdom gets misplaced, and down we go.

Merle, you should definitely study Canadian history -- more generally, I'd encourage any of my readers outside the US to take a hard look at the history of settlement patterns and human ecology in their own countries. There's a huge amount to be learned from that.

Amy, you're welcome!

Jim, the recommendation I'd offer is the one you're already following -- pay close attention to detailed studies of specific cases. Too often history ends up mired in a fog of abstraction, and close study of specifics is the one effective cure.

Yupped, exactly -- the drive to expand is not a universal, it's simply one adaptation to one range of circumstances. In America, for several centuries, it was a successful adaptation; the problem we face just now is that we're past that point, but most people aren't aware of it yet.

John Michael Greer said...

Jim, of course there are always exceptions to every rule. The Mississippi delta is one -- you'll notice that, big as it seems, it makes up only a small portion of the belt of territory I was discussing. As for the railroad boom, yes, a lot of people south of the Mason-Dixon line drew the logical conclusion from the collapse of the Confederacy's internal transport system, and the postwar South got plenty of railways.

Bob, the book's already in process. I don't waste prose if I can help it.

Jess, nah, I don't recall anything about dropping dead; it's simply not my favorite corner of the world, and it's likely to be a very rough place to be in coming decades -- I'll be getting to that down the road a bit.

Bilbo, that's just bizarre. The prewar culture of the South was just as obsessed with hustling as the North; any good account of the cotton, tobacco, and slave industries of the time will make that very clear. It was the impact of most of a century of economic depression after the war that slowed the South's pace (not much point in hurrying if you know you can't get ahead). If that's the sort of historical analysis he offers, well, that's unfortunate.

Jim Brewster said...

Jim R, don't forget that the levees greatly increased plantation production by preventing those floods.

Richard Larson said...

So then, the ecological process that funded newly-founded America's growth was the dead leaf litter from trees, mixing in an occasional fallen tree, and the mushrooms that turned these materials into fertile land. On the prairie it was weeds and grasses.

Not hard to duplicate this. Farming one-quarter while the other three-quarters grow wild! Rotate through the land slowly, like decades, add in some farm manure and such, and it should be sustainable. But that has a limit as well, doesn't it?

What is hard is transitioning to it though.

SLClaire said...

A few weeks back I mentioned that I had thought about all the ways I had benefited from empire. One of those ways is from the Homestead Act that you mentioned in this post. Around the turn of the last century, my paternal grandfather homesteaded a tract of land in northwestern South Dakota, near Redig. He managed to do what was needed to keep the land. Mind you, he didn't stay on the land past the residency period required, but he didn't sell it. Instead he moved to Michigan, went to work as a pastry chef, and met and married my grandmother. At some point he rented out the land to a much larger landowner, a rancher, whose land surrounded his. I don't know how much of an effect the rental income had on my grandparents' finances, but I think my grandfather's experiences did play a part in he and my grandmother's success with the business they started and owned. The wealth from that business went on to benefit my parents and then all of their children, me included.

That homestead is still in the family; my two brothers inherited it. In a sense, it's a wealth pump for them, since neither of them live on it but they continue to rent it out. My youngest brother camped on it for a few days in the 1990s. He made a video of it while he was there. I can't imagine how my grandfather made a living from it; it's a windy, dry land, as I know you will mention later on in your discussion of why the farming model didn't work on the Great Plains. My grandfather died before I knew about the homesteading. I should have asked my grandmother and dad what stories they'd heard about it, but I didn't do it, and now my grandmother is dead and my dad can no longer talk.

Oh yes, and speaking of my two years in North Carolina, as I did last week: you can be certain that Southerners have not forgiven or forgotten what Sherman did to them. Perhaps one reason I've never had a desire to travel overseas is that living in the South for those two years was in many respects like living in a foreign country; at least that's how it felt to a midwesterner like me.

Laura said...

So, the tidewater region focused on feeding a giant wealth pump; the northeast focused on becoming a cog higher up in the big wealth pump chain, with ambitions to become a big wealth pump of its own when it grew up (hah!), and the hybrid frontier culture focused on forming many smaller, more localized wealth pumps independent of any larger system.

I'm guessing the model broke down on the plains due to a shortage of things like rivers to fuel industry and transportation, lots of rain to irrigate crops, and possibly the maturation of the northeastern wealth pump interfering. Am I talking sense?

Robo said...

In addition to abundant mineral deposits, fertile soil has been the foundation of American growth and power. Nineteenth century faming practices amounted to topsoil strip-mining on a continental scale. Since then, imported mineral fertilizers and petroleum-derived chemicals have sustained us.

Several years of trying have taught me that organic growing on depleted soils is very low yielding compared to conventional chemical methods. It will take decades to rebuild the soil fertility on my little bit of land, and I've already gotten started on it.

Looking around my neighborhood at the tens of thousands of barren fall-plowed acres awaiting their next application of chemical corn, I don't see that any soil rebuilding process is underway on a large scale. Aside from a few home gardens, small farms and CSA's, it's agribusiness as usual.

All the American settlement styles you describe here were based on the fallacy of unlimited resources. The only time-tested, long-term, slow-depletion agrarian cultural model that we have as an alternative is the ancient discipline that the Chinese followed for four thousand years, and have now abandoned.

