Tuesday, January 31, 2012

10 Fun Facts About Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren, the 8th President of the United States

1. Born in New York in 1782, Martin Van Buren was the first U.S. president born as a citizen of the United States. All of his predecessors had been born as British subjects prior to the American Revolution.  His family was of Dutch ancestry, and Van Buren was the only president in U.S. history for whom English was a second language.

2. A lawyer by trade, Van Buren married Hannah Hoes in 1807.  The marriage produced five sons and one daughter.   Hannah Van Buren died in 1819, long before her husband's presidency, and he never remarried.   He became the second widower to assume the office of the president (his immediate predecessor, Andrew Jackson, had been the first).

3. As a New York state politician, Van Buren was instrumental in forming the first true "political machine" in U.S. history, helping to develop a political system in New York that virtually controlled all of New York politics.  Later, during the tenure of Andrew Jackson, for whom Van Buren served first as Secretary of State, and later as Vice-President, Van Buren was the primary leader in the formation of Jacksonian Democracy, the original Democratic Party.

4. During Van Buren's time as Secretary of State to Andrew Jackson, he became embroiled in the so-called Petticoat Affair.  This scandal occurred when a prominent Washington widow, Peggy Timberlake, married Andrew Jackson's Secretary of War, John Eaton.  Washington society women found this marriage scandalous because Peggy Timberlake had only been widowed for a short time, and her deceased husband had been a close associate of Eaton's.  The wives of Jackson's cabinent members shunned her, and the scandal intensified when Vice-President John Calhoun's wife, Floride, began leading a virtual witch-hunt against John Eaton and his new wife, calling for his resignation.  The scandal eventually caused such a rift in Jackson's cabinet that the entire cabinet resigned, including Martin Van Buren, though - as a widower - he had largely stayed out of the fray.  A year later, Andrew Jackson named Van Buren to be his running mate for re-election, replacing John Calhoun, who had also resigned.

5. Van Buren won the 1836 presidential election in an electoral college landslide, though he garnered only about 50% of the total popular vote.  Van Buren's victory is notable because no sitting vice-president would be elected to the presidency again until George H. W. Bush in 1988.  In the 1836 election, the Democrat Van Buren ran against a coalition of Whig Party candidates from different areas of the country - the only time in a presidential election when a major party ran more than one candidate.  The Whigs had hoped that by running multiple candidates, they would split the electoral vote sufficiently to force a run-off in the House of Representatives, which they believed they could win.  Their strategy failed; because so many Whig votes were split among the Whig candidates, Van Buren ended up winning states (particularly in the south) that he would likely have never won had the Whigs run a single man against him.

6. Within several months of taking office in 1837, an economic crisis known as the Panic of 1837 erupted, leading to an economic depression that lasted throughout Van Buren's presidency.  His political enemies would come to refer to him as Martin Van Ruin, blaming him not only for the economic depression in the first place, but for his failure to resolve it.

7. Van Buren served under Andrew Jackson as the 8th Vice-President of the United States.  Later, he became the 8th President of the United States.  After his presidency, he lived to see the election of 8 more presidents, each from 8 different states.  He was also the first in a consecutive string of 8 one-term presidents.  Earlier in his career, he had been the 8th elected governor of New York (one prior governor, John Taylor, had served only as Acting Governor for several months, following a the elected governor's resignation).

8. From early in his career, Van Buren had been known as "Old Kinderhook" (a reference to the New York city of his birth.)  In the 1840 election, one of the rallying cries of his supporters was "Vote for OK!"  The abbreviation "o.k.," meaning "all is well," had only just appeared in the 1830's, during a fad for humorous abbreviations - it stood for the phrase "Oll Korrect," spelled with Germanic inflections.  Van Buren's campaign quickly picked up on it, claiming it stood for "Old Kinderhook," and its widespread use in the 1840 election has been cited as the primary reason the word fell into general use in American English.

9. Because of the Panic of 1837 and the ensuing depression, Van Buren lost his re-election bid in 1840 to one of his opponents from 1836, William Henry Harrison.  Harrison, a war hero, had gotten the most votes among the various Whig candidates in 1836, and defeated Van Buren easily in 1840, thanks largely to a remarkably effective campaign.  After it was over, Van Buren was famously quoted as saying: "As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it."

10. Despite his famous quip, Van Buren was not deterred by his defeat in 1840.  He ran for the Democratic nomination again in 1844, but eventually lost to James K. Polk.   In 1848, he ran on the ticket of the anti-slavery Free Soil party, but failed to win any electoral votes.  He lived out the remainder of his life at his home in New York, dying in 1862, having outlived four of his successors to the White House (Harrison, Tyler, Polk, and Taylor).

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Notes from the Cave

Because I've gotten so much commentary on my series on political parties, I know you all are waiting expectantly for part 3.  Never fear, it's coming.  (That's a joke, by the way.  I haven't had a single comment, on the site or in email, about these posts.  Haha.  Gonna keep publishing them anyway though.)

I'm off work today (I work this weekend), and I've kept Spawn the Younger home from daycare with me.  I will be taking her to Kindergarten at noon.  She is running around harassing the dog.  She just came up to me and asked if she could spray her toy dog with body spray.  I told her no.  She's doing it anyway.  

