Tuesday, November 2, 2010


The last couple of days I've been learning about two really strange and totally separate things: the weirdness of the moons of the outer planets of our solar system, and the weirdness of American politics in the first decade of the 19th Century. Guess which are weirder? Here's a hint - when have American politics not been weirder than anything else you can think of?

Sure, there is Io, a moon of Jupiter that is the most geologically active body in the solar system. It spurts sulfur compounds like a colicky baby. There is Titan, a moon of Saturn, with its methane lakes that might nurture microbes. But then there is early American politics, which make no darn sense at all.

Of course, the politics probably do make some sense to historians who have spent years studying the subject. But to the rest of us ... weird.

Modern politics sometime are echoed in the early 1800s. "Republicans" of the time, a very distant relative of the modern GOP, can sound very modern and tea party-ish: In 1812, Congressman John A. Harper of New Hampshire celebrated the United States as a loose confederation of sovereign states "without foreign or domestic wars, without taxation, without any more of the pressure of government than was absolutely necessary to keep the bands of society together." In a great oxymoron, Thomas Jefferson said the U.S. has the strongest government on earth, because its institutional weakness would ensure that people would come to its defense because it demanded so little of them. This was the party that hated the idea of a "standing army," decimated the navy and army, economically weakened the U.S. by a trade embargo that only helped Canada and Great Britain, yet soon declared war against Britain, the greatest military power in the world at a the time when the U.S. was basically a cripple among nations.

This was long before the Democratic Party was formed - hell, it was before the Whigs. The Federalists, scared big time by Republican policies, argued that the British were right, the Republicans were wrong, and the country was going to hell. Anarchy was on the way. They cared mostly about international trade. Liberals, they were not. Nobody gave a damn about liberty for blacks, only white men.

Politics have changed a lot in 200 years. Republicans fought for racial equality (in law, anyway) in the mid 1800s, progressivism under Teddy Roosevelt at the turn of the century, and went ape shit about the New Deal. Democrats backed southern slavers, then got all disorganized (Mark Twain said he belonged to no organized party - he was a Democrat) and then in the 1930s belatedly realized they needed black votes.

At least the distant moons, Io and Titan, have stayed constant in their weirdness. I don't even want to go into modern U.S. politics.

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