Along with the necessary population changes, I suppose China and the rest of Asia could make the switch back to the old ways if they had to. The Cubans have already had to do it on a small scale. Maybe most European and Latin cultures could manage. The 'third world' won't have to switch much of anything. But Americans?

Brother Kornhoer said...

I suppose you could say that along with the US empire's physical expansion, we've expanded into phantom territory (in Catton's sense) through the use of non-renewable resources to temporarily inflate the carrying capacity we command. And now the Chinese are slavishly imitating us.

Rennaissance Man said...

Well, after all these years, turns out I could have commented before. Hrmpf.
Very interesting overview of the development of American history. Settlement does reflect the resource bases and the Puritans arrived and created New England because it was more like their homeland. Their rebellious 17th Century ideas, particularly about self-sufficiency, individual (i.e. family) farms and businesses, and devotion to productive industry obviously set the course and created the American Dream of owning your own farm or business.
I cannot help but contrast the broad strokes of history with Europe and Canada during the same period.
In Europe, the numerous small wars fought throughout the 19th Century between "empires" -- apart from the huge and bloody but very short Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 that was a prelude to 1914 -- that were happening all over Europe were the result of empires that were political and ethnic in nature and relatively small, except for overseas possessions. I observe that the overseas territories of these European nations were many times larger than the nations themselves.
Here in Canada, during the 19th Century, the settlement pattern differed markedly north of the 49th Parallel.
To the south, you can draw a line advancing across the continent, with settlers invading native lands all along the frontier, followed by government troops arriving to defend the populace from the irate displaced natives, which then brought government and law and order.
Whereas, in the north, government arrived first, negotiated treaties, surveyed the land, laid out the plots, then invited immigrants to settle. Oftentimes, the land was virtually given away, along with tools and seeds.
In fact, a glance at satellite imagery between Canada and almost everywhere else in the world shows a curious contrast: from roughly Port Colborne on Lake Ontario going west, the land is laid out on a strict grid of identically-sized parcels all the way out to the Pacific that pretty much ignores any geographical features like rivers, escarpments, hills, uplands and so on. The only places where this breaks down is in the rocky mountains and northern Ontario, where the grid was simply impossible to implement. Every arable area, every floodplain, is characterized with this grid structure. Surveyed, laid out, and prepared by government representatives in advance of any settlers. Thus we created towns and villages and then filled them with people. Even across the Great Plains, where the layout also has a grid structure, the U.S. has markedly more randomness in the layout of the landscape than Canada does, reflecting the more random settlement. I have not been able to discover this grid pattern anywhere else in the world, except in a very few, very localized areas. In most of the world, rectangular fields and plots of land cannot be found at all outside of built-up, industrial areas.
It's a reflection of two different modes, one people with the energy and ambition of a nascent empire, bent on initial expansion and feeling the first rush of conquest; the other an existing empire, strictly governed, expanding in a measured, controlled way.
By the time the U.S. was sufficiently industrialized and powerful enough to take on the existing British, French, German, Russian, Japanese empires, there was very little place left for them to expand into that was not already occupied by some other power. The Philippines were one notable exception.
I suppose that the U.S. carefully observed the destruction of the various empires in the four-year cataclysm of 1914-1918 and drew two conclusions:
First that the existing empires, having battered themselves into a pulp in the blood-soaked mud of Flanders, Picardy, Verdun, and Belorussia were now too weak to prevent U.S. expansion, and secondly that direct control of overseas possessions was too costly and politically problematic. hence empire by commerce, by culture, by ideology, and by control through proxy.

Glenn said...

Delta Fertility,

The Mississippi Delta has become much less fertile since the river was totally enclosed by levees and the annual flooding (like the Nile) slowed or stopped. The Delta's getting much less of the Northern valley's topsoil than it used to. Razing the levees and raising the cities onto mounds (Mound builder culture hmmm.) might be a better use of land.

In another subject, relating to a protracted discussion I had with another contributer a year ago. We all rationalize the place we live as the most survivable. We also tend to project the conditions we experience onto the other's conditions, whether it fits or not. Hence the other gentleman proposed (as JMG has) that the NW would be subject to violence from Asian invaders, Mexicans and gangs. The gentleman in question currently in a place where he hears gunshots and sirens every night.

I proposed no such violence for his area or mine. Where I live the only gunshots are duck hunters or soldiers firing at the rifle range at a near by base; sirens are usually an ambulance coming to help one of the many retired people who live in my area.

His experience leads him to conclude I will have violence. Mine leads me to conclude that he won't. This is not neccessarily true in either case; it's just that our current experience shapes our expectations of the future.

Marrowstone Island

Jason Heppenstall said...

A great and illuminating post this week, thank you.

I don't have much to add on the topic of expanding empires apart from to mention something semi-related I saw today. It was an article about the US Navy now using biofuels to power their unmanned drones in Afghanistan, spun to make it seem as if they were doing it to be 'green'. Apart from the gut-wrenching reaction the article might produce it did make me think that perhaps the military is taking peak oil seriously, even if few others are.

Kenaz Filan said...

JMG - as always, an excellent history lesson! But I must give you particular kudos for pointing out that the odious "Law of Attraction" has its roots in the 1920s, and that it failed spectacularly in 1929. (Indeed, a great deal of the New Age "visualize prosperity" stuff can be traced directly back to what was a century earlier called "New Thought"). Plus ça change...