I'm teaching a business lesson later on today at Worldwide Frontier.  This is the language and culture training company that I work for.  We market primarily to Asian people looking for help with English, and for training in American business culture expectations.  A high school friend of mine runs the company, which is based here in the Cincinnati area.

I realize it's no secret to most of my readers that I am an avowed liberal when it comes to politics.  Be that as it may, I can't help but look at someone like Newt Gingrich and just marvel at how so many people can be so enamored with him.  This is a politician who, while Speaker of the House, was reprimanded and fined $300K for ethics violations.  The vote to impose these sanctions passed 395-28, in a Republican-controlled Congress!  This was, and is, the only time in United States history that a presiding Speaker of the House was sanctioned by the House of Representatives!  The following year, in 1998, he resigned both his job as Speaker, and his job as a congressman from Georgia, stating that he was "willing to lead" but was "not willing to preside over people who are cannibals."  

Then, of course, it comes out last week, right before the South Carolina primary, that Gingrich had asked one of his ex-wives for an open marriage.  Of course he denied it, and of course he blasted the media for playing a dirty trick on him (airing this interview right before the primary), but I don't think there are very many people who doubt that it is true.  In addition to this, his ex-wife also said he was carrying on an affair, and that it was happening during the very time that Gingrich was leading the impeachment crusade against Bill Clinton for having "relations" with Monica Lewinsky.  

Now we can debate all day long about whether these accusations are true, or whether this is just a jilted ex-wife trying to get back at her former husband, but clearly Gingrich has some skeletons in his closet, and those skeletons  make his inquisitional crusade against Bill Clinton seem all the more insidious and hypocritical.  

Yet the Republican voters of South Carolina, never ones to worry about inconsistency, voted for him in the primary by an overwhelming margin!  He didn't just win this primary, he won it by almost 15% of the vote!  That would be a landslide in a presidential election.

How can so many people who consider themselves the party of "family values" and "character" and "faith" vote for a man with this sort of background?  House ethics violations.  Multiple ex-wives.  Past affairs.  Accusations of unfaithfulness while he, himself, was trying to impeach a president for the very same thing.   

I suppose these people would respond in one of two ways: either they'd say that his ideas for how to "fix" the country overshadow any problems in his personal life or past political life, or they'd say they simply don't believe any of the "lies" put out by the "liberal media" against Gingrich.  

Anyway....Gingrich is simply one of those politicians for whom you can pretty much assume that if his mouth is open, he is lying.  Even as a liberal, I don't, and wouldn't, say that about all Republican politicians.  I wouldn't say that, for instance, about Ron Paul or even Mitt Romney (though I don't care for either one of their platforms).  

But, to me, Gingrich is basically just Bill Clinton with conservative values.  And considering how much the conservatives hated Bill Clinton for being smarmy and unfaithful and unethical and  having "no character," it's shocking to me that so many conservatives are supporting Gingrich, who is essentially an exact replica of Bill Clinton in that regard.  

(Don't get me wrong: I loved Bill Clinton and thought he was a wonderful president, but I have always been able to admit his personal flaws and failures; those flaws and failures just didn't overshadow his political leadership - for me, anyway.)   

And don't think this parenthetical statement makes me a hypocrite, since I just criticized Republicans for looking past Gingrich's personal flaws.  I, after all, am not the one who wanted to impeach Clinton for being unethical and unfaithful.  It was the conservatives who did that.  And it is conservatives who always harp on family values and "character."  So it makes their overlooking of Gingrich's flaws inconsistent at best, and hypocritical at worst.   

In the end, of course, all of this is probably a moot point, because I still don't think Gingrich has any legitimate chance to win the nomination.  South Carolina's trend of always picking the winning Republican candidate notwithstanding, I do not think the Republicans across the country will support Gingrich, precisely because of the issues I raised above.  I think South Carolina Republicans are just a special example of unashamed hypocrisy.  These are the original secessionists, after all - the veritable home of American disunion.  And for some reason, they think this is a tradition worthy of glorification, with their anti-American Confederate flag flying over their state capital. 

Can you tell I don't care much for South Carolina?  Pretty beaches, traitorous politics.

Anyway, I wonder if this will generate some hate mail from South Carolina readers?

What else?  Don't care about football.  Happy to see the Kentucky Wildcats back on top of the college basketball polls, with a unanimous vote for #1 this week.  It will be interesting to see how long they can stay there.  They don't have any tough games in the next few weeks, so unless they fall apart against someone, they should be able to maintain the position until at least mid-February.  

I'm watching free episodes of "Lost" on my Kindle Fire.  I had always wanted to watch this show, but by the time I got interested in seeing it, it was already several seasons into its series run, and I knew I'd be lost (excuse the pun) if I tried to start watching it at that point.  So I never watched it, always assuming I'd eventually buy the DVD's or something.  Now, with my Amazon Prime membership, I can watch it for free on my Kindle Fire.  It's fantastic.  I am totally obsessed.  I've watched the first 6 episodes in just the last two days.  If you've not ever watched Lost, I highly recommend it, in whatever format you can access it.  

Sunday, January 22, 2012

UK Wildcats Riding High Again

With Kentucky's win Saturday against Alabama, combined with Notre Dame's defeat of top-ranked Syracuse, Kentucky will undoubtedly rise to #1 in the nation on Monday, for their second stint there this season.