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, it was much more than that. Soil isn't simply a few years' worth of organic matter; it's a complex community that builds over centuries. There are ways to grow food crops without stripmining it, but a simple rotation isn't enough.

SLClaire, Sherman was ahead of his time. Nowadays we do the same thing from the air, and you can bet the people on the receiving end are no happier about it than your friends in the South were.

Laura, you're close. More on the Great Plains and the West generally in later posts.

Robo, the secret to really successful organic growing is that you have to change more than just what you're putting in the soil. Intensive rather than extensive, hoes rather than combines, mixed crops rather than fields of one thing only -- it's a very different world, and one that the existing structures of American agriculture are very poorly suited to deal with. Yes, it'll take some time.

Brother K., in fact, that's what I will be saying down the road a bit. More on that soon.

RM, good. The pattern of American empire was shaped by a more complex net of forces than that, but those were factors, yes.

Glenn, that's the advantage of studying history: it's a way to expand the reach of experience out beyond your own personal horizon. If places like yours repeatedly undergo certain phenomena in times of decline and fall, it's worth considering the possibility that your place will undergo the same thing in its turn.

Jason, the military -- ours and many others -- are all over peak oil. Unlike the political sphere, the military has to deal with reality.

Kenaz, thank you! You'll be aware, I know, that there was nothing new about "New Thought," any more than there was anything new in the "New Age" -- the same stuff was widely circulated in the 1820s and 1830s alternative scene in the US, too.

DeAnander said...

re: intensive rather than extensive...

I have read (probably in something by Jules Pretty or Vandana Shiva) that the average number of cultivated species in a tropical peasant garden, such as you might find in Indonesia, temperate India, etc ... is over 200. every one of those plant species is known to the gardener, and carefully cultivated as food, spice, or medicinal.

I feel a bit boggled as I look at my maybe-50 varieties of seeds for this season and juggle the companion/antagonist relationships, sun requirements, etc; the depth of bio-literacy needed to know, care for, and properly use and propagate 200 species is astonishing, admirable, imho worthy of emulation and "sitting at the master's feet".

and these are the people that WB, IMF, and other such agents of industrial capitalism dismiss as "ignorant peasants" who need to be "lifted" into the modern age? I'm the one who feels ignorant. what does a thousand-acre monocrop plantation of GMO corn on chemical life support indicate, if not a vast, terrifying ignorance coupled with vast, terrifying power?

Richard Larson said...

Interesting. I look forward to learning more about growing crops sustainably (the catchword).

About 10 years ago an old white birch tree fell to the forest floor, on some land I own. Do think it died out because the surrounding cedar trees had girdled its roots.

Instead of cutting it up for firewood, I left it to rot, even moving some of it to highlight the path to the outhouse, and to low spots in an effort to even out the land.

You would be amazed how quick the cedar trees sent roots to feed on the carcass. As of yet one can not easily pull the pieces from the ground!

Another experience in my back garden. The first year owning the house I tilled a garden and planted various crops, but the soil was the remnants of an old bean field and the garden did not grow as well as my parents did. Then the next few years very busy working, and didn't plant any crops.

Of course, the weeds took over. I actually was quite pleased to study the growth, watch the birds and insects. First one type of weed, then another took over.

That was starting 1984, and other than breaking the cycle every few years, the weeds have grown the topsoil by quite a lot. The weeds even have actually become bolder and healthier over the course of this time.

The crops have become boulder as well...

So I know the practice has helped.

Leo said...

a book you might be interested in is
'Measuring America: how the united states was shaped by the greatest land sale in history" by Andro Linklater, how accurate measurments affected the colonisation and territorial patterns
As for drawing wrong conclusions from the american civil war, they thought rams would come back into naval warfare because the shells they used couldn't penetrate iron hulls, took a while to solve.
the only reason the USA coould intervene in europe was because its one united entity, somethin i don't see being repeated,since local regional goverments will have enough time to solidify during what will likely be an american dark age. of course like in europe the cultures and organisations that come out the end will be very different.

Leo said...

i was also wondering about monoculture, is its soil fertility draining effect inherent to monoculture or to the managment practices that normally come with it?

Odin's Raven said...

Would the Commanches have been comparable to the Mahrattas as light cavalry raiders of their neighbors?

The Croatoan 117 said...

Cherokee, To digress a little, I sent the video out to my email contacts. It must have hit a nerve because the responses I got back were largely negative if not outright hateful. If it didn't strike people as somewhat plausible, they simply would have ignored it I think. People definately don't like hearing that they probably won't get everything their "entitled" to. From here on out I'll just forward videos of cute kittens doing funny things and teenage boys destroying their nether regions while doing foolish things.
I think after the war Sherman became the scapegoat for all the negative aspects of the war. Lee became Jesus and Sherman became the devil. One of the favorite pastimes of my maternal grandmother was describing all the ways Sherman had inflicted harm on her family. As a kid I took it at face value. Now that I am older I have learned that my ancestors, on her side, were from a region in Mississippi that neither Sherman, nor his bummers, ever came anywhere near. I personally think Sherman was a brilliant general who did what he had to do to end the war as quickly as possible. I just wish he hadn't personally stolen the family silver out of my great great great grandmother's hands, while simultaneously burning down the barn, and kicking the family dog.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Nobility! As a peasant I'd be a bit scared of having interactions with them. Was it you that told us about the Japanese farmers building and maintaining wayside stations for travellers to collect humanure?