I haven't been doing many UK-themed blog posts this season, but don't think that means I haven't been following the team very closely.  In fact, I actually attended my first UK game this year.  (Yes, I know that's hard to believe, being that I was born in Lexington, raised in Louisville as a UK fan, then lived in the Lexington area for the first 15 years of my adulthood, but I simply never had the inclination to spring for tickets and fight the crowds.)  I saw the highly-touted UK/UNC game in December that UK won after blocking a last second 10-footer that would have won the game for UNC.  It was definitely a great first experience.

In any case, Kentucky started the year ranked #2 in the nation, jumped to #1 for two weeks after top-ranked UNC lost, then fell back to #3 for several weeks following a loss to IU, before returning to the #2 spot, where they will remain until Monday's new rankings come out.

I know I could easily be accused of bias when it comes to evaluating the college basketball world, but I can't help but feel like UK is not getting entirely fair treatment this season from the analysts and mouthpieces on ESPN and other media outlets.  Now don't get me wrong: Kentucky gets plenty of press, much of it positive, and there are certainly analysts out there (Dick Vitale comes to mind) who absolutely gush over UK (of course, Vitale gushes over everyone), but I can't help but feel like Kentucky is, in many ways, getting a raw deal by a lot of the more notable college basketball analysts.

A perfect example is live on ESPN's site right now - a video blog between Andy Katz and Doug Gottlieb about Saturday's events.  It is titled "Gottlieb's new No. 1 -- it's not UK."  In it, Gottlieb states that he would choose current #6 Ohio State to be the new #1 after the loss by Syracuse.  He essentially writes off OSU's three losses by chalking them up to "tough road games."  He is not, apparently, willing to write off UK's one loss as a "tough road game," even though it was to one of the very same "tough teams" that OSU lost to on the road.  Basically, it's a ridiculous argument.  Gottlieb, apparently, simply doesn't want to give UK the respect it deserves as a team who is 19-1, with their only loss coming to a highly ranked Indiana team at Indiana, and that loss only coming on a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give IU a 1-point victory, along with three other signature wins against ranked teams, one of which was not a home game (UK beat Kansas at Madison Square Garden).  They've also started off 5-0 in SEC play - the only unbeaten SEC team.  In fact, the only other team in a major conference who is still unbeaten in conference play is Kansas.

The same sort of general disregard seemed true last year too.  For instance, Kentucky reached the Final Four last year, but not a single ESPN analyst had picked them to do so.  Kentucky also received what was, in my opinion, a scandalously low seeding in the NCAA tournament (they were a 4 seed).  Three teams who were ranked lower than UK got higher seedings by the NCAA selection committee, including Florida, who had just been blown-out in the SEC championship game by UK!

In any case, I think UK is even better than many people think this year.  Syracuse seems overrated to me.  Prior to conference play, they only played one true road game - and while that is true of Kentucky as well, Kentucky's one true road game was against a quality, ranked opponent in IU; Syracuse played a tepid NC State team who has lost at home four times this year.  Since starting conference play, Syracuse has played on the road three times (before Saturday), and those three teams are among the five worst teams in the Big East.  Saturday's game at Notre Dame was literally Syracuse's first legitimate road test all season (Notre Dame's record isn't stellar - 11-8 coming in - but they've played 7 [seven!] ranked teams prior to this match-up with Syracuse, so they've been toughened), and the 'Cuse got beat down by 10 points, never had the lead in the entire game, and were down by as much as 18 at one point.

As for Kentucky, I think they get underrated a bit because many of the analysts don't give fair treatment to the SEC as a whole.  Up until last week, Kentucky had been getting one first place vote every week in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll - the other 30 votes had all been going to Syracuse.  Some voter out there thought Kentucky deserved to be #1.  But after Kentucky struggled at Auburn, and only won at Tennessee by a few points, that voter abandoned Kentucky this week, and all 31 votes in the poll went to Syracuse.  Clearly, even though Kentucky won those games (and they ended up winning the Auburn game by double digits, after struggling early), and even though both games were on the road, whoever that voter was clearly believed SEC competition is so weak that Kentucky should have blown both those teams out by 30 points.  Since they didn't do that, this voter switched.

My point in spelling all this out is that I think SEC competition is undervalued.  I think people see these SEC schools like Auburn and South Carolina and Arkansas and Ole Miss, who haven't been any good in decades, and who are primarily football schools, and they assume that when a team like Kentucky plays them, they don't really "count" very much towards respect or legitimacy.  This is largely based, of course, on the RPI system.  Without going into too much detail, the RPI system is a convoluted mathematical formula that attempts to determine how good a team is based on their winning percentage, the winning percentages of the teams they have played, and the winning percentages of the teams their opponents have played.  As such, it changes with every game a team plays.  It does not take into consideration a team's stats (shooting percentage, points per game, etc.), nor does it consider margins of victory or loss - a 1 point victory or loss is the same as a 30 point victory or loss.  It also does not evaluate how one team's strengths and weaknesses will match up with another team's strengths and weaknesses.

With the RPI system, Kentucky frequently gets a low strength of schedule rating, because many of the teams it faces in the SEC have poor winning percentages.  As a result, its RPI is frequently lower than a lot of other major teams.  This year for instance (as of Friday), Kentucky's RPI was only 7, even though they are ranked second in the nation.  That means six other teams are, by this mathematical formula, "better" than Kentucky (this year, one of those teams is Seton Hall, who isn't even ranked, and another of those teams is Kansas, who Kentucky beat).

Because of the prominence of the RPI in ranking and analyzing teams, many of Kentucky's games in the SEC are undervalued, in my opinion - which ultimately leads to Kentucky getting at least somewhat undervalued or underrated.  The reason for this is because the RPI not only doesn't take into consideration margins of victory or a team's personal stats, but it also cannot evaluate subjective things like rivalry games.
As anyone familiar with sports knows, a heated rivalry can frequently produce very good games, and very close games, even when one of the teams is having an "off" season.  For instance, Kentucky has a very heated and long-standing rivalry with Louisville - and regardless of where they happen to be ranked in a given season, or what their winning percentage happens to be in a given season, you can never be sure who is going to win that game.

Additionally, the RPI cannot take into consideration how easy or difficult a given team is to beat on their own court.  For instance, it is widely accepted that Kansas's Allen Fieldhouse is one of the toughest places to play in all of college basketball.  Currently, Kansas has won 85 of its last 86 games there.  There are, of course, a number of others (including Kentucky's Rupp Arena).  So a team might have a poor RPI, and be a very average team, but be difficult to beat on their home court.

Finally, the RPI cannot evaluate the intensity of play in a given conference.  There is no question that some conferences are more competitive than others.  And by "more competitive," I don't mean "more teams with high winning percentages."  I'm talking about intensity of competition and expectation.  The Ohio Valley Conference, for instance, could hardly be considered a "highly intense" conference, regardless of how good or bad its teams might be.  The Big 10, however, is an incredibly intense conference, with many heated rivalries and very high expectations among its fan base - and again, that comes regardless of how "good" the conference is.

All of these things play a role in undervaluing the SEC and Kentucky, in my opinion.  The SEC is a very intense conference.  It's an old conference made up of teams who have been playing each other on a very regular basis for decades.  There are numerous old rivalries throughout the conference.  In fact, it could be fair to say that virtually every game played in the SEC is a "rivalry" game.  This increases the level of competition dramatically.  There are also many difficult courts to win on in the SEC, most notably Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Kentucky.  Finally, SEC fans tend to be rabid and tend to have very high expectations for their schools, even those schools whose programs tend to be weak - this, too, plays a role in the overall difficulty of SEC play.

There is also one more factor to be considered, and it's probably the most important.  Kentucky is the undisputed king of the SEC.  With the exception of Vanderbilt, Kentucky is the only "basketball" school in the conference: all the others are primarily known as football schools.  Kentucky has won more SEC regular season titles, more SEC championship titles, more Final Fours, and more National Championships, than all the other schools combined.    In SEC championships, Kentucky has won 27; the next closest are Alabama with 6, and Tennessee with 4, and neither of those teams has won an SEC championship in more than 20 years.

All this is to say that when Kentucky plays games in the SEC, they play with a target on their backs, every game, every year.  Kentucky is the "signature win" that every single SEC team wants to get.  The good teams, like Florida and Vandy and Tennessee, want to beat them to increase their seeding in the NCAA tournament; poorer teams,  like Arkansas and Ole Miss and Georgia, want to beat them to increase their chances of making the NCAA tournament.  Every team wants to beat them for general bragging rights.  With the possible exception of Kansas in the Big 12, there is no other team in the college basketball world that plays under these kinds of "targeted" conditions in conference play.

Put simply, Kentucky gets the best of every team they play, especially in the SEC.  

A perfect case in point is the game Kentucky won Saturday against Alabama.  I heard more than one analyst say that Alabama played its best basketball of the season during the second half of the game.  Kentucky still won, but they got the best Alabama had to give them.  This is pretty much par for the course when it comes to Kentucky games in the SEC.

Because of the inability of the RPI to evaluate subjective things like rivalries, tough road courts, and conference intensity, and especially because of Kentucky's somewhat unique place in college basketball as a team who gets the very best out of every team who plays them, I think Kentucky sometimes gets overlooked by analysts who don't take any of those subjective things into consideration.

The fact is, biased though I may be, I think Kentucky is the best team in the nation this year, with nowhere to go but up.  I think they are better than Syracuse.  I think they are better than Ohio State.  I think they are better than Baylor and Duke and UNC.  If they haven't blown out every opponent, and if they've played some close contests with teams with sub-par records, it's only because Kentucky plays all of its games, every year, with an enormous target on its back, they play numerous rivalry games, and they seem to always get the best that any SEC team - no matter how good or bad - can throw at them.  

I'm picking Kentucky to win its 8th National Championship this year.  They have the talent, they have the intensity, and they are very quickly gaining the experience they will need through tough SEC match-ups and hard-fought battles in close games.  Winning every game by 20 points is a sure path to finding yourself without a clue what to do when it comes time for the scrappy, high intensity games of the NCAA tournament.  Syracuse, this year, had never been down by more than 8 points in a game, had never trailed at halftime, and had an average margin of victory close to 20 points.  Their only close game was a 4-point victory at home over Florida in December - Florida, the only ranked team they have played all season.  On Saturday, they found themselves in a tough road match with a battle-hardened team, they found themselves on the bottom looking up, and they did not know how to respond.

Kentucky isn't going to have that problem, thanks to the toughness of the games they play in the SEC.  This, I predict, will help propel them to a National Championship on April 2 in New Orleans.    