With all of these recent posts on history, I keep coming back to a mental image of a vast hierarchy (sorry, I know you don't think in images, but I can't explain my thoughts any better). The hierarchy pattern repeats itself so much in social structures, that there has to be something in that? Does a hierarchical structure have any relevance to magic?

Speaking of magic, the subject of growth keeps popping up in the media here quite regularly, possibly more regularly than I've noted in the past. Are we at a magician state stage yet? Makes you wonder.

Someone mentioned top soil replacement by flooding. Over here water is scarce and fought over - especially the Murray - Darling river basin. In some respects, floods are treated exactly like fire. Instead of understanding that it is part of nature’s cycle and process, it is something to be extinguished / abolished. The dams in the Murray - Darling river system effectively reduce major floods and hence change the entire face and cycle of the landscape. It is not to the benefit of the wider community.

You are spot on about top soil too being not just an accumulation of organic matter. Organic matter, like biochar, is a beginning and not an end point in itself.

As an explanation to readers, monocultures (like corn plantations) take the same nutrients year after year out of soil. What agribusiness generally apply to soils on these farms is nitrogen, potassium and phosphate (NPK) as a fertiliser to promote growth. Plants will grow on NPK. Yet, plants also require many other nutrients and minerals. These are the nutrients and minerals that eventually get depleted out of soils.

Also, plants that are deficient in nutrients and minerals tend to be very pest prone as those plants lack their natural defences against pests (insects, viruses, bacteria, funguses etc.). So, monocultures also tend to have a lot of pesticides sprayed on them. The life cycles of these pests is also quite quick (less than a year per generation), so they evolve quite quickly over a few generations to be resistant to whatever the farmers are spraying on them (think super weeds).

Soils that are heavily fed on NPK fertilisers, have pesticides and herbicides added to them tend to have very little soil life or a soil life that has very little diversity. It is the soil life that provides food to plants via their plant roots in exchange for specific sugars released by those plants. If the diversity of soil life is low, the ability to plant numerous and different types of crops and plants is very limited as well.

Nutrient deficient crops produce, well, nutrient deficient food too. Humans are quite complex creatures and their dietary requirements are also quite complex. If you are eating nutrient deficient food then you are generally missing out on specific nutrients and minerals that your body requires.

Good luck.


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Croatoan,

Yeah, people don't like bad news here either. It is interesting here too because as oil prices go up, so too does prices for everything else (particularly food and energy). I hear blame is going off in all directions except for one - being oil as a finite resource.



Thijs Goverde said...

That was very instructive- thank you!
US history plays a very minor part in Dutch education. Everyone, of course, has heard of the Civil War. That was all about slavery, you know.
In recent years, hanging out on the web, I sometimes saw Americans stating that it wasn't about slavery, but about what you call local autonomy (They call it states' rights, of course). Never could make much sense of that.
So thank you for presenting the a-moral grander picture. I'd never have figured out the relation between slavery and settlement patterns on my own!

...and anyway, I always love a-moral grander pictures, no matter what the subject.

Richard Larson said...

I have one more experience to share. Back in the mid-eighties I decided to do a lasagna garden and needed straw to cover the cardboard that covered the weeds.

So I drove the pickup truck to a farmer near Collins Marsh that had straw for sale.

After parking near the barn, as instructed by phone, a very old man came hobbling out the door of this big old paint-flaking white farmhouse.

I learned he wasn't the farmer, only a renter, but he did have something very interesting to say that stuck with me to this day.

"Look at that canary grass over there", pointing towards a low lying area that had more shrubs than grass.

"It used to be 8 feet high"! Honest, he cackled!

"But the farmer came and chopped it down during dry periods and never added any fertilizer".

He paused, in retrospect for effect.

"Now the grass hardly grows".

One old man, one short conversation, now a life long memory.

Here is the question, how did the canary grass get 8 foot high to begin with?

Betsys_Backyard said...

Keep up the great review of US eco-agro-societal history.. As fossil fueled transport and farming systems wind-down, we really must value our regions with naturally fertile soils, abundant clean water and a topography to facilitate food processing, manufactering and local/regional transport.
These are such important issues/ (requirements) for a sustainable culture.
Kudos for pointing out that fertile topsoil is a centuries process and I will add…even then.. if the soils parent material is lacking the right pH, or nutrients, then one must still bring in mined lime, phosphate and other nutrients.
This is an issue with much of the southern piedmont soils.. stripped of topsoil, the parent material is very acidic clay..they often are also lacking some basic minerals required for optimum health of the persons who are sustained by them.
You are probably familiar with Author Steve Solomon's book "Gardening when it counts".. a must read for new gardeners in post- industrial world. He points out - in a local food human health suffers when the soil and therefore the animals, plants and humans are nutritionally lacking.. Born out well in WwII drafting where there were direct correlations between soil nutrition and men fit for military service.. NC had fewer than 50% WWII men fit for service. A part of this was related to nutritional health issues of poor soils.
There is much I love about NC, especially the people, but I have long observed the economic hardships of this region being a business end of a wealth pump. You are spot on about the economic disparity.. even during the “good economic times” the southern mill workers rarely benefited from union wages, retirement perks and health care as their Northern counterparts – this is actually true for NC State Employees too where there is no annual cost of living increase..and who have the poorest healthcare plan ( and most expensive) of all states. Indeed, over the last 40 years..many Northern industries moved south to take advantage of low wages, no unions, poor healthcare benefits and amazing tax breaks.
But now that manufacturing has “Gone global” ,workers here understandably , lament their jobs going to Mexico or China. Over the last 5 years, I have witnessed a good many (honestly, all I see) Carolina small town economy’s slide downhill farther than their Rural PA counterparts have in 30 years. I feel sad but after 30 years in NC, I do hope to end up back in the Susquehanna River valley of Pa.. my homeland, where there have been a couple centuries of successful traditional farming, food production, processing and a system of transport still intact.
I think I understand why you relocated to Maryland and know others will understand more as you continue with this series. I am also glad that you keep such a good moderator tone with things.. that there will be ways for many locales to organize a post oil culture for a quite a while. But me,, I hope to attend the Memorial Day conference, brainstorm, network some, apply my horticulture skills and eventually relocate my family to PA.

Ploughboy said...

Very true your comments about the cruel logic of total war and Sherman’s precociousness…but he was a piker when compared to Phil Sheridan. Coming from Virginia to the deep South, as I did, I’ve always been bemused by the claim that Sherman’s vendetta in S.E. Georgia was exceptional, or even the worst the Union had to dish out to my ancestors. Indeed, “The Burning” of the Shenandoah Valley in the last year of the war, on top of all the privations visited on the residents in the previous years, was Sherman-cubed. There are some accounts of Virginians at that time commenting that Sherman’s rampage was just a taste of what they had suffered for years in the northern tier of the Confederacy. It did a lot to help the deep South states come to a better understanding of the cost that would be imposed for their participation…something the Commonwealth had already learned, and the point that Sherman, Grant and Lincoln certainly wanted to get across.

The lingering result of that policy in the Shenandoah Valley is evident even to this day, if you talk to individuals who have had the oral family history passed down to them. I remember vividly being told those stories as a child (I’m 52). I’d argue that no other community of this size, in the history of the U.S. suffered as severe a military and civil up-ending as the Valley in those years, from Winchester on up to Lexington. It changed attitudes for generations, as you naturally would expect.

fepw said...

Some people have asked for a list of reading material, a request which I'd be interested in as well. I was thinking it's probably a good idea to keep a notepad/text file open and copy n paste any books and resources that are mentioned for personal research. I came up with a short list related to the current series of blog posts for anyone interested. Some of these titles I've read, others are on my to-check-out list. Usually the local library is a good resource and harder to find books are sometimes online. I don't know if some of these titles relate directly to the discussion of empire, but are interesting parts of American history nonetheless.

A short book list, some American and empire-related history:

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2006)
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (2011)
The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2001)
The Unfortunate Colonel Despard (2005)
The Slave Ship: A Human History (2008)

Native American history:

America's Ancient Cities (1988)
Native American Architecture (1990)
Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent (2000)
500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians (2002)

Some articles on Amazonia and what-if alternate histories:

Earthmovers of the Amazon (2000)
More articles by Charles C Mann
Was Native Defeat Inevitable? (2000)
The Invasion of Europe (2000)
Ancient Amazon Cities Found; Were Vast Urban Network (2008)
Pre-Columbian Urbanism, Anthropogenic Landscapes and the Future of the Amazon (2008)

It's hard to find completely historically accurate films that can give you a realistic feel for certain periods in the past, but I've come across some good films:

500 nations (documentary, 1995)
Africans in America (documentary, 1998)
Reel Injun (documentary, 2009)
Utvandrarna (1971)
Nybyggarna (1972)
Mandingo (1975)
A Woman Called Moses (1978)
Black Robe (1991)
Sankofa (1993)
Into the West (2005)

[comment part 1 of 2]

fepw said...

[comment part 2 of 2]

Some 3d computer models of Native American cities and sites, which bring them to life and aid in imagining their true past existence:

Richard Thornton is an architect who has created 3d models of the various mound building civilizations of the Mississippian area
Dennis Holloway is an architect in New Mexico who has created 3d models of various Pueblo civilizations such as the Mogollon, Hohokam and Anasazi

While not entirely realistic, some interesting videogames:

Port Royale 2 (2004) - an economic strategy videogame
Download the demo here.
Age of Empires 3 (2005-2007) - a military real time strategy videogame
Download the 3 game demos here.

Lastly for a different take on modern history is the work of Peter Dale Scott, also known as parapolitics and/or deep politics which offers a deeper behind the scenes look at modern historical events.

Hope this helps, if you search any title on Amazon you can find more on these subjects.

Take care,

Nathan said...

Where are the historical roots of Positive Thinking? I imagine they might go back to the beginning of humanity, but do you know of an especially clear encapsulation of the ideas by some early philosopher?

Also, you have mentioned a couple times about how much lying defines life in the American empire. I think all of these denied and hidden parts of the American psyche find their expression in rap music, where the creation of empire & dominance is the overt goal. It goes back to what you said about how the losers of a war don't have the luxury of deceit - those people at the lower end of the internal wealth pump of America don't have the luxury of believing things that just ain't so. No matter how unlikely such a post might be, I would love to read your thoughts the relationship between rap music and empire!