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A History of American Political Parties, Part II

Read Part I

The Era of Good Feelings - a name given to the 2-term presidency of James Monroe - came to a screeching halt with the end of his time in office in 1825.  For the past quarter century, the United States had effectively been a 1-party democracy, controlled by the so-called Democratic-Republicans.  This party had been founded by Thomas Jefferson in the 1790's as a populist movement focusing on states' rights and a limited federal government.  It had consolidated its influence over the U.S. political system with Jefferson's presidential victory in 1800 over John Adams.  Adams'  party, the Federalists, had very quickly fallen apart, and didn't even bother running a candidate against James Monroe in 1820.

In 1824, four major candidates of the Democratic-Republican camp ran for president - Henry Clay, William Crawford, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson.  Three were southerners; only Adams came from a northern state.

With four well-known and widely-liked candidates from the same party all running against each other - effectively splintering the party - the election results were unlike anything we can imagine today.  Clay won 13% of the popular vote and 37 electoral votes.  Crawford won a slightly lower percentage of the popular vote, but took 41 electoral votes.  Adams, whose father had been the only Federalist president, took virtually all of New England (the old Federalist stronghold), and garnered 84 electoral votes.  Finally, Jackson took 41% of the popular vote, including most of the southern states, and won the most electoral votes, with 99.

However, because of the 12th Amendment, which had been passed after the divisive 1796 and 1800 elections, none of the candidates won the presidency.  The 12th Amendment requires that the winning candidate carry a majority of the electoral vote, regardless of popular vote percentages.  In this election, 131 electoral votes would have been needed to win a majority.  So with none of the candidates getting enough electoral votes to win, the election had to be decided by the House of Representatives, as stipulated in the 12th Amendment.  This is the only time in U.S. history that this has happened.

Considering that he won the most popular votes, along with the most electoral votes, Andrew Jackson expected to win the vote in the House.  However, because the stipulation of the 12th Amendment states that only the top three candidates can be considered in a House run-off, Henry Clay (who got the least electoral votes) was not on this congressional ballot.  Clay was not only the Speaker of the House, but also a major political enemy of Andrew Jackson.  Because of his status in the House, he was able to convince a number of representatives to vote for Adams instead of Jackson.  For his part, Adams agreed to make Clay his Secretary of State if Clay could help him win.

The backroom bargaining paid off.  In a shocking turn of events, Adams ended up winning the House run-off, with Jackson left wondering how he had been outfoxed.  Adams immediately named Clay as his Secretary of State, and considering that the previous three Secretaries of State had gone on to win the following  presidential election, this was seen as Adams' way of effectively naming Clay as his presidential successor.

As a result of this highly divisive presidential election, the prevailing Democratic-Republican party began to splinter.  Jackson accused Adams and Clay of unethical backroom deals (which was probably a fair accusation), and the faction supporting Jackson began to form itself into a new party, called the Democratic Party.  Their main platforms included Manifest Destiny - the notion that Americans had a God-given right to the unsettled territories of North America; a free market economy; opposition to national banks, and even, for some Democrats, all banks; and a patronage system that rewarded political supporters with government-appointed jobs.

Supporters of Adams and Clay, on the other hand, began to refer to themselves as the Anti-Jackson party, or the National Republicans.  Unlike their Jacksonian counterparts, they did not believe the U.S. should worry about expansion into new territories (Manifest Destiny), but should instead focus on strengthening the existing United States.  They believed in a strong national bank, as well as tariffs on trade goods to bring revenue into the federal government.  This revenue, in turn, could be used to subsidize internal improvements like roads and bridges and canals.  Where the Jacksonians tended to be focused on agriculture and territory expansion, the Adams-Clay faction focused more on the economy and growth of cities.

In 1828, Adams and Jackson faced off once again, and this time it was no contest.  Jackson, who had gained enormous popularity during the previous four years, defeated the incumbent Adams in a landslide, winning every state outside of New England, as well as Pennsylvania and New York - traditional strongholds for Adams.

As a result of this dramatic repudiation of John Quincy Adams, and the growing strength of the populist Democratic Party headed by Andrew Jackson, the burgeoning National Republican party was halted in its tracks, and basically fell apart before it ever really got started.

Out of its ashes, in the early 1830's, would rise the ill-fated Whig Party, which would see two men elected president, but would also suffer both their deaths in office.

Read Part III

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A History of American Political Parties, Part I

Political parties are a little bit like religious denominations - they are rarely formed out of thin air, but instead tend to evolve over time.

This fact is easy to forget in this day and age when the U.S. is virtually wholly controlled by two prevailing parties, representing two prevailing political ideologies.  For many of us, it may seem that these two parties have always existed, and have always been just like they are today.

Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth.

In the earliest days of the United States, there was no such thing as a political party.  There were political ideologies, of course, many of which stood in stark contrast to one another, but there was no such thing as an organized political party that used resources and manpower to help elect like-minded individuals.  As such, the first few sessions of Congress, as well as the first presidency under George Washington, were all non-partisan.  It's hard to imagine such a scenario today.

By the end of Washington's second term, in 1796, political parties were developing into what might be called an embryonic stage.  Two primary ideologies had taken widepspread root, with politicians and average citizens generally falling into one camp or the other.  The first camp was known as the Federalists, and they generally believed in a stronger federal government (hence the name), a national bank to streamline the economy and assume the public debt of the states, and a large standing army.  To put a modern spin on it, they might be thought of as the "big government" ideologues of the 18th century.  Though George Washington never aligned himself with any political party, he was most in line, politically, with the Federalists.  The Federalist founder and leader was Alexander Hamilton, who was Treasury Secretary under George Washington.  

The other party developing during these years was known by a number of different names.  Historians today generally refer to them as the Democratic-Republican party.  In their own day, they tended to either call themselves Jeffersonians (after their leader, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson), or, more often, Republicans.  They generally believed in stronger states' rights, state militias instead of standing federal armies, and private banks.  They were essentially the "small government/states' rights" group of the 18th century.  They called themselves Republicans because they believed strongly in republican principles of government - representatives, elected by the people, doing the will of the people.  They are not related to the modern day Republican Party.  The Jeffersonian Republicans viewed the Federalist movement as leaning too closely to monarchy, and thus to tyranny, and even insultingly referred to the Federalists as "tories" - the name for members of the British parliament who were strong supporters of the king.

The Federalists generally supported big businesses, banks, and wealthy urban interests; they also supported improved relations with Great Britain.  The Jeffersonians, on the other hand, pushed for the rights of rural America, arguing for the importance of farmers and planters over industrialists and financial investors.  They were sympathetic with the anti-monarchy values of the French revolution, and were opposed to the Federalist treaties with Great Britain.

These ideological differences tended to play out geographically.  Federalists were strong in the industrialized north, while the Jeffersonians were strong in the agrarian south.  In many ways, it's not much different than the tension that still exists today between management and labor, Wall Street and Main Street, urban and rural, the 1% against the 99%.

Both of these political ideologies coalesced, during the 1790's, into true, burgeoning political parties.  Their main way of gaining prominence and backing and support was through the use of mainstream media, which, at that time, consisted primarily of newspapers.  Newspapers have tended to have a political slant ever since.

After choosing not to accept a third term in the White House, George Washington delivered a farewell address to the nation, which was printed in all the newspapers around the country.  Sensing the trouble brewing in the political arena, he spent no less than six paragraphs of this address condemning political parties and encouraging Americans not to form them.

This [tendency among people to form political coalitions]...is inseparable from our nature...But, it is truly [our] worst enemy.  The alternate domination of one faction over another...is itself a frightful despotism...The common and continual mischiefs of [political parties] are sufficient to make it in the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain [them].

Unfortunately, no one took the Father of Our Nation very seriously on this point.

In the 1796 election, John Adams, who had been Vice-President under George Washington, ran on the Federalist platform.  He ran against Thomas Jefferson, who was running on the Democratic-Republican platform.  This election proved to be immensely divisive, and in the end, Adams won by only 3 electoral votes over Jefferson, with voting split geographically - the North going with Adams, and the South with Jefferson.

Because of the rules of electoral college voting at the time, Jefferson ended up being elected as Adams' Vice-President, marking the only time in American history when two people from different political parties shared the Executive office.  Jefferson went on to do everything in his power to undermine Adams' presidency, and four years later, they faced off again in an even more divisive election, and this time Jefferson won.  Adams did not attend his inauguration.

Following Jefferson's victory in the 1800 election, the Federalist party began to fall apart, and no Federalist was ever elected again to the presidency.  For the next 25 years, the U.S. was essentially a one-party system.  The Democratic-Republicans held the White House, and also maintained what can only be called a "super-majority" in Congress (often as high as 80%).  In the 1820 election, the Federalists didn't even bother to run anyone against James Monroe, and he became the only president since Washington to run unopposed.  His eight years in office are frequently referred to as the Era of Good Feelings, because there was virtually no political rancor going on in Washington - something that is virtually unthinkable in this day and age.  Essentially, by this time, Americans had stopped thinking of politics in terms of parties, and simply viewed everyone as part of the same basic team.

These good feelings, however, were about to be turned on their head.

Read Part II

Monday, January 09, 2012

Notes from the Cave

I've been having a hard time getting the writing thing going again since the holidays.  I've had several ideas for things to write about, but I can't seem to make the time or find the energy.  Maybe this edition of Notes from the Cave will break me out of the slump. 

My ads for Amazon served me well over the holidays - I made over 100 bucks for doing absolutely nothing but owning a blog.  The sales I generated for Amazon were somewhere in the range of $1,800.  Of course, none of this is dependent on the holidays - readers can still click the ads anytime they want to make Amazon purchases.  And in case you didn't know, you do not have to be purchasing whatever the ad is selling in order for it to work.  You can click the ad and buy pantyhose, and I'll get a commission for it.  

Those of you who got Kindle readers for the holidays should use my ads to buy your e-books, and you should also buy all four of my own e-books, or I will hunt you down and murder you.  You don't have to read them; just support the cause.  And tell all your friends and family.  

Okay, that's it for reader assignments...for this week, anyway.

I made a few New Year's resolutions this year.  First, I am eating healthier.  Not only am I attempting to eat more healthy foods and less unhealthy foods, I am also trying to eat regular meals - something I have been very, very bad about for the last few years.  Connected with this, I am starting a walking routine, which works two ways, because not only is it good for me, but I also take the dog with me, and the exercise helps control his bad behavior.  I don't know if I've lost any weight yet or not, but a few people have commented that I look trimmer.  