Bill Pulliam said...

Jim R -- Cotton was grown widely throughout the south, not just in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. The plantation economy sprawled across the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, including sandy soils, highly erodable upland clays, and areas prone to wind erosion. The soil loss during the era of King Cotton was phenomenal and is undisputed by soil scientists. There is essentially no topsoil left across much of this area. The only way anything is still grown commercially on a large scale in these areas is via industrial scale fertilizer additions. Tara would have originally had deep brown sandy clay loam; it only became the famous Georgia Red Clay after all that loam was washed into the Chattahoochee.

JMG -- you realize that if you were talking to a more mainstream audience, suggesting that the American Civil War was about anything other than purely the abolition of slavery is ultimate heresy to most people who were schooled north of the Mason-Dixon line. Conversely, suggesting that it had anything at all to do with slavery is equal heresy in the South. Living as you do on the Mason-Dixon line, you'd get rotten tomatoes hurled at you from both compass points for this essay! I expect you have found yourself in the middle of similar two-front onslaughts about many issues quite a few times in your career already.

Diane said...

I have been contemplating the last few posts and I guess one tends to draw subjective conclusions from the material because thats what we humans do. One thing that stands out for me is how different countries might approach the impeding crisis, based on the different experiences of emperialism. To my mind Australia will eventually after a fair bit of mucking about tend towards collectivist solutions and I think this derives from our unique experience of emperialism.

For example my ancestors two irish women, one a mere 16 came out on the convict ship, the Sugar Cane, in 1793. It was essentially a ship full of mainly irish women, shipped out to try and stop the white fellas from getting to cosy with the indigenous women, or even worse each other, Australia has its own Brokeback mountain tradition :-) My ancestors were both given ticket of leave (dropping of convict status) soon after arriving and they promptly hooked up with a couple of men and legged it out of town, to the Hawkesbury about 40 miles out but it was a long way in those days. My ancestors stayed in the hawkesbury area for about 50 years but were eventually pushed out , they were irish convicts after all. The boys drove cattle on what was know as the Putty Road, up to the fertile but more remote Hunter Valley, I still have relatives living up there today.I grew up on stories about these people but it it only recently when I began reading a biography of Patrick White, Australia's only writer to win the the nobel prize, that I learned more.

Whites family had from the other end of the social spectrum settled the Hunter Valley via wealthy englishman coming here and receiving substantial land grants. What was interesting to me, in this narrative was how Australia was seen as very socially inferior, this was at the time of the first world war, and a return to England and the social society there was the ultimate goal. In some sense this cultural cringe still exists with many young people taking that Australian rite of passage, the overseas trip.

And it seems to me this is one of the big differences between America and Australia, America had a natural evolution of a wealthy dominant class, or whatever term American's use for this phenomena, different but not alien and committed to the evolving nation. Whereas in Australia, particularly on the east coast which had the highest concentration of convict settlements, the rich were often seen as alien, or not belonging, authority figures who were often despised, hence our long history of trade union struggle and preference for collective action.

Odin's Raven said...

Would it be reasonable to see the American Civil War as a conflict between two versions of slavery, with the outcome taken as demonstrating the moral, economic and military superiority of wage slavery over the chattel variety?

LewisLucanBooks said...

I picked up a new book from the library, yesterday. "1616 The World in Motion" by Thomas Christensen. From the dust jacket ... "The world of 1616 was a world of motion. Enormous galleons carrying silk and silver across the Pacific created the first true global economy, and the first international megacorporations were emerging as economic powers. In Europe, the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes marked the end of an era in literature, as the spirit of the Renaissance was giving way to new attitudes that would lead to an age of revolutions. Great changes were also taking place in East Asia, where the last native Chinese dynasty was entering its final years, and Japan was beginning its long period of warrior rule. Artists there, as in many parts of the world, were rethinking their connections to ancient traditions and experimenting with new directions. Women everywhere were redefining their roles in family and society. Slave trading was relocating large numbers of people, while others were migrating in search of new opportunities. The first tourists, traveling not for trade, diplomacy, religious conversion, or conquest but for personal fulfillment, were exploring this new globalized world."

LewisLucanBooks said...

I spent a couple of hours just skimming through the book, last night. It's lavishly illustrated. I really liked it, as it covered many empires and civilizations and wasn't concerned with just Europe.

It was a time when a lot of the wealth pumps were coming into being.

When I read history, I always try to keep in mind what was going on in other parts of the world about the same time. While the pilgrims were scratching out a living at Plymouth Rock, Michelangelo had been dead for over 50 years and Caravaggio had been gone for 10. Galileo was busy at work.

One of the many interesting stories in the book was about Kepler, the astronomer and mathematician. On one hand, he's working on all this science. On the other, he's defending his mother, who was an old wise herbal woman from charges of witchcraft. It took a lot of his time an energy, but he managed to keep the old lady from being tortured and sent to the stake.

Matt and Jess said...

fepw, you're awesome! I've been meaning to go back and make a reading list of the many books that were mentioned during the magical period of this blog as well. I remember one Christian esoteric author that I'm going to have to recall the name of.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@LewisLucanBooks--the statement about tourism is an exaggeration as tourism in Egypt goes back to the Hellenistic period, and Arabic travel literature predates 1616 by a few centuries. Kepler's Witch by James Connor is on my shelf; haven't read it yet.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Odin's Raven--some Southerners argued that their slaves were better off than starving workers in the North, but I don't buy it. Neither did the workers; they didn't sell themselves into slavery when it was legal.