Secondly, and much more importantly, I have also quit smoking.  I stopped on January 1st, and although I had a little setback this weekend, I have recommitted myself to the task and I feel good about it.  I am using an electronic cigarette and I absolutely cannot say enough about this thing.

I bought one originally about two months ago, after stopping to browse at a kiosk in the mall.  I got suckered into buying a kit by the extremely pushy salesperson, even though I wasn't actually ready to get one yet.  I tried it a few times over the last few weeks, and kinda sorta liked it, but not really.  I felt like I had gotten suckered into buying a crappy brand - and that's the thing that is so frustrating about e-cigarettes: there are literally dozens of brands out there and you have no way of knowing which one is best. 

Fortunately, I have a cousin-in-law (does that exist?) who uses a brand called GreenSmoke, and he absolutely loves it.  He was a lifelong smoker and was able to quit tobacco by using this brand of e-cigarette.  So, knowing that my crappy brand was going to impact my ability to quit, I ponied up some more cash and bought the GreenSmoke brand.  I got it in the mail today, and I absolutely love it.  It is superior to the other one in every single possible way.  It really does feel like I am smoking a cigarette.  It's absolutely as close to the real thing as I can imagine technology could get.

In case you don't know what an electronic cigarette is, it is basically exactly what it says - a cigarette that runs on a battery.  Instead of tobacco, there is a glycerin-based liquid that is flavored and contains nicotine.  When you draw on the cigarette, the liquid turns to mist and you inhale and exhale the mist.  It's basically like an asthma inhaler (and uses the same chemicals), but without the medicine.  You can choose your level of nicotine, including no nicotine at all.  You can also choose from among numerous flavors, including traditional tobacco flavor.  I currently am using "Smooth Chocolate" and "Menthol Ice."  

Although these things haven't been FDA approved for quitting smoking, and have not been officially recognized as a safe alternative to smoking, numerous studies have shown them to be safe, and they are being increasingly promoted by doctors and physician groups.  They don't contain the carcinogens that cigarettes contain (because there is no tobacco and the "smoke" is actually just a water vapor mist), and the chemicals used in them are known to be safe, and are widely used in other food products we all eat every day.  In short, they are basically the cigarette of the future.

Finally, I have made a resolution to get in bed at a decent hour, and to actually sleep in the bed (instead of in the EZ chair or on the couch.  In addition to my eating habits, my sleeping habits have long been totally off kilter.  

So I am eating regularly.  I am eating healthier foods more often.  I am drinking diet soft drinks instead of regular.  I have quit smoking.  I have started sleeping in the bed every night, and I have started getting to bed at a decent hour so I get enough sleep.

And doing all these things has already made a huge difference in how I feel, and it's only been a little over a week.  I have more energy, I am losing weight, I can breathe better, I feel better - not only physically, but also emotionally - and, in general, I feel more positive.

So...here's to hoping I can stick with it.  I was a little nervous about trying to make too many changes at once, but I think it's for the best - better to just go balls out and commit myself to a lifestyle change, rather than try to ease into it.  In actuality, I have tried to "ease into it" one at a time (sleeping, eating, smoking), for a very long time, and have gotten nowhere.  Also, I am not being a Nazi with myself about it either (except for the smoking) - if I have a regular soft drink, or eat a big meal, or forget breakfast now and then, it's okay.  Last night on third shift, for instance, I drank a shit-ton of regular Mt. Dew.    

I'm planning an upcoming blog post about the history of American political parties.  Stay tuned for that.  I'm really starting to get interested in U.S. presidential and political history - which is something I have never had much interest in before.  I will also, of course, be continuing my series on presidential fun facts.

I was very pleased to see Barry Larkin get his overdue calling to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  He should have been chosen on the first ballot - last year - and it was a farce that he wasn't.  Apparently the voters realized that, because he made the biggest 1-year jump in history, or something close to it.  He only had 40-something percent last year, and jumped up to 86% this year.  You have to have 75% to get in.  Larkin always played in the shadow of Ozzie Smith, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he was a superior all-around player to Ozzie Smith.  It's not even a contest, in my opinion.  Yet Smith got in on the first ballot with, I think, the highest percentage in history. 



Wednesday, January 04, 2012

2011 Reading List

It's that time again, time for the posting of the annual reading list.  I am sad to say that this was my worst year ever in terms of the number of books completed (worst, that is, since I started keeping track in 2004).

I'm not sure what the problem was this year, other than simply having a lot of things that got in the way of reading.  Also, I did read a number of very, very long books this year, so that's part of it.  Still, I'm embarrassed to say that I finished only 18 books this year.  This is only the second time I've been below 30 since 2004, and the first time below 20.

Oh well, on with the countdown.


The Diamond Hunters – Wilbur Smith

This was my second reading of this great little Wilbur Smith adventure novel from the early 70's. It's vintage Wilbur, set in southern Africa and centering on the diamond mining industry.

Lion in the Valley – Elizabeth Peters

I started reading the Elizabeth Peters mysteries starring Amelia Peabody in 2010 and I love them. They are set in the golden age of Egyptology - late 19th and early 20th centuries - and they are perfect "fireside" mysteries. They are also really funny, particularly if you appreciate dry British humor.

When Christ and His Saints Slept – Sharon Kay Penman

I just discovered Sharon Kay Penman this year, and I absolutely love her. She is a writer of medieval historical fiction, and When Christ and His Saints Slept is the first book in a trilogy about the tumultuous 12th century in England and France. It covers the period of English history known as "the Anarchy," when Stephen stole the throne from his cousin Maude, instigating a 20-year civil war. If you like historical fiction, and if you like the Middle Ages, this is a must-read.

Altar of Eden – James Rollins

This is the first book Rollins has published in several years that was NOT part of his Sigma Force series - which explains why I read it. I got bored with his series novels and gave them up, because they had become so totally predictable and irritatingly formulaic, but I gave this one a shot because it was a stand alone novel. It was okay. It didn't impress itself upon me all that greatly.

Time and Chance – Sharon Kay Penman

The second book of the above-mentioned trilogy. It centers on Maude's son, who became Henry II, and his infamous clash with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett.

Swan Song – Robert McCammon

I love Robert McCammon. He's Stephen King, but without the extra 500 extraneous and meaningless scenes that don't move the plot forward in any appreciable sense. He writes with immense emotional depth and his prose is extremely descriptive and high quality. Written at the height of the Cold War in the 1980's, Swan Song is a masterpiece of post-Apocalyptic fiction that imagines what life might be like for the few people who survive a nuclear holocaust. Fans of Stephen King's "The Stand" might recognize the theme, because it's virtually the same (replace "nuclear holocaust" with "biological holocaust"). Both books even have a human version of Satan as the main protagonist. I've read both books. Both are very long. McCammon's is significantly better.

Forged – Bart Ehrman

Yet another fantastic book by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, this time centering on the issue of forgery in early Christian writing, including texts of the New Testament.

Devil’s Brood – Sharon Kay Penman

Book 3 of the trilogy, ending with the ascension of Henry's son, Richard the Lionheart.

Gone South – Robert R. McCammon

Another great McCammon book, this one not quite so dense as Swan Song. It's about a murder investigation in the deep south.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

As many people have said, this book starts out really, really slowly. It's almost perplexing how slowly it moves at first. From everything you hear, you expect this to be a fantastic thriller novel that just captivates you, and yet it just lollygags along like a Sunday driver. In the first 300 pages, the plot hardly moves forward at all. Then, it suddenly - and finally - takes off and starts really drawing you in. Then the story ends, and yet, oddly, there are still about 50 or 75 pages to go.

What it boils down to is that there are two books in this novel. One is about the main character's life as a journalist, and all the trouble he gets himself into, and the other is about him getting hired to investigate a murder mystery. The journalist part takes up the first 300 pages or so, and the last 50 pages or so. The murder mystery part takes up the middle 250 pages. The murder mystery part is the good part. The rest is boring, extraneous crap.

I have done everything in my power to figure out just what the hell the publishers of this novel were thinking. The author, of course, died shortly after sending the manuscripts to the publisher, so presumably they were not able to work with him through a long editing process. Is this why the book was published this way? Was this first book originally two books, and the publisher simply wanted to cram them together so that the entire series could be a trilogy instead of a quartet? Did the publisher just not realize how boring the first 300 pages of this novel are?

Of course, the amazing thing is that it worked! Despite breaking virtually every rule of novel writing and publishing standards, somehow this novel, and its two successors, have managed to sell tens of millions of copies and make enormous amounts of money for the publisher and the unfortunate, dead author.

Which just goes to show you how important good marketing can be.

Gideon’s Sword – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Preston & Child have started a new series with a new lead character, and this is the first book. It was very much "Meh." They need to stick with Agent Pendergast, the greatest literary detective in history.

The Jesus Dynasty – James D. Tabor

I wrote a whole blog post about this book, so I won't rehash it here.

The Winter King – Bernard Cornwell

One of my favorite historical novelists. This is the first book in a trilogy fictionalizing the life of King Arthur. I had a thing with trilogies this year.

The Girl Who Played With Fire – Stieg Larsson

Unlike the first book, this book is actually good from page 1.

Enemy of God – Bernard Cornwell

Book two in the Arthur saga.

Those in Peril – Wilbur Smith

This is Wilbur's most recent novel, and it was sort of ho-hum. He's definitely lost some of his powers in his old age (he's about 80). His writing is a bit more sappy than it used to be, and he seems to be struggling for new ideas. He also seems to have lost some of his inhibitions because this book has some extremely explicit sex scenes, as well as some immensely shocking violence. Wilbur has never been one to shy away from sex or violence, but he blazes new pathways with this book. He also throws in a few overt political commentaries as well, which I always find somewhat irritating, whether I agree with them or not. Finally, he seemed to be attempting to write high-tech military fiction - a genre that is extremely popular right now. He's not really all that good at it.

Mystery Walk – Robert McCammon

An old thriller book from the early 80's, earlier than any of the other McCammon books I have read. It was pretty good, though not quite up to par with some of his later works. After starting strong, it seems to fizzle out a bit as it goes along.

Cold Vengeance – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

The most recent Agent Pendergast novel. Typical Preston/Child fare. Very good.


To inaugurate this new year of 2012, I am going to start a new Reading List tradition - naming my favorite Book of the Year. Wish I had thought to do this before.

Anyway, among these paltry 18 books that I managed to get through this year, my favorites were: When Christ and his Saints Slept, Swan Song, the Winter King, and Forged.

And the Book of the Year award goes to....