ViewFromHere said...

Great history lesson Mr. Greer. It's is also the 150th anniversary of Pres. Lincoln's establishment of the land-grant university system- democratizing education throughout the nation. Also, the 150th anniversary of the Homestead act. Each rural township, filled with immigrant homesteaders, benefited from the teachers and farmers who were trained at our state's land-grant and then returned to the countryside. My grandparents were a perfect example of that.Here where I live and farm, there is a strong Grange/agrarian populist heritage that exists. Though it is dwindling.

Have you read Willa Cather's short story Neighbor Rosicky? You can find it published on line.

Best hopes.

Cathy McGuire said...

This is an interesting angle on American history, from a resources/systems POV. Helps to see how individuals are moved by systems they don’t understand or are barely aware of.
One fact I dug up while researching Portland, OR for a historical novel is that they pretty much replicated New England (both founders were from there) including the village green and the town meetings and the prim and proper – until the gold rush inland brought a surge they weren’t able to control. Perhaps that was because it was founded in 1840’s “by sea” (ie: the settlers came around through Panama and then up the coast) – until the great OR Trail migration (which was essentially a sales pitch by the government).

Occasionally I play Sid Meier’s Civilization game, which follows the whole expansion issue: at the beginning you have a whole continent to settle, but then you start bumping into other nations, and then it shifts to finding which continents still have unsettled lands and who can get to them first, and finally it moves into the “no place left to settle – do we invade or trade?”… I find it fascinating to play while thinking of real history.

fepw said...

Thanks Matt and Jess. I actually didn't go through the entire recent American history blog posts yet but just noted a few titles already mentioned and the rest are from my own collection and wishlist. I forgot to add some titles that I found on Amazon so here's a few more:

Native American history:
In Search of Ancient North America: An Archaeological Journey to Forgotten Cultures (1996)
American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations (2003)
First Encounters: Native Voices on the Coming of the Europeans (2010)

Colonial and Modern American history:
Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (1998)
The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717 (2003)
Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (2005)
America's Political Dynasties: From Adams to Kennedy (1966)
America's Political Dynasties (1997)

Can't say how good these books are as reviews vary so it's best to keep an open mind.
- Aiowekran

Rita said...

The land grant universities did do a great deal to extend education to the new states. However, they were also part of empire building in a way, as they were required to offer military training--not sure what is was called at the time but now it is ROTC.

One difficulty with comparing New World slavery with the slavery of the Old World is the racial basis. While in early days the status of white indentured servants and African slaves was very similar, the hardening of the color line produced a different situation than had held in Rome. Once Americans began to rely on racial inferiority as a justification for slavery they were painted into a corner. Manumission or allowing slaves to earn their freedom as they had in Rome would challenge the racist basis of the system. After all, if slaves were like children who needed their white masters it would be sheer cruelty to free them. And successful free people of color were an ongoing challenge to the system.

For a challenging view of the role of the poor white in the system see _Redneck Manifesto_ by Jim Goad. Expect to be offended, Goad spares no feeling. But the book is informative on aspects of history untouched on by your high school history text. And, unlike many polemical works, it has footnotes and a bibliography.

RainbowShadow said...

Rita, whenever people like Jim Goad describe themselves as "politically incorrect," I get a bit anxious because it's usually a manipulative use of language to suggest, "If you don't agree with me, then you're a a member of the political group I don't like and I'm going to be as rude and abusive in tone as I can with no self-control over my conduct and it's your job to take it!"

I've read the Redneck Manifesto. It has a lot of good points about stereotypes about rednecks, but ironically it promotes prejudice against East Coast liberals instead. That won't solve the problem Goad wants to solve.

Even one book reviewer insisted that anyone who didn't like the book and didn't agree with Goad 100% was a "fuzzy-wuzzy liberal" and thus his opinion and perspective could be discarded.

Calling everyone who doesn't agree with you a wimp or a member of "the enemy", even if you're a redneck and thus theoretically sympathetic, does not promote polite, civilized discourse. It just makes our political gridlock and angry dualism even worse. We won't be able to solve our gridlock if instead of dumping our negative emotions onto rednecks, we dump our negative emotions onto liberals instead. That just replaces one imbalance with the opposite imbalance.

RainbowShadow said...

Addendum to Rita:

Furthermore, calling yourself "offensive because it's true" is a way of shutting down discussion before it's begun. It's the "poisoning the well" fallacy; it's setting up a situation where if someone doesn't agree with every point you make, you take it as proof that you're in the right (even if the other guy can refute you with evidence) and you avoid listening.

In short, "politically incorrect" has become a phrase of manipulation, a way to manipulate one's audience's desire to have unique opinions as a way of getting them to agree with you "in advance."

Hidden Author said...

Perhaps people are loath to admit that America is an empire because it deviates so much from the standard imperial model.

1. The Treasury

In most empires, the wealth pump does not just benefit individual elites but also directs revenue to the imperial state. By contrast, the United States government pays other governments money.

2. Extreme Patience

So-called clients of the American Empire often sponsor terrorism against Americans but the American government continues to work with such foreign elites. Could you imagine Rome or Genghis Khan accepting attacks on their people from clients?

3. Selective Patience

Of course, when America wants to level a city, as in Fallujah or in Tripoli, it does so. But this highlights how deferential America is to certain other clients such as the Saudis or Karzai. It's almost as if the master-servant relationship that is typical in empires has been reversed!

Jim Brewster said...


1. You may be confusing money and wealth. Foreign aid can help prime the pump in a number of ways, but the net wealth flow is still back to the imperial core.

2. I think you can find examples of this throughout history. Many Germanic tribes were paid by the Romans to defend the borders, but sometimes did anything but fulfill their obligations.

3. It really depends on the delicate balance of interests and the greater geopolitical picture.

In short, there's a reason "politics makes strange bedfellows" is such a commonly-heard phrase.

RainbowShadow said...

Jim Brewster, I think you meant to reply to Hidden Author, because I was just responding to Rita's recommendation of the Redneck Manifesto.

But I'm flattered that you think I'm as well-read as Hidden Author is. I'm just a librarian in comparison to someone who specifically studies empire issues all the time. ^_^

Rich_P said...


I'm really enjoying these essays, especially since you account for the role of physical geography in shaping the commerce and culture of North and South.

In the appropriately named The Empire of Reason, Henry Steele Commager argues that one of the Constitution's most brilliant features is that it explicitly outlines how territories can become states while ensuring that they have republican forms of government, receive military protection, and are represented in Congress. This is quite the contrast with England's strategy of empire building during the 18th century. Being revolutionaries themselves, the Framers certainly realized the dangers of depriving new states a say in the national government, especially if said states were surrounded by European powers.

There was another benefit to this arrangement in the pre-telegraph era: subdividing your nation into many (largely) self-governing "mini-republics" that could further divide themselves into counties, cities, etc. kept administrative costs low at the federal level and allowed Washington to focus on the "big picture."

RE: internal improvements. William Davis notes in Look Away! (a great overview of how the Confederate government operated) that plantation owners were afraid internal improvements would "spread the wealth" to the upland regions. In other words, communities of economically vibrant homesteads far away from the plantation culture would probably be less willing to let the planter class run the show. With wealth comes power, and the plantations wanted a monopoly on both.

Rich_P said...

@Leo: In reading about ecosystem service valuation, I've come across numerous studies that show that carbon and nutrient retention and NPP increase with diversity (# plant species/area). As Tilman et al say about their research in grassland ecosystems, "even the best-chosen monocultures cannot achieve greater productivity or carbon stores than higher-diversity sites."

The argument goes that because land managers are not paid for these services (carbon sequestration, improved water quality from less nitrogen runoff, etc.) they instead focus on management strategies that bring them the most money, e.g., monocropping cash crops, even if these strategies mine soil nutrients or contribute to water pollution.

I'm conflicted about the ecosystem service concept. On the one hand, it might be an effective way of implementing conservation strategies in our market- and cash-based economy; on the other hand, it tacitly endorses this money-obsessed, shortsighted approach to land management.

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ Kathy McGuire - Ah, yes. "Almost Boston" aka Portland. The name of the place was decided by a flip of a coin. The coin still to be seen at the Oregon Historical Society Museum.

Portland is my home town, so over the years I picked up quit a bit of the history. When I first read this post, I Googled around, because SOMEWHERE, SOMETIME I had read SOMETHING about the difference in the founders of Portland and Seattle. I remembered that bit about Portland being founded by New Englanders. And Seattle? Can't remember.

Portland also had a large contingent of Jewish merchants that seemed to be lacking in Seattle.

Chance plays such a large roll in history. In 1843 the residents of the Willamette Valley gathered at a little town called Champoeg to vote on if to be American or British. They were deadlocked at 50 to 50. Then, two French trappers stumbled out of the woods and ... the vote was 52 to 50 in favor the the American faction. Just like the coin toss mentioned above, chance plays a large part of history.

SophieGale said...

For the history book list: I'm trying to get my hands on Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Studies in Environment and History) by Alfred W. Crosby. I just finished his book America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. That was pretty grim reading, but after all the death, the last chapter was about the search to isolate that flu virus. To my amusement Crosby has a dry JMG sense of humor!

Right now I am finishing Armies of heaven : the first crusade and the quest for apocalypse by Jay Rubenstein. Terry Jones (Monty Python & the Holy Grail)calls it "The most fascinating and readable book about the Crusades I have read. Jay Rubenstein gets into the heads of the Crusaders in a way no other book has. And it's a page-turner."

Richard Larson said...

Rich_P, great information! Thanks for that studies link.

Here is a bit of my experiment:

Cathy McGuire said...

@Lewis Lucan: Chance plays such a large roll in history. In 1843 the residents of the Willamette Valley gathered at a little town called Champoeg to vote on if to be American or British. They were deadlocked at 50 to 50. Then, two French trappers stumbled out of the woods and ... the vote was 52 to 50 in favor the the American faction. Just like the coin toss mentioned above, chance plays a large part of history.
Though I somehow doubt the US would have hesitated to change the vote if it had gone the other way. LOL!

According to "Sons of the Profits" (about the founding of Seattle) Denny was from Illinois and Terry from NY. Merchants from the git-go.